UC divests its private prison stocks and bonds

The University of California System (UC) has decided to sell its $25 million worth of holdings in private prison corporations.

UC’s decision was announced on December 18. It came after a number of meetings with representatives of the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) and public protests such as the one that took place in November at the University of California at Davis campus.

During the meetings, ABC members presented research showing the inconsistencies between UC’s goals of expanding education opportunities and its funding of private prison companies that according to ABC “exist to build centers of white supremacist dehumanization, turning Black, brown, and immigrant bodies into a profit under the guise of rehabilitation.”

The two largest private prison corporations, the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reported annual revenue of $3.3 billion. They generate this revenue by keeping their prison beds full of inmates.

The US with more than 2 million people in prison has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

This high incarceration rate, which has been a boon to the private prison industry, is largely due to state and federal criminal justice policies that have resulted in the imprisonment of young Blacks and Latinos for minor criminal offenses.

Private prison companies often promote and lobby for these policies.

“The goals of the private prison industry, which are to profit from the incarceration, labor, and rehabilitative treatment of Black and immigrant lives, and the UC’s mission, which is to teaching, research, and public service, are fundamentally incompatible,” writes ABC field organizer Kamilah Moore.


After being informed of UC’s divestment decision, ABC applauded the action.

“This victory is historic and momentous,” said Yoel Haile ABC’s political director. “Divesting $25 million is a good step towards shutting down private prisons by starving them of capital. This is a clear example of Black Power and what we can achieve when we work in unity. This victory belongs to the masses of our people languishing behind America’s mass incarceration regime.”

UC’s decision to divest was based on a financial rather than moral judgement.

UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher told ABC staff that when UC makes investment decisions, it “looks at things from a sustainable investment framework” and that an investment in a private prison system was no longer seen as financially sustainable.

UC becomes the first public university in the US to divest its private prison holdings. Columbia University decided in June to sell its $10 million private industry investment after a series of public protests.

While praising UC’s decision, ABC said that it will continue to pressure UC to get rid of all investments that help sustain the private prison industry.

ABC wants UC to reconsider its $425 million investment in Well Fargo.

“Wells Fargo Bank has never been the ally of Black, working class, and migrant people or the intersection thereof,” writes ABC in a statement about UC’s divestment decision.

In addition to discriminating against Black and Latino neighborhoods, says the statement, Wells Fargo is major financier of the private prison industry. It has issued CCA a $900 million line of credit and serves as a trustee for $300 million in bond debt owed by the Geo Group.

Wells Fargo also owns more than one million shares of CCA and Geo Group stock.

By providing financing and investing directly in CCA and Geo Group, Wells Fargo is “effectively financing the dehumanization of Black and migrant people,” says the ABC statement.

ABC is calling on Wells Fargo to end its financial support for CCA and the Geo Group. If the bank refuses to do so, then UC should immediately divest itself of its Wells Fargo holdings.

Any contribution to the for-profit private prison industry is a direct and unethical approval in further  dehumanizing Black, brown, and immigrant people for capitalistic gains, writes Haile.

“It is an ethical embarrassment and a clear disregard for Black and immigrant lives for the UC to be investing tens and hundreds millions of dollars in private prisons and their financiers” he continues. “In the age of mass incarceration and Black Lives Matter, UC should be leading the fight for social justice and ethical investing as opposed to bankrolling the inhuman mass incarceration regime that has gripped America.”

Lexmark workers in Juarez continue fight for justice

Workers at a Lexmark factory in Juárez, Mexico are staging a sit-in at an encampment near the entrance to their plant.

The sit-in began after Lexmark, a multi-national manufacturer of laser printers, fired 120 workers at the company’s printer cartridge plant in Juárez , which lies just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas.

The firings took place on December 9, a day after Lexmark workers walked off the job to protest poor pay, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment, and wage theft.

After the strike, state police arrived at the encampment in an effort to intimidate the workers, but they continued their sit-in and vowed to continue doing so until they get justice.

“If the workers do not fight for their rights, no one will,” said Susana Prieto Terrazas, an attorney representing many of the fired workers, in Spanish at a December 10 candlelight vigil to support the sit-in.

