Dems want NLRB to favor unions over workers

Democrats escalated attacks on the National Labor Relations Board at a congressional hearing yesterday, accusing the panel's Republican majority of turning the nation's labor laws "inside out" by making it harder for workers to form unions.

In an unusual public airing of ideological differences, NLRB Chairman Robert J. Battista, a Republican appointed by President Bush, sparred with Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and fellow board member Wilma B. Liebman, over interpretation of the nation's New Deal-era labor laws.

Battista was challenged to defend a string of decisions that have favored management. The rulings cover technical procedures that unions use to organize, as well as remedies, such as back pay, that the board can order when companies illegally try to stop union campaigns.

"Our critics' prognostications that the NLRB system is broken and has become a tool of corporate interest are simply false," Battista said in prepared remarks. "Unions are winning a majority of representation elections." Under questioning, Battista said the board was focusing on what employees want, not on the demands of unions or companies.

Labor unions have become increasingly frustrated with the NLRB's rulings since Bush took office. They say the board, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, has removed large categories of workers from coverage by the National Labor Relations Act, including nurses, teaching assistants at private colleges and temporary employment agency employees. They say the board has made it more difficult for workers to win back pay or other remedies when employers unlawfully try to block organizing drives.

The tension is threatening to paralyze the agency, which could have as many as three vacancies on its board by year-end. In a memo last month to their congressional allies, labor officials urged Democrats to "stanch the bleeding" at the agency by blocking board appointments. Last month, union activists marched in front of the agency's headquarters, some chanting, "Shut it down!"

The fight could be a precursor of larger battles over reform of U.S. labor laws. "Unions want to build momentum for labor law reform," Battista said outside the hearing room after his testimony. "This might be part and parcel of that."

The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, gives the NLRB exclusive authority to bring labor cases, making the agency highly influential in setting the nation's labor policy. Its members are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and hold five-year terms.

Some academic analysts say the board has become increasingly politicized in recent decades, starting with the anti-union appointments by President Ronald Reagan and continuing under President Bill Clinton, who appointed union lawyers to the board. But the latest decisions have a drawn a firestorm of criticism.

"The act is supposed to protect the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining," said James J. Brudney, a law professor at Ohio State University. "But if the agency charged with supervising and enforcing the act is perceived as part of the problem and not the solution, then that's a dangerous development for the future of the agency."

Democrats and labor leaders are angry at a set of 61 decisions released by the board in September. A major disappointment was a ruling involving Dana Corp., in which the board required the auto-parts maker to post information on how workers could begin the process of decertifying a newly organized union, even though the company didn't oppose the organizing drive.

Liebman contended that the Dana decision broke precedent that dated to 1960 and allowed a "minority to undo what a majority has expressed a desire to do." She accused Battista and the board majority of "narrowly casting existing precedent" or ignoring precedents "if they stand in the way of a desired result."

She and Battista also battled over basic interpretation of labor relations law. Battista said revisions to the laws in 1947 require the board to take a more neutral stance in organizing controversies. The view sharply contrasts with the view of Liebman, union lawyers and prevailing academic opinion.

However, John N. Raudabaugh, a former NLRB member and chairman of the U.S. labor-relations practice at the law firm Baker & McKenzie, said that "if you study the various labor boards, you will find there is an ebb and flow in the way that statutes apply to fact patterns, and from time to time precedent is reversed. What you'll also find in the last 15 years, the Clinton board reversed case precedent some 400 to 500 percent more than this Bush board has. Look at the history of the Clinton board and then the compare the Bush board and I think the unions would need to sit down and shut up."

Brudney said much of the blame for the breakdown of the agency lies with Congress for letting decades pass without revising the labor relations act.

"Part of what makes the agency's job challenging is that Congress hasn't given them any new direction since 1959 on these issues," Brudney said. "I can't think of another federal regulatory statute that affects millions and millions of people that hasn't been touched for this long."


Philadelphia - The City of Brotherly Thugs

After a long night of negotiating, the Philadelphia City Council came to an agreement on how to proceed with the issues of minority hiring and use of union labor on the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion project.

Council members, Mayor John Street, and union leaders with IBEW worked through the night to hammer out the deal.

The union agreed that 40% of the workers on the expansion project would be minority. Unions will also give quarterly reports and provide a training program for women and minorities.

In exchange, Council agreed to only use union labor.

Another session will be held next week for the official vote. An agreement will avoid intervention from Governor Rendell and the state legislature.


Nurses seek to decertify SEIU

A group of Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center nurses filed a petition with federal labor relation officials in Los Angeles seeking the decertification of the union representing them.

