Actions at shareholders’ meeting kick off 99 Percent Spring

The 99 Percent Spring last week got started in earnest with two big events. In Detroit, demonstrators on April 25 interrupted GE’s annual shareholders’ meeting to demand that the company pay its fair share of taxes and stop shipping jobs overseas. In San Francisco, demonstrators on April 24 interrupted the Wells Fargo shareholders’ meetings to demand that the bank stop foreclosures and pay its fair share of taxes.

“If we pay our fair share of taxes, then the corporations like GE should pay their fair share, too,” said Ed Jude, who came from Milwaukee to participate in the Detroit GE action, to the Detroit News. “If they paid their taxes like us, there would be less of a strain on our social systems.”

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, GE over the last 10 years has paid $1.8 billion in federal taxes while reporting $80.2 billion in profits, an effective tax rate of 1.8 percent.

During the three-year period when most people were suffering the worst effects of the Great Recession, GE paid no federal income taxes and, instead, received federal tax refunds totaling $4.7 billion.

In 2011, GE for the first time in the last four years paid federal income taxes, but the effective tax rate that it paid was 11.3 percent.

“I don’t think most Americans would consider 11.3 percent, not to mention GE’s long-term effective rate of 1.8 percent, to be ‘normal,’ ” said Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice in a February statement on GE’s 2011 taxes.  “But for GE, taxes are something to be avoided rather than paid.”

Demonstrators, who, according to the News, numbered several thousands, were also angry that while GE was being subsidized with generous tax refunds and rebates, it had eliminated thousands of jobs. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, “GE cut its US workforce by 32,000 between 2004 and 2010.” GE since the 1980s has aggressively sought to outsource jobs to other countries.

About three dozen of the demonstrators went inside to voice their concerns. They tried to present a bill totaling $26.5 billion for unpaid taxes to GE CEO Jeffery Immelt. When Immelt began his speech, protestors got up and yelled, “Pay your fair share.” That continued throughout his speech. Each time protestors interrupted Immelt’s speech, they were hustled outside by security guards.

In San Francisco, about 500 people gathered outside the Wells Fargo shareholders’ meeting. Some linked arms to block entrance to the meeting. Others went inside and interrupted the meeting. They were demanding that Wells Fargo stop its “foreclosure factory” and pay its fair share of taxes. About 20 were arrested.

Outside protestors said that Wells Fargo foreclosure factory had damaged thousands of lives. Sarah Lombardo told Bloomberg that two years ago Wells Fargo foreclosed on her parents’ home after her father was injured in an accident and unable to work and her mother got cancer.

“We are here to put stories to the numbers and faces to the bottom line (of Wells Fargo),” said Lombardo to Bloomberg.

Like GE, Wells Fargo received huge federal tax refunds between 2008 and 2010. During this three-year period, it reported $49.1 billion in profits, but its average effective tax rate was -1.4 percent.

Before it started foreclosing on families like the Lombardos, Wells Fargo received a $43.7 billion bailout from the US government. Since then it has paid executive bonuses and compensation totaling $27 billion, including a $14.3 million bonus to CEO John Stumpf. At the same time, the bank has denied 175,336 homeowners facing foreclosure a mortgage modification that would enable them to keep their homes.

The Bay Area has been the scene of a number of actions to save homes facing foreclosure by Wells Fargo. In March, members of ILWU Local 91 joined the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment to occupy the house of Dexter Cato, a Local 91 member, after it was foreclosed by Wells Fargo and put up for auction. Cato’s wife had died and left him the sole support of his four children.

Cato is one of the Wells Fargo 8, a group of homeowners in the Bay Area standing up to Wells Fargo to stop foreclosures on their homes.

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Solidarity action supports striking San Antonio flour mill workers

More than 100 supporters turned out Wednesday, April 25 for a solidarity demonstration with members of Teamster Local 657 to mark the one-year anniversary of their strike at the Pioneer Flour Mill in San Antonio. Last year, the workers walked off their job to protect their health care benefit.

Frank Perkins, president of Local 657, told those at the demonstration that the strike was not an isolated event but rather the result of a larger assault on worker rights and our way of life. What we’re seeing at the Pioneer Mill is just another battle that’s taking place in the War Against Workers that’s taking place all across the US, Perkins said.

