IKEA workers sign first collective bargaining agreement

Workers at the IKEA furniture plant in Danville, Virginia on December 17 ratified their first collective bargaining agreement that takes effect on January 1. The new contract marks a new stage in the three-year fight for worker dignity and respect at the plant, which is operated by Swedwood, a wholly owned subsidiary of the international retail furniture giant.

Workers at the Swedwood plant began organizing a union with the help of the IAM in 2008. They were tired of Swedwood’s encroachments on lives away from work, the lack of safety at the plant, discrimination against African-American workers, the company’s over reliance on temporary workers, and a petty yet burdensome disciplinary system that gave supervisors absolute authority and workers no recourse to challenge unwarranted disciplinary action.

They won a union representation election in July when 76 percent of the more than 300 workers voted to represented by IAM.

According to the IAM, the new contract addresses these issues, but the ability of the workers at the plant to see meaningful change will depend on the kind of on-the job organization they build.

Details of the contract are not available, but according to a report by BWI, an international organization of unions representing woodworking workers, the new contract limits the number of temporary workers that the company can hire and requires that they receive safety training before beginning work.

The contract also establishes a process for determining work rules that will be applied equally without discrimination. If the union and company cannot agree on work rules, a third-party arbitrator will make the final decision.

Under the old rules, supervisors did not have to give any justification for denying merit raises. They were even at liberty to ignore  annual performance evaluations. This led to a lot of favoritism and discrimination on the job. The new contract is supposed to put an end to this practice.

The number of vacation days are tripled and the existing holidays are maintained.

The contract also establishes three union management committees. One is a joint committee on safety. Workers have complained about unsafe and unhealthy conditions at the plant. Back in December, the union began hearing complaints from workers about toxic and hot chemicals on the print line that were causing burns. The joint safety committee will be responsible investigating these kind of safety problems and recommending changes to make the plant safer.

Another joint committee will deal with training issues. For instance, the union and company agreed that when new technologies are introduced at the plant, the training committee will determine what skills are needed to implement the new technology and then provide training to workers who are already on the job, so that they can operate the new equipment or perform the new process.

The new agreement also revamps the disciplinary procedures. Under the old work rules, supervisors handed out penalty points for what they considered infractions of the rules. For example, last fall while the new contract was still being negotiated, supervisors demanded that workers work overtime on one Saturday, even though the company had previously announced that it was curtailing mandatory overtime. The supervisor told workers that they had to work or be given two penalty points. Termination is automatic after nine penalty points.

Penalty points have also been given to workers who suffered on-the-job injuries and to workers who supervisors thought were taking too many bathroom breaks, or who called in sick, or had to take children to the doctor.

Under the new contract, a grievance procedure has been established. The grievance procedure will give workers a chance to contest unwarranted and unfair disciplinary action. The new procedures will be based on due process and just cause.

Despite overwhelming support for the union, the company continued to take action against union supporters while negotiations were in progress. “Supervisors are threatening and intimidating union supporters for discipline and violating workers’ rights to be represented by a union steward,” said the leader of  IAM’s wood working division William Street back in November.

Street said that he hoped that the contract will resolve these problems and lead to more cooperation between the company and the workers.

Nevertheless, if the company’s recent actions are indicative of how they will act in the future, a lot will depend on well workers are organized and how willing they are to fight to enforce the contract.

Texas union builds campaign to save community care from privatization

A state-operated program that allows 56,000 South Texas elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients to live at home instead of a nursing facility may soon come to an end. When the Texas Legislature cut the state budget last year, it mandated that South Texas Medicaid recipients in the Community Care for the Aged and Disabled (CCAD) be transferred to privately operated HMOs in hopes of saving $160 million.

The Texas State Employees Union has initiated a campaign to save these services. “CCAD has an outstanding record for helping people who might not otherwise be able to do so live on their own,” said Mike Gross, TSEU vice-president. “Workers who do this work must be well-trained and dedicated to quality service. This is not work for low-paid, poorly trained employees. We can’t put corporate profit ahead of people’s needs.”

For many years, Texas has been gradually shifting elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients into privately operated HMOs. The STAR+PLUS program as it is called pays HMOs a set rate for each patient served by the program. The HMOs keeps for their profit and administrative expenses any of the money not spent on patient care; consequently, there’s an incentive to limit patient care.

Disability advocates told Gross that one of the biggest complaints they hear from Medicaid recipients in STAR+PLUS is the difficulty they have accessing services. In 2009, the Dallas Morning News reported that patients enrolled in Evercare, A United Health company that operates a STAR+PLUS HMO, weren’t getting the health care services that they needed. “They ought to call it Nevercare,” said Mary Ross an Evercare patient in North Texas to Dallas Morning News reporter Gregg Jones.

