Police union organizes by spreading distrust

The dirty little secret of much state and local government is found not in any particular law or regulation, nor in a specific, impassioned press conference about this or that; not even in the passing of envelopes full of cash, or other forms of grandiose graft and corruption.

No, that kind of stuff is the anecdote and sound bite of politics and government. The under-the-radar, corrosive aspect of government that is most damaging is subtle cynicism; the knowing smile and resigned shoulder shrug that come with the understanding that nothing is as important as self-interest, that “public service” is an inconvenience to be overcome in favor of something less transcendent.

Even the most honest, earnest, well-meaning purveyor of “good government” can fall victim to a culture that manufactures damaging or fatal cynicism and despair.

Ponder the realities of the process by which state police lieutenants and captains in Connecticut are now poised to become labor union members.

The tendency would be to focus on the disgraceful intricacies of state labor law that apparently allow senior managers of the state police enterprise to organize as if they were long-haul truckers, coal miners or farm workers.

The tendency would be to focus on the public tap dance of someone such as Attourney General Richard Blumenthal, who, after remembering that he is an elected Democratic politician, has bailed out of representing the Office of Policy and Management in its appeal of the decision to allow the senior cops to organize.

The tendency would be to focus on the impassioned rhetoric of the union stooges, who act as if state police lieutenants and captains work in the textile mill, next to Norma Rae, and are being oppressed by the mean old bureaucrats at OPM.

The tendency would be to focus on OPM Secretary Robert Genuario, who questions whether senior management of the state cops can be loyal to the agency that they manage and, at the same time, operate on behalf of their bargaining unit.

Spreading Distrust

Yes, inquiring journalists and interested members of the public can meander from legal opinion to press conference to anecdote to political tap dance, looking for the “right answer” to the question of whether the state’s senior cops are indeed little more than file clerks in need of special protection from perhaps working a few extra hours, without overtime pay.

But the damage already has been done. Whether or not OPM is successful in its appeal of the Kangaroo Court ruling from the State Board of Labor Relations; whether or not the state police commissioner is going to be able to have a chat with his captains and lieutenants, without a team of labor lawyers present; the cynical cancer has already settled in and spread.

The very fact that the state police organizing effort has gone along as far as it has—without a peep of protest from the Democratic majority in the General Assembly, without 10 professors, six lawyers, three management consultants and a partridge in a pear tree standing up and saying, “are you nuts?” confirms that state government culture reinforces the hopelessness of real reform, reinforces the perception of the general public as an enemy to be resisted or ignored.

Once that kind of mindset establishes itself, it matters little whether every so often, the “public” scores a victory against lunacy. The instinct to view public service as a shrug and a grin can become impossible to eradicate.

A Boston Globe investigation of the Boston city cops in 2005 discovered that 19 police officers earned more than $200,000 in 2004 -- due in part to the union contract with the “Boston Police Superior Officers Federation”—the managers and supervisors who don’t apparently manage or supervise.

Will OPM win its legal argument to stave off the unionization of the state cop managers? Probably not. This isn’t about logic or good government. Lurking in most public-sector labor legislation and legal interpretation is a presumption of coverage that no sissy-judge in a Democratic state such as Connecticut is going to fool with.

And at the end of the day, nobody much will care. The boys and girls in Hartford will smile their little smiles, shrug their shoulders and explain that this is just how things are. Cynicism triumphs over efficiency, logic and effective government.


Colo. unionists dance on the head of a pin

Black's Law Dictionary describes collective bargaining as a negotiation between an employer and the representative of organized employees to determine working conditions, wages, hours and fringe benefits.

Gov. Bill Ritter describes his plan to allow state workers to enter into partnership agreements with their bosses as one that provides for improving government services, achieving efficiencies and discussing issues of mutual concern.

Though opponents to the governor's plan say the two are exactly the same, proponents defend the difference as glaring.

"The way this is structured, the way we are thinking about it and the realities of it is that it is not collective bargaining," said Evan Dreyer, Ritter's press secretary. "The lack of a binding arbitration component means that there is nobody, no entity, no arbitrator who can force a decision on the state. The governor doesn't give up any authority. The same exact thing applies to the (Joint Budget Committee) and the Legislature."

And removing state workers' ability to strike, which all but state security and emergency workers have under current law, further eliminates any teeth they or their unions might have to force an agreement on the state, he said.

Ritter's plan to allow state workers to unionize has caused a stir among legislative Republicans, who immediately denounced it as one likely to needlessly increase state spending.

They say Colorado workers are already among the best paid state employees in the nation, and the state can ill-afford to pay them more.

"Constituents are worried what this does to the cost of government, and how this makes government more effective," said state Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. "Does placing a third party in between a conversation between an employee and an employer really make a difference? It replaces common sense with unions, and it's a sad day in Colorado when we can't operate without a union representative in the room."

