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

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 - February 13, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Walker Caught Lying About ‘Teacher of the Year’
Late last month, Wisconsin Gov.Scott Walker told an Iowa audience that the state’s “outstanding teacher of the year” in 2010-11 had been laid off because union seniority rules. He was lying. The woman he mentioned had won a very obscure award for first-year teachers—and on Feb. 9, the woman who actually was Wisconsin’s high-school teacher of the year denounced him in an open letter. Instead of blaming the seniority system for the younger teacher’s layoff, Claudia Klein Felske wrote, Walkershould have blamed his own “systematic defunding of public education to the tune of $2.6 billion.” Noting that Walker had tried to delete legal language stating that the University of Wisconsin system’s purpose “is the search for truth,” she added, Hmm… I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about that one.” Read more

Trumka Calls Illinois Anti-Union Move Unconstitutional
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s plan to end the union shop for state workers is "unconstitutional," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told CNBC on Feb. 10. “He's saying he wants to have people that don't pay for the services they get," Trumka said on the show Closing Bell. “They get a collective bargaining agreement and all the benefits under it and he says they don't have to pay for it. What he's doing is actually unconstitutional.” If the government can force unions to provide representation for people who don’t want to pay for it, Trumka modestly proposed, then maybe workers shouldn’t have to pay taxes for the governor’s salary: “He's doing stuff to lower my wages and I don't want my wages lowered. Should I be able to withhold my taxes from him? Isn't that my First Amendment right as well?" Read more

Boston University Adjuncts Join SEIU
Adjunct professors at Boston University voted by a 2-to-1 margin to unionize Feb. 4, making it the fourth Boston-area college where part-time faculty have joined Faculty Forward, a part of Service Employees International Union Local 509. Bayla Ostrach, who serves on the BU union organizing committee, said a top priority would be to change the current system of assigning courses, in which “you don’t know until the first week whether you’re going to have class,” even if adjuncts have spent weeks preparing to teach a course. Ostrach, a 34-year-old single mother, said that last year, her first at BU, she taught six classes in three programs but was paid so little that she was eligible for Medicaid and food stamps. Read more

Kellogg Threatens to Close Plant
Kellogg Co. has threatened to close one of its four U.S. plants “in the very near future” if workers don’t approve contract changes they rejected in December. Workers at the four plants—in Battle Creek, Mich.; Memphis, Tenn.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Omaha, Neb.—overwhelmingly rejected the contract, which would have switched them to a high-deductible health-insurance plan, reduced time off, and cut pay for casual and seasonal workers in exchange for some benefits. The company urged people in those four communities “to implore local union leaders to provide their membership another chance to be heard and to preserve jobs in their hometown.” Trevor Bidelman, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union local in Battle Creek, said the about 400 employees at the plant there would not vote on the proposal again. “At no point in time at all has the company said they can't afford to pay us what they're paying,” he said. “It's just they're not wanting to." Read more

Wisconsin to Eliminate Third Shift for Prison Guards?
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed leaving guard towers at the state’s prisons empty for the midnight shift, saving 46 million by eliminating 60 jobs. The governor said having guards in the towers overnight doesn’t “provide any real additional security. That’s done through electronic monitoring.” “He's talking about replacing people with technology, which just shows he has no idea what the job actually involves,” responded Marty Beil, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, which represents the state prison system’s workers. “Walker is playing with the lives of correctional officers here and threatening community safety. It makes no sense to cut staff at correctional institutions that are already understaffed.” 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 10, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Steelworkers Widen Refinery Strike
The largest oil workers’ strike since 1980 expanded to two more refineries Feb. 9, with United Steelworkers members at refineries in Indiana and Ohio joining those at nine other facilities who walked out Feb. 1. The 11 plants account for more than one-eighth of U.S. refining capacity, and BP and other companies are using strikebreakers to run most of them without the about 5,500 workers on strike. Safety is the main issue. "Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them," Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard said in a statement issued Feb. 7. Read more

Illinois Gov Sets Anti-Labor Agenda
In his first State of the State address Feb. 4, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said that local governments in the state should be allowed to pass laws banning the union shop. The multimillionaire governor also said the state should ban some political contributions by public employee unions and weaken prevailing-wage requirements on public construction projects. “Public servants will be disappointed to learn that the governor is pursuing an aggressive agenda to undermine their rights to a voice on the job and in the democratic process,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But Democrats in the state legislature were surprisingly lukewarm. “I wouldn’t characterize anything as a nonstarter,” Assembly Speaker Michael J. Madigan told reporters. Read more

Delta Flight Attendants Prepare for Massive Union Drive
Delta Air Lines’ about 20,000 flight attendants will vote in the spring or early summer on whether to join the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, and a union spokesperson says the IAM is planning “the biggest airline drive in the history of the industry.” Delta flight attendants rejected another union three times between 2001 and 2010, but the Machinists are optimistic. The airline has added 3,000 new attendants since 2010, and a two-year organizing campaign got 60% of the flight attendants to sign union cards. Read more

West Virginia Unions Protest Anti-Labor Bills
West Virginia union members rallied Feb. 4 in the state capital of Charleston, protesting a package of anti-labor measures pending in the state legislature.  The Republicans who now control both houses are looking to ban the union shop, repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law, and set up charter schools. Repealing the prevailing-wage law, said Steve White, West Virginia Building and Construction Trades Council director, “would be disastrous, hurt local contractors, lead to wage cuts, fewer training opportunities, less people who have benefits and more accidents on the job. All for no savings of taxpayer funds.” Read more

Arkansas Court Backs Comp for Ironworker Hurt on Way to Job
The Arkansas Court of Appeals ruled Feb. 4 that an ironworker who injured his back slipping on ice as he entered the job site was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits even though he hadn’t clocked in yet. Ronnie Nabors, an ironworker in Blytheville, had fallen in 2009 while walking from the gate to the trailer where he was going to clock in, and his employer argued that he wasn’t entitled to benefits because he hadn’t been on the job yet that day. The court held that because Nabors had already put on his protective gear, he “had already engaged in employment activity” and thus had been “injured while engaged in conduct that benefited [his employer], making his injury compensable.” Read more