Weekly Digest - March 10, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Wisconsin Labor Eyes Tough Future
With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signing a “right to work for less” bill March 9, unions in the state are mulling their options to fight back. A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO said the federation is “looking into the possibilities” for a legal challenge, but the odds of winning one are long: Federal law lets states prohibit unions from requiring fees from all workers they represent, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a “very partisan, very political” 4-3 right-wing majority, says Paul Secunda, director of the labor-law program at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Repealing it would depend on Democrats recapturing the heavily gerrymandered state Assembly. Meanwhile, Walker and the legislature will push to repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law this week, and also plan to prevent local governments from making project-labor agreements. Read more

Illinois AG Takes on Gov’s Anti-Labor Lawsuit
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a motion Mar. 9 to dismiss Gov. Bruce Rauner’s lawsuit to void the state law that lets state workers’ unions collect “fair share” fees from nonmembers they represent. The governor “does not have the legal authority… to challenge the law in federal court,” Madigan said in a statement. “Because the governor’s case questions the validity of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, I moved to intervene to provide the court with arguments regarding the law’s constitutionality.” Rauner, who issued an executive order banning fair-share fees last month, has gotten an outside law firm to handle his suit for free. Meanwhile, several Illinois unions are challenging that order in state courts. Read more

Unions Lobby Against Fast-Tracking Trade Deals
Hundreds of members of the AFL-CIO and other unions visited more than 100 Congressmembers last week, urging them to vote against fast-tracking trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The campaign pits labor against the Obama administration, which is seeking “trade promotion authority” that would prevent Congress from making amendments to such deals. The President is working with more moderate Republicans such as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, while pro-labor Democrats are opposed. “We can’t afford another bad trade deal,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said at a rally. “We’re not going to rubber-stamp their agreement.” Hatch, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, is wrangling with ranking minority member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the panel’s ranking member, who wants any fast-track measure to let Congress end the amendment ban if members aren’t happy with a trade pact. Read more

‘Mountaineer Workers Rising’ Rally in West Virginia
Thousands of people rallied outside the West Virginia capitol in Charleston Mar. 7 to protest the state legislature’s anti-labor agenda. The new Republican majority is pushing to weaken mine-safety and prevailing-wage laws, increase the number of charter schools, and outlaw the union shop. “For nearly 60 days, they’ve conspired with their big owners and their big donors and out-of-state corporations to lower your wages and to take your benefits,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the crowd. “Richest nation on earth, at its most rich point in time, and we can’t figure out how to pay people decent wages.” Members of the United Mine Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers, School Service Personnel Association, and more came in on buses from all across West Virginia and neighboring states. Read more

Ohio Teachers Unions Aim to Organize Top Charter Schools
The Franklinton Preparatory Academy high school in Columbus became Ohio’s first union charter school last week, with teachers voting to affiliate with the Ohio Education Association. The Ohio Federation of Teachers is also campaigning to organize charters, concentrating on the minority that are doing well. “We don’t feel right in organizing teachers in a school we are trying to shut down,” says OFT President Melissa Cropper. A key issue is that the charters have high turnover and can fire teachers in the middle of the year without cause. The OFT has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that two Cleveland charters run by the I CAN SCHOOLS chain did not renew contracts for seven teachers after they tried to organize a union. “We felt scared to speak out,” says Mason Pesek, who teaches in one of those schools. “We had many expectations that went above and beyond the time we were given to accomplish them.” Read more

Pittsburgh Firefighters Reach Contract Deal
The city of Pittsburgh reached agreement on a four-year contract with the International Association of Firefighters Local No. 1 on Mar. 6. The deal gives small raises—none this year, 1% in 2016, and 2% in both 2017 and 2018—but preserves staffing levels and doesn’t close any of the city’s 30 fire stations. “The city is still dealing with financial problems but [this deal] still maintains the safety necessary for the residents as well as our firefighters,” said Local 1 President Ralph Sicuro. The union’s members voted 85% in favor of approving the contract. Read more

Weekly Digest - February 24, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Jersey Judge Rules Christie Can’t Cut Pension Payments
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie must restore $1.57 billion he cut from payments to the state’s retirement fund for public workers, state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Feb. 23. The ruling came in a suit by several government workers’ unions, including teachers and police, who said the cuts violated a 2011 law in which the state promised to shore up its underfunded pension system by putting more money in each year, and workers agreed to contribute more from their own paychecks. Judge Jacobson said the state had violated both that law and the workers’ contracts, and that it must pay the money into the fund by June 30. A Christie spokesperson dismissed the decision as “liberal judicial activism” and said the governor would appeal. "By refusing to make the required payments, the governor has exacerbated the chronic underfunding of the entire retirement system to the point of crisis," state AFL-CIO head Charles Wowkanech responded in a statement. Read more

