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On the picket line

June 20, 2003 | Pages 10 and 11

Sacramento janitors
Seattle janitors
Los Angeles Unified School District
Washington, D.C., teachers
Chicago health care rally

General Electric

THE INTERNATIONAL Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America (IUE-CWA) Local 201 and General Electric reached a tentative national agreement June 15. Details of the four-year agreement weren't available as Socialist Worker went to press.

IUE-CWA officials were upbeat, but didn't proclaim total victory. "IUE-CWA has met its goals of safeguarding affordable health insurance and substantially increasing pensions for our members," said IUE-CWA President Edward Fire in a press release. Local union leaders were meeting June 18 to evaluate the agreement and vote on whether to send it to IUE-CWA's 14,000 GE workers for ratification.

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Sacramento janitors
By Steven Damewood

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--On June 13, janitors voted overwhelmingly to reject the latest contract offer from area building contractors and authorize a strike. The day before, negotiations broke down between building maintenance contractors and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, which represents more than 1,000 area janitors. Their contract expired at the end of May.

Most Sacramento-area janitors are paid just $7 an hour, the lowest wage for urban janitors in the state, and their families aren't covered by health care benefits. Many janitors make just over $1,000 a month in wages in a rental market where apartments easily exceed more than $500 a month.

Janitors want better wages but, above all, health benefits for their families. But the companies' latest offer doesn't measure up, with an annual 20-cent wage increase over the next four years, followed by a 45-cent increase in the fifth year. Only 18 percent of janitors would qualify for the benefits plan the company offered--but probably could not afford.

The Sacramento Bee reported that Jim Beard, a spokesman for the building maintenance contractors, called the offer "fair." Apparently, "fair" is for working parents to maintain multimillion-dollar downtown office buildings, but not their families' health.

Through strikes in recent years, janitors in San Diego and Los Angeles have won health care coverage for their families and wage increases to $9 and $10 an hour. Sacramento workers' strike vote shows that they are determined to win a living wage and a better life for their families.

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Seattle janitors
By Steve Leigh

SEATTLE--Nearly 200 janitors and supporters rallied downtown as part of national Justice for Janitors day. Seattle-area janitors, represented by Service Employees International Union Local Local 6, are going into tough contract negotiations. Building owners are pleading poverty and demanding cuts in health care. But it's janitors who should be pleading poverty.

Even janitors who have the most seniority only get $11.40 per hour, with new janitors receiving about $8. Decent health care is a make-or-break issue for this largely immigrant work force. As Local 6 President Sergio Salinas put it, "It is a crisis!"

"I'm here because of my son," said one protesting janitor, who is an immigrant from Eastern Europe said. "He is only 13 and has leukemia. Without our medical insurance, he would die. Without the health plan, his medicine would cost $7,000 a month."

Besides the contract for organized workers in Seattle, the union is trying to organize janitors in the suburbs to the east. Employers are firing workers who try to organize.

They're also imposing speed-ups--demanding that workers clean more floors than is possible in eight hours. Some workers are clocking out and then working up to three hours off the clock.

Supporters from other SEIU locals, the Teamsters, postal workers, government employees and Jobs with Justice were there in solidarity. The whole labor movement needs to come to support these workers!

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Los Angeles Unified School District
By Randy Childs, United Teachers Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES--More than 100 concerned parents, students and teachers crowded a town hall meeting June 7 at Venice High School in West LA to discuss the budget crisis in the district schools. Carole Dodd from the LA Unified School District's (LAUSD) administration, Marlene Cantor of the LA school board and State Assemblyman Paul Koretz used the forum to try to convince the audience that nothing could be done to stop the cuts.

Gov. Gray Davis has proposed $1.5 billion in cuts for education statewide, and LAUSD is being "forced to cut," in Cantor's words, $380 million. But the angry mood of the room and the impassioned testimonials of teachers, parents and students showed that they weren't satisfied with the excuses coming from the top.

