The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Work News for Week Ending August 8

by Brendan Coyne

Our weekly rundown of workers' rights, labor, workplace safety and related stories... @ Outsourced firefighters @ Mine nominees rejected @ Starbucks union-busting @ Flight attendants to strike @ Slow recovery @ Pension reform

Forest Service to outsource firefighters

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As wildfires rage across the Mid- and Northwest, labor and environmental groups are questioning US Forest Service plans to put firefighting in the hands of contractors.

According to documents exposed this week, the Forest Service is looking to remove about 2,000 employees who serve as part of its fire crew from its payroll and replace them with private contractors. The move is part of a larger plan to cut USFS staff by over two-thirds by 2009. The documents were released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog organization that stands behind government workers.

Environmentalists and federal-employee groups have repeatedly come forward to oppose Forest Service outsourcing plans in recent years. Earlier this year, under suspicion that the plan could be financially disastrous, several members of Congress requested that the Government Accountability Office study USFS plans. The study is underway.

In 2003, the Forest Service sought to enact a similar plan but has been stymied by congressional actions limiting the type and number of positions that may be contracted, the Federal Times reported in December.

Senate sends Mine Safety nominees back to White House

As it readies for recess, the US Senate last week officially rejected the White House’s business-friendly picks to head vital mine-safety oversight positions. The move came after the number of miners killed at work this year reached 37 and the Bush administration faces increased pressure to address the situation.

Richard Stickler was nominated to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) last year. In May, the president chose John Correll to head the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining. Both are former mine company officials who have been heavily criticized for undermining mine safety regulations while holding appointed positions, as The NewStandard reported previously.

Stickler formerly headed Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety and came under fire for an incident in which miners died. Correll has been directly involved in withdrawing or undermining at least eighteen regulations while serving as an MSHA undersecretary.

Earlier this year, Senator Robert Byrd (D–West Virginia) placed a hold on Stickler’s nomination, and Senate Republican leaders in June pulled a planned confirmation vote after realizing they did not have enough support to overcome the hold. Byrd held up Correll’s vote as well with the support of Senator Ron Wyden, (D–Oregon), reported.

Stickler is currently working as an MSHA consultant. The White House has not indicated whether it will use a recess appointment to install the two in the post for which they were rejected.

IWW challenging Starbucks Union organizer’s firing, calls for boycott

Continuing what its critics view as virulent anti-unionism, Starbucks last week fired Daniel Gross, co-founder of the Starbucks Workers Union. In response to the latest action, the radical labor group with which the union is affiliated, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and is calling for a boycott on company products.

The company dismissed Gross after an internal investigation concluded that he had threatened a manager at a July rally in support of Evan Winterscheidt, a fellow IWW organizer who Starbucks fired in July, the union said in a statement Saturday. Starbucks has not released the report’s conclusions, and spokesperson Valerie O’Neil declined to discuss them with the Associated Press.

In addition to Gross and Winterscheidt, the coffee chain fired Charles Fostrom in July and Joe Agins, Jr., last December. Both worked with Gross and others to organize Starbucks workers at six New York City locations, the AP reported.

Northwest flight attendants put airline on notice, head to court to protect right to strike

At this time next week, flight attendants employed by bankrupt Northwest Airlines may ground some or all of the company’s flights and attempt to interfere with company operations in other ways.

Or maybe not.

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) warned the job actions would come if Northwest follows through on its announced intention to impose contract terms previously rejected by a majority of the attendants it employs. Northwest has, however, filed for court protection from its workers and a hearing is scheduled for tomorrow.

Should the court rule in the airline’s favor, union leaders say workers could still engage in picketing and other acts as part of AFA’s trademarked CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our System) job-action tactics. Union members have been leafleting and holding informational pickets at airports around the country over the past several weeks.

In July, a federal bankruptcy court ruled that Northwest could legally force its flight attendants to accept the rejected contract terms, a situation the union finds unacceptable.

Last Tuesday, AFA announced that it had given Northwest until August 15 to come up with a solution for the contract impasse or face a strike.

Latest-job creation numbers reflect continued slow down, weak recovery

Employers in the United States added about 113,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, slightly higher than in June but still well below what economists predicted, according to data released last week by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the same period home sales fell and unemployment rose slightly.

July’s slower-than-expected job growth marks the fourth month in a row in which the economy failed to meet economists’ expectations. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a labor-backed economic think tank, the confluence of falling home sales, slowed job creation and increasing unemployment points to a slowing economy and may mean that many middle- and lower-income people will see no fruits of the latest economic "recovery."

According to the a comparison of post-World War II recovery periods conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, the current period is marked by slower gains for most. Average employment growth has been about seven tenths of a percent, compared to an average of 2.4 percent during other recovery periods.

Moreover, CBPP noted, while job creation lags and hourly pay stagnates, corporate economic gains have outpaced wages and salaries. From the start of the current "recovery" corporate income growth has been nine times that of wage and salary growth, CBPP found. Such lopsided income growth overwhelmingly favors people with investment income.

Pension reform package flirts with deregulation

The pension-law "reform" package passed last week by the Senate may be more about deregulation than reform. Several provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 undermine traditional defined-benefit plans and disproportionately benefit the wealthy even as the measure itself purports to fix a problem that affects middle-income people most.

Under the act, which had already gained House approval and is expected to be signed into law, employers will have the power to move portions of employees’ pay into market-based plans like 401(k) unless workers explicitly opt-out. The bill mandates only that employers provide employees with notice of their right not to invest a "reasonable period" before annual enrollment, leaving the definition of "reasonable" in the hands of the company. Less-vigilant workers may find their pay invested in the market against their wishes.

The measure also fails to halt or deter pension freezes and does not address the growing trend in which companies use bankruptcy to shift their pension burden onto taxpayers, the Pension Rights Center noted in a statement last week.

The Center sent a letter to senators last week urging that those provisions and others altering barriers between pension trustees and financial advisors be dropped. The bill would leave "only minimal safeguards against abuse," the Center wrote.

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Digest originally appeared in the August 8, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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