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.”

More Walmart warehouse workers go on strike

Workers at another Walmart warehouse–this one in Elwood Illinois, near Chicago–have gone on strike to protest wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and employer retaliation.

On Thursday, September 14, workers at the Elwood warehouse filed a wage theft lawsuit against their employer, Roadlink Workforce Solutions, a temporary staffing company that supplies and manages Walmart’s Elwood warehouse staff.

Warehouse workers said that on Friday, the day after the suit was filed, warehouse management stepped up its harassment and intimidation of workers who speak out against conditions at the warehouse. Workers responded by going out on strike.

“We are on strike to protest the violation of our rights,” said Eric Skoglund, one of the strikers. “We are tired of retaliation and threats every time we speak up about unsafe working conditions and other abuses.”

The strikers are calling on Walmart to take responsibility for the actions of its contractor and end the abuses at its largest warehouse.

The suit that the workers filed on Thursday charges Roadlink with wage theft. According to the striking workers, warehouse pay is based on a piece-rate system, which determines pay by the amount of cargo that workers load or unload. As a result of the piece rate system, pay is sometimes below the minimum wage. Workers are also not compensated for overtime work.

The workers say that the piece rate system speeds up work to unsafe levels making an already dangerous work environment even more dangerous.

The workers filed the suit with the help of Warehouse Workers for Justice, which is also assisting the workers in their strike. Warehouse Workers for Justice has set up a strike fund to provide economic assistance during the strike.

“We need to build a strike fund quickly, so that those on strike are able to support their families during these difficult times,” read an email to WWJ supporters.

The Illinois workers join another group of Walmart warehouse workers who walked off the job. A week ago, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Mira Loma, California went on strike to protest inhumane conditions at their warehouse.

They are still on strike and have joined a 50-mile pilgrimage from the Inland Empire, the heart of the Southern California warehouse industry, to a Los Angeles Walmart where workers will demand that Walmart take responsibility for conditions at its warehouses. This pilgrimage for warehouse justice was organized by Warehouse Workers United.

The Illinois workers are also organizing demonstrations demanding that Walmart take responsibility for working conditions at its warehouses. On Tuesday, they will be joined by striking Chicago teachers for a rally and march to a neighborhood Walmart.

On Wednesday, the strikers will rally at the downtown Chicago Walmart.

The Illinois strikers are planning an even bigger demonstration on October 1. They are calling on supporters to come to Elwood for a solidarity rally at the Walmart warehouse.

“Walmart workers in Elwood, Illinois are fighting to win safe jobs, living wages, and respect from the world’s largest retailer,” read an email to supporters. “Workers at the warehouse face wage theft, a dangerous workplace, and rampant sexual harassment. But workers are refusing to stay quiet and are calling on Walmart to take responsibility for working conditions in its supply chain. Stand with us on October 1st to speak out against these injustices.”

Chicago teachers consider tentative agreement; strike continues

Delegates to the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates voted to continue their strike for at least two more days, so that rank and file teachers can have a chance to review  and discuss the tentative agreement worked out over the weekend during negotiations between the union and management of the Chicago Public Schools.

“This union is a democratic institution, which values the opportunity for all members to make decisions together,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “The officers of this union follow the lead of our members. The issues raised in this contract were too important, had consequences too profound for the future of our public education system and for educational fairness for our students, parents and members for us to simply take a quick vote based on a short discussion. Therefore, a clear majority voted to take this time and we are unified in this decision.”

The House of Delegates is composed of 800 elected union members from every school and workplace in the Chicago Public School system.

Lewis characterized the discussion around the 23-page document that outlines the 180-page tentative agreement as “civil and frank.”

Members of the union will resume picketing at their schools and workplaces on Monday morning. At the end of their picketing, members will meet to discuss the tentative agreement. Delegates voted to reconvene the House of Delegates on Tuesday afternoon.

Walmart warehouse workers strike over inhumane conditions

Workers at a Walmart distribution center in Mira Loma, California walked off the job earlier this week to protest what the workers called inhumane working conditions.

“They treat us like animals,” said one of the striking workers. “They treat us worse than animals.”

“It gets really hot and we heat up really fast,” said another worker. “Sometimes there’ll be no water in the containers.”

Other striking workers said that temperatures in their work area can get as high as 120 degrees. They don’t have a health care plan, don’t get regular breaks, and work with faulty and dangerous equipment that results in frequent injuries. They make about $8 an hour.

