Texas cancels privatization of state hospital contract

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) announced on March 25 that it was cancelling a deal to privatize a state psychiatric hospital in Terrell, Texas.

Six months ago HHSC announced it had awarded a contract to operate the Terrell State Hospital to Correct Care Solutions. When hospital workers objected, they were told that it was a done deal and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

But some workers didn’t listen and fought back.

As workers filed into a November 3 town hall meeting to hear about the privatization of their hospital, members of the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU) Organizing Committee at the hospital passed out flyers. The title of the flyers read, “THIS IS NOT A DONE DEAL.”

Inside, workers heard from the CEO of Correct Care, a company that primarily provides medical services in jails and prisons.

He tried to assure workers that the transition to private management would be painless.

But the workers weren’t so sure. They questioned whether a for-profit company could provide decent care and still make a profit. They also wanted to know if there was anything that could be done to stop or at least delay the takeover of their hospital.

Representative Lance Gooden, who had lost a Republican primary election but at the time was still Terrell’s representative in the Texas House, told them no; the privatization of the Terrell State Hospital, which is located 32 miles east of Dallas and serves 19 North Texas counties, was a done deal.

After the meeting, members of the TSEU organizing committee, began to mobilize other union members, co-workers not in the union, and others against the deal.

Some thought it was a lost cause, but the committee succeeded in generating hundreds of calls to lawmakers.

Callers, which included TSEU members not working at the Terrell State Hospital, raised questions about the transparency of the deal and asked lawmakers to hold public hearings to investigate how the hospital’s privatization would affect patient care.

Union members helped organize a coalition of opponents to the privatization plan. The coalition included patient advocacy groups and community leaders as well as the union.

In January, Texas State Senator Robert Nichols, a Republican who represents an East Texas district that includes another state hospital located in Rusk, asked the State Auditor to review the procurement process that resulted in the deal.

“I believe that if we are considering privatization of one of our state hospitals, we need to be able to show that it will not only save money for the state, but that better services will be provided,” said Sen. Nichols. “I hope that through this review some of our questions will be answered, and we will be able to determine the best next step forward in this process.”

The State Auditor conducted a review and reported that “the Health and Human Services Commission did not ensure (that its contract with Correct Care) provided the best value for the state.”

Among other things, the State Auditor found that the bidding process appeared to be flawed.

The agency gave different answers to similar questions asked by different potential vendors.

The agency received only two bids for the contract. The one that did not come from Correct Care was disqualified on a technicality.

The agency formed an evaluation team to score Correct Care’s proposal, but before the evaluation team finished its work, HHSC Executive Commissioner Kyle Janek awarded the contract to Correct Care.

HHSC kept the estimated cost of the contract artificially low. As a result of the low cost estimate, the contract did not have to be reviewed by the state’s Attorney General.

Shortly after the audit report was issued, Commissioner Janek announced that he was cancelling the contract with Correct Care.

Janek has also come under fire for another contract whose bidding process appeared to be suspect. The Austin American Statesman has reported extensively on an HHSC contract with 21CT, an Austin software company, for Medicaid fraud investigation services.

That contract was recently cancelled after the Statesman reported that HHSC’s former general counsel had worked for 21CT before coming to work for HHSC and had maintained a relationship with the company while serving as general counsel.

The FBI and a governor’s task force is currently investigating the 21CT contract.

Janek said that he wanted to privatize the Terrell State Hospital because a report by US Center for Medicare and Medicaid on the 2012 death of a patient at the hospital had found a number of serious problems.

However, after the report, the Terrell hospital staff began correcting the problems, and by 2013, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid reported that the hospital had instituted the reforms that it recommended and had corrected the problems.

TSEU said that even though the cancellation of the Terrell State Hospital privatization contract was a victory, much more needs to be done to address the mental health needs of Texans.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Texas spends about $39 a year per Texas resident on state mental health funding. That’s the second lowest amount for all 50 states, and it’s 200 percent below the national average of $120 per resident.

TSEU is urging lawmakers to fully fund the state’s public psychiatric hospitals and state supported living centers for Texans with developmental disabilities. It also wants lawmakers to fund other mental health services so that people who need these services have a range of alternatives that fits their needs.

TSEU is urging workers at the state supported living centers and state hospitals to join other TSEU members in attending the union’s 2015 Lobby Day in Austin on April 8

“TSEU is calling for a massive show of strength (on April 8) to tell the legislature that we will fight to restore funding for public services, protect state employee benefits, and win a real across-the-board raise,” said the union in message to members.

Oil workers strike for safe refineries continues at some locations

Striking oil workers on March 23 held a candlelight vigil to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the BP oil refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas that killed 15 workers.

On the same day, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued statements saying that ten years after the deadly explosion, companies that own the refineries aren’t doing enough to make refineries safe.

