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.”

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.

War on workers at Philippines airline

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA earlier this month became the latest in a growing number of international labor unions announcing their support for a public boycott of Philippine Airlines (PAL) for its attack on its longtime employees. In a letter to PAL management, AFA-CWA President Vera Shook said that the union would support the boycott until the company ends its lockout and outsourcing scheme that has cost 2,600 workers their jobs.

The workers are members of the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (PALEA), who provide ground services such as baggage handling, in-flight catering, and call-center reservations. Back in 2010, Lucio Tan, the billionaire owner of PAL and its sister airline Air Philippines, announced that the company planned to reclassify the PALEA members as contract workers who would be managed by a third-party operator.

Tan’s decision to make the workers contract employees meant that the workers would be unable to bargain collectively. It also meant that they would be joining the ranks of a growing international precarious workforce that works under temporary contracts with few social protections and few, if any, benefits.

“Your employees want a life of dignity for workers and their families, and recognition for the sacrifices they have made to make your airline profitable,” Shook said in her letter. “We will stand in support of the public boycott of Lucio Tan-owned PAL and Air Philippines until management has heeded workers’ demands for a return to their regular jobs.”

Tan’s decision to make work more precarious is a popular strategy among capitalists for reducing labor costs and shifting more of the risk of business to their workforce.

The PALEA fight against their reclassification began in 2010 shortly after Tan’s announcement, and reached a crescendo last September when a few days before the reclassification took place, PALEA members demonstrated in front of a PAL terminal at the Manila airport. Some members inside refused to leave their jobs and were forcibly evicted by police and airport security personnel called in by PAL management.

PALEA set up a camp site near the terminal and continued to picket the airline. In October, the camp was attacked by thugs hoping to intimidate the workers and force them to leave. However, they have maintained their camp and their picket line.

This fight has a long history. Thirteen years ago PALEA was forced to give up its right to collective bargaining with PAL in order to help the airline remain solvent. Since then the company’s economic prospects have improved considerably. In fiscal year 2011, the company reported $76 million in net income. But the company wants to continue to avoid collective bargaining with PALEA and chose to do so by reclassifying its members.

The union has expanded the fight beyond the campsite. Workers demonstrated at national Congress while inside sympathetic lawmakers urged the Congress to investigate PAL for violating worker rights. The union also filed an unfair labor charge with the Philippine labor board and a separate lawsuit in court. The labor board dismissed the unfair labor charge, but the lawsuit is still pending before an appeals court.

In January, PALEA President Gerry Rivera traveled to Washington to testify before the Office of the US Trade Representative about the suppression of labor rights in the Philippines. He was asking for a ruling that the Philippine government had violated labor rights. Such a ruling would threaten the Philippines’ favorable trade status with the US.

“We submit that Philippine government has abused its power to assume jurisdiction of strikes thereby curtailing workers’ rights to freely organize and bargain collectively,” Rivera said in his testimony.

PALEA has also asked unions and people who support workers rights to boycott PAL and sign a solidarity statement in support of the boycott addressed to Tan.

In an appeal for international support, PALEA writes:

Three typhoons have come and gone yet PALEA’s protest camps outside the international airports of Manila and Cebu remained strong and defiant. Heavy rains and soaked sleeping mats failed to dampen the fighting spirit of PALEA members. Every day several hundred workers man the pickets in shifts.

The lockout must stop, the outsourcing plan should be scrapped and the workers should be allowed to return to their jobs as regular workers. PALEA needs your moral and logistical support.

Seattle port drivers return to work; major strike issues still unresolved

As their strike entered its third week, about 400 Seattle port short-haul truck drivers on Tuesday agreed to return to work. In return for agreeing to resume hauling shipping containers between the port and the nearby BNSF rail yard, the drivers won some modest concessions from employers.

But members of the drivers’ newly formed organization, the Seattle Port Truckers Association, said that the main issues that sparked the walkout, low pay, unsafe working conditions, and their misclassification as contract workers, remained unresolved and that they would continue their fight after their return to work.

“This is an ongoing process,” said Calvin Borders of the truckers association to the Seattle Times. “We will continue to fight as time goes on to make sure these problems will be resolved.”

“This is just the beginning, not the ending, said Demeke Meconnen, whose suspension by his employer sparked the wildcat strike, “Because we just showed them how strong we are.”

Some companies that were paying drivers $40 a trip agreed to raise pay to $44, the standard rate at the port. The companies also agreed pay drivers who wait in line for a load at the port for more than one hour and to pay drivers for some trips when they return to the port without a container.

However, the walkout, which began in January 31, was about more. “This is not only about the money,” said Meconnen, who like many of his co-workers is an immigrant from East Africa, to the Times. “We’re talking about  safety, respect, dignity and fairness.”

