Locked out Sherwin Alumina workers receive international support

Representatives from unions all over the world on December 10 gathered in the streets of London outside the annual investors’ day meeting of Glencore to protest the lockout of 450 workers at the Glencore-owned Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas.

Glencore is a multinational mining, manufacturing, and trading corporation based in Switzerland and the UK. It’s Sherwin Alumina operation refines bauxite into alumina, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of aluminum.

“This is a company that makes huge profits off the backs of its workers and tries to bully those workers into accepting less and less,” said Jessie Green of the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 235A, who attended the London demonstration as a representative of the locked out workers. “It’s corporate greed – pure and simple – and unless we stand up to it, it will only get worse.”

Local 235A is the locked out workers’ union and Green is a member of the local’s negotiating team.

The workers were locked out in October after they rejected the company’s contract proposal that if accepted would have reduced take home pay by changing the way overtime is defined, increased worker health care costs, and taken the first step toward eliminating the workers’ pension.

The London demonstration was organized by the Glencore global network, an international coalition of unions representing Glencore workers.

The demonstration was also protesting Glencore’s disregard for worker safety and other abusive practices toward its workers.

“We are especially alarmed about safety issues. In the United States, the Sherwin Alumina plant already had an injury rate twice the national average, and now inexperienced replacement workers operate the facility. It is a reckless approach which could have catastrophic consequences for the workers,” said Glen Mpufane, director of mining for IndustriALL, an international confederation of unions in the mining and manufacturing industries. “We are calling on Glencore to resolve labor and community conflicts extending around the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America and North America.”

Glencore professes to be a good corporate citizen that respects its workers, but at a November meeting of the Glencore global network, union members from the company’s mines said that worker abuse at these mines is common.

“In Peru and Colombia, the safety and health situation of workers was particularly disturbing, with reports of how injuries to workers are commonplace with Glencore refusing to work with trade unions to address these issues,” reads a report from the meeting. “In addition, it was found that the wholesale use of sub-contracting and precarious employment by Glencore at its global operations was a major contributing factor to the alarming statistics on safety and health.”

Workers also reported other problems such as Glencore’s refusal to pay standard severance payments to South African miners about to lose their jobs at the company’s Koornfotein coal mine in Mpumalanga and the eviction of miners from company housing in Collinsville, Australia after the company refused to re-hire the miners.

In Columbia, Glencore allowed a  paramilitary group to bivouac and train on its property. The group was linked to the murder of some trade unionists.

At Glencore’s Sherwin Alumina plant in Texas, the locked out workers and their families are facing some hard times, especially now that the holidays season is here and the workers haven’t received a paycheck since October.

But unlike its locked out workers, a cash shortage is not one of Glencore’s problems.

In fact, the opposite is true. It’s biggest problem appears to be figuring out what to do with is excess cash.

In August, Glencore announced that it would use some of its excess cash to repurchase stock from its shareholders.

The buy back will be quite to boon to its shareholders because Glencore plans to repurchase $1 billion worth of outstanding stock. So far, according to Bloomberg, the buy back is 65 percent complete.

Glencore is also looking for other ways to spend its bountiful surplus of cash. Bloomberg reports that Glencore is interested in buying its chief rival Rio Tinto, an Australia-based mining corporation that also does business all over the world.

Such a merger would create a $150 billion international corporate behemoth that extracts raw materials from the earth, manufactures some of the raw materials into commodities, and uses some items that it mines and manufactures to speculate in the global commodities market.

Glencore, however, doesn’t appear to be interested in sharing any of its excess cash with its Sherwin Alumina workers.

Earlier this month, the two sides resumed negotiations, but they broke off because as one USW official put it, the company insisted on retaining its “unreasonable and unnecessary demands for deep cuts in pay and benefits.”

“This is a highly profitable company, and the market for its product is improving,” said Ben Lilienfeld, USW District 13 sub-director. “There is simply no reason – other than greed – for Sherwin (and its parent Glencore) to continue to keep its doors locked on these workers. It is bad for the workers, their families, and our entire community.”

Strikers: FairPoint turning middle-class jobs into low-wage jobs

Workers at FairPoint Communications on December 19 marked the tenth week of their strike with a spirited rally in Concord, New Hampshire.

