Unions balk as PA weighs teacher strike-ban

In the face of powerful union opposition, some state lawmakers are agitating to build support for legislation that would ban teacher strikes in Pennsylvania , a move they say would end the state's distinction as a leader in teacher walkouts.

Proposals that were introduced during the 2005-06 legislative session went nowhere, but proponents of the idea are hoping to spur greater public pressure this time by linking the issue to rising property taxes, a chronic complaint among the state's homeowners.

An organization called Stop Teacher Strikes Inc. has compiled a list of all 253 legislators on its Web site and noted whether they were endorsed by and received campaign contributions from the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

"What we're trying to do is rally the public," said the organization's founder, Simon Campbell, a resident of the Pennsbury School District in suburban Philadelphia. Campbell appeared Monday at a news conference with a handful of House Republicans who are sponsoring a bill and a related constitutional amendment that would make walkouts by educators illegal.

The bill would force teachers to forfeit two days' pay for each day of a strike, fine individuals $5,000 for inciting a strike, and require nonbinding arbitration to resolve contract disputes within a certain time frame.

The amendment prohibiting strikes would be included in a section of the constitution that requires the Legislature to provide a "thorough and efficient" public education system.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by lawmakers in two consecutive legislative sessions and by voters in a referendum. The advantage of that process, despite its length and complexity, is that the amendment would not require the governor's approval, said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler.

"It should be clear to anyone with common sense that 'thorough and efficient' does not mean allowing the education process to be disrupted by teacher strikes," Metcalfe said.

Schools in three of the state's 501 school districts were closed Monday because of teacher strikes: Seneca Valley School District in Butler County, Lake-Lehman School District in Luzerne County, and Reynolds School District in Mercer County.

Of nearly 140 teacher strikes that occurred nationally between 2000 and 2007, 60 percent took place in Pennsylvania, according to a report released in August by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states in which teacher strikes are legal, and the state in which walkouts are most common, the institute found.

The Pittsburgh-based think tank opposes strikes by public-sector unions in "vital sectors" such as mass transit and education, said Jake Haulk, its president.

"The only way you get (support for a ban) is a massive uprising on the part of the taxpayers who say, 'Enough is enough,'" Haulk said. "That hasn't happened yet."

PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said the report is misleading because its comparisons include smaller states such as Hawaii, which has only one statewide school district.

Pennsylvania teachers first won the right to strike in 1970, and the law was revised in 1992 to limit the duration of strikes to ensure that students receive the minimum 180 days of instruction required by law.

Rendell, who received $500,000 from PSEA's political-action committee for his re-election bid last year, opposes an outright ban on strikes, "certainly not without providing a way for grievances to be handled fairly," spokesman Chuck Ardo said.

Rendell favors resolving labor disputes by forcing both sides to go through binding arbitration , a provision included in a strike-ban bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow of Lackawanna County.

"We don't believe there's a need for a radical response," Ardo said.

PSEA is unwilling to give up the right to strike, however, and favors binding arbitration only when both sides agree to pursue it, Keever said. The union represents about 116,000 active teachers.

"It's the only leverage we have" in negotiations, Keever said. "Although no one likes to strike ... we believe the right to strike is necessary under certain circumstances."


Teamsters strike enters 2nd year

Precariously arranged at the edge of Steuben Street, the ramshackle hut of plywood boards covered in tattered plastic creaks and flutters in the crisp autumn air.

The shack is a marvel of ingenuity, given that the striking Standard Ready Mix workers started out with a bare patch of city right of way on the curb. Through much of last winter, they huddled together around a burn barrel with only their coats to protect them from the elements. The electrical connections they've managed to rig are crude, but the men still count their blessings, among them being able to watch "Judge Joe Brown" and heat food in a microwave oven.

Their bathroom is a portable outhouse loaded onto a small trailer.

On any given day, you might find four men playing Euchre in the back of the shack for pennies or a small crowd gathered in front of the TV’s fuzzy picture. On other days, there could be just one man inside, sucking on a cigarette butt as he relaxes in a lawn chair.

Hundreds of days have passed during the yearlong strike at Standard Ready Mix in Sioux City and Ludey's Ready Mix in Vermillion, S.D. During that time, 13 of the 50 workers who struck at Standard have crossed the strike line to return to work, according to company president Mark Jensen. Five of the eight who walked out at Ludey's are back at work, Jensen said.

A few have found other full-time jobs, including with Standard Ready Mix’s competitor, Siouxland Concrete in South Sioux City. Others have found part-time work in random bars or stores, and by late summer, two were driving buses for the Sioux City Transit System. Some don’t have a job at all.

