Follow the Soapbox
By Kristina Betinis
7 May 2015

After saying it would not extend the current teachers’ contract for an additional year because it could not afford a three percent wage increase that would come with it, the city of Chicago is demanding sweeping concessions in talks for a new agreement. This includes a seven percent pay cut in addition to higher health care contributions and diminished pensions.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was recently re-elected in a runoff election last month, is using a largely manufactured budget crisis to demand the concessions from the city’s 32,000 teachers and other school employees whose contract expires on June 30.

The current contract was imposed after the defeat of the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012. That struggle pitted teachers against Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, and the assault on public education spearheaded by Obama and both big business parties in the name of “school reform.” The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) gave in to Emanuel’s demands for the expansion of testing-based teacher evaluation and loosening restrictions on teacher layoffs.

Allied with the Democratic Party, the CTU betrayed the strike, paving the way for its collaboration in a record number of public school closures and related layoffs. The year 2013 saw fifty elementary schools closed, thousands of layoffs and the dislocation of tens of thousands of students, which exacerbated overcrowding and placed additional strains on remaining teachers and staff.

In demanding the pay cut, the Emanuel administration cites a $1.1 billion Chicago Public Schools budget shortfall. Budget shortfalls and a lack of tax revenue are also being used to press for deep cuts to the teachers’ pension system. In addition, Tax Increment Financing districts siphon existing tax revenue into a mayor-controlled account used to attract investment in wealthy areas.

City estimates for teacher pension underfunding is somewhere in the region of $7 billion. As of 2014, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund claimed 44,473 members. (See, “City worker pensions under attack”) CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey expressed hope the CTU would work with the school district in lobbying state leaders to resolve pension issues.

There have been recent calls in the Chicago Tribune and the business press, and from Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, for the Chicago Public Schools district to declare bankruptcy, with the goal of gutting the teacher pensions. Bankruptcy successfully paved the way for the slashing of pensions in Detroit, Michigan and Stockton, California.

Teacher pensions were introduced as a bargaining chip in the opening bid of the 2015 contract negotiations by none other than Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who offered last year to negotiate a cut to teacher pensions for educators who have not yet retired, a move lauded in the business press.

Last week, CTU Vice President and ISO member Jesse Sharkey sought to diminish the importance of teacher compensation, declaring, “Money is not our membership’s biggest concern right now.”

This would be news to teachers who work in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the US.

The CTU has not publicly reported any of its own wage or benefit proposals, instead referring to proposals that included smaller class sizes and the hiring of counselors and nurses, neither of which can be bargained over.

Accepting the lie used to justify cuts all over the country—that there is no money—Sharkey continued, “If the district has no money to put a counselor in a school where a half-dozen kids get shot, or not enough money to have the counselor who’s there actually counsel, then they don’t have the money for a three percent raise, do they?”

Sharkey is a leading member of the International Socialist Organization. His comments only underscore the fact that the ISO, like its pseudo-left counter-part in Greece, Syriza, functions as a faction of the bourgeois political establishment.

Last week, school officials announced the smallest capital budget in 20 years. The $160 million budget to repair the city’s many dilapidated schools is about one third of last year’s budget. While claiming there is no money to improve schools or the wages and benefits of educators, Emanuel continues to provide tax breaks to major corporate interests in the city like Boeing and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Last month, Governor Rauner approved $100 million in corporate tax cuts.

While the majority of the city’s 400,000 public school students suffer, politically-connected charter school operators and other businesses continue to siphon money. Federal corruption investigations have been opened into Emanuel’s appointee to CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, for awarding a $20.5 million no-bid contract to SUPES Academy, an education and training company for teachers and principals that Byrd-Bennett had previous business relationships with.

Hamstrung by the SEIU's PR-Based Strategy
Counter Punch

When fast-food workers first took the streets in New York City in November 2012 to protest for higher wages and a union no one could have imagined how successful the campaign would be. Since then the low-wage workers movement, known as Fight for 15, has helped spur eleven states and numerous cities to raise the minimum hourly wage. It’s enabled campaigns in Seattle and the Bay Area to pass citywide measures for $15-an-hour minimum wage. Fight for 15 and a separate campaign called Organization United for Respect at Walmart has also pushed companies like McDonald’s, Target, and Walmart to announce in early 2015 that they would raise the minimum wage for hundreds of thousands of employees.

The success of the organizing is due to everything from the abysmal recovery from the 2008 economic crisis to Occupy Wall Street’s role in shifting the national dialogue from austerity to economic inequality. But Fight for 15 is due primarily to the Service Employees International Union, which initiated the campaign in 2011 and has poured tens of millions of dollars into growing waves of protest that are battering the image of the fast-food giants.

As the protests have grown, the campaign has become both broad and narrow. SEIU has linked the plight of fast-food workers to that of retail and convenience-store workers, home healthcare aides, childcare workers, and adjunct professors. At the same time Fight for 15 is focusing its fire on McDonald’s. One SEIU insider says the strategy is, “Pummel them until they come to the table.” Another organizer outlined the thinking back in 2013: Fight for 15 was trying to cause enough problems for McDonald’s image and stock price that SEIU could say to the company, “We can make this all go away” if it agreed to a deal on wages and unionization.

