Oil workers make health and safety their bargaining priority

An oil refinery is a dangerous place to work.  According to the United Steelworkers, which represents 30,000 oil industry workers, there have been 138 fires at US oil refineries between February 2009 and November 2011 that the union is aware of.

Living near an oil refinery is also a dangerous place to live.The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a community organization fighting to make neighborhoods located near refineries pollution free, says that in Louisiana alone there were 354 refinery accidents reported to the state during 2010. Some created health risks to workers inside the refinery and to those living nearby.

Recently, members of the United Steelworkers voted overwhelmingly for a national oil bargaining policy that makes improving refinery health and safety a priority for contract negotiations with the oil industry that begin in January.

“I think that it’s well about time that one of the richest industries on the planet invest in occupational health and safety and environmental safety and we intend to have that battle with them,” said Leo Gerard, USW president.

The oil industry has been reluctant to bargain over health and safety standards that can be enforced and in fact wants to abolish health and safety regulations that apply to refineries. As justification, industry representatives say that oil refineries have a low rate of on-the-job accidents.

But union officials say that the low accident rate is misleading because the industry’s lax safety culture has led to well-documented catastrophes that have cost lives, injured workers, and put communities on edge. Refinery workers are eight times more likely to die on the job than workers in other industries.

Refinery fires in the last three years caused 18 deaths, and refinery workers still remember the horrific fire at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers and injured 170 others in 2005. Five years later, the same BP plant illegally emitted 17,000 pounds of cancer causing benzene into the air putting the surrounding community at risk.

“When things go bad in a refinery, they go really bad and people die,” said USW Health and Safety Specialist Kim Nibarger at a special briefing for Congress members and staff . “Focusing on personal safety—the wearing of hard hats and safety glasses, slips, trips and falls—says nothing about how safe a refinery is for workers and the surrounding community. BP had a low personal injury rate at its refineries, but the 2005 explosion and fire at its Texas City plant showed it failed miserably in terms of process safety.”

Process safety includes maintaining equipment reliability, containing discharges into the air, preventative maintenance, inspection, and testing. Union workers complain that oil companies are spending less on process safety even as their profits climb.

“Typically, they run the equipment longer than they should because the potential for catastrophic failure although it exists is not high enough in their estimation to require it to be shut down and fixed or maintained,” said Erica Kent a USW Local 675 member.

Vessels at refineries boil oil at extreme heat, and to do this safely requires a lot of safety checks. It also requires that some of these units be shut down and overhauled regularly, said Gary Beevers, USW vice-president for oil bargaining. “When I was an operator at a refinery many years ago, usually there were scheduled turnarounds (shutdown for full maintenance) every three years. That went to four, then five years, and now in some cases it’s six years,” Beevers said.

Beevers also said that the lack of concern for process safety is a concern for people living near refineries. “For years we never had releases of hydrofluoride at these refineries, but now you have HF alkylation units that are 60 years old, 50 years, or 40 years old and they’re extending the turnaround time of these units.” Hydrofluoride is a deadly gas and a pin hole leak from a pipe containing it “could kill an entre community,” Beevers said.

The safety situation at refineries has become so dire that USW and its members think that they must win enforceable safety standards at the bargaining table. “Health and safety is going to be major strike issue,” Beevers said. “(They’re) going to stop killing people or we’re going to withhold our work.”

Michigan public workers demonstrate to support those they serve

Michigan state workers who help people in need get public assistance and are members of UAW Local 600 on November 28 picketed a Detroit office of the state Department of Human Services to support their clients who have been denied public assistance because of cuts to the state budget.

UAW Local 6000 members are on the front lines every day to work for Michigan families and help them navigate a welfare system that’s getting meaner by the day,” said UAW Vice-president Cindy Estrada, who directs the union’s Public Sector and Health Care Servicing Department. “Our members who work at DHS offices as social workers and welfare eligibility specialists are outraged by the new law and the insidious ‘Rocket Docket’ system instituted under the guise of saving taxpayer dollars. We don’t want to see 29,000 more of Michigan’s poorest children thrown into deeper poverty.”

The Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder enacted a new state budget last summer that cut many services that working people depend on. Included in those cuts is a provision that denies public assistance benefits to families after they have received benefits for 48 months. Those who have already received public assistance for 48 months or more were told in October that they would no longer be receiving benfits.

More than 12,000 families, including 29,000 children, were affected. Of those, 929 families filed an appeal. DHS Director Maura Corrigan decided to hear all 929 appeals in two days, and instructed those who appealed to show up at their local DHS office on November 28 and 29 for hearings. The appeals are being held by telephone with an administrative judge presiding. Corrigan calls these sped-up hearings her “Rocket Docket.”

With their picket line, UAW 6000 members are trying to draw attention to the unfairness of the appeal process and the unfairness of the hardship being imposed on the state’s poorest people.

“DHS is trying to rush through hearings for clients who believe their cash assistance case should not have closed,” reads a statement on UAW 6000’s website. “DHS scheduled 929 hearings in two days across the state, and bragged about how they were going to dispose of so many cases so quickly. The problem is that people have rights too, even if DHS wants to ignore this.”

Local 6000 members were joined on the picket line by welfare rights advocates and other community supporters. Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization told the Michigan Citizen that holding so many hearings in such a short time period was unfair. “It’s an attack on the rights of welfare recipients,” Taylor said. “They’re not getting a chance to have their case heard.”

Jim Walkowicz, chairperson of the Labor Management Team for UAW Local 6000 agreed. “It’s outrageous,” said  Walkowicz to the Michigan Citizen. “It’s trumping all sorts of due process rights. People have a right to file for a hearing and be heard.”

Michigan has been one of the states hit hardest by the economic downturn. Its unemployment rate is 10.6 percent, the fifth highest in the US. It’s difficult to imagine where those who are being denied public assistance will turn to for help.

The average cash payment for a person receiving public assistance is only $515, but according to the The Detroit News, a spokesperson for Gov. Snyder said that the denying this benefit is necessary because the state can’t afford to offer cash for so long.

People on public assistance aren’t the only ones feeling the sting of Gov. Snyder’s budget cutting. Low-income workers will see their state taxes increase because their earned income tax credit has been lowered. Senior citizens on pensions will see their tax bill go up because their pensions are no longer exempted from state income taxes.

Businesses, however, have fared better under Gov. Snyder’s watch. They will pay an estimated $1.1 billion dollars less in taxes thanks to business tax cuts endorsed by Gov. Snyder.

Indiana union members occupy statehouse to protest proposal to lower wages

Republican lawmakers in Indiana on November 21 announced that when the next session of state legislature convenes in January, they will introduce legislation designed to lower wages. They also said that they would make this legislation their priority for the coming session. The next day, about 2,000 union members and their supporters responded by occupying the Indiana statehouse for a day.

“Union members in Ohio, Wisconsin, and elsewhere are standing up and fighting back,” said Jim Robinson United Steelworkers District 7 director. “We’re ready for this fight in Indiana, and we’ll keep coming back to the statehouse until they get the message that we will not back down or go away.”

Indiana Senate Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma said that so-called right-to-work legislation would be introduced early in the up coming legislative session, and they as leaders of the Senate and House would do everything the could to see that this legislation passes.

Right-to-work laws, which are on the books in 22 states, don’t guarantee jobs as the name implies, but they do make it harder for workers to form unions and bargain collectively for fair wages and benefits, which in turn drives down wages for all workers.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, demonstrates the impact that right-to-work laws have on wages. According to the report, wages in the 22 states that have right-to-work laws are 3.2 percent lower than wages for comparable work in non-right-to-work state. To calculate this percentage, the report’s authors controlled for other factors that might affect the outcome, such as differences in the cost of living among states.

The report also says that the average full-time, full-year worker in right-to-work states makes about $1,500 less annually than a similar worker in a non-right-to-work state. Furthermore, workers in right to work states are less likely to have employer sponsored health care and pension benefits.

