USW local voices concerns about new beryllium regulations

United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8888 gathered more than 1600 signatures on a petition calling for public hearings on proposed new regulations that weaken worker protections against the ill-effects of beryllium.

Local 8888, the largest union at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, gathered signatures on the petition in just two weeks.

The new beryllium regulations proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from key protections in the proposed regulations.

Beryllium is a light yet strong metal that becomes toxic when its dust or fumes are inhaled even in small amounts. It causes a debilitating and, in some cases, deadly lung disease. It has also been linked to cancer.

For more than ten years, OSHA worked on new regulations that could protect workers from exposure to beryllium.

It finalized and issued the regulations in January, but the regulations were put on hold pending further study on order from President Trump.

After fewer than five months of study, OSHA drafted new regulations and announced in June that the public had until August 28 to submit written comments on the proposed regulations.

The new regulations kept many of the worker protections contained in the original regulations.

For example, the new regulations retained the same maximum allowable exposure levels–0.2 micro grams per cubic meter average per work day–as the original regulations.

But the new regulations exempted the shipbuilding and construction industries from other important protections.

For example, companies in the shipbuilding and construction industries will no longer be required to provide medical monitoring to workers who work with products containing beryllium.

Medical monitoring is important because  there are no safe levels of beryllium exposure.

Because of the laws governing occupational safety and health regulations, OSHA can’t ban exposure to beryllium; it can only minimize exposure to it.

In the absence of a complete ban, monitoring worker exposure is essential because early detection of lung problems caused by beryllium can minimize its damage.

In the shipbuilding industry, substances containing beryllium are used in abrasive blasting operations to clean surfaces of ship hulls that need to be painted.

The proposed new rules will also exempt the shipbuilding and construction industries from

  • measuring beryllium levels at work,
  • providing safety training to workers exposed to beryllium, and
  • keeping records about its use on the job.

Rep. Robert Scott, a Democrat who represents Newport News, criticized the exemptions proposed by OSHA.

OSHA’s proposed new rules, wrote Scott in a letter to the Department of Labor, “has created two classes of workers exposed to beryllium–greater protections for those in  general industry and inferior protections for those employed in construction and (shipbuilding),” wrote Scott.

When OSHA first proposed the exemptions in June, Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH) also criticized OSHA’s exemption.

“No matter where they work, US workers deserve protection from exposure to hazardous–and potentially lethal–toxic materials,” said Martinez.

“They need the same protections as other workers–including monitoring and assessing exposure to potential harm,” continued Martinez.

Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, also criticized the exemption when it was proposed in June and blamed the Trump administration for taking a backward step on worker safety to appease corporate special interests.

“The result will be more debilitating lung diseases, cancers, and deaths for workers who are exposed to this highly toxic substance,” said Owens.

Even though the public comment period for the proposed exemption ended August 28, USW wants OSHA to hold public hearings on the proposal before it becomes final.

Local 8888 forwarded the petition to the USW headquarters in Pittsburg, which will then use the petition to convince OSHA to hold public hearings.

USW “will use the public hearings to make a strong case for shipbuilders to be covered by the new federal rule,” said Local 8888 in a message to members.

The overwhelming response to the petition by union members shows that safety concerns are “a big deal” to workers at the shipyard, said the union.

Hurricane Harvey interrupts pickets but not the strike at Wyman-Gordon

Hurricane Harvey forced striking workers at Wyman-Gordon in Houston to leave their picket line, but the strike remains in effect.

The strike by 271 members of International Association of Machinist (IAM) Local Lodge 15 began more than a week ago when the current collective bargaining agreement expired and workers rejected the company’s final offer.

The company’s offer included a three-year wage freeze for current employees and a steep pay cut for new hires.

Striking workers also criticized the company’s offer because it lowered disability payments and created safety problems.

“These Machinists are very strong because they take these issues to heart,” said James Parker IAM Southern Territory grand lodge representative. “Cuts to short and long-term disability insurance really struck a nerve because it touches all generations from retirees to new hires. They know each other and their families, so they know who would be adversely affected by cuts like this. It’s not some faceless person; it’s your brother and your sister that you see every day. That strengthens their drive for a fair and equitable contract.”

