NYC School bus employees strike enters second week; Mayor Bloomberg remains MIA

New York City school bus employees and their employers on January 28 resumed talks in an attempt to settle a strike affecting 150,000 New York City students and their families. Michael Cordiello, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, the employees’ union, said that the talks were a step in the right direction but that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed to get involved in the talks.

The mayor has refused to do so and has said that the dispute is between the companies and the union.

However, both sides agree that it was a decision by the mayor that sparked the strike and without his involvement a resolution will be difficult if not impossible.

The school bus drivers and matrons, aides who help drivers of special needs children, went on strike on January 16 after Mayor Bloomberg announced in December that school bus companies will no longer be required to comply with Employee Protection Provision when they bid on contracts for school bus routes set to expire in July 2013.

The Employee Protection Provision (EPP), which governs all school bus route contracts in New York City, is a master seniority list that companies must use when hiring drivers and matrons. Without the EPP, companies will be able to hire anyone off the street with little or no experience.

“The point of the Employee Protection Provision is to create an incentive for people to stay in the (school bus transportation) industry, so that you create an experienced workforce that can safely deliver kids to school instead of a low-wage, high-turnover transient workforce,” said Richard Gilberg, Local 1181’s attorney.

Experienced drivers and matrons are especially important for the school bus routes that serve 50,000 special needs children. These workers serve a wide range of children with physical and mental disabilities, many of whom require special care while they are traveling between school and home.

The school bus routes that will come up for bid in July affect 22,500 special needs children.

The mayor contends that he hopes to rein costs by eliminating EPP.

But Gilberg said that the mayor has presented no evidence that EPP increases costs and suggests that the EPP may actually hold down expenses by reducing turnover, which lowers training costs and improves productivity.

“The union doesn’t mind if the mayor wants to put the contracts up for competitive bid,” Gilberg said. “If you can save money by cutting profits of the middlemen–the company owners–God bless. (But) don’t take it out on the backs of people who make $13, $14, $15 an hour carrying kids in wheelchairs.”

Two of those people referred to by Gilberg are Vic and Lucy DiBetetto, who work as a driver and matron respectively. They were interviewed by Denis Hamill of the New York Post.

During her 12 years as a matron, Lucy DiBetetto, who is trained in CPR, has become an adept care giver to children with autism, MS, and other disabilities who ride her bus. For this, she is paid $15 an hour.

Vic, who has driven a bus for special needs children for nine years makes $22 an hour. Together they bring home about $53,000 a year, not a lot to live on in a high-expense city like New York.

“Listen, we’re not asking for some huge raise here,” said Vic to Hamill. “We’re only asking for security for our jobs and pensions. I’m in my 50s. I wanna hold onto my $35,000-a-year job and make sure I have a pension. Does this make us the bad guys Bloomberg’s making us out to be?”

Despite the mayor’s media campaign against the 8,000 strikers, the drivers and matrons have received substantial support from other unions and parents, who appreciate the value that the workers’ experience brings to the job.

Members of TWC Local 100, CWA Local 1180, SEIU Local 32 BJ, and other unions have shown up regularly to walk picket lines with the strikers.

At a press conference called by the United Federation of Teachers, a union spokesperson said that the teachers’ union is standing with the drivers and demanded that Mayor Bloomberg come to the table and negotiate an end to the strike.

At the same press conference, Noah Gottbaum, a parent of a special needs son said that his son’s driver and matron spend two hours a day with his child and that they have proven to be professionals in the services that they provide.

“I can’t tell you how important it is that my child is taken care of by professionals,” Gottbaum said. “Those who are trained. Those who care. Those who are on the buses every day. They are not only professionals; they are committed.”

He said that it was especially bad that the mayor wants to turn these services over to the lowest bidder. “That’s wrong for employees, but it’s especially wrong for our children,” Gottbaum said.

After 15 years, Kentucky hospital workers win first contract

Members of the United Steelworkers in Jackson, Kentucky reached their first tentative agreement with Kentucky River Medical Center (KRMC). The 200 workers, including nurses, technicians, and other staff, first voted to join USW in 1998. Workers at KRMC actually voted twice for a union, but management’s stalling tactics, both legal and illegal, had previously thwarted their choice.

That the company was able to stall so long shows how current collective bargaining laws and procedures are badly stacked against workers.

“It’s outrageous that these workers had to wait 15 years for a contract because of one greedy company,” said Leo Gerard, USW president.

KRMC is owned by Community Health Systems (CHS), the nation’s largest publicly owned, for-profit health care chain, whose board chair and CEO was paid $21.5 million in 2011.

When KRMC lost the first union representation election in 1998, it never bargained seriously with the workers.

A year went by, and a KRMC employee, likely at the behest of management, filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to decertify the union.

Another elections took place, and union supporters won that one too.

In 2000 when KRMC managers continued to stall during negotiations, workers went on a six-week unfair labor practices strike.

After workers returned to work, KRMC stepped up its harassment and intimidation of union supporters, eventually firing eight of them.

All but one were returned to work with back pay after the NLRB and courts ruled that the firings were related to the workers’ union support and thus illegal.

During the 15-year period between the first vote and the current tentative agreement, KRMC was found to have committed numerous unfair labor practices, but to avoid collective bargaining ignored some of the rulings and appealed others.

USW says that a 2011 ruling by the NLRB that KRMC was in contempt for continuing to bargain in bad faith finally coaxed KRMC into reaching an agreement with the workers.

