You might need a union if. . .

Back in 2000 when Amazon.com customer representatives in Seattle were trying to form a union, the company conducted what the New York Times described as an aggressive anti-union campaign.

A recent investigative report by the Morning Call, the daily newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, may explain why Amazon was so fearful of its workers organizing. According to the Morning Call, which interviewed 20 former and current workers at the Amazon warehouse located in the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, the workers “offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it’s like to work in the Amazon warehouse, where temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are  difficult to achieve, and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers  hired by an outside agency are tough to get.”

The Call reported that in mid-June an emergency room doctor contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report an “unsafe environment” after treating several Amazon workers at the Pennsylvania warehouse for heat related conditions.

After inspecting the warehouse, where temperatures and the heat index soared well over 100 degrees during the summer heat wave, OSHA recommended that Amazon lower the warehouse temperature and humidity and provide hourly breaks. Amazon installed some fans, passed out cooling bandanas, stuck to its two 15 minute-a-day break schedule, and stationed ambulances in the parking lot to treat workers felled by the heat.

Amazon could have made conditions more bearable by opening loading dock doors to let fresh air circulate, a common practice at most warehouses, but citing theft prevention, chose not to do so.

It also could have reduced the unreasonably high productivity rates, difficult to achieve in the best of circumstance. One worker said that before the summer started, his productivity rate was doubled overnight from 250 units per hour to 500 units per hour. Another worker told the Call that she was written up for being “unproductive during several minutes of her shift.” She was fired several days after she fell ill and was taken by wheelchair to an air-conditioned office to cool off.

Workers also told the Call that Amazon relies heavily on temporary workers, supplied by Integrity Staffing Solutions. The temps are led to believe that if they work hard, there is a good chance that they could be hired as permanent workers, but according to the Call, very few temps ever become full-time workers.

One former temporary warehouse employee said he worked seven months before he was terminated for not working fast enough. In his 50s, he worked 10 hours a day, four days a week as a picker, plucking items from bins and delivering them to packers who put them in boxes for shipment. He would walk 13 to 15 miles daily, he estimated, and was among the oldest pickers.

As it turns out, Amazon’s warehouse in Pennsylvania isn’t the only place where Amazon workers face challenging conditions. In 2008, the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom reported that at Amazon’s Bedfordshire warehouse, workers were refused sick leave during the Christmas rush, forced to work overtime, assigned productivity quotas that even a manager described as “ridiculous,” and “set against each other with a bonus scheme that penalizes staff if any member of a group fails to hit a quota.”

When Amazon’s customer service workers tried to organize a union back in 2000, CEO Jeff Bezos told them that they didn’t need a union because “everyone in the company is an owner.” Apparently some of the owners have a little more authority than others.

Unions announce new contracts

Three unions recently announced settlements of major contracts. One has national, another regional, and the third local significance. One was settled after workers voted to authorize a strike, another after a two-week strike, and the third after the union agreed not to strike.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) on September 19 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with three grocery chains in Southern California that employe 62,000 union members. UFCW and Vons, owned by Safeway, Ralphs, owned by Kroger, and Albertsons, owned by Supervalu, reached an agreement after eight months of fruitless negotiations.

Progress toward a settlement began over the weekend after union members voted to authorize a strike, and the union announced that it was canceling the current contract and would strike after 72 hours. A strike in 2003 cost the grocery chains $2 billion.

Most of the workers at these stores are part-timers, but unlike most part-timers, they have an affordable, comprehensive health care plan. The stores’ corporate owners wanted to reduce this benefit, but the union said that the new contract protects it. “We have attained our most important goal, which was continuing to provide comprehensive health care to the members and their families,” said union negotiators in a statement.

The agreement, which still needs member ratification, will serve as a pattern for other retail grocery contracts that cover 28,000 workers in Southern California.

The United Autoworkers on September 16 announced that it reached a tentative agreement with GM. The union did not release details of the four-year pact that still needs member ratification, but did say that the deal protects health care and pension benefits that GM sought to reduce and that as a result of the agreement, the company will bring back some work it shipped abroad and reopen an assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The union, which agreed not to strike so that GM could receive federal assistance in 2009, sought to reclaim some of the concessions that it agreed to in 2005 and again in 2009 when GM was facing bankruptcy. Joe Ashton, vice-president for UAW’s GM department, said that the concessions, which cost each worker between $7,000 and $30,000, helped GM survive the bankruptcy and that GM’s workers played a key role in the company’s return to profitability and should be rewarded for that effort.

