More short-haul port drivers go on strike, seek union membership

About 30 low-wage short-haul drivers at the Port of Los Angeles on August 26 became yet another of a growing group of low-wage workers to go on strike.

Drivers for Green Fleet Systems (GFS) went on a one-day unfair labor practices strike to protest intimidation and harassment by their employer. The strikers said that the company is trying to thwart their attempt to join the Teamsters.

The strikers received support from other workers all over the US, including a group of GFS short-haul drivers in Savannah, Georgia, who are fighting their misclassification as contract employees.

“For too long port drivers have been treated unfairly, and it is time to take a stand,” said Randy Carmack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42 and secretary-treasurer of Local 63.

Teamsters Local 848 has been assisting GFS workers in their organizing campaign. Teamsters Local 728 has been helping the GFS workers in Savannah.

“These giant corporations must stop exploiting these workers and cease their intimidation tactics,” added Carmack. “Everyone deserves respect on the job and an opportunity to provide for their families.”

GFS told the Los Angeles Times that it pays some of the highest wages in the industry.

But the short-haul industry is notoriously low-paying.

According to Marketplace, “studies show that port drivers earn an average of $28,000 a year,” well below the $74,605 annual salary the Economic Policy Institute estimates is needed for “a secure yet modest living standard” in the Los Angeles area.

Low wages aren’t the only problem motivating GFS short-haul drivers to organize.

“In the past, GFS management had been very racist towards many of us,” said Francisco Valencia a 12-year veteran port driver who has been with GFS for four years. “They screamed at us and humiliated us in front of everyone. The working conditions and the way that we are treated is not just. We deserve to be treated as human beings.”

Valencia like many of the port drivers is an immigrant. Valencia was born in El Salvador.

In response to he drivers’ organizing campaign, GFS has mounted an anti-union counter-offensive.

The company’s actions caused workers to file unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. According to the charges, GFS has asked employees to sign an anti-union petition, offered workers wage increases for opposing the unionization effort, and interrogated them about union activities.

If GFS workers win their union organizing drive, they will become the second group of short-haul drivers at the Port of Los Angeles to unionize.

Last year, drivers for Toll Group voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters, and earlier this year, they signed their first collective bargaining agreement.

The GFS drivers in Los Angeles work directly for the company and therefore have the right to join a union and bargain collectively, but most port drivers are classified as contract employees and are denied that right by law.

Many of these drivers say that they’ve been misclassified and should be treated as company employees rather than as contract employees.

One such group of drivers work for GFS in Savannah. When GFS drivers in Los Angeles went on strike, 130 Port of Savannah GFS drivers signed a letter that was sent to a company manager asserting their solidarity with the striking GFS drivers on the West Coast.

In the letter, the workers described their own treatment by the company as similar to that of sharecroppers.

“We are fighting misclassification because all port drivers should have the same rights,” reads the letter. “Port drivers in Savannah are sick and tired of being treated like modern day sharecroppers, just on wheels. This must end and that is why we support Green Fleet drivers who are organizing in Los Angeles.”

The Savannah workers ended their letter by pointing to the similarities between themselves and the GFS drivers in Los Angeles and expressing support for their unionization drive.

“Drivers at Green Fleet Systems have been unfairly treated, harassed, interrogated and intimidated because they are coming together to form their union,” reads the letter. “We call on Green Fleet to stop mistreating its drivers in Los Angeles and respect their right to form a union.”

Locked out Canadian IKEA workers reject company offer because it’s too weak

As the lockout at the IKEA store in Richmond, British Columbia entered its fourth month, the company made an offer that it thought workers could not refuse. But for the fourth time since contract negotiations began earlier this year, the workers, who are members of Teamsters Local 213, voted to reject the company’s offer.

Local 213 Business Representative Anita Dawson, a former IKEA worker, told The Tyee that the rejected offer eliminated some of the concessions originally sought by the company but that the new offer was too weak.

According to Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick, an IKEA spokeswoman, IKEA’s latest proposal does not include the two-tiered wage structure that the company originally proposed.

The two-tiered wage structure would have resulted in new hires and some current employees making less that other workers doing the same job, one of the main reasons that 84 percent of Local 213 members in May rejected the company’s original offer.

After workers rejected the original offer, the company made subsequent proposals that Dawson described as backward bargaining. That is, the subsequent proposals were worse than the original.

While the company’s rejected offer was an improvement, it would have made it more difficult for workers, many of whom are low-wage workers, to make any significant headway in improving their wages.

The Globe Mail reports that most of the raises offered in the rejected proposal were tied to sales and productivity goals established solely by the company. Those goals are $20 million to $30 million more than current sales. The goals would escalate over a six-year period.

“Most of the things that attribute to the sales goals are out of our control,” said Dorothy Tomkins, a Local 213 member to the Globe Mail. “They’re basically within management’s control. We don’t control how much stock comes into the store and whether we have items available to sell.”

If the workers had accepted the company’s offer, it would have taken some workers more than 20 years to reach the maximum hourly rate in their job category.