Until now, the state has not expanded STAR+PLUS to South Texas because of local sentiment against it and opposition by local elected officials. But after the Legislature’s mandate, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission began seeking proposals to open STAR+PLUS in South Texas.

If STAR+PLUS is fully implemented in South Texas, HHSC estimates that about 400 jobs in CCAD will be eliminated.

“It won’t be easy to protect community care,” Gross said. “There’s momentum building to expand the HMO model to South Texas. Protecting these service will depend a lot on how hard state workers who provide these services are willing to fight for them. If we can increase our union’s membership in the Department of Aging and Disabilities (DADS, which manages CCAD) and mobilize these new members to fight back, I can’t guarantee a victory, but at least we have a fighting chance.”

Organizing is the first priority. “We need to get at least 50 percent union density in DADS offices,” Gross said. Texas is a right-to-work state, so there is no automatic dues check off.

To boost union membership TSEU organizers and activists will strengthen local organizing committees. One committee in Brownsville has already conducted two outreach efforts at two DADS community services offices and signed up 12 new members.

Mobilizing members is also important. “We’ve got to get more of our members, including new members, involved in this fight,” Gross said. Members have already begun to contact legislators and local elected officials to seek their support in maintaining community care.

Members will also be contacting friends, relatives, neighbors, people with whom they attend church, and other potential community supporters to get them to contact elected officials. “We need to generate hundreds of calls to motivate elected officials to stand up for community care services,” Gross said.

Education is the third prong. “We need to give our members timely and accurate information about this fight,” Gross said. To that end, union organizers and members will set up a network to distribute information using various media.

Texas has been privatizing services aggressively with disastrous results. It wasted hundreds of millions of dollars when it attempted to privatize state health and human services. More recently, it hired a private company to oversee infrastructure repair caused by two hurricanes. After the firm spent 90 percent of the money allocated for the repairs, only 20 percent of the projects were completed. “Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen to people who need community care services,” Gross said.

Students, parents, teachers, and Occupy stand together to stop school privatization

Monday, December 19 was a long day for opponents of a plan to privatize two Austin public schools. It didn’t end well, but it was an inspiring day that saw parents, students, teachers, and Occupy activists work in unison in a last-ditch effort to stop a Chamber of Commerce initiated plan to turn over the operation of Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial to a charter school corporation.

Early Tuesday morning the Austin Independent School District board voted 6 to 3 to approve a contract with IDEA, a corporate charter school operator. IDEA will gradually take over instruction at the two schools beginning next year and by 2017 will be responsible for all grades.

Last week, it looked like the contract was a done deal. But on Monday, December 12, hundreds of parents, students, and teachers who will be affected by the charter takeover rallied outside the school board meeting then went inside to voice their opposition to the deal.

The size and vigor of the protest caused the board to put off a final decision on the contract until the next board meeting on Monday, December 19.

Parents, students and  teachers planned to speak out against the IDEA contract at the Monday meeting, but the board limits debate on subjects to 30 speakers and requires speakers to sign up to do so before the board meeting. Sign up begins early in the morning when the school district office opens for business.

To make sure that opponents would get a chance to speak, Occupy Austin members on Sunday evening moved their occupation to the courtyard of the school board building to save a place for those wanting to oppose the privatization proposal.

When Occupy activists arrived to set up their campsite, they were told that they couldn’t camp out at the courtyard. Denied access, they decided to wait all night on the sidewalk outside of the building.

Just before dawn the Occupy activists and some members of Education Austin, the teachers union, moved to the courtyard to stand in line for the sign up. Before the sign up began, a group of people supporting the privatization effort showed up. They rushed the door and tried to push their way to the front of the line.

Occupy activists and teachers locked arms to hold their place in line. They succeeded. Meanwhile a representative of Education Austin met with a school district official, who agreed that those who had been waiting in line the longest would be given the first chance to sign up to speak.

Occupy activists lined up in front of the building holding placards designating the names of the parents, students, and teachers for whom they were holding a place in line. As the designated speakers arrived, Occupy activists relinquished their place.

Later that morning about 100 community opponents of the privatization plan rallied in front of Allan to hear two former school board presidents, Gus Garcia and Carole Strayhorn, denounce the school board for stifling debate on the privatization plan and to voice their own opposition to the plan.

That night more people showed up to demonstrate their opposition to the privatization plan. Outside of the auditorium where the meeting was taking place, opponents marched in a picket line chanting, “Vote No on IDEA.”

Hillary Procknow, a parent of children in the Austin school district told the demonstrators, “Independent data show that charter schools don’t perform any better than public schools.”

