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Despite Promises, Colombia FTA Does Little to End Abuse of Labor Activists August 5, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Labor, Latin America.
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Published on Sunday, August 5, 2012 by Common Dreams


Assurances by both governments fail to end violence against workers

– Common Dreams staff

According to activists, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone. (Image AFL-CIO)

Despite repeated assurances from both the US and Colombian governments, labor leaders say that two months after the implementation of a bi-lateral trade deal between the two countries few meaningful protections for unionists have been implemented.

“We ask President (Barack) Obama to push for more guarantees for Colombian workers,” Miguel Conde, with Sintrainagro, a union representing workers on palm-oil plantations, said at at press event held at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. “In Colombia, it is easier to form an armed group than a trade union… because we still have no guarantees from the government.”

The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (Colombia FTA) was originally negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. Colombia—a country that for decades has been the most dangerous place in the world for trade union organizers— promsied to curtail the culture of murder and abuse, but human rights groups both inside and outside of Colombia warned against the deal. After several years, the US Congress ultimately approved the pact in October 2011, but only after the inclusion of a 37-point Labour Action Plan (LAP), designed to improving the conditions for Colombian workers and organizers.

The problem, according to activists interviewed by Al-Jazeera and a report recently released by the AFL-CIO, is that the protections are either not being implemented at all, or are insufficient to address the ongoing abuses.

“Though the LAP included some important measures that Colombian unions and the AFL-CIO have been demanding for years,” reads the AFL-CIO’s report (pdf), “its scope was too limited—it fully resolved neither the grave violations of union freedoms nor the continuing violence and threats against unionists and human rights defenders.”

“What happened since [implementation] is a surge in reprisals against almost all of the trade unions and labour activists that really believed in the Labour Action Plan,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, a rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a watchdog group, said at the report’s launch.

This included the April 27 killing of Daniel Aguirre, a labour leader who had helped to organise Colombia’s sugarcane workers. According to Sánchez-Garzoli, 34 Colombian trade unionists have been killed since the LAP was implemented, including 11 this year alone.

“There is no reason to believe that top officials are not making sincere efforts to make a change,” Celeste Drake, a trade policy expert with AFL-CIO, told Al-Jazeera.

“The problem is these changes cannot simply be made by people with good intentions at the top. It’s a culture within the government and throughout Colombia that for years has tolerated, condoned, promoted intolerance to the exercise of worker rights.”

Showing 2 comments

  • Yunzer, Direct Action Gets the Goods 1 comment collapsed CollapseExpand

    The savage neoliberal capitalist state of Colombia is a vile place. Don’t let Bogota’s liberal-bourgeois reputation deceive you on this.

    It is also a 1/8th scale model of what the USA will look like in a couple more decades. I see no countervailing political-economic force to counteract this trend, and hard lessons of history (Pinkertons/Baldwin Felts = Paramilitarios) to confirm it.

    Organize! Organize!

  • Suspiria_de_profundis 1 comment

    Do these poor workers really think Barack Obama CARES that their union leaders are being assassinated?

    Barack Obama is not a decent or just man in any way shape or form and he will only act on this if he sees it garnering him a political advantage,

    Political leaders that show genuine concern for the worker tend to be assassinated or toppled in some CIA sponsored action.

    The truth is that these workers can only appeal to the American people and if the American people either do not care or care but can not do anyhting because theor own media and political system is totally under control of the same Corporations making profits off the worker in Colombia, nothing will be done on tthe part of the United States of America.

    The Colombian people will have to rid themselves of their own Government.

The Democrats Attack Unions Nationwide May 16, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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By shamus cooke
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Obvious political truths are sometimes smothered by special interests. The cover-up of the Democrats’ national anti-union agenda is possible because the truth would cause enormous disturbances for the Democratic Party, some labor leaders, liberal organizations and, consequently, the larger political system.
Here is the short list of states that have Democratic governors where labor unions are undergoing severe attacks:   Massachusetts  , Connecticut, Oregon, California, New York, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland and New Hampshire. Other states with Democratic governors are attacking unions to a lesser degree.
The Democrats in these states have sought to distance themselves from the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who have specifically attacked the collective bargaining rights of unions. The above Democrats all hide their anti-union attacks behind a “deep respect for collective bargaining;” akin to a thief who will steal your car but, out of respect, will not target your deceased Grandma’s diamond earrings.
For example, the anti-union Democratic governor of Connecticut is demanding $1.6 billion in cuts from state workers! The contract has not been ratified yet, but Governor Malloy referred to the agreement as: “historic because of the way we achieved it – we respected the collective bargaining process and we respected each other, negotiating in good faith, without fireworks and without anger.”
The anti-union Democratic governor of the state of Washington uses similar language:
“They [labor unions] contributed [to fixing the state budget deficit] with a salary cut; they contributed by paying more in health care. They have stepped up and said we want to be a part of the solution. I did it by going to the table, respecting their collective bargaining rights and we got the job done.”
The anti-union Democratic governor of Oregon is demanding 20 to 25 percent pay cut for state workers:
“But [says the Governor] those concessions will be made across a bargaining table through our collective bargaining process and with mutual respect.”
This garbage normally wouldn’t fool a 4th grader, but some labor leaders are playing dumb, in the hopes that the above attacks will not ruin the long-standing friendship between unions and Democrats. Of course, such hopes are founded on illusion: workers are not so blind as to not notice that the governors they campaigned for are now demanding their wages and benefits be destroyed in an unprecedented attack.
But by minimizing the Democrats role in targeting unions, some labor leaders are disarming the labor movement. On the one hand, labor leaders of both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations have drawn some correct conclusions from the events in Wisconsin, especially when they say that “labor is in the fight of its life” and “the corporations are out to bust unions.” On the other hand, both union federations have made excuses for the anti-union Democratic Party, enabling labor to be vulnerable on its “left” flank to the anti-union attack.
The fight against massive cuts in wages and benefits cannot be separated from the attack on collective bargaining; they are two sides of the same coin. Workers only care about collective bargaining because it enables them to improve their wages and benefits. A union that agrees to massive cuts in wages will not remain a union for long, since workers will not want to pay dues to an organization that cannot protect them. Concessionary bargaining destroys the power of a union in the same way that cancer destroys the body; pulling the plug [ending collective bargaining] comes after losing a battle with cancer.
Fighting the concessionary cancer is the essence of the problem. This is the real lesson of Wisconsin: workers want to fight back against the nationwide attack against their livelihoods, whether it be wages and benefits or collective bargaining. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win realize this to a certain degree; they are separately creating campaigns to deal with the attack, with SEIU jumping out in front with its Fight for a Fair Economy.
These union campaigns are doomed to fail if the energy generated by them is funneled into the 2012 campaign for Barack Obama.
Any successful union campaign will require that massive resources and energy be used, since the attack workers are facing is colossal. If workers are told to halt their campaigns to door knock and make phone calls for Obama, the campaign will lose all legitimacy, since Obama has established himself as a friend of Wall Street and thus no friend to workers. Voting for Democrats has a demoralizing effect on workers when the inevitable “betrayal” happens; and demoralized union members will not fight as effectively for their own pro-union campaign.
A successful union campaign will require that workers are energized about it. SEIU’s campaign focuses largely on making more connections with other labor and community groups, which is very positive. However, without waging an energetic battle to prevent state workers from making massive concessions, the campaign will fail, because workers who make massive concessions will be demoralized and not take the union campaign seriously, since it failed to address their most pressing needs. The fight to defend state workers has the potential — as Wisconsin proved — to unleash tremendous fighting energy among workers, while also uniting those in the broader community, who are eager for working people to fight back.
If labor unions continue down their current path of making huge concessions in wages and benefits while making excuses for the Democrats attacking them, the movement will wither and die.
If, on the contrary, labor unions demand that state budget deficits be fixed by taxing the rich and corporations, workers would respond enthusiastically; if public-sector unions demanded No Cuts, No Concessions, workers would energetically join the union’s cause; if unions banded together to demand that a national jobs campaign be created by taxing the top 1 percent, a flood of energy would erupt from working people in general; if, during election time, unions joined together to run their own independent candidates with these demands, an unstoppable movement would quickly emerge.
Without using aggressive demands aimed at solving the immediate problems facing working people, a social movement cannot be created to deal with the crisis facing labor unions and working people in general.    ONLY a national social movement with Wisconsin-like energy has the potential to shift the direction in which the country is going, away from the rich and corporations towards working people. Such a social movement cannot be born from soft demands, half-fought battles, or campaigning for Democrats.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for  Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)

1) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/14/nyregion/connecticut-reaches-deal-with-unions-to-close-budget-shortfall.html?_r=2&hp

2) http://www.npr.org/2011/02/27/134103416/Governors-Meet-As-Pro-Union-Protests-Spread

3) http://www.katu.com/news/local/117565323.html

Unions Bash Democrats, Warn of Political Fallout February 14, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Uncategorized.
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(Roger’s note:  this article illustrates the farce of the two party system or our so-called democracy.  Trade unionists who poured money and labor into the election of Obama and a Democratic majority in Congress are no seeing themselves betrayed by the President and the Congress.  They are therefore threatening to sit out the midterm elections as a way of punishing the Democrats.  But, as happened in Massachusetts, this will only benefit the Republicans, who are virulently anti-labor.  Question: are we forever to be faced with choosing between the “lesser of evils, which is no more in reality than a Hobson’s choice?  My way or the highway.


I learned my lesson in 1964 when I worked my butt off to elect Lyndon Johnson to the presidency only to see him escalate the War in Vietnam.  I had a relapse in 2004 and 2008 when faced with the re-election of Bush and the candidacy of John McCain; I panicked and voted for Kerry and Obama.  


Obama is demonstrating what I already should have known, that the Democratic Party is twiddle dee to the Republican’s twiddle dum.  Of course there are marginal differences, but when it comes to the fundamental issues of war and peace and the economy, they are identical twins.)

Published on Thursday, February 11, 2010 by Politico.comby James Hohmann

Labor groups are furious with the Democrats they helped put in office – and are threatening to stay home this fall when Democratic incumbents will need their help fending off Republican challengers. 

[Labor groups furious at Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are threatening to stay home during this fall's midterm elections.  (Photo: AP photo composite by POLITICO) ]
Labor groups furious at Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are threatening to stay home during this fall’s midterm elections. (Photo: AP photo composite by POLITICO)

The Senate’s failure to confirm labor lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board was just the latest blow, but the frustrations have been building for months.  

“Here’s labor getting thrown under the bus again,” said John Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 workers. “It’s really frustrating for labor, and a lot of union people are thinking: We put out big time in money and volunteers and support. And it seems like the little things that could have been aren’t being done.” 

The 52-33 vote on Becker – who needed 60 to be confirmed – really set labor unions on edge, but the list of setbacks is growing. 

The so-called “card check” bill that would make it easier to unionize employees has gone nowhere. A pro-union Transportation Security Administration nominee quit before he even got a confirmation vote. And even though unions got a sweetheart deal to keep their health plans tax-free under the Senate health care bill, that bill has collapsed, leaving unions exposed again. 

Union leaders warn that the Democrats’ lackluster performance in power is sapping the morale of activists going into the midterm elections. 

“Right now if we don’t get positive changes to the agenda, we’re going to have a hard time getting members out to work,” said United Steelworkers International President Leo W. Gerard, in an interview. 

“There’s no use pretending any longer.” 

The biggest threat, of course, is apathy from a Democratic constituency that has a history of mobilizing for elections. 

“You’re just not going to be able to go to our membership in the November elections and say, ‘Come on, let’s do it again. Look at what the Democratic administration has done for us!'” Gage said. “People are going to say, ‘Huh? What have the Democrats done for us?'” 

Kim Freeman Brown, the executive director of a D.C.-based nonprofit called American Rights at Work, acknowledged “frustration” with the lack of movement. 

“I implore Congress to listen to the voice of their constituents who want change, and so far we haven’t delivered good enough on that promise,” she said. “To the degree that we don’t address these real bread-and-butter issues, we will have failed America’s workers.” 

Gage warned that Democrats will struggle to energize blue-collar voters if they don’t score a few victories soon. Union leaders say they will closely watch as a new “jobs bill” emerges to see if it includes more labor-friendly provisions or tax cuts for small businesses. 

When you talk to labor officials these days, much of their animus is directed at Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who helped filibuster Becker’s confirmation

“Ben Nelson has got principles until you buy him off,” Gerard said. 

A group affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, called Change That Works, had defended Nelson’s support for an unpopular health care reform bill in his home state.

But the Nebraska director of that group, Jane Kleeb, now criticizes Nelson for not allowing the Becker nomination to come to the floor for an up-or-down vote. And Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, accused Nelson of following a “double standard” since he had argued that the nominees of then-President George W. Bush should get up-or-down votes.

Another AFL-CIO spokesman, Eddie Vale, pinpointed Nelson, saying he had “let down” working families. Nelson said Becker’s stance on labor issues made him worry whether he would be “impartial” in making NLRB decisions.

