San Antonio driver fired for union organizing; support demo planned for Oct 5

A delivery driver for a San Antonio dairy company told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that he was fired for trying to organize a union and that the company used his firing to intimidate other workers who wanted to form a union. The union said that it would stand up for the driver and called for a support demonstration on October 5.

Alex Vasquez, a husband and father of two, who has worked as a delivery driver for Oak Farms Dairy Products for three years, identified himself as a union supporter in August shortly after the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union (BCTWGM) began an organizing drive at Oak Farms in San Antonio.

On August 31, Oak Farm fired Vasquez, and shortly after the firing, his picture appeared on a company bulletin board with a note saying that Vasquez’s dismissal was due to his “Union Activity.”

The company has said that Vasquez’s termination was for other reasons, but Vasquez told a reporter for a local Fox News television station that “It’s all because of the union, for organizing.”

Since his termination, Vasquez, the union, and union supporters have received help from State Representative Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas), who wrote Oak Hills CEO Gregg Engels telling him that by firing Vasquez, Oak Farms “purposely violated workers’ organizing rights” guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act and continued to do by posting Vasquez’s picture on a company bulletin board as a warning to other workers.

Alonzo also wrote that

Oak Farms’ actions cannot be excused as the accidental activity of an unknowing management. The parent company of Oak Farms knows full well what the law is and what a collective bargaining contract looks like since they bargain collectively with the BCTGM and other unions at other locations. Oak Farms Dairy Inc. needs to be reminded that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) guarantees that “Employees shall have the right to self-organize to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively…. And to engage in other concerted activities…” This federal Act which took effect over 7 decades ago (76 years, to be exact) is enforced by the National Labor Relations Board and applies to workers throughout the United States, including San Antonio.

The union plans to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to get Vasquez back to work. “It would help for the government to investigate all these charges,” said Cesar Calderon, organizer for BCTWGM. “And once they find merit, ask the company to reinstate Mr. Vasquez.”

To support Vasquez and other union activists at Oak Farms, the union will be holding a rally and demonstration at the Oak Farms plant, 1314 Fredericksburg Road, on Wednesday, October 5 at 3:30.

San Antonio Teamster strike gets support from local labor council

The San Antonio Central Labor Council (CLC) on September 28 heard an update from Teamster Local 657 member Tony Diaz on the strike at the Pioneer Flour Mills and voted to send $200 to Local 657 to show its support for the five-month strike. CLC President Gloria Parra told Diaz that the council wanted to do more and encouraged Diaz to let the council know what else it could do.

“While $200 isn’t a lot, the door is open for more assistance,” said Pancho Valdez, a Laborers Local 1095 member, who invited Diaz to the meeting.

Local 657 has been on strike against the Pioneer Flour mill, owned by C.H. Guenther & Sons, since April. Guenther, an international food processing company, wants workers to accept cuts to their health care benefit and give up other union benefits such as seniority rights.

Health care benefits are important to Pioneer workers because their health and safety is often compromised by conditions at the mill. Johnny Davila, who has worked at Pioneer for 32 years, told the San Antonio College Ranger that he developed breathing problems from inhaling flour particles while packing tortillas.

The strikers continue to maintain their picket line at the historic mill on South Alamo Street. Across the street from the mill gates, strikers have set up a camp site where picketers can refresh themselves with drinks and food after walking in the daytime heat that continues to reach 100 degrees or more.

Strikers are also picketing Guenther House, a company-owned restaurant in downtown San Antonio near the River Walk, a popular tourist attraction.

C.H. Guenther & Sons is a food processing company with plants in Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, the United Kingdom, and Belgium. It makes flour for McDonald’s hamburger buns at some of its mills in the US and in Europe at its UK and Belgium mills.

It also sells food products under a variety of brands that are mostly used in baking, such as  Pioneer Flour, Pioneer Pancake Mix, Pioneer Chili Seasoning, Pioneer Taco Seasoning, Pioneer Cornbread Mix, Pioneer Gravy Mix, White Wing Flour, La Paloma Tortilla Mix, Peter Pan All Purpose Flour, and Texas Style Cornbread Mixes.

Feds and 11 states step up effort to curb wage theft

Earlier this month, the US Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service, and 11 states announced that they were taking an important step toward stemming the practice of misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which robs workers of pay and benefits and puts those who follow the rules at a competitive disadvantage.

According to a press release from the Department of Labor, the two federal agencies and the states signed memoranda of understanding to improve communication and coordination to “end the business practice of misclassifying  employees in order to avoid providing employment protections.”

Misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which some employers do to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws and paying for benefits such as Social Security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance, is especially prevalent among home builders, hotels, restaurants, janitorial contractors, health care companies, and day care facilities.

Earlier this year, the Department of Labor (DOL) recovered more that $219,000 in back wages for 44 workers at two Boston-area restaurants that misclassified staff as independent contractors.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP), which for a long time, has advocated for more aggressive enforcement against misclassification violations, said that the problem is growing. In a 2010 letter to congressional leaders, NELP Executive Director Christine Owens wrote,

Genuine independent contractors constitute a small fraction of the American workforce—by definition, an “independent contractor” operates a business—but the number of workers misclassified as independent contractors is large and growing. According to the Government Accountability Office, 15 percent of employers misclassify their workers as independent contractors, denying worker protections and benefits to at least 3.5 million workers a year.

The memoranda of understanding will improve the flow of information between the two federal agencies and the states that signed a memorandum.

The memorandum between the Department of Labor and the IRS enables DOL to refer wage and hour investigation information to IRS, which can use the information to pursue tax fraud charges against offending companies. IRS will provide DOL with information that can be used as evidence when DOL pursues wage and hour and other labor law violations.

States that signed a memorandum of understanding also agreed to share and receive information with and from the federal agencies.  Minnesota is one of the states that agreed to the cooperation effort. Minnesota’s labor commissioner Ken Peterson told Twin Cities.com that the state has been trying for years to crack down on misclassifications because they hurt more people than those directly affected.

“Tens of millions of dollars are lost each year in workers’ compensation premiums alone that should help fund the workers’ comp program,” Peterson said. “Other employers end up picking up the tab for these guys.”

In addition to Minnesota, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New York, Utah, and Washington signed a memorandum with the federal agencies.

Speaking at a ceremony announcing the agreements, DOL Secretary Hilda Solis told the audience, “We’re  here today to sign a series of agreements that together send a coordinated  message: We’re standing united to end the practice of misclassifying  employees. We are taking important steps toward making  sure that the American dream is still available for all employees and  responsible employers alike.”

Manufactured crisis threatens mail delivery and worker benefits

Back in August, just a few days before contract negotiations between the US Postal Service (USPS) and two of its unions were to commence, USPS issued a statement saying that within a month, the postal service would be insolvent due to the decline in first-class mail deliveries. The statement urged Congress to give USPS the authority to reduce health care and pension benefits and reduce its workforce without bargaining with its unions.

Not long after USPS issued its dire warning, a US House subcommittee voted in favor of HR 2309 by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Dennis Ross (R-FL), which would if enacted create a control board with authority to override postal service collective bargaining agreements and impose layoffs, benefit cuts, and changes to seniority rules.

Along with proposed cuts to worker benefits, other proposals are being made to sharply curtail delivery to individuals and businesses including closing 3,700 post offices, laying off 120,000 postal workers, closing 300 processing centers, and ending Saturday mail delivery

Supporters of HR 2309 and the proposals to cut delivery service say that these measures are needed to avert  USPS’s insolvency crisis, which otherwise will require a taxpayer bailout. But postal worker unions say that the insolvency crisis is a manufactured crisis whose purpose is to provide political cover for cutting services and voiding collective bargaining provisions that protect benefits and jobs.

“These new legislative proposals constitute a transparent attempt to gut our benefits and reduce our bargaining rights without negotiations,” said President Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers. Rolando urged USPS to engage in constructive collective bargaining “that helps the USPS better serve the American people and the $1.2 trillion industry it supports.”

Postal workers unions on September 27 held a Day of Action to urge members of Congress to support proposed legislation that will save America’s postal service without the radical cuts proposed in HR 2309 and by USPS management.

The manufactured insolvency crisis is the result of the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act (PAEA) passed in 2006, which requires that USPS pre-fund 75 years of retiree health benefits within a ten-year period beginning in 2007. PAEA’s mandate makes USPS unique. No other business or government pre-funds retiree health care over this length of time. In fact, most businesses and governments fund this benefit on a pay-as-you-go basis.

As a result of the pre-funding mandate, USPS lost $20 billion between 2007 and 2010. Before the mandate, USPS was debt free; now it is $13 billion in debt all of which was taken on to meet the pre-funding mandate. Without the pre-funding payments, USPS operations would have made profits of nearly $700 million over the last four years.

USPS said that it wasn’t going to be able to make the next pre-funding payment because it has nearly maxed out its $15 billion debt ceiling and won’t be able to borrow any more money, which according to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, Congressman Issa, and Congressman Ross makes USPS insolvent and necessitates cuts to service and worker benefits.

