Government acts to halt Canadian rail strike

A week ago Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) workers went on strike to thwart attempts by the company to pad profits by reducing pensions and making CP jobs less safe. On Tuesday, the Canadian House of Commons sided with the company and its investors  when it passed a bill ordering the strikers back to work. The bill now goes to the Senate.

If the bill passes the Senate as expected, workers will be forced back to work and the issues that led to the strike will be resolved through binding arbitration. This is the third time that the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has intervened in a national labor dispute on the side of business.

Doug Finnson, Vice-President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC), which represents the 4,800 striking workers, called the government’s back-to-work legislation “outrageous” but said that if enacted, strikers would return to work on Thursday.

CP and the Teamsters, which represents engineers, trainpersons, conductors, yardmen, and rail traffic controllers, have been negotiating a new contract since October 2011. The contract expired on December 31, 2011, but both sides agreed to continue negotiating while workers continued to work under the old contract.

Robert Bouvier, Teamsters Canada president,  said that the company never negotiated in good faith but instead sought deep concessions that would “enrich a handful of shareholders at the expense of workers.”

CP’s biggest shareholder is the US hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, which recently won a CP Board of Directors’ proxy fight that led to the resignation of former CEO Fred Green.

According to Canada’ Globe and Mail, CP, which reported a 2011 profit of CAD$570 million, hoped that it could negotiate a new contract that would reduce pension benefits by as much as 40 percent. CP’s determination to cut pensions was a major reason that 95 percent of TCRC members voted in April to authorize a strike.

“Canadian Pacific wants to (reduce) pensions that workers have accumulated through years of hard work (so it can be more profitable),” Bouvier said. “Meanwhile, management within in the same pension plan are scheduled for increases despite contributing nearly half of what our members contribute.”

In addition to pension reductions, CP is seeking changes to work rules that would make many of its workers work longer and harder and spend more time away from their families. The union says that these proposed changes would make fatigue management more difficult and will lead to safety problems on the rails.

“Fatigue for our members is a reality, not a figment of our imagination,”Finnison said. “Is it too much to ask for our members to be able to sleep at home two days in a row, twice a month?”

The wife of a CP engineer tweeted to the TCRC that her husband’s hectic schedule that often includes 12-hour shifts and days away from home takes a heavy toll on family life. “Family time takes a back seat to work,” she said.

The strike has hurt Canada’s national economy.  For example, $50 million worth of grain is stuck in elevators on Canada’s plains.

The economic impact of the strike and the fact that negotiations between the union and CP broke down on Sunday when a federal mediator assisting the two sides reach a deal withdrew from the bargaining table led Labor Minister Lisa Raitt to introduce the back-to-work legislation on Monday.

This was the third time that the Conservative government has intervened in a national labor dispute. Earlier this year it passed legislation that prevented a strike at Air Canada, and last year, it intervened to stop a strike that turned into a lockout at Canada Post, the country’s postal system.

The government’s readiness to weaken labor’s position in the collective bargaining process caused Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees to denounce the intervention. “This kind of interference in collective bargaining at Canadian Pacific, a private company, continues to signal to business that this government is squarely on the side of the employer,” wrote Moist to Raitt. “Your government has repeatedly failed to remain neutral during industrial disputes and to respect free collective bargaining.”

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CWA, Occupy, and local residents join together to fight corporate greed in Little Rock

Members of the Communication Workers of America, Occupy Little Rock, and a local group fighting to preserve their neighborhoods recently joined forces to protest corporate greed.

On the morning of May 9, about 75 CWA members protested outside the annual shareholders meeting of Windstream Communications, which in 2010 unilaterally reduced, and, in some cases, eliminated health care benefits for Windstream retirees. Protestors carried signs reading “Retirees  Got the Shaft” and “Restore Retiree Healthcare.”

After that demonstration, CWA members joined Occupy Little Rock and a group of local residents in danger of losing their homes because of a Chamber of Commerce sponsored plan to raze their neighborhoods and replace them with a technology business center.

