Why is Sotheby’s “throwing hardworking New Yorkers on the streets without paychecks?”

The New York Women’s Foundation, a philanthropic organization, bills itself as a progressive, feminist group whose mission is “to create an equitable and just future for women, families, and communities in New York City.” So five wives of locked out Teamsters wanted to know why Diana Taylor, the foundation’s chair who sits on the Board of Directors of Sotheby’s Auction House, was supporting the auction house’s attempt to starve its workers into accepting a new contract that cuts wages and reduces job security.

“Sotheby’s and Diana Taylor are part of the top 1 percent in this country. As chair of the Women’s Foundation, Diana Taylor should support their mission of working for economic security and justice for women,” said Pat Walsh, wife of locked-out art handler John Walsh. “So why, as a board member of Sotheby’s Auction House, does she condone Sotheby’s throwing hardworking New Yorkers out on the street without paychecks? Our families rely on these good jobs and benefits.”

Walsh and the other wives were asking this question as they passed out leaflets with information about Sotheby’s lockout at a Women’s Foundation neighborhood dinner in Queen’s New York.

During the summer, Teamster Local 814, which represents 43 art handlers at Sotheby’s, and the company began bargaining on a new contract to replace the one that was to expire July 1. Sotheby’s demanded concessions that would reduce the work week to 36 hours, cutting worker pay by 10 percent. It also wanted to cap overtime, eliminate the workers’ retirement benefit, and hire temporary workers at lower pay and with no benefits to pick up the slack created by the reduced hours of its permanent employees.

When union members balked at the concession demands, the company sent them a letter informing them that they were locked out and not to show up for work on August 1. The company has subsequently stopped paying the workers’ health insurance premium. Before the lockout began, Sotheby hired the union avoidance law firm Jackson Lewis.

Sotheby’s concession demands aren’t driven by economic necessity; in fact, the company is doing quite well. It reported $774 million in revenue last year, and during the last quarter, company profits were the highest in the art dealer’s 267-year history. Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht saw his salary almost double in 2010 to $6 million.

“With profits over $100 million in the last quarter alone, I don’t understand why Sotheby’s would make such a bad decision to outsource this sensitive work and kick us to the curb for no reason,” said Julian Tysch, a locked-out Sotheby’s art handler speaking about Sotheby’s decision to hire replacement workers during the lockout.

Since the lockout, union members have been picketing Sotheby’s and trying to win public support for their fight. Last week, Teamsters traveled to the United Kingdom where they asked Members of Parliament to censure the London-based company for its treatment of it workers.

Local 814 President Jason Ide addressed a British Parliamentary hearing at which he told the Members of Parliament that “everybody’s concerned about the same things: they’re concerned about jobs, they’re concerned about growth, and they’re concerned about unemployment. We have our own issues as well—we have 43 workers who’ve been locked out at Sotheby’s for two and a half months. The boss is trying to starve us out.” Ide made his remarks after 23 MPs signed an Early Day Motion that censures Sotheby’s for its lockout.

Two weeks ago, Occupy Wall Street held a solidarity demonstration at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan during the auction of pieces from billionaire Lily Safra’s estate. “The Sotheby’s economy is destroying the lives of too many Americans,” said Sim Jones, a 42-year art handler and member of Local 814 during the demonstration.

“The outrageous behavior of this company and its law firm is a perfect symbol of what is wrong with this country, and is one of the reasons there are thousands of ‘Occupy’ protests springing up all across America and across the globe,” said Harrison Magee, an Occupy Wall Street protestor. “The top one percent are destroying families just to siphon a few more dollars their way.”

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Presidential Emergency Board concludes hearings on rail labor dispute

The Presidential Emergency Board last week wrapped up hearings on a dispute between 11 unions representing railroad workers and the nation’s largest rail freight carriers. The board was appointed by President Obama after negotiators for the unions and National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC), which represents the carriers in labor negotiations, broke down last summer.

The board will use testimony presented by both sides during the hearing to make non-binding recommendations by November 7 for a final settlement of the dispute.

