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Weekly Digest – November 21, 2013

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

L.A. Port Truckers Strike
About 100 truckdrivers from three companies serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach went on strike at 5 a.m. Nov. 18. Drivers for Green Fleet Systems object to being paid piecework, by the load, and to the company retaliating against their efforts to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Drivers for Pacific 9 Transportation object to the company classifying them as independent contractors so it can charge them for operating costs, such as leasing the truck, gas, insurance, and repairs—deductions that reduced one driver’s weekly pay to $12.90. “They've taken from us everything that a human being needs to have a decent life,” said Daniel Linares, a Pacific 9 driver for seven years.

BART Tries to Renege on Contract’s Family-Leave Provision

Claiming a family-leave provision was a “mistake,” Bay Area Rapid Transit management announced Nov. 15 that it wants to renegotiate the contract that ended a four-day strike in October. The provision gives workers up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent. BART officials say it could cost $11 million a year and they did not intend to include it. Antonette Bryant, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, responded that the policy would only cost around $1.4 million a year, and that it was “the height of incompetence” for management to risk shutting the transit system down again over that amount.

Bangladesh Workers Get a Raise—To $67 a Month

Garment manufacturers in Bangladesh have agreed to a minimum monthly wage of 5,300 taka ($67) for the 4 million workers in the industry, officials said Nov. 14. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the increase from $38 after a week when protests by angry workers closed hundreds of factories, and police attacked them with rubber bullets and tear gas. Factory owners had wanted to limit the minimum to $57, claiming that the Western companies they produce clothes for would be unwilling to pay more, while the protesting workers and left-leaning unions were demanding $100. The increase still leaves Bangladeshi garment workers among the lowest paid in the world.

Amnesty Says Qatar Treats Workers ‘Like Animals’

With Qatar beginning to build stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, Amnesty International says the 1.35 million migrant workers who make up almost all the country’s workforce face “an alarming level of exploitation.” In a report released Nov. 18, it said one-fifth of the construction workers it surveyed were regularly cheated out of pay, and 90% had their passports held by their employers. Migrants from Nepal said they were forced to work up to 84 hours a week and threatened with fines and deportation if they refused to work after not being paid. “FIFA [the Federation of International Football Associations] has a duty to send a strong public message that it will not tolerate human-rights abuses on construction projects related to the World Cup,” said Amnesty Secretary General Salil Shetty.

High Court Hears Arguments on Neutrality Agreements

The Supreme Court heard arguments Nov. 13 on a lawsuit claiming that employers who agree to stay neutral during union organizing campaigns are illegally giving “things of value” to the union. Justices John Roberts and Antonin Scalia asked whether allowing card check enabled unions to intimidate workers into joining, to which federal Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben responded that employers can be “very coercive” too, and neutrality agreements “have been elements of federal labor policy for decades.” Meanwhile, when Justice Elena Kagan asked William Messenger of the National Right to Work Committee if he thought it was illegal for employers to give unions access to their premises, the anti-labor lawyer replied, “Yes.” The Court’s decision is expected by June.

AFT Attacks Hedge Funds on Pensions

Labor union pension funds should not invest money in hedge funds and private-equity firms that give money to organizations that are trying to destroy traditional pensions, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told CNBC Nov. 13. If these money managers “are actually trying to kill pension funds,” she said on the “Squawk Box” program, “we want pension funds to know.” In September, the AFT listed 28 money-management firms that have contributed to or work with three groups that are campaigning to eliminate defined-benefit pensions, including StudentsFirst and the Manhattan Institute. It noted that “some asset managers have directly backed initiatives that harm the retirement security of plan participants.”

Adjuncts Mull Citywide Unions, Coalitions with Students

How can adjunct professors successfully organize unions? At the annual Coalition of Academic Labor conference in Washington, DC, Nov. 16-17, two strategies pondered were forming citywide unions and allying with students fighting debt and high tuition. Service Employees International Union Local 500, which hosted the conference, now represents adjuncts at four colleges in the area, and wants to parlay that success into a citywide union that would be able to set standards for the area’s labor market. SEIU is also organizing adjuncts in Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

AFSCME Files for Automatic Appeal of Detroit Bankruptcy

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed papers Nov. 13 asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to send whatever decision he makes on the city’s bankruptcy case to the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Federal law requires municipalities to make a good-faith effort to reach a deal with creditors before filing for bankruptcy, and AFSCME, which represents most of Detroit’s municipal workers other than police and firefighters, alleges that the city engaged only in “surface bargaining.” City workers’ unions and retirees accuse Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder of refusing to negotiate because bankruptcy proceedings give him a way to evade the state constitution’s ban on cutting public workers’ pensions. AFSCME also said that there are too few cases involving labor laws and good-faith bargaining for there to be a clear precedent.

California Nurses’ Strike Averted

The University of California reached a tentative contract agreement with the California Nurses Association Nov. 17, averting a one-day strike by nurses at its medical and student-health facilities that had been scheduled for Nov. 20. If ratified, the four-year deal will give the 11,700 nurses 4% annual raises through 2017 and preserve pension benefits for new hires. But AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 22,000 patient-care workers, custodians, and food workers at UC’s five medical centers and ten campuses, still plans a one-day strike, to protest unsafe staffing levels and unfair labor practices.

Nestlé Worker Murdered in Colombia

Union activist Oscar López may have become the latest victim in Colombia’s long history of antiunion violence when he was shot to death Nov. 9 at a bar in the town of Bugalagrande. The food workers’ union Sinaltrainal, which has been trying to win recognition at the Nestlé plant where López worked, said it had received death-threat texts the day before, signed by the Urabeños, a crime syndicate formed by former members of right-wing paramilitary groups. Nestlé denies any connection to the crime and has asked for an investigation. In 2012, 22 Colombians “were murdered for their union involvement,” according to a U.S. congressional labor-rights report. The Swiss human-rights group MultiWatch said López was the 15th Nestlé worker killed there.

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