Northwest grain traders impose “substandard” contract; longshore workers report to work but continue resistance

In the Pacific Northwest, longshore workers and a consortium of grain traders maneuvered for position as the two sides sparred over a concessionary contract that the traders have imposed on some of their workers.

ILWU locals in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, Washington have been negotiating a new contract with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a group of international grain trading corporations that operate elevators where about one-quarter of US grain exports and half of its wheat exports are stored and shipped to Asian markets.

The companies that belong to the grain handlers’ association are Columbia Grain in Portland, owned by the Marubeni Corporation of Japan; United Grain in Vancouver owned by Mitsui of Japan; Louis Dreyfuss Commodities of the Netherlands, which operates elevators in Seattle and Portland, and TEMCO in Portland and Tacoma owned by Cargill and CHS, Inc.

The old contract expired in September, but until recently, the two sides, assisted by a federal mediator, continued to negotiate, and union members continued working under terms of the old contract.

That changed on December 18 when the grain traders announced that negotiations were at an impasse, and the association was making its last best final offer. They also implied that  if union members rejected the offer, they would be locked out.

According to the ILWU, the association’s final offer contains 750 work rule changes that affect safety and pay and give manager’s more power over workers. It also makes it more difficult for the union to take solidarity actions, which have given the ILWU and equal footing with the companies when it comes to enforcing existing contracts and negotiating new ones.

“The (association) is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich,” said Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the ILWU negotiating committee, about the final offer. Sundet noted that United Grain reported $2.16 billion in revenue in 2012.

After members voted on the association’s offer, the union announced on December 24 that 94 percent had rejected it.

On December 26, three of the grain traders, Mitsui, Marubeni, and Louis Dreyfus, announced that they would impose the terms of the new contract but would not lock out union workers.

Workers had three choices: They could strike; they could cave into the grain traders demands; or they could report to work under the terms of new contract but continue to negotiate changes to the contract. Union leaders chose the third option. Reuters reports that a Federal Mediator on December 26 said that both sides have left the door open for further negotiations.

The union has suggested that it may file an unfair labor practice charge against the grain traders because there was no legitimate impasse.

The union’s contention appears to have some merit. “In essence, their ‘last and final’ offer was not fundamentally different than that originally presented in September,” said Sundet to the Seattle Times.

Furthermore, TEMCO appears to have broken with its association partners. TEMCO did not sign the statement announcing the final best last offer on December 18 nor the statement announcing the imposition of the new contract, and the company continues to bargain with the union.

TEMCO’s decision to continue bargaining seems to undermine the other three’s assertion that an impasse had been reached.

Should the National Labor Relations Board rule that the other three companies acted in bad faith by declaring an impasse, they would have to pay the longshore workers the difference between the new and old contract. If they continue to refuse to negotiate, the union could declare an unfair labor practices strike that would give members some protections against being replaced by scabs.

Prior to imposing the new contract, the grain traders hired a Delaware-based firm that specializes in providing security personnel and replacement workers during strikes and lockouts. Even though their union workers reported for work, the companies continue to pay the strike breakers’ salaries and living expenses while they are housed in local hotels.

The companies also hired a California company to provide tug boats staffed by armed guards to stop union actions against ships that dock at the elevators. One of the tug boats was stationed near ILWU Local 8’s union hall in Portland.

In addition to Local 8, Local 23 in Tacoma, Local 19 in Seattle, and Local 4 in Vancouver are also involved in the dispute.

The three trading companies felt empowered to seek concessions after the ILWU agreed to what it describes as a “substandard” contract in February with EGT, a new entrant into the grain trading business in the Northwest.

ILWU fought a difficult campaign to get EGT to recognize the union. Hundreds of members were arrested, and EGT only agreed to recognize the ILWU when the union and Occupy supporters prepared to block a ship from unloading grain at EGT’s new elevator at the Port of Longview in Washington.

The looming confrontation caused Washington governor Christine Gregoire to intervene and pressure the two sides to agree to a settlement.

As a result, EGT agreed to recognize the ILWU and pay industry standard wages, health care and pension benefits, and the union agreed to a contract that doesn’t contain all the worker protections in its contract with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.

When talks for a new contract got underway, the grain traders’ association sought the same advantages that EGT had.

But the ILWU said that the EGT contract was meant to be a starting point from which to build toward making it an industry standard contract in future negotiations, rather than a new standard for the industry.

“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,” said Sundet. “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.”

Walmart workers rally for global solidarity

Workers in ten countries held solidarity demonstrations on Friday, December 14 calling for an end to Walmart’s attempts to silence workers who speak out for change at the retail giant.

