The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Work News for Week Ending June 27

by Brendan Coyne

Our weekly rundown of labor, money and business stories... @ Nurses wage suppression @ Workplace retaliation @ GM, Delphi worker buyouts @ New York City union coalition @ Co-op workers seek union @ Energy Department pensions @ Whistleblower protections

Nurses file wage-suppression lawsuits

In an action designed to draw attention to the chronic shortage of nurses across the nation, a Washington, DC law firm last week filed four class-action suits alleging that hospitals in four cities are illegally colluding to drive down wages.

The suits, filed in Chicago, San Antonio, Albany, and Memphis, accuse hospital administrators of agreeing not to compete with one another over nurse wages.

In 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the number of registered nurses had been declining for several years and noted that a near-flat growth in wages was one of many factors contributing to the decline. Median salaries for RNs have been at or below the change-rate of the consumer price index since the early 1990s, the GAO noted. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average annual income for registered nurses in 2004 was $52,330.

Supreme Court expands workers’ rights in retaliation claims

Seeking fair treatment from an employer during a harassment dispute may have just become a little easier.

Last Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled that employees who endured rebukes that stop short of dismissal enjoy the same rights as those that were fired when discrimination or harassment claims are involved. The unanimous decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v White marks the first time that the Supreme Court has defined employer retaliation clearly, ending decades of differing rulings in the federal court system and lowering the bar for what can be considered retaliation.

In ruling in favor of a woman who filed a sexual-harassment claim and was subsequently transferred to a different position and suspended for over a month, the justices said the retaliation was "materially adverse." Justice Stephen Breyer defined that term as employer actions "harmful to the point that they could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."

Tens of thousands taking buyouts from GM, Delphi

Employees of bankrupt Delphi and the financially teetering General Motors Corp. have accepted buyouts and earlier retirement offers in numbers far exceeding company and union projections. In total, around 47,000 hourly workers at the two businesses will take the packages, the companies announced yesterday.

The plan, which was announced in March and approved by a US bankruptcy court last Monday, provides tiered retirement options in addition to buyouts worth $140,000 for those with more than ten years on the job and $70,000 for those with fewer years as incentives for workers to leave their jobs. Employees had until midnight on June 23 to signal their intent to participate in the program, and each has until June 30 to opt out, GM noted in a statement.

In a statement yesterday, Delphi said it expects to shed more workers under a yet-to-be-approved attrition plan.

New York City unions form coalition

Looking to capitalize on the city’s budget surplus and undercut its bargaining tactics, twenty New York City unions announced last week that they have formed a negotiating coalition.

The association, which has not been formally named, includes civilian and uniformed unions and brings together members of both the AFL-CIO and the neophyte Change to Win coalition.

The twenty member unions rallied Friday at City Hall. Calling the move a "milestone" for city municipal unions, in a statement, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, "With working people losing their pensions and health care, and the erosion of the middle class, many of us realize that the issues that bind us are far greater than the ones that divide us."

The unions hope to broker better deals for city workers in contract negotiations, in part by putting a stop to the city’s practice of negotiating a deal with one union and then using that contract as a sort of template for other negotiations, Teamsters Local 237 President Carl Haynes said in a statement released by UFT. The coalition will operate for the next six months.

Only about half of the city unions belong to the coalition, the New York Times reported. Police, firefighter and several other unions opted not to participate, as did American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union District Council 37, the city’s largest public-employee union.

In total, the coalition will bargain on behalf of about 175,000 city workers, Weingarten noted. New York unions have not officially acted in concert on contract negotiations since 1975, when the city used fiscal shortfalls to force through tough concessions.

Co-op workers seek card-check approval for IWW representation

Three years after last being turned down, employees of Pittsburgh’s only consumer-owned grocery store are asking the board to recognize their union without going through a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election.

Last Thursday, the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union announced that a majority of workers at the East End Food Co-op in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had signed union-authorization cards. The workers gave the co-op’s board until yesterday to decide whether it would accept the results of the card-check organizing drive initiated nearly two months ago. In 2003, the board declined to recognize authorization cards, the IWW said.

Unions often use card-check recognition to avoid what can be a lengthy, costly, less-cordial election process. Recent studies have shown that workers succeed in gaining union recognition more frequently and speedily with card-check than through NLRB elections.

Energy Department to continue contractor pension payments

The US Department of Energy placed a one-year moratorium on its two-month-old plan to sharply curtail pension payments made to federal contractors last week. Announced in April, the plan would have limited the agency’s pension payments to 401(k) and similar market-based programs for all-new contracts beginning in 2007.

The Department pays about 100,000 active workers through the contractor system and another 100,000 retirees, Reuters reported. The proposal would have ended payments into defined-benefit pensions programs.

Labor groups and many lawmakers opposed the plan. In a statement last Tuesday, the AFL-CIO said the decision to halt it marked a "victory for working families." In early May, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced legislation that would withhold Energy Department funds for implementing the program.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman informed Senator Pete Domenici (R–New Mexico) that the department had suspended the program in a letter Monday, Domenici’s office announced. Domenici is one of several Republicans who opposed the idea from the start.

Senate adds watered-down whistleblower protections to defense bill

In a move that would enhance portions of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, the Senate last Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to the 2007 military appropriations bill. The action comes nearly a month after the Supreme Court found that public employees have few protections from retaliation when using official channels to report suspected wrongdoing.

The amendment provides on-the-job protections to federal employees who report wrongdoing to their superiors. It closely matches legislation that Congress has discussed for years but falls short of House measures approved in April, the watchdog group Government Accountability Project (GAP) said in a statement last Wednesday.

GAP noted that the House bills provide for jury trials in whistleblower cases and would cover intelligence-agency employees and contractors. The Senate amendment specifically excludes workers at intelligence agencies and baggage handlers employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Digest originally appeared in the June 27, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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