More cable workers vote yes for union

Cable technicians at Vision Pro, a Cablevision contractor in Brooklyn, recently voted to unionize. They voted 43-3 to join the Communication Workers of America, becoming the latest group of New York cable technicians to join CWA.

“This is a great day for Vision Pro workers and all cable technicians who want a voice on their job,” said Deane Crawford, a Vision Pro technician. “We are proud to join our brothers and sisters at Falcon (Data Com) and Cablevision because we are fighting for the same thing–respect and fairness.”

Falcon Data Com is another Cablevision contractor and Cablevision is a telecommunications and media corporation that provides cable service in the New York metropolitan area.

Brooklyn Cablevision technicians made news in January when they voted overwhelmingly to join CWA and became the first Cablevision workers to unionize. The cable industry unlike the telecommunications industry is largely non-union.

Falcon technicians in July voted 53 to 5 to join CWA. The vote came a month after Falcon workers  conducted a wildcat strike to protest the firing of two workers for passing out union representation cards.

After the firings, Falcon workers set up a picket line that was honored by nearly all the company’s technicians. The strike ended a few hours later when the fired workers were rehired.

Only about 2 percent to 4 percent of the cable industry is organized, which is one reason why pay and benefits have lagged behind workers in the telecommunications industry, whose workforce is about 90 percent unionized.

According to Stand Up for the Cablevision 99 Percent, a website that tracks CWA organizing efforts among cable workers in the New York City area, cable technicians “are . . . subject to arbitrary discipline and favoritism by managers, their health care coverage is inadequate, their workload is unreasonable and they have insufficient 401(k) retirement plans.  Cablevision workers also make at least one-third less than Verizon workers, who are represented by CWA.”

IBEW also won a recent union election in suburban Westchester County when technicians at Corbel voted 50-30 to join the union. Corbel is another Cablevision contractor.

In February, Corbel workers conducted a wildcat strike to protest cuts in pay rates for the installation of Cablevision’s “Triple Play Package.” The workers set up a picket line and elected a committee to meet with management about the rate cut.

The wildcat strike succeeded in reversing the rate cut, but the workers decided they needed more than an ad hoc committee to protect them from future cuts and to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions.

The union victory came after Corbel conducted an intense anti-union campaign that the pro-union workers resisted by developing a strong communications network that could immediately respond to misinformation from the company.

Cablevision in the Bronx also conducted an intense anti-union campaign that succeeded in preventing its Bronx workers from joining their brothers and sisters in Brooklyn.

CWA leaders blamed the union defeat on company intimidation and the hiring of an anti-union law firm that organized a vote-no committee that  “waged an ugly anti-campaign against union supporters.” CWA has filed unfair labor charges against Cablevision over the campaign.

Still, the victory at Vision Pro has established momentum for more organizing efforts in the cable industry.

“When we won one election, they called it a fluke,” said Chris Shelton, CWA vice-president for District 1. “When we won two, they said it was a coincidence. But after three elections for union rights at Cablevision and its contractors, this is a movement that is not going away. Workers across the city are demanding fair wages, better conditions and above all–respect.”

“Enough is enough”; strike notice given by Chicago teachers

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on August 29 filed a notice with the Illinois Labor Relations Board informing the board that Chicago teachers and school staff may be going on strike in ten days. CTU has been in contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) since November and is now working under an expired contract.

Earlier this summer, 89 percent of all CTU members voted to authorize a strike if a fair agreement could not be reached. Of those who actually voted, 98 percent supported authorizing a strike.

“This is a difficult decision for all of us to make,” said Karen Lewis, president of the CTU. “But this is the only way to get the (school) board’s attention and show them that we are serious about getting a fair contract which will give our students the resources they deserve.”

Lewis said that the union continues negotiating with CPS in hopes of averting a strike but added that actions by the CPS school board since contract talks began in November suggest that the board is more interested in antagonizing teachers and school staff than in trying to reach a fair agreement.

“(The school board) denied us our 4 percent raise when there was money in the budget,” said Lewis referring to the board’s decision last November not to pay teachers and staff a raise agreed to in previous bargaining.

“They attempted to ram a poorly thought out longer school day down our throats, and on top of that they want us to teach a new curriculum and be ready to be evaluated based on how well students do on standardized tests. Enough is enough,” she added.

CTU’s priority in its negotiations with CPS is improving education opportunities for the children they teach. The union is asking the board to provide sufficient funds for teaching a broad curriculum that includes world languages, art, and physical education and enhanced student services such as counseling. To maximize children’s learning opportunities, the union is also asking for manageable class sizes and adequate preparation time.

But so far the board has balked at providing adequate funding. Instead, “we have chronic underfunding and misplaced priorities,” said Jen Johnson, a high school teacher and CTU member. “CPS would rather shut down schools rather than give them the resources they need.”

Since 2002, the CPS has shut down about 100 public schools while funneling more money into privately operated charter schools. And the school board under direction of Mayor Rahm Emanuel is eager to expand funding of charter schools even if it means underfunding public schools.

Emanuel in January appeared in a video produced by a pro-charter foundation and Fox News analyst Juan Williams. During Emanuel’s interview with Williams, Emanuel praised charter schools and bashed teacher unions.

Emanuel is not alone. The opportunity to privatize public education in Chicago is supported by a host of hedge fund operators such as Kenneth Griffin of Citadel Investment Group and Steve Barr and other members of the financial elite such as Penny Pritzker whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain.

Emanuel and his wealthy supporters would like to see the number of charter schools in Chicago double even though there is no empirical data showing that charter schools improve student learning. In fact, last year the Chicago News Cooperative reported that charter schools actually had a lower percentage of students exceeding state standards than public schools.

According to Lewis, the desire to underfund public schools and divert more money to charter schools will make the education crisis even worse. “This education crisis is real especially if you are Black or Brown in Chicago,” Lewis said. “Whenever our students perform well on tests, (the school board) moves the bar higher, tells them they are failures, and blames their teachers.  Now they want to privatize public education and further disrupt our neighborhoods.  We’ve seen public housing shut down, public health clinics, public libraries and now public schools.  There is an attack on public institutions, many of which serve, low-income and working-class families.”

Court allows voters to vote on Michigan collective bargaining amendment

A Michigan court of appeals on August 27 ruled that the people of Michigan will have the opportunity this November to decide whether collective bargaining will become a right protected by the state’s constitution. Supporters of the referendum gathered 700,000 signatures on a petition to put the collective bargaining initiative on November’s ballot.

That was double the number needed to put the initiative on the ballot, and in March the state’s Board of Canvassers unanimously ruled in favor of letting voters decide on the initiative

But a coalition of business groups lobbied against allowing the vote to take place.  As a result, the governor voiced his opposition to it, the state’s attorney general wrote an opinion against it, and two Republican members of the board subsequently reversed themselves and deadlocked the board. The matter was then referred to the courts.

Supporters of the initiative applauded the court’s decision. “It’s a major victory for working people,” said Karen Kuciel, a Warren Consolidated Schools teacher. “Collective bargaining will be on the ballot for a vote. Now we must overcome the corporate special interests at the ballot box to ensure we have a voice for fair wages, benefits and safe working conditions for all of us.”

Supporters said that the actions to keep the collective bargaining measure off the ballot was unprecedented. “No Michigan governor or attorney general has ever taken such drastic action to prevent citizens from exercising their right to vote,” read a statement by Protect Working Families, a labor and community coalition that organized the effort to get the initiative on the ballot.

