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.”

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“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 Arbor.com.

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.