Out-of-control strikers now locked-out

Dresser-Rand Co. on Friday rejected an offer by 400 members of Local 313 IUE CWA to return to work while contract negotiations continue.

"While the company's clear desire is to reach an agreement that resolves the current contract dispute, having the employees return to work under the expired contract will not further that goal," said Elizabeth Powers, vice president and chief administrative officer.

Powers said in a press release that the labor dispute needs to be settled "at the bargaining table, not on the factory floor."

Local 313, after a strike that ran from Aug. 4 through Nov. 19, abandoned its picket lines and offered to return to work unconditionally under terms of the three-year contract that expired Aug. 4. Powers said Dresser-Rand and union representatives will meet Monday to continue talks on a new agreement.

"The company maintains its commitment to achieving a new, contemporary labor agreement at its Painted Post facility to meet its long-term objectives," Powers said. "We hope for a speedy resolution of this matter."

Steve Coates, president of Local 313, said the union would send its members back to the picket lines as a result of the company's decision.

"It's not a strike now, it's a lockout," Coates said.

"When we meet again Monday, maybe the company will be more amenable to an agreement rather than trying to force something down our throat."

Coates said, in prepared remarks late Friday afternoon, that the company has not bargained in good faith.

"Once again, the company has seriously misjudged our members' resolve to secure a fair contract," Coates said in a release.

The dispute centers on contract language covering work rules and on the cost of medical insurance coverage.

Coates said in his statement that the proposed health-plan changes could "shift enormous out-of-pocket expenses onto the members."

He also said, "The company wants to eliminate job protections the union fought to obtain for years."

Daniel Meisner, human relations manager at the Painted Post plant, said the union's offer does nothing to resolve the issues that led to the strike.

"We have invested significant resources in an effort to change the status quo and to position the company for long-term global growth," Meisner said in a press release.

"The union leadership has been and continues to be very resistant to making the changes we believe are necessary in this business and with this work force."

Dresser-Rand also worried that allowing the 400 strikers to return to work would lead to "illegal harassment by the union" of temporary and permanent replacement workers hired during the strike, he said.

Meisner said the company experienced "significant sabotage" to critical machine tools in the week before the strike, along with misconduct on the picket lines during the walkout.

"While we recognize that the majority of our employees have not engaged in such misconduct, Local 313 has demonstrated that it is either unwilling or unable to prevent such behavior," Meisner said.

Dresser-Rand said Friday that it has hired 130 temporary replacement workers and 94 permanent replacement workers.

The company said it also has subcontracted approximately 35 percent of its labor hours at Painted Post.

A unit of Houston-based Dresser-Rand, the Painted Post plant makes compressors for military and industrial use.

Dresser-Rand said it does not expect the labor situation at Painted Post to result in any change in the earnings guidance for 2007 and 2008 the company issued Oct. 31.


Writers' Guild misled by strike-happy ex-Teamsters

As the WGA strike stretches into its third week, I am reminded of the last big labor scuffle the Writer's Guild of America presided over. Not the 1988 strike that lasted five months and ended largely in failure. No, I mean the ill-fated 2006 strike by the writers of "America's Next Top Model."

As early as 2004, the WGA was looking at ways to get writers working in the exploding genre of reality TV under its union umbrella before the big 2007 negotiations began. The guild named a new director of organizing, ex-Teamster organizer David Young, in 2004, and in 2005 it elected a new president, Patric Verrone, whose whole platform revolved around adding to ranks of the guild. Their intentions were more strategic than altruistic: Without reality programs to fall back on, the TV networks would be hit harder and faster by any strike. It would have been a fine strategy, had it worked.

A small WGA group called the Reality Organizing Committee debated strategies. On one point they all agreed: You couldn't organize reality TV writers one show at a time. The writers would have to demand guild representation en masse at all the networks.

Those of us actually working in reality TV, however, knew little of these plans. Back then, I was one of the 12 story editors on the CW's "America's Next Top Model," where none of us got medical benefits, let alone residuals. Still, I was far more concerned with doing my job well and making ends meet on my entry-level salary than making waves.

But after nearly two years of meetings, the WGA's reality committee was still far from a cohesive plan, so the guild leadership settled on a more expedient strategy: They would choose one popular show to be the poster child for the plight of reality TV writers. They chose "America's Next Top Model."

In the early summer of 2006, only one of the "Top Model" writers was involved in the union campaign. The rest of us were, at best, tangentially aware of its existence. Until, that is, the afternoon of June 21. That was the date of our first official meeting with WGA organizers. Over lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Santa Monica, they spelled out the manifold benefits of guild representation: health insurance, pension contributions and credits for our work. The industry was ready for reality story editors to enter the WGA, they said. Les Moonves — head of CBS, which owned the new CW network — had been "put on notice." There was no talk of losing our jobs. We believed the guild's ambiguous promise: "You'll come out of this better than you went in."

In 2006, as it was this year, the WGA leadership was clamoring for a strike.

