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Union Solidarity: A View from Underneath

Tags Free MarketsInterventionism

09/30/2011Morgan A. Brown

While paying my way through grad school, I was employed by Overnite Transportation Company as a part-time dockworker. This "part-time" employment carried with it full-time hours and regular overtime on a weekly basis. The early-morning schedule allowed me to take classes in the afternoon and to pay for school on a semester-by-semester schedule, never accruing tuition debts. The same schedule allowed many of my coworkers to make it home before county schools let out. In this way, a working-class husband and wife could coordinate their schedules in such a way as to always have a parent at home, thus cutting daycare expenses out of the household budget.

Many transportation firms class their part-timers as such only because part-timers do not possess a commercial driver's license (CDL). Transportation firms like Overnite (now UPS Freight) have traditionally employed non-CDL dockworkers because the latter do not have an incentive to unionize. Non-CDL dockhands can bargain for employment in a way that drivers cannot — by working for slightly reduced wages, which are generally two or three times the minimum wage, at the risk of reduced hours in times of a recession. Employee turnover tended to be high at my position, even though an inexperienced non-CDL dockworker could make between $16 and $17 per hour.

Unions continue to lobby for increased regulation of the truck-driving industry, since they can restrict competition for jobs in order to prop up wages, and thus drive up service prices in the transportation sector. Non-CDL dockworkers provide a barrier between union-leaning truck drivers and anti-unionist company men. The non-CDL dockworkers are "out for themselves," constitute a body of "mercenary" laborers, and tend to fill positions that pay well for unskilled labor in stressful working conditions. If union solidarity were to win out, most non-CDL dockworkers in less-than-truckload (LTL) freight would find themselves out of jobs. Union drivers would devour the wages from non-CDL dockhands, and half-employed drivers would serve as reserve labor on retainer. Even so, those reserves would come at a higher price and with lower productivity, because the same drivers would not be on the docks every morning.

Several of Overnite's hubs had been unionized by the Teamsters, but my terminal was not under union management. Few of the drivers there had ever expressed a desire to organize. Many had witnessed the 2000 Teamsters strike against the company. (The Teamsters struck because of Overnite's stance against unionization at many terminals.) Teamsters thugs had lain out in the fields behind the terminal with BB guns during those troubled times, taking potshots at nonunion dockworkers through the gaps between the docking stations. One driver pointed me to a 2002 documentary about the whole affair entitled American Standoff, which featured portions of the standoff taking place in my hometown.

Some dockhands at freight terminals are aspiring drivers who are waiting for the opportunity to log the requisite hours in training programs in order to become drivers. The CDL dockworker performs the same services as the non-CDL dockworker, but he is afforded certain privileges over the part-timers in terms of overtime, vacations, insurance, training, and pay increases. When drivers quit, fall sick, or get suspended because of accidents, those CDL dockworkers can sometimes step up as substitutes. When working hours decrease during slow seasons, CDL dockworkers log longer hours and cut back on the part-timer's timesheet. Because the driver supply is heavily regulated, and because non-CDL dockworkers are a limitless supply of labor as long as wages remain competitive, the tendency on the market is to favor non-CDL dockhands for employment.

"I did not enjoy my job, but I knew that no other company in the area would offer an unskilled worker the same high wages and schedule flexibility."

Non-CDL dockworkers have proven a wise investment because dockhands must be willing to put up with many inconveniences in order to obtain privileges off the books. When non-CDL dockworkers do not wish to work overtime, the overtime de facto falls on the full-timers. Hence, I was generally able to cut hours during final exams or when homework grew heavy, and the burden of overtime fell on those who obtained the greatest privileges — the CDL dockworkers and drivers. Other dockhands whose wives were pregnant were able to spend more time at home. When part-timers needed hours, they were preferred to the full-timers because of wage differentials. Whenever full-timers looked for a reduction in hours, non-CDL workers competed for those hours with a distinct advantage. The downside of the non-CDL dockworker's situation lies in the fact that when business is flagging, his schedule takes a hit, resulting in a reduced paycheck. Even so, many CDL full-timers take advantage of recessions to cut hours as non-CDL dockhands lobby for leftovers.

