The Postal Strike of 1970: Relevance to Today

by Lawrence Swaim

postal serviceEd. note:  We are always eager to post first-person accounts from worker activists writing from their own direct experiences.   This article is a bit longer than our usual post, but is well worth a good read.

 In 1970 there was a nationwide strike of postal workers, and I became involved in this event, both as an ordinary postal worker and as an officer in a postal union. I eventually wrote a novel about it called Waiting for the Earthquake, which was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown.

The strike arrived at a time of great tension—and great change—in America. In 1964 and 1965, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were voted into law, constituting perhaps the most important America political turning-points of the 20th century. But the late 1960s and early 1970s were a very painful and unpredictable time, as the Vietnam War divided the country and deadly riots broke out in many African-American neighborhoods.

     Still, for a great many middle class and working families, things weren’t so bad. Despite the growing pall of a brutal war in Asia, jobs were plentiful and wages mainly okay.

     With at least one notable exception.

     The federal government had discovered that they could systematically repress salaries of postal workers, as well as all workers in the public sector, as a hedge against “stagflation,” a stagnant economy plus rampant inflation. Federal policy-makers especially focused on postal workers, since the Post Office was the second-largest employer in the land, and postal workers had to go to Congress for pay raises. Therefore, putting a lid on postal wages was relatively easy, since all Congress had to do was ignore any request by a postal union.

     The postal unions were not allowed to engage in collective bargaining at that time, so postal workers were reduced to begging, hat in hand, to whomever in Congress they could get to listen to their tale of woe. Since the federal government had been holding down wages for three decades, postal workers were simply not making enough money to make ends meet (a little more than two dollars an hour, as I remember.)

     I already had a couple of children when I came to work at the Post Office, even though I was in my early twenties. I ran for office in Local 2 of the United Federation of Postal Clerks in San Francisco, and ended up as Vice-President. I also became a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council for the next several years.

     Just as so often happens among today’s fast food workers, a great many postal workers and their families discovered that they had “too much month and not enough paycheck.” If you couldn’t make the paycheck last to the end of the month, and welfare and food stamps weren’t enough, you had to borrow money. Some postal workers I knew were borrowing money on a monthly basis, gradually finding themselves pulled into a terrifying system not unlike that old song about “owing your soul to the company store.” They’d try to stop borrowing, but when the next emergency came along (or the next child) they’d have to borrow more.

     The mood of the country gradually turned ugly. A traumatized nation had witnessed the tragic assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and hopes for peaceful reform of the nation seemed to perish with them. Moe Biller, a well-known and greatly beloved postal clerks’ leader in New York, angrily denounced postal facilities in the large cities as “dungeons,” dirty, often dangerous, sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. Rincon Annex, where I worked, featured beautiful WPA-type murals in the lobby, which have thankfully been saved as iconic examples of social-realism—but in the 1960s and 1970s there was nothing artistic about the working areas, which featured surrealistic fluorescent lights and the constant roar of mail-sorting machines.

     For reasons unknown, a decision was made in postal management to paint the interior walls of Rincon Annex pink, since they believed that the color pink had a calming effect on the workforce. It was as though management sensed that something disruptive and possibly dangerous was afoot, but didn’t know what it was and had no idea what to do about it. Over a period of time I became aware that some desperate postal workers, mainly on the east coast, were covertly—and very quietly—discussing the possibility of a wildcat strike in New York City and New Jersey.

     Furthermore, although it wasn’t widely reported, there had been a quiet but significant “sickout” of letter carriers in one of the mail processing units of New York City in 1969, which management went to great lengths to cover up. The impoverishment of the average postal workers had already become a major subject of op-ed writers and cartoonists in daily journalism, so the public was starting to get the idea that something was up.

     But what were postal workers to do? Strikers against the government could be punished with up to five years in prison, so I thought at first that strike talk might just be trash talk born of economic desperation. Yet something had to give—the status quo wasn’t working, and people were getting desperate. I went out of my way to seek advice from people who had been in union politics for a long time.

     One guy that I found particularly inspiring was the late Dow Wilson, President of Local 4 of the Painters’ Union. Sadly, Dow was assassinated by a mafia gunman right across the street from where I used to attend Labor Council meetings in the Mission District. But he was a heroic figure, with balls of brass, a sense of humor, and didn’t take himself too seriously

     One group I met with regularly were some people on the left who were mainly academics, but with one experienced trade unionist from the printing trades. I also met with people who were active in Locals Six and Ten of the Longshoremen and Warehousemen, mostly ex-Communists but still on the Left politically. During the middle 1960s I was lucky enough to meet with the late, great Charles “Chili” Duarte, ILWU President of Local Six. He was interested in the situation of the Postal Workers and suggested that I form a Shop Stewards’ Council.

     “I don’t know, Chili,” I said. “we have Shop Stewards, but everybody is scared of management in the Post Office. Only one guy wears a Shop Stewart badge, and he’s a total sell-out.”

     “Good,” Duarte said. “That way your management won’t expect much opposition from the Shop Stewards. They’ll be sitting ducks when you’re ready to make any kind of strong move.”

