Top Democrats pander to undecided Labor coalition

Three top Democratic presidential contenders used a Chicago union meeting to pledge their fealty to organized labor Tuesday even though one union regarded as among the most politically influential in the nation has decided to hold off on any endorsement.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina made in-person pitches to the Change to Win group of unions. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York had to phone-in her plea for support due to transportation problems.

But the appeals of all three were firmly rooted in equating a strong labor movement to a strong middle class and promoting their plans for expanded health care as each looked to gain significant campaign ground troops from the 6 million people represented by the group's member unions.

Change to Win is made up of seven unions that have dissociated themselves from the AFL-CIO labor umbrella.

Still, the gathering occurred a day after the executive board of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation's most politically active and growing labor unions, opted not to endorse any presidential contenders at this time. The move made it difficult for Change to Win to make any endorsement.

Anna Burger, SEIU's secretary treasurer who headed the Chicago session, said it would not be fair to describe Change to Win's endorsement process as being a "three-way toss-up" among Edwards, Clinton and Obama. But she said she could speak "glowingly" about all three contenders.

In March of last year, at Change to Win's first organizing convention, its lone speaker among potential presidential contenders was Edwards.

Noting his support for tougher trade standards, an increased minimum wage and efforts to make it easier for workers to unionize, Edwards told the group that the test to win those achievements is to evaluate the candidates and look at "who's been there in the trenches."

Obama noted he has a history of walking picket lines as a community organizer and politician. "I don't mind walking," he said.

Clinton maintained the Bush White House had created an era of anti-unionism. "They think unions have no place in America and they essentially tried to be the exterminators of the union bug," she said.

Also on Tuesday, the Rudolph Giuliani campaign distanced itself from a "$9.11 for Rudy" themed fundraising event this week, a reference to Giuliani's record as New York mayor after the Sept. 11 attacks. "These are two volunteers who acted independently of and without the knowledge of the campaign," Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella said. "Their decision to ask individuals for that amount was an unfortunate choice."


Oregon union abandons entire bargaining unit

After weeks of bitter infighting, a union representing more than 500 Portland-area ambulance workers has "disclaimed" the bargaining unit, leaving the employees of American Medical Response without a contract or union representation.

The turn of events sets the stage for continued unrest that could affect ambulance service across four counties: Multnomah and Clackamas in Oregon, and Clark and Cowlitz in Washington. Through contracts with the counties, American Medical Response is the exclusive provider of ambulance services.

In June, the paramedics and emergency medical technicians threatened to call a strike to secure higher wages and better health care coverage. The strike threat appeared to fade on Aug. 10, when the union, the National Emergency Medical Services Association, announced a tentative agreement and union officials predicted members would approve it. Instead, terms of the agreement provoked outrage among ambulance workers.

Union members said they wanted raises to bring their compensation in line with American Medical Response employees in other West Coast cities.

Annual pay for emergency medical technicians ranges from about $24,800 to $28,500 in Portland, compared with $29,500 to $53,300 in Seattle and $40,600 to $54,300 in Sacramento, according to Portland-area ambulance workers. Paramedics earn more, ranging from about $37,000 to $51,000, but also make considerably less than peers in other West Coast cities, they say.

Some workers complained that the tentative agreement didn't come close to making up the difference. And, they said, it saddled them with an increasing share of health care premiums.

"Everybody was very disgusted with the insurance segment," said Jeff Birrer, a paramedic. Birrer said many of his fellow employees wanted the union, known as NEMSA, to push the strike threat harder during negotiations.

"One of the big issues was, NEMSA didn't want to give a strike notice," Birrer said. "The fact that the national union wouldn't throw down a strike notice took away one of our biggest tools."

Union President Torren Colcord dismissed the complaints. "The expectations of these workers are unrealistic," he said in a written statement. Colcord said the tentative agreement would give most employees a 26 percent wage increase over three years, including annual raises, increases in wage steps and a signing bonus.

NEMSA representative Jeff Misner said members of the bargaining unit expected to get a 180 percent pay increase, and perks such as big-screen plasma televisions at their stations and paid bereavement leave for the death of a pet.

"There was no way this organization could justify a strike and put the safety of these communities in peril for the things these people were demanding to strike over," Misner said.

The Portland-area ambulance workers have been represented by the union for less than two years. Dissatisfied with a contract negotiated by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, a majority of members voted to leave that union in March 2006. The bargaining unit previously was represented by two other unions.

As resentments built over the latest agreement, members began organizing a petition to reject representation by NEMSA, a Modesto, Calif.-based union claiming about 6,000 members across the nation.

A vote count on the tentative agreement was set for later this week, but the national union pulled out rather than see its work rejected. On Monday afternoon, the union faxed to federal labor regulators a notice of its intent to abandon the Portland and Vancouver bargaining unit, confirmed James Kobe, acting regional director with the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle. He said the board has not yet verified and acted on the disclaimer.

