In what Communications Workers of America (CWA) heralds as “the largest labor organizing victory in the South in decades,” passenger service agents at American Airlines voted to form a union after a 19-year struggle. In the vote announced today, 86% of the 9,000 agents who voted favored the union, which will now represent 14,500 agents, the vast majority of whom live in the South. American Airlines agents in the West are represented by the Teamsters and the two unions form a joint CWA-IBT unit to bargain with the airline.
Nearly three-quarters of the agents work in Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona and several thousand are home-based reservations agents. The wide range of jobs the members work include: reservations, ticket and gate agents, baggage service agents, customer assistance representatives, customer service supervisors, club representatives, passenger operations center representatives and special service counter agents.
About the result, CWA said:
The vote clearly shows that workers who can make a fair choice about union representation want bargaining rights. New American agents are concentrated in southern states and work at diverse locations, including large and small airports, call centers and at home. Across every group, they voted for bargaining rights and union representation.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke about the broader importance of the victory:
Clearly, one of the largest labor organizing victories in the South in decades is a historic day. But it also shows that the future of the U.S. labor movement is alive, as these workers can be found at airports, call centers, even working from home. The right to collectively bargain will always be what our working family fights for.
The agents themselves were ecstatic about the victory. Richard Shaughnessy, who has been an agent at Miami International Airport for 27 years, said:
The merger between American Airlines and US Airways is an exciting time for all of us. But even more exciting is our victory today. We’re the front-line employees who interact with our customers every day, and we are looking forward to a positive relationship with management to make this merger ‘work’ for all of us. We are anxious to get to the bargaining table.
Carroll Locklear, a home-based reservations agent in Texas, said:
I’ve been with American Airlines for 18 years, and through all of those years I have been praying for this day. We have been the odd employees out for so long because we were the only employees without union representation. Gone are the days that management can take what they want when they want. This will be a win-win for all of us.
Eula Smith, a customer service agent in Charlotte, N.C., added:
We feel stronger now with this vote. I’m a 60-year-old woman with 42 years with this employer. You can’t live in the South and make a decent wage unless you are in senior management in a corporation or belong to a union. We need this. We need not just a union, we need CWA.
Ken Grunwald, a 23-year reservations agent at the call center in North Carolina, said:
I’m proud to remember everyone over the years who worked so hard for our union voice, who never gave up in the face of adversity, and who gave their blood, sweat and tears so that we would have the opportunity to celebrate this victory today. It’s a victory for all American Airlines employees! I’m so excited to think that we will finally be able to negotiate a legally binding contract. We now all have each others’ back.
Janet Elston, an agent at Dallas International Airport, concluded:
Nineteen years ago, a handful of agents started a drive to obtain representation for [American Airlines] airport and reservations agents. Many hundreds of activists have spent thousands of hours over the years to get us to today’s election result. They never wavered and never, ever gave up. We have finally achieved what most thought was impossible: union representation for our work group. Now we’ll begin a new working relationship with our company, with a legal binding contract.
The myth put forth by private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group that private prisons are cheaper than public prisons is shattered by a new report from In the Public Interest, thus undercutting the primary rationale for prison privatization efforts across the country. When pushing for contracts with the many states that use private prisons, these corporations claim they are the better option because they can run prisons more cheaply than the government can. But this report not only dispels that idea, it highlights some of the less-than-savory activities the corporations engage in because of the perverse incentives created by these contracts.
The report details several methods through which private prison companies mislead governments and the public about their supposed cost savings, particularly hiding costs of private prisons, inflating public prison costs, benefiting from mandated occupancy minimums and delaying cost increases until after contracts are signed.
Numerous studies have shown that private prisons are more expensive than their publicly run counterparts. The report details a series of meta-analyses of individual studies conducted on the comparative costs between public and private prisons, and all of them found that cost savings, at best, were minimal for private prisons—in many cases, private prisons were more expensive. One of the few studies that showed private prisons to be more cost-effective was funded by the prison companies and is currently the subject of an ethics inquiry at Temple University. A close examination of many of the states that have invested heavily in prison privatization has shown the failure of the “private prisons are cheaper” idea:
Arizona: The state found private prisons can cost up to $1,600 per prisoner per year, despite private prisons often only housing the healthiest prisoners.