On July 20, in front of our production offices in West Los Angeles, I read our statement to about 100 supporters and the news crews, officially launching our strike. We hoisted our WGA strike signs and never entered those offices again. In the weeks to come, our supporters would dwindle, then disappear.

The last week of September, we all received letters notifying us that our jobs had been eliminated, the entire story department abolished. The guild had vanished from our cause, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents the video editors, swooped in to unionize the show, freezing the WGA out of "Top Model" for good.

There were 12 of us, not 12,000. And so the strike against "America's Next Top Model" has become a footnote in the long struggle for writers to assert power in an industry that seeks to keep us powerless.

I want the WGA to prevail in the current standoff, and I believe the writers deserve everything they are asking for. But if the negotiations starting Monday yield nothing, I fear the strike may drag on for months, and the writers may come to understand the importance of the Forgotten Strike a year and a half too late.

The WGA has made a critical error in underestimating the importance of reality TV. Take out sports and news, and about a quarter of shows on network prime time this fall are "unscripted," which is to say, their writers are not members of the WGA. If this strike drags into 2008, the networks are sure to plug their schedules with hours more of such cheap, easy-to-produce programs with words like "Dancing" and "Next Top" in the title.

Had the WGA fulfilled Young's initial promise to procure guild status for all writers working on reality, animation and nonfiction shows, the networks would shortly have nothing new on the air at all. As it stands, the WGA has pushed its members to walk out on their own jobs, and it has left the networks with powerful leverage — the ability to keep making new TV content.

On Oct. 23 of this year, with talks stalled between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Variety published an article summed up by this headline: "WGA gives up on nonscripted effort." Organizing reality TV writers was one of the contract demands that the WGA was willing to toss aside to reach a deal before the Nov. 1 strike deadline, the article reported.

The next day, an e-mail with the expected rebuttal arrived from the WGA president. The guild's reality TV efforts were as strong as ever, he said. But as far as I could tell, the only error in the Variety article was that it hadn't been published a year earlier.

Daniel J. Blau is a Los Angeles-based writer and producer.


Public safety unions dominate in labor-state

The Wisconsin state Legislature this week will take up a long-stalled measure to change a state law that allows Milwaukee police officers to continue being paid after they're fired.

At issue is a 27-year-old law unique to the state's largest city that requires that fired police officers be paid until their appeals have been exhausted, which can take months or even years.

The law has come under fire as a slew of officers have been fired for crimes, including sexual assault, bribery and drug dealing. Three former officers - Jon Bartlett, Andrew Spengler and Daniel Masarik - will be sentenced in federal court Thursday for their role in the October 2004 beating of Frank Jude Jr., who was assaulted by off-duty officers as he was leaving a party at a Milwaukee cop's home.

It's unclear whether supporters of the police pay bill can win enough votes for passage in both the Senate and the Assembly or whether disputes over the scope of the measure will again lead to an impasse.

The City of Milwaukee and some legislators have long tried to change the law, saying it costs taxpayers too much money to pay fired police officers who are charged with crimes.

City records show Milwaukee has paid nearly $4.4 million in wages and benefits to fired officers since 1990.

"I don't want the property-tax payers in this city to be paying for people who have been fired and charged with a crime," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

But the city's police union says those officers deserve to have their cases reviewed before they lose their paychecks.

"You're punishing everyone before they have the ability to defend themselves," said John Balcerzak, president of the Milwaukee Police Association.

To end this fall's budget stalemate, Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) promised a vote on a proposal by the end of the year and is bringing together the different sides to talk about a compromise.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have scheduled a hearing on their version of the measure for Wednesday, and Sen. Tim Carpenter said he plans to have the bill before the full Senate by Dec. 11.

Each house could take up a different version of the measure. That could force lawmakers to try to find a compromise or again set it aside for lack of consensus.
Middle ground lacking

Supporters of changing the law have taken a hard line: ending pay for fired officers at the time they're terminated, which is what Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee) said she's set on passing.

"We're still in the same fight; it's the same battle," said Toles.

The police union supports cutting off pay only for fired officers who are charged with felonies and bound over for trial. Balcerzak said that would have taken care of most of the problem cases in recent years.

Stopping pay for all officers would be too punitive because it would apply to those facing misdemeanors or other minor offenses that lead to firing, Balcerzak said. In other cities, police chiefs can recommend firing, but pay isn't cut until a local commission decides to fire an officer.

But Barrett insists there should be no pay for fired officers, regardless of the severity of the crimes they are accused of committing.

"If you're fired and charged with a crime, you don't get paid," he said. "That's the way it works in America."

City records reveal examples of Milwaukee police officers who were fired for such misdemeanor offenses as intimidating witnesses and exposing their genitals to children, yet who were still paid during their appeals.

Discussions about compromise will be different than in early 2006, when the Assembly passed a bill that would have required officers charged with felonies to repay the city for salary received while appealing if the officer ultimately left the police force.

The bill was approved over the objections of Toles and Barrett, who said it didn't do anything to protect taxpayer dollars by cutting off pay at the time of a firing.