While the latest NLRB ruling may have left the company with no other options, there were other events that may also have influenced Community Health Systems (CHS), KRMC’s owner, to get this contract settled.

To enhance its market share, CHS has been rapidly expanding its acquisitions of hospitals in small- and medium-sized markets making it the largest player in the for-profit hospital business.

But union opposition has slowed down some of these acquisitions and could pose an obstacle to future deals.

For example, in 2011 CHS tried to buy two hospitals owned by Mercy Health Partners of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The deal ran into trouble when members of SEIU Healthcare PA testified that CHS had an anti-union history and troubled relationship with union workers.

They cited as examples numerous unfair labor citations at CHS hospitals in Spokane, Washington; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and KRMC.

CHS expansion strategy has also been damaged by charges that it has improperly and perhaps fraudulently billed the federal and state governments for Medicare and Medicaid services.

In 2011, the US Justice Department opened an investigation into improper Medicare billing. The investigation began after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Indiana charging a CHS hospital with improperly admitting Medicare patients for unwarranted stays in the hospital.

Similar charges were made by Tenet Healthcare, the object of a hostile CHS takeover bid, in another lawsuit. The Texas attorney general also subpoenaed billing records of the CHS hospitals in the state.

The new agreement that KRMC reached with it workers includes a an above-market pay raise and, according to USW, “strong provisions on seniority, grievances, arbitration, and contract work.”

USW District 8 director Billy Thompson praised the workers at KRMC for standing together in the face of KRMC’s protracted obstinance.

“These brave workers proved that solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood still mean something,” Thompson said.

USW’s chief negotiator for the KRMC campaign, Randy Pidcock said that the first contract is just the beginning. “It’s been 15 years, but our work is just beginning,” Pidcock said. “Now, we must move forward, continue to stand up and build on what we’ve accomplished.”

Walmart contractors cited for safety violations–again

A California state agency has cited two Walmart contractors for worker safety violations at a warehouse where the retail giant’s goods are stored and shipped. The citations, which could cost the contractors $60,000, were the result of an investigation triggered by safety complaints filed in July by warehouse workers.

The same workers who filed the safety complaints subsequently went on two unfair labor practices strikes, one in September and another in November, to protest their employers’ retaliation against workers who spoke out about safety and other work related problems at the warehouse located in Mira Loma in Southern California.

The safety investigation and subsequent citations were the work of the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The citations were levied against NFI, a nationwide logistics company that operates the Mira Loma warehouse, and Warestaff, the staffing agency that supplies the warehouse’s permatemps (workers classified as temporary workers but who stay on the job for long stretches of time).

“California OSHA has determined in its investigation that safety conditions at the Walmart-contracted warehouse are not safe or legal,” said Guadalupe Palma, a campaign director for Warehouse Workers United, a worker center helping California warehouse workers organize and fight for respect on the job. “This vindicates the workers who were punished when they raised concerns.”

According to Cal OSHA, four of the safety violations were serious.

One said that traffic paths in the warehouse were poorly marked and obstructed with boxes and pallets “which posed a clear hazard to employees (on foot) of being struck by forklifts and electric pallets.” The poorly marked and blocked traffic paths also  made access to emergency exits more difficult to locate.

A second citation said that the employer did not ensure that workers, working close to forklifts and electric pallets, had access to safety shoes exposing their feet and toes to serious crushing injuries. The citation requires the employer to provide workers with steel-toed shoes.

The third citation said that the employer did not fix broken dock plates, the area where workers walk between trailers and the warehouse while loading and unloading trailers, creating a “hazard to employees as they moved merchandise across the dock plates.”

The final serious citation said that workers weren’t properly trained in the prevention of heat illnesses even though they often worked in trailers where temperatures rose to as high as 105 degrees.

NFI was fined a total of $27,830 and Warestaff $29,140. Both said that they would appeal the fines.

A year ago, NFI and another permatemp staffing agency, Tri-State Staffing, were fined $250,000 for safety violations at another warehouse that NFI operates for Walmart in Chino, California.

After the Mira Loma workers went on strike in September, Walmart said that it would step up its safety audits of contractors like NFI and Warestaff. After an audit of the Mira Loma warehouse, a Walmart spokesman said that the safety problems at the warehouse had been addressed. In another statement made a few days later, the spokesperson said that conditions at the Mira Loma warehouse were consistent with conditions found at warehouses directly operated by Walmart.

Warehouse Workers United in a statement about the Cal OSHA citations said that “working conditions inside the Walmart-contracted warehouse do not meet the company’s own Standards for Suppliers, which detail standards for jobs in its supply chain including safety, compliance with all laws, freedom of association and decent wages.”

Global solidarity network backs longshore workers

The International Transport Federation, a global federation of unions with 4.5 million workers in the maritime, air, road, and rail transportation industry, said recently that it will actively support US longshore workers locked in a contract dispute with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association (PNGHA), the bargaining representative for four highly profitable international grain traders in the Northwest US.

The association has demanded 750 contract concession from members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals 4 (Vancouver, Washington), 8 (Portland), 19 (Seattle), and 23 (Tacoma).

Union members overwhelmingly rejected the association’s final contract offer, and three of the association members unilaterally imposed the concessions, which change work rules that ensured that longshore workers received a fair share of the wealth created by their increased productivity.