Florida: Three separate multiyear studies found the majority of the private prisons in the state failed to meet the legally mandated 7% cost savings, while half of the private prisons failed to save any money at all.
Georgia: In 2011, private prisons cost the state $45.81 per prisoner per day, compared with $44.51 per prisoner per day in publicly run prisons.
Hawaii: The state found the projected savings of using private prison contractors were based on bed capacity rather than the actual number of people incarcerated and that indirect administration costs were not included.
New Mexico: Over a five-year period, the state saw its annual spending on private prisons increase by 57% while the prisoner population only increased 21%. A significant portion of the increase was because of automatic price increases included in contracts with the private prison corporations.
Ohio: The state expected the private operation of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution would save the state $2.4 million a year, but it has turned out to instead cost the state $380,000 to $700,000 a year.
As the report notes:
To maximize returns for their investors, for-profit prison companies have perverse incentives to cut costs in vital areas such as security personnel, medical care and programming, threatening the health and safety of prisoners and staff.
There are several different reasons that savings fail to materialize. CCA and other companies explicitly seek to increase their profits by changing the details of previously signed contracts. They do this by raising the per diem rates the state pays for each prisoner or by requiring occupancy rates of 90% or higher or the state pays for the empty cells in order to reach the required level. Private prison companies cherry pick their inmates and refuse to house more expensive prisoners. Many contracts exclude those higher-cost prisoners, such as those in maximum security, on death row, female prisoners or prisoners that have serious medical or mental health conditions. Companies also make their costs look lower by inflating the cost of public incarceration when making their sales pitch. They can do this by leaving out overhead costs in their prisons, not including costs the state has to pay in either public or private scenarios in the private prison cost but keeping them in the public prison cost calculation, and leaving out the additional costs of overseeing and monitoring private prisons that the state must engage in if it properly oversees its contractors.
At its national convention last year, the AFL-CIO came out in opposition to the privatization of prisons and the profit motive being used to increase incarceration.
In the last three years, nine states have added new laws that prohibit local governments from passing paid sick leave ordinances. Seven of these laws were passed in 2013 alone and 14 states introduced such legislation in the last year, Think Progress reports. In every state where local preemption bills have passed on paid sick leave, members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) were among the co-sponsors of the legislation. In most cases, corporate lobby groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association also have been involved heavily in passing the laws. It’s bad enough these groups oppose paid sick days for working families, but they don’t even want democratically elected officials deciding on policies—they want to prevent these policies from even coming up for a vote.
Corporate groups routinely argue that paid sick leave ordinances will harm businesses, but the evidence so far rejects those claims. Bryce Covert of Think Progress writes:
Before 2010, Georgia was the only state to have such a pre-emption law, since then Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin have added them. This push comes as a direct response to local governments showing real momentum in passing paid sick leave ordinances. Six cities and the state of Connecticut have passed paid sick days laws and other cities are considering joining them in protecting workers, customers and employers from the negative effects of sick employees.
Sure, working families have been under attack for years, but people across the country are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back to protect workers’ rights and raise living standards for everyone. Here are 10 ways they’re doing it:
1. Increasing the Minimum Wage
Four states (California, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island) have increased their state minimum wage in 2013, and on Nov. 5, New Jersey voters will vote on a ballot measure to increase their minimum wage.
2. Passing “Buy America” Laws
Three states (Colorado, Maryland and Texas) passed laws in 2013 to ensure that the goods procured with public funding are made in the United States.
3. Ensuring Paid Sick Days
Portland, Ore., Jersey City, N.J., and New York City became the latest three cities to adopt standards for paid sick days in 2013.
