Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
VW Vote Challenge Faces Legal Test
The United Auto Workers’ challenge to last month’s vote at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee may depend on whether the National Labor Relations Board rules that outside parties’ behavior qualifies as “intimidation.” The NLRB usually judges that by the five-factor “Westwood test”: whether the threats would affect all voting workers, were widely made, could be carried out by the person who made them, and coincided with the election, and whether employees acted or voted in fear of them. The UAW contends that “the threat to eliminate state incentives” if workers unionized met those criteria because it “was made by powerful political leaders who, in fact and in the reasonable perception of employees, were quite capable of putting their threat into effect.”
Seattle Minimum-Wage Activists Hit ‘Swiss Cheese’ Plan
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray hopes to unveil a proposal by late spring that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, but leading advocates of the increase suspect his proposal will have too many loopholes. The mayor’s advisory committee is considering phasing in the $15 wage gradually, exempting small businesses and nonprofits, and giving credits for health insurance or tips. “We are not interested in a measure that is 15 in name only but has more holes than Swiss cheese,” responded Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who made the $15 minimum the main theme of her campaign last fall.
Hospital Workers Push for Union in Pittsburgh…
Hundreds of people rallied in the cold, slushy streets of downtown Pittsburgh Mar. 3 to demand that the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recognize a union and pay higher wages. “Seventy-seven years ago today, the steelworkers of this community won their union from U.S. Steel,” Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, told the crowd. “Seventy-seven years later, the workers of UPMC are going to get UPMC to recognize the union for them and to give them the right to form a union.” UPMC worker Chaney Lewis said that despite having nine years on the job and special training to transport heart monitor patients safely, “I only make $11.97 an hour.” UPMC management says that they pay service workers more than other local employers do.
…And Win Contract in Altoona
Registered nurses at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Altoona voted overwhelmingly Feb. 28 to ratify a three-year contract that wins them annual raises of 2% or more. The deal preserves staffing guidelines that UPMC had wanted to make more “flexible” after it took over the hospital last July and adds a “code green” team of employees that will be available to help when nurses feel overwhelmed, said nurse Sue Delozier, a member of the negotiating team. She also said a 24-hour strike starting Feb. 11 had broken the impasse in negotiations, by showing the hospital that the nurses were unified.
It’s a Small Paycheck After All: Disney World ‘Cast Members’ Protest
Nearly 1,000 workers at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida rallied Feb. 24 to demand higher pay and better benefits. “Two-thirds of our members earn less than $10.10 an hour, so we have people living on $8 or $9 an hour, which is very, very difficult,” said UNITE HERE Local 737 President Jeremy Cruz-Haiken, which together with Local 362 represents more than half of Disney World’s 66,000 “cast members.” The two unions’ current contract expires March 29.
AFT Website Tracks For-Profit Charter Schools
The American Federation of Teachers launched a Web site called “Cashing in on Kids” Feb. 28 to track the nation’s five largest for-profit charter-school organizations. The site, cashinginonkids.com/, posts news and information about K12 Inc., Imagine Schools, White Hat Management, Academica, and Charter Schools USA. The AFT is running it in collaboration with In the Public Interest, a Washington-based “resource center on privatization.” “It's a way of calling the question: Is the rapid expansion of charter schools about helping kids learn, or about enabling for-profit operators to rake in millions in tax dollars?” AFT president Randi Weingarten said in the announcement.
Deal Averts Strike at University of California
The University of California system reached a tentative contract agreement with AFSCME Local 3299 Feb. 27, averting a strike planned for Mar. 3 by 8,300 custodians, gardeners, and other service workers at its 10 campuses. The four-year deal calls for an immediate 4.5% raise and 3% annual increases through 2016, but workers will have to contribute 9% of their pay for pensions and retiree health-care benefits. Negotiations continue with the 13,000 patient-care employees at the university’s medical centers and clinics, who are also represented by Local 3299.