Jensen terminated four striking workers for what he termed serious "misconduct."

Now, a year since the strike started on Oct. 16, 2006, striking workers still show up in shifts of one, two, three, four -- whenever they want, for the most part -- to continue their quest for a better contract, more comprehensive health-care coverage, higher pay. At least, that’s what they hope for. But as former five-year Standard Ready Mix employee Greg Newell put it, hope is running thin.

"We don't have a clue as to who's telling us the truth," Newell said of negotiations between General Drivers and Helpers Union Local 554, an affiliate of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the decades-old concrete mixing and delivery company. "Nobody seems to know anything."

The two parties haven’t met since late last year to talk about a new contract. Lawyers for both sides said meetings may have stalled due to multimillion-dollar lawsuits the company and the union filed against each other -- one regarding the union’s alleged illegal strike and one alleging Standard Ready Mix improperly froze the company pension plan.

However, a document filed by the union Sept. 27 in federal court in Nebraska says negotiations reopened Sept. 19.

Jensen maintains they never closed. "Negotiations have been ongoing," he said last week. "We have not been able to get them to the table."

Jensen is scheduled to give a deposition today.

Negotiation breakdown?

Article 7 of the Teamsters' most recent contract with Standard Ready Mix, which expired Oct. 15, 2006, says the contract remains in effect during negotiations unless the talks reach impasse. If it gets to that point, the contract says, before either party takes legal or economic recourse, it must notify the other party in writing seven days in advance.

Whether that article was still in effect Oct. 16, 2006, when the workers went on strike, is the crux of a federal lawsuit Standard Ready Mix filed in January against Local 554. Jensen and his lawyer, labor specialist Kelly Berens of Omaha, claim the union breached the contract’s no-strike provision and didn’t provide the required seven days' notice before the strike began. Union officials said in court documents that the company didn't present any contract proposals in the two days after union members voted down its "last, best and final offer" on Oct. 13, 2006, and that that created an impasse -- a deadlock between two parties after good-faith negotiation and mediation has failed. If there was impasse, they claim, the period of negotiations was over and the contract was expired, meaning union workers could strike without notice.

Court documents filed by the union say negotiations had been going on for nine days before the company presented a contract proposal on which union members could vote; when a contract was provided as a final offer, it was two days before the old contract expired.

"We weren't saying that was our final offer, " Jensen said. "It was our offer at the time. ... We are not at impasse. Nobody has written any letters" saying they are done negotiating.

"We withdrew our offer and said we would re-evaluate it and see what changes we could make to bring about a resolution," said Berens. "We've been in contact with the union and their lawyers, we have requested meetings ... they could have signed a one-year extension of the contract. There were all kinds of alternatives available."

Jensen said the union didn't come to the bargaining table until about two weeks before the contract was due to run out.

Local 554 business manager Danny Avelyn of Kansas City and officials with the local's headquarters in Omaha have declined to comment on any issues related to the strike beyond what is provided in public court documentation. Local 554 lawyer Mike Weinberg of Omaha also has declined to speak on the record.

The company is asking for about $1 million in compensation for "lost profits and market share, damage to its business reputation, expenses required to maintain business operations during the unlawful strike, overall valuation of the company, wasted overhead expenses and expenses incurred to recruit and train new employees," according to court documents.

"The union's liability is great," Berens said. "The business is in tremendous economic hardship."

Sales volume statistics show the company was losing $375,000 to $900,000 a month in sales in the first five months of the strike, and Jensen said those losses have continued.

"We had to turn down business because we couldn't deliver the product without workers. We also lost some contracts," Jensen said. "Some people don't feel comfortable crossing a picket line."

Pension problems

Also at the heart of the battle between Local 554 and Standard Ready Mix is the company's pension plan, which was frozen June 1, 2002. All benefits accrued up to that date have been retained by retirees and current company employees and have continued to be paid out, Jensen said, and a 401(k) retirement plan is available. But union officials claim in a federal lawsuit filed in February that neither workers nor the union received notice of the pension freeze and that the workers are in danger of losing their benefits -- even those who worked for them for 25 or 30 years.

In the lawsuit, the union asks the court to decide whether the plan freeze was done legally under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which sets standards for pension and health plans in private industry to provide protection for workers. If it was not, the suit seeks thousands of dollars of pension benefits owed from 2002 to date.

Berens said the union has known about the pension freeze since 2002 and that it also consented to the pension being discontinued as a mandatory bargaining issue when the pension was taken out of the Standard Ready Mix contract with the union a few years ago.

"If this was a big deal, why didn't the union have written demands for language before December 2006?" Berens asked.