At the beginning of each demonstration, people paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in Bangladesh. The fire killed more than 100 workers, injured scores more, and left thousands without jobs.

Tazreen made clothes for Walmart and other retailers in the US and Europe. In 2011, Walmart chose not to help Bangladesh garment manufacturers such as Tazreen upgrade safety in their garment factories because the upgrades would cost too much. The cause of the Tazreen fire is still under investigation but problems with the factory’s electrical system are thought to be the probable cause. The factory also had no fire exits.

In the US, Walmart has pressured its domestic contractors to keep their labor costs low. As a result, workers at contractor-operated Walmart warehouses labor under unsafe working conditions and for sub-standard wages. At least one of these contractors has been found to have committed wage theft and ordered to reimburse workers for lost wages.

When workers at these warehouses have spoken out about their working conditions, they have been threatened and harassed. Some have even been fired. Workers at two Walmart warehouses recently went on strike to protest these conditions.

Walmart associates have faced similar retaliation for speaking out for change. On Black Friday in a coordinated effort Walmart associates across the US walked off the job for a one-day strike against Walmart’s unfair labor practices. The Black Friday strike and other strikes that led up to it were organized by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR), a nationwide group of Walmart associates.

“We are inspired by OUR Walmart members who are standing up for a better future for all of our families,” said Louisa Plaatjies of South Africa, where a number of solidarity demonstrations took place. “We are will continue to stand up with our brothers and sisters in the United States until Walmart starts listening to the workers that keep the store running.”

In South Africa, workers rallied at Massmart stores throughout the country. Massmart, South Africa’s largest retailer, was recently acquired by Walmart. The South African Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which organized the solidarity demonstrations in that country, opposed the acquisition.

Although it was unable to stop the government from approving the purchase, SACCAWU did win a major court victory that required Massmart to rehire 503 laid off workers whose jobs were eliminated in anticipation of the purchase being approved. Walmart also agreed to recognize SACCAWU as its workers’ union.

In anticipation of Walmart’s entry into the South African retail market, SACCAWU shop stewards met last June in Johannesburg and agreed to establish a network of shop stewards to coordinate a shop floor fight to protect and improve wages, benefits, and working conditions at the stores.

Another solidarity demonstration was held in India, where Walmart is seeking to expand its presence. Members of the Hawkers Federation, a 1.2 million member union of street vendors, demonstrated in cities throughout India.

In addition to supporting Walmart workers in the US, the Indian demonstrations also condemned recent reports that Walmart executives had bribed government officials. Walmart is seeking government permission to open more stores throughout the country.

The government recently announced that a former judge has been appointed to investigate the bribery charges. Several local Walmart executives recently resigned after the bribery scandal came to light.

These bribery allegation have come on top of recent revelations that Walmart bribed government officials in Mexico and China.

During the day of solidarity demonstrations, more than 1,000 demonstrations took place worldwide. In addition to the US, South Africa, and India, demonstrations took place in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Nicaragua, the UK, and Zambia.

“The Walmart workers may come from different cultures and continents but they are united in their opposition to Walmart’s cynical and systematic squeezing of its employees to maximize profit, be it the US dollar, the South African rand, the Indian rupee, the Argentine peso or any other currency,” said Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, an international confederation of service sector unions that coordinated the solidarity demonstrations.

“We will not be silenced,” said Jesus Vargas, a Walmart associate fired for speaking out for change at his store in California. “We are coming together to be heard and to create good jobs that workers in America and across the globe need.”

Unsafe working conditions at Samsung plant caused worker’s death in South Korea

An agency of the South Korean government on Friday, December 14 announced that a Samsung factory was responsible for the breast cancer that ended the life of a 36-year old woman who worked in the factory. Korean Workers Compensation and Welfare Services (KCOMWEL) said in an announcement about its ruling that carcinogens such as radiation and organic solvents were present at Samsung’s semiconductor factory in Giheung.

The agency also said that the dead woman, who was identified only by her family name Kim because family members did not want to release her given name, worked a night shift, and the agency referenced studies that show a link between the increased incidence of breast cancer and night shift work.

Ms. Kim, who was 36 when she passed away in May, worked at the Samsung semiconductor plant in Giheung between 1995 and 2000. She was married and had two children. She was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer three years ago.

The ruling in Ms. Kim’s case was the second time that KCOMWEL has determined that unsafe conditions in a Samsung plant have caused a serious disease. In April the agency found that the conditions at the Samsung semiconductor plant in Onyang were responsible for the aplastic anemia diagnosed in another young woman worker. Nearly 30 workers have filed workers compensation claims against Samsung for conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and brain tumors, but so far, the agency has ruled in only these two cases.

