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On the picket line

March 21, 2003 | Pages 10 and 11

Yale University
Wisconsin state workers
New York City firefighters
BTU Against War

Broadway musicians

By Michael Ware

NEW YORK--After a powerful four-day strike that shut down 17 Broadway shows, Mayor Michael Bloomberg intervened in stalled negotiations to pressure the musicians' union to accept a concessionary agreement. The mayor clearly acted on behalf of the League of American Theaters and Producers and theater-related businesses who were losing millions during the walkout.

The agreement calls for a 25 percent reduction in "minimums"--the minimum number of unionized musicians that theaters must hire for each show. The 325 members of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 will be voting on the offer within the week.

Broadway producers originally demanded the total elimination of minimums and prepared recorded music to break a strike. And they expected stage crews in the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 1 and cast members in Actors Equity, the performers' union, to cross picket lines.

But that arrogant miscalculation cost them $64.8 million in lost revenue when the crew and cast honored picket lines, bringing Broadway to a dramatic halt. The power of solidarity was on full display. The producers bickered. The musicians seemed poised for a complete victory.

Then the mayor stepped in. Suddenly, the producers emerged victorious from an all-night negotiating session with a 25 percent reduction in minimums--meaning that Broadway's largest theaters would only need to hire 18 or 19 instead of 24 to 26 musicians.

Although Local 802's leadership expressed disappointment with the agreement, they claimed that they had a responsibility to IATSE and Equity--as well as to the cash-strapped city--to settle quickly.

The union, not the producers, were made to feel responsible for the loss of business. The union leadership seems to have accommodated to this logic. And because the producers' initially demanded zero minimums, they appeared "flexible" by "moderating" their demands while the "inflexible" union was defending already low minimums. The minimums would be in place for 10 years while the contract would last four years with 2.75 percent raises each year.

The union leadership never should have agreed to bargain under pressure from the mayor. They had broad public support and could have stayed out for another expensive weekend. But now that they have returned to work, calling on the other unions for a second strike will be difficult.

Rumblings from the rank and file prompted the union to post pro-ratification letters on its Web site, filled with the usual "things could be much worse" justifications. But there is nothing inevitable about recorded music taking over Broadway.

The strike showed the tremendous power of solidarity to enforce workers' demands and protect jobs. That power was compromised from above. A revolt from below to reject the current offer is the only thing that will save jobs and help rebuild militancy within a labor movement under attack by a billionaire mayor.

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Yale University

By Naveen Jaganathan

NEW HAVEN, Conn.--Yale workers and their four unions made history two weeks ago by organizing one of the biggest job actions in the history of any university. As a follow-up to the strike, about 500 people gathered outside Yale President Richard Levin's office to demand Levin sign contracts with the unions.

Rank-and-file members belonging to Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Locals 34 and 35, GESO and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 addressed a spirited crowd.

"I'm not afraid to fight for what is right and for justice," Nadine Moore, a custodial worker with HERE Local 35, said to the crowd. "They have to listen to us now that we are on the streets," a member of SEIU Local 1199 told the cheering crowd. "We are the people, and they have to listen to us."

The unions presented a photocopied petition, signed by 760 hospital workers, which reads, "We're standing together," to demand Yale provide "affordable health care for our kids… [and] a fair process for unionization."

"Our contracts are a longtime coming," Anthony Stewart, a member of HERE Local 35, told Socialist Worker. "We are underpaid by an institution that is sitting on an $11 billion endowment that we helped to create…All we are asking is Yale give back less than 1 percent of that to our community."

Members of HERE Local 34 were organizing a petition against some New Haven clergy who wrote an open letter to the union opposing last week's strike. "I can't believe my pastor signed this thing," said one HERE Local 34 member angrily. "We need to stand together as a community."

In the coming weeks, Yale unions have promised to go on strike again unless Levin signs the contracts. "When we strike again, it'll be clear to Yale we are not giving up the fight," one union organizer said at the rally. Given the history of the Yale administration, many Yale workers are concluding that they can't win without a struggle in the streets.

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Wisconsin state workers

By Mike Imbrogno, steward, AFSCME 171

MADISON, Wis.--Hundreds of state workers rallied here March 13 to demand that the legislature stop stalling. Workers are furious that legislators have yet to approve the contracts that cover 31,000 workers in the state of Wisconsin.

Chanting "A deal is a deal" and "They say cut back, we say fight back," the rally moved into the Capitol building. State lawmakers--who were in session--began looking over their shoulders as the rage of state workers became audible in their chambers. In fact, one pro-labor legislator came down to the rally and urged the state unions to go on strike!

We have been working under contract extensions since our last contract expired June 30, 2001, and the level of anger is very high. Yet statewide union leaders have been almost invisible in recent weeks. They have essentially abdicated their leadership role and told locals that they are on their own.

The only action that the state leadership has called for is a daily vigil in the Capitol building until the contract is settled. But the workers who need this contract think that more confrontational tactics are necessary.

As a result of the leadership vacuum, locals have been holding planning meetings with workers from various locals and even other unions to plan actions so that together we can have a stronger impact.

The group that planned the March 13 rally drew 70 activists and representatives from the Madison area for its first meeting. We need to continue to organize from the ground up to keep the heat on the legislature to get our fair share.

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New York City firefighters

By Kurt T. Hill

NEW YORK--"No cutbacks! No way! Fire cuts kill!" These spirited chants rang out as more than 300 community members rallied March 9 to save Engine Company 212 from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget axe.

Engine Company 212 is one of five Brooklyn firehouses slated to be closed by Bloomberg. "More than two months ago, in consultation with the City Council, Mayor Bloomberg agreed to create a 'blue-ribbon' commission on firehouses to come up with alternatives to closing nine fire companies, including Northside Williamsburg's own Engine Company 212," said Daniel Rivera, executive director of the People's Firehouse Inc., a firefighter advocacy organization. "This bogus 'blue-ribbon' commission recently okayed the mayor's plan to close the nine firehouses by April!"

In addition to closing firehouses, nearly 40 percent of New York City's fire marshals were eliminated last month--significantly weakening the Bureau of Fire Investigation. The mayor is also proposing to eliminate the city's street alarm call boxes and the professional fire dispatchers and replace them with the over-taxed 911 emergency system.

"This is a matter of saving lives," said Rivera. "We have experienced organizers and activists who are going to mobilize massive, nonviolent opposition to these closings."

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BTU Against War

By Mitch Day, BTU Local 6

BOSTON--At its March 12 general membership meeting, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) voted to endorse a resolution against war on Iraq written by seven city councilors. The resolution was proposed by members of BTU Against War, a group of BTU members formed a week ago following a Boston labor antiwar teach-in.

Despite BTU's conservative history when it comes to national issues, the antiwar resolution passed with no debate. During the same meeting, the union voted to affirm the right of free speech for teachers in the classroom. The vote followed a teacher's recounting of how her principal ordered her to remove her antiwar and anti-standardized testing posters from her classroom wall.

Following the meeting, around 40 members signed up to participate in BTU Against War. The antiwar resolution comes at a time when Boston schools are being slammed with budget cuts--while the military budget gets ever more bloated.

The School Committee has already come forward with a list of proposals seeking to exploit the budget crisis--including layoffs, loss of pay and an increased workday. And Gov. Mitt Romney is proposing to eliminate bargaining rights over seniority and to contract out teaching jobs to nonunion teachers. With contract negotiations coming up this June, the fight is on at BTU.

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