Revolt in Bosnia crosses ethnic divides

A protest by workers in the city of Tuzla against privatization, sparked a nationwide revolt against the rulers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation carved out of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s after a bloody civil war that pitted Bosniaks (Muslims), Serb, and Croats who lived in the area against each other.

The workers’ protest was joined by young people, and members of civic associations fed up with government corruption and neglect.

While ethnic tension remain high in the former Yugoslavian republic, the uprising was marked by its class rather than ethnic dimensions.

“We are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites,” writes Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher, author, and Communist theoretician in The Guardian. “The people of Bosnia have finally understood who their enemy is–not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them.”

The protests began at a laundry detergent factory in Tuzla.

The factory, a former state-owned enterprise when Bosnia was a part of socialist Yugoslavia, had been sold to a businessman who Reuters describes as a “tycoon from the Bosnian capital (of Sarajevo).”

After the factory was sold, most of the workers were laid off, but a skeleton crew of about 100 remained on the job.

Reuters reports that the workers who remained had not been paid for two years.

Recently, a group of both employed and unemployed workers had set up an encampment at the factory gates to prevent the owner from stripping the factory of its machines and equipment and selling them, a common practice in Bosnia.

The workers had tried to get the local government, which had sold the factory under the condition that the new owner invest in new equipment and continue production, to take action against the new owner.

But the local government ignored them.

On February 4, the workers marched to the local government’s headquarters to demand action. They were joined by other workers and young people, who had grievances of their own.

Instead of meeting with the protestors, government officials sent the police to disperse the crowd.

The workers and their supporters resisted, and the two sides fought.

The government’s callous attitude sparked sympathy demonstrations in other parts of the country, which were also met with police repression.

The repression as well as poverty and unemployment caused the demonstrations to grow in number and ferocity.

The country’s unemployment rate is more than 27 percent; for young people, the rate is 60 percent.

Many of the country’s formerly state-owned businesses have been sold to private companies that stripped factories of their assets and shut them down.

All of this has been allowed to take place by a government that has funneled aid money from the European Union into the pockets of government leaders and their cronies.

The anger sparked by corruption, privation, and privatization erupted on Friday, February 7, into pitched battles between thousands protestors and the police and special forces in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Mostar. Some protestors burned government buildings.

Peaceful protests took place in Kakanj, Visoko, Konjic, and Livno in the Bosniak and Croat regions.

While smaller, there were also peaceful protests in Banja Luka, Prijedor, Bijeljina, and Foca in the Serbian autonomous region.

In Tuzla, the protestors issued a manifesto that called for the creation of a new Bosnia-Herzegovina whose principles would be based on social justice, not the divisive ethnic interests that currently defines the country.

Among the 37 demands in the manifesto, the protestors called for free health care, more jobs for young people, an end to privatization, taking back former government assets that have already been privatized, and an end to government corruption.

The manifesto also demanded a more equal society. One of the biggest complaints of protestors is the disparity between the salary of high government officials, whose salaries are around 3,500 euros a month, and the rest of the population, whose monthly salaries average about 400 euros a month.

The Tuzla manifesto demands that government officials should be paid the same wage as workers. (The Paris Commune of 1871 made a similar demand during its uprising.)

In addition to social justice, the Tuzla manifesto calls for the banning of “nationalist and religious based parties.”

In other parts of Bosnia, the protests have been led by social justice organizations with names like Udar, Revolt, and Occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So far, the groups’ slogans like the one from Udar that reads, “It does not matter if you are a Serb, a Croat, or a Bosniak. Together we are stronger,” have emphasized the common cause of their struggle against nationalist elites.

The one unifying demand of all the protests seems to be that the current Bosnia-Herzegovina government, which is led by an unresponsive troika composed of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb, must resign.

The protestors also want the governments of 10 cantons (local governments) in Bosnia to resign. So far, four have done so.

On February 10 and 11, demonstrators again took to the streets, but the demonstrations remained peaceful.

Protests are likely to continue until a new government is formed. The current rulers have stated that they will allow elections to take place but no date has been set yet.

There is a chance that the current rulers may try to stay in power by reviving ethnic tensions.

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Demonstators to UT: “No layoffs, privatization, or Accenture”

Workers, students, and faculty on February 7 rallied at the University of Texas at Austin campus to protest a plan to eliminate 500 UT jobs. The plan was authored by Accenture, an international company specializing in privatizing public resources.

