Workers struggles around the world - 8 August 1998

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The Americas




Europe and Russia

The Americas

Telephone workers face strike deadline

Some 120,000 workers at Bell Atlantic and BellSouth Corporation could go on strike Sunday at 12:01 A.M. EDT if negotiations between the Communication Workers of America do not produce a new three-year contract. If a strike did occur, it could affect phone service from Georgia to Maine on the US's East Coast.

Workers are upset about the telephone company's practice of subcontracting to lower paid, nonunion workers, extensive overtime and the threat to job security posed by new mergers and downsizing in the industry. Union members have complained that labor officials have kept them in the dark about negotiations and that no membership meetings have been called for months.

CWA workers have also voted to authorize strike action against Denver-based US West when their contract runs out August 15. Ninety-two percent of the 32,000 workforce who work for the telecommunications company in 14 states -- from Minnesota to Washington in the north and New Mexico and Arizona in the south -- voted for the strike authorization measure.

US West has cut its workforce of service employees and line workers by seventeen percent while forcing longer hours on workers to meet the exploding demand for telecommunications service. The company also seeks to increase CWA members' portion of health care costs.

Contracts with Ameritech, SBC, AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Southern New England Bell have already been negotiated.

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Northwest Airline workers rally to demand decent contract

Northwest Airline workers held informational pickets at airports throughout the country Friday to press their demands for decent contracts. At the Detroit Metropolitan airport pilots, members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and flight attendants represented by the Teamsters, held simultaneous demonstrations.

Negotiations between airline and ALPA have reached an impasse and the pilots union can strike after a government-mandated 30-day cooling off period that expires on August 29.

Flight attendants have been working without a contract. Other workers, including mechanics and ground crews, represented by the International Association of Machinists (IAM), overwhelmingly rejected the contract agreed to by the IAM in voting that was tallied this week. All three unions gave major concessions to Northwest when it faced financial problems in the 1980s and workers are demanding compensation from the company that is now making record profits.

The noontime rally in Detroit was attended by over 200 flight attendants who were angered about low pay and poor working conditions. Under the present contract newly hired flight attendants are paid only $11,000 a year. Similarly, newly hired pilots are paid $24,000 a year, both representing some of the lowest wages in the industry for a major carrier.

Scott Patton said, "Our wages are so low many flight attendants qualify for federal food stamps. This is upsetting especially when you look at the high salaries of the top executives." Another flight attendant, Jeff Lyda, added, "I took this job because I wanted to see different places. I never thought it would be like this."

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Peterbilt strike continues

The strike by 1,200 United Auto Workers Local 1832 members against Peterbilt is continuing at the truck manufacturer's plant in Madison, Tennessee. The workers walked off the job on May 3 to fight the company's demands for concessions on health care, cost-of-living protection and paid holidays. Peterbilt's profits rose by 70 percent last year.

Peterbilt has hired strike-breakers and sought legal action to limit picketing and prosecuted 34 strikers for alleged picket line violence. The company has not negotiated since late June when local members voted by 85 percent to reject a slightly-modified offer brought back by the UAW.

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One year after strike, UPS refuses to hire full-timers

A year after the 15-day strike which Teamsters officials hailed as an unconditional victory for full-time jobs and better pay, UPS management has not only refused to add more full-time positions, but has cut some 11,000 union jobs from its payroll. UPS has told the union that it has no plans this year to create 2,000 new full-time jobs because it has not recovered all the business it lost during the strike.

UPS employees are taking on heavier workloads as the company combined their tasks to avoid hiring more workers. Responding to charges of speed-up, company spokesman Norman Black said, "Are they working harder? Absolutely. They are the lucky ones. They have jobs."

Teamsters officials called token protests throughout the country last week and handed out stickers saying "Respect our contract." It also filed a national grievance. In reality, however, UPS is honoring the contract signed by the Teamsters union which explicitly pegs the growth of full-time jobs to the company's business position.

In another development involving the Teamsters, brewery workers at Anheuser-Busch rejected the company's "final offer" in mail balloting counted last week. The agreement, worked out with a mediator, is the second contract that A-B workers have rejected. The company made over $1 billion in profits in both 1996 and 1997 and is pressing its demands for greater subcontracting. The union has refused to call a strike despite the fact that negotiations for a new contract have been at a virtual impasse since November 1997.