Protect Working Families also noted that in recent years, Michigan citizens have voted without interference by state officials or the business community on several amendments to the state constitution including those on stem cell research, affirmative action, and the definition of marriage.

The amendment was proposed because many feel that the right to collective bargaining is under attack and needs the extra layer of protection afforded by making it a constitutional right.

They point to developments in nearby states as proof. In Indiana, a so-called right to work law that makes it more difficult to bargain collectively was recently enacted. In Wisconsin, the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers has been severely restricted.

And “in the past year alone, more than 80 bills curtailing workers’ rights and collective power have been introduced in the Michigan legislature,” said Bonnie Halloran and Kathryn Frank in a guest column supporting the amendment published by Ann

In order to win the vote in November, supporters have initiated a strategy that incorporates grassroots organizing and a media campaign.

Beginning this past weekend, volunteers have been going door-to-door in their communities to talk to people about the importance of passing the amendment. This canvassing project will continue every weekend until the election takes place. Unions are asking members to volunteer for at least one two-hour canvassing session.

On August 29, Protect Working Families released the second in a series of television ads aimed at building support for the amendment. This one talks about the role that collective bargaining played in helping the auto industry rebound.

The first ad features Kuciel, who talks about how collective bargaining has helped improve education. She points out that “states with restrictions on collective bargaining spend $2,671 less in pupil funding for elementary and secondary education than states without the restrictions.”

One of the main arguments that supporters are making is that collective bargaining does more than achieve better wages and benefits, it helps the community as a whole.

Take Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Before the nurses at the hospital began bargaining collectively, nurse workloads were too high. “It was pretty tough,” said Ashley Forsberg to the Lansing State Journal. “You could do it but you were always running. Instead of being proactive, you were being reactive.”

That changed after the nurses began bargaining collectively, and the nurses negotiated more manageable caseloads The manageable caseloads helped improve patient care.

“(The improved care) would not have occurred without collective bargaining, or we would have seen it across the state already,” said Jeff Breslin, a nurse at Sparrow and president of the Michigan Nurses Association to the State Journal. “We have seen time and time again that hospitals (where employees bargain collectively) saved money and improved patient satisfaction, and had better patient outcomes.”

AT&T workers file suit to reclaim lunch break

Profitable corporations like Verizon and Caterpillar have been lowering labor costs aggressively to boost their profits and stock prices. Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of heavy equipment, recently demanded and won a long-term pay freeze and higher out-of-pocket health care expenses from workers at its Peoria, Illinois plant, and as the possibility of a strike or lockout looms on the horizon, Verizon has stubbornly continued to demand steep concessions from its East Coast workers.

But profitable companies are also looking to lower labor costs in more subtle ways. For example, AT&T Midwest has established lunch break policies that control what its technicians can do during their unpaid lunch breaks.

A group of 11 technicians are challenging these policies in court. They have filed a class action suit charging AT&T Midwest with violating state and federal wage statutes for not paying them during their lunch break even though the company’s policies require and encourage workers to work during their lunch break. The suit also says that the lunch break policies infringe on and restrict what workers can do while on their own time.

The class action suit, which may affect thousands of current and former AT&T Midwest technicians, was filed in federal court on August 10. The plaintiffs are seeking back pay and overtime for unpaid work, liquidated damages, and other relief.

The 11 technicians work at various jobs including construction and engineering, installation and repair of landline equipment, and installation and repair of U-Verse, the company’s cable-television alternative.

Some in each category do cable work underground, which they access through manholes. According to company policy, those working underground must eat at and guard the manhole where they are working during their lunch break.

Those not working underground also have their lunch break tightly restricted. They can only eat lunch after finishing one assignment and travelling to the next, and they can’t deviate more than half of mile from a route determined by the company and monitored by GPS, making it difficult if not impossible to find a place to eat.

Workers can bring a packed lunch, but after finishing it, they can’t engage in personal activity such as reading, using their personal laptops, listening to music, or napping. They also can’t idle their vehicle’s engine to run the heater or air conditions even if the weather is extremely cold or hot.

The suit also alleges that the company’s productivity-based performance ranking system puts pressure on technicians to work through their unpaid lunch break to complete as much work as possible.

In addition to seeking compensation for unpaid work, the suit also seeks to have unpaid work during lunch breaks declared illegal.

It’s hard to imagine that such a fuss could be made out of protecting workers’ lunch breaks, but as more companies expect more work out of fewer employees, the lunch break has become an impediment to making money.

USA Today reports that a survey conducted by Right Management found that only one-third of those surveyed took a lunch break. An astonishing 65 percent ate at their desks or didn’t take a lunch break at all.

Even government workers, according to USA Today are working through lunch.

Christy Morgan, a government clerk, said she often works through her 45-minute lunch break.

“Everybody knows the law about uninterrupted lunch, but that doesn’t happen, at least not in our organization. I get a sandwich, eat it while I’m at my desk and keep working on my computer. It’s not that supervisors don’t let us go out, like somebody’s standing over your desk, but we do what we have to in order to get our work done.”

Back to work effort at Lonmin mines in South Africa falters

Owners on the Lonmin platinum mines in South Africa said on Saturday that not enough workers had reported to work to restart operations at the mines. The company had hoped to resume operations and end a bloody two-week strike that has left 44 people dead. On Monday, even fewer workers reported to work.

Earlier last week the mine owners threatened to fire striking workers who refused to return to work, but the threat didn’t appear to intimidate the strikers, and the company quickly rescinded it.

Three thousand rock drillers at the mines near Marikana went out on strike on August 10. Between August 10 and August 15,  violent clashes between the strikers and police and security personnel led to the death of 10 people including two police officers.

On August 16, police surrounded an encampment of strikers and began shooting as the miners tried to escape. Thirty-four miners were killed in the worst massacre of striking workers in recent memory. The Business Report of South Africa said that autopsies on the dead miners show that most were shot in the back.

The strike that led to the miners’ slayings has been characterized as a turf war between the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and its rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The fight between the two unions is one layer of the strike’s story, but the cause of the strike runs much deeper.

The strike began as an unauthorized wildcat strike of low-paid, frustrated rock drillers who labor under some of the worst conditions imaginable. Their lungs are exposed to unhealthy rock dust and the noise of the drills is constant and deafening. For their efforts they are paid about 4,000 rands a month ($450).

Because of their poverty wages they live in slum-like conditions in nearby villages. A report on the conditions in these villages by the Bench Marks Foundation, a non-profit group funded by South African churches, says that most of these villages lack basic services such as functioning sewerage systems. Because there are no sewers, miners and their families are susceptible to parasites such as bilharzia, which causes fever, chills, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

These desperate conditions drove the strikers to demand a pay increase that would lift their monthly pay to 12,500 rands a month  ($1,500). The increase has been characterized as unrealistically high, but if the miners were to get what they are demanding, Lonmin CEO Ian Farmer, whose 2011 compensation was 20.3 million rands ($2.4 million), would still be making 144 times more than the miners.

Chris Rodrigues writing in Rolling Stone puts the strikers’ demand in perspective. At their current wages, the workers would have to work 13 lifetimes to match Farmers’ salary. If they get the wages that they are demanding, they would still have to work four lifetimes to catch up with Farmer.

These conditions and these disparities rather than organizing efforts by AMCU led the miners to walk off the job. According to Ben Fogel, whose article appears in Counterpunch, most of the workers who went on strike were not affiliated with AMCU. They were either NUM members or non-union workers.

After the strike took place AMCU organizers tried to recruit the strikers and held itself out as their bargaining agent, which led to objections from and conflicts with the NUM, the recognized bargaining agent.

