Graduate teaching fellows at the University of Oregon (UO) are poised to strike unless the university’s administration addresses their two major concerns: provide paid sick leave for and pay a living wage to its 1,500 employees who teach about one-third of UO’s undergraduate classes and are also graduate students.
UO graduate teaching fellows (GTF) are members of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation AFT Local 3544 (GTFF). The union, organized in 1978, has been bargaining with the administration on a new two-year contract for more than a year.
After more than six months of fruitless bargaining, union members in May accused the administration of ignoring their primary bargaining concerns and authorized its executive board to call a strike.
The executive board on November 19 informed the administration that unless some progress is made toward reaching a fair contract, GTFs would go on strike on December 2.
The GTFs are seeking a 5.5 percent increase to their minimum salary in each of the two years covered by a new collective bargaining agreement.
They are also seeking two weeks paid sick leave.
In a letter addressed to undergraduates explaining why some of their instructors may go on strike, GTFF wrote, “Our working conditions are your learning conditions. . . . You invest too much energy and too many resources to be taught by people who live below the poverty line; you deserve better than being taught by GTFs who don’t have time to recuperate from illnesses, surgery, or the birth of a child.”
UO’s administration in a confidential memo to deans and directors is encouraging them to pressure tenured and non-tenured professors to take over the GTFs’ teaching load should a strike occur.
Some faculty members are urging their fellow professors to resist such efforts.
UO depends on its graduate teaching fellows to carry much of the load for the education of its 20,000 undergraduates.
Unfortunately, it expects these employees responsible for the education of so many to live on less than a living wage. According to GTFF, 56 percent of UO’s GTFs earn less than a living wage in the City of Eugene where UO is located.
The City of Eugene passed a city ordinance requiring employers to provide employees with paid sick leave, but exempted UO.
The only way that GTFs can get sick leave benefits similar to those enjoyed by other workers in Eugene is through the collective bargaining process.
According to GTFF, “GTFs go to work when sick, delay necessary surgeries, and are forced to make up work when still sick” because they have no paid sick leave. Some who are seriously ill or injured or give birth are forced to drop out of graduate school because they have no sick leave.
GTFF says that if the administration were to agree to its proposals for a livable wage and paid sick leave, it would cost the university about $324,000 more than it would pay under the current proposals offered by UO.
The union says that UO has a $65 million budget surplus, which increased by $11 million over the previous year.
But UO administrators have so far refused to budge and have begun to make plans to break the strike should it occur.
While the State of Oregon recognizes the right of public employees to strike, it also outlaws some acts of solidarity by non-striking employees such as refusing to cross strikers’ picket lines.
In a confidential memo to deans and directors, the UO administration made this point clear and told the deans and directors to report any professors or clerical staff who refuse to work during the strike.
The memo also encourages deans and directors to pressure non-striking professors to take over the workload of GTFs who strike.
In a recent blog post, Joe Lowndes, an associate professor of political science at UO, said that UO is “seemingly willing to break the strike at any cost” and “is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.”
But he also noted that despite pressure from the administration, there is much support for the GTFs on campus.
The faculty union, United Academics, urged its members to email UO administration and declare their support for GTFF.
SEIU Local 503 , which represent classified state at UO, wrote a letter to the administration supporting the GTFs.
The University Senate “voted overwhelmingly . . . to rebuke (UO’s) administration for planning for a threatened strike by graduate teaching assistants in a manner that bypasses the faculty and stands to bring about ‘the dilution and degradation of teaching standards’.”
“This is an important struggle for graduate students, who carry an enormous teaching, grading and research load at the university,” writes Lowndes. “It is also an important struggle for the faculty, which the university seeks to press into service as strikebreakers. What we are seeing here is the kind of anti-labor tactics at which institutions of higher education across the US are becoming adept. At the same time we are seeing powerful solidarity between grad students, faculty and classified staff.”
