Heat and Frost Insulators News and Events

State Battles Roundup

Kenneth Quinnell

In many states, legislative sessions have ended recently or are about to end and local governments are often active year-round. This means tons of legislation, both good and bad, is moving, providing opportunities for working families and their allies to pass laws that will help make people's lives easier or stop laws that will make things worse. Here is a look at some of the key state battles that recently have passed or could be on the agenda this week or next.

Indiana: Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed a series of anti-worker bills, including a repeal of the prevailing wage for construction and the prohibition of local governments from establishing their own local prevailing wage laws, a law that both weakens wage theft rules and allows companies to charge employees up to 5% of their salary for required uniforms and equipment, the undermining of teachers' voices on the job, and others.

Massachusetts: The Boston City Council unanimously passed a new ordinance providing for up to six weeks of paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child for certain city employees.

Read More

Panamanian Dock Workers Join the American Union ILWU

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA (4/2/15) — You see a lot of parked taxis in the parking lot at the Panama Ports terminal here. They’re not waiting to give rides to longshoremen. Dockworkers themselves are the drivers. Longshore wages in Panama are so low that after a shift driving a crane, a longshoreman has to put in another shift driving a taxi, just to survive.

At Panama Ports, however, this situation has begun to change. A few weeks ago the union signed a new contract with raises totaling more than 27% over the next four years. One factor that made this agreement possible was support from a U.S. union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. That agreement will have a big impact on the lives of longshoremen and their families.

In Panama they call longshore pay “hunger wages.” Workers’ families live below the government’s own poverty line, and some families literally go hungry.

“That’s one reason why the company had to constantly hire new workers,” recalls Ramiro Cortez, a leader of the Panamanian union SINTRAPORSPA. “Most people who got jobs here were just working while they were actually looking for better jobs somewhere else. Many accidents in the port could have been avoided if the workers weren’t so exhausted. They go in at 7AM, and leave at 8PM, and then go and drive or do some other job.”

The port does have a high accident rate, and two workers were killed a month apart at the end of last year. In one accident, a crane lifting a container hit a six-high stack of other containers that were being stored on the dock, right next to the ship. As they fell, one hit a 22-year-old man who’d been working less than a month.

Cortez was called by the workers. On arrival he saw the crane operator in shock and weeping. He stopped managers from interrogating him until he got counseling, and then told the company that all the workers in the terminal had been traumatized and should be sent home. If they weren’t, he warned, the union itself would shut down the terminal. In the end, management sent the shift home with pay for the day.

When Cortez announced the agreement to the workers, “I could have been elected president of Panama that day,” he says. “It had never happened before.”

The new union contract established five committees, the most important of which is safety. “The challenge is now to implement this agreement and ensure the company abides by it,” emphasizes SINTRAPORSPA president Alberto Ochoa. “Before the company did what it pleased, and changed the hours, overtime, days off, and wages – whenever it wanted. Now they know we’re not on our own, by ourselves. Companies don’t want real unions because we open the eyes of the workers.”

Panama Ports is a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Port Holdings Limited (HPH). Workers at the terminal were trapped in a “yellow” or company union there for many years. Ochoa and other independent-minded longshoremen had a long history of trying to change this, and finally organized a new union – SINTRAPORSPA. They collected over 2000 signatures on a petition for recognition, and asked for a government-administered election to certify it as workers’ bargaining representative.

In balloting last year, however, the Ministry of Labor claimed that 1500 workers had voted against SINTRAPORSPA. Workers out on the docks found this unbelievable, since they knew how many votes they had lined up. They also knew, however, that the President of Panama himself, Juan Carlos Varela, is a partner in the law firm used by Panama Ports, one that specializes in helping company management fight unions. The dockworkers challenged the transparency of the election.

“It was obvious that we had the support of the great majority of the workers, including those who belonged to the company union,” recalls Cortez. “Nevertheless, when we went to the ministry to protest, they did everything they could to stop us.”