While the United Steelworkers (USW) and Shell Oil reached an agreement on a National Oil Bargaining Agreement, some oil companies have balked at agreeing to it and others have not been able to reach an agreement with their local unions on local issues.

As a result, the oil workers strike for safe refineries continues at five refineries.

The Marathon Oil refinery in Texas City is one of the refineries where workers are still on strike.

Marathon now owns the refinery where the century’s deadliest refinery explosion happened in 2005. At the time, the refinery was owned and operated by BP.

On Monday night, 150 striking Marathon workers marched from their union hall to the refinery. When they arrived, the names of the workers killed in the explosion were read out loud, and as each one was read, a cross with the worker’s name was planted in the ground.

The crosses were a memorial to the dead and a reminder to all about the dangerous conditions inside the refinery.

When the vigil ended, they left the crosses behind.

Before dawn the next morning, Marathon had the crosses removed.

The removal of the crosses by Marathon is symbolic.

Marathon Oil “is attempting to roll back many of the health and safety improvements that were implemented in the aftermath of the explosion,” reads a statement by USW Local 13-1, the Marathon workers’ union. “Marathon management has also failed to follow the rest of the oil refining industry in agreeing to processes to address worker fatigue and training for workers performing routine maintenance.”

Marathon workers in Catlettsburg, Kentucky also remain on strike.

Dave Martin, vice president of USW Local 8-719 in Catlettsburg told WOWK TV News that safety issues remain the sticking point to reaching an agreement with the company.

One of the safety issues on which the two remain far apart is the use of temporary contract workers, who have limited safety training.

“We have a provision in our contract if they lay off people, they can’t contract work out,” Martin said. “They want to do that and that’s one of the main parts of our contract.”

In addition to the two Marathon refineries, the Lyondell Basell refinery in Pasadena, Texas, the Husky Energy/BP refinery in Toledo, Ohio, and the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana remain on strike.

BP, which owns a 50 percent share in the Husky refinery in Toledo, wants to restrict their workers’ ability to bargain over local issues, including safety issues.

BP told the Chicago Tribune that it wants more “flexibility” to implement changes during the life of the new collective bargaining agreement.

Dave Danko, president of USW Local 7-1, the Whiting BP workers’ union, said that BP is taking a page out of Wisconsin Governor’s Scott Walker playbook by trying to curtail its workers collective bargaining rights.

BP’s attempt to reduce worker participation in ensuring refinery safety by limiting collective bargaining rights on local issues appears to contradict recommendations made by CSB for improving refinery safety.

In its reports on the BP explosion and two subsequent serious incidents at other refineries, CSB recommended more worker and union participation in safety decisions, not less as BP is proposing.

In its report on the Texas City explosion, CSB urged the local union to “work with BP to establish a joint program that promotes reporting, investigating, and analyzing incidents, near-misses, process upsets, and major plant hazards without fear of retaliation.”

In its report on a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers, CSB recommended “an increased role for workers in management of process safety” and the formation of safety committees composed equally of union members and management that have real authority to deal with safety problems.

In its report on a 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California that injured four workers and sent thousands of nearby residents to hospitals seeking treatment for breathing problems, CSB recommended that workers be allowed to stop work when they spotted safety hazards without fear of company retaliation.

On the tenth anniversary of the BP explosion, CSB said that there still exists a lax safety culture at US refineries. To improve refinery safety, CSB is recommending “more robust regulatory oversight with greater worker involvement and public participation.”

OSHA also issued a statement on the tenth anniversary of the BP explosion. According to Jordan Barab, writing on the US Department of Labor blog, the explosions and fires that followed the BP explosion were preventable and “each repeated a lesson that the industry should have already learned.”

Despite the rhetoric of oil companies like BP and Marathon, refinery safety remains problematic, which is why the strikes continue.

The title of a flyer announcing USW Local 13’s March 23 candlelight vigil at the Marathon refinery gate sums up the attitude of the strikers. “Mourn the Dead–Fight Like Hell for the Living,” it reads.

Judge upholds T-Mobile workers’ right to free speech

Americans take for granted their right to free speech. After all, it’s protected by the Bill of Rights, right?

But millions of American workers lose that right when they report to work.

Under the guise of protecting proprietary information, some corporations like T-Mobile require employees to sign confidentiality agreements that forbid workers from talking about certain topics.

T-Mobile’s confidentiality agreement prohibits employees from talking about many things including how much money they are paid.

According to T-Mobile’s employee hand book, If employees talk to others including fellow workers about their salary, they can be disciplined or even fired.

At least that was the case until March 18 when National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge Christine Dibble ruled that T-Mobile’s restrictions on employees talking to each other about their wages was a violation of the National Labor Relations Act because it hampered the workers’ ability to discuss common grievances and to form a union to address those grievances.

