Posts from Mark Gruenberg

DOL Nominee Scalia Promises to Enforce Labor Law, But Ducks Policy Commitments

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

When it comes to enforcing the nation’s labor laws, Eugene Scalia promises to do so. But when it comes to policy recommendations, or to increasing the troops – federal job safety and health inspectors, for example -- needed for such enforcement, GOP President Donald Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary sang quite a different tune.

It was, frequently, answering questions from Democratic senators on Sept. 19, a variation of “let me look at that” or “I’ll get back to you” or “I need to consult” stakeholders or “I want to look at the case” or “it needs to be a top priority for policymakers” in the future.

He even used that last phrase when tackling one of the most-urgent current issues: The fate of approximately 100 financially imperiled multi-employer pension plans, whose assets and payouts were sunk by the financier-caused Great Recession a decade ago. A million workers and retirees are in peril.

On that issue and others, Scalia pledged to enforce the law. He never pledged to change it, or to lobby Trump for policies, people and money needed to enforce it.

Despite the ducking, bobbing and weaving, Scalia is on a fast track to sit in the Labor Secretary’s corner office. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, scene of his confirmation hearing that day, will vote on the nomination on Sept. 24. None of its GOP members voiced any qualms about the management-side labor lawyer.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., has abolished the filibuster for Cabinet nominees, meaning unless all 45 Senate Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents can coax four Republicans to join them, 55-year-old lawyer-lobbyist Scalia will head DOL.

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GM intransigence forces 49,000 UAW members to strike

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

General Motors intransigence on reversing financial hits workers took during and after 2008 Great Recession forced 49,200 Auto Workers toiling for the largest Detroit-based car company to strike at midnight Sept. 15. The firm retaliated by yanking their health insurance, dumping the cost on UAW.

The old pacts between the Detroit 3 – GM, Ford and FiatChrysler – expired the day before, but the union kept talking, and workers kept toiling, at the other two car companies.

At GM plants nationwide, they walked off at the end of the four-to-midnight shift. GM “refuses to give even an inch” in last-minute weekend bargaining, union spokesman Brian Rothenberg said.

GM disputed that, saying it offered raises, a signing bonus and proposed to reopen – at some unspecified future time – two of the six U.S. auto plants it closed this year, one in Detroit and a partial reopening of another in Lordstown, Ohio. GM shifted their machines and jobs to Mexico.

It also announced on Sept. 17 that it would not pay health insurance any more for the workers. UAW stepped in and said it would, using its strike fund.

“Taking our health care is sickening,” the union said in introducing a video about Laura Prater, a hospitalized GM worker in Springhill, Tenn., who woke up the morning of Sept. 17 worrying about how she would pay the bill, rather than how she would get well after surgery.

“The company’s decision was made without any warning to the UAW, leaving more than 48,000 members and their families at risk of being suddenly uninsured,” the union said.

Prater’s Local 2164 union president, Jack Bowers, called GM’s decision pretty bad.  I mean, traditionally, they’ve not done that (paid the insurance costs),” Bowers told WKU, a public radio station. “We’ve got people out there that need insulin. That’s a lot of money for anybody. I think it’s kind of wrong. That’s the nicest word I can think of right now.”

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Trump Labor Board Appointees Rule Against Workers Unfairly Labeled Independent Contractors

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

The Trump-named GOP majority on the National Labor Relations Board “celebrated” Labor Day a few days before the actual date – by giving bosses, not workers, another gift-wrapped ruling.

By a 3-1 vote on Aug. 29, over the strong dissent of sole Democrat Lauren McFerran, the majority declared that just because the boss arbitrarily declares workers are “independent contractors” does not mean the boss automatically breaks labor law.

The ruling is important for the nation’s workers, especially when the so-called “gig economy” is growing. Firms in that sector, such as AirBnB and the ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft, arbitrarily declare their workers “independent contractors.”

When workers are “independent contractors” under labor law, unions can’t organize them. The boss also doesn’t have to pay workers comp, Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes or money to cover unemployment benefits.

