Rail Workers, Citizens Oppose Hazardous Trump Proposal

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Remember the Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec six years ago? Donald Trump apparently doesn’t, but rail workers, citizens and lawmakers concerned about the danger of a natural gas explosion do – and that’s one big reason they’re trying to stop a Trump scheme to ship liquified natural gas by rail in its tracks, literally.

At issue is a plan from Trump’s Transportation Department, specifically from its Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), to let miles-long trains of tank cars filled with liquified natural gas roll through towns and cities.

In an executive order, Trump told DOT on April 10 to draft a rule to let those LNG tank-car trains roll. Liquified natural gas usually goes long distances by pipelines. So does crude oil, but it went by train in Lac-Megantic. Disaster ensued.

On July 6, 2013, a 72-car oil train’s brakes failed and it started to roll seven miles downhill from the siding where it was parked until it crashed, derailed, exploded, and blew up downtown Lac-Megantic. The center of town was destroyed and 47 people died.

Liquified natural gas, also known as methane, is more dangerous, Railroad Workers United – an organization of rank-and-file union freight rail workers nationally – told the PHMSA. So did most of the 2,947 comments on the Trump scheme, which one transportation publication said Trump promulgated at the behest of energy companies and the railroads.

So did Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., whose district is crisscrossed by rail freight lines. DeFazio called Trump’s LNG shipment scheme “beyond absurd.”

After Trump’s executive order, where he compared LNG to “cryogenic” cold liquids, PHMSA put out a 23-page draft environmental assessment advocating giving a waiver to Energy Transport Solutions, LLC, a natural gas company, to let six 100-LNG-tank-car trains roll. The tank car train routes were not specified. 

The kindest word the rail workers, the citizens and the lawmakers could find to describe the environmental assessment – which is not a full-blown environmental impact statement the government usually requires for major projects -- was “inadequate.”

The unionists told PHMSA that “rail shipments of LNG would pose dramatic health, safety, and environmental risks to railroad workers and com-munities across the United States.”

“LNG train derailments could cause fires and ex-plosions, property damage, mass injuries and fatalities -- impacts that are largely ignored in PHMSA’s cursory 23-page analysis.”

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Construction Unions Protest Trump Admin's New Apprenticeship Rules

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

New Trump Labor Department apprenticeship rules, opening training for building trades jobs to cut-rate non-union firms and their bosses – while threatening quality training and building standards – are “like the fox guarding the henhouse,” a veteran construction union apprenticeship trainer says.

But workers and unions concerned over the Trump DOL scheme don’t have much time left to object. Deadline for comments is August 26, the Laborers report.  Comments can be filed, via building trades unions, at https://www.saveconstructionapprenticeships.org/#/34.

At the behest of the corporate class, and particularly non-union construction companies, the Trump DOL wants to establish new certification requirements for Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs (IRAPs) that put the cut-rate contractors and their lobby in charge of crafting new non-registered apprenticeship programs with minimal government oversight.

The proposed industry-backed rule is a direct attack on union Registered Apprenticeship Programs, which provide rigorous skills and safety training and must meet strict requirements set and enforced by DOL.

“We need to make sure the (Trump) administration does not allow low quality industry apprenticeship programs, called IRAPs, in the construction industry. IRAPs would open the door to unskilled workers — not only lowering apprenticeship pay but your wages and benefits as well,” the Laborers warn.

Trump’s rule would provide contractors with another means to steer workers away from union membership, telling workers they don’t need to be a union member to receive training.

Right now, the nation’s construction unions run more than 1,600 training programs, all DOL-certified, providing top-tier training and letting thousands of apprentices earn while they learn. That relieves apprentices of massive college student debt and lets them step right into well-paying union construction jobs when they graduate. The jobs include health care coverage and retirement benefits.

By contrast, the non-union contractors whom Trump would put in charge of training new workers offer low pay, no benefits, no pensions and no job security, either.

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Weingarten to Walmart: 'Stop Selling Guns or We'll Stop Shopping There'

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Having had it up to here with gun-caused carnage, including at the nation’s schools, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten has a blunt message for the nation’s biggest retailer: Walmart: Stop selling guns or we’ll stop shopping there.

That bombshell is just before the end of a letter Weingarten sent August 7 to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon. He has yet to reply.

“Walmart has millions of customers and they all should feel safe while shopping,” Weingarten wrote after a gunman, armed with a semi-automatic weapon, entered the Walmart in El Paso, Texas and slaughtered 22 people, most of them Hispanic.

