Better caseload standards, more workers needed to protect Texas’ children

Everyone agrees that protecting children from abuse is important work, but few appreciate how much work goes into doing the job right. Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 on February 19 testified before a state House committee to explain all the work that must be done to keep children safe.

The TSEU members were supporting HB 304, a bill authored by Armando Walle of Houston that would establish reasonable caseloads standards for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the agency that oversees Child Protective Services (CPS).

“It is my job to work with (children who have been removed from their home), their families and relatives, their attorney’s, the court, court appointed volunteers, the caregivers, and all medical experts who make recommendations (for the children),” said Michelle Copeland, a caseworker in a Houston CPS conservatorship unit to the lawmakers. “And let’s not forget, in-house programs and service providers. As the child’s conservatorship worker, it is my duty to see the child in the home monthly, confirm that the child’s needs are being met medically, academically, emotionally, physically, and culturally, address concerns as they arise, meet documentation deadlines, monitor the progress based on the child’s plan and the family plan of service, transport to family visits, medical visits, sibling visits, or rapport-building visits. I must also visit the parent’s home, or attend service provider facilities to participate in therapeutic recommendation suggestions.”

In addition CPS workers work under strict deadlines set by the Legislature.

“The amount of time it takes to do a good investigation varies case by case, but with every case that we are assigned, we have to do what is legislatively mandated,” said John Paul Scott, a CPS investigator and Army veteran. “That means contact within 24 hours for Priority 1 cases and 72 hours for Priority 2 cases. In addition, the agency requires documentation of all work and interviews within 24 hours. If you go out on a case that involves seven children, that means seven separate interviews with the children, interviews with the parents, and contacts with collaterals.”

TSEU members told lawmakers that caseloads are too high, which means that a caseworkers and investigators can’t give their full attention to each cases. The Caseload Standard Advisory Committee recommends that the average CPS conservatorship caseworker caseload should be 20, but the current average caseload is 32.

The same holds true for other positions. The recommended caseload for investigators is 15, but the current average is 21.9; for family based safety service caseworkers, it’s 10, but the current average is 14; and for adult protective services caseworkers, it’s 22, but the current average is 30.

“The quality of our casework goes down when caseloads go up,” said Susan Rial, an investigations supervisor in Arlington. “If given an appropriate amount of time to complete an investigation, workers should be able to make good, sound observations regarding the families on their caseload. This is not possible when you have 30 or 50 or more cases. No amount of technology or better time management can make it possible for a worker to gather and process all the relevant case information for so many cases.”

Rial said that the high caseload creates a vicious cycle. It causes a high rate of burn out, which in turn creates a high level of turnover. High turnover increase the caseload for those who stay.

CPS’s turnover rate for 2012 was 24 percent; the state average was 17.3 percent. The overall turnover rate for the Department of Family Protective Services was 19.4 percent.

HB 304 aims to make caseloads more manageable, and by doing so relieve much of the stress that leads to turnover. It sets average caseload standards for investigative caseworkers, CPS case workers, CPS conservatorship caseworkers, child-care licensing caseworkers, and adult protective services in-house caseworkers.

The Legislative Budget Board estimates that setting the new caseload standards would create more than 2,500 new jobs within the Department of Family and Protective Services.

“The only way that the risk to vulnerable children, elderly and disabled Texans will be reduced is for this Legislature to approve House Bill 304,” said Scott to the lawmakers. “I ask for you to support this bill so we can make some real progress improving the work our agency does.”

Immigrant rights are worker rights

Dolores and Miguel came to Austin from El Salvador to work as cleaners at a construction site. They were promised $100 a day in pay. On payday, their boss refused to pay them. When they took action to get the money they were owed, Miguel was deported. Dolores is afraid to pursue the case because she fears being deported too.

Dolores’ and Miguel’s story is one that appears in a new report by the Workers Defense Project and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin entitled “Build a Better Nation: A Case for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”

According to the report, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and other worker rights violations are the result of a failed US immigration policy that has left millions of workers vital to local, state, and national economies vulnerable to extreme exploitation. In addition to being unjust, it’s a situation that could have dire consequences for the entire economy.

“We are facing a crisis in Texas,” said Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project at a press conference announcing publication of the new report. “If major changes aren’t made to our immigration policy, workers’ rights will continue to erode and businesses in the state won’t be able to operate. Our whole economy could be threatened.”

“We need to have sensible immigration policy, so that businesses can hire the workforce legitimately and we can compete on a level playing field,” said Stan Marek CEO of Marek Brothers Construction.

Companies that take advantage of the undocumented status of their immigrant workers to avoid their legal responsibilities and under pay their workers have an unfair advantage over business competitors that follow the rules.

As long as US immigration policy remains focused primarily on enforcement there is little that can be done to curb these unfair labor practices.

