The movement will not weaken

What began as a protest against pension cuts in France has turned into a social movement for a more equitable and just society.

On Thursday, two million people across France participated in 270 demonstrations to protest the new pension law enacted earlier this week by the French parliament.

This was the seventh demonstration against the pension cuts since September. Such a large turnout shows that a lot of people want to continue the fight against the cuts and expand it into a broader movement for social justice.

“The movement is not weakened,” read one of the signs carried by a protestor in Aurillac in central France.

The government’s plan to cut pensions for all French workers, which it calls “pension reform,” raises the age at which workers can draw a full pension by two years, thus reducing the amount of money that retired workers will make after retirement.

The new law will raise the age of retirement with full benefits from 60 to 62 for some workers and from 65 to 67 for others.

French president Sarkozy says that the pension cuts are essential because people are living longer, but people fighting the cuts view them as an attack on hard-won social benefits.

[Sarkozy] argues that we have to work longer because we are living longer,” said Christian Renard, an electrician. “But I say we are living longer because of the hard-won social conditions and benefits that were fought for. If we no longer have them, who is to say that life expectancy will not fall, as it has in Russia?”

Some students who joined the protests think the cuts will make it harder for them to find work when the enter the job market because workers will be waiting longer to retire.

“All of us want to get good jobs,” said Alexandre, a middle-school student. “I don’t want to be out of work when I graduate. That would be a big waste of time.”

Others see the pension cuts as a measure that puts the interests of the rich over the interests of workers. “The government says there is not enough money for pensions,” Juliane Charton, a high school student. “But it is a political choice where to look for it. If they did away with the many exemptions given to employers and bosses and imposed higher taxes on those who make billions every year it would raise about 72 billion euros, when the pension system needs 30 billion euros to (keep pensions at their present level).” 

 “This is about more than just pension reform,” said Pascale Heurteux, a union official. “It’s about changing the whole of society.”

Austerity for whom?

“[Romania] is now at the crossroads, and strong decisions should be made in terms of reducing public expenses,” said Vincent Alexandre, an emerging-markets economist at BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank.

Alexandre was responding to a question from a reporter about yesterday’s protests in Romania where 30,000 workers, pensioners, and unemployed people took to the streets in Bucharest, the nation’s capital, to protest recent austerity measures announced by the government.

The austerity measures cut pensions for retirees, cut pay for public sector workers, and eliminate the jobs of 74,000 public sector workers.

The protests, organized by five Romanian unions, urged lawmakers to support a no confidence vote against the government, which would have toppled the current government and forced new elections.

Today, the government survived the no confidence vote by a narrow margin much to the relief of BNP Paribus’s Alexandre, who told the reporter, “the biggest concern is that if the government falls, we aren’t sure what comes next and that magnifies uncertainty.”

BNP Paribus, however, wasn’t as concerned about government spending two years ago when it faced collapse.  It gladly accepted $7.5 billion from the French government’s State Shareholding Corporation to cover losses it was facing because of its exposure to US mortgage-backed securities. 

It also took $4.9 billion from the US government to cover the bank’s exposure to AIG’s worthless credit swaps, and it took advantage of the Us government’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program to issue a billion dollars worth of bonds that had the full backing of the US government.

Thanks to help from the French and US governments, BNP Paribus was able to avoid catastrophe and return to profitability. In 2009, less than a year after receiving government aid, BNP Paribus paid its financial managers bonuses totalling one billion euros. Shortly after paying the bonuses, the bank announced that it would begin repaying the French government for its aid.

It appears that in the eyes of bankers, government spending is good when it helps banks bridge tough economic times, but bad when it does the same for workers.

“It’s not over yet”

The French National Assembly today passed the final version of the bill that cuts French workers’ pensions. The Senate approved the measure yesterday, and it goes to president Sarkozy next week for final approval.

But leaders of the protest against the cuts said that they will build on the social movement that grew out of the widespread protests against the unpopular cuts.

“The movement will persist,” said Bernard Thibault, president of CGT, France’s largest union. “We will change the mode of protest, but we won’t give up.”

Thibault told Liberation, a daily newspaper, that he is confident that tomorrow’s one-day general strike will show that the movement is alive. Unions are also planning a national day of protests on November 6.  Students will hold national demonstrations on November 4.

After the assembly passed the final bill, nine out of the 12 refineries remained on strike, and about 20 percent of French gas stations were without fuel.