More than 300 people gathered at and marched across the campus on a day when the opening of classes was delayed until noon because of a winter weather advisory.

“(Accenture’s) plan is for UT to spend $130 million in order to eliminate 500 UT jobs and relocate 400 other jobs into centralized call centers,” said Anne Lewis, an instructor in the UT Radio, Television, and Film Department and executive board member of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU) at the rally.

“The plan is the same old stuff on steroids,” Lewis continued. “Claiming austerity, (it’s)a neoliberal attack on the public sector and on public workers.  The impact is both on the nature and the day-to-day at this university.”

UT, claiming that it is facing a deficit in its operating budget, contracted with Accenture to develop a plan to redesign administrative services and save money.

Accenture’s big picture plan calls for more centralization and the privatization of services at UT.

Accenture released its Shared Services proposal, the initial phase of its long-range redesign plan, in the fall of 2013. The plan eliminates 500 administrative information technology, finance, and human resources jobs and centralizes the rest. Much of the centralized work would be done at call centers.

Shared Services and Accenture’s long-range redesign plan has sparked the ire of students, workers, and faculty, which has led to a series of public protests.

“We’ve won some victories,” said Lewis at a TSEU meeting prior to the most recent rally and march. “UT backed away from privatizing food service work, which Accenture originally proposed, and more recently, the UT administration said that it will slow down the implementation of Shared Services. But the administration is just biding its time hoping that we’ll be lulled into a sense of complacency, so that it can move ahead without so much resistance.”

The fight to halt Accenture’s ill-conceived redesign plan, is led by the Save Our Community Coalition (SOCC), composed of TSEU, Education Austin, Workers Defense Project, International Socialist Organization (ISO), Oxfam, University Leadership Initiative, Native American and Indigenous Collective (NAIC), Queer People of Color and Allies (QPOCA), Texas Fair Trade Coalition, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

The February rally and march coincided with a national USAS conference, and many of the participants were USAS members attending the conference.

“(We fear) that any continuing relationship with Accenture puts the university at risk,” Bianca Hinz Foley, local organizer for USAS. “The Save Our Community Coalition, a UT and community-based group, is committed to putting pressure on the UT administration to protect UT as a place that values each community member, including hard-working and dedicated staff. The group is calling on Chancellor Cigarroa and President Bill Powers to terminate all current contracts with Accenture and prevent any future relationships with the firm.”

According SOCC, Accenture has a long history of costly and failed redesign projects. Most prominent among these was Accenture’s plan to redesign and privatize Texas’ health and human services.

Texas paid Accenture more than $200 million but had to scrap its plan that relied heavily on privatized call centers because the call centers made it difficult for Texans to access health and human services such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and food stamps.

UT workers, students, and faculty are concerned that if Accenture’s administrative redesign is implemented the quality of services provided by UT employees will decline because the close working relationship that now exists between staff and the students and faculty who they serve will be replaced by impersonal and distant call centers.

UT has justified the need for Accenture’s redesign by citing a deficit in the university’s operating budget.

But Dr. Alberto Martinez, a UT history professor, in an op ed piece appearing in the Austin American Statesman said that UT’s so-called fiscal crisis is really a crisis of misplaced priorities.

According to Martinez, UT raised $463 million last year as a result of its fund raising efforts; however, none of this money will be used to fund operations, where it is really needed.

Instead, the money was funneled into endowments and other restricted accounts.

If UT had its priorities straight, wrote Martinez. “We could solve a severe $1 million deficit in a college in just 20 hours of fund raising.”

NYC transport workers to stand in solidarity with commuter rail workers if they strike

The leader of the union representing 38,000 New York bus and subway workers said that his union will support workers at the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) if they go on strike in March.

“The outcome of the LIRR’s unions’ dispute will have a direct impact on our own contract with (New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority),” wrote John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, in a letter to Local 100 members. . . That is why “TWU 100 will support any strike action taken by the LIRR unions against the MTA in every way possible. This will not only include the establishment and manning of picket lines, but every other lawful means possible at our disposal.”

Samuelson did not specify what actions Local 100 members would take, but Newsday reports that such actions might include refusing to work overtime or to work on days off.

Refusing to work extra hours will make it difficult for MTA to implement its strike contingency plans, which include using buses to shuttle passengers affected by an LIRR strike.