The two sides remain in a standoff. Union members, who could strike, continue to work, and the company, which could have locked out union workers after they rejected the contract, continue to load and unload grain at their terminals using ILWU members.

Two companies that belong to PNGHA, United Grain in Vancouver and Columbia Grain in Portland, are operating under the new work rules, but according to the Associated Press, a third PNGHA member, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, has closed its Portland elevator while upgrades are under construction and its Seattle elevator has been idle for months.

A fourth member of PNGHA, TEMCO, owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, has broken with the other members and continues to operate its grain elevator in Tacoma under the terms of the old contract.

When a Japanese ship, the Ramada Queen, recently docked at the United Grain elevator in Vancouver, ITF West Coast Coordinator Jeff Engles boarded the ship to learn if they knew about the dispute between the ILWU and PNGHA.

The captain, mates, and sailors, thanks to word from their union the Japanese Seaman’s Union (JSU), knew about the dispute and said that they were ready to support the ILWU members if a lockout or strike occurs.

“The crew reiterated that they stand 100 percent in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the ILWU,” Engles said.

JSU, an affiliate of ITF, describes itself as an industrial union that unites captains, sailors, and harbor ship workers.

JSU has a solidarity clause in its contracts with employers, which says that crew members cannot be forced to help load or unload cargo at a port where there is an official strike or lockout involving an ITF-affiliated dock workers’ union taking place. The JSU has formally reminded employers of the solidarity clause.

“When you sign up to the ITF you sign up to watching out for your mates,” said Paddy Crumlin, ITF president and chair of the ITF dock section. “That’s what solidarity is, and that’s what’s built into everything we do. I am heartened and not surprised to see this crew spreading that message.”

The ILWU and PNGHA remained closed mouth about the status of the standoff, but The Oregonian reports that two weeks ago representatives of the ILWU and TEMCO met at a hotel in Vancouver.

In the meantime, PNGHA has hired a strike breaking company JR Gettier and Associates, whose employees, according to ITF have been seen milling about the companies’ facilities.

The association has three non-union tug boats on standby to guide ships into the harbor should a strike or lockout occur.

Engles characterized PNGHA’s actions as union breaking strategies and said that ITF’s “global network of solidarity among workers provides a counterweight to the power of these corporations.”

“We don’t like employers who pretend to be interested in negotiation but reach for union busting strategies instead,” Crumlin added. “That behavior has been noticed, and here comes the warning: our friends in the ILWU can be sure of worldwide support against that type of behavior .”

Chicago passes new wage theft ordinance

Chicago businesses that commit wage theft may have their business licenses denied or revoked when the city’s new wage theft ordinance goes into effect. The new ordinance, passed by the City of Chicago on January 17, was the result of a campaign organized by ARISE Chicago, a faith and labor solidarity center that helps low-wage workers organize and fight for a better life.

The new ordinance, which becomes effective in June, allows the city’s Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to deny or revoke a business license when the business has been judged by a court or an administrative hearing to have violated state or federal wage laws.

In Chicago and across the US, wage theft, such as paying a worker less than the minimum wage, not paying overtime when required, and non-payment of wages,  has become a serious problem especially for low-wage workers.

““I worked for over 55 hours a week for five years at a grocery store. And I never received overtime pay,” said Liliana Baca, a member of Arise Chicago. “This is my wage theft story. But I’m not the only one who has a story. So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.”

A study by the Center for Urban Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that Baca’s story is not unique.

Researchers surveyed 4,387 low wage workers, including 1,140 in Chicago and surrounding Cook County suburbs. Of those surveyed:

  • 26 percent were paid less than the minimum wage
  • Of those paid less than the minimum wage, 60 percent were underpaid by more than $1 an hour
  • 67 percent were not paid time and one-half after working more than 40 hours a week
  • 23 percent were required to come to work before or stay after their assigned shift, and of these, 67 percent were not paid for hours worked out of shift
  • 45 percent did not receive pay documentation, so they had no way of proving whether their pay was incorrect
  • 15 percent were tipped workers who were not paid the minimum tipped worker wage

According to the study, there are an estimated 310,000 low-wage, front-line workers in low-wage industries in Cook County, about 25 percent of the workforce in Chicago and 12 percent in Cook County, and an estimated 146,300 wage theft violation a week in the Chicago area.

The study also identifies jobs in which wage theft is most common. Child care workers are the most common victims of wage theft. Other jobs where wage theft is common include, janitorial and ground maintenance work, cashiers, retail sales persons, and home health care workers..

Violations of wage laws were most common in private households and in person and repair services. Other high violation industries include retail and drug stores, grocery stores, and social assistance and educational private agencies.

The study estimates that Chicago area workers lost an annual average of $2,595 in stolen wages. Immigrants and workers of color are the most likely victims of this wage theft.

While helping low-wage workers recover stolen wages, the new ordinance also protects businesses that follow the law and pay their workers accordingly.

“I think this marks an important step in leveling the playing field for the many ethical business owners in our city,” said Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, who drafted and sponsored the ordinance.

According to David Launius, owner of We’ll Clean Car Wash, those business that pay overtime, adhere to minimum wage laws, and pay workers for all the time that they are required to be on the job, are at a competitive disadvantage over those who don’t play by the rules.

Launius supported the new ordinance and worked with ARISE Chicago to get it passed.

