“Stop the Lies” aims to counter myth about public service workers

AFSCME, the largest union of state and local government workers in the US, recently launched a media campaign, called No More Lies, to challenge the popular myth that public service workers are overpaid and have overly generous benefits.

“We aim to remind the country that attacking public services and public service workers will not fix our broken economy, create jobs or solve the growing income disparity in America,” said Gerald McEntee, AFSCME’s president.

The myth of the overpaid public servant has become the main talking point for media pundits and others who relish the idea of slashing public services, especially those services aimed at the working class.

They often cite this misleading factoid to make the myth seem plausible–  “The average wage for public service workers,” they say.  “Is higher than the average wage of private sector workers.”

The problem with this factoid is that it is based on a faulty apple-to-oranges comparison that lumps together pay for all workers without regard for the type of work they do.

An accurate comparison would compare the wages and salaries received for similar types of work in the public and private sectors.

“In an apples-to-apples comparison state and local government employees receive less compensation than their private sector counterparts,” said Dr Keith A. Bender, co-author of Out of Balance? Comparing Public and Private Pay Over 20 Years.

Out of Balance? is the published results of a study done by Bender and Dr John S. Heywood for the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

In their study Bender and Heywood compared compensation for similar types of work and skills in the public and private sector. They found that

  • state workers make 11 percent less than their private sector cohorts; local government workers make 12 percent less and
  • even when benefits are factored in, state workers make 6.8 percent less than their private sector cohorts and local government workers make 7.4 percent less.

To put it another way, “public sector employees earn less than they would earn if they took their skills to the private sector,” said Bender.

The authors also compared compensation on a state-by-state basis, and report that in 2008, the last year for which data was available, Texas state public service workers were paid 15 percent less than their counterparts in the private sector. 

During the early 1980s, the pay of Texas state public service workers was comparable to pay in the private sector, but by 2001, Texas state workers were making 21 percent less than workers in the private sector.

Between 2000 and 2008, Texas state workers’ pay averaged 17 percent less than private sector workers.

For the most part, public service workers don’t resent the fact that their pay lags behind pay in the private sector because most chose public service for other reasons than pay.

“We work face-to-face with people and we’re not making a whole lot of money,” said Lashan Wiggins, a laid off child welfare worker in Illinois and AFSCME member. “We do it because we have a passion for what we do.”

What most public service workers do resent, however, is being used as scapegoats by those who want to justify slashing vital public services.

Columbia: The most dangerous place in the world for union members

Last May, Francisco Antonio Abello Rebollo was working on a palm oil plantation in the Magdalena province of Columbia when two armed men approached and shot him dead.

Abello was an activist member of SINTRAINAGRO, a union of farm workers who won union recognition last March at the plantation where Abello worked.

The union victory came after a contentious strike that began in December 2009 against the plantation owner, Inversiones Palo Alto Gnecco Espinosa and Company.

Abello was not the only trade unionist murdered in Columbia this year. As of September, 35 other Columbian trade unionist have been murdered. And this year is no anomaly. Since 1986, 2,729 Columbian unionist have been murdered. In 2009, more than half of all the world’s murders committed against trade unionists were committed in Columbia.

All of which leads the US Labor Education in the Americas Project  to call Columbia one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a trade unionist.

The Columbian government has been slow to prosecute these crimes and has even justified some of them by saying that slain unionist were connected to one of the insurgent groups fighting a guerilla war against the government.

However the government in 2006 signed an agreement with the International Labor Organization and the Canadian labor movement to set up special courts to prosecute murders of trade unionists.

Since then USLEAP has monitored the courts to determine whether they are doing their job. On December 22 of this year, USLEAP issued its third annual impunity report on the special courts entitled Columbia: Falling Further Behind in the Fight Against the Impunity of Anti-Union Violence.

As the report’s title suggests, the special courts have not done a good job of prosecuting perpetrators of anti-union violence. Only 4 percent of those who murdered trade unionists have been convicted since the special courts were set up.

When there are convictions, the courts rarely try to identify individuals or parties truly responsible for the crime.

USLEAP says that in many cases state security forces have had a hand in the murders. In 2006, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) was exposed for having a hit list that contained the names of 26 unionists. In 2009, DAS was discovered carrying out illegal surveillance and intelligence gathering against unions and other progressive organizations.

The Colombian government needs “to take a comprehensive and systematic approach to investigating and prosecuting violence against trade unionists rather than treating cases individually and unrelated,” said USLEAP at its website.

In the meantime, Abello’s murderers remain at large and no one has been charged with the crime.

International support helps hospital workers help patients

They were frustrated. They worked for a children’s hospital in the laundry room where most of the laundry machines didn’t work and hadn’t worked for eight days.

Dirty bed linens and hospital uniforms were piling up at Benjamin Bloom National Children’s Hospital in San Salvador, El Salvador. The workers told management about the problem, but nobody listened. And this wasn’t the first time that laundry machines had been out of commission.

 Keeping infectious germs at bay is challenging in the best equipped hospitals; it’s impossible when you’re working with faulty equipment.

The workers were well aware that their inability to keep linen and hospital uniforms clean was a health and safety threat to patients and other workers, so at a union meeting in late September, the workers talked about what action they could take to get management’s attention. “They wanted to push the administration to solve the problems (in the laundry room)” said Marielo Pleitez, Secretary General of the Workers’ Union at Bloom National Children’s Hospital (SITHBLOOM).