“We are happy and relieved,” said Carolina Figueroa, a T-Mobile call center worker from Albuquerque, about the judge’s ruling. “We are finally being heard. My coworkers and I at T-Mobile US will have the right to speak out against unfair treatment and should not be muzzled or retaliated against – and with today’s decision, the company has to declare this to all of its employees nationwide.”

The judge ordered T-Mobile to stop forbidding workers from talking about their wages and salaries and to stop a number of other restrictions on free speech and free association that hamper union organizing.

Moreover, the company is required to post a written notice about changes to its rules restricting free speech and free association at all work sites.

Josh Coleman found out the hard way about T-Mobile’s rules against talking to fellow employees about conditions on the job. Coleman, a top earner at the T-Mobile call center in Wichita, Kansas, was fired after he began talking to other workers about forming a union.

Coleman said that T-Mobile was aggressive when it came to suppressing talk about a union on the job.

“Through repeated team meetings and written policy, T-Mobile US unlawfully silenced employees and created a culture of fear to stifle communication,” said Coleman. “I hope that now thousands of my T-Mobile US co-workers will know they can come out of the shadows and build the union that so many of us want.”

Coleman and Figueroa are two among thousands of T-Mobile workers who have formed T-Mobile Workers United, or TU, an organization of T-Mobile and Metro PCS employees, who have joined together for a voice and fair treatment on the job.

TU is supported by the Communication Workers of America.

CWA said that Judge Dibble’s ruling protects the free speech and free association rights of all 40,000 T-Mobile workers.

“At issue were illegal corporate nationwide policies that block workers from organizing or even talking to each other about problems at work,” reads a CWA statement about Judge Dibble’s ruling. “Workers throughout the T-Mobile US system were subjected to and effectively silenced by these illegal policies.”

In addition to lifting the company’s ban on discussing wages and salary, the ruling also allows T-Mobile workers to speak freely to the media, talk to a third party about wage and hour complaints, speak freely about the company, and engage in union organizing activity.

The ruling also prohibits T-Mobile from “interfering with, restraining, or coercing its employees in the exercise of their rights” to organize a union.

While most T-Mobile workers do not belong to a union that can bargain collectively with the company, there are a few T-Mobile workers who have won collective bargaining rights.

Adrian Dominguez works at Metro PCS retail store in New York City. Metro PCS is owned by T-Mobile.

Dominguez and his co-workers voted to join CWA in 2013 despite an intense anti-union campaign that included interrogations of individual workers about their union activity in a dimly lit cellar.

“Now that we have a union we aren’t scared to talk about our working conditions at work,” said Dominguez. “I am hopeful that my colleagues across the country will realize that the law protects their rights to discuss the benefits of joining together into a union, now that the judge has found T-Mobile US guilty of preventing workers from talking about their working conditions.”

Sherwin Alumina lockout gambles with safety and financial future

United Steelworkers is asking the public to support 450 locked out workers at the Sherwin Alumina refinery near Corpus Christi, Texas by signing a petition urging the company to end its lockout.

“For the past five months, members of USW Local 235A have been locked out of their jobs at Sherwin Alumina (for) resisting the company’s unnecessary demands for deep cuts in pay and benefits for members and retirees,” reads a statement by the union announcing the petition drive.

The union said that the lockout is putting safety and the company’s bottom line at risk.

The Sherwin Alumina plant, owned by Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss mining, manufacturing, and trading conglomerate, refines bauxite into alumina, the main ingredient in aluminum.

In September, 98 percent of Local 235A members voted to reject the company’s last, best, and final offer for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The company’s offer would have eliminated pensions for new hires, frozen pensions of current employees, increased health care costs for workers and retirees, and cut worker pay by changing overtime rules.

After rejecting the offer, the union proposed that negotiations continue.

But on October 11 as a shift change was about to begin, workers were told that they were being locked out and escorted out of the plant by security personnel.

Despite the rigors of a long lockout, Local 235A members remain determined to win a fair contract that recognizes the important role that they play in creating wealth out of raw ore and dangerous chemicals.

We’re standing strong,” said Jesse Green, a member of the union bargaining team to KIII TV News. “We’re willing to stay here as long as it takes to get a fair and equitable contract.”

USW in January filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the lockout is illegal.

“The company has repeatedly and unlawfully intimidated, threatened and discriminated against its own workers all in an effort to divide the union,” said Ruben Garza, USW District 13 vice president.

Garza also said that the company has refused to bargain in good faith.

During the lockout, Sherwin Alumina has tried to maintain production by hiring replacement workers through a temporary hiring agency.

Hiring temporary workers in a plant where dangerous chemicals are combined under pressure at high temperatures with bauxite ore is a dangerous gamble.

“Bauxite is made into alumina in a series of digesters and other large vessels that operate at high temperatures and pressures. The process uses large amounts of hot sodium hydroxide, a highly caustic and corrosive chemical,” reads a USW report on safety at Sherwin Alumina.