Prieto said that workers like those at Lexmark can’t continue live on the poverty wages that maquiladora companies are paying.

Maquiladoras are factories that sprang up in Mexican border towns to take advantage of low-wage labor in Mexico. These maquiladoras mushroomed after passage of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The growth of maquiladoras has helped companies like Lexmark prosper, but wages in the maquiladoras remain abysmally low.

According to Kathy Staudt and Oscar Martínez, two professors who have researched and written about border issues, “stagnant (maquiladoras) workers’ wages have lost considerable value. In real terms, today’s line workers make about half of what they made in 1975.”

The strike that led to the firings and the sit-in at Lexmark had its origins back in August when Lexmark workers were expecting a pay raise.

When the workers were told that they wouldn’t be getting their anticipated raise, some of them began talking about forming a union.

In November, 78 Lexmark workers signed a request to register as a union with state agency in charge of labor relations.

They also set up their encampment outside of Lexmark’s gates to press their demand for an independent union.

On December 8, 700 Lexmark workers went on strike to demand a $0.35 a day pay raise, which would have increased pay for many of the workers to $4.38 a day.

Lexmark retaliated by firing the workers who signed the union registration form and 40 others.

To make matters worse, Lexmark has refused to pay the fired workers their year-end bonus, a payment required by Mexican law.

Those supporting the strike are asking others to contribute to a fund that will pay the workers an amount equal to their year-end bonuses.

“Because they were fired before December 18th, Lexmark. . . withheld their holiday bonuses that they would have used to feed their families for the next 15 days,” writes Miguel Juarez on the Obrer@Power Facebook page. “Now, they have nothing, but hope that we can help them. Let’s not kill that off for them. Thank you to all of you who have given. I too have already given. Please consider giving what you can: https://www.gofundme.com/bufgv7u4 Thank you.”

So far, more than 20 workers have received what amounts to their year-end bonus.

While Lexmark was refusing to pay a $0.35 a day pay raise and a year-end bonus of about $115, it was treating its shareholders to what the The Street describes as a “robust” quarterly dividend of $0.36 per share.

The total amount of the dividend, which shareholders began receiving on December 11, is $22 million.

This quarterly dividend payment marks the 16th consecutive quarter in which Lexmark has paid shareholders a $0.36 a share dividend.

In its most recent financial report, Lexmark tells investors and potential investors that it plans to use 50 percent of its free cash flow to pay future dividends and to repurchase company stock.

Lexmark, a spinoff of IBM, is a world leader in the manufacturing of laser printers. According to The Guardian, in 2014, Lexmark was worth $2.01 billion and had revenues of $3.7 billion “though (revenue) has fallen this year.”

Lexmark isn’t the only maquiladora in Juárez where workers have set up encampments near factory gates to protest low wages and poor working conditions.

David Bacon writing in The Nation reports that encampments demanding the recognition of workers’ independent unions have been set up at Eaton, an auto parts manufacturer, ADC CommScope, an electronics and telecommunication manufacturer, and Foxcomm, a digital device manufacturer.

After more than a decade of silence, maquiladora workers in Ciudad Juárez have found their voice,” writes Bacon. “The city . . . is now the center of a growing rebellion of laborers in the border factories.”

Southwest suspends workers for attending a union meeting

Transport Workers Union Local 555 has set up a Go Fund Me account to raise money for more than 100 of its members who were suspended by Southwest Airlines for attending a union meeting.

“On December 8 and 9 Southwest Airlines issued unpaid suspensions ranging from 45 to 90 days to more than 100 of our Brothers and Sisters for attending regional union meetings in Southern California and Orlando, Florida,” reported Local 555 on its website.

Local 555 represents 11,000 Southwest Airlines baggage handlers and other ground workers.

The union and Southwest Airlines have been negotiating a new contract for four and one-half years. The two sides entered mediation in 2012 to resolve the dispute, but no progress has been made.

Despite the company’s record profits, Local 555 members have not received a raise in three years.

Local 555 called union meetings on November 18 in Southern California and November 20 in Orlando, Florida to discuss the negotiations and options for moving forward.