On Tuesday before the Senate vote, workers and students marched together protesting the cuts at local demonstrations in Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon.

After a two-week strike against the cuts, garbage collectors in Marseille voted Monday to return to work.  A reporter for Euro News asked one worker if he was returning to work without having won anything. The worker replied, “For the moment, (yes), but it’s not over yet.”

Keep moving, nothing to see here

The Texas Teachers Retirement System provides 1.2 million currently employed and retired teachers and public university workers with a safe and secure retirement.

With assets of over $100 million, TRS is the 17th largest public pension plan in the world. Being one of the world’s largest institutional investors makes TRS an attractive partner for investment firms both large and small. Some of these proposed investments are worth the risk, some are not

Recently, the Austin American Statesman reported that in 2009, a high-level TRS whistleblower had alleged that TRS’s chief investment officer and some TRS board of trustee members were pressuring staff to approve dubious investment proposals.

The dubious investments were pitched by big financial supporters of governor Rick Perry. The board members in question were also financial supporters of the governor. 

But a TRS spokesperson assured the Statesman that an independent investigation of the whistleblower charges had cleared everybody concerned. 

 The investigation that cleared everybody was carried out by Roel Campos of the Washington DC law firm Cooley Godward Kornish. But as it turns out, he wasn’t all that independent. He and Cooley have an ongoing contract with TRS for legal services worth $820,000. 

Furthermore Campos had a questionable record when it comes to looking into financial investment activity with due diligence.

Campos in 2008 was selected to be TRS’s new fiduciary counsel, an independent attorney that is supposed to ensure that TRS investment decisions are made with the best interest of TRS members in mind, not the private interest of board members or political office holders.

The decision to hire Campos sparked some concern and was canceled after the Texas attorney general found that Campos and Cooley had a conflict of interest because they represented venture capitalist seeking investments from TRS.

Campos had been selected to replace Ian Lanoff, a leading expert on pension governance issues who had served as TRS’s fiduciary counsel for 12 years and who had hoped to be reappointed after his contract expired in 2008.

Campos didn’t get the fiduciary counsel position, but as a consolation prize, he and his law firm landed an ongoing legal services contract.

Campos had no experience as a fiduciary counsel, but he did have political connections. Campos, a Democrat, supported George W. Bush for president. Subsequently, president Bush appointed him to a seat on the Securities and Exchange Commission.

As a member of the commission, Campos demonstrated his lack of investigative skills in one of the most important decisions that the SEC ever made.

At a meeting April 2004, the commission was asked by large investment banks to exempt them from the net capital rule, which requires brokerage firms to keep enough capital in reserve to cover potential losses in the event of a catastrophic market decline.

The large investment banks wanted to free up the capital held in reserve by their brokerage units to invest in mortgage-backed securities, derivatives, and other risky investments.

Financial giants, including Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs, sent letters to the commission urging it to grant the exemption. They argued that the net capital rule was unnecessary because markets were self-regulating and it wouldn’t be in the banks’ best interest to make imprudent investments.

There was one dissenter among the letter writers. Leonard D. Bole, a designer of risk assessment tools, said that lowering the capital requirements would “erode the system that has safeguarded US investors.”

Campos and the other commissioners ignored Bode’s warning. One commissioner noted presciently that  if anything goes wrong, “it’s going to be an awfully big mess.”

Campos chimed in “I’m very happy to support [the exemption]. And I keep my fingers crossed for the future.”

Unfortunately, the crossed fingers didn’t work. In 2008 after many mortgage-back securities and derivatives turned bad, some banks didn’t have enough capital on hand to cover their losses. Bear and Sterns and Lehman Brothers went out of business, the government bailed out Goldman Sachs, and the economy sank into its worse economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

French strike against pension cuts enters second week

Fuel shortages continue to plague France as a nationwide strike against the government’s plans to cut pensions enters its second week. Workers at three of France’s 12 refineries voted to return to work, but workers at seven other refineries voted to extend strike as the government scrambles to restock empty gas pumps.

Workers represented by CFDT at the Esso refineries at Fos-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean and Gravenchon on the north coast voted on Monday to return to work.

CFDT members at a Reichstett Petroplus refinery near Strasbourg in Alsace also voted to return to work. Reichstett workers had been on strike since October 15 to protest Petroplus’ plan to downgrade the refinery to a fuel depot. The strikers voted to return to work to ease local fuel shortages and win goodwill in hopes of gaining local support for persuading Petroplus, a Swiss company, to keep the refinery open.

