Teachers strike, picket St. Louis suburb

The Cahokia (IL) public schools contract stalemate went from the negotiating table to the picket lines Monday with no new negotiations scheduled between administrators and workers. The only announcement that came Monday is that school was canceled for today.

Employees who walked the picket line outside of the district's 10 schools and its administrative office from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. waved at drivers who honked their horns in support. Meanwhile, union leaders said they were shocked that administrators have made no effort to communicate with them.

Under the union's expired contract, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree earned $36,102. The average salary is about $58,000 while the highest paid teacher at the school district earned $64,471 for the 2006-07 school year.

School Board President Rich Sauget Jr. said Monday that administrators didn't want to see a strike. But while union members have pointed to a $2.2 million increase in state funding in 2007, he said revenue beyond this year is uncertain, so the district felt it had to hold their line. "I think we have been able to work well with the union in the past, and I know they are trying to do what is best for their folks," Sauget said. "We just have a difference of opinion. There is no way the board is going to sacrifice the long-term viability of the district."

"We didn't even get the courtesy of a call to say they were shutting down the school," said Brent Murphy, president of the Cahokia Federation of Teachers. "They're not talking to us at all at this point, which makes us wonder what their strategy is. It sure seems like they wanted this (strike) to happen." Murphy said he doesn't understand Sauget's reasoning because the last offer on the table was a one-year contract proposal that wouldn't force the district to commit financially beyond the 2007-08 school year.

But Sauget said if the board approves a one-year deal and revenue decreases next year, all that will have been accomplished is putting the labor strife off for one year.

"The question is, do they want to eat all their cookies today and have none left for tomorrow?" Sauget asked. "The last three hours at the last bargaining meeting were spent discussing: If this is what they want this year, what are they going to want next year?"

He said a decrease in revenue would lead to more pay freezes or possibly even cuts, something union members would be opposed to.

Murphy said he is upset with administrators' claims that the union didn't care about the district's $5.3 million debt. He said union leaders have taken pay freezes and smaller raises over the last seven years to help administrators pay off the debt and that they paid triple what they had planned last year, or about $1.6 million.

"Now times are better and we think the extra money they are getting should be shared with workers," Murphy said. "After taking less for all those years, I wonder if they perceive it as us trying to help or as weakness."

Union members rejected contract proposals from District 187 administrators Aug. 30 and Wednesday, with 94 percent voting against the first deal and 97 percent against the second. On Sept. 10, the school board unanimously rejected a contract proposal from the union. Board members also refused to approve a last-minute offer from the union before midnight Sunday that workers said was the last chance to avoid a strike.

This is District 187's first strike in 32 years. The previous one lasted for 18 days.

The Cahokia Federation of Teachers has about 520 members made up of educators, secretaries and service workers. District 187 has 4,266 students.


Picketing teachers don't want to strike

After a few weeks of school and a few months of negotiations, teachers in the Cumberland Valley (PA) School District picketed outside the school district building on the Carlisle Pike this morning before classes started.

“The picket was to raise community awareness for our contract situation,” said Jay Foerster, spokesperson for the teachers union and 10th-grade teacher at Cumberland Valley High School. “We have an outstanding staff that produces excellent students. The staff has shown commitment to its students. We want the district to show the same commitment to the staff.”

About 80 percent of the staff at all 10 buildings in the school district took part in the picket to inform the community about the issues they feel are keeping negotiations from succeeding — mainly health care and salary issues.

“We want teachers to stay here for a career, but we don’t offer promotions,” Foerster said. “You want teachers to stay and gain skills to become effective. We can offer salary increases without increasing the school tax.” The teachers union has offered to accept lower health benefit rates than its initial offer and has lowered its salary increase demand to 5.9 percent. The district considered the former, but added another condition that the union was unwilling to accept, Foerster said. The salary increase, however, is still too high for the school board, which is offering 4 percent.

Though the teachers picketed today, they do not want to strike, according to Foerster.

School district officials could not be reached for comment by press time.

The union and the school board will resume negotiations Wednesday night, where both sides hope an agreement can be reached.

