Workers question Yahoo! CEO about corpoaration’s ties to Walmart

Walmart workers on June 25 showed up at Yahoo!’s annual shareholders meeting to ask Yahoo!’s CEO Marissa Mayer some questions.

The workers wanted to know why Mayer is strengthening ties between Yahoo! and Walmart and why as a Walmart board member Mayer has refused to talk to Walmart workers about their poverty wages and the firing of workers speaking out for change at the retail giant.

One of the Walmart workers at the shareholders meeting in Sunnyvale, California was Barbara Collins, a six-year Walmart employee until she was fired last year three days after attempting to ask Mayer to use her position as a Walmart board member to improve work at Walmart.

Collins, a member of OUR Walmart, a national organization of Walmart associates, had expected a more supportive response from Mayer who has taken steps to improve work at Yahoo!, especially for working mothers like Collins.

“If Ms Mayer is serious about addressing the challenges facing working moms, she could make a huge impact by using her independent director position at Walmart to help the company improve jobs,” said Collins. “Minimum pay of $25,000 a year and full-time work would bring thousands (of) families out of poverty.”

Currently, the average hourly wage of a Walmart sales associate, according to glassdoor, is $8.86 an hour, or $17,806 for an associate who works 40 hours per week. That’s nearly $1,900 below the federal poverty level for a family of three, and many Walmart associates don’t work 40 hours a week.

OUR Walmart is proposing that Walmart raise its pay to a minimum of $12 an hour. Doing so, would raise the average full-time associate annual pay to nearly $25,000.

Poverty wages and other grievances have led Walmart workers to organize and take action to improve work at Walmart.

Most recently, Walmart mothers and other OUR members conducted a one-day strike at Walmart stores in 20 US cities. In addition to protesting poverty wages, they were demanding that the company rehire workers like Collins who were illegally fired by Walmart.

OUR members have been trying to talk to Mayer since she was hired as Yahoo!’s CEO in July 2012.

They thought that given her background she would be more sympathetic than other Walmart board members.

She was a fund raiser for President Obama and instituted policies at Yahoo! that extended the maternity leave and provided cash bonuses for parents.

But Mayer has rebuffed their efforts.

According to the blog The Walmart 1%:

Walmart workers and supporters have made a dozen separate attempts to reach her, including in late June (of 2013) when fired OUR Walmart members and supporters went to Yahoo! Headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA to speak with Ms Mayer. Police arrested members of the delegation after Ms Mayer refused to meet with them to hear their concerns.

In addition to refusing to meet with Walmart workers, Mayer has been strengthen ties between Yahoo! and Walmart. It was recently learned that Yahoo! will be appointing former Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott to the Yahoo! board.

Under Scott’s leadership, Walmart came under scrutiny for corrupt business practices.

While Scott was Walmart’s CEO, the company was linked to bribery scandals in Mexico and India. After the New York Times broke the story about the bribery scandals, Scott and other tainted Walmart officers resigned their positions.

Walmart is currently under investigation by the US Justice Department for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and is facing a number of investor lawsuits resulting from the scandals.

According to the New York Times, Walmart has spent nearly one-half billion defending itself from civil suits and the criminal investigation resulting from the scandals.

“Under M. Scott’s leadership at Walmart the company has become the subject of federal investigations for alleged bribery charges,” said Dominic Ware, an OUR member who addressed the Yahoo! shareholders’ meeting. “It’s hard to understand why Yahoo! would consider appointing Mr. Scott to the board with such a problematic track record.”

The huge expense of defending Walmart from the fallout of scandals, however, has not caused the company to scrimp on bonuses for its top executives.  During the last six years, eight of Walmart’s top executives have pocketed $298 million in bonuses.

Meanwhile, the average Walmart hourly pay rate remains below or near the poverty level.