Kobe said unions do not frequently disclaim bargaining units, but it happens.

Birrer, the paramedic, said fellow workers are seeking another union to represent them. On an Internet bulletin board, workers have mentioned a Teamsters local as one possibility.

Dr. Gary Oxman, Multnomah County health officer, said the situation isn't likely to disrupt ambulance service, but some questions remain unanswered.

"We're not really sure, in the absence of a union, what potential there is for a work stoppage," he said. "We've been digging all day to figure out what's going on."

American Medical Response expressed confidence in maintaining service.

"I'm sure that we will proceed to bargain in good faith with whoever is representing our employees," said Lucy Drum, a company spokeswoman.


Teachers strike post-agreement, district flinches

No classes will be held Thursday in the Shoreline School District (Kenmore, WA) after the teacher's union announced plans for a one-day walkout.

Although the Shoreline Education Association agreed to a two-year contact with the district earlier this month, there remain differences, particularly over class sizes in the schools and the district's decision to hire more teachers to reduce those class sizes.

District officials said they do not know how many teachers will join in the walkout, but because of the uncertainty, they have decided to close school for that day. Students will make up the school day on June 18.


Unruly Teamster ejected from school board meeting

A union representative was escorted out of the Fort Wayne (IN) Community Schools board meeting Monday night after discussions became contentious over stalled negotiations of the bus drivers’ contract.

Walter Lytle, who works with Teamsters Local 414, was asked to leave by board Vice President Mark GiaQuinta after Lytle continued to interrupt GiaQuinta. GiaQuinta, who was chairing the meeting in President Steve Corona’s absence, was responding to comments Lytle and others made during the public-expression portion of the meeting when Lytle spoke up in the back of the room in opposition to what GiaQuinta was saying.

GiaQuinta continued to ask Lytle to be quiet and reminded him that he had his chance to speak during the public portion. GiaQuinta warned Lytle that if he didn’t quiet down he would have him escorted out, but Lytle kept talking. GiaQuinta then asked that Lytle be removed from the meeting, and the meeting was recessed. The board then came back into session and voted to give bus drivers two years of past-due raises and pay increases for the next two years.

Since the bus drivers’ contract expired in December 2005, drivers have not received the salary increases other groups received. Last month, the school board approved giving the drivers a 1 percent raise all employees received in April 2006.

Monday’s vote gave about 225 drivers a 1.5 percent raise from 2006, a 1 percent raise from 2007, a 4 percent increase for 2008 and 2 percent for 2009. But Lytle and other drivers say they are not satisfied with just the raises and want the administration to agree on a contract they say was settled in the spring.

A contract was tentatively agreed to by both sides last spring, but Superintendent Wendy Robinson said previously the drivers changed some of the language afterward and ratified it on their side without conferring with school officials. During normal negotiations, Robinson said, both sides meet to agree on the language before either side ratifies the contract.

“As long as the word ‘tentative’ is in front of an agreement, it’s not an agreement,” GiaQuinta said Monday, prompting Lytle to begin arguing.

The drivers disagree and say the contract is virtually the same.

Many drivers say their main issue with the district is that they want a different health insurance package that officials won’t agree to. A previous issue was over a provision known as “fair share,” which would require all bus drivers to pay union dues, but it has been taken off the table.

Lytle said he and other Teamsters representatives are meeting with an attorney today to sue the school system.

“I have no intentions of coming back to the (bargaining) table,” Lytle said.

GiaQuinta, an attorney, said he understands sometimes it takes the legal system to resolve these types of matters.

“If that’s where the matter ends up, that’s where it ends up and so be it,” GiaQuinta said.

In other business:

• The board approved a 4 percent salary increase for 2008 and a 2 percent increase for 2009 for the Nurses Association, Classified Association, AFSCME Local 561, representing secretaries, media clerks, assistants and clerks, and AFSCME Local 561, representing custodians, groundskeepers and food-services workers.

• The board approved removing a cap in the amount of money members can receive annually as compensation for their duties. The decision puts the board in line with the four other Allen County public school boards and school boards in Indianapolis, South Bend and Evansville, none of which has a maximum payment.

Previously, board members could not receive more than $5,000 each year for their services, including payment for meeting attendance and expenses during trips. Because there are more board meetings planned this year, keeping the cap would make it difficult for board members to be compensated fairly, members said.

Board members receive $2,000 each year for meeting attendance.


Three Dems put on union label in Chicago

Two Democratic presidential candidates appeared in Chicago today to make their pitch to yet another union convention - and one additional candidate phoned in - even as one of the nation's most influential unions has decided to not endorse any of them for now.

