President of Ecuador proposes labor code reforms that promote “dignified work”

At a rally commemorating those who died in a 1922 massacre of Ecuadorian trade unionists, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa made public the details of a proposal to reform the nation’s labor code. The President plans to submit the proposals to the National Assembly for its consideration.

The rally took place in Guayquil the site of a 1922 general strike. The strike leaders were arrested and their supporters organized a demonstration to demand their release. Soldiers and police attacked the peaceful demonstration, and hundreds of demonstrators were killed. .

About 100,000 people attended the November 15 rally commemorating the victims of the massacre.

At the rally, President Correa laid out a five-point proposal for reforming the labor code. The reforms, he said, would promote dignified work, redistribute wealth, promote fair labor practices, and improve productivity.

Established trade unions for the most part are opposing the reforms and held protests against the proposals on November 19.

A newly formed labor federation, the Confederation of United Workers (CUT, the Spanish acronym), announced that it is backing the proposed changes.

Among its most important provisions, the proposed labor reforms would expand social security coverage by making it universal.

If the reforms are adopted, 1.5 million homemakers whose labor is unpaid would be covered by social security. They would be able to receive a pension when they reach retirement age and collect disability payments if they become unable to work.

Workers in the informal economy would also be covered.

The reforms would also narrow income inequality. The highest paid employees of a firm, usually the CEO, would be able to make no more than 20 times the amount of the pay of the firms’ lowest paid workers.

Those whose pay is more than 20 times higher that the lowest paid worker will pay more into the nation’s social security system.

(In the US, CEOs are paid more than 350 times the wages of the average worker–Washington Post, September 25, 2014.)

The proposed reforms would also eliminate fixed-term labor contracts and make all labor contracts enforceable for an indefinite period.

The intent of this proposal is to prohibit the use of short-term contracts that essentially make many workers temporary workers. Under the new proposals, all workers who are laid off or fired would be entitled to severance pay.

Employers would also be prohibited from firing women who are pregnant and workers who engage in union activities. Firing people because of race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity would also be prohibited.

The proposed changes also seek to democratize business by giving workers the right to elect corporate board members.

Finally, workers in both the private and public sector would be allowed to have their year-end bonus included in their regular pay rather than having to wait until the end of the year to receive it.

The Chamber of Industry and Production, which is similar to the Chamber of Commerce in the US, opposes the reforms.

The Chamber says that the proposal to make employment more stable by eliminating fixed-term contracts will hurt younger workers seeking to find jobs because firms will be reluctant to provide them the job security required by the proposed reforms.

The Chamber is also critical of the requirement limiting executive pay to no more than 20 times that of low-paid employees. According to the Chamber, such a requirement will stifle incentives created by wide pay differentials.

Joining the Chamber in its opposition to the proposed reforms are most of the established trade unions.

In September, 20,000 union members and their supporters held demonstrations across the county where they voiced their opposition to the reforms.

“We are protesting against anti-worker politics that the government is implementing,” said Jose Villavicencio, president of the Workers Union of Ecuador in a media conference held to announce the demonstrations. “(We are) against various laws that have been putting the Ecuadorian people at risk, in this way we are today mobilizing to demand that the government put forward a work code that benefits the weakest, which in this case are the workers.”

Solidarity Center, the international arm of the US’ AFL-CIO, reports that the demonstrations drew support from a broad civil society coalition including indigenous people’s organizations, teachers, students, medical professionals, students, and unemployed workers.

The United Workers Fronts(FUT, its Spanish acronym) and the Inter-Union Committee spearheaded the demonstrations.

A spokesperson for the FUT said that the proposed labor reforms could limit the right to strike and take away some benefits. There was also concern that it could limit regular pay raises.

FUT, which like other labor organizations had been in talks with the government about the labor code reforms since May, wanted the new code to include a reduction in the work week to 36 hours without a loss of pay.

Unlike the FUT and other unions, the Confederation of Workers is supporting the new labor code proposals.

CUT was formed with the support of the government.