“All I want for Christmas is a fair contract,” read many of the signs carried by workers and their supporters at the Concord rally.

FairPoint, a North Carolina-based company, provides landline and broadband services in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

About 1,700 FairPoint workers who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electricians (IBEW) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) went on strike after the company declared that negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement were at an impasse and unilaterally imposed its bargaining proposals.

During the negotiations, the company was seeking $700 million worth of concessions from its union workers.

“The company began these talks demanding $700 million in crippling cuts, and today they’re still making the same demand,” said Peter McLaughlin, chair of System Council T-9 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “They’re not trying to find common ground with us, they’re trying to turn good middle-class jobs into low-wage jobs with bare-bones benefits.”

Under the terms imposed by FairPoint, pay for most new hires is reduced by 20 percent, pensions were frozen, company contributions to the pension were halted, the pension plan was replaced by a 401(k) savings plan, workers pay more for health care, and there are no restrictions on outsourcing work.

The unions contend that bargaining was not at an impasse when the company imposed its proposals and have filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the company.

Union leaders have suggested that FairPoint imposed its proposals because of pressure from hedge funds that own stock in the company.

One such hedge fund, Maglan Capital, addressed a 2013 letter to FairPoint board members castigating the board for not “substantially improving shareholder value.”

Among other things, the letter criticized the company for making a pension contribution of $14.6 million to its union workers’ pension fund implying that the money would have been better spent on increased dividends for shareholders.

A 2013 article in Forbes suggests that Maglan is interested in improving shareholder value at the expense of workers’ pension and benefits in order to make the sale of FairPoint more attractive.

FairPoint’s steep cuts to workers’ pay and benefits have generated substantial community support for the strikers even though the strike has caused phone service to deteriorate.

So far more than $200,000 has been donated to FairPoint workers relief fund. The Vermont National Association of Educators donated $12,000 to the fund.

IBEW and CWA have set up an IBEW-CWA Solidarity Fund at gofundme so that supporters can make donations over the internet.

Local musicians in Portland, Maine are playing at “Funk Fest for FairPoint Strikers” benefit concert on December 22. Those playing include Model Airplane, Adam Waxman and Joe Farrell, and special guest Kenya Hall.

Strikers have also been receiving support from individuals and FairPoint customers, some of whom have walked the picket line with them.

In a letter to the Portland Free Press, Falmouth, Maine resident Gerald Davis explained why he is supporting the strikers.

“My sympathy is with the strikers,” wrote Davis. Earlier in the letter, he explained why. “It has become clear that these strikers are fighting for middle-class status, which is under attack. . . throughout the country.”

Federal indictment: Deadly mine explosion was caused by CEO putting coal production ahead of safety

An indictment by a federal grand jury in Charleston, West Virginia alleges that former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship pressured mine managers to sacrifice worker safety for the sake of higher coal production and higher company revenue.

According to the indictment, safety violations at the mine caused the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia.

“(Blankenship) fostered and participated in an understanding that perpetuated UBB’s practice of routine safety violations in order to produce more coal, avoid the cost of following safety laws, and make more money,” reads the indictment.

The indictment charges Blankenship with conspiracy to violate US mine safety laws, conspiracy to commit fraud, and making false statements to officials investigating the cause of the explosion.

While Blankenship was CEO of Massey, the Upper Big Branch mine group was the company’s top money earner.

It produced a type of coal used in the production of steel that sold for a higher price than coal produced for energy generation.

In 2009, the year before the explosion took place, UBB group mines generated $331 million in revenue, or 14 percent of Massey’s $2.3 billion total revenues for the year. That amount was more than the revenue produced by any other Massey mines.

UBB was on track to produce even more in 2010 before the explosion occurred.

But the mine’s vigorous coal production came at a cost of safety for the miners whose work made Blankenship and Massey executives rich.

The indictment cites the mine’s poor ventilation system as a major cause of the explosion.

According to the indictment, “Blankenship and Massey routinely violated mandatory ventilation safety requirements.”

Proper mine ventilation prevents the build up rock dust, methane gas, and other potential hazards.

But between 2008 and 2010, UBB was cited 283 times for violating federal mine safety laws on ventilation.

