Verizon workers authorize strike

As contract negotiations between Verizon Communication on the East Coast and its unions entered the last week before the contract expires on August 6, the Communication Workers of America announced that 91 percent of its voting members authorized CWA leaders to call a strike if an agreement between the two sides can’t be reached.

The strong support for authorizing a strike shows that “CWA members are determined to fight back against Verizon’s corporate greed and bargain a fair contract, one that reflects workers’ contributions to Verizon’s success,” said Ed Mooney, CWA District 2-13 vice president.”

During the last four years, Verizon has recorded profits of $19.5 billion and paid its top five executives $258 million. Retiring CEO Ivan Seidenberg is paid $55,000 a day. Despite the company’s prosperity, Verizon wants its union workers to accept the substantially lower benefits that its non-union workers receive. Verizon’s non-union workers have no defined benefit pension and pay much more of their health care costs than union workers. Additionally, Verizon wants its union workers to accept more outsourcing and give up their voice on the job.

“Verizon is trying to bust its unions. Its trying to kill the middle class,” said CWA District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton during a virtual union hall meeting to update members on Verizon bargaining. “What would your life be like if these bastards from Verizon get their way.”

During the virtual union hall meeting, a conference call with more than 5,000 participants, CWA President Larry Cohen said that the main issue in these contract negotiations is protecting good union jobs. “We’re prepared to help build (Verizon),” Cohen said. “But not at the expense of workers’ benefits and their jobs.”

Not only is CWA trying to protect its members jobs and benefits, but it wants to extend union-won benefits to all Verizon’s workers. “All Verizon jobs should be union jobs,” Cohen said. “And our members have begun to visit Verizon wireless stores to take this message to the non-union workers who work there.”

During the virtual union hall meeting, a Verizon customer service representative from Maryland said that when she receives a call requesting DSL support, she has to transfer the call to a call center in the Philippines. She wanted to know if the union is addressing this kind of outsourcing.

Cohen said that this was one of the major issues that the CWA is fighting for in the contract negotiations. “We want all outsourced work, whether it has been sent overseas or to some local non-union contractor, to be brought back into our union,” Cohen said.

Cohen told those on the conference call that it’s going to take unity and member mobilization to win a decent contract. He urged all members to come to the Saturday, July 30 rally at Verizon headquarters in New York City. He also said that union members needed to participate in the many unity events at the local level.

Terri Senich, executive secretary-treasurer of CWA Local 13500 in Pittsburg, described some of the unity actions that Cohen mentioned. “We’ve been holding tailgaters at Verizon work sites to keep members informed about the bargaining, we wear red on Tuesday to show our determination to keep our health care benefits, and we’ve organized information picket lines at work sites,” Senich said.

Bill Huber, president of IBEW Local 827, which represents Verizon workers in New Jersey, told the virtual union hall that his union recently held a rally in Basking Ridge, New Jersey that was attended by 500 Local 827 members. He applauded the unity between CWA and IBEW and said that 1,000 local 827 members had signed up to attend the July 30 rally.

One of the union hall participants asked Cohen what would happen if there is no contract by Midnight, August 7. “After the contract expires, we have the right to take collective action,” Cohen said. “We’ll decide specifically what that action will be closer to the deadline. We’ll be creative and we’ll do what it takes to win a fair contract.”

IKEA workers in Virginia win union election

Workers at the Swedwood furniture plant in Danville, Virginia yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation.  Of the 290 workers who voted in the representation election, 221, or 76 percent, voted for the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Swedwood is a wholly owned subsidiary of IKEA, the multinational retail furniture chain, and the Swedwood factory in Danville makes furniture for IKEA stores in the US.

The union victory was a long time in the making, and the Swedwood workers received support from all over the world. Swedwood workers approached the IAM in 2009 and asked for its help in organizing a union. The workers’ main complaints were that pay was low, working conditions were unsafe, overtime was mandatory with little or no advanced warning, favoritism was rampant, and management discriminated against African-American workers.

One of IKEA’s guiding principles, known as the IWAY, is that IKEA workers will have the right to choose union representation without company interference. But that proved not to be the case in Danville.

When it looked like union backers at the plant had enough support to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a representation election, Swedwood hired a union avoidance law firm, Jackson Lewis.

When the IAM filed a representation election petition in June, the company filed a request to expand the potential bargaining unit to include 30 Team Captains, who for all practical purposes are supervisors with close ties to the company. Not wanting to delay the election, the IAM agreed to allow Team Captains to vote.