According to Andes, the CUT seeks to redefine the trade union movement in Ecuador by including people at the margins of the labor market, including domestic workers, craftsmen, sex workers, truckers, and housewives. Some merchants have also joined the CUT.

Investigation begins into the deaths of four workers at a DuPont plant in Texas

Inspectors from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) arrived Monday morning at the DuPont insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas to begin their investigation into the causes of a chemical leak at the plant that killed four workers on November 15.

The workers died after inhaling methyl mercaptan released into air at the plant.

A fifth worker at the plant was hospitalized and released.

“Our initial investigation plans are to examine the accident site (and) conduct initial interviews with witnesses, if any, as well as key operators and managers,” said Dr. Daniel Horowitz, the leader of the investigating team. “(We’ll) request documentation on a range of relevant activities, such as maintenance histories of key equipment, training, and work schedules.”

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.

According to CSB, the agency has investigated DuPont plants before. In 2010, it investigated a flammable vapor explosion at the DuPont plant in Buffalo, New York. Also in 2010, the agency investigated three leaks that took place during a 33 hour period at the company’s plant in Belle, West Virginia.

During one of the leaks in Belle, a worker was overcome and killed by phosgene gas. The gas was released when a hose carrying it burst open and sprayed the deadly gas into the air.

A CSB report issued in 2011 on the incident said that there were “preventable safety shortcomings” at the plant including “failure to maintain the mechanical integrity of the a critical phosgene hose.”

Phosgene, which was used as poisonous gas during World War I and remained in use afterwards as an agent used in making insecticides, is a corrosive that can cause leaks and fraying in hoses unless the hoses are replaced regularly.

CSB said that the kind of hoses used at the Belle plant should have been replaced once a month, but they weren’t.

“I would hope the DuPont officials are examining the safety culture company-wide,” said the then CSB Director John Bresland at the time that the report was released.

In a press statement about the phosgene leak in 2010, CSB said that back in 1987, the company realized the dangers involved in using the stainless steel hoses lined with Teflon that were carrying phosgene at the plant.

The company considered switching to hoses line with Monel, a strong metal alloy much better at resisting corrosion than Teflon.

DuPont, however, decided not to do so because the Monel coated hoses cost more.

The company also considered increasing safety at the plant by enclosing the area where phosgene was handled and venting the enclosed area by using a scrubber system that eliminates phosgene that escapes into the air.

DuPont, according the press statement, decided that taking these safety steps was too expensive.

“Documents show that the company calculated the benefit ratio of potential lives saved compared to cost and decided not to make the safety improvements,” said the CSB in its statement.

Regarding the more recent worker deaths in Texas, CSB said that its investigation and final determination of the causes of the worker deaths could take up to a year but that the agency would release key information and facts about the deaths as they come to light.

CSB doesn’t have the authority to levy fines for safety violations; it can only make recommendations for preventing future safety failures.



Mine company CEO indicted on charges connected to 2010 deadly explosion

A federal grand jury in West Virginia on November 14 indicted Don Blankenship the former CEO of Massey Energy for willfully violating federal mine safety regulations.

Blankenship was the top executive at Massey in 2010 when an explosion tore through the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killing 29 miners and injuring dozens more.

The grand jury indicted Blankenship for conspiring to violate ventilation and dust control regulations. Two independent investigations of the blast found that poor ventilation and the unsafe build up of coal dust caused the lethal explosion.

Blankenship was also charged with conspiring to hide mine safety violations from federal mine inspectors and with issuing false statements that led investors and the US Securities Exchange Commission to believe that there were no safety problems at Upper Big Branch.

The grand jury returned four indictments against Blankenship–three were felonies and one was a misdemeanor.

According to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), at least 52 miners died as a result of working in Massey owned mines while Blankenship was CEO.

“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched.” said Cecil Roberts, the international president of UMWA. “No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time. No company compared with Massey’s record of health and safety violations during that time.”

Massey mines were non-union mines, but the UMWA has supported the families of dead miners and the explosion’s survivors in their pursuit of justice.

