Day Against Banks in Puerto Rico

June 2 was the Day Against Banks in Puerto Rico.

Organizers of the Day Against Banks were protesting the role played by banks in creating the debt crisis and the crushing austerity measures that resulted from it.

Organizers called on people to take collective actions against banks including closing bank accounts en masse, flooding customer service call centers with complaints about practices of banks, participating in agitprop performances in bank lobbies, and other actions to disrupt business as usual at the banks.

The debt crisis was years in the making and banks were at its center.

Puerto Rico has never recovered from a recession that began in 2007 after the US government ended a tax benefit to corporations that made Puerto Rico an attractive site for business investment.

According to a report issued in December by Hedge Clippers and Committee for Better Banks–two groups with strong ties to the US labor movement–banks, especially Santander, took advantage of Puerto Rico’s troubles to enrich themselves at the expense of the people.

Since the recession began, living conditions for most Puerto Ricans have deteriorated. The US Census Bureau estimates that more than 45 percent of the island’s residents live in poverty.

But during the same period, banks skimmed hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and commissions by encouraging the Puerto Rican government to engage in risky financial deals.

In 2008, Puerto Rico’s newly elected governor Luis Fortuño looked to banks to help Puerto Rico get out of its recession.

He appointed Carlos M. García, the CEO and President of  Santander Bank in Puerto Rico, to lead the Government Development Bank (GDB), the government’s financial advisor.

García brought with him other Santander executives to the GDB.

During their tenure, they advised the government to borrow heavily to pay off Puerto Rico’s bond debt and devised new debt instruments to do so.

One of their creations was called COFINA, a bond that was secured by setting aside a portion of revenue from a sales tax created and implemented by the Fortuño government.

That money should have gone toward providing services for people; instead, it was diverted into a fund used to guarantee payment on COFINA bonds.

In 2009 alone, Puerto Rico issued $5.3 billion worth of COFINA bonds used largely to refinance previously existing debt.

Some of the COFINA bonds were Capital Appreciation Bonds (CAP), which some experts have called abusive because their interest rates are so high. States such as California and Texas have restricted their use.

The compound interest rate on these bonds was between 6.875 percent and 7.125 percent.

One of these CAB deals underwritten by Santander in 2009 raised $139 million, but its final payout will be $730 million, more than five times the amount borrowed.

GDB also recommended using interest rate swaps as a hedge against future interest rate increases that would affect some of the bonds sold by the government.

But when interest rates declined, the government was forced to pay a $400 million to banks and other bond holders in penalties to get out of the interest swaps contracts. If it had not done so, the government would have lost even more money.

While the government and the Puerto Rican people were getting burned by bad bond deals, the banks that engineered the deals took home hefty fees and commissions.

Banks like Santander played the middle man in the sale of bonds by underwriting the bond sales.

Santander was the underwriter for $61.2 billion worth of bonds. Puerto Rico paid Santander and other banks more than $1 billion in underwriting fees and other fees for these deals.

While Santander and other banks enriched themselves, things got desperately worse for Puerto Rican workers.

The unemployment rate increased to 15 percent by 2015 and the island lost nearly 300,000 jobs.

Wages that were already low, remained low. The median household income is just under $19,000 a year.

But prices on basic necessities–water, power, food, and other consumer goods have increased.

The island is facing foreclosure crisis causing many people to lose their home.

And now the situation could get much worse.

After the Puerto Rican government in 2015 announced that it could no longer service the interest on its $70 billion public debt, the US government took action to protect banks and other investor bondholders.

The US was able to do so because Puerto Rico is still a colony of the US.

Legislation passed by the US Congress created the Puerto Rico Financial Control Board to oversee the island’s debt restructuring and ensure that investor interests are protected.

To do so, the board has recommended harsh austerity measures including a 10 percent cut to pensions, cuts in public workers pay, $550 million in cuts to Puerto Rico’s health care system, and cuts to public education including higher education.

In calling for the Day Against Banks, organizers of the action said that they want banks to feel some of the pain that ordinary Puerto Ricans feel every day.

