Teacher sickout ends; Detroit schools still facing tough times

After hearing that most Detroit teachers might not get paid for work they performed, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) on May 2 and May 3 staged a two-day sick-out.

The teachers refused to go to work until they received a guarantee from the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) governor-appointed emergency manager that they would be paid in full.

After initially refusing to provide such a guarantee, Judge Steve Rhodes, DPS’ emergency manager, in a May 3 letter to the union wrote, “DPS recognizes the contractual obligation to pay teachers what they have earned and we assure all teachers that we will honor that legal obligation. This same assurance applies to all similarly situated employees of DPS.”

That appeared to satisfy the union’s demand for a guarantee, and the union’s leadership urged its members to return to class on May 4.

While the teachers were conducting their sickout, The Michigan House Appropriations Committee passed a bill authorizing $548 million to fund Detroit schools.

The bill, which had been stalled in committee, appropriates less than the $715 million that the state senate had approved in a similar appropriations bill. The two bills will have to be reconciled before the legislature can pass and send the reconciled bill to the governor for his approval.

The fact that the appropriation bill had been stalled in committee set in motion events that led to the sickout.

When it looked like no action would be taken on the bill, Judge Rhodes let it be known that without funding from the legislature, teacher pay would be in jeopardy.

The school district, according to Judge Rhodes, was running out of money, and if the House failed to pass the appropriations bill, there would not be enough money to pay teachers during the months of July and August.

About two-thirds of DPS teachers had elected to stretch their nine months worth of pay over a 12 month period, so that they would continue to receive a paycheck during the time school was out.

If no paychecks were issued in July or August, teachers who elected the 12-month pay plan would have been shorted two months worth of pay.

The union told DPS’ administrators that if they could not guarantee paychecks for July and August, union members were not about to work for free.

While legislative inaction may have precipitated the events that led up to the sickout, it is only one in a series of missteps that has put Detroit schools in a permanent state of crisis.

Like the city of Detroit, DPS’ problems can be traced back to problems in the US auto industry.

In the early aughts, Detroit was hit hard when US auto makers stumbled on tough times. Companies that supplied parts to the Big Three auto makers went out of business or moved production overseas reducing the property tax base that supported public schools.

Layoffs at auto and auto parts plants hit the working class hard, which further reduced revenue available to the public schools.

In 2009, the State of Michigan took control of Detroit’s schools, supposedly to put the school district’s financial house in order.

But things only got worse. Even though the state was now in control of Detroit’s schools, the state legislature failed to adequately fund the schools.

The lack of adequate state funding coupled with a decline in local tax revenue left DPS in even worse financial shape.

A succession of emergency managers appointed by Michigan governors tried to keep the schools open by borrowing heavily.

According to the Detroit Free Press, at the end of the school year, the school district’s debt will be $320 million, which doesn’t include $5 billion in long-term debt owed by DPS.

While state leaders were failing to fund Detroit’s schools, they were also pushing to expand charter schools in Detroit, a project that DPS’s emergency managers embraced.

As a result about half of Detroit’s school children now attend privately operated charter schools, which drain resources away from public schools.

The results have been devastating. Without adequate funding, DPS has been unable to properly maintain and repair its schools.

As a result, many students go to dilapidated schools that are poorly maintained.

The situation became so dire, that teachers held sick-ins in January to protest the filth and squalor of the buildings where they taught and where children were supposed to learn.

The lack of funding has also caused class sizes to increase well beyond a reasonable size for good learning opportunities.

The New York Times reports that “the planned class size in Grades 6 to 12 (for Detroit schools) is 38 students.”

Whatever amount that the legislature appropriates, it will not be enough to turn around Detroit’s schools because much of the money will go toward paying off creditors.

When school starts again in the fall, Detroit’s teachers, its students, and their parents will be the one’s left to deal with the residue of past decisions that crippled public education in the city.

May Day demonstrations in France denounce proposed labor law changes

Five hundred thousand workers and students in France took part in 300 May Day rallies, marches, and demonstrations protesting so-called labor reforms that the country’s Socialist government has proposed.

Parliament on Tuesday will begin debate on the proposed changes.