Ochoa and Cortez appealed to the ILWU, whose headquarters is in San Francisco. ILWU International Vice-President Ray Familathe and Greg Mitre, president of the ILWU retirees in Southern California, flew to Panama City and met with the Minister of Labor, Luis Ernesto Carles Rudy. They brought with them a letter signed by six U.S. Congress members, asking for a rerun. The government reluctantly agreed, and in a fair vote SINTRAPORSPA won overwhelmingly.

“The support from the ILWU was very effective,” Cortez says. “The Panamanian authorities were never concerned before about how they conducted themselves with us. Powerful companies, with the money at their disposal, got whatever that money could buy.”

The impact of that support was also felt in the subsequent contract negotiations, which only took a month to arrive at agreement. In one meeting the company executive president even told union negotiators that he was “very concerned” at the union’s growing relationship with the ILWU.

These experiences led the Panamanian dock union to become the newest member of the ILWU’s Panama Division. The division was established in 2012, when several hundred members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union decided to join the ILWU. The division has now grown to include 2580 Panama Ports longshore workers. According to Capt. Rainiero Salas, the Panama Canal Pilots’ Union secretary general, “The Panama Division is growing as workers see what we can gain by working together. It’s not going to stop here.” Adds Ochoa, “Unions in the ports and the Canal should get together so that we can speak with one voice, and get better benefits and respect for all workers.”

Panama division leaders are also meeting with the union for dockers in Colon on the Atlantic side of the isthmus, the Union of Workers at the Manzanillo International Terminal. Like the workers at Panama Ports, the dockers in Colon also rebelled against a former union leadership they viewed as too close to the company. At MIT they elected a new slate of officers a few months ago.

The MIT terminal is operated by SSA Marine, a global company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. According to workers in Colon, container crane operators work 8-hour days, for six days straight. For that, their pay starts at $854 a month, or about $4.27 per hour. Base pay for an experienced longshore worker in SSA Marine’s home port of Seattle is $35.68 per hour.

The low wages on Panama’s docks have a lot to do with the difficulty workers face in forming militant unions and negotiating contracts. But poverty is also a product of trade and economic policies pushed by U.S. corporations and the government trade negotiators who represent their interests.

The U.S. signed a free trade agreement with Panama in 2009. In 2007 Panama’s National Agrarian Organization, the country’s largest organization of farmers, wrote to the U.S. Congress, asking it to stop the negotiations. In Panama, it said, the agreement “was ratified by … a small sector of Panamanian elites.” It predicted a huge displacement of farmers no longer able to compete with U.S. agricultural exports. They would then become either migrants leaving the country, or unemployed people desperate for work in the country’s cities.

In Colon, displaced farmers have become workers in the Free Trade Zone, a stone’s throw from the harbor and MIT terminal. The zone is one of the world’s oldest, set up in 1946 when the Canal Zone was a defacto U.S. colony. Today over 300 mostly-foreign companies run factories that pay no municipal or local taxes, no national taxes on investment, and no duties on products they export. Workers earn $10-15 a day – even less than longshoremen.

“In this country,” says Ramiro Cortez, “there is no middle class. There is just the upper class and the lower class.” While wages are low, Panama is second only to Hong Kong as a home for multinational firms’ subsidiaries – many created with the sole purpose of evading taxes.

The U.S. gave up the Canal in 1977, in an agreement negotiated between President Jimmy Carter and one of Panama’s most progressive presidents, General Omar Torrijos. Nevertheless, U.S. influence in Panamanian politics is still strong. The U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to “arrest” then-President Manuel Noriega for drug dealing. Hundreds of residents of Panama City’s poorest barrio, El Chorillo, died after it was bombarded by naval vessels. The seafront neighborhood was then assaulted by troops.

Resentment against the U.S. still reverberates. Eighteen years after El Chorillo burned, a U.S.-led naval exercise used the Canal to practice repelling a hypothetical terrorist attack. Three Panamanian sailors drowned, and vocal protests followed.

