Spaniards, Greeks resist government austerity programs

Anti-austerity protests ignited again this week in Spain and Greece as the governments of the two countries prepared to implement new austerity measures.

In Spain thousands of people on September 25 surrounded the country’s Congress in Madrid carrying signs reading, “NO” and demanding that the government, which has imposed a series of austerity measures that raised the unemployment rate to 25 percent and increased the poverty rate to 22 percent, resign.

In Greece, about half of the Greek workforce honored a general strike called by the country’s two labor confederations shutting down much of the country while 50,000 people marched in Athens to demand an end to the government austerity program that has raised the nation’s unemployment rate to 25 percent and sent the Greek economy into an endless convulsion of economic contraction.

The Spanish demonstration was organized by some members of the M15 Indignado movement, a social justice movement that inspired the Occupy movement in the US.

The Spanish government tried to discredit the demonstration by describing it as an attempt to incite a coup. According to the government, the protestors planned to occupy the building where the Congress meets, a crime under Spanish law.

The protestors made it clear before the demonstration that it had no intention of occupying Congress, saying that it only wanted to surround the building to show that people had lost faith in the government and wanted it to resign so that new elections can be called.

Protestors accused police of infiltrating their meetings prior to the demonstrations and spying on them, a charge that the government does not deny.

As the protestors gathered to press their demands for an end to austerity measures, they were greeted by about 1,000 police officers including a handful of snipers stationed at high points near the demonstrators.

Video from Democracy Now shows the police charging the demonstrators, wielding riot control clubs, and making arrests as the demonstrators fall back, then move forward as the police give ground.

The battle between the police and demonstrators continued throughout the day and into the night. Police fired rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. Demonstrators threw stones and other objects at hand.

Thirty-eight demonstrators were arrested and charged with crimes against the nation. They will be tried in a court that tries people for such serious crimes as terrorism.

On Thursday, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced a new budget that raises the value added (sales) tax rate from 18 percent to 21 percent and cuts spending on health, education, and other services by 8.9 percent.

According to Maria Carrion speaking to Democracy Now, these new cuts come on top of cuts to education and health that total 27 billion euros.

The government’s new round of austerity measures are aimed at winning loans from the European Union that will be used to bail out failed banks whose reckless lending led to the economic crisis that has caused two recessions since 2008. An estimate by an independent auditor found that the bank bailout could cost 60 billion euros.

While the new Spanish budget reduces education and health funding, it is more than 5 percent higher than last year’s budget. The budget increase will be used to pay interest on bonds held by Spanish banks and foreign creditors.

“Since the beginning of the crisis, we have protested, but the government has played deaf,” said Feli Velazquez, a pensioner from Madrid to USA Today at the September 25 rally. The government has not listened to us; it is serving the markets. If we don’t [protest] we will lose our public health care and public education.”

In Greece, the people have been equally hard hit by austerity measures, and the Greek government wants to impose more.

The government has put together a budget that cuts government spending by 14.6 billion euros. According to the Greek Reporter, the cuts are “aimed primarily at workers, pensioners and the poor.”

The Greek labor movement responded to the proposed cuts by calling a one-day general strike on September 26.

GSEE and ADEDY, the two labor confederations that called the strike, issued a joint statement condemning the government and the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, known as the “Troika”:

We reject the new austerity round comprising fresh deep cuts in wages and pensions, welfare slashes, tax hikes, thousands of public sector layoffs, and express privatizations. We reject the pressure exerted by the Troika to further destroy labor and its institutions:

·         a leaked ‘confidential’ Troika letter ordains the government to further reduce the minimum wage­ – slashed only last February to sub-subsistence levels – and establish ‘a single-rate statutory minimum wage on a permanent basis legislated by the government;’ and

·         the Troika dictates include a six-day work week, longer working hours with an 11-hour minimum rest period for five days’ pay, a yet shorter notice period and less severance pay. The retirement age is to be raised to 67.

Like the demonstrations in Madrid, the government tried to break up the demonstration in Athens with a show of police force.

Police fired rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades at demonstrators, some of whom fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

While the police broke up this demonstration, the unions promised to continue the fight against austerity. “With this strike we are sending a strong message to the government and the Troika that the measures will not pass even if voted in Parliament, because the government’s days are numbered,” said Yiorgos Harisis, a member of ADEDY, the confederation of public sector unions.

