Faith/labor coalition urges USDA to reject poultry industry speed up petition

A trade association of poultry producers thinks that production lines in poultry processing facilities are too slow, and it has petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow companies to speed up their production lines.

The National Chicken Council in September petitioned the USDA to waive federal regulations that cap poultry production line speeds at 140 birds per minute.

Interfaith Worker Justice (IJW), a leading organization of a faith/labor coalition opposing the request, said that lifting the waiver will make a bad situation worse.

“Poultry line speeds have for years been capped at 140 birds per minute, a rate that already causes countless injuries and illnesses every year to the workers who must make the same two or three cuts thousands of time over the course of a single shift. Carpal tunnel syndrome and other chronic injuries are common, as are amputations,” said IJW in a media release.

Deborah Berkowitz, senior fellow for worker safety and health at the National Employment Law Project, said that poultry workers also face serious threats to their health because they are exposed to hazardous chemicals and because their employers limit their bathroom breaks in order to keep fast-paced production lines moving.

The Chicken Council’s petition says that increased line speeds will result in cost savings that are “consistent with the regulatory reform initiatives recently put in place by the President, and the waivers are consistent with the Administration’s emphasis on reducing regulatory burdens on the industry.”

The petition also says that food safety won’t be affected by the speed up, but it didn’t say anything about the speed up’s impact on worker safety and health.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), however, did have something on this subject and it wasn’t good.

The GAO conducted a study of worker safety at meat and poultry production facilities in the US. In November, it issued a report on its findings.

The agency’s report says that meat and poultry workers work in close quarters with sharp knives; the floors on the production line are wet; machines at the facilities can be dangerous, and workers can also be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Workers told GAO employees that production lines moves so fast and relentlessly that they don’t have time to take bathroom breaks.

These conditions, according to the report, make “meat and poultry slaughter and processing one of the most hazardous industries in the United States.”

The GAO report isn’t the only source that calls attention to the worker safety problems at poultry processing plants.

The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reports that the poultry industry is “a leading source of reports of occupational finger amputations.”

Berkowitz said that based on these findings and others, “the USDA must reject the (poultry) industry’s petition.”

“Poultry workers already work in harsh conditions and at breakneck line speeds,” Berkowitz said. “As a result, even industry-reported statistics show that workers face illness rates five times the national average. Among all industries reporting to the federal government, the poultry industry had a higher number of severe injuries than much of the construction industry, the auto industry, the steel industry, and the saw mill industry,”

The faith and labor coalition on December 12 rallied in Washington DC, and a delegation hand delivered letters to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg urging them “to keep line speeds as they are and reject industry pressure to deregulate.”

Marc Perrone,  president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union, also sent Perdue a letter.

“Deciding to increase line speeds while so many poultry workers are enduring dehumanizing and dangerous conditions makes no sense,” writes Perrone.

“Now is the time for the USDA to take more decisive steps to protect vulnerable workers inside poultry plants–particularly at non union plants where they routinely struggle to speak up about inhumane conditions–not to end speed limits,” continues Perrone. “For the sake of protecting hard working poultry workers and American families who consume chicken, rejecting this line speed petition is the right thing to do.”

Union describes tentative agreement with AT&T as “groundbreaking”

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) on December 14 announced that it reached a tentative agreement with AT&T on a contract that covers 21,000 AT&T Orange Mobility workers.

The union called the tentative agreement a “groundbreaking contract” because it raises wages well above the national average for retail and call center workers, provides unprecedented protections against outsourcing, and provides first-ever job security protections.

The agreement did not come easy. It took 11 months of hard bargaining and a flurry of mobilizations by rank and file union members to finally reach an agreement.

When bargaining began, the company showed no interest in addressing bargaining concerns raised by workers.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide protections against outsourcing, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide some guarantees of job security, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

When the union said that it wanted the new contract to provide some relief from the company’s draconian disciplinary policies, the company said that it wasn’t interested.

The company’s intransigence forced the union to call a three-day unfair labor strike in May.