On June 4, 2009, federal mine inspectors found that the airflow in one area of UBB was 417 cubic feet per minute. To be safe, the airflow rate should have been at least 9,000 cubic feet per minute.

The indictment lists other instance in 2009 when the airflow rate in sections of UBB was half the legal minimum required for safety purposes.

Because the mine was so poorly ventilated, high levels of rock dust and methane gas accumulated.

The indictment says that in addition to poor ventilation, the company’s mining machines were poorly maintained.

This machinery was supposed to be equipped with water sprays to suppress sparks as the machinery cuts coal away from earth.

But according to the indictment, mine safety inspectors on several occasions found the machinery operating with defective water sprays.

The deadly explosion occurred when a spark from mining machinery ignited excessive amounts of rock dust and methane gas in the air.

An investigation of the explosion found that the machinery that generated the spark that caused the explosion had at least seven inoperable or malfunctioning water sprays.

The indictment says that Blankenship received production updates from UBB every 30 minutes. When production slacked off because maintenance and repairs were needed, Blankenship often pressured mine managers to restore production even if it meant cutting corners on safety.

In one instance, according to the indictment, Blankenship sent a note to UBB’s top executive telling him “to run coal” and not worry about the ventilation safety problems in sections 1 and 2 (of UBB).

The indictment says that Blankenship, who reviewed all staffing and hiring decisions at UBB, was also personally responsible for the decision at the mine to devote as few miners as possible to safety construction and repair.

For example, under Blankenship’s orders there was “an insufficient number of coal miners in jobs focused on construction and maintenance of ventilation control structures  and devices, and the imposition and aggressive enforcement of coal production quotas (by Blankenship) . . . did not allow time to properly maintain ventilation control structures and devices.”

The indictment also suggests that Blankenship calculated the trade off between mine safety fines and lost production resulting from keeping the mine safe.

Blankenship had UBB management provide him with reports on all safety violations uncovered by mine inspectors and the amount of the fines that resulted from those violations.

Finally, the indictment notes that Blankenship ordered UBB management to reduce labor costs from $18 a ton to $14 a ton. That could only be done, says the indictment, by reducing the number of miners whose jobs were devoted safety.


High employee turnover, lack of adequate funding put Texas foster care children at risk

A task force in a Texas county where two children died while in foster care last summer has found that the main problem with Texas’ foster care program is that employee turnover is too high at the state agency that investigates child abuse and monitors the safety of children in foster care.

“Our number one problem is the turnover of (Child Protective Services) workers,” said Williamson County Commissioner  Lisa Birkman in a meeting of the task force reported by the Austin American Statesman.

According to the Statesman article, four children have died while in foster care in Williamson County within the past few years. Williamson County, where a number of Austin suburbs are located, is just north of Austin.

The problems with foster care in Williamson County extend throughout the state, and Texas for years has struggled to improve its foster care program.

Improvement became more urgent in 2013 after ten children died in foster care or in the care of a relative providing foster care services.

The 2013 deaths led Child Protective Services (CPS), the Texas agency that oversees the foster care program, to enact more regulations intended to improve the monitoring of foster care homes and facilities.

Before the agency implemented the new regulations, the state began experimenting with a redesign of the foster care program that relies heavily on privatization.

But Myko Gedutis, assistant organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU), said that it will take more than new regulations and privatization schemes to improve foster care in Texas.

“Foster care outcomes will improve when services are funded adequately,”  said Gedutis. “The state needs to pay foster parents more so that more families can afford take care of foster children; it needs to ensure that foster children receive the services they need to thrive; and it needs to improve pay and reduce caseloads in order to reduce the high turnover rate among CPS employees.”

Lawmakers thought that they could save money and provide more services by privatizing foster care management, but that hasn’t worked out very well.

They instructed the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which oversees CPS, to contract with private companies to manage foster care services. The privatization of foster care management is called Foster Care Redesign.

Last summer Providence Services Corporation, one of the state’s two Foster Care Redesign contractors, quit because, according to Providence CEO Mike Fidgen, Texas foster care is inadequately funded.

“The failure of Providence showed that systemic under funding of the foster care system is the source of foster care’s problems,” said Gedutis.

Gedutis said that he is encouraged by the fact that more people like Commissioner Birkman, a Republican, are recognizing that employee turnover is a problem that needs to be addressed.

