Unions shine a light on corporate practices of Verizon board members

Last week members of the Communication Workers Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers called attention to two Verizon board members whose business practices reflect disdain for people whose work has made them rich and a sense of privilege that justifies taking handouts from the government while ignoring their own social responsibilities.

The two unions, which represent 45,000 Verizon East Coast workers,  have been negotiating a contract with the company for more than a year. Verizon is demanding concessions that destroy retirement security for new hires, make retirement less secure for current workers, reduce health care benefits, gut contract provisions that protect good-paying middle class jobs, and take away rights that give workers a voice on the job.

The two unions went out on strike for two weeks last August but returned to work when Verizon agreed to resume good faith negotiations; the company, however, has refused to make significant changes to its last offer–an offer that CWA estimates would cost each Verizon union worker $20,000 over the life of the three-year contract.

The unions and their supporters held actions at 300 locations in the US and Puerto Rico to shine a light on two Verizon board members: Clarence Otis and Richard Carrión. The unions were joined by Jobs with Justice, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and Restaurant Opportunities Center.

“Mr. Otis and Mr. Carrión are each paid $230,000 per year to direct Verizon’s business,” said CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson. “It’s time for them to step up and make Verizon management recognize the contributions of front line workers who have helped the company become so successful.”

In addition to being a Verizon board member, Otis is CEO of Darden Restaurants, which owns national brand restaurants such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Capital Grille.

Workers at Capital Grille restaurants in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC in January filed suit against Darden charging the company with wage theft, workplace abuses, and racial discrimination. (The racial discrimination charge was subsequently dropped, but attorneys for the plaintiffs plan to refile charges in separate pleadings.)

Capital Grille workers in Los Angeles and Miami joined the suit in February.

Among other things, the suit says that Capital Grille management forced workers to work off the clock without pay, kept a portion of tips from private parties intended for tipped employees, required tipped employees whose hourly pay rate is as little as $2.13 an hour to perform non-tipped duties at their  tipped employee pay rate, and forced tipped employees to split tips with non-tipped employees, which was done to help keep non-tipped wages low.

“I remember times they would check us out early,” said Carlos Marban, a dishwasher at Capital Grille in Chicago. “They would just clock us out before we finished; we would still be taking out the garbage. . .  and a half hour of your pay is gone.”

While Capital Grille may be cheating low paid workers like Marban out of hard earned wages, its parent company Darden is making hefty profits. According to Restaurant Opportunities Center, which is helping Darden workers organize, Darden’s net income for 2011 was more than $500 million, and it paid its CEO $8 million in total compensation.

CWA, IBEW, and their supporters also conducted actions at Banco Popular, a Puerto Rican-based bank with outlets in major US cities. Carrión is the CEO of Banco Popular. Carrión also sits on the board of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

According to Bloomberg Business Week, Banco Popular still owes the US government $935 million in bailout funds that the bank obtained during the 2008 financial crisis.

The government bailout was made necessary in part by bad loans like one made to Carrión’s nephew Jose Vizcarrondo, who used a Banco Popular loan to purchase a residential construction project for $13.5 million and ended up losing $8.6 million on the deal.

Despite the bad loans and the fact that Banco Popular still owes the US government nearly $1 billion, Carrión’s total compensation for 2011 was $2.55 million.

Unlike Otis and Carrión, Verizon and Darden workers won’t be getting oversized compensation packages and government bailouts to help them maintain or obtain a decent standard of living. Instead, Verizon is demanding that their workers accept cuts to their living standard and Darden appears to be nickel and diminig its workers into poverty–all in the name of higher profits and higher stock prices.t clock you out and a half an hour is gone of your pay.”

Southern 32 seek immigration justice

The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice on May Day launched a campaign called Stand Up 2012 that calls on the Obama Administration and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to grant amnesty to immigrants facing deportation because they stood up for labor and/or civil rights.

In June, six members of the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers, an affiliate of the Workers Center, traveled to Washington to press their case for amnesty. The six are part of a group known as the Southern 32, immigrant workers who have been arrested and are facing deportation because they fought for labor and/or civil rights here in the US.

The Southern 32 includes  Josue Diaz. Diaz, an immigrant from Mexico, moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to find work helping to clean up and rebuild the city. To facilitate the clean up effort, the US Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of Katrina had issued a directive suspending employment immigration enforcement in New Orleans.

Like thousands of other immigrants who moved to New Orleans, Diaz found work on New Orleans street corners where he would wait for contractors who needed day laborers.

In 2008, Diaz and a crew of other laborers were picked up by a contractor and taken to Beaumont, Texas where work was underway to clean up the city after it was hit by Hurricane Gustav.

Diaz worked in a neighborhood heavily damaged by flooding. He and other crew members worked in stagnant water and sludge. He noticed that some workers were given masks, gloves, boots, and other safety equipment, but his immigrant compatriots were not.

When he and 11 other immigrant workers demanded the same safety equipment the others had, their boss refused and cut their pay in half.

To get the safety equipment and recover their wages, Diaz and another worker, Melvin Mejia, led a strike of immigrant workers. They were arrested, held in jail, and turned over to ICE, which began the process of deporting them.

Diaz recently won a court victory that postpones his deportation hearing until February 2013, but he and the other Southern 32 still have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

This threat would not exist if ICE officials in the South had followed instructions issued more than a year ago by ICE Director John Morton. The instructions told ICE officials to concentrate their efforts on criminals and others who pose a serious threat and specifically stated that ICE staff should ensure that immigrants pursuing justice in labor, housing, and civil rights disputes should be allowed to do so freely.

Those instructions have largely been ignored in the South.

An incident that happened after the instructions were issued is not uncommon. A New Orleans company that specializes in home elevations owed 30 immigrant workers about $100,000 for work on a recently completed project.

The company told the workers to meet in the parking area of the construction site. When the workers gathered expecting to get paid, ICE officers appeared on scene and arrested the workers, who subsequently filed complaints against the company for not paying overtime.

Immigrant rights supporters have criticized the Obama Administration for making gestures that seem to support fair treatment of immigrants, but then failing to make their actions align with the gesture. Recently, Andrew Strait, the ICE Public Advocate in Washington, traveled to New Orleans to meet with ICE officials in the South.

Members of the Southern 32 thought that this visit signaled a turn in direction. Instead, after the meeting, Stait and the ICE officials questioned whether the case of the Southern 32 involved any violation of labor or civil rights.

“This is the first time that immigration officials from Washington have confirmed what we feared was true – the promise made by the Obama Administration of a more moderate deportation policy was exaggerated,” said Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. “The campaign to stop the deportations of the Southern 32 has only begun, and we intend to insist that the President ensure his immigration agencies are implementing the good policy announced a year ago.”

American Crystal Sugar’s locked out workers reject contract for third time

Locked out American Crystal Sugar (ACS) workers on Sunday  rejected for the third time the company’s final contract offer by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. The company locked out 1,300 members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco, and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM) in August after they rejected the company’s first final best offer, which called for steep concessions by the workers.