Ending pay for fired officers has strong support in the Senate, where it was added to the version of the budget the Senate passed in June.

"Everything would stay the same except there would not be a state mandate that police officers would be paid after they're fired," Carpenter said of the proposed legislation.

Huebsch said he plans to meet soon with Toles, Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) and the Milwaukee Police Association to broker a compromise, although he hasn't yet determined how it might work.

Coming from La Crosse, "I might be far enough out of the forest to see the trees," Huebsch said.

Honadel said there needs to be a compromise that gives fired officers some recourse before their pay is stopped.

Language that works for the police union might not satisfy some lawmakers. Toles said her position hasn't changed since she first started pushing for the legislation several years ago.

"I'm trying to figure out how to compromise when I think pay needs to stop at termination," she said.

Balcerzak said he and police union members are also eager to resolve the issue.

"Our members - just like anybody out there - (are) tired of seeing . . . Milwaukee police constantly in the paper getting put in bad light," he said.


UAW gambling at nation's largest casino

Saturday on Mashantucket Pequot Nation dawned to a cloudless sky, but the main event at Foxwoods Resort Casino was, as always, underway indoors: an election.

Starting at 8 a.m., card dealers at the nation's largest casino began filing into the Grand Cedar Hotel's Sunset Ballroom to place bets on or against affiliation with the United Auto Workers, which is trying to organize the casino's very first labor union unit. By 8:30, 53-year-old blackjack dealer Jack Edwards had worked an abbreviated graveyard shift in gaming Pit 23 — and cast his vote in favor of a union. "Believe it or not," he said with a grin, "I voted yes. "

How many of Edwards' 3,000 fellow dealers would vote the same way would not be known until much later. Voting in the National Labor Relations Board-supervised election was scheduled to end at 11 p.m., with an official count thereafter. (See courant.com for results.) But the 11-year veteran of Foxwoods, a former Electric Boat worker and lifelong resident of southeastern Connecticut, predicted a turnout of at least 70 percent and an overwhelming victory.

"Let's put in this way," he said. "You'll see a lot higher turnout than in the national elections. This is something people have an opinion on. This is right up in our faces. It affects us in our day-to-day world."

Pro-union card dealers want higher wages, expanded health care coverage and better workplace conditions, such as smoke-free gaming halls, and they say collective bargaining is their best hope. Casino management has opposed the unionization effort from the start and early Saturday Foxwoods President John O'Brien reiterated its unqualified opposition in a statement issued to reporters.

"We believe that a union is not in the best interest of our employees," he said in the statement. He also said dealers earn an average of $45,000 to $50,000 per year and warned that they "could lose some of what they currently take for granted as easily as they could gain," if they unionize.

But Edwards and other casino workers interviewed Saturday — including colleagues who are not card dealers and not part of this unionization effort — said the possible gain is worth a roll of the dice.

"This is our chance to make a statement, and it's going to be made today," said Bob Fandetti, 61, a card dealer waving a "Union Yes" sign at motorists on Route 2.

Access to the out-of-the-way Sunset Ballroom was tightly restricted by the casino and by the NLRB, which posted signs reading "No Electioneering or Loitering." Activity in the area ebbed and flowed with shift changes, with some employees voting before their shifts, others afterward. At some points mid-day, the area was deserted.

Foxwoods forbade news reporters from talking with employees or patrons on casino property, except, briefly, at the employees' parking lot along Route 2. Patrons seemed generally oblivious to the momentous event taking place Saturday, which could spur efforts to unionize other workers at Foxwoods and other tribal casinos.

Patrons were unlikely to come across any sign of the election, unless they drove past a small group of yellow-shirted UAW supporters that campaigned at the Route 2 lot in the morning. The Sunset Ballroom is on the ground floor of the Grand Cedar Hotel, adjacent to the employee entrance, behind the reception desk — and a full-floor beneath the casino's gaming halls.

A man who described himself as a five-day-a-week slot-machine player from Charlton, Mass., and who gave only his first name, Richard, said he knew of the unionization effort, but doubted it would affect him one way or the other. He'll just continue to lose money, he said. He also doubted that unionization would amount to total victory for the card dealers and other Foxwoods employees who might attempt it.

"They're going to find ways of getting rid of these people for doing this," he said. "I don't think they're going to allow them too many rights just because they're a union."

The card dealers' unionization fight, which began in earnest last summer, has not been stress-free for all their non-dealer colleagues.

"You can imagine that many of us feel worried about what's going on today," said a woman at an employee lot bus stop who identified herself only as someone "on the hotel side" and who favors unionization. "Any place that's having a dispute about the workplace, it's kind of uncomfortable."

Foxwoods management has fostered a feeling of unease about the union through radio and newspaper advertisements, handouts to employees, and posters at employee bus stops. A poster behind the hotel worker warned "With the UAW, the threat of a strike will always be with us," and cited instances in which past UAW strikes in Connecticut had allegedly led to violence such as rock throwing.

