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On the picket line

May 7, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11

Columbia University
University of Chicago Hospital
May Day

By Lee Sustar

THE FUTURE of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at Caterpillar is hanging in the balance after 8,000 workers voted to reject a proposed six-year contract with massive concessions--the latest in a series of givebacks by top union officials.

It's not surprising that workers voted down the deal. It introduces monthly health insurance premiums for the first time--from $21 for individuals and $66 for families. Retirees would pay $60 for individuals and $120 month for family coverage.

Management tried to buy votes for the deal with a $3,000 signing bonus. But base wages--which are the foundation for future raises and benefits--would only increase at the level of the cost of living. This is an insult--especially considering the fact that Cat bagged $412 million in profits in the first quarter of this year.

Shamefully, UAW officials refused to provide any information on the agreement before union members voted on the proposal April 25. UAW leaders didn't recommend approval of the deal, but didn't call for a rejection either.

That's because they're worried about angering rank-and-file workers, who are still bitter at top UAW officials for cutting off strike benefits to force a return to work in a 1995 strike. But retreating now will only make it more difficult to resist Cat's attacks in the future.

With employers like this, there's no avoiding the battle. It will be up to the rank and file at Cat to draw the line.

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Columbia University
By Laura Durkay

NEW YORK--Graduate student teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) entered the third week of a strike for union recognition at Columbia University. Columbia's 1,900 grad student employees walked off the job April 19 after repeated attempts by the university to prevent unionization. Columbia's grad students have been trying to unionize with Graduate Student Employees United/UAW Local 2110 for more than two years.

When AFL-CIO president John Sweeney addressed an April 28 rally of 1,000, it fired up strikers and their supporters. "We'll fight beside you as long as it takes to bring Columbia to justice," Sweeney said. City Council member Christine Quinn and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199 executive vice president Betty Hughly also spoke.

Grad student activists also picketed a university-sponsored lecture on the 1968 student strike at Columbia--an event that has been co-opted as part of Columbia's year-long 250th anniversary celebration and that organizers refused to move off campus to show solidarity. When one student tried to speak about the current strike during the discussion, he was quickly cut off by leftist history professor Eric Foner, who was moderating the event.

With final exams approaching, at least two professors with large lecture classes have canceled their exams in solidarity with the strike. But the university has raised the prospect of hiring scab labor to grade the thousands of papers and finals that grad students normally evaluate.

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University of Chicago Hospital
By Eric Ruder

CHICAGO--About 30 people came to hear nurses from the University of Chicago Hospital talk about their struggle for a decent contract. The event--organized by Students Organized and United with Labor--was designed to build solidarity for a possible nurses' strike.

The contract for the hospital's 1,500 nurses expired last September 30, and since then the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) and the hospital have been negotiating. On April 7, nurses voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike after rejecting the hospital's last contract offer by a similar margin--the first time in the INA's history at University of Chicago that they've taken a strike vote.

"The university slapped us around, sent letters home, saying they were 'disappointed' in the vote," said Linda Jennings, a nurse with 27 years at the hospital who serves on the bargaining team. "Their parental approach is insulting."

The main issues are health care and wages. In the last three years, health care costs for nurses have increased by a whopping 33 percent. Nurse Judy Lucker-Mierzwa explained at the forum how she must pay $9,600 a year for health care coverage for her and her husband.

The INA, along with other unions at the hospital, is fighting for the reinstatement of 52 workers who were fired for parking violations. So far, only a handful have had their terminations reversed. Solidarity between the INA and other hospital unions will be critical in the fight for a good contract as well as winning reinstatement for the wrongfully fired workers.

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May Day
By Jorge Torres

SEATTLE--About 200 people showed up to rally for immigrant rights on May Day. Among the issues addressed were living wages and health care for all, stopping the attacks on workers and a general amnesty for all immigrants.

At the same time a mile away, right-wing bigot James Dobson of Focus on the Family held a rally against gay marriage. Two activists at the May Day rally linked the attacks on immigrant rights to the attack on gay marriage, making it clear that the forces that oppose gay marriage are the same ones against equal rights for immigrants and workers.

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