     Chili recounted the story about Harry Bridges’ early years on the waterfront, how he inherited a sellout union run by leaders who were terrified to throw down with a boss. But Bridges organized quietly from within, without a lot of fanfare, and when the 1934 strike was called he had a base of support that put him in the drivers’ seat. All his power came from that original crew, Chili said.

     “Management didn’t know what hit them, because they were expecting Bridge’s union to punk out. Of course, there were a lot of special circumstances in that 1934 strike, including two violent deaths, but it was Bridge’s strong rank and file support that really turned the tide. And management didn’t see it coming.”

     I was privileged to sit in on a few Shop Steward Meetings in Duarte’s union. Members were highly educated on how to file grievances, and the arguments to make with line foremen, if and when such arguments were needed. “Teach your members basic trade unionism. Postal workers really need to be exposed to industrial-style unions, because the conditions that postal workers work under are more like factories than public-employee unions.”

     I asked Duarte to summarize basic trade unionism. “Easy,” I remember him saying. “First, in negotiation you’re always wanting more money, and better conditions. Then whatever you can get you reduce to a contract that can be enforced in court. The shop steward system polices the contract, and documents the violations. Such a contract should be in force for a discrete amount of time—preferably one, two or three years. As the contract begins to run out, you prepare to get back into negotiations.”

     “If management shows signs of breaking out of this basic scenario, tell your members to prepare to strike, even if—or especially if—you are a public-employee union. Get a strike vote if you can. That doesn’t mean you’re really going to strike, but if you can get your membership to vote for it, it shows management to what lengths you are willing to go to get a good contract. A strike vote puts management on notice, and it prepares the members psychologically for the struggle ahead.”

     I’ve never heard a better summary of trade unionism than Duarte’s.

     It wasn’t long before something finally happened, as it always does, to break the proverbial camel’s back. Postal workers desperately needed a big raise—or a series of raises—to catch up with other workers. But it was at just that point that Congress voted to give postal workers a mere 4 percent raise. And then—wait for it—they voted to give themselves a whopping 41 percent pay raise!

      Postal workers were furious. How could Congress be so blind? Tension on the workroom floor spiked.

     Members of New York City’s National Association of Letter Carriers, Branch 36, met in Manhattan on March 16, 1970, and voted to strike. At midnight the next evening, March 17, picketing began at the main postal facilities. Moe Biller, then a rank-and-file postal clerk leader in the Manhattan-Bronx area (and later the President of the American Postal Workers’ Union) brought postal clerks into the strike, closing down the big mail-distribution centers. Postal unions in New Jersey also voted to strike, as well as a few other urban locals on the east coast. The strike by angry clerks and letter carriers (the latter led by Vincent Sombrotto) was enough to stop all movement of the mail in New York—and New York was, by any standard, the main postal distribution center in America.

     And then something truly amazing began to happen. The strike fever began to roll west, across the Middle West and then on to the large cities on the West Coast. Postal workers across the country began to engage in various kinds of strike activity, sometimes picketing openly, and sometimes not. Sometimes people only stayed home for a day or two, or—in imitation of the ‘blue flu’ tactic used by striking police patrolmen—they started calling in sick. Many called in to say they were afraid to come to work because of the large crowds of striking postal workers milling around outside, and disruption inside the facility. Others simply stayed home without calling in.

     In the San Francisco Bay Area, I was the only postal union officer (VP of Local 2, United Federation of Postal Clerks), and the only delegate to the Labor Council to openly support strike action. I fully expected to be arrested by the Postal Inspectors or the FBI, and probably indicted by a grand jury. But I’d long ago decided that it was worth it. Postal workers were second only to the auto industry in terms of their numbers, but auto workers made five or six times as much money.

     Beginning on the second day, postal workers all over the Bay Area started staying home from work, and people got very creative. We had a big rank-and-file meeting at a church, where I asked for picketers to go with me to the San Francisco Labor Council, which—it so happened—was meeting that night.  I was a regular member of the Labor Council, so people knew who I was—but I showed up with about 30 to 40 postal workers which really got the attention of the members, especially the leaders. (This tactic was not new, I hasten to add—as mentioned before, it was a favorite ploy of the late Dow Wilson, President of the Painters Union Local 4, who always took a large rank-and-file contingent with him when he wanted the Labor Council hierarchy to discuss some important issue.)

     I asked to be recognized under ‘New Business’ at the Labor Council, and made a motion to support striking postal workers. George Johns, at that time Secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council, hemmed and hawed a great deal, then made a bizarre little speech about the hard work done by postal workers. That was all he could say under the circumstances, really—he couldn’t support the strike outright, since it was against the government, and therefore completely illegal; but it all got onto the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day, and familiarized people with our issues. It also made postal management realize that they were dealing with desperate people who simply couldn’t continue to live on starvation wages.

     Some of the strikers fanned out and went to smaller postal facilities, encouraging workers to leave early and stay home. Some postal workers at a facility near the airport walked out together. About this time something very interesting began to happen nationally. The top leaders of the postal unions all piously disavowed the strike, but were at the same time being frantically petitioned by people in the Nixon administration—people who’d previously been unwilling to even acknowledge our existence—to sit down and help postal management negotiate a way out of the prevailing chaos! So, the top leadership did what elected union leaders are supposed to do—they entered into negotiations for a settlement.