The government says that labor law reforms are needed to reduce the county’s 9.2 percent unemployment rate.

But the proposals are widely unpopular, especially among young people who fear that the new laws will make their jobs more precarious.

The proposals have sparked a mass uprising of young people, whose nascent movement is called Nuit Debout (Standing Together Through the Night). It resembles the global Occupy movement of 2011.

The changes proposed by the government are designed to make the country’s labor market more flexible.

But according to Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “labor market flexibility” is just another way of saying that “it should be easier to fire employees” and “lower wages.”

France’s hard-won labor laws help protect workers’ wages, working conditions, and job security.

Many see them as a strong buttress against the insecurities inherent in a capitalist economy. Recent polls show that 58 percent of respondents opposed the government’s proposed changes.

The government is proposing changes that would make it easier for employers to avoid paying overtime for work in excess of 35 hours a week, weaken unions’ bargaining power, and weaken employment contracts that provide a modicum of job security.

The government’s labor reforms are in line with the conventional wisdom that labor laws that actually protect labor are bad for business and are thus the cause of high unemployment.

But according to Weisbrot, “the available economic research provides little or no evidence for this argument.”

“For example, there is no relationship between the amount of employment protection in different countries and their unemployment rate,” writes Weisbrot. . .  There are “a number of countries with high levels of labor market protections and low levels of unemployment: Austria (5.2 percent), Denmark (4.4 percent), Ireland (4.3 percent), the Netherlands (4.6 percent), and Norway (4.5 percent).”

Perhaps one of the most contentious pieces of the government’s proposal would make it easier to fire workers, especially those 26 years of age and younger.

The government argues that if it were easier to fire young workers, then employers will be more likely to hire more young workers.

This logic confounds many of the young people who have taken to the streets to protest the reforms.

 

On March 31, 1.2 million workers and students marched and rallied to protest the government’s proposals.

Since then, demonstrations have been taking place on a weekly basis.

In some of these demonstrations, rage against the proposals resulted in conflicts between youthful demonstrators and the police.

That rage has also manifested itself in other ways, most notably the rise of Nuit Debout, an activist movement of young people who gather in city squares at night to stand in unity with each other.

At these gatherings, people discuss and debate strategies and tactics for fighting the government’s labor reform proposals, but these debates and discussions are also more wide ranging.

Topics include a number of social justice issues such as the treatment of immigrants, inequality, a guaranteed minimum income, and more.

While the government tries to justify its labor reforms as a way to help young people enter the labor market, youth in Nuit Debout want more than low paying, precarious work.

As Adam Nossiter of the New York Times writes, the youth of Nuit Debout “want what (their) parents have, and then some.”

The youth of Nuit Debout showed up at the May Day demonstrations ready to fight to maintain labor rights guaranteed by the law and for more.

CGT, France’s largest labor confederation and one of the organizers of the May Day demonstrations, echoed this sentiment.

May Day is just the start of a month of struggle against the labor reforms and for a more just society, said CGT in its May Day statement. It also will be a month when young people, wage earners, and others  intensify the fight “for social progress” and to improve “the lives of each and everyone.”

Settlement reached in Uber independent contractor suits

Two potentially ground-breaking class action lawsuits that could have radically altered the relationship between Uber and its drivers ended on April 21 with a soft whimper instead of a loud bang when attorneys for the plaintiffs and Uber announced that they had reached a settlement.

Plaintiffs in the two suits, one in California, the other in Massachusetts,  argued that they are employees entitled to all rights and protections afforded to employees by US labor law ( social security, unemployment insurance, workers compensation, overtime pay, etc.) and not as Uber prefers to call them independent contractors.

The settlement does not definitively resolve the question of whether Uber drivers are employees or contractors.

But the plaintiffs’ attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan said that there will be other opportunities to win labor rights for Uber drivers.

“The case (has been) settled–not decided,” said Liss-Riordan. “No court has decided whether Uber drivers are employees or independent contractors and that debate will not end here.”

One of the two suits would have been heard in San Francisco, Uber’s home base, and Liss-Riordan said that it was too risky to let a jury in San Francisco determine the employment status of the company’s drivers.

