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Striking Alabama Coal Miners Want Their $1.1 Billion Back

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

History repeated itself as hundreds of miners spilled out of buses in June and July to leaflet the Manhattan offices of asset manager BlackRock, the largest shareholder in the mining company Warrior Met Coal.

Some had traveled from the pine woods of Brookwood, Alabama, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. Others came in solidarity from the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the hollows of West Virginia and Ohio.

Among them was 90-year-old retired Ohio miner Jay Kolenc, in a wheelchair at the picket line—retracing his own steps from five decades ago. It was 1974 when Kentucky miners and their supporters came to fight Wall Street in the strike behind the film Harlan County USA.

“Coal miners have always had to fight for everything they’ve ever had,” Kolenc said. “Since 1890, when we first started, nobody’s ever handed us anything. So we’re not about to lay our tools down now.”

The longest that miners ever went on strike was for 10 months in 1989 against the Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia, defending hard-won health care benefits and pension rights. Some 3,000 miners got arrested in that strike. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who passed away on August 5, was president of the Mine Workers (UMWA) at the time.

In Manhattan, mixed in the sea of camouflage T-shirts outside BlackRock was a smattering of red and blue shirts—retail, grocery, stage, and telecom workers. The miners and supporters circled the inner perimeter of four police barricades, chanting “Warrior Met Coal ain’t got no soul!” and whooping it up.

Postal and sanitation trucks honked in solidarity. “You’re in New York City,” Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told the crowd. “When somebody comes by driving a trash truck, they’re in a union. Chances are, somebody comes along with a broom in their hand, they’re in a union.”

‘WHERE’S OUR MONEY?’

The strikers are fighting to reverse concessions that were foisted on them in 2016 when newly formed Warrior Met Coal bought two mines and one preparation plant from Jim Walter Resources during bankruptcy proceedings. BlackRock became one of the three majority shareholders in the new company.

Since then, the union calculates that workers have forked over $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, vacation, safety, health care, and other benefits to help the company regain solvency. Today 26 hedge funds have investments in Warrior Met stock, signaling their confidence in its profitability.

“We want everything back. And then some. That’s the message we’re trying to send to BlackRock,” said Michael Wright, a miner for 16 years.

Warrior Met produces coal used in steel production in Asia, Europe, and South America. In response to the strike it has scaled back production, left one mine idle, and stopped stock buybacks, Bloomberg reported. The strike has cost the company $17.9 million, according to its second-quarter earnings report.

Shortly after the miners walked out, management returned to the table with an offer that would have recouped just $1.50 of the $6 cut in wages from the 2016 contract and left intact punitive disciplinary policies and benefits concessions. The miners voted it down, 1,006 to 45.

“We come back to the table and they’re offering less what we were making originally,” said Brian Seabolt, another 16-year coal miner.

“We go underground to sacrifice our lives for our families,” said Wright. “They’re making billions of dollars. Where’s our money?”

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has burnished his public image as a benevolent capitalist concerned about climate change and social justice. The strikers hope to gain leverage by tarnishing that image.

BlackRock has a shield that makes that harder: two-thirds of its investments are in index funds, passively managed portfolios that bundle together investments regardless of social impact.

But it’s even harder to hit it hard enough in the pocketbook to have an impact: Warrior Met makes up just a tiny fraction of BlackRock’s portfolio. The asset manager had a record $9.5 trillion in assets under management at the end of June.

Nonetheless, to hurt profits, strikers were blocking scabs from entering the mines—until the company obtained an injunction to stop them. Despite that, the mines produced only 1.2 million tons of coal during the second quarter—a million less than the same period last year.

A GRUELING JOB

Another striker on the Manhattan picket line was Tammy Owens, a former steelworker. She switched to mining because it had better pay and benefits, though the job was grueling. “And then a few years later, I ended up with worse benefits than what I had at the steel plant,” she said.

Since the strike, she has picked up a side job to provide for her family. The union has also distributed $4.3 million to miners to cover health care.

Besides pay and benefits, the 2016 concessions included a punitive attendance policy that one miner’s wife described to journalist Kim Kelly as “four strikes and you’re out.”

