Wisconsin anti-worker law put on hold temporarily

A Wisconsin circuit judge on Friday issued a temporary restraining order that for now blocks enforcement of Wisconsin’s recently passed anti-worker law that prohibits the state’s public employees from bargaining collectively. Judge Maryann Sumi ruled that the Wisconsin Senate committee that held hearings last week on a substitute bill that became the anti-collective bargaining law signed by Gov. Scott Walker a few days later violated the state’s Open Meeting laws. The committee did not give the two-hour public notice of the hearing required by state law. 

For now, Wisconsin’s secretary of state Doug La Follette cannot publish the new law, and it can’t be enforced until it is published. State officials said that they would appeal the judge’s ruling as soon as possible, perhaps as early as Monday.

Wisconsin lawmakers could take up the anti-worker bill again, hold legal committee hearings, and vote again on the measure, but as of yet, no decision has been made on how the legislature will proceed.  More information is available here, here, and here.

Judge Sumi last month, refused a request for a temporary restraining order aimed at making teachers in the Madison public schools return to work during the height of action against Gov. Walker’s anti-worker bill. The Madison school district asked for the order, alleging that teachers who had called in sick and gone to the Capitol to protest Gov. Walker’s action were engaging in a strike, which shut down Madison public schools for four days.

The teachers’ union argued that the teachers weren’t striking; they were merely exercising their free speech rights to make their voices heard in a political issue that involved their jobs and livelihood. Judge Sumi, ruled that the school district did not present sufficient evidence demonstrating that the teachers were on strike. The point became moot when the union told members to return to work.

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This is what austerity looks like

Austerity is another word for budget cuts like the ones that right-wing US governors from Wisconsin to Texas are proposing. Opponents of state budget cuts have warned us about the damage that the proposed cuts could do. The United Kingdom has already adopted austerity measures that will cut 245 billion pounds out of national and local government budgets over the next five years. Since some of the cuts have already been implemented, we can start to see the damage that they are doing. So far, the people hit hardest by Britain’s austerity measures are youth and women.

One of first effects of Britain’s austerity program has been the elimination of 132,000 public sector jobs, 45,000, or 34 percent, of those jobs were lost in the last three months of 2010. Since women make up a majority of the public workforce, they have been hit especially hard by the cuts. In February, the number of women claiming unemployment benefits increased by 12 percent over the same time last year.

“Slashing the public sector workforce hits women hardest,” said Anna Bird, Acting Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, a women’s equality organization. “Sixty-five percent of public sector workers are women, and they are concentrated in the low-paid, low-grade, and insecure work that are most under attack.”

Women face a triple whammy from the austerity measures. They are not only losing a disproportionate share of jobs; they also are losing important benefits and services . For example, 65 percent of funding for day care services is being cut, which will mean “that it’s going to be hard to find full-time (day care) for mothers who work full-time,” said Penny Liechti.

Public sector jobs and social benefits and services have helped narrow the gender gap in the UK, but the cuts could undo much of what has been accomplished over the last 30 years. “The cuts represent a patriarchal offensive against women,” said professor Victoria Click.

And Britain’s austerity measures have, according to Dave Printis, general secretary of Unison, a public service union, created “an abandoned generation.” When the government on Wednesday announced that UK’s unemployment rate rose to 8 percent, the highest in 17 years, it also announced that youth unemployment hit 20.6 percent. That means that in the UK, one in five people between the ages of 16 and 24 looking for work can’t find any.

Austerity measures are one of the main reasons that youth unemployment is so high. The austerity measures have caused most local governments to initiate a hiring freeze, closing one of the gateways to the workforce for young people. 

The cuts have also resulted in fewer services for people looking for work. For example, local government employment services like Connexions in Birmingham have already begun to cut its workforce, which means that people are waiting longer for employment services.

With these two paths to employment restricted, some young people might look to higher education to help them prepare for a career. But the austerity measures have caused public university tuition rates to increase sharply, which makes it much harder for working class students to go to college. 

Those who plan to skip college and enter the workforce through apprenticeship programs will find it harder to enter the workforce this way. “All the talk about modern apprenticeships is just that, talk.” said Leonard Haye, a union organizer with GMB, another public service union. “Even when the economy was buoyant it was a challenge; now it is almost impossible.”

The fight moves to Michigan

More than 5,000 people rallied Thursday in Lansing, Michigan’s state capital, to demonstrate opposition to an emergency measure, known as “the financial martial law” bill that Gov Rick Snyder signed into law on Wednesday. The new law gives him unprecedented power to dismiss elected local officials and break union contracts signed by these officials. Protestors were also angry at Gov Snyder’s proposals to increase taxes on workers and lower taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

“This governor and his Republican party want to take almost $2 billion more off working people in Michigan,” said United Autoworker president Bob King. “And who does he want to give it to? The wealthy, the corporations.”

