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.”

Austin union members rally for jobs and help for the unemployed

A spirited group of about 70 union members and their supporters marched from Austin City Hall  to the downtown Chase Bank building where they rallied to urge Texas US Senator John Cornyn and other lawmakers to support the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, which extends unemployment benefits past the 26-week limit.

Without passage of this bill, 2.1 million unemployed workers, including 102,000 in Texas, by February will lose benefits that support them and their families while they look for work. More than 6.1 million will lose benefits by the end of 2012.

The march and rally was organized the Occupy Austin Labor Outreach Committee and endorsed by the Texas AFL-CIO and the Austin Central Labor Council. “We want good, union jobs that put people back to work,” said Snehal Shingavi, Occupy Austin labor magnet. “In the meantime, Congress needs to stop the cuts to unemployment benefits.”

“This is a humanitarian issue,” said Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. “If this law doesn’t pass, more people will slip into poverty,  more people will go hungry, and more people will spend winter without heat in their homes or on the street with no place to live.”

Finding work in the US has become much more difficult since the Great Recession began in 2007. There are about 6.5 million fewer jobs in the US than there were in 2007 and 4.1 unemployed workers for every available job in the US.

Testifying before the US Senate on December 8, Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project explained why extended unemployment benefits are needed. “The long-term unemployed can’t find jobs because the jobs aren’t there—not because they are not looking or are unwilling to accept pay cuts or relocate,” said Owens.

The lack of jobs is affecting people who have never been out of work for a long time. “I’ve been in the United States for 27 years and never been on unemployment before,” said Miguel Arellano through an English translator at the Austin rally. “I want to work, but the work is not there. If unemployment benefits are cut, it won’t be just workers who suffer, it will be our families too.”

While workers struggle to find work, banks like Chase Bank, where the demonstrators rallied, have done quite well. Chase is owned by JP Morgan Chase, the largest banking corporation in the US. In the first three-quarters of 2011, JP Morgan Chase reported net income of $15.3 billion. In 2010 it reported $17.4 billion in net income.

After the 2008 market crash, JP Morgan Chase received a $25 billion bailout from the US government, which it subsequently repaid with about $2 billion in interest.

Despite its flush bottom line and the assistance it received from US taxpayers to help it manage its own hard times, JP Morgan Chase has been slow to reciprocate the favor. USA Today reported recently that “(JP Morgan Chase) has been cited for rejecting people who were eligible for mortgage modifications three times (by the Treasury Department) since June.” Of the 290,000 people who have tried to work with the bank to modify their mortgages, fewer than half have been successful. The Treasury Department has subsequently refused to pay the subsidy that the bank was supposed to receive for helping people avoid foreclosure.

“The 1 percent like Chase make their profits off the pain of people in the US and all over the world,” Shingavi said.  They have taken away our jobs, cut out health care, looted our pensions, foreclosed on our homes, and their representatives in Congress now want to take away people’s unemployment benefits.

While the December 31 deadline for HR 3346 draws near, Senator Cornyn’s Republican colleagues in the House continue to block passage of the bill.  

The do-nothing Republicans in Congress continue to block anything that will create jobs and get our country back on track, and now they are shrugging their shoulders and holding up important legislation to help the jobless,” said Gerald W. McEntee, AFSCME president in a statement made in Washington DC.

Take Back the Capitol shuts down K Street, demands jobs and new priorities

More than 1,000 people On December 7 converged on K Street, the home of lobbyists who represent corporations from all over the world in Washington DC. They were demanding a new set of priorities for the US–priorities that address the needs of the 99 percent, such as jobs, health care, and protection from corporations that cut benefits and wages for workers while spending lavishly on executive compensation and dodging their responsibilities to the public.

“We are unstoppable; another world is possible,” chanted some of the demonstrators as they blocked traffic and shut down K Street for more than an hour. More than 60 people, who refused to leave K Street after they were ordered onto the sidewalk, were arrested.

Demonstrators targeted the lobbying offices of corporations that pay more for executive compensation and lobbying efforts than they do in taxes. Verizon was one of their targets. Demonstrators chanted, “Shame on Verizon, pay your fair share.”

Verizon, whose effective tax rate over the last three years according to Citizens for Tax Justice has been -2.9 percent, received a 2010 federal tax refund of $705 million. During the same year, it paid its now-retired CEO Ivan Seidenberg $18.1 million.

Verizon, however, has been much less generous with its workers. Verizon is seeking to cut its union workers’ health care and pension benefit and outsource more of their work.