The contract makes some progress toward that goal. Workers will receive a $5,000 signing bonus and a better, more transparent profit-sharing bonus.

The union, however, fell short on one goal, which was to make substantial progress toward getting new-hire wages closer to the middle-class wages enjoyed by veteran workers. Currently, new hires make $14 an hour and max out at 16. Bloomberg.com reports that over the next four years, new hire wages will increase to $16 an hour and max out at $19.

Bob King, UAW president said that as long as so many autoworkers remain un-unionized, it will exert downward pressure on all wage settlements. “The pathway to rebuilding America’s middle class and creating long-term job security for all American autoworkers must include organizing workers at the foreign-owned automakers operating without unions in the United States,” King said  “We stand recommitted to that goal today.”

The new pact will serve as a pattern for new contracts being negotiated with Ford and Chrysler.

Meanwhile, American Federation of Teachers Local 1776  announced that 711 teachers who work at 17 Catholic  Philadelphia-area high schools on September 19 voted for a new contract that ends a two-week strike. Job security was a main concern that caused the strike. The new agreement allows school administrators to hire part-time teachers but not for the purpose of replacing full-time teachers.

Catholic Archdiocese also wanted to discipline teachers based on anonymous complaints and make teachers pay more for their health care benefit. The new contract protects teachers from disciplinary actions based anonymous complaints and freezes teacher health care contributions for the first year of the three-year contract. Contributions will increase in the second year, but the contribution is capped at 11.9 percent. No cap is in place for the third year of the contract, and if premiums rise above 10 percent, changes to the plan could result.

“Our teachers stood strong and solid on the picket lines to defend their jobs, and we are so grateful,” said Rita Schwartz, president of Local 1776. “The negotiation team could not have gotten this agreement if it were not for the commitment and support of our teachers.”

Longshore workers, canal pilots forge international alliance

Earlier this month, members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union voted to affiliate with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union  in the US. “This is an historic agreement that unites workers in different countries with a critical link in the global supply chain,” said ILWU International  President Bob McEllrath. “We want to welcome these union brothers to the ILWU family and look forward to helping each other.”

“We are very proud to become part of the ILWU family,” said Captain Londor Rankin, Secretary General of the Pilots Union which has 250 members. Rankin said the pilots voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the ILWU. He and other members of the union attended the ILWU’s International Executive Board meeting last week.

Rankin and McEllrath said that the global supply chain is evolving rapidly and that if supply chain workers like the pilots and longshoremen want to maintain and improve their standard of living, they need to form international alliances like the one between these two unions.

“We will learn from the dock workers and they will learn from us, and we will mutually support each other,” Rankin told the Los Angeles Times. “The companies that move cargo are global. We must have the same kinds of alliances and connections.”

“Our affiliation with the Panama Canal Pilots Union will provide a new level of strength and unity for workers in both organizations,” McEllrath said. “Our goal is to hold global companies more accountable to workers and their communities. With so many employers now going global, it’s critical for workers around the globe to join forces and work together.”

The alliances between the two unions comes about three years before the expansion of the Panama Canal is complete. The expansion will enable post-Panamax cargo ships, the world’s largest super cargo ships, to pass through the canal, opening it up as a route option for these ships departing from Asia with goods bound for the eastern half of the US.

Currently, post-Panamax ships from Asia unload at ports in Long Beach, California, Oakland, or Seattle and their goods are transferred to rail or track carriers for the eastward journey.

But transportation companies and the retailers they serve have complained that there are too many bottlenecks along this route. The US Department of Agriculture in a report on the impact that the Panama Canal expansion would have on the supply chain identified one of these bottlenecks as “labor problems.”

One of the labor problems that the USDA likely had in mind was the 2002 lockout of ILWU dock workers by the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates labor contracts with the ILWU for port authorities on the West Coast.

PMA in 2002 demanded concessions that would undermine safety and eliminate jobs. When the ILWU balked, PMA locked out the workers. The lockout lasted only ten days before then-President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley law to end it because retailers like Walmart were complaining that the work stoppage was preventing imported goods from reaching their stores in time for the Christmas shopping season.

After the lockout failed to weaken the workers’ unity and was no longer a viable option for PMA, the two sides agreed to a contract that avoided most of the concessions that PMA demanded.

The expansion of the Panama Canal would provide an alternative route for goods in the event of another work stoppage. But having an ally working on the canal will give the ILWU some bargaining leverage that it might otherwise would have lost.

