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Politicians Keep Promising Free Trade Agreements Can Protect Workers. We Should Stop Believing Them.

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Leo GerardIt’s all the rage now for Republican presidential candidates to spurn the Royal Romney approach and, instead, to fawn over workers.

When former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum announced his presidential bid last week, he did it from a factory floor and called for increasing the minimum wage. Former New York Gov. George Pataki, who also launched his candidacy last week, named as his political inspiration Teddy Roosevelt, a corporate trust-buster and working class hero. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who entered the race in April, said that to win elections, “You’ve got to get the people who work for the people who own businesses.”

That is true—if the businesses are in America. There’s not much point in American candidates soliciting votes from workers at factories that U.S. corporations closed here and moved overseas with the help of free trade agreements (FTAs). Decade after decade of free trade, presidents promised workers that the deals set the highest standards for labor. And decade after decade, the federal government failed at enforcement, placing Americans in competition with child laborers, underpaid and overburdened foreign workers and victims of human trafficking.

On trade, Sen. Paul got it right for working people. He opposed Fast Tracking approval of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. He was on the losing side of that vote, though. So the Fast Track plan for Congress to relinquish its responsibility to review and amend trade agreements awaits action this week in the U.S. House of Representatives. House Republicans who believe in supporting American workers, not just pandering to them, should join Sen. Paul in voting no on Fast Track.

From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, Republican and Democratic presidents have pledged to workers that some new free trade scheme would protect Americans from unfair and immoral foreign competition.

Clinton claimed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the first deal ever containing teeth to enforce labor standards. George W. Bush’s U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) contended the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) had the strongest labor provisions ever negotiated. Obama administration officials assured Americans that the Peru, Colombia and Panama agreements, and now the TPP, have the greatest worker protections of all time.

They all swore the standards would be strictly enforced. But none of it was true. The deals did not protect American workers. And they didn’t protect foreign workers either.

Now American workers overwhelmingly oppose the free trade brand of globalization. They’ve seen its terrible results for them. They’ve suffered as corporations closed American factories, destroyed American jobs and communities, and shipped that work overseas.

Americans have found themselves competing with children coerced to work in foreign factories, trafficked and forced labor, and foreign workers so mistreated that they jump to their deaths from factory buildings. American consumers find themselves buying products made in unsafe buildings that collapse or burn, killing thousands of foreign workers.

The USTR, who is supposed to enforce the labor provisions of trade agreements, along with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Department of State, has failed. That’s according to two reviews by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). After a damning GAO report in 2009, the USTR promised action. A second GAO analysis in 2014 reported little change.

Here’s the bottom line from that report: “Since 2009, USTR and DOL, with State’s assistance, have taken steps intended to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of FTA partners’ compliance with FTA labor provisions, but their monitoring and enforcement remains limited.”

In other words, no matter what those agreements say about labor, it’s not being enforced.

For example, five years after Guatemala entered CAFTA, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) named Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. That’s because of the large number of union activists murdered, tortured, kidnapped and threatened there.

This was a startling development because Colombia had a lock on the inglorious title of most dangerous for years. Colombia dropped from first place even while murders of trade unionists continued there.

Since Colombia finalized a free trade agreement with the U.S. in 2011, two dozen Colombians trying to improve the lives and wages of workers through collective bargaining have been murdered every year. And these murders are committed with impunity. There are virtually never arrests or convictions for killing trade unionists in Colombia. Colombia’s trade deal with the U.S. and its “enforcement” by the USTR, DOL and the State Department have done nothing to change that.

And as in Guatemala, trade union activists in Colombia continue to be threatened, tortured and kidnapped. The free trade agreement is no shield for them. For example, a paramilitary group threatened the daughters of Martha Cecilia Suarez, the president of the Santander public servants association.

In 2013, the paramilitary group Comando Urbano de los Rastrojos sent her two dolls marked with her daughters’ names. They were covered in red paint, one missing a leg, the other an arm.

