Unions irrelevant except in politics

Joining a union in 2007 is like buying a Britney Spears CD. You do it because it makes you nostalgic for those good old days before reality set in.

In contemporary American life, unions are largely irrelevant - that is, everywhere except for politics. Union bosses regularly abuse workers to achieve their political objectives - and in states like Colorado, they get away with it.

In 2006, the nation's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, funneled nearly $1 million from the compulsory dues of their members to fund small donor committees designed to elect Democrats running for everything from county treasurer to governor. And the SEIU was successful.

Utilizing a loophole in Colorado campaign finance law, they were able to forcibly use dues money of union members from across the country for the cause - all without the consent or disclosure of individual workers. How truly unfair to the janitor in Florida that he could be forced to give money to his union, only to see this money translated into campaign contributions supporting out-of-state causes or candidates he doesn’t believe in.

Last week, the Federal Election Commission agreed that union tactics are out of control, making the decision to fine a union-funded campaign committee $750,000 for illegally diverting more than $100 million in forced dues and other contributions to federal candidates.

Unfortunately, while the committee, Americans Coming Together (which received $26 million from SEIU in 2004 alone) has now been disbanded, its unwilling contributors won't receive a penny in compensation for having their hard earned money misused.

When voters across the nation began enacting a wave of so-called campaign finance reform during the last decade, they wanted transparency in our system. If union participation proves anything, however, it's that the system has only become more captive to the secrecy of anonymous contributors.

Union membership has plummeted nationally over the last 50 years, the result of a changing economy - one that was once industrial, briefly becoming the "office" economy, and today, at least for the moment, is tied primarily to a service economy and technology. While the U.S. population has nearly doubled since 1960, we have 700,000 less unionized workers than we did four decades ago.

In Colorado, the unionized workforce is extremely small - less than 10 percent of the total workforce - a statistic representative of a fact that most employers here aren’t massive manufacturing or retail giants, but rather small mom-and-pop shops.

Beyond very vocal casino workers in Las Vegas, most people in the West are also saying no to union membership for a very simple reason. They don't feel the need. Why be forced into group salary negotiations, known by the flowery phrase "collective bargaining," when you can better advocate a pay raise for yourself? If the guy down the hall isn't working as hard as you, why should he get the same benefits?

While more and more workers are opting to fend for themselves - when the law allows - as it only sometimes does in Colorado, union bosses are fighting back with the aid of Democrats in power, including Gov. Bill Ritter, who has opened the door to unions seeking to raise the percentage of public employees belonging to unions.

In the end, it's a losing cause. Our workforce is becoming more specialized, more sophisticated, and our economy simply cannot - and will not - maintain jobs that hand out benefits and salaries based on group bullying and not individual merit.

The truth is clear that states rejecting forced unionism, commonly known as "Right to Work" states, attract better employers and more diversified industries. It's a win-win for both workers and business owners.

As Democrats prepare for their party's convention in Denver next summer, they couldn't pander any harder to the far-left elements of the organized labor movement. They’re not likely to appear in public with Jimmy Hoffa, Jr., president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the son of a man whose mysterious and infamous disappearance in 1975 is often tied to his tough-talking union ways.

Democrats are, however, likely to heed Hoffa's extreme message that workers should be forced to join unions or pay representation dues in the absence of membership.

The younger Hoffa was referred to in a 1997 National Review article as "the Pillsbury Doughboy of the union movement" for being "not particularly sharp" and for being "more interested in building a muscular union than in forming grand left-wing alliances." In other words, he's a relic of the past.

In 2005, Hoffa announced that the Teamsters were ending their affiliation with the AFL-CIO in an effort to help "stem the losses that we have endured over the past decade." While the losses continue, the political contributions only continue to add up.

Money in politics has a way of talking. Even outdated messages like those still perpetuated by Hoffa have a way of being heard when they directly result in campaign contributions.

