Teamsters practice solidarity actions at Republic Waste

Faced with the possibility that some of their fellow union members may lose their pensions, more than 1,000 Teamsters in 19 cities held “practice picketing” sessions at facilities owned by Republic/Allied Waste Services, the second largest private sanitation company in the US.

When contracts between Teamster locals and Republic, which reported revenues of $8.2 billion in 2011, come up for renewal, the company is demanding that it be allowed to replace the current Teamster pension benefit with a 401(k) savings plan.

Among Teamsters who practiced picketing were members of Teamster Local 984 in Memphis, who are currently working without a contract. The local and Republic have been negotiating a new contract, which recently expired.

The company wants to stop making contributions to the Teamsters’ pension fund and instead set up 401(k) savings plans for workers. It would match the first 3 percent of worker contributions to the plan and half of the next 2 percent of worker contributions.

Doing so according to union officials will save the company money at the expense of workers’ retirement security. Republic management told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that it didn’t know whether the change would save the company money.

While Republic is seeking concessions from its workers, it has been far more generous to its shareholders, including Bill Gates, who, according to the Teamsters, owns about $2 billion worth of Republic stock, making him the company’s largest shareholder.

Republic reported $149.2 million in second quarter 2012 profits, up 220 percent from the second quarter of 2011, resulting in a 7 percent quarterly dividend for shareholders.

To counter the company’s concession demands, the Memphis Teamsters voted earlier in October to authorize a strike if a new contract agreement could not be reached.

The company has flown in management personnel from around the country and has said that they will be used to continue sanitation services to Republic’s 200,000 customers in the Memphis area if the Teamsters go on strike or if a lockout occurs.

“The company is paying to bring these out-of-town guys in here and at the same time crying broke,” said Kevin Clark, a Local 984 member. “The company is making us train them, but they don’t know our routes. We pick up at hospitals. We pick up at schools and in neighborhoods with kids running around. From where I sit it looks like the company is more interested in throwing us to the curb than they are in taking care of customers and the community.”

Earlier this year, Republic locked out 80 Teamster Local 215  members in Evansville, Indiana over a similar dispute. The company wanted to replace the workers’ pension with a 401(k) plan. The workers rejected the company’s offer.

For six weeks, Local 215 stood its ground. During the lockout Local 215 members traveled to Republic facilities in other cities and set up picket lines, which fellow Teamsters and other union members refused to cross.

The one-day sympathy strikes disrupted Republic business in Urbana, Illinois, Wayne, Michigan, Milpitas, California, Richmond, California, and Long Beach, California.

About three weeks after the last sympathy strike, Republic management in Evansville agreed to suspend the lockout. The workers returned to work and the company and Local 215 returned to the bargaining table, but so far there has been no resolution to the dispute.

By organizing the practice picketing sessions at Republic facilities, the Teamsters appear to be reminding Republic that members throughout the country are willing to take solidarity actions to support other members who are facing the loss of an important benefit just as they did to support the Evansville workers.

“Today’s ‘just practicing’ picketing actions did not ask Republic/Allied employees to cease working,” read a statement issued by the Teamsters. “They were intended as a wake-up call to Republic/Allied executives and local elected officials that the company’s efforts to bully workers through locking them out of their jobs could instigate sympathy pickets at Republic facilities across America.”

In addition to Memphis and Evansville, Teamster sanitation workers practiced picketing at Republic facilities in Urbana, Illinois; Youngstown, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Flint, Michigan; Adrian, Michigan; Fremont, California; Daly City, California; Fairfield, California; Gardena, California; Long Beach, California; Anaheim, California; Revere, Massachusetts; Atlanta, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Bellevue, Washingon; and Buffalo, New York.

UT System rebuffs ironworkers seeking justice; workers vow to escalate actions

A group of striking ironworkers and their supporters on Friday, October 26 gathered in front of the University of Texas System headquarters in downtown Austin to speak out about unsafe and unfair working conditions where they work. The group tried to meet with UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to ask him why the system hires and tolerates construction project contractors that don’t treat their workers with dignity or respect.