The company also held worker meetings at which they explained why Swedwood workers shouldn’t vote for union representation. In the meantime, rumors began to spread that the plant would close and move somewhere else if workers voted for the union and that workers would receive a bonus if they voted against the union.

“Despite the ‘persuasive’ tactics and intervention strategies that the Swedwood management installed throughout the entire union election process, and to be frank, prior to that, the workers at Swedwood have emphatically said, yes to the union,” said Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), a worldwide confederation of building and woodworking unions including the IAM that helped build international support for the Swedwood workers.

The IAM also received help from the Swedish Forest and Woodworkers Union (GS), which represents IKEA workers in Sweden. GS helped build a public relations campaign that highlighted the difference between how IKEA treats its US workers and how the company treats its unionized Swedish workers.

The next step for Swedwood workers will be to negotiate a contract. The company says that it will work with the union in a “mutually cooperative and respectful manner.” Bill Street, who heads IAM’s woodworking division, is hopeful that the company will bargain in good faith but remains wary.

“We would like to believe that the Swedwood management will honor the workers’ decision and engage in a fair bargaining process which will result in a binding agreement that will adequately address all issues and concerns of the workers,” Street said.

UNITE HERE’s day of action shines light on hotel chain’s abuses

Vowing not to suffer in silence, Hyatt housekeepers, other Hyatt workers, and their supporters on July 21 staged a day of action in nine cities in the US to call attention to the lack of job safety at Hyatt hotels and to protest the company’s cost-cutting business strategy that eliminates jobs of veteran Hyatt employees and replaces them with temporary, minimum wage staff.

“Hyatt abuses housekeepers,” said Ofelia Martinez, a housekeeper at the Park Hyatt hotel in downtown Chicago. “They are hoping we will suffer in silence, but today housekeepers are standing up across the nation.”

The day of action was called by UNITE HERE, the union that represents the Hyatt workers and is trying to organize more hotel workers across the country.

Citing a peer-reviewed article that appeared last year  in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, UNITE HERE said that hotel workers have an injury rate that is 25 percent higher than other service industry workers and that among hotels studied by the authors of article, Hyatt had the highest rate of worker injuries.

Although most of us don’t realize it, housekeepers’ work is hard. In each room, housekeepers lift heavy mattresses to make beds and bend and stoop to clean toilets, bathtubs, and fixtures. Additionally, they push heavy cleaning carts over carpeted floors. What’s more, there’s always pressure from management to do more work faster. Some Hyatt housekeepers are required to clean 30 rooms a day nearly double what is usually required in the industry.

Some of those participating in the day of action staged acts of civil disobedience. In San Antonio, where Hyatt workers are trying to win union recognition, ten of the 200 demonstrators in front of the Grand Hyatt were arrested after they sat down and joined hands to block traffic on downtown Market Street.

In San Francisco, about 80 people were cited by police for blocking traffic near the Grand Hyatt during a demonstration to protest Hyatt’s abuse of its workers. Demonstrators chanted, “Hyatt, stop the abuse! San Francisco is a union town!” and carried signs reading, “Workers are not linen.” UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents workers at the Grand Hyatt, also charged the hotel with replacing long-time Hyatt workers with temporary workers and increasing workloads beyond what can be done safely.

Local 2 and Hyatt have been involved in contract negotiations since 2009. The lack of progress has led Local 2 to call for a boycott of Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. UNITE HERE has called for other boycotts at selected Hyatt hotels across the US for practices similar to those at the Grand Hyatt.

In Chicago, members of UNITE HERE Local 1 at the Park Hyatt on Michigan Avenue staged a one-day strike to protest lack of progress in contract negotiations that began nearly two years ago. While Hyatt says that it is prepared to give its workers the same contract that other hotel workers in the Chicago area have, it insists that it be allowed to outsource some of the work, now done by union members.

“If they replace me, it doesn’t matter how good the benefits are because I’ll be out of a job,” said Local 1 member Gabriel Carrasquillo to public radio station WBEZ. “I’m HIV-positive so I have a lot of medical expenses. Without these health benefits, I wouldn’t be able to have the care that I have today.”

While Local 1 members picketed on a hot summer day, a hotel manager turned on 10 overhead heat lamps above the sidewalk where workers were picketing, endangering the lives of the striking workers. Hyatt issued a statement the next day apologizing for the incident but didn’t say whether the manager would be disciplined.