Using the National Labor Relations Board, SEIU has filed charges of unfair labor practices and wage theft against McDonald’s franchises. The strategy paid off after the NLRB general counsel ruled in July 2014 that McDonald’s has joint employer responsibility, opening space for SEIU to pressure the corporate parent, rather than dealing with 3,100 U.S. franchisees. SEIU is also raising the heat overseas. The European Union is investigating McDonald’s for allegedly dodging more than $1 billion in taxes and labor federations in Brazil are suing McDonald’s largest franchisee in Latin America for wage and workplace violations. A participant in a recent strategy session held with Scott Courtney, said to be SEIU’s mastermind for Fight for 15, says the next step under consideration is to create trouble for McDonald’s on the property front, which is as much a titan of real estate as it is of hamburgers.

McDonald’s claims the campaign has had no effect on its operations and that it could not afford to raise wages. Over the last year its international sales have been flat and its profits have fallen sharply. So its announcement on April 1 that it would raise pay for workers at corporate-owned U.S. stores was widely viewed as a concession to Fight for 15. That move backfired, however, as the raise is only 89 cents an hour on average and affects just 10 percent of its U.S. workforce. Plus, sources say McDonald’s has quietly approached SEIU and is looking for a deal. For nearly two years there have been rumors that SEIU was considering some alternative to a union for the fast-food sector, such as a workers association.

A workers association, however, would mean fewer rights and protections for workers than a traditional union. This points to the question that’s been hanging over Fight for 15 since it caught fire. What is SEIU’s end game? I asked one organizer if the campaign is building working power, and the response was blunt: “The goal is not worker power. It’s a contract.”

Since a traditional union contract with McDonald’s or any other fast-food company remains unlikely, the campaign goals need to be better aligned with reality. Fight for 15 has been remarkably successful on wages, but unless it is trying to increase worker’s power on the job, any wage and benefit improvements won through public pressure, negative publicity, and community-based protest activity will be hard to sustain in the absence of ongoing workplace organization or networks of some sort.

Now, many Fight for 15 organizers point out SEIU is the only big union gambling on trying to organize an industry with millions of unorganized workers, and it’s putting thousands of workers in motion. Organizing low-wage workers is a long overdue response to the neoliberal turn that dealt a historic defeat to organized labor during the 1980s. Millions of new jobs are projected to be in occupations like food prep, retail, and healthcare aides that pay $9 to $12 an hour. The jobs have few benefits, schedules and hours are erratic and there tends to be high turnover. This is the base for Fight for 15, OUR Walmart and a broader campaign known as 15 Now, initiated by the Seattle-based Socialist Alternative.

A fundamental goal of labor organizing is to take labor out of competition with itself. But that is nearly impossible when low-skilled, low-wage workers have few rights and number in the tens of millions. Fight for 15’s approach is unorthodox, but it is constrained by organized labor’s history. Class-struggle unionism has been abandoned by labor leaders who act as junior partners to corporations, like SEIU and Kaiser Permanente, the UAW and auto companies, the machinists union and Boeing, and the building trades and real-estate developers. Many union leaders are also in the pocket of the Democratic Party despite it being in the pocket of Wall Street.

Fight for 15 trying to make trouble for global corporations, but it’s not pursuing a working-class struggle. (Few unions are interested in that; that’s the job of the organized left.) Fight for 15 is more of a legal and public relations campaign, as I explain, than an organizing campaign. It is bearing fruit, but mainly as a spillover than in the fast-food sector. This includes adjunct professor organizing, which with the assistance of unions, especially SEIU, have notched many victories since 2013. Thousands of healthcare workers, who make up about half of SEIU’s membership, are agitating for $15 an hour, which is also in response to the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that imposed limits on union membership for home-care aides. There are also linkages with the Black Lives Matter movement, which is significant given Fight for 15 is the biggest mobilization of African-American workers since the 1960s. While these are inchoate forms of solidarity and social-justice unionism, they remain underdeveloped because of the top-down nature of Fight for 15.

The most intriguing outcomes of Fight for 15 are citywide campaigns for a raise in the minimum wage, which has opened up organizing space for the left. Fifteen dollars an hour is now reality in Seattle, albeit it with loopholes, with most low-wage workers expected to earn that by 2017. San Francisco’s ballot measure for $15 an hour was spearheaded by SEIU Local 1021, which one observer calls a model for a worker-run union. Fight for $15 campaign helped legitimize the idea in Seattle. The local SEIU affiliate’s biggest contribution was a $15-an-hour ballot measure that won in the SeaTac suburb. But the heavy lifting was done by Socialist Alternative and its inside and outside political approach, aggressive reporting and support from The Stranger, a well-regarded newsweekly, and incoming Mayor Ed Murray’s decision to back the measure and establish a committee to shape, for good and bad, the final bill. 15 Now is currently pushing $15 an hour statewide in Oregon and according to sources is encountering resistance from some unions that are reluctant to challenge Democratic politicians.