4. Protecting Immigrant Workers
In 2013, six states (California, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon and Vermont) have enacted protections for immigrant workers, including access to driver’s licenses and education.
5. Cracking Down on Businesses That Cheat Workers
Texas passed legislation in 2013 to crack down on businesses that cheat employees by treating them as “independent contractors” who lack worker protections (such as minimum wage and overtime protection, and eligibility for unemployment benefits and workers’ compensation).
6. Giving Workers the Right to a Voice on the Job
In 2013, some 15,000 home care workers in Minnesota won collective bargaining rights through state legislation, as did 10,000 in Illinois and 7,000 in Vermont. Thousands of other workers around the country have enjoyed organizing wins, too: 7,000 electrical workers, more than 5,000 Texas public school teachers, taxi drivers in New York and other cities, telecom workers, college and university faculty, EMS drivers, hotel and casino workers and domestic workers, to name a few.
7. Protecting Your Privacy on Social Media
Nine states (Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington) have passed legislation in 2013 to prohibit employers from requiring access to your social media passwords or information as a condition of employment.
8. Fighting for LGBTQ Equality
Five states (Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont) have passed legislation banning workplace discrimination or recognizing marriage equality.
9. Protecting the Rights of Domestic Workers
Two states (California and Hawaii) have passed legislation in 2013 to protect the rights of domestic workers. California’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights will benefit about 200,000 domestic workers, and Hawaii’s will benefit some 20,000 domestic workers.
10. Protecting Voting Rights
Twelve states (California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia and West Virginia) have passed legislation protecting voting rights in 2013, while voting rights legislation was vetoed by the governors of Nevada and New Jersey.
Pension battles are heating up in cities across the nation as conservatives and Republicans are pushing to strip public workers of their retirement plans, often with little or nothing offered as a replacement. The primary argument, although a false one, is that these pensions are “too expensive” and that during times of fiscal woes, cities can’t afford them. In reality, these plans are often little more than veiled attempts to abandon commitments to workers and shift spending to more conservative priorities.
Working families had a victory in Tucson, Ariz., this month when a judge threw an initiative off the November ballot after it was determined that many of the required signatures gathered to put the question before the voters were improperly gathered. The initiative would’ve eliminated the city’s pension plan and replaced it with a 401(k)-style plan.
While there was a victory for working families in Arizona, pension plans in numerous other cities aren’t quite as safe. Here are five cities to watch as pension plans become a more prominent target of conservatives:
1. Cincinnati: A group of mostly out-of-state tea party activists, including the Liberty Initiative Fund from Virginia, succeeded in gathering enough signatures to put an initiative on the Nov. 13 ballot that is very similar to the one that just failed in Tucson. The plan, if passed, would eliminate the city’s pension fund for any future hires, replacing it with 401(k)-style private funds directed by individual employees, effectively privatizing the pension system. Many of the city employees who would be in the new plans are not eligible for Social Security and would have no safety net to fall back on if the stock market did poorly or they failed to successfully manage their new accounts.
2. Jacksonville, Fla.: The Pew Charitable Trust is partnering with the John & Laura Arnold Foundation and is expected to promote what is called a “cash balance” plan to replace the city’s current pension plan. If the plan mirrors what Pew proposed in Kentucky, it would amount to a significant reduction in retirement savings for future retirees, who would get a set cash amount based on years of service. This measure has not been officially proposed yet.
3. Memphis, Tenn.: The mayor’s office is proposing a series of pension changes that the local Fire Fighters (IAFF) call a barrage of attacks on workers. The proposed changes include setting a minimum age to receive retirement benefits, reducing benefits for employees who take early retirement and using a salary average to determine pension benefits.
4. Phoenix: Citizens for Pension Reform is gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would switch the city’s pension plan from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan and capping potential benefits for current employees. The switch, similar to the proposals in other cities, would amount to a benefit cut.
5. Tulsa, Okla.: The mayor is also suggesting making the change from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan. The change would affect only new employees and would not include firefighters or police, who are enrolled in a state-managed retirement system.