“This ordinance rewards businesses that are in accordance with employment law, and incentivizes wage stealing-employers to correct their ways,” said  Adam Kader ARISE Chicago’s Worker Center director. “Good jobs are the basis of strong communities. When workers receive their full paycheck, they spend more in their local communities, the government collects more taxes, and law-abiding businesses do not suffer from unfair competition.”

Austin charts new charter school territory

Before the Christmas holidays, the Austin Independent School District severed its relationship with a charter school company that had just begun implementing its curriculum in four grades at Allan Elementary, a school in a working class, predominately Latin American neighborhood in East Austin. The decision to cut ties with IDEA, which operates a chain of charter schools in Texas, came after parents, other community members, and Education Austin, the teachers’ union, organized an effective campaign against IDEA’s takeover of Allan.

Hours after that decision, the board approved a proposal to make another elementary school (Travis Heights Elementary) a charter school. The Travis Heights charter school project, also known as the Innovation School Project (ISP) was the culmination of a two-year project organized by Education Austin and Austin Interfaith, a community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. The project was funded by an American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund grant.

The major difference between the two charter projects is that the Travis Heights project involved the community from the beginning.”We made a concerted effort to make sure that everybody was involved in the process: parents, teachers, the superintendent, her upper-level team, (and) school board members, said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin. “We were constantly talking to everyone.”

In October, 90 percent of 400 households in the Travis Heights attendance zone were contacted and asked if they supported the conversion of Travis Heights into a campus-based, in-district charter school; 99 percent said yes; 97 percent of teachers and staff also said yes.

IDEA, on the other hand, ignored the community around the two schools that it proposed taking over–Allan and Eastside Memorial High School. Instead, it sought and won support of Austin’s business establishment, and then lobbied the school board and the district’s superintendent.

As a result, IDEA’s proposal, which included taking over grades K-two and grade six in 2012 and then phasing-in the complete takeover of Allan and Eastside Memorial, immediately ran into opposition from parents and teachers at the schools.

Parents objected to IDEA’s pre-packaged, ready-made curriculum that was narrow in scope (e.g., it did not include music or art classes) and emphasized rote drills aimed at improving students’ standardized test-taking skills. IDEA argued that its curriculum would make students college ready by the time they graduated from high school.

Teachers recognized how IDEA’s narrow curriculum would diminish their students’ education opportunity. They also knew that if they were able to retain their teaching positions after an IDEA take over, they would lose their classroom autonomy and their pay and benefits would be reduced.

When the school board held hearings in 2011 on IDEA’s proposal, a broad coalition of parents, community members, teachers, and students turned out to testify and demonstrate against IDEA; nevertheless, the school board approved IDEA’s plan.

The board, however, did allow students at Allan to opt out of IDEA’s charter school and attend other nearby public schools. Of the 350 students affected by the board’s decision, only 46 chose to remain at Allan.

To fill up its charter classrooms, IDEA had to advertise extensively to get students outside of the Allan and Eastside Memorial attendance zone to attend the new charter school.

In November 2012, a slate of school board candidates opposed to IDEA’s plan was elected, giving IDEA opponents a majority on the board. In December, the new majority ended the district’s relationship with IDEA.

At the same meeting, the board set out on a new course by approving the Travis Heights ISP charter.

Travis Heights and Allan have similar demographic compositions. The students at both are predominately Latin American (91 percent at Allan; 68 percent at Travis Heights) and most come from low-income working class families (91 percent at Allan and 77 percent at Travis Heights).

ISP supporters at Travis Heights call their new curriculum service learning. It teaches math, science, language arts, and social studies in the context of solving community problems. For example, a teacher may develop lesson plans around solving a community problem such as water conservation, and students will apply what they learn in class toward solving the problem.

The school will retain and expand its music, art, and physical education programs and look for ways to integrate these programs into the service learning curriculum.  Teachers, staff, and administrators will also be retained and will have the same pay and benefits they now have.

There is also a dual language component to the curriculum. The goal is to make as many students as possible proficient in two languages. Dual language instruction will be maintained at its present level and then gradually expanded.

There will also be an emphasis on teaching digital technology that students will use to help solve problems that they are studying.

“This is the right way to innovate, together, rather than being dictated to,” said Zarifis speaking about Austin’s newest charter school.

Union campaign at Nissan plant gets community support

Betty Jones, Lee Ruffin, Morris Mock, Michael Carter, and many other workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi  want to organize a union, so that they can have a voice on the job. Nissan management has mounted an aggressive campaign to keep workers from organizing a union.

Nissan’s tactics have sparked outrage not only among pro-union workers at the plant but among community leaders in Canton, located about 30 miles north of Jackson, and in the rest of the state. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFN), whose members are religious, civil rights, political, and student leaders, recently traveled to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit where they held a press conference to demand that Nissan stop its harassment of pro-union workers and allow a fair union election to take place.

 “When workers at Nissan began to organize a union, Nissan responded with implied threats that they would leave Mississippi if workers unionized,” said Reverend R. Isiac Jackson, Jr., president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi and MAFFN chair. “While we welcome the presence of foreign-owned companies like Nissan in Mississippi, we will not tolerate a company treating Mississippians as second class citizens. The Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan will carry the message in Mississippi, in Detroit and everywhere insisting that Nissan allow a fair process that allows workers to freely decide on unionization.”

Morris Mock, a technician at the Canton plant, described some of the company’s tactics.