The current teachers’ contract expired on June 30, and the school board and teachers union have met several times to negotiate a new contract. The teachers are working under the conditions of the old contract.


Student hunger strike makes AFSCME strikers uncomfortable

Wearing an armband with the word "fast" on it, Sofi Shank admits that her decision to put her body on the line for her beliefs isn't sitting well with her parents. "They're really concerned about my health," said Shank, 19, a University of Minnesota freshman. "My dad hasn't been getting sleep; he's been calling me all the time."

On Monday, Shank was one of 11 university students who began a hunger strike in support of striking clerical, health care and technical workers. The students -- who are also being joined by one professor and a university civil service employee -- will drink water and juice, but they vow not to eat again until the university settles the contract dispute with the AFSCME-represented workers.

The university called the hunger strike "unfortunate," and even the striking workers, who rejected an administration offer last week for a lump sum payment in lieu of a higher raise, aren't all thrilled with it. But the 11 students say they will sit in chairs each day just outside of Morrill Hall, the primary administration building.

"The administration is set on busting this union, so we're pushed into this as our last resort," said Shank, who grew up in southwest Minneapolis. "Will the administration listen? All we can do is try. For our own health, we hope the answer is yes."

Said Dani Indovino, a graduate student in the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs: "We've tried e-mails, we've tried calling, we've tried going to the regents' meeting, we've been standing on picket lines."

Phyllis Walker, the president of the local representing the clerical workers, said some of the AFSCME strikers are uncomfortable with the hunger strike.

"I was worried about them at first, but they are adults," Walker said. "This is important to them, they're making their own decisions, and we're really honored. ..."

University spokesman Dan Wolter said it is, "unfortunate when people choose to use their personal health to make a point in a labor dispute."

As the strike closes in on the two-week mark, both sides remain steadfast in their requirements to end the dispute.

The union says the university's contract offer of a 2.25 percent annual raise for clerical and technical workers and a 2.5 percent raise for health care workers isn't sufficient. The U's position is that when combined with step raises for experience, most AFSCME represented employees will receive raises of at least 8.5 percent for the contract's two years.

On Friday, the union turned down an offer in which workers would have received a $300 lump sum during each year of the contract while keeping the base increases the same.

"Our members have told us many times that lump sums don't have any lasting impact on their wages," Walker said.

AFSCME has said that if the university bumped the salary increases to 3.25 and 3.5 percent, the strike would likely end.

Wolter declined to comment when asked why the university would not apply the money for the lump sum toward increases in base pay.

The two sides continue to dispute how large of an impact the strike is having. The union said that picket lines at loading docks across campus have interrupted deliveries and that the university "isn't operating as business as usual."

The university said that the number of strikers returning to work is increasing. About 1,000 of 3,100 workers represented by the AFSCME contracts walked off the job on Sept. 5. The university said Monday that number has dropped to between 900 and 950.


Fast food slowed by Teamster strike

A strike at a Stockton food distributor is expected to affect the supply of food products at McDonald's and Chipotle restaurants in Northern California and the western part of Nevada, a union official said Monday. Sam Rosas of Teamsters Local 439 said about 200 workers at Martin-Brower have walked off the job.

Rosas said workers are upset over a request by the company for employees to pay a larger share of health care costs. Rosas added that the company has threatened to move out of Stockton. He said workers want the right to follow their jobs. Warehouse workers, drivers, clerical staff and maintenance mechancics are among those now striking.

"We value our employees and the contributions they make to our business and we are working with them to resolve any outstanding issues," Martin-Brower general manager Mark Peterson said in a prepared statement. "This has nothing to do with our customers or the companies we serve and we are confident in our ability to resolve any outstanding issues, and come to an agreement in the very near future."


Hefty pay hike ahead for striking gov't workers

Vancouver, B.C. homeowners swallowed an eight-per-cent property tax increase this year with surprisingly little outcry. Two factors drove the increase. Council decided first to increase total spending by 3.98 per cent, and then to add all of the increase to residents' bills and pass none of it on to business.

