Organizing for class struggle at UPS - Uprise!

An article by Nicolas Phebus of the Collectif Anarchiste La Nuit (NEFAC-Quebec City) about the revolutionary workplace group Uprise! at delivery firm UPS while it was still active in 2002.

Submitted by Steven. on February 16, 2007

December 2002

"There's a lot of talk about working-class organizing in the anarchist scene but not a whole lot really going on", the man speaking is a Chicago anarchist involved with the new Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives of the Mid-west/Great lake region (FRAC). Since July he, and a bunch of his co-workers, tried to change that in a big UPS facility. They founded a workplace resistance group: the Uprise! group.

Most anarchists probably saw a press release titled "Teamsters against the war" that circulated on the net at the end of October. It talked about how "Teamsters Local 705, at its general meeting, resolved to oppose Bush's drive for war against Iraq". Well, it was the Uprise! group that started it all. We wanted to know more, so we asked a few questions to one of the participants, let's name him Padraig, about the actions within UPS (or this huge totalitarian nightmare.)

When we think of the service industry, where 75% of the north-American working class work, we think of small workplaces with small workforces. Not exactly the kind of place to carry traditional working class agitation. Well, not all of the workplaces in the service industry are small. Uprise! is active in two UPS facilities in the Chicago area that have nothing to be ashamed of compared to the factories of the past. First, there's the Jeff St. 'Hub'. (A 'hub'?) "'Hub' is UPS lingo for the huge warehouses where boxes are sorted from trailer to trailer to go to wherever they need to go" Padraig explains, "Each hub sorts tens of thousands of boxes every shift." According to him: "the Jeff St. hub is located in the shadow of downtown Chicago (the second largest financial district in U.S. after Wall St.) on Jefferson Street, thus its name. It is about two city blocks in size, maybe 1,000 workers of all categories". Just when you think that this is big, you learn about the CACH, the second facility where Uprise! is active: "the CACH is a super-hub (Chicago Area Consolidated Hub) which was until recently the largest UPS facility in the world" Padraig adds "it is about 10 times the size of Jeff St. and has 7-8,000 workers, the majority at both are part-time workers, both facilities are also majority black workers".

The workplace is rather totalitarian: "At UPS you pass through a guard shack coming and going. On the way out you go through a metal detector, like an airport." We can also add that the CACH is "located outside the city in all-white semi-rural suburbs. These suburbs are notorious for police pulling over black workers for minor traffic infractions." So, this is healthy and fun environment of Uprise!

"The main initiative for the group came from me and an older white worker at the CACH" Padraig recalls. While Padraig has been involved in anarchism for the better part of the last 15 years, the other guy's history "is part of Black Panther associated projects doing community organizing in white working-class neighborhoods. This trend ended up joining the reformist campaign for Harold Washington for mayor (first Black mayor of Chicago, was a very big deal, though he was a reformist Democrat). Anyways he (the older white worker) is no longer in any political group, but is involved in community organizing and has a healthy 'Power to the People' approach. We still argue quite a bit though."

The group agreed on a list of principles which seem anti-authoritarian:

1. We are independent
2. We are for direct action
3. We are for direct democracy
4. We are against racism and sexism and homophobia
5. We are for a revolutionary movement against exploitation

But Padraig says that "no-one else in the group would call themselves an anti-authoritarian or anarchist, but the structure is non-hierarchal and I do not violate any of my principals to participate. An authoritarian socialist... or whatever could join Uprise! as long as they respected the points of unity. It is meant to be a broad radical front with an anti-authoritarian structure, in this way maybe similar to ARA, which inevitably was a model for me".

Since this interview, a couple more comrades from FRAC have gotten work at the CACH, though maybe temporarily. Authoritarian socialists could join the group, but they do not. Padraig recalls "interestingly, the ISO [a Trotskyist outfit], which sent one worker to our meeting, declined to join or take any responsibilities. Their main criticism of us is our fifth point of unity which declares, 'We are for a revolutionary movement against exploitation'. So far they are the only worker to raise this objection!"