Proponents of right-to-work laws claim that these laws lead to economic growth and create jobs. House Speaker Bosma when speaking in favor of the proposed law said that it will, “remove (Indiana’s) last barrier to job creation.” What Speaker Bosma presumably means by “last barrier to job creation” is the power of unions to bargain collectively for fair wages.

But as it turns out, right-to-work laws are not the job generators that their supporters claim. The US Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that Georgia, a right-to-work state, lost 33,300 jobs between October 2010 and October 2011, by far the most of any state in the US.

The most recent state employment statistics issued by the BLS show that right-to-work states don’t have any lower unemployment rates than other states. Of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates, six–Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina–are right-to-work states. The state with the highest unemployment rate at 13.4 percent is right-to-work state Nevada.

Last year, Republican lawmakers in Indiana tried to pass right-to-work legislation, but after union members and their supporters demonstrated their strength through rallies, demonstrations, and marches, Democratic lawmakers threw their support behind the unions. When a vote on the bill was scheduled to take place, Democratic lawmakers left the state to prevent a quorum. Republicans eventually backed down.

Republicans argue that the proposed right-to-work law is about a worker’s freedom to choose whether to belong to a union. But Nancy Guyott, Indiana AFL-CIO president, said that workers already have this right, and it’s guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

“In reality, this legislation isn’t about giving (Indiana) workers and employers more freedom, it is about taking away existing freedoms and choices,” Guyott said. “If passed, this bill would restrict a private business’ ability to freely enter into an agreement with a union. And, it forces organized labor to represent workers who refuse to pay for services, thus severely depleting their ability to effectively represent dues paying members in fights for better wages, working conditions and needed safety precautions.”

Guyott also said that right-to-work laws are aimed at busting unions and “eliminating the last group of people standing in the way of unfettered corporate control.”

Retail workers protest employers’ encroachment on holiday time

Anthony Hardwick works for Target in Omaha. When Target management told him that he would have to work on Thanksgiving evening because the store was moving its day-after Thanksgiving opening up to midnight Friday morning, he was not happy.

Like most retail workers, Hardwick gets to spend very few holidays away from work and with family and friends. Thanksgiving was one of a very few exceptions.

“I was so disappointed the day I found out about this because I did the math in my head and I was going to have to go to bed in the early afternoon on Thanksgiving to go in and work 10 hours,” Hardwick said to the Washington Post. “Everyone at work was resigned because the economy is bad and so our employer has us over a barrel.”

But Hardwick decided not to suffer in silence. About two weeks ago he drew up a petition urging Target to reconsider opening its day-after-Thanksgiving at midnight. He posted the petition on Change.org hoping that he could get a few people to support him. As of November 23, 198,636 people had signed the petition.

“A holiday with family is not just for the elite of this nation,” reads the petition. “All Americans should be able to break bread with loved ones and get a good night’s rest on Thanksgiving. Join me in calling Target retail stores to push back their original opening time.”

“It’s a national holiday, not a national shopping day,” wrote Bryce Allison, one of the petition signers in the comment section. “Maybe try giving thanks to your employees that bring you so much money.”

Target isn’t the only retailer opening its doors at midnight or earlier. To name just a few, Macy’s will open at midnight, Toys ‘R Us at 9:00 pm Thursday night, and many Walmart stores at 10:00 pm.  Like Hardwick, some Walmart workers are doing something about their boss’ encroachment into their family time.

A group of Walmart workers have banded together to form Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). Among other things, the group wants Walmart to give them a say in holiday scheduling.

“When Walmart changes holiday schedules at the last-minute, it is not only inconvenient, but it’s just not right,” reads a statement on the OUR Walmart website. “We have earned a say (in scheduling). Now is the time for all associates to stick together and call on Walmart for the respect and voice we deserve.”

The group has posted a statement online and is urging other Walmart workers and their supporters to sign. It reads, “As Walmart Associates, we know this time of year is busy for retail and we want to serve our customers.  However, the holidays are also about family.  It is not fair that Walmart sets holiday schedules without considering us and our families.  We deserve a say.”

An opinion column written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite that last week appeared in the Washington Post said that retailers have overstepped their bounds when store openings bleed into Thanksgiving and intrude on one of the few respites from the exhausting work of retail workers.

This mania to one up the competition by taking away workers’ holiday time isn’t necessary, writes Thistlethwaite, because “corporations are already making huge profits.” She goes on to observe that corporate profits have increased largely because corporations are squeezing more productivity out of their workers. In the case of giant retailers like Target and Walmart, part of this productivity squeeze comes in the form of making their workers work on holidays.

“The human toll of this increased ‘productivity’ is heartbreaking and harrowing,” Thistlethwaite writes. “Few escape the productivity treadmill powered by human overwork.

“When . . . work becomes grinding toil for flat or reduced wages and workers are afforded little rest, it violates human dignity. This has serious consequences for people’s sense of self-worth. It can contribute to a sense of helplessness and despair, and can spill over into family and society as people are more and more tired and stressed. Work today is becoming an attack on the fundamental dignity and worth of human beings as expressed through their work.”

“The system is profoundly immoral,” adds Thistlethwaite.

Two rail unions continue contract negotions; others reach tentative agreement

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) remain at odds with the nation’s rail freight carriers, but nine other rail unions last week announced tentative agreements with the carriers based on recommendations made November 4 by a Presidential Emergency Board.

Unions are sending details about the agreements to members, who will have a chance to accept or reject the deals. “It (has) been two years of difficult bargaining, but in the end, we have prevailed,” said Joe R. Duncan, IAM District 19 president. “We achieved more than what the carriers claimed was the pattern settlement. By any measure, this agreement delivers excellent increases in compensation while holding the line on health care costs.”

The PEB’s recommendations closely mirrored the contract between the United Transportation Union and the carriers ratified last summer. The carriers said the UTU contract set an industry pattern for labor contracts. The other unions representing rail workers rejected this notion.

The PEB recommended a five-year pay increase of 15.6 percent retroactive to 2010. The UTU contract called for a 14 percent five-year increase. The 11 unions that rejected the UTU contract said that a 19 percent increase would more fairly represent the contribution that increased worker productivity had played in the record profits reported by the carriers.

The PEB also recommended that workers pay the same higher out-of-pocket health care costs that UTU agreed to last summer; although, the PEB did recommend a phase-in period for the higher costs. There is no such phase-in period in the UTU contract.

Both the UTU contract and the PEB recommendations cap monthly worker health care premiums at $200 per month until 2016; The PEB also recommended that the cap be increased slightly but maintained after 2016.

The carriers and two coalitions of rail unions had been in contract negotiations for 22 months. The PEB addressed the major issues that stalled negotiations but recommended that the carriers and unions resolve union specific issues through further negotiations.

For example, the board recommended that the BMWED and carriers continue to negotiate on away-from-home expenses. BMWED wanted carriers to increase reimbursement that workers receive for expenses while away from home. The company wanted to maintain current reimbursement rates.

In a bargaining update to members, BMWED said that the carriers were “stonewalling” on this issue. “The BMWED remains committed to reaching a voluntary agreement,” said F.N. Simpson, BMWED president. “We see no reason why the railroads would risk a nationwide disruption to the economy over the matter of reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses incurred by employees while working away from home. Our traveling members have not received an increase in meal or lodging per diem since January 1, 2005, and they have not received an increase in travel allowances for over 15 years.”

With the 30-day cooling off period required by the Railway Labor Act after the PEB makes its recommendations set to expire on December 6, BMWED sent staff to Capitol Hill to win congressional support for increased away-from-home expenses. If no agreement is reached by December 6, a work stoppage is possible. If that occurs, Congress could impose a settlement to end the work stoppage.

Simpson said that after the Thanksgiving Holiday, BMWED will return to Congress “en masse” to press its case for increased away-from-home expenses.

