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On the picket line

January 16, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11

Tyson Foods
Austin, Texas, bus drivers
Oyster Bar

Southern California grocery workers
By Karl Swinehart

LOS ANGELES--As unions in LA gear up for a big rally for grocery workers January 31, the striking and locked-out workers are finding the going increasingly tough. After four months, the 70,000 grocery clerks, baggers and meat cutters remain locked out and on strike against the nation's three largest grocery chains across Southern California.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) cut strike pay for workers just before Christmas. Only one local, the 3,800-member Local 1442 in Santa Monica, maintained full strike benefits after taking a loan out on the union building.

LA's big Local 770 cut daily strike pay from $40 to $25 per 6-hour shift of picket duty. The Los Angeles Times reported that another LA-area local, San Bernardino-based Local 1167, cut pay from $300 per week to $150. What's more, medical benefits for the striking employees ended January 1.

The struggle began October 11 when the UFCW went on strike against Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Pavilion stores. Kroger Co.'s Ralphs chain and Albertsons locked out the union the next day. The companies aim to cut employee pensions, impose a two-tier wage system and to drastically reduce employee health care benefits.

The strike has had tremendous community and labor support. Yet the UFCW pulled picket lines from Ralphs in October--even though the companies are sharing profits.

The high point of labor solidarity came when the Teamsters honored UFCW picket lines at distribution centers before Thanksgiving. But the Teamsters apparently pressured the UFCW into pulling the pickets in December--except at one center where UFCW strikers rebelled and maintained pickets.

As Socialist Worker went to press, some 200 workers had signed a petition initiated by rank-and-file members calling on UFCW 770 leaders to resume picket lines at Ralphs, have more open communication, involve stewards in negotiations and take action against scabs as part of the settlement.

Thousands of union members from across Southern California will rally January 31 at the Forum in Inglewood. If UFCW leaders don't shift from their strategy of retreat, this rally will be a crucial place for rank-and-file activists to organize to turn things around.

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Tyson Foods
By Marshall Braun

JEFFERSON, Wis.--After nearly a year on the picket line, strikers at the Tyson meatpacking plant here once again voted overwhelmingly to reject a union-busting contract proposal. Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538, voted January 11 to reject management's offer by a total of 242 to 74.

About 470 workers at a Tyson's red meat processing plant in this town of 7,000 have been on strike since February 28, 2003. Tyson Foods Inc. bought over 300 meat packaging plants, including the Jefferson plant, from IBP in September 2001 to become the largest meat-producing corporation in North America.

The company originally offered Jefferson employees substantially lower wages and benefits, and negotiations broke down when the company refused to budge. Tyson's demands included a $2 wage cut for new hires, a $2 cut in potential maximum pay, a pension freeze, a 50 percent reduction in sick pay, and substantially higher employee health care payments for less coverage.

After a rumor of a possible union decertification vote by the scab workers and Tyson's apparent willingness to negotiate, a meeting was set up between the union and the company. Talks took place December 18 and 19 in Chicago, far from the watchful eyes of the strikers.

Union officials reported progress, and further talks were set for January 10. Yet at these negotiations, Tyson offered a contract that included the original deplorable terms for four years instead of three.

This time, management added stipulations to keep the scab workers in the plant and bring back strikers only as needed; clauses that restrict the speech of the workers--such as not being able to harass scabs--and new drug testing. Tyson showed its true colors by finally coming to the table after 10 months--during the holidays, when the workers are most financially vulnerable--and offering them a horrendous contract.

The Jefferson site is the first major contract of the former IBP plants to be negotiated, and Tyson is trying to set a precedent by offering unlivable wages and minimal benefits. The workers in Jefferson and other Tyson plants need to realize their true power, which is to slow or stop production all together. Only then will Tyson bargain in good faith.

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Austin, Texas, bus drivers
By Dana Cloud

AUSTIN, Texas-- About 40 unionized bus drivers met here December 16 to kick off a campaign for a just contract for University of Texas (UT) shuttle bus drivers. The approximately 200 shuttle bus drivers and mechanics at the University of Texas have been working for two years under a continual extension of a contract that was to expire in 2001.

"This stalemate has gone on for over two years, during which time the company has made changes to health care, absenteeism rules, discipline and other areas of the contract," explained union member Glenn Gaven.

A majority of the drivers belong to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549. The union is beginning a campaign to put pressure on the university, the Capital Metro transit system and ATC, the subcontractor that oversees the UT drivers.

ATC is affiliated with the London-based multinational corporation National Express Group. Senior drivers have had no raises for three years and earn, on average, $13 per hour--even as health care costs have increased.

Attendees at the December 16 organizing meeting--which included supporters from campus groups--stressed the need to stand up to the company. Union members recounted stories of ATC forcing workers to drive long hours without adequate bathroom breaks and pressuring sick drivers to work.

According to union member Robert Mancuso, Austin's Capital Metro has increased payments to ATC by 14 percent this year and gave the subcontractor a two-year extension on its contract. "But shuttle drivers earn significantly less in pay and benefits than the other drivers in the Capital Metro system because of the subcontracting relationship with ATC, the lowest bidder," Mancuso said. "UT drivers have no pension, paid sick days, or paid vacation; Capital Metro drivers have all of these things. If you include all of that, their top drivers are making $10 to $12 more an hour."

Mechanics in the UT service also are underpaid relative to their transit authority counterparts. "We're really fighting a three-headed hydra." Mancuso said. "UT doesn't care about us, Capital Metro doesn't care about us, and ATC doesn't care about us."

The union is planning an informational picket at the transit authority board January 26 alongside education campaigns among drivers and students. They're also planning a rally on campus in February.

"We've been hit hard," said driver Charles Barnes. "There's been too much lip talking and not enough action. If we stand together, we can get anything we want."

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Oyster Bar
By Sarah Hines and Peter LoRe

NEW YORK--Strikers at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in Manhattan braved single-digit temperatures in early January to maintain their picket lines in their six-week fight to defend their health care and wages. While the other 24 restaurants in Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100 all settled, Oyster Bar workers say that they have been hindered by post-September 11 rules limit pickets inside the terminal to just eight.

Some 72 Oyster Bar workers are on strike, while 22 are scabbing along with a set of replacements hired by management. The strikers, many of whom have worked at the restaurant for over a decade, are living on strike benefits of $200 a week. Picket captain Aurelio Acebo, a waiter for 18 years, said, "I'm out on strike because of 18 years working, they're trying to take away my wages, my pension, and my health care."

The company is demanding wage cuts for some positions, no health care or pensions for new part-time hires, renegotiations of pensions every 90 days and an end to daily overtime pay. Despite the challenges, the union has been able to reduce the restaurant's business at least 50 percent.

"The restaurant does not mind losing this money now, because they are thinking about the long-term," one striker told Socialist Worker. "But we are not going to give up."

To contribute to the strike fund, please mail a check or money order to HERE Local 100, Oyster Bar Holiday Strike Fund, 321 West 44th Street, New York, NY, 10036.

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