On the picket line
Cook County workers
CHICAGO--AFSCME and SEIU joined forces to threaten a one-day strike at Cook County offices and health-care facilities on July 11.
Union contracts at the county, which includes the city of Chicago, expired on November 30, 2001. Together the two unions represent about 6,000 county workers. With layoffs and budget cuts being pushed at the state and city level, the stakes in this fight are high for workers across Illinois.
The main issue is money. With the low wage increase offered by the county, and the substantial increase in premiums and co-pays for health care programs, most county employees would receive an increase of only 1 percent! Some would even be given a pay cut.
This is not the first time the county and its unions have engaged in last minute negotiations under a strike threat. But, as one AFSCME official said, the county has never called its bluff. But this time might be different.
The economic crisis has been severe and the Cook County Board recently voted to privatize the county's golf courses, costing the jobs of many Teamsters Local 726 members. The county is also opening its new Cook County Hospital later this year and it's been under great pressure to cut costs to deal with its deficit.
The unions seem determined to strike if no agreement can be reached. If a one-day strike accomplishes its goal of a decent contract with good wages and benefits, all the better. But if the county doesn't back down, the unions have to continue the fight to protect the living standards of their members.
The unions have to show the board that they won't accept this assault on workers--and mobilize the solidarity needed to win.
By Evan Kornfeld
LOS ANGELES--About 1,000 people turned out to a June 26 meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to protest deep cuts in county health services. The cuts will result in the closing of 11 of 18 public health clinics, the elimination of 5,000 jobs and the end of inpatient services at High Desert Hospital in the Antelope Valley, north of Los Angeles.
The county health system cares for about 800,000 people annually. Yet 20 emergency rooms have been shut in Los Angeles County in the last decade. The supervisors said there will be even more severe cuts in October if they fail to get a $350 million bailout from the federal government.
Many of the protesters at the meeting were union members. But the supervisors listened to only 74 minutes of testimony. Each speaker was given only two minutes. When one woman went over the limit, the board chair ordered her microphone shut off.
"Billions of dollars were found to fight terrorism. Billions of dollars were found to save airlines," said Mandy Johnson, a spokesperson for private clinics, funding for which will be cut by 25 percent. "How do you tell people with no health insurance, no child care or transportation that there is no appointment available for their sick child, their diabetic mother or father with bronchitis?" "Cutting back essential services is not brave--it's an abdication of leadership," said Kathy Ochoa of SEIU Local 660.
Already, patients brought in by ambulance sometimes have to wait up to five hours before they are seen by a doctor or a nurse. Paramedics have to wait with the patients--and that means they are unavailable to answer other calls. As a result, on February 15, ambulance service in the Antelope Valley came to a halt.
The budget cuts approved by the County Board do not become final until after a series of public hearings this summer. We need to fight these cuts before it's too late.
By Karl Swinehart
SANTA MONICA, Calif.--More than 70 Chinese and Latino garment workers and supporters demonstrated outside Forever 21 and Bebe stores here July 6 in defiance of the companies' effort to silence them.
Twelve Chinese workers sewed clothes with the Bebe label in two factories in nearby El Monte while 19 Latino workers manufactured clothes with the Forever 21 label in six different factories in downtown Los Angeles. These workers were subjected to work in dirty and unsafe conditions, with no breaks, subminimum wages and no overtime pay.
The Chinese garment workers filed two separate lawsuits against Bebe, and the demonstration was the first protest against the California-based retailer. "Garment workers experience the same exploitation everywhere. I want Bebe and other retailers to know, we will never give up the fight for fair wages," said Bik Kwan Chan, a garment worker and plaintiff in the case against Bebe.
For their part, Latino garment workers launched a national boycott against Forever 21 in November, 2001. Since then workers have held weekly demonstrations at stores throughout Southern California and support actions have been held around the nation.