The natural tendency for homeowners to squawk was suppressed, I suspect, by the solidness of the case made by the Vancouver Fair Tax Coalition. It documented how business taxpayers are egregiously overcharged in Vancouver, to the point where increasing numbers fold or flee to the suburbs.

But what do you think the odds are that council will be able to get away with continuing to pin most or all of big future increases on homeowners' bills?

I don't think I'd want to be a councillor who tries that trick very often. Nor would I want to risk the wrath of the business community by ignoring the import of what council's own tax reform commission will tell them in a report to be formally presented today. I wrote last week that the report's policy recommendations are pretty lame, but its fundamental premise - that Vancouver businesses are seriously overtaxed - is dead on.

So this leaves just one alternative. The city will simply have to stop spending so much. It's not yet the time of year when councillors get into heavy-duty budget deliberations, but it's not too early to start thinking about what's in store.

Spending restraint is never easy, and two high-profile realities - an overlong strike by the city's unionized workers, and an overwhelming desire to have the city look good for the Olympics - are certain to create pressures to spend more, not less.

But there are other places to cut costs. Specifically, I draw attention to one of the tax commission's background documents - even though the commission report itself doesn't mention it, even in passing.

The document is a 2006 comparison of municipal spending levels in the region done by MMK Consulting. It finds Vancouver with what looks like lots of fat to trim.

The analysis shows Vancouver with total annual expenditures of $1,277 per resident, second in the region only to the City of North Vancouver at $1,385. Vancouver was particularly free-spending in the cost of general government ($137 compared to as little as $40 in Surrey), protective services ($420 compared to a range of numbers in the upper $200s in Surrey, Burnaby and Coquitlam), and in planning and development ($108 compared with well under $50 in Surrey, Burnaby, Richmond and Coquitlam.)

MMK's draft report - the only one that, as far as I know, has yet been made public - doesn't delve very deeply into exactly what Vancouver spends its extra money on. But if those numbers don't suggest areas were efficiencies can be found, I can't imagine what would.

It's timely to think about these issues not only because budget sessions are looming, but also because of the unresolved issues that stand in the way of settling the strike.

A hefty pay raise for members of the three striking union locals is pretty well inevitable, but - last we heard - they were also looking for no-layoff provisions in their contracts. This could have the potential to hamstring management and make meaningful budget cuts much more difficult, or even impossible, to implement.

So the issues of rebalancing the tax load and settling the strike may be the ones getting the headlines these days. But I think the really big issue that underlies everything else is spending. It's what will ultimately matter most when you get your next tax bill.


Number of AFSCME strikers diminishes

As the standoff continues between the AFSCME union and the University of Minnesota administration, the question of how long each side can hold its ground becomes a key issue. The strike, which began on the second day of classes, is now in its 14th day. In 2003, the clerical workers branch, the AFSCME Local 3800, went on strike for 16 days in late October and early November before settling.

With no new negotiation sessions since the strike began and two sides that stand firmly behind their proposals, the current strike threatens to be longer than the one in 2003.

Lori Ann Vicich, communications director in the University's Office of Human Resources, said the length of the strike is not much of a factor. Because the University has been able to operate without the striking workers, Vicich said, the University feels little pressure to bend. "In all honesty, the strike is having limited disruption," she said.

In addition, Vicich said she believes the University is proposing a fair deal that doesn't need to be amended.

"The proposal stays the same," she said. "We are strongly standing behind it."

Rhonda Jennen, president of the AFSCME Local 3260, said the strikers were picking up steam.

"Quite frankly, I think we're getting stronger," she said. "The tide is turning in our direction."

Despite statistics from the University's Office of Human Resources that show diminishing numbers of strikers daily, Jennen believes new strikers are off-setting those losses.

"It's normal for strikes to lose people, but what's not normal is for so many people to join us," she said.

Jennen also said the administration needs to initiate new negotiations.

"The ball is in their court," she said.

Barb Bezat, president of the AFSCME Local 3937, said she has never been prouder of her union's members.

