Tunisian union nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recently approved the nomination of UGTT, Tunisia’s largest trade union federation, for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

The winner of the prize will be announced on October 10.

UGTT was nominated by four Tunisian university professors for the union’s leading role during the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Most recently, UGTT mediated tense negotiations between Islamist and secular leaders that resulted in a settlement that produced a moderately progressive new constitution and avoided sectarian strife.

“Without the muscular involvement of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT is the French acronym)–perhaps the only organization whose power and legitimacy rival the Islamists’–it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about,” writes Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

UGTT  has played an integral role in Tunisia’s history since the union was founded in 1946 during the country’s struggle against French colonialism.

In 2011, rank and file UGTT members were among those who organized popular demonstrations that eventually led to the downfall of  Tunisia’s dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The UGTT leadership was at first reluctant to throw its full support behind the demonstrations, but as Ben Ali’s attempts to suppress the demonstrations became more brutal, the union’s leadership called for his removal and organized a general strike that played an important part in driving the dictator from power.

After Ben Ali’s overthrow, UGTT supported a national reconciliations government that was free of influences from the old regime. Among other things, UGTT proposed an economic development program that called for public investments in underdeveloped regions that had been ignored by Ben Ali’s neoliberal economic policies.

The country’s first elections after Ben Ali’s overthrow resulted in a victory for Ennahda, an Islamist political party, and its Islamist allies.

When Ennahda rose to power, the national unity that resulted from the successful revolution began to fray.

Instead of filling important government positions with experts, Ennahda stacked those positions with its partisan supporters, which raised concern among secular Tunisians.

In 2012, Islamist extremist began physically attacking supporters of a secular government, which further heightened tensions.

One of the main targets of these attacks was UGTT, which had some of its local offices stoned or firebombed.

Ennahda did little to curb these attacks leading some Tunisians to believe that the extremists were acting in collusion with Ennahda.

Tensions between Islamist and secular Tunisians became even more tense when Ennahda proposed a new constitution that limited the role of women in society.

Ennahda’s proposal led to massive street demonstrations. UGTT played an important role in organizing and leading these demonstrations.

The rift between Ennahda and its secular opponents became more pronounced with the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leaders of the secular movement.

The assassinations were blamed on extremists, and Ennahda did little to bring the murders to justice.

At this point, it looked like the enmity between the two sides might cause the country to slip into civil war.

But during the summer of 2013, UGTT in concert with UTICA, the employers’ national organization, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the Tunisian Human Rights League persuaded Ennahda and representatives of secular Tunisians to participate in negotiations that could avoid civil war.

The negotiations were mediated by Houcine Abbassi, UGTT’s secretary-general.

Out of these negotiations came a road map for resolving the conflict, which included a draft of a new constitution.

In October, the two sides made a formal commitment to the road map, and in December, Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the new constitution.

The constitution itself is a compromise. For example, it establishes Islam as the state religion but it also guarantees freedom of religion. It  limits freedom of speech by banning attacks on religion, but it also bans accusations of being a non-believer.

The new constitution contains a number of progressive features. It guarantees equal rights for women, protects the country’s natural resources, and seeks to end the abuses of power that characterized the Ben Ali regime by decentralizing government, making government more transparent, and including provisions for fighting government corruption.

As a result of the UGTT-mediated negotiations, the leaders of the Ennahda government agreed to resign and turn over power to a caretaker government until new elections can be held in 2014.

While UGTT’s role helped avoid the kind of civil strife that has plagued other countries in the region, the chance of UGTT winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a long shot. More than 270 candidates have been nominated for the prize, and as Michael Parenti has pointed out, the winner of the prize is often less than a true peacemaker.

But that doesn’t diminish the importance of UGTT’s nomination and the prestige that the nomination carries with it.

Movement challeges states’ deadly decision to opt out of Medicaid expansion

A January posting on the Health Affairs Blog estimates that thousands of people will die because political leaders in 25 states have decided not to expand Medicaid coverage to more people. In Florida, that decision has already taken the life of one hard working woman.

Think Progress reports that Charlene Dill, who lived and worked in Florida, died on the job as a result of a known and untreated heart condition.

Dill couldn’t afford health insurance even though she worked three part-time jobs.

She also could not afford to pay for the treatment herself.

Had Florida officials decided to expand Medicaid eligibility, Dill would have been eligible for coverage and could have received medical treatment before her heart condition killed her.

