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Rank and File Workers Challenge U.S. Human Rights

By Charles E. Simmons

At Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti last week, full time faculty members hit the picket line over now all-too familiar issues facing rank and file blue and white collar workers in nearly every industry and sector of the labor force across the nation and around the globe. Round up the usual suspects in the corporate attempt to bust or weaken organized labor: takebacks in benefits, downsizing, outsourcing, Intellectual Property rights and the attempt everywhere to replace full-time workers with part-timers.

All the while, the corporate chiefs get humongous salary increases and benefits. At EMU, the new president was given a salary of $200K. Even though there is a home for presidents on campus, the president was given a half-million dollar residence in Ann Arbor. His entertainment budget is larger than that of some faculty members. While this is mere chicken feed for many corporate CEOs, universities still hold themselves out as non-profit organizations with a mission to dedicate themselves to the education of our youth.

These were the issues claimed by the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) against the EMU administration following the expiration of a contract extension just before school opened for the Fall semester. This was the first time that the EMU faculty had gone on strike in two decades, and although many members were surprised to find themselves walking the picket line, it was clear to most that the bottom ranking salaries of the EMU faculty was going to fall even lower if there were no raises. After one week of picketing and continuous negotiations, a tentative settlement was reached and the teachers went back to the classrooms. According to union spokespersons, all was settled favorably except for the crucial item affecting nursing faculty members who work long hours beyond that of other faculty but are not paid for services which they are required to perform such as on- site monitoring of students.

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A crucial issue that was not addressed in this strike nor in most education bargaining, is the division of labor and status among the various categories of faculty, an issue which plagues higher education across the nation. The relationship between the full time union members represented by the AAUP and that of the lecturers and part time faculty, teachers who have similar skills and training, but who were not hired as part of the tenure track category. For salary, work assignments and job security purposes, Lecturers are treated as unskilled laborers, and the part time faculty are treated as seasonal migrant workers. This is a similar problem in the industrial unions where there is a two-tier track that divides the veteran workers from new employees. The veterans receive much higher pay and benefits but the youngsters are frozen into a track leading to the bottom basement.

Another issue concerning the strikers, a challenge for workers in most service occupations who want to fight the management while not harming their clients, was the issue of student support. Most Americans are not taught labor history, nor the fact that it has been the struggles of organized labor that has brought most social and economic benefits to the American working people and professionals over the past 60 years. Therefore there is no reason to assume that young people will automatically be sympathetic to faculty whose work stoppage may place students---many who have families and jobs-- at the risk of a delayed graduation. Unionists must continue to work to resolve this challenge so a method of struggle can be implemented that helps rather than harms the clients whether they are hospital patients in a health workers strike, or students during a faculty strike.

The same is true for the employees on strike. It is understandable that many thoughtful employees would rather keep their jobs at all cost rather than risk layoffs or the loss of full time employment-even with decreased benefits. Fortunately for the strikers that the stoppage was only one week and the student and faculty support was consistently high. Had the strike gone on much longer, it is not certain that things would have turned out as favorably as they did. Keep in mind that the EMU faculty does not have a closed shop, so a substantial number of the faculties are not union members. On the other hand it must be said that fellow union members from other colleges and from industrial and transportation unions such as the Teamsters, gave their strong support for the EMU faculty and refused to cross the picket lines.

In Detroit the following week,, cafeteria workers-mostly African American women-- picketed ARAMACK, which contracts with Ameritech for food service. Although Aramack is one of the richest companies of its type in the nation. The women work full time with no contract, no benefits and no pensions. For full time employees often with more than 20 years seniority, their wages range from $6.24 to $9.60 per hour. Compare those wages with that of the CEO, Joseph Neubauer, who in 1999 had a package of total compensation of more than two million dollars plus stock options of nearly six million dollars. .

Both of these labor struggles raise important issues for students, blue and white collar workers, professionals and small businesses throughout the society. First, there is a dire need for mass education of the U.S. population in the schools and neighborhoods, from door-to-door, about working conditions and the benefits of organized labor. Second, it is important to support fellow unions in their struggles. It should be a badge of honor for any person in any industry to walk a picket line for themselves and for other unions to improve the condition of labor, living wages, job security and the safe environment of any worker.

Third, we must begin to recognize that labor conditions only begin at the job site and extend outward to the entire living and recreation environments. Anyone concerned about social justice has the duty to support all struggles for better social, economic, political and environmental conditions throughout the nation and around the world. Fourth, workers and professionals must recognize that the current struggle around the world against the globalization policies of theft and militarism by the giant corporations that repress local community activists, student movements and social justice struggles is an integral part of their own interests in the U.S. Fifth, workers and students must realize that the big corporate media which feeds us most of our information about domestic and foreign affairs, has interlocking sweetheart ties in the boardrooms of Wall street and cannot give an honest report about these struggles for justice neither in Detroit, Mexico City nor Johanesburg.

Americans who labor and study must recognize that their best interests are not to struggle against foreign workers and farmers in a race to the bottom, but that the little people who do the work on every continent need to find ways to join hands across borders and raise their collective living standards and conditions of human rights. If not, they will continue to be throw-aways and pawns to be divided by the greedy Fortune 500 in their attempt to push labor standards and incomes, health and environmental conditions to the basement and below. In this new millenium, Globalization of the economy for the Greedy must be met with a larger movement to Globalize justice for the Needy. This will require new thinking and a democratic structure within the ranks of the House of Labor and among those who have not yet been organized. It will require a movement at the community level to empower themselves and in the process to change the national and global system that rips off the large majority and feeds the war industry. If not, that competition fired by that establishment, and their well-paid servants in the respective governments will end in more social injustice and ultimately, war between nations over markets, and even more of this embattled earth will bleed once again.


AUTHOR NOTE: Charles Simmons teaches Journalism and Media Law at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. He is also Co-Chair of the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit.

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