Demonstrations to stop TPP fast track on tap for Friday, Jan. 31

Demonstrations around the world are being held on January 31 to protest a bill before the US Congress that would expedite passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated in secret, by granting it Trade Promotion (Fast Track) Authority.

(One of those January 31 demonstrations will be held in Austin at 5:30 P.M. at the south gate of the Capitol on 11th Street.)

Supporters of TPP, including President Obama, are hoping that Congress will soon take action on granting fast track authority for TPP.

The US is negotiating the TPP with 11 other Pacific Rim countries.

It’s the latest in a series of international trade agreements negotiated by the US government. These trade deals have cost workers jobs, stagnated wages, degraded the environment, eroded local economies, and hurt small businesses.

TPP has been negotiated in secret, but leaked excerpts of the agreement suggest that if the trade deal goes through, domestic regulations affecting labor relations, banking, consumer protection, and the environment would be undermined.

“Trade agreements (like TPP) are no longer just about tariffs and quotas,” said Larry Cohen, president of CWA. “They are about the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the jobs we hold. We cannot abdicate this process to non-elected representatives. We cannot let foreign policy objectives trump domestic concerns and in the process unravel our own democracy instead of strengthening others.”

But Congress will abdicate its authority, if it passes the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus(D-Montana); Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Michigan).

This so-called fast track bill would limit congressional debate and review of the TPP treaty once it is finalized.

During a January 23 nationwide CWA union hall meeting, Cohen described some of the actions that CWA members in conjunction other union, environment, consumer, and progressive activists have taken to stop fast track authority for TPP.

Since the fast track bill was introduced, union members and their partners have flooded congressional offices with letters and visited dozens of local and Washington DC congressional offices to express their opposition to the bill.

During the union hall meeting, Cohen called on CWA locals to continue pressuring elected representatives to oppose fast track, and he told members that this fight can’t be won without building alliances with groups outside the labor movement.

He pointed to the coalition that CWA is working with to build a grassroots campaign against fast track. The coalition includes other labor unions, environmental, consumer protection, and public interest groups.

More recently, more than 550 organizations have signed a letter from the Citizens Trade Campaign opposing the fast track bill.

The letter concludes by saying,

After decades of devastating job loss, attacks on environmental and health laws, and floods of unsafe imported food under our past trade agreements, America must chart a new course on trade policy. To accomplish this, a new form of trade authority is needed that ensures that Congress and the public play a much more meaningful role in determining the contents of U.S. trade agreements. Critically, such a new procedure must ensure that Congress is satisfied with a trade agreement’s contents before a pact can be signed and subjected to any expedited procedures.

Back in November, 151 Democratic Members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Obama stating their opposition to fast track authority. Twenty-one Republicans did the same.

President Obama had hoped that a fast track vote and the passage of TPP would take place sometime in 2014, but those plans received a setback on January 29 when Senate Leader Harry Reid announced that he was opposed to TPP fast track authority.

“I’m against fast track,” said Reid to reporters. “I think everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”

Friday’s demonstrations will attempt to keep the pressure on Congress to vote against fast tracking TPP by emphasizing the damage that has been done by trade agreements since NAFTA was approved 20 years ago.

According to David Bacon writing in Truthout, NAFTA’s impact on the working class in Mexico, Canada, and the US has been devastating.

Twenty years (after the passage of NAFTA), workers have a scorecard,” writes Bacon. “The promises of profits from increased investment and freer markets were kept. But the promises of jobs and benefits for working people were not.  .   . NAFTA (led) to increasing unemployment, displacement, and poverty. Workers in all three countries are still living with these devastating consequences, while the predicted long-range benefits never materialized.

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College athletes form labor union

Kain Colter, the quarterback of the Northwestern University football team, announced on January 28 that football players at Northwestern are forming a union and want a seat at the table when rules and regulations are made that affect their athletic careers, their education, and their lives.

“I’m pleased to announce that Northwestern football players have signed cards authorizing the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) to assert their rights before the National Labor Relations Board,” said Colter, a two-time co-captain of the Northwestern football team.