Some union members used personal leave time as is permitted by their collective bargaining agreement to attend the meetings.

Southwest Airlines alleges that those who used their leave time to attend the meeting were engaging in an illegal strike and suspended them.

Lou Mang, a 13-year Southwest ramp agent in Burbank, California and a union station representative, was one of those suspended.

“This 90-day unpaid suspension will devastate my family,” said Mang, who works double shift overtime twice a week to meet his family’s expenses.

One of Mang’s sons is in college, and Mang is worried that the loss of pay from his suspension will mean that his son won’t be able to return to college when the new semester begins in January.

“I feel our contractual rights have been totally violated and don’t understand why we are being punished and suspended,” said Mang. “I also don’t understand why the company is doing this cost wise; they are paying for the cost of temporary workers, hotels, etc. when we are all ready to work. We feel helpless and we feel we have done nothing wrong. It just seems very unfair.”

Eric Rosales, a 14-year Southwest ramp agent at John Wayne Airport in the Los Angeles area, said that he was surprised when he was suddenly pulled off the job and interrogated about use of his personal leave time. He said that the interrogation made him feel like a criminal.

Rosales and his wife have a six-year old daughter. He said that the suspension has been stressful for the whole family.

“Rent is a terrifying thing to think of, and we’ve called the bank to talk about our car payment,” said Rosales. “Thankfully, we had already bought a couple of Christmas presents for our daughter before this happened and she doesn’t ask for much; I think she knows we don’t have it right now.”

Rafael Zavala, an eight-year Southwest cargo agent in Ontario, California, didn’t even attend the union meeting, but was still suspended.

Zavala took personal time off to take care of his two children, so that his wife could attend the funeral of a co-worker.

TWU International President Harry Lombardo said that the international, which has contributed $25,000 to the Go Fund Me account, would stand behind the suspended workers.

“In this union, one local’s fight is everyone’s fight,” said Lombardo. “I’m tired of watching the airline industry get rich on the backs of working people. It’s time to fight back.”

While Southwest has avoided negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement and has frozen ground workers’ wages, the company  reported a record-breaking $584 million in profits for the third quarter of 2015.

“We are very pleased to report outstanding third quarter 2015 results marked by a 63.1% year-over-year increase in net income, excluding special items,” said Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly to investors.

Kelly added that low fuel prices are the primary reason for the record profits.

USA reports that during the third quarter, Southwest paid $549 million to shareholders through dividends and stock buybacks.

Lombardo said that the suspensions were further proof that the current bargaining structure in the airline industry is unfair to workers.

“Companies are raking in record profits, CEOs are doing better than ever, and air travel has never been more expensive,” said Lombardo. “Yet the people who get up and go to work every day to make sure those flights get off the ground – pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ground crews, you name it – are struggling to support their families.”

Lombardo added that under the current bargaining structure, airlines have no incentive to bargain in good faith.

“The game is rigged, and I won’t stand by and watch as Southwest Airlines – or any company – continues to exploit the hardworking men and women of this union,” said Lombardo.

Religious groups, unions join to build affordable housing in NYC

Religious institutions in the New York Metro area will partner with organized labor on a construction project that will build 5000 to 7500 affordable housing units in seven different locations. The project also includes new public community and care centers.

The new buildings will be built on properties owned by seven religious groups, and the work will be done by union labor.

An apprenticeship program will also be a part of the project.

The program will train apprentices for the building trades unions that will be working on the project. When enrolling people in the apprenticeship program, its administrators will seek out young workers in the communities where the affordable housing is being built.

The project is part of a long-range strategic project of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust (HIT) to invest $1 billion in affordable housing that will be built by union labor in the New York Metro area.

Unions and New York City public pension funds are providing $300 million in financing for the current project.

The projects will create 1500 new construction jobs.

“The focus of these projects is to provide each community with quality housing affordable for working families, modern schools, and public recreation facilities and to do so in a way that creates jobs and maximizes the local economy in a sustainable manners,” said David Aviles, executive director of United Clergy Task Force (UCTF), a national non-denominational, non-profit community development corporation consisting of a consortium of religious leaders and affiliated houses of worship across the country.