But political leaders in Florida and 24 other states have decided to opt out of expanding Medicaid eligibility even though the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of the expansion for three years and then 90 percent of the cost.

As a result, health care coverage will not be expanded to nearly 8 million hard-working, low-wage workers like Dill.

Because state leaders in these opt out states, chose not to expand Medicaid eligibility, reports Health Affairs, an estimated 422,000 people with diabetes will not receive medicine to treat their illness, 195,500 women ages 50-64 will not receive mammograms, and 443,600 will not have pap smears taken.

The lack of access to treatment for diabetes and other chronic illnesses and the lack of access to preventive measures to stave off deadly illnesses, according to Health Affairs, will kill between 7,100 and 17,100 low-income workers in these opt out states.

The decision not to expand Medicaid eligibility will affect many more than the workers who can’t get health care coverage.

According to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, states that opt out of Medicaid expansion will lose tens of billions of dollars in federal funds between 2014 and 2022.

This is money that would have been spent locally and created thousands of jobs.

The biggest loser will be Texas, which stands to lose $9.2 billion. Other states that will take big hits are Florida, $5 billion; Georgia, $2.9 billion; and Virginia, $2.8 billion.

“The Medicaid expansion presents an opportunity for states to bring in new federal dollars, in addition to providing critical health coverage for their low-income residents,” said Sherry Glied, one of the Commonwealth study’s authors. “No state that declines to expand the program is going to be fiscally better off because of it. Their tax dollars will be used to support a program from which nobody in their state will benefit.”

Because the benefits of expanding Medicaid are so obvious, grassroots movements to expand Medicaid coverage have sprouted up in several states including North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia.

In Texas, a coalition of more than 40 groups has launched the Texas Left Me Out campaign to build support for expanding Medicaid eligibility in the state.

The coalition, Cover Texas Now, includes health care providers and advocates, disability advocates, community groups such as the Texas Organizing Project, public policy advocacy groups such as the Center for Public Policy Priorities, religious groups such as Impact Texas, and the Texas AFL-CIO.

In a February letter to lawmakers, organizers of the campaign said that Texas has more than 6 million residents who lack health insurance, the highest in the US.

Most uninsured Texans are low-income workers who can’t afford health insurance premiums.

The letter goes to explain that the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) provides a vehicle for insuring many Texans who otherwise couldn’t afford health care.

Under ACA, some low-income workers are eligible for federal subsidies that will make health insurance affordable for them.

But other low-income workers like Irma Aguilar of San Antonio won’t qualify for the subsidies.

Aguilar, a 28-year old mother of four, works as an assistant manager for a local Pizza Hut. Her pay is too low to qualify for federal subsidies.

She would have been eligible for Medicaid had Texas taken the federal money to expand Medicaid, but for now she remains uninsured and cannot afford treatment for a bulging disk in her neck or her high blood pressure.

The February letter asks lawmakers who hear from constituents like Aguilar who have been left out of health care coverage because of the state’s decision to forgo Medicaid expansion to refer them to the Texas Left Me Out website where they can tell their individual stories about how the state’s decision has affected them.

UPS rescinds mass firings

Teamsters Local 804 on April 9 announced that UPS in New York City had rescinded the mass firings of 250 of its delivery drivers.

After the firings, Local 804 leaders and members organized a public outreach campaign that galvanized widespread community support for the fired workers.

“We are grateful for the enormous outpouring of support from UPS customers, progressive elected officials, and the public,” read a statement by Local 804. “It was that support that saved the jobs of the 250 drivers.”

After meeting with Local 804 leaders on April 8, UPS agreed to rehire Jairo Reyes, a long-time driver whose unjust firing led to a work stoppage by 250 drivers at UPS’ Maspeth depot in the New York City borough of Queens.

UPS also agreed to rescind the terminations of 36 drivers who had been fired for participating in the work stoppage and the termination proceedings against the rest of the drivers who had participated.

In February, UPS fired Reyes, a Local 804 member and activists who had resisted management attempts to harass and bully workers, without following procedures established in the collective bargaining agreement.

Reyes’ firing was a tipping point for many workers who believed that UPS’ overly aggressive management style had become intolerable.

Speaking at a rally in support of the fired UPS drivers, Domenick Dedomenico described the immense pressure that UPS drivers work under.

Dedomenico, a UPS driver for ten years, had suffered a serious head injury in 2012 while on the job. The injury left him in a coma for ten days.

After he regained consciousness, he struggled through a year of rehabilitation before who could return to work in 2014.

