Tipped workers in NY get a raise

Tipped workers in restaurants, hotels, and other service businesses in the State of New York will receive a wage boost next year when a new minimum wage for tipped workers goes into effect.

New York’s Acting Labor Commissioner Mario Musolino on February 24 approved a recommendation by New York’s Wage Board to raise tipped workers’ minimum wage to $7.50 an hour effective December 31.

New York has three levels of minimum wages for tipped workers, $4.90, $5.00 and $5.65, depending on the type of job. Those tiers will be consolidated into one, and all tipped workers will be paid a minimum of $7.50.

New York’s minimum wage for all other work is $9.00 an hour

The Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), a worker center for low-wage workers, called the minimum wage increase for tipped workers a victory and said that it was made possible by collective effort.

“It took 2,000 e-mails. . . months of One Fair Wage rallies, events, and public testimony, and our collective voice to reach today’s victory,” said ROC United in a statement about Mr. Musolino’s decision.

The Hotel and Motel Trades Council AFL-CIO, SEIU, and the Retail Wholesale Department Store Union held a rally in support of the decision and invited Gov. Andrew Cuomo to speak at the rally to announce the decision.

In a posting on its Facebook page, the Labor Religion Coalition of New York State said that as a result of the decision, “239,000 workers in New York just beat the corporate lobby and won an unprecedented wage increase. Next up $15 and a union.”

Last fall during testimony before the Wage Board, David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, explained why tipped workers need a raise.

According to Jones, 30 percent of tipped workers in New York City make less than $10 an hour with tips included, and between 20 and 30 percent do not earn enough to keep a family of three out of poverty.

Tipped workers are twice as likely as non-tipped workers to live in poverty.

Twenty percent qualify for food stamps and 22 percent are on Medicaid.

Tipped workers in New York City, where the cost of living is higher than almost any other city in the US, could be getting even more of an increase.

Musolino’s decision allows an extra $1 increase to the tipped minimum wage in New York City if the state legislature allows the city to increase its minimum wage.

The State of New York’s minimum wage for tipped workers is well above the $2.13 national minimum wage for tipped workers, which hasn’t increased since 1991.

A 2011 report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says that a lower minimum wage for tipped workers doesn’t serve any purpose, except to give employers of tipped workers a subsidy that helps keep their labor costs low.

EPI also reports that the lower minimum wage has turned tipping into a necessity rather than a gesture of rewarding excellent service, and as a result has pressured customers into subsidizing employers labor costs.

“Raising the tipped minimum wage up to a higher percentage of the regular minimum wage would be a step in the right direction, but perhaps we should simply eliminate the tipped minimum wage altogether, and give tipped workers the same basic protection afforded to other workers,” concludes the report.

FairPoint strikers show their solidarity as they return to work with a new contract

Wearing red to demonstrate their solidarity, FairPoint workers in New England returned to work on February 25. Their return ended a four-month strike that affected telecommunication services in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Before the 1,700 striking workers, who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), returned to work they ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement.

When FairPoint and its unions began negotiating a new contract last summer, the company, which hasn’t turned a profit since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011, demanded $700 million worth of concessions that would have eliminated benefits and job security.

Workers said that solidarity made it possible for them to succeed in resisting most of the company’s concession demands.

“We survived on the support we received from each other and our supporters,” said Julie Dawkins, a FairPoint worker from Portland, Maine to the Portland Press Herald. “We are like family now. We are definitely stronger than before.”

Among the concessions demanded by FairPoint, the company wanted to increase workers’ monthly out-of-pocket health care cost by between $400 and $1200, eliminate their defined benefit pension, implement a two-tiered wage system that would lower new hire pay by about 20 percent, and eliminate restrictions on outsourcing, which put the jobs of all union workers at risk.

When workers balked at making these steep concessions, FairPoint walked away from the negotiations, and imposed new terms of employment that included all of its concession demands.

Workers gave the company some time to reconsider its rash actions, but in October when it appeared the FairPoint wasn’t going to change its decision, the workers went on strike.

The company made every effort to break the strike including hiring replacement workers, conducting surveillance of peaceful picketers, and slandering its own workers in the media.

But the workers stayed united.

“You held the line longer and stronger than even you thought possible,” said a message posted on the Fairness at FairPoint Facebook page. “You supported each other. You helped each other. You sacrificed and yet refused to give in no matter how hard things got. You loudly and proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters. You formed a bond that can never be broken, with people you may have never met before and those you already consider family.”

With the help of a federal mediator, the two side were able to reach an agreement that union negotiators called fair to both sides and an overwhelming majority of members ratified.

The new agreement preserves the strikers’ defined benefit pension, allows them to transfer to a union operated health care plan that provides quality benefits at a lower cost than the health care plan that FairPoint tried to impose, eliminates the two tier wage structure, and provides job protections against outsourcing.

The new agreement, however, does include some worker concessions.

The pension benefits accrued up to implementation of the new contract are frozen and beginning with the implementation of the new contract, the rate of benefit accrual is reduced by 50 percent.