The UT System has planned for $1 billion worth of new construction projects over the next four years on its campuses. The demonstrators wanted to urge Chancellor Cigarroa not to hire two contractors, D’Ambra Steel Services and Great Western Erectors, for these projects unless they improve their safety record and treat their workers better.

The ironworkers said that these two contractors and others in the business of installing rebar on buildings under construction pay low wages, don’t provide health care for work related injuries, discriminate against immigrant workers, and don’t take adequate safety precautions such as providing proper access to drinking water or reliable safety equipment and gear.

When the demonstrators walked into the UT System building to ask for a meeting with Chancellor Cigarroa, the UT System officials called the police who then removed the demonstrators from the building.

“Though UT officials refused to meet, we delivered our message through the media and will continue to escalate actions until the university system takes steps to improve working conditions on their campuses,” said Ryan Haney of the Coalition for Ironworker Justice, a community-labor organization that has been helping the striking ironworkers.

In May ironworkers who work for D’Ambra walked off construction projects in Dallas to protest poor conditions. One month later, about 70 D’Ambra ironworkers at an Exxon Mobil construction site near Houston walked off the job for the same reasons.

Augustin Munos of Houston explained what led him to go on strike. Munos started to feel the symptoms of heat stroke while he was on the job. When he tried to rest, a supervisor told him to keep working.

Munos finally called his wife, who took him to a hospital where he stayed for eight days.

When he returned to work with documentation showing that his illness was work related, the company said that it wasn’t a job related illness and refused to pay for Munos’ medical expenses, which totalled about $20,000.

“I told them I need help for the days I was in the hospital and unable to work, so now I have no money and I can’t eat,” Munos said. “I’ve had to sell the title of my car to pay my rent and other things. I have to pay $20,000, but I can’t pay that on my salary, which is why I went on strike.”

Jorge Balderas of Dallas also is on strike against D’Ambra. His wife has cancer, but D’Ambra doesn’t provide health care benefits for its workers like Balderas. Before Balderas’ wife could get treatment, the hospital sent a letter to D’Ambra asking the company to verify that Balderas did not have employer health care benefits.

“They sent a letter to D’Ambra, and they didn’t respond” Balderas said. “My wife’s treatment was delayed because the company wouldn’t respond. If I’d been here [in Dallas] and hadn’t gone [to the D’Ambra office in Houston] personally, they would never have responded.”

It would be good to have a health care benefit, Balderas said. For now if you get hurt on the job, you’re on your own. “They don’t help you at all. If you get hurt and you go home, you don’t get paid,” he added. “And you have to pay for the treatment. Your loss is doubled then.”

The striking ironworkers are non-union; although, they have been receiving support from the Iron Workers Union. Some have subsequently joined the union.

The ironworkers have been trying to get public institutions such as universities and municipal governments to take a closer look at the working conditions of the contractors who work on their construction projects .

In May, a delegation of Dallas ironworkers and their supporters tried to meet with Calvin Jamison, vice-president for administration at UT Dallas. D’Ambra ironworkers had previously walked off the job at the university’s new Arts and Technology Building construction site.

The delegation wanted to tell UT Dallas officials about some of the safety problems that sparked the strike.

Instead of listening to the ironworkers, UT Dallas officials called in the campus police, who then detained the delegation and eventually escorted them off campus.

A couple of months later, a crane accident killed two workers at the project. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident. The project’s contractor and subcontractors, including D’Ambra, have denied responsibility for the accident. The owners of the crane are being sued by families of the construction workers who were killed.

San Antonio activists support tip integrity measure and Hyatt boycott

Submitted by Pancho Valdez

Between 40-50 activists came together at Travis Park United Methodist Church in San Antonio to listen to seven current and former waiters, bartender, cook and housekeepers give their testimony to a panel of academic, community activist and religious leaders. Those attending the meeting also reaffirmed their support of UNITE HERE’s boycott of Hyatt.

All seven testified that it is now a common practice for restaurants and hotels to attach a 22-23% “service charge.” This service charge has traditionally gone to workers as a gratuity, but that is no longer the case. According to those who testified, workers at the Grand Hyatt are told to lie to customers and tell them that the service charge is going to them.