The strike, the largest strike by retail workers in the US, shut down hundreds of AT&T retail stores in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

After the strike, the union continued to mobilize workers to demonstrate their solidarity and determination to win a fair contract.

After months of negotiations and mobilizations, the union was finally able to announce that it reached a tentative agreement that it could take to its membership.

Brandon Beck, an AT&T retail worker in San Diego, said that the success of the AT&T workers’ fight has implications for the entire working class.

“For too long, corporations have been squeezing workers and taking away our prospects for good quality American job–jobs that we can genuinely live on and that give us our fair share of the productivity we bring to our communities and country,” Beck said. “This contract shows that wireless workers like me will no longer put up with this disturbing trend. We have successfully fought back together against increased sales pressure, reduced pay, and the frustration of outsourced and offshored call centers. We can breathe easier knowing the service to our customers will be better, and our future will be brighter. Quality jobs are here to stay and grow.”

The tentative agreement raises wages by 10.1 percent over the four-year life of the contract.

For retail store workers like Beck, whose pay partially depends on commissions, the contract shifts $2500 from commissions to base pay, which makes workers’ paychecks more stable and predictable.

During the life of the contract, retail store workers’ pay will increase to an average of $19.20 per hour, well above the national average for retail workers.

Additionally, the agreement requires AT&T to route 80 percent more calls to call centers in the US covered by the Orange contract, and it requires the company to provide quarterly reports to the union that it can use to monitor and enforce compliance.

Protecting jobs against outsourcing was one of the workers biggest concerns because companies such as AT&T have been outsourcing more call center work abroad.

Other important features of the agreement include:

  • job security language that guarantees a job for workers whose store or call center is closed or whose job title is eliminated
  • more flexibility for the use of sick days and less risk of discipline for using them
  • restrictions on monitoring and surveillance so that evaluations are fair
  • maintaining workers’ health insurance costs at present levels
  • safety equipment for warehouse workers and
  • increased on-call pay for technicians.

These improvements were made possible by an organized and mobilized union membership.

When it looked like negotiations were going to be difficult and protracted, the union created a network of mobilizers, rank and file union activists who could help build demonstrations of solidarity and keep members informed about the negotiations.

The first big test of the effectiveness of this network was the three-day strike in May.

Participation in the strike exceeded expectations of the union and set the company back on its heels.

“Management was absolutely stunned that so many people went on strike to demand a fair contract (special props to our great mobilizers and picket captains who did great work maintaining those picket line),” said CWA in a message to members after the strike.

When workers returned to work, the union kept up pressure by organizing a series of solidarity actions.

Some were small such as wearing union stickers and t-shirts; some were big such as participating in informational picket lines at AT&T stores.

In October, the company tried to skirt the union by sending what it called its final offer directly to union members in hopes that members would pressure union negotiators to agree to a contract on the company’s terms.

The company’s attempt to undercut the union backfired. Instead of pressuring the union to agree to a faulty contract, union members swamped a top AT&T executive with emails demanding that the company get serious about negotiating a fair contract.

In November, it did, and by the middle of December, the union was able to announce that it had reached a tentative agreement.

In January, union members will begin voting on whether to ratify the agreement.

Dennis Trainor, vice president CWA Region 1, said that solidarity and persistence by union members won an “historic contact” and that these actions represent a harbinger of things to come.

“Let this be a sign to all companies that put profits above workers: when we stand together, we win,” Trainor said.

Milwaukee workers: No KKK on city’s public works projects

Racist stickers on a workers lunch box caused an uproar in Milwaukee.

A picture of the lunchbox with a KKK sticker and a Confederate battle flag sticker were posted on Facebook.

The worker with the racist stickers was working for a private contractor on a public works project for the city of Milwaukee in an African American neighborhood.

After seeing the picture on Facebook, a coalition that included the Young Workers Committee of the Milwaukee Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, the Milwaukee Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and the Dr. Martin Luther King Justice Committee called for the city of Milwaukee to fire the contractor.