After he was on the job for a short time, he was suspended for two days because his delivery rate was two deliveries short of what it had been before his life-threatening injury.

Dedomenico was one of the 250 drivers who walked off the job to support Reyes and one of those who the company fired for participating in the work stoppage.

According to the union, the firings of Dedomenico and others who supported the work stoppage was an act of intimidation aimed at scaring workers from standing up for their rights under the collective bargaining agreement.

UPS justified its intimidation tactics in the name of good customer service. A spokesperson for the company said that UPS owed it to its customers to fire workers who disrupted service.

The union responded with an outreach campaign to UPS customers. More than 100,000 people signed a petition supporting the fired drivers.

UPS CEO Scott Davis received more than 3,000 calls urging the company to reinstate the drivers.

Customers served by the fired drivers posted messages of support for the fired drivers on UPS’ Facebook page and Twitter account.

In Atlanta, the home of UPS’ headquarters, company executives received a terse email from customer Lisa White, a real estate agent.

“There is no need for long emails and nasty words,” wrote White in her email. “We will let our actions speak for themselves. As of today, April 3, 2014, 125 Real Estate agents throughout the Atlanta, GA area have canceled their services with your company. Until Jairo Reyes and the 250 employees fired for speaking up for what is “Right” are returned back to the company, we will continue to spread the word and have as many accounts canceled as possible.”

“The support has been amazing,” said Steve Curcio, one of the first 20 drivers that UPS fired in response to the outpouring of customer support for the fired drivers.

Local 804 also reached out to public officials.

At a rally in support of the fired drives, New York Public Advocate Leticia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer suggested that UPS’ public subsidies could be in jeopardy if the mass firings were allowed to stand.

US Representatives Grace Meng and Joseph Crowley, whose constituents were directly affected by the firings, sent UPS a joint letter supporting the fired drivers and urging UPS to halt the firings.

After UPS announced that it was rescinding the firings, Local 804 issued a statement thanking everyone for their support and congratulated the drivers and their families for “standing together through this ordeal and winning their return to work with respect and dignity.”

“We all look forward to turning the page and getting back to serving our customers,” concluded the statement.

Faculty letter urges UT president to value staff and halt centralization and job cuts

Representatives of a more than 100 professors and lecturers at the University of Texas at Austin hand delivered a letter to UT President William Powers expressing their opposition to a proposed Business Productivity Initiative drafted for UT by Accenture, a global consulting corporation.

The first stage of Accenture’s Business Productivity Initiative called shared services would centralize administrative services and eliminate 500 jobs.

Accenture, which is based in Ireland for tax purposes, has drafted plans similar to its UT shared services plan for other universities.

The administration at the University of Michigan recently shelved an Accenture generated centralization plan similar to its UT shared services plan after faculty member vociferously opposed the plan.

A source who has seen the letter to President Powers, said that it was signed by 117 UT faculty members.

In it, the faculty members express support for administrative staffers and concern that Accenture’s plan is another step toward the privatization and corporatization of public higher education.

Chief among the concerns raised by the faculty in their letter is the fact that UT has already squandered $4 million in payments to Accenture to market a faulty centralization plan whose concept and design are based on inaccurate information.

That $4 million, write the faculty, could have been better spent on the core mission of the university.

According to the faculty who signed the letter, administrative staff are essential to the university’s core mission–to educate the public and expand the boundaries of public knowledge. It takes a community to carry out this core mission, and staff members are a vital part of this community.

By centralizing administrative services at call centers says the letter, Accenture’s shared services plan will interrupt the bonds among students, faculty, and staff that create this community.

“A direct relationship between faculty and students and staff helps make teaching and research more productive,” said the source who wished to remain unidentified for fear of retaliation. “Anything that interferes with this bond will cause problems. There’s nothing more frustrating and time-wasting than being put on hold by a call center when you’re trying to solve a problem or request a service.”

The source also said that instead of eliminating 500 position as has been proposed by Accenture, UT needs to hire more administrative staff to keep up with a rapidly increasing workload.

Those who signed the letter also expressed concern that Accenture’s Business Productivity Initiative, which calls for more privatization of services at UT, is yet another attempt by the private sector to turn a public institution into a vehicle for generating profits for well-connected corporations–corporations like Accenture.

Turning public institutions into private revenue streams undermines the democratic nature of public institutions like UT and erodes the common good that they produce.

The letter was authored by Mia Carter, associate professor of English, Julius G. Getman, UT Law professor, and Anne Lewis, lecturer in the Radio-Television-Film Department.