“If I had a heart attack, they can give me a strike,” Owens said. “They don’t accept a doctor’s excuse. Even if I have something contagious that I can give to other people—pneumonia, the flu, strep throat, you name it—you have to come to work.”

Excessive overtime is another flashpoint (shades of Frito-Lay and Amazon). Miners have been forced into 12-hour shifts stretching into weekends—without the double pay on Saturday and triple pay on Sunday that they used to get.

And health care looms large. Costs shot up; the company now covers only 80 percent of the premium. “We need 100 percent,” said miner Dedrick Gardner. “Considering the work conditions in a coal mine, health care is vital. You’re dealing with silicosis, black lung, diesel, smoke.”

Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust. The dust silts up the lungs, scarring and destroying them.

“Health insurance went from $12 for seeing any doctor in the world to $1,500 family deductible and co-pays up to $250,” said Local 2245 President Brian Michael Kelly.

TOXIC AND DANGEROUS

Safety is a perennial concern. “I work 2,200 feet underground in one of the most gaseous mines in the world,” Owens said. “If something goes wrong, it could blow the top off the ground.”

In 2001, 13 workers died at one of the mines now owned by Warrior Met after a slab of rock fell and set off a methane gas explosion, burning and pounding miners to death with chunks of rock.

Despite that tragedy, the 2016 contract eroded safety standards. And the situation is presumably even worse for the scabs inside now.

“Nonunion mines are continuously known for cutting corners and creating unsafe working environments in order to increase production,” said union spokesperson Erin E. Bates via email. “Warrior Met Coal is currently mining and processing coal with unskilled workers. We are concerned it is only a matter of time until someone gets seriously hurt.”

Without the union watchdog, apparently the company’s environmental practices slipped too. Shortly after the strike began, wastewater from one of the mines suddenly turned local creeks black with pollution.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Viewpoint: We Must Prepare to Strike UPS in 2023

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The year 2023, when the UPS contract expires, seems like a long way off—but in the complex world of contract negotiation, it’s just around the corner.

In the 24 years since the 1997 strike, UPS has become the poster child for corporate greed—demanding more and more from its employees in a quest for profits. And rather than reward those employees, the gains go into the pockets of shareholders and management.

The company reported $4.79 billion in profit in just the last quarter. This has been accomplished by increasing productivity demands and hours of work to the detriment of our safety, health, and family life.

In the Teamsters, the regime change of 1998 gave us two decades of corporate appeasement. Contract after contract was negotiated with minuscule improvements or even givebacks, culminating in a 2018 contract featuring two-tier wages and subcontracting, which was implemented despite being voted down by the membership.

Meanwhile “right to work” (for less) continued its spread across the U.S.; so did the endless corporate campaign to convince the public that unions were a relic of the past. Amazon, Uber, and Lyft, along with the continued consolidation of retail under Walmart and Target, accelerated the decline of wages and working-class living standards generally.

Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Union teachers and nurses have taken to the streets. Activism has generally increased. Public opinion on unions is more and more favorable, especially as the pandemic demonstrated how we all rely on workers to survive.

SIGNS OF HOPE

In the Teamsters, signs of change have appeared. Regime change is coming in 2021. The “two-thirds rule” that was used to implement the 2018 contract is no more. Rank-and-file members will be on the 2023 UPS contract negotiating committee. Strike benefits will now begin on day one.

The advantages of social media and the gross failure of the 2018 UPS contract have combined to create a new generation of Teamster activists and leaders.

But to really accelerate that pushback, more is needed. What’s missing is a single galvanizing moment—a struggle that spans the nation and can serve as an example for all of labor to follow.

IT’S OUR MOMENT

That moment, brothers and sisters, should be the 2023 UPS contract fight. This struggle could engage the entire country, pit the greedy corporation against the abused worker, unite the membership, and provide the platform to reinvigorate the labor movement.

No one ever wants a strike. But given the frustration of UPS Teamsters after two decades of stalled progress, and amid signs of a broader labor pushback, a strike seems necessary for the good of the country.

So the time is now to prepare for what may be inevitable. Start saving your money. Start engaging in your local union. Start talking to your friends and neighbors about what life is like at UPS. Because the odds are good that we will have to take this fight to the streets.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on August 3, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Greg Kerwood is a UPS package car driver and member of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston. A version of this piece was originally published by The Teamster Rebel, teamsterrebel.com.