“Associate shareholders are tired of seeing executive pay continually rising when return on investment keeps falling and a majority of our Walmart employees associate colleagues are paid less than $25,000 per year,” said Charmaine Givens-Thomas, an OUR member, who spoke at Walmart’s recent shareholders’ meeting. “This unjustified pay gap demoralizes employees, especially when shoppers are already saying that the low pay and disrespect of workers is keeping them from shopping at Walmart stores.”

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Organized farmworkers win at Sakuma Brothers Farms

Farmworkers in the State of Washington will receive compensation after their employer, Sakuma Brothers Farms, agreed to settle a wage theft suit brought against the company by the farmworkers’ organization, Las Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice).

Prior to the wage theft settlement, the farmworkers also stopped Sakuma Brothers from retaliating against members of Las Familias who went out on strike last year to protest the company’s wage theft and other grievances. Las Familias also stopped the company from using replacement workers to take the jobs of those who went on strike.

The workers now are in court to prevent the company from barring families from living in the company’s housing.  According to Las Familias, the company’s decision to bar families from housing is another attempt at retaliation against workers who went on strike.

Sakuma Brothers on June 11 agreed to pay $850,000 to settle the wage theft suit brought by Las Families. Columbia Legal Services, the legal aid agency representing Las Familias, said in a media release that the settlement “is largest farmworker wage and hour settlement on record in Washington State.”

The Sakuma Brothers workers, immigrants from Mexico who now live in the US, organized Las Familias last summer after the company refused to take seriously worker complaints that their pay was less than it was supposed to be.

The company said that the unpaid work was not systematic but rather the result of random errors.

The workers maintained that the unpaid work was deliberate. They also complained about the squalid condition of their housing and the lack of work breaks.

These grievances resulted in a series of strikes during the harvest season that lasted from the summer of 2013 through the fall.

After the harvest season ended, the workers filed wage theft charges against the company. The settlement addresses the workers’ grievances.

The settlement covers a three-year period. About 1,200 workers will receive compensation for unpaid work.

In addition, the company agreed to pay a minimum wage of at least $11.87 an hour. The agreement allows the company to set a piece rate, and if workers earn more through the piece rate than the minimum wage, they keep the higher amount.

The company will also be required to give ten minute rest breaks every four hours.

“This agreement provides fair compensation and improved working conditions. It makes up for their practice of underpaying us and not giving us breaks,” said Francisco Eugenio Paz, a member of Las Familias.

The wage theft settlement  came on the heels of another victory for the farmworkers. In May, a judge ruled that Sakuma Brothers acted illegally when it sent letters this spring  to more than 350 strikers telling them that they would not be rehired during this year’s growing season.

After receiving the letters, members of Las Familias went to court to challenge the firings. Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan Cook agreed with the workers that Sakuma Brothers was retaliating against workers who had engaged in lawful strike–a violation of Washington’s labor law– and ordered the company to send the fired workers a letter offering them work this year.

Sakuma Brothers had hoped to replace the strikers with workers hired through the US Labor Department’s H-2A Visa program, which allows employers to hire workers from other countries when no domestic labor is available.

In an administrative hearing, representatives of Las Familias argued that long-time Sakuma employees were more than willing to work but had been denied the opportunity because the company retaliated against them for going on strike.

After Judge Cook issued her ruling, Sakuma Brothers withdrew its request to hire H-2A Visa workers.

One issue remains outstanding. Sakuma Brothers has changed its housing policy. It will no longer allow families to live in company housing during the harvest.

Members of Las Familias have charged that the company’s new housing policy is aimed at punishing the strikers many of whom had lived in the company’s housing.

The matter is now being argued before a court in Skagit County, and a decision is expected soon.

Rhode Island bans local minimum wage initiatives

When Rhode Island passed a budget that among other things bars local communities from raising the minimum wage, it joined the ranks of mostly conservative states that have passed similar legislation. Rhode Island’s new $8 billion budget also reduces estate and corporate taxes.

The state’s action came after members of UNITE HERE Local 217 gathered signatures on a petition urging the Providence City Council to consider raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees of hotels with at least 25 rooms.