UCTF is one of HIT’s partners on the project. Other partners include the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and a coalition of unions.

Aviles said that the religious institutions participating in the project are St. Paul Community Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY; Bay Ridge Community Church, Brooklyn, NY; Heavenly Temple Church of God, Jersey City, NJ; Al Iman Plaza Islamic Institution, Bronx, NY; Thessalonica Christian Church, Bronx, NY; La Hermosa Church, Bronx, NY; and Westchester United Methodist Church, Bronx, NY.

All have been stabilizing institutions in their communities and are interested in bringing more social services and economic opportunities to their communities.

Like most urban areas in the US, the New York City Metro area is facing a housing crisis. Decent affordable housing where workers can live safely and raise a family is being replaced by upscale housing that most people can’t afford.

During the last ten years, the Metro area has lost 400,000 housing units whose rents are less than $1000 a month.

Since 2000, median apartment rents increased by 75 percent.

John McDermont, of the Worker Education Consortium, which will operate the project’s apprenticeship program, described the project as “reverse gentrification.”

“We’re not building these (apartments and other buildings) so affluent people can move into the community; we’re building so these communities will become more affluent.” said McDermont.

Reverend David K. Brawley of St. Paul Community Baptist Church said that the project will do more than just create good housing and jobs.

“It has been said that the ultimate in urban renewal is not necessarily a new house, but a new man in a new house and the relationship of faith and labor today affords us the opportunity to make this a reality.”

Support for striking Kohler workers grows

As Christmas nears, support for striking workers at Kohler is snowballing.

The strikers on December 14 received a $42,000 donation from the North Central Regional Council Carpenters Union and $10,000 plus a large food donation from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

On December 13, members of UAW Local 407, whose members work at Unit Drop Forge in Milwaukee, dropped by the strikers’ union hall to write a solidarity check.

The check and others like it from unions all over the Midwest as well a donations of food help sustain the striking workers and their families.

Members of UAW Local 833 have been on strike for four weeks to end the company’s two-tiered wage system, which pays new workers substantially less than workers who were on the job when the last collective bargaining agreement expired.

“The support from the community has been extremely wonderful,” said Julie Baird, a retired Kohler worker who has been volunteering at the union food pantry during the strike.

“We’ve had hundreds of donations” in the form of food and money since the strike began,” said Jim Brock, a striking Kohler worker and member of UAW Local 833, while walking the picket line.

Baird said that she thinks that the reason that the strikers are receiving so much support is that people “have seen that Kohler family’s wealth has risen and they are being greedy.”

Kohler is a family owned business that manufacturers bathroom products such as toilets, sinks, and bathtubs at its factory in Kohler, Wisconsin, about 55 miles north of Milwaukee.

The Kohler family is one the state’s most prominent families in both business and politics. Two Kohlers have served as Wisconsin governors.

The head of the Kohler business until recently was Herbert Kohler, whose wealth according to Forbes is estimated to be $7.4 billion.

He retired and was succeeded as CEO in June by his son David.

The strike began on November 15 after members of UAW Local 833 rejected the company’s last, best, and final offer for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Before rejecting the contract, 94 percent of the union members voted to authorize a strike unless the company presented a fair offer.

The company’s offer maintained  a two tier wage system implemented when the company was profitable, but the country as a whole was just emerging from a recession and unemployment was high.

According to the union, Tier B workers at Kohler under the current collective bargaining agreement are paid between $12.50 and $13 an hour. Tier A workers, about 85 percent of the workforce, are paid $21 to $22 an hour.

The company’s last, best, and final offer closes the gap between Tier A and Tier B workers a bit but it does so over a period of three years. At the end of the proposed contract, Tier B workers would still be making 73 percent of what Tier A workers are making while doing the same work.

David Kohler argues that the two tier wage system is needed to sustain good paying jobs in Wisconsin.

But straight time pay for a Tier B job amounts to a yearly salary between 133 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three.

“How Tier B is struggling is evidenced daily,” said David Brisch,  a Local 833 members and a Tier A worker at Kohler. “Before the strike, we had people coming (to work) who were living in their cars. Even before the strike we were helping them out.”

