Student labor activists learn the meaning of solidarity

Counter-protesters were hired to intimidate NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement during a solidarity protest with striking health care workers. (Facebook/SLAM)

Everything was going as planned on the morning of the first Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) protest of the semester at New York University last month. We had our literature, our handmade signs and, eventually, over 150 workers and students ready to march through campus.

Of course, you can’t prepare for everything. We certainly weren’t ready for the counter-protesters who showed up and followed us on our march as we demanded the ouster of NYU Law School’s Board of Trustees member, Daniel Straus. And we were not expecting the sidewalk in front of the Straus Institute to be blocked by two dozen of these beefy guys, who were staring us down. What could we do?

We held our picket on the other side of the street, with students and workers leading chants like, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Daniel Straus has got to go!” Meanwhile, the counter-protesters hurled insults at us and threatened to beat up a student after the rally (which can be seen in a video of the action). Later that day, Straus released a personal statement that, without any sense of irony, called our rally a “staged protest.”

In reality, we were all there to voice our outrage at Straus’s business practices. As a principal of the CareOne and HealthBridge companies, he is complicit in the repeated intimidation of workers, the firing of union organizers and devastating cuts to employee benefits. Many of the people who joined us at NYU that day were nursing home workers who were on strike after HealthBridge unilaterally imposed an unfavorable contract on them, a move the National Labor Relations Board has deemed to be evidence of “unfair labor practices.”

We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Straus’s companies had hired thugs to try to deter us from speaking out against him. These types of intimidation tactics were the reason SLAM got involved in this campaign. When we began meeting some of the workers of CareOne and HealthBridge to learn about their struggle, many of them told us — sometimes tearfully — about what it was like to work in a place where you were not respected, about being fired for minor infractions and about the thugs that appeared at their workplace the day they were voting to form a union.

After our own firsthand experience with the thugs, we wrote letters to the NYU administration, asking them to condemn the disruption of our protest and demand Straus step down from the Board of Trustees. Finally an email came from Law School Dean Richard Revesz, saying, “the principle of peaceful and lawful protest is crucially important at NYU, and we caution all parties to take the steps necessary to ensure that it is upheld….” While we were happy to have the lines of communication open, Dean Revesz did not address our claims that goons were hired to threaten us, allegations Straus’s company called “absurd.”

Two days later, an article appeared in The Villager, revealing that CareOne admitted to hiring people to counter our protest. Confronted with evidence showing that the counter-protesters had been paid to show up at NYU, including job postings on Facebook, the company conceded that they had brought “security” to our rally. However, as photos from the event show, no one from the so-called security team was wearing a uniform or anything identifying them as security. Instead, many of them were wearing scrubs, and they held signs claiming they were the “real workers of HealthBridge.”

Painful stories

In 2009, the Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice opened at NYU to great fanfare. At the inaugural event on December 3, guests were served wine by waiters in bow ties and treated to speeches about the artwork that graced the Institute’s newly-renovated interior, including the story of how a sculpture of Abraham was transported all the way from Slovenia.

As a video of the event shows, Dean Revesz praised the Institute’s funder Daniel Straus as a “committed philanthropist.” Straus endows the Institute with over $1 million annually, an amount that is chump change compared to the $95 million he spent on Upper East Side real estate the following year.

In an interview posted on the Institute’s website, Straus talks about his father’s experience as a poor immigrant to the United States, saying, “He never wanted to discuss the poverty, you know, working all day for a slice of bread or a piece of potato. He would tell me little bits, not full stories. It was too painful.”

SLAM members recently visited a picket line at a HealthBridge facility in Westport, Connecticut, where workers — many of them immigrants — have their own painful stories to tell. One worker, Agatha, told students, “I’ve been here for 19 years and I’m not even making $18 an hour. I would ask Straus: Could he afford to live off $16 an hour? What he’s offering now for new workers is $9.50 an hour.”

Eloise Powell, who has worked for HealthBridge for 15 years, said, “I can barely afford to buy a coat for my daughter, or oil for my house.”

When Agatha, Eloise and hundreds of other nursing home workers walked off the job in July, it was because Straus’s company had abruptly ended negotiations and handed out their “final offer” in envelopes to employees. The new contract forced workers to pay thousands of dollars more a year for health care, eliminated half of their paid sick and vacation days, and terminated their pensions.

“We are fighting for our rights,” a worker named Caroline said. “They took all our benefits. Who can buy insurance with $12 an hour? We have families, we have children in college and we cannot afford to live on this contract.”

‘We know when someone is lying to us’

SLAM members started a solidarity campaign with SEIU 1199 (the union that represents HealthBridge and CareOne employees) last winter, when nursing home workers in Milford, Conn., were locked out. We began circulating a petition calling for Straus to be removed from the Law School Board of Trustees unless he negotiates a fair contract with workers, a demand we still make today.

Over the course of the campaign, we’ve heard from many workers about the dirty tactics Straus’s companies deploy. Harold Napier, a maintenance worker at a CareOne facility in Woodcrest, New Jersey, told me that before he and his co-workers voted to form a union in March, management had them attend mandatory meetings every other day at which people claiming to be former lawyers for SEIU 1199 told them about how corrupt the union was.

“We’re grown people,” Harold said. “We know when someone is lying to us.”

And so do students. The bold-faced lies from Straus’s companies — such as the claim about hiring “security” to come to our protest — have incensed students and faculty and are helping SLAM build momentum on campus. But we have a long way to go at NYU, where there is a shockingly high tolerance for injustice. The hypocrisy of someone endowing an institute for “law and justice” while his companies are regularly being dragged to court by the National Labor Relations Board should be enough to remove someone from the Board of Trustees of a Law School, yet NYU insists on releasing statements calling Straus an “upright and honorable person.”

Despite NYU’s reluctance to take a public stance on the matter, Straus and his companies have been forced to respond to our actions — if not yet to us, at least to the media. And it is becoming increasingly difficult for the administration to remain neutral given CareOne’s damning confession.

The challenge for our campaign right now is to continue to leverage media to reach Straus and NYU, without letting the entire campaign become a PR battle that takes place mainly on the Internet. While the responses we’ve gotten have generally come through news articles, it is the growing outrage and action of students that make the campaign newsworthy.

Many of the students I talk to about the campaign are rightly surprised to hear that such overt corporate bullying is happening on campus. Issues of freedom of speech appear so clear cut, so black and white, compared to a seemingly messy labor dispute, which people feel they can’t understand until they’ve heard “both sides.”

But we don’t need to forget about the original goal of the campaign — to get Straus to negotiate a fair contract with workers and stop firing those who organize — as we highlight injustices closer to home. After all, the intimidation we faced at our rallies is merely representative of the intimidation workers at CareOne and HealthBridge have been facing for some time. And ultimately the issues are the same: workers who democratically decide to form a union are attempting to make their voices heard in the workplace; they are exercising their freedom of speech. You don’t need to be a scholar of “law and justice” to see it’s as simple as that.

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