“Since Nissan opened their plant, they have been campaigning to keep out a union,” Mock said “The company does individual anti-union talks with workers including interrogating employees about their views on the union; they have shown anti-union videos; have held anti-union groups meetings; individually warned key leaders of our effort not to be involved; created a climate of fear by implying the plant will close; and demonized the UAW as a horrible organization.”

Workers like Mock, Jones, Ruffin, and Carter would like to join the United Autoworkers (UAW) so that they can collectively address problems on their job.

For example, they are concerned that Nissan relies heavily on so-called temporary workers to do the same work as permanent Nissan workers.

Lee Ruffin works side-by-side with temporary workers who often are long-term employees but are paid less, have fewer benefits, and no job security.

Ruffin thinks that workers who do the same work should receive the same pay and benefits and have the same level of job security.

Ruffin and other Nissan workers have noticed that Nissan is filling many of its new production job openings with temporary workers, which makes the permanent workers uneasy about their own job security and their ability to protect their pay and benefit package.

Having a union at the plant would give workers a voice to address this problem.

Union supporters want a say in plant safety, working conditions, pay, and benefits, and they want input into how to improve plant processes and products.

One of the workers’ pet peeves is that Nissan pays auto workers at its Smyrna, Tennessee plant more money even though they do the same work.

Derrick Johnson, Mississippi NAACP president and member of MAFFN, said that joining a union to have a voice on the job is a civil and human right. “The NAACP and labor unions have long history of collaboration,” said Johnson. “The NAACP fully supports (the Nissan) campaign, and believes the campaign is a strong example of that partnership.”

Johnson also said that Nissan has a double standard when it comes to dealing with unions in the US. It recognizes and bargains with unions in Japan, South Korea, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Spain, and the UK.

The Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) has also joined the campaign to support the Canton Nissan workers.

“When one of richest auto companies comes to Mississippi and starts paying new production hires half of what regular workers make, and makes them temporary workers, that is unacceptable to youth,” said Tyson Jackson, an MSJA leader . “Union busting is unacceptable to us. This is like Freedom Summer because this is a civil rights fight. The right to organize a union free of fear and intimidation is a basic civil and human right.”

To make a union representation election at fair, MAFFN, MSJA, and the pro-union workers at the plant want Nissan to allow union supporters equal time during the anti-union meetings that the company holds during work hours. Nissan, so far, has refused.

“We need equal time to hear the union’s side of whether we should have a union at Nissan,” said Carter. “That has been our demand to Nissan. If you can show an anti-union movie for 15 minutes on company time then we, the union supporters, should be given 15 minutes on company  time.”

Private equity firm seeks to eliminate Iowa workers’ pensions

Pinnacle Foods, owned by the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm, wants to eliminate workers’ pensions at its food processing plant in Fort Mason, Iowa. The workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 617, recently voted to authorize a strike to protect their pensions.

Pinnacle and Local 617 began negotiating a new contract in September. The old one expired in October, and the two sides agreed to continue negotiating while the old contract remained in effect. That agreement expired January 13. So far, there have been no reports of a strike or lockout.

“From the get go, the company said it wanted to eliminate pensions,” said Darin Boatman, president of Local 617 to the Daily Gate City. “Basically, they don’t want to fund it anymore.”

Boatman also said that the company has not offered anything in exchange for eliminating pensions: “No increase in pay, no 401(k) contribution. They just basically want to take it away,” he said to KHQA Channel 7 news.

Pinnacle is a New Jersey-based corporation that owns a number of national food brands including Birds Eye, Duncan Hines, and Log Cabin. Among other products, the more than 400 workers at the Fort Mason plant make Armour beef stew, beef hash, and chili. They also make Vienna sausages and Nalley’s chili.

Pinnacle Foods, which had net sales totaling $1.7 billion in the first three-quarters of 2012, was acquired by Blackstone in 2007 for $2.1 billion. Two years later Blackstone purchased the Birds Eye brand for $1.3 billion and folded it into Pinnacle’s product line.

Since acquiring Pinnacle, Blackstone has moved to reduce labor costs by closing and consolidating Pinnacle plants. In 2011 it closed a Birds Eye plant in Fulton, New York eliminating 270 jobs, many of which paid more than $17 an hour. It also closed a plant in Tacoma, Washington eliminating what the Seattle Times describes as 160 “stable, middle-class jobs.”

One of the products made at the Tacoma plant was Nalley’s chili, a Pacific Northwest regional brand. Pinnacle moved its production to Fort Mason.

Before it did so, Pinnacle and Blackstone received generous tax incentives and tax credits to finance an expansion of the Fort Mason plant, so that the plant could begin making Nalley’s chili and other products. In order to receive this public subsidy, Pinnacle and Blackstone agreed to hire 65 new employees at the expanded plant.

One of the tax credits Blackstone and Pinnacle received is called the Targeted Job Withholding Tax Credit, which allowed Pinnacle to divert to the City of Fort Mason a portion of the state income taxes that the company withheld from its workers’ paychecks. The city then matched every dollar diverted to it, and the combination of the diverted withholdings and the city’s match was used to pay for Pinnacle’s plant expansion. Pinnacle also received a rebate on sale taxes it paid to contractors and subcontractors for the expansion project.

Despite this generous public support, Blackstone and Pinnacle want to eliminate the pensions of the workers whose taxes were diverted to finance the plant’s expansion.

