Strike at Verizon looms as bargaining deadline approaches

Come August 1, 39,000 Verizon workers in the Northeast and Mid Atlantic states may be on strike.

Members of two unions currently bargaining with Verizon on a new collective bargaining agreement voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if a fair agreement can’t be reached by the bargaining deadline.

“Our members are clear and they are determined – they reject management’s harsh concessionary demands, including the elimination of job security, sharp increases in workers’ health care costs, and slashing retirement security,” said Dennis Trainor, CWA District 1 vice president. “Verizon made $9.6 billion in profits in 2014, and reported $4.4 billion in profits just in the 2015 second quarter alone. Their demands are completely outrageous and unwarranted.”

“The company’s comprehensive proposal does nothing but take from this membership,” said Dave Keating, business manager for IBEW Local 2325 in Worcester, Massachusetts. “They post profits in the billions but continue to look for more from our members. They put more money in their own pockets and erode the working conditions of our members. Enough is enough.”

IBEW represents about 10,000 Verizon workers in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. CWA represents the rest.

CWA reported that 86 percent of its members voted to authorize a strike. IBEW reported that “an overwhelming number” of members voted to strike.

Despite robust profits that have left Verizon sitting on stacks of money, the company is demanding a laundry list of concessions.

Among other things, Verizon wants to undermine workers’ retirement security. Verizon told the union that it no longer wants to make contributions to a worker’s 401(k) plan if the worker chooses to remain in the company’s defined benefit pension plan.

Savings plans like 401(k) plans are no substitute for a pension, but they do provide a way for workers to supplement their pensions, which makes retirement more secure.

In addition to making retirement less secure, Verizon wants a new collective bargaining agreement that

  • Eliminates cost of living raises
  • Makes workers pay more for their health insurance by increasing co-pays, deductibles, and the workers’ share of health care insurance premiums
  • Bars the union from negotiating health care benefits for retirees
  • Discontinues workers’ family leave benefit, which the union negotiated 20 years ago.
  • Removes protections against layoffs and forced transfers.
  • Eliminates the minimum profit sharing payout.
  • Eliminates Saturday and Sunday differentials (extra pay) and premium pay and all but 10 percent of the differential pay that workers earn by working odd hours.
  • Rewrites the overtime rules, so that workers are paid overtime only after working 40 hours a week, not eight hours a day as it states in the current contract
  • Eliminates caps on overtime
  • Ends disability payments resulting from accidents and reduces sickness disability payments
  • Allows the company to outsource more work
  • Allows the company to transfer employees without employees’ approval
  • Cuts back the company’s tuition assistance plan
  • Eliminates job security language in the current collective bargaining agreement
  • Eliminates family care leave, and
  • Allows the company to change medical plans or health care premiums paid by workers to avoid paying the Affordable Care Act excise taxes without negotiating with the union.

The lost pay resulting from changes to premium, differential, and overtime pay, the loss of cost of living raises, the possibility of higher health care costs, the elimination of other benefits that have been hard won by union members over the years far offset the modest pay increases that Verizon management has proposed.

But Marc Reed, Verizon Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, has been sending e-mails and letters to union members telling them that Verizon’s contract proposals are a generous offer that’s being blocked by union negotiators.

“Marc Reed’s letters are complete and utter bullshit,” said CWA President Chris Shelton at a July 25 rally in front of the Verizon building in New York City.

Shelton’s assessment seems to be shared by many others as the 12,000 Verizon workers who attended the rally replied to Shelton’s assessment by chanting, “bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

Shelton told the crowd of union workers who came from as far away as Virginia and Buffalo, New York that their good pay and benefits aren’t the result of the company’s generosity, but rather their own willingness to stand up and fight.

If the company had its way, they’d like to reduce pay as low as possible, eliminate benefits, and take away any job security that workers might have, said Shelton.

“On August 1 at midnight, these bastards,” said Shelton, pointing to the Verizon headquarters building. “Are going to learn that we’re ready to fight, and fight, and fight. . . and that we’re ready to win.”