“The time has come for the banks to feel the heat of a people tired of abuses,” reads an announcement calling for the Day Against Banks.

Quebec general strike ends after government orders workers back to work

The provincial government of Quebec on May 30 passed legislation ordering 175,000 striking construction workers back to work.

A general strike by construction workers that began on May 24 had shut down building projects both large and small all over the province of Quebec.

Workers walked off their jobs after negotiations between their bargaining representative Alliance Syndicale-Constuction (AS) and the construction employers’ association could not reach an agreement on a new contract.

According to AS, the employers’ association was seeking concessions that would among other things disrupt workers’ family lives and keep them at the beck and call of their employers during their time away from work.

“Employers are asking us to sacrifice time with our families to be available at work. There are limits on what you can ask of your workers, and those limits have been reached, “said Michel Trépanier, an AS spokesperson, explaining why the workers were on strike.

After the strike began negotiations between AS and the employers’ association continued, but Trépanier said that the employers did not take the negotiations seriously and instead pinned their hopes of ending the strike on a public relations campaign.

“We were laughed at,” said Trépanier describing the employers attitude toward the negotiations to the Toronto Star.

After AS broke off negotiations, an employers’ association spokesman told the media that he was surprised that AS decided to walk away from bargaining because the employers’ association had offered the workers a win-win compromise on the family time issue.

But Trépanier said that the employers’ offer was no compromise because it still required workers to be on call during much of their free time.

Perhaps one reason that employers did not take the negotiations seriously was because they knew from past experience that the government would step in to end the strike if negotiations could not produce an agreement.

After all, in 2013, Quebec’s National Assembly ended another construction workers strike by ordering the workers back to work under similar circumstances.

And that’s what happened again in 2017.

Shortly after negotiations broke off, Quebec’s Prime Minister Phillipe Couillard announced that he would seek passage of a back to work order from Quebec’s National Assembly.

AS called on its members to gather at the Assembly on May 29 to demonstrate their opposition to a back to work order.

When the National Assembly convened,  construction workers were on hand to demonstrate against Couillard’s proposal.

CBC News reported that, “riot police were called to monitor the boisterous crowd, which threw beer cans and urinated on the nearby press gallery building before thinning out by mid-afternoon.”

“People are angry, really angry,” said Trépanier to CBC, because Prime Minister Couillard’s proposal “contains exactly what the owners want.”

The demonstration caused the bill to be pulled down and reworked, but on May 30, the National Assembly passed a reworked back to work order, Bill 142,  that still gives employers much of what they wanted.

In addition to forcing workers to return to work, the bill gives workers a 1.8 percent pay increase, slightly more than the 1.6 percent raise proposed by employers but much less than the 2.6 percent raise proposed by AS.

It also requires the two sides to continue negotiating other issues under the guidance of a mediator.

It sets a five-month time limit on the negotiations. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement by then, the outstanding issues will be decided by arbitration.

Construction workers returned to work on May 31, but some were not happy with the bill that ended the strike.

“Arbitration takes away the conditions that we fought so hard for,” said Sylvain Boivin, a union representative for steelworkers to CBC. “It isn’t fair play, it benefits employers more than the unions.”

“We shouldn’t have been here today,” said Damien Leblanc, a construction worker at a work site explaining how he felt about the end of the strike to CBC.

Summer of resistance against SB 4 gets off to a loud start in Austin

In Austin on Memorial Day, the summer of resistance got underway when more than 1000 opponents of a new racist, anti-immigrant law took over the state Capitol .

Earlier in the month, the Texas Legislature passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law SB 4, which punishes sanctuary cities–those cities whose officials refuse to cooperate with the Trump administration’s intimidation and harassment of immigrant workers.

SB 4 goes into effect on September 1, and its opponents vow to spend the summer building resistance to the new law.

That resistance began enthusiastically on the last day of the state Legislature’s regular session when a coalition of groups including the Workers Defense Project, Education Austin, the local teachers union, Immigrants United, United We Dream, and University Leadership Initiative organized the anti-SB 4 demonstration at the Capitol.