The warehouse is operated by NFI, a Walmart contractor. NFI is a national transportation firm. It subcontracts with Warestaff, a temporary staffing company, to provide workers for the warehouse.

About 20 workers are participating in the unfair labor practices strike. They do not belong to a union.

The warehouse is located in the Inland Empire, the Southern California region at the heart of area’s warehouse industry.

Prior to the strike, workers had filed complaints against NFI and Warestaff with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

The complaints charge the two Walmart contractors with unfair labor practices that include lack of access to drinking water, unsafe working conditions, and management intimidation. The labor standards division is conducting an investigation.

According to the workers, management retaliated against those who filed the complaint. “When we spoke out to change terrible working conditions, workers were suspended, demoted and even fired,” said Limber Herrera one of the striking workers. “They spied on us and bullied us, all because we are fighting for dignity.”

The strike began on the eve of an historic 50-mile pilgrimage for warehouse justice that commenced on September 13.

The organizers of the pilgrimage, Warehouse Workers United, held a solidarity rally with the striking workers at their warehouse, and some of the workers joined the pilgrimage. The long march began after the rally and will end six days later in Los Angeles.

Speaking at the rally, Guadalupe Palma, executive director of Warehouse Workers United, a labor center helping warehouse workers fight for better conditions, said that Walmart needed to be held accountable for the conditions inside of the warehouses that store its goods.

“These workers have exhausted all options,” Palma said. “Walmart must stop ignoring warehouse workers and intervene to uphold its own stated ‘Standards for Suppliers’, eliminate inhumane and illegal working conditions, and sit down directly with warehouse workers to hear about their experiences in the warehouses and figure out how to improve working conditions.”

When the pilgrimage ends in Los Angeles, organizers will confront Walmart executives and demand that they meet with workers to hear their grievances.

According to a report by the National Employment Law Project, Walmart exerts pressure on its contractors to keep labor costs low in order to drive down the price that contractors charge Walmart. This mutual race to the bottom results in the conditions that caused the strike.

The strike is not the first time that workers have rebelled against conditions in a Walmart warehouse. Last year, workers at a Walmart warehouse operated by Schneider Logistics filed similar complaints with the state labor standards division and a lawsuit against Schneider and its subcontractors for wage theft.

A court sided with the workers and ordered the companies to pay workers for lost wages. The labor standards division also fined the subcontractors for illegal conditions at the warehouse.

About 85,000 workers work at warehouses located in the Inland Empire. Most work in conditions similar to those of the striking workers. Many work at Walmart warehouses.

“Warehouse workers have made several attempts to reach out to Walmart to tell them about conditions in the warehouse,” Palma said. “These attempts have gone unanswered; they’ve been ignored by Walmart.”

Asked why he was joining the pilgrimage, warehouse worker Alejandro Alvarado said, “We don’t have fans or clean water and we’re sweating all day and when we try to do something about it, we get in trouble.”

Jobs with Justice  has posted this link for those who want to show their support for the striking workers.

Texas pension hearings make the case for maintaining public pensions

A Texas House committee recently wrapped up its hearing on design changes to the state’s public pensions. Expert testimony during the two-day hearing agreed that traditional defined benefit pension plans are the most cost-effective way to provide retirement security to public employees throughout the state, including teachers, state employees, and local government employees.

The hearings were held in response to demands by right wing special interest groups that Texas eliminate public pensions for public sector workers and replace them with 401(k)-type defined contribution savings plans.

“What we heard from all the experts was that traditional defined benefit plans are a much better deal for both public workers and taxpayers,” said Derrick Osobase, political director of the Texas State Employees Union. “The facts are on our side. Now we need to organize and mobilize like never before to get more state and university workers involved in the effort to educate lawmakers with the facts. These same lawmakers need to know that there is a well-organized constituency that will fight like hell to protect public pensions.”

One of the experts testifying at the hearing was Christopher Hanson, executive director of the Texas Pension Review Board, which oversees Texas’ public pension plans.

Hanson based much of his testimony on a report recently completed by the Pension Review Board entitled A Review of Defined Benefit, Defined Contribution, and Alternative Retirement Plans.

Committee Chair Rep. Vicki Truitt said that the report is an excellent source of information about pensions and possible alternatives.