Teamsters to UPS: “Get out of ALEC”

Hundreds of Teamsters demonstrated outside the national meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in San Diego to demand that UPS withdraw its support of ALEC.

The Teamsters called ALEC’s agenda “anti worker” and “anti union” and criticized UPS for donating $25,000 to sponsor ALEC’s national meeting.

“Global corporations like Coca Cola, Apple, McDonald’s and even Walmart have decided that continuing their relationship with this toxic organization is too dangerous to its brand,” said Ken Hall, president of the Teamster division that deals with UPS.  “It begs the question of why UPS, the largest unionized company in America, continues to associate with ALEC. It’s time for UPS to do the right thing for its workers and cut ties with ALEC.”

In the past, the Teamsters have identified ALEC as a key player in what the union calls the War on Workers.

ALEC serves as a conduit between corporate America and state legislators for right wing ideas that can be transformed into state law.

It holds regular gatherings where corporate lobbyists and state lawmakers mix and mingle.

It also writes model legislation that lawmakers can take back to their legislatures and try to get them passed into laws.

Many of these bills are aimed at lowering workers’ wages and benefits and weakening their unions. In addition, ALEC model legislation includes those that eliminate environmental and consumer protections, weaken public education, suppress voting, and raise taxes on the working class while lowering taxes for the wealthy and big corporations.

The recent spate of right to work (for less) bills that have popped up in state legislatures have ALEC fingerprints all over them.

So called right to work bills have little to do with protecting the right to work as the name implies; instead, their main aim is to lower wages.

They do so by making it more difficult for workers to form and maintain unions. Without a collective voice on the job that a union provides, it’s difficult for workers to win fair pay increases and protect their benefits.

Where right to work laws exists, unions are weaker and wages lower.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “Wages in (right to work) states are 3.1 percent lower than those in non-right to work states,” which means that a typical full-time, full-year worker in a right to work state makes $1,558 a year less than her counterpart in a non-right to work state.

The legislature in Wisconsin recently passed a right to work bill that was taken almost verbatim from ALEC’s right to work model legislation.

ALEC’s right to work model legislation also served as a pattern for right to work legislation introduced in Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Right to work legislation isn’t the only way that ALEC model legislation seeks to lower worker pay.

According to Robert Reich, “the rise of independent contractors is the most significant legal trend in the American workforce–contributing directly to low pay, irregular hours, and job insecurity.”

Unions like the Teamsters have been fighting the misclassification of workers as independent contractors.

ALEC, however, has been on the other side of this fight. It has a model bill that it calls the Independent Contractor Definition Act, which would make it easier for employers to misclassify their workers as independent contractors.

Prior to the San Diego demonstration, the Teamsters international office sent a letter to locals urging them to distribute a union flyer about the relationship between UPS and ALEC.

The flyer concludes by saying, “It’s time to ask UPS why it is still in bed with an organization that writes, distributes, and lobbies for laws that are solely designed to hurt working families.”

At the rally in San Diego, Teamsters held signs that read, “ALEC Bad for UPS, Worse for You” and “California Is a No ALEC Zone.”

Randy Cammack, president of Teamster Joint Council 42 in Southern California, told those at the rally to make sure that UPS’ representative at the ALEC meeting heard what the Teamsters had to say.

The demonstrators replied by chanting, “UPS, get out of ALEC! UPS, get out of ALEC! UPS, get out of ALEC!”

NY labor groups join community to demand justice for Eric Garner

Labor, civil rights, and community groups in New York City sponsored a rally for justice for Eric Garner and other young African Americans who have died in police custody.

The rally took place at the US District Courthouse in Brooklyn on July 18, a day after the anniversary of Garner’s death.

Speakers at the rally demanded that the US Justice Department conduct a full investigation into Garner’s death.

Garner died while in police custody after being detained by officers who suspected that he was selling untaxed cigarettes.