The cards have been submitted to the NLRB regional office in Chicago, which now begins the process of determining whether a union election will be held at Northwestern.

CAPA is a newly organized union of college athletes that grew out of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes. CAPA is affiliated with the United Steelworkers.

“College athletes need a labor organization that gives them a seat at the table,” said Ramogi Huma, a co-founder of CAPA and a former football player at UCLA.

At the media conference where Colter made the announcement, he read a statement by the Northwestern players who signed union authorization cards.

The players praised Northwestern, its football program, and its coaches but said they needed to take action “to eliminate unjust NCAA rules that create physical, academic, and financial hardships for college athletes across the nation.”

The NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association, governs most college sports in the US.

“The current model (for governing college sports) resembles a dictatorship,” said Colter. “The NCAA places these rule and regulations on students without their input and without negotiations.”

Huma said that “college football and basketball players spend 40 hours a week on their sport alone while their graduation rate hovers around 50 percent.”

“Despite the extraordinary value (student athletes) bring to their universities, they are too often left to pay medical expenses during and after their college careers,” said Huma. “They can be stripped of their college scholarship for any reason including injury.”

They can also have their scholarship opportunities and eligibility held hostage when they try to transfer to a different school, he added.

Perhaps most galling, is the fact that college athletics generate billions of dollars a year, yet the players reap very little of this bounty.

According to The $6 Billion Heist: Robbing College Athletes Under the Guise of Amateurism, a report authored by Huma during his tenure at NCPA and researchers from the Sports Management Department at Drexel University, the NCAA uses the concept of amateurism “to enforce a system that distributes the wealth generated by big money college sports programs away from the players and redirects it to coaches, administrators, conference commissioners, bowl executives, colleges, universities, and corporate entities.”

The average value of a full athletic scholarship during the 2011-2012 school years was $23,204 and these scholarships don’t cover the full cost of college attendance.

The report estimates that the average yearly shortfall of  a so-called full scholarship is $3,285, an expense that comes out of the athlete’s own pocket.

Many of these student athletes, says the report, live in poverty while going to school and playing sports.

“Too many athletes who generate huge sums of money for their universities still struggle to pay for basic necessities, and too many live in fear of losing their scholarships due to injury or accident,” said Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers  international president  at the media conference. “These students deserve some assurance that when they devote weeks, months and years of their lives to an academic institution, that they will not be left out to dry, without the same basic protections that we all expect from the institutions we serve.”

Despite the unfairness of the way that the NCAA distributes revenue, CAPA is not making the redistribution of this wealth its priority now.

Instead, Colter said, CAPA, will concentrate on issues involving player safety, the protection of their scholarships, which can be taken away for any reason, and transfer and eligibility policy.

Kain said that he started thinking about forming a players union last summer after witnessing and thinking about the injustices that college athletes face.

“I came to the conclusion that these injustices occur . . . because student athletes don’t have a voice” when the NCAA makes rules and regulations that affect our lives.

Low-wage Pentagon workers strike; Pres. Obama to raise minimum wage for federal contractors

About 50 cleaning and food service workers walked off the job at the Pentagon on January 22 to protest low-wages and to demand that President Obama take executive action to raise the minimum wage for workers employed by private federal contractors.

The strikers were joined by about 100 more supporters for a rally outside of the Pentagon.

The strike and rally were organized by Good Jobs Nation.

“A study of federal contract workers found that 77 percent of them earn under $10 an hour,” said Reverend Michael Livingston of Interfaith Worker Justice as he spoke at the rally. “Four in ten rely on public assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid to survive. Shame on the federal government!”

The action at the Pentagon is the seventh strike in seven months by low-wage workers employed by private companies that provide an array of services to the federal government.

According to Demos, there are 2 million workers employed by these private contractors throughout the US who make less than $12 an hour.

In fact, the federal government has become the largest employer of low-wage workers surpassing both McDonald’s and Walmart.

At one time, many of these jobs were government jobs that paid a decent wage and provided benefits.

But the wave of privatization that began in the 1990s, eliminated many of the these jobs.

The services that these workers provided were taken over by private companies that pay low wages and provide few if any benefits.