"I'm tired of playing defense," Sen. Barack Obama told about 1,000 union members gathered at the Chicago Hilton. "We are ready to play offense for a living wage and good jobs. We're ready to play offense for some comprehensive immigration reform."

The Illinois Democrat was the first of the top three Democratic candidates to speak to the Change to Win group of unions. He was followed by former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York phoned in, after she was forced to cancel a personal appearance because of transportation problems.

Obama reminded the audience that he has walked picket lines before as a community organizer and candidate.

"I've got some comfortable shoes at home. If it's hot outside, then I've got a hat. If it's cold outside, I've got a jacket," Obama said. "But if you are being denied your rights, I don't care if I'm in the United States Senate or in the White House, I will make sure I am marching with you on the picket lines because that's what I believe in. I don't mind walking. I'm young. I'm in good shape."

During a meeting in Chicago on Monday, the executive board of the Service Employees International Union decided not to endorse any of the presidential candidates at this time. Democrats covet that endorsement because the union is large, growing and politically active.

The decision by S.E.I.U. not to endorse now made it difficult for Change to Win, a rival of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor federation, to endorse anyone today at its convention.

"We're not making a decision today," Anna Burger, the convention's chair and the secretary-treasurer of the S.E.I.U., told reporters.

Burger said it would not be fair to describe the endorsement process as being a "three-way toss up" between Edwards, Obama and Clinton.

She initially spoke glowingly about Edwards. But when asked whether that praise meant he had the inside track for an endorsement, she said she could "also speak glowingly" about the others.

"We said this is an organic process with our members and with our leaders and we want to make sure we that make the right decision at the right time," she said.

Edwards appeared undaunted by the lack of an endorsement and noted his wife, Elizabeth spent the morning at a United Auto Workers' picket line in their strike against General Motors. Edwards challenged the union members to ask themselves which of the Democratic contenders would truly represent their interests in the White House.

"It is easy to speak in front of unions about unions. The question is, 'Do you really believe? Are you a true believer?' The test of a true believer is if you talk about it everywhere," the former North Carolina senator said.

"If you want to ask yourself who will actually do what I've been talking about…the test of that is who's been there in the trenches. The test of that is who talks about unions and organizing," he said.

Edwards reiterated his support for restrictions on trade policy to include environmental and labor protections and restated his push for universal health care. He maintained that union members should be negotiating wages and pensions, not the cost of health care.

He also took a veiled shot at Obama's health care plan since, unlike the Edwards and Clinton plans, would not mandate that individuals obtain health insurance.

"For anybody running for president, their first question ought to be, is it universal?" Edwards said. "What man, what woman in America is not entitled to health care? What child is not worthy of health care?"

Edwards also turned to a familiar criticism of Clinton for her acceptance of campaign donations from a health care industry that he maintains would actively block attempts to create a universal health care plan.

"By the way, you still have a chance to ask one of those candidates the question" about accepting industry donations, Edwards told the group.

"I think the only way you really bring about serious change, first of all, you don't defend the corrupt system in Washington that needs to be changed," he said.

Clinton was forced to cancel her scheduled in-person appearance and phoned into the event after she said air-traffic control in the Memphis region had shut down air traffic, preventing her from leaving Little Rock, Ark., and a 50-year commemoration of the Little Rock 9 who integrated the city's Central High School.

But the former first lady and current New York senator echoed the comments of the other Democratic contenders in voicing support for legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.

"What you do is not only about your members, it's not even just about the American labor movement," Clinton said. "It is about the middle class of the country. It's about the American dream."

Clinton maintained that the Bush White House had created an era of anti-unionism.

"They think unions have no place in America and they essentially tried to be the exterminators of the union bug," Clinton said before reverting to a frequent campaign theme that various sectors of society—this time, the middle class—"have been invisible to the president."

Though the North American Free Trade Agreement was created under her husband's presidency, Clinton noted her opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement and extending fast-track authority for presidential trade negotiations. She also noted the need to create protections for American workers in trade pacts.

Like Edwards, Clinton said it was time to end the "bottleneck" of union negotiations by creating a universal health care program and said she believed people are more cognizant of the need compared to her failed efforts as first lady 15 years ago.

During Obama's speech, top Edwards advisor Joe Trippi stood in the back of the room, trying to keep from smiling during a funny story Obama tells about a visit to a small South Carolina town (previously Swamped here).

Later, Trippi said he remains confident that Edwards can win the endorsement.

"You've got to let the internal processes of any union play out," he said. "We feel very good about the case we have made and the work we have done and his record."

Change to Win claims six million workers and includes the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE, United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, United Farm Workers of America, and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Prior to the candidate speeches, the union group presented results from a poll it commissioned about the "American Dream."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said two-thirds of voters nationwide believe that the "American Dream" is getting harder to achieve.