In response to the petition, the City Council agreed to place the $15 minimum wage on a November referendum ballot.

” I feel upset about (the Legislature blocking the $15  minimum wage referendum) because it’s basically the politicians of the state telling me, as a worker, and my coworkers, as workers, that we don’t have rights and we don’t have the right to a decent living, which is all we’re fighting for,” said Santa Brito, a hotel worker active in the Providence minimum wage campaign to Bluestockings Magazine.

Brito and four other Local 217 members staged a hunger strike on the grounds of the State House to protest the Legislature’s plan to block the minimum wage increase.

On June 18, Local 217 members and their supporters rallied at the State House support the hunger strikers and to urge Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto the minimum wage ban.

“My neighbors should be able to vote on whether or not hotel owners should give us a raise,” said Brito explaining why she and her cohorts were on the hunger strike.

Brito was fired by her employer after she went into labor while working on the job. “I’m fighting for the future of my son,” she said. “I was never paid a livable wage.”

Brito and other Local 217 members organized a successful local initiative that would have put raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on the November ballot. After collecting 1,000 signatures on a petition, they packed a meeting of the Providence City Council to show their support for raising the minimum wage.

Polling showed that such a measure had widespread support in the city and would likely have passed.

But the Legislature stepped in to block the local effort, and Gov. Chafee supported the ban bu signing the new budget.

While the new budget blocks local minimum wage initiatives, it does raise the state minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Nearby Massachusetts recently raised its minimum wage to $11 per hour.

Rhode Island becomes the latest state to pass legislation barring local governments from raising the minimum wage.

In April, Oklahoma passed a similar measure and under similar circumstances. Prior to passage of the law, Oklahoma City activists gathered signatures on a petition to put a minimum wage referendum on the ballot. Without the interference of the Legislature, residents would have had the opportunity to vote on whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Gordon Lafer, a political economist with the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, said that the Oklahoma minimum wage ban had the fingerprints of the American Legislative Affairs Council (ALEC) and the Chamber of Commerce on it.

“Recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote,” said Lafer. “They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage.”

San Francisco to vote on $15 minimum wage; IMF urges US to raise minimum wage

Residents of San Francisco in November will vote on whether to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The decision to put the measure on the ballot came after a grassroots coalition collected thousands of signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on raising the minimum wage.

After the petition was presented to Mayor Ed Lee and city’s Board of Supervisors, they reached an agreement on the wording of the referendum.

If passed, the proposed referendum would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018, and fewer workers would be exempted from coverage than were exempted by the historic $15 an hour minimum wage ordinance in Seattle.

Meanwhile, low-wage workers in the US received a boost from an unlikely source when the International Monetary Fund urged the US to raise its minimum wage. The IMF implied in its annual review of the US economy that the high level of extreme poverty in the US is a drag on economic growth.

While San Francisco is usually thought of as a wealthy city, a substantial number of its residents live in poverty.

According to the US Census Bureau, the city’s poverty rate in 2013 was 12.8 percent.

But the federal poverty guidelines that the Census Bureau uses to define poverty understates the number living in poverty because the guidelines do not account for regional differences in the cost of living.

The State of California has a higher cost of living than most other regions, and the cost of living in San Francisco is among the highest in the US.

The California Measure of Poverty accounts for this higher cost of living.

When the California measure is used, San Francisco’s poverty rate increases to 23.4 percent. Of the city’s 788,600 residents, 187,300 live in poverty.

The city’s high rate of poverty and recent national actions by low wage workers spurred a coalition of community groups and labor unions to take action. The Coalition for a Fair Economy canvassed neighborhoods collecting signatures on a petition to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15.

The coalition consisted of UNITE-HERE Local 2, SEIU Local 1021, The San Francisco Labor Council, the California Nurses Association, the San Francisco branch of ACCE, Jobs with Justice, Young Workers United, the Chinese Progressive Association, Progressive Workers Alliance, and SF Rising.

The minimum wage petition forced the referendum onto the agenda of the city’s Board of Supervisors.

