Union organizing tactics compared to organized crime

At the Smithfield Foods annual meeting in August, chairman Joseph W. Luter III compared union organizers going to workers' homes to get cards signed to someone from a mob-controlled union showing up at their doorstep.

So it may not come as a shock that Smithfield Foods this week filed a 100-page lawsuit against its main union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The statute has historically has been used to prosecute organized crime and drug dealers.

The lawsuit accuses the various union leaders and their affiliated groups of using the tactics of Washington, D.C.'s K-Street lobbyists to fatten their own coffers from Main Street workers at the Smithfield Foods plants nationwide.

Smithfield started this fight by using bare-knuckle approaches in two union campaigns at the world's largest slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina in 1994 and 1997. The company was rebuked heavily for its behavior, but now it portrays itself as the victim in recent years.

The lawsuit paints a picture of a union relentlessly harming the company's reputation and bottom line. It outlines a series of alleged misrepresentations and unwarranted attacks made by a union desperate for 4,650 more dues-paying members.

The union says this is about a corporation suppressing legitimate social protest by comparing it to organized crime.

"Rather than putting money into workers' health care, they're putting millions into a lawsuit to prevent a union and communities around the country from supporting them," said Gene Bruskin, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW.

The world's largest pork company says that the UFCW campaign against Smithfield represents a new tactic to destroy companies until they recognize a union without a vote. This is big business's attempt to make sure a court calls the tactic illegal extortion.

Smithfield would not comment on the lawsuit.

A K-Street conspiracy
The lawsuit says a conglomeration of unions and groups that support them battled Smithfield in an effort to extort money from the company in the form of union dues.

The UFCW, which represents 1.4 million workers, is a member of Change To Win, a coalition of labor unions that joined together in 2005. The coalition is named as a defendant, along with union-aligned non-profit groups Research Associates of America and Jobs With Justice.

The lawsuit touts that many of the labor executives in the Smithfield campaign work on prestigious, expensive K Street, home to lobbyists for large corporations. Bruskin said the union headquarters has been there for decades. The suit also lists the work and home addresses of seven labor executives.

The union campaign is not aimed at forcing a company to accept a union without a voting process prescribed by federal law, said the company. The lawsuit spells out a strategy found in an alleged UFCW organizing document about how to get a union involved without the National Labor Relations Board, which mediates elections for the government.

The UFCW document advocates a strategy of costing employers enough money to either eliminate the company or force it to give up its rights and accept a union without a vote.

"One of the concerns organizers might have about waging economic war on an unorganized company is that it might turn employees against the union," the UFCW document stated. "I look at it this way: If you had massive employee support, you probably would be conducting a traditional organizing campaign."

The lawsuit says this tactic has been used against five other companies by the UFCW.

Bruskin said the person who wrote the document was a former UFCW organizer who wrote it after he left the organization.

How it began

The union onslaught began in June 2006, but the Change To Win Leadership Council had approved the "Justice At Smithfield" campaign in 2005.

The UFCW got Jobs With Justice to participate with $92,579 in contributions, and paid almost $2 million to Research Associates of America. The $2 million led to a study of OSHA reports on injuries at Tar Heel called "Packaged with Abuse." Smithfield says there were intentional, blatant errors in the report.

The company was annoyed by the union's non-stop attempts to get Harris Teeter to stop carrying Smithfield products. The union then told the news media that the grocery chain was pulling Smithfield products, which Harris Teeter denied.

The union got supporters to picket stores, hand out pamphlets to shoppers and even demonstrate outside the home of the Harris Teeter CEO. UFCW worked with Jobs With Justice to protest grocery stores carrying Smithfield nationwide, and they claimed victories at several stores.

The union also got local governments, including the New York City Council, to pass condemnations and boycotts of the company. The mayor of Boston wrote to Smithfield CEO C. Larry Pope saying the city would no longer buy Smithfield products.

After Smithfield inked a promotional deal with celebrity chef Paula Deen, the union started hounding her relentlessly this summer with protests at public appearances. A union organizer even sent a letter to Wall Street analysts to influence their opinion of the company's value.

Media campaign

The lawsuit explains how the union began a barrage of press releases in June 2006, using phrases such as "there's blood on that bacon" and "sweatshop conditions." The union organized protests that month against Smithfield in major cities.

The union releases portrayed the marches as being led by immigrant and civil rights groups, but were orchestrated by the union. By November, the campaign shifted into an attempt to get a Smithfield product boycott during Thanksgiving.

When Smithfield workers in Tar Heel were targeted by immigration officials over Social Security number problems, the union targeted the company. A press release said the company was using the situation "to terrorize immigrant workers" over growing union support.

Smithfield has, in fact, been found more than once by courts to use threats of calling immigration authorities to scare workers into following orders. But the union press release implied that the Smithfield threats were made right before the immigration authorities swooped in.

