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Weekly Digest – January 22, 2014

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, 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.


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