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.