The report says that Kaiser Aluminum made a similar wager in 1999 when it hired temps to replace locked out workers at its alumina refinery in Gramercy, Louisiana.

The result was a catastrophe. An explosion caused by human error ripped through the refinery injuring 29 workers.

According to a report on the explosion by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, inexperienced temporary workers didn’t know what to do when a power failure caused a dangerous pressure buildup in the digesters.

USW reports that safety conditions at the Sherwin Alumina refinery have deteriorated since Glencore bought the refinery in 2007.

In 2006, the year before Glencore purchased the refinery from Reynolds Aluminum, there were four inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) because of health and safety complaints. The inspections resulted in 9 citations.

In 2014, there were 132 inspections resulting in 76 citations.

While the lockout has been hard on workers, it has also caused problems for the company’s bottom line.

USW in a statement about the lockout said that Sherwin Alumina’s revenue declined by $37 million during the second half of 2014, 14 percent below the first half and 25 percent below revenue for the second half of 2013.

During the lockout, production has fallen by 22 percent.

The company criticized USW for releasing financial information on the impact of the lockout, but so far has not provided any information about its financial performance during the lockout.

“Had Sherwin Alumina not lost 120,000 metric tons of production due to its illegal lockout, it would have reported $40 million more in revenue and $7 million more in operating profits,” said Garza.

Ben Lilienfeld, USW District 13 sub-district director added that the company’s strong performance before the lockout began shows that it can more than afford the cost structure of the current collective bargaining agreement.

“Sherwin’s profitability for the year also stands in stark contrast to the company’s claims that it needs to eliminate retiree health care benefits, eliminate scheduled overtime pay, and limit pension coverage to position the company for the future,” said Lilienfeld.

Union and Shell reach a tentative agreement; strike continues until agreement is ratified

The United Steelworkers (USW) announced on March 12 that the union and Shell Oil Company have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that will set the pattern for wages, benefits, and safety improvements at oil refineries where USW members work.

USW represents 30,000 oil workers at 65 refineries and related facilities in the US.

About 7,000 oil workers at 15 oil company plants have been on strike since February 1. The union said that the strike will continue until union members at the struck facilities have a chance to review the agreement and ratify it.

USW said that the tentative agreement meets its bargaining goals.

One of those goals was to improve safety at US oil refineries where during the last five years, 27 workers have died on the job and hundreds have been injured.

In praising the new tentative agreement, Leo Gerard, USW international president, said that the solidarity of the strikers had won “vast improvements in safety and staffing.”

Details about these improvements have not been made public, but according to one union official, the union will now have a voice in setting staffing levels and ensuring that workers are adequately trained.

“The new agreement calls for joint review on the local level of future, craft worker staffing needs,” said Tom Conway, USW vice president. “Included are hiring plans to be developed in conjunction with recruitment and training programs.”

Staffing levels, adequate training, and refinery safety are all intertwined.

In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and injured 180 more. The US Chemical Safety Board blamed the explosion on worker fatigue caused by inadequate staffing levels and a lack of effective training.

In 2013, a fire at an Exxon Mobile facility in Beaumont, Texas killed two and injured ten when a temporary worker with little training used a torch to cut away a stuck bolt on a vessel filled with volatile hydrocarbons.

Oil companies, instead of hiring enough permanent staff to meet production goals have been relying, instead, on excessive overtime, which leads to excessive fatigue.

Brent Petit, president of USW Local 13-750, whose members work in Shell facilities in Norco and Convent, Louisiana, told the St. Charles Herald Guide that it is not uncommon for refinery workers to work between 500 and 1,000 hours of overtime a year, and they often work 60 or more a week.

Oil companies also are not replacing experienced workers who retire or quit; instead, the companies are using temporary workers, and as the fire that took two lives in Beaumont showed, these temporary workers often don’t receive proper training.

Whether the new tentative agreement actually improves safety will depend largely on whether workers can continue to muster the kind of solidarity that they showed during the strike.

Although Shell did not openly encourage workers to break the strike, it did try to weaken the union by sowing discontent. For example, in a letter to strikers, the company tried to undermine the union by claiming that the company was negotiating in good faith on safety issues.

But the tactic didn’t work.

Reuters reports that at the Shell facilities in Deer Park, Texas fewer than 10 percent of the strikers returned to work and many of those who did so were not union members to begin with.

The Lake Charles Herald Guide reported that at the Shell facilities in Louisiana even a lower percentage of strikers left the picket lines and returned to work.

Even though the two sides have reached a tentative agreement, the strike won’t be over until union members ratify the agreement.

Locals that are on strike will also have a chance to bargain on local issues, and members will have a chance to sign off on any local issues that might be included in the agreement.