Alabama Shipyard Boom Fuels New Union Campaign
A shipbuilding boom in Mobile, Alabama, may be the key to unionizing shipyard workers there. Union shipbuilding disappeared when the industry collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s, and Austal USA, an Australia-based company builds ferries and warships, has fought off organizing since it opened there in 2001. But six unions in the AFL-CIO’s Metal Trades Department have launched a new campaign there, and department president Ron Ault says that massive hiring of skilled workers is giving unions an opening. The campaign will be “a tough one,” says lead organizer Keith Maddox, but unions have won victories at other Gulf Coast shipyards, at Avondale in Louisiana and in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Teamsters Office Workers Join IBEW
The three women who work at the offices of Teamsters Local 41 in Kansas City have joined a union—Local 124 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The three said they needed job security against being replaced if the local elected new leadership. “This sets us equal with our membership,” said Nancy Yoke. Local 41 president Vic Terranella supported his office’s effort to organize, but national president James Hoffa said it would be a conflict of interest if they were represented by another Teamsters local.
S.F. Unions Declare Health-Cost Emergency
With health-insurance premiums in California almost tripling since 2002, San Francisco unions are campaigning to rein in price-gouging by insurers. “Rising costs have to be dealt with or working people will continue falling behind,” says Ian Lewis, senior research analyst for UNITE HERE Local 2, which represents 13,000 hotel and restaurant employees and has seen its insurance costs go up by 10% a year. KaiserPermanente, whose 9.1 million subscribers make it the nation's largest HMO, raised premiums by 5% for San Francisco city employees this year even though data showed the workers were using fewer health services. “This $15 million increase that went into Kaiser's pockets represented a potential 2% wage increase for each of our 12,000 city workers,” says Sally Covington of SEIU Local 1021.
Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Tennessee Pols Say They’ll End VW’s Tax Breaks If Workers Pick UAW
Republican politicians in Tennessee are threatening to end tax breaks for the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga if its employees vote to join the United Auto Workers in this week’s election. “I believe additional incentives for expansion will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee Senate,” state Sen. Bo Watson said Feb. 10, calling VW’s cooperation with the UAW “unfair, unbalanced and, quite frankly, un-American.” The three-year-old factory received state tax breaks to encourage “job creation,” but Gov. Bill Haslam believes manufacturers won’t want to move to Tennessee if it gets unionized. “In my 20 years on the hill, I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company,” said state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat.
Kellogg’s Lockout Continues
The lockout at Kellogg’s Memphis plant is now in its fourth month, as the company seeks the right to employ up to 100 percent of the factory’s work force as temporary or casual workers for lower pay than the 225 locked-out union workers. The company claims that $28 an hour union wages are not “competitive,” and that on average, workers make more than $100,000 a year—but that’s including overtime, as many workers say they get only two days off a month. “It’s simple—Kellogg’s is a highly profitable company and just wants to pay people less,” said Joey Watts, who has worked at the plant for 28 years. The company is running the plant with scabs, and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Portland Teachers Vote to Strike
Teachers in Portland, Oregon voted nearly unanimously Feb. 5 to go on strike, setting a Feb. 20 deadline. After two decades of cuts, the about 2,900 members of the Portland Association of Teachers are demanding smaller class sizes, a reduced workload, more funding for the arts, and more counselors. The city school board has declared its intention to get “aggressive” with teachers, and has hired a union-busting consultant for $15,000 a month.
Canadian Ironworkers Replaced by Foreign Temps Get Jobs Back
About 65 ironworkers laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers at the Kearl oil-sands mine in Alberta Feb. 4 will be rehired, construction company Pacer Promec Joint Venture said Feb. 7. The move came after Ironworkers Local 720 and the Alberta Federation of Labour asked the Canadian government to investigate whether PPJV was in compliance with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The program is designed to fulfill labor shortages, and companies cannot hire temporary foreign workers if qualified Canadians want the jobs—or use it to hire cheaper employees from abroad. Union members believe their replacements were being paid about C$18 an hour (about $16.25), less than half of what they were making.
Altoona Nurses Stage One-Day Strike
Nurses at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania walked off the job for 24 hours Feb. 11 after contract negotiations broke down. “The main priority is staffing,” said Tammy Morgan, a nurse in the Behavioral Health Inpatient Unit. “We’re not asking for a lot of staff, we’re just asking for adequate staff, so the nurses aren’t overwhelmed with patients. Many of the hospital’s 750 nurses, represented by the Service Employees International Union, joined the picket line, but the hospital hired 270 temporary nurses to work as strikebreakers.
