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.”

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Supporters call for solidarity with arrested Egyptian shipyard workers

The fate of 26 Egyptian shipyard workers facing trial by a military court remains in limbo.

In May, the workers, employed by the Alexandria Shipyard Company, were charged with inciting a strike. Eight remain in jail, 12 have so far managed to avoid arrest, and six were released on bail.

The military court trying the workers on October 18 again postponed a verdict in their case. If convicted the workers could be sentenced for up to three years in prison.

The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, an Egyptian workers center, is urging people to support the jailed workers by signing and sending an electronic message of solidarity.

The Alexandria Shipyard, which builds and repairs ships for the Egyptian navy and for private companies, is owned by the Egyptian Ministry of Defense but is still considered a privately operated business.

In 2015, Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, an army general, announced a plan to expand and modernize the shipyard, but said that in order to do so, shipyard labor costs would need to be lowered.

A year later, the shipyard’s management announced that the workers’ allowances for the month of Ramadan would be cut.

Representatives of the workers and their union on May 23 tried to meet with management to discuss the announced pay cut but were rebuffed.

Frustrated by management’s intransigence and the worsening economic conditions in Egypt, the workers held a sit-in.

During the sit-in, workers formulated a list of demands that included a pay raise to keep up with the country’s rising cost of living, payment of past due profit-sharing bonuses that hadn’t been paid in four years, better access to health care, more company investment in equipment and repairs that would make their work safer, and re-opening parts of the shipyard that had been shut down.

In response, the company called in the military police who evicted those participating in the sit-in. The company then locked out the shipyard’s 2400 workers.

Twenty-six of the workers were ordered to appear before military prosecutors for interrogation. Fourteen who did were arrested and held in a military prison.

Supporters of the arrested workers argue that because the shipyard is considered a private business, it is illegal for the workers to be tried in military courts, which provide few rights for the accused.

The military court hearing the cases was supposed to issue a verdict on October 18, but for the fifth time since June postponed its verdict.

In October, five of those arrested were finally allowed to go free on bail after they signed letters of resignation from the shipyard.

“This is an exceptional trial against civilian workers,” said Mohamed Awwad, a defense lawyer to Mada Masr, an independent online newspaper. “Many of them were employed at the company before it came under the administration of the Ministry of Defense.”

The Ministry of Defense bought the Alexandria Shipyard in 2003 when the government began privatizing many of its public assets.

The ministry has extensive business interests other than the shipyard, including ten companies involved in a wide range of business activities such as construction and agriculture. The ministry also owns 25 factories that produce military and civilian equipment, military weapons, and consumer goods such as electronics and sports equipment.

Some of these factories are joint ventures with international private businesses.

According to Egypt Solidarity, a workers and human rights organization, the charges against the shipyard workers need to be seen as part of wider counterattack by the military “aimed at reversing the democratic gains of the 2011 Revolution” and implementing austerity programs.

The government appears to be proposing austerity programs in order to attract loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

In December, the World Bank agreed to lend Egypt $3 billion, and in August the IMF agreed to lend Egypt another $12 billion on condition that the government increase its foreign reserves by $6 billion.

The IMF and World Bank also want Egypt to implement a value added tax on commodities and reduce fuel subsidies that people receive.

According Egypt Solidarity, the only way to oppose the austerity programs and the attacks on democracy won by the 2011 revolution is through acts of solidarity.

“Unity and solidarity are our only weapons in confronting tyranny and exploitation,” reads a statement by Egypt Solidarity.

FairPoint strikers show their solidarity as they return to work with a new contract

Wearing red to demonstrate their solidarity, FairPoint workers in New England returned to work on February 25. Their return ended a four-month strike that affected telecommunication services in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Before the 1,700 striking workers, who belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), returned to work they ratified a new three-year collective bargaining agreement.

When FairPoint and its unions began negotiating a new contract last summer, the company, which hasn’t turned a profit since emerging from bankruptcy in 2011, demanded $700 million worth of concessions that would have eliminated benefits and job security.

Workers said that solidarity made it possible for them to succeed in resisting most of the company’s concession demands.

“We survived on the support we received from each other and our supporters,” said Julie Dawkins, a FairPoint worker from Portland, Maine to the Portland Press Herald. “We are like family now. We are definitely stronger than before.”

Among the concessions demanded by FairPoint, the company wanted to increase workers’ monthly out-of-pocket health care cost by between $400 and $1200, eliminate their defined benefit pension, implement a two-tiered wage system that would lower new hire pay by about 20 percent, and eliminate restrictions on outsourcing, which put the jobs of all union workers at risk.

When workers balked at making these steep concessions, FairPoint walked away from the negotiations, and imposed new terms of employment that included all of its concession demands.

