India’s workers join the world’s largest strike ever

In what has been described as the world’s largest strike ever, tens of millions of workers in India stayed off the job Tuesday to support a 24-hour nationwide general strike called by the country’s major trade unions. “For the first time all the big trade unions have come together to protest the anti-labor polices of the government,” said Gurudas Dasgupta, general secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress. Dasgupta called the successful general strike, an “historic occasion.”

The unions called the strike to protest the government’s neo-liberal economic policies, which have concentrated wealth, done little to alleviate poverty, and made the lives of most working people much less secure. The neo-liberal policies were introduced in 1991, and have been supported by all of India’s governments since, regardless of which party was in power. The policies seek to enhance the flow and expansion of capital while restricting the rights of labor.

While the Indian economy has grown at an average annual rate of 7.45 percent since 2001, more than 40 percent of its children are malnourished and nearly 40 percent of the population survive on $1.25 a day or less.

Those lucky enough to have steady employment have seen their standard of living decline as the cost of living climbs and the wages stagnate. About 50 million Indians are engaged in precarious work that is temporary, has few if any job protections, and no social protections such as unemployment insurance or social security.

Meanwhile, India has 55 billionaires whose aggregate wealth equals $255 billion, about one-sixth of the country’s annual economic output.

The strike demands include more government action to rein in price increases, a halt to government plans for privatizing India’s government-run businesses, social security for all, a national minimum wage, labor law reforms that make the laws more fair to workers, and an end to precarious work.

Across India, factories, coal mines, docks, post offices, and railways were shut down by the strike. The strike involved defense, telecommunication, mining, transport, and various public sector workers. Workers in the financial sector also supported the strike.

In Mumbai, India’s financial center, white collar bank employees stayed off the job, which according to Vishwas Utagi, general secretary of the All India Bank Employees Association caused “a complete shutdown” of the Mumbai banking sector.

Agence France-Presse reports that the government-owned Bank of India office in Mumbai was nearly deserted. A few employees did report to work, but even they seemed to support the aims of the strike. “We are backing the protest because the demands are legitimate,” said one at-work bank clerk to the Agence France-Presse reporter.

In addition to the government-owned banks, the Times of India reports, some private banks in Mumbai were also shut down. Private banks hit by the strike included foreign-owned HSCB, Citi, and StanChart.

Workers at the government-owned Life Insurance Corporation, India’s largest investor, also stayed off the job.

In the northeastern state of Assam, contract workers at the Bongaigaon oil refinery struck. They were joined by public transportation workers, bank employees, teachers, postal workers, insurance workers, and others. The Times of India reports that as a result of the strike business in Assam slowed to standstill.

In the state of West Bengal, Chief Minister Mumata Banjeree threatened state employees who struck with the loss of their pensions. As a result most state employees stayed on the job. But the strike still had an impact. In the state’s capital Kolkata, traffic and business were noticeably slowed by the strike.

“Against all odds people have participated in this strike,” said Shyamal Chakraborty, president of the Center for Indian Trade Unions. “The (West Bengal) government employees were threatened that if they participate in the strike, then there will be break of service (the loss of service time used to calculate pensions). But notwithstanding such threats, there has been a very good response.”

Overall, it’s difficult to know how many people participated in the nationwide strike, but several estimates put the figure at 100 million.

At the end of the strike, labor leaders said that the strike was more successful than they had hoped. In a joint statement India’s main unions said the strike had been a “fitting reply to the utter neglect and insensitivity of the government toward the problems and miseries of tens of millions of working people who are keeping the country’s economy running.

“The working people and their unions will not accept such indifference and will carry forward their struggle to a higher pitch if their basic demands are not addressed.”

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Republic Windows and Doors reoccupied

Workers at a Chicago building materials plant formerly known as Republic Windows and Doors refused to leave work on Friday and occupied the building on what was to have been the plant’s last day of operation.

“Workers were told today (Friday) it was going to be last day of production,” wrote journalist Micha Uetrict on Twitter. “Workers demanded chance to find buyer, save jobs, or start worker-owned cooperative. Company said no. So they occupied.”

About 65 workers at the Goose Island manufacturing plant owned by California-based Serious Materials took part in the occupation. A little more than three years ago, workers at the same plant that was then owned by Republic Windows and Doors, also faced the loss of their jobs because the company was closing the plant. They staged a sit-in that lasted five days and won concessions from their employer that resulted in the plant returning to production after Serious purchased the factory from Republic.

