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.”

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!

Warehouse workers allege wage theft at Walmart distribution center

It’s called “performance pay scale.” For some logistics company’s it’s a way to motivate and fairly compensate their “associates.” But for some workers at Southern California Walmart distribution centers, it’s a way to cheat them out of wages.

Earlier this week, attorneys on behalf of these workers filed a class action suit in federal court charging the operator of a Walmart distribution center and two of its staffing agencies that use “performance pay scale” to calculate wages with wage theft and abusive working conditions. A spokesman for Walmart said that the mega-retailer is not involved.

Workers named as plaintiffs in the suit have been assisted by Warehouse Workers United, which has been organizing warehouse workers in the region of Southern California known as the Inland Empire.

“We are here to expose the dirty little secrets taking place inside of these buildings by large corporations like Walmart, Schneider and the staffing agencies that abuse these workers day in and day out,” said Guadalupe Palma of Warehouse Workers United at a rally to support the plaintiffs. “Unfortunately we know that these types of conditions are not uncommon in the warehouse industry.”

The suit seeks to recover back wages, overtime compensation, and payments missed for meal breaks for a period that began in 2009. The suit seeks $10 million in compensation for unpaid wages and other abuses from Schneider Logistics of Green Bay Wisconsin, Impact Logistics of Memphis, and Premier Warehousing Ventures of Rocky Mountain, North Carolina.

“Performance pay scale” is another term for piece-rate pay, a form of compensation common in sweatshops that pay workers for the number of pieces produced rather than for time worked. Premier and Insight workers are paid for the number of boxes they unload from cargo containers.

The workers’ suit alleges that their piece rate does not fairly compensate them for overtime worked. “There have been times when we’ve worked up to 16 hours a day and we don’t even earn a minimum wage,” said Juan Chavez, one of the plaintiffs in Spanish. “We don’t know how that amount has been arrived at to tally our wages.”

The suit also says that “defendants did not, and do not, pay those workers for work they perform on any container that is not completely unloaded by the end of the work shift.”

Furthermore, there is no compensation for incidental assignments such as sweeping, breaking down pallets, locating missing boxes, and breaking down pallets.

Workers complain that there is not enough information on their pay stubs to determine how their wages were calculated and that it is  left up to crew chiefs to determine how many hours they worked with no independent way, such as a time clock, to verify the hours submitted.

The suit comes on the heels of a recent investigation by the California Department for Industrial Relations, which found that Impact Logistics did not provide itemized wage statements that would allow workers to determine whether their wages were calculated correctly. The company was fined $499,000 and was issued a notice to discontinue labor law violations. Premier was also issued a notice to discontinue labor violations.

“Warehouse workers do some of the most backbreaking jobs in our economy,” said California Labor Commissioner Julie A. Su, commenting on the investigation and the subsequent fine. “Their work is often hidden from public view and there is constant pressure to work faster, which can lead to abuse. In this case, workers were paid piece rate to unload containers. Piece rate workers must receive at least minimum wage and overtime for all hours worked.”

Su also said that an investigation is ongoing to assess all wages owed to workers.

The suit alleges other abuses. “There are a large amount of abuses against workers there,” said plaintiff Everardo Carrillo, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. “I once worked from 7 am to 2 am the next day. We unloaded containers when conditions were very bad, 110 degrees inside. The pay arrangement was very unorganized. If you asked questions, you could be laid off for two or three days or a week.”

Greeks brace for austerity measures

Nowhere is the antagonism between global billionaires and the rest of us more intense today than in Greece. Bankers want the Greek government to pass new austerity legislation, which calls for deep cuts to government spending, to ensure that loans they made to the Greek government are paid back in full. Greek workers, on the other hand, heeded a call for a general strike on Wednesday demanding that the government reject the austerity measures that will curb collective bargaining, cut public sector workers’ pay, privatize government assets, reduce pensions, and increase unemployment.

The Greek Parliament will cast a final vote on the austerity measures today. Yesterday, the measures passed a preliminary vote by a narrow margin.

The proposed austerity measures will mean that Greek workers, already poor compared to their Western European counterparts, will become even poorer.

This Greek tragedy began to unfold in 2010 when it came to light that investment bankers like Goldman Sachs had for years been selling debt derivatives to the Greek government. These transactions, which included upfront cash payments to the government and a ballooning interest rate, helped the government hide its heavy debt load.

The news of the deceit caused bond traders to panic. They feared that the Greek government would default on the bonds that traders were holding. The panic caused interest rates to rise, which caused more panic.

The European Central Bank arranged loans to stabilize the situation, but demanded austerity measures in return, which led to pay cuts and layoffs in the public and private sectors. Because people had less money to spend, business activity slowed down, which in turn reduced government revenue, which made it difficult for the government to meet its debt obligations, which caused another panic, and demands from bankers for more austerity.

Today’s tragedy has its roots in the 1930s, said Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis in a 2010 interview with Doug Henwood on his Behind the News radio program. A 20-year anti-fascist civil war that started in the 1930s led to a mass exodus of Greek workers, which stunted the growth of the country’s nascent manufacturing sector, which if allowed to develop could have provided jobs with decent wages that could have spurred economic growth.

