400 arrested as Occupy Oakland tries to reclaim unused public space

When auto workers in 1937 needed a tactical advantage to advance their fight for a more fair, just, and equitable workplace, they occupied the GM Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint, Michigan. They called their occupation a sit-down strike. Seventy-five years later when Occupy Oakland activists needed permanent space where they could meet, plan, and coordinate their fight for a more fair, just, and equitable society, they decided to occupy an unused public building that had fallen into disrepair. They called their planned occupation a move-in.

They selected the Oakland Convention Center, which had been closed since 2006, to be the site of their move-in and invited supporters to join them on January 28. Their first order of business, said their move-in announcement, would be to clean the building and make it ready to serve as meeting center and work area for the Occupy movement.

They viewed their move-in as a reclamation project that would result in the rehabilitation of a structure that the City of Oakland’s Budget Office called “a blighting influence” on the surrounding neighborhood. The revitalized structure would also serve as a base of operations for their campaign for good jobs, decent education opportunities, and a government responsive to the needs of the 99 percent, not the 1 percent.

They planned to celebrate their move-in with a two-day festival, but their plans never happened; instead, move-in participants found themselves in the middle of a one-sided brawl with police officers, who used tear gas, stun guns, and riot-control batons to break up the move-in before it got started, leading Occupy Oakland to ask, “With all the problems in our city, should preventing activists from putting a vacant building to better use be (city official’s) highest priority?”

The move-in began early Saturday afternoon when about 800 people gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza and began marching to the Convention Center.

The Convention Center was chosen because it had a long history as a public gathering place for Oakland’s residents dating back to the early 20th century. Operas, ballets, basketball games, Grateful Dead concerts and thousands of other public events had taken place at the city-owned building.

But in 2006, then-Mayor Jerry Brown decided to shut the building down. Douglas Allen-Taylor writing in the Berkeley Daily Planet speculates that Mayor Brown may have closed the venerable building in hopes of selling the property to real estate developers. That never happened, and the building was allowed to decay.

Mayor Jean Quan in 2011 struck a deal with the city’s Redevelopment Agency to buy the property and seek proposals for developing it. The East Bay Express reported that Quan planned to use the sale proceeds to make debt payments to bond holders.

Clearly Mayor Quan was not about to let the move-in take place, and police set up blockades to intercept the marchers as they left the plaza. Marchers, however, evaded the blockades, arrived at the Convention Center, and began tearing down a chain link fence surrounding it.

Police pushed the marchers back, and a skirmish broke out. Police fired tear gas and what the Guardian described as “crowd control weapons” at the marchers, some of whom responded with rocks and bottles.

The marchers regrouped at Oscar Grant Plaza and decided to try to occupy an alternative site, the foreclosed Traveler’s Aid Building in downtown Oakland.

Once again police blocked their way. This time, the police maneuvered the marchers into a dead-end and ordered them to disperse. The only problem was that the exits were blocked and there was no way to disperse. The police with their riot batons raised began closing in on the marchers swinging their clubs when they met resistance.

When it was all over 400 people, including six journalists, were arrested. Occupy Oakland has sent out a request for donations to help people make bail.

On the Monday after the arrests, Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly  announced that February 6, the day when arraignments for those arrested will begin, will  be day of action to show solidarity with those arrested. February 6 will also give Occupy a chance to set the record straight about the police actions that led to the arrests.

“Occupy Oakland has yet to have a chance to present our side of the facts in court,” reads a statement from Occupy Oakland. “Feb. 6th will be Occupy Oakland’s day for that.  It will be the first time that lawyers working with Occupy will be able to argue against the repressive tactics used by the Oakland Police Department and present evidence of (their) unlawful activities and arrests.”

Brooklyn Cablevision workers vote “yes” for union

In what could turn out to be a ground breaking event, Brooklyn Cablevision workers last week voted to join CWA Local 1109. The cable industry is largely unorganized, and Cablevision conducted an aggressive anti-union campaign to keep it that way, but when all the votes were counted, 67 percent of those voting voted “yes” for the union.