The 14 free trade agreements that the United States has signed with 20 countries contain provisions allowing groups or individuals to file complaints about such violations of the labor standards. The 2014 evaluation by the GAO suggests that only a tiny number of complaints have been filed because the Labor Department has failed to inform stakeholders of this process and few within the foreign countries know about it.

The GAO also found that the Labor Department has failed to meet its own deadlines for investigating and resolving the complaints it has accepted. Serious allegations, including human trafficking and child labor, remain unsettled for years.

In addition to the critical 2014 GAO report, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren detailed the failure of the United States to implement FTA labor provisions in a report issued by her office late last month titled Broken Promises. It says, “the United States repeatedly fails to enforce or adopts unenforceable labor standards in free trade agreements.”

Admittedly, this is a titanic challenge. What the United States is trying to do is tell other countries, often ones far less wealthy, how their businesses should treat workers. The United States hardly would take kindly to Guatemala telling it that the U.S. minimum wage is so low that it amounts to forced labor.

But president after president has promised American workers that the United States will compel foreign nations to meet high labor standards established in FTAs.

They haven’t accomplished that. They probably can’t. They should stop saying it. And American workers and politicians should stop buying it. The United States can sign trade agreements with countries after they stop murdering trade unionists and countenancing child labor. Entering agreements with countries that permit these grotesque practices demeans American workers and consumers.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 2, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Leo Gerard. Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

The Words of Dead Workers

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Leo GerardTo give voice to 35 workers killed on the job over the past 35 years at a massive refinery in Texas City, hundreds of surviving family members, co-workers and friends gathered there last month to erect white crosses marked with their names.

They conducted the ceremony on the 10th anniversary of an explosion that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170, including townspeople.

Marathon Petroleum Corp., which bought the refinery from BP two years ago, did its best to shut the mourners up. Marathon uprooted the crosses and tossed them in a box like trash within hours of the commemoration.

For years during contract negotiations, the United Steelworkers (USW) union has pressed ungodly profitable oil companies to improve safety. This fell mostly on deaf ears. On Feb. 1, USW refinery workers began loudly voicing this demand by striking over unfair labor practices (ULP). Ultimately 7,000 struck 15 refineries. Within six weeks, all but five oil corporations settled.  Marathon is a hold out. It wants to cut safety personnel. It does not want to hear about dead workers.

Yet the (ULP) strike is about dead workers. Over the past five years, at refineries nationwide that employ USW members, 27 workers have died – incinerated, gassed or crushed to death. And the peril of refineries spills into communities. In Texas City at the refinery owned by BP in 2005, flying glass from windows shattered in the explosion injured townspeople. In the first six weeks of this year, explosions occurred at three refineries, closing streets, raining eye-irritating white ash on neighborhoods and forcing residents to shelter indoors for hours.

As the USW strike over unfair labor practices drags on in Texas City at what is now called the Marathon Petroleum Corp. Galveston Bay Refinery, USW members feel Marathon’s demands for reduced safety measures indicate the corporation refuses to hear the cautionary tales of the facility’s deadly past. Brandi Sanders, treasurer for the local union there and a 10-year veteran maintenance worker, told me that it is as if Marathon believes the 2005 explosion and the 20 other deaths since 1980 don’t exist because they didn’t occur on Marathon’s watch.

“But the union does not want to go back. We lived through those experiences. And we learned from that history. And we should not be forced to repeat it,” Sanders said.

That was the reason for the candlelight ceremony on March 23. To make those deaths real for Marathon managers who did not experience them in the visceral way that co-workers and families and neighbors did.

The mourners marked each of the 35 crosses with the name of a worker killed at the nation’s fifth largest refinery since 1980, which is the year of the last nationwide strike at refineries. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as the participants, holding candles aloft in the dark, marched two blocks from the local union hall to the refinery. They wanted to place the crosses on the site where the workers had lost their lives.

