IAM sues South Carolina governor for siding with business against unions

The International Association of Machinists (IAM) has filed suit against South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for taking sides against the union in its attempt to organize workers at a Boeing airplane plant in North Charleston. The suit contends that Gov. Haley is violating US labor laws and the Constitution by siding with Boeing.

“Gov Haley placed her hand on a bible and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States,” said IAM Southern Territory Vice-President Bob Martinez. “but her stated intention is to actively oppose workers in South Carolina who wish to exercise their legal right to join a union.”

Shortly after taking office, Haley appointed Catherine Templeton to be Director of the Department of Labor, License, and Regulation (LLR), which oversees workforce development and other labor related state functions. Templeton, who was named as a co-defendant in IAM’s suit, previously worked as a union avoidance specialist for a Charleston law firm.

At a press conference announcing Templeton’s appointment, Haley told reporters she appointed Templeton because, “We’re going to fight the unions, and I need a partner to do it.” Haley also told reporters that she expects “a big union fight” at Boeing.

Boeing has been trying to weaken the power of its workers at its unionized plants because they have successfully resisted company efforts to cut benefits and make their jobs less secure.  In 2008, IAM members staged a 58-day strike against Boeing  that thwarted company attempts to raise worker health care cost, take away their defined benefit pension, and outsource more work. 

“This is not a case where the union caved, even in these times with the type of job market and nation pressure,” labor expert Phillip Dines told MSNBC in 2008. “This strike showed that labor can still hold its own.”

Since then, Boeing has taken steps to weaken workers’ power. In 2009, it purchasedthe former Vought aerospace manufacturing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. Shortly after the purchase, workers at the plant voted to decertify IAM as their representative.

After the union was decertified, Boeing announced that it would add a production line at the plant to build its new 787 Dreamliner, which was already being produced at a Boeing’s unionized plant in Everett, Washington.

The company said that the new North Charleston plant would be a parallel operation to the one in Washington. Both would manufacture the 787 and both would have their own supply chain. The plant in South Carolina would continue to produce even if workers in Washington go on strike when their contract expires in 2012.

Last March, IAM District 751, which represents Boeing workers in Washington and California, filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Boeing, charging that Boeing’s decision to set up a parallel operation in South Carolina was done to retaliate against the union for going on strike in 2008. 

Meanwhile, Boeing recently told its non-union employees that they would have to pay more for their health care coverage. However, the company did not impose these new cuts on workers at its South Carolina plant.  

IAM District 751 President Tom Wroblewski in a letter to District 751 members, said that Boeing’s motives in exempting South Carolina workers from health care cuts is transparent

“Obviously, the only reason that Boeing is not raising (South Carolina) workers’ health insurance costs today is because the company is afraid of this union, and how easy it would be for us to re-organize the Charleston facilities if they imposed this increase there. So be it. I’d just remind our Carolina colleagues that without a union contract, their pay and benefits are at the mercy of Chicago (Boeing’s headquarters), and subject to change whenever the company needs to spruce up its quarterly earnings report.”

US labor leader arrested in Mexico under suspicious circumstances

Mexican police on Monday arrested a leader of the United Steelworkers (USW), who was crossing the border to meet with lawyers of the militant and independent National Union of Mine and Metalworkers (Los Mineros).

A Mexican customs officer stopped Manny Armenta, a USW sub-district director in Albuquerque, and accused him of driving a stolen vehicle. The vehicle Armenta was driving was a rental car. Armenta showed the officer the rental car’s document but to no avail.

The officer suggested that Armenta pay a fine of 185,000 pesos ($15,000) on the spot to avoid arrest. Armenta refused and was taken to jail. He was released on bail the next day.

“It is ironic that although Mexican courts have issued 20 warrants for Germán Larrea – the owner of Grupo Mexico – the government has never been able to arrest him,” said USW President Leo Gerard . “Yet they can arrest Manny because he is in Mexico helping the  mine workers defend their rights.”

Larrea is chair and CEO of Grupo Mexico, one of Mexico’s largest companies that owns mines, smelting operations, and railroads. Grupo Mexico and Los Mineros have been in a long battle that goes back to 2007 and before.

Miners belonging to Los Mineros have been on strike at the Cananea copper mine since 2007. They walked off the job to protest safety conditions at the mine. Last June and September, police attacked the miners’ picket lines to break the strike.

A year earlier, 65 miners were killed in a cave in at Pasta de Conchos, a Grupo Mexico owned mine in the northern state of Coahuila. Los Mineros blamed the explosion on the company’s lax safety standards that allowed methane gas to build up and trigger an explosion.

