Alabama workers join the UAW

Workers at the Commercial Vehicles Group (CVG) truck seat plant in Piedmont, Alabama decided that they were tired of stagnant wages, benefit cuts, and company indifference to the health and safety and on September 23 voted by an 89 to 45 margin to join United Autoworkers (UAW).

“I’ve never been part of a union before,” said Tiffany Moore, a CVG worker. “But after years of scraping by while the company ignored our concerns, anyone could see that our only option was to join together to demand change we need to support ourselves and our family.”

The grievances that led CVG workers in Alabama to unionize are grievances that they share with the wider working class.

For example, stagnant wages have become the norm for most workers.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that over the last 30 years real hourly wages, the amount left after cost of living increases are subtracted, have risen only 6 percent for middle-income workers.

Low-income workers have seen their real wages decline by 5 percent over the same period.

Health care cost increases are another example.

The New York Times reports that the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that over the last five years health care deductibles paid by employees have increased six times more than wages have increased.

The realities of working class life hit hard at the CVG plant in Alabama.

“Our backs were up against the wall,” said Moore. “In just a few short years, the company gutted our health care, took away personal (leave) days, and started replacing jobs with temp positions that paid less than Walmart.”

The temp jobs at CVG Piedmont start at $9.70 per hour and the most that any worker can make is $15.70 an hour.

Wages for most workers fall in between these two levels.

To make matters worse, workers’ take home pay declined after CVG decided to raise workers’ health care premiums to $60 a week for individuals and their spouses and $110 a week for families.

Worker frustration came to a boil earlier this year when the plant’s cooling system stopped working, and temperatures inside the factory increased to 106 degree fahrenheit.

Citing threats to their health and safety, workers urged CVG to fix the cooling system.

But CVG, which boasts that it relies heavily on employee input to improve the manufacturing process, didn’t listen.

Instead it required workers to continue working in their overheated factory and offered them bottled water and popsicles to relieve the stress of the heat.

CVG is a worldwide manufacturer of commercial vehicle parts. In addition to the US, it operates plants in Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, China, the UK, and Ukraine.

It was created in the early years of the 21st century through a series of acquisitions and mergers..

In 2004, CVG became a public corporation and began selling stock worth $180 million.

Today, the CVG’s major investors are investment management companies and private equity firms like BlackRock Institutional Trust, Rutabaga Capital Management, York Capital Management, and Eagle Boston Investment Management.

The people who run these investment companies have demanded that CVG management cut cost, so that their investments will make more money.

One of the main ways that CVG has cut costs is by keeping wages low and forcing workers to pay higher health care costs.

That’s a story that is being repeated throughout the US.

According to the National Employment Law Project, one-quarter of today’s manufacturing jobs pay $11.91 an hour or less.

Manufacturing jobs were once the gateway to the middle class, but today many of these jobs have become a dead end that leaves workers in poverty.

Alan Amos, a welder at CVG Piedmont, thinks that by joining a union he and his fellow workers have taken a step toward restoring the promise that manufacturing jobs once held for workers, and he hopes that other workers will follow the CVG workers’ lead.

“Now that we’ve won our union, we’re going to be talking to workers all around Piedmont and in Alabama who are facing the same problems we’re facing and to show that a better way is possible,” writes Amos in an opinion piece appearing on the CNBC website. “And perhaps most importantly, I hope our actions inspire other workers in manufacturing jobs across the country to realize that they, too, deserve a shot at better pay, better treatment, and a middle class job.”

DFW Uber drivers strike ends; nationwide strike beginning Oct 16 called

A strike by Uber drivers in the Dallas Fort Worth area ended after the company made a concession to the drivers. But a national network of Uber drivers has issued a call for another strike that is scheduled to begin on Friday, October 16 and end Sunday evening on the 18th.

The Dallas Fort Worth (DFW)  strike began on September 18 when Uber corporate headquarters sent a message informing drivers that beginning September 18, all Uber Black and Uber SUV (a subcategory of Uber Black) vehicles must receive all eligible trip requests.

