May Day 2020: Working People Must Unite Across Borders

This year, we celebrate International Workers Day as the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the central importance of workers to our society. It is the labor of frontline workers — healthcare workers, grocery and food workers, sanitation workers and others — that is keeping people alive right now, not the wealth accumulated by capitalists.

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International Solidarity and Collaboration in Erie

In November, UE Local 506 hosted a tri-national labor solidarity gathering at their hall in Erie, PA. The event, entitled “Overcoming Fear: Creating a Trinational Workers Toolkit,” was organized by UE’s Director of International Strategies Kari Thompson, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and the Canadian Steelworkers. Participants gathered from across Mexico, Canada, and the US, including UE allies from the FAT and the CSN. Members of the Local 506 Executive Board participated in the two-day event, as did Young Activist Sarah Vukelich, Local 150. 

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Solidarity with Refinery Coop Workers Fighting for Democracy and Power for All Workers

UE’s officers sent the following letter of solidarity today to Unifor Local 594, whose members have been locked out for 64 days.

Kevin Bittman, President, Unifor Local 594

As the shameful lockout of Coop Refinery workers in Regina, Saskatchewan enters its tenth week, UE reaffirms our full solidarity with Unifor Local 594. The very right of workers to have an organized voice and a say in their workplaces is at stake in this dispute. We are encouraged by the solidarity shown to Local 594 by their national union and the rest of the Canadian labor movement, and we encourage all US unions to close ranks with our brothers and sisters in Canada to defeat this attack on our rights.

Federated Coop Limited (FCL), which owns and operates the Coop Refinery, has avoided their obligations to bargain with Local 594 by enlisting the police force and the government to break the union. Nineteen workers have been arrested over the last three weeks, including members of Unifor’s leadership team and the locked-out local union, many for simply picketing on the sidewalks they were forced onto by their employer.

The purpose of government involvement in labor disputes should be to maintain balance in the process of bargaining, and to provide for peaceful resolution of disputes.

FCL built scab camps inside the perimeter well ahead of bargaining and has been helicoptering scabs in. Recently, they cynically took advantage of a good-faith attempt by the union to get back to the negotiating table. When Unifor suspended their blockade and made a generous offer to resolve the dispute, FCL merely demanded further takeaways at the table while moving scabs and oil trucks in and out the facility. These are not the actions of a company interested in reaching a fair negotiated agreement with its workers.

This is what happens when employers feel like they have free reign to prolong labor disputes by employing scabs and using heavy-handed legal and police tactics against the union. We join Unifor in calling for the government to appoint a mediator with power to assign binding arbitration if parties fail to come to an agreement. We also urge provincial, state and federal governments in both of our countries to pass anti-scab legislation to prevent these kinds of disputes in the future and restore workers’ rights to engage in meaningful collective bargaining with their employers.

This struggle is not simply about refinery workers in Regina, it is about democracy and power for all workers. Solidarity forever!

In solidarity,

Carl Rosen
General President

Andrew Dinkelaker

Gene Elk
Director of Organization

US Labor Against the War union delegation to Colombia, fall of 2019

Colombian Workers Fight Anti-Worker Economic Policies, Despite Repression

From November 24th to December 4th, 2019, United States Labor Against the War (USLAW) and the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) led a joint labor delegation to Colombia. The delegation was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended more than five decades of war between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Participants included union members and staff from UE, National Nurses United, UNITE HERE, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the United Steelworkers, and the National Writers Union. The delegation also included a member of About Face: Veterans Against the War and Latin America solidarity activists. Continue reading

Photo of a Bolivian flag and numerous Pachamama flags.

UE Condemns Coup in Bolivia

(Pittsburgh)— UE’s officers released the following statement on November 14

UE unequivocally condemns the removal of Bolivia’s elected president Evo Morales by the military on Sunday, and the violence carried out by the military and right-wing paramilitary forces against Indigenous people and political activists in that country. This coup is just the latest example of an attack on a progressive Latin American government by “big business forces supported by U.S. administrations”, as denounced by UE policy, attacks which have as their goal the fattening of corporate profits at the expense of the region’s workers and environment.

The global union federation IndustriALL, of which UE is a member, notes that “[s]ince the presidential elections in October, Bolivia’s opposition forces have committed numerous acts of violence: they have looted and set fire to homes, humiliated democratically elected government officials, kidnapped and threatened those individuals’ families, set the house of the president’s sister alight and stormed Evo Morales’ own home.”