Letters and notices about the pension change that Jensen said he sent to workers and union officials were not provided to the Journal and haven't been included in court documents, although sworn affidavits to their existence have been. Local 554 also has not provided additional documentation to the Journal or filed them in court.

Local 554 is also seeking the distribution of all pension funds owed because of a modification made to the plan the day Jensen took ownership of Standard Ready Mix.

"The modification of plan they are talking about is when the company's name was changed on the documents to reflect new ownership. That's not a change to the plan itself," Berens said. "Basically, they filed this pension lawsuit because the company sued them. It's pure nonsense."

The union has filed several charges against Standard Ready Mix with the National Labor Relations Board over the past months, but the only one it is still pursuing is about the pension issue. NLRB Des Moines Resident Officer David Garza said the organization has deferred its investigation to the courts and is not pursuing action against the company at this time.

Lawyers for the union and the company have said eligible employees are currently receiving pension payments. But there has been a question about whether the company needs to provide a guarantee in writing that the accrued pension funds will still be doled out if someone else takes over the company. Union officials said there should be, but Berens disagreed.

"The pension money is guaranteed by ERISA. The company is held responsible through it," he said.

'Everyone's a victim'

Before he came to the table last October, Jensen said he didn't have any experience with contract negotiations. He was executive vice president of Standard Ready Mix before buying the enterprise in 2005 and didn't have a hand in union contracts, he said.

"From what I knew of before, there was local union representation," Jensen said. "I never noticed any problems until all the managers for our union were from out of town (Omaha). They don't have any vested interest in the community."

Jensen and strikers alike have said union leaders aren't coming up to Sioux City anymore to visit with them and send the strike checks with others in the organization.

"To me, what they've done is basically abandoned my guys," Jensen said. "It's frustrating. They don't want to talk to me, they don't want to negotiate."

Jensen said last summer that if a contract agreement is eventually reached, he would be more than willing to hire his workers back, but they would have to be taken back in order of seniority to fill spots not already taken by replacements.

"They're basically a good bunch of guys. They know their job," he said.

But last week, he said the striking workers aren't likely to find their jobs waiting for them if the strike ends. Ludey, in Vermillion, is at full employment with seven workers, and Standard Ready Mix in Sioux City is close to full staffing as the season winds down. There is no guarantee there will be openings even in the spring, Jensen said. "Future employment here is slim."

Besides the pressure the strike has put on Standard Ready Mix, it has also placed a burden on workers and their families. Striker Shannon Nelson, who got a job driving a city bus, said it probably even helped a few of his co-workers' relationships break apart in the past year.

"It's been stressful on everybody," he said. "We're like a big family."

Barring an agreement, all either side can do is wait.

The case Standard Ready Mix brought against Local 554 doesn't go to trial until at least March, and the pension suit not until next September.

"Everyone's a victim in this," Berens said.


Teachers union strike starts smoothly

The first day of a possible month-long strike in the Seneca Valley School District went smoothly, with no incidents or reports of problems from either side. Classes were canceled for nearly 7,600 students as teachers hit the picket lines at 7 a.m. at all nine of the district's schools. About 20 to 25 teachers were picketing at each school, working in shifts.

"Things went really well," said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. "We had overwhelming support from parents and even some students," Mr. Santicola said. "We'd rather have been in the classroom, but this has been a strong strike so far."

Linda Andreassi, school district spokeswoman, confirmed that there were no incidents.

Police from Jackson, Cranberry, Zelienople, Harmony and Evans City were at the picket lines to maintain order.

Reaction to the strike from residents within the district was predictably mixed.

Dorothy Casey, 45, a prep cook, has lived in Cranberry all her life and was a product of the school system in which her nephew is enrolled.

"Our taxes keep going up, but my paycheck doesn't go up. I understand that they need a raise, but not what they're going for. That's totally outrageous, and somewhere down the line, I'm going to be paying for it."

Karen Winn, 56, of Cranberry, works part time at American Eagle outfitters in the Cranberry Mall. She said she doesn't think strikes are a necessary part of life any more, but she feels for the teachers.

"I see both viewpoints," she said. "They certainly deserve an increase. I think they work hard for what they make, most of them. But the reality of it is, I think, they need to realign themselves a little bit. There could be some concessions on the health care plan."

Carlos Cefaratti, 51, a sale s representative in Cranberry, has a daughter who attends Seneca Valley Middle School. He said he knows some teachers and has spoken with others.

"I agree with the teachers," he said. "The board [members have] really poorly managed this. They could have done this a long time ago. Sit down like adults and do the right thing. They can do a better job. They are looking like schmucks.

"The truth is, they don't educate my kids. The teachers do."

