Thursday, September 30, 2010

New round-up: Union vote at Delta, Teamsters try to shake up Fed-Ex, and a rally cry for immigrants in Mississippi

Here is the latest round-up of some of the key labor activity in the South

A Unionized Delta Airlines in Atlanta?

Delta Airlines CEO Richard Anderson believes the "culture" developed over 80 years at his Atlanta-based company precludes unions, and that's why he's urging some 20,000 attendants--including 7,000 who were union members at now-merged Northwest Airlines--to vote "No" in elections beginning this week, the first in a series between now and early November that will also include 14,000 baggage handlers and more than 16,000 other workers.

Two previous union votes at Delta were unsuccessful. However, the addition of the Northwest attendants changes the landscape and could pave the way for a major labor victory in the Deep South.

Union officials are encouraged by new rules put in place by the National Mediation Board, which oversees transportation, that state that a majority of votes constitutes victory. Under the old rules, a majority of all employees--whether voting or not--was required before victory could be declared.

Teamsters trying to stir up Fed-Ex in Memphis

Over in Memphis, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters tried unsuccessfully again to get Federal Express stockholders to approve changes allowing for an independent board chairman at the company as it prepares for the eventual retirement of CEO/founder Fred Smith. Stockholders voted down the proposal by a 2-1 margin at their annual meeting at the company's headquarters.

Fed-Ex and the Teamsters have been squaring off for some time now with the union supporting efforts to have the company operate under the same labor rules that apply to its major competitor, UPS. Legislation is pending before Congress to effect such a change, which would give the Teamsters a golden opportunity to organize Fed-Ex drivers. Fred Smith has fought this legislation with tooth and nail and threatened to nullify huge Boeing contracts with the company if it is passed.

Mississippi organizer calls immigrant rights human rights

Here, closer to home, Lily Axelrod, North Mississippi organizer with the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, this week encouraged students and faculty at the University of Mississippi to become engaged in the effort to secure human rights for immigrant workers.

"We need drastic reform of our immigration system that will emphasize human rights," said Axelrod, herself a descendant of Polish immigrants. "Unfortunately none of the bills being tossed about Congress right now do that. If the government would just enforce existing (labor and human rights) laws, things would be better.

"We're working from the ground up here in Mississippi, using the same kind of tactics that civil rights groups used."

MIRA is now combating proposed legislation before the Mississippi Legislature that would mimic the draconian, anti-immigrant law recently adopted in Arizona, a law that allows law enforcement to stop and question anyone suspected of lacking immigrant documentation. Critics say the law is a blank check to law enforcement for the harassment of any immigrant, whether legal or not.

Hearings on the proposed legislation in Mississippi were held this week.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pending strike by catfish workers in Mississippi defused by new contract negotiations

Months-long negotiations between Delta Pride Catfish Inc. and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1529, have defused a potential strike by hundreds of workers at the company's plant in Indianola, Miss., and with plants operated by a partner firm in Isola and Belzona, Miss., all in the perennially poor Mississippi Delta.

"The strike vote woke them up," said Lonnie Sheppard, president of UFCW Local 1529, referring to nearly unanimous votes by plant workers in May to strike rather than accept a company-offered contract that would have created a seven-day work week, deleted daily overtime, doubled the probationary period for new hires to six months, reduced seniority benefits, given the company free reign in contracting out work, tripled worker contributions to company health insurance over a three-year period, and other measures considered intolerable by workers and their union representatives.

Union officials felt the provisions would have nullified the hard-fought gains made by workers as a result of their highly publicized strike at Delta Pride in 1990, the largest by black workers in Mississippi's history and one that prompted a national boycott of Delta Pride products.

"I was wanting to get this behind me," Sheppard said Thursday. "There's got to be common ground."

The newly negotiated contract, which workers will vote on next week, includes wage increases, daily overtime, and a "modified co-pay on insurance but not bad," Sheppard said. "All the 84 proposals they (previously) gave are off the table."

Had the dispute gone to a strike, he said, "it would have been a revitalization of 1990. It would have been exciting, but also disastrous for all sides."

Strikes, which Sheppard calls "a last resort", have been on the decline for years. However, the recession and frustration over employer intransigence and apparent desire to destroy unions have created a recent uptick of strike activity.