In an attempt to silence these opponents of sweatshop abuse, Forever 21 filed a defamation lawsuit against each of the workers, the Garment Worker Center, Sweatshop Watch and the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). The lawsuit alleges libel and interference with business advantage, claiming that the workers' and advocates' exercise of their First Amendment rights had cost Forever 21 business.
But the workers are not intimidated. "I believe it's important that workers of all races organize together," said Guadalupe Hernandez, who sewed for Forever 21. "That is the only way we will win justice in this industry."
By Frank Laporte and Yusef Khalil
NEW YORK--About 250 striking bus drivers gathered at a busy intersection in Queens July 8 to protest New York City Mayor Bloomberg's refusal to negotiate with their union, TWU Local 100.
After a two-day strike in March, the city agreed to the union's demands of increasing healthcare benefits, job security and parity with other municipal transit workers. But Mayor Bloomberg reneged on his promise in early May. As striker Heather Nelson explained to Socialist Worker, "[the city] compelled us to go on strike in the summer, when we have much less leverage."
However, the union is determined to keep up the fight. They set up a strike fund and engaged in talks of solidarity with drivers from other companies that also run buses in Queens. "If Green Bus line were out, we would have settled already," said shop steward Nat Tartamella.
Another rally was planned for July 9.
By Andy Libson
SAN FRANCISCO--About 1,000 members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades from District Council 16 of the AFL-CIO went out on strike as their contract expired July 1. The strike, which involves primarily floorlayers, has spread picketers around the city in front of union shops.
The workers are demanding a wage increase of $6 per hour over three years. The vote to strike was close--225 for and 200 against.
One floorlayer expressed concern about the difficulty of finding work in these tough economic times, when he has only been able to find work two to three days a week before the strike. Still, he was out on the picket line and said that "every floorlayer has to do their part to support the strike."
He spoke of how the 1990s had been a period where floorlayers had seen their wages stagnate throughout the decade, and that in the last contract in 1999, floorlayers went out on strike in order to earn their first significant wage increase. They hope to do the same this year, but recognize that bosses will use the excuse of the bad economy to cut into their demands.
Asked about the prospects of winning, the floorlayer said, "They (the bosses) won't talk to us for a week, but after that the union will sit down and begin to negotiate."
By Nancy Welch
BURLINGTON, Vt.--Four years ago, Tara Risinger, a labor and delivery nurse at Vermont's largest hospital, voted against a union. New to the profession and to the hospital, which employs nearly 1,300 nurses, Risinger said that management told her that only "old and bitter nurses" want a union.
Today, Risinger is among those leading the fight for a union at the Burlington-based Fletcher Allen Health Care. "I was promised [by management] that I would have a real voice in decision making," Risinger said in a press conference last week announcing the drive. "However, those voices were never heard. We're looking for something real."
Risinger was one of 50 nurses who, along with 80 supporters, turned out for the press conference at City Hall. Nurses cited deteriorating conditions and equipment, stagnant wages, and the need for improved patient-staff ratios as their reasons for organizing the drive through the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals/AFT.
This is the nurses' fourth attempt to win collective bargaining rights. The nurses estimate that Fletcher Allen spent $3 million to defeat the last drive in 1998. But 25-year nursing veteran Mary Flemming said that this time, they've built robust support across the hospital's units.
"I came here 10 years ago," said Flemming, "and I'm still not making the salary I left in an organized hospital in Boston."
By Tim Cook
NURSES WORKING in the University of California health care system recently ratified a new contract that represents a major victory for the 8,000 health care workers statewide.
The nurses are represented by the California Nurses Association, which fought hard in negotiations with managers during a protracted three-and-a-half-month bargaining process. When negotiations stalled, the union threatened a one-day walkout.
Key points in the agreement include an end to merit pay, which is based upon the opinion of individual managers. The agreement also makes it easier to go from temporary to permanent status, and includes a whopping 35 percent pay increase over the three years. The new contract also limits the nurse to patient ratio, ensuring better health care for the patients, and less overwork for the nurses.
It's victories like this that remind us what workers can do--when we are organized and are determined to fight.