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We Need a Big National Strike Fund

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Hamilton Nolan - In These Times

More successful strikes help the entire labor movement. We should pay for them together.

On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week. 

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike?—?namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem. 

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole?—?strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide. 

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.) 

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid?—?the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle. 

Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager?—?often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund. 

To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called ?“businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value?—?and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs?—?so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.

Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough. 

The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again. 

Let’s get to work.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Striking Alabama Miners Are Done Playing Nice

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Jacob Morrison | North Alabama Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine.

BROOKWOOD, ALA.?—??“You ain’t working tonight!”

That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.

With tank tops that read ?“scab bullies,” supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.

“Who is in charge?” one of the officers asked.

“Everyone,” answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA women’s auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union members’ wives and supporters. ?“We are the UMWA.”

Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: ?“This playing nice shit ain’t cutting it.”

The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mine’s 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If they’re arrested again, they will be held until trial.

Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks?—?including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.

“Warrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. ?“We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.”

The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the country’s most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.

When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mine’s previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.

“Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in a March 31 statement. ?“They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.”

While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is ?“strongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectory” after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but that’s a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)

The women’s auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.

“Miners have always been their brother’s keeper,” says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haeden’s husband. ?“They’ve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.”

Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. ?“We know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,” she says. ?“That’s hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].”

Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T?shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met?—?BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies?—?that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leaders Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.

Their battle cry remained the same: ?“No contract, no coal!”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jacob Morrison is Secretary-Treasurer of the North Alabama Area Labor Council which represents thousands of union workers and co-hosts The Valley Labor Report, a union talk radio show on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 11:00am on WVNNWGOL, and YouTube.


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‘We Want to See Our Families’: Frito-Lay Workers Strike Over 84-Hour Weeks, Meager Raises

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Dan DiMaggio | Labor Notes

Frito-Lay workers in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since Monday over low pay and forced overtime.

Some workers have been forced to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, for weeks on end due to short staffing. They want to see that change.

“Nobody I know loves Frito-Lay enough that they want to live there,” said Monk Drapeaux-Stewart, a box drop technician, responsible for keeping the plant’s machines supplied with cardboard. “We want to go home and see our families. We want to have our weekends off. We want to work the time that we agreed to work—and hopefully not much more than that.”

‘BOTTOM OF THE LADDER’

The last several contracts have featured lump sum bonuses most years, leaving wage rates stagnant for most classifications. Drapeaux-Stewart said he’s only gotten a 77-cent increase over the last 12 years.

Meanwhile, the Topeka area has attracted several new manufacturing facilities and large warehouses over the past 20 years, taking advantage of its location smack in the center of the country, with access to a number of highway arteries. The Frito-Lay facility, which has been around for 50 years, now competes for workers with a Mars chocolate facility, a Bimbo bread bakery, and Home Depot and Target distribution centers, as well as a Goodyear tire plant that opened in 1945 (workers there are members of the Steelworkers). A Walmart distribution center is slated to open in September.

“Between all those industries, Frito-Lay sits at the bottom of the ladder as far as wage scales,” said Mark Benaka, business manager for Bakery Workers (BCTGM) Local 218, which represents workers at Frito-Lay and Bimbo. Other local facilities have offered significant wage increases in recent weeks, Benaka said, but Frito-Lay continues to offer pennies.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago Frito-Lay had a really good reputation—all you need is a high school diploma and you’ve got this job with good pay and benefits,” said Drapeaux-Stewart, who started working at the facility 16 years ago. “But slowly all of that has been whittled away.”

That’s made it difficult to maintain workers—and led to the mountains of forced overtime.

“Conditions are really just deteriorating as each contract rolls by,” said Cheri Renfro, an operator in the Geographic Enterprise Solutions department, where workers fulfill orders for smaller mom-and-pop shops and gas stations.

Renfro estimated that the company brought in more than 350 employees in the last year—and lost the same amount. “You have to wonder as a company why wouldn’t you question that—say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’”

CONTRACT VOTED DOWN

Last week, workers voted down the latest contract offer from the company, which included a 2 percent wage increase this year and a 60-hour-a-week cap on the amount of hours a worker can be forced to work. The wages weren’t enough and the overtime cap would have meant more senior workers being forced in on weekends, workers say.

