Fired Hyatt housekeepers agree to $1 million settlement

Former housekeepers at three Hyatt Hotels in Boston who five years ago were fired without cause have accepted a $1 million settlement offer from the hotel company. The settlement ends a boycott called by UNITE HERE Local 26 to protest their firing.

Hyatt in 2009 dismissed 98 of its housekeepers and replaced them with lower paid housekeepers who worked for an outsourcing company.

The fired workers, who were not union members, turned to Local 26 for help. To protest the firings, the union picketed the hotels, organized support rallies, built community support for the fired workers, and called for a boycott of the hotels.

The hotels affected by the settlement and the end of the boycott are Hyatt Regency Boston, Hyatt Regency Cambridge, and Hyatt Harborside at Logan International Airport.

The fired workers will each receive an amount based on their years of service. Some will receive as much as $40,000.

UNITE HERE has a national campaign to support Hyatt workers who have been treated unfairly by the company.

The Boston area boycott of Hyatt hotels were part of a wider boycott organized by UNITE HERE.

Hyatt hotels included in the boycott are Hyatt Regency Indianapolis, Hyatt Regency Sacramento, Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco, Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, California, Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Gainey Ranch Scottsdale, Arizona, Hyatt at Olive 8 Seattle, and Grand Hyatt Seattle.

At some of  the boycotted hotels, workers, including housekeepers, are trying to form unions, but the owners of the hotels have refused to allow a fair and neutral process for union recognition.

Workers grievances include crushing workloads, unsafe working conditions, and the fear of losing their jobs to outsourcing firms that pay low wages and do not provide benefits.

In Indianapolis, some of these outsource workers have been trying to organize for better pay and better treatment, and UNITE HERE has supported them.

Across the Atlantic in France, Hyatt housekeepers who work for an outsourcing company recently won a strike.

Housekeepers at the Park Hyatt Paris–Vendome stayed off the job for four days and according to IUF won a substantial wage increase that brings their “pay into line with other luxury hotels.”

The workers belong to FSCS-CGT, which is affiliated with IUF, an international federation of unions whose members work in the food service, hospitality, food processing, and agricultural industries.

Many of them are women of color who have immigrated from France’s former colonies.

The Boston Globe reports that Hyatt agreed to settle with the fired housekeepers because it wants to operate the hotel being built as part of the expanded Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and felt that the boycott would hurt its chances of winning the contract to manage the hotel.

Wanda Rosario, one of the housekeepers involved in the settlement, worked at the Hyatt Regency Boston 24 years before she was fired.

She told the Globe that if Hyatt gets the contract to operate the new hotel, she would help make it a union hotel.

“They’re going to see me in front of their hotel to try and put a union there,” said Rosario to the Globe.







UAW members ratify contract that phases out two-tier wage structure

Workers at the Lear Corporation’s automobile seat manufacturing plant in Hammond, Indiana on September 21 ratified a new four-year collective bargaining agreement that phases out a two-tier wage structure in place at the plant since 2009.

Under the terms of the old agreement, starting pay for workers hired after 2009 was $13 an hour. They topped out at $16 an hour, well below the $20 an hour earned by workers on the job when the old agreement went into effect.

The Lear workers belong to United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2335.

The company agreed to the phase out the lower pay for new hires at its Hammond plant after a one-day strike that began on September 13.

“The tide is turning for auto parts workers, who for too long have been stuck with fast-food-like wages,” said Jaime Luna, president of UAW Local 2335. “The agreement is a victory not just for the workers at our plant, but for thousands of auto workers across the country who do the same hard work we do and will benefit from the higher standard we achieved by taking a stand in Hammond.”

By the last year of the agreement, new hires will be making $21.58 an hour. For some that means a raise of between nearly $16,000 and nearly $19,000 a year.

That’s good news to Lear new hires like Rochelle Weathersby, a single mother who has to work a second job to make ends meet.

“This is a life-changing raise for me,” said Weathersby. “To go from $13 to more than $21 in four years means I may not have to work seven days a week like I am now. I hope I’ll be able to help my son pay his college bills, which I’ve always dreamed of doing.”

Non-new hires will receive a $0.50 an hour raise in the first and third years of the new contract and a $1,000 bonus in both the second and fourth year.

During the negotiations, the company proposed that its two-tier wage structure remain in place.

When the negotiations failed to produce an agreement, Local 2335 members voted in August to authorize a strike.

They kept working while negotiations continued, but on September 13, they walked off the job.

The next day, Lear agreed to end its two-tier wage structure, and the workers returned to work pending ratification.