If the referendum passes, the minimum wage will be raised to $13 an hour in 2016, $14 an hour in 2017, and $15 an hour in 2018. In 2019 and after, minimum wage increases will be tied to increases in the cost of living index.

According to the San Francisco Labor Council, there are only two small groups of workers who will be exempted from coverage: those participating in city-funded youth job programs and elderly monolingual immigrants who work in a city sponsored housecleaning program that provides participants with health care and sick days.

The new minimum wage standards will be phased in equally for all businesses. There won’t be two schedules–one for large businesses, the other for small businesses.

Some in the San Francisco business community, most notably owners of bars and restaurants,  have complained that raising the minimum wage will hurt business, but the recent statement by the IMF urging the US to raise its minimum wage makes the business owners’ argument less compelling.

In its annual review, the IMF estimates that the 2014 US Gross Domestic Product rate will increase by a lackluster 2 percent, well below historic levels and well below capacity.

The IMF recommended a number of actions that the US should take to spur growth. Some of which you would expect from capital’s banker of last resort and chief financial advisor–increase productivity, encourage innovation, reduce government debt, and “reform” Social Security.

But the IMF also states that the US must confront its high level of poverty and recommends extending the earned income and child tax credits and raising the minimum wage.  It notes that the US poverty rate is higher than poverty rates in comparable countries and the minimum wage is much lower.

Federal action to raise the minimum wage for now seems unlikely given the stranglehold that minimum wage opponents hold on the federal government. But efforts at the local level like the ones in San Francisco and Seattle could make a decent raise possible for low-wage workers across the US.

NJ unions sue to stop governor’s pension raid

Public employee unions in New Jersey have filed suit against Gov. Chris Christie to prevent him from diverting $2.47 billion in State contributions away from public workers’ pension funds and into the state’s treasury.

In 2010, Gov. Christie agreed to a schedule of state pension contributions designed to shore up the state’s public pension plans whose unfunded liability had increased because past governors and legislatures had diverted money away from the plans.

At the time, public employees were required to increase their pension contributions.

Since then, public employees have made all their required payments, but Gov. Christie wants to back out of his commitment and use the dedicated pension money to reduce a state budget shortfall.

One reason that New Jersey is facing a budget shortfall is that Gov. Christie has increased corporate subsidies and tax breaks.

“Governor Chris Christie has broken New Jersey’s economy,” said Hetty Rosenstein, state director for CWA New Jersey, which represents 55,000 state and local government workers. “Now, not only has he broken his word by failing to make promised pension payments, he’s breaking the law in the process. Workers have done their part and are paying more. Governor Christie needs to do his part by following the very law he touted and signed.”

In 2000, New Jersey’s three main public pension funds PERS for state employees, TPAF for teachers, and PFRS for police and firefighters had a combined unfunded liability of 111 percent, which means that the funds had assets that exceeded their liabilities by 11 percent.

Today, the combined unfunded liability is 57 percent.

According to the unions’ complaint, “the increase in the unfunded liabilities is attributable, in significant part, to the State’s failure to make its statutorily required pension contributions.”

During the last 17 years, the State has failed every year to make its full annual required pension contributions.

Like other governors who preceded him, Gov. Christie in 2011 skipped a required pension contribution. The amount of Gov. Christie’s skipped pension contribution was $3 billion.

The practice of skipping pension payments was supposed to stop when the governor and lawmakers agreed to a deal that was supposed to ensure that the State would contribute its fair share to make the pension funds sound again.

As part of that deal, workers were required to contribute more of their pay to the pension funds, the retirement age was raised to 65, and cost of living adjustments for those already retired were frozen.

Gov. Christie, however, now appears to be backing out of that deal by proposing that $887 million in pension contributions be withheld in 2014 and another $1.57 billion in 2015.

Gov. Christie’s decision to withhold pension payments he says is the result of a budget shortfall caused by lower than projected State revenue collections

State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff in May told lawmakers that the budget shortfall is the result of $2.7 billion in less than expected revenue from income, sales, and corporate taxes.

