Monday, March 24, 2008

Teamsters rolling up organizing, contract wins

By Mark Gruenberg
Press Associates

WASHINGTON -- Little-noticed in the tumult of the presidential campaign an the teetering economy, the Teamsters have racked up a series of organizing and contract wins, and may be on the verge of another, at United Air Lines.

The wins range from signing up approximately two-thirds of the workers at UPS Freight -- the former Overnite Express -- to breaking into the Deep South bastion of Mobile, Ala., by first winning a recognition vote last July and then getting a contract last month, with the help of the NAACP, at the New Era cap company there.

The Teamsters’ organizing wins, especially the Overnite and New Era drives, were cited at the Take Back America conference of progressives in Washington from March 17-19.

The first was as an example of what could happen elsewhere if the Employee Free Choice Act, leveling the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, was law. The second, New Era, was cited as an example of how partnership between unions and outside community groups, in that case with the nation’s oldest and most-respected civil rights organization, benefits workers.

But the overall list of wins is long and getting longer:

* By a 52-0 margin, Teamsters local leaders ratified a new national agreement with DHL Express, the first such national master contract with the firm in years. Teamsters nationwide are now voting on it.

But negotiating committee chair Del Slawson Sr., in a mailing to members, had to fend off some critical questions, including denying the contract bans the right to strike. He said it is banned only in cases where conflict can be settled by the grievance/ arbitration procedure -- and that if DHL refuses to obey the verdict from that, the Teamsters can still strike. He also said the firm’s German parent company and investors “would be watching closely,” since DHL lost almost $1 billion last year.

“Nevertheless, we believe this contract gives our members excellent wage increases…while preserving the flexibility the company needs,” Slawson added.

* National car-haul bargaining began March 17. The contract expires May 31. “The union is committed to protecting members’ jobs and to maintain members’ health, welfare and pension benefits,” said Car-haul Division Director Fred Zuckerman. That bargaining follows the recently ratified National Master Freight Agreement.

* The Teamsters successfully petitioned for a representation election among the remaining mechanics at Chicago-based United Air Lines. And one big issue, which Teamsters President James Hoffa pointed out in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, is just how few UAL mechanics there are left.

In 1999, he noted, United employed almost 16,000 mechanics in the U.S. Though Hoffa did not say so, the Machinists represented them. IAM was ousted by an independent union -- called a “rogue union” and a pro-management union by others -- the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, in 2003. In AMFA’s first years there, through 2006, 3,289 UAL mechanics lost their jobs. UAL, Hoffa told the FAA, now has fewer than 5,000 U.S. mechanics. The rest of its maintenance work is outsourced overseas.

The Teamsters use that job loss to argue they would better represent UAL mechanics. And Hoffa told the FAA the outsourcing of two-thirds of the mechanics’ jobs overseas raises safety questions he wants the agency to probe.

There is one catch to the UAL vote. Since airlines are under the Railway Labor Act, either the Teamsters or AMFA must get an absolute majority of all voters -- not just those who cast ballots -- or there will be no union at all.

* The UPS Freight win, at the former Overnite Express, came after Overnite was sold to the larger shipping firm, where the Teamsters have a contract with a card-check recognition clause. That clause is similar to a key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act, Change to Win Executive Director Greg Tarpinian said.

“The Teamsters’ latest try at Overnite was one terminal at a time,” Tarpinian explained, getting NLRB and court rulings whenever the trucking firm broke labor law, which it repeatedly did. “In 1999, they called a nationwide strike -- but it was busted.

“Fast forward 10 years” and UPS has bought Overnite “though Overnite management stayed the same. But in the last two months, the Teamsters have rolled through Overnite with card-check and organized 10,000 workers there with the equivalent of EFCA.” The latest groups are in Richfield, Ohio and in Pennsylvania.

* The New Era win, with the NAACP’s clout added in, came first last July and then earlier this month, said Hillary Shelton, director of the civil rights group’s Washington office. “What most people don’t realize,” he said, “is that unions brought African-Americans into the middle class” once the union movement overcame its own racial history. Before the union movement brought in blacks, they “had been in a U.S.-based apartheid system that locked people out of jobs if they were people of color.”

That’s what happened at New Era, and that’s why the NAACP got involved in the Teamsters campaign there. New Era’s largest plant, in Buffalo, is unionized with the Communications Workers, but its other plants were not.

After the 111 workers at Mobile voted for IBT Local 991 -- following a company campaign that included illegal firing of 20 of them -- New Era stalled in bargaining a first contract. The NAACP and the Teamsters, in a February press conference, brought pressure on the firm, which manufactures caps for major league baseball teams and other professional and college sports teams, through a public report on its abuses.