At a Monday solidarity rally organized by the Teamsters, other unions, and community supporters, drivers told the audience about the unsafe and unfair conditions under which they work.

Often drivers will be given a container that exceeds legal weight limits. If drivers refuse the load, they run the risk not getting other work. If they take the load and are stopped and ticketed by the police, drivers pay the fine out of their own pocket.

The loads are also sometimes too heavy for a truck’s suspension, creating a safety hazard for drivers, other motorists, and anyone close to the truck as it travels between the port and the rail yard. If the heavier than legal load causes damage to the truck, drivers have to pay for repairs and can’t work until the repairs are complete.

The companies are making their profit by forcing drivers to shoulder all the burden and risk, said Zekarias Abebe, a member of the truckers association. “We feel like they’ve backed us into a corner.”

One of the ways that the truckers will continue their fight is to build support for HB 2395, a bill recently passed the Washington House of Representatives and sent to the Senate. HB 2395 would reclassify port drivers as employees rather than contract workers. Changing their status will allow them to bargain collectively and be protected by state and federal labor laws. The Teamsters have been helping the drivers and would like to represent them if they can get their status changed.

The strike began two weeks ago after Meconnen was suspended for traveling to Olympia to testify in favor of a bill that would improve truck safety. His suspension outraged other drivers, who said that the suspension was an example of the companies’ racist and disrespectful attitude toward drivers.

The strike, which was honored by about one-third of the port’s drivers, caused the movement of cargo to slow down, which in turn created pressure from port officials and the shipping companies’ for the trucking companies to settle the strike. The two sides began talking with each other last Friday. They were joined by representatives of the port and the shipping companies.

The agreement that ended the strike came after some of the companies that were most affected by the strike said that they were losing accounts that would reduce their need for services provided by the drivers.

As long as the issues that caused the strike remain unresolved, the flow of goods remains vulnerable to another work action, which has led port officials to continue sponsoring talks between the two sides.

San Antonio Yellow Cab drivers ponder solutions to job injustices

Submitted by Pancho Valdez

If one man has a dollar he didn’t work for, some other man worked for a dollar he didn’t get.”  Bill Haywood, Founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, socialist

For most of us who work or who have worked for a living, there are/were always issues about our jobs that we disliked. For the 550 cab drivers of the Greater San Antonio Transportation Company d.b.a. Yellow Cab the issues they face on a daily basis are more than many of us could endure.

Mike Hill, 55 has driven a Yellow cab for about nine years. He says that it’s a job he enjoys doing as it is a needed service for the public. However he’s quick to point out that working conditions and compensation leave a lot to be desired.” We work 12-16 hours daily, not because we like to, but it’s the only way we can earn enough money to live on. Many of us are lucky if we keep an equivalent of the minimum wage. We have drivers that are homeless and actually sleep and eat in their cabs!”

Unlike most of us, Yellow Cab drivers are not considered by the company to be “employees.” Instead Yellow Cab has unilaterally classified the drivers as “independent contractors.” What this translates to is that cab drivers have no health care benefits, no vacation, no paid holidays, no pension, no sick leave or disability, and either own their cabs or pay a lease fee of $105 daily to Yellow Cab, purchase their own gasoline, oil, insurance, maintenance and repair costs and any other costs associated with operation of the cab. As “independent contractors” drivers do not come under the jurisdiction of the EEOC, the Hour & Wage Division of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, OSHA or the NLRB.

Hill went on to say that about half of the drivers own their cabs and half lease the cabs from Yellow. He added that while many of the drivers are barely making it, some don’t and quit. He acknowledged that a few are earning decent money, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

What angers Hill and other drivers is that the company has all drivers sign an agreement that basically gives Yellow the option to raise lease fees as the company sees fit. Hill further said that the agreement is very one sided, frequently violated by Yellow, and drivers are forced to sign under duress. In other words, you sign it or don’t work.

Mike Hill said that he was told by an agent of the Internal Revenue that only the IRS can determine classifications, not the company. It is an issue festering amongst cabbies, FedEx delivery drivers and others across the nation. Hill said that the local Yellow Cab determines everything about their job, dress code, grooming standards, who to pick up as well as at random drug screening.

“How can they say we are independent contractors, if they determine everything about the duties of a cab driver? How are we self employed as they claim?”

In New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and other major urban areas drivers have organized a union, the National Taxi Workers Alliance that recently affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In Oakland, California cab drivers filed with the NLRB to be represented by the Teamsters Union. The cab company, Friendly Cab appealed the election. Last week the 9th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the drivers, a precedent that gives much hope to cab drivers and other transportation workers misclassified as independent contractors across the nation!

