Weingarten to striking members: ‘Your union supports you 1,000 percent’

Thousands of workers across the country have taken part in strikes or labor actions this fall. On Nov. 8, Scranton Federation of Teachers President Rosemary Boland, Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals President Jodi Barschow and University Council-AFT President Mia McIver joined AFT President Randi Weingarten during a Facebook Live town hall to discuss their conflicts and why their members either are on strike or have voted to strike.

Weingarten felt it was important for all members to hear from these labor leaders about what is going on in different locals and let those ready to strike know that they are not alone. “I want your members to see the love all across our union. We are with you.”

Video call with Randi Weingarten, Rosemary Boland, Jodi Barschow, Mia McIver

Many of us called last month “Striketober,” Weingarten said, because of the number of strikes, but all of this is very reflective of our essential workers’ efforts on the frontlines in the last two years of this pandemic. “Whatever the individual circumstances are, … the issue is that they have been working through the pandemic to help those who needed it, and now we have a situation where everything else has been exhausted.”

“It’s not just about a rally or a strike, it’s about all of us coming together as a union and as a family to help those in the most vulnerable state. Those who have decided that they can’t do anything at the bargaining table without withholding their services. … They want to be doing what they love to do, but the employer has to treat them fairly.”

In Scranton, Pa., over 800 educators and paraprofessionals are currently on strike. Scranton educators and school staff haven’t had a contract in five years, and services have been cut to the bone. In a school system where teachers and paras make well below the average salary statewide, district administrators have given themselves raises. The administration has also shot down a proposal to use American Rescue Plan funds to help schools.

Instead of putting us on the path of recovery, the outgoing school board and local “recovery” officer assigned to help administer the district’s budget has been making tremendous cuts to education, said SFT President Boland. “The cuts are in every single solitary subject area,” she said. As a result, paras and teachers are leaving for better pay and benefits.

Boland said that the whole city has come alive with community and parental support for the educators. “We are getting support, but we have nine dunces on our school board … who should be sitting down at the table to negotiate,” she said. “It is our hope that somebody … will say to them ‘wake up, … and talk to your educators across the table, and come to an agreement and get the students back in school.’”

Boland expressed gratitude for all the support her membership has received.

‘A pivotal moment’

On Nov. 5, members of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, who are part of a coalition of unions at Kaiser Permanente facilities, gave a 10-day strike notice. The coalition covers Kaiser workers in eight states, many of whom have also authorized strikes.

At issue is a lack of adequate staffing, which has reached crisis levels at Kaiser and other healthcare settings, and wages. Instead of presenting proposals to solve the staffing crisis, OFNHP President Barschow said that Kaiser executives have offered low wages and a “two-tiered” system that would mean new workers would make much less than their colleagues. She said that these proposals would accelerate the staffing crisis, ensuring dangerous conditions in hospitals and clinics around Oregon.

“We are at this pivotal moment,” said Barschow. “We’ve been negotiating with Kaiser for months ... on the big economic and workplace issues. Kaiser has pushed back every single step of the way, … coming with very few solutions. It has been frustrating, to say the least.”

Barschow said members are fired up about short staffing. “[Kaiser] came to the table offering a 1 percent, now 2 percent raises. And they are trying to adopt a two-tiered wage system that would slash wages and would do nothing to solve the problems we are all facing,” she said. “We have to draw a line and call a strike to push Kaiser to do the right thing for both our healthcare workers and our patients.”

If Kaiser workers go on strike Nov. 15, it could be the largest private-sector strike in U.S. history, said Barschow.

“If we win this, we will save the care system and create a new future for both patients and staff. … If we lose, Kaiser will send the message … that we are not strong enough to stop their attacks on the care models they are trying to implement and workplace democracy. Our workers have fought hard to save lives during COVID, … and it’s not over,” she said. “Now we are fighting for the future of our healthcare system, so it is a pivot moment.”

“We will need support from all of you … to support our strike fund and to put pressure on Kaiser leadership to show that replacement workers will never be able to replace our experienced staff,” she said. “We need to show Kaiser that we are strong so that we can get back to work.”

‘Fired up and ready to act’

The University Council-AFT, Local 1474, represents over 6,000 contingent teaching faculty at the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses. Nearly half of all classes on the UC campuses are taught by these faculty—known as nontenure-track or adjunct professors in other systems—who are responsible for most of the writing and language classes, many lower-division courses and some graduate classes. They cover every discipline, from art history to zoology, have advanced degrees and hold esteemed positions in their fields. But these contingent faculty are still fighting for the most basic of workers’ rights: job security, a reasonable workload and a living wage.

The members began bargaining in 2019 but were hamstrung by the pandemic and negotiated a side agreement. Because there has been little progress in negotiations, the membership voted to authorize a strike in June.

UC-AFT President McIver said that as contingent faculty, her members don’t have the protection of tenure. “Most of us don’t even know if we’ll have a job to return to at the end of each year,” she said, noting that under the current system, UC management can decide not to renew contracts without reason. “Ending this ‘gigification’ of the university is a real key priority for us. We see our contract campaign as being not just about ourselves or our students but on the system of public higher education nationwide, which has come to rely heavily on cheap teaching labor,” she said, adding that at the University of California, many members face abysmally low pay and must scrabble together multiple jobs to find benefits, and when it comes to workload, they often perform countless hours of unpaid labor.

“For a lot of reasons, we’re fired up,” said McIver. “We’re ready to act.”

“I’m hopeful that everyone has seen tonight that we are all in,” said Weingarten. “One of the attributes of our union is that when people are at the precipice and are taking action that requires sacrifice, we form a community around them. We believe in community. We understand that we all rise together or we all fall together. That’s the sense of solidarity and unity, and we have to be particularly intentional when we have a unit or group of our siblings who are going through a strike or a contentious contract campaign or trying to fight for justice or opportunity.”

Weingarten said: “I want our members to know that they are seen by their colleagues all across the country. … Their union supports them 1,000 percent.”

Two great ways to help: Take a photo to show your solidarity and support for our members and share it on social media, and donate to the AFT’s strike fund, which can be found at www.aft.org/solidarity-strike-fund.

 [Adrienne Coles]