In the morning, demonstrators gathered inside the Capitol around the building’s rotunda and began chanting resistance slogans such as “Aqui estamos, y no nos vamos,” (We’re here and we aren’t leaving).

Others went upstairs, occupied the three balconies that overlook the rotunda, and joined the chanting.

There were a number of union workers among the demonstrators including members of SEIU Justice for Janitors, UNITE HERE Local 23, CWA, and Education Austin. The Local labor council also supported the action.

While protesters gathered around the rotunda, another group of protesters went into the gallery overlooking the floor where the House of Representatives meet.

They filled the gallery and sat quietly as lawmakers wrapped up business on the final day of the regular legislative session.

But the quiet didn’t last.

When an anti-SB 4 banner was hung from the gallery railing, people in the gallery erupted in cheers and chants.

“We’re here to stay” and “See you in court,” they chanted as lawmakers looked up to see what was happening.

Capitol police removed the people with the banner, but as they did, more banners were unfurled, and the chants grew louder.

Finally, more police were called in and everyone was removed from the gallery.

As they marched out of the gallery, demonstrators raised their fists and were greeted noisily by supporters chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, SB 4 has got to go.”

After more chanting, demonstrators marched outside and gathered for a rally.

After the rally, they held a day of teach-ins and strategy planning for how to resist the implementation of SB 4.

SB 4 was passed and signed into law after Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick decided to retaliate against cities like Austin that chose to support its immigrant residents rather to cooperate with the US Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s aggressive round up of immigrants.

SB 4 allows the state to seek financial and other penalties against cities and local officials who don’t fully cooperate with ICE.

It also allows local police to inquire about a person’s citizenship or residency status after detaining that person even after a minor traffic stop or domestic violence call.

Opponents of the bill say that doing so will lead to racial profiling that will subject people of color to harassment and violation of their constitutional rights.

Beyond that, SB 4 will make our communities less safe, which is why police chiefs from Texas’ largest cities oppose the bill.

In an opinion piece appearing in the Dallas Morning News, Art Acevedo, Houston’s police chief, and David Pughes, Dallas’ interim police chief, said that SB 4 will drive a wedge between the police and immigrants making it more difficult for police officers to prevent crime and enforce the law.

SB 4 “will lead to distrust of police and less cooperation from members of the community. And it will foster the belief that people cannot seek assistance from police for fear of being subjected to an immigration status investigation,” write Acevedo and Pughes.

SB 4’s threat to public safety, the dangerous precedent it sets for punishing local officials that stand up for their residents, and the law’s mean-spirited nature led Austin’s city council to vote on May 16 to file suit to prevent implementation of SB 4.

The next day, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit to stop Austin’s suit.

After Paxton’s action, the cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso, and the county of El Paso pledged to support Austin in its attempt to block SB 4.

Demonstrators at the Memorial Day No SB 4 action were glad that cities throughout Texas had joined the fight against SB 4, but they weren’t waiting for a court decision.

They promised, instead, a summer of actions like the one at the Capitol because as one sign held up from a Capitol window for people outside to see said, “No human being is illegal.”

NY Taxi union wins lost pay for Uber drivers; says that Uber owes much more

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) has won a big victory over Uber, which will result in millions of dollars in lost wages being returned to drivers.

NYTWA says that Uber owes much more than the millions that it has agreed to return to drivers and that the taxi workers’ union will continue to fight to get all of the money owed by Uber to drivers.

“Uber is sending you back money it claims it took from you by mistake,” said an NYTWA message to Uber drivers. “Basically, we have Uber cornered so they are trying to pull a fast one and avoid the court and avoid paying drivers everything you are owed. Nice try, Uber. But the drivers are going to win this one!”

NYTWA on May 12 filed an amendment to an earlier suit against Uber. The original suit filed in July 2016 charges Uber with wage theft and misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The amendment charges Uber with acting unlawfully when it makes drivers pay the sales taxes and black car surcharges that are included in fares charged to customers.