This historic ruling may even apply to Port of Los Angeles, Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma harbor truck drivers, most of whom are immigrants either from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, or Africa. I

n Seattle about 35-40% of the truckers are engaged in a work stoppage that affected all traffic at that port on January, 31st. For these workers the wheels of justice have been slow, but justice appears to have finally arrived.

Hostess and American Airlines workers resist bankruptcy cuts

Union members and supporters rallied yesterday at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to show solidarity with American Airlines workers facing job cuts and loss of benefits if the company’s bankruptcy restructuring plan is approved. The day before, the Teamsters announced that their members voted to strike Hostess Brands, the maker of Twinkies and other snack food, if the company’s unfair bankruptcy restructuring proposal is imposed on them.

It appears that for the time being the ongoing war on workers has shifted to a another battlefield–the bankruptcy court. Both Hostess and AMR, American’s parent company, recently filed for bankruptcy in order to rewrite their labor contracts. Both are proposing major cuts that will lower the standard of living for thousands of workers. Both say that the cuts are the only way to make the companies profitable again.

American, which submitted its plan to the bankruptcy court earlier this month, estimates that its proposal if adopted will save $2 billion a year; $1.25 billion, or nearly two-thirds of the savings, would be borne by its workers. Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which organized yesterday’s DFW rally, said that the $1.25 billion figure is too low and that the actual amount of American workers’ sacrifice would be $1.8 billion a year.

American’s plan if adopted by the bankruptcy court would eliminate 13,000 jobs and cut health care benefits. American also wants to jettison its pension plans for 130,000 workers and retirees, a move that Joshua Gotbaum, director of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, called “a drastic action” that American needs to reconsider.

At the Tuesday’s rally, which was attended by about 400 people, Glading said that her union would resist American’s plan. “We’re here today to show we’re not going to back down without a fight,” Glading told demonstrators.

The Transport Workers Union, which represents ground crew workers at American and co-hosted the DFW rally, has been trying to organize community support for affected workers. It’s asking people to sign an online pledge of support and yesterday announced that it would submit an alternative to American’s proposals to the bankruptcy court after the company provides financial information requested by the union.

While American wants its workers to give up their jobs and pensions, and accept cuts to their health care, it has taken steps to protect the financial well-being of its executives. On TWU’s website, Little  said that prior to filing for bankruptcy, American gave its executive “huge bonuses for years.”

Likewise, Hostess has taken steps to protect its CEO, who demanded that the company’s workers accept health care and pension cuts as well as new work rules that would make them work longer and harder with no additional compensation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “Hostess Brands Inc. is seeking (bankruptcy) court permission for a new employment deal that would hand millions of dollars to Chief Executive Brian J. Driscoll, ‘architect’ of the company’s plan to cut costs and jettison its pension plans.”

“They have amazing laws in this land that allow a company to file bankruptcy and give the CEO such a lucrative contract while demanding deep, deep givebacks from its employees,” said Frank Hurt, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union, which represents 5,000 Hostess workers, to the Journal.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for February 21.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters, which represents 7,500 Hostess workers announced Tuesday that 90 percent of its Hostess members voted to strike if the new contract proposed by the company is imposed on them. David Raymond of the Teamsters said that its unfair to expect workers to make all the sacrifices to save the company.

“This vote shows that, while our Hostess members are willing to take significant steps to save the company, they can only go so far,” Raymond said. “Twice before, they have made sacrifices to help this company with no progress to show for it. They need to see their sacrifices matched by other key stakeholders and they need protections to make sure their sacrifices are not made in vain again due to mismanagement. While we remain committed to finding a solution to save the company, it won’t be done solely on the backs of our members and Hostess employees.”

Bahrain democracy protests flare; unions protest repression

On the eve of the first anniversary of their pro-democracy uprising, thousands of Bahrainis rallied Monday in Manama, the capital city, to commemorate the beginning of their struggle. After the rally, some of the protestors marched from the rally site to the Pearl Roundabout in the heart of city where last year’s rebellion against the country’s monarchy broke out. Police tried to stop them, and the marchers fought back.

Demonstrations and rallies aimed at pressuring the government to implement reforms have been taking place since June when the government lifted an emergency decree issued during the peak of the uprising. Monday’s demonstrations were an escalation of those protests. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Monday’s escalation underscores how little has changed since February 14, 2011 when demonstrators, inspired by protests elsewhere in the Arab world, called for better jobs and more rights.”

The Bahraini government has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the pro-democracy movement. On one hand, its has cracked down hard on movement leaders; on the other, hand it has implemented some reconciliation measures recommended by an international panel.

Among those attending Monday’s rally was Rula al Saffar, president of the Bahrain Nurses Association, the national nurses union. Al Saffar was one of 47 health care workers arrested, detained, and in some cases tortured for treating pro-democracy demonstrators wounded in clashes with the police and foreign troops that intervened on behalf of the monarchy.