But labor unions can’t pin all their blame on Nelson. The failure of a wide range of union priorities has been deflating for the labor movement, which seemed destined to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s presidency.

And with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, special treatment for unions has only served to harm the movement.

On health care, unions found themselves in a defensive posture. They worked in early January to carve out an exception from an excise tax on so-called Cadillac insurance policies, only to see the package fall apart, with recriminations about just the kind of back-room deal making they had engaged in.

Obama said he would push for greater unionization at the Transportation Security Administration, but it hasn’t happened. Obama has pushed for education programs that have long been unpopular with teachers’ unions. And then, in his State of the Union address, the president called for Congress to strengthen trade relationships with South Korea, Panama and Columbia.

The support for those trade agreements irked Gerard, the leader of the steelworkers union, who praises Speaker Nancy Pelosi but blames the upper chamber.

“Our problem is the Senate,” Gerard said. “The only thing they can pass is the washroom. I don’t want to tar Democrats. Not all Democrats in the Senate are problems.”

The situation in the Senate became more frustrating when Democrats lost their 60-seat supermajority with the election of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown.

Brown’s first significant vote was a “no” on Becker.

“I think you see how working people feel by how they voted in Massachusetts,” Gerard said. “In Massachusetts, it wasn’t an anger that the government had done too much. It was an anger that there hadn’t been enough change.”

Democrats are now scrambling to shore up support for labor unions, but they don’t seem to have a game plan for more union-friendly legislation in advance of the midterm elections.

But Katie Packer, executive director of the anti-card-check Workforce Fairness Institute, said labor groups would have achieved a lot more if they hadn’t overreached.

“I’m from Detroit, so the concept of labor overreach is not lost on me,” she said. “What we’ve seen more than anything is an attempt by big labor is to be especially greedy and grab for things that weren’t achievable.”

Manu Raju contributed to this report.

© 2010 Politico.com

No One’s Falling for Big Health’s Bogus Promise to “Reform” May 13, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Health.
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By Joshua Holland, AlterNet. Posted May 13, 2009.

Corporate Dems are fawning over the industry’s “promise” to hold down costs. A broad progressive coalition is pushing for a real solution.This week, the health care lobby scored a cunning propaganda victory by feigning interest in fixing the perennial rip-off we call a health care system.

With much fanfare, Big Health trotted out a six-month old “promise” — a toothless, non-binding pledge lacking any specifics — to make various nips and tucks that would slow the rate at which health costs grow to “only” 4.7 percent annually. It was hailed by the Obama administration and many observers as a breakthrough in the battle for reform.

Until recently, the health care industry has been dead-set on preserving a disastrous but profitable status quo (The U.S. spends close to twice as much per person on care than other wealthy countries, and gets consistently poorer results; among residents of 30 rich countries polled by Gallup, Americans came in 18th in terms of satisfaction with their care). But now the “disease care” industry is portraying itself as an agent of change. Fearful of a growing movement towards real, substantive reform, it’s trying to co-opt the process under the guise of “getting a seat at the table.” That they’ve given up, for now, their oppositional stance is what has so many tongues wagging about the significance of the proposal.

But it’s nothing new — “voluntary” codes  of conduct, self-regulation and industry-driven initiatives for the private sector to address complex policy issues have long been a standard tactic for heading off real regulation and deeper systemic reforms. The Brookings’ Institution’s Henry Aaron, a former official in the Carter administration told the New York Times that when he heard of the proposal, “I had a Rip van Winkle moment, as if I had fallen asleep in 1977 and woke up again this morning.” According to the Times, Carter’s pledge to do something about out-of-control health care costs “prompted the industry to undertake a short-lived ‘voluntary effort.’” The growth of health care costs also slowed briefly after Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to fix the system.

But while the industry’s proposal is light on substance, it is a game-changer to some degree. Instead of simply opposing reform, which is a more dangerous proposition today — with 47 million uninsured and health care eating up 17 percent of the country’s economic output — than it was when Clinton mounted his fight, Big Health is trying to kill the most important and progressive elements of Obama’s promised reforms from the inside — from its “seat at the table.”

But while health lobbyists are trying to maintain the industry’s grip on trillions of dollars of business, Health Care for America Now, a broad coalition of groups including ACORN, the AFL-CIO, Campaign for America’s Future and MoveOn.org, is fighting for the inclusion of a public-insurance option that would add to the current mix of employer-based insurance and government programs for the needy — one of the centerpieces of Obama’s health care proposals during the campaign. According to The Hill, “Organizers believe their efforts will pressure centrist Democrats and Republicans to line up behind Obama’s health care proposal, which calls for all Americans to have the choice of a public insurance plan.”  This week, the group launched a series of ads targeting wishy-washy Dems by name.

The Public Option 

The creation of a public health insurance option is what the insurance industry fears most. The idea is to allow businesses and individuals to continue purchasing coverage from private insurance companies if they desire, while also establishing a public insurance program modeled on Medicare as an alternative. The government would subsidize the premiums paid by low-income families, but anyone could buy in. “Choice” is the key word.

With a very large pool of insured, a greater emphasis on prevention and a reduction in paperwork and administrative costs, advocates contend that the public option would prove more attractive for most employers and families, and its membership would grow, leading in turn to greater cost reductions. Eventually, gradually, most people would switch from private health insurance, and we would end up with a national insurance plan. 

The idea of creating a choice of a public-insurance plan is a bit of political jujitsu intended to get the U.S. to something approaching a single-payer system incrementally and without taking on the powerful insurance lobby head-on (Over the past 10 years, the insurance industry has ranked second in dollars spent lobbying Congress and the White House. The top spot is held by the pharmaceutical-and-health-products industry. Big insurance is one of the most influential lobbies in Washington, and it has trillions of dollars at stake in the health care battle.)

Although the proposals put forth during the primaries by presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton differed in the specifics, both had a public-insurance option at their hearts; it was one of the promises that helped get Democrats elected. And this is where the fight will be — a coalition of “free-market” advocates led by the Heritage Foundation put a public insurance option at the top of its list of six health care “deal-killers.” And all of the health care lobbyists behind this week’s “proposal” have signalled their intention to fight against the inclusion of a public health option. Again, from the inside.

On the outside, we can look forward to the corporate-right’s network of media outlets, think tanks and PR firms calling any substantive reform “socialism.” The New York Times reported that Rick Scott, a veteran of the Bill Clinton-era health care fight whom the Times describes as a “conservative investor willing to spend freely on a political cause,” started a group called “Conservatives for Patients Rights,” which has already launched a multimillion-dollar campaign attacking the Obama administration on health care before the White House even endorsed any specific legislation.