They decided to do the only thing that they knew would make management listen. On Thursday, September 29, the laundry workers didn’t report to work. “The unconstructive attitude of hospital management left us with no choice but to take action,” said Pleitez. 

The workers demanded that the machines be fixed before they would return to work. The hospital administration said that it didn’t have the resources to fix the machines.

On Friday, the National Civil Police came to the hospital and took up positions outside; the workers continued their peaceful protest.

On Saturday, the hospital administrators agreed to meet with SITHBLOOM leaders. Since Bloom Children’s Hospital is the only public health hospital for children in El Salvador, representatives of the national government were also present.

After hearing both sides of the argument, a government representative told the administrators that it was the hospital’s responsibility to keep the laundry machines in good repair.

The hospital administration agreed to make the repairs and promised that it wouldn’t take disciplinary action against the laundry workers or union leaders.

The next day, repairs were made to the broken laundry machines, and workers returned to work. But the hospital administration fired five members of the  union’s executive board including Pleitez, a pediatric nurse.

Soon after the firings the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) contacted unions and other progressive organizations in the US and Canada asking them to send letters condemning the firings and demanding the reinstatement of the fired workers.

Hospital management was inundated with letters of support for the fired workers and in December rescinded the firings.  

“We are thankful for the support we received from (CISPES and those who wrote letters),” said Pleitez. “And as the people of El Salvador, as the working class that we are, . . . (for the help we) are sure we will continue to receive from you.”

Titan Tire Update

Titan Tire on Friday declared negotiations with the United Steelworkers at an impasse. As a result, the company was able to impose its final contract offer on the workers. After declaring an impasse, Titan lifted its lock out, which had been in effect for some of its workers since December 17. 

Titan had locked out workers at its three tire plants in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois after it broke off negotiations with the Steelworkers on a new contract.

Last week Titan workers at the Bryan, Ohio and Freeport, Illinois plant voted to reject the offer, but workers at the Des Moines plant voted to accept it.

The new contract reduces the workers’ healthcare benefit, freezes pay, and imposes new work rules that include forced overtime.

Workers at the Des Moines plant returned to work, but those at the Freeport and Bryan plant stayed out after rejecting the contract.

On Monday, workers at the Bryan and Freeport plant returned to work. The Steelworkers are trying to decide what their next step will be. They could appeal Titan’s decision to the National Labor Relations Board.

Titan Tire lock out update

After being locked out of work by Titan Tire for nearly a week, members of the United Steelworkers at Titan plants in Freeport, Illinois and Bryan, Ohio on December 23 rejected the company’s last and final contract offer. But workers at Titan’s Des Moines plant voted to accept the new contract

A worker at the Freeport plant who rejected the offer said that the new contract cuts healthcare benefits, requires 12-hour work days with forced overtime, and fewer vacation days. The contract also freezes wages.

A worker at the Bryan, Ohio plant who rejected the contract said, “I think the big sticking point was the forced overtime … without prior notice. That’s what really stuck with me.”

Privatization the cause of airport misery?

You probably saw the images on TV or the internet. Thousands of stranded and miserable passengers at London’s Heathrow Airport sprawled on floors or queuing up in lines at ticket counters as they waited for information about canceled flights after the airport was virtually shut down between December 18 and December 21.

Some passengers were stranded for days and forced to sleep on concrete floors as they waited for their planes to depart. “It was pretty ridiculous, really,” Adam Courtney of Nottingham told the Irish Times. “I have never seen anything like this before. These are the kind of things that you see or hear about in the Third World.”

Some media reports blamed the shut down and ensuing misery on bad weather and poor planning by the airport operator.

No doubt, some people took these reports as further evidence that government can’t do anything right. After all, most airports in the world, including the US, are government operations in some form or another.

But not Heathrow. It is operated by a private company, BAA, which is owned by a Spanish construction company, Ferrovial. Furthermore, the shut down may have been the result of willful neglect rather than poor planning and bad weather.

On Saturday night, December 18, temperatures dropped below freezing and four inches of snow fell on Heathrow, filled to near capacity with airplanes waiting to depart.

“What is incredible is that 10 cm (4 inches) of snow closed down the airport for two days and then it operated at one-third capacity,” said Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, CEO of BMI airlines.

As the airport operator, BAA is responsible for de-icing the planes’ parking slots, or parking stands as they are known, and clearing snow from runways. As BAA crews began de-icing the parking stands, it became clear that it didn’t have enough workers to do the de-icing in a timely way. BAA also struggled to keep the runways clear of snow and ice.

Airlines, whose flights were unable to depart because their parking stands were not de-iced, began cancelling flights, leaving more and more stranded.

Frustrated at BAA’s inability to de-ice the parking stands, some airlines, whose crews are responsible for de-icing the planes themselves, offered to help BAA de-ice the parking stands.

BAA refused their help which led some airline officials to believe that in addition to a worker shortage, BAA had not kept sufficient supplies of de-icing fluid on hand.

The British Army also offered to help BAA clear the runways. BAA declined, resulting in further speculation that BAA lacked the equipment to do the job.