The union and company resumed negotiations in May with the help of a federal mediator to resolve the dispute. The union offered a comprehensive proposal that addressed the company’s concerns raised during negotiations last summer, but the company refused to make significant changes.

The company’s final offer if accepted would have eliminated the workers’ comprehensive health care benefit, eliminated seniority, allowed the company to outsource more work, reduced overtime pay, eliminated weekend premium pay, eliminated health coverage for retirees,  and made it more difficult to file and win grievances.

The final offer would have cost workers, whose average salary is about $40,000 per year, thousands of dollars in lower overtime pay, reduced pay rate protections, and higher health care premiums and expenses. Furthermore, it would have eliminated any control that workers had over their jobs and busted their union.

ACS, the US’s largest sugar beet processor, operates five plants in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa. It processes 38 percent of the nation’s sugar beets and produces 15 percent of the country’s sugar. It reported profits of $1.54 billion between 2009 and 2011. In 2011, it paid its CEO David Berg $2.4 million in annual compensation.

ACS is a cooperative of 3,000 beet farmers, who have received generous subsidies from the US government. Farmers belonging to the ACS cooperative received approximately $82 million between 1995 and 2010 through sugar beet subsidies alone.

According to John Strand of the High Plains Reader, the ACS Board of Directors chairman received farm subsidies, including the sugar beet subsidy, totaling $425,889 between 1995 and 2010.

Congress is now considering changing the sugar subsidy program, and ACS has spent $951,3000 on lobbying to protect the subsidies. Open Secrets reports that the company’s PAC contributed $2.2 million in 2010 and $1.4 million in 2012 to support candidates who support sugar subsidies.

While ACS spends lavishly to protect its federal subsidies, the lockout has taken a toll on its business. The Twin Cities Star Tribune reports that because ACS is relying on replacement workers to staff its processing plants, productions costs have increased $137 million during the first half of 2012.

As a result, this year’s projected payout to sugar beet farmers in the cooperative will be $59 per ton, well below the $73 per ton payout paid by another sugar beet cooperative in the Red River Valley.

The lockout has also affected local communities where the locked out workers work and live. A report by the Minnesota AFL-CIO estimates that the lockout cost local communities about $12 million between August and December because the company’s workers had less money to spend at local businesses.

“(American) Crystal sugar executives apparently can’t stand prosperity, and would rather waste millions trying to starve workers into submission than engage in constructive negotiations,” said a statement issued by the union after workers rejected the company’s last offer.

Judges rules post-Katrina firings of New Orleans school employees illegal

When Hurricane Katrina crashed into New Orleans, it did more than wash away homes, levees, and roads. Its aftermath was used as a pretext for destroying the livelihoods of 7,500 New Orleans Public School employees.

Three months after the hurricane closed New Orleans’ schools, the Louisiana Department of Education seized control of the Orleans Parish School District and diverted badly needed state money away from the district, causing the firing of nearly all the district’s teachers, teacher assistants, principals, counselors, custodians, clerks, and others.

But last week a Louisiana judge ruled the firings illegal and ordered the Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board to pay seven former school district employees $1.3 million in lost wages, benefits, and interest. The plaintiffs represented a class of illegally fired employees all of whom will be eligible to recover lost wages and benefits if the judge’s ruling is not overturned by an appeals court.

The state board of education and OPSB have not decided whether to appeal the ruling.

“This is a huge milestone in what has been a long and difficult journey for hard-working and loyal school board employees who suffered great hardship because of the illegal and unjust termination after Hurricane Katrina,” read a statement on New Orleans Public School Employees Justice (NOPSE) website. NOPSE led the legal fight against the firings.

Judge Ethel Simms Julien in a lengthy explanation of her ruling laid out the facts that led to her decision. As a result of contentious relationship between the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) and the state education department, a relationship that pre-dated Katrina, the department in November 2005 took control of 102 of the 120 schools governed by OPSB and diverted 90 percent of the state’s funding for the New Orleans Public Schools into the state administered Recovery School District.

About 7,500 public school employees were then put on Disaster Leave Without Pay retroactive back to the second week of the school year when Katrina struck. In January, contributions to their health insurance were stopped.

In February, OPSB announced that 7,500 of its employees would be terminated effective in March.

The judge said the firings were illegal because the school board and state education department violated state laws governing termination of tenured and permanent staff. Judge Julien said that  there was no such thing as Disaster Leave Without Pay. It was, she said,  created on the fly as a justification for not paying staff salaries while they waited for schools to reopen.

Louisiana law says that tenured and permanent public school staff can only be fired for incompetence, lapses of morality, or neglect of duty. None of those reasons were stated on the termination notices as required by state law. In fact, in most cases, the fired staff were hard working employees who loyally served the district and its students.

The judge also noted that the termination notices were sent haphazardly, causing many to go unnotified about their termination and that there was no recall plan as required by law to restaff schools when they re-opened.

The judge also raised questions about the state take over of New Orleans’ public schools. She noted that the Recovery School District took control of the 102 schools ostensibly because they were failing, but 88 of those schools met or exceeded state requirements for adequate yearly progress.

The judge said that the state justified the takeovers by raising the acceptable State Performance score from 60 to 87.5, a score that was subsequently returned to 60 before the 2010 school year began.

The Recovery School District (RSD) converted 31 of the schools to charter schools. State officials decided not to allow New Orleans Public School teachers and staff to apply for positions in the charter schools or the other schools operated by RSD.

It chose, instead, to fill some open positions by contracting with  Teach for America, a federal program that gives recently graduated college students with no teaching experience the opportunity to teach in underserved schools.

NOPSE called the state officials’ decision barring experienced staff from applying for the  open positions, “a tragedy” undertaken “to advance (the official’s) political agendas.”

United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter called the judge’s decision a great day for students and public schools. “The message of this decision is that the educational communities must understand that going forward they must live and act within the law,” Sanders said.

Nurses rally for Robin Hood tax and Medicare for all

Earlier this week, nurses belonging to the National Nurses Union (NNU) and other activist groups kicked off a national campaign for a financial transaction tax, also know as the Robin Hood tax, with a flurry of activity in 15 cities across the US. In San Diego, nurses and other activists combined their Robin Hood event with a town hall meeting that was the first stop of  a 12 city Medicare for All bus tour, sponsored by the California Nurses Association, an affiliate of NNU, Physicians for a National Health Program, and Campaign for a Healthy California.

(Update: Agence France Presse reports that the leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy agreed on June 22 to implement a financial transaction tax as part of a stimulus plan to jump start the European economy. “I am pleased that all four here have committed to a financial transactions tax,” Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said.)

In a recent op-ed column appearing in the Guardian, NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro explained why the US needs a Robin Hood tax, a small tax on risky speculative financial transactions that nearly brought down our economy in 2008. According to DeMoro, such a tax could raise hundreds of billions of dollars for public investment in health care, public and higher education, and badly needed infrastructure projects. Such an invest would put millions of people back to work.

