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Labor News Briefs

Weekly Digest - February 27, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Wisconsin Senate Passes Union-Busting Bill
By a 17-15 vote, the Wisconsin state Senate passed a bill outlawing the union shop Feb. 25, as about 2,000 people protested in and around the state capitol. The bill would make it a crime to require private-sector workers who aren't in a union to pay dues or fees for representation, with a maximum penalty of nine months in jail. The vote went along party lines except for one Republican who voted no. The state Assembly, where the Republican majority is wider, is expected to pass the bill next week, and Gov. Scott Walker has said he will sign it. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said that gave unions and businesses “adequate time” to extend union-shop contracts before the law went into effect. Sen. Jerry Petrowski, the one Republican to vote against it and a former union member, said in a statement that he was "not convinced that the supposed benefits of passing this bill will materialize and offset a potentially disruptive impact on our economy.” Read more

Jersey Unions Call Christie Pension Scheme ‘Deceptive’
New Jersey public workers’ unions are harshly criticizing Gov. Chris Christie’s pension-revamping proposal, which would freeze current workers’ plans and switch them to a “cash balance” scheme closer to a 401(k) defined-contribution plan, cut their health benefits, and eliminate cost-of-living increases for retirees. Christie announced the plan Feb. 25, two days after a court ruled that he had illegally withheld $1.57 billion in payments to the state’s pension fund. "To propose solutions to further reduce employee benefits essentially ignores the math,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, adding that the scheme "punishes nearly 40,000 law enforcement officers and firefighters who have no part to play in the state's underfunded pension plans.” “The pension plan's long-term problem has always been the state refusing to put the money in," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 55,000 public workers in the state. “No matter how many back-room meetings transpire, there won't be a solution until we address the problem by putting the legally required money into the pension.” Read more

Strike Possible in Major League Soccer
With the 2015 Major League Soccer season supposed to get underway next week, the MLS Players Union may go on strike to demand free agency. Unlike American pro baseball, basketball, football, or hockey players, their team retains the rights to their services even after their contracts have expired. “The sense one gets from MLS players is that they consider this a show-stopper in terms of the current collective-bargaining process,” said Anto Bianco, co-host of the Sirius XM soccer show Beyond the Pitch. “We are very unified and committed to what we are trying to achieve,” said Toronto FC defender Steven Caldwell, a veteran of the English Premier League. But the union’s small strike fund might hinder its ability to sustain a walkout. Read more

SEIU 32BJ Gains in Organizing Pittsburgh Security Guards
About 400 security guards in Pittsburgh have joined Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ since it began an organizing drive last August, and another 400 are expected to join in the next month. The union’s strategy is the one it used to organize janitors in the city’s downtown a decade ago, getting enough guards to sign up at different employers and then negotiating a single unified contract with all of them. Sam Williamson, district director for Local 32BJ, said 85% of the building guards in the city work for companies that have agreed to allow them to join the union, and he expects bargaining to start this spring. The guards, who now make $9 to $10 an hour, are seeking a raise and better training. Read more

Safety Core Issue as Refinery Strike Continues
With the United Steelworkers’ strike at 12 oil refineries in its fourth week, two explosions have underscored the workers’ demands for stronger safety measures and an end to outsourcing, short staffing, and forced overtime. Several workers were injured in an explosion Feb. 18 at a not-yet-struck ExxonMobil refinery in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, and there was another blast Feb. 23 at a struck refinery in Whiting, Indiana that’s being run by managers and engineers. The Torrance explosion “damn near killed leaders of our union committee,” said Dave Campbell, secretary-treasurer of Steelworkers Local 675. The blast also spewed toxic dust over the surrounding area, so union members and Occupy activists dressed up in hazmat suits and delivered a dump truck full of manure to ExxonMobil’s area administrative offices. “Why is it illegal to deposit organic material on corporate property,” Campbell asked, “but perfectly legal for a corporation to drop toxic materials on a community?” The strike, which began Feb. 1, now includes 6,500 workers and affects one-fifth of U.S. oil production capacity, including the country’s largest refinery, in Port Arthur, Texas. Read more

Weekly Digest - February 24, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Jersey Judge Rules Christie Can’t Cut Pension Payments
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie must restore $1.57 billion he cut from payments to the state’s retirement fund for public workers, state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Feb. 23. The ruling came in a suit by several government workers’ unions, including teachers and police, who said the cuts violated a 2011 law in which the state promised to shore up its underfunded pension system by putting more money in each year, and workers agreed to contribute more from their own paychecks. Judge Jacobson said the state had violated both that law and the workers’ contracts, and that it must pay the money into the fund by June 30. A Christie spokesperson dismissed the decision as “liberal judicial activism” and said the governor would appeal. "By refusing to make the required payments, the governor has exacerbated the chronic underfunding of the entire retirement system to the point of crisis," state AFL-CIO head Charles Wowkanech responded in a statement. Read more

UAW Rival Certified to Represent VW Workers
A second employee organization has been certified to represent workers at the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, joining the United Auto Workers as a minority union there. The American Council of Employees, which grew out of the campaign against the UAW last year, now represents at least 15% of the plant's hourly and salaried workers. That gives it the right to raise questions and meet with management periodically, though not as often as UAW Local 42, which has been certified to represent more than 45% of the workers. Neither group has the power to bargain for a contract, but the UAW says it actually represents more than half of Volkswagen's hourly workers—which, should that be confirmed and recognized by the company, would make it the exclusive bargaining agent for all workers at the plant. Read more

FairPoint Strike Ends as Unions Accept Concessions
A bitter four-month strike by phone-company workers in northern New England ended last weekend, as the more than 1,700 union employees of FairPoint Communications agreed to accept a 3½-year contract with more than $200 million in concessions. Workers will get a $500 signing bonus and raises of 1% next year and 2% in 2017, and the company dropped its demand for a two-tier wage system that would pay new hires 20% less, but the deal cuts paid sick days from unlimited to six a year, allows more work to be outsourced, and will eventually eliminate paid health care for retirees. “I’m not happy that we lost a lot of benefits, no, but I’ll be happy after four months just to have a paycheck again,” said Tim McLean, a 20-year cable splicer. Read more

Upstate Nursing-Home Workers Join 1199SEIU
More than 80 caregivers and other workers at Fiddler’s Green Nursing Home in Springville, N.Y, were certified as members of Local 1199SEIU Feb. 10. The facility is the fifth in central and western New York State whose workers have joined the health-care union in the last several months. “For all my years of experience and dedication to my residents, I am not making much more than newly-hired employees,” said John Brayman, a certified nursing assistant with 24 years of experience at Fiddler’s Green. “I feel we deserve to be able to take care of our families like we have taken care of so many others.” Many upstate nursing homes have been recently acquired by downstate for-profit nursing homes and are struggling with financial issues and declining reimbursements, the union says. Read more

Minnesota Medical-Marijuana Workers Organize
Medical marijuana was only legalized in Minnesota last year, but one of the two planned cannabis-production facilities has been unionized before it even opened. Workers at Minnesota Medical Solutions, in the Minneapolis suburb of Otsego, have joined United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 and signed a contract. "The UFCW has been working on this in multiple states," said Local 1189 organizer Bernie Hesse said. "We see a real potential for development, and I'll be using the word growth a lot, which people giggle about, but a lot of growth in this industry." He estimates the state’s industry will eventually provide 500 to 1,500 jobs. Under the contract, the head cultivator will make $2,200 a week, while other jobs, from custodian to horticultural technician to preparing extracts, pay from $18 to $24 an hour. Read more

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