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.

Union leaders demand clean break from Tunisia’s dictator

Tunisia on Friday began an official three days of mourning for the 78 Tunisians killed during the month-long struggle to overthrow former dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, but street demonstrations continued in Tunis, the capital city, as people demanded that the new interim government, which includes eight members with ties to the old regime, be free of all Ben Ali supporters..

On Thursday, those eight members quit Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, but they remained in the government. They had hoped that their resignation from the RCD (the French abbreviation for the party) would stem further street demonstrations.

On Tuesday, four labor union leaders who had been invited to join the new government, abruptly quit because holdovers from the old regime held all the key positions. 

As the union leaders were quitting, the nation’s largest labor confederation, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, the union’s initials in French) called for a general strike to demand that the new government make a clean break from Ben Ali and his ruling party.

“I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people,” said Ines Mawdud, a student taking part in Tuesday’s protests. “The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years.” 

At the Tuesday demonstration, UGTT members carried signs that read “RCD Out.”  Ben Ali Out had been the rallying cry of UGTT and other anti-government demonstrators during the protests that led up to Ben Ali’s resignation.

Three of the union leaders who resigned from the government on Tuesday belonged to the UGTT: Anour Ben Gueddour was junior minister of transportation and equipment, Houssine Dimassi was labor minister, and Abdeljelil Bedoui was minister without portfolio. Mustafa Ben Jaafar who was health minister also resigned. He belonged to an opposition union, the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedom.

It’s not clear yet what impact the decision by the eight RCD ministers to leave the party will have. The government did meet for the first time on Thursday, but protests continued.

“If the government responds to our demands, we will go back to it, but it must shoulder its responsibilities,” said Noureddine Taboubi, UGTT’s secretary-general. “We call for disbanding the RCD, a demand that is popular and essential.”

The fall of Ben Ali government began more than a month ago when protestors took to the streets to demand jobs and lower food prices. The leadership of UGTT at first opposed the demonstrations, but many local unions and their leaders and activists were playing key roles in organizing the protests.

The UGTT soon changed its position and began to support the protestors. As the demonstrations gathered strength its demands widened in scope. Demonstrators began to hold Ben Ali and his neo-liberal economic policies responsible for Tunisia’s widespread poverty. They also began to demand political freedom, which Ben Ali had stifled while in power.

Ben Ali tried to suppress the demonstrations by force. At least 70 people died at the hands of Ben Ali’s security forces during the protests. But instead of intimidating protestors, Ben Ali’s violence only increased his isolation from the people.

Things came to a head last week after UGTT called a general strike and thousands of Tunisians poured onto the streets chanting “Ben Ali out.” Demonstrators confronted Ben Ali’s security forces, who tried to maintain order with gun fire and tear gas. When that didn’t work, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

Honeywell workers warn community about plant risks

Earlier this week, union workers warned residents of Metropolis, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky that the safety of their communities was at risk because the Honeywell uranium processing plant in Metropolis was being operated and maintained by temporary workers.

“We’ve become gravely concerned for the safety of the greater Metropolis-Paducah community, especially since the Dec. 22 release of hydrofluoric acid, the NRC citations, and the pending OSHA inspection of the Honeywell plant,” said Darrell Lillie, United Steelworkers Local 7-669 president, representing 230 workers locked out by the company since June 28.

Honeywell locked out its union workers when they would not accept a new contract that contained cuts to their health care benefits and those of retirees. Health care coverage is important to Honeywell workers because the plant produces uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a radioactive substance that can cause cancer, mutations, kidney damage, and reproductive problems.

On Tuesday USW 7-669 held a press conference to announce the publication of a special report entitled Communities at Risk about the dangers posed to the people who live within a 25-mile radius of the plant.

Back in June when the company locked out its unionized workers, it replaced them with temporary workers. The plant temporarily shut down operations until its temporary workers could be trained. It started up again about two months later.

Communities at Risk reports that since the plant reopened in September there have been two serious accidents. On September 5, shortly after the temps started operating the plant, an explosion occurred after hydrogen and fluoride, two chemicals used to process UF6, were accidently recombined. The explosion was loud enough to be heard in the community and 911 operators received calls about it.