“We stopped work for a specific reason, even if we are in solidarity with the national strike,” said Jean-Luc Bildstein of the CFDT. “We want our site to be safeguarded in its entirety and for our jobs to be maintained.”

Meanwhile workers at seven other refineries including all six of the refineries owned by Total, France’s largest oil company, voted to continue their strike.

At the Total Grandpuits refinery near Paris where workers were forced back to work by a government requisition, most workers remained on strike after a court overturned the original requisition, an order issued by the government requiring workers to return to work.

After the original requisition was overturned, the government obtained another one that requires only workers who refuel fuel trucks at Grandpuits to return to work. These workers remain on the job, but on Monday CGT, the union representing Total workers, was appealing the new requisition.

As France tried to open for business Monday morning, motorists in some parts of the country were having a hard time finding gas. Gas shortages were most severe in Normandy and Centre provinces where 71 percent to 92 percent of the gas stations were reporting shortages. Gas shortages persisted in Paris, Provence, Brittany, and Pay de la Loire where 48 percent to 70 percent of the gas stations were reporting shortages.

Small business owners complained over the weekend that the fuel shortages were hurting their businesses and the economy as a whole.  The General Confederation of Small and Medium Enterprises issued a statement saying, “The economic recovery that was under way before the strike has suffered a severe setback because of the fuel shortages.”

The government confirmed this assessment. Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said that the strike is costing the French economy between 200 and 400 million euros a day.

The French parliament is reconciling the pension bills that passed both the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, and both houses will probably vote on the reconciliation Wednesday. If parliament votes for the reconciled bill, it will go to president Sarkozy for his signature next week.

But the mobilization against the pension cuts will continue. The coalition of unions that have mobilized against the cuts will hold another 24-hour general strike on Thursday and a another national day of action on November 6. Students will also hold a national day of action on November 2.

Requisition fails to dampen French strike

The government’s efforts to end strikes at French refineries suffered a setback Friday when a judge found that the requisition ordering strikers back to work under threat of prosecution was “a serious and obvious infringement on the right to strike.”

The judge’s ruling came shortly before the French Senate passed the pension cuts proposed by the Sarkozy government. Unions in response to the vote said that their mobilization to stop the cuts would continue and called for more demonstrations this coming week.

The refinery workers’ strike, which has stopped production at all 12 of France’s refineries, and the blockade of fuel depots by the strikers has severely curtailed gas deliveries and caused fuel shortages across the nation. 

Transport Minister Dominique Bessereau said that 35 percent of the gas stations in the Paris region had run dry and that there were shortages in the eastern and western parts of the country.

French president Sarkozy has made reopening the refineries a priority and on Friday had local authorities issue a requisition to force workers at the Total Grandpuits refinery back to work. A requisition is an order requiring workers to return to work when authorities deem that there is a threat to public order. The requisition applies only to strikers at the Total Grandpuits refinery, near Paris.

Local authorities issued the requisition Friday morning. Shortly after the requisition was issued, police charged picket lines at the refinery and the local authorities served strikers with the requisition.

Strikers could have been jailed if they defied the requisition, so in the afternoon they begrudgingly returned to work. One worker wore a jacket with REQUISITIONED scrawled on its back. “I’ve been requisitioned,” he told reporters. “But it stinks.”

Shortly after the refinery opened, the CGT, the union representing the Grandpuit workers, asked a judge in Melun, a Paris suburb, to vacate the order, arguing that the requisition undermines the right to strike, a constitutional guarantee in France.

The judge agreed saying that the requisition was too broad. When workers in the Grandpuit got word of the judge’s decision, they walked off the job again.

After the ruling, the government issued another, more specific requisition that requires only workers who load fuel onto fuel trucks to return. The union has appealed that requisition and a ruling is pending.

Charles Foulard of the CGT told reporters that the strikers’ next actions will depend on the ruling on the latest requisition. “The requisition is in effect, so we’re going to meet with the organization, and debate with workers to see how we’re going to continue the struggle.”

In the meantime, other French strikers continued to pressure the government. Workers at Total refineries near Lyon and Donges voted Friday to extend their strike another week.

Flying pickets blocked fuel depots in lower Normandy and Cournon ‘d Auvergne. They dispersed when they were attacked by police.

UNEF, the university student’s union, reported that 10 universities were either shut down or partially shut down by students opposing the pension cuts.

The CDFT, a union that said that it would suspend its strike action, changed its mind and decided to continue supporting the strike after union leaders listened to rank-and-file members.