In the case of the Pioneer strike, the war has been extended to include the workers’ families.

The Pioneer Mill is owned by CH Guenther & Sons, an international food processing company with plants in three other states besides Texas and in the United Kingdom and Belgium. Its brands include Pioneer, White Wing/La Paloma, Williams, Sun Bird, and Morrison’s. It also provides flour to McDonald’s for its hamburger buns.

Despite the company’s extensive resources, it wants to triple the amount that its Pioneer workers pay to provide health insurance for their families. Last year, with two years remaining on its contract with the workers, CH Guenther insisted that the union agree to renegotiate their health care insurance coverage.

The company proposed that the weekly premium to cover family members be increased from $11 per week to $35 per week. The increase would have made it impossible for many workers, whose average pay is about $14.50 per hour, to continue to cover their families.

The company offered a 3 percent raise for the first year to help workers offset the increase but nothing for the second year. Despite the one-year pay increase, workers would still have seen their take home pay reduced in the first year and there was no guarantee that premiums wouldn’t increase in the second year. A second increase would have eroded take home pay even further.

The workers could see the writing on the wall and knew that if this substantial premium increase took effect, the company would want more concessions in the future, which would erode their standard of living even further. They elected to fight back and walked off the job.

About 90 workers struck a year ago. According to the San Antonio Express, ten of the strikers have found other jobs or retired, leaving about 80 still on strike.

A number of unions and other organizations joined the strikers for the solidarity demonstrations. Members of CWA, American Federation of Teachers, Ironworkers, Laborers, Sheet Metal Workers, and Teamsters from other companies like UPS were at the demonstration. They were joined by members of the Occupy Movement, the Green Party, the International Socialist Organization, and local elected officials.

Republicans, business allies fail to overturn rules for fair union elections

The US Senate on April 24 voted 54-45 against an attempt to overturn new National Labor Relations Board rules that make union representation elections more fair and expedite the collective bargaining process after workers win a representation election. Republicans tried to pass a resolution that they hoped would nullify the new rules. Business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce supported the Republican’s resolution

The new rules, which take effect on April 30, reduce the time between the submission of a petition requesting a union representation election and the election itself and change the appeals procedures to prevent abusing the process to avoid bargaining collectively.

Unions supported the rule changes, which they call modest and based on common sense, because too many employers use the long period between the submission of the union representation petition and the election to mount anti-union campaigns that skirt, and in some cases violate, labor laws. When workers win election, it’s not uncommon for employers to drag  out the appeal process to avoid collective bargaining, a right established more than 70 years ago by the National Labor Relations Act.

“The preamble to the National Labor Relations Act actually says its purpose is ‘to promote collective bargaining,’” said a statement issued by the Communications Workers of America. “The US has fallen far from that standard, and workers’ rights are under attack. The US Senate today took a small step in protecting workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively by upholding modest rule changes made by the NLRB.”

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) supported the rule changes because the changes could help low-income workers, who face job abuses at a much higher rate than most workers, organize unions and bargain collectively for wages and benefits that could lift them out of poverty.

“With our economic recovery still sluggish, it is critical that our elected leaders uphold workers’ right to organize to improve their workplaces,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the NELP. “This is especially true for low-wage workers, who comprise roughly 25 percent of the workforce but daily face the risks of employer theft of wages, sub-minimum wages, and dangerous working conditions.”

According to the NELP, low-wage workers with union representation earn 20 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 41 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care benefits, and 30 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension.

“Several years into the economic recovery, employment growth has been concentrated in lower-wage occupations where workers are most vulnerable to unscrupulous employment practices, making reform of union election rules more important than ever,” Owens said. “Employers use frivolous challenges and delays as a strategy to wear down workers’ determination to hold a union election.”

The Service Employees International Union provided one example of how employer delaying tactics undermined an effort by low-income workers to organize and bargain collectively.

According to SEIU, in 1997, a group of workers for Florida’s largest for-profit nursing home organized a union and sought to bargain collectively with their employer. But after the workers’ election victory, the company exploited the appeals process, which took 11 years to complete.

