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On the picket line

April 29, 2005 | Page 15

Wisconsin state workers
By Eric Robson, AFSCME Local 171

MADISON, Wis.--About 3,000 unionized state employees and their supporters rallied at the Capitol April 21 to demand a new contract, nearly two years after the old agreement expired.

The two main unions involved, AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represent 20,000 state employees. They came together to send a strong signal that Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's attempts to pass along higher health care costs and cover a budget deficit--the result of years of tax cuts for the rich and corporations--won't be accepted without a fight.

The day before the rally, Doyle sent his head of the Office of State Employee Relations Karen Timberlake to tell the media that the governor was eager to return to bargaining. She went on to add that there would be no changes in the "final offer" that the unions rejected more than a year ago--a proposal that includes layoffs, contracting out and other concessions.

This insulting attitude has become familiar to the thousands of state employees who rallied the next day. Earlier that morning, 300 University of Wisconsin (UW) employees and students rallied at the UW campus for a rollback in the skyrocketing cost of tuition, universal health care, an end to contracting out of state jobs, restoration of a progressive tax system and a return to serious collective bargaining by the governor. The governor and many state legislators showed their contempt of state employees by changing the legislative schedule so most of them could be out of town for the rally.

It's going to be important to keep up the heat on the politicians so that they can't just ignore the workers who keep Wisconsin's state government working. As many signs at the rally pointed out, "Wisconsin works because we do." That's a message that workers may have to back up with action in the near future--by refusing to keep working without a fair contract.

The presidents of AFSCME Council 24's nearly 60 locals will be meeting over the next few weeks to plan more actions to win a new contract. For those activists in both the AFT and AFSCME who want to make sure that we continue to develop more militancy among the rank and file of our unions, the newly formed State Employees Action Coalition will be continuing to organize actions.

We plan to build on whatever actions the union officials may decide to do--and take further action when the union leadership hesitates or tries to sell out the rank and file at some point in the future.

Los Angeles Unified School District
By Randy Childs, United Teachers Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES--In the closest vote in the history of the union, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted 54 percent to 46 percent to approve a new union contract after nearly two years of fruitless negotiations.

Lame-duck UTLA President John Perez, who lost his bid for re-election by a landslide last month, was quick to declare victory in the press, calling the vote a "vindication for the members."

Perez should be ashamed of himself. The agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) includes a pay freeze for the first year and a meager 2 percent raise for the second year. The contract provides for no real improvements in teachers' miserable working conditions--including no reduction in LAUSD's mushrooming class sizes. By allowing LAUSD officials to drag out negotiations for more than 20 months and refusing to mobilize the membership to put pressure on the district, Perez handed LAUSD bosses that first-year pay freeze on a silver platter.

At union meetings held across the city the week before the vote, nobody outside of the incumbent leadership was arguing that this was a good contract offer. Most members who argued for a "yes" vote based their arguments on pessimism about whether we could get anything better--especially given the attack on public education coming from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

But a "no" vote on this lousy contract could have sent a message to the "Governator" that teachers are ready to hold him accountable for short-changing our schools.

The United Action electoral alliance that defeated Perez and his cronies in March campaigned for a "no" vote. Had we taken that campaign to the level of member-to-member phone outreach--the key to our victory--we may very well have defeated this rotten deal.

Nonetheless, the unprecedented 46 percent vote to reject the contract shows that a large percentage of UTLA members support United Action's argument that UTLA needs to stand up to LAUSD and the state.

But there's still a long way to go. The new United Action leadership and Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), the dissident rank-and-file network that forms the organizational backbone of United Action, need to organize to overcome the pessimism of many of our coworkers.

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