But police officers blocked their path. Marathon had called the cops. Marathon refused to acknowledge the tragic anniversary, even with a moment of silence at the refinery as BP had done annually. And it wouldn’t allow a commemoration by anyone else on its property either.

The officers permitted the mourners to erect the white markers in a median strip along the highway, as often is done by family and friends of car crash victims. The ceremony participants called out each name, tolled a bell and placed the marker. Tears flowed.

Just a few hours later, picketers saw managers leave the plant, descend on the memorial in the darkness and rip each of the 35 crosses out of the ground.

Larry Burchfield, a member of the USW’s National Oil Bargaining Policy Committee and a machinist at the refinery for 20 years while it was owned first by Amoco, then BP and now Marathon, told me that disrespect Marathon showed for the dead is the same disregard Marathon shows for the living.

If Marathon valued the lives of workers, the corporation wouldn’t try to save a couple of bucks by eliminating the safety measures put in place to preserve workers’ lives after the 2005 explosion, Burchfield said. “Marathon’s safety policies are called life critical policies,” he told me, “But your life is not so critical when it is going to affect Marathon’s bottom line.”

Marathon’s “it wasn’t me; it was BP” reasoning for downgrading safety just doesn’t cut it. Don Holmstrom, director of the Western Regional Office of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB),explained why in an interview with the Galveston County Daily News for a story on the anniversary of the 2005 blast.

“I think it is sad to report that not enough appears to have been learned, and the problem persists. It is not a BP problem. Although the incident occurred at (BP’s) Texas City refinery, there is an industry problem,” said Holmstrom, who was the CSB’s lead investigator into the 2005 blast.

Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) Assistant Administrator Jordan Barab said of recent refinery explosions, “each repeated a lesson that the industry should have already learned.”

Marathon is no outlier, operating in perfect safety. Numerous problems have occurred at the plant since Marathon took over. An explosion and fire at the refinery on Feb. 21 last year critically injured Oscar Garcia, who was employed by a company Marathon contracted to perform work on the site. Garcia has sued Marathon for negligence. The refinery released more than 128,000 pounds of silica and alumina oxide into surrounding communities in two incidents this year. Several fires have occurred since the strike began, including two within 24 hours witnessed by picketing workers.

After the BP explosion, the CSB and others recommended refineries refrain from placing personnel in temporary facilities near volatile units, especially during shut downs and startups. Many of those killed in the BP explosion were in temporary trailers during a unit start up. Despite that, within the past year, Marathon erected three lunch tents during a repair cycle on the same ground where bodies and debris had been haled away after the 2005 blast.

Not one of the 1,100 USW members who work for Marathon has crossed the picket line. They’ve gone without pay for nearly three months because they know what’s at stake: their lives.

In another attempt to help Marathon hear that, workers replanted the 35 white crosses in a long line in front of the union hall. They managed to get them back from Marathon through the police department.

Today, on Workers’ Memorial Day, which commemorates those who have lost their lives on the job, the USW members will place a solar spotlight in front of each cross, to highlight the lives sacrificed when safety was compromised. Hopefully, that will open the eyes of Marathon managers who deliberately closed their ears to the words of dead workers.

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on April 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.

Is Korea FTA Job Loss, Deficit Growth a Harbinger of TPP?

Monday, March 17th, 2014
Image: Mike HallThe U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS–FTA) turns 2 years old Saturday and imports from Korea continue to flood into the United States, costing workers their jobs. Exports to Korea have failed to live up to the promises made when the agreement passed Congress, says United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo W. Gerard. The agreement, he says:

Has failed to produce good jobs and the evidence on exports is clear. Our export growth rate in the past 20 out of 21 months is below the average monthly level seen before the FTA was signed.

