Presidential hopefuls back unionists at D.C. rally

Three Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) — talked union at the Machinists’ “Enough is Enough!” rally near the U.S. Capitol May 17. The rally drew participants from major national unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers, including the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the Transportation Workers Union (TWU).

The purpose of the rally, IAM President Tom Buffenbarger said, was to send a message to Congress and to President Bush that U.S. workers “have had it with policies and politicians who hate unions and wreck the working class.” He labeled Bush “the worst president in history.”

Biden said, “The main reason we have to get out of this war in Iraq is because this president has waged a war on labor’s house like no other president has.

“They want to break you,” he told the trade unionists, “because you stand between them and their drive for total control. We need a president who can say the word union,” he declared to thunderous applause and cheers.

Clinton asked the crowds if they were “ready for a President who brings universal health care, who stands for good jobs with good incomes, who is pro-labor and who will deal with worker safety, and who will put us on a path to energy independence, to create millions of good jobs.” The crowd gave her a resounding “yes” to each of the questions.

Kucinich strongly endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act and called for repeal of trade agreements that result in the export of American jobs and in brutal working conditions and poverty wages for workers overseas.

Companies reclassify workers to escape pay and tax obligations

Among the many concerns workers have taken to the halls of Congress recently is the story of how unscrupulous employers reclassify workers as “independent contractors” in order to dodge pay and tax obligations and to underbid legitimate contractors who treat their workers as regular employees.

Gonzalo Valencia, a carpenter from Covington, Wash., testified earlier this month before Congress on how construction contractors abuse both their workers and the law. Valencia was a Carpenters Union member until after the 2001 housing construction slump, when he was “reclassified.” The reclassification resulted in his losing workers’ compensation coverage and all of his rights under labor law, with his employers no longer paying into Social Security or Medicare.

Valencia told lawmakers that the mislabeled “independent contractors” like himself are paid not hourly wages but at “a piece rate by square footage.” The rate can be arbitrarily cut and the boss can force the worker to do things totally outside of the so-called contract. Valencia told how he had been forced to do “freebies,” including building a garage for his boss in order to keep his job.

“The workers often get paid less than they were promised or don’t get paid at all,” he testified, adding, “None of the tract homebuilders in our area hire carpenters as employees.”

Rep. James McDermott (D-Wash.), who chaired the congressional hearing, vowed to work on eliminating the misclassification of workers into the “independent contractor” category. McDermott said the problem, uncorrected, would only worsen as globalization forces workers to compete with lower cost labor abroad.

Paid family leave in Washington state

After a strong lobbying effort by unions and women’s groups, Washington became the second state in the union to enact a paid family leave law. The new law covers only parents of babies and will not take effect until 2009. California has a similar law.

Unions and women’s groups hailed the achievement. Federal law, which Bush has been trying to undercut, lets workers of both sexes in firms of 50 or more take 12 weeks of unpaid family leave to care for ill family members or for themselves.

The Washington plan starts October 1, 2009, and covers workers in all firms with at least 25 employees. It will pay parents of newborn or newly adopted children $250 a week for five weeks, after a one-week waiting period.

Workers win a union four years after vote

In a classic example of why labor law must be overhauled, the 600 workers at the Walker Methodist Health Care Center in Minneapolis finally won union recognition last week — four years after they won the election for union representation.

The win came when the National Labor Relations Board finally rejected all appeals by the care center’s management.

Conceding defeat in the first week of May, Walker Methodist CEO Lynn Starkovitch phoned the executive director of Council 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME), Eliot Seide, to recognize the union as the representative of the center’s nursing assistants, LPNs, housekeepers, and maintenance, laundry and dietary workers.

The Walker case had been cited by lawmakers when the House approved the Employee Free Choice Act on March 1. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), whose district includes Minneapolis, pointed to Walker as an example of how an employer can use the NLRB to delay and frustrate workers’ rights.

Victory for immigrant workers at Dulles Airport

After a nine-month campaign, Lane Construction Company agreed to voluntarily recognize and bargain with Laborers Local 11, which had won a majority among 120 mostly immigrant construction workers at the D.C. area’s Dulles International Airport. A contract followed quickly, featuring a pay hike, benefits and recognition of the union workers on three airport expansion projects.

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik Press Associates Inc. contributed.