On December 22, hydrofluoric acid, which reacts with water to cause a toxic and corrosive gas, was released into the air. Fortunately, the gas was contained, but if had escaped into the community it would have been a disaster.

Illinois State Representative Brandon Phillips, who spoke at the press conference, said that “it’s not a question of if, but when a disaster will occur.” Phillips said that it was irresponsible for Honeywell to keep operating the plant with temporary workers. He called on the US Nuclear Regulatory Agency to shut down the plant until Honeywell ends its lock out.

Local 7-669 members have years of experience working with the deadly chemicals at the plant. Over the years, they have taken the initiative to improve safety at the plant. The temps on the other hand have only a couple of months of training and a little more than four months on the job. 

Their performance on tests taken before the Nuclear Regulatory Agency would permit plant operations to restart is not reassuring. In fact, the NRC cited the company for helping the temps take their tests.

The NRC said that temps “became confused” during their test and were given assistance by the company. They also had to be coached by management on procedures and the location of certain components. Some temps were allowed to be in the test room while others were taking the test, so that they could know what would be on the test.

Honeywell called Local 7-669’s press conference and report a publicity stunt. But local residents have expressed their concerns about the safety of the plant while it’s being operated by temps. “I’m a little concerned about the temporary workers, how well qualified they are to do the job?” said Guy Wilcox after the December gas leak. Wilcox lives near the plant.

“I’d feel better if the guys on the outside (Local 7-669 members) were in,” said Larry Douglas, Massac County Director of Emergency Management.

States respond to rising demand for services with budget cuts

According to Wal-Mart, most Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. To take it one step further, a lot of Americans can’t even count on a regular paycheck. The US Census Bureau reports that 43.6 million Americans live in poverty and 50.7 million don’t have health care coverage. Clearly, there are a lot of people in the US who need social services and health care services provided by state governments. In the future, there will likely be more.  

But in the face of all this need, state’s are cutting services.  In many states, governors are justifying these cuts by attacking state workers whose rich benefits and high pay they say are the reasons for cuts to service. 

But as Seth Rosen, District 4 vice-president of the Communications Workers of America put it, “These attacks affect all of us, public sector workers and private sector workers, both at work and in our communities.”

A case in point is the proposed budget submitted yesterday to the Texas House of Representives. If enacted as is, the spending cuts outlined in the budget will affect most working class Texans in one way or another.  It cuts $5 billion from public education, reduces funding for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and food stamps by $2 billion, and provides $241 million less for state health programs. It also eliminates financial aid for 60,000 college students and gets rid of 9,610 state jobs.  

Texas is not unique. Nearly every state in the union is facing a budget deficit, and nearly every state in the union will try to address their deficits by cutting services and jobs rather than seeking new sources of revenue (Illinois is the exception).

So what are we to do? The first thing seems obvious. “By uniting labor, community, civil rights, and environmental groups, we can wage a powerful fight for good jobs and strong communities,” Rosen said.

And that is beginning to happen. In Texas, the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (my union) has joined a broad coalition called Texas Forward that is building a grassroots effort to force the Texas Legislature to consider using the state’s Rainy Day Fund and seeking new revenue rather than relying solely on service and job cuts.

Another thing being done is to start challenging the myth that budget cuts are caused by overpaid state employees. AFSCME has been challenging these myths with its Stop the Lies media campaign. You can see its latest production, “Wall Street Fat-Cats Flip Public Service Workers the Bird” here.

In Texas we’ve seen what it means to balance the state’s budget on the backs of those who need state services and those who provide them. The same thing will likely be happening in other states.

But we have options. We can seek new revenue and we can use our rainy day funds as they were intended. If we don’t, “We’ll shortchange our children’s education, compromise public safety, and leave children, the elderly, and those with disabilities to suffer, said Scott McCown executive director of the Texas Center for Public Policy Priorities.”

What are we waiting for?

“If we are not using the Rainy Day Fund now, in this economic period,” asked Texas State Representative Roberto Alonzo. “Then what are we waiting for?” 