Despite promises of U.S. job growth and improvements in trade balances (similar to what we’re hearing about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement [TPP])—Gerard says imports from Korea are up by 4% and:

The monthly U.S. trade deficit with Korea has ballooned 45 percent when compared to the pre-FTA level. The damage from KORUS and other free trade deals have been shown by the Economic Policy Institute to have caused the loss of tens of thousands of good-paying U.S. manufacturing jobs.

He warns that if TPP has the same negative and growing impact as KORUS, America’s job losses and the effect of trade imbalances will multiply.

Read more from the USW.

In related trade news, there is still time for you to sign the petition to Congress to stop the legislation (H.R. 3830/S. 1900) that would give Fast Track trade authority approval for all major trade agreements over the next four years, including the TPP.

Under the Fast Track process, Congress can only vote yes or no on the full agreement. It cannot amend, improve or fix any flaws in the bill. The North American Free Trade Agreement and other job-killing trade deals were approved via Fast Track.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on March 14, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Honeywell Plant Freezes Summer Vacations

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Mike ElkAt a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.

Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.

In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.

In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:

Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.

The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.

“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.

The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.

“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”

“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.

Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.

“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”

Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.

“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.

Pizza-Making Strikers Win Small Slice of Justice in Milwaukee

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Roger BybeeThe 14-month-long strike at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee produced a small slice of justice this week for the Mexican immigrant workers who have been fighting for higher wages, safer conditions and a union voice at the frozen-pizza maker.

Last Tuesday, Palermo’s finally agreed to comply with a finding by the National Labor Relations Board and re-hire eight workers with back pay, which will cost the pizza chain tens of thousands of dollars. The eight had been illegally fired for trying to unionize, the NLRB ruled.

Palermo’s has also agreed to post a notice announcing that the firm will no longer violate federal labor law. “This agreement confirms that Palermo’s used threats, intimidation, surveillance, discrimination, and retaliation to deny the freedom to choose a union voice,” says Raul de la Torre, an organizing committee member of the Palermo’s Workers Union. Fully 75 percent of the workers signed cards seeking union recognition prior to the strike, but Palermo’s management responded only with threats and other illegal tactics.

But Palermo’s decision to comply with the NLRB ruling does not reflect a softening of the intransigence that has driven about 125 workers, almost all immigrants from Mexico, out on strike for over a year. Palermo’s has refused for months to even engage in bargaining, said spokesperson Brian Rothgery of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which has been assisting the Palermo’s strikers since they walked out on June 1, 2012.

Low pay, hazardous working conditions and arbitrary management decisions drove workers to form a union with the help of the immigrants-rights group Voces de la Frontera, which has been vocal and visible force in Wisconsin for the rights of immigrant workers.

Voces, the Palermo’s Workers Union and the USW are preparing to intensify their boycott of Palermo’s frozen pizzas at stores and institutions across the nation, said Rothgery. This escalation of the boycott will mean a focus on getting Palermo’s products removed from universities and on the Costco chain, which accounts for half of Palermo’s sales.

USW District 2 Director Mike Bolton called the settlement for the eight workers a positive development, but expressed exasperation with U.S. labor laws that allow a firm like Palermo’s to thwart the democratic choice of workers to form a union.

“It took much too long to get even this small bit of justice for these workers,” Bolton tells Working In These Times. “And unfortunately, they will be going back to jobs where union busters have created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that a democratic election is not possible.”

“The American system of labor laws has failed for most of the Palermo’s workers,” says Rothgery. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop. The boycott is continuing, and we’ll keep fighting until there is justice for all the workers at Palermo’s.”

The workers and their allies will need to puncture the stone wall that has been Palermo’s response to the onslaught of community protests and legal challenges. Palermo’s refused to accept a letter from clergy and other community leaders following their 18-mile pilgrimage from Palermo’s plant to the palatial suburban home of Palermo’s co-owner Giacomo Falluci on June 1, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the strike.