During the hearings, the NCCC argued that rail workers were overpaid, lucky to have jobs in the current economy, and generally greedy for rejecting the NCCC’s final offer that included cuts to their health care benefit. Furthermore, the NCCC argued, a pattern agreement had already been established last summer when the United Transportation Union, accepted an agreement similar to the one that the 11 other unions had rejected.

The unions responded that the deal accepted by UTU was not a pattern since the union represents only about a third of the union workers in the rail industry and that union accepted the deal because the UTU leadership was having second thoughts about a merger with another union that the UTU executive board had agreed to.

The union also testified that union members deserved to share the fruits of their labor that has created record-setting profits for the carriers, multi-million dollar bonuses for the carriers’ CEOs, and, according to CSX, one of the carriers represented by NCCC, “truly outstanding results for investors.”

One of the points that caused negotiations to break down was the NCCC’s insistence that rail workers pay more for their health care coverage. According to Robert Scardelletti, president of the Transportation Communication Union, who testified at the hearing, the NCCC never bargained in good faith on the health care issue. It demanded the cuts and rejected union attempts to meet half way on the issue.

The health care concessions proposed by NCCC would, according to the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition, which represents six unions in the negotiations, shift $250 million in health care costs away from employers and onto workers. Those who actually seek health care services would bear the brunt of these increases.

The health care issue is important to rail workers because their job is dangerous and working conditions can be unhealthy. According to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters, rail workers’ health care costs are 20 percent higher than the national average due to the nature of their jobs.

In his testimony before the board, Scardelletti said that carriers want to shift the cost of health care onto workers even though they are some of the most profitable businesses in the US. During 2010, Class I Railroads, the nation’s largest had operating revenue of $58.4 billion.

Four of the largest railroads, BNSF, CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern Railway, which account for 92 percent of total revenue and employment for Class I Railroads, enjoyed average annual profits of 13.4 percent over the last five years, which enabled them to pay down debt, initiate a stock buy back program, and pay record bonuses to their executives.

During 2010, CEO’s of BNSF, CSX, and Union Pacific received bonuses averaging $15 million and had an average fixed salary of $1.2 million.

These bonuses, stock buy backs, and debt pay down were all possible because of the $60,983 in profit produced last year by railway workers.

The unions also challenged the NCCC’s assumptions used to estimate future health care costs increases that it said justified the cost shifting.

Thomas Roth, an economist advising the unions, rebutted some of the testimony that the carriers made about rail workers compensation. The carriers argued that rail workers are overcompensated by about 80 percent. Roth said that this assertion is based on a faulty comparison.

For example, the carriers compared the pay for dispatchers in railway and non-railway jobs. But Roth pointed out that rail dispatchers jobs are highly complex, require special and higher skills than do the jobs of non-railway dispatchers, and require more training and on-the-job experience to master. It’s only fair that these workers be rewarded for their skills, abilities, and productivity, Roth said.

When the board issues its recommendations, both sides will have an opportunity to accept or reject them. If either side rejects, then the two parties must continue negotiations for another 30 days. If no agreement is reached after that, then after another 30 days, a strike or a lockout is possible.

Mexican union endures and wins

A headline on an article posted in October 2009 at the Dollars and Sense website reads, “Calderon busts Mexican Electrical Workers Union.” The only problem with the headline is that it’s not true. Mexican President Felipe Calderon tried but failed to bust the union, known by its Spanish acronym SME. After a two-year struggle, the government finally agreed to recognize the union that it tried to kill one Sunday morning two years ago.

When workers of the  Central Light and Power company arrived for the first shift on October 11, 2009, they were greeted by armed and masked federal police, who told them to go home. The public utility that provided electricity to Mexico City and other parts of Central Mexico had been dissolved by a presidential order. They no longer had jobs, and the union that represented them no longer existed.

They would eventually learn that the work they did would be taken over by the Federal Electricity Commission, which provided electricity to the parts of Mexico not covered by Central Light and Power, and that they were eligible for severance pay.