During the four years that followed the explosion, the UMWA has been the most vocal organization criticizing Blankenship’s disregard for safety.

The union called the explosion a criminal act caused by the company’s willful neglect of basic mine safety precautions and it urged state and federal law enforcement officials to pursue criminal charges against those at the very top of the Massey corporation, not just the managers of the mine.

According to the Charleston Gazette, the federal indictment included, “a long list of repeated and serious violations at Upper Big Branch of rules that require proper ventilation of underground mines and mandate that operators prevent the accumulation of highly explosive coal dust.”

The indictment also says that Blankenship urged mine managers to violate safety rules in order to maximize production and profits.

If Blankenship is convicted of the most serious charges, he could serve up to 20 years in prison.

“I commend the US Attorney’s office for following through on their commitment to take its Upper Big Branch investigation to the very top of the Massey corporate structure,” said Roberts. “Finally, a strong message has been sent to every other coal operator who chooses to violate the law and puts the lives of miners at risk.”

UAW gets a toe hold in the South at Volkswagen

Volkswagen on November 12 issued a new policy at its US plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee that should result in its partial recognition of UAW Local 42, a new local of Chattanooga auto workers chartered by the UAW last summer.

The policy entitled “Community Organization Engagement” states that the company will recognize employee organizations that meet company-established thresholds for membership.

According to the policy, employee organizations whose membership is at least 45 percent of the plant’s production workers can meet on company property during non-work hours once a month and will be able to meet with representatives of the plant’s human resources division every two weeks. Representatives of the employee organization may also meet with the company’s executive committee once a month.

Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer said that more than half of the eligible workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant had joined Local 42. He also said that an independent auditor hired by Volkswagen will conduct an audit to verify the number of Chattanooga workers who are members of Local 42 and that after the verification, Volkswagen would recognize Local 42.

“When the verification is completed, we will take advantage of the company’s offer to establish regular meetings with the human resources staff and the executive committee,” said Casteel.

Volkswagen’s new policy, however, leaves open the possibility that other organizations could be recognized by Volkswagen.

According to the policy, an employees’ organization whose membership is at least 30 percent of the workforce will be able to meet with the executive committee once a quarter.

An organization with at least 15 percent will be able to meet with human resources representatives once a  month.

The American Employees Council (ACE), a new group of Volkswagen workers who opposed the UAW in a union representation election in February has opened an office near the Chattanooga plant and said that it will seek recognition by Volkswagen.

It’s difficult to tell where ACE got the resources to open an office or conduct an organizing campaign, but it shares a common antipathy toward UAW with various right-wing groups that invested heavily in the anti-union effort that led to UAW’s defeat in a union representation election held in February at the Chattanooga plant.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Center of Worker Freedom, which is backed by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and the National Right to Work Committee spent heavily on an anti-union media campaign before the union election took place.

ACE is also supported by the MacKinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, a political group that supports right to work (for less) laws and charter schools and opposes the expansion of Medicaid.

Vincent Vernuccio of the MacKinac Center told the Detroit Free Press that it would be good for all parties concerned if Volkswagen recognized ACE as well as the UAW.

While the UAW expressed guarded support for Volkswagen’s new policy, the union said that the policy fell short of fulfilling a commitment that Volkswagen made to the UAW last spring.

It was the union’s understanding that if it did two things:

  • Withdraw its appeal to the National Labor Relations Board that the February election was tainted by illegal outside interference and
  • Use its influence with IG Metall, the German auto union whose leaders hold several seats on the Volkswagen Board of Directors, and the Volkswagen Global Group Works Council to convince Volkswagen to build a new assembly line in Chattanooga rather than Mexico

Volkswagen USA would recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representatives for the workers at Chattanooga.

UAW carried out its commitment on both counts. The appeal was dropped and with the backing of IG Metall and the Global Works Council, the Chattanooga plant was tapped to be the home for a new assembly line where a new Volkswagen SUV will be built.

Casteel said that after the UAW is recognized, its first order of business will be to discuss these commitments with management.