Other issues fueling workers’ anger include safety, a punitive attendance policy, and pressure from inexperienced supervisors competing for promotions. “This storm has been brewing for years,” Renfro wrote in a letter to the Topeka Capital-Journal, in which she outlined examples of the plant’s “toxic work environment,” including management keeping the line going after a worker collapsed and died and refusing bereavement leave for a worker whose father passed away during the Covid lockdown, since there was no funeral.

In late June, Local 218 members voted 353 to 30 to approve a strike.

“In the past people were afraid to go on strike—you keep hoping every contract is gonna be better,” said Renfro. “But as time has gone on the company has proven they are not gonna get better and they are not gonna work with us.”

SNACK SURGE

Frito-Lay is a division of PepsiCo and has been a major contributor to the company’s bottom line, earning $1.2 billion in profits on $4.2 billion in revenue in the first quarter. Last year, the division was responsible for over half of PepsiCo’s operating profits, with profits of $5.3 billion on $18.2 billion in revenue. PepsiCo also owns brands including Mountain Dew, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Tropicana, and Aquafina.

Topeka is one of the largest of Frito-Lay’s 30 U.S. manufacturing facilities; most are nonunion. The 850 workers there make, package, and ship nearly every type of Frito-Lay snack: Lays potato chips, Tostitos, Cheetos, Sun Chips, Fritos, every flavor of Dorito, and more. Six hundred are members of Local 218 (Kansas is a right-to-work state).

The plant never slowed down during the pandemic, workers said. Instead, production increased, as people ate at home more and bought more comfort foods like chips. “I’ve learned that when something’s hitting Americans beneath the belt, the two main items that never suffer are snack foods and alcohol,” said Benaka, who retired from the plant in 2017 after 37 years.

Workers were at one point given an extra $20 a day to work during the pandemic, up to $100 a week—but that only lasted a few weeks. “I don’t know if they were afraid we were gonna get used to the higher wage,” said Renfro.

Production at the plant fluctuates seasonally—it’s busier in the summer and around big holidays and the Super Bowl. Workers are used to overtime during those periods. But recently the overtime has become constant. “Now we’ve having overtime when we shouldn’t be,” said Renfro—and a lot more of it.

‘I’M DONE WITH GIVING EVERYTHING TO FRITO-LAY’

Renfro said she worked 73 hours during the week leading up the Fourth of July, and then worked from 3 a.m. until 3 p.m. on the holiday. “I went to sleep—I didn’t even hear the fireworks, I was so tired.”

“I’ve had to miss going to so many holidays because I’m getting forced,” said Renfro. “I’ve had to call my mom and tell her I couldn’t make it. I don’t want to miss those moments anymore. I’m done with giving everything to Frito-Lay—my time, my holidays.”

One of the most hated forms of forced overtime at the plant is being forced to work a “suicide.” That’s when the company makes a worker stay four hours on top of their eight-hour shift, and then forces them in four hours early before their next shift—leaving them only eight hours off.

Drapeaux-Stewart said these shifts have become increasingly common, especially in departments with the worst understaffing, like the warehouse. “It’s crazy that this has become the blue-collar everyday [worker’s] new normal.”

EMPTY SCAB BUSES

The company has set up a parking lot a mile from the plant. It’s running coach buses from the lot every 15 minutes to shuttle in temporary workers and out-of-state scabs.

But strikers suspect that the buses are a ruse. “Most of these buses are completely empty, or have one to three people, not counting the driver,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “It’s psychological warfare—they’re trying to demoralize and dispirit the men and women of the union in the hopes we’ll come groveling back for whatever crumbs they offer us.”

Benaka said the company also appears to be pulling empty trailers in and out of the facility to intimidate workers. “You’re talking about folks who’ve worked at this facility 30 or 40 years—they know what an empty trailer looks like.”

Strikers are also monitoring the facility’s smokestacks to get a sense of the strike’s impact. “There’s been no smoke, no steam, no nothing, no sign of production at all,” said Drapeaux-Stewart.

“Usually there’s always an odor coming out of Frito-Lay, but it’s been smelling really good outside,” said Renfro.