UAW Rival Certified to Represent VW Workers
A second employee organization has been certified to represent workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, joining the United Auto Workers as a minority union there. The American Council of Employees, which grew out of the campaign against the UAW last year, now represents at least 15% of the plant's hourly and salaried workers. That gives it the right to raise questions and meet with management periodically, though not as often as UAW Local 42, which has been certified to represent more than 45% of the workers. Neither group has the power to bargain for a contract, but the UAW says it actually represents more than half of Volkswagen's hourly workers—which, should that be confirmed and recognized by the company, would make it the exclusive bargaining agent for all workers at the plant. Read more

FairPoint Strike Ends as Unions Accept Concessions
A bitter four-month strike by phone-company workers in northern New England ended last weekend, as the more than 1,700 union employees of FairPoint Communications agreed to accept a 3½-year contract with more than $200 million in concessions. Workers will get a $500 signing bonus and raises of 1% next year and 2% in 2017, and the company dropped its demand for a two-tier wage system that would pay new hires 20% less, but the deal cuts paid sick days from unlimited to six a year, allows more work to be outsourced, and will eventually eliminate paid health care for retirees. “I’m not happy that we lost a lot of benefits, no, but I’ll be happy after four months just to have a paycheck again,” said Tim McLean, a 20-year cable splicer. Read more

Upstate Nursing-Home Workers Join 1199SEIU
More than 80 caregivers and other workers at Fiddler’s Green Nursing Home in Springville, N.Y, were certified as members of Local 1199SEIU Feb. 10. The facility is the fifth in central and western New York State whose workers have joined the health-care union in the last several months. “For all my years of experience and dedication to my residents, I am not making much more than newly-hired employees,” said John Brayman, a certified nursing assistant with 24 years of experience at Fiddler’s Green. “I feel we deserve to be able to take care of our families like we have taken care of so many others.” Many upstate nursing homes have been recently acquired by downstate for-profit nursing homes and are struggling with financial issues and declining reimbursements, the union says. Read more

Minnesota Medical-Marijuana Workers Organize
Medical marijuana was only legalized in Minnesota last year, but one of the two planned cannabis-production facilities has been unionized before it even opened. Workers at Minnesota Medical Solutions, in the Minneapolis suburb of Otsego, have joined United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 and signed a contract. "The UFCW has been working on this in multiple states," said Local 1189 organizer Bernie Hesse said. "We see a real potential for development, and I'll be using the word growth a lot, which people giggle about, but a lot of growth in this industry." He estimates the state’s industry will eventually provide 500 to 1,500 jobs. Under the contract, the head cultivator will make $2,200 a week, while other jobs, from custodian to horticultural technician to preparing extracts, pay from $18 to $24 an hour. Read more

Weekly Digest - March 4, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Teachers Hold ‘Call Out Cuomo’ Rally in Massena
Several hundred people turned out Feb. 28 for a “Call Out Cuomo” rally in the northern New York town of Massena. The speakers, who included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee, stood next to a cardboard cutout of Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Massena High School and criticized his plans to give schools only about half of the $2 billion increase recommended by the state Board of Regents. Cuts in state aid over the past few years have forced major staffing cuts and elimination of courses at many North Country public schools, they said. Colton-Pierrepont Central Superintendent Joe Kardash added that the governor’s proposed teacher-evaluation system would decrease local administrators' input from 60% to 15%of a teacher’s rating. NYSUT also held similar rallies in Plattsburgh and Watertown. Read more

AFSCME President Demands Apology from Scott Walker
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, on Feb. 27 demanded that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker apologize for his remarks the day before that he was tough enough to handle ISIS because he’d taken on “100,000 protesters” against his union-busting bills in 2011. “We’re not going to stand by and let Scott Walker smear hard-working Americans, simply because they exercise their First Amendment freedom to disagree with him,” Saunders said in a statement. “To compare the 100,000 men and women who stood up in Madison and called Governor Walker out for his attack on workers’ freedom to terrorists is disgusting.” He noted that numerous AFSCME members had worked in the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks, including Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department chaplain killed when the World Trade Center collapsed. AFSCME Council 24 represents Wisconsin state workers, and numerous locals and other councils represent local government workers in Milwaukee and elsewhere. Read more