Local 213 has maintained its pickets line at the store and is urging people to boycott the IKEA Richmond store and another IKEA store in Coquitlam that is owned by the same franchise holder who owns the Richmond store.

Other unions and union members have helped out Local 213. Members of the Douglas County Faculty Association recently joined Local 213 members on the picket line.

Earlier this month, JIm Sinclair, president of the BC Labor Federation wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in The Province in which he said that IKEA’s lockout is an attack on the middle class.

“IKEA insist(s) that its workers accept a contract that would lower wages by as much as four dollars an hour,” writes Sinclair. “IKEA’s offer also cuts benefits. Every time a rich company like IKEA is successful in replacing decent paying jobs with low-wage jobs, Canada’s shrinking middle class is made even more vulnerable.”

Organization, mobilization, & education lead to contract improvements for Oregon state workers

Oregon state employees, members of SEIU Local 503, ratified a tentative agreement with the state on August 17.

The agreement, which covers 19,000 employees in agencies that provide health and human services, highway maintenance, employment, and other services, wins back some of the concessions that the union was forced to accept when the state was facing a revenue shortfall in 2009.

Democratic governor John Kitzhaber was seeking more concessions from the workers, including an end to the state’s practice of paying the 6 percent share of employees’ contribution to their pension plan, or the 6 percent pick up as it is known.

State employees in July had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike vote if a fair agreement could not be reached, and the union conducted an intensive mobilization and education campaign among members during the negotiations.

Local 503 members who work for Oregon’s state universities are still in negotiations with their employers and will soon vote on their own strike authorization vote.

In addition to maintaining the 6 percent pick up, the newly ratified agreement between Local 503 members and the Oregon Department of Administrative Services ends unpaid furloughs that the state won in the previous contract negotiations, maintains the state’s 95 percent contribution toward employees’ healthcare premiums and creates a path to increase that rate to 97 percent, maintains a $40 a month subsidy that helps lower paid employees pay their share of the health care premium, provides step increases for those denied them as the result of the 2009 contract, and provides for a 3.5 percent cost of living raise over the two years of the contract.

In June, the union was forced to declare an impasse when negotiations broke down between the two sides.

After declaring an impasse, the union conducted a series of mobilizations to show state management that its members were ready to strike if necessary.

A group of 40 self-described super-activist union members called “The Flying Squadron” travelled throughout the state to local worksites to help workers organize media events, demonstrations, and other actions aimed at demonstrating solidarity and determination.

More than 3,500 members took part in these local actions.

In addition to demanding a fair contract, the local actions also brought attention to the role that Wall Street played in causing the recession that reduced state revenue, which in turn led to cuts in state services. The actions also called for an end to corporate tax loopholes.

While bargaining was in progress, the union posted frequent bargaining updates on its website to keep members well informed about the issues being negotiated.

“We won because thousands of members like you engaged in the most serious strike preparations since the 1995 strike, and by taking our issues to the public and straight to management via rallies, pickets, press events and more,” read a post by the union announcing the ratification vote. “We also won because thousands more have engaged in making our political program strong–via contributing to CAPE, participating in lobby days, and helping get out the vote for pro-worker candidates–so we could have a state budget that was sufficient to fund our contract.”

Local 503 has used a similar strategy as it continues to negotiate a new contract for university employees.

“The many member calls, the demonstrations, email messages, purple ups, and delegations to management had an effect,” said a posting by the union’s negotiating committee. It caused university management to back down on concessions sought on layoffs, overtime, and seniority rights. Management also agreed to strengthen protections against privatizing work done by university employees.

But the two sides remain far apart on key issues such as wages and other concessions that the universities are seeking.

As a result, the union has declared an impasse and will hold a strike authorization vote beginning September 9.

Local meetings around the state will be held to provide information about the negotiations and issues at stake. Members will have the opportunity to vote at these meetings or they can vote by mail.

State employees who belong to AFSCME are still in the processing of negotiating their new contract.

Walmart workers arrested protesting low wages, lack of respect

Police in Washington DC on August 22 arrested 12 people participating in a sit-in at Walmart’s local headquarters. Most of those arrested were current or former Walmart workers like Brandon Garrett of Baker Louisiana, who recently was fired after participating in a legal unfair labor practices strike against the retail giant.

The non-violent action in Washington, organized by Making Change at Walmart and Organization United for Respect at Walmart, was a protest against Walmart’s firing and disciplining of 70 workers who have participated in legal unfair labor practices strikes. It was also a protest against the substandard wages paid by Walmart.

The two groups have demanded that by Labor Day Walmart reinstate the fired workers and start paying a living wage or face intensified non-violent actions.

Garrett and other Walmart workers went on strike in May and travelled to Walmart’s global headquarters in Arkansas to urge shareholders and executives to stop the intimidation and harassment of company workers speaking out for change on the job.

Because the workers struck over intimidation and harassment, it was an unfair labor practices strike. Those participating in unfair labor practices strike under law cannot be fired if they return to work unconditionally, which Garrett and the others did.