Meanwhile, Palermo’s still faces various federal charges of both tolerating safety hazards and breaking labor-relations laws. Palermo’s is contesting seven “serious” charges filed May 7 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that its handling of nearly 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia—used in freezing food—was unsafe and posed a severe safety hazard. Palermo’s faces $38,500 in fines from OSHA.

The penalties reflect the threat posed by a potential accident. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a one-minute accidental release of 1,000 pounds of ammonia would spread toxic fumes 1.2 miles in an urban area.  A release of the full 29,500 pounds could travelsix miles. The Milwaukee Brewers’ major-league baseball stadium, with a seating capacity of 42,200, is just 1.3 miles west of the Palermo’s plant.

OSHA also requested that the frozen-pizza company turn over uncensored records of worker injuries and other safety problems, after Palermo’s submitted information with key information redacted.

Unfair labor charges

Until finally conceding on the one NLRB complaint, Palermo’s had refused to comply with the NLRB order issued last November. Palermo’s management and its advisors—which include the Chicago-based anti-union Jackson Lewis law firm and the PR firm of prominent local Democrat Evan Zeppos–seemingly want to project a message that the firm is impervious to any form of pressure, and thereby demoralize the workers and their supporters, say supporters of the strikers.

“They want to flaunt their impunity, “ explained Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera, the influential immigrants-rights group which has reinvigorated Milwaukee’s long tradition of May Day marches—dating back to 1886–by assembling tens of thousands of immigrant workers and supporters. Zeppos has attacked Neumann-Ortiz in harsh terms for supposedly discouraging business development: “I’ve talked to businesses who say, ‘Why should I move to the valley when that’s happening?’ She has hurt the city, she has hurt those workers, and she has hurt herself. She’s become toxic property.”

Palermo’s has managed to replace the striking workers with “scab” replacement workers. Many of these replacement workers were hired through the BG temporary agency, which faces its own set of charges issued by the NLRB—including a contingent of refugees from Myanmar (until recently, a nation wracked by dire poverty ruled by an extraordinarily brutal military dictatorship). A 21 year-old refugee suffered the loss of three fingers in an accident at the plant.

Big subsidies for low-wage jobs

Palermo’s stance has been reinforced by the overtly pro-corporate and anti-unionadministration of Gov. Scott Walker, especially the scandal-wracked Wisconsin Economic Development Agency, which has been willing to overlook the company’s failure to provide family-sustaining wages as promised in exchange for state grants. Wages at Palermo’s have fallen far short of the $12 an hour target set a full decade back in 2003 by the Menominee Valley Partners, a joint public-private initiative, when a plan was laid out for the area, which had been vacated by many large employers. One Palermo’s worker reported that she made just $9.30 an hour after 10 years at the plant.

Total taxpayer subsidies to Palermo’s—from city, state, and federal sources—have totaled $48 million, according to an updated version of an AFL-CIO report called “Too Much Pork in the Pepperoni.”

Allies and foes

Despite Palermo’s failure to meet its obligations to taxpayers, the company has found allies in the Milwaukee area’s top Democratic leaders. County Executive Chris Abele, who both gained office with labor support, openly aligned himself with Palermo’s in an op-ed shortly after the dispute started. For his part, Mayor Tom Barrett issued a deceptively neutral-sounding call for a “fair and timely” union representation election late last November, in a statement describing Palermo’s as “a valued corporate citizen.” But holding elections under the prevailing conditions would mean that the Palermo’s strikers would be shut out of the election while replacement workers would constitute the voters, noted Neumann Ortiz.  “They [Palermo’s and Barrett] only want an election where the voters would be hand-picked,” she pointed out.

But has been extensive support for the workers around the state and in the local community—as exhibited by the clergy-led 18-mile walk to protest Palermo’s practices. At UW-Madison, students held a sit-in ON April 29 at the office of Chancellor David Ward and won a halt to the university’s licensing deal with Palermo’s, under which the UW receiveD about $200,000 for promoting Palermo’s pizzas with a “Bucky Badger” logo.