We agree with International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow that “No elected president should be forced out of office under military orders. That is not how democracy works. The fact that Morales has had to flee the country for fear of his life, cutting short his current term, highlights the undemocratic nature of what is happening in the country.”

Morales, who took office in 2006, has vastly improved living standards for working people in the poorest country in South America. The percentage of Bolivians living in poverty fell from 59.9 percent in 2006 to 34.6 percent in 2017, and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty was more than halved. According to a Washington Post article published shortly before the elections, “it’s indisputable that Bolivians are healthier, wealthier, better educated, living longer and more equal than at any time in this South American nation’s history.” Morales’ presidency has also been a point of pride for Indigenous Bolivians, who have long faced discrimination and racism.

Morales’s willingness to curb corporate power in order to improve the welfare of Bolivian citizens and reduce inequality has given international corporations plenty of incentive to support his removal. Most notably, Bolivia’s natural resources include over 40 percent of the world’s known reserves of lithium, and Morales recently cancelled a lithium-development agreement with a German corporation, with the apparent intent of renegotiating it to better benefit the local population or nationalizing the lithium industry entirely.

Morales clearly secured more votes than any other candidate in the October 20 elections; at issue was whether his margin of victory was at least ten percent, enough to avoid a runoff election. The latest returns — from more rural and poorer areas which were more supportive of Morales — pushed him over that margin, according to the official vote count. President Trump and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, both of them strident critics of Morales, seized on the differences between early and complete returns to declare the election results illegitimate. This was followed by a similar statement from the Organization of American States, which has a history of bending to U.S. pressure when assessing the legitimacy of elections whose outcomes the U.S. government does not like.

Despite these allegations, an exhaustive study of the results by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found “no evidence that irregularities or fraud affected the official result that gave President Evo Morales a first-round victory,” and the OAS produced no evidence to support its allegations. We agree with CEPR’s Mark Weisbrot that it was irresponsible of Trump, Rubio and the OAS to issue these statements in the context of post-election violence in Bolivia.

Many in Bolivia, including some Bolivian unions, have real concerns about the Morales government. Morales’s November 11 offer to hold new elections offered a democratic path out of the crisis. His removal from office later that day by the military, the escalating violence against his supporters, and the recent assumption of the presidency by an openly racist anti-Morales senator — with two-thirds of her fellow senators absent because they feared for their safety — will only harm the working people of Bolivia.

Carl Rosen
General President

Andrew Dinkelaker

Gene Elk
Director of Organization

FAT Hosts Forum on Historic Mexican Labor Law Reform

Photo: UE General President Peter Knowlton (far right) and retired UE International Affairs Director Robin Alexander (fourth from right) with members of the FAT’s Metlife union

Mexico City— On July 5 and 6 the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent, democratic Mexican union and one of UE’s closest international allies, hosted a forum in Mexico City entitled “Federal Labor Law Reforms: Perspectives and Challenges.” The labor law reforms enacted on May 1, 2019 by at the behest of the new, pro-worker government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador were described by a variety of speakers as “historic,” and “huge.” Manuel García Urrutia, a former leader of the FAT who now holds a prominent position within the Secretariat of Labor, commented that “many of our dreams have been captured in this law.”
The forum was divided into four panels, with the FAT’s four-member national leadership moderating. The audience was largely composed of representatives from FAT-affiliated unions from throughout the country, representatives of other independent unions, as well as workers interested in organizing democratic unions in their workplaces.

On the first afternoon three groups of workers provided moving accounts of their struggles to build rank-and-file, democratic unions in a country where most “official” unions are undemocratic and do not serve the interests of the workers. Three young workers from the FAT-affiliated union at MetLife described the history of their union’s struggle to become independent. After pro-democratic workers obtained leadership positions within the existing official union, 326 of the 327 workers voted to become independent. The leaders were fired after the official union demanded the employer discharge the entire executive committee. Their original employer, a government entity, was privatized but the ultimate victory was successfully preserving their union. They noted the important role played by the UE in obtaining financial information about MetLife, that was unavailable in Mexico.

Union officers at the Tornel tire factory gave a compelling account of how they organized in 2008 after winning the officer elections of the official union. The official union forced a union vote and the independent union won by a large margin despite huge obstacles. Leading up to the vote the company changed people’s jobs, moved workers between the three plants, and used company goons to intimidate workers to vote against the independent union. Workers were required to publicly state before representatives of the company and the official union how they were voting.The official union was able to force them to go through two more elections, each of which they won by a greater margin — the third election by a vote of 1013 to 3.

