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A Turning-Point Strike?

The Teamsters union emerges from its strike against United Parcel Service victorious. It got the company to concede on the issues it held dearest: more extensive conversion of part-time positions to full time, and continued union control of a multi-firm pension fund.

But it's far from clear that this agreement - welcomed by all Americans affected by the two-week strike - is the epic turning point Teamster president Ron Carey claims it to be. True, it marks a break with recent labor history, going back to the failure of the air traffic controllers strike in the early '80s. Since then, union bargaining efforts have been decidedly lackluster, with a tendency for worried workers to defer to companies' arguments that tempered wage demands were crucial to preserve jobs. Flexibility for employers in hiring, laying off, and sub-contracting have become a hallmark of competitiveness in the new global marketplace.

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UPS sacrificed a measure of that flexibility by moving toward the union's position on the key question of part-time work. The company's stance went from an initial offer of 1,000 new full-time jobs to 10,000 over the five-year term of the new contract.

But part-time work is an issue with multiple facets. The Teamsters portrayed it as symptomatic of what's wrong, or unfair, in today's economy. "Corporate greed" was their favorite explanation for why so many of the tens of thousands of jobs created by UPS in recent years have been part-time, with lower starting wages. Two possibly more credible factors are work needs - fitting job hours to short-term, peak-demand periods - and the ample supply of people who prefer part-time work.

Still, UPS's ultimate willingness to concede to union demands for more full-time positions indicates it had room to maneuver in this area. The complaints of many union members that their "part-time" slots were often being stretched into virtual full-time jobs (minus the higher wages and benefits) are vindicated by the settlement. The Teamsters' negotiation of substantially higher wages for part-time workers, on the other hand, can be seen as recognition that these workers will continue to be a big union constituency whose interests demand careful tending.

Mr. Carey and the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney hope to parlay the good showing against UPS into successful organizing efforts in an array of service and high-tech industries. Currently, the proportion of American workers in unions is a paltry 14 percent. But resistance to unionization remains strong in many sectors of the economy. The battle against UPS, a highly successful company with a near monopoly in its field and a prized reputation for treating its employees well, could be hard to capitalize on elsewhere.

Union activism, however, is clearly on the upswing, both in the economic and political realms. The UPS strike demonstrated the ability of union leaders to rally members, even across union lines and absent clear antagonism from management. The Teamsters and their union allies may indeed have tapped underlying worker discontent in today's booming US economy.

Meanwhile politicians like Al Gore and Dick Gephardt have undoubtedly been watching closely, devising fresh ways of tapping into the unions' new-found vigor - and spending.

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