A coroner’s report on Garner’s death attributed the death to compression on the neck, which is consistent with a chokehold.

Witnesses said that a police officer had Garner in a chokehold and that Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe” several times before losing consciousness.

After Garner lost consciousness, no attempt was made to administer CPR.

The labor groups that co-sponsored the Justice for Eric Garner rally with their community partners were 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, SEIU Local 32BJ, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the Working Families Party, and the New York State Nurses Association.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see all kinds of people here – every color, race creed and nationality standing up to say that Black Lives Matter,” said Tasha Fowler, an 1199SEIU member who works at Brooklyn’s Brookdale Hospital. “But it has been one year and that cop hasn’t been indicted. He’s on desk duty. He’s still getting paid. That’s unacceptable.”

Among the union members at the rally was a contingent of nurses wearing red and holding signs that read, “Justice and Civil Rights for All.”

They belong to the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), which has created an internal Committee for Social Justice and Civil Rights.

A post on NYSNA’s Facebook page urged other members of the organization to get involved in the fight for equality beyond the workplace.

“Yesterday, nurses joined with labor, community, civil rights, and faith allies to commemorate Eric Garner’s tragic death and to rally for human rights and justice for all,” reads the post. “To members who feel compelled to care beyond your workplace, consider joining NYSNA’s new Committee for Social Justice and Civil Rights.

NYSNA’s Executive Board created the social justice committee shortly after the massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina by a white racist.

“We stand with all Americans for whom racism is an abhorrent act of bigotry and will fight against it in all forms,” reads the board’s resolution creating the committee.

The resolution goes on to say NYSNA was built on the idea that health care is an equal right for all and that the union’s “commitment to equality extends beyond the bedside– to all aspects of life in the communities for whom the conditions of inequality—social and economic — exist. ”

The nurses at the rally and other attendees heard from Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother.

She stood on the podium shoulder to shoulder with the mothers of other young African American men who died in police custody.

When she spoke, she deplored the fact that there were so many women like her whose sons have died in police custody.

She compared the group of mothers who share this common tragedy to a club.

This club,” she told the audience. “Should have “no more members.”

The fight for voting rights continues; this time in North Carolina

Standing shoulder to shoulder from sidewalk to sidewalk as far as the eye could see, 6,000 voting rights supporters marched through the streets of Winston Salem, North Carolina to demand that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 be restored and that North Carolina’s voter suppression laws passed in 2013 be overturned.

The march came at the conclusion of the first day of a trial challenging North Carolina’s restrictive voting laws.

The suit by the North Carolina NAACP and US Department of Justice filed in federal court seeks to overturn the state’s Voter Information Verification Act of 2013.

The trial began on July 13 and is expected to last three weeks as a federal judge hears testimony from more than 100 witnesses.

As the marchers marched through Winston Salem, they chanted, “Forward together! Not one step back,” the slogan of the state’s Moral Majority movement, a coalition of social justice groups that has been fighting a wave of reaction in North Carolina and other Southern states.

“This is our Selma!” declared NAACP President Rev Dr. William Barber at a rally at the end of the march.

Barber was referring to the historic march across the Edmund Petus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” after the marchers were attacked by police trying to prevent the march.

Four months after the Selma march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.

The law restored the voting rights of African Americans, who had been barred from voting in Southern states such as North Carolina.

“We need to remember that these rights were won by blood,” said Barber. “Blood has been shed — back then and right now. How dare the Tea Party trample on the blood of our martyrs? How dare the Koch brothers, with their money, try to violate our rights that were written in blood? 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed in blood, how dare somebody try to use political power to desecrate the blood of the martyrs? How dare they desecrate the graves and the memory and the blood of Martin and Medgar and James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo and four girls in a Birmingham church and nine souls in a Charleston church?”

The key to enforcing the Voting Rights Act had been a section of the law that gave the federal government the authority to oversee elections and election laws in states that systematically denied the vote to African Americans.