As for the pilots union, it has its own history of problems dealing with its management, the Panama Canal Administration. It took mediation to resolve a contract impasse in 2004 that lasted for years. Support from one of the US’s most powerful unions will increase its leverage as well.

ILWU has also been seeking alliances with other unions in Latin America. In a message to ILWU members in the September issue of the Dispatcher, the union’s newspaper, McEllrath said, “I want to salute the work being done by our longshore team to help the port workers in Costa Rica and Peru. . . . With so many of our employers going global and attacking dock workers in foreign ports, we can’t afford to sit back while companies try to crush other dock worker unions.”

San Antonio Teamsters fight for health care and respect

Members of Teamster Local 657 in San Antonio have been out on strike since April at the historic Pioneer flour mill. They walked out when health care concessions were demanded by the mill’s owner CH Guenther & Sons, an international privately owned company that operates food processing plants in the US, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.

Workers at the San Antonio mill located at South Alamo and Probandt took the company’s demand for health care concessions as slap in the face that showed how little respect the company has for the dangerous work they do to create value for the company.

“We’re out here to better our lives and our families,” said Tony Diaz, who has worked 25 years at Pioneer. “I feel like the company has cheated us for years. We’re just trying to make it better.”

The Teamsters also want the company to start contributing to the union’s defined benefit pension plan, which helps provide a secure retirement for workers like those at Pioneer, and they want the company to be conscientious in addressing safety hazards at the mill where workers have been seriously hurt and even killed.

When the workers began negotiating a wage increase for the second year of their contract, the company demanded higher worker contributions to their health insurance plan. Workers who have individual coverage not individual and dependent coverage would see health care premiums rise by 20 percent. Everyone would have taken home smaller paychecks.

Most of the workers at Pioneer have only individual coverage, Local 657 business agent Paul Cruz told MySanAntonio.com. “It would impact (these workers) significantly, to the point where they could afford the  premium but not afford the deductibles or co-pays,” Cruz said.

The workers also want the company to help them achieve a secure retirement. Currently, the company matches employee contributions to their 401(k) savings account up to a maximum of $925 a year. Most workers, who make about $14 an hour, can’t afford to contribute $925 a year into their 401(k) plan, so they want the company to contribute the difference between $925 and the amount that the company contributes to their 401(k)s to the Teamster’s defined benefit pension plan.

The strikers have doggedly manned the picket lines through the hottest summer in the history of Texas. They’ve received some support from other unions but would like more.

Members of the sheet metal workers joined the picket line. Staff from the National Nurses United who were on their way to McAllen, Texas to begin contract negotiations and had a four-hour layover at the San Antonio airport rented a van at the airport and joined the strikers on the picket line.

Rank-and-file members of UPS and Union Pacific have refused to cross the picket line, but management personnel from the two companies have been making the deliveries to the plant.

Teamsters have leafletted local grocery stores, food distribution companies, and restaurants to explain the issues in the strike.

Guenther tries to portray itself as a small mom and pop operation just getting by. But it told workers before the strike that it was flourishing despite the slow down in the economy. In addition to the Pioneer brand, which includes flour, pancake, and other flour products, Guenther owns the White Wing and Morrison baking ingredients brands and Peter Pan All Purpose Flour. It also supplies flour to McDonald’s in the US and Europe.

In 2005, it partnered with another food processing company to buy the Golden West Foods in the United Kingdom and now owns mills in the UK and Belgium. In 2008, it acquired Williams Foods, a company that makes dry spices.

It operates food processing plants in Denton and Duncanville, Texas, Knoxville, Tennessee, Prosperity, South Carolina, and Lenexa, Kansas.

The Teamsters have filed unfair labor practices against the company. One involved a supervisor who accidentally shot himself in the leg with a firearm while sitting in his truck near the picket line. Workers said that the supervisor had a history of making racist jokes about shooting Mexicans, which caused the workers, most of whom are Mexican-Americans, to feel threatened by the incident. The National Labor Relations Board did not agree.

Despite this and other acts of intimidation like video taping workers on the picket line, workers expressed determination to win this fight. “We really need to go back to work,” said Loretta Ramirez, who has worked at the mill for 18 years. “But we’re not going back in there until they treat us like human beings, not slaves.”

Egyptian textile workers win pay increases

Workers at a state-owned textile plant in Mahalla, Egypt called off a strike planned for September 10 after representatives of the government met with a delegation of workers from the plant and agreed to increase pay. Workers also wanted the government to commit to increasing investment in the plant to make production more efficient but received no guarantees. Workers are worried that without sufficient investment in plant operations, the factory will continue to lose money, which will make it ripe for privatization.