The National Labor Relations Board recently announced that a settlement was reached in an unfair labor practices dispute between Travis Transportation Management, Inc. and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1091 of Austin.
The settlement calls for Travis Transportation to pay $655,000 to its 600 employees as compensation for lost benefits and wages.
The NLRB filed a complaint against Travis after Local 1091 charged the company with unfair labor practices.
The charge resulted from actions taken by Travis Transportation and McDonald Transportation Associates during contract negotiations.
“The National Labor Relations Board Region 16 office in Fort Worth agreed with (Local 1091) that the Employer violated the National Labor Relations Act,” said the NLRB in a media statement about the settlement.
The dispute that led to the settlement began in 2012 when Cap Metro, the Austin area’s regional transportation authority, decided to fully privatize bus service and awarded a contract to McDonald Transit Associates for the operation of 44 of Cap Metro’s bus routes.
McDonald subcontracted with Travis Transportation to operate its newly awarded routes.
As a condition for taking over the bus routes, McDonald and Travis were required to recognize Local 1091, which had a collective bargaining agreement with its previous employer. McDonald and Travis were also required to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with Local 1091.
The negotiations that took place turned out to be a sham.
As soon as it was feasible, McDonald and Travis declared a bargaining impasse and, according to the NLRB, unilaterally and illegally implemented cuts to employee benefits and pay.
They reduced employer pension and health insurance contributions, They made workers pay more out-of-pocket expenses for medical treatment, and they implemented a two-tier pay system that resulted in lower pay for new hires.
The companies also tried to squelch on-the-job organizing by the union and discriminated against union leaders.
McDonald is a Fort Worth-based company that contracts with a number local governments and regional transportation authorities for transportation and related services.
McDonald is a subsidiary of RATP Dev America, which in turn is owned by the RATP Group, a public corporation owned by the French government.
The RATP Group operates most of Paris’ transportation system. It also operates other public transportation systems throughout the world.
After McDonald and Travis unilaterally implemented their cuts, members of Local 1091 voted to authorize a strike.
There was some speculation that a strike would take place in 2012 during the initial run of Austin’s new Formula 1 Grand Prix racing event, but a strike never materialized.
The union, however, did file unfair labor practices charges against its members’ new employer.
Local 1091 originally sought $1.3 million as compensation for the employers’ illegal actions.
In addition to paying $655,000 in compensation, Travis Transportation must also post notices in the workplace providing workers with details of the settlement and notifying workers of their right to join a union and bargain collectively.
The Austin Chronicle reports that Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt called the settlement, “a major vindication of workers’ rights and a ‘major victory of (Travis) employees’.”
About 150 locked out workers and their supporters demonstrated November 19 at the Houston office of Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss mining, manufacturing, and trading corporation.
The workers, members of United Steelworkers (USW) 235A, were locked out of their jobs at a Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas after they overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer that would have cut benefits and take-home pay.
Glencore is the owner of the Sherwin Alumina refinery, which produces aluminum oxide, the key ingredient in the production of aluminum.
At the same time that workers were demonstrating at Glencore’s Houston office, some of the locked out workers were in Brazil meeting with international supporters to plan a series of events aimed at exposing Glencore’s role in the lockout.
Glencore continues to operate the Sherwin Alumina plant with inexperienced replacement workers.
USW reports that the use of inexperienced workers may have resulted in a power outage that put the safety of workers in the plant and residents of the surrounding community at risk.
Before the lockout began on October 11, Sherwin and Local 235A had been negotiating a new contract. The old one expired in September, but the two sides continued to negotiate. The two sides could not reach an agreement because the company was demanding a number of concessions despite being profitable.
Foremost among the company’s concession demands were proposals to reduce overtime pay and increase worker health care costs.
The company in October ended negotiations and made a final offer with many of its concessions demands intact.
According to KRIS, a Corpus Christi television station, 98 percent of the workers rejected the final offer.