At its factory located in far Northwest Houston, Wyman-Gordon designs and manufactures complex metal components for  aircraft engines and seamless pipes for oil, gas, and nuclear energy companies.

Wyman-Gordon is owned by Precision Castparts, a worldwide manufacturer of metal components and products. It produces these components for some of the world’s largest companies including Boeing, Airbus, GE, Rolls Royce, and many others.

It was purchased in 2016 by Warren Buffet who paid $32 billion for the company.

Byron Williams, president and directing business representative of IAM District 37, called the Wyman-Gordon final offer to its workers “an outrage.”

It includes “takeaways of benefits, unlivable wages, even trying to decrease overtime breaks,” said Williams, whose father is one of the striking workers.

Mark Boldin, IAM Southern Territory general vice president, also called the company’s offer an outrage.

“According to their last, best and final, it would take a new hire starting at $12.75, close to 50 or 60 years to top out on wages,” said Blondin. “No one will be able to raise a family on that, much less save for retirement. It’s just unacceptable.”

Workers also decided to strike because Wyman-Gordon’s last contract offer included cuts to both long-term and short-term disability payments.

Disability benefits are important because, like all heavy industry, work at Wyman-Gordon is hard and dangerous.

Workers at Wyman-Gordon in Houston forge and cut heavy pieces of metal.

They operate large machinery including a 12,000-ton horizontal extrusion press, a 20,000-ton closed-die press, a 29,000-ton closed-die press, and a 35,000-ton vertical extrusion press.

In the summer when the thermometer outside approaches and sometimes exceeds 100 degrees, temperatures inside the plant, which lacks air conditioning, can be as high as 120 degrees.

The hours are long and there are stretches when days off are few and far between.

All of these conditions taken together put stress on a worker’s body, which over time can become more prone to disabling injuries, which makes a decent disability benefit worth fighting for.

Safety problems also can be exacerbated by fatigue, which is one reason that under the terms of the old contract, workers got 20 minutes for breaks during overtime.

But the company wants to reduce those breaks to 15 minutes, which will give workers less time to recover from the grueling work during an extended work day.

Before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the union’s bargaining committee met with the company to explain why union members were dissatisfied with the company’s contract offer.

During the meeting, the committee presented the company with another contract  proposal.

The company is currently reviewing the proposal, but the negotiations have been interrupted by the hurricane and the flooding that it has caused.

Hurricane Harvey has done more than interrupt the negotiations; it has interrupted the lives of the strikers and of working people all over Houston.

To help out the strikers and other IAM members affected by flooding, the union has mobilized its Emergency Relief Department and its Employee Assistance Program.

The union is also asking other IAM members to contribute money to the union’s Disaster Relief Fund.

The Texas AFL-CIO has also activated the Texas Workers Relief Fund  to collect donations for workers and their families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Unions urge support for DACA as Trump considers ending it

As reports surfaced that President Trump is planning to upend the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants by terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, two unions issued statements expressing outrage at Trump’s pending decision.

President Obama in 2012 issued an executive order, DACA, that created a way for people who immigrated to the US as children with their parents but lack official immigration documents to work, study, and live without fear of deportation.

More than 780,000 people have taken advantage of DACA since then.

Their jobs, their studies, their livelihoods, and their futures all are now at stake.

“Ending DACA would crush the hopes and dreams of nearly 800,000 young people who today are able to live here lawfully, go to school, work, and plan for their future. Suddenly, they would become deportable to lands they may barely remember,” said Rocio Sáenz international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “This is a cruel and counterproductive move driven by a hateful, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist agenda.”

“At a time when the words and actions of this administration have encouraged white supremacists and others who foment racial hatred and division, targeting these law abiding young people who work, study, and have become valuable members of our diverse nation, would send a dreadful message to our nation,” said Deborah Burger, co-chair of National Nurses United (NNU).

President Trump’s imminent decision to overturn DACA comes as a result of a September 5 deadline imposed on him by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and 9 other Republican state attorneys generals.

