Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Labor Wins Verizon Strike + Slaves vs. Robots?

Verizon workers who have been out on strike since April are going back to work today. From what I can tell they won big.

Verizon has a growing wireless business with a shrinking number of landline customers. The wireless side of the business is non-union and highly profitable; the wireline side -- landlines, video and Internet -- is union and not as profitable. Verizon's wireline business also includes the high-speed fiber optic Fios network, which is well regarded and lucrative.

Noam Scheiber had an informative piece yesterday, "Verizon Strike to End as Both Sides Claim Victories on Key Points." The one area the company has tried to claim victory is in its newly-bargained ability to route calls away their state of origin. But the Communication Workers of America (CWA) counters that since the calls stay within the scope of a unionized workforce, it is no victory for Verizon at all:
Perhaps the most consequential issue at stake in the standoff was Verizon’s ability to outsource work. The previous contracts included a provision requiring that a certain percentage of customer calls originating in a state be answered by workers in that state — ranging from just over 50 percent for some types of calls in some states to more than 80 percent in others. Verizon sought to significantly lower those numbers.
Under the tentative new contracts, a similar percentage of calls must be answered by a unionized worker somewhere in Verizon’s wireline footprint, which runs from Virginia to Massachusetts, rather than the particular state from which the call originates.
Both sides claimed victory in the change.
“We only care that our members somewhere in the footprint are doing the work,” said Robert Master, assistant to the District 1 vice president of the Communications Workers of America. “The push to outsource call center work was rebuffed.”
Lending partial vindication to this claim was a commitment by the company to create over 1,000 unionized call center jobs over the next four years to accommodate new demand from customers. The company also agreed to reduce the number of call center closings.
CWA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers protected their pensions, will receive an 11% pay increase over the four-year period of the collective bargaining agreement, and Verizon even agreed to allow unionization of the previously unorganized retail wireless workers:
The unions managed to beat back proposed pension cuts, including a cap on the accrual of pension benefits after 30 years of service. 
The company also agreed to withdraw a proposal that would have allowed it to relocate workers for up to two months anywhere in its geographic coverage area, although it had already expressed an openness to withdrawing the proposal before the strike. 
Proposals to change seniority rules and to make the company’s sickness and disability policy more strict were also withdrawn, and the company agreed to change a performance review program in New York City that many workers considered abusive. 
Significantly, the new contracts also cover some 65 unionized workers at Verizon Wireless stores, signaling the first time that retail wireless workers at the company have been included in a union contract, a potentially important precedent.
While the victory for Verizon workers is being hailed as potentially precedent setting for a unionized workforce that has been declared an anachronism, a report from Rachel Abrams, "Retailers Like H&M and Walmart Fall Short of Pledges to Overseas Workers," reminds us that working conditions akin to slavery are still a global norm.

Three years ago, following the collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh and the deaths of 1,100 workers, multinational retail giants like GAP, Walmart and H&M were shamed into establishing pro-worker protocols with which their suppliers were supposed to adhere. Well, no surprise, it turns out these efforts have been underwhelming:
After more than 1,100 deaths exposed dangerous labor conditions in Bangladesh in 2013, brands like H&M, Walmart and Gap were among the most powerful companies that pledged to improve the safety of some of the country’s poorest workers.
But human rights groups say that three years later, those promises are still unfulfilled, and that safety, labor and other issues persist in Bangladesh and other countries where global retailers benefit from an inexpensive work force.
A series of new reports by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of trade unions and other research and advocacy groups, has put a new spotlight on the conditions. In Bangladesh, the group says, tens of thousands of workers sew garments in buildings without proper fire exits. In Indonesia, India and elsewhere, pregnant women are vulnerable to reduced wages and discrimination. In Cambodia, workers who protested for an extra $20 a month were shot and killed.
The brands say that in recent years they have aggressively pushed stronger labor protections and vastly increased their monitoring of the factories that make their products. They have also made significant structural and fire repairs at many factories in Bangladesh.
But even the retail groups say that more improvement is needed, a message underscored in the new reports. Worker advocates say that progress on improving conditions at the factories has been too slow, and that some of the world’s biggest companies continue to benefit from unfair and dangerous labor practices.
“There have been substantial safety renovations in factories that have unquestionably made those factories substantially safer,” Scott Nova, the executive director of the labor monitoring group Worker Rights Consortium, said of the work in Bangladesh. “At the same time, it’s also true that there have been unacceptable delays.”
On Tuesday, the Wage Alliance released its latest report, which accuses Walmart of benefiting from forced labor and other abusive practices in a number of Asian countries. In Cambodia, for instance, workers at factories who make products sold at the company are required to work 10 to 14 hours a day in sweltering heat, without access to clean drinking water or breaks — conditions that have contributed to “mass fainting episodes,” the report said.
As more work is automated, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that the robot will have a competitor in the slave. Maybe that will be a regular post for the future -- Slaves vs. Robots.

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