In fact, there’s a growing consensus that reducing the turnover rate at CPS is essential to improving foster care.

An operational review of CPS conducted by the Stephen Group finds that employee “turnover is a major organizational burden.”

DFPS has told lawmakers that the agency’s high turnover rate needs to be addressed, and some lawmakers such as Larry Gonzalez, a Republican from Williamson County, have agreed.

But while a consensus about the problem is growing, there’s no consensus on a solution.

The official response seems to be that the key to reducing turnover is to reduce job stress.

With this in mind, the Texas Sunset Commission and the Stephen Group have recommended simplifying the state Family Code so that child protective workers don’t have to spend so much time documenting compliance with the Family Code.

That might be a good start, but if lawmakers and state officials are serious about reducing employee turnover at CPS, they should listen to the workers.

Former CPS workers who responded to an exit survey said that the main reasons that they left were poor working conditions, excessive workloads, supervisor issues, and inadequate compensation.

Another survey of workers still with the agency found that only 3 percent of those surveyed said that they were adequately paid, while 75 percent said that they were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their current pay.

Average pay for CPS caseworkers ranges from $34,516 a year to $37,718 a year. The job requires a four-year college degree or comparable work experience.

In addition to low pay, CPS caseworkers struggle with high caseloads.

According to the CPS Annual Report, the statewide average daily caseload for a CPS investigative caseworker is 19.7 cases. The Midland region with an average of 24.4 cases per worker is the region with the highest average caseload.

The Child Welfare League of America recommends a caseload of 12-15 foster care children per caseworker.

CPS employees understand the impact that high caseloads have on their jobs.

“When caseloads are too high, you cannot provide quality service to the client,” wrote one CPS employee on the survey referred to above.

“Workers are overloaded and . . . this puts children at risk,” wrote another employee

Addressing the high turnover rate by raising pay and lowering caseloads is one step that the Legislature needs to take when it convenes next year, said Gedutis, but there are other areas of concern that need to be addressed.

“TSEU’s Family Protective Services caucus (the union members who work for DFPS) has taken the position that foster care outcomes will improve when the program receives adequate funding,” said Gedutis. “As the failure of Providence showed, systemic under funding of the foster care system has resulted in an inadequate foster care network, both public and private. Improvement can’t take place by changing who manages that inadequate network. Only by providing adequate funding can we ensure that all foster care children are living in a safe environment.”

CSB: 30 years after Bhopal tragedy, it could happen here

On the 30th anniversary of a deadly chemical release in Bhopal, India, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) called for the US government to reform its process safety management regulations to avoid a catastrophe like the one in Bhopal where thousands of people were killed by a toxic chemical vapor released into the atmosphere by the nearby Union Carbide pesticide plant.

“Process safety management regulations are in need of reform,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, CSB’s chairperson. “There must be more emphasis on preventing the occurrence of major chemical accidents through safer design. Responding to emergencies and punishing people after the fact are not enough.

Unions representing workers in plants and refineries that process toxic chemicals have made improved process safety a bargaining priority and in the past have supported similar CSB calls for improved process safety.

One union, the United Steelworkers, said that regulation reform isn’t enough; the government needs to dedicate more resources to enforce existing and new regulations, and workers and their unions need to a bigger say when it comes to making safety decisions at chemical plants and oil refineries.

Process safety management is a term used to identify actions that can be taken to identify and correct potential chemical processing hazards before they cause harm.

CSB, an independent government agency, recently released a short video describing the urgency of updating process safety management regulations in the US.

According to the video, dangerous chemical releases at plants and refineries that should have been prevented have threaten the lives of workers and those living nearby.

If more is not done to eliminate these preventable releases, the Bhopal tragedy could be repeated in the US.

In December 1984 at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, water began to leak into a corroded storage vessel containing 80,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical. The leaking water set off a violent chemical reaction that spewed a deadly cloud into the atmosphere of the surrounding community, killing 3,800 people.

Over the years, thousands more succumbed to the effects of their poisoning.

According to the CSB video, a similar tragedy was narrowly avoided in 2008 when an explosion occurred  at a Union Carbide insecticide plant in Institute, West Virginia.