At the downtown Palm Restaurant workers are told that if they don’t like the tip policy, they can work elsewhere.

The panel composed of Dr. Roger Barnes a university professor, Viola Casares program director, Fuerza Unida, Diane Duesterhoeft from First Unitarian Church, Rev. Christopher Gentile from Grace Lutheran, Senior Pastor Leslie Price of Christ Lutheran Church of Alamo Heights Judge Ron Rangel from the 175th Criminal District Court, and Rosa Rosales former national president of LULAC agreed that the practice was not only unfair, but amounted to theft on the part of the employers.

A solution to address this issue has been proposed as Mi TIA, (Tip Integrity Act) to be presented to the San Antonio City Council as an ordinance. This ordinance is supported by UNITE HERE,the hospitality workers union.

Workers along the San Antonio Riverwalk have been abused and exploited for decades. These workers have for the most part been Mexican American and women.

The meeting ended with calls to support the international boycott of Hyatt facilities, which was given support by the people gathered. UNITE HERE called the boycott to protest Hyatt’s treatment of its workers. According to UNITE HERE, “Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst employer in the hotel industry. Hyatt has abused its housekeepers and other hotel workers, replacing longtime employees with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain.”

Across the US, Low-wage workers take a stand

Car wash workers in the Bronx, New York and Walmart temporary workers in Chicago joined a growing list of low-wage workers who are standing up for their rights and respect on the job.

In the Bronx, workers at Webster Car Wash recently voted 23-5 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “The bosses will respect us better now and see us as people,” said Webster worker Francisco Lopez to the Daily News after  the results of the union vote were announced.

Webster is owned by John Lage, who owns more than 10 percent of the 200 car washes in New York City making his company the largest car wash operator in the city. Lage is currently being investigated by the New York attorney general for wage and hour violations. In 2009, he paid $3.4 million in back pay and damages to settle a federal wage and hour lawsuit.

“These brave workers fought back against their employer, like David slaying Goliath,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect.  This is a building movement.”

In Illinois, temporary workers at Walmart stores in the Chicago area filed a class action lawsuit charging Walmart and two of its temporary staffing contractors, Labor Ready and QPS, with violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suit alleges that the defendants required temporary workers at Walmart stores to report early for work, work through breaks and lunches, stay late to finish work, and attend training sessions all without getting paid for their extra work.

“I only get paid minimum wage and yet Labor Ready and Walmart still try to cheat me by not paying me for the times I actually work,” said Twanda Burk, the primary plaintiff in the suit. “I’ve proven that I’m a good worker, and they just want to take advantage of me.”

The suit also charges Walmart with failing to keep accurate pay records as required by federal and state law and for not paying temporary workers for the minimum number of hours required by state law when the workers are called to work but then sent home early.

When Walmart expanded in the Chicago area, it sought community support by promising to create thousands of jobs for residents in low-wage neighborhoods that paid at least $8.75 per hour. But Walmart has relied heavily on temporary workers paid only the minimum wage.

“By outsourcing these jobs, the company is taking advantage of Chicago residents in neighborhoods that had hoped Walmart would provide real employment opportunities, not the dead-end jobs that keep residents in a cycle of poverty,” said Elce Redmond, executive director of the South Austin Community Coalition, a Chicago low-income neighborhood organization.

The Walmart workers and the Bronx car wash workers joined other low-wage workers around the US organizing for better conditions on the job or taking class legal action to enforce existing laws that are supposed to protect workers.

At the ports of Seattle and Los Angeles, short-haul truck drivers have organized and taken collective actions for better pay and safer working conditions.

In Louisiana, workers at a seafood factory owned by a Walmart contractor walked off the job to protest slave-like conditions.

In Milwaukee, workers at Palermo’s Pizza factory went on strike to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions and have since organized a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza products.

In Houston, janitors who are members of SEIU Local 1 went on strike for a decent pay raise after the multi-national cleaning corporations for whom they work offered only a $0.10 per hour raise.

