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On the picket line

April 8, 2005 | Pages 10 and 11

Defend Social Security
Diamond Walnut

Wisconsin state workers
By Eric Robson, AFSCME Local 171

MADISON, Wis.--Members of AFSCME Council 24 were expected to vote April 4 to "support their bargaining teams" in the public sector workers' fight for a union contract and to mobilize for an April 21 rally at the state Capitol here.

The vote--planned a month earlier at a meeting of local union presidents' bargaining committees--was originally intended to authorize a strike. Public sector strikes are illegal under Wisconsin state law. But a mailing from Council 24 afterward stated, "This is not a strike vote." That left many union activists scrambling to convince their members that it's still important to show up to the meetings and vote.

Some locals, like Local 171 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have decided to go ahead and vote on supporting a strike. They aim to put pressure on Council 24 leadership to not back down from a fight in which workers have gone 21 months without a union contract.

There is also pressure from the council's conservative wing. Correctional officers from the state prisons threaten to follow the lead of the state patrol, which decertified AFSCME earlier this year, if Council 24 doesn't act.

The battle with the state is the result of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's effort to make state employees pay for Wisconsin's large budget deficit. After being elected on a promise to eliminate 10,000 state employees, Doyle also decided that state workers should start paying $55 per month for health insurance premiums for family coverage. Most workers currently pay nothing. The governor also insists on a 1 percent increase over the two years of their contracts.

The total package, which includes a mix of other concessions and a few incentives thrown in, amounts to a pay cut for most state employees. Already, pay is so low that many vacant positions can't be filled.

The upcoming rally is an opportunity to get the union members involved with building a union that will fight for its members' needs. The wavering by Council 24 leadership--and by many longtime activists on the left of the union--can be overcome by organizing a new group of union activists who are ready to fight back.

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Defend Social Security
By Brian Cruz, SEIU Local 790 shop steward

SAN FRANCISCO--Nearly 1,000 demonstrators representing dozens of Bay Area unions rallied outside the San Francisco Charles Schwab office March 31 to protest plans to privatize Social Security.

The protest--one of dozens held by organized labor in cities around the U.S.--was spirited. Pounding drums and chanting "Retirement is under attack--What do we do? Stand up, fight back!" the Bay Area crowd of union members and community activists were protesting Charles Schwab's support of both Bush's plan to privatize Social Security and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to privatize California's public pension system.

Like many others on the protest, Jan Adams, a 57-year-old San Franciscan considering retirement, sees through the smokescreen of lies. "Bush wants to give this money to his friends," she said.

Bush's plan--which seeks to create individual privatized accounts--could bring $940 billion to Wall Street financial firms over the next 75 years. The Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, which includes big financial firms such as Charles Schwab, has already spent $5 million on lobbying and on a direct-mail campaign for privatizing Social Security.

In California, Schwarzenegger is pushing a proposal to convert public employee pensions to 401(k) plans, eerily using the same rhetoric as Bush. Unfortunately for California's retirees, the average 401(k) lost 40 percent in the recent stock market crash, foreshadowing what could happen should Schwarzenegger's proposition pass.

Understandably, the anger around Schwarzenegger's plan in California and Bush's plan nationwide is immense with similar protests taking place in 70 cities across the U.S. during a day of action sponsored by the AFL-CIO. But questions remain as to the AFL-CIO's strategy for defeating big business on Social Security. The implied message was to keep looking to the Democrats--but former president Bill Clinton himself promoted the phony Social Security "crisis" and called for "reform," paving the way for today's attacks.

The number and size of the protests across the country show that there is tremendous anger and potential to organize against Bush's privatization plan--and for a decent retirement for all.

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Diamond Walnut
By Lee Sustar

STOCKTON, Calif.--One of the longest strikes in U.S. history ended last month when workers at Diamond Walnut voted to approve a contract in a dispute that began 14 years ago. The workers, members of Teamsters Local 601, voted 180 to 61 to ratify the contract March 22, which opens the way for workers to return to work in a battle that began on September 4, 1991, when about 600 workers walked out over wages and benefits.

The strikers crisscrossed the country to organize a boycott of Diamond, meeting with local, state and national politicians. As in many strikes, the boycott was seen as a more effective and less risky strategy than organizing mass pickets to shut down production, given the possibility of arrests and fines.

Yet the "one day longer" strategy placed enormous hardships on strikers, many of them Latino immigrants. Diamond had the money to settle years earlier. The company produces half the U.S. walnut crop and had gross sales of $383 million last year.

Under the deal, the 750 workers at Diamond will get pay raises of 2 or 3 percent in each of the next five years, with workers' contributions to their health plans remaining near constant. The 30 remaining strikers interested in returning to their job will be given special preference.

The Diamond Walnut struggle should be remembered for the commitment of the strikers, while it also underscores the need to build effective solidarity to keep workers from becoming isolated.

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