Milwaukee workers: No KKK on city’s public works projects

Racist stickers on a workers lunch box caused an uproar in Milwaukee.

A picture of the lunchbox with a KKK sticker and a Confederate battle flag sticker were posted on Facebook.

The worker with the racist stickers was working for a private contractor on a public works project for the city of Milwaukee in an African American neighborhood.

After seeing the picture on Facebook, a coalition that included the Young Workers Committee of the Milwaukee Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, the Milwaukee Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and the Dr. Martin Luther King Justice Committee called for the city of Milwaukee to fire the contractor.

“No worker can be both a unionist and a fascist,” read a flyer published by the coalition. “White Supremacists are the enemy of organized labor and the entire multi-national working class. The KKK is a White Supremacist terrorist group responsible for killing African Americans, LBGTQ people, trade unionists, and others. Unions stand for economic and social justice. We condemn and actively fight against white supremacy and fascism in the workplace and society.”

The coalition called for a rally on December 11 to demand that the city fire the private contractor that employed the KKK supporter. The NAACP called a press conference on the same day to demand action from the city.

Between the time that the press conference took place and the rally was to be held, American Sewer Service, the contractor for the project, announced that it had fired the worker with the racist stickers on his lunch box.

The lunch box incident isn’t the first time that American Sewer Service has come under fire for the actions of racist employees.

On November 30, a picture of three armed American Sewer Service employees on the same public works project was made public.

Two of the employees were wearing holsters with pistols in them, and a third was holding a pistol in his hand.

Subsequent explanations for why they were carrying firearms said that they did not feel safe working in a predominately African American neighborhood.

After the photos were published, representatives of American Sewer Service were summoned to meet with the head of the city’s Department of Public Works.

After the meeting, American Sewer said that it had disciplined the two workers with holstered weapons and fired the employee with the pistol in his hand.

The two incidents have raised questions about whether the city should hire companies like American Sewer Services that are headquartered in the suburbs to work on public works projects in Milwaukee.

The Young Workers Committee, CBTU, and the MLK Justice Committee called on the city to stop using private contractors on public works projects and instead use city of Milwaukee employees for these jobs.

“We call on the city of Milwaukee to immediately end all contracts with American Sewer Service. Furthermore, we call on the city of Milwaukee to employ union represented city employees at prevailing wage. Finally, we call on union brothers and sisters to build the trade union movement to smash bigotry, fascism, and economic and racial oppression,” said the coalition in its leaflet calling for the rally.


Union calls for more hiring at VA health care facilities and no more privatization

Veterans Affairs (VA) health care workers in Kerrville, Texas joined a growing number of VA hospital workers protesting plans to privatize the VA.

The VA workers on November 29 rallied outside the gates of the Kerrville VA Medical Center located in the Central Texas Hill Country.

Earlier in the month, VA health care workers, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), rallied in Dallas, Temple, and Austin.

They have joined a national movement of union workers protesting plans to privatize the VA and demanding that the VA administration fill 49,000 vacant staff positions at VA health care facilities across the US.

The Kerrville VA workers said that allowing so many vacancies to persist puts the health and safety of their patients at risk.

Cheryl Eliano, national vice president AFGE District 10, said that the failure to fully staff VA facilities and the effort to privatize the VA go hand in hand.

“The lack of hiring is a strategic move to justify privatizing the VA,” said Eliano to the San Antonio Express News. “If they gave the VA the resources to do our jobs, the lines for veterans to get services wouldn’t be so long.”

The VA has been in the sights of privatization advocates since 2014 when the media began reporting that some veterans were having to wait too long for medical appointments at VA facilities.

A number of right-wing, pro-privatization groups used the long wait periods as an excuse to ramp up efforts to privatize the VA.

At the time, David J. Cox, Sr., national president of AFGE blamed the long wait periods on understaffing.

“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit, Cox said.