Lear’s Hammond plant produces seats for Ford’s Chicago assembly plant that makes Explorer SUVs and Taurus sedans.

The Chicago plant relies on a just-in-time logistic system that gets parts to the plant only hours before they go to the assembly line.

A strike at Lear that lasted any longer than it did could have curtailed or even stopped production in Chicago.

Local 2335 in 2009 agreed to two-tier wages to help Lear get out of bankruptcy.

Since then, Lear has been doing much better.

Automotive News reports that Lear’s adjusted earnings for 2013 were $510 million, down a bit from 2012 when its adjusted earnings were $548 million.

Lear reported 2013 revenue of $16.23 billion, up 11 percent from 2012.

Lower pay for new hires has become common in the auto industry, both at the companies that assemble the final product and companies that supply the parts.

The UAW agreed to two-tier wages for workers at Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors in 2007  when the companies were experiencing a downturn.

But since then the three companies have seen a reversal of fortune.

Despite a massive recall that cost GM $1.3 billion, its net earnings for the first half of 2014 were of $308 million. Ford reported $2.3 billion for the same period and Chrysler reported $1.1 billion.

Negotiations on a new contract with GM, Ford, and Chrysler begin in earnest in January, and some UAW members at the three companies are hoping to end the two-tier wage system.

After hearing the good news out of Lear, Jerry Dias, president of the Canadian union that represents auto workers, expressed hope that the same thing could happen when his union and the UAW negotiate new collective bargaining agreements with the three US-based auto companies.

“This is a positive step by the UAW to eliminate inequities on the shop floor,” said Dias president of Unifor, which represents 300,000 Canadian workers including those in the auto industry. “It is time for auto workers on both sides of the border to share in the recovery of the industry, and I congratulate the UAW on taking this step.”

Solidarity overturns unfair tip policy at Seattle restaurant

After a nearly month-long unfair labor practices strike, a downtown Seattle restaurant has agreed to end its policy of keeping 60 percent of tips earned by the restaurant’s wait staff.

Two workers at La Lot, a Vietnamese restaurant located in a luxury condominium building, initiated the strike after taking their complaint about their employer’s tip policy to Seattle’s Solidarity Network.

The Solidarity Network mobilized volunteers to support the strikers.

While most patrons assume that the tips earned by their servers are kept by the servers, an increasing number of restaurant owners and managers are keeping a portion of the tips for themselves.

In Seattle, a server named Hien (no last name given) at La Lot decided that it wasn’t fair for her employer to keep a portion of the tips she earned.

When she confronted her employer about its tip policy, she was punished  by having her hours cut.

After her employer retaliated against her, Hien and another La Lot employee contacted the Solidarity Network.

When Hien and Jeff (no last name given), the other La Lot employee, went on an unfair labor practices strike, the Solidarity Network organized more than 50 people to join the two on their picket line.

Some of those picketing went inside the restaurant to pass out flyers about La Lot’s tip policy.

The action caused restaurant management to sit down and talk to Hein, Jeff, and representatives from the Solidarity Network.

But after a while, it became clear that the owners had no intention of changing its policy.

The strike continued for several weeks and began to affect business as more and more customers stayed away.

Finally, on September 1, the Solidarity Network announced that the strike had accomplished its goals.

“La Lot management agreed to all of the demands set forth at the start of the strike,” said a message posted on the network’s website. “All tips are to be distributed to workers, not to bosses.”

Hien also had her hours restored.

Unfortunately, the practice of restaurant owners and managers skimming off a portion of their employees’ tips is on the rise, which has sparked a number of class action lawsuits.

The defendants in these cases aren’t always independent restaurants such as La Lot.

In March 2014, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company agreed to pay $1.8 million to settle a suit charging it with skimming “the tips of its food and beverage service employees at its Kapalua, Maui hotel in Hawaii.”

In 2013, the Four Seasons Hotels settled a class action suit by agreeing to pay $4 million. The plaintiffs charged the hotel chain’s Hawaii hotel  with keeping automatic tips charged to large events such as weddings and parties.

Perhaps the most widely known instance of tip skimming involves Starbucks. A federal appeals court in Massachusetts in 2012 upheld a lower court decision that the Starbucks policy of diverting barista tips to shift supervisors violated the state’s labor laws.

But a more recent ruling by a state court in New York ruled that the policy did not violate New York’s labor laws.

In Seattle, the La Lot workers chose not to rely on the courts to settle their grievance; instead, they relied on the solidarity of other workers.

“We hope this is the start of a trend of organizing large numbers of workers to fight for their rights against their bosses,” said the posting on the Solidarity Network’s website.