All are members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186. Lewis is a TSEU executive board member.

Among those who signed the letter, there are 15 directors of special academic programs, 11 teaching excellence award winners, and one department chair.

In a related development, the UT Save Our Community Coalition has been gathering signatures on a petition opposing Accenture’s plans to restructure services at UT and the corporation’s involvement with UT.

The coalition will hold a rally on Wednesday April 23 at noon on the South Mall and then present the petitions to the administration.

USLAW demands Iranian labor leader’s release

US Labor Against The War (USLAW) has sent a strongly worded letter to Iranian officials demanding the release of jailed labor activist Shahrokh Zamani, who has been on a hunger strike since March 8.

Zamani, a leader of the Painters Union of Tehran, was arrested in 2011 for helping to organize an independent trade union movement. The Iranian authorities charged him endangering national security and participating in an illegal organization.

According to the Free Shahrokh Zamani blog, Zamani while in prison has endured psychological and physical abuse, been denied medication, and kept from meeting with visitors.

In the letter from USLAW, Michael Eisenscher, USLAW’s national coordinator, objected to the mistreatment suffered by Zamani and Mohamad Jahari, a fellow prisoner who has also been on a hunger strike, and objected to the Iranian government denial of basic human rights to Zamani and Jahari.

“I write on behalf of the 150 U.S. labor organizations that are affiliated with US Labor Against the War to register our strongest objection to these violations of Shahrokh Zamani and Mohamad Jahari’s basic human rights and their mistreatment while incarcerated,” writes Eisenscher. “In the interests of justice and in recognition of the threat posed by the deteriorating condition of Mr. Zamani’s health, we call upon you to immediately release them, to expunge their criminal records, and to cease your government’s interference with their rights and internationally recognized standards for the right to organize, bargain and strike.”

Prior to his arrest, Zamani had been active in building the Follow-Up Committee to Set Up Free Labor Organizations in Iran,  a coordinating committee of independent trade unions like his Painters Union.

The government found his work objectionable and arrested him for allegedly distributing propaganda against the regime.

Zamani was tortured while in custody but refused to confess to the charge.

He was found guilty is a trial that USLAW said did not meet international standards of fairness.

While in jail, Zamani continued to resist the authority of those in power.

In 2013, he and fellow prisoner Khaled Hordani went on a hunger strike to support striking workers at the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Company.

In 2014, he was put in solitary confinement for protesting the closure of the prison’s library.

While in solitary confinement, he began his most recent hunger strike, which has now lasted for more than 30 days.

USLAW ‘s letter was one of a number of acts in solidarity with Zamani.

Before his untimely death in March, Bob Crow president of the UK;s National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT), issued a statement in solidarity with Zamani, and other leaders of the RMT have joined the movement for Zamani’s release.

Every trade unionist in the world needs to take a stand for every trade unionist in the world who faces repression and persecution,” said Janine Booth, a former executive officer in the RMT. “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

CA bill would hold companies accountable for abuse of temp workers

California lawmakers may soon be voting on a bill that would hold companies accountable for worker abuses committed by their labor contractors.

AB 1897 authored by Roger Hernandez has been amended and re-sent to the California General Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee that is chaired by Hernandez.

California like most other states has seen a resurgence in the use of temporary workers hired through labor contractors, a common practice during the late 19th Century.

A report from the University of California Berkeley Labor Center entitled “Problems with Temporary and Subcontracted Work in California” finds that nearly 300,000 Californians work for labor contractors that provide and supervise workers for other companies.

This precarious workforce provides essential labor in manufacturing, landscaping, agriculture, housekeeping, material handling, and other industries.

These so-called temporary workers lack the stability of a full-time job even though they may work full time for long stretches at a particular job.

These jobs are generally low-wage jobs that lack benefits as well as job security.

Temporary workers also can be the victim of employer abuses such as wage theft.

According to “Problems,” the US Labor Department recovered nearly $2 million in wages owed to temporary workers in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. The report goes on to say that the recovered amount understates the problem because of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hours Division’s poor track record during this time and the fact that wage theft often goes unreported.

In addition to these abuses, temp workers are more likely to be working in unsafe working conditions.

A report by Pro Publica finds that temporary workers in California are 50 percent more likely to be injured on the job than permanent workers.

When temp workers are cheated out of their pay or suffer injuries on the job, the company that hires them through a labor contractor may shirk their responsibility by claiming that the injured or abused worker doesn’t work directly for the company,

That’s what Soex West Textile Recycling claimed in 2009 when two of its temporary workers lost fingers in two separate machine accidents.

