Unions politicking hard for the White House

They will probably sound like a giant barbershop quartet, singing different notes in the same song. And that's perfectly fine with leaders of the AFL-CIO, who are savoring the prospect of tonight's debate among seven Democratic presidential candidates that the labor organization is sponsoring at Soldier Field.

"All of them are talented and all of them are our candidates," Gerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told a group of union political activists gathered over the weekend in Chicago. The forum will become "the biggest job interview ever," he added with a broad smile.

The labor federation's glee is easy to understand. The candidates' eagerness to court organized labor is viewed as a message that labor is still a major player in national politics, despite its steadily shrinking numbers and a deep division within its ranks, which led to a splinter federation two years ago. Organized labor, with 16 million members, today represents about only one out of eight workers in the U.S.

The AFL-CIO's leaders are similarly pleased by the fact that the candidates' wooing will be very public.

More than 12,000 union members and their families are expected to attend the 90-minute gathering that will be broadcast live on MSNBC and WMAQ and over XM Satellite Radio, starting at 6 p.m. Central time.

In fact, the meeting was switched from McCormick Place West to the massive outdoor field when ticket requests recently soared beyond expectations, union officials said. More than 17,000 tickets have been handed out to unions in the Chicago area, added officials with the half-million member Chicago Federation of Labor.

Besides MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, who will be the moderator, the candidates will field questions from about 10 union members, who have been selected from across the U.S., as well as questions culled from several thousand submitted to the AFL-CIO over the Internet.

Just as the unions hope to gain from the much-publicized debate, the payoff for the candidate that wins labor's embrace can be critical.


As AFL-CIO officials point out, their ability to churn out voters has steadily improved since their political efforts were stepped up in 1996.

Nearly three-fourths of the union members taking part in the 2006 election voted for the union-endorsed candidate, the highest such figure ever, according to Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO's political director.

So, too, unions have been able to turn out large numbers of their members and families in traditionally union-friendly states. For example, union households made up 35 percent of the voters in Michigan in 2006 and 32 percent in Illinois, according to Ackerman.

In order to get such numbers, unions have matched traditional techniques with high-tech support, she said. In 2006, union campaign workers were able to knock on 8.2 million doors, send out 30 million pieces of mail and hand out 14 million fliers, she said.

In terms of campaign support, organized labor gave more than $200 million in 2004 to its candidates, according to AFL-CIO officials, and that number is likely to grow in the coming year, labor officials predicted.

AFSCME alone expects to spend more than $50 million, outstripping the $48 million the AFL-CIO spent in 2004, and the Service Employees International Union intends to spend more than $60 million, said SEIU president Andy Stern.

To measure the Democrats' ability to identify with workers, the SEIU has asked them to spend one day doing one of their union member's jobs, and several have already put in their time, Stern said.

One of the union leaders that spurred the competing Change to Win Federation, Stern said his 6 million-member group cooperated with the AFL-CIO in its political efforts last year and would continue to do so.

Ackerman agreed, but added that not all of the rival federation's seven unions have joined in.

A longtime critic of politicians who take unions' support but then ignore them once in office, Stern also noted his union's role in helping set up a new political action committee meant to keep elected officials accountable, Working for US PAC.

AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said he will be especially listening closely at tonight's gathering to hear the candidates' views on health care. "They all have to recognize that the health care issue has to be addressed effectively after they get elected," he explained.


SEIU furious, plans to oust 2 school board members

Non-teaching employees of San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District are scouring the landscape for candidates to unseat school board members Susan Weber and Lea Dakota next year. The workers, members of Service Employees International Union Local 415, are responding to Weber and Dakota's "yes" votes in the board’s unanimous decision in April to cut the hours of several teaching assistants, union president Beth Thomas said.

SEIU members at that time picketed two school board meetings and pleaded unsuccessfully with the board to find money to avoid the reductions. "We are disappointed in the entire board," said Thomas, a middle school library media specialist. "The SEIU learned this year that we need to pay more attention to which candidates are elected to the board."

