Privatization supporters manufacture Postal Service “crisis”

As the US Postal Service prepares to default on a $5.5 billion payment to the US Treasury, postal worker unions are blaming privatization proponents for blocking congressional action that would make it possible for USPS to meet its financial obligation and begin making reforms that protect services and deal with the challenges of delivering mail in the 21st century.

“The postal debacle is a manufactured crisis, and it is being exploited by those who want to privatize the Postal Service,” said Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “The House Republican leadership’s bill to ‘fix’ the Postal Service couldn’t be clearer.”

The Republican leadership’s bill to which Guffey refers is HR 2309 sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa of California. The bill, according to APWU, would end Saturday delivery, close thousands of rural post offices, shut down hundreds of mail processing facilities, and create a commission that could override union contracts.

Worst of all, HR 2309 does not address the main cause of the Postal Service’s financial problems–a requirement enacted by Congress in 2006 that makes the Postal Service pre-fund its 75-year retiree health care obligation.

As a result of this requirement, the Postal Service must pay the US Treasury billions of dollars a year until 2016 to fund the payment of medical bills, some of which won’t come due until 2081.

The Postal Service has said that it won’t be able to pay the $5.5 billion pre-funding payment that is due August 1. Another payment of $5.6 billion is due in September.

During the two years before the pre-funding requirement went into effect, the Postal Service operated in the black. Its deficit began to mount as the pre-funding requirement went into effect. This pre-funding requirement now accounts for about 85 percent of the Postal Services’ red ink. For this year, the pre-funding requirement is responsible for 94 percent of its deficit.

There is alternative legislation pending before Congress that would save the Postal Service from default and enact reforms needed to make postal services more closely align with the needs of a modern economy that relies more on electronic communications.

HR 1351 allows the  Treasury to credit the Postal Service for the more than $13 billion the Postal Service has overpaid to its pension plan. Such a credit would allow the Postal Service to use its own money to meet its immediate pre-funding obligation.

HR 1351 also includes some of the postal reforms that the Senate passed last spring and sent to the House for consideration.

In addition to addressing the pre-funding obligation, the Senate bill, according to one of its sponsors Sen. Bernie Sanders, maintains overnight delivery standards and Saturday delivery and “creates a commission. . . to (develop) ways for the Postal Service to become more entrepreneurial as it adjusts to mail volume changes caused by e-mail and the Internet.”

But rather than allowing HR 1351, which has 230 co-sponsors to advance, Rep. Issa, who chairs the congressional committee that oversees the Postal Service, has insisted that his bill move forward instead.

Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said that Issa’s decision to avoid action that could address the pre-funding obligation is a deliberate attempt to create an artificial crisis that can be used as an excuse to cut postal services.

Critics of the Issa bill say that the cuts to service required by Rep. Issa’s bill will spark customer ire that will eventually be used as an excuse to dismantle postal services and privatize what’s left.

AllGov.com reports that Rep. Issa has received more than $35,000 in campaign contributions from PACs and individuals associated with the Postal Services’ main competitor UPS.

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Union calls for worldwide boycott of Hyatt

UNITE HERE on July 23 announced a worldwide boycott of Hyatt Hotels in response to the hotel chain’s abusive treatment of its housekeeping staff and other employees. In addition to subjecting its employees to health and safety risks, the union said that Hyatt pays low wages, outsources full-time work to subcontractors who use temporary staff, and does not respect its workers.

“Hyatt systematically abuses housekeepers and other hotel staff,” said UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm as he announced the boycott. “It is unacceptable that in 2012 women endure debilitating injuries as a result of the work that they do cleaning rooms.”

A group of clinicians, who recently met with Hyatt workers, offered their support for the boycott and urged others in the medical community, which accounts for 23 percent of all meetings and conferences in the hospitality industry, to do the same.

“A healthy society needs workers who are treated with respect and who are able to provide for their families,” said  David Blatt, co-director of the Illinois Masonic HIV Unit. “Hyatt workers are fighting for workplace safety in order to reach that goal.”

Doctors supporting the boycott called attention to a study in the American Journal of Internal Medicine that found that among 50 hotel properties examined for the study, Hyatt’s housekeepers had the highest rate of injury.

Job speed up is one of the main causes of on-the-job injuries at Hyatt. Housekeepers are required to clean up to 30 rooms a day, nearly twice the rate at other unionized hotels.

This means that the housekeepers have about 15 minutes to vacuum, change bed linen, mop bathrooms, and scrub showers and toilets in each room. Doing this work requires heavy lifting and bending and stooping in awkward positions at a fast pace.

