Walmart Workers Win Raise As Oil Workers Strike & West Coast Docks Lockout Continues!

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Walmart workers taking strike action over pay in Los Angeles on Black Friday
Walmart workers taking strike action over pay in Los Angeles on Black Friday

AMERICA’S largest private employer, retail giant Walmart has announced plans to raise wages for more than 500,000 hourly employees at its US stores.

Walmart said that it would raise salaries for 40% of its staff, as well as increasing its its base hourly wage to $9 – $1.75 above the US minimum wage.

With the wage changes, the average wage for a full-time worker at Walmart will rise to $13 per hour from $12.85, and $10 per hour from $9.48 per hour for a part-time worker.

Walmart announced last Thursday that it was giving its lowest-wage workers a raise to at least $9 an hour by April and $10 an hour by 2016.

The retailer’s action comes after Walmart workers have been increasingly vocal and active over Walmart’s low pay, benefits, working conditions and treatment.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the announcement ‘is a victory for all the brave workers and activists who are standing up to the country’s largest employer and demanding more’.

He added: ‘It is powerful proof that collective action is the strongest strategy available to make life better for working families.’

Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), also credited the workers’ mobilisation for finally moving Walmart to raise wages.

‘The announcement is clearly the result of years of organising by Walmart employees,’ she said.

The AFL-CIO said: ‘Few could have envisioned a group of workers forcing Walmart, ruthlessly committed to cost-cutting, to unilaterally raise wages. But, standing together, Walmart employees have done just that, providing inspiration to worker movements everywhere.’

Stagnant and low wages have been a huge burden on working families and a drag on the economy for years and, said Trumka, ‘For years Walmart has kicked and screamed that raising wages was not a feasible business model.’

But, he added: ‘With one short announcement, Walmart has shown that raising wages is both possible and attainable and only the start of a long-term effort to create family sustaining jobs.’

He cautioned: ‘While this news is a major victory, it also shines a light on the broader problems in our economy, and the lengths we must go to ensure that all workers prosper from the wealth we create.’

Shares in Walmart fell 2.8% in early trading on news of the employee programme. A coalition of workers known as OUR Walmart, which is backed by US trade unions, has been staging one-day strikes over the past two years demanding the retailer raise wages and improve its scheduling for workers, among other concerns.

Emily Wells, one of the leaders of OUR Walmart and a Walmart employee earning $9.50 per hour in Florida, said in a statement: ‘We are so proud that by standing together we won raises for 500,000 Walmart workers, whose families desperately need better pay and regular hours from the company we make billions for.’

In addition to raising the base wage for many workers. Walmart also said it would increase the wages paid to supervisors, as well as work to find ways to be able to schedule worker shifts further in advance.

It also said it would invest in worker training programmes, to encourage Walmart employees to advance within the organisation.

Anthony Rodriguez, who has worked at a Rosemead, California Walmart for eight months as a bike assembler, said that while the wage increases were a great victory for his colleagues, he remained hopeful that Walmart would eventually raise wages to the called-for $15 an hour living wage.

He said: ‘It’s a great start but technically I don’t believe it’s going to be enough for the associates that support their families.’

• US oil workers are on strike at refineries across the country. Union negotiators on Thursday rejected the latest contract offer from oil companies and said the largest US refinery strike since 1980 may spread to more plants beyond the 11 where walkouts are underway.

The United Steelworkers union (USW) said in a message to members and news media that the latest proposal from lead oil company negotiator Royal Dutch Shell Plc failed to improve safety at refineries and chemical plants in an ‘enforceable way’.

The USW also told workers not on strike to be prepared to walk out in the coming days. It said in a text message: ‘New offer fails to improve safety in enforceable way. All units instructed to reject and prepare to join (unfair labour practices) strike if called upon. Union at table ready to bargain.’

A USW statement said: ‘Arrogant oil refiners concerned more about profits than the safety and workplace concerns of thousands of USW-represented oil workers forced the union to call an unfair labour practice (ULP) strike.

‘The industry, represented by Royal Dutch Shell, gave the USW no other option when it refused to bargain in good faith over a national contract even though the union was prepared to continue talking beyond the midnight deadline.’

‘Shell refused to provide us with a counter-offer and left the bargaining table,’ International President Leo W. Gerard said. ‘We had no choice but to give notice of a work stoppage.’

The negotiations for a new national contract cover 30,000 USW-represented workers at over 230 facilities, including 65 US refineries and dozens of oil terminals, pipelines and petrochemical plants.

Once bargaining broke down over the companies’ bad faith bargaining, strikes began on Feb. 1 at nine refineries and related facilities in four states that employ 3,800 workers and produce nearly 10 percent of the nation’s gasoline, diesel and other fuels.

The companies committed ULPs at all locations that resulted in the strike, including failure to bargain over benefits, threatening employees with reprisals if they struck, and cutting vested benefits once strikes began.