BLET President Dennis R. Pierce said that the union is continuing to bargain over the health care cost increases. In a newsletter to members, he said that some members work on properties where wage and work rule issues have been settled, and those members agreed to the settlement not expecting to pay additional out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Pierce cautioned members that if a voluntary agreement could not be reached, Congress could intervene and that he had concerns about “what those leading the war on workers in Congress will do” should Congress intervene. He went on to say that it is difficult for many members to reconcile the gap between how corporate employers treat themselves and how they treat their workers.

The unions that reached tentative agreements are the Boilermakers, Firemen and Oilers, IAM District 19, IBEW, Railroad Signalmen, Sheet Metal Workers, Transport Workers Union, and Transportation Communications Union.

California facutly strikes to protest chancellor’s skewed priorities

Faculty at two California State University (CSU) campuses went on a one-day strike on November 17 to protest the priorities of CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed, who granted big pay raises to top campus administrators, but refused to implement faculty raises that were negotiated in 2007.

Striking faculty were equally outraged that CSU regents recently increased student fees and tuition by 9 percent, making it even more difficult for many students to complete their college education.

The strike, called by the California Faculty Association (CFA), took place at California State University East Bay in Hayward and California State University Dominguez Hills in Southern California near Los Angeles. The strike effectively closed the campuses at both universities. Striking faculty members were joined on the picket line by students and faculty from other California State universities.

“If they don’t start giving us respect and start taking education seriously, this is just the beginning,” said Nate Thomas, who teaches film at CSU Northridge to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Nobody wants to do this. We would rather be teaching and inspiring our students.”

The CFA, which represents 23,000 instructional faculty, librarians, counselors, and coaches, has been bargaining over a new contract with CSU, which has proposed concessions that would change the nature of higher education at CSU.

CSU’s concession proposals include increasing class sizes, making it more difficult for temporary, instructors, counselors, and librarians to become full-time permanent employees, reducing pay for teaching summer and extension courses, and in general giving campus presidents more power to determine working and learning conditions on their campuses without faculty input.

CFA members have been resisting these concession demands. They believe that if implemented the concessions will lower the quality of public higher education by making working and learning conditions on campus less stable. The concessions, they charge, will also lead to higher costs for students.

But what sparked the strike was CSU Chancellor Reed’s decision to not pay equity raises that would have boosted pay for about 3,000 faculty members to the same level as some newly hired faculty members. Reed had agreed to the equity pay increase as part of a collective bargaining agreement signed in 2007.

When the equity raises were about to be implemented in school-year 2008, Reed said that money wasn’t available. He said the same thing the following year. CFA proposed several compromises that would have resulted in partial payment of the promised raises, but Reed rejected the compromise.

Two independent studies confirmed that the CSU had the money in its budget to pay the raises without increasing tuition or fees, but Reed insisted that he needed the money for other priorities.

CFA charges that Reed’s other priorities include giving $6 million worth raises to upper management and a 12 percent raise to staff who report directly to him. The $6 million that went to increase management salaries was about the same as it would have cost to implement the faculty pay raise for the same year.

CFA was especially critical of the deal that Reed gave newly hired San Diego State president Elliot Hirshman. Hirshman received a university salary of $350,000 a year and another $50,000 from the school’s fund raising foundation, plus a $1,000 monthly car allowance and free housing.

CFA also says that Reed has spent millions hiring consultants to help him implement his vision of public higher education, which includes making CSU more like private, for-profit universities that churn out online degrees at the expense of education.

Faculty members aren’t the only ones who have been hurt by Reed’s priorities. While campus presidents’ salaries have increased by 23 percent in inflation adjusted dollars since 1998, student tuition and fees rose by 106 percent.

The faculty strike was called by the CFA board of directors after 93 percent of voting members voted to authorize the strike. “All of us who voted ‘yes’ did so because we understand that we must now send the Chancellor a plain and simple message about his skewed priorities,” said CFA President Lillian Taiz while announcing the decision to strike. “We hope this carefully targeted strike, which symbolizes both our anger and our commitment to fairness, will lead to changes in his priorities and his positions. If it does not, the CFA leadership—and the CSU faculty we represent—are prepared to escalate the fight.”

Union leaders draw comparison between Jim Crow and anti-immigrant laws

A group of African-American trade unionists and Civil Rights activists visited Alabama the day after 13 people were arrested for acts of civil disobedience against Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law. The trade unionist are on a fact-finding mission for a report that the AFL-CIO is preparing to advise people in the labor movement how they can assist those affected by the law.

“It’s disturbing to us as working people,” said Fred Redmond of the United Steelworkers. “It’s disturbing to us as a movement, and it’s disturbing to us as a country to realize that in 2011, here in the state of Alabama, people are being disenfranchised. They’re being discriminated against. Kids are being denied the right of an education. This is not the America that we know.”

“It looks like the old racism of the civil rights era,” said Al Henley, president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, who met with the labor group and a group of people affected by the new law at a Birmingham restaurant. “But it also presents an opportunity for the labor movement to engage in the struggle against the law and also organize union and political efforts more broadly in the state.”

At the Birmingham meeting and at others in different cities, members of the labor delegation heard first hand how the new law is affecting people. Victor Palafox is a 19 year-old student who recently graduated from high school. He applied for admission to Auburn and the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was accepted. Before he could start school this fall, the Alabama Legislature passed HB 56, which among other things forbids state funded higher education institutions from enrolling students like Palafox.

“I am undocumented and unafraid,” said Palafox, who came to the US with his parents when he was young. “There is no reason I should be ashamed because all I have ever done is give the best for my country.”

A court ruling recently found that the section of HB 56 affecting  Palafox and other immigrant students could not be enforced. As a result, Palafox could have gone to college this fall but instead has become a full-time activists in the movement to overturn HB 56.

The day before Palafox spoke to the labor delegation, 13 people were arrested in Montgomery, the state capital, for participating in a sit-in protesting HB 56. They are members of The Dream Is Coming, a national group that supports passage of the DREAM Act, a federal law that would create a citizenship path for immigrants without immigration documents who enroll in college or join the military.

Students aren’t the only ones affected by HB 56. Tony Quintana told the labor delegation that he worked drywall construction until he saved enough money to open a grocery store in Leeds, Alabama. The store served mainly immigrant workers from Latin America, who work at lowing-paying jobs in the area.

Many of his customers started leaving the area after HB 56 passed, which put him out of business. They left because they feared for their safety. HB 56 was written to make it difficult for immigrants without proper documents to work, travel, rent housing, or go to school, not unlike the  Jim Crow laws that segregated and made second-class citizens of African-Americans in Alabama and other southern states.

HB 56 affects citizens as well as immigrants. Quintana’s children were born in US and are US citizens. But their parents are keeping them home from school because they fear that the school will check their parents’ immigration status, which could lead to their deportation.

Redmond and his fellow unionist think that anti-immigrant laws like those passed in Alabama and Arizona are aimed at disenfranchising a growing segment of US voters, Latinos, both those born in the US and those who have immigrated. “We see laws popping up around the country that are totally designed to disenfranchise people from the political process,” Redmond said. “The good news is: it’s not going to work. Too many people gave their lives (to protect voting rights).”

Unions swell NYC march; demand fairness for 99 percent

As 36,000 Occupy Wall Street demonstrators marched past the Verizon building near the Brooklyn Bridge Thursday evening, they saw giant projections on the wall of the skyscraper reading “It is the beginning of the beginning,” “We are unstoppable,” and simply “99%.”

These weren’t corporate slogans; these projections came from the Occupy organizers. They represented the spirit of the November 17 day of action against corporate greed.

The march was the culmination of a day that saw Occupy supporters attempt to shut down Wall Street trading earlier in the day.  During acts of disobedience in the morning about 200 were arrested. In the afternoon, protestors regrouped to march to the Brooklyn Bridge. The march, according to BBC reports was swelled by union members as the got off from work.

