Labor’s Hi-Tech/Lo Tech Election Campaign

Shorter post tonight. The family is out (a good thing when there's important blogging to be done), but trick-or-treaters aren't giving me a free moment. Bless their sugary little hearts.

And speaking of scary things, we have an election coming up. With just a week left, Karl Rove and his buddies are hunkered down behind the White House fence are putting all of their marbles in the much vaunted Republican turnout machine that allegedly handed the 2004 election to George Bush.

Meanwhile, back on the Democratic side, all eyes are on labor, whose effective Get Out The Vote program of the past several elections served as a model for the current Republican program. But I'm not going to write about GOTV. It's exciting and necessary to do, but boring to read about.

Instead I'm gong to write about one of the best things the stodgy, conservative old AFL-CIO has done in this campaign — to make good use of YouTube videos featuring two real Transport Workers Union member, Joe and Jim, discussing the Bush administration’s disastrous impact on working families (up top), and a second one talking about their outrage that we're spending $6 billion a month in Iraq while 47 million Americans back home have no health insurance. And then there's this shorter one that takes down Rick Santorum . Check them out. After listening to non-stop trash political commercials (I'm getting both Maryland and Virginia), these are like a refreshing drink of cold water on a humid Washington summer day. (more…)

Houston Janitors Strike To Be Taken Seriously

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Houston building owners are up in arms at the very thought that the people that spend all night away from their families cleaning their buildlings should earn more than $20 per day.

Janitors in Houston went on strike yesterday for higher pay, more guaranteed work hours and health insurance. The 5,300 janitors, who currently earn $5.50 per hour, were organized by the Service Employees International Union last year in what was the largest union organizing campaign in the South in years. The janitors want their wages raised to $8.50 an hour, along with longer hours and health insurance. Currently they earn the lowest wages and benefits of any major city in the United States, according to the union. 

Contract talks for more than 5,300 janitors ended last Tuesday after months of negotiations with Houston's five largest cleaning companies (ABM, OneSource, GCA, Sanitors, and Pritchard.)  The union is targeting only a few sites at a time. 500 janitors walked off the job yesterday, and more are expected to join as the days go on.

Flora Aguilar, 51, said she'll rely on the fund and babysitting work to get by during the strike. "I'm prepared to be on strike until they take us seriously and negotiate, until we have a contract," she said.

(more…)

Mourn For The Dead, Fight For The Living

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Well, I thought I'd invite you all over to my place tonight.  My "place" is Confined Space where I write about the rather obscure topic of workplace safety and health — not exactly a blog-leader when it comes to popularity, but a pretty important issue for the families and friends of the roughtly 5700 workers who die in accidents ever year, the 60,000 who die of occupational diseases and the hundreds of thousands who are injured in the workplace every year.

Most people have heard of the Sago mine disaster. But what most people don't realize is that if the twelve Sago miners who died on January 2 were the only workers to die in the workplace that day, it would have been a good day in American workplaces. 15 workers die in accidents ever day in the United States and the vast majority could have been prevented had the employer simply been complying with OSHA standards or other safe work practices.

Every two weeks my colleague and I compile all the articles we can find about workers who died in the workplace. Here's just a short sample of what we're talking about:

 Tyson worker dies after fall

A (more…)

FDL Book Salon: A Country That Works, Week 2

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(Today we're joined by SEIU President Andy Stern, author of A Country That Works, in the comments.  Please stop by and welcome him — JH) 

Good afternoon. This is Jordan Barab. I'll be hosting today's FDL Book Salon. It's a pleasure to spend this Sunday with Firedoglake readers and particularly with the author of  A Country That Works, Andy Stern, discussing one of the most interesting and challenging books I've read in a long time. Of course, for me, that's not saying much. As the main blogger at Confined Space , I rarely have time to read real books. So when Jane asked me to host this Book Salon, I was happy to be forced to read an entire book, particularly this one.

Most Americans had probably never heard of Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union, until he threatened to break up the AFL-CIO, the federation of American unions that everyone has heard of. And, as Andy admits in his book, A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track , the press loves stories full of conflict, strong and heroic personalities fighting the good fight, drama, betrayal, tragedy, promise, hope. Even the blogosphere, generally favorable to labor (while ignoring all but the biggest labor issues), began to pay attention. Josh Marshall's TPM Cafe even launched a "House of Labor" section.

The media portrayed the split as a battle between the young dynamic Andy Stern, impatient with labor's fading numbers and influence, and the old fogies led by John Sweeney, who were happy to be lords over all they could see, but weren't paying sufficient attention to the fact that their domains (and influence) were rapidly shrinking into irrelevance. It was portrayed as a fight between those who thought priority should be given to organizing over those who thought priority should be given to politics.  Of course, in reality, it wasn't anything that simple.

Despite all of the media attention throughout the summer of '95, once Stern led the Service Employees International Union out of the AFL-CIO, along with the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE-HERE, the Farmworkers, and the Laborers to form Change To Win (along with the Carpenters who had left the federation previously), interest generally died. Even the TPM Cafe's House of Labor faded away.

