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Grace Ross: Corporate Execs Still Asking for Give Backs from Employees

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


Grace Ross, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™

People keep asking me if it’s hopeless. Can we really change this economic mess?

It’s no secret that the very wealthiest are now back to making lots of money while the rest of us are at best holding even.  

Historically the biggest changes have usually come when people work together to get whatever they needed; the creation of public schools, the end of child labor or the right to vote.

Looking at the staggering biggest companies – the largest players in our economy at this point, folks like Verizon, they’re not even paying any taxes. There are ads comparing taxes wealthy people pay which are so much less than us, average people, pay. Still, it’s nothing compared to the huge corporations that pay nothing or, like BP, create an ecological disaster in the gulf and then figure out how to get paid for the loss in business out of our tax dollars by the federal government.

Let’s take Verizon, making profits in a range back in the billions last year. Their board increased their CEO, already one of the top paid U.S. CEOs, to $23.1 million, and Verizon actually got a federal tax refund of $705 million in 2011.

Over a year of ago many of us did support actions for the 45,000 east coast Verizon workers whose contracts were up. Normally, when a contract is up the employer and the employees sit down; they negotiate over the things we hear in the headlines like the amount of pay or health benefits. In this case Verizon took the entire contract, slapped it on the table and said they wanted to renegotiate every word. That‘s a nightmare. You’re not really going to rewrite a huge contract that’s been renegotiated for decades and worked through each time the contract came up. The company wanted big cuts referred to as “give backs”.

Now, those companies that got jobs subsidies, (tax breaks supposedly for creating or protecting jobs), we can’t get them to give the money back. Still, the wealthiest employers paying none of the taxes the rest of us pay, and having apparently figured how to still make tons of money when most of the economy is floundering, wanted employees to “give money back”.

It’s a short sighted strategy. If workers have no money to buy products and no way to participate economically, not only do we not get smaller classroom sizes and not enough workers to build a new economy based on clean energy, but the biggest corporations stop having customers who can afford to buy their products.

So, Verizon workers stuck together a year ago showing their joint muscle. The company responded by seeming ready to negotiate in good faith. The workers went back to work and did not create a long term strike. But this August 6th they still didn’t have a contract so they voted – almost 100% – to go out on strike. Within a few weeks they actually got a settlement.

We have walked the picket line with Verizon workers over and over again each time the contract came up. The last round they stood not only for their own contract, but for the basic concept that everybody’s healthcare benefits should be 100% covered. But in this settlement, they ended up settling for the first time to have to pay copays, but they still got decent coverage and they protected the overwhelming percentage of their contract and they’ve got a decent economic proposal going forward.

It took 45,000 folks standing strong and standing together for over a year to get there.

Contrary to all of the tale-weaving these days in the media, when folks work together and have decent paying jobs it benefits all of us. Just like after the Great Depression during World War II when there was almost full employment. After that, when the GI Bill came together, we had more folks working in unions than ever before or ever since.

The Chicago school teachers strike certainly shows. Even with all the negative publicity and how terrible it was going to be for students, they fought for a bunch of things in their contract and won. Students in Chicago now will get textbooks on the first day; they now have money to decrease classroom size (critical for students to do well); more money for school supplies; money to make sure that special needs children actually get the amount of attention they need to do well. They also protected most of their benefits, arranged a good setup for future contract negotiations. In general, they reclaimed the schools for the students and yes, the folks who make sure those students do well, teachers. They did it by standing strong, 29,000 folks together.

Our most recent good piece of news: the janitors in Massachusetts. 10 years ago for the first time, they went out and struck because they needed real changes. These are those jobs that most folks wouldn’t even consider working in the middle of the night cleaning toilets at the top of the biggest buildings in our cities. The owners of those buildings are incredibly wealthy, but they’ve been paying janitors dirt cheap.

Standing together, they just won a new master contract for 14,000 janitors, mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, without even having to strike, but having come to a vote 100% to go on strike if necessary.

Ten years ago they were fighting to get more of the jobs to be full time because, given the little bit they were being paid and the few number of hours they were guaranteed work every shift, most of them were on food stamps. They could not even always keep their families housed, no matter how many of these little part time jobs they got.

Big success this time when they got their contact settled? Yes, yesterday. They are not allowed to be put on a shift that’s less than 4 hours – that’s a pretty low bar but a huge improvement. They actually got one paid personal day; they ensured that instead of having their pay rolled back, their hours rolled back, their healthcare rolled back, that they have a progressive contract that will protect their wages and ensure reasonable forward movement.

14,000 stood strong against international corporations like Unnico, which is actually a subsidiary of an even larger corporation based out of Australia now. These huge players often control the negotiations, but with good work and the union actually standing with the responsible employers they put together a fund to enforce payment standards even by fly-by-night companies to actually pay wages, they have not usually paid at all.

These types of policies protect all of us, by protecting the floor on wages in some of the worse jobs. They make sure that the nonpayment of wages remains a criminal act.

These are all good models. It is not hopeless against the biggest U.S. players, the richest CEOs, the huge international players and even simply bad public policy based on an ideology of short-shrifting people – not just workers, but the kids they serve.

Yes, it’s really true that when large numbers of people come to an agreement and stand firm against unfair opposition they can win.


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