Thomas said it was "particularly stinging" that Dakota voted with the rest of the board because, as a former district employee, she had been an SEIU member.

The two are the only board members up for reelection Nov. 4, 2008.

Dakota said she intends to seek reelection and was surprised to hear that the union was looking for candidates. She had the SEIU's endorsement in the 2004 election.

"They're really miffed, and I understand that," Dakota said. "But I had to make a decision for the entire district. I wouldn't change my vote - I did my duty."

Weber also plans to run for another term.

"I'm sorry they're unhappy with my performance," she said. "I've worked very hard to do the best for the students of our district."

Thomas said trustees almost always accept the recommendations of the district administration.

Superintendent Julie Haff had recommended the staff cuts because state funds used for the salaries had dwindled.

"It's not healthy to have a board that doesn't question the superintendent," Thomas said.

"The board doesn't understand how many members of the community are members of a union. This isn't just about the hundred of us in SEIU."

Thomas said the incumbents would be welcome to ask for the union's endorsement.

"They would be considered," she said, "but somehow I don't see them coming to us."

The April cuts involved four jobs being reduced by a total of 12.1 hours a day, saving the district $63,864 annually.


UFCW violations draw federal prosecution

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has agreed to prosecute the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 4 union for illegally seizing forced union dues from multiple Safeway employees' paychecks, unlawfully threatening termination, and rejecting requests to resign from formal union membership.

With help from attorneys at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Safeway Inc. employees Gerald Rasmussen and Carla Crandall originally filed federal charges against the UFCW Local 4 union in April and May, respectively. After an initial investigation, the NLRB combined the complaints into one case and scheduled a hearing for September 2007 to prosecute the union.

The employees' original charges cite that UFCW Local 4 union officials are attempting to enforce a compulsory unionism clause requiring employees to join or pay dues to the union or be fired from their jobs, despite a formal employee election recently stripping the union bosses of their forced unionism privileges.

All 34 Safeway employees participated in the late April NLRB-supervised deauthorization vote -- a secret ballot election that gives employees the right to eliminate the mandatory dues clause from a monopoly bargaining contract. UFCW Local 4 union officials have been challenging the election result.

"No one should be forced to pay dues to a union," said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Foundation. "These sorts of abuses will continue to plague workers in states like Montana, where there is no Right to Work law to ensure that payment of union dues is strictly voluntary."

After learning of their right to resign from formal union membership from sources independent of UFCW Local 4, Rasmussen, Crandall and other employees sent letters to union officials resigning from formal union membership. Union officials rejected their requests and never provided any of the legally mandated financial disclosure statements to the Safeway employees.

Additionally, UFCW union officials invented their own bogus and illegal rules for resigning. In their correspondence, union officials claim the grocery employees' letters were unacceptable because they were not notarized, the letters were not sent by certified mail in separate envelopes, and were not accompanied by copies of applicable NLRB decisions and Supreme Court rulings. However, under the 1988 Foundation-won Supreme Court decision in Communications Workers v. Beck, union officials cannot require formal union membership or the payment of union dues unrelated to collective bargaining as a condition of employment. The decision also requires union officials to provide employees with verified financial disclosure of union expenditures, so that employees can cut off the seizure of forced union dues used for activities such as union politicking or lobbying.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a nonprofit, charitable organization providing free legal aid to employees whose human or civil rights have been violated by compulsory unionism abuses. The Foundation, which can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-336-3600, is assisting over 200,000 employees in over 200 cases nationwide. Its web address is http://www.nrtw.org.


Teamsters moving in on Florida county

More than 200 Martin County, FL employees will ask the Martin County Commission on Tuesday to stop negotiating an employee contract until a decision is made whether the in-house union or the Teamsters should speak for the workers. Steve Myers, Teamster representative, said the employees thought the Martin County Public Employee Union has not sought to find out what its members want in the contract.

The County administrators and attorneys, the MCPEU, the Teamsters, and the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission recently signed a "Consent Election Agreement," mandating a PERC supervised election, Myers said. The vote would determine who should represent the 300 union-eligible employees during contact negotiations.

