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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Israeli law center challenges UE on its support of BDS movement

An Israeli non-government organization has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against UE, a US labor union that represents 30,000 workers.

The complaint by Shurat HaDin, the Israeli Law Center, accuses UE of an illegal secondary boycott because the union at its national convention in August passed a resolution supporting the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement that seeks to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

According to Shurat HaDin, the UE resolution encourages its members to “boycott Israeli enterprises and institutions during the course of their work, similar to the BDS Movement’s public encouragement of dock workers to refuse to unload ships arriving from Israel and academics to refrain from participating in joint projects with Israeli institutions.”

UE passed its resolution 10 years after Palestinian trade unions and human rights organizations called for a global movement to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestine, its establishment of new settlements in Palestinian territories, and its discrimination against Palestinians living in Israel.

The call urged groups around the world to join in a boycott of Israeli products, to divest holdings in Israeli companies, and to support sanctions against Israel. The movement was based on a similar campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa.

UE was spurred to adopt its resolution by Israel’s bombing of Gaza during its 50-day war with Hamas in 2014. The bombings and other military action killed 1,462 civilians, 495 of whom were children.

UE’s resolution urges the US government to end military aid to Israel and to pressure Israel to negotiate a peace agreement “on the basis of equality, democracy, and human rights for Palestinian and Israeli people, including Palestinian self determination and the right of return for refugees.”

The resolution also endorses the BDS movement and urges other unions “to become engaged in BDS and the movement for peace, justice and equality between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Shurat HaDin is seeking an injunction that forces UE to withdraw its resolution.

Shurat HaDin also sent a letter to GE CEO  Jeffrey R. Immelt urging him to “rescind its recently concluded labor agreement with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE).” The letter also warns GE that it could face “severe criminal and civil liability” if UE continues to support the BDS movement.

UE and GE are not the only two organizations that have been challenged by Shurat HaDin.

In 2014, it accused Oxfam, the worldwide anti-hunger non-governmental organization, of funding the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an organization identified by the US as a terrorist organization.

According to Shurat HaDin, Oxfam is a donor to the Palestinian Union of Health Workers Committees (UHWC) and the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC), both of which Shura HaDin says are front organizations of the PFLP.

The NGO Monitor reports that UAWC is an organization of “volunteers and agronomists” whose aim is to make Palestine a food secure country that is free and governed democratically. It is also wants to enable “farmers both male and female to contribute effectively in all aspects of life.”

In addition to receiving funds from Oxfam, UAWC receives funding from the European Union, Catholic Relief Charities, Orthodox Christian Charities, Action Against Hunger, and others.

The Union of Health Workers Committees provides primary and secondary health care services to people in Palestine especially the poor and marginalized.

According to UHWC, UHWC and Oxfam have had a very strong relationship and partnership since 2006 where both parties have implemented programs and projects to provide essential and emergency health services to the needy Palestinians.”

The Electronic Intifada reports that Shurat HaDin is linked to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.

One of its purposes is to engage in “lawfare,”  “the use of international law with the intention of damaging an opponent.”

UE appears to be undeterred by the challenge to its resolution supporting the BDS movement.

“There is a long tradition of nonviolent protest against human rights abuses that includes boycotts,” said Leah Fried  UE’s director of international strategies to The Electronic Intifada. “This attempt to end that peaceful protest with a charge filed at the National Labor Relations Board is not founded in law and will surely be dismissed.”

GE and unions begin bargaining; company takes a hard line

The first week of negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between GE and its US unions wrapped up on June 5.

Union representatives attending the negotiations in New York City said that GE is willfully ignoring the important role that its workers have played in the company’s success over the last four years.

“The company has come out with a lot of information,” said Fred Harris, recording secretary for UE Local 601, who has been sitting at the bargaining table. “They basically said that they have a lot of money, but they want to keep the money. They don’t want to share it with the worker who produced the money.”

GE is bargaining with the Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC), a coalition of 11 unions whose members work for GE in the US. The two unions with the most members at GE are UE and IUE-CWA, and they are taking the lead during the negotiations.

The CBC is proposing a fair wage increase that reflects the important contribution that the workers have made to GE’s success and improves members’ standard of living.

It also wants

  • a health care plan that provides uncomplicated access to quality health care like the plan they had before the latest collective bargaining agreement went into effect,
  • a defined benefit pension plan that provides retirement security for all employees, including those hired after January 1, 2012, who the company has barred from participating in the pension plan, and
  • protections from outsourcing, which GE is using to lower labor costs and weaken the bargaining position of its union workers.

