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On the picket line

May 12, 2006 | Pages 10 and 11

Labor Notes
By Derek Tyner

DEARBORN, Mich.--About 860 union activists and allies attended the 13th Labor Notes Conference on the weekend of May 5 to discuss strategies for revitalizing the labor movement. Organized by the monthly magazine Labor Notes, the conference--which was last held in 2003--included 100 international guests--with large groups from Japan and Canada.

The turnout was credited largely to the recent energizing effects of the New York City transit workers' strike last December and the recent mass marches for immigrant rights April 10 and May 1.

Yet the tenor of the conference was also affected by the recent AFL-CIO split and the uphill battle against wage cuts and other concessions at Delphi Automotive Systems.

In a panel on the future of labor, Tom Leedham, president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 206 and a candidate for the Teamsters president, criticized the top-down methods of the breakaway Change To Win coalition. The chair of the panel, Jerry Tucker, a former member of the UAW International Executive Board, called for a "new culture of collective struggle" in a climate where "labor organizations are [becoming less and less] relevant to the lives of working people."

For their part, leading members of U.S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) stressed the need to relate the debate on labor's future to ending the war in Iraq--and in the keynote speech, USLAW co-chair and AFL-CIO Executive Council member Nancy Wohlforth argued that labor should break from the Democratic Party.

The conference reflected the heavy toll in recent years of plant closings and job losses, with fewer blue-collar workers on hand than at past conferences.

One exception was a group from Transport Workers Union Local 100 from New York, who held a special session to continue a stormy debate over union leaders' conduct of the transit strike and the ongoing fight for a contract.

The generational transition in the labor movement was also evident. Although the crowd was comprised mainly of veteran trade unionists, a layer of younger workers and activists were present.

And while a celebration of the immigrant rights movement found its way into almost every session, the challenges of relating to it were also recognized. Ana Avendaño, Immigrant Program Officer at the AFL-CIO, admitted that while organizers were working out the logistics, "a million people have already marched in the streets."

Overall, the conference affirmed a basic perspective: Fighting for internal union democracy, organizing long and short-term fightbacks, and rejecting damaging political compromises.

Chittenden East teachers
By Erik Wallenberg

RICHMOND, Vt.--Some 300 teachers went on strike May 4 in Vermont's Chittenden East Supervisory Union (CESU) school district. "Nearly all of our teachers came out to the strike vote meeting," said one striking teacher, "and there was only a murmur for the 'no' vote."

With this momentum, the teachers hit the picket lines in the five towns in the district, and passed out leaflets door-to-door explaining their position.

The major issue for the teachers is keeping their share of costs for health care premiums at their current 10 percent, the same as every other district in the county with the exception of one. The National Education Association accepted a neutral third-party fact-finder's proposal for a four-year contract that would give teachers 4 percent raises each year and require them to pay 10 percent of their health care premiums.

The school board, however, demanded that teachers increase their portion to 12 percent of their premiums in the third year of the contract and 15 percent in the fourth year.

This is meant to set a precedent for teachers and all workers in Vermont, as school officials across the state are attempting to force union and nonunion teachers alike to pay more for health care.

But the striking teachers aim to set a different trend. As a teacher named Patty walked the picket line in Richmond, she declared, "It's about protecting a good living for everyone."

Jon Harris, a 27-year veteran of the school district, said, "It's a race to the bottom. Seven years ago the board said they wouldn't do this. When we went from paying nothing for our health care premiums to paying 10 percent, they said that would be it."

While the CESU is in a district represented by Democrats, the teachers shouldn't count on them to step in to help. After two teachers' strikes in the state this academic year over health care, the Democrats, who control of both the state Senate and House, have passed another health care "reform" bill that will not address rising costs.

The one Progressive Party member of the CESU school board, for his part, walked the picket line with teachers, while at least four of the Progressive state legislators say they will vote against the Democrats' fake health care reform.

A special-education teacher, Robin, is ready to take on these bigger challenges out on the picket line. "This is about protecting our rights," she said. "And I'm here for the long haul."

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