The lost manufacturing jobs were replaced with low-paying service jobs, which kept Greece mired in poverty. This trend began to reverse itself in the 1970s, but in the 1980s when the leveraged buyout frenzy began many of these manufacturing firms were bought by foreign investors, primarily from Germany, who sold off the firms’ assets and converted their remaining space into warehouses to store foreign goods for sale on the Greek market.

Booms financed by debt bubbles spurred some growth in the 1990s and 2000s, but when the largest bubble burst in 2008, private companies went under and the government could no longer finance its debt, which led to the first panic in 2010.

Today the weight of all the bad decisions made by foreign and domestic investors and by governments headed by both conservatives and socialists is being borne by Greek workers. Public sector workers, who took 20 percent pay cuts in 2010 are now being told they must accept more pay cuts, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent.

Public services are also taking big cuts. A Greek teacher recently told the BBC that her school already lacks supplies and computers and if the austerity measures pass, she isn’t sure if the school will be able to heat its classrooms this winter.

Yesterday’s general strike was joined by public sector and private sector workers, many of whom massed on the streets of Athens near the Parliament building. Today, the strikers will return to the Parliament to confront lawmakers as they prepare for the final vote on the austerity measures.

At a rally on Wednesday, a leader of PAME, one of the unions that called the general strike, Giorgos Perros, urged the crowd to continue the fight against the austerity measures. “There is no pro-people PASOK,” said Perros, referring to the socialist party now leading the government. “There is no pro-people government no matter if it is called ‘center-left’, or ‘left,’, if it does not come into conflict with the monopolies, if its program does not include the overthrow of the monopolies or in other words their socialization. Either with the people or with the monopolies. Workers’- people’s power or monopolies’ power. There is no other way! Don’t waste any moment. Counterattack all together! Tomorrow, on Thursday everyone must come to the encirclement of the Parliament by PAME from all sides and streets.”

Senators seek more federal employee wage, benefit cuts

Two leaders of a Senate government oversight committee recently proposed extending the two-year federal employee wage freeze by another year. They also proposed making federal employees pay more for their pensions, reducing pensions for future retirees, and cutting other benefits that all together, including the wage freeze extension, will cost federal employees $60 billion.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, ranking Republican on the committee, made the proposals in a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which will recommend budget cuts later this year.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 625,000 federal employees, called the proposed cuts unfair since federal employees have already lost $60 billion because of the two-year wage freeze imposed earlier this year.

The union also wondered why the senators were coming after federal employees so hard and letting government contractors that pad their costs at taxpayer expense off the hook.

“I am shocked at what these elected officials have done to federal employees, while doing little to curb the massive taxpayer-funded bailouts to government contractors,”AFGE National President John Gage said. “Federal employees have sacrificed more than any other group, giving up two years of pay increases to help lower the country’s deficit. It’s time to pass the hat and ask others to pay their fair share.”

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represent 150,000 federal employees, called the Lieberman-Collins proposed cuts a bad idea that will ” degrade the quality and availability of services the American people expect and depend on, put serious roadblocks in the way of agency recruitment and retention efforts, and place an unfair burden on federal workers.”

The Lieberman-Collins proposed cuts include $11 billion in cuts to private contractors, an amount that Gage calls “paltry” given the fact that the federal government spends $320 billion a year on contractors for work much of which could be done by federal employees at a lower cost.

Sen. Daniel Akaka of  Hawaii in a letter opposing the Lieberman-Collins cuts points out that two presidential pay agents have concluded that using federal employees costs less than contractors. “It is worth noting,” writes Akaka. “That, not withstanding various studies purporting to show that federal employees are paid more than private sector employees, the president’s pay agent, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, has determined that federal employees are paid substantially less than private sector employees when comparable jobs and experience are taken into account.”

A recent report by the Project on Government Oversight makes a similar point. The report, entitled “Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors,” says that “the government actually pays (private) contractors at rates far exceeding the cost of employing federal employees to perform comparable functions.”

The reports also says that

  • private contractors overcharge the federal government for work performed
  • federal employees are less expensive than private sector workers in 33 out of the 35 occupational categories reviewed, and
  • in one instance, the billing rate of a private contractor was five times higher than federal employees doing comparable work.

Gage said that it was unfair to make federal employees bear the brunt of the cuts while letting private contractors that overcharge the federal government off the hook.

“”Forcing additional pay and benefits cuts on middle class federal employees, while continuing to use taxpayer dollars to pad the million dollar salaries of federal contractors, is outrageous,” Gage said. “It’s exactly this kind of unconscionable behavior that is fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

UAW, Ford tenative agreement headed toward approval

As the Tuesday deadline for voting approaches, autoworkers appear to be headed toward approving a new contract with Ford. As of Monday morning, the UAW Ford Department Facebook is reporting that 62 percent of Ford workers have voted yes on the tentative agreement while 38 percent have voted no.