Back in June, Paxton and the other attorneys general sent a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions informing him that they would file a lawsuit to overturn DACA unless President Trump terminates it by September 5.

Filing the suit would temporarily suspend DACA until a court rules on it.

Hundreds of thousands of people who came to the US as children with their parents have used DACA to build lives and contribute to the well being of their communities.

Sáenz said that the fact that many of these hard working people could be harassed and deported is a personal issue for him and other SEIU members.

“Many of our friends and family members are today able to live, work and contribute to our country because of DACA,” said Sáenz. “Together, we stand united in the face of white supremacy and hateful attacks against our communities and vow to stand up against Trump’s racist mass deportation efforts and fight for social, economic and racial justice.”

Burger said that rescinding DACA would intensify the wounds of racism inflamed by the recent events in Charlottesville.

“After Charlottesville, the message of terminating DACA could not be worse,” said Burger. “Millions of families in our nation have already been traumatized by the escalation of deportations of peaceful, law abiding undocumented immigrants. We see more and more people, who work and pay taxes, fearful of getting the health care they need when they are sick, or interacting with other components of civil society. That is wrong and immoral.”

Burger said that instead of threatening those who have benefited from DACA, Trump should work for “a comprehensive federal program of humane immigration reform, premised on a path to citizenship for those without violent criminal records who reside in the US, and an end to arbitrary raids and deportations of non-violent immigrants.”

Unions in Texas have also joined in the fight to save DACA.

On August 15, demonstrators gathered in front of Paxton’s office at the state capital complex in Austin to protest his threat to sue the government in order to end DACA.

Six of the protesters conducted a sit-in at the office and were arrested.

Those arrested included Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin (the Austin teachers union), Montserrat Garibay, vice president of Education Austin, and Patrick Harvey of the Texas State Teachers Association.

“Educators deal with so many students, some who are documented, some who are undocumented,” said Zarifis to the Austin American Statesman explaining why union educators were supporting DACA. “A lot of kids need support, and many of them need DACA. That program is the way to help kids, not to tear it away. Educators need to stand up and say so.”

12-day strike by Egyptian textile workers ends

A strike involving 16,000 Egyptian textile workers ended on August 20 when the workers agreed to return to work.

The strike at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the city of Mahalla began on August 6 when 6000 workers stopped working.

A day later, they were joined by another 10,000.

For 12 days, the workers came to work, went to their work stations, and either stood or sat down without working.

When their shift ended, they left and were replaced by workers from the next shift, who remained idle.

The strike was called after the company did not deliver a 10 percent pay increase that had been promised to the workers.

In addition to demanding their raise, the workers also wanted a 10 percent increase to their benefits, an increase to their food allowance, and the replacement of the company’s general manager and its board of directors.

The workers returned to work after the company agreed to negotiate with the representatives of the workers on their demands.

Strikes and other protests in Egypt have been severely restricted by law since 2013, but this is the third time since 2015 that Mahalla textile workers have gone on strike.

The textile workers have a long militant history that includes major strikes in 2006, 2008, and 2011, which came on eve of the overthrow of Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Misr Spinning and Weaving Company has eight factories in Mahalla and employs 25,000 people there. It has other factories in Egypt and all together employs about 60,000 Egyptians.

It is owned by the Cotton and Textile Holding Company, which in turn is owned by the Egyptian government.

In May, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that government workers not covered by Egypt’s civil service laws would receive a 10 percent raise to help them keep up with the rising cost of living.

El-Sisi also persuaded some private businesses to give their workers a 10 percent raise.

But when July came, the Misr workers in Mahalla did not get their promised 10 percent raise.

Their bosses said that the workers weren’t getting the raise because they received a profit-sharing bonus last year.

Angry and upset, Mahalla workers began holding meetings and rallies after work hours.

The union at the Mahalla factories, the General Union of Spinning and Weaving Workers, took the side of the bosses, but the workers continued to organize themselves and finally called a partial strike on August 6.

The government sent troops and secret agents to Mahalla to try contain the strike, but the strike grew.