Tappan Zee Ironworkers Leader Critically Injured
Peter Creegan, business agent for Iron Workers Ornamental Local 580 and vice president of the Building and Construction Trade Council of Westchester and Putnam Counties, was critically injured when he fell off the roof of his house Feb. 7 and was placed on life support. He had been trying to fix a leak. Creegan, 52, the son of an ironworker on the original Tappan Zee Bridge, was a leader of the building-trades workers constructing its replacement.
As California University Strike Looms, AFSCME Alleges Coercion
The University of California has threatened to rescind its current offer to give patient-care workers a 2 percent raise over the contract’s four-year term if they and campus service workers vote this week to authorize a strike. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, which represents both groups of workers, says that is illegal, because it would penalize the patient-care workers when the service workers would be the primary strikers. The university claims that preparing for a strike would cost so much that it could no longer afford to give raises.
Connecticut Aquarium Workers Protest Wage Cuts
Led by SEIU Local 32BJ, dozens of people protested in Norwalk, Connecticut Feb. 8 against the Maritime Aquarium’s cutting its cleaners’ pay from $15.25 an hour to minimum wage. The aquarium decided two months ago to stop hiring eight union part-time cleaners from an outside contractor and bring the jobs in-house. According to 32BJ spokesperson Teresa Candori, the cleaners were also told that they could keep their jobs only if they agreed to quit the union, a demand that is illegal in the United States.
Whole Foods Fires Worker for Staying With Son on ‘Snow Day’
About 40 people protested outside Whole Foods’ Midwestern headquarters in Chicago Feb. 5, supporting single mother Rhiannon Broschat, who said she was fired after staying home from work with her “special needs” child when city schools were closed due to extreme cold on Jan. 28. Broschat said she had called in to say she’d been unable to find a babysitter for the boy, but was terminated the next day for “abusing their attendance policy.” A company spokesperson said the weather Jan. 28 hadn’t been bad enough for that to qualify as an “excused absence.”
Keystone Pipeline Divides Environmentalists, AFL-CIO
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has often urged the labor movement to ally with environmentalist groups, but his recent endorsement of the Keystone XL tar-sands-oil pipeline and new natural gas export terminals has irritated them. “We can create far more jobs fixing infrastructure and transitioning to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources,” says Brendan Smith, co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. Trumka told reporters that “there’s no environmental reason” the pipeline “can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs.” Environmental groups argue that the pipeline would be an environmental disaster and not create many jobs, but building-trades unions, most notably the Laborers International Union of North America, want President Barack Obama to approve constructing it. The AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department has also backed a proposed liquefied natural-gas export terminal in Maryland that environmentalists oppose. But Dean Hubbard, director of the Sierra Club Labor Program, was careful not to criticize Trumka. “We share much more in common with the labor movement than the few things that we disagree on,” he wrote.
Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
UAW Asks NLRB Board for New VW Vote
Citing “a firestorm of interference” from outside groups and politicians, the United Auto Workers filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board Feb. 21, asking it to set aside the vote in which workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee narrowly rejected the union earlier this month. The 13-page appeal says “threats” made by Sen. Bob Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam, and state Senate Speaker Bo Watson were “clearly designed to influence the votes” of VW workers. The UAW now has a week to present evidence that outsiders’ statements, such as Corker’s claim that VW would build its new SUV in Mexico if workers joined the union, interfered enough to taint the election.
SC Gov Says She Doesn’t Want Union Jobs
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told an auto-industry conference Feb. 20 that she actively discourages companies that have unions from bringing jobs to the state “because we don’t want to taint the water.” “My job is to make sure that I keep kicking them out,” she told the Greenville News afterwards, saying that unions were not necessary because employers take care of their “associates.” “To keep jobs from coming here because they’re union, I don’t think she’s representing the people,” responded Erin McKee, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic opponent in this year’s election, said he supports retaining South Carolina’s ban on union shops, but “if Ford Motor Co. wanted to bring 10,000 jobs to South Carolina, we would welcome them with open arms.”
Portland Teachers Win 150 New Jobs
After preparing for a strike set for Feb. 20, teachers in Portland, Oregon, won a contract in which the district agreed to hire 150 teachers for next school year, which might reduce class sizes by more than 5%. After insisting on givebacks for months and advertising for strikebreakers, administrators finally agreed to address teachers’ working conditions, and reached a deal with the Portland Association of Teachers in a 23-hour bargaining session. The proposed contract includes more planning time for elementary and special education teachers, and prohibits the use of students’ standardized testing data to determine where teachers work or how much they’re paid. Teachers will also get a cost-of-living increase in pay, but agreed to phase out eligibility for early retirement benefits.