Scott is a controversial figure; the former CEO of Columbia/HCA, then the world’s largest health care company, was “ousted by his own board of directors in 1997 amid the nation’s biggest health care fraud scandal.” According to the Times, Scott’s new group hired the right-wing PR firm behind the “Swift Boat” attacks on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004 to scare the public about the “perils of socialized medicine.” 

The ideological stakes in the fight are high and go far beyond the bottom line of the insurance industry.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Peter Wehner, a former deputy in the George W. Bush administration, argued that a public option would make the conservatives’ one-size-fits-all economic policy — tax cuts — more difficult to enact.

“Once a large number of citizens get their health care from the state, it dramatically alters their attachment to government,” they wrote. “Every time a tax cut is proposed, the guardians of the new medical-welfare state will argue that tax cuts would come at the expense of health care — an argument that would resonate with middle-class families entirely dependent on the government for access to doctors and hospitals.”

Wavering Dems

The Obama administration insists that it is still intent on including a public option in thelegislation expected to make its way through Congress this year. But in recent weeks, key Senate Democrats, including Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana,  “Blue Dog” Ben Nelson of Nebraska and party newcomer Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have signaled they would likely oppose the inclusion of a public-insurance option as part of a sweeping overhaul of our health care system. 

That’s why the importance of a broad grassroots movement pushing Democrats to stand up to the insurance industry can’t be overstated. The momentum is there. According to research cited by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake (PDF), 70 percent of Americans — including almost 2 out of 3 Republicans — want major reforms, with the choice of a public insurance plan open to everyone added to the current mix of Medicare, Medicaid and  private insurers.

But while the public overwhelmingly favors the public option now, history suggests that the insurance industry’s ability to shape the debate can’t be underestimated. The Christian Science Monitor noted, “when President Clinton first outlined his Health Security Plan, more than two-thirds of Americans initially supported the idea. Then the health insurance industry launched a massive advertising campaign opposing the plan. Within a year, support had plummeted, along with any chance of health care reform.”

When Harry Truman proposed a national health insurance plan in 1945, 75 percent of Americans favored it, but again, says the Monitor, “after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and medical groups attacked the plan as ‘socialized medicine,’ support sank” to almost nothing. 

If ordinary people don’t get engaged at the grassroots level and push for a public-insurance choice, then anything approaching real health care reform will likely face a similar fate. But with significant pressure on members of Congress and the Obama administration to challenge the status quo, we might just be able to avert a looming public policy disaster.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet.

Where’s the Outrage Over Workers Getting the Shaft? March 31, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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By Marie Cocco

www.truthdig.com, Posted on Mar 30, 2009

    No cable television rants. No congressional hearing staged to publicly whip those responsible for so transparent a betrayal. Not a pitchfork in sight.

    You would be hard-pressed to know that American workers suffered a cruel defeat last week when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter—the lone Republican to have once supported a measure that would make it easier for workers to form unions and more likely that employers would negotiate in good faith—effectively killed the effort for this year.

    A Specter vote for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor’s top legislative goal, was needed to break the expected filibuster by his fellow Republicans.

    The immediate cause of his flip-flop was a primary challenge that Specter is expected to face from former Rep. Pat Toomey, a card-carrying member of the vast right-wing conglomerate. Toomey, who came within a breath of toppling Specter in the 2004 primary, is president of the Club for Growth, an organization of conservatives that has as its guiding principle a fealty to pretty much every economic precept that has gotten us where we are today.

    The club’s view of sound economics is to make permanent the Bush tax cuts, which drain $2.2 trillion from the treasury over a decade and which, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, bestow the largest benefits on the top one-tenth of 1 percent of households—those with incomes of $3 million or more. The club also wants to permanently repeal the estate tax. This year, the Tax Policy Center found, about two-thirds of this tax will be paid by about 700 estates. The inheritors of these estates represent 0.03 percent of all anticipated heirs in 2009.

    Indirectly but indisputably, Toomey and the ideological brain trust that has given us such skewed policies have also managed to kill the most significant chance American workers had to push back against decades of job losses, benefit cuts and stagnant wages.

    But neither Toomey nor Specter did this alone. Business made defeat of the pro-union measure its top priority. It argued, deceptively, that it was ardently in favor of workers maintaining the right to vote for or against unions in secret-ballot elections when, in truth, such elections under current law are called not by workers but by employers who refuse to accept initial results of card check-offs that favor unionization. 

    Nonetheless, the economic downturn swiftly shredded the cloak of rhetoric about democracy. Business reverted to arguing that allowing workers to bargain for decent wages and benefits is a cost they should not bear. Even Specter took up this cant, arguing against “adding a burden” to business at the wrong time.

    So here is the essence of it: Largely unencumbered by unions, which now represent only about 7 percent of private-sector workers, American businesses have shipped jobs overseas, unilaterally cut benefits, kept wages stagnant or falling for most of the decade and laid off millions. The doctrine of nonintervention in the marketplace that is now the central argument against the proposed Employee Free Choice Act is the very same dogma that led us into the current financial crisis and the worst recession in at least three decades.

    Workers who did nothing to create the current economic crisis must now be kept powerless lest they create some future economic crisis we cannot yet imagine.

    The public—Pennsylvanians among them—voted against this sort of illogic just four short months ago. The AFL-CIO spent $250 million in last year’s elections on behalf of Barack Obama and many other Democrats it believed would be sympathetic to labor. But Obama, who endorsed the free choice act as a candidate, began obscuring his position almost as soon as he took office. And though Specter’s about-face is the most visible backstabbing, a handful of Senate Democrats worried about their own re-elections also were uncertain in their support and almost hostile in their public statements. It is unclear whether the measure would have passed the Senate even if Specter had voted to break his party’s filibuster and allowed a vote.

    American workers do not need friends whose subservience to the politics of self-preservation makes them indistinguishable from enemies. Remember this the next time these same so-called leaders join the frenzy over an irresponsibly greedy corporate culture—and then act decisively to keep it in place.

    Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

Contracts Can’t Be Broken—Unless They Involve Union Workers March 18, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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Tula Connell, March 18, 2009

AFL-CIO, http://blog.aflcio.org/

Contracts can’t be broken.  We learned that lesson well over the past few days when AIG honchos swore that despite being bailed out by $173 billion in taxpayer funds, they couldn’t break the sacrosanct contractual bond that guaranteed billions in bonuses to the same top executives who brought the insurance giant to its knees.

But we also were taught another lesson in these months of financial chaos: Contacts can’t be broken—unless they involve unionized autoworkers.

Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times really hits the mark today when he writes:

What we’re essentially being asked to believe is that employment contracts involving hardworking men and women on Detroit’s assembly lines are somehow less legally binding—less “sacred” in the current rhetorical argot—than those protecting a bunch of cowboy securities traders living in Connecticut. [snip]

For years, the smart guys on Wall Street have convinced a growing number of Americans that organized labor is an impediment to economic progress, an unacceptable “cost” in a globalized system of production, a quaint social fossil from the era of mills and smokestacks. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the current crisis, however, it’s that when the chips are down, organized labor is a far more responsible social actor than the snatch-and-run characters who fancy themselves financiers.

Who re-negotiated their contracts in the face of a taxpayer bailout? Not AIG CEOs. It was the autoworkers who agreed to put their middle-class wages on the line to help out the struggling industry. So far, not one AIG CEO has stepped up to the plate to return that $1 million or so bonus. (AIG bigwigs aren’t alone in soaking up taxpayer money for personal fun—a video clip here by Brave New Films lists more CEOs on the taxpayer dole and urges people to take action on March 19.)

When General Motors (GM) and Chrysler asked for government support in December, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) pushed a pay cut amendment in the Senate that called for slicing the autoworkers’ wages to those paid to nonunionized workers. So, Bob, your fans are waiting breathlessly to hear you call for AIG billionaires to give back their bonuses. Or, as a columnist in Corker’s home state puts it:

Paging Bob Corker! Explanation please! [snip]

So, to make sure I have this right, we can give $185 billion to AIG and we have to uphold their employment contracts with 80 people, but we can’t give 1/5th that amount to General Motors unless they abrogate their employment contracts with 100,000 workers.

Yes, taxpayers own 80 percent of AIG. But we can’t seem to stop AIG execs from getting bonuses. After all, AIG CEO Edward Liddy and the company’s apologists argue, AIG knew it needed to keep its people. The implication here is that financial wizards who run a global company into the ground are more valuable than the blue-collar men and women who aren’t paid seven-figure salaries and whose jobs involve creating tangible products like, say, automobiles. Meanwhile, AIG bonus information so far includes:

  • $200 million in bonuses.
  • 73 AIG employees receiving bonuses of $1 million each, almost all of the employees…responsible for creating the exotic derivatives that caused AIG’s near collapse.
  • Some of those receiving the bonuses are not U.S. citizens.

A CNN poll released today shows the American public increasingly fearful that the nation’s economic downturn will mirror the Depression. Asked whether Depression-era circumstances could reign in the next 12 months, 45 percent of those polled reported that was likely. That’s an increase from 38 percent who responded in the same fashion in December.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says, “These outrageous bonuses are yet another example of an economy that has become fundamentally imbalanced.”

All of the power is concentrated in the hands of the very few at the very top and the gap between CEOs’ and  workers’ pay continues to grow. That is why we need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Passing the Employee Free Choice Act will allow workers to have a voice at work, lift their standard of living and build stronger communities as well as stronger families.

A Gallup poll released in recent days found 53 percent of the U.S. public supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which was reintroduced in the U.S. Congress last week. Why? Because we need a stronger middle class. One with contracts that are sacrosanct.

Beware of the Big Lie Bill February 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Labor.
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Tula Connell, Feb 27, 2009, www.blog.aflcio.org

Photo credit: runaway wind  



Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress made their Big Lie into a bill Wednesday, when Republican Sens. Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.) introduced the so-called Secret Ballot Protection Act.

Before we go further, let’s clear up the bill’s false implication right now:

The Employee Free Choice Act would not—repeat after me—would not, take away the secret ballot National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election process if workers seeking to form a union wanted to use it. The Employee Free Choice would ensure workers made the decision of whether to select a union via majority sign-up (card-check) or via ballot process. Choice is good. That’s one reason why we called it Employee Free Choice—because it would enable employees, not management, to make the decision of how to form a union.

The official goal of S. 1312 is to:

amend the National Labor Relations Act to ensure the right of employees to a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.


But the real objective of the DeMint-Enzi—and, of course, the autoworker-hating senator from Tennessee, Bob Corker—crowd is to force senators to be on record in support of it before the Employee Free Choice Act is up for a vote and to get free PR for their lies.

In announcing the bill, DeMint put out this gem:

“Card check” is completely unacceptable and un-American, and we must pass the Secret Ballot Protection Act to safeguard workers’ rights for good.

Since Enzi brought up “un-American,” let’s take a look at that term. Seems actions like providing health care for low-income children, ensuring America’s workers are paid overtime and have a safe workplace where they are not paid less because of their gender or race are all-American standards. But not so for DeMint. A quick look at his Senate voting record shows:

  • DeMint voted at least seven times against expanding health care for children (the State Children’s Health Insurance Program).
  • DeMint voted three times against protecting overtime pay for millions of workers.
  • DeMint opposed workplace safety standards.
  • DeMint voted against Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps ensure workers are not paid less because of gender or race.

The same day the Big Lie bill was introduced, 39 economists, including two Nobel Prize winners, issued a statement supporting the Employee Free Choice Act as key to getting our nation’s economy back on its feet. Their statement says in part:

Indeed, from 2000 to 2007, the income of the median working-age household fell by $2,000—an unprecedented decline. In that time, virtually all of the nation’s economic growth went to a small number of wealthy Americans. An important reason for the shift from broadly shared prosperity to growing inequality is the erosion of workers’ ability to form unions and bargain collectively.

Yet as Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of American Rights at Work, says:

At a time when more Americans are hurting financially than perhaps at any other time in our history, a small group of consistently anti-worker members of Congress are introducing legislation to make it harder for workers to negotiate for better pay and health care for themselves and their families. It is unconscionable that these Congressmen with six-figure salaries and guaranteed pensions choose to kick America’s workers when they are down. This ploy is no surprise, as they have voted against raising the minimum wage, expanding children’s health insurance and ensuring worker safety.

Here’s another lie the bill’s sponsors are pushing out, this via Think Progress:

DeMint took to Fox News to describe why he thinks his firewall is necessary. Amidst the usual false rhetoric about Employee Free Choice eliminating the secret ballot, DeMint also incorrectly claimed that the act would harm small businesses:

And this is not just for big auto companies, this is for small electrical contractors, companies with 10 or 15 people. It would change the business model of the United States to the same model the U.S. auto industry has in Detroit.