How is the group organized? "Right now very informally" says Padraig "We put out a newsletter when we have the money, or when the moment requires it. We prepare for hub-gate leafleting, for union and steward meetings [two members of Uprise! are elected stewards, ed.], calling our phone-list (from our sign-up sheet), and have held one open Uprise! meeting ourselves. At that meeting we divided up responsibilities. There were not many of us, though a lot of others helped to get the newsletter around who didn't come to the meeting, this was mostly Black workers, including several women. In the beginning, I was the only anarchist. [As of September 23, ed.] We have put out three issues of our "newsletter" which are leaflets, the last one fully Bi-lingual (Spanish as well as English) and had a press run of 3,000. We also put out two bilingual stickers. One demanded a living wage for everyone who works at UPS (which is $12/hour in Chicago according to one study - so we went with that) and another calling for a "No" vote on the contract agreement. We had about 1,500 stickers printed up. They were quite popular and many people wore them while working in the hub."

As one would guess, you don't start a workplace group like that without opposition from the boss and... the union bureaucracy. Even as young as they are, Uprise! have already had their run-in with security guards and bureaucrats. On one instance a small group of Uprise! supporters where leafleting at the gate of the CACH when they "were almost immediately met by UPS off-duty cop security wearing black uniforms, carrying pistols openly" Padraig recall, "they were very intimidating and provocative, telling us to leave we couldn't be there etc. pushing us, etc." "We stood our ground and UPS suits came out and defused the situation, but then security took up issue of one of the supporter kid with us and two comrades being non-employees (though one of them used to work there)" he explains, "they called a squad and prevented us from leaving. At this point I was scared cuz they were talking about "child endangerment". Anyways when the cops showed up they saw thru it, though they wanted their friends to save face so they still encouraged us to go... The suits actually didn't seem to be directing it, they seemed to want to chill it out also, it seemed to be the security (off-duty cops, not regular security guards) all wound up cuz we stood our ground." The group recognized it was a tactical mistake to have a kid with them. None the less, it was their first clash with the security (which have never been a problem before). But, as there's always a good side, Padraig tell us that "a huge crowd (a couple dozen, probably more) watched and generally supported us, people covered themselves in stickers, 40+ signed up to our group".

Soon after, two members of Uprise! decided to show up once again to make the point that the group was not intimidated. Unfortunately, Padraig's comrade was not there on time, but he decided to go ahead anyway with the leafleting. "I began leafleting, immediately I was surrounded by 6 of these O.D.I (off duty something, police) security, again armed" he said, "they were trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. Another crowd formed and a young Black woman demanded a flyer, I handed her one (in between the off-duty cops) and started to make speech about UPS being a prison and them fearing the workers, fearing what we had to say, but that we could put an end to our exploitation if we organized... The flyers started flying into all the hands and the pigs didn't really know what to do, now they were caught off guard. The UPS suits showed up soon after, and again checked my ID to confirm that I was a UPS worker and then agreed I could be there, just not to block anyone's path, etc. The pigs loudly agreed that this is what they had been saying (which it wasn't) and moved about 15 feet away and continued to harass me the rest of the time out. The lead asshole, same as earlier in the day who was threatening to take the kid, came and bumped me right in front of one of the UPS suits sent out to monitor the situation. I was so busy trying not to look intimidated that I did not make that big of a deal about it. I did go over to the union Business Agent (who had just showed up and was now part of the 9 or so official observers - six pigs, 2 suits, 1 BA, and a partridge...) and explain what had happened, and she did a pretty good job defending me, I then told her that I wanted assurance that I wouldn't be harassed, arrested, or beaten on the way out (I said this in front of the 4 suits and lead cop) and she nodded and said she would make sure that this is understood. At the end of the leaf-letting she walked me halfway to my car..." Padraig paused, then added, "Oh yeah I forgot to mention that before the BA had shown, Huey (Padraig's comrade) emerged from the guard shack, but had to run across the parking lot to the other entrance, later I found out that right before I had arrived, Huey had been cuffed, his head slapped into the squad car window, spit on by these same goons. UPS suits later "cleared" him, they might've even apologized, but they kept him busy until there was no more time to flyer and he had to run to punch in. So it worked really well that I was there soon after, we proved that we weren't going to be intimidated."