Approval didn’t seem like a sure thing when voting began last week. On Thursday after 20 percent of the ballots had been counted, 55 percent had voted no. Workers at two big plants, one in Wayne,  Michigan, the other in Chicago, rejected the pact by a vote of 63 percent to 37 percent.

The large no vote was surprising given the fact that the Ford pact was somewhat better than the GM contract that was approved last month, but opponents of the tentative agreement argued that the new contract did little to win back concessions given to Ford in 2009 when the auto industry was slumping badly even though profits have rebounded strongly since then.

“First-tier autoworkers (those hired prior to 2007) lost up to $30,000 in concessions over the last few years,” said Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman at the Dearborn Truck Plant, on the Soldiers of Solidarity website.  “Now Ford wants to continue these concessions for another four years. At what cost to us? Lose another $30,000? All for $12,000 in bonuses? No raises for four more years, after we have already waited  six years?”

There was also concern that the tentative agreement did not go far enough in closing the wage gap between veteran autoworkers and those newly hired since 2007.

Back in 2007 when the UAW negotiated its last contracts with the Big Three US auto makers, the union agreed to a two-tier wage system that allowed the companies to pay newly hired autoworkers about $14 per hour, much less than workers already employed by the companies.

Before negotiations with the Big Three began, union president Bob King said that narrowing the gap between tier-2 and tier-1 wages was a priority for the union because tier-2 wages were well below the middle-class standard that UAW and its members had achieved over decades of struggle with the auto companies.

But tier-2 wages in the tentative agreement with Ford remain well below tier-1 wages. Starting tier-2 pay increases to just under $16 an hour and rises to about $19 per hour over the four-year life of the contract.

“The biggest concession is that two-tier will continue,” Walkowicz said. “This contract does not bring up the second-tier workers up to first-tier. This contract keeps them permanent second-tier, with no path to move up to first-tier wages and benefits. The pay increase, spread over four years, barely makes up for what second-tier workers lost in the 2009 concessions.”

Nevertheless, the Ford tentative agreement does contain extras not in the GM contract, which combined with conditions in the auto industry and economy in general, led many Ford workers to conclude that the tentative agreement is the best deal they could get.

The Ford signing bonus is $6,000; the GM signing bonus is $5,000. Ford workers will get another $9,700 over the course of the four-year contract in lump-sum payments, inflation protection, and profit sharing; GM workers will receive $6,500.

The Ford contract highlights some of the challenges that autoworkers will be facing in the future. There will be no raises to base pay for tier-1 workers over he next four years, and new workers working at a lower rate will make up a larger portion of the auto workforce, conditions that corporate management say are necessary to lower labor costs and keep US auto companies competitive.

But “keeping competitive” as Ford uses the term is just an means for transferring more of the wealth created by autoworkers into the pockets of auto company owners, managers, and investors. While Ford has been lowering its labor costs through contracts negotiated in 2007, 2009, and 2011, it has been giving its top executives top dollar. Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. and Chief Executive Officer Alan R. Mulally each received $26 million in compensation last year.

Occupy San Antonio takes over Alamo Plaza

The following was submitted by Pancho Valdez. Brother Valdez can be contacted at 210-882-2230 or at 210-882-2230 or mestizowarrior210@yahoo.com
This past Saturday an estimated crowd between 500 -700 marched  from Alamo  and Cesar Chavez Blvd to Alamo Plaza in downtown San Antonio. The marchers were diverse in age, gender, race and sexual preference made a lot of noise as they marched with bull horns, chanting and drums. The marchers also attracted a lot of attention on a busy Saturday noon time.
Occupy San Antonio is a spin-off of the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the nation as people are expressing their anger and lack of confidence in a system that forces austerity on the 99% while the 1% continue to wallow in record profits!
The marchers appeared spirited and determined to express their anger and concern towards corporate greed, never-ending wars and the fact that for many young people there does not appear to be much of a future for them. Chants like; “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Corporate greed has got to go and “the banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” were some that were repeated by the marchers.
There were individual members of several labor unions marching from the National Nurses Union, UNITE HERE, IATSE, Texas State Employees Union and the Laborer’s International Union. Several of the trade unionists expressed their solidarity with the Occupy San Antonio movement as working conditions continue to worsen, labor rights are destroyed and the future of many working class families is in serious doubt.
Later on Saturday afternoon about 150 of the Occupy protestors marched in solidarity with the Indigenous People’s march demanding an end to celebrating Columbus Day as a federal holiday. This march was much longer than the first one and proceeded throughout the downtown area of San Antonio.
Local observers, veterans of the civil rights, peace and labor movements expressed gratitude towards the young organizers of the local and national Occupy movement saying this is something sorely needed and long over due in the United States. As one woman’s sign read; “This is the Beginning!

Union leads fight for increased higher education funding

Students and workers rallied on October 13 at the University of Texas at Austin to demand that the State of Texas increase public investment in higher education, so that a quality, affordable higher education is available to all who seek one.