Uber Black is the most expensive service offered by Uber. Its basic rate in DFW is $14 plus $4 a mile with a $25 minimum for each ride.

Uber Black drivers own and maintain expensive luxury vehicles that can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000.

The company directive essentially told them that they would be required to start taking all trip requests including Uber’s cheapest service, Uber X, The Uber X base rate is $1 plus $0.85 a mile with a minimum of $3.50 for each ride.

The company tried to frame its new policy as an opportunity for Uber Black drivers to earn more money, but drivers calculated that they would lose income if they were forced to drive their expensive vehicles for rock bottom fares.

If there was any question whether accepting the low-fare trips would be voluntary, the corporate message made it clear, “As always, you are expected to accept as many trip requests as possible, regardless of the type of request. Partners who maintain a low Acceptance Rate may be deactivated from the Uber platform.”

In other words, if Uber Black drivers turn down too many low fares, they will be fired.

After receiving the message, Uber Black drivers at the DFW airport turned off the app that tells them when a trip is available, formed a convoy, and drove to downtown Dallas where Uber’s local office is located.

They were joined by some other drivers, including Uber Select, a luxury service just below Uber Black, and Uber X drivers.

The new trip acceptance policy wasn’t the drivers only grievance, and they presented management with a list of eight demands:

1. Increase Uber X fare to $1.50/mile
2. Increase Uber XL fare to $2.00/mile
3. Increase Uber Select fare to $2.50/mile
4. Return to the status quo
5. Pay and refund all charges taken from riders to the drivers
6. Allow tipping
7. Stop forcing drivers to accept all platform requests; instead, treat Uber partners with respect and as humans and stop taking us for granted
8. Activate all of Uber partners that were deactivated since the start of the strike

At first, Uber refused to make any concessions, and the strikers maintained their strike throughout the weekend.

On Monday morning, September 21, Uber management met with representatives of the drivers and agreed to allow Uber Black drivers to opt out of accepting lower fares.

That concession was enough to get some drivers to turn their app back on and commence picking up fares again.

However, on Tuesday morning, some drivers remained on strike. They were miffed that Uber had ignored their other demands.

By Wednesday, the strike appeared to be over. There was no mention of it on the Facebook page of the Dallas Uber Partners Union.

But the union’s Facebook page included a video from Uber Freedom, a network of Uber drivers, calling for a nationwide strike of Uber drivers that will begin October 16.

The demands of the strike include:

  • Raise the Uber X fare rates to at least $1.60 a mile across the board
  • Put a tip option on the app
  • Allow drivers to see the end destination before accepting the trip
  • Treat us as true Independent Contractors and stop deactivating drivers for low acceptance rating or high cancellations. As true IC’s, we have the right to pick and choose rides
  • Do not adjust fares without first getting the driver’s side

“The time has come for all drivers to stand up to Uber and demand real change at Uber,” said Abe Hussein, the administrator of Uber Freedom Facebook page. . . “The date (of the strike) is Friday, October 16 at 5 P.M. ending on Sunday at 10 P.M. (Uber) drivers across the nation, do not go online for those three days.”

Sanders and Kaptur: Keep our pension promises, no cuts to promised benefits

The US Treasury Department on September 10 held a hearing on the implementation of the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act, a law passed last year that allows financially troubled multi-employer pension plans to reduce promised benefits.

Outside of the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Marcy Kaptur held a media conference urging support for their Keep Our Pension Promises Act (KOPPA) bill, which establishes a fund administered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) that would be used to maintain promised pension benefits when multi-employer pension funds experience financial trouble.

“We have to send a loud and clear message—when a promise is made to working people, that promise must be kept,” said Sen. Sanders. “We can’t slash pensions in this country. If we stand together, if all Americans stand together, we can win this fight.”

“Your pension benefits are your earned benefits and you have a right to them,” said Rep. Kaptur to retirees attending the media conference. “I am proud to stand with you.”