King was referring to Gov Snyder’s proposal to end Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits low-paid workers, eliminate the state $600 per child tax credit, and reduce tax credits for the elderly. At the same time, Gov Snyder wants to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy by 86 percent.

Snyder also proposes to reduce funding for local schools by 8 to 10 percent, which the Associated Press reports, “may force school districts to close buildings, reduce staff, and privatize services.”

Think Progress reports that “Michigan already has a regressive tax system, which Snyder’s proposal will only make worse. “Currently, someone in the poorest 20 percent of Michigan’s taxpayers pays a tax rate of 8.9 percent, while someone in the richest 1 percent pays 5.3 percent.”

The” financial martial law” bill signed Wednesday by Gov Snyder gives the governor the authority to dismiss local elected officials of cities, towns, or school boards, break union contracts that local municipalities or school boards may have with workers, and appoint a private manager to operate the municipality or school board.

Supporters of the emergency measure say that it will only be used to help local governing bodies cope with a financial crisis. Opponents say that the measure violates basic principles of democracy by allowing elected officials to be removed from office without the consent of voters and will be used to punish communities that are already feeling the effects of Michigan’s Depression-like economy by making them accept austerity measures that will lower wages and reduce benefits for workers while protecting assets of the wealthy.

“Michigan’s politicians have capitalized on our state’s budgetary woes in order to ram through legislation that rather than creates jobs, takes away even more rights and resources from Michiganders, and instead gives an unprecedented amount of power to the governor, said Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. “This is not what democracy looks like.”

More demonstrations against the tax cuts for the wealthy, tax hikes for workers, and the governor’s financial martial law are scheduled for this weekend.

Indiana workers fight right-wing, anti-worker agenda

For 24 days, workers in Indiana have kept a vigil at the Indiana statehouse to demonstrate their opposition to anti-worker bills proposed by the state’s right-wing lawmakers and right-wing governor Mitch Daniels.

“(Indiana’s) working men and women cannot be ignored,” said Nancy Guyott, president of the Indiana AFL-CIO. “We will continue to make our voices heard until these politicians end this assault on working families.”

The assualt began earlier in the year when Indiana Republicans in concert with fellow right-wingers across the US decided that the time was right to push an aggressive anti-worker agenda aimed at weakening unions and taking away rights and benefits that have made working-class life more secure.

The first order of business was to make Indiana a right-to-work-for-less state. Republicans filed HB 1468, which would have allowed non-union workers to avoid paying their fair share for union-provided services such as contract negotiations and enforcement. The purpose of the bill says the Facebook page of Stand Up For Hoosiers, a community organization opposing the anti-working class agenda, is to weaken unions “and ultimately drive down wages, benefits, workplace safety, and our voice on the job.”

HB 1468 was shelved when demonstrations by Indiana workers gave Democratic lawmakers the courage to walk out of the Capitol and travel to Illinois, so that a vote on the measure could not be held. They have remained in Illinois since February 23, which prevents the passage of other anti-worker bills.

To make sure that the Democrats remain in Illinois so that no further action can be taken on the anti-worker bills, workers have maintained their vigil at the statehouse. “This is truly a fight about all workers,” said Jeff Combs of Teamster Local 135. “It’s an attack on all workers; union or non-union, we’re here for everybody.”

Other Indiana bills aimed at weakening unions and making life more difficult for workers include bills that would

  •  ban collective bargaining for state employees,
  • weaken or prohibit project labor agreements that ensure that public construction projects are built safely and that construction workers are treated fairly and paid a fair wage,
  • prohibit municipal governments from setting the local minimum wage higher than the state’s minimum wage,
  • restrict collective bargaining for teachers, and
  • divert state money away from public schools to private schools.

Last week, the largest rally of the workers’ campaign was held in Indianapolis. More than 20,000 public and private sector union workers and their supporters marched and rallied in Indianapolis against the right wing’s anti-worker agenda. Some construction workers like members of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) walked off their jobs to join the rally.

“The anti-worker special interests and politicians (that) they got into office think they can trample all over the rights of working people,” said Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the LIUNA. “(But) who will balance the power of corporate cash and speak for the middle class if the attacks on the unions succeed.”