“No worker can be both a unionist and a fascist,” read a flyer published by the coalition. “White Supremacists are the enemy of organized labor and the entire multi-national working class. The KKK is a White Supremacist terrorist group responsible for killing African Americans, LBGTQ people, trade unionists, and others. Unions stand for economic and social justice. We condemn and actively fight against white supremacy and fascism in the workplace and society.”

The coalition called for a rally on December 11 to demand that the city fire the private contractor that employed the KKK supporter. The NAACP called a press conference on the same day to demand action from the city.

Between the time that the press conference took place and the rally was to be held, American Sewer Service, the contractor for the project, announced that it had fired the worker with the racist stickers on his lunch box.

The lunch box incident isn’t the first time that American Sewer Service has come under fire for the actions of racist employees.

On November 30, a picture of three armed American Sewer Service employees on the same public works project was made public.

Two of the employees were wearing holsters with pistols in them, and a third was holding a pistol in his hand.

Subsequent explanations for why they were carrying firearms said that they did not feel safe working in a predominately African American neighborhood.

After the photos were published, representatives of American Sewer Service were summoned to meet with the head of the city’s Department of Public Works.

After the meeting, American Sewer said that it had disciplined the two workers with holstered weapons and fired the employee with the pistol in his hand.

The two incidents have raised questions about whether the city should hire companies like American Sewer Services that are headquartered in the suburbs to work on public works projects in Milwaukee.

The Young Workers Committee, CBTU, and the MLK Justice Committee called on the city to stop using private contractors on public works projects and instead use city of Milwaukee employees for these jobs.

“We call on the city of Milwaukee to immediately end all contracts with American Sewer Service. Furthermore, we call on the city of Milwaukee to employ union represented city employees at prevailing wage. Finally, we call on union brothers and sisters to build the trade union movement to smash bigotry, fascism, and economic and racial oppression,” said the coalition in its leaflet calling for the rally.

Union calls for more hiring at VA health care facilities and no more privatization

Veterans Affairs (VA) health care workers in Kerrville, Texas joined a growing number of VA hospital workers protesting plans to privatize the VA.

The VA workers on November 29 rallied outside the gates of the Kerrville VA Medical Center located in the Central Texas Hill Country.

Earlier in the month, VA health care workers, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), rallied in Dallas, Temple, and Austin.

They have joined a national movement of union workers protesting plans to privatize the VA and demanding that the VA administration fill 49,000 vacant staff positions at VA health care facilities across the US.

The Kerrville VA workers said that allowing so many vacancies to persist puts the health and safety of their patients at risk.

Cheryl Eliano, national vice president AFGE District 10, said that the failure to fully staff VA facilities and the effort to privatize the VA go hand in hand.

“The lack of hiring is a strategic move to justify privatizing the VA,” said Eliano to the San Antonio Express News. “If they gave the VA the resources to do our jobs, the lines for veterans to get services wouldn’t be so long.”

The VA has been in the sights of privatization advocates since 2014 when the media began reporting that some veterans were having to wait too long for medical appointments at VA facilities.

A number of right-wing, pro-privatization groups used the long wait periods as an excuse to ramp up efforts to privatize the VA.

At the time, David J. Cox, Sr., national president of AFGE blamed the long wait periods on understaffing.

“When we look deeper into this issue of extended wait times for veterans to receive an appointment, we have to recognize that understaffing is a major culprit, Cox said.

In order to reduce long wait periods, Congress passed a bill that did two things: it increased VA health care funding so that VA facilities could hire more staff and upgrade its facilities, and it created a privatized alternative called Veterans Choice.

Veterans Choice, which provides veterans with vouchers to use with private health care services, was supposed to be a temporary alternative for veterans to use until the VA fixed its understaffing problem.

But plans are underway to expand it and make it permanent.

In June, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held hearings on a bill that expanded VA Choice and made it permanent.

At the hearing representatives of congressionally charted veterans group voiced their opposition to VA Choice and their support for the VA.

“The American Legion supports a strong VA that relies on outside care as little as possible and only when medically necessary, rather than a move toward vouchers and privatization,” said American Legion Assistant Director Jeff Steele at the hearing.

