Wisconsin hangs tough

Hundreds of people camped inside of the Wisconsin State Capitol for the last two weeks in support of Wisconsin public workers under attack from their governor refused to leave the building after Gov Scott Walker set a 4:00 P.M. Sunday deadline for their removal. Gov Walker said that those inside who refused to leave would be arrested.

Those inside the building and millions of others across the country have been protesting Gov Walker’s proposed legislation that would effectively end collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s public sector workers. The ultimate purpose of the bill is to bust public sector unions and take away public workers’ on-the-job voice.

“People are realizing that if they want their voice heard, they’ve got to yell loud,” Maya Madden told Bloomberg News inside the Capitol. Madden, a 66-year-old small business owner, said that she was prepared to be arrested for refusing to leave.

“We are here and we will remain here until the middle class is protected,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO from inside the Capitol.

Those inside the building were joined by local clergy, who also vowed to be arrested if police tried to clear the building. As those inside prepared to be arrested, thousands of supporters outside chanted, “We are Wisconsin, the whole world is watching!”

At the same time, The AFL-CIO set up sound equipment and prepared to broadcast when arrests began Dr Martin Luther King’s final speech before he was assassinated to striking Memphis sanitation workers.

But about 8:00 P.M. Sunday night, Capitol police decided that no arrests would be made and that those remaining in the building would be allowed to stay through the night. The stay-in participants,  mainly students, have been holding a vigil inside the Capitol since February 15.

“They are allowed to stay tonight, but we are going to go back tonight and evaluate our procedures,” Charles Tubbs, head of Capitol Police, told reporters. More protests in Madison are scheduled to begin again on Monday morning.

For two weeks now, public workers, their supporters, and their unions have not only managed to keep their fight against Gov Walker’s union busting efforts alive, they’ve kept it growing.

On Saturday after 12 straight days of marches, protests, and demonstrations, Madison, Wisconsin’s capital, saw its biggest demonstration yet in support of public workers and public worker unions. About 100,000 people marched through lightly falling snow to demand that Gov Walker end his efforts to dismantle public worker unions.

Public sector workers were joined by thousands of autoworkers, construction workers, communication workers, and dozens more private sector union members in the march. Two van loads of workers from Metropolis, Illinois who belong to United Steelworkers Local 7-669 traveled through snow to show their support. Local 7-669 members have been locked out by their employer Honeywell since June. 

“After all the support we have seen from around the country, it would be a disservice not to join our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and give some of that support back,” said Darrell Lillie, President, USW Local 7-669.  “Without collective bargaining rights, workers in both the public and private sector would be devastated and lose their voice in the workplace.” (Those wishing to support Honeywell workers can get more information at www.experiencematters.usw.org)

Support rallies were held across the country as well. In Austin about 1,000 people gathered on the grounds of the State Capitol.”It was quite wonderful,” said Anne Lewis, an instructor at the University of Texas and member of the Texas State Employees Union. “There were all kinds of union folks  — Education Austin, TSEU, Treasury
Workers, Firefighters, Sheet Metal Workers, AFSCME. We even signed up four new members.”

Last week, the South Central Federation of Labor, the Madison-area labor council composed of about 90 unions representing 45,000 workers in four counties voted to endorse a general strike if Gov Walker signs his union busting bill. The resolution endorsing a general strike says that the council’s Education Committee will “immediately begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.”

Cost of Texas budget cuts starting to take shape

“The Texas Legislature is wrestling with a predicted $27 billion (deficit) . . .,” wrote Mike Gross, Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186 vice-president in the Austin American Statesman.  “Its solution, to take a budget that already puts us at the bottom among the states in investment in our own people and cut $30 billion out of it, will cost Texas much more than it saves.”

Some of the costs that Gross is talking about began to take shape recently as local school boards and one of Texas’ major public safety agencies announced layoffs that reduce the quality of public education and diminish public safety.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Wednesday announced that it will lay off 550 workers in its parole and correctional institutions divisions. Most of those facing layoffs will be support and administrative workers, but 155 of those being laid off work in Project Rio, a program that helps ex-offenders find jobs and stay out of prison. The layoffs effectively shut down Project Rio.

“The layoffs will have a big impact on public safety in Texas,” Gross said. “Fewer support staff  in the parole division will mean parole officers will spend more time doing paper work and less time monitoring parolees. Ending Project Rio just means that we’ll be seeing more ex-offenders committing crimes and ending up back in prison.”

According to the US Justice Department, studies show that “ex-offenders with jobs commit fewer crimes than ex-offenders without jobs, and Project Rio has been effective in helping ex-offenders find and keep jobs and avoid returning to prison.

In addition to diminished public safety, the budget cuts will also mean reduced education opportunities especially for working class students. For example, the superintendent of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) recently proposed a budget that eliminates more than 1,000 education jobs because the district anticipates that state funding for the school district will be substantially reduced.

About half of the proposed cuts are teacher positions, and many of the others, such as teaching assistants, have a direct impact on teaching. The layoffs will mean that class sizes will be larger next year, and larger class sizes will impair the quality of education for AISD students. AISD is an urban district of more than 84,000 students, 63 percent of whom receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Larger classes sizes will be especially hard on students who need extra help such as those who lack English proficiency, 29 percent of AISD’s students, and special education students, whose programs in working-class areas of the city have been especially hard hit by the budget cuts. 

In a letter to its members, Austin Education, the union representing 4,000 Austin teachers and education workers, told its members that despite the bad news about layoffs, the proposed budget is not a done deal yet and urged members to “keep fighting.”

“It is of the utmost importance that we direct much of our energy and resources to the legislature,” the letter said.  “That is where the real problem resides. If the district was dealing only with their budget shortfall of about $15 million dollars, they could remedy it without cutting jobs. However, the state has proposed draconian cuts that increase the district deficit to between $90-$113 million dollars. This is unprecedented and we must make the legislature aware that it is unacceptable.”

Indiana right-to-work-for-less bill dead for now; other anti-worker bills still on the table

Demonstrations in Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital, continued today after leaders of the state legislature announced yesterday that a proposed right-to-work-for-less bill was dead. The bill, HB 1468, would have weakened Indiana’s unions and their ability to bargain for better pay and benefits. But the legislature is still considering other anti-working class bills that include banning collective bargaining rights for state employees and restricting them for public school teachers.

On Wednesday, union members and supporters organized by the Indiana state AFL-CIO and Stand Up For Hoosiers, a community organization, filled the gallery of the House of Representative as the house prepared to debate HB 1468.  Workers chanted, “they want profits, we want jobs” and “kill the bill” forcing House Speaker Brian Bosna, a Republican, to clear the gallery and adjourn the house.