While the size and enthusiasm of strikers near the McNamara Alumni Center, Moos Tower and Coffman Union have seemed to wane, Bezat said strikers have been moved to less-public areas of campus and are still strongly opposed to the University's offer.

For negotiations to resume, a state-assigned mediator would need to call the two sides back to the table.

Mediators are assigned by the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services, a state cabinet-level agency.

Steve Hoffmeyer, the bureau's deputy commissioner, said they do not comment on active negotiations and mediators prefer not to be identified or quoted by the media.

Vicich said in her experience, mediators will generally only call the sides back if an agreement is likely. Discussions broke off on the night of Sept. 4.

Although both sides said predicting a settlement date is difficult, one date to keep an eye on is Sept. 30.

That date is the last day of the current University-employee pay period, which began Monday.

According to bargaining unit contracts between the three AFSCME branches and the University, an employee must report to work at least once during a pay period to retain insurance benefits offered by the University.

Because workers didn't strike on the first day of classes, they were able to retain their insurance benefits for the first pay period - which ran from Sept. 3 to Sept. 16.

Under University provisions, striking workers can return to work during a work stoppage. If they rejoin the picket lines again, however, they aren't allowed back to their positions until a settlement is reached.

Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, specializes in labor history. He said time can begin to wear on both sides during a strike.

Strike length doesn't have a standard effect on negotiations, Rachleff said. Strikes need to be studied on a case-by-case basis. However, he said, pressure to settle generally increases as a strike draws on.

In reference to the University-AFSCME strike in particular, Rachleff said the key factors are how long strikers can go without paychecks versus how well the University delivers its services without the strikers.

He said predicting the strike's future beyond this week would be hard.

"If I was a weatherman, I'd say the weather would stay the same for this week," Rachleff said.


Steelworkers decertified at PA manufacturer

Machine operator Mike Walton remembers arriving at work that Monday morning in September 2005. He recalls walking toward the entrance to Mac-It Corp., which had hired him just seven months earlier, only to be greeted by fellow employees holding picket signs. "Everybody was standing out there," Walton said. "They said, 'We're striking.' I said, 'Well, you guys are. I'm working.'"

With that, the admittedly "hard-headed" 21-year-old crossed the picket line and went inside the East Liberty Street plant to his metal-cutting machine as usual, undeterred by being called a "scab," sneers, profanities and threats. "I didn't strike because I didn't like what the union was about," he said.

The walkout at the maker of specialty metal fasteners and miscellaneous parts came to an end in five weeks, without a new contract, after a half-dozen other workers also crossed the picket line.

But Walton's dissatisfaction with the union, Local 1035 of the United Steelworkers, didn't end. It grew. Finally, this summer his feelings motivated him to do something that had a far greater impact on the manufacturer and the union than crossing a picket line.

He got employees to sign a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, asking it to hold an election to decertify the union as the representative of the small firm's production workers. The board did. And the vote was 11-6 in favor of cutting ties with the union.

That ended an estimated 37 years of representation by the Steelworkers. Mac-It was officially notified last week of the Aug. 23 election's results.

"Hopefully, everything will work out for the better," Walton said Friday. "I think it will be a change for the good."

Mac-It president Mike Stillman called the employees' action "a vote of confidence in me and my management team. They're taking a leap of faith that we're going to treat them well, like we always have."

Steelworkers spokesman Joe Pozza could not be reached for comment on the decertification vote, which is a rare event at unionized workplaces.

The key issue in the 2005 strike was the Steelworkers' desire to keep Mac-It a "closed shop," meaning hourly workers who were covered by the union contract had to be union members.

Management wanted to delete the "closed shop" provision, contending it caused some workers to leave Mac-It and made it hard to recruit new ones.

"We wanted people to have a choice," Stillman said. "This is America. People should have a choice."

Walton concurred with management. He wasn't happy that he had to join the Steelworkers.

He wasn't happy that 1.3 percent of his gross pay, including overtime and bonuses, was deducted for union dues.

And he wasn't happy that the union contract, not his productivity, set his pay, and that the contract, not his willingness to take initiative, set what tasks he could perform.