In April, The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration told Hyatt that inspectors investigating safety complaints found a number of safety hazards at the company’s hotels that could cause serious musculoskeletal disorders. In a letter to Hyatt, OSHA recommended actions that the hotel chain could take to eliminate these hazards.

“OSHA’s letter validates reports by Hyatt housekeepers about pain and injuries sustained while cleaning luxury hotel rooms,” read a statement released by UNITE HERE. “Lifting heavy mattresses and other cleaning activities can lead to debilitating injuries, surgery and even permanent disability.”

But it’s not just about the pain and risk of permanent injury that led the union to call for the boycott. Hyatt, says the union, has a history of mistreating its workers.

For example, Jacqueline Ammoah, a housekeeper at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, slipped at work and fractured three ribs. Before management would allow her to go to a hospital for medical treatment, they required her to take drug and breathalyzer tests and to write a report on what she could have done to avoid the accident.

Martha Reyes, who worked for the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California, came to work one day last year and found some male co-workers laughing at an offensive photo-shopped picture of some female co-workers. When she and her sister complained to management about the picture, they were fired.

Addelhakian Ejjair, who works at the Hyatt Regency’s restaurant in Indianapolis, makes less than $20,000 per year. He has to work two jobs to support his wife and two children. He would like to quit one job, so he can spend more time with his family. He pays $120 month for health care insurance just for himself. He visited unionized Hyatt hotel workers in Chicago and learned that they pay only $30 a month for full family coverage.

Hyatt’s record has led a number of groups to support the boycott including the National Football League’s Players Association, the National Organization of Women, the AFL-CIO, and several lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender groups.

The Jewish Daily Forward, reports that a group of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis and community leaders recently criticized Hyatt in a report on the company’s treatment of its workers.

They called for a boycott of the hotel chain until it changes. “We pledge to treat the Hyatt as lo kasher/not kosher for events and  celebrations until it treats its workers with justice,” said the Jewish leaders  in their report.

Con Ed, union announce tentative agreement to end lockout

Con Ed and the United Utility Workers of America Local 1-2 announced today that they reached a tentative agreement to end the nearly month-long lock out of 8,500 union members by the utility giant. Details of the agreement were not made public. Union members must still ratify the agreement

Earlier in the day, Con Ed, which provides electric services to 3.2 million customers in the New York area, said that it was suspending the lockout so that locked workers could be on hand to repair damages from severe thunderstorms that were bearing down on the city.

Both sides faced pressure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to end the lock out.

Prior to the governor’s intervention, two big demonstrations were held in New York City showing that support for the Con Ed workers was growing among other unions and other labor oriented groups.

Con Ed, which reported profits of $1.05 billion in 2011, locked out its union workers on June 30 because the union would not agree to concessions demanded by the company during negotiations over a new contract.

The utility giant wanted to substantially reduce their union workers’ health care benefits and wanted to eliminate pension benefits for new hires, a move that union members feared would eventually lead the company to freeze and/or eliminate pensions of workers already on the job.

Con Ed joins a growing list of companies seeking concessions that would lower their workers’ living standards even as the companies are recording substantial profits and rewarding top executives with bonuses and raises.

Caterpillar, a manufacturer of heavy equipment, in May forced a strike by 780 IAM members at the company’s Joliet, Illinois factory that makes hydraulic parts for heavy equipment, by demanding concessions that it knew its workers could not accept.

The concessions included a six-year wage freeze for most workers, doubling workers’ costs for their health care benefit, freezing pensions and eliminating them for new hires, and ending seniority work rules.

The workers overwhelmingly rejected the offer and have been out on strike since May 1.

While Caterpillar is demanding steep concessions by its workers, it “has significantly raised its executives’ compensation,” reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times.

Caterpillar is also reporting a healthy bottom line. Last year’s profits were $4.9 billion, and it’s on course to do better this year. Profits for the first half of 2012 were $3.28 billion.

Con Ed, Caterpillar, and other corporations are sensing that we’ve reached a tipping point in US labor relations,  a tipping point in which it no longer takes a business slow down for companies to justify lowering their workers’ standard of living.

The tipping point comes as unions have lost power for number of reasons: to name just a few, past concessions have eroded support for unions among rank and file workers, labor laws that protected collective bargaining has been dismantled, many unions lack a strategic approach to organizing (or for that matter, any approach at all), and businesses have become more aggressive in opposing unions.

Con Ed and Caterpillar are now in the vanguard of the new labor-management paradigm, and if they succeed, even more companies will follow their lead, which is why some unions have taken notice and have decided to stand with the Con Ed workers.

On July 17, thousands of union members  the Transit Workers Union, CWA, Teamsters, United Federation of Teachers, UFCW, and others demonstrated in solidarity with the Con Ed workers.

