Book Review: The Package King

By Gerard Di Trolio

United Parcel Service was founded nearly 108 years ago. In that time, both the American and world economies have gone through massive transformations. And throughout all of these changes, UPS has managed to capitalize on them and become one of the world’s most recognizable corporate brands.51O20LSuLNL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

In the new e-book, The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service, writer and activist Joe Allen traces UPS’ rise and the activism of its unionized employees.

Allen starts his history by tracing the Seattle beginnings of UPS in 1908. A century later, it was a major American corporation that ensured the smooth operating of the economy and could wield a sizable amount of political influence. This rise to the top of one of America’s most important and profitable corporations was far from smooth.

Allen digs deep into past interviews with UPS employees and rank and file Teamsters activists. It is their struggles, not just against UPS itself, but against a corrupt and double dealing Teamsters leadership for many years, that is at the heart of this book.

These struggles could have a transformational effect. For example, Allen recounts the story of how future Teamsters President Ron Carey, who voted for Nixon in 1972, ended up coming to support and be fined over a political wildcat strike in support of 20 black workers. They were fired for wearing Black Liberation buttons on their uniforms in response to many white workers heeding Nixon’s call to wear American flag buttons to show support for US troops in Vietnam.

These stories of direct resistance are interwoven with the rise of rank and file movements of the 1970s like UPSurge and Teamsters for a Democratic Union that challenge the demands of UPS to work harder, and they challenge the Teamsters leadership at the international level that is doing little to push UPS on these issues. While this is all going on through the 1970s and 1980s, UPS has expanded service to every continental U.S. state and is expanding globally as well. And because of the changes to capitalism through neoliberal restructuring and globalization, UPS’ practices are changing as well in order to dominate the shipping business and squeeze every last penny of profit. For example, UPS was trying to keep as many employees as possible classified as part-time years before it became the regular occurrence among large corporations that it is today.

1997 UPS Strike. Photo via Solidarity

The last major struggle that Allen covers is the election of Ron Carey as President of the Teamsters, the successful 1997 UPS strike, and the ouster of Carey led by an agressive Republican controlled Congress. Carey’s election and the major wins of the 1997 strike – part timers turned into full timers, increased wages, and a reduction in subcontracting out, was one of the great victories for labour in the U.S. in quite sometime. That would of course change when Carey was expelled from the Teamsters after a government investigation for improper fundraising by his campaign for president, though he would never personally be found guilty of any crime by a federal jury. It was an unfortunate end to an era of promise.

Allen closes out the book by discussing the modern logistics industry and the important role that UPS and its main competitors like FedEx and DHL play within it. For advanced economies with high rates of consumer consumption like the U.S., Allen explains that logistics has become king:

The logistics corporation is not only a new stage in the evolution of the modern corporation but has changed our understanding of the historic distinction between manufacturing, transportation, and retail. The modern logistics corporation—with the significant help of the capitalist states—has massively reorganized the global manufacturing network, the shipping and transportation systems and the final delivery of goods.

According to Allen, the just-in-time nature of many of these supply chains leave them vulnerable to labour disruptions that could hurt a company like UPS but other huge corporate players like Walmart and Amazon. Building labour militancy in this sector would be a huge opportunity to put pressure on capital.

The only thing the book lacks is some more detail of UPS workers in the period after Carey’s ouster to the present day that has coincided with James P. Hoffa’s four terms as Teamsters President. Hoffa was certainly a labour leader that UPS was happier to do business with. It would interesting to see how his conciliatory presidency has affected rank and file militancy among UPS workers.

However, The Package King is a wonderful look at over a century of capitalism, its transformations, and the rank and file militancy, and peaks and troughs that have characterized the U.S. labour movement of the last 100 years. It is also a call to activists to get serious about analyzing the modern logistics system and how to think about how to build worker power within it.

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