When the company was dissolved 45,000 SME members lost their jobs. Most of its members took the severance pay and moved on, but 16,000 decided to fight for their jobs. During the next two years, SME  held demonstrations, rallied its members and supporters, sought redress through the court system, built coalitions at home and abroad and continued the fight for its members’ jobs any way it could.

Last month, the perseverance of the union and its members paid off. The government finally agreed to recognize the union and its elected leadership, allow the union access to funds that the government froze when it dissolved the company, and negotiate with the union for the return to work of all members who did not take severance pay.

The tide began to turn for the union about six months ago when SME members began occupying Mexico City’s Zocalo, Mexico’s national plaza. SME was joined by other organizations, like Los Mineros (the miners and metal workers union) and dozens of other groups  representing workers, farmers and poor people.

During the occupation, SME managed to hold elections for union officers. The turnout was high, and the union leadership was re-elected by a substantial margin, making it difficult for the government to hold to its claim that the union did not represent the workers.

At the beginning of September, things got tense. September 16, Mexico’s Independence Day, was approaching, and the annual celebration was scheduled to take place at the Zocalo, a public space highly symbolic of the country’s national identity. More people arrived at the Zocalo to support SME members. Their numbers grew to about 50,000, and it appeared that the national celebration would be interrupted by the occupation.

As September 16 approached, the Army took up positions nearby, but the occupiers held their ground.

Finally on September 13, Martin Esparza, SME general secretary, announced that the union had reached an agreement with the Secretary of the Interior that would allow the national celebration to proceed without incident. The government agreed to recognize SME, give the union access to the $1.5 million in union funds frozen by the government, and by November 30, complete negotiations that will allow union members to return to work. The government also agreed to negotiate with SME over retirement benefits, social security, union dues, and the release of 12 SME members imprisoned for union activity during the two-year struggle. SME calls these members political prisoners.

The Calderon government said that it closed Central Light and Power because it was inefficient. The union says that the closure was aimed at curtailing SME’s power. SME has been an effective opponent of Calderon’s economic policies that seek to deregulate business, privatize government assets, including the public utility that generates electricity, and concentrate the nation’s wealth in hands of a favored few.

Carwash workers win union contract

Workers at a Santa Monica, California carwash on Tuesday signed a union contract with owners of Bonus Car Wash making them the first carwash workers in the US to have a collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

“I’m so happy we have a union and a contract,” said Olivero Gomez, who has worked at Bonus for nine years and was one of the workers’ representatives who signed the contract. “Now we can take our breaks, if we’re thirsty, we can drink water, and they respect the schedule and all of the hours we work are in our paycheck. But the biggest difference is we finally get respect as workers.’

The contract was the result of a long struggle that began in 2008 and involved training workers how to organize themselves and to  reach out to the community to build public support.

When the organizing effort at Bonus began, staff from the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN), who have been leading an effort to unionize the carwash workers in the Los Angeles area, helped workers form an on-the-job organizing committee. The organizing committee spoke up for improvements on the job, engaged in work site actions for these improvements, and made presentations to community, labor, and religious groups exposing the unsafe working conditions and other problems at the carwash. The workers asked community supporters to write letters to Bonus’ owner and sign postcards urgings the owner to recognize the union.

One of the main abuses that workers described during their outreach efforts was the widespread practice of wage theft in the carwash industry. Workers are often not paid overtime, not paid for time spent on the job when not washing cars, and generally not paid for work performed.

CLEAN has launched a campaign urging local and state authorities to crackdown on wage theft in the carwash industry. As a result, the Los Angeles City Attorney in 2009 charged the owners of Vermont Hand Wash with wage theft, and the owners were sentenced to one year in jail, fined, and required to pay restitution.

Last year, the California attorney general filed a $6 million lawsuit against the owners of Bonus, one the biggest carwash owners in California. The suit resulted from complaints by workers that their paychecks kept bouncing.

