Readers, I'm so excited to introduce BPHSN's faculty advisor, Karen Pomerantz, as our guest blogger for This Week. I hope you enjoy the post and are encouraged to become an an advocate for public health across the world, or right here in our own backyard.
From North Africa to the Midwest, conditions for working people are getting worse. In Congress and state legislatures, Republicans and Democrats have cut funding for housing subsidies, HIV medication programs (ADAP), energy subsidies for the poor, literacy training (Even Start), child care, and education while spending billions to fight wars and prop up dictators.
Yet, people are not taking this lying down! Students have shut down the University of Puerto Rico to oppose new fees, and workers have occupied the state house in Wisconsin to protest union busting. Meanwhile, 10s of 1000s of people in Africa, Iraq and the Middle East have demanded civil liberties, basic services, and jobs.
Why should we care? As public health students, we know that decent living conditions, such as well paid jobs, employment security, access to higher education, paid sick leave, influence our health and health care. As employers push down wages and benefits for higher paid workers and slash the safety net, it will be harder for us to enable healthy choices and policies.
We also have a very personal stake. Most students pay exorbitant tuition rates and leave the University with a burden of debt. We need jobs and economic security for our own well-being as well as for the public. For decades, unions set the standard for union and non-union jobs. But when union workers are forced to take a cut, all working people in the community see their wages, benefits, and working conditions deteriorate. Employers no longer have to compete for workers by offering better jobs.
Therefore, it is in our interest to support labor actions that demand better – and we don’t have to travel to Wisconsin or Ohio. Right here in DC are 2 hot labor struggles we can support.
Washington Hospital Center nurses: The nurses walked off their jobs on a 1-day strike on Friday, March 4 to protest pay cuts in night and weekend shifts and dangerous staffing levels. Nurses on the picket line described how the Hospital is trying to push out experienced nurses so they can hire new ones with less pay. The Hospital threatened to cancel clinical practicums if a nursing school didn’t provide scabs for the strikers! For now, the Hospital has locked out the workers til Wednesday, March 9. You can join them on their picket lines during this time – let them know public health supports nurses!
Metro workers: Members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, 7,000+ Metro workers, have been working under an expired contract since 2008. In 2010, binding arbitration resulted in a contract that increased workers' payments for their health insurance, eliminated retirement health benefits for new hires, and froze wages for the first year of the contract.
Nevertheless, the union agreed to abide by this contract because it included retroactive 3% pay increases per year – bare minimum cost of living increases, which they haven't had since 2007. Now the court has ruled that Metro workers can’t even receive this small pay increase unless they prove the company can afford it!
Metro's work force is predominantly African American, meaning that cuts to wages and benefits have a racist effect, hitting black families in our area the hardest. This group is already disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic, the housing crisis, and cuts and layoffs in public schools. Metro management also continues systemic racism by cutting bus lines and service east of the river, and threatening to cut late night train service – just when workers in food service, health care, and other service jobs end their shifts.
Workers and riders alike suffer from overcrowded trains and buses, broken escalators, and faulty switches. Metro operators and engineers are responsible for the safety of their co-workers and hundreds of riders every day. We cannot protect their health and safety – or our own – by increasing their stress and workload, or blaming the people with the least authority every time a malfunction makes the news.
Metro workers' wages and benefits help support the entire local economy, especially low-income families. A minimum wage worker at Walmart, for instance, may depend on their spouse's health insurance from Metro to cover health costs that would otherwise bankrupt the family.
Developers flock to the area around Metro stations because they know they'll make a profit there. The federal government and businesses like the Verizon Center, Whole Foods, Target, and countless others depend on the Metro system. If the DC government can afford to offer millions in tax breaks to developers, and the federal government can afford to spend millions every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely enough resources exist to fund the Metro system safely and fairly.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Celebrate International Women’s Month by supporting the nurses. Join the nurses’ picket lines at 1st and Irving St. NW til March 9th and check back for updates.
- Rally with Metro workers outside Metro headquarters at the JACKSON GRAHAM BUILDING, 600 5th St, NW (Judiciary Square) on March 10, 8:30am – 12pm to demand that Metro fulfill its contract obligations. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
- Circulate this article. Talk to your own union, co-workers, student groups, church, and community organizations. Invite Metro workers to speak with your group about what they experience on the job. Share with them your ideas and experiences. Metro workers will meet with public health and GWU students in early April. Stay tuned.
- Be critical of media coverage of Metro and the Washington Hospital Center. Discuss why accidents are part of a systemic failure, not the shortcomings of individual workers. Think about who benefits by cutting wages and busting unions. What are the public health implications?