In order to reduce long wait periods, Congress passed a bill that did two things: it increased VA health care funding so that VA facilities could hire more staff and upgrade its facilities, and it created a privatized alternative called Veterans Choice.

Veterans Choice, which provides veterans with vouchers to use with private health care services, was supposed to be a temporary alternative for veterans to use until the VA fixed its understaffing problem.

But plans are underway to expand it and make it permanent.

In June, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held hearings on a bill that expanded VA Choice and made it permanent.

At the hearing representatives of congressionally charted veterans group voiced their opposition to VA Choice and their support for the VA.

“The American Legion supports a strong VA that relies on outside care as little as possible and only when medically necessary, rather than a move toward vouchers and privatization,” said American Legion Assistant Director Jeff Steele at the hearing.

“Even with the additional options of the Choice program, veterans in general overwhelmingly prefer to use VA,” said Disabled American Veterans Deputy National Legislative Director Adrian Atizado to the committee. “DAV strongly urges this committee, Congress, and the administration to honor the clear preference of the vast majority of veterans who choose to use the VA health care system–a system created to meet their unique needs.”

Despite the veterans groups’ support of the VA, the Republican leadership in Congress, President Trump, and the VA administration are moving ahead with other plans to privatize VA health care services.

In November, word leaked out about secret meetings between President Trump’s administration and the VA’s administration.

Out of the meetings came memos that proposed a plan for merging VA Choice with Tricare, the military’s health care system for troops, their dependents, and retirees.

In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, five Democratic members of Congress, who are veterans, told the secretary that had “grave concerns” about a Tricare-VA merger.

“A Tricare-VA merger could compel veterans entitled to care provided by the VA system to instead seek care through the private sector, a shift that could unfairly force veterans to pay out-of-pocket costs that they wouldn’t otherwise be required to bear,” wrote representatives Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Collin Peterson (D-MN).

While all of this activity aimed at privatizing the VA has been taking place, the VA has done little to deal with the understaffing problem that originally caused the long waits.

In fact, the understaffing problem has gotten worse. In 2016, there were 42,000 vacant positions at VA facilities. By the end of 2017, that number had grown to 49,000.

“If . . . Secretary (Shulkin) were interested in improving the care veterans receive, he would stop trying to outsource to for-profit providers and instead focus on filling the more than 49,000 vacancies plaguing the VA nationwide,” said AFGE’s Cox. “The men and women who served our country were promised a health care system that fulfills their needs, not a voucher to go stand in the back of the line at private providers ill-equipped to treat them.”

Women of Arise Chicago speak out against sexual harassment

Women who are members of Arise Chicago, a Chicago workers center, are speaking out against sexual harassment at work.

In a video titled Out of the Shadows, Arise members like Isabel Escobar, an Arise board member and domestic worker leader, tell their stories about being sexually harassed and threatened while on the job.

The video also offers advise about actions women can take to fight back against sexual harassment.

Escobar hopes that when people see Out of the Shadows, they will understand how sexual harassment menaces the livelihoods of women, especially those who work at low-wage jobs.

“We want to let people know that this doesn’t just happen to famous women,” said Escobar. “Abuse is not only committed by famous men in high power positions. Sexual harassment happens every day to low-wage workers, to immigrants, to women of color. And bosses, supervisors feel they have power over our work, our incomes. Therefore, many women are afraid to speak up or are afraid no one will believe us.”

Jocelyn Frye of the Center for American Progress has studied sexual harassment at work and finds that it is especially prevalent in service industries that employ a large number women who work for low wages.

According to Frye, the hospitality/food service and retail industries are the two sectors of the economy with the highest percentages of reported sexual harassment.

“Women—particularly women of color—are more likely to work lower-wage jobs, where power imbalances are often more pronounced and where fears of reprisals or losing their jobs can deter victims from coming forward,” writes Frye.

Women in the hospitality industry also face another source of sexual harassment.

UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago surveyed 500 union members who work in Chicago area hotels and casinos.

The survey found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers reported that they have been sexually harassed by guests.

Sexual harassment by guests not only makes these workers uncomfortable, it can lead to sexual violence.

In response, Local 1 and the Chicago Federation of Labor succeeded in getting the Chicago City Council to pass the “Hands Off, Pants Up” city ordinance.

The ordinance protects hotel employees from retaliation when they report sexual violence by a guest. It also requires hotels to implement anti-harassment policies and to provide panic buttons to hotel workers who work alone in guest rooms and restrooms.

Workers can press panic buttons when guests act inappropriately toward them.

UNITE HERE has also negotiated a clause in their collective bargaining agreements with hotels around the country that requires the employer to provide workers with panic buttons.

“I feel much safer (because of the panic button),” said Betty Rice, a room attendant in a midtown Manhattan hotel room to WNYC radio.

“Because when you’re frightened, [that] doesn’t always mean you’re going to say ‘I’m on the 14th floor,'” Rice continued. “You’re screaming ‘I need help’. But with the panic button, once you press it, [hotel security] is already alert to where you [are].”

Unfortunately, there’s no panic button that can be pushed to stop unwanted sexual harassment by bosses or co-workers.

But Martina Sanchez, a worker leader of ARISE, sees hope in the fact that many women are coming forward to tell their stories and says that this moment represents a tipping point in the fight against sexual harassment.

“There are thousands of women who remain silent out of a variety of fears–fear of what will be said about them, fear of losing their job, or worst of all, fear they won’t be listened to and nothing will change,” said Sanchez. “But this moment is the beginning of a new struggle.”

Port truck drivers and warehouse workers make progress in their fight for justice

After hearing testimony from port truck drivers and warehouse workers, the Los Angeles City Council Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee unanimously voted to recommend passage of a city ordinance aimed at ending labor abuses of port truck drivers and warehouse workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Port truck drivers, who ferry goods between the ports and nearby warehouses, and warehouse workers are important links in the global supply chain that delivers $450 billion worth of consumer goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to retail stores, but they work under appalling conditions.

Council member Mike Bonin, a committee member who listened workers’ testimonies before the vote, described their working conditions as “modern day sharecropping.”

Duane Wilson, a warehouse worker who testified before the committee, said that racial discrimination, low wages, and his status as a temporary worker, who never knows from one day to the next whether he will work, make it impossible for him to earn a living wage.

With the help of the Teamsters union, drivers and warehouse workers are building a political campaign at the local, state, and federal level to end labor abuses at the ports.

Their political campaign complements their actions on the job that include strikes and an ongoing organizing campaign to make their jobs good-paying union jobs.

The campaign won a victory when the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee voted to recommend that the city council consider denying companies that violate city, state, or federal labor laws access to city property.

Currently, port trucking companies and warehouse owners operate on city-owned land at or near the ports.

At the federal level, Rep. Grace Napolitano has filed the Port Drivers Bill of Rights bill in the US House of Representatives.

On November 30, Sen. Bernie Sanders met with port truck drivers. After the meeting, Sanders said that he would support the Port Drivers Bill of Rights because “the federal government should not be rewarding trucking companies that exploit and abuse their workers.”

One way that these trucking companies exploit and abuse their workers is by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees.

In doing so, companies don’t pay for social security, unemployment, or workers compensation benefits. They also don’t pay overtime when drivers work more than 40 hours a week, which they frequently do.

Also by misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors, trucking companies can find more ways to exploit drivers such as leasing trucks to drivers.

The lease agreement that workers are forced to sign in order to work requires them to pay as much as $60 a day to rent a truck and requires them to pay for insurance, fuel, and some maintenance costs.

These expenses can leave drivers in debt to trucking companies.

Judy Gearhart and Sarah Newell of the International Labor Rights Forum write that these “unethical leasing agreements” amount to “debt bondage” that result in some drivers being paid as little as $3 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage.