Nurses, according to DeMoro, have seen first hand how the financial crash has hurt working people. “The health care crisis has been severely aggravated by the economic collapse,” DeMoro writes. “Nurses see the signs in dire human terms, every day. RNs recount how patients, even children, are appearing in large numbers with stress-related illnesses. A Robin Hood tax will inject critical revenue into our economy that can help people struggling with the loss of their jobs, homes, and those unpayable medical bills.”

Revenue generated by a Robin Hood tax could also be used to fund the expansion of Medicare and make it available to all. The Medicare for All bus tour hopes to show Californians that there is a better way to deal with the health care crisis than the present approach.

Expanding Medicare to all would ease some of the problems that nurses are seeing every day as they try to make a broken health care system work. “Whether the Court strikes down all or part of the law, or upholds it, our health care crisis will be far from over, and we will still need real reform,” said Zenei Cortez, co-president CNA. “Far too many Californians and Americans will continue to be uninsured, losing their employer-paid health insurance, facing bankruptcy due to medical bills, struggling to pay for health coverage while also enduring job loss or home foreclosure, skipping needed medical care because of cost, or battling with an insurer to authorize medical treatment or tests recommended by their doctor. We have a proven solution with a model that works wonderfully well for 40 million Americans already. It’s called Medicare. No one should have to wait until they turn 65 to be assured they will be able to receive the health care they need.”

Since leaving San Diego, the Medicare for All tour has made stops in Bakersfield, San Bernadino, and Santa Ana. The physicians and nurses participating in the tour conduct free basic health screenings followed by a town hall meeting where participants are urged to share their stories about the health care problems they face or have encountered.

The beginning of the Medicare for All tour coincided with the national actions for a Robin Hood tax. In Washington DC, members of NNU, Jobs with Justice, National People’s Action, the National Organization of Women, Occupy Our Homes, AIDS activists, and others gathered in the halls of Congress as Senators questioned JP Morgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon about the bank’s recent multi-billion losses on risky financial speculation.

Those outside the hearing donned red shirts and green Robin Hood masks and waited for Dimon to finish testifying, so they could ask their own questions. Dimon chose not to face them and left through a back door.

Robin Hood demonstrations or activities were held in  New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Boston, Dayton, Miami, Atlanta, El Paso, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon.

The campaign for a Robin Hood tax released this video featuring actor Mark Ruffalo, musician Tom Morello, and economist Jeffery Sachs, urging people to join the movement for a fair tax on financial speculation.

Opponents demand that TPP come out of the shadows

Calling for an end to secret negotiations, opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), announced that they would be holding demonstrations and other events when representatives of 11 Pacific Rim nations meet July 2 through July 10 in San Diego to negotiate the new trade partnership that its opponents describe as “NAFTA on steroids.”

Countries sending representatives to San Diego are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the US. The Obama Administration hopes that a final agreement can be hammered out by December 2012.

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council will greet negotiators with a 12 noon rally and press conference near the Hilton Bayfront and Convention Center where negotiations will take place. The Citizens Trade Campaign will be holding national days of action against TPP between July 1 and July 7. A coalition organized by Occupy San Diego and Occupy City Heights will hold a number of local actions while TPP representatives are in town.

Opponents in other countries have also mounted resistance to TPP. According to the website of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, TPP “will stop future New Zealand governments from doing things that are in the interest of working people and most New Zealanders.” As a result, the council has initiated contacts with labor federations in other countries and is working to build an international movement to oppose TPP.

A recently leaked TPP chapter on investments, opponents say, shows that the proposed partnership agreement will expand the rights of transnational corporations at the expense of the common good.

According to an analysis by Public Citizen,  the leaked chapter “reveals a two-track legal system, with foreign firms empowered to skirt domestic courts and laws to directly sue TPP governments in foreign tribunals. There they can demand compensation for domestic financial, health, environmental, land use laws and other laws they claim undermine their new TPP privileges.”

“We are just beginning to analyze the (leaked chapter) now, but (it) clearly contains proposals designed to give transnational corporations special rights that go far beyond those possessed by domestic businesses and American citizens,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of Citizens Trade Campaign.

The leaked chapter contains language that expands the jurisdiction of international tribunals that rule on investor complaints about government laws, rules, and regulations that may result in reduced profits. NAFTA established similar procedures for resolving these complaints through international tribunals. As a result, Canada, Mexico, and the US have been fined a total of  $326.9 million for infringing on the privileges of transnational corporations.

One such ruling resulted in a $16.7 million fine for Mexico because it denied a toxic waste dump permit to the Metalclad Corporation of the US. The permit was denied because the toxic waste dump threatened to contaminate the local water supply in La Pedrera, San Luis Potosi.

Opponents point out that the leaked chapter has other problems: It limits governments’ ability to regulate and control capital. The lack of these regulations played a leading role in the financial crash of 20o8. It makes it more difficult for countries to tax financial transactions, and it requires governments to remove restrictions on foreign firms obtaining government procurement contracts. Removing these restrictions could lead to more privatization of services and resources.

On the whole, TPP less about free trade and more about creating special privileges for transnational corporations. For example , pharmaceutical companies would be protected from regulations such as those in New Zealand that keep the price of prescription drugs affordable.

Protection of the free flow of information and knowledge would also be limited because countries that sign TPP will have to adopt strict copyright laws similar to those already adopted by the US.

Opponents of TPP have criticized the secret nature of the negotiations. In May, opponents delivered a petition with 42,000 signatures to the TPP meeting in Addison, Texas. The petition demanded that the negotiations be more transparent so that the public can know how the agreement will affect their health, safety, jobs, and well-being.

While the negotiations have remained off limits to the public, 600 corporate lobbyists have had access to the negotiators and are shaping its final outcome.

Alabama poultry workers vote to unionize

Despite intense anti-union pressure from their employer, 1,200 poultry processing workers in Russellville, Alabama voted overwhelmingly to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The workers, employed by Pilgrim’s Pride, voted 706-292 in favor of the union. Control over their work lives was the main issue that motivated workers to unionize.

“We had no respect from management and absolutely no voice in anything that affected us,” said Cheryl Kowalski, who works in the plant’s sanitation department. “They told us what to do and when to do it, and there were no questions allowed. And if there any problems, you couldn’t go to management because they did not want to deal with resolving them, and workers here were left bitter and angry. The bottom line was ‘do what you are told or you don’t have a job’.”

“The key issues at Pilgrim’s Pride was the right to redress grievances at work and the ability to have some input into how the place is run, said John Whitaker, RWDSU Mid-South Council president. “(The workers) knew the difference it would make to  have a union their side.”

Working in poultry processing plant where workers wield knives and scissors to split open poultry that can move past them on  conveyor belts at speeds approaching 90 birds per minute is hard, dangerous work made even more so when your boss controls everything. These conditions have been well documented in a series of articles that ran in the Charlotte Observer.

Pilgrim’s Russellville plant is no exception. In 2010, it was fined $135,000 for health and safety violations by the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration. An OSHA official said that the violations were part of a historic pattern.