In terms of Fight for 15, its efforts have been more effective in the digital realm than in the real world when it comes to fast-food workers. One Fight for 15 organizer says, “SEIU would like the public to perceive this as a large and growing movement creating a crisis. They are creating the perception of a wave.”

But the campaign is also hamstrung, and SEIU’s media-centric strategy inhibits it from making hay from it. The organizer explains, “Workers are afraid to stand up. The number one problem is fear. I would say less than 4 percent of the workers we contact stay on board. They jump on and jump off [Fight for 15] all the time.” Workers have every reason to be afraid. One study from 2005 estimated 23,000 workers a year are penalized or fired for legitimate union activity, making a mockery of laws meant to protect workplace organizing.

A rich account of the difficulty and potential of worker-run, shop-based organizing in the fast-food industry is provided by Erik Forman in New Forms of Worker Organization. He recounts an IWW campaign in Jimmy John’s sandwich shops in Minneapolis, which narrowly lost a union vote but gained many concessions, wage increases and most important, worker consciousness, solidarity and power. Provocations and illegal acts by the bosses were used to build organization and militancy, not shunted over to law firms and P.R. agencies as in Fight for 15. But the campaign was dealt a serious blow by the mass firing of six organizers. (Forman’s scathing critique of a complacent union bureaucracy as an outcome of labor law and how labor law proved to be a dead end is also important to consider.)

SEIU has far more resources to confront employer threats of firing and retaliation, but creating a shop-by-shop base of power would still be a monumental task. Fight for 15 could nurture worker power other ways, but it has forgone a bottom-up struggle. Its worker leaders serve to energize other workers, relate a compelling personal story and act as a media spokesperson. In other words, they provide the image of a leader rather than the substance of a leader who can organize the workplace, engage in shop-floor warfare against the boss, develop worker solidarity, and force concessions while building a militant rank and file.

The site of worker power in Fight for 15 is supposed to be the organizing committees, but within the staff-driven campaign participants say workers have little power. Strike votes are usually not held unless the staff leadership is confident it will win. Meetings are for pumping up workers and feeding them information, not democratic debate and decision-making. The annual Fight for 15 conferences, with the next one reportedly set for this summer in Detroit, are described as heavily scripted. I asked one organizer if it was true that worker leaders made decisions during weekly national conference calls. The response was, “That’s bullshit, and I know because I participate in those calls.” Plus, a one person says during a strategy session Scott Courtney was introduced to workers as “the reason you are all here.” Compare this SEIU’s claim in 2013 that it is following the lead of fast-food workers and “We don’t yet understand the scale of it” when in fact it gave birth to the fast-food workers campaign.

Where there is organizing in Fight for 15, it is more in the streets than in the workplace. The big days of action are vital for the sense of momentum. Allies from community groups, students and union staff swell numbers, add to the festivity, make a more favorable media impression, sway public opinion, and make it look as if the campaign is growing.

One can make the case that SEIU made a sound decision in forgoing a worker-centric campaign for a P.R. and legal strategy. But then it can no longer said to be a worker-driven movement. If SEIU admitted workers’ fear of being fired or disciplined by employers leads to high turnover in Fight for 15, it would undermine the perception that more and more fast-food workers are joining and staying with the campaign. A lack of power also means workers follow the dictates of paid organizers, who in turn say they get their marching orders from SEIU leaders.

A few organizers have mentioned SEIU’s P.R. firm, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, is involved in the strategy. In fact, a 25-page document entitled “Strike in a Box,” which bears BerlinRosen’s logo, is presented as a how-to-guide for building a successful strike. This and other documents provide more evidence for the top-down management of Fight for 15, which is logical given the enormous effort devoted to organizing just one protest in one city. The fact that Fight for 15 staged more than 200 protests in U.S. cities on April 15 indicates how many resources SEIU has committed.

For example, one fast-food protest in 2013 was run like a military campaign. The staffing plan included the local organizing leadership, four different media workers, half-a-dozen “defusers” to soothe any trouble, a photographer, videographer, police liaison, chant leader and energizer, a supply team, drivers, onsite legal, a criminal lawyer on standby, breakfast and lunch coordinators, and people designated to hand out signs, flags, t-shirts, and water. A spreadsheet mapped out protests by the minute, noting times and location for loading vans, picking up workers, talking points for press conferences, skits, prayers, dancing in the streets, and “walk backs” of workers the next day to minimize retaliation. Insiders say to maximize turnout, Fight for 15 will sometimes rent hotel rooms for workers the night before a protest, rent vans to drive them to the start point, and provide meals.

