Thursday, August 21, 1997
A love note to UPS drivers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Maybe I'm impossibly romantic, but I think I'm in love with my UPS driver.

As I understand it, the UPS "rank and file," which means the people who do the actual work, voted to accept $55 a week until the company agreed to their "demands." Their demands included asking for a raise for part-time workers making $8 an hour.

The company's original offer was a 1.5 percent annual wage increase for full-time workers, none for the part-timers. An increase of a percent-and-a-half? Geez, runaway inflation. Call Alan Greenspan.

Obscene salaries

Over the last year, wages in this country have risen 4 percent, the highest 12-month increase since 1990. Prices have increased only about 3 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says this might now put the average family at about what its real earnings were in 1989.

Mr. Greenspan? Are you there? This sounds suspiciously inflationary to me. And you know how Wall Street hates inflation. Not counting its own executive salaries, of course.

For instance, last year Salomon Brothers increased its chief executive officer's salary by about a thousand percent, to $11.5 million. Merrill Lynch - those pikers - only gave chairman Daniel Tully a raise of 40 percent. The more moderate Bear Stearns passed along a raise of 128 percent to the guy at the top.

According to Business Week, average compensation for a CEO at a large U.S. company increased last year by 54 percent, 18 times the cost of living. His package of salary, bonuses and options was 209 times as much as he put in his average employee's paycheck.

Of course, the strike wasn't just about wages. It also was about benefits, such as health care. Well, who can blame the company for trying to keep a lid on health care costs? We all know how dramatically these expenses have increased.

On the other hand, a study by the Insurance Committee of the Ohio House found some rather generous packages for the people who run the health care industry, and I don't mean the doctors. For instance, the CEO of Humana Health Plan of Ohio was paid $1.5 million in 1994. The HMO industry reported a 28.71 percent increase in total revenues from 1993 to 1994.

Something is dreadfully wrong.

Not fair, not even sane

The rich are richer than, well, even the rich. Newsweek reported that in comparable dollars, Bill Gates III is about three times richer than John D. Rockefeller was in 1918. Warren Buffett, who hasn't invented or manufactured anything but has a brilliant ability to move around the assets of those who do, is 11 times wealthier than steel maker Andrew Carnegie.

And my UPS driver - average hourly wage, $19.95 - was the one who had nerve enough to say that this is not right. Not fair. Not sane. Now, I'm not saying I'd like the Teamsters to run this country. Heaven knows they've had a checkered past. And most of us can name companies crippled or destroyed by labor demands. But unions, for a generation at least, provided some checks and balance. Lately there has been no balance and not much check.

It was beginning to look as if the latest corporate downsizing might eliminate the middle class.

So, as I see it, the UPS drivers stuck up for a lot of other people. Even people who don't belong to their union. And America surprised itself by cheering.

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll last week indicated that 55 percent of Americans supported the Teamsters, compared with 27 percent backing UPS. And you know a lot of these people were not getting their Land's End sweaters and some of them must have been teachers waiting in vain for new textbooks.

Most of us understood that this was an important, a very important moment in the relationship between those who get stock options and those who punch a time clock. And this moment was long overdue. OK, maybe it's not love I feel for my driver in brown. Maybe it's just respect. And gratitude. Come back, Bob. It's safe now. I won't hug you or anything. I've regained my perspective.

Maybe we all have.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.