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Canadian meatpacker imposes more than $5 an hour wage cut

The 635 workers at the Fletchers Fine Foods hog processing plant in Red Deer, Alberta, ended a ten-week strike last month after ratifying a six-year contract that slashes the base wage rate from $15.35 to $10 per hour.

Fletchers brought in scabs during the strike, confident that the leadership of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union would ensure, as it has done in other meatpacking strikes in Alberta, that the strikers were isolated and the opposition to the strikebreaking limited to calls for a consumer boycott.

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Air Canada pilots and Canadian air traffic controllers threaten to strike

Air Canada's 2,100 pilots and the 2,200 air traffic controllers at Canada's airports have given their respective unions strong strike mandates.

The pilots voted 97 percent last month in favor of strike action in a ballot in which 95 percent of them participated. Air Canada pilots earn between 30 and 50 percent less than their US counterparts.

The Canadian Air Traffic Control Association says its talks with Nav Canada, the consortium to which the Canadian government recently devolved authority over civil air traffic control, have broken down. Last March, the controllers rejected a proposed settlement between CATCA and Nav by more than 95 percent. The key issues in dispute are wages and Nav's insistence that the controllers work 36.5 hours per week, instead of the current 34. Air traffic control is generally considered among the most stressful of all occupations.

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Canadian Auto union official lauds strike restrictions

An official of the Canadian Auto Workers union has lauded Canadian labor laws for making it illegal for workers to strike at virtually all times.

In an interview with Canadian Press on the recent strike at two Flint, Michigan, plants that forced the shutdown of most GM operations in North America, Jim Stanford said that the CAW's relationship with GM is no better than that between the UAW and the automaker. "The difference is that we have a labor-relations system that is more sensible and efficient."

Unlike in the US, Canadian workers do no have the legal right to strike during the life of a contract, and even after their collective agreement has expired are legally permitted to walk off the job only after passing through a complex mediation process. All local disputes, moreover, must be settled during the same negotiations as the master agreement.

Explained Stanford, "Many strikes in the U.S. occur" because of disputes over how management is interpreting the contract. "In Canada, if you had a dispute over how a collective agreement was being applied, you have to go to an arbitrator ... You don't have those disputes escalating into strikes."

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Taiwanese company to maintain maquiladoras in Nicaragua

The Taiwanese garment company Chentex withdrew the threat to pull its operations out of Nicaragua after union representatives of the Sandinista Workers Central (CST) agreed to concessions. Chentex's operations were hit earlier this year by two factory occupations and other protests by workers against working conditions in the maquiladoras of Managua's export-processing zones (EPZ).

Chentex countered by announcing it would close its factory which employs 1,700 workers and accounts for $42 million dollars in yearly exports. Other Taiwanese factories in the EPZ were to have joined Chentex in the pullout which would have reduced the exports from the EPZ by two-thirds and cut the workforce in half.

Between 1992 and 1997 the EPZ sector exports increased from $2.8 million to $164 million. These manufactures now dwarf Nicaragua's traditional exports -- coffee, sugar and seafood. During the same period, jobs in the EPZ grew from 1,149 to 12,810 and are projected to reach 20,000 by the end of the year. Nicaragua's total manufacturing workforce is only 38,000.

The trend toward Maquiladoras extends throughout the region. They presently account for an estimated 30 percent of workers in Central America's industrial sector.

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Brazilian union official assassinated

Ariomar de Oliveira Rocha, 48, an official of the miners' union and councilman from the reformist Workers Party (PT), was found murdered in Jaguarari, Bahia in northeastern Brazil last month. He was shot seven times and had part of one of his ears torn off, a sign in the region that he was the victim of a contract killing. Rocha, who worked in the Carabas Metals mine, was formerly the president of Sindimina, the miners' union.

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Truck drivers strike gas industry in Honduras

Honduran gasoline truck drivers have struck for higher wages and better working conditions against 20 companies. About 400 workers gathered outside the Texaco Oil storage terminal in Puerto Cortes, the nation's main terminal.

