Weekly news update, 13 September, 2012

Marikana Massacre

On August 16, 34 South African platinum miners were gunned down and killed by a special police unit. The miners were employed by platinum mining giant, Lonmin, in the Marikana region of the South Africa. In response to the massacre, Lonmin chairman, Roger Phillimore said in a statement, “We are treating the developments around the police operations … with the utmost seriousness”. Phillimore went on to say that, “It goes without saying that we deeply regret the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order rather than labour relations associated matter”.

It is clear from evidence that the tragic incident was certainly a response to the ongoing strike of platinum miners in South Africa, which is a labour relations matter.

While shares in Lonmin fell by 8% shortly after the incident, and more than 12% since strike action began, the value of platinum increased by over 4% since the labour action began. South African mines produce 40% of the world’s platinum, and the price of this valuable commodity has risen steadily over the past 5 years. The mining companies insist that they cannot afford the wage increases demanded by the workers.

The 3000 Marikana miners, represented by the National Union of Miners, began their strike to push for increase of wages from 4000 Rand to 12,5000 Rand per month – or $1400 up from just $400 a month. The underground workers are predominantly from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, an area most ravaged by the apartheid migrant labour system. The strike is now in its fourth week.

Undeterred by state repression and the business-friendly stance of the National Union of Miners and its ties with the governing ANC, tens of thousands of miners from across the country have gone on strike. On Monday, August 10, 15,000 gold miners employed by Gold Fields International went on a wildcat strike. At a second platinum mine, Implats, over 15,000 workers are demanding a 10 percent pay rise although they are continuing to work.

Adding to the trouble is tension between the NUM and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which was formed in 1999 as a response to the supposed cooptation of NUM by business interests in the country. The AMCU has started to draw members away from the NUM, which its leaders say is a “yellow union”. Considering the economic importance of mining in South Africa, and the political nature of trade unionism in the country, it’s possible that the strike could erupt into a larger political movement.




The CAW and the Big Three

Negotiations between the CAW and the Big Three auto manufacturers are on the verge of breaking down. One week before the CAW’s strike deadline, the union says that the companies are demanding “dramatic changes” from its members. Some of these concessions include establishing a two-tiered workforce not unlike the UAW agreement in the United States, placing new hires into a defined contribution pension plan, and eliminating its cost of living increases.

The union has said that it is prepared to strike at all three automakers if a deal is not reached by 11:59 PM on September 17.

At stake here is the long term sustainability of Canada’s auto sector as the corporations are “refusing to commit to any new investment”, according to the CAW. As the three companies attempt to align production costs and wages with their plants in the United States and Mexico, CAW and its members are in a precarious situation, despite the clear strike mandate. Even though the auto manufacturers remain profitable, and productivity is 5 to 10 percent higher in Canada compared to the United States, rounds of UAW concessions and falling wages in the U.S. puts a great deal of pressure on the CAW.




CAW delegates vote in favour of New Union Proposal

Delegates at the CAW’s First Constitutional and Collective Bargaining Convention, which took place between August 21 and 24th, voted unanimously in favour of moving forward with creating a new union with the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union.

This is the first of two votes required before establishing the new union. The CEP will be voting on the new union proposal during its convention in October in Quebec City.

The new union proposal is a result of several years of dialogue between the two unions with the aim of reversing union density decline, renewing social unionism, and organizing the unorganized.





Economic conditions in Canada

Canada’s unemployment rate has been steady throughout most of the summer, at 7.3%. In August, employment rose by 34,000, the result of an increase in part-time work. However, the number of Employment Insurance claims rose 3 percent in June to 231,000. On a year over year basis, earnings increased by 3% for the month of June. The most significant wage gains were experienced in the largely unionized sectors, namely manufacturing, education services, and construction.






U.S. annual income fell more during recovery than recession

Conditions for workers in the United States, on the other hand, continue to deteriorate. Average annual income for Americans actually fell during the so-called recovery, more than they did during the recessionary period that began in 2007. Median annual income has declined 4.8 percent from about $53,000 to $50,000 since the recovery officially began in 2009. That’s nearly double the drop of 2.6 percent during the recession.

Americans aged 55 to 64 as well as African Americans have been hardest hit, experiencing a drop in annual income of 10 and 11 percent respectively.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the drop in real wages has been happening at the same time that American corporations experience record profits.



Unemployment in Europe

Across Europe workers are feeling the pain of public sector austerity. In June, an estimated 25 million men and women were unemployed in the EU, according to figures released by Eurostat. This represents the highest figures since the Eurozone was formed in 1999.

In April, a 77-year-old Greek man committed suicide in a crowded square, reportedly due to economic hardship. Stories of “economic suicides” are becoming more and more common in the European media.




First informal economy symposium in Barcelona, October 12, 2012

With rising unemployment and poverty stretching across Europe, the economic landscape of developed economies is rapidly changing. Rather than improving, many countries are experiencing a growth of their informal economies. At the international level the informal economy has an estimated value of $10 trillion. Europe’s informal economy is said to account for 20% of the region’s GDP.