“For almost a year, the checks kept bouncing,” said Eduardo Tapia, a Bonus worker. “We would take the checks to check cashing places but they bounced so frequently that they stopped cashing them and told us they could call the police on us because it was illegal.”

It’s not clear what effect the new contract will have on the lawsuit, but the contract does call for a modest pay increase, health and safety protections, grievance and arbitration procedures, and protection for the workers if the company is sold. The owners agreed that they would try an open another carwash in Venice that was closed in December. Workers at that carwash also had formed an organizing committee and were trying win union recognition.

“This contract is an absolutely historic tide change for the carwash industry,” said Chloe Osmer, Acting Director of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign. “After years of efforts by courageous carwash workers and our community partners, we’ve secured an agreement that marks the beginning of a cleaner carwash industry.”

The newly unionized workers are now members of the United Steelworkers Local 675.

Report: Housing bubble, not workers caused state budget shortfalls

When politicians are facing a crisis, it’s often advantageous for them to find a scapegoat to blame. If that scapegoat happens to be an adversary that can be demonize, so much the better. When state leaders were facing very real budget shortfalls earlier this year, some chose to blame the shortfalls on overpaid public sector workers and their greedy unions and attempted to turn the general public against the people who provide public services.

But a recent report entitled The Wrong Target: Public Sector Unions and State Budget Deficits by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley concludes that public sector workers aren’t overpaid and that neither their compensation nor public sector unions are responsible for state and local government shortfalls; the real culprit, according to the report, is the bursting of the housing bubble, which caused the Great Recession and slackened business activity, which, in turn, reduced local and state government revenue.

After the speculation on home mortgages collapsed in 2008, the Great Recession set in and state budget deficits reached all-time highs.  In 2009 state budget deficits climbed to $110 billion, $30 billion higher than the previous high. That record was shattered in 2010 when state budget deficits reached $191 billion.

Politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker concluded that the state’s budget crisis was the fault of public sector workers and told voters, “we can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.” He subsequently cut public sector wages and benefits and eliminated their right to collective bargaining.

If Gov. Walker were correct that public sector worker compensation was the cause of states’ budget deficits then public sector compensation should be an increasing share of state budgets. But according to the authors, “public sector compensation as a share of state budget has actually declined.” Between 1992 and 2002, state worker compensation as a share of state budgets declined from 23 percent to 19 percent. Since 2002 compensation as a share of budget has remained at 19 percent.

The trend held true in states with higher concentrations of union members. Over a 30-year period, the average share of public worker compensation of budgets for the ten states with the highest union density was 19.6 percent; the average share for the ten states with the lowest share was 18.7 percent.

In 2009, the gap narrowed to just 0.5 percent. Compensation in the states with the highest union density was 19.8 percent of budget compared to 19.3 percent for states with the lowest union density.

The report also finds little support for Gov. Walker’s assertion that public sector workers are the “haves” and private sector workers are the “have nots.”  The authors refer to a growing body of work that shows that wages of public sector workers lag behind those in the private sector who do comparable work and have comparable education and skills. Even when health care and benefits are included in the comparison, public sector compensation is not better than private sector compensation.

If anything, private sector and public sector workers are both the “have nots” in our society.

The real “haves” in this society, and those protected by Gov. Walker’s rhetoric, are those who engaged in speculative trades based on the questionable value of numerous home markets that set off the trillion-dollar housing bubble. When the bubble burst, housing values fell, housing construction plummeted, which affected other parts of the economy, and a lot of people lost their jobs.

As property values declined, so did tax revenue based on property value. As more people were laid off, business activity declined, which also dried up tax revenue. The result was the record budget deficits of 2009 and 2010.

For politicians like Gov. Walker it will always be more useful to blame a scapegoat than to face up to the structural causes of our state deficits. Our economy produces more than we consume, and speculative activity such as the housing bubble are needed to soak up the excess. Speculative activities are capable of creating great wealth but are prone to crashes that reverberate throughout society resulting in numerous crises including soaring state budget deficits.