Members of Parliament from the Mahalla region urged the strikers to return to work because it was hurting the national economy.

According to Egypt Independent, the strike cost the company, one of the largest in Egypt, 100 million Egyptian pounds, or about $5.6 million.

On the Tuesday after the strike began, the company met with representatives of the workers and agreed to give the workers the 10 percent raise, but the workers weren’t satisfied because their other demands weren’t met.

As a result, the strike continued.

Because of the policies of the government, the Mahalla workers and workers throughout Egypt have seen their standard of living erode.

Among other things, the el-Sisi government has allowed the country’s currency to float, which resulted in a sharp increase in the cost of living.

In July, the country’s inflation rate was 33 percent, the highest in three decades.

The government has also raised fuel and electricity prices.

The government took these measures to comply with the terms and conditions of a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The Mahalla strike can be seen as a revolt against these austerity measures.

The government’s reaction to the strikers was muted compared to the way that it has treated other strikers.

For example, four transportation workers involved in a 2014 strike were recently referred to trial for their actions.

In February, five female Misr workers in Mahalla were arrested for their part in a two-day strike that ended after the government threatened to arrest more people and to fire others who participated.

But this time, the government allowed the company to try to negotiate a settlement.

The strike ended when members of Parliament representing Mahalla convinced the company to meet with the workers’ union and convinced the strikers to allow the negotiations to take place.

A task force has been commissioned to recommend changes that address the economic concerns raised by the strikers.

Strikers said that another strike is possible if the negotiations fail to result in meaningful changes.

Allegiant flight attendants protest attempt to impose substandard contract

Flight attendants at Allegiant Air on August 16 picketed outside of four Florida airports to inform passengers and the public about labor problems at Allegiant.

Allegiant flight attendants joined Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 577 six years ago and since 2011 have been trying to negotiate their first collective bargaining agreement.

But, say the picketing flight attendants, the company is not interested in reaching a fair agreement.

TWU International President John Samuelson said the same thing in a letter that he wrote to the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees labor relations in the rail and airline industries and has served as a mediator during negotiations between the union and Allegiant.

The letter asks the board to release the union from the mediated negotiations and to proffer an offer of arbitration to settle the issues that cannot be resolved through negotiations.

If the board offers to arbitrate the issues, both sides must agree to the offer.

If one side does not, then after a 30-day cooling off period the union could strike or the company could lock out its flight attendants.

“The TWU does not make this request lightly,” said Samuelson.  “But this company continues to undermine the possibility of a bargained settlement.  . . .Our only goal here is to win these flight attendants a fair contract–which would enhance, not harm–the ability of Allegiant to operate successfully. But the airline continues to present proposals that no self-respecting group of organized workers could accept.”

In his letter, Samuelson states that Allegiant wants to impose a substandard contract on its flight attendants like the one it offered in 2016.

That offer was rejected by 76 percent of the union members.

The rejected offer included fewer sick leave and vacation days and a lower 401(k) contribution rate than the company gave to its pilots, who ratified their first collective bargaining agreement in 2015.

The rejected offer also included work rules and scheduling procedures that were worse than industry standards and a wage offer below industry standards.

“While Allegiant continues to make record profits, their flight attendants are the lowest paid in the industry,” said Thom McDaniel  TWU international vice president, who leads the negotiating team, to press-news.com.

And it’s not just low pay that rankles Allegiant flight attendants.

Raychel Armstrong, an Allegiant flight attendant for more than five years and a member of the union’s negotiating teams, reports that exceptionally long hours that cause fatigue are all too common at Allegiant.

She and other Allegiant flight attendants sometimes work 16 to 18 hours a day because of delays caused by mechanical issues, fuel stops, hot planes, people getting sick because of hot planes, and waits on replacement planes.

Flight attendants are safety professionals, said Armstrong, and the long hours and resulting fatigue compromise safety.

According to Armstrong, other airlines have work rules that limit the amount of time that a flight attendant can be on duty, but “Allegiant flight attendants have some of the longest duty days in the industry.”