     It had now become clear to everyone involved that there would have to be very substantial raises for postal workers, because we were all playing catchup ball because of the decades that America had neglected its postal workers.

      During the height of the excitement at the postal facilities in San Francisco, the Postal Inspectors infiltrated one of their people into our activities, representing himself as an ordinary postal worker from another area who just wanted to see how strikes were conducted. We found out very early that he was actually a Postal Inspector from the San Francisco office—you can’t keep that kind of thing secret very long in a place like San Francisco—and it then became my responsibility to keep him from harm, as strikers and their supporters were likely also to become aware of his true identity. (It was my belief that if there were mass arrests, he would be used as an expert witness to testify against us. At my request, the young man in question left the area.) On other hand, the Postal Inspectors were always quite fair to me. The FBI, not so much.

     Meanwhile the top leadership of the postal unions were engaged in negotiating with postal management and Nixon’s lawyers. They rather quickly reached an agreement, which suggests, first, that the spontaneous nature of the strike in New York had scared the hell out of everybody; and secondly, both sides had been thinking for some time about what they wanted. It had occurred to the Nixon administration that there were far too many postal workers—reportedly at least 250,000—that had participated in strike activity, to indict them all. Such an expedient would have swamped the grand jury system, among other things.

                                                            Conclusion

     The postal strike of 1970 lasted only a couple of weeks on the East Coast, and was basically over after a week on the West Coast. The purpose was to demonstrate conclusively that postal workers could be pushed only so far, and that the nation could not function if mail was not delivered. It could be described as an unsanctioned or wildcat strike, and it was also a felony-level crime. To get the full measure of this, please remember that any kind of strike against the Post Office at that time violated several different kinds of federal laws.  The fact that so many postal workers risked imprisonment was a warning to the Nixon administration, the postal management, and everybody else, that the situation of postal workers had become intolerable.

     An unsanctioned or wildcat strike can mean a strike in which the local votes for a job action against the wishes of its national organization. (Like Branch 36 of the Letter Carriers voted to do in New York. The national leadership reportedly never saw that vote coming.) It can also mean a strike that is not approved by the local Labor Council, or not voted on by the membership. All these things could qualify such strikes as unsanctioned strikes, but we should remember that branch 36 of the Letter Carriers in New Work formally held a strike vote, and voted to strike. Later Moe Biller’s Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union voted by secret ballet—rather than a voice vote—to strike, and soon joined the letter carriers on the picket line.

     By these standards, the postal strike in San Francisco was 100 percent wildcat. Years later, while casing mail at Rincon Annex, I took to wearing a button on my work apron that said Remember the Wildcat—I Was on the Line. The 1970 strike was a wildcat strike, but it did what every successful strike must do—it produced a written settlement that could be enforced in court. The settlement came in the form of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which was signed by representatives of both unions and management, and then became legislation passed by Congress. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fundamentally good for postal workers and patrons.

     I was offered a nice advance for my novel Waiting for the Earthquake, and on the advice of my editor, Billy Abrahams, I quit my job to become a writer. Since that time, I’ve written seven published books, although I’ve had occasion many times to reconsider leaving the Postal Service. Last spring, I joined the Democratic Socialists of America, and continue to support them and their publications.

     Unfortunately, the Republicans have a desperate plan to privatize the Post Office, a plan that they discuss mainly among themselves, and with their big donors. That is tragic and unjust, because the Postal Service has served the American people well for over 200 years as a public institution. And although the Republicans like to claim that the Post Office loses billions of dollars a year, the truth is that it receives no money from the government whatsoever, having been self-supporting since 1970. Sadly, however, the Republicans will do and say almost anything to privatize the US Postal Service, in order to transform it into a cash cow for themselves and their corporate sponsors. The Republicans and their billionaire supporters are playing hardball because hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake, and they want to control the action.

     I am writing a follow-up article about the specific ways in which the billionaires are trying to privatize the Post Office, and how postal patrons and unions can work together to stop them.  

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Strike at Marriott Hotels in Boston

by Hugh Lee Fowler Schlesinger

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Workers and supporters picketed outside the Sheraton Boston Wednesday [photo credit:Boston Globe]

October 3, 2018

 UNITE HERE Local 26 began their city-wide strike at Marriott properties in Boston at 5am this morning.

Unite Here members at Marriott properties nation-wide (including in San Francisco, San Jose, Honolulu, Seattle, and Boston) voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize strikes if bargaining with Marriott failed to progress to a fair contract. These workers are rallying under the call that ‘One Job Should Be Enough‘ to demand pay and healthcare adequate to support a family in the cities where they work, job security, and safety and respect at work! The  Local 26 Bargaining Committee has determined that bargaining at Boston properties is not progressing to this goal, and has decided to utilize its power to call a strike!! This is the first ever hotel strike in Boston!

The union is striking for more protections as the industry undergoes major technological changes,  such as self-check-in kiosks and robot room service. Local 26 is also demanding that hotels  protect worker hours, provide more secure schedules, and improve sexual harassment protections and pregnancy accommodations.

“After five years of record profits and more than six months of contract talks, Marriott still doesn’t get it,” said Local 26 president Brian Lang . “It’s our work that creates the great experience for the hotel guests. We are the reason they keep coming back.”