Because state funding has not kept up with the need for higher education, public universities like UT have increased tuition, putting many students in a financial hole before they ever graduate.  “We’re being set up to fail by these cuts to higher education,” said Bernadino Lucian Villasenor, an undergraduate at UT, referring to the debt that many students must take on to pay for college. “Many of us are leaving here with high debt and no jobs.”

Less state funding has also led to staff layoffs, which have resulted in fewer student services. “Last year when the governor told state agencies to cut their budgets, UT laid off hundreds of staff who provided  essential services such as instruction, tutoring, advising, and housekeeping,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for the Texas State Employees Union, which organized the rally. “Classes were eliminated. It was harder for students to get classes they needed to graduate. Education suffered”

The rally was one event in a statewide campaign organized by TSEU to build a movement of workers and students that can restore funding cuts to state universities and increase the state’s investment in the higher education of its young people.

The  trend toward lowering the state’s financial investment in public higher education has been going on for decades, but took a new twist in 2003 when the state was facing a $10 billion shortfall. Instead of providing the money needed to keep up with rising enrollment, the state decided to deregulate higher education and allow public universities to set their own tuition rates. Since then, average tuition and fees for a full-time student taking 15 credit hours have increased 83 percent.

At the time that tuition was deregulated, the state told its public universities to start acting like a business, which led UT and other research institutions to put greater emphasis on funding research that could be commercialized and attracting mega-star researchers who could attract research grants.

Educating students, especially undergraduates, became an afterthought. As tuition and fees increased, universities relied more on non-tenure track instructors, who received few benefits and worked on a contingency basis from semester to semester.

Then when the bottom of the economy fell out in 2008, things got much worse. By 2010, the state was facing a budget shortfall caused by the recession and the resulting drop in tax revenue. Gov. Perry mandated that state agencies and universities cut their budgets at first by 5 percent and then by another 3 percent.

As a result, 3 percent of state paid positions at Texas’ higher education institutions were eliminated. At three of the state’s flagship universities, UT, Texas A&M, and the University of Houston, 900 state-paid jobs were cut.

When the Texas Legislature convened in 2011, the effects of the recession were at their high water mark. One estimate placed the budget shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle at $27 billion. Instead of taking a balanced approach to addressing the shortfall, the Legislature relied heavily on funding cuts, which meant a 15 percent cut in higher education funding.

As a result, more layoffs at public universities are on the horizon. William Powers, UT’s president, has said that there could be as many as 600 more positions eliminated.

Speaking at the rally, Jennifer Cole, a housekeeper at UT and a TSEU member, explained the impact that these cuts will have on the university. “During the last round of layoffs, those of us who kept our jobs had a difficult time keeping up with the increased workload. We kept falling further and further behind,” Cole said. “If there are more layoffs, we won’t be able to provide you with the services you deserve.”

In addition to reduced services, working-class students who rely on financial aid will have a harder time getting it because the Legislature cut state funding for financial aid by 15 percent.

“State funding for higher education is shrinking, and at some point it’s going to cause a crisis in this state because more and more jobs require a higher education degree,” said Derrick Osobase, TSEU’s political director. “The problem is a structural problem. The state simply does not generate enough revenue to provide essential services. We need to raise more revenue.”

Rail strike on hold as Presidential Emergency Board convenes

A Presidential Emergency Board appointed last week by President Obama to avoid a nationwide rail strike convened Thursday and began hearing testimony from the National Carriers Conference Committee, which represents the nation’s major rail carriers. Testimony from 11 unions that represent rail workers will follow.

The carriers are proposing significant cuts to workers’ health care coverage and wage increases that the unions say do not reflect the value created by rail workers.

Before the President authorized the emergency board, members of at least two of unions had authorized strikes. One of those unions was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees of the Teamsters (BMWED). “The BMWED, along with our brothers in the ten other rail labor unions have made it clear that we will not stand and allow the rail carriers to gut our health care and deny our members a decent standard of living while they reap record profits,” said Freddie Simpson, BMWED president. “A voluntary agreement would have preferable, but we look forward to making our case to the Board.”

The other union authorizing a strike was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), also affiliated with the Teamsters.  BLET members voted 97 percent in favor of a strike.

The health care benefit is especially important to rail workers because their work is dangerous and has many health risks. Recently the Federal Railway Administration issued a safety advisory after three rail workers were killed on the job in three separate incidents this summer. Those working on the rails also are exposed to dangerous chemicals that can have long-term health consequences.

But the carriers want workers to accept health care cuts that unions estimate will total $500 million over the next five years, the bulk of which would be in form of increased costs for the most vulnerable rail workers. “Almost all (health care) savings to the railroads will come from increased costs to employees who need to access health care for themselves or their sick family members,” reads a statement from the Rail Labor Bargaining Coalition(RLBC), which represents six of unions in negotiations. “The prosperity of our industry and fairness to our most vulnerable members require rejection of this thoroughly bad idea.”

Last summer the NCCC and the United Transportation Union agreed to a contract that included the health care cuts that the carriers are demanding. Shortly after reaching the agreement, the NCCC claimed that its contract with UTU would set the industry pattern for other union contracts it was negotiating.