To get their message about the conditions at Allegiant out to the public, flight attendants picketed Punta Gorda Airport, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and Orlando Sanford International Airport.

The union plans more picketing in Las Vegas, the company’s headquarters, and the airport in Mesa, Arizona.

Samuelson told the NMB in his letter that even though the union has asked the NMB to proffer an offer of arbitration to both sides, the union is willing to negotiate a fair contract, but cautioned that the company has shown no willingness to do so.

According to the union, the biggest obstacle to getting a fair contract is Allegiant’s CEO Maurice Gallagher.

Forbes magazine describes  Gallagher as “an outspoken opponent of airline unionization.”

In its letter to the NMB the union describes Gallagher’s attitude toward union proposals as dismissive.

In the only time that Gallagher attended meetings between the company and union, states the union in its letter to the NMB, he “responded with a simple ‘no’ to all the proposals presented and denigrated specific union proposals.”

“Allegiant CEO Maurice Gallagher and the company have no intention of reaching an agreement with the union, other than a substandard one,” said the union in a statement about the letter.

Farmworkers fired in Washington; seek justice

Farmworkers in Sumas, Washington attended a mass on Sunday to honor and say farewell to Honesto Silva Ibarra, who died a little more than a week ago after complaining to his employer that he was too sick to work.

Silva and his comrades are from Mexico. For most of the summer, they were picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farms near Sumas, which is close to the Canadian border.

They were working in the US on H-2A temporary work visas for agriculture.

When word got out on August 4 that Silva had been hospitalized, about 70 of the farm’s workers walked off the job to inquire about Silva’s health status and to complain about their unbearable working conditions.

The day after their inquiry, Sarbanand Farms fired the workers. A day after that, the workers learned that Silva had died.

The workers who inquired about Silva remain in limbo, stuck in a makeshift camp on land owned by a sympathetic couple who have given the farmworkers refuge.

Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community Development, a group supporting the farmworkers, laid some of the blame for the farmworkers plight on the flawed H-2A Visa program, which gives employers nearly total control over their workers.

“The problem has always been that farmworkers are afraid to complain,” said Guillen to KUOW, a public radio station. “They can’t strike, they can’t form a union, they have nobody to complain to, they have no family, no community connections. No way to exert what little rights they have in the H-2A program.”

Sarbanand Farms brought 600 farmworkers from Mexico to Washington for the berry picking season.

For all practical purposes, these workers have few if any remedies addressing problems on the job.

They can’t quit and look for another job. Their circumstances make it difficult for them to form unions. And if they speak up collectively and get fired for doing so, they have few if any legal rights.

The circumstances involving Silva’s death are in dispute. According to the company that operates Sarbanand Farms, when Silva, complained about not feeling well, the company arranged for an ambulance to take him to a nearby medical clinic.

Farmworkers tell a different story. Silva, according to several accounts, complained of severe headaches to a supervisor, who ignored his complaints and ordered him back to work.

What is indisputable is that Silva, who is diabetic, died of cardiac arrest on August 6 in a Seattle hospital after being transferred from the clinic where he first sought treatment.

The Washington Labor and Industries Department and US Labor Department are currently conducting an investigation to determine if conditions on the job contributed to Silva’s death.

Conditions in the field where Silva worked were unquestionably difficult. The weather was unusually hot and smoke from a wildfire in Canada had drifted down to Washington causing an air quality alert.

After Silva became ill, the workers who walked off the job to inquire about their friend complained to company management that there wasn’t enough drinking water in the field.

They also complained about their food. They paid $12 a day for food, but their portions were skimpy and the quality was bad.

A report by the Stranger has a picture of  what a typical meal at the Sarbanand farm looks like.

Finally, the workers complained that some of their visas had expired, which made it impossible for them to return home if they didn’t like their working conditions.

Under the H-2A program, employers are responsible for keeping their workers visas up to date, and many of the workers at the farm were working under expired visas.

Instead of considering the merits of these grievances, Sarbanand summarily fired the workers and wouldn’t pay them for the work they had already done.