If a worker is an “employee” under labor law, the law covers the worker. And that includes the right to organize, as well as Social Security, Medicare, workers’ comp and jobless benefits payments by the firm for all the covered workers.

The board majority used a case involving Jeannie Edge, a driver for Velox Express, Inc., a transporter of medical specimens from Arkansas and western Tennessee to a lab. Velox arbitrarily called all its drivers “independent contractors.”

The drivers complained they were really employees, since Velox controlled everything about the job, except for ordering them to buy their own vehicles. Edge spoke for the group and Velox fired her in retaliation three years ago.

The board used the case to discuss the whole independent contractor dodge. The AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, the Plumbers and Pipefitters and the Carpenters all filed briefs backing Edge. So did the National Employment Law Project. The Chamber of Commerce, other corporate lobbies and one right-wing ideological group sided with Velox.

The NLRB’s administrative law judge found Velox broke the law by arbitrarily classifying all the drivers as contractors and by firing Edge. The judge ordered her reinstated with back pay and ordered Velox to post a we-won’t-do-it-again notice. The board majority agreed with the judge. It said the drivers are really employees – but that the arbitrary decision to call them contractors does not, by itself, automatically break labor law. 

“The board has never previously found an employer’s misclassification of its employees as independent contractors standing alone, is a per se violation of the (National Labor Relations) Act.” the board’s GOP majority, led by Chairman John Ring, said. “An employer does not violate the act by misclassifying its employees as independent contractors.”

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UMW President Talks Climate Change and Politics

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Never let it be said that Cecil Roberts met a written speech he really likes.

Instead, the veteran United Mine Workers president produced a detailed, free-form and interesting discourse on climate change, politics and coal’s future at a talk to a crowd of reporters, plus UMWA members and retirees at Washington’s National Press Club. His 13-page prepared speech? Uh…he used a few phrases.

Roberts is really a preacher, not a button-down president. He likes to rev up crowds, and he got applause during his remarks. But also got his points in during the September 4 NPC Newsmaker session. Among them, few of which were laughing matters:

  • The Mine Workers aren’t against coping with climate change. They know it’s occurring, and they know the U.S. must do something about it.

But miners have two big domestic problems with the Green New Deal. One is its utopian goal of no U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, oil and natural gas, by 2050. That’s not doable without developing clean coal technology to scrub carbon out of power plant emissions, Roberts says.

Otherwise “you’ll never – write that down – solve climate change,” he ordered.

UMWA advocated carbon scrubbing for years, but the last legislative effort, in 2009, was filibustered. And abolition puts former coal miners who became natural gas pipeline builders out of jobs.

“We never denied climate change. But how we deal with it is the question…and we want to be part of the discussion.”

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Rail Workers, Citizens Oppose Hazardous Trump Proposal

Mark Gruenberg

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

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

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

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

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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Unpaid Miners Block Train

Mark Gruenberg

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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Union Matters

An Invitation to Sunny Miami. What Could Be Bad?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If a billionaire “invites” you somewhere, you’d better go. Or be prepared to suffer the consequences. This past May, hedge fund kingpin Carl Icahn announced in a letter to his New York-based staff of about 50 that he would be moving his business operations to Florida. But the 83-year-old Icahn assured his staffers they had no reason to worry: “My employees have always been very important to the company, so I’d like to invite you all to join me in Miami.” Those who go south, his letter added, would get a $50,000 relocation benefit “once you have established your permanent residence in Florida.” Those who stay put, the letter continued, can file for state unemployment benefits, a $450 weekly maximum that “you can receive for a total of 26 weeks.” What about severance from Icahn Enterprises? The New York Post reported last week that the two dozen employees who have chosen not to uproot their families and follow Icahn to Florida “will be let go without any severance” when the billionaire shutters his New York offices this coming March. Bloomberg currently puts Carl Icahn’s net worth at $20.5 billion.

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Health Care Should Not Be A Bargaining Weapon

Health Care Should Not Be A Bargaining Weapon