“This company has been cited numerous times in the last five years and should be aware of the safety and health measures that need to be addressed to protect its workers,” said Roberto Sanchez, OSHA area director in Birmingham in a statement about the 2010 fine.

RWDSU began getting calls from workers at the Russellville plant frustrated by the dangerous working conditions, excessively high speeds of the production line, and the unwillingness of plant management to listen to their concerns or address their grievances.

“I finally got a call from a couple of guys who wanted to meet with me,” said Randy Hadley, RWDSU organizer to TimesDaily.com. “You could tell things had gotten way out of control.”

When the organizing drive got started in earnest, the company pushed back. As the union election approached, workers were forced to attend captive-audience meetings at which company representatives, according to RWDSU, threatened layoffs and implied that the plant could close if the workers voted for the union.

The company put other obstacles in the way of the organizing drive. The company contacted local establishments where workers gathered to discuss the union campaign and asked them to bar union activists.

It also threatened hotels with a boycott if they rented rooms to union organizers and as the election drew near booked hotel meeting rooms, so that the union could not use them to hold meetings.

Despite the company’s efforts, the workers, most of whom are African-American and Latino, voted by 71 percent for the union.

The National Labor Relations Board has yet to certify the results of the election that took place on June 7 and 8, but it is expected to do so soon. When it does, Pilgrim’s management has said that it will recognize the union.

Pilgrim’s Pride is the second largest chicken producer in the world and is owned by JBS SA, a multi-national corporation headquartered in Brazil.

Janitors’ peaceful rally for justice attacked by Houston police

Police on horseback charged into public space occupied by Houston janitors and their supporters on Thursday trampling their banner, knocking down people, and arresting one woman who came to the aid of an injured man on the ground. The janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1, were demonstrating in downtown Houston for a fair wage increase as part of the “Houston Needs a Raise” campaign.

The janitors had been bargaining with seven cleaning service contractors whose employees clean corporate offices in downtown Houston.

When negotiations for a new contract began in May, the janitors proposed an increase that would raise their wages from $8.35 an hour to $10 an hour. Their employers countered with an offer that would raise wages over the next five years by only $0.50 an hour. Talks broke down at the end of May, and the janitors have been working without a new contract since then.

On Thursday a broad coalition including SEIU Local 1, Good Jobs Great Houston, Houston United, HFT/CUT, TOPS, Mi Familia Vota, HOPE Local 123, MoveOn, Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center, and Down with Wage Theft marched from Tranquility Park in downtown Houston to the office of JP Morgan Chase to demand that the cleaning contractors pay their workers a fair wage.

The contractors say that their offer of a $0.50 an hour raise over five years is a fair offer because it reflects labor market conditions and that even if they wanted to pay more, they couldn’t because their corporate clients will not pay more for cleaning services.

The janitors, whose base salary is less than $9,000 a year, say that their pay is not enough on which to live much less support a family when, according to the US Census Bureau,  it takes an annual income of at least $22,000 for a family of four to live above the poverty line.

The janitor’s plight is shared by many others in Houston where 22 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty. Like the janitors, many are hard-working, low-paid workers.

While Houston’s low-wage workers struggle to make ends meet, the city’s millionaires are doing all right. Forbes magazine recently named Houston as the number one millionaire city in the US and the Houston commercial real estate market is booming. But the contractors and their corporate clients contend that there isn’t enough money to give the janitors a decent raise.

The marchers chose the building that houses JP Morgan’s Houston headquarters because it symbolizes the wide disparity between Houston’s 1 percent and the workers who provide essential and often unrecognized and unappreciated services for them. JP Morgan last year reported $19 billion in profit while the janitors who clean their building make less than the official poverty level.

The police charged the march as marchers were crossing the street and headed toward the sidewalk outside the JP Morgan headquarters. The marchers were not sitting down in the street; they weren’t threatening the safety of anyone; they were spirited and determined but peaceful and non-violent.

When the mounted police charged, some of the marchers couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and were knocked to the ground. An unidentified woman in a purple t-shirt came to the aid of one of the fallen marchers and confronted a mounted police officer. He dismounted, other officers on foot came to his assistance, and the woman was handcuffed and led away.

After the attack, the marchers regrouped on the sidewalk outside of JP Morgan and began chanting, “Shame” as the police looked on. The marchers held their ground and continued their demonstration.

The march was part of an ongoing campaign for justice by Houston janitors. In 2006 they organized a union, went on strike, and won recognition of their union. But janitorial work in Houston remains low-paying work because the big corporations that occupy the city’s downtown sky scrapers nickel and dime their cleaning contractors to keep labor costs low.

This lack of fairness has led to a citywide Houston Needs a Raise Campaign that brings together labor, the faith community, and community organizations to raise awareness of the janitors’ predicament.

“Let us be in solidarity with the janitors for a fair and modest increase in their wages,” wrote Joseph Fiorenza, archbishop-emeritus of the Houston-Galveston Diocese in a recent letter to the Houston Chronicle. “Let Houston be known for doing what is only decent and right for our hard-working fellow citizens: justice for janitors.”

Indiana workers deliver message to Austin private equity firm: stop stalling, provide decent wages and benefits

US Rep. Paul Ryan recently addressed the Texas Republican party state convention in Fort Worth. He told the crowd that the American free enterprise system had done more to help the poor than government assistance programs and that these programs have become more of  a hammock than a safety net allowing able-bodied people to relax instead of working hard.

The sad fact, however, is that many hard working Americans are forced to rely on food stamps, Medicaid, and other health and human service programs because their employers refuse to pay a living wage and provide little or no health care benefits. For example, Walmart encouraged employees who can’t afford the company’s health care plan to apply for government programs and that’s what workers at C&M Conveyor in Mitchell, Indiana were told when they complained about low wages and unaffordable health care.

“These are hard working people who build complex, specialized conveyor systems used in box and paper factories throughout the US,” said United Steelworkers organizer Robin Rich about the C&M workers. “But some of them have had to turn to food stamps and Medicaid because their employer doesn’t provide a decent wage.”

Rich was speaking at a support rally in Austin, Texas outside the downtown offices of Blue Sage Capital, a $270 million private equity firm that purchased C&M in 2006. The support rally was called to urge Blue Sage to make C&M management stop stalling and negotiate a fair contract with its unionized workforce, who voted overwhelming in July 2011 to join USW and bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

“These workers simply want a decent wage, an affordable health care plan, and some respect on the job” Rich said.  “Forty percent of the C&M workers don’t have any health care coverage because the premium is too high. Those who can afford it must pay a $10,000 deductible for family coverage, which means that some go without treatment because they can’t afford the deductible.”

Randy Smith, a C&M worker, told the Austin rally that he has worked at C&M for 12 years and still doesn’t make $12 an hour.

More than one-third of C&M workers earn less than $10 an hour, half of the workforce make less than $11.75 per hour, and more the two-thirds make less than $12.65 an hour, well below the average wage for similar work in southern Indiana where Mitchell is located.