Strikers rely on nimble tactics to keep fight against cuts alive

Workers and students used guerilla-like tactics to keep their massive protests against the government’s proposed pension cuts alive, and France’s labor unions and student union called for more national days of action against the proposed cuts.

Meanwhile, French president Sarkozy, frustrated by the success of those opposing pension cuts, ordered striking refinery workers back to work under threat of prosecution.

Sarkozy’s actions led one union leader to compare the French president to General Petain, the French head of state during the German occupation of the 1940s, who temporarily replaced the French Republic with an authoritarian state.

“In our country’s history we have gone through moments of Petain,” said Charles Foulard CGT’s Total representative. “Today, there are raids on our social agenda, on our pension, raids on the right to strike.” CGT is France’s largest union.

Earlier today Sarkozy issued an emergency decree ordering strikers at France’s 12 oil refineries to return to work. The emergency decree, known as a requisition, makes workers liable for prosecution if they refuse to obey.

Shortly after the requisition was issued, police charged a picket line at the entrance to Total’s Grandpuit refinery near Paris. Total is France’s largest oil company.

The workers locked arms and defied the police. Police using clubs and shields against the unarmed workers injured three strikers before breaking through the picket line.

After the police broke through, they lined up outside the refinery’s closed gate and looked at the strikers, who remained just outside the gates in defiance of the police and Sarkozy.  

Police used tear gas to break up another demonstration at a fuel depot in Toulouse in southern France. President Sarkozy has been trying to keep fuel depots open because of shortages at France’s gas stations. Between one-fifth and one-third of the country’s gas stations remain low on fuel or have run out.

But to keep pressure on the government, strikers have been using flying pickets to close down selected fuel depots. When police move to open one depot, strikers disperse and move on to close another. Last Tuesday, police broke through a blockade at a fuel depot in Grand Querilly in western France, but on Thursday picket lines reappeared and shut down the depot again.

Flying pickets have also disrupted the supply of imported oil.  The head of the nation’s petroleum lobby said that France is having trouble importing fuel supplies because of the flying pickets at France’s two largest oil terminals at Marseille and Le Havre.

Meanwhile students continue their strikes. Yesterday 17,000 students marched in Paris, 5,000 in Bordeaux, and 1,500 in Montpellier. Twenty-nine youths were arrested as police tried to disperse the demonstrations.

President Sarkozy and his allies in the Senate have called for a vote in the Senate tonight on the proposed pension cuts in hopes that a final vote in favor of passage will cause the strikes to wane.

But the unions announced yesterday that the fight against the cuts will continue no matter what happens tonight. In a joint communique issued last night, the unions leading the protests announced two more national mobilizations against the cuts: one, a general strike, is scheduled for October 28; the other, a national day of protest, is scheduled for November 6.

In announcing the decision to hold further protests, the  CGT issued a statement urging more action against the cuts: “Strengthened by the support of the workers, the young, and the majority of the population. . . the labor organizations have decided to continue and broaden the mobilization.”

Today, France’s main student union called for members to join street protests and sit-ins scheduled for Tuesday.

A poll conducted by the BYA institute and broadcast on Canal Plus television found that 69 percent of those polled supported the strike.

Commodity speculation increases hunger

You may remember that last month in Mozambique people demonstrated against a proposed increase in the cost of bread.  The demonstrations lasted several days and abated after police fired on demonstrations killing at least 13 people.

Most of the people demonstrating were desperately poor and were having a hard time feeding themselves and their families even before the increased bread prices went into effect.

The IUF’s Private Equity Buyout Watch reports that the plight of the people of Mozambique and that of millions of more hungry people around the world  is the result of increased speculation in agricultural commodities. 

According to the UN Special Reporter on the Right to Food, from 2005 to 2008, the number of people living in hunger increased by between 130 million and 150 million. Today the number of people living in hunger is nearly one billion.

Increased hunger has been caused by the increased price of basic agricultural products like wheat, rice, and maize. The International Monetary Fund finds that the increase is due to higher demand and lower supplies of food.

But the UN Special Report, finds that financial speculation is the main cause of food price increases and the subsequent increase of people living in hunger.

During the last decade, commodity speculation increased significantly. Between 2002 and 2008 investment in commodity index funds, a speculative derivative investment based on future prices of commodities, increased from about $25 billion to more than $250 billion.