Jersey Unions to Sue Christie on Pensions
Fourteen New Jersey public-sector unions have instructed their lawyers to prepare a lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie for illegally underfunding pensions, the state AFL-CIO announced March 3. The governor’s fiscal 2016 budget, the federation said in a statement, is the third consecutive one in which he has failed to include payments to the state’s pension fund mandated by Chapter 78, “the 2011 pension law that he negotiated, promoted and signed.” “Last year, the Legislature funded the pensions according to the law, and Gov. Christie vetoed it,” said New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer. “Last month, the court ordered that legally required funding and Gov. Christie defied it.  It’s time to return to the rule of law in our state and to protect the future of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey families.” The 14 unions suing include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 1, the state’s two main teachers’ unions, the Communications Workers of America, and the Fraternal Order of Police. Read more

Thousands Gather in Wisconsin to Protest ‘Right to Work for Less’
Thousands of people rallied Feb. 28 at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison to protest an anti-union-shop bill expected to be passed by the state Assembly this Thursday. The state Senate approved the so-called “right to work” measure last week, and Gov. Scott Walker says he will sign it. “We know that when wages go down for some, wages go down for all, and ‘right to work’ will not create a single job,” Central Labor Council AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt told the crowd. Two other rallies last week drew about 2,000 people each. Read more

More Silicon Valley Bus Drivers Vote to Join Teamsters
Bus drivers at the company that shuttles workers to jobs at Silicon Valley tech firms like Apple and Genentech have voted 140-38 to join the Teamsters Union. The Compass Transportation drivers objected to wages that aren’t enough to cover housing costs and to split shifts, which often force them to stay on corporate campuses or in bus yards for up to eight hours without pay. “You work eight hours a day, but you are at the job 18 hours,” driver Tracy Kelly said before the vote. “We have drivers that live in their cars.” The vote came less than a week after drivers at Loop Transportation, Facebook’s bus contractor, approved their first Teamsters contact. It raised their wages by $5.75 an hour on average from about $17, included employer-paid health insurance and 401k matching, and modified the split-shift system.
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CSEA Celebrates End of Lottery Outsourcing
The Civil Service Employees Association declared victory this winter, when the last contract employees left a pilot program that had them doing the same job as civil-service workers for the New York State Lottery. State officials had given GTECH, an Italian company that manages lotteries around the world, $25 million in September 2012 for the program, but the last of its 20 workers left Jan. 31, CSEA reported in its magazine Work Force. Hiring 20 state employees from the active civil-service list would have cost less than $1 million over the same period, the union said.  Read more

Weekly Digest - February 20, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Walmart to Raise Its Minimum Wage to $9
Walmart, the largest private employer in the country, announced Feb. 19 that it would increase its minimum wage to $9 an hour by April. The company said that will mean raises for about 40 percent of its 1.3 million workers, about 500,000 people. Christine L. Owens, head of the National Employment Law Project, said the move was “clearly the result of years of organizing by Walmart employees.” OUR Walmart, a group for store employees organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers, has demanded that the company raise wages to $15. “Few could have envisioned a group of workers forcing Walmart, ruthlessly committed to cost-cutting, to unilaterally raise wages,” Owens added, although she said the company’s pay was still low and workers’ hours inconsistent and insufficient. Read more

Ohio Retirees Fear Fed Law Will Force Severe Pension Cuts
The Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014, signed last December by President Barack Obama, was intended to save some of the nation’s most severely underfunded pension funds, but it could mean dramatically lower benefit checks for a million or more retirees. In order to keep multiemployer pension funds—common in trucking and construction, where people work for many different employers—solvent, what they pay retirees under 75 could be reduced by up to 60%. Joe Mardula, 62, a retired truckdriver and Teamsters member from Akron, Ohio, said his $3,000-a-month pension could be cut to as low as $1,200. “My [ex-wife] and I would have to split that, too,” he added. Thomas Morneweck, executive secretary-treasurer of the Tri-County Labor Council in Akron, said he got “the big picture” on the funds’ financial state, but “allowing cuts to pensions would be unprecedented…. You don’t want to start down that road. It’s a slippery slope. The cuts keep coming. There’s no stopping them.” Read more