Inside the Windstream shareholder meeting, CWA Local 6171 President Dick Frierson criticized the company for breaking  a promise to provide health care coverage to retirees who had helped build the company.

Back in 2010, Windstream, which was formerly a part of GTE, a company that provided telephone service primarily to rural and mid-sized cities in the Southwest and West, notified retirees that it was unilaterally raising health care premiums for some retirees and eliminating it altogether for others

Windstream took the action despite a memorandum of understanding it negotiated with CWA, which represents 1,300 Windstream workers and 3,000 retirees, promising to protect retiree health care benefits.

The premium increases were steep. According to the Carlsbad, New Mexico Current-Argus, health premiums for Tibursio “Butch” Villegas, a 62-year old resident of Carlsbad, increased from $126 a month to cover himself and his wife to $1,189 a month. Villegas’ new premium payment was nearly as much as his Windstream pension.

“We were assured that if we worked past 30 years, the company would pay 90 percent of the health insurance premium,” said Jimmy Funk, who retired in 1999, to the Current-Argus.

To make matters worse, Windstream sent a survey to retirees asking if they objected to the premium increases. It sued those who responded “yes.”

“Losing coverage was bad enough, but I (was) stunned that we (were) being sued. It was adding insult to injury,” said Johnny Lee, a Windstream retiree whose health care premium to cover himself and his wife nearly equaled his $1,200 a month pension.

A US District Judge sided with Windstream, ruling that the company could unilaterally raise retiree health care premiums.

While Windstream, which is gradually converting itself from an exclusively land line company to one that provides landline and broadband service, was divesting itself of its promise to provide retiree health care, it was spending money to buy potential competitors and other companies that would help increase its market share.

In 2010 it purchased Nu Vox, Inc., Iowa Telecom, Kentucky Data Link, Inc., and Hosted Solutions. Before the acquisition’s, the company had a presence in 29 states. Windstream’s 2011 annual report said that as a result of the acquisitions the company had expanded its presence to 48 states.

While it was buying these companies, it was also receiving federal subsidies totaling $181 million to expand broadband services. In its 2010 Annual Report, CEO Jeffery Gardner said that the capital investment made possible by the subsidies would “qualify for 100 percent depreciation under federal tax law.”

Windstream’s corporate decision disrupted the lives of thousands of its retirees. Residents of Little Rock’s Forest Hill and Fair Park neighborhoods are facing similar disruptions.

The Little Rock Technology Park Authority is considering tearing down the neighborhoods so that it can build a technology business center. Residents of these neighborhoods are mostly low-income minority working or retired people.

The Technology Park Authority, a public agency created and controlled by the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, is seeking a site where it can build facilities to serve technology companies that grow out of research at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas Medical Center or provide technology services to these public institutions.

Residents of the threatened neighborhoods formed We Shall Not Be Moved to protect their homes and neighborhoods.

A statement issued by We Shall Not Be Moved called the proposed demolition of working people’s homes in the inner city, “inhumane” because it will “displace and dispossess hundreds citizen homeowners. . . against their will.

In a statement, CWA said that it was supporting the residents effort to save their homes because it was another attempt by working people “to stop the attack on the American Dream.”

Austin construction workers win important city council vote on downtown project

“We made history last night,” read a message from Austin’s Workers Defense Project (WDP) to its supporters the day after the Austin City Council voted to require the developer of a large downtown tract to work with WDP to ensure that the project’s contractors pay fair wages, don’t commit wage theft, provide training opportunities and follow safe construction work practices. The vote came after five hours of testimony by construction workers about poor working conditions on many Austin construction sites.

Before the testimonies began, about 150 workers and their supporters marched and rallied outside and inside City Hall. “We’re here to make sure these jobs are good jobs that pay a living wage,” said WDP member Christian Hurtado in Spanish as the workers and the supporters rallied outside City Hall. “We’re here to make sure that all the jobs on this project are safe jobs.”