“I’ve waited 13 years for this,” said Cablevision technician Clarence Adams.  “United, as members of Communications Workers of America, we now have the power to negotiate a fair contract that will give us the dignity and respect on the job we deserve.”

The union campaign began last fall when workers contacted CWA and asked for help in organizing a union. One of the first orders of business was to create an in-house organizing committee that could conduct a worker-to-worker organizing drive on the job.

Once Cablevision, which reported $361 million in profits for 2010 but didn’t pay federal income taxes, found out about the organizing drive, it hired the union avoidance firm of Jackson Lewis and began holding mandatory meetings at which company representatives said that the union was corrupt and only wanted workers’ dues.

Some workers started wearing red CWA bracelets to work as a sign of their support for the union and to show solidarity with each other. Cablevision managers soon started paying close attention to them.

Union supporters say that they were denied overtime; others say that they were harassed in other ways.  Steve Ashurst told the New York Daily News that we was threatened with demotion from his job of training new hires for supporting the union. “I saw it as vindictive,” Ashurst said. “I saw it as retaliation for my stance.”

But the workers fought back with an aggressive campaign of their own aimed at building worker confidence in their ability to take on the cable giant. To counter the mandatory anti-union staff meetings, the union proposed an open debate between the company and union representatives.

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio agreed to host the event, which was scheduled to take place on January 11. When Cablevision workers arrived at the debate to hear both sides of the story, they found the seat that was supposed to be occupied by the company representative vacant.

De Blasio told those present, including union representatives sitting to his left, who were prepared to debate the merits of unionization, that he was sorry that Cablevision chose not to participate and called their decision a mistake.

On Martin Luther King Day, CWA and Cablevision workers held a rally at Madison Square Garden, where Cablevision owner James Dolan, who also owns the New York Knicks of the NBA, has an office. At the rally, local elected officials and community leaders addressed the crowd urging Cablevision to back off its anti-union efforts.

At one of the public meetings held by the union, the Reverend Al Sharpton referred to the legacy of King who died supporting the right of workers to join a union. “Dr. King fought side by side with workers, raising his voice in unity with theirs. We need to stand with the Cablevision 99 percent as they seek the opportunity to vote for a union in an intimidation- and harassment-free environment.”

The organizing drive was sparked by a number of grievances by the largely African-American and Caribbean workers. They cited arbitrary discipline, management favoritism, inadequate health care, and a 401(k) savings plan that didn’t provide a secure retirement.

But most of all they complained about the low pay, which on the average is about one-third less than the pay of a CWA member at Verizon. “We need a living wage so we can take care of our families,” said a Cablevision worker named Jerome to Labor Press, which didn’t give his last name. “We shouldn’t face a horrible choice between paying the oil bill or buying our children’s medicine.”

While Cablevision workers were having trouble paying their bills, Cablevision paid departing Chief Operations Officer Tom Rutledge $28 million in 2010.

“Let America know, let big corporations know that we’re not going to stand for it anymore,” said Cablevision worker Lawrence Hendrickson before the election took place.  “We’re tired of their greed, we’re tired of their taking everything and giving us nothing. It’s time for us to stand up for our families and loved ones and to take back what’s ours”

As hospitals cut back on staffing patient care/safety put at risk

Submitted by Pancho Valdez

“Constant attention by a good nurse may be just as important as a major operation by a surgeon.” – Dag Hammarskjold, Second Secretary-General of the U.N., 7/29/05- 9/18/61

A major concern for both patients and health care professionals is the safety and quality of care provided in our nation’s hospitals. An issue that draw attention to that concern is the practice of hospital administrators cutting back on the number of RNs on duty at any given shift or unit in attempt to reduce costs.

Hospital management defends these practices with statements such as; “We are conscious of both patient safety and the need to reduce costs in health care.” But what most hospital administrators are reluctant to talk about is the growing concern by registered nurses (RN) with work overload that puts patients’ care and lives at risk.

Another issue ignored by hospital administrators is the notion that hospitals must show worker “productivity” to justify expenses. Almost as if our hospitals are now being run as assembly lines rather than places for the ill and injured to go to heal.

