Labor News Briefs

Weekly Digest - February 4, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

West Virginia Moves Toward Union-Shop Ban
Taking advantage of Republicans gaining control of the West Virginia State Senate last November, Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael on Jan. 27 introduced a bill called the “Creating Workplace Freedom Act,” which would prohibit requiring workers to join unions in workplaces covered under union contracts. The measure is also backed by the state Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity. “This is nothing more than government intrusion into the employee-employer relationship. As much as we hear about it, there is no such thing as forced unionism,” said Ken Hall, president of Teamsters Local 175, adding that it “is not going to create a single job.” The Service Employees International Union is planning a rally against the bill at the state capitol in Charleston Feb. 20.
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McDonald’s Workers Charge They Were Fired for Being Black
Ten black McDonald’s workers in Virginia who were fired last May after being told, they “didn’t fit the profile” filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the company and the franchise owner Jan. 22. The suit alleges that managers at three McDonald’s in Clarkesville and South Boston told workers that it was “too dark” in the restaurants and that they “need to get the ghetto out of the store.” “I had no idea what they meant by the right profile until I saw everyone else that they fired as well,” said plaintiff Willie Betts, who was a cook at the South Boston McDonald’s. McDonald’s Corp. argues that it is not responsible for its franchises’ relations with employees, but the complaint contends that it has control over “nearly every aspect of its restaurants’ operations.” Read more

Canada Supreme Court Upholds Workers' Right to Strike
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Jan. 30 that workers have a constitutional right to strike. It struck down a law enacted by the province of Saskatchewan in 2008 that prohibited workers from striking if they provided an “essential service,” saying it gave them “no meaningful mechanism for resolving bargaining impasses.” “The right to withdraw labour is a universal human right that is essential to ensuring fairness in the collective bargaining process,” said Paul Meinema, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, the country's largest union. The court gave the Saskatchewan government one year to revise the law. Read more

New Illinois Gov Walks Behind Scott Walker
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner said Feb. 2 that he’d like to see state employees prohibited from going on strike and bargaining over wages, benefits, and pensions. In a memo to legislators, the multimillionaire private-equity investor also said state workers’ pay levels were “unsustainable and unfair to working families, small businesses, and other taxpayers in Illinois.” "It's bizarre and outrageous for Bruce Rauner to suggest that public employees aren't 'working families,'" responded AFSCME Council 31 spokesperson Anders Lindahl. "He's wrong to vilify workers who serve the public, earn middle-class wages, and have a right to a voice through their union.” Read more

Icahn Threatens to Close Casino If Union Wins
Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, the de facto owner of the bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, said Jan. 30 that the casino will close if its main union gets its pensions and health benefits restored in court. The company eliminated those benefits for about 1,100 workers in October, with the approval of a federal bankruptcy judge, and UNITE HERE Local 54 is appealing to the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The National Labor Relations Board filed an amicus brief backing the union Jan. 29, saying that the bankruptcy court had usurped its authority under the National Labor Relations Act. Read more

NLRB Accuses Pittsburgh Hospital of Union-Busting
The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint Jan. 29 accusing the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital chain of engaging in anti-union tactics, from removing union literature from bulletin boards to enforcing a rule against workers gathering in break rooms for more than 15 minutes before or after their shifts. The Service Employees International Union, which filed the charges with the NLRB, has been trying for years to unionize the about 3,500 non-clinical employees at UPMC, whose more than 20 hospitals make it Pennsylvania’s largest private employer. An NLRB administrative law judge in November found UPMC had engaged in similar unfair labor practices. Read more

Jail Infirmary Workers Raise Alarm on Unsafe Staffing
Health-care workers at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail, newly organized by the United Steelworkers, contend that understaffing is endangering inmates’ lives. Last year, seven prisoners died in the jail, which holds 2,000. The county privatized health-care services there in 2013, giving the contract to Tennessee-based Corizon, which cut costs by scrimping on medicine and supplies for the infirmary. “It’s disturbing that we’re blamed for poor care, when we don’t have the staffing or processes in place to do it right,” said Sister Barbara Finch, a nun and nurse who was active in organizing for the Steelworkers. She was fired in January 2014 and reinstated in March, after workers ratified the union. Read more

