THE WORLD OF LABOR — February 19, 2011

By Harry Kelber

Suez Canal Workers Join Broad Strikes in Egypt

Hundreds of workers went on strike on Feb. 17 along the Suez Canal, one of the world’s strategic waterways, joining others in pressing demands for better wages and conditions. The protests have defied the military’s attempt to restore a veneer of orderly existence after Hosni Mubarak’s fall last week.

The labor unrest this week, at textile mills, pharmaceutical plants, chemical industries, the Cairo airport, the transportation sector and banks, has emerged as one of the most powerful features in a country that is navigating the military-led transition that followed an 18-day popular uprising and the end of Mubarak ’s three decades of authoritarian rule.

Striking worker, in a statement on Feb. 17, said they would no longer take part in a government-controlled labor union, but would rather join the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which had been formed Jan. 30. As the days pass with no solution to the growing economic problems, strikers and the military may be moving toward a showdown with unpredictable consequences.

Wisconsin Governor Denounced for Anti-Union Bill

More than 20,000 protesters swarmed Wisconsin’s Capitol to denounce the new Republican governor’s plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public sector unions. To prevent a vote on the anti-union bill, the state’s Democratic lawmakers fled Wisconsin, denying the Republicans the quorum they needed to act on the bill.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget “repair” bill has sparked days of demonstrations and is one of a number of attempts by newly- elected Republicans to strike at public sector unions, one of the pillars of the Democratic Party. The biggest crowds of the week squeezed into the Capitol on Feb. 17 shouting down the state Senate president as he tried to start the session.

Republicans are hoping to emulate Walker’s actions across the Rust Belt. In Ohio, a state hearing was held on a proposed Wisconsin-style law that is backed by the state’s new governor. Similar measures are working their way through Iowa and Michigan — all union strongholds, but also states where Republicans seized the governorships and both houses of the legislature in last year’s elections.

Two-Day Strike Wins Georgian Miners 20-40% Pay Rise

Two hundred Georgian transport workers in the Tkibuli-Mindeli coal mines will receive pay increases, ranging from 20 to 40 percent, effective March 1, 2011, depending on their job classification. The wage boost came after a two-day strike by 600 members of the Metallurgical, Mining and Chemical Workers’ Trade Union.

On Feb. 20, the union and the coal mine management will resume talks on behalf of 650 underground miners over safety, pay and working conditions. Previously, there had been a series of explosions that killed and injured several miners, causing the union to stage a two=hour warning strike, with an urgent demand that modern mine safety equipment replace the Soviet-era facilities still in use.

The Tkibuli-Mindeli coal deposits are the second major set of Georgian workplaces that the union has organized, using direct action in recent months. Last spring, the union took strike action at the Zestafoni Ferroalloys plant and Georgian Manganese mines, winning worker rights for 5,000 miners and metalworkers.

Immigrant Workers Say France Betrayed Strike Deal

An agreement, which ended a 10-month strike by undocumented immigrant workers last year, promised to give thousands the right to live and work in France. But now, the workers accuse officials of ratting on the deal. At most, a couple of hundred have been given temporary working papers, they claim.

For three weeks, hundreds of strikers camped in front of the Opera House at Paris’s Place de la Bastille in a bid to draw attention to their plight. In June 2010, there was a breakthrough. Strikers landed a deal with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and dismantled their makeshift camp in exchange for guarantees that most, if not all of them, would obtain papers. The deal, brokered by the main French trade union, CGT, was hailed as a victory by the strikers at that time.

Human rights groups, campaigning for undocumented workers, say many have slipped into debt after several months on the picket line. Many can no longer support their families who often live abroad. Alain Blanc, a member of a migrant solidarity campaign, says employers take advantage of the situation. “The workers are not in a position to negotiate with employers who pay them salaries below the minimum wage in France,” Blanc said.

Korean Courts Pay Cleaning Women Below Minimum

The 74 cleaning personnel, responsible for cleaning the Seoul District Court, High Court, Administrative Court and Family Court, walked off the job on Feb. 17, demanding that they be paid the legal minimum wage. They held demonstrations near the front gates of the courts, shouting their slogan: “Courts, follow the law!”

Lee-Chan-bae, chairwoman of the Korean Confederation of Labor (KCTU),Women’s League, said: “Even though the minimum wage increased 5.1 percent with the new year, this was not applied to the court cleaning staff,” The court cleaners do not keep the working hours scheduled in the contract. Their working hours are from 6:45 a.m. to 3 :30 p.m., but most begin their work from 5 a.m.

Ahn Hye –suk, 47, who heads the Seoul High Court branch of the KCTU’s female irregular workers’ union, said: “Although the minimum wage increased by 5.1 percent, the court would raise wages by only 2.29 percent, citing budget shortfalls.” She added: “It is nonsense to complain about a budget, even though there was a legal minimum wage.”

Labor Unions Work to Raise Indiana’s Profile

In a Statehouse dominated by pro-business Republicans, Indiana’s labor unions are working to elevate their state’s profile. Their leadership is mobilizing members en masse to protest what they’ve called an “anti-worker agenda” with far-reaching consequences.

The several hundred steelworkers who filled the hallways outside the House and Senate chambers on Feb. 15 were the latest group of union members—from teachers to grocery clerks—who have made their presence known since the General Assembly convened in early January.

Jeff Harris, an Indiana State AFL-CIO spokesman, said union leaders are working in concert to block a series of proposed bills that would reduce jobless benefits, eliminate prevailing wage rate agreements and end employment policies that make union membership and fees a condition for holding down a job.

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