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Strike Tests Labor in New Economy

UPS strike comes at a time when number of walkouts annually has fallen from 300 to 35.

The Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service has developed into an important test of the ability of labor unions to remain relevant in the fast-paced, flexible economy of the Information Age.

That's why the AFL-CIO has vowed to loan the strikers $10 million a week, even if the picketing goes on for months, say labor experts. If a union as strong as the Teamsters can't win a standoff with such a labor-intensive employer as UPS, then all organized labor will suffer at least an important symbolic defeat.

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And union leaders hope now may be the time to reverse years of relative decline.

Worker insecurity brought on by waves of corporate downsizing and mergers might provide an atmosphere conducive to union organization in such important white collar service industries as software development and health care.

"The whole labor movement has its eyes on the ability of the Teamsters to get a good contract from UPS," says Charles Craver, a labor law expert at George Washington University.

The Teamsters - UPS standoff could yet come to a quickly negotiated end. Negotiators met yesterday for the first time in days.

Simple economics may be the most powerful force pushing the two sides towards a settlement. The strike benefit provided by the Teamsters to its members, $55 a week, is hardly munificent. UPS itself is losing millions of dollars in business every day.

But the UPS walkout has occurred in an era when strikes have become somewhat rare. There are only about 35 such big work stoppages annually now, as opposed to some 300 a year during the 1970s, according to Labor Department statistics.

That means strikes have become more carefully considered, say experts. Both sides know a strike is a fateful step. Their positions are likely to be entrenched.

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"When you see a strike now, you know it's a signal of much deeper issues, and that those issues are harder to resolve," says Thomas Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

At the same time, the US labor movement is beginning to show signs of assertiveness after decades in which many of its fights revolved around just keeping the jobs unionists already had.

For one thing, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization president John Sweeney has pushed his organization further into grass-roots political lobbying than predecessor Lane Kirkland ever did. The AFL-CIO poured millions into the 1996 elections - although they failed in their goal to elect a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Mr. Sweeney has vowed to revive labor's influence in the American workplace. He and other labor leaders see opportunity in the fact that many US workers feel in secure in their jobs, despite the overall economic boom.

Expansion of labor union rolls is a primary goal. Currently only about 10 percent of the private sector work force pays union dues. Government workers have been a labor growth area in recent years, but union leaders know that a true renaissance must come from converts in the white collar service sector.

That means health care, where the rise of health maintenance organizations has increased worker unrest; banking, where relatively unskilled "back room" workers grind out enormous amounts of data processing; insurance; restaurants; and computers.

But the competition of the marketplace ensures that many employers are as union-averse as ever. UPS, for instance, must vie with nonunion FedEx for overnight delivery business. It can't afford that fight without the flexibility provided by part-time workers, say UPS managers.

Furthermore, the increasing complication of the nature of work may play against union interests. The Teamsters are fighting for full-time jobs, yet many employees - retirees, parents, teens - want part-time work. The Teamsters want UPS to continue contributing to a union-wide pension fund - but UPS says it can raise benefits to its own retired workers if allowed to pull out.

"One question the strike raises is 'Who are workers going to maintain loyalty to?" says Marvin Kosters at the American Enterprise Institute. "The brotherhood and its leadership, or themselves and their own interests?"

Polls show that for now the Teamsters are winning the battle for public sympathy. If they win, or at least appear to make UPS give up substantial concessions, they could make a dent in the public's larger perception of unions as increasingly ineffectual.

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