In 2004, Verizon and other corporations received a tax holiday that allowed to repatriate funds that they were holding overseas without paying taxes. For Verizon, the tax holdiay meant that it didn’t have to pay taxes on $2.2 billion. The rationale for the tax holiday was that corporations would use the money that they brought back to the US to create more jobs. Since then, Verizon has laid off 39,000 workers.

Other targets included General Electric and the American Bankers Association.

The K Street demonstration was one of the events that are part of the Take Back the Capitol week of action, organized by a group of labor and community organizations. On Tuesday, hundreds of people who came from all parts of the US went to the Capitol to press their case for Congress to support a jobs bill that puts people back to work.

People also talked to Members of Congress about the need to maintain Medicaid and Medicare funding and to give distressed homeowners foreclosure relief. They were angry that Wall Street bankers who profited from the housing bubble that they created were bailed out by the federal government when the bubble burst, but workers like themselves, who lost jobs, health care benefits, and sometimes their homes as a result of the recession that followed, have received no such comparable help.

A group of about 20 workers lined up outside the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Tuesday. They had come from California to urge him to support President Obama’s jobs bill and other legislation designed to help the 99 percent, but Rep. Issa refused to see them.

When asked why she had come to see Rep. Issa, Tami Orr, Vice-Chair of California United Homecare Workers in Shasta County, said that she wanted to tell Rep. Issa about the recent 20 percent cut to funding for home care services for the state’s elderly and disabled. Reduced funding for this vital service is the result of state budget cuts, some of which can be avoided if Congress passes the jobs bill proposed by the President.

Mariana Anaya said that she wanted Rep. Issa to know about the struggle she went through to hold on to her house. Anaya, a single parent, used up all the money in her 401(k) account to keep her house. She tried to get the bank to agree to a mortgage modification, but the bank stalled until there was no more money left in her savings account and then foreclosed on her.

Martha Rodriguez, an eligibility worker who helps people in need get help, said that her caseload has grown as more people are out of work. Many of her clients are immigrants who came to this country to work, but there aren’t enough jobs. “These people need jobs,” Rodriguez said. “They’re seeking public assistance not because they want to but because they have to.”

Upper Big Branch settlement results in financial penalty but no criminal charges

The US Justice Department on December 6 announced that it reached a settlement agreement with Alpha Natural Resources of Virginia in which the corporation agrees to pay $209 million to clear itself of further responsibility for the deaths of 29 miners who died in the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) on the same day issued a final report on the explosion saying that the explosion that killed the miners was “entirely preventable” and that the company “promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety.”

Upper Big Branch at the time of the explosion was operated by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, which since then has been acquired by Alpha Natural Resources. Massey has subsequently changed its name to Alpha Appalachia Holdings.

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called the settlement “a mixed bag.” Part of the settlement requires Alpha to invest $80 million in safety improvements in all of its underground mines. It also requires the company to pay  families of the dead miners and two miners injured in the explosion $1.5 million each for a total of $46.5 million.

Roberts called the investment in safety improvements a good first step  and noted that the settlement requires the company to report implementation progress to the US Attorney’s Office.  He said the reporting requirement was welcomed news “as long as the reporting duty has some teeth, so that corporate leaders are personally held accountable in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

He also said that he was glad that those who lost loved ones or were injured in the blast will receive some financial help toward meeting their ongoing financial burdens caused by the explosion and that the settlement allows them to pursue litigation against the company.

But Roberts said that he was disappointed that no criminal prosecution resulted from the investigations conducted by the MSHA and the US Attorney’s Office; furthermore, the settlement absolves the corporation of any criminal responsibility for the explosion.

“I must  say that we are very disappointed that the settlement apparently  includes a ‘non-prosecution’ clause, which means that neither Massey nor  Alpha admit to any criminal wrongdoing, and the US Attorney has agreed  not to pursue criminal charges against them,” Roberts said.

He noted that the agreement does not preclude charges from being filed against individuals who violated the law while working for Massey. “We remain hopeful that responsibility will be placed where it belongs–on upper level management at Massey who created the safety-last culture at the company,” Roberts said. “Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here.”

The report by the MSHA finds that the explosion was caused by a dust explosion that started as a methane gas ignition. “The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at Upper Big Branch, and were entirely preventable,” reads the report. The report cites lack of equipment repair, poor ventilation, and the lack of safety work that would have prevented the dust buildup.

The report goes on to say that Massey “promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.” Massey also used the threat of retaliation to prevent workers from reporting unsafe conditions to MSHA or the state mine safety office.

After learning of the settlement, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard issued a statement saying that the $209 million settlement was “a significant step by the US government,” but that criminal charges need to be pursued.

“Executives, who personally profit from violating safety regulations, must be held criminally liable,” Gerard said. “Any executive who decides lining his pockets and those of shareholders is more important than the life and limbs of workers must be held to account criminally.”

