Costa Rican dock workers strike to stop privatization of port

Costa Rican dock workers, striking to protest the privatization of the country’s publicly owned port terminals, received a boost on October 27 when other unions including those representing public employees, electrical workers, nurses, teachers, and refinery workers announced that they would support the dock workers demand that the government renegotiate the privatization contract.

Earlier on the same day, students and workers from other unions joined the dock workers in an anti-privatization demonstration. Police were called in to break up the demonstration.

The dock workers, whose union Sintrajap called the strike, walked off the job on October 23. The work stoppage halted the unloading of three ships docked at Puerto Limon, Costa Rica’s Atlantic Coast port, which handles about 80 percent of the country’s port traffic.

The government reacted quickly to the work stoppage by sending in the police, who arrested 68 of the strikers.

The workers went on strike after the government of President Luis Guillermo Solis gave its approval to the privatization deal with APM Terminals, owned by the Dutch shipping conglomerate Maresk.

Under the terms of the contract, APM will invest nearly $1 billion to build the Moin Container Terminal in Puerto Limon and begin operating it in 2016.

When construction of the new terminal is complete, it will be able to handle the large “Panamax” containers, and the company will control 60 percent of the port’s terminal operations.

Costa Rica’s port terminals are currently operated by a public authority, Japdeva.

Union leaders said that the new privately operated terminals will create “an illegal monopoly” that will threaten the livelihood of the union’s members, degrade the environment, and impede the free passage of goods throughout the country.

“We believe that private monopolies are banned in this country and the right to protest them is protected by the Constitution,” said Ronaldo Blear, general secretary of Sintrajap. “We also believe that the Costa Rican people are tired of privatizations and concessions (to foreign corporations).”

Blear said that the strike would continue until the government agrees to renegotiate the contract with APM.

The union has been the most vocal opponent of the government’s plan to privatize port operations, and as a result, the government has been trying to undermine the union.

In 2010 when the government was seeking port privatization proposals, the government tried to replace Sintrajap’s democratically elected union leaders with leaders who would support the privatization plan.

The government’s efforts were thwarted by the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court when it ruled that the government takeover of the union was illegal.

Despite the union’s opposition, the government in 2011 awarded the port terminal privatization contract to APM.

For three years, the union and other opponents of the privatization deal were able to delay implementation of the contract, but earlier in October, the Constitutional Branch gave its approval to the deal.

There was some hope that Costa Rica’s newly elect president Luis Guillermo Solis might oppose the privatization deal and would agree to renegotiate the contract with APM.

Solis, the leader of the Citizen’s Action Party, won the election for President earlier this year.

He ran on an anti-corruption platform and said that he would put the brakes on so-called free trade deals like the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Solis had been a leading member of the  National Liberation Party, the party of Costa Rica’s oligarchy, which had dominated the Costa Rican political scene for decades.

He broke with the NLP because of what he characterized as corrupt business deals between foreign corporations and the NLP-led government.

One such deal involved Alcatel-Lucent, the French telecommunication corporation. Alcatel was eventually forced to pay a fine of $92 million because it bribed government officials in return for contracts worth $300 million.

But when Sintrajap leaders met with representatives from the Solis government two weeks ago, the union leaders were told that the deal with APM had President Solis’ approval.

After the meeting, Sintrajap called the strike.

After the 68 strikers were arrested on October 23, the union and the government reopened talks to resolve the strike, but so far the government has refused to renegotiate the APM agreement and the union has refused to lift the strike.

IKEA workers rising up

US IKEA workers recently took a petition to the company’s North American headquarters in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. The petition, signed by 6,000 IKEA workers and customers, asks the international furniture retailer to provide full-time work to all IKEA workers who want it and to raise wages for all IKEA employees.

“I want to have a stable income for my family,” said Martina Morgan, an IKEA employee from Seattle who along with two of her co-workers launched to the petition drive. “I shouldn’t have to work two jobs to make a living and that’s why we started a petition calling on IKEA to provide more full-time jobs.”

Morgan is a single mother, who sometimes works as little as 25 hours a week, and her erratic work schedule makes it difficult for her to be involved in her children’s education.

Dan Stillwell is another IKEA employee facing similar challenges.