The union fought Smithfield's application for a state water permit, and portrayed it as led by environmentalists and workers. Change to Win said the water fountains didn't work in the plant, and printed the vice president's phone number.

A press release announcing the OSHA complaint said an employee had passed out from lack of water — which Smithfield denies. When OSHA investigated and cleared the company, the union said Smithfield colluded to get a false result.

A Change to Win story said a Smithfield worker died because the company put him in a job where he couldn't get his insulin, which the company denied.

The union even said the United Nations was investigating Smithfield for its treatment of workers. It claimed they would testify in a hearing to the top U.N. human rights official. In reality, the union set up an informal meeting with them at AFL-CIO headquarters, and there has never been any investigation of the company.

Even the recent Smithfield acquisition of Sara Lee's European operations was not immune. The union worked with international unions and local governments in the countries to fight the deal.

No lightweight

Many parts of the Smithfield complaint read like a person saying they have been unfairly picked on. The company complains that one union press release disclosed Luter's salary, which must be publicly revealed annually to investors by law.

The company takes offense to jabs from the union's use of non-literal catch phrases like "packaged with abuse" and "blood on that bacon" by calling them false accusations.

The company complained that the union said the plant "stirs racial tensions among African-American and Latino workers." Court rulings have condemned Smithfield for these practices, and the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize in part for reporting on how the plant managers at Tar Heel separated workers by race and pitted them against each other.

Bruskin said most of the verbiage Smithfield objected to was based on — or taken directly from — worker testimony and court rulings.

"The truth hurts, and they don't like us advertising it," said Bruskin.

The lawsuit frequently complains not that civil rights, religious and other groups didn't take part in certain protests — but that the union didn't explicitly claim to lead them.

Smithfield also complains of repeated mentions in union literature of the company using threats and violence to intimidate workers. But Smithfield has been found guilty repeatedly by courts for abusing Tar Heel workers.

A scathing 400-page ruling by the labor relations board judge in 2000 said the company threatened to fire workers and said it would close if the union won. The company was forced to re-hire 11 workers, but it appealed the case for a decade before a court ordered a new election in 2006.

That's when the union tactics kicked into high gear. Now a court will decide if those tactics were ever truly aimed at winning a fair new election.

Events timeline

• Smithfield workers vote against the union in 1994 and 1997

• Court rulings for a decade condemn Smithfield's union-fighting tactics

• June 2006 – Union starts intense public campaign on plant conditions

• Negotiations over a new election end this week

• Smithfield files a RICO lawsuit Wednesday over union conduct


AFL-CIO pushes politics of collectivism in south

As national organizing director for the AFL-CIO, Stewart Acuff understands why it's harder to have workers join unions in the South. He is from the region.

Southern states have the lowest union membership, according to the Labor Department, with most percentages in single digits. In Kentucky, the number only slightly exceeds that, at 11 percent.

The reason may be that every Southern state except Kentucky allows union membership and dues payment to be optional for workers. That makes it harder for unions to organize and bargain collectively.

But that doesn't faze Acuff, a native Tennessean and son of a Baptist preacher. He knows that Southerners don't have the same experience that workers in parts of the Northeast and Midwest have had with union contracts in years past. "There never was the good old days here," said Acuff, 52. "It's always been harder."

As U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell faces re-election next year, the labor movement is gunning for the Senate minority leader. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, sided with President Bush's opposition to a children's health insurance bill, the minimum-wage increase and a failed reform of the nation's 72-year-old labor law.

The 2008 election brought Acuff to Louisville on Wednesday to speak at a rally. He also met with AFL-CIO staff members who have been here for a month organizing get-out-the-vote efforts.

"We are building momentum for next year," Acuff said.

He leads a staff of 50 at the labor federation's Washington, D.C., office and directs an estimated $33 million annual budget aimed at organizing workers.

"I mostly try to push the line," Acuff said.

That line gets ever harder to push.

Union membership was 20 percent nationwide in 1983, according to the Labor Department. By last year, that number had fallen to 12 percent. Despite year-over-year declines like these, Acuff sees signs of union strength in Kentucky.

Last week, about 20 members of UAW Local 862 drove to Bowling Green to meet with about 50 workers interested in forming a union at Magna International. The plant supplies frames and engine cradles to Ford Motor Co.'s Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville.

About 900 people work at Magna, which opened its Bowling Green Metal Forming operation in 2005 and quickly became one of the area's largest employers.

That union drive, which began in July, follows a central tenet of labor organizing: Expand on union ranks within an industry.

On Monday, Magna announced a neutrality agreement with the Canadian Auto Workers that commits to union elections, arbitration, and wages tied to inflation and plant-performance measures.