Wendy Kornbeck, Venice High's choir director, told the audience about how she was nearly electrocuted while plugging in a space heater in her freezing cold classroom. "They should close the 'mini-district' offices," Kornbeck told Socialist Worker. "That's 330 administrators, and they all have laptops and new office furniture--and heat!" Meanwhile, she has to rely on fundraisers and private donors to get equipment for her students.

"We have to stop talking about the budget crisis as if it were some kind of natural disaster," said Gillian Russom, a teacher in East LA and a member of the ISO. "We know where the crisis came from. We know that Bush would rather have his military budget and tax cuts for his rich friends than fund our schools."

Bush and Davis are trying to make us pay for a budget crisis that they created with their upside-down priorities. But Davis was forced to back down from massive cuts to California's community colleges when students and faculty organized and fought back earlier this year. This proves that their vicious budget cuts are only inevitable if we let them get away with them!

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Washington, D.C., teachers
By Jeff Bale, Building Representative, WTU, AFT Local 6

WASHINGTON--More than 300 hundred angry teachers packed a special membership meeting of the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) June 9. The meeting, which was called to address the drastic budget cuts that the city and school board are trying to push through, voted for a mass rally to protest the attacks.

The most pressing issue was retroactive checks to cover a pay raise that's now three months past due. In addition, because of gross mismanagement and budget cuts from the city council, the school board is freezing step increases for 18 months.

Regular readers of Socialist Worker will recall the scandal and turmoil that has rocked our local this year. Much of the last few months have been plagued with in-fighting over the takeover by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) international union.

The school board has jumped on this opportunity to break our contract, making us work longer to make up for excessive snow days and reneging on basic contract provisions. While the school board has thrown down the gauntlet, the union is just starting to regain its footing.

Monday's meeting--organized by a reform committee of WTU activists who seized the initiative by putting pressure on our AFT trustee--was an excellent start. Best of all, instead of the nasty attacks among members and AFT officers that have derailed past meetings, a real debate came up on the floor.

One member rose to argue that the proposed after-work rally wouldn't mean anything to city leaders and that instead we should call in sick and go out at 9 a.m. This proposal was greeted with wild applause by the teachers in attendance, and it touched off a debate as to whether our local was strong enough to get the numbers to support what would be an illegal job action, according to city rules and our contract.

In the end, the after-school time won--and it was the right choice. This became clear at the building representatives meeting the next day to hash out the details of the rally.While the anger of the 300 rank and filers was unmistakable, the building rep meeting was marked by the demoralization of being the rank-and-file leadership of a struggling local.

The June 16 rally promises to be big and angry--and to offer an opportunity to overcome this demoralization. And best of all, it and the debate that led to it are part of the vital steps necessary both to rebuild our local and to give more confidence to the members that we can fight and win.

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Chicago health care rally
By Carole Ramsden

CHICAGO--More than 100 demonstrators rallied outside Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center June 17 to demand an end to price gouging of its patients. "Insure our health, not Advocate's wealth," they chanted. Most of the demonstrators had participated in an earlier town hall meeting on health care justice where they heard horror stories of Advocate's unfair billing practices and its insatiable greed.

A number of victims of Advocate's discriminatory pricing, like Jeniffer Farfan, joined labor activists and health care advocates at the demonstration. Advocate charged Farfan, a victim of a hit-and-run car accident, almost $16,000 for an overnight visit to the emergency room--after it found out that Farfan had no insurance.

The one-night charge is more than Farfan makes in one year! "It's time to make Advocate...stop making us prisoners of debt," she told the meeting.

The average self-pay charge Advocate demands is about $22,000 for uninsured patients, compared to $6,500 for the insured. And while Advocate is not the only hospital taking advantage of the poor or uninsured in Illinois, it's one of the worst.

Advocate is a faith-based, not-for-profit hospital chain that receives a 21 percent property tax break because of its not-for-profit status. County and city politicians have pledged to review Advocate's tax breaks in light of its predatory practices.

Many at the meeting argued that the health care system needs more fundamental change. Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program, summed in up this way: "This is the number one social justice issue in this nation."

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