Labor News Briefs

Weekly Digest - December 24, 2014

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

NLRB Says McDonald’s Retaliated
The National Labor Relations Board filed 13 complaints against McDonald’s on Dec. 19, alleging that it illegally retaliated against workers who took part in protests demanding higher wages. The cases are the first time the board has held the company to be a “joint employer” liable for working conditions at franchises that carry its brand, rejecting the company’s contention that its franchises are independent businesses and it is not responsible. The NLRB that the “nationwide response” to the protests showed that McDonald’s “engages in sufficient control over its franchisees’ operations” to qualify. The International Franchise Association has hired a high-powered Washington lobbying firm to fight the charges. Read more

Federal Spending Bill Sneaks in Cuts to Existing Pensions
Since 1974, federal law has said that pensions that a worker has already owned can’t be cut—but a provision added to the omnibus spending bill passed Dec. 13 will change that. An amendment cosponsored by Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) will let trustees of multiemployer pension plans cut benefits with federal approval if they believe it’s necessary to keep the plans solvent. About 10 million workers, including many in construction and film production, have such plans. And about 150 to 200 of them covering 1.5 million workers, are considered underfunded enough so that they might be affected in the next 10 to 20 years. “It’s letting the genie out of the bottle. Once it becomes legal to cut accrued benefits, then it’s a different world,” said Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research. Read more

Walmart Ordered to Pay $151M for Wage Theft
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Dec. 15 that Walmart and Sam's Club have to pay $151 million in back wages and damages to workers who were forced to work off the clock or skip breaks. The decision affects more than 185,000 people who worked at the stores in Pennsylvania between March 1998 and April 2006. It caps more than a decade of litigation that began when former employees filed a class-action suit in Philadelphia, alleging that the company forced employees to work through meal periods, during breaks, and while off the clock. Walmart is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read more

Adjuncts, Religious-College Professors Win Right to Unionize
The National Labor Relations Board ruled Dec. 19 that faculty members at religious colleges and universities have the right to unionize if they aren’t performing a specifically religious function. It said that Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., had failed to prove that its teachers performed such functions. It also rejected the university’s claim that its non-tenure-track faculty were management and not eligible to join unions. A 1980 board decision says tenured faculty at private universities are management, but the board said adjuncts and faculty not on the tenure track are different because they don’t have a role in academic and hiring decisions. “We welcome the NLRB ruling as a step towards justice for faculty and the students they teach,” Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. SEIU Local 925 filed a petition to represent Pacific Lutheran’s non-tenure track employees. Read more

S.F. Restaurant Workers Celebrate $4M in Back Pay
Three weeks after winning more than $4 million in back pay, workers at the upscale Yank Sing dim sum restaurant in San Francisco now have not just better wages, but holiday and vacation pay, fully paid health care for full-time employees, and a “workers compliance committee” to hold management accountable. The about 280 workers, many Chinese-speaking immigrants, collaborated with a coalition of legal advocates and community organizers on a months-long campaign. While they benefited from Yank Sing’s desire to avoid tarnishing its reputation, they hope the victory will inspire workers at lower-paying Chinatown restaurants. Read more

Vegas Exhibit Tells Culinary Union’s Story
UNITE HERE Local 226, the Culinary Union, is the most powerful union in Las Vegas, with 55,000 members. “Line in the Sand: The People, Power and Progress of the Culinary Union,” an exhibit at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, tells its 80-year history, including the 1970 Desert Inn picket line and the six-year strike at the Frontier hotel-casino in the ’90s, through photographs, stories, memorabilia, and the recollections of Hattie Canty, the Alabama-born hotel maid who became Local 226 president in 1990. Read more

Michigan Moves to Ban Student-Athlete Unions
It could be a Spartan life for Wolverines who try to organize a union: The Michigan state Senate passed a bill Dec. 16 that says athletes at public universities are not public employees, in order to preclude them claiming that the work they do and the money it brings the university entitle them to collective bargaining. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign it. Ohio enacted a similar measure in June. Read more

N.C. Baggage Handlers Picket Southwest Airlines
Members of Transport Workers Union Local 555 picketed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Dec. 23 to protest how Southwest Airlines treats its employees and customers. The union, which represents the airline’s baggage handlers, has been working almost four years without a raise, and says management is increasing the workload to the point where it causes more delays for passengers. The picket was part of an 18-city campaign by the TWU. Read more

Gingrich, Berman Push Anti-Union Legislation
Right-wing lobbyists Rick Berman and Newt Gingrich are urging the incoming Congress to pass the “Employee Rights Act,” a bill intended to undermine workers’ ability to organize and sustain unions in the name of “freedom.” Its seven main provisions include redefining victory in union-recognition elections as a majority of all employees in the workplace, not just those who vote, and if the union wins, requiring it to go through annual recertification elections. Berman, CEO of the anti-labor propaganda site the Center for Union Facts, told an energy-industry confab in June that he wakes up every morning trying “to figure out how to screw with the labor unions.” Read more

Vermont Governor Abandons Single-Payer Health Care
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who promised for almost four years to set up a single-payer health-care system in the state, announced Dec. 17 that “now is not the right time” for such major changes. He said he was disappointed, but his proposed Green Mountain Care plan was “just not affordable” anymore, with recent estimates saying it would cost more than the $2 billion originally projected. “We all currently pay for hodgepodge health-care system—we just don't pay in a way that leads to giving people access to care,” responded the Vermont Workers Center, which held a protest in Montpelier the next day. “The governor's task was to shift private payments to a more equitable, public financing mechanism. His task was not to find new money.” Read more