Detroit Man Walks 21 Miles to Low-Wage Job
Since his 1988 Honda broke down a decade ago, James Robertson of Detroit has walked 21 miles five days a week to get to his factory job in the suburb of Rochester Hills. Robertson, 56, spends four hours each way commuting by bus and foot, braving snowdrifts and muggers to get home after 1 a.m. He makes $10.55 an hour, not enough to buy and maintain a car, and the Oakland County suburbs have no regular bus service. "I sleep a lot on the weekend, yes I do," he says. Read more

What the Sharing Economy Takes
What does the “sharing economy” mean? The New Age capitalist philosophy says companies like Uber and Airbnb are “revolutionary,” disrupting outdated business models and building communities of “collaborative consumption.” It’s a nice way to monetize the desperation of people in the post-crisis economy while sounding generous, and to evoke a fantasy of community in an atomized population, economics journalist Doug Henwood responds. Its publicists seek to transform the instability of the post–Great Recession economy into opportunity. You may lack health insurance, sick days, and a pension plan, or even be working for less than minimum wage, but you’re a “micro-entrepreneur.”
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Why It’s Hard to Organize Internet Journalists
Politico labor reporter Mike Elk announced Jan. 26 that he was trying to organize his coworkers into the Newspaper Guild. “The problem with the Internet is that people are on call all day long,” he said. “It becomes tough for workers to put boundaries on overtime…. I think people in the media take jobs way too seriously, and it leads to burnout.” If he succeeded—and so far, no other Politico workers have publicly supported the union—it would be the first successful organizing attempt at a major new media company. Two major problems any such campaign faces are the dramatic decline in journalism jobs, which gives workers far less leverage, and the Internet-age market, in which people are willing to work for exposure in order to build their personal brands. Read more

Weekly Digest - January 28, 2015

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Supreme Court Says Companies Can Cut Retirees’ Health Benefits
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Jan. 26 that a West Virginia chemical company might be able to charge retirees for health-care benefits that once had been free. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that because the contract hadn’t explicitly spelled out that retirees would get the benefits for the rest of their lives, “a court may not infer that the parties intended those benefits to vest for life.” The decision returns the question to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a concurring opinion joined by the Court’s three other liberal justices, said the Sixth Circuit should consider that the contract guaranteed pensions for life, and tied health benefits to those “receiving a monthly pension.” Read more

Michigan Union Membership Drops Under ‘Right to Work’ Regime
Union membership in Michigan fell by almost 50,000 workers in 2014, the first full year that the state’s ban on union shops was in effect. The number dropped to about 585,000 out of the 4 million workers in the state, down to a 14.5%share from 16.3% in 2013, according to figures released Jan. 23 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Michigan Education Association lost nearly 5,000 members, bringing its membership down to 110,000. “The practical impact on Michigan's economy from today's numbers are that consumers have less money to spend in stores, with small businesses, and yes, even on cars,” United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams said in an e-mail to the Detroit Free Press. The law hasn't affected the UAW's autoworkers yet, however, because their contract won’t expire until September. Read more

Fairpoint Strike Reaches 100-Day Mark
The strike by more than 1,700 workers at FairPoint Communications in northern New England reached the 100-day mark Jan. 24, but federally mediated talks have lasted for three weeks without breaking down. “They're still in negotiations, so I'm hopeful that there'll be a compromise,” said Krista Jensen, one of the striking workers rallying outside the company's regional headquarters in Portland, Maine. The workers walked out Oct. 17 after FairPoint froze the old pension and replaced it with 401(k) plans, eliminated retiree health-care benefits, cut newly hired workers’ pay, and claimed the right to hire outside contractors. Read more