Los Mineros’ criticism of Grupo Mexico’s safety record at Pasta de Conchos and the strike at Cananea touched off a collaborative effort between the Mexican government and Grupo Mexico to break Los Mineros, an independent union that has consistently negotiated contracts with wage gains that exceed the wage ceiling that the Mexican government would like companies to adhere to. The Mexican government has implemented a low-wage strategy in order to attract foreign investment.

According to a 2008 report by the International Metalworkers Federation, “The line between the Mexican government and Grupo México has remained blurry since (President) Calderón took office … and the two have worked in concert to plan and execute the assault on los Mineros.”

The USW has been a strong ally of Los Mineros and Armenta has been a key figure in building ties between the two unions. The week before his arrest Armenta, members of USW, and leaders from Los Mineros met in Tucson, Arizona with officials of ASARCO in a “sound off ” event to kick off contract negotiations between USW and ASARCO, a Grupo Mexico company that owns copper mines in the US. The contract between USW and ASARCO expires in June.

Texas State Employees Union mobilizes for budget justice

The Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 is facing an uphill climb. State leaders want to erase Texas’ $26 billion budget deficit by cutting state services by 30 percent and eliminating more than 9,000 state employee jobs.

The state legislature, which convened on January 11, will spend most of the next five months writing a budget that closes the gap. During this time, lawmakers will have to decide whether to close the gap with massive cuts or take a more balanced approach that results in a more just budget. TSEU will be fighting for budget justice. 

“It’s going to be a difficult session,” said Mike Gross, TSEU vice-president . “But TSEU will be organizing, mobilizing, and fighting every day to protect state services and the people who provide them.”

TSEU, a statewide local of the Communications Workers of America whose 12,000 members work in state agencies and public universities, will continue signing up new members and will mobilize all members in a grassroots campaign. That mobilization effort will culminate in a giant march and rally on April 6, TSEU’s Lobby Day. 

TSEU’s mobilization campaign began on the opening day of the Legislature when union members paid visits to every state legislator and gave them a handout with the union’s legislative agenda.

“We accomplished a lot,” said Vicki Clark-Bradley, a retired social worker and TSEU activist. “Every legislator had someone in their office who talked to us briefly and was cordial.  We were able to get names of key staff and leave handouts with information about our issues.  I think it was worthwhile to make ourselves known and put human faces on the handout.”

TSEU’s five-point legislative agenda calls for fully funding state agencies and universities, halting privatization, protecting employees’ pension and health care plans, preserving and expanding state employees’ right to justice on the job, and stopping the erosion of state employees’ pay.

Since Texas state employees and retirees are barred from collective bargaining, the union’s best chance to influence funding for services, wages, and benefits is to build enough support for its agenda that lawmakers feel obliged to support it.

“It will take a large and committed grassroots movement to move the political debates away from budget slashing,” Gross said. “No amount of public advocacy will be successful unless it’s based on a large and growing organization of committed state employees and retirees.”

TSEU (of which I am a member)  has developed a mobilizing strategy for building this grassroots effort. To begin with, TSEU will mobilize members to call their representatives and senators urging them to oppose massive cuts and seek a balanced approach toward reducing the deficit. This will be followed up with a postcard campaign with the same message addressed to legislators.

Union members will also be fanning out locally to talk to local government officials and other local organizations explaining how state cuts will affect local services and urging them to take a stand against the cuts. Members will ask churches and civic organizations to which they belong to join Texas Forward, a coalition fighting for a balanced approach to reducing the state budget deficit.

Most important though, TSEU will mobilize members to come to Austin and take a stand for state services and state workers and retirees. It will sponsor eight mini-Lobby Days between now and the end of March in which union members of different agencies will meet directly with their legislators.

The mini-Lobby Days will lead up to the mass mobilization for the April 6 Lobby Day in which thousands of state workers, retirees, and their supporters from all over the state will come to Austin to march and rally in support of state services and state workers and retirees.

“Lobby Day is our chance to take a stand for the future of Texas and our jobs,” said Gross. “It’s a critical part of our ongoing fight for economic and social justice for state workers, retired state workers, and citizens. Buses will be coming from all over the state. Get on board!”

Texas’ job killer budget

One thing is clear about the budgets submitted recently to the Texas Senate and House:  a substantial portion of the state’s private economy depends on public funding. 

Both budgets would close Texas’ $26 billion two-year budget deficit by reducing state services by more than 30 percent. These cuts eliminate 10,000 state employee jobs, but many state services are provided by private employers. As a result, even more private sector jobs will be lost, bad news for a state whose  unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and during December had the second highest rate of increased unemployment among the nation’s 50 states. 