“In our first conversation that will occur (with Volkswagen management), we will remind them of the mutually agreed upon commitments that were made by Volkswagen and UAW last spring in Germany: Volkswagen will recognize the UAW as the representative of our members,” said Casteel.

Longshore union labels employer slow down accusations as baseless

A public relations firm for the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) recently issued a media release accusing International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members of conducting a slow down at the US’ West Coast ports.

The media release said that the slow down resulted from union members being overly vigilant in conducting safety reviews of container truck chassis, the long trailers used for ground transport of ocean-going cargo containers.

According to the media release, the union members’ slow down has resulted in extreme freight congestion at West Coast ports.

ILWU leaders condemned the media release for being misleading and deceptive.

“This is a bold-faced lie,” said the ILWU in its own media release.

The slow down charge was made while the ILWU and PMA are negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that will cover work done at ports in California, Oregon, and Washington.

PMA represents 70 multi-national ocean-going carriers and maritime companies in labor negotiations with the ILWU.

The current contract expired in July, but the two sides have continued to negotiate while workers work under the terms of the old contract.

The ILWU said that PMA’s media release blaming workers for the freight congestion is deceptive on two counts.

First, the media release said that the workers’ slow down violated an agreement between the two parties that was supposed to ensure that “normal operations” continue while negotiations are in progress.

“No such agreement was ever made,” said the ILWU media release. “Nor could it be made given the parties historic disagreement regarding the definition of ‘normal operations.’”

Furthermore, there are a number of other well documented reasons for the congestion including rail service delays, insufficient numbers of short-haul container truck drivers, and heavier than usual port traffic.

But the main cause is a problem that PMA members themselves created.

Earlier this year, PMA members began selling their container truck chassis to third-party contractors.

As a result of the sell off, PMA members divested themselves of thousands of truck chassis.

According to the ILWU, the sell off was conducted to put pressure on the union to agree to contract concessions.

Prior to the sell off, ILWU members repaired and maintained the chassis. But now jurisdiction over this work is in dispute, which could cost the union thousands of jobs.

The sell off, however, has backfired because the third-party contractors have been unable to supply truck chassis in a timely and efficient manner.

What we have at the busiest ports like the one at the Port of Long Beach in California is a severe shortage of truck chassis, which according to Jon Slangerup, chief executive of the Port of Long Beach, has caused chaos on the docks and is the main reason for the congestion.

That assessment is shared by Dr. Noel Hacegaba, the port’s chief commercial officer, who told the Long Beach Post that the truck chassis crisis is the main cause of the freight congestion.

“We don’t see the longshore contract negotiations as a factor in the congestion,” added Lee Peterson, a spokesperson for the Port of Los Angeles in the same article. “The cause is due to the chassis situation and the high volume of cargo this peak season.”

The stakes are high during the contract negotiations between PMA and the ILWU, which may explain why the PMA resorted to a deceitful public relations ploy.

Like most other employers, PMA is trying to shift more of the cost of health care onto its workers.

Thanks to the strength of the ILWU and to many years of united struggle, ILWU members enjoy a generous health care plan that rivals that of many CEO’s.

Like CEO health care plans, the ILWU members’ plan is paid for almost entirely by their employers.

However, because of the Affordable Care Act, these premium health care plans in the near future will pay a tax, which PMA estimates could be as much as $150 million.

PMA wants the workers to shoulder most of the cost of this tax by accepting cuts to their health benefits.

PMA also wants to weaken the workers’ hard won pension benefit.

The new collective bargaining agreement must also address jurisdictional issues.

As port operators introduce more technology that automates work, old jobs will be eliminated and new ones created.

The PMA would like to transfer the jurisdiction over these new jobs away from ILWU members.

With so much at stake, says the ILWU, the PMA launched a media offensive that tried to shift the blame for port congestion away from itself–the real culprit–in hopes that it could gain an advantage in the negotiations.

ILWU urged the PMA to acknowledge the “corrosive impact” that its deceitful media campaign was having on negotiations.