“Even with the additional options of the Choice program, veterans in general overwhelmingly prefer to use VA,” said Disabled American Veterans Deputy National Legislative Director Adrian Atizado to the committee. “DAV strongly urges this committee, Congress, and the administration to honor the clear preference of the vast majority of veterans who choose to use the VA health care system–a system created to meet their unique needs.”

Despite the veterans groups’ support of the VA, the Republican leadership in Congress, President Trump, and the VA administration are moving ahead with other plans to privatize VA health care services.

In November, word leaked out about secret meetings between President Trump’s administration and the VA’s administration.

Out of the meetings came memos that proposed a plan for merging VA Choice with Tricare, the military’s health care system for troops, their dependents, and retirees.

In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, five Democratic members of Congress, who are veterans, told the secretary that had “grave concerns” about a Tricare-VA merger.

“A Tricare-VA merger could compel veterans entitled to care provided by the VA system to instead seek care through the private sector, a shift that could unfairly force veterans to pay out-of-pocket costs that they wouldn’t otherwise be required to bear,” wrote representatives Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Anthony Brown (D-MD), Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Collin Peterson (D-MN).

While all of this activity aimed at privatizing the VA has been taking place, the VA has done little to deal with the understaffing problem that originally caused the long waits.

In fact, the understaffing problem has gotten worse. In 2016, there were 42,000 vacant positions at VA facilities. By the end of 2017, that number had grown to 49,000.

“If . . . Secretary (Shulkin) were interested in improving the care veterans receive, he would stop trying to outsource to for-profit providers and instead focus on filling the more than 49,000 vacancies plaguing the VA nationwide,” said AFGE’s Cox. “The men and women who served our country were promised a health care system that fulfills their needs, not a voucher to go stand in the back of the line at private providers ill-equipped to treat them.”

Women of Arise Chicago speak out against sexual harassment

Women who are members of Arise Chicago, a Chicago workers center, are speaking out against sexual harassment at work.

In a video titled Out of the Shadows, Arise members like Isabel Escobar, an Arise board member and domestic worker leader, tell their stories about being sexually harassed and threatened while on the job.

The video also offers advise about actions women can take to fight back against sexual harassment.

Escobar hopes that when people see Out of the Shadows, they will understand how sexual harassment menaces the livelihoods of women, especially those who work at low-wage jobs.

“We want to let people know that this doesn’t just happen to famous women,” said Escobar. “Abuse is not only committed by famous men in high power positions. Sexual harassment happens every day to low-wage workers, to immigrants, to women of color. And bosses, supervisors feel they have power over our work, our incomes. Therefore, many women are afraid to speak up or are afraid no one will believe us.”

Jocelyn Frye of the Center for American Progress has studied sexual harassment at work and finds that it is especially prevalent in service industries that employ a large number women who work for low wages.

According to Frye, the hospitality/food service and retail industries are the two sectors of the economy with the highest percentages of reported sexual harassment.

“Women—particularly women of color—are more likely to work lower-wage jobs, where power imbalances are often more pronounced and where fears of reprisals or losing their jobs can deter victims from coming forward,” writes Frye.

Women in the hospitality industry also face another source of sexual harassment.

UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago surveyed 500 union members who work in Chicago area hotels and casinos.

The survey found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers reported that they have been sexually harassed by guests.

Sexual harassment by guests not only makes these workers uncomfortable, it can lead to sexual violence.

In response, Local 1 and the Chicago Federation of Labor succeeded in getting the Chicago City Council to pass the “Hands Off, Pants Up” city ordinance.

The ordinance protects hotel employees from retaliation when they report sexual violence by a guest. It also requires hotels to implement anti-harassment policies and to provide panic buttons to hotel workers who work alone in guest rooms and restrooms.

Workers can press panic buttons when guests act inappropriately toward them.

UNITE HERE has also negotiated a clause in their collective bargaining agreements with hotels around the country that requires the employer to provide workers with panic buttons.

“I feel much safer (because of the panic button),” said Betty Rice, a room attendant in a midtown Manhattan hotel room to WNYC radio.