Democrats argue that the revenue and spending limits under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights will prevent lawmakers from giving state workers too generous of a compensation package because there just isn't enough money to do so.

But Republicans counter that if the state did agree to boost pay and benefits for its workers, that money would have to come from other programs.

As a result, there will be a direct impact on taxpayer dollars, said state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield.

"In this time of supposedly tight budgets and insufficient resources, (Ritter) is doing what will drive up the cost of labor and make worse those very problems," Mitchell said. "It's not TABOR's problem. It's bad leadership, bad management, bad spending priorities."

Union groups and some state workers said the GOP is focused too much on what the agreements might do, and not enough on what they are designed to do, help the state reduce waste and operate more efficiently, saving taxpayer dollars in the process.

John Silver, a corrections officer at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City, said the reason why they want the ability to negotiate with their employers is to offer input on how they do their jobs, not on what they are paid.

Silver said the agreements are merely designed to put them on an even footing with their bosses, and ensure they are listened to, and not just tolerated.

"Right now, we're pretty much at the state's mercy," Silver said. "Once we get this (agreement) taken care of, we'll be on a common ground where we'll be able to come to the table and say, ‘Hey, this is what we're looking for’ in terms of this situation or that, and the state can say, ‘This is what we're looking for our employees to provide for us.’

"There will be times where we're going to have to make concessions, but I also see that the state's going to have to give into concessions also. If we can save the state money by providing a better service, I'm all for that. It's not just paying wages."

Local Democratic lawmakers said that even if the governor were to term his plan "collective bargaining," it would make little difference.

The state would continue to operate much as it does now, just a little more efficiently, said Dreyer and state Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo.

Under the governor's partnerships, the civil service rules currently managed by the State Personnel Board will be the same, including employee grievance procedures.

Wages, benefits and staffing levels still will be determined by the state budget, which is written by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

"The bottom line is that if we don't have money, the JBC and the governor will have the ability to decide what level of money is spent on employee benefits and raises," said Tapia, who also is JBC vice chairman. "So this doesn't change anything because we're still limited by the laws that are in effect. We may get lobbied a little harder (from state workers), but the budget is a bill that is carried by the total Legislature."

Other local Democrats likewise defended the move, saying ultimately it will prove to help state government operate more efficiently.

"There seems to be a bit of an uproar from the Republican side of the aisle about partnering the state employee, and in this case I think it is a point of exaggeration simply because it's not unusual in many states," said state Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West. "Maybe if we had this in place prior to this year, we might have avoided things like the (computer) debacle or we might have found out somebody was embezzling $10 million from the Department of Revenue had we had a better communication system with our state employees."

State Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, said there's no reason why the state can't improve its working relationship with state workers and give them raises as needed.

"From what I see, I don't see a problem," McKinley said. "We spend a lot of money in the state that is unnecessary. Look at all the studies we do. We study things to death. We ought to be looking at something to give people better wages."

Local Republicans, however, questioned not only the plan, but the way the governor chose to implement it - by executive order rather than through the Legislature.

State Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said the governor made it clear such issues should be discussed openly when he vetoed HB1072 during this year's session that would have eliminated a second vote needed to create all-union shops.

"From listening to the dialogue it sounds like it's trying to be something proactive, but I'm somewhat disappointed we went somewhat off the reservation to have it done," Massey said. "When we saw 1072 get vetoed, the talk was that we needed to engage all the legislators in a bipartisan manner. (The executive order) kind of circumvented that."


UFCW seeks beach-head in Right To Work state

The Rev. John Mendez’s views of labor conditions at Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, N.C. (“Smithfield Foods fails employees,” Oct. 29) appear to be heavily tainted by union propaganda churned out by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and their fake grass-roots organization operating under the name “Smithfield Justice.”

The stakes are high. If the union can organize 5,200 Tar Heel employees at the largest pork-processing plant in the world, it will give them a beach-head in a “Right to Work” state, not to mention millions of dollars in new-found dues.

Apparently, union bosses failed to tell the Rev. Mendez that on Feb. 6, the president and CEO of Smithfield Packing Co. called on the union to “Let the workers vote - by secret ballot - whether they want a union. Let them decide whether the charges your union is making are true.” A letter was sent to UFCW President Joe Hansen stating Smithfield “would bear the cost of a neutral outside observer - such as a church group or the Carter Center in Atlanta - to oversee the election. This will ensure a fair vote.”

Talks ended between Smithfield and the UFCW because the union wants a “card-check.” It wants to be able to approach workers at home or in the parking lot and ask them to sign an authorization card to form a union. If more than 50 percent sign, the union wins. Congress recently voted against a proposed card-check law because of potential abuses.