SHARP, a coalition of Korean labor and progressive groups that has been fighting to improve worker safety in the semiconductor industry, said that unsafe working conditions at Samsung are responsible many other serious illnesses among workers. In 2010, SHARP reported that there were 26 known cases of leukemia and lymphoma among workers at Sumsung’s Giheung and Onyang plants. Ten of those who contracted the disease had died.

In 2011, Elizabeth Grossman writing for Yale Environment 360 reported that “as of March 2011, Korean labor and occupational health activists have counted 120 . . . cases of severe illnesses” among Samsung workers, which have resulted in 46 deaths.

Many of those who contracted the illnesses, which include various forms of cancer, went to work for Samsung when they were young and became ill like Ms. Kim when they were still quite young.

Goodman writes that workers in semiconductor plant clean rooms are exposed to high levels of carcinogenic chemicals. Clean rooms are a closed environments designed to keep dust from contaminating semiconductor chips and the equipment that manufacturers them. Clean room air is laced with vapors from toxic chemicals such as benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), and methylene chloride that are used during the manufacturing process.

“In an 8-hour shift — or the longer shifts worked in Asia — clean room workers are breathing a cauldron of chemicals,” said Joseph LaDou, former director of the International Center for Occupational Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco to Goodman.

The air is recirculated rapidly, which increases worker exposure to the chemicals.

The protective gear worn by workers, known as “bunny suits,” do little to protect workers because, according to SHARP, they are designed primarily to protect the semiconductor chips rather than workers. SHARP also said that while Samsung has installed protective devices in some clean rooms, they are sometimes turned off when production falls behind.

Radiation exposure is another problem. KCOMWEL said that when Ms. Kim was working for Samsung the plant where she worked had no radiation detectors.

SHARP says that Samsung’s no-union policy is largely responsible for the unsafe working conditions at the company’s factories. Because workers have no collective voice on the job, there is no pressure to make worker safety a priority. SHARP also notes that Samsung has gone to great lengths to keep workers from organizing a union. Union supporters have been fired, harassed, physically threatened, spied on, and even prosecuted for libel.

Until Friday’s ruling, Samsung has always maintained that working conditions at its plants are not responsible the high incidence of illnesses on the job, but after KCOMWEL ruled that Ms. Kim’s death was caused by unsafe working conditions, Samsung said that it would not appeal the ruling.

Teamsters call out organic food distributor for unfair labor practices

Members of Teamsters Local 117 in Auburn, Washington returned to the picket line after United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) announced that it would permanently replace 72 of the 163 warehouse workers and truck drivers who walked off the job on December 10 to protest the company’s unfair labor practices. Teamster members on December 13 unconditionally agreed to return to work; UNFI accepted the offer and agreed to re-open negotiations for a new contract. However, according to the Teamsters, the company rescinded its commitment.

“UNFI misrepresented its position regarding its workers’ good-faith offer to return to work,” said Tracy A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Local 117. “The company’s action to replace its employees is retaliatory, unlawful, and frankly despicable.”

Members of Teamster Local 117 have been seeking a new contract since February 2012. They want to raise wages and benefits to warehouse industry standards in their area.

UNFI is a leading wholesale distributor of organic and natural foods. Its biggest customer is Whole Foods.

More than 1,100 miles south of Auburn in Moreno Valley, California, UNFI warehouse workers seeking to join the Teamsters also charged UNFI with unfair labor practices. Union supporters said that company executives told captive audience meetings that voting for the union could result in lost jobs and that management personnel made threats to union supporters such as, “If the union comes into the warehouse, I am going to go and kill all you motherfuckers in the union.” (Translation from Spanish of a threat alleged to have been made by a warehouse manager).

Teamsters recently called attention to UNFI’s labor practice during a conference call with investors and stock analysts. “UNFI management is risking its business across the country by provoking its workers into an unfair labor practices strike,” said Steve Vairma, Teamster international vice president. “The Teamsters will be notifying customers nationwide regarding UNFI’s abuses.”

A report by the International Labor Rights Forum seems to substantiate complaints raised by the Teamsters.

ILRF found that at the Auburn warehouse, UNFI began hiring temporary warehouse workers through the temporary staffing agency Roadlink when Local 117 members indicated that they were not satisfied with the company’s new contract proposal.

UNFI pay rates at its Auburn facility are 24 percent below the prevailing warehouse wage in the Seattle area, where Auburn is located. Benefits also lag behind.

Workers reasoned that UNFI was doing well and should share its prosperity with its workers. UNFI’s after tax income for fiscal year 2012 was $91.3 million, up from $76.6 million in 2011.

When the contract expired without an agreement, the two sides agreed to extend the contract through June.