In March, the MCPEU voted to affiliate with the Teamsters Union, and have them conduct their contract negotiations. On May 14, in a letter signed by Gene Hoak, the president of the employee organization, said the employee group would not oppose the change from the in-house union to the Teamsters.

On Friday, Mavis Curley, an employee in the county engineering department and a spokesperson for the employees sent the five county commissioners a request that contract negotiations be suspended, pending the outcome of the election to be conducted by the state. Curley said the employees wanted the action because the in-house union had not exercised due diligence in finding out what their members wanted in the contract. She noted that the March voted constituted a vote of "no confidence" in the local union, and a direction to the union leaders to merge with Teamsters Local 769 headquartered in Vero Beach.

Curley added that the county's withholding of recognition of the merger forced the involvement of the state in the labor issue. The state-supervised vote is expected to take place before Oct. 1, when the current contract expires.


Moral authority invoked in cemetary impasse

Saying "enough is enough," on Monday Montreal's Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte asked both sides in the three-month-old strike at Canada's largest cemetery to set aside their differences and bury the dead. Turcotte wants the corporation that runs Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery on Mount Royal to lift its lockout, and at at the same time he asked the union to suspend its strike action.

Monday's press conference was called at the last minute after Turcotte met privately with Debora De Thomasis, head of a group calling itself Rights for the Families of the Dead in Notre-Dame-Des-Neiges cemetery. The cardinal initiated the meeting after De Thomasis threatened to stage protest demonstrations outside the chancery office of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Montreal.

It was the first time Turcotte met reporters since the cemetery's 129 unionized employees were locked out May 16. Since then about 60 bodies a week have been piling up in refrigerated units. A class-action lawsuit asking for $500,000 a day in moral and punitive damages on behalf of the families of 600 unburied dead was filed July 16.

"We can't keep dead people in Frigidaires," Turcotte said Monday. "I am well aware of the pain of the families in mourning. The families who want to see their dead buried are the real victims in all of this."

"I am asking everyone to go back to work on the short term, and I am counting on an eventual resolution based on the the good faith of both sides," he said. "Let's settle the immediate problem of burying the dead on the short run, and settle the labour problems in the long run."

At the same time diocese officials stressed that the cardinal has no legal power to resolve the labour dispute.

"The public seems to have the impression that a bishop can push a button and fix things," Turcotte said. "I have no legal or political authority to intervene." he said.

The law governing the corporate entities of the church (fabriques) recognizes that the cemetery is under the administration and management of the corporation that owns the property.

"I have no right to impose anything on anyone. My profound conviction is that the only way we will be able to resolve this is through negotiation," Turcotte said.

De Thomasis, whose grandmother has been in cold storage at the cemetery since mid-May, said the cardinal's statement exceeded her expectations.

Neither the union nor management returned phone calls Monday, but workers on the picket line outside the cemetery gates welcomed the cardinal's tough talk. "We're very satisfied with his point of view," said one of them, "Now it's up to management to respond."

In the past union president Daniel Maillet said his sympathies are with the families, and blamed the employer for locking gravediggers out.

At issue are four key points: the union’s demand for a four-day work week, a guarantee of 36 weeks’ work for seasonal employees, a supplementary retirement plan, and the issue of subcontracting large scale maintenance projects which the union says its employees are capable of handling on overtime. Cemetery workers earn on average $24 an hour.


Teamsters moving on Okla. charter carrier

A Teamsters local in Houston has filed a dispute to organize Tulsa-based Omni Air International cockpit crewmembers. Last week the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 747 filed an "application for investigation of representation dispute" with the National Mediation Board.

Operator of international and domestic charter passenger flights, the Teamsters estimated Omni employs 266 flight deck crewmembers to operate its fleet of DC-10-30ER and Boeing 757-200 aircraft. "Their wages, working conditions and benefits are among the worst in the airline industry," said E.E. "Gene" Sowell, the Teamsters Local 747 boss. Omni officials could not be reached for comment.

