VA nurses expose under staffing that poses risks to patients

Nurses at the Little Rock Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital recently stood up for their patients by calling attention to a severe under staffing problem at the hospital.

Thirty nurses, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2054, filed a complaint with the VA’s Inspector General and the Arkansas State Board of Nursing charging that the hospital’s under staffing puts patients at risk.

Then on June 26, two dozen nurses held an informational picket at the hospital to call attention to the risks faced by patients.

“We are down 150 nurses. Floating to areas we aren’t skilled in is at an all-time high,” said Barbara Casanova, president of Local 2054 and a registered nurse at the hospital. “We can’t deliver appropriate care under those circumstances.”

“We promised to keep our veterans safe, but we’re very worried that something could go wrong,” continued Casanova.

David Cox, Sr., AFGE president, said that the under staffing problem in Little Rock is not unique; it’s a problem at VA hospitals and clinics all over the US.

According to Cox, there are currently 49,000 unfilled positions at VA hospitals across the country.

“Every vacancy is a missed opportunity to make good on our promise to care for those who have borne the battle,” said Cox, Sr. “One vacancy is a tragedy; 49,000 is a national disgrace.”

Cox said that it has been difficult to attract candidates to fill the vacant VA positions because of two things: a constant barrage of anti-government rhetoric by politicians and special interest groups that want to privatize the VA and “pay and benefit cuts that scare away qualified doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.”

The anti-government rhetoric is being transformed into policy by the Trump administration, and its actions have exacerbated the VA’s under staffing problem.

One of the President’s first orders of business when he took office was to freeze hiring by government agencies like the VA.

That freeze was lifted in April, but its  effects continue to linger as the VA tries to catch up with a hiring backlog.

Health care professionals who might be interested in taking those jobs may think twice about doing so because those jobs could end up being cut if the VA continues to privatize more services.

President Trump is a big fan of privatization, and his proposed budget for the VA reflects his predilection for privatization.

His budget boosts funding for the VA’s Choice program, which the American Legion’s National Commander calls a “stealth privatization attempt,” by $2.9 billion in 2018 and $3.9 billion in 2019.

To help pay for the increase in funding for the Choice program, which allows local VA administrators to divert patients to private health care providers, the President’s proposed budget cuts veteran disability benefits by $3.6 billion.

“We are alarmed by the cannibalization of services needed for the Choice program,” said Schmidt. “It is a ‘stealth’ privatization attempt which The American Legion fully opposes.”

In addition to the threat that their jobs could be privatized, VA nurses and other federal employees have had to put up with pay freezes and benefit cuts, which Cox said also makes it difficult to fill open positions.

Between 2010 and 2013, all federal employees including those at the VA had their pay frozen.

Between 2010 and 2016, federal employees also suffered lost wages due to furloughs caused by budget impasses and higher pension contributions.

Now President Trump is seeking even more cuts to federal employees’ wages and benefits.

His proposed budget raises pension contributions for most federal employees to 7 percent of an employee’s salary, a 900 percent increase.

Higher pension increases will mean less take-home pay.

If the Trump budget were to be enacted, a federal employee hired before 2013 and earning $50,000 a year would see her pension contribution increase from $400 a year to $3500 a year, amounting to a 6 percent pay cut.

Trump’s proposed budget would also reduce future pensions and eliminate cost-of-living adjustments.

Back in Little Rock, the nurses’ actions that brought attention to the under staffing problem seems to have done some good.

Hospital management at the Little Rock VA said that 54 new nurses have been hired at the facility.

Casanova has been encouraged by the recent hirings, but if President Trump’s budget becomes a reality and privatization increases and wages and benefits decrease, the Little Rock VA and others will be hard pressed to close the staffing gap that endangers the health of its patients.

Small union, big victory

A small group of workers in Greenfield, Massachusetts recently demonstrated why the working class needs unions and why solidarity and militancy are the keys to making unions strong again.

