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.

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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.