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Weekly Digest – April 23, 2014

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

UAW Drops Appeal of VW Vote
The United Automobile Workers announced April 21 that it was abandoning its bid to have the National Labor Relations Board order a new unionization vote at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The UAW, which lost a vote at the factory in February, had charged that outside interference had prevented a fair election. UAW president Bob King said the NLRB process “could drag on for months or even years.” The union can legally push for another election next year. If the plant expands by then, politicians’ threats that going union would kill jobs there would be irrelevant.

Mississippi Gov Signs Anti-Union Bills
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on April 16 signed three bills to limit union activities in the state, including one that would require state agencies and local governments to get permission from the state legislature if they want to use union labor on a project. “Just to be blunt about it: We just don't want unions involved in our businesses or our public sector,” Bryant said after he signed the bills, which will become law July 1. Only 3.7% of Mississippi workers are union members, one of the lowest rates in the nation.

Kansas Ends Teacher Tenure
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a school funding bill April 21 that ends the state's mandate that school districts give teachers tenure. The provision was tacked onto a bill intended to satisfy a March state Supreme Court order to reduce the gaps in funding between poor districts and wealthier ones. Brownback said teachers could still get tenure if they negotiate it with local districts. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a teacher, called the bill an effort by conservative Republicans and special interests to weaken teachers' unions. About 400 members of the Kansas National Education Association protested the bill earlier this month, saying that without tenure, they could be fired without any reason.

Pennsylvania ‘Cyber-Charter’ Teachers Unionize
Teachers at Pennsylvania’s largest online charter school have become the state’s first unionized “cyber instructors.” The 115 teachers at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, based in Beaver County northwest of Pittsburgh, voted 71-34 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “We’re paid far less than people at a bricks-and-mortar school,” said second-grade teacher Tom Strauman of Pittsburgh. The school has more than 11,000 students, and its founder and former CEO is facing federal charges that he embezzled more than $8 million from it.

7 LI Restaurants to Pay $1.8M for Wage Theft
Seven Long Island restaurants have agreed to pay almost $1.7 million in back wages and damages owed to 363 workers, the U.S. Labor Department announced April 16. The seven, Asian-food restaurants in Suffolk County and in Rockville Centre, were accused of paying workers less than minimum wage and sometimes not at all, stealing waiters’ tips, not paying overtime, and paying employees in cash off the books. “The violations found during these investigations are, unfortunately, all too common in this industry,” said Irv Miljoner, director of the Long Island office of the department's Wage and Hour division. The restaurants will also pay $115,000 in interest and penalties.

Supreme Court Lets Drug-Test Ban Stay
The U.S. Supreme Court announced April 21 that it would not hear Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that it’s unconstitutional to test state employees for drugs without reasonable suspicion. Scott issued an executive order in 2011 mandating that all of the state’s 85,000 workers take drug tests, but AFSCME District Council 79 filed a lawsuit saying that violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches, and that the state had offered no valid safety-related reason for such broad testing. A federal district court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals both agreed with the union.

One-Day Strike Wins Union for Toledo Brake-Makers
Workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, won recognition as United Auto Workers members after a one-day strike April 17. Management at the plant, which makes brake systems and struts for the Jeep Cherokee, had refused to recognize the union even after three-fourths of the 70 workers signed cards asking for UAW representation. Because of Jeep’s “just in time” parts-supply system, the strike could have stopped production at the Cherokee factory in Toledo. “I’m loving it,” said worker Sarina McLaughlin. “In 1982 I was making $10.54 an hour at a union Safeway bread plant in Houston. They only want to pay us $12.55, and that was 32 years ago; that’s all I got to say.”

Tips Become Issue in Seattle Minimum-Wage Debate
If Seattle raises its minimum wage to $15 an hour, should it be lower for workers who get tips? Bartender Bridget Maloney says yes, because she can make up to $45 an hour on weekends with tips, but Starbucks barista Autumn Brown says no, because “people don’t leave tips, or if they do, it’s usually what they get back for change.” As Washington is one of seven states that don’t have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers, the city’s restaurant industry is pushing for an exemption. But SEIU vice president David Rolf says such an exemption could “open the door to lowering the state minimum wage” and to workers like Brown making less than the minimum if they don’t get enough in tips.

Court Blocks New York Taxi Drivers’ Health-Care Fund
The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission can’t use a 6-cent fare surcharge to provide health insurance and disability payments for cab drivers, a State Supreme Court judge ruled April 11. Judge Margaret Chan said drivers could get health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. The TLC set up the fund in 2012, under pressure from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and it was about to begin operating. It would have given cabbies—who are classified as independent contractors—supplemental coverage for dental, vision, mental health counseling, and the back and neck problems that afflict many of them. “To me, it was just such a hateful decision,” Alliance director Bhairavi Desai said. “It's really missing the point of the program.”

ILA May Take Over Baltimore Local

The International Longshoremen’s Association is considering putting Local 333 in Baltimore into trusteeship for financial irregularities, including money missing from union accounts and officials using union debit cards for nonunion expenses. The local’s secretary-treasurer asked for the investigation after his feud with its president boiled over into a fistfight last November. Local 333, the city’s largest ILA chapter, is negotiating a new contract with the Port of Baltimore, and the national union is trying to get the port to lower $4 million in damages assessed after a three-day strike last October.

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