Blackstone isn’t just interested in eliminating retirement security for its Fort Mason workers. Blackstone’s founder, Peter Peterson, has been instrumental in the campaign to reduce US safety net programs.

According to Source Watch, Peterson is “a Wall Street billionaire who uses his wealth to underwrite PR campaigns against Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, citing concerns over the federal deficit.”

Peterson’s latest project is called Fix the Debt, a group of corporate executives, who are lobbying Congress to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as part of their debt reduction program. Peterson and other Fix the Debt corporate executives want workers to lower their expectations about having a secure retirement.

However, workers at the Pinnacle plant in Fort Mason don’t seem to be ready to lower their expectations. A safe and secure retirement remains a priority for them.

“The company is wanting to take away our pension benefits,” said Boatman to KHQA. “That’s a very serious issue for us, because that’s what we look forward to live off of once we get older and retire.”

“I hope this (unanimous)  strike vote sends a strong message to the company and moves the negotiation process to a successful conclusion,” he added.

Short-haul drivers win big in Los Angeles

After a two-year struggle, 65 short-haul truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach successfully negotiated a union contract with their employer, the Australian based Toll Group. The contract boosts pay, provides affordable health care and a pension, and gives workers a voice on the job. It’s a breakthrough contract in an industry with little if any union density.

Drivers are the backbone of the short-haul trucking industry, but they are shamefully underpaid and have few if any benefits.

The new Toll contract offers hope to all of them. Through solidarity and collective action the Toll workers overcame obstacles that kept them in poverty and semi-servitude; other short-haul drivers can do the same.

“If we can win, I know other port truck drivers across the US can unite just like we did,” said Orlando Ayala,” one of the Toll drivers. “A voice on the job means management can no longer humiliate us or force us to suffer in poverty while they profit.”

The first contract negotiated by Teamster Local 848’s newest members is remarkable. It boosts starting pay for day shift work from $12.72 an hour to $19 an hour; pay for night shift work increases from $13.22 an hour to $19.72 an hour. There’s also a $0.50 an hour pay increase for each of the next two years of the contract.

Before the new contract, the drivers’ health care premium was $125 a month for individuals or $400 a month to cover dependents, which meant that some did not have health insurance. Under the new contract, health care premiums are $30 a month for individuals or $150 a month to cover dependents.

Before the new contract, workers could contribute to a 401(k) plan, but many couldn’t afford to do so. Under the new contract, Toll Group contributes $1 per hour per driver in 2013 and 2014 to the workers’ defined benefit pension plan, the Teamsters Western Conference Pension Trust. In 2015, the employer contribution increases to $1.50 per driver.

Before the contract, Toll Group could impose changes to work rules, and the drivers had no recourse but to accept the changes or find another job. Under the new contract, the employer must give drivers notice of any proposed changes and the opportunity to meet with the employer to discuss the changes.

Before the new the contract, drivers had no paid holidays, sick days, or paid vacations. Now they do.

Two years ago it was hard to imagine this outcome. But Toll drivers began organizing and stayed with it despite company attempts to break their spirit.

In 2011, a group of Toll workers and community supporters protested Toll’s policy that prevented drivers from using bathrooms at the Toll port offices. When two drivers tried to present a petition signed 59 Toll drivers asking that management allow them use of clean restrooms, they were ignored and humiliated.

Months later, drivers supporting the union wore Teamster t-shirts to work as an expression of solidarity. The company responded by firing 26 drivers.

The firings didn’t stop the workers from organizing. Those who kept their jobs stood in solidarity with those fired, some of whom were eventually able to return to work.

In 2012, the drivers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election.

The company responded by stepping up its anti-union campaign. It held captive audience meetings where workers were fed anti-union propaganda. Some of the most vocal union supporters were harassed and intimidated. At least one was fired, but the workers held together and in April voted to join the Teamsters.

The drivers received ample community support. Religious and community leaders from many different backgrounds participated in rallies and other support actions to demonstrate their solidarity with the Latin American immigrant drivers.

Leaders of the Australian Transport Workers Union also stood with Toll drivers at a demonstration at a Toll Group corporate meeting in Australia and denounced the corporation for its inhumane treatment of its workers in the US.

The short-haul trucking industry, which shuttles goods between the nation’s ports and nearby retail warehouses, is unregulated and non-union. Most of the companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, which makes it illegal for them to join a union.

Toll is different. It employs its drivers directly.

Even though, most short-haul companies classify their drivers as independent contractors, the Teamsters contend that the drivers in most instances are misclassified. In the last year, the federal government and the State of California have increased efforts to investigate claims of misclassification.

If they find that employers have misclassifed their workers, then many more short-haul drivers will become eligible for union membership and have a chance to repeat the success at Toll.

Texas state employees rally to defend the public good

As the new session of the Texas Legislature convened on January 8 inside the State Capitol in Austin, leading lawmakers and state officials said that Texas should refrain from restoring budget cuts that left state services in tatters two years ago. Others favor even steeper cuts.

Outside of the Capitol, members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU) gathered in a steady rain at their Defending the Public Good rally to demand that the cuts be restored and services expanded.

“Whether it’s public safety, public education, public health, health and human services or a host of other services, public services are a public good that affect the quality of life for all of us,” said Seth Hutchinson, TSEU organizing coordinator. “We should be talking about how to improve and expand them, not about maintaining them at their current inadequate level much less cutting them.”