Friday’s plant occupation occurred after workers received calls from their union, UE Local 1110, to stay at work after the final shift ended at 2:00 P.M. When the final shift was over, workers gathered in the cafeteria to discuss their options. They decided to stay in the building until the company agreed to talk to their union representatives about possible options to closing.

“We’re not leaving until we are satisfied,” said Melvin Maclin, a Serious employee and president of UE Local 1110 to the Occupied Chicago Tribune.

Shortly after the in-plant occupation was announced, Arise Chicago, a labor-faith community action group, issued a call for supporters to demonstrate their solidarity with the Serious occupiers by coming to the factory. Occupy Chicago also issued a call for solidarity with the Serious workers.

Police arrived on the scene but stayed outside. They did not try to remove occupiers inside but did try to prevent  food deliveries to them.  The police eventually relented and allowed pizza to be delivered

Meanwhile, about 100 people gathered outside in the rain. On the inside, union representatives began negotiating with Serious management. The union wanted the company to keep the plant open for three more months, so that the union and company could find a buyer for the plant. The union also wanted workers to continue being paid.

By 11:00 P.M. more people had arrived outside, some with tents and sleeping bags. Some of the sleeping bags were sent inside while the tents were pitch, and people prepared to occupy the space outside the plant, where a banner reading “WORKERS UNITE” was hung.

In a gesture of solidarity, workers inside the plant sent tacos and other food to those on the outside.

A little after 2:00 A.M. the union announced a deal. “Serious has agreed to keep the plant operational and people on the job for another 90 days while the union workers and company work together to find a way to keep the plant open with new ownership,” said Mark Meinster of UE.

Saturday morning, Serious issued a statement confirming that the company agreed to keep the plant operational while a search for a buyer gets under way.

“They told us (the occupation) is illegal,” said UE Local 1110 member Armando Robles. “But it is illegal what they have tried to do to us, too–twice already. We know that it’s illegal to occupy, but the two times we’ve done it, we have come out with success. So if we have to do it again, well. . .”

Tunisian unionists protest attacks, call for new government

Over the weekend, more than 4,000 trade unionists and their supporters took to the streets of Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, to protest mounting attacks on the trade union movement. After a two-hour peaceful demonstration, police used force to disperse the protestors.

“They want to terrorize us and instill fear in our hearts to keep us from defending our causes and rights,” said Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Workers Union (UGTT, the French acronym) to the Associated Press. “But we will not let them.”

Since the new Tunisian government came into office in November, UGTT has come under intense fire. Its leaders have been arrested and harassed, and most recently, its offices fire bombed and vandalized. Union leaders say that the attacks are retaliation for the UGTT’s insistence that the government change the neoliberal economic policies that it inherited from the deposed Tunisian dictator Zine el Ben Ali and implement a new development model that includes public investment in the under developed areas of the country.

UGTT, the nation’s largest labor federation, also opposes the privatization of government resources that began under Ben Ali’s rule.

The most recent attacks on the UGTT are related to a three-day strike of municipal employees, including sanitation workers, who belong to a UGTT affiliated union. The strike caused garbage to accumulate on the streets of Tunis and other cities. During the strike, vandals dumped garbage in front of five UGTT offices. One of the offices was set on fire.

Unionists suspect that the vandals are affiliated with Ennahda, the Islamist party that is the dominate force in the present coalition government. “The people want the regime to fall,” chanted demonstrators at this weekend’s march. They also chanted, “Employment! Freedom! National dignity!” indicating their displeasure with the current government’s economic course.

UGTT has been a vocal proponent of a new development strategy that veer’s away from neoliberal orthodoxy. For example, the union wants more public investment in undeveloped regions of the country. Under Ben Ali, 65 percent of public resources during the last decade were invested in the relatively well off coastal region of the country, where tourism and foreign-owned light manufacturing enterprises are the main economic drivers.

But much of the country received little public investment and their local economies were allowed to shrivel. Take the Gafsa district in the west central part of the country. The area is rich in phosphate and human capital, but the people are poor. In some parts of the district, the unemployment rate is as high as 60 percent. In the city of Gafsa, the unemployment rate for college educated youth is 37.5 percent.

At one time the phosphate mines provided employment to many, but as the mines became more mechanized, employment opportunities dried up. When the mines first opened, their owners used their influence with the government to divert the region’s meager share of government resources toward supporting the mines. Much of the region’s electricity and water were routed to the mines

As a result, other economic activity such as agriculture that could have supported a more diverse and stable economy were allowed to wither. The mines today remain the area’s primary source of jobs.