Local 26 last held a strike in the fall of 2016, when dining hall workers at Harvard University walked off the job for 22 days

Picket lines will be maintained at all of the following properties from 7am-7pm:
-Aloft Boston, Seaport
-Element Boston, Seaport
-Ritz-Carlton, Boston Commons
-Westin Waterfront
-Westing Copley
-Sheraton Boston
-W Boston
Updates about actions and what we can do in solidarity with the striking workers to follow! Also, you can stay updated at: https://www.marriotttravelalert.org
Please try and find some time to walk the picket line in solidarity with these workers over the next few days.
SOLIDARITY AND POWER!!!

Teachers’ Strikes Past and Present

 by Andy Piascik

teachers strike
(AP Photo/Adam Beam)
Su Sheridan holds a sign protesting proposed cuts to retirement benefits for public school teachers on March 8, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Momentum from the inspiring wave of strikes by public school teachers that emerged almost out of nowhere and swept the United States this past Spring has carried over into the 2018-19 school year. With the new school year not yet a month old, teachers in several districts in the state of Washington have won significant gains in pay, benefits  and school funding  through walk-outs. In Puerto Rico, teachers struck on the third pay of school in part to oppose school closures demanded by financial vultures who continue to ravage the island. And in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, teachers have authorized a strike if their demands to prevent wage and benefit cuts and against school privatization aren’t met. 

         
   In addition to the strike and potential strikes, teachers in West Virginia have formed WV United, according to Labor Notes reporter Dan Dimaggio. WV United is a rank and file caucus made up of members of both of the nation’s major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and is affiliated with the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE). Teachers in West Virginia kicked off the strike wave in the Spring and were soon followed by teachers and other school staff in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina and Kentucky who held large-scale walk-outs that in some instances led to the statewide closure of schools for extended periods. Similar actions also took place in individual municipalities such as Jersey City, New Jersey.
A Spring of Unity and Militancy
           
In every instance, there was a tremendous degree of unity. Rank and file participation was robust, rallies were large and often quite spirited, very few teachers crossed picket lines in those places where schools weren’t completely closed and the public was highly supportive. A number of commentaries have noted that Donald Trump carried fa number of the states where the strikes occurred, where union members are generally a lower percentage of the workforce and have fewer collective bargaining rights.  
            
Among the many themes of the strikes, there were at least two that relate directly to their red-state hue. The first, widely commented on, is that reactionary state governments have been especially aggressive in their assaults on the living standards of the majority of their populations. In the face of dramatic tax reductions on corporations and the wealthy, attacks on workers and unions, and the undermining and underfunding of education and other public programs, teachers who have often not gotten raises for years while working conditions deteriorate, finally said Enough
Many Trump Voters Among the Strikers
           
Another theme was that people’s class allegiances emerge as struggle intensifies, and the fact that some of the striking teachers voted for Trump is almost irrelevant as they engage in actions like the recent walk-outs. The focus on whether the strikers voted for the worse of two horrible presidential candidates is certainly of great interest to the punditocracy but serves intentionally to obfuscate the fact that the struggle between the Super Rich and the rest of us will unfold primarily in workplaces and on the streets, not in voting booths.    
            There were fissures between union officers and some rank and filers who believe officers in Oklahoma, for example, were too timid in calling off a strike that had not yet achieved all of the teachers’ objectives. In West Virginia, teachers remained out in defiance of union officers who tried to end the strike. Efforts by nervous officers to curtail or even prevent strikes echo events in Wisconsin in 2011 when workers occupied that state’s capitol building before union bureaucrats shut down the protests and essentially told the workers to go home and find a Democrat to vote for.
The fissures in the teacher unions will not go away and a galvanized rank and file may emerge that can address that timidity. That much of the work in preparation for and during the recent strikes was done outside official union channels speaks well to the possibility for desperately needed changes in union structure and culture.
Another Teachers’ Strike 40 Years Ago
           
In the early stages of the neoliberal epoch in the 1970s, public school teachers in Bridgeport, Connecticut went on strike for many of the same reasons exactly 40 years ago. The Board of Education and the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA), the collective bargaining representative of the city’s 1,247 teachers as well as about 100 other school professionals, had been at loggerheads for months. Connecticut law forbade strikes by public school teachers, however, and many Bridgeporters were caught off guard by the picket lines on the first day of school.
           
Much like the strikes in 2018, there was widespread public support for the teachers. Hundreds of supporters, including students and their parents, joined the picket lines. At one site, members of a neighborhood group played an especially active role in urging students and parents to either join the picket line or go home.
National Teacher Strike Wave
           
Like the 2018 strike wave, the walk-out in Bridgeport was one of many that September. Teachers in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle and numerous smaller cities and towns saw schools closed because of strikes, and some of those actions lasted for several weeks. It was the Bridgeport walk-out, though, that was the longest and the most contentious, as teachers faced a local power structure determined to crush the strike.
          