Sowell said the union hopes to mount a membership campaign in the near future.
The NMB representational process could take up to three months before a union vote is held. Officials said the organization drive has been ongoing for about one year.
Founded in 1983, Omni provides on-demand charter and air ambulance services. Catering to the charter tour industry, its clientele has ranged from both domestic and international cruise lines to college athletic teams, Fortune 500 companies, governments and subservice to air carriers.

Founded 80 years before that, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters claims membership of 1.4 million workers in the United States and Canada.

Union representation elections are overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
About 30 percent of affected employees are required to sign a petition to call for an "R case" election, used both to certify and decertify a union. To call for a vote, 30 percent of affected employees are required to sign a petition supporting it.
The Employee Free Choice Act, passed by the U.S. House on March 1 but stopped in the Senate in late June, would require the NLRB recognize a union if a majority of employees approve it via a simple "card check" instead of a secret ballot.


SEIU Local 503 to investigate private bidder

Jackson County, Ore. has received two proposals for reopening its mothballed library system, but County Administrator Danny Jordan said it could be months before county officials decide when, or if, books will be circulating again. As Monday's 2 p.m. deadline passed, proposals had been received from Maryland-based Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI), and the Jackson County employees union, SEIU Local 503.

LSSI operates libraries across the United States, including a three-library system in Redding, Calif. Under the county's contract with the union, the county must consider a proposal from the union before contracting for services with outside parties. Jordan declined to share details of either proposal, citing Oregon law that requires financial proposals to be kept confidential "to avoid disclosure of contents to competing proposers ... during the process of negotiation."

Jordan said terms of any agreement would be made public if and when the commissioners decide to award a contract.

The commissioners will have to evaluate the proposals in terms of the services they offer as well as the county's ability to fund those services. County commissioners closed the library system April 6 after Congress failed to renew an aid package to timber-dependent communities that had provided Jackson County with $23 million annually.

A one-year payment has since been approved, but there is no guarantee of long-term support.

Meanwhile, Jordan and the commissioners are waiting to hear back from local communities about whether they are willing to provide financial support for re-opening their branch libraries.

"We're doing more than just looking at RFPs," he said. "It's real complicated to sort through."

So far, only Ashland has developed a specific proposal to support its local library. Measure 15-79 on the Sept. 18 ballot will ask voters to pay an additional 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value for their library.

If approved, the measure would raise about $1 million for the library and add about $120 to the taxes on a house assessed at $207,000, the average assessed value in Ashland.

Talent officials have discussed a library surcharge.

Jordan said the deliberating process will be complicated by the wide range of language in the operating agreements between the county and the local jurisdictions that have an interest in their local library buildings. In Jacksonville, for example, the city can take possession of the building 30 days after the county stops running a library, and in Gold Hill ownership of the library building would pass to Rogue Community College if the library ceased to operate.

He noted the county hasn't decided to stop operating a library. All that's missing, he said, is public access to the materials.

"There's a lot of technical jargon" to be sorted out in the agreements, he said.

Jordan said if the commissioners piece together funding for libraries, it could still take "a couple of months if not more" to get service going again.


Teachers put picketing ahead of school preparation

The Harlem (Illinois) School District is supposed to start school in a little over two weeks. But the district and teachers at this point are no where close to seeing eye to eye. That could impact the first day.

Monday, a neutral source met with both sides. This is the first day that the district and teachers have a federal mediator as the go-between. The two started negotiations at 4:00 and that is also when this support group formed. Members of the Harlem Federation of Teachers are part of an informational picket.

These are similar steps taken back in 2004. A mediator was brought in, the union held daily pickets and school and extra-curricular activities were delayed. That year school started nine days late. This past Friday the teachers union voted to authorize a strike should the negotiating teams fail to come to terms with the financial issues said to be keeping the district and teachers very far apart.

So at this point a strike would happen before the start of school. So far only two negotiation sessions are scheduled. The one Monday and then another one on August 14th.

School is supposed to start on August 21st, except for those that attend Maple and Parker.


