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).