Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike

Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike

by Deepa Kumar

When one hundred and eighty five thousand United Parcel Service (UPS) workers across the United States walked off their jobs in the fall of 1997, working class concerns became front page news. Outside the Box presents a rare, in-depth study of the media representation of this major labor struggle. Deepa Kumar delineates the background and history of the

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When one hundred and eighty five thousand United Parcel Service (UPS) workers across the United States walked off their jobs in the fall of 1997, working class concerns became front page news. Outside the Box presents a rare, in-depth study of the media representation of this major labor struggle. Deepa Kumar delineates the background and history of the strike, how it emerged within the trajectory of the rise of neoliberal globalization, and how television networks and dominant print media portrayed the event.

Through a textual analysis of over five hundred news reports, Kumar shows how the strikers pressured a seemingly intractable media system to represent the interests of workers and thereby elevated the class contradictions at the heart of a booming economy. While UPS had made about a billion dollars in profit during the year prior to the strike, its workers had seen paltry wage increases, a steady shift from secure full-time jobs to part-time jobs, and deteriorating working conditions.

During the strike, the corporate media were forced to address working-class issues sympathetically. However, once the strike was over, the media reverted to business as usual. Drawing on her analysis of the strike, Kumar argues that media reform is more complicated than is suggested by liberal media theorists, yet she also argues against the pessimistic currents of radical scholarship that views the media as all-powerful. Instead, she puts forward the case for a dialectical understanding, developing what she calls a “dominance/resistance model” for media analysis.

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"[An] excellent book about the 1997 strike against the United Parcel Service."—International Socialist Review

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University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
History of Communication Series
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6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Outside the Box

Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike


Copyright © 2007 Deepa Kumar
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03172-4

Chapter One

Globalization and the UPS Strike

Contrary to popular myth, the United States is a society based on vast inequality. The gap between the very rich, who have profited enormously over the last few decades of the twentieth century, and the rest of the populace is truly astounding. In historical terms, the current period parallels the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. Characterized by conspicuous consumption, this period marked the heyday of the robber barons, who built mansions and lived like royalty, while the working poor toiled under hazardous conditions for measly wages. The Biltmore estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is an example of the extravagance of those times. Like the mansions on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, or Long Island's North Shore, the Biltmore estate, modeled on the homes of the European aristocracy, is opulent in the extreme. At a time when most people's homes were yet to be electrified, the estate had a heated indoor swimming pool with an illuminated floor. While hundreds of thousands of children between the ages of ten and fifteen worked in the mines, mills, and factories, the Vanderbilts erected yet another home with 255 rooms.

The Gilded Age has rightly been denounced for its excesses, yet today, under similar conditions, there isn't widespread public acknowledgment that something is wrong. For instance, most tourists who visit the robber barons' estates are encouraged to think of the mansions, and the unequal social relations that correspond to them, as belonging to a bygone era. An unspoken assumption that permeates the air is that while class differences existed a long time ago, today there is far greater equality.

However, a trip to Larry Ellison's San Francisco Bay Area mansion, estimated to be worth one hundred million dollars, will quickly reveal otherwise. Ellison, the CEO of the computer company Oracle, has several homes. The Woodside mansion built on forty-five acres replicates a sixteenth-century Japanese village. Its occupants include Ellison, his wife from a recent marriage, and occasionally his two children-which gives new meaning to the notion that "it takes a village to raise a family." The estate has five guest residences, a forest of cherry trees, streams, waterfalls, ponds, and a lake filled with purified drinking water. Just to maintain the sprawling garden it takes twenty people. Guests are treated like royalty. For instance, they select their food through the click of a mouse, which the numerous house servants then deliver by boat.

The robber barons are back, and extreme differences in wealth are now the order of the day. Economist Paul Krugman argues that the real beneficiaries of the economic growth of the last quarter of the twentieth century are a tiny minority of the population. It is not, as one might expect, the upper 10 percent of U.S. society, but the very top 1 percent. Even among this group, 60 percent of gains went to the top 0.1 percent. In this fortunate group, almost half of the gains found their way to thirteen thousand families, who have almost as much income as the twenty million poorest families.