Card dealers know that even an overwhelming vote in favor of unionization will not immediately bring new bargaining power. The casino, which unsuccessfully sought to avoid an election on the grounds that the labor law of the United States does not apply on Indian land, could challenge the outcome.

"I think they're going to fight it," a card dealer named Judith said shortly after voting.


Broadway strikes a disaster

It's a worst-case scenario that became a reality. As the Broadway stagehands strike enters its third week Saturday, there doesn't seem to be any way out of the thorny, seemingly intractable dispute that has shut down more than two dozen plays and musicals since Nov. 10.

Losses because of canceled performances are in the millions and climbing each day – a disaster not only for producers and theater owners, but for everyone employed in the theater and for those whose businesses depend on curtains going up.

Both sides are hanging tough and have not talked for almost a week. The standoff has meant dark theaters during the Thanksgiving holiday, usually one of the year's best weeks for business.

Not this year. There was a weird disconnect in the Times Square area during the holiday. On Thanksgiving Eve, side streets were filled with lively, noisy crowds. They were in stark contrast to the silent pickets walking slowly in front of padlocked theaters that looked forlorn even with lighted marquees.

Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees says it's willing to meet again with the League of American Theatres and Producers. But the league says it won't go back to the bargaining table unless the union is ready to make a deal.

And none is in sight.

A settlement was believed in the works last Sunday after a marathon weekend of negotiating. But the talks ended abruptly when the producers informed union president James J. Claffey Jr. that what the local had offered was not enough.

The complicated contract dispute has focused on how many stagehands are required to open a Broadway show and keep it running. That means moving scenery, lights, sound systems and props into the theater; installing the set and making sure it works; and keeping everything functioning well for the life of the production.

The producers want a flexible number; the union more specificity, including ample compensation for any concessions made.

Claffey, a second-generation stagehand, is a quiet, unfailingly polite man, but with a fierce commitment to his union, which has never in its more than 100-year history struck Broadway. At a somber union news conference on the Sunday after the strike first started, he spoke of the need for respect.

“We want respect at the table,” he said. “If there's no respect, they will not see Local 1 at the table. The lack of respect is something we are not going to deal with.”

On the league side of the table sits Bernard Plum of Proskauer Rose, a high-powered law firm with long experience in labor battles. Plum is a tough negotiator, too, something younger, more militant members of the league want in their confrontation with the union.

The talks, from all reports, have been businesslike, with only an occasional flaring of tempers. Yet both sides seem more adept at preparing for a strike than in negotiating their way out of one.

The producers set up a $20 million strike emergency fund, taking a couple cents out of each ticket sold over the last several years to pay for it. The money would help struck shows struggling with the costs of a shutdown.

The union, too, has its own fund – benefits of more than $4.1 million for its members as well as another $1 million allotted for members of other unions affected by the walkout.

And if an agreement isn't reached before Christmas, both parties may end up using every penny.


Strike imposes grim negativity

On one side of West 44th Street, in the heart of Times Square, festive crowds were pouring into two theaters for Saturday matinees. On the other side, a handful of pickets marched quietly in front of theaters that normally would be filled with audiences on a busy holiday weekend, but were now shuttered.

As the Broadway stagehands strike entered its 15th day, the work stoppage had varying effects on a street that, more than any other, has come to symbolize New York's fabled theater district. While two shows, "Xanadu" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," were thriving, the sidewalks in front of other hit shows, "Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" and "Spamalot," were all but empty.

Even though both sides in the labor dispute announced late in the day that they would resume talks today, the overall mood was grim.

"West 44th Street is the ground zero of the theater world in New York," said Max Klimavicius, owner of Sardi's Restaurant, a longtime Broadway landmark. "Everybody has been affected by this strike, and many people here are hurting. It's hit us hard." At Sardi's, business is off 30% to 35% since the strike began Nov. 10, dashing hopes for the holiday season, he said. Down the street, at trendy Angus McIndoe's restaurant, traffic is down by half.

And a bigger economic pain has been felt at the box office. Unlike the current Writers Guild of America strike, in which the full economic results will be felt further down the line, the Broadway strike has had an immediate, crippling effect. Last week's box-office receipts -- reflecting eight theaters that have been able to stay open during the strike -- totaled $2.9 million, according to the League of American Theatres and Producers. Last year, during the same holiday week, Broadway grossed $18.6 million.

Estimates of the strike's full effect vary greatly. The league has suggested that daily losses could be as high as $17 million, including theaters, restaurants, garages, tourist shops and the like; the New York City comptroller estimates the daily loss at $2 million.

The key issue in the strike, which pits Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees against the league, is how many union members are needed to work on various Broadway productions.

The league has asked for reductions in several key areas, saying that technology and common sense dictate that previous union requirements were excessive and amounted to featherbedding. The union has battled these cuts, saying they endanger workplace safety and jobs for some 3,000 employees. Local One members had been working without a contract since their agreement expired July 31; although talks resumed briefly last weekend, they quickly broke down.