At the time, the  RLBC and five other unions that are part of an informal negotiating coalition were in talks being mediated by the National Mediation Board. The unions rejected NCCC’s claim and opted out of mediation.  The unions also rejected arbitration as is their right under the Railway Labor Act.

Once arbitration was rejected, the President either had to create the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) or face the possibility of a nationwide rail strike. The emergency board has 30 days from the day it is created to hear testimony from both sides and issue non-binding recommendations.

After the emergency board makes its recommendations, the two sides must either accept the recommendations or engage in further negotiations for 30 days. If no deal is reached, then either side after waiting another 30 days may take what is referred to in the Railway Labor Act as self-help, which among other things could mean a strike or a lockout.

One of the unions that belongs to the informal bargaining coalition, the IAM, is confident that the emergency board will make recommendations that will lead to a settlement. The last time an emergency board was created in 2007, it “supported the reasonable positions (the unions) presented,” said IAM Transportation General Vice President Robert Roach, Jr.

“We have been meeting with our attorneys, economists and benefits specialists in preparation for a PEB hearing,” said IAM Railroad Coordinator and District 19 President Joe Duncan.  “The PEB’s recommendations for settlement will lead to
serious negotiations, which is something we have not received from the carriers to this point.”

The BMWED describes the NCCC’s position that it has taken during negotiations as “greedy and disrespectful to their employees.”

Take Back Chicago! for jobs, education, and housing

“We’re here to end corporate welfare,” said Rev. Booker Vance, in front of Chicago’s City Hall as the third day of Take Back Chicago! got underway on Wednesday. Rev. Vance and about 75 members of the Take Back Chicago coalition are demanding that money in the city’s tax increment financing funds be spent on public works projects that improve blighted neighborhoods, city services, and public schools instead of on grants to corporations where most of the money now goes.

Take Back Chicago, a week-long series of demonstrations and events, is a project of about 20 community and labor groups that are trying to refocus the city’s priorities on jobs, education, and housing. The biggest event so far took place on Monday when about 7,000 people gathered at five different locations, then marched to the Chicago Art Institute where members of Futures Industry Association, a trade association of financial speculators, were taking a break from their annual Chicago Expo.

As the five streams of marchers merged, they shouted “Shame, shame!” to express their rage at the speculators who caused the 2008 economic crisis that resulted in job losses, foreclosures, and other misery for the working class. “They got bailed out, we got sold out,” chanted the marchers.

“People are mad as hell at these financial organizations that wrecked the economy, that caused this whole mess,” said Catherine Murrell, a spokeswoman for Stand Up Chicago, a community/labor coalition and Take Back Chicago partner, to the Herald -News. “They broke the economy; they played with it like it was a toy. It’s something you teach your children — you break it, you pay for it.”

The marchers were also demanding a meaningful job creation program at both the national and local level, relief from the foreclosure crisis caused by the massive unemployment caused by the financial crisis, and real improvements to public education.

On Tuesday, Take Back Chicago! focused the housing crisis caused by predatory lending practices of banks and the financial industry, which bundled shaky loans and used them to create new financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations, whose values eventually crashed and took down the US economy.

Action Now, a grassroots community organization of working families, gathered trash and debris that has accumulated in foreclosed homes owned by Bank of America, put it in trash bags, and delivered the bags to a Bank of America branch at Adams and LaSalle. While supporters marched outside, five women, ranging in age from 55 to 80, took some of the bags inside and dumped the trash on the floor. Bank of America had the five women arrested.

Banks that foreclose on homes are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the properties until they can be sold, but in many Chicago communities, owners of foreclosed homes have done little to maintain the residences. “Since Bank of America will not go to our neighborhoods and clean up their vacant properties, Action Now members brought the neighborhood to them,” read a statement on the Action Now website.

Other protestors gathered at the Hyatt Regency where the Mortgage Bankers Association was holding its annual convention. Speakers blasted bankers for their role in creating the recession and for turning their backs on people suffering from the effects of the recession.

“We’re talking about communities being divided and destroyed by what’s going on, and we’re finding now that even though corporations are profiting, it’s not trickling down to our communities,” Rev. Vance said. Sixteen people who decided to stay and began setting up tents in an alley near the hotel after the larger group left were arrested for trespassing.

Thursday, the focus will shift to jobs. Stand Up Chicago! recently released a report outlining a program for creating 40,000 jobs in Chicago.  Money for providing these the jobs would come from A $0.25 speculation fee, to be paid by both buyer and seller of derivatives contracts, which will generate nearly $1.4 billion per year in direct funding for jobs.

“Our city is facing a massive jobs crisis, one that requires direct and targeted job creation,” the report says. “Our jobs plan will not only provide 40,000 Chicagoans with living wage, full-time jobs matching their existing skills and experience, but will also serve as an investment in our communities, making them safer, stronger and more vibrant.”

