Walmart suppliers accused of slave-like conditions in Thai factories

Strikes in April by migrant workers in Thailand exposed slave-like conditions in food processing factories whose products end up in European, Australian, and American retail stores like Walmart.

On April 8, about 1,000 Cambodian workers at the Pattana Seafood factory in Songkla, Thailand gathered at the gates of the factory after they were told that their food allowance had been cut.

“The management apparently decided to reduce the benefit for the workers and almost immediately a protest erupted,” said migrant advocate Andy Hall from Thailand’s Mahidol University to 774 ABC Melbourne shortly after the strike erupted. “Workers were very angry so they gathered outside of the gate, and it started to get a little bit heated and there were police brought in, shots fired and now we just have a situation where we have a lock-out.”

The workers’ anger was prompted by their employer’s decision to reduce their food allowance in order to claw back money from a pay raise resulting from the Thai government’s minimum wage increase that became effective April 1. But there was more that fueled the workers indignation.

The workers had been recruited by a labor broker CDM Trading Manpower. Most of the workers signed a two-year contract with CDM that included, according to the Bangkok Post “a room to stay, a mattress, pillow, plate and a food allowance.”

When they arrived at the seafood processing plant, they found that they had to work 26 days a month and that half their pay was deducted and given to CDM for what the workers called “bondage payment.” They also found that if they didn’t like their jobs, they couldn’t leave because CDM confiscated their passports.

“Most of the workers wanted to go home, but we will be in debt from preparing to travel and an unknown amount we are told to pay to get passports and transportation,” said a 20-year old Cambodian worker from Kampong Thom to the Post.

Pattana Seafood supplies shrimp and other seafood to Rubicon, a major supplier to Walmart, reports 774 ABC Melbourne.

A similar strike about the same time took place at Vita, a pineapple canning factory in Kanchanturi province. According to the Post, 73 percent of Vita’s shipment to the US went to Walmart and were sold under the store’s value brand Great Value.

Vita employs about 7,000 workers at its factory in Kanchanturi. Many of them are immigrants from Myanmar and of these about 1,000 were working without the proper documents.

About 4,000 of the workers struck when their employer reduced their food allowance to offset minimum wage increases.

Both disputes were finally settled when workers who wanted to return home were allowed to do so; however, those who remained had their food allowance reduced and still work in semi-bondage to their labor contractor.

Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), “an organization of Walmart workers, for Walmart workers,” is urging people to sign an online petition to demand that Walmart take immediate action to end the slave-like conditions at the factories of its suppliers.

“These egregious violations must not stand,” said a recent e-mail from OUR. “Tell Walmart that as the largest grocer in the world and the largest importer of shrimp in the US, they have responsibility to call for an end to these abuses.”

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Support for Lockheed strike to preserve pensions picks up momentum

The strike to preserve pensions and health care benefits by Lockheed Martin workers seems to have struck a chord among other workers as support for the strikers keeps picking up momentum. In the meantime, the company is desperately trying to get workers to give up their fight for a secure retirement by spreading false information and spying on its workers.

Members of IAM District Lodge 776, whose members work at Lockheed’s airplane assembly plant in Fort Worth, Edwards Air Force Base in California, and PAX Naval Air Base in Maryland in late April struck the company when it insisted that their new contract eliminate pensions for new hires and substantially increase workers’ cost for their health care benefit.

Last week, District 776 received a letter that left the local communications committee speechless. It was from Jerry Williams, president of  IAM Local Lodge 2786, a local with fewer than 200 members at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The letter contained a $5,000 donation to District 776’s strike effort.

“This letter is to express our pride in the fight that your membership is waging against Lockheed Martin,” reads the letter. “Our local lodge has members that have to deal with the same greedy employer.

“It’s times like this that all Fighting Machinists must come together to support the moral efforts of all members no matter what district lodge, local lodge, and/or region of the country this fight is occurring.”

Local 776 also received $3,000 checks from IAM Local 709 in Marietta, Georgia and the Transportation Communications Union/IAM.

On Tuesday, May 15, retired machinist Frank Martin showed up at the union office and made a $500 contribution out of his own pocket to support the strike. Martin told District 776 Business Manager David Webb and member Anna Richie how proud he was of the union’s members for their stand against the company.

Members and officials of other unions have been showing up on the picket line as well. Union supporters who recently joined strikers on the picket line include those of UAW Local 219, an amalgamated local representing manufacturing workers throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Felipe Gutierrez, Communications Workers of America Local 6201 legislative chair, and Lee Forbes, AFL-CIO director of human relations.