Austin labor demonstrates solidarity with Occupy movement

Five hundred union members marched through downtown Austin Sunday chanting, “What do we want? Union jobs” and “They got bailed out, we got sold out” during the Occupy Austin Labor Solidarity March. Ironworkers, sheet metal workers, electricians, telecom workers, and transit workers marched alongside teachers, state and local government workers, and EMS technicians.

Postal workers carried signs reading, “Save Our Postal Service, Save Saturday Deliveries” in reference to the United States Postal Service’s proposal to cut mail delivery services and lay off thousands of postal workers. Teamsters carried signs reading “Stop the War on Workers.”

Phil Bunker, vice-president of Teamsters Local 657 explained to me how the war on workers is affecting local Teamsters who work for Yellow Freight, a regional trucking company. Recently, the company threatened to file bankruptcy unless the union agreed to re-open and re-negotiate the contract. When the union reluctantly agreed, the company reduced wages by 15 percent, stopped making contributions to the workers’ pension fund, and reduced their health care benefit. “The members are very demoralized now,” Bunker said.

But on Sunday, those in the march were anything but demoralized as the spirited group marched past City Hall, where members of the Occupy Austin movement have set up camp to protest national and local economic and political policies that serve the interests of the richest 1 percent and ignore the interests of the rest of us.

The march ended up at a skyscraper on Congress Avenue that houses Wells Fargo Bank, a bank that received a $43.7 billion bailout from the US government, and since then has recorded $24.6 billion in profits and paid bonuses and compensation totaling $27 billion, including a $14.3 million bonus to CEO John Stumpf. At the same time, the bank has denied 175,336  homeowners facing foreclosure a mortgage modification that would enable them to keep their homes and  it pays its bank tellers an average of $22,000 a year.

Pointing to the building where Wells Fargo and other financial companies have their offices, a young electrician belonging to IBEW Local 520 told the crowd, “Labor built this building, but those who own it don’t want to treat labor fairly. When we fight to protect our wages and health care benefits, they call us greedy.”

Occupy Austin labor coordinator Snehal Shingavi, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, said that the most important idea that the labor movement has contributed to the Occupy movement and to the long struggle for social and economic justice is the idea of solidarity. “An injury to one is an injury to all has been the cornerstone of the labor movement; that’s where our power lies and that’s how we can win this fight.”

Other speakers at the rally talked about how workers were paying the price for the economic recession caused by the reckless speculation of banks like Wells Fargo. “The Austin Independent School District eliminated 1,100 jobs of teachers and other education workers,” said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin, the union representing Austin’s public school employees. The job cuts were caused by cuts to state education funding education, the result of declining revenue due to the recession.

“The state has severely reduced services to the people most affected by the recession,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186. “It could have raised taxes on the state’s wealthiest to help those in need, but instead chose to cut these services. The wealthy are wealthy because of the wealth created by workers. When those workers fall on hard times, it’s only fair for the rich to share the wealth with those who created it.”

The mood of the marchers was exuberant and angry. They were angry about the economic mess created by a system that puts profit ahead of people’s needs, but they were also happy about the opportunity that the Occupy movement has given them to express their anger and frustration and to build a movement for real change, equality, and social justice. “Thank you for this,” said a middle-aged IBEW member as he waved to the young people at the Occupy Austin encampment outside City Hall.

Why Labor Needs to Explore a New Political Direction!

The following was submitted by Pancho Valdez.  Valdez is a trade unionist residing in San Antonio and is an active member of the Bexar County Greens Party.

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same failed thing over and over expecting a different outcome”- Albert Einstein

I joined my first union in December of 1971 when I was employed with the San Antonio Independent School District. As a member of the now defunct SEIU Local 84 I eagerly voted for Democrats because back then they appeared to be sympathetic to the cause of organized labor.

As time passed I eventually learned how wrong I was. However, one must remember I was only 19 at the time and what did I know about political reality?

