Despite big profits, Asarco demands concessions from workers

Asarco workers in the US Southwest rallied at their work sites on July 28 for a fair contract. Asarco has been seeking steep concessions from its union workers at five mines, smelters, and refineries in Arizona and Texas.

The nearly 2,000 hourly employees belong to eight different unions that have formed a united negotiating team called the Copper Group. The group is led by the United Steelworkers (USW) District 12 Director Robert LaVenture and Sub-District Director Manny Armenta.

Workers have been working under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement that expired in July 2013.

Despite a healthy bottom line and encouraging prospects for the future, Asarco, which is owned by Grupo Mexico, one of the world’s major copper producers, wants its US union workers to accept pay cuts, higher health care premiums, and contract changes that make their jobs less secure.

The company also wants to provide fewer benefits to its new employees.

Wearing black t-shirts with the simple message, “Solidarity” on the front and “We are one, we are strong on the back,” workers rallied outside the gates of Asarco’s Silver Bell mine in Marana, Arizona; Mission mine near Tucson; Ray mine in Kearny, Arizona; Hayden 5 smelter in Hayden, Arizona; and its copper refinery in Amarillo, Texas.

The rolling rallies took place on the same day that negotiations between the unions and Asarco resumed.

When negotiations broke off earlier this year, the company was still demanding that workers pay higher health care premiums. The union reports that if workers accepted Asarco’s health care demands, their premiums would increase between 800 percent and 900 percent.

The current contract, which workers ratified in 2011, establishes a two-tiered structure for health care premiums that requires workers hired after July 1, 2011 to pay a higher health care premium. The company wants to retain the current two-tiered structure; the unions want the new contract to lower payments for new hires and to maintain current premium payments for those hired before July 1, 2011.

The company also wants to reduce the workers’ Copper Price Bonus that the company pays quarterly. The bonus is based on the average price of copper and amounts to about $7,000 a year per eligible employee.

In addition to lowering the bonus, the company wants to put more restrictions on who is eligible to receive the bonus.

After the 2011 contract negotiations ended, the company took the position that new hires weren’t eligible for the bonus and refused to pay it to them.

The unions characterized the company’s position as a contract violation and filed a grievance, which went to arbitration. An arbitrator’s decision is still pending.

Asarco’s new proposal would continue to deny bonus payments for new hires and would make those suspended for any disciplinary reason and those who are absent from work for an extended period of time ineligible for the bonus as well.

The company also wants the bonus to be tied to company-set productivity goals over which workers and their unions have no control.

Perhaps the most important concession that Asarco wants is for the unions to give up the successorship provision in their contract. The successorship provision requires a potential buyer to recognize the unions and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

Giving up the successorship provision would put Asarco workers’ job in jeopardy should Grupo Mexico decide to sell Asarco.

The possibility of new owner is quite real. Asarco has change hands several times since it was founded in the 1940s, and the Wall Street Journal reports that at least one other copper mining company, Freeport-McMoran, is interested in expanding its US operations.

The lack of a successorship provision would make Asarco much more attractive to Freeport-McMoran, which has a suspect labor relations history.

Until 2013, it was a sponsor of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing group that encourages and assists state legislatures pass anti-worker legislation.

In 2008, reports Bloomberg, Freeport-McMoran fired 691 workers at its North American operations to save money.

In 2011,  the company unsuccessfully used replacement workers to break a strike by workers at its Grasberg mine in Indonesia. During the strike, one striker was killed by members of the national police force, which the Guardian reports was paid by Freeport to provide security at its mine.

According to the Steelworkers, Asarco isn’t making its concession demands because the company is losing money. Far from it, USW reports that Grupo Mexico American Mining Corporation, Asarco’s owner, reported net income of $1.5 billion in 2013.

Randy Flowers, president of USW Local 5613 at Asarco’s Amarillo refinery said that Grupo Mexico’s concession demands aren’t just about saving money.