State Representative Lon Burnham and Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Steve Maxwell also walked the picket line.

Early Wednesday morning Local 776 members at the PAX Naval Air Base in Maryland were joined by members of the Seafarers International Union as they picketed Lockheed corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. District 776’s strike website called the demonstration a wake up call to let the company know how serious workers are about protecting a safe and secure retirement for all workers.

Meanwhile the company appears to be mounting a scare campaign in hopes of getting workers to accept their concession demands. According to District 776, ING, the company administering the strikers’ savings plan, at the behest of Lockheed sent letters to strikers who borrowed money from the plan. The letter contained misleading information that threatened immediate penalties for missed loan payments. The union corrected the misinformation on its strike website.

The union also filed unfair labor practices charges against the company for spying on strikers, for spreading false information about proposals that the company characterized as being those of the union, and for bypassing the union and it’s negotiating committee with information about the company’s proposals.

The company’s tactics don’t appear to be having much impact. A recent video produced by IAM’s News Network entitled, “Ain’t No Way!” captures the strikers determination to resist Lockheed’s concession demands.

“The membership has drawn a line in the sand,” said Robert Martinez, IAM vice-president who was on the picket line with the strikers. “No more concessions. No more take aways.”

“This was the worst contract I’ve ever seen,” said Local 776 member Robert Oliver about the company’s contract proposal. “It was beyond a slap in the face.”

“I’m not crossing the picket line,” said Kevin Burns, another Local 776 member. “If we’re out for six months, I’ll be out here for six months. I won’t be crossing. We’ll be out here one day longer than they (Lockheed) can stand it.”

California faculty members authorize strike to protect public higher education

Earlier this month, members of the California Faculty Association voted in favor of a two-day rolling strike at the California State University (CSU) System’s 23 campuses should the bargaining process laid out by state law fail to provide a fair contract. Of those voting, 95 percent voted in favor of the strike. CFA has been negotiating with the CSU administration for a new contract since the old contract expired nearly two years ago.

Before the old contract expired, CFA proposed that the contract be extended and that faculty and administration join forces to fight for more state funding to improve education at the state’s largest institution of public higer education.

The administration declined the offer, and instead insisted that faculty accept concessions in their new contract that limit academic freedom and radically change the concept of public higher education.

At a rally outside the May meeting of the CSU Board of Regents, Lillian Taiz, CFA president, urged the regents and CSU’s management “to get their priorities straight.”

According to the CFA, CSU’s chancellor Charles Reed is intent on remaking CSU in the image of for-profit private universities. Since 2008, student tuition has increased 318 percent and CSU’s for-profit Extended Education program, which delivers most of its courses online at a higher cost, has been expanding.

The administration has encouraged more students to take courses through Extended Education by limiting enrollment and the number of classroom courses that students can enroll in.

CFA contends that Chancellor Reed is using the new contract to make changes that expand Extended Education and make it more profitable. The contract proposed by Chancellor Reed would increase class sizes, pay faculty who teach Extended Education courses less than faculty who teach the same course in a classroom, and give campus president’s more control over the classes that faculty teach.

At the same time, it would increase the growing reliance on part-time faculty to teach courses and deprive them of their only source of job security–automatic yearly renewal of their contract.

The chancellor’s proposed contract would also freeze facutly pay, but allow wage and benefit negotiations to reopen during the course of the contract, making it possible for management to reduce wages and benefits while the contract is in effect.

While CSU management has been raising student tuition and trying to force a concessionary contract on its faculty, it has been generously doling out large salaries to its top administrators. CFA reports that since Chancellor Reed became head of CSU, executive compensation has increased 71 percent.

Executives at the very top have fared even better. Two campus presidents were recently given raises of $29,500 and $27,605 a year. In 2011, CSU hired a new San Diego State University president at an annual salary of $400,000, $100,000 more than his predecessor. At the same, it boosted student tution by 12 percent.

At a May press conference to announce the strike vote, CFA’s Taiz spoke out against the skewed priorities of CSU’s administration.  “Enough of executives putting themselves above the needs of the students, and of the public university,” Taiz said. “Enough of managers using budget cuts as an excuse to destroy the quality of students’ education. The message to Chancellor Reed is absolutely clear.The CSU faculty have run out of patience. It is time to address seriously the issues before us so that our faculty can get back to the business of providing quality higher education to the students of California.”