More than 300 workers at the Mott plant in upstate New York declared victory this month after a three-month strike at the applesauce plant. Members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers Local 220 won a new contract that restored wage-and-benefit levels that an earlier contract had sought to cut or even eliminate.

As with Delta Pride, Mott, owned by the Texas-based Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, had tried to gut worker pay and benefits in its earlier contract offer, including calls for $3-an-hour wage cuts and the complete elimination of pensions for new workers. The Dr. Pepper Snapple Group's profits last year totaled $550 million, and its CEO, Larry Young, earned a nifty $6.5 million.

The union local said "No!" to the contract, and workers walked out, a first for workers at the Mott plant. Local stores offered the striking workers food and other assistance, and other unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, provided cash for the strike fund. As reported recently in Nation magazine, even Canadian politicians weighed in, pressuring CEO Young with concerns that scab workers weren't up to the job in insuring food-safety standards.

"Not a day went by without people stopping by to drop off a financial or food donation to the strike fund," RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum told the AFL-CIO Now blog. "The RWDSU members at Mott's have a message for working people everywhere: Stand up for what you believe in, and stay united."

Sheppard said a strike by workers at the catfish plants would have produced similar offers of help, just as it did in 1990.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

FLOC launches JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign, the latest volley in a growing Southern movement

(The photograph is of FLOC organizer Diego Reyes (Jr.), taken in his migrant worker father's trailer near Sanford, N.C., this summer)

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the Ohio-based migrant workers' rights organization that has been increasingly focused on the U.S. South in recent years, this month launched its JPMorgan Chase divestment campaign to force the Wall Street powerhouse to pressure the Reynolds American tobacco company to help farmworkers.

"We are asking people who care about farmworker justice to close their Chase accounts, cancel their Chase credit cards, and pledge not to bank with Chase until Reynolds agrees to work with FLOC to find a solution to these abuses," said FLOC community/union organizer Diego Reyes in a recent statement.

As Reyes told me during an interview in North Carolina this summer, "We need R.J. Reynolds to understand they have a lot of responsibility in the supply chain. Neither the workers nor the farmers are paid enough."

This is the latest volley in a three-year campaign to get Reynolds American to the bargaining table to establish a three-way working agreement with workers and growers. The divestment effort is similar to tactics that FLOC has used in the past in successful efforts to organize migrant workers and insist on social justice for them. FLOC won agreements with the Campbell, Vlasic, Heinz and Dean Foods companies in the 1980s and 1990s and a landmark victory with the North Carolina-based Mt. Olive Pickle Company in 2004, the largest labor agreement in the South.

JPMorgan Chase, a leader in the consortium of lenders that funnels close to $500 million in credit to the Reynolds American tobacco company.

With more than $8.5 billion in international sales as recently as 2006 and nearly $1 billion in profits during the recession, Reynolds American Inc. has not only survived but prospered since the multi-billion-dollar, multi-state tobacco settlements of the late 1990s, and it reigns today as the nation’s second largest tobacco company. By setting the terms with its contract growers, Reynolds American plays an important role in the lives of 30,000 tobacco pickers--most of whom are Latino migrants--and conditions in the fields, Reyes says.

Yet, Reynolds American officials have refused to meet with FLOC representatives. “The reason we have not agreed to meet with FLOC is simple: we can’t help them,” said a statement from the company’s Board of Directors and Leadership Team. “The workers FLOC wants to represent do not work for us. We cannot enter a bargaining agreement on the workers’ behalf—they are not our employees.”

Statistics from FLOC and the National Farm Worker Ministry estimate 24 percent of tobacco pickers suffer from nicotine poisoning each season. This along with exposure to harmful pesticides and long hours under the summer son have led to strokes and even deaths. Workers often live in crowded, unsanitary labor camps or in remote, substandard trailers.

FLOC was founded by its charismatic leader Baldemar Velasquez in 1967. Velasquez, an evangelical minister and winner of the 1990 MacArthur Fellows Award, told Southern Exposure magazine once that calls his and others’ efforts to improve the lot of migrant workers is part of a larger social movement that emphasizes community. “There is a new Latino labor force all over the South that will be the foundation of the next civil rights movement in the U.S.—a movement that is going to have a brown face.”