Local supporters have been donating food and water to the picket line. Some local restaurants have said they will stop serving Pepsi products. A local magazine, 785, has set up a fund to help strikers pay their water bills.

“I’m really amazed at the community support,” said Renfro. “It makes you proud to be a part of this community.”

“It’s scary but it’s exciting,” said Drapeaux-Stewart. “I have so much hope for this strike that we will finally get what we’ve needed—the guarantee of getting to see our families, and earning a living wage to support those families.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Dan Dimaggio is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.


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Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | ??????

A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area.

Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s?—?a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages?—?staged a seven-day strike last week. 

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers?—?all Latino?—?work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. ?“The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels?—?corporate, the plant manager, human resources?—?and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. ?“So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ?‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, ?“if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement. 

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: ?“They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.” 

Portillo’s management described the strikers as ?“a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago. 

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. ?“But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: ?“Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend. 

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op?—?a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood?—?workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday. 

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB. 

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations ?“unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed ?“with no enforcement action or adjudication.” 

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation?—?it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. ?“At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board ?“found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. ?“They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members?—?primarily Black women?—?are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike?—?and nearly nine months into contract negotiations?—?they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials?—?and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst


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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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Striking Alabama Miners Call Out NYC Hedge Funds for Bringing in Scabs

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Interview by Adam Johnson | Authors | The Indypendent

You take a six-dollar pay cut and what do you get? Five years older and no respect for the sacrifices you made to get your employer out of bankruptcy, say the striking Alabama coal miners who protested outside the Manhattan offices of three hedge funds on June 22.

“They told us, since we bailed them out, they would take care of us,” says Brian Kelly, president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2245, one of more than 1,000 miners who’ve been on strike at two mines in Brookwood, Alabama, since April 1. But instead, he says, “they’re bringing in scabs to work and trying to get rid of the older workforce.”

Warrior Met Coal, which operates the two mines, about 15 miles east of Tuscaloosa, was bought out by a consortium of 20 to 30 hedge funds in 2016 after its previous owner, Jim Walter Resources, filed for bankruptcy, says UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith.

Local 2245 then agreed to major concessions to help the company regain solvency: Along with the $6-per-hour pay cut, their health care costs were increased from a $12 co-pay to a $1,500 deductible; the union had to negotiate a $25 million Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association plan to continue retirees’ health care; and extra overtime pay for Sundays and holidays was eliminated.

“They’re making us work seven days a week, up to 16 hours,” says Kelly, who has worked in the Brookwood mine for 25 years, following his father, uncles, and grandfather. “Now we’re forced to work every holiday except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas.”

The company’s current contract offer, instead of restoring the $6 pay cut, is a five-year deal with a $1-an-hour increase, with another 50 cents coming in its fourth year, says Kelly.

“This company has prospered,” says Dedrick Gardner, who’s worked in the mine for 13 years. “We worked a whole year during the pandemic. The mine didn’t shut.”

ONE-SIDED SACRIFICE

That brought the miners to the offices of three of the hedge funds that own Warrior Met: In the morning, they protested outside BlackRock Fund Advisors, the largest stockholder, holding 13 percent of the company, according to Smith. In the afternoon, they split into two groups, one at State Street Global Advisors, which owns 11 percent, and the other at Renaissance Technologies, which owns 4 percent.

Outside State Street’s Sixth Avenue offices, about 25 miners and supporters from other unions—the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 338—marched in an oval, chanting “No Contract, No Coal” and “Warrior Met Has No Soul.” Rain cut it short an hour early.

“These hedge funds are among several entities that invested in Warrior Met five years ago when the company emerged from bankruptcy,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. “But they insisted on dramatic sacrifices from the workers, to the tune of $1.1 billion. The company has enjoyed revenues amounting to another $3.4 billion since then, much of which flowed into these funds’ accounts. It’s time to share that wealth with the people who created it—the workers.”

Company executives got bonuses of up to $35,000 early this year, according to the UMWA. The Brookwood miners now average about $22 an hour, the union says. Kelly says he makes about $60,000 a year.

Contract talks have made little progress since early April, when the miners rejected a proposed agreement drawn up a few days into the strike, 1,006 to 45. Smith says he doesn’t expect them to resume until after July 4.