Strike in a Box appears to be from an earlier stage of Fight for 15, but it is insightful. It starts with a “Legal FAQ” that describes different types of strikes under labor law. It cautions against any conduct that can be classified as picketing as “picketing is considered coercive and incurs more liability for the union,” such as forcing a union election. Instead it says to focus on unfair labor practices as “ULP strikes are the legal crown jewel of strikes.”

The document gives tips for discovering, recording and tracking unfair labor practices. Workers in various Fight for 15 chapters say uncovering ULPs became a priority nearly two years ago, with organizers regularly asking for incidences of employer retaliation or discrimination.

The link between the legal and media strategy is in the section on “Site Assessments,” which begins by asking how many active and strong ULP’s there are at a particular establishment. The section also asks if it’s a good site to focus on, the existence of strong leaders, and then shifts to questions about messaging:

“Is it an iconic brand? Does the brand help tell a story, locally and/or nationally?

“Do we have spokespeople?

Trained? Reliable? Experienced?

“Do we have stories?

Compelling worker stories

Horror stories about site practices (wage theft, sexual harassment, etc)

Connection to broader themes (cutting hours because of Obamacare, etc)”

Much of the remainder of Strike in a Box is devoted to recruiting workers with strong stories, organizing the strike vote, how to build a “pull plan” to maximize strike-day turnout, shoring up workers confidence, carrying out the actual strike, and the need for compelling visuals, stories and a narrative. Little is said about workplace organizing. This matches the experiences of many workers in the campaign who say they are not provided with any training on how to build shop-floor organization.

None of this is meant to dismiss Fight for 15. It is having a more profound effect than anyone could have hoped for when it began. But politics don’t just happen. By denying a central role SEIU leaders can deflect questions about controversial strategies and on-the-ground organizing. Likewise, analyzing strategy and tactics years from now is little use in books few people will read. There are many more questions that can and should be asked about Fight for 15.

For example, the campaign is focused primarily on wages and then on scheduling. But once they clock out, fast-food workers confront the dilemmas of childcare, healthcare, transportation, and rent. Fight for 15 talks about the difficulty of living on a poverty wage, but does so in moralistic terms: “fairness.” It avoids a deeper critique because “the goal is a contract.” As much as workers need a pay raise, $15 an hour is of little help in many cities where the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment would eat up the entire income of a full-time worker on this wage. In Seattle, Socialist Alternative has pivoted to organizing around runaway rents, but it’s rare for big unions to seriously organize around rent control or tenants’ rights despite the fact that escalating housing costs are one of the biggest burdens that workers shoulder.

Beyond issues of daily life is workers’ role in the labor process. Building worker power would stop promotional campaigns like McDonald’s embarrassing “Pay with Love” or Starbucks clumsy “Race Together” before they happen. This is not all the responsibility of one organizing campaign but without a serious debate about the strategy Fight for 15 is pursuing and shifting to worker-oriented strategies, it’s hard to see how wage gains will translate into a gain of power for workers.

The campaign has raised hopes on the left of a revival of class consciousness and a working-class movement, but will it come to fruition under SEIU? If history and current events are any guide, the missing ingredient is the organized left. It’s anarchists who made Occupy Wall Street happen, socialists who have revitalized many teachers unions, and socialists and the left that have turned $15 an hour into reality. Without a similar effort, Fight for 15 may give fast-food workers more change in their pockets, but not the power to change their lives.

Arun Gupta contributes to outlets including Al Jazeera America, Vice, The Progressive, The Guardian, and In These Times.

A version of this article was originally published by Telesur.

'By enacting Right to Work, Gov. Walker continues to tip the scales against working class families in favor of his millionaire and billionaire buddies who fund his campaign,' says state AFL-CIO
by Deirdre Fulton, staff writer

Organized labor has long rallied against Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union tactics in Wisconsin. This sign is from a protest outside the State Capitol in 2014. (Photo: Light Brigading/flickr/cc)Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the state's latest anti-worker salvo into law Monday, affixing his signature to legislation that makes it a misdemeanor to require workers to pay union dues.

Opponents argue that such laws keep wages low, make workplaces less safe, and undermine organized labor's muscle by decreasing bargaining power. As the legislation zoomed through the state legislature, local unions and their supporters held rallies to demonstrate their opposition. 

"By signing Right to Work, Gov. Walker continues his crusade on the hard-working, middle-class families of Wisconsin," Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said in a statement on Monday. "By enacting Right to Work, Gov. Walker continues to tip the scales against working class families in favor of his millionaire and billionaire buddies who fund his campaign."

At an invitation-only event at the Badger Meter facility north of Milwaukee, Walker said the new law "sends a powerful message across the country and around the world."

To that end, the president of the National Right to Work Committee said the action now puts pressure on other Midwest states to follow suit. "Every worker deserves freedom of choice when it comes to union membership and dues payment, and if states like Michigan and Wisconsin can pass Right to Work then Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio can too," Mark Mix said in a statement.