State employees were joined at their rally by members of the Workers Defense Project, which helps low-wage, mainly immigrant workers organize for better pay and safer working conditions, Education Austin, the local teachers’ union, IBEW, the Texas AFL-CIO, and the Texas Fair Trade Coalition.

Inside the Capitol, other TSEU members gathered at the rotunda, then fanned out to give legislators a packet containing TSEU’s legislative agenda. The agenda’s priority is funding state agencies at levels that allow state employees to provide quality services. The agenda includes a fair pay raise for state and university employees and full funding for employee health care and pension benefits.

The agenda also contains proposals for improving services such as

  • Restore federal funding for the Women’s Health Program, (WHP may lose federal funding because lawmakers stopped funding Planned Parenthood clinics, the largest provider WHP services);
  • Increase funding for and stop privatization at state universities;
  • Improve caseload levels for parole officers and staffing levels at the Juvenile Justice Department;
  • Stop the privatization of state assisted living centers and state hospitals;
  • Restore funding for client services at the Department of Family and Protective Services; and
  • Stop the closure of health and human service offices especially in rural areas.

“Two years ago, Texas cut funding for state services by $15 billion,” said Derrick Osobase, TSEU political director. “It now has the resources to restore the cuts and expand services.” The comptroller estimates that total state revenue for the next two years will be $202.8 billion, 17 percent more than during the last two years. The picture isn’t quite as rosy as it appears because there are structural problems with the state’s revenue system and the Texas population is growing rapidly, but “the legislature could at least make a sizeable down payment that could go a long way toward restoring and improving services,” Osobase said.

There is also $11.8 billion in the state’s Rainy Fund, some of which could be tapped to upgrade services.

Texas spends much less on services than other states. It ranks 47th among all states in spending per resident. Texas is especially stingy when it comes to providing services to its children. For example, five out of 1,000 of its children receive abuse and neglect prevention services. The national average, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, is 44 out of 1,000.

Two years ago, Texas slashed its public education budget by $5.4 billion, eliminating thousands of teaching and other direct education services positions. Two days ago, the Texas Education Agency announced that state education funding is about $1 billion short of what is needed for school districts to meet expenses for this school year.

Children aren’t the only ones that the state scrimped on two years ago. Lawmakers cut $58 million from the budget for supporting 60,000 Medicaid-dependent elderly and disabled people in nursing homes.

In addition to restoring and expanding these and other vital services, TSEU wants to improve them. Doing so will require attracting and maintaining a qualified and experienced workforce, but turnover at state agencies is a major obstacle.

The annual turnover rate for classified state employees in 2012 was 17.3 percent, up from 16.8 percent in 2011 and 14.6 percent in 2010. In some high stress positions, the rate is higher:  For example, 35.9 percent for Juvenile Corrections Officers, 22.2 percent for nurses, and 25 percent for Child Protective Services Specialists.

One of the main reasons for high turnover is low pay. Two years ago, the Center for State & Local Government Excellence reported that Texas state employee pay on average was 17 percent lower than pay for comparable work in the private sector.

“State employees have gone four years without a pay raise, so it’s time for one,” Osobase said. “A fair raise and full funding for health care and pension benefits would go a long way toward lowering the turnover rate and improving services.”

Osobase also noted that state retirees haven’t received a pension increase since 2001 and that it’s time for the legislature to fully fund the pension plan so that pensions can be raised.

Illinois passes bill barring some state employees from being union members

The Illinois State Senate during a lame duck session passed a bill on January 3 that would bar thousands of state employees from being union members and bargaining collectively.

Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, said that he would sign the bill, which was passed by the state house in 2011, but AFSCME, the largest union of state employees, succeeded in getting the bill’s senate sponsor to file a motion to reconsider the vote. The motion temporarily delays the signing of the bill by Gov. Quinn. AFSCME and members of the Quinn administration will hold talks this week to see if a compromise that protects the rights of those who are already members can be reached.

Those affected by the bill are employees classified as merit-based compensation employees who work for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, and comptroller. They work as public information officers, attorneys, policy and planning employees, mid-level managers, and a host of other positions that provide professional services. Also excluded would be all state agency legislative liaisons.

“The senate’s action is not only an insult to the thousands of workers who have had their union rights taken away, but also should be a reminder that Gov. Quinn and his allies in the legislature have no interest in helping Illinois workers maintain a middle-class way of life,” said AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer.

About 97 percent of all Illinois state employees are union members, and there are a number of petitions seeking union membership by merit-based compensation employees pending before the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

Many merit-based employees sought to join unions in 2009 when then Gov. Rod Blagojevich froze the pay of all non-union state employees. Gov. Quinn also imposed a pay freeze on merit-based compensation employees in 2011.

The bill, SB 1566, could affect as many as 3,500 state employees who joined a union after December 2, 2008 or are seeking union recognition from the state labor board.

The governor would be able to select up to 1,900 current union members whose work is defined in the bill as being ineligible for union membership and declare them non-members. About 1,600 employees whose petitions for union representation are pending before the labor board would be ineligible for union membership.

Gov. Quinn, who AFSCME says has lobbied relentlessly for the passage of SB 1566, argues that many of those affected by the bill are managers and shouldn’t be in unions. But Bayer told the Springfield Journal Register that the union believes that anyone who wants to join a union and bargain collectively should have the right to petition the labor board and that the labor board should be the one to decide whether they can be members of a union.