As part of the settlement, Uber agreed to pay up to $100 million.. The bulk of that money will go to compensate eligible drivers.

Those eligible include drivers in California and Massachusetts who opted out of the clause in their contract that forbids them from joining class action suits.

Liss-Riordan estimates that about 385,000 drivers will be eligible for compensation but not all will file claims.

The amount of money eligible drivers receive depends on the number of miles that they have driven for Uber and where they work. Those who have driven more than 25,000 miles in California could receive as much as $8000.

That amount is based on an estimate that only 50 percent of those eligible will file claims.

If 100 percent of the eligible drivers in California file claims, the amount that each driver receives would be $1950. In Massachusetts, the average amount received if 100 percent of eligible drivers file claims would be $979.

The average payout for drivers who drove less than 25,000 miles is between $24 and $1137.

The settlement still allows Uber to set fees and to determine how much of the fare it keeps. Currently, Uber keeps an upfront booking fee and then 20 percent of the remaining fare.

As a result of the settlement, drivers will now be able to post information in their vehicle explaining that tips are not included in the fare and that tips would be appreciated.

The agreement also  makes it somewhat more difficult for Uber to fire (or deactivate as Uber calls it) drivers working in California or Massachusetts.

Uber must now show sufficient cause for firing a driver and provide a warning that gives the driver an opportunity to correct problems identified by the company.

It establishes a panel composed of highly rated drivers who will hear appeals by drivers contesting their firing. Drivers not satisfied with the panel’s decision may appeal to an arbitrator paid by Uber.

Uber will no longer be able to fire drivers for low acceptance rates. In the past, if drivers accepted less than 80 percent of ride requests, they received emails from Uber threatening them with dismissal.

The settlement also requires Uber to meet quarterly with representatives of a drivers association.

The drivers association and Uber will discuss issues of concern among drivers.

The Teamsters in California have already stated that they will try to help Uber drivers form their association.

“After receiving overwhelming outreach from Uber drivers, representatives of Teamsters Joint Council 7 have announced plans to form an association for workers in California’s rideshare industry,” reads a statement issued by the Teamsters after the

“We welcome any Uber drivers seeking to improve their working conditions,” said Rome Aloise, Teamsters International Vice President and President of Teamsters Joint Council 7. “By coming together, the Teamsters will help these drivers have a stronger voice and improve standards for rideshare drivers in California.”

The Teamsters have already helped organize an association of Uber drivers in Seattle.

Despite the concessions that Uber made in the settlement, Uber seems quite happy with the outcome.

In a public statement, Uber said that it “was pleased (with) this settlement” because it leaves intact for now the drivers’ status as independent contractors.

Michael Hiltzik, writing for the Los Angeles Times, observes that Uber has other reasons to be happy.

“Had litigation continued, it might have put the company’s entire business model on trial, exposing the degree to which the economic benefits of the so-called ‘gig economy’ flow heavily, even exclusively toward investors and executives at the expense of those providing the core services.”

Temp workers at vehicle parts factory win union recognition

Bold action by temporary workers at a vehicle parts plant near Cleveland paid off when management agreed to recognize their union.

After presenting a letter to management explaining their desire to join a union and become permanent employees, temporary production workers at Detroit Chassis in Avon, Ohio unanimously voted to go on strike unless the company agreed to recognize their union.

The strike vote was taken on Sunday, April 17. On Monday the workers rallied outside the plant and prepared to go on strike on Tuesday.

Before they could so, Detroit Chassis management made a commitment to recognize the workers’ union.

The workers are now in the process of forming a negotiating committee that will meet and bargain with the company on the issues that the workers raised in their letter to management.

“Winning this union is a huge relief for us, and will help bring good jobs that are sorely needed in our community,” said David Perrier, a production worker active in the union drive. “I’ve worked at the plant since Day 1, and I could see the only way we were going to get a decent paycheck and fair treatment on the job is by coming together in a union and demanding it. This victory proves that by speaking out, we can win real change.”

Low pay, the lack of regular shifts, and no benefits such as paid sick or vacation leave led some Detroit Chassis workers like Perrier to start talking about forming a union.