MTA operates both the New York City bus and subway system and the LIRR, which ferries commuters from the suburbs on Long Island to the city.

Local 100’s solidarity announcement was a big boost for the LIRR unions, which have worked without a new contract since 2010.

A coalition of LIRR union representing two-thirds of the 5,600 union workers at LIRR announced recently that unless the MTA accepts the findings of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), the unions will strike on March 21.

LIRR is governed by the Railway Labor Act, which requires unions and employers to mediate disputes when an agreement cannot be reached. If mediation results in an impasse, the President has the authority to empanel a PEB to make recommendations for resolving the dispute.

Once a PEB makes its recommendations, both sides can accept or reject the recommendations.

In December PEB 244 appointed by President Obama conducted hearings and reviewed documents submitted by both sides in the dispute. After careful study, PEB 244 recommended that the workers receive a 2.9 percent pay raise a year for six years. The raise would be retroactive to 2010 when the old contract expired.

The PEB also recommended that workers pay higher health care costs. The higher health care costs would mean a 2.5 percent a year net pay increase. PEB also recommended against higher worker pension contributions sought by MTA.

The union coalition, which includes the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (SMART)/UTU, the National Conference of  Firemen and Oilers SEIU 32BJ, and the Transportation Communications Union, accepted the PEB recommendations. MTA did not.

MTA clings to its demand that there be no raises for the first year of the contract and has said that including the first year in a retroactive pay raise would require a fare increase.

PEB after studying the financial documents submitted by MTA found that MTA had the financial resources to pay the retroactive raise, including a raise in the first year of the contract, without raising fares.

Anthony Simon, who leads the LIRR union coalition, said that the PEB finding came before the MTA announced that it had received an $80 million real estate windfall.

It (is) the same old story,” said Simon. “Money for everything else except worker raises.”

During the last three years, LIRR workers have received no raises. MTA officials said that they too have shared in the workers’ sacrifice by foregoing raises.

But Simon, said that this so-called shared sacrifice was a sham exposed by the PEB.

“PEB 244 determined that there were in fact raises given to management,” said Simon in his MTA board testimony. . . “The PEB . . . saw right through these claims and exposed the real truth.”

Samuelson told TWU Local 100 that he would appoint a committee to develop an action plan for maximizing Local 100’s support for a fair contract for LIRR workers.

“In some way or another, you will all be called upon to participate,” said Samuelson in his letter to members. “I know I can expect your best efforts at protecting our families and our livelihoods by supporting our fellow MTA workers at the LIRR.

NYC charter schools challenged by union and mayor

The president of the New York City’s public school teachers’ union recently issued a challenge to the city’s charter schools.

If they are really interested in playing a meaningful role in public education, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a January 14 article in the New York Daily News, charter school operators need to

  • Be willing to serve the city’s neediest children
  • Open their books to public scrutiny
  • Be good neighbors and
  • Stop treating children as profit centers

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education announced that it would divert $210 million budgeted for charter school construction. The money will be used  to ease school overcrowding and to help fund Mayor de Blasio’s planned expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program.

The shortcomings of the New York City charter schools that drew Mulgrew’s challenge are amplified in a recent report released by UFT, entitled “Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report.”

Charter schools educate 6 percent of New York City’s public school students and charge the city $13,500 a year to do so.

The report finds that while charter schools characterize themselves as non-profit organizations, they generate generous incomes for their top executives and charge high management fees.

Six of the most prominent charter chains– Achievement First, Success Charter Network, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Village Academies Network, and Ichan Charters–pay their top executives an average annual salary of $354,500. The highest paid of these six works for Village Academies Network and makes nearly one-half million dollars a year. The next highest paid works for Success Charter Network and makes $475,000 a year.

Theses two salaries and the one paid to KIPP charter schools, ($395,000 a year) are more than the mayor’s or New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s, and the executives only oversee a small number of schools.

These same charter chains charged the New York City School District more than $12 million in management fees, 15 percent of the funding they received from the city during the 2011-2012 school year.

The charters claim that they operate on a narrow margin, but the report shows that the six charter chains mentioned above have assets totaling more than $65 million.

How they spend their money isn’t clear because unlike public schools charters are not subject to independent audits. In fact, charter supporters have gone to court to prevent independent audits by New York State Comptroller.