But when Garrett returned to work, Walmart fired him.

Garrett, who dropped out of college to support an ailing mother, in an email message to supporters said that after going to work for Walmart, he found that the store did not pay a living wage.

“We were constantly understaffed and stretched thin,” added Garrett. “Worst of all, we were treated with such a lack of respect they made you feel like you weren’t even a human being.”

Garrett like other Walmart workers is the victim of Walmart’s business strategy that continuously looks for ways to lower labor costs.

As a result of this strategy, Walmart wages are well below the retail industry average. The average hourly wage for a Walmart sales clerk is $8.23 an hour; the industry average is $10.35.

But the store’s workers aren’t the only ones affected by Walmart’s successful race to the bottom.

Walmart employs 1.2 million people, most of whom work in low paying jobs. As the New York Times recently reported, the low wages paid by Walmart and its competitors have become a major drag on the economy.

Low wages lead to under consumption, and under consumption leads to a stagnant economy.

Walmart’s low-wage strategy has even had an impact on the store’s recent performance.

For the second quarter in a row, Walmart reported a decline in same-store revenue, a key metric that analysts use to judge retail companies’ performances. Walmart same-store revenue in the second quarter declined 0.3 percent, forcing the company to lower its earnings per-share estimate.

Walmart wasn’t the only retailer to report bad numbers in the second quarter. The Times reports that retailers like Walmart and Kohls that cater to low-wage customers and pay low wages themselves reported across the board sluggish sales in the second quarter.

Ken Perkins, whose company Retail Metrics tracks the performance of retailers, blamed the sluggish sales on the fact that customers of these stores only have enough money to buy the bare essentials.

“There is a certain segment of the population that is faring well in this economy and have seen their net worth rise sharply with stock and housing market gains,” said  Perkins to the Times. “Then there is the much larger segment of Americans that are working in low-wage jobs, part-time jobs, that are struggling to make ends meet, and are living paycheck to paycheck. They are not spending beyond necessities.”

Walmart’s low wages and lack of benefits also mean that the public is picking up Walmart’s tab for health care and other human services.

A report released in June by the Democratic staff of the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce finds that a single 300-person Walmart supercenter in Wisconsin costs state and local taxpayers $905,542 a year in Medicaid expenses alone.

“While employers like Wal-Mart seek to reap significant profits through the depression of labor costs, the social costs of this low-wage strategy are externalized,” concludes the report entitled The Low-Wage Drag on Our Economy: Wal-Mart’s Low Wages and Their Effect on Taxpayers and Economic Growth. “Low wages not only harm workers and their families — they cost taxpayers.”

That’s why Garrett is urging Walmart employees, other low wage employees, and everyone else affected by Walmart’s low-wage strategy to take a stand for justice at Walmart.

“It’s time to draw a line in the sand,” said Garrett. “Let’s send Walmart a clear message: If you fail to act by Labor Day, actions will intensify around the country.”

Detroit workers: “Jobs, Pensions, City Services–The Banks Owe Us!”

AFSCME District Council 25 in Michigan on August 19 filed pleadings in US Bankruptcy Court challenging the City of Detroit’s July bankruptcy filing.

If Detroit’s bankruptcy is allowed to proceed, it is possible that the city will be able to terminate its collective bargaining agreements with workers and impose new terms of employment on them. Bankruptcy will also mean that retired frontline city workers whose pension’s average between $17,000 and $19,000 a year may have their pensions reduced.

Meanwhile, Diane Bukowski, writing for the Voice of Detroit, reports that city officials have taken special steps to protect the interests of UBS, SBS Financial Services, and Bank of America, creditors who in 2005 and 2006 sold credit default swaps to the city.

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has said that these credit default swaps are partially responsible for the city’s financial woes that led to the bankruptcy filing.

On the day that AFSCME filed its objections, members of the union, including retired city workers picketed in front of the courthouse where the objection was filed.

Union members carried signs reading, “Jobs, Pensions, City Services: The Banks Owe Us!”

The union in its objections argues that Michigan’s emergency manager law is unconstitutional.  The law gives the governor the right to appoint an emergency manager when a municipality faces financial difficulties. The powers of the emergency manager exceed those of all elected officials.

After his appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder, Orr took control of Detroit in March and on July 18, filed for bankruptcy on behalf of the city.

The union also contends that the bankruptcy should not be allowed to proceed because the emergency manager law also does not protect retirement benefits earned by workers during their years of employment with the city.

In addition to AFSCME, about 50 residents of Detroit also filed objections to the bankruptcy proceedings.

“The City of Detroit has too many assets to be bankrupt,” wrote Detroit retiree Olivia Gillon in her objection. “Detroit is no different than hundreds of other American cities that are cash-strapped and want to get their hands on retiree pension funds. If the federal court allows our pension fund to be raided, it will open a flood gate for hundreds of other cities.”

Other creditors including Detroit worker pension funds also have filed objections.

Judge Steven Rhodes will hold hearings on the objections in October.