FLOC is one of several organizing groups that have experienced success in the U.S. South in recent years. Workers at the Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., scored a major victory against a formidable anti-union management in 2009 when they gained a contract with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)in Florida is currently waging a campaign similar to FLOC's Reynolds American campaign in its effort to get the state's largest grocery company, Publix, to pay growers a penny more for each pound of tomatoes Publix buys. The goal is to improve the lot of the industry's largely migrant workforce. The CIW has won similar agreements with Whole Foods, Burger King, McDonald's, Subway, and Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell).

These groups are building on the foundation of earlier efforts, such as those by the leaders of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance in their successful effort to win a fairer contract for workers with K-Mart in North Carolina in the mid-1990s.

The tactics are often similar to those of the corporate campaigns that won agreements with the Georgia Power Company and Duke Power Company (owner of the union-busting Eastover mining company in Harlan County, Ky.) decades ago. The Institute for Southern Studies, now based in Durham, N.C., played a prominent role in those campaigns.

"It's really an exciting time," says Alexandria Jones, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based community organizer with the National Farm Workers Ministry, which has worked closely with FLOC in the Reynolds American campaign. "You have to go to the top to effect real economic change.

"There are a lot of amazing things going on," she told me in an interview in Winston-Salem this summer. "In a lot of ways, the labor movement is strong. You have these small groups out there, groups of strong people. In areas of the greatest need, these poeple are working hard to make changes."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Workers' troubles are often disdained by the politicians who represent them

(Here is my Labor Day Weekend column, a final installment on the workers' compensation system in Mississippi, the last state in the nation to adopt workers' compensation laws.)

What is it about working people that prompts such disdain, even contempt, from politicians whose job it is to represent them? It’s a good question to ask on a labor day weekend.

GOP guru and philosopher Newt Gingrich had this to say about workers’ compensation back when he was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives: “If you’re not at work, why are we paying you? It’s not called a vacation fund.”

Let’s fast-forward to this year’s debate over a similar issue--extending unemployment benefits to the millions of U.S. workers facing the wolf at the door as a result of losing their jobs in the Wall Street-and-Bush-caused recession. Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp, one of a solid flank of Republicans who successfully fought off the extension at least four times, had the following to say:

“We have continued to extend … unemployment compensation so long that there’s disincentives for people to actually re-enter the workforce or go out and look for a job. And this is creating a culture of dependence which we do not need. We want people out there scraping and clawing and looking for work and not just sitting back waiting.”

If you’ve been injured as a result of your job, do you feel now what you need most is a “vacation fund”? If you are one of the many who’ve lost their jobs and are having a hard time finding another, do you feel like you’re part of the “culture of dependence”?

When I recently wrote about a study showing a profound pro-employer tilt in Mississippi’s Workers’ Compensation Commission’s decisions on workplace injuries, I received letters from across the state decrying what one writer called a “pitiful” system that penalizes workers who get injured. My column was “only the tip of the iceberg,” another writer said.

The column described a study ordered by Jackson, Miss., attorney Roger Doolittle that showed the commission’s three members rejected administrative law judge decisions favoring workers between 75 and 91 percent of the time. Commission Chairman Liles Williams admitted to me his own numbers show he votes for the employer 59 percent of the time.

Letter writers, requesting anonymity in order not to put at risk ongoing cases, told of injuries that reduced annual wages of $30,000-plus to “zero in one day,” of employers who simply refused to carry workers’ compensation insurance and were allowed to get away with it, of major corporations that hire outside agencies to administer their policies and thus be able to dismiss claims routinely and with impunity.

“I do not believe the public has a clue what’s going on,” one writer told me.

Attorneys who represent injured workers joined together this month to demand that the state Legislature stop dragging its feet on a proposed investigation of the commission and its rulings. State House Insurance Committee Chairman Walter Robinson of Bolton, Miss., who held a hearing on the issue a year ago, told me last month that any investigation remains “in limbo” because the opposing sides are so far apart.

Statistics show six million U.S. workers suffer on-the-job injuries every year, and more than 6,000 of them die. Tens of thousands suffer life-debilitating diseases and even death as a result of being exposed to toxic workplace chemicals or other materials.