“This daily struggle to make ends meet is not right,” writes Stillwell in an Op-Ed piece appearing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette..

According to Stillwell, he works two jobs but is still one missed paycheck away from financial ruin because his low pay makes it impossible for him to accumulate savings.

“Many of my co-workers are having similar problems and would like to work 40 hours a week,” he adds.

Morgan and Stillwell both said that IKEA has reacted to the strikes and other actions by low-wage retail and fast food workers by raising wages for new hires.

According to the company, IKEA will determine what a living wage is in each region of the US and pay new hires what the company considers to a regional living wage.

For example, beginning January 1, 2015, new hires in the Seattle area will be paid $10.76 an hour.

But the company has said nothing about raising pay for workers who are already on the job.

“Raising starting pay is a step in the right direction, but workers with years of experience may receive no raise at all,” said Morgan. “Investing in co-workers will lead to happier employees, better retention, and higher sales growth. That’s why we’re asking IKEA to offer full-time jobs to every co-worker who wants one and raise pay for all co-workers, not just new hires.”

The campaign for full-time work and a pay raise at IKEA is one in a number of campaigns being supported by Rising Up in Retail, a project of  United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

According to UFCW, the retail sector of the economy has been adding more jobs than most other sectors, but many of these jobs don’t pay enough to support a decent standard of living.

“If retail jobs are going to be an integral part of America’s future, then retail jobs must be the kind of jobs that support American families and communities. They must be the kind of jobs that Americans can be proud to work,” said a UFCW statement about Rising Up in Retail on its website.

Some retail workers like those at Seattle’s Macy’s department store already belong to UFCW. These workers are members of UFCW Local 21. In 2012, they negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that raised wages and commission rates, provided for lump sum bonuses, and improved scheduling.

They won a good contract because they stayed united before, during, and after the negotiations and because UFCW members in other cities supported their efforts to win a fair contract.

Rising Up in Retail also supports workers at non-union companies trying to improve their pay and working conditions, such as the IKEA workers who signed the full-time work and higher pay petition.

The delegation of IKEA workers who took the petition to the company headquarters tried to meet with IKEA’s North American CEO Rob Olson.

They had to settle instead for a meeting with company human resource officials.

During their meeting, the IKEA workers said that their petition showed that a united group of workers and customers are ready to stand up for fairness on-the-job at the company’s stores.

The delegation also told the corporate representatives that some IKEA workers have signed letters asking to meet as a group with store managers to discuss on-the-job issues.

In some instances, those who signed the letters have faced retaliation.

The delegation asked that the corporate officials give them assurances that employees who take actions to improve their jobs will not face retaliation.

The corporate officials refused to give them such assurances.

As a result, the delegation declined to hand over the petitions to the company.

Philadelphia teachers and supporters protest governor’s attack on public schools

Thousands of Philadelphia teachers, students, and parents on October 16 marched to a meeting of the School Reform Commission (SRC) to demand that the commission reverse its decision to unilaterally nullify its collective bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

The SRC is a state commission that has been administering Philadelphia’s public schools for 13 years. A majority of its members have been appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

The SRC and PFT had been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement for nearly two years. To help ease a budget shortfall resulting from cutbacks in state funding to Philadelphia schools, PFT offered to make concessions worth $100 million over two years, but that was not enough for the SRC.

“The PFT put proposals on the table and the (SRC) instead of considering those proposals in good faith went around the teachers’ union because they want to undermine the PFT,” said Tamala Montgomery, an elementary school teacher.

The latest attack on the PFT is a another in a series of measures undertaken by Gov. Corbett to weaken the teachers’ union and underfund public education in Philadelphia.

Gov. Corbett was elected in 2010 and since 2011, he has presided over a downsizing of public school funding. In 2011, he reduced state funding for public schools by $1 billion. Since then, only a small fraction of those cuts have been restored.

Philadelphia and other low-income school districts have been hit hardest by the budget cuts.

In a report issued in April, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PCBPC) says that “the scale of recent funding cuts in Philadelphia and other low-income districts has been unprecedented. Since 2011 Philadelphia has experienced a $294 million drop in state school funding.”