During its Day of Action members of postal workers unions, including NALC, American Postal Workers Union, National Postal Handlers Union, National Rural Letter Carriers Association, and National Association of Postal Supervisors, rallied and visited local congressional offices throughout the US urging representatives to co-sponsor HR 1351 by Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA).

HR 1351 is a short-term solution to the manufactured crisis. It would require the US Office of Personnel Management to refund $6 billion in over payments that USPS has made to the Federal Employee Retirement System, an overpayment that all interested parties agree was made. That would be enough money for USPS to make this year’s pre-funding payment.

But to maintain a quality postal delivery system, unions say that PAEA needs to be repealed and Congress needs to take further action to free up USPS earned revenues that are sitting in surplus funds, actions that would cost taxpayers nothing.

Unions are also battling myths that make the decline of postal delivery seem inevitable–for example, one such myth holds that the internet renders the postal service obsolete. The internet, according to the unions, has changed mail delivery but not supplanted it. For example, while more people are paying  bills online, more are also relying on USPS to deliver goods purchased over the internet.

“In a time of rapid societal and technological change, we need to strengthen our universal communications and delivery network, not weaken it,” read a statement released by postal worker unions.  “It would be a national travesty to begin to dismantle this unique network, jettison its numerous capabilities and jeopardize all its contributions, when the financial challenges—properly understood—can be addressed in ways that are more effective and cause no damage.”

Act of intimidation turns deadly at California hospital

A dangerous attempt at intimidation turned deadly on Saturday when a patient under the care of a temporary replacement nurse died at Alta Bates Sutter Medical Center in Oakland, California. The Registered Nurses, who should have been taking care of the patient, were not on the job because on Friday they were locked out by the hospital chain, trying to gain an advantage in contract negotiations in which the company is demanding 200 concessions from its unionized nurses.

The locked out nurses are members of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, who on Thursday conducted a one-day strike to protest the hospital chain’s demand for concessions, some of which will endanger patient safety by curtailing nurses’ ability to advocate for patient care.

After their one-day strike ended, the union nurses reported for work on Friday morning but were met by armed security guards and hospital administrators, who told them that they could not return to work for five days.

After nurses were barred from working, the union warned that the replacement nurses lacked the competency to provide safe patient care. On Saturday night, the warning came true when a Sutter cancer patient, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, died after a replacement nurse administered “a fatal dose of medication.”

“An incident like this is chilling and strikes right to our nurses concern about their ability to advocate for their patients,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was irresponsible to lock out the nurses.”

Nurses who were locked out called the lock out an act of intimidation aimed at punishing nurses who want to protect their patients’ safety. The hospital contends that it had no choice but to lock out the union nurses because the temp agency demanded that Sutter sign a five-day contract for the replacement nurses.

But Martha Kuhl, a Sutter nurse, said that Kaiser-Permanente, whose workers walked out last week over an unfair labor practice charge, allowed its nurses and other health care workers to return to work after their job action ended. This is “compelling evidence” that the lockout is punitive and unwarranted, Kuhl said.

On Sunday night, union nurses and supporters held a candlelight vigil to honor the patient who died and to urge Sutter to stop its scare tactics and let union nurses return to work.

“When I heard of the tragic incident, I was shocked,” said a tearful nurse at the vigil. “At first I didn’t believe that this could happen to one of our patients and that Sutter would consistently refuse to bring us back to work; that Sutter would jeopardize our patients, our families, our community behind their greed and their punitive and retaliatory actions.”

Despite the tragic death, Sutter continues to lock out its union nurses. CNA is urging supporters to send a letter to Sutter CEO Pat Fry demanding that she end the unsafe lock out and return to the bargaining table to discuss the issue of patient safety, the nurses’ most important bargaining concern.

RNs strike for better patient care

“Patients before profits,” reads one of the signs on the picket line of registered nurses who belong to the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).  RNs who belong to NUHW began a three-day strike on September 20 to protest unfair labor practices that threaten patient care at Kaiser-Permanente, California’s largest health care provider.

“It’s upsetting to us to see patient’s suffering because we don’t have staff we need to provide services patients need and deserve,” said Jim Clifford, a mental health therapist at Kaiser-Permanente in San Diego and a NUHW member.

NUHW, which represents registered nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser-Permanente, and the company have been negotiating a new contract since May 2010. NUHW members want Kaiser to hire more staff. Kaiser wants to maintain current staffing levels and cut health care and pension benefits.