"The traditional, confrontational model of labor relations is unproductive and wastes energy," Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman, said in a statement.

Citing that announcement, Acuff said "nothing is impossible" at the Magna plant in Bowling Green.

Magna officials have been in talks with the UAW on a similar agreement, company spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst said yesterday. But those talks are on hold during Ford's contract negotiations with the union, she said.

Fuerst declined comment on the UAW's organizing drive in Bowling Green. Of Magna's 52 U.S. plants, she said, eight have a union work force.

Acuff also planned to meet with and console United Steelworkers who organized in late 2006 at Ohio Valley Aluminum Co. in Shelbyville. After their bitter 10-week strike ended recently without a contract, five union organizers were fired. The future of the union at the 84-worker, privately owned foundry remains uncertain.

"I want to thank them for what they did," Acuff said of the union members in Shelbyville. "It was a service to all American workers."

Edwin Hopson, the lawyer for Ohio Valley Aluminum, did not immediately return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Organizing, Acuff said, "is mainly the art of listening to people tell their stories, helping them understand what has happened is not their fault and helping them understand it is not pre-ordained.

"To change it," he said, "they have to behave collectively."


Right To Work law lifts Iowa jobs outlook

Newton, IA gets hit with the full force of the Maytag factory closing this week, which could prompt Iowans to wonder who's next. "You never know what's going to be around that corner. You've got to be prepared," said Maytag factory worker Mike Jackson, one of 550 employees looking ahead to their last day later this week.

Iowa manufacturing in 2007 is a mix of successes and failures. A new industry - making wind turbines that produce electricity - is creating hundreds of jobs. Big employers such as Rockwell Collins and three of five Deere & Co. factories are hiring, while Mount Pleasant, Centerville and other cities have lost plants.

Despite Iowa's ups and downs, the state has added about 11,600 factory jobs over the past four years. Minus a national economic upset, those job increases should continue, led by growth in renewable fuels and wind energy, said Michael Tramontina, the state's economic development director.

The Newton closing points out the vulnerability of factory jobs. Global competition, poor management, practical business decisions, new technology or fat incentives from another job-hungry state can put Iowans in the unemployment line and leave a community struggling to rebuild its economy.

"This is a free market, and businesses succeed and some don't. But we need to build a foundation that helps them succeed," said Gov. Chet Culver. The economy of only one other state - Indiana - is more reliant on manufacturing, according to Iowa State University research.

"Manufacturing is the backbone of the Iowa economy, and has been for 50 years," Tramontina said. "More than it's a farm state, more than it's an insurance state, Iowa is a manufacturing state."

State hasn't finished economic road map

A two-year-old blueprint for preserving Iowa's manufacturing base has yet to be built into a final plan. The state paid a half-million dollars to a consultant, the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, to chart a course for manufacturing, technology and biotechnology in Iowa.

Business and government leaders say Iowa is making progress. The state is spending $5.2 million to implement the manufacturing recommendations, although that falls short of the $16 million the consultant recommended for the first five years.

Among the action: The state earmarked money for college internships, career awareness campaigns and other programs to attract workers, identifying a shortage as a major threat to manufacturing as baby boomers retire. Lawmakers provided $2.5 million in matching grants to help small manufacturers develop new products.

Culver points to community college programs that train students in skills needed by employers. The Iowa Values Fund, the Iowa Power Fund and tax policies have made Iowa a more attractive place to do business, Culver said.

"We have to be agile. We have to be flexible. This is a new 21st-century economy. It's very fluid," Culver said.

The Values Fund, a $50 million annual economic development program, provides incentives such as grants, loans and tax breaks to growing companies in Iowa.

The Power Fund is a four-year, $100 million program designed to spark development of the next generation of energy technology.

Two plants making components for wind turbines now employ 450 workers in Cedar Rapids and Fort Madison. Proposed plants in Keokuk and West Branch would provide nearly 500 jobs. Newton hopes to land a factory that would employ several hundred.

But David Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, said some industries remain at risk.

Appliance manufacturing continues to shift to low-cost-labor countries such as China and Mexico.

Even with Maytag gone, hundreds of Iowans still work at plants that could be vulnerable. Swenson points to factories that make Whirlpool refrigerators in Amana, Lennox air conditioners in Marshalltown, and Electrolux washers and dryers in Webster City, where job cuts have been announced.

Also threatened, he said, are dozens of small plastics companies that served appliance makers - as well as the auto industry.

Iowa also has several strong manufacturing industries that are growing or performing better than their peers nationally. In fact, Iowa has a stable manufacturing base that's adding production.