Charters have also been reluctant to throw their doors open to all as public schools must do. In fact, the UFT report presents some evidence suggesting that charters cherry pick students most likely to succeed.

According to the report, “tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.”

Despite the screening process, charter students didn’t do any better on recent standardized tests than public school students.

“In reading, charter schools as a whole scored under the citywide average,” reports the UFT.

Charters are required to serve children with special needs and those who don’t speak English as a first language, but many ignore this requirement, said Mulgrew.

“Parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been ‘counseled out’ of charters, (and) most of them (end) up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores,” he said.

Mulgrew also said that charters need to learn to be better neighbors. Most of charters co-locate at public schools but go to great lengths to keep their students from having contact with public school students in the same building.

As a result of these and other problems, Mayor de Blasio while he was campaigning for office said that he would not follow former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of preferential treatment for charter schools.

In addition to diverting money that Mayor Bloomberg had earmarked for charter school construction, de Blasio said that he would discontinue the policy of allowing charters to co-locate at public schools.

Forty-two new charters are scheduled to begin co-location in September. Those new co-locations are on hold while being reviewed by the city’s education department. No new co-locations will be approved.

The charters pay no rent for using public school space, which de Blasio said during his campaign, added “insult to injury” to public school students, teachers, and the public.

The free rent adds about $650 per child in extra public funding that charters receive from the city.

More recently, he said that the co-location process was “a broken one that didn’t consult with parents and communities effectively.”

Nurses oppose Keystone pipeline citing public health risks

National Nurses United asked supporters to sign the union’s petition urging President Obama to reject approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the nurses’ union says is a threat to public health.

“There is broad concern about the harmful health effects linked to both the extraction and transport of tar sands, as well as how the pipeline will accelerate the steadily worsening erosion of health we see every day as a result of climate change,” said Jean Ross, co-president of NNU. “Nurses will continue to oppose construction of this project, and call on President Obama to stand with our patients and our communities, not the big oil interests, to reject KXL.”

Meanwhile the Teamsters and building trades unions are urging the President to approve the pipeline’s construction immediately.

Citing a recent report by the US State Department saying that the pipeline’s impact on climate change will be minimal, Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trade Unions, said that there was no longer any excuse to delay the project.

The pipeline will be built by the world’s “safest and most skilled workforce,” who will build the pipeline “in accordance with the strictest environmental and safety standards,” said McGarvey, who pointed out that the pipeline will provide good paying jobs in an industry where unemployment remains above 12 percent.

The US State Department recently released its report on the environmental impact of the pipeline. The report said that the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change.

President Obama said last summer that his decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline would hinge on the findings of the report.

But the nurses’ union was critical of the report saying that it didn’t sufficiently consider the public health impact of the pipeline.

According to the nurses, one of the main problems with the pipeline is that it enables an oil extraction process whose toxic bi-products contaminate drinking water.

The massive amounts of water needed to extract oil from Canadian tar sand becomes contaminated with bitumen, oil, and sand during the process. When this toxic mix is disposed of, it sometimes finds its way into drinking water supplies.

“Communities downstream from the (disposal) ponds have seen spikes in rates of cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism,” said the nurses’ statement about the pipeline. ” In one small community of just 1,200 residents, 100 have already died from cancer.”

Once the oil is extracted from tar sand and is on its way through the pipeline, it will cross over aquifers and rivers that are drinking water sources for communities near the 1,700 mile pipeline. The nurses say pipeline spills, which are inevitable, will pollute this drinking water and point to the public health impact of spills that have already occurred,

In 2010, a tar sands oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Minnesota. The diluted bitumen traveled 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River to Morrow Lake. More than a month later, state officials found that half of the residents in communities along the river reported respiratory ailments and other symptoms associated with the spill. In 2011, TransCanada pipeline spills and ruptures occurred in North Dakota and Montana. On March 29, 2013, an Exxon Mobil pipeline with tar sands oil ruptured near Mayflower, Ark. For months after, residents cited persistent health problems, and independent water and air tests have shown elevated levels of contaminants.

Another public health problem created by the pipeline will be increased pollution at refineries, the final destination of the pipeline’s oil.

Refining oil from tar sand is much more difficult and takes longer than refining oil from conventional sources. The extended process will cause more harmful pollutants to be released into the air.