Seventy-four members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 274 on June 23 unanimously approved a new collective bargaining agreement with their employer Kennametal.

Local 274 President Shawn Coates called the new agreement “a great contract with good benefits and good wage increases.”

There was another important feature about the contract: It did not include any of the concessions proposed by the company in its last, best, and final offer.

Kennametal is a global company that manufactures precision metal cutting tools for construction, mining, aerospace, and other industries. It reported sales of $2.1 billion in 2016 and operates in 60 countries.

When negotiations with Local 274 over a new collective bargaining agreement began in March, the company appeared to have the upper hand.

Its operation in Greenfield employs about 80 union members, less than 1 percent of the 11,000 employed by Kennametal all over the world.

To make matters worse, Kennametal reported financial losses in 2015 and 2016, which led to the elimination of 1000 Kennametal jobs and the closure of some of its facilities.

In 2010 when the country was still suffering the aftermath of the Great Recession, Kennametal took advantage of the hard times to wrest concessions from the union including the introduction of a two tiered wage and benefits system.

When the 2017 negotiations began the company was hungry for more concessions including scrapping the workers quality health care plan and replacing it with a flex plan–a health insurance plan with high deductibles, limited coverage.

The company had been able to impose its flex plan on its other Kennametal workers in the US.

When negotiations stalled, the company made its last, best, and final offer chock full of the concessions they proposed when bargaining began.

Instead of caving in the workers fought back intelligently and creatively.

They established informational picket lines outside the gate once or twice a week to demonstrate their unity and to inform the community about their fight to resist concessions.

Greenfield is a strong union town where UE has had a presence for decades. Workers received strong support from the community.

The union held two well attended rallies at the plant gates. In addition to the Kennametal union members, those who came to rallies included Local 274 members who worked at other places, other UE members, who came from all over the Northeast, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, workers mobilized by Jobs with Justice, and local community supporters.

The union also took the fight into the plant itself. Without going into details, UE reports that “the struggle on the shop floor was waged during every working hour, and the company soon began complaining that productivity was down.”

While all of this was going on, the union also filed two unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. “One was for the company unlawfully contracting out work. The other hit the company for unilaterally publicizing its ‘last, best and final offer’ with the false claim that the union was calling for a vote on the offer,” reported the union.

The company finally agreed to a new contract that eliminated virtually all of the concessions that it had previously demanded.

In addition to keeping their health care plan, the union won wage increases ranging from $2.25 an hour to $3.25.

The higher wage increases went to the tier two workers and closed the gap between them and tier one workers from $1.00 an hour to between $0.30 and $0.40 an hour.

The new contract also gives tier two workers the same number of sick days and vacation days as tier one workers, improves the grievance procedure for all workers, and includes new “no lockout” language, which will give workers a stronger bargaining position  when future negotiations take place.

“The vast majority of the members really stuck together,” said Coates. “That gives you some push. Like everybody says, we’re a strong union.”

DSA calls for boycott of B&H Photo and Video

The Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) has called for a national boycott of B&H Photo and Video because the company has “notoriously violated its workers’ rights.”

B&H, a company with $2.65 billion in sales revenue, sells professional quality photo and video equipment at its super store in New York City and on the internet.

Workers at the company’s warehouse in the Brooklyn Naval Yards in 2015 voted to unionize and joined the United Steelworkers (USW)..

Since then, the warehouse workers, who are mostly Latino immigrants, have been trying to reach an agreement with the company on their first collective bargaining agreement.

But B&H has dragged out the negotiations and in January announced that it will move its two Brooklyn warehouses 75 miles away to South New Jersey.

The new warehouse is located in an area that is not accessible by public transportation from New York City.

In addition to demanding that B&H negotiate a first collective bargaining agreement, the union also wants the company to bargain about its decision to move the workers’ jobs out of state.

The company refuses to negotiate on the move, and if the move goes through, most workers will lose their jobs.

DSA members have been supporting the workers for the last 16 weeks by picketing the B&H store, and the workers themselves have taken direct actions such as their one-day strike on May Day.