Teachers handed out flyers yesterday, which contained the teachers' viewpoint on the negotiations process thus far, as well as what they are asking for in a new contract.

The district's 575 teachers have been working without a contract since June 30, 2006. The major disagreement is over salaries, with the district offering an average 4 percent annual increase for a five-year contract. The teachers' most recent request is for an average of 6 percent per year. The average teacher's salary in Seneca Valley is $54,949.

In addition to wage increases, health benefits continue to be a sticking point in the negotiations.

There have been no new negotiation sessions arranged by state mediator Bob Lavery.

Tom King, an attorney representing the district in negotiations, said Mr. Lavery told him he would only call another meeting if he felt progress might be made.

"But at this point, I don't see that happening," Mr. King said. "We are still offering 4 percent -- that's our maximum we're willing to go -- and the teachers are still asking for over 6 percent. They've made it clear they are not willing to move on that and neither are we, so I just don't see the point (of further negotiations)."

Under state law, teachers would have to end the strike in time for students to receive 180 days of instruction by June 15. The state Department of Education was expected to determine a date, most likely in early November, when teachers must return to work.

Although the strike has disrupted classes in Seneca Valley, the school district said all extra-curricular activities and sports events will continue as planned, as well as all community activities that were scheduled within school buildings.


Nurses' union strike fund is empty

Monday was the beginning of week three for nurses striking against Appalachian Regional Healthcare. That means nurses just got their last paycheck until this situation can be resolved.

More than 600 union members are trying to stand firm for a third week, but some registered nurses on strike say the cost of standing up for what they believe in, just went up ... last Friday ... was their last paycheck.

KNA officials say this is their first strike in the organizations history and there are no funds for a regular strike paycheck for nurses on the picket line either. Thanks to donations from other union organizations, like the steel workers who went on strike from ARH earlier this year, emergency funds are available.

As for inside, ARH officials say not much has changed since day one of the strike. Whitesburg Community CEO Ellen Wright says everyone is also stepping in to help where ever needed ... including herself, as a registered nurse.

The labor director for the Kentucky Nurses Association says he requested a second meeting with the federal mediator and ARH officials after the first produced no progress.


Neutrality questioned in union election dispute

North Carolina's giant pork slaughterhouse, Smithfield Packing Co., ended talks today with a union that has been trying to organize the plant for more than a decade. Officials from the Bladen County plant, which is the world's largest pork processing facility, began negotiating with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in late August.

Both sides said they were hopeful that they could strike a deal that would allow employees to decide whether they wanted to unionize. But today, the two groups were back on the offensive, each accusing the other of scuttling the talks.

Both sides had agreed to hold an election in the plan. The sticking point, both sides said, was whether plant officials could campaign against the union. The company wanted the right to do so, while the union wanted the company to remain neutral.

"The company needs to back off and let us vote," said Catrina McDonald, a pro-union plant employee. Smithfield officials called the union unreasonable because it demanded that the company allow organizers to campaign inside the plant while forcing Smithfield officials to remain silent. "Their idea of neutrality was they could do anything they wanted to do, and we could do nothing," said plant spokesman Dennis Pittman.


Strikers decline to identify themselves

Pickets appeared today outside Simpson Strong-Tie's corporate headquarters in Pleasanton (CA) as the strike by 270 Sheet Metal union workers against its Stockton manufacturing plant endured into its fourth day with no immediate end in sight.

"We're here for the duration," 60-year-old shipping clerk Leon Byrd said today on the strike line as several of his co-workers - who declined to give their names - nodded their heads in agreement.

Since the strike began Wednesday, another 21 higher-paid tool-and-die makers, who work for Simpson but belong to another union, have honored the picket line. Their work is critical to the continued manufacturing processes that go on inside the sprawling 800,000-square-foot plant.


Gov. plans to cut mostly-empty positions

Months after vowing to cut 1,000 jobs, Governor Carcieri has announced the outlines of a plan to lay off 414 state employees, trim the state’s temporary employment rolls by another 115 workers and wipe 487 empty jobs off the state’s books.

The personnel cuts are a central piece of the governor’s plan to avert a projected $200 million deficit in the state budget year that begins on July 1. Carcieri did not detail which state workers face job cuts. In his presentation this afternoon, he did say every department would be affected.

"Out of respect for our employees who will be impacted, I will not be sharing more details today regarding the specific positions. The particulars as to the individual people and positions affected will be released as they have been notified," Carcieri said in his speech.

Before the speech, the governor’s staff would say only that the cuts would be focused on “back office” workers. For example, 115 positions would be cut among the five state health and human services departments, including jobs in human resources, information technology and finance, the governor’s Chief of Staff Brian Stern told reporters Friday.