The ILWU in Panama does not directly challenge the reverberations of that old colonial relationship. But it does represent the interests of workers by advocating progressive policies on wages, trade and labor rights, while effectively defending workers on the job.

Over the past year pilots have fought, with the division’s support, to ensure that the huge ships that pass through the canal every day are operated safely. The Canal Authority has launched a huge expansion project, building new locks capable of handling giant post-Panamax container ships carrying up to 13,000 containers. The union has criticized the government for not working closely with pilots to design work rules and procedures for safely handling these larger ships in the new locks. It is especially concerned over a new unilateral government directive that, for the first time, seeks to have ships pass each other in the narrow Culebra Cut. Previously ships traveling in opposite directions have waited, so that only one ship at a time traverses the cut.

The government says the cut has been widened, but pilots says there is no room for error, and the consequences of ships hitting each other would be disastrous. Last October Capt. Salas criticized the government publicly. “It seems very odd that the most experienced people moving ships through this highly important system have been completely ignored by its governing authority,” he charged. “Pilots’ most critical mission is ship safety, yet we’ve not been consulted.”

Panamanian port and maritime unions are also concerned at the government’s efforts to decertify the union for the canal’s tugboat captains. The same legal technicalities used against the captains, they fear, could be used to attack the representation rights of other unions. That would undermine dock unions just as they are starting to change the basic living standards of workers.

“Our main objective as a union is to make a difference in the economic status of those who have earned the least – the longshoremen,” Ochoa declares. “I’m not saying this new contract will give us a wage that can pay for everything, but it’s a lot better than what we had before. As a union we will keep struggling to win better conditions, especially economic ones.”

David Bacon is a photographer, writer and former union activist, whose work is frequently reposted in TalkingUnion and other pro-worker publications.



Read More

Politicians Try to Union-Bust Their Way to the White House


Read More

NYC building trades target big money lenders in fight against non-union construction on ‘Billionaires’ Row’


Read More

Canada’s Union Advantage

"The Canadian Labour Congress is releasing this study to show just how much better the union advantage truly is – both nationally and in 50 communities across the country. This study shows that on average, unionized workers across Canada earn $5.17/hour more than non-union workers, that women with unions earn more ($6.89/hour) and get paid more fairly, and that young workers (aged 14 to 24) earn more when they work under the protection of a collective agreement.”

"But this advantage doesn’t just belong to union members. It benefits everyone.

"Workers in unions are an important part of the local community and economy because that’s where they spend their paycheques. Their incomes support local businesses (who create local jobs) and bolster the local tax base, which supports public works and community services that add to everyone’s quality of life."

"The benefits enjoyed by unionized workers (dental insurance, extended health care coverage and legal insurance, to name a few) attract and support dentists, opticians, chiropractors, therapists, health specialists, and family lawyers whose services are available to everyone in the community."

"When unions stand up for fairness, they raise the bar for everyone. Many of the things first won by unions are enjoyed by all workers today – minimum wages, overtime pay, workplace safety standards, maternity and parental leave, vacation pay, and protection from discrimination and harassment."

Read More

A Tale of Two States

It's a tale of two states.

They sit side by side, each taking in the views of Lake Superior. Their economies both grew from foundations in manufacturing, farming and mining, and they each boast a strong history of organized labor. And in 2010, still reeling from the recession, they elected new governors.

Those two governors took these two states -- Minnesota and Wisconsin -- down two very different paths. Today, Minnesota's unemployment rate is 3.6 percent -- far below the nationwide rate of 5.7 percent - while Wisconsin's job growth has been among the worst in the region and its income growth has been among the worst in the nation.

Since his election, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton turned his state's budget deficit into a projected surplus of nearly $2 billion. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has swollen his state's budget deficit to a projected $2 billion. Meanwhile, Dayton has boosted the minimum wage, invested in public education and supported workers' rights. (And Minnesota has the most union members of any state in the Midwest.)

Trickle-down economics doesn't work and frankly, it never has. If we want to restore a healthy middle class, we need a different approach.