  In what were the early stages of the austerity agenda of the business class, Bridgeport’s teachers had seen wages and benefits lag and classroom sizes grow in the years leading up to the 1978 strike. They had accepted a concessionary contract in 1975, causing salaries to fall all the way to the bottom in Fairfield County (as they are today) and among the lowest in the state. There was also a growing exodus of teachers from Bridgeport to higher-salaried jobs in nearby school districts, another trend that remains in 2018. 
           
From the outset, the 1978 strike was highly successful. Only 36 teachers, or less than 3%, reported for work on the first day of school and that number dropped in the days that followed. The Democratic mayor and the Democrat-majority Board of Education kept elementary and middle schools open at first by utilizing a small number of teaching aides, substitute teachers and accredited, unemployed teachers, but only 10% of students showed up. The city’s Parent Teacher Association, meanwhile, supported the strike by rejecting a call by the Board that they volunteer in schools and assist scab teachers.
Mass Arrests and Imprisonment
            Arrests began just days into the strike and State Superior Court Judge James Heneby began levying fines of $10,000 per day against the union. As the strike continued, Heneby ordered the union’s officers jailed. The first jailings occurred on September 12th, the fifth school day of the strike, when thirteen teachers were handcuffed and carted off, the men to a prison in New Haven and the women to one in Niantic some 60 miles away. Those arrested endured degradations such as strip searches and being doused with lice spray. Adding further insult, Heneby imposed individual fines of $350 per person per day on the arrestees.
            Angered by the arrests and the teachers’ subsequent treatment, treatment that one arrestee later called the most humiliating event of her life, the strikers turned out to the picket lines in ever larger numbers and with greater determination and militancy. One result was that the city and school board were forced to abandon efforts to keep any schools open. With all 38 schools closed, another 115 teachers were arrested in the next few days. In all, 274 were arrested during the strike, 22% of the total in the city. As prison space became scarcer, many of those in the later waves of arrests were packed onto buses and taken 70 miles to a National Guard camp that was converted into a makeshift prison.
Standing Firm to Victory
            As the confrontation continued into late September, and with all of the other strikes around the country settled, the mass arrest and imprisonment of Bridgeport’s teachers was drawing international attention and causing local elites and city residents as a whole great embarrassment. Despite the arrests, jailings, fines and some tense scenes on a number of picket lines, the teachers stood firm. Finally, on September 25th, after 14 school days, the teachers union and Board of Ed agreed to accept binding arbitration. All teachers, some of whom had been locked up for 13 days, were released from prison. The final terms of the agreement were largely favorable to the teachers.
New Legislation: A Setback?
In the strike’s aftermath, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act that mandates binding arbitration when teachers and the municipalities they work for are stalemated in contract negotiations. While some observers saw the law as a victory for teachers, it was still illegal for teachers in Connecticut to strike, as it remains today. In addition, a number of changes to the law since 1979 such as one that allows municipalities but not unions to reject the decision of an arbitrator, have weakened the bargaining position of teachers.  
Chicago 
No militant strike wave or reinvigorated workers’ movement followed the strikes of 1978. Rather, it was capital that escalated its offensive, one that continues to this day. Probably the most noteworthy strikes by teachers since 1978 came in Chicago where teachers walked out for nine days in 2012 and for shorter durations several times afterwards. The Chicago actions gained significant victories and illustrated to a country where strikes have become rare that they can be incredibly effective.
The 40 years from the Bridgeport strike to today precisely cover the period in which we have seen the most radical upward redistribution of wealth in human history. There is much gut-level support for radical change on many issues including the state of education and the conditions teachers work under. The wave of strikes may be an important turning point.
Moving Forward
           
If that is to be the case, continued organizing and coalition-building is essential. Striking teachers in 2018 did not face anywhere near the state repression as those in Bridgeport in 1978; there does not appear to have been as much as a single arrest during the strike wave. But entrenched power will push back hard and fast on all fronts, as it always does. The recent strike wave presents a real opportunity for catalyzing the large scale but mostly diffuse discontent among workers toward something more cohesive and better organized. That is an exciting possibility and the thousands of teachers and other school workers who stepped forward in recent months are well-positioned to make that possibility reality.
           
It is of great significance that in the West Virginia strike at least, teachers refused to accept a demand by the governor that improved pay and benefits would be paid for with cuts in much-needed programs for the working class as a whole. Mainstream commentators who regard union workers as nothing more than a special interest group exclusively focused on their own well-being had no idea what to do with that one. Also of note is that, in large part because of the insistence of the teachers, the contractual gains won by some of the strikes included all other school workers and that non-union supervisors in at least several states overwhelmingly supported the strikes.
For those who recognize increased class consciousness as essential to long-term social change, the teachers’ rejection of West Virginia elite efforts to conclude the strike by driving a wedge between themselves and the other workers was an important step. Among the challenges now are further development of that consciousness and the further strengthening of the class unity it represents.
One other challenge facing the burgeoning motion among teachers is the fact that the underfunding of education has proceeded at a higher and faster pace in places with higher percentages of students of color, particularly African Americans. Seriously addressing this point and developing strategies accordingly through their unions, in the networks they’ve established and in coalitions they join will go a long way in determining how broad, militant and effective all of those organizations will be. Events of recent week indicate that teachers and other school staff are determined to build on the terrific start of the Spring and may be on the cusp of reinvigorating the labor movement with much-needed militancy.  
 