Index-fund investments in corn, soybeans, wheat, cattle, and hogs more than quadrupled in a one-year period between 2006 and 2007, growing from $10 billion to $47 billion.

As speculation in agricultural commodities increased, food prices worldwide increased 83 percent between 2005 and 2008. Wheat prices increased by 127 percent, rice by 170 percent, and maize by 300 percent.

The result of this increase was an increase in the number of people living in hunger. In 2008 at the height of the food crisis 40 million people were driven into hunger and desperation.

Speculators bought index-fund investments that derived their value from commodity futures, which, essentially, are bets that the price of commodities will increase in the future. In order to attract more investors, large commodity traders with ties to investment bankers, drove up the price of these investments.

The increased price of commodity futures drove up agricultural prices on spot markets, where the actual exchange of commodities takes place. Spot market increases, then, drove up future prices even higher, and a bubble ensued. 

The effects of this bubble worsened as more institutional investors, such as pension funds, dived into the commodities futures market in hopes of offsetting losses suffered in the bond and securities markets.

French strike intensifies

The French strike against pension cuts grew more intense today as workers blocked terminals at Paris’ two airports, youth and police fought running battles , and president Sarkozy ordered police to break up blockades at fuel depots around the country.

After one-third of nation’s gas stations ran dry or experienced shortages yesterday, Sarkozy ordered riot police to break worker blockades at fuel depots around the country.

Special intervention forces, a paramilitary unit of the national police force, broke through worker blockades at fuel depots in Le Mans, La Rochelle, and Donges.

But refinery workers remained defiant, and reestablished their blockade at Donges this morning.

“We are in a confrontational mode,” Emmanuel Lepine, federal secretary of the CGT’s petrochemicals branch told Bloomberg. “There are no talks on with the government. The determination of workers is not waning. Refinery workers may be in the forefront, but we aren’t isolated.”

Workers today blocked the road leading to two terminals at Orly. At the other Paris airport, Charles De Gaulle, workers shut down a terminal after pushing through a police blockade.

Before pushing through the police lines, workers sang the French national anthem, Marseillaise,which included these lines: “Tremble, tyrants and you traitors, the shame of all parties, tremble – It is we whom they dare plan to return to ancient slavery.” Morning Star reports that the police were visibly shaken by the singing.

Young people also took to the strike engaging riot police. The Daily Mail, a London newspaper reported hysterically that,

“To the west of Paris, orange flames licked the sky as rioters torched college buildings and blocked roads to prevent emergency vehicles reaching the flashpoints.

“The Val D’Huisine College in Le Mans was reduced to charred rubble after the main gate was barricaded by gangs of masked youths determined to prevent the conflagration being brought under control.

“Ashen-faced, Claude Boulard, the socialist mayor of Le Mans, said: ‘It’s an utter disaster. The college has burned to the ground. There’s nothing left but cinders.’

“A 15-year-old girl was injured when a scooter exploded after it was set alight by rioters.

“The insurrection flared as thousands of students joined trade unionists and public sector workers in a nationwide show of strength.

“But there was another, more troubling, aspect as hundreds of masked youths – including unemployed immigrants – tried to hijack the national strike by fighting pitched battles with CRS police, who responded with tear gas and baton charges.”

Many More May Be Owed Back Wages

As many as 40 construction workers at two luxury condo construction sites in Austin, Texas may be owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and overtime.

At a press conference today, Patricia Zavala of the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral said that three of the workers will file a class action lawsuit seeking $120,000 in back wages, but that many others may be entitled to similar compensation. 

“Twenty-two other people who worked on the projects have come forward so far,” said Zavala. “But there were more than 40 workers on these two projects who weren’t paid all the money they earned.”

The suit was filed against Greater Metroplex Interiors of Dallas, which was the developer of the two luxury condo projects, one known as Gables Plaza near downtown and the other known as Rio 21 near the University of Texas campus.

The suit stems from a deadly on-the-job accident that happened last year at the 21 Rio work site. Three workers fell to their deaths after plunging to the ground when a faulty scaffold on which the were working collapsed.

The three worked for Capoera Construction, a subcontractor hired by GMI to do plaster work at 21 Rio and Gables Plaza. 

After the deadly accident, Capoera Construction disappeared and its on-site supervisors left the country without paying the company’s workers for two weeks worth of work.

The plaintiffs, three immigrant construction workers, also say that Capoera did not pay them overtime even though they worked 60- to 70-hour weeks with no breaks.