Now 23, the East Ross Street resident said his decision to launch the decertification effort was triggered by "a mixture of everything (involved in union representation)... The bad outweighed the good for me."

He went to a Web site of a "right to work" organization, which advocates for "open shops," meaning employees can choose whether to join a union.

There the McCaskey High School graduate learned how to get the NLRB to conduct a decertification election. As the law requires, he got employee signatures on a petition and gave it to the NLRB.

"I even asked the union guys (if they wanted to sign), because I didn't want any hard feelings," said Walton, who runs a computer numerical control machine and is taking evening classes to learn how to program it.

With the union decertified, Mac-It immediately gave workers a 1.5 percent raise, the increase they would have received over 2005 and 2006 had the company's contract offer been accepted by the Steelworkers.

Future raises will be determined by "annual reviews of everyone," Stillman said. "We'll look at everyone individually. That's the way it should be. People should be evaluated on their own merit, not as a group."


Dwindling UFCW strikers hang in

A strike at a Riverside (CA) factory that makes frozen Mexican food continued Monday with little end in sight. Windsor Foods, owner of the José Olé brand of frozen foods, handed out fliers and posted notices late afternoon Friday that outlined the company's proposed contract offer to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents about 450 employees.

In it, the company details its proposed wage increases, 2 percent the first year and 3 percent the second, third and fourth years. Each employee would have also received a $300 signing bonus if the contract had been ratified."

The primary sticking point for the union had been the company's proposed changes to health insurance coverage. The union had said employees would have to pay 15 percent of their insurance under the company's proposal.

The flier handed out Friday said employees would not pay for any health insurance during the first two years of the contract. The third year, employees would pay $5 or $7 a week. The fourth year, workers would pay between $5 and $10 a week. The Houston-based company also said it would not require workers to pay for dental or vision insurance.

Lynn Sutter, vice president of Dallas-based Windsor's consumer division, would not comment on specifics related to the company's proposal and referred to the flier that was handed out. She said Monday no negotiations were scheduled and none occurred during the weekend.

"Plant operations have resumed and employees returning to work have exceeded expectations," she said, referring to workers who had crossed the picket line to return to their jobs.


Teachers strike idles 4,300 kids

A teachers strike has canceled classes in the Cahokia (IL) school district for the second day, leaving students with mixed emotions. A group of six boys in middle school said they liked the day off but worried about missing basketball practice. They were also concerned about making up days during breaks or in the summer. "We're going to have to come back for longer," said Travion Thompson, 14.

Even more anxious are members of the Cahokia High football team, who have hopes for a playoff spot this year. In all, about 4,300 children are out of school, and all extracurricular activities and practices have been canceled.

For the first time since 1975, the Cahokia Federation of Teachers and the School Board are at a stalemate over raises and benefits. The union also has filed an unfair labor grievance, accusing the board of negotiating in bad faith. "We don't think it's about dollars and cents at this point," said union spokesman Dave Comerford.

The two sides did not meet Monday, and no negotiations were scheduled for today.

Cahokia High School football coach Antwyne Golliday fears the strike might cost his team a chance at the state championship.

The Comanches have won all four of their games so far this season. That puts them in a good spot to reach the playoffs. But they figure they'll need a 6-3 record to be safe. If the athletes can't go to class, they must forfeit the game, and it goes down as a loss.
POLL: Should public school teachers be allowed to strike?

Cahokia is scheduled to play Carbondale at 7 p.m. Friday.

"Hopefully, we'll get it solved by the weekend," Golliday said. As a driver education instructor, he is one of the striking teachers.

Parents had their own issues. Kim Lee-Nash, 24, said she will have to take her daughter Kaylee, 5, to day care today. That costs $20 to $60 a day and might get pricey, depending on how long the strike lasts.

But Lee-Nash said she's not upset with the union.

"I would do the same thing," she said. "I'm not mad or anything."

Kaylee said she was happy she got to play in her room Monday instead of going to school.

"I want to stay home," she said.