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion.  He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

 

Incarcerated Workers Strike Against Dehumanizing Prison Conditions

by Fizz Percal, Institute for Policy Studies

prison-strike-cervantes-square

Nurses Strike for Patient Care and Higher Wages in New England

RI NURSES

Nurses, medical workers, and family members picket, Tuesday, July 24, 2018, in front of Hasbro Children’s Hospital, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) The Associated Press

Two different Nurses’ unions struck hospitals in Burlington, VT and Providence, RI for higher wages and better staffing.  Both strikes were called for two days to demand hospitals negotiate in good faith to improve nurses’ wages in order to improve staffing levels for better patient care.

Nurses at two Rhode Island hospitals, Hasbro Children’s Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital, which are next door to one another, went on strike Monday, July 23, 2018, after negotiators couldn’t agree on contract terms during a meeting requested by a federal mediator.   Local 5098 of the United Nurses and Health Professionals (UNAP) called the two-day strike of 2400 nurses and other hospital employees to demand that the owner Lifespan stop delaying.  The union may take another vote to authorize an extended strike at Rhode Island Hospital if it becomes necessary.  Negotiators meet again Aug. 8.

In negotiations following a two-day strike July 12 and 13, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and representatives of the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington reached tentative agreements on issues that help govern some scheduling issues and pay rates. Both sides say the first agreements are good steps.

The two sides did not reach an agreement on pay increases for the 1,800 nurses. The union insists that higher wages are necessary to recruit and retain nurses and support staff and alleviate understaffing.  Additional bargaining sessions are planned August.

What follows is an excellent article on the Burlington strike that will shortly appear in Labor Notes by Jonah Furman, used by permission of Labor Notes.


Vermont’s Striking Nurses Want a Raise for Nonunion Workers Too

by Jonah Furman

Especially for professional workers, when your main strike issue is pay, attracting public support can be a challenge.

Savvy employers paint union members as spoiled. They like to point out that you’re already making more than many of your nonunion neighbors.

Yet when 1,800 nurses and technical staff struck for better wages July 12-13 at the state’s second-largest employer, the University of Vermont Medical Center, the people of Burlington came out in force to back them up.

“We had policemen and firefighters and UPS drivers pulling over and shaking our hands” on the picket line, said neurology nurse Maggie Belensz. “We had pizza places dropping off dozens of pizzas, giving out free ice cream.”

And when a thousand people marched from the hospital through Burlington’s downtown, “we had standing ovations from people eating their dinners,” she said. “It was a moving experience.”

One reason for such wide support: these hospital workers aren’t just demanding a raise themselves. They’re also calling for a $15 minimum wage for their nonunion co-workers, such as those who answer the phones, mop the floors, cook the food, and help patients to the bathroom.

RED FOR MED

Restructuring in 2011 created the University of Vermont Health Network, an association of six hospitals, a visiting nurse association, and various clinics spread across the state and reaching into upstate New York.

But this hospital is the crown jewel, the state’s only Level I trauma center. As a “tertiary care” facility, it gets the network’s sickest and hardest-to-treat patients.

Funneling those patients to UVM Medical Center is a good thing, says surgical and pediatric intensive-care nurse Jason Winston, who has worked there a decade. “However, because the job has changed, we need the tools to do the job,” he said. “We need more staff, and wages that allow us to recruit and retain.”

Instead, the hospital struggles with a perennial nurse shortage. Winston said UVM doesn’t even match the wages at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, 30 miles away in Plattsburgh, New York—where the cost of living is much lower. And Champlain Valley sends its highest-need patients to UVM for specialized care.

FIGHT FOR $15

A bargaining survey of nurses and technical staff revealed that wages were a major concern—but with a twist. Members didn’t just want to boost their own wages. They wanted a raise for the nonunion secretaries and support staff, too. The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals represents less than a quarter of the hospital’s workforce.

Vermont legislature passed a $15 minimum wage in May, but the governor vetoed it. Nurses knew that UVM Medical Center had the funds to raise its own minimum wage to $15—and the union had the will to fight for it.

While the union can’t officially negotiate wages for titles not covered in the contract, there is a provision that states that the hospital “shall provide sufficient ancillary staff so as to ensure that such duties do not fall to bargaining unit employees.” Chronic short-staffing should be addressed by raising wages to attract and retain support staff, says the union.

The union hosted a community rally in May focused on the low-wage licensed nursing attendants, who start at under $13 an hour. “LNAs are essential to our work,” says Belensz. “They’re taking patients’ vital signs, they’re helping to reposition patients to prevent bed sores, they help toileting patients. They’re our right-hand man.”

But, she adds, “More so than nurses even, LNAs are constantly short-staffed. Then we have nurses doing LNA duties, on top of the nursing workload.”

At the rally, 600 nurses and community allies marched through Burlington’s downtown, and then to the site of offices that are being built with UVM Medical Center as the anchor tenant. The hospital has agreed to pay annual rent that’s a million dollars higher than market rate, “for the health of downtown,” said Winston.

“Which is great, we want a healthy downtown. But if there’s money for that, and money for executive salaries, there’s money for nurses too.”