The gunman previously posted an anti-Mexican internet screed and used phrases associated with GOP President Donald Trump, but Weingarten didn’t mention Trump in her letter. Instead, she unveiled her warning to Walmart:

“If you choose to act, it could change our national conversation in an instant. And if Walmart continues to provide funding to lawmakers who are standing in the way of gun reforms, teachers and students should reconsider doing their back-to-school shopping at your stores.” Even without anti-gun laws, Weingarten urged Walmart “to be part of the solution.”

That solution should not only include a total gun ban in Walmart, but withdrawal of Walmart campaign contributions to the notorious gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, she said. Weingarten noted five of the top current congressional recipients of gun lobby money also got dollars from Walmart’s campaign committee, its owners and its executives.

OpenSecrets.org, run by the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics – which tallies, annotates and explains campaign contributions, reports the top 20 gun money recipients are incumbent GOP senators, ranging from Mitt Romney of Utah ($13.64 million, including spending slamming his opponent) to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky ($1.27 million, again including money against his foe).

Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, president of the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, have been part of a national crusade for tougher gun controls – bans on semi-automatic weapons, universal background checks, “red flag” laws and more – ever since the Valentine’s Day 2018 of 14 students and three AFT member-teachers by a semi-automatic-wielding shooter at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

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Unions, EPI Back Warren Bill to Crack Down on Private Equity Funds

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

So-called “private equity” investment funds, one of the worst manifestations of anti-worker corrupt corporate capitalism, left Madelyn Garcia and her co-workers without jobs. And she came to Washington in August to help launch legislation to curb their robberies.

Garcia, you see, spent 30 years at a Toys R Us store in Boynton Beach, Fla. She rose to store manager and made sure it was profitable and workers had decent jobs and pay. But a fund swooped in, bought the chain, stripped it of assets, shuttered her store and the rest of the chain – and left Garcia and thousands of other Toys R Us workers out on the street.

If they hadn’t raised public hell, Garcia says, they wouldn’t have even gotten severance pay.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants to put a stop to such financial robbery of workers for profit. So Garcia, now a member of a financial reform group, joined unions – notably The News Guild -- workers and the Economic Policy Institute in lining up behind Warren’s legislation, the Stop Wall Street Looting Act, to do so.

"I put 30 years of my life into Toys 'R' Us and built my store into a beloved part of my community. Wall Street profiteers threw that love and value away when they bled Toys 'R' Us dry for profit,” Garcia told a D.C. press conference in early August.

“If we hadn't spoken out, they would have left tens of thousands of us on the street without the severance and respect we had earned. This bill is about giving working people a better chance to stand up to billionaire predators and fight for our jobs, our livelihoods, and our dignity. This bill is what standing up for working people looks like."

Warren’s measure would protect some 5.8 million workers whose 35,000 firms are now owned or controlled by private equity funds, EPI President Thea Lee said in her think tank’s detailed analysis of the rapacious investors. That doesn’t count Toys R Us, now dead thanks to the funds’ avarice.

Warren’s bill is part of her continuing campaign against corporate greed and the “rigged economy” against workers she constantly discusses on the campaign trail as she marshals support for her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Labor Wins Big in Nevada

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Elections have consequences. In Nevada, it’s led to a different type of sweep: From 0-for-20 to 20-for-20 on labor-backed legislation in the state capital.

And it helps that 19 of the 63 state lawmakers (30%) are unionists, a record, and that new Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, son of an Auto Worker from Milwaukee, knows who put him in office. It also helps that the Silver State’s legislature is the first ever in U.S. history to be majority-female.

The win in Nevada was one of many nationwide in 2018. Other victories included putting union members, both Teachers, in governors’ chairs in Minnesota (Tim Walz) and Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer) and ousting rabid anti-worker anti-union GOP governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Bruce Rauner in Illinois in favor of pro-worker Democratic nominees.

But Nevada stood out because the GOP governor stood in the way, even after workers and their allies gained clout in Carson City, in the 2016 election. Nevada also stood out because, with a rabidly anti-worker administration in Washington, D.C., unions and workers find themselves increasingly turning to the states for support and for progressive policies.

“The tens of thousands of phone calls and doors knocked are what we have to do across the country to elect pro-union candidates,” Sisolak told the Communications Workers convention, meeting in Las Vegas.

Members of Unite Here, the Communications Workers, AFSCME and the Teamsters led the 2018 Nevada sweep. Unite Here’s largest local, in Las Vegas, has more than 50,000 members alone, concentrated in the hotels and casinos in the burgeoning Las Vegas casino-hotel Strip.