“I’ve worked here for eight years,” said Robin Law a Pentagon striker employed by Sbarro, a pizza chain with a restaurant in the Pentagon. “I started at $8 an hour then went up to $10. When the government shut down happened, he took my wage down to $8. Rent, food, clothing, heat, school supplies–I struggle to pay bill. I work full time and still struggle.”

Law also said that she has no paid sick leave, doesn’t get paid for holidays, and has no paid vacation. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid,” she said.

Good Jobs Nation over the last seven months has been organizing one-day strikes and rallies like the one at the Pentagon to call attention to the plight of low-wage government contract workers and to pressure President Obama into signing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for these workers.

Up until now, the position of the Administration has been that it would prefer to increase the minimum wage through legislative rather than executive action.

But that position has changed.

On the morning of January 28, the Washington Post reported that in the President’s State of the Union address, Mr Obama will announce that he will issue an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10.

“I applaud President Obama for issuing this executive order which will raise wages for hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers,” said US Senator Bernie Sanders, who in September had written to the President urging him to issue an executive order establishing a minimum wage for federal contractors. “The president has made it clear that employees working for government contractors should not be paid starvation wages. This executive order also gives us momentum for raising the minimum wage for every worker in this country to at least $10.10 an hour.”

While this order will mean relief for many low-wage workers in the not-too-distant future, it won’t have an immediate impact.

According to the Washington Post, the executive order will apply only to new contracts that become effective at the beginning of fiscal year 2015, which begins October 1, 2014.

Those working for less than $10.10 who work for employers whose contract doesn’t come up for renewal will have to wait until their employers’ contract is renewed.

USAS urges Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to break up with T-Moblile

Members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) at the University of Southern California demonstrated at a recent Los Angeles concert by Grammy winners Macklemore & Ryan Lewis urging the duo to break their ties with T-Mobile, which sponsored the January 23 concert at the Belasco.

The students accused T-Mobile, the fourth largest wireless provider in the US, and its CEO John Legere of using “brutal psychological terror” against its call center workers to squeeze more sales out of them.  T-Mobile call centers, according to USAS, are “electronic sweatshops” where workers are cajoled, harassed, and humiliated to meet ever-changing and arbitrary production goals.

The students were hoping that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis would take a public stand to support mistreated T-Mobile workers just as they did when they publicly condemned the racist murder of Trayvon Martin and just as they have done to support gay rights.

In addition to the USAS action in Los Angeles, MoveOn.org is circulating a petition urging the two entertainers to break up with T-Mobile. So far, more than 3,400 people have signed it.

“Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have used their celebrity status to raise the conversation about important injustices,” reads MoveOn’s explanation of the petition. “They can do it again and send a message to T-Mobile that they won’t work with a company that treats its workers this badly.”

How badly does T-Mobile treat its workers?

Steve Early in his most recent book Save Our Unions reports that T-Mobile workers labor under high levels of job insecurity and stress and are subjected to intimidation and public humiliation.

A report in the German magazine Der Spiegel gives one example:

In one (T-Mobile) call center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, employees who didn’t perform to standard were made to spend hours wearing a dunce’s cap as a highly visible sign of their supposed failure. One 41-year-old employee described how the hat made its way from desk to desk, eventually landing with her. She had to wear it several times, in fact, and said she had never in her life felt so “small and ridiculous.”

To fight back, T-Mobile workers with the help of the Communication Workers of America, have formed a worker organization called TU.

One of the unique features of TU is that it has established close ties with the German service workers union ver. di. T-Mobile is owned by Deutsche Telekom, whose workers are members of ver. di.

Ver. di has urged Deutsche Telekom to treat its American workers the same as its German workers, which would mean recognizing and bargaining with its workers’ union.

So far, the German company has not extended its German model of labor relations to the US.

In fact, its American arm, T-Mobile has been hostile to its workers organizing efforts and has illegally fired and disciplined workers who speak out in favor of unionization.

At least, that’s what the National Labor Relations Board General Counsel concluded in November when he announced that he would prosecute T-Mobile for illegally firing Josh Coleman and illegally disciplining Ellen Bracken for supporting the union campaign at T-Mobile’s Wichita call center where Coleman formerly worked and Bracken still does.