Showing strength: metal processing manufacturers such as IPSCO, North Star Steel and Alcoa, all in eastern Iowa; wood product manufacturers such as Pella Corp.; farm and construction machinery manufacturing that includes Deere & Co., Kinze Manufacturing near Williamsburg, and Vermeer in Pella; and office and home furnishings companies such as HNI Corp. in Muscatine.

Deere, Iowa's largest manufacturing employer, for example, has increased its Iowa manufacturing work force from 5,600 five years ago to 6,350 this year. The company recently laid off 45 workers in Dubuque, but continues to do limited hiring at factories in Ankeny, Waterloo and Ottumwa. Deere also has a factory in Davenport.

Firestone, the maker of agricultural tires in Des Moines, should remain strong because of its ties to the manufacture of farm machinery and other equipment in Iowa, Swenson said. The plant is Polk County's largest manufacturing employer.

Winnebago Industries, the Forest City maker of motor home recreational vehicles, has stayed in Iowa and prospered. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding next year.

The company has built five new plants or factory additions in the past 10 years in Forest City, Charles City and Hampton, said Bruce Hertzke, Winnebago chairman and chief executive.

"Some of the states around - South Dakota, Nebraska - actually had some very good incentive programs that we looked at," Hertzke said.

Winnebago stayed in Iowa mainly because of the quality of the labor force in northern Iowa, but also because Iowa offered financial incentives, too, Hertzke said.

The state should continue to offer help to existing businesses as well as new ones, Hertzke said.

Even Winnebago closed a small plant, a 46-employee operation in Lorimor, a southern Iowa town of 425, in 2006. The work was moved to Forest City and Charles City to reduce transportation expenses, Hertzke said.

Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, gives Iowa mostly good marks for creating a favorable business environment with its tax structure, noncumbersome regulation, worker training and right-to-work policy.

Iowa's "right to work" law says people do not have to join a labor union to work in a union-represented factory; the law is a sore point with unions.

Mark Smith, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, noted that Iowa still hasn't regained most of the jobs lost in the recession, and new ones that have been created come with lower wages and fewer benefits.

"It's pretty dismal in terms of wages," Smith said.

He said a national policy to encourage manufacturing is needed because states can't deal with issues such as trade polices.

New ways to work could save jobs

High-skill, high-tech practices - often referred to as advanced manufacturing - often make companies less vulnerable to foreign competition.

Advanced manufacturing helps keep businesses competitive by reducing costs for each item produced and creating jobs that require higher skill levels, making them less likely to be shipped to countries with lower wages.

Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins, a maker of communications equipment and aviation electronics, thrives on advanced manufacturing practices.

Innovations include computer programs that simulate a production line, complete with computer-generated workers on the screen, said Jack Harris, Rockwell's director of advanced manufacturing technology.

The computer simulation can help spot ways to improve efficiency.

The Iowa Advanced Manufacturing Council, a group of business leaders, has focused on ways to spike student interest in modern factories and avoid what could be the biggest threat to Iowa manufacturing: a future shortage of workers.

Experts estimate Iowa will be short about 90,000 manufacturing workers over the next eight years.

The council is providing college internships at small manufacturers; launching education programs like "Lead the Way" that emphasize practical applications of math and science in middle and high schools; and focusing on starting manufacturing businesses in Iowa as a way to attract graduating college students.

Tramontina, who leads the state's economic development agency, said a statewide assessment of workforce - and skills - should help the state set a plan of attack. The study is expected early next year.

But even advanced manufacturing is no guarantee against job loss, said Ron Cox, director of Iowa State University's Center for Industrial Research and Service.

"Maytag was considered an advanced manufacturer," Cox said.


Scabs to replace SoCal Teamster trash strikers

Waste Management truck drivers went on strike Friday, affecting the pickup of residential recyclables and trash from industrial and commercial sites throughout the city.

More than 500 sanitation workers walked off the job after rejecting a five-year labor contract with Waste Management, which provides or supplements trash collection services in more than a dozen Los Angeles County cities, including Long Beach and Carson. In Long Beach, residential trash pickup, handled by the city's Public Works Department, will continue as scheduled, city officials said. However, the city's recyclables are collected by Waste Management.

The Waste Management workers, represented by Teamsters Local 396, said the deal failed to address members' health care and pension concerns.

"The issue is that we've had three offers from the company, and none of those offers have lived up to the expectations of the union or their members," said Jay Phillips, President of Teamsters Local 396. "We just want something fair, we think the workers in Los Angeles deserve something better."

Phillips said current top pay for drivers is $17.80 per hour. Workers are seeking increases that put them closer to pay rates for counterparts in Oakland, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Waste Management said it was bringing in replacement drivers for the duration of the strike, and customers such as hospitals, restaurants, childcare centers and medical clinics were receiving first priority.

In Long Beach, the company collects general refuse and some industrial waste from numerous large commercial customers.