“The company’s proposal can only be characterized as an attempt to gut our current agreement,” said Flowers in a report to members. “(But) the fight is not over, (and) we won’t relent.”

Schedules That Work Act aims to reduce stress of uncertain work schedules

For two years now, low-wage workers have been striking, protesting, and demonstrating to make their employers and the public aware of their grievances.

Chief among their grievances is their low pay, but not far behind are their unstable and unpredictable work schedules, which make life outside of work more difficult.

To make matters worse, writes Dr. Susan Lambert, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, “uncertain schedules make paychecks precarious for hourly workers whose wages depend on the number of hours they work.”

To address these problems, US Representatives Rosa DeLauro and George Miller have filed the Schedules That Work Act (HR 5159).

“Low-wage workers in America are too often being jerked around,” said Rep. DeLauro. “These women—and they are usually women—cannot plan ahead, or make arrangements to see that theirs kids and family are being taken care of. This bill would protect low-wage workers from abuse and help ensure they can look after their families. Congress needs to ensure that people putting in a hard day’s work get a fair day’s pay and the ability to care for their loved ones.”

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCU), which represents workers in retail and grocery businesses is supporting this bill.

“This legislation would ensure all workers have the rights fought for and won by UFCW members for decades,” said Joe Hansen UFCW president. “Our contracts have long guaranteed predictable and adequate scheduling. The law of the land should do the same. I urge Congress to pass the Schedules That Work Act as soon as possible.”

If enacted, HR 5159 would establish an employee’s right to request and receive a flexible, stable, or predictable work schedule.

Among other things, an employer would have to accommodate a schedule request that allows an employee to care for family members, go to school, or work a second job unless there is a valid business reason for denying the request.

The bill also would guarantee that a worker sent home before a scheduled shift ends receives at least four hours pay and would require employers to pay workers one hours pay when the worker is on call.

Employers would also have to provide in writing an employee’s work schedule and the minimum number hours that an employee could expect to work. Changes could be made but an employee would be entitled to notification at least 14 days before the change is made. Emergency changes could be made, but an employee would have to be paid for an extra hour of work.

The retail sector added 26,000 jobs a month during the last 12 months. Unfortunately, most of these jobs are low paying and have unpredictable work schedules making it harder for more people to support their families and have lives outside of work.

Unpredictable work schedules, writes Lambert, make it difficult “to combine or schedule caregiving for family members, education, participation in civic and religious organizations or another job.”

The unpredictability of work also exacerbates inequality, writes Carrie Gleason of the Center for Popular Democracy, “especially for women and workers of color who are more likely to work part-time jobs.”

In an opinion piece appearing in the New York Times, Gleason cites the experiences of two women working in retail. One, Tiffany Beroid, is an African-American who works for Walmart.

When Beroid was pregnant, she asked for a schedule change that would allow her to deal with complications that arose during her pregnancy. Walmart denied her request.

If the Schedules That Work Act had been in place at the time, Walmart would have had to accommodate Beroid’s request.

“Despite being employed, too many hardworking people don’t have a stable schedule and consistent wages,” said US Senator Tom Harkin, sponsor of the Senate version of the Schedules That Work Act. “Instead, schedules change constantly, so workers can’t predict their income or plan their lives. This wreaks havoc on working families and jeopardizes their economic security. The Schedules That Work Act would help workers better manage this balance while still respecting the needs of businesses. By giving workers greater input into and certainty in their schedules, workers, families, and businesses can all benefit.”

Judge declares Indiana right to work law unconstitutional–again

For the second time, an Indiana judge has ruled that the state’s so-called right to work law violates the state’s Constitution.

Lake County Judge George Paras ruled that the state’s right to work law is null and void because it exempts non-union workers from paying for services that unions are required to provide them.

The law, which Indiana enacted in 2012, “eviscerates the basic right that a person be compensated for the good and valuable services that a person provides in commercial endeavors,” wrote Paras in his decision.

