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On the picket line

October 22, 2004 | Page 15

University of California-Berkeley
Group Health

San Francisco hotels
By Abraham Gomez and Adrienne Johnstone

SAN FRANCISCO--Hotel workers set to end their two-week strike and return to work last Wednesday were instead met with a lockout by hotel management here. The hotel owners' organization, the Multi-Employer Group (MEG) insists the lockout will continue until the union, UNITE HERE Local 2, drops its demand for a two-year contract.

Local 2 wants a contract that expires at the same time as its counterparts in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where UNITE HERE members have also authorized strikes. Meanwhile, another 10,000 UNITE HERE workers are on strike at hotels and casinos in Atlantic City.

The battle in San Francisco began after the union members voted 97 percent to authorize a strike for wages, reduced workloads and a freeze on insurance premiums. Local 2 President Mike Casey publicly argued that a two-week strike at only four hotels would show the bosses that they were both serious about their demands, but also willing to "work with management" in order not to hurt profits or disrupt tourism.

The MEG responded by locking out workers at 10 hotels, putting 4,000 workers on the picket line.

At first, picket lines were spirited and well-organized, with hundreds of workers blowing whistles and beating drums, confident that they could win. Yet the bosses went on the offensive, getting police to crack down on the noisy picketers. Casey claimed that "the union had ordered the noise toned down even before the police warned them," adding, "we'll find other ways of productively and profitably letting off steam." This has had a depressing effect on the picket lines.

Much is at stake in this strike. Last summer, UNITE HERE was formed from a merger of two unions as part of the New Unity Partnership strategy of a break from the passive, accommodating approach of other unions. The Local 2 strike is a test of this strategy.

Unfortunately, by arguing "what's good for the industry is good for us," the union weakened its own position from the beginning. Moreover, many hotel workers are only learning about their own struggle through the few local press bulletins or meetings where workers can discuss what to do next.

Many workers express the willingness to press for more aggressive strategies, but there's no way to bring these ideas forward within the union. Striking workers need to find ways to bring the noise back--and disrupt business as usual in the hotels.

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University of California-Berkeley
By Kathryn Lybarger, AFSCME Local 3299

BERKELEY, Calif.--Some 200 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3299, along with students and other supporters from the University of California (UC)-Berkeley campus and community, rallied October 15 to demand a better contract. At one point, the rally moved to take over a major intersection at an entrance to the campus, where 16 members sat down for several minutes before being arrested.

The rally highlighted a study done by Berkeley graduate students that exposes shamefully low wages and shoddy working conditions on the supposedly "progressive" campus. Local 3299 represents over 7,000 of the UC system's low-wage service workers, about a quarter of whom earn less than $10 an hour, and well over three-fourths of us don't make the minimum considered necessary to get by in California's expensive urban centers.

AFSCME workers have been without a contract since the old one expired June 30, and the university has offered us nothing so far. Yet the UC system managed to find the money to give Berkeley's and San Diego's new chancellors each a $70,000 per year raise and similar pay increases for three other top UC executives.

The rally was planned to coincide with the local's statewide rank-and-file leadership conference and UC Berkeley's homecoming. The mood at Friday's rally was loud and feisty. UC is heading for a fight.

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Group Health
By Kate Johnson

SEATTLE--About 400 Group Health Cooperative workers rallied and marched October 16 to demand affordable health care.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1199NW--which covers LPNs, medical assistants, social workers, janitors and several other workers--has been in negotiations for a new contract for a year and a half since their last contract expired.

At the heart of the negotiations are Group Health's proposed cuts in health care. Currently, SEIU members pay no premiums and $5 co-pays for visits and prescriptions--but Group Health (GH) wants employees to pay 11-12 percent of staff health care costs.

The rally was a response to failed negotiations following a weeklong strike in August. "We wanted to show them [GH] that we're not going to back down," one nurse told Socialist Worker. "We are less than 1 percent of their total budget. This isn't about what they can afford; it's about Group Health trying to make a few extra bucks," she said.

Workers at the rally were energetic and ready to fight. But the majority of the speakers at the rally were politicians running for office. SEIU president Andy Stern made an appearance, urging workers to vote for John Kerry--and union leaders have decided to cease all attacks on GH until after the elections. This is mistaken. The only way to win is to keep the pressure up.

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