There was a time when unions served a societal good. They fought against horrible working conditions and gave a voice to the voiceless. Today, however, they serve special interests largely out of touch with the American workforce - small business employees and employers like those in my family.

Just like we all loved Britney, Americans have an ongoing affinity for unions. Both are largely out of touch with life in the 21st century, however, and it's time to let them go. As much as Britney might today dream of a sold-out concert, she simply can't force people to buy tickets. Hoffa and his union buddies should have to play by the same rules. Forced unionism has got to go.


Teachers faked crisis to precipitate illegal strike

The Tiverton (RI) School Committee and teachers union spent nearly five hours in mediation Wednesday night in separate rooms at the high school in an effort to get closer on a new contract agreement, but the newest proposal made by the School Committee is being termed a "non-starter" by the union.

The two sides will negotiate again Monday and Tuesday, although the School Committee had asked for a Saturday meeting, which the teachers union rejected.

"It clearly means there wasn't any crisis," School Committee Vice Chairman Michael Burk said of the union going on strike this week for a day after claiming the School Committee would not meet to negotiate.

"Mr. Burk should know better than to inflame the situation," said Patrick Crowley, assistant executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island whose members waited weeks this summer for a counterproposal from the School Committee.

Court-appointed mediator John Harrington talked to each side three times Wednesday night. The School Committee's negotiating team was in the high school library and the teachers team was in the former guidance office around the corner on the main floor.

Teachers staged a one-day strike Tuesday and spent much of the day picketing at the entrance road to the high school while School Committee attorney Stephen Robinson and Superintendent William Rearick spent the day in Newport Superior Court seeking a temporary restraining order to force the teachers back to work. The teachers contract expired last Friday, three days after the start of the new school year.

The consent order issued by Superior Court Judge Vincent A. Ragosta on Tuesday afternoon required the School Committee majority to take part in negotiations, beginning Wednesday night. The union had complained that the superintendent was the primary negotiator but he had no power to approve an agreement.

"No progress was made, but the union is happy all School Committee members were present," said Crowley, of NEA-Tiverton's 205 members.

"Teachers would be making less than they're making now," Crowley said of the latest proposal. He said the teachers union will make a counteroffer that will be more "realistic."

"At this rate it could go on for quite a while," he said.

The School Committee's latest offer, presented to the teachers' 10-person negotiating team, calls for a 2 percent salary increase the first year and a 12 percent health-insurance co-payment. In years two and three, the salary increase would be 1.5 percent each year and 20 percent co-payment, according to School Committee Chairwoman Denise deMedeiros.

"There was no response to our proposal tonight," deMedeiros said.

"Their offer still doesn't come close to being described as adequate," Crowley said.

The teachers' latest proposal, submitted last week, asked for 3.75 percent salary increases each year for three years, and included a proposal for a higher deductible health plan that they said would save the district $186,000. The School Committee has refuted that number.

There is a fixed amount of money for salary increases and health benefits, Burk said. "We are not going to fund salary increases or health-benefit sharing by cutting programs," he said.

Asked if the union planned any more picketing or job actions, Crowley said: "Definitely, there will be more public protests."


UAW strikes, pickets Daimler-Chrysler

About 400 members of the United Auto Workers Union at the Orion Bus Company continued to picket outside the company's Oriskany plant Thursday. Union officials said several economic issues with Orion's parent company Daimler-Chrysler led to the strike.

Workers voted to strike last week and were supposed to begin picketing Tuesday. The company and union leaders tried to work out a new contract to avoid a strike, but that was voted down by a majority of 64 percent.

"Wednesday we actually had another ratification vote based on the revised proposals from the company. Once again, the membership displayed their displeasure with the company's offer which is basically economic issues and voted it down and voted to go on strike," said United Auto Workers Local 2243 President Myron Kuchera.

Daimler-Chrysler officials said they hope the strike is short lived and that open issues with the labor force can be resolved.


