AT&T workers demonstrate solidarity to oppose company greed

Three groups of AT&T union workers joined together on February 11 to denounce AT&T’s greed, express their frustration with AT&T’s lack of concern about its workers, and to demand a fair contract.

AT&T  Mobility Orange Contract workers in 35 states, AT&T wireline workers in California and Nevada, and AT&T DirecTV workers rallied for fair contracts at AT&T wireless retail stores and call centers in 36 cities throughout the US. They are members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

The three groups are involved in three separate collective bargaining negotiations, and union members are frustrated with the company’s lack of respect for its frontline workers.

“AT&T is underestimating the deep frustration wireless retail, call center, and field workers are feeling right now with its decisions to squeeze workers and customers, especially as the company just reported more than $13 billion in annual profits,” said Dennis Trainor, vice president of CWA District 1. “Nationwide, AT&T workers’ resolve to win has never been stronger, and when telecom workers commit to winning a fair contract, they don’t back down.”

AT&T Mobility Orange Contract wireless technicians, customer service representative, and retail store employees began negotiating in January.

The union says that the company during negotiations has failed to address key concerns of its workers. Subsequently, 93 percent of the union members voted last week to authorize a strike.

“Americans are fed up with giant corporations like AT&T that make record profits but ask workers to do more with less and choose to offshore and outsource jobs,” said Nicole Popis, an AT&T wireless call center worker from Illinois.  “I’ve watched our staff shrink from 200 employees down to 130. I’m a single mother and my son’s about to graduate. I voted yes to authorize a strike because I’m willing to do whatever it takes to show AT&T we’re serious–the company must address these issues and bargain a fair contract.”

Since 2011, AT&T has cut 8,000 call center jobs and moved these jobs to other countries. At 60 percent of its retail stores, the company has outsourced good paying union jobs to private contractors who pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits.

The company is also seeking to increase health insurance premiums for long-term employees and to deny pension benefits for new hires.

Retail store workers want the company to increase their commissions, and all wireless workers want a fair wage increase that recognizes the vital role they play in making the company’s robust profits possible.

Orange Contract Mobility workers were poised to go on strike when their current collective bargaining agreement expired on February 11, but  on the eve of the strike deadline, the two sides agreed to continue bargaining.

While the bargaining continues, the existing collective bargaining agreement remains in effect. The union can still strike after it gives the company a notice of its intention to strike 72 hours before the strike begins.

“The union and company remain very far apart on all issues important to our members,”reads a message from the union’s Bargaining Team to union members. “The Bargaining Team is not here to settle, we are here to fight, and we feel energized by all the mobilization we see across the Orange Contract footprint. AT&T is greedy and their proposals are unfair and appalling.”

AT&T wireline workers in California and Nevada who maintain and repair telecommunications infrastructure and install and repair telecommunications equipment in homes have been negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement since April.

In addition to being frustrated with AT&T’s lack of responsiveness at the bargaining table, union workers are concerned that AT&T isn’t investing enough in its telecommunications infrastructure.

The consequences of this lack of investment were exposed in January when severe storms hit the West Coast.

According to the union, storm related outages increased by 350 percent during the January storms because the company’s telecommunications  infrastructure was too old. Workers are concerned that outages will be even worse when the next storm hits.

In addition to not investing in infrastructure, union members charge the company with not investing in its workers.

Union members are seeking improvements to their health care benefit, a benefit that was shaped in 2009 while the company was feeling the after shock of the Great Recession. As a result, worker health care costs have increased substantially. For some members, increased health care costs have resulted in stagnant or lower take home pay.

Wireline workers also want a decent pay increase. The union reports that during the last five years, company productivity increased 25 percent, but pay increased only 17 percent.

“The company’s priorities are backwards . . . because the frontline, which is the employees in the call centers, the technicians in the manholes, (and) in the houses, are the ones (who the company) gets (its) profits from,” said Armando Zepeda, an AT&T Premises Technician.

Last year, 95 percent of AT&T’s California and Nevada wireline workers authorized a strike, but the union and company have continued to negotiate.

Like their wireless counterparts, wireline workers could go on strike after giving the company a 72-hour notice.

If both groups go on strike at the same time, AT&T could be facing a strike by 38,000 of its workers.

AT&T DirectTV workers in CWA District 9 are also negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.