Kohler’s last, best, and final offer also sharply increased healthcare cost for all workers.

The company wants us to accept an “increase in insurance payments that literally gobbled up any wage increases that were offered,” said Brock.

Despite the winter weather, union members have maintained an around the clock picket line at the factory.

Production has nearly come to a halt, and as a result, Kohler and the union have returned to the bargaining table.

Neither side will comment on whether any progress has been made, but the talks have been continuing for more than a week now.

The UAW international office is urging people to support the Kohler strikers by signing a petition, making donations, and joining the picket line when possible.

“Kohler workers from UAW Local 833 are striking for fairness for all,” reads a message on the UAW website. “In their time on the picket line, they have faced the elements, a heavy private security presence from Kohler, and an injunction to limit picketing–but it has not dampened their spirits. Show them your support now!”

Skilled trades workers vote for union at Volkswagen Chattanooga

Skilled trades workers at Volkswagen’s auto assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee on December 4 voted to designate UAW Local 42 as their collective bargaining representative.

The vote was 108 voting yes in favor of the union to 44 voting no. One hundred sixty skilled trades workers, who maintain and repair the plant’s machines and robotic equipment, work at the plant, which employs 1400 hourly workers.

The pro-union vote was the United Autoworkers’ (UAW) first union representation victory at a southern auto plant owned by a foreign company.

UAW lost a close plant-wide union election at Volkswagen Chattanooga in 2014.

After the loss, the UAW issued a charter to Local 42, which continued to organize and advocate for workers at the Chattanooga plant.

A majority of workers at Volkswagen Chattanooga have joined Local 42, which meets regularly with Volkswagen mangement to discuss issues that concern hourly workers at the plant.

But Local 42 doesn’t have a collective bargaining agreement with Volkswagen.

Union leaders think that the skilled trades workers victory will create a path toward full union representation at the plant.

“A key objective for our local union always has been moving toward collective bargaining for the purpose of reaching a multi-year contract between Volkswagen and employees in Chattanooga,” said Mike Cantrell, president of Local 42. “We have said from the beginning of Local 42 that there are multiple paths to reach collective bargaining. We believe these paths will give all of us a voice at Volkswagen in due time.”

The path toward union recognition for the skilled trades workers was opened in August when Local 42 asked Volkswagen management to recognize the union as the bargaining representative for the skilled trades workers in the plant.

Management declined to recognize the union.

In October, Local 42 petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election for the skilled trades workers.

A month later, an NLRB regional office ruled that the skilled trades workers were a legitimate bargaining group within the plant and scheduled a union election for December 3 and December 4.

In petitioning for an election among a distinct group of workers at the Volkswagen plant, the UAW was taking advantage of recent NLRB rulings that protect the right of free choice for workers when they’re deciding whether to unionize.

The NLRB in 2011 ruled in favor of 53 certified nursing assistants at a Specialty Healthcare nursing home in Mobile, Alabama, who wanted to form their own union.

Management said that they didn’t have the right choose their own union. If they wanted a union, it would have to be one defined by the employer–in this case, a union that included all of the nursing home’s non-professional staff.

The NLRB ruled that the nurses shared an overwhelming community-of-interests, which made it appropriate for them to form a union among themselves.

In 2013, the board’s ruling was upheld by the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Specialty Healthcare ruling seemed to be intended specifically to the nursing home industry.

In a 2014 decision, the NLRB extended this freedom to choose protection when it ruled that employees in the cosmetic and fragrance department at a Macy’s department store in Saugus, Massachusetts could form a union among themselves and bargain collectively with management.

Business interest seeking to thwart unionization efforts have vigorously opposed the Specialty Healthcare and Macy’s rulings arguing that they will result in the proliferation of “micro unions” that will unfairly burden management.

They continue to pursue appeals in courts and have gotten lawmakers in Congress to introduce legislation that would nullify the NLRB’s rulings.

Volkswagen joined other businesses in opposing the NLRB’s efforts to protect workers’ free choice when the company on December 1 appealed the NLRB’s regional office’s decision.