The resulting publicity got the company to negotiate a contract, Shelton added. “With a stroke of a pen, salaries went from $8 an hour to $18 an hour. They got life insurance across-the-board. They got health insurance across-the-board and they got the most comprehensive anti-discrimination policy in history” for a mostly African-American workforce, he said. All but three of the fired workers were reinstated, and their cases went to arbitration. And New Era agreed to a company neutrality clause in union organizing at its other two cap plants, in Jackson and Demopolis, Ala. The Teamsters will try to organize Jackson and CWA will go after Demopolis.

Acuff: Lack of worker rights is a ‘values crisis’ and economic crisis

WASHINGTON (PAI) -- The lack of worker rights in the U.S. is “a values crisis” as well as an economic crisis, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff says,.

Speaking to a session on worker rights at the Take Back America conference in Washington in March 18, Acuff explained that lack of worker rights also endangers democracy. “When workers are denied the freedom to associate, sooner or later economic inequality trumps and overwhelms political democracy,” he warned the crowd.

But Acuff was preaching to the choir -- and there weren’t many of them. The sparse crowd in the meeting room were mostly unionists or staffers for unions. And conference delegates from other progressive interest groups were notably absent.

Nevertheless, Acuff, one of four speakers at the seminar, said workers need the help of the other progressive groups to restore workers’ rights, particularly by passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

The bill, which passed the Democratic-run House last year but which was halted by a GOP Senate filibuster, would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. It would outlaw boss-run “captive audience” meetings that force workers to sit through anti-union diatribes or face discipline.

The bill would also impose triple damages and other fines for labor law-breaking, write card-check recognition of unions into law, and would make it easier to get court orders against labor law-breakers. And it would also mandate arbitration between employers and unions if the two sides can’t agree on a first contract.

Acuff said progressive support for passing EFCA next year is particularly necessary because big business and its Radical Right allies will spend millions of dollars to defeat it with misinformation, lobbying and campaign contributions.

“We have had this fight before, and we have won it before” when the original National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935, Acuff said. “But we can’t win it without a fight…and we can’t do it by ourselves,” he added, urging conference participants and their organizations to be part of labor’s million-person mobilization for the bill.

But Acuff repeatedly returned to the key role unions play in making the U.S. a livable country for millions, not just for the rich. Passage of EFCA, its signature by a pro-worker president next year, would help lead to “universal health care and a just economy,” he said. And he reminded listeners of the debt they owe unions: “The labor movement has always been the engine for a progressive movement.”

Federation proposes 7-part trade agenda

SAN DIEGO (PAI) -- The AFL-CIO is proposing a 7-part agenda for changing U.S. trade and a “strategic pause” halting bad trade pacts that lack labor rights is just one section of it.

In proposals that go far beyond what either Democratic presidential hopeful -- much less GOP presidential nominee John McCain -- says, the federation’s agenda covers everything from currency rules to dealing with Colombia’s murders of unionists, from “insanely inefficient and unfair” corporate taxes to global combat of global warming, and from import safety to trade law enforcement.

It even wants transparency in investment rules applied to foreign governments’ sovereign wealth funds that are investing in, or taking over, U.S. businesses.

“While trade issues have recently taken center stage in the Democratic primary debate, too often politicians an the media treat our trade problem as a separate and secondary issue that can be treated with small tweaks in trade policy or worker displacement programs,” said the federation’s Executive Council, meeting in San Diego.

“To the contrary, our struggle to compete successfully in the global economy is intricately connected to the other challenges the U.S. economy and working families are facing,” the March 4 statement added. Its proposals to fix trade problems included:

* A strategic pause in new trade pacts “until we can build a comprehensive new trade policy that will support creation of good jobs at home.” That pause applies to both bilateral trade treaties, few of which have enforceable workers’ rights, and a new World Trade Organization agreement.

In a separate statement, the federation declared it would work to have Congress defeat the anti-worker GOP Bush regime’s proposed “free trade” pact with Colombia. It cited the lack of labor rights there, the pact’s lack of enforcement, unsolved murders of 2,500 unionists -- most of them by Right Wing “paramilitaries” -- and the Colombian government’s “systematic attack on workers’ rights and on unions.”

* “Urgent attention” to “our unbalanced trade relationship” with China. It urged lawmakers to approve “comprehensive trade bill” against Chinese currency manipulation and Chinese government subsides to its industry and for stronger U.S. trade enforcement.

* Reforming the corporate tax system, which the fed said gives U.S. businesses a $7 billion-$9 billion yearly subsidy -- through a tax exemption for offshore income -- to
move jobs offshore. “Our current system taxes profits earned on exports while subsidizing offshoring of jobs. We need a complete overhaul of our corporate tax system to address this competitive disadvantage. This outdated loophole must be closed.”

