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On the picket line

October 3, 2003 | Page 11

National Writers Union
Congress Hotel
University of Maryland-College Park

New York City teachers
By Megan Behrent

NEW YORK--United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Randi Weingarten is proposing a disastrous plan to do away with essential work rules in up to 100 city schools. Since the end of May, 80,000 teachers in New York City have been working without a contract. This latest proposed concession came one day before negotiations between the teachers union and the city were scheduled to begin.

The concession signaled a new low in the negotiations as Weingarten literally planned to hand over almost all the contractual provisions won over the years, proposing instead a model in which teachers would be forced to renegotiate these provisions with the administration in each individual school. While Weingarten's proposal extended only to a limited number of schools in the city, the schools' chancellor, Joel Klein, predictably responding by arguing that these work rules should be abolished citywide.

Meanwhile, newspapers such as the New York Daily News responded with glee at the idea that these measures, which protect teachers work conditions, might be abolished and allow more "flexibility." But work rules, far from preventing educational reform in New York City schools, protect both teachers and students.

The work rules under debate guarantee class sizes of no more than 34, prevent teachers from being forcefully assigned to lunch duty or hall monitoring (thus keeping them in the classroom), and prevent teachers from teaching four or five periods in a row. Many teachers were angered by this proposal--from their own union president--which was made without any prior consultation or approval of the Delegate Assembly or rank and filers.

To offer massive concessions before negotiations even begin is a bankrupt strategy, which can only result in a disastrous contract. This was made clear only a few days when Mayor Bloomberg spoke to city labor officials, announcing that he would provide no raises to city unions without concessions around work productivity measures.

We need rank-and-file organization to demand an end to concessions and to fight for a contract that provides real raises, smaller class sizes and better work conditions. And we need to demand that Weingarten's proposal be publicly withdrawn.

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National Writers Union
By Lee Sustar, NWU/UAW Local 1981

WITH A series of constitutional and bylaws changes at last month's Delegate Assembly, the National Writers Union (NWU) was brought into line by the leadership of its parent union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), which the NWU affiliated to a decade ago. This completes the NWU's transformation into just another one of the declining bureaucratic machines that characterize the labor movement today.

The majority of the delegates, loyal to NWU President Marybeth Menaker, voted in new bylaws and constitutional changes that consolidated power in its national office. These measures included the elimination of local chapter control of their treasuries and moving the delegates' meetings to once every two years instead of annually.

Gary Bryner, an assistant to UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, told delegates that they could not, under the UAW constitution, vote to submit the constitutional and bylaws changes to a binding vote of the membership--even though the UAW had never before made such rulings. As a result, NWU members will have no say as their dues are hiked from a minimum of $95 per year to $160--to fund the new $64,000 salary for Menaker, as well as part-time salaries for other officers and other expenses.

The dues increase, along with the elimination in recent years of most union services--most importantly, health insurance for members outside New York--will almost certainly lead to a further loss in membership.

After peaking at more than 7,000 members in the late 1990s, the NWU has about 5,000 today and is losing more daily. At the same time, many longtime activists have announced plans to leave the union, having failed after years of efforts to prevent the centralization of power among a small circle.

If these members do withdraw or become inactive, the NWU could cease to function much beyond the efforts of the New York-based national staff and officers. That doesn't seem to trouble the leadership, however. Menaker and her allies have laid out a vision of a union run by a core of professionals rather than grassroots, rank-and-file efforts.

It's a model that's common throughout organized labor--and a big reason why union membership is on the decline and dissent is so often squelched. This model will be particularly harmful for the NWU.

As a union of freelancers, NWU membership is voluntary--and since its founding in 1981 by writer-activists and veterans of social movements, the NWU has always relied on the unpaid efforts of its members to help writers negotiate for jobs and get paid on time and in full. The NWU presidency was originally designed to be a half-time job for a working writer, with the day-to-day running of the union to be handled by an executive director.