When asked by KRIS why he rejected the offer, Leo Elizondo, a Local 235A member attending the Houston demonstration, said that the proposed concessions could have cost him and his family as much as $65,000 over the four-year life of the contract.
The lockout is not a matter of just local concern.
Glencore operates mines and manufacturing plants all over the globe, and workers at these Glencore-owned facilities have taken an interest in the lockout because its outcome could affect them.
That’s why members of Local 235A traveled to Brazil to meet with international supporters.
At the meeting, which took place on the same day as the union’s demonstration in Houston, plans were made for a series of actions that will begin on December 10 in London, where Glencore will be holding its annual Investors Day.
“(The Houston demonstration and the meeting in Brazil) were a huge success in strengthening the solidarity within our local membership and with other unions,” said USW District 13 Sub-Director Ben Lilienfeld. “This also sends a signal to Glencore that our fight isn’t just about Sherwin Alumina – it’s about (Glencore’s) abysmal record with workers all over the world.”
USW also called on Glencore to be more forthcoming about a power outage that took place at the Sherwin Alumina refinery on the same day as the demonstration in Houston and the meeting in Brazil.
According to USW, an electrical power outage created “a potentially hazardous situation for the surrounding community.”
A similar power outage was a contributing factor in an explosion 15 years ago at a Kaiser Aluminum plant in Gramercy, Louisiana that injured 29 people and left some workers with permanent disabilities.
“An electrical outage at a refinery like this makes for a potentially dangerous situation, given the caustic chemicals, heat and pressure involved in the refining process. An outage renders the plant’s electric-powered pumps inactive, which can lead to excessive heat and pressure buildup,” said USW Health, Safety and Environment Director Mike Wright. “While they may have dodged a bullet this time, they may not always be so lucky. It’s imperative that the public knows exactly what happened here, and exactly what steps Sherwin has taken to ensure that something like this does not happen again.”
While the locked out workers were protesting, Glencore was making news in another way.
The US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report identifying Glencore as one of the participants in a scheme to unfairly influence the commodity future’s market for aluminum.
According to the report, Glencore, Red Kite, a London-based hedge fund company, and Deutsche Bank, were paid fees by a warehouse company owned by Goldman Sachs to store aluminum earmarked for the aluminum futures market in Goldman Sachs owned warehouses.
The aluminium was then shifted among the warehouses in what one warehouse worker described as a series “merry-go-round” transfers that seemed purposeless.
The transfers, however, delayed deliveries of aluminum designated for futures contracts.
Prior to the merry-go-round of the aluminum, delivery of this kind of aluminum took 40 days. After the merry-go-round began, deliveries took as much as 600 days.
According to the Senate report, the delays gave Goldman Sachs and the other participants, including Glencore, an unfair advantage that strengthened their trading positions in the aluminum futures market.
At a rally commemorating those who died in a 1922 massacre of Ecuadorian trade unionists, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa made public the details of a proposal to reform the nation’s labor code. The President plans to submit the proposals to the National Assembly for its consideration.
The rally took place in Guayquil the site of a 1922 general strike. The strike leaders were arrested and their supporters organized a demonstration to demand their release. Soldiers and police attacked the peaceful demonstration, and hundreds of demonstrators were killed. .
About 100,000 people attended the November 15 rally commemorating the victims of the massacre.
At the rally, President Correa laid out a five-point proposal for reforming the labor code. The reforms, he said, would promote dignified work, redistribute wealth, promote fair labor practices, and improve productivity.
Established trade unions for the most part are opposing the reforms and held protests against the proposals on November 19.
A newly formed labor federation, the Confederation of United Workers (CUT, the Spanish acronym), announced that it is backing the proposed changes.
Among its most important provisions, the proposed labor reforms would expand social security coverage by making it universal.
If the reforms are adopted, 1.5 million homemakers whose labor is unpaid would be covered by social security. They would be able to receive a pension when they reach retirement age and collect disability payments if they become unable to work.
