On the picket line
August 1, 2003 | Pages 10 and 11
Washington D.C. teachers
WASHINGTON--Dozens of angry school workers packed a D.C. school board budget committee meeting on July 14 to testify against drastic budget cuts planned for the next school year. After firing more than 400 people in early July to balance this year's budget, D.C Public Schools' (DCPS) CEO and budget director coldly outlined another 10 percent cut.
At the top of the list for cuts are 9 percent pay raises that are due to teachers on October 1. This comes on top of annual step increases that the board has already frozen. Both steps are an open violation of teachers' contract with the board. Worse still, the planned cuts will mean further layoffs to a system already more than cut to the bone.
At the meeting, Teamsters representatives described how an indoor high school swimming pool came tumbling down--due to a drastic shortage in maintenance and custodial workers. In most school systems, one custodian is responsible for maintaining 20,000 square feet. In D.C., they're assigned to more than 38,000.
Teachers, support staff, parents and union officials lined up at the meeting to denounce the board's plans. The most powerful words were spoken by Mrs. Mary C. Penn-Beverney, who was awarded D.C.'s 2001 Teacher of the Year--and then fired, along with every other master teacher in the system.
Many teachers stressed the point that there's plenty of money in the city, but we'll have to fight to get it. The mayor found $300 million to build a new baseball stadium; D.C.'s top cop just got a $25,000 raise; and the city council recently approved tax cuts for businesses.
It's a matter of political priorities, not of a shell game of finding somewhere to cut. Teamsters Local 639 President John Catlett, who represents maintenance and custodial staff, argued, "They have $4.9 billion to occupy Iraq. They'd sure better be able to find money for our schools." Teachers, staff and parents must stay united to stop these budget cuts.
SEATTLE--Three hundred Bon Marché workers from United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 1001, 44 and 367 held a spirited protest on July 23. Federated Department Stores Inc., the parent company of Bon Marché, is proposing up to $4 per hour in wage cuts for new employees, raising employee health care costs by 50 percent and create a new pay scale that would make raises a thing of the past.
Federated, who also owns Bloomingdale's and Macy's, is pleading poverty. But, Federated CEO James Zimmerman raked in a cool $1,300 an hour last year--an hourly wage 162 times greater than what Bon Marché has proposed as the base rate in the new contract. Federated made $818 million in profits in 2002 and launched a $100 million "Reinvent" campaign to makeover its image.
"They think they can get away with it with such high unemployment," said one worker. "They think they can find lots of people willing to work for $8 an hour."
But UFCW workers are ready to fight back. On July 1, 99.5 percent of union members voted to reject Bon Marché's insulting contract and authorize a strike.
"When we voted for a strike, only five people in the whole company voted against it," said Jill Poche of UFCW Local 1001. Protesters surrounded Bon Marché's headquarters in Seattle, chanting "Shame, shame, Bon Marche! Retail workers need fair pay!"
CHICAGO--"The days of corrupt and bureaucratic leadership here are over!" This was steward Marco Antonio Quiroz's reaction after Members First, a rank-and-file reform movement inside the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 HC (which stands for Health Care), won an important victory July 9, electing Bryan Hobbes as the local's new president.
Hobbes ousted former President Pia Davis, who used to run the local as a business for her own benefit, using union dues to purchase luxury cars and hire close allies, including the president's own son. For years, it has been customary for the leadership to ignore its responsibilities to the local membership.
Pia Davis "was disrespectful to members in union meetings and showed no interest whatsoever in workers' issues," Quiroz told Socialist Worker. "There is a whole stockpile of unresolved formal complaints."
Under Davis, who was notorious for collaborating with employers, "the local even lacked a strike fund. And the contracts were so full of ambiguities that it made defending workers' rights almost impossible." With Davis gone, there's bound to be change.
For two years, Members First activists leafleted, petitioned and invited workers to join the union and their reform group. This work bore fruit during the local elections when 3,000 of the nearly 4,000 members spread across eight hospitals voted for a platform to end corruption, shift to a more militant union and establish a much-needed strike fund. Davis got a sad 500 votes.
"It was the workers who made the change," said Quiroz. "At first, people weren't sure about us, but our dedication and persistence paid off."
Now, the new leadership has a huge task--to preserve the trust that they've won by defending the rights of their members and involving more rank and filers in the day-to-day workings of the union. A new era begins.
BERKELEY, Calif.--Some 150 community members rallied July 20 in support of a union drive at the Berkeley Bowl. A card count at the independent grocery, which employs about 250 people, in May left workers two signatures short of the majority they needed to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 120.
Since then, management has fired a union organizer on trumped-up charges and hired union-busting law firm Jackson & Lewis. Organizers also accuse management of illegally questioning and intimidating workers, spreading anti-union propaganda, threatening layoffs and trying to bribe workers to tear up their union cards.
Berkeley Bowl workers say that, despite the store's progressive image, labor conditions behind the scenes are anything but liberal. Workers get paid less and receive fewer benefits than at area unionized grocery stores.
The Bowl's health plan requires employees to work full-time for six months before they are eligible. Union stores offer coverage after 60 days of part-time or full-time work. Workers are expected to work overtime, with many putting in over 60 hours per week.
Even management admits that raises, when given, are erratic and based on favoritism. Community members, including members of the Berkeley City Council, are supporting the union drive. At the July 20 rally, protesters held balloons that read "¡Union Si!" and "Berkeley is a union town!"
Brian Cruz contributed to this report.
SEATTLE--About 400 workers rallied here to defend affordable health care on July 9. In a bitter twist of irony, management at Group Health Cooperative--the nation's second-largest nonprofit health care firm--is demanding cuts in the health care plans they offer their workers!
The cuts are especially focused on low-paid workers such as janitors and nurses. Service Employee International Union Locals 6 and 1199 NW are negotiating together to resist these cuts.
Members of unions that represent Group Health workers, such as United Food and Commercial Workers and Office and Professional Employees, as well as Steve Williamson, head of the King County Labor Council, addressed the rally. Paula King, a member of the negotiating team, stressed the importance of rank-and-file mobilization. "Our power at the bargaining table comes from you," she told the crowd. "The bargaining team is nothing without you! All the unions have to stick together. If we lose affordable health care, other employers will join Group Health in a race to the bottom."
Union members echoed this sentiment. "United we stand, divided we fall," said James, a custodian at Group Health. "We have to stick together to make an impact. If we don't, they can break us one at a time--you can break one broom, but not a bundle tied together."
After hearing several solidarity statements, protesters marched to Group Health headquarters, where dozens of workers filed in to give their message to the Group Health board personally. Workers are determined to keep fighting for decent affordable health care from their health care employer.