American Airlines passenger service agents win union vote

Passenger service agents at American Airlines voted to join the Customer Service Employees Association, a union affiliated with both the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the Teamsters (IBT).

For the 9,000 passenger service agents who worked for American before the airline merged with US Airways, it was the culmination of 19 years of hard work and struggle to have their union recognized.

“I’m proud to remember everyone over the years who worked so hard for our union voice, who never gave up in the face of adversity, and who gave their blood, sweat and tears so that we would have the opportunity to celebrate this victory today,” said Ken Grunwald, a long-time union supporter and an employee of American for 23 years. “It’s a victory for all American Airlines employees! I’m so excited to think that we will finally be able to negotiate a legally binding contract. We now all have each other’s back.”

Now that American and US Airways have merged, there are about 14,5000 passenger service agents working for the new American Airlines. Many work in call centers helping customers make reservations and providing other services. Others staff the airline’s counters and gates at airports. About 2,300 of the agents work at home making reservations.

Prior to the election, agents who worked for US Airways were members of the Customer Service Employees Association IBT/CWA.

In all, more than 11,000 employees from both American and US Airways participated in the election. The final vote tally was 9,640 voting yes for the union and 1,547 voting no.

Of those participating in the election, 86 percent voted yes. Of all the passenger service agents at new American, two-thirds voted yes.

Most of the new union members work in the South, and CWA President Larry Cohen in a message to members said that the new American election was the “largest labor organizing victory in the South in decades.”

Many of those who supported the union understood the importance of this victory for Southern workers.

“You can’t live in the South and make a decent wage unless you are in senior management in a corporation or belong to a union,” said Eula Smith, a passenger service agent who works in Charlotte. “We need this.”

For those like Smith who have worked for American during the last two decades, the yes vote was hard won. Passenger service agents are the only group of American employees eligible for union representation whose union was not recognized by the company.

Nearly 20 years ago, some agents realizing the benefits of being a union member contacted CWA and began working to form a union.

They lost a union recognition vote in 1998, but a core of activists stayed intact and formed a union that fought for workers’ right without being recognized by the company.

Another union election was held in 2013, but at the time, American had declared bankruptcy, and the hostile environment created by the company resulted in another, albeit narrow, loss.

With American’s bankruptcy finally resolved and the merger with US Airways complete, the union group was able to put together a winning campaign.

“Many hundreds of activists have spent thousands of hours over the years to get us to today’s election result,” said Janet Elston, a passenger service agent out of Dallas. “They never wavered and never, ever gave up. We have finally achieved what most thought was impossible: union representation for our work group. Now we’ll begin a new working relationship with our company, with a legal binding contract.”

Passenger service agents at US Airways also had to fight for their union.

In 2004 passenger service agents at American West voted to join the Teamsters despite a fierce anti-union campaign by the company.

A year after the union victory, American West merged with US Airways.

When the merger took place, the Teamsters represented about 1,800 passenger service agents at American West and the CWA about 4,700 at US Airways.

At the same time that the two companies merged, the two unions of passenger service agents merged to form the Customer Service Agents Association IBT/CWA.

Teamster leaders called the yes vote at American a big victory for both American and the former US Airways workers.

“With our partners in CWA, the Teamsters are leading the way in protecting airline professionals involved in the biggest airline merger in history,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “Our union is dedicated to fighting on behalf of workers in this volatile industry. Our new members at the combined American-US Airways now have two of the strongest airline unions in their corner.”


What do you get for $340 million? Filthy schools

School principals in Chicago are complaining that since the Chicago Public Schools privatized custodial services their schools have not been properly cleaned and that as a result, they are spending too much time dealing with cleanliness issues rather than education.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Board of Education decided to privatize school custodial services and awarded school cleaning contracts to two multi-national corporate vendors, Aramark and Sodexmagic. The cost of the contracts over a three-year period is $340 million.

As a result of the privatization deal, school custodians report to their private employer rather than school principals.

The board promised that the privatization deal and the change in command resulting from it would lead to better services at a lower costs.

But a recent survey of principals found that custodial services have deteriorated badly since Aramark and Sodexmagic began cleaning the schools. According to the results of the survey, many Chicago schools are just plain filthy.

Valerie Strauss, writing for the Washington Post, reports that Chicago principals in the survey complained of “serious problems with rodents, roaches and other bugs, filthy toilets, missing supplies such as toilet paper and soap, and broken furniture.”

One of the reasons that schools aren’t getting cleaned is the private contractors have not hired enough custodial staff.