The report goes on to say that Philadelphia has 12 percent of the state’s public school students, but absorbed 35 percent of Gov. Corbett’s public education budget cuts.

While Gov. Corbett has been underfunding public schools, he has been more generous to his corporate allies. The PBPC reports that during his tenure, the governor succeeded in reducing corporate taxes by $3 billion, almost one-third of the pre-K to 12 state budget.

He also funneled more state money to charter schools and private schools that receive state vouchers.

Because PFT and the SRC were unable to reach agreement on a new contract, Gov. Corbett withheld $45 million in state funding for the 2014-2015 school year.

As a result, 400 positions for teachers, librarians, assistant principals, counselors, and nurses were eliminated.

The result has been crowded classrooms and fewer support services for students.

The governor’s decision proved deadly for Laporcha Massey, a sixth grade student at Bryant Elementary.

Laporcha died of an asthma attack. She started feeling ill at school but because of the withheld $45 million and previous budget cuts, there was no nurse on duty at her school to treat her.

A group of civil rights leaders wrote a letter urging the governor to reverse himself and release the withheld $45 million.

“Depriving students of access to teachers, nurses, librarians, and guidance counselors should never be used as a bargaining chip in school-funding negotiations,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Gov. Corbett on October 17 finally agreed to release the $45 million, and Philadelphia school leaders said that the 400 positions would be filled as soon as possible.

During the collective bargaining negotiations, Gov. Corbett and the SRC sought work rule changes that the teachers union said would affect the quality of education that students receive. For example, under the contract in effect prior to SRC’s power play, there were limits on class sizes. SRC wanted to eliminate these limits and expand the size of classes.

SRC also wanted to reduce the number of professionals providing services to students such as guidance counselors, librarians, and nurses.

The concessions demanded by SRC affect the quality of education in other ways.

“These health care givebacks are not even coming close to providing what we actually need to actually provide a quality education,” said Charlie McGeehan, a high school teacher.

The health care givebacks that McGeehan refers to include higher health care premiums deducted from paychecks and higher deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance for medical treatment.

After SRC announced that it would be imposing these and other concessions, PFT attorneys filed motions in court to stop SRC’s unilateral action.

On October 20, Judge Nina Wright Padilla ruled in favor of PFT on one of its motions by granting a temporary injunction that for the time being prevents SRC from implementing the health care changes.

“Today’s decision, for the moment, means PFT members can keep their current health care coverage without having to participate in the district’s open enrollment process,” said Jerry Jordan, PFT president, in a statement about Judge Padilla’s ruling.

Walmart workers demand justice; 42 arrested

Hundreds of Walmart associates and their supporters rallied in New York and Washington DC to demand that Walmart make a public commitment to pay fair wages that keep all of its workers out of poverty.

The New York rally was held at the Park Avenue apartment of Alice Walton, one of the Walton heirs who are the principal owners of the retail giant. The Washington DC rally was held in front of the Walton Family Foundation on K Street.

Delegations from the two rallies took a petition signed by more than 1,700 Walmart associates inside the respective buildings and attempted to deliver them. The petition demanded that Walmart pay a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour and provide more of its workers with access to full-time employment.

After the petitions were delivered, some of the protestors refused to leave, and 42 were arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

The protestors said that Walmart’s pay policies are a major reason that wealth inequality in the US has grown to the highest level since 1928.

While the average Walmart cashier makes about $8.81 an hour and 15 percent of Walmart’s employees qualify for food stamps, the Walton family fortune, according to Bloomberg, is worth more than $100 billion.

Every day, the Walton family takes in $8.6 million in dividends from Walmart stock.

Their accumulated wealth is more than the combined wealth of 43 percent of the US population.

“The Waltons have made it impossible for me to get ahead and make sure my daughter goes to bed in a warm home,” said Fatmata Jabbie, a member of OUR Walmart, a nationwide organization of Walmart associates that organized the petition drive and rally.  “The Waltons can choose to turn things around and stop robbing working Americans like me who just want to raise our families. We need $15 an hour and consistent full-time work—now.”

Jabbie was one of the demonstrators who delivered the petition to the Walton Family Foundation in Washington DC.

In addition to demanding higher pay and more work hours, the petition informed the Walton family that if Walmart did not make a public commitment to raising wages and making more full-time work available, members of OUR and their supporters were prepared to take more direct action.