Occupy Austin Labor Magnet Snehal Shingavi told the demonstrators, we are here tonight because we want to change the priorities in Austin and the country. For too long, public institutions like school boards pay more attention to the wishes of the rich than they do those of working people. “When the Chamber of Commerce comes to the school board urging them to hire IDEA, they listen,” Shingavi said. “When the community says that they don’t want IDEA, the school board ignores us.”

“Whatever happens tonight, this has been a great day,” said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin to the demonstrators as the board meeting was about to convene. If we’re ever going to make public education serve the public, it’s going to take this kind of unity that we saw today.

Retirement Heist: A review

A plan by a group of Houston millionaires to eliminate traditional pension benefits for Texas’ public employees has begun to take shape. The Texas State Employees Union recently broadcast an outline of a proposal from an anti-public service policy organization for eliminating pensions for local and state government employees, public school teachers and other staff, and public higher education employees.

The proposal from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) puts on paper the ideas expressed by Houston financier Bill King, who the Austin American-Statesman reported plans a public relations campaign to eliminate public pensions in Texas. The report said that King and his millionaire friends would finance the campaign.

The TPPF proposal takes a path similar to the one that corporations took to undermine traditional pensions and retirement security for millions of workers in the private sector. Ellen Schultz maps this path in a book entitled Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Egg of American Workers.

In Retirement Heist, Schultz, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who has covered the pension crisis for more than a decade, describes strategies that corporate executives, financial firms, and various consultants used to loot the pension plans of their workers, which in most cases resulted in the demise of traditional defined benefit pensions.

TPPF proposes freezing pension benefits for public sector employees who are already vested in their pension, which, according to Schultz, was often the first step that corporations took toward eliminating traditional defined benefit pensions.

For example, IBM froze its pension benefits for older workers in 1991. During the decade that followed IBM extended the freeze and implemented a number of gimmicks that reduced benefits. By the end of the decade, Big Blue had transferred more than $200 million from retiree pensions to the corporate treasury. When IBM had done all that it could legally do to plunder workers’ traditional pension, it eliminated it altogether.

TPPF also proposes diverting new hires and employees with less than five years of public service away from traditional pensions and into 401(k)-type savings plans. The rationale for doing so, according to King is to reduce the financial burden of paying pensions to future retirees.

Shultz said that corporations like GE used a similar rationale. GE said that it was eliminating traditional pension benefits for new hires because pension payments were a drag on profits; however, when GE CEO JeffImmelt made this statement, GE’s pension plan was over funded and the corporation hadn’t contributed anything to it since the 1980s.

But by diverting new hires away from the traditional pension and into 401(k)-type savings accounts, GE was able, thanks to new accounting standards, to record paper profits that enhanced the company’s bottom line and produced nice bonuses for its top executives.

Those diverted into 401(k)-type plans, however, face a less than secure future. As Schultz puts it, the plans have “already proven to be failures for young and lower paid workers.” They aren’t such a good deal for middle-income workers. The Employees Benefit Research Institute estimates that 33 percent of workers with annual salaries in the range of $30,000 to $70,000 a year and only a 401(k)-type savings plan for retirement will run out of money within ten years of retirement.

This lack of security led the states of West Virgina and Nebraska to return to traditional pensions after experimenting with 401(k) type plans for their public sector workers.

The hardest thing about reading Schultz’s book is reading the stories of people who became the victims of the retirement heist. Some companies raided their pension fund by declaring bankruptcy and turning their pension obligation over to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation of the federal government. When Delta Airlines declared bankruptcy in 2005 and divested itself of its pension plan, retired pilot Dennis Waldron saw his pension reduced from $1,939 a month to $95 a month.

Schultz’s book is full of examples about how corporations with the help of financial firms and consultants set about to deliberately undermine traditional pensions by exaggerating their cost and covering up the impact that their so-called pension reforms would have on people’s lives. They succeeded, and it appears that their success has inspired those with an anti-public service agenda to do the same to public sector pensions.

Nurses stand up to corporate health care

http://platform.twitter.com/widgets/hub.htmlNational Nurses United recently announced actions by local affiliates aimed at improving patient care and resisting corporate attempts to reduce or eliminate employee benefits. In California, 6,000 Registered Nurses belonging to the California Nurses Association will conduct a one-day strike on December 22 against two corporate hospital chains.

On December 20, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association will demonstrate at the New York headquarters of Cerberus Capital Management to protest the private equity firm’s practices at hospitals it owns in Massachusetts that nurses say undercut patient care for the sake of profit.

