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On the picket line

September 13, 2002 | Pages 10 and 11

Boston janitors
University of Massachusetts
San Jose hospitals
University of Vermont
Felbro Display Manufacturing

Chicago hotel workers

By Elizabeth Schulte

CHICAGO--After threatening what would have been the first hotel strike in Chicago history, more than 7,000 hotel workers won significant wage increases and reductions in their health care premiums last week.

Members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Locals 1 and 450, who work at 27 area hotels, voted in the new deal on September 5, 892 to 153. A strike could have won more--but workers still made big gains.

The workers, who make just $8.83 an hour, will receive a $3.27 hourly raise over the four-year contract. Over that period, their family health care premium will drop from $85 to $30 a month. That translates into an average 54.4 percent wages and benefits increase over the next four years, according to union officials.

What's more, the union members, who previously had no sick days or paid break time, won four sick days and a paid 15-minute break. The contract also requires hotels to negotiate with the union on any new subcontracting.

From the start, the union set its sights high, arguing that Chicago hotel workers deserve what workers have in New York City, where room attendants earn $18.15 an hour and dependants' health coverage is free.

And they were ready to strike. On August 12, 4,000 members turned out to vote 98 percent to authorize a strike, and the next week, 4,000 attended a rally down Michigan Ave. This was a big step forward for Local 1, whose leadership had for years been plagued by mob ties, misuse of members' dues and rotten deals for members.

New leadership--led by Henry Tamarin, who the HERE International sent in from New York when the local was put under trusteeship in 1999 and who was elected president last year--has made important changes in the local. They hired bilingual organizers to communicate with large number of Spanish-speaking members.

Tamarin invoked the great struggles of 1930s when he announced the tentative deal on September 3. But when the strike deadline came, he agreed to keep negotiations going when Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon and Illinois Gov. George Ryan, intervened.

This was a mistake. The union had tremendous leverage because a major convention that relied on the hotels was only days away. By talking past the deadline and settling without a strike, HERE passed up a chance to show the union's power and teach abusive managers a lesson.

Still, this contract marks a big win for some of Chicago lowest-paid workers.

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Boston janitors

By Joe Knott

BOSTON--"Let the rich clean themselves. We're ready for a strike!" This chant and others echoed through downtown streets on September 4 as more than 500 members and supporters of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) took to the streets to demand a good contract for janitors.

The master contract, which expired August 31, affects 11,000 workers and covers 90 percent of downtown buildings as well as some of the city's largest college campuses.

A recent strike vote resulted in some concessions being forced from the contracting companies--but only on minor issues.

On September 4, however, negotiations broke down when the bosses once again refused to budge on health care for part-timers, more full-time jobs and a pay scale comparable with janitors in other U.S. cities. Now, both sides of the bargaining table are looking to Mayor Thomas Menino as a way out of the impasse.

This strategy makes perfect sense for the contractors. Throughout his term, Menino has been instrumental in defeating affordable housing legislation and other social programs.

For the unions, however, partnership with the parties of big business is a dead end. The mere threat of rank-and-file action won small concessions from the bosses last weekend. More action from below is the only way forward.

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University of Massachusetts

By John Buttell

AMHERST, Mass.--Thousands of university workers walked off the job across the state September 5. Workers held 30-minute "coffee break" rallies on every campus in the state system to protest budget cuts and the state government's refusal to fund pay raises guaranteed in their contracts.

The state's higher education system was already reeling from tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts and hundreds of job losses when acting-Governor Jane Swift vetoed the $30 million budgeted for pay raises in last year's contracts.

In Amherst, hundreds of workers rallied at four locations at the University of Massachusetts main campus. For the first time in years, workers from all four campus unions and every job classification--including secretaries, janitors, teaching assistants, resident assistants and professors--stood side by side. More than 1,500 workers assembled at the Whitmore Administration building, chanting "Keep your word" with signs that read "Fund the contracts."

The statewide rallies are a good first step toward fighting these attacks. To win this fight, campus workers will have to rely on their own unity and build alliances with students and community members.

That was key for the Graduate Employees Organization/United Auto Workers Local 2322, which fought a three-year battle and recently signed its first contract representing continuing education instructors.