Kentucky County Rejects ‘Right-to-Work’
Kentucky’s Marshall County has become the first in the state to reject so-called “right to work” laws. In response to several other counties passing ordinances banning the union shop, the county’s Fiscal Court on Feb. 17 unanimously approved an anti-right-to-work resolution, drafted by Kentucky AFL-CIO president William Londrigan and local union member Howard “Bubba” Dawes. The Kentucky AFL-CIO filed suit last month in federal court challenging the other counties’ ordinances. “They’re even reconsidering in some of those counties that they might have done something that was illegal already," Dawes said. Marshall County is in the state’s west, between Paducah and the Tennessee line. Read more

Connecticut FOX Newsroom Votes to Join NABET
Employees in FOX CT's newsroom voted 35 to 17 on Feb. 18 to join the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. The union, a division of the Communications Workers of America, succeeded on its second try after a one-vote loss in 2003. The Hartford-based station had been the only last non-union local TV news operation in Connecticut. NABET staffer Carrie Biggs-Adams called the vote  “a pretty impressive testament to the desires of the people of the workplace,” saying management had run “a full-court press” to convince workers to vote no. Read more

Conn. Unions Give Gov’s Budget Mixed Reviews
Connecticut labor leaders gave mixed reviews to the $19.7 billion budget Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed Feb. 18. State AFL-CIO head Lori J. Pelletier praised the governor for keeping his campaign promise to avoid layoffs, preserving aid to local governments, and maintaining contributions intended to solidify the state pension fund. But the Better Choices Coalition, an alliance of state employee unions and social services advocates, criticized his proposed cuts to health care, including ending Medicaid for 34,000 parents and eliminating state-funded home care for elderly people who don’t require a nursing home. The budget also restricts hiring new state workers. Read more

Weekly Digest - February 27, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Wisconsin Senate Passes Union-Busting Bill
By a 17-15 vote, the Wisconsin state Senate passed a bill outlawing the union shop Feb. 25, as about 2,000 people protested in and around the state capitol. The bill would make it a crime to require private-sector workers who aren't in a union to pay dues or fees for representation, with a maximum penalty of nine months in jail. The vote went along party lines except for one Republican who voted no. The state Assembly, where the Republican majority is wider, is expected to pass the bill next week, and Gov. Scott Walker has said he will sign it. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that gave unions and businesses “adequate time” to extend union-shop contracts before the law went into effect. Sen. Jerry Petrowski, the one Republican to vote against it and a former union member, said in a statement that he was "not convinced that the supposed benefits of passing this bill will materialize and offset a potentially disruptive impact on our economy.” Read more

Jersey Unions Call Christie Pension Scheme ‘Deceptive’
New Jersey public workers’ unions are harshly criticizing Gov. Chris Christie’s pension-revamping proposal, which would freeze current workers’ plans and switch them to a “cash balance” scheme closer to a 401(k) defined-contribution plan, cut their health benefits, and eliminate cost-of-living increases for retirees. Christie announced the plan Feb. 25, two days after a court ruled that he had illegally withheld $1.57 billion in payments to the state’s pension fund. "To propose solutions to further reduce employee benefits essentially ignores the math,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, adding that the scheme "punishes nearly 40,000 law enforcement officers and firefighters who have no part to play in the state's underfunded pension plans.” “The pension plan's long-term problem has always been the state refusing to put the money in," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 55,000 public workers in the state. “No matter how many back-room meetings transpire, there won't be a solution until we address the problem by putting the legally required money into the pension.” Read more

Strike Possible in Major League Soccer
With the 2015 Major League Soccer season supposed to get underway next week, the MLS Players Union may go on strike to demand free agency. Unlike American pro baseball, basketball, football, or hockey players, their team retains the rights to their services even after their contracts have expired. “The sense one gets from MLS players is that they consider this a show-stopper in terms of the current collective-bargaining process,” said Anto Bianco, co-host of the Sirius XM soccer show Beyond the Pitch. “We are very unified and committed to what we are trying to achieve,” said Toronto FC defender Steven Caldwell, a veteran of the English Premier League. But the union’s small strike fund might hinder its ability to sustain a walkout. Read more

SEIU 32BJ Gains in Organizing Pittsburgh Security Guards
About 400 security guards in Pittsburgh have joined Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ since it began an organizing drive last August, and another 400 are expected to join in the next month. The union’s strategy is the one it used to organize janitors in the city’s downtown a decade ago, getting enough guards to sign up at different employers and then negotiating a single unified contract with all of them. Sam Williamson, district director for Local 32BJ, said 85% of the building guards in the city work for companies that have agreed to allow them to join the union, and he expects bargaining to start this spring. The guards, who now make $9 to $10 an hour, are seeking a raise and better training. Read more