Also supporting the Con Ed workers ere members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and SEIU, two unions that have been helping low wage workers in New York organize.

“Your fight is our fight,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president to the crowd at the July 17 demonstration. “This struggle isn’t just about Con Ed workers, it’s about all of us.”

A week later, locked out Con Ed workers met up with and joined thousands of marchers participating in Workers Rising Day of Action as they marched through the streets of New York.

The day of action, which was organized by United New York, a community/labor organization that includes RWDSU and SEIU, was called to demand an increase in the minimum wage and to draw attention to the plight of low-wage workers.

A day after the Workers Rising demonstration and as thunderstorms threatened to cause power outages, Gov. Cuomo, who had previously been reluctant to get involved in the Con Ed lockout, urged the New York State Public Utilities Commission to become more active in ending the lockout.

After receiving a letter from Gov. Cuomo urging action, the commission announced that it would convene a meeting between the union and Con Ed.

That meeting resulted in today’s announcement about the tentative agreement.

Unions battle Verizon on multiple fronts; seek to build movement for economic and social justice

Verizon and unions representing 45,000 of the company’s workers on the East Coast will meet with a federal mediator on Wednesday, July 25 in hopes of resuming negotiations that have broken down. Verizon has refused to budge from concession demands that one of the unions, CWA, says will cost each worker $10,000 year over the life span of the contract.

In the meantime, the two unions, CWA and IBEW, have been mobilizing members and battling Verizon on several fronts to win a decent contract that protects members from cuts proposed by the company and maintains job security.

At a national union hall meeting held by teleconference last week, Jennifer Travis, a 15-year Verizon employee and CWA member, told members about one of the fronts. Travis and 23 other CWA members and 14 IBEW members were fired by Verizon for strike related activity during last year’s two-week strike against Verizon.

If Verizon can get away with firing me, Travis said. Others will be less likely to stand up to the company.

The company alleged that Travis assaulted a Verizon supervisor who crossed a union’s picket line in Pittsburg. According to Travis, she and her family were at the picket line on the day in question.  She yelled vigorously at management staff crossing the picket lines, but never got close to the person the company alleges she assaulted.

During her disciplinary hearing, which took place in December, the company was unable to provide any evidence that Travis had attacked anyone.

In fact said CWA President Larry Cohen, the company’s physical description of the manager who Travis was supposed to have attacked did not match the physical description of the alleged victim. But that didn’t stop the company from firing Travis.

“The story of the others who were fired mirrors that of Jennifer,” Cohen said. “The one thing that all those who were fired had in common was that they were union activists and leaders who stood up to the company.”

Cohen said that the firings were a classic case of intimidation and that CWA has made it a priority to get the fired workers’ jobs back.

He noted that the National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against the company, charging Verizon with using the firings to suppress protected activity like the strike. An administrative judge will hold hearings on the NLRB complaint this fall.

On another front, CWA has slowed down Verizon’s attempt to cut marketing deals with cable companies such as Comcast and Time Warner that if allowed to go through will weaken competition in the cable market and could cost 72,000 US workers their jobs.

Because of the possibility that these deals could create market monopoly, these companies need the permission of the federal government.

CWA and IBEW members have testified against the proposed deal and lobbied members of Congress.   Their efforts have slowed the approval process, which Verizon and the other companies were seeking to expedite.

Cohen said that all these efforts are part of a plan to bring pressure on Verizon, but the key to success is for union members to continue their mobilization efforts.

He called on CWA members on the East Coast to come to Philadelphia on August 11 for the Workers Stand for America rally, a rally that organizers hope will rekindle the economic and social justice movement sparked by the Occupy movement last year.

Those at the rally will demand an economic bill of rights that includes jobs, decent pay, health care, education, and an end to the income disparity in the US that has caused a mass migration of wealth from the pockets of working people into the banks of the 1 percenters.

Cohen said that the rally will kick off a campaign for economic and social justice that not only seeks a fair share of wealth for working people but also eliminates some of the barriers to workers’ power such as the recent spate of state laws that make it harder for African-American, Latino, and others who have suffered discrimination from voting.

If we don’t build a movement for economic and social justice, corporations like Verizon and Con Ed of New York will continue to lower living standards for their workers, Cohen said.

Activists support Houston janitors; Mayor calls on cleaning corporations to resume negotiations

Labor and community activists on Wednesday, July 18 showed their support for striking Houston janitors by staging a sit-in at a busy downtown Houston intersection. Police arrested 15 people taking part in the sit-in, but the action and the possibility of similar actions in the future led Houston Mayor Annise Parker to issue a strong statement urging the janitors’ employers to return to the bargaining table.