According to “Build a Better Nation,” the problem is widespread. A survey of more than 1,000 immigrant construction workers in Texas cities found that

  • 50 percent of the workers surveyed were undocumented immigrants
  • 61 percent of the undocumented workers were earning poverty level wages
  • 25 percent experienced some form of wage theft
  • 29 percent had no workers compensation
  • 73 percent received no safety training
  • 46 percent didn’t receive breaks during work hours
  • 50 percent had to bring their own drinking water and
  • 14 percent experienced retaliation for trying to improve working conditions.

In addition, average wages for undocumented workers is more than $3 an hour less than US born workers and only 14 percent of the undocumented workers surveyed were making a living wage of more than $14 an hour.

Real immigration reform would make it easier for undocumented workers to take collective action to fight back against these abuses.

“Build a Better Nation” lays out the principles of a sensible immigration policy. Foremost, it should have provisions that ensure that families will not be split apart by deportation. “This protection will limit an unscrupulous employer’s ability to intimidate a worker exercising his or her workplace rights,” reads the report.

Employment rights of hardworking immigrant employees must also be protected. Workers should be able to demand fair and honest treatment by their employers without fear of deportation.

Businesses that treat immigrant workers fairly should be rewarded by protecting them from unscrupulous employers who gain a competitive advantage by violating the rights of immigrant workers.

Undocumented workers should have a clear path toward citizenship. A clear path to citizenship would be the best way to ensure that employers don’t use the threat of deportation to gain an unfair advantage in the labor market. It would also reward the hard work of the many undocumented workers who have become vital to health and strength of local economies all over the US.

Unions: trade agreement with Europe may help US and EU workers

Leaders of the US and European Union are considering a new trade agreement that would in many cases eliminate tariffs, lower non-tariff barriers, and make the flow of capital between the two shores of the Atlantic even easier than it is now.

Corporations, banks, and political leaders on both sides are eager to strike a deal, and negotiations on a US-EU free trade agreement, could begin as early as this summer.

Some US labor leaders, who have  opposed similar trade deals, are saying that such an agreement if done right could help both US and EU workers.

According to a statement on the AFL-CIO blog, “If negotiated with the goal of increasing employment and well-being for working families, a US-EU (free trade agreement) could positively affect that trade imbalance and create jobs in the US by increasing net exports.  Unfortunately, experience has shown that despite rosy predictions. . .  export and job growth, promised gains from NAFTA-style trade agreements generally fail to pan out.”

“An agreement done right could help sustain and expand the middle class and provide economic opportunity for hundreds of millions of people,” said Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers. But Gerard also cautioned that following the pattern set by NAFTA “would be a recipe for disaster.”

Supporters of past trade deals have promised that they would create jobs, but as Robert E. Scott of the Economic Policy Institute points out, these have turned out to be empty promises.

According to Scott, the problem with these deals is that they do little to reduce the US trade deficit–our excess of imports over exports.

Exports complement domestic production and produce more jobs; imports, on the other hand, supplant domestic production offsetting any new jobs created by more imports.

Past deals, in some cases, have exacerbated the trade deficit. According to Scott before NAFTA, the US had a small trade surplus with Mexico. By 2010, the US trade deficit with Mexico had grown to $97.2 billion, which displaced 682,000 jobs.

The Korea trade pact which went into effect in 2012 was supposed to help lift the US economy out its doldrums. President Obama said that exports resulting from the deal would result in a net increase of 70,000 jobs.

But according to Scott, “That agreement took effect on March 15, 2012, and yet U.S. exports to Korea fell last year, and the trade deficit increased, meaning that Korea trade reduced demand for domestically produced goods in 2012 and cost the US jobs.”

Union leaders think that the right trade deal with Europe could reduce the US trade deficit.

For one thing, both trading partners have similar labor markets, so there wouldn’t be as much incentive to move production overseas, which not only costs workers jobs but also increases the trade deficit.

Moreover, Europe unlike other US trading partners has higher labor standards than the US, and if the goal of the proposed trade pact is to reduce inequalities that hamper trade, one solution might be to equalize labor standards to reduce the difference in labor costs.

Business would want to lower EU labor standards to make them more like the ones in the US, but some labor leaders think that they might have enough leverage to use the new pact to improve US labor standards and thus improve wages, job security, and health and safety.

“At a minimum any (trade) agreement should expand on existing EU mechanisms that provide for information disclosure and consultation between workers and trans-national enterprises, strengthen regulations concerning workplace health and safety, adopt the strongest protections on the testing and control of toxic chemicals, and include best practice regulations concerning contingent workers among other crucial issues,” said Gerard.

But Scott cautions that there will be many obstacles to overcome before a trade deal can help European and US workers. These trade deals are ” essentially a long menu of giveaways and protections to various corporate sectors yet leave genuinely crucial issues . . . off the table,” he writes.

Despite the significant barriers that need to be overcome, Gerard and other labor leaders are guardedly hopeful that a trade pact with Europe could benefit workers.