After adjourning, Bosna and his counterpart in the state senate announced that HB 1468 was dead for this session because on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers had gone to Illinois so that there wouldn’t be a quorum for Wednesday’s vote. 

Events leading up to Wednesday’s announcement began early this year when Indiana Republicans decided to fast track HB 1468, which mirrored similar efforts to cram down right-to-work-for-less legislation in other states like Missouri and New Hampshire.

In response, unions began organizing to fight back. They held community meetings to explain how the proposed right-to-work-for-less law would hurt all working people in Indiana. One of those meetings was held in Terre Haute on Friday night where David Williams, President of the Wabash Valley Central Labor Council, told the audience, “The fact is that wages in right-to-work-(for-less) states are lower.”

Williams also pointed out that strong unions not only help union workers get higher wages, they boost wages for non-union workers whose employers pay more to keep their workers from organizing unions. Williams cited Toyota Motor Co as an example.

Williams also said that bills like HB 1468 do nothing to protect workers’ right to work, but they do weaken union power because they prohibit unions from collecting fees from non-union workers to pay for union services like contract negotiations and contract enforcement. Without these fees, non-union workers (also known as free riders) at union jobs would have the same rights and benefits as union members without having to pay their fair share of the cost.

Proponents also claim right-to-work-for-less laws create jobs, but five of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates in the US are right-to-work-for-less states. Those states are Nevada (14.5 percent, the highest in the US), Florida (12 percent), South Carolina (10.7 percent), Georgia (10.2 percent), and Mississippi (10.1 percent).

On Monday when a committee hearing on HB 1468 was scheduled to begin, the Indiana state AFL-CIO and Stand Up For Hoosiers called for union members and supporters to rally at the state Capitol. About 1,000 showed up. Many stayed for the afternoon hearing. 

But HB 1468 was voted out of committee by a vote of 8 to 5 and was sent to the full house where a vote was planned for Wednesday; however, on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers left the state for Illinois. 

While Democratic lawmakers were on their way to Illinois, union members and supporters went back to the Capitol for more rallies. More turned out on Tuesday than on Monday. After it became clear that the Democrats wouldn’t be returning, Gov Mitch Daniels requested that legislative leaders withdraw HB 1468, which they did on Wednesday.

Union workers and community supporters are continuing their demonstrations in Indianapolis and will continue to do so for at least the rest of this week because HB 1468 isn’t the only anti-working class bill on Republicans’ agenda. In all, Stand Up For Hoosiers has identified 11 anti-worker bills being considered, including HB 1568, which bans collective bargaining for state employees and SB 575, which limits collective bargaining rights for public school teachers.

At this time, the Democratic lawmakers who left Indiana are in Illinois and are refusing to come back until Republicans agree to negotiate on these 11 other bills. And Indiana unions and Stand Up For Hoosiers continue to demand that their voices be heard in Indianapolis.

“I’ll give up my union card when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

They chanted “This is our house! Let us in,” and “kill the bill” outside the state Capitol on Tuesday as a light winter drizzle fell. But they weren’t in Wisconsin. They were in Columbus, Ohio, the state’s capital where lawmakers inside the building were scheduled to hear testimony on SB 5, a bill that would ban collective bargaining for state employees and severely restrict it for local government workers and public school teachers.

About 15,000 Ohio public workers had come to Columbus from all over the state to voice their rage over SB 5, but when they tried to enter their Capitol, officers from the Department of Public Safety would allow only a fraction into the building, supposedly because of safety concerns.

As it turns out, the head of Department of Safety is a political appointee of Ohio Governor John Kasich, the driving force behind SB 5. If Gov Kasich had any hopes that keeping opponents of SB 5 out in the cold would dampen their spirits he was wrong.

Public workers and their supporters remained outside in the cold demanding that their voice be heard. A sign carried by one of the workers expressed their determination. It read, “I’ll give up my union card when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

 “We’re standing together and speaking in a clear, unified voice that (SB 5) is wrong for Ohio and a tragic distraction from what we should be focusing on: creating jobs and preparing Ohio’s students to fill those jobs,” read a statement by the Ohio Education Association, whose members were at the Capitol.

Gov Kasich says that SB 5 is needed to close Ohio’s $8 billion budget deficit. But collective bargaining didn’t cause the deficit; in fact, contracts negotiated by public worker unions have saved the state $250 million. What SB 5 is really about is busting unions and lowering living standards for the working class.

“This is bigger than unions,” said John Lyall, president of Ohio AFSCME Council 8. “This is about all working people. (SB 5) is not about creating jobs with benefits that allow a hard worker to provide for his or her family.”

Unions fighting SB 5 have been taking this message to the larger working class community.  The Communication Workers of America, which represents some public and higher education workers in Ohio, has organized a community-wide coalition called Stand Up for Ohio: Good Jobs and Strong Communities, “To help each other fight for issues critical to workers, families and strong, safe communities,” said Seth Rosen, CWA District 4 vice-president. “The politicians have a strategy of divide and conquer. “Our strategy is unite and win.”

SEIU has been holding town hall meetings like the one that took place in Youngstown Monday night when hundreds of union members and community supporters packed a meeting in Youngstown to hear leaders and rank-and-file union members denounce SB 5 as a union busting, job-killing bill.

At press conference with local clergy in Cincinnati, Robert Richardson, an SEIU member, said that SB 5 is an attack on the middle-class that takes away basic civil and human rights.

Private sector unions are worried about the impact that SB 5 will have on local economies in a state that is still suffering from the aftermath of the Great Recession. At a February 17 hearing on SB 5, Don Watkins, a meatcutter from Coldwater, Ohio and member of  United Food and Commercial Workers testified about how SB 5 would hurt his community.  “If our firemen or other public employees like teachers make less money or lose their jobs (because of SB 5), it is less likely that their dollars will stay in our communities and create jobs in Coldwater (Ohio),” Watkins said.

Watkins also told lawmakers that he knew firsthand the difference between working in a union and non-union shop.  “Before working in Coldwater, I worked in a non-union store, and I was not able to provide my family with the quality of life they have now,” said Watkins, a 46-year old widower.

Another UFCW member, Bonnie France also testified at the hearing saying, “This state is hurting for jobs, and I don’t understand why the Honorable Senator (Shannon) Jones, (SB 5’s sponsor) would introduce this bill that will kill jobs.”

When it became apparent on Tuesday that workers were determined to be heard, the Department of Public Safety finally relented and opened the Capitol doors as the hearing on SB 5 got underway. Thousands rushed inside.  The next public hearing on SB 5 will take place on Thursday, February 24.

The attack on public workers, and for that matter all workers, isn’t just taking place in Ohio and Wisconsin, it’s going on all over the country. You can find out more about the attacks and action being planned to resist them here and here.