Since the massacre, labor groups all over the world have taken sides in the dispute, but all hold Lonmin responsible for the killings. One statement issued by Kilusang Mayo Uno, an independent labor center in the Philippines, is representative of the many statements condemning Lonmin.

We condemn Lonmin Platinum Mine, a London-based multinational mining company operating in Marikana in the northwest of Johannesburg, for the massacre. Lonmin is the third largest platinum-mining company in the world but is reported to be one of those giving the lowest pay.

In the US, the United Steelworkers, an ally of the NUM, issued a statement that read,

The USW condemns Lonmin for provoking this conflict by ignoring the established collective bargaining agreement with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and supporting a company union.  Lonmin, Implats and the Chamber of Mines must be held accountable for these anti-union tactics which constitute a concerted attack on the NUM and on collective bargaining rights guaranteed by ILO Convention 98.

Lonmin had hoped to restart operations this week, but only 57 percent reported to work on Saturday. That percentage dropped to 13 percent on Monday. NUM is encouraging strikers to return to the mines and said that it would be meeting with the company this week to discuss the workers’ demands.

Meanwhile, Julius Malema, the former leader of the African National Congress youth organization, who was expelled from the ANC, called for the nationalization of the Lonmin mines and all mines in South Africa.

Walmart supply chain workers unite, demand justice

Workers from Walmart’s supply chain on August 9 rallied together in Los Angeles and presented a formal ethics complaint about their working conditions to Walmart executives.

There’s a pattern among Walmart contractors that supply the retail giant with the low-cost items that stock the company’s discount stores, said Guadalupe Palma, campaign director for Warehouse Workers United in a statement about the action. “No matter the country, no matter the workplace, no matter the worker, we see that Walmart and its contractors deny responsibility, ignore serious problems, and fire workers who stand up for change.”

Among those on hand to present the ethics complaint was Ana Diaz, one of eight workers at CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana who went on strike to protest abuses at the seafood processing plant where they work.

On June 4, Diaz and seven of her cohorts walked off the job because their employer made them work 24-hour days, didn’t pay them overtime, locked them in the plant during work hours, kept them under constant surveillance, and threatened those who complained with violence.

With the help of the National Guestworkers Alliance, the strikers,  guest workers from Mexico, filed wage complaints with the US Department of Labor, health and safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

They also took their complaints to Walmart, which is supposed to monitor its contractors to ensure that their workers are treated fairly.

An initial investigation conducted by Walmart  found no evidence of wrong doing by its contractor. “Following our investigation, as well as investigations by the Department of Labor and OSHA, at this time we are unable to substantiate claims of forced labor or human trafficking at CJ Seafood,” said Walmart spokeswoman Megan Murphy in an email to the Daily Beast.

The Workers Rights Consortium conducted its own investigation and on June 26 issued a report of its findings. Working conditions at CJ’s Seafood “(rivals) any sweatshops in China or Bangladesh,” said Scott Nova, WRC executive director in announcing the results of the investigation.

Walmart on June 30 backtracked on its original assessment and announced that it was suspending purchases from CJ’s Seafood because its investigation found violations at the company’s plant.

In July, the Department of Labor announced that it would seek nearly $214,000 in unpaid wages and penalties from CJ’s Seafood and OSHA fined the company $34,000 for health and safety violations.

Conditions at CJ’s Seafood are not an exception for Walmart contractors. The National Guestworkers Alliance conducted a survey of Walmart contractors that hire guestworkers and found that 12 of the 18 contractors in the audit sample had been cited for 622 violations of federal health, safety, or wage and hour laws. In addition, about a dozen discrimination suits had been filed against the contractors.

Earlier in the year workers at seafood and pineapple processing plants in Thailand owned by Walmart contractors walked off the job to protest debt slavery and other oppressive conditions at the factories where they worked.

Warehouse workers in Southern California have successfully forced Walmart contractors to pay them wages that were illegally withheld.

It’s these oppressive conditions and others like them throughout the world that brought together guestworkers from Louisiana, warehouse workers from Southern California, food processing workers from Thailand, and Walmart employees at the site of a proposed new Walmart store in Los Angeles’ Chinatown to demand that Walmart take responsibility for the worker abuse that takes place throughout the retail giant’s supply chain.

Speakers at the Los Angeles rally said that it would take a united effort to get justice from Walmart. “Globalization for the working poor of the world means that American warehouse workers today have more in common with factory workers in Thailand’s shrimp and pineapple factories than with the one-percenters in their own country who profit from their labor,” said Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, representing the Thai workers.

“Hyper-exploitation is the global labor standard Walmart has chosen to pursue,” he added.  “This just means the fight for justice for Walmart’s workers is that much bigger. Thailand may seem far away to the Walton heirs, but we are going to bring the plight of Thai workers to the suburbs of Arkansas. You bring home the profits, you bring home the struggle too.”

CWA and AT&T reach contract deals

Workers at two AT&T bargaining units ratified a new contract. Another AT&T bargaining unit has reached a tentative agreement. The company sought steep concessions similar to the ones that Verizon is demanding, but the new contracts provide a modest raise, keep the workers pension plans intact, provide some job security, and maintain other benefits won by hard struggle over the last 50 years.

Workers, however, will see their health care premiums increase significantly during the three years of the new contracts, which expire in 2015, and new hires will pay a much higher share of health care costs until they have worked two years for the company

About 15,000 wireline workers for AT&T Midwest and about 5,500 workers for AT&T Legacy ratified the new agreements on August 17. AT&T Midwest operates in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. AT&T Legacy operates nationwide.

Last week, the union representing AT&T Southeast wireline workers and the company reached a tentative agreement similar to the one ratified by AT&T Midwest and AT&T Legacy.

The AT&T workers are members of the Communication Workers of America.

“In these tough times, our committee was able to get a contract that enhanced both our employment security and our standard of living,” said Linda Horton CWA District 4 (Midwest) vice-president.

Two other AT&T bargaining units are still negotiating new contracts–AT&T West and AT&T East. About 18,000 CWA members in California and Nevada and about 3,200 CWA members in Connecticut are covered by the two contracts. AT&T West and AT&T East workers walked off the job for two days to protest unfair labor practices.

AT&T is one of the most profitable companies in the world. In 2011 it paid shareholders more than $10 billion in dividends and reported net income of $3.9 billion.

In January, it announced that its board of directors had authorized a $300 million buyback of outstanding shares of stock. According to AT&T’s annual report, “our strong cash generation gives us the flexibility to execute these buybacks while maintaining a strong balance sheet.”

Instead of sharing this bounty with its workers, AT&T sought steep concessions from them. CWA was partially successful in turning back these concession demands.

The two ratified contracts and the tentative agreement provide for a 1 percent pension increase for each of the three years of the contract for the traditional defined benefits plan. It also provides for a 1 percent increase in pay credit for workers hired after 2009 covered by the Bargained Cash Balance Plan (not as good as a defined benefit pension but not as bad as a defined contribution plan).

The contracts also provide for across the board pay raises for each year of the contract: 2.5 percent in year one, 2.75 percent in year two, and 3 percent in year three.

While AT&T has been “maintaining a strong balance” sheet it has also been reducing its workforce. The contracts provide some job security improvements. Jobs are guaranteed for the first year of the contract, which ends April 2013, and the guarantee is extended to workers who were not previously protected (those hired after 2006).

But there were some areas where the new contract falls short of what the CWA hoped to accomplish. Workers will pay substantially more for their health care benefit. During the first year of the contract, workers will pay $38 a month for individual coverage and $81 a month for family coverage. By year three, those premiums increase to $79 and $163.