The state of Mississippi has never felt compelled to track such statistics particularly well, but I keep a folder of clippings that tell the story, and it’s an old one. There was Phillip Cason Hosch, 29, who died in an explosion at the Mueller Copper Tube plant in Fulton, Miss., in 2009. Then there was construction worker Eleazar Casiano, 20, who was killed when a 10-foot sewer trench collapsed on top of him in Harrison County, Miss., in 2006. And let’s not forget sawmill worker Andrew Lee Byrd, 46, who got trapped in a wood chipper at V&B’s International Inc. in Port Gibson, Miss., way back in 2004. “He was a good fella,’ Byrd’s sister said. “He loved fishing.”

These are a few of the people behind the statistics. I’ll bet they weren’t looking for a “vacation fund” or a handout. They were just doing their jobs, and they paid a mighty high price for it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Singapore: a city-state fueled and founded by migrant workers

(Here after a brief appearance earlier is my full-length article about Singapore and its migrant workers, relevant to us in the U.S. South, where the issue of migrant workers has raised speculation that yet another "New South" may be in the making. The photograph is of the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino, cited in the article and a symbol of Singapore's economic prowess. A shortened version of this article appeared in the September 2010 edition of the magazine In These Times. The longer version will soon appear in The Progressive Populist.)

SINGAPORE – W. Somerset Maugham, this city’s most famous expatriate writer, once said this about Southeast Asia’s workers: “These patient, industrious folk carry on the same yokes the same burdens as their ancestors carried so many generations back. The centuries have passed leaving no trace upon them.”

Yet, “in these countries of the East the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple, nor citadel, not great wall, but man. The peasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt.”

Whether Maugham wrote those words in his favorite room at Singapore’s famous Raffles Hotel is uncertain, but what is certain is that they’re just as true today as they were in 1930.

Here in this crossroads of Asian and Western cultures, an economic powerhouse that is a model to the rest of southeast Asia, migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China do the backbreaking work that helped Singapore earn ranking recently as the world’s most competitive economy, topping the United States and perennial Asian competitor, Hong Kong.

More than one-third of the workforce in this city of five million is foreign-born. However, many live in crowded, rat-infested dormitories with little relief from the sweltering tropical heat, reliving the conditions that faced the 19th century immigrants from China who largely built Singapore.

“Singapore may be seen by some as a model in ways that are not so good for workers,” says John Gee, president of the Singapore-based Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) organization. “It has made some reforms, shown a real commitment to countering the worst abuses of workers, but this still leaves a long way to go. We’d like to see a new relationship worked out, with a minimum wage, a weekly day off for domestic workers by law, overtime pay, limits on working hours.”

There’s no minimum wage in the 24th most expensive city in the world, and wages actually declined from a median monthly level of 1,389 Singapore dollars (approximately 1,000 U.S. dollars) in 1998 to 1,270 in 2008. Singaporeans have less purchasing power than the citizens of nearby Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yet with an unemployment rate of 2.2 percent immigration has doubled over the past 10 years.
Singapore has emerged from its worst recession in history with 15.5 percent growth in the first quarter of this year. Manufacturing, 25 percent of the economy and led by the electronics and biomedical industries, was up 32.9 percent.

The city’s skyline rivals those of Chicago and Hong Kong, and it now includes the $7.8 billion, 55-story three towers of the Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino with their connecting 2,500-acre sky terrace. Long one of the Pacific Rim’s economic “tigers,” the city pulses with energy from its financial district down to its busy ethnic enclaves with their Buddhist and Hindu temples, Moslem mosques, and vendor and shophouse-lined streets.

Yet this citadel of neo-liberalism reserves most of its rewards for those at the top end of the economy. The wealthy pay just half in taxes what their counterparts in the United States pay. Already-low corporate taxes were cut even lower during last year’s recession. Sales taxes, on the other hand, have risen from 4 percent in 2003 to the current 7 percent.

“The government keeps raising (sales) taxes, putting pressure on people, particularly small businessmen,” a convenience store owner in western Singapore complained to me. “You have to work very hard to make it. You have to get up early and go to bed late. People are scared to speak up. Even the rich are scared to say anything or they will lose what they have.”

Ang Peng Hwa, who heads the journalism program at Nanyang Technological University here, says the influx of immigrant workers has kept wages low while “the differential between the wealthy and the poor is growing.”

Workers have no real means to protest their conditions. Under the semi-authoritarian, half-century rule of the People’s Action Party and modern Singapore’s founder and current minister mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, any kind of protest is strictly limited. When the International Monetary Fund convened here in 2006, no outdoor protests were allowed.

