Honor those who have died on the job; support worker safety legislation

Supporters of worker safety legislation gathered Thursday at the Texas state capital to honor workers who have died or been injured on the job. The event, which was sponsored by the Workers Defense Project, an Austin-based worker center that helps low-income workers organize, was held to celebrate Workers’ Memorial Day.

“This day recognizes and remembers workers who lost their lives or were severely injured due to unsafe working conditions and also commemorates the 40th Anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” said Emily Timm of the Workers Defense Project.

Many of the Workers Defense Project’s members are immigrant construction workers, and WDP has focused much of its efforts recently on making construction work safer. “In 2009, a construction worker died every 2.5 days with 138 deaths reported in Texas,” Timm said. “In addition to workplace fatalities, construction workers frequently suffer workplace accidents. A construction worker in Texas has a one in five chance of being seriously injured on the job; with only 45 percent of Texas construction workers covered by workers’ compensation, these accidents have a devastating impact on Texan families and taxpayers.”

After rallying at the Capitol Rotunda and hearing music by the Gustavo Rodriguez Band, www.grbmusic.net, the group split up and began visiting lawmakers urging them to support workplace safety bills, including HB 3020 /SB 1765, which would require a 15-minute rest break for every four hours worked on all government construction sites,  SB 1389, which would require that each employee complete an Occupational and Safety and Health ten-hour safety training course prior to working on all government construction sites, and HB 1739/ SB 938, which would require construction employers to carry workers’ compensation coverage. 

“We must honor the men and women who build our state. No one should have to risk their life on the job,” said Sen. José Rodriguez, author of SB 1765.  “Their deaths should not be in vain – Texas needs to ensure that every construction worker goes home to their family at the end of the day.” 

“Construction work is dangerous but we believe Texas can do more to protect workers,” said construction worker Fernando Adame, who broke his arm in a work site fall in 2009. “Its our families who pay the price when we get hurt or killed on the job.”

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Tom Morello’s “Union Town”

You can download singer, songwriter, guitarist Tom Morello’s “Union Town” for free Thursday, April 28 at SaveWorkers.org. Morello’s album by the same name will be available in digital form on May 17 and on CD and vinyl on July 19. Proceeds from the sale go America Votes Labor Unity Fund.

Morello is/was the lead guitar for Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and Nightwatchman. His eight-song EP is inspired by the events in Wisconsin. Morello told the Los Angeles Times that we have the chance now to “harness the energy of 100,000 to 150,000 people who were in the streets and want to put some teeth back into the labor movement in the US.”

Public pension opponents resort to Big Lie tactics

Supporters of a bill that would bar newly hired Texas state employees and teachers from enrolling in a secure defined benefits pension plan and, instead, force them into risky defined contribution plans used the Big Lie tactic to make their case Tuesday night at a legislative committee hearing on the bill, HB 2506.

Public employee defined benefit plans forced Illinois, California, and New York into bankruptcy, said Rep. Wayne Chisum, the sponsor of HB 2506, and therefore, need to be phased out.

Talmadge Heflin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group that lobbies for fewer government services and more privatization, called defined benefit public pension plans a burden on taxpayers that could cause Texas to become insolvent.

“These lies are a smokescreen that opponents of defined benefit plan use to obscure their real agenda–to make the life of working people less secure,” said Mike Gross, vice-president of the Texas State Employees Union. “When workers are less secure, they’ll often work for lower wages.”

Defined benefit pensions provide a guaranteed pension based on years of service and average salary. On the other hand, the value of a defined contribution pension like 401(k) plans depends on how well the stock market performs. “I would have been in big trouble if all I had was my 401(k) plan when I retired,” said Leslie Cunningham a retired state employee and TSEU member who testified against HB 2506. “My 401(k) plan lost 40 percent of its value in stock market crash of 2001. It lost another 25 percent in the crash of 2008.”