One of the points made by Hanson was that converting to a defined contribution plan will not eliminate or reduce pension funds’ unfunded liability; in fact, doing so will increase unfunded liabilities.

An unfunded liability is the difference between a pension fund’s assets and its liabilities estimated over a 31-year period. The unfunded liability for the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS) is $24 billion; for the state Employee Retirement System (ERS), it’s $5 billion. These are the state’s two biggest pension plans.

Prior to 2002, both funds had no unfunded liability, but legislators’ decision to reduce state pension contributions and two big stock market downturns created the unfunded liability.

Opponents of public pensions, such as Houston millionaire Bill King and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, seized on the unfunded liability to argue that Texas state and local governments could no longer afford to fund public pensions and must replace them with defined contribution plans.

Hanson, in his testimony, said that doing so would increase the unfunded liability and increase taxpayer risk. He pointed to the experience of Michigan, which closed its defined benefit plan to new hires in 1997.

At the time the pension plan was closed, Michigan’s funding ratio was 109 percent. In other words, it had 9 percent more assets than it needed to pay off its 31-year liability.

In 2011, the fund’s funded ratio had dropped to 72.6 percent, and the state’s contribution to the pension plan nearly doubled from $229.5 million in 1997 to $442.9 million in 2011. This deficit will continue to grow for some time.

Seth Hutchinson, Texas State Employees Union organizing coordinator, pointed out that reports by both TRS and ERS show that switching to defined contributions will either require more state retirement contributions or reduce benefits or, possibly, both.

“Reduced benefits will endanger the retirement security of both current and future retirees,” Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said that the ERS and TRS defined benefit pension provide a modest benefit, on average $1,551 a month for state employees and about $1,900 a month for teachers, who for the most part do not receive Social Security. Neither of the plans has provided a cost-of-living increase since 2001.

The state could address ERS’ unfunded liability by a slightly increasing the state’s contribution. “Currently, the state contribution to the ERS retirement plan is less than one-half of 1 percent of the state budget,” Hutchinson said. “Increasing the state’s contribution by $259 million would eliminate the unfunded liability. The increased funding would increase the budget share of ERS pension contributions to just 0.065 percent.

“Converting to defined contribution plan,” Hutchinson said. “Will not reduce or eliminate the unfunded liability, could cost taxpayers more money, and could result in reduced benefits. That’s a bad deal for retirees, employees, and taxpayers.”

In first Texas contract, Nurses win voice in patient care standards

Registered nurses at four Texas hospitals recently approved first-time contracts that give them a voice in establishing safe patient-care standards.

The nurses belong to the National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNU). They work at Las Palmas Medical Center and Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, the Corpus Christi Medical Center, and the Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville, all owned by HCA, the largest private hospital operator in the US.

“Texas took a big step forward in terms of patient care standards with these agreements,” said Fred Flores, a Corpus Christi RN.

“This is a victory for quality health care,” said Ann James, an RN at Las Palmas in El Paso.

The new collective bargaining agreements create Professional Practices Committees, composed of RNs elected by peers who can make recommendations for improving patient care to management.

The contracts also establish staffing committees to recommend safe staffing levels based on patient acuity, the severity of patients’ illnesses.

RNs at these hospitals have been fighting for improved patient care and safer staffing levels for some time. In August 2011, nurses and their supporters at Las Palmas organized a lunch time demonstration at the hospital to call attention to staffing problems.

“We’re concerned because the level of staffing in our unit is inconsistent with the hospital’s own policies,” said Carmen Yazdi, at the demonstration. “Having too many patients prevents us from delivering the kind of care we want to give to our patients and to the El Paso community.”

Yazdi at the time was a nurse in the telemetry unit, where people with heart problems are cared for.

At the demonstration Terri Little-Verdugo, a neo-natal nurse, told the El Paso Times that the hospital policy calls for one nurse per two babies in the neo-natal unit, but at times, the actual ratio is one to three or four.

“I care for the sickest babies,” said Lucia Adams, another neo-natal nurse. “Because they are so small, a downturn in their condition can have an immediate impact on their lives. When we have too many babies to care for at the same time, it’s difficult to catch critical situations. We simply want staffing at a level that is consistent with the hospital’s care plan.”

Two months after the Las Palmas demonstration, nurses at the Del Sol Medical Center held a similar demonstration. “We’re not staffed at acuity levels,” said Monica Sanchez, a Del Sol RN to the El Paso Times. “It makes it harder to give the absolute best kind of care that we went into nursing to give.”