If only the run-in was just with the company goons, but no, Uprise! also had to face the Teamster bureaucracy. Local 705 of the Teamsters is supposed to be a "democratic and left-wing" local. "Teamsters 705 is the second largest Teamsters Local in the country, it is about 21, 000 members, about half are Chicago area UPS workers" Padraig explains, "the Secretary-Treasurer (the highest office), was originally associated with the Reform wing of the Teamsters - Ron Carey and TDU [Teamsters for a Democratic Union – libcom]. In the last two years he has, for political purposes, switched his loyalty to Hoffa Jr., the sec-treasurer, who is a celebrity for the liberal-Labor-left, and an associate of the American Communist Party". This probably explains why the left does not want to antagonize the local leadership, so when Uprise! called for a "no" vote on the contract proposed by the leadership, they where the only on to clearly do so (the Trotskyists actually called for a 'no' in their newspaper, but their in-plant activists finesses the issue by putting out a flyer saying "why we are voting no" - thus it didn't explicitly call on others to vote 'no')

"At the sec-treasurer's monthly stewards meeting things came to a head as well" Padraig said, "first we passed out flyers outside (the ISO was also passing out their flyer, which to my knowledge made its first and possibly last appearance that night) TDU was also passing out there newspaper, which, incredibly does not call for a 'no' vote. It has criticisms, but no clear stand".

During the meeting, which was attended by some 200 stewards, the sec-treasurer directly attacked those that where calling for a 'no' vote. "He said all stewards must publicly support the contract, even if they personally vote no, otherwise you're not supporting the union and should resign" recalls Padraig, "after a Black worker challenged the sec-treasurer, and faced his abuse, and other workers more friendly pointed out the need for contract specifics, I rose my hand and challenged it. But was told to accept it all or resign bullshit. I explained very, very briefly what I thought was wrong with the contract and said I disagreed with the agreement and that I wasn't going to resign, that I'm a good steward that I'm filing grievances, helping organize meetings. The sec-treasurer argued that this was breaking the unity of the union, that I had an obligation to follow what came from the union. I shot back "what about when Hoffa tells us all to vote for Bush? Do we just go along?" The sec-treasurer looked red faced for a second and said "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

In the end, no-one from Uprise! resigned from the union and the vote on the contract was held by the post. Uprise! was aiming for a 40% 'no' vote, which would have been a victory for them. In the end, 35% voted no (compared to 28% on the national level) which is good, but shows there is still a long way to go. However, the recent success for an anti-war motion shows that a lot of things can be done.

Lessons from the class war? What are the perspectives of the Uprise! group? "Mainly we need to build up networks and structures for rank-and-file militants. For my building, which has a greater level of union organization and consciousness, I am working on a proposal for a stewards council (there are about 30 elected stewards at Jeff St.) that would be an alternative pole of activity from the union hall" answer Padraig, "at the CACH, which because of its size, the high turnover, and it being a relatively new building has much less of a union presence, we may try to make Uprise! more of a mass organization, create structures directly at work". He adds "I think our main task is to put together a consistent network of militants that can agitate around day-to-day issues, raise larger political issues and be prepared for any struggles that break out. We are not there yet, but we have a start."

"There is a lot of anger out there among the poorest sections of the working classes, which, no surprise, tend to be heavily Black and Latino. The visceral response to our 'UPS=Under Paid Slavery', 'We want Justice, Not Crumbs', and 'Vote No!' leaflets confirm this" said Christian, however "While we've had an impact on the mood, and consciousness at two major UPS facilities, and the union and steward meetings, we haven't at this point been able to organize that anger. Sixty plus people signed up and gave us their number, only six showed up to our open meeting. While we may be doing some things wrong I think that it's generally indicative of where people are at. Angry. More angry than the media would have us believe, but not yet ready to join radical groups." As Padraig said however, the biggest lesson so far is that "this kind of work is possible! This shows it's possible to be out there in the class as an explicit radical and get a decent, sometimes overwhelming reception."

Nicolas Phebus Collectif Anarchiste La Nuit (NEFAC-Quebec City)