Columbian oilfield workers organize despite acts of violence

As Congress prepares to debate a trade agreement with Columbia, another murder of a Columbian trade union activists casts doubt on the effectiveness of the Labor Action Plan that the US and Columbia negotiated in April. The Labor Action Plan was supposed to address a major stumbling block that has held up approval of the trade deal–violence against union leaders and supporters in Columbia is pandemic making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.

Isidro Rivera Barrera was repairing a washing machine in his front yard on September 26 when two men on a motorcycle approached. One got off the motorcycle and shot Rivera three times, mortally wounding him. Rivera was an activist in the Union Sindical Obrera (USO), which has been organizing workers in Columbia’s booming oilfields.

Work in Columbia’s oilfields is low paying and dangerous. It is done mostly by contract workers without long-term labor contracts hired by contractors and subcontractors, who are in turn are hired by the oil companies to avoid complying with Columbia’s labor laws. Many of these workers are migrants who live in squalid, temporary housing that one worker compared to concentration camps.

USO, which represents workers at Columbia’s national oil company Ecopetrol, has been helping these contract workers to organize.  Last summer about 10,000 people rallied in the oil town of Puerto Gaitan to demand fair treatment for the contract oil workers. They blockaded roads leading to the oilfields temporarily shutting down production in the fields owned by Pacific Rubiales, a Canadian company.

The fields reopened after the company and representatives of the workers negotiated an agreement to improve conditions in the field. But when the company dragged its feet implementing the agreement, contract workers and their supporters in September once again erected blockades and halted production.

The blockades lasted for three days. Columbian riot police were called to the scene and, according to a petroleum engineer who was at the site, launched teargas and bombs containing screws, bolts, and nails toward strikers who had gathered for breakfast resulting in a melee that injured both workers and police.

Workers finally returned to work when three-party talks began among the company, the government, and workers’ representatives. The sides agreed to establish an arbitration board to address the issues raised by the workers, including making the contract workers regular company employees, improving pay, improving working conditions, and protecting worker’ right to join a union.

In the meantime, Pacific Rubiales announced that it would hire local people to fill the unskilled positions at the Puerto Gaitan oilfield, a concern that led some local workers to support the strikers, donate $1 million to a hospital serving the people of Puerto Gaitan, and build 3,000 new housing units.

But USO said that these gestures weren’t enough and did not address the main demand of the union workers–that work at the oilfields should be regular, full-time work, not temporary, contract work.

To press their demand, USO this week began a solidarity caravan to publicize the conditions under which most oilfield workers labor, to show support for similar strikes that have taken place in oilfields near Corcel and Guatiquia, and to demand that 800 contract oilfield workers who have been fired for union activity get their jobs back.

The caravan, which will last about a week, starts on October 10 in Bogata, Columbia’s capital, travels to the Campo Rubioles oil fields where the union will hold a rally. It then goes to Puerto Gaitan, stays there for two days, and returns to Bogata on Thursday for another rally.

USO’s organizing campaign and the caravan are remarkable  given the dangers faced by that Columbian workers who try to organize.  This year alone, 23 trade union leaders and activists have been murdered, 16 since the Labor Action Plan was signed.

Study finds that public pensions are good for taxpayers and employees

Recently, a group of Houston millionaires announced that they would soon be initiating a campaign to eliminate traditional pensions for Texas teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and other state and local government workers. They said that they are taking this action to protect taxpayers. But a recent report by the National Institute for Retirement Security finds that traditional pensions, also known as defined benefit pensions, “are a cost-effective way to fund a retirement benefit” that “serve employees, employers, and taxpayers well.”

The study conducted by Mark Olleman, an actuarial consultant, and Ilana Boivie, an economist, finds that switching from traditional plans to defined contribution plans such as 401(k) plans as advocated by the millionaires costs taxpayers more than retaining traditional pensions and does not address the unfunded liability issue, usually the reason given for making the switch.

The study also finds that public employees prefer traditional pension plans, that traditional pension plans have a higher rate of return on investment, and that many people with defined contribution plans will exhaust their savings before they die.

In addition to not providing adequate benefits, defined contribution plans, according to the study, don’t save state and local governments any money. States and local governments can’t switch workers in a traditional plan to defined contribution plan, so they have to operate two retirement plans, one for new hires and one for those already working. Operating two plans doubles the administrative costs, thus requiring “far greater contributions from both employers/taxpayers and employees.”

Traditional pension plans, the study concludes, are the most cost efficient way to provide a pension benefit. A traditional plan “can provide the same retirement benefit at half the cost of a defined contribution plan.”

To arrive at these findings the study examines seven state pension plans that give employees the choice of choosing a traditional pension or a defined contribution plan. The study also describes the experience of West Virginia and Nebraska, two states that replaced traditional pension plans with defined contribution plans and have since discontinued this practice.

West Virginia in 1991 made all newly hired teachers enroll in a defined contribution savings plan instead of the teachers’ traditional pension plan. But by 2003, the state reconsidered its decision because those enrolled in the defined contribution plan achieved a much lower rate of return than anticipated, making retirement for many much more difficult.