The workers have been negotiating for back with GMI for the last year, but the negotiations broke down with GMI refused to be held responsible for its subcontractors actions.

The lawsuit argues that under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, GMI is responsible for the money owed the workers by its subcontractor.

As Final Decision Draws Near, French Protest Pension Cuts

Angry French refinery workers defied government orders to stop their strike against plans to cut their pensions, and demonstrators took to the streets for the sixth time in the last month to voice opposition to the proposed cuts.

The CGT reported that 3.5 million people at 277 locations across the country took part in today’s demonstrations. Workers were joined by students and some demonstrations turned violent when police and protestors clashed.

Refinery workers continued their open-ended strike against the planned pension cuts shutting down all 12 of the country’s refineries. Last week police temporarily reopened three of the refineries, but as of today all 12 are closed.

The government on Monday ordered workers at the Grandpuits refinery near Paris to go back to work; instead, workers stacked and burned tires in front of the refinery and formed a human chain to keep out would be strike breakers. 

Railway workers and truck drivers blockaded several fueling depots, and police were called to break up the protests. Security van drivers, who stock ATMs with cash, have said that they will join the strike.

Refinery closures, picketing at the fuel depots, and panic buying have caused pumps to run dry at 4,000 of France’s gas stations.

President Sarkozy has vowed to use the full force of the government to reopen the refineries when he returned to Paris today, but so far has not taken any action.

Truck drivers on Monday and Tuesday began a rolling slow down on the nation’s highways. On Monday, truck drivers kicked off their “Snail Operation” on highway A6 between Paris and Lyon by driving slowly on two of the three highway lanes slowing traffic to a snail’s pace. On Tuesday, Operation Snail hit the main highway coming into Paris from the south. 

Despite problems caused by these actions, the BBC reports that 71 percent  of those polled support the fight against the cuts.

High school students are also continuing their protests. The education ministry said that today there were 379 actions at high schools supporting the protest. The student union puts the number at 850. During some of the demonstrations, students battled police.

A final vote on the pension cut proposal was scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate, but has been postponed until Thursday as senators consider more than 400 amendments to the bill.

One union, CFE-CGC, which represents white-collar workers, has said that Tuesday will be its last protest, and the government reports that strike participation by teachers and government workers has declined since last week.

Meanwhile, the CGT appears to be ambivalent about what to do next. It has no plans for more national demonstrations like the ones today, but it is encouraging local unions to continue local efforts to protest the cuts.

Construction Workers File Suit for Back Pay

The Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral announced today that three construction workers in Austin, Texas would be filing a class-action lawsuit against a contractor whose subcontractor skipped town without paying its workers and did not pay overtime.

The plaintiffs in the suit, three immigrant construction workers, are seeking to recover $120,000 in unpaid wages and overtime from Greater Metroplex Interiors of Dallas.

According to the suit, GMI hired Capoera Construction as a subcontractor on a luxury condo project in Austin.

Capoera disappeared in 2009 without paying its workers for several weeks of work after three of its workers died when the scaffolding on which they were working collapsed.

The suit also states that Capoera did not pay overtime. “We often worked 70 hours a week with no breaks,” said Filimon Salas, one of the plaintiffs. “We were denied overtime pay and were not paid for our final weeks of work.”

The plaintiffs chose to file a class-action suit because many more Capoera workers are owed back pay and overtime. The class-action suit will give them the opportunity to collect money owed them as well.

Attorneys for the three workers have been negotiating with GMI for a year, but the company has refused to take responsibility for the actions of its subcontractor.

Nonpayment of construction work in Austin is common.  “With Austin construction workers having a one in five chance of not being paid their wages, we are not surprised that these violations have occurred,” said Patricia Zavala of the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral.

WDP/PDL organizes low-wage workers in construction and other industries in Austin, a growing city where most construction workers are unorganized and many come from other countries.

Working-class Community Mobilizes to Keep Its Hospital Open

Residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburg, won a victory when state officials temporarily halted the demolition of the community’s only hospital. Residents also filed a class-action lawsuit last week to permanently halt their hospital’s demolition.  

Save Our Community Hospital, the group mobilizing support to reopen the hospital, has set up a round the clock vigil at the hospital to protest its demolitions and is urging supporters to contact Jeffery Romoff, 412/647-3555 to demand that the hospital be saved.

Romoff is the CEO of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center, which until January operated Braddock hospital and which has ordered the demolition of the hospital.