Workers gave the company some time to reconsider its rash actions, but in October when it appeared the FairPoint wasn’t going to change its decision, the workers went on strike.

The company made every effort to break the strike including hiring replacement workers, conducting surveillance of peaceful picketers, and slandering its own workers in the media.

But the workers stayed united.

“You held the line longer and stronger than even you thought possible,” said a message posted on the Fairness at FairPoint Facebook page. “You supported each other. You helped each other. You sacrificed and yet refused to give in no matter how hard things got. You loudly and proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with your brothers and sisters. You formed a bond that can never be broken, with people you may have never met before and those you already consider family.”

With the help of a federal mediator, the two side were able to reach an agreement that union negotiators called fair to both sides and an overwhelming majority of members ratified.

The new agreement preserves the strikers’ defined benefit pension, allows them to transfer to a union operated health care plan that provides quality benefits at a lower cost than the health care plan that FairPoint tried to impose, eliminates the two tier wage structure, and provides job protections against outsourcing.

The new agreement, however, does include some worker concessions.

The pension benefits accrued up to implementation of the new contract are frozen and beginning with the implementation of the new contract, the rate of benefit accrual is reduced by 50 percent.

New hires will have to wait 12 months instead of six months to get raises that will eventually put them at the same rate as current employees.

Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, workers had an unlimited number of sick days. Now, sick days are capped at six per year.

Retiree health care for current employees was eliminated. Those who retire within the next 30 months will be able to receive a stipend for health care expenses until they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare.

Union negotiators said that they knew that it would be difficult to avoid making concessions.

The company’s financial difficulties and pressure from FairPoint’s hedge fund investors to shift more of the cost of doing business on to the backs of its workers gave the unions little room to maneuver.

Everyone understood that “this was a concessionary bargaining session,” said Peter McLaughlin who led union negotiations to the Bangor Daily News.

But the final outcome was better than most people thought possible.

When a reporter asked Scott Boudreau, a striker attending a ratification meeting in Portland, how he was going to vote, Boudreau responded, “I am voting for it. It is a good deal. It is far better than what they were trying to ram down our throats.”

The reporter also said that as he stood outside of the meeting room where the Portland ratification vote took place, he heard cheers and chants of “one day longer, one day stronger” as members prepared to vote on the new agreement.

“It was worth it to have the struggle,” said Curtis Lawrence, another striker to the reporter. “We stood up and had the fight. It’s one thing to give lip service, it’s another thing to do it.”

IG Metall: Europe needs solidarity, not austerity

Early in December, IG Metall, Germany’s and the world’s largest trade union, hosted a conference in Berlin where trade unionists, academics, and politicians from 60 countries gathered to lay out alternatives to European austerity measures that have created such misery throughout the continent.

The main message of the conference was that solidarity rather than austerity should be the guiding principle for overcoming the effects of the continent’s current economic crisis and for building a new Europe.

“We want a Europe based on solidarity, whose citizens stand by one another during crises in particular,” reads a declaration by the conference. “We call for a Marshall Plan for the countries affected by the crisis. We want a world economic order that is rooted in solidarity, provides everyone with fair opportunities, and gives them equal life opportunities.”

Speaking at the conference, James Galbraith, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the austerity measures imposed on countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal are exacerbating the crisis and fueling desperation which could lead to a downward spiral of violence and chaos.

Galbraith praised a document published last October by IG Metall’s executive board as a viable alternative to austerity and the chaos that may result from it.

The document entitled “Change of Course for European Solidarity” proposes a new vision of Europe based on solidarity, joint liability, an enhanced social pact that improves wages and security and ends social divisions, more regulation of financial markets, and more worker participation in the economic and political decisions that affect their lives.

The document lays out an alternative economic course for a more unified, democratic, and prosperous Europe. It calls for a continent-wide industrial and economic policy that converts the European economy from one that is at the mercy of financial markets to one that is socially and ecologically sustainable. Among other things, such an economy would distribute wealth fairly, make industry more energy efficient, transition to renewable energy, and embrace demographic change. Workers and their trade unions would have prominent voices in shaping policies that bring about this change.

“Only the prospect of an economically strong, environmentally and socially sustainable and democratic Europe can help overcome the deep identity crisis among citizens in the process of integration,” reads the document.

According to “Change the Course,” the public sector needs to play an enhanced role in the new economy by making substantial investments in education, training, research and development, and infrastructure.

Economic policy that sets social and environmental targets must be made at the level of the European Union, which will soon include 28 nations, rather than national governments. The working class should directly participate in how these targets are set. At the company level, co-determination, the active participation by workers in setting company goals and priorities, must be strengthened and expanded.

A more sustainable economy would also limit precarious work, low-paid temporary employment that provides little if any social benefits. “A new order in the European labor market is called for,” reads “Change the Course. “This must not only protect and promote secure jobs covered by wage agreements, but also help to discourage (jobs) of the precarious nature.”