A media statement from UNITE HERE’s national headquarters about the day of action said that while “hotel housekeepers are the invisible backbone of the hotel,” their work is unsafe and is growing more precarious. The day of action gave Hyatt workers the chance to “(step) out of the shadows to demand an end to the abuses they face at work.” In addition to the demonstrations in San Antonio, San Francisco, and Chicago, Hyatt workers staged actions in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Historic strike by Palestinian workers enters second month

It has been over a month now that Palestinian workers at the Salit Quarries in the Israeli occupied West Bank voted to go on strike after management balked at signing a collective bargaining agreement negotiated in April. The strike is the culmination of an historic organizing campaign: It’s the first attempt ever by Palestinian workers to organize a union in Israeli occupied territory.

The workers’ organizing campaign began in  2007 when Salit workers contacted the Workers Advice Center (WAC), an independent labor group that seeks to organize unorganized workers regardless of nationality, religion, gender, or skin color into a broad-based union.

The quarry is located in the desert near the Israeli settlement of Maleh Adumin, a suburb of Jerusalem. Under the best of conditions working in the quarry would be difficult. Dust from the quarry can cause asthma and cancer. The stifling desert heat makes any kind of prolonged exertion dangerous.

Quarry workers worked without health insurance, pensions, safety equipment, eating facilities, or restrooms. Pay was low, and workers did not receive pay slips so that pay deductions could not be accounted for. The company at one point stopped paying its contribution for workers’ life insurance, but continued to withhold workers’ contributions.

After the workers contacted WAC, it began helping workers to form an organizing committee.  The company at first refused to recognize the committee, but WAC and the workers persisted.

After an Israeli labor court issued a ruling in 2009 favorable to the workers, the company began to address some of their concerns. It started providing pay slips to some workers and built an onsite eating facility and restroom. But pay was sometimes late in coming, some workers still weren’t getting pay slips, there was no health insurance, pension contributions were not being made, and pay was still low.

In October 2009, the union forced the company to recognize a committee elected by the workers as the workers’ bargaining agent, and negotiations between the two sides began.

In May 2010, the company abruptly withdrew from negotiations. After a four-day strike, the company resumed talks, which dragged on until April 2011 when the two sides finally reached a tentative agreement. After the quarry workers voted to accept the agreement, the company refused to sign or implement it.

The company was biding its time hoping that a split between higher paid workers who voted to reject the agreement and the majority of workers who voted to accept would cause the union to break apart.

But on June 15 in the heat of the afternoon, workers at the quarry held a meeting on the job to discuss the agreement and voted unanimously to strike.  On June 16, all 35 quarry workers walked off the job.

“We don’t want to harm the quarry, we don’t want to strike,”said Nihaz Qaddha, an engineer at the quarry. “Management made us declare a strike by its behavior and attitude. We want what we are legally entitled to: wages paid on time, pension contributions, wage slips and social benefits.”

Since the strike began, the company, which sells gravel mined and asphalt manufactured at the quarry, has continued to operate though at a much reduced level. It has also managed to convince a few of the strikers to return to work.

The significance of this struggle isn’t lost on the international labor movement, and the strikers have begun to receive support from unions all over the world, including UE in the US, an independent union that represents 35,000 mainly manufacturing workers.  A letter signed by UE leaders tells the company that UE “believes that all workers are entitled to exercise their freedom of association without interference from their employer. We strongly urge you to take immediate steps to sign the collective bargaining agreement that you have negotiated and to begin to establish a productive and respectful relationship with WAC-Maan, the union selected by your employees.”

The Salit workers recognize that there is more at stake here than their right to be treated with dignity and respect.  “Our strike isn’t just against the management of Salit,” said Haj Muhammad Fukara, a machine operator who has worked at the quarry for 27 years. “We want to give an example to workers in other places, here and abroad. There has to be an end to the unfairness and exploitation of workers by blood-sucking bosses. I have faith that (WAC) will stand at the head of this process and bring about a change that will empower workers everywhere.”

Verizon tells workers and investors two different stories about business prospects

Bargaining resumed this week between Verizon and the two union that represent Verizon workers on the East Coast from Virginia to New England, CWA and IBEW. CWA reports that Verizon continues to demand health care and other major concessions because the company “tell us that they are in a death spiral as a company, and we need to accept their package of demands if we are going to save the company.”