“They really haven’t moved very far from the contract that got voted down,” says Smith. “I don’t think they got the message.”

EXPLOSIVE DANGER

Aside from pay, union officials say, a main dispute is that management is demanding the power to fire strikers and to give strikebreakers and new hires seniority. Earlier this month, there were at least two incidents where drivers entering the mine site in pickup trucks hit picketers. Warrior Met management responded that it has an injunction that “specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress.”

“They want to put the new hires and scab miners to the front of the seniority line,” says Kelly. “I’ve been there 25 years. That’s not going to happen.”

Safety has become a major concern. The foremen the new management brought in, Kelly says, came from West Virginia and Kentucky, and don’t understand the kind of mining they do at Brookwood.

The Alabama mine, which extracts a specialized variety of coal used in making steel, is much deeper than a typical Appalachian “drift mine,” he explains. Its shaft goes down 2,000 feet, and the miners have to travel as much as 10 miles to reach the coal face.

“You can’t walk out if something happens,” he says.

Mining coal at those depths also releases a lot of methane gas, which is toxic, inflammable, and explosive. In the last two years, Kelly says, there have been more “ignitions”—small fires starting from pockets of methane igniting—than he’s seen in his previous 20 years on the job.

“They are building a big potential to have something blow up,” he says.

It’s a peril he knows too well. On September 23, 2001, 13 miners at Brookwood were killed in a methane explosion.

“If you don’t run safe, you won’t run more coal,” Kelly says. “You’ve got to have air to push the dangerous gases out.”

This article first appeared at LaborPress. Steven Wishnia is a LaborPress reporter.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 24, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Steve Wishnia is a New York-based journalist, now a reporter for LaborPress and editor of Tenant/Inquilino


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Chicago Nurses Are Going on Strike—And Management Is Bringing in Scabs Through a Text Blast

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Jeff Schuhrke (@JeffSchuhrke) | Twitter

Nurses and support staff in the Chicago area are joining other militant healthcare workers across the country by walking off the job, despite attempts by their bosses to hire strikebreakers.

On Thursday, over 2,700 Chicago-area nurses and support staff at Cook County Health (CCH) are planning to go on strike, the latest example of rising worker militancy in the healthcare sector. 

The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) and SEIU Local 73?—?which respectively represent 1,250 nurses and 1,500 medical aides, therapists, technicians, clerks, housekeepers, food service workers and patient transporters at CCH?—?have each been in contract negotiations with the county since last fall. 

Citing dramatic staffing shortages, the two unions are teaming up to demand CCH invest in employee recruitment and retention by improving pay and benefits.

Rather than investing in long-term employees, the unions say CCH has been increasingly relying on temp workers hired through staffing agencies like SnapNurse. With the threat of a walkout looming, management is aggressively trying to bring in even more temps to serve as strikebreakers.

In These Times obtained a text blast sent out by SnapNurse last week seeking prospective scabs. Referencing ?“a pending strike notice in Chicago,” the text message explains that strikebreakers will be paid between $4,620 and $6,468 per week?—?more than regular CCH nurses make. ?“Respond with STRIKE to deploy,” the message says.

CCH and SnapNurse did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an email to employees last week, CCH’s recently hired CEO Israel Rocha, Jr. said management was ?“taking all steps necessary to ensure the delivery of safe patient care in the event of a strike.”

“Nurses are at the breaking point throughout the Cook County Health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital and a chief representative of NNOC. ?“We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday.”

Consisting of Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as over a dozen clinics in the city and suburbs, CCH is one of the nation’s largest public health systems. Its predominantly Black and Brown patients are often uninsured or under-insured, meaning they delay seeking care and therefore face critical health needs. Stroger Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in Illinois, treats the highest number of Chicago’s gunshot victims (and was the setting of the hit television show ER in the 1990s).

The nurses and support staff say that instead of valuing their labor and listening to their concerns, the county has been dragging out negotiations, offering paltry raises that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living and seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance.

“We are striking because we are tired of being mistreated, undervalued, underserved, disrespected and cast aside,” said Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member. 