In Austin, Texas,  construction workers have organized large demonstrations at City Council meetings to demand that companies seeking city incentives and tax breaks agree to negotiate agreements that ensure that workers on the companies’ construction projects are paid a decent wage, work under safe conditions, and have training opportunities that make advancement on the job possible.

Workers at Darden restaurants such as the Olive Garden in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Washington DC have filed a class action lawsuit charging the nationwide restaurant chain with wage theft.

The idea that individual effort can lead to a better life has lost its lustre for many low-wage workers living in a high-priced economy.

At least a few of them have learned the lessons of the 1930s when collective efforts by low-wage workers in the country’s factories, mines, and transportation services over a period of time turned low-wage jobs into jobs with decent pay, benefits, and dignity.

Those of us working in moderate-pay jobs watching our living standards erode would do well to re-learn this lesson too.

Verizon workers ratify new contract

The CWA and IBEW on October 19 announced that members on the East Coast from Virginia to Maine ratified the tentative agreement that the unions reached with Verizon in September.

“The ratification vote shows that our members listened to the union’s leadership when we told them that this was the best contract we could negotiate with Verizon at this point in time,” said Bill Huber, president and business manager of IBEW Local 827 in New Jersey.  “They understood that we were facing a perfect storm of negative economic circumstances and that although this was not the best contract we had hoped to achieve, it was one that will allow us to live to continue to fight for our members and the consumers they serve.”

Neither union released any details about the ratification vote, but several CWA locals, including one of the union’s largest, Local 1101 in New York City, rejected the new contract.

Nevertheless, the contract becomes effective on October 21 and stays in effect until August 2015.

When negotiations began in June 2011, Verizon demanded a long list of concessions to bring the pay, benefits, and working conditions of its unionized Wireline workers into line with those of its non-union Wireless workers

Among other things, the company sought to freeze pensions and eliminate them for new hires, eliminate regular pay raises, reduce sick days, eliminate job security and other job protections, eliminate shift pay differentials, eliminate double-time pay, cut disability pay in half, and substantially increase employee health care costs.

The tentative agreement held the line against many of these concessions. It includes an 8 percent pay raise paid in annual increments over three years, preserves the pension benefit for current employees,  preserves the no-layoff, no forced transfer, and no downgrade language of the previous contract, preserves shift and weekend pay differentials, increases company health care funding for retirees, and restricts the company’s ability to move work outside the region.

The new contract also returns to work, 37 of the 41 workers who Verizon fired because of their strike activity; although it’s not clear whether the returning workers will receive back pay.

The new contract, however, increases out of pocket health care expenses such as premium payments, co-pays, and deductibles. Over the next three years, premiums for the PPO plan increase from $0 a month to $55 a month for individuals and $110 for families; for the HMO plan, premiums increase from $0 a month to $82.50 a month for indivuduals and $165 a month for families.

Tobacco users will pay an extra $50 a month, and those who don’t complete a health assessment risk will pay an extra $100.

For the PPO, deductibles increase over the next three years from $250 a year for individuals and $625 for families to $475 for individuals and $1187.50 for families

The maximum that a worker pays for out of pocket medical expenses also increases at about the same rate as the deductible increases.

In a letter to members urging them to  accept the tentative agreement, CWA District 1 Vice-President Chris Shelton told members that the union agreed to health care cost increases in order to win concessions from the company on other issues such as preserving pensions for current employees, job security, retiree health care, and disability benefits.

In addition to agreeing to higher health care expenses, the unions also agreed to eliminate pensions for new hires, who will now be diverted into a 401(k) savings plan instead.

Shelton said that the union didn’t want to create a two-tiered pension system, but that it would have taken a strike in order to preserve the benefit. “Ask yourself, how long would you personally be willing to stay on the street to guarantee a defined benefit pension for workers who are not yet hired,” said Shelton in his letter.”

But Local 1101 President Keith Purce urged members to reject the deal.

“We don’t believe we should settle for a concessionary contract without a fight,” Purce told members in a message posted on the local’s website.

Other Local 1101 members said that they also opposed the contract because of the concessions that the union made.