In September, Rhodes will hold hearings on objections to a deal between the city and UBS, Bank of America, and SBS Financial Services struck three days before Detroit’s July 18 bankruptcy filing.

The city and these three banks on July 15 signed off on a forbearance agreement, which guarantees that the banks will be paid $0.75 on the dollar for credit default swaps that they sold the city as a hedge against pension obligation certificates, bought in 2005 and 2006 to pay for its pension contributions.

The agreement between the city and the banks releases $11 million in casino tax revenue that the banks contend is collateral for the swaps.

The swaps were supposed to protect the city in case it was unable to repay the pension obligations certificates, whose interest rate was 0.6056 percent.

When the economy crashed in 2008, Detroit was hit hard and was unable to make payments on the pension obligation certificates, which caused it to buy more swaps.

Since then, Detroit has been making payments on the swaps, whose interest rate is 6.323 percent.

The union in its objections estimates that the city has already paid $800 million as a result of the swaps.

The union’s objections also point out that UBS and Bank of America have been charged and reached settlements in a number of cases involving municipal bond fraud.

Furthermore, while other creditors’ claims have been put on hold as a result of the bankruptcy filing, the city has continued to make payments to the three banks. The union estimates that if the forbearance agreement is allowed to stand, it will cost the city $200 million over the next six months.

David Sole, a retiree who also filed an objection to the bankruptcy, contends that the economic crash that hit Detroit so hard and ultimately resulted in the bankruptcy filing was caused by predatory lending practices of banks like Bank of America and UBS.

“The financial crisis that precipitated this Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing was in large part a result of the effects of predatory lending by the banks against the residents of Detroit, which resulted in tens of thousands of foreclosures in the city, a massive population decline and a precipitous decline in property values.” said the objection filed by Sole.

Teamsters and Republic/Allied reach agreements after contentious bargaining and strikes

Members of Teamsters Local 377 in Youngstown, Ohio on August 9 and 10 ratified a new contracts with Republic Services/Allied Waste. Local 377 is one of several Teamster locals recently to reach an agreement with Republic. The company more than a year ago began an aggressive campaign to wrest concessions from its Teamster locals as their contracts came up for renewal.

Teamsters resisted the company’s concession campaign with a series of rolling unfair labor practices strikes in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee, Washington, and California.

“Our Republic members stood together during difficult times leading up to this point and now we are winning strong contracts,” said Bob Morales, Director of the Teamsters Solid Waste, Recycling and Related Industries Division. “We will continue to organize and negotiate the strongest contracts for our members.”

In Youngstown, Republic landfill workers, residential drivers, and commercial drivers and mechanics signed separate contracts that expire at the same time in five years.

“The contracts keep them in a Teamster defined benefit pension plan instead of the company’s 401(k) plan,” said Sam Cook, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 377. “They also get a $2,500 signing bonus followed by a 2-percent wage increase in the second, third and fourth years and a 2.5-percent increase in the fifth and final year.”

Cook also said that the company agreed to pay more toward workers’ health care coverage.

Republic had originally sought to end participation in the Teamsters’ defined benefit pension plan and shift workers into the company’s 401(k) savings plan. It also sought to increase workers’ health care cost.

It made similar proposals when contracts with other Teamster locals came up for renewal.

When members of Local 215 In Evansville, Indiana in 2012 balked at accepting Republic’s concession proposals, the company locked them out for six weeks.

The workers, however, continued to resist the company concession demands and after returning to work, continued to negotiate.

In July, Local 215 announced that its members had ratified a new contract that like the one in Youngstown protects the workers pension and provides a $1 an hour raise for the first year of the new contract and $0.50 an hour raises for each of the next two years of the contract.

Shortly after the contracts in Youngstown and Evansville were ratified, members of Teamster Local 728 in McDonough, Georgia ratified their first contract with Republic. The workers had joined the Teamsters in 2011 after a successful organizing drive, but the company stalled negotiations in hopes that workers would drop their membership in the union.

The McDonough workers in April walked off the job for about three weeks in an unfair labor practices strike.

In March, the Youngstown Teamsters also conducted an unfair labor practices strike when Republic illegally changed working conditions without bargaining and refused to provide the union with information related to the ongoing bargaining over a new contract.

Shortly after the strike began, the Youngstown workers set up picket lines at Republic facilities in Urbana, Illinois and Evansville. Teamsters at the two facilities refused to cross the picket line disrupting the company’s service commitments.

The Youngstown pickets then travelled to other Republic facilities in the Midwest and the West Coast where Teamsters showed their solidarity with fellow union members by refusing to cross picket lines.

“The show of solidarity from our members across the country has been amazing – in fact unprecedented – and should serve as a wake-up call to Republic,” said Morales in April as the Youngstown pickets were shutting down Republic operations in the Midwest and West Coast.

Postal finances improving; unions urge modernization, not cuts to mail delivery and jobs

US postal workers’ unions pointed to a recent financial statement by the US Postal Service showing that the postal service’s finances have rebounded significantly. The unions also said that USPS’ improved finances calls into question Washington’s conventional wisdom that postal services need to be slashed and good-paying jobs eliminated.