Canadian FedEx workers win union recognition

A small group of FedEx warehouse workers in British Columbia, Canada became the first non-pilot FedEx workers in North America to win union recognition.

Fourteen warehouse workers in Surrey, British Columbia joined Teamsters Local 31 after the Canadian Industrial Labor Relations Board certified Local 31 as their collective bargaining representative.

“We are tremendously excited to welcome the FedEx Freight workers into the Teamsters, and we hope this is the first of many victories at this company,” said Stan Hennessy, president of Local 31.  “We will now work hard to negotiate a strong first contract.”

The Teamsters are hoping to expand its recently established foothold at FedEx.

In October, warehouse workers in New Jersey will be voting in a union representation election, and FedEx workers at other sites have filed petitions with the US National Labor Relations Board seeking a union vote.

“We are seeing workers at FedEx Freight across North America saying they want their wages, benefits, and working conditions negotiated in a legally binding union contract,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters general president. “They are turning to the Teamsters for help and we will be there for them.”

In British Columbia, the FedEx workers who joined the Teamsters were seeking parity with unionized warehouse workers. Their wages are lower than union wages, and their benefits are practically non-existent, said Hennessy.

Additionally, most of the new Teamster members were working only 20 hours a week.

“How are they supposed to improve their quality of life (working just 20 hours a week)?” said Hennessy. “They have had enough of living without the slightest safety net!”

FedEx has been in the forefront of keeping labor costs down by maintaining a so-called flexible labor force that lacks a collective voice.

It has classified many of its drivers as independent contractors, so that they can’t unionize. Additionally, by classifying these workers as independent contractors, FedEx doesn’t have to pay Social Security taxes, workers compensation taxes, overtime, and other benefits that employers are legally required to pay their workers.

But a three-judge panel of the US 9th of Appeals in California in August ruled that FedEx has misclassified 2,300 drivers in Oregon and California as independent contractors.

“The drivers must wear FedEx uniforms, drive FedEx-approved vehicles, and groom themselves according to FedEx’s appearance standards,” wrote Judge William Fletcher in explaining why the court ruled that the plaintiffs were employees not independent contractors. “FedEx tells its drivers what packages to deliver, on what days, and at what times. Although drivers may operate multiple delivery routes and hire third parties to help perform their work, they may do so only with FedEx’s consent.”

The ruling if upheld allows the drivers to pursue claims that FedEx did not pay them overtime and other benefits to which employees are entitled.

FedEx is facing similar suits in other states.

FedEx has engaged in other questionable practices that appear to skirt the law.

The New York Attorney General in March filed a $70 million lawsuit against FedEx for delivering untaxed cigarettes in the state.

According to a media release by the New York Attorney General, “between 2006 and 2012, FedEx made nearly 33,000 illegal shipments of cigarettes to consumers in New York State, amounting to over 400,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes and a direct tax loss to the state of over $10 million. Each illegal shipment carries a maximum penalty of $5,000. The shipments were in clear violation of an agreement FedEx entered into with the New York State Attorney General’s Office in 2006, in which it agreed to cease all unlawful cigarette deliveries to consumers both in New York and throughout the country.”

In 2013, FedEx settled a class action suit charging the company with overcharging “customers more than $5 million in bogus fees by charging these customers a higher-priced residential delivery rate. In addition, the company allegedly failed to advise consumers that there are certain ZIP codes that would necessitate an additional fee due to the addresses’ remote location.”

FedEx agreed to pay $21.5 million to resolve the suit.

With all of its legal troubles, you might think that 14 of its workers in British Columbia wanting to join a union wouldn’t be much cause for alarm at FedEx, but the company conducted an aggressive anti-union campaign in Surrey.

“The company sent representatives from other cities to the warehouse to meet with workers in group settings and one-on-one to dissuade them from supporting the union,” said Ben Hennessey, Local 31 organizer. “But the workers remained united in their support to become Teamsters.”

American Airlines passenger service agents win union vote

Passenger service agents at American Airlines voted to join the Customer Service Employees Association, a union affiliated with both the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the Teamsters (IBT).

For the 9,000 passenger service agents who worked for American before the airline merged with US Airways, it was the culmination of 19 years of hard work and struggle to have their union recognized.

“I’m proud to remember everyone over the years who worked so hard for our union voice, who never gave up in the face of adversity, and who gave their blood, sweat and tears so that we would have the opportunity to celebrate this victory today,” said Ken Grunwald, a long-time union supporter and an employee of American for 23 years. “It’s a victory for all American Airlines employees! I’m so excited to think that we will finally be able to negotiate a legally binding contract. We now all have each other’s back.”