BAA countered that it had sufficient de-icing fluid and equipment, but the London Telegraph reported that BAA had only ten snow ploughs, compared to 14 at the much smaller Gatwick airport, and seven de-icing machines.

The lack of maintenance investment, according to Alex Brummer of the Daily Mail, was the result of BAA’s high debt load. When Ferrovial acquired BAA in 2006, it borrowed about 10 billion pounds to do so. Since then, BAA’s debt has increased to more than 12 billion pounds.

Brummer says that money that should have been used to purchase equipment and supplies to keep Heathrow open was used instead to service and restructure debt.

After acquiring BAA in 2006, Ferrovial, which will record a profit of 972 million pounds from Heathrow operations this year, insisted that as much terminal space as possible be devoted to retail shops. As a result, seats in the terminal waiting areas were torn out and replaced with high-priced boutiques, bars, and restaurants, which is why so many passengers ended up sprawled on crowded, concrete floors.

Most airports in the United Kingdom are privately operated. Airport privatization began after Parliament passed the 1986 Airport Act. When the act was being debated in Parliament, the Earl of Caithness told the House of Lords that privatizing airport operations would liberate airport management from government control and “enable airport operators to respond to the needs of their customers.”

Tire company locks out workers in Midwest

Titan Tires locked out 1,000 of its union employees late last week at its factories in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois in hopes of forcing workers to accept concessions in a new contract that the company is negotiating with the United Steelworkers.

“The company’s proposal falls short of what we would like to see,” said Jim Robinson, the union’s chief negotiator. Robinson called Titan’s actions “premature” and said that the union was willing to continue negotiations past the December 17 expiration date of the contract while union members continued to work. 

Titan, which manufactures tires for off-road vehicles like farm and construction equipment, will not publicly say what concessions it wants, and union negotiators have not made any public statements.

But members think that the company wants to cut its healthcare benefit and wages.

“There’s no give and take; it’s all take (by the company),” said Spencer Toepfer a Titan worker and union member at Titan’s Freeport, Illinois plant. “Everybody is saying that it’s not a good deal.”

Titan management says that it needs the concessions to return to profitability. Last year Titan lost $24.6 million, but in 2008 it recorded $13.3 million in net income.

Despite its losses in 2009, Titan paid stockholders a dividend of $0.20 per share, $0.02 more per share than it paid in 2008.

Its financial situation is also strong. It has nearly $1 billion in working capital and current assets and about $366 million in long-term debt.

Titan thought well enough of its economic future to pay $130 million to Goodyear for the purchase of its European and Latin American farm tire factories only three days before locking out its workers.

Negotiations with Titan began in September. In November when the contract was to expire, both sides agreed to extend the negotiations for another month. It was at the end of the extension period that Titan decided to hand the union a take it or leave it ultimatum.

The union said that it would take Titan’s last offer to members, explain it to them, and let them vote on it. A vote on the contract is scheduled for December 23.

Mexican and US unions plan for unity

Unity was their focus when leaders of two unions on either side of the Mexico-US border met earlier this month in Vancouver, Canada. 

A joint committee set up last June by the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel, and Allied Workers of the Mexican Republic and the United Steelworkers convened on December 10 to plan strategic cooperation and to take steps toward creating a unified organization.

We “share common ideals and a common vision,” read a statement issued last summer by presidents of the two unions when the joint committee was established.

That common vision includes a belief that trade union rights are a prerequisite for democracy, that the organized power of workers is necessary to “check the avarice of corporations and political elites,” and that “only through solidarity of organized workers around the world can we build a better future.”

The two unions have been in a strategic alliance since 2005 when they agreed to work together because workers on both sides of the border were hit hard by the movement of capital across borders.

US workers were forced to give up good-paying jobs because employers wanted to outsource their jobs to boost profits. Mexican workers were forced to accept low-paying jobs because the Mexican government wanted to keep wages low to attract foreign investment.

Despite working under difficult conditions, Los Mineros as the Mexican union is known has successfully fought to improve workers’ wages and living conditions.

In November it negotiated five contracts that boosted worker pay by 8 percent. At one of the companies, the Canadian-owned Gold Corporation, the union also won benefit increases of 2 percent.

These successes, which run counter to the Mexican government’s low-wage strategy, have led the government and businesses to attack the union.

Last September, Los Mineros strikers at a copper mine in Cananea were assaulted by 300 strike opponents, who the union described as plain clothes police and scabs, wielding clubs and other weapons.

The strikers, who had been on strike since 2007, were forced to retreat to their union office. The next day, federal and state police raided the office and without warrants arrested 30 union members.

The Cananea mine is owned by Grupo Mexico, which also owns ASARCO, the company whose now-shut smelter in El Paso  polluted the air and ground near the smelter sickening workers and nearby residents. 

Los Mineros’ president Napoleon Gomez has been forced into exile by the Mexican government, which accused him and three other union leaders of embezzlement. An independent auditor and Mexican courts exonerated Gomez and the other union leaders.

But Gomez remains in exile in Vancouver where he continues to lead Los Mineros. Since the false accusations, Gomez has been re-elected overwhelmingly by members of Los Mineros.

UE wins favorable contracts

These days, many contract negotiations result in unions making major concessions. But last week, the United Electrical Workers (UE) announced that it had reached favorable agreements with three manufacturing employers.

