US unions take action on Martin Luther King Day

Yesterday’ pickets were out in force at the Beacon roundabout near the Gate Gourmet factory, Heathrow
Yesterday’ pickets were out in force at the Beacon roundabout near the Gate Gourmet factory, Heathrow

Teamsters union sanitation worker members in the US capital are launching a campaign against Waste Management on Martin Luther King Day, today.

Nearly 100 Washington, DC-area sanitation workers, employed by the Temple Hills, Maryland branch of Waste Management, are charging that the profitable company is attempting to reduce the wages of some of the lowest paid employees and trying to eliminate the current pension plan.

The workers, who pick up trash from private residences in Prince Georges’ County and commercial locations, such as FedEx Field, the Washington Convention Center, CVS stores, Giant and Safeway groceries and schools and hospitals, will begin a direct outreach to customers, community leaders and elected officials in an effort to pressure the company to withdraw its concession demands.

‘The hard work of these men and women helped this company post nearly $1 billion in profits in 2004,’ said Thomas Ratliff, President, Teamsters Local 639, which represents the workers. ‘Yet, the company is proposing cutting and capping the wages of the “helpers” who empty trash cans and throw trash bags into the trucks. This is slap in the face.’

The public pressure campaign begins today, Monday, January 16, Martin Luther King Day. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee while fighting for the rights of the city’s sanitation workers nearly 38 years ago.

‘We think that fighting for the rights of DC sanitation workers is a fitting tribute to King’s life and work,’ Ratliff said.

The workers plan to handbill customers at selected Waste Management commercial clients and to contact residential customers. Religious, community, civil and political leaders are being asked to sign an ‘Appeal for Justice’ that calls on the company to solve the outstanding issues amicably and to treat its workers fairly and with respect.

‘We break our backs everyday for this company,’ said Alfonso Carter, a 13-year commercial driver at Waste Management. ‘They can give their ex-CEO a going away package worth $12 million, but they don’t want to pay us what we need to provide for our families. It’s just corporate greed gone wild.’

In an earlier public outreach, workers hand-billed thousands of Washington Redskins fans during the Dallas game at FedEx Field who were overwhelmingly supportive of their fight.

The activities in Washington, DC are part of a national Teamster campaign, involving Waste Management workers in over 60 locations. The 1.4 million-member Teamsters Union represents more than 9,000 Waste Management workers.

Last Friday, Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa issued the following official statement in honour of Martin Luther King.

‘The Teamsters pay tribute to the life and the legacy of the Rev Martin Luther King, and seek to honor his memory on this holiday, and every day, by fighting for the principles he gave his life to promote.

‘King championed a vision of civil rights that was synonymous with labor rights.

‘He believed that the racist and the labor-hater were born of the same ignorance, “spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

‘His “Poor People’s Campaign” in 1967 was intended to be the second phase of the civil rights movement, a heroic call to bring family-supporting wages to poor people of all races.

‘My father also saw the connections between civil rights and labor rights. He believed all workers deserved respect, no matter what color they were, and he did more than any other labor leader of his time to unite the struggles of blacks and poor workers.

‘At King’s request, the Teamsters gave $25,000 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and donated money and supplies to the tent cities cropping up around Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, to protest segregation.

‘Viola Liuzzo, the wife of a Teamster business agent from Detroit Local 247, was shot and killed while participating in civil rights actions in Montgomery and Selma in 1965.

‘King was supporting the rights of sanitation workers when he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.

‘I think he would be heartened to know that his spirit lives on as Teamster waste workers in Alabama, Georgia and Florida recently secured their first contract, securing a better future for their families and greater respect on the job.

‘Today, King’s fight continues as American workers see hard-won labor rights of the past crumble around them. The share of Americans living in poverty has increased four years in a row, while tax cuts funnel more and more money to the super-rich.

‘Corporations are shipping good jobs overseas and offering wages so low at home that many people work multiple jobs just to cover basic necessities.

‘Forty-five million Americans are without health insurance, and skyrocketing health care costs eat away at already stretched paychecks.

‘We can do better. King would dream of nothing less.’

l Hoffa slammed the attacks on workers’ pensions in a letter to the editor which appeared in the Detroit News on Friday, January 13, 2006

He wrote: ‘As the 2006 North American International Auto Show opens to the public this weekend, we are reminded of what put the motor in Motor City—union labor.

‘The hard-working men and women of Detroit built the cars that built our hometown. In return for their hard-earned years on the job, union members have been able to count on a decent retirement to keep them out of poverty in their golden years.

‘But now those promises, in the auto industry and in many others, are being thrown onto the scrap heap.

He added: ‘Two things cured the chronic insecurity suffered by American seniors: Social Security and defined benefit pensions. President George W Bush tried to gut Social Security last year. Now pensions, under the knife of corporate chief executives — and the senators and congressmen who love their corporate campaign dollars — are under an even greater threat.

‘The pension crisis is so severe that the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp is itself in crisis—with a deficit of $23 billion. And there is no end in sight, with the pension agency reporting that unfunded private pension obligations stand at about $450 billion. Beyond the private sector, it is estimated that there is another $500 billion in unfunded public-sector employee pension obligations.

‘A total of a trillion dollars in pension promises will not be kept if something is not done. Millions of elderly impoverished Americans will be forced to work themselves into the grave or onto government assistance rolls.

‘You can hardly open a newspaper these days without reading about another multimillion-dollar corporation that is cutting and running on its employees. Delphi, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Motorola, United Airlines, US Airways, Bethlehem Steel, LTV, Polaroid and, just last week, IBM—all of these companies are trying to freeze their pension contributions or have declared bankruptcy to dump their responsibility on the federal government and eventually the taxpayers.’

Hoffa continued: ‘At IBM, workers accepted below-market salaries for years because the company promised it would take care of them when they stopped working. On January 6, IBM announced it was freezing its pension in favor of a 401(k) plan.’

He warned: ‘Not only do 401(k)s cost employers less, they put the risk squarely on the shoulders of workers, who are responsible for their own investment strategy. 401(k)s are not protected by the government, as are traditional pensions. A quarter of eligible workers don’t even participate. Less than 10 per cent of those who do contribute the maximum, according to AARP.

‘If the market goes bad, that’s too bad. The money is gone and you’ve got to start all over again, but with what? For hundreds of thousands of workers, it’s too late to start over.

‘The pension crisis has been brewing for decades, yet when it came time to close loopholes in the pension system or fix the fuzzy math in its accounting rules to make sure the money was there, Congress did not act.

Instead, Congress chose to destroy consumer bankruptcy protections while leaving corporations free to bail themselves out through bankruptcy-shedding investor equity and reorganizing as viable companies.

‘Lawmakers have continually allowed companies to cry penniless in bankruptcy court, free to walk away with millions of dollars that could have gone to people robbed of their pensions. They have denied workers the right to sue to get that money back. And they have structured the rules so as to invite companies to abandon pensions in favor of 401(k)s. It is a familiar tune that the government has been singing: Individual responsibility, corporate charity.

‘That’s why people choose to form unions—they are the anti-theft device for working people. But we should expect more from our government.’