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Scott Walker Stirred a Hornet's Nest With His Assault on Public Workers But University Employees Have Been Fighting the Union-Busters for Years

A growing citizen movement may make Democratic politicians think twice about pressuring unions for concessions.
 
 
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Workers in Wisconsin and Ohio are facing the challenge of shifting the fight against union-busting legislation from raucous protests at state capitol buildings to a longer, more sustained battle fought through recall elections and ballot measures. As they attempt to maintain their momentum and hold together a broad coalition that includes public and private sector unions, small business owners, students and community members, they may be able to learn something from New Haven, Connecticut.

On March 30, New Haven's working people got a jump on the “We Are One”actions that took place around the country on April 4, commemorating the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and his work with the Memphis sanitation workers. In attendance were UNITE HERE national president John Wilhelm, Connecticut AFL-CIO president John Olsen, Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012, alongside thousands of marchers from the community.

This rally didn't protest the attempt by elected officials to pass legislation that would take away collective bargaining rights. Instead, the coalition that has been organizing for months—beginning well before Wisconsin brought union rights to the front pages--included public workers fighting layoffs and privatization of their jobs, the unemployed, and one union that's been battling for 20 years for recognition.

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) at Yale is a UNITE HERE affiliate that is not recognized by the university as a union. Yale graduate workers have been fighting for recognition for two decades, and the end may be closer than ever. Since 2004, when the Bush administration's National Labor Relations Board ruled against Brown University's graduate workers' attempt to organize—deeming them students, not employees of the university—no private university's graduate teachers and researchers have a union contract. New York University was the first private school to win a contract in 2001, which brought the graduate employees a 40-percent salary increase as well as health care and paid sick days.

That contract disappeared with the Bush NLRB ruling, but the Obama NLRB recently held hearings on the NYU graduate students' right to organize, and private university grad workers around the country are awaiting that decision as well. Not content simply to wait or to organize rallies, GESO released a report, Yale, Inc., detailing the university's turn toward an ever-more-corporate model that relies on non-tenure-track faculty and increases administration even while cutting teaching budgets. The union decries an education model that relies on squeezing workers and students for more work in less time, and sees its interests as aligned not just with other campus unions, but with the community of New Haven.

“The political geography and architecture of Yale is such that it can tend to shrink up into itself,” Stephanie Greenlea, co-chair of GESO, told me. New Haven is “a company town”--Yale is the single largest employer in what is otherwise one of the poorest cities in the country. 26.7 percent of New Haven's residents live below the poverty line, and the official unemployment rate is 10.6 percent.

A sixth-year African American studies and sociology PhD candidate, Greenlea emphasized the ways in which her academic work and teaching mesh with community work. “I felt [the rally] was very powerful because it reached across so many of the boundaries that can pop up in a post-industrial university town,” she said.

It was natural for the graduate students to work with UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, the Yale clerical and service and maintenance workers, who are facing contract negotiations this spring with a university that wants to make cuts. But the campus unions also organized with city workers, who are facing complaints from the city government that sound an awful lot like those coming from right-wing governors like Scott Walker and John Kasich.

Democratic Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who has held that office since 1994, claims that New Haven's main budget problems are pensions and health care costs. The city is trying to privatize its public school custodial services, undermining the custodial union, and recent public sector layoffs incensed the community, particularly after unions had offered concessions.

Though DeStefano, like New York's Andrew Cuomo, has stopped short of a full-scale attack on bargaining rights, the language is the same—the workers' benefits are from another time, the money just isn't there, and they have to share the sacrifice. Privatizing services eliminates the union without the need for a frontal assault. Contracts for teachers, police and firefighters are up June 30, and they expect a fight. But after Wednesday's rally, it's clear that the workers have a growing movement at their back.

Marchers carried signs that identified them as part of the faith community, as unemployed and retired, as public and private sector workers, as students and youth, as members of AFSCME, GESO, UNITE HERE, AFT, and more. One of the highlights of the event was a fiery off-the-cuff speech by high school student Isaiah Lee, who organized a rally the day before at City Hall to protest teacher layoffs and school administrators' salaries.

“We see our teachers, our custodians, our nurses getting laid off, and we hear our government saying they expect us to be productive members of New Haven — well I don’t think so,” Lee told the crowd. “You mess with our teachers, you mess with us!”

“That was my very first rally and I've lived in New Haven all of my life. People were putting aside their titles, whether it was public sector, private sector, they all sacrificed and said we all have something in common. At the end of the day we want the same things for our families,” Angela Russell, owner of the Arms of Love Family Academy day care center, told me. “I had no reason to be part of a union. I saw that their issue and mine, the two were intertwined.”

Other speakers at the rally noted the inspiration from Madison as well as from Egypt, a new spirit of solidarity that may have something to do with the dwindling size of a Tea Party rally this week in Washington, D.C. And while the protests in Madison sprang up organically, as the workers there transition from spontaneous action to coordinated movement, perhaps they can learn something from the New Haven organizers, who've been building slowly for a while.

“I really do think that the reason why things don't appear as dramatic in Connecticut or New Haven is that this very coalition activated and did the organizing to turn voters out in November. We were one of the only states that went blue. It's the same folks that made that happen in November who then made this happen,” Greenlea noted.

“Our movement here in New Haven has a long history of unity between workers, community members, students, and others in the face of vehement attempts to divide us. And we are determined to fight back against attacks on our rights,” said Sarah Eidelson, a Yale undergraduate with a student group called the Undergraduate Organizing Committee that works for economic justice at Yale and in New Haven.

The organizing across sectors, from students at one of the country's richest universities to low-wage workers and the unemployed in one of the poorest cities, helped keep Connecticut from falling to Republicans like many neighboring states did in the last election, and a positive NLRB decision would empower GESO, with community support behind them, to perhaps finally win their 20-year battle for union recognition—a giant step forward in a year that looks to be defined by attacks on unions.

Meanwhile, a growing citizen movement may make Democratic politicians think twice about pressuring unions for concessions. And that movement continues to empower the citizens of New Haven, even those not in unions. Angela Russell told me that since her involvement in the We Are One action, she's decided to run for alderperson of her ward.

“People are taking back their already-given rights,” she said. “People are moving beyond their fears to say enough is enough. No matter what it takes, no matter how long we have to stay out here, we're going to be heard, and not just be heard but see transformation that benefits the whole.”