The executive branch plans to begin notifying those contract employees affected on Nov. 1. State employees will be notified Nov. 15.

As for the 414 state employee positions to be eliminated, Carcieri said, "Positions have been identified in every department."

He also noted that not all the targeted jobs are union jobs.

Carcieri was expected to largely ignore the other elements of his deficit-reduction plan today: $50 million in cuts to social service programs and another $50 million in cuts to the health benefits of those employees who survive the layoffs.

Stern said that those cuts would be reflected in the governor’s budget proposal scheduled for release in February and throughout negotiations with unions whose contracts expire in the coming year.

Today’s press conference marks the attempt of a governor, with plummeting poll numbers, to take control of the Smith Hill spending debate months before lawmakers return to the State House and try to rehabilitate his image along the way.

After a September public-opinion survey by Brown University found his job approval rating had plunged since last January from 59 percent to 44 percent, Carcieri suggested the numbers were a reflection of voter concern “about our financial status.’’

He said people seeing teachers on strike, unions lobbing preemptive strikes against his vow to cut the state work force by 1,000, and headline after headline about the people affected by the legislature’s adoption of his proposals to lop thousands off the state’s child-care rolls leave people “feeling as though the state isn’t running itself well because of the budget.’’

Meanwhile, labor laws are expected to complicate the governor’s staff reduction plans.

Carcieri will have no problem eliminating 115 contract employees, who have no union protections. But laying off 414 state employees would trigger seniority provisions outlined in workers’ contracts.

The executive branch can move to eliminate specific jobs, but the employees in those jobs generally have the right to move to vacant positions, or new jobs elsewhere in state government by “bumping” other workers from their jobs.

The legal challenges were illustrated when former Governor Sundlun issued layoff notices to more than 500 employees in 1992, trying to avert a huge deficit. Two months after notices went out, more than half of the targeted group still had jobs.

Governor Carcieri’s office acknowledges challenges, but Stern said that bumping rules have been relaxed since the early 1990s. Employees generally are allowed only three “bumps,” he said.

Labor unions have criticized the governor’s plan to cut 1,000 jobs since it was first announced last June for ignoring the additional cost to the state in expected social welfare costs.

The layoffs could result in $7.5 million in new costs to taxpayers for the unemployment and health-care benefits for displaced workers, according to Dan Majcher, supervisor of fiscal services for the Department of Administration.

“This number will vary based on many factors and again is a worst case estimate and assumes everyone would be eligible for full benefits,” he said this morning in an e-mail to The Journal.

Stern acknowledged Friday that the governor may be using a “conservative” estimate for the projected 2008-09 budget deficit. While his Budget Officer Rosemary Gallogly puts the projection at $211.3 million, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council estimated the deficit at $306.5 million in June.

Since then, Gallogly said, assumptions have changed, caseload projections have dropped and lawmakers, in an unprecedented move, placed a virtual freeze on local school aid this year.

As an example, the outdated deficit-projection assumed new state employee contracts would provide the workers with a 2-percent across-the-board raise next year, according to Gallogly. Knocking that one assumption out cut the projected deficit by $26.8 million. Freezing school aid this year lowered the starting point for next year by another $19 million. And so on.


Teachers union sows activist seeds in NY

Plant the seeds of unionism in a college student and you may be sowing solidarity across the country.

That's the philosophy behind the Student National Education Association, which offers union membership and an early lesson in activism to future teachers in New York state. SNEA has a long, proud history in the U.S. dating to the 1950s, with 60,000 current members on more than 900 college and university campuses.

Student members of NEA are schooled in leadership and professional development promoted by the NEA. They can network with other future teachers at national conferences.

In turn, one out of three NEA Student Program members goes on to become an NEA leader - an important consideration with hundreds of thousands of teachers reaching retirement age across the country this year.

SNEA will soon be in place as a pilot project at five chapters of United University Professions: Buffalo State, Cortland, Geneseo, Oneonta and Plattsburgh, which all have teacher education programs. UUP, led by William Scheuerman, is the NYSUT affiliate representing academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York.

"The SNEA program gives students a positive impression of union culture," said NYSUT Vice President Robin Rapaport. He sees the potential for the program to expand to community colleges.

To be eligible for membership, students must intend to go into a teaching profession, Rapaport said, and that makes community colleges strong choices for future involvement with SNEA.

"Anyone going to community college is eligible to apply and, in fact, many of our young teachers start with two years of community college," Rapaport said.

SNEA has added potential in New York state through last year's unification of NYSUT and NEA/ New York.

Nationally, New York is renowned for its strong teacher prep programs. Graduates of NYSUT-member colleges and universities are in demand in other regions of the country, Rapaport said.