Good question, Rep Alonzo. The Texas Rainy Day Fund, which will be worth $9.6 billion when the next state fiscal year begins September 1, is a reserve fund created to preserve vital state services when economic downturns reduce state revenue and cause budget deficits.

Texas is currently facing a two-year $26 billion deficit caused by the recession and by a tax structure that is outdated and unfair to working-class Texans.

But so far the leaders of the state have made it pretty clear that they will not use the Rainy Day Fund even if it means slashing vital services. Bloomberg recently reported that Texas Gov Rick Perry said in a January 13 speech that using the Rainy Day Fund would delay his efforts to set the Texas fiscal house in order.

“We don’t have shortfalls in Texas,” Gov Perry said. “You prioritize what’s important in this state. We will fund those.”

So what are Gov Perry’s priorities? We should know soon when he submits his budget proposal to the Legislature, but one of his priorities has always been jobs, which is why  in 2005 he asked the Legislature to use money from the Rainy Day Fund to create the Texas Enterprise Fund, which pays incentives to attract and keep businesses.

He did the same thing in 2007 to create the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, which awards state money to start-up technology companies, in effect putting Texas in the venture capital business.

But not using the Rainy Day Fund now could cost the state thousands of jobs. To deal with the projected deficit, Gov Perry last year told agencies to reduce their funding requests by 10 percent. If these reductions are incorporated in the state’s budget, as many as 8,000 state jobs could be lost. 

These job losses could have a huge impact on smaller communities where the state is sometimes a town’s largest employer. For example, the budget submitted by the Texas Youth Commission, which cares for young offenders, would eliminate two TYC facilities, most of which are in rural Texas. TYC estimates that each facility employs about 230 people.

The private sector could be hurt too. The state Health and Human Services Commission’s  proposed budget reduces funding to nursing homes for the care of elderly patients. The Texas Health Care Association says that this reduction will not only worsen care for the state’s most vulnerable seniors, it “will put at risk key (nursing home) jobs.”

Those who provide community care to people with disabilities will also be in danger of losing their jobs. The Department of Assistive and Disability Service’s has proposed cuts to community care for people with disabilities, cuts that will likely result in fewer job opportunities for those providing this service.

Another of Gov Perry’s priorities has always been public safety. But budget cuts proposed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will likely lead to more recidivism, that is, ex-offenders returning to prison. 

The state has invested in diversion programs–probation, treatment, and parole–that have made us safer, saved money and reduced the recidivism rate. But the proposed budget submitted by TDCJ slashes funding for these programs.

According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, “Texas needs continued investments (in diversion strategies) today to help meet public safety demands and create safer communities tomorrow. The state simply cannot afford to have costly incarceration be its only option for addressing criminal behavior.”

At least five times in the past, Texas has used its Rainy Day Fund to close budget gaps and protect vital services (and also to fund Gov Perry’s pet programs). This time, the gap is too big to be closed solely with money from the Rainy Day Fund, but using it now would seem to be the fiscally prudent thing to do.

Grassroots effort derails attempt to undermine public education in Illinois

A non-profit group that would like to see more public money invested in charter schools failed in its effort in Illinois to pass legislation that would weaken teachers’ unions and undermine public education.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, called the proposal known as Performance Counts “an attempt to turn teaching into a low-wage, high turnover job.”

Performance Counts was proposed by Stand Up for Children, an Oregon-based group that advocates for more public funding for charter schools, measuring teacher performance by student scores on standardized tests, and narrowing the focus of public education. Illinois teachers’ unions built a successful grassroots mobilization that postponed action on the proposal by the Illinois Legislature.

Stand Up for Children’s main financial backer is Bill Gates. Its Illinois affiliate is supported financially by business groups like the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Business Roundtable.

Stand Up for Children poured $650,000 into eight key election campaigns for seats in the Illinois Legislature to elect and re-elect charter school supporters. It hoped to push through Performance Counts during the lame duck session of the Legislature between the November elections and legislative adjournment January 13.