After the successful union representation election, UAW urged Volkswagen to drop its appeal and begin bargaining with the union.

“Volkswagen employees in Chattanooga have had a long journey in the face of intense political opposition, and they have made steady progress,” said Ray Curry, director of UAW Region 8, which covers the South. “We’re proud of their courage and persistence. We urge Volkswagen to respect the decision of its employees and recognize the local union as the representative of the skilled trades unit.”

Gary Casteel, UAW secretary-treasurer, said that its time for Volkswagen to drop its appeal and “refocus on values that made it a successful brand–environmental sustainability and meaningful employee relations.”

American Airlines customer service agents ratify first contract

After a union organizing campaign that lasted 19 years, customer service agents at American Airlines ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with the US’ largest airline.

In a vote conducted by telephone and the internet, 73 percent voted yes for the new agreement, which covers 14,500 counter and gate agents at airports and phone center and home-based reservation agents.

The Dallas Morning News reports that the new collective bargaining agreement makes American’s agents the highest paid in the airline industry.

“For many employees, the ratification of this contract was far more meaningful than I could have ever imagined,” said Ken Grunwald, a bargaining committee member and reservations agent in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Many members called to tearfully explain that the wage increase alone would impact their lives in an overwhelmingly positive way. The day-to-day lives of employees will be improved dramatically.”

Grunwald said job security concerns have not been completely resolved by the agreement. This and other issues can be addressed, he said, “if we work together and continue to support and respect each other.”

The ratification vote came 14 months after American’s customer service agents voted to join the American Airlines Passenger Service Association, which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).

The route to that final vote was long, circuitous, and encumbered by detours.

Passenger agents at American approached CWA in the mid-1990s and asked for help in forming a union. Low pay and general disrespect by their employer motivated them to do so.

The resulting organizing drive led to a union representation vote in 1998. The union supporters lost. Only 44 percent of the workers voted to join CWA.

At the time, the election was held under a special labor law established for the railway and airline industries. The law known as the Railway Labor Act required at that time that in order for a union to be recognized, a majority of workers–not a majority of voting workers, the common way that democracy works–had to vote in favor of the union.

Despite the loss, a core of the American workers continued to stay active and formed a membership union–a union not recognized as a bargaining representative by an employer–that affiliated with CWA.

The union helped workers file and pursue grievances; it advocated for workers’ rights at American wherever and whenever possible, and most of all, it continued to organize.

The union received some encouragement when fellow customer service agents at US Airways voted to join CWA in 1999, and the union members at American were confident that they could win another union election.

But on September 11, 2001, terrorists murdered 3000 people at New York City’s World Trade Center by crashing airplanes into the building.

The event set the airline industry back on its heels. Ridership declined precipitously, revenue dried up, layoffs ensued, the workers who remained feared for their jobs, and sentiment for a union ebbed.

But gradually the airline industry recovered, and after years of financial decline and bankruptcies, the industry began to make a comeback, made possible in part by sacrifices that the airlines’ workers made, including those at American.

As ridership revived and revenue increased, laid off workers were brought back on the job.

American like other airlines began to prosper again, but there was a sense among workers that the company was unwilling to share its prosperity with its workers.

That led to another union organizing drive. In 2011, CWA petitioned the National Mediation Board, a US government agency that manages labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, for a union election.

American tried to stall the election and had some success.

In 2012, American shocked its employees by filing for bankruptcy. At the time, it appeared that American, which had $4 billion in cash on hand, was using the bankruptcy courts to get out of its collective bargaining agreements with it unionized pilots, mechanics, and ground workers.

Despite the bankruptcy proceedings, the union moved ahead with its organizing campaign, overcame American’s stalling tactics, and secured another union representation election.

This times, the election rules had changed. The National Mediation Board ruled that only a majority of voters–not a majority of workers–needed to vote for the union for it to be recognized.

In January 2013, the results of election were announced. Union supporters lost again. This time by only 151 votes.

After the defeat, the union of passenger service agents at American remained intact and continued to organize.

Later in the year, US Airways announced that it would buy American, which was still in bankruptcy proceedings.