But to no avail.

“That’s why . . . DSA is launching a new national boycott effort and website,, to tell the company: Settle a contract with your workers! End the exploitation!” said Maria Svart, DSA national director in an email message to members.

B&H has had a bit of history with worker rights violations.

The company in 2009 agreed to pay $4.3 million to settle a discrimination lawsuit filed by the US Department of Labor over claims by Latino workers that they were paid unequal pay and benefits.

Also in 2009, female employees sued the company charging that B&H paid female employees less than their male counterparts. The suit was subsequently dismissed.

Despite the lawsuits, workers at B&H’s warehouse said that they continue to be treated badly by B&H.

Latino workers complained of verbal and in some cases physical abuse by their supervisors.

They work as much as 13 to 16 hours a day with only one 45 minute break for lunch.

They also said that they work in an unsafe environment exposed to fiberglass dust that causes respiratory problems, skin rashes, and nosebleeds. They are also exposed to asbestos and benzene.

The final straw came in 2014 when two tractor trailers parked next door to the company’s Brooklyn Naval Yard warehouse caught fire.

The smoke from the fire started billowing into the B&H warehouse, and it appeared that the fire might spread to the warehouse.

Instead of being allowed to evacuate the warehouse, workers were told to wait. When management finally allowed the workers the leave, they had to exit through a metal detector causing a bottleneck in the evacuation route.

Because of the bottleneck, it took 30 minutes for the evacuation to be complete.

Some of the workers decided that they needed help to address their grievances, and they turned to the Laundry Workers Center, which helps immigrant workers in the laundry business.

Organizers from the Laundry Workers Center helped the B&H warehouse workers form an organizing committee that succeeded in getting a union representation election held.

In a November 2015 vote, B&H warehouse workers voted 200 to 88 to join the United Steelworkers.

But B&H did what a lot of other employers do when workers vote to join a union. It slow walked the negotiations in order to buy more time.

By 2016, there was still no collective bargaining agreement, and the company was still not addressing the grievances raised by its workers.

That same year, the US Labor Department filed a suit against B&H alleging that the company paid Latino workers less than white workers and that the company refused to hire blacks, women, and Asian workers into entry level positions.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined B&H $32,000 for hazardous working conditions.

DSA’s boycott website urges people to sign a letter addressed to B&H owners. The letter expresses outrage at the treatment of the B&H workers and the company’s refusal to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

“I will take my business elsewhere until you reverse your decision to move the warehouses to New Jersey and negotiate a reasonable contract with your unionized Brooklyn workers” concludes the letter.

Mississippi Nissan workers to vote on union

Workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi will soon have a chance to vote on whether they want to join a union.

An organizing committee of Nissan workers assisted by the United Autoworkers (UAW) recently filed papers with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold a union representation election at the factory.

The workers asked that the election take place during a two-day period that begins July 31 and ends August 1. The NLRB will make the final decision about when the election will take place.

“Nissan employees want fair wages for all workers, better benefits, and an end to unreasonable production quotas and unsafe conditions in Mississippi,” said Nina Dumas, a member of the organizing committee who has worked in the plant for five years. “The company doesn’t respect our rights. It’s time for a union in Canton.”

Despite Nissan’s best efforts to tamp down support for the union, the organizing committee’s efforts gained momentum after a large march and rally called the March on Mississippi took place four months ago.

Five thousand Nissan workers and their community supporters marched through the streets of Canton up to the gates of the factory in a strong showing of solidarity.

The Canton Nissan workers are predominately African American. They make some of Nissan’s most popular vehicles including the Altima, Frontier, Murano, and Titan.

Nissan opened the Canton factory in 2003 after the state of Mississippi awarded it $1.3 billion in tax exemptions and other incentives.

Nissan in turn was to provide local workers with good jobs and a respectful work environment.

But instead, members of organizing committee say that  Nissan has disrespected its workers.