The company refused to release customer information, but said all routes in the area were being serviced at some level.

Waste Management offered workers a 22.5 percent pay increase over five years, and generous increases in worker health care and pension funds, said company spokeswoman Kit Cole.

"We are deeply disappointed that the union members chose this course of action," said Cole. "The parties had reached a tentative agreement on a fair and reasonable new contract for our employees."

The tentative deal was rejected by a majority of workers on Wednesday, several days after Waste Management offered their "last, best and final" offer to workers.

The two sides have been bargaining since July, said Phillips.

In Long Beach, residential trash pickup, handled by the city's Public Works Department, will continue as scheduled.

Outside Waste Management's facility in Carson near 213th Street and Wilmington Avenue, about 150 sanitation workers gathered Friday with picket signs. The first had arrived as early as 2:30 a.m. so they would know if any garbage trucks driven by their replacements leave the site, the employees said.

Carrying signs with the word "strike" and wearing black union T-shirts, some of the workers stood in front of Waste Management's gated entrance while others stood about a block away at the busy intersection to drum up support from passers-by.

Bill Huff, executive coordinator for the union, said the picketers had seen only six trucks leave to collect trash Friday. Normally, more than 100 trucks operate, he said.

Bringing in replacement workers from other cities can be extremely costly to the company, which just adds insult to injury, he said.

"We've always maintained the position, if you're willing to spend the money to replace them, why aren't you willing to make a better offer at the table?" Huff said.

Many of the workers said they feel overworked and underappreciated by Waste Management. Most work 12-hour days, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., to complete their routes, they said, although they are paid overtime rates.

Juan Casales, a Bel Gardens resident who has worked for the company seven years, said his two greatest concerns are getting respect and getting health insurance that doesn't involve many out-of-pocket expenses.

"They don't respect the drivers, they don't treat us with dignity," Casales said. "We work with trash, we take all this stuff (germs) back home, so we definitely need a good medical insurance."

Some of the workers who said they have worked for the company more than 30 years noted this is the worst labor dispute they have seen. The drivers plan to continue picketing today, Monday and every day thereafter until the union, and the company reach an agreement.

In the meantime, Long Beach residents will need to wait or find other means to recycle.

"We're urging people to not put out their recyclables until the situation is resolved ... but trash pickup will continue unaffected," said James Kuhl, Long Beach Environmental Services Bureau manager.

City trash collectors, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, are currently involved in separate labor talks.

While the city's refuse-handling labor contract prevents drivers from striking, it's tentatively set to expire Oct. 31, said Suzanne Mason.

The city's multi-million contract with Waste Management extends through 2010.


Teachers in wealthy suburb plan strike for higher pay

The countdown to a possible teachers strike in the Chicago-area, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 has begun. Superintendent Roger Thornton confirmed he received the union's intent-to-strike papers Friday morning. That means the union could set a strike date after a 10-day waiting period. With Friday's filing, the 10 business days will elapse on Nov. 2.

"We are preparing for a strike," Thornton said.

State labor law requires teachers to give schools at least a 10-day warning before striking. The union voted to file the strike documents on Monday after rejecting the district's final salary offer. A strike could still be avoided. That happened in 2005, when the union also filed strike intentions but reached a deal before any work stoppage.

The average teacher salary in District 211 as of 2006 topped $83,000, ranging from about $44,000 for a starting teacher to more than $100,000 at the top end.

Since last spring, the two sides have been attempting to negotiate a base-salary raise for the current school year. The final district offer was for one year with a 2.5 percent raise in base pay. The teachers asked for what amounts to a 4.1 percent base-pay increase, factoring in a requested lump sum payment.

The union wants salaries comparable to those in surrounding districts, like Northwest Suburban High School District 214, whose teachers are getting a 4.25 percent base-pay raise this year. District officials don't want to spend recklessly, saying salaries should be close to the rate of inflation.

The teachers are getting step increases over 2007-08, though not a base-salary hike. The current deal allowed for the final year to renegotiated. Talks began in May and crumbled in August. Federal mediation failed to bring the two sides closer.

The teachers union also announced plans to picket at Thursday's school board meeting at district headquarters in Palatine.


PA teachers union strikes revive calls for a ban

The tableau of striking teachers carrying picket signs in the Seneca Valley School District in Butler County last week is a familiar one, played out 974 times in Pennsylvania since teachers won the right to strike in 1970.

But along with the strikes has come another perennial: legislative proposals to outlaw them. "There's typically one per session, at least," said Tim Allwein, assistant executive director for governmental and member relations of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

While there have been many proposals, it has been 15 years since any changes were made in the law governing teacher strikes. Although the changes - embodied in Act 88 of 1992 - significantly reduced the number and length of strikes, some think the act did not go far enough.