When drivers speak up about their working conditions, they often face reprisals.

Rene Flores, a port truck driver, told committee members at the hearing that he was fired for talking to a reporter about conditions on the job.

Despite the risks, port truck drivers and warehouse workers have been fighting back.

Since 2014 when the workers first began organizing, there have been 15 strikes by port truck drivers. They also have filed more than 1000 legal actions charging their bosses with wage theft and misclassifying them as independent contractors.

According to USA Today, which published an extensive expose about working conditions at the ports, judges have ruled in favor of the workers in 97 percent of these cases.

Most recently, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers when he agreed that International Bridge Transport, which ships goods to warehouses owned by Amazon, Target, and others, had misclassified its truck drivers.

The judge ordered the company to stop misclassifying its drivers and stop intimidating and harassing drivers trying to form a union.

“Intermodal Bridge Transport has made it increasingly difficult for me to make a living by illegally and immorally classifying me as an independent contractor instead of an employee,” said Daniel Aneseko Uaina, an International Bridge Transport driver after learning about the judge’s ruling. “With this ruling, justice has been served and the company can no longer deny me my employee rights.”

Union questions DHHS secretary nominee about Big Pharma price gouging

Leaders of UNITE HERE had some pointed questions that they wanted Alex Azar to answer when he testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, and Education on November 29.

Azar, a former top executive with Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations, is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

His nomination must be approved by the Senate.

The union is skeptical about Azar’s claim that he will support efforts to lower drug prices and wants to know why Azar didn’t do anything to curb Eli Lilly’s insulin price increases while he an executive with the firm.

D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, whose members work in the hospitality, food service, transportation, and other industries, said that during Azar’s tenure with Eli Lilly, the company raised the price of manufactured insulin by 300 percent.

Insulin produced by Eli Lilly is a synthetic hormone that replaces natural insulin produced by the body’s pancreas.

People with type 1 diabetes can’t produce natural insulin and must take daily injections of synthetic insulin to stay alive.

“Insulin is the poster child of what is going wrong in the way that the pharmaceutical industry does business,” said Taylor. “Alex Azar was at the helm (at Eli Lilly) as insulin prices soared.”

Given Azar’s past history, Taylor wanted to know how Azar could be expected to take meaningful steps to halt Big Pharma’s price gouging.

“A central role of DHHS is to deliver quality, affordable health care to all Americans–something that Alex Azar has built his career on blocking,” said Taylor. “Now Azar must answer: How can he reconcile abusing consumers and feeding the insatiable desire for even bigger profits (with his duty to serve the public and consumers at DHHS).”

UNITE HERE led successful efforts in California and Nevada to help contain drug price increases by fighting for new laws that bring transparency to the opaque pricing habits of the pharmaceutical industry.

In Nevada, a coalition of workers and consumers organized by UNITE HERE conducted a grassroots campaign that mobilized people to support passage of a law that requires pharmaceutical companies that manufacture insulin to report and make public the cost of manufacturing and marketing insulin.

The law also requires pharmaceutical company sales representatives to register with the state and report their contacts with health care providers.

The law that passed did not contain everything that UNITE HERE wanted to control insulin price increases, but the union called it “landmark legislation to protect Nevadans . . . living with diabetes from price gouging.”

Big Pharma, including Eli Lilly, vigorously opposed the price transparency bill that became law by mobilizing an army of 70 lobbying firms to oppose it.

Representatives of Eli Lilly testified against the bill, claiming that the company was not at fault for making insulin unaffordable for some people.

UNITE HERE also led a grassroots effort in California that won passage of another drug pricing transparency bill.

The bill, signed by California’s governor in October, requires pharmaceutical companies to notify the state and the public when it plans to raise drug prices by more than 16 percent. Companies must also justify their price increases.

Big Pharma spent $16.8 million in an unsuccessful effort to kill this modest price transparency bill.

