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“This is Not Just a Steelworker Issue”

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berry craigShowing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
The link to the petition is http://wh.gov/Reqy.
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills.  “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

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Union-Haters Want to Make Public Employees Public Enemies

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bill-londrigan1Since the November elections attacks on public employees and their unions have exploded.  Everywhere you turn you read of attacks on public sector workers, from teachers to janitors, firefighters to administrators.  Wealthy right-wing corporations and their political pawns and media enablers have tried to make public employees into public enemies.

Even in union-dense states like California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Ohio, public employees and their unions are suddenly in the crosshairs of right-wingers hell-bent on starving state budgets along with public employees and their unions.  Attacks on public employees and their unions are nothing new.  For decades public employees have been scapegoats for right-wing government haters who have accused them of doing nothing while falsely claiming that they make considerably more money than their private sector counterparts.

To fully appreciate the significance of the present attack on public employee unions it must be considered in the context of the four decade war being waged by corporate America against the American labor movement.  Over the past forty-plus years corporations and their political pawns have systematically attacked unions in each economic sector having significant density as well as political and economic power.  In the late 1960s large corporations, working in concert, decided the time was right to wage a serious, well-organized and well-financed war on the American labor movement.  The era of cooperation, conciliation and collective bargaining of the 1940s, 1950s and part of the 1960s was tossed on the proverbial ash heap of history.

We can look back and see the carnage that the corporate war on workers and their unions has wrought: a decline in wages, benefits, unions and jobs–while corporations and the wealthiest one-percent have amassed the largest concentrations of wealth in history.

It may come as a surprise to many that the current assault on public employee unions has its roots in the late 1960s when a deliberate, well-organized and financed effort by 200 of America’s largest corporations to destroy the building trades unions got underway.  With the organization of the Construction Users’ Anti-Inflation Roundtable, chaired by U.S. Steel’s Roger Blough, the largest U.S. industrial corporations dependent upon the skilled union trades organized around the desire to have their projects built and maintained without having to pay union wages and benefits.  The “Roundtable” commissioned a series of studies designed to provide cover for their efforts to undermine the building trades unions and began giving unwarranted competitive advantages to nonunion contractors.

This original “Roundtable” later merged with another corporate backed anti-labor organization known as the Labor Law Study Committee to form the Business Roundtable.  Of the many schemes hatched by the Business Roundtable was the conspiracy to award billions of dollars of industrial construction work to the largest nonunion contractors in the nation.  To make this a reality they helped establish the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) as the counterpoint to the well organized labor/management committees among the union sector of the construction industry.  The ABC became the mechanism for challenging the supremacy of union construction in every market in the nation and one of the most vehemently anti-union organizations in the nation.

In May 1979, J.C. Turner, President of the International Union of Operating Engineers, made the following observations:

“It has become apparent that a systematic and well planned campaign is being conducted to totally destroy the building trades… the current attack is the result of a decade of planning and groundwork by the Business Roundtable acting in concert with regional and local construction user associations, the contractor associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pro-business academic institutions and their allies in government… Our real enemy is clearly these large industrial concerns, organized as the Business Roundtable, who are using the contractors and their associations as soldiers in the battle.  Their purpose is to put the lid on costs by pressuring their construction contractors to slash wages… The Business Roundtable represents a threat not just to the building trades unions but to the trade union movement as a whole… If corporate America can weaken the hard-won gains of this country’s construction unions, the ultimate target will be the entire trade union movement…”

Double-breasting, where union contractors establish so-called alter ego nonunion firms to compete with and undermine their own union companies became rampant. The federal government purposefully failed to enforce federal prevailing wage and workplace safety laws.   Legal restrictions, such as repeal of common situs picketing further restricted building trades’ efforts to maintain or expand market share and membership.

While the corporate assault on the building trades unions was in full swing, it gained a powerful ally when Ronald Reagan became President on January 20, 1981.  Following his election Reagan wasted no time and quickly met with the president of the ABC and signaled his strong support for the war on the building trades unions.