It took a lot of effort to produce those wins and create that new climate, CWA Local 9413 President Liz Henderson, who is also Nevada AFL-CIO president, told the 2,000 delegates.

Fifty unions joined together in the mass mobilization, putting 2,500 volunteers on the streets. The volunteers knocked on half a million doors and held 125,000 one-on-one conversations. The numbers rose two years later. Union turnout was so huge that in 2018 that 17% of early ballots were from union members, and one-fifth of all Clark County (Las Vegas) voters were unionists.

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Jobless Rate Unchanged at 3.7 Percent

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The U.S. unemployment rate stayed at 3.7% in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. In a separate survey, businesses claimed to create 148,000 new jobs that month, while governments added 16,000, with 11,700 of them, seasonally adjusted, in local schools.

The number of unemployed was 6.063 million, up 88,000 from June, BLS said. But add together the jobless, those who toil part-time when they really want full-time work and people so discouraged they’ve dropped out of the job market, and you get one of every 14 workers.

“Wage growth continues to fall short of what we’d expect in an economy that has had historically low unemployment,” tweeted Economic Policy Institute analyst Elise Gould after BLS reported wages grew at a 3.2% annual rate. “The unemployment rate has been at (or below) 4% for the past 17 months” and economists believe such a tight labor market should prompt businesses to compete for scarce workers by offering better pay. They aren’t.

Factories added 16,000 jobs, to 12.864 million in July, with the sole big gain in cars and parts (+7,200). Other gains and losses were small. Some 472,000 factory workers (3%) were jobless.

At the height of construction season, firms claimed to add only 4,000 jobs in July, to 7.505 million. That left 386,000 jobless building trades workers (3.8%), 53,000 more than in last July. And union leaders say the official stats understate joblessness there, as a worker who toils for one day during the survey week is counted as working all month. That’s often not the case in construction.

As usual, the lowest-paying service occupations led the way in job creation, the separate survey reported. Of the 133,000 jobs service firms claimed to create in July, 30,400 were in health care, 20,400 were in individual and family social services and day care, and 15,400 were in bars and restaurants. The number of jobless government workers rose by 72,000 in one year, to 816,000 (3.9%). Government now has more jobless workers than any other consolidated category.  


Unpaid Miners Block Train

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Never piss off a coal miner, especially if you haven’t paid him for weeks – and then try to ship the last load of coal he dug out of the mountains.

That’s what Blackjewel Co. learned on July 30 in Harlan County, Ky. When the firm loaded the coal on train cars, the unpaid miners marched out to the tracks and sat down.

As of Aug, 2, they were still there. They vow to stay. They’re blocking a CSX coal train, at times forming a human chain to make sure it doesn’t move.

One miner wrote a sign in black marker on a used cardboard pizza box: "No pay we stay."

The miners are non-union, but that didn’t stop them from taking “protected concerted action,” in federal labor law’s language, to stand up for themselves. In this case, of course, it’s to stand up and get paid in one of the poorest regions of Appalachia.

The sit down is nothing new in Harlan County. It’s been the scene of bitter battles for years, as coal company bosses warred – often literally – against workers standing up for themselves.

The Blackjewel workers have had to stand up again, and most of the town of Cumberland, population 2,200, is supporting them one way or another since the sit down on the tracks started. A Chinese restaurant is sending over free meals, and people are bringing donations of food, blankets and tents for shelter from frequent thunderstorms. There are port-a-potties, too.

Blackjewel had been losing money. Its sudden bankruptcy filing on July 1 was disclosed by a pro-worker foundation. The company stopped paying the 400 Harlan County miners and at least 700 others at its other mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

The first paychecks that arrived in July, for work performed during the last half of June, bounced. The miners never got others. By the end of the month, the Harlan County contingent had had it, especially when they learned about the CSX coal train – with their coal in it. Their mine was padlocked, too.


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House Passes Bill to Protect Multi-employer Pension Plans

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

With strong union backing, the Democratic-run U.S. House passed a bill, HR397, to help financially ailing multi-employer pension plans. The 264-169 vote saw 29 Republicans defy the party line and vote for the workers and retirees, joining all 235 Democrats. But for Sam Ball and other disabled and ill retired coal miners, in his case stricken with black lung and barely able to walk, it may not be enough.

That’s because the measure would help two financially ailing miners’ pension plans only until 2020 – and there are so few contributing coal companies (one) active miners per retiree (also one) and so many retirees (30) for each plan – that both will run out of money before then.