Quebec students declare victory as government cancels tuition increases

Higher education students in Quebec declared victory as newly elected provincial Premier Pauline Marois of the Parti Quebecois announced that she was cancelling a proposed tuition increase. Last spring hundreds of thousands of university and college students in Quebec went on strike to protest the tuition increase proposed by the outgoing Liberal Party government. Quebec has some of the lowest higher education tuition rates in Canada, and students wanted to keep it that way.

“It’s a total victory!” said Martine Desjardins, president of Quebec’s largest student organization, the Federation Etudiante Universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ) to the Montreal Gazette. “It’s a new era of collaboration instead of confrontation.”

More than a year ago, Raymond Bachand, finance minister of the Quebec government, announced that a tuition increase would become effective when the 2012 school year began and that tuition would increase every year until 2017.

Student groups immediately began organizing and in November held their first national rally against the proposed increases.

The strike began in February when social science students at Universite Laval went on strike. They were soon joined by some faculty members from the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.

By the end of March, students all over Quebec were on strike and mass rallies and demonstrations were taking place throughout the province. Some of the strikers took action aimed disrupting the economy such as the rush hour sit-in on Montreal’s Champlain Bridge.

Police tried to break up another sit-in by throwing flash-bang grenades near demonstrators. One exploded close to one protesters face, and he lost an eye.

Students held their first mass rally near the end of March in Montreal where 100,000 students and their supporters marched peacefully to protest the tuition increases.

Despite efforts to defuse the strike, support continued to grow. Students and their supporters wore patches shaped like red squares to demonstrate solidarity.

In May another mass demonstration in Montreal took place. Organizers estimated that 300,000 to 400,000 people took part in the demonstration, which organizers called the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada.

Other actions took place throughout Quebec, and solidarity demonstrations were held in Paris, New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

While some of the accounts of the strike suggest that it was a spontaneous response to the tuition increase, the fact is that students in Canada are highly organized and have a long history of fighting for their rights.

Three student groups led the organizing activity that resulted in the strike: FEUQ, the Federation et Etudiante Collegiale du Quebec (FECQ), and the Coalition Large de’l Association pour une Solidarite Syndicale Etudiante (CLASSE).

The groups acted together well before the strike began. They held mobilization workshops where participants received information about the issues and solidarity networks were built.

Several labor unions including the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the Confederation de Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) supported the students’ strike.

After the government announced that it was canceling the tuition increase, CUPE President Paul Moist congratulated the students.

“This is a historic moment. Through many months of harsh criticism and oppressive government tactics, the students showed incredible solidarity and strength,” Moist said.  “They showed us that we can make change happen in this country—that the people do have a voice.

“Many CUPE locals proudly donated to the student cause. I think today we can all take a moment and enjoy this victory. But the fight isn’t over.”

The fight isn’t over because the government is proposing to tie future tuition increases to the cost of living, a measure rejected by all three of the student organizations.

One of the organizations, CLASSE, said that it wanted to make a university education accessible to all by abolishing tuition.

Speaking at a rally celebrating the students’ victory, Jeremie Beddard-Wien, a spokesperson for CLASSE called for a tuition-free higher education system that is also free from corporate influence.

“(There) are societies that have made progressive political choices for public services to be accessible,” Bedard-Wien said, “That we have tuition here is a political choice that can be reversed.”

Texans demand health care coverage for uninsured

About 500 people from all over Texas on Friday, September 21 converged on Austin and marched into the State Capitol to ask Gov. Rick Perry why he rejected federal funding that would have expanded Medicaid access to two million Texans.

Before the demonstrators entered the Capitol,  Durrel Douglas of the Texas Organizing Project, explained what they wanted to hear from Gov. Perry.

“We want to know: if you’re turning away this option, what is your plan?” asked Douglas “And how do you plan to fill this gaping hole, where there are millions of people who don’t have health care? Because throwing two million Texans under the bus is not the way to go.”

The federal funds that Gov. Perry has rejected were made available through the Affordable Care Act, which among other things provides federal funding to expand Medicaid to low-income working people. State participation is voluntary, and Gov. Perry said that Texas will not participate.

One of those people affected by Gov. Perry’s decision is Gladys Vasquez, a home health care worker in Houston who makes $9 an hour–not enough to be able to afford health insurance but too much to qualify for Medicaid.

“I am working 45 or 50 hours a week, and when I get sick, I don’t like to see the doctor, because if I don’t die from the sickness, I die when I see the bill for the doctor,” Vasquez said.

About one-quarter of Texas’ 25 million residents lack health insurance, the highest rate among all 50 states.