In addition to raising doubts about Azar’s sincerity about curbing drug prices, UNITE HERE had questions about Azar’s interest in holding Big Pharma accountable to the public.

Drug research by Big Pharma is generously subsidized by the federal government, and Medicare and Medicaid pay for much if not most of the prescription drugs manufactured by Big Pharma.

“Yet there is zero accountability to the American public on what Big Pharma manufacturers are spending their profits on,” said Mike Casey, chair of UNITE HERE’s Health Care Task Force.

Casey added that Big Pharma justifies its enormous profits by saying that its profits are the reward it receives for the risks it takes to produce innovative medicines.

But “the fact is that twice as much money is dumped into selling and marketing their drugs than is spent on actually innovating,” said Casey.

Casey  wanted to know if Azar “would continue to toe (the) old Eli Lilly line that the money spent by pharmacy manufacturers marketing their drugs is a ‘trade secret’ that the American public has no right to know, despite subsidizing those profits?”

UNITE HERE said that Azar should be disqualified from becoming the new secretary of DHHS unless he can satisfactorily answer these questions and demonstrate that he will put the interests of the public and health care consumers ahead of Big Pharma.

Union opposes Wall Street takeover of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has denounced President Trump’s attempt on behalf of Wall Street to take control of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

CFPB is the federal agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to protect consumers against the predatory practices of Wall Street banks.

Those practices led to the Great Recession, which cost millions of workers their jobs, their homes, and their livelihoods.

President Trump on November 24 appointed Mick Mulvaney, a longtime opponent of CFPB, as the acting head of the agency after CFPB Director Richard Cordray resigned.

Mulvaney, who is also the director of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, sponsored legislation to abolish CFPB when he was a member of Congress.

There is, however, a dispute about Mulvaney’s claim of leadership at CFPB.

According to the Dodd-Frank Act, the law that created CFPB, the agency’s deputy director becomes the acting director when the director is unavailable to serve.

Leandra English is the deputy director and assumed leadership of the agency when Cordray resigned.

English has gone to court seeking a temporary restraining order to block Mulvaney’s appointment.

“The leadership battle at the CFPB is part of a larger struggle over whether our country will return to the days when big Wall Street banks could act with impunity and without accountability,” said Chris Shelton, president of CWA in a media release.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, enacted in 2010, established protections meant to stop Wall Street from indulging in questionable financial practices that put the whole economy at risk.

It also protects consumers from unlawful business practices such as the ones carried out by Wells Fargo when the bank enrolled customers in high-cost banking services that customers neither wanted nor agreed to purchase.

“The CFPB has returned over $12 billion to American consumers harmed by Wall Street wrongdoing and has helped to expose the illegal actions of such corporate bad actors as Wells Fargo and Santander,” Shelton said. “The CFPB gives bank employees who are concerned about potentially illegal high-pressure sales tactics a way to voice their concerns without having to navigate a maze of regulatory agencies.”

To maintain CFPB’s integrity, Dodd-Frank established rules of succession for replacing CFPB’s director with an acting director should the director resign.

Those rules say that the deputy director, who is Leandra English, becomes the acting director until the president appoints a new director and the appointment is confirmed by the Senate.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who was instrumental in creating the CFPB, told the New York Times that the CFPB succession rules were expressly written to ensure that the agency remains independent of the powerful political influence of Wall Street.

“The agency was built to be as far away from partisan politics as humanly possible — including exactly what Donald Trump is doing now,” said Warren to the Times. “The DNA of this agency is to work for America’s families and to stand up to big Wall Street banks. Mick Mulvaney wants to work for Wall Street banks and step on American families.”

Shelton accused President Trump of “flagrantly flouting the law in an attempt to give Wall Street banks the green light to again rip off American working families.”

“Trump’s attempt to install Mick Mulvaney as acting CFPB director violates the clear language of the Dodd-Frank Act prohibiting him from doing so,” added Shelton.