Reagan’s alliance with the Business Roundtable and the ABC was certainly not his only contribution to union busting.  On August 5, 1981, in the single most infamous act of anti-unionism in memory Reagan fired striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).

PATCO was a good target for Reagan since PATCO was a “professional” organization and was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  Lacking critical relationships necessary for support and solidarity in times of crisis it was unlikely that the rest of the labor movement would rise up and defend this small, professional, independent organization that may have made a grave tactical error by calling a prohibited work stoppage.  PATCO had endorsed and supported Reagan in his campaign for president, adding to its outsider identity and alienation from the rest of the labor movement.

It is universally agreed that by firing and decertifying PATCO, Reagan signaled to employers that his administration would be complicit in the corporate war on workers and their unions.  Reagan’s actions were just the opposite of what FDR had accomplished for unions when he declared, “If I went to work in a factory the first thing I’d do is join a union.”  FDR, through his words, deeds and legislation did more to spur the growth of unions in America than any single political leader in history.  Reagan’s actions accomplished just the opposite and began an era of union busting in which high paid consultants used every legal and illegal trick in the books, with the assistance and cooperation of the Reagan NLRB and DOL, to harass unions and thwart organizing at every turn.

Reagan’s action ushered in an era in which the use of permanent striker replacements became the norm, effectively nullifying labor’s most powerful weapon – the strike.  In disputes where workers engaged in work stoppages to pressure employers into negotiating reasonable terms and conditions, employers emboldened and encouraged by Reagan’s treatment of PATCO, simply hired permanent striker replacements and eliminated the persuasive impact of work stoppages as a means of pressuring employers to bargain in good faith.

The extent to which the use of permanent replacements became the favored method to undermine the effect of strikes is borne out by the fact that strikes have become virtually non-existent and are no longer considered a very useful weapon.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2009 (the latest year available) the number of work stoppages reached it lowest level since 1947, when they first began collecting data on work stoppages.

With the building trades unions on the defensive, PATCO busted and the use of permanent striker replacements widespread, the next major assault on organized labor focused on industrial unions like the United Auto Workers, United Steel Workers, Machinists, IUE, etc.  It came in the form of so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA and provided employers with another mechanism to undermine unions by placing American workers directly in competition with much lower paid workers in other countries.  With unionized workers in industries like auto, steel and aerospace making the highest wages and benefits they became primary targets of employers wanting to lower labor costs and the most vulnerable to foreign outsourcing.

Under not-so-free-trade agreements corporations can simply close down factories and move them to Mexico, India, China or wherever.  Corporations pay little or no tariffs on the products they export back to the U.S.  On top of that they can get tax breaks for moving good-paying union jobs to foreign countries.  What a great deal!  Also, foreign corporations that agree to operate non-union factories in America, like large auto assembly plants, receive huge tax breaks, incentives and other competitive advantages over the unionized domestic producers and you get the same result–workers pitted against each other between unionized and non-union employers.

Not-so-free-trade-agreements, which facilitate the movement of factories to foreign countries, are an extension of the old “runaway shop” used by corporations for more than a century to run away from union shops in the heavy unionized industrial northeast and Midwest.  Prior to the not-so-free-trade agreement era corporations ran away to southern states where adherence to Jim Crow, right-to-work-for-less and other traditions kept unions from expanding and gaining political and economic power.

Not-so-free-trade can be thought of as the runaway shop on steroids and has become an effective and widespread tool for getting rid of American unions and cowing those that remain.  Corporations don’t really have to get their hands dirty either.  They really don’t have to hire high priced union busting attorneys.  They really don’t have to deal with the NLRB or DOL.  All they have to do is close the plant and move it to a foreign country where unions are weak, compliant or nonexistent and cooperative governments keep workers in line and union power to a minimum.  Not-so-free-trade agreements have wiped out millions of good-paying American manufacturing jobs–a disproportionate number of these union jobs.