The explosion, which killed two workers and injured others, shot heavy pieces of metal into the air. The exploding debris narrowly missed a waste storage vessel containing MIC.

Had the hot metal pierced the MIC vessel a deadly leak could have occurred.

The video points to another chemical leak in Richmond, California in 2012 that endangered the lives of workers and people in the surrounding community.

At the Chevron refinery in Richmond corroded pipes began to leak causing a fire. The smoke from the fire drifted into Richmond and the nearby community of Martinez. Hundreds of people sought treatment for smoke related symptoms, but fortunately no one was killed.

According to CSB, the owners of the refinery had been aware for ten years that the pipes needed replacing, but delayed the repairs.

A CSB draft report of the causes of the fire and subsequent leak said that the pipes’ rupture was yet another example of the need for reformed process safety regulations.

In comments to the CSB’s draft report, the United Steelworkers (USW) agreed that better safety regulations are needed but noted that unless the government backs up these regulations with more resources to enforce them, safety will not improve.

The union pointed to existing safety regulations that are going unenforced because the enforcement agencies, primarily the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, don’t have the resources to enforce the regulations effectively.

The new regulations advocated by CSB would take even more resources, said USW.

Deadly leaks at a DuPont insecticide plant in LaPorte, Texas that took place in November have put the spotlight on process safety.

Four DuPont workers were killed after methyl mercaptan, another toxic chemical, leaked from a storage vessel and contaminated the air nearby.

DuPont for years enjoyed a reputation as a leader in work site safety.

But that reputation has become tarnished. According to the Associated Press, since 2007 there have been 34 reported leaks of chemicals at DuPont plants throughout the US causing eight worker deaths.

CSB is conducting an investigation into the causes of the leak and the resulting deaths in LaPorte.

CSB’s announcement about the need to upgrade process safety standards did not mention the tragedy in LaPorte because the investigation is still progress.

The announcement, however, cited lax process safety management as a key contributing factor to the leaks that caused the refinery fire in California.

“There was no mechanism to ensure continuous safety improvement (at the refinery); no requirement to implement inherent safety or the hierarchy of controls,” reads a statement by CSB.

CSB also cited the need to involve workers and their unions in making refineries and chemical plants safer.

“There should be an increased role for workers and worker representatives in process safety management,” said CSB.

Facebook drivers join the Teamsters

In a 43 to 28 vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, Facebook shuttle bus drivers have voted to join the Teamsters.

The drivers are employed by Loop Transportation, a San Francisco company that contracts with Facebook to provide to-and-from work transportation for Facebook employees who work at the company’s campus in Menlo Park, California.

Drivers were frustrated by their low pay and poor working conditions that included working split shifts that in some cases meant being at work for 16 hours a day without being paid for much of the time that they were at work.

“We can’t continue 16-hour days, having drivers sleeping in the cold in their cars while we wait five hours to be able to start our next shift. It’s inhumane,” said Cliff Doi, a Facebook driver and new Teamster member. “With our union, we can find solutions to these problems.”

“The only way that Loop will listen to us is with a union and a collective voice. I’m very relieved that we have that now,” said Demaurae Hooston, another new Teamster member.

It’s not uncommon for information technology companies in the region known as Silicon Valley where Menlo Park is located to contract with other companies to provide transportation and other essential services.

Unlike employees who work directly for these Silicon Valley companies, employees of service providing contractors are relatively low paid.

The successful organizing drive at Facebook may lead to more of these workers joining a union.

A union coul help these workers share in the Silicon Valley’s prosperity, which, while widely reported, has not been broad based.

Engineers and programmers for companies like Facebook are well paid, but the workers who serve them are barely getting by.

The Facebook drivers for instance are paid $18 to $21 an hour, which the officials at Loop think is a good wage.

But the cost of living in Silicon Valley and the entire San Francisco Bay Area where Facebook drivers live is the highest in the US.

The high cost of living makes it difficult to afford decent housing on just $21 an hour.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, it takes a wage of $37.62 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in San Mateo County where Menlo Park and the Facebook campus is located.

It takes the same wage to afford the same accommodations in two other nearby counties–San Francisco and Marin.

The Oakland-Freemont metropolitan area is a bit more affordable, but it still takes a wage of $30.35 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

According to the housing coalition, four of the six counties in the US with the highest cost of living–San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin– are located in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The high cost of living means that many Silicon Valley service employees like the Facebook drivers live in or close to poverty.