Personally, although Andy's organizing programs were quite exciting, I wasn't completely sure what I thought of his crusade to save the labor movement by dividing it. I had first med Andy Stern in the late 1970's when I was organizing a labor-sponsored anti-nuclear demonstration in Harrisburg, PA following the Three Mile Island near-disaster.  Even then, as President of the Pennsylvania Social Service Employees Union, an SEIU affiliate in Harrisburg, he was pushing the labor envelope by providing major support for our efforts, including an occasional couch to sleep on.  Opposing nuclear power was a rather brave stand for a labor leader. The building trades unions were fiercely pro-nuclear and not afraid to demonstrate that to unions like PSSU who strayed from the line. I followed Andy's move to head SEIU's organizing department in Washington DC under then-SEIU President John Sweeney, and then is rise to the top of the union when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO in 1995.  (more…)

Goodyear Strikers: Fighting For Us All

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Generally when one thinks of “labor news,” one thinks of the fate of today’s unions, the split between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, or decisions by the courts and the National Labor Relations Board that undermine workers’ rights.

It turns out, however, that there are still a lot of real workers out there who depend on their unions to defend their jobs, their pay and their retirement. And more than depending on their union, they’re depending on a concept that has become rarer in this society: solidarity.

Not that you would know it from reading the papers, or listening to political debates or (with one exception) in the blogosphere  these days, but 15,000 of those workers at Goodyear Tire and Rubber walked off the job last week at 16 plants in the United States and Canada. The workers had  been working under daily contract extensions since July 22 when their contract ran out. They're fighting over life and death issues that have stricken masses of middle class Americans over the past decades – loss of well-paying jobs, salary and benefit cuts, and undermining of promised retirement benefits. Instead of shutting down, Goodyear is running its factories with management employees and scabs.

The workers are represented by the United Steelworkers of America which represents Goodyear employees in Alabama, Kansas, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and in Collingwood, Toronto and Owen Sound in Canada. Goodyear is the third largest tire company in the world, behind Bridgestone and Michelin. The main issue of the strike is Goodyear’s failure to ensure the survival of at least two of its plants, in Tyler, Texas, and Gadsen, Alabama which were not put on the company’s list of “protected” factories.

The union, which made major concessions during contract negotiations three years ago is feeling betrayed:

"The company left us with no option," said USW executive vice president Ron Hoover. "We cannot allow additional plant closures after the sacrifices we made three years ago to help this company survive." In the 2003 agreement, the USW agreed to a closure of the Huntsville, Ala. facility as well providing Goodyear with additional financial flexibility by accepting wage, pension and health care cuts.

"We worked very hard with the company in 2003 to deal with a difficult situation," said Hoover. "While more work can be done, Goodyear has rebounded and other stakeholders have been rewarded accordingly. Now the Company seems determined to only take more away from our members."

(more…)

Bush’s NLRB, Supreme Court Declare War On Unions

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While all of Washington DC and much of the political world are focused exclusively on a recent intelligence report showing that the war in Iraq is spreading terrorism, Bob Woodward book detailing how we’re plagued by an administration of liars surrounding by yes-men, and finally predator-gate which threatens to drive the final nail in the Republicans’ ’06 coffin, there have been two major legal developments that could sharply affect the fate of organized labor in this country.

This afternoon, George W. Bush’s National Labor Relations Board, in a party line 3-2 decision, took away bargaining rights for millions of American workers. The Board released its long-awaited Kentucky River cases. The cases focused around whether certain nurses, called charge nurses, should be considered as “supervisors.”

As I explained in a previous piece, the origin of the supervisory exclusion was the Taft-Hartley Act which amended the National Labor Relations Act in 1947. The original National Labor Relations Act gave all employees the right to form unions and required that employers recognize certified employee unions and bargain in good faith. The Taft-Hartley, however, excluded supervisors, defined as

any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.

However, even the anti-union authors of the Taft-Hartley act made it clear that it did not intend to deny coverage to professional employees, lead workers or others whose jobs do not include major managerial responsibility to hire, fire and discipline other employees. Yet, the Republican-appointed majority today ignored that context, essentially finding favorable definitions for in the dictionary, rather than from clear Congressional intent.

Of course for this administration, simple legalities are not the issue; crushing labor unions is.

NOTE: If this is all too confusing, just check out Stephen Colbert's hilarious interpretation here. (more…)

Why Unions Aren’t Historical Artifacts, Part 2,345

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I think I’m just going to spend this evening rambling through the newspapers and blowing off some random steam.  We’ll see if it all makes sense at the end.

First we have SHOCKING news from the New York Daily News that

The union powerhouse that represents some of the poorest workers in New York City shelled out more than $2 million on parties and out-of-town conferences last year, the Daily News has learned. Local 1199, whose members empty bedpans and scrub toilets in hospitals and nursing homes, spent $465,000 for a summer retreat to Lake Placid for 700 staffers.