During this time period, it persuaded the Illinois House Speaker to set up a Special Committee on Education Reform. In the middle of December, the committee heard testimony on Performance Counts, which would have taken away teachers’ right to bargain over class sizes, narrowed just-cause job protections, and prohibited teacher strikes. It  would have also tied teacher pay to scores on standardized tests.

Teachers unions testified at the December hearings, but what turned the tide against Performance Counts was grassroots actions organized by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Education Association, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

During the period between the hearing and adjournment on January 13 legislators received thousands of calls from teachers, parents, and community supporters. Principals, School Boards, and community organizations like Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, also voiced opposition.

In a letter sent to Chicago Teachers Union members, President Lewis urged members to call their legislators and to “become purposeful public education advocates, who constantly influence policy makers, opinion leaders, parents, neighbors, friends, and colleagues each and every day.

After hearing the calls of opposition, the special committee decided to take no action during this legislative session. However, it’s likely that the proposal will be re-introduced in some form or fashion when the new session of the Legislature convenes.

One of the people who expressed opposition to Performance Counts was Dr Diane Ravitch of New York University. Ravitch served in the Education Department of President George HW Bush, and at one time supported No Child Left Behind, the signature education legislation of President George W Bush.

Ravitch in a letter addressed to Illinois legislators said that she opposed Performance Counts because “the clear purpose of this proposed legislation is to target teachers for punishment and dismissal. There is nothing positive about this legislation. . . . This legislation will demoralize teachers in Illinois and focus them on testing and test scores. . . . It will encourage teaching to the test and will narrow the curriculum to only what is tested.”

Tunisian government falls after general strike

President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia today fled the country after demonstrators flooded the streets of Tunisian cities and town. Last night, President Ben Ali addressed the nation over television and agreed to make concessions to demonstrators who have been demonstrating against Tunisia’s rampant poverty, unemployment, and autocratic regime that has favored wealthy elites over the people.

Today, thousands marched in Tunis, the nation’s capital, Friday after the Tunisian General Labor Union called for a general strike. Lawyers and nurses joined union members and ordinary citizens in filling the streets and shouting, “We will carry on until the regime falls.” The crowd gathered at the Interior Ministry, shouting “Ben Ali go.”

Demonstrations erupted in other towns and cities. In Sidi Bouzid where the protests began in December after Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in front of a government building after the authorities closed his fruit and vegetable stand. Bouazizi was an unemployed college graduate unable to find work. Demonstrations were also reported in Regueb, Kairouan, and the mining region of Gafsa.

Before fleeing the country, President Ben Ali disbanded his government and called for new elections in six months. He left the Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi in charge after his departure.

Rally to protect collective bargaining for child care and healthcare workers

Tonight, union leaders and members will gather at the Cincinnati City Hall to protest a plan by Ohio Governor John Kasich to  revoke the right of the state’s home health care and child care workers to bargain collectively. The rally is one activity planned for the AFL-CIO’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King’s life that takes place this year in Cincinnati over a four-day period from January 13-17.

“I may not be the CEO of a company, but my job is just as important,” said Teresa Laws, a 13-year home healthcare worker from Cincinnati. “Without home-care workers, the state would be spending three times as much to keep their patients in institutions. And their quality of life is much better when they’re able to stay at home. We have a voice that allows us to be heard. When (Gov Kasich) tries to take away collective bargaining, he is trying to take our voice.”

Kasich, the newly elected Republican governor who was inaugurated on January 11, has said that he plans to rescind an executive orders issued by former Governor Ted Strickland that gave home healthcare and home child care workers the right to organize a union and bargain collectively.

Kasich aggressively attacked public workers in his election campaign, and  some think that his decision to rescind collective bargaining rights for home health care and home child care workers is his first salvo of a wider effort to cut wages and benefits of Ohio’s public service workers.

“Of all the new governors, John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, appears to be planning the most comprehensive assault against unions,” reports the New York Times

“Mr. Kasich . . . wants to eliminate a requirement that the state pay union-scale wages to construction workers on public contracts (and) he would like to ban the use of binding arbitration to settle disputes between the state and unions representing government employees.”