Wisconsin is now the 25th state with a so-called "right-to-work" bill on the books. The Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy revealed last month that the measure was taken verbatim from model legislation crafted by the right-wing, corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

In this superb two-minute video, actor- activist Danny Glover champions the need for a vibrant public Postal Service and asks the public to join with him in A Grand Alliance to save it.
By Jerry White
16 February 2015

President Barack Obama intervened over the weekend in the increasingly tense confrontation between West Coast dockworkers and the cargo shipping companies and terminal owners organized in the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The White House dispatched Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to oversee talks for a new five-year labor agreement.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has kept its 20,000 members on the job for nine months without a contract, faces an increasingly restive rank and file, which is opposed to another concessionary contract undermining jobs, wages and working conditions.

Accusing the ILWU of organizing a slowdown, which it said “amounts to a strike with pay,” the PMA locked out workers at 29 ports in California, Oregon and Washington State over the Presidents Day holiday weekend.

The White House move follows demands for an end to the labor dispute from major retailers, who depend on imported goods passing through the ports. A bipartisan group of US congressmen has called for the president to use the strikebreaking Taft-Hartley law, as his Republican predecessor George Bush did in 2002, to force open the ports and impose management’s dictates on the workers.

“Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the president has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said on Saturday. “Secretary Perez is already in contact with the parties and will keep the president fully updated.”

Jonathan Gold, the vice president of the National Retail Federation, hailed the announcement, saying, “The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now.” This was echoed by US Representative Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, who said she hoped Perez “will work to keep both sides at the table and help them find a resolution that keeps our ports open and our workers on the job.”

The White House is intervening entirely on behalf of the shipping and terminal owners and, more generally, the corporate and financial elite in the US, which is determined to resist growing demands by workers for wage increases and other improvements. Perez is being sent to give the ILWU its marching orders: break the resistance of the rank and file to another sellout contract and prevent the outbreak of a serious struggle, which could link up with striking oil workers in the US and rail workers in Canada and become a catalyst for a movement of broader sections of the working class.

The move by the White House reflects concerns within sections of the political establishment that unilateral actions by the employers, marginalizing the union apparatus rather than utilizing its services, could provoke a movement of the working class that the unions would be unable to control. For months, think tanks and journals have been warning about the danger of a “wages push” by US workers angry over the continued erosion of their living standards even as corporate profits and the stock market soar in the sixth year of a supposed economic recovery.

The strike by over 5,000 oil refinery workers in California, Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Washington enters its third week today, with the oil giants refusing to budge on workers’ demands for improved wages and safety conditions. The selective strike policy of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which has limited the walkout to less than one-fifth of the 30,000 USW-organized oil industry employees, has led the workers into a dead end, and there is increasing sentiment among rank-and-file workers for a national strike.

Meanwhile, 3,000 railroad workers at Canadian Pacific walked out Sunday morning over grueling work schedules and safety issues in a strike that threatens to impact industries throughout North America, including oil, lumber and auto as well as retail goods that arrive at ports in British Columbia. The Canadian government is expected to introduce strikebreaking legislation today.

While holding the Taft-Hartley law in reserve, the White House is relying on the ILWU to smother rank-and-file opposition. Long allied to the Democratic Party, the ILWU has colluded with the employers and the government for decades to erode jobs and living standards in the name of improving “labor flexibility” and “competitiveness” with ports in Asia and Europe.

It has sought to whip up nationalism in order to divide US dockworkers from their counterparts internationally and line them up behind their “own” American employers.

As part of the Maritime Labor Alliance, the ILWU endorsed Obama’s reelection in 2012. The union praised “the President’s initiatives to increase American exports, to enforce existing buy and ship American policies, to fund and implement the Maritime Security Program, and to ensure that our nation has a fleet of US-flag vessels necessary to meet the economic, homeland and military security requirements of our Nation.”

The president’s policy of increasing exports largely depends on reducing the wages of American workers so that US firms can compete with China, Mexico and other low-wage countries. Obama’s “security” polices have meant unending war and the destruction of democratic rights in the name of the “war on terror.”

In justifying the use of the Taft-Hartley against dockworkers in 2002, President Bush, with the full backing of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, cited not only potential damage to the national economy, but also the harmful impact of a work stoppage on the US military in the run-up to the Iraq War. The suggestion was that any industrial action constituted a threat to national security and was therefore illegitimate and illegal.

The PMA has repeatedly cited the tax on “Cadillac” health care plans under Obama’s Affordable Care Act as justification for slashing the medical benefits won by dockworkers over generations of struggle.

Under agreements first worked out in the late 1960s to introduce new technology, the ILWU accepted the destruction of jobs and a vast increase in productivity in exchange for the PMA’s acceptance of the principle that the ILWU would retain bargaining rights for all of the workers who remained and that the distribution of work would continue to be controlled through the union hiring hall.

Over the last two contracts, however, the ILWU has acceded to the demands of the PMA for a vast expansion in the use of contract workers, leading to a gradual return to the days of the hated “shape up” system, when management hired and fire workers at will and workers who loaded and unloaded ships had no guaranteed wages, hours or safety protection.