The company threatened to close the plant, fired workers, and corrupted their general secretary, but the next time there were union elections, rank-and-file workers successfully challenged the corrupted leadership with a new slate of officers. One of those officers, Roberto Gutierrez Cortes, reported that in the negotiations last February they “recovered some things and little by little we will win back more.”

The third example was DMI, a sister shop to former UE Local 715 in Ohio. The workers spoke about how bad the working conditions had been and how the official union representative was only there to help the company, “to collect dues money and do nothing when someone was fired.”

During their organizing campaign workers were threatened and fired. Eventually, an election was ordered, but the workers were not told about it. Thirty workers were notified they would be going to a training but when the workers took the bus it went to the labor board for the vote. One of the supporters of the FAT had been one of these workers and had previously passed the word to the FAT about what was really happening. The FAT arranged for workers to travel by metro and remain hidden in the metro station until the hearing began so that they could show up at the appropriate time and be allowed to vote. The workers won the election 54 to 10, but they were forced to go through more legal proceedings and a second election before they were finally recognized by the company. They reported they now have a six person leadership, have won significant wage increases and make the company respect the contract. One of the leaders reflected “it wasn’t easy and we needed to do it in secret but when there is unity anything is possible.”

Creating a New Labor Culture

On the second day of the forum, prominent democratic and independent labor attorneys and social scientists discussed the history, content, and accomplishments contained in the new law. It included a section on international solidarity and provided an opportunity to discuss some of the challenges being made to the law by official unions, and to outline a plan of action.

Arturo Alcalde Justiniani started off the day by describing the decades of effort that resulted in the reforms. Those who spoke about the need for secret ballot elections, transparency, or a trusted arbiter to replace the tripartite labor boards that were institutionally stacked against workers, were once considered crazy, he said. In Mexico unions must obtain registrations to represent specific types of workers, and he mentioned an early meeting where all twenty unions present had been forced to appeal to the courts to get their registrations. In a country where 92% of collective bargaining agreements are “protection contracts” that lock in federal minimum wages and working conditions and prevent independent workers from having representational rights, the challenge was to create requirements that would give workers a real choice.

“Today, most workers don’t know their union, don’t have their contract, haven’t seen their representative, don’t have meetings and don’t know what happens to their dues,” said sociologist Saúl Escobar Toledo, “so the challenge is to create a new labor culture.“ According to Escobar Toledo the new labor law was the result of years of struggle by Mexican workers, international pressure, national discontent, and the realignment of forces that resulted in the MORENA victory in the 2018 elections.
Some parts of the new labor law became effective immediately and other sections will be phased in over time. As material developed by the FAT explains:

[The new law] gathers the historic demands of independent and democratic trade unionism, including the elimination of the Conciliation Boards and the transfer of labor justice to Tribunals within the judicial branch. It incorporates measures through which workers really decide to which union they wish to belong, who will be their leaders and the contents of their collective bargaining agreements. It seeks to guarantee the rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

It is too soon to know how the law will work in practice, but the threat that it poses to the corrupt system of protection contracts can be seen by the 400 legal challenges filed by the official unions. There are also some issues that the reforms to the law don’t yet reach: although some provisions cover public sector workers, many do not. Subcontracting remains a serious problem, and 57% of Mexican workers are in the “informal sector,” working for cash-only transactions and paying no taxes.

An Historic Moment

FAT leader Benedicto Martínez facilitated the final section, posing three questions to local leaders and activists: How do we make sure that workers know about the law? How do we organize to increase the size of our labor movement? In this historic moment, what do we do? There was wide agreement on the need to build a more aggressive educational campaign in all of the areas where the FAT operates. This campaign will include massive distribution of fliers to workers, organization of forums similar to the one in Mexico City, and press conferences to publicize the new law and provide a strong voice condemning the legal appeals by the official unions.

UE General President Peter Knowlton, who spoke during the international panel, stated that “If the labor reforms in Mexico enforce workers’ rights and open up organizing for independent unions that will be huge not just for Mexican workers, their families, and communities, but for all workers everywhere… It is important for us as workers in North America to continue to develop points of common struggle and joint work… We cannot wait. We must act in working class solidarity with and for each other.”

Robin Alexander was UE’s International Affairs Director from 1993 until her retirement in 2014.