The people to whom Gov. Kasich wants to deny collective bargaining work for the state in an indirect way. They are independent contractors who provide in-home child care services and in-home health care services. Many of their clients are low-income working people who qualify for child care or health care subsidies from the state. By and large the people providing these services are low-wage earners themselves.

The collective bargaining agreements that AFSCME, which represents 6,800 Ohio child care workers, and SEIU Local 1199, which represents 7,000 Ohio health care workers, have negotiated with the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services give these workers rights that include the right to have to voice in making and changing rules and regulations that govern their work, the right to be treated with dignity and respect by those who oversee their work, the right to a grievance procedure, and access to health insurance.

The collective bargaining agreements also help standardize and upgrade the quality of care delivered by home health care and home child care workers. The contract negotiated by AFSCME for home child care workers even has a clause the establishes rights for the parents of the children being cared for.

Summarizing one of the findings of a report issued two years ago by the National Women’s Law Center, Nancy Duff Campbell, Co-president of the NWLC said “if current trends  hold unionizing home-based child care providers could be a signficant advance for the entire child care system and the parents and children who depend on it.”

So “Why does Gov. Kasich want to make it harder for all of us to support our families and do the right thing for the parents and children we serve?” said Ella Hopkins, a Cincinnati child care worker.

Low-wage workers sue Florida agency for not raising state’s minimum wage

The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation has refused to raise the state’s minimum wage as mandated by the state’s Constitution. As a result, Florida’s 188,000 minimum wage workers have been denied a six-cent per hour raise.

AWI’s decision led four low-wage workers and three worker advocacy centers to file suit asking a judge to order the agency to calculate the minimum wage as the Constitution intended it and give workers the six-cent per hour raise that would raise their hourly rate to $7.31.

“In 2004, Floridians voted 72 percent to 28 percent to amend the state’s Constitution to make the minimum wage increase each year to keep pace with rising the cost of living,” said Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project, one of the plaintiffs co-counsels. “(But) AWI has inexplicably ignored the requirement this year, violating the Constitution and shortchanging thousands of working Floridians.”

The suit, filed in Leon County, says that in 2010, says that AWI lowered the state minimum wage from $7.21 per hour to $7.06 because deflation caused the cost of living to decline, but it did not have the authority to do so. A recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court said that the Constitutional amendment “clearly does not provide for decreases in the minimum in times of deflation.”

Florida minimum wage workers were not affected by the 2010 decision because they are covered by the federal minimum wage which is $7.25 per hour.

However, when AWI calculated the rate for 2011, it used the improperly calculated rate of $7.06 per hour as the base rate. As a result, it set the 2011 state minimum wage at $7.21. The base rate that it should have used was $7.16 per hour, which was the rate before the agency improperly lowered it to $7.06. If the agency had used the correct base rate, the 2011 state minimum wage would be $7.31 per hour, six cents above the federal minimum wage.

In its press release, NELP pointed out that even a small increase in the minimum wage can be a big stimulus to the economy. “Unlike higher-wage earners, those at the lowest end of the scale tend to spend rather than put away additional earnings,” said Jose Javier Rodriguez of Florida Legal Services, a co-counsel.

In a recent analysis of the federal tax cut extension, the Economic Policy Institute confirms the idea that money received by low-wage earners has a much bigger economic impact than money received by high earners. According to EPI, Mark Zandi of Moody Analytics estimated that every dollar spent making income tax cuts permanent generates only 32 cents of economic activity. Comparatively, every dollar spent on unemployment assistance generates $1.61 worth of economic activity.

Plaintiffs in the suit are Marie Mathe Cadet, a farmworker from Miami, Jennifer Bonilla, a farmworker from Homestead, Roberto Rios, a farmworker from Homestead, Isabel A. Merino, a restaurant worker from Sweetwater, Restaurant Opportunities Center, WeCount, Inc., and the Farmworker Association of Florida.

Worker unrest in Tunisia widens

After a deadly day of clashes between police and demonstrators in cities and towns across Tunisia, President Zine El Abidne Ben Ali Thursday ordered food prices slashed, hinted that he may not run for re-election, and said that security forces would no longer use deadly force, but his actions have not stemmed the protests that threaten to overthrow his government.