Another important piece of IG Metall’s new vision is joint liability for the debts that poorer European countries incurred as a result to the economic crisis.

The document’s joint liability proposal calls for richer European countries to guarantee poorer countries’ public debt that exceeds 60 percent of Gross National Product. Such a guarantee would reduce the cost of borrowing and relieve some of the financial pressure on these countries.

Since risky financial speculation brought on the financial crisis that led to Europe’s economic crisis, financial markets should be more tightly regulated. Commercial and investment banks should be separated and governments should insure only the deposits of commercial banks. Short-selling should be banned, speculative activity regulated, and high-frequency trades restricted. There should also be a financial transaction tax among eurozone members to discourage speculative trading.

In order to integrate Europe, make its economy more sustainable, help poorer countries exit their economic malaise, and control financial speculation, Europe needs to expand democracy and increase worker participation at all levels. “IG Metall calls on Europe to turn to its workers again,” reads “Change of Course. “Too many people think that politics at the European Union level serves only corporations and the lobbyists. As a result, many workers see a united Europe as a threat to their well being.”

To combat this idea, worker participation in European Union policy development should be expanded, and the EU should include a social progress clause in its charter. Such a clause would include language that safeguards wages and social benefits in the richer countries, establishes a continent-wide set of minimum social standards, ends discrimination against women and migrants, and ends the expansion of low-pay sectors and wage disparity. “The same pay and same rights for the same work in the same place must be firmly established,” reads the document.

The Berlin conference in December gave IG Metall a chance to present the vision in “Change the Course” to a wider audience and to hear other alternatives to austerity policies. A declaration issued by the conference sums up the problems caused by the old order and envisions a new way to structure economies based on solidarity and social justice.

“The financial crisis that has plagued the global economy for the last four years shows us that financial market-driven capitalism is a mistake,” reads the declaration. . . . “Those in work must not become the plaything at the mercy of the economy. The economy is not an end in itself. It has to serve the needs of human beings and should be based on values such as solidarity, justice, dignity and respect.”

Walmart workers rally for global solidarity

Workers in ten countries held solidarity demonstrations on Friday, December 14 calling for an end to Walmart’s attempts to silence workers who speak out for change at the retail giant.

At the beginning of each demonstration, people paused for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Tazreen Fashion factory fire in Bangladesh. The fire killed more than 100 workers, injured scores more, and left thousands without jobs.

Tazreen made clothes for Walmart and other retailers in the US and Europe. In 2011, Walmart chose not to help Bangladesh garment manufacturers such as Tazreen upgrade safety in their garment factories because the upgrades would cost too much. The cause of the Tazreen fire is still under investigation but problems with the factory’s electrical system are thought to be the probable cause. The factory also had no fire exits.

In the US, Walmart has pressured its domestic contractors to keep their labor costs low. As a result, workers at contractor-operated Walmart warehouses labor under unsafe working conditions and for sub-standard wages. At least one of these contractors has been found to have committed wage theft and ordered to reimburse workers for lost wages.

When workers at these warehouses have spoken out about their working conditions, they have been threatened and harassed. Some have even been fired. Workers at two Walmart warehouses recently went on strike to protest these conditions.

Walmart associates have faced similar retaliation for speaking out for change. On Black Friday in a coordinated effort Walmart associates across the US walked off the job for a one-day strike against Walmart’s unfair labor practices. The Black Friday strike and other strikes that led up to it were organized by Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR), a nationwide group of Walmart associates.

“We are inspired by OUR Walmart members who are standing up for a better future for all of our families,” said Louisa Plaatjies of South Africa, where a number of solidarity demonstrations took place. “We are will continue to stand up with our brothers and sisters in the United States until Walmart starts listening to the workers that keep the store running.”

In South Africa, workers rallied at Massmart stores throughout the country. Massmart, South Africa’s largest retailer, was recently acquired by Walmart. The South African Commercial, Catering, and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), which organized the solidarity demonstrations in that country, opposed the acquisition.

Although it was unable to stop the government from approving the purchase, SACCAWU did win a major court victory that required Massmart to rehire 503 laid off workers whose jobs were eliminated in anticipation of the purchase being approved. Walmart also agreed to recognize SACCAWU as its workers’ union.

In anticipation of Walmart’s entry into the South African retail market, SACCAWU shop stewards met last June in Johannesburg and agreed to establish a network of shop stewards to coordinate a shop floor fight to protect and improve wages, benefits, and working conditions at the stores.

Another solidarity demonstration was held in India, where Walmart is seeking to expand its presence. Members of the Hawkers Federation, a 1.2 million member union of street vendors, demonstrated in cities throughout India.