The need for safer staffing levels is one of the reasons that Sanchez and her cohorts joined the NNU during an organizing campaign, which led to the unionization of RNs at the four Texas hospitals in 2010.

After the completion fo the successful organizing drive, a bargaining committee began negotiating the first contract with the hospitals. It took two years, but an agreement was finalized, and nurses approved it on September 6.

“It took time,” said Adriana Soto, an RN, who works at the Valley Regional Medical Center. “But in the end we were able to reach a settlement that will solidify our RN organization and provides our patients in Brownsville with quality care.”

“For us, having an acknowledged role in the standards for patient care is a must-win in a contract,” said Maria Navarro, an RN at Del Sol.  “We are professionals who work at the bedside, and patients count on us.  Management gains from our expertise.  We need to be able to share it, and management needs to be listening.  We have achieved that in our new contract.”

Chicago teachers, school staff on strike!

Chicago public school teachers, support staff, and other education professionals went on strike today. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said that some progress has been made at the bargaining table but not enough to avoid a strike.

“Negotiations have been intense but productive,” Lewis said. “However, we have failed to reach an agreement that can avoid a labor strike. This is a difficult decision and one that we hoped we could avoid. Throughout the negotiations, I have remained hopeful but determined. We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”

Lewis said that the union would continue to work with parents and others who want to improve education in Chicago.

“As we continue to bargain in good faith, we stand in solidarity with parents, clergy, and community-based organizations who are advocating for smaller class sizes, a better school day, and an elected school board.

Lewis noted that some progress had been made toward the union’s contract proposal for a better school day that would expand the curriculum and provide more services for students.

“We restored some of the art, music, world language, technology, and physical education classes to many of our students,” Lewis said in describing some of the progress made during the bargaining sessions. “The board also agreed that we would now have textbooks on the first day of class rather than have our students and teachers wait until six weeks to receive instructional material.”

But the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel still want to radically change the curriculum to one that emphasizes standardized test preparation.

As part of this new emphasis, the board is trying to implement a new teacher evaluation system that the union says puts too much emphasis on how well students do on standardized tests.

“We are. . . concerned that too much of the new evaluations will be based on students’ standardized teaching scores,” Lewis said. “This is no way to measure the effectiveness of an educator. There are too many factors beyond our control which impact how well some students perform on standardized tests such as poverty, exposure to violence, homelessness, hunger, and other social issues beyond our control.”

Despite wanting to implement a new curriculum and a new evaluation system, the board has not offered any enhanced training to prepare teachers to implement the new curriculum

The union has offered the use of its nationally acclaimed Quest Center, which helps new teachers learn the skills of their profession, to help the board provide training.

Lewis also said that the union is fighting for more student services. “We join (parents) in their call for more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians, and school nurses,” Lewis said. “Our children are exposed to unprecedented levels of neighborhood violence and other social issues, so the fight for wraparound services is critically important to all of us. Our members will continue to support this ground swell of parent activism and grassroots engagement on these issues. And we hope the board will not shut these voices out.”

The two sides are close to agreement on a new pay package, but the school board is still demanding reductions to employees’ health care benefit.

Teachers, school counselors, nurses, and other education professionals walked picket lines this morning at 675 schools and the Board of Education office, but Lewis said that the union was willing to continue bargaining.

“We are committed to staying at the table until a contract is place,” Lewis said.” However, in the morning no CTU member will be inside our schools. We will walk the picket lines. We will talk to parents. We will talk to clergy. We will talk to the community. We will talk to anyone who will listen—we demand a fair contract today, we demand a fair contract now. And, until there is one in place that our members accept, we will be on the line.”

Chicago teachers file charges and prepare to strike

The Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) on September 6 filed unfair labor practice charges with the Illinois Labor Board against the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The union charged the school system with imposing contract changes while negotiations for a new contract are in progress.

The union said that if the negotiations do not result in a fair contract by midnight September 9, CPS teachers, counselors, nurses, and other professionals will go on strike on September 10. In July, 98 percent of the teachers and other education professionals covered by the current contract authorized a strike if a fair agreement could not be reached.

The unfair labor charges were filed after CPS unilaterally canceled longevity pay, discontinued a sick leave benefit, and imposed new teacher evaluation procedures.