According to USW, employers at refineries that weren’t on strike will likely offer the same terms that are in the tentative agreement with Shell, and workers at these refineries will have a chance to bargain on local issues as well. When the bargaining is complete, then workers at the refineries not on strike will vote on the new contract.

More Silicon Valley bus drivers unionize

Bus drivers for Apple and other Silicon Valley companies voted on February 27 to join Teamsters Local 853.

The drivers work for Compass Transportation, which provides shuttle bus services for Apple, Yahoo, eBay, Zynga, Genetech, and Amtrak in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.

The drivers voted 104 to 30 to join the Teamsters.

Tracy Keller, a Compass driver who voted to unionize, said that the vote means that Compass drivers now have a future that includes better pay and better working conditions.

Before they voted for the union, Keller and other Compass drivers had a chance to see the difference that a union can make.

A few days before the union vote, some Compass drivers attended a union meeting of Facebook bus drivers, who work for Loop Transportation and shuttle Facebook employees between their jobs and home.

At the meeting, the Loop drivers, who joined the Teamsters in November, ratified their first union contract, a contract that addresses many of the same issues that led Compass drivers like Keller to seek out the Teamsters.

Under terms to the new Loop contract, workers’ wages will increase from an average of $18 an hour to $25 an hour. They’ll have company paid health care for themselves and their families, up to five weeks of paid vacation, nine days of sick pay, paid personal leave, grievance and arbitration procedures, and other benefits that most union members have.

The contract also offers extra compensation for workers who work split shifts.

Since the drivers’ job is to take people to work and to home after work is over, there are lengthy periods in the middle of the day when no buses are running.

As a result, most drivers’ shifts are broken into two parts: the morning run and the afternoon run.

In many cases, workers must wait four to six hours between runs, which means that their workday can be between 12 and 14 hours.

But drivers don’t get paid for the time between runs.

The long work day, much of which was uncompensated, was one the drivers’ main grievances that led them to organize a union.

The new contract doesn’t eliminate split shifts, but it does provide a 10 percent pay premium for those who work them. It also guarantees six hours pay for those who only work one run a day.

The new union contract for Facebook drivers and the union election victory at Compass come at a time of widening class divisions in Silicon Valley

“While tech companies make massive profits, the workers who keep them running smoothly have been left behind,” reads the opening sentence on a website of a new worker justice organization, Silicon Valley Rising.

The outrage implicit in the message has not gone unnoticed by area business leaders.

“The income gap (in Silicon Valley) is becoming more sharply pronounced at a faster rate” said Russell Hancock CEO of Joint Ventures Silicon Valley, a policy and research organization of local business leaders, to the Wall Street Journal. “The middle class is disappearing, and the service sector is stuck there with no growth. Silicon Valley is becoming a different place, a place of haves and have-nots, and there are signs of unrest.”

This growing unrest may be the reason that Facebook signaled to Loop that it would be willing to bear the cost for the increased wage and benefit increases for Loop drivers.

Since the union contract was ratified, Loop and Facebook have been negotiating the terms of a new service agreement between the two companies.

As yet, there has been no public announcement about a new contract, but Aloise seemed confident that the two companies will reach an agreement.

“I’m pretty confident that (Facebook is) going to see the value in being the first company to do this. It’s a bit historical,” Aloise said to USA Today.

Aloise said that he hoped that Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Genetech, and Amtrak would encourage Compass to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with wage and benefit improvements similar to those in the Teamsters’ new contract with Loop.

For too long Silicon Valley companies have pressured service contractors like Loop and Compass to lower their labor costs, said Aloise. But the money that it would take to make these jobs good paying jobs with good benefits is “chump change” to these companies.

Oil workers to Big Oil: “Safe refineries save lives”

Marching behind a banner reading “Safe Refineries Save Lives,” more than 300 striking oil refinery workers on March 6 marched through the streets of downtown Houston.

Their destination was Shell Oil’s Houston headquarters on Louisiana Street. When they arrived, they surged onto the steps leading up to the main entrance and tried to enter the building.

Houston Police Officers intercepted them. After a discussion between the police and the strikers, the strikers returned to the sidewalks where they chanted, “What do we want? A fair contract. When do we want it? Now.”

The  workers are seeking a new collective bargaining agreement that includes commonsense and enforceable safety improvements that will make refineries less dangerous for workers and people who live nearby.

“We have good jobs, but we want to come home safe,” said Lee Medley, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13-1 to KHOU News.

Workers are not the only ones to raise concerns about safety at US refineries. The US Chemical Safety Board, which investigates refinery accidents, has identified the absence of a corporate culture of safety as a key factor in recent explosions and fires at US refineries.

Local 13-1 and other USW locals have been on strike since February 1 at 15 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.

The strike began after negotiations between USW and Shell Oil Company over a National Oil Bargaining Pattern Agreement broke down.

