Labor Briefing: UE workers win back pay

By BILL ONASCH

Two Wins For UE—The United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers registered two important victories from the National Labor Relations Board over the past month. The first was an award of two weeks’ back pay to 270 workers at bankrupt Republic Windows in Chicago. This caps a seven-year struggle that began with a sit-down strike that drew international attention in December 2008.

After Bank of America cut off the line of credit of the owner—who later went to jail for fraud—he gave the workers only three days notice of a permanent plant closing and filed for bankruptcy. This violated the 60-day notification requirements of the WARN Act. Demanding the bank accept responsibility for the shut down the workers occupied their plant to prevent the equipment going elsewhere. The Cook County Sheriff refused to evict the strikers and the UE organized protests at Bank of America branches around the country.

Soon BoA agreed to pay $1.75 million to cover the notification violations but refused to pay already earned vacation, or negotiate a broader severance agreement, as specified in the UE contract. Although workers seldom are able to salvage anything during bankruptcy UE filed charges with the NLRB over this refusal to bargain. They also helped get Federal stimulus money for a new owner to take over the plant. The second owner also failed but the workers then took it over as a worker-owned co-op—New Era Windows—in 2013 and it appears to be viable.

As expected, the wheels of justice moved slowly through the NLRB and bankruptcy court. But in the end the Labor Board succeeded in getting another $290,000. The Republic Windows workers were not made whole—but the combination of a courageous stand by the ranks, and tenacious pursuit by an adversarial union, did win more than two $2 million and a worker-run plant that has kept some of them working.

The second victory came in a NLRB case in which charges had been filed against the union. As previously reported in “Labor Briefing,” an unofficial arm of the Israeli government masquerading as a “human rights” organization retained American shysters to claim UE was conducting an illegal boycott of Israel because of a resolution adopted at the most recent UE convention. They not only filed a complaint with the NLRB; they also publicly called on General Electric to disassociate themselves from this “attack on Jews” by abrogating their national contract with UE. A similar attack succeeded in getting the International Executive Board of the UAW to nullify a pro-Palestinian stand by a faculty union in California.

Like the UAW teachers, UE national convention delegates voted to endorse the international campaign in solidarity with persecuted Palestinians that includes calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions aimed at institutions of the oppressive Zionist regime. It is similar to the long BDS campaign that contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. This movement around Palestine has won wide support from organized labor throughout Europe, South Africa, and Canada, but UE was the first national union in the USA to formally endorse.

The UE’s answer to the Labor Board charge was that the resolution was not part of a collective-bargaining tactic of secondary boycott but First Amendment-protected expression of opinion and call for action. The board agreed.

UE General President Peter Knowlton said, “The NLRB’s decision is a victory for the growing BDS movement across the U.S., which faces increasing political attempts to silence and intimidate critics of the Israeli government. As Americans who have a constitutional right to criticize our own government, we certainly have a right to criticize and, if we choose, boycott a foreign government that is heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers.”

More details of both victories can be found on the UE website at: ueunion.org/ue-news-updates

Thanks to the Boss—A story entitled “Why More Nurses Are Unionizing in Phila.” in the Philadelphia Inquirer corroborates an article of faith for veteran union organizers: it’s not the unions that convince workers they need to be organized—the bosses do that. While wages and benefits are, of course, always important, fair treatment and working conditions are usually paramount. That seems particularly true for nurses who are dedicated to care for patients in a commodity health-care industry often run with less compassion than factories.

The Inquirer article was sparked by two big recent organizing victories—and a likely third in early February—by the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals. My attention was first drawn to the PASNAP during an exemplary 28-day strike victory they won in 2010 at Temple University Hospital. One of many take-back demands by the employer was a “gag rule” that would have prevented members from publicly complaining about patient care conditions. Temple spent millions on bringing in professional strikebreakers, but the union mobilized impressive solidarity from Temple University students, other unions, and community groups. Instead of take-backs, at the end of the day the union won solid gains across the board.

One of the recent union-organizing wins was at Hahnemann, where the union had suffered a bitter election defeat in 2009. A nurse there told the Inquirer she had opposed that earlier union effort, believing that professionals had no need for collective bargaining. But deteriorating conditions on her job, and palpable union achievements at other hospitals, turned her around. She’s now a union activist.

This trend is not unique to Philadelphia. Unions of health care professionals are not only growing around the country—they have become among the most militant and effective forces in the labor movement.

Sick Teachers In Detroit—They’re not getting sick from the water like their colleagues in Flint may be. They are sick and tired of literally crumbling schools, often rat-infested, that are the venue for overcrowded classrooms. Conditions have got worse under “emergency management” appointed by the same governor who replaced elected officials in Flint. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan, so many took the sick-out tactic of protest. On some poor health days, 85 of Detroit’s 100 schools had to be closed.

In late January a judge was appointed to hold hearings about teacher job actions and the state legislature started rumbling about more punitive anti-worker legislation. Al Jazeera America reported, “The governor and the school district’s emergency manager should be put on trial, not teachers, according to Detroit teacher Steve Conn. Teachers are upset over pay, class sizes, building conditions, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to overhaul the district.”

And In the Land of Sky Blue Waters—As usual, a lot has been happening in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Nurses Association negotiated an early wage reopener for 6000 hospital members that preserved current health and pension benefits. Tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota have filed for an election to authorize SEIU Local 284 to represent them. And 4000 SEIU janitors whose contract expired December 31 have authorized a strike.

If you have a story appropriate for Labor Briefing, please contact billonasch@kclabor.org and mention Labor Briefing in the subject.