|The News Line: Feature
Monday, 11 March 2019
‘A VICTORY FOR WORKERS ALL AROUND AMERICA!’ says Bernie Sanders
AFTER union workers at a locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania, struck a 90-day deal with Wabtec Corporation late last Wednesday, Senator Bernie Sanders said the victory ‘should send a message to corporate CEOs across the country’.
|UE picket line at the Wabtec engineering plant in Erie where the strike began on February 26
As long-time senator and already-confirmed 2020 US Presidential candidate, Sanders’ statement continued – in the aftermath of what has been the largest manufacturing workers’ strike of the Trump era: ‘It is absolutely unacceptable for profitable corporations to provide obscene compensation packages to executives, while ripping off workers and their families. ‘Their victory is not only a win for the workers at Wabtec, but for workers all around America who are sick and tired of seeing their standard of living decline as a result of corporate greed.’
Sanders then helped to thrust the nearly two-week strike into the national spotlight by pledging his support for the striking workers and inviting union leader Scott Slawson to speak from the platform at his first 2020 presidential rally – in Brooklyn on Saturday.
‘This campaign is telling bosses everywhere that they can’t continue to keep us in fear on the job. They’re stealing from us, and we’re here to take what’s ours.’ And: ‘The example that Sanders is setting is vital, not just for his 2020 campaign but for all the Democrats who are contending for the nomination,’ John Nichols had written in The Nation ahead of the rally.
‘Union struggles are essential, not just for Democrats but for the fight for economic justice in a country where the gaps between CEO pay and worker salaries, and between rich and poor, has reached epic proportions.’
The strike in Erie kicked off on February. 26, when more than 1,700 members of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) Locals 506 and 618 walked off the job as Wabtec took control of the plant.
Last year, Wabtec merged with GE Transportation, which had operated the facility for more than a century and maintained a contract with UE the past eight decades. Wabtec has refused to honour GE’s contract—which, UE spokesman Jonathan Kissam told In These Times, has provided generations of workers with ‘good, Rust Belt jobs’.
Those jobs have afforded the plant’s employees a more stable lifestyle, with wages that average $35 per hour, and a Monday to Friday work schedule that Kissam says has allowed UE members to be active participants in life outside of the plant. ‘Our members are very involved in the Erie community as Little League coaches, at churches and with veterans’ causes,’ Kissam asserted in an interview with In These Times.
‘It is this quality of life, and this connection to the broader Erie community, that UE members are trying to protect for themselves and future generations by going on strike,’ he said. ‘People would rather work than be on strike,’ Kissam added, ‘but they’re not willing to hand every aspect of their life over to the boss, and they’re not willing to create a permanent underclass of low wage workers.’
Under the new deal, workers are set to return to the plant today. According to a statement from UE, as talks continue to establish a new contract, workers and Wabtec agree to: • Maintain wage rates for existing employees; • Maintain Wabtec’s competitive benefits package; • Voluntary scheduled overtime with the company’s ability to use non-bargaining Wabtec employees to meet customer commitments;
• 90-day moratorium on hiring new bargaining unit employees;
• No plant closure or permanent layoffs during the term of the agreement;
• Grievance procedure with binding arbitration; and
• No strikes or lockouts.
‘Both parties are optimistic,’ the statement said, ‘that a mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement can be reached to position the Erie facility for future growth, stability, and success.’
While congratulating the union workers ‘for their successful effort in standing up for justice and dignity,’ Sanders urged Wabtec ‘to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract with its union workers. ‘Congratulations to UE Locals 506 and 618 for their successful effort in standing up for justice and dignity.
‘This is a victory for workers across the country who are sick and tired of seeing their standard of living decline as a result of corporate greed,’ — Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 7, 2019: International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8.
• After Raising Hourly Wages to $15, Amazon-Owned Whole Foods Reportedly Slashed Workers’ Hours. ‘While Amazon caved in to massive public pressure last fall and raised all company wages to at least $15 per hour – including at its subsidiary Whole Foods Market – in the months since, workers at the popular grocery chain have had their hours cut, negating their raises.
‘Just about every person on our team has complained about their hours being cut. Some have had to look for other jobs as they can’t make ends meet,’ – said a Whole Foods worker in California.
The Guardian reported on those cuts last Wednesday, citing interviews with workers at Whole Foods stores in Illinois, California, Maryland, and Oregon, as well as emails and schedules the employees shared with the paper.
Workers who remained unnamed due to fears of retaliation said internal emails show the cuts to employees’ hours have come at the direction of regional management. An employee in Illinois, who provided schedules from November 1st – when the wage increase took effect – through to the end of January, said that part-time workers at their location had seen weekly hours reduced from an average of 30 to 21 while full-time workers saw an average drop from 37.5 to 34.5 hours per week.
‘At my store all full-time team members are 36 to 38 hours per week now,’ said a worker in Oregon. ‘So what workers do if they want a full 40 hours is take a little bit of their paid time off each week to fill their hours to 40. Doing the same thing myself.’
Meanwhile, in Maryland, an employee said regional management has cut full-time workers’ hours from 40 to 36 per week. ‘This hours cut makes that raise pointless as people are losing more than they gained and we rely on working full shifts,’ the worker said.
‘The cuts have taken a toll on both workers’ pay cheques and workplace environment,’ said a California-based employee, ‘which carries over to customers. ‘Things that have made it more noticeable are the long lines, the need to call for a cashier and bagging assistance, and customers not being able to find help in certain departments because not enough are scheduled, and we are a big store...
‘Just about every person on our team has complained about their hours being cut. Some have had to look for other jobs as they can’t make ends meet. ‘There are many team members working at Whole Foods today whose total compensation is actually less than what it was before the wage increase due to these labour reductions,’ said a spokesperson for Whole Worker – which started organising for a Whole Foods employee union shortly before Amazon’s wage hike.
Whole Foods and Amazon did not respond to the paper’s multiple requests for comment. However, this is far from the first time the high-end grocery chain and its parent company – owned by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos – have come under fire for anti-worker practices.
Frustration with Whole Foods’ well established anti-worker reputation and Amazon’s 2017 takeover led to the union push, which Amazon has tried to quash. A training video that teaches management how to detect ‘early warning signs of potential organising’ was leaked to the media in late September.
In early October, Amazon announced it would raise workers’ hourly wages. That came less than a month after Senator. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced the cleverly named Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies (BEZOS) Act, which would force hugely profitable companies such as Amazon and Walmart to pay a corporate welfare tax that matches the amount of public assistance their employees receive.
Whole Foods workers’ ongoing fight to be paid enough money to survive comes amid mounting national pressure to raise wages. Just last month, Illinois became the fifth state to require a $15 hourly minimum wage. In January, Sanders and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va) introduced the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, would boost the incomes of nearly 40 million Americans across the country.
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