HB 1, the proposed House budget, will be the starting point for budget negotiations that will take place over the next five months. It assumes that there will be no new sources of revenue and that funds from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a reserve fund, will not be used.

The budget reduces Medicaid funding by $14 billion, a funding loss that will ripple throughout the private health care industry. “These cuts will be the death blow to Medicaid providers in Texas,” said George Linial, president of the Texas Association of Homes and Services for the Aged, a group of non-profit, community-based organizations that serve elderly Texans.

Non-profit nursing homes have suffered a 20 percent decline in charitable donations, and the proposed Medicaid cuts will make it difficult for them to keep their doors open. “Organizations that have provided benevolent care for almost 100 years in Texas are going to close their doors to caring for our most frail elderly in the state,” Linial said. “Thousands of health care jobs will be lost.”

For profit nursing homes will also feel the impact. These cuts “will jeopardize (nursing home’s) ongoing ability to provide quality care to Texas’ oldest, most vulnerable seniors and will put at risk facility jobs that make a difference in patient outcomes” said a fact sheet prepared by the Texas Health Care Association.

The proposed budget also cuts funding for in-home care for the elderly and for people with disabilities. Both for profit and non-profit agencies provide these services. Other cuts will affect private contractors that provide services to state health and human service agencies and criminal justice agencies.

Capital spending is also cut. As a result, repairs to the eleven state supported living centers, the homes to more than 4,000 Texans with mental and developmental disabilities, will not be made, affecting local contractors all over the state.

The axe falls heavy on education workers. Public education funding is cut by $2.7 billion. In anticipation of these cuts, the Austin Independent School District will eliminate nearly 500 jobs. Not all districts will cut this many jobs, but none of 1229 public school districts in Texas will be spared funding cuts.

The House budget also reduces funding for community colleges by $54.9 million. Four of the state’s 51 community college would have all of their state funding eliminated. “This will effectively end these (four) colleges as viable institutions in their communities,” said the Texas Association of Community Colleges in a  press release. 

The closures of these community colleges will cause hundreds of employees to lose their jobs, and businesses that serve the closed colleges will also be affected.

Mexican labor rights activists threatened for supporting independent unions

Intruders last week in Puebla, Mexico broke into the office of the Center for Worker Support (CAT, the Spanish abbreviation), scrawled a threat on the wall, hacked into the e-mail account of CAT’s executive director, and ransacked the building. Earlier this month, CAT members received email threats. No one has been arrested in either incident. These acts of intimidation are likely tied to CAT’s efforts to help workers organize independent unions.

Most unions in Mexico are “protectionist unions.” Their role is to help companies enforce labor discipline rather than to stand up for worker rights. There is no democracy in protectionist unions.

Until May, a protectionist union had an agreement with Johnson Controls, a Wisconsin-based company, to “represent” its workers at Johnson Control’s car seat manufacturing plant in the Resurrection industrial park near Puebla.

CAT since 2006 had been helping Johnson Control workers in the Puebla area organize an independent union. One of those plants was the Resurrecion plant, which makes car seats and car seat parts for Ford and Mercedes-Benz .

Workers organized by CAT confronted the company on a number of issues including low pay, unpaid work, and unsafe working conditions. With the help of CAT, they also contacted the National Union of Miners and Metalworkers (Los Mineros), a powerful independent union, which began collecting authorization cards to demonstrate that workers wanted Los Mineros to represent them, not the protectionist union. Johnson Control preferred to deal with the protectionist union, which had political connections to PRI, the party that controls the Puebla state government.

In May, the company announced that its profit-sharing bonus for workers at the Resurrection plant would be 60 pesos ($5). The workers were expecting more. Workers began to talk about striking. About 70 thugs from the protectionist union gathered outside the plant hoping that their show of force would intimidate workers and discourage them from striking.

Workers struck anyway, and after three days, Johnson Controls agreed to recognize Los Mineros, pay the workers for wages lost during the strike, and pay them a bonus for returning to work.

The protectionist union lost but didn’t go away. It continued to harass workers, and in August, thugs from the protectionist union invaded the plant, beat workers, and forced under duress two of union leaders to sign letters of resignation. The two leaders were badly beaten and had to be hospitalized.

To protest the invasion, workers struck again. The strike ended after three days when Johnson Controls reaffirmed its recognition of Los Mineros, offered the two workers who signed forced resignation letters their jobs back, and agreed to pay five seriously injured workers 5,000 pesos in compensation.

In the meantime, CAT has continued to help other Johnson Control workers at the company’s other plants in the Puebla area get rid of their protectionist union and join Los Mineros.  CAT staff who have been active in these campaigns have been harassed, threatened, and beaten.