They joined CWA last year, and this will be their first contract. Bargaining began on February 8.

In September, CWA reached an agreement on a first contract for 2100 DirectTV workers in the Southeast and Midwest.

That contract provides for the same wage progression schedules in contracts covering CWA members at AT&T in those regions.  Those DirecTV workers also will receive wage increases every six month until they achieve the top of the wage progression scale.

The tentative agreement also provides for health care coverage; disability, savings and pension benefits, a grievance and arbitration process, and coverage under the national transfer plan, among other benefits.

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Chicago walk-ins demonstrate solidarity for public education

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union, parents, students, and community supporters on February 17 rallied before school started at nearly 200 Chicago schools.

When the school day began, those at the rallies walked to the schools together to show their support for the union’s proposals for improving Chicago’s public schools.

The purpose of the walk-ins said a CTU flyer announcing the event was to show that “we stand together to tell the mayor that bankers cannot profit while schools are cut. We demand sustainable revenue solutions for the quality education that (Chicago Public Schools) students deserve.”

CTU is currently negotiating with Chicago’s Board of Education, which is appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for a new collective bargaining agreement.

In the negotiations, the union is demanding smaller class sizes, relief from unnecessary paperwork that interferes with teaching, adequate time for lesson preparation, and services that students and their families need.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is facing a budget deficit of $500 million. Mayor Emanuel and his board of education want to address the deficit by laying off teachers, cutting their pay, and increasing their health care payments.

Instead of cuts, the union is proposing better schools and a better way to pay for them.

One of the union’s proposals is for the city to use unspent money in its Tax Incentive Financing (TIF) accounts to fund public education.

Over the years, the city has diverted billions of dollars in tax revenue, including revenue for public education, into TIF accounts to subsidize developers’ economic redevelopment projects.

The TIF Illumination Project has reported that the city’s TIF bank accounts have $1.4 billion in unspent money.

CTU in its contract negotiations is proposing that $700 million of this unspent TIF money be redirected back into CPS’ budget.

The union is also proposing that CPS and the city take legal action to recover some of the $500 million that the school district has paid in bank fees to predatory lenders.

With this and other revenue sources that the union has proposed, CPS could afford to make the improvements to education that CTU is proposing without having to cut pay or lay off educators and support staff.

At the walk-in rallies and community meetings held prior to the walk-ins, union members updated parents, teachers, and community members on the status of the union’s negotiations with CPS.

They reported that some progress has been made.

The school board agreed to less standardized testing, work space for speech therapists, nurses, and other clinicians, some paperwork reductions, a freeze on adding new charter schools, and some improvement in teacher evaluation.

The union however, rejected the school board’s proposal because it “had too many ways (for the board) to back out and not follow through with good promises.”

Also, Mayor Emanuel and his school board were not proposing a “sustainable” way to fund public schools.

In addition to using unspent TIF money and recovering fees from predatory lenders, the union is proposing a sustainable education funding structure that includes a progressive income tax, a millionaire’s tax, and a tax on stock trades.

The union also wants to close tax loopholes that divert much needed school funds into corporate coffers.

The success of the February 17 walk-ins in which thousands of Chicagoans demonstrated their solidarity for public education is the result of good organizing work.

The union began planning the walk-ins in January.

At the January meeting of its House of Delegates, the union’s governing body, delegates who represent union members at school building level were asked to take the lead in organizing a walk-in at their schools.

The delegates who volunteered to do so were given packets explaining how to organize the event.

Among other things, the packet included flyers explaining the walk-in that could be handed out to parents and community members.

Delegates were also given information on holding community meetings prior to the walk-ins. Parents, students,and community members living near their schools were invited to these meetings and given an update on the contract negotiations.

At the meetings, union members and those attending the meeting made plans for the walk-in at their schools.

Prior to the walk-ins, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool sent letters to parents describing the walk-ins as a security risk in an apparent attempt to keep parents from supporting the action. He also said that so-called “strangers” would be stopped from entering the schools.

But the scare tactics didn’t work.

Even though, school security staff prevented some parents and community members from walking into their schools, the participation by thousands was a clear show of support for the teachers and their demands for improved public education.

“This is our best one,” said Gabriel Sheridan, a teacher at Ray Elementary to the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve done it before and I think people are coming because they really do see the need to support the whole movement. It’s not just in Chicago, it’s all over, but we wanted to make sure our tax dollars are appropriately being managed to sustain the schools. It’s an important thing.”