“I am calling on the contracting companies to go back to the negotiating table,” Mayor Parker said in a statement released Friday, July 20.  “Their unwillingness to talk has left the union with no other choice but civil disobedience.  That is not good for the City of Houston or our economy and it is not how we do business in Houston.  We work hard, we work together and we treat each other fairly.  The union has made good-faith offers.  Now it’s time for the janitorial contractors to sit back down at the table to work out an agreement that is fair and just.”

SEIU Local 1, the union to which the striking janitors belong, said that the sit-in, which took place at the intersection of Bell and Smith, “harkens back to the civil rights movement” when civil rights supporters, some of whom were called “outside agitators” took direct, non-violent action to protest segregation laws.

One of those arrested Wednesday was Johnny N. Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice One. Mata characterized that the economic injustice that sparked Wednesday’s sit-in as “deplorable.”

The janitors are seeking a modest raise that would increase their hourly wage from $8.35 to $10. Their employers, national and international cleaning corporations like GCA and ISS, have said that they can’t afford to pay the janitors a decent wage because the banks, oil companies, and other businesses whose offices they clean are pressuring them to keep costs down.

SEIU has pointed out that the same cleaning corporations that say that can’t afford to pay janitors $10 an hour are paying janitors in Chicago three times what janitors in Houston make despite the fact that commercial real estate rents in Chicago are lower than they are in Houston.

“The janitor’s struggle is an example of what’s wrong with our economy and a road map in miniature of what we need to change,” said Elsa Caballero, Texas SEIU Local 1 executive director, who was arrested during the sit-in. “Unless we fight back and fight back hard, the middle class will be the great disappearing act of the twenty-first century.”

The position that the cleaning corporations have taken during negotiations is even worse than it appears. SEIU has reported that the best that the corporations are willing to offer is a $0.50 raise that would be implemented in increments over the course of a five-year contract.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the cleaning corporations also want janitors to agree to lower their wages below the contract rates when the cleaning corporations bid for jobs against non-union companies, which now comprise about 33 percent of the Houston cleaning services market.

When the janitors rejected the cleaning corporations attempt to limit wage increases and in some cases actually lower wages, the cleaning corporations tried to intimidate them into accepting a contract on the corporations’ terms.

Some of them stopped making contributions to the janitors’ health care fund, and others indicated that they might follow suit. That’s what led some SEIU Local 1 members to walk off the job.

Over the course of the last two weeks the oringinal strikers have been joined by others. SEIU in a statement said that 475 out of a total of 3,200 union janitors at 36 different buildings are out on strike.

Unfortunately, because all of the union janitors aren’t on strike, corporate offices are still getting cleaned, which has taken some pressure off the cleaning corporations to return to the bargaining table.

SEIU is hoping that direct actions like the sit-ins will help increase public support for the janitors and that this support will pressure the corporations back to the bargaining tale. So far, the janitors seem to have the sympathy of the general public. A Fox News survey found that 63 percent of Houstonian surveyed believe the janitors should be paid more.

One of those members of the public who support the janitors is Resha Thomas, a leader of the Texas Organizing Project, a community organization that unites low- and middle-income workers.

“This fight is an example of a tale of two cities and there is a clear line between the haves and have-nots,” said Thomas, one of those arrested during the sit-in. “I stand with janitors because they will raise the floor for all working families without tearing down the ceiling.”

Victory at UT; administration agrees to join Workers Rights Consortium

Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition celebrated their victory after University of Texas at Austin President William Powers on Wednesday announced that the university will join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC).

Powers’ announcement reverses earlier statements in which he said that UT could not afford to join WRC, an international organization that monitors and takes action to halt abuses in garment sweatshops that produce t-shirts and other apparel bearing the logos of university and professional sports teams.

“Making UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition (showed) the largest collegiate apparel producer in the world the power of students acting in solidarity with workers when we fight to win,” said Billy Yates on the coalition’s Facebook page.

A spokesperson for Powers tried to downplay the role that the coalition’s militant and sometimes confrontational actions played in his decision.

“We had some very productive conversations with the students and just decided it was in our best interest to have two groups looking at workers’ rights,” said Tara Doolittle UT’s director of media outreach to Alcalde, the UT alumni organization’s newsletter.

But it’s unlikely that Powers would have had this conversation with sweatshop opponents without their persistent efforts to mobilize support for WRC.

The coalition organized demonstrations, rallies, and teach-ins throughout the school year. On April 18, members of the coalition were arrested after they staged a sit-in at Powers office when he refused to talk with them about joining WRC. Less than two weeks later, the students staged another sit-in.