The union also said that ILWU members will continue to conduct rigorous safety reviews on truck chassis with which they work.

“Longshore work is extremely hazardous, with higher fatality rates than the work of firefighters or police officers, according to US Department of Labor figures,” said Craig Merrilees, ILWU spokesperson. “The ILWU has negotiated one of the best safety codes in the industry. The ILWU is committed to safety and will adhere to the ILWU-PMA Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code. The men and women of the ILWU will not make up for the current supply chain failures at the expense of life and limb.”

Workers at two FedEx termnals vote “yes” for Teamster membership

Despite a relentless anti-union campaign, FexEx drivers at two locations have voted to join the Teamsters.

Drivers at FedEx’s terminal in South Brunswick, New Jersey on October 31 voted to join Teamsters Local 701. Earlier in the month, FexEx Freight drivers in Croydon, Pennsylvania voted to join Teamsters Local 107.

“We are tired of the unfair and inconsistent work rules and policies handed down by management,” said Mike Thiemer, a driver a the South Brunswick terminal explaining why he and his fellow workers voted for the union. “It comes down to wanting to be treated with respect and dignity.”

The pro-union vote at Croydon was the first victory in the US for the Teamsters’ FedEx organizing drive. Prior to the Croydon vote, workers at a FedEx terminal in Surrey, British Columbia became the first FedEx ground workers in North America to join the Teamsters.

FedEx workers in Louisville, Kentucky will vote in a union representation election on November 19. Another union representation election is scheduled to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 26.

An election was to take place earlier in November in North Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but the Teamsters citing illegal management interference withdrew the petition requesting an election and said that a new petition would be filed within six months.

Drivers at the Cinnaminson, New Jersey FedEx terminal on October 14 voted against joining the Teamsters.

FedEx, whose chief business rival is UPS, has a long history of opposing their employees’ right to join a union and bargain collectively.

According to the Leadership Conference, a civil and human rights coalition, from its beginning, FedEx’s business plan stressed the importance of keeping the company union free.

In 1989, FedEx’s then CEO Fred Smith was quoted as saying, “I don’t intend to recognize any unions at Federal Express.”

In 1993, FedEx  distributed to its managers a booklet with instructions on how to keep their facilities non-union.

In 2006, FedEx’s corporate headquarters published a paper for its local human resources staff that included five union avoidance strategies.

When FedEx’s airline pilots tried to join a union in the 1990s, FedEx conducted an aggressive anti-union campaign that included illegal interference with the pilot’s right to choose union representation.

The pilot’s eventually overcame management’s interference and voted for a union.

The Teamsters launched their most recent organizing campaign at FedEx in 2011 when the Teamsters national convention passed a resolution stating that the union would “assist our FedEx brothers and sisters in organizing and achieving their goal of a union contract.”

In response, FedEx has relied on a number of strategies to keep the company union free including classifying many of its drivers as independent contractors, who are forbidden by law from joining a union.

In addition to making some of it workers ineligible to become union members, FedEx sometimes uses the carrot to avoid unionization.

After its Cinnaminson workers filed a petition seeking a union vote, the company raised pay by $0.80 an hour and announced an end to its use of driver score cards, which the company used to discipline workers and which most workers agreed was an unfair form of coercion.

“(FedEx and other non-union) companies are offering pay raises and other improvements at the same time we are organizing, but the workers know that these things can be taken away just as quickly without a binding contract,” said Tyson Johnson, director of the Teamsters National Freight Division.

In addition to the carrot, FedEx also uses the stick.

The Teamsters recently withdrew a request for a union election at FedEx’s North Harrisburg terminal in Pennsylvania after the union accused the company of committing “numerous unfair labor practices including intimidation, threats, surveillance, and many other (illegal actions).”

According to the Teamsters, leaders in the North Harrisburg union movement were singled out for threats and intimidation.

The company also sought to spread dissension among North Harrisburg FedEx workers by passing out a flyer with misleading information.

