Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 29, 2010

GM New and Old
Let’s see, how’s that GM/UAW partnership doing these days?

Al Benchich, a retired UAW Local President, opened an article in Labor Notes,

“The ‘reinvention’ of the ‘New GM’ began with the opening of a lithium-ion battery plant in Brownstown, Michigan, near Detroit. The event not only signals GM’s return to electric vehicles—for the first time in about 30 years, GM has opened a non-union plant in the U.S.”

Those of you who saw Who Killed the Electric Car? know that when it looked like California was serious about requiring a transition to electric vehicles nearly twenty years ago GM produced a promising prototype, EV-1, that got rave reviews from hundreds who leased it. When the regulators backed off, GM not only cancelled the project; they rounded up every vehicle and sent them to the crusher. Now market conditions compel them to try to catch up with others.

Within commuting distance of the new battery plant are thousands of UAW workers who were laid off due to the restructuring plan imposed by the Obama administration on GM and Chrysler. None have been offered the new jobs under the UAW contract.

Union officials have been tight lipped but presumably will try to organize the plant. Benchich reminds us of the last time GM opened new nonunion plants, during their so-called Southern Strategy in the 1970s.

“Several organizing efforts failed at the Southern plants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was not until the UAW agreed to national contract concessions in early 1982 that GM agreed to card check in the South.”

Undoubtedly, even though there has been a big turnover in management, there are still some at the Ren Cen who have not forgotten that lesson either.

On Wednesday, the Detroit Free-Press reported,

“Negotiations over concessions at five General Motors parts plants so far have resulted in one tentative agreement at a Michigan factory. At least two other union locals have balked at GM's demands for wage cuts and health care concessions.

“The negotiations are taking place at four plants that GM acquired from Delphi last year. GM purchased the parts plants, which employ about 5,000 people, at the end of Delphi's bankruptcy case to ensure the factories would continue to supply parts for the automaker.

“Analysts expect GM to sell those parts plants, and union concessions could help. If new deals are reached, they would essentially break up a master agreement negotiated in 2007 among the UAW, Delphi and GM.”

Take-back demands vary from plant to plant but include: substantial wage cuts; reduced severance pay guarantees; higher premiums and co-pays for health insurance; and elimination of dental and vision plans.

Last Friday, the last vehicle rolled off the assembly line at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, California. NUMMI was a joint venture of General Motors and Toyota–until the Obama team ordered GM to pull out. Even though eighty percent of production in recent years were Toyota brand products the world’s number one automaker welcomed the opportunity to rid themselves of the only unionized plant they had to deal with in North America.

The severance package for 3800 workers negotiated with the UAW included a gag clause forbidding public criticism. On Friday, the NUMMI CEO shook hands with each terminated assembly worker as security guards marshaled them in to a single file for their final exit.

Ready To Prove It Again
The current contract between 12,000 Minnesota nurses and six Twin Cities hospital systems expires May 31. Hundreds of nurses rallied Saturday to send management a message: just as they successfully did in 1984, and again in 2001, the Minnesota Nurses Association is ready to strike if necessary.

It may well be. The two main issues are staffing levels and pensions–the hospital bosses want to cut both. The rally clearly indicated the nurses are not inclined to give-backs of their hard won past gains. Other union leaders, including state fed president Shar Knutson, were on hand to pledge solidarity.

The MNA is one of the founding components of the National Nurses Union.

Global Warming Can Ease International Tensions
For decades, India and Bangladesh made disputed claims on a tiny, uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal. India called it New Moore, Bangladesh South Talpatti. Oceanographer Sugata Hazra, a professor at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, confirmed last week that the island has disappeared in to the rising sea. “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming,” said Hazra.

Some might consider this a suitable item for Weird News. But it’s not so amusing for the 150 million living in the vulnerable delta region in Bangladesh. It’s estimated that about twenty million may be forced to flee submerging homes as soon as 2050 with most of the rest gone by the end of the century.

***

Last week we reported that BP is one of the corporate sponsors of the Green Jobs, Good Jobs conference taking place in Washington in May. This past week the Washington Post reported,

“BP will close its solar-panel manufacturing plant in Frederick [Maryland], the final step in moving its solar business out of the United States to facilities in China, India and other countries.”

Of course, this elimination of 320 good, green jobs shouldn’t be held against this jolly green oil giant.

“‘We remain absolutely committed to solar,’ BP chief executive Tony Hayward said in an interview Friday. But he said BP was ‘moving to where we can manufacture cheaply.’”