“Negotiations with the EU do provide a real opportunity to ensure that workers on both sides of the Atlantic could finally benefit from a free trade agreement if their interests are properly addressed,” said Gerard. . . . “How an agreement addresses the rights of workers vis-a-vis their employers as well as regulations and standards for workers at their workplace must be of paramount importance as this negotiation goes forward.”

Mexico Week of Action February 18-24

Unions and social justice groups from around the world on February 18 began a week of action to protest Mexico’s worsening labor conditions. The actions, which include demonstrations and other activities at Mexican consulates, are being organized by the Tri-National Solidarity Alliance, a coalition of unions and worker centers in Mexico, Canada, and the US and is being supported by IndustriALL Global, an international federation of unions in the manufacturing sector, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union federation that represents 175 million workers.

The actions will protest Mexico’s new labor law, which makes work less secure by promoting precarious work, weakens collective bargaining, and makes it harder to form and sustain unions that are democratic and independent of employers.

They will also support a number of ongoing struggles for workers rights in Mexico including the fight for justice for the families of 65 miners killed in 2006 in an explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine and the rehiring of unjustly fired workers such as workers at  PKC, a Finnish auto parts company with operation in the border city of Ciudad Acuna, the manufacturer of Bata shoes (Calzado Sandak) in the eastern Mexico town of Tlaxcala, and the Mexican Power and Light company.

Supporters of the week of action will also be demanding freedom for workers jailed for fighting for worker rights

Demonstrations in the US and Canada will take place in Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, New Orleans, New York, Ottawa, Portland, Raleigh, Seattle, Tuscon, Vancouver, and Washington, DC.

The Austin demonstration will take place at 10 A.M. on Friday, February 22 at the Mexican consulate located at 610 Baylor Street near Lamar and West 6th Street. “All are welcome to come and thanks for the solidarity,” wrote Miguel Rodriguez of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, the local organization organizing the action in an email response to a query about the action.

The new Mexican labor law is the final product of former President Felipe Calderon’s project to make Mexico the Western Hemisphere’s leader in race-to-the-bottom labor policies. The new law ensures that wages will be kept low so that return on investments will be high.

It makes it easier to subcontract work and to use temporary workers, who have no job security and few if any benefits; makes it more difficult to achieve a collective contract through collective bargaining; limits the right to strike; and makes it easier for employers to avoid paying decent wages, taxes, and benefits.

In addition, the new law does nothing to stop the widespread use of protection contracts, agreements between companies and company-backed unions, that keep worker wages and benefits low and stifle the organization of independent, democratic, and worker-centered unions. About 90 percent of collective contracts now in force in Mexico are protection contracts.

Supporters of the Mexico Week of Action will deliver a letter addressed to newly inaugurated President Enrique Peña Nieto to Mexican consulates. The letter, among other things, urges the new government not “to interfere in the legal challenges to the regressive changes of the Federal Labor Law filed by hundreds of thousands of workers in January 2013.”

The letter also urges the president to take action to address the unjust firings and jailings of labor activists, such as members of Los Mineros, an independent union that has been leading to struggle for justice for the deceased miners at Pasta de Conchos and SME, the electrical workers union that fought the unjust firings of thousands of workers at the Mexican Power and Light company.

There are other actions planned as well. Labor Start has initiated a campaign to rehire 100 union activists at the PKC factory in Ciudad Acuna fired for trying to join Los Mineros, a militant and independent union. Thousands of workers around the world have signed a letter demanding that the PKC rehire the workers.

On February 19, a delegation from IndustriALL Global and ITUC met with senior labor ministry officials at the Mexican Mission to the United Nations in Geneva to express their concerns about the conditions of labor in Mexico.

According to a statement on the meetings released by IndustriALL Global, “The tone and content of the positions taken by the Mexican government representatives were significantly more positive than those of a similar meeting a year ago. Commitments were made by the Mexican representatives for action on a number of key issues including safety and health in mines, labor legislation, transparency and accountability.

The statement said that IndustriALL Global and the ITUC would follow up on the commitments made by the Mexican representatives.

NYC school bus strike ends without agreement on Employee Protection Provisions

Members of ATU Local 1181 voted to end their month-long strike against more than 20 New York City school bus companies. The 8,000 drivers, aides, and mechanics will return to work on February 20. The strike ends without workers achieving their primary goal: retaining the Employee Protection Provision that Mayor Michael Bloomberg said would not be included in school bus service contracts that come up for renewal this summer.

“Though our strike has been suspended, the principles that we fight for remain pressing issues that the city will have to address,” said ATU Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello in a statement about the end of the strike. “The fact is, a safe workforce is an experienced workforce, and the Employee Protection Provisions currently included in the City’s busing contracts protect our most experienced drivers, matrons, and mechanics – and have created one of the safest workforces in the entire country.”

For more than 30 years, the Employee Protection Provision (EPP), a master seniority list of school bus employees that New York City school bus companies must use to fill job vacancies, has ensured that the companies employ a stable, experienced, and well-qualified workforce to get students, especially special needs students, to school safely and on time.

“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 when the strike began on January 16.

