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The Limitations and Possibilities of Student-Labor Coalitions

Sarah Jaffe

Workers from the SEIU 1199 United Healthcare Workers East protest cuts to healthcare in New York state outside of the Albany State House.

In April, New York University found itself the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny when Michael Powell reported in the New York Times that Daniel E. Straus, owner of the HealthBridge and CareOne nursing home companies in New Jersey and Connecticut and a board member at NYU law school, had subpoenaed the emails, text messages and personal writings of two NYU law students, Luke Herrine and Leo Gertner. The two were part of a growing movement of NYU undergraduates and law students calling attention to working conditions at Straus’s facilities, and they had been helping to circulate a petition to the law school dean asking for a meeting to discuss Straus’s presence on the board.

The next day, with somewhat less fanfare, a one-line memo was sent to NYU law students by their dean, informing them that Straus would no longer be on the school’s board. The Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice, which Straus has funded since 2009, will close at the end of the year. (Although the timeline of the closure decision is unclear, Herrine, one of the subpoenaed students, believes it was due to the controversy.)

The subpoena brouhaha was only the latest chapter in an expansive battle with Straus’s companies on one side and 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East, 1199 SEIU New England, and the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) at NYU on the other — while NYU, claiming neutrality, remained in the middle. It’s a multi-year, multi-state struggle that began with low-wage care workers being locked out in 2011 and hasn’t ended with Straus losing his seat on the law school’s board. A close examination of the story yields important lessons about the possibilities and limitations of student-labor coalitions, the latest anti-union strategies of corporations, and the current state of labor struggles.

Racketeering charges

Caitlin MacLaren, a senior at NYU this past year, first heard about Daniel Straus in January of 2012 when a HealthBridge facility in Connecticut locked out unionized workers who had staged an unfair labor practices strike. A member of SLAM, MacLaren traveled with a group of her fellow students to Connecticut to join workers on the picket lines. They then invited the workers to come to NYU and speak to students about the lockout and their fight to keep their health benefits, and SLAM launched a petition to the administration that spring asking for a meeting with the administration about the issue.

The administration didn’t grant their request, so they dropped banners, held rallies, and handed out flyers at galas and alumni events.

MacLaren says it disturbed NYU students that Straus was on the board of the law school when his company has been accused of dozens of labor law violations by the National Labor Relations Board. They’re also bothered by the irony that Straus has given millions to the law school, but his companies seem unwilling to continue paying workers’ healthcare benefits.

At one rally in September of 2012, Straus’s company hired security” to turn up and counter-protest. A video of the event shows one man saying to a person identified as an NYU student, When you leave here, I’ll find you.”

Luke Herrine, then a first-year law student, attended that rally with a friend and learned about the campaign. They decided they should organize among law students specifically, since Straus was on the law school board.

The group of law students, including Herrine and Leo Gertner, began to circulate the petition on March 6, asking the new law school dean, Trevor Morrison, to meet with them or with representatives from 1199.

On March 20, subpoenas arrived at Gertner and Herrine’s apartments, asking for all documents or communications relating to Daniel Straus or CareOne. The subpoenas were from the United States District Court in New Jersey in the case of CareOne Management LLC vs. United Healthcare Workers East, SEIU 1199—a RICO Act lawsuit filed by Straus’s company against the union.

Herrine isn’t sure why the subpoenas came only to him and to Gertner, but thinks they were a response to the fact that law students were getting involved. It’s actually hitting home,” Herrine says, and points out that Straus’s support for the Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice — the theme of which this year was Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Segregation” — would seem to indicate that Straus wants to project a public reputation for concern for social justice.

The RICO lawsuit against SEIU certainly isn’t the first such suit filed against a union. A spokesperson for 1199 SEIU tells In These Times, This lawsuit is one of a series of actions by Daniel Straus’ companies to attack and intimidate nursing home caregivers and their supporters. Among these attacks are slashing of family health benefits, firing workers for organizing unions, and indirectly hiring individuals who threatened NYU students with violence for calling for Straus’ removal from the NYU Law School Board of Trustees. Administrative Law Judges have found that nursing homes run by Straus’ companies have violated federal labor law 41 times.”

Herrine says RICO suits, usually used to target organized crime, are the corporate response to the comprehensive campaign” — a strategy in which unions, in recent years, have increasingly applied public pressure to push employers to come to the bargaining table. CareOne’s RICO suit effectively charges that this strategy is criminal activity. The original complaint, provided to Working In These Times by Herrine, calls the union’s tactics extortion.”

statement from Straus, issued after the September 2012 protest, underlines this strategy, calling the union’s tactics sleazy, manipulative,” and suggesting that the union’s Contract Campaign Manual functions as a blueprint for criminal tactics. (The union says its tactics have all been vetted by lawyers and that it remains undaunted.)

To Herrine, it’s CareOne that is engaging in pressure tactics. “[The suit] drains the funds of SEIU, it gives them the power to issue all these subpoenas to elected officials who have been on the picket line, to students who have voiced solidarity,” he says. You issue subpoenas to them and then other people know Now I’m going to have to get involved in the legal system if I deal with these people.’”

At NYU, at least, the subpoenas have had the opposite effect. The administration, which had been reluctant to get involved in the fight, paid for lawyers for Herrine and Gertner to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. And on campus, law students who had not been involved before stepped up. Students might not have cared enough to get involved in a labor campaign, but more of them seemed willing to step up when free speech was at issue.

It was the free speech issue that led the Times’ Powell to write his column calling the NYU administration’s response to the subpoenas weak tea,” and that got the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to file an amicus brief defending the students’ right to wholly-lawful constitutionally-protected speech.” The ACLU brief argued that the students have a right to communicate with union critics of Straus and CareOne.

Within the law school, a group of law students independent of Herrine and Gertner put together a letter to Straus demanding he drop the subpoenas. They had garnered over 500 signatures from law students, professors and alumni, according to Herrine, when the news broke that Straus would no longer be on the board.

A bittersweet victory

Straus’s departure serves as a mixed victory for the student movement on campus. The students managed to get a response from Straus and the administration, but at the expense of a significant point of leverage. MacLaren notes, It’s good to see that our school isn’t associated with him given his track record, but of course the fight continues because at the end of the day what we really wanted all along was for him to change his labor practices. It’s a step in the right direction, but it was never the end result that we wanted.”

Universities, in particular corporate-style universities that cultivate customer-service relationships with their students — of which NYU is the prototype — provide useful points of pressure on corporate bad actors. Students making demands, whether in response to labor law violations or investments in dirty energy, have some sway with administrators, who in turn control large chunks of money or, in the case of Straus, prestigious board appointments.

But once Straus is off the board, the university students no longer have much power, though their solidarity and support is still appreciated. The workers at HealthBridge and CareOne continue to struggle, and the RICO suit goes forward; the subpoenas have not gone away. 

On the NYU campus, the student groups are considering a way to use this victory to make structural change in the university’s relationship with its students. For Herrine, the question now becomes How are students’ concerns going to be addressed in the future?” He’d like to campaign perhaps for a student member on the board, or for some other mechanism for students to get their concerns addressed faster the next time.

It remains difficult to say, however, what the result will be for the workers at CareOne and HealthBridge nursing homes.

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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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