A week after the union filed its suit, Uber announced that it had miscalculated its portion of the fares taken in New York City and would be returning tens of millions of dollars to drivers.

According to Uber, it calculated its commission on the full amount of the fare including taxes and surcharges when it should have deducted the taxes and surcharges before calculating its commission.

But the union argues that Uber’s offer to reimburse workers for lost wages doesn’t compensate drivers for all the money that the company owes them because drivers will still be paying taxes that should be paid by the company.

“Uber drivers are owed back the entire tax and (black car) surcharge amount that Uber unlawfully stole from you!” reads the NYTWA message.

If the union’s suit prevails, Uber will owe much more to its drivers.

The New York Times reports that after examining relevant documents, it has concluded that the Uber’s current method for calculating its commission “could have cost drivers hundreds of millions of dollars.”

NYTWA urged Uber drivers not to sign anything that the company might use at a later date to get out of returning  more money that it owes its drivers.

“When they ask for your bank account information make sure you are not signing anything that says by accepting this money you are giving up any claims for other money owed to you,” said NYTWA’s message.

 

 

Unions support Haitian immigrants; demand long-term protected status

Bowing to public pressure, the Trump administration extended the temporary protected status (TPS) of 58,000 Haitian workers living in the US, but only for six months.

The extension means that thousands of Haitians living and working in the US won’t face the threat of immediate deportations.

But they are still living in a precarious state because in six months the administration could change its mind.

Unions supporting the Haitian workers were glad to hear that an extension had been granted but criticized the short-term reprieve and vowed to continue to fight for a long-term solution.

“Forcing refugees from a devastated country to live on edge for six months is unacceptable,” said Jeremy Cruz-Haicken president of UNITE HERE Local 737 in Central Florida, where many Haitian immigrants live.  “These hardworking, tax-paying refugees support Central Florida’s economy, and they deserve long-term certainty. We’ll take these six months to fight for a long-term solution.”

Rocio Saenz, SEIU executive vice president, said that the extension was good but too short.

“Doing so for only six months – instead of the 18 month extensions that have been granted in the past – leaves Haitians with TPS in limbo, unable to plan their lives,” said Saenz.

He added that “the fight for another extension must begin immediately.”

The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program allows the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to grant temporary protected status to immigrants from countries where conditions are unsafe for them to return–countries such as Haiti.

That protection was extended to Haitians living in the US in 2010 after an earthquake devastated their country and left millions homeless.

TPS allows Haitians to live and work in the US without fear of being deported.

Since coming to the US, many Haitians have found work in the food service, hospitality, health care, and tourist industries and some are members of unions including SEIU and UNITE HERE.

Their protected status was up for review, and DHS had to decide before July 22 whether to extend or deny TPS to Haitians.

Under the Obama administration, DHS had reviewed the protected status of Haitians three times and extended their TPS by 18 months each time.

But word had gotten out that the current DHS Secretary John Kelly was considering denying TPS to Haitians because he believed that conditions in Haiti are improving.

But that is hardly the case. After the earthquake, 1.5 million people were left homeless, and seven years after the earthquake tens of thousands remain homeless.

After the earthquake, the United Nations sent peacekeepers to Haiti to provide security, but the peacekeepers brought cholera, which caused an epidemic throughout the country sickening 800,000 and killing nearly 10,000. The epidemic continues unabated.

In 2016, a category 4 hurricane hit Haiti inflicting damages totaling $1.9 billion to a country that the World Bank calls the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world.

59 percent of Haitians live under the national poverty level, which is an income of $2.42 a day.

Lifting the protected status of Haitians would have meant that thousands of people living and working in the US would be deported to a land where they have neither homes nor jobs nor prospects.

That specter led to public protests and calls for the government to extend the protected status of Haitians.

A week before DHS announced its six month extension, 2000 people demonstrated at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Orlando, Florida where hundreds of Haitian workers are employed to demand that the Trump administration extend long-term protected status to Haitian refugees.

DHS also heard from humanitarian organizations, unions, business, and elected officials urging it to extend the protected status of Haitians.

The Haitian government told DHS that the current conditions in Haiti make it difficult for the country to absorb the return of so many people.