New hires will have to wait 12 months instead of six months to get raises that will eventually put them at the same rate as current employees.

Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, workers had an unlimited number of sick days. Now, sick days are capped at six per year.

Retiree health care for current employees was eliminated. Those who retire within the next 30 months will be able to receive a stipend for health care expenses until they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare.

Union negotiators said that they knew that it would be difficult to avoid making concessions.

The company’s financial difficulties and pressure from FairPoint’s hedge fund investors to shift more of the cost of doing business on to the backs of its workers gave the unions little room to maneuver.

Everyone understood that “this was a concessionary bargaining session,” said Peter McLaughlin who led union negotiations to the Bangor Daily News.

But the final outcome was better than most people thought possible.

When a reporter asked Scott Boudreau, a striker attending a ratification meeting in Portland, how he was going to vote, Boudreau responded, “I am voting for it. It is a good deal. It is far better than what they were trying to ram down our throats.”

The reporter also said that as he stood outside of the meeting room where the Portland ratification vote took place, he heard cheers and chants of “one day longer, one day stronger” as members prepared to vote on the new agreement.

“It was worth it to have the struggle,” said Curtis Lawrence, another striker to the reporter. “We stood up and had the fight. It’s one thing to give lip service, it’s another thing to do it.”

Oil workers’ strike for safe work and communities grows

Workers at four more oil plants have joined the US oil worker strike for safer work and safer communities.

The new strike sites include the Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, the largest refinery in the US, and three other facilities: two Motiva refineries in Convent, Louisiana and Norco, Louisiana, and Shell Chemical in Norco.

Motiva is a joint venture between Shell and Saudi Refining, a subsidiary of Saudi Aramco.

Shell is the company representing Big Oil in its contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers (USW), whose members include 30,000 US oil workers.

When an agreement is reached, it will establish a pattern on wages, benefits, and safety conditions for all refinery work covered by collective bargaining agreements with USW.

“We’re committed to reaching a settlement that works for both parties,” said Tom Conway, USW vice president. “But inadequate staffing levels, worker fatigue, and other important safety issues must be addressed (by the company).”

According to a USW message to members, Shell has ignored the union’s proposals to reduce workplace fatigue, a well-documented safety hazard.

Shell has also ignored union proposals that would give workers more control over protecting their safety and the safety of those living in nearby communities, and it continues to insists on relying on ill-trained, temporary contractors to perform dangerous maintenance work.

Safety is the union’s major concern in these negotiations because refineries are a dangerous place to work. Toxic and reactive chemicals are combined at extreme temperatures and high pressure. Mistakes or faulty equipment, such as leaking pipes, can lead to deadly explosions or vapor leaks.

In the past seven years, 27 oil workers have died on the job as a result of safety lapses.

In the past eight years, 349 fires have been reported at US oil refineries and related facilities.

At a recent rally in Texas City, Texas, Leslie Dillon, the wife of a striking oil worker held up a homemade sign that summed what the strike is all about. “I would rather see him (Dillon’s husband) on the picket line than dead,” read Dillon’s sign.

A February 18 explosion at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, California refinery  demonstrates how dangerous oil refinery work can be for workers and for those who live nearby.

The explosion injured four workers and spewed chemicals and potentially harmful dust into the atmosphere.

The Torrance Daily Breeze reports that when the explosion took place, nearby residents said they felt the ground shake. After the explosion, city officials instructed children at 12 nearby schools and nearby residents to stay indoors.

At a town hall meeting on February 20, about 200 residents confronted Exxon Mobil about its response to the explosion and asked what chemicals had been released into the atmosphere. The company declined to answer.

Residents also complained that Exxon Mobil did not sound a refinery siren that would have warned them to go inside because dangerous vapors may have been released into the air.

“I’ve counted on that warning for 53 years,” said resident Jean Severance, a nearby resident to the Torrance Daily Breeze. “What happened? If we had heard that siren, we would have stayed inside.”

The Torrance explosion is the second US refinery explosion in 2015.

Another explosion and fire took place in January at the Husky Energy refinery in Lima, Ohio.

After the Torrance explosion, Gary Beevers, USW vice president, who is leading the USW national oil bargaining team, reiterated that the striking oil workers are fighting for improved safety measures that will protect workers and residents of nearby communities.

“We believe that improved safety measures (at refineries) can significantly reduce explosions and fires at these dangerous facilities,” said Beevers.

The expansion of the oil workers strike means that 6,600 workers at 15 refineries and related facilities are now on strike.

The latest expansion of the strike for safety came after Shell made its seventh contract offer, which the USW rejected for the seventh time.

“The new offer fails to improve safety in an enforceable way,” said the USW in a statement after it rejected the company’s offer.

The oil workers’ strike is now entering its fourth week.

To help oil workers meet expenses during the strike, USW is asking supporters to contribute to the workers’ Unfair Labor Practices Strike and Defense Fund.

“USW oil workers have forced into an unfair labor practices strike,” reads a statement by the union. “The workers are fighting to secure fair contracts that will protect the health and safety of workers and communities. Your donations will help support these brave workers and their families.”