Superintendent Jana Bechtoldt said she doesn't know how the days lost would be made up; that will be determined through contract negotiations with the union.

The teachers have asked for a 3.5 percent raise, and the board's last offer was 2.25 percent. The union rejected that offer last week.

Bechtoldt said that if the district gave the teachers their desired increase this year, there would be no money for a raise next year without risking a deficit.

"We have to look at the long term," she said.

Comerford countered that the contract is a one-year agreement and the two parties will renegotiate next year. He added that there's no reason to anticipate the deficit growing next year.

The union has accused school officials of bad-faith bargaining because of a news release the union president found on a school copy machine during the Sept. 10 board meeting. The document said the School Board had rejected the union's latest contract offer, but it had been printed before members had discussed and voted on the proposal.

Bechtoldt said the the document found on the copier was one of several versions created prior to the meeting so the media could be alerted as soon as possible. She said the board spent several hours talking about the union's contract proposal on Sept. 10, and has always bargained in good faith.

The union includes roughly 300 teachers and 200 service employees The teachers have been working without a contract since Aug. 12, when a two-year agreement expired.


Missouri's anti-labor Progressive

Each fall John Hickey, executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, hands out awards to people and organizations that have worked for liberal causes. This year the awards will go to Democratic state senator Jolie Justus, the fair-housing group ACORN, United Auto Workers and the retired president of Missouri National Education Association, Greg Jung.

The October dinner at America’s Center is Pro-Vote’s main fundraiser, supporting its work statewide. While a who’s who of liberal politics will likely buy the $75 tickets, several of Pro-Vote’s former employees say the organization needs more than money and its well-connected founder in order to thrive.

Pro-Vote, as the fifteen-year-old organization is known, usually has a staff of eight to ten full and part-time employees. “In the last few years, they’ve had at least that many employees turn over,” says Eric Fey, a former field organizer in St. Louis.

Fey, who was hired by Pro-Vote in February, lasted seven months. Typical of life inside a grassroots political organization, the pay is meager, and the work is intense. But Fey and several other former Pro-Vote staffers say it was Hickey’s controlling behavior that drove them out. They say it only grew worse this summer, after they tried to get union representation.

Hickey is named in a charge filed September 10 with the National Labor Relations Board in St. Louis. The Brotherhood of Union Support Staff, an independent union, alleges Pro-Vote interfered with a petition for representation.

“John is a brilliant man,“ says Megan Peterson, a Kansas City-based field organizer who left her job shortly after Labor Day. “John knows politics like most people do not know electoral politics. Management of staff in day-to-day matters is not John’s strong suit.“

Peterson says they sought to organize, first to prevent Hickey from arbitrarily declaring new rules and work hours. They also thought Pro-Vote’s paid staff should show solidarity with the organization’s many backers in labor.

“We saw it as bitter medicine, that John wouldn’t want to take the medicine, but ultimately it would make Pro-Vote better,” Peterson says.

Peterson adds that some of Pro-Vote’s directors, who work for various unions, support the organization effort.

Hickey did not return a phone call requesting comment.

Perry Molens, the Brotherhood of Union Support Staff representative, declined to comment because he has a mediation with Pro-Vote scheduled for Friday.

Four of the eleven staff members (not counting Hickey) listed on Pro-Vote‘s Web site have left since Molens asked Hickey to recognize the union.

Peterson says Hickey not only refused to recognize the union but went to great lengths to thwart the effort. She says Hickey told Molens he would have to put the question to Pro-Vote’s executive board, but then let the matter drop. Meanwhile, Peterson claims, Hickey was telling board members his staff no longer wanted to organize.

Peterson says Hickey, who frowns on lunch breaks, grew more controlling, for example, telling the staff fundraiser that she could not leave the building without his permission.

Molens filed a second petition with the NLRB on August 29. Peterson had already given her notice, but she says she walked off the job early because of Hickey’s actions.

After receiving the second petition, Peterson says, Hickey promoted and gave raises to two new staff members, one of whom hadn't yet begun working. “John was arguing every single staff person employed at Pro-Vote had the ability to hire and fire," says Peterson. "That made me so mad that I quit.”