Safety Core Issue as Refinery Strike Continues
With the United Steelworkers’ strike at 12 oil refineries in its fourth week, two explosions have underscored the workers’ demands for stronger safety measures and an end to outsourcing, short staffing, and forced overtime. Several workers were injured in an explosion Feb. 18 at a not-yet-struck ExxonMobil refinery in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, and there was another blast Feb. 23 at a struck refinery in Whiting, Indiana that’s being run by managers and engineers. The Torrance explosion “damn near killed leaders of our union committee,” said Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of Steelworkers Local 675. The blast also spewed toxic dust over the surrounding area, so union members and Occupy activists dressed up in hazmat suits and delivered a dump truck full of manure to ExxonMobil’s area administrative offices. “Why is it illegal to deposit organic material on corporate property,” Campbell asked, “but perfectly legal for a corporation to drop toxic materials on a community?” The strike, which began Feb. 1, now includes 6,500 workers and affects one-fifth of U.S. oil production capacity, including the country’s largest refinery, in Port Arthur, Texas. Read more

Weekly Digest - February 18, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

SUNY Cops Push for Pension Parity
Police union officials say the State University of New York is having a hard time keeping campus police officers because their pensions are inadequate compared to those of other police. SUNY cops currently have to work until they are 63 before they can collect a state pension, says Dan De Federicis, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association of New York State, while other officers can retire after 20 years. This means many officers trained at SUNY transfer out to local police forces, causing “a serious recruitment and attrition problem,” De Federicis added. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed a bill in 2014 that would have provided pension equity for nearly 600 SUNY police officers.
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Illinois AG Calls Rauner’s Anti-Union Order Unconstitutional
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Feb. 9 executive order to eliminate “fair share” fees for state employees who won’t join unions has hit a few obstacles. State Comptroller Leslie Munger, appointed by Rauner, has not yet complied with the order, and the state attorney general’s office said it was unconstitutional. “There’s no question that under the current law that fair share fees are constitutional,” chief of staff Ann Spillane told the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Munger] can’t ignore validly signed contracts.” “The governor’s actions were a blatantly illegal abuse of his power, so we’re glad to see a bipartisan confirmation that the constitution still matters,” the Illinois Federation of Teachers said in a statement. A democracy does not allow one man to implement his ideological will as he chooses, and so Comptroller Munger and Attorney General Madigan rightfully put the law over politics.” Read more

Missouri House Passes ‘Right to Work’ Bill, but Veto Likely
Missouri’s state House passed a so-called “right-to-work” bill banning the union shop Feb. 12, but the 91-64 margin was a dozen votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a likely veto by Gov. Jay Nixon, who said before the vote he’d never seen a right-to-work bill he would sign. Twenty-three Republicans crossed party lines to vote against the measure. It is not certain whether the state Senate, which also has a large GOP majority, will take up the bill this session. But Ed Martin, chair of the state Republican Party, said he believed the legislature was “making progress” toward passing a right-to-work law. Read more

How Sleazy Restaurants Steal Your Tip Money
Montana restaurant manager Laurie Zabawa is suing the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman and the Gateway Hospitality Group for illegally pocketing tip money. When the Hilton outsourced its banquet service to the Ohio-based Gateway in 2012, she charges, Gateway continued to charge customers a 20% service fee—but kept the money for itself instead of letting the servers, buspeople, and bartenders split it, as has been done in the past. Servers got a $1 an hour raise, but had to sign papers giving up their rights to the tips. When Zabara told her bosses that she believed the fee was illegal, she was fired. Read more

Texas Unions See Oil Strike Energizing Local Workers
Union members and supporters say the United Steelworkers strike at five Houston-area refineries and petrochemical plants say the two-week-old walkout, the biggest in the area’s oil industry in 35 years, might energize the labor movement in one of the nation’s least union-friendly states. “They’re tired of getting taken advantage of,” millwright Forrest Probst said at a barbecue to support strikers and their families. At ECO Services, a chemical plant in the industrial suburb of Pasadena, all 80 workers are union members, said Steve Ballesteros, president of the Steelworkers local there, and the Houston Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council reports “a surge in apprentice training.” Overall, the number of union members in Texas rose to 543,000 last year, 25,00 more than in 2013, but still only 4.8% of the state’s workforce. Read more