Union Accountability Act considererd in Michigan

Labor unions hold an extraordinary legal status. Acting as an exclusive bargaining agent and collecting compulsory dues or agency fees should oblige union officials to be good stewards of members' money with the sole goal of representing their workers effectively. Unions, however, have traditionally been permitted a degree of secrecy denied to similar institutions like corporations and governments, which must disclose detailed financial information to ensure accountability. In order to prevent conflicts of interest or mismanagement, there must be accountability. The federal government has begun applying this logic to unions, introducing new levels of transparency that are exposing practices previously hidden. Yet the state of Michigan maintains no disclosure requirements for powerful public employee unions.

After overhauling the LM-2 form that describes union finances and spending, the federal government recently updated the LM-30 form that union officials must fill out to disclose any potential conflict of interest.

This policy already is bringing results for America's laborers. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group within the Teamsters that supports rank-and-file union activism and works to give members a greater voice in the union, noticed a suspicious item on the LM-30 form of a union official in New York who had taken a "consulting fee" of more than $50,000 from a health insurance company. As TDU argues, "In the old days, vendors made payoffs to officials under the table. Today, they pay 'consultant fees.' Does that make it right?" The official has since resigned and TDU continues its investigation.

Most state public employee unions, as creatures of state rather than federal labor law, are exempt from these requirements. Nothing has changed since 2001, when the Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported that Michigan public labor union affiliates "are not required at all to report under any federal or state labor law." This means that corruption or simple failure to efficiently represent members is very difficult to discover. Unions participate heavily in politics, and, theoretically, refunds of political spending are available to workers under the Supreme Court's decision in Communication Workers v. Beck. Workers, however, often experience great difficulty in obtaining these refunds and getting adequate information about the extent of unions’ political activities.

Because union members and the general public have an interest in knowing what is going on, Michigan should bring transparency to its public employee unions. After all, these unions, whose political force is a creature of public policy, have an institutional interest in growing government to expand their own power, regardless of whether such growth benefits their own members or the common good. Unlike other interest groups, unions derive their political power not from freedom of association but from hindering members’ exercise of their legal right to disassociate.

Passage of the Michigan Union Accountability Act, drafted by the Mackinac Center in 2001, would help alleviate these problems. As the report noted, "Public-sector unions could be required to detail their spending according to functional spending categories... . Reports could be audited by an independent accounting organization to assure accuracy and consistency." Greater transparency would make it easier for government workers to ensure that their unions truly represent them, to work for change when necessary and to opt out of political activities they do not believe are in their interests.

Because unions have accomplished so much for workers in Michigan and in America, people are naturally grateful and appreciative. Yet memories of World War II and the lunar landing did not blind us to corruption in government during Watergate. The importance of businesses to the industrialization and prosperity of America did not prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring detailed financial disclosure from publicly traded companies. Appreciation for the accomplishments of unions in Michigan's history should not prevent the Legislature from taking action to better protect and ensure effective representation for government employees.


UFCW boss compromises over losses

Don Seaquist was around when the "generation gap" was invented. A baby boomer, Seaquist fell on the younger side of that age divide in the 1960s and '70s that split on everything from war to drugs to denim fashions. Ah, those simple times.

Seaquist is now president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789 in South St. Paul, MN that, like unions nationwide, is trying to appeal to and serve four generations simultaneously. Members range from 18-year-old grocery baggers, still on their parents' health plans and working for Saturday-night gas money, to 60-something deli workers, whose only concerns greater than health coverage is pensions. "It's a challenge in collective bargaining," Seaquist said. "But sometimes our most difficult discussions are member vs. member."

With Americans living and working longer, labor unions - like the workplaces they represent - have stretched to four generations, creating more diverse priorities among union members than ever. That diversity includes a general temperament split between the older generations - known as rule followers - and the younger ones who grew up after the great days of unions and during individualistic times - sometimes even called "Generation Me."

Meanwhile, membership continues to fall - to a record low 12 percent of working Americans last year-- and bargaining strength is flagging. That leaves labor leaders often approaching new contracts with fewer, focused demands.