* Stronger, more effective trade law enforcement, including measures “to ensure WTO negotiations and actions do not undermine our ability to use our laws effectively.”

* Ensuring import safety. Though the federation statement did not say so, the main culprits in unsafe imports -- of cat food, toys and even smaller items -- are the main producer of dangerous items in dangerous working conditions, China, and the main importer of Chinese goods, the violently anti-union anti-worker giant Wal-Mart.

* Transparency -- meaning applying the same financial disclosure standards -- to funds set up by foreign governments to invest in U.S. firms, as well as firms in other developed nations. Such Sovereign Wealth Funds hold half of the stock, for example, in a Cincinnati chemical company that both mistreats its Steel Workers-represented workers and severely fouls the area environment. Dubai Ports World, which tried to buy six U.S. ports last year, before retreating under fire, is also government-owned.

“These funds are (foreign) government-directed and their investments may dramatically reshape our markets. We cannot allow them to jeopardize the jobs and livelihoods of our members,” the federation statement said.

* Ensuring that all nations act against climate change. This has been a key complaint of several U.S. unions with the Kyoto climate change treaty. The pact imposed virtually no environmental controls on the increasingly befouled atmosphere created by India, other developing nations, and especially China. Particulates from China now account, federal studies say, for much of the pollution over the west coast.

“We need to ensure that when we act domestically to address the challenge of climate change, our trading partners also take commensurate actions. Otherwise, we will lose our own jobs as production moves to the least-regulated countries and global emissions will actually worsen,” the federation warned. “WTO rules must accommodate trade-related measures to coordinate responses to global environmental challenges.”

“We ace enormous solutions, but politically viable solutions are within reach. No single action will get us out of the hole we’re in” on trade issues “but addressing the tax, currency and trade policy pieces points us in the right direction,” the federation concluded.

Viet vets make pitch to unions for memorial dollars

SAN DIEGO (PAI) -- The man who was and is the moving force behind construction of the famed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is asking the nation’s unions for money for an interpretive center there.

Jan Scruggs, President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, addressed the AFL-CIO Executive Council on the issue on March 4, during the council’s meeting in San Diego.

Scruggs did not ask the federation as a whole for money for the $100 million interpretive center, which would be built on the Mall in Washington behind the memorial itself, said Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger. Instead, Scruggs asked the assembled leaders to commit to contributions from their individual unions, added Buffenbarger, who sponsored Scruggs’ visit.

“We’re in for big bucks,” pledging a contribution of $1 million, said Buffenbarger, whose union includes many veterans and represents many defense workers and aerospace workers. “There are several unions, headed by veterans, that we expect will get involved,” he added.

AFL-CIO reports net membership gain

SAN DIEGO (PAI) -- AFL-CIO member unions reported a net gain, overall, of approximately 40,000 members in the last year, figures in the federation’s membership report show. But that figure “does not reflect all of the newly organized workers” -- some 300,000 -- whom its unions signed up in 2007, Organizing Director Stewart Acuff said. “It doesn’t reflect workers who haven’t gotten their first contracts or those on whom unions have yet to pay per capita dues” to the federation, he added. Last year’s biggest net gains were by AFT (40,342), AFSCME (13,864) and the Machinists (12,484).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Holes remain in candidates’ health care plans: think tank

WASHINGTON (PAI)--A think tank that assembled a task force of experts two years ago to examine U.S. health care and draft principles for a comprehensive and affordable health care system, says there are holes of varying sizes in the health care plans of the top eight remaining Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

The analysis, issued by the Commonwealth Fund in mid-January, says the big problem with the four GOP contenders’ health care plans is they don’t cover everybody, while leaving individuals at the mercy of the market and giving them tax incentives many people can’t use.

Meanwhile the big problem with the four Democratic contenders’ plans is lack of figures on cost controls. And three of those four plans are extremely complex, too. The fund adds that three of the four would be paid for by rolling back GOP President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, but it points out that none of those plans provide a revenue figure.

The analysis comes as the AFL-CIO’s Working America affiliate launched its own online health care survey, designed to ask both union members and non-members about their health care coverage, and to gather stories in preparation for making health care the #1 domestic issue in this year’s campaign.

The survey asks people whether they are covered, their level of satisfaction, whether the price of insurance has risen -- but not by how much -- and whether they had to forgo prescriptions, procedures or doctors’ visits, among other things, due to cost.

It does not ask people if they favor alternatives to the present health care system, but there is a box for people to write in suggestions about “what they would tell policymakers” about health care.