Tar Heel employees twice rejected unionization, in 1994 and 1997. UFCW activists shout company intimidation but keep silent about a 1994 secret-ballot election held at Smithfield’s Kinston plant, where the Service Employees International Union won. Yet the plant was operated by the same Smithfield management team without any reports like the kind the Rev. Mendez alleges. In fact, more than half of Smithfield Packing employees are affiliated with unions through secret ballot - including the UFCW at other nationwide plants.

The American Meat Institute has recognized Smithfield every year for the past decade for its outstanding employee-safety programs and low injury rates. Smithfield consistently ranks among the industry leaders in workplace safety. The Tar Heel plant is the largest of its kind in the world, but its injury rate is among the lowest in the industry (6.49 injuries for every 100 workers since 2003). As far as line speeds are concerned, many union contracts at other U.S. meat-processing plants are equal to or faster than Smithfield’s.

Smithfield has delivered on its promises to create opportunities in Tar Heel and Bladen County. Local economic planners and elected officials worked hard to provide incentives for the company to locate there in 1992. Average wages are $12.40 an hour, contributing nearly $150 million in payroll. Employees work a seven-hour shift and get two 30-minute breaks. Employees and their families have access to affordable health insurance and an 11,000-square-foot Smithfield Family Medical Center and Pharmacy built at a cost of $11 million. There is also a generous college-tuition reimbursement program up to $6,000 per year.

Ugly inferences of racial inequalities are mean-spirited. More than 60 percent of Smithfield Packing management is black, Hispanic and American Indian. And the Smithfield-Luter Foundation has established $100,000 scholarship programs at a number of historically black colleges and universities, such as Fayetteville State, for their children and grandchildren.

Smithfield workers are perfectly capable of making their own decisions. They should be allowed to think for themselves and express their will through a secret-ballot election, a democratic process conducted by the Federal National Labor Relations Board and monitored by a neutral third party. The Rev. Mendez has apparently been sent by the UFCW on a fool’s errand to convince Smithfield workers that he and the union know more about their needs than they do.


Teamsters scab WGA strike

Rick Valencia stared through his windshield at the Hollywood writers pacing in front of the Paramount Studios gate, a blur of red T-shirts and picket signs blocking his passage.

He'd been driving trucks for more than three decades, but earned less in a year than some of these writers made in a week. Scribes in the upper echelon of the Writers Guild of America were bona-fide members of the Hollywood elite. The 57-year-old driver reflected on how enraged he had been in 1988 when writers crossed a Teamster picket line he had been walking.

Yet Valencia, who was hauling construction equipment for Paramount Pictures, wasn't clenching his teeth in anger as he idled in front of the picketing mob for the first time last week. He sat in his truck in anguish. Should he risk his job by standing up for union membership and the right to a decent wage?

He crossed slowly, in no hurry for pickets to clear a path. "I'm happy to wait," Valencia said later. Studios had threatened to replace Teamsters who failed to show up for work, but they could do little to workers' who moved sluggishly through the day in quiet solidarity with the writers.

Hundreds of Teamsters such as Valencia were experiencing their own moral dilemmas last week amid the first major Hollywood strike in two decades. The Teamsters, which supply not only drivers but location managers and casting directors, have the power to shut down the entertainment industry. Their trucks deliver the materials for making sets, the lighting equipment and other gear needed on location to keep the cameras rolling.

But local Teamster leaders have left members to decide for themselves what to do rather than wind up in court. The studios maintain that a sympathy strike would be illegal and have threatened to replace Teamsters who honor the line.

"I sympathize with these people, but we got a memo saying: 'You will go to work or you'll be fired,' " said a driver who works for Paramount and asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about internal company matters. Two years away from retirement, the driver said he couldn't afford not to cross even though "it breaks my heart."

Studio employees said no-shows were rare last week and judged the slowdowns as a minor annoyance. Most rank-and-file Teamsters said they had little choice but to work.

Yet in a town where writers are considered the passionate idealists, a small but noticeable contingent of drivers have proven to be the true believers.

It wouldn't matter if it were lawyers or doctors walking the line, "it's a union, and I'm union," said one Universal Studios tram driver in his 60s who stayed out of work.

Gary Compton, who was hauling construction gear for the teen drama "Greek," wasn't crossing over to the side of Big Media either last week.

"I'm worried about it financially, sure," he said of the risk that he would be fired. But he said if the studios managed to crush the Writers Guild of America, then other unions were vulnerable, too. "If they're able to break this union, it's going to snowball."

It pained the writers that Teamsters were still driving.

"If we got the support we were promised, this would be a lot shorter," television writer David Graziano said as he picketed Paramount.

Were people such as Graziano writing the strike script, the class divide between the two unions could set up a nice little drama. Maybe some more confrontation, and they'd need a romantic angle -- perhaps a soap-opera writer and a burly trucker would hit it off and bring the unions together.

But the real plot line isn't nearly as clean as in "Norma Rae," the pro-union movie celebrated in the lobby of the Local 399 union hall in North Hollywood. There hangs a photo of the film's star, Sally Field.