Opposition to Wisconsin union busting bill gathers momentum

More than 500 Texas union members and their supporters chanted “What’s disgusting? Union busting,” in front of the state Capitol gates Monday night at the” Texas Unions in Solidarity with Wisconsin” rally in Austin. Speakers denounced Wisconsin Gov Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill for being a thinly veiled disguise to bust public worker unions.

Linda Bridges, President of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said that Gov Scott’s contention that public worker collective bargaining rights is the cause of Wisconsin’s budget deficit is ridiculous. “Texas has a $26 billion state budget deficit,” she said. “And we have that deficit despite the fact that state law prohibits collective bargaining for our  teachers and most other public workers.”

Becky Moeller, President of the Texas AFL-CIO, which organized the rally, said that the Wisconsin governor’s attack on public worker collective bargaining rights was part of a concerted effort meant to lower living standards for middle-class people throughout the US. She also said that the budget-cutting plan being considered by the Texas Legislature is part of that concerted effort and that if the budget cuts go through, 100,000 Texas public school teachers and education workers and another 10,000 state workers will lose their jobs.

“The loss of so many jobs will be devastating not just to those who lose their jobs, but to communities throughout the state,” Moeller said. She urged those at the rally to support Texas public workers and teachers at their lobby days this spring:  Texas State Employees Union’s “Protect State Services, Support Public Workers” Lobby Day will be April 6, teachers will hold two lobby days one on March 7, the other on March 14, and AFSCME’s Lobby Day will be March 24.

The Texas rally to support Wisconsin public workers was one of a number taking place throughout the US. On Monday, solidarity rallies were held in Chicago; Helena, Montana; Raleigh, North Carolina; Carson City, Nevada; Las Vegas; Salem, Oregon; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Olympia, Washington; and Charleston, West Virginia.

In Olympia, a rally planned to protest state budget cuts expanded into a show of support for Wisconsin public workers and others worldwide. “We’re here today to join in solidarity for all the young people and trade unionists around the world who are struggling for democracy, whether that’s in Egypt, whether in Yemen, or Tunisia, or Bahrain, or Madison, Wisconsin,” said Jeff Johnson, Washington State Labor Council president.

Speaking from a place near Tahir Square, the center of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, Kamal Abbas, General Coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, told Wisconsin workers, “From this place, I want you to know we stand with you as you stood with us. . . . Stand up, don’t waver. Don’t give up your rights. Victory always belongs to those who stand firm and demand their rights.”

More support rallies will be held throughout this week. Jobs with Justice has a list of where and when these rallies will be taking place.

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin an automated telephone poll conducted by We Ask America found that 52 percent of Wisconsin residents polled disapproved of Gov Walker’s plan to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights while 43 percent approved.

Charles Woodson, a key player on the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl Champion football team, said that hard-working people including teachers and nurses are “under an unprecedented attack” and that as a member of the National Football Players Association, he is proud to stand with them.

On Tuesday in Madison rallies and protests against Gov Walker’s union busting bill continued for the eighth straight day. If you want to know what it’s like at ground zero, here’s a great video of events taking place through last weekend.

No mandate for union busting governor

Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker likes to say that he has a mandate to take away collective bargaining rights from  public workers, but if Wisconsin residents are anything like their counterparts in the rest of the US, that assertion is wrong. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press shows that more people in the US side with public worker unions than state and local governments when there is a dispute between unions and government. 

The poll found that  44 percent of the respondents sided with unions when they heard about a dispute between unions and state and local government while 38 percent said they sided with government. The poll is based on the results of a survey conducted between February 2 and February 7.

The poll also found that 48 percent of the respondents had a favorable view of public sector unions while 40 percent had an unfavorable view.

Another poll that was taken about a week earlier by Pew found that there was no mandate for cutting public workers pensions to balance state budgets. When asked whether states should balance their budgets by cutting state workers’ pensions, 47 percent said no and 47 percent said yes.

This last finding is remarkable considering the fact that for the last six months media outlets as diverse as the New York Times and Fox News have run misleading stories based on irrelevant factoids and outright lies saying that state worker pensions are bankrupting state governments. And politicians as diverse as Republican Governor Walker and New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo used the same message in their campaigns.

The first Pew survey found that overall favorability ratings for both public and private sector unions are at their lowest level in a quarter of a century. Forty-five percent said they had a favorable view of unions, down from about 60 percent in 2000.

But business doesn’t fare much better. Only 47 percent said that they had a favorable view of business, down from a peak of nearly 80 percent in 2000.

The decline in support for both unions and business probably is the result of the general decline in the economy that occurred during the first decade of this century. People are seeing their standards of living decline, which creates a general discontent with the institutions that are part of the economy.

Meanwhile in Madison, 70,000 people turned out Saturday for another march and rally against the governor’s “bust the unions” bill. There also were demonstrations in other parts of the state. Demonstrations in Madison are scheduled to take place through Tuesday. Democratic lawmakers, who left the state so that no action could be taken on the bill, said that they would stay where they are until Gov Walker agrees to negotiations on the bill.

Workers in Egypt and Wisconsin fight for justice

Workers in Egypt defied their military rulers by remaining on strike to protest low wages, poor management, and their lack of a voice in job related matters. Public workers in Wisconsin defied their governor by continuing to pour into the state capital today to protest proposed legislation that will reduce their benefits, lower their pay, and deprive them of a voice in job related matters. Egyptian rulers have insinuated that they may use military force to break the strikes; Wisconsin’s governor has threatened to call out the National Guard to force public workers back to work.

Striking Egyptian workers helped overthrow the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and since his overthrow, tens of thousands of workers in the banking, transport, oil, tourism, textile, and state-owned media industries have remained on strike. Workers at several government agencies also remain on strike.

In Al-Mahlla al-Kubra about 60 miles north of Cairo, workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving textile factory, who have been at the center of countrywide worker unrest, resumed their strike  on Wednesday after a two-day interlude.

The Misr textile workers are demanding an increase in the country’s minimum wage from 400 Egyptian pounds a month ($68) to 1200 pounds a month ($204), the court-ordered minimum established last year but never implemented.

The Misr workers are also demanding that the mill’s boss, who has ties to former president Mubarak, be fired and that their independent union be recognized instead of the existing union, which has proven to be corrupt and unwilling to support workers’ fights for justice.

Back in 2006 workers at dozens of textile factories in Al-Mahalla including Misr, went on strike and occupied factories for pay increases and health benefits. Management agreed to their demands, but never followed through, which led to another strike in 2007. In 2008 when gains won by workers had still not been implemented, young workers and students in Al-Mahalla organized a general strike that shut down the city. Out of the general strike grew the April 6 Youth Movement, which was a key group that mobilized people to overthrow President Mubarak.