Postal Workers Urge Boycott of Staples Stores
The American Postal Workers Union has called for a boycott of Staples office-supply stores until the chain stops operating postal retail units staffed by non-postal employees. The U.S. Postal Service has launched a pilot program to sell stamps and send mail and packages from 82 Staples stores in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. “We’re calling for a nationwide boycott,” said Bob Gunter, president of the Illinois Postal Workers Union. “Staples pays workers minimum wage, maybe a little more, without benefits. If there’s Postal Service work done at Staples or anywhere else, it should be done by postal employees.”
Union Calls 1% Federal Pay Hike ‘Pitiful’
The American Federation of Government Employees is denouncing President Barack Obama’s plans to propose a 1% pay raise for federal employees in his budget for fiscal 2015. “President Obama has said that his upcoming budget will reflect an ‘end to austerity,’ AFGE President David Cox said in a statement Feb. 24. “But a 1 percent pay raise for federal employees who have seen more austerity than anyone else is pitiful.” Federal workers got a 1% raise in January, but their pay was frozen from 2011 to 2013, which the President portrayed as part of the effort to limit government spending during the recession. The budget will be released next week.
Boeing Machinists OK Two-Tier Contract
Boeing machinists building military planes voted 1,269-449 Feb. 23 to approve a 7½-year contract extension that cuts pay for future hires, reduces the amount of time that workers can accrue pensions, and offers buyouts to veteran workers. International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 837 President Gordon King said the vote would help Boeing bid for projects this spring and could avert more than 300 layoffs when current contracts run out. The contract covers 2,400 Boeing aerospace employees, in the St. Louis area, China Lake, California, and at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland.
Poll Finds 26% of Americans Go to Work While Sick
One in every four Americans goes into work even when they’re sick enough to infect other people, according to a survey conducted in January by NSF International, a public-health testing group based in Michigan. The survey found that 37% of people who worked while ill said they couldn’t afford to take a day off without pay, and 25% said they did it “because their boss expects them to come in no matter what.”Men were twice as likely as women to come in while sick. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40% of private-sector workers don’t have paid sick days, especially in low-wage jobs like retail and restaurants.
Chicago Professors Stage Two-Day Strike
More than 1,000 tenured and non-tenured faculty members at the University of Illinois-Chicago went out on strike Feb. 18-19 after months of failed negotiations between the university and UIC United Faculty Local 6456. The union gained recognition in 2012, but has not yet won a contract. Faculty are demanding that the minimum salary for professors without tenure be raised from $30,000 to $45,000; the university has offered $36,000. “We don’t see that as an actual compromise,” says John Casey, a non-tenure-track writing instructor who is a member of the union’s bargaining team and says he has to work outside jobs to make ends meet.
Will Kellogg’s Lock Out Omaha Workers?
With their contract expiring in May, the 500 union workers at Kellogg’s plant in Omaha, Nebraska are looking nervously at Memphis, where the company has locked out 200 workers since last October in an effort to win the power to hire employees for $6 an hour less than union scale. “The company said, gave them an ultimatum, ‘Do this or you're locked out,’” said John Dredla, a representative for the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, which represents workers at both plants, and he fears it will do the same thing at the Omaha plant where he’s worked for nearly 37 years. “What it just comes down to is greed. It's not like this company is not making money. They’re making a lot of money hand over fist,” Dredla said.
U.S. Lags Behind World in Temp Worker Protections
The United States has some of the weakest labor protections for temp workers in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In South Korea, temps have to be hired as regular employees after two years; in Germany, they are guaranteed the same wages and working conditions as regular employees; and in Chile, temp agencies can be shut down if they fail to pay wages or expose workers to unsafe conditions. In the U.S., where companies including Walmart and Microsoft rely heavily on “permatemps,” some have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years without being taken on full-time or getting benefits, and temps are also more likely to be injured on the job. The OECD ranked the U.S. 41st among 43 developed and emerging economies.
Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Obama to Raise Minimum Wage Under Federal Contractors
President Barack Obama announced Jan. 28 that he plans to sign an executive order requiring that janitors, construction workers, and others working for federal contractors be paid at least $10.10 an hour. Obama is using that power after failing to get Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 last year. The minimum will apply only under new contracts and those renegotiated with new conditions. An estimated 560,000 people working for federal contractors make $12 or less, while about 21 million workers nationally earn less than $10.10.
Pentagon Food Workers Accuse Contractor of Retaliating After Strike
Workers at Seven Hills, a company that operates several restaurants inside the Pentagon, filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board Jan. 27, alleging that it illegally retaliated against workers who went on strike Jan. 22 to protest low wages for employees at federal contractors. Robyn Law, a worker at the company’s Sbarro pizza franchise, said a manager told her not to come back for the rest of the week, and Jerome Hardy, a cook at the Pentagon's Center Court Cafe, said he'd been told to stay home without pay the day after the strike. The complaint also alleges that a manager illegally “interrogated workers with the aid of Pentagon security officials” and threatened to start charging them for meals. Hardy said he earns the same $9 per hour he got when he started eight years ago.
NYSUT Board of Directors OKs ‘No Confidence’ Vote for Commissioner
The New York State United Teachers Union’s board of directors on Jan. 25 unanimously approved a no-confidence vote for state Education Commissioner John King and the implementation of the national Common Core standards. The union will consider the resolution at a meeting in New York City April 4-6. “The commissioner has pursued policies that repeatedly ignore the voices of parents and educators who have identified problems and called on him to move more thoughtfully,” NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi said in a statement. He also criticized King for opposing a three-year moratorium on high-stakes consequences for students and teachers from state testing.”
Volkswagen and Labor Might Start a Revolution in Dixie
The United Auto Workers’ efforts to establish a European-style “works council” at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee might be the key to organized labor winning the South. Though the UAW would give up its most precious right— that of being the “exclusive representative” of workers—it could gain the ability to negotiate shift schedules, staffing, the use of temporary workers, and even determine whether people were properly discharged or promoted. “It’s a brilliant idea in a right-to-work state,” said German labor expert Michael Fichter. The spectacle of this kind of power—an enormous amount of worker control without a union being imposed as a wall-to-wall exclusive representative—might turn the world of the South’s workers upside down.
Anti-Union Group Says VW Is Top Priority
Blocking the United Auto Workers’ efforts to organize Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee plant has become the top goal for the “Center for Worker Freedom,” a front group for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Executive director Matt Patterson said the organization plans to intensify its anti-union advertising and Internet campaign in Chattanooga, and then take it to other Southern areas where the UAW is trying to organize, such as the Mercedes factory in Vance, Alabama, and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. The UAW has said a majority of VW's hourly workers in Chattanooga have signed cards requesting that the union represent them.
Teamsters Concede Givebacks at YRC Worldwide
Teamsters at the YRC Worldwide Inc. trucking firm approved a revised contract offer Jan. 26 by a 2-1 majority. The deal extends the 15 percent pay cut they received in 2009 for another five years, and also reduces the company’s pension contributions. Members rejected a similar deal earlier this month, but changed their minds after the union leadership said that YRC, based in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, would likely go bankrupt—costing more than 30,000 jobs—if it couldn’t pay off more than $1 billion it owes. “Once again, our members’ sacrifices are providing the lifeline for the company,” Tyson Johnson, director of the Teamsters freight division, said in announcing the vote.
Ohio Pipe-Makers Reject Union Bid
Workers at Vallourec Star, a steel-pipe manufacturer in Youngstown, Ohio, voted against joining the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America Jan. 23. The vote was 367-148. UE spokesperson Karen Hardin blamed the loss on an “aggressive anti-union” campaign in which the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. The union had been trying to organize the plant for almost a year. Curtis Lockwood Reynolds, an economics professor at Kent State University, said pro-union employees had little leverage because there are not many opportunities for other jobs in the area’s still-struggling economy.
Ford, UAW Agree on Plan to Avoid Mass Layoffs
Ford has withdrawn plans to eliminate an entire shift at its Lake Avon, Ohio factory, but will probably reduce the workforce by about 200 people. In a deal with United Auto Workers Local 2000 announced Jan. 27, the company will offer rotating shifts, job transfers, and early retirement packages to most of the 1,600 production workers while retooling the plant to build pickup trucks. “I feel very good about this agreement—1,408 employees will be protected,” said UAW lead negotiator Tim Rowe. The plant got a $15 million state job-retention tax credit in December 2011.