Local 399 Secretary-Treasurer Leo Reed wrote his membership just before the writers walked out Nov. 5, noting the provision in the union's contract that warned against a Teamster strike and the union's responsibility to "use its best efforts" to get employees to keep working. Reed said each member was responsible for making his or her own choice, adding that he would never cross.

"Remember, I believe that Teamsters do not cross picket lines!" Reed closed.

One studio filed a formal complaint about his comments with labor regulators. Local 399 returned the favor, filing a counter-complaint about the replacement threats. But the two sides have talked over the dispute and tentatively agreed to withdraw their grievances.

Contractually, the studios are barred from disciplining drivers who honor someone else's picket line. But they can replace anyone who doesn't come to work, essentially giving them the power to punish strikers.

Such confusion has prompted countless conversations among drivers and some painful interior monologues.

"Some drivers are saying, 'They're fighting for residuals, and I don't get residuals,' " said Stan Mataele, 45, who has refused to cross with his truck. "But we all gotta stick together."

The Teamsters are more inclined to stay on the job when they hear that some writer-producers, though a minority, are crossing lines, Reed said. "They may not be working as writers when they cross," Reed said. "But we aren't working as writers either, and they don't want us to cross."

Many have found the same middle ground as Valencia. They work, but not too quickly.

"All the writers are asking for is an old-fashioned idea called profit-sharing," said Valencia. "It's not like the studios have been enduring a giant financial downturn."

One 17-year van driver sat idling last week outside Paramount's Van Ness Avenue gate, waiting patiently for the pickets to clear the driveway.

The longer the wait, the better she felt about eventually having to enter the lot. "I'm union," she said, near tears. "My whole family's union."

Taking it a step further are people such as Jack Fisher, who has been driving set dressings for a movie he isn't allowed to name.

When he shows up at a studio and the pickets are there, Fisher leaves the truck in the street. If the production needs his load right away, people come out with handcarts, wasting time.

Fisher did that five times during one day last week, provoking a tongue-lashing from his nonunion superior. "I back the writers," said Fisher, 58, who did four tours of duty in Vietnam. "We're all one family."

Those drivers who work directly for the big studios that are leading the fight against the writers have the most to fear. Studios are looking for ways to wear down the unions. Those who work for independent production companies have less fear of retaliation, Reed said.

Teamsters who don't work for either have the least to worry about, which is why some delivery trucks carrying food and packages were unloading last week on the sidewalks outside of the studios. Many UPS, laundry truck and food service drivers are honoring the line, said Jim Santangelo, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42, which has 150,000 members in 24 local unions.

With pickets generally walking the line from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., those studio Teamsters who want to work without crossing can just go in early. Many have shifts that start before 7 a.m. anyway.

Some writers figured that out and began picketing as early as 6 a.m. That stopped Compton for the first time last week outside CBS Studio Center in Studio City.

Choosing his words carefully, Local 399's Reed said he wanted there to be more truckers such as Compton. "I hope more Teamsters don't cross," he said.


Striking teachers take it to the limit

The teacher strike in the Seneca Valley school district is about to enter its fourth and final week. State law dictates that teachers must return to the classroom by this Friday - with or without a new deal.

Negotiators met Sunday morning for more than two hours, but reported no new progress in reaching a contract deal. The school board is asking the teachers union to allow the rank and file to vote on its latest proposal. They said the union has refused to bring the offer up for a vote.

The union says no new talks are scheduled, but board members said they would be meeting again on Monday.


Broadway on strike, day 3

It was a second day of dark Broadway theaters and disappointed audiences as striking stagehands reaffirmed their commitment yesterday to remain off the job until producers started acting "honorably" at the negotiating table.

James J. Claffey Jr., president of Local One, said the League of American Theatres and Producers needs to make a "constructive" adjustment to its counter offers. "We want respect at the table," he said at a somber news conference. "If there's no respect, they will not see Local One at the table. The lack of respect is something we are not going to deal with."

Twenty-seven shows remained closed yesterday, the day after stagehands went on strike, shutting down such popular productions as "Wicked," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Hairspray," "Jersey Boys," and "Mamma Mia!"

Among the shows canceled yesterday was a gala 10th-year anniversary performance of "The Lion King," although a party celebrating the Disney musical's decade-long run was still being held.

Producers of "August: Osage County," by Tracy Letts from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, said they may postpone its scheduled Nov. 20 opening. And the producers have offered to pay for cast members' return to Chicago during the work stoppage.

Pickets again walked quietly in front of the struck theaters around Times Square, and few pedestrians were seen on normally crowded side streets in the area.

