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On the picket line

December 12, 2003 | Pages 14 and 15

Congress Hotel
Montpelier, Vt., union drive
Metropolitan Transit Authority
Teamsters Local 705 election

Oyster Bar

NEW YORK--More than 100 employees of the upscale Oyster Bar restaurant walked off the job December 5 and held a picket in blizzard conditions outside of Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. Patrons were left annoyed and disgusted at the service they received as scabs and management tried to keep things running.

The strike was sparked by Oyster Bar management's demand for a pay cut and for new hires to pay $1,600 in annual health care premiums. Management's offer would reduce a dishwasher's pay from an already absurd $8 an hour to $7 an hour.

Jean Massillon is a dishwasher making $8 an hour even after nine years on the job. "Their offer is so unfair," Massillon told the New York Times. "It's extremely hard to support a family on $8 an hour, and now they want to cut dishwashers' wages and have new people pay $30 a week for health insurance."

This is the latest and toughest fight for Local 100, which just beat back city restaurant owners with two recent strikes at the restaurants "21" and La Caravelle. So far, 17 of 25 restaurants have settled since their contracts expired on October 31, 2003.

In addition to the issue of health care, workers are fighting to defend their hard-won union rights. "This fight is about getting rid of the union," said Michael Slater, a shop steward at "21." Now's the time to draw the line against their offensive.

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Congress Hotel
By Lauren Fleer

CHICAGO--Cooks, bartenders, bellhops, and housekeepers at the Congress Hotel are still out on strike six months after they walked off the job to protest management's 7 percent wage cut and effective elimination of health benefits. Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 1, which represents the striking workers, has seen several developments in the last two months, but no negotiaions with management have taken place since the June walkout.

In October, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed an Unfair Labor Practices complaint against the hotel, saying hotel management violated labor laws by prematurely declaring an impasse in negotiations and by refusing to provide financial information to support the wage cut. The NLRB complaint also alleged that management unfairly threatened workers with disciplinary action.

Sentiment on the picket line is divided, however. One striking worker told Socialist Worker, "We might be out here for six more months, but I worked in the hotel for twenty-five years--I can certainly last for one year out here!"

Another, however, said, "Honestly, I don't see how we are going to win. We keep marching and marching, but the customers don't care, and the hotel doesn't care."

This strike could have been won months ago. Crucially, members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 399 lived inside the hotel to avoid crossing the picket line--and kept doing so even after their own contract with the Congress expired. Because Chicago fire code regulations require that building engineers be on site for city hotels to keep their doors open, solidarity from the IUOE could have won the strike.

Many strikers are hopefully looking forward to NLRB hearings scheduled for February. But the time to step up the pressure is now--by organizing in the Chicago labor movement for real solidarity from the IUOE.

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Montpelier, Vt., union drive
By Keith Rosenthal

MONTPELIER, Vt.--The citywide union drive here is heating up. Workers in the downtown Montpelier area started organizing with the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) this past July and have already successfully organized in several workplaces.

Although a gamble, the drive to unionize workers in a multitude of different downtown workplaces under one union has so far been surprisingly effective. Clerks at the M&M Bottle Redemption Center, servers at La Pizzeria, clerks at the Savoy movie theater and others have come out in support of a citywide union.

But the management at various workplaces is fighting tooth-and-nail against the union. Take Fred Bashara, for example, the owner of J. Morgan's Steakhouse. Management has stalked pro-union workers, set up surveillance cameras in the kitchen, held illegal captive-audience meetings and fired pro-union workers.

To show solidarity with workers facing Bashara's hardball tactics, 200 downtown workers and supporters held a rally in front of J. Morgan's, chanting "What's disgusting? Union busting! What's outrageous? Sweatshop wages!"

The workers throughout Montpelier face a tough fight in the months to come, but spirits are high and momentum is with them. "We face a really tough road, but you'll never receive change unless you stand up for it," said Jesse Rosado, a line cook at J. Morgan's.

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Metropolitan Transit Authority
By Andrew Jagunich

NEW YORK--The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has targeted four bus drivers for wearing a khimar, a kind of traditional Muslim headdress. The MTA took the women off their routes, claiming that they had violated dress code.

The drivers have been transferred to administrative and maintenance duties--but their jobs have only become more difficult. "I have been subjected to daily harassment from MTA supervisors," one of the women, Malikah Alkebulan, said at a November 23 press conference.

The MTA had asked the drivers to wear baseball caps with the MTA logo over their headscarves. But in May, two drivers filed an anti-discrimination suit that says that male drivers are allowed to wear headdresses without being punished for it. "There is a feeling out there that women are easier to intimidate," said Armani Scott, one of the lawyers representing the drivers, at the press conference. "They picked the wrong women."

The lawyers also said that the MTA's suspension is part of an anti-Muslim backlash since the September 11 attacks. "The MTA's position that our clients wear baseball hats to cover their khimars is not only an affront to Islam but has no legal or moral basis," attorney Lonnie Hart Jr. told reporters. "The MTA has failed to cite any legitimate reason for their discriminatory practice."

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) has vowed to support the drivers in their struggle against the MTA. "We stand with these Muslim women fully," said Ed Watt, TWU's financial secretary-treasurer. "We're going to convene all of the religious groups to form a coalition to fight this."

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Teamsters Local 705 election
By Joe Allen, Steward, Teamsters Local 705

CHICAGO--Teamsters Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Jerry Zero was decisively defeated for re-election in a bitterly hard-fought election against former business agent and United Parcel Service (UPS) driver Steve Pocztowski. The Pocztowski slate garnered nearly 3,500 votes to 2,500 votes for Zero's backers in an election characterized by nasty accusations and personal attacks by both sides.

Zero was a leading figure in the reform movement in the Teamsters, but stunned longstanding supporters by his endorsement in 2001 of Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, a leader of the anti-reform forces in the union. Over the past year, Zero--who was principal officer at the local for a decade--attempted recoup his image among progressive activists through his opposition to the war and occupation in Iraq.

However, the union has declined in strength in the face of the bosses over last three years--particularly at United Parcel Service. However, Pocztowski's slate is an eclectic collection of former Hoffa supporters, ex-business agents and a few reformers, who are unlikely to bring a coherent leadership to the local union.

Pocztowski himself played little to no role in the local union since his defeat three years ago in the last union election. However, the defeat of Zero shows clearly that members are fed up with the status quo and want a stronger, fighting union. The future of reform in Teamsters 705 will depend on building a rank-and-file caucus committed to giving power to the membership and fighting the bosses.

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