In a period of three days the strike could leave Honduras without gasoline, diesel and other fuels. Workers are demanding a monthly base salary of $900 and a reduced workweek to 48 hours. Workers currently receive about $800 a month and are plagued by long hours on the job.

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Police outnumber warehouse pickets

Police mobilised by the state Labor government are often outnumbering pickets by three to one outside the Davids grocery warehouse in Sydney, where workers have been on strike for nearly four week against management demands for wholesale cuts to jobs and conditions. The government headed by Premier Bob Carr is mobilising an average of more than 50 police officers daily to escort scab trucks through the picket line in a highly coordinated action.

Each day, the police arrive at 6am, in time to direct trucks through the picket, and leave at 2pm, once the deliveries have been completed. The police, working under the direction of the Labor government, are clearly working in close cooperation with the company. At the same time, police have refused to take any action over serious injuries suffered by two pickets -- a scab with an iron bar attacked one and a vehicle hit another.

The company has refused to discuss reinstatement of about 60 workers dismissed for participating in the picket line and is still demanding that more than a third of the workforce be casualised. The striking workers are becoming increasingly critical of the failure of the National Union of Workers to call out any other sections of the industry to support them. Davids, now a subsidiary of Metro Cash and Carry, a South African-based multinational, is backed by the other employers through the Retail Traders Association.

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Australian bank jobs cut

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) last week announced plans to sack 2,000 staff over the next two years. The jobs will be cut from head office, state administration and loan processing. CBA shares rose to a record high of $20.75 after the retrenchment plan was made public.

Already 7,500 jobs have been axed since 1995. This year alone the CBA has closed 51 suburban and country banks. The cuts are part of a wide-ranging restructure taking place throughout the Australian banking system.

Other major banks plan to eliminate thousands of jobs over the next few years. These include 2,000 from Australia New Zealand Bank, 1,200 from National Australia Bank and 1,000 from Westpac. The Finance Sector Union estimated that almost 10,000 full-time jobs have been eliminated since 1993-94.

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Submarine strike ends

Over 400 workers at the Australian Submarine Corporation at Port Adelaide in South Australia returned to work last Monday. The workers walked out the previous Wednesday after negotiations with management over a new work agreement begun in mid-March broke down.

The company refused to concede a pay increase saying that its contract to build six submarines for the Australian Navy was coming to an end and it was unsure of future commissions.

A union spokesman said that talks over the work agreement had resumed on Tuesday but warned that further industrial action was not ruled out.

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Hyundai plant occupation

Thousands of Hyundai workers at the company's Ulsan plant southeast of the South Korean capital of Seoul have been on strike for 10 days over the sacking of 2,687 employees. The South Korean workers refused to leave the grounds when management announced a four day shutdown and told workers to take holiday leave.

A company helicopter scattered leaflets urging 5,000 workers to remove their barricades and depart. But workers refused to leave and rallied outside the plant shouting "No to layoffs!" Scuffles broke out when company guards tried to prevent supporters from entering the plant to join the rally.

The union leadership is offering no way forward, arguing only that the procedures through which management carried out the sackings are not in line with the legal agreement between management and union.

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Korean strikers violently attacked

Striking South Korean workers from Taekwang Industries and Daehan Chemical Textures are being subjected to violent attacks by riot police and by company-hired thugs. Over 1,500 workers have been attending the pickets every day. On August 4, riot police supported by goon squads assaulted workers with batons and steel pipes as they were leaving a union representative council meeting, seriously injuring 10. Police arrested 15 others, including the union's president.

The workers went on strike when the companies refused for three months to negotiate on a wage claim and job security. The strikers are also demanding recognition of their union. Prior to the strike the management used its control of shift, overtime and holiday rosters to discriminate against workers and to intimidate them. The companies have also filed for legal action against the strikers. The strikers are now forming emergency committees to coordinate further action and combat repression.