The flyer disingenuously urged FedEx workers to get guarantees in writing from the Teamsters about the outcomes resulting from the collective bargaining that would take place if the workers voted for the union.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of bargaining knows that neither side can guarantee the results of the collective bargaining process before it takes place.

The successful union elections at South Brunswick and Croydon have Teamster leaders feeling optimistic about the FedEx organizing campaign.

“This victory shows that drivers are fed up with FedEx Freight,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters general president after the South Brunswick vote. “The (organizing) campaign is building momentum, and we will work hard to win these workers the fairness, respect and dignity they deserve.”




Zara workers seek living wage and predictable schedules

Led by a 23-year old sales associate named Sharlene Santos, workers at Zara in New York have joined a growing number of retail workers seeking a living wage and predictable work hours.

Santos has posted a petition at urging Dilap Patel, the managing director of Zara’s operations in the US to provide Zara employees with work hours sufficient enough to allow them to earn a living wage, equal opportunities for raises and promotions, and a respectful work environment.

More than 1,400 Zara employees and their supporters have signed the petition. Their efforts are being supported by the Retail Action Project, a project of New York’s Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

Zara is one of the world’s largest fast fashion companies with 1,770 stores in 86 countries. Zara specializes in producing clothes that closely resemble the latest in high-end fashion wear, getting the newest designs to market quickly, and selling them at affordable prices.

It is owned by Inditex, one of the world’s largest retail holding companies. The owner of Index is Amancio Ortega of Spain, who Forbes says is the fourth richest billionaire in the world.

In explaining why she and her fellow Zara associates are petitioning Patel, Santos said that when she began working at Zara, she worked enough hours to keep up with cost of her ongoing college education and help her parents pay some bills and expenses.

But after the last Christmas season, she and other Zara employees were told that they would no longer be able to work more than 25 hours a week.

“If I worked the maximum amount of hours every week at my store, I would only make $13,650 a year,” writes Santos.

Santos said that after Zara management limited the number of hours that employees could work, her weekly work hours dropped from an average of 35 to 16.

“With these kinds of poverty schedules, we are forced to choose between bills, rent, and food. Some of my coworkers were skipping meals to save money,” she continues. “I felt so stretched that I considered quitting school. And while Zara says we can’t get more hours, they continue hiring more part-time associates.”

Santos went on to say that when she and a committee of other Zara workers confronted their manager about the lack of work, the manager blamed their reduced hours on the new Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which requires employers to provide health care insurance to workers who average 30 or more hours of work each week.

But a new report by a team of researchers from the City University of New York and RWDSU suggests that the Obamacare excuse is a cover up for the real reason that workers are seeing their hours reduced.

The report entitled Short Shifted finds that retailers such as Zara are relying more on just-in-time scheduling to lower labor costs.

Just-in-time scheduling relies on sophisticated software to track and analyze customer traffic. Through the use of this technology, retailers are able to staff their stores with as few employees as possible when customer traffic is light.

To make just-in-time scheduling work, employers use on-call scheduling. When on-call scheduling is used, workers are given certain days and hours when they must be available for work. Two hours before their shift begins, they’re required to call their manager, who tells them whether they’re needed.

Short Shifted says that just-in-time scheduling lowers labor costs and that for this reason, its use has become prevalent in the retail business.

Fewer and uncertain work hours aren’t the Zara workers only grievances, writes Santos.

“We sales associates have noticed that there is a real lack of advancement opportunities for people of color, and we rarely get the promotions that would give us full-time hours,” writes Santos.

A recent article in the New York Times says that joining a union could help the Zara workers resolve the problems they face on the job.

The Times reports that at Macy’s department stores in New York City sales associates like Debra Ryan belong to RWDSU.

Ryan, who has been a Macy’s employee for 27 years, works full-time and makes about $20 an hour or $40,000 a year.

She also knows three weeks in advance what her schedule will be and is guaranteed that she’ll be paid for all the hours on her schedule.

“I’m able to pay my rent, thank God, and go on vacation, at least once a year,” said Ms. Ryan to the Times. “There’s a sense of security.”