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.”

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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.