TrenchNews, Verse 6

TOP STORY

As bad as the climate is for unions and workers in the US, it can be much worse overseas. At least we don’t have corporations hiring assassins to kill union leaders any more.

Day and night, workers at the port of Quetzal on Guatemala’s Pacific coast load fruit from surrounding plantations and clothing stitched in local factories onto freighters bound for Long Beach, Calif., a flow of goods that has swelled since a Central American trade agreement with the United States took force last year.

Under a provision that was crucial to getting the deal through Congress, working conditions for the longshoremen, along with laborers throughout Central America, were supposed to improve. Governments promised to strengthen labor laws, and the Bush administration pledged money to help.

But on the evening of Jan. 15, the head of the port workers union became a symbol of the risks that still confront workers who press their rights in Guatemala.

Pedro Zamora, then in the midst of contentious negotiations with management, was driving on the dusty road through his village, his two sons at his side, when gunmen shot him at least 20 times, killing him, said prosecutors in Guatemala City. One boy was grazed in the knee by a bullet; the other was unharmed.

Though Bush spent this past week traipsing through Latin America spouting phrases like “social justice”, “the plight of the poor”, and “when one of us hurts, we also hurt”, one phrase conspicuous by its absence from his pandering was “trade unions”.

Despite the fact that Zamora’s murder was barely two months old, Mr Bush had no words of wisdom or even condolence. While he found time to negotiate a deal with Lula for his buddies in the agri-business and energy industries, discussing unions in Latin America wasn’t on his agenda. Maybe because his administration is fighting the Democrats over including workers’ rights on upcoming trade pacts.

Nearly two years have passed since the countries of Central America vowed to strengthen worker rights as they sought votes in Congress for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. Yet there has been little if any progress, according to diplomats, labor inspectors, workers and managers.

“The situation is the same now as it was,” said Homero Fuentes, director of the Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct, a Guatemalan group hired by multinational companies to inspect local factories and plantations. “The law hasn’t been reformed, and people just don’t obey the law. There’s a culture of impunity.”

The Bush administration is facing intense resistance in the Democratic Congress as it seeks approval for new trade deals with Peru, Colombia and Panama. The tense labor situation in Guatemala and other countries covered by such deals helps to explain why.

Democratic leaders negotiating terms of the new trade pacts with the administration are demanding stringent labor protections. They argue that previous deals such as CAFTA have been too weak on labor rights, expediting the shift of manufacturing to countries where goods are cheap because workers are exploited.

Bush, of course, counters that the trade deals create jobs and that’s all that’s necessary, end of story.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab said last month on Capitol Hill that when countries negotiate free-trade deals with the United States, “the situation on the ground for workers in those countries is vastly improved.”

As the administration portrays it, problems in Central America reflect a dearth of resources, not weak law.

Right. Of course, that’s not really the point, not when labor leaders are being assassinated with impunity. Congress, which has allocated some $$60Mil for “programs aimed at boosting the ability of governments in the region to enforce labor and environmental laws”, hasn’t really grasped the problem, either.

Guatemalan authorities said the American-funded programs did not tackle the root cause of abuse — the power of employers to manipulate labor inspectors and judges.

“It’s very widespread that if workers file complaints or try to organize a union, they can be fired,” said Gustavo A. Campos, who leads a program funded by the United States that trains Guatemalan labor inspectors and educates workers. “The part that’s still missing here is the ability to coerce compliance.”

At the labor ministry, one inspector said attempting to enforce the law puts inspectors’ careers at risk. “There’s a lot of pressure to rule in the employer’s favor,” said the inspector, Marco Tulio Castillo. “We’re not allowed to do our jobs.”

Although the NYT’s article concerns Guatemala, it’s important to note that the same conditions prevail in many Latin American countries not blessed with left-wing govts. Mexico, for instance. A bare year ago the San Antonio Express-News reported serious labor disturbances in Guadalajara.

