By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
In an increasingly bitter Washington battle between the nation's two largest shipping companies, some unionized UPS workers say they are being forced to write letters to their lawmakers in support of more stringent labor rules for arch rival FedEx.
Officials with UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 240,000 UPS drivers, acknowledge that the company has paid for workers' time to pen many of the letters and has supplied the envelopes, paper and stamps needed to mail thousands of them to Congress. UPS spokesman Malcolm Berkley said the effort was "totally voluntary, and any allegations to the contrary are ridiculous."
But Internet sites dedicated to UPS-related discussions feature dozens of accounts from anonymous employees who in recent weeks have said they were forced to write the letters or felt they would be punished for not doing so. Such tactics could run afoul of both labor laws and lobbying disclosure requirements, according to legal experts.
Memphis-based FedEx and the office of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) also have received e-mails, telephone calls and letters from UPS employees alleging intimidation by the union or UPS supervisors, according to FedEx officials and an Alexander aide.
Scott Dennis, one of those who contacted FedEx by e-mail, said in an interview that he was working as a part-time loader at a UPS facility in Greensboro, N.C. last month when he says he was pulled into a room with other employees and told to write letters in support of the legislation. Instead, he said, he wrote a letter critical of government intervention and quit in disgust a week later.
"We were expected to toe the line," Dennis said.
The letter-writing campaign is part of a costly and often fierce legislative fight between UPS and FedEx, which together have spent nearly $10 million on federal lobbying in the first half of the year. The feud captures the prominence of mass mailings, Internet campaigns and other grass-roots efforts to catch the attention of Congress in high stakes disputes, even when they involve relatively arcane regulations.
The focus of the UPS-FedEx conflict is House legislation passed earlier this year that would make it easier to unionize FedEx's lucrative express-air operation, which is currently treated as an airline under labor rules that limit strikes and require unions to organize nationally rather than locally. UPS, by contrast, is treated as a trucking firm, allowing for easier union organizing.
UPS and the union are now concentrating on convincing the Senate to adopt the provision.
"We hope at the end of the day the Senate will see this as a simple issue of fairness," said Ken Hall, head of the Teamsters' package division.
FedEx has responded with an aggressive public-relations campaign of its own that includes a Web site, http://www.brownbailout.com, that mocks UPS as another wealthy corporation seeking a federal rescue. FedEx founder and chief executive Frederick W. Smith, who was mentioned last year as a potential Cabinet nominee by GOP presidential candidate John McCain (Ariz.), says the legislation would cripple his company by leaving it open to disruptive strikes.
"FedEx Express remains committed to putting our customers first and making sure Congress doesn't change the legal framework that is the basis on which FedEx Express created the air express industry," said company spokesman Maury Lane.
Both companies are major spenders on Capitol Hill. FedEx has spent nearly $7 million on lobbying through June, while UPS reported spending nearly $3 million. UPS has also given $2.4 million in campaign contributions to lawmakers since 2007, while FedEx has contributed about half that; both firms appear to donate evenly to both parties, according to disclosure records.
Atlanta-based UPS, which controls about half of the parcel-shipping market in the United States, has long battled its second-place rival over labor issues. The company and the Teamsters, for example, object to FedEx's strategy of treating ground-shipping drivers as independent contractors, an issue that has made FedEx the target of legal actions by the California attorney general and others. FedEx, which is organized as four separate operations, notes that three of the divisions -- all except its express business -- are governed by the same labor law as UPS.
The legislative fight between the companies captured headlines in Washington last month when Politico's Web site released a letter from the American Conservative Union offering FedEx its political support, including an "aggressive grassroots campaign to stop the legislation in the Senate," in exchange for payments of at least $2.1 million. After FedEx refused, ACU Chairman David Keene signed on to a letter with other conservative leaders accusing FedEx of mounting a "disinformation campaign" against UPS.
The group said Keene acted on his own, although ACU's logo was on the letter. Keene said in a statement that he remains opposed to applying stricter union rules to FedEx and that the ACU received no money from UPS.
The pro-UPS correspondence was also signed by ACU board member Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, which has received $200,000 worth of grants from the UPS Foundation since 2005. A Norquist spokesman said his group had taken no position on the legislation and does not intend to do so.
Now FedEx officials are bristling at the UPS letter-writing campaign, pointing to complaints from Scott and other UPS workers. "They are forcing us to write letters at our UPS center," one employee wrote on BrownCafe.com, a Web site independent of UPS. Another user wrote: "My System Manager told us 'this is not an optional activity.' I wrote the letters and still feel dirty."
According to one instruction form obtained by The Washington Post, UPS employees were asked to write the letters by hand and choose from a half-dozen critiques of FedEx's position. "This bill will eliminate the special treatment given to FedEx and level the playing field for UPS and other companies in the industry," one example reads, according to the instruction form.
"These reports of UPS employees being pressured to write letters to Congress are disturbing," said Lane, the FedEx spokesman. "Any support of our position made to Congress is the result of individual determinations that UPS should not receive the economic bailout they are requesting."
But UPS spokesman Berkley said the allegations were baseless and noted that FedEx has urged its employees to write in support of its position as well. "They've also got a Web site calling this a bailout, and that's not true, so the idea of them making unsubstantiated charges is nothing new," Berkley said.
Kenneth A. Gross, a lobbying law expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said letter-writing campaigns have become "very sophisticated undertakings" and that companies generally characterize the efforts as voluntary and urge employees to write them at home rather than during the work day.
"That way you avoid the allegation that you are deputizing your employees as part of the government relations operation," Gross said.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.