Seaquist's approach has been compromise, though with an eye toward younger members. For next year's contract talks he's considering proposals that would have been heretical previously. One would allow equal pay for the same job, no matter how long someone's been on the job, or if they work part time or full time. To counter objections from older workers, benefits would be based on seniority.

Another proposal would bring members their first premiums for health coverage. "I have no idea if this is going to work," Seaquist said. "We're taking a leap here. Our idea is to have the long, hard conversations on these things as early as possible, as we head into negotiations."

To survive, experts say, unions need to change their ways. Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, said they have to stop pushing tradition on their younger members. That means stop fighting for pensions and retiree health benefits, and replace employers as the providers of benefits that younger workers believe in, particularly employee health insurance and 401(k) plans, Harrington said.

In fact, Seaquist and others said, young people are already coming back to unions in these times of outsourcing, off-shoring and other threats of exploitation. Recent AFL-CIO surveys, for example, show that the 18- to 35-year-old group is the most supportive of unions, said national organizing director Stewart Acuff, in Washington.

Moving toward equal pay

Ryan Mortenson, 22, who is a produce worker at Rainbow Foods in West St. Paul, is aware of generational differences. He, like other younger workers, wants more money, while many older workers want to protect benefits. They don't understand that pay scales these days don't deliver the same middle-class lifestyle that union wages provided them as they raised their families, Mortenson said.

"The dollar just doesn't go as far," he said.

Seaquist has heard the complaints.

"They say to me, 'I'm stocking as many bananas in my 8-hour shift as the 30-year-veteran is, but I'm earning $4 an hour less,' " Seaquist said.

So he plans a "blended" proposal for the next contract: Everyone -- young and old, part time and full time -- will get the same pay for doing the same job. Seniority will bring other perks, such as priority in scheduling and more time off, he said.

The union already took a step in this direction -- in its 2002 contract -- when it negotiated for part-timers about three times the normal pay raise to narrow the wage gap.

Full-timers bought into the idea because they had complaints about the quality of the part-time staff, he said. "They didn't want to have to baby-sit these people, and one way to get capable part-timers is to improve compensation," Seaquist said.

Senior perks

Jeff Swant, 62, who retired last month from the produce section of the Oakdale Rainbow store, found that younger workers didn't understand that longevity in a job should be worth something. They don't think it's fair that the system forces the night, weekend and holiday shifts on them.

"I tell young people, 'If we didn't have seniority rules, what would you have to look forward to?' " Swant said.

"I ask, 'In 20 years, if you don't have a choice in your vacation time, would you consider that fair?' "

April Martin, a 36-year-old single mother of a young son, cares about a different scheduling issue than do her older colleagues, who want shifts firmly fixed.

"But one reason I like the grocery business is because it's so flexible," said Martin, a manager in the Roseville Byerly's deli department. It came in handy one day recently, when her son was sick, because she could swap shifts with a co-worker.

Opting out of benefits

Local 789 has some young members who'd prefer to opt out of health insurance and pocket the money now going to their premiums, Seaquist said. To accommodate them, he has come up with this idea: Let the small number of members who want to opt out do so. But to avoid letting that erode the size and strength of the plan, the company would have to keep paying those members' premiums anyway.

"That's going to be a huge battle," Seaquist said.

What the union will offer the companies to compensate for that extra cost will be an agreement that members will start paying a portion of what is now 100 percent employer-paid premiums.

And together, they would introduce wellness programs to make members healthier, which will cut down on employers' claims costs in the long run.

Pensions bring the biggest difference of opinions, Seaquist said.

Traditional, federally insured pensions are the most secure, said Swant, the recent retiree.

"I have more faith in my 401(k)," Mortenson said, a Generation Y member.

The local members have had both since 1999, Seaquist said -- an example of its philosophy of compromise, and beyond that, mutual respect.

Mortenson, for example, speaks of being in his predecessor's debt.

"I automatically get benefits," he said. "I know the older generation had to fight for them, and I didn't have to do anything."


Publicly-funded union trainees thank taxpayers

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