UE General President Bruce Kipple said that in 2011, the last time that the CBC and GE negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, GE took advantage of the unions’ unfavorable bargaining position to “overreach,” which resulted in a roll back of health care and pension benefits and inadequate wage increases.

The union’s unfavorable bargaining position at the time was caused by GE’s financial instability, largely the result of management’s decision to enter the financial services business, a decision that nearly caused GE to crater after the 2008 financial crisis.

“Our members will not stand for another round of one-sided negotiations!” said Kipple during his opening remarks as the negotiations began. “We come to the bargaining table with proposals that push back against the company’s overreach of 2011.”

But as union representatives  presented their case for a fair contract during the opening week of negotiations, GE management appeared to be unmoved.

In one such presentation, union representatives described the problems that the company’s new health care plan has created.

“People are having all sorts of problems with this health care system,” said Sherice Stark, business agent for UE Local 332 during a break from the negotiations. “It’s too hard to use; it’s complicated; it’s expensive. (GE management) seem to shrug their shoulders and agree with us, but I haven’t seen any answers for this yet.”

The average union GE worker is paying 2.4 percent more for health care than they paid in 2011, which has resulted in a $21 million health care cost shift to workers.

The higher health care costs have eaten into take home pay.

According to a calculation made by UE researchers, after rising health care costs and inflation are taken into account, workers pay at GE went up only 0.52 percent a year.

At the same time that pay stagnated for workers, GE profits rose at a healthy clip.

In 2010, GE reported profits of $14 billion; four years later, it reported profits of nearly $18 billion, up by more than 25 percent.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt fared much better during this four-year period than the workers who made these profits possible.

In 2010, Immelt was paid $21.5 million in compensation; in 2014, his annual compensation soared by 73 percent to $37.25 million.

While the last four years have been good to Immelt and GE, the future looks even brighter.

GE representatives told union bargainers that the company has $250 billion worth of back orders booked, and most of those orders are for Tier 4 locomotives, LEAP aircraft engines, and H-class turbines, all of which are made by union workers.

The rosy outlook has led GE to announce that it will spend $50 billion to buy back stock shares, which will make wealthy investors even wealthier.

While GE seems more than ready and able to share its wealth with top executives and wealthy investors, it’s bargaining position so far suggests that it has a different agenda for workers.

As a result, this year’s bargaining will be as difficult as any since GE recognized its first union in 1938, and it may take more than hard bargaining to win a fair contract for GE workers.

GE insists on moving work to low-wage Texas, UE vows to “keep it made in Erie”

Despite robust and growing profits, GE Transportation continues to seek ways to drive down labor costs. GE’s quest for cheaper labor has put it on a collision course with UE Local 506 members who make locomotives and off-highway vehicles at the GE plant in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Local 506 President Scott Duke announced on June 23 that the union and GE had been unable to reach an agreement on how to save 950 good paying union jobs at the Erie plant, which employs about 5,000 people.

GE plans to ship those jobs to its non-union plant in Fort Worth, Texas where the average wage is about $10 an hour less than the wages paid at the Erie plant.

Duke said that despite the lack of an agreement, Local 506 leaders and members remain committed to saving the jobs at Erie. “We are now evaluating all possible options,” said Duke. “UE officials will be speaking to company officials on Monday.”

Duke did not elaborate on what union officials and GE management would be talking about on Monday.

Duke said that UE’s campaign to keep the jobs in Erie would continue and that Local 506 leaders would meet immediately to consider the union’s next move, which may include “pursuing existing NLRB charges, additional legal challenges, and all possible labor actions.”

After signing the current collective bargaining agreement with Local 506, GE Transportation in 2011 doubled its 2010 profits to more than $750 million. In 2012, GE Transportation reported a profit of $1 billion.

But in April, GE executives told the union that it was moving some of the work done in Erie to Fort Worth.

Union officials began negotiating with GE to save the jobs and mounted a multi-pronged campaign to keep the jobs in Erie. The theme of the campaign is “Keep it made in Erie.”

During negotiations, the union proposed work rule and other efficiency changes that would save GE $26 million.