The strike, which the National Labor Relations Board earlier this month ruled to be legal, began after Mayor Bloomberg announced that school bus companies would no longer have to include EPP’s in proposals for bus routes that they are seeking to operate. The mayor said that eliminating EPPs would reduce costs for the companies and save the city money. The city provides school bus services to 150,000 public and private school students in New York City.

While the strike was against the private school bus companies, the union has said all along that the strike could not be settled unless the mayor got involved in the negotiations and worked with both sides to resolve the EPP issue.

The union tried three times to get the mayor involved in negotiations but was repeatedly rebuffed.

Union members voted to return to work after receiving a letter signed jointly by five Democratic candidates for mayor: former City Councilman Sal Albanese, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller John Liu, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and former City Comptroller William Thompson.

“We continue to stand with you in your battle for job security and decent wages,” reads the letter. “At this time, however, with an intransigent administration. . . we call upon you and your members to return to their jobs and continue the battle in other ways. We know this is not an easy decision. But we pledge, if elected, to revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts.”

“It gives us great confidence that the next mayor of this city will be far more sympathetic to the working conditions of the drivers, matrons and mechanics that make up Local 1181,” said Cordiello in a statement about the letter.

Some union members were leery about returning to work without resolving the EPP issue but at the same time resigned to the fact that they lacked the leverage needed to force Mayor Bloomberg to talk. There was also some hope that workers might get better results from a new administration.

“I wouldn’t feel good about it,” said bus driver Maria Gentile to NY1 as union members were preparing to vote on whether to return to work. “I think that eventually, if we do go back on the job, and they’re not put in place, I think that we have, we’re moving forward in a direction to put us where we need to be. Because people now know what 1181 is all about. They know that we’re all about security and safety.”

Report: 401(k)s fail to provide retirement security

A report from the Center for Retirement Security Research at Boston College finds that the median 401(k)/IRA balance for households approaching retirement is $120,000, well below what is needed when combined with Social Security benefits to ensure a secure retirement for workers who no longer have traditional pension plans.

The situation for younger workers is more dire. Their 401(k)/IRA median balance is between $5,000 and $9,000 lower than it was in 2007.

Since only 19 percent of American workers are enrolled in a traditional, or defined benefits, pension plan, the 401(k)/IRA savings plans are the only supplement to the Social Security  that most workers will receive when they retire, making retirement look bleaker for most Americans.

“Almost daily, we hear stories of the crisis stemming from the breakdown of the three-legged stool of retirement: traditional pensions, Social Security, and individual savings,” writes Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000 in California. “For the majority of Americans, one of the legs of the stool is already gone — traditional pensions. With its replacement, the 401(k), the stool is in danger of tipping retirees into poverty.”

“The 401(k) experiment has been a disaster, a disaster which threatens to doom millions to economic misery during the later years of their lives,” writes Duncan Black, who blogs under the name Atrios at Eschaton, in an op ed piece for USA Today.

According to the Boston College report, some of the key assumptions that played an important role in rationalizing the switch from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans have proven to be incorrect. For example, it was assumed that workers would enroll in 401(k) plans if traditional pensions were not available and that most would contribute the maximum 6 percent of annual salary to the plan with employers contributing another 3 percent.

If these assumptions had held true, 401(k) participants whose average salary at retirement is $65,000 could expect to have a 401(k)/IRA balance of $363,000 as retirement approaches.

But the Boston College report finds that non-participation rates for young and low-income workers is high. Of workers aged 20-29 whose income is $20,000 a year or less, 80 percent are not enrolled in a 401(k) plan. For the same age cohort who make between $20,000 and $60,000 a year, 40 percent are not enrolled in a 401(k) plan, and for those making more than $60,000 a year, 31 percent are not enrolled.

Another assumption was that stock prices and 401(k) balances would steadily increase with only minor downturns that were quickly corrected.

But the crash of 2008 and the resulting economic malaise shattered this assumption. According to Walker, 401(k)s lost 47 percent of their value between 2007 and 2008, or a total of $2.8 trillion.

Even as the economy slowly returned to life, the median 401(k) balance has remained stagnant or in many cases, is much less than it was before the crash in 2007.

In 2007, the median balance for those about to retire was $118,000; by 2010, it had only increased to $120,000.

The median balance for younger cohorts has gotten worse. For workers aged 45-54, the median balance dropped from $75,000 in 2007 to $70,000 in 2010; for those age 35-44 it dropped from $44,000 to $35,000.

The high unemployment rate and general economic weakness that followed the great crash also caused many 401(k) participants to cash out their plans or make hardship withdrawals to tide them over until they find a job or they get through whatever other economic hardship they are facing.

Cashing out and making hardship withdrawals makes it much harder to accumulate the individual wealth needed to make a 401(k) retirement secure.

Unless something is done to address the failure of 401(k) plans, rates of the elderly living in poverty will increase significantly putting an even greater burden on a social safety net that is already threadbare.