The nurses plan to be on strike for 24 hours, but may call more strikes in the near future. The SEIU Local 73 members?—?who already held a one-day work stoppage at CCH in December—intend to hold an open-ended strike.

“Our members are willing to strike for as long as it takes to achieve a fair contract,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said. ?“It is time for Cook County to take these negotiations seriously.”

Over the past 15 months, healthcare workers have been on the front lines of the Covid pandemic, organizing and striking in states like IllinoisWashington and New York to secure adequate personal protective equipment and safer staffing levels. In Massachusetts, union nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for more than 100 days?—?the longest nurse’s strike in the United States in over a decade. Meanwhile, thousands of previously unorganized nurses in North Carolina and Maine successfully voted to unionize in recent months.

The pandemic has fueled the uptick in healthcare worker militancy because it ?“revealed to a lot of us how little our employers care about our lives, and frankly how little they care about our patients’ lives,” Elizabeth Lalasz, a clinical nurse at Stroger Hospital and NNOC steward, told In These Times.

Throughout the pandemic, Vargas said, ?“hospital management has abused, disrespected and abandoned us. Because management treats nurses as expendable, we were not given adequate personal protective equipment, and over 150 of us tested positive for Covid-19.”

NNOC and SEIU Local 73 are calling on management to tap into some of the $998 million in federal funds Cook County is receiving from the American Rescue Plan to invest in the healthcare workforce. 

“Every day we learn of another experienced nurse who resigned for a better job because Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients,” Vargas explained. ?“With each loss of an experienced nurse, we see years of skills and expertise vanish. In one six-week period, I saw a hundred years of experience walk out of my department.”

CCH CEO Rocha’s salary is $650,000 a year. His predecessor, who was dismissed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in late 2019, received $542,000 in severance pay.

“It doesn’t make any sense for upper management to be making that kind of money when we desperately need people to be recruited and retained,” Lalasz said. ?“We need money for staff and support on the front lines, not for money to be given upwards, or pocketed.” 

This would be the third time in the past two years that SEIU Local 73 went on strike in conjunction with a fellow union. In 2019, Local 73 workers at Chicago Public Schools hit the picket lines alongside their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union. And last year, 4,000 Local 73 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike at the same time as hundreds of UIC nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association.

Besides its members at CCH, nearly 1,000 SEIU Local 73 members at Cook County Jail and other county offices are also set to strike on Thursday. 

Both Local 73 and NNOC have expressed disappointment in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is the ultimate decision-maker on management’s side. Preckwinkle, who doubles as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 on a pro-union platform with the backing of Chicago’s progressive unions.

“For years I’ve worked in politics, particularly with Toni Preckwinkle, who said she would work with the unions to ensure they had contracts with fair wages. She’s turned her back on us,” said veteran civil rights activist James Phipps, a Local 73 member who works at the county clerk’s office. 

Preckwinkle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she issued a statement last week calling the staffing shortage at CCH ?“a mutually shared concern.” Regarding management’s demand to raise health insurance costs for workers, she said it has been six years since the last hike and that a new increase ?“is needed in this round of bargaining.”

“It doesn’t matter, you have a billion dollars in Covid relief money and yet you’re asking us to double our healthcare and only take a minimal increase in pay,” Lalasz said in response to Preckwinkle’s statement. ?“We shouldn’t be the people who are suffering…Without us doing the work we do, this hospital system will not function.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst


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Volvo Workers in Virginia Vote Down Bad Contract by 90 Percent—Again

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Jane slaughter (@Tracey_barmaid) | Twitter

Auto workers at Volvo’s truck plant in southwest Virginia have just voted down a concessionary contract by 90 percent—for the second time. Now they’re back on strike.

“The International union has been down here twice for town halls,” said Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2069 member Rhonda Sisk. “Each time we say ‘take it back, it’s garbage,’ and they just say they think it’s a good contract, but they don’t say why.”

The first vote came May 16, after a two-week strike that began April 17. Many workers were dismayed when their union sent them back to work and said they would be told later what had been bargained. When terms were finally revealed, they were outraged.

Apparently undeterred by the resounding rejection, union officials brought back a second agreement just four days later that workers described as nearly identical to the first. They voted no June 6, and officials announced the resumption of the strike at noon today.