Workers in the informal economy would also be covered.
The reforms would also narrow income inequality. The highest paid employees of a firm, usually the CEO, would be able to make no more than 20 times the amount of the pay of the firms’ lowest paid workers.
Those whose pay is more than 20 times higher that the lowest paid worker will pay more into the nation’s social security system.
(In the US, CEOs are paid more than 350 times the wages of the average worker–Washington Post, September 25, 2014.)
The proposed reforms would also eliminate fixed-term labor contracts and make all labor contracts enforceable for an indefinite period.
The intent of this proposal is to prohibit the use of short-term contracts that essentially make many workers temporary workers. Under the new proposals, all workers who are laid off or fired would be entitled to severance pay.
Employers would also be prohibited from firing women who are pregnant and workers who engage in union activities. Firing people because of race, sexual orientation, or ethnicity would also be prohibited.
The proposed changes also seek to democratize business by giving workers the right to elect corporate board members.
Finally, workers in both the private and public sector would be allowed to have their year-end bonus included in their regular pay rather than having to wait until the end of the year to receive it.
The Chamber of Industry and Production, which is similar to the Chamber of Commerce in the US, opposes the reforms.
The Chamber says that the proposal to make employment more stable by eliminating fixed-term contracts will hurt younger workers seeking to find jobs because firms will be reluctant to provide them the job security required by the proposed reforms.
The Chamber is also critical of the requirement limiting executive pay to no more than 20 times that of low-paid employees. According to the Chamber, such a requirement will stifle incentives created by wide pay differentials.
Joining the Chamber in its opposition to the proposed reforms are most of the established trade unions.
In September, 20,000 union members and their supporters held demonstrations across the county where they voiced their opposition to the reforms.
“We are protesting against anti-worker politics that the government is implementing,” said Jose Villavicencio, president of the Workers Union of Ecuador in a media conference held to announce the demonstrations. “(We are) against various laws that have been putting the Ecuadorian people at risk, in this way we are today mobilizing to demand that the government put forward a work code that benefits the weakest, which in this case are the workers.”
Solidarity Center, the international arm of the US’ AFL-CIO, reports that the demonstrations drew support from a broad civil society coalition including indigenous people’s organizations, teachers, students, medical professionals, students, and unemployed workers.
The United Workers Fronts(FUT, its Spanish acronym) and the Inter-Union Committee spearheaded the demonstrations.
A spokesperson for the FUT said that the proposed labor reforms could limit the right to strike and take away some benefits. There was also concern that it could limit regular pay raises.
FUT, which like other labor organizations had been in talks with the government about the labor code reforms since May, wanted the new code to include a reduction in the work week to 36 hours without a loss of pay.
Unlike the FUT and other unions, the Confederation of Workers is supporting the new labor code proposals.
CUT was formed with the support of the government.
According to Andes, the CUT seeks to redefine the trade union movement in Ecuador by including people at the margins of the labor market, including domestic workers, craftsmen, sex workers, truckers, and housewives. Some merchants have also joined the CUT.
Inspectors from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) arrived Monday morning at the DuPont insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas to begin their investigation into the causes of a chemical leak at the plant that killed four workers on November 15.
The workers died after inhaling methyl mercaptan released into air at the plant.
A fifth worker at the plant was hospitalized and released.
“Our initial investigation plans are to examine the accident site (and) conduct initial interviews with witnesses, if any, as well as key operators and managers,” said Dr. Daniel Horowitz, the leader of the investigating team. “(We’ll) request documentation on a range of relevant activities, such as maintenance histories of key equipment, training, and work schedules.”
The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents.
According to CSB, the agency has investigated DuPont plants before. In 2010, it investigated a flammable vapor explosion at the DuPont plant in Buffalo, New York. Also in 2010, the agency investigated three leaks that took place during a 33 hour period at the company’s plant in Belle, West Virginia.