School union demands $50 million payoff

Oregon School Employees Association has served notice it may sue all 95 school districts whose employee health coverage has been provided by a trust run by Oregon School Boards Association.

The dispute is over $50 million in reserves held by the school boards group, which OSBA plans to keep as districts switch to a state-run health insurance pool.

The school employees union, which has about 20,000 members statewide, contends the money legally must be returned to school employees or used to cut their health care costs. But OSBA officials have said the money is being kept to help districts with long-term costs of health insurance and with governmental policy.

The two groups are often work together in Salem, advocating for education reforms and funding, even as their respective constituencies face each other across bargaining tables in school districts all over the state.

But the health insurance issue has exposed deep rifts in their alliance.

The employee association was one of the key groups advocating for a statewide health insurance pool for school employees.

The school board association fought against the statewide health insurance pool -- in part because the group has had its own health insurance pool, which covered about 65 percent of the state's school districts. Revenue from running the pool provided a healthy percentage of the OSBA's operating budget.

But legislators eventually approved the state-run pool, which nearly every district in the state will be required to join by 2010.

The school board then bowed to the inevitable and announced that it was shutting down its own operation.

The $50 million in reserves was left over from the school board's pool, and sparked controversy almost immediately.

OSBA announced this spring that the money would be saved for the future instead of being used to buy down the final year or two of rates for its members. And school districts were asked to absorb a higher-than-expected 18 percent increase in health care coverage costs, much higher than the percentage increases of recent years.

But the announcement this week that legal action could be looming raises the dispute up a notch, especially since individual school districts -- the school board group's members, in other words -- are targeted.

"(This) will hopefully get the attention of school board members throughout the state and move them to...do what is right, not what is self-serving," said Merlene Martin, the employees' union president.

Kevin McCann, executive director of the OSBA, said his board members will meet next week to consider the issue, but that the education communities' larger focus should be on how to make the new statewide pool work to contain spiraling health care costs.

"Our board to date has stood by their decision (on the reserve funding)," McCann said. "We know that the actions our board took on this have put school districts in an awkward position. We are concerned and will do what we can to help."


Card check hypocrisy in California

Thirty years ago, legendary union organizer Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers made history by winning the right to a secret ballot for migrant field hands in California who wanted to join a union. Today, in an odd twist, the UFW is trying to take that right away.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is weighing legislation sent to his desk last week that would allow unions to organize farm workers by collecting signed cards from a majority of those workers rather than conducting an election at which each employee makes a confidential choice in the privacy of a voting booth.

The UFW says Senate Bill 180 is necessary to protect farm workers from intimidation by employers who oppose unions. But it is difficult to see how removing the right to a secret ballot in an election conducted by the state - the current arrangement - would help workers in any way.

Instead, the legislation's goal appears to be to help the union expand its membership by eliminating the need for elections. Workers would have to look a union member in the eye and tell him No if they preferred not to join.
The legislation comes at a time when the UFW has been struggling to maintain its footing on the farm. The union won just half of the elections it contested between 1990 and 2005, according to Rural Migration News, a publication by the University of California, Davis.

In 2005, 74 percent of the workers at Giumarra Vineyards signed cards calling for a union election, but a week later, the UFW lost the election as workers voted to remain without a union. In 2006, 65 percent of the workers at VBZ Grapes signed cards authorizing a vote. But in the election, 65 percent voted against the union.

Both sides claim the turnarounds are evidence of intimidation. The growers say workers are pressured by union organizers to sign the cards and then, when the employees can vote in secrecy, they express their true preference against representation.

But the union says workers actually want the union but succumb to campaigns by employers who threaten their jobs if they vote to authorize the UFW to act as their agent.

The UFW legislation is part of a national campaign by organized labor to eliminate traditional elections as a way of choosing a union. The new Democratic majority in Congress earlier this year pushed a similar bill. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate due to Republican opposition.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez notes that in California, public employees already are organized through what unions call "majority sign-up elections" that do not involve secret ballots. But the farm workers would be the first private employees to lose that right.