The California nurses have been negotiating for new contracts with two hospitals in Long Beach, California owned by MemorialCare Health System. Management at the two hospitals, Long Beach Memorial and Miller Children’s Hospital, has resisted attempts by nurses to ensure that patient care is not compromised by understaffing. Currently, nurses say that staffing levels dip to unsafe levels when nurses take breaks or eat.

“When the hospital does not staff to provide meals and breaks for nurses, it is detrimental to patient care,” said Long Beach RN Allison Miller.  “Our patients require and deserve to have the continued care they expect from our hospital.”

Nurses also want the hospital to adhere to safety requirements involving the lifting of patients. According to NNU, management at the two hospitals has stalled in implementing new lift policies enacted recently by the state. The new lift policies protect the safety of patients and nurses alike.

The hospital chain, which describes itself as a non-profit but last reported $135.6 million in net income, also wants nurses to pay nearly $3,000 more in out-of-pocket expenses for their health care.

“Nurses are tired of having to fight everyday to protect their patients because of speed up and cost cutting measures,’ said Long Beach RN Margie Keenan.

The nurses at the two hospitals have been working without a contract since September 30 as they continue to negotiate a new one with management.

In Bay Area, 4,000 RNs have been working without a contract with eight hospitals owned by Sutter Health. Like the MemorialCare System, Sutter describes itself as a non-profit, but last year it had a net income of $875 million up 29 percent over the previous year’s net income of $677 million.

Despite Sutter’s healthy bottom line it demanded at least 200 concessions from the nurses when they began bargaining for a new contract including new work rules that would stifle the ability of RNs to advocate for their patients. Sutter also wants its RNs to pay more for their health care coverage.

“We told our management that we would pledge not to strike if they pledged to not put takeaways on the table,” said RN Rowena Modesto. “They would not make that commitment. They are the ones who are forcing us into this situation.  We must stick together to fight on behalf of our standards and our patients.”

Back East, RNs are standing up to Cerberus Capital Management which recently acquired ten hospitals in Massachusetts and more hospitals in Rhode Island and Florida. Operating as Steward Healthcare System, Cerberus is trying to back out of an agreement it has with nurses to protect their traditional defined benefits pension plan.

Nurses also charge that Cerberus has reduced patient care to pump up profits. “Specialty units for the care of specific conditions have been eliminated, staffing levels have been reduced, patients are treated like products on an assembly line and even the most basic supplies are not available when we need them. I mean, crackers and juice for diabetic patients are gone from the floors,” said Kathy Reardon, an RN at Steward Norwood.

Cerberus buys companies that it thinks are underperforming and tries to make them profitable again in order to sell the company at a premium. In 2007, it bought Chrysler, which in 2009 filed for bankruptcy and caused Cerberus to lose its 80 percent stake in the company.

Postal Service cuts on hold for now

The US Postal Service on December 13 announced that it will delay for five months the implementation of its plan to close postal facilities, eliminate 100,000 jobs, and increase mail delivery time.  The moratorium was requested by senators who want time to develop legislation that will address the problems that led to the Postal Service’s planned cuts.

Postal workers, local postmasters, and customers voiced strong opposition to the proposed cuts that would eliminate more than half of the postal services processing facilities and 4,500 mostly rural post offices. Postal unions gathered nearly one million signatures on a petition to Congress urging it to take action to save postal services.

“This is a victory for the American people and postal workers,” said Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “It is a direct result of the protests by postal employees, small business owners, and community leaders.”

But Guffey warned that the moratorium, which expires on May 15, is only a temporary reprieve. “Postal executives have made clear that they intend to proceed with studies and plans to close thousands of post offices and more than half of the nation’s mail processing centers.”

Responding to the organized effort to save postal services, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, drafted a letter to the Senate leadership calling for Congress to impose a moratorium on the closings. The letter, signed by 22 senators, was sent on December 9. The following Monday, US Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe met with 15 senators, including Sanders, to hear their concerns about Postal Service cuts. After the meeting, the Postal Service announced the moratorium.

The planned cuts were management’s way of dealing with the Postal Service’s financial shortfall. The shortfall is partially due to a decline in the amount of first-class mail, but just as important is an unusual 2006 congressional mandate requiring the Postal Service to within 10 years pre-fund retiree health care for the next 75 years.

The mandate forced the Postal Service to set aside about $5 billion a year to pre-fund retiree health care. According to consumer advocate Ralph Nader, setting aside the pre-payment aused the Postal Service’s shortfall, which over the last four years has totaled $19.5 billion. During that time, the Postal Service set aside nearly $21 billion to pre-pay retiree health care.