As Think Progress points out, DeMint has this all wrong. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) excludes non-retail employers whose interstate commerce is less than $50,000 and retail employers whose gross annual volume is less than $500,000; there are various other size exemptions for all sorts of industries, from newspapers to taxicab companies. These exemptions would not change under the Employee Free Choice Act.
The list of the Big Lie’s bill co-sponsors (all Republicans) reads like a who’s who of  senators who will meet the wrath of working families in coming elections: Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Jim Bunning (Ky.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Cornyn (Texas), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jim Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), John Thune (S.D.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and David Vitter (La.).

Because this group doesn’t have enough votes to get the bill anywhere, it’s all about making noise. And spreading the Big Lie.

This is a cross-post from the Firedoglake blog.

Union Leaders Accuse Stern of Scheming for Control of America’s Only Union-Owned Commercial Bank February 21, 2009

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In his latest column for the New York Daily News, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez writes, “Last year alone, Amalgamated Bank’s profits provided more than $23 million to UNITE HERE for its everyday operations. Some leaders of the union accuse one of the country’s most powerful labor leaders, Andy Stern, of the Service Employees International Union, of scheming to seize control of the bank in a corporate-style takeover.”

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote an interesting piece, before we move on with our new segment, on a big battle brewing within unions.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, another battle has now erupted in the so-called reform wing of the American labor movement. Now, the UNITE HERE, which is the large union that represents hotel workers, garment workers, textile workers—it was actually a merger of two unions that occurred about five years ago. And UNITE HERE now has a major battle that has implications beyond its union, because the SEIU has also become involved, Andy Stern, Service Employees International Union, the largest—the fastest-growing union in America.

Apparently, the original merger of UNITE HERE had Bruce Raynor, the former head of UNITE, as the president of the merged union and John Wilhelm, who was the head of the hotel workers, as the second in command of the new merged union.

But there’s been a lot of battles internally between the two camps since they’ve been merged, and the big battle is over the bank that the union has, the only union-owned bank in America, commercial break, the Amalgamated Bank, which has about $5 billion in assets. I call it one of the crown jewels of the American labor movement. And that bank produces—for instance, last year, it produced $23 million in profits that all went to help fund the union’s activities.

But now, as the battle has erupted, John Wilhelm looks likely to be elected the new president of UNITE HERE, and the Raynor forces are battling against that. They want a divorce. They say that the marriage has not worked; after five years, they want a divorce. And they want to move their entire operation into, apparently, SEIU. And the problem is that the union constitution that everyone approved does not allow a secession. And so, now there is basically a scorched earth battle between the two sides, with Wilhelm trying to keep UNITE HERE together and Raynor, in essence, it appears to be, working cooperatively with Andy Stern to tear his own union apart and take his section over to SEIU.

Of course, I’ve called—in my column today, I called SEIU the Roman Empire of the American labor movement. They keep expanding and absorbing new additions into their growing empire. And I talked with Stern about that yesterday. He acknowledged that he is working very hard to convince UNITE HERE that they would be better off as members of SEIU, and he’s got lawyers and a whole bunch of people working to make that possible. But the rest of the labor movement, I think, considers that interference in the internal affairs of a fraternal organization.

And so, I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but I do think that this is a bad sign now that SEIU, which was leading the reform movement when they split off from the AFL-CIO to establish Change to Win, is now embroiled in yet another battle, which looks very much like the old battles in the labor movement for pure control by union leaders over resources, money and members. So we’ll see how it works out over the next few months.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll certainly continue to follow that story.

Checking Out of Stern’s Hotel California February 17, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Health, Labor.
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by Steve Early

steveearlyThe Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wants its members to believe that their union is just like the alluring but ultimately nightmarish hostelry immortalized by The Eagles. It’s a place of permanent imprisonment only “programmed to receive” workers and their dues money, not let either go elsewhere when the rhetoric of “progressive unionism” wears thin and the rank-and-file becomes restive. According to proprietor Andy Stern, once you’ve checked into SEIU, you can never leave.

Tens of thousands of Stern’s disgruntled “guests,” who work in west coast health care facilities, are about to disprove this claim. Their bags are packed and they’re headed out the door of Stern’s “Hotel California,” as soon as federal (or local) labor law permits. After a bruising internal battle-in which an estimated ten million dollars of their own money was used by Stern to undermine and attack them-rank-and-filers in Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers (UHW) have formed a new union of their own. Launched on January 28, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is seeking to retain bargaining rights long held by UHW, until Stern placed it under trusteeship the day before.

Workers made a collective decision to flee SEIU after the long-threatened take-over of its third-largest affiliate. As previously reported in CounterPunch, Stern began brandishing this club last March. When UHW had the audacity to question SEIU’s management-friendly approach to health care organizing, bargaining, and politics, the SEIU president launched a multi-faceted counter-insurgency campaign. Now, several hundred out-of-state SEIU staffers have been dispatched to California as a full-time occupation force. At huge expense to the union treasury, their mission is to replace 100 elected UHW leaders, purge UHW’s own 500-member staff, seize the local’s offices and assets, and inform employers that they should no longer deal with UHW representatives about any labor-management issues. According to Stern, this highly disruptive intervention in a well-functioning local is necessary “to restore democratic procedures” and “protect the members’ interest.” After “UHW has been stabilized”–which could take 18 months to three years, based on past SEIU practice-”elections for new officers will be held.”

Not surprisingly, UHW hospital, nursing home, and home care workers aren’t waiting around that long. As Kaiser Permanente receptionist Eleanor Mendoza explained to The Los Angeles Times last Tuesday, “We knew [trusteeship] was coming, and now we have to get real and decertify.” According to Mendoza, “You can’t have people from the other side of the United States running the union.”

Over the past two years, UHW members made a valiant effort to change the way SEIU is run, using tactics borrowed from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other reform groups. Their fight took a new turn Jan. 25 when key UHW activists gathered at five California locations to consider Stern’s final pre-invasion surrender demand. A day before these emergency meetings, UHW leaders had received the following ultimatum from Washington: within five days, either agree to move all 65,000 UHW “long term care” members into a new Stern-created entity with appointed leaders (and little accountability) or face trusteeship. Elsewhere in labor, such a transfer would be highly unusual if the workers affected hadn’t okayed it beforehand. But, for SEIU members, Stern’s directive was just “business as usual.” In recent years, no group of dues-payers in America has been treated more like pieces of furniture by top union officials. Under Stern’s regime, you can be moved here, there, or anywhere as part of top-down restructuring that always purports to create “new strength” for workers.

