On the picket line
August 6, 2004 | Pages 14 and 15
Graduate student union organizing
THE MOVEMENT to unionize graduate student workers at private universities around the country suffered a major setback on July 15, when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) have no right to unionize as workers.
The five-member NLRB had been deadlocked for more than two years due to an empty seat on the board. Last December, the Bush administration appointed an anti-union Republican to fill the empty slot. The 3-2 decision reverses an earlier ruling from 2000, in which the board ruled that TAs and RAs at New York University (NYU) had the right to unionize.
Graduate students make up one quarter of the nation's college instructors, yet they often work for poverty wages. Before organizing with United Auto Workers Local 2110, grad student workers at NYU earned just $10,000 a year and had to pay for their own healthcare.
In their first contract, TAs won a 40 percent increase in stipends, free health care and a 30 percent increase in their employee child-care fund. The success at NYU, the first private university to recognize a graduate student union, sparked a wave of organizing across the country.
Last spring, grad student workers at Columbia University went on strike for a month after the university had refused to bargain with them for more than two years. Columbia grad students voted in favor of a union in March 2002, but the university appealed to the NLRB and the ballots from the union election were impounded. As a result of the July 15 NLRB ruling, they may be destroyed.
University administrators around the country are thrilled because the ruling allows them to keep grad student labor cheap by denying TAs and RAs the right to collectively bargain to improve their working conditions. While grad students at many public universities, such as the University of California system, are unionized, administrators at elite private universities have been particularly resistant to union drives.
But the NLRB ruling may have the unintended consequence of sparking more grad student strikes, judging by discussions the following week at the 13th conference of the Coalition of Graduate Student Employee Unions, which brought together representatives of grad student unions from across the U.S. and Canada. A representative of NYU's grad union set the tone in the opening plenary, pointing out that a strong strike forced NYU to recognize the union even before the NLRB recognition process was complete.
The representatives of other unrecognized unions at the conference expressed their confidence that similar methods could still force their employers to recognize them and grant collective bargaining rights. And unions at Yale, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania are discussing coordinated actions, which they hope to be able to extend to the entire Ivy League.
Rafael Greenblatt contributed to this report.
BURLINGTON, Vt.--An overwhelming majority of UE Local 203 members voted July 14 in favor of a tentative agreement at City Market. The three-year contract covering 112 employees represents a leap forward for the union.
Workers defended their half-hour paid break, obtained work schedule protections, time and a half on four holidays and, most importantly, a guarantee that if premiums go up for health care, City Market will foot the bill. "I woke up this morning thinking to myself, 'I can't believe that this has happened,'" head cashier Becky Rouleau told Socialist Worker. "I am really impressed with this contract."
At the beginning of summer, negotiations were moving at a snail's pace--and management was proposing a slew of concessions that it wanted the union to accept. As the July 13 contract expiration date approached, union members organized a July 11 informational picket and rally outside the store.
Sean Hutton, a union steward and negotiator, addressed the crowd of 80 people, denouncing management's move to take away the paid break. "Who is unloading the trucks to the freezers?" asked Sean. "It's not the manager making $50,000 or $70,000, it's the workers...We didn't organize so that we could accept take backs."
Speakers from the community included Gerry Colby, president of the National Writers Union, and Phil Fermonte, Progressive Party member of the Burlington City Council. Then, workers and community members marched through the aisles of the store, chanting, "What do we want? Livable wages! When do we want them! Now!"
"You can feel isolated in your own world inside the store," said Donovan Davidson, a member of Local 203. "This rally is really encouraging. You realize that there are hundreds of people to back you up." The rally set the tone for the marathon 20-hour negotiating session to follow, and throughout the day, workers wore stickers that said, "I don't want to strike, but I will."
At midnight, management had yet to sign off several important articles and called union negotiator Eddie Plourde to see if the union was willing to resume negotiations the next day. Eddie responded firmly, explaining that the union would hold two membership meetings the following day and that they would either be strike meetings or meetings to ratify a contract.
During the next nine hours, management caved in to all of the union's demands, except on wages. The union accepted 50 cents over the next year instead of $1, but next year there will be an "opener" for the union to negotiate wages exclusively.
"I think that this contract will help build the organization so that members can continue to demand justice on the job and work toward a livable wage next year," said Heather Reimer, a UE field organizer and Local 203's lead negotiator. This struggle proves that through building public support and threatening a strike, workers everywhere can get the bosses to negotiate on their terms.
CHICAGO--About 2,400 workers at the Illinois drivers' license offices have voted to reject the state's last contract offer and authorize a four-day strike that could begin anytime after August 16. The workers, members of Service Employees International Union Local 73, have extremely low wages--between 4 and 25 percent less than workers in other states.
They rejected a contract with 1 and 2 percent raises by a vote of 1586 to 146. "We work for the state, but we don't make a decent living," said Alejandro Aguila. "It's just wrong."
Historically, drivers' license workers have had weak contracts in Illinois, but the union has been showing some positive signs. Last summer, when the Secretary of State refused to give workers the raise that was in their contract, the SEIU members petitioned at work, collecting 78,000 signatures at the Department of Motor Vehicles to help win their promised pay increase.
SEATTLE--Chanting, "Quality Health Care is a right, UW workers lead the fight!" more than 400 SEIU members picketed the University of Washington July 29 in a fight for a new contract. University management is demanding takeaways that would gut long-term civil service protections, tie raises to performance evaluations, eliminate seniority in layoffs and allow regular temporary layoffs and subcontract work.
Another key issue is health care--families pay close to $100 per month along with increased co-pays. A statewide public workers' strike is possible if a contract isn't signed by October 1.