Some Wisconsin Democrats, like state Rep. Jon Richards, have been actively demanding records on Palermo’s failure to provide the quality jobs needed to comply with the terms of its subsidies. Several County Board and City Council members have also been outspoken in their support of the strikers.

Meanwhile, labor activists nationwide are pressuring chains like San Diego-based Costco to stop carrying Palermo’s pizzas until workers’ rights are honored. While Costco has marketed itself as a humane alternative to Wal-Mart’s infamous low-wage and unashamedly brutal disregard of worker suffering, as with victims of factory disasters in Bangladesh for whom Wal-Mart has denied any responsibility, Costco has thus far refused to budge on selling Palermo’s pizzas  produced under harsh conditions closer to home.

With Palermo’s concession n the rehiring of the eight workers and acknowledgement of labor-law violations, the Palermo’s strikers and their allies see a small step forward. The boycott campaign gains ammunition at universities with strong policies on labor rights.

But until a breakthrough occurs to cut significantly into Palermo’s sales, Palermo’s seems intent on maintaining a hard line against the strikers. Image-conscious Costco, with 449 warehouse-style stores across the U.S., may prove to be the crucial target if Palermo’s workers are ever to win justice.

This article originally posted on Working In These Times on August 5th, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.  

About the Author:Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Zmagazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.

New Co-Op Model for Sustainable Main Street Jobs

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Image: Mike HallThe United Steelworkers (USW), the Spanish worker cooperative Mondragon—the world’s largest worker cooperative—and the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC) this week unveiled what they describe as a “template that combines worker equity with a progressive collective bargaining process.”

USW President Leo Gerard says that “to survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fueled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street.”

This union co-op model…provides a viable road map on how we might begin fielding these sustainable jobs. Worker-ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies and closings in hard times, rather than having the rug pulled right out from under struggling communities to the benefit of a few at the expense of the many.

A key part of the co-op’s mission is to support and invest in communities, by creating jobs, funding development projects, supporting education and providing opportunity.

“Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-Op Model” is a “public domain” template available to any organization at www.union.coop. It offers a primer for competitive and equitable employment creation based on 55 years of Mondragon principles put into marketplace practice.

In 2011, Mondragon reached annual sales of more than $24 billion with its own cooperative university, cooperative bank and cooperative social security mutual and is ranked as the top Basque business group, the seventh largest in Spain and the world’s largest industrial workers’ cooperative.

Gerard says the goal is creating an economy that can work for everyone who works, and that:

Creating sustainable jobs and sustainable communities require broadening the definition of societal value beyond “the bottom line” and moving to a more stakeholder-centric economy. Democratic worker ownership principles combined with social and economic justice differentiate the union co-op model from traditional business models, making the union co-op option sustainable and giving it a competitive edge over the long term as worker-owners get to benefit more fully from their hard work and own their own decision-making process and all the fruits of their labors.

The co-op principle, he says, will result in improved, self-reinforcing, worker and customer satisfaction through higher accountability, productivity and efficiency because all workers will have an equal equity stake in the company, share common goals and adhere to common principles and practices that broaden the definition of value beyond the bottom line.

Several co-op projects are under way and in the planning stages. Click here for information from the USW.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on March 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall “I’m a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.”

First NAFTA-Wide Union Could Emerge This Year

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

mike elkUnited Steelworkers and Mexico’s Los Mineros union could develop a unification proposal as soon as this August

In Mexico, few independent union exist that are not effectively controlled by the Mexican government. According to United Steelworkers International Affairs Director Ben Davis, fewer than 1 percent of Mexico’s unions are truly independent unions. As a result of the lack of independent unions in Mexico, Mexican workers have had a very hard time advocating for higher wages. Further, those unions that are independent in Mexico—like the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Related Workers of the Mexican Republic, aka Los Mineros—have faced severe oppression at the hands of government-affiliated unions.