In May, the company began hiring temporary workers who did the same work as union members. As a result, union members lost overtime and other work opportunities that reduced take home pay by 30 percent to 40 percent. Some union workers saw their paychecks for a two-week period drop from $1,700 to $1,000. Union members interpreted the pay cuts as retaliation.

Talks between the two sides broke off in the fall after workers formally rejected the company’s final offer, but union members stayed on the job.

Things came to a head December 10 when workers called an unfair labor practices strike and walked off the job for three days.

UNFI touts itself as a socially responsible corporation that treats its workers with respect by providing competitive wages and benefits.

But according to Thompson, “UNFI is not the company it pretends to be. Instead of upholding its stated commitment to sustainable practices and social responsibility, UNFI is mistreating its workers and demonstrating a complete disregard of federal labor law.”

Company mistreatment is the reason that workers at UNFI’s warehouse in Moreno Valley formed an organizing committee in February 2012 and began a campaign for union recognition. According to union supporters, working conditions are unsafe, the company plays favorites assigning work and equipment, work hours are too long, and pay is too low.

After the union campaign began, said union supporters, management began making threats to union supporters including threats of physical violence. Management also, forced workers to sit through captive audience meetings where corporate executives and consultants said that forming a union could lead to jobs being transferred to another company warehouse.

Workers lost the union representation election held in May, but with the help of the Teamsters filed unfair labor practice charges against UNFI. After the election, union supporters continued to face harassment and threats. According to the ILRF report,

Several workers reported that they believed that UNFI management has discriminated against union supporters by attempting to discipline them for their work performance more aggressively than it has other workers. One worker stated, “I think that the situation is bad; if they find out you are organizing, they start to watch you very carefully; they are looking to call you out for any small reason.”

Finally, the ILRF heard allegations that UNFI had orchestrated the termination of several union supporters, justifying the dismissals on pretextual grounds related to work performance. In one instance reported by a worker, a supervisor told the worker in a conversation regarding unionization, “It would be better if you kept quiet. There are three people who have complained about what is happening here and they have all been fired.”

American Crystal Sugar seeks a larger slice at workers’ expense

Locked out workers at American Crystal Sugar earlier this month rejected the company’s offer to end the lockout. The company’s offer, which hasn’t changed since American Crystal made its original final offer in August 2011, would increase worker health care premiums thus reducing take home pay, increase out of pocket health care expenses, and reduce job security by making outsourcing easier and more common. It also takes steps toward eliminating seniority rights.

The workers’ most recent vote was the fourth time in 16 months that members of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco, and Grain Millers Union have rejected the company’s offer.

In a recent New York Times column, Paul Krugman observes that

The American economy is still, by most measures, deeply depressed. But corporate profits are at a record high. How is that possible? It’s simple: profits have surged as a share of national income, while wages and other labor compensation are down. The pie isn’t growing the way it should — but capital is doing fine by grabbing an ever-larger slice, at labor’s expense.

American Crystal joins a growing list of highly profitable firms including Caterpillar, GE, IBM, Lockheed Martin, and Verizon seeking a larger slice at their workers expense.

In fiscal year 2011, which ended on August 31, 2011, American Crystal reported net revenue of $811 million, but when it came time to negotiate a new contract with its 1,300 unionized workers, the company demanded that they accept benefit cuts and more job insecurity.

Reasoning that their labor had helped create the company’s wealth and that they deserved at least a portion of it to help maintain their benefits and job security, BCTGM members found the company’s final offer to be unreasonable. When a vote was taken in August 2011, 90 percent rejected the final offer, but agreed to keep negotiating.

The company chose to lock them out.

Three other times during the 16-month lockout, American Crystal has made the same offer, and every time a majority of workers has rejected it.

In addition to hurting the workers, the lockout has hurt local communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Iowa where American Crystal has processing facilities and packaging and transportation sites.

Last December a report by the Minnesota AFL-CIO found that the lockout was doing serious damage to local communities where American Crystal workers live. According the report published in December 2011, the loss of income resulting from the lockout cost local economies more than $18 million. Those losses have likely grown since the report was published.

American Crystal is a cooperative of sugar beet growers, and the growers have been hurt as well. Growers belonging to American Crystal will receive $58.67 per ton, $14 less than they received last year. Growers at thee other co-ops in the region are projected this year to receive $74.05 per ton, $74.05 per ton, and $87.74 per ton.

Even American Crystal’s bottom line has been hurt by the lockout. Net proceeds, which fell to $555 million in 2011, are 30 percent lower than 2011’s. Since the company began operating its processing facilities with replacement workers, tons of poor quality, unsalable product have filled the company’s warehouses.