A study commissioned by the Methodist Healthcare Ministries in South Texas concludes that expanding Medicaid as proposed by the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of uncovered Texans by half.

Gov. Perry said that it would cost too much to expand Medicaid to low-income working people;  however,  the federal government pays the full cost of the expansion for three years. After that, the state’s share would be 10 percent.

“When you have a governor of a state that has the worst health care in the nation, that tells Gladys Vasquez, ‘I’m sorry, these options that would expand health care for my state: I don’t want them, for my political reasons. You’re on your own’. That’s insensitive, illogical, not fair,” Douglas said.

The demonstrators had planned to confront Perry in his office and ask him directly why he was throwing so many Texans under the bus. However, after they entered his office, they were told by a Department of Public Safety officer that Gov. Perry was not available because he doesn’t work on Friday’s.

The demonstrators, nevertheless, left their message with his staff and regrouped at the nearby headquarters of the Texas AFL-CIO.

The demonstrators included community activists from the Texas Organizing Project, Good Jobs = Great Houston, disability advocates including members of ADAPT and Texas Adults with Autism and Intellectual Disabilities, and union members from SEIU, the Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186, IBEW, the state AFL-CIO and others.

After regrouping at the state AFL-CIO building, the demonstrators marched about seven blocks to the University of Texas campus where Gov. Perry was scheduled to deliver a speech.

Demonstrators gathered at the entrance of the conference center where the governor was planning to speak and chanted, “Perry makes me sick” and “health care now.”

“I’m happy that (Gov. Perry) has a good life and that he has everything made, and you know, where he’s at and where he’s from,” said Mayra Hurtado of Dallas to KERA. “But what about all these other people out here, the Texans and everybody who’s surviving barely on a day-to-day basis? What about us?”

Gender discrimination suit against Walmart proceeds

A federal judge in California ruled that a gender discrimination suit against Walmart can proceed despite objections by the retail giant. US Judge Charles Breyer on September 21 handed down his decision in San Francisco and said that he would rule later on whether the suit would be certified as a class action.

The US Supreme Court in June 2011 ruled that a similar suit against Walmart filed in 2001 affecting about 1.5 million female Walmart employees throughout the US who had worked for the company since 1998 did not meet the requirements of a class action.

Plaintiffs in the California suit include Betty Duke, an 18-year Walmart employee, who was among those who filed the original gender discrimination suit against the company. Attorneys for Duke and the other plaintiffs amended their suit to narrow their definition of class to women employees of Walmart and Sam’s Club in California and filed a new suit in October 2011.

A similar suit has been filed in Texas.

 “We’re back,” said plaintiffs’ lead counsel Brad Seligman of the Impact Fund when the California suit was filed. “This case and the fight for justice for the women of Walmart are not over. The complaint filed against California Walmart is well within Supreme Court guidelines, and we are determined to see that California Walmart women employees who have been waiting 11 years for justice finally get their day in court.”

The plaintiffs’ suit alleges that women Walmart employees are paid less than their male counterparts in similar positions and that women have fewer opportunities for promotions than men.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have said that they will use a new statistical analysis to show that “women who have held salaried and hourly positions in California (Walmart and Sam’s Club) stores and regions have been paid less than men in comparable positions, although on average women have more seniority and higher performance ratings than men.”

Furthermore, the attorneys say, “women in Walmart’s California regions also had a much lower chance of getting promoted than men.”

The suit, which could affect 90,000 current and former Walmart employees, argues that Walmart’s corporate culture in California makes it difficult for women to earn salaries comparable to male co-workers and obtain promotions.

“This culture of discrimination against women, fostered by a lack of formal pay and promotion policies encouraged a ‘good old boy’s’ network throughout the California Regions,” said plaintiffs’ co-counsel Arcelia Hurtado of the San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates. “Notice of promotions often was word-of-mouth and women who clearly had the experience to become store managers were passed over time and time again. We are confident that our case in California will help put these practices to an end and lead to fair and just compensation for Walmart’s women workers.”

A similar suit, Odle, et al v. Walmart Stores, Inc, was filed in Dallas in October 2011 on behalf of Walmart women employees in Texas.

“This suit alleges Walmart Texas Regions have a general policy of discrimination,” said  plaintiffs’ lead co-counsel Hal K. Gillespie, of Gillespie, Rozen & Watsky, PC, of Dallas.  “What we have found during our discovery is a consistent and willful practice of discrimination in pay and promotion against women employees in Walmart stores throughout Texas. This case is in complete compliance with the new class action and employment discrimination guidelines. We can now seek justice for these women, many of whom had been discriminated against for more than a decade.”