Labor unrest has rocked the region. Several mines have been shut down by work stoppages. Young people and miners recently demonstrated at government offices in the region demanding jobs and better conditions at the mines.

Labor unrest has not been limited to Gafsa. Since the ouster of Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen 22,000 labor protests that include strikes, demonstrations, and other protest activity, most of which have either been supported or led by UGTT.

UGTT has sought to bargain with the government over wages, working conditions, and a new development strategy, but the government has been reluctant to do so. UGTT representatives were supposed to meet with the government ministers of industry and social affairs and the CEO of CPG, Gafsa’s largest mining company, but the first two meetings were postponed. When the two sides finally met, the best that the government would offer was a joint commission to the study the labor problems.

Speaking at the weekend rally, Abassi told the demonstrators, “They want to make us shut up so they can have a monopoly and decide our fate alone, but we will never bend and never surrender.”

CWA, community coalition fights AT&T layoffs in Atlanta

A long row of tents extends along the sidewalk at 675 West Peachtree Street NW in Atlanta where the new Occupy Atlanta encampment has moved. The new site is just outside the southeastern US headquarters of AT&T, one of the US’s richest corporations.

Occupiers moved there on February 13 after about 70 people, union members, Occupy activists, and community supporters staged a sit-in to protest the impending layoffs of 740 AT&T workers. During the sit-in 12 people were arrested.

“This fight isn’t just about these jobs; it’s about all the jobs in America for the 99 percent,” said an unidentified young woman at the encampment. “It’s about the unprecedented wealth disparity that we have in this country.” They hog the money while the rest of us suffer, she said

The sit-in, a rally outside AT&T headquarters the day after the sit-in, and the ongoing campaign to save decent jobs at AT&T grew out of six months of coalition building between labor, civil rights, and community groups.

At a national union hall teleconference, Walter Andrews, president of CWA Local 3204 in Atlanta, explained how this coalition came together. Last summer CWA, civil rights groups like the NAACP, other unions, and community groups began meeting to plan this year’s Martin Luther King march, Andrews said. Over the next few months, the group met regularly and ties deepened.

In December, AT&T told its workers that hundreds would be facing layoffs or forced to relocate to keep their jobs beginning early next year. Local 3204, the union of the AT&T workers in Atlanta, decided to fight back and asked its coalition partners for their support. By this time, Occupy Atlanta was meeting with the group.

The coalition members agreed to hold a rally on Valentine’s Day to demand that AT&T stop the layoffs and meet with Local 3204 to discuss the company’s layoff procedures that violated the terms of its union contract. In addition to wanting to stop the layoffs, the union was concerned that those being relocated would have to work for less pay and lower benefits.

They made the announcement and set the Valentine’s Day rally in motion. Rather than agree to discuss the layoffs with the union, the company decided to post a security detachment to make sure that protestors couldn’t enter the building to speak directly to corporate officers.

Suspecting that AT&T would block any attempt by the rally to enter the building, the coalition organized a stealth contingent made up of CWA retirees, Teamsters, Jobs with Justice members, Occupy Atlanta activists, and community supporters who gathered at the AT&T building on the day before the big rally and walked into the headquarters unimpeded. They demanded to see the executives who engineered the layoffs, and when their request was denied, they staged their sit-in.

The next day, about 300 people picketed outside the headquarters. After the rally, Occupy tents sprouted up along the sidewalk outside the building, so that the protest against the layoffs would continue.

“I camped out one night,” Andrews said. “It was cold and I thought to myself, I’m out here by my own choice, but if we don’t stop these layoffs, there are people working right now who could end up homeless, on the street, and living in a tent not by choice but because they lost their job. That warmed me up and made me determined to keep fighting for these jobs.”

The layoffs come at a time when AT&T is doing well financially. The company reported $3 billion in net income last year, an amount that would have been higher if not for the botched merger attempt with T-Mobile. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s 2011 compensation package amounted to $18 million, which does not include the worth of his highly lucrative pension.

While AT&T is considering layoffs and downgrades, it announced that it will begin buying back 300 million stock shares, which will benefit investors.

“What’s happening at AT&T is symbolic of what has been happening all over the country.” reads a post on the Occupy Atlanta website. “The 1 percent wants to lower the standard of living for the average American worker, all so that they can pocket some extra cash. We can no longer allow them to squeeze every penny they can out of the 99 percent. The 99 percent creates the wealth; it is made on our backs. It’s time these big wigs stop getting handouts they don’t need while everyone else suffers.”

