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On the picket line

April 13, 2001 | Page 19

Peoples Gas
Washington state workers
Vermont nursing home workers
New York City teachers

New York City transit workers
By Michael Watson

NEW YORK--Some 10,000 rowdy transit workers rallied in midtown Manhattan March 28 to demand that the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) cough up money for their health benefits. The health care fund for 44,000 current and retired transit workers, who are represented by Transport Workers Union Local 100, will run dry by late April unless management puts up more money.

The MTA says workers are going to have to pay $600 each to cover the shortfall. But the transit bosses caused this crisis--and they should pay.

Late last year, the MTA announced it was withholding $17.6 million in payments to the health care fund. The announcement came on the very day that the New Directions reform caucus took over the leadership of Local 100 in an election that drove out the old guard.

Former Local 100 President Willie James sold out the membership in the last contract by agreeing to allow management to withhold contributions for health benefits if it felt unhappy with union implementation of work-rule changes. Management clearly took advantage of the provision to punish workers for kicking out James and his cronies, with whom management had a cozy relationship.

The New Directions victory was a big step forward for New York labor. "We threw out the mooches, the loafers and the do-nothings," new executive board member Marty Goodman told Socialist Worker.

Now the new leadership, headed by veteran militant Roger Toussaint, is hitting back--with the March 28 rally as the first step. The enthusiastic crowd let it be known that they, not management, ran New York's subways and buses.

Rev. Jesse Jackson was the keynote speaker. Four Democratic Party candidates for New York also spoke, claiming that they would fight for union workers. Missing from the mix were voices from the union's rank and file, which has been the crucial base for New Directions' successes.

Rank-and-file members will be key to forcing management's hand. Slowdowns leading up to the December 1999 contract battle showed the city just how much power transit workers have. TWU members should flex their muscle again--to win this battle and to set an example for teachers and city workers whose contracts have expired.

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Peoples Gas
By Eric Ruder

CHICAGO--About 300 gas workers rallied in front of Peoples Energy corporate headquarters March 28 in an impressive show of unity. The workers' contract is set to expire April 30.

"Our members have come to protest the corporate greed driving Peoples Energy," said Tom Brennan, business agent for Service Employees International Union Local 18007. "We're tired of quarterly corporate profits exceeding expectations, yet when we come to the bargaining table, it's not about what they can give us but what they can take away," Brennan told Socialist Worker.

Peoples Gas sent its clerical workers to a seven-day training program so they can go into the field and reconnect gas services in the event of a strike--even though this work is extremely dangerous and requires a high level of experience and skills. The potential for a strike is very real, and the union is lining up support from other unions and community groups.

"We have support from our brothers and sisters in other locals," said Brennan. "And they can depend on our support when it's their turn." Rev. Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH have held informational meetings at their headquarters.

While many consumers have been hit with skyrocketing energy bills this winter, the gas workers' union has taken up their cause. "We're standing with the community, saying Peoples Energy, you can afford it," said Brennan. "We've been telling the company for two months to extend the cut-off moratorium."

Due to the pressure from the union and community groups, Peoples Energy recently granted a two-week extension. More unity between gas workers and community groups will be critical to winning a good contract for the workers and relief for consumers struggling with high gas bills.

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By Eric Kerl

CINCINNATI--Some 1,350 pilots walked off their jobs at Comair on March 26 after the airline refused to negotiate fair wages, benefits and scheduling. Comair pilots are paid far below the industry standard. A first-year Comair pilot makes an average of just $15,000 a year.

"We work under the same conditions as every other airline. We expect to be compensated accordingly," said Capt. Max Roberts of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). "Equal pay for equal work--that's what this is all about."

After Delta bought the company in 2000, Comair became the most profitable passenger airline on the planet. In 1999, Delta made approximately $14,900 net per employee, while Comair made nearly $35,000.

Pilots and management have remained far apart during three years of bargaining, with management walking out of arbitration meetings. For this reason, pilots have effectively had a wage freeze since 1998.

The company's pitiful contract was turned down by more than 99 percent of the pilots, who nearly unanimously approved strike action. "The Comair pilot is the point man for fundamental change in the industry," Roberts said. "If we improve our contract, it will set a precedent for other pilots to follow."

Similar situations exist for workers at Delta AirExpress and American Eagle--and Comair pilots are receiving tremendous support from them. As Socialist Worker went to press, Comair had been forced to cancel all flights and was losing an estimated $2.5 million per day.

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Washington state workers
By Steve Leigh

SEATTLE--About 200 state workers rallied at Harborview Medical Center to challenge Gov. Gary Locke's state budget proposal. Members the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) think they deserve more than the plan's meager 2.2 percent wage increase.

The new budget would raise the employee costs of health benefits by as much as 110 percent and could mean layoffs. The Federation--the largest state workers' union--is calling a strike vote April 9-12 and a statewide rally in Olympia on April 20-21.

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Vermont nursing home workers
By Trevor Pratt

BERLIN, Vt.--More than 100 workers at the Berlin Health and Rehabilitation nursing home may be hitting the picket line this month. Nurse's aides and kitchen and maintenance workers at the home voted last August to join United Electrical (UE) workers union Local 254. But management is dragging its heels on a first contract.

The nursing home is run by CLP-REIT, a Canadian multinational that operates 90 unionized health care facilities in Canada. But its 20 U.S. facilities are nonunion--until now.

Workers at the Berlin home say management pays poverty wages. About 15 percent of workers earn the minimum wage, and fully 80 percent fall below the state's official living wage.

On many nights, there's only one nurse to take care of 50 residents--making even basic care impossible. Plus, because of the heavy workload, nurse's aides suffer from a high rate of injury.

Management has hired two high-priced union-busting firms, which have organized a systematic campaign of lies, threats and bribes to try to undercut support for the UE. But no one's backing down.

The workers have gained statewide support for their contract fight--with a 40-person mobilization committee representing concerned community groups organized to increase pressure on management with petitioning, pickets and demonstrations. And when anti-FTAA demonstrators come to Burlington, Vt., in April on their way to protest the Quebec City Summit of the Americas, there will be a demonstration in solidarity with the Berlin workers at CLP-REIT's corporate offices.

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New York teachers
By David Rapkin, UFT member

NEW YORK--Public school teachers have been working since November 15 under their old contract, and they're getting angrier by the day. Yet the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leadership decided last month to declare an "impasse" in negotiations--opening the door to mediation and a state "fact-finding" panel.

"We should have been out in the streets a long time ago, fighting for a decent contract--for ourselves and the kids," said Bob McCue, a chapter leader at Park West High School. "But [UFT President] Randi Weingarten seems intent on cutting a backroom deal."

Already, union leaders have offered the city a longer day and merit pay in exchange for a substantial raise. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has flatly refused an across-the-board raise.

Now, instead of leading teachers in protests and posing a credible threat of a strike, UFT leaders are following the "impasse" strategy. This isn't the first time.

Weingarten's predecessor, Sandra Feldman, got an impasse declared during the teachers' contract dispute in August 1992. The result? Teachers lost big time.

A state panel rejected the UFT's arguments for pay parity with suburban school districts--on the grounds that the UFT itself had allowed the disparity to grow. The panel recommended a meager raise--the heart of a bad deal in 1992 that set up a disastrous contract for all city workers in 1995.

Now, more than 300,000 New York City workers are without a contract--78,000 of them teachers.

It's little wonder that thousands of rank and filers are furious. Thousands of dissidents have signed petitions demanding that union leaders call job actions, rallies and strike authorization votes.

This is inspiring. But we need action now. Without a serious fight, New York City public workers won't win the contracts they deserve.

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