Black advocates an immediate increase to Social Security benefits. “We need an across the board increase in Social Security retirement benefits of 20% or more,” he writes.

Senator Tom Harkin has proposed a different approach. He has filed legislation that would allow private sector workers to enroll in a pension fund supported by the US government. Harkin calls the proposed pension fund Universal, Secure, and Adaptable (USA) Retirement Funds.

Harkin explains how they would work:

Employers participating in a USA Retirement Fund would automatically enroll their employees.  In other words, all employees would participate unless they specifically opted out.  Employer and employee contributions would go into the fund and would be managed by a board of trustees.  When a participant retires, the fund would provide the retiree with a monthly benefit – like an annuity – for as long as he or she lives.

“Hardworking Americans want to enjoy their golden years with dignity and financial independence,” said Harkin.  “But that is getting less and less likely for the average person. We can do better.  We must do better.”

More walkouts at Walmart

Workers at Walmart stores in Dallas and Laurel, Maryland on February 7 walked off the job, and workers in Laurel filed unfair labor practice charges against the company. The walkout and filing of charges was sparked by misstatements made by Walmart managers who told employees that collective actions such as last year’s Black Friday events at Walmart stores are illegal and that OUR Walmart, the organization of Walmart associates that helped organize the events, no longer exists.

“Walmart is at it again – using intimidation tactics to keep Walmart workers from coming together to speak out for change,” said Colby Harris, an OUR member and Dallas Walmart employee, in a message to supporters. “Only this time it’s worse than usual. Now Walmart is telling workers that the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) no longer exists and that if they talk about it or come together to speak out, they will be fired or disciplined. These lies are an attempt to scare workers and keep them from speaking out.”

OUR members report that managers at stores in Maryland, Texas, Kentucky, Florida and Illinois all made similar statements about the illegality of the Black Friday actions and the demise of OUR, a national organization of Walmart associates with more than 1,000 members.

The managers’ misstatements were made after receiving a memo from Walmart US CEO William Simon. The memo describes, apparently not very accurately, an agreement between the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which like dozens of other labor organizations has been supporting OUR’s efforts to improve working conditions,  and the National Labor Relations Board.

The agreement resolves a November 20 unfair labor practice charge filed by Walmart against UFCW. Walmart charged UFCW with violating the National Labor Relations Act by organizing picket lines at Walmart stores for more than 30 days with the intent of seeking recognition as the bargaining representative for Walmart workers.

According to the NLRB, the union agreed not to picket or engage in confrontational actions at Walmart stores for 60 days and to publish a letter clarifying its position with regard to organizing Walmart workers.

The letter, which UFCW posted on its website and those of OUR and Making Change at Walmart, a community support organization for Walmart workers, states that UFCW is not seeking to represent Walmart workers and that it will not picket Walmart stores for 60 days.

The letter also says that even though OUR and UFCW are not seeking to represent workers both “have the purpose of helping Walmart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Walmart over labor rights and standards and their effort to have Walmart publically (sic) commit to adhering to labor rights and standards.”

In other words, even though UFCW and OUR are not trying to organize a union in the traditional sense, they are both committed to helping Walmart employees improve working conditions through collective action.

Both members of OUR and non-members have complained about Walmart’s lack of transparency and fairness in scheduling work, its manipulation of work hours, which prevents many workers from being eligible for benefits, its discrimination against women and people of color, and its lack of concern about addressing problems raised by workers.

OUR with the help of UFCW, other labor unions, and community supporters last year stepped up its efforts to bring these problems to the attention of management.

Last October more than 200 associates at 12 stores across the US walked off the job to protest management’s intimidation and retaliation against associates who speak up for better working conditions.

The Black Friday events on the day after Thanksgiving were a continuation of OUR’s efforts to get the attention of Walmart’s managers and executives. Public events such as picket lines and leafletting were held at 1,000 US Walmart stores.

Walmart said that the Black Friday events had no impact, but somebody at corporate headquarters must have been listening because in January Simon announced at the annual convention of the National Retailers Federation that the retail giant would make scheduling more transparent and fair and that the store would provide more opportunities for workers who want full-time work to receive the hours they need.

But while offering employees an olive branch with one hand, Walmart hasn’t forgotten how to wield the sword of intimidation with the other, which most recently took the form of the misstatements about and threats against taking collective action to improve working conditions.

“Not only are such statements to employees illegal and incorrect but they are threatening and intimidating and no one should have to endure that,” said Harris. “I along with other Walmart associates work hard to support our families and support our community, as a worker I should have the right to do my job free from intimidation and threats.”

Teamsters ratify agreement with organic food distributor ending nine-week strike

Members of Teamsters Local 117 on January 7 ratified a new five-year agreement with United Natural Foods Incorporated. The ratification vote ends a nine-week strike at a company distribution center in Auburn, Washington.

As a result of the agreement,  72 Local 117 members fired by UNFI in December will get their jobs back. The firings caused the workers to extend what had been a three-day unfair labor practices strike. The new agreement also protects workers’ health care and pension benefits and provides for wage increases.