The initial targets included a Shell refinery and laboratory in Deer Park, Texas; two Marathon refineries and a co-generation power plant in Texas City, Texas, and Catlettsburg, Ky.; Tesoro refineries in Anacortes, Wash., Martinez, Calif., and Carson, Calif.; and a LyondellBasell refinery in Houston.

After a week of little progress at the bargaining table, the strike was expanded on Feb. 7 to include two BP refineries in Whiting, Ind., and Toledo, Ohio.

The escalation of the strike brought another 1,440 USW-represented workers into the fight, including about 1,100 members of Local 7-1 in Whiting and 340 members of Local 346-3 in Toledo.

The ULP strike was the most widespread action in the oil industry since 1980 when workers represented by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), now part of the USW, struck for three months seeking improved pay and benefits such as dental coverage.

All four of the struck companies have publicly announced contingency plans to keep the refineries running during the strike with non-union labour.

The remaining USW-represented refineries and oil facilities, including those operated by BP PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp., were operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension.

‘Our members are ready to do what it takes to get a fair contract,’ said Local 12-591 member Steve Garey, who works at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington.

‘We are determined to get a contract that improves safety in the workplace, provides contractors the ability to become full-time employees and compensates us for the dangers we face every day for our contributions toward making the oil industry one of the richest in the world.’

While Shell spokesmen were telling the public during negotiations that the company was focused on reaching a settlement, the industry never gave the union’s proposals any serious consideration and failed to give key relevant information.

As lead bargainer for the industry, Shell made five woefully inadequate offers that the union’s bargaining committee rejected as an insult to hard-working USW members.

The bargaining took place as the cost of crude oil plunged to its lowest prices in years. Yet wages and economics were not the driving issues prompting the strike. The strike was primarily about unsafe working conditions in an industry that regularly experiences fires and explosions, as well as unresolved ULPs.

International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s National Oil Bargaining Programme, said the industry refused to address workplace safety, safe staffing issues and its brutal, dangerous scheduling that is frequently manipulated to avoid paying overtime.

The industry also refused to address its unhealthy and unsafe reliance on outside contractors to handle day-to-day maintenance at its refineries.

And it would not discuss offering opportunities for job training so that critical work in USW-represented refineries can be done by USW members who actually know and work in the facilities.

In addition, the industry refused to discuss out-of-pocket maximums in health insurance coverage and the financial strain created by high costs when members and their families have serious health issues.

‘This work stoppage is about onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry ignores, and the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities,’ Beevers said.

‘It’s also about the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire,’ he added.

Other issues at the locations on strike concern membership reports of company supervisors and others violating our members’ legal right to support their union and their bargaining committees, Beevers said.

The USW bargaining team is prepared to return to the table to negotiate a fair agreement for both sides, but the industry must first abandon its arrogant and illegal stance and no longer disregard the union’s proposals.

‘The oil companies do not want to work with us to improve the workplace and safety at oil refineries and facilities,’ said International Vice President of Administration Tom Conway.

‘The problem is that oil companies are too greedy to make a positive change in the workplace and they continue to value production and profit over health and safety, workers and the community,’ Conway said.

• The US West Coast ports bosses have locked out striking ILWU longshoremen.

The ILWU, representing 20,000 dockworkers, has been locked in negotiations for nine months with the bargaining agent for shippers and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).

PMA executives and ILWU leaders at 29 West Coast ports ended a third straight day of contract talks late last Thursday without a settlement.

This was despite pressure from the US Labour Secretary Tom Perez.

In response to an appeal by Democratic senators, the ILWU blamed port managers for cargo congestion.

ILWU President Bob McEllrath said in a statement: ‘Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions.

‘The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers.

‘This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.’

Labor Secretary Perez joined the talks in San Francisco last Tuesday at the behest of President Barack Obama, who has come under growing political pressure to intervene in a dispute that has rippled through the trans-Pacific commercial supply chain and could cost the US economy billions of dollars.

Tensions arising from the talks have played out in worsening cargo congestion that has severely slowed freight traffic at ports that handle nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 per cent of imports from Asia.

Leading up to the lockout, the shipping companies had curtailed operations sharply at the marine terminals, suspending the loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) said in a study conducted in 2014 that a shutdown of ports in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle would cost the US economy almost $2 billion per day.

‘The last prolonged port shutdown of the West Coast ports was the 10-day lockout in 2002 which some estimate cost the US economy close to $1 billion a day and took months to recover from,’ the retail employers’ groups said.

‘The NRF-NAM study estimates that a five-day stoppage would reduce GDP by $1.9 billion a day,’ the statement on the study continued. ‘This would increase exponentially with a 20-day stoppage resulting in a loss of $2.5 billion a day.’