“These drivers are part of the invisible workforce that makes Silicon Valley run,” said Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, a community group that supported the Facebook organizing drive. “They are members of our communities that work hard every day, but live in poverty, and the business model of tech companies like Facebook counts on that. Tech companies write the checks to subcontractors who hire these drivers and the thousands of other service workers who make these tech giants able to function. They need to set the standards, too, and say ‘no’ to poverty jobs.”

“These companies need to step up and stop demanding the lowest bid contract” so that their contractors can pay a living wage, said Rome Aloise, vice president and secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 853.

USA Today reports that while technology companies have increased pay for their direct employees, “janitors, security guards and others who work inside the very same companies say their wages have stagnated even as the cost of living has shot up.”

Stagnant wages are one reason why some of these workers have been looking to join a union, and the union victory at Facebook has sparked more interest in unions among these workers.

Jimmy Maerina, a Facebook driver and union activist, told USA Today that workers at Google and Apple have contacted him and expressed an interest in joining a union.

For the Facebook drivers who work for Loop Transportation, the next step is to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement.

“We’re ready to get to work at Loop to help these drivers better their lives and the conditions they face at work–to get them some justice,” said Aloise.

University of Oregon graduate teaching fellows on strike

Exchanging picket signs for lecture notes, Graduate teaching fellows (GTF) at the University of Oregon (UO) walked off the job on December 2, set up picket lines, and began an unprecedented strike.

“Despite the cold, spirits remained high and our (picket) lines remained strong,” read a statement on GTFs’ union’s website. “Hundreds of GTFs turned out to the picket lines today to demonstrate their frustration with the administration’s refusal to make movement on a new contract. . . The strike will continue until an agreement is reached.”

GTFs are graduate students who also teach one-third of UO’s undergraduate classes.

They play an important role in the education of UO’s 20,000 undergraduates, but they work without paid medical and parental leave or a living wage–two terms of employment that most educators take for granted.

The GTFs’ union, GTFF AFT Local 3544 has been bargaining with UO’s administration for more than a year on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Union members decided that the new collective bargaining agreement had to include two weeks of paid medical and parental leave and a living wage.

Thanks to the union’s flexibility, the union and the administration’s bargaining team appeared to be close to an agreement on the paid medical leave issue.

Both sides worked on a proposal that if included in the collective bargaining agreement would have established a Graduate Assistance Fund that provides medical and parental financial assistance for all graduate students.

The administration, however, refused to include the proposal in the collective bargaining agreement. Instead, it said that it would put the details about the fund in a memorandum of understanding between UO’s president and the Graduate School.

Without the details being included in the collective bargaining agreement there would be no legally binding guarantee that the final version of the assistance fund would resemble the proposal to which the two sides agreed. The administration would write final version, determine how it was implemented, and make changes at its own discretion.

Paid medical and paternal leave is a bottom line issue for GTFs, said the union bargaining team in a bargaining update. To achieve a fair compromise on this issue, “there must be a negotiated, legally binding agreement between employer and employee.”

On day two of the strike, community members, including construction workers, members of the University of Oregon football team, and state senator Michael Dembrow joined GTFF members on the picket lines.

Students also showed their support by staging a study-in at Johnson Hall, UO’s administration building.

“We refuse to stand idle as our GTF’ are exploited, our tuition money goes to union busting lawyers, and our university becomes more corporatized. Working conditions are learning conditions!” reads a posting on the Facebook page of the Student Labor Action Project, one of the student groups that organized the study-in.

There are two other unions on campus, United Academics (UA) is the union of tenured and non-tenured track faculty and SEIU Local 085 is the union of the university’s classified employees.

Both are prohibited by law from honoring the GTFF picket lines, but both have expressed their support for the striking GTFs.

Local 085 is urging its members to show their support for the strike by joining the GTFF picket lines and passing out GTFF literature before or after their work begins and during lunch and break times.

The university administration has been encouraging and in some cases pressuring tenured and non-tenured faculty to help break the strike. UA has informed its members that the union will support them if they feel that they are being forced by the administration to act against their conscience.

