By Marie Kelly posted on March 25, 2021
Student workers organize
Undergraduate student workers at Kenyon College in Ohio formed the Student Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and voted to strike because of unfair labor practices by the college. On March 15, more than 120 students picketed and marched across campus in what is being hailed as the first undergraduate student-labor strike in the country.
Graduate students from Columbia University went on strike March 15. At the University of New Mexico, graduate students are seeking union recognition. Last year, graduate students at University of Michigan and University of California, Santa Cruz had strikes.
Student-worker organizing got a boost this month when the National Labor Relations Board withdrew a Trump era rule that had characterized student workers as nonemployees and exempt from the board’s oversight. Now student-worker unions, both graduate and undergraduate, have legal recourse before the NLRB and are not dependent on a college administration’s voluntary recognition.
Essential workers demand compensation and safety
Out of the 5,000 union members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 87 who are employed as janitors in San Francisco office buildings, 3,000 have been laid off since the pandemic, and at least 26 have died from COVID. The remaining workers continue to disinfect offices and scrub bathrooms in buildings where major companies like Google and Amazon have space. Most of the janitors are employed by maintenance contracting companies like ABM, Able, Cleanarama and Genesis.
Union organizers say workers are not provided protective equipment. One worker describes receiving a new mask every 1-2 weeks. Workers describe having their hours cut, making it difficult to provide for their families.
Union demands include rehiring laid-off employees without a loss of seniority, a wage increase to compensate for working in a hazardous environment and an increase in paid sick days. Janitors want the cleaning companies to follow the example of San Francisco drugstores and grocery stores. Workers there, including janitorial staff, are represented by Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and won a $5 per hour hazard pay increase and other gains.
Nurses at St. Vincent’s, a for-profit hospital in Worcester, Mass., owned by the Tenet corporation, voted to strike following two years of stalled contract negotiations. The 800 nurses are represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Their main grievance revolves around nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, also referred to as patient limits or safe staffing.
All nurses know that limiting the number of patients per nurse per shift translates into higher quality care and nurses being available to patients at critical moments. Well-documented research defines what is a safe ratio, based on the seriousness of the patient’s condition and the level of care needed. The ratio proposed by Tenet corporate bosses does not promote safe quality care, nor does it limit the risk to workers of on-the-job injury.
Employers often increase the number of patients per nurse to cut costs or increase profits. National Nurses United is currently running a campaign to legislate safe nurse-to-patient ratios at the national level.
Women’s labor history in two documentary films
Two recent documentaries chronicle how women struggle and win against misogyny and patriarchal employers.
“9 to 5: A Story of a Movement” tells the story of women office workers in the 1970s who drastically changed how the business world functions. The organization “9to5” inspired Jane Fonda to make the Hollywood movie that bears its name. (9to5.org/about-9to5/)
In 1972, there were limited work opportunities for women. Secretaries were regarded as subordinates to male bosses and undervalued for the work they did. A group of women office workers in Boston, fed up with the misogyny, sexual harassment and unfair compensation, began organizing the 9 to 5 movement among their fellow secretaries.
The movement expanded across the country and eventually grew into Service Employees (SEIU) District 925. The documentary features first person accounts from the 9 to 5 leaders. Honing their organizing skills as the movement grew, they fought and won victories in male-dominated office hierarchies. Cleveland organizers, who won union recognition after a huge battle with Cuyahoga Community College, tell their story.
The film highlights how Black women from the South were recruited, but found the same disconnect that plagued the feminist movement in the 1970s. They speak openly of how they challenged the white leaders of the 9 to 5 movement to embrace a multiracial strategy. District 925 was eventually absorbed into the larger SEIU, but during its heyday it organized nationwide walkouts and secured pay raises, paid leave, childcare and opportunities for career advancement for its members.
The film is worth watching as a window into a not too distant past, minus the glamour and star power of Hollywood’s version.
If NFL Cheerleaders conjure thoughts of vapid women in silly costumes on the sidelines of football stadiums each autumn Sunday afternoon, the documentary: “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” will be an eye opener. The film focuses on two former NFL cheerleaders who filed class action lawsuits for pay equity.
Maria Pinzone was a cheerleader for the Buffalo Bills. Working 20 hours a week, her yearly salary was only $105. She describes an atmosphere where grueling practice sessions included supervisors’ body shaming tactics. Pinzone and four other Bills cheerleaders filed a class action suit in 2014 claiming wage theft and unsafe work conditions.
Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields became a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Raiders and describes the mandatory team promotional events, where cheerleaders were considered “volunteers” and weren’t even reimbursed for travel or hotel. Her class action suit won a victory, increasing wages to $9 an hour, triple the previous rate.
Filmmaker Yu Gu is an Asian immigrant woman who moved to California from Canada and became fascinated with the college football spectacle at the University of Southern California. Gu focuses on each woman, without the trappings of game day, struggling to win against the multibillion dollar NFL patriarchy. Her documentary is a tale of misogyny, sexual harassment and abuse. It compels us to see conventionally “beautiful” women as whole human beings.
According to Gu,“[The gender binary is] a construct that really hurts both men and women, but in this case it disproportionately affects women, because of wage theft,” she said. “They’re not getting paid for the amount of work they’re doing, and they’re not valued fairly, and you see the effects of that throughout their life . . . it’s cumulative.” (Women’s Media Center, Feb. 4)