Former NWU President Jonathan Tasini, who was president from 1990 until his resignation earlier this year, had won a delegate vote to get full-time pay in 1996, but delegates voted to cut his pay in half at the 2001 assembly. Tasini won re-election that year, but soon afterward faced a crisis on two fronts.

Just weeks after the election, union members in the Midwest and California found that their health insurance provider, Employers Mutual, were crooks who had been put out of business by federal and state regulators. Many members had made complaints about the company to Tasini before the election, but had been reassured that the situation was under control.

The second dispute turned on a UAW-funded video on the NWU that coincided with the election campaign, which opponents charged was undue interference in the election. An appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor on the dispute was sidetracked by a government ruling that the NWU doesn't constitute a union, since it doesn't represent traditional employees.

The dispute was handled inconclusively at the 2002 delegates' assembly, where Tasini and the main opposition group agreed to run an uncontested unity slate for the open seats on the National Executive Board. The deal quickly fell apart, with a pro-Tasini faction in the majority.

Tasini's successor as president, Marybeth Menaker, is a former autoworker at General Motor's Framingham, Mass., plant that was shut down in the 1990s. Along with longtime UAW dissident Elly Leary, Menaker once wrote about how the UAW used "a company-paid patronage army of yes-sayers who are used to maintain political control and crush shop-floor activism."

Today, Menaker is using the UAW model she once criticized to run the NWU. The opposition is debating what strategy to pursue in elections to the NWU's top positions, to be held in upcoming weeks. The outcome of those elections will determine the future of the union for years to come.

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Congress Hotel
By Lauren Fleer

CHICAGO--Nearly a month ago, 20 people were arrested in a civil disobedience action at the Congress Hotel picket line. Arrestees, including workers and officials from several unions, were collected by the Chicago Police Department after blocking the street in front of the hotel.

While the event succeeded in attracting media attention, several workers were left disappointed by the action. "They only stopped traffic for 30 seconds--one minute, maybe," one worker lamented. Another said: "This is just the same as usual. It won't do anything."

The workers--members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1--have been on strike since June and are still picketing 19 hours a day and trying to turn business away from the hotel. But it's not clear what the union's next step is.

No future events have been announced. Some on the picket line have wondered aloud, "How long will we be out here?" and "What are we going to do in the winter?"

The workers have shown truly admirable resolve and determination in continuing their daily pickets and vowing to fight "one day longer" than the bosses. At the same time, it's clear that more aggressive tactics are necessary to win.

To force the hotel into adopting the $10-an-hour wage agreed to by more than 20 Chicago hotels last year, greater solidarity will be needed. Other union workers--from the engineers still at work inside the Congress Hotel to the union delivery drivers citywide--must help force the hotel bosses to the negotiating table by refusing to cross HERE's picket line.

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University of Maryland-College Park
By Erik Pecukonis

ABOUT 100 students and workers at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), upped their protest campaign last Wednesday as they united to rally against layoffs and skyrocketing tuition costs. The protest--dubbed the Rally for Justice--took place amid the bustle of the UMCP First Look Fair and was organized by both AFSCME and Students and Workers Unite.

The rally began as a mock economics class in which Bryan Zidek, a campus worker and activist, outlined the various injustices taking their toll on both the UMCP workforce and student body. The "lesson" sought to explain why UMCP's financial crisis doesn't stop it from funding campus construction and salary raises for administrators.

Meanwhile, workers are without a contract, and tuition was hiked 21 percent this year with administrators holding out the prospect of another 11 percent jump. More specifically, the rally focused on University President Dan Mote and Maryland Regent Richard Hug, who have both played pivotal roles in the current budget chaos.

"Do you know what this number is?" asked Zidek, pointing to a large board with the number $358,000 scrawled on it. "This is Dan Mote's salary."

Then, Zidek drew a large zero on his white board. "This," he said, "is the percent raise in worker salaries."

After the economics lesson, the crowd moved to march and began chanting "No layoffs, no furloughs, no tuition hikes!" When protesters spotted Mote along the march route, the rally moved in his direction--sending him scurrying into the administration building.

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