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Weekly Digest – November 28, 2013

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Maryland Judge Hits Walmart Protests

With pro-union protesters gearing up for “Black Friday” demonstrations at 1,500 Walmart stores around the nation, a Maryland county judge Nov. 26 barred them from entering company property or disrupting access to the stores. Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul Harris, ruling that the protests have hurt the company's reputation, sales, and shopping experience, issued an injunction against the United Food and Commercial Workers, OUR Walmart, and anyone not employed by Walmart who joins a demonstration they organize. “Walmart has made it a practice to pursue over-the-top legal maneuvers to try to avoid hearing the real concerns of workers and community members,” said Derrick Plummer of Making Change at Walmart, which has been organizing the protests.

RWDSU Head Urges Probe of Walmart Campaign Donations

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said Nov. 24 that a state panel investigating corruption should look at Walmart’s contributions to state Senate Republicans. Walmart has given the Senate’s GOP members $425,000 since 2010—including a $100,000 donation last March, when they were adding a tax credit for employers who hire teenagers at the minimum wage to the bill raising the state’s minimum. “I believe the Moreland Commission needs to investigate the timing of the contribution and the obscene tax credit,” said Appelbaum. Walmart and the Republicans denied any connection.

Houston Passes Wage-Theft Bill

Houston’s City Council voted unanimously Nov. 20 to penalize wage theft, creating new procedures for victims to bring claims and to deny perpetrators city contracts, permits, and licenses. “If you can win it in Houston, you can win it in Atlanta or Dallas,” said Kim Bobo, longtime director of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of the 2008 book Wage Theft in America. Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and New York State have passed relatively tough wage-theft laws, she added, but right-wing state legislators have tried to pre-empt them in other places, and federal enforcement is “just pitiful.” The cause is advancing, however, because of “really good organizing” by unions and advocates and broad popular support for the principle that “if you work you should get paid, and you should get paid according to the law.”

Vegas Casino Workers Approve New Contract

Union workers at MGM Resorts casinos in Las Vegasvoted overwhelmingly Nov. 20 to approve a five-year contract that will get them $1.40 an hour in raises over the next three years. The deal covers about 26,000 waiters, bartenders, housekeepers and other employees who are members of UNITE HERE’s biggest local, Culinary Union Local 226, and Bartenders Union Local 165. The contract also intends to bring back workers laid off since 2007, but part of the raises will go to cover increases in the union’s health-insurance costs. Local 226 is still negotiating with the city’s other casinos except for Wynn Resorts Ltd., as about 20,000 members are working under contracts that expired June 1.

University of California Workers Strike Against Harassment

More than 22,000 workers at the University of California’s campuses and medical centers staged a one-day strike Nov. 20, joined by 13,000 unionized graduate students who walked out in sympathy. AFSCME Local 3299 said management has been interrogating workers about union activity and threatening disciplinary action against strikers. The university is insisting on freezing pay and cutting benefits, saying what it pays service workers is competitive given the labor market. “If their market is McDonalds, that’s not very difficult,” Local 3299 president Kathryn Lybarger responded. The university is also refusing to ban subcontracting or to give benefits to “permatemps.”

NYU Graduate Employees Win Neutrality Agreement

New York University, which busted a union of graduate students in 2005 when it refused to negotiate a new contract with them, has agreed to let its more than 1,200 graduate employees vote on whether to rejoin the United Auto Workers. The agreement, announced Nov. 26, will cover graduate students who work as teaching, graduate, and research assistants. The election is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 10-11, and if the UAW wins, it could have a new contract in place by the end of the academic year. “It is great news that we are finally able to win back our union,” said PhD student Hadi Gharabaghi. “And, as a TA who had to put my family on state-subsidized healthcare because of NYU’s 33% increase in dependent premiums, the cost of not having a union has been too high.”

Pennsylvania Utility Locks Out Workers

Penelec, the power company serving west-central Pennsylvania, locked out more than 140 workers Nov. 25 after Utility Workers Union of America Local 180 rejected a final contract offer that would have eliminated health care for both current and future retirees. “Retiree health care is as basic as it gets,” said David Bilek. “People have dedicated their working lives and careers to the company.” Bilek was among the workers at Penelec’s Lewistown facility who came in on Monday morning and found the parking lot blocked by a backhoe. A spokesperson for FirstEnergy, Penelec’s parent company, said the deal was fair because it had warned workers since 2009 that retirees would have to buy their own insurance once the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges opened.

Postal Union Blames Carrier’s Murder on Night-Shift Deliveries

The Nov. 23 murder of Maryland mailman Tyson Jerome Barnette highlighted the dangers of night deliveries, postal workers say. The combination of “insufficient manpower” and the failure of automated mail-processing procedures, said Robert Williams, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Branch 142, has forced letter carriers to work longer and later shifts—such as the one Barnette, 26, was on when he was fatally shot while delivering mail on a Saturday night in a “really dark” and “secluded” area. “It could have been one of us,” said Mack Julion, president of the NALC’s Branch 11 in Chicago, who added that the eight-hour route is becoming the “exception.” The dangers aren’t confined to night deliveries: In Chicago, 15 letter carriers have been assaulted and nine robbed in the past 13 months, mostly during the day.

Labor Dept. Hires Former McDonald’s PR Manager

Labor Secretary Tom Perez has hired McDonald’s national media-relations manager Ofelia Casillas to be the department’s director of public outreach. In August, Casillas told Bloomberg News that protesters demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage were not “providing an accurate picture of what it means to work at McDonald’s.” The appointment “certainly sends a troubling message,” said a top organizer in the minimum-wage fight who did not want to be identified. But a department spokesperson defended it, saying the Obama administration is committed to raising the minimum wage and that Casillas previously worked for the Obama campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union.

LI Union Takes Lower Pay for No-Layoffs Pledge

In exchange for a four-year no-layoffs pledge from the Suffolk County legislature, the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees agreed to accept a two-year wage freeze and lower salaries for new hires by 1 to 5%. The union, with nearly 5,000 members, represents more than half the county’s workers, including nurses, janitors, clerks, and water-quality testers. The legislature unanimously approved the deal as part of the budget Nov. 19.

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