One union member, expressed the frustration and anger that has led people like him to join the march. “I worked hard and played by the rules, but when (New York City) budget cuts hit last year I lost my job as an (Emergency Medical Technician) and now I’m about to lose my family’s home,” said Bronx resident Carlos Rivera. “I’m sitting down on the Brooklyn Bridge today because it’s not fair that our taxpayer dollars bailed out big banks like my mortgage holder, Bank of America, but they refuse home-saving loan modifications for struggling families like mine. It’s time banks and the super wealthy paid their fair share and Congress helped people get back to work.”

Rivera was joined on the march by members of the Communication Workers of America who work for Verizon, the 16th largest corporation in the US. Some of the CWA members walked all the way from Albany to protest Verizon’s greed.

Verizon like Bank of America has received government handouts, but Verizon’s handouts were in the form of tax loopholes and subsidies. According to a recent report by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Verizon exploited tax loopholes to receive a $951 million tax rebate in 2010. For a three-year period from 2008-2010, Verizon received more than $12 billion in federal tax subsidies and paid an effective federal income tax rate of -2.9 percent.

Verizon’s tax avoidance efforts extend to local and state governments. The report finds that Verizon received $180 million in local  tax breaks and grants and another $1.4 billion state tax subsidies.

Some of this public money could have been used to improve education, repair and maintain roads and bridges, or prevent layoffs of public servants like Rivera.

During the last three years, Verizon has recorded $33.4 billion in pre-tax profits. Some of this wealth, which its workers helped create, could have been used to offer a fair contract to its union workers. Instead the company, is demanding a billion dollars worth of concessions in a new contract that would significantly reduce health care and pension benefits and lead to less job security. Verizon is demanding the concessions to make sure “that its top executives stay in the top 1 percent of American earners,” said George Kohl, CWA senior director.

Verizon isn’t the only company that avoids paying taxes. Another report from Citizens for Tax Justice says that 78 out the 280 of the US’s most profitable companies paid no federal income tax in at least one year of the past three.

This lack of fairness in US tax policy and the fact that many financial firms like Bank of America received bailouts even though their financial speculation caused the recession that continues to cause working-class misery has led another Occupy Wall Street union supporter to call for a financial transaction tax.

National Nurses United, whose members joined Occupy days of action across the US, is pressing for a small tax on Wall Street financial transactions, which economists estimate could raise up to $350 billion dollars that could be invested in public projects that put people back to work.

“There’s an economic emergency  in every corner of our country. We need to put thousands to work repairing our crumbling infrastructure–bridges, roads and schools, said Malinda Markowitz, RN and co-president of the California Nurses Association/NNU. “We need to keep people in their homes. We need to fund our schools so they can provide quality education. We need to ensure that all people have access to quality affordable health care.”

UAW: Proposed higher fuel efficiency standards will create more green jobs

The United Autoworkers on Wednesday announced that it is supporting new light-duty vehicle fuel efficiency standards recently proposed by the US Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The proposal represents a historic step forward for the US automobile industry, ” said Bob King, UAW president. “It will provide certainty for the manufacturers, significant savings at the gas pump for consumers, and it will create tens of thousands of jobs engineering and producing the technology needed to make vehicles more efficient.”

The EPA and Transportation Department have been working together to produce new emission standards that if enacted will require manufacturers to significantly improve fuel efficiency in passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and SUVs. The standards would be phased in over an eight-year period beginning with model-year 2017 and ending with model-year 2025.

The proposed emission standards were published in a Notice of Rule Making issued on November 16. Interested parties will  have a chance to submit comments on the proposal. After reviewing the comments and holding hearings, the agencies will issue final rules governing new emission standards.

The proposal would require manufacturers to produce vehicles that on average produce 163 grams/mile of carbon dioxide. To achieve this standard, manufacturers’ vehicle fleets would need to average 54.5 miles per gallon by model-year 2025, which the EPA and Transportation Department estimate would save 4 billion barrels of oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 billion metric tons over the lifetime of the vehicle fleets.

Customers driving model-year 2025 vehicles would save between $5,200 and $6,000 per year, easily offsetting the $2,000 increased cost of the more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The standards are flexible enough to allow consumers to continue to have access to the same wide a choice of vehicles that they now have.

The UAW estimates that the new green technologies that will need to be created to meet the fuel efficiency standards will create 190,000 new jobs by 2020.

According to a report published jointly by the UAW and the Natural Resource Defense Council, “The move to greater fuel economy means greater labor content per vehicle and higher employment across the fleet. This will include new investment in a host of incremental improvements to conventional gasoline powered internal combustion engines, from new controls for valves and timing, to variable speed transmissions and advanced electronics. It will also include entirely new systems like hybrid drive trains and advanced diesel engines.”

Another study conducted by the UAW, the NRDC, and the National Wildlife Federation found that currently there are 500 facilities in the US engaged in the development of green technology that will improve fuel efficiency. These facilities currently employee 150,000 people.

“We believe that (developing more fuel-efficient vehicles) sets the stage for a green-based revival of the US auto industry,” said King.

Report finds mental health understaffing threatens patient health and safety

Despite recording $5.6 billion in profits since 2009, Kaiser Permanente, California’s largest HMO, jeopardizes patient health and safety by refusing to adequately staff its mental health facilities. That’s the conclusion of a report, entitled Care Delayed, Care Denied, recently published by National United Healthcare Workers, a union representing Kaiser healthcare providers in California.

Based on the results of a survey of 300 mental health professionals working at 57 Kaiser-owned facilities in Northern and Southern California, the report finds that:

  • 90 percent of the respondents reported delays in scheduling patient return appointments caused by understaffing at the facilities where they work,
  • Patients must frequently wait four to six weeks for a return appointment even though California regulations require a return visit within 10 days,
  • Kaiser requires clinicians to “speed up” their evaluations, which sometimes leads to miscoding errors and subsequent fraudulent Medicare and other insurance claims, and
  • Kaiser falsifies records to conceal return appointment delays.

NUHW is currently engaged in contract talks with Kaiser. One of the major concerns of workers represented by the union is that understaffing at Kaiser facilities seriously undermines the health and safety of the patients served by the providers.

“What we’re dealing with as providers is that we work for a company that is requiring us to provide the bare minimum type of service,” said Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker. “And what happens because of that is that patients suffer.”

Bill Hawkins is a patient at Kaiser, says he has seen service at Kaiser deteriorate as the wait time for return visits have become longer and less reliable. Hawkins suffered a stroke, then was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which led to some mental health problems.

“I began to notice a shift in the practice three or four years ago when it became very difficult to get an appointment,” Hawkins said. “The therapist would try to schedule a return appointment, but would be told that the next available appointment was six to eight weeks down the road. They would put me on a waiting list in case an appointment time opened up before then, but they didn’t give you much advanced notice when that happened. The impression I get with Kaiser Mental Health is that there are far too many patients and not enough staffing.”

Timm Sinclair’s 76-year old mother is being treated by providers at Kaiser. She too suffers from Parkinson’s as well as depression and anxiety disorder, which causes falls and serious injuries. “A Kaiser psychiatrist prescribed medicine for her anxiety disorder,” Sinclair said. “But he resigned, and Mother was put on a three- to four-month wait list for a follow up visit to determine how well the medicine was working. There weren’t enough psychiatrists to see my mother in a timely way.”

The California Chapter of the National Social Workers Association reviewed Care Delayed, Care Denied and issued a statement on its findings. “We are seriously concerned with the key findings of this report. It appears that there are very serious and clear violations of California law relating to timely access to care and inadequate health care practices at Kaiser that appear to fall short of recommended clinical standards,” reads the statement.

The California Psychologists Association also reviewed the report. It issued a statement of concern saying that “We are seriously concerned with the key findings of this report. It appears that there are very serious and clear violations of California law relating to timely access to care and inadequate health care practices at Kaiser that appear to fall short of recommended clinical standards.”