Walker’s Law Slashes AFSCME Dues Revenue
Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, the 2011 law that ended automatic dues checkoff for public workers’ unions, has dramatically reduced their income. In 2012, the amount of dues collected by the four councils of the state American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Wisconsin’s second largest union, fell by 40 percent, from $12 million to $7.1 million. Some locals parried the blow by getting new contracts from municipal governments before the law took effect, but AFSCME Council 24, which largely represents employees of state government, was the worst hit. It received $1.7 million in 2012, down from nearly $5 million in 2010. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, saw its revenue drop from $26 million in 2011 to $20 million in 2012.
‘Skills Gap’ a Convenient Myth
The idea that unemployment is high because workers lack the skills needed to work high-tech jobs is common. The National Association of Manufacturers claims that there are 600,000 unfilled factory positions, while President Barack Obama maintains that America’s manufacturers “cannot find enough workers with the proper skills.” But there’s little evidence a “skills gap” exists. Studies from Illinois and Wisconsin on welding jobs—where employers often cite labor shortages—demonstrate that welders’ wages have decreased over the past decade, and there are thousands more unemployed welders looking for work than there are projected openings. “National data on wages, hours, the ‘job gap’ (the ratio of job seekers to available openings), and the skills requirements of projected job openings reveal no evidence of a skills mismatch in national labor markets,” says University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee professor Marc Levine. “It is not the right workers we are lacking, it is work.”
Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
VW Says It Will Still Push for Works Council in Chattanooga
The vote against the United Auto Workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant “does not change our goal of setting up a works council,” Gunnar Kilian, secretary general of VW’s German works council, said in a statement on Feb. 16. Kilian said he and another works-council official would travel to the United States to meet labor law experts and “define further steps.” VW has works councils, which give employees a voice in work rules and the workplace environment, at all its plants outside the U.S. and China, and labor representatives make up half of the company’s 20-member supervisory board.
Rhode Island Announces Pension Deal
Rhode Island leaders and union officials announced an out-of-court settlement Feb. 14 that would end legal challenges to the state’s 2011 pension law. The deal retains most of the law, which raised retirement ages and froze benefits, but gives retirees a one-time 2% increase on the first $25,000 of their pension and lets employees with 20 years of service keep their existing plan instead of being switched to one that combines a defined-benefit pension with a 401(k)-type account. To avoid further litigation, the settlement must be approved by the state legislature and by the 66,000 state and municipal workers, teachers, and retirees covered by the system—the ones who sued to challenge the law.
Machinists Head Says Boeing Was Going to Move Plane Production
International Association of Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger says he was convinced that Boeing was going to build the new 777X plane somewhere else if workers at its Everett, Washington plant did not approve a pension-slashing contract extension last month. He thought that members of District Lodge 751 would reject the deal again, but that if the revote had been held any later than Jan. 3, it would have been moot. “We knew if we didn’t have a yes or no, and give Boeing a chance to cancel the request for proposals, the wing would have been built someplace else,” he told the Puget Sound Business Journal Feb. 12.
Mississippi Advances Anti-Union Bills
The Mississippi state Senate approved three anti-union measures Feb. 13, voting largely on party lines. The bills would make it illegal to “coerce” a business to stay neutral in a union-organizing campaign or let workers choose a union by card check; for picketers to block workplace entrances; and for local governments to require contractors to use union labor or pay more than minimum wage. Sen. John Polk (R-Hattiesburg) denied that the “coercion” bill was specifically aimed at the United Auto Workers’ campaign to organize Nissan’s Canton plant. Mississippi AFL-CIO president Robert Shaffer said he believed the legislation would be used to illegally intimidate union supporters. The three bills now go to the state House.
Toledo Honors Ironworkers Killed in 2004 Accident
Building-trades workers and their families in Toledo, Ohio gathered Feb. 16 to remember four ironworkers killed in 2004 when a crane collapsed while they were building a bridge on the Veterans’ Glass City Skyway, part of Interstate 280. Robert Lipinski, Jr., 44, Mike Moreau, 30, Mike Phillips, 42, and Arden Clark II, 47, all died, and four other workers were seriously injured. “There’s not a time when you don’t think about it when you go over that bridge—or around it, or see it,” said Joe Blaze II, the retired business manager of Ironworkers’ Local 55. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the project’s contractor $280,000, the maximum for four workplace-safety violations, and the company also paid at least $11.25 million in wrongful-death claims to three of the workers’ survivors.