On Thursday in a show of solidarity, NUHW was joined by the National Nurses Union, the union for stationary engineers, and Northern California NUHW in a one-day sympathy strike.

National Nurses Union has been waging a similar fight for improved patient care at Sutter Health hospitals in Northern and Central California. On Thursday, 23,000 registered nurses who belong to NNU walked off the job to support Kaiser workers and to press Sutter Health to sign a fair contract.

Sutter is seeking a long list of contract concessions  that would restrict the ability of nurses to advocate for patient care. At a rally at Sutter’s Alta Bates campus in Berkeley, DeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association told the crowd, “When nurses are on the outside, there’s something wrong on the inside. She called Sutter’s concession demands,  “Drastic, unwarranted, and unconscionable. They’re harming patients and we’re standing in the gap.”

Among other things, Sutter is demanding that charge nurses be subject to dismissal when they advocate for patient care and that bedside nurses be barred from helping to determine staffing needs based on individual patient illness and need. Sutter also wants to eliminate sick pay for RNs, reduce their pension and health care benefits and cut pay for newly hired RNs by as much as $20 an hour.

Kaiser and Sutter are demanding concessions despite the fact that both are extremely profitable operations. Sutter profits since 2005 are nearly $4 billion. It’s 20 top executives have annual salaries of between $3 million and $1 million a year.

Kaiser, which is supposed to be a non-profit hospital, has recorded profits of $5.7 billion since 2009.

Both NUHW and NNU say that these two health care corporations have made their profits by cutting jobs and services. “In order for Kaiser to make money, they’re under-staffing services,” said Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker a Kaiser Sacramento and a NUHW members. “And they are providing substandard care to protect the bottom line.”

NNU says that in recent years Sutter has cut many patient services including, ending breast exams for women with disabilities, cutting psychiatric services, closing pediatric care units, and eliminating acute rehabilitation, dialysis, and skilled nursing services at some of its hospitals. It also cut services by two-thirds at its Mission District hospital in San Francisco.

Workers who joined the solidarity strike in Northern California returned to work on Friday. In Southern California, strikers will return on Saturday. But that’s not the end of the struggle for better patient care. On September 21 and 22,  1,300 social workers, therapists, health educators, dietitians, speech pathologists and audiologists, who belong to NUHW will engage in a two-day strike.

“Our primary goal is to facilitate change that makes patient care better,” Ryan said.

Tyson Foods agrees to pay $32 million to settle Fair Labor Standards suit

Tyson Food earlier this week agreed to settle a Fair Labor Standards lawsuit initiated by the United Food and Commercial Workers over Tyson’s practice of not paying workers for the time they spend at work putting on and taking off protective gear they wear to keep the food they process safe and for their own protection.

“Every American deserves to get paid for the work they do,” said Joe Hansen, UFCW International President. “We’re changing the way meatpackers do business and making them pay thousands of workers correctly.” And in fact, the current industry-wide standard now is to pay workers for this activity, but not 12 years ago when the union brought suit against the company.

Tyson agreed to pay $32 million to settle the suit that will affect 17,000 Tyson workers and former workers in 41 plants and 12 states mainly in the South. Each worker will receive about $1,000 as a result of the settlement. Many if not most Tyson workers are immigrants from Latin America.

The suit charged that Tyson did not pay its workers for the time it took them to put on and take off their protective gear that included such items as special shirts and pants, safety jump suits, safety boots, hair nets, face nets, hard hats, aprons, belts with holsters and knives, and hand and arm protection and for not paying workers for walking to their work stations after donning the gear and walking from their work stations to take off their gear.

Back in 2002, a few years after the suit was filed, Perdue Foods, one of Tyson’s competitors, decided that it would pay workers for donning and doffing safety equipment and for walking to and from their work area. Other companies followed suit, but Tyson gambled that a court would uphold its practice.

But in 2005, Tyson’s position became shaky after the US Supreme Court ruled that employers can’t deny workers pay by making them work off the clock. But it took another six years for Tyson to finally come to terms with the fact that its position was indefensible.

“We’ve already made a change in the way meatpackers pay their workers,” said Hansen. “While this settlement is long overdue, our efforts have ensured that thousands of workers have been paid correctly for years now.”

Workers and former workers at Tyson plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri,
North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas receive compensation for the work that they were denied pay.

In a statement released after the settlement, UFCW said that “This lawsuit and the new pay practices in the meatpacking
industry are just one way union workers raise standards for every worker in their industry, regardless of their union status.”