In addition to supporting Walmart workers in the US, the Indian demonstrations also condemned recent reports that Walmart executives had bribed government officials. Walmart is seeking government permission to open more stores throughout the country.

The government recently announced that a former judge has been appointed to investigate the bribery charges. Several local Walmart executives recently resigned after the bribery scandal came to light.

These bribery allegation have come on top of recent revelations that Walmart bribed government officials in Mexico and China.

During the day of solidarity demonstrations, more than 1,000 demonstrations took place worldwide. In addition to the US, South Africa, and India, demonstrations took place in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Nicaragua, the UK, and Zambia.

“The Walmart workers may come from different cultures and continents but they are united in their opposition to Walmart’s cynical and systematic squeezing of its employees to maximize profit, be it the US dollar, the South African rand, the Indian rupee, the Argentine peso or any other currency,” said Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union, an international confederation of service sector unions that coordinated the solidarity demonstrations.

“We will not be silenced,” said Jesus Vargas, a Walmart associate fired for speaking out for change at his store in California. “We are coming together to be heard and to create good jobs that workers in America and across the globe need.”

Teamsters practice solidarity actions at Republic Waste

Faced with the possibility that some of their fellow union members may lose their pensions, more than 1,000 Teamsters in 19 cities held “practice picketing” sessions at facilities owned by Republic/Allied Waste Services, the second largest private sanitation company in the US.

When contracts between Teamster locals and Republic, which reported revenues of $8.2 billion in 2011, come up for renewal, the company is demanding that it be allowed to replace the current Teamster pension benefit with a 401(k) savings plan.

Among Teamsters who practiced picketing were members of Teamster Local 984 in Memphis, who are currently working without a contract. The local and Republic have been negotiating a new contract, which recently expired.

The company wants to stop making contributions to the Teamsters’ pension fund and instead set up 401(k) savings plans for workers. It would match the first 3 percent of worker contributions to the plan and half of the next 2 percent of worker contributions.

Doing so according to union officials will save the company money at the expense of workers’ retirement security. Republic management told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that it didn’t know whether the change would save the company money.

While Republic is seeking concessions from its workers, it has been far more generous to its shareholders, including Bill Gates, who, according to the Teamsters, owns about $2 billion worth of Republic stock, making him the company’s largest shareholder.

Republic reported $149.2 million in second quarter 2012 profits, up 220 percent from the second quarter of 2011, resulting in a 7 percent quarterly dividend for shareholders.

To counter the company’s concession demands, the Memphis Teamsters voted earlier in October to authorize a strike if a new contract agreement could not be reached.

The company has flown in management personnel from around the country and has said that they will be used to continue sanitation services to Republic’s 200,000 customers in the Memphis area if the Teamsters go on strike or if a lockout occurs.

“The company is paying to bring these out-of-town guys in here and at the same time crying broke,” said Kevin Clark, a Local 984 member. “The company is making us train them, but they don’t know our routes. We pick up at hospitals. We pick up at schools and in neighborhoods with kids running around. From where I sit it looks like the company is more interested in throwing us to the curb than they are in taking care of customers and the community.”

Earlier this year, Republic locked out 80 Teamster Local 215  members in Evansville, Indiana over a similar dispute. The company wanted to replace the workers’ pension with a 401(k) plan. The workers rejected the company’s offer.

For six weeks, Local 215 stood its ground. During the lockout Local 215 members traveled to Republic facilities in other cities and set up picket lines, which fellow Teamsters and other union members refused to cross.

The one-day sympathy strikes disrupted Republic business in Urbana, Illinois, Wayne, Michigan, Milpitas, California, Richmond, California, and Long Beach, California.

About three weeks after the last sympathy strike, Republic management in Evansville agreed to suspend the lockout. The workers returned to work and the company and Local 215 returned to the bargaining table, but so far there has been no resolution to the dispute.

By organizing the practice picketing sessions at Republic facilities, the Teamsters appear to be reminding Republic that members throughout the country are willing to take solidarity actions to support other members who are facing the loss of an important benefit just as they did to support the Evansville workers.

“Today’s ‘just practicing’ picketing actions did not ask Republic/Allied employees to cease working,” read a statement issued by the Teamsters. “They were intended as a wake-up call to Republic/Allied executives and local elected officials that the company’s efforts to bully workers through locking them out of their jobs could instigate sympathy pickets at Republic facilities across America.”

In addition to Memphis and Evansville, Teamster sanitation workers practiced picketing at Republic facilities in Urbana, Illinois; Youngstown, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Flint, Michigan; Adrian, Michigan; Fremont, California; Daly City, California; Fairfield, California; Gardena, California; Long Beach, California; Anaheim, California; Revere, Massachusetts; Atlanta, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Bellevue, Washingon; and Buffalo, New York.