Remember this is the city where American Michael Fay was famously caned for theft and vandalism in 1994. The Singapore Police are notoriously tough. No jaywalking, and no eating and drinking in the subways. Graffiti artists face up to three years in prison--plus the cane--if they get caught.

“Outdoor protests of the kind we see in the rest of the world are largely banned,” says Radha Basu, a senior correspondent with The Straights Times, Singapore’s major newspaper, and a frequent writer about migrant worker issues. “Impoverished migrant workers who are desperate to remain in Singapore to earn decent salaries don’t generally protest (although) there have been cases where groups have thronged (Ministry of Manpower) headquarters to complain about non-payment of salaries.”

Gee says workers should be able “to speak up for their own rights without fear of being sent home by their employers in order to shut them up and frighten others. That would make Singapore into a much better model to follow.”

Of course, many Singaporeans credit Lee Kuan Yew for raising the city from Third World to First World status. Lee, at 86, is officially retired, but he remains a formidable presence not only as minister mentor but also as the father of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

“Lots of foreigners come here to work,” 55-year-old taxi driver Abo Rhaman B Abo Samad says. “Everybody has a job if you’re not too choosy. I was a security guard making eight hundred to nine hundred (Singapore) dollars salary. I had to upgrade myself. Now I make four thousand a month.”

As for Lee Kuan Yew, Abo says, “He’s a smart man, a swell leader, a great leader. We have nothing, no natural resources. This man took us out of nothing.” Lee’s critics “are stupid. They haven’t been to Myanmar (Burma), or to Thailand where they are fighting.”

Indeed, over the two weeks I recently spent here, the streets of Bangkok turned red with blood as Red Shirt protesters raged against the government. North and South Korea rattled sabers over the sinking of a South Korean warship. Worker suicides and bizarre attacks on children and women revealed the dark underside to China’s economic boom. During my visit, Indonesian police raided a terrorist hideout in Jakarta and found plans indicating that one of the subway stops I used everyday was a bombing target.

The growing unrest among workers in China, India, and other countries is watched closely. Nearly 2,000 workers for Honda in China’s Guangdong province, went on strike in mid-May, shutting down production at the company’s four plants there. They were protesting low wages and poor working conditions. Workers at the Hyundai plant in Chennai, India, shut down operations there, too, in June. A rash of suicides by workers at Foxconn Technology’s plants in Shenzhen, China, prompted the company to raise wages twice within a single week—first by 30 percent, and then by 70 percent. Foxconn makes electronic components for Dell, Apple and other companies, including Apple’s iPhone and iPad.

Singapore’s National Wages Council has proposed that workers’ wages in the city-nation also be increased, and analysts predict they will rise as much as 5 percent this year. The city has also taken some action to improve workers’ living conditions, moving close to 20,000 last year to better facilities and increasing inspections. Fines against slumlords officially can be as high as $5,000 plus six months in jail, but in reality fines were as little as 200 Singapore dollars in 2009.

“Employers are responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of their foreign workers, including the provision of acceptable accommodation,” says Joann Tan, a spokeswoman with Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM). “To speed up punitive action against errant employers, MOM is considering raising the amount of composition fines imposed on employers for housing their workers in unacceptable conditions.”

Despite the city’s long history of immigration, a backlash against migrant workers is growing. Native Singaporeans resent blue-collar immigrants for keeping wages low, and they resent white-collar immigrants for taking away jobs. “Some quite venomous anti-migrant worker statements may be heard in casual conversation,” Gee says. “It is easy politics all over the world: blame the foreigner. None of the opposition parties speak up for them, as they see that as a vote loser.”

Journalist Radha Basu agrees. “Foreign workers in Singapore are increasingly being blamed for all kinds of ills—from low wages to crowded transport system to soaring property taxes and even petty crime.”

Yet, Gee says, “the construction sector would grind to a halt without migrant workers; likewise, the shipyard sector. Probably cleaning services would be badly hit, too. Migrant workers provide a substantial minority of the workforce who drive buses, work in shops and restaurants. One in six households have domestic workers. … Despite lots of complaints by sectors of the public about the presence of foreign workers, most people know that if they were excluded tomorrow, it would be catastrophic for the national economy.”

In other words, the peasant worker still has “his immemorial usages,” and he still builds the temples and citadels, but he rarely gets to enjoy them.