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Weekly Digest – April 9, 2014

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Tennessee Gov Offered VW $300M to Stay Nonunion

Documents leaked to a Nashville TV station say Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam offered $300 million in incentives for Volkswagen to expand its factories in Chattanooga—as long as they stayed nonunion. “The incentives… are subject to works council discussions between the State of Tennessee and VW being concluded to the satisfaction of the State of Tennessee,” said a confidential document from last August about “Project Trinity.” “It's obvious that the state was threatening or at least intimidating Volkswagen, to get the incentives,” said UAW organizer Gary Casteel. The Haslam administration declined to comment on camera.

Senate Votes to Restore Unemployment Benefits
The Senate voted 59-38 Apr. 7 to restore federal funding for unemployment benefits for 2.8 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months. But the House is unlikely to bring the bill to the floor, although a handful of Republicans—including five from New York and New Jersey—have asked Speaker John A. Boehner to do so. “I don’t think there is a great sense of pressure on our members,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a House deputy whip. “The prevailing view in our conference is that there aren’t adequate pay-fors and it’s time for this program to come to an end.” The extended benefits were cut off in December.

Ironworkers Demand Union Jobs on Domino Project
Calling it “a clear test for the de Blasio administration,” Ironworkers Local 46 business manager Terrence Moore is demanding that the city require the developer converting the former Domino Sugar plant in Brooklyn to housing to do it with union workers. Two Trees Management Co., which plans to build more than 2,200 units of mostly luxury housing and is getting nearly $700 million in tax-exempt bonds, “wants to pick and choose which construction workers will receive adequate wages, health care, retirement benefits, and safety training, leaving other workers out in the cold,” Moore charged. He also urged that the project include more low-income housing.

NYSUT Elects First Female President
The New York State United Teachers Apr. 5 elected Karen Magee as its first new president in nine years and its first woman president. Magee’s “Revive NYSUT” slate, which included current executive vice president Andrew Pallotta, defeated the slate headed by incumbent president Richard Iannuzzi. Key issues in dispute were the union’s internal management and its response to the use of the “Common Core” standards in evaluating teachers. Delegates at the union’s convention also withdrew its support for Common Core, called for the removal of state Education Commissioner John King, and backed parents’ rights to have their children not take high-stakes tests.

Companies Cut Retiree Health Benefits
Retiree health benefits, once a mainstay of blue-collar and government jobs, are steadily being ditched by employers. In 1997, 29% of American workers had employer-provided retiree health coverage; by 2010, only 17.7% did. They were a key issue in FirstEnergy Corp.’s lockout at Penelec in Altoona, Pa., which ended Apr. 7, after more than four months. The workers returned under the company’s last offer, which cut off retirees’ benefits until they turn 65 and are eligible for Medicare. A FirstEnergy spokesperson said the company, which reported $142 million in profit for the last quarter of 2013, pays its CEO more than $8 million a year, and spent $120 million to get the naming rights to the Cleveland Browns football stadium in January 2013, didn’t “have the resources” to cover retiree benefits.

Texas Helicopter Mechanics Join Machinists
The 450 military helicopter mechanics, technicians, and maintenance personnel at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas voted Apr. 2 to join the International Association of Machinists. The workers are employed by L3, a New York-based military contractor whose workforce is about one-fifth union. “Our organizers were able to overcome the anti-union bias that is promoted in some southern states by providing concrete examples of what IAM contracts have already secured for similar workers throughout the South," said Machinists vice president Mark Blondin. The union is also planning organizing campaigns at the forthcoming Airbus plant in Mobile, Alabama, and Boeing's plant in North Charleston, S.C. 

Unifor Calls Off Toyota Vote
Canada’s Unifor union has “temporarily” withdrawn its application to represent workers at Toyota’s factories in Woodstock and Cambridge, Ontario. The move cancels a certification vote scheduled for April 7. Unifor said 3,000 of the plant’s 6,500 employees had signed union cards, more than the 40% needed to call a vote, but Toyota told the Ontario Labour Relations Board that wasn’t enough, as about 7,550 employees would qualify to be in the proposed bargaining unit. Unifor president Jerry Dias said it would continue trying to get workers to sign cards.

Dakota Building Trades Seek More Workers
With an estimated 1,400 skilled construction jobs open in North Dakota, a coalition of six building-trades unions has recently launched what it calls an unprecedented campaign to recruit and train workers. “Right now we are running out of people for jobs,” said Brian Aske, apprenticeship coordinator for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. The influx of people to the booming Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota has been followed by a building boom, said construction company owner Andy Scull. Union construction jobs there pay around $50 an hour plus benefits, compared with an industry average of $29 in North Dakota and $13-17 in South Dakota.

California Students Arrested for Picketing
More than 20 students at the University of California of Santa Cruz were arrested for picketing April 2, as a two-day statewide strike by graduate assistants began. United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents 12,000 academic student employees in the University of California system, charges that it has intimidated graduate assistants who participate in labor actions by threatening to fire them or get their visas revoked. The people arrested included five strikers and 17 undergraduate supporters. “This is a premeditated attack on workers for legal picketing, and it’s very much in line with the unfair labor practices that the strike was all about,” said doctoral student Josh Brahinsky.

Labor Seeks Ways to Handle Vaguer ‘Employment’
From fast-food workers to adjunct professors, more than 40 million Americans now work precariously in gray areas of employment status, as independent contractors or temps, or for subcontractors or franchises. This makes traditional unionization much more difficult, but the labor movement is exploring new ways to organize these workers. For example, music-video dancers—fed up with having to come in at 5 a.m. and then wait around for hours, and suffering knee damage from dancing on concrete without protective gear—recently won affiliation with SAG-AFTRA and a contract that covers all videos produced by major record labels, even though they technically worked for subcontractors. The organizing tactics they used included making viral-ready videos to share with fellow dancers through social media, and holding meetings at dance studios and nightclubs.

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