Gov. Quinn says he supports SB 1566 because the bill gives him more options to deal with budget shortfalls. Illinois’ projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2013 is $1.8 billion. In 2011, the last time the governor froze merit pay raises, estimates are that the freeze saved the state about $17 million, less than 1 percent of the this year’s projected shortfall.

Bayer said that there’s another more important reason that Gov. Quinn supports SB 1566. “Our fear is the real motivation here is to take positions out of the bargaining unit and exclude positions that they could someday use as patronage,” said Bayer to the State Journal-Register.

Bayer told members that AFSCME would negotiate with the Quinn administration in hopes of reaching a compromise that would at least protect the right to union membership for those who have already joined.

But he said that a fair compromise would require a large mobilization by union members. He urged members to contact their senators and tell them to contact Sen. Harmon and senate leader John Cullerton with the message that their constituents want fair changes to SB 1566.

“This is a bad bill from our point of view,” Bayer said to the State Journal Register. “We hope we can improve on it substantially (through negotiations).”

IG Metall: Europe needs solidarity, not austerity

Early in December, IG Metall, Germany’s and the world’s largest trade union, hosted a conference in Berlin where trade unionists, academics, and politicians from 60 countries gathered to lay out alternatives to European austerity measures that have created such misery throughout the continent.

The main message of the conference was that solidarity rather than austerity should be the guiding principle for overcoming the effects of the continent’s current economic crisis and for building a new Europe.

“We want a Europe based on solidarity, whose citizens stand by one another during crises in particular,” reads a declaration by the conference. “We call for a Marshall Plan for the countries affected by the crisis. We want a world economic order that is rooted in solidarity, provides everyone with fair opportunities, and gives them equal life opportunities.”

Speaking at the conference, James Galbraith, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the austerity measures imposed on countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal are exacerbating the crisis and fueling desperation which could lead to a downward spiral of violence and chaos.

Galbraith praised a document published last October by IG Metall’s executive board as a viable alternative to austerity and the chaos that may result from it.

The document entitled “Change of Course for European Solidarity” proposes a new vision of Europe based on solidarity, joint liability, an enhanced social pact that improves wages and security and ends social divisions, more regulation of financial markets, and more worker participation in the economic and political decisions that affect their lives.

The document lays out an alternative economic course for a more unified, democratic, and prosperous Europe. It calls for a continent-wide industrial and economic policy that converts the European economy from one that is at the mercy of financial markets to one that is socially and ecologically sustainable. Among other things, such an economy would distribute wealth fairly, make industry more energy efficient, transition to renewable energy, and embrace demographic change. Workers and their trade unions would have prominent voices in shaping policies that bring about this change.

“Only the prospect of an economically strong, environmentally and socially sustainable and democratic Europe can help overcome the deep identity crisis among citizens in the process of integration,” reads the document.

According to “Change the Course,” the public sector needs to play an enhanced role in the new economy by making substantial investments in education, training, research and development, and infrastructure.

Economic policy that sets social and environmental targets must be made at the level of the European Union, which will soon include 28 nations, rather than national governments. The working class should directly participate in how these targets are set. At the company level, co-determination, the active participation by workers in setting company goals and priorities, must be strengthened and expanded.

A more sustainable economy would also limit precarious work, low-paid temporary employment that provides little if any social benefits. “A new order in the European labor market is called for,” reads “Change the Course. “This must not only protect and promote secure jobs covered by wage agreements, but also help to discourage (jobs) of the precarious nature.”

Another important piece of IG Metall’s new vision is joint liability for the debts that poorer European countries incurred as a result to the economic crisis.

The document’s joint liability proposal calls for richer European countries to guarantee poorer countries’ public debt that exceeds 60 percent of Gross National Product. Such a guarantee would reduce the cost of borrowing and relieve some of the financial pressure on these countries.

Since risky financial speculation brought on the financial crisis that led to Europe’s economic crisis, financial markets should be more tightly regulated. Commercial and investment banks should be separated and governments should insure only the deposits of commercial banks. Short-selling should be banned, speculative activity regulated, and high-frequency trades restricted. There should also be a financial transaction tax among eurozone members to discourage speculative trading.

In order to integrate Europe, make its economy more sustainable, help poorer countries exit their economic malaise, and control financial speculation, Europe needs to expand democracy and increase worker participation at all levels. “IG Metall calls on Europe to turn to its workers again,” reads “Change of Course. “Too many people think that politics at the European Union level serves only corporations and the lobbyists. As a result, many workers see a united Europe as a threat to their well being.”

To combat this idea, worker participation in European Union policy development should be expanded, and the EU should include a social progress clause in its charter. Such a clause would include language that safeguards wages and social benefits in the richer countries, establishes a continent-wide set of minimum social standards, ends discrimination against women and migrants, and ends the expansion of low-pay sectors and wage disparity. “The same pay and same rights for the same work in the same place must be firmly established,” reads the document.

The Berlin conference in December gave IG Metall a chance to present the vision in “Change the Course” to a wider audience and to hear other alternatives to austerity policies. A declaration issued by the conference sums up the problems caused by the old order and envisions a new way to structure economies based on solidarity and social justice.

“The financial crisis that has plagued the global economy for the last four years shows us that financial market-driven capitalism is a mistake,” reads the declaration. . . . “Those in work must not become the plaything at the mercy of the economy. The economy is not an end in itself. It has to serve the needs of human beings and should be based on values such as solidarity, justice, dignity and respect.”