“Because when you’re frightened, [that] doesn’t always mean you’re going to say ‘I’m on the 14th floor,'” Rice continued. “You’re screaming ‘I need help’. But with the panic button, once you press it, [hotel security] is already alert to where you [are].”

Unfortunately, there’s no panic button that can be pushed to stop unwanted sexual harassment by bosses or co-workers.

But Martina Sanchez, a worker leader of ARISE, sees hope in the fact that many women are coming forward to tell their stories and says that this moment represents a tipping point in the fight against sexual harassment.

“There are thousands of women who remain silent out of a variety of fears–fear of what will be said about them, fear of losing their job, or worst of all, fear they won’t be listened to and nothing will change,” said Sanchez. “But this moment is the beginning of a new struggle.”

Port truck drivers and warehouse workers make progress in their fight for justice

After hearing testimony from port truck drivers and warehouse workers, the Los Angeles City Council Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee unanimously voted to recommend passage of a city ordinance aimed at ending labor abuses of port truck drivers and warehouse workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Port truck drivers, who ferry goods between the ports and nearby warehouses, and warehouse workers are important links in the global supply chain that delivers $450 billion worth of consumer goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to retail stores, but they work under appalling conditions.

Council member Mike Bonin, a committee member who listened workers’ testimonies before the vote, described their working conditions as “modern day sharecropping.”

Duane Wilson, a warehouse worker who testified before the committee, said that racial discrimination, low wages, and his status as a temporary worker, who never knows from one day to the next whether he will work, make it impossible for him to earn a living wage.

With the help of the Teamsters union, drivers and warehouse workers are building a political campaign at the local, state, and federal level to end labor abuses at the ports.

Their political campaign complements their actions on the job that include strikes and an ongoing organizing campaign to make their jobs good-paying union jobs.

The campaign won a victory when the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee voted to recommend that the city council consider denying companies that violate city, state, or federal labor laws access to city property.

Currently, port trucking companies and warehouse owners operate on city-owned land at or near the ports.

At the federal level, Rep. Grace Napolitano has filed the Port Drivers Bill of Rights bill in the US House of Representatives.

On November 30, Sen. Bernie Sanders met with port truck drivers. After the meeting, Sanders said that he would support the Port Drivers Bill of Rights because “the federal government should not be rewarding trucking companies that exploit and abuse their workers.”

One way that these trucking companies exploit and abuse their workers is by misclassifying them as independent contractors instead of employees.

In doing so, companies don’t pay for social security, unemployment, or workers compensation benefits. They also don’t pay overtime when drivers work more than 40 hours a week, which they frequently do.

Also by misclassifying their drivers as independent contractors, trucking companies can find more ways to exploit drivers such as leasing trucks to drivers.

The lease agreement that workers are forced to sign in order to work requires them to pay as much as $60 a day to rent a truck and requires them to pay for insurance, fuel, and some maintenance costs.

These expenses can leave drivers in debt to trucking companies.

Judy Gearhart and Sarah Newell of the International Labor Rights Forum write that these “unethical leasing agreements” amount to “debt bondage” that result in some drivers being paid as little as $3 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage.

When drivers speak up about their working conditions, they often face reprisals.

Rene Flores, a port truck driver, told committee members at the hearing that he was fired for talking to a reporter about conditions on the job.

Despite the risks, port truck drivers and warehouse workers have been fighting back.

Since 2014 when the workers first began organizing, there have been 15 strikes by port truck drivers. They also have filed more than 1000 legal actions charging their bosses with wage theft and misclassifying them as independent contractors.

According to USA Today, which published an extensive expose about working conditions at the ports, judges have ruled in favor of the workers in 97 percent of these cases.

Most recently, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers when he agreed that International Bridge Transport, which ships goods to warehouses owned by Amazon, Target, and others, had misclassified its truck drivers.

The judge ordered the company to stop misclassifying its drivers and stop intimidating and harassing drivers trying to form a union.