University of California Workers Authorize Strike
Workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses and five medical centers overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, officials of AFSCME Local 3299 announced Feb. 14. “Our members seek a fair settlement, and this vote makes it clear that UC’s final offer fails to meet that standard,” bargaining team member Jose Mendez said in a statement. Key issues include employee contributions to pensions and safe levels of staffing. The union, which represents 21,000 service workers and patient care employees, including food workers, custodians, and respiratory therapists, staged two brief walkouts last year.
L.A. County Workers Get Raises
Members of Service Employees International Union Local 721 in Los Angeles County overwhelmingly ratified a new contract Feb. 13 that would give them a 6% pay increase and $500 in bonuses over the next 12 months. It’s the first raise in five years for Local 721 members, who include social workers, nurses, janitors, and public-works crews, make up about half of the county’s workforce, and generally earn between $25,000 and $45,000 a year. It came after a six-day strike by social workers demanding lighter caseloads. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the contract Feb. 24, and workers should see the first raises March 14.
Florida Workers Seek 7% Raise
State workers in Florida should get a 7% raise this year rather than the evaluation-based bonuses Gov. Rick Scott has proposed, AFSCME Council 79 regional director Hector Ramos told lawmakers Feb. 17. The 67,000 workers the union represents have had to work harder because of staffing cuts and haven’t had a raise since 2007, he said. The state has reached an impasse in bargaining with AFSCME and five other unions, including firefighters, police, and nurses, and it also wants to lower the standard of evidence needed to fire workers, Ramos added.
Wisconsin Mulls Living-Wage Ban
Wisconsin’s legislature held hearings Feb. 12 on a bill that would prohibit local governments from requiring contractors to pay a “living wage.” The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield), would affect Madison, the city of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee County, which on Feb. 6 approved an $11.33-an-hour minimum wage for workers whose employers do business with the county. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he was “very disappointed,” noting that the bill would also ban local governments from requiring the hiring of local workers on contracts that receive state or federal money.
Chicago Unions Unite Against Pension Cuts
NineChicago public workers’ unions have formed a coalition to fend off potential cuts to their pensions. The “We Are One Chicago” coalition, announced Feb. 17, includes unions representing nearly 140,000 city workers, from cops to nurses to teachers. The goal is to prevent Mayor Rahm Emanuel from pushing through pension cuts similar to those enacted in December by the state legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn. “I paid my money into the pension, and the employment contract was that I would receive a pension,” said firefighter Tom Ruane, who said he hopes to retire at the end of this year after 34 years on the job. The coalition contends that pensions could be sustainably funded by taxing suburbanites who work in Chicago and replacing Illinois’ flat income tax with a graduated one.
Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Public Unions
The Supreme Court heard arguments Jan. 21 on a suit contending that public employees should be able to opt out of any relationship with labor unions. Three Illinois workers who provide home health care to Medicaid recipients, represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, are challenging a 37-year-old precedent that nonmembers in a union workplace can be required to pay “fair share” fees to finance collective bargaining, contending that any association with unions violates their First Amendment rights. Justice Elena Kagan called that “a radical argument,” one that should not be decided by the courts. The Court’s five right-wing justices appeared sympathetic, except for Antonin Scalia, who said previous cases had held that “you can be compelled not to be a free rider, to pay for those items of bargaining that benefit you as well as everybody else.”
Labor Department Probes Florida’s Unemployment Web Site
U.S. Department of Labor officials will travel to Florida to investigate the state’s “CONNECT” Web site for providing unemployment benefits, which is so dysfunctional that some people have gone nine weeks without getting payments. State Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando) said Jan. 15 that the site, designed by Deloitte, was a “dismal failure, and Governor Rick Scott is responsible.” Florida has required people applying for unemployment benefits to do so online since 2011, including completing a 45-question online exam that tests reading, math, and research skills, and its $231 a week average benefit is the third lowest in the country. Gov. Scott’s office responded with a suggestion that critics should worry more about flood insurance rates for coastal residents.