On Friday, spirits on West 44th lifted when "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" reopened after a short courtroom battle. Merchants reported a slight rise in business, as families with children began appearing on the street once more.

The show, which had been booked into the St. James Theatre, had earlier signed a separate labor agreement with Local One. It was the first production shut down when the strike began, but stagehands later agreed to let it reopen, citing the earlier contract. Producers opposed the reopening, saying theaters should remain closed until the strike is settled. But a judge in Manhattan ruled Wednesday that the show could legally reopen in time for Thanksgiving weekend performances.

Down the street, producers of "Xanadu" were also counting their blessings. Weekly attendance at the Helen Hayes Theater climbed to 85% of capacity since the strike began, as thousands who held tickets for now-closed shows were snapping up tickets to it and the other seven productions not affected by the strike. Workers for those shows had signed separate labor agreements with Local One.

As they filed into "Xanadu" on Friday evening, some ticket holders grumbled about sudden changes in their plans. Still, most were happy to be seeing a Broadway show during the strike.

"We had tickets to 'Wicked' that we bought over a year ago," said Darlene Giordina, visiting from Boston with her sister and their teenage daughters. "But at least we're able to be here tonight, sitting in the very last row of the balcony for 'Xanadu.' "

One row in front of her, Steve Franceschi of Alta Loma said he had a similar experience. The shows he wanted to see were shut down, and he was lucky to get one of the last seats that night for "Xanadu." "Getting in is a bonus," he said. "Who's complaining?"

The musical -- based on the 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John -- offered respite from the tensions of the strike outside. But during the show, actress Mary Testa, who plays a Greek muse, ad-libbed a timely line: "The writers are on strike and the stagehands are on strike," she told a packed audience. "The only place you can see a tragedy now is off the stage, not on it."

The next afternoon, as temperatures plunged into the 30s, pickets on West 44th stamped their feet to keep warm. In front of "Spamalot," two musicians who showed up in solidarity played a dirge-like "Basin Street Blues" on the trumpet and trombone.

Down the street, a line captain checked his clipboard to see who would be showing up for picket duty later in the evening. The stagehand -- who like other strikers had been asked by union leaders not to speak with reporters -- was clearly bitter over the labor dispute.

The league "kept asking for one giveback after another, nickel-and-diming us," he told a colleague. "That's not negotiating."

As the wind picked up, stragglers hurried into theaters across the street for the matinee, and West 44th Street grew quiet again.

"We hear they're starting new talks tomorrow," the line captain told a friend. "So hopefully I won't see you out here next weekend."


Teamsters evoke sympathy organizing toll collectors

A robbery Tuesday at a toll booth in South Bend has some workers in La Porte County (IN) questioning how safe it is to work along the Indiana Toll Road.

One worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired, said the toll road operator has recently cut back on staff, leaving just a single fare collector at some plazas overnight.

“I just hope they come to their senses before someone gets hurt and keep two people at a time,” the toll collector told The La Porte County Herald-Argus Tuesday.

“Basic safety is you don’t work alone,” said Jerod Warnock of Teamsters Local 135, which is attempting to unionize toll collectors. “You just don’t work alone with money.”

Although some plazas have cameras and all have panic buttons, Warnock said that’s not enough.

“There is nothing a toll attendant can do to be safe,” Warnock said. “What are they going to do if someone puts a gun in their face?

“Look at the La Porte exit,” Warnock said. “You are in the middle of nowhere. They are trapped in the booth.”

In addition to a toll road exit outside La Porte at Indiana 39, the county also has an exit near Westville at U.S. 421.

In 2006, Cintra-Macquarie, an Australian-Spanish consortium, signed a $3.8 billion, 75-year lease to run the toll road. It operates here as ITR Concession Co. LLC.

During the past 20 years, only six similar robberies have happened along the 175-mile highway, according to Matt Pierce, spokesman for ITR Concession.

“We try to train them on safety,” said Pierce, referring to the toll attendants.

He said staffing is determined by the amount of traffic.

The company is currently working on options to get attendants off night shifts at isolated plazas with little traffic, Pierce said.

Among the devices being installed are more electronic tolls, an automatic ticket issuing machine and an automatic payment machine, which Pierce explained is like a reverse ATM.

“This would work for over night when the traffic is very light,” he said.

Once the automatic machines are installed, toll attendants at the smaller plazas would be moved to earlier shifts.

“We’ve already started the process,” Pierce said. “We look for it to be fully operational by late spring or early summer.”

Pierce said the automatic toll collecting has always been a long-term plan and isn’t because of the recently robbery.

The 244 full-time and part-time toll attendants are expected to vote on weather to join the Teamsters on Dec. 14.

Depending on where they work along the toll road, toll attendants would be divided into International Brotherhood of Teamsters locals 135, 142, 364 and 414.

The toll collector who spoke with the Herald-Argus said safety is a big issue, but there are other concerns as well.

“What they’ve done is eliminate our lunch break during an eight hour shift,” the worker said. “You can even work 12 or 16 hours without a lunch break.”