And Walker? He has slashed funding to public schools, and is dismantling the state's public university system. On March 9, he signed a bill that makes Wisconsin the 25th so-called right to work state, which, research shows, contrary to the hype, drives down wages and destroys good jobs. Why? All in an effort to eviscerate Wisconsin's labor unions.

There's a moral to this story. As my high school students taught me, "You've got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk." If you want a strong middle class, then you can't take out the unions that built it. If you want good jobs with higher wages, then workers need a voice.

Trickle-down economics doesn't work, and frankly, it never has. If we want to restore a healthy middle class, we need a different approach, a virtuous cycle that begins with a high-quality public education that gives students the skills they need to get good jobs with fair wages, helping each generation climb the ladder of opportunity. Another crucial step is to enable more workers to form and join unions.

As Hillary Clinton recently noted, "The American middle class was built, in part, by the right for people to organize and bargain." She's right. When unions were at their peak, more workers -- upwards of 50 percent -- were in the middle class. Conversely, a decline in union membership - spurred on by trickle-down economics, ideological attacks and globalization -- is directly linked to the rise in income inequality.

At a time when only the wealthiest 10 percent have reaped the benefits of any gains in productivity, workers once again need a voice on the job. Collective bargaining can lift all boats, even those boats that aren't carrying a union card.

Look at wages. In the heyday of the American labor movement, non-managerial workers' wages went up 75 percent. As unions have been on the decline, these workers have only seen a four percent bump. Still, even today, union workers earn 28 percent more than nonunion workers. When two-thirds of our economic activity is driven by consumer spending, it's critical that working families have more money in their pockets to spend. Broadly shared prosperity will remain elusive as long as workers' buying power is limited.

And then there is retirement security. Eighty-six percent of Americans believe our nation faces a retirement security crisis. Unions bargain a secure retirement on behalf of workers, often in the form of pensions. Pensions both ensure that workers can retire with financial dignity and are important investors in our economy. For every dollar paid in pension benefits, there's $2.37 in economic output. Plus, long-term capital funds create hundreds of thousands of jobs in asset classes like infrastructure, venture capital and real estate.

Collective bargaining has a multiplier effect. So do laws meant to take collective bargaining away.

Workers in so-called right-to-work states make about $1,500 less per year. When wages are lower, workers leave the state, depressing job creation, and there's a sizable economic loss to the state. Marquette University economist Abdur Chowdhury estimates the impact of right-to-work on Wisconsin will be "a net loss of direct and indirect income of at least $5.8 billion annually."

Governors and state policymakers have a clear choice. They can push ideological policies to break the backs of unions and further disempower workers, have their deficit grow, workers' wages sink and their state ranked at the bottom for business and economic climate, as Walker's Wisconsin is. Or they can -- like Minnesota, which is ranked in the top ten in the nation for its business and economic climate -- strengthen unions and workers' rights, invest in public education and infrastructure, and create more good jobs.

It's a clear choice, and if we care about working families accessing the American dream -- it's not a hard one.

Read More

Pro-Worker Legislators Aim to Out-Organize ALEC


by Olivia Sandbothe  |  March 18, 2015

Read More

Boeing's largest union seeks vote to organize South Carolina workers

Read More

Building Trades Pres: Businesses in “Right-to-Work” Wisconsin “May Not Be Able to Find Any Skilled Workers”


Read More

Regulator OKs Bear Head LNG construction

The provincial Utility and Review Board has approved for construction a Cape Breton liquefied natural gas exportation project.
Read More
All data and information provided on this site is for informational purposes only. International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, currentness, suitability or validity of any information on this blog, any responses or comments posted on this blog or any information found on any link on this site. International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied workers will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its display or use. International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers reserves the right, without notice, to edit, delete or refrain from posting any blog responses or comments or portions thereof that International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers deems to be offensive, derogatory, abusive or threatening in any way. This policy disclaimer is subject to change at any time.