Nineteen Arizona fire fighters, 18 from an elite wildfire unit, were killed Sunday in an out-of-control blaze about 80 miles north of Phoenix. The members of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew team were dispatched to the front lines of the Yarnell Hill fire to establish a fire line to try to slow fire that reportedly had wind-driven flames as high as 20 feet.
Says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka:
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the brave heroes we lost in Arizona. It is a terrible tragedy even for the heroes who willingly put their life on the line every day for our safety.
Fire Fighters (IAFF) President Harold Schaitberger said the 19—who averaged just 22 years of age—“made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the communities they serve.”
When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen and prayers for the fire fighters who continue to work side-by-side in what are, by any measure, hellish conditions. At this time, the fire is now more than quadruple in size, as crews battle triple-digit heat and erratic winds in an effort to contain the blaze.
Arizona state forestry spokesman Art Morrison told CNN that “hotshot crews” are the firefighters “who actually go in and dig the fire line, cut the brush to make a fuel break. And so they would be as close to the fire as they felt they safely could.”
According to the Arizona Republic, the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of the firefighters were inside their shelters, which are typically used as a last resort to withstand the fire if it overtakes them. Some of the crew members were found outside the shelters.
Schaitberger said an investigation is underway to determine how the tragedy occurred and “ what we do know is that it was an unprecedented weather event that resulted in ‘a wind blowout’ in all directions.”
As we mourn for those who have given their lives, we pray for the safety of hundreds more who are battling fires in the face in one of the worst heat waves in memory.
“We are devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you will ever meet,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said.
President Obama said in a statement Sunday:
They were heroes—highly skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.
Sunday was the deadliest day for firefighters since the 9/11 attacks. It also was the deadliest wildfire since the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles killed 25 firefighters.
It was a hard fight, but one we’re glad to see turned out the right way. The Medicaid provision was one of the key components of the ACA, but it was put at risk by a Supreme Court decision that left it up to the states to accept or decline the funds. Many states have—but others, like Texas, are refusing, leaving millions without coverage.
In New Hampshire, the state House—which supports accepting expanded funds—is working to craft a measure that will be able to get through the Republican-controlled Senate. This may mean a commission will be created to review the issue.
Unfortunately, in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a measure to accept expanded funds. The bill, which would cover 60,000 people, passed by strong but not quite veto-proof margins, so the fate of Medicaid in Maine remains unclear.
The bills in the House and Senate are ALEC model bills, inspired by none other than Wisconsin union-buster Gov. Scott Walker. Quick story: In early 2011, Walker pushed and passed a preemption law in Wisconsin, completely invalidating the will of Milwaukee voters who had just passed a sick days ordinance.
All workers deserve the opportunity to earn paid sick days, so that not another person has to make their choice between going to work sick and not making rent, or not being able to eat, or not being able to care for their child.
But even the threat of workers in a few cities and towns having this basic right has the restaurant lobby and ALEC running scared, using their politician pawns to introduce ridiculously undemocratic preemption bills that won’t create a single job. Since when did these “small-government” obsessives get into the business of telling cities and towns how to conduct their business?
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and her allies in the state legislature are seeking to use millions of dollars intended for struggling homeowners to pay for prison construction and tax cuts instead, echoing a policy put in place earlier this year in Wisconsin by Governor Scott Walker.
Remember the $26 billion foreclosure settlement, the one agreed upon by the five biggest banks and 49 state Attorneys General? As one of the hardest hit states, Arizona is getting $1.6 billion, as well as an additional $97.7 million to be overseen by the office of Attorney General Tom Horne, to be used for “housing counselors, legal aid, hotlines, and to help stressed homeowners with their payments.”
Two main things to understand about these funds: they are wildly insufficient given the scale of the problem, but all the same they are extremely crucial. In March, Arizona had the highest foreclosure rate in the country, according to RealtyTrac, with 9,497 foreclosures. If any state needs all the help it can get when it comes to homeowner education, assistance, and relief, it’s Arizona.