With just one person working at many plazas, a simple thing like taking a bathroom break has even become a challenge.

“We have to put up a little sign to use the restroom,” the workers said. It tells drivers the collector will return shortly.

Vehicles are forced to wait at the gate for the attendant to return.

Asked about the working conditions, the spokesman declined to comment on specifics.

“We aren’t going to make statements through the media,” Pierce said. “We aren’t addressing any individual issues that employees may bring to the media.”

As for the possibility that employees may unionize, Pierce said, “That is a decision the employees will have to make.”

The worker who spoke with the Herald-Argus predicts the union will be voted in come December.


Gov't unions wary of state property tax cap

Continuing to bash a property-tax plan he reluctantly voted for, Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio is now urging supporters to back a citizens' petition to cap the total amount of taxes paid by every property owner.

The proposed constitutional amendment would limit the amount of taxes a property owner pays to 1.35 percent of the value of his property. So, a home or business with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay a total of $1,350 to all local governments and school districts.

If the backers get enough voter petition signatures, the proposal could end up on the November 2008 ballot and wouldn't conflict with the Jan. 29 vote to decide the Legislature's plan to boost homestead exemptions and allow homeowners "portability" to transport homestead exemptions to another residence.

Rubio reiterated in a Tuesday e-mail to supporters that the legislative plan "falls short" and that "only a citizen-led petition drive will ever result in meaningful tax reform and relief."

To that end, Rubio said that this proposal offered by Tampa-based Cut Property Taxes Now offers the best solution because people could understand the measure and it significantly cuts property taxes. Homeowners now benefit from the Save Our Homes cap that limits increases in the taxable value of their homes to 3 percent a year. But owners of commercial property and second homes don't have a cap and the cap doesn't limit taxes when a homeowner moves to a new house.

"This plan is simple, it applies to all properties, it keeps Save Our Homes and it cuts almost $8 billion in property taxes," the West Miami legislator wrote.

Those who live in high-value areas with low tax rates might see less savings under the plan because they're already paying a relatively lower percentage of tax than those in less wealthy areas. Legislative analysts estimate the statewide average tax percentage this year is about 1.65 percent, compared to the 1.35 percent that this petition seeks.

Rubio technically won't be campaigning against the Legislature's plan, which Gov. Charlie Crist is actively backing.

Crist this week met with business groups to shore up support for a campaign that could raise and spend upward of $10 million. The governor-backed group, Yes on One, is also mounting an advertising and campaign blitz, and the governor's deputy chief of staff, Arlene DiBenigno, is taking a leave to run the campaign.

The citizens' petition isn't the only one that Rubio will be involved with, though. He has lent the House staff to help Carlos Lacasa prepare a constitutional amendment for review by the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. Lacasa, a Miami lawyer, is Rubio's appointment to the tax panel, which has the power to put constitutional amendments directly on the November 2008 ballot without going through the cumbersome petition signature drive that Cut Property Taxes Now must follow.

Lacasa is working on a plan to cap property taxes for commercial property and give homeowners a super-size homestead exemption that far exceeds the current $25,000 exemption.

Rubio will likely raise money and support any measure that would bring big tax cuts, said his top legislative lieutenant, Rep. David Rivera of Miami.

"He wants to cut property taxes, and a lot of people do, and he wants to help them," Rivera said.

Rubio has a distant hometown connection to Cut Property Taxes Now: Ira Paul, a Hialeah teacher who was part of a previous group named Cut Property Taxes Now that placed television ads against Weston Mayor Eric Hersh for his successful lawsuit that knocked out yet another legislative plan.

On the committee's website, cutpropertytaxesnow.com, the backers also take Crist to task for failing to make good on his pledge to have taxes ``drop like a rock.''

The committee anticipates the biggest challenge to the measure will come from people who fear cutting money from schools. However, in its frequently asked questions section, the supporters say school money shouldn't be cut too badly because the Legislature will be able to decide what portion of the property-tax pie schools could receive.

The website also notes that local governments have dramatically increased spending since 2000, and that this plan doesn't affect Save Our Homes, the tax plan that limits tax-assessment increases to a maximum 3 percent a year.

The biggest enemy to the proposal right now is time: Backers need 611,000 voter signatures by Feb. 1 to get the measure on the November 2008 ballot.

Rubio urged people to get friends, family and church members to go to the website and download and sign the petition. But, he said in October, it is unlikely any citizens' petition drive will be completed before the 2010 ballot.

Even if the matter winds up on the ballot, it faces another test: It must win approval from 60 percent of the voters.


SEIU blames local bankruptcy on state politics

Amid accusations that it shortchanged patients while it was diverting millions of dollars to a country music label in Nashville, Connecticut’s second-largest operator of nursing homes filed for bankruptcy protection this week along with dozens of its affiliates.