The Tunisian General Labor Union called for a two-hour general strike on Friday to protest the country’s high unemployment, mass poverty, and an authoritarian regime that allows these problems to fester while a wealthy elite prosper.

Some of those involved in the month-long demonstrations have begun to organize People’s Resistance Committees to better coordinate the struggle against the government.

Despite curfews, Wednesday  and Thursday saw demonstrations all over the country that lasted well into the night. In Sfax, an industrial city on the Mediterranean about 150 miles south of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, thousands of people took to the streets to support a general strike called for by the Tunisian General Labor Union, an umbrella organization of the nation’s unions. Five protestors were wounded by gunshots from security forces.

Two protestors were killed in Douz, 340 miles south of Tunis and another was shot dead in Thala in the southwestern part of the country.

In the al Kerm district north of Tunis, clashes between demonstrators and security forces resulted in the deaths of five people: three in Menzel Bourguiba, one in Bizerte, and one in Tatouine.

In Ben Arous, a working class suburb of Tunis, police on Wednesday fired tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds that were defying the curfew. At least two people were wounded including a journalist from the US. No information on his name or employer were available.

Demonstrations defying the curfew also took place in the city center of Tunis and some of its other working class suburbs. Eight people were reportedly killed by police.

In the phosphate mining region of Gafsa in the west near the Algerian border, crowds chased away police sent to break up their demonstration. The miners union of Gafsa in 2008 led militant protests against the hiring and employment practices mine owners in the region and against the general oppression of workers in the area. Some of its leaders were jailed.

Since force and intimidation have not worked to quell demonstrations, the government has begun arresting and intimidating leaders of the movement. On Wednesday, police stormed the headquarters of the General Labor Union. On the same day, police arrested Hamma Hammami, a leader of the Tunisian Workers Communist Party.

Hammami has been a long-time critic of the government and spent much of his time during the protest getting word out about events taking place. He recently told the Italian weekly newspaper, Left, that the demonstrations will lead to the downfall of President Ben Ali.

Tunisian demonstrations for jobs and justice met with deadly force

Union leaders in Tunisia yesterday demanded an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 50 demonstrators last weekend during protests against unemployment and poverty.  Last weekend’s demonstrations were a continuation of a struggle that began in December.

The union also demanded that people arrested during the demonstrations, including many union members, be immediately released and threatened a general strike in the region where the killings occurred.

Before the killings, leaders of the Tunisian General Labor Union said, “We express solidarity with (the demonstrators and their) legitimate aspirations toward a  better reality.” The union also said that it supports a development strategy that “ensures justice and equality, and guarantees the right to decent work and to job opportunities that provide a minimum income enabling people to meet the increase of (food) prices.”

The most recent killings occurred over the weekend in Thala and Kasserine in the southwestern part of the country near the Algerian border, a region with an unemployment rate of 25 percent hit hard by recent food price increases.

The government of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali hoped to quell further demonstrations by closing schools and universities on Monday, but on Tuesday another protest broke out in Ettadamen, a working class suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Angry youths, who have borne the brunt of Tunisia’s high unemployment rate, ransacked government buildings; police responded by firing warning shots and tear gas to disperse the protestors.

In the city center of Tunis, a group of artists, actors, and intellectuals rallied to protest the government’s violence. They too were attacked by the police. “We wanted to say stop killing people (and) to condemn obstacles preventing journalists from freely reporting the unrest in the country,” said Neji Bgouri, former president of the National Union of Journalists.

Demonstrations against the government began in December when an unemployed college graduate named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building after police shut down a fruit and vegetable stand he had set up to support himself after he was unable to find work after graduating from college.

His death ignited the anger of many unemployed youth who face a similar reality, some of whom had been organized by the National Teachers Union, an affiliate of the General Tunisian Labor Union, an umbrella organization of Tunisian unions.

Demonstrations against unemployment were organized soon after Bouazizi’s death near the site of the tragedy in the city of Sidi Bouzid. Word of the protest sparked other demonstrations across the country, and since then security forces have tried to stem the movement with intimidation, arrests, and deadly force.