Unions blast immigration ruling; vow to stand with immigrant workers

Two unions have condemned a ruling by a federal judge that temporarily halts implementation President Obama’s executive order on immigration reform.

In November President Obama issued an executive order giving 4 to 5 million immigrant workers living in the US without immigration documents an opportunity to come out of the shadows and live and work in the US with dignity and without fear.

Judge Andrew Hanen on February 16 issued a temporary injunction halting implementation of procedures that would allow immigrant workers to apply for work permits, which would give them legal status in the US and relieve them of the fear of being arrested and deported.

The procedures for applying for work permits were to become effective on February 18, but for now, those procedures are on hold.

UNITE HERE and SEIU both issued statements criticizing Judge Hanen’s ruling and said that they would continue working with immigrant workers to help them achieve fair treatment on their jobs.

They also said that they expected Judge Hanen’s decision to be reversed on appeal and that they would continue to help immigrants apply for work permits when the judge’s injunction is lifted.

Elana Durazo, a UNITE HERE vice president, said that hundreds of thousands of UNITE HERE members work in the hospitality industry and that immigrant workers are the backbone of the hospitality industry.

“They shouldn’t have to live or work in fear,” said Durazo.

Durazo pointed out that some employers use immigrant workers’ lack of legal status to prevent them from getting fair pay and good benefits.

As an example, Durazo pointed to Cristan Torres, a college cafeteria worker, who was fired for trying to organize a union.

Before Torres started standing up for better pay and better working conditions, his employer wasn’t concerned about whether he had proper immigration documents.

But after Torres became an open union supporter, his employer used his lack of immigration documents as an excuse for firing him.

UNITE HERE was able to get his job back and keep him from being deported.

“We’re here to stand with workers like Cristian and thousands more working in hospitality, who only want an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families,” said Durazo. “It’s time for out-of-touch, anti-immigrant politicians to end these political stunts and stop playing games with people’s lives.”

Rocio Saenz, an SEIU vice president, urged immigrants affected by Judge Hanen’s injunction to “continue to compile information and documents you will need (to apply for work permits).”

Saenz called the judge’s ruling a temporary disappointment rather than a setback and said that “the law is on the side of (President Obama).”

President Obama said that the Justice Department would appeal Judge Hanen’s injunction.

“This judge and his right-wing backers can’t bend the law to their personal will,” said Saenz. “They stand on the wrong side of history and justice. The law is on the side of the President, who has broad authority to determine immigration enforcement policy.”

Saenz called immigrant workers “a part of the greater American family” and was optimistic that justice for immigrant workers would prevail.

“Immigrant families are not the enemy,” said Saenz. “We are confident that justice will prevail as this case moves through the court system and that the relief granted by the president will take effect to the benefit of millions of families.”

 

Union leaders urge support for democracy in Greece and an end to austerity measures

European labor leaders are urging European leaders to recognize that the election of the new Greek government in January was a popular rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its lenders and to give Greece some breathing space as the country’s newly elected government led by Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, tries to carry out its popular mandate to end the austerity measures that have shattered the Greek economy and caused widespread misery.

“The people of Greece have taken a democratic decision that five years of austerity, of hardship and of pain have failed, and they have chosen a new path,” said Oliver Roethig, a regional secretary for UNI Global Union, an international federation of 900 unions representing 20 million workers in the skills and services industries. . . . “Greece must be given time and space to obtain the financial means to fairly negotiate its debt. A program bridge until June this year is the best pathway to achieving this.”

“The new Greek Government must be given time to put in place new policies,” said Bernadette Ségol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation. “It is vital for Europe’s democracy that the Greek people’s clearly expressed wish for an end to austerity is respected.”

Greece in 2010 was forced to implement austerity measures in return for €240 billion in loans to deal with a financial crisis that began when foreign lenders started calling in loans owed by Greek investors.

The austerity measures included a reduction of public spending, lower pensions, cutbacks in public health and health care, and new labor laws that weakened unions and collective bargaining.

These measures were supposed to improve the Greek economy, but since 2010 the Greek gross domestic product has shrunk by 25 percent, the unemployment rate increased to 25 percent (50 percent among the youth), national income is down 21 percent, health and human services have been drastically reduced, and one-third of the population lives in poverty.

Hundreds of thousands of Greek workers have lost their jobs, homes, and access to health care.

Much of the€240 billion that was lent to Greece has been used to pay foreign lenders.

The Syriza-led Greek government wants to restructure the loans so that it can use some of the money being siphoned off to foreign banks to restore basic health and human services and make public investments that can revive the Greek economy.

Greece’s lenders appear to be willing to offer some debt relief, but they are demanding that Greece adhere to the austerity measures imposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the World Bank, or the troika as they have come to be known, as a condition for receiving the loans.

On February 16, European finance ministers demanded that Greece submit by February 20 a proposal for extending the loans that come due on February 28 and that the proposal must pledge that the Greek government will continue to enforce the troika’s austerity measures.

Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said that Greece would not accept such an ultimatum. The new Greek government, said Varoufakis, has drawn a red line that will not be crossed. That red line prevents Greece from returning to the austerity policies of the troika and the old government.

On February 18, Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras in a speech to Parliament said that Greece would submit a proposal for extending the loans but do so on its own terms.

Tsipras in the same speech pledged to “end the medieval regulation of the labor market created by the troika to serve the interests of the oligarchs.”

Those regulations have crippled unions and eliminated collective bargaining.

Tsipras has said that strong unions and real collective bargaining are essential to building a prosperous and sustainable economy that can reverse the effects of austerity.

While European leaders continue to pressure Greece to maintain the troika-imposed austerity measures, unions throughout Europe have been expressing support for the Greek government’s stance against austerity.

At a February 15 Solidarity with Greece rally attended by more than 3,000 people in London, Billy Hayes speaking for the British Trades Union Council (TUC) said that, “The TUC both in this country and internationally, has said this: the international financial institutions and European authorities need to respect the voice of the Greek people.”

In Germany where national leaders have taken the hardest line against Greece, union leaders and others have signed a declaration of solidarity with the new Greek government authored by Riner Hoffmann, president of the German Trade Union Federation (DBG, its German acronym).

“Serious negotiations with the new Greek government must get under way, without any attempts at blackmail, in order to open up economic and social prospects for the country beyond the failed austerity policy,” reads Hoffmann’s declaration.

“Anyone who now demands that the country simply continue along the previous, so-called ‘path to reform’ is in fact denying the Greek people the right to a democratically legitimized change of policy in their country,” continues Hoffmann.

In his statement, Hoffmann called for an end to all European austerity policies that have led to anemic economic growth since the Great Recession of 2008.

“The European project will not be furthered by austerity dictates but only by a bottom-up democratic initiative in favor of economic regeneration and greater social justice,” said Hoffmann. “This initiative must be supported now in the interests of the Greek people. At the same time, it will help to kick-start the process of policy change across Europe as a whole. The political upheaval in Greece must be turned into an opportunity to establish a democratic and social Europe!”

Teamsters strike Canadian Pacific over lack of safety; government to order strikers back to work

Update: The Teamsters agreed on February 16 to return to work. The union said that it would return to work and submit to arbitration the outstanding issues between it and Canadian Pacific. The Teamsters made their decision as the government prepared to submit back to work legislation to Parliament.

 

The day after locomotive engineers and other Canadian Pacific Railway workers went on strike, Canada’s Conservative government appears poised to introduce legislation to force the workers back to work.

The strikers belong to Teamsters Canada. Douglas Finnson, president of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference called the legislation premature, but a spokesperson for Canadian Pacific supported the government’s intervention.

The strike began February 15 at midnight, and shortly after the strike began, pickets appeared at Canadian Pacific work sites.

According to the strikers, the company has failed to take their concerns about safety seriously.

One of the main issues that the workers wanted resolved during the negotiations is relief from fatigue caused by improper scheduling.

“We’re out here because we live in these communities and we don’t want to see a quarter of the block blown up because somebody is so tired they can’t make the right decision running a train and something happens,” said Dale Roberts, president of Teamsters Local 243 in Thunder Bay to a local television news crew.

Roberts said that it’s not uncommon for train engineers to receive only two hours notice before they have to report for work. When engineers report to work, they don’t know how long they’ll be on duty.

“The phone rings and you have to go to work in two hours and you don’t know whether you’ll be gone for eight hours, 11 hours or 20 hours,” said Roberts. “There is no real schedule, the company has been unwilling or unable to give us any defined schedule.”

“Our members are chronically fatigued when they’re coming to work,” said Roberts.

Union leaders describe Canadian Pacific rules on rest as dysfunctional. While the current collective bargaining agreement requires that trainmen be given sufficient rest time after working 10 continuous hours, the company often ignores the rules.

“We require sufficient fatigue countermeasures to protect our members safety and health,” said Finnson in a statement issued after the strike began. “An effective fatigue management system requires that our members must be in control of their ability to obtain sufficient rest, and the employer must respect the rest provisions within the collective agreement.”

Finnson blamed the strike on Canadian Pacific owners, who since 2012 have taken a confrontational approach when dealing with workers.

“(Canadian Pacific)  has adopted a style of labor relations based on confrontation and establishing a culture of fear among the employees, including management,” said Finnson in a statement released in January after union members voted 93 percent to 7 percent to authorize a strike if a fair collective bargaining agreement could not be achieved.

Finnson added that the Canada Industrial Relations Board in 2013 found Canadian Pacific  guilty of violating Canada’s Labor Code. According to the board, Canadian Pacific “has made it virtually impossible for the labor-relations system to work as it should.”

Canadian Pacific’s labor relations worsened in 2012 after hedge fund investor William Ackman gained a controlling interest in the company and began implementing a series of cost cutting measures.

Union members said that some of these measures have put their safety at risk.

A prolonged strike at Canadian Pacific could have a serious impact on both the US and Canadian economies.

Oil producers who recover oil from Canada’s oil sands are relying more on Canadian Pacific to ship their oil to US refineries.