“When we speak out to demand basic protections, Nissan threatens and harasses us,” said McRay Johnson, an organizing committee member who also has worked five years for Nissan. “Employees need and deserve representation in the workplace.”

Workers have also criticized Nissan for a lax safety culture at the plant.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued multiple safety violation citations against Nissan.

OSHA’s latest citation said that Nissan failed to provide “a place of employment that was free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

“Every day, we literally are risking our lives at Nissan,” said Rosiland Essex, a 14-year  Nissan employee. “We deserve better.”

Many members of the local community also think that Nissan workers deserve better.

In fact some of them have come together to form Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFN).

MAFN is composed of prominent civil rights and religious leaders as well as students and others active in the Black Lives Matter movement.

At a July 10 media conference announcing that workers had requested a union election, Dr. Isiac Jackson, Jr., pastor of Canton’s Liberty Baptist Church, president of the General Missionary Baptist General Convention, and chair of MAFN, spoke about the importance of having a union.

Belonging to a union means that workers have certain guarantees, said Dr. Jackson

“If you have a union, you’re guaranteed that when you get hurt on the job, you will be taken care of. . . You’re guaranteed that “nobody can just walk up to you and take away your job that guarantees the support of your family. . . “You’re guaranteed to have hours that allow you to go home and enjoy your family and have a sustaining live,” said Jackson.

“You’re job’s not done till you pull the (voting booth) lever,” said Jackson urging workers to vote for the union in the coming election.

MAFN played a leading role in organizing the March on Mississippi.

One of the speakers at the march was Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP and a leader of MAFN.

“Workers rights are civil rights,” said Johnson at the march’s  rally. “It’s about the right of workers not to be exploited for cheap labor or for free labor.”

The anti-union drive by Nissan is an effort “to keep labor cheap by intimidating labor,” continued Johnson.

The strong show of solidarity at the March on Mississippi helped some Nissan workers gain confidence in the union drive even though Nissan has conducted an aggressive and perhaps illegal anti-union campaign.

According to the UAW, the NLRB found enough evidence to issue a complaint against Nissan charging it with illegal anti-union actions.

“The NLRB complaint alleges that Nissan unlawfully threatened to close the Canton plant if workers unionized and also threatened employees with termination,” states the UAW in a media release about the upcoming election.

As support for the union has grown, Nissan has stepped up its anti-union campaign. Anti-union media ads are running in the local media market, and the company continues to interfere with the workers’ right to belong to a union.

But union supporters at Nissan have a strong base of support inside and outside of the plant.

At the recent media conference announcing the union election, Bishop Thomas Jenkins said that the struggle for a union has been an uphill battle, but the workers have endured and are on the verge of victory.

“Workers have worked tirelessly to get to this moment,” said Jenkins. “Even though they have faced much intimidation (by Nissan).

Jenkins that workers have been forced to view movies intended to make them afraid to join a union and have been forced to attend small group meetings where they’re threatened for supporting the union.

“In spite all that, we’re going to win,” said Jenkins.

Two USPS unions unite to fight job cuts

Two US Postal Service unions wrote a joint letter to the Postmaster General Megan Brennan criticizing her administration for “wholesale and massive job cuts” that have disrupted the lives of thousands of postal workers and degraded postal services across the country.

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), and Paul Hogrogian, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union (NPMHU), said that the job cuts are a violation of their collective bargaining agreements and that the two unions “have drawn a line in the sand and are standing united against Postmaster Brennan’s continuous ‘cost-saving’ shortcuts.”

For the past ten years, Postal Service has been cutting costs at the behest of the US Congress and Presidents.

The Postal Service Office of Inspector General estimates that between 2006 and 2015 Postal Service labor costs have been reduced by $10 billion largely by relying more on a casual workforce, reducing work hours, and eliminating and consolidating jobs.

The method it uses to eliminate jobs is called “excessing.”

Local managers are required to prepare excessing impact statements in which they try to determine what jobs they manage can be eliminated or consolidated.