State House Republicans have introduced two bills so far this year. One, whose chief sponsor is state Rep. Bob Bastian, R-Somerset, an area where one teachers contract dispute took five years to resolve, calls for a constitutional amendment banning strikes.

The other bill, introduced by state Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin, would ban strikes and set a penalty for those violating the law: Teachers would forfeit two days' pay for each strike day and individuals would have to pay $5,000 for inciting a strike.

It also would set up increased public scrutiny -- including making contract proposals public -- as well as mandatory nonbinding arbitration as ways to resolve a dispute.

Among the supporters are state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, whose district includes the Seneca Valley district, and an organization named Stop Teacher Strikes Inc., which was formed by Simon Campbell, a parent affected by an earlier strike in the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County.

According to the school boards association, 76 school districts and their teachers are still negotiating contracts that expired this year or earlier.

In Allegheny County, teachers in Duquesne and Shaler Area have taken strike authorization votes. Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers are in the midst of a mail-in strike authorization vote.

Others who have authorized strikes are teachers in the Greensburg-Salem, Southmoreland and Yough school districts in Westmoreland County and in Connellsville Area in Fayette County, according to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

None of them has set a date, and it is not unusual for members to authorize a strike that never occurs.

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states permitting teacher strikes.

Before Act 88, the number of strikes in the state reached a high point of 52 in 1980-81. But after Act 88, the number has ranged from five to 17 a year, according to the school boards association.

So far this year, there have been three: Seneca Valley and Lake-Lehman in Luzerne County, both of which walked out last Monday, and Reynolds in Mercer County, which went on strike on Oct. 9.

Act 88 limits how long teachers can stay out, provides ways for third parties to examine the dispute and requires teachers to give 48-hour notice of a strike. It also halts selective strikes -- in which teachers give short notice they would be out for a day -- and guarantees students receive 180 days of instruction.

Little enthusiasm for change

Neither the school boards association nor the PSEA have come out in support of the latest proposals.

The school boards association, which pushed for Act 88, is preparing to appoint a task force to develop a position on changing the act so that a position can be adopted by its policy council next fall.

Earlier this month, the association set a legislative platform opposing mandatory binding arbitration.

"We don't have any consensus from our members to support a bill prohibiting teachers strikes," said Mr. Allwein. "We have members that support just about everything.

"There needs to be a way to deal with strikes, whether prohibiting them altogether or creating more disincentives is the answer, I guess we'll see in the next few years."

The PSEA isn't looking for any changes in Act 88 right now.

"When they're talking about an outright ban on strikes, we're not favoring any reopening of Act 88 at this time," said spokesman Wythe Keever.

PSEA delegates in May approved resolutions reaffirming the belief in the right to strike and supporting binding arbitration only when both sides mutually agree.

"Our members believe that strikes should be a legal and rare last option," said Mr. Keever. "None of our members like going on strike, but they think it's an important last resort when negotiations don't bring about a settlement."

Joe Scheuermann, president of Hempfield Area teachers union, which went on strike last fall after the board didn't approve a tentative contract, said he wishes the tools of Act 88 had worked well enough to prevent the 10-day strike.

But he believes the strike was necessary.

"Without the strike and without the fact-finding report, I don't think we would have reached a settlement," he said.

"I understand the frustration of parents who say, 'I want my children in school,' but if teachers have no right to strike, what recourse do they have when the board is being unreasonable?"

One of arguments over whether teachers should strike revolves around who loses when one occurs. Unlike strikers in the private sector, teachers typically do not lose pay during a strike.

But Mr. Keever thinks such a comparison to the private sector is unfair because the employer, the school district, doesn't lose money either.

Bruce Campbell, an attorney in public labor law for more than three decades, said he thinks the number of strikes would be "dramatically reduced" if teachers lost money during a strike. He suggested not permitting teachers to make up missed in-service days and requiring them to pay for their own health insurance during a strike.

Under Act 88, teachers can strike up to the point at which the district can still schedule 180 days of instruction by June 15. Then, both sides must submit the dispute to nonbinding arbitration.

If the arbitrator's recommendations are rejected by one or both sides, then the teachers can strike again, this time up to the point at which the district can schedule 180 days of instruction by June 30.

The result is that most strikes last only a few days or a few weeks.

Under the old law, strikes could last for months.

Help from fact-finders

Act 88 also provides some help before a strike is declared, including a state mediator and a voluntary fact-finding.

It appears to have made a difference.

From 1992 through 2006, the state Labor Relations Board appointed 543 fact-finders in contract disputes involving teachers and other school employees. Of those, 39 percent of the disputes were settled by the end of the process, including 16 percent before a fact-finding report was issued and 23 percent which mutually accepted the recommendations.

No similar figures were available for nonbinding arbitration.