Recently, reporters from the McClatchy news services examined the arguments that opponents of public defined benefit pension plans and found that they have little substance.

Public pension funds, despite what Rep. Chisum said, are not the cause of state budget deficits. In fact, they account for only a small share of state budgets. According to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, contributions to public pension funds account for only 2.9 percent state budgets. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College puts the figure slightly higher at 3.8 percent.

(In Texas, the state’s contribution to the state’s pension for state employees (ERS) and for teachers (TRS) is less than 2 percent of the state budget.)

Furthermore, state pension plans are nowhere near the point of requiring large infusions of state money that could cause an insolvency crisis. “On average with assets on hand today, (state pension) plans are able to pay annual benefits at their current level for 13 years,” Jean-Pierre Aubry, a researcher for Center for Retirement Research, told McClatchy reporters.

In other words, even if public pension funds didn’t receive any more money from states and the value of their assets did not improve, on average, they would still be able to pay benefits at their current level for 13 years. Texas is in slightly better shape. ERS would be able to pay benefits for 13.4 years and TRS for 14 years. California, which Rep. Chisum said was bankrupted by its public pension funds, would be able to meet current obligations for 15 years.

Most people who testified at Tuesday night’s hearing opposed HB 2605. The committee took no action on the bill leaving it pending. From the discussion that took place among committee members, it appears that a substitute bill that calls for an interim study of the issue after the Legislature will be considered.

Despite prosperity, GE looks to cut wages

General Electric has recovered nicely from the Great Recession. In 2010, GE reported profits of $14.1 billion, of which $5.1 billion, or 36 percent, came from operations here in the US. On top of all this bounty, GE will be getting a $3.2 billion federal income tax return this year. It currently has $127.1 billion in cash on hand, and its CEO, Jeffery Immelt received $21.4 million in total compensation in 2010. But GE’s prosperity hasn’t stopped it from trying to cut wages.

For instance, at its River Works plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, GE sought to cut wages for new employees by 25 percent in return for a promise to bring new work unrelated to production now going on at the plant. IUE-CWA Local 201, which represents workers at River Works, was willing to accept the lower wages for new workers doing the new work, but GE insisted that all new workers in the plant take a 25 percent pay cut. Local 201 wouldn’t accept pay cuts unrelated to the new work, and GE informed the union that it would not be moving the new work to the plant.

“Today, we were officially informed by GE that they have decided not to put new GE Transportation locomotive assembly into our vacant Gear Plant Building, previously slated for demolition,” said Local 201 business agent Ric Casilli in statement released on April 13. “Local 201 is extremely disappointed by this decision. We did everything in our power during the last 19 days to make this happen and bring new jobs into Lynn.”

Thanks to government stimulus money and an increased interest in light rail and other rail transportation, GE’s locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania has excess work, and GE is looking for a place to perform the work that its Erie plant can’t handle.

Lynn River Works seemed like a good alternative. GE currently manufacturers airplane engines at River Works, but last January, it shut down the Gear Works Building at River Works, where it manufactured maritime gears for the US Navy. It wouldn’t have been difficult to convert the Gear Works site to locomotive production and create 300 to 350 new jobs in Lynn.

Local 201 was eager to get the new work and submitted a proposal that met GE’s specification. The union was willing to make the locomotive production unit a separate bargaining unit from the aviation production unit. It was also willing to accept the lower pay that GE said its locomotive production competitors pay their workers, about 25 percent below what production workers in the aviation unit make .

The union was also willing to allow changes to contract languages about the rules of production. “The union’s last modified bid proposal addressed company requests for competitive wages, multi-skill classifications, teaming, single flow process, ‘temporary workers’, and met the company’s wish to keep the new locomotive workers as a separate unit from our current aviation workers in the plant,” Casilli said. 

But GE insisted that new workers in the aviation unit be hired the same rate as new workers in the locomotive production unit, which would have amounted to a 25 percent pay cut for new aviation production workers. The union wouldn’t agree to the pay cut, and GE walked away from the deal.