Fey, who has found a new job, says he wanted to work for Pro-Vote because the organization had been so helpful when he was working on a Democratic state representative’s campaign in 2006. Fey had just graduated from college. “One of the regional organizers helped me immensely -- database assistance, that kind of stuff. The work Pro-Vote does is vital.“

Fey says he remains passionate about politics and the causes he worked for at Pro-Vote.

“I didn’t want it to get out to the other side that the organization was going through this turmoil, but it’s reached a point where I think it needs to get out," he says.


Big Labor likes Democrats' choices

Democratic presidential hopefuls on Monday brandished their labor credentials and tried to outdo one another with political promises as they competed for the support of two powerful labor unions.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut told the Service Employees International Union that he would get universal health care passed and signed in four years. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois insisted he would immediately bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton promised to stop outsourcing government work to private companies.

The SEIU endorsement would be a plum for any candidate. The organization bills itself as the nation's fastest growing union with more than 1.8 million members. It is also a major player in campaign financing, having given more than $25 million to mostly Democratic candidates since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Several Democrats shuttled from Chicago to Washington, appealing to the 500,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America in Chicago and then making their pitch to the SEIU later in the day.

Edwards told union activists in Washington that his first act as president would be to introduce a law taking away health care from Congress, the vice president and the Cabinet in July 2009 if universal health care was not passed first.

"And I don't want to hear any whining," Edwards told the cheering and stomping crowd.

Democrats have been working hard to gain the support of unions like the SEIU and the Laborers, hoping to break free of the presidential primary pack.

President Bush and his administration were popular targets, with each candidate promising to be more labor friendly.

"People say to me, when I'm president will labor have a seat at the table? Labor built the table," Clinton said.

Obama invoked Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he talked about the questions about his experience.

"What they really mean is you haven't been in Washington long enough," Obama told the SEIU crowd. "We don't need that kind of experience. ... I might not have the kind of experience that Washington likes, but I have the experience America needs right now."

Dodd, Clinton and Edwards have each received endorsements from other unions this year.

SEIU President Andy Stern said he expects the service employees' endorsement to be made no earlier than October. However, the union members' reaction to the candidates Monday will play a big part in that decision.

"If they're all split up all over the place, it'll be hard to imagine the leaders making a decision," Stern said. "If they had a very strong preference for one of the candidates in September, it would have a huge positive impact on our decision making."

SEIU is one of seven major unions that broke from the AFL-CIO in 2005 over internal disagreements on how best to build organized labor's membership and political clout. The unions have since formed a new political coalition — Change to Win.

Only one of Change to Win's unions have made an endorsement: the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which endorsed Edwards last month. The rest will meet in Chicago later this month to hear from the Democratic primary candidates.


Teachers strike cash-strapped district for higher pay

Classes for the roughly 4,300 students in the Cahokia, IL school system (a St. Louis suburb) were canceled Monday as teachers walked the picket lines for the first time in more than three decades. The walkout - the district's first since 1975 - came hours after the passing of a midnight deadline the teachers' union had set for the district to accept its proposal for a one-year deal.

The average teacher salary last year was $57,772. The deal included a 3.5-percent pay raise in addition to the yearly step increase on their salary scale. The school district's offer called for a 2.25 percent increase.

Talks broke down Friday in the district, where classes had begun Aug. 13. No negotiations have been set. The Cahokia Federation of Teachers represents about 300 teachers and 200 service workers and secretaries. The teachers' contracts expired Aug. 12 and the service workers' contract expired July 1.

School officials have said the district is about $5.3 million in debt and has been on the state's financial watch list for about 10 years.

The district's superintendent, Jana Bechtoldt, said the teachers' proposal would plunge the district into deficit spending by 2009-10, and the district ultimately could end up with a financial oversight panel that might hurt teacher salaries and benefits in the long run.

But Brent Murphy, president of the Local 1272 representing the teachers, said the district's last contract proposal offered less money than its earlier offers.

"They've admitted that they have the money," he said. "They're not budging at all.

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