In 2006, Los Mineros President Napoleon Gomez Urrutia was forced to flee to Canada after the Mexican government charged him with what union officials characterize as trumped-up charges of embezzlement. A federal Mexican court has dismissed the charges against Gomez Urrutia, but the charges against him remain pending at the state level. Supporters of the exiled labor leader says that he was only charged with crimes after he demanded an investigation of 2006 mine explosion that killed 65 workers at the Pasta de Conchos. Gomez Urrutia has been running the 180,000-member Los Mineros union out of the Steelworkers’ District 3 offices in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Despite the charges against Gomez Urrutia and his forced exile, his continued relevance was demonstrated late last week when officials for the Mexican operations of steel corporation ArcelorMittal traveled to Toronto to negotiate with the exiled Mexican labor leader. The trip was made possible in part through the assistance of the United Steelworkers (USW), who may merge with Los Mineros later this year.

Last month, In These Times Contributing Editor Kari Lydersen profiled how the unique cross-border solidarity emerged between USW and Los Mineros. In 2005, steelworkers went out on strike at an Asarco owned copper mining and smelting mill in Arizona in 2005. Many Mineros members who work at the Grupo Mexico company, which owns Asarco, went out on strike and performed other solidarity actions in support of striking miners in Arizona.

As a result of that strike, a solidarity agreement was formed between those two unions in 2005. In 2010, USW and Los Mineros formed a joint commission to look at merging their two unions. According to United Steelworkers Public Affairs Director Gary Hubbard, the joint commission is working toward a  unification proposal for discussion at the Steelworkers’ convention in August in Las Vegas.

As Kari Lydersen noted, “If the merger occurs, the new USW-Mineros union would represent more than 1 million workers—the USW has 850,000 members, while the Mineros has 180,000.”

If the USW/Los Mineros merger passes, as many expect it will, it would be the first between a Mexican-based union, an American affiliate of a union and a Canadian affiliate of a union—marking a new phase of cross-border solidarity. The merger has the potential to reshape labor markets in both countries.

“We are directly affected everyday by the low-wage competition from Mexico. The reason that competition is low-wage is because Mexican government keeps wages low by busting unions,” says USW International Affairs Director Ben Davis. “It’s a matter of survival for us to have democratic unions that support workers’ rights and raise wages. It’s really about closing the gap the right way by bringing Mexican wages up, not our wages down, through strengthening alliances between workers who quite often have the same employers.”

Correction: The original version of this article stated that members of both USW and Los Mineros would vote on a unification proposal if it were part of USW’s August convention. In fact, only USW members can vote on proposals presented at the convention.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on July 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times as well as Alternet, The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

Making America the Best Place on Earth to Work

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Leo GerardNot the wars. Not greenhouse gasses. Not even the deficit. The issue most important to Americans is jobs.

Despite that, jobs failed to make an appearance in the State of the Union address.

The talk was all about business. Business was doing better. Business needed taxpayers to help pay for research and innovation. Business will get government help to eliminate pesky regulations. Business must have lower taxes.

The most telling statement was this:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business.”

Especially because it wasn’t matched by a companion:

“We have to make America the best place on Earth to work.”

The speech expressed a policy in which business is the focus of government, taking precedence over workers.  The American colonists created a government for their own benefit; they did not constitute an agent to serve business. A policy giving corporations primacy is risky for American workers.

The state of the union noted that happy days are here again for corporations and banks:

“Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.”

Never mentioned, however, were the 14.5 million unemployed Americans, the sustained record rate of foreclosure, and the increasing poverty and food bank reliance among citizens of the richest nation in the world.

The state of the union outlined a plan under which the government will coddle corporations, essentially proving companies government welfare using American workers’ tax dollars. If businesses create jobs for workers as a result, fine. If they don’t, there’s no plan to exact a penalty.

For example, under the policy described in the speech, American workers will fork over tax dollars to pay for research and development for businesses that are sitting on a record $1.8 trillion in cash reserves — hoarding it rather than creating jobs.