USW’s membership includes 30,000 workers at 65 oil refineries and related facilities in the US.

Shell represents Big Oil in the negotiations, which will establish a pattern for wages, benefits, and safety conditions at all refineries where USW members work.

Besides Shell, workers are striking facilities owned by  Tesoro, BP, Marathon, and Husky Energy.

On the same day that USW members were demonstrating at Shell, hundreds more were demonstrating at the Marathon refinery in Texas City, about 40 miles southeast of Houston.

The Texas City Marathon refinery is the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers, injured 180 more, and caused an emergency warning to be issued to nearby residents.

At the time of the explosion, the refinery was owned by BP.

The US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) reported that a lack of a “serious safety culture” kept BP from taking action that could have prevented the explosion.

CSB also said that worker fatigue, a major safety hazard that USW is seeking to address in its contract negotiations, also contributed to the explosion.

Another explosion that killed seven workers occurred in 2010 at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington.

The CSB report on the explosion cites the lack of safety culture as a major cause of the blast. According to the report, “Refinery management had normalized the occurrences of hazardous conditions.”

In 2012, a major fire broke at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California. Luckily no one was killed, but six workers were injured and a level three safety warning was issued to nearby residents.

A noxious vapor resulting from the fire caused 15,000 people in nearby towns to seek treatment at hospitals for respiratory problems.

Once again the CSB report on the fire cited the lack of a corporate safety culture as a major cause of the fire.

Among other things, the report found that workers were reluctant to use their Stop Work authority when they discovered serious safety problems because they feared retribution by management.

This year, there have been three explosions at oil refineries.

The most recent took place on February 18 at the Exxon Mobile refinery in Torrance, California.

The explosion registered as a magnitude of a 1.4 earthquake, writes Antonia Juhasz in the Los Angeles Times and sent an irritating dust into the nearby community.

The Torrance explosion is according to Juhasz, “the latest reminder of the very real dangers petroleum refineries and terminals pose for their workers, their neighbors, the air we breathe, and the climate we share.”

Furthermore, writes Juhasz, “For nearly a decade, the industry’s leading watchdogs have warned that American refineries are operating with shocking disregard for known risks and are failing to adhere to existing regulations, which are also dangerously insufficient.”

Negotiations between Shell and USW resume on March 9. In a message to members, USW negotiators said that they are hopeful that the five-week old strike will convince Shell to listen to the workers’ safety concerns with an open mind.

In a message to the public, USW said, “We’re fighting for life-saving improvements to address fatigue and other commonsense measures to make oil refineries and chemical plants safer,” and urged people to sign its petition of support.

Unions fight to save jobs as vote on TPP fast track authority draws near

On March 4, about 10 days after Congress returned from a week-long recess, more than 400 union members participated in a grassroots lobbying effort to convince their Senators and Representatives to oppose fast track authority for ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new trade deal being negotiated in secret.

While lawmakers were in recess, they also were visited by union members and other concerned citizens who urged them to say no to fast track authority for TPP.

Union members are opposing TPP, said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO because it will “mean fewer jobs, lower wages, and a declining middle class.”

The US and eleven trading partners in the Pacific Rim have been negotiating the TPP for about five years.

Supporters refer to TPP as a trade deal, but, according to Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA),  TPP is less about setting the parameters for free trade and more about “protecting the interests of big business at the expense of workers, and those who care about the environment, global health care, human rights, consumer safety, and balanced trade and manufacturing revival.”

While most of the details about TPP have been kept secret, the few details that have been leaked have been a source of concern.

In a February 25 opinion piece appearing in the Washington Post, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was particularly critical of one of the terms of the treaty that has been made public.

TPP like other trade deals contains a section that establishes Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedures, which allow corporations to sue a nation, if that nation’s laws or regulations might lessen future profits.

“Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations,” writes Sen. Warren. “Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.”

Warren said that ISDS clauses in other trade treaties have resulted in challenges to other countries’ laws that established a minimum wage, protected the environment from nuclear reactor meltdowns, and required tobacco companies to warn consumers about the health risks of smoking.

While union members who participated in the March 4 grassroots lobbying effort share Sen. Warren’s concerns, their main message to lawmakers was that TPP will eliminate jobs and lower wages.

The Obama Administration has been saying that TPP will create 650,000 jobs over the next ten years, but more than 60 union leaders who signed a letter to lawmakers opposing TPP said that instead of looking at rosy predictions, the lawmakers need to look at the track record of previous trade deals.

Trade deals like NAFTA have been sold as being job creators, said the letter, “but they don’t create jobs; instead, they make it easier for firms to invest offshore.”

For example, NAFTA, the 1993 trade deal involving the US, Mexico, and Canada, cost the US 685,000 jobs between 1993 and 2010, the 2012 trade deal with Korea has cost the US 60,000 jobs.