With the help of organizers from the United Autoworkers (UAW), their talk led to plans for the action that resulted in their victory.

Detroit Chassis opened its Avon factory in 2015. When the plant opened, all of production workers were hired as temporary workers. Their pay ranged from $9.50 an hour to $11.50 an hour.

Some had the impression that they might become permanent employees, but more than a year after the plant became operational, all 58 production workers were still classified as temporary with no possibility of change in sight.

The workers formed their union in order to change their temporary status. They wanted management to make them permanent workers with all of the wages and benefits that go along with permanent work.

“Many companies use long-term temporary workers, employed through a staffing agency like they were at Detroit Chassis, as yet another tool to discourage workers from organizing for better jobs,” said Ken Lortz, director of UAW Region 2B. “What happened here in Avon is the first time I remember seeing temporary workers stand up and say enough is enough. Their actions are proof that when workers stick together, they can win, regardless of the obstacles that employers put in their way.”

According to the UAW, about 14 percent of the workers in the auto parts sector are temporary workers employed through staffing agencies.

Pay for these temporary workers is on average 29 percent less than permanent employees. They also do not receive benefits.

At one time, going to work at an auto parts plant was a gateway to middle-class life, but that is no longer the case.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reports that “real wages for auto parts workers, who account for nearly three of every four autoworker jobs, fell by nearly 14 percent from 2003 to 2013, three times faster than for manufacturing as a whole.”

The Detroit Chassis Avon workers were in a better position to improve their lot than most temporary workers.

Their plant provides just-in-time axles and wheel assemblies used in the production of Ford’s F-650 and F-750 trucks.

Had they shut down production with a strike, truck assembly at the Ford Lake Avon plant would have come to a halt in a day or less, reports the UAW.

With their union victory, Detroit Chassis workers are anticipating significant changes to their lives.

“This union contract for our workforce could change the lives of many people, just with the bump up in wages and benefits,” said Gabe Luchkowsky, a Detroit Chassis worker to the Morning Journal, a regional news organization. “Some of the guys were saying, ‘I can finally go to the doctor now.’”

USW asks US government to impose a temporary tariff on imported aluminum

The United Steelworkers (USW) on April 18 petitioned the US government to impose temporary tariffs on imported aluminum.

According to the USW, low-priced imported unwrought aluminum, the aluminum made at smelters and used in a variety of manufactured goods, has cost the US 6500 decent paying manufacturing jobs and threatens the very existence of a key domestic industry.

“Aluminum is vital to our national and economic security, and this (petition) will help us retain and begin to rebuild domestic production of primary unwrought aluminum, which has reached critically low levels as a result of flooding imports,” said Leo Gerard, USW president. “By the end of June, the industry will be operating at only 25 percent of 2011 production levels, and the total number of laid off workers will reach 6,500.”

The union’s petition asks the US government’s International Trade Commission to find that cheap imports have seriously harmed the domestic aluminum industry and asks for a four-year tariff on imported aluminum produced from raw materials and not from recycled materials.

The commission is required to make a decision within 60 days. If the commission sides with the union, the President has 30 days to decide whether to implement a tariff or provide some other relief.

The union is proposing that a tariff of 50 percent be imposed for the first year. The rate drops to 45 percent in the second year, 40 percent in the third year, and 35 percent in the fourth year.

According to USW, cheap aluminum imports are the result of overproduction in China, which has caused a glut of aluminum in the global market.

If after four years, the glut subsides and prices stabilize at sustainable levels, the tariff would be lifted.

“The USW’s trade (petition) is intended to provide needed relief,” said Tom Conway, USW International Vice President. “We are requesting four years of increased tariffs, with the tariffs capped at a price allowing domestic producers to effectively operate and, hopefully, restore production.”

Since 2011, the market share of domestically produced aluminum has declined by 19.44 percent; meanwhile, the market share of imported aluminum has increased by 19.66 percent, nearly a 40 point spread.

Canada is the main exporter of aluminum to the US, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Qatar, and Argentina.