By the mid 70s, I was working in Houston and was a member of several unions. The union that I gained the most experience and success with was Teamsters Local 968 while I worked for the old GAF Floor Tile Plant. It wasn’t soon after that I learned just how evasive and dishonest to workers elected politicians could be. My faith in the Democratic Party was beginning to deteriorate.

In the early 90s I learned about a project that the late Anthony Mazzochi was involved in. Mazzochi then an officer with the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers was proposing that organized labor create and support a political party controlled by workers, rather than corporations. At about that time, President Clinton signed into law the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement aka NAFTA. Despite labor having coughed up $35 million for his campaign against Republican Robert Dole, Clinton in typical neo-liberal fashion gave workers the shafta with NAFTA!

Mazzochi’s idea was becoming more and more interesting to me as the Democrats willingly betrayed the American working class as well as the Mexican working class in their shameless support for NAFTA! In the late 90s the Labor Party went from just an idea to becoming a reality in its founding convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Initially, I along with several other local trade unionists became quite excited and involved with the Labor Party. Unfortunately our zeal ended with the party failing to challenge either Democrats or Republicans across the nation with the exception of S. Carolina. Today the Labor Party exists on paper, but the need remains even more so that those earlier days.

As I write this article I have just learned that President Obama signed into law trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and S. Korea despite organized labor’s opposition and the fact that these “trade agreements” will cost the U.S. close to 150.000 jobs!

While I can understand Obama’s pandering to the corporate elite, I cannot accept the fact that the AFL-CIO and other major labor union bodies continue to blindly support Obama and the Democratic Party. How many more betrayals does organized labor need to experience before it says; Enough is enough? Labor’s dependency on a party that continually betrays its interests reminds me of the battered woman who continues to fall for the abusive partner’s lies and then continues to get beaten up!

Along with the Democratic Party’s/President Obama’s shameless support for the phony trade agreements, Obama has publicly supported Arne Duncan’s attack on public school teachers and their unions blaming them for the many failures of our public school system! Yet both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have both tossed in their full support for his re-election! Aside from the aforementioned Obama’s support for the Employee Free Choice legislation quickly sputtered out and is nowhere on the horizon of the Democratic Party’s platform. Yet organized labor continues to blindly follow and support the Democratic Party.

I realize that many trade unionists have this deeply ingrained belief that the DP is the party “friendly” to labor, citing the accomplishments of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the New Deal. Under the New Deal Roosevelt signed into law Social Security, unemployment benefits, public housing, the Works Project Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Labor Relations Act, all programs that benefited the American working class during Great Depression I.

Unfortunately, many trade unionists are not aware that the Democrats did not give us anything! These vital programs were signed into law as workers especially those affiliated with the left-led CIO demanded these benefits through mass demonstrations, sit down strikes and other militant actions in the streets and job sites! Roosevelt in order to avoid out-and-out revolution was forced to sign these programs/benefits into law!

Today we are in the midst of Great Depression II as over 25 million U.S. workers are unemployed and countless others remain underemployed! Yet our current president has publicly stated that he is “counting on the private sector” to provide the US needed jobs. THE PRIVATE SECTOR SENT MOST OF OUR BASIC INDUSTRIAL JOBS OVERSEAS! Duh!

Unfortunately, the current labor movement lacks sufficient left wingers leading it and/or the vision to see that a corporatist president isn’t going to do very much on behalf of workers and their families!

The idea of the late Tony Mazzochi is still very relevant today. Especially in light of the reactionary assault on labor and the austerity forced upon us as corporations continue to rake in record profits! We must continue to advocate for a genuine people’s party that will speak out for workers and their families, people of color, the environment, peace, gays and lesbians and others who have been ignored and betrayed by both the Democratic and Republican parties!

Above all this new party must refuse to accept corporate bribes disguised as “campaign donations” and fully support our federal Constitution, something the two major parties continue to violate!

In closing I urge all trade unionists to give serious consideration to what I have tried to communicate to you. My hope is by 2016 we will have in place a genuine people’s party that will rise from the actions of the 99% in the streets across the nation!