Those seeking more information about these legal actions can find it at http://www.walmartclass.com/public_home.html.

Boeing engineers and technical workers protest contract offer

Members of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) on September 19 held a spontaneous lunch time march and rally at the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington to show their disgust with Boeing’s latest contract offer. About 1,500 engineers and technical workers took part in the demonstration.

Since April, SPEEA and Boeing had been negotiating a new contract. In June, the union proposed that the current contract be extended and remain in force over the next four years. The company offered a counter proposal that called for significant concessions.

On September 17, the SPEEA bargaining teams voted unanimously to reject the company’s offer calling it “disrespectful.”

SPEEA leadership subsequently said that it would send the company’s offer to the union’s members and let them vote on whether to accept or reject it. Ballots were mailed on September 20 to the union’s members.

Most of the members work in the Puget Sound area but some work in Oregon, California, and Utah. The ballots are due back on October 1 when they will be tallied and the results made public.

Unions leaders urged the membership to reject the company offer.

 “There is nothing in this offer worth accepting,” say Ray Goforth, executive director of SPEEA. “This offer is so terrible, it’s important for our members to see it and let Boeing know directly what they think.”

 According to the union, at a time when Boeing is making record profits and has a 4,000 plane order backlog it is demanding that its professional engineering staff and technical workers accept contract concessions.

“From wage pools that are the  lowest since 1975, increased out-of-pocket costs for medical benefits, and  drastically changing retiree benefits, the Boeing offers cut away the  purchasing power and contract rights of our 23,000 represented employees in the  SPEEA Professional and Technical bargaining units,” reads a statement on the union’s website.

Boeing also wants to strip disability and life insurance from those on military leave and insert contract language that gives the company the right to strip retirees of medical insurance and layoff experienced staff so that they can be replaced by lower paid new staff.

“This proposal fails at every level to  recognize our contributions or respect the professionalism and dedication we  bring to work each day,” reads the union’s statement.

The union is providing members with contract calculator on its website that allows them to calculate how the company’s contract offer would affect their paycheck.

The contract vote is not a strike authorization vote. Should members reject the contract, they would need to vote again on whether to authorize a strike.

Unions and Verizon reach tentative agreement

Verizon and unions representing its 43,000 East Coast workers on September 19 reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. Union members over the next month will vote on whether to accept or reject the agreement.

“We stood up to the most sweeping and intense attack on our standard of living and bargaining rights in the history of the telecommunications industry,” said Chris Shelton, Communication Workers of America District 1 vice-president. “The unity and determination of 34,000 CWA members since bargaining began in June 2011 has produced a new agreement that preserves intact our members’ pension and job security, provides for a substantial wage increase, and preserves a high quality health plan.”

“In this tough economic climate, with many politicians and CEOs  preaching more and more austerity for the middle class, working families  at Verizon stood strong and stuck together to  get the best possible agreement,” said Edwin D. Hill, international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “We don’t agree with everything in it, but it allows us  to move forward and continue to fight for good middle-class jobs at Verizon in the years to come.”

Details of the pact will not be released until local unions have the opportunity to present the terms of the contract to members.

Reuters reports that Verizon failed in its attempt to freeze pensions for union members, but new hires will not be eligible for pensions; instead, the company will match new hire contributions to a 401(k) savings plan up to 6 percent of their salary. All workers will begin contributing to their health care plan.

According to Reuters, “Guggenheim Securities analyst Shing Yin said it seemed ‘at first glance that Verizon had probably made more concessions than the union’.”

In August 2011, Verizon workers accusing the company of not bargaining in good faith went on strike for two weeks.

Reuters reports that the strike hurt Verizon’s 2011 third quarter earnings.

The strike ended in a standoff with workers returning to work and Verizon continuing to honor the expired contract and agreeing to resume good faith bargaining.

For nearly a year, there was no movement at the bargaining table, which prompted union leaders to request the assistance of federal mediators. Since July, a federal mediator has overseen the talks between the two sides.

“The union bargaining teams credited the mobilization of tens of thousands of members and allies throughout the labor and progressive communities in making a big difference in the negotiations,” read a statement on the CWA website. “CWA is hopeful that the agreements will lead to additional investment and jobs going forward.”

Most of the workers represented by the unions work in the company’s Wireline division, but a small number of Verizon Wireless workers are members of CWA. According to the CWA, Verizon Wireless workers won a new contract that contains a substantial pay increase and no concessions.

