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On the picket line

October 18, 2002 | Pages 10 and 11

New York City firefighters
Los Angeles teachers

Madison Market

By Nat Gibbons, UFCW Local 1105

SEATTLE--Following a threat to strike, workers at Madison Market pushed management to a tentative agreement that includes substantial gains.

The workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1105, prevailed in their six-month struggle for a fair contract when they held a 90 percent strike authorization vote. This pushed management into conceding almost everything workers had demanded.

Union members are expected to vote yes on a two-year contract with 4 percent and 5 percent wage increases as well as affordable family health care for the first time in the store's history. "The contract was passed because we stood together as a team," said Peter Lang, a grocery clerk and bulk foods buyer.

The real fight began with the rejection of the first contract by a margin of 33-2 back in May. Since then, workers organized solidarity and a winning campaign.

There were two main reasons for our success. One, meetings--organized independently of union officials--were held consistently, sometimes weekly, to maintain communication between rank-and-file workers and make decisions collectively even in the face of management's divide-and-conquer tactics. Two, the bargaining team made a conscious decision to be accountable to decisions made at these meetings instead of following the dictates of union officials.

These methods were key to involving rank-and-filers in activity around the contract. As negotiations went on, there were more and more acts of solidarity among workers--and they achieved results.

Scheduling issues were solved by sending three or four workers to talk to a manager instead of sending one person who could easily be maneuvered into a compromising position. Managers were openly challenged and exposed at staff meetings. Workers greeted shoppers at the doors with flyers and petitions. Piles of grievances were filed against managers for everything from scheduling abuses to harassment.

Finally, all of the pressure resulted in the "letting go" of the two most disrespectful and incompetent managers in the store. One worker described the oustings as "a bigger step towards our quality of life at work than the contract" and "a tangible result of our solidarity, which increased our momentum."

Despite mounting evidence of mismanagement and the dramatic increase in complaints from workers at the store, neither the board of directors nor union officials were much help in the fight to win health care. Instead, they insisted until the end that the co-op--which does roughly $10 million in business annually--couldn't afford the increases in health care and wages.

In a store that specializes in expensive health food, many workers couldn't afford health care for themselves or their families. The management, the board and even union higher-ups seemed to ignore this glaring contradiction.

The general manager paid a labor consultant to "keep labor costs low." But the collective action of workers won the backing of the union--and a contract that made it all worth it.

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New York City firefighters

By Lee Wengraf

NEW YORK--Thousands of New York City firefighters rallied in Central Park October 11 for a new contract with decent wages.

The city has offered a paltry 11.5 percent raise over two-and-a-half years to members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA), who are now entering their 28th month of working without a contract.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg pays lip service to the heroism of the 343 firefighters who died on September 11, but he pleads poverty when it comes to paying them a living wage. "They come to our funerals, they tell us we're heroes, they tell the widows they're heroes," said UFA President Stephen Cassidy. "But you know what? You have to pay us a wage so we can stay home with our families."

Thousands of firefighters came from across the country in a show of solidarity with UFA members in Central Park and for a memorial service October 12 at Madison Square Garden. "They're the best fire department in the country, but they're the lowest paid," Todd Stevens, past president of Local 1381 of the International Association of Firefighters from Clinton Township, Mich., told Socialist Worker. "They get so many thanks, but that doesn't pay the mortgage. It's a shame they have to struggle so hard."

"We need to support our brothers and those that were lost on 9-11," said Ernie Rhodes from Local 2665 in St. Louis, Mo., who came to New York City to help with the clean-up at the World Trade Center last year.

Union officials hoped to hold the rally in high-profile Times Square, but Bloomberg forced them into a hidden corner of Central Park instead. Bloomberg wants to keep the public in the dark about the battle that union members are up against.

But solidarity between unions will be key this fall as transit workers, day-care workers and other unions face off with the city.

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Los Angeles teachers

By Karl Swinehart

LOS ANGELES--Members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted on a contract agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at the end of September. By a vote of 80 percent, the membership approved a contract that includes a 3 percent raise for the 2002-03 school year. Unfortunately, no retroactive raise was negotiated for the 2001-2002 school year--effectively leaving UTLA's members with a pay cut for last year.

The "no" vote had more support among teachers in East and South LA, but the contract was approved in all parts of the district, after union leadership argued that 3 percent was a generous offer in difficult economic times.

After raising class sizes and giving teachers added duties, this contract is an insult. Just two years ago, the district gave administrators outrageous 40 percent pay increases during a "reorganization." LAUSD administrators are some of the best paid in the nation and the district is notoriously mismanaged.

After slashing programs and increasing class sizes during the summer, the district "found" $300 million in late August that it had "overlooked." But under this contract, that money won't be going to pay teachers a decent wage.

In the spring, UTLA begins negotiations on not just salary but also classroom and quality-of-life issues. Next time around, teachers can't be fed the line that there is not enough money.

Until the district stops its lavish spending on new offices instead of classrooms and schools, we can't accept that there's no money. We need to start building the fight to make quality public education a priority.

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