BRING A CROWD

Union members spent a year and a half building up to this two-day strike. The focus was on building as big a team as possible, not just union leaders.

In the union’s bylaws, each nursing unit at the hospital is entitled to elect at least one negotiating committee member, and large units get more than one. This produced a big bargaining team of 36 people. Even if you’re not on the bargaining team, you’re encouraged to sit in on negotiating sessions.

Whenever possible, the union brings a crowd:

  • For the initial delivery of the union’s notice of intent to bargain—often a low-key administrative matter—100 nurses came out to deliver the forms.
  • Close to 400 nurses showed up for the first bargaining session.
  • In June, 1,300 members cast ballots in a strike authorization vote; 94 percent voted to strike.
  • At the last bargaining session before the strike, hundreds of red-shirted nurses walked in, chanting “Safe staffing saves lives,” and “Hey Brumsted, what do you say? How many beds did you make today?” targeting the hospital’s CEO, who made more than $2 million dollars in 2017.

BIG PICTURE

Belensz, who has worked at the hospital for three years, was tapped to join the Member Action Team. That meant she was responsible for activating her co-workers in neurology—no easy task. Her unit hasn’t been much involved in past negotiations.

Day-to-day conditions in neurology are tolerable, and the managers are seen as fair. “There were a lot of people that were on the fence, or fully against the strike,” Belensz said. So her goal was to get them thinking about the bigger picture, especially the issue of short-staffing and overwork in other departments, like orthopedics and urology, where support staff are few and far between, and the nurse-to-patient ratio is much worse.

For her the rallies, marches, and open bargaining were crucial as “unifying events,” she said, that worked to “get people excited and show the hospital that we’re not messing around.”

The momentum grew as the strike deadline drew near. “We’ve made leaps and bounds in the last month,” Belensz said. She attributed that to the hundreds of one-on-one conversations and question-and-answer sessions the Member Action Team has held round the clock for months.

In fact, she was pleasantly surprised to see many of the former holdouts walking the picket line. One co-worker, who Belensz is sure voted no a month ago, told her, “If we need to strike again, we’re striking again!”

 

 

Support Striking Oil Workers in Australia

Eric Lee, LabourStart

esso

Last year maintenance workers at Exxon Mobil’s onshore and offshore facilities in Australia received a shock when they heard that their employer, maintenance contractor UGL, was firing the whole workforce. 

They were told that they could keep their jobs if they signed up to a new agreement that cut wages by 15-30% and other entitlements, and forced them onto new fly-in, fly-out rosters that tore them away from their families.

These workers have now been on strike for a phenomenal 350 days, resisting Esso and UGL from exploiting ugly legal loopholes that undermine workers’ fundamental rights.

They’ve asked for our solidarity, and for us to send messages to the company demanding a fair deal.

Please take a moment to show your solidarity today:

Click here

And please share this message with your friends, family and fellow union members.

A Call Center Coup: Ex-Teamster Boots Riley Tackles Telemarketing And its Discontents

by Steve Early

When I was a union rep, one of my most challenging assignments was assisting a Communications Workers of America (CWA) bargaining unit at a Boston-area telemarketing firm. Most CWA members in New England had call center jobs at the phone company, with good pensions, health insurance, and full-time salaries. As service reps, they fielded in-coming calls from customers with problems, questions, or new orders to place. In contrast, the telemarketing staff only interacted with the public, on behalf of various clients, via out-bound calling. Like the workers depicted in Boots Riley’s hilarious new film, Sorry to Bother You, they made cold calls to people who did not want to bothered, at dinner time or anytime, with a pitch for a new product, service, or donation to a political cause.

            Even with a union contract, CWA’s telemarketing members in Somerville, Mass. were an unhappy lot—and for good reason. Their work was machined-paced by a “predictive dialer.” The quality of the lists they called, for fund-raising purposes, varied widely. Their base pay was low and earning more required navigating a byzantine bonus system.  Benefit coverage was skimpy compared to the phone company. Yet, when we tried to negotiate improvements, a company whose clients included major environmental groups and Howard Dean’s presidential campaign hired Jackson, Lewis, a leading anti-union law firm to drag out bargaining for months and soak up money that could have been spent on its workers.

This particular call center was filled with “over-educated” part-timers, juggling other jobs or careers, because it did offer flexible hours. Nobody planned to stay long, however, because who wants to spend all day enduring rejection—hang-ups, name-calling, cursing, or long conversations with lonely people who end up giving or ordering nothing, because they are short on cash too.

            Amid such shop-floor frustration and discontent, the telemarketing industry does produce stars–brilliant phone conversationalists who can charm almost anyone out of a few bucks for a magazine subscription, a charitable organization, political cause or candidate. Now 48 years old, Boots Riley was briefly one of those top performers when a mid-1990s downturn in his music career forced the founder of The Coup to seek employment in what is now a $24 billion industry.  He had already done a stint, as a Teamster part-timer, loading packages for UPS in Oakland; this time, to pay the rent, he picked up a headset instead, at a call center in Berkeley. As Riley’s hometown alternative weekly, The East Bay Express revealed last week, he toiled under “a punk manager with an anarchy tattoo who enticed workers with cash bonuses to ‘make the grid,’ office parlance for raising money. “

            A co-worker familiar with his rap albums recalls hearing Boots use “the same gravely, raspy voice, I knew from Genocide & Juice going, ‘Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but…’” Riley put his past experience as a door-to-door salesman to good use, carefully calibrating his pitch for each assigned fund-raising project. “It was me using my creativity for manipulative purposes,” he confessed to the EBE. “Like an artist who could make a cultural imprint instead figures out what font makes you buy cereal.”