“I am still trying to figure out how we care going to clean the schools with four (cleaning staff) in a school that has 1,000 kids,” wrote one school custodian in comments appearing in an article published by Catalyst Chicago.

The understaffing problem looks to get even worse. Aramark has announced that by the end of September, it will lay off 476 school custodians, a 20 percent staff reduction.

When the layoffs occur, the problems keeping the schools clean “will only be exacerbated,” said Julie Valentine, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1 to the Chicago Sun Times.

The filthy state of Chicago’s schools has caused a number of principals to publicly voice their complaints about the private contractors.

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in an e-mail to other principals that was partially reprinted by Strauss,  called the contracts with Aramark and Sodexmagic a “massive unethical wast of tax dollars.”

“That’s $300 million that should have been committed to education of the children in you schools; instead, those funds are being squandered to the profits of a corporation with a history of being ridden (with scandals) across the United States,” wrote LaRaviere.

LaRaviere is the chair of Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy in Legislation and Education, a group of activist principals within the Chicago Principals and Administration Association.

AAPPLE was the group that initiated the survey that resulted in so many negative responses from Chicago principals. Fixing the custodial problems has become a priority AAPPLE. Instead of overseeing education too many principals are spending too much time trying to keep their schools clean, said LaRaviere in his e-mail

According to LaRaviere, if Aramark and Sodexmagic can’t deliver the services that they promised, CPS should void their contracts.


Labor files ethics complaint against NJ governor over pension investments

The New Jersey AFL-CIO on September 12 filed a complaint with the state’s Ethics Commission charging that investments from state pension funds were steered toward investment firms that made big campaign contributions to Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his allies.

“Despite clear boundaries created to shield pension investments from the influence of politics, it appears that the State Investment Council under Robert Grady’s direction and the Christie administration’s leadership clearly violated those rules,” said  Charles Wowkanech, president of the state’s AFL-CIO.  “We urge the State Ethics Commission to investigate this pay-to-play scheme on behalf of taxpayers who are footing the bill for this abuse and pensioners being shortchanged of their retirement funds.”

Grady, Managing Director of Cheyenne Capital as well as Chairman of the New Jersey State Investment Council, was a prominent executive of the Carlyle Group until 2009.

The Investment Council advises and make recommendations regarding investments to the state’s pension funds.

The ethics complaint comes three days after Fitch Ratings lowered New Jersey’s debt rating. According to Fitch, one of the reasons for the downgrade was that Gov. Christie backed out of a deal to make the state’s full contribution to New Jersey’s public pension funds.

The labor organization made its complaint in a 11-page letter to the Ethics Commission. The letter was signed by Wowkanech who said that there was a suspicious link between firms that received state pension investments and their campaign contributions.

“Public reporting reveals that the Division of Investment Management . . . under the governance and direction of the State Investment Council and Chair Grady, has chosen to invest pension funds into hedge funds and private equity firms after their principals have made political contributions that benefit the governor and the Republican Party,” said Wowkanech in his letter.

For example, two large Wall Street firms, the Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group were among those chosen to manage New Jersey pension fund investments.

In 2011 while the State Investment Council was considering investing in a private equity fund created by Blackstone,  one of Blackstone’s employees made a $10,000 contribution to the New Jersey Republican State Committee while another made a campaign contribution directly to Gov. Christie.

The New York Time’s Deal Book reported that in December 2011, “New Jersey’s pension fund . . . committed up to $1.8 billion to funds managed by the Blackstone Group, a big win for the money-management giant.”

Carlyle was awarded a $450 million to manage pension fund investments while Grady was still receiving income from Carlyle.

“The presence of the State Investment Council chairman on those calls violated the rules designed to protect investment decisions from being influenced by politics,” said Wowkanech. “This serious matter affecting the pension benefits of countless current and retired former employees warrants a thorough investigation, based on evidence in the complaint that Bob Grady and Christie’s re-election team clearly used pension investments as a way to attract political contributions.”

The pensions of current and retired New Jersey employees took another blow earlier this year when Gov. Christie decided that the state would not contribute its share to the state’s pension funds.

Instead, Gov. Christie used the money that was supposed to help make the pension funds sound again to close an unexpected state budget shortfall.

But that move may have made the state’s financial problems even worse. On September 10, Fitch Ratings lowered the state’s debt rating and gave as one reason for doing so Gov. Christie’s decision to back out of a deal negotiated with legislators to fully fund state pensions.

As a result, New Jersey will now pay higher interest rates for public works projects and other public investments that require financing.

While Gov. Christie was steering state funding away from pensions, he was also steering more of toward Wall Street.