On May 4, two days after the strike vote was announced, CFA and representatives of CSU’s administration met to discuss a new contract. After three days, the talks broke off. CFA blamed the administration because it refused to budge from its essential concession demands. Mediation and fact finding appears to be the next step toward resolving the impasse.

If mediation and fact finding don’t yield a fair contract, a series of two-day strikes at the 23 CSU campuses could take place next fall. “There will be hundreds of faculty and supporters from other unions on the picket lines,” said Kim Geron, CFA vice-president. “ And they will be joined by students and staff who are as fed up as we are.”

GAO report says employer policies discourage workers from reporting injuries

The US Government Accountability Office recently released a report stating that employer safety records that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration use to gauge workplace safety in high hazard industries are often inaccurate because of employer safety policies that reward under reporting and punish accurate reporting. In 2009, the GAO issued a report stating that fear of reprisals caused workers to forgoe reporting injuries or job-related illnesses.

The under reporting, according to both reports, allows employers engaged in hazardous activities  to qualify for a voluntary reward program that exempts them from routine OSHA safety inspections. The more recent report says that OSHA has done little to correct the problem of inaccurate safety records.

The 2009 report stated that even though OSHA audits safety records kept by employers in high hazard industries, the audit rarely interviews workers to verify the information in the records. The report also said that disincentives may discourage workers from reporting injuries and illnesses. The threat of being fired or disciplined is one example of disincentives that the GAO report cites.

According to the report, 67 percent of occupational health and safety stakeholders and occupational health and safety practitioners “reported observing worker fear of disciplinary action for reporting an injury or illness, and 46 percent said that this fear of disciplinary action has at least a minor impact on the accuracy of employer injury and illness records.”

The 2009 report suggested some steps that OSHA could take to improve the accuracy of safety records including interviewing workers during audits of the records, minimizing the time between the date of reported injuries and the date of OSHA record audits, updating the list of high hazard industries that have their records audited, and training employers on injury reporting standards.

The more recent report found that rate-based safety programs provide an incentive to under report injuries and that 75 percent of the companies audited by OSHA use rate-based safety programs.

Rate-based safety programs usually combine incentives and punishments for keeping injury rates below a certain level. As a result, workers may be reluctant to report injuries or illnesses because they are afraid that doing so might either jeopardize a safety bonus or result in punishment.

The United Steelworkers has long campaigned against company safety policies that discourage workers from reporting injuries. “Such programs make employers’ injury rates look good while job hazards go unidentified and uncorrected,” said Leo Gerard, president of USW. “We’ve seen far too many tragedies and catastrophes in facilities where employers are playing these numbers games.”

The new report says that OSHA could work with companies that use rate-based safety programs to convince them to switch to behavior-based safety programs that eliminate disincentives for reporting injuries. Behavior-based safety programs encourage open communication between workers and employers.

But so far, OSHA has done little to encourage companies to switch from reporting policies that create disincentives to record injuries accurately, and according to the new report has not acted on implementing the GAO’s 2009 suggestions for improving the accuracy of its injury reports.

Gerard called on OSHA to act on recommendations by GAO in both reports. “OSHA (must) move forward swiftly with a regulation that would require employers to implement effective injury and illness prevention programs and outlaw programs that discourage job-related injury and illness reporting,” Gerard said.

European unions and social justice groups gather to plan alternative to austerity

While voters in Greece and France were punishing leaders for imposing austerity measures, three of Europe’s largest public sector unions were meeting in London to plan a continent-wide movement that can build the political muscle needed to implement an alternative to the austerity measures that have driven unemployment in the Euro zone to an all-time high. A few days later, representatives from the continent’s social justice organizations and unions met in Brussels with a similar purpose.

“The austerity movement has failed,” said David Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, the UK’s largest public sector union. “The time is right for an alternative that will not only work, but will be fairer. Our powerful alliance of unions is ready to take on the challenge.”

UNISON was joined by Ver.di of Germany and CGIL of Italy at the London conference. The three unions represent more than 5 million public sector workers.

A statement issued by the three unions summed up the cause of the current crisis in Europe:

We live a bizarre triumph of failed policies – the deregulation of financial and labor markets has led to increased inequalities and the near collapse of the financial system, and still many governments and not least those of Germany, Italy and UK as well as the European Commission are continuing to push for them.