A few days after being fired, the workers and their supporters marched to the Sarbanand offices to demand that the company pay them.

The company, which originally said that it had mailed the workers final paycheck to Mexico, finally agreed to pay the workers the money owed them.

During this time, the workers have been living under difficult circumstances. People have donated food, tents, and other necessities to sustain them.

Some of the workers would like to get their jobs back or to go to work on other farms. Some want to return to Mexico.

Earlier this week, 25 workers did return to Mexico at the expense of the company, which is required to provide transportation to and from the workers’ country of origin.

Cristo Rodriguez is one of those who is staying in hopes that he and the other farmworkers can get justice.

Rodriguez told the Bellingham Herald through an interpreter that he had thought about returning home after learning of death of his father-in-law but has decided to stay.

“My first reaction was that I have to leave and be with (my family). It was sad to hear (my wife) talk, because I could feel what she was going through,” said Rodriguez. “But then, if I take off, I don’t know if we would be able to resolve anything (at the Sarbanand Farm).”

Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approve minimum wage increase

Voters in Kansas City, Missouri recently voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

In a referendum on new city-wide minimum wage, 68 percent of the voters supported increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour immediately and then beginning in 2019 raising the minimum wage each year by $1.25 an hour until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022.

Voters voted overwhelmingly to support the new minimum wage despite a new state law passed in May that prohibits cities and other local governments from enacting local minimum wages that exceed the state minimum wage, currently set at $7.70 an hour.

The state law, which Missouri Gov. Eric Greiten allowed to go into effect, becomes effective on August 28.

In the meantime, Missouri unions announced that they will begin a campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour.

After the result of the Kansas City minimum wage vote was announced, Rev. Vernon Percy Howard, president of the Greater Kansas City Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC), praised voters for the landslide victory.

“We are so pleased that Kansas City has demonstrated a progressive political perspective on tone and attitude on this issue,” said Howard to CNN Money. “Our brothers and sisters deserve human dignity.”

Howard also said that the vote reflects a growing concern among a broad section of the population about income inequality.

“Income inequality was and is a major issue in Kansas City and across this country,” said Rev. Howard. “We want to thank all those individuals who voted but are not low-wage workers for being people of good will.”

SCLC was one of the groups that came together to form KC for $15, the coalition that led the effort to pass initiative #3, the minimum wage increase initiative on the ballot.

Some in the media called the vote on initiative #3 a symbolic gesture because the state law nullifying local minimum wage ordinances will go into effect soon.

Howard, however, said that the vote was more than empty symbolism and that he had serious doubts about the constitutionality of the state law. Howard said that he foresees a legal challenge to the law.

Other groups that have been working to raise the minimum wage said that the Kansas City vote was an important victory but that much more work needs to be done in order to raise the minimum wage.

The Kansas City vote to raise the minimum wage give us “cause to celebrate,” reads a posting on the Stand Up KC Facebook page. “But we won’t see a penny of it because the legislature passed a bill taking away the right of voters and cities to raise wages above $7.70. Tonight is a time to be proud of our city and angry at our legislator. We will continue to fight.”

On the day before the Kansas City vote on initiative #3 took place, Stand Up KC joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 Missouri, the Missouri AFL-CIO, and Missouri Jobs with Justice in announcing the start of a campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour.

After making their announcement, members of the coalition began gathering signatures on a petition to put the new minimum wage proposal on the state ballot for the 2018 elections.

To do so, they will need to collect more than 100,000 valid signatures on their petition.

“This campaign takes the power out of Jefferson City (Missouri’s capital city) and gives it back to the people where it belongs,’ said Richard Franklin, a janitor and SEIU member. It’s up to us, the people, to take matters into our own hands.”

In a related development, Mike  Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO announced on August 11 that unions had gathered more than 300,000 signatures on a petition to put an initiative that would veto the state’s new right to work law before the voters.

The petition will be delivered on August 14 to the Missouri Secretary of State for validation.

If there are 100,126 or more valid signatures on the petition, the initiative will be added to the November 2018 ballot, and implementation of the right to work law will be delayed until after the vote.