There are 1400 multiemployer defined benefit pension plans in the US that serve 10 million workers and retirees. These pension plans provide retirement benefits for  workers in certain industries in which workers routinely work for a number of different employers, such as construction, transportation, and hospitality businesses.

More than 90 percent of these funds are in good to fair financial shape, but a handful are in critical condition and could run out of money some time in the next 20 to 30 years.

To deal with this problem, the National Coordinating Council for Multiemployer Plans, the trade association for these multiemployer plans, convinced Congress to pass the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA).

The MPRA solution for dealing with pension fund financial troubles is to make retirees and workers bear the cost for making the pension plans whole again by reducing benefits.

Sanders’ and Kaptur’s KOPPA on the other hand allows financially troubled plans to avoid benefit cuts by creating a pool of money that could be used to avoid benefit cuts when multiemployer plans face financial difficulty. The pool would be funded by eliminating two loopholes used by the wealthy to avoid paying taxes.

One of these loopholes is called like-kind exchange, which allows wealthy investors to defer indefinitely their capital gains taxes on certain investments.

The other is called the minority valuation discount, which allows people receiving gifts or inheritances of $5 million or more to receive discounts that substantially lower their tax liabilities.

Government analysts estimate that the elimination of these two loopholes would save $18 billion over ten years.

If KOPPA passes, these savings would be used to create a Legacy Fund administered by PBGC. The money in the Legacy Fund would be used to pay a portion of the pension benefits owed by a multiemployer pension plan facing financial difficulties until the plan returns to financial health.

One of the multiemployer plans facing critical financial difficulties is the Teamsters Central State Pension Fund, which currently provides pensions to 208,000 retired Teamsters, whose average yearly benefit is estimated to be $8580 a year or $715 a month.

These retirees and tens of thousands active workers are facing possible pension reductions in 2016.

If KOPPA passes, these benefit cuts will be avoided.

Jim Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters and a number of retired Teamsters joined Sen. Sanders and Rep. Kaptur at their media conference and urged passage of KOPPA.

“We’re here to protect pensions,” said Hoffa at the media conference. “We have retirees here from all across America and this is just the beginning of our fight. Hardworking Americans have earned the right to retire with dignity.”

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a caucus of rank and file members and some local union leaders, also supports KOPPA, but TDU accused Hoffa of flip flopping on the issue of supporting passage of MPRA and benefit cuts.

Hoffa sits on the board of directors of the Central States Pension Fund, which supported passage of MPRA, so that it could cut pension benefits to keep the fund alive and return it to financial health.

According to TDU, Hoffa secretly supported the passage of MPRA.

The Central States Fund on its website states that its financial troubles are the result of an aging workforce and a declining number of active workers and companies contributing to the fund.

Investment losses incurred during the financial crisis of 2008 also hurt the fund.

But TDU isn’t convinced that these are the only problems that have caused the decline of the fund, and it is calling for an independent audit before any pension cuts take place.

“(An audit) is a reasonable demand by members and retirees who deferred wage increase so they could have pension benefits they could survive on in retirement,” reads a TDU statement.

Union: new agreement is victory for Seattle kids

After a lengthy meeting, the Seattle Education Association’s Representative Assembly voted to recommend approval of a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle School Board and to suspend the week-long strike by teachers, counselors, paraprofiessionals, and other education professionals.

The tentative agreement must still be ratified by the membership, but classes in the Seattle school district will begin on September 17. The membership vote will take place on Sunday, September 20.

“This is a hard-fought victory for the kids of Seattle, and I am proud of SEA members and our incredible bargaining team,” said Jonathan Knapp, SEA president. “This agreement signals a new era in bargaining in public education. We’ve negotiated a pro-student, pro-parent, pro-educator agreement. We really appreciate the strong support from parents and students.”