In 2012, Indiana joined a list of states that passed or tried to pass right to work laws; lawmakers were encouraged to pass these laws by right wing and business groups that wanted to make it harder for workers to win decent pay raises, protect their benefits, and have a voice on the job.

“These anti-union, right to work for less laws are no more than an effort by corporations and their friends in the legislature to help the rich get richer,” said Michael Milsap, director United Steelworkers (USW) District 7. “They are meant to weaken the voices and rights of workers by forcing their unions to work for free.”

USW District 7 represents about 5,000 workers in Northwest Indiana where Lake County is located. In 2012, USW joined other labor unions to oppose the passage of the law. After the law was enacted, USW challenged the law in court.

Judge Paras agreed with USW’s argument that the law violated Article 1, Section 21 of the Indiana Constitution, which states that, “No person’s particular services should be demanded without just compensation.”

USW attorneys argued that the 2012 law deprived unions of just compensation for providing services such as negotiating a collective bargaining contract, handling grievances, and enforcing safety standards.

When a union is recognized as the collective bargaining representative of a group of workers, unions are required by federal law to provide services to all workers regardless of whether they are union members.

Allowing those who benefit from the services to receive them for free provides an incentive not to pay dues or other fees in lieu of dues.

In 2013, Judge John Sedia in Hammond, Indiana ruled similarly that the 2012 law was unconstitutional because it deprived unions of compensation for services provided.

The Indiana Supreme Court will hear arguments on Judge Sedia’s ruling on September 4.

Judge Sedia’s ruling came after the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 sued to stop the enforcement of the law.

James M. Sweeney, Local 150’s business agent and president, issued a statement after Judge Paras’ ruling agreed with Judge Sedia’s.

“We applaud the decision of the Court and congratulate the Steelworkers on successfully dealing another blow to Indiana’s ill-conceived right to work law,” said Sweeney.

Indiana was one of several Midwest states that sought to make it harder for workers to take collective action to improve their wages and benefits and protect their jobs by passing right to work laws. These laws came into being in the 1940s when union power was growing, and employers were seeking ways to weaken unions.

Indiana in 1957 passed a right to work law, but the law was so unpopular that some lawmakers who supported it were voted out of office, and in 1965 the law was repealed.

The law began to make its comeback in 2011 when anti-worker Republicans took control of state legislatures and governors’ offices. The right to work revival was fanned by right wing groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Right to Work Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce.

While groups that support right to work legislation characterize it as a law that gives workers the right to choose whether they support a union, the real purpose is to reduce unions’ financial support and thus make collective action more difficult. Making collective action more difficult lowers the cost of labor.

And that’s been the effect of right to work laws where they have been implemented.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a research and policy organization that receives money from labor unions, the annual salary for workers in right to work states is $1,540 less than workers in non-right to work states.

Workers in right to work states are also less likely to have employee sponsored health insurance. Right to work states also have a 36 percent higher rate of on-the-job deaths than non-right to work states.

In addition to declaring the Indiana law null and void, Judge Paras’ ruling also bars the states from enforcing the law.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said that he will appeal the judge’s ruling and will ask the state Supreme Court to allow the state to continue enforcing the law pending appeal.

Milsap said that instead of trying to prop up a law that unjustly punishes working people, the state’s politicians should change their focus.

“Our politicians should be striving to create jobs and make life better for all working people – not attacking them with wrong-headed and unconstitutional laws like this (right to work law),” said Milsap.

Funeral home corporation demands concessions but won’t bargain

The Service Corporation International (SCI) is once again trying to force employees in Chicago to accept what one union leader called “draconian” changes to the employees’ collective bargaining agreement.

SCI, based in Houston, is the largest funeral chain in North America. In Chicago, funeral directors and drivers working for the SCI-owned Alderwoods funeral homes have been trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement since May. The current contract expired June 30.

John Coli, Jr., president of Teamsters Local 727, the Alderwoods employees union, accused the company of trying to bully the workers into accepting “regressive” changes to the current contract.