Northwest grain traders impose “substandard” contract; longshore workers report to work but continue resistance

In the Pacific Northwest, longshore workers and a consortium of grain traders maneuvered for position as the two sides sparred over a concessionary contract that the traders have imposed on some of their workers.

ILWU locals in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, Washington have been negotiating a new contract with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a group of international grain trading corporations that operate elevators where about one-quarter of US grain exports and half of its wheat exports are stored and shipped to Asian markets.

The companies that belong to the grain handlers’ association are Columbia Grain in Portland, owned by the Marubeni Corporation of Japan; United Grain in Vancouver owned by Mitsui of Japan; Louis Dreyfuss Commodities of the Netherlands, which operates elevators in Seattle and Portland, and TEMCO in Portland and Tacoma owned by Cargill and CHS, Inc.

The old contract expired in September, but until recently, the two sides, assisted by a federal mediator, continued to negotiate, and union members continued working under terms of the old contract.

That changed on December 18 when the grain traders announced that negotiations were at an impasse, and the association was making its last best final offer. They also implied that  if union members rejected the offer, they would be locked out.

According to the ILWU, the association’s final offer contains 750 work rule changes that affect safety and pay and give manager’s more power over workers. It also makes it more difficult for the union to take solidarity actions, which have given the ILWU and equal footing with the companies when it comes to enforcing existing contracts and negotiating new ones.

“The (association) is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich,” said Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the ILWU negotiating committee, about the final offer. Sundet noted that United Grain reported $2.16 billion in revenue in 2012.

After members voted on the association’s offer, the union announced on December 24 that 94 percent had rejected it.

On December 26, three of the grain traders, Mitsui, Marubeni, and Louis Dreyfus, announced that they would impose the terms of the new contract but would not lock out union workers.

Workers had three choices: They could strike; they could cave into the grain traders demands; or they could report to work under the terms of new contract but continue to negotiate changes to the contract. Union leaders chose the third option. Reuters reports that a Federal Mediator on December 26 said that both sides have left the door open for further negotiations.

The union has suggested that it may file an unfair labor practice charge against the grain traders because there was no legitimate impasse.

The union’s contention appears to have some merit. “In essence, their ‘last and final’ offer was not fundamentally different than that originally presented in September,” said Sundet to the Seattle Times.

Furthermore, TEMCO appears to have broken with its association partners. TEMCO did not sign the statement announcing the final best last offer on December 18 nor the statement announcing the imposition of the new contract, and the company continues to bargain with the union.

TEMCO’s decision to continue bargaining seems to undermine the other three’s assertion that an impasse had been reached.

Should the National Labor Relations Board rule that the other three companies acted in bad faith by declaring an impasse, they would have to pay the longshore workers the difference between the new and old contract. If they continue to refuse to negotiate, the union could declare an unfair labor practices strike that would give members some protections against being replaced by scabs.

Prior to imposing the new contract, the grain traders hired a Delaware-based firm that specializes in providing security personnel and replacement workers during strikes and lockouts. Even though their union workers reported for work, the companies continue to pay the strike breakers’ salaries and living expenses while they are housed in local hotels.

The companies also hired a California company to provide tug boats staffed by armed guards to stop union actions against ships that dock at the elevators. One of the tug boats was stationed near ILWU Local 8’s union hall in Portland.

In addition to Local 8, Local 23 in Tacoma, Local 19 in Seattle, and Local 4 in Vancouver are also involved in the dispute.

The three trading companies felt empowered to seek concessions after the ILWU agreed to what it describes as a “substandard” contract in February with EGT, a new entrant into the grain trading business in the Northwest.

ILWU fought a difficult campaign to get EGT to recognize the union. Hundreds of members were arrested, and EGT only agreed to recognize the ILWU when the union and Occupy supporters prepared to block a ship from unloading grain at EGT’s new elevator at the Port of Longview in Washington.

The looming confrontation caused Washington governor Christine Gregoire to intervene and pressure the two sides to agree to a settlement.

As a result, EGT agreed to recognize the ILWU and pay industry standard wages, health care and pension benefits, and the union agreed to a contract that doesn’t contain all the worker protections in its contract with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.

When talks for a new contract got underway, the grain traders’ association sought the same advantages that EGT had.