David Sirota reports in the International Business Times that since Gov. Christie has been in office, New Jersey investments in alternative investments such as hedge funds and private equity funds managed by Wall Street has increased three-fold.

Yves Smith writing in Naked Capitalism reports that New Jersey has authorized the allocation of one-third of its investments into alternative investments, which Smith calls, “a stunningly high level.”

As a result of its high level of alternative investments, New Jersey has paid Wall Street nearly $1 billion in management fees since Gov. Christie took office. In 2013 alone, the state paid Wall Street $398.7 million in management fees, the most since Gov. Christie took office and more than three times the amount that the state paid for management fees the year before Gov. Christie took office.

The fees might have been worth it had the investment returns lived up to the promised results, but Sirota writes that the failure of New Jersey’s alternative investments to meet expectations has cost New Jersey taxpayers $3.8 billion.

CA becomes second state to require paid sick leave, but some workers excluded

When Gov. Jerry Brown signed the  Healthy Workplace, Healthy Families bill (AB 1522) on August 10, California became only the second state in the US to require most employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees.

Advocates estimate that 6.5 million Californians who now work without sick leave benefits will be covered by the new law.

In a last minute deal between Gov. Brown and Assembly member  Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s sponsor, 385,000 home health care workers for the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program were exempted from coverage.

A broad spectrum of labor unions, whose members by and large already have paid sick leave, supported the bill.

Two unions representing home health care workers, AFSCME’s United Domestic Workers, and SEIU’s United Long Term Care Workers withdrew their support after the deal between Gov. Brown and Assembly member Gonzalez was announced.

The bill requires employers to allow workers to accumulate three sick days a year. It covers all workers who have been on the job for 90 days including temporary and part-time workers.

Paid sick leave can be used when an employee is sick or to care for a sick family member, including domestic partners.

“By signing this important bill into law, the Governor put an end to the cruel Hobson’s choice that more than 6.5 million workers face when deciding whether to go to work sick or lose wages that keep food on the table for their families,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary treasurer of the California AFL-CIO. “This law protects workers and consumers and is vital to public health.”

California joins Connecticut as he second state in the US to require employers to provide paid sick leave.

On the same day that Gov. Brown signed the California paid sick day law, Patterson, New Jersey passed a city ordinance similar to California’s new law.

Patterson joins other New Jersey cities, including Passaic, Newark, East Orange, and Jersey City, that have passed paid sick leave ordinances.

San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, and Seattle also have paid sick leave ordinances.

The World Health Organization reports that paid sick leave is a key component of decent work,” but the US remains the lone wealthy nation in the world that does not require employers to provide paid sick leave.

US House Member Rosa Delauro introduced a paid sick leave bill in the US House of Representatives, but Republicans prevented a vote from being taken on the bill.

Businesses have argued that requiring paid sick leave would result in higher business costs and job cuts, but the dire warnings have been unfounded.

The Center for Economic Policy Research examined the impact that paid sick leave had on business in Connecticut, which implemented the requirement two years ago.

“Most employers reported a modest impact or no impact of the law on their costs or business operations, and they typically found that the administrative burden was minimal,” said the CERP report on its findings.  “. . . A year and a half after its implementation, more than three-quarters of surveyed employers expressed support for the earned paid sick leave law.”

Despite benefits of paid sick leave, Gov. Brown told Assembly member Gonzalez that he would sign AB 1522 only if the state’s home health care workers were excluded from coverage.

The state contracts with home health care workers to provide in-home care to more than 400,000 elderly and disabled people. The in-home care helps the elderly and disabled stay out of nursing homes.

The unions representing home health care workers called the decision to exclude home health care workers an act of disrespect.

“By excluding hundreds of thousands of home care workers through the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program, AB 1522 has effectively created a second class of workers in our state,” said Doug Moore, executive director of United Domestic Workers (AFSCME). “Rather than show courage, lawmakers have denied dignity to caregivers and the seniors and people with disabilities they serve.”

“Caregivers, predominantly women and people of color, deserve the same rights as every other worker,” said Laphonza Butler, president of United Long Term Care Workers (SEIU). “I thought we in California were past the point of debate on such a basic matter of equality and dignity.”

Butler and Moore said that including home health care workers in the paid sick leave law would become their priority when the California Legislature reconvenes.

Pulaski said that it would be a priority of the state AFL-CIO as well.

“California’s unions won’t rest until every single worker in our state receives equal access to paid sick days,” said Pulaski. “Home care workers, like all workers, deserve the opportunity to earn paid sick days on the job. We’ll continue to fight for In-Home Supportive Services workers to ensure that California treats all workers with fairness and dignity.”