Weekly Digest - December 18, 2014

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Cuomo Seeks to Make 1,000 PEF Members Nonunion
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration on Dec. 15 informed about 1,000 members of the Public Employees Federation that the state has applied to reclassify their jobs as nonunion managerial positions. The jobs, at more than three dozen state agencies, include attorneys, auditors, parole hearing officers and tax-law judges. “Be assured we will be fighting this,” union President Susan Kent told members in an e-mail later in the day. The state Public Employment Relations Board previously ruled that the jobs did not qualify as nonunion, and the state lost a court challenge to that decision. Some speculate that the Cuomo administration is retaliating for that or the PEF’s endorsement of the governor’s challenger in last September’s Democratic primary. Read more

Chicago Raises Minimum Wage to $13—By 2019
The Chicago City Council on Dec. 4 approved a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $13—which would be the second-highest minimum in the nation, but it won’t reach that level until 2019. The bill, backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would eventually mean raises for almost a third of the city’s workers, but to less than the $15 striking fast-food workers have been demanding. “The workers I've been with chant, 'Show me $15,' not '$13 by 2019,'” Alderman Bob Fioretti said in a statement. "That means fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage today, which will both lift up Chicago working families and stop the state from limiting our ability to do the right thing." Read more

S.F. Airport Restaurant Workers Strike for Two Days
After working without a contract for more than a year, nearly 1,000 workers at San Francisco Airport went on strike Dec. 11, shutting down 55 restaurants there for 48 hours. “When restaurants slash our healthcare, or deny us job security, we just can’t get by,” said Jesse Johnson, a bartender at the Buena Vista Café and a member of UNITE HERE Local 2’s executive board. “The restaurants at SFO bank huge money from airline passengers.” The workers, who make an average of about $24,000 a year, are resisting restaurant owners’ efforts to freeze their health-care payments—a proposal that would likely result in them having to pay up to $4,200 per year for coverage. They also want to get first crack at any other jobs open when airport concession outlets close. Read more

Vermont Gov Urges FairPoint Strike Settlement
After FairPoint Communications customers in Vermont lost broadband Internet service, and a previous outage disrupted much of the state’s 911 system, Gov. Peter Shumlin wrote to company CEO Paul Sunu Dec. 12 and urged him to “Come back to the table; listen; and compromise. I will urge the unions to do likewise.” A FairPoint spokesperson responded that the company had made its final offer in August, and “it is the unions who chose to go on strike.” Mike Spillane, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2326, called her “a liar,” saying that the two unions on strike had offered $212 million in concessions, but the company has refused to take anything less than $700 for months. The strike began Oct. 17. Read more

Wisconsin Legislators Plan to Pursue ‘Right-to-Work’ Bill
Wisconsin state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Dec. 4 that he plans to act quickly to enact a bill outlawing the union shop when the legislature resumes in January. Republican state Rep. Chris Kapenga has said he will introduce a similar bill, and Lorri Pickens, a former official of the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, announced the formation of a group called Wisconsin Right to Work Dec. 1. “We'll fight this every step of the way,” said state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt. Democrats are too small a minority in both houses to stop such a bill, but Gov. Scott Walker may be reluctant—he’s supported similar legislation since 1993, but says that a fight on the issue now would be a distraction. Read more

Miami Con-way Freight Drivers Vote to Join Teamsters
Workers at Con-way Freight’s facility in Miami Lakes, Florida, voted Dec. 11 to join Teamsters Local 769. The vote is a victory for the Teamsters’ campaign to organize drivers at “less-than-truckload” shipping companies like Con-way and FedEx Freight. “The drivers and dockworkers at Con-way, like the workers at FedEx Freight, are fed up,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters general president. The company, however, may accuse the union of improper tactics and challenge the vote, as it did when the Teamsters won elections at locations in Los Angeles and Laredo, Texas. Read more

VW Recognizes UAW at Tennessee Plant
United Auto Workers Local 42 has been certified as a minority union to represent workers at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee plant, the first time the UAW has been recognized at foreign-owned auto factory in the South. An audit announced Dec. 8 found that more than 45% of the about 1,500 workers had joined Local 42, winning it the right to meet biweekly with company management and executives. The UAW, which lost an election at the plant in February, still hopes to win the 50% needed to get exclusive bargaining rights. Read more

NLRB Moves to Speed Up Union Elections…
The National Labor Relations Board on Dec. 12 published regulations intended to enable workers to vote more quickly on whether they want to join a union. The new rules do not set a specific timetable, but require that the election be held at “the earliest date practicable.” The board says it now takes an average of 38 days to hold a union election. Business groups say the changes will allow “ambush” elections in as little as 10 days, but AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said they will “reduce unnecessary delay,” while SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said “corporate bosses will have fewer opportunities to cheat you out of your right to join together.” Read more

And to Let Workers Use Work E-Mail to Organize
Employers have to let workers use company e-mail addresses to discuss grievances and talk about union organizing, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Dec. 11. In a complaint brought by the Communications Workers of America against a California company, the board said that e-mail has “effectively become a natural gathering place pervasively used for employee-to-employee conversations” and thus employers could not prohibit communications protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB reversed its 2007 holding, saying that given the rise in telecommuting and Internet use since then, “e-mail’s effectiveness as a mechanism for quickly sharing information and views increases its importance to employee communication.” Read more

Illinois Asks State High Court for Quick Pension-Law Hearing
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the state Supreme Court to accelerate hearings on a legal challenge to its pension-cut law. The law, enacted in December 2013, reduces and suspends cost-of-living increases for pensions and raises retirement ages. Sangamon County Court Judge John Belz, responding to five lawsuits brought by public-employee unions and retiree groups, ruled Nov. 21 that the law violated a constitutionally protected promise to state workers about their pension benefits. The state is appealing, and in a motion filed Dec. 4, Madigan asked the court to schedule oral arguments as soon as Jan. 22 and no later than March 10. Read more

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