ILWU delegates recommend ratification of tentative agreement

ILWU caucus delegates voted on April 3 to recommend that union members ratify a tentative agreement that the union’s negotiating team and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) negotiated in February.

The agreement covers 20,000 longshore workers at 29 ports along the US West Coast.

Union members will now receive copies of the agreement and vote on it by mail. Voting will end May 22.

Seventy-eight percent of the caucus delegates voted to recommend ratification of the agreement.

“We secured a tentative agreement to maintain good jobs for dockworkers, their families, and their communities,” said Robert McEllrath, ILWU international president. “Longshore men and women on the docks will now have the final and most important say in the process.”

Negotiations that led to the tentative agreement lasted nine months, the longest negotiating period in the history of the ILWU.

During that time, PMA, which represents maritime and stevedore corporations doing business on the West Coast, accused longshore workers of engaging in a slowdown to give the union more bargaining leverage.

PMA in January retaliated for the alleged slowdown by enforcing a partial lockout at some of the busiest ports on the West Coast.

During the negotiations, especially toward the end, the delivery of cargo bound for the nation’s retailers was delayed significantly.

The delay had a big impact on the nation’s economy. A research and policy organization of merchants claims that by the end of the negotiation, the delays were costing the national economy $2 billion a day.

Another source said that the delays cost US retailers $3 billions in lost sales.

The delays led President Obama to send Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to the West Coast to monitor negotiations. After Perez spoke to both sides in the dispute, the union and PMA reached a tentative agreement.

Details about the agreement have not been made public, but the union provided some information on a few of the major issues that stalled negotiations.

One of the big stumbling blocks was PMA’s desire to cut longshore workers’ health care benefits.

That issue was resolved last summer when the two sides agreed to maintain the current health care benefit, which covers a wide range of health care services for workers, their families, and retirees at almost no cost to workers.

Another hurdle was the question of who would perform inspection and repair work on container chassis, the trailers that haul the large cargo containers.

Until last year, PMA represented employers owned the chassis, and union members inspected and repaired them as needed. But employers decided to outsource this work and sold their chassis to third-party contractors.

The sale created bottlenecks that contributed to delays in getting cargo delivered and made an already dangerous job less safe.

In January, the union and PMA agreed that ILWU members would inspect and repair the chassis before they leave the docks even though the third-party contractors will continue to own the chassis.

The last hurdle involved the arbitration process used to settle grievances. The union was concerned that some arbitrators were favoring employers in their arbitration decisions. Many of these decisions affect the health and safety of workers.

Loading and unloading large cargo containers is dangerous work, and this work will like get more dangerous as employers introduce more automation on the docks.

To protect worker safety, the union wanted to ensure that worker grievances get a fair hearing and pushed to replace some arbitrators who the union thought weren’t being objective.

The two sides compromised on this point by agreeing to replace arbitrators with three-person arbitration panels.

The tentative agreement also raises base pay and provides additional pay increases for workers with specialized skills.

The business press has called the tentative agreement a big win for the union and its members, but critics of the tentative agreement, some of whom are members and either current or former local leaders, are urging members to reject it.

According to those critical of the agreement, it doesn’t do enough to protect workers from job losses caused by automation, it gives bigger pay raises to those already earning higher wages, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting ILWU jurisdiction on chassis work, and it weakens an ILWU tradition of solidarity by making it more difficult for ILWU  members to refuse to cross picket lines.

Union leaders have refused to speculate whether members will ratify the tentative agreement, but whatever the outcome, there’s no guarantee that the new agreement will bring labor peace to the docks during the five-year life of the contract.

PMA represented employers will continue to probe for union weakness as they struggle to find new ways to reduce union power on the docks.

NYC hardhats join the Fight for $15 movement

Wearing hardhats showing their union stickers, construction workers on April 4 joined the Fight for $15 movement by marching in New York City with fast food and other low-wage workers to demand that the minimum wage be increased to $15 an hour.