Texas public employee unions under attack, launch fight back

Texas is the latest state where Republicans are trying to stifle the voices of public employees.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was calling a special session of the state legislature, he presented a 19-item agenda that included a ban on voluntary payroll deduction of public employee union dues.

Those affected would be teachers, public school employees, and state and local government employees. Police officers and firefighters are exempt.

The purpose of the bill is to weaken public employee unions by reducing their funding. If Abbott’s ban passes, unions will have fewer resources resulting in a weaker collective voice for public employees.

“Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, want to make it harder for public workers to have a strong, effective union,” said the Texas State Employee Union CWA Local 6186 in a statement about the proposed bans. “They know that without a strong union of state workers and retirees standing up to them, state services will be left unprotected against privatization efforts and our pensions will be vulnerable to attacks.”

When the special session began on July 18, two lawmakers filed companion bills,  SB 7 and HB 156, that seek to ban voluntary payroll deduction.

Those bills are similar to two bills that became law in two Republican dominated states.

Republicans in Oklahoma passed a ban that targeted public school teachers in 2015, and Republicans in Michigan in 2012 passed  a ban that targeted public employees and public school teachers.

The discourse about the ban has been dominated by right wing talking points, much of which is inaccurate.

For example, when Gov. Abbott announced that he was adding the ban on voluntary payroll deductions to the special session’s agenda, he said that the ban would save taxpayers from paying for payroll deduction.

In fact, voluntary payroll deduction costs taxpayers nothing.

The Texas Government code clearly states that employees and their organization are the ones who bear the cost of voluntary payroll deduction.

Also a fiscal note for SB 7 stated that the ban would have no financial impact on the state or local governments.

In other words, the ban won’t save the state, local governments, or school districts any money because voluntary payroll deduction isn’t costing them any money.

In another instance, the executive vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right wing advocacy group, wrote in the Dallas Morning News that the ban would stop “the state from automatically collecting membership dues for government-employee labor unions.”

The fact is that in Texas there is no such thing as automatic dues collection for state employees. To enroll in payroll deduction, a state employee must complete and sign a payroll deduction authorization form before payroll deduction begins.

An employee is free to discontinue payroll deduction at any time.

The author also incorrectly describes payroll deduction as an opt out choice for an employee. In other words according to the author, union dues are automatically deducted unless an employee opts out of payroll deduction.

Once again, the author is incorrect. Payroll deduction doesn’t begin automatically. It is an opt in, not an opt out choice.

 

The author also blames voluntary payroll deductions for high  local property taxes.

It’s true that local property taxes in Texas are too high, but it’s not because of voluntary payroll deduction or teachers’ unions. It’s because the state has been shirking its responsibility to provide an equal public education to all students.

“It’s indisputable that we’re funding education at the lowest level the state’s ever funded it before and we’re doing it on the back of the taxpayers,” said Republican lawmaker Dan Huberty to the Austin American Statesman during the special session.

Despite the weak evidence about the need for a ban on voluntary payroll deduction, SB 7 passed out of the Senate within 10 days after the session began.

But it met a lot of resistance from employees affected by the ban.

At a hearing on the bill conducted by the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, more than 130 people either testified against SB 7 or came to the committee hearing and signed a form indicating their opposition.

Among those testifying against the bill, were representatives of public safety unions that will be exempt from the ban. They worried that the ban will be extended to them at some time in the future.

The fight to stop the ban now goes to the House of Representatives.

Teachers and public employees have been organizing to mobilize opposition to the bill in the House.

The House version of SB 7, HB 156, was filed by Rep. Jason Issac who represents a district just south and west of Austin.

Teachers and public employees unions are urging their members who live in Rep. Issac’s district to call him and voice their opposition to the bill.

“This bill would strip state workers of our right to determine where our hard earned money goes by no longer allowing us to have our union membership dues deducted from our paychecks,” states a letter to Texas State Employee Union (TSEU) members in Rep. Issac’s district.

“It is very urgent for every TSEU member who lives in Rep. Issac’s district. . . to voice their opposition to this bill,” continues the letter.