But the company appears to believe that its long-term interest lies in paying less for the labor that makes its sugar. American Crystal CEO Dave Berg likened workers who demand their fair share of the company’s wealth as a “cancerous tumor” and told co-op members that, “We can’t let a labor contract make us sick forever and ever and ever. We have to treat the disease and that’s what (the lockout is about).”

Berg’s attitude and the company’s intransigence has led the AFL-CIO to call for a boycott of American Crystal products. It has also caused BCTGM and the AFL-CIO to suspend lobbying efforts in support of the federal sugar support program, which restricts foreign sugar imports and is vital to the profitability of the sugar industry. The sugar support program is part of a larger Farm Bill being negotiated by Congress.

So far 100,000 people across the US have signed a petition pledging support of the American Crystal boycott, but when a delegation of workers and community supporters tried to present the petition to a recent company board meeting, they were turned away.

American Crystal seems determined to continue demanding sacrifices from its workers no matter what the consequences.

Michigan poised to become 24th right to work for less state

Thousands of workers wearing red will gather Tuesday in Lansing, Michigan’s state capital, to try to head off an attempt by Republican governor Rick Snyder and a lame duck legislature to make Michigan a right to work for less state.

On December 6, Gov. Snyder, state senate majority leader Randy Richardville, and house speaker Jase Bolger, all Republicans, announced that they intended to make Michigan the 24th right to work for less state in the US. Within hours of the announcement, the state senate and house had passed appropriations bills that included so called right to work legislation.

There were no committee hearings and no chance for the public to provide formal testimony about the consequences of enacting such legislation.

The bills that came out of the house and senate still need to be reconciled, and a vote on a reconciled version of the two bills will to take place on Tuesday. Gov. Snyder said that he will sign the final version of the bill.

Labor unions and Working Michigan, a progressive coalition of community, religious, and labor groups, hope that a massive turnout of union members and supporters on Tuesday will convince the legislature and Gov. Snyder to reconsider their decision.

Under the federal Taft Hartley law, state’s have the authority to enact legislation that has commonly come to be known as a right to work law. So-called right to work laws allow employees who enjoy the benefits of union contracts and services provided by dues paying members such as grievance representation to refuse to pay union dues.

The purpose of these laws is to make it more difficult for union workers to bargain collectively and enforce contracts that have been negotiated.

According to Working Michigan, workers in so-called right to work states earn about $1,500 less a year than comparable workers in states that do not have such laws.

The right to work for less vote was the second big setback this year for Michigan workers. Unions in Michigan tried to pass an amendment to the state constitution making collective bargaining a right guaranteed by the constitution. A referendum on the amendment held on Election Day was badly defeated.

Sensing a weakness after the referendum defeat, Republican’s moved swiftly to make Michigan a right to work state before the next session of the legislature convenes.

The Michigan Legislature that passed the two bills is composed of members who will not be returning when the next session of the legislature convenes in January. Some lost re-election bids; some are retiring.

As a result, Republicans will have a narrower majority, and it will be more difficult to pass laws that make it harder for workers to bargain collectively, which has been especially high on the Republican agenda since 2010.

Union leaders thought that Republicans might try to pass some kind of anti-worker legislation during the lame duck session and tried to mobilize members in advance. But the swiftness of the lawmakers’ actions on Thursday, seems to have caught the union leaders off guard.

Over the weekend, opponents of the proposed legislation regrouped and called for Tuesday’s mobilization.

Should the proposed legislation become law, it will be very difficult for unions to repeal it. Lawmakers included right to work language in appropriation acts, which are not subject to a referendum vote.

Making repeal even more problematic is the fact that a recent poll found that 54 percent of Michigan voters support right to work legislation.

The United Auto Workers called the legislation  a “devastating blow to the middle class in Michigan” designed “to flatten wages and crush workers rights.”

Working Michigan said that

In the wake of this legislation, the only ‘freedom’ gained for Michigan workers will be the freedom to make less, the freedom to be disrespected at work, the freedom to struggle to pay their bills, and the freedom to be left out of the American dream. This bill is a blatant attempt by the richest in Michigan to silence the voices of working families in our democracy, build their own power, and make the growing gap between the rich and everyone else even bigger.

The proposed law will not affect contracts that are already in place; however, as contracts in the public and private sector expire and new contracts are negotiated, they will reflect the change.

Workers demand fair compensation for victims of garment factory fire; document shows that Walmart balked at paying for safety upgrades

About 10,000 garment workers on Monday, December 3 took to the streets to demand fair compensation for victims of the deadly fire that swept through a garment sweatshop near the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka. Solidarity demonstrations took place in Europe, Asia, and the US as protestors demanded that Walmart and other corporate retailers, whose clothes were produced at the now burnt out factory, provide relief to the surviving victims of the fire and to the families of those who died in the fire.