Hardhats, fry cooks, wait staff, and others rallied in front of the headquarters of a New York City developer who plans to build New York’s newest skyscraper with non-union labor, then marched to a nearby McDonald’s where they entered the restaurant chanting, “Workers united will never be defeated.”

“All people deserve a living wage,” said Dennis Lee, a member of Laborers International Union of North America Local 79 to the New York Daily News while taking part in the demonstration. “All people deserve dignity and respect.”

McDonald’s, which last year reported net earnings of $4.76 billion, recently announced that it is raising the wages of some of its employees by $1 an hour.

But Fast Food Forward, which organized the April 4 demonstration, said that the raise will be given only to workers at restaurants directly owned by McDonald’s and not to those who work at the thousands of McDonald’s operated under a franchise agreement with the fast food giant.

Fast Food Forward also said that even with the $1 an hour pay increase McDonald’s still isn’t paying a living wage.

In an opinion piece appearing the Guaridan, Kwanza Brooks, a single mother and ten-year McDonald’s employee, said that the pay increase will mean that her wage rate increases from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour.

“Now I’ll be trying to raise my kids on $8.25 on hour, said Brooks. “That’s still impossible! Let me be clear: raising wages only a little – and only for a small fraction of your 1.7 million workers – isn’t change. It’s a PR stunt.”

The April 4 demonstration was held to call attention to a one-day general strike of fast food and other low-wage workers that will be held in 200 US cities on April 15. Strikers will be demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Organizers of the general strike estimate that 60,000 people will participate in a local actions in 200 cities here in the US and that support demonstrations will take place in 35 other countries.

Fast food workers will be joined in the strike by other low-wage workers including retail clerks, home care and child care providers, university adjunct faculty and graduate students, and others.

The plight of these low-wage workers and the anxiety of construction workers fearing the encroachment of non-union contractors, which could mean the loss of their good paying jobs, is indicative of the reality faced by US workers–low-wage work is becoming the norm.

According to SEIU, another labor union supporting the Fight for $15 and the April 15 general strike, two-thirds of the households in the US earn less today than they did in 2002.

Jim Tankersley writing in the Washington Post says that worker pay in the 21st century isn’t growing like it once did.

“Women and minorities have lost all the progress they made in closing the median income gap with men,” writes Tankersley. “College graduates are doing better than anyone else, but income growth has stalled–or gone backwards–for all but the youngest workers.”

For years, technology has been cited as the main cause of wage stagnation, but Paul Krugman writes that that view no longer dominates the discourse on wage stagnation. Other factors, especially policy decisions, are now being seen as important causes of wage stagnation.

Two policy decisions have had the biggest impact on wages–the decision to keep the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour and the decision to weaken labor unions.

A minimum wage increase would raise the floor on wages, helping more than just those making the minimum wage.

Stronger unions with more members would give workers more leverage to bargain for a greater share of the wealth that they create.

Strong unions have made construction work good paying work, but non-union construction work is often low-wage work.

James Krause, an iron worker and a supporter of the Fight for $15, told the Daily News that when  he was a non-union construction worker, he was only making $12 an hour.

Anthony Devarel, another union iron worker supporting the Fight for $15, told the Daily News the same thing and said that when he was a non-union construction worker, he couldn’t afford to pay his rent.

Today he’s ready and able to become a home owner.

The desire to build a bond between low-wage workers and construction workers is one reason that the organizers of the April 4 demonstration decided to start it at the headquarters of JDS Development.

JDS is planning to build an 80-story high rise in mid-Manhattan without union labor.

Union contractors in New York City do almost all of the work on big projects such as the one that JDS is undertaking.

JDS’ decision could be a forewarning of things to come. If big construction projects use less union labor, many union construction workers could end up working for $12 an hour again.

The decision to start the April 4 Fight for $15 demonstration at JDS headquarters and end it at McDonald’s is symbolic.