In the current talks, the PMA is offering a meager wage increase of 2.8 percent in each of the next five years and seeking concessions on pensions and contract work. For its part, the ILWU is chiefly concerned with the institutional interests of the union, seeking some type of commitment for minimum staffing levels.

On Friday, ILWU President Bob McEllrath agreed to a federal mediator’s request for a 48-hour news blackout so the union could negotiate a sellout agreement behind the backs of 20,000 dockworkers.

The intervention of the Obama administration underscores the fact that workers fighting for decent wages and working conditions confront a political struggle not only against the oil giants and ship owners, but against both parties of big business and the capitalist system they defend.

Such a struggle can be developed only in opposition to the unions, which function as tools of the corporations and government. The isolation of different struggles must be broken through the building of new organizations of struggle, controlled by rank-and-file workers, to unite the entire working class in an industrial and political counteroffensive in defense of jobs, living standards and democratic and social rights.

Action Now Encompasses More Than 5,000 Workers ENLARGE Strikers rallying at Marathon’s refinery in Catlettsburg, Ky. on Saturday. 
The Wall Street Journal
Alison Sider

The striking United Steelworkers expanded walkouts to two more refineries over the weekend as talks between the union and energy companies continued into a second week.

The strike now encompasses more than 5,000 workers at 11 U.S. fuel-making plants. The action is the largest strike by refinery workers since 1980. The plants on strike account for about 13% of U.S. fuel-making capacity.

The latest two refineries hit by strikes are BP PLC’s massive Whiting, Ind., refinery and a plant outside Toledo, Ohio, that BP jointly owns with Husky Energy Inc. of Canada. They are joining plants in Texas, Kentucky, California and Washington owned by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, LyondellBasell Industries , Marathon Petroleum Corp. , and Tesoro Corp.

BP and the union confirmed over the weekend that refinery workers in the Midwest would strike. BP spokesman Scott Dean said the company is committed to negotiations with the union. Meanwhile, the company will continue to operate its plants, relying on current and former employees who have been trained on the equipment.

In statements and interviews USW representatives have said little progress has been made toward resolving the concerns most central to union members.

The union went into the talks asking for an annual wage increase that’s double what the contract now allows. But union officials have called the strike an “unfair-labor-practice work stoppage” and said that talks stalled over other issues, including the maximum amount that workers must pay out of pocket for health-care costs. The union also wants stronger policies in place that would prevent shift schedules that it says are contributing to worker fatigue, which can lead to accidents. The USW has also asked that energy companies keep staff levels up and rely less on nonunion contractors for regular maintenance work.

A spokesman for Shell, which is leading the negotiations on behalf of U.S. refiners, said the company is looking forward to resuming talks this week.

The strike expanded after talks between the union and the industry hit a snag last week. The union rejected a sixth offer put forward by Shell.

The two sides have been bargaining since late January over a new three-year contract that would set a baseline for the industry on wages, benefits and safety standards.

USW International President Leo Gerard said in an interview Friday that talks have been “more focused” since the strike began Feb. 1, but have still moved slowly.

“It’s better than when they said they had nothing to say and left,” said Mr. Gerard of an earlier breakdown in the collective bargaining process.

So far, nearly all of the striking refineries have continued to churn out gasoline, diesel and other fuels. Only Tesoro’s plant in Martinez, Calif., has been shut down. Much of that refinery was already down for maintenance when the strike began.

Two plants where workers are striking are the locations of fatal refinery accidents. A 2005 explosion at the refinery in Texas City, Texas, now owned by Marathon but at the time operated by BP, killed 15 people.

Tesoro’s refinery in Anacortes, Wash., was the site of a 2010 explosion and fire that killed seven.

Write to Alison Sider at

By Jeff Lusanne
2 February 2015

Production workers at nine oil refineries walked out Sunday morning after the United Steelworkers union (USW) called a selective strike when it failed to reach a new three-year labor agreement. The contract covers 30,000 workers at more than 200 refineries, oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical plants across the United States.

The highly profitable corporations, including multi-national giants Exxon, BP and Shell, are refusing to budge on their demands for wage and benefit concessions, excessive overtime, unsafe staffing levels and the contracting out of work.

“We told Shell that we were willing to continue bargaining for a fair agreement that would benefit the workers and the industry, but they just refused to return to the table,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the national negotiations.

The USW has called out workers at only nine out of 65 refineries—three Marathon facilities in Texas and Kentucky; two Shell refineries in Texas; and three Tesoro refineries in California and Washington state. Workers at the other refineries are working on the basis of 24-hour contract extensions. There has not been a national strike of petroleum workers since a three-month stoppage in 1980.

Although the USW reached a last minute deal in 2012—and repeatedly extended the national contract before reaching an agreement in 2009—union officials apparently felt they could not ram through another sellout contract against a restive workforce. Like workers throughout the United States, oil industry workers are looking to recoup years of stagnant wages, particularly under conditions of record industry profits and incessant talk of a robust economic recovery.