The project Hurtado was talking about is the redevelopment of a city-owned property where the former Green Water Treatment Plant was located. Trammell Crow, one of the largest real estate developers and investors in the US, has proposed buying the property and building apartments, hotels, and office space worth $500 million.

WDP, which organizes low-paid construction workers, many of whom are immigrant workers, had asked the city to require Trammell Crow to negotiate a Premier Community Builders agreement with WDP to ensure that jobs on this project paid a fair wage, were safe, and provided training that could lead to better paying jobs. The City Council had made a similar requirement of Apple as a condition for receiving city financial incentives for a facility it was building.

But Trammell Crow balked at the requirement. It told city staff that it would pay the prevailing wage and require contractors to follow safety laws and ordinances, but wouldn’t negotiate an agreement that would ensure that these promises were carried out. The City Council appeared to be willing to take the developer’s word.

But without an enforcement mechanism like the ones in WDP’s other Premier Community Builders agreements, it’s easy for contractors to ignore existing laws and ordinances. That’s what Juan Bueno, a WDP member said at the rally. “I visited construction sites last summer and talked to workers,” Bueno said. “Most of them never got a water break even though there’s a city ordinance requiring regular water breaks. That’s why I think Trammell Crow must work with WDP and make sure all workers are treated fairly.”

If workers weren’t getting water breaks during an Austin summer that had 85 days when the temperature reached 100 degrees or higher, it’s a sure bet that other safety laws and regulations were being violated.

The same holds true for Trammell Crow’s promise to make contractors pay the prevailing wage. “Prevailing wage laws don’t protect the lowest paid construction workers, who work on the most dangerous jobs,” said Christina Tzintzun, WDP’s executive director. “It’s not unusual for these workers to be paid as little as $7.50 an hour. The prevailing wage law doesn’t lift the wage floor for low-paid workers.”

Tzintzun urged workers at the rally to go into City Hall and express their anger about the possibility that the city would not hold Trammell Crow accountable. The crowd from the rally entered City Hall and many signed up to testify.

Before entering the council chamber,  the workers gathered in the lobby for one last speech. “They’ve taken back their word,” said Reverend Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. “But we’re here to tell them that Austin’s not for sale. No decent builder makes money off another person’s blood. No decent developer gets rich off another person’s poverty. Our message tonight will be that we’re not going down without a fight.”

At 2:00 A.M. after hours of testimony, the council voted unanimously to support a motion by council member Laura Morrison requiring Trammell Crow to work with WDP to set up a worker welfare monitoring program and aim to hire 20 percent of the project’s construction workforce from bilingual technical schools, which will provide opportunities for low-wage workers to move up to good paying jobs.

In addition to the workers, representatives from religious, labor, environmental, and students were on hand to support the construction workers demand for fair wages and safe jobs.

Real pension reform proposed in New York City

American workers are facing a pension crisis, but it’s not the one described by the mainstream press or opponents of traditional pension plans. The real crisis is that many workers face a bleak old age because either they have no pension to supplement Social Security or they have only a defined contribution savings plan like a 401(k) account that will run dry before they die.

New York City Comptroller John Liu recently called attention to this problem saying that the decline of retirement security will cause many low- and middle-income workers to live their old age in poverty. He also said that increased poverty among the elderly will put an enormous strain on government resources.

To deal with this crisis, Liu proposed making a traditional defined benefit pension plan available to workers whose employers don’t offer such a plan. Liu’s proposal would allow workers to contribute to a Personal Retirement Account managed by professionals working for the city’s public pension fund. Upon retirement participants would receive a guaranteed annuity for the remainder of their life.

Employers could also participate in the plan by contributing to the their workers’ accounts. The cost for doing so would be lower than the cost of a defined contribution plan.