The financial statement says that USPS lost $740 million in the second quarter of 2013.

But the unions and their supporters say that the loss was due to a unique requirement imposed by law on USPS that requires it to pay $5.5 billion a year to pre-fund future retiree health benefits over the next 75 years.

If USPS had not been forced to pay $1.4 billion in pre-funding in the second quarter, it would have recorded a profit of $600 million.

“The latest financial results should convince Congress to deliver a postal reform plan that eliminates pre-funding,” said Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Rolando also said that real postal reform would free USPS “to meet evolving customer needs in the digital era.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) sponsored such a bill that was introduced in February.

In a message to supporters, Sanders said that USPS “has already set aside enough to meet the health care needs for retirees for decades to come” and called the pre-funding requirement an “onerous burden that no other company or agency is required to pay.”

S 316, Sen. Sanders’ Postal Service Protection Act, would modernize postal delivery, save Saturday mail, and repeal the pre-funding requirement, which Sen. Sanders calls a crippling measure “responsible for 80 percent of the mail system’s funding woes.”

Other legislation has been introduced that would cut services, eliminate jobs, and retain the pre-funding requirement.

The leaders of four postal workers’ unions recently co-authored a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging him to oppose S. 1486, the Postal Reform Act, which the letter says “renews a commitment to the disastrous Bush administration policy to mandate massive pre-funding of future retiree health care benefits and provides for major downsizing measures.”

S 1486 is sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).

According to the letter, if enacted S 1486 would destroy 80,000 full-time and part-time jobs by eliminating Saturday mail delivery, slash tens of thousands of more jobs by closing postal processing centers, undermine delivery standards, and “mandate the elimination of door-to-door delivery for all business and new households.” The bill would also keep the pre-funding requirement in place.

In June, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed out of committee HR 2748 by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) that according to Rolando fails to resolve the pre-funding crisis, jeopardizes universal mail delivery, eliminates 100,000 jobs, and attacks the collective bargaining rights of postal workers.

Rolando said that instead of cutting services and good-paying jobs lawmakers should be looking for ways to modernize services. Eliminating the pre-funding requirement would free up resources that could be used to modernize mail delivery in the US.

After year-long Fairness at Patriot campaign, UMWA announces tentative agreement

The United Mine Workers of America on August 12 announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with Patriot Coal on the terms of a new contract.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts called the agreement “a significant improvement” over the new employment terms approved by a federal bankruptcy court in May and implemented by Patriot in July.

“After several weeks of nearly around-the-clock negotiations, I believe we have reached something that can be taken to the membership for ratification,” said Roberts. “We have been able to restore, or at least improve upon, many of the most drastic changes that the Judge ordered, including in the area of wages, health care benefits, paid time off, pensions, and more. In addition, we have negotiated a mechanism that will allow retiree health care benefits to continue.”

Details of the tentative agreement were not made public. The details will be presented to 1,800 UMWA members at Patriot, who will vote Friday, August 16 on whether to accept the agreement.

Patriot in 2012 filed for bankruptcy, claiming that the sudden drop in coal prices and its obligation to maintain retiree health and retirement benefits made it impossible for the company to meet its debt obligations.

After the bankruptcy filing, UMWA waged a campaign for Fairness at Patriot to protect retiree benefits and to keep Patriot from lowering active employee wages and benefits to non-union levels.

Patriot was created and spun off in 2007 by Peabody Energy, a multi-national energy and natural resourcescompany that at one time was the US’s largest coal company. UMWA contends that the spin-off was designed to help Peabody eliminate retiree pension and health care obligations.

The day after the tentative agreement was announced, UMWA as part of its Fairness at Patriot campaign held a demonstration and rally at the Peabody headquarters in St. Louis. More than 1,000 people attended.

After the rally, some miners and their supporters including AFT President Randi Weingarten held a sit-in in front of Peabody headquarters where they were arrested.

The rally and sit-in was the latest in a series of similar Fairness at Patriot actions taken at Peabody headquarters and in West Virginia where much of Patriot’s operations are located.

At the August 13 rally, UMWA Secretary Treasurer Dan Kane told the audience that the union and their supporters needed to keep the pressure on to expose Peabody’s “nefarious scheme.”

“Peabody created Patriot to fail, and I am determined that is not going to happen,” said Kane.

According to the UMWA, “Patriot Coal represents Peabody’s. . .  scheme to shed themselves of their obligations under the (National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement) to maintain health care benefits for active employees and their families, as well as retirees, their dependents and surviving spouses. (Peabody) had promised, in contract after contract, to provide those benefits. But now, via Patriot, (Peabody intends) to rid (itself) of these obligations.”

When Patriot declared bankruptcy, it was providing benefits to 10,600 retired miners and their spouses. Of these more than 8,300 were retirees who worked for Peabody subsidiaries, not Patriot.

At the time of the spinoff, Peabody CEO Greg Boyce told investors that “we’re reducing our legacy liabilities roughly $1 billion, and reducing our expense and cash spending in the neighborhood of $100 million as well.”