The petition was filed Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board, Region 21 office in Los Angeles, said Tammy Freehling, a nurse at the hospital and one of those involved in the effort.

Those nurses collected signatures from 33 percent of the bargaining units' membership, she said. The Service Employees International Union, Local 121RN represents about 1,000 nurses at the hospital.

Freehling said she believes that in the three years the union has been in place at the hospital nurses have received few benefits from being unionized aside from a tense work environment.

Officials with the labor board confirmed the petition was filed. Board officials will check that the signatures are valid, but the petition cannot move forward and a date for an election on the decertification cannot not be scheduled at this time, said James Small, board director of region 21.

The nurses' decertification efforts will be held up until at least three unfair labor practice charges against the hospital are settled.

Some of the charges have been found "arguably meritorious," Small said.

Investigations into those charges are in the early stages, he said.


SEIU nurses union puts politics ahead of patients

A national private investment firm’s purchase of a nursing home chain is being unnecessarily delayed in West Virginia by a union that’s putting politics before patients, company executives involved in the proposed sale said Thursday.

The Carlyle Group, a corporate buyout firm, plans to acquire HCR Manor Care, the nation’s largest nursing home chain, as part of a $6.3 billion deal.

Carlyle and Manor Care executives said the Service Employees International Union’s “coordinated campaign” to delay the sale is part of a national organizing effort to boost membership and unionize more nursing homes. Manor Care operates seven Heartland nursing homes in West Virginia.

“They’re using this as part of a national campaign against Manor Care,” said Stephen Guillard, chief operating officer for Toledo, Ohio-based HCR Manor Care.

The entire $6.3 billion deal could hinge on whether the West Virginia Health Care Authority gives approval for Carlyle’s purchase of the seven West Virginia facilities.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents nursing home and other health-care workers, is challenging the sale in West Virginia and other states.

A hearing to reconsider the Health Care Authority’s previous approval last October is set for 9 a.m. today. Authority members have 45 days to make a final decision.

Guillard said four Manor Care nursing homes in West Virginia have workers represented by the service employees union, and the company has good relations with them.

Two of Manor Care’s nursing homes in the state aren’t unionized. The Teamsters union has members in the other nursing home.

Only about 1,400 of Manor Care’s 60,000 employees belong to a union, Guillard said.

“We recognize the rights of employees if they want to be unionized,” he said.

A union spokeswoman said Carlyle and Manor Care were “blowing smoke” about the union to deflect a discussion about the nursing home chain’s poor record on patient care. Manor Care would continue to manage the nursing homes after the buyout.

“We have no campaign going on,” said Jennifer Farmer, spokeswoman for SEIU District 1199, which includes West Virginia. “Manor Care has multiple, multiple deficiencies. They have a spotty track record.”

Farmer said Manor Care has been cited for numerous deficiencies across the nation and in West Virginia — everything from residents receiving incorrect doses of medicine to insufficient amounts of food.

Guillard said the company, which operates 280 nursing homes and a similar number of assisted living facilities in 32 states, responds quickly to deficiencies once they’re identified.

“Our track record is we fix the problem,” Guillard said. “We provide good care. We expect patient care to be unaffected by this transaction.”

Carlyle’s purchase of Manor Care has received final approval in all but three states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia, said David Marchick, Carlyle’s managing director of government and regulatory affairs.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey regulatory agencies have approved the sale, but are waiting for their governors to sign off on the purchase.

Carlyle expects to spend $74 million to buy the seven West Virginia facilities — located in Charleston, Beckley, Clarksburg, Keyser, Martinsburg, Kingwood and Rainelle.

Carlyle and Manor Care want to close the sale by the end of the year.

Service employee union officials said lawmakers in several states and two congressional committees have announced their intentions to scrutinize the sale.

Manor Care nursing homes have more than 900 beds in West Virginia.

“The people in West Virginia should be very afraid,” said Sherry McKinney, political director of SEIU’s District 1199. “Manor Care and the Carlyle Group have a lot to gain in this transaction, and patients and family members have a lot to lose.”


Labor-state pols can't conceal their union thugs

Bucks County (PA)'s two major political parties together spent nearly $1.5 million in the race for control of county government, campaign expense reports filed this month show.

Besides the monetary cost -- a record for a county race -- the two parties' last-minute fundraising and spending efforts also revealed some interesting tidbits.

The county Democratic Party got an influx of sizable donations from employees of New Jersey engineering and law firms late in November -- totaling $42,500 -- from Oct. 25 to Election Day.