California does have a long history of treating farm workers as a special class. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the state's landmark farm labor bill, was enacted in 1975 and created a special board to monitor conditions in the field and oversee labor relations. In 2002, the state imposed binding arbitration to resolve contract impasses between farm workers unions and growers that last longer than six months.

The argument for treating field hands differently from other private-sector workers is that the migratory nature of the work and the large number of undocumented immigrants in the fields make them uniquely vulnerable to intimidation, harassment and abuse.

With 400,000 workers moving among about 80,000 farms, Rodriguez says, laws involving wages and safety, pesticides, heat, sanitary conditions and sexual harassment often are not enforced.

As a result, Rodriguez told the Legislature at a hearing earlier this year, workers are "cheated on their wages by corrupt farm labor contractors.

"Women farm workers are exposed to demands for sexual favors. People get sick from pesticides. Even drinking water isn't always available and clean."

To win broader support for the bill in the Legislature, the UFW accepted an amendment that would require both the worker and the card circulator to sign under penalty of perjury that the worker signed the card without coercion. A similar provision applies to state voter registration cards and initiative petitions.

Sen. Carole Migden, the San Francisco Democrat who authored the bill in the Legislature, compares union card-check elections to absentee voting.

But when voters in a regular election cast their ballot by absentee, they aren't required to hand it to a campaign worker for one of the candidates.

They submit it in a sealed envelope to the county registrar of voters. Their vote remains secret. That would not be the case for farm workers under Migden's bill.

Back in 1974, when the UFW was trying to dislodge the Teamsters as the leading union for agricultural workers, Chavez argued that employers and unions both were using "pressure and intimidation" to sway workers. The only way to protect them, he said, was to guarantee workers the right to elections with secret ballots.

Chavez was right. And nothing that has happened since then has altered the principle for which he was fighting. Schwarzenegger should veto the bill.


Education too influenced by teachers' unions

A report from the Atlantic Institute For Market Studies called Getting the fox out of the schoolhouse, argues teachers' unions have a disproportionate impact on education policy in Canada.

The study's authors believe teachers' unions have "opposed many attempts to increase transparency and accountability in Canada's school system," lining up against standardized testing and performance-based pay for teachers.

Michael Zwaagstra, a high school teacher in Manitoba; Rodney Clifton, an education professor at the University of Manitoba; and John Long, a professor of educational administration at the University of Manitoba, co-authored the report. Among the report's recommendations are that teacher compensation be tied to performance and that strikes and lockouts no longer be allowed as ways to resolve disputes in the public school system.

Despite its aggressive arguments aimed at Canadian teachers' unions, the report isn't meant to attack them, said Charles Cirtwill, the institute's acting president. "This isn't about killing unions,'' Cirtwill said. "This isn't about removing gains that have been made to protect individual teacher's rights."

According to Cirtwill, the simple, focused mandate of unions is to represent the interests of their members, which may or may not match that of the public. "The unions have the ability to use the dues to influence politicians.

"They have a bully pulpit from which to comment very aggressively on policy changes and they've been very effective at stopping policy changes which they do not support."

Cirtwill said the report is meant to show a way to balance the unions' power with that of the public interest.

Educators and union leaders were less than impressed with the report's recommendations. Jane Gaskell, the dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said she didn't believe unions represent the problem with schooling and argued that the American states with the highest educational achievement levels also have the strongest unions.

"I think by and large teachers' unions have been a positive force for the quality of education in Canada,'' Gaskell said.

She rejected the idea of linking teacher's pay with performance and said it would create dissension within the teaching community. "The kind of differentiation based on performance -- which is very hard to measure and to do in a fair way -- is not something that is politically acceptable in the Canadian context."

Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, scoffed at the notion of standardized testing, another recommendation of the report. "Standardized tests are very effective at measuring the size of the homes in the neighbourhood -- and that's about all they measure,'' he said.