“New hires already aren’t covered by the job security protection that pre-2003 hires have,” said Pam Galpern, a Local 1101 member, to Labor Notes. “And they don’t have the same retiree health benefits as those hired before 2008, and now they won’t have a pension. (Verizon is) incrementally trying to dismantle the contract we have.”

Shelton described the negotiations as the toughest he has seen in the 44 years that he has been a CWA member.

The reason that the negotiations were so tough is that corporate power is stronger than it has been since the 1930s. At the same time, union membership at companies such as Verizon has declined. Only 7 percent of the private sector workforce is organized, and the CWA has lost half of its membership at Verizon.

Just as important is the fact that Verizon is retreating from the Wireline business and focusing more on its non-union Wireless business. The company’s CEO Lowell McAdams told investors that he envisions that the company will some day abandon much of its Wireline infrastructure, which provides jobs for most union members.

Whether the unions at Verizon will be able to stop future concessions will depend on the unions’ ability to organize workers at Verizon Wireless.

Troika wants more austerity; Greek workers honor general strike; two austerity measures ruled illegal

A committee of the European Council ruled that two Greek austerity measures aimed at curtailing labor rights are illegal. Meanwhile the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, otherwise known as the troika, demanded that the Greek government take further steps to curtail labor rights.

The troika made its demands when its representatives met with the Greek finance minister in Brussels this week to discuss the terms of $17.7 billion loan that the Greek government is seeking to prevent default on loans that are coming due in November.

Among other things, the troika is demanding that the Greek government slash the severance pay that private sector workers receive when they are dismissed from a job, eliminate automatic cost of living raises that private sector workers receive once every three years, and fire 15,000 public sector workers.

The Greek government has already reduced pensions, frozen pay for public sector workers, substantially reduced social spending on services like education, health care, and social insurance. These and other austerity measures have caused misery throughout the country, whose unemployment rate is nearly 24 percent.

While the Greek finance minister was meeting with representatives of the troika, Greek workers on October 18 staged a general strike to protest the government’s willingness to sacrifice the short- and long-term interests of Greek working people to the desires of Europe’s financial elite, which sees the Greek economic crisis as an opportunity to eliminate rights and protections that Greek workers won through hard fought struggle over many years.

“Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair and the consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, leader of GSEE to Reuters.

GSEE, a confederation of private sector unions, along with ADEDY, the confederation of public sector workers, organized  Thursday’s general strike.

The misery brought on by the austerity measures and the demands by the troika for more cuts has created a popular backlash against the government.

A recent poll shows that if an election were held today, the leftist Syriza party, the main opposition to the Greek government would win more than 30.5 percent of the vote, more than three percentage points higher than the 26.9 percent it won during elections last June.

New Democracy, the right wing party that leads the current coalition government had the support of only 27 percent of the people polled.

The fascist Golden Dawn, which opposes the austerity measures but also assaults immigrants and blames them for the economic crisis, increased its support to 14 percent among those polled.

Members of Syriza joined the general strike on Thursday. Speaking about the Greek government, Alex Tsipras, Syriza’s leader told  Reuters as he marched with general strikers in the streets of Athens, “Their time is running out. People are taking matters into their own hands.”

About 70,000 people marched through Athens, and commerce and transportation throughout Greece either ground to a halt or slowed noticeably. Flights were cancelled, public transportation was disrupted, and hospitals, schools and shops shut down.

The general strike and the possibility of more general strikes appears to be shaking the resolve of the government. Members of PASOK and Democratic Left, two minority parties that are part of the coalition government led by New Democracy, said that they wouldn’t accept the new changes to Greek labor laws sought by the troika.

“Further interventions on labor issues don’t help productivity, competitiveness or employment,” said Evangelo Venizelos, leader to PASOK on Greek television. “We must look elsewhere now and the (troika’s) insistence on this is wrong.”

While the troika seeks to curtail more labor rights, European Committee on Social Rights, a standing committee of the European Council, ruled that two austerity measures passed by the Greek government are illegal.

One of the austerity measures lengthens the probationary period when a worker can be fired without notice; the other reduces the minimum wage for workers 25 years old and younger to two-thirds of the minimum wage for those older than 25.

