Workers Vanguard No. 1044
18 April 2014
As Union Tops Accept Penalties
Fired Queens UPS Drivers Reinstated
NEW YORK CITY—On April 9, UPS rescinded its retaliatory firings of 250 Teamsters Local 804 drivers who walked off the job in Maspeth, Queens, in February to protest the dismissal of union activist Jairo Reyes. The company also reinstated Reyes, a victory for these drivers and all UPS workers. However, in the first clause of a settlement brokered by Teamsters International officials, it is specified that the union local must pay the company an incredible $250,000 “as damages sustained by UPS” for the 90-minute work stoppage. In addition, Reyes will lose pay for the six weeks he was out of a job, and the 250 drivers are to serve ten-day unpaid suspensions, which will amount to $2,500 in lost wages for each.
When UPS bosses fired Reyes on February 26 in retribution for a grievance he had filed, it was the last straw for the drivers. Fed up with Big Brown’s harassment, abuse and daily contract violations, they staged a short walkout before starting their routes. The company, in turn, declared open season on the drivers, putting all 250 on “working termination” until their replacements could be trained, and later firing 19 workers outright. Typical of management’s divide-and-rule tactics, those fired were disproportionately black and Latino workers, who in general are the most victimized on the job and therefore file the most grievances. UPS also banned Teamsters business agent Liam Russertt from company property for leading the walkout (see “No Reprisals Against Queens UPS Workers!” WV No. 1043, 4 April).
Instead of mobilizing union action to stop the company’s vendetta, Local 804 officials initiated a publicity campaign focused on begging the Democrats to lobby the company on the union’s behalf. Its centerpiece was an April 3 press conference on the steps of City Hall that gave Democrats like public advocate Letitia James a chance to shore up their “friend of labor” cred. James threatened to cut some of the perks that UPS is granted by City Hall if management did not treat its workers “with respect.” The company responded by firing another 16 workers the next day.
A balance sheet of the six-week labor dispute shows what can be won when the union makes use of even modest class-struggle methods. Reyes got his job back as a direct result of the black, Latino and white drivers’ elementary act of labor solidarity with their union brother. The job action, in which the drivers briefly withheld their labor, was also joined by part-time loaders, whom UPS pays a pittance and heaps with abuse. Reyes, who gave a spirited speech during the walkout, later paid tribute to the key role played by Russertt, telling WV: “If Liam hadn’t said, ‘Enough is enough,’ I’d still be fired.”
In contrast, the publicity campaign and hobnobbing with City Hall Democrats led straight to very costly penalties for the union. While Local 804 officials disputed the company’s statement that the walkout was illegal, they gave away the store even though the union contract sanctions work stoppages in the event that the company violates grievance procedures, as it did with Reyes. The union tops also willingly undermined future actions by conceding that “the union’s internal procedures for authorizing a strike were not properly followed.” Russertt remains banned from company property as a condition of the settlement.
After cutting this raw deal, which also stuck union members with disciplinary records, Local 804 president Tim Sylvester told the press: “We’re looking forward to turning the corner and getting on a new road with UPS.” The “new road” means more labor peace, which will come at the cost of union members’ livelihoods. Covering for the labor bureaucrats, FightBack!news—which is associated with the Chicago-based Freedom Road Socialist Organization—published an April 9 online article on Local 804 that disappeared all the penalties.
In its coverage, the social-democratic Labor Notes, which feted Sylvester at its recent conference in Chicago, downplayed the suspensions and was silent on the damages. Labor Notes as well as FightBack!news backs the “reform” wing of the Teamsters bureaucracy aligned with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. This outfit has for decades, in the name of furthering “democracy,” invited the bosses’ government to oversee union affairs, thereby gutting the power of the union.
One worker from a Manhattan UPS distribution center, angry that the company got away with so much, told WV: “We should have walked out—the whole district.” Exactly right on both counts. What determines the outcome in battles between labor and capital is the relationship of forces; workers can tip the balance of power in their favor by uniting and acting together to stop the flow of profits. The Maspeth walkout was an example of how workers can and will defend themselves against the relentless attacks of the bosses. But the Teamsters tops, beholden to the capitalist profit system, made union members pay a price for doing so. Labor requires an entirely new leadership, one based on the independence of the working class from the bosses’ state and political parties. Such a class-struggle leadership would strive to build a workers party that fights for a workers government.