In the meantime, union activists like Bob O’Neil, a licensed vocational nurse, faced harassment and intimidation as  management trumped up disciplinary problems, like signing in from break a minute late, or changing their schedules for them to leave early, and then writing them up for either not finishing up their work or for staying late to finish it up.

Teamster President James Hoffa called Tuesday’s defeat of the Republican’s resolution a victory over extremist, anti-worker politicians. “You have to ask who these senators represent, American working families or corporations who want to pay their employees as little as they possibly can?” Hoffa said.

“Prepared to endure for the duration,” Lockheed workers strike to protect pension and health care

Members of IAM Local 776 at Lockheed-Martin in Fort Worth on Monday walked off the job after rejecting a company contract proposal that would eliminate pensions for new hires and increase health care costs for all workers. During a vote on Sunday, 93 percent of those voting rejected the company’s final offer and authorized a strike. Most Local 776 members work at Lockheed-Martin’s Fort Worth airplane assembly plant that makes F-16 and F-35 fighters for the Air Force.

Local 776 President Paul Black told WFAA-TV that “anger (among the workers) is building, and now that anger is turning to action.”

Workers are angry that the company’s plan to eliminate pension for new hires will lead to a freeze and/or elimination of everyone’s pension. The union’s Negotiating Committee told members, “Lockheed has made no bones of the fact that they do not want be providing pensions to employees.”

The committee warned that if the company no longer makes pension contributions for new hires, there will come a point when the pension plan will no longer be able to sustain current benefits. At that point, the company will likely freeze the plan and then try to dump it.

“We know they’ll do it, because we’ve seen what Lockheed does,” the committee said and pointed to actions taken by United Space Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed.

“Two contracts ago, they took the pension from new hires. The next contract, they froze the pension for everyone. They haven’t sold the plan off – yet. But you can bet they will as soon as they find a buyer!”

Workers are also angry about the increased health care costs that the company wants them to pay to cover their families. According to the union, the company’s proposal would increase worker contributions for family health care coverage by $2,800 over the three-year term of the contract. About 74 percent of the workers cover their families.

The company also proposes to introduce a high-deductible, so-called “customer driven” health care plan, LM Healthworks, that workers could sign up for instead of the current comprehensive health care plan.

In a flyer to members, the union warned that high deductible plans like LM Healthworks are “a scam” that are good only if you never use it. The union pointed to a Consumers Union assessment of these so-called consumer driven plans as misnamed because they “increase deductibles and shift costs to sicker employees.”

Another flyer says that the company has shifted its management employees and other non-union employees to LM Healthworks and would like to put all employees in the plan eventually. There’s only one problem with this plan says the flyer, “We have a contract and we don’t have to agree to it. IAM 776 members are telling the Negotiating Committee that if it takes a strike to explain to Lockheed Martin that we won’t accept snake-oil insurance, so be it.”

That’s what the workers did, and it looks like they are prepared for a long strike. Well before the negotiations began, union leadership began warning workers to prepare for a strike. One informational flyer told workers what to expect: “There is a class war going on today, and now the war is coming to us. It’s important to start saving now so we can protect what our parents and grandparents fought so hard to get.”

During the negotiations, the union blunted company efforts to define the issues of negotiations by keeping members well informed and defining the issues themselves. In addition to issuing flyers, it created a website page where members could get the latest news about the negotiations.

The union also organized committees to handle the logistics of the strike and to keep members and the public informed. In addition to a Strike Committee, the union set up committees to manage communication, community service, a film crew, and the kitchen.

Black told Reuters, “These are pretty big issues. It may take more than just a two or three-week strike. We’re prepared to endure for the duration.”

Union workers say corporate greed caused American Crystal Sugar’s lockout

Members from 11 Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) locals representing sugar workers rallied on April 14 at the gates of an American Crystal Sugar (ACS) plant in East Grand Forks, Minnesota to support 1,300 BCTGM members who have been locked out for eight months by ACS.

“The entire BCTGM International is behind the locked out ACS members,” said David Durkee, BCTGM secretary treasurer at the rally. “We will stand strong with them as long as it takes to win justice.”

ACS on August 1 locked out workers at its sugar beet processing facilities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa after 96 percent of them rejected a new contract proposal that would have cut their health care benefit, reduced their take home pay, and outsourced more of their work.