Peabody’s spinoff and Patriot’s bankruptcy proceedings are the latest in a series of efforts by coal companies to jettison their obligation to retired members of UMWA and their families.

UMWA in 1989 conducted a 10-month strike when the Pittston Coal Company terminated retiree health care benefits and threatened to stop contributing the UMWA Health and Retirement Fund.

In response to the strike, the US Congress passed the Coal Act that protected health care and retirement benefits  for UMWA retirees.

In 2004, Horizon Natural Resources declared bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy court allowed the company to liquidate its assets and terminate its retiree health care plan.

The US Congress at UMWA’s urging reacted by amending the Coal Act to protect retirees and their families affected by the Horizon bankruptcy.

Peabody’s spinoff, the UMWA contends, is just the latest scheme by a large energy corporation to escape its lawful obligation to its retirees.

“We need to put pressure on Peabody,” Kane said at the August 13 rally. “Because they stole from us.  This is a pivotal moment.  We need to be strong, we need to be disciplined, we need to be together.  And I’m telling you today, Peabody, it ain’t over.  Because you still owe your retirees.  You don’t get to keep that.”

Judge orders 60-day cooling off period in SF Bay labor dispute

A judge in San Francisco on August 11 ordered Bay Area Rapid Transit workers not to strike for 60 days. Members of two unions representing maintenance and operations staff were prepared to walk off the job at Midnight, August 12 if the unions and BART management could not reach agreement on a new contract.

California Gov. Jerry Brown had asked the judge to issue the 60-day cooling off order.

Gov. Brown late last week had said that he would seek the cooling off order after a board of investigation that he had appointed to gather information about the contract negotiations held hearings and reported that the unions and BART management were not close to resolving the issues that prevented a new agreement.

BART management the week before the judge issued his ordered had urged Gov. Brown to seek the 60-day cooling off period.

The unions had urged Gov. Brown not to do so.

Leo Ruiz, a negotiator for ATU Local 1555, which represents operations workers, told the San Jose Mercury News that BART management will use the 60-day cooling off period to continue its stalling tactics in hopes that public pressure will force union members to accept concessions sought by management.

Roxanne Sanchez, president of SEIU Local 1021, which represents maintenance and repair workers, told the Mercury News that BART management has failed “to make meaningful proposals” that could lead to a fair agreement.

John Logan, an assistant professor and director of labor studies at San Francisco State, reports that BART’s negotiating strategy from the beginning has been a classic example of “surface bargaining”–going through the motions of bargaining with no intention of reaching an agreement.

From the beginning, Logan writes, BART has not shown an interest in real bargaining. BART delayed opening negotiations until mid-May instead of April as the unions requested.

The delaying tactics forced a four-day strike in June. After local and state official intervened, union members returned to work and agreed to continue bargaining for 30 days.

During that 30-day period, BART’s chief negotiator, Tom Hock, a consultant hired by BART to lead its negotiating team, was absent for one-third of the negotiating period.

Antonette Bryant, president of Local 1555, told the San Francisco Chronicle that BART has been unresponsive to proposals offered by the union.

“All we get are rejections with no explanations or counterproposals,” said Bryant.

Instead of serious bargaining, contends Logan, BART has tried to bargain through the media, and in doing so has vilified its workers by misstating facts.

According to three state legislators who attended a hearing held by Gov. Brown’s board of investigators, information was presented during the hearing showing that BART in public statements about the negotiations has consistently overstated the average pay for BART workers in an attempt to show the public that the workers are greedy.

“The figure given for average BART worker pay has been $79,500. But that figure includes management pay. BART’s own documents given to the panel show train operators earn less than $63,000 and station agents earn $64,000 on average,” said Assemblymembers Nancy Skinner, Rob Bonta, and Bill Quirk in a joint statement released after the hearing. “In addition, we learned that workers have offered to significantly increase contributions to pensions and employee medical.”

With a cost of living index of 163.4, San Francisco has the fourth highest cost of living in the US, topped only by Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Honolulu.

Despite the obstacles raised by BART, union leaders said that they would continue to bargain in hopes of averting a strike in October when the 60-day cooling off period ends.

If the two sides are unable to reach an agreement, BART would unable to extend the 60-day cooling off period because state law provides for only one court-ordered cooling off period, making another strike in October possible.

Chevron fined, demonstrators protest lack of safety and global warming in Richmond, CA

After Chevron pled no contest to six misdemeanor criminal charges resulting from an explosion at its refinery in Richmond, California, a judge on August 5 ordered the multinational oil company to pay $2 million in fines.

The explosion, which took place in August 2012, imperiled the safety of workers at the refinery, and the thick cloud of toxic black smoke released into the atmosphere by the explosion sent 15,000 residents of Richmond and other nearby communities to the hospital.

Two days before the judge levied the fines, 3,000 people including members of more than 30 unions, worker centers, and other labor organizations marched through the streets of Richmond to the Chevron refinery gates to protest the lack of safety at the refinery and the increased risk of global warming posed by Chevron’s refining of tar sands oil, similar to the kind that will be pumped from Canada to Texas via the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The action was organized by as part of its Summer Heat Campaign.