Bruseker called the tests simplistic and said they only offer a one-day snapshot of how a child is performing in school. "Right-wing think tanks like AIM and the Fraser Institute love them."

Bruseker also "flat-out" disagreed with the report's recommendations about strikes and lockouts. He said if unions want to preserve the teachers' right to strike, then they have to grant school boards the matching right to lock teachers out.

"Certainly, we try to influence government, but to be blunt, we're the experts," Bruseker said. "We have people with PhDs and Master's degrees and years and years of experience and we're in the classrooms. Why wouldn't you want to talk to the people on the front lines about what we need to do in education policy?"

But Cirtwill said everyone, including parents, should have a hand in setting education policy and that the public needs to be willing to step up and ask unions to prove their positions rather than just accepting it as gospel truth.


Scab taxis' tires slashed, union suspected

This could be the first notice of violence connected to the New York City taxi strike. Police say four yellow cabs had their tires slashed around 5 this morning in Brooklyn. Police say the drivers were in a restaurant at the time. No other information was immediately available.

This is the final day of a two-day taxi strike. Depending on who you talk to - the strike is either a success or no big deal. The drivers belonging to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance say their strike is to opposed GPS and credit card machines that the city wants to install in cabs this year.

But the the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents 23 taxi fleets, said more than 70 percent of its members' 3,200 cabs were ignoring the strike. "The strike is in full effect," said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which organized the strike.

"It's empty at the airport taxi lots, empty on the streets and at the garages. Taxis have remained parked, exactly where they were as of Wednesday morning," she said Thursday. "Drivers have held strong. We're proud of them."

But city officials said the work stoppage was having a minimal effect on travel in the city.

"We're not seeing any major disruptions," Office of Emergency Management spokesman Andrew Troisi said Thursday.

It was hard to gauge exactly how many of the city's 44,000 licensed taxi drivers kept their yellow cabs parked on Wednesday and Thursday.

Javaid Tariq, who has driven a taxi for the last 13 years, was holding a picket sign outside Pennsylvania Station near a taxi stand on Thursday morning.

"It is successful," he said. "We are united. We won't give up our struggles."

On Wednesday, the alliance called the strike a "resounding success," but city officials and some other drivers' groups said the strike fizzled.

The strike caused some headaches in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday, and for arriving passengers at LaGuardia and JFK airports in Queens.

The city put into place a contingency plan that allowed nonstriking drivers to offer group rides -- meaning they could pick up multiple separate passengers -- and flat fares instead of the usual metered rates.

The alliance said more than 90 percent of drivers stopped working Wednesday. But city officials put the number at about 20 percent.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents 23 taxi fleets, said more than 70 percent of its members' 3,200 cabs remained on the road Wednesday. The group said it anticipated more drivers would return to work Thursday.

"The city has not come to a stop, and people are getting where they need to go," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Wednesday.

At least some cabbies who continued working expressed support for their striking colleagues. Yasser El-Sayed said he stayed on the job Wednesday because he needed to pay his bills.

"I can't afford to strike," he said.

At the heart of the conflict are new rules requiring the city's more than 13,000 cabs to have global-positioning system technology and video screens that will let passengers pay by credit card, check news stories and monitor their cab's location.

The cabs must have the new technology as they come up for inspection, starting Oct. 1.

City Taxi & Limousine Commission spokesman Allan Fromberg said nearly 1,600 cabs already have the technology.

The taxi commission says the technology, by eliminating the need for cash, could mean more riders and bigger fares for drivers. It also says the GPS will help passengers reclaim lost property.

The alliance, which is an advocacy group, not a labor union, fears the equipment could be used to track drivers' movements. It also says drivers will get stuck paying hefty fees to cover credit card transactions, and it questions whether the technology will work as well and as smoothly as promised.

In Philadelphia, the city's cab drivers launched a 48-hour strike on Wednesday over similar rules but ended it a day early, after causing sporadic delays.


Teachers strike illegally in Tiverton, RI

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