There's an advantage to encouraging college students in New York degree programs to participate in SNEA, he noted, even if they end up working in other states.

"New York provides huge numbers of educators to other states — states like Nevada and New Mexico," Rapaport said. "So they go to Nevada as union members, and if they go to Oklahoma or other states that are right-to-work states, they go in with the mindset of a union member."

SNEA members can access the Achievement Standards Network, a digital version of every state's core academic standards, as well as samples of core lessons culled from a number of nationally recognized resources.


Parents protest against teachers strike in PA

For the first time in 22 years, teachers in the Seneca Valley (PA) School District are on strike Monday. Both sides met Saturday, but were not able to come to an agreement. Seneca Valley district leaders announced on Friday that there would be no school Monday. The teachers have been working without a contract since June 2006.

The major disagreement is over salaries, with the district offering an average 4 percent annual increase for a five-year contract. The teachers' most recent request is for an average 6 percent per year. The average teacher's salary in the Seneca Valley district is nearly $55,000.

Upset parents are also staging a protest. They said there should be a third party in talks.

Teachers plan to hand out "fact or fiction" fliers on their picket lines and are expected to picket from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Under state law teachers have to end their strike in time for students to receive 180 days of instruction by mid-June.

What Strike Means For Students

Extracurricular activities will still be held. Any community activities planned in a school building will also be held. The Seneca Valley pre-school program held in the high school will be canceled.


Striking teachers get IBEW to slam school board chief

Their first day on the picket line, striking Lake-Lehman (PA) teachers gained support from teachers in other districts and from the union that represents the school board president at his job.

Teachers walked the picket line Monday as promised, calling for a fair contract after 17 months of negotiations, and got a boost when the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 163 issued a statement critical of Board President Charles Balavage in his push to have the teachers pay part of their health insurance premiums.

“IBEW Local Union 163 does not support or condone the actions of Mr. Charles Balavage,” the statement said, “His actions are based on individualistic ideals, and in no way reflect the views of Local Union 163. Currently, Mr. Balavage works under a collective bargaining agreement with full health benefits, annuity and pension. Local Union 163 sympathizes with the Lake-Lehman teachers for better wages and conditions.”

Local 163 President John Olejnik said the union issued the statement after receiving calls from the Lake-Lehman Teachers Association. “They felt as though we were behind him. This was our way of saying this is something he’s doing on his own. He’s kind of fighting against what we fight for.”

But Balavage said that, while “some of the statement is pertinent” to the Lake-Lehman teacher negotiations, some is not. “When we get raises in the union, health care is considered part of our raise. It’s not free health care,” he said. “We negotiate an amount and if money is needed in the health care fund, part of that amount goes into it.”

Similarly, any increase in other benefits such as pension would also be “considered as part of our raise, so the comments are a little erroneous,” Balavage said. He also noted that teachers saw their pension payments increase in 2001 through state action, and school boards had no say in the change.

Yet in recent years, district payments toward those pensions increased dramatically as a result of that change.

Support appreciated

On the picket line, lead negotiator John Holland said the 153 striking teachers “appreciate IBEW stepping up to the plate to support teachers, and noted that teachers from at least nine regional districts – and probably more – plan to join the picket line tonight at 6 p.m., one hour before the school board meeting. Holland said he expects representatives from Abington Heights, Lakeland, Lackawanna Trail, Riverside, Old Forge, Dallas, Wyoming Area and Wyoming Valley West School Districts, and West Side Vocational Technical School, as well as others.

“I think people need to look at strikes as democracy in action,” Holland said. “It’s standing up for one’s rights.”

He noted that unions have been responsible for improving work conditions and health care coverage throughout the world, and that it was a union, Solidarity, that helped topple Communist rule in Poland.

“I always say, what is the purpose of sending children to school? It’s to get an education and get a good job and good wages and benefits. That’s exactly what teachers did,” Holland said. “Yet the people teaching these values to the children are criticized for practicing them.”

Community effect

Board Member Mark Kornoski saw things very differently. “It’s a shame what they are doing to the kids and the parents. They are hurting the kids and also the parents who have to miss work, who don’t get paid if they take a day off, while these teachers who are on the line will get full pay when they return to work.”

By state law, the strike must end in time for students to complete 180 days of school by June 15. No one knows exactly when that will be until the state calculates a date based on how many vacation days and holidays built into the school calendar can be sacrificed to meet that deadline.

Both sides are waiting for the state to announce a date, but Holland said he believes it will be about three weeks from now, “give or take a few days.”