Al Saffar was also one of 20 doctors, nurses, and other health care workers, who last September were tried by a special military court and received prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. Al Saffar and her fellow detainees were let out on bail pending a review of their case by an appeals court. A hearing on their appeal is scheduled to take place on February 27.

Not at the rally was Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb, president of the Bahraini Teachers Association who along with teachers’ union vice-president Jalila al-Salman was arrested last April. According Amnesty International, “they appear to have been targeted solely for their leadership of the BTA and for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

In September, the two were sentenced to prison by a military court, Mahdi Abu Dheeb for ten years and an al-Salman to three.  Al-Salman was released on bond pending her appeal, but Mahdi Abu Dheeb remains in jail and recently began a hunger strike to protest his detention.

Education International, a worldwide coalition of teachers’ unions, has begun a campaign to win his release and have all charges dropped. It reports that Mahdi Abu Dheeb’s confession which was the basis of his conviction was obtained by torture.

On Monday, Francine Lawrence, executive vice-president of the American Teachers Federation, hand-delivered a letter to the Bahraini Embassy calling for Mahdi Abu Dheeb’s release.

The letter also said that the AFT, which has 1.5 million members, was strongly concerned about the “(Bahraini) government’s treatment of teachers, health care workers and their union leaders in the aftermath of the Feb. 14, 2011, demonstrations in Bahrain.”

“We are appalled that these dedicated public servants, who belong to quintessentially peaceful professions, who teach your children and help the sick and infirm, would face such consequences for exercising their rights as citizens,” the letter said. “The reports of the use of torture against many of the arrested protesters as confirmed by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry shocked Americans.”

While taking a hard line against leaders of the uprising, the government has implemented some recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an international panel that convened last year to investigate the upheaval and recommend ways to reconcile the differences between the two sides.

One recommendation is that all companies, including those owned by the government, rehire without conditions workers fired for striking during the uprising. So far, 2,283 of the 2,462 fired workers have either gotten their jobs back or voluntarily quit. But companies are not fully complying with the government’s order. Many of those rehired have been demoted or faced other disciplinary action.

Furthermore, 179 still have not been reinstated. Among those who have not been reinstated, 55 are local union leaders and six national union leaders.

Truck drivers’ strike slows cargo traffic at Port of Seattle

Nearly two weeks ago short-haul truck drivers at the Port of Seattle stopped working to protest their poor pay, unsafe working conditions, and their misclassification as independent contract workers. The port and local economy are starting to feel the impact of the work stoppage, and on Friday representatives of the port, the trucking companies, ocean carriers, and drivers met for two hours to try and resolve the impasse. But so far, the wildcat strike is still on.

Hundreds of drivers, who have been picketing near the port, and their supporters met Saturday at the Teamster Local 174 union hall in Tukwila, Washington to press their demands for safer working conditions and an end to their misclassification. A community and labor solidarity rally to support the drivers is planned for Monday morning.

The walkout began on January 31, the day after about 150 short-haul drivers left work for Olympia, the state capital, to testify at a legislative hearing on a truck safety bill  The drivers, who ferry goods between the port and nearby rail yard, also wanted to show their support for another bill HB 2395, which would end their misclassification, making it possible for them to unionize and earn a decent wage.

When the workers, many if not most of whom are immigrants from East Africa, returned to work, a trucking company suspended one of its drivers, Yared Meconnen, for going to Olympia. The suspension triggered the strike. Drivers also complained that they were the target of racist remarks by company representatives. KPLU, the local public radio station, reports that 30 percent to 40 percent of the port’s drivers went on strike.

When the drivers went to Olympia, they told legislators what it’s like to do their jobs. “Our work is extremely dangerous,” said Semere Woldu, a short-haul driver for eight years.

“The shipping and rail lines force us to use faulty equipment. One time I got a load that was 4-5,000 pounds overweight, and it was on a chassis that was insufficient for carrying heavy loads. The company told me to take it anyway,” said 13-year driver Calvin Borders. “I was really nervous about it. All that extra weight puts a lot of wear and tear on the truck. It blew my wheel seal. It cost me $450. My truck is my livelihood. If it doesn’t work, I don’t work.”

While the drivers are grappling with unsafe loads, they’re also working for very low wages. They are paid a piece rate for the loads they deliver, sometimes worth millions of dollars. Out of that piece rate, they have to pay for gas, repairs, and maintenance. After all the expenses are deducted, the average pay is equal to between $10 and $11 an hour.

In some cases, pay is much less. Mekonnen told KING5 News that after he paid all of his expenses, he earned $15,000 last year. “I do have a family,” Mekonnen said in frustration.