On September 2, the Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, the local union of workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving plant, a government-owned business, issued a  list of demands including higher incentive pay, higher meal allowances, increased profit-sharing, and more investment to upgrade plant operations. Workers also wanted a higher minimum wage tied to inflation and the release of pay checks owed to some workers.

The workers issued a public statement along with their demands saying that their goal wasn’t just to improve conditions of the Misr workers; instead, they were fighting to raise the living standards of all Egyptian workers.

The government, which has banned strikes but has been faced with a growing wave of strikes in the public and private sectors, asked to meet with representatives of the workers in Mahalla in hopes of averting a strike. The two sides met on September 8 and after five hours of negotiations reached an agreement that called for a 100 percent increase in the meal allowance, a 200 percent increase in incentive pay for workers, and smaller incentive increases for supervisors and managers.

The Center for Trade Union and Worker Services reports that these increases apply to all spinning and weaving operations and cotton gins and presses throughout Egypt. The higher pay is to go into effect on October 1.

Labor leaders were pleased with the results of their action and its wider implications. “The victory of the workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving plant will send a message to all waged workers that the weapon of the strike is the only way to win their rights,” said Mustafa Abdul-Aziz, a member of the workers’ negotiating committee.

But there is still some concern among trade unionists and rank-and-file workers that all the problems have not been resolved, foremost being the threat of privatization.

The Mahalla Misr plant is Egypt’s largest textile operation, employing 22,000 workers. It has a production capacity of 5.1 million ready-made swaths of cloth per year, but the plant has been losing money–on purpose say union activists, who think that the plant CEO hopes that the losses will eventually force the government to privatize it.

“Last year our company’s losses reached LE (Egyptian pounds) 144,000 million and this year’s loss has reached LE135,000 million,” said worker activist Kamal el-Fayoumi to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s leading independent daily. “The year before (the CEO) arrived in 2007, we made LE105,000 million, so the loss isn’t our fault. We’re protecting the company.”

Mahalla textile workers have been fighting to improve living standards and protect rights for all workers for a while now. Strikes by Mahalla textile workers in 2006 and 2008 resulted in some improvements and set the stage for the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. They also played an important role in initiating the general strike that finally toppled the Mubarak regime. All of which might explain why the military government was willing to negotiate rather than ignore their demands.

Hyatt workers strike for safe, decent jobs

Hyatt workers at six hotels in four US cities are nearing the end of an unprecedented, week-long nationally coordinated strike against the giant hospitality chain. The striking workers, who belong to UNITE HERE, want new contracts that give them more protection against unsafe working conditions, better job security, and more respect from their employer.

“I’m on strike because I don’t want anyone to become crippled from this work,” said Angela Martinez, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where she has worked for 23 years. “I ask everyone to please respect our boycott. We are hard-working women, not machines.”

At the Hyatt where Martinez works, the company two years ago renovated and upgraded the hotel and its furnishing. Among other things, the company installed larger, heavier matresses, which housekeepers must lift when changing bed linen. Some of these matresses can weigh as much as 100 pounds.  The heavier “beds make my job much more difficult. I can’t lift the mattress because my left arm feels like it’s coming out of the socket. It feels like it is separating,” Martinez said.

Martinez’s experience is shared by other housekeepers who work for Hyatt. A peer-review study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that Hyatt housekeepers had the highest injury rate among those who worked in the 50 properties owned by five hotel chains reviewed by the study.

The study also found that the injury rate for hotel workers in general is 25 percent higher than injury rates for other service sector workers.

The lack of job safety isn’t the only concern that sparked the strike. Hyatt has been laying off long-time housekeepers and replacing them with temporary, minimum-wage workers. At three of its non-union hotels in Boston, Hyatt fired about 100 housekeepers, many of whom had worked 20 or more years for the company, and replaced them with workers from a temporary staffing agency. To add insult to injury, Hyatt made the fired workers train their replacements.

“The story of the “Hyatt 100” represents just one example of how Hyatt’s aggressive use of subcontractors is destroying
good jobs,” reads a statement at the UNITE HERE website.  “Using subcontractors allows Hyatt to pay housekeepers poverty wages while evading legal liability for unsafe working conditions or hiring undocumented workers. In Indianapolis, San Antonio and many other cities, Hyatt has continued to expand the use of subcontractors.”

The weeklong strike in Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco is an escalation of the tactics that UNITE HERE has used to break a negotiations stalemate between the union and company over new contracts. The old contracts covering workers workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco expired in 2009; the one covering workers in Honolulu expired in 2010 .