The US Labor Education in the Americas Project (US LEAP) is urging workers in the US to show their support for the labor rights activists in CAT by writing letters to Mexican authorities. You can find more information here.

Tunisian teachers union calls strike to oust government

The Tunisian teachers union on Monday called a strike to put pressure on the interim government to resign. Schools, which had been closed since early this month because of the unrest in Tunisia, were scheduled to open on Monday, but most remained closed because of the strike call.

Meanwhile, people from outlying areas are camping out on the streets of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, and demanding that the interim government resign. Clashes between government opponents and security forces broke out today.

Members of the deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cabinet hold key positions in the interim government, which has angered those whose demonstrations sparked the demise of Ben Ali.

The action of the teachers’ union appears to contradict a directive by the UGTT, Tunisia’s leading labor confederation that led the demonstrations that overthrew Ben Ali. UGTT had issued a statement urging Tunisians to return to work on Monday.

The teachers union is affiliated with UGTT, but it has been more militant than the UGTT. The teachers union was one of the first Tunisian unions to support the protests against unemployment and food price increases that eventually toppled Ben Ali. In fact, prior to the protests, the teachers union had been organizing the unemployed.

GE workers look to make progress not concessions when contract talks begin

GE has always been generous to its investors but its workers have always had to fight for their fair share. That’s why union leaders are expecting GE to ask for benefit concessions when unions and GE begin negotiating a new contract in May even though the company is flush with cash.

Bob Santamour, of the International Union of Electronic Workers-Communication Workers of America (IUE-CWA), told a gathering of local union leaders that it is important that the unions representing GE workers fight for improvements in the contract and not get bogged down in defensive issues.

According the United Electrical Workers (UE), GE will ask unions to accept concessions to their defined benefit health and pension benefits that the company has already imposed on non-union salaried employees.

At a recent meeting of leaders of local GE unions sponsored by the Coordinated Bargaining Committee of GE Unions (CBC), Steve Tormey of UE told the gathering that GE is now offering its non-union salaried employees a high-deductible health plan as an option to the company’s more comprehensive traditional health care plans, and he expects that GE will want this option included in the new union contracts, which expires June 19.

High-deductible plans can be attractive to healthier workers with few medical expenses because premiums are lower, but they are a problem for those remaining in traditional comprehensive plans. 

As healthier workers leave comprehensive plans for high-deductible plans, the percentage of less healthy members covered by the comprehensive plans increases driving up premium costs. At some point the premium differential between the two options could be so great that the company could either force everyone into high-deductible plans or make those remaining in comprehensive plans pay much more for health care.

High-deductible plans also cost women more. “High-deductible plans punish women for having breasts and uteruses and having babies,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, the co-author of a 2007 study on the costs of high-deductible plans. “When an employer switches all his employees into a consumer-driven health plan, it’s the same as giving all the women a $1,000 pay cut, on average, because women on average have $1,000 more in health costs than men.”

GE also will no longer allow new non-unionized employees to enroll in the company’s defined benefit pension plan, which provides a secure retirement annuity; instead, new salaried employees will be required to enroll in defined contribution plans, whose benefits depend on how well the stock market performs.

Tormey said that GE could try to do the same to newly-hired unionized employees in the new contract. Doing so would, mean that the company’s defined pension plan will wither away, and as it does, benefits for those remaining in it will shrink.

GE’s pension fund is sound and the company hasn’t had to contribute to it since 1987, but like most businesses, GE is trying to shed legacy costs like pensions.

By weakening its defined benefit health care and pension plans, GE is shifting more health care and retirement risk onto individual workers. It’s doing so even though the company is sitting on a mountain of cash and future business prospects are bright.

Tormey said that GE has about $30 billion in cash on hand. That amount could be even more now. GE reported $4.5 billion in net income for the fourth quarter of 2010, and the company, which manufactures a wide range of products including jet engines, turbines, medical imaging machines, and home appliances, has a backlog of $175 billion in orders.

Instead of investing its cash reserves in its workers, GE has been using its cash to buy other companies such as Dresser Industries for $3 billion and Clarient, a medical diagnostics company, for $580 million. GE has also begun to buy back its own stock, which increases the value of its stock.

The Coordinated Bargaining Committee is made up of representatives from seven unions that have contracts with GE: IUE-CWA, UE, United Autoworkers, United Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees.

The coordinating board was organized in the 1960s because GE had a history of playing one union off against another in contract negotiations. Over the years, the coordinating board has managed to get the expiration dates of its contracts to end on the same day to give unions a better bargaining position.