The process helps even in cases where the fact-finder's report is rejected, Mr. Campbell said.

"Fact-finding tends to narrow the issues of a dispute," said Mr. Campbell, who thinks the state should order more fact-finding. "When you go before a fact-finder, it tends to make people get more realistic about their proposal. They tend to focus on the more important issues."

Two of the biggest issues at bargaining tables are salary and health care costs.

When it comes to salary, teachers and school districts sometimes give different sets of numbers, even for the same proposals.

That's because they approach them with different points of view. Some boards look at an overall percentage, including the pay increases at each step as teachers move up the salary scale. Some teachers look at the raises above and beyond those already provided at the various steps.

School districts are trying to get teachers to contribute to health care premiums, or, if they already do, to contribute more.

"Health care costs are at the core of most of the work stoppages we've seen in the last number of years," Mr. Allwein said.


Time is on striking teachers' side

While the Lake-Lehman teachers walked the picket lines last week, high school seniors took advantage of the mild October weather to hold cookouts in the junior-senior high school parking lot.

The students — who refused to talk to the media because they felt they shouldn’t take sides — played soccer in the middle of a circle of parked cars, while someone’s CD player blasted upbeat music.

“Do they realize this is their Christmas vacation and spring break?” Lake-Lehman Education Association President Dan Williams wondered on the second day of the strike. “They should be down at the beach.”

For each strike day, students lose one day off. They could end up with vacations and breaks eaten down to bare-bones state-required holidays and the Nov. 12 parent-teacher conference day off.

The state Department of Education determined teachers can’t strike past Nov. 8 to get the required 180 days of school in by June 15, or Nov. 26 to get them in by June 30. But Nov. 8 is the important deadline, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Leah Harris.

Under state law, if a strike prevents the district from providing 180 days of instruction by June 15 or the last day of the school year — which at Lake-Lehman is June 13 — the teachers and school board must enter non-binding final best offer arbitration. Both parties sit down with a neutral third party and each comes up with a contract proposal.

Northwest Area’s teachers union and school board are in non-binding arbitration under Walter Glogowski of the American Arbitration Association. Glogowski is unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot for a seat on the Lake-Lehman School Board in Region 3.

If the Lake-Lehman teachers and school board don’t come to an agreement in arbitration, the teachers can call another strike with 48 hours notice, Harris said. The Department of Education would then re-calculate the number of days the teachers can strike.

If it seems the district won’t make the 180 days by June 30, the state Secretary of Education could ask Luzerne County court to order the teachers back to school. If a district doesn’t complete the 180 days, it loses part of its state subsidy money, Harris said.

This weekend, Lake-Lehman Superintendent James McGovern is working on recommendations to the board on how to adjust the calendar, such as which days off can be cut first. So far, the students have five days to make up.

“I think that’s the point everyone has to understand: if this does indeed continue, the more the strike goes on, the limitations of the calendar become evident,” McGovern said.


UAW members in 4 states reject Chrysler deal

United Auto Workers members in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Delaware rejected an agreement with Chrysler LLC yesterday, bolstering local union opposition to a proposed four-year contract.

Five of the eight UAW locals that voted Thursday and Friday turned down the offer while three accepted it. The eight represent 14,177 workers, or 31 percent of Chrysler's 45,000 UAW employees. A majority of voting members must approve the accord for it to pass. The vote runs through next week.

Opposition to the Chrysler contract began to build Monday when Bill Parker, chief of the UAW committee that negotiated it, recommended members reject it. He said he'd vote no because UAW President Ron Gettelfinger hadn't secured work for Chrysler plants as far into the future as he had at General Motors Corp.

"If the Chrysler contract is voted down, Gettelfinger has to go back to the company and say, 'I need more product guarantees,'" said Dan Luria, an analyst at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center in Plymouth. Roger Kerson, a UAW spokesman, declined to comment.

Gettelfinger and his aides belong to the Administration Caucus, a group that has controlled the union since 1946. Parker was a member of a rival group called New Directions that mounted its strongest challenge in 1989, when it sought unsuccessfully to unseat two members of the union's international executive board.

Union Fund

Dissatisfaction is growing inside the UAW because its new contracts contain concessions the union has resisted for decades, Luria said.

Among other things, the GM and Chrysler agreements create a union fund for retiree health care, instead of imposing this responsibility solely on management. The accords also will pay new workers about half as much as the current workforce. About two-thirds of GM workers approved their agreement, which followed a two-day strike. Chrysler workers walked out for six hours before their settlement was reached.

The UAW patterned its Chrysler agreement after GM's, and hopes to use the same basic approach at Ford Motor Co.

New Models in '13

Chrysler plans new investments totaling $15 billion for 55 of its 59 UAW-represented facilities during the next four years, spokesman Mike Aberlich said in an e-mail. At GM, some UAW factories were promised they'd start building newly designed models starting in 2013.