Mobilization of rank and file members was key to the success at two of the companies, and at the third, workers succeeded in improving their defined benefit pension plan.

“For the economic times that we’re in, we did pretty well,” said Bryan Martindale, president of UE Local 1421, which successfully negotiated a contract earlier in December with the Stepan Company, a chemicals manufacturer in Anaheim, California.

Stepan agreed to a three-year contract that includes a 3 percent pay increase each year of the contract. Workers also won increases to the extra pay they get for working night shifts and higher meal and safety equipment allowances.

Their out-of-pocket healthcare expenses increased some but not enough to offset their pay increases.

The local knew that bargaining with the company would be difficult, so before negotiations began members throughout the plant mobilized to demonstrate their solidarity and determination.

They wore stickers to work expressing their determination to win a fair contract with no take aways, signed and delivered petitions expressing their determination for a fair contract to the company’s human resources department, and wore union t-shirts to work.

Like many companies, Stepan recorded record profits this year, which made negotiations less difficult, but that was not the case at Tree Island Wire of Pomona, California.

Workers at the Tree Island Pomona plant also belong to Local 1421. Tree Island manufactures building materials for the housing construction industry, which has been in a major three-year slump.

Management wanted to increase employee contributions to the healthcare benefit from $22 a month to as much as $350 a month.

The union made some concessions to the company’s healthcare demands, but offset higher worker healthcare costs by negotiating pay raises.

An across-the-board, cost-of-living raise will not become effective until the third year of the contract, but the union negotiated new wage groups and new corresponding pay rates.

Workers below the new pay rates, about 75 percent of the workforce, will get raises of up to $1 per hour more, and $0.50 per hour more each year until they reach the new pay rate. Workers already at the new pay rate will either receive an extra $1,000 per year or a signing bonus of $1,000.

Workers will also receive more money to purchase safety equipment, and the company will pay for work uniforms.

Tree Island workers, like their brothers and sisters at Stepan, mobilized before negotiations began by wearing stickers and t-shirts and signing and delivering petitions.

Local 1421 members at Stepan and another company in the area signed and delivered petitions in support of Tree Island workers.

On the East Coast, workers at Holyoke Machine in Holyoke, Massachusetts won major improvements to their pension plan.

The main goal of members of UE 264 was to protect and improve their defined benefit pension plan. Defined benefit plans, which are almost extinct in the private sector, guarantee a lifetime pension benefit based on earnings and years of service.

Local 264 workers managed to increase the pension multiplier, which determines the pension amount, from $22 a year to $25 a year.

The company told the workers that based on an actuarial study it commissioned such an increase was impossible.

The local had done its own calculations and didn’t believe the company’s story. When they had a chance to review the company’s actuarial study, they found flaws in the assumptions that the actuary used.

The local also managed to maintain workers’ current healthcare benefit.

UE prides itself on being a rank-and-file led union, and rank-and-file members at all three bargaining units played key roles in negotiating the contract and mobilizing members to demonstrate solidarity.

State workers join coalition to save state services

Working for the State of Texas can be frustrating. Demand for services is always heavy; resources for providing them are always thin.

That frustration level will increase dramatically if Texas’ leaders succeed in closing the state’s $21 billion budget shortfall through budget cuts.  

The looming cuts to state services are one reason that the Texas State Employees Union, a statewide local of the Communication Workers of America, joined Texas Forward, a coalition that advocates for a balanced state budget that adequately funds public services.

“TSEU has always believed that it’s not enough for public service unions to focus solely on wages and benefits; we have to ally with our clients and fight for better services,” said Mimi Garcia, the union’s research and communications director. “Joining Texas Forward formalizes this attitude and takes it to a higher level.”

Nearly 40 organizations  belong to Texas Forward including other labor organizations. SEIU Local 5 of San Antonio, the Texas Federation of Teachers, and the Texas State Teachers Association are also members.

Other organizational members include religious groups, disability advocates, charities, civil rights groups,  healthcare organizations, and other groups concerned about the impact that reducing state services will have.

If enacted, the cuts will cause Texas’ threadbare social services network to become even more porous, threatening services and benefits for people like:

Richard, a 90 years old man who worked hard and saved all his life but because his savings were depleted by a long illness finds himself on Medicaid in a nursing home,

And Sarah a young woman who has been looking for work nearly a year since being laid off last year and barely manages to get by now on her unemployment benefits,

And Miguel, an ironworker who hasn’t worked since being injured on the job and relies on food stamps to feed his family until he returns to work.

Budget cuts will also mean more crowded classes in Texas public schools, which will make learning more difficult, and less financial aid for working-class students who want to go to college. 

Texas Forward has a three-point agenda for maintaining Texas’ vital services: 1) Use the state’s $9 billion reserve known as the Rainy Day Fund, 2) Maximize the use of federal funding, and 3) Create new sources of revenue that are equitable and can grow along with the growth in the need for public services. 

Garcia says that TSEU, which represents a wide spectrum of state agency employees including university staff, can make an important contribution to Texas Forward and the effort to maintain state services.

“State employees deal most directly with the people who will be affected most by these cuts,” Garcia said. “We know first hand what these cuts will do to the people we serve.

