Blockade stops eviction in Rochester, NY

An eviction blockade in Rochester, New York has given a temporary reprieve to Glenda and Joseph Woods who were facing eviction from the home where they have lived for the past 23 years.

The Rochester City Marshal planned to carry out the eviction on September 27, but the Woods and community supporters from Take Back The Land Rochester, Metro Justice, and Band of Rebels set up a human blockade at the Woods’ home on Webster Ave. to stop the eviction.

As the number of supporters increased, the blockade spilled onto the street causing traffic to be temporarily rerouted.

The Marshal chose not to carry out the eviction and the local police decided not to interfere.

Supporters have set up an encampment near the home to make sure that the bank that claims to hold the mortgage note on Woods’ home, takes no further eviction action.

Take Back the Land Rochester, one of the community groups supporting the Woods, said in a statement that the City of Rochester shouldn’t commit any resources to evict the Woods.

“We believe the city should partner with residents in foreclosure to work out an amicable solution, not mobilize police to enforce evictions that will hurt our neighborhoods,” reads the statement. “If the city commits its resources to support the bank eviction the (Woods’) house will quickly be ransacked, deteriorate and become unlivable, and permanently vacant and until a city-funded bulldozing years from now.”

MidFirst Bank, an Oklahoma based investment and commercial bank that specializes in buying and servicing high interest loans, notified the Woods that it planned to foreclose on their home on Webster Ave where the two had raised their family.

But when the Woods refused to leave, the bank contacted the City Marshal to have them evicted.

The Woods’ problems began four years ago when Ms Woods lost her job as a result of the economic downturn, and they fell behind on their mortgage payments.

The family eventually recovered from their misfortune and resumed making payments on their mortgage. The Woods have tried to work out a deal with MidFirst that would allow them to remain in their home while they paid back the money owed from the missed payments, but so far to no avail.

The Woods are hoping that their resistance to the bank’s foreclosure will persuade the bank to negotiate with them.

A report on the standoff between MidFirst and the Woods at the Take Back the Land Rochester Facebook page says that MidFirst is willing to sell the Woods their home for $90,000. The home’s current tax appraisal value is $28,000.

Take Back the Land called the MidFirst’s offer, “extortion.”

MidFirst is an Oklahoma-based finance company that got its start as a mortgage originator.

In 1991, it closed its mortgage origination business and began purchasing mortgage-backed securities and servicing the loans upon which the securities were based.

Many of the loans in the MidFirst portfolio are high interest loans that are backed by government insurance. Some high interest loans have been associated with predatory lending practices, common in minority communities such as the one where the Woods’ live.

Perhaps one of the reasons that MidFirst has been reluctant to negotiate a deal with the Woods is that when the home is foreclosed, the bank may receive an insurance payout from the Federal Housing Authority.

MidFirst, which has bank branches in Oklahoma and Arizona and loan servicing operations in Houston, Chicago, New York, and Newport Beach, California, reported net earnings in 2012 of $275 million.

Its principal owner is Jeffery Record, Jr., a part-owner of the National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Woods’ mortgage has been traded among several financial investment companies, and MidFirst is the latest to claim ownership.

Like many mortgages that are traded as security investments, the ownership of the Woods’ mortgage is not all that clear.

According to Take Back the Land, MidFirst has not been able to provide documentation that the company owns the mortgage nor can it validate the amount owed by the Woods.

While MidFirst sees the house on Webster Ave. as a securitized investment, to the Woods, it’s their home–a home worth fighting for.

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ITF acts to protect Honduran union leader and dock workers organizing campaign

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) took steps to protect the life of a Honduran union leader who has been threatened with death for fighting for collective bargaining rights for dock workers in Puerto Cortes, Honduras’ main seaport.

Victor Crespo, secretary-general of SGTM, the Honduran union of dock workers, was awakened at dawn on September 14 by armed men trying to knock down his door. Crespo, who before the attack had received written death threats, thought that the intruders were trying to kill.

The noise at the Crespo house woke his neighbors, who ran outside to learn what was happening. When the attackers saw that they were being watched, they scurried away. As they left, the intruders warned Crespo that unless he disappeared, they would be back in eight hours to finish the job.

After the attack, an ITF representative found Crespo a safe place to stay and launched an international campaign to ensure that Crespo’s safety is protected and that SGTM’s organizing effort, which is supposed to be protected by Honduran law, is able to continue.