The Postal Service has also overpaid pension contributions into two federal pension plans. An independent audit estimates that  the Postal Service overpaid by $7 billion its contributions to the Federal Employee Retirement System and by $50 billion to $75 billion to the Civil Service Retirement System.

Sen. Sanders has also filed legislation, S 1853, that addresses the problems that caused the shortfall. The bill also seeks ways to expand postal services not cut them.

S 1853 allows the Postal Service to recover its pension plan overpayments and eliminates the retiree health plan pre-funding requirement, which is unique to the Postal Service since no other government entity or private corporation funds its retiree health plan this way.

It would also lift legislated prohibitions that keep the Postal Service from providing revenue generating services such as notary services, new media services, license issuance, contracting with state and local agencies to provide services, and shipping wine and beer. It also allows the Postal Service to provide services that mail systems in many other countries provide, including digital services. The bill also protects six-day mail delivery and requires strict standards for timely mail delivery.

Unlike Sanders’ bill, other bills that Congress is considering would cut and eliminate postal services. H.R. 2309, which was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, requires the Postal Service to make a minimum of $3 billion worth of cuts in post offices and mail processing facilities within two years.

S. 1789, which was approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, gives the Postal Service short-term financial relief but forces it to dismantle its retail and mail-processing network.

“Dismantling the Postal Service’s processing and distribution network will devastate mail service, damage the economy, and drive customers away,” Guffey said. “The Postal Service network is still a vital part of the nation’s infrastructure and destroying it will hurt, not help, the Postal Service.”

West Coast ports shut down as Occupy movement shifts focus

A number of West Coast ports were shut down on December 12 as the Occupy movement shifted its focus from occupying public space like parks to occupying public space that corporations use to turn a profit. Ports are public facilities that corporations like Stevedore Services of America (SSA) and EGT, a grain terminal operator, use to conduct their business.

Occupy movement activists said that the movement has targeted these two corporations for their anti-worker activity.  The port shut downs are designed to  hinder these corporations’ ability to do business and to disrupt business as usual for other 1 percenters who use the public ports for their private gain while waging “a one-sided class war against workers with the assistance of politicians from both parties,” said Boots Riley, an Occupy Oakland activist. “By shutting down (the) ports, we shut down the source of their profits.”

Occupy demonstrators picketed West Coast ports from San Diego to Vancouver, Canada. They successfully shut down ports in Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and Longview, Washington. Ports in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Long Beach, California were blocked for about an hour.

About 100 occupy activists demonstrated at the Port of Houston to show solidarity with the West Coast action. Twenty people were arrested at the peaceful gathering. The Houston Chronicle reports that those arrested were blocking traffic by laying down on a road leading to the port.

On the West Coast, thousands of occupy activists marched on the Port of Oakland Monday morning and set up a picket line at two terminals, one where SSA does business. SSA is owned by Carrix, which owns 11 port terminals along the Pacific Coast from Oakland to Chile. In 2007, Goldman Sachs purchased a 49 percent equity share in Carrix for $2.5 billion, most of which was borrowed from Citigroup and eight other banks.

SSA, the largest container cargo handling company in the US, in conjunction with other container cargo handling companies have been trying to prevent port truck drivers from organizing a union by misclassifying them as independent contractors when in fact they have very little independence. “Some of these mostly immigrant drivers work for as little as $30 a day,” Riley said.

“The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels,” said seven port truck drivers in an open letter about the port shut downs.

The Longview, Washington port was also shut down after occupy activists set up a picket. Longview is where EGT recently opened its high-tech grain terminal without hiring ILWU members to operate it. The ILWU, which demands strict safety protocols at grain terminals where its members work because of the safety hazards at these terminals, has been fighting for its members right to work at the EGT terminal.

EGT, which is owned by an international grain exporting cartel that includes the Bungee Corporation of North America, has resisted hiring ILWU members as required by its lease with the port and has even called out the police to break ILWU pickets near the grain terminal.

The ILWU international leadership has opposed the port shut downs. The union recently was sued by the Pacific Maritime Association for violating its contract with PMA after ILWU members walked off the job last spring to support public sector workers in Wisconsin who were under attack by Gov. Scott Walker.

ILWU “is not supporting the action at all,” said Craig Merrilees, ILWU communications director to the Guardian. “(Occupy organizers) have been very disrespectful of the democratic decision-making process in the union and deliberately went around that process to call their own action without consulting workers.”

But some ILWU activists like Clarence Thomas, an ILWU Local 10 member from Oakland, support the shut down.”The American working class is in a state of emergency,” said Thomas at a press conference announcing the planned shut down. “The sanctity of the contract must be subordinated to the needs of the community. The only time that working people receive any kind of concession is when we do something that costs the bosses money.”