NNU urges support for African health care workers battling Ebola

The UN World Health Organization reports that an unprecedented number of West African health care workers have been infected by the Ebola virus. As of August 25, 240 doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers in the nations hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak have contracted the disease and 120 have died.

In an act of solidarity, National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the US, has initiated a national fund raising effort to provide protective gear to West African health care workers in the frontlines of the battle against the contagious and deadly disease.

National Nurses United executive director Rose Ann DeMoro blamed the failure to contain the Ebola virus on cuts to the public health care systems imposed on developing countries at the center of the Ebola crisis–Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

During the last three decades, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have required these and other developing countries seeking development loans to reduce their investments in public resources such as health care, so that more money could be redirected to private investment.

“Neo-liberal programs in a global economy dominated by international banks and the governments aligned with them that have starved health programs and other public services while shifting resources to transnational corporations and other wealthy interests,” said DeMoro in an opinion column appearing in the Huffington Post.

NNU’s fund raising effort, which is being organized by the Registered Nurses Response Network, a project of the NNU, seeks money to provide expensive protective gear for health care workers treating Ebola patients.

According to the WHO, shortages of protective gear is one of the main reasons that so many health care workers have been infected with Ebola.

“In many cases, medical staff are at risk because no protective equipment is available–not even gloves and face masks,” reads WHO’s report on the dire situation.

Out of the 3,000 people infected by Ebola in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, nearly 10 percent have been health care workers.

WHO also said that there are too few staff to deal with the outbreak, causing those who care for Ebola patients to work for long stretches without breaks, which leads to exhaustion, which in turn makes them more prone to mistakes.

In addition to working long hours without sufficient protective gear, some health care workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone have not been paid.

The lack of pay caused some health care workers at the John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia, Liberia to go on strike for a short time.

“Health workers have died (fighting Ebola), including medical doctors at … JFK and to have them come to work without food on their table, we think that is pathetic,” said George Williams, secretary-general of the Health Workers Association of Liberia to Reuters.

Williams told Reuters that health care workers at the hospital had gone two months without pay.

Despite threats to their own safety and the lack of pay, health care workers have fought valiantly to turn the tide against this deadly disease, but the crisis continues to grow.

DeMoro writes that in addition to cuts to public health services, other factors are making this epidemic hard to control.

Extreme poverty, which to some extent is the result of austerity policies imposed on the affected nations, and climate change have created conditions that make people more vulnerable to Ebola.

Poverty means that many African don’t have access to adequate health care, and, according to DeMoro, climate change has caused deforestation, which has caused animals that carry the Ebola virus to lose their habitats and has brought them in closer contact with humans.

DeMoro writes that a tax on risky financial transactions, known as the Robin Hood tax, could generate revenue needed to deal with the Ebola crisis and other problems related to it.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars would be raised by wider enactment of the Robin Hood tax, funds that could be used directly to attack under funding of health programs and poverty that contribute to the outbreaks and their rapid spread,” writes DeMoro. “Robin Hood funds would also help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, which also has links to Ebola.”

For now though, DeMoro and other NNU leaders are urging people to show their solidarity with the health care workers of West Africa by making a donation to the fund raising effort for medical protective gear.

CA passes bill to protect perma-temps

The California Legislature recently passed a bill designed to curb some of the abuses that temporary workers face on the job. AB 1897, introduced by Assembly Member Roger Hernandez, holds company’s that use temporary staffing agencies accountable for worker abuses committed by those agencies.

The bill has been sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, who must sign the bill before it becomes effective.

Hernandez said that the bill will make it harder for employers who rely on temporary labor to avoid responsibility for wage theft and other abuses.

“Currently, unscrupulous employers are utilizing the subcontracted model commonly known as ‘perma-temps’ to avoid accountability in the workplace,” said Hernandez.” Many times, the employer and the staffing agencies are able to avoid responsibility to the worker, leaving the worker without any rights to hold either party accountable if a labor violation arises.”

Hernandez also said that the law was needed because the use of temporary work has become more common in recent years, and temporary workers face distinct challenges.

“While subcontracting is not new, this employment model has become more and more prevalent in a number of industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and blue-collar sectors, “said Hernandez. “This ‘subcontracted economy’ has led employers to rely on temporary workers who increasingly face lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security.

Hernandez added that temporary workers are also more prone to wage theft.

The subcontracted economy has grown substantially, not just in California, but across the US.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) in a recent report finds that 2.8 million US workers are temporary workers, more than double the number in the 1990s.

NELP also says that temporary work has changed. At one time, most temporary jobs were clerical jobs, but today a temporary worker is more likely to work in the manufacturing or material moving industries.