Rather than pay new aviation workers the current rate of pay, GE decided instead that it will move forward with its plan to demolish the Gear Works plant later this year.

Unions rally to support Bay Area ILWU Local 10

Supporters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Local 10 rallied today at the headquarters of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) demanding that the association drop its lawsuit against Local 10. PMA is suing the local and its president Richard Mead over an April 4 work stoppage organized and led by rank-and-file dock workers to support public sector workers under attack by right-wing politicians.

“This was a voluntary rank-and-file action,” said Clarence Thomas, a dock worker and Local 10 executive board member, noting that the choice to walk off the job to show support with other workers was a decision made by each worker.

 ILWU Local 10 represents dock workers at the ports of Oakland and San Francisco. On April 4, dock workers walked off the job  at the beginning of the day shift at an Oakland container terminal, which closed the terminal. The rank-and-file action was taken to support public sector workers, whose benefits and pay were threatened with cuts and whose right to collective bargaining  was being curtailed by right-wing governors and lawmakers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and other states. The port in San Francisco was also closed down.

The PMA subsequently filed suit in federal court seeking unspecified damages against Local 10, which it blamed for the walkout. PMA complained that the walkout delayed the unloading of cargo containers and backed up truck traffic waiting to upload the containers.

Supporters of Local 10 have built a public campaign to support the union. The San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution calling for the creation of broad-based defense committee to support Local 10 and today’s demonstration at the PMA’s San Francisco headquarters.

ILWU and its rank-and-file have a long history of demonstrating solidarity for other workers and oppressed people. In 1978, ILWU dock workers refused to load bombs headed for Chile, which was then ruled by a military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, who had crushed unions and maintained power through torture and terror. In 1984, they called a 24-hour strike to protest the racist apartheid government of South Africa. In 2000, they called another 24-hour strike to support dock workers in Charleston, South Carolina, who while legally picketing were attacked by police and charged with felonies.

Most recently, they conducted work actions to demand an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an end to the bombing of Palestinians in Gaza, and to support Oscar Grant, an innocent young African-American killed by an Oakland transit police officer.

Addressing an April 10 anti-war rally, Thomas told the audience that the action taken by ILWU members was important because the events in Wisconsin, where the very right to join a union is under attack. Tthe history of the US has come full circle, said Thomas.  On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while supporting public workers who were trying to organize a union in Memphis. Two weeks after his death, Memphis sanitation workers won the right to join a union and bargain collectively. “Now 40 years later their Wisconsin counterparts are threatened with losing theirs, Thomas said.  But their “fierce resistance that is inspiring all of us today.”

Johnson Control workers win contract, union recognition

Johnson Controls workers at the company’s Interiors/Resurrection plant in Cuautlancingo,Puebla, Mexico recently won a contract that increases pay, provides for more job security, improves benefits, and recognizes their independent union, Section 308 of the National Union of Mine, Metal, and General Workers of Mexico (Los Mineros). The contract is the first one that Johnson Controls, a US-based company, has signed with an independent union like Los Mineros.

The company manufactures car seats and other interior equipment mainly for Volkswagen but also for Ford, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and Nissan at its Interiors/Resurrection plant, which employs 800 workers, the majority of whom are women.

The contract increases wages by 7.5 percent, limits the ability of the company to outsource work to contractors, and increases benefits such as life insurance and supplementary school aid. It is the culmination of a five-year campaign that overcame violence, intimidation, and firings of union supporters.

Back in 2006, staff from the Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador (CAT),  a non-profit group that supports organizing efforts by workers, began going door-to-door to interview Johnson Control workers about conditions at their factory. CAT staff learned that the company was violating the Mexican labor code and that the union in place at the time wasn’t doing anything about it. In fact, the union spent most of its time disciplining workers for the company, a practice common for most of Mexico’s recognized unions and the reason that these unions are known as protection unions.