The increased pollution will increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, and premature death for people living near the refineries.

“Nurses care for patients every day who struggle with health crises aggravated by environmental pollution in its many forms,” said Deborah Burger, NNU co-president. “As a society, we need to reduce the effects of environmental factors, including climate change, that are making people sick, and endangering the future for our children. That’s why we oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Boston rally demands rehiring of fired school bus drivers

Supporters of four Boston school bus drivers fired for the union activity rallied on February 1 at the offices of Veolia Transportation demanding that the company immediately rehire the workers.

The solidarity action was organized by United Steelworkers USW) Local 8751, the union of the fired workers and other school bus drivers and workers in Boston, and endorsed by leaders of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Boston Central Labor Council, USW District 4, and other Boston unions.

Speakers accused Veolia of carrying out a union busting war on Local 8751.

The four drivers–Steve Gillis, Andre Francois, Steven Kirschbaum, and Garry Murchison–were fired because of a labor dispute last October.

Gillis is the local’s vice president and pension administrator, Francois the recording secretary and Charlestown chief steward, Murchison a steward and former president, and Kirschbaum the grievance chair.

Veolia, a worldwide corporation based in France that specializes in the privatization of public services, was awarded the Boston school bus contract in 2013.

In June, the company signed an agreement with Local 8751 to continue to honor the union’s contract.

But as soon as Veolia began operating summer school bus service in July, it became clear that the company had no intention of honoring the agreement.

“They blatantly and systematically violated nearly every article (of the contract),” said a statement by Local 8751.

Among other things, Veolia changed the way workers’ in and out time was recorded resulting in pay check errors and shortages.

The company also sped up route times causing reduced wages and safety problems and tried to reduce the amount that it had agreed to pay for worker disability insurance.

Between July and October, the union filed 175 grievances about Veolia’s contract violation and 18 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Things came to a head on October 7, when the company demanded that workers complete job application forms to reapply for their jobs.

The union thought this matter had been settled in June when the company signed its agreement with the union.

When workers came to work on October 8, they asked to meet with company officials to discuss the new applications and other grievances. Such meetings are allowed by the contract.

Management refused and a standoff ensued.

At about 11:00 A.M., the company locked the gates to the bus barn and sent the workers home.

The company then told the public that a wildcat strike had interrupted school bus service.

The USW international office issued a statement telling the workers to return to work.

“This activity does not represent the majority of our members, who believe that our issues with Veolia Transportation must be addressed through proper avenues including our contractual grievance procedure and the National Labor Relations Board,” said John Shinn, director of USW District 4.

The workers returned to work, and the union officers identified as the leaders of the action were fired.

Testifying in November before the Boston City Council, Kirschbaum said that despite what the company contends, there never was a wildcat strike.

“What we’ve said all along is that what happened to the Boston school bus drivers on October the 8th was an orchestrated and well-calculated effort at union-busting,” he said. “And, we don’t raise this rhetorically. There is documented evidence that this company participated in an illegal lockout in violation of this collective bargaining agreement they signed, article 16, and more importantly, the United States federal law under the National Labor Relations Act.”

The incident in Boston isn’t the first time that Veolia has acted aggressively to either break or weaken a union of its workers.

The East Bay Express reports that in 2011 the NLRB cited Veolia with illegal activity including refusing to bargain in good faith with union bus drivers in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona.

Veolia signed a settlement agreeing to stop its illegal activities, but in a subsequent complaint, the NLRB said that Veolia ignored the terms of the settlement and continued its illegal practices.

Veolia’s activities resulted in a six-day strike that only ended after the NLRB began to enforce a default order against the company for its illegal activity.

The NLRB also sided with bus drivers in Las Vegas who accused the company of retaliation for firing union workers for their union activity.

In Escambia County, Florida, Veolia bus drivers staged a one-day unfair labor practices strike after the company refused to bargain in good faith and refused to implement scheduled pay increases.

Veolia’s action led to a decision by county commissioners to end the country’s bus service contract with Veolia.

Back in Boston, Bishop Filipe Teixeira speaking at the solidarity rally asked Boston’s new mayor Martin Walsh to side with the fired workers by urging Veolia to reinstate them.

Walsh, formerly president of Laborers International Union of North America Local 223, issued a statement saying that the NLRB was the proper venue for resolving the fairness of the firings.