Originally created 08/16/97

Striking Teamsters winning public opinion battle



NEW YORK (AP) - It's the polite, reliable delivery people in the brown shorts you see every day against the white-collared executives in their corporate offices. Across the country, Americans are following and debating the United Parcel Service strike - and largely, taking sides with the brown-shorts folks.

While it hasn't hit O.J. Simpson levels, there's strong interest and reaction to a 12-day-old strike that affects much of the population at least indirectly and also is about nationwide economic issues.

"It's four solid hours of ringing phone lines," said Dave Stone, afternoon drivetime host for WGST-AM radio in Atlanta. "It's jobs and it's people's security. Everybody can relate to that."

Stone, who's gotten as many as 150 calls in a day about the strike in UPS' headquarters city, said most callers tend to side with management.

"People view people making $20 an hour and complaining about their wages as crybabies," he said.

But a series of national polls this week consistently showed the striking Teamsters winning the hearts-and-minds battle. On Thursday, for example, a USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll indicated that 55 percent of those surveyed supported the Teamsters, compared with 27 percent backing UPS.

The poll of 819 adults was conducted Wednesday and Thursday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

"I'm in favor of the workers," said Heidi Lecklitner, a Panama City, Fla., woman visiting Atlanta on Friday. "It's the way service industries try to push down their costs. The working class loses out."

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an Emory University business professor who's studied UPS and is a company consultant, said the negative public reaction is a little bewildering to some UPS executives. Most, including Chairman James Kelly, a one-time driver, worked their ways up through a company that claims a 90-year tradition of humility and integrity among its leaders.

Sonnenfeld said most people think of the drivers when they think of UPS. The drivers, on strike with sorters, packagers and varied other employees among the 185,000 Teamsters, have a positive image that goes beyond hard-working reliability.

A sign hanging in the Bluegrass Regional Office of the Kentucky Lottery in Lexington has a message for its UPS driver on strike. It reads: "Phil, come back, we miss you."

"The UPS driver has become part of Americana," Sonnenfeld said. "Folksy, sexy, whatever the image is, there's great bonding between the drivers and their customers."

Others watching the labor-management conflict say the Teamsters are favored by public reaction to two key issues - union resistance to the heavy use of part-time workers receiving lower wages and benefits and UPS' push to pull out of the Teamsters' multi-employer pension fund in favor of a UPS-only fund.

The company says that would improve its workers' benefits and stop its subsidy of non-UPS Teamsters; the Teamsters say the company wants to get its hands on pension investment income.

"The pension issue is a complicated one that's hard for a lot of people to understand," said Marick Masters, professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business.

But everyday people are likely to respond to union complaints about heavy use of part-timers, which UPS says is essential for competitive reasons and because of its time-sensitive operations.

"The part-time debate is a sensitive debate," Masters said. "Part-time workers earn considerably less; the threat of losing a full-time job for a part-time job involuntarily; rising inequality in the workplace in general."

"Both sides have righteousness on their side; both clearly have a legitimate point," said Donald Ratajczak, who heads the economic forecasting center at Georgia State University. "But the union has done a wonderful job of saying the problem is the abuse of part-time work, and the American public feels it's unfair."

"American people can't live like that - four or five hours of work a day - I know I can't," said Ed Pellman, an office worker from New Albany, Ind.

Sonnenfeld said the company needs to become more aggressive in publicly rebutting the Teamsters, but he predicted that the public tide would eventually turn if the strike drags on.

"If this thing lasts long enough, and the word is filtering out there, I think you will see public sentiment shift," he said.