“Walmart must now provide full and fair compensation covering loss of future earnings as well as damages to the families of the dead as well as to the injured workers,” read a solidarity message from the International Labor Rights Forum and Workers Rights Consortium.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reports that Walmart in 2011 decided that helping Bangladesh garment factories upgrade safety at the plants that produce the retail giant’s clothes was too costly and declined to help pay for the improvements.

The fire that killed more than 100 workers had sparked nearly daily demonstrations on the streets of Ashulia, an industrial zone outside of Dhaka where the Tazreen Fashion factory stood until it burned to the ground on November 24. Tazreen is a subsidiary of Tuba Group, a Bangladesh based textile and clothing conglomerate and Walmart supplier.

The biggest demonstration took place on Monday after the government and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association announced over the weekend that they would pay families of those who died about $2,500 and those who were injured about $625.

Protestors said that the amounts offered was not enough and said that the workers who survived the fire but no longer have jobs at the factory should receive all the salary plus overtime owed them plus three months separation pay.

When the workers refused to leave the streets, police hurled flash grenades and fired canisters of tear gas to disperse the demonstration. As the demonstrators began to leave, police charged them and beat protestors, mostly women, with their riot control batons.

On the same day, candlelight vigils were held in Spain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Austria at stores owned by C&A, a European fashion retailer. “We want to pay respect to the victims (of the Bangladesh fire),” said Christa De Bruin of the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group that organized the vigils.

Activists in Hong Kong also protested at the corporate offices of Li & Fung, a Chinese company that supplies clothes to Walmart. Li & Fung contracts with Tazreen Fashion to manufacture clothes, many of which end up on Walmart shelves.

Demonstrators in Europe and Hong Kong demanded that retailers such as Walmart and C&A provide relief to the Ashulia fire victims, including funding for medical treatment for survivors, full compensation for future wages lost as a result of the fire, damages and other compensation for the families of the dead, and a welfare fund to provide relief for victims of future industrial disasters and accidents.

In addition, the protestors want Walmart and other retailers to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement “to ensure nobody has to die to produce our clothes,” DeBruin said.

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, such a safety agreement, similar to one that US clothing manufacturer PVH signed with Bangladesh unions and labor rights groups, “includes independent inspections, public reporting, mandatory repairs and renovations, a central role for workers and unions in both oversight and implementation, supplier contracts with sufficient financing and adequate pricing, and a binding contract to make these commitments enforceable.”

While labor groups are calling for Walmart to step up and take more responsibility for the way its clothes are manufactured, the retail giant is trying to absolve itself of any responsibility for the fire. The New York Times reports that documents photographed by a Bangladesh labor organizer show that before the fire clothes headed for Walmart stores were being produced at the Tazreen factory.

A Walmart spokesman said that its clothing order had been subcontracted to Tazreen by its sourcing agent without Walmart’s knowledge.

Walmart’s claim that it had no responsibility for the fire, however, became a bit suspect when Bloomberg News reported that minutes of a meeting held in Dhaka in 2011 reveal that Walmart balked at signing an enforceable memorandum to upgrade safety at Bangladesh garment factories.

According to minutes of the meeting, the memorandum would have required Walmart and other Western corporations to pay for extensive fire prevention upgrades. A Walmart representative at the meeting said that doing so “(was) not financially feasible.”

A spokesman for Walmart said that its comments at the Dhaka meeting were taken out of context, but the International Labor Rights Forum, said that Walmart’s refusal to invest in the safety of the people who make its clothes is consistent with its policy of “exerting downward price pressure” that causes its contractors and subcontractors to ignore worker safety.

Ports open again as strikers return to work

Workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach returned to work on Wednesday, December 5 after clerks belonging to OCU Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and their employers reached a tentative agreement on a new contract. Members must still ratify the new agreement.

The clerks, logistics experts who process documentation about shipping cargo, went on strike ten days ago to demand protections against outsourcing in their new contract.

Employers had resisted including these protections, and for two years, the clerks worked under the terms of an expired contract as the union and employers continued to negotiate on the issue.

Sensing that the employers were not bargaining in good faith, about 70 Local 63 members on November 26 walked off their jobs at one terminal at the Port of Los Angeles. They were joined by others, and by the end of the second day of the strike, 450 Local 63 members at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach had walked off the job.

Dockworkers belonging to ILWU Local 13 refused to cross Local 63’s picket lines, effectively shutting operations at 10 of the 14 terminals at the two ports.