Eight shows, which have separate contracts with the union, remained open and did strong, often sold-out business on Saturday, a two-performance day. Among the attractions still running are "Young Frankenstein," "Mary Poppins," "Xanadu," and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," as well as four shows - "Pygmalion," "The Ritz," "Mauritius," and "Cymbeline" - playing at nonprofit theaters.

The same-day discount tickets booths in Times Square and at the South Street Seaport remained open, serving the Broadway shows unaffected by the walkout as well as all off-Broadway productions, which were up and running.

Yesterday, there were lines at the Times Square location, but it was not as crowded as usual. A sign said there were no Broadway shows available and suggested off-Broadway options.

Perry Welch, in town from Seattle, was in line hoping to get tickets to "The Fantasticks" or "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change."

"We had tickets for 'Rent,' [but] that's not going to happen," he said.

No new negotiations have been scheduled between the union and the league, and resumption of talks appears uncertain. Mayor Michael Bloomberg again offered his assistance yesterday, saying "the city will do everything it can to help [reach an agreement]."

But both sides are standing firm, however.

"We're fighting for our lives," Claffey said at the news conference. "We're fighting for the people out there, the middle class. A middle-class job we're trying to protect."

On Saturday, Charlotte St. Martin's the league's executive director charged, "The union chose to strike - without notifying us - rather than to continue negotiations. But our members are united in their commitment to achieving a fair contract. Our goal is simple: To pay for workers we need and for work that is actually performed."

The two sides have been involved in lengthy, tension-filled negotiations since last summer. Much of the disagreement involves work rules and staffing requirements, particularly rules governing the expensive process of loading in and setting up a show. The producers want more flexibility in hiring; the stagehands don't want to give up what they say are hard-won benefits without something in return.

Claffey has enlisted the support of other theatrical unions, including those representing musicians and actors.

Said John Connolly, head of Actors' Equity Association, "We regret these theaters are closed. We are sorry we are not where we want to be: on stage, entertaining our audiences. That's what we do, that's what we live for. We didn't shut the theaters. We didn't make $100 ticket prices. We did not say it is our mission to refashion the economics of the theater industry. The employers did that."


Background checks superfluous in NJ

Paramus Borough Council members say that even if they had known their new borough administrator had possible mob ties, they would have hired him anyway. Are they kidding?

Two questions: Why didn't they know about the mob links? And why didn't they know that the administrator, Anthony Iacono, was removed from his job as a union president by a federal monitor who asserted Iacono maintained mob connections and embezzled funds?

There's a reason that using New Jersey as the locale for the HBO series "The Sopranos" worked so well. There was nothing fictional about it. Appointments such as Iacono's — to a job that was unfilled for 10 years — reaffirm the reputation of the state as a haven for corruption and organized crime.

At least one official in Paramus was aware of Iacono's background. Mayor James Tedesco said Iacono "made me comfortable that this was in the past." Would Tedesco hire someone on Megan's List as a baby-sitter if they professed their transgressions were "in the past"?

"Nobody has anything on me," said Iacono. "There's no law that says who you can or can't be friends with." Sounds like a line from a script Tony Soprano himself, or any of the show's corrupt politicians, could have uttered.

Iacono's friends include a reputed Genovese crime family associate, a connection that led to part-time jobs as maitre d' for two restaurants — jobs he still holds despite being out of the union and despite making $135,000 in his administrator job.

Iacono's job history, which includes a previous stint as administrator in Secaucus, is disturbing. Someone permanently barred from a union because of mob ties should not be in charge of running a town. Even in New Jersey.


Teachers union contracts violate public records law

A newspaper reported today that some union contracts contain loopholes that allow teachers to dodge attempts by parents and others to get a look at their personnel files for evidence of misconduct.

According to a report by the Columbus (OH) Dispatch, union contracts throughout the state regularly imply that teachers' personnel files aren't public and will not be shared with people who aren't associated with the school district

That's a violation of Ohio's public records law.

In 1990, Ohio public record laws were refined, opening to the public the personnel files of anyone who works for a tax-supported agency, including public schools.

Officials say everyone in Ohio has the right to see teacher personnel files.


Writers required to picket 20 hrs/wk

On Monday November 5, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for the first time in nearly twenty years. Last minute negotiations with the employers’ organisation, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to reach a deal. The WGA (which for perverse historical reasons is actually two unions, the WGA west and the WGA east) ‘downed pencils’. This followed, for example, a mass meeting of the WGA west in which 3,000 writers voted 90% in favour of strike action.

It’s a strike of writers who work in television and film production – including the staff of major TV shows from Desperate Housewives to Heroes, but also including the gag writers for Letterman, etc.

The issues in dispute are mainly to do with ‘residuals’ from DVD sales and internet downloads. Currently, writers get 0.3% (of what the studios are paid). They are demanding 0.6% - which would be an average increase of 4 to 8 cents for every $15 DVD sold. The current deal, and therefore demand, is the same for paid internet downloads. For free internet downloads, the studios are insisting that writers should be paid nothing, claiming they are ‘promotional’ only; the Writers Guild points out that the studios make money from advertising even on free downloads, and so are demanding their 0.6% of that, too.

