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Weekly Digest – February 19, 2014

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.

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