The influx of cheap imported aluminum has left the domestic aluminum producers reeling.

“In states all across the country, America’s aluminum producers have (been) closed, idled, or are at risk,” said Gerard. “Over just five years, we’ve seen the number of smelters plummet. In 2011 there were 14 smelters in the United States. Today there are only eight, of which only five are currently operating and one is expected to be idled at the end of June. Two of the five now operating are at 50 percent or less of capacity.”

The union’s petition also asks that the US government negotiate with China to reach an agreement on how to end its overproduction of aluminum. The aim of such an agreement would be to restore aluminum prices to sustainable levels.

“It is critical that the supply-demand imbalance be addressed quickly and effectively by the Obama administration,” said the USW’s press release on its petition. “China and the United States have been discussing China’s excess capacity as part of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) process, and China has internally recognized it has massive excess capacity in primary unwrought aluminum. What is needed is an actual correction of the imbalance and temporary relief for domestic producers until that is achieved.”

Verizon workers strike for jobs, better customer service, and their families

When negotiations between striking workers and Verizon resumed on Friday, April 15, the two unions representing the 39,000 striking workers came ready to negotiate a fair contract that could end the two-day old strike, but Verizon management had other priorities.

Instead of bargaining, Verizon executives demanded more concessions from the unions, then left the meeting to get an early start on their weekend.

The unions, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers (IBEW), rejected the new concession demands and the ones that Verizon has insisted on during the last ten months of negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement that covers Verizon union workers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

“Workers already have put hundreds of millions of dollars in health care cost savings on the table,” said Ed Mooney CWA vice president for District 2-13. “We simply cannot compromise on contract changes that would ship more work overseas and have our families separated for months at a time.”

While Verizon executives were turning their backs on their workers, they appeared to be turning their backs on customers as well.

The New York Times reports that “Verizon’s wireline customers can reasonably expect a deterioration of service (during the strike).”

All but a handful of the strikers work in Verizon’s wireline division, which provides landline telephone services to homes and businesses.

Their skill and expertise keep landlines at homes and businesses operating.

Skilled call center representatives are also on strike. They expedite customers’ calls for help and service.

Verizon reports that it has trained 10,000 non-union staff to replace the 39,000 strikers during the strike, but it’s difficult to see how this under-staffed cohort of strike breakers can maintain pre-strike levels of services.

“There will almost certainly be some functions which may be slower or unavailable during the strike, because they require specialized skills or there just aren’t sufficient alternative resources available to fill all functions,” said Jan Dawson, an independent technology analyst for Jackdaw Research to the Times.

But this won’t be the first time that Verizon has put customer service on the back burner.

In 2004, Verizon promised to extend FiOS, its fiber optic service, to 18 million people living in communities without this service. Doing so would have extended broadband internet service and improved landline service to these communities.

More than a decade later, millions of these potential customers are waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.

As a result 14 mayors of cities that have been passed over by Verizon, recently wrote the company a letter criticizing the company’s decision to ignore their communities.

Verizon also failed to extend FiOS to under served communities in New York City.

According to Counterpunch, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication reported last year that Verizon had not met the terms of an agreement with the city to expand FiOS in the city’s five boroughs.

And both unions report that Verizon is not maintaining its copper wire network, which makes wireline service possible to millions of customers.

Verizon has snubbed customers in other ways.

For instance, it has outsourced 5,000 call center customer representative jobs to other countries.

Rosemary Batt, a professor at Cornell University who studies the impact of offshoring call center jobs, told the Times that, “turnover is lower and performance and customer satisfaction are substantially higher when (call center work) is done in-house (rather than offshore).”

“You need a more sophisticated work force that’s trained and committed to the company to do (customer service) well,” said Batt to the Times.

Preserving the in-house call-center jobs that remain at Verizon is one of the main goals of the strike.

Without the union, (more)  jobs would be off-shored in a heartbeat,’ said Keith Bonasoro  a striking IBEW member to the Boston Globe. . . “What we’re doing here is we’re protecting American jobs. They (Verizon) want to constantly off-shore, outsource good middle-class jobs that support our community. There’s growing public sentiment against corporate greed.”