Chicago Cabbies Mourn Slain Driver
Chicago taxi drivers affiliated with Cab Drivers United/AFSCME Council 31 have raised more than $3,000 for the widow and 5-year-old son of Chinedu Madu, a driver shot to death in an apparent robbery Jan. 8. The union is also seeking reforms to protect the city’s 12,000 cab drivers. “Drivers have rights for compensation under Illinois’ workers’ compensation system, but we aren’t taught that,” said Cheryl Regina Miller, speaking at a memorial for Madu at Midway Airport Jan. 23. Cab drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Read more

TWU Sues American Airlines on Safety
Local 591 of the Transport Workers Union filed a suit against American Airlines Jan. 22, charging supervisors are pushing mechanics to cut corners on judging whether planes are safe to fly. The suit, filed in federal court in Chicago, alleges that airline managers pressured mechanics to disregard hydraulic leaks and wiring problems and to skip inspections after planes were hit by lightning or birds. The union also said that mechanics faced retaliation for reporting safety violations. American Airlines denies all that, saying that it complies with federal safety rules. Read more

Pot Union-Bust: UFCW Accuses Jersey Medical-Cannabis Clinic
The National Labor Relations Board will hold its first-ever hearing on unfair labor practices in the medical-marijuana industry Feb. 4. The board will review a complaint by United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 152, which alleges that the Compassionate Care medical-marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey engaged in "illegal activities to silence dispensary workers." Local 152 says a majority of the workers asked the union to represent them last fall, but management has retaliated by reclassifying workers and cutting the hours of union supporters. Supplying medical cannabis is illegal under federal law, but legal under New Jersey law for patients with some serious illnesses. Read more

West Coast Port Talks Clear Major Obstacle
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 20,000 West Coast dockworkers, and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers at 29 ports, have reached a tentative agreement on Jan. 26 on a key issue in their stalled contract talks. They appear to have resolved the question of who will repair and maintain the trailers used to move cargo containers in and out of Los Angeles, Long Beach and other West Coast ports. The PMA has accused the union of staging a slowdown by not dispatching enough skilled crane operators to move containers out of terminal yards at night, while the ILWU says employers have cut night-shift workers’ hours. The current contract expired in July, and a federal mediator joined the talks Jan. 15. Read more

L.A. DoubleTree Hilton Workers Strike
Workers at the DoubleTree Hotel in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo St. Workers of the hotel walked off the job at 6 a.m. Jan. 22 for a one-day strike. The strike came the day after 11 workers at the hotel filed a complaint with the state labor agency, alleging that they weren’t getting the half-hour meal break and the two 10-minute rest breaks required by state law for an eight-hour shift. “In the afternoons, I don’t take my breaks because I never know when I’m going to get off with all the work I have to do. My schedule changes all the time,” said dishwasher Luis Dominguez. Read more

Oregon Strippers Sue Club for Wage Theft
Alleging wage theft and sexual harassment by bouncers, two strippers in Portland, Oregon sued the club they used to work at in federal court Jan. 11, demanding about $100,000 each. The two said that they were wrongly classified as independent contractors and often made less than minimum wage, because they had to rent the stage, give kickbacks to DJs, bouncers, and managers, and pay fines such as $70 for missing a shift and $10 for not undressing quickly enough onstage. “When we start to look at the control the club exerts over the dancers,” said Amy Pitts, “it’s really clear that we’re not actually independent contractors.” The club’s manager said the lawsuit was “ridiculous” and the club didn’t have to pay minimum wage. Read more

Middle Class Shrinkage Accelerates Since 2000
The number of Americans defined as “middle class”—with household incomes of roughly $35,000 to $100,000 a year—has fallen to 43% of the population, down from more than half in the late 1960s. Since 2000, it’s declined slightly while the percentage of low-income people grew to 34%. “In the Great Recession, we lost a lot of middle-income jobs and we gained a lot of low-paying jobs,” said Michael R. Strain, a resident scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute. “That’s a slower-burning thing, but it increased in ferocity during the recession, and people are feeling it.” Read more

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