“If you fail to respond by Black Friday, (November 28th) the biggest shopping day of the year, we will hold massive protests nationwide,” reads the opening paragraph of the petition.

The recent petition, rally, and civil disobedience are the latest actions in a campaign for better pay and working conditions at Walmart that began more than two years ago.

As a result of the campaign, things have begun to change at Walmart.

After a member of OUR who was mistreated by Walmart during her pregnancy organized a nationwide campaign exposing the company’s lack of compassion for its pregnant associates, Walmart changed its pregnancy policies to require store managers to make light duty available to all pregnant workers who request it.

One the biggest complaints voiced by OUR members has been the way the Walmart assigns shifts in such a way that keeps many workers from working full-time.

After a number of public protests that included unfair labor practice strikes at some Walmart stores, the company finally rolled out an application on a company website that makes it possible for workers to increase their work hours by signing up online for open shifts.

At their recent rally, OUR members were joined by community supporters who pledged to stand with them if the Walton’s and Walmart continue to ignore their workers’ demand for fair pay and work hours.

“We are tired of seeing the Waltons enjoy every luxury this world can offer while the workers that build their wealth are unable to pay their bills,” said Interfaith Worker Justice Executive Director Kim Bobo at one of the rallies. “Income inequality will only be addressed when the Waltons and Walmart provide fair pay and regular hours to their workers. I’m here today taking a stand for Walmart workers, and I’ll be back on Black Friday with thousands of others who have had enough of Walmart’s destruction of the American Dream.”

Sherwin Alumina workers in Texas locked out

About 450 workers at the Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas have been locked out of their jobs.

After months of negotiations between the company and the workers’ union, United Steelworkers (USW) Local 235-A, Sherwin Alumina made a last best final offer containing a number of concession demands.

Local 235-A members on October 10 rejected the offer but said that they would keep working while negotiations continued.

But at 5:00 P.M. on October 11, company officials informed their union workers that they were being locked out.

In a message to members before the lockout began, USW said that, Sherwin “is seeking to freeze the defined benefit pension, eliminate retiree health care, and make significant changes to active employees health care, just to name a few of the concessionary proposals put forth so far.”

In its final offer, the company proposed eliminating pensions for new hires, increasing workers’ monthly health insurance premiums by 60 percent, and changing the way overtime is calculated so that fewer hours of work are paid at overtime rates.

Negotiations on the new contract began in July, but no final agreement was reached when the old agreement expired on September 30.

Despite the expiration, the union said that its members would work under the terms of the old agreement, so that negotiations could continue.

But after the contract expiration date passed, it became clear to union leaders that the company wasn’t interested in negotiations and instead was preparing to lock out its workers.

“Sherwin Alumina has been preparing to lock its employees out from work for over a month at a cost, we believe, of more than a million dollars,” said Ben Lilienfeld, USW District 13 sub-district director in a statement about the lockout. “It has brought in hundreds of replacement workers and contractors from outside the area to undermine the wages and benefits of area workers and families.”

It appears that Sherwin had been preparing for a lockout even longer than the union said.

In June, Sherwin held a “recruitment event” in McAllen, Texas about 160 miles east of Corpus Christi. At the event, the company took applications for four craft positions: maintenance mechanic, electrician, instrument mechanic, and machinist.

In August, the company partnered with Workforce Solutions of the Coastal Bend to host another recruitment event where the company took applications for entry level production operators.  Workforce Solutions is a private agency that contracts with the Texas Workforce Commission to provide regional job placement services.

After the lockout began, Sherwin said that it would continue to operate the refinery.

At its Corpus Christi area refinery, Sherwin Alumina extracts alumina from bauxite. Alumina is the key ingredient in the manufacture of aluminum. It also makes chemical grade alumina hydrates, which are used for making detergents, pharmaceuticals, and other consumer products.

Sherwin Alumina, a private company that isn’t required to report earnings and other financial information, is a subsidiary of Glencore PLC.

Glencore is an Anglo Swiss corporation with holdings all over the world. It operates more than 150 mines and metallurgical, oil, and agricultural production facilities that produce more than 90 different commodities. It has offices in more than 50 countries.