TPP could be even worse. Robert Scott of the Economic Policy Institute writes that research has shown that trade deals like NAFTA have created large trade deficits for the US, that is, they have resulted in a higher ratio of imports to exports.

Higher trade deficits mean the loss of jobs in the US, and, according to Scott, TPP will increase the US’ already large trade deficit.

“New data released this month show that the US trade deficit with the countries in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership increased to an unexpectedly large $265.1 billion in 2014. . . This increase is further proof that U.S. workers don’t need another job-killing trade deal, which would undoubtedly grow the trade deficit even more.”

During the February congressional recess, CWA members met with lawmakers. At one of these meeting, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas brought along the leader of US’ TPP negotiating team, Michael Froman, who has justified TPP by saying that it will create 650,000 jobs.

At the meeting, which was attended by CWA members as well as members of Public Citizen and the Sierra Club, Claude Cummings, CWA Region 6 vice president, called out Froman for making that claim and pointed to a Washington Post Fact Check article that said that the job creating claims for TPP were the result of “fishy math.”

The March 4 grassroots lobbying effort came as the TPP negotiations appear to be wrapping up.

When the final version is complete, President Obama will ask Congress to grant itself fast track authority to ratify the bill.

If it does so, then Congress will vote on the treaty without a chance to thoroughly review the pact or make amendments to it.

With so many jobs at stake, and the fact that fewer jobs will drive down wages, unions are asking lawmakers to give themselves more time to review the treaty by denying itself fast track authority.

In their letter to lawmakers, union leaders said that fast track is undemocratic and urged lawmakers to bring the terms of the treaty “out from behind closed doors.”

“If you stand for higher wages, more jobs, and greater opportunities for America’s hard working families, you will oppose fast track,” concludes the union letter.

NJ Judge rules that Gov. broke the law by not fully funding public pensions

A New Jersey judge has ruled that Gov. Chris Christie broke the law when he used his veto powers to withhold payments appropriated by the state legislature to the state’s public pension funds.

Gov. Christie’s veto is the second time that he has ignored a 2011 agreement with public employee unions to get the state’s public pension funds, which have been under funded for at least a decade, back on track toward being fully funded.

In 2011, unions agreed to benefit reductions and increased employee contributions in order to make the pensions sound again. In turn, state leaders agreed to make state contributions to the pensions that would cover current costs and estimated future liabilities.

The agreement if carried out would have led to full funding of the pensions by 2018.

The governor signed off on the agreement.

However, in 2014 Gov. Christie withheld $2.4 billion from the state’s four public pension funds in order to meet a shortfall in the state’s budget.

Judge Mary Jacobson in 2014 upheld Gov. Christie’s decision by ruling that Gov. Christie had the authority to divert pension money to avoid a budget shortfall.

When she made her 2014 ruling, she also noted that the 2011 agreement between the state and the unions was a contractual obligation.

When the New Jersey Legislature passed a budget for 2015, the budget included the full amount required by the 2011 agreement.

Gov. Christie, however, vetoed the line of the budget that provided $1.57 billion in pension contributions.

Unions representing public workers, filed suit.

In a hearing, Gov. Christie’s attorneys tried to justify the governor’s actions, but this time Judge Jacobson said no.

“The court cannot allow the state to simply walk away from its financial obligation to teachers, firefighters, and other public servants,” said Judge Jacobson in her ruling.

The suit to force Gov. Christie to make the agreed upon pension payment was initiated by New Jersey public employee unions including the Communications Workers of America (CWA), AFSCME, American Federation of Teachers, New Jersey Education Association, the firefighters union, public safety unions, and a host of other organizations.

After Judge Jacobson made her ruling, Hettie Rosenstein, CWA New Jersey state director, said that the ruling was good for public servants who have kept up their end of the deal to save New Jersey’s public pensions and  criticized Gov. Christie for not doing the same.

“It’s unconscionable that these hard-earned pensions are in peril, and we can’t let that happen,” said Rosenstein. “It’s not only a legal requirement for Gov. Christie to make the pension payments, it’s also a moral requirement. Will another three hundred thousand seniors live in poverty simply because Christie cares more about what plays to right-wing audiences in Iowa than doing right by New Jerseyans?”

Gov. Christie vetoed the pension contributions because he didn’t like the fact that the Legislature had implemented a tax on millionaires and added a temporary surcharge to the corporate business tax to fully fund the pensions.

Gov. Christie denounced the judge’s ruling and said that he would appeal the decision.

Some of Gov. Christie’s predecessors had gotten into the bad habit of raiding the state’s pension funds and using the money for other purposes, which resulted in the pensions being severely under underfunded.

Gov. Christie in 2011 appeared to be breaking this bad habit when he signed off on the pension deal.

But in 2014 he reverted to old ways when he used pension money to close the budget gap.

That action caused Fitch, a credit rating agency, to downgrade New Jersey’s debt rating.