Now that American and US Airways have merged, there are about 14,5000 passenger service agents working for the new American Airlines. Many work in call centers helping customers make reservations and providing other services. Others staff the airline’s counters and gates at airports. About 2,300 of the agents work at home making reservations.

Prior to the election, agents who worked for US Airways were members of the Customer Service Employees Association IBT/CWA.

In all, more than 11,000 employees from both American and US Airways participated in the election. The final vote tally was 9,640 voting yes for the union and 1,547 voting no.

Of those participating in the election, 86 percent voted yes. Of all the passenger service agents at new American, two-thirds voted yes.

Most of the new union members work in the South, and CWA President Larry Cohen in a message to members said that the new American election was the “largest labor organizing victory in the South in decades.”

Many of those who supported the union understood the importance of this victory for Southern workers.

“You can’t live in the South and make a decent wage unless you are in senior management in a corporation or belong to a union,” said Eula Smith, a passenger service agent who works in Charlotte. “We need this.”

For those like Smith who have worked for American during the last two decades, the yes vote was hard won. Passenger service agents are the only group of American employees eligible for union representation whose union was not recognized by the company.

Nearly 20 years ago, some agents realizing the benefits of being a union member contacted CWA and began working to form a union.

They lost a union recognition vote in 1998, but a core of activists stayed intact and formed a union that fought for workers’ right without being recognized by the company.

Another union election was held in 2013, but at the time, American had declared bankruptcy, and the hostile environment created by the company resulted in another, albeit narrow, loss.

With American’s bankruptcy finally resolved and the merger with US Airways complete, the union group was able to put together a winning campaign.

“Many hundreds of activists have spent thousands of hours over the years to get us to today’s election result,” said Janet Elston, a passenger service agent out of Dallas. “They never wavered and never, ever gave up. We have finally achieved what most thought was impossible: union representation for our work group. Now we’ll begin a new working relationship with our company, with a legal binding contract.”

Passenger service agents at US Airways also had to fight for their union.

In 2004 passenger service agents at American West voted to join the Teamsters despite a fierce anti-union campaign by the company.

A year after the union victory, American West merged with US Airways.

When the merger took place, the Teamsters represented about 1,800 passenger service agents at American West and the CWA about 4,700 at US Airways.

At the same time that the two companies merged, the two unions of passenger service agents merged to form the Customer Service Agents Association IBT/CWA.

Teamster leaders called the yes vote at American a big victory for both American and the former US Airways workers.

“With our partners in CWA, the Teamsters are leading the way in protecting airline professionals involved in the biggest airline merger in history,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “Our union is dedicated to fighting on behalf of workers in this volatile industry. Our new members at the combined American-US Airways now have two of the strongest airline unions in their corner.”


What do you get for $340 million? Filthy schools

School principals in Chicago are complaining that since the Chicago Public Schools privatized custodial services their schools have not been properly cleaned and that as a result, they are spending too much time dealing with cleanliness issues rather than education.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Board of Education decided to privatize school custodial services and awarded school cleaning contracts to two multi-national corporate vendors, Aramark and Sodexmagic. The cost of the contracts over a three-year period is $340 million.

As a result of the privatization deal, school custodians report to their private employer rather than school principals.

The board promised that the privatization deal and the change in command resulting from it would lead to better services at a lower costs.

But a recent survey of principals found that custodial services have deteriorated badly since Aramark and Sodexmagic began cleaning the schools. According to the results of the survey, many Chicago schools are just plain filthy.

Valerie Strauss, writing for the Washington Post, reports that Chicago principals in the survey complained of “serious problems with rodents, roaches and other bugs, filthy toilets, missing supplies such as toilet paper and soap, and broken furniture.”

One of the reasons that schools aren’t getting cleaned is the private contractors have not hired enough custodial staff.

“I am still trying to figure out how we care going to clean the schools with four (cleaning staff) in a school that has 1,000 kids,” wrote one school custodian in comments appearing in an article published by Catalyst Chicago.

The understaffing problem looks to get even worse. Aramark has announced that by the end of September, it will lay off 476 school custodians, a 20 percent staff reduction.

When the layoffs occur, the problems keeping the schools clean “will only be exacerbated,” said Julie Valentine, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 1 to the Chicago Sun Times.

The filthy state of Chicago’s schools has caused a number of principals to publicly voice their complaints about the private contractors.

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in an e-mail to other principals that was partially reprinted by Strauss,  called the contracts with Aramark and Sodexmagic a “massive unethical wast of tax dollars.”

“That’s $300 million that should have been committed to education of the children in you schools; instead, those funds are being squandered to the profits of a corporation with a history of being ridden (with scandals) across the United States,” wrote LaRaviere.