The WGA strike has had widespread support from the Screen Actors Guild (whose contract with the AMPTP, along with the Directors Guild, is up for renewal in June). A major step in the run-up to the strike was a statement of support by all the leading television ‘showrunners’. These are writers, and so WGA members, but because of the way American TV series work they are also producers (and sometimes directors, too). The studios evidently hadn’t expected the showrunners to be so solidly behind the strike.

The studios have already been playing very dirty: the American press is full of cartoons and other propaganda portraying the writers as rich, privileged, and selfish, and their action – which is gradually bringing all the major TV shows to a halt – as destructive of all the other people (from electricians to truck drivers, etc) whose livelihoods depend on those shows.

A small minority of screenwriters are very highly paid (though only a very few on a scale comparable to the top studio execs). Most – when they are in work – are paid well, because the WGA has been able to enforce decent minimum standards in the past. Like actors, though, writers can spend long periods out of work, when residuals (basically, royalties) are their main income.

And in any case, all they are demanding is a share of the profits the production companies make.

The Writers Guild has a strong (craft) trade union culture. Unlike in Britain, film and television writing in the USA is close to being a closed shop; and there is a much stronger sense of collective trade union identity than there is here. It is a condition of membership, for example, that a writer undertakes 20 hours picket duty a week. So far the strike is very solid.


Teacher Unions' Gain Is Children's Loss

Education is not ordinarily thought to be in the purview of a Federal Reserve chairman. So it's striking when Alan Greenspan in his memoir, "The Age of Turbulence," raises the subject.

"Our primary and secondary education system," he writes, "is deeply deficient in providing homegrown talent to operate our increasingly complex infrastructure." The result: "Too many of our students languish at too low a level of skill upon graduation, adding to the supply of lesser-skilled labor in the face of an apparently declining demand."

So if you're concerned about widening disparities in income, Greenspan tells readers attracted to his book by its publicists' promise of criticism of George W. Bush, then what you need to do is to "harness better the forces of competition" in educating kids.

As Greenspan concedes, we have done that to some extent. Governors Republican and Democratic have worked to make public schools more accountable, charter schools provide some needed competition, and the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act has further prodded states and localities in those directions. But except for a few cities, notably Milwaukee and Cleveland, we have not had school choice programs with vouchers allowing parents to choose private as well as public schools.

Vouchers are adamantly opposed by the teacher unions, which spent millions persuading Utah voters last week to repeal a voucher law passed by the legislature. No one can say for sure how much vouchers would improve education. But they are "forces of competition," as Greenspan puts it, which we're almost entirely prevented from harnessing because of the power of teacher unions -- the power, more specifically, that they wield in the Democratic Party.

I was reminded of this by a recent exchange on theatlantic.com between libertarian blogger Megan McArdle and liberal bloggers Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum. These are three of the most intellectually interesting and usually independent-minded young liberal bloggers, but on vouchers they advanced one lame argument after another. On this issue, they were playing team ball.

The teacher unions are an incredibly important source of money and volunteers for the Democratic Party -- about one in 10 delegates at recent Democratic national conventions have been teacher union members or their spouses. When they snap their fingers, the Democrats jump. Vouchers threaten to dry up dues money, and that is that.

Teacher unions are not the only public employee unions important to the Democrats -- nearly half the union members in the country are public employees. And you can see their power exerted as well in House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel's tax reform proposal.

Rangel, who deserves credit for raising the issue of broad tax changes, proposes vast tax increases in order to eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax. The AMT, originally designed to make sure that a few millionaires could not avoid paying income tax, has never been indexed for inflation, and threatens to engulf 20 million taxpayers next year unless Congress passes another one-year "patch" or, as Rangel wants, abolishes it.

The AMT has no deduction for state and local taxes, and tends to hit high earners in high-tax states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and California -- heavily Democratic states, you'll notice. These states tend to have highly paid unionized public employees, and their union leaders surely understand that the AMT threatens to create political pressure to lower state and local taxes and therefore spending. If voters can't deduct their state and local taxes, their tax burden will go way up, and they may start a tax revolt. Better not let that happen! So eliminating the AMT is an imperative for Democrats.

Looking ahead to future fiscal burdens, many people understand that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid threaten to consume an ever-larger share of the economy over the years. But so do state and local governments if public employee unions get their way. And to get it, they rely on taxpayer's funds -- all their dues income comes from the public fisc.

Their goals are to increase pay, which runs counter to taxpayers' interests, and to minimize accountability, which runs counter to citizens'. Republicans are not their reliable adversaries -- union leaders get cozy with Republican legislators when they can, by letting them know they won't oppose them. But the Democrats are, with some few exceptions, their humble obedient servants -- from the young liberal bloggers up to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.