The tentative agreement was reached Tuesday night after Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa demanded that the two sides convene in federal mediator assisted talks.

Details of the tentative agreement have not been released pending a vote by union members, but ILWU leaders are calling the agreement a victory.

ILWU International President Robert McEllrath called the tentative agreement a victory for the striking workers. “Four hundred fifty office clerical workers ended their one-week strike to secure good jobs for working families in the harbor community by winning new protections that will help prevent jobs from being outsourced to Texas, Taiwan, and beyond,” read an ILWU media release.

After the tentative agreement was reached, Mayor Villaraigosa told Reuters that “the employers are not going to outsource.”

Reuters also reported that Local 63 members who gathered at a waterfront community center to receive a briefing about the tentative agreement were “jubilant” and that union members were smiling and clapping each other on the back.

The strike itself was a strike about solidarity. The employers had promised Local 63 members job security if they would accept the outsourcing of work through attrition; that is, if they would allow the work of people who retired or quit to be outsourced.

The employers had already begun outsourcing some work and planned to outsource more.

Local 63 members are highly qualified logistics experts. Their average annual salary is $84,000, and they have excellent benefits.

Most Local 63 members are women from working class backgrounds, and they wanted to make sure that these good paying jobs are available to the next generation of port logistics experts. They reasoned that the only way to do so was to draw a line in the sand against future outsourcing.

They also realized that if their employers continued to outsource through attrition there would come a time when they would lose the leverage they needed to protect their jobs and its benefits in future negotiations.

The strike was an act of solidarity in another sense as well. The 450 strikers were supported by 10,000 dockworkers who refused to cross Local 63’s picket lines.

“This victory was accomplished because of support from the entire ILWU family of 10,000 members in the harbor community,” said McEllrath.

Local 63 President John Fageaux echoed McEllrath and said that the strike was about standing up for the working class rather than narrow self interest of a few. “This was community effort that will benefit working families for years to come,” Fageaux said.

Union urges investigation of Chicago contractor’s mob ties; calls mayor a “job killer”

SEIU Local 1, which represents janitors in Chicago, Houston, and other US cities, on December 3 urged the Illinois attorney general to investigate possible mob connections of a company that was recently awarded a janitorial contract at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

The union also called Mayor Rahm Emanuel a “job killer” for signing off on the lowball contract that could cost many airport janitors and other cleaning staff their jobs just before Christmas.

Last month, Mayor Emanuel approved a $99 million, five-year contract with United Maintenance for cleaning services at O’Hare. United Maintenance is owned by Richard Simon, who according to the Chicago Sun-Times  was until 2011 a business associate of William Daddano, Jr., described by the Illinois attorney general in 2004 as a reputed member of organized crime.

SEIU’s call for an investigation of Simon and his possible mob connection is the union’s latest effort in an ongoing campaign to save good-paying cleaning jobs at O’Hare Airport.

Earlier this year when the airport’s cleaning services contract came up for renewal, the city began accepting bids. The current contractor is Scrub, Inc., which has a contract with SEIU Local 1 that sets pay for janitors at between $12.05 an hour and $15.45 an hour.

The money for the cleaning contract does not come from the Chicago city budget, but rather from fees that airlines pay to use the airport, one the world’s busiest.

But instead of accepting the Scrub bid, the city selected Simon’s United Maintenance, whose bid was $11 million lower than Scrub’s.

Back in July when it became known that United Maintenance was bidding on the new O’Hare contract, SEIU Local 1 president Tom Balanoff became concerned. He knew that United Maintenance had a reputation for paying its janitors below the union standard. The low wages made the company’s lowball bids profitable.

Balanoff met with United’s general counsel and learned that if the city accepted United’s proposal, the company planned to hire its own janitorial staff, which would allow it to pay its janitors less and would cost many of the current janitors their jobs.

Shortly after learning of United’s intentions, SEIU 1 began mobilizing its members to oppose any new cleaning contract that did not protect decent-paying jobs. Balanoff in July urged the mayor and the city’s inspector general to block the awarding of the contract to United Maintenance.

For the next five months, the union mobilized demonstrations and other actions to protect the janitor jobs at O’Hare.

But early in November, Mayor Emanuel awarded the contract to United. The new contract and the likely layoffs that will result from it will go into effect just before Christmas.

After learning that 300 jobs were in jeopardy, Local 1 issued a statement saying,

More than 300 janitors at O’Hare airport may lose their jobs right before Christmas this year because Mayor Rahm Emanuel awarded a key public contract to a cleaning contractor with a history of undercutting good jobs. The company, United Maintenance, has already stated it will hire new workers and pay lower wages; what are now full-time, family-sustaining jobs could become part-time poverty jobs. This isn’t the first time in recent months that the mayor has turned his back on Chicago workers.