NUHW and Kaiser Permanente, which describes itself as a health care organization for the 21st Century, have been negotiating a new contract since 2010. The union is seeking guarantees that will ensure that Kaiser will address the understaffing issues that lead to poor patient care. The union also opposes benefit cuts that the employer is seeking. In September, NUHW members staged a three-day strike to press their demands for adequate staffing at Kaiser facilities.

Workers march from Albany to Manhattan to participate in Nov. 17 day of action against corporate greed

“We are the 99 percent,” chanted members of the Communications Workers of America as they began the first leg of their 150-mile march from Albany, New York to Liberty Park in Lower Manhattan where they will join Occupy Wall Street on November 17 for a national day of action against corporate greed.

Many of the marchers work for Verizon Communications.  Verizon, the 16th largest corporation in the US, and the CWA and IBEW, the two unions representing Verizon workers, have been locked in a contract dispute. The company insists on hundreds of millions of dollars in health care, pension, and job security concessions  that would erode workers’ standard of living.

Verizon is making these demands even though over the last four years it has reported $22.5 billion in profits and paid its top five executives $258 million.  The excessive executive pay puts the five in the top 0.1 percent of the richest 1 percent in the US.

“Verizon and Verizon Wireless workers are the 99 percent, and we are joining the Occupy Wall Street movement’s campaign to focus the world’s attention on the destructive power of corporate greed,” said Chris Shelton, CWA District One Vice President as  CWA members rallied before their march began. “Everywhere you look in America, corporations are squeezing the middle-class in an endless race to the bottom of low wages and benefits. If Verizon can roll back fifty years of gains by their workers while they make billions in profits, then no one’s standard of living is safe. These marchers will demand that the American economy start to work for the 99 percent again, not just the Verizon top 1 percent.”

The Occupy Wall Street General Assembly called the November 17 day of action.  People will rally, march, and engage in “peaceful direct action to reject the economy that divides us,” said a statement issued by the General Assembly. It will be a chance for people to demonstrate solidarity with all victims of corporate greed.

Similar days of action are planned in at least 13 US cities including Portland, Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, Baltimore,  Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.

More than 30 unions and other labor groups have announced support for the day of action. “I’ll be at the November 17 (day of action),” said Nina Howe, a nurse and member of 1199SEIU. “There’s plenty of money in this country, but the 99 percent don’t have it. It’s time for that to change–and to fund jobs, health care, housing, and education.”

In addition to CWA and SEIU, the Transport Workers Union, UAW Region 9A,  United Federation of Teachers, Laborers Union, Teamsters, and AFL-CIO are just some of the unions that will participate in the day of action.

Among other things, those participating in the day of action will be demanding that Congress pass a jobs bill that puts people back to work and that it reject austerity measures, such as cutting Social Security and Medicare, that will likely be recommended by Congress’ joint deficit reduction committee.

The Occupy movement itself supports these demands but also recognizes that a decent jobs bill and stopping the austerity measures won’t be enough to end the mess that most working people find ourselves in today.

“The future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members. . .,” reads the Occupy statement announcing the day of action. “But corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth. . . . No true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”

A recent report on negotiations between Verizon and the CWA and IBEW says that the company presented a new proposal on job security that does little to keep good-paying, middle-class jobs secure at Verizon. When it comes to job security, the CWA bargainers said, the company says, “trust us.” But they have done little to earn our trust.

CWA marchers, who left Albany on November 10, will march 20 to 25 miles a day and stop for rallies and leafletting at Verizon stores and work sites along the way. They will arrive in New York City on November 17 in time for the day of action.

“We’re at a critical point in this country’s history,” said Jake Lake, a CWA Local 1111 member in Binghamton, New York, who joined the march. “People need to get involved because if it tips one way, we’re in bad shape.”

As strike enters 7th month, San Antonio workers seek domestic and international support

By Pancho Valdez

“We really need to go back to work. But we’re not going back in there until they treat us like human beings, not slaves!” – Loretta Ramirez, 18 yr. employee at Pioneer Flour, member of Teamsters Local 657

San Antonio,TX- Workers at the C.H. Guenther & Sons flour mill d.b.a. Pioneer Flour went on strike on April 25th after the company demanded concessions on their health care coverage that would have imposed an increase of 20% on the workers who average about $14 per hour.

Also in dispute is the worker’s retirement plan. At present the company matches worker contributions with a maximum of $925 annually. This $925 has proven to be a hardship on many of the mill workers and they are demanding that Pioneer pay the full contribution to their pension plan.

Another key issue is safety. Tony Diaz who has worked at the mill for 25 years said that in the summer the temperature inside  the mill is at least six to ten degrees higher than outside. Temperatures of 100 degrees fahrenheit or more are very common in San Antonio. Diaz went on to say that he is aware of at least one worker who has died on the job when he plunged from the top of one of the tall buildings at the mill.

Both Diaz and Manuel Arcos a 28-year veteran of the mill expressed disgust and anger because in the past the union has made concessions in effort to keep the company afloat. Now that it is prospering, the company continues to demand more concessions.

Another source of their anger is the fact that the City of San Antonio gave Pioneer a 15-year tax abatement when the company purchased the abandoned Richter Bakery on Broadway. The strikers feel it is wrong for the city to give the company economic assistance in light of the company’s stingy attitude toward the workers.

Johnny Davila who has worked at Pioneer 34 years and who is the picket captain said; “My father worked here and was involved in the first strike back in 1966.” He expressed concern over the strike and the length of the strike. “I need this job. I may very well lose this job, but at some point in a person’s life one has to stand up for what is right for ourselves, our family, the whole country!”

The Guenther flour mill, which produces Pioneer brand flour products, was built in the late 1800s and is considered a historical site. This is only the second strike at the mill, the first one was in 1966.

At the San Antonio mill pancake mix, white flour, gravy mix, biscuit mix and packaged flour tortillas are produced. The company provides white flour for McDonald’s in the U.S. and in Europe.

The company owns and operates several plants in the U.S., UK and in Belgium. The members of Local 657 are appealing for support from trade unionists in the U.S. as well as globally. They especially hope to gain the support of their peers in the UK and in Belgium as well.

The strikers request that people call or e-mail Pioneer CEO Dale Trembley at 210-227-1061 or dtrembley@chguenther.com Urge Trembley to return to the table and bargain in good faith with the workers.

Messages of solidarity can be called in: 210-590-2013 or e-mailed: info@teamsters657@yahoo.com The strike has been video taped and can be seen on YouTube under Teamsters 657 On Strike.

Toll drivers “treated like dirt” fired for speaking up

They wanted to use clean bathrooms in the company’s office. When the company said no, they decided to form a union. When they showed up for work one day last month wearing their union t-shirts, the company fired them. That’s the story of 26 port truck drivers, who haul containers from the Port of Los Angeles to Los Angeles’ high-end fashion stores. Before they were fired, they worked for Toll Global, an Australian company that is one of the world’s largest transportation companies.

The fired workers and about 150 of their supporters on November 10 picketed the Australian consulate in Los Angeles urging the Australian government to convince Toll to rehire the drivers.

“They work in deplorable conditions, and that’s why they wanted to join the Teamsters,” said TJ Michaels a spokeswoman for the Teamsters at the demonstration.

“They treat us like dirt,” said Alberto Quiteno, one of the fired drivers who has worked as a port driver for 17 years.

Conditions at the Toll facility at the Los Angeles port led workers to begin thinking about joining a union. For one thing, drivers are required to use portable toilets in the parking lot where there is no drinkable running water. Because the portables are dirty and unsanitary, the workers asked the company to allow them to use the same bathrooms that management and office workers use.

The company refused their request. A company spokesperson told the Los Angeles Business Journal that the outhouses that the drivers were required to use were “deluxe portable private bathrooms” and that when it got hot, the company provided them with bottled water.

The drivers, who are mostly immigrant workers from Latin America, also wanted the better pay and benefits of union jobs. They contacted the Teamsters after they learned that their union drivers in Australia who work for Toll earned middle-class wages and benefits and were treated with more respect than the Toll workers in the US.