It’s ranked number 10 on Fortune’s Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies.

For the first half of 2014, it reported total net income of 3.73 billion, up 55 percent for the same period in 2013 when it reported total net income of 2.505 billion.

According to Reuben Garza, USW District 13 director, Glencore’s subsidiary Sherwin Alumina is doing well for its parent company, and its concession demands are not driven by a business downturn.

“This company is profitable,” said Garza, responding to notification that the company was locking out its production workers. “Price forecasts for alumina are positive. Worker productivity is up and labor costs per metric ton of alumina are down.”

“Company representatives have recently stated that their employees are like family,” added Garza. “The company’s actions today speak louder than its words.”



Paid sick leave campaign gathers momentum in New Jersey

A committee of the New Jersey state Assembly on October 9  held a hearing on a bill that if enacted would extend paid sick leave to most workers in the state and make New Jersey the third state in the US to pass such legislation.

Supporters had hoped that the committee would approve the bill, A2354, and send it to the full Assembly for debate, but the committee, instead, chose to table the bill, so that it could be amended.

Nevertheless, supporters of paid sick leave said that the fact that the bill was heard in committee showed that their grassroots campaign was making progress.

“Our strategy of building momentum for a strong statewide earned sick days bill through a wave of local victories is paying off big time,” said the New Jersey Working Families Alliance website. “This Thursday, the Assembly will hold its first hearing on a bill that would cover every worker in New Jersey.”

So far six New Jersey cities–Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Irvington and East Orange–have passed city ordinances requiring paid sick leave.

Two more cities–Trenton and Montclair–on November 4 will hold votes on whether the cities should adopt paid sick leave ordinances.

The Working Families Alliance, is one of more than 100 labor, community, and religious organizations that have joined together to form the New Jersey Time to Care Coalition, which among things has been leading the local and statewide campaigns for paid sick leave.

“When workers get sick they need time to get well,” reads a purpose statement from the coalition. “It’s just common sense. But in New Jersey, some 1.2 million workers – that’s more than 1 in 3 of us – do not earn paid sick days. Many of these workers are in low-wage service jobs. They care for our children and the elderly. They prepare and serve food in our restaurants. They can’t afford to stay home, even if they’re sick. An earned sick days’ policy would boost our economy, our families, and our community.”

Members of the coalition held a media conferences on October 6 to announce a final push to win paid sick leave in Trenton and Montclair.

“We’re going to hit the streets running,” said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action at one of the media conferences. “We’re going to have door-to-door canvases that knock on doors of registered voters in both Montclair and Trenton. We’re going to have phone banks with volunteers. We’re gonna do mailings. We’re going be at the polls on voting day.”

As a result of the work done by the Time to Care Coalition, about 100,000 New Jersey workers who didn’t have paid sick leave now do. If the paid sick leave referendum succeeds in Trenton and Montclair about 20,000 more workers will be covered.

The local ordinances in effect and the ones being voted on are similar to A2354.

The ordinances and the bill allow workers to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

Workers can take sick leave when they are sick or injured or need to visit a physician or therapist to treat a mental or physical ailment or an injury.

They will also be able to take paid sick leave when a family member is ill or injured and needs care.

According to Working Families, the outcome of the local elections in Trenton and Montclair is crucial to the statewide campaign of extending paid sick leave to all workers in the state.

“The goal (of the local campaigns) is to cover workers in the present while making passage of a statewide law virtually inevitable,” reads the Working Families website. “We won’t stop until we make sure that, in New Jersey, getting sick never means getting fired.”


Facebook drivers try to form a union

The bus drivers who drive Facebook employees to work every day are trying to form a union.

The drivers work for Loop Transportation, which contracts with Facebook to operate the buses that pick up Facebook employees all over the San Francisco Bay Area, take them to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, about 30 miles south of San Francisco, and drive them home at night.

“While (Facebook) employees earn extraordinary wages and are able to live and enjoy life in some of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the Bay Area, these drivers can’t afford to support a family, send their children to school, or least of all, afford the dream of buying a house anywhere near where they work,” writes Rome Aloise, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 853, which is helping the drivers organize, in a letter addressed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In his letter to Zuckerberg, Aloise writes that a majority of the Loop drivers have reached out to the Teamsters in hopes of joining the union and gaining a collective voice, so that their employer will listen to and negotiate a solution to their grievances.

