School staff union uses new strategies to raise support

Volunteers unfurl a sign for a tent on Broad Street where a fast is being staged in support of district lunchroom aides.
Volunteers unfurl a sign for a tent on Broad Street where a fast is being staged in support of district lunchroom aides. (ANDREW RENNEISEN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 28, 2013

For years, Unite Here Local 634 placidly represented lunch ladies at the Philadelphia School District, both the cooks and kitchen staff and the aides who kept peace in the cafeteria.

But these days, with 1,202 of their members laid off and the school district's budget hanging in the balance in Harrisburg, the ladies - and their male counterparts - are placid no more.

With a revolving crew of hunger strikers, stationed at a hard-to-miss location on South Broad Street, they are attracting attention.

"A year or two ago this would have never happened," said former cafeteria worker Nicole Hunt, 37, of North Philadelphia, a longtime member of the union and now staff organizer on her third day of fasting. "We wouldn't be sitting out here."

The story of Local 634 and its hunger strikers represents the convergence of a national trend in union activism and changes particular to this union, in this city, at this point of time.

The key point in time is Sunday.

That's when the school district, facing a $304 million shortfall, finishes laying off 3,859 employees - the largest shedding of jobs in decades. Entire categories of employees are going, from assistant principals to secretaries to counselors.

But the biggest group is 1,202 noontime aides - more than half of Local 634's members.

Sunday is also the state budget deadline in Harrisburg. Local 634 and district officials are hoping legislators will deliver $120 million for the district, while also blessing the city's efforts to raise $74 million through a new cigarette tax and aggressive tax collection.

In September, district negotiators and the remaining members of Local 634 will sit opposite each other across the bargaining table, adversaries perhaps, as they work on terms of a new contract.

But for now, they are allies, each with an interest in swaying public opinion to bring more money to the schools, and perhaps, to restore the jobs of the noontime aides.

"It is understandable to see the amount of passion with these individuals to call attention to what we also consider to be an untenable situation," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.

"Our public schools must be fully funded and fully staffed to be able to provide adequate education," he said. "We understand the passion, but we ask that individuals do not put themselves in harm's way."

The union isn't just relying on fasting, the marquee arrow in their quiver of strategies. Each day brings a new rally.

On Tuesday, two busloads of local activists, among them the Local 634 hunger strikers, traveled to Harrisburg to lobby. On Wednesday, representatives of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, the city's largest federation of unions, stopped by to bring support.

On Thursday, politicians, including U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, were scheduled to fast, and on Friday, a larger rally of Local 634 is planned on Broad Street.

Patrice Mareschal, public policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden, describes what Local 634 is doing as part of a national trend she calls "social movement unionism."

"In part it's in response to declining union density and in response to a weakening of labor protections," Mareschal said.

Instead of framing the discussion as employer-employee dispute, she said, the unions "try to send out the message that this is really a community concern, in this case, the safety of children during their lunch periods at school."

How this national trend came to this particular union in this particular city is a different story.

For years, Local 634 was part of a national union representing hotel and restaurant workers. In 2004, the national merged with another national union.

In 2009, that merger dissolved. In most cities, union locals simply went back to their old leadership structures. That didn't happen in Philadelphia.

Going into the merger, the city's two hospitality worker locals, Local 634 in the schools, and Local 274, which represented hotel workers, did not have strong leadership. They had relied on leaders from the textile workers' union.

When the merger dissolved in 2009, a custody battle ensued, with national operatives coming here to sway local members. Eventually it was settled, with all of Local 634 and much of Local 274 staying in the hospitality union.

That had a direct effect on what is happening on South Broad Street now.

As a result of the divorce, the two locals had a void in leadership, a void filled by the international union by putting both locals under its control.

Longtime Unite Here union organizer Rosslyn Wuchinich moved from New York to run Local 274. She's now president. And Cheryl Brandon, another longtime Unite Here organizer from New York, is the trustee for Local 634.

Hunt, who had been an officer in Local 634, said: "We were a service union. We took care of everybody's problems," maintaining the contract and helping members with benefits.

"But now," she said, "we're a fighting union."

The New Yorkers served, along with others, as consultants, teaching local leaders about effective ways of reaching out to politicians, to the media, to other influencers. For example, in a city concerned about school safety, they unilaterally changed the name of the laid-off workforce from noontime aides to "Student Safety Staff."

They also provided expertise in staging events to unions that had not staged much in years.

One Unite Here specialty: hunger strikes.

In 2010, Unite Here shepherded a hunger strike at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, and in April, the union helped organize a fast at the Hilton Mission Valley hotel, also in California. A Unite Here staffer who worked on at least one of those campaigns is in Philadelphia helping with this one.

None of the laid-off noontime aide/student safety staffers are fasting.

Union officials, including Brandon and Hunt, have fasted. The others are either members of Local 274 such as Demetrius Jackson, 29, a food service worker at Citizens Bank Park who has a daughter, 7, in public school, or cafeteria workers such as Roberta Thomas, 58, of Southwest Philadelphia.

"Sometimes you have to step in for people when they don't have the courage to do it," Thomas said.

Patrick Eiding, head of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, admits he was skeptical when he first heard about the hunger strike.

"Ideas come out of desperation," he said, "and sometimes they are good and sometimes they are bad. When it was first put forth to me, I was worried. If you don't sustain this, you look weaker in the end . . ..

"But they proved me wrong."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.inquirer.com/jobbing.

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