Braddock’s plight began more than 30 years ago when US Steel closed its Braddock mill and laid off thousands of residents. The loss of jobs led to an exodus of people, and community’s fortunes have gone downhill ever since.

Fourteen years ago there was some hope that Braddock could revive its fortunes when the University of Pittsburg Medical Center bought the local hospital. UPMC became Braddock’s biggest employer and the hub of economic redevelopment.

But last year UPMC announced that it would close its Braddock hospital. Residents rallied to keep it open, but UPMC shut down the hospital in January 2010.

Residents continued the fight demanding that UPMC reopen the hospital or at least find a new operator. They argued that many Braddock residents are elderly, low-income workers and retirees, who rely heavily on public transportation and would have difficulty finding other healthcare facilities to take the place of UPMC.

Residents also filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Health and Human Services charging that many of the low-income workers in the community are African-American who will have a much harder time getting healthcare if the hospital closes.

In September HHS announced that UPMC agreed to a settlement that would require the company to assist Braddock residents find alternative access to healthcare but would not require it to reopen the hospital.

In October UPMC, began demolition of the hospital, but SOCH asked state officials to review the demolition permit. After doing so, state officials temporarily halted the demolition.

SOCH also has begun a round the clock vigil to keep the hospital intact and has filed a class-action lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the closure.

UPMC has said that it closed the hospital because it was under used. SOCH found that the hospital  use was still high, especially for some of the specialized services that the hospital provides.

UPMC, which is supposedly a nonprofit healthcare provider, seems to be more interested in making money than providing healthcare. While it closed its Braddock hospital, it began construction on another hospital in Monroeville, an affluent suburb of Pittsburg, and it embarked on a $16 million ad campaign to refurbish its brand and attract more customers.

French Fight Pension Cuts: Update

In recognition of World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty, Oct 17, CGT, the largest of the unions leading the struggle against the French government’s proposal to cut pensions by raising the age of retirement, issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to end poverty and solidarity with people all over the world fighting the ravages of poverty.

In the statement, CGT noted that the International Labor Organization has found that unemployment among youth is one of the main causes of poverty in the world. Globally, 81 million young people between 15 and 24 who want to work can’t find jobs.

In France, unemployment among young people is 25 percent, which, according to CGT, is one reason that young people have supported the fight against pension cuts. Many realize that if the age of retirement is raised as proposed by the Sarkozy government, older people will stay on the job longer, which will mean fewer job opportunities for young people.

The statement ends by saying, “We salute all those who are engaged in the ongoing battle for peace, freedom, democracy, justice, social progress, and equal access to all rights for all.”

In further news about the fight against the proposed pension cuts,  the CGT reports that 3 million people in 250 cities across France took part in Saturday’s demonstrations against the cuts.

Another demonstration is planned for Tuesday on the eve of the Senate’s vote on the proposed pension cuts.

On Friday, president Sarkozy ordered riot police to reopen three of the 12 refineries that have been shut down by refinery strikers opposing the pension cuts.

The strike has caused gas shortages. The Transport Ministry reports that 230 gas stations have run out of gas. Also, fuel lines to Paris’ two airports, Charles De Gaulle and Orly, have been intermittently interrupted. Charles De Gaulle is expected to run out of fuel on Monday or Tuesday. Orly is not expected to run out for at least a week.

So far railway workers, refinery workers, and dock workers have remained on strike against the pension cuts. Truck drivers will vote on Monday whether to go out on strike.

The Telegraph reports that strike among rail workers has waned somewhat but “polls show the unions have massive public support.”

French Students Protest Pension Cuts

The French Ministry of Education today estimates that more than 300 high schools, about 7 percent of all high schools in the country, were disrupted as students joined the fight against pension cuts.

Police and students clashed in several cities. Montreuil, Toulouse, Nantes, and Paris were just some of the cities where students took to the streets and were confronted by police.

The Interior Ministry announced that 151 people, mostly students were arrested. One student in Montreuil was wounded by a flash ball fired by police and hospitalized.

The Wall Street Journal reports that student involvement could radicalize the protests and noted that radical student protests in 2006 helped overturn attempts to change the labor laws.

As oil refinery workers continued their strike against pension cuts, major oil pipelines serving Paris’ two airports, Charles De Gaulle and Orly, dried up.

Police were called in to break up blockades set up by striking workers at several refineries and hundreds of service stations have reported that they have run out of fuel.