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South African chemical workers on strike

South African chemical workers are continuing their strike for a log of claims, including a 10.5 percent pay rise, six months maternity leave with four months at full pay and pensionable shift allowances. Workers in the pharmaceutical, petroleum, glass, industrial rubber and plastic conversion industries began an indefinite strike on Monday. The strike involves the Chemical Workers Industrial Union that covers 40,000 workers and the smaller South African Chemical Workers Union, which has 10,000 members.

The union gave notice of an all-out strike after workers walked out for one-day last week when the unions served the demands on employers. Over 8,000 workers marched through Johannesburg and thousands more attended rallies in other parts of the country.

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Auto strike threatened in South Africa

Autoworkers across South Africa are planning strike action if employers refuse to increase wages by 2 percent in 1999 and 2000. They are demanding the increase on top of inflation-linked wage adjustments. The auto unions and companies have already met to discuss a package that includes a wage rise of up to 8 percent for this year and inflation-tied increases. Consumer inflation was reported to be running at 5.2 percent in June.

A union spokesman said that if the employers maintained their opposition then "we are braced for a serious confrontation." However, he added that the unions would be "willing to compromise on a reasonable offer."

A strike will hit seven major car producers and effect millions of dollars of export contracts to Britain by a local unit of Volkswagen AG and from the BMW's factory on Pretoria.

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Zimbabwe anti-strike laws

The Zimbabwe government of President Robert Mugabe last week used emergency powers to impose a sweeping ban on all strikes in the financial, commercial and industrial sector.

The ban was initiated only days before a planned week-long strike against a series of harsh tax measures affecting basic food prices. Hospitals, fire services, communications, transport, water and electricity supply are already listed. The maximum penalty for interference or inciting a strike in an essential service is 10 years imprisonment.

The regime has also cracked down on demonstrations and public meetings. Organisers will now have to seek police permission and make a written application at least one week before the event. Over the last eight months workers across the country have engaged in a series of one and two day strikes.

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Europe and Russia

More Russian workers protesting unpaid wages

Ambulance workers in the port city of Vladivostok have gone on strike demanding four months of unpaid wages. Out of the 30 ambulance teams usually available, only four are currently on the job to respond to life-threatening situations, calls involving children under age 2, and pregnant women going into labor.

Protests over back wages have swept over Russia in recent months. On the eastern island of Sakhalin, striking miners allowed a limited coal delivery to reach a key power plant after a nearly two-week blockade. The miners, who are demanding eight months' back wages, negotiated a truce August 4, agreeing to allow enough coal through to keep the plant running. Some protesters refused to leave the tracks for another day. Miners said the authorities will have to continue rationing electricity on the Far Eastern island, where homes and factories have been getting only five to six hours of electricity a day.

Deputy Gov. Ivan Malakhov called the protest a "terrorist'' act. But his superior, Gov. Igor Farkhutdinov, backed off from a threat to use force to remove the miners. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov also said that the government would stop financing mining regions where unpaid workers block railroads.

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In other developments last week:

Coal miners in the Chelyabinsk region blocked the Argayashskaya power plant, which supplies energy to nuclear-waste processing enterprise Mayak. Workers are also blocking a railway station.

Miners in the Siberian coal center of Kemerovo lifted all railroad blockades, allowing traffic to pass unimpeded for the first time in at least a month. Coal companies have begun paying back wages after a government commission spent two weeks negotiating with the miners.

On the eastern Kamchatka peninsula, about 100 municipal workers blocked a highway used for transporting salmon caught off Kamchatka's west coast. More than 30 trucks loaded with fish had been stalled on the road by Thursday evening.

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Turkish workers continue strikes at US military bases

More than 1,400 Turkish employees at US military facilities are continuing their two-week strike over pay, benefits and other issues. The strike has disrupted operations at bases in Ankara, Izmir and at Incirlik air base, near the southern city of Adana, home to 2,000 US military personnel and the center of a major air operation over Iraq. The action has shut down the commissary, gas station, dining halls and other facilities.

The head of Harb-Is, the union that organized the strike, said the workers were determined to continue the struggle. The strikers are demanding that salaries be raised every three months in line with inflation, now running around 70 percent.

The union also accused the US Air Force of breaking Turkish laws by getting servicemen to take on duties normally done by the strikers, including repair work and garbage collecting.