The bankruptcy filings, which will be heard in federal bankruptcy court in New Haven, began arriving late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday. Officials and lawyers for Haven Healthcare, the Middletown company that is the public face for the various corporations, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The privately owned chain, which manages 15 nursing homes in Connecticut and several others in New England, operates roughly 1,900 of Connecticut’s beds, nearly 7 percent of the total licensed by the state. The company is seeking the protection of the bankruptcy code to continue operating while it seeks to satisfy its creditors.

In recent days, The Hartford Courant has published several articles detailing the company’s business practices, its history of providing care that state officials said undermined the health of its patients, and its battles with vendors who had cut off supplies for lack of payment. In one instance, the newspaper reported, patients at its nursing home in Jewett City were huddled under blankets one night in December 2005 because the building ran out of heating oil after the supplier had not been paid.

Reacting swiftly, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal charged on Wednesday that the company lent nearly $9 million to Category 5 Records, the label for the country music star Travis Tritt, at the same time that it was failing to pay bills accumulated by the nursing homes. Category 5 was founded by Ray Termini, the chief executive officer of Haven Healthcare.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said that her focus was on the residents of the homes, and that she had placed state monitors at seven homes operated by Haven. “The company is concerned about its creditors, but I am concerned about the patients,” she said in a statement.

Mr. Termini denied in The Courant this week that his company had done anything wrong by using corporate funds to invest in businesses unrelated to health care, and said he was working to correct the problems at the nursing homes.

Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code generally provides a cooling-off period for debtors who are seeking time to work out their problems with creditors. Under the code, certain legal actions lodged against a company can be temporarily frozen.

Mr. Blumenthal said he would urge the bankruptcy court to appoint an independent trustee to run Haven’s business while it is operating under bankruptcy.

In a petition filed with the court on Wednesday, Mr. Blumenthal criticized the company for failing to pay vendors with funds that the state allots participants in the Medicaid program and for diverting “considerable portions of these funds for other items and investments that inured to the benefit of insiders.”

“Entities that so grossly mismanaged their affairs should not be permitted to continue as debtors in possession,” he wrote.

Lawyers with expertise in bankruptcy said that it was not unusual for a nursing home or chain to seek bankruptcy protection. If loved ones were residing at one of Haven’s homes, “I’d be concerned but I wouldn’t be panicked, at this point,” said Stephen Wright, of Harlow, Adams and Friedman in Milford, which is not involved in the case.

Generally, Mr. Wright and other bankruptcy lawyers said, vendors who make deliveries after a bankruptcy petition have some priority if the debtor’s assets turn out to be insufficient to satisfy all liabilities.

They also said that, as a rule, courts leave managements in place on the theory that they can best protect a company’s assets, but added that when there are allegations of fraud, the court sometimes agrees to install an independent trustee.

Deborah Chernoff, a spokeswoman for S.E.I.U. Healthcare, a union that represents 1,200 workers at Haven’s homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island, said that “whatever needs to be done to stabilize these homes and guarantee good care for these residents should be done.”

But Ms. Chernoff added that the larger systemic problems, including inadequate state financing for Medicaid patients and state regulations on staffing that have not been revised in two decades, should not be overlooked.

“These kinds of stories, as awful as they are, are really symptomatic of a much larger problem that is not confined to one particular nursing home chain,” she said.

Nancy Shaffer, a state ombudsman who oversees operators of long-term care facilities, said, “There have been some concerns with this particular nursing home chain, and I think there are a lot of eyes and ears right now, and that’s a good thing.”

Company officials asked a reporter seeking comment to leave several Haven Healthcare facilities on Wednesday. Outside the company’s home in Cromwell, Charles Camp, 38, who works in the kitchen, said patients were concerned by the recent allegations and by the prospect of a change in control. “That’s the big talk around here at the bridge table,” Mr. Camp said.

As Mr. Camp put it: “It’s shocking, man. I thought I’d get here and there would be some job security, and now it doesn’t seem like that.”


Prize-winning Marxist trashes Australian union-basher

Not only did conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard lose the election last Saturday in a landslide, he may have lost his seat as well. The Australian Labor Party now controls all nine Australian governments: State, Territory and federal.

Industrial relations was the key issue in the election. Years of campaigning against the anti-Aboriginal and xenophobic racism of the conservative Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties turned what had been their most effective political tool into a liability.

The Australian union movement has been successfully mobilizing against the Government since its 2005 legislation that dramatically undermined workers' rights to organize and forced them onto individual contracts. The new law banned 'pattern bargaining' (industry-wide campaigns) and deciding on industrial action at mass meetings. It restricted union officials' access to members at work and abolished the prohibition of unfair dismissals.

Wilting Racism

The conservatives' last, desperate racist maneuver was the distribution in one marginal electorate of a fake leaflet from a non-existent Muslim organization, which endorsed the Labor Party because it supposedly forgave the Islamist bombers who killed many Australians visiting Bali in 2003 and supported the construction of a new mosque.

A member of the State Liberal Party council and the husbands of the retiring Liberal member and the Liberal candidate were caught stuffing the flyer into letterboxes three days before the election.