LaRaviere is the chair of Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy in Legislation and Education, a group of activist principals within the Chicago Principals and Administration Association.

AAPPLE was the group that initiated the survey that resulted in so many negative responses from Chicago principals. Fixing the custodial problems has become a priority AAPPLE. Instead of overseeing education too many principals are spending too much time trying to keep their schools clean, said LaRaviere in his e-mail

According to LaRaviere, if Aramark and Sodexmagic can’t deliver the services that they promised, CPS should void their contracts.


Labor files ethics complaint against NJ governor over pension investments

The New Jersey AFL-CIO on September 12 filed a complaint with the state’s Ethics Commission charging that investments from state pension funds were steered toward investment firms that made big campaign contributions to Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his allies.

“Despite clear boundaries created to shield pension investments from the influence of politics, it appears that the State Investment Council under Robert Grady’s direction and the Christie administration’s leadership clearly violated those rules,” said  Charles Wowkanech, president of the state’s AFL-CIO.  “We urge the State Ethics Commission to investigate this pay-to-play scheme on behalf of taxpayers who are footing the bill for this abuse and pensioners being shortchanged of their retirement funds.”

Grady, Managing Director of Cheyenne Capital as well as Chairman of the New Jersey State Investment Council, was a prominent executive of the Carlyle Group until 2009.

The Investment Council advises and make recommendations regarding investments to the state’s pension funds.

The ethics complaint comes three days after Fitch Ratings lowered New Jersey’s debt rating. According to Fitch, one of the reasons for the downgrade was that Gov. Christie backed out of a deal to make the state’s full contribution to New Jersey’s public pension funds.

The labor organization made its complaint in a 11-page letter to the Ethics Commission. The letter was signed by Wowkanech who said that there was a suspicious link between firms that received state pension investments and their campaign contributions.

“Public reporting reveals that the Division of Investment Management . . . under the governance and direction of the State Investment Council and Chair Grady, has chosen to invest pension funds into hedge funds and private equity firms after their principals have made political contributions that benefit the governor and the Republican Party,” said Wowkanech in his letter.

For example, two large Wall Street firms, the Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group were among those chosen to manage New Jersey pension fund investments.

In 2011 while the State Investment Council was considering investing in a private equity fund created by Blackstone,  one of Blackstone’s employees made a $10,000 contribution to the New Jersey Republican State Committee while another made a campaign contribution directly to Gov. Christie.

The New York Time’s Deal Book reported that in December 2011, “New Jersey’s pension fund . . . committed up to $1.8 billion to funds managed by the Blackstone Group, a big win for the money-management giant.”

Carlyle was awarded a $450 million to manage pension fund investments while Grady was still receiving income from Carlyle.

“The presence of the State Investment Council chairman on those calls violated the rules designed to protect investment decisions from being influenced by politics,” said Wowkanech. “This serious matter affecting the pension benefits of countless current and retired former employees warrants a thorough investigation, based on evidence in the complaint that Bob Grady and Christie’s re-election team clearly used pension investments as a way to attract political contributions.”

The pensions of current and retired New Jersey employees took another blow earlier this year when Gov. Christie decided that the state would not contribute its share to the state’s pension funds.

Instead, Gov. Christie used the money that was supposed to help make the pension funds sound again to close an unexpected state budget shortfall.

But that move may have made the state’s financial problems even worse. On September 10, Fitch Ratings lowered the state’s debt rating and gave as one reason for doing so Gov. Christie’s decision to back out of a deal negotiated with legislators to fully fund state pensions.

As a result, New Jersey will now pay higher interest rates for public works projects and other public investments that require financing.

While Gov. Christie was steering state funding away from pensions, he was also steering more of toward Wall Street.

David Sirota reports in the International Business Times that since Gov. Christie has been in office, New Jersey investments in alternative investments such as hedge funds and private equity funds managed by Wall Street has increased three-fold.

Yves Smith writing in Naked Capitalism reports that New Jersey has authorized the allocation of one-third of its investments into alternative investments, which Smith calls, “a stunningly high level.”

As a result of its high level of alternative investments, New Jersey has paid Wall Street nearly $1 billion in management fees since Gov. Christie took office. In 2013 alone, the state paid Wall Street $398.7 million in management fees, the most since Gov. Christie took office and more than three times the amount that the state paid for management fees the year before Gov. Christie took office.

The fees might have been worth it had the investment returns lived up to the promised results, but Sirota writes that the failure of New Jersey’s alternative investments to meet expectations has cost New Jersey taxpayers $3.8 billion.