Austerity policies implemented by governments throughout Europe have reduced government spending for services that benefit the working class, laid off thousands of public sector workers, de-regulated some of the labor market, and encouraged privatization of public resources.

As a result of these policies, the Euro zone unemployment rate rose to 10.9 percent in March, the highest it has been since countries started using the Euro as their currency. The March unemployment rate was made public on May 3 by Eurostat, which collects and publishes economic data for countries in the Euro zone.

March was the 11th straight month that the Euro zone unemployment rate has increased over the previous month. The unemployment rate in Spain is 25 percent and in Greece, it’s nearly 22 percent. Rising unemployment has increased poverty and misery in Europe.

The (Euro zone) is being turned into a purely economic union, where social concerns are sidelined,” said Frank Bsirske, Ver.di, general secretary. “It is being turned into a union of austerity. Not only will this be damaging for Europe’s people, it will not be viable from an economic point of view. A starting point for challenging this damaging narrative is a public debate about how we create a tangible alternative.”

The unions said an alternative to current austerity policies should consist of increased government investments in human capital and new technologies that will improve the environment. According to the union’s statement, “A job or training guarantee for young people and a green new deal are central to the plans for jobs, growth, and fairness.”

The money spent on these investments would be offset by a tax on financial transactions and a crackdown on wealthy individuals and companies that evade taxes.

The unions said that a coalition of unions, social justice organizations, and individuals would be needed to win a new social contract for the people. They pointed to a successful alliance between public sector workers and the public that stopped the privatization of local water utilities in Italy as a model that could be expanded to implement an alternative to austerity.

In Brussels, 300 people came together to discuss the causes of the financial crisis that led to the austerity measures and discuss alternatives to austerity. People attending including those from all over Europe who have opposing their governments’ austerity measures and unions.

The conference was organized by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute. The participants agreed to participate in Europe-wide demonstrations against austerity including a May 12 day of action called Real Democracy Now Global Spring and a demonstration later this month against the austerity policies of the European Central Bank.

“This crisis could represent an opportunity for Europe to build fairer, greener, more democratic societies,” said Kenneth Haar, of the Corporate Europe Observatory. “This is the message that came from our conference, that we hear from the grassroots – and that Europe’s politicians must listen to.”

American Airline unions navigate difficult bankruptcy trail

Members of the Transport Workers Union who work for American Airlines this week will begin receiving information about their upcoming vote on the company’s final best offer for a new contract.

AMR, the holding company that owns American, filed for bankruptcy in November and earlier this year filed a Section 1113 pleading with the bankruptcy judge asking him to terminate its union contracts. Since then, TWU and American have been negotiating for a new contract. In April, the company made its final best offer.

Over the weekend, TWU, the Allied Pilots Association, and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants co-signed an open letter to the AMR Board of Directors urging a merger with US Airways.

In a related development, American is blocking an attempt by its non-union customer service representatives to join the Communication Workers of America and win collective bargaining rights.

In a video message available on the TWU website, union President James Little told members that the union leadership would not be recommending a position on American’s final offer. “The decision to vote yes or no is yours and yours alone,” Little said to members.

In March, American proposed a new contract to the bankruptcy court that would replace the current contract. The union since then has been negotiating with the company. Little said that the union negotiating team secured some changes to the company’s original proposal that “limit some of the harsh concessions” demanded by American. Notably, the new offer saves more than 3,000 jobs eliminated in the company’s first proposal. But Little also called the company’s final offer “concessionary and decimating.”

If workers reject the final offer, the bankruptcy judge will rule on whether to accept or reject the company’s request to terminate its contract with TWU. If the judge terminates the contract, TWU would remain the bargaining agent for the company’s ground crew and maintenance workers, and negotiations for a new contract would take place. In the mean time, the company’s March proposal would be imposed, and workers would work under the terms and conditions of that contract.

Little urged members to compare the two proposals and said that a full text of the two proposals and a side-by-side summary is available at www.twubkfacts.org. He also said that members should receive voting information in the mail by May 10.

Little said that this vote would have no effect on a proposed merger between American and US Airways. Over the weekend, an open letter co-signed by leaders of TWU, the Allied Pilots Association, and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants appeared in the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram urging the board to merge with US Airways.