In addition, switching to a defined contribution plan did not eliminate the state’s unfunded liability and cost more than anticipated. An unfunded liability is the difference between a pension fund’s total assets and its liabilities estimated over a 30 year period. A fund with an unfunded liability of 80 percent is considered to be sound.

West Virginia hoped that by switching new teachers to a defined contribution plan, it could improve its unfunded liability. But that turned out not to be the case. It also projected that it would save $1.2 billion over 30 years by switching newly hired teachers to defined contribution plans, but the savings never materialized.

In 2008, teachers in the defined contribution plan were given the choice of switching to a traditional plan. As a result, 78 percent chose the traditional plan, including 76 percent of young teachers, many of whom might be expected to prefer a defined contribution plan.

Nebraska has had even more experience with defined contribution plans. In 1963, state and local government employees were moved into a defined contribution plan. The state’s teachers remained in a traditional plan. Between 1982 and 2002, the average rate of return for the traditional pension plan was 11 percent. For the defined contribution plan, it was between 6 percent and 7 percent.

As a result, those in a defined contribution plan could expect to receive only 30 percent pre-retirement income, far below the 50 percent to 60 percent that had been projected. Consequently, Nebraska decided in 2003 to enroll new hires in a traditional cash balance pension plan.

Finally, the study says that traditional pension plans are “an effective retention tool” that help state and local governments attract and retain a well-qualified workforce.

At Occupy Wall St., unions say, for a fair economy, tax the rich

It was quite a sight. Thousands of people stood along either side of Wall Street as thousands more met up with them after marching from New York City Hall in the largest demonstration yet of Occupy Wall Street, now entering its fourth week.

The march, which took place on Wednesday, October 5, was called by a coalition of labor and community groups fighting for a fairer economy,  and it was a statement by the labor movement that unions were going to stand with those occupying Wall Street in order to expose corporate greed and demand a change in national priorities so that jobs, health care, education, and retirement security become more important than protecting the bottom line for bankers and millionaires.

At a rally preceding the march, union leaders told the crowd, that in order to make the US economy more just, a tax on millionaires is needed to reclaim money siphoned off by corporate greed. “We want a country that’s fair, that gives every child the right to have a good life, that gives every family the ability to live and do the right thing,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, one of the unions that belongs to Strong Economy for All. “In order to do that, we’re going to have to tax the rich, close their loopholes, and hold all financial institution on Wall Street accountable.”

Mulgrew’s message was echoed by CWA Vice-president for District 1 Chris Shelton. “Every one of us is here because of corporate greed,” Shelton said.  “It’s time not to occupy Wall Street, but to take back Wall Street.”

National Nurses United, the country’s largest organization of registered nurses, announced its support for Occupy Wall Street and called for a tax on speculative financial activity such as trades on stocks, derivatives, and future options.  NNU estimates that such tax could generate billions that could be used to make public investments that would put people back to work.

“What we are now seeing is an unprecedented opportunity for a transnational alliance to generate revenue from those who created the economic debacle, and to restore Wall Street and global finance to its proper role of serving the real economy,” read a statement issued by NNU in support of Occupy Wall Street.

Swelling the ranks of the marchers were rank-and-file members of Transport Workers Union Local 100, AFSCME, SEIU, the postal workers unions, CWA, AFT, Amalgamated Transit Union, and many others.

The October 5 action was just the beginning of other actions planned by unions to support Occupy Wall Street. The Michigan Messenger reports that Michigan state workers are organizing a convoy to Wall Street on Saturday, October 8.

Ray Holman, legislative liaison for UAW Local 6000, which represents some state workers in Michigan, said that the convoy would be leaving from the local’s headquarters and travel 600 miles to Wall Street to tell their story about how the Wall Street crash and resulting recession has affected state services in Michigan.

“When banks, and the gambling that was going on, crashed the economy and devastated the manufacturing and automobile sector, it took away (Michigan’s) revenue source,” Holman said. “Services had to be cut and the needy went without. The people on Wall Street. are doing fine and the CEOs are doing fine but all the responsibilities are being shoved down on states and local governments.”

“Millionaires need to be asked to do their fair share (to restore these services),” Holman added.

San Antonio Community & Labor Express Solidarity With Oak Farms Dairy Workers

The following was submitted by Pancho Valdez of San Antonio

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is superior to capital and deserves much the higher consideration.” – Abraham Lincoln

On Wednesday, October 5th between 40-45 community and labor activists gathered in front of the Oak Farms Dairy in San Antonio to show support for the worker’s right to organize a union. The Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco & Grain Millers Union is the union organizing the dairy workers.

Three members of the organizing committee; Fred Garrett, Art Brown and Carlos Torrento attempted to meet with Oak Farms bosses to demand that the company reinstate Alex Vasquez and recognize the BCTGM as the bargaining unit for the dairy workers. Both demands were rejected by Oak Farms and the organizing committee returned to the picket line assembled in front of the plant where the small but loud crowd chanted.