Even though some drivers continue to work, the strike is having a big impact on business at the port. “We’re seeing a larger impact than just the pure numbers of drivers who might not be showing up for work,” Seaport Managing Director Linda Stykr told KING5 News. She said that if the strike isn’t resolved soon port business could go elsewhere.

Port Commissioner Rob Holland has been talking with the drivers directly. He called the trucking companies’ labor model, which relies on contract labor, a “dog eat dog process” and said that the drivers’ low pay is a weak link in the intricate supply chain that moves goods from the port to rail yards to warehouses and to retail stores.

“They’re doing piece work, and historically piecework has been unsustainable,” said Dave Freiboth, King County (Seattle) Labor Council executive secretary.

In addition to support from the Teamsters and local labor council, the strikers have also received support from community and religious groups. “Drivers should be able to go to Olympia to ask for safer trucks, without having to worry about the possibility of losing their jobs and being verbally harassed or threatened, ” said Michael Ramos, director of social justice ministries for the Church Council of Greater Seattle at a community rally supporting the strikers.

On Friday, the Washington House of Representatives passed HB 2395.

Wildcat strike at New York cable company

About 120 non-union cable installers walked off the job last week and set up picket lines at the offices of Corbel Installations, a contractor that handles cable installations for Cablevision in the Bronx and Westchester, New York. The wildcat strike actions was taken to protest pay cuts announced by the company. Strikers and company representatives both said that the strike was inspired by the recent union victory at Cablevision.

“What happened today is an outgrowth of what happened at Cablevision,” Corbel’s attorney David Weissman told Crain’s New York Business.

Strikers contacted the CWA, the union that won the Cablevision election last month, and said that they wanted to join the union. CWA organizers went to the picket line and collected enough union authorization cards to request a National Labor Relations Board representation election.

Corbel workers walked off the job after the company told them that their pay for installing Cablevision’s Optimum Triple Play package (internet, telephone, and television) would be cut from $50 per installation to $35. Since the workers are contract workers, they have no health insurance or other benefits, and are on call seven days a week. The typical work week for a Corbel worker is between 50 and 60 hours a week.

“The bottom-line is that cable workers have been ill-treated in the industry and only savage union busting by the cable companies have kept wages so much lower than at the telcos,” said Nathan Newman, whose blog Tech Progress reports on technology policy issues.

Mark Sinclair, one of the strikers, told the Journal News, a local paper covering the Lower Hudson River area of the state, that his pay fluctuates between $8 and $9 an hour. “It keeps varying for us, and it’s not right,” Sinclair said. “If you are going to cut our pay, then I feel like the whole company should be affected, not just the workers.”

The strikers elected a committee to meet with management. As a result of the negotiations, Corbel agreed to pay the workers double for the day that they were on strike and to raise the installation pay to $40. The company also agreed to an $8 to $10 bonus for each truck stop.

After the strike, workers returned to work, but they still want union representation. Last year, the workers lost a union vote organized by the IBEW, which is currently appealing the outcome.

CWA organizer Erin Mahoney told the Journal News that the union would soon be filing a request for an election with the NLRB and that an election could take place within 42 days after the filing.

But the company has taken steps to stall the election. It filed an unfair labor complaint with the NLRB charging the CWA with inciting the wildcat strike, a charge that the union and the strikers both refute.

The company also contends that another union election can’t take place until one year after the last election.

Anti-austerity demonstrations topple Romanian government

Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc and his entire cabinet resigned on Monday in hopes of quelling anti-austerity demonstrations that began more than two weeks ago. Demonstrators took to the streets to support a cabinet member who resigned to protest a plan by Romanian President Traian Basescu to privatize parts of the country’s health care system.

The size and intensity of the demonstrations caused President Basescu to withdraw his privatization plan, but the target of the demonstrators quickly expanded to include austerity measures imposed on Romania in 2010 after the government accepted a $26 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to deal with fallout from the worldwide financial crisis of 2008.

Despite the protests, President Basescu and the newly appointed Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Urgureanu said that they would not back down from implementing the austerity measures that have made Europe’s second poorest nation even poorer. The opposition bloc led by Victor Ponta of the Social Democratic Party called for early elections, but said only that a new government led by his party and its allies would administer government in a more professional manner.

The street protests began on January 12 shortly after Dr. Raed Arafat, a cabinet minister in charge of Romania’s emergency health services, resigned from the cabinet to protest President Basescu’s plan to implement IMF-supported changes to the country’s health care system that include implementing co-pays for medical treatment and privatizing services, such as emergency treatment, in the country’s hospitals.

Dr. Arafat, who was born in Nablus, Palestine, is a well-respected physician who has improved the nation’s emergency health care system despite it being seriously under funded. He told Al Jazeera that he resigned because he believed that emergency care should be provided on the basis of need not one’s ability to pay. He criticized the privatization plan because it commercialized health care.