New hires fared even worse. They will have to pay 32 percent of all health care costs for the first two years of employment. After that they will pay the same costs as current workers.

The increased health care costs, concerns about unresolved job responsibilities and classification issues, and a general distrust of AT&T’s motives led to a significant number of workers to reject the contracts.

About one-third of the Legacy workers voted no. No exact figures are available for the Midwest vote count; several reports say only that a majority of workers voted in favor of the contract.

Negotiations are still continuing at AT&T West and AT&T East. On August 7, workers in these bargaining units went on an unfair labor practices strike to protest company harassment and the company’s decision to implement work rule changes without consulting the union.

CWA Local 9423 in Los Angeles reported that “AT&T has violated CWA members’ legal rights and committed (unfair labor practices). In fact, over 20 (unfair labor practices) charges were filed against AT&T by CWA District 9. AT&T thinks that it can break the law and violate our rights, but CWA will not tolerate their disrespectful and blatant violations. Therefore, this (unfair labor practice) strike is the result of AT&T’s actions against CWA members.”

Workers returned to work on August 9 and bargaining between the two sides has continued.

Foster care redesign hits snag; privitization not the answer union says

Texas’ Foster Care Redesign program hit a snag on August 9 when the state Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) announced that it would not award a contract to a private contractor that had previously been selected to coordinate and manage foster care services in the Corpus Christi area.

State lawmakers had hoped that by using private contractors to coordinate foster care services the state could stretch the dollars of an already under funded child welfare program that is supposed to protect abused and neglected children.

Corpus Christi was to be the site of one of two Foster Care Redesign pilot programs.

But the Austin American Statesman reported that the social services company that was supposed to coordinate care in Corpus has a spotty record of providing care at foster homes that it currently manages.

Myko Gedutis, Texas State Employees Union lead organizer for DFPS and Southeast Texas, says that the state’s Foster Care Redesign program doesn’t address a key problem–Texas doesn’t invest enough money in helping abused and neglected children.

“I think the cancellation of the contract proves that we were right about privatization and redesign” Gedutis said. “A private agency can’t provide the same level of services–much less improve them–with the same pitiful amount of state funding.”

According to the Statesman, Lutheran Social Services of the South (LSSS), the private contractor that DFPS had originally chosen to implement Foster Care Redesign in Corpus, lost its contract because of problems with its operations in other Texas cities.

DFPS found that foster care homes managed by LSSS in Laredo, Garland, and Richardson used prohibited punishments such as pinching, hair pulling, and shaking, used food as punishment and reward, humiliated children, and failed to keep safe and clean homes.

Of even greater concern, a three-year old child left unsupervised drowned at one of the foster care homes managed by LSSS in Laredo.

In the past, DFPS has cited LSSS for other problems.  In 2008, DFPS temporarily stopped referring children to LSSS in Lubbock because the company failed to show that it was conducting adequate background checks of people with whom it contracted to provide foster care.

DFPS’ Child Protective Services (CPS) has suffered from a long history of under funding that has made it difficult to serve some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

The state has been sued by Children’s Rights, a national child welfare advocacy group, which alleges that,

Texas overburdens its (CPS) caseworkers with excessive caseloads and lacks enough placement options to ensure children live in appropriate settings. . . . The state fails to monitor kids’ safety, putting them in understaffed group homes and unlicensed homes of relatives who are not given the same training or support as foster parents.

But the Legislature in 2011 eliminated 209 CPS positions and funded the foster care program at 10 percent less than the agency estimated it needed to keep up with an ever-expanding caseload.

The Legislature hoped that Foster Care Redesign, which was proposed in 2010 by a private/public partnership group that included LSSS, would help CPS stretch its budget and improve services.

Foster Care Redesign changes the way foster care services are paid for and relies on private contractors in specific regions to   coordinate services and manage the way state dollars are spent.

But Gedutis says that given the magnitude of foster care problems and the limited resources that the state allots to them, it’s difficult to see how private contractors can have much of an impact on improving services.

“Adding a level of administration to the foster care system only siphons off more resources,” he said. “The focus needs to be on improving services and keeping kids close to their communities. This can be done without privatization, but legislators would rather try to let the market figure it out instead of the agency or the state doing the heavy lifting to get better outcomes.”

Talks between Verizon and unions continue; member mobilization ramped up

A federal mediator on August 15 extended contract talks between Verizon and the two unions representing 45,000 East Coast Verizon workers. The Federal Mediation Conciliation Service convened the two sides on July 25 in hopes of jump starting contract negotiations that have stalled.

The mediator overseeing the negotiations said that enough progress has been made to warrant an extension of the talks that were set to expire August 15. The mediator set Friday, August 25 as the next deadline.

More than a year ago, members of the Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers went on strike for two weeks when Verizon tried to force the unions and their members to accept concessions that included to name just a few eliminating pensions for new hires, increasing worker health care costs, the loss of job security, more outsourcing, eliminating regular pay raises, and the loss of weekend pay differentials.

The CWA estimated that concessions demanded by the company would cost each union worker about $10,000 over the life of the three-year contract.

Last year, the two unions went on strike for two weeks after the company refused to continue bargaining over its concession demands. The workers returned to work after the company agreed to keep the current contract in place and resume bargaining in good faith.

But the two unions said that Verizon never budged from its demands for steep concessions despite the fact that it was and is a very profitable company.

Instead of bargaining, Verizon used the time between the workers’ return to work and the current mediated talks to bully union workers into accepting the concessions.

In December, the company fired 40 union workers supposedly for strike related activity. But union leaders described the firings as an attempt to muzzle local leaders and union activists who stood up to Verizon and helped mobilize fellow workers to resist the company’s concession demands.

One of those fired was Jennifer Travis, whose case is representative. The company alleges that she pushed and shoved a member of Verizon’s management team coming to work, but during Travis’ disciplinary hearing presented no proof to substantiate its claim.

In fact, Travis was nowhere near the person she was alleged to have assaulted, but that didn’t stop the company from firing her. “I never lashed out at anyone on the picket line,” Travis said at national union hall meeting of CWA members. “I gave 15 years of my life to the company and was never disciplined, but I always spoke up when Verizon did something wrong. That’s why I was fired.”

That’s why the others were fired too, added Travis.

In April, Verizon laid off more than 300 IBEW members in New Jersey.

But the unions have refused to back down and instead have mounted vigorous mobilizing campaigns to press their fight for a decent contract.

At the same union hall meeting where Travis talked about her case, CWA President Larry Cohen said that CWA would stand with all those who Verizon fired for strike activity and that the union would continue its VeriGreedy campaign.

Since then, CWA and IBEW have continued to leaflet Verizon Wireless stores telling potential customers that Verizon is seeking $1 billion worth of concessions from its workers even though it reported $19.8 billion in profits between 2008 and 2011 and received federal income tax refunds of $758 million.

(Verizon also expects to increase income by another $1 billion as it requires consumers to upgrade their phones and pay for the upgrades.)

CWA has also been mobilizing members and supporters to stop Verizon from partnering with cable companies, which if allowed to happen, according to the union, will drive up cable and phone rates and make access to high-speed internet more difficult in some areas.

Since workers returned to work, the unions have held countless actions for a decent contract. Retired Verizon workers have picketed work sites, workers have repeatedly demonstrated at Verizon’s Baskin Ridge, New Jersey headquarters, and last year Verizon workers joined with Occupy demonstrators in New York for a mass rally against the company.

More recently, 5,000 Verizon workers on August 11 rallied in front of Verizon’s office building in downtown Philadelphia and then joined 30,000 other union members at the Workers Stand for America rally.