After the protestors completed their march, more than 200 were arrested at the refinery gates for acts of civil disobedience.

“We are here today to say we have to change the way we do business on this planet” said ILWU Local 6 President Fred Pecker to a reporter as Pecker was being arrested. “We have to look after people not profits.”

Last year, Chevron reported profits of $26.3 billion, and Forbes ranked the oil giant third on its list of the 500 largest corporations.

In addition to the $2 million fine, the judge ordered the company to inspect more than 16,000 piping components.

Corroded piping at the refinery allowed flammable vapors to escape and then explode.

Chevron engineers had warned that piping in the plant was badly corroded and needed to be replaced.

Replacing the pipes would have temporarily reduced production at the refinery, and management chose not to do so.

The explosion caused by the corroded piping engulfed 19 workers, who were lucky to have escaped serious injury.

Four of the criminal charges against the oil corporation involved violations of California’s labor standards, including failure to maintain equipment in a safe manner and failure to implement an effective prevention program to protect workers from hazards.

The lack of adequate safety maintenance is not unique to the Chevron Richmond refinery said Jeff Clark, Secretary Treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 5, which represents oil workers in Richmond and the rest of Northern California.

“We want to stress that this is an industry wide problem,” said Clark at an April hearing on a preliminary report about the causes of the Richmond explosion by the US Chemical Safety Board. These management system failures are happening all over the country.

Testifying before a US Senate committee hearing in June, Kim Nibarger, health, safety, and environmental specialist for the USW, said that since 2008 the oil industry has reported an average of more than 45 refinery fires a year, and with 22 reported so far this year, the industry is maintaining that pace in 2013.

Refinery safety affects people who live in communities near refineries as well the workers.

That was one reason that Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a member of the Green Party, joined the protests at the Chevron refinery.

Before the protestors marched to the refinery, McLaughlin addressed them and announced that the City of Richmond a day earlier had filed a civil suit against Chevron seeking to recover damages caused by the explosion and subsequent air pollution.

According to the pleadings in the civil suit, Chevron has a “corporate culture which places profits and executive pay over public safety;” “ignore[s] the dangers of corrosion;” “delay[s] needed safety repairs;” and “[has] spent $52.8 million to compensate its top three executives.”

“They’ve told us they are building a safer refinery. They’ve told us they aren’t polluting us, and yet these incidents happen time and time again” said McLaughlin to the protestors. “Over the last 20 years, more than a dozen incidents like the prior happened in this city, in this refinery. That’s unacceptable.”

A few days later, McLaughlin told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now that the city decided to sue Chevron because the company’s attitude toward the safety of Richmond’s residents was one of willful neglect.

McLaughlin was joined at the protest by residents of Richmond, environmental and social justice activists, and union members.

A number of unions endorsed and promoted the action including AFSCME locals 57 and 3299, the California Faculty Association, the California Nurses Association, CWA District 9, CWA Local 9412, UPTE CWA Local 9119, CWA Pacific Media Workers Guild 39521, ILWU Northern California District Council, OPIEU Local 3, SEIU Local 1021, UAW Local 2865, UC-AFT Local 1474, and UNITE HERE Local 2850.

BART strike on hold after governor creates board to investigate issues

Shortly before a strike deadline Sunday night, California governor Jerry Brown issued an order averting a strike by Bay Area Rapid Transit workers.

The order calls for a board of investigators to conduct an inquiry into the issues that have not been resolved during recent negotiations between BART management and members of BART’s two largest unions–SEIU 1021, which represents maintenance and repair workers, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents operations workers, including train operators, conductors, and station agents.

The board will have seven days to complete its investigation and issue its report.

Union workers in June went on a four-day strike but returned to work and to the bargaining table at the urging of elected officials.

The latest round of bargaining was set to expire on August 4. Three days ago, the unions announced that they were prepared to resume their strike if no agreement was reached by the deadline.

As the deadline approached, some progress had been made, but the two sides were still far apart.

The workers were seeking to make up for lost ground. Four years ago when the San Francisco Bay Area was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, BART management was able to impose a wage freeze on workers that lasted four years.

Now that the economy has recovered, BART workers want to recover some of the buying power they lost during the freeze.

But BART management is seeking further concessions. It wants to increase workers’ contributions to their pensions and health care premiums.

The unions argue that higher health care and pension deductions will eat up the modest raises that management is proposing.

“Depending on the medical plan (that members belong to), SEIU workers are looking at real wages losses of between minus 20.1 percent to -17.9 percent across nine years (2009-2017),” reads a fact sheet issued by Local 1021. “Going forward, we’re still looking at projected losses for the future contract cycle (2013-2017) of -8.9 percent to -5.9 percent.”

Safety is another issue important to workers.

According to Cal-OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, the injury rate among BART workers has increased by 43 percent during the last four years.

After the last contract went into effect and wages were frozen, BART management reduced operating staff by 8 percent, and the injury rate spiked.