As a result of the crackdown, the scope of the demonstrations have widened and much of the crowd’s anger is directed at president Ben Ali, and at his economic development policies that have benefited foreign investors and wealthy Tunisians with political connections at the expense of most Tunisians, who live in poverty or near to it.

In the 1990s, president Ben Ali, who has ruled since the 1980s, set a new development course based on encouraging foreign investors by privatizing Tunisia’s national resources and keeping wages low to encourage foreign investment in low-skill industries like textile manufacturing.

While these policies generated economic growth, the benefits did not trickle down to the working class. When the economic crisis hit in 2008 and demand in Europe for Tunisia’s goods slackened, poverty became even worse. 

Unemployment, which had always been high, jumped to 14 percent and was even higher in most of the country. College graduates had an especially difficult time finding work. To make matters worse food prices recently increased.

“What young people are asking for is very basic: jobs, said Mohamed Zorig leader of a Tunisian human rights group now living in Canada. “But the people of Tunisia realize that no improvement in living standards is possible without a change in the political landscape, and that is why they have used the slogan “bread, freedom, dignity.”

Agency and major IT contract drain scarce state resources

When the Texas Legislature convenes today, it will be facing a two-year budget shortfall estimated to be $26.8 billion. The leaders of the state have said that they intend to close this gap by reducing services.

But before lawmakers make cuts that will cause more mentally ill Texans to get warehoused in jails and prisons instead of getting treatment, or that will reduce services to people with disabilities, or that will increase elementary class sizes, or that will make it harder for working class students to go to college, or that will reduce countless other essential state services big and small, they should take a hard look at projects and programs that haven’t proven their value.

A good place to start is the Texas Department of information Resources (DIR) and the giant money trap that it oversees–the data center consolidation project.

A recent report by the Texas Sunset Commission, which conducts periodic reviews of state agencies, says that DIR siphons money away from state agencies by overcharging them for IT and telecommunication services. The report also says that the data center consolidation has generated none of the savings expected of it, has incurred significant cost overruns, and has caused state agency IT systems to deteriorate.

The report caused Rep. Byron Cook, a Republican lawmaker from East Texas, to call for abolishing DIR, and replacing it with a smaller more focused agency.

“I wasn’t able to find any positive in this report,” Cook said. “Every agency we talked to, everyone without exception has issues. I couldn’t find any advocates for this agency.”

DIR provides state agencies with telecommunication and IT procurement services. It also oversees the data center consolidation project, a massive consolidation of the hardware, print/mail, and server functions for 27 state agencies and one university. It charges agencies fees that the report says are opaque and difficult to understand. These fees account for 97 percent DIR’s 2010-2011 budget.

These fees often exceed DIR’s costs of providing these services, which has resulted in DIR running budget surpluses. In 2009, DIR had a budget surplus of $29 million. The surplus dwindled to nearly $10 in 2010 after DIR came under the scrutiny of the Sunset Commission.

According to the report, DIR has continued to charge agencies the same internet service rate since 2004, a period in which commercial internet rates have dropped considerably.

The report also says that DIR negotiated lower fees for the state’s telecommunication services with AT&T, but kept the savings for itself instead of passing them along to state agencies.

All state agencies must go through DIR to purchase computer hardware and software, for which DIR charges them fees. Some agencies complained to Sunset staff that they could have gotten better prices and saved the fees if they hadn’t gone through DIR.

But perhaps the biggest drain on state agency resources has been the data center consolidation project. So far the agencies participating in this project have paid $182 million in fees, $176 million to IBM, the former main contractor of the project, and $6 million to DIR.

Data center consolidation was supposed to have been completed by April 2009, but completion is not in sight. DIR recently fired IBM is re-bidding the project.

The estimated cost of the project’s seven-year contract is $863 million, but three years into the contract, the state has already spent $486 million, or 57 percent of total projected costs. If spending continues at this rate, the cost of the project will balloon to $1.13 billion.

