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The lessons of the UPS Hot August Strike

"How will labor come back? In a strike. That's not romanticism, that's a fact. It'll start with one plant. One plant. And they strike. And there'll be guys across the street at a second plant, and they see it, and they think 'Hmm, maybe we can do that.' And they win. Then somebody in Idaho does it, the same thing, independently. And then all of a sudden you're seeing some John L. Lewis again, a leader, but he gets thrown up, he's just riding the thing...That's not romanticism, that's a fact." —Ed Sadlowski

Chicago steelworker Sadlowski made that wishful prediction during the darkest days of Reaganomics and Bushwhacking. Today, he looks suspiciously psychic. Herewith, the lessons of Hot August Strike '97. Feel free to add to the list.

FIRST AND FOREMOST, IT'S A PUBLIC RELATIONS BATTLE. ABC's Cokie Roberts complained that the Teamsters were running things like a political campaign. Exactly, but the company's side was taxpayer subsidized.

TAX PACKAGE: UPS spent millions in tax-deductible advertising and publicity, a huge government subsidy. Taxpaying Nevada UPS workers could not even draw unemployment benefits to help feed their families while their taxes paid for UPS propaganda and strikebreaking against them.

SECRET UNION ALLY: The truth. The cameras didn't lie but I flinched when I saw a high-speed UPS package line on TV. It was right out of Charlie Chaplin's cinema classic "Modern Times," wherein his Little Tramp gets hopelessly caught in the gears of a huge industrial machine. UPS is a hard, dangerous place to work. No publicity department could put a positive spin on the idea that UPS workers deserve less.

THE UNION WON THE MEDIA WAR: Public opinion overwhelmingly supported the strikers, 55 to 27 percent. In 1984, the year of the re-coronation of King Ronald the Vague, an L.A. Times poll found people favored management by 45-34 when asked which side they support in a labor hassle. By 1996, the reverse was true: 44-24 in favor of workers.

UNIONS HAVE A LOT OF EDUCATING TO DO: In a CBS poll, some 70 percent responded that they had no opinion or did not know enough to view unions favorably or otherwise. All those undecided citizens-consumers-workers-voters means a majority is up for grabs at last. Great news.

IN THE FUTURE, THE METHOD OF EDUCATION WILL BE THE 30-SECOND TV SPOT: Forget handbilling the factory gate. The action lies inside the cathode ray tube.

DON'T FORGET COMPUTERS: An astounding number of union workers have personal computers bringing access to electronic mail and the Internet. Their union jobs had given them the income to afford the connection and they used it to (gasp!) talk with each other during the strike. Widespread information becomes power to the people.

PART-TIMERS ARE BETTER ABLE TO STRIKE: UPS may have outsmarted itself by moving some 60 percent of its workforce to part-time. Just about all of them had alternative, sometimes full-time, jobs and thus were better able to hold out than those scrambling from scratch.

X MARKS THE SPOT: The UPS strike brought a wave of national stories about Generation X-ers going union. Twenty-somethings have organized and won at Starbucks Coffee, Borders Books & Music and Einstein/Noah's Bagel Corp. Gen-X even has a term for oppressionof employees: "going corporate on us."

CHEAP SHOT AWARD, NATIONAL: To whichever UPS corporate yahoo equated Teamsters President Ron Carey with Radovan Karadzic, the butcherous Bosnian warlord.

CHEAP SHOTS, NEVADA: To the sad woman who phoned me from within the state of Nevada's phone system to call unions Mafia thugs. And to the Sparks cops who busted three picketers for doing no more than asking questions.

FACELESS RADIO MOLE AWARD: To the yahoo who called the shoutradio show I endured on KRNV-fm and called me a Mafioso who rides a fancy limo while workers sweat on picket lines. I informed the cowardly bigot that I drove to the station in my only automobile, a 1973 American-made Pontiac.

TIME FOR RE-PACKAGING: The more vicious participants in hate radio can't really define why they dislike unions so much. They just know they react viscerally at the mention of the word, a reflection of almost a century of tax-deductible corporate propaganda. Years ago, a sociologist noted that if pernicious problems persist, the label must change about once per generation. Otherwise, accumulated baggage drags down progress. We have thus witnessed an evolution from "colored" to "negro" to "black" to "African-American." Because endemic racism continues to corrode, we adopt a fresh label every so often. Thus it will be with the staff associations, alliances, coalitions, guilds, teams, workerwebs or employee networks of the future.

SEMANTIC ANTIX: My pet peeve of the strike involved the loose use of the word "scab," which I consider unfair to real scabs. A scab is mother nature's Band-Aid, healing our wounds like a mother's kiss. Picket line violators, strikebreakers and unionbusters are both beneath the term and beneath contempt.

HELP FOR HEROINES: A relief fund has been established for Carlene O'Neil and Jessica Gomes, both illegally fired by Bently Nevada Corp. of Minden. Their sin: refusing to sign for UPS deliveries during the strike. Both seriously need help until they can find new work or the feds get them reinstated. Contributions can made to the O'Neil-Gomes Family Fund, account number 801-760, c/o Operating Engineers Union Local 3 Federal Credit Union, 1290 Corporate Blvd., Reno NV 89502. Northeastern Nevada residents may direct donations to the credit union office at 1720 Mountain City Highway, Elko NV 89801. Their offices in other western states can also accept checks.

SMILING BILL: Ely native Bill Stathes, the first general manager and later owner of Reno's KDP TV-55, died last week at 61. He was a kind and generous man who always offered hope to those who needed it most. Go with God, old friend.

Be well. Raise hell.



© 1997, 2018 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 8/3/97.

Reprints of the UNR financial scandal newsbreaks remain available for the cost of copying at
Nevada Instant Type in Sparks and both Office Depot Reno locations.

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