Liu’s proposal is based on a plan proposed by Teresa Ghilarducci in her 2008 book entitled When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them. Ghilarducci, the director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at New York’s New School, argues that the decline of traditional employer-based pensions has made it much more unlikely that low- and middle-income workers will have a secure retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

A report from Liu’s office entitled Are New Yorkers Ready for Retirement confirms Ghilarducci’s assessment. According to the report, over the last decade, the percentage of workers in New York City with access to an employer-based pension has declined from 48 percent to 40 percent, leaving many more workers with no supplement to Social Security. Furthermore, 35 percent of New York City households whose head is facing retirement have liquid assets of less than $10,000.

The effect of retirement insecurity in New York is already starting to manifest itself. According to Liu, the number of elderly people living in the city’s homeless shelters is up 55 percent during the last decade with half the increase taking place in the last two years.

As more elderly people slip into poverty, they will put a greater strain on the city’s social services. The cost to the state and federal government will also  increase because they will have to spend more on Medicaid, food stamps, and other similar services.

According to Ghilarducci, much of the reason for the looming retirement insecurity crisis “is that defined contribution plans have replaced employer pension plans,” Ghilarducci writes. “And these new forms of retirement accounts . . . will not fill the gaps created by the loss of employer pensions.”

Ghilarducci says that the problem with defined contribution plans is that they charge high administration fees, workers in the plans have little background or training to help them invest wisely in a wildly fluctuating market, and many take money out of the accounts to pay for emergencies such as the loss of a job or unexpected medical expenses.

Another problem is that defined contribution plans were only intended as a supplement to rather than a replacement for traditional pensions and do not guarantee an income until death after retirement. As a result, many defined contribution plan participants outlive their benefits.

Defined contribution, according to Ghilarducci are best suited to high-income people, who can profit from the plan’s tax advantages.

Without true pension reform like the one Liu is proposing writes Ghilarducci, “only the privileged few will retire voluntarily.” The rest of us will work until we die or until we’re enfeebled and forced to retire.

Hostess bankruptcy judge rules in favor of Teamsters

When Hostess, maker of Twinkies, Wonder Bread, and other bakery products, filed for bankruptcy in January, the mainstream and business press blamed the bankruptcy on high labor costs. Unions representing Hostess workers disputed this claim, citing mismanagement as the cause.

A federal bankruptcy judge recently sided with one of the unions, and in a highly unusual move ruled against a motion by Hostess to terminate its contracts with the Teamsters.

In an earlier ruling, the judge approved a motion by the company to terminate its contracts with locals of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers (BCTGM) whose contracts have not expired. The judge ruled in favor of the company because BCTGM did not oppose the motion. The judge’s ruling authorizes the company to terminate its BCTGM contracts that have not expired but doesn’t require it to do so. So far, BCTGM contracts have remained in effect.

Ken Hall, Teamster general secretary-treasurer, called the judge’s ruling most recent ruling a victory for all Hostess workers.

“It’s a rare day when a bankruptcy judge denies a company’s request to reject its union contracts, and I attribute it to the resolve of our members and the team we assembled to fight the company’s . . .  motion,” Hall said.

In February, more than 90 percent of Teamster members who work for Hostess voted to strike if the bankruptcy court ruled against the workers, and the company tried to terminate its union contracts.

BCTGM said that all of its Hostess locals have taken strike votes, and if the company tries to terminate its contracts, workers will strike at least 33 Hostess production bakeries. He said that locals have been making strike preparations.

A strike by Hostess workers would make it much more difficult for investors to recover their investment or minimize their losses.

As Hall said, it’s rare for a bankruptcy court to side with a union, but in this case, the Teamsters and their experts presented a strong case showing that Hostess’ financial problems were caused by management missteps rather than high labor costs.

For one thing, some of Hostess’ competitors have union contracts equal to or better than the Hostess contracts, yet they’ve managed to remain profitable.

For another, the company’s management made some poor decisions. Harry Wilson, a financial expert hired by the Teamsters to review Hostess’ business practices, told the court that the company’s high debt load, its failure to innovate and keep up with customer preferences, its lack of capital investment, and its failure to maintain its once dominant distribution system were the main reason’s that the company lost money.