During one of the leaks in Belle, a worker was overcome and killed by phosgene gas. The gas was released when a hose carrying it burst open and sprayed the deadly gas into the air.
A CSB report issued in 2011 on the incident said that there were “preventable safety shortcomings” at the plant including “failure to maintain the mechanical integrity of the a critical phosgene hose.”
Phosgene, which was used as poisonous gas during World War I and remained in use afterwards as an agent used in making insecticides, is a corrosive that can cause leaks and fraying in hoses unless the hoses are replaced regularly.
CSB said that the kind of hoses used at the Belle plant should have been replaced once a month, but they weren’t.
“I would hope the DuPont officials are examining the safety culture company-wide,” said the then CSB Director John Bresland at the time that the report was released.
In a press statement about the phosgene leak in 2010, CSB said that back in 1987, the company realized the dangers involved in using the stainless steel hoses lined with Teflon that were carrying phosgene at the plant.
The company considered switching to hoses line with Monel, a strong metal alloy much better at resisting corrosion than Teflon.
DuPont, however, decided not to do so because the Monel coated hoses cost more.
The company also considered increasing safety at the plant by enclosing the area where phosgene was handled and venting the enclosed area by using a scrubber system that eliminates phosgene that escapes into the air.
DuPont, according the press statement, decided that taking these safety steps was too expensive.
“Documents show that the company calculated the benefit ratio of potential lives saved compared to cost and decided not to make the safety improvements,” said the CSB in its statement.
Regarding the more recent worker deaths in Texas, CSB said that its investigation and final determination of the causes of the worker deaths could take up to a year but that the agency would release key information and facts about the deaths as they come to light.
CSB doesn’t have the authority to levy fines for safety violations; it can only make recommendations for preventing future safety failures.
A federal grand jury in West Virginia on November 14 indicted Don Blankenship the former CEO of Massey Energy for willfully violating federal mine safety regulations.
Blankenship was the top executive at Massey in 2010 when an explosion tore through the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killing 29 miners and injuring dozens more.
The grand jury indicted Blankenship for conspiring to violate ventilation and dust control regulations. Two independent investigations of the blast found that poor ventilation and the unsafe build up of coal dust caused the lethal explosion.
Blankenship was also charged with conspiring to hide mine safety violations from federal mine inspectors and with issuing false statements that led investors and the US Securities Exchange Commission to believe that there were no safety problems at Upper Big Branch.
The grand jury returned four indictments against Blankenship–three were felonies and one was a misdemeanor.
According to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), at least 52 miners died as a result of working in Massey owned mines while Blankenship was CEO.
“The carnage that was a recurring nightmare at Massey mines during Blankenship’s tenure at the head of that company was unmatched.” said Cecil Roberts, the international president of UMWA. “No other company had even half as many fatalities during that time. No company compared with Massey’s record of health and safety violations during that time.”
Massey mines were non-union mines, but the UMWA has supported the families of dead miners and the explosion’s survivors in their pursuit of justice.
During the four years that followed the explosion, the UMWA has been the most vocal organization criticizing Blankenship’s disregard for safety.
The union called the explosion a criminal act caused by the company’s willful neglect of basic mine safety precautions and it urged state and federal law enforcement officials to pursue criminal charges against those at the very top of the Massey corporation, not just the managers of the mine.
According to the Charleston Gazette, the federal indictment included, “a long list of repeated and serious violations at Upper Big Branch of rules that require proper ventilation of underground mines and mandate that operators prevent the accumulation of highly explosive coal dust.”
The indictment also says that Blankenship urged mine managers to violate safety rules in order to maximize production and profits.
If Blankenship is convicted of the most serious charges, he could serve up to 20 years in prison.
“I commend the US Attorney’s office for following through on their commitment to take its Upper Big Branch investigation to the very top of the Massey corporate structure,” said Roberts. “Finally, a strong message has been sent to every other coal operator who chooses to violate the law and puts the lives of miners at risk.”