Forty-eight years after the Voting Rights Act became law, the Supreme Court rescinded the oversight authority that prevented states from passing laws that erected barriers to voting by African Americans.

Two months after the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCroy signed into law the Voter Identification Verification Act.

The bill enacting the law had been lying dormant in legislative committee, but came to life after the Supreme Court’s decision and within weeks passed out of both houses of the state’s General Assembly and onto Gov. McCroy’s desk for his signature.

The law requires voters to present state approved identification papers when voting.

It also shortens early voting by seven days, eliminates the option of registering to vote on the same day that a vote is cast, prohibits a person from voting in a precinct where the voter is registered but no longer resides, and ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds so that they can vote when they turn 18.

The trial now in progress will determine whether the last four items constitute voter suppression.

Another trial at a later date will determine if the state’s voter ID law does the same.

The state argues that the Voter Information Verification law is not intended to keep African Americans from voting.

But opponents of the law point out that in 2012 70 percent of African American voters voted early compared to 53 percent of white voters.

Opponents of the law say that while 22 percent of the state’s population is African American, 34 percent of those who registered to vote on the same day they voted were African American.

Both provisions, opponents argue, constitute barriers to African American voting.

Rev. Barber called the Voter Information Verification Act “a sin.”

“We must resist this sin because too many have died! Too many have suffered! Too many have bled! There’s too much power in the blood for us to be silent now!” said Rev. Barber.

Rev. Barber urged voting rights supporters “to recommit and reconsecrate ourselves back to the movement. We will not let what was won be taken away. We will restore the dream.”

Will a new Connecticut law shine more light on charter school companies?

A Connecticut bill that makes charter schools and their management companies more accountable and transparent was signed into law by Governor Daniel Malloy.

Jan Hochadel, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut called the new law “a game changer.”

“Before the governor took action (and signed the bill), our state’s 19-year 0ld charter school law was among the weakest in the nation when it came to transparency and oversight,” said Hochadel. “It lacked any mechanism to hold public charter schools or their private charter manager accountable for academic, administrative, or financial functions.”

But other public school supporters said that the new law doesn’t go far enough.

Wendy Leckler, an attorney with the Education Law Project and resident of Stamford, Connecticut, told the Hartford Courant that the new law doesn’t require full financial disclosure by the firms that operate charter schools, especially those with operations in other states.

“If they want public dollars,” said Leckler to the Courant. “We need to see what’s going on (with their finances).”

When the new session of the Connecticut General Assembly convened, charter school reform was on the agenda.

A consensus about the need for reform developed after an investigative report by the state Department of Education documented abuses by one the state’s major charter school management organizations, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE).

The report focused on the finances, governance, and operations of FUSE and one of its schools, the Jumoke Academy.

The report found a number of questionable financial practices by FUSE. For example, FUSE charged Jumoke a management fee but provided few if any management services. In fact, Jumoke provided payroll services to FUSE.

In addition, the FUSE Board of Directors never met, and FUSE CEO William Sharpe made decisions without any oversight.

The report also found evidence of nepotism and embezzlement.

The state’s other charter school operators seeking to limit the fallout from the Jumoke/FUSE investigation jumped on the reform bandwagon.

As a result, a strong charter school reform bill was drafted and introduced.

One notable provisions of the original bill made charter management organizations (CMO) subject to the state’s freedom of information laws.

Proponents of public education argued that charters and CMOs should be subject to the same public scrutiny as public schools.

Before the Department of Education began its investigation into FUSE/Jumoke, the Courant was conducting its own investigation into finance and governance issues at FUSE.

Reasoning that FUSE’s school were public schools and thus were subject to the state’s freedom of information law, the paper made a freedom of information request to the CMO, but FUSE refused the request saying that it wasn’t a public agency and therefore wasn’t subject the law.

CMOs and their lobbyist supported most of the reform bill but objected to the provision that made them subject to the freedom of information law.

As a result, the original bill was amended.

