Syracuse University workers strike for pay equity and job security, 1998

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Syracuse, NY
Location Description: 
Syracuse University
SEIU Local 200A demanded that Syracuse University agree to a contract that included: an end to the practice of replacing full-time workers with temporary hires who are paid minimum-wage and receive no benefits; pay equity for low-paid library workers, nearly all of whom were women; and an end to the overuse of subcontracting.

On 30 June 1998, the contract between Service Employees International Union Local 200A (SEIU) and Syracuse University (SU) expired. Preceded by two months of negotiation, SU made a final offer for a new contract before the 30 June deadline.

SEIU rejected the contract and demanded that SU agree to a contract that included: an end to the practice of replacing full-time workers with temporary hires who are paid minimum-wage and receive no benefits; pay equity for low-paid library workers, nearly all of whom were women; and an end to the overuse of subcontracting. SU asserted their right to subcontract any department with less than 25 employees in return for wage increases. SEIU refused to agree to the continued use of subcontracting, stating that one hundred union jobs had been lost due to this practice.

With negotiations stalemated, the 750 unionized food service workers, parking lot attendants, library assistants, janitors, and groundskeepers returned to work on 1 July without a contract.

On 16 July SU requested a federal mediator to aid in reopening contract negotiations – SEIU supported this request.

Against the advice of the federal mediator, SU made a second offer for a new contract on 28 July that strengthened SU’s ability to subcontract and outsources jobs. SEIU again rejected the contract.

On 16 August SEIU polled its membership on the question of going on strike – an overwhelming majority supported the action.

Over a week later, on 25 August, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Gershon Vincow sent a memo to the Academic Deans Cabinet advising members to be prepared to penalize faculty members who “choose not to cross the picket line” with reductions in pay and potential reconsideration of benefit packages. The memo also stated that tuition discounts for faculty’s children could be revoked, non-union faculty who supported the strike would be fired, and department chairs would lose their positions if they failed to report the names of striking faculty members.

Three days later, on 28 August, SU Chancellor Kenneth Shaw issued an open letter to the SU community, asserting that “paid agents” and union officials had caused the impasse in contract negotiations. On the same, the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) disseminated an anonymous memo warning graduate students to consult with their departments before supporting the strike. The memo also reminded students that disseminating union materials on-campus was prohibited.

SEIU responded to Shaw the following day in the press, stating that SU had “not negotiate[ed] in good faith” and consistently refused to address the issue of full-time, unionized workers being replaced by temporary workers. A parent of an SU student also wrote a letter to Shaw to ask that Shaw stop unfairly characterizing the collective bargaining process as a conspiracy instigated by outsiders.

On the first day of fall semester classes, 31 August, 630 groundskeepers, food service workers, and library assistants went on strike, protesting at fifteen different picket lines across campus. Between 10 and 15 percent of unionized staff reported to work. Some professors chose not to cross the picket line and held classes off-campus in nearby community centers or at home.

The administration hired temporary workers to replace striking staff. Students were also offered temporary jobs – SU claimed the jobs were part of the College Work Study program, not a system to replace striking workers.

The next day, fifty faculty members joined the strike and held a picket line and press conference outside the Bird Library.

Public safety told the faculty they could not carry strike signs on campus. Faculty members refused to remove the signs and staged a sit-in outside the library. Public safety declined to arrest the faculty after they sat-in for an hour and a half.

The following day, 2 September, three hundred students and the members of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action held a teach-in on the quad. Afterwards, a thousand students, faculty, and community members marched in protest to Chancellor’ Shaw home. The Herald-Journal reported that between 75 and 100 faculty members continued to hold classes off-campus so as to not cross the picket line.

Students continued to protest the next day, 3 September, gathering outside the administration building to demand that Shaw be hired part-time. A dozen students broke off from the demonstration to blockade the administration’s building main entrances until the end of the business day.

On 4 September, Shaw declared in another open letter that SU remained committed to free speech but that freedom of speech “ceases” when it infringes on the rights of other.

As campus prepared for a major football game the following day, Saturday, 5 September, Shaw designated an area 100 feet from the sports dome for the striking workers to gather. The union continued to hold picket lines but did not disrupt crowds entering and exiting the football game.

Throughout the week, prominent alumni and the director of the SU Law Library wrote open letters to Chancellor Shaw, asking him to make SU a model for productive bargaining with workers rather than an example of union-busting. The union also reported that at some point during the week a supervisor drove through a picket line and hit a striking employee.

Over the course of the weekend, SU and SEIU negotiated a new contract. A week after the first day of the strike, members of SEIU Local 200A voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new contract that included significant wage increases for library workers, minor wage increases for other unionized staff, protections against subcontracting, and limits on the amount of hours temporary hires could work each year.

Research Notes
Zaidi, Ali Shehzad. "Powerful Compassion: The Strike at Syracuse." Monthly Review. 1999, Vol. 51, Issue 04 (September).

Nelson, Cary and Stephen Watt. Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy. Routledge: New York and London. 2004.

Additional Notes: 
Although some of the union's demands could be understood as seeking change, the overall character of the struggle became one of defending the right of the union meaningfully to exist. For that reason the case is classified "Defense."
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Guido Girgenti, 25/4/2014