“And because our members work in so many agencies and universities, we can provide a broad perspective on the impact of these cuts. We also have 12,000 members who will fight like hell to prevent further reductions to the services they provide.”

Fire kills garment workers; workers protest low wages

Fire swept through a Bangladesh garment factory Wednesday killing at least 29 workers and injuring dozens of others. Three days earlier, three workers were killed as thousands of angry garment workers enraged by their low pay shut down 300 garment factories in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Export Process Zone .

Most of the clothes made at Bangladesh’s factories are inexpensive clothes made for the value market in Europe and North America. “The working conditions and wages of workers in the (Bangladesh garment) industry are causes for serious concern,” said Shammunul Islam,a professor of Development Studies at The University of Dhaka.

Bangladesh garment workers are the lowest paid garment workers in the world. Their minimum wage was supposed to have risen to about $40 a month in November, but many manufacturers are still paying the old minimum wage of $24 a month.

Bangladesh garment workers also work in easily combustible buildings with little safety equipment to protect workers against fires like the one that broke out Wednesday near Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital

The fire engulfed the ninth and tenth floors of a garment factory  owned by the Hameem group, one the country’s largest garment manufacturers. Some of those who died leapt ten floors from the burning building to escape the flames. Those trapped inside died of asphyxiation.

Workers who escaped the fire say that some gates where workers could have left the building safely were locked; although, management says otherwise.

Clothes made at the Dhaka factory are sold under the brand That’s It. The factory produces garments for international buyers like Gap and Wrangler VF, and Hameem also sells clothes to Walmart, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Sears, and Target in the US. 

Last February another fire at a Hameem-owned factory killed 21 workers. Between 2006 and 2009, 213 garment factory fires have killed 414 workers.

Workers keep dying while the brands, the government, and the employers drag their feet and try to shift the responsibility upon each other,” said Ineke Zeldenrust from the Clean Clothes Campaign, a European solidarity group.

After the February fire, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Maquila Solidarity Network in the US contacted buyers of the Hameem clothing line and urged them to demand safer conditions for the garment workers. None took any significant action.

“We’ve warned the brands repeatedly that this would keep happening again and again, but they’ve chosen to respond only in a minimal fashion,” said Zeldenrust.

On the Sunday before the fire at least 4,000 garment workers at the Chittagong Export Process Zone, home to about 70 foreign companies took to the streets to demand higher wages.

Workers said that some companies were not paying the new minimum wage of $40 per month established in November; those that were paying the minimum did not give raises to workers making more than the minimum. Other workers complained that the new minimum wage wasn’t enough to keep up with recent increases in food prices.

Angry workers attacked factories and overturned vehicles. Police responded by firing teargas and rubber bullets. In addition to the three who died, more than 250 workers were injured.

Most Bangladesh garment workers do not belong to unions; although some belong to management sponsored employee associations.

“The associations in place currently are mostly working for the factory owners and those who are actually trying to help the workers’ cause are being persecuted,” said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.

The Garment Workers Unity Forum is trying to organize garment workers. Its leader, Moshrefa Mishu, was arrested on December 14 without charges.

About 80 percent of the Bangladesh garment workers are women, and while their wages are meager, the revenue generated by their work is not.

Between 2008 and 2009, Bangladesh’s garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports and 14 percent of its GDP, reported $12.7 billion in revenue.

Pope vs Hoffa for Teamster General President

It’s official. Sandy Pope will challenge James Hoffa, Jr. for the leadership of the Teamsters Union.

“I want to thank every Teamster who worked on and supported the petition drive. Together, we are making Teamster history,” Pope said. If elected, Pope would become the first female president of the Teamsters, the nation’s largest union with 1.3 million members.

Pope had to gather nearly 34,000 signatures on a ballot petition in order to enter the race for union General President. She and her supporters gathered more than 50,000 and turned them into the union’s election commission yesterday.

“It was a tremendous group effort,” said Pope. “Members got up early before their shifts, canvassed co-workers, took time off–all because you believe in our union and know that our campaign to rebuild Teamster power can succeed.”

Pope is president of Teamster Local 805 in New York. Her local represents a wide range of workers including warehouse and janitorial staff.

Pope’s local recently won a contract battle with HLA, a Long Island convenience store supplier, that preserved worker healthcare and pension benefits.

Local 805 also organizes non-union workers. It has an ongoing campaign to organize workers at Fresh Direct, an online grocery that relies heavily on a low-paid immigrants to staff its warehouses.

Pope, a leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a union reform movement, said that the union leadership “has abandoned members and local unions to deal with the economic crisis on our own.”

“Tough economic times require tough leadership,” Pope said. “Wall Street drove our economy off 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.”

Deferred maintenance causes worker injuries, worsens pollution

Gregory Starkey, Jr. died on the job. Seabell Thomas endured 12 days of an environmental disaster that left her and her neighbors breathing air polluted with tons of sulphur dioxide.

Both were victims of accidents at Louisiana oil refineries. According to a new report entitled Common Ground IImost of the 500 accidents that occur annually at Louisiana’s 17 refineries could be prevented with proper maintenance, but too often refinery companies defer maintenance sacrificing safety for the sake of profits. 