The deal if allowed to go through would create the largest airline in the US. To make the deal happen, the US Justice Department needed to approve the merger.

Management at US Airways needed the support of its unions and those at American to make the deal happen.

Among other thing, US Airways promised that management wouldn’t interfere in any union elections that took place after the merger.

Customers representative agents at US Airways were already unionized. Among them were agents who previously worked for Air West, who joined the Teamsters in 2004. When US Airways and Air West merged in 2005, CWA and the Teamsters merged their unions into the Association of Passenger Service Agents.

After the 2013 merger between US Airways and American was announced, a union representation election for all customer service employees including those who worked for US Airways was held in 2014. The new American management, which had formerly been US Airways management, kept the promise of neutrality and didn’t interfere in the election.

This time, 86 percent voted to join the Passenger Service Association CWA/IBT.

A year later, the two sides negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement and the workers ratified it a few months later.

Now the challenge will be to build on the initial success and develop the union’s capacity to enforce the agreement and make progress on the issues that weren’t resolved in the agreement.

A post on the CWA website said that the union’s ability to do these things will depend on building “a strong steward network” of local leaders and activists.

Blankenship found guilty of violating mine safety regulations

A federal jury in Charleston, West Virginia on December 3 found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations.

Blankenship was CEO of Massey when an explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia killed 29 miners. The explosion was the worst US mining disaster in the last 40 years.

Investigators blamed the explosion on Blankenship’s decision to prioritize profits over worker safety.

Blankenship was also charged with lying to investors and securities regulators about the safety conditions in his mines, but the jury found him not guilty of these charges.

“A measure of justice has been served through the conviction of Don Blankenship on federal charges of conspiring to violate mine safety standards,” said Cecil Roberts international president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). “The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields – that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court.”

Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine was a non-union mine, but after the explosion, UMWA got involved in supporting the victims’ families and their demand that those responsible for the explosion be held accountable.

At the trial, jurors heard testimony that Blankenship ignored  safety concerns raised by subordinates while keeping meticulous track of coal production and that Blankenship weighed the cost of fines the company would receive for safety violations against the expense of fixing safety problems that might incur safety violation citations.

Witnesses also said that the company conspired to thwart safety inspections by federal and state mine safety inspectors.

Three independent investigations conducted after the explosion confirmed this testimony.

One of the investigations was initiated by West Virginia’s then Gov. Joe Manchin.

The report of the investigation’s findings is entitled, “Upper Big Branch Mine, the April 5, 2010 Explosion: A Failure of Basic Coal Mine Safety.” It identifies the causes of the explosion as a poorly maintained ventilation system that allowed dangerous levels of explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate and an ill-functioning water spray system that allowed sparks from coal digging equipment to ignite the methane and coal dust.

According to the report, the so-called safety culture at Massey mines such as Upper Big Branch was a sham. Despite the company’s sloganeering, production (and its resulting profits) always took precedence over safety.

For Massey’s miners, the results of this posturing has been deadly.

“From 2000 to 2010, no United States coal company had a worse fatality record than Massey Energy. Fifty-four workers were killed in Massey mines during that time, including the 29 who lost their lives (at the Upper Big Branch explosion),” states the report.

Two other reports, one by the UMWA and the other by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), confirm that the cause of the explosion was due to the buildup of coal dust and methane gas caused by a poorly maintained ventilation system and an ill-functioning water spray system.

They also say that, Massey’s inattention to these serious hazards was just one example of the company’s systemic disregard for basic mine safety.

While Blankenship was found guilty of actions that led to considerable loss of life, he will get off with a relatively light sentence. The maximum penalty for his crime, which is a misdemeanor, is only one year in prison.

He’ll be sentenced in March, and his attorney said that he will appeal the conviction.

Because of the skewed priorities of the US penal code, Blankenship would have faced up to 30 years in prison if had been found guilty as charged of lying to investors.

As a result, there was some disappointment with the outcome of the verdict.

But Roberts tried to put a positive spin on the verdict.