Workers are also angered over deadly working conditions. US refinery workers die at a rate three times faster than their European counterparts. In 2010, seven workers were killed in an explosion at Tesoro refinery in the state of Washington. Despite a record of unsafe conditions and a largely pro-forma environmental case by the Obama administration, no one has been held accountable.

One oil worker from Huntington, West Virginia, commented on the union web site, “Hope you guys are able to agree on a fair contract that keeps all your employees and surrounding communities safe. Where I work it seems as if ‘the company’ is only concerned about safety when someone has been injured or after an incident has occurred. They repeatedly ignore safety issues on a daily basis including the understaffing you guys face.”

Under these conditions, USW officials have made rhetorical criticisms about the “richest companies in the world” refusing to provide better pay and health coverage. The union has called for “substantial wage increases,” after accepting increases of 2.5 percent in the first year and 3 percent in the second and third years in the 2012 contract.

The USW took over national oil industry contracts in 2005 after the union absorbed the remnants of the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union. The USW is notorious for its collaboration with Wall Street in the restructuring of the steel industry, which destroyed the jobs and pensions of hundreds of thousands of workers while preserving the assets of the union apparatus. In the face of new layoffs due to the impact of dropping oil prices on demand for pipeline and oil rig steel, the USW has resorted to its stock-in-trade economic nationalism, denouncing “foreign steelmakers,” not the oil and steel monopolies for the destruction of jobs.

The USW has continued its policy of labor-management “partnership” in the oil industry, leading to the conditions that workers are now looking to fight. The corporations, however, are taking a very hard line.

At BP’s Whiting, Indiana refinery, pay was frozen last week for 800 salaried, non-union workers. Whether the same demand is being placed on the 1,065 USW workers at the refinery has yet to be seen, but the USW has not announced a strike.

In 2013, Exxon Mobil’s CEO R.W. Tillerson was paid $28 million, Chevron’s CEO J.S. Watson was paid $24 million, and the CEOs of Phillips 66, Hess, Valero, Tesoro, and Marathon were all paid between $10-20 million.

Since 2012, when the last USW contract was negotiated, refiners’ shares have more than doubled on the S&P 500, and they have benefitted from refining the booming domestic oil production. In the last several months, though, the global collapse of oil prices has led to mass layoffs in the domestic oil production industry. Refiners are using the fall in the price of oil and gas as reason to refuse the USW’s request for a pay raise in the contract.

The author also recommends:

Mass job losses unfold in global oil industry
[26 January 2015]

By Tom Hall and Hector Cordon
5 January 2015

On January 10, the United States Postal Service (USPS) will begin closing 82 mail processing centers throughout the country. The move will further impact the service of the USPS, which has repeatedly slashed its budget and shed over two hundred thousand jobs in the last decade. The USPS anticipates that the closures will impact 15,000 employees and save $750 million per year.

The 82 facilities slated for closure represented more than one quarter of the post office’s remaining 320 processing centers. The processing centers are being closed as part of the rollout of the second phase of the Postal Service’s “Network Rationalization Initiatives,” which began in 2012. The program was established as part of five-year plan by the Postal Service calling for $20 billion in cuts by 2015. The Postal Service has already closed 143 processing facilities under the program, in addition to eliminating 3,800 delivery routes and reducing operating hours at 9,700 post offices over the past three years. Since 2007, 22,000 city delivery routes have been reduced or eliminated.

The closures will increase average delivery times and slash overnight delivery for first class mail. According to the post office, only 20 percent of all first class mail will be delivered overnight under the new changes, down from 41.2 percent in 2012 before the closures began. Forty-four percent of first class mail will now take three days to arrive. The post office itself estimates that the average delivery time for first class mail will increase from 2.14 to 2.25 days, or around 5 percent.

The precise impact of the closures on mail service is not known because the post office has not completed the impact studies for any of the 95 facilities due to take on operations from the closed processing centers. This is because the agency had not yet finalized new service standards for affected services despite beginning the revisions in 2012. The new standards are due to be completed mere days before the closures are set to begin. A spokesman for USPS told the press that they would not update the impact studies until after the closures have already begun.

The Postal Service, which has not received federal funding since the early 1980s, has been hemorrhaging money for years. In 2014, USPS lost money for the eighth straight year, posting a $5.5 billion loss despite an increase in revenues. Although revenue from its packaging business has been increasing, total mail volume has declined by 27 percent since 2006, driven primarily by new communications technologies such as the Internet as well as the recession of 2008.

USPS management has responded to this crisis through savage attacks against its workforce. The agency has shed more than 300,000 jobs since 1999, despite the formal prohibition of layoffs in union contracts. While the postal service claims that these cuts occur without layoffs, the reality is that multiple facilities have been closed—with the support of the unions—and workers left to find job openings in other facilities. If any jobs are available they may be hundreds of miles away, forcing workers to uproot their families. The agency has also defaulted four times in the last three years on multi-billion dollar payments to its employee retirement fund.