Even so, Governor Brewer and Republican state legislators want to siphon $50 million from those funds to “relieve pressure on the budget.” So in other words, use money intended to help homeowners for…other things.
Lawmakers say the money amounts to a pricey outreach and education fund. It won’t hurt to take half of it, House Speaker Andy Tobin said.
“We’re using the funds to relieve the pressure on the budget,” said Tobin, R-Paulden. Those stresses range from a push to replace welfare dollars lost to federal budget cuts to prison construction, he said.
How is this justified? You can thank a loophole in the settlement language, which says the funds can be used “to compensate the state for costs resulting from the alleged unlawful conduct of the defendants.” Arizona lawmakers like House Speaker Tobin are claiming that since foreclosure fraud hurt homeowners, which in turn hurt tax revenues and by extension the state budget, they can use the money for whatever they damn well please.
They can make this logical jump without acknowledging a.) that the big banks committed any actual fraud, or b.) that maybe Gov. Brewer’s $538 million tax handouts to businesses has anything to do with budget problems.
In February, Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen decided to use $25.6 million of Wisconsin’s share of the foreclosure fraud settlement to plug holes in his state budget. For justification, he used the very same loophole in the settlement language:
“Just like communities and individuals have been affected, the foreclosure crisis has had an effect on the state of Wisconsin, in terms of unemployment. . . . This will offset that damage done to the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.
A week later, Missouri followed suit, taking $40 million from their share for the state’s general fund. Ohio decided to allocate $75 million meant for homeowner assistance to actually demolish vacant homes. South Carolina legislators insidiously pushed for using $31 million of settlement funds for corporate tax breaks.
Of all the horrific policies that have come out of the offices of governors like Walker in the past two years, this is one of the worst – and the most under-reported. With Walker and Brewer giving out huge tax handouts to businesses, cutting services and education, and then dipping into foreclosure fraud assistance to pay for their bad decisions, they are no different than a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. Robbery in multiple steps is still robbery, even if you’re a governor.
On Tuesday, however, two Republican leaders in the Senate told the Arizona Guardian (sub. req.) they don’t have enough votes to keep the bill alive.
“Senate President Steve Pierce and Senate Whip Frank Antenori expressed serious doubt that there were enough Republicans in the upper chamber willing to pass a bill ending collective bargaining,” the Guardian reported. Antenori described the bill’s chances as “questionable.”
Even Gov. Brewer, no stranger to controversy, is keeping the collective bargaining bill at an arm’s length. “All I can tell you definitively,” said Gov. Brewer’s spokesman Matthew Benson, “is that…there was no coordination with the governor or her office in the development of those bills.” Benson also said that if the bills reach the Governor’s desk that she would “weigh them on the merits.”
That’s political speak for “please don’t write in the paper that these bills were my idea.”
As Dave Dayen writes at Firedoglake, this is the departure from the pattern of 2011. In Wisconsin, it’s been well-documented that Republicans pulled out all the stops to ram through their anti-union “budget repair” bill. In Ohio, which has a much stronger labor presence than Arizona, Senate Bill 5 was passed the same way. And of course, in Indiana last month, Speaker Bosma and Gov. Daniels risked enormous Super Bowl protests to push through a ban on fair share clauses.
We’re remaining vigilant on this issue: even though Arizona GOP doesn’t seem fully behind the collective bargaining ban, that bill has already been passed out of committee, and could get a full vote any day.
Besides, two other anti-worker bills will see a vote today: one would prohibit the government from paying an employee for union activities, while the other would prohibit automatic deduction for union dues which help pay for basic representation. Arizona already has a ban on fair share clauses for all workers.
Until we hear official commitments to keep basic rights for public workers from legislators on both sides of the aisle, there’s no reason to assume these attacks on workers won’t continue. But the apparent lack of interest in the war on workers (in a state that has never backed down from useless, punitive, ALEC-inspired laws) is a heartening, if small, sign of hope.