At their extraordinary mass meetings on January 25, five thousand UHW shop stewards showed what really creates union power-collective action by an energized rank-and-file. They voted nearly unanimously to reject Stern’s coercive demands. All three UHW constituencies-hospital workers, nursing home employees, and home health care aides-vowed to remain united in UHW, which has negotiated good contracts by relying on rank-and-file participation and workplace mobilization. (Their preferred organizational unity between “acute care” and “long-term care” members is, in fact, the usual configuration of SEIU health care locals around the country.)

On January 26, UHW’s popular president Sal Rosselli made a last bid for reconciliation. He called a press conference and offered a counter-proposal: UHW’s 65,000 at-risk members should be granted the right to vote on the transfer sought by Stern. Before this balloting was held, however, the workers needed guarantees that Stern’s new statewide “long term care” local would be democratically structured and responsive to its projected 240,000 members. The predecessor for this yet-to-be-formed “mega-local”–SEIU Local 6434 in Los Angeles–provided lousy representation under Stern-imposed leaders like Tyrone Freeman. Last September, Freeman was ousted for embezzling $1 million and then replaced by another Stern appointee. With both 6434 and UHW under trusteeship now–and three other recently consolidated locals also operating under Stern-appointed “interim presidents”–about 80 percent of the union’s 600,000 members in California have no elected leaders.

Rosselli ended his last press briefing as an elected SEIU official with a carefully worded statement declaring that UHW members would resist trusteeship by all means, up to and including SEIU decertification. Using that particular “D” word always sends a shiver through any union bureaucracy lacking political legitimacy and a real workplace base. Despite the trend in SEIU and other American unions toward less (rather than more) internal democracy, replacing an incumbent union-no matter how bad–is often viewed as a strategic dead-end or a dangerous exercise in “disunity.” Yet, forming a rival union (or joining a competing labor federation) is widely accepted elsewhere in the world as a fundamental expression of workers’ “freedom of association.” As I learned while working with CWA members in Quebec in the late-1980s, the dynamic of competition actually makes incumbent unions much more responsive to workers, even in smaller bargaining units. (At that time, Quebecois unionists could choose between several different labor federations and petition for an election to switch bargaining representatives far more easily than in the U.S., due to labor law differences here and our national AFL-CIO’s “no-raiding” rules.)

UHW’s defection will nevertheless upset labor-oriented academics, liberal magazine editors, and Huffington Post bloggers. Some of these folks, like American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, remain so enthralled with Stern that they’ll excuse any organizational mis-conduct by SEIU; in a February 1 commentary [Eds. note: Meyerson’s article in the Los Angeles Times discusses the conflict within UniteHere as well as that between UHW and SEIU.] , Meyerson praises Stern’s ability “to establish a rapport with non-union liberals and intellectuals” (like himself) and dismisses Rosselli’s challenge as an opportunistic attempt to “play the democracy card.” For Stern boosters, the pink champagne will always will be on ice– as long they keep praising their benefactor or, at the very least, don’t sign any “open letters” in The New York Times criticizing SEIU trusteeships. But if trade unionists and intellectuals, who favor the Employee Free Choice Act to aid union organizing, really believe in “employee free choice,” how can they argue that dissatisfied dues-payers shouldn’t use the option of joining a new labor organization? Particularly if their existing one won’t even let them choose their own local union or its leaders?

The path UHW activists have chosen now is not easy, due to the huge amount of resources that SEIU always devotes to keeping unhappy members in captivity, for as long as possible. Nine years ago, SEIU lost a quarter of its total membership in Ontario after workers there revolted against Stern’s attempted consolidation of eight local unions into one. As a former Canadian staffer recalls, some of the locals involved “were already facing member backlash at the lack of responsiveness and democratic participation” within SEIU. Stern’s province-wide merger plan “met solid objection from both members and local executive boards alike across Ontario.” Just before a general membership vote to abandon SEIU, “the International obtained a court injunction rendering the vote non-binding and placed all Ontario locals under trusteeship.” As this Canadian activist reports, “the vote to leave went ahead anyway, with near unanimous support….Immediately, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) raided SEIU’s Ontario bargaining units, eventually winning decert votes in 180 units, representing 14,000 members.”

In 2002-3, Rhode Island janitors, campus maintenance workers, and librarians represented by SEIU Local 134 were similarly told they had to merge with a Boston-based building service workers local that Stern had recently put under trusteeship. When the vast majority signed a petition to keep their own local, their wishes were ignored and members started to form an independent union, the United Service and Allied Workers-RI. Former Brown librarian and 134 business agent Karen McAninch felt compelled to support that initiative. So, she says, “the local was trusteed and I was suspended, along with all the elected officers and stewards.” Yet, by 2007, almost all of 134’s original bargaining units had voted to switch from SEIU to USAW-RI, when their contracts expired or pre-contract expiration “open periods” enabled workers to file labor board petitions to decertify Stern’s union. In the meantime, USAW-RI managed to organize 150 new members at the Providence Library, while fending off a costly, harassing lawsuit filed by SEIU against McAninch and former 134 officer Charlie Wood, who were both accused of breaching their “fiduciary duty” to the International union. (USAW’s legal defense was aided by fundraising appeals in both Labor Notes and Union Democracy Review).

Post-trusteeship litigation also got messy when 2,000 Bay Area janitors tried to bail out of SEIU in the summer of 2004. In response to yet another Stern take-over, they formed United Service Workers for Democracy (USWD) to oust their old bargaining representative, SEIU Local 87, and win the right to negotiate with San Francisco cleaning service contractors. SEIU flooded downtown office buildings with out-of-town organizers-just like the crew of Stern loyalists now occupying UHW–but the janitors still won their decert vote by a 2 to 1 margin. Undeterred, SEIU seized Local 87’s property, sued USWD’s lawyer, and tried to thwart management recognition of the new union-a strategy sure to be pursued again when NUHW challenges SEIU’s claim to represent 85,000 workers at Kaiser and other major hospital chains.

In several other places, including SEIU nurses’ Local 1991 in Miami, the collection and brandishing of “decert cards” has been used by local leaders as a key bargaining chip, to forestall further Stern trusteeship threats or forced merger attempts for an agree-upon period of time (a deal similar to the written agreement that facilitated USWD’s eventual return to the SEIU fold, much to the chagrin of some janitors). In 2005, the threat of an impending decertification campaign even enabled 2,300 workers at the University of Massachusetts to leave SEIU peacefully for the greener pastures of the state teachers association (but only after a protracted struggle against the unpopular and inept Stern-appointed leader of public employee Local 888).

Can NUHW do what USAW-RI, SEIU’s Canadian dissidents, and other groups have already done, albeit on a smaller scale? There are people with years of experience in health care organizing who think that NUHW will fare better than most defectors. One is Jerry Brown, the now retired, longtime president of SEIU’s 20,000-member health care affiliate in Connecticut and Rhode Island. A former member of Stern’s international executive board, Brown praises Rosselli for standing up “for the rights of members to determine their own future and run their own union, to fight for better standards and engage in militant action if they chose to.”