But Loop has refused to recognize the workers’ union.

Facebook bus drivers make between $18 and $20 an hour, but live in an area with one of the highest cost of living in the United States.

One of these drivers is Jimmy Maerina, who without counting overtime, makes about $35,000 a year.

Maerina is married with two children. To cover his family’s health care needs, he pays a premium of $1,100 a month for company sponsored health insurance.

“We need a union here at Loop,” said Maerina. “It’s the only way Loop will listen to us and take steps to address our concerns.”

Pay and high health care premiums aren’t the only concern of the Facebook drivers.

They work split shifts that force them to spend much of their day hanging around the Loop bus barn without getting paid.

Cliff Doi reports to work at 6:40 A.M. He works 4 1/2 hours in the morning navigating the crowded streets and freeways of the Bay Area to get Facebook employees to their jobs.

After he finishes the first part of his shift, he waits at the Loop bus barn for the second half to begin.

There’s no place for him to rest comfortably, so sometimes he grabs a nab in his car.

Six hours after the first part of his shift ends, Doi climbs back into his bus, drives to the Facebook campus, and picks up his passengers for their return trip home.

By the end of his work day, Doi has been on the job for 15 hours but only gets paid for about 9 hours.

Doi returns home about 9:30 P.M. and has just enough time to get ready for bed. He sets his alarm for 4:30, so that he can get to his job on time.

In Aloise’s letter to Zuckerberg, Aloise asks the Facebook CEO to urge Loop to recognize the union.

“I am asking that you immediately encourage Loop Transportation to recognize the union of the employees’ choice,” writes Aloise. “We are offering to present indisputable evidence that these employees wish to be represented by Teamsters Local 853 and would like to bargain a fair contract that allows these drivers to earn a livable wage and support their families in dignity.”

As of this writing, Zuckerberg has not responded.


UAW forms another local at a Southern auto factory

The United Auto Workers (UAW) on October 3 announced that it granted a charter to a new local of southern workers at the Mercedes-Benz factory near Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The new local, UAW Local 112, is the second union of southern auto workers charted by UAW that is not yet officially recognized by the workers’ employer.

Last summer, workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee organized a union, and UAW granted them a charter as Local 42.

Volkswagen management has indicated to UAW that it will recognize Local 42 as the workers’ collective bargaining representative when a sufficient number of workers have joined the union.

After Local 42 was organized, members began signing up new members, and last week Gary Casteel, UAW secretary treasurer, told the Detroit Free Press that a majority of Chattanooga Volkswagen workers had joined the UAW and that he expects the company to recognize Local 42 after the Local elects officers.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that Local 42 on October 3 held elections for its officers but didn’t report the results of the election.

Like their fellow union members in Local 42, Local 112 members have begun signing up new members and are hoping that Daimler, the company that manufactures the Mercedes-Benz line, will recognize their union when it has enough members.

“We are asking Daimler to respect our right to representation and give the same opportunities to Alabama’s working families that have been extended to our counterparts elsewhere in the US and around the world,” said Rodney Bowens, a Local 112 member who at a media conference announced the formation of Local 112. “Our hope is that management will recognize the importance of today’s announcement and welcome our new local union into the Daimler family.”

Daimler’s Alabama plant is the company’s only plant worldwide without a union.

Daimler has a truck factory in North Carolina that is unionized.

The UAW local at that factory and Daimler recently concluded negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement that the local membership ratified.

The announcement of the new local at Daimler’s Alabama auto plant came shortly after UAW, IG Metall, Germany’s largest union of manufacturing workers, and the Daimler World Employee Committee signed an agreement to work together to make the Alabama plant a union plant.

“We lend our support to all workers at Daimler so they can make their voices heard and be represented by a strong union,” said Michael Brecht, chairman of the Daimler World Employee Committee. “The Daimler World Employee Committee’s agreement with UAW and IG Metall is a clear signal that we are committed to the success of our common mission of building strong employee representation in Alabama.”