“The low wages and unaffordable health care at C&M add up to poverty and serious health challenges for many hard working C&M employees,” Rich said

Rich and Smith were joined at the Austin rally by local members of USW, the Texas AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Occupy Austin, the Texas Fair Trade Coalition, and the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186.

The delegation hand delivered a letter signed by Austin supporters of C&M workers to Blue Sage founder Jim McBride urging him to end the stalling tactics and bargain seriously with its workers. McBride is also Blue Sage’s representative on the C&M board.

“The company has been stalling rather than negotiating, hoping that the workers will get discouraged and abandon the union,” Rich said. “It’s a classic union busting tactic. They lost the first round when the workers voted to unionize. They’re hoping that by stalling they can win the next round.”

USW filed an unfair labor practice charge against C&M for its delaying tactics. “Workers voted for a union in July and the union gave the company a comprehensive wage health insurance proposal in September.” Rich said. “The company waited until April before it responded to the health care proposal and May before it responded to the wage proposal.”

“That’s what happens all too often when workers vote for a union,” Rich added. “Fifty-two percent of all newly organized workplaces do not reach an agreement within one year.”

C&M workers voted in May by a 9 to 1 margin to authorize a strike if the company continues to stall rather than bargain. “The workers have drawn a line in the sand and said we’ll strike unless the company gets serious about bargaining,” Rich said. “We just want to make sure that Jim McBride gets that message and knows how serious we are.”

Report criticizes Walmart for undermining good jobs in its supply chain

A new report released by the National Employment Law Project describes how Walmart’s race-to-the-bottom corporate culture is driving down wages and working conditions for workers in the retail giant’s supply chain.

These mostly Latino workers, many of whom are immigrants, work in warehouses loading and unloading merchandise destined for the shelves at Walmart stores. They are by and large precarious workers employed by temporary staffing agencies, which in turn are subcontractors for the Walmart contractors that operate the warehouses.

The contractors are under constant pressure from Walmart, whose management oversees the warehouses, to reduce costs. According to the report, Chain of Greed, Walmart’s cost cutting pressure leads these contractors and subcontractors to cut corners on safety and violate wage and hour laws.

“In service of low prices and large profits, Walmart has become infamous for squeezing its suppliers and contractors, so that contracted workers at the bottom of the food chain are forced to accept poverty wages and harsh working conditions,” said Christine Owens, NELP executive director.

Owens also said that Walmart is only one among many companies that rely on a contingent and precarious workforce. “Subcontracting is on the rise across the US economy, and without fair ground rules that are respected by all players and rigorously enforced, the quality of many more jobs in America will spiral downward.”

One of Walmart’s practices that drive down wages and working conditions is its “Plus One” bargaining strategy, which requires contractors always to reduce their costs from the previous year.

The report describes how this bargaining strategy affects workers at a Walmart distribution center in Mira Loma, California, owned and operated by Schneider Logistics, a leading transportation and logistics corporation based in Wisconsin.

Schneider contracts with two temporary employment agencies, Rogers Premier and Impact Logistics, to staff the warehouse. In order to meet Walmart’s demands to lower costs, Schneider and its subcontractors in 2010 implemented a piece rate pay system. Instead of making an hourly wage, worker pay is now based on the number of shipping containers they load or unload.

The result, according to the report, was “rampant minimum wage and overtime violations.” Workers also accused their employers of falsifying time records and creating an overly complicated piece rate system that makes it difficult to know if they are being paid for all the work they performed.

The California Labor Commissioner investigated the workers’ complaints and fined the two subcontractors more than $1 million for wage and hour violations.

Workers also said that the piece rate system led to a speed up on the job creating more safety hazards in the warehouse, which like all warehouses can be a dangerous place to work even without speed up.

Walmart tried to absolve itself of responsibility for its subcontractors’ violations, but the report says that the company exercises continuous oversight of the warehouse. Its security guards are employed by Walmart; furthermore, Walmart management is on site and frequently instructs subcontractors on staffing levels, productivity, and worker misconduct.

Conditions at the Mira Loma facility are not unique. Other reports show that similar conditions exist at Walmart warehouses in Illinois and New Jersey.

Warehouse operators are just one of a growing number of businesses that rely heavily on easily exploited precarious workers. Chain of Greed  estimates that 30 percent of the US workforce is engaged in some kind of contingent or non-standard relationship and that as many as 50 percent of today’s new jobs fit this category.

These jobs generally pay low wages, have few if any benefits, and by their very nature make it difficult if not impossible for workers to have a collective voice on the job.

Latino workers are over represented in the precarious workforce. The report estimates that 21 percent of precarious workers in the US are Latino.

According to Owens, precarious work has turned what were once decent jobs like those in warehouses into low-wage, dead-end jobs, and the only way to stop this decline is to hold corporations like Walmart accountable for the misdeeds of their contractors.

“When these kinds of deplorable wage violations and harsh working conditions are forced from up top, it shouldn’t just be the contractor and subcontractor left holding the bag,” Owens said. “We need to hold major corporations accountable for the workplace abuses that stem from their outsourcing policies.”

Closing pension plan enrollment not likely to reduce costs as promised in recent San Diego election

San Diego voters last week voted overwhelmingly to reduce pension benefits for the city’s workers. The pension reduction referendum among other things eliminated public pensions for newly hired city employees. Future San Diego municipal employees will no longer be able to enroll in the defined benefit pension plan that covers current employees and provides a modest lifetime pension benefit. Instead, new hires will be allowed to enroll only in a 401(k) type defined contribution savings plan.

Mayor Jerry Sanders promised voters that diverting new hires into a 401(k) type plan would save the city money by reducing the city’s long-term commitment to retirement security for its retired employees. As it turns out, the promise of savings was false advertising.

Fifteen years ago, the State of Michigan closed its defined benefit pension plan to new hires and diverted them into a defined contribution plan. State leaders made this change because they said that the long-term cost of the defined benefit plan was too unpredictable and the state could save money by diverting new hires into a defined contribution plan.

Those savings have not materialized. Today, Michigan spends nearly 50 percent more on its defined benefit pension plan than it did before it cut off enrollment to new hires. A recent study warns that those costs could rise sharply in the future.

When Michigan stopped enrolling new hires in its defined benefits pension, it allowed workers hired before 1997 to choose between staying in the defined benefits plan or enrolling in the defined contribution plan. Nearly 95 percent chose to stay in the defined benefits plan, and Michigan began administering two different retirement plans.

In 2011, the state’s contribution to the defined benefits plan was $424 million up from $288 million in 1997 when new hires were cut off from the plan. While state leaders thought that capping enrollment in the defined benefits plan would save money, it has actually caused it to be more expensive.

Because the defined benefits plan has no new members enrolling in the plan and its membership is not expanding, the benefits paid has become a greater percentage of the payroll of those remaining in the plan. In 1997, benefits paid were 20 percent of payroll; in 2011 that percentage increased to 56 percentl.

The higher percentage of payroll being paid in benefits has made the plan less solvent. In 1997, the plan’s funding ratio, the ratio of assets to liabilities was 109 percent, which means that the plan had 9 percent more assets than liabilities. In 2011, the funding ratio had dropped to 72.9 percent.