“Many refining accidents are preventable,” said United Steelworkers vice-president Gary Brown, whose union represents many of the workers at these refineries. “It takes adequate maintenance (and) heeding warning signs.”

The report produced by three Louisiana grassroots environmental groups and the United Steelworkers, says that Starkey’s death was the result of a preventable accident.

Starkey was a contract worker at ExxonMobil-owned Chalmette Refining. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommended that the company repair its piping because it was a safety hazard, but the company chose to defer maintenance.

On October 6, sour gas started leaking from the piping, and Starkey died while trying to fix it.

According to Common Ground II, Chalmette Refining, had nearly 600 reported accidents between 2005 and 2009, about 22 percent of the 2,607 reported accidents at Louisiana refineries during this time.

Bad weather is one of the biggest causes of refinery accidents. Many of these bad weather accidents could be prevented with the proper precautions and maintenance.

In 2008, Hurricane Gustav blew through Louisiana. ExxonMobil improperly shut down its Baton Rouge refinery, and as a result, high winds knocked over the cooling tower, spewing 599,112 pounds of pollutants into the air, including sulfur dioxide, which causes respiratory illnesses.

For 12 days, “we had to sit outside all day and all night (because the storm knocked out electricity) breathing some of the worst pollution I ever experienced,” said Seabell Thomas, leader of Community Empowerment for Change, which helped write the report.

The bulk of the environmental damage done by these accidents is done to communities whose residents are primarily African-American. Of the 257,200 Louisiana residents who live within a two-mile radius of refineries, 122,900, or 48 percent, are African-American.

“I’ve lived in this community for 30 years and love it,” said Velma White, president of Residents for Air Naturalization, another of the reports sponsors.  “But because of the hardships we’ve experienced every day living near Calumet Lubricants (in Shreveport), you never know what to expect. Will it be a clear day or a day of repeated emissions?” White’s community is 85 percent African-American.

Common Ground II, which advocates among other things hiring more refinery workers to perform plant maintenance, is the second in a series of reports about the environmental impact of Louisiana’s oil refineries. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade has been leading source of information for these reports and is a co-author of the reports.

The Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization, whose purpose “is to assist fenceline neighbors in their campaign to make industry accountable for its pollution.”

Smelter workers want answers, not cover up

Patrick Garza is ill, and he wants to know why. Garza, who worked as a pipefitter at the ASARCO copper smelter in El Paso, has multiple sclerosis, which he thinks may have been caused by the toxic material processed at the smelter.

He’s not alone. Other former smelter workers think that their health problems may be related to toxic material at the plant. They would like to commission an independent health study to determine if their concerns are warranted.

The problem is they can’t afford to pay for a study, and even if they could, ASARCO won’t release any information about the toxic materials processed there.

The answers that the workers are looking for, however, may be buried under the ground at the smelter, which closed in 1999.

At a press conference last week, about a dozen former ASARCO workers and their supporters said that they knew of unlined pits on the smelter grounds where toxic materials were dumped and buried.

They also said that a clean up of the site going on now is being done too hastily and that if the dumps are not discovered it could be present a future health risk.

“The smelter incinerated military hazardous waste and there were decades of burials that were unregulated and remain on site,” said Verónica Carbajal, a Texas RioGrande Legal Aid attorney  representing the workers. 

Carbajal said that there are plans to redevelop the smelter as a residential area. “Schools, homes, and businesses will be built on the site,” Carbajal said. And the people who live and work there will not know about the poison below them. 

The smelter, which closed in 1999, also had a record of spewing toxic pollutants, including cadmium, lead, and arsenic, into the air.

A state and federal study found that students at a nearby elementary had a higher than normal incidence of multiple sclerosis.

After the closure, ASARCO was purchased by Grupo Mexico, which tried to restart the smelter in the mid-2000s. Community opposition delayed the start, and eventually, ASARCO filed for bankruptcy.

While the company was in bankruptcy, it agreed to close the smelter for good and pay for a clean up of the site. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hired a private contractor to manage the clean up, but ASARCO workers and people in the community are concerned that clean up is little more than a cover up of the pollution left behind by ASARCO.

 “Having spoken with dozens of former ASARCO-El Paso workers, we know of five unlined dumpsites that ASARCO used to get rid of contaminants for many years,” said Carlos Rodriguez, a former ASARCO worker. “The authorities do not know about most of these sites.  If one of the sites is going to be used for future residences, as the plans suggest, more sampling has to be done and more contaminants have to be tested. ”

Supporters of the ASARCO workers have urged the US Environmental Protection Agency to take over the clean up.

“The cheap and dirty cleanup that is starting at the ASARCO site should be halted,” said Lois Marie Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. “The (state)  authorities are ignoring evidence of buried waste and pollution.  Another environmental injustice is about to be perpetrated on the El Paso community.”

Misclassification makes life hard for drivers

“I work day and night; sometimes 90 hours a week,” said Daniel Ortiz, a short-haul truck driver at the Port of Newark. “I don’t have time to rest; I don’t have time to be with my family.”

Oritz is one of 110,000 short-haul drivers in the US who transfer goods between the nation’s ports and nearby warehouses. Life is hard for these drivers, especially those like Ortiz who are misclassified as independent contractors by companies who pay their salaries. 