CPS’ attempt to impose concessions on the teachers is its latest effort to weaken CTU, which the CPS school board, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and outside education pundits see as the biggest obstacle to their plans to privatize more of Chicago’s public schools.

CPS’s actions both past and present led CTU President Karen Lewis to call Mayor Emanuel, “a bully and a liar.”

“We did not start this fight,” said Lewis at a huge Labor Day solidarity rally. “But brothers and sisters, enough is enough.”

“The only way you beat a bully is to stand up to him,” said Lewis later in the speech.

Lewis told the 18,000 people at the solidarity rally that the contract negotiations and the possible strike on Monday, “is about the very soul of public education in Chicago.”

On one side, according to Lewis, you have the outsider education pundits like Juan Rangel, UNO charter school operator whose annual salary is $266,000, and Andrew Marcus, a Tea Party activist, and Mayor Emanuel and his school board.

Lewis accused the Mayor of saying that he wasn’t going to waste money on 25 percent of Chicago’s public school students who he said wouldn’t amount to anything. They’re agenda is to defund public schools, close down at least 100, and funnel the money to charter schools.

On the other side are the teachers, other school staff, and their supporters. Their goal is to win real education reform that includes smaller class sizes, an expanded curriculum for all schools that includes the arts, language, and physical education, more student services such as counseling, extra help for students living in high poverty neighborhoods, more teacher preparation time, and decent pay, benefits, and security that can attract and retain high quality professionals vital to the future of Chicago.

At the solidarity rally, the teachers received a stunning amount of support from students, parents, community organizations, and other unions.

“One thing that’s great to see today,” said Chicago Alderman Nick Sposato at the rally. “Is all the kids here fighting for better schools, smaller class sizes, and all the important things about education.”

“We support the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been leading the fight to preserve neighborhood schools threatened with closure. “This fight is about more than a contract. This about what kind of Chicago we want to live in.”

Speakers from SEIU, AFSCME, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Nurses Union, and the Fraternal Order of Police expressed their solidarity with the teachers and their just demands.

“It is very important that we send a message to City Hall,” said Henry Bayer, president of AFSCME Council 31. “We as public servants stand in solidarity with the teachers.”

CTU is also receiving support from around the country. “The Chicago Teachers Union wants to thank the many organizations who have written letters of solidarity and contributed to our solidarity fund,” reads a statement on CTU’s web site.

Money from the solidarity fund is being used to mount a public outreach campaign that explains the teachers’ agenda for real education reform, which can be found in the union’s newly published report, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve.

Lewis said that those pushing their privatization agenda have been surprised by the solidarity and resistance that they’ve met. “The people from outside Chicago who have come here to destroy us were met with resistance they never thought would happen,” Lewis said. “A little over a year ago, they wrote us off. . . . And what happened? . . . Building by building, school by school, we all came together to stop the juggernaut that doesn’t care about our children, that doesn’t know what we do, and that has written off 25 percent of our children.”

Warehouse workers to march for justice

Warehouse workers in Southern California announced yesterday that next week they will begin a 50-mile pilgrimage to end illegal and inhumane working conditions where they work and to demand that Walmart take responsibility for ending these conditions in warehouses operated by Walmart contractors.

“Temperatures (at the warehouses) top 100 degrees,” said Limber Herrera, a warehouse worker. “Inside the metal containers we unload, it can reach 120 degrees. Our pay is low and injury is common. We face pollutants, inadequate access to clean drinking water, little ventilation, and intense retaliation if we speak up about our working conditions. I have seen workers fired if they are injured on the job.”

Herrera is a member of Warehouse Workers United (WWU), which has been organizing warehouse workers in the Southern California region known as the Inland Empire where warehouses that store goods waiting to be shipped to Walmart and other retailers are concentrated.

The march for warehouse justice will begin Thursday September 13 in Riverside, California, the heart of the Inland Empire warehouse district. Marchers will trek along a 50-mile route traveled by trucks loaded by warehouse workers and headed for Walmart and other retailers in Los Angeles. At the end of their march, workers will confront Walmart and demand that it take responsibility for improving working conditions in its warehouses.

“We want humane working conditions, and we want Walmart to sit down with warehouse workers to hear about our experiences moving Walmart goods,” Herrera said. “Up until now, Walmart has ignored us.”