Canadian Pacific hauls imported goods received at the country’s western ports to US cities including Chicago and New York.

Canadian Pacific also hauls cars, lumber, and other products produced throughout Canada to their final destinations in the US and Canada.

Labor Minister Kellie Leitch said that the government is looking at all options to get the trains running again including introducing legislation in Parliament that orders the strikers back to work.

The government said that it intends to file a bill entitled, An Act to Provide for the Resumption of Rail Service Operations, sometime between 12 P.M. and 3 P.M. on February 16.

After the bill is introduced, Parliament will have to vote on it, and it could take four or five days before the workers are forced back to work.

Canadian Pacific employs some trainmen in the US, including locomotive engineers who belong to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which is affiliated with the Teamsters.

Dennis Pierce, president of BLET, accused Canadian Pacific of threatening its US employees with disciplinary action if they respect the strike in Canada and of ignoring safety concerns.

“It is clear that CP is incapable of bargaining in good faith,” said Pierce. “In a further display of its contempt for rail labor, CP is for the first time threatening to force its US-based union-represented engineers to cross Canadian picket lines, even though other options are available. We also are receiving reports that CP is forcing US-based train crews to operate trains with hazardous commodities over Canadian territories they are not familiar with, and to perform other duties of striking . . .  employees. This blatant disregard for the safety of BLET’s membership and the general public must stop.”

In the face of another lockout, longshore union members are urged to stay strong and united

As employers prepared to lock out West Coast longshore workers for the second time, ILWU International President Robert McEllrath accused the Pacific Maritime Association of spreading misinformation to divide union members and incite public resentment against the workers..

The ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a consortium of international shipping corporations, port terminal operators, and stevedore companies, have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that covers longshore work at West Coast ports in the US.

PMA has accused the union of conducting work slowdowns to gain leverage in the negotiations.

On Wednesday when the two sides were scheduled to resume negotiations, PMA announced that it would shut down West Coast port operations for four days–first on Thursday, February 12 and again on February 14 through February 16.

PMA’s aim appears to be using work stoppages to create dissatisfaction among rank and file union members in hopes that they will pressure union negotiators to accept a new collective bargaining agreement on PMA’s terms.

McEllrath said that staying strong and united was the key to winning a fair contract.

“Nobody divides the ILWU,” said McEllrath. “We’re going to win this fight; we’re going to win this battle, but there’s only one way to do it and that’s to stick together and stay strong and united.”

PMA previously locked out longshore workers on February 7 and February 8.

Before doing so PMA issued a statement blaming longshore workers for their own lockout.

In the statement PMA misrepresented longshore workers wages in order to suggest that they were overpaid. That misrepresentation led some media outlets to report that longshore workers make as much as $1100 a day.

Such reporting is ridiculous, but what is true is that longshore workers make good wages and have excellent benefits.

According to the ILWU, the hourly wage for longshore workers is between $26 and $41 dollars an hour. The union also says that while many longshore workers don’t work the entire 2000 hours that constitutes a normal work year, the typical pay for an experienced ILWU member is $83,000 a year.

The ILWU also points out that longshore work is dangerous and that longshore workers fatality rates are higher than those for police and firefighters.

The good wages enjoyed by longshore workers aren’t the result of employer generosity, as PMA would have the public believe; instead, they’re the result of 75 years of hard fought victories by ILWU members.

Before the ILWU was organized in 1934, longshore work was temporary, low-wage, and extremely dangerous. Work was controled by company agents who often demanded bribes in exchange for work.

It took a bloody ILWU strike in 1934 that closed West Coast ports to get employers to recognize the ILWU.

Among other things, the strike forced employers to accept a union demand that work be distributed fairly through a union operated hiring hall, which ended the corrupt hiring system favored by employers.

Over the years, ILWU members have succeeded in winning some control over the pace of work, improved job safety, and good pay and benefits. But it took many collective job actions to win these improvements.

The PMA in 2002 used a lockout in order to weaken the ILWU, but the tactic backfired when the lockout stopped the flow of imported goods and threatened to damage the national economy.

The lockout resulted in a return to work order issued by the federal government and pressure on the PMA to reach an agreement.

Embolden by increased corporate power over the last 13 years, PMA has dusted off the lockout and given it a new twist–this lockout is temporary and called randomly so that it doesn’t completely shut down port traffic but does affect the wages that workers take home.

But the temporary lockouts are starting to cause trouble for businesses in the imported goods supply chain.

“The PMA can only cut back on work so much before total gridlock results and then a total lockout could happen,” reports the Journal of Commerce (JOC).

If a total lockout does happen, it would trigger a return to work order like the one issued in 2002.

“West Coast ports would then face 80 days (the cooling off period required when such back to work orders are issued) of continued ILWU slowdowns, and at the end of the cooling-of period, nothing would have changed,” reports the JOC.

In the meantime, McEllrath said that union negotiators are prepared to bargain until a fair contract is achieved and said that he hopes PMA is ready to do the same.