At UAW Local 110 at a minivan plant in St. Louis 79 percent of non-skilled workers who voted rejected the contract, said Lou Moye, bargaining chairman. He declined to comment further. At UAW Local 122 at a stamping plant in Twinsburg, Ohio, 53 percent of those who participated voted no, according to the local's Web site.

At UAW Local 1183 at a sport-utility assembly plant in Newark, Delaware, 54 percent of workers who voted rejected the contract, the Associated Press reported. The plant, which is closing in 2009, represents 1,581 workers, AP said.

At UAW Local 961 at an axle plant in Detroit, 53.5 percent of workers who voted turned down the contract, the Detroit Free Press reported.

Workers at Local 372 at an engine plant in Trenton, Michigan, and at Local 1435 at a machining plant in Perrysburg, Ohio, accepted the contract, the Free Press said, without giving vote totals.

Push Harder

On Thursday, 81 percent of Local 136 workers at a Dodge truck plant near St. Louis turned down the deal. At an engine plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 82 percent of Local 72 employees voted in favor.

The latest rejections may heighten pressure on Gettelfinger to push harder for votes.

Union "leadership is in the field, and they will probably be all weekend long" trying to persuade workers to ratify the deal, said analyst Sean McAlinden at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The contract was opposed by some negotiators who rejected it initially, the Free Press reported. It took four votes for the union's nine-member national bargaining committee on Oct. 10 to approve the settlement, the newspaper said, citing a letter posted on Local 1166 in Kokomo, Indiana, by Shawn Fain, a skilled-trades committeeman at the local. During these votes, the union staged a six-hour strike.

Parker, who chaired the committee, is also president of UAW Local 1700 at a Chrysler car assembly plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

The ratification vote is the first for Chrysler as a closely held company. Private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP purchased a majority stake in the automaker in August from the former DaimlerChrysler AG, now Daimler AG.


Reopening school during teachers' strike increases threat

There is no expectation that they will work beyond the length of the strike, but Illinois' District 2 officials announced employment vacancies to fill the void left by 140 teachers and support staff members on strike.

But the union questions the quality of education that an entire building full of substitute teachers would provide, said Laura Biloz, head negotiator for the Richmond/Spring Grove Education Association.

“Our district has recently had a push to get special ed students back into regular classes, which requires a lot of specialized planning and accommodating teachers,” she said.

Mike Antonucci, director of the Educational Intelligence Agency, said it was unusual for a school to close for a strike and then open up before its conclusion. The Educational Intelligence Agency conducts public-education research, analysis and investigations with a particular focus on teacher unions.

“Usually the strategy is to do it at the start or not to do it at all,” he said. “I think this is a sign of hardening of positions.” In his experience, hiring replacement teachers has not had an effect on whether the strike will stop, Antonucci said. “To me this is a signal that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said. “It’s going to actually raise the temperature regarding the problem.”

In the past 20 years, the number of teacher strikes has decreased, in part because there are many more ways of settling contracts, including mediation, Antonucci said.

“And teachers are much more likely to get what they want than they were in the past,” he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the strikes were about salary increases as compared to now, when they tend to be about benefits, Antonucci said.

“The reason we are seeing fewer strikes is because it’s harder to get people to strike over insurance contributions than it is to get them to strike over salary,” he said.

While she does not doubt that the board is serious about hiring temporary replacements, the move has brought the teachers closer together, Biloz said.

“If anything, it has galvanized our teachers,” she said.

In addition, a lot of the district’s substitute teachers have been on the picket line as parents supporting the union, Biloz said.

Biloz said the teachers and support staff members still were doing their job out on the line, discussing curriculum and upcoming projects.

“We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to ease back into the school once this is settled,” she said.

Contract negotiations are scheduled to continue at 3 p.m. today at Nippersink Middle School.


Hollywood writers union authorizes strike

The Writers Guild of America announced last night that its members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike authorization. According to the WGA, 90.3% of votes registered supported a strike. The vote also attracted the WGA’s highest turnout ever. The 5,507 votes eclipsed the previous record of 4,128 ballots cast during the 2001 contract negations.

The strong show of solidarity should empower the WGA in their ongoing negotiations with the AMPTP. The Guild’s main concerns this go round are in the areas of new media, reality, animation, and DVD residuals. So far, any discussions between the two parties appear to have been unproductive and contentious.

The writers’ current contract expires on October 31, and a strike could begin as early as November 1. If it happens, expect to see some very well written picket signs.

In a letter to guild members, WGA West president Patric Verrone reiterated that writers don’t want to strike, but that they have to have a contract that is commensurate with the financial successes of the industry. “When they get paid, we must get paid. It's just that simple.”

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