Any objective evaluation of U.S. census data since the mid-1970s reveals that the gap between the rich and everyone else has widened significantly. Whereas the wealthy have grown rich beyond imagination, most Americans have been working harder for less. Today, the vast majority of people in the United States belong to the working class. Economist Michael Zweig, based on Department of Labor figures, finds that 62 percent of the working population belongs to the working class. Sharon Smith convincingly argues that the figure is upwards of 70 percent of the population. The working-class majority in the United States is extremely diverse, composed largely of white women and people of color. Sociologist Erik Olin Wright shows that close to 60 percent of the working class consists of these groups.

At the lower end of the working class, large numbers of people live in poverty. In 2004, the latest date for which figures are available, thirty-seven million people lived in poverty, an increase of 1.1 million since 2003. In all, 12.5 percent of people in the United States, the world's richest country, live in poverty. Economists argue that the federal poverty line is drawn too low and does not reflect the needs of working families. An Economic Policy Institute study, based on realistic assessments of family expenses, finds that far greater numbers of people are poor. The study estimates that for a family of two adults and two children, annual expenses run between $27,000-$54,000, depending on region. The national median family budget is about $33,500, which is twice the poverty-line figure. The study concludes that at the end of the 1990s, a decade of economic expansion, 29 percent of one- and two-parent families with one to three children did not make enough money to meet the family budget. Almost one in three families of this size cannot meet basic family expenses. The rest of the population has not fared much better, given that the savings rate-the amount of disposable income that is saved-has plummeted to levels last seen during the Great Depression.

The lack of adequate government programs to assist those in need exacerbates economic insecurity in the United States. The limited programs that do exist continue to be eroded. Thus, welfare, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was drastically curtailed by the Clinton administration so that today, assistance to poor families is limited to five years. Government medical programs like Medicaid and Medicare are barely adequate to serve the needs of the poor and the elderly. Everyone else is at the mercy of the for-profit health-care system. The growing cost of coverage has fallen on workers so that astounding numbers lack health-insurance coverage: 45.8 million people were uninsured in 2004, which amounted to 15.6 percent of the population. Astronomical medical bills are a key factor in personal bankruptcies. Given this general state of affairs, it is not surprising that between 1988 and 2000, the number of adults taking antidepressant drugs tripled.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dennis Kozlowski, former chairperson of Tyco, a diversified international manufacturing and service corporation, spent $6,000 on a shower curtain, $17,100 for an antique toilet kit, and $15,000 on a poodle-shaped umbrella stand. On his wife's fortieth birthday, he threw a party that cost $2.1 million. This extravagance is not exceptional. As one New York City events planner who serves corporate magnates observed, on average, her clientele spent $1 million on weddings and birthdays. Thus, while a tiny minority lacks for nothing, standards of living for the vast majority of Americans have deteriorated.

Why has this happened? This chapter argues that the depth of class inequality in the United States is the product of a strategy, known as globalization, adopted by corporate America in the mid-1970s. Understanding the ways in which capitalism has been reconfigured in the era of globalization is critical to appreciating the causes of the UPS strike. A lot can be said about neoliberal globalization and the ways in which it concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the capitalist class. In this chapter, I will focus only on those aspects that are relevant to this study.

The 1997 UPS Strike: Working Conditions and Management Strategies

Management experts hold up United Parcel Service as a model transportation company. In a 1995 report on the best practices in strategic market management, UPS was described as being on the "front lines of competition." However, the practices that the company has adopted to make it successful have come at a high cost to its employees. If UPS, a corporation with operations in several countries, is a big player on the international scene, it is because its workers have paid a huge price in terms of work conditions and wages. A brief history of the corporation makes clear the mutually antagonistic interests of workers and management.

The company was founded in 1907 as American Messenger Service in Seattle, Washington, by Jim Casey, a nineteen-year-old messenger boy. Casey and a crew of half a dozen on bicycles delivered telegrams, messages, food, and merchandise from local retail stores. A decade later, Casey expanded to California. In 1930, he set up his headquarters in Manhattan, and in 1963 UPS began common carrier service, launching a freight company that specialized in small packages.

To grow from a bicycle delivery service to the digitally coordinated, land-and air-based multinational corporation that it is today, the company adopted several strategies, such as keeping operating costs low while ensuring maximum flexibility. Thus, even in the initial stages, the business was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. While the company's flexibility and efficiency ensured its ability to survive and thrive, they translated into a rigid and controlling workplace for its workers. To be sure, Casey built the success of the company on his workers' loyalty; he even invited the Teamsters union to represent his workers in 1916. However, to ensure that profits remained high, he also adopted the principles of "scientific management" in the 1920s.