That doesn’t mean the union will stay on the picket line until the state deadline. Holland said that decision will be made on a day-by-day basis. But if they do strike to the deadline, both sides would, by law, be forced into non-binding arbitration.

Once that process was completed, teachers could legally strike a second time, and the state would calculate a new deadline to return to work based on the requirement that students get their 180 days by June 30. Teachers cannot legally strike more than two times in a school year.

Holland repeated his contention that a new offer proposed publicly during the Sept. 8 school board work session was not legal because it was not presented to the union negotiating team first. That proposal is for a four-year contract with 3 percent raises each year, and would have teachers pay a percentage of their health insurance premium based on how salary steps, or years they had worked. The co-pay rates were set in three tiers: 2 percent for steps one through seven, 3.5 percent for steps eight though 12, and 5 percent for step 13 and higher.

The board proposal also eliminates what is commonly referred to as “past practices,” the policy of accepting longstanding practices as part of the contract even if they are not written into it. Holland insists that is unacceptable because it gives the board too much power.

Holland said “the board still owes us a proposal,” and declined to say what the union’s last offer was. “I’m not going to negotiate in public.”
Information lacking?

Yet the public isn’t the only group not privy to the union’s proposals. A letter from a teacher was circulated via e-mail that voiced staunch support for the union but questioned the lack of information members received before the strike.

Kornoski said he heard about the letter but had not seen it.

Balavage declined to say whether he had heard or seen the letter, but did say that, if it exists, he respects the teacher’s right to voice an opinion.

Union spokesman Paul Shemansky also said he had heard of the letter but had not seen it, and said “it would be in their rights to make those comments,” though it would have been better to discuss the concerns with union President Dan Williams.


Another school union strike brewing in PA

Repeating the rallying cry that they’ve had an expired contract since 2001, the Crestwood (PA) School District support staff authorized its negotiating team to call a strike if deemed appropriate, a union spokesman said.

But a school board member countered some of the union’s claims, noting that many of the 130 support staffers received raises at least once since the contract expired.

Union lead negotiator John Holland, the regional field director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the support staff voted to authorize a strike during a Sunday meeting. Holland stressed it doesn’t mean they will strike, just that they can if the negotiating team decides a strike is necessary.

State law requires at least 48 hours notice before a strike, but Holland said “our intent is to always give more than 48 hours,” so families could prepare and so taxpayers could get involved if they wanted to.

The support staff union includes cafeteria workers, aides, custodians and monitors, most of whom make less than $19,000 a year, Holland said. The relatively low pay is a big reason the union is unhappy with the board’s latest offer. Holland said the board proposed a 3 percent raise but asked employees to pay part of their health insurance premium. In some cases, he said, the co-pay would nearly wipe out the raise.

Holland also said the board has offered a $400 signing bonus to employees, but that the offer only extended to those hired before the last contract expired. And he reiterated his claim that board member Gene Mancini has violated state labor law by making a “secret proposal” rather than going through the negotiating team.

Mancini dismissed the “secret proposal” charge again, insisting he simply provided the union with some highlights of what had already been offered, and that he had publicly suggested he and union President Dominic Azzara sit down every night and talk until a settlement is reached.

Mancini said Holland doesn’t have his facts straight. For starters, he said, the four-year offer includes a 6 percent raise the first year and a 3 percent hike every year for the duration of the contract. It includes a $400 per year signing bonus for most employees, retroactive to the 2001-02 school year, which would total $2,000 for those who were employed in 2001-02 if the contract were signed this year.

It covers all employees except a few groups that already received raises because of a “partial tentative agreement” reached more than a year ago.

That agreement covered the aides and monitors, and was hammered out because those workers were not members of the union when the last contract expired, Mancini said. Their salaries were too low to attract new employees, so they got a significant boost, from about $7.25 an hour to as high as $10 an hour, depending on the job.

Mancini noted that those in the union received a raise the first year after the contract expired through a one-year extension negotiated by both sides. He said the premium sharing proposal is the same the teachers agreed to: 4 percent of the premium or 1 percent of pay, whichever is lower.

No support staff member would pay more than 1 percent of his or her salary, he said.

The proposal offers to change support staff coverage to match teacher insurance, which would mean better coverage for some union members, Mancini said.

And he repeated his offer to sit down nightly with Azzara to reach an agreement.

He contended the real sticking point between the union and the board is Holland. If the two sides sat down without lawyers, he predicted, they would settle easily. Noting that Holland recently promised to file an unfair labor practice complaint against him, Mancini said “You know how they call Osama (or Usama) Bin Laden UBL? I call John Holland UFL, Un-Fair Labor. He’s a contract terrorist.”