Oh my! Damn those unions. But lets look a little closer at the allegations about one specific party. Does this make sense?

Nearly 4,000 rank-and-file delegates attended – hospital orderlies, cafeteria helpers, home care workers. But lack of space meant the people they represent, the average Local 1199 members, couldn’t go.

Let’s play that back. "Hospital orderlies, cafeteria helpers, home care workers" attended the party, but not "average Local 1199 members?" Sounds like they are the "average Local 1199 members," except they’re also the ones who spend their weekends and evenings working on union business after cleaning the bedpans, cooking the food, cleaning up the cafeteria and running around the city caring for sick patients.

Everyone’s outraged! Well, maybe not everyone, but one guy is certainly outraged:

"Partying at the Copa while your members clean bedpans and foot a bill they can’t afford is outrageous," said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, a business-funded group that monitors labor spending.

Berman, Berman, where have we heard that name before? Oh yeah. He’s the professional union buster who’s making a fortune selling distorted commercials trashing labor’s efforts to pass legislation calling for card-check recognition instead of traditional “secret ballot” elections. (more…)

When Your Gall Bladder Gets Sent to India, Have You Had Enough?

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Guest Blogged By Tula Connell

Carl Garrett, a paper mill technician in Canton, N.C., needed gall bladder and shoulder surgery. So his employer, Blue Ridge Paper Products, came up with an increasingly less- than-novel solution: Send him overseas for surgery.

India, in this case.

Garrett volunteered to go. But let’s face it, how much of an option did he have? Let’s see: Agree with your employer and take your chances overseas, or risk paying out-of-pocket costs for the entire surgery in the United States? Duh.

But Garrett has a union, and the union didn’t stand for what the media and others have euphemistically dubbed “medical tourism.” The USW International Union (USW) persisted until management backed off the plan. The USW and Blue Ridge will work together to find an alternative within the United States.

Paul Krugman has done great work demonstrating that the U.S. health care system is so broken, our nation spends far more than other western industrialized countries on health care while far fewer of its citizens have the health care they need. Sen. Bill Frist got egg on his face last week for inadvertently acknowledging the disastrous state of the U.S. health care when he said it’s worse than the care prisoners get at Guantanamo: GITMO prisoners get "24/7 medical care—better than many Americans." (more…)

9/11 And The War On Workers

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Now that we have a moment to come down from the Bush administration’s pre-election-patriotic-war-mongering-fest, also known as the fifth anniversary of 9/11, lets take a moment to look at a subject virtually ignored: the Bush administration’s use of 9/11 to attack workers. As James Parks notes in an excellent piece in the AFL-CIO’s blog, More than 600 union members were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and union members responded with an outpouring of funds and volunteered thousands of hours to help treat the injured and rescue and recover the victims.

But the tragedy of 9/11 has not ended for thousands of union members and others who worked to clean up the wreckage of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan. A study released last week by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York confirmed what most of these workers have known for years: the dust that they inhaled for days, weeks and months while working on "the pile" has caused serious, progressive lung disease among 70 percent of those who have been tested. Several have died and experts fear that we will be seeing long term effects, like cancer, for decades. A separate study showed that firefighters and emergency medical technicians who worked at Ground Zero had lost the equivalent of 12 years – in the year following the attack—putting them at risk for chronic lung problems later in life.

Much of the blame is rightfully targeted at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for giving workers (and all New Yorkers) false assurances that that air at Ground Zero was safe, despite the fact that they were inhaling the smoke and dust from the pulverized remains of a toxic burning brew of caustic concrete dust, asbestos, PCBs, jet fuel, and plastics, lead, chromium, mercury, vinyl chloride, benzene, human bodies and thousands of other toxic substances. The pulverized concrete alone has been characterized as so alkaline it’s like inhaling lye. (more…)

Labor Day Postscript

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The Labor Day holiday has passed — for those who still have paid holidays. The Census Department just report that says 23% of private-sector employees don’t get paid holidays, and only 48% of those in service sector do.

For most newspapers and pundits, Labor Day is all about falling real wages, the loss of health insurance and pensions, creeping Wal-Martization of our pay and benefits, the flailing labor movement and the role of labor in the upcoming elections. You can find articles about almost anything you want to know about: Labor history (here, here and here), the Republican war against unions, all the good things that unions are doing, problems for entry level workers and how changes in the economy give workers nothing to celebrate. and on and on. But what you’ll have a hard time finding are stories about actual workers and what they do at work and the life and death struggles that many endure every day.

There have been a few notable exceptions, however. Chicago Tribune writers Steve Franklin and Darnell Little published a two-part series on "Throwaway Workers," about the hazards faced by immigrant workers in America and how they are neglected even after they’ve been hurt.

The problem in numbers:

While non-Latino workplace fatalities dropped 16 percent between 1992 and 2005, Latino workers’ deaths jumped 72 percent during the same time. Last year the fatality rate for Latinos was 4.9 per 100,000 workers, a rate unmatched by any other group.

The real stories are worse: (more…)