The Postal Service uses these excessing impact statements to cut jobs at mail processing facilities and local Post Offices.

Union members are protected from layoffs by no-layoff clauses in the collective bargaining agreements, but when jobs are excessed those holding the jobs are transferred to other jobs, which may be on different shifts in different locations that can be as far away as 50 miles.

The unions have documented 1500 excessing events that have affected more than 15,000 workers.

Excessing jobs is just one of a number of cost cutting measures that has consumed management’s attention during the last ten years.

According to the Inspector General, the Postal Service’s cost cutting mission has affected its quality of service.

The Inspector General reports that as the Postal Service cut costs dramatically over the last ten years, “it also reduced both its quality of service and capital expenditures.”

While the Postal Service was consolidating facilities and eliminating jobs, it also “eliminated overnight service for single-piece First Class Mail and did not reach its stated performance goals for any First Class Mail categories in 2015.”

“The impact of cost reductions on customer service has been considerable,” continues the Inspector General.

In their letter, the two unions say that the Postal Service in its headlong attempt to cut costs has ignored its collective bargaining agreements and thrown “away any good faith efforts and constructive relationships (with the two unions)”

While urging the Postmaster General to engage in a dialogue with the unions to resolve this grievance, the unions told Brennan that it will maintain a united front in order “to resist the misguided actions and violations of your agreement, and commitment to, our members.”

Low-wage workers brace for pay cut in St. Louis

As the fight to raise the minimum wage gains ground all over the US, it suffered a serious setback in St. Louis.

On August 28, the city’s minimum wage of $10 an hour will drop to $7.78 an hour.

To make matters worse, the St. Louis minimum wage was set to increase to $11 an hour in January. That anticipated raise is now off the table as well.

The pay cut for more than 35,000 St. Louis low-wage workers is the result of new law recently passed by the Missouri Legislature.

The new law prohibits local governments from passing ordinances that set the minimum wage higher than the state minimum wage of $7.78 an hour.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens just before the July 4 Holiday weekend was to begin announced that he will allow the new law to go into effect on August 28.

Gov. Greitens said that local minimum wage ordinances such as the one passed by St. Louis “will kill jobs.”

But Sierra Parker, a St. Louis janitor whose wage was increased to $10 an hour in May because of the local minimum wage ordinance, said that Gov. Greitens isn’t really concerned job opportunities for workers.

“Gov. Greitens’ announcement (that he will allow the pay cut to become law) was never about Missouri’s working families,” said Parker, a member of SEIU Local 1. “It was always about lowering wages and making his rich donors happy.”

Gov. Greitens’ quaint platitude that increasing the minimum wage “will kill jobs” is nothing new.

When the US in 1938 established the nation’s minimum wage at 25 cents an hour, opponents said the same thing.

But history and research suggests otherwise.

For example, Seattle in 2014 enacted a minimum wage ordinance that raises the city’s minimum wage over a four-year period to $15 an hour.

Two studies of the impact that Seattle’s minimum wage increase have found that raising the minimum wage has had little if any impact on jobs.

One study conducted by experts at the University of California Berkeley’s Institute for Labor and Employment found that when Seattle raised the minimum wage, wages among low-income workers increased but “employment was not affected.”

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that Seattle’s minimum wage had little impact on employment.

The University of Washington study, however, did say that the increased minimum wage caused some employers to reduce hours worked by employees.

Right-wing opponents of minimum wage laws jumped on this part of the study to criticize Seattle for raising the city’s minimum wage.

But Seattle Mayor Ed Murray praised the minimum wage increase as an important step toward reducing inequality and pointed out that the University of Washington study, “excludes 38 percent of workers who work at multi-site businesses (such as Starbucks or Target). This and other limitations are openly acknowledged by the study team members, and they do not recommend changing the law.”

Mayor Murray also said that “Seattle’s economy is thriving and our employers are competing for workers. Hotels, retailers and restaurants are scrambling to find employees.”