To make matters worse, data center consolidation has created more expenses of agencies. For example, the Texas Workforce Commission spends 1,150 staff hours a month to monitor the project so it doesn’t interfere with TWC’s operations. Twenty-two of the 27 agencies participating in data center consolidation are still doing IT work that IBM was supposed to do.

The Austin American Statesman called data center consolidation “an expensive disaster.” With so many state services on the line now, it’s hard to justify any more funding for this “expensive disaster” or for an agency that siphons resources away from real public services.

Flight atttendant day of action demands United bargain in good faith

United Airline flight attendants and their supporters staged a protest at airports around the world today demanding that United quit its stalling tactics that have prevented the company and its flight attendants from reaching an agreement on a new contract.

Flight attendants have legitimate concerns, and management has a poor track record when it comes to labor negotiations at United Airlines,” said Greg Davidowitch, president of the Association of Flight Attendants CWA at United.   “Prolonged, contentious, and bitterly divisive negotiations continue to reinforce long-held resentments among workers and does not lead to a path for success.”

Negotiations on a new contract have been dragging on since the beginning of 2010 when the old contract between United and AFA CWA expired. The old contract had been in force since 2003 when United declared bankruptcy.  That contract forced flight attendants to accept concessions that reduced pay, eliminated their defined benefit pension, and reduced other benefits.

“Patience is no longer an option,”  said Davidowitch.  “To date, we have yet to receive proposals on key issues and the proposals we have received are largely concessionary in nature.  We remain resolute in concluding negotiations centered on pay, benefits and work rule improvements that are commensurate not only to the priorities identified by United flight attendants in our proposals, but are also reflective of the potential associated with a world-class global airline.”

One of AFA’s main contract proposals is that by 2013,  flight attendant base pay increase by 37 percent.  The increase would be phased in over a four-year period, beginning retroactively in 2010.  United has failed to respond to this proposal.

The union is also asking for extra base pay for workers with shorter tenures because their pay is below industry standards. Base pay for United flight attendants with one to five years service averages 12.8 percent lower than base pay for flight attendants at Continental with the same years of service.

In addition, the union is proposing additional longevity pay for more senior flight attendants, the ones forced to sacrifice so much as a result of the 2003 concessions.

During today’s day of action, union members and supporters picketed airport terminals in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Frankfurt, Germany, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Tokyo, and Washington DC. You can find pictures here.

While picketing, union members passed out flyers. Among other things the flyer says that

  • United flight attendant pay during the last decade has been stagnant while pay for United’s top five executives has increased by 500 percent and
  • United earned $1.3 billion in 2010, and earnings for 2011 are projected to be $1.5 billion, making United the second best performing airline in the US.  

In related developments, Continental and flight attendants represented by the International Association of Machinist earlier this week reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that provides wage and benefit increases.

Flight attendants at Continental will vote on the new contract in the coming weeks. In October, IAM flight attendants at Continental rejected a similar agreement by a vote of 55 percent. IAM leadership said that the new agreement contains some improvements to the rejected agreement.

United purchased Continental last year, but the two airlines have continued to operate separately. The merger of the two airlines’ operation should begin in the latter part of 2012.

Maryland state worker injured by mailed incendiary device

Two state workers in two Maryland state office buildings were injured this afternoon by incendiary devices sent through the mail.  The injuries do not appear to be serious. Some reports said that as many as six workers were injured, but so far, only two have been confirmed. 

State police have been called in to investigate the two incidents and the local bomb squad was also called to the two offices. Federal investigators were on the scene as well.

Early this afternoon,  a mailroom worker in the Jeffery Building in Annapolis was opening a small package when a flash of light burst and smoke poured out of the package.  The incendiary device burned the hands of the worker. 

The Jeffery Building is near the state Capitol and houses several state agencies including the Department of General Services where the injured employee works. The package was addressed to Gov. Martin O’Malley.

In nearby Hanover, a similar piece of mail caused a burst of light and smoke at a Maryland Department of  Transportation office. The piece of mail was addressed to Beverley Swian-Staley Secretary of the Maryland Departments of Transportation. One worker received burns on the hands.

Mail delivery at state offices was halted after the explosion, so that investigators could determine if other state agencies received similar packages.