The right-wing agenda in Indiana is expansive. On Tuesday the state Senate held hearings on an anti-immigrant bill like the one passed last year in Arizona that would deprive immigrants of legal due process and make it more difficult for them to attend Indiana state universities and colleges.

While union workers kept their vigil, about 200 people rallied against the bill. “We’ve been here in (Indiana) for almost 22 years,” said Maria Hernandez. “It feels like home.” Hernandez is worried that if the bill is enacted, it would break up her family by causing some of her family members to be deported.

“I don’t think government should target specific people just because they look (different) from other people,” said Robert Johnson, who was attending the rally against the anti-immigration bill.

Locked out workers hit the road to support public workers under attack

Locked out workers at the Honeywell uranium processing plant in Metropolis, Illinois hit the road to show support for public workers under attack by state governors and other right-wing politicians. Meanwhile, Honeywell, which locked out its Metropolis union workers in June, was fined nearly $12 million for mishandling radioactive waste; for these and other misdeeds, the company rewarded its CEO Dave Cote with a 56 percent pay increase.

Members of the United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents the Metropolis Honeywell workers, travelled to Madison, Wisconsin in late February to attend one of the support rallies for public workers whose collective bargaining rights were under attack by Gov Scott Walker, one of a number of right-wing politicians who won state governor races last November.

A few weeks later USW Local 7-669 members were in Columbus, Ohio to support public workers whose rights were also under attack by Gov John Kasich, another right-wing politician.

“Many of my union brothers and sisters see the writing on the wall,” said Ozzie England, a locked-out Honeywell worker and a Local 7-669 member, who went to Madison and Columbus. “If public unions fall, these same senators, congressmen, and governors will be coming after the private sector.”

The next stop for Local 7-669 members is Iowa where rallies will be held on March 19 to protest Iowa Governor Terry Branstand’s proposals to limit public sector bargaining rights and revoke Project Labor Agreements that ensure that public construction projects are built safely and that construction workers on the project are treated fairly.

England said that a lot of voters bought the rhetoric of right-wing politicians, who last year said that if elected they would run government like a business. But what voters didn’t understand, said England, was that these politicians “want to run governments like a sweat shop.”

Meanwhile, Honeywell on March 14 pleaded guilty in federal district court to  illegally storing radioactive hazardous waste at its Metropolis plant, which “put  employees at risk of exposure to radioactive and hazardous waste,” said Cynthia Giles of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Honeywell was fined $11.8 million and put on probation for five years for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The fine stems from a decision that Honeywell made in 2002 when it shut down a reclamation project used to safely dispose of contaminated potassium hydroxide (KOH), a chemical used to process uranium. The company shut down the reclamation process because it was too expensive. Instead of processing the deadly chemical to detoxify it, the company stored contaminated KOH  in steel drums at the Metropolis plant creating a health and safety risk for workers.

For exposing workers to hazardous material and refusing to bargain with workers in good faith, Honeywell CEO Dave Cote was rewarded with a 56 percent pay increase. Cotes salary went from $12.4 million a year to $19.3 million at the same time that Honeywell was telling its workers that “containing costs is everyone’s responsibility.”

 “Dave Cote, our CEO, recently gave himself a 56 percent pay raise, all the while preaching that employees need to share in the responsibility of keeping costs down,” England said. “He has tried to accomplish this by cutting health care benefits, pay, hours, and retirement payments to the workers who make the company money. His annual salary jumped from around twelve million a year to nineteen million a year, excluding bonuses.

“Something is very wrong with this picture, and all the while, people are getting word that around four hundred people in this country own around fifty percent of the wealth! I don’t know how many of you have ever gotten a 56 percent raise, but it is of little wonder how the rich get richer doing this.”

Union workers help create jobs, stand in solidarity with those under attack

So called right to work legislation has recently been introduced in Missouri, New Hampshire, Indiana, and other states. The purpose of these laws is to weaken unions and drive down wages. Proponents, like Indiana state representative Jerry Torr argue that weakening unions and driving down wages through right-to-work-for-less legislation is “the one thing that doesn’t cost anything that will bring jobs to Indiana,” which has become the conventional wisdom of the day.

But a unionized workforce can be a big advantage to a state or region trying to create jobs, which has turned out to be the case in the state of Washington, where Boeing recently won a $35 billion contract with the US Department of Defense for a new Air Force refueling tanker largely through the efforts of its unionized workers.

“Union engineers and production workers worked with management to establish new more efficient productions lines,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of the International Association of Machinist District 751, which represents production workers at the Everett, Washington Boeing plant near Seattle.