Criminal charges filed in mine explosion

The US Attorney in southern West Virginia yesterday announced that a former superintendent at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine near Montcoal, West Virginia has been charged with conspiracy to thwart government mine safety inspections. The mine was the site of an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, making it the worst mining disaster in recent history. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which since the disaster, has been sold to Alpha Natural Resources of Virginia.

According to the charges that were brought against former Big Branch superintendent Gary May, “Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease production.”

The US Attorney’s Office charged May with conspiring with others to defraud the US government by interfering with health and safety inspections of the mine. Had these inspections not been hindered, the deadly explosion would likely have been prevented.

May is accused of among other things falsifying safety reports, using code words to alert mine foremen of unannounced government safety inspections so that they could cover up problems that if detected would cause a delay in production, and temporarily altering ventilation systems to mask safety problems.

The charges against May also said that he ordered the electrical system on mining machines to be altered, so that the machine’s methane gas detecting equipment, which causes the machine to shut down when excessive amounts of methane are detected, would not work properly.

State and federal investigations as well as an investigation carried out by the United Mine Workers of America agreed that the main cause of the explosion was an excessive build up of methane gas, a natural by-product of a mining operation. Federal safety regulations require that operating mines have adequate ventilation systems to keep methane gas accumulation at safe levels. They also require mining companies to conduct frequent dusting of mine surfaces with a chemical called rock dust to damp down methane levels and to have and maintain properly functioning safety equipment like gas detectors on the mining machines.

The conspiracy charges suggest that the US Attorney will be charging others. US Attorney Booth Goodwin did not confirm it, but it appears that prosecutors have reached a plea bargain with May, who faces a maximum of five years if convicted. If that is the case, then it is possible that May has agreed to testify against others who may have been more responsible for the explosion.

May, so far, is the highest level UBB official to be charged with wrong doing. A foreman received a ten-month sentence for lying about his foreman certification, and a security officer faces up to 25 years in prison after being convicted of lying to federal inspectors investigating the explosion and destroying evidence.

May reported to executives of the Performance Coal Company, which at the time was a subsidiary of Massey Energy. They in turn reported to executives of Massey Energy, including CEO Don Blakenship.

A UMWA report on the mining disaster, Industrial Homicide, found that production, or to put it another way–profit, was the paramount concern of Blankenship and his executive team and that safety problems reported by workers and foremen were ignored or discounted if  fixing the problems would hurt production. According to the report, Blakenship also required local mine executives to send frequent production reports directly to him and to justify any production interruptions.

University of Minnesota grad students seek voice on the job

University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus graduate students are conducting a union organizing campaign to give them a collective voice in determining the terms and conditions of their work, which faculty, administrators, and the students themselves say is essential to the university’s mission.

“You don’t have to be working in a factory for your voice to be important,” said Brandon Wu, a teaching assistant and graduate student at the university’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The university administration, however, is resisting this effort.

Members of Graduate Student Workers United UAW in January submitted to the state’s Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS)union authorization cards signed by a majority of the university’s 4,500 graduate student workers, who teach courses and conduct research. The BMS oversees public sector union elections in the state.

At the same time, graduate student union activists delivered a letter to the University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler saying that the fact that a majority of graduate students signed union authorization cards shows that they want to bargain collectively on matters relating to their job. The letter urged President Kaler to submit joint petition to BMS with the union. A joint petition would expedite union recognition. He declined.

Graduate students do much of the teaching at the University of Minnesota and, for that matter, at most large public universities. Nearly every undergraduate will at some point in their studies take a class that has been designed, planned, and taught by a graduate teaching assistant.

Much of the research that leads to the discovery of new knowledge in both the arts and sciences is conducted by graduate students. Some of this research has an immediate impact on the well-being of the community. For example, research assistants in the Molecular Biology Department are working on treatments and cures for diverse diseases, including cancer, AIDS, and heart disease.

Twelve hour work days are not uncommon for many graduate assistants. Many teach a full load, keep office hours, read to stay current on the emerging knowledge in their field, and conduct research.

Despite the importance of their work, the administration treats it as casual labor. Job security is limited or non-existent, the benefits are scarce and can be arbitrarily reduced or taken away, and there are no clear procedures for addressing job grievances.

“We graduate assistants are here working hard in research and in teaching,” said Scott Thaller, a research assistant in plasma physics to Workday Minnesota. “We deserve a voice in decisions that affect us. We are integral to the research and teaching of the university and it is important we have a say. A union would put us on equal legal footing for both parties to meet and negotiate.”

