THIS WEEK IN LABOR

What’s obscene here?

The federal government levied a larger fine — $550,000 — for the 2004 Super Bowl showing of Janet Jackson’s breast than it did for the deaths of 13 Alabama miners in a 2001 mine disaster, USA Today reported. The company responsible for the disaster, Jim Walter Resources, paid a $3,000 fine.

The article also noted that safety violation fines are miniscule when compared with recent record profits in the coal industry. The 10 largest coal companies reported profits of $2.4 billion last year.



Six unions split from building trades

A new federation of construction unions will be rolled out in March, Terence O’Sullivan, of the Laborers and Vincent Giblin of the Operating Engineers announced at a phone press conference Feb. 14. The announcement raised concerns among labor activists about further fragmentation of the U.S. labor movement.

The Laborers and Operating Engineers are withdrawing from the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department along with Teamsters, Ironworkers, and Bricklayers who will also join the new group, dubbed National Construction Alliance. The Carpenters will also join the NCA. The combined construction membership of the six unions amounts to half the building trades, Joe Brady, spokesman for the IUOE, told the World. Brady added the IUOE is “emphatically” not leaving the AFL-CIO.

Both O’Sullivan and Giblin characterized the federation’s Building Trades Department as “inefficient.” In 1973, building trades unions represented 40 percent of the nation’s construction workers; today the figure is 13.1 percent. O’Sullivan attributed the decline in part to the “green book” process of solving jurisdictional disputes based on past practices dating to 1910.

Giblin said the six unions will continue to participate in local building trades councils “where it works,” but made it clear that the NCA will have its own local infrastructure. The NCA will win the support of contractors with “efficiency in delivering the end product,” he projected. O’Sullivan noted that Laborers and Carpenters are already looking at composite work crews.

Giblen castigated the Building Trades leadership for “getting involved in things we should not be involved with” such as Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. These issues “are not part of construction workers’ dinner table discussion,” he said.



Sikorsky aircraft strike

Thirty-five hundred workers at Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut and 90 workers in Florida hit the picket lines Feb. 20 after refusing to accept an increase in health care costs during contract negotiations. Sikorsky, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corp., recently signed a $97.6 million contract with the U.S. Navy to provide logistics for heavylift and minesweeping helicopters.

The company’s offer would have required the workers to double their co-pay for health insurance in the first year with a 15 percent increase over the next two years. They have organized strike support, emergency assistance and picketing committees.



IBEW goes after church arsonists

A $10,000 reward is being offered by System Council U-19 of the Electrical Workers union for information leading to the conviction of whoever is involved in starting ten church fires in Alabama.

“We want to do our part to bring justice to those responsible for these terrible events,” said U-19 Business Manager Bill Frederick. “Rural churches are the heart of our small communities.” Frederick represents 3,000 employees who work on Alabama Power line crews and in generating plants.



Pillowtex settlement

Unite Here announced a $12 million settlement with Pillowtex that will provide an average of $2,000 each for 6,000 workers in 11 states who lost vacation, retirement and medical benefits when their plants shut down abruptly in 2003.

The union is proud to have fought for the settlement on behalf of its members, said Unite Here Southern Regional Director Harris Raynor, adding, “But in so many ways it is too little too late.”

The bankruptcy process is stacked against the workers, said Raynor, noting that the banks get first priority over the workers. “The workers’ medical benefits and vacation pay — things they had already earned — were placed in jeopardy, unlike the financial institutions which got 100 cents on the dollar for what they were owed.”



Macy’s workers vote to strike

Health care and wage increases are at the heart of a fight brewing between 3,500 Macy’s workers in Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and White Plains and the stores’ owners, Federated Department Stores, Inc. The workers are represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The contract expires March 3. Macy’s workers are paid an average of $11 hour for a 35-hour workweek. They authorized a strike after Federated demanded an increased family health deductible, up from $2,500 to $3,000 per year.



AFL-CIO superblog

The AFL-CIO has launched what it calls a “super-blog” delivering daily “news with an attitude.” The first day’s entry of “AFL-CIO Now: News That Works” includes reaction from two former Enron workers on the trial of Enron former CEOs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling and a feature on the closing of Ford’s Wixom, Mich., plant. The site will also feature guest bloggers offering insights on current issues and events, according to a statement from the federation.

The federation’s online presence includes a network of over half a million online activists which the federation says sent nearly 2 million faxes, calls and e-mails to Congress last year in a successful campaign to stop the Bush administration’s attempt to privatize Social Security. The new site can be accessed at www.aflcio.org/blog.



Healthy response to HR 676

While you’ve got your computer fired up, check out archive.wbai.org to hear Steelworker union activist Paul Kaczocha from Local 6787 who recently participated in a health care discussion on WBAI-FM in New York.

The list of unions endorsing HR 676 seems to be growing every day. The single-payer plan would cover every person in the U.S. for all necessary medical care. Latest additions include Washington State Machinist Council, whose 50,000 members include 18,000 Boeing workers, IAM Local 1044 in Pittsburgh, AFSCME Retiree Chapter 36 in Los Angeles and two steelworker locals representing chemical workers in Michigan — Local 829 in Owosso and Local 2-591 in Riverview.

New co-sponsors of the bill, initiated by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), bring the total up to 69: Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Lucille Royball-Allard (D-Calif.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) and Al Green (D-Texas).

This Week in Labor is compiled by Roberta Wood (rwood@pww.org). Joelle Fishman and Denise Winebrenner Edwards contributed.