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Students Unite With Workers' Fight

743 Teamsters Demand Decent Contract

by staff |
July 1, 2003
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Chicago, IL - University of Chicago students and workers have pulled together an alliance that promises to be a force on campus for years to come. The alliance between university workers and students has challenged the university's ability to treat its workers, "just any old way," according to Daniel Davis, a University of Chicago Hospitals environmental services worker.

When workers and students started to organize together in support of a just contract for Teamsters working at the University of Chicago Hospitals (UCH), the administration did not hesitate to crack down.

University of Chicago students from the Anti-Sweatshop Coalition (ASC) contacted workers from the Teamsters 743 New Leadership Slate (743 NLS) to conduct a joint program. Activists in the 743 New Leadership Slate at the University of Chicago were sick and tired of being sold out by sweetheart agreements between the university and corrupt union officials.

The Anti-Sweatshop Coalition and the 743 New Leadership Slate decided to bring in a speaker from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union for a talk called, 'How to get a good contract, even if your union is soft.' "The university did not like that," said Davis, "we were exposing their partners in crime."

The University reacted quickly. They ordered security to rip down all fliers of the event that second shift workers had posted in the UCH. Then they stationed a university police squad car outside the event to monitor who went in and out. Finally, they sent a university police sergeant into the event to check it out.

"I couldn't believe it," said ASC student activist Dan Lichenstein, "they sent an armed university police officer to check out our educational event. It was clear that they were worried about our alliance with university workers."

The administration felt a threat, a threat to their power. Recent unity between workers and students at other universities like Harvard have produced large wage increases for workers, a reduction in the use of non-union temporary or subcontracted workers and a 'living wage' policy.

At Yale, with the support of student activists, the union workers went out on strike. The strike gained massive support from the Black community and religious leaders, as well as many of the university's renowned professors.

University of Chicago student activists were not scared off by the administration's actions. They reported the event to the student newspaper, The Maroon. The paper investigated and found that, in addition to using its police to intimidate, the administration had also sent a letter to Teamster union steward and 743 NLS activist, Richard Berg. In the letter, Berg was instructed that he could not use the union bulletin board or pass out literature to workers without management approval.

The Maroon ran the article on its front page. Then something mysterious happened. All of the student newspapers disappeared from UCH. UCH management denies this obvious act of censorship.

The student activists did not stop tere. They held a university worker-student solidarity day outside UCH. Hundreds of workers participated. Hospital workers were encouraged to fill out report cards for UCH management. The workers gave mostly grades of F and a few D's to UCH on such issues as wages, delivery of patient care, respect and health insurance benefits for UCH workers.

The report cards were posted on a large sculpture for everyone walking by to see. UCH vice president Mark Urquhart was visibly upset as he viewed the event from nearby. UCH Teamster Romona Wilkins said, "The students allowed us to express ourselves in a way that the University prohibits. If we tried to do this without the students, management would fire us."

"It's all about money and power," said Dan Davis, "the Teamster contract with the University expires on July 12, the nurses contract expires in the fall and then the [non-hospital] campus Teamsters' early next year. These students are destroying the U of C image, and in the process, their ability to exploit us."

Union officials did not participate in the student-worker solidarity day. In fact, they were just as upset as the university that workers were organizing with students. The union officials' collusion with the university goes back years.

Teamster Local President Bob Walston wrote a letter condemning the Maroon article. The university allowed it to be passed out at the time clock and posted on the union bulletin board. "Apparently if I did that, I would be fired," said Richard Berg.

"This is all about negotiating our union contract. We expect the wage proposals to be better because we haven't had a decent raise in more than five years. I think the real issues are going to be the unequal treatment of clerical workers, the cost of health insurance, trying to get a adequate pension, limiting the use of non-union temporary workers and the use of electronic devices [cameras] to discipline workers," Berg said.

The UCH now times how long it takes workers to transport a patient: for example, from a treatment back to their room. Hospital workers have been fired for not moving patients fast enough in their wheel chairs. Similarly, workers in housekeeping are being timed on how fast they clean a room after a patient has checked out. This raises the issue of what quality of patient care is being provided at UCH.

"Do they want us to wheel patients down the hall in a jog? Do we want to put family members in a room that has not been adequately cleaned? This is especially important in the days of AIDS, SARS and other infectious diseases," said UCH Transportation worker Stephen Aldridge.

The UCH has also installed scores of cameras to spy on workers. The cameras are being used to keep track what workers do every second of every day. Some workers have speculated how management would feel workers could view every moment in their offices.

The student and worker alliance threatens these repressive management actions. Students at the University of Chicago and around the country are becoming active along side with workers. This alliance is good for the student movement and good for the working class.