DisUnion

Rent by charges of corruption and ineffective representation, Teamsters Local 988 may be driving itself to destruction

"I still do as much as before," Hammond says, "I just don't get paid for it."

Since the glory days of the 1960s and '70s, when companies feared unions as much as recession, organized labor's fortunes have taken a dive. Union membership, which peaked at 35 percent of the work force in 1945, dipped below 15 percent in 1995. Massive layoffs, the increased use of temporary and part-time workers and trade policies that shifted thousands of union manufacturing jobs across the border have contributed to the decline.

So has state and federal government hostility to organized labor in the form of striker replacement laws, attacks on OSHA and other anti-union legislation. Texas, for instance, prohibits collective bargaining for public-sector employees and is one of 21 right-to-work states, meaning that workers can't be required to join a union even if the majority votes one in. And business has become increasingly aggressive in its tactics, employing union-busting firms (the AFL-CIO knows of at least 8,000) and taking advantage of weak penalties for unfair labor practices. "Employers will use anything to fight the union," says Harris County AFL-CIO chief Richard Shaw.

With the slump in union membership has come a corresponding decrease in real wages, down 12 percent since 1979, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. The link between the two is more than tenuous, however, as any union workers who know what their non-union counterparts make can tell you. Non-union trucking firms such as Overnite, for example, have to pay their drivers at least close to union scale to compete. "If it wasn't for us," says Yellow Freight driver Paul Rogers fiercely, "Overnite [drivers] wouldn't be making the money."

Until recently, organized labor's response had been to hunker down and try and ride out the lean times, focusing more on protecting previously won wages and benefits than scrabbling for new gains or organizing workplaces. It didn't work. "We went to sleep," says Teamster forklift operator Wesley Coleman. "We thought that our bed was made for us. All of a sudden we opened our eyes, and we were getting our butts kicked."

Labor organizations have been taking the offensive of late. Reinvigorated by new leadership, the AFL-CIO has pumped millions into political campaigns to help unseat such anti-labor congressmen as Steve Stockman. And in recognition of the dismal turnout of union workers in the '94 election, Richard Shaw has put together a "Labor Neighbor" get-out-the-vote drive at the precinct level.

Unions also have hit the organizing trail with renewed vigor, using basic math to push their key points. The 1,800 Local 988 Teamsters who work for UPS, for example, currently top out at almost $20 an hour; non-union Federal Express employees peak in the $15 range.

But if labor is to survive the century, it will require the kind of unity and cooperation that has been conspicuously absent for some years. And nothing embodies that lack of unity more than the ongoing battle among the Teamsters that has raged since Ron Carey took office.

The upcoming Teamster election may resolve the issue of which faction will have control of the union for the next five years, but it's unlikely that either side will lay aside its vitriol for the sake of unity if the other wins. The Hoffa forces say that if Carey is victorious, it will be because the fix was in. "I wouldn't put any money on it being a free and fair election," says Richard Hammond.

And if Hoffa wins, bet against the government's getting out of the labor business anytime soon. The federal judge who oversees the International as part of a 1989 consent decree with the government recently stated that his tenure might not end after the election, as initially planned. And if the Internal Review Board, the federal panel that adjudicates all disputes under the decree, were to continue supporting the positions of the Carey side, as it has in almost every previous case, the effectiveness of a Hoffa-led Teamsters at the bargaining table could be seriously compromised.

Against that backdrop, the struggle within Local 988 is far more significant and complex than an internal turf war. The substantial gains workers have won the last 30 years are anything but secure, and employers relish the thought of the unions aiding their cause by fighting among themselves.

"It's very frustrating, I'm sure, for the Teamsters," says Richard Shaw. "They fail to see the bigger picture, and they fail to see just how much in jeopardy their pay and benefits are."

With his wide eyes and boyish looks, Bill Groweg hardly resembles a prototypical Teamster. But Groweg, a 12-year UPS employee, talks a tougher line than his appearance suggests. "I'm anti-management," he says firmly. "I'm a union steward. I'm proud to work for the best parcel delivery service company in the world. I just do not trust my employer."

Groweg has reasons to be suspicious of UPS management: lots of reasons, in the form of firings and suspensions routinely visited on employees just to keep the workers off-balance, or so Groweg believes. "Management has always taken the attitude, we're gonna discipline who we want, when we want, where we want, regardless of fairness," he says.

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