“The legal and policy case for extending TPS for Haitians was overwhelming,” said SEIU’s Saenz. “Haiti cannot safely handle so many returning deportees because it has not yet recovered from the devastating 2010 earthquake, last October’s hurricane, or a continuing deadly cholera epidemic that was first brought to the island by peacekeepers sent by the UN to help with earthquake reconstruction.”

After DHS announced that it was extending TPS to Haitians for another six months, there was some relief but there was also anxiety that in another six months they could find themselves deported to country where their safety is in peril.

The same holds true for other immigrants who have been granted TPS, which caused Saenz to call for a TPS extension for all who came from countries still recovering from natural disasters and wars.

Saenz also said that the US needs a more enlightened immigration policy.

“We call for a new level-headed approach to other decisions affecting immigrants,” said Saenz. “Stop wasting taxpayer resources to deport persons who have lived here for years who pose no danger to public safety. Restore America’s tradition as a place of refuge, and embrace the Constitution’s protection of religious minorities, including Muslims. And overall work to integrate immigrants to our nation instead of demonizing them and building walls.”

AT&T workers on strike!

A strike by 40,000 Communication Workers of America (CWA) members closed AT&T stores across the US.

Union members went on a three-day strike that began on Friday, May 19 to protest AT&T’s lack of respect for its workers.

Despite reporting hefty profits of nearly a $1 billion a month, said CWA District 1 Vice President Dennis Trainor, “AT&T continues to pinch its workers’ basic needs and stand in the way of high-quality service (that) its customers pay good money for.”

Trainor said that AT&T has been outsourcing what were once good-paying jobs to third party contractors who pay low wages and few benefits.

He also complained that AT&T wants to reduce worker health care benefits and is unwilling to give its union workers a pay raise that sufficiently rewards them for their contribution to the company’s success.

Striking workers belong to four different bargaining units that are negotiating four different contracts.

The AT&T Orange Mobility contract covers 21,000 call center and retail workers in 36 states; the AT&T West contract covers 15,000 workers in California and Nevada, the AT&T East contract covers 2000 workers in Connecticut, and the DirecTV contract covers 2000 workers in California and Nevada.

The AT&T West contract expired more than a year ago, and the AT&T Orange Mobility contract expired in February.

DirecTV workers, are negotiating their first collective bargaining agreement. AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015.

One of the workers’ main concerns is that their new contracts protect their jobs against outsourcing.

AT&T has eliminated 12,000 call center jobs, or 30 percent of its call center workforce, in the US and shipped those jobs abroad to a network of 38 call centers in eight foreign countries.

According to a recent report by the CWA, contractors operating these call centers pay their workers “pennies on the dollar compared to US wages.”

AT&T is also outsourcing retail store jobs to third party contractors.

“AT&T has moved more than 60 percent of its wireless retail jobs to third-party dealers that create profit for the company but cause major headaches for workers and customers alike,” writes  Carissa Moore, a CWA member in the state of Washington, who audits customer accounts for AT&T.

Workers are losing good paying jobs and customers are getting poor service, continues Moore.

“AT&T’s third-party dealers are misleading and misinforming people of all ages and backgrounds in Seattle and across the country,” writes Moore. “I’ve seen customers get pushed to add products and services they don’t need, under the guise of being free, and receive unexpected charges and activation fees that weren’t disclosed that increase their monthly bills.”

The striking workers say that while the strike may inconvenience some customers in the short run, in the long run customers will benefit if more of the work is brought back in house and done by workers directly accountable to AT&T and their customers.

James Stiffey, an AT&T retail worker in Pittsburg, said that he was on strike because AT&T is disrespecting both its workers and its customers.

“Our strike is about demanding conditions that allow us to provide better service for customers too,” said Stiffey. “We are standing together to win a fair contract that protects customers, families and entire communities—and we’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”

CWA members spent much of the three-day strike picketing AT&T retail stores. Fortune reports that the strike closed AT&T retail stores from Montana, to Chicago, to Bangor, Maine.