The Committee on Social Rights  serves only in an advisory role and has no power to enforce its decisions, but it is possible that the committee’s ruling could bolster legal action that Greek unions are taking to overturn some of anti-labor austerity measures that the government has implemented at the behest of the troika.

A statement issued by the committee about its ruling said that budgetary readjustments necessitated by the global economic crisis should not lead to an erosion of workers’ rights enshrined in the European Social Charter.

Grain handlers call for mediator to help resolve dispute with ILWU

The association representing Pacific Northwest grain elevator operators on October 15 requested that a federal mediator join its contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The union agreed to allow a mediator play a role in resolving the contract dispute.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a consortium that represents operators of six of the nine grain elevators in Oregon and Washington in a collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU, had threatened a lockout if ILWU did not agree to concessions by the time the current contract expired on September 30.

The union refused to bow to the association’s threat, and both sides agreed to keep talking after the current contract expired.

The grain handlers are seeking new work rules that will allow it to lower labor costs. The union contends that the current work rules have brought stability and enabled productivity gains that have made grain exporting a very profitable business.

“Global grain exporters are trying to put the squeeze on the longshoremen who have worked for decades to make the Pacific Northwest grain export industry the success that it is today,” said ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the committee that negotiates the Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement. “We have an 80-year contract with these companies, and the employer is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich. It’s critical that workers protect the gains we’ve made over the years.”

The Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes modeled after the agreement reached earlier this year between the ILWU and EGT, the multi-national owner of the Pacific Northwest’s newest grain elevator located in Longview, Washington.

ILWU and EGT fought a pitched battle over staffing at the elevator that began in 2011 and didn’t end until February.

EGT at one time sought to use non-union labor to staff its new grain elevator. The ILWU stood up for its members’ right to work at EGT’s new facility. The union organized mass pickets, temporarily stopped the delivery of grain to the elevator, and suffered mass arrests as members and union leadership fought to protect the union’s jurisdiction over the new work at the EGT elevators.

As the union and its supporters were poised to block the elevator’s first grain delivery by sea earlier this year, the dispute was resolved when the governor of Washington Christine Gregoire intervened.

In return for winning jurisdiction over the work at EGT, the ILWU agreed to some work rule concessions. For example, the ILWU, agreed, to allow EGT to hire longshoremen for two 12 hour shifts, instead of two eight-hour shifts and one five-hour, higher paid graveyard shift as is the practice at other grain elevators.

The EGT contract also allows the company to seek damages for work stoppages and allows the company to stop using ILWU members if the union doesn’t pay damages resulting from the work stoppages or if an arbitrator rules that three work stoppages have occurred during a five-year period.

There are other work rule changes that give EGT an advantage over the other elevator operators. Now, the Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes that mirror the EGT agreement.

The ILWU says that concessions it agreed to with EGT were temporary and that it plans during future negotiations to bring the work at EGT up to union standards at the other grain elevators in the Northwest.

“The Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement is a mature, decades-long contract that has made the Northwest one of the most productive export grain export regions in the world,” Sundet said. “The EGT contract will build in subsequent negotiations. The industry moguls are mistaken in thinking they can take advantage of a new competitor to downgrade their own successful contract.”

About one-quarter of the US’s grain exports, including half of its wheat exports, move through the Pacific Northwest ports. The grain elevators, which store the grain, are owned by large trading corporations such as United Grain Corporation, which operates an elevator at the port of Vancouver, Washington. United Grain is a private corporation owned by the Mitsui Group of Japan. Last year, it reported revenues of more than $2 billion.

TEMCO, operates elevators in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon. It is owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, Inc., both are global agribusiness corporations. According to the International Business Times, Cargill in 2011 had revenues of $119.5 billion and profits of $2.7 billion.

Columbia Grain operates an elevator at the Port of Portland. According to the company’s website, Columbia’s grain elevator is “one of the most advanced export grain facilities in the world” that has achieved high rates of efficiency and productivity. The website doesn’t mention that its elevator’s efficiency and productivity were achieved while the current work rules negotiated by the ILWU were in effect.