Both JDS and McDonald’s are players in corporate America’s race to the bottom for paying wages.

Both fast food workers and construction workers have a stake in ending this race to the bottom, and unity between the two groups is the only way to stop it and create more good paying jobs.

Chicago teachers bargain to transform education

When the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on March 27 began negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, CTU President Karen Lewis was joined at the bargaining table by 50 teachers and education support personnel representing CTU members.

The union is bargaining for a new collective bargaining agreement that transforms education in Chicago.

“Our new contract will reflect our values as educators, and the stake we have—and our city should have—in the education of the children we serve,” said Lewis. “There is absolutely no greater interest for our members than the lives of their students, and we look forward to honest, transparent conversations with the (CPS) Board on how to strengthen the district and provide adequate resources for all of its students, their families, and the city our students deserve.”

The union wants smaller class sizes, more preparation time for teachers, adequate support staffing such as nurses, counselors, librarians, etc. at all schools, but especially in those schools in under served communities, and for CPS to make pre-K classes available to more working class families.

But the union’s bargaining demands go much further.

To make education more participatory and more relevant, the union wants CPS to create 50 sustainable community schools where communities and students will participate in developing curriculum that “reflects the experience and identities of our students.”

CTU’s most far-reaching demands challenge economic and educational orthodoxy.

For example, the orthodox view on teaching is that it isn’t really a profession. It doesn’t require rigorous training and years of experience to master. In fact, it’s so easy that anyone with a college degree and youthful exuberance can teach and teach well.

That’s why a 1990s bipartisan piece of legislation created Teach for America, which pays our best and brightest college graduates a stipend to teach temporarily in communities where poverty is high and income low.

Teach for America isn’t about training a cadre of well qualified teachers with a long-term commitment to quality education.

It is, instead, about giving college graduates an opportunity to perform two years of community service before they embark on their real careers.

So far, Teach for America has done little to improve education in the US.

It has, however, provided charter school operators with a pool of temps who act as teachers. These low-paid temps help lower labor costs for charter school operators, which help boost their profits.

Some of CPS’ budget is used to subsidize the local Teach for America program.

CTU is proposing that CPS divert public tax dollars that subsidize Teach for America into a program that recruits and retains teachers and other education professionals committed to education as a career and profession.

CTU is calling this program Grow Your Own, and its purpose would be to help former CPS graduates return to Chicago’s public school classrooms as teachers and other education professionals, so that CPS can “develop a more diverse and local teaching force” that is committed to education for the long haul.

CTU is also calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion and union rights for those who work in charter schools.

The economic orthodoxy on public school funding is that money is scarce for all public services, especially public education; therefore, austerity measures such as closing neighborhood schools, cutting enrichment programs like music, art, and physical education, and laying off teachers and support staff are the only sensible way to deal with the problems of public education.

CTU has a different view. According to the union, money that should be going to fund quality education is being diverted to Wall Street and corporate America.

CTU is demanding that CPS and the city of Chicago take action to get that money back.

One of the union’s bargaining demands is for CPS to take legal action to recover at least $1 billion that CPS has lost to Wall Street banks because of excessive fees on bond deals, bond deals that were arguably fraudulent, and predatory lending practices, all of which have been documented in a recent ReFund America Project report entitled, ““Our Kind of Town: A Financial Plan that Puts Chicago’s Communities First.

In addition to being victimized by shady bond deals, hundreds of millions of dollars in public school revenue has been siphoned away to selected corporations.

The city of Chicago has a program called tax increment financing (TIF), which allows selected corporations to avoid paying taxes.

CTU is demanding that public revenue diverted to corporations by TIF be returned to Chicago’s schools.

“We demand that Chicago’s leaders treat our children as the priority—not the bankers and stock-traders who fund their campaigns,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice-president of CTU. “If we are to be accountable to the needs of our children, we will have to hold the wealthy accountable for the massive investments that our schools deserve.”