To cover himself, Gov. Christie began negotiating with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) on a new agreement for saving one of the state’s pension funds.

Shortly after Judge Jacobson ruled against Gov. Christi, he announced that he had reached an agreement with NJEA. The deal, which likely contains more benefit cuts, would put, said Christie, the pension fund back on the path toward being fully funded.

But New Jersey public employee unions, including NJEA, said that Gov. Christie’s announcement of a pension-saving deal was premature.

NJ.com reports that Wendell Steinhauer , president of the New Jersey Education Association, responded to the governor’s announcement by saying that Gov. Christie had “overstated the nature of the understanding” with NJEA.

Other public employee unions blasted the announcement as well.

In a message to members Rosenstein and CWA District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton said that the union would contest Gov. Christie’s appeal and continue fighting for full pension funding.

“We will never abandon our commitment to protect our members’ pension plan,” said Rosenstein and Shelton. “We will always talk – to both Legislators and to the Governor. We do want a permanent solution to the never ending under funding of the pension. But fundamentally, the Governor must agree that law must be obeyed. Our message to the Governor is clear: Obey the law – put the money in.”

Postal workers bargaining to protect the public good

At the opening bargaining session for a new collective bargaining agreement between the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the US Postal Service (USPS), APWU broke with tradition by proposing changes to the Postal Service that will protect and expand this vital national service, so that it can better serve the public good.

“The APWU is passionate in our support for the crucial mission of the public Postal Service,” said Dimondstein. “But today this mission is in jeopardy. It’s threatened by a congressionally manufactured financial crisis, by those on Wall Street that would like to get their hands on the Postal Services’ $65 billion in annual revenue, and by ideologues who oppose the very concept of the public good.”

The Postal Service is an essential though often overlooked catalyst for commerce and communication in the US, and APWU’s bargaining proposals include those that reward APWU members for their important work.

“We’ll seek to end a “three-tiered structure that pays workers significantly different amounts for performing the same work,” said Dimondstein. And “we believe that all postal workers should be justly compensated, provided a safe workplace, and after our careers have concluded, enjoy a dignified retirement.”

But in addition to seeking fair pay and benefits,  APWU will use this round of collective bargaining to seek service improvements.

“We will be putting forth proposals for maintaining overnight delivery standards, halting plant closings, expanding hours of service and staffing for the customers, and providing financial services such as postal banking,” said Dimondstein.

Postal banking may sound far-fetched, but 2014 the USPS Office of Inspector General proposed doing so.

“APWU supports allowing the Postal Service to provide basic financial services to the 68 million American adults who don’t have bank accounts or have limited access bank services,” said Dimondstein.


Many of these workers turn to check cashing stores and payday loan companies for their banking services.

“In 2012 Americans without bank accounts spent 10 percent of their budget on interest and fees at check cashing companies and payday lenders,” continued Dimondstein.

Non-profit postal banking would help many of these workers keep more of their paychecks.

Dimondstein pointed out that Post Offices already sell money orders and between 1911 and 1967, they were places where workers could open and maintain secure savings accounts.

Postal services in other countries provide basic banking services. The Pew Charitable Trust reports that, “three of four postal operators worldwide offer financial services, which are used by more than 1 billion people.”

APWU will also be proposing ways to end delays in mail delivery.

APWU reports that in January USPS lowered service standards that virtually eliminate overnight mail delivery. Mail delivery will continue to deteriorate if USPS carries through with its plan to close 82 mail processing centers.

The union will be bargaining to keep open distribution centers slated for closure and for adequate staffing levels that will make it possible to raise service standards.

Another APWU negotiating goal is to protect the public good by stopping privatization. USPS has already entered into a secretive, no-bid contract with Staples, the office supply store corporation, to provide postal services and has outsourced some of its ancillary work.

“Privatization of postal services doesn’t just hurt postal families, it thwarts a constitutional right that is guaranteed for all Americans: A public Postal Service,” said Dimondstein.

To emphasize that there is more at stake during these negotiations than just improving wages and benefits, APWU has initiated a contract campaign to mobilize both its members and the public to support its fight for quality postal services.

As part of this campaign, APWU has won the support of more than 60 national organizations. According to the union, “this unprecedented alliance is comprised of national religious coalitions, retiree organizations, educational and postal and other unions, lawmakers, and progressive advocacy groups.”

To show their solidarity with APWU, representatives of some of these groups attended the first bargaining session.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and Danny Glover, the famous actor whose parents’ were postal workers, both gave brief speeches expressing their support for APWU’s goals.

In a video explaining why he is supporting the union’s goals, Glover said that “now more than ever we need the Postal Service to thrive and innovate for the future.”

“Join me in a Grand Alliance to strengthen a cherished institution, our Postal Services, a public trust and a national treasure,” added Glover.