Labor News Briefs

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

August 14, 2013

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