"Voters are anxious that they will not be part of the American Dream," she said. "Voters want change in this election."

Lake said the poll of 800 randomly selected registered voters shows they "believe there is a clear role for government in restoring the American Dream."

The Republican National Committee issued a brief response to the appearance of the presidential candidates before the union group.

“Instead of pandering to win endorsements from big labor bosses, Democrat candidates should be explaining to rank-and-file union members why they are going to raise their taxes and cut funding from our troops overseas," the statement said.


Union activism downgrades high-end school district

After averting a strike with hours to spare before the first day of school, Shoreline teachers Thursday are staging a one-day strike over another dispute with the district. The Shoreline Education Association, backed by many parents, blames administrators for making elementary-school students bear the brunt of the latest cost-saving measure: boosting some class sizes three weeks into the school year.

The 10,000-student district has already closed two elementary schools to save money. The ongoing turmoil threatens Shoreline's image as one of the region's most sought-after school districts.

The district, which canceled Thursday classes in anticipation of the walkout, says it must undergo drastic measures to avoid state sanctions following a financial scandal two years ago. "The reputation of the district is in jeopardy with the actions of the association," Superintendent Sue Walker said. "There wasn't a town here originally, there was a school district, and people moved here to be a part of that."

Shoreline's test scores — well above the state average on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning — along with low teacher turnover, community support for levies and small class sizes have long made it a destination district for families from Seattle.

The latest dispute has to do with those class sizes at elementary schools. The district has to pay teachers extra if their classes are larger than 24 to 27 students, depending on the grade. At the beginning of the school year, Shoreline had 61 teachers with overloaded classes - an expense of about $500,000.

So starting this week at most of the district's nine elementaries, students were shuffled into different classes - in some cases combining two grades in one room - in order to designate some larger classes and keep the rest of the classes small. Then the district assigned an additional teacher to help out in the larger classes, usually for an hour or so a day. That way, the district doesn't have to pay any teachers extra.

The largest classes have about 30 students and could grow as new students move into the district.

Parents were livid. Sharon Reijonen said she told her fifth-grade son, Ben, about his new fifth-sixth combination class over the weekend, after getting a call Saturday from his school's principal.

Ben "lost it," she said. "He said, 'Why me? Why me? Why did they pick me?' "

Two days into the change, she said, her son has been eating lunch alone and doing handwritten math problems the teacher prepared - absent curriculum for a split class - on the fly.

"The right that we have to a good education, by this decision by the administration, has been hindered," Reijonen said.

The district's financial troubles blew up in 2005 when a series of mistakes by top staffers resulted in a $5 million shortfall. Two years and two superintendents later, the district has balanced its $85 million budget. The state, as part of its oversight, requires the district to be out of the hole in August 2008. If that doesn't happen, the state could assign a budget manager to the district or take other steps. Last year, Shoreline was still $1.5 million in the red.

In the latest dispute, changing the elementary-school class sizes is just being responsible, said School Board member Dan Mann, who is among three of the five board members running for re-election.

"We're trying to use our resources more effectively than we have in the past," he said.

The teachers, who in late August joined with staff members and threatened to strike over pay and benefits, now say they feel the district misled them about a contract change that makes the new class assignments possible. They say district negotiators told them the change related to secondary schools, then used the change to adjust elementary-school classes. District officials say that's not true.

"Before we do something this instructionally damaging, we believe we should have exhausted all possible avenues for revenue generation and for cost reduction," said Elizabeth Beck, co-president of the Shoreline Education Association.

But at this point, it's too late to return the kids to their original classes, Beck added. What the union wants now is for the district to commit to retaining its usual staffing system for next year.

Kaydee McGillivray, a Brookside Elementary School teacher whose sixth-grade class this week gained eight fifth-graders, including Reijonen's son, believes teachers are being forced to bargain to protect students.

"This is the first time in my teaching career I have ever been embarrassed to be in this district," said McGillivray, who has been teaching for 27 years, 17 of them in Shoreline. "They're sucking the soul out of Shoreline."

Parent Ed Coleman said the teachers have remained the school district's strong suit amid the financial problems. But letting the financial troubles directly affect elementary-school students, including his sixth-grade son, crossed a line, he said.

"There's definitely a sense that in this whole struggle to bring the financial picture back into line, there's been a certain callousness and overlooking what's happening in the classroom," he said. "It's past the eleventh hour, it's past the twelfth hour. It's the third week of school."

Parents also planned a march Thursday.

But district officials say they're standing firm, making decisions that should have been made years ago.

"I don't think the strike is going to change what's going on, and I think it sends the wrong message to the community," board president Mike Jacobs said. "Frustration and disappointment are my primary emotions at this point."


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