But the ILWU said that the EGT contract was meant to be a starting point from which to build toward making it an industry standard contract in future negotiations, rather than a new standard for the industry.

“The Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement is a mature, decades-long contract that has made the Northwest one of the most productive export grain export regions in the world,” said Sundet. “The EGT contract will build in subsequent negotiations. The industry moguls are mistaken in thinking they can take advantage of a new competitor to downgrade their own successful contract.”

Grain handlers call for mediator to help resolve dispute with ILWU

The association representing Pacific Northwest grain elevator operators on October 15 requested that a federal mediator join its contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The union agreed to allow a mediator play a role in resolving the contract dispute.

The Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association, a consortium that represents operators of six of the nine grain elevators in Oregon and Washington in a collective bargaining agreement with the ILWU, had threatened a lockout if ILWU did not agree to concessions by the time the current contract expired on September 30.

The union refused to bow to the association’s threat, and both sides agreed to keep talking after the current contract expired.

The grain handlers are seeking new work rules that will allow it to lower labor costs. The union contends that the current work rules have brought stability and enabled productivity gains that have made grain exporting a very profitable business.

“Global grain exporters are trying to put the squeeze on the longshoremen who have worked for decades to make the Pacific Northwest grain export industry the success that it is today,” said ILWU Coast Committeeman Leal Sundet, co-chairman of the committee that negotiates the Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement. “We have an 80-year contract with these companies, and the employer is trying to undermine the standards that have made them rich. It’s critical that workers protect the gains we’ve made over the years.”

The Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes modeled after the agreement reached earlier this year between the ILWU and EGT, the multi-national owner of the Pacific Northwest’s newest grain elevator located in Longview, Washington.

ILWU and EGT fought a pitched battle over staffing at the elevator that began in 2011 and didn’t end until February.

EGT at one time sought to use non-union labor to staff its new grain elevator. The ILWU stood up for its members’ right to work at EGT’s new facility. The union organized mass pickets, temporarily stopped the delivery of grain to the elevator, and suffered mass arrests as members and union leadership fought to protect the union’s jurisdiction over the new work at the EGT elevators.

As the union and its supporters were poised to block the elevator’s first grain delivery by sea earlier this year, the dispute was resolved when the governor of Washington Christine Gregoire intervened.

In return for winning jurisdiction over the work at EGT, the ILWU agreed to some work rule concessions. For example, the ILWU, agreed, to allow EGT to hire longshoremen for two 12 hour shifts, instead of two eight-hour shifts and one five-hour, higher paid graveyard shift as is the practice at other grain elevators.

The EGT contract also allows the company to seek damages for work stoppages and allows the company to stop using ILWU members if the union doesn’t pay damages resulting from the work stoppages or if an arbitrator rules that three work stoppages have occurred during a five-year period.

There are other work rule changes that give EGT an advantage over the other elevator operators. Now, the Grain Handlers Association is seeking changes that mirror the EGT agreement.

The ILWU says that concessions it agreed to with EGT were temporary and that it plans during future negotiations to bring the work at EGT up to union standards at the other grain elevators in the Northwest.

“The Northwest Grainhandler’s Agreement is a mature, decades-long contract that has made the Northwest one of the most productive export grain export regions in the world,” Sundet said. “The EGT contract will build in subsequent negotiations. The industry moguls are mistaken in thinking they can take advantage of a new competitor to downgrade their own successful contract.”

About one-quarter of the US’s grain exports, including half of its wheat exports, move through the Pacific Northwest ports. The grain elevators, which store the grain, are owned by large trading corporations such as United Grain Corporation, which operates an elevator at the port of Vancouver, Washington. United Grain is a private corporation owned by the Mitsui Group of Japan. Last year, it reported revenues of more than $2 billion.

TEMCO, operates elevators in Tacoma, Washington and Portland, Oregon. It is owned jointly by Cargill and CHS, Inc., both are global agribusiness corporations. According to the International Business Times, Cargill in 2011 had revenues of $119.5 billion and profits of $2.7 billion.

Columbia Grain operates an elevator at the Port of Portland. According to the company’s website, Columbia’s grain elevator is “one of the most advanced export grain facilities in the world” that has achieved high rates of efficiency and productivity. The website doesn’t mention that its elevator’s efficiency and productivity were achieved while the current work rules negotiated by the ILWU were in effect.