President Trump justified his appointment of Mulvaney by citing the Vacancies Act of 1998, which gives the president the authority to appoint acting heads of agencies when a director’s position is vacant and the permanent director must be approved by the Senate.

English, on the other hand, argues that she is the legitimate head of CFPB because the law creating the agency clearly spells out the rules of succession that differ from the Vacancy Act.

Shelton said that Wall Street already has too much power in Washington and shouldn’t be allowed to take over the only agency that has actually stood up to it.

“Consumers need an independent CFPB,” Shelton said. “Wall Street already has enough friends in Washington.”

CWA to CEOs: If you get a tax cut, we want raises

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) told CEOs of corporations where its members work that if the Republican corporate tax cut bill passes, the union wants its members to get the big raises that President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan say will result from the cuts.

“In light of recent developments on the national level concerning taxes, wages, and jobs, I write to seek your agreement that our members in CWA-represented bargaining units will receive an additional $4000 each year if the statutory federal corporate tax rate is lowered to 20 percent,” wrote CWA President Chris Shelton in a letter to eight major corporations that have collective bargaining agreements with CWA.

President Trump and Speaker Ryan have been marketing their proposed Tax Cut and Jobs Act as a working class tax cut rather than a windfall to corporations and the wealthy.

To make this point, they rely on an analysis by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) that asserts that the economic growth generated by the corporate tax cuts will result in higher wages of between $4000 a year and $9000 a year for workers.

Shelton as well as most professional economists are skeptical about the analysis, but should the tax bill become law, Shelton wants guarantees that workers will receive the promised raises.

And he wants the guarantee in writing.

The letter includes a memorandum of understanding that Shelton asked the CEOs to sign. It states that should the corporate tax be lowered to 20 percent, “each employee in the bargaining unit will receive an additional $4000 in each year of such rate.”

The memorandum would also guarantee that the pay raises won’t be offset by benefit cuts and commits the company to forego the offshoring of jobs.

The letter seeking the memorandum was sent to the CEOs of Verizon, AT&T, NBC Universal, Frontier, General Electric, ABC Entertainment, CenturyLink, and American Airlines.

The US House of Representatives passed its version of the new tax bill before the Thanksgiving Day holidays and the Senate is expected to vote on the bill after the holidays.

Shelton is not the only one skeptical about the Presidents claim that the economic growth generated by the tax cut will lead to big pay raises for workers.

“The Trump administration’s claims that large wage gains for workers will result from cutting corporations’ taxes is not supported by the professional research consensus on this issue, and have no serious backing in the data,” said Josh Bivens, director of the Economic Policy Institute.

These words were echoed in a New York Times editorial which calls the claims about economic growth generated by the corporate tax cuts, “the biggest whopper” of all the “lies Republican lawmakers and President Trump tell about their tax bills.”

According to the Times, “just one of 38 prominent economists surveyed by the University of Chicago agreed that the Republican tax cut would substantially lift the economy.”

Shelton sees the Republican tax bill as a corporate giveaway that does little if anything to help the working class.

In addition to reducing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, the Republican bill also lowers profits from overseas operations to 0 percent with some exceptions.

“Obviously, such a rate structure incentivizes companies to shift work overseas, killing US jobs,” writes Shelton in his letter to the CEOs.

There are other problems with the tax bill that will hurt workers.

Union workers with good paying jobs could see their taxes increase because the Republican bill eliminates the deduction for state and local taxes, and it includes new taxes on benefits that union workers have fought hard to win.

Cutting corporate taxes also will lead to increased deficits to the federal budget that will result in cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

For these reasons, CWA has been urging its members to contact members of Congress to tell them to vote no on the tax bill.

CWA supports real tax reform that will reduce taxes on the working class, said Shelton in a union hall teleconference for members. But the Republican tax bill is nothing more than a giveaway to the 1 percent.