Andrew Sivac was an RN for 34 years, 20 of which he served at University Hospital (UH), a Bexar County (San Antonio) operated health care facility in the South Texas Medical Center.

Sivac stated that at UH the units are staffed by numbers over acuity, the level of care needed by individual patients or the degree of their conditions. He worked at the Medical Coronary Intensive Care Unit where a safe staff to patient ratio would be between one to one or one to two,  depending on the individual patient’s acuity.

Sivac said that there were many times that the unit nurses were working one to three, sometimes one to four ratios. When he and others would express their concern to the Unit Manager it was not unusual for her to begin yelling that she was “following her boss’ orders and so will her nurses!” Sivac remembers her stating one time that she expected “blind obedience from her staff.”

In order to be able to provide adequate (and sometimes inadequate care) nurses seldom take the 15 minute break that is supposedly available. UH policy is that these breaks are to be taken, IF work loads allow! Sivac says that 95-100 percent of the time, patient acuity does not permit this and the end result is that patient care suffers as nurses work exhausted and often forced to take “short cut measures” to address the patient’s needs.

He cited an example of patients who are either asleep or unconscious being restrained both by physical and chemical means in order to avoid the patient awakening agitated and possibly pulling out IVs and other needed tubing.

The sedative Porpofal is frequently given and patients are often “over sedated.” This results in patients not being turned as needed to prevent skin break downs and not being changed in the event of being incontinent of either bowel or bladder.

Rectal “pouches” are commonly used to address patients with loose stool. These pouches are attached to the patient’s rectum and buttocks with adhesive made from Benzoin resin. The adhesive can be irritating to the patient’s skin and the pouch does not prevent spillage of stool onto the skin or the patient’s bed.

Sivac said that nurses do not like to take these measures but see no other alternative so long as hospital management remains fixated on reducing labor costs.

Another fact that most hospital management don’t want made public is that Unit Managers along with hospital administrators are given bonuses for keeping costs to a minimum. This practice does not sit well with nurses who must depend on the whims of their supervisors to receive a pay raise and who are ethically concerned about the quality of care their patients receive over the issue of cost reduction done at both their expense and that of the patients.

When confronted by these concerns, University Hospital management lays the blame on the findings of outside time study consultants who Sivac says aren’t nurses and always find a way to squeeze more work out of the nurses with less and less staff. Given the fact that these “experts” are hired by UHS management, the practice of under staffing must lie with management according to Sivac and another nurse who works at University Hospital, but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Speaking to nurses employed at the Baptist Health Care System this writer learned that they are working under similar conditions for similar reasons. “Hospital management prioritizes cost reduction over quality patient care according to Betty and Alice, two nurses I interviewed who asked that their real names not be used to protect their identity for fear of retaliation.

They emphasized that at the North Central Baptist Hospital where they work the hospital CEO expressed anger over an increase in calls from NCBH RNs to the state Safe Harbor call line and threatened disciplinary action if the calls were deemed by the peer review committee “not being done in good faith.”

According to the Texas Board of Nursing, nurses are not to be retaliated against for making use of the Safe Harbor program. The Safe Harbor is part of the State Board of Nursing, but the peer review committee is composed of nurses employed at the hospital in question.

Andrew Sivac, the nurse who chose to remain anonymous, and Betty all agreed that the Safe Harbor program looks good on paper, but is rendered meaningless by the fact that the peer review committees are made up of supervisors and the required 50 percent of floor nurses are usually those friendly to management or who have ambitions of becoming management themselves.

Sivac feels strongly that the only real solution to this problem is for nurses to organize into a strong union. “Unfortunately UHS nurses are public employees with no legal right to collective bargaining or striking.

Nurses in the private sector are hesitant to organize because of the weak enforcement of federal labor relations laws that are supposed to “protect” workers right to join and form unions. In California, the National Nurses Organizing Committee pushed for and saw legislation passed that mandated stringent nurse to patient ratios.

Now in California there is no longer a “nurses shortage” as RNs feel secure enough to work in hospitals without putting their patient’s lives and their professional licenses on the line.

Sivac went on to say; “I am so glad that I am now retired. Thirty-four years of tolerating abuse, under staffing, being under paid and unappreciated was enough!”