On October 12, Barcelona, Spain will host the first Informal Economy Symposium. The event draws inspiration from street-level ingenuity, alternative currencies, peer-to-peer networks, copy-cat innovation, and practices like crowdsourcing. The objective of the symposium is to establish networks between countries and informal economy workers.

Information about the Symposium can be found at theinformaleconomy.com




Restaurant workers occupation and picket line

In a remarkable show of solidarity and ingenuity, restaurant workers in New York City confronted a union-busting boss, and won. 23 workers at the Upper East Side Hot and Crusty, which is a string of 24 hour cafes in the city, had been engaged in a union organizing campaign for nearly a year. During this time pro-union workers and organizers had been fired from the restaurant. Many of the workers are undocumented.

Workers were uniting to end verbal and sexual harassment by managers, and to increase their wages to above minimum wage. The organizers drew inspiration from Occupy Wall Street meetings and eventually reached out to unions for support. Eventually the workers formed an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, this spring. They won thousands of dollars in back pay and safer workplace condition.

Mark Samson, a private equity investor and owner of Hot and Crusty, decided to close the restaurant and fire all the workers. The lawyer employed by the Hot and Crusty Workers Association responded that the move was illegal because it was intended to discourage organizing at other restaurants in the chain. The workers also took action by occupying the restaurant and held workers’ assemblies inside the store until police arrived and arrested six people who refused to leave.

Three days later, the workers opened their own restaurant, the Worker Justice Cafe, on the sidewalk outside the closed cafe. The company’s attempt to appease the union by recognizing existing union workers but not extending the recognition to future employers, was met with failure. Eventually Hot and Crusty ceded to the association’s demands and committed to reopening the store and reinstating the fired workers. It also agreed to recognize the Hot and Crusty Workers Association for present and future employees.

The workers will remain on the picket line until the store reopens.



Burger King organizing in New Zealand

Unite Union in New Zealand is intensifying its organizing efforts throughout the country’s chain of Burger King restaurants. The company has applied to the Employment Relations Authority seeking an injunction to stop Unite from organizing teach-ins at its stores about how the company is treating its workers. Burger King is also trying to shut down the union’s blog, which reports on the company and its activities. The fast-food company has even accused the union of breaching its obligations of good faith by publicly criticizing Burger King. Employees who participate in the teach-ins have been told my the company that they may face “serious consequences”.

Most of Burger King’s employees make minimum wage, even for those who have worked there for 15 years. Managers are often forced to work extra hours and sometimes work for less than minimum wage.



Unite Union and Burger King unionization

NHL facing lockout

The NHL is facing a lockout as the September 15 deadline draws near. At 11:59 PM, the collective bargaining agreement between the League and the NHLPA will expire.

Since the 2005, when the current agreement was signed, NHL annual revenues have increased from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. Still, the League is demanded that the players’ share of revenue decrease to 43% of revenues from the current 57%. The NHL has also proposed that team salaries be capped at $50 million down from $70 million; the NHLPA has countered with a $69 million cap. Also at stake here is individual players salary caps, currently $8 million above the midpoint — the League seeks to reduce this figure to $4 million.

In 2004, the entire NHL season was cancelled due to a lockout by the League, the longest lockout in professional sports history.



Rogers contract workers

Rogers, like other telecommunications companies in Canada, are notorious for locking customers into expensive multi-year contracts. In the past 5 years the company has made more than $10 billion in profits. At the same time, Rogers has contracted out thousands of technician jobs in a bid to drive down wages and benefits. 300 technicians in Ontario who install Rogers services have been on strike for two months while trying to secure a first collective agreements. These workers are represented by the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (CEP). Technically these workers are employed by DHT and INTEK. Rogers spokesperson, Patricia Trott, commented in the Financial Post, “All these techs work for third-party contractors; we have nothing to do with the negotiations.”

The CEP has asked the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to define Rogers as the common employer of about 2,000 technicians working for contractors in Ontario.

Conditions of employment for these subcontracted workers are substandard for a highly profitable and skill intensive industry. Technicians are paid on a piecework basis, possess limited seniority rights, receive no overtime, and are not guaranteed work. In some cases the workers earn less than minimum wage.

At the bargaining table the CEP is seeking a contract that includes a daily minimum wage of between $110 and $130. This amounts to $11 to $13 an hour for a standard 10 hour shift. Part of the CEP campaign involves pressuring the government to establish a national wireless code to protect consumer interests.



Pension funds in Canada

According to Statistics Canada, the market value of employer-sponsored pension funds exceeded $1 trillion in the first quarter of 2012, up over 4% from the previous quarter. This is the largest gain since the end of 2012.

Pension fund investments in stocks rose 9.0% to $369.1 billion. Overall, pension fund revenues increased nearly 27% to $37 billion.

Just over six million Canadian workers are members of employer pension plans. Of this group, five million workers are members of trusteed plans. The remaining one million members with employer pensions are in plans managed principally by insurance company contracts. This data refers only to trusteed plans and their pension funds.



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