Now it is the public sector unions that are in the crosshairs of anti-union politicians and their corporate bosses.  Given the history of anti-unionism in America over the past forty years it should come as no surprise they are now the target of large scale coordinated union busting.  Just as the building trades and industrial unions have been targeted for destruction, public employees are now facing a gauntlet of anti-unionism aimed squarely at them.  With more public sector employees belonging to unions than those in the private sector (7.9 million v. 7.4 million) and union membership rates for public sector workers substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (37.4% v. 7.2%) it should come as no surprise that public sector unions are now the primary targets in the corporate war on workers and their unions.

The preceding condensed version of the last forty years of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions brings to mind one of the most moving and incisive quotations over the consequences of being divided against a common enemy.  It is from Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) referring to the rise of Nazi power in Germany and the complicity of those who failed to act to prevent the spread of the Nazi plague:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Using Pastor Niemoller’s words as a template and with profound respect, I would submit the following requiem for American workers for their complicity in or ignorance of the corporate war on America’s workers and their unions:

Requiem for The American Worker First they attacked the building trades unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of the building trades;

Then they fired the air traffic controllers,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not an air traffic controller;

Then they shipped millions of union manufacturing jobs overseas,
and I did not speak out –
because I did not work in a union shop;

Then they vilified and attacked public sector unions,
and I did not speak out –
because I was not a member of a public employee union;

Then I needed a union –
and there were none left to speak out for me.

*This post originally appeared in Union Review on January 26, 2010.

About the Author: Bill Londrigan is President of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.

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Hilda Solis’ Approach is a Departure From the Policies of Predecessor Elaine Chao

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Image: Richard NegriThis is an AP story written by SAM HANANEL. I am reposting to UnionReview.com with the hope of spreading the news.

Soon after she became the nation’s labor secretary, Hilda Solis warned corporate America there was “a new sheriff in town.”

Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable. Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.

The changes are a departure from the policies of Solis’ predecessor, Elaine Chao. They follow through on President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to boost funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, increase enforcement and safeguard workers in dangerous industries.

Solis made a splash in October when OSHA slapped the largest fine in its history on oil giant BP PLC for failing to fix safety problems after a 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions — an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.

Some business groups say they prefer a more cooperative approach between government and businesses — what the Bush administration called “compliance assistance.”

“Our members are concerned that the department is shifting its focus from compliance assistance back to more of the ‘gotcha’ or aggressive enforcement first approach,” said Karen Harned, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business’ small business legal center.

Other business leaders point out that the rate of workplace deaths and injuries actually fell to record lows in the previous administration, while the agency also helped employees collect a record amount of back pay for overtime and minimum wage violations. Chao has claimed that success was the result of cooperating with businesses to help them understand the myriad regulations.

Keith Smith, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his members “want to build upon that progress and recognize what’s working.”

But a November report from the Government Accountability Office suggested there is widespread underreporting of workplace safety issues. Investigators cited evidence that some employers pressure workers not to report illnesses and injuries and urged OSHA to be more aggressive in verifying business records.

Labor Department spokesman Jaime Zapata said the idea of helping businesses understand the rules remains an important part of the agency’s strategy, along with stepped-up enforcement. Solis plans to hire 100 new OSHA inspectors next year.

“Compliance assistance was not a creation of the last administration,” Zapata said.

The changes have drawn praise from organized labor leaders who spent millions to help get Obama elected. Solis, a former California congresswoman and daughter of immigrant parents who were both union members, is a favorite of labor unions and a longtime advocate for workers’ rights.

“We will not rest until the law is followed by every employer, and each worker is treated and compensated fairly,” Solis said last month as she described a new national public awareness campaign to make sure workers know their rights on the job.

The massive fine against BP certainly caught the public’s attention, but other businesses are also paying a steep price for violating safety rules.

Two months into the new fiscal year, OSHA has already cited six companies for “egregious” violations that carry the highest penalties. There were only four such egregious cases in all of the previous year.