After the Teamsters started to help them organize, Toll hired a union avoidance company from Texas. The workers filed unfair labor practices charges against the company for its harassment and threats against union supporters.

Things came to a head in October. Union supporters circulated a petition demanding access to the company’s clean bathrooms. sixty-two out of the 75 drivers who work for Toll at the Los Angeles port signed the petition. Quiteno along with a representative of Teamsters Local 848 and local clergy who are supporting the workers took the petition to the Toll headquarters in Melbourne, Australia and presented it to the outgoing company CEO Paul Little during the corporation’s annual shareholders’ meeting.

While the shareholders’ meeting was going on, members of the Transport Workers Union, which represents Toll workers in Australia, demonstrated in support of their Los Angeles brothers and sisters outside.

In the meantime, 25 Los Angeles Toll workers showed up for work on October 26 wearing Teamster t-shirts. Outside, supporters organized by the Teamsters and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, an environmental and labor coalition fighting to clean up the Los Angeles ports and their surrounding neighborhoods, picketed and rallied for the workers.

The next day, Quiteno and the workers who wore their union t-shirts were fired. They have since filed more unfair labor practices against Toll.

A delegation from the November 10  demonstration met with Australian consul-general Chris De Cure.  Before the meeting, Michaels told the media, “We want to call attention to the fact this Australian-based company does not treat its workers in the US in the same humane manner it treats its truck drivers in Australia. We want to expose what is going in the LA operations and hope we can turn it around and get the drivers’ jobs back.”

After the meeting, De Cure told the Sydney Morning Herald that ”I . . .  told the delegation that Australia had one of the fairest and most  balanced industrial relations systems in the world and that it would be  regrettable if anyone were to use this dispute in the United States to infer  otherwise.”

LA carwash workers win payment for wage theft

Attorneys for Los Angeles area carwash workers on Wednesday announced a settlement of a class action lawsuit for the recovery of stolen wages owed to about 400 workers. The defendants, who own four carwashes, will pay $1 million to settle the suit. The suit alleges that the workers routinely worked 10-hour  days for less than half the minimum wage and that some received no salary, working only for tips.

The settlement, which attorneys for the workers describe as that the largest monetary settlement to date in the carwash industry, resolves a suit filed in 2008 by workers active in the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, which seeks to stop abuses in the carwash industry. Last month, the campaign announced the first ever union contract between a carwash owner and its workers.

“These workers demonstrated remarkable resolve and courage by demanding the lawful wages they had earned through their hard work,” said David Adelstein, a partner at Bush Gottlieb Singer López Kohanski Adelstein & Dickinson, who litigated the case.  “The settlement demonstrates that low-wage carwash workers will not quietly accept this kind of exploitation.”

The defendants in the lawsuit are Benny and Nisan Pirian. After the workers filed their suit, the Los Angeles City Attorney took an interest in the case and filed misdemeanor charges for what amounted to wage theft against the Pirians. Last summer, the two pleaded no contest and were sentenced to a year in jail. They will sell one of their carwashes to cover the cost of settling the civil suit.

The success of the lawsuit will likely have an industry wide effect, at least in Southern California, because carwash owners have assumed that they can abuse their workers without fear of repercussions. “For years, these businesses relied for their success on an assumption that workers can be intimidated into silence about fundamental violations of their workplace rights, said Kevin Kish, co-counsel and director of Bet Tzedek’s Employment Rights Project.  “The plaintiffs in this case have proven that assumption wrong.”

Carwash owners now appear to  have two choices regarding the way they treat their workers. They can take the high road and treat their workers with dignity and respect like the owners of Bonus Car Wash, who last month signed the first union carwash contract with the United Steelworkers Local 675, or they can continue to abuse their workers and either face jail time or large payouts to settle lawsuits.

“The Pirian-operated carwashes exemplified the carwash industry’s worst practices,” said Chloe Osmer, acting director of the CLEAN Carwash Campaign. “To see their employees recover a settlement of this size sends a powerful message to the estimated 10,000 other carwash workers in Los Angeles County that exploitation is no longer the default practice in this industry.”

“What we are beginning to see in this industry is a clear ‘high road,’ with some employers bringing their operations into compliance with minimum labor, health-and-safety, and environmental standards,” Kish said.  “This settlement is an example of what happens when employers remain on the ‘low road’.”

Bet Tzedek (Hebrew for House of Justice) Legal Services, which provided co-counsels for the workers, describes itself as one of the premier public interest law firms in the nation. It provides free legal services in matters involving consumer rights, elder law, housing, public benefits and workers’ rights to low-income, disabled and elderly people of all racial and religious backgrounds.

Bush Gottlieb Singer López Kohanski Adelstein & Dickinson, which litigated the case, describes itself as a law firm dedicated to the practice of law to advance the cause of working people. The firm’s attorneys appear and advocate regularly throughout the nation before federal, state and local courts, administrative agencies and arbitration panels in their representation of unions, collectively bargained trust funds, and employees, with respect to a broad range of labor relations and employment matters.

Ohio voters reject anti-worker measure

Ohio voters on Tuesday soundly defeated SB 5, an attempt by Gov. John Kasich to curtail public sector employees’ right to collective bargaining. The Ohio Legislature passed SB 5 in March and Gov. Kasich quickly signed the bill into law. But in April a grassroots campaign led by labor unions and community supporters launched a petition drive calling for a referendum to repeal the bill. Volunteers gathered more than a million signatures on the petition, which qualified the initiative for a place on the November election ballot. When voters went to the polls, they defeated the anti-worker measure by a vote of 61 percent to 30 percent.

State and local government workers make only 6.5 percent of Ohio’s population, so the effort to repeal SB 5 obviously received strong support from private sector workers.

“Many Ohioans have been with us since the beginning,” said Courtney Johnson, a public school teacher in Ironton, and a member of We Are Ohio, a grassroots coalition of labor and community groups that fought SB 5. “From the day we were locked out of the statehouse to the day we turned in 1.3 million signatures, we have felt the support of Ohioans. Tonight we thank you and all Ohio voters for your historic and overwhelming support of collective bargaining rights for Ohio’s everyday heroes.”

Gov. Kasich tried to use Ohio’s budget problems as an excuse to limit collective bargaining rights. He argued that public sector unions had too much power, and this power was causing budget deficits for state and local governments. In addition to limiting collective bargaining rights, SB 5 also took away the right to strike and imposed health care and pension concessions that would have significantly raised public worker expenses for these benefits and reduced their take-home pay.

When thousands of angry workers converged on the Ohio statehouse in February to protest SB 5, they found themselves locked out and prevented from entering the building. In March, SB 5 passed both houses of the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Kasich.

Unions called SB 5 an attack on the middle class and on middle-class jobs. The Ohio public seemed to agree. In a three-month period following passage of SB 5, volunteers fanned out across the state and collected 1.3 million signatures on a petition to put the measure on a referendum ballot.

“(SB 5) is going to kill the middle class,” said Kristi Hall to the Ironton Tribune while she gathered signatures on the petition. “It is going to affect so many people. So many jobs will be lost.”

In June, thousands of Ohio working people marched through the streets of Columbus, the state capital, to the secretary of state’s office where they presented their petitions.

We Are Ohio didn’t wait for the secretary of state to verify the petition signatures. After the march, it began recruiting and mobilizing volunteers to turn out voters for the referendum. It organized telephone banks, canvassed neighborhoods and shopping centers, and held rallies and demonstrations urging voters to reject SB 5.

It also raised a lot of money, about $30 million according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That money allowed We Are Ohio to begin running television commercials attacking SB 5 in September.

We Are Ohio called the defeat of SB 5 historic. “In what is thought to be the first election in the country on collective bargaining rights, Issue 2 (the SB 5 measure) was soundly defeated by Ohio voters,” read a statement released by We Are Ohio. “Today’s vote shows middle-class Ohioans wanted to send a clear and emphatic message to our leaders and our nation that Ohioans don’t turn our backs on the people who watch ours. This vote indicates Ohioans not only support public employees but they also understand that they have been problem solvers and have done so by making more than $1 billion in sacrifices in just the last three years.”