Local 117 members and leaders called the new agreement a victory, which they attributed to worker solidarity and strong community support.

“Workers at UNFI stood together courageously in difficult conditions to fight for dignity and respect,” said Tracey Thompson, Local 117 secretary-treasurer. “With the help of our community partners and a strong bargaining committee, workers were able to achieve a fair and just contract.”

Despite reporting double-digit profits, UNFI, the nation’s leading distributor of natural, organic, and specialty foods and supplements, sought a new contract that reduced workers’ health care and pension benefits. The company also took provocative actions during negotiations suggesting that the company may have been trying to bust the union.

Before contract negotiations got underway, the company began hiring extra temporary workers and assigning them work performed by permanent union workers, an action that most workers saw as an attempt to recruit a replacement workforce before a strike had even begun.

While the two sides were negotiating, the union filed 45 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the company with acts of illegal surveillance, intimidation, and retaliation.

On December 10, workers walked off the job to protest UNFI’s unfair labor practices. Three days later, union members agreed to return to work unconditionally.

Union leaders said that the company agreed to allow all 160 strikers to return to work, but before the beginning of the first work shift after the agreement was announced, UNFI management fired 72 of the strikers.

Angered by the perceived betrayal, workers returned to the picket lines and expanded their contract demands to include the rehiring of the fired workers.

After the new year began, the two sides brought in a federal mediator to help resolve the issues. The mediator encouraged UNFI to make a reasonable proposal that could end the strike.

UNFI on January 11 made its proposal, which did not include the rehiring of the fired workers and contained language that eliminated health care protections and undermined retirement security. In fact, the January 11 proposal was similar in many ways to the proposal the company made and the workers overwhelmingly rejected in September.

When the union negotiating committee put the January 11 proposal up for a vote, members rejected it by a vote of 104-26.

One of the things that lifted workers spirits and helped them maintain their strike was the support they received from other union members and the community, especially members of co-op food stores in the Northwest Pacific area.

Shortly after the strike began, Olympia Food Co-op announced that it would stop receiving shipments from UNFI. After a week of refusing shipments, the co-op announced that it would resume placing orders with UNFI because it had not been able to find another distributor to replace UNFI, which provided about 60 percent of the co-ops packaged groceries.

Olympia, however, continued to support the strikers in other ways such as organizing customers to participate in a postcard campaign, posting handbills in the store about the strike, raising money for the workers’ hardship fund, and other actions.

Others community supporters came to the aid of the strikers. At a January 19 community outreach meeting, about 200 members of other unions, members of the faith community, and food co-op members turned out to hear UNFI workers tell their stories.

At the meeting, members of Central Food Co-op announced that its store employees would contribute $3,400 to the UNFI workers’ hardship fund, and other community supporters volunteered to leaflet Whole Foods, UNFI’s biggest customer.

The leaflet urged Whole Foods shoppers not to buy groceries delivered by UNFI.

Union leaders recognized the key role that community supporters played in helping UNFI workers win a fair contract.

“We are deeply grateful to all the individual unions, co-ops, small grocers, and community organizations that took actions in solidarity with striking workers and those who donated to the hardship fund set up to provide workers with financial relief,” said Thompson. “Your generosity made a tremendous difference in the lives of the 160 workers and families who have been impacted by the strike.”

Brooklyn Cablevision workers rally to protest illegal firings

CWA Local 1109 in Brooklyn called for a mass rally on February 6 at Cablevision’s Brooklyn’s headquarters to demand the reinstatement 22 Cablevision workers, fired for exercising their rights under the company’s open door policy.

The Cablevision 22 along with about 30 of their fellow Cablevision technicians on January 30 asked to meet with Brooklyn Cablevision management to air their grievances about the company’s lack of a good faith effort to reach a first collective bargaining agreement with the workers, who voted to join CWA last year.

The workers believe that the company is purposely stalling rather than negotiating in good faith to demoralize workers in hopes that workers will vote to decertify CWA as their bargaining representative.

Rather that listen to the workers’ grievances, management declared the meeting request to be a strike and fired on the spot 22 activists, who led and are leading the union organizing and first contract campaigns.

“Cablevision has illegally failed to negotiate in good faith with its Brooklyn workers, illegally intimidated workers in other boroughs, and today brazenly violated federal law by firing workers for protected activity,” said CWA District 1 Vice-President Chris Shelton after the firings were announced.  “By singling out 22 leaders who were ready to work by terminating them, Cablevision is trying to take New York City back to the bad days when workers were openly exploited and mistreated by abusive corporations.”

The day after the strike, the fired workers and about 300 supporters including some elected officials gathered at Cabletown’s Brooklyn headquarters demanding another meeting with management, which once again refused their request.

The crowd chanted, “Let us in, let us in. . . ,” but Cablevision security personnel wouldn’t let the workers or their supporters inside.