In general, the Commonwealth Fund’s panel said the presidential hopefuls’ plans fall into three groups. The Republicans’ plans are far less detailed, the panel said. Former Govs. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) and Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.), former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) all would sever the link between employers and health insurance, throwing individuals and families onto the mercy of the market and the insurance companies. All also lack cost controls.

The fund also noted that by turning the market loose on individuals, the GOP proposals could only make a bad situation, where the number of uninsured has risen by 8.6 million since Bush took office, to 47 million, worse.

Three of the four Democrats -- Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- would keep the present mixed private-public system, but require everyone to buy insurance, with subsidies for low- and moderate-income people. Edwards would have penalties for those who don’t. They would also use regulation as a method of cost control, along with mandating insurers could not reject people because of age or pre-existing conditions.

The fourth Democrat, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), backs government-run single-payer health care, in essence expanding Medicare to cover the entire country, but without a role for the health insurers. But Kucinich, like the other Democrats, is somewhat vague on how much the expansion costs, the Commonwealth Fund said.

The fund’s commission reiterated the health care principles it unveiled two years ago, then measured the candidates’ proposals against them.

The principles included: “Provision of equitable and comprehensive insurance for all,” benefits to cover essential services with appropriate financial protection, premiums and deductibles and out-of-pocket payments “affordable relative to family income,” the broad pooling of health risks to cut costs, simple administration and coverage that is automatic from job to job, minimum dislocation when people switch jobs or move and financing that is “adequate, fair, and shared across stakeholders.”

“Measured against these principles, the mixed private-public group insurance with a shared responsibility for financing proposed by the leading” Democrats, plus Kucinich’s “public insurance reform proposals have the greatest potential to move the health care system toward high performance,” the fund’s panel concluded.

“Those approaches have the potential to provide everyone with comprehensive and affordable health insurance, achieve greater equity in access to care, realize efficiencies and cost savings in the provision of coverage and delivery of care, and redirect incentives to improve quality.

“However, from a pragmatic perspective, the mixed public-private approach,
which allows the more than 160 million people who now have employer-based health coverage to retain it--and does not require them to enroll in a new program as in the public insurance models,” like Kucinich’s does, “would cause far less dislocation.”

The Republican proposals, in so many words, flunk. “Proposals for reform
that rely on tax incentives and voluntary purchase of coverage in an unregulated individual insurance market are, on their own, unlikely to achieve universal coverage. Buying coverage in the individual market will continue to be challenging if tax incentives are not coupled with an individual mandate,” minimum benefits, bans on insurers’ cherry-picking and spending limits keyed to income.

The full analysis is at

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Teamsters voting on master freight pact

WASHINGTON (PAI) -- Approximately 75,000 Teamsters nationwide will vote, starting in mid-January, on theNational Master Freight Agreement the union reached with a group of trucking companies in mid-December. The vote will follow a Jan. 8 meeting at Teamsters headquarters in D.C. for local leaders to go over details of the 5-year pact, the union added.

Negotiators are recommending its ratification.

The new contract "provides good wage increases and protects members' jobs and their health, welfare and pension benefits," said lead negotiator Tyson Johnson, director of the IBT's National Freight Division, in a statement. "It also allows the unionized freight companies to better compete with the non-union companies and gives the unionized companies opportunities to grow business in new areas."

He added the pact improves the grievance procedure for workers and addresses the issue of excessive overtime, though he was not specific. The contact is with TMI, Trucking Management, Inc., the primary multi-employer bargaining arm of the unionized freight trucking industry. Unionized TMI member firms include Yellow Transportation, RoadwayExpress, USF Holland and New Penn.

Settlement details were withheld pending the meeting in D.C., but dissidents at Teamsters for a Democratic Union discussed some provisions. TDU conceded the proposal "secures the $1 an hour needed to protect our pensions and health benefits. It also contains concessions that severely weakenour contract," TDU claimed.

Among the alleged concessions: Letting "utility drivers" do both road and city work, with a slight pay premium, reportedly of $1 an hour; permission for the trucking companies to use "low-wage casual" drivers, part-timers who would earn $14 an hour, and; a 4-year pay progression scale for new hires, though the new hires would start at 85%, not 75%, of base pay.

"Reports indicate wage increases of $2.20 over the 5-year contract, ending in 2013," TDU said. "That would bean average of 1.9% increase per year. Reportedly it would be 50¢-40¢-45¢-40¢-45¢. Road mileage increases would be 1.25¢-1¢-1.125¢-1¢-1.125¢."

TDU also conceded the new pact included improved overtime language that "would limit overtime during layoffs through a formula that would require carriers to recall a laid-off Teamster if a certain number of excess OT hours are worked."