UAW leaders balk at Chrysler deal

As Chrysler LLC's tentative contract with the United Auto Workers was winning approval from the union's national council Monday, more details were coming out on the General Motors Corp. contract that set the pattern for the Chrysler deal.

And those details could fan the flames of discontent at Chrysler and Ford Motor Co., which heads back to the bargaining table Tuesday.

The chairman of the UAW's national negotiating committee at Chrysler and the president of Local 1268 at Chrysler's Belvidere assembly plant near Rockford were among those who spoke out against the contract at a closed meeting in Detroit.

Local 1268 President Tom Littlejohn told reporters in Detroit that he can't support the pact because it fails to give permanent jobs to about 600 temporary workers at Belvidere and does not include commitments to keep most plants open beyond the current products. The union didn't say when rank-and-file members would vote.

GM's contract, ratified last week, makes 2,800 temporary workers permanent and gives commitments at 14 assembly plants. The latter, however, hinges on market conditions and another contract that will be negotiated in the meantime. Jim Doser is a temp who has been at Belvidere since April 2006. He is in the position of getting to vote on the contract but then possibly losing his job.

"GM can hire 3,000 temps, but Chrysler can't hire 600. I'm not real impressed," he said.

Chrysler apparently wouldn't agree to that because it has a younger workforce than GM, averaging 45 years old to GM's 50, which makes fewer employees eligible for retirement. GM plans to use the jobs vacated by those retiring to hire the temps, something Chrysler's not in a position to do.

That's why Littlejohn said he wouldn't encourage his local's 3,800 members to vote for it.

"I will present the facts to them, but I'm not going to recommend it," he said.

Chrysler's pact contains several provisions similar to GM's, according to highlights given to local presidents Monday. The UAW agreed to it Wednesday after a six-hour strike at most of Chrysler's U.S. plants.

Among the similarities is that Chrysler would establish a trust fund for its $18 billion in retiree health-care obligations that the union would manage. The automaker would contribute $10.3 billion to the fund.

Workers also would receive lump-sum bonuses instead of annual wage increases, and they would pay more of their own health-care costs, essentially matching what workers pay at GM and Ford under concessions made in 2005.

Those are among details of the GM agreement, released Monday to analysts, that could give the union at Chrysler pause.

That happened with the health-care concessions granted in 2005. GM workers approved them by a wide margin, but Ford's OKd them by fewer than 100 votes a few weeks later.

The givebacks never went to Chrysler for a vote because UAW leaders feared they wouldn't pass, said Mike Parker, who retired last month.

"It's going to be a very hard sell. GM was able to give commitments for its plants, but there's no such commitment at Chrysler. They'll just be able to pit plant against plant" to get products by demanding local concessions, Parker said.

Separately, GM said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission and in a presentation to analysts that its trust fund for retiree health care will start in 2010, when it expects to begin achieving pretax savings of $2.6 billion to $3.4 billion annually.

GM also said the "jobs bank," which guaranteed that laid-off workers would receive basic pay and benefits for years, now caps the benefit at two years.


Boston Mayor pimps for SEIU at hospitals

The union trying to organize more workers at Boston’s teaching hospitals has landed Hollywood star power and political muscle to push their cause.

Cambridge homey Ben Affleck, who’s in town to promote his new flick “Gone Baby Gone,” and Mayor Thomas Menino will hold a joint press conference today to announce their support for the Service Employees International Union’s latest attempt to unionize as many as 55,000 workers at university-affiliated hospitals such as Massachusetts General and Brigham & Women’s.

“Through his political activism, and charity, Mr. Affleck has shown himself to be a true citizen patriot,” said Mike Fadel, executive vice president of SEIU Local 1199.

Thousands of nurses at area hospitals currently belong to unions, as do some other health-care professionals. But the vast majority of workers at nonprofit hospitals associated with universities don’t belong to unions.

The SEIU has said it’s seeking commitments from chief executives at hospitals to abide by an agreement allowing “free and fair” union elections.

A spokeswoman for Partners HealthCare, whose Boston hospital members are associated with Harvard Medical School, declined comment on the union’s campaign.


Union pickets local heath board meeting

About a dozen union members started picketing outside of the Peoria City-County (IL) Health Department building tonight.

The workers marched outside while the board members met inside. A union spokesman says the board tonight was planning to fire three custodians, and give their jobs to non-union members.

Diane Bischoff says the group's immediate concern is for the three union members, one of whom has been working in the building for 21 years. But there's also a concern about how deep the cuts will go.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 3665 Acting president said, "There still is that concern when you start outsourcing one job, what's happens next and they are at the bottom of the pay scale."

The picketers plan to continue marching until the board members are done with their meeting.


AFL-CIO buying local candidates

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