Latino and African-American workers are over represented in the temporary workforce. While together they comprise 27 percent of the US workforce, 40 percent of temporary workers are either Latino or African-American.

Many of these temporary workers are perma-temps–that is, they may be classified as temporary workers, but they work steadily for one employer over an extended period of time.

According to NELP, temporary workers may work side-by-side with permanent workers, but their pay is usually much less than their permanent counterparts.

The median average hourly wage for temporary workers is $12.40 and hour; the median average for permanent workers is $15.84 an hour, a 22 percent differential.

Pressure to keep labor costs down can lead temporary staffing agencies to cut corners. NELP cites as one example the experience of some Massachusetts temporary workers  employed at a company called Fulfillment America.

When the temporary workers sued their temporary agency for not paying overtime, the agency defended itself by saying that the payments it received from Fulfillment were so low that the agency couldn’t afford to pay overtime.

Some companies use temporary staffing companies to avoid complying with state and federal labor laws, but AB 1897 will hold them accountable for the treatment of workers hired through temporary staffing agencies.

One case in point is Taylor Farms in Tracy, California where about 400 of the 900 workers are temporary workers.

These workers are technically employed by two temporary agencies–Slingshot and Abel Mendoza. While they do much of the same work as regular full-time employees they are paid $2.50 less than their full-time counterparts at another Tracy Farms plant in Salinas, where the workers belong to the Teamsters. They also have no health insurance or pension plan.

When the temps joined the Teamster organizing campaign at the Tracy plant they were harassed and intimidated.

The Teamsters said that Taylor Farms was the poster child for the campaign that led to the passage of AB 1897 and praised its passage.

“We are one step closer to preventing companies from engaging in a 21st century scam by claiming the men and women who do their work are not really employees but ‘temporary’ workers for labor contractors or agencies,” said James Hoffa, Teamster general president after learning of the passages of AB 1897. “This corporate shell game allows corporations to deny responsibility for basic worker rights like pay, benefits, and working conditions. Holding a corporation accountable for violations on its shop floor is an important step in the right direction.”

“No jobs on a dead planet”

A global union federation composed of unions representing 176 million workers in 161 countries and territories is making climate justice one of its top priorities.

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation  (ITUC) said that climate change is a union issue because “there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

“The dominant global economic model is destroying jobs and the planet,” said Burrow. Governments need to support a transition to a more sustainable economy.

ITUC recognizes that such a transition could be disruptive and cause hardships for working people, especially those in countries with inadequate resources; consequently, the federation is demanding that unions have a voice in this transition.

We want to see the transition happen “through investment in new green jobs, skills, income protection, and other necessary measures implemented everywhere, with adequate funding for the poorest and most vulnerable nations,” reads ITUC’s manifesto on climate change action.

ITUC is urging world governments to agree to climate action that will limit the average temperature increase during this century to 2°C or less. If the current trend continues, average temperatures will increase by  4°C.

ITUC will use its annual World Day for Decent Work on October 7 to focus attention on the need for climate justice and workers rights, which the federation says are connected.

The world is on an unsustainable path, said Burrow. Inequality is the highest it has been in recent memory and getting worse, unemployment and precarious work are rampant, and 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. Climate change has and will worsen working and living conditions.

But if done in the right way, shifting to a more sustainable economy could alleviate or at least moderate these problems.

“When governments do act to reduce carbon pollution and equip the communities and industries for the climate challenges to come, many more jobs will be created,” said Burrow.

For example, ITUC research shows that investing in green technologies could create 48 million new jobs in the 12 countries with the most advanced economies alone. In Germany up to 400,000 new renewable energy jobs have been created in just two years.

Even more jobs could be created if these technologies spread throughout the world.

With that in mind, ITUC is urging its member unions to hold rallies, work place actions, public demonstrations, or other actions on October 7 that tie together the need for climate action, economic justice, and workers rights.

After that, ITUC plans to take its campaign for climate action and worker justice to the UN Climate Change talks that will be held in Lima, Peru between December 1 and December 12.

The Guardian reports that representatives of ITUC will attend the climate change talks in Lima and will urge governments to ignore the special interests of climate change doubters and agree to begin acting for climate justice.

“We watched governments fail the planet and their people in Copenhagen and the same corporate interests want to see failure in Paris,” said Burrow referring to past climate change talks in Copenhagen and future talks in Paris. “The mission of the trade union movement to ensure jobs, rights, and social equality requires that we embrace the cause of a just transition towards sustainable development – a transition that must start now,” said Burrow.