In the early hours of April 20, some 1,000 riot police raided a striker-occupied steel mill in the Pacific port city of Lázaro Cárdenas.

A tumult of Molotov cocktails and burning vehicles ensued. Police shot and killed two steelworkers, left a dozen more with gunshot wounds – but failed to oust the strikers.

The botched raid stoked nationwide union unrest that had first flared in February with the deaths of 65 miners in a coalmine explosion in Coahuila state.

Strikers have since shut down the steel mill and four mines. Union members paralyzed Mexico City streets Friday to support them. And critics say outgoing President Vicente Fox’s administration is being ham-fisted in its attempts to defuse the growing unrest.

Bush, who bragged about his friendship with Fox, did not pressure him in any way to get Mexican coal companies to start taking safety seriously. In fact, there’s no record he ever mentioned the subject to Fox at any of their meetings.

At least he’s being consistent – he doesn’t pressure US mine owners, either. In fact, he rarely mentions unions at all, and when he does, it’s to belittle or denigrate them. His VP has gone even further. But Bush’s antipathy toward unions was most evident in Iraq last month.

On 23 February 2007, US and Iraqi forces raided the head offices of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), the country’s national trade union center. They arrested one of the union’s security staff (later released unharmed), destroyed furniture, and confiscated a computer and fax machine. And then they did it again two days later, causing further damage to the union headquarters.

The union is condemning the attacks as unprovoked. It is calling on the occupation forces to issue a written apology, to return all the seized property, and to pay compensation for damages caused.

Needless to say, it’ll be a cold day in Tahiti when that happens.

It is perhaps not an accident that violence against trade unions spreads across the planet right alongside corporate globalization. In Sri Lanka – a major destination for the US corporatocracy – the govt is equating them with terrorists.

Sri Lankan trade unionists are facing intimidation and possible abduction, as a result of a public campaign falsely depicting them as traitors and terrorists. Six trade union leaders are now receiving threats, including death threats, after posters linking them to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam started appearing in many parts of the country. This appears to be part of an ongoing campaign explicitly aimed at linking trade unionists with insurgents. So far the police have failed to take constructive measures to guarantee their safety.

While the Bush Administration chases ever more international trade agreements, their hostility toward trade unions virtually assures that those agreements will be used to disenfranchise and exploit workers all over the world. The Democratic Congress can learn to address the real problem by putting teeth into those agreements that punish countries which allow intimidation and murder, but even if they do they can’t enforce them. That’s the president’s job. If he refuses….

The ’08 election looms large for workers everywhere, not just in the US.

OTHER STORIES

Unions/Employment

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “US Airways Workers Protest Negotiations

The airline industry’s chronic mismanagement problems have caused airline employees’ unions to accept cut wages, longer working hours, and skimpier benefits to keep the companies out of bankruptcy. The reward for their loyalty has tended to be broken promises and more cuts. US Airways, for example, has been refusing to negotiate a contract with its flight attendants’ union for over a year.

While Kirby and other executives chatted with reporters and showed off the company’s new uniforms Wednesday, pilots and flight attendants lined up along the sidewalk outside the company’s headquarters to protest negotiations that have dragged on for more than a year.

“Management needs to wake up and get this merger done properly,” said Gary Richardson, president of the local council of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents America West flight attendants. “We’ve been negotiating since January 2006, and they’ve gone virtually nowhere.”

Across the street, a dozen pilots in uniform marched in single file, carrying signs proclaiming that management’s millionaires are “pilot subsidized.”

“We’re tired of them dragging out negotiations,” said Tania Bziukiewicz, a US Airways pilot and union representative. “Until (Chief Executive Doug Parker) puts the airlines together and he includes all his labor groups working together under a contract as one unified group, he’s not going to capture all his synergies, he can’t run a smooth operation.”

Bziukiewicz and other union members said US Airways Group Inc. was too enamored with its $9.8 billion hostile bid for Delta Air Lines Inc., which fell apart Jan. 31. Not only did its quest for Delta derail union negotiations, she said, it sucked up energy that could have been used to complete its previous merger.