Had AB 1897 been effective at that time Soex would have been held responsible, and the workers would have been able to collect workers compensation through Soex.

The use of temp workers also makes it harder for workers to organize and take collective action to address grievances, which is why the California Labor Federation and other labor organizations such as the UFCW, SEIU, the Teamsters, and California Rural Legal Assistance, which helps farmworkers, are supporting AB 1897.

“Contract laborers work for the labor contractor, so at one site, there can be multiple employers. That results in split bargaining units, multiple elections, and a constantly divided workforce,” writes Caitlin Vega explaining why the California Labor Federation is supporting AB 1897.

Another reason that labor is supporting AB 1897 is that current law inadequately protects an ever-increasing and substantial community of workers.

“Current law is simply insufficient to protect workers’ rights in the shadows of the subcontracted economy,” writes Vega.  “Under existing law, a company can only be held responsible if a worker can prove joint employer status. This process is costly, slow, and difficult to navigate for most workers. It requires litigation, rather than providing a simple and straightforward rule. It is also easily manipulated by companies that have the labor contractor provide supervision on site to shield them from liability.”

Rally protests UPS firing of 250 workers

Supporters of 250 recently fired UPS workers rallied on the steps of New York City’s City Hall to demand the workers’ reinstatement.

“At a time when good jobs are becoming more and more difficult to come by, it is unconscionable that UPS workers are being fired for standing up for basic workplace rights,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of New York City’s Central Labor Council at the rally. “We stand behind our union brothers and sisters as they continue the fight to keep their jobs.”

UPS fired drivers at its Queens Maspeth depot who protested the firing of Jairo Reyes, a 24-year UPS driver and Teamster Local 804 member.

Reyes had been a long-time irritant to UPS management because he stood up to the company’s harassment and speed up tactics.

In February, UPS fired Reyes without following procedures in the collective bargaining agreement.

Shortly after the firing, 250 Maspeth drivers walked off the job to protest Reyes’ firing and the company’s wilful disregard for due process.

An underlying cause of the walkout was the company’s poor treatment of its workers.

“We’re sick of the company’s harassment,” said a striking worker who wished to protect his identity to Fight Back News during the February walkout. “They fire people with families and kids for no reason. It’s just wrong.”

After the workers’ action, UPS informed them that they could be facing termination.

On Monday, March 31, UPS fired 20 of the drivers and told the other 230 that they would be fired as soon as their replacements were trained.

UPS’ action seemed to be aimed at heightening fear among its workers.

Vincent Perrone, a local 804 steward speaking at the rally said that the company picked the 20 who were fired at random.

How do you do this to someone? How do you do this to our families?” said Perrone. “We walk (into work) every day waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

At the rally, Domenick Dedomenico told the crowd how UPS treats its workers.

Dedomenico was struck by a car while working during Christmas 2012. He was in a coma for ten days. After more than a year of rehabilitation, he was finally able to return to work earlier this year.

After being on the job a short time after returning from a life threatening injury, he received a one-day suspension because his delivery rate had fallen two deliveries shy of what it was before he was injured.

Dedomenico said that he is one of the 250 drivers who walked off the job and that he did so to support other drivers who were being treated as badly as he was.

A number of public officials attended the City Hall rally and expressed their support for the fired workers.

Letitia James, the New York City Public Advocate, said that UPS’ unfair treatment of its workers could jeopardize public subsidies that UPS receives, including a $43 million contract with the state and “a sweetheart deal” with the City of New York, which has reduced UPS parking fines totaling $20 million a year to $4 million a year.

Scott Stringer, NYC’s Comptroller, questioned the wisdom of executives at UPS who put a risk “a generation of goodwill between the city and UPS.”

Stringer also alluded to the millions of dollars in parking fine discounts that UPS receives and told the crowd that UPS’ decision to fire 250 hard working UPS drivers puts these and other public benefits that the company enjoys at risk.

In addition to support from public officials, the fired workers have received strong support from the community. More than 100,000 people have signed petitions urging UPS to return to the bargaining table and negotiate a settlement that will return the workers to their jobs.

At the rally, Tim Sylvester, president of Local 804 emphasized the stark reality facing the fired drivers and the union’s determination to protect them.

“We’re here today because UPS has threatened to bankrupt 250 families in New York City,” said Sylvester. . . “This will not stand.”