In Madison, Wisconsin, 20,000 public workers and their supporters on Thursday returned to Madison for the fourth day of protests against Gov Scott Walker’s proposal to cut public worker pay and take away their collective bargaining rights. The workers and their supporters have been mobilized by  the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Wisconsin American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and other public sector unions. 

Gov Walker’s proposal was supposed to come up for a vote in legislature on Thursday, Democratic senators were not present so no there was no quorum and no vote could be taken. Police were sent looking for them.

Today’s rally followed yesterday’s which drew more than 30,000 opponents to the bill. After the rally ended protestors marched to the Capitol chanting “Kill the Bill.”

The bill proposed by Gov Walker increases the amount of money public employees contribute to their health care and pension plans.  The increased employee contributions will result in an 8 percent cut in take home pay for the average public worker in Wisconsin.

Gov Scott says that these cuts are needed to bring public workers’ benefits in line with workers in the private sector, but according to research done by Jeffery E. Keefe of the Economic Policy Institute, when total compensation packages for public and private sector workers with comparable skills and training are compared, Wisconsin public workers make 4.8 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

The fact is that private companies have been using the recession as an excuse to reduce benefits for their employees, and Gov Scott wants to do the same.

The bill also substantially limits the right of Wisconsin’s public workers to bargain collectively and takes away on-the-job rights like a fair grievance procedure. This bill is clearly aimed at busting public sector unions.

Wisconsin public workers are receiving support from private sector unions. The United Steelworkers has mobilized members to participate in the rallies and some Green Bay Packer football players, who are members of the National Football League Players Association, wrote a letter to Gov Walker scolding him for his union-busting,  anti-worker proposal.

You can read more about the impact that Gov Scott’s anti-worker bill will have on individual lives here.  And you can read more about the struggle at AFSCME’s and Wisconsin AFT’s website.

Wisconsin public workers: “Fight like an Egyptian”

 Wisconsin public employees, whose rally cry has become “fight like an Egyptian” continued their second day of protest against Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to impose $300 million worth of benefit cuts on public workers and break their unions. Today, 40 percent of public school teachers in Madison called in sick so they could attend today’s demonstrations causing the district’s superintendent to close schools for the day.

Yesterday, more than 10,000 public workers and their supporters rallied at the state Capitol. After the rally, thousands of public workers swarmed into the state Capitol to talk face-to-face with their lawmakers. Workers packed a hearing room where legislators were hearing testimony about Gov Walker’s bill. Public workers, one after another, testified about its impact on their lives until 3:00 am when Republicans called a halt to the testimony.

Democrats on the committee hearing the testimony, however, remained in the room to listen to speakers who continued to speak until 8:00 am Wednesday morning. The Democratic lawmakers adjourned briefly but said that they would resume hearing testimony at 9:00 am.

Wednesday morning, workers gathered outside of Walker’s office chanting calls for his impeachment. Buses also began arriving early in the morning with public employees who live outside of Madison, the state’s capital, for another round of rallies and direct talk to lawmakers.

While spirits remain high, the workers are fighting an uphill battle. Several sources have told reporters that Walker has enough votes to pass his benefit cuts and union busting bill. But the Associated Press reports that after the demonstrations on Tuesday, several Republican lawmakers were meeting to discuss the bill. When asked by an AP reporter where Republicans stood on the measure, Sen Dan Kapanke, a Republican from LaCrosse said, “I don’t know.”

The two days of rallies, sick outs, and protests have been the largest and most sustained public action in Madison in decades. 

If the bill does pass, it’s not likely that the fight will be over.  Last night a group union activists in the Madison area met and made plans to continue the fight. The Pierce County Herald reported that at the meeting Madison attorney Lester Pines told the labor activists that true bargaining power results from people “coming together and organizing,” and it does not come from any laws. Baptist pastor Scott Erlenborn said activists must build on the union solidarity being shown by the thousands protesting Walker’s plans. He called it quote, “political theater” and said it should keep going as long as possible.

Texas budget cut pain is far reaching

Last week, people  had a chance to tell the Texas Senate Finance Committee how budget cuts proposed by the Texas Legislature and Gov Perry will affect them and their loved ones, and it wasn’t pretty. Senators heard that nursing home cuts will mean death for some seniors; that more mentally ill Texans will end up on the streets or in jail; that youngsters with developmental disabilities won’t receive the help they need; and countless other stories that showed the depth and breadth of the impact that these cuts will have.

“Last week’s huge turn out and emotional testimony made it clear that the budget cuts will affect most of us,” said Derrick Osabase, political director for the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186. “Whether it’s the middle- class mother of two denied coverage for her children’s treatment or the elderly woman who was afraid of being kicked out of her nursing home, one thing for sure is that the poor are not the only people on state services. Lots of middle-class families filled the committee room last week asking legislators to take a balanced approach to balancing the budget.”

And state workers and retirees will also feel the impact. The proposed  budget presents two options for cutting state employees health care benefit. One option would raise the amount of money that employees and retirees pay for health care coverage. Employee and retiree premiums would increase by nearly $1200 a year; if dependents are covered, the yearly increase would be as much as $2,760. The cuts would amount to a substantial cut in monthly take home pay and would force many workers and retirees to drop health care coverage for dependents.

The second option would restructure the health care benefit as a high deductible health care plan that would require employees and retirees to pay $4,400 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. If dependents are covered, employees and retirees would have to pay as much as $11,900 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. Employees and retirees under 65 years old would be able to open a health savings account to help pay for their deductible and co-insurance cost.

“Either of these options would be disastrous for state employees,” Osobase said. “A cut to benefits without an increase in pay is a cut in pay.”

As the legislative session goes on, state leaders will no doubt try to drive a wedge between those who need state services and those who provide them by saying that the state can’t afford to provide all the services that Texans need without cutting benefits and pay for state workers.

But the fact is that even though Texas has a large state budget deficit now, it’s a wealthy state with plenty of resources to provide decent services and decent benefits for those who provide the services. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reports that the Gross State Product (the total value of goods and services produced in the state) was more than $1.2 trillion in the third quarter of 2010.

And some of the state’s richest corporations are doing quite well. For example, Exxon Mobil reported earnings of $30.7 billion in 2010 and returned a total of $19 billion to shareholders. Halliburton reported consolidated income of $3 billion for 2010 up 57 percent over 2009.

The cuts proposed by the Legislature will most fall heavily on those least able to bear the burden, but the cuts will be felt by most of us, and their impact will be crippling. Local governments will either have to raise taxes or cut more services, classrooms will be too crowded, higher education will be out of reach for many working class students, and the economic impact caused by layoffs will devastate some communities.

The best way to avoid the pain these cuts will impose is to avoid the temptation to fight for a particular interest and instead make this a universal fight for quality state services. To do so will require a broad-based movement that advocates a balanced approach toward writing the budget, an approach that includes tapping a little private wealth to help the larger community avoid crippling cuts.