There are only two sources that provide funding for the plan: state contributions or return on investment. Unfortunately, the plan’s return on investment has been not been able to provide sufficient revenue. The average rate of return on investment over the last five years has been 2.1 percent, well below the 8 percent return that actuaries estimate is needed to fund the plan adequately.

This low rate of return on investment is also caused by closing enrollment to new hires. The precarious state of the fund that resulted from closing enrollment and the fact that it will be winding down over the next 25 to 35 years has meant that the plan cannot afford to absorb potentially big investment losses, which means that it must follow a more conservative, low-yield investment strategy.

As a result, the state has had to increase its contributions to the plan. A report by the state’s Employee Retirement System says that state contributions are likely to increase sharply as the plan’s phase-out draws closer.

A recent report by the Texas Public Pension Review Board finds that any governmental entity choosing to transition to a defined contribution plan by closing enrollment to new hires will face similar increased costs:

Michigan’s declining funding ratios and increasing contribution rates illustrate the challenges of funding a closed group plan, where active member payroll steadily decreases due to no new enrollment. Every plan choosing to transition from a defined benefit to a defined contribution structure will face these costs.

Spanish miners fight austerity cuts while banks get government subsidies

The Spanish government recently announced that it had secured from its eurozone partners a 100 billion euro loan that it will use to subsidize its failing banks, whose risky loans and speculation caused a double-dip recession that has left 25 percent of the nation’s workforce without a job.

While the government was seeking loans to subsidize bankers, it was telling mineworkers that they would have to make sacrifices. Three weeks ago, the government announced as part of its austerity program that it was reducing subsidies to the country’s coal mines by 190 million euros. The cuts will put thousands of miners out of work and devastate local economies where the miners live.

In response to the cuts, the miners went on strike. The strikers are holding sit-ins, occupying the main square of Oviedo, the provincial capital of Asturias, the heart of Spanish coal country, and blocking and barricading highways connecting Asturias to the rest of Spain.

“We will stay here until we have a solutions,” said Alfredo Gonzalez, a miner occupying a mine near Santa Cruz de Sil to Agence France Presse.

The open-ended strike, which is supported by Spain’s two largest union confederation, Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Confederation Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), began on May 23 and has involved about 8,000 miners in Asturias, where 40 mines and a number of nearby communities will be affected by the subsidy cuts.

The strike, which the unions reported had the support of 100 percent of the miners, was briefly called off in late May to give the government an opportunity to find money that would allow it to scale back the cuts. But during negotiations with the unions, the government said that it couldn’t find the money to fund the subsidies, and the strike resumed.

The strike has become more intense. Sixteen main roads in Asturias have been blockaded and two rail lines have been shut down by the strikers. The Guardia Civil, Spain’s paramilitary national police force, has entered the fray in an attempt to keep the roads open. Dozens of strikers and police have been injured in clashes between the two sides and some strikers have been arrested.

On May 31, 15,000 miners and their supporters gathered in front of the energy ministry in Madrid to demand that the government stop the subsidy cuts. Police charged the demonstration and the workers fought back. Fourteen people including eight police officers and two journalists were injured in the ensuing melee.

The subsidy cuts are part of the government’s austerity program undertaken to please the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Central Bank, which are demanding that members of the eurozone slash their public spending.

The Spanish government has justified its austerity measures, including the mining subsidy cuts, by saying that the country’s economic difficulties can only be overcome through shared sacrifice.

But apparently, the country’s bankers are exempt from the sacrifices. The 100 billion euro loan that the government asked for and received over the weekend will be used to recapitalize Spanish banks. The government will dole out the 100 billion euros to the country’s banks, which are holding about 180 billion euros in toxic loans and other worthless assets.

The loan and the banking subsidies for which it will be used also will provide some measure of insurance for the banks’ bondholders many of whom are banks and financial services firms in Germany, the UK, and France.

In order to get the loan from its eurozone partners, the Spanish government had to promise to repay any defaults by banks that take the subsidy.

Over the weekend, the world heard about the new loan, but the world has heard very little about the miners’ strike. A group of former miners in the UK is hoping to change that and has begun to build worldwide support for the striking miners.

Members of  Spanish Miners’ Solidarity Committee in a recent letter to the Guardian said the Spanish miners strike was reminiscent of the strike that took place in the UK coal mines during the mid-1980s when the Thatcher government used police against the strikers.

At time, Spanish miners demonstrated support for the comrades in the UK with solidarity demonstrations and financial support. The Spanish Miners’ Solidarity Committee was formed to return the favor. In a further demonstration of solidarity, members of the UK’s National Union of Mineworkers will be travelling to Asturias on June 22 to show their support for the striking miners.

Unprecedented number vote for change at Walmart

At Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting on June 1, the retail giant’s leadership was put on notice that it’s time for a change when an unprecedented number of shareholders voted “no” on the re-election of four leading board members and “yes” for a worker-shareholder sponsored proposal to make executive compensation more transparent.

Members of Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) organized a shareholder campaign that played an important role in what turned out to be a stinging rebuke of the company’s leadership. The campaign included a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort aimed at mobilizing worker and shareholder discontent.

The shareholder campaign was part of a long-range campaign to win a united, on-the-job voice for Walmart workers and to make changes at the retail giant that will end its race-to-the-bottom corporate culture.

OUR was joined in this effort by Making Change at Walmart, a community-labor coalition, both of which are affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The shareholders campaign was built around two issues: dumping four board members who demonstrated a profound lack leadership during a bribery scandal involving government officials in Mexico and supporting a worker-shareholder sponsored resolution, known as proposal #6, to make executive compensation more transparent.

Between 12 percent and 15 percent voted “no” on the re-election of board members H. Lee Scott, Jr., former Walmart CEO, who served during the bribery scandal, Michael Duke, the current CEO, Rob Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, and Christopher J. Williams, who chaired the audit committee during the bribery scandal.

Charles Elson, a corporate governance expert, told the New York Times that the “no” vote, which was up from previous highs of about 2 percent to 3 percent, was “very significant.”

The Walton family and top executives own more than 50 percent of Walmart’s stock; therefore, a “no” vote didn’t have a chance to win a majority. But 38 percent of non-family, non-executive shareholders voted “no,” a significant minority, who according to Elson, may be less willing to provide future capital to Walmart unless changes are made.

Some important institutional investors voted “no” including the New York City pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the California State Teachers Retirement System, and the Texas Public Pension Review Board.

Proposal #6 received 9.3 percent of the vote. “The employee-shareholders who introduced proposal #6 on executive compensation should be very proud today,” said John Marshall, senior capital markets analyst with the United Food and Commercial Workers. “To receive nearly 10% of the vote in the first year a proposal is on the ballot is an excellent result, and over three times the resubmission threshold required to re-file the proposal next year.”

According to Carlton Smith, a Walmart associate who was one of proposal #6 four sponsors, the proposal was a first step toward ending a double standard at Walmart.