“The union has tried to work with management to negotiate and reach a fair agreement, but obviously, SCI has no interest in being fair or reasonable,” said Coli, “This corporate bully only wants to exert complete unilateral control over its employees and refuses to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Last year, SCI locked out another group funeral directors and drivers in Chicago because they wouldn’t accept similar takeaways.

SCI operates 1,800 funeral homes and cemeteries in the US and Canada. It employs 20,000 people and has a market capitalization of more than $4 billion.

According to Businessweek, “for 40 years, SCI has gobbled up competitors.” Last year, it bought Stewart Enterprises, its largest competitor.

The Funeral Consumers Alliance said that the merger of the two funeral giants, “is not good news for consumers.”

The Teamsters report that since bargaining on a new contract began in May, SCI has been uninterested in reaching a fair agreement.

The funeral giant instead insists that the Alderwoods employees accept the company’s proposals, which among other things would eliminate regular pay increases and leave future pay hikes up to the discretion of management.

SCI also wants to

  • Eradicate job security
  • Significantly limit arbitration
  • Dismantle seniority rights
  • Make work part-time and casual for some drivers, and
  • Retain unilateral ability to reduce health care benefits.

According to the Teamsters, SCI has refused to put its proposals in writing and has not presented the union with its last and final offer thus preventing Local 727 members from voting on them.

Last year, SCI locked out funeral directors and drivers at Chicago-area funeral homes operating under the Dignity Memorial brand, the most prominent of SCI’s national funeral brands.

The Dignity workers voted down the SCI contract, went on strike, and when they voted unconditionally to return to work, were locked out by SCI.

During the lockout, the National Labor Relations Board found SCI to be guilty of a number of unfair labor practices including bad faith bargaining, threatening workers with the loss of their vacation, and engaging in illegal surveillance of union members.

SCI also refused a proposal by the Teamsters to allow an arbitrator to settle the differences between the two sides.

While SCI has tried to bully its workers into accepting egregious concessions, it has also been accused of treating its customers badly.

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, “SCI has long been one of the biggest sources of consumer complaints–deceptive sales pitches, violating consumer protection rules on the right to choose funeral goods and services, and more.”

Businessweek reports that SCI is able to achieve cost savings through an economy of scale and consolidation, but instead of passing the savings on to customers, “it keeps or passes (them) along to its shareholders.”

For cremation with a memorial service, Businessweek reports that SCI’s average price is $3,390, 30 percent higher than the average price of independent funeral homes.

For a traditional funeral (without casket or cemetery plot) the SCI average is $6,256, 42 percent more than its independent competitors.

Speaking at SCI’s annual shareholders meeting in May, Coli said that SCI must be held accountable for its actions.

“Employers cannot be allowed to boost their bottom lines on the backs of working families,” said Coli.

TCU Sodexo workers ratify first contract

Food service workers at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth on July 15 ratified their first collective bargaining agreement.

The workers began organizing a union last year when their employer Sodexo reclassified many of them as part-time employees. Those reclassified lost their health care insurance and their vacation and sick pay benefits.

The organizing drive resulted in a March union representation election in which workers voted 89 to 63 to join United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1000.

The workers’ bargaining committee reached a tentative agreement with Sodexo in June.

“It was so inspiring to see these workers bargain their first contract,” said Casey Williams, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 1000. “It was an honor to sit down next to them at the negotiating table and fight for their seniority, vacations, and raises.”

The new collective bargaining agreement restores the workers’ health care, vacation, and sick pay benefits. It also provides for annual pay raises for the life of the contract, establishes seniority rights and a job bidding process, and improves job security.

The new agreement is the result of an organizing effort that began soon after Sodexo announced its benefit cuts. After the announcement, some TCU Sodexo workers contacted Local 1000.

With the help of Local 1000, the workers formed an organizing committee, which they named TCU Sodexo Workers United.

Members of the organizing committee began talking to other workers about forming a union, gathered signatures on a union representation petition, created a Facebook page, and conducted an outreach campaign that won support among TCU students and faculty.