The freedom of information provision was eliminated and replaced by language establishing a complex process for acquiring information from CMOs.

The amended version also shielded CMOs that do business in other states from full financial disclosure.

A last-minute attempt was made to further weaken the bill. An amendment that would have made it even more difficult to obtain information from CMOs was slipped into the budget implementer bill.

But that attempt failed after AFT Connecticut alerted lawmakers to the stealth campaign and mobilized its members to oppose the new amendment.

Finally on July 9, Gov. Malloy, a strong supporter of charter schools, signed the reform bill.

The new law “will go a long way toward strengthening the quality of charter schools,” said Hochadel. “It also provides CMOs and their boosters a shot at restoring the public trust.”

But others are less sanguine.

Robert Cotto, a member of the Hartford school board, said that the provision protecting CMOs doing business outside of Connecticut is especially irksome

“We don’t know if all of that money is going for Connecticut schools,” said Cotto to the Courant.

Public schools and the agencies that oversee them operate under strict open records laws that foster transparency. The new Connecticut law is an attempt to require the same transparency from private companies that operate charter schools. Whether the law will achieve this goal remains to be seen.

New York bike share workers win first collective bargaining agreement

Workers at Citi Bike, New York City’ bike share program, have become the first workers in the rapidly expanding bike share industry to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

About 200 Citi Bike mechanics, technicians, dispatchers, and drivers joined Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 in September, and the union on July 9 announced a tentative agreement with Motivate, the company that manages the city’s bike share program.

Local 100, New York City’s public transportation union, called the new agreement “a ground breaking contract.”

In addition to a significant wage increase and new benefits, it provides eight weeks of paid parental leave.

“The provisions of the contract that are family oriented such as eight weeks of paternal leave are an enormous win for this workforce and an enormous win for workers everywhere,” said John Samuelsen, president of Local 100.

It also establishes a Workers Council that will meet regularly with management to discuss job related issues.

Samuelsen said that the Citi Bike tentative agreement, which is awaiting ratification by the membership, will serve as  a template for contract negotiations with other bike share programs around the country.

Local 100 has organized bike share workers in Boston, Chicago, and Washington and plans to continue organizing other bike share workers.

Bike share is an increasing popular public transportation program.

It allows commuters to bridges the gap between their public transportation drop off sites like subway stations or bus stops and their final destinations.

For a yearly fee, bike share users receive a code on their mobile app, which they use to check out bikes at kiosks near public transportation drop off sites.

They then ride their bikes to their final destination and drop them off at another bike share kiosk.

Most major cities in the US now have bike share programs, which have become increasingly popular among users.

For example, the Topeka, Kansas Metro Board of Directors recently reported that participation in the local bike share program had “shattered our expectations.”

In New York City, Citi Bike has been so popular that Motivate, the nation’s largest bike share management company, plans to expand the service to Long Island.

When Citi Bike started two years ago it had problems that frustrated customers and employees.

An ill-suited computer system caused bike kiosks to have too many or too few bikes, bikes broke down too frequently, and there were problems with the payment system.

Workers complained of a lack of communication between management and workers, the lack of pay raises, and scheduling problems that kept those who wanted to work 40 hours a week from doing so.

“I worked as a dispatcher in DC (where Motivate operates another bike share program),” said Dolly Winter, a Citi Bike dispatcher and an active member of the union organizing committee. “I saw a lot of the same issues that happened in DC happen in New York City, and that’s when I decided with other people that we needed to get together and form a union.”

After the workers joined Local 100, a new management team took over and renamed the management company Motivate.

Motivate management soon began addressing the bike share program’s problems including its labor relations problems. As a result, the company and union successfully completed negotiations of the first contract, which Samuelsen said will help improve customer service.

The contract includes an immediate 10 percent pay increase with additional pay raises during the life of the contract, paid health insurance, paid parental leave, a grievance procedure, a seniority system for picking assignments, eight paid holidays, paid vacation time, and differential pay for night work.