Members of Local 112 said that the new union’s goals will be to improve job safety, especially ergonomic safety, and to help the 1,000 temporary workers at the Alabama plant achieve full-time permanent status.

Local 112 members also said that they have been talking to their fellow employees about the benefits of co-determination, the industrial relations model employed at Daimler’s factories in Germany and around the world.

Under the co-determination model, workers elect members to an on-the-job works council. The council gives workers a voice in matters concerning production, safety, quality control, and other matters that determine the quality of the job and the final product made at the plant.

When Local 112 is recognized by Daimler, the union will work toward establishing a works council at the Tuscaloosa plant.

“We believe now is the time to fulfill the promise co-determination in Alabama, and we believe the UAW is the right partner to assist the workers,” said Joerg Hofmann, vice president of IG Metall and a member of Daimler’s board of directors. “Co-determination and union rights are standard practice for German companies worldwide.”

Petition protests Social Security office closures

A group of people representing union and retiree organizations on October 2 presented a petition with one-half million signatures to the Social Security Administration in Washington DC urging it to stop closing local offices and to restore the face-to-face services on which people applying for benefits depend.

Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the Alliance for Retired Americans, and Social Security Works joined together to rally and present the petitions.

Support rallies were held in New York City, Oakland, and Columbus, Ohio.

Because of budget cuts, the Social Security Administration during the last three years has closed 80 local offices and 500 contact stations.

“Budget cuts have degraded the Social Security Administration’s ability to service millions of baby boomers who are becoming eligible for retirement,” said AFGE in a media statement about the event.

The union also warned that a strategic plan being proposed by the Social Security Administration “will drastically reduce community field offices and transition (services) to a web-centric customer service mode.”

The strategic plan, known as Vision 2025, has not been released yet, but in July, the agency released a report that made recommendations that will likely be included in the new strategic plan.

The report recommends reducing face-to-face contact between local Social Security workers and people seeking benefits by making the agency’s “virtual channels (e.g., online, phone, video conferencing) . . .  the primary means of means of service delivery.”

“Many people who rely on Social Security are the least likely to have knowledge, ability, and resources to use the Internet services,” said Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE Council 220, at the Washington DC gathering. . . “People need experts to guide them.”

“It is outrageous that (the Social Security Administration) is closing offices when baby boomers are retiring in massive numbers and need the aid of experienced . . . staff to handle the rapidly rising number of new Social Security applications.”

In an opinion piece appearing in Government Executive, David Cox, president of AFGE, said that instead of closing offices and allowing staff to dwindle through attrition, the Social Security Administration needs to enhance face-to-face services even if it means fighting for more resources.

“We should not be afraid to fight for the resources needed to build a (comprehensive service delivery system),” he writes.

But fighting for adequate funding is not presented as an option in the Vision 2025 report.

The report, entitled Anticipating the Future: Developing a Vision and Strategic Plan for the Social Security Administration for 2025-2030, was written by a panel convened by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The panel was chaired by Jonathan Bruel, the former executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government, a research and policy group funded by IBM whose purpose is to connect government agencies with services provided by businesses.

Also serving on the six-member panel was Alan Balutis, senior director of the Cisco Internet Business Group, and Jim Huse, senior advisor at HJ Steininger, a consulting firm that helps governments “implement challenging programs.”

The report acknowledges that the Social Security Administration “has excelled in providing personal service to its customers” but goes on to say that the agency’s emphasis on face-to-face services “seems to hamper its ability to identify and develop new opportunities to improve services (e.g., online delivery, self-service, and automation).”

According to the report, the Social Security Administration currently uses some technology to deliver some services, but acknowledges that there have been problems with it that require human intervention.

Of those applications that have been submitted online, 95 percent had information missing that required a call back by a Social Security worker.

The current web site has had other problems as well. For example, criminals set up fraudulent accounts through the MySocialSecurity web portal and benefits were paid to these phony accounts.

Despite these problems, the report recommends increasing the agency’s reliance on automation and notes “as more work becomes automated, it become less necessary to maintain the current (workforce) structure.”

But Cox argues that expanding a flawed automated system and over relying on automated tools will hurt the agency’s customers.