Nurses, teachers challenge GOP Rep. on health care

Nurses and teachers in Corpus Christi, Texas on July 30 challenged US Representative Blake Farenthold to step outside of his local office and defend his vote to deny health care coverage to millions of Americans.

They also chastised Rep. Farenthold for his implied threat of violence against women senators–Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Shelly Moore Capito–for voting against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

After the US Senate rejected two Republican bills to dismantle Obamacare, Rep. Farenthold singled out the three Republican women among seven Republican senators who voted against one of the two bills.

He said that he would like to settle the score with them “Aaron Burr style,” referencing the 1804 duel between then Vice President Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in which Burr killed Hamilton.

Rep. Farenthold voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a Republican health care plan that the Congressional Budget Office said would cause 23 million people to lose their health care coverage.

With temperatures reaching 97 degrees on a hot summer afternoon, members of National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNU/NNOC) and the Corpus Christi American Federation of Teachers rallied outside of Rep. Farenthold’s Corpus Christi office to challenge him on his implied threat and his vote to reduce health care coverage.

Sylvia Higgins, a nurse and a member of NNU/NNOC, challenged him with facts about the impact that his vote for the Republican bill would have had on Texans and demanded that he support a common sense approach to providing health coverage for everyone.

“Currently, 4.3 million Texans are uninsured, and an additional 2.5 million Texans would have lost coverage under the dangerous GOP bill (to repeal Obamacare),” said Higgins. “Now that the GOP bill is effectively dead, any politician who truly represents the people would internalize the real facts about health care and begin advocating for a single-payer-for-all healthcare system—because that’s what our patients deserve.”

Others like a teacher who carried a sign that simply read, “Shame on you Farenthold,” challenged Rep. Farenthold’s character.

Apparently, Rep. Farenthold wasn’t up to the nurses’ and teachers’ challenge.

He said he couldn’t meet with them because he had to be in Moulton, a small town about 140 miles north of Corpus Christi.

Farenthold said that repealing Obamacare care remained one of his top priorities because “Obamacare is hurting the American people, especially those it was intended to help.”

Rep Farenthold is right. People are hurting, especially in Texas, but it’s not because of Obamacare; rather, it’s because of Republican antipathy toward Obamacare.

Texas, which is governed by Republicans, chose not to participate in Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and actively disrupted efforts by non-profit groups to help people get health insurance through the federal health insurance exchanges.

As a result, 20 percent of adult Texans still lack health insurance.

Republican health care policy has hurt Texans in other ways as well.

Republican state officials have cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood and enacted laws that resulted in the closure of 31 Planned Parenthood affiliated clinics, most of which were in medically under served areas.

In addition to providing birth control and abortion services, these clinics provided basic health screenings for low-income women.

According to a recent study, among women with a high school education or less who once received examinations for breast cancer at Planned Parenthood clinics, 31 percent fewer are still getting examined.

There’s another health care crisis going on in Texas that is just now starting to get some attention.

The rate of pregnancy related deaths of women in Texas is 35.8 per 100,000. The national average excluding California is 23.8 per 100,000.

Texas leaders have appointed a task force to learn the cause and recommend a remedy for the state’s alarmingly high rate of pregnancy related deaths.

To the chagrin of Texas’ leaders, California may have already answered these questions. California’s pregnancy related death rate is 7.3 per 100,000.

California’s success at reducing pregnancy related deaths is the result of a collective public health initiative funded by the state and federal government and the California Healthcare Foundation.

It should also be noted that only 8 percent of Californians lack health insurance, which makes health care much more accessible in California.

It is unquestionable that Obamacare is a much better approach to health care than the Republican approach, but Obamacare is not without its shortcomings.

The main problem is that 29 million Americans still don’t have health insurance, which is why when people demonstrated in front of Rep. Farenthold’s office, they advocated for a single-payer health care plan that would make health insurance available to everyone.

“We need single payer/Medicare for All, and we need Rep. Farenthold to advocate for it,” said Cynthia Martinez, a nurse and NNU/NNOC member.