SEA published highlights of the tentative agreement:

• Recess: Guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for all elementary students.
• Reasonable testing: New policies to reduce the over-testing of our students.
• Professional pay: Base salary increases of 3 percent, 2 percent and 4.5 percent, plus the state COLA of 4.8 percent
• Fair teacher and staff evaluations: Test scores will no longer be tied to teacher evaluations, plus there is new contract language that supports teachers’ professional growth.
• Educator workload relief: Additional staff to reduce workloads and provide student services.
• Student equity around discipline and the opportunity gap: Creating race and equity teams at 30 of the district’s schools.
• The administration’s proposal to lengthen the school day: Teachers will be compensated for additional work.

Seattle teachers strike for “real education reform;” tentative agreement announced 9/15

The Seattle Education Association (SEA) at about 9:30 on the morning of September 15 announced that after an all night bargaining session it had reached a tentative agreement with the Seattle School Board on a new collective bargaining agreement.

But in its message to members, SEA said that “the strike (which began September 9) will continue until the SEA board and representative assembly review the agreement later today and decide whether to recommend approval to the SEA membership or continue striking.”

The tentative agreement was announced one day after the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting Seattle’s public school teachers and education professionals who belong to SEA.

The resolution also urged the Seattle school board to bargain in good faith to end the strike and for the State of Washington to ” take the necessary actions to fully fund education throughout the state.”

You might think that a strike delaying the start of the school year for 53,000 children might trigger a backlash of opposition against the strikers, but as the Seattle City Council’s resolution and other evidence suggests there was widespread support for the strikers among parents, students, and the community at large.

ABC News reports that “As tough as the strike has been on (Seattle) parents counting on having their kids in school, many still support the teachers.”

In a guest editorial appearing in The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly alternative newspaper, Sarah Lang, Jana Robbins, and Naomi Wilson, whose children attend Seattle schools, wrote, “We will stand firmly with our teachers who are fighting to provide a high quality education for all kids.”

Nearly 2,000 parents and SEA supporters emailed the Seattle School Board urging it to reach a fair settlement with the teachers.

This strong show of support is likely the result of the stance that the teachers and their union have taken at the bargaining table. Common Dreams calls the SEA’s bargaining proposals “real education reform.”

Topping SEA’s list of bargaining proposals, is a demand for a pay increase that makes up for the last six years when Seattle’s educators have not received a cost of living raise.

“We need professional compensation that will make it possible to attract great teachers and keep them here in Seattle because we know how expensive it is to live here,” said Andy Russell, an SEA bargaining team member at a September 14 media conference.

Attracting and retaining great teachers can only do so much to improve education if there are flaws in the system that are holding back student learning, which why SEA asked for more than a fair pay increase.

For example, SEA proposed that the school district take a more reasonable approach toward standardized testing. According to a post on SEA’s website, “Too much standardized testing is stealing time away from classroom learning.”

The union also wants a more equitable approach to discipline and education opportunities in Seattle’s schools, where students of color are more likely to be punished for disciplinary reasons and less likely to have access to equal education opportunities.

To deal with this problem, SEA wants to create 30 equity teams in targeted schools that will study equity issues and recommend action that can remedy inequalities in Seattle’s schools.

Other SEA proposals include:

  • Guaranteed recess time. Recess policy varies from school to school, and many students have either no or limited recess time. “Students learn better when they have breaks for play and exercise,”reads SEA’s explanation of this proposal.
  • More manageable caseloads for support staff such as counselors and paraprofessionals. These employees provide valuable support for student learning, but their growing workloads are making it harder for them to keep up with the growing demand for their services.
  • Fair teacher and staff evaluations. “Educators should be evaluated fairly and consistently, and the focus should be on providing the support all educators need to be successful,” explains SEA.
  • The school board proposed extending the school day without additional compensation. Teachers already spend many hours away from the job doing work such as making lesson plans and grading. According to SEA, any extension of the school day should be done in a way that benefits students and fairly compensates teachers.

The SEA bargaining team worked hard to end the strike.

“There’s nothing more that we want more than to be back in our classrooms with our kids,” said  Phyllis Campano, an SEA bargaining team member.”

But there were factors beyond their control that hampered efforts to reach a fair agreement.

