THE WORLD OF LABOR — January 28, 2012

By Harry Kelber

70 Billionaires at World Forum Talk about Income Inequality

This year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland will have some 70 billionaires from around the world in attendance, as well as the 2,000 or more academics and politicians who usually come to this event. According to some advance interviews, the billionaires want to talk about economic inequality, the same subject that brings international labor leaders to the forum.

Some sessions in a series labeled “Ensuring Inclusive Growth and Development” will touch on income inequality, with the ultra-rich having distinctly different views from the labor leaders, who will be pressing for jobs and social programs in poor countries.

A panel, titled “Remodeling Capitalism,” is expected to stir lively debate and surprising proposals when it is discussed on Jan. 27 at the Swiss Alpine High School. A contingent of Occupiers will also attend and remind the bankers, investors and Wall Street financiers of their roles in creating the global economic crisis.

Union Membership Rate in the United States Fell Again in 2011

The U.S. union membership rate continued a decade-long slide last year, falling to 11.8 percent of the American work force in 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced on Jan. 27. That was down from 11.9 percent the previous year, even though total union membership edged up, rising by 48,000. The overall membership declined because the increase in labor’s organizing ranks did not keep pace with overall growth in employment.

According to the BLS, although 16.3 million workers are represented by unions, some 1.5 million workers have opted out of joining the union that represents them in collective bargaining. The percentage of public workers in unions was 37 percent last year, more than five times the 6.9 percent in the private sector. In the 1950s, more than 35 percent of private sector workers were in unions.

The Bureau found that New York State had the highest unionization rate at 24.1 percent, followed by Alaska (22.1 percent) and Hawaii (21.5 percent). North Carolina had the lowest rate (2.9 percent) followed by South Carolina (3.4 percent).

Belgium’s Public Workers Strike over Pensions

Belgium’s public sector workers went on strike Jan. 26 to protest a pension reform plan as part of the country’s -austerity program affecting Europe’s transport problems. Trains, including the Thalys and Eufrostar’s international tracks were halted, while commuters were stuck in huge traffic jams throughout the kingdom.

The coalition government has pledged to cut 11 billion euros $14 billion) off the budget to trim the country’s debt and deficit. Because of an aging population, it has proposed to delay early retirement from 60 to 62, except for some cases.

Unions are angry both over the substance of the reform and the new government’s failure to negotiate its terms with the unions. The Parliament was to debate the reform plan on Jan. 26.

Bigger Role for Feminists in Latin America’s Banana Industry

In the last few years, women in the banana unions across Latin America have increased their presence in the industry. ”Bananaeras,” as they are fondly called, have achieved reproductive women’s rights and accessibility to healthcare in their communities.

Iris Munguia is general coordinator over 45,000 banana workers in eight countries across the region. She is the first woman to be elected to lead the union, since it was founded. Born on a Chiquita banana plantation, Iris began as a rank-and-file worker at the Indiana packing plant in La Lima, Honduras. In 1994, she was elected as the first female secretary of her union, SITRTERCO.

At a time when the banana sector faces one of its biggest challenges in its history as its unionization rate declines, it is more important than ever that U.S. consumers keep informed of the struggles of banana workers and their unions in Latin America.

Canadian Rio Tinto Lockout Nears One Month

On Jan. 1, 2012, Rio Tinto’s aluminum subsidiary Alcan locked out 780 members of of United Steelworkers at its smelter and refinery in Alma, Quebec. The company refuses to negotiate limits on contract work. Instead, Rio Tinto wants to have unlimited contract rights. The USW seeks to create a floor of 750 permanent jobs at the Alma Quebec site.

Use of scabs or replacement workers during a labor dispute is forbidden in Quebec law. The site is now run at one-third capacity with the help of 200 “management” personnel, according to the company. The union has lodged a complaint with the provincial labor board.

The IMF and ICEM, two major global labor federations, have sent a strong protest to Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese that ”it is unprecedented in North America for a company to demand that a trade union accept the replacement of all permanent positions when workers retire with contract employees.”

Indonesian Industries Yield to Labor Power

Labor unions in Bekazi, West Java, showed who held power on Jan. 27 by bringing some 3,000 factories in the industrial base to a screeching halt in protest to a court ruling that annulled a government decree on minimum wages. Tens of thousands of Bekasi workers took their anger to the streets and blocked the Jakarta-Cikarang toll road access to Bekasi, paralyzing economic activity in the region.

Despite the large turnout, the meeting ended in the afternoon without violence or chaos. The workers were appeased by an emergency meeting with representative of the Indonesian Employers Association in Jakarta, that ended in their favor.

A statement issued after the meeting said that the government and the workers agreed on a wage increase that was only slightly lower than that issued by the West Java government for workers in Bekasi.

Thailand’s Floods Force 100,000 Burma Immigrants to Return Home

Nearly 100,000 Burmese migrant workers have been forced to return home from Bangkok, as a result of the devastating Thai floods. This has raised concern among the Burmese people who depend on remittances from their family members who are employed in other countries.

Thailand’s Immigration Office recorded 98,237 migrants returning to Burma (now officially called “Myanmar”) between Sept. 1 and Nov.10. A total of 21,257 businesses and 834,995 employees were affected by last month’s disaster, immigration officials said. There are about 2 million registered migrant workers.

The flood had an immediate impact on the migrant labor force, which numbers about two million registered workers, mostly from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

There are also an estimated one million unregistered migrant workers of whom only 600,00 have passports and permission to travel. The system leaves many migrants prone to exploitation by border patrols and job recruiters. The going fee for migrants may range between $400 to $500, according to immigration sources.

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