And that leaves Ball, a retired coal miner from far Southwestern Virginia, part of the heart of the Appalachian coal country, broke, along with 1,200 other retirees or widows his former coal firm employer left behind, he told a House Energy subcommittee that deals with coal mine issues on July 24, the same day the House approved the wider bill.

“I have second-stage black lung in both lungs, but have been turned down for federal black lung benefits because the government says the coal dust has not yet crystallized in my lungs and I am not disabled enough to get those benefits yet,” Ball explained.  “My lung doctor says there is no reason I should be denied benefits, but the truth is what has happened to me is not unusual.

“Most people I know with black lung are denied benefits. I can tell you that I cannot walk across my yard without stopping, I do not have the breath for any activities, I sleep with an oxygen tube in my nose at night and I need a sleeping supplement to deal with that.”

After taxes, Ball’s pension from the Mine Workers is $475 a month, under a pension plan the government set up for UMWA members in 1947, the same year it set up the health care plan for retirees who gave their lives – and their health – toiling in dangerous underground mines.

A $5 per ton tax on coal, paid by the coal companies, funds the pension and health care plans. The pension fund and health care fund were fully funded until the 2008 Great Recession wiped out their assets and sent most of the coal companies into bankruptcy, where they could shed their pensions and health care, Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts explained.

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Organizing Precariat Workers Presents Problems

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Unions worldwide face problems organizing workers due to “dismemberment of full-time employment” by firms from Silicon Valley and elsewhere creating the new “gig economy,” an anthropologist who recently finished a comprehensive book on it says.

Mary Gray brought that message and her book, Ghost Work, co-authored with a colleague from India, to the AFL-CIO’s “Ideas@Work” seminar on July 24. But – other than legislation in California empowering workers to organize and extending other rights – there are few solutions yet.

Grey and her colleague interviewed workers in the new economy of Silicon Valley in California and the Pacific Northwest, plus southern India, home now to dozens of call centers and other enterprises transferred from the U.S. The transfers occur because the firms can take advantage of low Indian wages and lax environmental laws.

But individual workers, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, also do much of the ghost work. They’re arbitrarily classified as “independent contractors” under U.S. labor law, and deprived of all rights. California’s AB5 reclassifies them as “employees” with the right to organize and other protections.

The problem unions face in organizing such ghost workers “is that our policies were built around assembly lines,” where organizers could find the workers to talk with, Gray explained.  The ghost workers aren’t on assembly lines. And nobody knows exactly how many of them there are, because reliable methods of counting them haven’t been developed.

The non-assembly line problem isn’t new, though. Even when Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act, “there were doctors, lawyers and other professionals” who were – and are – virtually still unorganized and unorganizable.

“But now there’s been this notable quiet shift to information services work” worldwide. That makes organizing problems even worse, as many workers toil one by one, out of their homes, when they feel like it and on their own, Gray explained. “Much of that work is done in supply chains” for larger firms.

Their employment is precarious, though. “Nobody has a sense of where their paycheck is coming from,” Gray noted.

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Nurses, Neighbors Protest Johns Hopkins Hospital Practices

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore may have a world-class reputation for medical research and care, but it’s anything but world-class in the way it treats its nurses and its neighbors.

And that contrast between reputation and reality brought almost 1,000 people to a mass demonstration in front of Hopkins’ original building, now its administrative offices, northeast of Baltimore’s downtown in 95-degree heat and humidity on July 20.

“Their cause is our cause,” Metro Baltimore AFL-CIO President Jermaine Jones told the crowd, which included members of AFSCME, the Auto Workers, the Letter Carriers, the Communications Workers, the Service Employees, Unite Here, the Government Employees, the Teachers (AFT), the Food and Commercial Workers and the Electrical Workers.

Led by National Nurses United and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the crowd demanded Hopkins stop waging all-out union-busting against NNU. Hopkins nurses want their union “so they can advocate for their patients,” NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo, an RN from California, said. NNU members from New York, Philadelphia and D.C. also showed up in solidarity.

Speakers also demanded Hopkins stop using nasty collection agencies and low-road tactics to grab money from its low-income former patients – 85% of them African-American – for small unpaid medical bills.

“We are here to take a stand for what’s right,” declared Castillo. “We want to send a message to Hopkins management: People before profits.”

Hopkins’s 1,500 nurses approached NNU last year about joining the union, fed up with low pay, immense overtime, short-staffing which caused constant turnover and, most importantly, harms to care for patients the hospital serves.

“We do the best we can, but we could do a better job if conditions were better,” nurse Derek Jannarone told Press Associates Union News Service.

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