In a letter to members, BCTGM President Hurt noted the differences in the way Hostess treated its workers and its it executives. Last year as Hostess’ troubles mounted, the company stopped making payments totaling $4 million a month in to the workers’ pension fund.

A few month later, Hostess gave its then CEO a 300 percent raise from $750,000 a year to $2.5 million a year. Nine other executives received raises of from 35 percent to 80 percent.

Despite the judge’s ruling, Hostess workers are not out of the woods yet. The judge did not require the company to pay back the money it has been withholding from the workers’ pension fund, and the judge said that he would consider another motion to terminate Teamster contracts if the company presented a better plan for emerging from bankruptcy.

Both the Teamsters and BCTGM remain willing to negotiate a new contract that would allow the company to emerge from bankruptcy. Hurt said that any such contract must guarantee that workers will be adequately reimbursed for any concessions they make now when the company returns to profitability. It must also contain an airtight successor clause that guarantees that union contracts remain in place should the company be sold.

The sale of the company remains a distinct possibility. May 9 was the deadline for submitting proposals to buy the company, and those offers are being evaluated.

NATO protests demand fairer economy and end to wars

Demonstrators on Monday kept up their protests at the Chicago meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with a march and rally at Boeing’ world headquarters. Boeing is one of the largest military contractors with close relations with militaries in the US and other NATO nations.

These relations have made Boeing quite profitable, but these profits haven’t kept Boeing from seeking wage and benefit concessions from its workers or  trying to weaken workers’ power by shifting work to anti-union right-to-work states. Boeing is also one of several military contractors that have avoided paying their fair share of taxes.

On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators rallied close to the NATO meeting demanding that money being spent on military misadventures like the 11-year old war in Afghanistan be diverted to working class communities to improve education, health care, and public safety.

On Saturday, the NATO protests got underway with a rally at Chicago’s Daley Plaza organized by the National Nurses Union and endorsed by more than 100 labor, environmental, community, and health groups. The NNU and their supporters called for NATO countries to adopt a transaction tax on speculative financial trades that could raise hundreds of billions of dollars of year to heal communities suffering from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

Occupy Chicago called the Monday action at Boeing a victory because the company decided to close its headquarters for the day rather than face the demonstrators.

“We are hosting a victory party, complete with food, clowns, dancing and music after calls to protest the Boeing company on May 21st resulted in the company directing employees to stay home this Monday, effectively shutting themselves down,” read a posting on Occupy Chicago’s website.

Boeing like many other military contractors has been an extremely profitable business, but has not paid its fair share of taxes. Think Progress reports that between 2008 and 2010, Boeing made before tax profits of $9.7 billion, but its federal income tax rate during those three years was -1.8 percent. For those three years, it received income tax refunds  totaling $178 million, money that could have been used to expand Medicare and Medicaid and fund thousands of public service jobs.

Despite its profitability Boeing continues to look for new ways to keep from sharing its profits with its workers.  In 2011, the company unsuccessfully tried to move work from its unionized plant in Everett, Washington to its non-union, lower-wage plant near Charleston, South Carolina, a right-to-work state.

More recently, the company demanded that seven workers who maintain its flight simulators at Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina agree to accept $6,000 worth of wage and benefit concessions. The workers, who call themselves the Solid Seven and are members of IAM Local 2296, refused to accept the concessions and went on strike in early April.

Sean Tierney, the union’s strike captain called Boeing’s concession demands “an insult to us” and said that the seven workers would protect their well-deserved wages and benefits by outlasting the company.

The City of Chicago tried to divert the Saturday demonstration out of downtown and away from the NATO meeting. But pressure by the National Nurses Union and its supporters caused the city to backdown.