But the administration would like to keep its current relationship with its graduate students intact and has mounted an aggressive anti-union campaign. “The University was well prepared to wage war against grad student unionization,” said Seth Berrier, a research assistant in computer science and engineering, to the Minnesota Daily. “They did so with a calculated campaign of misinformation that would have done any GOP candidate proud. Their negatively charged prose came primarily in the form of direct emails from the Department of Human Resources. They promised doom and destruction in a world of grad student solidarity. It was clear that they were frightened by the strength we would possess.”

The administration has accused outside agitators from the UAW of using threatening tactics to get people to sign union authorization cards, but most of the organizing work is being done by graduate students themselves.

This organizing campaign is the fourth at the University of Minnesota since 1991. The union lost the last election in 2005, but union activists are confident that despite the administration’s anti-union campaign they can win this time. “This time, so many grad assistants are involved and support the way that a union will finally give us the right and power to advocate for ourselves, that we believe we will succeed,” Thaller said.”

Member mobilization and community support key to ILWU victory

When the multi-national grain cartel EGT agreed to a contract with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union after a bitter eight-month struggle, union leaders extended a conciliatory hand to the company that once thought itself so powerful that it could make its own rules for the dangerous work of loading and storing grain without any input from those who actually do the work.

“The partnership between the ILWU and EGT will ensure many safe, productive operations at the (EGT) facility and stability in the Pacific Northwest grain export industry,” said Robert McEllrath, international president of the ILWU.

While there may be a time for every purpose under heaven, including the offer of an olive branch to a defeated opponent, this also might be a good time to reflect on some of the lessons learned from this victory. It’s also a time not to forget those still facing retribution for their acts of worker solidarity.

The key to this win was the organized mobilization of union members and their supporters, which included initiatives taken by rank and file ILWU members and the Occupy movement.

“It is clear that the port shutdowns on November 2 and December 12 and the impending mobilization in Longview is what made EGT come to the table,” said Clarence Thomas, a member and officer of ILWU Local 10 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The November 2 and December 12 shutdowns referred to by Thomas were two actions called by the Occupy movement, which included rank and file ILWU members, to show support for the ILWU in its fight with EGT. The actions temporarily shut down ports along the West Coast.

The “impending mobilization” was the caravan to block a ocean-going grain shipment headed for EGT organized and coordinated by Occupy Longview, Occupy Portland, Occupy Seattle, and Occupy Oakland.

“It wasn’t until (ILWU) rank and file and Occupy planned a mass convergence to blockade the ship that EGT suddenly had the impetus to negotiate,” Thomas said.

“Make no mistake–the solidarity and organization between the Occupy movement and the longshoremen across the country won this contract,” said Jack Mulcahy, ILWU local 8 member and officer in Portland.

Thomas also stressed the importance of establishing links between organized labor and the community.”Labor can no longer win victories against the employers without the community,” Thomas said. “It must include a broad-based movement. The strategy and tactics employed by the Occupy movement in conjunction with rank and file ILWU members confirm that the past militant traditions of the ILWU are still effective against the employers today.”

Equally important were the organizing and mobilizing efforts that preceded the shutdowns and planned blockade. These efforts took many forms, including informational pickets at EGT’s office, acts of civil disobedience when workers defiantly massed on rail tracks to prevent grain deliveries, and militant picket lines joined by rank and file members, union leaders, and community supporters that were attacked by the police.

During these early struggles at least 100 union members and community supporters were arrested. So far six have gone to trial; all have been acquitted. Others have agreed to plea bargains in which serious charges were dropped and those arrested agreed to perform community service.

However, the trial of others remain pending, and while the ILWU and EGT have for the time being reconciled their differences, the ILWU says that local prosecuting attorney is carrying out a personal vendetta by refusing to resolve charges against those arrested.

Last week, the ILWU called on Sue Baur, the Cowlitz County prosecuting attorney, to drop her vendetta and resolve the outstanding charges. “The waste to the public is apparent, while her reckless ‘charge first and investigate later’ style has caused all sorts of personal stress and anxiety to ILWU members and supporters who did nothing more than to exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Leal Sundet, ILWU Coast Committeeman.”

Longview ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman said that it’s time for Baur to do as the ILWU and EGT have done and move on. “We call on Sue Baur to stop escalating this conflict and instead join the rest of Cowlitz County in trying to help this community heal,” Coffman said.