Over 340,000 workers at United Parcel Service (UPS) could launch the largest strike against a single company in US history this August, when their collective bargaining agreement expires.
The clock is ticking as the top package courier in the world, which has seen two straight years of record-breaking profits, considers whether it will hold much of the country’s logistics infrastructure hostage by refusing workers’ demands: raising the poverty pay of part-time warehouse workers, re-establishing “equal pay for equal work” among delivery drivers, and introducing extreme heat–related and other safety protections, among others.
National negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters union, which represents the workers, begin on April 17. At that point, we can expect to see media coverage start to trickle in, and eventually reach a fever pitch, should bargaining break down and the Teamsters call a strike—something union leadership has explicitly said they’re willing to do.
Corporate media will have an outsized hand in shaping the narrative of this unprecedented moment, which presents the broader labor movement a catalyst for revival. So, four months out from the end of the bargaining agreement and a potential strike, it’s worth asking: What should we expect from establishment reporting? What have we seen in the past, and what have we seen so far this time?
One needn’t look far into history to find corporate media covering strikes, well… corporately.
Just last year, 115,000 railroad workers twice inched towards a strike, only for President Joe Biden and Congress to legislatively force a less-than-satisfactory labor contract on them, with media quick to relay their pro-corporate sympathies.
Outlets declared that the Senate “averted” (PBS, 12/1/22), “prevented” (USA Today, 12/2/22), or “headed off” a freight rail strike that was “looming” and would have been “crippling” (Fortune, 12/1/22). Such word choices depicted the potential work stoppage as a national catastrophe, threatened by greedy workers and courageously warded off by neutral arbiters.
But the “crisis averted” narrative obscures the class dynamics of strikes, and that in the case of the rail strike, Biden and Congress preemptively broke one on behalf of multi-billion-dollar corporations, and in violation of the workers’ right to withhold their labor.
‘An economic catastrophe’
In the run-up to the rail strike deadlines, news outlets sensationalized the potential economic damage that would be caused by a work stoppage.
Look no further than the clips, edited together by the Recount‘s Steve Morris, of CNN pundits and reporters warning audiences of an “expensive” “disruption” that would devastate our economy—only weeks before the holidays, no less! Meanwhile, every media outlet under the sun bleated ad nauseam the Association of American Railroads–generated fact that a strike would “cost $2 billion a day” (Fortune, 11/22/22; Newsweek, 11/21/22; CNBC, 9/8/22; AP, 9/8/22; Barron’s, 9/14/22).
It’s telling that no such vapors were stoked by railroad companies threatening limited service stoppages of their own–that is, illegal lockouts during negotiations.
We should expect a similar shadow to be cast on a strike at UPS, a company that transports about 6% of the country’s GDP, and unsurprisingly, may be the railroad companies’ largest customer. Already, we’re seeing forecasts of economic doom: Business Insider (2/1/23) warns that “a driver strike threatens to upend millions of deliveries,” Fortune (9/6/22) decries that the strike “could hurt virtually every American,” and Bloomberg (1/30/23) emphasizes that “the stakes are high for [UPS CEO Carol] Tomé and the US.”
With few exceptions in the case of both UPS (Guardian, 9/5/22; New Yorker, 1/9/23; Jacobin, 2/21/23) and the railroads (Real News Network, 9/14/22; Lever, 11/29/22; Washington Post, 9/17/22), media overshadow the stakes for the workers—who, among other sacrifices, forgo much of their paychecks to hit the picket line—with hysterics about their disruption to the flow of capital.
In this framing, workers are holding hostage “the economy,” a nebulous phrase that serves only to identify the reader with corporations. Those businesses, stand-ins for everyday Americans, become helpless protagonists fighting selfish employees. In articles so patently anti-worker they could’ve been written by a McKinsey consultant, Fortune (9/6/22) and the Daily Mail (9/6/22) reported that a UPS strike could be on the horizon, “even though delivery drivers already earn upwards of $95,000 a year.” Secondary or absent in these pieces is the fact that the majority of the UPS workforce are not drivers, and many earn as little as $15.50 an hour in some locations.
While drivers’ top salaries and UPS’s spending “$270 million on safety for its workers” (Fortune, 9/6/22) made the cut, neither outlet found it relevant to mention that the corporation’s revenues surpassed $100 billion last year, and CEO Tomé took home $19 million in compensation.
Taking the side of capital
With this context, a readership might understand that indeed it is the corporations that are holding consumers and workers hostage during a strike; it is the corporations demonstrating their greed when they refuse, in the case of the rail companies, to give their workers even a single paid sick day. UPS, meanwhile, denies adequate protection from life-threatening heat in the warehouse or delivery truck.
In taking the side of capital, corporate media minimize the reality that the threat of a strike is the principal leverage workers have over their employers; that the gains strikes yield are not limited to one or a few shops, but have the potential to advance the working class as a whole, should they help raise standards across industries and inspire further labor activity; and that giving workers a raise even if they already make good money could be beneficial for all of us.
Readers should see over 340,000 UPS workers on strike—in every zip code in the country—not as a liability, but as a shot of adrenaline for labor militancy.When UPS workers struck the company in 1997, that gave the labor movement a potential catalyst for resurgence–and, therefore, the betterment of working-class lives and livelihoods.
And indeed, it is in 1997 where we may find a glimmer of hope for corporate media’s coverage of a strike.
Winning hearts and minds
Almost 26 years ago, the strike threat by the Teamsters was not considered credible by UPS management, nor by the media. But in an era of globalization and broad-based attack on pay and working conditions, UPS workers were fed up—and highly organized by their militant union.
On August 4, 1997, 185,000 hit the picket line for 15 days. At first, corporate media brushed off the workers, focusing more on the 80% of UPS shipments coming to a halt, and the $40 million daily cost to the company. But as Deepa Kumar tracked in her book, Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike, the 1997 UPS strike demonstrated that anti-worker labor coverage is not a given.
By the second week of the strike, some mainstream outlets demonstrated a temporary tone-shift:
Some sections of the corporate media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the ABC television network, began to acknowledge inequality and to discuss the problems of the US working class.
Then, when the Teamsters won nearly all their demands, with massive public support, media were forced to answer:
What could explain the new prolabor mood in American society and the concomitant failure of antiunion propaganda? In trying to address these questions, the corporate media had to admit, however grudgingly, that a rising tide had not lifted all boats; that is, the working classes had not shared in the promised fruit of globalization.
Coverage of a UPS strike in August may be susceptible to the same forces that brought corporate media to heel in 1997—that is, UPSers’ successful campaign to win the hearts and minds of both their customers and the wider public, and to lift the veil on “Big Brown.”
Today, unions are more popular than they have been in nearly six decades. UPS delivery drivers are in ever more contact with an ecommerce-addicted public. And fueled by the return of the “labor beat” in many newsrooms—which are undergoing a unionization wave themselves—the adversities of logistics workers at multi-billion-dollar corporations like Amazon and UPS are now more popularly known.
Without much questioning—and with, often, active support—from corporate media, economic inequality has only deepened since 1997. Workers across industries are beginning to understand that they can do something about it. And that means taking control of their own stories.
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