Sit-in urges environmental and worker justice in Kentucky

A group of pro-environment, pro-working class activists staged a sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to urge the governor to reconsider his support for mountain top removal coal mining, a process that contaminates ground and drinking water in eastern Kentucky and threatens the health and safety of working-class communities near where the mining takes place.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired miner who worked in the coal industry for 41 years, said that the group came to Frankfort, the state’s capital, to talk to Governor Steve Beshear about the problems that mountaintop removal was causing. “He gave us some of his time,” said Sturgill, but we didn’t have a chance to tell him all we wanted to say before he said he had to leave. “So we just told the governor that we would wait (in his office) and maybe talk to him when he got time.”

After the governor left,  the group of 14 calling themselves  Kentucky Rising, began the sit-in that lasted through the weekend. They emerged from the Capitol Monday afternoon to the cheers of about 1,000 people at a rally opposing mountaintop removal.

When the group talked with the governor, they urged him to come to eastern Kentucky where mining companies are blowing the tops off mountains to uncover coal below. They want him to see the polluted streams and dangerous conditions created by the explosions.

They also urged him to pull out of a suit filed by the  state and the coal operators association  against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The suit alleges that EPA has been too aggressive in enforcing strip mining regulations. 

Kentucky Rising asked the governor to begin a public dialogue about how to transition away from coal mining in a way that creates new economic opportunities for workers whose only choice now is to work in the dangerous and environmentally destroying coal industry.

The group also wants the underground mines operating in eastern Kentucky to be safe and unionized. “I have two concerns,” said Sturgill. “One is trying to stop mountain top removal. Second, I’m a strong miner’s advocate, (and) there’s a strong pattern of violations (in the underground mines), and they’re going to lead to more tragedies like Upper Big Branch.”

Upper Big Branch is a mine in West Virginia owned by Massey Energy where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners. In a related matter, the US  Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a fatality alert today profiling the causes of the 71 miner deaths last year.

On Sunday, about 150 people rallied on the grounds of the Kentucky Capitol to support the sit-in. Among those at the rally were members of the Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights who brought a home-cooked Mexican meal for the protestors inside.

Today, another rally against mountaintop removal took place at the Capitol.  The “I Love the Mountains” rally was called by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to protest the dumping of mining waste into streams, a direct result of mountaintop mining, and to demand a clean energy future for Kentucky.  The rally had been planned for over a year and was not directly related to the sit-in, but Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been supporting the sit-in since it began.

Kentucky Rising issued the following statement explaining why it chose to sit in at the governor’s office. “We call on Gov Beshear to lead by ending mountaintop removal, by beginning a sincere dialogue about creating sustainable jobs for hard-working miners, by putting the vital interests of ordinary Kentuckians above the special interests of an abusive industry.”

Wisconsin governor launches class war attack on state employees

Wisconsin has become the latest battleground in what Eric Alterman recently described as the conservative class war against public sector workers. After signing off on a $117 million tax cut for businesses in January, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced today that he will send a “budget repair” bill to the state legislature that allows him to close the state’s $137 million budget shortfall by imposing cuts to state worker benefits without negotiating with state worker unions. 

Walker ran on a anti-public worker platform, and his bill reflects this sentiment. If his bill is enacted, the  governor would unilaterally increase state employee health care and pension contributions without bargaining. State employees would also have to pay higher out-of-pocket costs for health care services. These cuts would reduce the average state worker’s take-home pay by about 8 percent. If the “budget repair” bill is passed, the cuts would become effective on March 13 when most of the state’s collective bargaining agreements expire.

State workers would no longer be allowed to bargain collectively for anything but wage increases, and any future wage increases would be limited to the rate of inflation unless voters approve higher raises. Right now, state law requires the state to bargain with workers over their health care and pension benefits, wages, disciplinary procedures, and outsourcing.  The bill would also no longer require non-union workers to pay the union a fair share payment for services they receive from the union.

If enacted, state workers would lose any voice they have in crucial job-related decisions. “Something as simple as the grievance procedure will be replaced with the civil service procedure, which establishes the agency head as the final decision maker on your grievances.  Everything will be in the hands of and controlled by the employer, without employee recourse,” read a statement from the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24 to its members.

Union leaders said that it was unfair to balance the state’s budget on the back of state workers, who earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. “States across the country have budget challenges because of a national economic crisis, not because Wisconsin’s public employees earn modest wages,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40. ” Taking away rights from caregivers, correctional officers and snowplow drivers means undercutting our state’s fragile economic recovery – and it puts the health, safety and well-being of our communities at even greater risk.”

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24, said that Walker’s proposal was “a job killing attack on public workers.” Beil said that contrary to the myth that Walker and other conservatives have been spreading, “public employees in Wisconsin earn less than their counterparts in the private sector.”

AFSCME, which represents state and local government workers in Wisconsin, is planning an all out fight against the bill. It urged members to contact legislators, and it scheduled rallies February 15 and February 16. After the rally, union members will speak directly to lawmakers.

Walker’s bill is not done deal yet. Republicans control the state legislature, but some Republicans have a large number of state employees living in their districts, and their vote is not assured. “The concept (Walker’s bill) is pretty radical,” said State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon). “It affects a lot of good working people.”

Egyptian strikes take aim at neoliberal economic policies

A wave of strikes involving tens of thousands of workers rolled across Egypt this week increasing pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to resign. Since coming to office in 1981, Mubarak has implemented neoliberal economic policies advocated by the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. His policies, according to Dr Joel Beinin, encouraged the use of temporary workers, weakened unions, made it easier to fire and layoff workers, reduced public expenditures on health and education, encouraged privatization, and kept wages low. This week’s strikes are a repudiation of these policies.

Some of the strikes are about wages and working conditions, but some are broader in scope like the strike of iron and steel workers in Cairo. They have demanded that President Mubarak and his political allies resign, that workers’ committees be established at all workplaces to oversee production, prices, distribution, and wages, that workers have the right to form independent unions, and that a general assembly of popularly elected delegates be convened to write a new constitution.

Workers for Cairo’s public transportation system are striking for a new constitution, the ouster of Mubarak and his cronies, and a higher minimum wage for all Egyptian workers.   

Many of the strikers’ demands include giving permanent status to temporary workers, who make up a large portion of the Egyptian workforce. Strikers making this demand include postal workers, service technicians who maintain the Suez Canal, workers at the agency that regulates prescription drugs, workers at the Al Hilal hospital, workers at a coke (a key ingredient for the production of steel, not the carbonate soft drink) plant in Helwan, workers at a cement factory in Helwan and many others. 