I did not enjoy my job, but I knew that no other company in the area would offer an unskilled worker the same high wages and schedule flexibility. At times I would cough up the black dust that floated through the terminal, thinking of the "dark Satanic Mills" that the Marxians to this day decry in literature departments. Perhaps those mills provided greater relief from poverty than the limited opportunities for employment that were elsewhere available. When the dew hit the ground before dawn during winters, the temperature would drop to an alarming degree and freeze over my steel-toed boots. Nevertheless, the pay was good enough to offset the discomforts.

On April 28, 2006, Overnite was acquired by UPS, becoming UPS Ground Freight, Inc. Besides the new rebranding campaign, several training videos, and new driver uniforms, there was little to distinguish the two companies. Over time, however, service efficiency within the terminal began to rise. Trucks arrived in better condition, with fewer damaged products, and more single-stacked pallets on inbound trailers, resulting in better customer satisfaction.

Then the recession hit, and kept on hitting.

Things quickly grew worse. In 2007 the Teamsters obtained contracting rights with UPS Freight on a card-vote basis. If a majority exercised its vote in favor of the union, then the terminal would organize. I found this to be an interesting time in which to be employed, not in part because I had just undertaken an intense winter study of Human Action and Man, Economy, and State. I tried my best to explain to my coworkers the negatives of union organization, in part based on personal experience. At the same time, the terminal was reeling from the effects of a slowing economy as the freight industry flagged. Even those predisposed to reject organization salivated at the thought of higher wages.

Union dues are an inconvenience, but so is the union bureaucracy. Because unionization introduces a tension between nonunion managers and union representatives, the average driver or dockhand is relegated to a tertiary position in contract agreements. Not only is the union employee subject to a series of arbitrary rules and regulations, but direct appeals through the company hierarchy are channeled through a bureaucratic intercessor. When the company needs to implement punitive measures in order to recoup costs, the bureaucracy entangles workers in endless reels of red tape from two uncooperative sets of bosses.

"My coworkers chided me playfully and wrote me off as a conspiracy nut."

There were even greater inconveniences in store. Because the Teamsters would introduce a seniority-based hierarchy, new drivers and dockhands would always be at the mercy of the old-timers. When old-timers called out, new guys would come in to fill in the hours; but this would be seen as part of the usual routine — nothing worth merit increases and promotions. Most of my coworkers pointed out that seniority would work in the favor of the new guys when they became the old-timers, since they would then be exempt from the downside of competition. I countered that some of the new guys would be sacrificed to the short-run benefit of the old-timers in order to make those increases possible. This argument had very limited effect, since most believed that they would survive the union purge and make out like bandits.

The Teamsters managed to bewitch a number of the non-CDL dockworkers. Despite my warnings that their jobs were in jeopardy if the terminal went union, they were won over by the promise of wage increases if they just signed their cards. I knew things were getting bad when I walked in on two drivers in the company break room who were talking about how the union reps were promising to silently get rid of the non-CDL guys.

Though I was prepared for liquidation if the terminal went union, I began to get a sick feeling in my gut. In four years of employment I had never seen a truck driver work the docks without complaining over the minutest details — too much dirt, too much work, heavy lifting, messy trailers, unfamiliarity with 14 of the 16 regular loading routes, having to sweep the lot, and having to recoup broken pallets. In short, I had never seen a truck driver worth $17 an hour. And here was the prospect that the Teamsters were garnering votes from the very individuals that they planned to liquidate on day one, replacing hard-nosed dockhands with — forgive my prejudice — lousy, no-good drivers.