Should the mobilizing activity fail to persuade Verizon, the unions are preparing to strike. In early August, CWA held practice picketing at work sites before and after work and during lunch time. Some locals and union members circulated a flyer addressed to CEO Lowell McAdams informing him of their determination to strike if the company refuses a fair deal, and Local 1101 circulated a letter among members addressed to CWA President Cohen telling him, that to protect our jobs and future, “(We’ll) strike but never surrender.”

Houston janitors ratify contract, end strike

Houston janitors on August 11 voted unanimously to ratify a new contract with cleaning contractors ending their month-long strike. The janitors were striking for a fair wage increase. The new contract increases the janitors’ hourly wage rate from $8.35 an hour to $9.35 an hour. The raise will come in increments over the four-year period of the contract.

“This is a huge victory for janitors and so many workers,” said Adriana Vasquez, a bargaining committee member and janitor who works for ISS at Chase Tower. “With this new contract, our families can live a little better.”

Those who attended the Saturday union meeting where the ratification vote took place seemed to agree with Vasquez, even though the final contract fell short of the $10 an hour wage rate that the striking janitors were seeking.

The strikers were facing daunting odds. Only about 400 of the 3,200 janitors who belong to their union, SEIU Local 1, were on strike, and the cleaning contractors, all of whom are large corporations with facility cleaning contracts all over the world, were able to continue  cleaning buildings and keep revenue flowing.

But while the janitors’ strike was unable to shut down their employers’ operation, the union built an effective mobilization campaign that relied on civil disobedience to disrupt the everyday business of the businesses that use the cleaning contractors for janitorial services. Sixty-nine union members and supporters were arrested in sit-ins.

The union also worked to build support in the community for the under paid janitors. Religious, community, and political leaders rallied to support the janitors putting pressure on the cleaning contractors to raise their original offer, which amounted to a yearly raise of $0.10 an hour over a five-year period.

Union leaders said that the mobilization efforts by union members and their supporters was key to getting the cleaning contractors to change their minds about their original offer.

“As I sat at the bargaining table, I can tell you that it was that mobilization, and pressure from religious leaders, elected officials, community groups and individuals from Houston, the country and the world, that moved management to this compromise” said Valerie Long, SEIU executive vice-president in a statement about the new contract. “It’s a compromise that protects wages and benefit gains that janitors have won since 2006 and allows the contractors to bid competitively.”

It certainly was a compromise. The Houston Chronicle reports that the agreement applies only to janitors cleaning office buildings of 200,000 square feet or more. The cleaning contractors will still be able to pay a lower wage for cleaning smaller buildings. The contractors said that they needed this exception to compete with non-union companies that clean the smaller buildings.

Janitors cleaning the larger buildings will see their wages increase by 12 percent during the life of the contract.

SEIU leaders said that the contract helped the Houston janitors make progress toward escaping poverty, but noted that much more work needs to be done in Houston and across the nation.

“We made progress here in Houston, and the janitors’ victory brings hope to security officers, airport workers, and others trapped in poverty wages,” said Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1. “Our economy is broken and unless we do something to turn low-wage jobs into good jobs, the  middle class will be the great disappearing act of the 21st century.”

Refinery fire threatens workers’ lives and residents’ health

Scores of workers narrowly escaped death and more than a thousand nearby residents sought medical treatment after an August 6 fire at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California. The fire sent clouds of acrid smoke wafting through communities forcing local officials to order residents to remain in their homes.

Chevron at first minimized the danger caused by the fire, but federal investigators said that events leading up to the fire put workers’ lives at risk.

“Witness testimony collected by (the US Chemical Safety Board) indicates that a large number of workers were engulfed in a vapor cloud,” said Dan Tillema, lead investigator for the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). “These workers might have been killed or severely injured had they not escaped the cloud as the release rate escalated and the cloud ignited.”

The fire was caused by a leak in an old eight-inch pipe. The leak was found as workers were inspecting the pipe. Company management decided to keep the pipe operating while workers looked for the source of the leak. As the workers, peeled away the pipe’s insulation, the leak accelerated, and a deadly hydrocarbon vapor began to escape.

“Monday’s fire was a near disaster,” said Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB chair. “Although fortunately no workers were killed, the overall impact of the incident ranks it as among the most serious US refinery incidents in years.”

Chevron reported that three workers were sent to the hospital as a result of the accident. They were treated and released.

The danger wasn’t limited to the refinery. Smoke from the fire that ignited shortly after the vapor was released sickened people living nearby. About 1,700 sought treatment at local hospitals. People complained of chest tightness, breathing problems, and other respiratory ailments. All were treated and released.

The fire broke out about two hours after the workers discovered the leak in a 40-year old pipe, whose larger connecting pipe was replaced last year after an inspection found excessive corrosion.

Kim Nibarger, a safety expert with the United Steelworkers, whose Local 5 represents 600 operators and mechanics at the Richmond refinery, wondered why the pipe wasn’t shut down as soon as the leak was discovered.

“From the time (company management) did see the leak, they debated what to do,” Nibarger said to “When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not try to figure out a way around it.”

USW, which represents about 30,000 refinery workers, has long been critical of safety practices at US refineries.

During the last round of contract negotiations, the union asked oil companies to include language in the contract that would make safety at refineries more robust.

But the companies resisted. After the union and companies reached a tentative agreement, USW President Leo Gerard said that he was disappointed that the companies had resisted the union’s efforts to improve refinery safety.

“Our main focus in this round of National Oil Bargaining was health and safety,” said Gerard back in February. “But the industry refused to allow  us to be equal partners with them in resolving the health and safety problems that persistently are not being addressed across the whole industry.”

In May, USW Local 5 member Mike Smith tried to get Chevron shareholders at their annual meeting to adopt a refinery safety resolution. Before Smith could speak, Chevron confiscated his prepared statement and after he made a motion to adopt the safety resolution would not allow any time for questions.

The motion failed garnering only 8 percent of the vote. After shareholders rejected the safety motion, Smith said that the fight for refinery safety would continue. “If we can guarantee our safety,” Smith said. “That would guarantee the safety of communities around our refineries.”

Teamsters draw a line in the sand against private equity firm

Teamsters last week picketed a hazardous materials handling conference in Salt Lake City sponsored by Nexeo, which operates a worldwide chemical distribution business. The Teamsters were protesting Nexeo actions that he union says threaten the health and retirement security of its workers and the health and safety of people who live close to the chemical distribution facilities operated by the company.

Nexeo, a leading distributor of chemicals, plastics, composites, and environmental services, was formed last year when the private equity firm TPG Capital purchased the distribution unit of Ashland, Inc., a worldwide chemical manufacturer.

To make the purchase, TPG Capital borrowed $600 million. According to the Teamsters, the heavy debt load helped inflate the private equity firm’s investment returns, but it also put financial pressure on the company that caused it to scrimp on safety and slash worker benefits.

Teamster Local 705, which represents 35 Nexeo workers at a warehouse in Willow Springs, Illinois, reports that after the TPG purchase, “management . . . began altering existing and expired collective bargaining agreements to increase health care costs and reduce coverage for workers.”  It also unilaterally stripped workers of their pension benefits in favor of a company defined contribution 401(k) savings plan.

The company also began having safety problems at its facilities. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined a Nexeo warehouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts for mishandling chemicals, which increased the risk of a chemical fire that could endanger workers and people close to the facility.

On June 18, there was a hazmat fire at the company’s Willow Springs warehouse that forced the evacuation of the warehouse.

