Labor struggles should inspire students

Although there hasn’t been as much coverage lately of US labor struggles in the mainstream media, there have been some amazing things going on since the protests in Wisconsin over state workers’ collective bargaining rights back in February.

This summer witnessed the longest work stoppage in the history of the NFL, which ended in a major victory for players — i.e., workers. Players were able to keep owners from adding more games to the season and shortening off-season practice periods.

This limits full contact practices that increase wear on players’ bodies and increase their chances for injury. Football and its repetitive practices have been increasingly linked to concussions and other brain and nervous system damage.

On top of this, players were able to maintain a comparable share of revenue while increasing pensions for already retired players.

Most impressively, players were able to secure lifetime health coverage, which is crucial because of the toll a career in the sport can take on players’ bodies. This often makes post-NFL private insurance for players extremely expensive and difficult to secure.

The fact that the average career in the league is only 3.4 years makes securing long-term healthcare even more important for all NFL players.

Also, in spite of the general climate of austerity in the country, 45,000 Verizon workers started the largest strike in recent history on Aug. 7. The company has been calling to freeze worker pensions, take away contributions to employees’ healthcare premiums and make it easier to fire workers and take away seniority-based pay raise policies.

The workers went on strike and picketed for two weeks, and though they haven’t gotten their demands yet, they have earned a much more level field for bargaining.

And finally, on Aug.17, over 300 student workers on the J-1 visa program staged a sit-in and strike at a Hershey’s packing warehouse in Pennsylvania to protest their exploitation. These students paid between $3,000 and $6,000 to travel to the US, learn English and be immersed in American culture.

Instead, they found themselves trapped working for pittances through a typical sweatshop model.

The workers, under a lot of physical duress and pressure, make slightly over minimum wage, but have been forced to live in crowded, artificially inflated company housing that costs double the market value. And, according to The New York Times, after rent and other mandatory bills were paid, the students only made between $1 and $3.50 an hour.

The J-1 program enlists over 100,000 foreign students annually to do menial jobs — with similar levels of exploitation as this Hershey’s case. This is a growing trend within Hershey’s and other companies. According to the National Guestworker Alliance, Hershey’s laid off 1,500 workers in recent years and replaced them with exploited student labor, and is planning on firing 500 more workers next year.

Companies who enlist J-1 students don’t have to pay Social Security or Medicare for these student workers. Also, if the workers speak up about their wages or working conditions, the company can take away their visas and have them deported. Many of the students are in debt because of the initial cost of the program, so for them the situation is dire.

However, these students did stand up. Together with the support of local union chapters and other community members, they are fighting to turn these exploited jobs into union represented living-wage careers.

Although Houston is a city known to be pro business, and is located in a state known to be conservative, the majority of those on campus are, or will be, workers.

Therefore, the labor movement is something UH students should care about, regardless of their political affiliation. Houston needs more people working to build a strong labor movement locally. UH is a good place to start.

Brendan Laws is a senior sociology major and may be reached at [email protected].

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