COMMENTARY: UPS strike laid bare a disturbing dilemma

c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED _"What was the UPS strike about?"my wife asks."Oh, the usual,"I reply."Money, control, public bluster and sagging union fortunes." More than that, however, the confrontation between United Parcel Service and the Teamsters union cast a spotlight on a disturbing truth about employment in America: Too many workers are part time or temporary. That ethical dilemma will haunt us long after UPS' ungainly brown trucks are hunting for lost customers.

Federal Express, for example, is proud that workers at its Memphis distribution center are mostly part-timers. It's the"new paradigm,"we were told on a tour of the facility. They work the crunch time of 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., when close to a million packages flow through the center. With full-time benefits, it's an ideal job for school teachers or students seeking supplementary income, a tour guide said.

The key word is"supplementary."For years, homemakers, full-time workers and retired persons have supplemented their incomes through part-time work. Lately, however, companies have come to rely on part-time employees to keep payroll costs down. Wal-Mart, for example, has built its empire on part-time employees.

Similarly, temporary employees have become the low-benefit, low-pay backbone of many companies. The"Kelly girl"of yore _ a skilled office worker who could pinch-hit a month of typing here, then a week of filing there _ has become a complex industry placing everyone from floor-sweepers to computer programmers to financial analysts in open-ended slots where the promise is"temp to perm,"but"perm"rarely comes.

From management's standpoint, the rationale is clear. A permanent office worker might cost, say, $25,000 in salary plus 30 percent of that amount in benefits. A temp will do that same job for $10 an hour, or $20,800 a year _ with minimal or no benefits. Part-timers cost even less. Until this settlement, UPS went 15 years without raising its $8 an hour starting pay for part-timers. Even now, it only bumps to $8.50.

Some temps value their freedom to come and go. Temp work is also a way for a relocated worker to enter a new job market. But what I see is that temps are simply the new labor pool. When a full-timer leaves or is downsized out of a job, call the agency. Temps get voice mail codes, name plates on cubicles and soon become indistinguishable from full-time workers.

What's the dilemma?

For one thing, the"safety net"may be more shredded than we realize. In America, our medical and retirement systems are grounded in benefits provided by employers. We have no national health program beyond Medicare for the elderly and whatever free care hospitals choose to dispense. Social Security has become a national identity-number system from which few workers younger than 50 expect to receive much at retirement. A short-term corporate strategy to trim benefit costs reduces our long-term capacity to deal with illness and aging.

Second, hostility and despair are sweeping more workplaces than UPS distribution centers. Glaring inequities in pay stir unrest. When a company saves $8,000 in benefit costs by forcing a job slot into precarious temp status and then rewards its cost-cutting CEO with a multimillion-dollar bonus, the mutual confidence and respect that any organization depends on are diminished.

A remarkable letter in the local paper probably spoke for many. A woman had written a column about"stay-at-home motherhood."In response, a two-income couple noted that the column writer was the wife of a prominent local executive, with a big house, children in private school, a beach house and company car."Exactly what does she know about ... sacrifices?"the letter-writers asked."If she thinks the view from her living room is representative of this community, she needs to look again." One writer of this angry letter works for the executive in question.

The short-term, bottom-line mentality that fails to reward risk, research or planning, also fails to see the growing perception that bosses are looking out only for themselves. Workers are seen as commodities, rather than as fellow citizens whose goodwill ultimately will determine a company's success. Even the most successful venture cannot afford to alienate its employees. And our civic life doesn't need the demagoguery that courts the alienated.

Our low unemployment rate, in other words, might be an illusion, and growing anger in the workforce might threaten more businesses than UPS.