Strikers have also been targeting corrupt leaders who have benefited under Mubarak’s rule.   Members of the journalist union, while not on strike, are circulating a petition calling for the ouster of the union’s president Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who refused to support journalist arrested and beaten during the uprising and has publicly supported President Mubarak.

The mostly female staff at the Egyptian Animal Health Research Center are striking to demand that the center’s director Mona Mehnez resign. “She used the money allocated for studying and preventing avian flu to build personal villas,” one doctor told the Daily News Egypt.

The government recognized labor federation, the Egyptian Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), has also come under sharp attack. Egypt’s first independent union in more than 50 years, the Independent Real Estate Tax Authorities Union, held a demonstration in front of ETUC’s headquarters demanding that its president and board resign.

“(ETUC) has become a center for fighting the activities of labor unions,” said Kamal Abu Eita leader of the independent union. “Now we are demanding the investigation into its corruption and demanding the resignation of its board and the allowing of workers to form their independent unions freely.”

Many of the accounts about these strikes suggest that they are spontaneous with little or no organization. But, Egypt has a long history of labor struggles. Since 2004, there have been more than 1900 labor actions including strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins, all of which were organized by rank-and-file workers and opposed by the old labor confederation.

During 2006 and 2007, strikers were especially active. At the center of these strikes was the industrial town of Mahalla where textile workers won significant concessions from their bosses, who then dragged their feet in implementing the concessions. In 2008, a group of young workers and students called a general strike in Mahalla to support the workers. The strike shut down the city for the day. Those who organized it, formed the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been one of the organizations mobilizing people for the protests at Tahir Square.

In a television address to the nation tonight, President Mubarak made further concessions but still refuses to resign. Whether he will be able to remain in office until September as he says he plans to do will depend largely on whether he is able to quell this new wave of strikes.

IMF Working Paper: Loss of bargaining power leads to recession

For decades now, economic orthodoxy has held that government policy that impedes the accumulation and expansion of private capital is bad policy. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have promoted and often enforced this orthodoxy.

The two institutions have encouraged countries to weaken laws protecting job security, eliminate or reduce corporate taxes that support social protections like unemployment insurance, and implement austerity measures that make life harder for workers. 

But the financial crisis of 2008 and the instability that ensued, including the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, are causing some within these two institutions to reconsider their position. It would be naive to think that this moment of new-found uncertainty and reflection represents a change of heart for the ruling classes of the world, but it does show that cracks are starting form in the foundation of economic conventional wisdom.

Last November, the IMF published a working paper by two of its economists entitled Inequality, Leverage, and Crisis that argues that income inequality was at the heart of the Great Recession and that if this inequality is not addressed, it will lead to new recessions and growing instability

The working paper, which reflects the position of its authors and not the IMF, says that in the US wealth has been redistributed upward with the rich getting much richer and the rest of us treading water or falling further behind. “The share of  total income commanded by the top 5 percent of income distribution increased. . . from 22 percent in 1983 to 34 percent in 2007.”

According to the paper, this upward wealth redistribution has been caused by  a decline in workers’ bargaining power over wages, which has led to stagnant wages for some and falling wages for others. The authors cite several reasons why workers’ bargaining power has declined: the increased use of performance-based compensation such as bonuses is the leading cause; the decline of unions is the second.

In the face of stagnant and falling wages, workers over the last 30 years have taken on more debt to maintain their standard of living.  This debt has been bundled and sold as securities to financial institutions, institutional investors, and wealthy individuals. The financial crisis happened when workers’ debt to income ratio became too high,  which made debt-based securities less secure and lowered their value. As the value of these securities continued to decline, it became harder to trade them and markets eventually crashed.

The paper suggests that unless government policy changes to give more bargaining power to workers, they will continue to over rely on debt to finance consumption and the downward spiral that led to the Great Recession will be repeated.

It’s not just policy wonks at the IMF raising alarms about the instability caused by income inequality. Dominique Strauss-Kahn head of the IMF said recently that the world’s economy is built on an unstable foundation. “Global unemployment remains at record highs, with widening income inequality adding to social strains,” Strauss-Khan said.

In January, Strauss-Kahn and Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, met with representatives of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to discuss how the benefits of economic growth could be distributed more equitably and social protections could be enlarged.

Strauss-Kahn is also working with the International Labor Organization to establish a social protection floor that would provide workers around the world with essential services and income security.

At the same time, the IMF and World Bank have not done much besides talk about possible changes. The World Bank continues to support government austerity measures in spite of high unemployment around the world, opposes government standards that regulate labor, and still opposes taxing corporations to pay for social protection benefits. 

According to Sharan Burrow ITUC general secretary, “the World Bank has caused enormous damage to workers by advising borrowing countries that labour standards should be dispensed with. . . . It is simply irresponsible to promote the idea that companies should not have to pay one cent of tax or social contribution.”

Unions pursue alternatives to neoliberal globalization at World Social Forum

The 11th World Social Forum (WSF) opened Sunday in Dakar, the capital of the West African nation of Senegal. Trade unionist from around the world were among the 70,000 people from 120 countries attending the forum,  a gathering of community, environmental, and labor activists and intellectuals, looking for alternatives to a world economic order whose only concern is the private accumulation and expansion of capital. 

The forum, which will last a week, will consist of marches, conferences, debates, and workshops held at sites all over Dakar. The object of the forum is to create an open space for discussions and debates about alternatives to neoliberal globalization.  Specific discussions will be held on a wide range of subjects like the crisis of capitalism, the African Diaspora, privatization,  building a sustainable economy, protecting the environment, human rights, and the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. 

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a worldwide organization of affiliated union groups representing 176 million workers, has sent a number of representatives including labor leaders from Africa like Kwasi Adu-Amanhwah, General Secretary of the African Regional Organization of ITUC.

In a media release, the ITUC said that the WSF will give thousands of people the chance to exchange views on globalization, human rights, and workers’ rights with a special focus on Africa and stressed the need to build a popular movement to supplant neoliberal globalization.

 “We are here to exchange ideas and promote effective concrete solutions to answer the (economic) crisis and get the global economy onto a sustainable path, which supports decent work for all,” Adu-Amanhwah said.”Competition within and between countries to attract multinationals and foreign investment is heavily based on keeping wages low and engaging in unsustainable and environmentally damaging production methods.” 

CNTS Senegal, the national union confederation of Senegal, also sent representatives. Its General Secretary Mody Guiro said neoliberalism, the economic philosophy of unrestrained capitalism, has been especially bad for Africa. “It is more urgent to change the current model of globalization and put an end to neoliberal orthodoxy that has left millions of Africans with underfunded education systems, poor health services, and virtually no decent work opportunities,” Guiro said.

ITUC will hold an event on Wednesday where speakers will examine the causes of the global economic crisis and offer solutions. Speakers will also make presentations on immigration, domestic work, access to social protection, and trade and investment.