In a message to members dated June 18, UE Local 506 said that “the savings will be achieved by correcting the parts-flow issue in the plant, reducing absenteeism, rearranging the break schedule, and eliminating costly severance and retraining costs that would be caused by the job cutbacks which GE proposed on April 9. The union’s proposal requires the company to guarantee that none of the 950 jobs can be moved prior to June 21, 2015, when the UE-GE National Agreement expires.”

But GE refused Local 506’s cost saving proposal and instead demanded that the union agree to a wage freeze and a two-tiered wage system that would reduce wages for newly hired workers.

“We met with our members last week and they strongly instructed us not to accept the wage freezes, two-tier wages, mandatory overtime, and other types of wage cutting demanded by GE, said Duke.

GE during negotiations has insisted that the purpose of transferring work to Fort Worth was to improve efficiency, not to cut wages.

But an independent study by the accounting firm of Schaffner, Knight, Minnaugh and Co. given to the company last week by Local 506 finds that locomotion production at the Erie plant is twice as efficient as the same production in Fort Worth. The study also finds that off-highway vehicle production is more efficient in Erie.

The study’s findings appear to discredit GE’s assertion about its motive for moving work to Fort Worth.

Duke on Sunday said that Local 506 members feel betrayed by the company.

“GE Transportation made billions of dollars largely from our labor and leads the world in locomotive production, winning (the) GE business of the year (award in 2012),” said Duke.  “We helped them win the Super Bowl and all along they were planning to fire the team. They engaged in the secret transfer of work while we were helping them make those profits.  This whole bargaining process was an attempt to get us to approve something that they had already started to carry out.”

Because of the current collective bargaining agreement, the jobs cannot be moved to Fort Worth until October.

Despite rising profits, GE plans to eliminate more good paying jobs

At its recent meeting, the General Executive Board of UE, America’s largest independent union, announced that May 31 will be a day of  solidarity actions to support 3,500 members of UE Local 506 at the GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. UE will hold solidarity demonstrations in each of its three regions to protest GE’s plan to eliminate as many as 950 union jobs in Erie and move the work to a non-union GE plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The main solidarity demonstration will take place at GE’s Erie plant.

The solidarity actions are part of a multi-pronged campaign to save good-paying union jobs in Erie. The campaign will include work floor actions, grievances, legal actions, media and community outreach, and a petition that will give supporters all over the globe a chance to protest the job cuts in Erie. UE Local 506, which represents production workers in Erie, has named the campaign, “Keep It Made in Erie.”

GE Transportation makes locomotives and wheel motors for large mining trucks at its Erie factory. The Erie plant also serves as the global headquarters for GE Transportation.

The work done by members of Local 506 have helped make GE Transportation quite profitable. In 2011, GE Transportation’s reported a profit of $757 million, double what it reported in 2010. In 2012, profits rose another 36 percent to $1 billion.

That trend continued through the first quarter of 2012 when GE Transportation reported a 12 percent increase in revenue and a 15 percent increase in profit over the previous year’s first quarter.

Despite the company’s profitability, GE is seeking to lower its labor costs by moving some of the work done in Erie to Fort Worth where the average pay for a GE production worker is about $10 an hour less than in Erie.

When GE and UE agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the company told the union that its new Fort Worth plant was only intended to handle overflow work at the Erie plant and that the work in Erie would not be affected.

But on April 9, GE Transportation announced its plan to move work from Erie to Fort Worth.

UE responded a week later with a rally of more than 2,000 workers at the Erie plant’s main gate.

“I see a lot of people here who have dedicated their whole lives to GE,” said Wayne Burnett, Local 506 business agent, as he spoke at the rally. “I see children in strollers who might have a job here someday. I see people who have made this plant the most successful in the GE chain. Is this our reward?” GE needs to learn “that we are the ones who put you where you are today.” He added that the loss of jobs affects more than just 950 people, “but thousands of people in Pennsylvania and the tri-state area.” He concluded, “This cannot happen!”

Scott Duke, newly elected Local 506 president, urged members to resist GE’s attack on their jobs and wages and reminded workers that their good jobs and good wages were the result of union struggles that spanned generations of workers. “Your paycheck may say GE on it,” said Duke. “But never forget that those are union wages.”

Local 506 and representatives of GE Transportation have held negotiations about the work transfer.

According to reports made to Local 506 members, GE representatives told Local 506 negotiators that the company wants the union to propose wage concessions to keep the work in Erie. Union bargainers responded that the union will not propose any wage cuts, freezes, or reductions.

The negotiation deadline has been extended from June 8 to June 22.