Vasquez a former route delivery driver was fired on August 31 of this year. Both he and the union contend that his firing was related to his union activity as he was an outspoken member of the organizing committee. What makes Vasquez’s firing interesting is the fact that Oak Farms management placed a poster on the company bulletin board with Vasquez’s picture on it. On the poster was written that he had been “termed” (terminated) The poster went on to warn workers to “keep an eye out for union activity!”

Instead of intimidating the workers the poster was photographed by one with his telephone and the union now has over 50% of the workforce signed up. Workers at the Oak Farms Dairy are forming their union in order to improve wages and benefits. Art Brown a route driver with 36 years of service with the company stated that he has not seen a pay raise in eight years!

Amongst the supporters were members of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Postal Workers Union, BCTGM, the Communications Workers of America, International Association of Fire Fighters, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, San Antonio Central Labor Council, the San Antonio Retirees Council, Teamsters on strike at Pioneer Flour Mill, Texas AFL-CIO, Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 and UNITE HERE. Also present was the Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith who was arrested last July in a protest at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, members of the Bexar County Green Party, a representative for Congressman Lloyd Doggett and a member of the Communist Party USA.

The organizing drive at the Grand Hyatt, the Hyatt Regency, Oak Farms Dairy and the strike at Pioneer Flour Mill signifies labor activity not seen in San Antonio since the early 1970s. These labor struggles along with the growing nationwide Occupy Movement across the nation are viewed by many as a welcome response to the austerity forced upon the working class and their families due to corporate greed and the wasteful squandering of tax money on three unjustified wars!

Verizon unions launch iWon’t Campaign

Unions representing 45,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast from Virginia to New England announced a partnership with progressive organizations designed to pressure Verizon into signing a fair contract that protects good middle-class jobs. The CWA and IBEW will work with MoveOn.org, Jobs with Justice, US Action, the AFL-CIO, and the National People’s Alliance to spread the word about the iWon’t Campaign that urges people to delay upgrading to the new iPhone on Verizon until the company agrees to a fair contract.

The iWon’t campaign will also publicize the tax loopholes that Verizon uses to avoid paying taxes and will urge tax reform to close the loopholes and make corporations like Verizon to pay their fair share of taxes.

CWA and IBEW went on a two-week strike in August to protect their health care and pension benefits from big cuts demanded by Verizon. The company, which paid its executives millions in bonuses and perks, stonewalled negotiations to force the strike, but when public support for the strike grew and union members demonstrated their resolve to win a good contract, Verizon agreed to a negotiating framework to restart serious negotiations. Union members subsequently returned to work.

However, it has been six weeks since negotiations resumed, and the unions are growing impatient with Verizon. The unions are hoping that the public support that the unions received during the strike can be harnessed to make Verizon sign a fair contract.

“Throughout the strike, we heard messages of support from literally hundreds of thousands of Americans who are sick and tired of profitable companies like Verizon and Verizon Wireless showering millions on their CEOs while taking away good jobs,” said Chris Shelton, vice-president of CWA District 6. “We are asking everyone who cares about the future of the middle class to help us
fight back. Upgrade to the new iPhone on Verizon Wireless only when the Verizon companies stop trying to downgrade their workers and give them a fair contract.”

MoveOn.org joined the campaign and will be using its resources to reach as many as 5 million people urging them to oppose corporate greed like Verizon’s that is “crushing the American Dream.”

”Verizon and Verizon Wireless jump through hoops to avoid paying federal taxes, dole out millions to their top executives, and then have the audacity to cut back and ask their workers to pay the price,” said Justin Reuben, MoveOn executive director. “We are joining the iWon’t Campaign and asking consumers to get the new iPhone on Verizon only when Verizon and Verizon Wireless treat their employees with the respect and fairness they deserve.”

The unions and their progressive partners also will join together to expose what they call “Verizon Tax Loopholes,” which allow Verizon and other large companies to shirk paying their fair share of taxes.

“Why should Verizon and Verizon Wireless – which make billions of dollar a year – pay less in taxes than America’s small businesses and working families?” said Ed Mooney, CWA District 13 vice-president. “As Congress considers drastic cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and hundreds of programs that the country depends on, we think Verizon and Verizon Wireless’ tax breaks should get a second look.”

Bloomberg.com reported on Tuesday that CWA and IBEW have proposed that the comprehensive health care plans that union workers at Verizon enjoy be consolidated, which would save the company money and protect the benefit from cuts.

While hopeful that the unions’ proposal will break the negotiating stalemate, union leaders are reluctant to be overly optimistic. “We have no illusions that just because we’re going to put a new proposal on the table they’ll say, ‘Great, accept it.'” said Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America. “This is a big step up to intensify pressure on the company. We’ll use every tactic at our disposal.”

CWA, IBEW, and their supporters will spreading out to Verizon and Apple stores as the launch of the new iPhone approaches urging people to join the iWon’t Campaign.

Shelton told Crane’s New York Business.com that another strike is possible. ” It’s up to (Verizon),” Shelton said. “If they want to move things along, they can move  things along by stop attacking our middle class jobs.”