“At the end of the day, there was certainly a cooperative atmosphere (with Motivate) and an atmosphere of understanding that if the unionized workforce was well treated, they would be productive and they would propel the system forward for the benefit of the users of the system,” said Samuelsen.

“This contract is excellent for TWU workers at Motivate, (and) it’s good for the riders and users of the bike share system,” he added.

Greeks vote No to austerity; Creditors threaten to pull the plug

After Greek voters on July 5 overwhelmingly voted No to harsher austerity measures demanded by their foreign creditors, European trade unions urged European leaders to reach a “sensible compromise” with the Greek government in order to end the current crisis in Greece.

The No vote came after Greek creditors on June 25 issued an ultimatum that Greece accept more austerity measures or be denied new loans needed to deal with the country’s current crisis.

After the No vote, Greece submitted a new loan request that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the European Parliament addresses some of the objections raised by Greece’s creditors and provides a path toward reaching a “viable agreement.”

Whether European leaders and Greece’s creditors are willing to reach a compromise agreement remains highly problematic.

They said that they will make a decision on the Greek proposal on Sunday (July 11) night.

Since January when Greek voters voted in a new government led by Syriza, or the Coalition of the Radical Left, Greeks have been trying to renegotiate the terms of loans made to the country in 2010 after a financial crisis caused their economy to implode.

In return for the loans, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund demanded that the country impose austerity measures that reduced social spending on health and human services, cut pensions, privatized government resources, and forced the government to reduce other services.

The result has been a disaster. Five years after the austerity measures were implemented the unemployment rate remains above 25 percent, 40 percent of Greece’s children live in poverty, people’s access to health care has been curtailed, spending on education has been reduced, and the promises of the renewal that austerity was supposed to bring have proved to be empty.

To make matters worse, much of the money from the loans has been used to service debt from previous loans.

“The money that was given to Greece never went to the people,” said Tsipras in his speech to the European Parliament. “The money was given to save Greek and European banks.”

European leaders and Greek creditors, however, have insisted that in return for any new loans, Greeks must double down on the failed austerity measures.

When creditors issued their June 25 ultimatum, The Greek government called for a referendum on whether to accept the creditors’ demands.

Greek voters voted No by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.

The No vote, said former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, restored dignity to the people of Greece.

The No vote was also “a loud yes to the vision of a Eurozone offering the prospect of social justice and shared prosperity for all Europeans,” writes Varoufakis on his blog.

The European Trade Union Confederation, whose members represent 60 million European workers, urged European leaders to respect the No vote.

“Greek people have voted against austerity, unemployment, and poverty that made Greek debt unsustainable.  They have not voted against the EU or against the Euro,” reads a letter from the confederation addressed to European leaders.

“EU leaders have now an unavoidable responsibility to find a sensible compromise,” continues the letter.

But so far the EU leaders including the bankers who lead the European Central Bank have shown no inclination to compromise.

Among the creditors, Germany has been the most intransigent about insisting on more austerity measures as a condition of debt relief.

Germany’s intransigence is ironic. In 1953, Germany was suffering from an unsustainable national debt resulting from its aggression that started World War II.

Its debt burden impoverished ordinary Germans trying to recover from the aftermath of the war and made an economic recovery unattainable.

Germany’s creditors recognized the problems created by unsustainable debt and agreed to forgive 50 percent of the German’s debt obligation.

The debt relief allowed Germany the breathing space needed to rebuild its economy, which became the largest in Europe.

One of the features that made the German economic recovery possible was the fact that the government created a strong system of social welfare and insurance and implemented labor laws that protected worker rights.

Today Germany is demanding that Greece slash its social spending and jettison laws that protect worker rights.

The Greeks on the other hand are asking for relief not dissimilar to the relief that creditors offered Germany in 1953.

“The splendid No vote (must be) invested immediately into a Yes (for) a proper resolution,” writes Varoufakis. “To an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favor of the needy, and real reforms.”