President Basescu responded to Dr. Arafat’s resignation by calling him a “leftist.” Shortly after the president’s denunciation of Dr. Arafat, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Bucharest, the capital city, as teachers, nurses, students, retirees, trade unionists, and thousands of other Romanians took to the streets to show their support for the doctor and his stance against privatization.

President Basescu retreated, announcing that he would withdraw his privatization proposal. Dr. Arafat agreed to rejoin the cabinet, but by that time the scope of the demonstrations had expanded. Protestors were angry about the austerity measures and government corruption. They demanded that the government resign.

Demonstrations rapidly expanded beyond Bucharest. Over the course of the last two weeks, about 60 cities reported anti-austerity protests. The demonstrations also grew in intensity. When police tried to break up demonstrations with water cannons and tear gas, young people, whom the Economist described as “football hooligans” fought back with rocks and bricks. More than 100 were arrested.

While the demonstrations began spontaneously and many if not most of the demonstrators don’t belong to any group, unions, which had been fighting against the austerity measures from the beginning, began organizing demonstrations, which helped keep the protests alive.

The IMF required the Romanian government to impose the austerity measures as part of a deal for the loan that the Guardian says “was seen as essential to maintain investor confidence. . . even though (Romania’s) debt to GDP ratio was the fourth lowest in the European Union.”

The impact of the measures has made life in a country where the average monthly wage is about $400 much worse. Pensions were reduced, sales taxes were raised from 19 percent to 24 percent, vital public services were cut, wages for those providing these services were reduced by 25 percent, and labor law was changed to make collective bargaining more difficult.

After the government announced its resignation, demonstrators rallied at University Square in Bucharest on Tuesday to celebrate their victory and to press their demand for the resignation of President Basescu. “The first hurdle is overcome,” read one of the signs at the demonstration. “Boc’s resignation is useless,” said military veteran Florin Ciorain to Scotsman.com at the rally. “Basescu is the one who controls everything.”

San Antonio Greens support Teamster strike

The Bexar County (San Antonio) Green Party recently passed a resolution urging members and consumers to refrain from buying  baking products produced under the Pioneer brand and other brands owned by CH Guenther, a multi-national food processing company. Members of Teamster Local 657 at the Guenther flour mill in San Antonio have been on strike since April because of Guenther’s demands that workers accept concessions that would reduce their health care and pension benefits at a time when the company is making healthy profits.

“A core value of the Green Party is support for worker’s rights,” said Pancho Valdez, a Green Party member. “Our members have been actively supporting this strike because we believe that working people have a right to decent health care and a secure retirement. Workers at the mill have also told us about conditions at the plant that make it an unsafe and unhealthy work environment. Concern for the environment isn’t just about nature, it’s also about wanting to make sure that everyone has a safe and healthy place to live and work.”

Here is the text of the resolution.

  • Whereas our nation’s labor unions are under attack by those who despise organized workers and democracy in general, and
  • Whereas, worker’s rights are a core value of the Green Party, and
  • Whereas, members of Teamsters Local 657 have been on strike since April 25th of 2011, and
  • Whereas, both the company and the union have a long history of producing quality food products in our community, and
  •  Whereas, Pioneer has hired scabs to break the strike, and
  • Whereas, worker’s demands are modest in light of  the company doing well financially,
  • Let it be resolved that the Bexar County Green Party hereby supports the strike, and
  • Let it be further resolved that the Bexar County Green Party calls upon both our members and all San Antonio to contact Pioneer CEO Dale Trembley & Pioneer Human Resources Director Frank Rodriguez @ 210-227-1401 and tell them to return to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith with the workers, and
  • Let it be finally resolved that the Bexar County Green Party urges its members and all San Antonio to refrain from buying Pioneer products under the labels of Pioneer, White Wings, Peter Pan, Morrisson and all biscuits sold at McDonald’s until the strikers and company come to an amicable agreement!

Valdez said that the Teamsters Union had no role in the introduction or passage of the resolution. He did say that the Green Party and Occupy San Antonio will be seeking other ways of supporting the strike and are hopeful that union members including those who are on strike will join with them in these activities.

South Carolina anti-union bill a possible threat to port

As state legislatures convene around the country, right-wing politicians have introduced a number of bills aimed at curbing union power. Indiana lawmakers recently enacted a law making Indiana the 23rd right-to-work-for-less state in the US, and in Arizona, lawmakers will soon be taking up legislation to deny collective bargaining rights to public service workers. But South Carolina seems to be running the most aggressive race to the bottom.

Last year, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley kicked off her four-year term as the state’s chief executive by staking out a clearly anti-union position. “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the State of South Carolina,” Haley said.

