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.”

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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 SFGate.com. “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.