“It is unconscionable that Nexeo’s new owners would be taking such risks with people’s livelihoods,” said Teamsters Local 705 Business Representative Neil Messino. “Our members and the communities that surround Nexeo facilities deserve better.”

“We want TPG to restore fairness to our members – put safety first and ensure adequate investment in our communities,” said Dominic Chiovare, president of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland at the Salt Lake City demonstration.

The Salt Lake City demonstration was one of a series of actions that the Teamsters have taken to protest TPG’s treatment of its workers and its disregard for surrounding communities.

The Teamsters filed unfair labor practices charges against the company for unilaterally changing existing and expired contracts, and in February picketed the 2012 Super-Investor Conference in San Francisco where TPG founder David Bonderman was giving the keynote speech.

“Whether we’re dealing with shameful companies or their shady investors” said John Coli, president of Teamsters Joint Council 25 in Chicago. “It’s time to draw a line in the sand and stand up to these financially reckless corporations.”

Chicago teachers win round one, strike for better schools still possible

Chicago teachers successfully negotiated an interim agreement with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that improves educational opportunities for students and protects teachers from unreasonable workload increases, but Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), said that the interim agreement does not resolve other outstanding issues and that a strike by public school teachers is still possible if these issues are not resolved.

“Despite the interim agreement, there are many open issues still on the negotiating table in which there has been little movement,” Lewis said. “Public school teachers . . . remain concerned about (CPS’) refusal to provide adequate wrap-around services for students severely impacted by poverty and violence in addition to threats of ballooning class sizes. Teachers are concerned about the new evaluation process of which 40 percent of the review is based on how students perform on standardized tests. Job security, health benefits, and teacher pay have not been resolved.”

The interim agreement stopped a power play by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In April, the CPS school board, dominated by Emanuel appointees, announced that it would unilaterally increase the length of the school day by 40 minutes without hiring more teachers, stretching an over extended line of educators even further.

CTU objected because the board’s proposal violated the teachers’ contract and, more importantly, it would further erode the quality of education in a school system that is already struggling, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

When the board announced its proposal, CTU offered the board a way of lengthening the school day without increasing teacher workloads. The union proposed that CPS create more teaching positions to cover the increased number of periods that would be needed to fill the longer school day. CTU also suggested that CPS fill the new positions by re-hiring teachers who CPS laid off in 2010 due to budget cuts.

The board originally turned down the offer, but in late July, relented and agreed to create 750 new positions and give hiring priority to former Chicago teachers for about 500 of these new positions.

Lewis called the interim agreement to keep current workloads and hire more teachers a victory for teachers, students, and parents and said that the key to victory was a huge mobilization effort by teachers and their supports.

“It should be noted,” she said. “That movement at the bargaining table came only after 10,000 people marched in downtown Chicago in support of a fair contract and more resources for neighborhood schools.”

Lewis also said that after the march, 90 percent of CTU members voted on a referendum to authorize a strike if bargaining failed to result in a new agreement. Of those who voted, 98 percent voted in favor of a strike if necessary. The strike could take place as early as September.

“We recognize  strikes are not popular,” Lewis said. “However, they are the strongest tool public workers have in ensuring that their rights are not trampled on. The CTU is fighting for strong, well-resourced neighborhood schools where students regardless of their zip codes have access to a high-quality public education.”

Striking Houston janitors gain support as negotiations resume

After a burst of activity that included acts of civil disobedience and building a broad base of community support for striking Houston janitors, negotiations between the janitors and their employers reconvened. The striking janitors are seeking to increase their hourly pay to $10 an hour.

Three Houston property management companies that oversee facility maintenance for downtown office buildings recently received a letter from the executive director of the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).  CalSTRS owns 2 percent of the real estate market in Houston, and while none of its buildings are affected by the strike, it is concerned about the impact that a prolonged strike will have on its investments.

Striking janitors, who belong to SEIU Local 1, last month traveled to West Sacramento, to speak to CalSTRS’ investment committee about the issues involved in the strike. According to the minutes of a recent CalSTRS board meeting, the janitors “asked CalSTRS to contact the property manager of one of their properties and ask that the property manager urge his subcontractor to settle with the union.”

On July 21 CalSTRS Executive Director Jack Ehnes and Chief Investments Officer Christopher Ailman sent letters to three property management firms  Thomas Property Group Inc., CBRE Global Investors, and Pacific Coast Capital Partners expressing concerns about the labor-management situation in Houston.

Pensions and Investments reprinted a paragraph from the letter reading,

Obviously, protracted labor disputes have the potential to negatively impact investment returns, and actions that detract from the likelihood and potential for economic growth are not in CalSTRS’ long-term interests.

After the Houston property managers received the letter, seven SEIU members on July 31 held a sit-in at One Allen Center, blocking access to an escalator and were arrested. Five of those arrested were fellow SEIU janitors from  Chicago.

Shortly after the initial arrests,  28 more supporters were arrested for acts of civil disobedience, bringing the total number of those arrested since the strike began to 69.

On the heels of the arrests, SEIU announced that it and SEIU locals around the country had committed half a million dollars to support the Houston strike.

“The fight for good jobs is critical to every one of us in this country,” said Valerie Long, SEIU executive vice-president. “This generous contribution is just a start.  While we hope the building owners and cleaning companies will do the right thing and end poverty wages, we will make sure that the janitors in Houston have the money to keep fighting as long as they need to.”

Shortly after the acts of civil disobedience, a broad coalition of clergy organized by the Metropolitan Organization urged both sides to resume negotiations and asked SEIU to refrain from further acts of civil disobedience.

Negotiations between the two sides resumed on August 2 and continued through August 3 without a settlement. The two sides agreed to meet again on August 8.

The day before negotiations resumed, the janitors held a rally and press conference  in downtown Houston where  US Representative Gene Green and Mayor Annise Parker expressed their support for the janitors. They were joined by other elected officials.

“We are here today to ask the business community to take a lead in urging cleaning companies to come to a fair resolution with janitors and act in the best interest of our city,” said state Representative Armando Walle at the rally.

“We are appealing one last time to support higher wages for our janitors,” stated state Representative Sylvester Turner.

Market conditions, or greed?

Workers at a Caterpillar factory in Joliet, Illinois have been on strike since May. Janitors in Houston have been on strike since July. Both strikes are primarily about wages.

In Joliet, workers, who make hydraulic parts for heavy machinery and whose base pay is about $55,000 a year, rejected the company’s final offer for a new contract that would have frozen wages for six years for most workers and increased the amount of money that they contribute to their health care plan. In Houston, the janitors whose average annual pay is about $9,000, rejected an offer that would have increased their hourly pay by only $0.50 over a five-year period.

In both instances, employers said that labor market conditions prevented them from offering more. Carlos Revilla, Caterpillar’s Joliet plant manager, told the New York Times that tier one workers at the plant, those who started work before 2009, are paid 34 percent above the labor market rate and that Caterpillar couldn’t possibly stay competitive if the company continued to pay wages higher than the market allows.

Negotiators for the cleaning contractors in Houston, all of which are large firms with cleaning contracts all over the US and in some cases all over the world, have used the same reasoning to justify their meager wage offer.

But how strict are the labor market constraints that make it impossible for these large corporations to give their workers a fair pay raise–one that would reflect the extra value that these workers created for their employers?

For Caterpillar, a leading manufacturer of heavy equipment, paying its Joliet workers a modest premium for their work has not hurt the company’s bottom line. Last year it reported $60 billion in revenue and a profit of $4.9 billion, not bad considering that the world economy where Caterpillar does business has been in an extended slump since 2008.