“Death threats to a trade unionist on account of their promotion and defenses of workers’ rights will not be tolerated by either our organization or the millions of workers we represent,” said Sharon James, ITF dock workers section secretary in a letter to the company that operates the port.  “We have been in touch with the Honduran government over this matter and, as with any case of this gravity, we would be forced to take all possible global action should there be any suggestion of employer involvement in an intimidation campaign of this kind.”

The port operator is International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ITCTSI), a Philippine-based company that is the fifth largest private operator of public ports in the world.

James’ letter was addressed to Enrique Razon, Jr., ITCSI president.

In February, ICTSI was awarded a $600 million contract by the Honduran Public Private Partnership to operate and modernize the port at Puerto Cortes.

SGTM has been seeking collective bargaining contracts with the stevedore companies that load and unload cargo at Puerto Cortes. Honduran law is supposed to protect workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively.

After ICTSI was awarded the Puerto Cortes contract, Crespo received two written, anonymous death threats, which he reported to the police.

In the letter from James to Razon, James said that ITF believes the attack on Crespo “is directly linked to his union’s request for a collective bargaining agreement with the stevedoring companies in the port.”

According to James’ letter, the written death threats included a warning to stop organizing stevedore companies, and as the assailants ran from Crespo’s house, they shouted, “stop making noise about organizing stevedores.”

In addition to notifying Razon about its concerns, ITF also alerted Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the UN’s International Labor Organization, and the police to demand that they take action to protect Crespo and the union’s organizing campaign.

The letter also asks Razon to publicly renounce “all violence, intimidation and threats against workers rights to freely organize and bargain in unions of their own choice” and “to publicly state your company’s respect for international labor standards including the Freedom of Association and the Right to Collectively Bargain.”

Dock worker unions from around the world have begun showing their support for Crespo and the SGTM’s organizing effort.

Leaders of the Pakistan Federation of Labor on September 22 appealed to President Lobo Sosa “to protect the precious life of (Crespo) and arrest those culprits who attempted the attack.”

The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center urged workers in the US to voice their support for Crespo.

Oregon faculty reaches historic agreement; classified employees may strike

United Academics University of Oregon, an 1,800 member union of education employees, recently announced that it reached a tentative agreement with the University of Oregon on its first collective bargaining contract. Members will vote on the agreement on October 8.

The union, whose members include tenured and non-tenured faculty, adjuncts, graduate teaching assistants, librarians, and other education staff, called the agreement historic because it gives education staff a stronger voice in decisions that affect their work.

“We organized as a union because faculty at the University of Oregon want a voice and a vote on the important policies that affect our work,” said Deborah Olson, a member of the United Academics bargaining team. “This agreement achieves that.”

Meanwhile classified staff–campus workers including maintenance, clerical, advisory and other staff who make education possible–at Oregon’s seven public universities have said that they will strike on September 30, the first day of classes, unless their union, SEIU Local 503, and the Oregon University System agree on a new contract that raises wages and addresses the imbalance between the growing number of campus administrators and students and campus workers.

“Classified employees have endured cuts, furloughs and step freezes. None of these sacrifices have been shared by administrators,” said Mark Nisenfeld, chair of the Local 503 bargaining team, to College Classes. “We want them to recognize that sacrifice and bring our members up to what they deserve.”

The tentative agreement between United Academics, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors, raises salaries by an average of 11.75 percent over two years, extends job security for contingent faculty, makes career path and promotions rules more transparent, guarantees a voice in campus governance for all education staff, and provides “robust” protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

UO administrators attempted to insert language in the new contract that interfered with faculty freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The administration sought to include a so-called civility clause in the contract that could have been used to discipline faculty who criticize administrators or their policies, to restrict faculty work with outside organizations such as non-profits, including those that may be critical of UO benefactors, to monitor faculty computer use including university and non-university e-mail accounts, and to claim ownership of faculty work such as inventions and course material.

Corey Robin , a blogger and professor at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, made these administration demands public generating a flood of email to UO President Michael Gottfredson.

The administration subsequently relented on its demands.

Local 503 wants a contract that sets a wage floor of $2,500 a month for all classified employees, provides a 5 percent cost of living wage over two years with a minimum raise of $75 a month, and protects the current wage progression ladder.

“Thirty percent of the SEIU members employed at the Oregon University System earn less than $2,495 per month,” said Nisenfeld. “(That) level. . . qualifies a family of four to receive food stamps.”

Nisenfeld also said that OUS wants to extend the period of time it takes for workers to reach their maximum salary, which is currently ten years. OUS wants to extend that time to 18 years.