While Verizon was painting a gloomy picture of its prospects to its unions, its message to investors was quite upbeat. Its quarterly earnings report issued Friday, July 22 shows that earnings for both its wireless and wireline operations were higher than expected during the second quarter of 2011. “We expect to build on this strong, positive momentum to continue to drive profitable, sustainable growth,” said Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg.

Since negotiations began, Verizon has justified its demands that union workers take major cuts to their health care, allow the company to outsource more work, give up wage progressions, and scrap contract language that protects workers’ rights on the job because Verizon’s wireline business, where Verizon’s union workers work, is withering away as more customers scrap their land lines in favor of wireless devices.

The unions have countered that the wireline business is changing, not fading away. Verizon and other telecommunication company’s are providing new and more services such as internet and television service over their land lines and business and government still rely on land lines for telephone service and for internet and IT network functions.

If wireline business is withering away, you can’t tell it from the second quarter earnings report. Here are some highlights from Verizon’s media statements on its second quarter earnings:

  • Wireline operating revenues for the second quarter of 2011 was $10.2 billion, down slightly by 0.3 percent from the same period in 2010.
  • Wireline earnings before taxes, interest, depreciation, and amortization (EBTIDA) margin was 23.8 percent up from 22.4 percent from the same period in 2010 and the fifth consecutive quarter in which the EBTIDA margin grew.

The EBTIDA margin is a measure that investors use to evaluate a company’s core profitability. An EBTIDA margin of 7.5 percent to 15 percent for a large corporation is considered acceptable. The EBTIDA margin is determined by dividing the earnings before taxes, interest, depreciation, and amortization (in other words, earnings after operating costs are subtracted) by total revenue.

  • FiOS internet connections increased by 189,000 and FiOS television connections by 184,000.
  • 34 percent of potential internet customers subscribe to Verizon, up from 30 percent during the same period in 2010.
  • 30 percent of potential television customers subscribe to Verizon, up from 26 percent during the same period in 2010.

While Verizon continued to stand pat in demanding significant concessions from union members, CWA and IBEW continued to mobilize members to demonstrate to the company that its members are resolved to maintain pay and benefits that make their jobs good union jobs.

Locals continue to hold informational picket lines before work and at lunch time. CWA Local 1300o in Philadelphia held mass tailgates at every Verizon location in the city and workers at some Verizon sites are wearing black to work on Monday and red to work on Thursday to demonstrate unity.

 IBEW Local 2222 in Boston on its website told members, “There is a very real possibility that we will be on strike against Verizon in August, 2011.  Take a few minutes now to set up a strike fund by opening a Rainy Day Account through the Liberty Bay Credit Union.”

The big push by both CWA and IBEW is to have a massive turn out at their solidarity rally on July 30 at the Verizon headquarters in New York City. Locals from all over the East Coast are chartering buses to take members to New York.

“We need every member to make a commitment to be in (New York City) on July 30th, “read a bargaining report from CWA District 13. “To show Verizon management that we are dead serious about our demands for jobs.”

Unions resist retaliation; Repbulican lawmakers seek to facilitate it

Republicans in the US House have drafted a bill that would undermine the National Labor Relations Board’s ability to enforce laws that prevent companies from retaliating against union members who participate in legal job actions. The bill was drafted as the NLRB pursues in court a complaint against Boeing for moving work to a non-union shop in retaliation against a strike by IAM members. In the meantime, a union in Texas has filed an unfair labor charge with the NLRB against its members’ employer for moving work to a non-union shop after the union won an arbitration case against the company.

The NLRB in April charged Boeing with an unfair labor practice for retaliating against members of IAM District 751 at Boeing’s plant near Seattle. The NLRB’s complaint says that Boeing moved a second production line of its new 787 Dreamliner to its non-union plant in Charleston, South Carolina in order to punish its union workers in Seattle for conducting a legal strikes.

Among an array of evidence that the NLRB presents in its charge against Boeing are public statements made by Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney, who on one occasion told investors that Boeing was moving some of the work on the 787 to a non-union plant because of “strikes happening every three to four years in (Seattle).”

To protect union workers from further retaliation and to punish Boeing for this act, the NLRB is seeking to move the 787 work at the non-union facility back to Seattle.

Administrative Law Judge Clifford Anderson is currently hearing arguments from both sides. In June, Anderson ruled against a motion by Boeing to dismiss the NLRB complaint. Earlier in the month, he ruled against another motion by Boeing to have the NLRB turn over its investigation documents that led the NLRB to file the complaint.