Strike will soon lead to force-majeure cuts

As the writers strike enters its second week, the level of hostility in Hollywood continues to grow.

With hopes for resuming negotiations having cratered and TV skeins going dark, early layoffs have already hit the TV sector hard. But the pain will likely extend to other areas over the next month as companies use "force majeure" clauses to negate term deals and reduce actors' paychecks.

Because force majeure clauses usually require six weeks after a strike has started to kick in, there's a lurking suspicion that the companies won't push for a quick return to the bargaining table.

WGA picketing resumes today in Los Angeles at the major studio lots, with the guild telling supporters to show up at 6 a.m., three hours earlier than last week. The crack-of-dawn start means that Teamster trucks will likely turn away from studio gates, since that union allows individual members to honor picket lines without reprisal.

Back-channel efforts to jumpstart WGA negotiations have been largely halted, even though bargaining had been progressing when talks fell apart on Nov. 4. The Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers is demanding that the WGA institute a cooling-off period as a condition for re-starting talks; the WGA insists that the AMPTP respond more substantively to its most recent package.

Three months of harsh negotiating rhetoric -- combined with widely differing interpretations of the contract talks -- have fueled resentment on both sides. And it's started to poison relationships in a town where connections are the coin of the realm.

"Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane touched a nerve Friday when he elicited perhaps the angriest response among the 4,000 attendees at Friday's WGA rally at Fox Plaza. Invoking the image of the companies as schoolyard bullies, he recounted that all "Family Guy" assistants had been fired by Fox on the third day of the strike.

"Instead of negotiating, they lashed out at the little guy," MacFarlane added. "What a classy move."

Some fear that the strike will allow studios and networks to employ a scorched-earth approach to cut expenses and punish those who have fallen out of favor. Force majeure terms provide opt-out provisions in the event of an occurrence beyond the control of the parties. While top producers often have clauses in their deals that preclude them from being discharged under these terms, smaller producers and writers are vulnerable.

For now, film execs say they have not been considering the implications of force majeure because they were so busy preparing to put films into production.

The most optimistic view is that companies might "suspend and extend" deals and project commitments as a way to freeze costs without putting projects and people out on the street permanently -- where they could be picked up and turned into successes elsewhere.

But all agree that it's not a good time for a producer with an overall deal to to be stuck without a film going into production for their home studio. Unproductive overall deals will likely be in the cross-hairs, and if studios can get out of commitments with striking writers on projects that didn't pan out those projects will be jettisoned.

Development staffs are in jeopardy since there are only a few scripts to read. Support staff infrastructure is also in trouble, and the strike is impacting expense accounts, which have been cut to the quick at studios, production companies and agencies.

As for actors, SAG is already providing guidance to the hundreds of "series regulars" regarding what to expect. Under force majeure provisions covering SAG actors, producers can either terminate an actor and lose exclusivity for the season or suspend thesps for five weeks and pay half salary with the performer still bound to the contract.

At five weeks, the employer can terminate and lose exclusivity or restore full salary with exclusivity. If the series resumes and the actor has been terminated, they can be called back. But there's no more exclusivity.

SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said the actors guild wasn't aware yet of any force majeure actions hitting the guild's members. SAG's current weekly minimum for TV performers is $2,634.

A manager who's active in booking actors into TV pilots said the situation is tough for thespsin that area because of the uncertainty of pilot season. She noted that those actors and those who are on suspended series won't be able to compete for parts in films starting in the spring; she also expects the competition for roles in these movies to be ferocious, because it might be the last time these actors work in awhile.

Leaders from the Big Five agencies huddled with toppers at the WGA West late last week to explore strategies for a possible resolution. But a person with knowledge of the get-together described the outcome as not encouraging.

In another development, NBC is mulling the idea of using substitute hosts to replace its latenight stars.

From virtually the moment the strike started, most of the major latenight skeins told their non-scribe staffers they'd be laid off in two weeks if the writers didn't return to work (Daily Variety, Nov. 7). To avoid such layoffs, there's been buzz that Dave, Jay and company might come back to work sooner than the four months it took for Johnny Carson to return in 1988.

Now, however, NBC is at least considering the option of using guest hosts to fill in for Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. While one latenight insider flatly labeled such an idea "bullshit" --arguing the Peacock wouldn't want to pick a fight with Leno or O'Brien -- "Tonight Show" exec producer Debbie Vickers issued a statement Friday conceding that it's a possibility.

"All sorts of things are being discussed, including guest hosts," she said. "Our preference is that we return to production of ‘The Tonight Show' with Jay as host as soon as possible. We want to protect the staff, who have been loyal to this show for decades, in the same way that Johnny Carson reluctantly returned without his writers in 1988."