 During the six-day march, workers and their supporters will sleep on church floors and rely on community supporters to feed them. The march is reminiscent of a march nearly 50 years ago by California farmworkers fighting for justice in the fields where they worked and demanding that growers recognize their union.

Walmart doesn’t operate its warehouses in the Inland Valley; instead, it contracts with companies like Schneider Logistics to operate them. Workers at a Schneider Inland Empire warehouse last year sued Schneider and its subcontractors for wage theft. A court found in favor of the workers, who were subsequently fired. The court ruled that the firings were retaliation and thus illegal and ordered the company to reinstate the workers.

Walmart’s said that it was not responsible for the wage theft or the firings, but WWU argues that Walmart puts pressure on its contractors to drive down labor costs, so that the retail giant can keep its prices low. The pressure to lower wages led to the wage theft and the subsequent firings by Schneider.

“Walmart has an outsized influence on Southern California and on most communities in the US,” reads a statement by WWU. “Walmart is the world’s largest private company and its practices indirectly and directly affect the lives of millions of people. It pioneers practices of squeezing workers and contractors that degrade the quality of jobs and because of its size these poor standards become the industry standard.”

Report: Teachers’ pension is good for Texas

After an exhaustive study, the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS) last week presented a report to the state’s Legislative Budget Board showing that changing the state’s largest public pension plan could increase the state’s pension liability by as much as $11.7 billion, increase the state retirement costs, and possibly result in benefit cuts.

Despite the potential costs and benefit reductions, opponents of public pensions say that they will continue their efforts to eliminate the state’s largest traditional pension plan, which serves 1.3 million teachers, public school and higher education employees, and retirees.

The teachers retirement pension plan “(is) very efficient and delivers a modest benefit at a very low cost,” said the Texas Federation of Teachers’ legislative director Ted Melina-Raab to the Austin American Statesman. “Any move away from it is one that is based on ideology and politics.”

The report entitled the TRS Pension Design Study is TRS’ response to a legislative mandate to study the impact of changing the state’s retirement plan for public employees. The Employee Retirement System, which serves state employees, was directed to complete a similar study that should be made public next week.

The TRS pension plan is a traditional pension, sometimes called a defined benefit plan, that provides a modest but secure pension for education workers who meet certain age and years-of-service requirements.

The average monthly TRS annuity is $1,897. About 95 percent of Texas public school employees do not participate in Social Security, so their pension is their only guaranteed source of retirement income.

The report finds that it would cost taxpayers more to provide the same level of benefit through alternative plans, such as a 401(k)-type defined contribution plan. If the state chose to replace the TRS pension with a defined contribution plan and keep benefits at their present level, the state contribution would increase from the current 6.4 percent of payroll to between 10.9 percent and 18.89 percent depending on which type of plan was chosen.

The alternative to increasing contribution rates would be to cut benefits. According to the report, “(retirement) plans do not achieve savings by simply moving to a different structure. Rather, a benefit reduction must accompany such a move in order for the plan to achieve savings.”

The experience of six states that changed their retirement plan is cited by the report. After changing the structure of their retirement plans, five of the six states reduced benefits by between 3 percent and 30 percent.

The report also finds that the state won’t reduce its funded liability if it bars new hires from participating in the pension plan as has been proposed by pension plan opponents. In fact, excluding new hires from the pension fund will increase the current funded liability of $24 billion to $35.7 billion.

If the funded liability is allowed to grow to $35.7 bill, the state will have no choice but to raise its contribution substantially or reduce benefits or do both.

The report also finds that despite dire and unfounded warnings the TRS pension fund is in good shape. If current contributions continue at their present rate and return on investment income continues to average about 8 percent as it has done over the last 25 years, TRS can pay benefits at the current level until 2075.

The report recognizes significant challenges facing the fund and recommends steps to address them. The main challenge is that the current funded liability cannot be eliminated without a modest contribution increase to the plan. If employee, contributions remain constant, the funded liability could be eliminated by increasing the state contribution to 8.1 percent of payroll, slightly below the 8.5 percent that the state contributed until 1983.

Opponents of the pension plan such as the Texas Public Policy Forum (TPPF) have proposed eliminating public pensions in Texas by excluding new hires from pension plans such as TRS’, eliminating state funding for pensions and channeling that funding into individual retirement accounts, and freezing pensions of current employees.

The report shows that switching to such a plan will likely be costly and lead to benefit reductions. Despite the findings of the report, a spokesman for TPPF said that the group will continue to push its plan.