“The three associates and I who introduced proposal #6 did so because it is time to rein in the double standard that this company practices,” Smith said. “Executives get bonuses no matter how poorly the company performs. We can make Walmart better for workers, shareholders and the community and we will continue to call for change of company policies that hurt all of us, including understaffing, unpredictable schedules, and health insurance plans that cover too little and cost too much.”

Proposal #6 received 22.7 percent of non-Walton family, non-executive shareholder votes.

Prior to the shareholder meeting, OUR members contacted other Walmart employee-shareholders and urged them to vote against the four board members and to for proposal #6. They made phone calls, mailed information about the issues, and used social media to get their message out.

Leading up to the shareholders meeting, OUR members held proxy parties where they could talk freely with other Walmart workers about the two shareholder ballot issues, vote their proxies, and mail their votes together.

They also used the shareholders campaign as an organizing tool to get more Walmart associates to join OUR, which has members all over the US.

The fight to make change at Walmart is a fight that affects the wider working class.  According to a recent report released by the National Employment Law Project, Walmart drives down wages for workers in its international supply chain. More about this later.

Chicago bridal store worker demands “redress” for unpaid minimum wage and overtime

Reposted from Dignity at Work , blog of Arise Chicago

By: Shelly Ruzicka

On Saturday, June 2nd, Noemi Hernández led a group of over 30 community supporters to confront her former employer at Gislex Bridal, located in the Little Village Discount Mall.  Noemi is a member of the Arise Chicago Worker Center who first came to the center with concerns about working conditions at the bridal shop.

After talking with Worker Center organizers, they discovered she was owed over $9,700 in wages from her 10 months working at Gislex.  Because the store’s owner pays its workers $55-60 per day for a ten hour shift, 5 days a week, Noemi was earning about $6 per hour, far below the Illinois $8.25 minimum wage, and no overtime.

After Noemi presented a letter from Arise expressing concern about the wages and working conditions at Gislex, the employer fired her.  The owner, Maribel Flores, has refused to meet and has not returned phone calls from Arise, prompting Noemi and the Worker Center to hold a more creative action to get the employer’s attention.

Leading a mock bridal party decked out in veils, dresses, ties, corsages, buttoners, and flower bouquets, Noemi carried a hand-made sign that asked customers not to support a business that abuses its workers. One supporter carried an over-sized price tag for the $9,700 owed to Noemi.  Another had a giant receipt for Gislex with line items for the unpaid minimum wage, overtime, and last week of wages.

The group entered the Discount Mall to present a letter, the price tag, and receipt to the shop owner.  A Gislex worker told the crowd that the owner knew they were there and was leaving.  This marked the second time owner Maribel Flores had run away from Noemi and Arise when they tried to meet with her.

The group then paraded through the Discount Mall handing out flyers to curious customers and chanting, “Queremos justicia en La Villita!” or “we want justice in Little Village!”  Then Noemi and the  “bridal party” led a picket outside chanting “Follow your vow, pay Noemi now!” and “What do we want? The minimum wage!  When do we want it? Now!” all the while also engaging mall customers.

When the group processed back across the street to where they started, Arise organizers and Noemi debriefed with supporters.  Noemi said that while she first felt nervous approaching her former workplace, the large group of supporters energized her.  One of her friends who attended the action was extremely passionate, saying, “It’s so important we did this to show all the other workers, especially Latinos, that they can stand up.  It’s wrong that this is happening, but even worse that it’s in our own Latino community, right on 26th Street.”

While the owner was not present to accept the demand letter or to speak with her former worker, Noemi said she felt good about the action.   When asked if they thought the owner still heard the group’s message demanding justice, everyone unanimously replied with a resounding “yes!”  Each person also expressed commitment to support Noemi at additional actions if needed.

To stay up to date on Noemi’s campaign for justice at Gislex, subscribe to Dignity at Work and to Arise Chicago’s e-news/action alert list at www.arisechicago.org.

Chicago charter school workers organize union, stop proposed closure

Teachers, staff, students, and parents last week successfully stopped the closure of the Youth Connections Leadership Academy, a charter school that serves high-risk and dropout students in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The closure was announced just two days after the academy’s teachers and staff notified their employer, Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS), that they had unanimously agreed to join and be represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an AFT local that represents teachers and staff at 12 other Chicago charter schools.

The teachers and staff decided to join the union because they thought that they needed a stronger voice on the job. “A union will enable teachers to advocate more powerfully for our students and for ourselves, which can only strengthen and enhance our school’s ability to serve our students effectively,” said Virginia Coklow, a teacher at the academy.

But shortly after notifying their employer of their decision to form a union, teachers and staff received a letter by overnight delivery telling them that YCCS’s management was recommending to its board of directors that the academy be closed and that teacher and staff contracts for the next school year not be renewed.

“This (was) union busting, plain and simple,” said Brian Harris, president of the Chicago ACTS to the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve never had anything this drastic where they’ve threatened to fire everyone or close down a school. But, every single school where we’ve tried to organize, with the exception of one, we’ve faced some push-back.”

YCCS’s management denied that the closure was related to the union organizing campaign and blamed the proposed closure on the school’s performance.

But teachers and parents alike pointed out that the school shouldn’t be judged on narrow standards like the school’s management used. Many of the school’s students have special needs and have either dropped out or been expelled from public schools. The academy isn’t a second chance, it’s a last chance for many of its students to get the education to which they are entitled.

“We serve a population of high-risk students who rely on our school for consistent support,” said art teacher Lydia Merrill. “We formed our union with the intent of creating a stable faculty with the ability to effectively advocate for ourselves and our students.”

The union also filed an unfair labor charge with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation elections in the state’s schools, alleging that the school’s proposed closure was retaliation for the teachers’ and staff’s decision to form a union.

After filing the charge, the union urged supporters to attend and testify at an upcoming YCCS board of directors meeting where management’s closure recommendation would be considered.

The board meeting, which took place on May 31, was packed with parents, students, teachers, and staff, and many of them spoke passionately about the need to keep the school open. A grandmother of one of the students told the board that the teachers at the academy were making a big difference in her grandson’s life. “I’ve seen these teachers here until 7:30, 8:30 at night! They care about these kids,” she said.

After hearing from the academy’s supporters, the board decided not to close or restructure the school. Chicago ACTS reports that the board also agreed to cooperate with the union’s certification and that it would collaborate with teachers and staff to improve the academy.

”YCCS was correct in stepping away from a hasty decision to close or restructure the campus,” said Chicago ACTS in a statement released after the board’s decision. “(It was) an action that (the academy) staff believe would have harmed . . .  students and staff and would have been motivated by the staff’s recent decision to unionize.”

Chicago ACTS at first decided not to withdraw its unfair labor relations charge against YCCS, but reversed itself saying that it had put its unfair labor charge on hold while it conducts talks with management and its attorneys.