This year state representative Bill Sandifer introduced legislation whose goal is to make South Carolina’s right-to-work-for-less law “the toughest in the country.” It would require unions to disclose every financial transaction and make public their membership lists. It would also raise fines for violating right-to-work-for-less laws from $100 to $10,000.

“This unwarranted attack is political grandstanding intended to shift the blame for our economic problems from policy makers to workers,” said Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, a union whose membership is largely African-American and which Bill Fletcher in Solidarity Divided describes as “one of the strongest union and African-American institutions in the state.”

Riley wondered why the legislature would consider such extreme measures considering that only 5 percent of the state’s workforce belong to unions, but he did note that longshore workers in Charleston occupy a powerful position with regards to the state’s commerce.

According to the State Port Authority, cargo moved through the Charleston port affects 280,600 jobs in the state and has an economic impact of $45 billion a year. Because of the ILA’s strategic position, it seems likely that one purpose of Rep. Sandifer’s bill is to bust the ILA.

Such a move could have serious consequences for the state’s economy. “Ninety-five percent of all containers shipped out of East Coast ports are required by contracts to be handled by union labor,” Riley said. “If you bust our union, you close the port of Charleston.”

Brett Bursey, director of South Carolina’s Progressive Network, noted that the same politicians who strongly oppose government intervention in business are now trying to impose harsh regulations on businesses that use union labor. Bursey also warned that if Sanders bill passes it could spark strife at the port.

It’s possible that some people who believe that it’s unjust to put corporate interests above the rights of workers might picket the port if Sandifer’s bill becomes law, Bursey said.

“My guys won’t cross a picket line,” Riley said.

Riley and Local 1422 have a history of protecting their own right to work. Back in 2000, ILA locals 1422, 1422A and 1771 picketed the port to stop the use of non-union workers by one of the stevedore companies.

South Carolina’s then-attorney general Charles Condon decided to bust the picket line and, he hoped, the union as well. He managed to convince local police departments to intervene. As a result, Riley and four other longshore workers were arrested for inciting to riot.

The charges were subsequently dropped after a legal-defense campaign brought the case of the Charleston 5 to national attention. The ILWU, which represents longshore workers on the West Coast, was the first union to throw its support behind the Charleston 5, but the national AFL-CIO soon followed suit. Riley toured the country explaining the union-busting nature of the charges.

As the facts of the case and underlying motives behind the arrests became more well-known, it became much more difficult to prosecute the five. Attorney General Condon compared the five to the 9/11 terrorists, but in the end, all the serious charges against them were dropped. Furthermore, the ILA signed an agreement to use union longshore workers with the company whose original decision to use non-union workers sparked the protest.

EGT recognizes ILWU as bargaining representative

EGT, a multinational grain exporter, agreed to recognize Local 21 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union as the bargaining representative for workers at its new grain terminal in Longview, Washington and agreed to use Local 21’s dispatch hall to staff the terminal. Workers at the terminal on January 30 and 31 signed union authorization cards; the next day, an arbitrator verified their authenticity, and the company and union agreed to negotiate a contract that will finalize the deal.

“EGT’s recognition of ILWU Local 21 as the bargaining representative for workers at its facility in Longview is an important step forward, and we are committed to developing a long-term relationship with EGT – one that benefits the community, establishes good local union jobs for years to come, and contributes to the stability of the Pacific Northwest grain export industry,” said Robert McEllrath, ILWU international president.

EGT’s voluntary agreement ends a bitter conflict in which longshore workers fought hard to win their right to work at the new grain terminal; EGT vigorously resisted their efforts.

At the beginning of January, the ILWU and Occupy Longview initiated separate actions to blockade a grain ship headed for the EGT terminal. The ship was expected to arrive later in January or early February, and the Coast Guard said that it would escort the ship to the terminal.

But the confrontation never materialized. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire called the two sides together to resolve the dispute, and the two sides reached an agreement that led to EGT recognizing the ILWU.

Hundreds of ILWU members and supporters have been arrested in actions taken by the longshore workers efforts to protect their jobs. Demonstrators at the terminal blocked trains loaded with grain, conducted mass picketing of the terminal, and resisted police efforts to suppress their First Amendment free speech rights.

Last Wednesday a jury found four women not guilty of blocking a train at the EGT grain terminal last September. So far six people have been acquitted of charges related to their arrests during the EGT fight, 100 percent of those who have come to trial. Dozens more have had charges dropped because of lack of evidence.

“Three juries have looked at the evidence, and all three juries have found ILWU workers and supporters not guilty of what the prosecutors have accused them of doing,” said Local 21 President Dan Coffman. “We hope that we can move forward and not waste any more taxpayer funds on prosecutions of people who were willing to put their bodies on the line for good jobs and our community. The state should now promote reconciliation and help the community put this dispute behind it.”