Gerard said that the US should follow the example of Canada, which after a deadly mine explosion in 2003 passed a law known as the Westray law that holds corporations, their executives, and their directors criminally liable for negligence causing worker deaths. “The United States needs a Westray law because decisions to disregard safety regulations come from the top,” Gerard said.

Cooling-off period extensions avert rail strike

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the Teamsters (BMWED) announced on December 2 that it reached an agreement with the National Carriers Conference Committee (NCCC) to extend a 30-day cooling-off period implemented in November and set to expire on December 6. As a result, a nationwide rail strike that could have begun on December 6 will not take place.

Two other railroad unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the American Train Dispatchers Association on December 1 announced that they reached tentative agreements on contracts with the NCCC, which represents more than 30 rail freight carriers in the US. Nine other unions reached tentative agreements in mid-November shortly after a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) appointed by President Obama recommended terms to settle a two-year contract dispute between 12 rail unions and US rail freight carriers.

BMWED President Freddie Simpson said that its agreement with NCCC would extend the cooling-off period, required by the Railway Labor Act after a PEB announces its recommendations, until February 10, giving the union more time to negotiate a settlement that includes an increase in away-from-home expenses for members who travel on railway business.

“The BMWED did not take this action because it was afraid to strike,” Simpson said. “We took this action because we believe it gives our members the best opportunity to resolve this issue quickly and fairly and avoid an interruption to commerce and avoid a wage loss to our members and other union members who would honor our picket lines.”

Simpson also said that an increase in away-from-home expenses was essential for a fair settlement of the contract dispute because there has been no away-from-home expense adjustment for 15 years. Local BMWED bargaining committees will reach out to various railroads no later than January 9 to begin bargaining directly with them on this issue. If the issue cannot be resolved by the end of the cooling-off period, the union will take the next appropriate action.  BMWED represents 35,000 workers who build, maintain, and repair rail tracks, buildings, bridges, and equipment,

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the American Train Dispatchers Association said that they had resolved issues concerning changes to their health care benefit and would send the tentative agreement to members for a ratification vote.

Dennis Pierce, president of BLET, said that his union, the dispatchers’ union, and the NCCC had agreed to extend the cooling-off period so that members could vote on ratification.

Pierce said that the tentative agreement includes the PEB health care benefit recommendations that closely mirror concessions  that the NCCC wanted and that the United Transportation Union agreed to in June. Back then, BMWED estimated that the health care concessions sought by the NCCC will shift $77 a month worth of health costs from the carriers to rail workers. Moreover, the concessions shift even greater costs onto workers who either have health problems themselves or who have family members with health problems.

Pierce said that he was reluctant to accept this change because some of his members had agreed to local wage settlements based on the assumption that their health care costs would not increase.

However, he decided not to issue a strike order and, instead, to allow members to vote on the tentative agreement because he thought that if a strike occurred, Congress would impose a settlement that would be worse than the tentative agreement. House Republicans had already introduced a resolution to impose a settlement and Senate Democrats and Republicans had initiated similar action.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the authority with president’s concurrence to halt strikes in transportation labor disputes. In April 1991, the last time rail workers struck, Congress, which at that time was controlled by Democrats, halted the strike after less than a day and authorized President George H.W. Bush to appoint a three-member panel to impose a settlement, which the panel did in June. Unions complained that the imposed settlement favored the carriers.

American Airlines files bankruptcy to reduce labor costs

After being unable to reach an agreement with its pilots’ union during contract talks, AMR, the parent company of American Airlines and American Eagle, on November 29 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court.

“(AMR’s action) is not a defensive move, but an offensive bankruptcy where they go after their labor groups to reduce costs,” said Avondale Partners airline analyst Bob McAdoo to the New York Times. “They have a great franchise and lots of cash. They have a cost structure that they want to tackle here.”

“The federal bankruptcy courts are being used to bail out a failed management strategy for a company with lots of money in the bank,” said James C. Little, president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents American and American Eagle workers who maintain, repair, and service the airlines’ fleets.

The Allied Pilots Association has been in contract negotiations with AMR since 2008. The talks are being mediated by the National Mediation Board. Back in 2003, the pilots and AMR’s other unions, TWU, the Association of Professional Flight Attedants (which represents flight attendants at American Airlines) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (which represents flight attendants at American Eagle), agreed to big concessions to help the company recover from the steep decline in air travel resulting from the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC. For some pilots, the concessions meant that their pay rates declined by 33 percent.