A month after Gov. Christie announced that he would be withholding pension contributions because of the revenue shortfall, the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal leaning policy and research organization, issued a report finding that Gov. Christie has been much more generous with corporations than he has with the State’s public employees.

According to the report, during Gov. Christie’s four-year tenure as governor, corporations have received $4 billion in tax subsidies and credits, or three times the amount of subsidies and tax credits awarded in the 13 previous years.

The purpose of the subsidies and credits was to stimulate the economy and create more jobs, which in turn was supposed to have created higher revenue for the State.

According to the report, Gov. Christie’s  corporate largess has done little to grow the economy and provide the revenue that the State needs to meet its obligations.

“The unprecedented growth in subsidies. . . has so far done little to significantly improve the state’s economy,” said John Whiten NJPP policy director. “Four and a half years into the surge, New Jersey’s economic recovery remains far behind that of its neighboring states and the nation.”

The lawsuit filed by CWA,  the Professional Firefighters Association of NJ (PFANJ), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFTPE), and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is aimed at stopping the practice of raiding public employees pensions when the policies of the governor and leading lawmakers fail to produce their promised results.

“Gov. Christie said (that) record-breaking tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy would create jobs,” said Rosenstein. “It’s time Christie realizes what everyone else knows: cutting taxes for the super-rich while stealing pensions (is wrong).”

Union blames understaffing for VA problems

The American Federation of Government Employees blamed understaffing for the long waits for medical care at Veterans Administration hospitals and urged Congress to act quickly on a recently introduced bill that will fund the hiring of more frontline staff.

“The prevalence of long wait lists are a symptom of the vast understaffing of VA medical facilities,” said David Cox, president of AFGE. “In order to reduce wait times and improve access to VA care that veterans earned through service to our country, we must fix the number one cause of this crisis: understaffing. There is no solving the wait list issue without first solving the staffing issue.”

USA Today reports that more than 57,000 veterans in need of medical care have had to wait more than 90 days to see a doctor. An additional 64,000 veterans who sought care over the last ten years at VA facilities never got to see a doctor.

According to AFGE, since 2009 2 million veterans have entered the VA health system but over the same period of time staffing has increased only 9 percent.

The VA’s inability to keep up with its rapidly rising caseload is due to Congress’ failure to properly fund the services that the VA provides.

To address this problem, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. John McCain have crafted a bill that increases VA funding by $500 million. The funding would be used to hire more doctors and nurses.

“The measure provides for the hiring of new medical personnel in an expedited manner at hospitals and clinics that lack enough doctors, nurses and other medical staff to provide quality care in a timely manner and ensures dedicated funding is available to hire health care professionals,” said Sanders.

The bill will also allow the VA to lease 26 new medical facilities that would expand access to care and give veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private clinics instead of the VA.

Sanders said that the bill whose title is the Veterans Access to Care Through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014 is not perfect but it is a good first step toward improving veterans health care.

“While this is not the bill that I would have written, we have taken a significant step forward with this agreement,” said Sanders.

One problems with the bill is that it expands the outsourcing of health care services.

“As many Veterans Service Organizations have expressed, such a move could jeopardize the quality of patient care since veterans will be left largely on their own to navigate care between providers lacking specialized knowledge of this population, without the critical care coordination for their complex medical needs that only the VA can provide,” said Cox.

Cox said that outsourcing should be used only as a last resort and pointed to the great strides that the VA has made in expanding access in rural areas through smart investments in telehealth and mobile clinics.

“We need to double-down on these proven systems and deliver to our veterans the quality, specialized care they earned through their service to our nation,” he said.

Cox also said that while it’s good that the bill allows for the hiring of more doctors and nurses, it should have increased funding for more support staff and more clinic space.