Before Coleman was fired, he was a top performer who received promotions, awards, and written commendations for his work.

But the kudos stopped when he started urging fellow employees to unionize.

“I was an active and vocal supporter of having a union and getting a voice on the job for my co-workers and myself,” said Coleman. “I was targeted and ultimately fired for this activity, despite the fact that none of the allegations made against me were true.”

The hearing date for Coleman’s and Bracken’s case has not been set.

T-Mobile’s bullying tactics may have been intended to inflate performance measures to attract a buyer.

Deutsche Telekom has been looking to sell T-Mobile so that it can exit the US market, and in December, a report in the Wall Street Journal said that Sprint, the US’s third leading wireless provider, is considering buying T-Mobile.

That possible merger is still in the talking stages, but both sides seem serious about proceeding.

The sponsorship of the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis concert was intended to enhance the T-Mobile brand among young mobile device users, which would also make its sale more attractive.

Just as USAS asked Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to break up with T-Mobile, it is also is asking students and their universities to break up with the company.

In an announcement about its nationwide Justice for T-Mobile Workers effort, USAS said, “We’re launching campaigns calling for an end to our universities’ ties with T-Mobile unless the company does the right thing and agrees to allow its workers to form a union free of management intimidation and puts an end to (its) . . . humiliating practices in its call centers.”

USAS said that it is hoping for the same success it had with its campaign to end university relationships with sweatshops making university logo apparel.

Union mounts campaign against postal privatization

Delegations from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) recently visited 13 Staples store in the San Francisco Bay Area to protest the company’s involvement in a postal privatization scheme.

In November, the United States Postal Service (USPS)  announced a one-year pilot of a partnership between USPS and Staples, Inc. that would allow the corporation to operate retail postal units in 84 Staples stores in four areas of the US: Atlanta, Pittsburg, Central Massachusetts, and California.

The retail postal units in the Staples stores sell stamps and accept letters and packages for delivery by USPS. They are staffed by Staples employees.

After the end of the pilot period, the privatization experiment could be expanded to 1,600 Staples stores throughout the US, which could result in the closure of local post offices.

“This is a direct assault on our jobs and on public postal services,” said Mark Dimondstein, APWU president. “The APWU supports the expansion of postal services. But we are adamantly opposed to USPS plans to replace good-paying union jobs with non-union low-wage jobs held by workers who have no accountability for the safety and security of the mail. Postal workers deserve better, and our customers deserve better.”

Shortly after learning that USPS and Staples had finalized their deal, APWU began developing a campaign to stop the privatization effort.

Union leaders said that the campaign would resemble a similar effort that the APWU mounted in 1988 to stop USPS from opening outlets in Sears stores.

In that campaign, APWU members flooded Sears executives with hundreds of thousands of pieces of mail criticizing Sears for its involvement in a scheme that would lead to the loss of good paying postal service jobs and problematic service for postal customers.

APWU members were joined by thousands of other union members who expressed their anger at Sears.

That action led to an agreement between Sears and USPS to halt the experiment.

APWU’s most recent campaign began in earnest on January 8 and 9 when delegations from the union hand delivered letters, protesting the company’s involvement, to local Staples stores in the New York Metropolitan area.

Those visits were followed by store visits in Charlotte, North Carolina and Springfield, Illinois.

The actions in the Bay Area are the biggest to date. APWU leaders urged locals throughout the country to organize similar visits.

Staples has also received similar letters from leaders of New York and Connecticut state AFL-CIOs.

APWU plans to organize a day of action at Staples stores throughout the US. Additionally, it will organize sustained actions at a number of stores where postal retail units have opened.

Dimondstein said that the union would support partnering with Staples if the postal units were staffed by USPS workers.

The union also questioned Staples track record with regards to the way it treats its workers, citing a 2010 report that said that Staples agreed to pay $42 million to settle class action lawsuits alleging that the company misclassified assistant store managers to avoid paying them overtime.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahue said that the union’s fears about privatization are misplaced because USPS has no plans to do so.