The pilots were trying to regain some of the ground they lost in 2003, but the company, which was seeking to cut labor costs by $800 million, offered two options that fell far short of what the pilots were seeking.  AMR’s offer also did not address concerns about AMR’s plan to outsource some work at American.

The APA board voted 17 to 1 not to submit the company’s proposal to members for ratification. After rejecting the offer, APA wrote a letter to AMR saying that the union wanted to continue negotiating for a fair settlement, but the company filed for bankruptcy instead.

Despite filing for bankruptcy, AMR is hardly destitute. It has $4.1 billion in cash and cash-like assets on hand. The company has also been generous to its top executives. The Fort Worth Telegram reports that compensation packages for AMR’s top executives are ten times their base pay.

Back in 2009, top executives received bonuses worth $6.5 million even though the company lost $375 million. APA at the time estimated that in the previous four years, executive bonuses totaled $300 million.

Shortly after announcing the bankruptcy filing, former AMR CEO Gerald Arpey announced that he was resigning and left with pension benefits worth $4.7 million.

In a report on AMR’s financial health before the bankruptcy filling, Gimme Credit analyst Vicki Bryan wrote that “the main culprit (for AMR’s financial troubles)  has not been AMR’s labor costs. It was spiking fuel  expense, which is up 187 percent from $2.8 billion per year in 2003 to the  current $7.96 billion.”

American has an aging fleet of airplanes that are not fuel-efficient. The company only recently has taken steps to replace its older stock with more fuel-efficient new airplanes.

In filing for bankruptcy, AMR may be following the lead of its competitors including United Continental, Delta, and US Airways all of which used bankruptcy as a vehicle for shedding their traditional pension plans. If the bankruptcy court agrees, AMR could unload its four traditional pension plans onto the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency.

If that happens, PBGC Director Josh Gotbaum estimates that “American Airlines employees could lose a billion dollars in pension benefits promised by their employer. Unfortunately, when the (PBGC) assumed (other) airline (pension) plans, many people’s pension plans were cut, in some cases dramatically,” Gotbaum said.

All four unions representing AMR workers said that they will play an active role in the bankruptcy proceedings to protect members benefits and jobs. TWU President Little said that “our union will fight hard to make sure that front line workers don’t pay an unfair price for management’s failings.”

Vera Shook, AFA-CWA president said, “AFA will continue to defend the jobs, pay and benefits for the over 1,500 flight attendants at American Eagle. . . .  Today’s filing does not change pay, benefits or working conditions for flight attendants as their contract remains intact.”

APFA annonced that it has scheduled base visits to provide members with information about the bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports that APA is close to hiring Lazard Ltd, a financial advisory firm, to negotiate on its behalf during the bankruptcy proceedings.

IAM and Boeing reach surprise tentative agreement

IAM District 751  on November 30 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with Boeing on a new contract. Members will begin voting on the agreement next week. The agreement, which came as a surprise, includes what the IAM negotiating team calls “an unprecedented commitment” to job security by the company for workers in the Puget Sound area of the State of Washington and Portland, Oregon.

The negotiating team also said that the pact will require members to pay higher out-of-pocket health care expenses, but it preserves the defined benefits pension plan for current workers and new hires, increases pension payments, and protects medical benefits for retirees.

Negotiations on the new contract began in October when Boeing officials contacted union leaders and asked them to talk about issues that were going to come up when negotiations for a new contract begin in 2012. During the talks, the company asked if the union would be willing to extend the current contract with some important changes.

After the initial talks, the union agreed to discuss a contract extension, and the talks proceeded in secret. The union negotiating team explained that the secret talks were necessary because “in the past, we’ve gone through negotiations with media, politicians, and bloggers second-guessing our moves and trying to determine the outcome while we work against a looming deadline. To make a big public splash this time would have undermined what we were doing and would have gone against the reasons why we agreed to meet with the company in the first place.”

As a result of the new agreement, which if ratified will expire in 2016, Boeing agrees that all of the work on its new 737 MAX airliner will be done in the Puget Sound area and Portland. The 737 MAX is the latest version of the 737, which has become the airline industry’s most widely used single-aisle passenger jet. Boeing currently has commitments from airlines to purchase more than 700 new 737 MAXes, which will come into service in 2017.

Work on other Boeing airplanes currently performed by union labor in the Puget Sound and Portland will continue, and new work may be transferred to the plants.

When the plants that build the 737 MAX are fully staffed, there will be about 20,000 workers employed building the jet, which the IAM estimates will pump $5.5 billion of related economic activity into the communities near the plants.

The airplane itself will be built at Boeing’s Renton, Washington plant. Boeing plants in Portland, Oregon and in the Puget Sound that build parts for the current 737 will build parts for the 737 MAX. Boeing also agreed to phase out outsourced work done by contractors that inspect supplier parts.