Republicans who supported SB 5, however, said that the fight to curb public employee rights isn’t over. State Senator Keith Faber, who supported SB 5 in debates during the election campaign said that Republicans would re-introduce some of the measures in SB 5 when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

Report charges mining company with industrial homicide

A report recently released by the United Mine Workers of America calls the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners a criminal act for which the mine’s owners and managers should be held accountable.

The mine at the time of the explosion was owned by Massey Energy, which has subsequently been bought by Alpha Natural Resources. Some senior managers with Massey including Baxter F. Phillips, who was Massey’s president at the time of the explosion, continue to work for Alpha.

“(Massey) recklessly tolerated (unsafe) mining conditions that were so egregious that the resulting disaster constituted a massive slaughter in the nature of an industrial homicide,” reads the report.

Miners at Upper Big Branch were not members of the UMWA, but after the explosion the surviving miners asked the union to represent them.

The report’s findings concur with an earlier report written by an independent investigative committee appointed by the governor of West Virginia. Both reports find baseless the company’s assertion that the explosion was caused by natural gas seeping through cracks in the mine floor.

Instead, the reports conclude that an inadequate and poorly maintained ventilation system and a lax effort to suppress coal dust  by a maintenance process known as rock dusting caused an unsafe accumulation of the flammable dust in the mine that was subsequently ignited by a spark from a coal cutting machine.

In a media statement announcing the report, Cecil Roberts, president of UMWA, said that Massey acted “without real regard for mine safety and health laws and regulations” and that it “established a physical working environment that can only be described as a bomb waiting to go off.”

The union report says that the drive to increase coal production overrode concerns about mine safety. It cites the widow of Edward Dean Jones, a mine foreman killed in the explosion, who told National Public Radio that her husband tried to keep his crew out of the mine one time before the explosion occurred because he thought conditions were unsafe. He was told bluntly by mine management that he could either take his men inside or go home and never come back again.

The imperative to mine coal at any cost was emphasized by former Massey CEO Don Blakenship. The report cites a 2005 memo from Blakenship that instructs Massey deep mine managers to ignore requests for work that might divert labor away from production and just “run coal.”

When the memo was made public and miners and the public interpreted Blakenship’s memo as an instruction to ignore safety, he responded with a clarifying second memo that only confirmed people’s suspicion. The second memo says that safety is always the company’s number one priority but that safety projects should be undertaken “without taking members (workers) and equipment from the coal-producing sections that pay our bills.”

The report also says that Massey kept two sets of records about conditions in the mines. The official records were available for all to see, but the “production and maintenance” records, which more accurately described safety conditions in the mine, were for the eyes of select management personnel only.

“The dangerous conditions that contributed to the explosion existed at the mine on a daily basis,” reads the UMWA  report. “They were permitted to exist by a corporate management at Massey that created a culture that demanded production at any cost and tolerated a callous disregard for the health and safety of miners.”

The report says that there is no official crime known as “industrial homicide” in the either state or federal statutes, but that corporate leaders that allowed the dangerous conditions to persist in order to drive up coal production and profit should nevertheless be held accountable for negligence that led to the death of 29 miners.

“The UMWA believes that had Massey Energy been in compliance with all the mandatory health and safety standards related to the conditions that contributed to the explosion of April 5, 2010, the explosion would not have occurred,” says the report.

Presidential Emergency Board issues recommendations in rail dispute

A presidential Emergency Board on Saturday made recommendations for ending a contract dispute between 11 unions and the nation’s largest rail freight carriers. For the most part, the recommendations favor the carriers. For example, the board recommended that the unions accept all the health care concessions that the carriers demanded.

The board chose not to consider whether a contract signed last summer by the carriers and the United Transportation Union represented an industry wide pattern, but it used the UTU agreement as a benchmark as it formulated its recommendations. The board’s health care recommendation, except for a minor detail, mirrors the health care concessions agreed to by UTU.

Now that the board has issued its recommendations, a 30-day cooling off period follows during which the unions cannot strike nor can the carriers unilaterally implement a new contract. After the 30-day cooling off period, which ends December 6, the unions or carriers are free to engage in economic self-help, which means the unions could strike or take other action aimed at winning a more favorable deal or the carriers could take similar action.

Union reaction to the board’s decision was muted and mixed. President Freddie Simpson of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED) in an open letter to members said that the BMWED national bargaining committee would meet with the carriers on Tuesday, November 8 to discuss the recommendations. He also said that he would convene a national meeting in Kansas City on November 30 to discuss the board’s recommendations and their consequences.

He urged members to remain focused and disciplined. “There will be many rumors flying over the next 30 days,” Simpson said. “We must approach the next 30 days in a disciplined and focused manner, showing solidarity with each other and the members of the other unions affected by the board’s report.”

He also told members to visit the union’s website to get accurate and timely information about events over the next 30 days.

 Transportation Communications Union President Bob Scardelletti said that the board’s recommendations will produce an average gain of $30,000 for the average TCU member over the next six years, but he noted that the board’s health care recommendations were disappointing.

“We are disappointed in the board’s recommendation of the UTU health insurance plan design changes” Scardelletti said. “We put on a vigorous case that our health plan should be left alone.  The (board) rejected our argument. But they did recommend keeping the employee contribution at $200 through at least July, 2016, which is a tremendous benefit.”

 Scardelleti said that TCU will bargain toward an agreement based on the board’s recommendations. “The (board’s) recommendations deliver tangible, real wage gains far beyond what is occurring anywhere else in the country,” Scardelleti said. “We cannot risk letting the anti-labor diehards in the Republican Congress get a chance to overturn these findings if
we fail to reach an agreement. We will negotiate hard in the next two weeks for the best possible implementation of the report. Our goal is to reach an agreement to submit to ratification by our membership.”

Regarding the health care plan, the board recommended changes to the Managed Medical Care Program that increase the deductible to $200 per year for individuals and $400 for families. Union rail workers currently pay no deductible. Worker costs for emergency room visits increase from $25 to $75; urgent care costs increase from $20 to $25.

The board also recommended that workers begin paying a 5 percent co-insurance charge up to $1,000 per year for individuals and $2,000 for families and increased payments for Tier II and Tier III prescription drugs. Cost of generic drugs would decrease by $5 per prescription. 

The board acknowledged that the cost of these changes would fall hardest on those who are currently receiving medical treatment or who will do so in the future, which was the main reason that the unions opposed these changes.

All of these recommendations are in the UTU contract. Another similar feature is the $200 cap on workers’ share of the premium payment. The cap would remain in effect through July 2016. The board also recommended capping premium increases after 2016 to 15 percent or $230, whichever is smaller.

Regarding wages, the unions proposed a five-year wage increase of 19 percent; the carriers proposed a 14 percent increase. The board recommended a 15.6 percent increase retroactive to July 2010 when the current contract expired. Additionally, the board recommended a lump sum signing bonus equal to 1 percent of straight-time earnings between November 1, 2010 and October 31, 2011.

Unions argued that workers deserved a bigger raise because  increased worker productivity had produced record profits for carriers. The board said that it did not take company profits or increased productivity into account when it determined what a fair wage increase would be.  

Financial speculation tax gains transction as nurses rally

From the West Coast of the United States to the Mediterranean Coast of France, demonstrators rallied for a fair tax on financial speculation to be used for public investments that would put people back to work and heal some of the misery caused by the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession. On the day of the rally, members of the US Congress filed a bill entitled the Targeted Wall Street Trading Tax.

“A real finance tax would generate $350 billion a year in the U.S. alone and bring relief to families out of homes, friends out of work, patients out of care, communities running out of time,” said Karen Higgins, RN and co-president of National Nurses United, the largest organization of professional nurses in the US. “The tax starts a revenue flow back to the 99 percent.  To oppose it, or even delay it, is to court disaster.” Higgins was speaking at Washington DC rally in support of the financial speculation tax.