The president said:

“Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Maybe it will create new jobs. Hopefully. But no guarantees were offered. Mentioned as a business success story in the speech was a Michigan company, Luma Resources, which began manufacturing solar shingles with the help of a $500,000 government grant. It created 20 jobs, $25,000 a job.  American taxpayers might think that’s a little pricey, but what’s worse is the potential for Luma Resources to go the way of Evergreen Solar, squandering the corporate welfare.

Evergreen, the third largest maker of solar panels in the U.S. and recipient of at least $43 million in corporate welfare, announced earlier this month it would close its main American factory in Massachusetts and move manufacturing to China. Eight hundred Americans will lose their Evergreen jobs by April.

Evergreen officials said China will give the company even higher amounts of corporate welfare, which, of course, makes sense since China is not a capitalist country. Its economy is government controlled. And that government routinely violates international trade regulations – by providing banned subsidies to industries and by deliberately devaluing its currency.

No matter how better educated American workers get. No matter how much more innovative. No matter how much more productive. No matter how many tax dollars the government spends on research and development, if the corporations that benefit move manufacturing overseas, the American workers who paid for it will suffer.

In fact, it’s more than suffering; it’s betrayal by their government that provided tax benefits to companies for off-shoring jobs. It is betrayal by their government that fails to stop violations of trade laws by countries like China that lure away firms like Evergreen.

At the end of the State of the Union speech, the president said:

“From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream.”

An ordinary American dreams of a family-supporting job, owning a home, saving enough to pay for a child’s college education, helping to build a safe community. Corporations aren’t Americans, no matter how often the U.S. Supreme Court grants them rights that the U.S. Constitution guarantees to human beings. Businesses aren’t citizens. Their allegiance isn’t to America. It’s to profits. They dream only of dollars. They concede no responsibility to family, community or country.

They were not included when the president said:

“Tucson reminded us that no matter who we are or where we come from, each of us is a part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.  We are part of the American family.”

The top priority of the American government must be making America the best place on Earth for Americans.  If that’s good for corporations, great. The government must never place American citizens second.

*This post originally appeared in United Steelworker’s Blog on January 31, 2010.

About the Author: Leo W. Gerard is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama recently appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of the Apollo Alliance, Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the IMF and ICEM global labor federations and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union.

WTO Ruling Shows Trade Law Can Work for Workers

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Image: James ParksA World Trade Organization (WTO) panel’s ruling in favor of U.S. tariffs on passenger and light truck tires made in China shows “the rules of trade, when vigorously enforced, can be made to work for working people,” United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard said.

In September 2009, President Obama became the first president to enforce U.S. trade law when he imposed tariffs to protect domestic workers against a surge in tire imports from China. The original complaint came from the USW, and Obama’s decision led to a rebound in the tire industry.

China appealed the decision to the WTO and the ruling was announced yesterday. Gerard applauded the Obama administration for “standing up and defending American jobs in its original decision to impose relief and in its strong defense of that action at the WTO.”

Fair trade law enforcement should be the standard of our government in requiring China to fulfill its obligations under its accession agreement with the WTO more than a decade ago.

“This is a major victory for the United States and particularly for American workers and businesses,” U.S. Trade Rep. Ron Kirk said in a statement.

We have said all along that our imposition of duties on Chinese tires was fully consistent with our WTO obligations. It is significant that the WTO panel has agreed with us, on all grounds.

This is the latest in a series of wins for U.S. workers in their battle to level the trade playing field against China. The USW has filed a series of complaints against illegal and improper trade practices by China’s government.

In the past few months, the Obama administration has accepted a USW complaint against subsidies to clean energy manufacturers by China’s government and the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) in October ordered duties imposed on paper products illegally dumped in the United States by China’s government.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris

Assert Yourself, America; Don't be an Illegal Trade Victim

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.

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