The main problem was that the state legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee, both of whom recently awarded the global airline corporation Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks and other incentives, have refused to fully fund public education in Washington.

The problem is so bad that the Washington Supreme Court held the state government in contempt for not funding education and fined it $100,000 a day until it does so.

The Seattle Times reports that “The court said (in its ruling that) lawmakers had again failed to live up to what the state constitution calls the state’s ‘paramount’ duty — amply funding schools.”

“We have a terrible problem here (in Washington),” said a mother of a student at View Ridge elementary on the SEA Facebook page. “There’s not enough funding (for our schools). Going on strike is a tough thing, but it needed to happen because we need to change the way we’re supporting education in our state.”

South American educators meet to plan strategy for resisting education privatization

Representatives from education unions in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia on September 9 gathered in Santiago, Chile to develop a continent-wide strategy for resisting the privatization of public education.

The Santiago meeting was called by the regional office of Education International, a global federation of 396 education associations and unions whose member organizations represent 32.5 million educators and support professionals. The meeting was a first step toward building a coordinated movement against the commercialization and privatization of public education in South America.

“We are witnessing the emergence of private actors whose size and power we would never have imagined,” said Angelo Gavrielatos of Education International (EI) at the meeting.

Fátima Silva, EI’s vice president for Latin America, said that the privatization of public education in Latin America has been going on for 20 years and that supporters of public education on the continent need to define a common-plan based on country specific research in order deal with this growing threat to an important public institution–the public school.

The commercialization and privatizing of public education isn’t just a South American phenomenon.

Worldwide, governments spend trillions of dollars on education, and global corporations and private equity fund managers have been trying to convert this public investment into private revenue streams.

Capital’s foray into the education market usually goes under the guise of education reform, which in most instances means operating public schools as business enterprises, relying more and more on standardized tests to gauge student achievement, and replacing professional educators with so-called education technology and technology facilitators.

The privatization of public education topped the agenda of EI’s 7th World Congress held in Ottawa, Canada in July.

At the Congress, delegates passed a resolution noting “that privatization in and of education, in its many forms and arrangements, is a fast-growing global trend with various, and often negative, consequences for teachers, education support personnel, students and society as a whole.”

The resolution also mandates EI’s executive board to build a coordinated, worldwide movement “to defend public education and against attempts to privatize and commercialize education.”

One of the big actors in the emerging education market is Pearson, a UK-based corporation that started out as a publisher of textbooks but has branched out to take advantage of new growth opportunities.

At one time, standardized testing was seen by Pearson as the best way to funnel public investment into the company’s coffers.

Pearson penetrated the US’ standardized testing market in 2000 when it began developing and evaluating standardized tests for Texas. Since then Texas has paid Pearson more than $1 billion.

But the standardized testing market has become crowded with competitors. For example, Pearson was recently forced to share its Texas standardized testing market with other education businesses.

As a result, Pearson has looked for new ways to profit from education. It recently diversified and rebranded itself as “a learning company.”

The new learning company has been lobbying governments, especially those in developing countries, to allow it to set up low-cost, government subsidized for-profit schools.

These profit-oriented schools rely heavily on technology provided by Pearson and de-skilled learning facilitators instead of qualified, professional teachers.

Pearson’s new education vision has made inroads in Ghana, South Africa, and India.

The expansion of Pearson and others selling a similar vision of for-profit learning has concerned other public education advocates.

The UN Human Rights Council in July issued a resolution urging countries to regulate and monitor education businesses because of the “wide-ranging impact of the commercialization of education on . . . the right to education.”

Eight international public education advocacy groups including the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights praised the UN resolution.

“Our research has shown that privatization in education leads to socio-economic segregation and discrimination against the poorest children in schools . .  as was recently recognized in the case of Chile,” said Sylvain Aubry, a researcher for the Global Initiative. “The resolution adopted today (by the UN Human Rights Council), crucially highlights the obligation to provide educational opportunities for all without discrimination.”