After the workers won their union representation vote, they prioritized their bargaining proposals and elected a negotiating committee.

Bargaining for the first contract lasted about two months, a relatively short time for most first collective bargaining agreements.

“The talks were civil and professional,” said Roy Papajohn, a Sodexo worker and UFCW negotiating committee member. “. . . Both sides were tough in the bargaining, but we were able to find middle ground on areas of disagreement. I feel we reached a fair agreement and TCU workers are happy with the final outcome.”

Sodexo workers at TCU aren’t the only ones to fight back when their benefits were eliminated.

Sodexo workers at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and Emerson College in Boston also began forming unions when Sodexo announced the benefit cuts.

These organizing drives and other efforts by Sodexo workers and their student and faculty allies caused Sodexo to reverse itself and restore health care and other benefits.

The successful organizing campaign at TCU could lead to more Sodexo workers joining Local 1000.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Local 1000 is working with Sodexo workers at Texas A&M-Commerce and Dallas Baptist University in Texas and Tulsa University, Oral Roberts University, and Langston University in Oklahoma to help them form unions.

“(The first contract with Sodexo at TCU) is an opportunity to continue offering the chance to organize to other Sodexo workers,” said Anthony Elmo, Local 1000 communications and political director to the Dallas News. “I think they’ll be interested to hear what the union can help them accomplish.”

Detroit demonstrators: Water is a human right; restore it to those who can’t pay

On July 18, three thousand people marched through the streets of Detroit demanding that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department restore water service to those whose service has been shut off  for non-payment.

On July 21, the department announced that it is temporarily suspending water shutoffs.

The department in April began shutting off water service to people who owed $150 or whose accounts were two months in arrears. By June, 3,000 customers a week were losing water service.

Detroit’s aggressive campaign of denying water service, began a month after Detroit’s Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr issued a request for proposals to privatize Detroit’s water system, which serves nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s population.

Orr was appointed emergency manager by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in 2013 after Snyder declared Detroit to be in a state of financial emergency.

Critics of  Orr’s water privatization plan argue that the decision to shut off water to thousands of customers, most of whom are African-Americans, is the result of Orr’s and the governor’s effort to sweeten the privatization deal by clearing up delinquent accounts.

The city’s aggressive move to shut off water has created a water crisis in Detoit.

The plan to privatize Detroit’s water and the city’s water crisis share common roots.

Both are the result of the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, the Great Recession, which reduced the city’s tax revenue and increased poverty in the city.

After the city’s tax revenue plunged and the State of Michigan reduced Detroit’s share of the state’s revenue, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

As a result of the bankruptcy filing, Orr began trying to sell of public assets.

The jewel of these assets is the the Detroit water system, which serves 127 Michigan communities as well as Detroit. The Wall Street Journal reports that the water system’s revenues total about $1 billion a year and that despite Detroit’s hard times, revenues continue to exceed expenses.

The Great Recession also cost Detroit thousands of jobs, which increased the city’s already high poverty rate. Nearly 40 percent of Detroit’s residents have income at or below the federal poverty level.

The high poverty rate means that many Detroit residents can’t afford the necessities of life such as water, which over time has grown more expensive.

During the last decade, Detroit water rates have increased 119 percent, and in June, the City Council approved another rate increase raising the cost of water by 8.7 percent.

A recent report by a panel of experts convened by the United Nations to investigate Detroit’s water crisis found that “because of a high poverty rate and a high unemployment rate, relatively expensive water bills in Detroit are unaffordable for a significant portion of the population.”

Cutting off water to people who can’t afford to pay “constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights,” said Catarina de Albuquerque, one of the UN experts investigating Detroit’s water crisis.

At the July 18 demonstration, Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United (NNU), the primary sponsor of the march, said that cutting off water creates a public health risk.

“We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics,” said Ross. “We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”

Speakers also said that access to clean water shouldn’t depend on a person’s ability to pay for it.