The financial speculation tax advocated by Higgins and the NNU would tax speculative trades such as the buying and selling of derivatives and other speculative investments at a modest rate, diverting a small portion of these transactions worth trillions of dollars into national treasuries that could use the money to finance public projects and services that put people back to work.

About 2,000 people attended the NNU Washington DC event that began at Lafayette Park across from the White House and ended at the at the offices of the US Treasury. Other unions joined the march and rally as did people from Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC.

As union members and their supporters rallied in the streets, members of the Populist Caucus in the US Congress announced that they had filed the Targeted Wall Street Trading Tax. “This trading tax would help raise necessary funds to invest in our infrastructure and the education of our children, among other priorities, and would do so without hurting job creation.  There is no question that Wall Street can easily bear this modest tax.” said Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the bill’s sponsors.

“The first step on the long path to recovery happens when we rein in the excessive speculative activity that has destabilized our financial system,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, another of the bill’s sponsors. “This legislation will curb unnecessary speculation and generate needed revenue to help our cash-strapped federal government pay down debt and invest in the real economy to benefit all Americans.”

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the NNU rallies for a financial speculation tax were joined by members of the Occupy movement on the West Coast and other union members. Erin Carrera, a nurse for 20 years told the San Francisco Appeal that she was at the rally because she and her fellow nurses have had an up-close and personal view of the damage done by the economic downturn. “We, more than anyone, can see the effects the economy is having on our community,” Carrera said.

Carrera told the Appeal that she has seen working people who have health insurance put off having a tumor removed because they can’t afford it.

Meanwhile across the ocean, NNU held a press conference during the G-20 meeting in Cannes. The G-20 is a gathering of leaders from the world’s 20 largest national economies.

At the press conference, NNU members were joined by nurses from four continents and environmental and consumer groups in their demand for financial speculation tax.

“We have to put an end to sterile, non-productive, casino-style trading and cyberspace gambling with our economy,”  said British actor and Oxfam Global Ambassador Bill Nighy, who  attended the Cannes press conference.

In a recent report from Cannes, The Guardian, one of the United Kingdom’s leading daily newspapers said that the idea for a tax on financial speculation is gaining some traction even among conservative governments. It was a topic for discussion when the G-20 met, and it is supported by French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Striking miners in Papua demand more of the wealth they create

National Police moved heavy equipment into place on Tuesday as the Indonesian government began stepping up its efforts to break a strike by miners in the province of Papua. Miners at the Grasberg mining complex owned by Freeport McMoran have been on strike for six weeks. Freeport McMoran, one of the world’s largest mining companies headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, mines gold and copper at Grasberg.

About 10,000 workers, nearly half of the Grasberg workforce, went out on strike in September to demand higher wages. Currently, their base wage is the equivalent of $2.10 per hour. They want the base rate increased to $7.50 per hour. The miners contend that they are the lowest paid of all Freeport workers, which owns mines throughout the world, even though the Grasberg mines are the most profitable gold and copper mines in the world.

After the strike began, the company said that it would increase wages by 25 percent and then more recently increased its offer to 30 percent. Strikers rejected both offers.

Since the strike began, strikers have been blockading roads leading to the mines, which are located in a mountainous region of Papua. The strike has significantly reduced production. Bloomberg reports that “production has fallen  . . . enough to threaten the company’s fourth-quarter sales estimates.” Production is now about 75 percent of normal.

National Police have been siding with Freeport to keep the mines open and normalize production. During an October 10 confrontation when the police were escorting replacement workers through the blockade, the police shot and killed Peter Ayameseba, one of the strikers. Six other miners were wounded.

After the shooting, it was reported that Freeport pays the National Police $14 million to assist the company in its operations in Papua. The Jakarta Post reports that 80 percent of the payments are used to provide support facilities, meal money, and transportation. The rest is direct cash payments.

The workers’ strike has been supported by those who support Papuan national liberation. Papua was annexed in 1969 by Indonesia, and those who oppose Indonesian rule think that the Freeport mines are closely tied to their national oppression. Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator, agreed to a deal to make the area where the Grasberg mines noq exist available to Freeport in 1967, two years before Papua’s annexation by Indonesia.

In the Papuan capital of Jayapura, students recently formed the People’s Movement Against Freeport Crimes and are demanding that the company leave Papua. At one of the recent demonstrations against Freeport, one of the banners read, “the Papuan people must assert sovereignty over their natural resources.”

Occupy Oakland calls general strike

Occupy Oakland at a Sunday media conference announced plans for a general strike that will take place on Wednesday, November 2. The strike is aimed at protesting the heavy-handed use of police force to disperse Occupy Oakland and to suppress minority communities. Just as important though, the strike will protest capitalism whose main imperative–to maximize profit at all cost–has destroyed jobs, communities, education opportunities, and people’s security.

“The entire world is fed up with the huge disparity of wealth caused by the present system,” said Boots Riley, an emcee for the rap group the Coup. “The Oakland General Strike is a warning shot to the 1 percent. Their wealth only exists because of the work of the 99 percent.”

Clarence Thomas, a third-generation longshore worker and a leader of the Million Worker March, said that the general strike is about fighting corporate power with worker power. “For the last thirty years, American workers have been providing their employers with increased productivity but our wages have stagnated,” Thomas said. “Corporations have shipped our jobs overseas where they can pay slave wages.”

“Capitalism has failed us,” added Thomas. “It can no longer deliver the goods.”

Nell Myhand, who is fighting to stop Chase Bank from foreclosing on her home, said that she is participating in the general strike because banks like Chase have destroyed communities with their predatory lending practices. More than 30,000 families in Oakland have been evicted from their homes because of foreclosures. Renters have also been evicted because their landlords did not make mortgage payments.

Those hardest hit by the evictions are minorities and the elderly. “Ninety percent of the foreclosures (in Oakland) are in three zip codes that are predominately either African-American, Latino, or elderly,” said Myhand, who works for Causa Justa, a community organization that helps people fight foreclosures. “In some cases, those being evicted already owned their homes, but took out a loan to fix a roof or make some other major repair.”

Javier Armas, a former high school teacher, said that on the same day that the police were attacking Occupy Oakland last week, the Oakland Unified School District decided to close five elementary schools. “Back in 2003, the State of California forced the Oakland School District to take a $100 million loan, then sold the loan to Bank of America, which then sold it to other investors,” Armas said.

The school district had to decide whether it was going to pay the interest on loans or keep schools open, and it decided to close the schools, Armas said. Those schools are an integral part of the communities where they are located, and their closure will affect the educational opportunities for the students who attend them.

A number of unions are urging members to attend the marches and rallies that are part of the general strike. SEIU Local 1021, whose members work for the City of Oakland encouraged its members to “use legitimate time off to stand in support of Occupy Oakland and join the day’s events.”

UAW Local 2865, which represents academic student employees at the University of California at Berkeley, passed a resolution saying that it supports Occupy Oakland and will turn out its members to support rallies and activities scheduled for November 2.

Carpenters Local 713 also passed a resolution urging its members to support the one-day general strike aimed at protesting “our country’s rising inequality and the brutal actions of the police in the city of Oakland, California.”

Other labor organizations endorsing the actions of the general strike include the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the Philippine Airline Workers, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the Oakland Teachers Union Executive Board, the Million Worker March, and the San Francisco Bay IWW.

Events will begin at 9 a.m. when people will meet at Oscar Grant Park then march on banks and other symbols of corporate power that remain open. At 4 p.m., strikers will reconvene at the park then march on the Port of Oakland and begin picketing the port when the 7 p.m. shift begins in order to shut down the port.

Occupy Oakland hopes that the general strike will encourage other workers throughout the world to initiate their own actions to reclaim their lives and livelihood stolen by corporate greed.