Since before it won office at the federal level in 1996, the Coalition has drawn on and reinforced widespread racism in Australia to boost its popularity. In the 1996 and 1998 election campaigns, it attacked the land rights and organizations of Indigenous Australians.

Invasion, genocidal policies and ongoing racism mean that Aborigines suffer far worse health -- not matched by government expenditure on health services for them -- and live 17 years less than other Australians, have fewer years in formal education and are many times more likely to be imprisoned and unemployed.

The Howard government legislated to restrict new Aboriginal land rights granted by the High Court. It abolished the elected, peak Indigenous representative body and many specialized services run for and by Aborigines. In June 2007, it intervened to seize control of Aboriginal land and organizations in the Northern Territory and limited the right of Indigenous Australians there to decide on what they spent their welfare payments.

In 2000, hundreds of thousands marched in favor of reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, after Howard refused to apologize for the history of racist policies. Even though the Labor opposition endorsed the Northern Territory intervention, there were substantial protests against it earlier this year.

After intensifying the previous Labor government's policy of locking up refugees who arrived in Australia on leaky boats in concentration camps, the Coalition Government whipped up paranoia about them to win the 2001 election. Scandals in the detention system, including the deportation of a citizen, and especially the growing refugee solidarity movement forced it to soften its policies in 2005.

So the conservatives started to explicitly target Muslims. Australia's participation in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and carefully crafted implicit messages from the Government had already reinforced anti-Muslim prejudices. Commenting on mob violence against Muslims and Arabs in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla in late 2005, Howard denied that there was 'underlying racism in this country'.

But a majority of people in Australia now oppose not only involvement in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. While Labor has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq, the new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will keep Australian forces in Afghanistan.
The Government's attempts to use race in the run-up to the election fell flat. People were not impressed by a new citizenship test, supposedly about 'Australian values', that amounts to a quiz on Australian history and sport.

Mohamed Haneef, an Indian doctor working in Australia, was targeted because he was a cousin of one of the people involved in the terrorist attacks in the UK at the end of June. The trumped-up case against him fell apart.

In October, the Immigration Minister announced that he had cut the intake of the mostly Christian refugees from Sudan because they weren't integrating. This may have played well with convinced racists but did not strike a chord with wider sections of the electorate.

The Return of Class Issues

Australia has not had a recession since the early 1990s. The economy has been particularly buoyed by mining exports to China. Average real wages have been rising for years and unemployment is below five percent. These factors, largely beyond the Government's control, helped keep Howard in office for years.

Yet he has failed to live up to his 1996 claim that he would make Australians 'comfortable and relaxed'.

While the labor market is tight, most job growth under the Coalition has been in casual and part-time work. The conservatives' industrial relations policies have led to declining job security and a vast growth in the amount of unpaid overtime. Meanwhile, inequality has increased, profits rates have climbed and managerial salaries have soared.

Levels of household indebtedness are high. Howard won the 2004 election on the promise that only he could keep interest rates on home loans down. But, in response to rising inflation, the Reserve Bank increased official rates several times this year. The latest rise occurred during the election campaign.

Concerns about debt have intersected with worries about work.
Levels of strike action in Australia are at their lowest levels since before World War I, while trade union density has been falling for thirty years. Yet, even before the introduction of the Government's 'WorkChoices' legislation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions organized large rallies. These continued and expanded after the law was passed. Some participants stopped work to attend what were the largest union demonstrations in Australian history.

Early this year the ACTU campaign shifted from mobilizing unionists in direct action to election campaigning. Its slogan changed from 'Your Rights at Work: Worth Fighting for' to 'Your Rights at work: Worth Voting for'. Most union leaders even fell in behind the Labor Party's very weak industrial relations policy, dubbed 'WorkChoices Lite' because it promised not to repeal the conservatives' fundamental attacks on union rights.

Although Howard has been defeated on a class issue, the Australian Labor Party today is more right-wing, its connections with the working class weaker, than ever before.

Rudd (accurately) describes himself as 'an economic conservative'. He has promised to 'take a meat axe' to the public service, is committed to the US alliance, keeping troops in Afghanistan, and endorses Australian imperialism in south-east Asia and the Pacific. Unions are still affiliated with the ALP, but the influence of union officials in the Party has declined and its working-class membership is residual.

It is symptomatic that Rudd was himself a very senior public servant and consultant before entering parliament while his wife's business earned her millions selling employment services which had been contracted out by the Coalition Government.

Australian workers will lose out if they rely on the good will of the Rudd Government. Events during the election campaign indicated that preparedness to act in their own interests can achieve results. Nurses in Victoria took militant, illegal and successful action that shut down many hospital beds, against the State Labor Government over wages and conditions. Three days before the election, ten thousand Victorian teachers struck over their claims.

If other workers, their self-confidence boosted by Howard's defeat, follow this lead, they will not only improve their lives at work but also rebuild the union movement.

Rick Kuhn is a member of Socialist Alternative and a reader in political science at the Australian National University. He won the 2007 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for his Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism.


Labor-backed politicians on display

We are the ILWU

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