“(Changing the pension plan) will get a good look (when the Legislature meets next year),” said Talmadge Heflin of the TPPF to the Statesman. “There is a high likelihood that changes will be made,”

“That just doesn’t make sense,” said Derrick Osobase, political director of the Texas State Employees Union, whose higher education members belong to TRS. “The report shows public pensions are good for employees and good for taxpayers. When people who claim to be taxpayer advocates say the want to get rid of something that saves taxpayer money, you have to wonder what their agenda really is.”

Coalition urges gov. to reject Kerrville State Hospital privatization

A civil rights group is asking people to sign a petition urging Texas Governor Rick Perry to reject a proposal by GEO Care to privatize a state hospital in Kerrville. Grassroots Leadership, the group sponsoring the petition, also announced that a coalition of civil rights, faith-based organizations, mental health advocates, and the Texas State Employees Union had signed a letter addressed to Gov. Perry urging him to reject GEO’s bid.

GEO Care is a subsidiary of GEO Group, formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections, the second largest operator of private prisons in the US.

“The GEO Group has a long and troubled history in Texas,” said Bob Libal executive director of Grassroots Leadership. “GEO has paid millions in lawsuits over the death of prisoners. If that kind of liability were to fall on the Department of State Health Services, GEO’s cost-cutting measures might not save taxpayers money.”

The coalition’s letter calls attention to patient-care problems at GEO operated mental health facilities that include “three gruesome deaths” in Florida and fines levied in Texas for inadequate patient care.

The letter also says that GEO in 2007 was forced to close one of its youth correctional facilities in Coke County, Texas because of unclean and unsanitary conditions.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is considering privatizing at least one of its 10 state hospitals. The Legislature mandated that it do so last year. The law requires that any privatization of state hospitals must save the state at least 10 percent.

One way to achieve the 10 percent savings would be to lower labor costs by cutting wages and benefits, reducing staffing levels, hiring unqualified staff, and providing them with insufficient training. Most, if not all, of these measures factored in deficiencies found at facilities operated by GEO.

One such facility is the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, described by federal judge Carlton Reeves as “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing GEO, reports that beginning in 2005, Walnut Grove was operated by the Cornell Companies. Between 2005 and 2010, the facility’s population increased but staffing declined. When GEO purchased Cornell in 2010, it did nothing to address the staffing shortages.

And there were other problems. The US Justice Department reports that some guards had gang affiliations, had little training, and relied heavily on force and pepper spray to control the population. As a result, inmate on inmate violence was common and sometimes encouraged by guards.  Furthermore, GEO offered few if any rehabilitation services for the inmates.

Mississippi recently discontinued its Walnut Grove and two other contracts with GEO.

In Florida, GEO operates the South Florida State Hospital where the deaths of three patients resulted in an investigation by the state agency that oversees state mental hospitals, the Department of Children and Family.

One of the deaths involved the suicide of John Bragman, a bipolar schizophrenic who had attempted suicide several times. The report found that the three staff members accompanying Bragman during an off site appointment did not follow the proper protocol for escorting a suicidal patient, allowing Bragman to break free and jump to his death.

“They’re hiring the cheapest people off the street who aren’t qualified for what  they’re doing,” said Bragman’s brother Larry Bragman to the Associated Press.

Luis Saldana, another patient at GEO’s South Florida hospital scalded to death after he was left unattended in a bathtub. A medical examiner said that Saldana was over medicated at the time of his death.

The same report said that hospital staff seemed confused about their responsibility to report the deaths of Bragman, Saldana, and Loida Espida, another patient who died in GEO’s care.

In Texas, the Austin American Statesman reports that the GEO operated Montgomery County Mental Health Facility in Conroe is facing $53,000 in fines for shortcomings in patient care that include unauthorized restraint and seclusion of patients and failure to report serious injuries.

According to the Statesman, one patient while in isolation continually banged his head on windows and walls but staff looked on and did nothing because they didn’t know how to respond.

“You should have such training where you know how to deal with it when someone is doing that to themselves, period,” said Robin Peyson, executive director of NAMI Texas, a mental health advocacy group to the Statesman.

According to Grassroots Leadership, Texas already spends the least amount per capita on mental health services of any other state and state spending for these services is about one-third of the national average. As a result, it’s difficult to see how privatization that reduces spending further could maintain current levels of patient care.