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On the picket line

December 5, 2003 | Pages 10 and 11

University of California graduate student employees
National Writers Union elections
Madison, Wis., minimum wage

Sterling Cleaners
By Josh Brand

WASHINGTON--For 11 weeks, 110 workers at Sterling Cleaners and Textile Services in have been striking to win union recognition. Showing up as early as 6 a.m., six days a week, they have proven their resolve in the fight.

Evelyn, an African American woman with more than 10 years at Sterling, told Socialist Worker that promises of good benefits and retirement pensions have been broken. Wages have been stagnant as the cost of living continues to rise--and Sterling just keeps on squeezing even as workers reach their breaking point.

Unlike the victory a year ago at Linens of the Week, another D.C. laundry, the effort here has been more difficult. Some workers, including some who were recently laid off, have been crossing the picket line.

Scabbing workers say that they can't afford to lose wages by joining the strike. But, as Evelyn explained, that's why "we need to make it better" by winning a union.

Another reason for the protracted battle is that Skip Jacobson, the owner, refuses to give in, despite already losing millions of dollars in contracts. When workers picketed his home, Jacobson came outside and "[welcomed] the Mexicans for coming to clean his house," according to Victor Caraballo, a lead organizer with UNITE. This pompous racist has also used this garbage to try to divide workers inside Sterling--but with little success.

So far, workers have mainly used "flying" pickets--that is, following delivery trucks and then setting up picket lines outside the destination. And they've had success getting the public to refuse to use a Sterling service--for example, getting guests at a hotel serviced by Sterling to take their dry cleaning elsewhere. With increasing solidarity, the Sterling workers can show their racist boss who's really in charge.

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University of California graduate student employees
By Sid Patel, UAW/AGSE Local 2865, and Martin Smith, CUE Local 10

BERKELEY, Calif.--Graduate student employees were preparing to strike at all eight University of California (UC) campuses up and down the coast to protest unfair labor practices by administrators. The United Auto Workers/Association of Graduate Student Employees (UAW/AGSE) Local 2865, which represents some 11,000 graduate student instructors, readers and tutors, has been locked in contract negotiations with UC for several months.

Just before Thanksgiving, members voted to authorize a strike that could begin as soon as the first week in December. The issue at the center of this strike threat is UC's refusal to allow UAW members the right to engage in sympathy strikes--to honor the picket lines of other unions.

In the fall of 2002, Local 2865 supported striking UC clerical workers in the Coalition of University Employees (CUE). And now UC is out to prevent the same kind of solidarity from happening again.

But union members say they won't be pushed back. Other campus unions have pledged support for the graduate student strike, including CUE, the California Nurses Association and the University Professional and Technical Employees. Other campus unions sent letters of support and wrote a joint editorial to school newspapers.

Budget cuts proposed last month week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of more $34 million from UC in the coming months could means the pink slips for hundreds of UC employees. Now's the time to build the kind of solidarity that can beat back Schwarzenegger's budget ax.

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National Writers Union elections
By Lee Sustar, NWU Alternate Delegate

THE WORKING 4 Writers slate is the choice in the National Writers Union (NWU) elections that will conclude in December. Led by presidential candidate Gerard Colby, author of highly regarded books on the DuPonts and Rockefellers and president of the Champlain Valley Labor Council in Vermont, the Working 4 Writers has a program to overcome the crisis in the union.

The NWU, which represents freelance writers, has lost 1,500 members over the past two years alone. The key issues were over a disputed election involving former President Jonathan Tasini, as well as Tasini's lack of accountability for following the collapse of the union's fraudulent insurance provider in 2001.

Tasini resigned earlier this year, opening the way for his ally on the executive board, Marybeth Menaker, to take over. A former dissident in the United Auto Workers (UAW), the NWU's parent union, Menaker has the backing of top UAW leaders.

At the NWU Delegates Assembly in September, UAW officials helped Menaker ram through votes to strip locals of power and nearly double dues--none of which was put to a vote by NWU members. Menaker and her allies favor the bureaucratic approach that's all too familiar in the labor movement--a union in which top officers call the shots on corporate campaigns and legislative lobbying, with members simply bystanders.

Working 4 Writers, by contrast, wants to put decision-making into the hands of the locals and rebuilding the union services that matters to working writers. This includes grievance training to help writers negotiate with publishers, the agents' database for book authors and libel insurance.

NWU members should vote for Colby and the Working 4 Writers slate as first step in rebuilding our union.

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Madison, Wis., minimum wage
By Katie Ray

MADISON, Wis.--November 21 marked the official deadline of a petition drive to raise the minimum wage for workers in the city of Madison, with volunteers exceeding the necessary 12,853 signatures needed to get the proposal on the April ballot as a referendum. The campaign began in September when University of Wisconsin-Madison students unveiled a campaign to pass a charter ordinance to set a city-wide minimum wage at $7.75 an hour, with $3.88 an hour for tipped workers. If enacted, the proposal stipulated that the minimum wage be indexed to inflation.

Volunteers stood on street corners, rode buses, knocked on doors and went through student dorms every day to get the required signatures. Weeks into the campaign Mayor Cieslewicz revealed his own proposal, which ended up shifting support away from the orignial proposal.

But the mayor's proposal will go through city committees and be voted on by the city council rather than be voted on as a referendum. To the disappointment of many activists, leaders of the petition drive announced on the day of the deadline that they would not officially submit the signatures to the city--giving their support to the mayor's proposal instead.

Nevertheless, city residents and student volunteers widely regard the campaign as a success for bringing the issue to the attention of the public. If the City Council does not approve the measure by June 1, or if any damaging concessions are made, activists plan to start over with a new petition drive next summer.

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