“We will do everything that we legally can to encourage all faculty to stand with our union colleagues,” said Michael Dreiling, UA president in a statement about the strike.”

In an attempt to get the negotiations back on track, a mediator has scheduled a meeting between GTFF and the administration on December 4.

The union is urging members to rally at Johnson Hall, where the meeting will take place.

“The continued support of our members . . . is critical,” said the union to its members.  “We saw over the past ten days that just meeting with the mediator isn’t enough — we need the continued external support of our members.”

“The administration’s bargaining team needs to hear you,” continued the union’s message. A strong show of support will send an important message to the administration that it can no longer conduct business as usual.

GTFF has also filed an unfair labor practices charge against the administration for intimidating, coercing, and punishing GTFs during the days leading up to the strike and has set up a strike fund. Donations to the fund can be made here.

Report: Manufacturing jobs no longer a gateway to the middle class

There was a time not long ago when manufacturing jobs were the gateway to the middle class for millions of American workers.

That’s no longer the case, according to a new report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP).

According to  Manufacturing Low Pay: Declining Wages in the Jobs That Built the Middle Class, the median average pay for manufacturing workers was once higher than the median average for other private sector employees.

In 2007, median average manufacturing pay slipped to $0.17 an hour below median average pay in the private sector and has continued to decline.

In 2013, that gap had grown to $0.85 an hour.

“If the wage trends continue, manufacturing jobs will not deliver on the promise of creating livable (wage) jobs with positive economic revivals in communities and families,” reads Manufacturing Low Pay.

The report also finds that many people perceive that manufacturing jobs are good paying jobs and are willing to support government subsidies to manufacturers in order to bring these jobs to their communities.

But the reality is that communities that invest public money to attract new manufacturing plants could see their investment end up creating jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

According to the report, nearly one-quarter of the production jobs in the manufacturing sector pay $11.61 an hour or less, just a little more than $24,000 a year.

That’s only 120 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three.

The median wage for all manufacturing production jobs is $15.66 an hour, or about $32,600 a year, about 160 percent of the federal poverty level.

“The manufacturing section helped build America’s middle class, and its spending in our economy fuels America,” said Cindy Estrada, vice president of the United Auto Workers. “But as this report makes clear, we can no longer take for granted that your grandfather’s manufacturing job will provide the same path to the middle class.”

Even the wages of better paying manufacturing jobs have declined because they have failed to keep up with inflation.

Manufacturing workers in 2013 were making on average $1.00 less in inflation adjusted dollars than they were in 2003.

“For a manufacturing worker, who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, that translates to a drop in income of about $2,000 a year,” reads the report.

Unfortunately, there is more bad news.

The decline in manufacturing wages is even worse when the wages of temporary workers provided by staffing agencies are considered.

During the last 25 years, more manufacturing companies are relying more on these workers to fill production jobs.

Between 1989 and 2000, temporary staffing agency workers assigned to manufacturing grew from 419,000 to 1.4 million and “data suggests that this trend continues.”

In 1990, 42 percent of staffing agency jobs were office jobs and 28 percent were factory jobs.

By 2006, 44 percent of staffing agency jobs were factory jobs.

According to the report, “Industrial and factory staffing now form the single largest source of revenue for the staffing industry.”

Workers placed in factories by staffing agencies are paid “lower wages and (receive) fewer benefits. . . compared (to) direct hires,” reads the report. And these temporary jobs “offer limited opportunities to secure a permanent-employee position.”

The auto industry is one particular sector of the country’s manufacturing base that has seen wages decline dramatically.

In inflation adjusted dollars, auto assembly workers have seen their wages drop 21 percent in the last ten years. In 2003, the average auto worker made $31.45 an hour in 2013 dollars. By 2013, the average wage was $24.83 an hour.

The decline of wages in the auto parts industry is less steep but still alarming. Average pay is down 13.73 percent since 2003.

The average pay in an auto parts plant is $15.83 or about $33,000 a year.

““The dirty little secret this report reveals is that, more often than we realize, companies simply aren’t delivering on the good manufacturing jobs they promise our communities,” said Estrada. “We meet workers every day who are stuck in exactly the kinds of jobs described in this report – ones that pay barely enough to support a family and that remain ‘temporary’ for months or even years on end.”

