Hobe Williams has been waiting more than eight years for a full-time job to open up at United Parcel Service's hub in Redmond, Wash., where he works as a part-time package sorter. True, most other part-timers in the U.S. would love to get the $15.10 an hour he pulls down, plus benefits and paid vacations. But Williams, a 30-year-old union steward at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, would make more than $20 an hour if UPS gave him the full-time job he has been in line for all these years. "I want to be full-time, and I'm tired of waiting," he complains.
UPS's heavy reliance on part-timers, who make up 57% of its 230,000 Teamsters, had been a key flash point in talks over a new labor pact. Five years ago, in a booming economy, the Teamsters pummeled UPS in a costly 15-day strike that garnered strong public support over the issue of giving part-timers a shot at full-time work. A chastened UPS agreed to create 10,000 full-time jobs over the life of the five-year pact that's now expiring. In this latest round of negotiations, the union wanted management to up the ante to 15,000 jobs.
It wasn't to be. The sides reached agreement on July 15, two weeks before the contract was due to expire. With the economy still relatively weak, the Teamsters rank-and-file was skittish about mounting another walkout. In the end, the union and UPS agreed to another 10,000 full-time jobs -- this time over six years instead of five.
NO POSITION TO PRESS.
However, the Teamsters won wage hikes averaging about 3.6% a year. "We have retained the ability to grow and remain strong in a very competitive industry," said UPS CEO Michael Eskew at a July 16 press conference.
The battle at UPS mirrors what's going on across the U.S. economy. The low unemployment of the late 1990s ended years of steady growth of part-time jobs, as workers had their pick of better-paying full-time positions. Now, a jobless rate pushing 6% has given employers the upper hand again, leading to a spike in involuntary part-timers and a sharp slowdown in their hourly wages.
Just as the Teamsters weren't in a position to press UPS too hard on the issue, so are many other workers being forced to accept part-time status. The end of the boom has left employers skittish about expanding their core workforces, so companies "are taking a cautionary approach by hiring part-time workers first," says Pennsylvania State University labor economist Lonnie M. Golden.
No question, the Teamsters scored some gains on the part-time issue during their 1997 negotiations. That agreement reversed UPS's two-decade trend of relying primarily on part-timers to cope with growth. The creation of 10,000 union jobs has helped to expand full-time positions by 34% since then, while part-time slots have grown just 18%. Overall, the share of Teamsters on the payroll full-time has inched up three percentage points since 1997, to 43%.
UPS officials dug in their heels this time around, however. They insisted that the nature of the delivery business requires scads of part-time labor. Packages picked up on any given day must be sorted overnight to go out the next morning. Often, it doesn't take a full eight hours. "Four hours to load an overnight plane is four hours," says UPS spokesman Norman Black. "We can't make that an eight-hour day."
He also cites internal polls showing that only about 15% of part-timers even want a full-time post. Fully half of the company's part-timers, says Black, are college students, who squeeze in work around their studies.
The Teamsters argued that the polls are inaccurate, saying the company counts all who say they plan to go to college someday as students -- and therefore not interested in full-time work. In addition, union officials question why, if the company requires a flexible workforce, it pays part-timers only about half the $20 an hour full-time loaders and sorters typically earn.
The 1997 contract narrowed the differential by lifting the part-time starting wage by 50¢ an hour, to $8.50, the first increase in 15 years. The average part-time pay was raised even more, by $4.10 an hour, over the five years of the contract.
The new agreement, which still must be ratified by members, will give part-timers a further lift. Their starting pay will go to $9, with the current average wage of $10.72 climbing about 9% a year through 2008. However, the high turnover rate of part-timers means that their average wage will still lag behind the full-timers' by the end of the contract. "Our cheap labor allows them to make profits," argues Eric Robertson, 28, a part-time loader in Atlanta who has been waiting 2 1/2 years for a full-time job.
Many other part-timers across the country face the same uphill battle as the Teamsters. The average wage for all of the nation's 22 million part-timers jumped by 26% since 1997, or 11% after inflation, an impressive performance given that very few are unionized. But in the past year, the gains slowed dramatically, beating inflation by less than 1%.
At the same time, the ranks of involuntary part-timers -- those who say they want a full-time job but can't find one -- jumped sharply, hitting 4 million in the second quarter, after tumbling to 3 million in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Teamsters were able to win as much as they did for part-timers largely because the union's full-time members were backing them up. But many others who would rather have a full-time job may need to wait until the labor markets once again turn in favor of employees.
By Brian Grow in Atlanta
Edited by Aaron Berstein