As independent contractors, drivers are responsible for maintaining their own trucks, purchasing insurance, and making lease or loan payments on the trucks they operate. What’s left over after all these expenses is what they take home to their families, on average about $28,000 a year.

Their jobs also have no benefits. “I don’t have retirement, health insurance, Social Security, or Workers Compensation,” Ortiz said. “If anything happens to me, me and my family are the ones who suffer.”

A report entitled The Big Rig: Poverty, Pollution, and the Misclassification of Truck Drivers at America’s Ports released  Wednesday by the National Employment Law Project found that 82 percent of  short-haul drivers at the nations’ ports are classified as independent contractors.

The report also says that the drivers sign contracts that prohibit them from working for others, have no say in the work assigned them by the company, can be fired or fined by their company, are evaluated by their company, and have regular pay days–in short, they are employees in everything but name.

The contractor business model is the norm for the short-haul industry and has been since the trucking industry was deregulated 30 years ago.

After deregulation, thousands of small trucking companies sprang up and competed ferociously for business from the corporate giants who use their services. 

Major cargo shipping companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot demand rock bottom prices,” says the report. And “misclassification can save businesses as much as 30 percent of their payroll costs.”

Companies not only shift the expense of upkeep to their drivers by misclassifying them as contractors, they also avoid paying taxes on Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workers compensation.

The US Treasury estimates that misclassification costs the country about $15 billion in unpaid Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.

The  misclassification of workers also contributes to the abnormally high air pollution common to most ports and nearby communities. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 87 million people live in port regions with poor air quality.

“Coast to coast, the industry forces the cost of truck operation and maintenance onto the workers behind the wheel, and as a result, old, diesel-spewing rigs fill U.S. transportation corridors because that’s all these low-wage earners can afford,” said Carl Pope, the Chairman of the Sierra Club.

Classifying the drivers as independent contractors also makes it more difficult for drivers to form unions.

Misclassification of employees as independent contractors continues to be one of the most potent tactics used to erode workers’ rights,” said Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Higher education deficit bigger threat than budget deficit

Texas has a deficit problem that threatens its economic future, but it’s not the budget deficit; it’s the state’s higher education deficit.

Nearly 50 percent of the state’s new jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree, but only 30 percent of the state’s 25-34 year olds have an associate’s degree or better.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board says that unless the higher education deficit is closed, Texas will experience an economic decline.

The state’s leading demographer Dr. Steve Murdock agrees. If Texas fails to increase its higher education participation and graduation rates, especially for minority students, the state “poverty rate. . .  will increase by 3 percent and the average household income will decline by $3,000 in constant dollars by 2030,” Murdock said.

But state leaders don’t seem to share this concern; they’ve mandated huge budget cuts that will drastically lower the state’s contribution to higher education over the next three years.

If enacted, the cuts will jeopardize student financial aid, swell class sizes, and reduce the availability of courses.

“They’ll be devastating,” said Mike Gross, vice-president of the Texas State Employees Union, which represents higher education workers. “Bigger class sizes, fewer student support services, and less financial aid will mean that fewer working-class Texans will be able to get a higher education.

“And the budget cuts will lead to higher tuition, which will make higher education even more unaffordable for working class students.”

The University of Texas at Austin has already begun to feel the impact of budget cuts that became effective this year. In addition to staff layoffs and pay freezes, the university slashed funding for racial, ethnic, and gender studies.

African-American studies and Mexican-American studies were cut by 41 percent, which calls into question UT’s commitment to improve participation and graduation rates for African-American and Mexican-American students.

But the pain has just begun. Texas Governor Rick Perry is seeking a 10 percent cut for the next two-year budget cycle on top of the 7.5 percent cuts implemented this year.

“These cuts will harm our universities’ ability to carry out their core mission,” Gross said.

 The cuts will come from state General Revenue, the money that the state appropriates to its public higher education institutions. While General Revenue accounts for only 16 percent of UT’s overall funding, it accounts for 30 percent of the funding for instruction and other core academic functions.

If the new cuts are enacted, more faculty and staff layoffs are inevitable and student financial aid, which until now has been spared, could be reduced by as much as $106 million statewide.

At a recent press conference higher education officials and business representatives said that colleges and universities had to do more with less and that the state should “incentivize” state funding.

Raymund Paredes, executive director of Higher Education Coordinating Board said that the agency wants to reinvent higher education and make it more cost efficient.

We heard the same business buzzwords in 2003 the last time the state was facing a similar budget crisis. Budget cutters said they wanted to reinvent the way the state provided its health and human services, make them more cost efficient, and make them customer driven. 

Seven years after reinventing its health and human services, Texas has been fined by the federal government for its poor delivery of food stamps, sued by the Justice Department for neglect and poor health care at its facilities for the mentally disabled, and seen an increase in the number of its residents living in poverty and going without health insurance.

Unions organize precarious workers

What does a sugar cane workers’ union in Iran have in common with an auto workers’ union in South Korea? They’re both  organizing temporary workers, also known as precarious workers, a growing segment of the worldwide workforce.

Precarious workers often work side-by-side with permanent workers, do much of the same work, but are paid much less and have few if any benefits.

The Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Workers union was formed in 2008 after a 42-day strike that began when 5000 workers at Iran’s only sugar processing plant walked off the job to protest the non-payment of wages. Three thousand of the strikers were precarious workers.