In addition to offshoring jobs, Verizon, which reported $39 billion in profits during the last three years, wants to outsource more work to low-wage contractors, close and consolidate call centers, and make wireline technicians work away from home–sometimes in other states–for up to two months at a time.

Closing and consolidating call centers and making technicians work away from home for extended periods of time will make family life more difficult for workers and their loved ones.

Verizon also is refusing to negotiate a new first contract for Verizon wireless workers who recently joined CWA and wants to raise health care costs of Verizon retirees.

“Our families and our customers deserve more from Verizon” said Isaac Collazo, a CWA member from Brooklyn. “Through our hard work, Verizon is making record profits while our families are left with threats to our jobs and our customers aren’t getting the service they need. Striking is a hardship for our families, but we need to remind Verizon executives that the people who build their profits are a critical reason for the company’s success.”

Illinois Senate to vote on Domestic Workers Bill of Rights bill

Domestic workers rallied in Springfield, Illinois on April 13 urging members of the state senate to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act (HB 1288). The senate plans to take up and vote on the bill on April 13.

The bill, which has already passed the state house of representatives, will extend basic employment rights such as a minimum wage, at least one day off a week, and freedom from sexual harassment to domestic workers–house cleaners, nannies, and home care workers.

Some of these rights, such as a guaranteed minimum wage, have been in place for nearly a century, but domestic workers have been excluded from these protections.

“I think that most lawmakers agree that this is a very common sense and straightforward piece of legislation, and that it will right a historic wrong for domestic workers who’ve been excluded from basic labor protections for years,” said James Povijua, the Illinois Domestic Bill of Rights campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance to Progress Illinois.

Back in the 1930s, domestic workers were excluded from federal legislation that established labor standards that became the foundation of labor law.

At the time, most domestic workers were either immigrants or African American, and their exclusion was part of compromise reached to gain support of racist Southern lawmakers for laws establishing these standards.

That exclusion continues to affect the working conditions of today’s domestic workers.

Maria Esther Bolaños, a Chicago nanny, said that in order to help support her family, she has been forced to take child care jobs that paid as little as $4 an hour.

Isabel Mendez and Aurelia Aguilar, both Chicago house cleaners, said that have been the victims of wage theft.

Aguilar said that she has cleaned entire houses without being paid. In some cases, she has even been denied lunch breaks during nine-hour work days.

Mendez was fired from a job in which she was owed $10,000 in unpaid wages. The fight to win her back pay got her involved in supporting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights bill now before the Illinois senate.

Two demographic trends are making domestic workers a growing and more important part of the overall economy.

First, baby boomers, those born in the two decades after the end of World War II, are reaching the age of retirement. As more baby boomers grow older, more will need the services that domestic workers provide, especially home health care services.

In the coming decades, the number of people in the US who are 80 years of age or older is expected to triple. Many of these people will develop health problems that will require the services of home health care workers.

A large contingent of experienced and well-trained home health care workers can help ensure that more elderly people with health problems can stay in their home and avoid going into nursing homes, which in turn will save the federal and state governments money in Medicaid payments to nursing homes.

Second, for most two-parent families, it’s not economically feasible for one parent to stay home, take care of the children, and do the work needed to maintain a home.

In many cases, both adults are holding down full-time jobs and need child care and/or house cleaning services provided by domestic workers.

Both trends are increasing the need and demand for domestic workers. .

According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, the demand for home care workers will be particularly acute in the coming years. It reports that the home care workforce is currently estimated to be 3.3 million and that number is projected to increase nearly 50 percent to 4.9 million by 2020, making it the largest occupational group in the US.

Demand for other domestic workers is also growing, but most of these workers don’t enjoy the same labor protections that other workers take for granted.

Groups of workers whose members include domestic workers have joined forces in Illinois to extend these protections to domestic workers.

They created the Domestic Workers Coalition to push the legislature to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

The coalition is composed of Latino Union, AFIRE, and Arise Chicago.

If the senate votes to pass the bill, it will be because workers in these organizations built a grassroots movement that brought this injustice to the attention of lawmakers and then made them act to correct it.