Solis said her agency this year will tackle 90 new rules and regulations next year. One change would give workers more information about how their pay is computed. Another would make employers disclose whether they sought advice from anti-union labor consultants.

*This post originally appeared in The Union Review on January 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

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Free Trade Gets Some Fresh Thinking

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The Obama administration has taken some nice first steps toward a more worker-friendly vision of global trade. New free trade agreements pushed by the Bush Administration, such as those with Colombia and South Korea, are apparently getting some deep re-thinking – or at least, being put on the back burner while the new Administration sorts out climate change, health care and domestic trade union rights. And refreshingly, on July 16, the new United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a more proactive strategy to enforce labor provisions in existing free trade agreements. Here’s what’s new under the sun.

First, a bit of explanation about what he’s talking about. Existing free trade agreements from NAFTA on through the most recent deals require our trade partners- at least on paper- to enforce their labor laws and to try to live up to international labor standards.  So what’s so striking about USTR Kirk saying that the Administration wants to make sure existing language in our trade deals is enforced?

In truth, no prior administration has ever sought to actually take the initiative when it comes to these provisions. Instead, we have assumed that of course all our trade partners are enforcing labor rights protections- except when someone points out they aren’t. In other words, enforcement of these provisions has been carried out largely on a complaint-driven basis. This model can’t really work, as the people who are most affected- the most exploited workers in the countries with which we trade- just don’t have practical means to access the mechanisms that have been set up for filing complaints. Thus, not surprisingly, very few complaints get filed, no matter how many abuses actually occur. Even when complaints do get filed- for instance, my organization, ILRF, filed about a dozen cases on behalf of Mexican workers in the early years of NAFTA- those cases take years to resolve, and workers see little return for the effort of engaging in the process.

But there is no downside to the US Trade Representative taking a new look at how we enforce these deals- and, we hope, finding a better way to do it. Real enforcement of the labor provisions in trade deals would be a win-win for both US workers and workers overseas.  Promoting policies that protect workers in other countries makes good sense for the US, economically.  Creating decent and sustainable jobs that raise developing country workers into the middle class is a win-win for workers and businesses, as it expands markets for US and global products. That has long been the main moral argument for more global trade- although few have cared to deal with the ugly reality that many workers in export industries in these countries have been getting sweatshop jobs, not decent jobs, and have not been able, in their lifetimes, to afford the goods they are producing.

Poor working conditions in developing nations not only strip laborers in those countries of their rights, but also create unfair competition in the global labor market. This global “race to the bottom” leads to degradation of conditions, to the increase in ‘sweatshop jobs,’ here at home. We need to bring up the bottom for everyone.

It’s great that USTR Kirk wants to hold trading partners accountable for labor rights, and would be even better if the new Administration sought ways to hold investors- the multinational companies that chase cheap labor around the globe- accountable as well. This would get us past the current ‘free trade’ model to one of what we might call fair trade. For example, we should be supporting terms of trade requiring that investors who benefit from trade deals agree to a floor of decent wages and working conditions that ultimately enable workers to lift themselves out of poverty, and should reward governments that institute laws and policies to regulate ‘footloose’ investors and require companies to make long-term commitments to investments- and their workforce- in developing countries. This is in all of our long term interests.

About the Author: Bama Athreya
is the Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum.

This article originally appeared on Union Review on August 4, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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Struggling Through Tough Times

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It is not always easy to be a cheering squad for organized labor in these times. Unions across the country are cracking into contracts to give concessions, bargaining away rights to keep jobs and, really, it is pretty messy out here for workers and the unions that represent them. I am getting a lot of email and phone calls from a lot of
disgusted people and everyone is asking in one way or another the same question … why? I don’t know specific answers, but I feel it, too.

The economic crisis gave a sense of militancy to employers for their demands in give-backs. The same militancy, unfortunately, the union movement lacks. The Employee Free Choice Act, the one piece of legislation that the workers’ movement is NOT divided on, is taking a beating from the right wing Capitalists who fear fines if a first contract is not signed within a given time frame, who fear majority sign up, who fear that working people might just have a voice in their workplace and threaten their bottom line. The millions of dollars that are spent on fighting the Employee Free Choice Act is working, and it is a shame. Working people deserve the right to organize a union
without fear and retribution, without the harassment the other side says it fears will come from the organizing unions.