Workers said that ACS’s concession demands were unfair because the company has been highly profitable and has increased its top executives’ pay over the last two years by between 34 percent and 52 percent.

On April 19, ACS, a sugar beet processing cooperative, held a special closed-door meeting of shareholders at which it announced that this year’s payout would be 24 percent lower pay than last year’s. Outside of the meeting, picketing BCTGM members  blamed the shareholders’ loss on the company’s lockout.

“They’re just losing money, instead of giving us a good contract, a fair contract,” said Mike Garcia, a Local 167G member to Valley News Live. The local union estimates that productivity at the processing plants has declined by as much as one-third since the company hired replacement workers.

Valley News Live reports that the shareholder payment will drop from $73 per ton last year to a projected $59 per ton this year. One grower said that the lower payout will cost his 1,000 acre farm about $300,000 this year.

The lockout appears to be part of a company strategy to bust the union. ACS CEO Dave Berg in November compared the lockout to cancer treatment designed to remove a tumor, which company management had been planning for some time.

The lockout, however, has had far-reaching effects beyond workers and shareholders. A report issued by the union in November finds that the lock has cost the local economy of the Red River Valley where ACS’s plants are located about $30 million–$12 million in lost worker purchasing power and $18 million in indirect costs.

The union contends that workers and the community that supports ACS are suffering because of ACS’s greed, whose 2011 net revenue totaled $1.5 billion, up from $1.2 billion in 2010.

While ACS was demanding concessions from workers, whose wages range from $30,000 to $50,000 per year, it was giving top management generous raises. CEO Berg’s 2011 salary was $2.4 million, 50 percent higher than his 2009 salary. Chief Financial Officer Joseph Talley’s salary topped $1 million, up from about $750,000 in 2009.

BCTGM has organized a corporate campaign to fight back against this corporate greed. Earlier this month, locked out ACS workers rallied at a North Dakota customer meeting of CoBank, a banking cooperative that provides multiple credit lines totaling $370 million to ACS.

“CoBank customers need to be aware of the actions their bank is taking,” said Tony St. Michel, a locked out worker. “Their investments could be in jeopardy because Crystal Sugar executives are mismanaging the company.”

“Crystal Sugar management has told shareholders that they planned this lockout for a long time, and that it would cost them a lot of money,” said Nathan Rahm, another ACS worker. “Management sees gutting our contract and killing our communities as an investment in their future, in lining their own pockets. CoBank, by investing in Crystal Sugar, is supporting this lockout and the devastation it’s causing in our communities up and down the Valley.”

In February, ACS workers joined locked out workers from Cooper Tires in Findlay, Ohio in a March for Justice that began in North Dakota and ended in Ohio. The purpose of the march was to dramatize the corporate greed driving a spate of lockouts that companies across the US and Canada have been using to drive down wages and benefits.

Cooper Tires workers returned to work in March after workers voted to ratify a new contract that their union, USW Local 207L, and the company negotiated.

Solidarity rally for Pioneer Flour Mill strikers set for Wednesday, April 25

Workers at the Pioneer Flour Mill in San Antonio have been on strike for a year now. On Wednesday, April 25, supporters will hold a solidarity demonstration at the strike headquarters, 1700 South Alamo, across the street from the Pioneer Flour Mill. Join the strikers for lunch at 11:00 A.M., then join them for a solidarity rally near the mill’s gate after lunch.

“Show your support for the hard working people that continue the fight for fairness and equality, not just for themselves but for all middle-class workers,” reads the flyer announcing Wednesday’s solidarity action.

The Pioneer Mill is owned by CH Guenther & Sons, an international food processing company, which makes baking products under a number of different brand names including Pioneer, Wing Wing/La Paloma, Sun Bird, and Morrison. The San Antonio mill also produces flour that McDonald’s uses in its hamburger buns and other bakery products.

The strikers, who belong to Teamsters Local 657, are trying to protect their health care and pension benefits. They also want the company to take their safety concerns more seriously. Food processing is dangerous work, and the strikers say that there have been a number of serious accidents at the mill but that the company has ignored their safety concerns.

Up to this point, the strikers have defied all odds. About 100 union members walked off the job on April 25, 2011  after the company’s last best offer included cuts to their health care benefit and too little money for a retirement plan. The company, which owns flour mills and other food processing plants in Texas, South Carolina, Kansas, the UK, and Belgium, has extensive resources, yet has been unable to break the Teamsters’ strike.