“The proposed $500 million to hire new doctors and nurses is critical to getting veterans in the door and provided with quality care,” said Cox. “However, we cannot forget that our medical teams need the proper infrastructure to ensure quality care, patient privacy and clinic productivity. Therefore, as VA increases the number of front-line providers at its facilities, it also needs to provide them with enough support staff and clinic space to get the job done.”

Sanders is hopeful that the Senate will take action on the compromise soon, but there may be a problem with its passage in the House.

The House recently passed its version of the VA bill, but it doesn’t included the $500 million for hiring new staff that is the key feature of the Senate bill.

San Francisco bus drivers stage sick out to protest pay cut

San Francisco bus drivers recently called in sick to protest a new contract proposed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (Muni). The three-day wildcat action was in response to a Muni contract proposal that would reduce take home pay for most Muni workers.

Muni management and the workers’ union, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, had been negotiating a new pay structure with the assistance of a mediator. Muni wants Local 250-A members to start contributing 7.5 percent of their salary to their pension fund. In return, Muni offered the workers a pay increase to offset the worker’s higher pension contribution.

But Local 250-A President Eric Williams told the San Francisco Bay Guardian that the proposed pay increase will not offset the higher contributions.

“Once we got our CPA to crunch the numbers, it’s all negative,” said Williams to the Guardian. “Our members will be making $1.10 an hour less (in take home pay) due to this negotiation.”

Under city ordinances that govern labor relations with the city’s transit workers, the workers cannot strike.

The ordinances also put the workers at a further disadvantage because if an agreement over wages can’t be reached, the matter is decided by an arbitrator whose decision must be based on guidelines that favor the city.

“The arbitrator must side with the city if they feel the cost burden will be too high on the city,” said Williams to the Guardian.

Knowing that the arbitration process favored management, Muni’s final offer did little to address worker concerns that the new proposal would mean smaller take home pay for most workers.

When workers voted May 30 on Muni’s offer, they rejected it by a vote of 1,198 to 47.

On the following Monday, workers frustration with Muni’s offer and the negotiating process that members felt was stacked against them boiled over when 700 hundred of them called in sick. The sick out forced the cancellation of 718 out of 1,200 runs.

Drivers continued to call in sick at higher rates than usual for the next two days, but the number calling in sick declined each day.

The union leadership while sympathetic toward the sick out action stated that the action was not sanctioned by the union and urged drivers to return to work.

Because of the inconvenience caused by the sick out, most riders sided with management and criticized the drivers for staying off the job.

The general attitude among members of the public is that Muni drivers are well paid and have good benefits, so they shouldn’t be walking off the job.

But in addition to the new contract proposed by Muni, there are a number of issues that led the frustrated drivers to call in sick.

For one thing, they haven’t received a raise in three years, and while the pay is good, it hasn’t kept up with the rising cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the US to live.

Williams told the Guardian that most Local 250-A members can no longer afford to live in San Francisco and have had to move outside of the city limits.

The drives also felt like they have been singled out for unfair treatment. When the city negotiated with police, fire, and other municipal worker unions, the city provided pay increases that offset the increased amount in worker contributions.

That wasn’t the case with Muni drivers. “The vast majority of drivers would be paid less in real wages over the life of the agreement than they make now. MUNI workers are the only public employees in the City of San Francisco being targeted for a reduction in earnings,” said a statement release by the union after the sick out took place.

“This is a great city, but a very difficult place to operate a bus, streetcar or cable car,” said Williams. “This also is a very expensive city and while (Muni’s) ridership and revenues are on rising, the agency seeks to cut wages and benefits and convert full-time positions to part time.”

Since the sick out, Muni and the city have retaliated. Muni told drivers who called in sick that they must provide notes from their doctors verifying their illnesses.

The City Attorney, meanwhile has filed charges against the union alleging that the union leadership encouraged workers to take part in the sick out.

In another development, the union and Muni were supposed to meet June 7 with the arbitrator to begin the arbitration process. The union, however, decided not to attend.

Should the arbitrator make a decision, union members would have a chance to vote on the decision. If the decision is rejected, the current contract would remain in effect for two years.