Its outlook for 2012 is even better. During the first half of 2012 it reported profits of $3.2 billion. Analysts, according to the Guardian, are predicting that Caterpillar’s profits will exceed $9 billion this year.

Caterpillar’s argument that market conditions make it impossible to raise wages might be more persuasive if the company were applying labor market principles to the salaries of its top executives, who enjoy a much higher compensation premium than its workers. The compensation package for Caterpillar’s CEO is $16.5 million a year.

But Steven Pearlstein writing in the Washington Post observes that,

When it comes to its executives, managers and engineers, Caterpillar does not use the same criteria of paying the average market wage. In those instances, the company has seen the competitive benefit of paying above the average to attract and retain a cadre of above-average employees and give them sufficient incentive to work hard, take risks and deliver superior performance.

Like its corporate comrades at Caterpillar, Houston cleaning contractors have managed to make decent profits while paying decent wages, just not to its workers in Houston, who are paid $8.35 an hour for a 30-hour work week.

Lisa Falkenberg writing in the Houston Chronicle reports that ABM, one of the corporate cleaners in Houston, pays its Detroit janitors $14.90 an hour, well above the Detroit  local average of $11.71 an hour. ABM last year reported net income of $68 million.

And ABM is not alone. The same corporate cleaners that say that they can’t afford to pay $10 an hour in Houston operate and prosper in local markets where the average janitor’s pay is much higher: for example, according to Falkenberg, the average janitor’s hourly wage in Boston is $15.95; in Portland, i’ts $12.60; and in Minneapolis, it’s $13.42.

When corporations like Caterpillar or ABM invoke the principles of the market to justify wage freezes or meager pay increases, what they are really doing is mystifying an ugly reality–the power relation between labor and capital has shifted dramatically and corporations are taking advantage of this power shift to divert wealth away from their workers and to their shareholders and management.

Texas nursing homes; a blessing or an abomination, YOU decide

The following was submitted by Pancho Valdez. His contact information appears at the bottom of his posting.

“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” – Timothy 5:1-2

By Pancho Valdez

NOTE: In May of 2009 I wrote an article entitled; “A Different View of National Nursing Home Week”. Now that my 88-year-old father is in a nursing facility, I felt compelled to write a follow up to the original article.

As a result of last year’s state budget “crisis,” Texas is now near the bottom in nursing home staffing and Medicaid reimbursement. Coincidence? Not really. Texas has a long history of being cheap when it comes to the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. Hardly a fact to be proud of, especially when a good solution would be to impose taxes on corporations doing business in the state.

My father a World War II veteran entered a nursing home in late February of this year due to his having advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. While I would prefer to care for him at home, Medicaid directs families to nursing homes where the cost is much higher than caring for an elderly person at one’s place of residence. (The nursing home lobby is far more powerful than the voices of ordinary citizens.)

When Medicaid reimbursement is reduced or frozen, nursing facility managements starts laying off staff or reducing hours from the bottom of the totem pole. The bottom includes certified nursing assistants (CNAs), housekeeping, laundry and dietary personnel. These are the least paid, the least appreciated, yet are in fact the back bone of any nursing home.

When staff is cut, worker morale declines. When worker morale declines, the quality of care delivered also declines. Cutting staff is NOT a good thing as it adversely affects the overall quality of care provided by nursing home personnel. When quality of care declines, elderly, frail residents are at risk for pressure ulcers, dehydration, and other health problems.

Why does reduced Medicaid reimbursement affect quality of care? We must all understand that the number one priority of most nursing home owners whether owned individually or by large corporations is to make profit. Making a profit takes priority over quality care as the vast majority of nursing home owners have absolutely no connection to the needs of elderly people in their nursing homes.

Since February of this year I have spoken to many family members of residents at Pecan Valley Rehab & Healthcare Center, a fairly new facility on the far Southeast side of San Antonio. Far too many of these family members repeat to me the same concerns; no one responds to the call light in a timely manner, CNAs do not assist in providing oral care for the resident awakening in the morning, residents are not being checked every two hours is as accepted practice to see if they need changing, and the list goes on.

While many nursing home owners, management and even employees down play the importance of the aforementioned concerns, those of us who have loved ones in a nursing facility take this very seriously. At Pecan Valley I have joined the Family Council as is our right under federal law. The Family Council at this particular facility while having enthusiasm, lacks much experience and tends to be not forceful enough with the management of the facility. However one must realize that the Family Council is even newer than the facility, so one must give some slack.

Under federal law nursing homes are required to meet and address concerns of the Family Council. Just how strict this law is enforced is up to the Family Council’s level of tolerance for being put off, snowballed and/or ignored.

This is where the Department of Aging & Disability Services (DADS) comes to play. Infractions of nursing home law, practice or quality of care is subject to enforcement by DADS. Unfortunately far too many inspectors tend to be hard-nosed over petty nick picking, yet serious issues are either swept under the rug or enforced with a light hand. I have seen one nursing facility closed due to DADS intervention, however that was inevitable as the owner could not secure credit for the food needed to feed the residents, an issue DADS had no choice but to intervene as it did.

The Texas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents is an organization founded to assist in reforming Texas nursing homes. Since the early 1980’s TANHR has been involved in educating nursing home resident family members, lobbying the state legislature and other advocacy on behalf of nursing home residents across the state. It is my goal to eventually have the Pecan Valley Family Council affiliate with TANHR in the near future. A bigger goal is to organize family councils at other facilities and have them come under the umbrella of TANHR.


1) Nursing homes are intentionally understaffed. I have seen one CNA be expected to care for between 15-35 residents by him/herself. Only a superman or superwoman could handle such a load with any semblance of tenderness or compassion!

2) As mentioned before; nursing homes exist primarily to make profit for the owner(s). Quality care is a very convenient slogan, but seldom delivered consistently.

3) Staff to resident ratios do not exist in the state of Texas according to a  DADS nurse/inspector. In light of this, How can quality care be delivered?

4) Nursing home staff are for the most part underpaid, overworked women of color. Their job while key to the overall quality of care in any nursing facility is seldom appreciated. In Texas 99 percent of nursing home staff are not organized into any union, thus they have NO voice, NO protection and are powerless to make any effective change!

5) Where there is no justice, there can be no peace! Abusive work loads, low pay, minimal opportunity for upward mobility only encourages resentment and poor morale. Again I must emphasize justice in nursing homes can be achieved, but it takes vigilance, sacrifice, unity with nursing home staff and above all well planed struggle!

Pancho Valdez worked some eight and a half years in local nursing homes. He is a 47 year veteran of civil rights, labor and peace activism. He can be reached at: or 210-422-8000

Show of solidarity, new ad campaign support striking Houston janitors

The first wave of Freedom Flyers arrived in Houston on Tuesday and staged a sit-in to support striking janitors at a downtown Houston office building. Seven were arrested. On Thursday, SEIU Local 1, the striking janitors’ union, launched a nationwide online ad campaign aimed at JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose bank like many large corporations with offices in downtown Houston play a key role in keeping janitors’ wages low while at the same time seeking preferential treatment from local governments to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

The ads, whose tagline is “Call Me, Maybe,” include a link that allows viewers to send an email appeal to Dimon urging him to meet with striking janitor Adriana Vasquez, who last month confronted Dimon in Washington demanding to know why his corporation was putting pressure on Houston cleaning contractors to keep janitors’ wages low.

Dimon’s response to Vasquez was, call my office and set up an appointment. Vasquez has called Dimon’s office repeatedly but so far has not received a call back.