You can show your support for these determined workers by coming to San Antonio on Wednesday, April 25 to demonstrate your solidarity with them.

Judge postpones ruling on Hostess’ motion to terminate Teamster contract

Update: The Teamsters on May 1 reported that a federal bankruptcy judge granted Hostess’ motion to delay until May 11 the judge’s ruling on the company’s Section 1113 filing to set aside its contracts with the Teamsters. May 11 is only two days after the deadline for investors to submit proposals to buy Hostess.

The Teamsters had urged the judge to delay his ruling until May 17, so that all parties to the bankruptcy filing would have sufficient time to review the proposals.

The judge granted Hostess’ Section 1113 filing to set aside its contracts with BCTGM, which represents about 5,000 Hostess workers. BCTGM did not object to the company’s request. The judge’s ruling does not require the company to set aside its BCTGM contract but rather authorizes it to do so. It is now up to the company to decide if and when it will set aside the contracts.

A federal bankruptcy judge on April 19 postponed until May 1 a ruling on a motion by Hostess Brands to eliminated its collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters. The company filed a Bankruptcy Code Section 1113 motion asking the court to terminate its contract with the Teamsters to help it emerge from bankruptcy. Hostess, the maker of Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and other snack foods, filed for bankruptcy in January, the second time in a little more than three years.

The bankruptcy judge urged both parties to continue negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

At the hearing on Hostess’ motion, Teamsters’ expert witnesses testified that worker wages and benefits were not the cause of the company’s bankruptcy, pointing out that in 2009 the union made $110 million worth of concessions to help the company get back on its feet after the initial bankruptcy filing. Teamster members also said if sacrifices were needed, they should be shared equally by all stakeholders including management.

About a week earlier, the company’s creditors informed the court that last July, Hostess’ top four executives, Gary Wandschneider, John Stewart, David Loesser, and Richard Seban received raises ranging from 75 percent to 80 percent even as the company was preparing to file for bankruptcy.

Ken Hall, Teamster general secretary-treasurer called the executives’ big pay raises, “outrageous” and said that the raises were further evidence that the company wants its workers to make all the sacrifices to keep the company afloat.

Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn reacted quickly to the news about the raises by announcing that the four executives had agreed to work for an annual salary of $1 until Hostess emerges from bankruptcy or December 31, whichever comes first. He didn’t say whether the executives would refund their raises to the company.

Hostess has been demanding that its workers accept steep cuts to their health care and pension benefits, work rule changes that will make employees work longer and harder for less money, and more outsourcing of company work.

The Teamsters, who represent about 7,500 Hostess workers, presented a counter offer last Sunday that includes $150 million worth of concessions but demands meaningful sacrifices by management. “Executives, as well as all stakeholders, . . . (must) share equally in all the financial sacrifices necessary for Hostess to emerge from bankruptcy instead of paying lip service to it,” Hall said.

The Teamster counter offer includes a language to rescind all executive pay increases and for those receiving the raises to repay them to the company.

During the hearing, Dr. Michael Belzer, a labor economist at Wayne State University and a Teamster expert witness, testified that worker pay and benefits didn’t cause Hostess’ bankruptcy. A report he wrote and submitted to the court says that an apples-to-apples comparison of Hostess’ workers to comparable workers in comparable regions shows that Hostess workers’ compensation is slightly less than that of its competitors.

Harry Wilson, CEO of MAEVA Group, a boutique financial services firm focused on corporate turnarounds and restructuring, also testified as a Teamster expert witness. A report he wrote and submitted to the court says that Hostess’ financial difficulties were “the result of a number of problems largely of its own making.”

Some of the problems he cites include underinvestment in products, facilities, and equipment; a hollowing out of a distribution system that once gave the company a competitive advantage; failure to innovate; management missteps that went uncorrected by the board; and excessive debt.

Hall said that the best outcome would be for the company and Teamsters to reach an agreement that would make a judge’s ruling unnecessary but warned that if the court terminates the agreement as requested by Hostess, Teamsters would go on strike. In March, 90 percent of Hostess Teamster members approved a strike if the contract is terminated.