By consulting and working with its union workers, Boeing was able to streamline the production line of its 767 passenger jet that will be modified into the refueling tanker. The new is line is 25 percent more efficient than the old one. As a result of these efficiencies, Boeing’s bid on the contract was 1 percent lower than its European competitor EADS, which was planning to build the refueling tanker at its non-union plant in Mobile, Alabama. The new contract will create 11,000 new jobs and pump about $693 million a year into local economies.

In District 751’s newspaper, Wroblewski said that “machinist helped Boeing cut production costs by transforming the (production) line to use lean production techniques, which allowed Boeing to lower its bid.”

The production efficiencies were achieved without union workers making any concessions on wages or benefits, which make up only 5 percent of Boeing’s production costs.

Wroblewski told District 751 members that they should be proud of the work they did to achieve efficiencies but that they shouldn’t get complacent because they could find themselves “under attack from opponents who dream only of increasing corporate wealth, and see us as obstacles to be crushed so the can grow their profits.”

Most notably, Wroblewski pointed to recent attacks on workers’ rights in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana as threats to all workers in the US and praised union workers in these states for the stands they’ve taken against these attacks. “(They’ve) said no to the powerful forces that were trying to take away some of their basic economic rights. They’ve drawn a line in the sand and stood up to Wall Street, the corporate titans, and the politicians who would put profit before people,” Wroblewski said.

Then he compared the attacks that Midwest workers have endured to attacks made on Boeing workers. “Like them, we’ve been attacked–downsized and outsourced, criticized and coerced. But we’ve held together in solidarity,” just like the workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana.

“On the picket line, we vow to last one day longer than management to make sure that we get a fair contract,” said Wroblewski. “And in Wisconsin, the union workers there say  they’ll carry the fight one day longer than their misguided governor until he gives up on his efforts to crush their rights. This should be the goal of all working people nationwide.”

“The struggle is not over”

Angered at their betrayal, thousands of Wisconsin union workers and their supporters continued their fight against a a law stripping public workers of collective barganining rights. Rallies and demonstrations took place all over the state on Thursday. High school students in Madison, the state’s capital, have called for a student walk out Friday to support their teachers who are among those who will no longer be able bargain collectively. Unions amplified efforts to recall Republican senators who voted for the bill.  The leader of the Madison teachers’ union said that work is underway to take legal action to halt enforcement of law.

On Thursday, the day after the Wisconsin Senate voted to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, 7,000 people rallied in Madison chanting “We will never give up.” Some of the protestors took the rally inside the state Capitol where they continued chanting and beating on drums.

The demonstration delayed the General Assembly from voting on the union busting measure. Doors to the Assembly and its gallery were locked to keep demonstrators outside. Eventually police were called in to clear the building, and they arrested about 50 demonstrators who refused to leave. Rallies and demonstrations against the bill were held in 12 other Wisconsin cities on Thursday.

The General Assembly passed the measure on Thursday and Gov Walker signed it into law on Friday.

To protest the new law, high school students in Madison said that they would walk out of class at 2:00 PM Friday and hold a teach-in at the library mall in downtown Madison. “We are asking all students in the United States to walk out at 2:00 PM local time in solidarity with Wisconsin and to organize teach-ins on the attacks on public education and working families where you live,” read the announcement of the walk out on the Facebook page of Wisconsin Students in Solidarity.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders on Saturday will hold a tractorcade ending up at the Capitol. The event will protest Gov Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts that the union says will  cause local property taxes to increase and take away BadgerCare health insurance from many who could not otherwise afford health care coverage. The tractorcade will also support collective bargaining rights for public employees.

In addition to the tractorcade, there will be another demonstration on Saturday in Madison that unions are urging members to attend. Bus schedules have been posted for those coming in from out-of-town.

Unions and their supporters also stepped up efforts to recall eight of the Republican senators who voted for the anti-worker bill and are subject to a recall petition. SEIU, AFT, and AFSCME are organizing members to canvass the Senate districts with recall petitions. Local demonstrations and rallies in Senate districts are planned throughout the rest of the month.

On Thursday after the Senate passed the measure, General Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz filed complaints charging that open meeting laws were violated when the Senate committee that adopted the measure held a hearing without giving proper notice.

John Matthews, executive director of the Madison teachers’ union, told members after the Senate vote on Wednesday that they should show up for work on Thursday, but promised them that the Senate’s “improper and illegal action will be challenged in court.”

The struggle is not over,” the Wisconsin AFL-CIO said. “Working people are mobilizing and working on recall efforts to change the Wisconsin state Senate, and are exploring legal challenges to the manner in which (Wednesday’s) vote was conducted.”