Of course, NBC would have to find talent willing to cross picket lines to host the shows. Booking talent might also be difficult, since some actors might balk at appearing to disregard the WGA so blatantly.

A more likely scenario is that one of the latenight hosts -- perhaps Letterman, or maybe Jimmy Kimmel -- would opt to return to his show sans scribes. Some latenight insiders think that could happen as soon as next week, or perhaps immediately following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Such a move also carries some risk, however, as evidenced by the strong reaction Ellen DeGeneres sparked by returning to work. That move sparked an inter-union brawl between AFTRA and the WGA after DeGeneres -- who belongs to both unions -- opted to continue working on her daytime talker during the past week.

The fight came into the open Friday, when the WGA East issued a press release blasting DeGeneres for continuing to perform comedy in violation of strike rules: "Ellen said she loves and supports her writers, but her actions prove otherwise.''

AFTRA topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth declared in a letter to WGA East chief Mona Mangan that DeGeneres is required to work.

"As you know, AFTRA members such as Ms. DeGeneres who are working under the AFTRA Network TV Code (which covers ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show') are legally required by the no-strike clause of that contract to report to work and perform their AFTRA-covered responsibilities,'' she wrote. "Ms. DeGeneres, along with thousands of entertainment-industry workers represented by AFTRA and other unions who are bound by similar no-strike clauses, are also reporting to work as legally required."

But Mangan said DeGeneres is wrong: "Beyond any issue of membership, there is the obvious ethical issue, which is clearly present in Ms. DeGeneres' decision to write and produce a show without writers in the face of an industrywide walkout by 12,000 writers."


Writers' strike opens door to non-union talent

When I learned that Hollywood writers were on strike, presumably for better wages and improved working conditions, I picked up my protest sign, dusted off my Woody Guthrie records and vowed to join my brothers and sisters of the pen on the picket line.

I envisioned my rag-tag crew standing up to Hollywood strike busters, our voices uniting in song: “I used to write for 24/ But I’m on strike, I don’t no more/ Keifer’s rich, he plays Jack Bauer/ While I make five bucks an hour.”

I’ve considered myself an honorary member of the Writers Guild of America after submitting a script for Alf in 1987, a potentially Emmy-Award winning episode that was somehow passed over for production. (Note: Hollifield’s supposed script, titled “Alf vs. Planet of the Apes,” was little more than a series of semi-coherent ramblings scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin dotted with what appeared to be either blood or Tabasco sauce.)

Second thoughts

It’s high time, I said with fist raised in solidarity, those fat-cat Hollywood studio honchos reward those who toil in their fields to produce the golden fruit of network TV. Then I read that the average Guild writer brings in about $200,000 a year, a figure that is, uh, somewhat more than the average newspaper columnist’s salary. I sensed an opportunity, put away the protest sign, reshelved the Woody Guthrie records and put pen to paper:

Dear Kind and Gracious Studio Executive,

I am so sorry the writers strike has reduced this great country of ours to bathing in the numbing, blue glow of network reruns rather than the numbing, blue glow of first-run episodes. What if we’ve already seen this Monday night’s How I Met Your Mother? What are we supposed to do, watch it again? Turn off the TV and reconnect with estranged family members? Read a book? What’s a book?

What do these pampered writers want? Just because they come up with all the ideas for plots and write lines for actors who are famous only because they effectively spit back what someone else told them to say while you take meetings and bounce green M&Ms off the flat, tanned bellies of the latest starlet wannabes, they think they can bite the hand that feeds them.

How dare they! Say the word and several of my associates and I will be out there with ax handles, cracking kneecaps down the line from Desperate Housewives to Grey’s Anatomy.

But before resorting to violence, why not consider hiring a veteran writer with a partial episode of Alf under his belt, one who will work for a mere $199,999 per year, a savings you can turn into more green M&Ms?

And that veteran writer is me. Who knows more about TV than someone who has stared at it for most of his life?

Consider these hot, new shows:

Law & Order: Possum and Panda Unit: Believe me, these creatures have captured America’s imagination, if the three e-mails I received about previous columns are any indication. Detective Possum is by the book, while Detective Panda is a hot-head who plays fast and loose with the rules. (Spin-off potential - SWAT Monkeys.)

Golden Girls: Laguna Beach: Bea Arthur. Swimsuit. ’Nuff said.

Charles in Charge II: A Scott Baio comeback vehicle? No, it’s a new reality series with noted psychopath Charles Manson directing his cellblock’s talent- show version of the musical Guys and Dolls. (Technically, it would be called Guys and Guys.) Watch as Charles leads a talented cast of inmates through a Broadway classic, then tries to stab them all with a sharpened spoon.

Want more, Mr. Kind and Gracious Studio Executive? Just put down those M&Ms, sign that check and we’ll all get back to bathing in the numbing, blue glow of quality, first-run TV.

If not, that ax-handle thing is still on the table.


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