“As a father, striking is not an easy decision for me,” said Mark Bautista, an AT&T wireline worker in California. “But to make sure I can give my kids the future they deserve, we must take a stand against any and all attempts to skimp on good jobs and financial security. And our fight for a fair contract is about more than just my co-workers and me—it’s about fighting a system that’s been rigged against us and way too many others for far too long. On the picket lines today, I’ll be chanting ‘No Contract, No Peace,’ until I lose my voice.”

Although the strike ended at 12:01 A.M. Monday morning, Bautista and other CWA members said that if AT&T doesn’t listen to its workers, they’re willing to strike again, and next time, it could be for more than just three days.

Teachers union: Wall Street puts the big squeeze on pension funds

A report by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) says that excessive fees charged by Wall Street fund managers are hurting public pensions funds.

Calling the fees an unfair transfer of wealth from working people to Wall Street, the report recommends that public pension funds renegotiate the fees that fund managers are charging and demand more fee transparency from the managers.

For many years, most public pension funds invested in traditional assets such as bonds and high quality stocks.

But during the last 15 years, pension funds have substantially increased their investments in alternative assets such as private equity funds, hedge funds, real estate, commodities, and derivatives.

The AFT report estimates that 25 percent of public pension investments are now in alternative assets.

Alternative assets have become an attractive investment because they offer higher rates of return.

The problem, according to the AFT report, is that the investment firms managing the alternative asset investments for pension funds charge high and hidden fees that substantially reduce the pension funds’ rate of return on investment.

The report, entitled The Big Squeeze, said Randi Weingarten, AFT’s president, “documents the harm to pension funds and state budgets” done by the oversized and hidden fees of alternative asset fund managers.

One of the oversized fees referred to by Weingarten is a 2 percent fee on managed assets called a performance fee. Fund managers get the fee whether the investment’s performance is good or bad. The other is a 20 percent share of gross profits that fund managers take off the top.

Weingarten said that AFT is working with pension funds to reduce the 2/20 fee structure. Doing so would save billions that could be used to make pension funds stronger.

The Big Squeeze examines 12 large public pension funds that have invested in alternative assets.

Alternative assets have become more popular because the companies that manage them have marketed them as high-return investments.

But the promised higher returns come at a price.

The companies that sell and manage alternative asset investments charge hefty fees for their services.

In addition to the typical 2/20 fee structure, fund managers also charge fees for administration, legal services, and transaction services.

We know that these additional fees mount up over time, but we don’t know by how much because fund managers won’t divulge the amount of the fees. That information, according to managers is proprietary information not for public disclosure.

These hidden fees, which can be substantial, deprive investors of information they need to know.

 

The Big Squeeze recommends that pension funds demand that asset managers fully disclose all their fees and that pension renegotiate the standard 2/20 fee structure.

The report recommends reducing the standard fee structure to 0.9 percent of funds under management and 9 percent of profits.

Had the 0.9/9 fee structure been in place, the 12 pension funds examined in The Big Squeeze would have saved $3.8 billion a year, or $19 billion over five years.

The savings and the return on investment that the savings would have generated would have gone a long way toward securing and fortifying the retirement security for millions of workers.

Some of the pension funds examined in The Big Squeeze are under funded. That is, their assets to liabilities ratio over a 31-year period is below 80 percent.

Right wing critics of defined benefit pensions have jumped on the under funding problem citing it as the main reason that pensions should be eliminated and replaced with less secure retirement savings accounts.

The Big Squeeze argues that reducing alternative asset fees and making them more transparent would return billions to pension funds and put them on a path toward full funding.

Weingarten said that there is evidence to show that cutting excessive fund management fees can help pension funds regain their financial footing.

“By calling out these pernicious practices and working closely with pension trustees and legislative allies, we’ve begun to see fees cut and fee structures for hedge fund and private equity managers exposed,” said Weingarten. “This is a win-win situation—revealing these practices means would-be fees are redirected back into retirement systems to address the so-called under funding of (pensions) and to ensure retirees can get the retirement security they’ve been promised.”