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.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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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