On the picket line
May 28, 2004 | Pages 10 and 11
Service Employees International Union Local 2028
SAN DIEGO--Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2028, which represents 8,500 county, city, school and other workers, held its convention here May 15. The convention was the final event in the yearlong series of meetings called "Vision Organizing," which aimed to expand membership participation and restructure the union to accommodate a projected growth in members.
The leadership claimed to be initiating a process of "turning the pyramid upside-down" to create a local run by its members. But in reality, the convention was a tightly scripted farce designed to avoid discussion of the reasons for the utter failure to accomplish the stated goals.
One year ago, the "Vision Organizing Committee" set out to bring 2,000 members to the convention. In the last two months, the target was revised downward to 500.
In the end, about 200 people attended the convention, whose proceedings included a "comic" skit in which members acted the parts of county supervisors (whose real-life counterparts had snubbed their invitations to attend) and a whopping 20 minutes for floor discussion (with bouncers standing by to enforce the 30-second time limit per speaker).
Members stayed away because the local has refused to mobilize, organize or even educate members for action during the course of the worst budget crisis in California's history. More than 300 members now have layoff notices without the union scheduling so much as a single general membership rally.
A newly formed rank-and-file caucus, Members for Reform, handed out flyers at the meeting and campaigned for a relief fund for laid-off members and for a march across the street to the County Administration Building immediately after the convention. Discussion on the relief fund stalemated and will be taken up by the union's executive board.
Though the meeting dwindled to 125 by the end, and though many members had to stay for cleanup duties, about 25 people spontaneously participated in the ad-hoc march chanting, "These budget cuts hurt all of us" and "Spend the surplus, no more layoffs." The potential exists to genuinely rebuild the union--through independent rank-and-file organizing to fight the layoffs.
MEMBERS OF the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299 and their supporters rallied at University of California (UC) campuses up and down the state on May 20 as part of a system-wide action to kick off a campaign for a better contract. The contract, set to expire in June, covers 17,000 groundskeepers, maintenance and cafeteria workers and others at the nine UC campuses.
At UC-Berkeley, the mood was upbeat and feisty at the 100-person-strong rally. This contract fight is coming in a time of budget cuts to the UC system, even as students have to pay more for tuition. Outrageously, top administration officials have accepted hefty raises--$70,000 and up--so that UC can "remain competitive" with private Ivy League schools.
"They've got money, but not for us," said custodian Pedro Carrasco. "We're not asking for the whole pie, just a reasonable piece of it." This is going to be a long fight," he said. "We have to stick together and stick to the demands. I am on the negotiating committee, and the administration has rejected most of the demands already."
We can't afford to let them get away with it. In September, contracts for two other campus unions--Coalition of University Employees (CUE) and Union of Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE)--will expire. We need to build solidarity with them, as well as students, to wage the kind of fight that we can win.
--At UC-Santa Cruz, 300 workers and students marched, chanting, "We are the union, mighty, mighty union!" Some service workers, who are predominantly Chicano and Latino, are afraid to speak out, so several workers stepped forward at the rally to explain why they back the union demands. "We haven't had a raise since October 2002," said Renee Parks, who has worked for nine years as a shuttle bus driver. "For this year, they are offering zero."
--At UC-San Diego, Fred Lonidier brought a message of solidarity from lecturers represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who recently won a contract after a long and bitter year of negotiations. "Students and teachers are feeling the budget cuts in the classroom," he told the 50 protesters. "And campus workers are underpaid and overworked. This is all part of the same picture."
On May 18, 300 students and staff members rallied to oppose the budget cuts. AFSCME member Warren Johnson said, "The old kind of union doesn't work anymore, where we just say, 'I paid my dues, don't talk to me about the union.' We are the union. And if we want to win, we have to fight."
Martin Smith, Lance Newman and Sid Patel contributed to this report.
AS A result of higher fuel prices cutting into their incomes, port truckers have engaged in a series of job actions, including port shutdowns, in Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and Norfolk, Va. In response, employers got a judge to issue a temporary restraining order against picketing at the port of Oakland.
Across the U.S., the 60,000 port truckers have to furnish their own vehicles and are considered "independent contractors," effectively denying them the right to organize for collective bargaining purposes under the National Labor Relations Act. In cooperation with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that represents West Coast dockworkers and the International Longshoremen's Association that represents dockworkers on the East and Gulf Coasts and in the Great Lakes region, the Teamsters have been attempting to organize the port truckers.
Truckers' contracts with the freight companies in many cases are based on prices that are four years old and don't reflect the rising cost of diesel, as much as 30 percent in California. One driver in Southern California said that, after expenses, her annual income was $15,000 for a 60-hour week.
The goal of the labor movement must be full unionization for the ports, including the port drivers. This means the end of the nonsensical "independent contractor" classification and the right to unionize and receive decent pay and benefits. This is a struggle that the labor movement and all workers must support.
SEATTLE More than 200 union members gathered at the Federal Building May 22 to demand universal health care. The event was organized by Service Employees International Union and included representatives from several other unions.
The majority of the crowd was made up of health care workers struggling to maintain health care for their own families. A speaker with Poverty Action Network spoke of how Washington State has more than 500,000 people without health care due to recent layoffs. "If they have money to go to war, why don't they have money to provide health care?" she asked. "Clinton made excuses. Governor Locke made excuses. Excuses are bipartisan. It's up to us to make it happen."
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, however, told the crowd, "We need to get Kerry in there and then hold him to his promise [for universal health care]." It's not surprising that many of the speakers support voting for Kerry.
But when asked one-on-one, however, many in the crowd had little hope that Kerry would make universal health care a priority. To get universal health care, we need a mass movement outside the two-party system that can challenge the corporate agenda of health care industry.