On Tuesday, ITUC held a Dakar demonstration of solidarity with people of Egypt. The action coincided with an international day of solidarity in which union members around the world held demonstrations at Egyptian embassies to demand that a democratic transition take place in Egypt and that those responsible for violent repression of demonstrators be punished.

The WSF opened on Sunday with a march through downtown Dakar by thousands.  The rally after the march was addressed by a number of speakers including President Evo Morales of Bolivia. He warned that private companies in South America and Africa are trying to privatize natural resources. He said that some governments had privatized water distribution and said that he would ask the UN to declare water a basic resource “that must not be managed by private interests, but should be for all the people, including people of rural areas.”

On Monday former Brazilian President Luis Inacia “Lula” da Silva told an audience, “for too long rich countries saw us (developing countries) as peripheral, problematic, even dangerous. Today, we are an essential, undeniable part of the solution to the biggest crisis of the last decade–a crisis that was not created by us, but that emerged from the great centers of world capitalism.”

Da Silva urged people at the WSF to follow the example of the people in Egypt and Tunisia. “In South America, but especially in the streets of Tunis and Cairo and many other African cities hopes for a new world are being revived,” da Silva said. “Millions of people are protesting against poverty. . ., against tyranny, and against submission of their country to world powers.”

Echoing da Silva’s words, Moroccan trade unionist Mohamed Kabba told reporters, “pressure from the streets, that is what gets results.”

Walmart’s urban strategy resisted by workers and small business owners

Hundreds of people rallied outside New York City Hall last week to protest Walmart’s plan to open stores in New York City. “This is a company that kills small business, hurts the communities where it operates, violates labor laws, and pays its workers poverty wages and lousy benefits,” said Jane Thompson of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

On Monday,the Washington DC Living Wage and Healthy Communities coalition rallied at the Wilson building in Washington DC to demand that Walmart sign an enforceable community benefits agreement guaranteeing that it will treat its workers with dignity, provide full-time jobs with good benefits, and help neighborhoods improve their economic standing and quality of life.

These actions were taken as Walmart seeks to expand its presence in urban centers all across the country. It has been trying unsuccessfully to enter the New York market since 2004, but thanks to a directing marketing campaign and an ongoing public relations campaign, Walmart may soon be coming to all five boroughs of New York.

To win over New Yorkers, Walmart initiated a direct mail campaign, ran ads on radio, and opened up a Facebook page. It also flew community leaders to company headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas for a stakeholders summit.  To get support from construction unions, Walmart  promised that its new stores would be built with union labor.

Meanwhile, Walmart has been busy recasting its image. It no longer wants you to think of it as a place to buy cheap stuff; instead, it wants you to think of it as a value oriented, health conscious, neighborly one-stop shopping center. To spruce up its image, Walmart  is  sponsoring the America I AM: The African-American Imprint tour, “a four-year touring museum exhibition that celebrates nearly 500 years of African-American contributions to this country.” It also announced in January that it will  implement a five-year plan to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.

But as Walmart tries to tidy up its image, it has done little to change its labor policies or protect communities from damages it does when it opens for business. A study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that in addition to paying workers less, Walmart drags down the pay for workers in competing stores. “The opening of a single Walmart store in a county lowered average retail wages in that county by between 0.5 and 0.9 percent. . . . And for grocery store employees, the effect of a single new Walmart was a 1.5 percent reduction in earnings.”

In return for low wages, Walmart demands a lot from its own workers. Rosetta Brown worked for Walmart in Illinois. she had a hard time getting 40 hours of work a week. She wanted to work overtime to earn extra money but was seldom allowed to do so. When she asked management for more hours, she was told to make herself available to wok seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

“They want you to be on call. They don’t care about your kids, they don’t care about your family life, they don’t care about nothing, just cater to them,” Brown said.

Many of those at the New York protests were small business owners like Elvin Fernandez, who own Aim Supermarket near where Walmart is considering building one of its stores. “They’re going to kill me,” Fernandez told the New York Daily News.

He could be right, figuratively at least. A study by researchers at Loyola University Chicago found that when Walmart opened a store on the West Side of Chicago in 2006, it caused one-quarter of the businesses in a four-mile radius to close.

As for the jobs that Walmart promises, the same study found that communities lose just as many jobs due to a Walmart opening as are created, so the result is that no new jobs are created.

Other studies concur. According to Brian Paul of Hunter College, “studies from all across the country show that Walmart’s arrival does not bring the increase in jobs and retail spending that the company promises. Instead, Walmart captures spending from existing stores, driving them out of business and replacing existing retail jobs with lower-paying Walmart jobs.”

Egypt’s independent unions support Day of Leaving

On Friday morning, the “Day of Leaving” began in Cairo as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahir Square to demand that President Hosni Mubarak leave office. The crowd was made up of many ordinary Egyptians, who before last week’s demonstrations had never been involved in politics or mass political action.

But many of the protestors had taken to the streets before. There were young people, who belong to the April 6 Youth Movement, who three years ago led a general strike “to protest deteriorating living conditions,” that mobilized tens of thousands in Cairo and places like Mahalla, Egypt’s industrial center.

There were feminists like Nawal El Saadawi, who returned from exile to be with the people in Tarhir Square and who told Democracy Now, “we are calling for justice, freedom, equality, and real democracy and a new constitution with no discrimination between men and women (or) between Muslims and Christians.”

And there were union members, who just six days ago formed an independent trade union confederation, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, whose members called for a general strike and told workers to form workplace committees.

“The labor movement is the heart and soul of the Egyptian people’s revolution,” said a statement from the Center Trade Unions and Workers Services, a worker center that provides legal aid and advice to the new confederation.

Two of the unions at the center of the new independent confederation are public worker unions:  the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA), which  in 2008 led a successful strike and became the first independent union since the 1950’s to be recognized by the government, and the General Union of Health Technicians, which became Egypt’s second independent union last year. Their independent status was challenged unsuccessfully by the old labor confederation, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which has remained loyal to President Mubarak. 

But many of the unions that formed the new confederation have no legal status and are made up of rank-and-file workers who organized a wave of unauthorized strikes and labor protest during the last decade. 

Between 2004 and 2008 more than 1.7 million Egyptian workers participated in more than  1,900 worker protests such as strikes, sit-ins, gatherings, and demonstrations.

These rank-and-file actions became more intense at the end of the decade as economic conditions of the working class deteriorated. According to Joel Beinin, author of Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, a wave of strikes beginning in 2007 and continuing through 2009 “spread from their center of gravity in the textile and clothing industry to encompass building materials workers, transport workers, the Cairo underground Metro workers, food processing workers, bakers, sanitation workers, oil workers in Suez and many others.” 

These rank-and-file actions were spawned by President Mubarak’s neoliberal economic policies that weakened job security by accelerating the pace of privatization and promoting the use of temporary workers.  