“What happened yesterday was an affront to democracy in every way,” said Bill de Blasio, New York City public advocate and candidate for mayor, to the crowd. “It was disgusting, it was uncalled for, and it was unneccessary. There was no provocation.”

“(Cablevision) cannot violate the law; (Cablevision) cannot violate the franchise agreement; and (Cablevision) cannot misrepresent the truth and that is what happened yesterday,” said Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council and also a candidate for mayor.

Marlin, one of the Cablevision 22 said that it’s not unusual for workers to speak to management about grievances. “We’ve done it in the past plenty of times,” he said.

“We just wanted a five-minute meeting,” said Andre, another fired worker.

“We never said we wouldn’t go to work,” said Borris. “Some of us like myself saw the meeting wasn’t going anywhere, so we actually went to work.”

Borris was out on the job when a supervisor came out to meet him and took him to Cablevision headquarters where he was told that he was being “permanently replaced.”

“What they did was illegal,” said Borris.

“Cablevision doesn’t have any respect for its workers, has no respect for even the law,” said Eric, one of the fired workers.

CWA immediately filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board and expects a ruling soon.

In a statement released shortly after the firings, the CWA said that, “This wasn’t Cablevision/Optimum’s first violation of federal law. The company recently settled NLRB charges that it violated the Brooklyn workers’ rights, and CWA expects a board complaint to be issued on other acts of intimidation and harassment.”

In order to build community support for a first contract, CWA conducted a Cablevision subscriber survey and found that only 37 percent rated the company’s service favorably, while 25 percent rated it either “poor” or “terrible.” Among the 700 residents of Brooklyn who responded to the survey, 90 percent said that Cablevision’s rates were too high.

The report resulting from the survey, “Leaving Brooklyn Behind,” says that poor Cablevision service in Brooklyn is directly related to the workers’ effort to organize a union and bargain collectively.

The fired Cablevision workers are asking supporters to call Cablevision and demand that the company rehire the fired workers and to sign a petition demanding their rehiring.

As Hostess prepares to sell brands, workers set the record straight on company’s demise

Hostess, which filed for bankruptcy last year and began liquidating its assets in November, announced that it has accepted the latest stalking-horse bid worth $410 million for the purchase of its snack cake brands, bringing the total amount of stalking-horse bids for its bakery brands up to $858 million. The bids establish a floor where bidding will begin at a February 28 auction when the bankrupt company’s brands and assets will be put up for sale.

C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo Global Management joined together to submit the snack cake bid. The bid is a proposed price for brands such as Twinkies and Dolly Madison and five bakeries where the products were made.

C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. has bought other famous but troubled brands including Pabst Brewing Co. and successfully turned them around.

“We share these bidders’ goal of quickly restoring Twinkies®, CupCakes®, Ding Dongs® and Ho Hos®, among others, to shelves across America, and view new, serious ownership as a necessity for building a sustainable model for these brands moving forward,” said David Durkee, president of BCTGM, a union representing 5,000 Hostess bakery workers. “The BCTGM looks forward to the opportunity to work together productively and is now engaging with bidders who recognize the value that we can bring to an ongoing business.”

Previously, Hostess had accepted a $360 million bid from Flowers Food, Inc. for Wonder Bread, Butternut, and other bread brands and 20 bakeries where they were made. Two other companies made successful stalking-horse bids on other lesser known Hostess brands.

The $858 million stalking-horse bids are almost twice as high as a 2011 estimate of the company’s worth.

Hostess went out of business in November after BCTGM members went on strike.

Before the strike, members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s take-or-leave-it final contract offer that cut wages by 27 percent over five years, increased worker health care expenses, reduced health care benefits, and did not restore pension contributions.

The media has dutifully reported that the strike caused Hostess to go out of business and lay off 18,000 workers, but Mike Hummel, a member of BCTGM Local 218 and a 14-year Hostess employee, tells a different story in a video entitled, “Inside the Hostess Bankery: Who Keeps the Dough.”

According to Hummel, the three private equity firms that own Hostess purposely provoked the strike by making a lowball final last best offer, which they knew BCTGM members could not accept. They then used the strike as an excuse to liquidate the company and sell off its assets.

The sale, says Hummel, will turn a nice profit for the private equity firms.

Ripplewood Holdings, Silver Point Capital, and Monarch Alternative Capital bought Hostess in 2009 after the company filed for bankruptcy for the first time. As part of the deal, the new owners asked Hostess union workers to make contract concessions estimated to be worth $110 million.

The new owners said that they would use money saved by the concessions to modernize the bakeries and make Hostess products competitive.

Among other concessions, workers agreed to allow the owners to deduct $10 a week per worker from worker paychecks. The deductions would be used to fund infrastructure improvements at the bakeries.

But according to the workers interviewed by Hummel, those investments never took place.

The CEO gave himself and other executive raises and bonuses, then blamed the workers for the bankruptcy, said Kenneth, a Local 218 member. “I feel if they were going to do something like that, they should put it on the fact that they didn’t spend money on equipment that we were working with because a lot of equipment was breaking down and needing repairs,” he said. “The money they stuck in their pockets should have been money that they should have invested in the company.”