Kellogg’s Lockout Continues in Memphis
Scabs hired through an Ohio union-busting firm now produce Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops at Kellogg’s Memphis plant. The 200 workers there have been locked out since October, when they rejected a contract that would have allowed hiring more part-time and casual employees at lower pay. Kevin Bradshaw, president of Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local 252G, believes the lockout is part of a plan to make Kellogg union-free. “If we win in Memphis, they have to wait until the master contract expires to make these changes,” he says. “If we lose in Memphis, it’s going everywhere.” “We know that what they’re doin’ ain’t right,” sanitation workers union leader Gail Tyree said at a rally Jan. 11. “And I tell you some days I get up I feel like I’m still in the 1960s.” Dr. Martin Luther King’s last campaign was Memphis sanitation workers’ successful 1968 strike.
Walmart’s Union-Busting Guides Leaked
Leaked internal documents show that Walmart’s strategy for stopping unions includes instructing managers to report suspicious activity and telling workers that organized labor groups such as OUR Walmart are only interested in collecting dues. One PowerPoint presentation, published by OccupyWallSt.org, tells managers to watch out for workers “speaking negatively about wages and benefits” and “ceasing conversations when leadership approaches.” It also suggests that they tell workers that unions are a waste of time because they can discuss their problems with management. The other, titled “What you should know about OUR Walmart,” says that the group “cannot guarantee you anything except you’ll pay” dues.
NLRB Charges Walmart Illegally Fired Workers
The National Labor Relations Board filed a formal complaint Jan. 15 charging that Walmart unfairly retaliated against workers who took part in protests and strikes against the company. The complaint alleges that the company illegally fired, disciplined, or threatened more than 60 employees in 14 states after protests organized by the union-backed group OUR Walmart in 2012. Federal officials said attempts to work out a settlement had not been successful. Wal-Mart has until Jan. 28 to respond to the complaint.
Machinists Say They’ll Try Again at Amazon
An attempt by the International Association of Machinists to organize maintenance and repair technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del., failed Jan. 15 when they voted 21-6 against joining the union. It was the first such vote held at an Amazon fulfillment center, and the company brought in a law firm that specializes in fighting off unions and forced workers to attend meetings where they were discouraged from voting to join. “The workers at Amazon faced intense pressure from managers and anti-union consultants hired to suppress this organizing drive,” said IAM spokesperson John Carr. “A successful organizing campaign often requires several election cycles before representation is achieved.”
UAW to Ask Members to Approve Dues Increase
United Auto Workers president Bob King officially acknowledged Jan. 15 that the union will ask members to approve a dues increase at its convention in June. The money, he said, is needed to replenish the UAW’s strike fundand help its organizing drive at foreign-owned auto plants in the South, most notably Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. “I think members will really support putting another half-hour into the strike fund to make that happen,” King said. If the increase is approved, it would be the first time since 1967 that the union has raised the percentage of income workers pay for dues.
Miami Mayor Vows to Veto Pay Restoration
Miami-Dade County commissioners voted Jan. 16 to stop forcing city workers to contribute 5% of their pay for health care—and once again, Mayor Carlos Gimenez vowed to veto it. “You don’t even have to ask me the question,” he told a reporter as soon as the meeting was over. The 8-5 vote was one short of the nine needed to override a veto. Union leaders accepted the cut four years ago to help the county overcome a deficit, but it was supposed to end on Jan. 1.
15-Month Lockout Ends at Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis will perform again on Feb. 7, after a 15-month lockout ended with the musicians agreeing to take a 15% pay cut. The deal, ratified Jan. 14, keeps the orchestra among the nation’s ten highest-paying, but reduces the minimum salary to $96,824 a year and the average to about $118,000. The 77 musicians will also have to pay more for health insurance. The lockout cost the orchestra its entire 2012-13 season and the services of music director Osmo Vänskä and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who resigned after it forced the cancellation of rehearsals for a Carnegie Hall residency.
Mississippi Cemetery Looks to Inmate Labor to Cut Costs
The public cemetery in Natchez, Mississippilost nearly $12,000 last year—and thenonprofit groupthat runs it is now considering using convict labor to save money on maintenance. The Natchez City Cemetery Association says it might bring in prisoners from nearby counties, because using local inmates didn’t work when they tried it before. Mayor Butch Brown, whose wife serves on the cemetery association board, has encouraged the idea.