Betty and the other RN are relatively young, but expressed their uncertainty of their future in nursing. “I love being a nurse, but my sanity, my license and my patients’ safety doesn’t appear to be of any concern to the hospital’s management. It is not a pleasant situation for nurses in San Antonio or Texas for that matter,” said Betty. This sentiment was echoed by both Alice and the anonymous nurse.

Refinery workers demand safety improvements in new contract

United Steelworkers Union Local 5 members rallied last week at the Chevron headquarters in San Ramon, California demanding that Chevron and other oil companies address workers’ health and safety concerns as the USW and oil companies continue to bargain over a new national pattern setting contract.

The 30,000 oil refinery workers represented by USW made health and safety improvements a priority for the negotiations, which began in January; the current contract expires February 1.

The reason that health and safety are such big issues for refinery workers can be seen 24 miles northwest of San Ramon in the city of Richmond, the home of a Chevron refinery where Local 5 members work and where last November a fire sent one worker to the hospital.  (According to Reuters, oil speculators were relieved that the fire didn’t disrupt production and cause oil prices to drastically fluctuate.)

The Richmond fire was one of more than 130 refinery fires at US refineries since 2009 when oil companies refused to include comprehensive safety measures in the current national pattern agreement.

Since then, 18 US oil refinery workers have perished in on-the-job accidents, including five who died in a 2010 fire and explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington. Dozens more have suffered catastrophic injuries, and many others have sustained serious injuries or debilitating health conditions because of their work.

The danger isn’t confined to refinery workers. People living in communities like Richmond are at risk too. The danger is so acute that Richmond has 17 alarm sirens to warn residents of toxic chemical releases from place like the Chevron refinery where in 2007 a fire sent sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas also found in erupting volcanoes, spewing into the atmosphere. The accident resulted in local officials issuing a warning for residents to stay inside. The warning lasted three hours.

“When these companies operate oil refineries unsafely, everybody’s at risk,” said BK White, Local 5 unit chairman. “We know that a serious explosion at one of these facilities could devastate an entire community.”

The demonstration at the Chevron headquarters was one of the actions that USW members took last week in 20 communities in California, Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah to raise public awareness of their fight for safety at the nation’s refineries.

Union members want their new contract to include language that gives them the right to stop unsafe work, ensures safe staffing levels, provides for timely inspection and maintenance of equipment, and authorizes union safety representatives to work with companies to spot and reduce hazards.

Including these and other safety measures in the contract wouldn’t cost oil companies much in terms of dollars and cents; nor would it increase the cost of gasoline because work at refineries accounts for only a small portion of the cost of gasoline, about three cents a gallon, according to USW.

But including the safety demands in the contract would cost the company something in terms of their complete control of the production process, which they seem reluctant to give up even if doing so might improve safety for workers and the surrounding community.

But USW members appear to be determined to gain some control over working conditions that affect their health, safety, and their very lives. “We must have meaningful and enforceable safety provisions if we are going to save lives, and we are prepared to strike if necessary,” said Gary Beevers, USW international vice-president, who heads the union’s oil bargaining program.

We think a fight is senseless, extremely unnecessary and it’ll hurt everybody involved. All it would take to avoid a strike would be for the industry to say, ‘Yes, we agree with you about the seriousness of this situation. We want to partner with you to make these facilities safer,'” Beevers said.

“I’ve been to a lot of memorial services in my career, but I’ve never been to one for a CEO,” he added.

Tentative settlement reached in ILWU, EGT dispute

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and EGT, a multi-national grain exporter, on Monday reached a tentative settlement of a dispute over the union’s member’s right to work at the company’s new, state-of-the-art grain terminal in Longview, Washington.

Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, who brought the two sides together to negotiate the dispute, announced the tentative settlement but did not provide specific terms of the agreement because talks regarding its details are ongoing.

Nevertheless, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath seemed pleased with the outcome. “This is a win for the ILWU, EGT, and the Longview community,” McEllrath said. “I want to thank Gov. Gregoire for her leadership in working with both parties to find common ground. ILWU has  eight decades of grain export experience in the Northwest, and we look forward to the opportunity to develop a positive working relationship with EGT.”