Side Letter Takes Boss Side
Even casual readers of our
Daily Labor News Digest have probably noticed the stories posted about a big community fight around Sutter Health’s controversial 550-bed CPMC mega-hospital planned for San Francisco. Along with the new structure their project would drastically downsize an existing facility in the mainly Latino, low income Mission district. Most community organizations, along with the California Nurses Association and National Union of Healthcare Workers, strongly oppose the move. It’s backed by the Building Trades Council–who never saw a construction project they didn’t like–and, you probably guessed already, SEIU.

According to an article in BeyondChron, Chairman Andy’s hand-picked UHW leaders have a side letter with Sutter which commits the union to “publicly and privately support the Medical Center’s building projects … including but not limited to meeting with San Francisco public officials to express support for the building projects and supporting the projects at city hearings.” The deal also enables SEIU to use members on company time to shill for the boss.

The reaction of Eileen Prendiville, a CNA rank and file member who works at a CPMC facility in San Francisco, to the side letter is quoted,

“[It] does not advance health care equity and is not in the best interest of patients...SEIU-UHW got nothing for its members in exchange for agreeing to support Sutter’s project.”

NUHW Vice President John Borsos said,

“there is no way NUHW would have made such a deal with Sutter. We always felt it important to work with the community regarding this project.”

Also appearing in the same edition of BC is an article by Carl Finamore, When a Union Acts Like a Big Corporation, updating SEIU’s 25 million dollar lawsuit against the leaders of NUHW. 

Mrs Olson Is Weeping
When I was a kid there were competing smells in downtown Kansas City. Most days the prevailing winds assured dominance of those coming from the stockyards and packinghouses in the West Bottoms. That fragrance–along with thousands of good paying union jobs–was pretty much gone by the 1960s.

The other, more pleasant aroma, was from the Proctor & Gamble Folgers coffee plant. In the 60s-70s, when Mrs Olson was on TV commercials explaining to newly weds that the secret of winning affection from their husbands was giving him plenty of Folgers, the plant was bustling with several hundred workers organized by the IAM.

But as percolators gave way to more sophisticated electric drip and steam coffeemakers new premium coffees became popular and Mrs Olson had to go to the retirement home along with Betty Crocker and Ann Page. The workforce at the KC plant steadily shrunk. In 2002 the majority of remaining workers were laid off and closure seemed imminent.

But our local government stepped up to the plate and provided P&G with millions in industrial revenue bonds and other perks that kept the plant open and even modestly boosted jobs. Two years ago, the Folgers plant marked its 100th anniversary. Company and City officials lavished praise upon one another in a gala celebration.

Not mentioned at that event was the fact that P&G was about to close a deal selling Folgers to JM Smucker. They’re not just jelly any more. They now have Pillsbury flour, Gif peanut butter, Crisco shortening, and numerous other familiar food and beverage brands. But last year their new Folgers acquisition contributed nearly half of corporate revenues.

Still Smucker thinks they can squeeze even more out of consolidating Folger operations. They announced last week that the work done in Kansas City will be shifted to New Orleans–where fresh government incentives are undoubtedly available. Some layoffs will begin right away in KC and the plant will be totally closed by mid-2012. Downtown won’t smell so good.

Private Prosecution
After five years of vainly waiting for justice, the United Steelworkers in Burnaby, British Columbia filed a private prosecution before a Justice of the Peace in the New Westminster Provincial Courthouse. They charge that Weyerhaeuser Company Ltd. was criminally negligent in the death of sawmill worker Lyle Hewer on November 17, 2004. The charge is based on an allegation that Hewer died as a result of injuries incurred at Weyerhaeuser’s New West Division sawmill, after following a supervisor’s request to work under conditions the employer knew were hazardous.

The police investigating the accident had made the same recommendation to Crown Counsel but the prosecutors declined to act. The union has retained a well known criminal attorney, Glen Orris, to pursue the charge.

Thanks to my friend Rod in Vancouver for passing this on.

Silver Butter Knife In the Back
Murray’s restaurant in downtown Minneapolis–home of the Silver Butter-Knife Steak–reminded me of a classy dining set out of a 1940s movie. But those who served in its pretentious ambience have been union for generations. Now the owners have declared a bargaining impasse and imposed a new contract, summarized by Steve Share in the Minneapolis Labor Review,

“.. management imposed cuts wages by 10 percent for all employees except servers, makes it impossible for employees to continue to afford health insurance, slashes paid vacations, and eliminates free meals and uniforms.”

He goes on to say the company, “has stabbed its employees in the back with one of those silver butter knives. And twisted it.”

I’ve already exceeded my weekly quota so I better say,

That’s all for this week.

 

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