There is not a day in the week that another article pops up from somewhere in the  country spilling lies or exaggerations about EFCA – online articles that allow for comments, and all of the comments are against the unions and working people. The sad stuff is that the comments are probably written by people who carry union cards! There
is so much misinformation and lack of union-to-rank-and-file communication that, well, it is pathetic. It needs to change.

I am of the opinion that one of the ways to counter the negative perception of unions is through education, and doing it online more so than anywhere else. Online organizing and mobilizing just happens to be where my skills (and my trade) are, but lately I find it hard to spread out any news but bad news. But that’s how it goes, labor is riding a weird wave right now, it seems. My biggest concern is that our failure to resist the endless concessions is lowering the standards of all workers – organized or not.

While the news of the day might appear more bleak than usual, there is definitely a ton of good stuff to embrace. The problem is that not a lot of people are forwarding that stuff anymore because we are absorbed with the negative. I do try to promote the good stuff on UnionReview.com and on other sites to do my part in changing the
perception of labor unions. And, if there is anything that the online community has taught me is that I am not alone. We are a growing community of workers concerned about our rights, our unions and each other. While labor leaders and Washington politics at times appear to be leading us astray, we stay firm in our own militancy and mindset to right the wrongs that affect us in a struggle we’d been fighting a
long time.

I continue to see the good fight being fought and won with campaigns driven by workers for workers and won for workers. And I will continue to spread as much of that around, it is just impossible today to not acknowledge the other realities we are all facing in these times.

Richard Negri: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This article originally appeared on Union Review on August 1, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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FedEx Threatens to “Destroy” Members of Congress

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FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s arrogant campaign of threats and intimidation continued this week when his top spokesman threatened to take down members of Congress who oppose FedEx’s position on a key piece of legislation.

When asked about FedEx’s multi-million dollar ad campaign against the legislation that is reported to launch on Tuesday, June 9, top FedEx flack Maury Lane told U.S. News and World Report in a story posted in The White House Bulletin, “I’m going to try to destroy them.”

This follows Smith’s repeated threats to cancel a $10 billion contract to purchase Boeing 777 planes if FedEx Express workers were moved under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

FedEx clearly threatened in a March 24, 2009 SEC filing, and Smith reiterated in testimony before Congress in May, that its contract to purchase additional aircraft from Boeing is contingent upon its labor relations for all of its employees being governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Under this provision, if Congress dares to grant even a portion of its workers the rights enjoyed by most American private sector employees under the NRLA, FedEx has the right to cancel those purchase orders.

“Fred Smith and FedEx breed a culture of arrogance,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “First, they cut wages, increase medical insurance premiums and eliminate pension benefits for its employees. Then they try to blackmail Congress with threats to pull the Boeing contract. Now they threaten to destroy the political careers of those who oppose them.”

Currently, all workers at FedEx Express are covered by the RLA regardless of whether they have any direct relationship with the operation or maintenance of the air fleet. This includes package delivery drivers, workers at sorting facilities and truck mechanics.

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation on May 21 that is a part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization and would place those workers under the NLRA, the statute that protects virtually all other private sector workers. Under the NLRA, workers may organize by individual terminals while the RLA requires a more difficult path to unionization that requires a national vote by every worker at FedEx Express. The reauthorization bill is currently awaiting action in the Senate.

“It’s astonishing that Fred Smith and his flacks will go to any length to boost FedEx’s profits at the expense of American workers and the economy,” said Ken Hall, Director of the Teamsters Package Division. “By threatening to destroy members of Congress, FedEx’s efforts to manipulate the American system of government have crossed the line.”

About the Author: Richard Negri is the founder of UnionReview.com and is the Online Manager for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

This article originally appeared in Union Review on June 5, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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