USW and Shell reach tentative agreement

United Steelworkers and Shell Oil reached a tentative agreement on a new national labor contract for refinery workers that could serve as a pattern for contracts with other oil companies if ratified by members. The two sides have not released details of the three-year contract, which was set to expire on February 1.

The USW in a statement announcing the agreement said it “was pleased to announce” that it had reached an agreement. The Shell contract could serve as a pattern for new contracts with Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil, BP, Valero, Chevron, Tesoro, Sunoco, Marathon, and PBF Energy.

Before bagaining between the two sides began, the National Oil Policy Council, composed of USW members from local refineries, made health and safety improvements a priority for this contract. Two weeks before the contract deadline, USW members rallied in six states to press the demand for improved safety at the nation’s refineries. Since 2009 when the current contract was implemented, 18 refinery workers have died in on-the-job accidents.

“When we go to the bargaining table with the industry, we’re going to have real changes on health and safety or we’re not going to work,” said USW International Vice-President for Oil Bargaining Gary Beevers at the time that the rallies were held.

Verizon demands concessions; CWA says it will take a movement to win

Verizon remains intransigent in its demand that its union workers accept nearly $1 billion in concessions that include steep cuts to their health care and pension benefits and work rule changes that will make their jobs less secure, CWA District 1 Vice-President Chris Shelton told about 5,500 CWA members on a national union hall teleconference.

CWA President Larry Cohen said that the $100 billion company’s demand for give backs is typical of what’s wrong with the US these days. Large corporations and their executives siphon more of the wealth created at their companies and still demand concessions that lower the living standards of their workers.

It’s going to take a movement to reverse this course, and movement building is the top priority for CWA, Cohen said. Shelton urged all Verizon workers to commit to giving four hours a week of their time to mobilization efforts to convince Verizon to agree to a fair contract.

Verizon’s demand for concession is difficult to justify. It is hardly suffering financially. Over the last four years, it reported $32.5 billion in profit. Those who have benefited the most are the company’s top executives.  Verizon’s top five executives received $258 million in compensation over the last four years, and their benefit package includes country club dues and fees, private jets, a car and driver, and an apartment.

Workers, customers, and taxpayers have not fared as well. Citizens for Tax Justice calls Verizon “one of country’s most aggressive tax dodgers.” It paid no federal income taxes between 2008 and 2010 and received nearly $1 billion in tax rebates.

Tele Truth, a telecommunications customer advocacy group, says that some of that excessive executive compensation should have been spent on much needed upgrades to Verizon’s communication infrastructure; instead, the company reduced its construction budget by 53 percent.

And then there are the workers who are being asked to accept cutbacks at a time of plenty. “When Verizon is given a billion dollars in tax breaks and then they tell me that they don’t have any money to pay for my medical (benefits), I have a problem with that,” said Anita Long, a 32-year Verizon employee.

“The bottom line . . . is that they keep as much revenue as they can and divide it amongst themselves at the top,” said Javier Espinosa, a 15-year Verizon employee. Espinosa said that no matter what workers do, it never seems to be enough for Verizon. “You said you needed to outsource work to save money. Then that wasn’t enough, and now you have tax loopholes where you don’t pay your fair share of taxes. Now that’s not enough.

“And now you have a contract negotiations when you have the opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to participate in society and support middle-class people, middle-class jobs, and that’s not enough. Where does it end?”

Cohen said that Verizon’s tough stance masks its doubts about its ability to outlast the union. He cited Verizon’s action in a recent attempt by 15 Verizon Wireless store workers in Bloomington, Illinois to form a union. To stop 15 people from forming a union, Cohen said, Verizon sent the head of Human Relations at Verizon Wireless to talk to them. On the day of the election, five top Verizon Wireless executives were on hand to watch workers vote, and the company still won only by one vote.

Cohen also said that 25 CWA members and 15 IBEW members who were fired by Verizon while on a 16-day strike last August have not been forgotten and that the unions continue to fight to get their jobs back. So far 85 fired members have returned to work.

Part of building a movement includes finding innovative ways to attack corporate greed. Shelton said that Verizon recently announced that Verizon had formed partnerships with three cable companies to sell each others’ products and that CWA would find a way to fight this monopoly.

Sen. Al Franken on January 31 in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission said that the partnerships “reeked of collusion” and needed FCC’s attention. Franken also said that he would try to get Senate committee hearings held on the proposed deal.

CWA is asking people to support the fight for a fair contract by sending a solidarity  message. “If wealthy corporations like Verizon continue to outsource jobs and hold down worker wages, there is no hope for an economic recovery,” said CWA on its website. “This is why our fight is your fight and why your support is so important.”