“A message has gone out today to every coal operator in America who is willing to skirt mine safety and health laws: you do so at your own personal risk,” said Roberts. “I thank the jury for having the courage to send this message and establish a clear deterrent to this kind of activity. Hopefully that deterrent will keep more miners alive and intact in the years to come.”

Unions lampoon Verizon for its greed

The fight for a fair collective bargaining agreement at Verizon took a satirical turn on Black Friday when union members passed out flyers at Verizon stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states lampooning Verizon for its greed.

The flyer, entitled “Please Help Verizon,” begins with the statement: “Verizon only makes $1 billion in profits every month and its executives have raked in a measly $249 million in the last five years.

“To get them out of such dire straits,” continues the flyer. “Verizon wants to shift costs to employees – demanding to cut retirement and job security, raise health care costs by thousands of dollars per worker, and even taking away benefits from employees who have been injured on the job. Management is refusing to negotiate better wages or benefits for Verizon Wireless workers.”

Since August when their collective bargaining agreement expired, 39,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) who work at Verizon from Massachusetts to Virginia have been working without a contract.

The two sides are continuing to bargain, but according to the CWA, Verizon is stonewalling while continuing to insist on steep concessions.

“We do not have a willing negotiating partner,” said CWA Local 1103 President Kevin Sheil to members at a November 19 rally in Poughkeepsie, NY. “The company’s practicing the art of race-to-the-bottom bargaining. Verizon is literally making over a billion dollars a month in profits, and yet, they still want to destroy our families, our communities, our union, and our contract.”

Since Verizon’s union workers began working without a contract, members have been engaged in a Stand Up to Verizon campaign, a series of  demonstrations, rallies, and job actions expressing their unity and willingness to fight for fair contract.

The Black Friday leafletting at Verizon stores was part of the Stand Up to Verizon campaign.

The “Please Help Verizon” flyer is a mixture of tongue-in-cheek comedy and serious information.

Referring to Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, the flyer laments that “McAdam makes a paltry $18 million a year and only has access to one corporate jet.”

While McAdam is riding high, he’s demanding more sacrifices from Verizon workers.

Verizon workers aren’t the only ones that McAdam and Verizon are taking for a ride.

“In order to keep showering Verizon’s top executives with cash, Verizon customers have also had to make sacrifices,” says the flyer.

According to the unions, Verizon has failed to keep promises it made to extend its FiOS high-speed internet services to communities and has allowed its landline service to deteriorate badly.

The New York Times reports that when New York City granted Verizon a cable franchise in 2008, the company agreed to make FiOS service available to all neighborhoods.

Seven years later, 106,000 New York City residents like Stephanie Brooks of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn are still waiting for FiOS service.

Last summer, the mayors of Syracuse, Kingston, Albany, Utica, and Rome criticized Verizon for not expanding FiOS service to their cities’ low-income neighborhoods.

In October, 14 mayors of Northeastern cities including the mayor of New York City, Philadelphia, and Pittsburg sent a letter to Verizon criticizing the company’s decision not to extend FiOS service to under served communities in their cities.

The letter also criticizes Verizon for “abandoning (its) copper network and traditional landline customers,” who are “experiencing frequent service outages, delays in repairs and installations, and forced migration to the inferior VoiceLink product.”

Landlines and the copper network that keeps them operating provide vital services to many of Verizon’s customers.

Just how vital this service came into sharp focus recently in Poughkeepsie.

The East Duchess Daily Voice on November 12 reported that “Verizon is reporting all landline 911 trunks associated with the 911 phone system are out of service.” The problem was reported in the late afternoon and wasn’t fixed until 9 P.M.

According to CWA, Verizon spends very little maintaining its landline network.–only $3.50 per customer over the last seven years. Meanwhile, the company is charging customers $300 to $375 a year for the service.

The unions have made improved customer service, an important part of the bargaining strategy and have asked regulators in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey to take action to ensure that Verizon meets its obligation to provide quality services to all customers.

Bargaining between Verizon and the unions is taking place in two locations: Rye, New York for Verizon workers in New England, New York, and New Jersey and Philadelphia for Verizon workers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Bargaining in Rye resumed after a break for Thanksgiving, and CWA District 2-13 informed the company that it ready to continue talks in Philadelphia.