In the past, Hyatt workers have staged one-day strikes. They have also lauched a boycott of 17 Hyatt properties and have led public demonstrations all across North America. Already, Hyatt has lost over $20 million in hotel business as a result of the boycott.

In San Francisco, BeyondChron.org reports that UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents workers at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadaro Center and the Grand Hyatt, is fighting to include language in the new contract that would allow workers to organize and join in solidarity actions, including strikes, when Hyatt management imposes egregiously unsafe working conditions.

Local 2 won similar language in a contract with one of San Francisco’s most prestigious hotels, The Fairmont, and with restuarants at the San Francisco International Airport.

“Hyatt workers are waging a crucial struggle,” says John Wilhelm, the President of UNITE HERE–a union representing 250,000 hotel and other hospitality workers throughout North America. “In the face of widening income inequality and the systematic eradication of the American middle class, Hyatt workers are bravely fighting for the ability to stand up for one another in
contending with a global giant like Hyatt.”

Compromise reached on FAA reauthorization bill

US House and Senate leaders over the weekend agreed to extend temporary funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. The agreement funds the FAA through January 31, 2012 and omits language from an earlier version that would have made it more difficult for unions to organize airline workers.

The agreement in the form of a bill was passed by the House on September 13 and now moves to the Senate.  If an agreement had not been reached, the FAA, which oversees air safety and airport operations, faced another shut down after September 16.

Last spring, Delta Air Lines, the only US airline that is largely un-unionized, lobbied House Republicans to insert a clause unrelated to FAA’s funding in the agency’s reauthorization bill. The language would have changed the standard for deciding whether a union wins a representation election in the airline industry. The current standard requires unions to win a majority of the votes cast, just like all other elections in the US.

Delta and the Republicans wanted to require unions to win a majority of all affected workers, which would mean that a person who did not vote would be counted as a “No” vote.

Republican insistence on this anti-union language caused the bill to fail, shutting down the FAA for two weeks and resulting in the furlough of 4,000 agency workers and 70,000 airport construction workers. It also cost the government $400 million in revenue from airline tickets.

Lawmakers reached the new reauthorization agreement less than a week before the temporary agreement that re-opened the agency in August was about to expire. Republicans agreed to omit the irrelevant, anti-union language because Republican leaders were skittish about taking the blame for another government shut down controversy and because the Communication Workers of America and other unions mounted an effective campaign to win public support for the passage of a “clean” FAA reauthorization bill that omitted the anti-union language of the earlier proposal.

CWA, whose members include flight attendants who belong to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, launched its campaign for a clean FAA reauthorization bill in August.

The campaign included rallies, picketing, leafletting at airports, an electronic petition drive aimed at Delta, and a series of actions taken against Rep. John Mica, Chair of the House Transportation Committee, who led the effort to include the anti-union language in the bill.

Last August, CWA held a number of demonstrations in Florida aimed at exposing the role that Rep. Mica and Delta Airlines played in shutting down the FAA. At one of the demonstrations, CWA members while they were walking a picket line at one of Rep. Mica’s Florida’s offices, called the representative by phone and delivered the main message of the campaign: “We want a clean FAA reauthorization bill.”

When Rep. Mica flew into to Houston to raise cash from transportation lobbyists, about 50 CWA members picketed the meeting, chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union busting.”

CWA also established a website containing an electronic petition to Delta’s corporate executives denouncing their anti-union activities and initiated a direct mail and robo call campaign aimed at Rep. Mica’s constituents and the constituents of about two dozen other Republicans whose intransigence caused the FAA shut down.

On the Wednesday before the funding extension agreement was announced, the Association of Flight Attendants, the pilots union, the air traffic controllers union, and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) held a media conference at Washington DC’s National Airport.

At the event, AFA President Veda Shook said, “Congress could jeopardize the safety of the U.S. air transportation system and
will risk thousands of airline employees’ jobs by failing to pass a long-term reauthorization bill that focuses on the FAA’s core mission of providing the safest, most efficient aviation system in the world. We cannot allow political brinkmanship to again trump the safety of the flying public or the jobs of hard-working Americans.”

After hearing that an agreement had been reached, Candice Johnson, CWA communications director said, “The clean nature of this extension is a welcome development in that it will prevent another FAA shutdown and will not place people’s lives and jobs beneath John Mica’s and Delta Air Lines’ ideological, union-busting agendas.”

FAA funding reauthorization will come up again in about four and one-half months when this temporary funding extension expires.