On the Picket Line

Municipal workers hit the picket lines

Service Employees Union Local 73 announced a strike of 2,000 Cook County, Ill., workers June 25 at Cook County Health Care. Members include clerical workers, civilian workers in the sheriff’s office, maintenance and service workers, medical technicians and physician assistants. (Chicago Sun-Times, June 29) Workers are demanding bonuses or raises for frontline workers in hazardous situations, like the pandemic, and are fighting “skyrocketing” health care premium increases.

Three other unions won contract agreements with Cook County Health — American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, National Nurses United and the Teamsters. AFSCME won an 11 1/2% wage increase over four years for some 4,000 members; 1,250 NNU nurses staged a one-day strike June 24 and won raises. Details of the Teamsters’ agreement have not yet been released.

Municipal workers in Elizabeth City, N.C., walked off their jobs June 30, demanding a long overdue pay increase. One worker described living out of his van, because he could not afford a one bedroom apartment rental on his current wages. A study commissioned by the City Council showed that Elizabeth City municipal workers are paid below the minimum of their counterparts in other cities.

Elizabeth City Council voted down a property tax increase proposal to fund the wage increase. Until the workers’ wage demands are met, trash will not be collected; utilities will not be serviced; and roadwork will not continue.

Members of AFSCME District Council 33 in Philadelphia authorized a strike vote at a June 28 union meeting in preparation for negotiations with the city. The current contract expired June 30. Municipal workers, including sanitation workers, were critical to the city during the pandemic lockdown, putting their and their families’ welfare in jeopardy by continuing to report for work as COVID ravaged the city.

Supreme Court attacks farmworkers

The U.S. Supreme Court favored capitalist agribusiness over workers in a June 23 ruling on the case of Cedar Point Nursery vs. Hassid. The decision bars union organizers’ access to farmworkers at their place of employment, prioritizing property rights over workers’ rights. This is counter to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which stipulates union organizers are able to talk to workers at job sites during breaks and lunch.

In a statement on the ruling, the UFW said, “the Supreme Court’s ruling in Cedar Point v. ALRB makes a racist and broken farm labor system even more unequal.  Farmworkers are the hardest working people in America. This decision denies them the right to use their lunch breaks to freely discuss whether they want to have a union. The Supreme Court has failed to balance a farmer’s property rights with a farmworker’s human rights.”

Cesar Chavez, champion of seasonal and migrant farmworkers and co-founder, along with Dolores Huerta, of the United Farm Workers (UFW), won organizing victories, including the Calif. ALRA, through actions like the historic Grape Boycott of  the 1960s.

The National Agricultural Workers Survey taken from 2015 to 2016 identified 83% of farmworkers as Latinx and 6% Indigenous, statistics which highlight the racist nature of the Supreme Court ruling. Many Spanish-speaking farmworkers live in company housing and are bussed to the job site, isolating them from organizing efforts while landowners mistreat and exploit them.

Agricultural work is historically grueling, and these essential workers are poorly compensated. Besides the COVID threat, unprecedented heat in the fields is taking a toll. A Guatemalan man died from extreme heat exposure while he worked on an Oregon farm irrigation project, where the temperature hit 104 F.

California Agricultural Labor Relations Board Chair Victoria Hassid said, “Despite today’s ruling, California will continue to champion these rights for some of our most essential workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced how farmworkers need more information, more resources and more protections. Without basic information and basic labor rights, farmworkers who are the backbone of California’s economy will be left behind.” (alrb.ca.gov)

Agricultural workers in Colorado won broad protections and rights under the Farmworkers Law, signed by Gov. Jared Polis June 25, two days after the Supreme Court ruling. A mandated minimum wage, overtime pay, safety and housing protections are included in the law. The Colorado Farmworkers’ Rights Coalition hailed the law as a continuation of the United Farm Workers movement of the 1960s.

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