Other workers interviewed by Hummel tell a similar story. Workers constantly had to make do with broken and antiquated equipment and few if any of the promised modernizations ever got off the ground.

In addition to not keeping their promise to invest in the company, the new owners decided to keep workers’ money that was supposed to be used to fund pensions.

Under terms of the old contract, BCTGM members’ compensation package includes $4.25 per hour per worker that went to the workers’ pension fund, which pays for a pension, retiree insurance, and a death benefit. But in August 2011, Hostess stopped sending that $4.25 an hour to the pension plan and instead kept it. Some of that money was used to pay executive bonuses and raises.

“They stole $50 million from our pension,” Hummel said.

The company owners have never returned this money, and the bankruptcy court has ruled that they don’t have to.

According to Hummel, the theft of their pension and the new owners’ broken promise to invest in the company made BCTGM members wary of making more sacrifices, and that’s what led to the company’s demise.

Mississippi auto workers: worker rights are civil rights

Hundreds of auto workers and their supporters gathered this week at an auditorium at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi to demonstrate their support for a fair union election at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi. Speakers at the meeting said that union membership is a civil right and that Nissan management has intimidated union supporters and unlawfully interfered with their right to form a union and bargain collectively.

Before the meeting began, union supporters spoke to Ed Schultz of MSNBC’s The Ed Show to explain the issues at stake. Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, told Schultz that worker rights have always been a civil rights issue.

“The struggle we had to abolish slavery was about workers’ rights,” Johnson said. “The struggle in the 60s was about the right of workers being able to organize. Dr. King was assassinated as he was organizing workers in Memphis who wanted the right to have a voice as sanitation workers. So we see worker rights on the same playing field as voting rights, civil rights; it is about human dignity.”

Betty Jones, a Nissan autoworker and union supporter, told Schultz that union supporters at the plant aren’t anti-Nissan as David Reuter, vice-president of corporate communications for Nissan, told Schultz earlier; we just want to have a voice in company decisions that affect our lives. “We’re not here to bash Nissan,” Jones said. “We have ideas to make a better product (and we want to be heard.)”

Jones, an activist in the United Autoworkers organizing committee at the Canton plant, said that workers would also like to have a voice in addressing on-the-job health and safety issues.

Johnson said that scheduling problems make life difficult for workers on and off the job. “Workers at Nissan should be able to know when they come to work on Monday morning that they should be able to predict whether they’re going to be able to work three hours that day or 12 hours; whether they’re going to work a seven-day week or a five-day week,” Johnson said. “How can workers be expected to raise a family and have a quality of life if a company like Nissan doesn’t respect them as human beings.”

Speaking at the Tougaloo meeting, Reverend Dr. Isiac Jackson, Jr., chair of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN),  said that Nissan has come to rely too heavily on permatemps, long-term temporary workers hired through an employment agency.

Permatemps work side-by-side with full-time Nissan workers but are paid less and have few if any benefits. Many of these permatemps have worked at the plant for more than a year.

When asked by the Associated Press how many of the 5,200 workers at the Canton plant are permatemps, Reuter refused to say, but speakers at the Tougaloo meeting said that the number of permatemps is large and growing.

Union supporters think that permatemps are exploited and deserve equal pay for equal work. The use of permatemps also threatens wages, benefits, and job security of the full-time workers.

These and other problems caused hundreds of workers at Canton plant to support unionization.

The company has said that it would remain neutral in a union organizing campaign, but has held a series of meetings with an anti-union message.

According to union supporters, company representatives at these meetings imply that workers could lose their jobs or have their hours cut back if they vote in a union.

Union supporters also say that supervisors and managers during private conversations with workers speak more frankly about the possibility of plant closures and the loss of work.

The company’s anti-union campaign caused religious, civil rights, student, and community leaders to stand up for the workers’ right to have a fair election at Nissan. They formed MAFFAN, which last month held a press conference at a Detroit auto show to publicize the campaign for a fair election. The group is planning similar events at auto shows in Chicago in February and Atalanta in March.

“We’re taking the story of Nissan throughout the state of Mississippi, the United States and the world,” said Reverend Jackson, president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi. “We’ve told our community about Nissan’s threats and intimidation of workers and how they treat their Mississippi workers like second-class global citizens. It’s time the rest of Mississippi, the United States and the world knew how this global company is treating our fellow citizens who are simply asking for fair treatment and the right to vote on organizing without a fear campaign from the company.”

Johnson told Schultz that Nissan bargains collectively with unions in Brazil, South Africa, Japan, and other countries, but won’t afford the same rights to workers in Mississippi.

Two leaders from the labor movement in Brazil were at the Tougaloo meeting to support the Canton workers: Vagner Freitas de Moraes, president of CUT, the largest trade union federation in Brazil, and Joao Cayres, of CNM/CUT, the union representing Brazilian Nissan workers.