More than 3,000 people heard speakers at Saturday’s rally, endorsed by more than 100 labor, community, health care, and environment groups, call on the US and other NATO nations to adopt a tax on speculative financial transactions such as derivative trading. The collapse of these trades brought on the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent recession that continues to cause pain in many working class communities.

The nurses estimate that a small tax of $0.50 per $100 worth of speculative trading could generate as much as $350 billion a year in the US. That money could be used to improve health care, education, and public safety and upgrade bridges, schools, roads, and other public infrastructure.

“I’ve been a nurse for 38 years  and I have never seen our communities in such disarray and in such suffering as I have in the last couple of years,” said Deborah Burger, RN, and NNU  co-president. “(Wall Street) got us into this mess and they have the money to bail us  out.”

The Chicago Political Economy Group estimates that a tax on speculative trades like the one advocated by NNU would generate enough public money to create jobs that pay $35,000 a year for every unemployed American.

TWU members split on American’s final bankruptcy offer; customer service agents press on with union election

The Transport Workers Union announced Tuesday, May 15 that five of its seven American Airlines bargaining units had voted to accept American’s final offer on a new contract. American declared bankruptcy in November and in March filed a proposal with the bankruptcy court to terminate its union contracts and implement a new contract that would eliminate thousands of jobs, reduce benefits, and alter work rules.

In a related development, the bankruptcy judge on Wednesday, May 16 ruled against American’s non-union customer service agents who had requested a temporary injunction to prevent American from implementing drastic wage, benefit, and working condition cuts before the agents have a chance to vote in a union representation election. The agents, however, pressed forward with their election campaign.

TWU, which represents more than 20,000 American ground crew staff, had been negotiating with the company since March on a new contract that would replace American’s proposal to the bankruptcy court.

In April, American made its final offer. TWU leaders said it was an improvement over the original proposal but still contained decimating job cuts and work rule changes. The union’s leadership didn’t agree to the final offer but decided to let the membership vote on it.

“Our goal from the start has been to create options for our members and to give our members a voice in the bankruptcy process,” said James Little, TWU president. “The bankruptcy courts are designed to protect assets not people. Some of our members found the company’s last offer to be a safer bet than waiting on the court to make a decision. The members in bargaining units that voted ‘no’ thought the proposals were not in their best interests. We respect our members decision regardless of how they voted.”

The two groups that voted “no” were the Maintenance and Related Services unit, 56 percent of whom voted “no,” and  the Stores Clerks, 51 percent of whom voted “no.”

Gary Peterson, president of TWU Local 565, which represents mechanics, stores clerks, and related ground crew at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, opposed the company’s final offer because its guarantees were so weak.

“This agreement did not provide any job protection, and American would have the ability over time to outsource those jobs (preserved by the final offer) as well,” Peterson said to WFAA.

Of all the TWU members who voted, 51 percent voted “yes,” 49 percent voted “no.”

The final offer accepted by the five bargaining units will not go into effect until the judge makes a final ruling on American’s proposal, which is expected to take place on or after June 6.

TWU will continue to represent the units that voted “no” in the bankruptcy court.

The judge’s ruling on May 16 rejecting the non-union customer service agents’ request for a temporary injunction will not affect the workers’ campaign for union representation, said a statement released by the Communication Workers of America, which is supporting the agents in bankruptcy court and helping them form a union.

American has tried to block the union election. Most recently, it ignored an order by the National Mediation Board, which oversees union representation elections in the transportation industry, to provide the NMB with the names and addresses of customer service agents eligible to vote in the upcoming union election.

On Tuesday, pro-union agents and CWA staff carried by hand and delivered labels with the names and addresses of about 10,000 agents eligible for the election to the NMB and urged it to move forward with the election.

“American Airlines employees must be afforded their right to choose union representation in a free election,” CWA President Larry Cohen said in the accompanying letter to NMB General Counsel Mary L. Johnson. “The timing of the election is particularly critical in this situation, as American Airlines is in bankruptcy and is using that proceeding to make immediate, structural and life changing decisions about passenger service agents.”