Local 503 also is concerned that too much of the universities’ resources are going to administrators rather than to students and workers.

“At Portland State University, the ratio of administrators to students has skyrocketed, while the classified and faculty ratios have dropped,” said Nisenfeld citing one example. “The classified and faculty have day-to-day contact with students, yet the number of classified employees in the registrar’s office, financial aid and lab assistants has dropped dramatically.”

Some progress has been made during the mediated negotiations, which led to the postponement of a strike that was to begin on September 22.

But progress has bogged down.

During the last bargaining session on September 18 about 100 people occupied the University of Oregon president’s office to demonstrate support for the workers.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume on September 25.

The seven schools that will be affected by the strike are Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande, Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Oregon State University, Portland State University, Southern Oregon University in Ashland, University of Oregon, and Western Oregon University in  Monmouth.

Montana unions criticize pay gap at state universities

At a recent regents’ meeting of the Montana University System, union leaders and one state senator criticized the growing pay gap between employees and administrators at the state’s public universities.

At the meeting,, the regents approved 11 collective bargaining agreements between Montana’s public universities and unions representing university staff.

State Senator Jim Keane said that unless administrators begin to address the wage disparity between top administrators and university staff, their state funding could be affected.

Jim Reardon of the Laborers International Union of North America said that the salary of some of his members is so low that they can’t afford to live in the college towns where they work.

“I don’t know if I’m disappointed or disgusted with the continued failure of the (Montana University System) to recognize the necessity of those people who do the work that matters,” said Reardon. “We talk about across-the-board increases, but 2 percent for someone who makes $10 an hour doesn’t add up with what someone makes at the top.”

One of the contracts that the regents approved was between the Montana Public Employees Association, AFL-CIO and the University of Montana.

The contract provides for $0.46 per hour pay increase for classified employees in the first year and a 2.25 percent increase plus a $0.12 an hour base pay increase in the second year.

A classified university worker making $36,060 a year, the mean average salary of a worker in the State of Montana, would see a raise of $950 in the first year of the contract.

Top administrators at the university will also receive raises. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, who along with his counterpart at Montana State are the highest paid public officials in the state, will receive a raise of $6,763 a year that will increase his annual salary to $296,229.

When Engstrom was hired in 2010, The Missoulian reported that in addition to his salary, Engstrom would receive an additional $50,000 a year for ten years if he stays at UM for at least five years.

Workers at UM have not fared so well. A survey of members by MPEA found that 30 percent of its classified employee members worked two or more jobs.

Two years ago, they received two one percent raises for each year of their contract plus an additional $500.

When negotiations on a new contract began, UM workers were looking for a big wage boost to make up for lost ground. They ended up agreeing to much less.

“In the scheme of things, what we were hoping for was a 4-5 percent increase,” said Darlene Samson, an MPEA member to Montana Kamin. “Personally, I think any raise is good, but, in light of economics, you can’t buy a loaf of bread for 46 cents and you can’t buy a carton of milk for 46 cents.”

If the Legislature earlier this year hadn’t earmarked $19 million for raises for university staff, there’s a good chance that the workers would not have received any raise at all.

In April, President Engstrom announced that the university was facing a budget shortfall and ordered departments to develop plans for reducing the number of courses available and eliminating jobs.

That brought a response from students and faculty who blamed the shortfall on Engstrom’s mismanagement.

At the same time, that instructional cutbacks were being planned, Engstrom hired a vice-president for integrated communications with an annual salary of $147,000 a year.

The new vice-president will be responsible for managing news and information about the university.

The 11 collective bargaining agreements approved by the regents are not the last of the agreements that will need their approval.

Unions that are still negotiating contracts objected to the idea that the raises approved by the regents are “normal raises” that set a pattern for other union contracts.

“Many of our contracts are still out – they’re still in bargaining,” said Marco Ferro, public policy director with MEA-MFT, which represents faculty and other university staff, to the regents. “I hear the term ‘normal raise,’ and I’m not sure everyone is agreeing on that. That’s still happening at the bargaining level.”

Majority sign union cards at Tennessee auto plant

Auto News reports that UAW President Bob King told a German newspaper that a majority of workers at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee had signed union authorization cards, bringing the plant one step closer to becoming the first unionized foreign-owned auto factory in the South.

King and other UAW leaders have been in Germany talking to VW management about establishing a works council at the Chattanooga plant. A works council is a group of rank and file workers elected by other workers that would have a voice in decisions that affect their jobs.