ATU Local 1555 partially attributes the high injury rate to cutbacks in the workforce, which have caused workers still on the job to work longer and harder.

Local 1555 also notes that BART stations and trains have seen an increased number of assaults putting the safety of both workers and passengers at risk.

In 2009, there were 30 reported assaults on BART workers. In the first three months of 2013, 29 assaults on workers have already been reported.

The unions have made passenger and worker safety a priority during their bargaining, but the unions have said that BART management has not taken the safety issue seriously.

The unions also questioned whether BART management was serious about negotiating an agreement that could have avoided a strike.

Several BART negotiators including Thomas Hock, a consultant that BART hired for $390,000 to lead the negotiations, took vacations as the strike deadline approached.

Shortly before the strike deadline, BART management in a letter to Gov. Brown requested that he impose a 60-day cooling off period that would extend the strike deadline.

Brown instead chose to appoint the board of investigators and set a seven-day time limit on the board’s inquiry.

“In just the final two days before the expiration of the contract, our bargaining team waited for 22 hours for BART management negotiators to counter our proposals on core issues of pay and benefits'” said Local 1021 President Roxanne Sanchez in a prepared statement. “Our hope is that the Governor’s Board of Investigation will reveal how little time BART management has spent at the bargaining table in the past 30 days, compared with how much time they’ve spent posturing to the media. Our hope is that the Governor’s Board can show the public how BART has manipulated the process and continued to bargain in bad faith.”

Grassroots mobilization overcomes Senate filibuster; NLRB nominees confirmed

The US Senate on July 30 confirmed all five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board ensuring that the NLRB will have a quorum and be fully functioning after August 27 when the terms of the current members expire.

A vote on the nominations had been held up for two years by a Republican filibuster.

“Most people had given up on a fully functioning NLRB,” said Yvette Herrera, CWA senior director to a national CWA union hall meeting held by teleconference.

Blocking the nominations and preventing the NLRB from having a fully functioning board and a quorum that could rule on thousands of pending cases involving worker rights at the workplace was a major priority of the US Chamber of Commerce and its business members, added Herrera.

But a grassroots mobilizing drive that included labor, environment, civil rights, and public interest groups succeeded in overturning the filibuster and bringing the nominations before the Senate for an up or down vote, said CWA President Larry Cohen to the union hall participants.

Republicans for two years used the rules of the Senate that allow individual Senators to anonymously block bills and other Senate business from a vote on the Senate floor to block the nomination of two NLRB nominees selected by President Obama: Sharon Block and Richard Griffin.

The President subsequently, appointed the two to the NLRB during a congressional recess, but a federal court ruled that the appointments were unconstitutional.

The two continued to serve on an interim basis, but without their confirmation by the Senate, their terms would have expired on August 27, and the NLRB would have no quorum and thus be unable to rule on pending cases.

In addition to Block and Griffin, the filibuster was also holding up the confirmation of Mark Pearce, the current NLRB chair whose term is about to expire, Harry Johnson III and Phillip Miscimarra, both of whom were appointed by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and presidential nominees to lead the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

It looked as if the Republican obstructionism would be successful, but in the spring, CWA began building a coalition to change the filibuster rules and allow a democratic vote on the presidential nominations.

The organized coalition became known as the Democracy Initiative, which in addition to the CWA originally included the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace.

The Democracy Initiative, which has now grown to about 60 like-minded organization, mobilized members to demand a democratic vote on the nominations being blocked.

Members phoned and e-mailed their senators, signed petitions, and met with senators in Washington and in their home states.

As a result of this effort, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to change the interpretation of Senate rules that would have allowed a democratic vote on the nominations.

The change never took place, but in order to avoid the changes, a group of Republicans agreed to a compromise that would allow a vote.

Among other things, the Republicans willing to compromise demanded that the nomination of Block and Griffin be withdrawn; however, they agreed to allow a vote on two nominations chosen by President Obama.

“CWA doesn’t throw people under the buss,” said Cohen, “but with thousands of cases pending before the NLRB and so much at stake, Block and Griffin put the public interest ahead of their private interest and agreed to the deal.”

President Obama subsequently appointed Nancy Schiffer, a former associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, and Kent Hirozawa, who has served as chairman Pearce’s counsel on the NLRB.

Schiffer, Hirozawa, Pearce, Johnson, and Miscimarra were all approved by the Senate on July 30.

During the union hall meeting, Cohen said that without a fully functioning NLRB board, there would be no one to enforce laws that protect workers’ right to organize and take collective action.

Cohen pointed to the Verizon strike in 2011 in which the company illegally fired 85 CWA members for their strike related activities. Without a board to rule against the company’s illegal actions, it’s unlikely that the fired workers would have gotten their jobs back.

More recently, Cablevision in Brooklyn fired 22 workers because of their union activity. CWA subsequently filed charges with the NLRB against Cablevision. An impending NLRB hearing and a mass mobilization effort that included Cablevision workers, community supporters, and elected officials resulted in all of the workers getting their jobs back.