“They made a billion-dollar profit off our labor and we got nothing,” said Sisk, a three-year assembler in the chassis department.

GET RID OF TWO-TIER

The 2,900 members had voted by 98 percent to authorize the first strike. Though union officials were close-mouthed about bargaining goals, rank and filers wanted to get rid of the two-tier wage system they had worked under for years.

The strike was solid, shutting down the largest Volvo truck manufacturing facility in the world.

It wasn’t easy finding out the first tentative agreement’s contents. A “highlights” pamphlet was distributed, but unlike the UAW’s practice at the Big 3 automakers, the entire proposed agreement was not put online. Workers could get a copy at the union hall, and soon the thick document was brought into the plant and copied.

One of the biggest insults in the first agreement, according to Sisk, was raising the cost of health care. Out-of-pocket costs would rise by the end of the contract to $2,000 a year, with a $4,000 deductible.

Under the current contract, workers are divided into “core”—those with more than 15 years’ seniority—and “competitive.” New hires start at $16.77 and get a dollar more each year for five years, up to a max of $21.77—far less than the core top pay of $30.02. Under the rejected agreement, though there are raises, “tiers are there to stay,” Sisk said. New hires in one assembler classification, for example, would get to $27 by 2026.

Language would have allowed union officials to agree to an unspecified Alternative Work Schedule such as “four 10-hour days, alternate shift operations, or other alternate schedules based on the needs of the business.” Time-and-a-half pay over eight hours in a day would be gone. These alternative schedules are popular with management at the Big 3 automakers—and very unpopular with many auto workers.

Another clause would have made workers take 40 hours of vacation in order to use FMLA.

A worker in the second-tier, “competitive” classification, who asked that his name not be used, said he wants a contract like the UAW’s pact at Mack Trucks (also owned by Volvo) in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Maryland, which “is like 40 times better.” That contract was won after a strike in fall 2019. He wants to see all workers reach top pay after three years of work. (In the 1970s, before the era of concessions began, new hires reached top pay after 90 days.)

HOW THEY REJECTED

A private Facebook group with 1,900 members was part of angry members’ organizing but, Sisk said, “most of it was just sitting and talking with people who had been there longer than we had.” There were no leaflets; members were forbidden to campaign during the vote at the union hall (where there was a police presence all day), nor were they allowed to observe the vote count.

One high-seniority worker posted a video of himself sitting on a toilet. He has cut up the tentative agreement and taped it around a toilet paper roll. A voice asks, “Dad, what do you think of the contract?” Another worker posted a picture of people burning the tentative agreement.

International officials tried to sell the first contract. “We thought Ray Curry would be there, who negotiated our contract,” Sisk said, “but he did not show up.” Curry is the UAW Secretary-Treasurer and head of the Heavy Truck Department; insiders say he will head the union’s “Administration Caucus” ticket when officers are elected next year.

At a contract information meeting, Dave Snyder of the International’s Heavy Truck Department became so exasperated with Sisk’s questions that he told her, “If you don’t like the agreement, you can go work somewhere else.”

“That blew up,” Sisk said.

The “competitive” worker said local officials did not campaign for the first contract. “It feels like it’s more the International than anything,” he said. “They’re playing more of a role than they should. The union is saying we gotta answer to the International, and whatever the International wants to do, they’ll do it. And we had no say or fight in that.”

To try to ensure a fair vote, workers encouraged each other to bring a black pen to mark their ballots. (When they had elected the bargaining team, officials told them to use pencil, and many workers think that election was fraudulent.) They took pictures of their “no” ballots alongside their company badges; Sisk—who had predicted the 90 percent no vote well before it happened—said that hundreds of such pictures were posted to Facebook.

On the first day back in the plant after the first vote, officials circulated a survey asking members’ top five issues to fix. “Everybody’s saying, ‘It’s more than five!’” Sisk said. “They’re filling up the page front and back.”

“You can take that piece of trash back to the table and let them know we are not weak pushovers and if they want to continue using the best truck builders in the world as they call us then they can give us a fair contract!!” said one worker on the local’s Facebook page.

When some workers began a petition to recall the discredited bargaining team, using union bylaws, officials threatened that their move was illegal, accused them of union-busting, and called them communists.

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 7, 2021. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jane Slaughter is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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