Doubling down on a complex, error-prone MySSA website will do nothing to make up for the rapidly growing service gap,” writes Cox. “According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not even use the Internet. Nearly 60 percent lack a broadband connection. But the problems don’t end there. Even for those who do use the Internet, those who file for benefits online often mistakenly leave out important information that could result in a loss of benefits.”

One important service that automated systems can’t do well is informing people about benefits to which they are entitled but not aware of.

“Social Security representatives give people different options, something they haven’t considered,”  said Dianne Flemming, a Social Security recipient at the Washington DC rally. “(People) don’t know what type of benefits they are eligible for.”

Brazil’s bank employees on strike

Brazil’s bank  employees have gone on strike just five days before the national elections.

The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that most banks in the nation’s largest cities were closed for business on Tuesday, September 30, the first day of the strike.

The bankers’ trade association and CONTRAF-CUT, the workers’ union, have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, but the negotiations have failed to produce an agreement.

Bank workers are demanding a wage increase that would exceed cost of living increases by 5.4 percent. The bankers are only will to give a raise that is 0.61 percent more than a cost of living increase.

The union is also seeking to increase the minimum wage for bank employees to four times higher than the national minimum wage.

Last year, a 23-day strike by private sector bank employees won an 8 percent pay increase.

CONTRAF-CUT said that despite last year’s raise, Brazil’s banks still managed to make record profits.

Brazil’s six largest banks in 2013 collectively reported profits of $23.6 billion.

“Banks in Brazil continue to have the highest profitability ratios in the international financial system,” said Carlos Cordeiro, president of CONTRAF-CUT in a translated statement about the strike. “But banks give high value to executives and refuse to listen to our demands.”

Sharp rise in railway worker deaths alarms safety experts

Work on the nation’s railroads has become more deadly.

In 2013, 15 railroad roadway workers died on the job, a significant increase over previous years. Since 1990 and before 2013, the average number of roadway worker on-the-job deaths was 6.4 per year.

The alarming increase in work related deaths caused the National Transportation Safety Board to take notice.

“Railroad (roadway) worker deaths have increased over the past three years,” said Christopher Hart, NTSB’s acting chair. “This trend is unacceptable.”

Roadway workers perform a number of different tasks including maintenance and repair of tracks, bridges, and other rail facilities, track inspections, construction, and other work.

The spike in the number of on-the-job deaths led to a special investigation by NTSB, and on September 24, the agency held a special hearing and released a summary of the findings resulting from the investigation.

The investigation reviewed the circumstances that led to each of the 15 deaths.

The causes were disparate. Seven died when they were hit by trains as they worked. Other causes of death included heat stroke, electrocution, overturned equipment, and falls. One roadway worker was killed in a mudslide.

NTSB’s summary of the report of its investigation did not provide details about the deadly accidents, but the website of Railroad Workers United describes some of the accidents that led to the deaths noted in NTSB’s report.

In one instance, Thomas Tarchak on August 26, 2013 was on a crew inspecting a steel bridge near Harpursville, New York for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He was in a lift 60 feet in the air taking measurements when the lift came in contact with a power line carrying 4,800 volts.

The burst of electricity caused by the contact between the lift and the power line electrocuted him.

In his remarks during the September 24, acting chair Hart seemed to lay most of the blame for the accidents on workers’ lack of vigilance.

“I would like to direct a plea drawn from this report’s findings to any roadway worker who hears my voice or reads these words,” said Hart. “Be your brother’s and sister’s keeper. Be their reminder. Have their backs. It might mean saving their lives, and it might mean that they can help save yours. . . At the end of the day, it is the individual roadway worker who has to make it back home. At the end of the day, if you’re a roadway worker, your safety, and your co-worker’s safety, will always be in your hands.”

But Railroad Workers United offers a different take on the safety problems at work. “Our brothers and sisters continue to be killed on the job and what we see from the railroads are continuous testing harassment and ineffective “blame the worker” safety programs,” said a posting on RWU’s website.

The NTSB did make some recommendations for upgrading safety including improving coordination among the agencies that oversee rail safety, better safety briefings for workers, and requiring railways to comply with safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The report also recommend that representatives from workers’ unions be included on teams investigating accidents.

According to the report, “Union representation brings operations-specific knowledge to the investigative team and helps facilitate the cooperation of employees.”