"If You Organize, You Can Win": Philly School Workers Fight for Fair Contract

Fed up with their inexcusably low poverty-line wages and bare-minimum medical care, Full-time Food Service Workers and Noon Time Aides working for the Philadelphia school District have been waging a campaign for decent wages and benefits. Recently M. Junaid Alam, co-editor of the new radical youth journal Left Hook (http://www.lefthook.org), had the opportunity to discuss the situation with Warren Heyman, chief negotiator for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union Local 634 and Secretary Treasurer of Local 217.

Alam: Warren, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

When did the food service workers and noon time aides decide that it was time to fight for a just and equitable contract?

Heyman: The food service workers and noon time aides decided over the last two years to take a stand and fight to make sure this new contract ensured fair wages, benefits and a real voice on the job.

Alam: How has the school system tried to justify paying wages that straddle the poverty line to you and other workers who help feed and supervise the community's children?

Heyman: Yes, the District's negotiating committee has repeatedly rejected our proposals stating that the district could not afford to compensate these workers due to the hard economic times.

Alam: What kind of health benefits does the school district give its food service and noon time aide workers?

Heyman:The food service workers have HMO coverage for themselves and their family but it provides the least amount of coverage of the fulltime employees in the district. Additionally, there is no drug coverage for their children and spouses. The noon time aides have no major medical coverage and the drug coverage is limited to $600 per year. For full-time food service workers its limited to $1,000 per year.

Alam: Your website illustrates many examples of how serious the situation is; one union member who has served the district for 25 years literally is afforded no insurance and is forced to use credit cards to pay for prescription medication. How have workers with children tried to cope with this harsh situation?

Heyman: The workers are coping by using welfare and getting second and third jobs and going without needed medical attention. Some workers are fortunate enough to be married to someone who has medical coverage through a spouse.

Alam: Since you initiated your campaign, has the district made any concessions to your demands? Has there been any effort or success in rallying the teachers to your side?

Heyman:Since we started to fight we have won many important improvements to the contract but still have some major issues to resolve. We have learned that if you organize you can win but you need to be prepared to fight for as long as it takes. The other unions in the district have been supportive and we have started to form a coalition to coordinate the activities of the unions. We have also received support from the students.

Alam: How can ordinary people who want to express solidarity with your fight for decent wages and benefits help out?

Heyman: They can log on to www.phillyschoollunch.info and then click on the button to support us and send a fax to the District supporting our fight. There is also a place to click if you want to be kept informed.

Alam: Warren, thanks again for your time and responses.

M. Junaid Alam, 20, is co-editor and webmaster of Left Hook. He takes heat and dishes it back out here: alam@lefthook.org

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