Sotheby’s workers claim victory, head back to work

Art handlers in New York City who had been locked out by Sotheby’s, one of the world’s largest art auction houses, announced on May 31 that after a 10-month lock out, they had reached a deal with the company and would be returning to work. The new contract provides for a series of 1 percent raises over the life of the new three-year contract and preserves existing health care and retirement benefits. The new contract also does not include work-rule changes sought by the company to weaken the workers’ long-term bargaining power.

After negotiations on a new contract broke down last summer, Sotheby’s locked out 43 of its art handlers who belong to Teamsters Local 814. In addition to seeking health care and retirement benefit concessions, the company wanted changes to the contract that would allow it to replace 12 senior workers when they retire with temporary workers.

Had the workers conceded to this demand, the number of union members on the job would have been reduced by nearly 30 percent and much more of the work would have done by non-union temporary workers, severely weakening the workers’ future bargaining position and making it more difficult to enforce the contract. As a result, the workers said, “no deal.”

The company, sensing that it had an opportunity to weaken, and perhaps bust, the union, initiated a lockout. The idea that Sotheby’s sought to weaken or even bust the union was reinforced by its hiring of Jackson Lewis, the country’s leading union avoidance law firm, to advise it during negotiations and the lockout.

Instead of sitting back, drawing unemployment checks, and hoping for the best, members of Local 814 conducted an energetic corporate campaign that featured non-violent, direct action against Sotheby’s and its board members and executives.

The union’s latest action took place in May when Sotheby’s shareholders gathered for their annual meeting. Attendees had to cross a Teamster picket line to enter the meeting, and once inside, they heard a Teamster shareholder call for the ouster of two board members, Michael Sovern and Diana Taylor.

Last October, a few months after the lockout began, five wives of Local 184 members, confronted Taylor at a meeting of the philanthropic New York Women’s Foundation, which Taylor chairs. They asked why she supported Sotheby’s effort to starve its workers into accepting an unfair contract.

“As chair of the Women’s Foundation, Diana Taylor should support their mission of working for economic security and justice for women,” said Pat Walsh, wife of Local 814 member John Walsh in a statement about the meeting. “So why, as a board member of Sotheby’s Auction House, does she condone Sotheby’s throwing hardworking New Yorkers out on the street without paychecks? Our families rely on these good jobs and benefits.”

In between, that event and the May shareholders meeting, Local 814 staged numerous actions to call out Sotheby’s, including the disruptions of auctions and traveling overseas to win international support for the locked out workers.

They also won the support of some New York artists and art collectors who drafted a petition urging Sotheby’s to treat its workers fairly. They collected more than 2,000 signatures on it.

Occupy Wall Street played a key role in the Sotheby’s workers’ struggle. Occupy activists took part in union demonstrations, picketed with Local 814 members, and participated in a number of creative disruptions and displays of support for the workers

Sotheby’s recently signaled that it was ready to end the lockout when it fired Jackson Lewis and replaced it with Proskauer, an international corporate law firm. Proskauer’s attorney Bob Batterman, who represented the National Football League in last year’s negotiations with the National Football League’s Players Association, took over negotiations for Sotheby’s.

While, the company was seeking to weaken the workers’ bargaining power by increasing its temporary staff, the union was trying to make more of the art handler positions permanent, full-time positions. The two sides appear to have tabled that issue for the time being and keep full-time staffing at its current level.

Nevertheless, the locked out workers thought that the new contract contained sufficient job protections and voted overwhelmingly to return to work.

“People are ready to go back to work,” said Local 814 President Jason Ide to Labor Notes. “After 10 months we fought our way back to decent job standards.”

Workers to demand respect and accountability at Walmart at shareholders meeting

As Walmart prepares to hold its shareholder meeting on June 1 in Bentonville, Arkansas, a group of the company’s workers intensified their campaign for respect and corporate accountability.

During the last two weeks, the workers and their supporters have confronted Walmart senior executives and board members demanding answers about the poor treatment of Walmart workers and serious ethical lapses by the company’s top executives. Two groups, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and Making Change at Walmart, both affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers, have organized and led the confrontations.

When the shareholders convene, they will vote on a resolution sponsored by four Walmart worker-shareholders, active in OUR. The resolution, known as proposal #6, calls for the board of directors to re-examine senior executive compensation policies that produce bloated salaries and unwise business decisions.

“When I talk to my co-workers and fellow shareholders, everyone agrees we need to hold Walmart’s executives more accountable,” said Carlton Smith, one of the proposal’s sponsors. ISS, the largest proxy advisory group in the US, has advised its clients to  support proposal #6.

Worker-activists like Smith also think that Walmart needs to clean house at the top of the organization, especially now that reports about their role in a bribery scandal involving Walmart executives in Mexico and government officials has come to light.

“Walmart’s current leaders have lost our trust,” Smith said. As a result, OUR and Making Change have called for the removal of seven members of Walmart’s board of directors: Jim Walton, Rob Walton, H. Lee Scott, Jr., Michelle Burns, CEO Michael Duke, Gregory Penner, and Christopher J. Williams.

On Thursday, May 31, the two groups led a march on Walmart headquarters in Washington DC. The day before, they were in New York City to confront Rob Walton, an heir to Sam Walton who founded the retail giant.

Last week, the Walmart workers were joined by members of the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) in a demonstration outside the annual meeting of Goldman Sachs. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of Walmart board member Michelle Burns, who also sits on the board of Goldman Sachs and leads its audit committee.

Burns was on the Walmart audit committee during bribery scandal in Mexico, and the New York Times reported that several Goldman shareholders cited her role in the scandal as the reason they objected to her leading the investment firm’s audit committee.

The campaign to remove Burns and the other six board members mentioned above has picked up momentum. ISS and Glass Lewis, another proxy advisory group, have both advised clients to vote against the seven. The Massachusetts state pension fund, the New York pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the Florida State Board of Administration, and the Connecticut Retirement Plan and Trust Fund have all said that they would vote against the seven.

In addition to the bribery charges, OUR and Making Change at Walmart are concerned about the impact that Walmart is having on the US economy and the way it treats its own workers.

According to Making Change, the company’s race-to-the bottom corporate culture cost the US 196,000 jobs between 2001 and 2006 as it relied more and more on imports from low-wage countries like China to provide merchandise for its shelves.

It’s impact on small businesses and local economies has also been problematic. The US Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies reported in 2009 that the entry of big box stores like Walmart often leads to the demise of nearby independent and mid-sized chain stores selling the same goods.

Walmart also treats its workers poorly. The average hourly wage of a Walmart associate is $8.81 an hour for full-time work, which Walmart considers to be 34 hours a week. That amounts to $15,500 a year, which means that many of these associates are eligible for food stamps and government health care programs.

The company in January raised health insurance premiums for full-time workers by 120 percent and stopped providing health care benefits for those who work fewer than 24 hours a week.

According to Walmart worker-activists like Barbara Collins, the way Walmart treats its workers, its negative impact on the national and local economies, and the questionable ethics of its leadership mean that change at Walmart is vital to the future of our country.  “My fellow associates want to be a part of the solution and fix the problems that exist at Walmart,” Collins said.