GM runs over autoworker health care

General Motors workers are now voting on a new concession package that will cost retirees up to $752 a year for their health care. GM says the new agreement will save the company $3 billion a year. Up to now, retirees have enjoyed fully paid health care coverage. As many workers point out, their pensions and retiree health care packages are part of agreements, negotiated in good faith, with GM. With these cuts, GM is breaking its agreement with its retired workers. In effect, it is taking money that already belongs to workers in the form of deferred wages.

The deal also forces a $1 an hour wage cut for active workers. Many union members maintain that these take-backs are the result of GM’s willful failure to fully fund their pension and health care responsibilities during years when it was making record-breaking profits.

Adding even greater injury, GM is planning major plant shutdowns and layoffs to be announced by the end of the year. Union activists fully expect Ford and Chrysler to follow suit with similar take-back demands.

Despite the auto industry’s troubles, most automotive CEOs’ incomes have shot up. Last year, the 31 chief executives of U.S. automakers, suppliers and publicly traded dealership groups had a median income of $4.2 million. That’s up a stunning 72 percent from 2003.

NEA on student loan cuts

National Education Association President Reg Weaver called proposed slashes of the student loan program “the wrong cuts at the wrong time.” The House Republican leadership is calling for more than $5 billion in new cuts to student loan programs over and above the $12.6 billion approved in April. These cuts could cost the average student borrower up to $5,800 in additional interest payments.

“Students across the country are already in an enormous financial hole and this Congress seems to think they can keep digging deeper,” said Eddy Morales, president of the United States Student Association.

The NEA’s Weaver, a former middle-school teacher from Harvey, Ill, pointed out that more than 8 million postsecondary students receive financial aid. Weaver added, “This need will only grow in the next decade when undergraduate enrollment in colleges and universities will increase by 14 percent. Of those new students, 80 percent will come from minority backgrounds and one in five will live in poverty.”

Calif. firefighters burning up

The guy staring out from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign mailers promoting anti-labor Prop. 75 is not a real California firefighter. And that’s got the real ones burning up. The governor has attacked their pensions and referred to them as “special interests,” but now his campaign has bought a stock image of a firefighter in an effort to fool voters into thinking he has their support.

“This just goes along with his whole mantra of ‘I played a firefighter in a movie. I will just buy a firefighter,’” said Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters Association.

Wal-Mart week of action

Wal-Mart Watch has designated Nov. 13-19 as Higher Expectations Week: A National Week of Action. Along with 400 partner organizations, the group is taking on the Wal-Mart’s impact on the environment and American labor standards. The groups will participate in 1,000 local events during the week and the new film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices” will premiere of at over 3,500 house parties.

Low jobless benefits in Gulf

The average unemployment benefit in the states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi equals only about half the poverty line for a family of four, according to the AFL-CIO. Workers who are not eligible for UI qualify for federal Disaster Unemployment Assistance — but those benefits are set at half a state’s average weekly UI rate, which comes out to less than $100 a week in each of these states.

EFCA gains support

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) has joined Arkansas Sens. Marek Pryor (D) and Blanche Lincoln (D) in signing up to support the Employee Free Choice Act, for a total of 41 EFCA co-sponsors in the Senate. The House now has 204 co-sponsors, just 14 short of an outright majority. Labor and its allies will be mobilizing at rallies, marches, town hall meetings and candlelight vigils during the week leading up to Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, in support of the legislation which would restore some rights to American workers. U.S. employers routinely intimidate and dismiss workers to keep them from exercising their constitutional freedom to form a union, says a new global survey by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

Philly transit sets strike

Five thousand transit workers in Philadelphia and four nearby counties have set Oct. 31 as a strike deadline, refusing to give in to demand from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) for 90 separate givebacks. SEPTA is demanding a 40 percent cut in health care, reduced vacation pay, elimination of maternity leave, reduced sick pay, deletion of the “no layoff” clause, and the right to contract out maintenance and construction work.

“Over several decades, our members accepted less in wages and other benefits in order to receive decent health care coverage,” said Transport Workers Union Local 234 President Jeff Brooks.

SEPTA ridership is up — up to 20,000 more passengers are riding its buses, subways and trains than last year. This is a result not only of higher gas prices but also improvement in service which has resulted from the efforts of TWU members. “Now it’s time for SEPTA to do the right thing for its employees,” said Brooks.

This week in labor is compiled by Roberta Wood ( Rosita Johnson, Scott Marshall, PAI and Libero Della Piana contributed.