It is one thing to get canned because the economy is in a Fed-induced recession, or because competition drives a firm out of commission. It is another thing when one group of workers conspires to liquidate coworkers for cash. I was a heady rationalist proponent of enlightened self-interest, but this kind of democratic self-interest was clearly not all that it was cracked up to be. If the famous Wall Street motto, "Greed is good," was supposed to be a sign of the bankruptcy of the capitalist moral order, I wondered what the motto of union organization might be. Clearly, "solidarity" was not on the menu. I was thinking of something more on the order of Titus Andronicus's tasty pies, a good old Thyestean Feast, or perhaps Dante's depiction of the ninth circle of hell, where the poet found the honorable Count Ugolino gnawing on the back of his neighbor's neck.

My coworkers and I showed up to work one morning and received the news: the Teamsters had been voted in. Contract negotiations began, and within a couple of weeks news circulated that a wage increase to $18 per hour was in order for all part-timers. Imagine the egg on my face. My coworkers chided me playfully and wrote me off as a conspiracy nut. Here I was agitating for free labor, saying we should content ourselves with $17 per hour, and that the union meant the end of the non-CDL dockworker; and here was the union promising increased wages in a recession. Against my better judgment, a doubt crept into my mind that I might have been wrong all along.

The date of union implementation rapidly approached. We showed up to work one morning and received news that tomorrow we would be Teamsters. The workday proceeded as normal. We clocked in, worked the shift, clocked out, and then went home. I returned to my metro-Atlanta apartment, showered, and met up with my soon-to-be wife. We set out that afternoon to visit apartment complexes in the general area in search of our first home together. We were about a mile from my workplace when I received a phone call from my supervisor.

"I'm sorry, man, but it looks like the union is putting all part-timers on hold."

"What the heck does that mean?" I asked.

"They'll call you when they need you to work. But other than that, we'll keep you on reserve."

I tried to stay as calm as possible, since my supervisor had always been a stand-up guy.

"Am I coming to work tomorrow?" I asked.

"We'll call you if we need you."

I nearly punched a hole in my fiancée's dashboard. "Turn the car around," I told her gruffly.

I instructed her to head back to the business park where UPS Freight was situated. My fiancée refused to turn around, afraid I would tear through the terminal, fists ablaze, knocking heads about in a rage-induced frenzy. Instead, we stopped by a different company down the street where two former coworkers were employed. By chance, I caught one of them returning from his lunch break. Within two weeks I found employment with that same company, which hired on a truly revolutionary standard of preferential treatment — character references.

When picking up my last paycheck from UPS Freight, I noted that seven of the nine dockworkers were missing from the morning shift. As it turns out, the part-timers on every shift had been relegated to "reserve" status. Nobody was working, nobody was getting paid, and nobody was getting fired.

This last bit seemed to stick out at me. The union swept in, delivered its promised pay increases and increased driver employment, and nobody was getting fired. Certainly, half of the workforce was not getting paid or finding any hours, but nobody was getting fired.


In the four years since the unionization of UPS Freight, I have never once seen any notice reported of the layoffs initiated by the Teamsters takeover. This has always nagged at my conscience. Does nobody know? How could nobody take notice of the fact that so many workers were shut out in name of union "solidarity," fair wages, and democratic capitalism?

But, of course, nobody could take notice of the fact. There was nothing to report. Everyone placed on reserve had to quit in order to find employment elsewhere. Unions could write off the quitters as reactionaries and report whatever employment increases they desired in media outlets. The part-timers would slip off into the darkness and nobody would ever take notice of their disappearance. What the statisticians saw was increased employment and higher wages. What nobody could see was the half of the workforce cannibalized by the union bureaucracy.


Contact Morgan A. Brown

Morgan A. Brown is an English instructor at Georgia Highlands College, where he teaches composition, logic, and grammar. He is currently working towards his PhD in literary studies at Georgia State University, with a primary focus in Restoration and 18th-century literature and philosophy. See his website: MABrown.org.

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