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Part-Timers Are Key To Labor Talks of '97

Current bargaining between Teamsters, UPS will test union resolve

Part-time workers are at the center of labor talks - this time in the largest contract up for negotiation this year.

The outcome of current talks between the Teamsters union and the shipping giant UPS not only may settle contentious issues surrounding use of part-timers, but will also show how far unions are willing to push to convert these jobs to full-time positions.

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Part-time employment has become a top concern for big labor, as employers - including Atlanta-based UPS - have turned to such workers in an effort to cut costs.

"There is a constituency out there pushing for more full-time work, and the union leaders hear that pressure," says Michael Belzer, a researcher at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y.

Part-time workers are a fixture of the economy. The US Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics says 18.3 percent of the work force are part-timers. For many, this is all they want - some extra income to supplement a spouse's paycheck and some flexibility to spend more time with their children.

But a significant number of such workers want full-time employment.

That issue was the sticking point in a labor dispute with trucking companies three years ago, when 80,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters walked off their jobs shipping pallets of freight. The trucking companies wanted to hire more part-time workers to better compete against UPS, but 23 days into the strike the companies gave in.

Variations on a theme

Now it's UPS's turn to face the Teamsters. This time, however, the union not only wants UPS to hire more full-time workers, but it also wants higher pay for part-timers. The union says 60 percent of UPS's 200,000-member work force is part-time, earning about half the wage of the full-time workers.

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"This is an issue we really have to solve this time," says Ron Carey, president of the Teamsters.

Mr. Carey says he regularly hears complaints from part-timers at UPS. It's no wonder: Their full-time counterparts are among the highest paid in the package-delivery business, grossing as much as $50,000 a year. A UPS tractor-trailer driver makes as much as $58,000. The average part-timer makes $10.50 an hour with full benefits. "If you talk to the part-timers - and some of them are college grads with no place to go - they want full-time employment and wages," Carey says.

UPS, however, says it needs to use part-time workers because its package-sorting spans are short, usually two to four hours. A typical package is handled by six part-time workers and three full-timers. "What we are seeking in the contract is operating flexibility," says UPS spokeswoman Gina Ellrich, noting the firm has the highest labor cost in the industry.

Once more, with feeling

The part-time issue came up during 1993 contract negotiations, but it was not the main dispute. At that time, UPS agreed to convert 500 part-time jobs to full time. According to UPS, the firm has in fact moved 13,000 part-time workers to full-time status. But it has also created about 38,000 part-time jobs. This time, the union wants a commitment for 5,000 new full-time jobs in each year of the four-year contract, Carey says.

Contract negotiations, which have resumed in Washington, are dragging. Last month Carey broke off negotiations.

But there's pressure on both sides to reach an agreement. The nation's largest union is relatively short of money and its strike fund is meager. UPS, for its part, could ill afford a strike. It competes against nonunion Federal Express and other companies that would love to snap up its business.

Winning a good agreement is important for Carey. A federal overseer has yet to certify Carey's election fight against James Hoffa Jr. In fact, last month allegations of wrong-doing by a Carey campaign manager surfaced. Carey says it has "no bearing" on the negotiations.

But labor economist Ken Goldstein of the Conference Board says "given the publicity problems around Carey, maybe the Teamsters need a change in headlines."

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