In Germany, where works councils are common, the councils have a say in hiring and firing, staffing, safety, other working conditions, and plant design and process decisions.

VW’s Chattanooga plant is the only plant in its worldwide operations that doesn’t have a works council.

VW obviously sees an advantage to having works councils at its plants, but in order to establish one in the US without violating US labor laws, the company would need to recognize a union as the workers collective bargaining representative.

Getting a majority of the 2,100 workers at the Chattanooga plant to sign union authorization cards, moves the UAW closer to being recognized as the workers’ collective bargaining agent.

Since a majority of workers have signed authorization cards, VW could voluntarily recognize the UAW as the workers collective bargaining representatives or ask for a union election that would be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

UAW and VW representatives are still holding talks about how a works council could be established in the US.

The union authorization cards that the Chattanooga workers signed also contain language expressing a desire to become a part of VW’s global works council.

VW is a worldwide leader in the auto industry with ambitions to become the dominant force within the industry. To do so, it must ramp up sales in the US where its products now compete only in niche markets.

To expand its role in the US market, VW will have to increase domestic production to hold down costs.

A deal with the UAW would allow VW to begin the process of increasing production in the US without the distraction of an ongoing labor organizing drive like the one taking place at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

The UAW has made it a priority to unionize foreign auto plants that have located in the South. More than 43 percent of the autos produced in the US are now produced in southern factories where 50,000 non-union workers work.

If the UAW fails to organize a decent share of these workers, its bargaining position with GM, Ford, and Chrysler will be weakened, which could lead to more concessions, or at least, an inability to regain some of the lost ground given up in recent negotiations with domestic manufacturers.

The UAW believes that its new organizing approach–one in which the union casts itself as a partner with company to make it more profitable–could lead more foreign companies to make deals with the union.

Cooperating with VW in establishing a works council is part of this new approach.

The German auto workers union, IG Metall, has a similar relationship with VW. In fact, members of IG Metall hold seats on VW’s board of directors.

IG Metall has played a key role in bringing the UAW and VW together.

At a recent public roundtable discussion in Germany that included representatives from IG Metall, UAW, and VW, Horst Neumann, an IG Metall leader and member of VW’s board of directors, said that he was mystified by the resistance to unions that exists in the US, especially in the South.

“Had they been here to listen to the roundtable discussion they would have seen  that we work together — it’s a model for success,” said Neumann, to Auto News.

Even though, VW and the UAW appear to be cooperating in an attempt to bring a works council and a union to Chattanooga, some southern leaders remain adamantly opposed to a deal between the UAW and VW.

Leaders such as Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslan and US Senator Bob Corker expressed dismay at the possibility that UAW could get a foothold in the South at the Chattanooga plant, which they claim will hurt the region’s ability to attract new business with its low wages and anti-union prejudices.

New report: workers likely to lose if TPP goes into effect

A new report authored by David Rosnick of the Center on Economic Policy Research finds that the modest gains resulting from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement between the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries, will not offset the damage done to US workers’ wages by the trade pact.

The report shows that “most US workers are likely to lose out from TPP,” said Mark Weisbort, CEPR co-director.

Rosnick arrived at his conclusion after reviewing a report by Peter Petri, Michael Plummer, and Fan Zhai that supports TPP. Petri, Plummer, and Zhai estimate that the cumulative increase to the US GDP resulting from TPP will be 0.13 percent over a ten-year period between 2015 and 2025.

The annual gain, according to Rosnick would be about 0.01 percent, which he describes as little more than a rounding error that will have little impact on annual economic growth, which Petri, Plummer, and Zhai estimate to be 2.4 percent with or without the TPP.

The small growth, according to Rosnick, will do little to offset the impact on wages of most workers, who if the “pact goes into effect, will face stiffer competition from lower wage workers abroad.”

The biggest losers will be middle-income earners who will face more competition from their lower paid counterparts in other countries.

On the other hand, some high-income earners will see a boost to their income resulting from the expansion of copyright, patent, and other protectionists policies in TPP.

The lowering of middle-income earners wages and the increase of income on the high-end will exacerbate the growing levels of income inequality in the US.

Rosnick’s paper concludes that “despite the very modest gains in expanded economic activity, wages will generally fall as a result of future trade agreements.”

Negotiations between the US and the eleven other TPP nations–Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam–are still underway and have been conducted in unprecedented secrecy.

As a result, the details of the proposed pact are not known, but people who have seen early drafts describe the general outline as similar to that of NAFTA.