“Intermodal Bridge Transport has made it increasingly difficult for me to make a living by illegally and immorally classifying me as an independent contractor instead of an employee,” said Daniel Aneseko Uaina, an International Bridge Transport driver after learning about the judge’s ruling. “With this ruling, justice has been served and the company can no longer deny me my employee rights.”

Union questions DHHS secretary nominee about Big Pharma price gouging

Leaders of UNITE HERE had some pointed questions that they wanted Alex Azar to answer when he testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, and Education on November 29.

Azar, a former top executive with Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations, is President Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

His nomination must be approved by the Senate.

The union is skeptical about Azar’s claim that he will support efforts to lower drug prices and wants to know why Azar didn’t do anything to curb Eli Lilly’s insulin price increases while he an executive with the firm.

D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, whose members work in the hospitality, food service, transportation, and other industries, said that during Azar’s tenure with Eli Lilly, the company raised the price of manufactured insulin by 300 percent.

Insulin produced by Eli Lilly is a synthetic hormone that replaces natural insulin produced by the body’s pancreas.

People with type 1 diabetes can’t produce natural insulin and must take daily injections of synthetic insulin to stay alive.

“Insulin is the poster child of what is going wrong in the way that the pharmaceutical industry does business,” said Taylor. “Alex Azar was at the helm (at Eli Lilly) as insulin prices soared.”

Given Azar’s past history, Taylor wanted to know how Azar could be expected to take meaningful steps to halt Big Pharma’s price gouging.

“A central role of DHHS is to deliver quality, affordable health care to all Americans–something that Alex Azar has built his career on blocking,” said Taylor. “Now Azar must answer: How can he reconcile abusing consumers and feeding the insatiable desire for even bigger profits (with his duty to serve the public and consumers at DHHS).”

UNITE HERE led successful efforts in California and Nevada to help contain drug price increases by fighting for new laws that bring transparency to the opaque pricing habits of the pharmaceutical industry.

In Nevada, a coalition of workers and consumers organized by UNITE HERE conducted a grassroots campaign that mobilized people to support passage of a law that requires pharmaceutical companies that manufacture insulin to report and make public the cost of manufacturing and marketing insulin.

The law also requires pharmaceutical company sales representatives to register with the state and report their contacts with health care providers.

The law that passed did not contain everything that UNITE HERE wanted to control insulin price increases, but the union called it “landmark legislation to protect Nevadans . . . living with diabetes from price gouging.”

Big Pharma, including Eli Lilly, vigorously opposed the price transparency bill that became law by mobilizing an army of 70 lobbying firms to oppose it.

Representatives of Eli Lilly testified against the bill, claiming that the company was not at fault for making insulin unaffordable for some people.

UNITE HERE also led a grassroots effort in California that won passage of another drug pricing transparency bill.

The bill, signed by California’s governor in October, requires pharmaceutical companies to notify the state and the public when it plans to raise drug prices by more than 16 percent. Companies must also justify their price increases.

Big Pharma spent $16.8 million in an unsuccessful effort to kill this modest price transparency bill.

In addition to raising doubts about Azar’s sincerity about curbing drug prices, UNITE HERE had questions about Azar’s interest in holding Big Pharma accountable to the public.

Drug research by Big Pharma is generously subsidized by the federal government, and Medicare and Medicaid pay for much if not most of the prescription drugs manufactured by Big Pharma.

“Yet there is zero accountability to the American public on what Big Pharma manufacturers are spending their profits on,” said Mike Casey, chair of UNITE HERE’s Health Care Task Force.

Casey added that Big Pharma justifies its enormous profits by saying that its profits are the reward it receives for the risks it takes to produce innovative medicines.

But “the fact is that twice as much money is dumped into selling and marketing their drugs than is spent on actually innovating,” said Casey.

Casey  wanted to know if Azar “would continue to toe (the) old Eli Lilly line that the money spent by pharmacy manufacturers marketing their drugs is a ‘trade secret’ that the American public has no right to know, despite subsidizing those profits?”

UNITE HERE said that Azar should be disqualified from becoming the new secretary of DHHS unless he can satisfactorily answer these questions and demonstrate that he will put the interests of the public and health care consumers ahead of Big Pharma.