He also criticized PMA for its divisive tactics and told ILWU members to stay strong and united and “don’t listen to PMA bullshit.”

PMA locks out West Coast longshore workers over the weekend

Work resumed at most West Coast ports on Monday, February 9 after the Pacific Maritime Association, an employers group of port terminal operators and shipping companies, closed the ports over the weekend in an attempt to gain leverage in the collective bargaining negotiations between PMA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The closures increased “delays for customers needing containers,” said the ILWU in a statement released Monday morning.  “The union remains focused on reaching a settlement as quickly as possible with employers.  Talks to resolve the few remaining issues between the Longshore Union and Pacific Maritime Association are ongoing.”

The Port of Portland remained closed after ILWU Local 8 called a one-day unfair labor practices strike on Monday, February 9 to protest the actions of ICTSI, which operates Portland’s Terminal 6. Local 8 was protesting what it describes as unfair disciplinary action taken by ICTSI against Local 8 members.

The weekend lockout of ILWU members could, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, cost the national economy as much as $4.2 billion.

The lockout appeared to be a form of punishment against ILWU members, who PMA alleges have been engaged in a coordinated slowdown of work on the docks during contract negotiations.

According to ILWU President Robert McEllrath, PMA’s lockout was an unnecessary interruption to the bargaining process that is close to completion.

“What the employers need to do is stay at the negotiating table and work through a few remaining issues with the workers who have made them successful for the past 80 years,” said McEllrath. “We are very close to reaching an agreement.”

PMA’s lockout was the second time that PMA has cancelled work to pressure the union into making contract concessions.

In January, PMA stopped unloading ships during the night shift at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles because, according to PMA, the docks had become too congested with shipping containers that had not been moved because of the alleged ILWU slowdown.

The ILWU recently produced aerial photographs of the docks where the second shift was shut down. The photos appear to show little if any congestion on the docks.

Because PMA cancelled night shift work, there are a number of ships waiting just outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to be offloaded.

“PMA is leaving ships at sea and claiming there’s no space on the docks, but there are acres of asphalt just waiting for the containers of those ships and hundreds of longshore workers ready to unload them,” said McEllrath. “The employers are deliberately worsening the existing congestion crisis to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table.”

PMA’s weekend port shutdown seemed ill-timed given the fact that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement on one of the main issues that was preventing a successful conclusion to the contract negotiations.

The two sides announced at the end of January that they had reached a tentative agreement on who would handle the maintenance work on shipping container chassis, the trailers that transport shipping containers from the docks to warehouses.

Since shipping containers became the main means of storing goods shipped overseas, ILWU members have performed maintenance on the chassis.

Jurisdiction over that work came into dispute when the shipping companies that until recently owned the chassis sold them to third-party contractors.

The ILWU has maintained that chassis work belongs to ILWU members.

The sale of the chassis to third-party contractors appears to be one of the main reasons that there has been a delay in offloading of ships on the West Coast.

The third-party contractors have failed to keep the chassis in good repair and have been unable to provide an adequate number of chassis to transport goods.

The resolution of this issue led observers to believe that the path was clear for an agreement to be reached.

But PMA’s weekend lockout and some public statements made by PMA CEO James McKenna suggests that PMA may not be interested in reaching a fair agreement with the union.

Among other things, McKenna in his public statement suggested that ILWU members are overpaid and should be willing to accept the terms of new agreement dictated by the PMA.

“What the ILWU heard yesterday is a man (McKenna) who makes $1 million a year telling the working class that we have more than our share,” said McEllrath. “Intensifying the rhetoric at this stage of bargaining when we are just a few issues away from reaching an agreement is totally unnecessary and unproductive.”

Negotiations between the two sides was supposed to resume on Monday, February 9, but the bargaining session was postponed until Wednesday.

Strike for safety at US oil refineries expands

Workers at two BP work sites in Indiana and Ohio have  joined the national oil workers strike, the first nationwide strike against Big Oil since 1980.

Members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-1 at The BP  refinery in Whiting, Indiana and members of USW Local 346-3 at the BP plant in Toledo, Ohio walked off the job 24 hours after the USW issued a strike notice to BP, the world’s sixth largest oil company.

The USW members in Indiana and Ohio joined 3,650 other USW members on strike at nine other Big Oil work sites in Texas, California, Kentucky, and Washington. USW represents members at 65 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.

The strike began on February 1 after negotiations on a new national oil bargaining agreement failed to produce what the union calls a fair agreement–one that includes enforceable contract language that improves safety at the nation’s oil refineries.

“We are absolutely committed to negotiating a fair contract that improves safety conditions throughout the industry,” said Leo Gerard, USW international president. “Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them.”

“Our workers need enforceable contract language on their issues that holds the industry accountable,” added Tom Conway,  USW international vice president of administration.

USW has been bargaining with Shell, which is representing Big Oil in the national bargaining agreement negotiations. The agreement negotiated with Shell will set the pattern for a national agreement. The current national agreement expired on January 31.

Shell made its sixth offer to the union on February 5 and for the sixth time USW negotiators rejected the company’s offer.