In Chicago, organization + mobilization + education = victory

Students and teachers returned to Chicago public schools on Wednesday the day after the Chicago Teachers Union’s governing body, the House of Delegates, voted overwhelmingly to suspend their strike.

Union members will now have the opportunity to review and vote on the tentative agreement that the Chicago Public Schools and the union reached over the weekend.

The union did not achieve everything that it set out to accomplish in the negotiations for a new contract, but the tentative agreement appears to be a big victory for public education and the teachers.

“We feel very positive about moving forward,” said Karen Lewis, president of the CTU. “We feel grateful that we have a united union, and that when a union moves together, amazing things happen.”

The agreement includes some of the “better school day” proposals that the union was seeking. Lewis told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now that one of the objectives of the “better school days” is to create “a broad, rich curriculum for all of our students.”

As part of the agreement, Chicago Public School management agreed to hire 600 additional teachers to teach art, music, world languages, physical education, and other courses. Concerned parents have been fighting for this curriculum enhancement for more than a year.

The agreement also commits the Chicago Public Schools to hire more nurses, social workers, and counselors to provide wrap around services to students, especially those living in low-income neighborhoods. The hiring of these educational professionals is contingent on available funding, but the CTU has proposed several possible funding sources including the Tax Increment Financing program, which the city uses to fund public improvements.

Teachers also won some important improvements that will help foster a better teaching environment. They defeated Mayor Emanuel’s so-called merit pay proposal and maintained a pay system that rewards experience and advanced degrees.

Combining increases in base and longevity pay, teacher pay will increase by about 17 percent during the next four years.

The agreement also retains the current employee health care benefit, ensures that Chicago schools hire a racially diverse teaching force, provides more job security, establishes a right to recall for laid off teachers when positions become available, reduces teacher paper work, and gives teachers more control over their lesson plans.

Mayor Emanuel sought to make standardized test scores a bigger percentage of teacher evaluations, but the union held the percentage to the minimum required by state law.

Members of the House of Delegates seemed pleased with the agreement; 98 percent of the delegates voted to suspend the strike and send the agreement to union members for review and approval.

The teachers’ victory was made possible by a high degree of member unity and support from parents and the community. The unity and outside support was made possible by a strategy that emphasized organization, mobilization, and education.

Organization: Lewis is a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) that came to power two years ago when Lewis was elected president. “We wanted to empower our rank and file teachers so that the real work of unions is in the (school) buildings, not downtown offices,” Lewis told Goodman. “We wanted to change from a service model to an organizing model, so that people can feel empowered to do what’s best for the students.”

One of the things that the union did to empower teachers was to create a Big Bargaining Team that gave more members a first-hand look at the bargaining process and made it more transparent.

The new leadership also revitalized the House of Delegates, which is composed of nearly 800 representatives of all the schools and buildings where CTU members work. The union leadership channeled information about bargaining issues through the delegates to educators on the job to keep them informed about the issues.

These channels also offered members a way to give their leaders feedback about what was important to them.

These open lines of communication helped build the unity that gave the union its power. They helped win an overwhelming percentage of members–98 percent–to authorize a strike. They helped make the mobilizations that demonstrated the union’s power both before and during the strike so successful.

Mobilization: The large rallies were the most visible form that the mobilizations took, but there were other kinds that were just as important. For example, members canvassed neighborhoods talking directly to parents and residents about what the union was trying to accomplish.

This door to door, grassroots mobilization had a lot to do with countering Mayor Emmanuel’s media campaign against the teachers. Polls showed that parents supported the strike and its goals by a substantial percentage.

Education: The union made every effort to provide members with information about the issues that led to the strike. They did the same for parents and the community.

Well before the strike began, the union’s research team produced a report that laid out the union’s vision of what a better public education would look like. The report, entitled The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, helped define the goals of strike as a fight for better schools rather than just a fight for better pay and benefits.

While the strike appears to be over, the fight to improve public education in Chicago continues. The union has made it clear that it will continue to work with students and parents to stop school closures that have enraged communities all over Chicago.

While Mayor Emanuel has tried to put his best face forward on the new agreement, members of the CTU House of Delegates clearly thought that tentative agreement was a big win for teachers and for the working class communities they serve.

“We’ve gained dignity and respect for our profession and for our school communities,” said Garth Liebhaber, a fifth grade teacher to Democracy Now. “We’ve gained unionism and what it means for working people. This is about returning power to where it belongs–to the working people and the communities that they serve.”