 Workers wages were also kept low to attract foreign investment. Before the wave of labor protests began, the average worker wage in the manufacturing sector was $44.50 per month; in the public sector, it was $75 per month.

The strikes and demonstrations resulted in some gains, but the economic situation for most Egyptians remains grim. “More than 40 percent of all Egyptians live at or near the poverty line,” Beinin writes.  “The price of food has skyrocketed. Consequently, the wages of most blue and white-collar workers are insufficient to sustain a family. The cutbacks in government social spending have shredded the social safety net. . . What is left is an authoritarian kleptocracy”–which is why the people of Egypt have made today President Mubarak’s Day of Leaving.

Guestworkers ask judge to expand human trafficking lawsuit

Attorneys for Indian guestworkers lured to the US by false promises and after their arrival forced to live in inhuman conditions, asked a federal judge on Tuesday to include hundreds of other Indian guestworkers in a class action lawsuit filed against their former employer and labor agents working on behalf of the employer.

In a media release, the American Civil Liberties Union said that “if class action is granted, the lawsuit could be the largest human trafficking case in US history.”

The original class action suit was filed in November on behalf of 12 Indian guestworkers who worked for Signal International, a marine and fabricating company with operations on the Gulf Coast. The suit says that Signal and labor agents working for it falsely led Indian workers to believe that they would be granted permanent US resident status even though the company and its agents knew this be untrue.

Furthermore, when the guestworkers arrived in the US, they were confined to prison-like living quarters and forced to labor under poor and unsafe working conditions. Those who resisted were fired and deported.

“We hope the court will give us all a chance to make our voices heard and to right the wrongs done against us,” said Kurian David, one of the 12 original plaintiffs. “Signal and the other defendants should be held accountable for what they did to so many Indian guestworkers who worked for them.”

The plaintiffs’ ordeal began when they responded to want ads in India and the Persian Gulf. The labor agents placing the ads promised good jobs and permanent residency status in the US for fees of up to $20,000. The plaintiffs, skilled welders and fitters, borrowed heavily and/or exhausted their savings to pay the fees. The labor agents knew that the promise of permanent resident status was one that they couldn’t keep.

In the meantime, Signal was looking for welders and fitters to repair offshore drilling rigs damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Signal contracted with the labor agents named as co-defendants to bring more than 500 Indian guestworkers to two of its facilities, one in Pascagoula, Mississippi and the other in Orange, Texas.

Before the guestworkers boarded the plane to the US, their passports were confiscated. Once they arrived in the US, they were forced to live in a fenced compound whose only entrance was guarded by security guards. The workers’ living quarters were small, trailer-like bunkhouses that housed up to 24 men. They slept on two-tiered, tightly packed bunk beds. All residents of a single bunkhouse shared one toilet.

Workers were subject to regular searches by security guards and their comings and goings were tightly restricted. For these accommodations, Signal charged the workers $1050 a month.

The prison-like living conditions and poor and unsafe working conditions led some of the guest workers in Pascagoula to begin organizing for better conditions. When Signal learned of the organizing, it retaliated with a raid on the guestworkers living quarters early in the morning on March 7, 2007.

The raiders, security guards working for Signal, accosted workers and demanded to know the whereabouts of the leaders of the organizing efforts: Sabulal Vijayan, Krishan Kumar, Jacob Joseph Kaddakkarappally, Kuldeep Singh, and Thanasekar Chellappan, all plaintiffs in the suit.

Three were tracked down and taken to a room where they were held for hours under lock and key. Vijayan when confronted by the guards tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized. Singh managed to hide and escape.

Fellow workers soon gathered outside the room where the three were imprisoned demanding their release. Several hours later, supporters from the outside arrived at the compound gates and demanded the same. Finally after several hours, Signal informed the three that they were being fired and would be deported back to India.

After all this happened, some of the guestworkers ran away from the compound, but when they tried to withdraw their money from a local bank, they learned that Signal had conspired with the bank to freeze their accounts.

The lawsuit charges Signal and its co-defendants with racketeering and human trafficking. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU, the Southern Law Poverty Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Louisiana Justice Institute, and Dewey and LeBoeuf LLP.

“I speak on behalf of hundreds of Indian guestworkers subjected to abuse by Signal and its co-conspirators,” said Murugan Kandhasamy, a plaintiff. “We came to America for good jobs and opportunity, which we were denied, and now we are asking for justice.”

Texas’ job killer budget, part 2

Texas could lose more than 125,000 jobs if the Texas Legislature goes through with its plan to close the state’s $26 billion budget deficit with cuts to state services and public education. Because of the multiplier effect, the private sector will likely suffer more job losses than the public sector. 

“Multiplier effect” is a term used by economists to calculate the indirect impact of business or government spending. For instance, when a company adds new jobs, the new employees stimulate business activity by spending their money at community businesses, which in turn makes it possible for them to add more workers to their payroll. The standard multiplier effect calculation is that one new job creates 1.5 other new jobs in a community.

If that’s the case, then the opposite holds true. If one job is lost, then because of the multiplier effect, 1.5 other jobs in the community will be lost. That’s what former Lt Governor Bill Hobby said would be the impact of cutting 9,000 state employee jobs.

In a letter to Texas business leaders urging their support for a more balanced approach to reducing the budget deficit, Hobby said that “Texas would suffer direct private-sector job loss because of reduced state spending on contracting, and we would suffer indirect private-sector job loss because (state employee)  job losses would further reduce demand for goods and services. Dr Ray Perryman, a leading Texas economist estimates that for every one job directly lost as a result of state budget reductions, roughly 1.5 jobs would be lost indirectly. Job losses of this magnitude would not be good for Texas businesses and or our communities.”

Eva Castro, senior budget analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based research group, said that because of the multiplier effect, the eliminating 9,000 state jobs would result in a total loss of 23,000 jobs in the state.

The cuts to public education could have an even bigger impact. Hobby in his letter says that “one of the state’s leading school finance experts has estimated that school districts would be forced to lay off as many as 100,000 employees, including teachers.” 

But that’s not all the jobs that would be lost. As Castro points out, “the state is a huge contributor to the economy through health care and through schools, both of which are the largest employers – at least, in most communities.”

Take for example Ranger College, a public junior college in the North Texas town of Ranger about 65 miles west of Fort Worth. The college is the biggest employer in the town whose population is 2,500. In fact, the college is the hub of the town’s business activity, which is why residents of Ranger were alarmed to hear that the college may be forced to close because the proposed House budget eliminates all state funding for the college.

Shutting down the college “would be a death knell to Ranger,” Clara Mathews told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. Mathews husband Wayne is a former member of Rangers’ Board of Regents. “What will we have if the college is not here.”