A USPS memorandum warned that the closures would have a significant impact on service and reported that in the recently-implemented consolidation of the Huntsville, AL, processing facility into the Birmingham processing center “nearly 70 percent of carriers were delivering mail after 5 pm.” Local news outlets have reported mail being delivered to homes as late as 9 pm. Alongside working longer hours under difficult conditions, the injury and illness rate for postal workers increased to 6.34 per hundred workers in 2014—a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

Postal workers have been forced to work harder. Productivity has soared nearly seven percent since 2009, with a total productivity increase of 24.6 percent since 1972.

The postal service has aggressively expanded its “Village Post Office” (VPO) program, replacing closed and reduced-service Post Offices with for-profit businesses providing USPS services. Four hundred VPOs were opened in 2014 alone. USPS is also participating in a plan to offer postal services at 1500 Staples stores in partnership with the USPS “Approved Shipper” program.

The response of the American Postal Workers Union has been to launch an impotent and ineffective boycott of Staples. This allows them to posture as fighting the ongoing privatization of the postal service while the USPS continues with the dismantling of infrastructure and the destruction of jobs.

The total number of career USPS employees stood at 488,000 in 2014 the lowest level since 1966, a year when the US population was less than two-thirds its present size. Non-career employees—lacking any benefits—currently comprise 26 percent of total employment.

Democrats in the outgoing Senate have been grandstanding in recent months against the closures. In August, an open letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations was circulated by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders calling for a one-year moratorium of post office facilities closures. Nothing resulted from the letter, despite a Democratic majority on the Committee and the fact that a majority of the Senate had signed the open letter, underscoring the fraudulent character of the Democratic Party’s opposition to the cuts.

In December, a group of 30 senators, all but one of them Democrats, published an open letter to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe requesting the closures merely be delayed until the impact studies are completed. The letter has thus far been virtually ignored by the post office, with the agency only promising a response at some indeterminate point in the future.

At no point in either letter was the suggestion raised that the closures should not happen at all. In reality, the attack on postal workers is part of a bipartisan campaign by the ruling elite to make the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism.

(Reuters) -11/24/2014- A pressure group pushing for higher wages at Walmart stores said employees would stage protests at 1,600 U.S. stores on Black Friday, including 60 in Washington.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc, owner of Walmart stores and the largest private employer in the United States, has been at the center of the debate over proposals to raise the minimum wage.

The group, which represents Walmart's hourly workers, is pushing for a $15 per hour wage and consistent full-time work.

The protests would mark the "biggest Black Friday strike to date," a spokeswoman for OUR Walmart said on a conference call.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said "a very small fraction" of employees would participate. The company offers "very competitive wages" and most employees are full-time, he said.

A full list of stores that the group said would be affected was posted at

(This version of the story corrects paragraph 1 to say 60 protests will be held in Washington state, not Washington, D.C.)

(Reporting by Sruthi Ramakrishnan and Ramkumar Iyer in Bangalore; Editing by Savio D'Souza and Joyjeet Das)

Think Progress--By karoli --November 19, 2014
Legislation is waiting to be passed, but it's not even on the calendar right now. Anyone want to take bets on whether or not Congress will act in the few days they have left to get anything done?

If Congress does not pass legislation that would save the Postal Service from financial collapse before the end of its current session, the future of the country’s mail service will be in the hands of a senator who opposes government unions and thinks the Postal Service should be privatized.

In January, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is slated to take over as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees the federal workforce and the entire Postal Service. Johnson has said that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process that would result in a downsized, private corporation that would lose the benefits of governmental oversight and regulation. It could also allow the revised entity to terminate or substantially modify its contracts, including its collective bargaining agreements with various postal unions.

Last year, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced the Postal Reform Act of 2014 which would restructure the needless requirement that the agency pre-fund 75 years’ worth of employee health benefits, a demand no other businesses or institutions face. The bill would also allow for a gradual end to Saturday mail service if financially necessary, as well as the eventual termination of door-to-door service, but would not mandate either of these steps.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, who is set to retire early next year, has said the bipartisan legislation would be best for the Postal Service, but postal unions and commercial mailers oppose many features of the legislation. While the unions support some of the core principals, including changes to the pre-funded mandate, they say a switch to a five-day delivery would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs. At the same time, mass mailers say the Carper/Coburn bill would continue higher postal rates which would stifle business, causing the volume of mail to decline further.

Postal unions and commercial mailers came together to offer compromise legislation and an alternative to the Carper/Coburn bill. Their proposal would keep six-day delivery and would guarantee the rollback of the recent 4.3 percent price increase, replacing it with smaller and more gradual increases over the next few years.

“The Postal Reform Act of 2014 is a deeply flawed bill [that] would raise postage rates on businesses and slash services and jobs unnecessarily, which is why it has failed to garner broad support in the Senate,” a group of postal unions and mailers said in a letter to Senators from the Committee on Appropriations arguing their compromise legislation should be passed.

I won't hold my breath.