According to Brown, “Stern and other SEIU leaders have now centralized all important national bargaining and organizing in D.C. and effectively neutered the power of the members to bargain with their bosses. The result will be and has been already a series of sweetheart contracts that take away or severely limit the right to strike and other traditional union rights like seniority and workplace grievances.”

To Brown and other longtime SEIU-builders (most of whom are not free to speak out as he is doing now), the UHW takeover is a painful, “horrible development for SEIU and the entire labor movement.” Once Stern’s colleague and discreet in-house critic, Brown now says publicly that: “Stern et al are a disgrace and we should mobilize to help the new union and the thousands of courageous UHW members who have stood up to SEIU.”

Supporters of “employee free choice,” inside and outside of SEIU, are already responding to Brown’s appeal by sending checks made out to “Fund for Union Democracy” to: The Fund For Union Democracy, 465 California Street, Ste. 1600, San Francisco, California 94104

For more information on that effort, contact donations@fundforuniondemocracy.org.

For the latest news on the California health care workers’ union that’s now being created within the Stern-controlled shell of the old,  see the website of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (also known as “the New UHW”).

Steve Early has aided union organizing, bargaining, and strike activity since the mid-1970s. His forthcoming Monthly Review Press collection, Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on The Class War At Home, includes his reporting for CounterPunch on UHW’s “Purple Uprising In Oakland.” Copies can be ordered at: http://www.monthlyreview.org/embeddedwithorganizedlabor.php. Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

Blacks and Immigrants Bring in the Union December 21, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Immigration, Labor.
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pork-packing-union-plant-smithfieldWorkers at Smithfield win union contract after 16 year fight. (Photo: smithfieldfoods.com)


21 December 2008»

by: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

When workers at Smithfield Foods’ North Carolina packing house voted in the union on December 11, the longest, most bitter anti-union campaign in modern labor history went down to defeat. Sixteen years ago, workers there began organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers. In 1994 and 1997, the union was defeated in elections later thrown out by Federal authorities because the company created an atmosphere of violence and terror in the plant. In 1997, one worker was beaten after the vote count. Company guards were given the ability to arrest workers, who were held in a detention center in the plant they called the company jail. Many workers were fired for union activity. And in recent years, immigration raids swept the plant in the middle of the union drive, adding to the climate of intimidation.

    It was no surprise then, that the pro-union vote (2,041 to 1,879) set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tar Heel, Red Springs, Santa Paula, and all the tiny working class towns spread from Fayetteville down to the South Carolina border. Relief and happiness are understandable in this state, where union membership is the lowest in the country. But Smithfield workers were not just celebrating a vote count. Their victory was the culmination of an organizing strategy that accomplished what many have said U.S. unions can no longer do – organize huge, privately-owned factories.

    Five thousand people work in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, where they kill and cut apart 32,000 hogs every day. Efforts by the modern U.S. labor movement to organize factories the size of the Tar Heel plant have not been very successful for the last two decades. In fact, private-sector unionization has fallen below 8 percent of the workforce. The giant electronics plants of Silicon Valley have an anti-union strategy so intimidating that unions haven’t even tried to organize them for years. Japanese car manufacturers have built assembly plants and successfully kept workers from organizing, in spite of efforts by the auto union.

    The price for labor’s failure to organize Japanese plants became clear in December’s Congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal. Southern Republican senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the non-union wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda and BMW. The presence of the non-union plants threatens to destroy the union, and the same dilemma exists in industry after industry.

    Unions pin their hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposal would require a company like Smithfield to negotiate a union contract if a majority of workers sign union cards. It would avoid the kind of union election that took place at Smithfield in 1997, where workers voted in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity. At Smithfield, the company rehired in 2006 workers it fired for union activity in 1994. But it was only obliged to pay the fired workers for their lost wages, and even then was allowed to deduct any money they’d earned during the decade their cases wound through the legal system. EFCA would substantially restrict the kind of anti-union campaign Smithfield mounted for 15 years.

    But EFCA by itself will not build strong unions, which workers can use not just to win elections but to make substantial changes in the workplace. The union at Smithfield wasn’t created on election day. Workers had already organized it in the battles that preceded the vote. They did much more than sign union cards. They had to lose their fear, and show open support for the demands they’d chosen themselves, like lower line speed to reduce injuries, rehiring workers fired because of their immigration status, or giving workers a paid holiday for Dr. King’s birthday. Packinghouse laborers then had to learn to make management listen to those demands by circulating petitions and forming delegations to demand changes.

    The union strategy relied on organizing resistance to immigration-related firings, and uniting a diverse workforce of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrant Mexicans. In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and company managers cooperated in two immigration raids that produced a climate of terror organizer Eduardo Pena likened to “a nuclear bomb.” Immigrant workers left the plant in droves. The Smithfield raids were two of many in recent years, used to punish workers when they’ve tried to improve conditions.

    The plant’s citizen workers felt the effects along with the immigrants. For months afterwards, the organizing campaign was effectively dead, with many leaders deported and union activity halted by fear. It was only when African American workers who’d fought to win the King holiday became the core of a new generation of leaders that the struggle to build the union could continue.

    If Black and Latino immigrant workers hadn’t found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the raids. And if the company and ICE had succeeded in convincing half the plant that the other half really had no right to work because they lacked legal immigration status, workers would have been unwilling and unable to defend each other. In the end, both groups found a common interest in better wages and working conditions. But they also had to agree to defend the right of each worker to her or his job, and treat any unfair firing as an attack on the union, whether the victim was Black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican.

    The Smithfield firings were made possible by employer sanctions, the Federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law makes working a crime for people without papers, and became the pretext for firing immigrant union leaders. That’s why the AFL-CIO voted in 1999 to call for the law’s repeal. The Smithfield raids show that changing immigration law is as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.

    Outside the Tar Heel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities, and became part of workers’ lives. They took English classes in its office and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. That coalition turned the company’s anti-labor actions against it, exposing its record in the place where Smithfield was most vulnerable – in the eyes of consumers.

    The election result was the product of a long-term organizing effort and commitment. With a similar commitment, other unions can do the same, no matter how big the plant or anti-union the employer. But it takes a strategy based on building a real union in the workplace and community. That’s what workers did at Smithfield.

    And with changes in labor and immigration law, workers won’t have to conduct a 15-year war to accomplish the same goal.