The settlement announcement came as ILWU and the Occupy movement prepared to blockade a ship loaded with grain that was scheduled to arrive at the EGT terminal later in January or  in the early part of February. The US Coast Guard had said that it would escort the grain ship to the EGT terminal.

The proposed blockade was the most recent in a long series of mobilizations to protect good union jobs that marked this acrimonious dispute between one of the most powerful unions in the US and the multinational grain exporting cartel.

The struggle began after EGT broke off negotiations with ILWU and announced that it planned to operate its new grain terminal at the Port of Longview, Washington without ILWU members. In May about 150 ILWU members conducted an informational picket line at the port protesting the company’s decision.

The Longview Port Authority subsequently sued EGT for violating the terms of its lease at the port, which requires that companies leasing space from the port use ILWU Local 21 members to handle all longshore work.

In June, 1,000 ILWU members protested at EGT headquarters, and in July, union members picketed and temporarily shut down the company’s new terminal.

In September, EGT began testing its terminal operations and prepared to accept grain delivery from a train. ILWU members rallied on the train tracks and temporarily blocked delivery.

A federal judge, the National Labor Relations Board, and local police all tried their hands at tipping the scales in favor of EGT, but union members continued their resistance.

On December 12, Occupy Longview in solidarity with ILWU members picketed the port and shut it down for 24 hours.

Early in January, news got out that EGT would take delivery from a grain ship that was expected to arrive later in the month and that the ship would be protected by armed crews of the US Coast Guard. ILWU and the Occupy movement began to organize a blockade to stop delivery of the Coast Guard protected grain.

Gov. Gregoire and local community leaders were worried about the consequences of such a confrontation, and the governor began working to bring the two sides together to resolve the dispute.

During the struggle that lasted more than seven months more than 100 ILWU members, including McEllrath and ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman, were arrested. Local police even maced and tear gassed union members and their supporters during a demonstration.

Two of those arrested came to trial in December and were acquitted by two separate juries. Others arrested have either settled their case with a plea bargain that resulted in fines and community service or had their charges dropped.

Rick Von Rock, a former union leader at Longview Fibre Paper and Packaging, who planned to join the blockade, told the Longview Daily News that he was happy to hear the news about the tentative settlement. He also said that he admired ILWU members for taking a stand even though it meant sacrifices.

“I hope the reset of the community understands what they went through, not only for their own benefit but on behalf of the whole community,” Von Rock said.

Second group of IKEA workers vote union

Workers at an IKEA distribution center in Perryville, Maryland last week voted to join and be represented by the International Association of Machinist (IAM). Better than 60 percent of those participating in the union representation election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board voted for the IAM. The Perryville workers became the second group of IKEA workers to go union.

IKEA’s international code of conduct, IWAY, demands that its suppliers follow a strict labor code that among other things guarantees workers the right to join and be represented by a union of their choice and to engage freely in collective bargaining. But according to the IAM and the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), a worldwide confederation of labor unions, IKEA actively opposed the Perryville workers’ organizing campaign.

“The new IAM members were able to see through the scare tactics,” said Joe Flanders, IAM District 4 Business Representative. According to the Flanders and BWI, these scare tactics included threats of job losses, union supporters being individually called into management offices for questioning about their union support, and surveillance of union supporters by security guards hired by IKEA.

IKEA also hired Jackson Lewis a well-known union avoidance law firm to advise it after the union organizing drive got underway.

BWI characterized these actions as “violations of the International Labor Organization’s core labor standards and the IWAY.”

Flanders said that the Perryville workers were inspired by the recent victory of workers at an IKEA furniture building plant in Danville, Virginia, who last summer voted to join IAM and in December ratified their first collective bargaining contract, which improves health and safety, establishes a joint labor management team to give workers a voice in decisions affecting their jobs, and establishes just cause due process rights for workers.

