East Bay workers gear up for long, hot summer

OAKLAND, Calif. — If California’s Alameda County, across the bay from San Francisco, is heading for a “long, hot summer,” extreme weather won’t be the only reason. Contracts covering 50,000 workers — half those whose unions are affiliated with the Alameda Labor Council — expired at midnight June 30.

Among those affected are longshore and other port workers, teachers, government workers, media workers, nurses and other health workers, food service and airport workers. Key issues include health care, wages and retirement benefits.

As the last hours of their contracts ticked away, some 400 workers began to gather for a dramatic nighttime march through downtown Oakland, with pauses at offices of key employers including the State of California, the Bay Area News Group’s Oakland Tribune, the University of California and the Pacific Maritime Association.

While they finished assembling their signs and donned matching bright red t-shirts proclaiming “100,000 East Bay workers united in ’08 for health care, pensions, livable wages and a voice at work,” workers told their stories.

The “not-for-profit” Sutter Health has set records for profits each year this century, but standards of care are “lower than at any other hospital chain,” Doug Jones, a long-time worker at Sutter’s Eden Medical Center told the World. Meanwhile, he said, working conditions and workers’ benefits continue to slide.

Under a contract extension, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West and the hospital chain are continuing talks for a new agreement. Earlier this year, UHW launched a campaign to renegotiate nearly 200 hospital and nursing home contracts expiring in 2008.

Meanwhile, security workers employed by Inter-Con Security who work at Kaiser’s medical facilities in northern California were expressing cautious optimism. The only workers at Kaiser who lack union representation, they have fought for nearly three years to win recognition of their union, SEIU Local 24/7.

Kaiser has finally put its security contract out to bid, promising to contract with a union firm, said Eric Jung, who works at Kaiser’s Hayward medical complex. Next, he said, the union will take a delegation to Inter-Con, to reinforce the fact that the union is supported by a majority of workers. “If Inter-Con accepts our union, we’ll celebrate,” he said, adding, “Otherwise, we’ll take the issue to Kaiser.”

The marchers also rejoiced over the victory won by Bay Area janitors after a week-long strike in May. Alfredo Lahud of SEIU Local 1877 told his fellow workers the new four-year contract is “one of the best we’ve had in the East Bay in the last decade.” Besides significant gains in wages and health care, he said, “The most important thing was the respect we won from the employers.” The bottom line, he said, is that “when we fight together, we win!”

In a June 27 op-ed in the Oakland Tribune entitled “Get ready for a long hot summer,” Alameda Labor Council head Sharon Cornu pointed out that “Over the last seven years, the climate of American economic policies has shifted away from benefiting the many toward enriching the few.” When firms succeed, she said, workers rarely share in the bounty, but when they fail, “workers and communities shoulder the burden.”

The November election “presents a monumental opportunity” to elect policymakers who will back policies benefiting all working families, Cornu wrote. “But before we see larger economic climate change, we need to survive this sweltering summer heat wave,” she added. “So if you see us on the picket line this summer, join us to fight for a new middle class.”