AJC: “Grady out to cut up to 200 positions

The private health care system is likewise showing signs of strain from overblown promises to investors and chronic mismanagement.

Grady Health System, which is losing up to $3 million a month, began offering buyouts to senior employees Wednesday in a job-cutting program aimed at eliminating at least 150 to 200 positions.

Roughly 580 of Grady’s 5,200 employees are eligible for the early retirement package, offered to those 55 and older with 10 years’ vested service. Details of the package were not available Wednesday.

Acting CEO Timothy Jefferson said administrators are waiting to see how many employees take the offer before making other cutbacks.

Consultants have said layoffs are possible after other cost-cutting measures are taken. In 2004, the hospital laid off 226 nonmedical employees in an effort to save about $8.5 million annually.

NYT: “Strike at Big Shipyard Is Yet Another Effect of Katrina

The long arm of Hurricane Katrina has pushed thousands off the job and on strike at one of the nation’s biggest shipyards here, workers and union officials say.

On Thursday, nearly 7,000 workers went on strike at the Ingalls shipyard, owned by Northrop Grumman, which builds ships for the Navy. On the picket line Monday, strikers said they were demanding better wages and benefits to make up for sharp post-Katrina increases in the price of everything from milk to gas to rent, which they said are bringing family finances to the breaking point.

The walkout here is believed to be the first major strike related to Hurricane Katrina, which continues to disrupt many aspects of life up and down the Gulf Coast. Few places were as hard-hit as this small industrial town, where the water crept halfway up downtown and the beachfront was wiped out, and workers spoke Monday of losing homes, cars and a way of life to the storm.

They left the shipyard, which has supported this region for decades, after rejecting a modest increase in the $18.32 an hour many now make. Workers here said the wage rise would be wiped out by a steep increase in health insurance premiums, and would be inadequate to counter the storm’s lingering fallout.

Boston Globe: “Shortage of workers may stretch many employers

American businesses are largely unprepared for a seismic workforce change that will get underway in the coming decade, as tens of millions of baby boomers retire and far fewer new employees arrive to take their place.

That’s the conclusion of a study being released today by Boston College’s Center on Aging & Work. The report, which surveyed 578 companies and other organizations, finds that only 12 percent have planned in-depth and more than a quarter have failed to plan at all for the changing demographics projected to create a worker shortage.

While shortages already have begun to appear in certain sectors, such as healthcare and education, the problem will be felt across most professions around 2012 and intensify afterward as employees born after World War II exit the labor force, the study suggests.

Globe: “140 jobs to be lost as mill closes

A 150-year-old paper mill is set to close in June, a move that will mean the loss of about 140 jobs in the Berkshire County town of Great Barrington.

The mill was one of four plants owned by Fox River Paper and purchased last week by Neenah Paper Inc., of Alpharetta, Ga.

Neenah chief executive Sean Erwin said the mill, which produced 15,000 tons of paper a year, was too small to turn a profit.

AJC: “Airbus Chief: No Political Intervention

PARIS — Airbus Chief Executive Louis Gallois on Wednesday urged politicians not to interfere with the European aircraft maker’s plans to cut 10,000 jobs and spin off or close six European plants.

“While it’s normal that politicians are interested, I don’t want them to interfere in the company’s management,” Gallois said on RTL radio.

Ahead of France’s April 22-May 6 two-round presidential election, most candidates have pushed for state intervention to help rescue the company from its troubles — a weaker dollar, and a 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion) profit shortfall due to the A380 superjumbo’s two-year delay.

Update:Airbus Workers Stage Europe-Wide Strikes

Workers at Airbus plants in France, Germany and Spain staged strikes and protests Friday maintaining a united front against a restructuring plan the troubled aircraft maker said would slash 10,000 jobs across Europe.

The actions at Airbus facilities around the continent followed a similar movement last week by at least 12,000 workers.

