Strike Signals Critical Juncture for Postal Union's Private Sector Organizing Campaign

Hundreds of workers employed by private mail hauler Pat Salmon & Sons struck on December 11, in an unfair labor practices strike to pressure the company to come to a first contract with the American Postal Workers Union. A strong majority of drivers struck every one of Salmon’s terminals in Albuquerque, Little Rock, Shreveport, and Memphis just as the Christmas mail crunch was beginning.

Another 350 Salmon drivers in Jacksonville, Florida, already represented by the Teamsters, planned to join the strike on December 17 in an all-out effort to bring one of the country’s biggest private contract mail haulers (1,200 workers in ten states) to a pattern contract.

The dramatic strike was an indication of the success the APWU has been having in its three-year-old campaign to begin organizing the one million employees of private postal contractors across the country. But it was also a warning that the campaign will stall unless the union resolves its funding problem.

The APWU has been working with Salmon drivers for two years and had a strategic alliance in place with the Teamsters. This effort to bring an entire multi-facility employer to an agreement represented a major new step in the APWU’s aggressive and creative private sector organizing campaign of the past three years.

Even though the strike funds which the drivers were counting on were denied at the APWU’s national level, the drivers chose to walk out nonetheless. They had been waiting too long and the timing was too right.

“If we back down now,” one of the drivers said, “we’ll spend the rest of the time we work for Pat Salmon backing down.” Another striker said: “We used the strike to tell them we wanted a fair contract now.”

Despite the energy of the strike and the broad support it was receiving at all of Salmon’s terminals, the strikers decided on the third day that without financial support they had to return to their jobs. None of them were subjected to any punishment.

POTENTIAL POWER

Although Salmon tried to hire replacements or hire out runs to other contractors at substantial financial cost (and by hiring drivers without requisite drug screens, FBI background checks, and motor vehicle reports), numerous runs were missed and others were late. The strikers felt empowered. New leaders emerged. “The new leaders (along with the old ones) now represent a much broader base of the unit,” one of the organizers said.

The drivers learned that the company is not as strong as it tried to present itself. “We went back to work after two and a half days,” one said, “but we all see the strike as a win. We won because we know we can beat the company if we stick together. We won because a lot of drivers understand that now.”

Another striker said: “Most of all, we learned to be a union.” These strikes at the APWU-represented terminals were winnable-if the strikers had had the economic staying power for a longer battle. But the APWU was not able to provide that support.

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Herein lies the dilemma facing the APWU’s private sector organizing campaign. Beginning with the APWU’s first successful private sector representation vote in January 1999, the union’s organizing efforts took off like a rocket. It scored 16 wins in just 21 campaigns, including the most recent-a 132-31 victory in September at the Detroit Mail Transport Equipment Service Center.

In the past year, the APWU has successfully negotiated contracts at six of the newly organized units and has even more negotiations scheduled for 2002. However, the APWU’s private sector organizing initiative is at a critical juncture. The fact that sufficient funds were unavailable during the Salmon job action exemplifies the problems the union faces.

INSUFFICIENT FUNDS

The original organizing funds-a war chest created through assessments voted by delegates at the 1996 national convention-simply ran out.

Though the union organized over 2,600 workers employed by private postal contractors last year, there are over a million such workers spread around the country. Last summer’s prolonged strikes in Memphis against the J.E. Phillips and H.B. Phillips companies-the first legal strikes in the APWU’s history-used up a significant amount of the allotted resources.

Like the Salmon strike, they, too, ended with the drivers voting to return to work and reclaim their jobs without the recognition and first contract they had been seeking. The organizing struggle is becoming ever more difficult in the face of politically-connected companies that are willing to spend millions to keep the union out.

Postal workers around the country know that this resistance is indicative of the importance of this campaign and that their own economic security depends on their ability to organize these private contractors. This wide interest has been demonstrated by the APWU locals that have taken up the challenge of organizing in the private sector.

The officers and rank and file members who have received organizing training and experience under fire have returned to their locals more committed and more capable trade unionists. They have proved that they can organize successfully.

However, the missing piece remains sufficient funding and resources, which can only come from a renewed commitment from the APWU’s membership to support and fund continued organizing. When the membership meets in national convention in Minneapolis in August, they will have an opportunity to provide this missing piece.

Peter Rachleff covers the postal unions for Labor Notes.