Mayor Emanuel has already eliminated many city jobs and outsourced others to companies that dramatically reduce wages and benefits. This includes a recent cleaning contract at police stations and other city buildings where dozens of janitors lost their jobs. Similarly, the O’Hare janitors currently have a union contract, family health care, and a living wage, but they will lose their jobs after years of service to this City and join the ranks of Chicago’s unemployed. The workers who take their place will likely be forced to rely on public assistance programs to make ends meet. Policies like this contribute to poverty in our communities and strike a blow to Chicago’s dwindling middle class.

On November 29, Local 1 members held a candle light vigil at Mayor Emanuels’s residence urging him to reconsider the United contract.

“I go home, I can’t sleep, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen, especially right around the holidays,” said Mildred Rueda, one of the O’Hare workers facing the loss of her job to Chicago CBS News. “Since I am a single mother, I’m the only one that does everything in the household for my kids. As of right now, I’m thinking how am I going to do it to buy gifts for them?”

At the vigil, Local 1 secretary treasurer Laura Rueda said that because the janitorial contract isn’t paid for out of the city budget, the lowball contract won’t save the city any money. “This is about the mayor taking care of his millionaire friends, and this is about the mayor taking away middle class jobs,” she said.

General strike in Tunisia ends after governor dismissed; economic problems remain

Union leaders in the western Tunisian town of Siliana called off a general strike on Sunday after the Tunisian government agreed to the dismissal of the region’s governor, who was accused by the strikers of ignoring the concerns of the local population where unemployment remains high and the economic misery that sparked Tunisia’s 2011 revolution continues to fester.

“The governor  is permanently gone.” said UGTT leader Ahmed Chefai to a crowd that gathered Sunday outside UGTT’s office in Siliana. “He belongs to the past, he will never set foot again in Siliana.”

The Regional Workers Union, which is affiliated with the national federation of unions UGTT, had been organizing demonstrations in Siliana since November 22 to protest the lack of economic development investment that the national government had agreed to make in the region.

The demonstrations turned into a general strike after police fired tear gas and birdshot at the demonstrators. About 200 people were injured during the demonstrations and subsequent general strike.

The town’s unemployment rate remains unsustainably high nearly two years after the uprising that began in nearby Sidi Bouzid and that led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidize Ben Ali.

“I’ve been unemployed since 2009,” said Sami Guirat, a participant at the demonstration to Tunisia Live. “I am participating in this march to push the authorities to find solutions to our social problems and to penalize those who shot and blinded protesters.”

After the revolution, the Islamist party Ennahda came to power and agreed to invest more in the development of Tunisia’s interior including Siliana, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Gafsa, which under the neoliberal economic policies of Ben Ali had become marginalized and excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the country’s elite.

In an interview with Al Jareeza back in April, economist Hassine Dimassi, a professor at Sousse University and a UGTT advisor, explained the problems that Tunisia’s interior regions are facing:

These regions can never develop by themselves. There must be support from outside, there is too much poverty. What form can this support take? It could come as private investment, whether local or foreign.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t borne fruit over the last twenty years, in spite of significant tax incentives offered to private investors in these regions. To give an idea of the extent of the problem [of uneven development], over the past twenty years, for every ten jobs created in the industrial sector, nine of them were along the eastern coast while only one was created in the rest of the country.

This is despite state incentives to businesses. When people leave the (interior), the most dynamic young people go overseas, to France, Italy et cetera. They make some money, but then their families move to the east. Any remittances are going to the richest parts of the country, not the inland regions. So migrants don’t tend to help develop these regions either.

Finally, the (government) has taken a hands-off approach to the economy. Since the 1990s, the argument has been that the government should no longer invest in productive sectors such as industry or tourism. So the state has been absent.

The conclusion that must be taken to avoid making the same errors in the future is that the state must itself take action in these regions. Otherwise we could see a repeat of the current situation in ten years.

After the revolution and after Ennahda came to power, it promised to invest in the country’s interior economy.

But so far, little of this promised investment has taken place. As a result, the people of Siliana took out their anger on Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi the Ennahda appointed governor, who did little to get the national government to keep its promise.

In announcing the resignation of Mahjoubi, UGTT also said that the national government had agreed to “clarify” its development program for the Siliana and the other interior regions, to provide funds for medical care for those wounded in the demonstrations, and to conduct speedy court reviews of people arrested last April during similar demonstrations.

UGTT said that t was canceling the general strike but the strike would resume if Mahjoubi was returned to power.