The secrecy and TPP’s similarity to NAFTA has irked union, environmental, and consumer protection activists.

In August, opponents of TPP rallied and marched in Minneapolis to voice their opposition to TPP.

At the demonstration, Larry Cohen, president of CWA, criticized the White House for trying to deliver more NAFTA-like trade deals and the fact that the voice of the people has been excluded from the discussions at the TPP negotiating table.

“We have to say to the White House loud and clear: In 2008 and 2007, when you were in Iowa you told us no more NAFTA, you told us no more bad deals, that we would have good deals,” said Cohen at the Minneapolis demonstration. “We’re still waiting,”

“When do we get to have a say on these trade deals?” he added. “When do we get to see these trade deals? When do the people of this country get to speak up on trade, not just the State Department?”

AFL-CIO reaffirms support for single-payer health care; demands Obamacare fixes

Delegates to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angles overwhelmingly adopted Resolution 54, which begins by reaffirming the labor federation’s commitment to a single-payer health care system, a commitment that it made at its last convention in 2009.

The Resolution also demands changes to Obamacare that ensure that more part-time workers will be guaranteed employer health care coverage, that union members enrolled in non-profit, multiemployer health plans receive the same subsidies as those enrolled in for-profit plans, that taxes on health plans won by workers through difficult struggle and collective bargaining be eliminated, and that other changes be made to ensure that all workers have access to quality, affordable health care.

During the floor debate on the resolution, Michael Goodwin, president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union made the case for expanding Medicare to include everyone in a single payer health care system.

Speaking of the current system, Goodwin said that whether a person has decent health care often depends on luck and that out of pocket expenses and holes in these plans are increasing.

There’s a two-word solution to these problems, said Goodwin. “Single payer.” The audience responded with applause.

But most of the speeches were about Obamacare’s unintended consequences and their “collateral damage” on workers.

For instance, the law requires employers to provide health care coverage to workers if they average 30 or more hours of work a week. To get around this requirement, some employers are reducing worker hours. Resolution 54 demands a fix to the law that sets the lower limit at an average of 20 hours a week.

Speakers also talked about the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the law that will deny federal tax credits to union members enrolled in non-profit, multiemployer health plans–health plans common for union members who work in construction, retail, transport, and hospitality industries.

A letter written last July by three union leaders to Senate Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi lays out the unions’ concerns. “Our (multiemployer, non-profit) health plans have been built over decades by working men and women,” reads the letter. “Under the (Affordable Care Act) as interpreted by the Administration, our employees will (be) treated differently and not be eligible for subsidies afforded other citizens. As such, many employees will be relegated to second-class status and shut out of the help the law offers to for-profit insurance plans.”

Even though union members won’t receive subsidies, their non-proft plans will be taxed to help pay for the cost of Obamacare.

Other union health care plans won through collective struggle and hard bargaining also will be subject to the same tax.

Supporters of the tax call these union benefits, “Cadillac” or “gold-plated” health care plans, but Goodwin called them “morally responsible” plans. That is, they provide quality health care at an affordable costs to millions of hard working people in the US.

Unions fear that the lack of subsidies and the imposition of new taxes could drive up the cost and drive down the quality of union health plans, making them no longer viable.

D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, seemed to sum up the general feeling among delegates about Obamacare.

“I think it’s great that millions upon millions of Americans are going to get health care for the first time,” said Taylor. “I like the fact that Obamacare does what our union plans have done for a long time–no pre-existing conditions, etc.”

But then he paused for emphasis and added, “But action needs to happen in order to fix Obamacare.”

He also said that, union members should not accept the excuse that the Administration doesn’t have the power to change the law.

Taylor said that the Administration extended the deadline for businesses to provide health care coverage, changed the rules on mandating contraception coverage, and agreed to a special deal for Capitol Hill staff all on its own.

If the Administration can change the law for other groups, it can do the same for labor, the most ardent proponent of real health care reform, said Taylor

Taylor urged the AFL-CIO and member unions to build a campaign that puts pressure on the White House and Congress to fix Obamacare.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America said that he supported fixing Obamacare, but if the fixes weren’t made, then the AFL-CIO should support repeal of the law.

Kathryn Donahue of National Nurses United spoke in opposition Resolution 54.

“Resolution 54 is problematic because it allows our health care system to be held hostage to greedy, highly profitable health insurance industry,” said Donahue, “A market based approach has no place in health care” and she advocated a single-payer, Medicare for all approach instead.