CAT began helping workers organize an independent union. The company reacted by ordering workers not to talk to CAT staff about conditions at the plant and fired some of the independent union supporters. The campaign came to a head in May 2010 when the company paid workers a profit-sharing bonus of about $5, much less than workers had anticipated.

When the union wouldn’t do anything about the under payment, workers staged a protest and signed affiliation cards with Los Mineros. They threatened to strike if the company did not oust the protection union and recognize Los Mineros as their union. 

The next day, a busload of thugs from the protection union showed up at the plant gates and tried to intimidate workers into renouncing Los Mineros. Instead of being intimidated, workers walked off the job and stayed on strike for three days until the company agreed to recognize and bargain with Los Mineros.

During the summer, the company stalled for time as it sought ways to get out of its agreement. In August, more thugs entered the plant, beat union leaders and activists, and forced union leaders to sign letters of resignation. The company did nothing to stop the thugs from entering the plant or beating Los Mineros supporters.

In response, workers walked out on strike again and returned only after the company said that it would bargain with Los Mineros. Over the next eight months, intimidation and threats continued, but on April 8, Johnson Controls agreed to the contract.

Leaders of the Mexican government whether they belong to PRI or PAN, two of the three major political parties in Mexico, would like to keep Mexican workers’ wages low in hopes of attracting foreign investment. The biggest obstacles to doing so are workers like those at Johnson Control who aren’t afraid to fight for justice and independent unions like Los Mineros willing to support them. That’s why the two parties are working together to change Mexico’s labor law to make it more difficult for independent unions to organize workers.

NLRB charges Boeing with illegal retaliation

The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday filed a complaint charging Boeing with illegal retaliation for moving a second line of production of its new Dreamliner 787 airplane from Everett, Washington to Charleston, South Carolina to punish members of the International Association of Machinists District 751 at the Everett plant for exercising their legal right to strike against the company in 2008, 2005, 1995, and 1989.

The NLRB filed the complaint after investigating an unfair labor practice charge filed in 2010 against Boeing by IAM District 751. The complaint was filed in response to comments made by Boeing executives like CEO and President James McNerney, Jr., who in October 2009 told a quarterly earnings conference call that Boeing would diversify its labor pool and labor relations by moving the second 787 production line to South Carolina due “to strikes happening every three or four years in Puget Sound (Everett).”

“By opening the line in Charleston, Boeing tried to intimidate our members with the idea that the company would take away work unless (workers)  made concessions at the bargaining table,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of IAM District 751. “But the law is clear; American workers have the right to pursue collective bargaining and no company–not even Boeing– can threaten or punish them for exercising their rights.”

In 2008, a strike by IAM  members stopped Boeing from forcing workers to make health care and pension concessions. The company wanted workers to pay more for their health care premium and prescription medicines, and it wanted  to take away pension benefits for families of deceased workers, even though the company had recorded $13 billion in net profits since 2002. The strike also limited Boeing’s plan to outsource work.

After the strike ended, Boeing executives complained that the union gave workers too much say in how the plant was run, which led to its decision to move the second production line to South Carolina. Before Boeing moved to South Carolina, it told workers at the Charleston airplane factory that Boeing had purchased from a company that went out of business that they would have to vote to decertify the IAM as their bargaining representative if they wanted the work moved to South Carolina, which they did.

South Carolina sweetened the deal by offering Boeing $170 million in grants and incentives and tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to move the work to Charleston.

A hearing on the complaint will be heard on June 14 by an NLRB Administrative Judge. The labor board will be asking the judge to return the work moved to South Carolina in retaliation for the strikes back to Everett.

“Taking work away from workers because they exercise their union rights is against the law, and it’s against the law in 50 states,” Wroblewski said. “Had we allowed Boeing to break the law and go unchecked in their actions, it would have given the green light to corporate America to discriminate against union members and would have become management’s new template to attack employees.”