Good News

AJC: “Delta employees to get raises and stock

In light of our last airline story, it’s nice to be able for once to highlight an airline that did right by its employees when it finally emerged from bankruptcy. Such stories are rare.

Delta Air Lines employees are receiving word this week of something they haven’t gotten in a while — pay raises.

Employees will get pay raises this summer and a “significant stake” in company stock as part of broad-based compensation packages after the airline’s expected emergence from bankruptcy this spring, Chief Executive Gerald Grinstein said.

“It will be the first time ever on so large a scale that a company emerging from bankruptcy has awarded stock to nonunion employees,” Grinstein said in a pamphlet sent to employees this week.

Delta will also begin reversing some of the pay cuts the carrier imposed over the last three years to “move toward an industry standard pay structure …. with the first pay increases coming this summer,” Grinstein said.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Costco hourly workers to get a raise

Wall Street analysts have criticized Costco Wholesale Corp. for years for treating employees too well and offering generous benefits at the expense of investors.

Expect the criticism to continue.

The cash-and-carry retailer said Thursday that it is increasing wages for its hourly service workers — parking lot attendants, cashiers and membership assistants — in its U.S. warehouses. The change affects 67,478 employees, and entry-level employees will see the biggest bump, with a $1 an hour boost in pay.

When the raises kick in Thursday, the lowest wage will increase 10 percent to $10.50 an hour and the top scale will rise 4.3 percent to $20 an hour.

This despite the fact that CostCo reported slow earnings its last quarter. Shop CostCo.

WaPO, Stephen Barr: “Hiring Set to Take Off for Air Traffic Controllers

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to hire and train about 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next 10 years, according to an updated staffing plan released yesterday.

The agency is on a hiring binge because projections show that controllers will be retiring in substantial numbers. The retirements are bunched up because most controllers were hired about 25 years ago, after a strike led to a mass firing by President Ronald Reagan.

A year ago, the FAA projected it would need to hire about 12,000 controllers over the next decade. But the agency underestimated the number of controllers who retired last year, probably because a bitter contract dispute accelerated their departures.

In fiscal 2006, 583 controllers retired, 116 more than anticipated, the FAA said. The FAA predicts that 700 will retire this year and 695 in 2008. The new staffing plan suggests that the agency now has a better handle on its predictions, noting that retirements in the first quarter of fiscal 2007 are in line with projections.

Globe: “Working Mother magazine lauds 3 firms

Three Massachusetts firms made a list of the best small-business workplaces for working mothers, Working Mother magazine said today.

The local firms are Alder Foods Inc., a Walpole supplier of military markets; Isis Maternity, a Needham company that sells products for expectant mothers, infants, and toddlers; and Safety Partners Inc. of Lexington, which helps small and mid-size life sciences companies implement laboratory health and safety programs for working with hazardous materials, Working Mother said.

Non-Union

SPI: “Job losses another slap at veterans

Although there is a 1994 law — the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act — requiring reservists to be fairly and quickly rehired after deployment, it is often not enforced. A military office called Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, whose local branches returning soldiers are to contact if they can’t get their jobs back, has just two news releases on its Web site for 2007.

***

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Department of Defense has mobilized more than 500,000 reservists and Guard members. Sometimes they make up nearly half the U.S. ground troops fighting abroad.

An investigation of the military’s employer-support office last year for Denver magazine, by Maximillian Potter, argued that although it should be a “tremendous resource” for returning U.S. troops, it is “a bureaucratic mess, mired in incompetence, undermined by conflict of interest and accountable to no one.”

Although it’s hardly getting as much play as Walter Reed – nor should it – there’s still no excuse for this shabby, second-class treatment for returning National Guard vets. One can understand the employers’ problem with the Bush Admin lengthening NG tours again and again without warning, but that doesn’t excuse the ESGR office from farting around instead of working with employers to get these men working again.

Do they not count because they’re Guard and Reserve instead of Regular Army? Was their war easier?

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