Nevertheless, right-wing politicians and pundits continue to champion the idea of privatizing US mail delivery.

Such an idea received a huge setback during the Christmas Holidays when USPS outperformed its package delivery competitors UPS and FedEx.

The two private companies disappointed thousands of customers when they failed to deliver Christmas packages on time.

USPS, on the other hand, performed superbly reports Bloomberg Businessweek:

There was a lot of post-Christmas discussion about how UPS fumbled its last-minute holiday deliveries, and FedEx apologized for some late-arriving packages, too. What went largely unmentioned, however, was that the stellar performance of the US Postal Service.

The government-run competitor was swamped with parcels just like UPS and FedEx were, with holiday package volume 19 percent higher than the same period late year. But there were no widespread complaints about tardy deliveries by USPS.

According to Bloomberg, USPS attributed its success to “meticulous planning” and flexibility which included delivering packages on three Sundays before Christmas and making 75,000 deliveries on Christmas Day.

UPS considered Christmas Day deliveries but decided not to do so.

Teamster committee recommends approval of YRC Worldwide agreement

A committee of local Teamster leaders approved a new tentative agreement with YRC Worldwide. The committee also recommended that members accept the agreement when they vote on it at local meetings to be held on January 25 and 26. The vote will be conducted by secret ballot.

Members rejected a previous YRC offer by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent. The offer, made without bargaining with the union, would have extended the current contract through 2019, kept in place concessions members agreed to in 2009, and implemented new concessions.

The new agreement is an improvement over the earlier offer but still contains substantial concessions that were in the original offer.

“No one wants concessions,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamster general president. “But with a yes vote, at least we live to see another day, and I’d urge (members) to do that.”

YRC Worldwide, a holding company that operates the largest less-than-load freight hauling business in the US, is facing financial difficulties, which by all accounts is the result of poor executive decisions.

According to Forbes, YRC’s difficulties are the result of “ill-fated moves to expand the company through aggressive acquisitions.”

The buying binge began in 2003 when Yellow Transportation merged with Roadway and culminated in 2008 with purchase of freight companies in China.

The acquisitions left YRC Worldwide with a heavy debt load, which along with a sluggish economy dampened profits. The last time that the company turned a profit was 2007.

The company’s fortunes seemed to be on the mend recently. While profits remained negative, business had picked up, and by 2013, the outlook was good enough that the company sought to buy one of its leading competitors ABF.

But the deal fell through.

At the time of the acquisition attempt, ABF was in negotiations with Teamsters on a new agreement.

Hoffa called the acquisition attempt a sign of YRC’s “arrogance,” which, he said, originally got the company in trouble. He called on YRC to restore worker wages and benefits before it sought to buy other companies.

Even though the deal fell through, YRC’s CEO James Welch told the Kansas City Business Journal that the attempted acquisition demonstrated the financial strength of the company.

But it soon became clear that Welch’s boast was more bluster than fact.

Payments on more than a $1 billion in debt acquired by YRC to finance previous acquisitions were coming due in 2014 and 2015, and YRC announced that it didn’t have the cash on hand to make the payments.

It sought to refinance the loans, but lenders demanded that the company seek further concessions from Teamster members before they would agree to the loans.

In November, the company proposed an offer to extend the current agreement with modifications through 2019. The offer kept wages at 15 percent below wages in Teamsters national transportation master agreement, established lower pay for new hires, increased worker health care expenses, and allowed YRC to continue contributing 75 percent less to the workers’ pension fund than other trucking companies included in the Teamsters’ national transportation master agreement.

It also reduced vacation time, expanded outsourcing, and implemented work rule changes including changes to the company’s attendance policy.

After the workers rejected the offer, YRC began to bargain with the Teamsters, and the tentative agreement is the result of that bargaining process.

The original offer provided for $0.34 an hour raises in 2016, 2017, and 2018, for drivers–which would keep their pay 15 percent below the master agreement–but dock workers, clerical workers, and other non-drivers received no raises.

The tentative agreement extends the wage increase and lump sum payments to all union workers.