“The ads will be on more than 1,00 websites, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, the Nation Magazine and other national publications,” said Ar’Sheil Sinclair of Good Jobs, Great Houston, a community group supporting the janitors. “Additional ads have also been launched tying national real estate firms Brookfield Properties to poverty wages in Houston.”

The ad campaign was launched at the same time that new research shows that JP Morgan, Brookfield Properties, and other large corporations routinely game the system for appealing commercial property tax appraisals to lower their property taxes below market value.

These manuevers cost local governments and school districts more than $65 million in 2011, a year in which state cuts to education funding caused the layoffs of about 3,000 teachers locally.

While corporate leaders like Dimon seek million dollar tax breaks, the janitors who clean their offices must get by on about $9,000 a year, the average pay of a Houston janitor.

Low wages paid by high rollers is beginning to draw attention from people concerned about the injustice of the growing inequality between those who own and those who work for a living. A group of local political leaders including US Rep. Sheila Lee Jackson and US Rep. Gene Green recently signed a statement urging all people of good conscience to support the janitors.

“Our country is engaged in a struggle over our most basic values—that hard work should be rewarded with fair pay. Those values are being challenged as the gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the country grows wider and leads to the creation of a second class of workers who are locked into poverty,” reads the opening paragraph of the statement.

Meanwhile, five janitors who are members of SEIU in Chicago traveled to Houston to stage a sit-in at One Allen Center in downtown Houston in support of their striking brothers and sisters. They are the first of a wave of other supporters called Freedom Flyers who will be coming to Houston to stage other acts of solidarity with the Houston janitors. The five and two others were arrested after they blocked an escalator in the building.

“Today I am proudly taking a stand, so that workers everywhere know there is strength when you unite together,” said Matilde Reyes, one of the arrested janitors. “We follow a long line of freedom fighters who have taken arrest, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez—they did it for us, and now we do it for Houston janitors. This can help the whole world, because this type of mistreatment of working people is happening everywhere—and standing together, we have the power to create good jobs and a better life for working people.” 

California faculty union holds the line against concession demands

The California Faculty Association (CFA) announced on Tuesday that it had reached a tentative agreement with the California State University(CSU) system that preserves what was good about the old contract and does not contain concessions that would have undermined academic freedom, diminished the faculty voice in university governance, and led to more privatization of higher education. The agreement, however, contains no pay raises. CFA members will vote on the agreement beginning August 13.

“It’s a fair agreement in the context of hard times,” said Lillian Taiz, president of the CFA to the North County Times. “We are disappointed we were not able to get a raise, but that wasn’t in the cards. It was a tough pill to swallow, I won’t kid you.”

The two sides reached a tentative agreement after two years of contentious negotiations. During the negotiations, the CFA mobilized its members for a number of actions that included a one-day strike at two campuses. In April, 95 percent of CFA members voted to strike if an agreement could not be reached.

When negotiations opened in 2010, CFA realized that state budget problems would make contract improvements difficult; therefore, it proposed maintaining the current contract and working with CSU management to obtain more funding from the Legislature.

Chancellor Charles Reed on the other hand saw the budget crisis as an opportunity to extract steep concessions that would allow him to reconfigure CSU in a way that more resembled private for-profit colleges.

He demanded among other things that faculty give up their right to be consulted about increased class sizes, that lecturers give up what little job security they had, that more courses be taught through the “for-profit” Extension program, that faculty who teach Extension courses be paid less, that faculty play less of a role in university governance, and that they accept benefit and pay cuts.

The tentative agreement holds the line against these concession demands, and while it does not include a pay raise, it does maintain current pay and benefit levels and allows for negotiations over pay to reopen if the state budget situation improves.

CFA on its website noted the important role that the mobilization efforts played reaching the agreement. In describing the impact that the one-day strike at the Dominguez Hills and East Bay campuses had, CFA said

The chancellor told the media that no one would honor this strike. But the faculty and thousands of their supporters did, demonstrating that people wanted to take a stand for quality public higher education and for the people who make that education possible.

The strike increased the pressure on management at the bargaining table by showing the Chancellor and the people of California how very angry the CSU faculty are about his policies and priorities. The strike also demonstrated that the public is receptive to our message, even in difficult economic times.

CFA also said that the 95 percent strike vote put pressure on university management to reach an agreement. “With a massive and historic strike looming over the start of school, the two sides finally were able come to terms in late July on a deal that is good both for the faculty and for quality education in the CSU.”

No justice, no piece; pizza workers launch boycott

Workers at a Milwaukee pizza factory on Monday launched a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s frozen pizza products. The workers traveled to Middleton, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison to urge, Costco, the nation’s largest retailer of Palermo products, to pull Palermo and Kirkland pizza products from its shelves.

Some Palermo workers have been on strike since June when the company fired workers who were taking part in a union organizing drive.

“We are taking our message beyond the workplace to consumers and the community because all workers have a right to a voice on the job and safe workplace” said Raul De la Torres, a striking worker. “It’s a shame the company still refuses to recognize the worker’s concerns and hear the voices of consumers.”

In May, Palermo workers gathered 162 signatures on a petition for union representation, about 80 percent of the eligible workforce. The petition drive was organized by an independent union, the Palermo Workers Union, with the help of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant and worker rights center.

On May 30, a delegation of workers and supporters met with Palermo management to discuss the possibility of the company recognizing the union and to review the process for verifying signatures.

The company subsequently fired 90 workers who did not respond to a company request to provide immigration documents. After the firings, workers went on strike.

The firings may have sparked the strike, but its cause runs deeper.

New workers work for low pay without benefits. Workers with more tenure receive better pay and some benefits but their work is unsafe. One common grievance unites both–the company does not treat them with respect.

“The company would speed up production faster and faster, which led to jams,” said Alberto, a striker who didn’t give his last name. “One day my sleeve got caught in the machine, sliced open my pinky, and I almost lost two fingers. I was in so much pain, but the company wanted me to go back to work almost immediately.”

Excessive line speed, unsafe conditions, and a general lack of respect caused Palermo workers to contact Voces de la Frontera in 2008. With the help of Voces, the workers slowly began laying the foundation for their union, which became a full-fledged organizing drive about a year ago.

The company says that it didn’t fire the workers for organizing a union but rather because of a notice that the company received earlier this year from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) questioning the immigration status of some of its employees.

The company, however, didn’t act on the ICE notice until after the workers presented their union petition and asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election.

The strike has received a wide range of support from both community and labor groups.

On July 2, Rev. Joe Ellwanger of the Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope (MCAH) led a delegation of Palermo workers and supporters to the company headquarters where he delivered a petition supporting the workers signed by 15,000 people. Those signatures were gathered in less than a month.

“We’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support from union members, faith leaders, customers, and retailers,” said De la Torre in a statement about the July 2 demonstration.

Some labor unions have become actively involved in supporting the strike. AFSCME Local 60, which represents municipal workers in Dane County, organized a food drive for the strikers.

The South Central (Wisconsin) Federation of Labor with more than 100 affiliated unions, is urging its members to donate food and money to the strike fund.

The strikers have also received support from the Milwaukee Labor Council, the United Steelworkers, the Ironworkers Union, the Milwaukee Teachers Association, and other unions.

A union election was scheduled to take place in early July, but it has been postponed. The workers remain on strike and hope that the national boycott will get the fired workers reinstated and their union recognized. Others think that the strike has wider significance.

“The Palermo workers’ struggle is a struggle of national significance,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Voces executive director. “In the wake of the recall election (of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker) that was bought and paid for by billionaire contributions this struggle reminds us that you cannot buy people’s dignity.”