The union has yet to be recognized by the government, which owns the plant, but has continued to fight for both permanent and precarious workers.

By the summer of 2009 and at the insistence of the union, some precarious workers were made permanent workers. When the company threatened to layoff its new permanent workers, the union fought successfully to keep them employed.

As reported earlier this week, a number of the union’s leaders have been jailed and last week Reza Rackshan, another leader, was sentenced to six months in jail.

In Korea 500 precarious workers, members of the Korean Federation of Trade Unions at the Hyundai plant in Ulsan, began a sit-in strike in November, seizing control of three assembly lines at the plant. They are still in control of one line.

The strikers took their action for two reasons: Hyundai has ignored a recent Supreme Court decision that requires companies to upgrade precarious workers to permanent status after they have worked for the company for two years. And Hyundai hired a new subcontractor that didn’t recognize the precarious workers’ union. Hyundai is seeking an arrest warrant for the strikers’ leaders.

The Korean Metal Workers Union, which represents permanent workers at the plant and the union representing the precarious workers have formed a negotiating committee.

The demands of the negotiating committee include employment security for precarious workers, protection for leaders of the strike, and ways to address issues of precarious workers through negotiations.

New US/South Korea trade pact much the same as the old one

Over the weekend, President Obama announced that the US and South Korea had agreed to changes in a free-trade agreement that he thought would lead to quick approval by legislative bodies in the US and South Korea.

The United Auto Workers said that, “these changes represent an important opportunity to break open the Korean market for U.S. businesses and workers and boost American manufacturing jobs, particularly in the automotive sector.”

But Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio was less optimistic. “I continue to believe it is a dangerous mistake to pursue the same kind of trade deals that ballooned our deficit and led to massive job loss.” Brown said in a press statement. “We simply cannot keep barking up this tree as American companies fold and American workers face prolonged unemployment.”

Crystal Setzer of Chamber Watch told the Huffington Post that as many as 150,000 US workers could lose their jobs as a result of the agreement.

The revised South Korean Free Trade Agreement requires South Korea to lower its tariffs on US autos from 8 percent to 4 percent. It also allows US auto tariffs on South Korean vehicles to remain at 2.5 percent until the fifth year of agreement. 

The revised pact will, according to the administration, create 70,000 jobs in the US and lead to as much as $11 billion in new business for US companies.

The original agreement was negotiated in 2007 by the Bush Administration, but languished in the US Senate because of opposition from labor unions, environmental groups, and consumer groups.

Despite some revisions, much of the original pact remains intact. In an analysis of the original agreement, the AFL-CIO said that it restricts the ability of governments to regulate financial services and investments, limits  the ability of state, federal, and local governments to take into account non-economic factors like the number of local workers to be hired when awarding contracts, and provides excessive patent protections that will drive up the cost of prescription medicine and make it difficult to control healthcare costs.

The anti-dumping provisions in the original agreement aren’t strong enough, said the report. The agreement still allows countries like China and Korea to dump products that they can’t sell at home on US markets, which leads to job losses in the US.

For example, South Korea will be able to export steel made in China and galvanized in the Korea without facing any of the US restrictions now faced by Chinese steel. 

The AFL-CIO report also said that Korean companies hire millions of temporary workers, who work alongside permanent workers but for substantially less pay and no benefits, and under current law are not permitted to join unions. 

The Korean government also uses the penal system to punish workers who organize unions and go on strike. 

Jane Hamsher at Firedog Lake reports that the UAW, so far is the only union to support the revised pact. The United Steel Workers have not said whether they will support it. At a private meeting over the weekend, other unions like the International Association of Machinists expressed their disapproval of the agreement, but none have stated their opposition publicly.

Iranian union leader jailed as government continues crackdown

Reza Rakshan, leader of an indepent union of sugar cane workers’union in Iran, was recently sentenced to jail  for publishing an article about the union and its struggle for justice at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company in southern Iran.

The union was organized in 2008 after 5,000 workers at the only sugar cane processing plant in Iran put down their tools and left the building to demand that they be paid three months of back pay.

Since then the government has harassed workers and jailed five other leaders of the union.

While the government has refused to recognize the union, Rashkan said in the article responsible for his arrest that sugar cane workers have won victories. “The condition of workers and that of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company are in much better shape than before,” Rashkam said. “(And), so far, (there have been) no arrears or wage delays.”

The crackdown on the sugar cane workers comes at a time when the Iranian government is in the process of eliminating food and fuel subsidies for Iranians, a measure that will substantially reduce the standard of living for Iran’s working class.

The government is also in the midst of privatizing much of its assets like the Haft Tapeh Sugar Company.

Unions have opposed the government’s privatization plans and the elimination of subsidies, which is one reason for the harsh crack down.

According to one Iranian expatriate “there are thousands of small and large labor action” taking place across the country.

The government is concerned that an independent labor movement that grows out of these actions could become an effective opponent to its plans to privatize its assets and eliminate subsidies.

“They know the labor movement cannot accept [subsidy cuts] because prices will go through the roof, but their wages are the same,” said  Mehdi Kouhestaninejad, another Iranian expatriate who worked as a meat cutter in Iran. “They attack people before they can get organized around this.”