It also improves the attendance policy originally offered by the company, restores some of the proposed cuts to vacation time, improves the proposed wage reductions for new hires, modifies the company’s original proposal for outsourcing work, and includes layoff protections.

In addition, the tentative agreement bars the company from making further acquisitions without the union’s approval.

The agreement leaves in place the higher health care costs, reduced pension contributions, and a wage structure 15 percent below the one in the master agreement.

Local Teamster leaders who recommended approval were under tremendous pressure to do so. They were told by the Teamsters’ economic adviser that if the agreement is rejected, YRC will likely declare bankruptcy.

California workers seek stronger wage theft laws

Calling wage theft in California, “rampant,” hundreds of workers from across the state rallied in Sacramento on January 15 to demand that lawmakers pass AB 1164, a bill before the state Assembly that will add some muscle to existing wage theft laws.

“We are here today because there is a robbery in progress and the victims – hard working men and women who do our state’s hardest jobs – deserve justice,” said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West. “Passing Assembly Bill 1164 will give us the tools we need to hold wage thieves accountable and put billions of earned dollars back into workers’ paychecks and our state’s economy.”

The rally, a media conference, and a lobbying training session were organized by the California Fair Paycheck Coalition.

If enacted, AB 1164 would extend the state’s Mechanic’s Lien laws to a wide range of workers. Doing so would allow workers who file a claim of wage theft to put a lien on property owned by their employer until the case is decided.

Currently, California construction workers can obtain Mechanic’s Liens when wage theft violations are charged, but as a 2010 survey conducted by researchers at UCLA shows wage theft is not uncommon in a number of other industries including janitorial services, garment manufacturing, carwashes, restaurants, and retail sales.

Since much of the wage theft that occurs in the state is done by subcontractors that can easily avoid responsibility for labor law violation by going out of business and reorganizing themselves, the bill provides sanctions against the subcontractors’ employers, who in some cases, hire subcontractors to avoid labor law accountability.

According to a media statement released by the Fair Paycheck Coalition, in Los Angeles alone, workers lose $1 billion a year to wage theft that can take different forms including below minimum wage pay, lack of overtime time pay, forcing workers to work during breaks or off the clock, and tip stealing.

UCLA researchers, who published their findings in a report entitled “Wage Theft and Workplace Violation in Los Angeles,” surveyed more than 1,800 low-wage workers in Los Angeles County. Of those surveyed, 30 percent reported being paid less than the minimum wage.

Respondents to the survey on average lost nearly $40 a week to wage theft, or 12.5 percent of their weekly wages.

The report estimates that 17 percent of Los Angeles workforce is made up of low-wage workers, the group most likely to be victimized by wage theft.

The most common victims of wage theft are women and immigrant workers.

Like most states, California has laws against wage theft, but the state’s enforcement remedies are weak. Fewer than 20 percent of California’s wage theft victims recover wages owed to them.

In Wisconsin, which has expanded its wage lien laws, the recovery rate is 80 percent.

“Our findings reveal that a shocking percentage of workers are unable to recover their unpaid wages in California,” said Eunice Cho, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project. “Sadly, without the tools in place to enforce their rights, workers can lose thousands each year in unpaid wages. California can put in place stronger tools – as other states have done successfully – to hold employers accountable for paying wages.”

The workers’ rally for action against wage theft coincides with an extensive media campaign paid for by SEIU. The campaign urges workers who may be victims of wage theft to come forward and tell their stories.

The six figure campaign includes Spanish-language radio ads in Los Angeles and other large and medium media markets and a presence on Facebook and mobile devices.

SEIU expects to reach 1.5 million workers who may have wage theft stories to tell.

“For too long employers have exploited our work, counting on the fact that we didn’t have a good chance of recovering our money,” said Anita Herrera, a janitor from San Diego who has been trying to recover stolen wages. “Women and immigrants are especially vulnerable. That stops today; we are bringing forward the voices of people who’ve been exploited, so legislators cannot ignore the impact stolen wages have on our families.”

Herrera has been trying to recover money that she was awarded because she was forced to work through meals and breaks without pay. Her employer has evaded paying the wages and is now operating under a different name.