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Teamsters Go for Public’s Heart

Kelly Candaele, a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College Board, teaches labor history at the Los Angeles Trade-Tech College Labor Center

Going into its conflict with United Parcel Service, the Teamsters faced an uphill public-relations battle. Even 22 years after Jimmy Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance, no union in America conjures up more negative images than the Teamsters. Hoffa stifled union democracy, abused the union’s pension funds and exploited his extensive ties with organized crime to further his own strength. To the professional media and political class, he was a national blight, wielding illegitimate power based upon control of a major transportation system.

What to do, since public sympathy is critical to success in a strike?

Enter Rachel Howard, a young, part-time worker who wears her heart on her sleeve--and who is a Teamster. The union has moved Howard front and center in its battle with UPS, the largest labor strike in more than a decade and a confrontation that could determine whether unionized labor recovers from decades of decline.

Last week, Howard appeared on the “Today Show,” CNN and other national television programs. She spoke movingly about being “just an average person who believes in doing the right thing by honoring a values system. We’re just working people,” she said. She even teared up when speaking about the difficulties of raising a 15-month-old son on part-time wages.

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From a public-relations perspective, Howard was a grand slam. The Teamsters may represent “just working people,” but during the course of the strike they have demonstrated a skill frequently missing in the labor movement--the ability to shape and deliver a message to the public in a sophisticated and effective way. It’s one of the reason’s why national polls, so far, show support for the Teamsters running well ahead of that for UPS. In the public-relations war of positioning, the Teamsters are winning.

In the Teamsters’ media center at their national headquarters, there is probably a sign that reads, “It’s the part-timers, stupid.” By staying “on message,” by focusing on the difficulties of part-time workers in a rapidly changing, globalized economy, the Teamsters have accomplished what unions and companies both strive to do in the earliest stages of a strike: They have taken the high moral ground. On any picket line, most strikers will run down 10 or 15 reasons why the company is acting in bad faith, but only one or two of them will resonate beyond the members themselves.

The vast majority of American workers still hold full-time jobs. But after years of downsizing, contracting out and the “casualization” of labor, it’s disturbingly clear to most people that “permanent” jobs are far from permanent. When insecure non-union workers--90% of the workers in the private sector--look at the conflict between the Teamsters and UPS, they see a fair and good fight.

Teamsters President Ron Carey knows that public support is critical. Not only do workers on the picket lines need to know they have broad support, but, historically, when large numbers of voters have become irate about the inconveniences created by a walk-out, presidents and Congress have reacted. The Taft-Hartley Act, which President Bill Clinton could invoke to force the strikers back to work, was passed in the aftermath of massive nationwide strikes in 1945-46.

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From the outset, Carey knew that the battle would be for the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file membership as well as the general public. Several months before the Teamsters’ contract with UPS expired, he put dozens of UPS workers on the union payroll and sent them around the country to work with the rank and file. These new organizers found workers like Howard. They began teaching a new generation of workers how to be strong union members.

UPS has countered the Teamsters’ embrace of part-time workers with a moral issue of its own: democracy. The company has repeatedly called on Carey to put its contract offer to a vote of the entire membership. This has put the Teamsters leadership in an awkward public-relations bind. Appealing over the heads of union negotiators directly to the membership is a common company ploy; but it also plays well in the public court of opinion and in the media, especially when the complexities of labor negotiations are not widely known.

There is another issue in the strike with some public-relations potential--pensions. UPS wants control over the Teamsters pension, and Carey has inadvertently boosted the company’s case. During his insurgent campaign in 1991 for the union presidency, Carey attacked the Teamsters pension fund system as corrupt and mismanaged. Now he is in the uncomfortable position of defending what he had previously condemned. UPS has sought to exploit this while evoking the dark side of the Teamsters history. Judging from media interest, the UPS campaign is having some impact.

But compared with part-time employment, the intricacies of pension-fund management are hard for the public to digest. In UPS’ full-page ads last week countering the Teamsters’ claim that the strike was mainly about part-time jobs, there were references to “exit obligations” and “multiemployer funds,” not the sort of terms expected to set in motion a tidal wave of support.

The Teamsters have also deployed other new-technology weapons. The union has a Web page on the Internet that is receiving more than 300,000 hits a day. Union leaders are in constant e-mail contact with local strike leaders, providing immediate rebuttals to the company’s daily message. For the first time in any strike, laptop computers seem as prevalent on the picket line as donuts. One Teamster official explained that “we have all of these young members who are techno-nerds. We’re just taking advantage of it.”

Should the Teamsters win a significant victory, they will owe it to many factors, among them an unprecedented mobilization of the membership and tough bargaining. But their new-found public-relations skills certainly have made a contribution. Judging by the “honk test"--the number of car drivers who honk their horns in support as they pass a Teamsters picket line--this strike is indeed different.


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