Seattle’s unemployment rate is 2.7 percent, well below the 4.3 percent national unemployment rate.

Back in St. Louis, low-wage workers are bracing for the impact that the looming pay cut will have on their lives.

Those making the minimum wage could see their hourly wages drop by $2.22 an hour, or $354 a month. That’s a 22 percent pay cut.

If you use the $11 minimum wage that is to go into effect in January to calculate the impact of the lower minimum wage, the pay cut is even steeper.

“The $10 minimum wage has already changed my life for the better,” said Parker. “Now, Gov. Greitens intends to take money out of the pockets of more than 35,000 St. Louis working families. For me and so many others, that means going back to living paycheck to paycheck.

“He thinks he can sneak his decision by us over the holiday, but this doesn’t change anything. Working people will keep up the fight to hold him accountable.”



NY Times employees walk out to demand respect and save jobs

Hundreds of employees at the New York Times on June 28 took a collective coffee break and walked off the job to protest a plan by management to restructure the newspaper’s editing process and eliminate jobs.

The restructuring plan, which will result in the loss of more than 50 out of 100 jobs in the editing department, was announced after The Times management spent 18 months trying figure out how to reconfigure the editing process.

During that time, employees whose jobs were at risk were demeaned by management who compared their important work to “dogs urinating on fire hydrants” and dismissed it as “low-value editing.”

The walkout was at once a demand that management respect the work done by copy editors and others involved in the editing process and a plea to save their jobs.

In a letter addressed to The Times top newsroom management, editing staff who are members of the News Guild CWA Local 31003, said that after 18 months of mistreatment by management, “we are finding it difficult to feel respected.”

During that time, copy editors and other editing staff have been tested, inspected, and, in some cases, rejected, as management tried to figure out how to make its editing staff do more with less.

They also endured restructuring experiments that didn’t work.

The final blow came when editing staff were informed that they would need to reapply and interview for the jobs that would remain after the restructuring plan goes into effect.

The letter from News Guild members includes a simple request to management: “We only ask that you not treat us like a diseased population that must be rounded up, inspected, and expelled.”

Copy editors and other editing staff ensure the quality and accuracy of the stories reported in The Times by checking facts and sources, clarifying confusing wording, correcting misleading or inaccurate information, and correcting grammatical and spelling errors.

The walkout began during the afternoon when the editing department is the busiest.

Editing staff and other employees at The Times gathered together at their usual break time, picked up signs prepared by the union, then walked out the building together.

As they descended the stairs, employees on other floors joined in the walkout, and they marched out the door together.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” tweeted one New York Times employee. “Each floor of the NYT newsroom is full of folks walking out in solidarity with the coming layoffs.”

Outside, The Times employees stood together in solidarity holding up signs that stressed the importance of the work done by the editing staff.

The job action lasted more than 30 minutes before the employees returned to work, and it received the backing of the New York City Labor Council.

“At a time when journalism is under attack, the New York Times should lead by example and protect these good jobs for its hardworking employees,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the labor council. “The Times is known for balanced, responsible journalism, and we stand with the News Guild in urging the Times to maintain the quality and integrity of its newsroom by maintaining these dedicated careers.”

The Times management has said that it wants to eliminate editing jobs in order to free up more money to hire more reporters, but many Times reporters joined the walkout and sent their own letter to top management criticizing it for its treatment of the editing staff.

The reporters’ letter calls on management to reconsider its decision to restructure the editing process by eliminating copy and photo editing jobs.

The reporters described the copy editors as “their safety net” who “save reporters and The Times every day from countless errors large and small.”

The letter also criticizes management for the lack of respect that it has shown its editing staff.

“Your plan adds insult to injury by requiring many longtime, highly skilled employees to apply and interview for a greatly diminished number of jobs, in sessions that were instantly dubbed ‘death panels’ in the newsroom,” says the reporters’ letter. “Requiring them to dance for their supper sends a clear message to them, and to us, that the respect we have shown The Times will not be reciprocated.”