The fifth nationwide demonstration against the cuts is scheduled to take place on Saturday, and unions announced today that another one will take place on Tuesday, the day before the French Senate is scheduled to vote on the cuts.

Woman Teamster Challenges Hoffa

This week Sandy Pope announced that she will run for national president of the Teamsters Union, a position currently held by James Hoffa. 

Pope, a former truck drive, warehouse worker, and union organizer, is currently president of Teamster local 805 in New York City.

In a press release announcing her candidacy, Pope said, “We need a Teamster General President who will put the power of our union to work for the members.”

Pope is supported by Teamsters for Democracy,a national, grassroots caucus of Teamsters fighting to make the Teamsters a rank-and-file centered union.

Pope sees the fight to improve the lives of working people going beyond bread and butter unionism that concentrates solely on bargaining with bosses.

“Wall Street drove our economy over the cliff, but working people are the ones paying the price—and, too often, unions are the ones getting the blame. We need to stand up to that, not cave in,” said Pope in her press release.

Read more about Pope here and here.

Honduran Unionist Are Targets of Repression

Human Rights activist Berta Oliva accused the Honduran government of repression and ignoring human rights, and told a gathering in Chicago that many of the victims of this repression are union activists.

She noted that 22 members of a union representing workers at National Autonomous University of Honduras were arrested in September during a strike and that police subsequently occupied the campus, a center of resistance to the Honduran government, for a week after the arrests.

She also said that teachers union activist, Felix Murillo Lopez, died in September in a hit and run incident that his friends and supporters are calling murder.

Another public sector union leader who opposes the government, Juana Bustillo, was gunned down after she left a union meeting in September.

Bustos, who was awarded the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington D.C., told the gathering that the Honduras government, which is supported by leaders of a coup  that deposed president Manuel Zelaya in 2009, has engaged in systematic repression of its opponents since taking office.

Public Workers Not Overpaid

David Brooks joined Mort Zuckerman and a score of media pundits advancing the argument that public workers are paid too much and their pensions are too generous.

Dean Baker sets the record straight. According to Brooks, the average wage in the US is $22.67 and the average pay for public sector workers is higher, so public sector workers are overpaid.

Baker points out that by using the same logic, Brooks and other pundits are overpaid because they make more than the average.

Baker also cites a study published in May, The Wage Penalty for State and Local Employees by John Schmitt, showing that when pay for private and public sector workers with equal education and experience are compared, public sector workers make 4 percent less than their private sector counterparts. Women public sector workers make about 6 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector.

Steven Pearlman, another media pundit, thinks that all workers in the US have it too good and should be willing to take pay cuts to help get the country out of the recession.

Baker has a nice response to him as well.

French Strikes Continue

Workers at the Total refinery in Nantes voted yesterday to extend their strike against proposed pension cuts through Oct 18.

In Marseille where dock workers have been on strike for the last 18 days to protest the pension cuts and privatization of ports, a local business lobby took out a newspaper ad saying that dock workers shouldn’t be on strike because they have it too good. The ad says that the dock workers make 4,000 euros ($5,581) a month and only have to work 18 hours a week.

Dock workers responded by posting 250 pay slips on the walls of the lobby’s office. Union leaders said that maximum pay for dock workers is 2,000 euros ($2,790) a month and like all French workers their normal work week is 35 hours.

The dock workers strike has stalled the unloading of  oil tankers at the port, which in concert with the ongoing strike at most of France’s oil refineries, will soon cause gasoline shortages.

Rail workers nationally and public transportation workers in France continued their strike through Thursday; although, fewer rail and transport workers are staying off the job.

Another mass mobilization against the pension cuts are scheduled for Saturday, Oct 16.

Woman Teamster to Challenge Hoffa

This week Sandy Pope announced that she would run for national president of the Teamsters Union, a position currently held by James Hoffa. 

Pope, a former truck drive, warehouse worker, and union organizer, is currently president of Teamster local 805 in New York City.

In a press release announcing her candidacy, Pope said, “We need a Teamster General President who will put the power of our union to work for the members.”

Pope is supported by Teamsters for Democracy,a national, grassroots caucus of Teamsters fighting to make the Teamsters a rank-and-file centered union.

Pope sees the fight to improve the lives of working people going beyond bread and butter unionism that concentrates solely on bargaining with bosses.

“Wall Street drove our economy over the cliff, but working people are the ones paying the price—and, too often, unions are the ones getting the blame. We need to stand up to that, not cave in,” said Pope in her press release.

Read more about Pope here and here.