At the Santiago meeting, participants shared their own stories about how the privatization of education is being carried out in their country. One common theme that united their narratives was that their countries’ governments have been listening to lobbyist for the learning companies and diverting more of their public investment in education to these companies.

“Governments have to regulate profit-seeking corporations’ activity, especially when they benefit from public funding. Taxpayers’ money has to be invested and to benefit students, not multi-millionaire corporations,” said Gavrielatos.

Hunger strikers protest Chicago’s disinvestment in public education

Supporters of the Dyett 12 held a Labor Day solidarity gathering on the grounds of Walter Dyett High School where the 12 hunger strikers have spent their days since the beginning of the strike on August 17.

The hunger strikers are fighting to reopen Walter Dyett High School in a way that best serves the needs of the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, a predominately African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history on Chicago’s South Side.

Dyett is one of the 50 public schools that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education have closed since he took office in 2011.

The school closures, according to the Coalition to Revitalize Walter Dyett High School, whose members are participating in the hunger strike, are part of calculated disinvestment in public education by Mayor Emmanuel.

“We’ve been pushed to point of putting our bodies on the line,” said Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers in a YouTube video. “We say enough is a enough. We are tired of the destabilization of our community schools. We are tired of schools being sabotaged from the very beginning. It’s not the result of bad teaching. It’s not the result of disinterested parents and students. It’s the result of the disinvestment in Chicago schools.”

Brown is a leader of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, one of the  groups that belongs to the coalition.

The coalition has been working to improve education at Dyett for more than a decade and has had some success. In 2008, Dyett had the highest increase of graduating students attending post secondary schools and in 2009, the highest decrease in out-of-school suspensions and arrests.

But in 2012, the school board citing poor academic performance and declining enrollment, announced that Dyett would close in June 2015.

After parents, students, teachers, and community members, who had invested so much in Dyett’s turn around, protested the closure, the board decided that it would consider proposals for a new school at the Dyett location.

The coalition held a series of public meetings, focus groups, and other information gathering events that involved 3,000 Bronzeville residents.

Based on what they heard from community members, the coalition in April presented a proposal to the school board that called for the re-opening of the high school as the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

The proposal’s vision statement calls for a new school rooted in the history Bronzeville, which for nearly a century has been a center for African American culture.

The proposal also envisioned a school that “prepare(s) all students for post-secondary education or meaningful career opportunities,” collaborates with the Bronzeville community, and provides “wrap-around support for every student,” which would include staying open until 8:00 P.M. to provide public space where students can study, receive tutoring, and take advantage of the social services that the school will provide.

The new school would also be an open enrollment campus.

Two other proposals were submitted, one would turn Dyett into an arts-based school operated by a charter school company and the other would make Dyett a magnet school for students wishing to pursue a career in athletics.

At a June public forum on the competing proposals, speakers from the community overwhelmingly supported the coalition’s proposal to turn Dyett into a global leadership and green technology based high school.

The school board was to hold a public hearing on the proposals on August 10 and then vote on the proposals on August 26, but the board canceled the August 10 meeting.

That’s when the coalition decided that it was time to take action and called for the hunger strike.

After the hunger strike began, some of the strikers traveled to Washington DC to seek support from the Obama administration. The hunger strikers were accompanied by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten when they met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss their proposal.

After the meeting, the strikers returned to Chicago to wait for a decision by Mayor Emmanuel and the school board.

Bill McCaffery, a school board spokesman, said the board would  carry out “a community-driven process to select a new high-quality school for the former Dyett site.”

A few days later without any community input, the board issued what it called a compromise for ending the strike–Dyett would be converted into an arts-based magnet school.

Noting that the board’s so-called compromise was not based any input from the community or for that matter, the public at large, the hunger strikers refused to call off the strike.

The coalition is urging people to continue supporting the Dyett 12 by participating in a tweet-in and by joining other supporters for a rally and silent march to President Obama’s house on September 8. Supporters plan to continue the marches and rallies until Dyett is reopened in a way that reflects the wishes of the community.