Union makes stopping TPP fast track its priority

Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen told members during a nationwide union hall meeting that defeating fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade treaty is now the union’s number one priority.

Cohen also said that it will take a broad-based coalition that includes Republicans to stop TPP.

Those listening in to union hall meeting held by teleconference also heard about the work local leaders are doing to mobilize members and allies to oppose the latest so-called free trade deal.

“(TPP) is not about free trade,” said Cohen. “It’s about protecting the profits of multi-national corporations.”

Thousands of good-paying jobs are at stake because TPP will make it easier for corporations to ship US jobs abroad, continued Cohen.

Trade representatives from the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries have been negotiating in secret the terms of the proposed TPP.

In addition to official government trade representatives, corporations also are involved in the negotiations.

“Six hundred corporate advisers have a seat at the table during negotiations,” said Robert Longer, executive vice-president of CWA Local 9421 during the union hall meeting.

The working class has no representatives at the table.

President Obama is urging Congress to grant itself fast track authority for ratifying TPP once the final version has been agreed upon by all parties involved in the negotiations.

If Congress votes for fast track authority, it will vote on TPP without reviewing the details of the treaty or being able to amend it.

President Obama wants Congress to vote on fast track authority for TPP early next year.

The purpose of the CWA union hall meeting was to share strategies for defeating TPP fast track authority.

Mahalia Corley, executive vice president of CWA Local 3680 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, described her local’s on-the-job work at an AT&T Mobility call center in Fayetteville.

“On the heels of our voter registration drive, we segued into educating our 400-person call center about the TPP,” said Corley. “Every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for the last two weeks, CWA officers and stewards went up and down the call center aisles asking workers to talk to them about TPP during the workers’ breaks.”

We told them that if TPP passes, our jobs would become expendable because it would be cheaper for the company to outsource our jobs overseas, Corley said.

We also told them about the impact that TPP would have on our community, continued Corley. If the company lays us off, there will be less money for spending in our local stores and less tax money to support our schools, hospitals, and other public services.

As a result of Local 3680’s work, 217 call center workers signed postcards urging Congress to oppose TPP and fast track.

Corley also said that many workers said that they would talk to their friends and family about why they should oppose TPP and fast track.

In Northern California, CWA members who belong to Local 9421 in Sacramento are working with a coalition to urge Rep. Doris Matsui to oppose TPP.

Matsui, a Democrat, hasn’t taken a stand yet on TPP.

In addition to Local 9421, the coalition includes Citizens Trade Campaign, Food and Water Watch, Alliance for Democracy, Global Exchange, SEIU Local 1000, CWA District 9, and the Sacramento Central Labor Council.

The coalition held a town hall meeting and invited Rep. Matsui to attend. She didn’t attend, but and an aide did.

Those who spoke at the meeting said that TPP would endanger local water supplies, encourage corporations to send jobs abroad, and give corporations the right to sue governments in secret tribunals if a government passes laws or enact regulations that endanger future profits.

“As a result of another trade deal similar to TPP, Phillip Morris is suing the government of Australia for requiring tobacco companies to put health warnings on its cigarette packages,” said Longer.

There are 500 similar suits being pursed around the world thanks to language in trade deals like TPP, added Cohen. “Governments are being sued for passing minimum wage legislation and laws to protect the environment.”

Longer said that the Sacramento coalition will mobilize people to phone, email, and use social media to urge Rep. Matsui to meet face-to-face with coalition members and to oppose TPP.

Cohen ended the union hall meeting by saying that stopping TPP fast track will mean reaching out to Republicans.

He urged CWA members and leaders who know or have working relationships with Republican lawmakers to volunteer to contact them.

“We’re going to help our Republican leaders in CWA reach out to Republican lawmakers because we need them if we’re going to stop TPP,” said Cohen.

Cohen said that 170 Democrats have committed to opposing TPP, and 25 Republicans have done so.

“To get the number of votes needed to block fast track, we need about 25 more Republicans,” said Cohen.

By the end of the meeting, 45 CWA members and leaders had volunteered to contact Republican lawmakers and seek their support in opposing fast track for TPP.

“Building coalitions is key to stopping TPP and fast track,” said Cohen. “We’ve stopped fast track twice before and we can do it again, but we can’t do it by ourselves.”