The letter said that American management’s stand alone plan for exiting bankruptcy “has been greeted with almost universal skepticism by industry analysts.” It went on to say that a proposed merger tentatively agreed to by US Airways and the three unions would create a vital company capable of competing with Delta and United. It would also preserve 6,200 jobs that would otherwise be eliminated under management’s plan.

Meanwhile, the Communication Workers of America reported today that American has ignored an order by the National Mediation Board to provide the board with the names and addresses of 9,600 American customer service representatives. The board planned to provide the workers with information about a May 17 union representation election when American non-union customer service representatives will vote on whether they want to be represented by CWA.

“American Airlines CEO Tom Horton hopes that by breaking the law, he will be able to postpone the election while laying off hundreds of eligible employees and forcing others to make an immediate and irrevocable decision about early retirement,” said Beth Allen, CWA online communications director. “Breaking the law to interfere with an election is simply not acceptable in a democracy.”

Allen also said that union supporters could send a message to NMB General Counsel Mary Johnson urging her to “stand up to American Airlines and ensure the election moves forward.”

Lockheed strike enters third week; workers fight to protect their pensions

As the third week of a strike by 3,600 Lockheed-Martin workers who belong to IAM Local 776 began on May 7, the company announced that its first quarter profits were 20 percent higher than during the same period last year and that it would be paying a quarterly dividend of $1 per share effective June 1, 2012.

A month earlier, Lockheed CEO Bob Stevens announced that he was retiring effective January 2013. When he does, his retirement security will be intact thanks to his two Lockheed pension plans worth $22.5 million.

“We would think that Mr. Stevens would agree with us that it’s nice to have a good pension,” said a posting on the website of IAM Local 776, which represents the striking Lockheed workers in Fort Worth, Texas, Edwards Air Force Base, California, and Pax River Naval Air Station, Maryland.

But it appears that Mr. Stevens thinks that only the wealthiest deserve a good pension. Lockheed demanded that its new contract with Local 776 eliminate pensions for new hires, which is likely the first step toward eliminating pensions for all its union workers.

When companies eliminate pension plans for new hires, often their next step is to freeze pensions for workers still eligible for pensions, writes Paul Black, Local 776 president, in a column that appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram’s editorial page. After freezing the plans, it becomes easier to eliminate them altogether, which is what led more than 90 percent of Local 776 members to reject the contract offer and go on strike.

Lockheed has already demonstrated that it would like to eliminate pensions. In 2006, it replaced the pensions of its non-union workers with individual savings plans that may or may not provide a secure retirement depending on how well the market does and how much a worker and her employer contribute to the plan.

In her book, When I’m Sixty-four: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them, Teresa Ghilarducci writes that there is no evidence to suggest that “typical workers can accumulate enough assets (in individual savings plans) to fund a comfortable retirement.”

According to Ghilarducci, corporations want to eliminate pensions because good pensions mean that workers don’t have to work as much to obtain a decent standard of living in their old age, which gives workers more bargaining leverage when it comes to determining wages and other benefits.

When employers can take away this bargaining leverage, they can make their workers work longer and harder for less money. “The loss in secure pensions shifts market power from workers to employers,” writes Ghilarducci. “And that means that the value of the reduction in workers’ wages is shifted to an increased value in employers’ profits!”

Lockheed has posted on its website a calculator that estimates workers’ lost wages during the strike, but the calculator can’t tell workers how much smaller their retirement savings will be without a pension plan nor how much money and benefits they will lose without the bargaining leverage that secure pensions provide.

This shift in bargaining power that Ghilarducci describes is one reason unions like Local 776  have been fighting so hard to hang on to their pension plans. Other workers are starting to realize that if a big union like Local 776 has its bargaining leverage reduced, it will have a ripple effect in the labor market.

As a result, the striking workers have begun to receive support from other unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, IAM locals 2511, 2768, 2513, and  2011, the Tarrant County (Fort Worth) Labor Council, the Transportation Communications Union, FITU Local 900, UFCU Local 540, UAW Local 218, IBEW, and the Doctors’ Guild.

People in the larger community have been supporting them as well. Organizers of the Austin May Day demonstration took up a collection for the strikers, and it will be delivered to them by John Patrick, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO. A number of local businesses and individuals have donated to strikers.

“This fight for benefits is happening across our nation,” Black said in a statement about Lockheed’s quarterly report. “While corporations like Lockheed (are) racking up big profits, they are working every day to take away money and benefits from their employees. . . . A profitable company can afford to share those profits with those that do the tough and highly skilled work that creates the profit.”