IKEA’s Perryville distribution center employs about 350 people, including about 300 who are considered to be part of the collective bargaining unit. In all, about 1,300 workers staff the six IKEA distribution centers located in North America. In addition to Perryville, distribution centers are located in Brossard, Quebec; Savannah, Georgia; Tejon, California; Tacoma, Washington; and Westhampton, New Jersey. IKEA also plans to open a distribution center in Joliet, Illinois.

The distribution centers are key components of IKEA’s highly touted supply chain, whose efficiency and timeliness play an important role in IKEA’s success. Last year, IKEA recorded net income of $2.97 billion euros (about $4 billion), a 10 percent increase over 2010.

The National Labor Relations Board has ten days to certify the results of the election. If there are no appeals, bargaining could begin soon after certification. “We set up a process for working to develop a bargaining committee,” Flanders told the Cecil (MD) Whig. “Negotiations should take a month or two.”

Walmart subcontractor fires workers who filed wage theft suit

At a rally last week at a Walmart distribution center in Southern California, workers charged a Walmart subcontractor with firing them for trying to recover stolen wages and for cooperating with a state investigation of wage theft and unsafe working conditions at the distribution center.

“We’ve been fighting to keep our jobs,” said Eric Reyes, who works at a Walmart distribution center operated by Schneider Logistics in Mira Loma, California. “We’ll keep fighting to keep our jobs because this isn’t right.”

Reyes is one of about 70 workers at the distribution center who recently were told that they would lose their jobs at the end of February. Some of the workers in September filed a federal lawsuit charging Schneider and its staffing company Rogers Premier Warehousing with failure to pay workers the minimum wage and overtime.

They also filed complaints with the California labor commission, which resulted in Rogers being fined $600,000 for among other things not providing their workers with sufficient information on their wage statements so that the workers could calculate whether they received all the wages that they were due.

Rogers provides Schneider with workers to staff the warehouse. The workers, who are classified as temporary workers, receive low wages, which their suits says are sometimes below the minimum wage, no health insurance, no holidays, and no vacations.

They are paid a piece rate rather than an hourly wage. In other words, they are paid by the number of pieces that they load or unload from a truck. If there is no truck to be loaded or unloaded, they must stay at work but don’t get paid. Sometimes, they are at work for as long as 16 hours.

The work itself is dangerous. During the summer, it’s not unusual for temperatures to rise above 100 degrees inside the warehouse. The cargo that they move is sometimes heavy and can be dangerous to move if not handled properly or without proper precautions, but the workers are under constant pressure to speed up their work.

Workers at the warehouse cooperated with investigators from the state labor commission looking into alleged abuses at the warehouse. Some like Reyes and Daniel Lopez faced intimidation and threats from supervisors after they cooperated.

As the new year began, Rogers informed Schneider that it would no longer provide staffing services at the warehouse. Shortly after that, the workers were told that as of February 24, they would no longer have jobs.

“We believe that (Rogers and Schneider) are terminating the workers in retaliation for actions they’ve taken,” said Guadalupe Palma regional director for Warehouse Workers United, a group to which some of the workers belong and which is leading the fight to improve working conditions at unorganized warehouses in Southern California. “And also because they cooperated with the (California) labor commission in their investigation that resulted in the fines against Walmart subcontractors.”

In a related matter, Warehouse Workers United sent a second letter of complaint to Walmart CEO Mike Dunn informing him of the mistreatment of workers by Walmart subcontractors and urging Walmart “to adopt a Responsible Contractor Policy to ensure that its contractors live up to the letter and the spirit of Walmart’s Statement of Ethics.”

The letter describes numerous health and safety problems at Walmart warehouses operated by subcontractors, refers to the wage theft lawsuit filed against Schneider and Rogers, and complains about retaliation against workers who have complained about conditions at the warehouses.

It also says that “warehouse managers have explicitly referred to Walmart as the reason why it would be impossible for the contractors to improve health and safety or wage and hour standards, citing Walmart’s insistence on constantly lowering operating costs, and its strong opposition to unionization amongst its employees.”

Warehouse Workers United is asking people to show their support for the terminated employees by signing a petition online urging Walmart to adopt a Responsible Contractor Policy.

Lawyers for the workers who filed the wage theft suit will ask the judge to order the warehouse operator to stop the planned job terminations.