“The government didn’t give us the water, it is a natural resource,” said Dennis Williams, president of the UAW. “It is the peoples’ resource. It is not owned by corporations, it is not owned by city hall, it’s owned by the people of this land. It is our job united together to take back our government.”

Speakers at the demonstration also criticized the emergency manager’s plan to privatize Detroit’s water system.

“Privatization of water has already started harming Michiganders,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, founder of We the People of Detroit, a community group leading the fight against the water cutoffs. “This issue is beyond Detroit. Detroit is the tip of the spear. . .  As goes Detroit, so goes Michigan and so goes the nation. Stop the privatization. Restore the water.”

Speakers at the demonstration said that the solution to Detroit’s water crisis won’t be solved through privatization and offered other solutions.

US Rep. John Conyers said that instead of going after those who can least afford to pay, Detroit officials should “get the corporations to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars they owe.”

The Guardian reports that 21,000 businesses, schools and other non-residential properties owe $46 million in unpaid water bills but that the city has made no effort to collect these unpaid bills.

US Rep. Keith Ellison, author of HR 1579, which would authorize a financial transactions tax, also known as a Robin Hood Tax, had a similar message.

“Instead of shutting people’s water off, why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations?” said Ellison “We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”

“This dangerous public health crisis is further proof that we don’t have a bankrupt city – we have a bankrupt system,” said John Armelagos, president of the Michigan Nurses Association. “It’s disgraceful to have children in the wealthiest nation on Earth on the edge of living in third-world conditions. . . Water is a human right and Kevyn Orr should put human needs above any agenda set by corporations that only want to further exploit Detroit.”

Staples tries to elude effects of boycott; changes name of Mail privatization deal

Staples, one of the largest office supply chains in the US, announced on July 14 that it is ending a privatization pilot program to provide postal services at more than 80 of its stores across the US.

But the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) said that the announcement was a ruse undertaken by the company to reduce the impact of a boycott against Staples organized by APWU.

Staples’ announcement came two days after the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) passed a resolution at its national convention supporting the boycott.

According to Mark Dimondstien, the deal between Staples and United States Postal Service (UPS) has changed names but not purposes. Staples will no longer provide postal services as part of the Approved Postal Services Provider pilot program, but instead will do so under the Approved Postal Shipper program.

“The Staples announcement and a letter from USPS dated July 7 make it clear: They intend to continue to privatize postal retail operations, replace living-wage Postal Service jobs with low-wage Staples jobs, and compromise the safety and security of the mail,” said Mark Dimondstein, APWU president. “This attempt at trickery shows that the “Don’t Buy Staples'” movement is having an effect. We intend to keep up the pressure until Staples gets out of the mail business. The US Mail is not for sale.”

The boycott support resolution passed at the AFT national convention held in Los Angeles criticizes the USPS’ privatization pilot with Staples as a “no-bid, sweetheart deal” that could jeopardize the security of the mail and lead to the replacement of good paying Postal Services jobs with low-wage, high turnover retail jobs.

The resolution also notes that teachers are facing their own fight against the privatization of public education and that “the AFT and postal employees are fighting a common battle against privatization.”

The resolution urges AFT members, their family, and friends “to no longer shop at Staples until further notice.”

According to the Chicago Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, “teachers have an especially important role to play in this fight. Staples knows that teachers spend billions of dollars at office supply stores each fall and throughout the school year for the benefit of their students.”

During the convention, thousands of teachers attended a support rally for postal employees called by APWU.

The International Association of Fire Fighters has also joined the Staples boycott.

The IAFF announced on July 13 that the union’s executive board unanimously voted to support the boycott.

“The IAFF supports the APWU in its efforts to protect good-paying jobs and ensure the highest possible standards of customer service,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger. “IAFF affiliates, members and families have done a substantial amount of business at Staples. This no-bid contract between Staples and the USPS is an attack on postal workers and middle class jobs, and yet another attempt to shift good union jobs to part-time, low-wage non-union hourly workers.”