After the judge ruled against Boeing, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to the NLRB’s general counsel Lafe Solomon demanding that the NLRB turn over the investigation documents to him. The Seattle Times reports that in his letter Rep. Issa asserts that attorney-client privilege that would otherwise protect the release of these documents is superseded by a Congressional subpoena.

The Republican draft bill would if enacted prevent the NLRB from requiring companies to return work that has been moved to non-union plants in retaliation for legal job actions back to union plants. If passed, the law would be retroactive.

The hearing in Judge Anderson’s court is expected to last for quite some time. When it is concluded, the judge will rule on the charge. His decision can be appealed by either side.

Meanwhile in Texas, Bell Helicopter recently announced that it is moving some of the work done by unionized tactical buyers who work at the company’s plant in Fort Worth to its non-union facility in Amarillo, Texas. UAW Local 317, which represents the buyers, filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Bell asserting that the move was retaliation for the union filing grievances and seeking arbitration rulings on contract disputes.

JaNae McPeek, Local 317 president, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram that the local recently won an arbitration case against Bell but that the company has been unwilling to implement the ruling.

Local 317’s lawyer, Rod Tanner, told the Star Telegram that the union’s complaint makes many of the same arguments that the NLRB used when it filed charges against Boeing.

Brooklyn theater reprises working class musical with a twist

Nearly seventy-four years ago, a troupe of Jewish-American and Italian-American mostly women garment workers took to the stage in New York City to perform Pins and Needles, a musical revue that features songs and comedy sketches that satirize the economic, social, and political institutions that created and perpetuated the Great Depression and celebrate the everyday lives and loves of working people who struggled to cope with the Depressions impact on their world.

Pins and Needles ran for three years, one of which was on Broadway. In explaining its success, Michael Denning in his book The Cultural Front says, “The success of Pins and Needles lay in its union of class, ethnic, and feminist energies, in the way it sang for young Jewish and Italian working-class women in the needle trades.”

In June a new version entitled The Furee on Pins and Needles: A New Revolutionary Musical debuted at the Irondale Center of the Foundry Theater in Brooklyn and ran for a limited engagement of three weeks. The cast members of the original revue were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). This time, the cast consisted of 20 members of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a working class community organizations whose members are mostly African- American and Caribbean immigrant women.

Many of the fights for economic and social justice that the ILGWU members sang about are still going on today. “We’re still struggling for rent laws, for affordable housing, for union representation, for better working conditions,” said Marilyn Charles, one of the current cast members to the Fort Greene Patch, a Brooklyn community newspaper.

The original production, which Denning calls “a controversial marriage of vaudeville revue and radical theater,” alternated songs sung directly to the audience and topical comedy sketches on wealth and reaction in the US, fascism, and the radical theater itself.

Some of its songs were and remained popular, so much so that Columbia Records issued a Barbara Streisand record in the 1960s made up of songs from the original production. The song’s on the record include “Chain Store Daisy,” “It’s Better with a Union Man,” “Doing the Reactionary,” “One Big Union for Two,” and “Sing Me a Song of Social Significance,” the opening number of FUREE on Pins and Needles, that begins with these lines:

I’m tired of moon songs, of star and of June songs. . .

Sing me of rights and sing me of justice. . .

Sing me of lost wages and wars. . .

Like the original Pins and Needles that added new songs and sketches to remain timely during the course of its three-year run, Furee on Pins and Needles includes four songs that weren’t in the original revue including Josh White’s “Free and Equal Blues.”

The FUREE version also includes some sketches that weren’t in the original revue, such as a scene taken from Lynn Notage’s play Fabulation that depicts the indignities suffered by women waiting in line to apply for public assistance benefits.

The cast consists of people who have or would like to have full-time day jobs including health care workers, day care providers, laid off telephone operators, and legal secretaries. The director, Ken Rus Schmoll, the musical director, Richard Harper, and the choreographer, Camille Brown are all full-time theater arts workers.

The performance of Furee on Pins and Needles gave the FUREE members an opportunity to express their hopes and frustration about the past, present, and future and to initiate a dialogue with the community about what it will take to build a society that is more just, more equal, and more sustainable.

“Our members have had an incredible experience using the arts–singing, dancing, and acting–to give voice to issues like a living wage and affordable housing,” said the FUREE website.

“This musical is about the struggle of families and union workers in the changing society of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, which is perfectly relevant in our society,” cast member Marilyn Charles said.