Gary Beevers, USW international vice president, who has been leading the union negotiating team, said that Shell isn’t taking union members’ concerns seriously.

“Little progress has been made on our members’ central issues concerning health and safety, fatigue, inadequate staffing levels that differ from what is shown on paper, contracting out of daily maintenance jobs, high out-of-pocket and health care costs,” said Beevers. “In addition, Shell has failed to accept the ‘no-retrogression’ language that refers to acceptance of previous agreements with the industry.”

“We will not relinquish 50 years of progress in (National Oil Bargaining Program) bargaining,” he added.

Oil refining is dangerous work and what happens at refineries affects both workers and nearby residents.

For example, in 2005 an explosion at a Texas City, Texas refinery, which at the time was owned by BP, killed 15 workers, injured 170 more, and caused noxious smoke to be released into the atmosphere. Residents at the time were instructed by local authorities to stay indoors and close and seal windows.

Subsequent investigations blamed the explosion on company cost cutting measures.

Despite the dangers, oil companies continue to look for ways to cut cost even though doing so may make the refineries less safe.

One way that they are cutting costs, according to the union, is by under staffing their refineries.

Under staffing results in companies scheduling excessive overtime to maintain production.

Some workers welcome the extra overtime because they need the money to meet expenses, but too much work causes fatigue, and according to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM), “Fatigue is an unsafe condition in the workplace.”

ACOEM says that fatigue caused by long work hours can be mitigated by adequate rest periods, but adequate rest is hard to come by in most oil refineries.

Production workers generally work 12-hour shifts, sometimes three days a week and sometimes four days a week.

Long breaks between long shifts are supposed to refresh workers and keep them alert, but because of short staffing, oil workers are often called in on their days off.

In other instances, they work more than 12 hour days to keep production flowing.

Workers also rotate between day and night shifts, which, studies have shown increases fatigue by interrupting sleep patterns.

When oil workers signed on to work in refineries, they knew that dangerous work and long hours were part of the job, but according to Conway those conditions are getting out of hand.

“We have people who are working twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen continuous days without a day off on 12 hour shifts,” said Conway. “And people are stressed with an amazing amount of overtime and fatigue and sleep deprivation. It’s dangerous. It’s a dangerous way to run an operation like a fuel refinery.”

What oil workers are asking for in the new collective bargaining agreement is input into how their work is structured, so that fatigue can be reduced and their workplace can be made safer. They also want, safer staffing levels, more of a voice when it comes to safety decisions on the job, and less outsourcing of work to inexperienced contractors.

So far, the oil companies in general and Shell in particular have been unwilling to give the workers the voice they want to make their jobs safe.

Solidarity Fund helps strikers resist FairPoint’s race to the bottom

Workers at FairPoint Communications have been on strike for more than 100 days to resist efforts by FairPoint to convert their middle-class jobs into low-wage, temporary work.

More than 150 organizations and a countless number of individuals have contributed more than $250,000 to a Solidarity Fund that helps the workers meet financial obligations during the strike.

Financial support from the Solidarity Fund has made it possible for the striking workers to endure the rigors of a long strike during a cold winter, but the fund is starting to run low.

The FairPoint strike began in October.

The company, which provides wireline and other telecommunications services in Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, was under pressure from its hedge fund investors to lower labor costs.

That pressure caused FairPoint to demand drastic concessions from its workers during negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Those concessions included raising workers’ health care costs, the elimination of the workers’ pension, and a two tiered wage system that would start new hire pay at near poverty levels.

The company also demanded that it be allowed to outsource any and all work without any job security restrictions.

When FairPoint workers, who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), rejected the company’s concession demands, FairPoint declared an impasse, walked away from the bargaining table, and imposed the concessions on its workers.

After giving the company an opportunity to reconsider its rash act, which the company rejected, the workers went on strike to protect their jobs.

Julie Dawson, an IBEW Local 2327 member, says that internal solidarity among the strikers is one reason why they’ve been able to sustain their fight for a fair contract.

“We are such a family and we are so supportive of each other (that the strike) doesn’t feel like it’s been going on that long,” said Dawkins.

Striking workers also say that the support that they’ve received from others outside their union has helped them resist FairPoint’s race to the bottom.

One of the main ways that people have shown their solidarity is by contributing to the workers Solidarity Fund.

The Solidarity fund helped FairPoint worker Mike Pallozzi of Windham, Massachusetts meet some unexpected expenses during the strike.

During a sub-zero cold snap, Pallozzi’s home heater ran out of heating oil, which caused it to shut down. The shutdown caused a pipe in his home to rupture. The Solidarity Fund paid for more heating oil and for repairs to Pallozzi’s pipes.

“If it weren’t for the Solidarity Fund, I couldn’t have filled up my oil tank and paid for the repairs,” said Pallozzi. “The incredible support that we’ve received from all over the country is helping to keep me and  my co-workers going. We are grateful for the solidarity.”

In addition to money, supporters have been showing their solidarity by attending rallies and demonstrations and walking the picket lines with the strikers.