After the first sit-in, Powers said that he would talk to coalition members, but not to anyone arrested in the April sit-in. Coalition members said that they were willing to talk but not under the conditions proposed by Powers.

Somewhere along the line, Powers appears to have changed his position. The Austin American-Statesman reports that one of the participants in the recent meeting was Bianca Hinz-Foley, who was arrested at the sit-in.

During the meeting, Hinz-Foley described what she learned on a recent trip to Honduras and El Salvador where she met and talked to garment workers. They told her of low pay, forced overtime, and sexual abuse.

One reason that Hinz-Foley and other coalition members want UT to join WRC is that it is an independent organization that has effectively fought sweatshop abuse. For example in 2010, it helped organize a campaign to make Nike pay severance pay to Honduras garment workers who lost their jobs when a Nike contractor shut down its plant and refused workers their severance pay owed them by law.

Students at the University of Wisconsin played a key role in that victory. They convinced university administrators to terminate the university’s licensing agreement with Nike if the company did not make good on what it owed the workers.

Before this week’s decision to join WRC, UT had said that it did not need to join WRC because it already belonged to the Fair Labor Association (FLA), another group that monitors sweatshops.

The Making UT Sweatshop Free Coalition and other anti-sweatshop groups said that FLA, a group set up by the garment and fashion industry in the 1990s after stories of sweatshop abuse came to light, has been slow to act when reported sweatshop abuse conflicts too much with the interests of the industry.

UT will remain a member of the Fair Labor Association after it joins WRC.

Back in April, UT officials said that the university couldn’t afford the $50,000 annual fee it would cost to join WRC because state funding reductions were forcing the university to cut its budget.

After the recent announcement to join WRC, university officials said that they would pay the fee out of money that UT’s athletic department receives under licensing agreements with Nike, Russell and other sporting apparel companies.

Unions, community groups step up efforts to raise pay for low-wage workers

Unions and community groups have stepped up their efforts to raise the wages of the US’s lowest paid workers. In New York City, United NY, a community/labor coalition, will hold a Day of Action for Low-Wage Workers on Tuesday, July 24.

On the same day, Stand Up Chicago, another community/labor coalition will rally for a minimum wage increase. In San Francisco, an immigrants rights group and the City Attorney teamed up to win a $500,000 wage settlement from a local carwash company.

The Day of Action in New York will feature a media conference, a rally, and a march designed to call attention to the plight of low-wage workers, who are becoming the fastest growing sector of the city’s workforce.

According to James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, the size of New York workforce making $10 an hour or less has increased by 42 percent since 1990.

That trend has become more pronounced since the recession began. Since 2008, New York has added 100,000 jobs that pay $10 an hour or less. Meanwhile, the city has lost 42,000 middle-income jobs.

“People are really hurting in this city,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, one of the unions helping to organize the Day of Action to the New York Daily News. “People are going to work at honest jobs and they are still condemned to a life of poverty.”

The Day of Action will include a call for raising the minimum wage. “We want to raise awareness that increasing the minimum wage makes a real difference in the lives of working people,” said SEIU Local 32BJ to the Daily News. “This is what labor unions should be about.”

United NY, RWDSU, and SEIU have also been helping carwash, grocery store, health care, and other low-wage workers to organize unions and to fight back against employer abuse like wage theft.

In Chicago, Stand Up Chicago will also rally on July 24 for an increase in the minimum wage. Organizers of the rally want people running for elected office to make raising the minimum wage their priority.

The current minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour, well below the $3,073 an hour that the average CEO receives.

Had the minimum wage kept up with inflation over the last 40 years, it would now be $10.55 an hour, still a modest amount but a big improvement over the present minimum wage.

Stand Up Chicago like all other supporters of an increased minimum wage argue that increasing the minimum wage would lead toward an improved economy.

“Putting more money into the pockets of ordinary Americans is a no-brainer,” said a posting on the group’s website. “If we reduced income inequality, we’d boost our economy. Small businesses would grow and hire, and we’d put the 99 percent back to work.”

In San Francisco, low-wage carwash workers got some good news. Tower Car Wash agreed to settle a wage theft law suit.

As part of the settlement, Tower will pay $500,000 to workers to reimburse them for wages owed but not paid. The lawsuit charged the company with forcing workers to report to work but then not allowing them to clock in, sometimes for hours. According to the suit, the unpaid work time averaged four to six hours a week.

The suit was brought by City Attorney Tony Herrera and La Raza Centro Legal, an immigrants rights center.

The United Steelworkers has been actively organizing carwash workers in Los Angeles, where three carwash companies have recognized their workers union and signed a union contract.