Scientific management, or Taylorism, named after its originator, F. W. Taylor, attempts to apply scientific methods to the complex problems of a rapidly growing capitalist enterprise. At its core, it is about effectively controlling labor. It breaks down the production process into distinct, individual parts and then divides them among the workers to minimize time wasted and maximize efficiency. For instance, rather than have one skilled worker produce a chair from start to finish, scientific management suggests that the various tasks involved in chair manufacture be broken down and assigned to

several workers, who, working in tandem, could make the chair faster. To this process was added Henry Ford's assembly line, an endless conveyor belt that forced work at a certain pace. Broadly speaking, three principles are at work in implementing scientific management. The first is the process of deskilling; that is, production does not rely on the skills of the workers. The second is the separation of conception from execution; while some do the mental labor, others perform the manual labor. The third is management control over the knowledge of production. This knowledge ensures that managers and supervisors control each step of the labor process, while workers are robbed of autonomy and creativity.

UPS, the "tightest ship in the shipping business," prides itself on its efficiency and employment of scientific management and Fordist principles. Praising UPS's operating methods, Hirshberg et al. write, "Efficiency is the hallmark of UPS. Over the years, UPS developed a comprehensive system of precise operating procedures. Efficiency experts determined how fast drivers should walk (three feet per second), how they hold the van keys (with the middle finger), and even with which foot they should enter the truck (the left). Delivery roots were timed with efficiency in mind."

In addition to delivery, the picking up and sorting of parcels are also carefully calibrated. The workers are then instructed in exactly what is expected of them, and deviations are seldom tolerated. UPS managers and supervisors are entrusted with the task of enforcing workplace rules and making sure that there is little variation from the set pattern of operation. Tim Sylvester, a New York City UPS driver for seventeen years, states that supervisors even go on the routes with the drivers to monitor their activity. He adds that "horror stories abound when it comes to UPS. You can randomly stop UPS drivers anywhere in this country and get similar stories."

Managers willingly adhere to UPS rules because they are rewarded with profit sharing and stock options; these options are generally not available to the workers, resulting in a company where the owners and managers are the same. In addition to enforcing work rules, UPS managers are also instructed to chart worker behavior and determine aspects of their personal lives. Dan La Botz states that managers are given a manual, Learning to Chart Spheres of Influence, that instructs them on how to identify informal leaders and how to assess the relationships between various employees. Managers are also asked to find out how workers spend their free time, including the churches they attend, the bars they visit, and the kinds of public transportation they take to work.

Although such methods of ensuring discipline and efficiency are expedient for management, they create a stressful and oppressive environment for workers. C. L. Kane documents the mental and physical stress that he and his coworkers experienced at UPS. We learn about people like Tom Jackson, who started off his career as one of the fastest drivers but ended up needing help from his brother just to complete his route. He suffered several injuries on the job and had to undergo three operations for ruptured and herniated disks. Yet management did not trust Jackson; they visited him at home to check if he was truly in pain and later suspended him for thirty days without pay for having missed too much work. The last time that Kane met Jackson, he was divorced and had started to drink heavily.

Work conditions at UPS have not improved since Kane's book was written. In 1998, UPS worker Robby Hales stated: "Before I started, I always heard it was a real pro-employee place to work.... But as profits went up, I guess they've seen more chances to make even more profits. Since I started back then [1986], all I've really seen is immense pressure.... It don't matter how much you do or how well you work, it's always never good enough."

In addition to the psychological damage of a stressful workplace, injuries are a regular part of working at UPS. Danny Katch, a part-time UPS Air driver, explains the source of safety problems:

UPS, like a lot of employers, has hundreds of work rules they expect us to follow. Many of them contradict each other, especially the ones covering safety and the ones covering productivity. If you work safe, they say you're not doing enough stops per hour. If you work fast and get hurt, they say you didn't use proper safety methods. Many of these rules aren't in our contract, but they create an atmosphere where you always feel like if you speak out about something, your manager has some way to nail you.

La Botz and Kane throw light on several severe injury cases. La Botz describes an incident in an Ohio facility, where a worker loading packages suffered a back injury and fell down. Rather than switch off the conveyor belt, the supervisor ordered the workers to continue. The only thing they could do was prevent the packages from falling on the injured man. The man lay there for twenty minutes before he was finally given medical care.


Excerpted from Outside the Box by DEEPA KUMAR Copyright © 2007 by Deepa Kumar. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Deepa Kumar is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University.

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