“Picketing continues across (Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts) and we encourage you to join us on the line,” reads a message on the Solidarity Fund’s GoFundMe page. “We always appreciate warm beverages or snacks, but more than anything we welcome your fellowship.”

One notable group of supporters came from Memphis, Tennessee. They belong to the Bakery Workers Union Local 252G.

In August, they returned to work with their contract intact after enduring a nine-month lockout by their employer Kellogg’s, which tried to force concessions on its workers similar to those that FairPoint is seeking.

Kellogg’s workers told FairPoint workers that one key to their success was the support that they received from other labor and community groups.

After the FairPoint strike began, bargaining ceased, but eventually a federal mediator was brought in to help get negotiations  restarted.

The two sides resumed negotiations on January 4. The mediator insisted that both sides refrain from making public statements about the negotiations, so for now, there’s little information available about the progress of the talks.

But on January 31, the workers’ negotiating team sent this message to the strikers:

The gag order imposed by the mediator remains in place. Therefore, we will not comment on the negotiations other than to echo the mediator’s statement from last week that we continue to make progress.

However, we wanted to let you know that we are truly inspired by the unity and strength you continue to demonstrate on the picket lines every day. Your expressions of support for each other and for the bargaining team mean the world to us and really have kept us going throughout this process.

Oil workers on strike for “safe refineries, secure jobs, and healthy communities”

US Oil workers on February 1 went on strike after oil company negotiators walked out of negotiations for a new three-year national collective bargaining agreement that will set the pattern for worker wages, benefits, and working conditions in the oil refining business.

For now, nine work sites that produce about 10 percent of the nation’s petroleum products are affected, but the strike could spread to all 65 refineries and related facilities covered by the national agreement.

“With no other options, nine units have been called out on strike,” said a posting on the Oil Workers Facebook page. “We’re ready to fight back until we can win safe refineries, secure jobs, and healthy communities.”

Companies affected by the strike are

  • Shell (two facilities in Deer Park, Texas)
  • Marathon (two refineries in Texas, City, Texas and Catlettsburg Kentucky and its Houston Green Cogenertion facility in Texas City)
  • Tesoro, (three refineries in Anacortes, Washington, Martinez, California, and Carson, California) and
  • LyondellBissell (Houston)

The facilities not on strike continue to operate under a 24-hour rolling contract extension, which means that their workers could go on strike after the union issues a 24 strike notice.

The oil workers belong to the United Steelworkers (USW). USW’s National Oil Bargaining Team had been negotiating a new pattern setting collective bargaining agreement with Shell. The current national oil agreement expired January 31.

During the bargaining process, Shell made five contract offers that union negotiators called insulting and rejected.

On the eve of the contract deadline, Shell refused to consider the union’s latest counter proposal and left the negotiations.

The union’s position is that oil companies have been and will continue to be extremely profitable enterprises, and workers deserve a contract that directs some of the wealth that they create back to them in the form of better pay and a safer work environment.

“The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities,” said Tom Conway, USW international vice president of administration. “This industry is the richest in the world and can afford to make the changes we offered in bargaining. The problem is that oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers, and the community.”

The USW says that a fair contract would include:

  • Fair wage increases for each year of the contract–Big Oil CEOs were paid $95.8 million in compensation in 2012, but they don’t do the dangerous and demanding work it takes to turn oil into profitable consumer products. Oil workers are the ones who do this work, and they want a raise that reflects the importance of their hazardous work.
  • Reduced worker health care costs–Big Oil has been shifting health care costs to its workers, which effectively lowers their pay. Oil workers want to shift the cost back to the companies that consistently report billions of dollars in profit.
  • Reduced outsourcing–As oil workers retire, more of their work is being done by outsourcing contractors. The over reliance on inexperienced contractors makes refineries more dangerous.
  • Safer jobs and communities–Oil workers work long hours, which causes fatigue. Fatigue creates safety problems. The union wants companies to work with the union to reduce excessive work and determine safe staffing levels, so that there are enough workers at the plant to keep them operating safely.

The union also wants oil companies to take work safety more seriously.

In the last few years, there have been a number of safety breakdowns at refineries that have put the health and safety of workers and residents of nearby communities at risk.

A 2010 explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington killed seven workers. The US Chemical Safety Board found that the company, “repeatedly failed to ensure that (process) hazards were controlled and that the number of workers exposed to these hazards was minimized.”

A 2012 leak at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California released toxic vapors sending workers to the hospital and endangering the lives of nearby residents. The Chemical Safety Board found that Chevron ignored pipe damage that caused the leak and did not have proper safety protocols in place.

A 2012 explosion at the Chevron refinery in Martinez, California sent a thick cloud of noxious smoke into the atmosphere causing thousands of nearby residents to seek medical treatment. According to a lawsuit filed by residents, the explosion was caused by Chevron’s “despicable, intentional, reckless and grossly negligent, and probably criminal conduct.”

The oil workers want the new collective bargaining agreement to address the “unsafe staffing levels; (the) dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; (and) the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities,” said Lynne Hancock, the USW spokesperson to the Houston Chronicle.