The contract held the line on minimum enrollments and includes a course cancellation policy, health insurance, tuition waivers and an average 27 percent wage increase.

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San Jose hospitals

By Phil Gasper

SAN JOSE, Calif.--About 1,500 health care workers from Regional Medical Center, Good Samaritan Hospital and San Jose Medical Center walked off the job September 2 and 3. Workers staged the two-day strike to protest the refusal of Tennessee-based Healthcare Corporation of America (HCA)--which owns all three facilities--to agree to a contract.

The strikers, including clerks, housekeepers and lab assistants, voted to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 250 almost a year ago, but HCA has dragged out contract negotiations since then.

The union is calling for increased staffing, health care benefits for workers' families and better working conditions.

On September 2, Labor Day, the San Jose strikers were supported by hundreds of workers from two other hospitals--Stanford University Medical Center and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital--who are members of SEIU Local 715 and who are raising similar demands in their own contract negotiations.

"I care for very sick children who have cancer, TB, children who are waiting for transplants," said one nurse's assistant from Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. "But sometimes I'm so busy that I'm not able to provide anything near the kind of care they need. That's why we need a real voice in staffing like caregivers at so many other hospitals have." In addition, SEIU has filed suit against HCA for bilking workers out of overtime pay and falsifying time sheets.

Workers from both locals said they would continue the struggle until their demands are met.

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University of Vermont

By Peter Spitzform

BURLINGTON, Vt.--Faculty at the University of Vermont (UVM) agreed September 3 to declare an impasse in their contract negotiations.

For months, the administration has refused to offer anything reasonable in negotiations, blocking all union proposals. Under Vermont labor law, "impasse" triggers a fact-finding period in which both sides present their cases to a third party.

Eventually, the state labor board may impose a settlement, but in the meantime, the impasse frees the union from a gag rule that kept it from exposing the university's insulting proposals.

The university administration has tried to divide tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty--and to treat the latter as second-class citizens. This is just one part of a general assault.

For years, the university has promised raises to teachers, who are paid less than nearly all other public university faculty. Now they say they can't--due to a lack of funds and a climate of layoffs and recession.

But during the last 10 years, administrators have given themselves raises of up to 65 percent. "They just hired a brand-new president whom the Board of Trustees promised would be paid a market-based salary of $260,000 per year," said Kathleen Brown, a UVM sophomore. "But because he didn't like the free house they offered him, he also receives $1,800 per month housing allowance. Yet, when it comes to faculty and staff, they suddenly don't have any money to pay fair market wages. [President] Fogel's housing allowance is more money than many of the service workers are paid for working full-time."

The faculty is now launching a public campaign to put pressure on the administration. In the coming months, solidarity with students, staff, organized labor and the broader community will be key.

Also crucial for winning a fair contract will be renewing the drive to increase union membership and broaden the activist rank and file.

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Felbro Display Manufacturing

By Sarah Knopp

LOS ANGELES--Workers at Felbro Display Manufacturing in East LA picketed outside the factory and their supervisor's office August 28 to fight for a fair contract.

The 111 workers at the plant, which makes metal displays for grocery stores, are represented by UNITE Local 482. Most earn minimum wage, and some workers who have been there for 13 years or more make $8.20 an hour.

They do welding work, yet have a bare-bones medical plan and no vision benefits. Their health coverage doesn't insure their families. Now, the company is insulting them by asking them to increase their medical co-pay and is offering 20-cent raise over three years!

This is a slap in the face, especially since the company promised a raise of 20 cents over minimum wage in the last contract and cheated 26 workers out of even that when the minimum wage in California went up.

In addition to asking for a $1 raise over three years, the workers are asking for dignity. The bathrooms are dirty, there's no break room, and the workers have no sick days and only two weeks vacation even after decades of making Felbro rich.

The company is counting on the mostly Spanish-speaking workers to lie down and take a beating, but the picket showed that the workers aren't afraid. It was a good first step to winning justice and dignity at Felbro.

To support this campaign, send donations to Felbro Workers' Fund, UNITE Local 482, 675 South Park View St., LA, CA 90057.

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