Manic Energy

            Fortunately, for millions of potential viewers of Sorry to Bother You, Riley has also found a way to turn his call center experience—shared by millions of other U.S. workers—into a rare Hollywood film dealing with race, class, and the tension between personal ambition and collective action in the workplace. The first-time director employs the manic energy of a Spike Lee movie, rather than the slow, last century pacing of Jon Sayles, to produce one of the best depictions of labor organizing since Matewan (or Norma Rae and Bread and Roses, for that matter).

The workers involved aren’t the usual blue-collar union suspects—i.e. mill workers, coal miners, or immigrant janitors. Instead, they’re Bay Area denizens of the “new economy,” multi-racial millennial office workers stuck on the lower rungs of a regional job market offering tantalizing riches (and even affordable housing) for some, but a far more precarious existence for many others.

In Riley’s film, which opened nationwide last week, his fictional alter-ego is Cassius (“Cash”) Green, a struggling young native of Oakland played by Lakeith Stanfield. Cash is behind on his rent and living with his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) in the converted garage of his uncle, whose home is facing foreclosure. “I just really, really need a job,” he desperately informs his soon-to-be-boss at Regal View, an Oakland telemarketer. Instructed, as all new hires are, to “stick to the script,” Cash stumbles through his first days of toil in a grim, crowded room full of partitioned workstations. Before being sent to their cubbyholes to dial for dollars each morning, Cash and his fellow “team members’ are subjected to a pep rally, led by managers who range from the moronic to demonic. (One urges them to employ their “social currency” to better “bag and tag” customers.)

Cash does poorly, with his phone contacts, until an older African-American colleague (Danny Glover) offers him some elder wisdom. “Hey, young blood. Let me give you a tip. Use your ‘white voice.’”  Once any hint of Cash’s race or class background is scrubbed clean from his delivery, he starts making powerful connections with his telemarketing targets, zooming quite literally into their living rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms, and even bathrooms to make sales.

 His reward, before long, is promotion to “power caller.” He becomes part of the Regal View elite, working many floors above the low-dollar calling room floor,  in office splendor of the Silicon Valley corporate campus sort. Cash now wears a suit and tie to work, carries a brief case, and makes marketing calls to potential multi-million dollar clients of Worry Free. The latter is a global manpower agency led by Steve Lift, a tech industry titan with adoring fans and a new book entitled I’m On Top. Played by Arnie Hammer, the charismatic Lift is a cross between Steve Jobs and Hugh Hefner. Among Cash’s rewards for being a top “power caller” is the chance to party with Lift at his Playboy-style mansion; there he gets offered an even more lucrative but truly compromising position at Worry Free.

Revolt of the Precariat

Meanwhile, down in the lower depths of Regal View, a revolt of the precariat has been brewing—and before his personal ambition got the best of him Cash was part of it. Led by Squeeze, a young Asian-American caller (Steven Yeun), the “lowly regular telemarketers” are secretly planning to unionize. On an agreed upon day, all head sets are downed, fists get thrust into the air, and the telemarketers

stage a 20-minute work stoppage, chanting “Fuck you, pay me” (no messaging confusion there).

As this labor-management dispute escalates into a full-blown strike replete with mass picketing and police brutality reminiscent of Occupy Oakland, Cash crosses the picket-line, only to become increasingly distraught by the choice he has made and ambivalent about its material rewards (a fancy car and swank new downtown Oakland loft!). “I’m doing something I’m really good at,” he tells one striker. “I’ll root for you from the sidelines.” But that’s not good enough for his feisty and creative girlfriend who threatens to leave him.

In the end, faced with the loss of Detroit and permanent estrangement from his own community and former co-workers, Cash becomes a fellow rebel against the worldview represented by Regal View and Worry Free. He blows the whistle on the latter’s sci-fi scheme to bio-engineer greater labor productivity and enslave workers, under the guise of providing them with “lifetime housing and jobs.”

            The movie has a happier ending for the employees of Regal View than Riley’s real life co-workers experienced several years after the director left Stephen Dunn & Associates, the telemarketing firm that employed him in Berkeley more than two decades ago. In 1999, the East Bay Express reports, staff members there began a four-year struggle for union recognition, aided by Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Their long legal battle, against blatant union-busting, only ended when management moved the whole call center to Los Angeles.

            In Sorry to Bother You, Steve Lift, the evil CEO of Worry Free, ends up reaping what he sowed. If only more workers struggles had a similar denouement, we’d all be better off. In the meantime, Boots Riley—Oakland activist, musician, and now film-maker extraordinaire—has made labor organizing in an almost entirely non-union industry seem doable and definitely worth the bother.

(Steve Early was a telecom industry organizer and union representative for 27 years. He is the author of four books on labor and politics, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City, published by Beacon Press last year. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)