For the most part, the union avoided making concessions, but it did agree to higher out-of-pocket health care expenses for members. Union members will still have access to a number of health care options, but in general their deductibles will increase as will their monthly premium payment. If a generic drug is available, workers will pay the difference between the cost of a generic and non-generic drug.

The company agreed to increase monthly pension payments. Starting in 2013, the formula for calculating pensions increases from $83 times years of service, to $85 and continues to increase by $2 a year until 2016. In the past, Boeing tried to exclude new hires from the defined benefits plan, which pays a guaranteed monthly amount for the life of a retiree. The new agreement keeps new hires in the defined benefits plan.

Workers also will get a 2 percent pay raise each year of the contract, quarterly cost-of-living adjustments will continue at the same rate, workers will be eligible for incentive payments that could raise pay by as much as 2 percent to 4 percent of yearly gross earnings, and they will receive a $5,000 signing bonus.

Boeing’s and IAM’s relationship has often been contentious. A two-month strike in 2008 created widespread industrial disruption. The union alleges that the strike led Boeing to relocate some work on its 787 Dreamliner to a non-union plant in South Carolina.

The union subsequently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging that the move was made by Boeing to retaliate against the union for the strike. The NLRB heard testimony on the charge this summer. After the tentative agreement was reached, the union said that it would ask the NLRB to drop the charges.

Two million UK public sector workers strike

Two million public sector workers in the United Kingdom walked off their jobs on November 30 to protest government plans to reduce their pensions and take home pay. Morning Star called the mass action “the strongest show of union strength in a generation.” Thirty unions took part in the historic one-day strike that included teachers, health care workers, social workers, care givers, police staff, and many other public sector workers.

“The government is carrying out a massive raid on pensions, which is a reflection of its unrelenting mismanagement of the economy,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), one of the unions supporting the strike.

“Working people are being asked to pay for the economic mess caused by the greedy City elite whose behavior this spineless government has repeatedly failed to tackle,” said UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey.

“The living standards of millions of low- and medium-paid public service workers are being hammered in the name of reducing the deficit,” said Brendan Barber, president of the Trade Union Congress, which coordinated the strike.

Barber added that the British government has done little to make the bankers who caused the crisis that led to the deficit pay their fair share to reduce it.

The proposed pension and pay cuts are part of the government’s austerity program. Among other things, the government wants workers making 15,000 pounds (US$21,105) or less to contribute 3.2 percent more for their pension, which amounts to a cut in take-home pay.

Barber says that higher worker pension contributions won’t go toward improving the fiscal soundness of the pension fund; instead, they will be used to reduce the deficit. While the government is demanding more money from its workers, it decided not to tax banker bonuses.

“This is really just another way of making public sector workers pay for the bankers’ recession (which caused the deficit), said Phil Mason, a local leader of UNISON, another union participating in the strike.

The proposal to increase worker pension contributions comes at a time when public sector wages have been frozen for three years. “Our members are on a three-year pay freeze and people are not going to be able to afford to pay more for their pensions,” said Jane Health, a UNISON branch secretary in Staffordshire.

In addition to raising worker pension contributions, the government is also proposing that the age for drawing a full pension be increased over a period of time to 66 years old, then to 67 years old, and finally to 68 years old for those 40 years old or younger.

The government also proposes that the formula for calculating pensions be changed so that future pension payments are lower. It also wants to change the way the cost-of-living increases are measured, which will lower future cost-of-living adjustments to workers’ pensions.

Despite news reports to the contrary, public sector pensions for the most part are already quite low. “Let’s nail the lies that are peddled about public service pensions,” Barber said. “They are not gold-plated. Half of public service pensions in payment today are less than 5,600 pounds (US$6,200) a year. In local government, half of pensioners get less than 3,000 pounds (US$4,120).”

Furthermore, public sector workers agreed to changes five years ago that helped stabilize the pension fund. “(Public pensions) are not unsustainable or unaffordable. Big changes were accepted only five years ago to reduce the cost,” said Barber.

“As the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and even Lord Hutton in his report have shown, the costs – as a share of our national wealth – are actually set to fall over coming decades, not to increase. There is no justification either for the higher contributions demanded by the Chancellor. If you need to raise extra money what about tackling the 10 billion pounds given out each year in pensions tax relief for the richest one per cent of the population?”

Union leaders said that government austerity proposals to reduce pensions and pay coupled with the layoffs of thousands of public sector workers is part of government effort to weaken the public sector and reduce services. “Suffering and misery are the price the government wants us to pay–this is an all out attack on public services,” Serwotka said.