Some, including Remington-Vernick and Schoor DePalma, were firms the Republicans had accused the Democrats of hiring for political reasons in several lower Bucks municipalities they control.

Bucks County Democratic Party Chairman John Cordisco said the donations came at a fundraiser that had been scheduled for late in the campaign, and donors were given no promises, except that they would be treated fairly.

"I think they have been supportive of us because they would like a two-party system," he said, rather than what he called the 'club' of firms hired on a consistent basis by the county's GOP leadership.

Republican Commissioner James Cawley said he was not surprised at all about the donations, which he said showed the Democrats were "living in glass houses, throwing boulders," when they accused the GOP of engaging in "pay to play politics."

The Republican Party paid Precision Marketing of Easton -- the same firm the county commissioners hired months earlier to produce county newsletters that they denied had any political purpose -- $48,747 for campaign work.

Cawley said that was mostly for phone banking, and while he was aware Precision was a major Republican campaign firm, he knew they also did work for Democrats and offered the county the best price for its newsletters.

Cordisco said he wonders if Precision was able to offer the county a good price because of its campaign-related work for the party.

The GOP also paid Charles Benhayon -- the party activist the commissioners hired as the next chief park ranger in November before he turned down the post after strong Democratic protests -- $1,500 for election day expenses.

And, while ripping Democrats in a campaign mailer for being beholden to "union thugs," the Cawley-Martin campaign accepted $7,000 in donations from the carpenters and sprinkler fitters unions.

Cawley said he has never promised the unions anything, and speculated the unions gave him and Martin money because the county is thriving and their members have plenty of work opportunities.

Cordisco said he figures they were trying to sway Cawley, who is undecided, on whether the county's new courthouse will be built with union labor.

"I myself have not closed the door on anything," said Cawley, which he said differentiated him from the Democrats, who said they would use union labor on any county projects.

The campaign also got $8,000 in contributions from the Associated Builders and Contractors, a group that represents the interests of nonunion construction firms.

The Democrats raised $17,500 from unions in the same period.

Philadelphia-based Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler said candidates commonly save potentially troublesome expenditures and donations until after the final, pre-election expense report is filed to avoid scrutiny.

"That's the way the game is played," he said.

Candidates are required to report contributions of more than $500 that come in after the final, pre-election report, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause.

Even so, they often get less public scrutiny.

In the two weeks before and immediately after the Nov. 6 election, the Republican Party and its victorious commissioner candidates James Cawley and Charley Martin raised $208,937 and spent $284,511, the reports show.

Democrats Diane Marseglia, who will fill the spot of minority party commissioner in January, and Steve Santarsiero and the county Democrats were no slouches, raising $164,704 and spending $172,868 in the same time period, the reports show.

All told, the Republican party and its standard bearers raised $663,670 and spent $875,954 on the general election, while the Democrats raised a virtually unheard of $594,237 and spent $597,862.


Ailing Newhouse sheet sucks up to labor-state unions

Here comes another one of those "report cards" that the business lobby in New Jersey likes to haul out to show how bad things are here--and to use against pro-worker reforms like the family leave insurance bill now pending for the Legislature.

I'll cut to the chase: a national outfit called the Alliance for Worker Freedom gives New Jersey an F on its "Index of Worker Freedom." The name of the group and of the index would be laughable if the whole thing weren't so sad. Worker freedom, it turns out, means the right to be paid too little to live and not to be able to do anything about it.

States were graded in 10 categories. In each, you get a 0 or a 1. New Jersey got nine 0s.

We got a 0 for having a minimum wage above the federal wage. We got another 0 for having more union members per capita than the national average. We got 0s for having prevailing wage laws, allowing state workers to bargain collectively and having a pension system that assures retirement security by guaranteeing a certain level of benefits. In other words, workers in New Jersey are more likely than in many other places to have the kinds of protections they won over the years from business groups that said "no" at every step. Now those protections are being eroded across the land, but less so in New Jersey. And for this we get a flunking grade from an organization that wants the world to believe fairness and dignity for working men and women are an invasion against freedom.

In scanning the state-by-state results I couldn't find any As. But these states got an A-minus: Mississippi, South Carolina, Utah, Idaho and Colorado. So, business men and women, if you want to pay your workers less and stop worrying about them being protected by a union, go to one of those states.....please!

And to any business group in New Jersey that would use a bogus index like this as ammunition against family leave insurance or any other policy, shame on you. You should realize it's in your best interest to tell the truth about the place where you live and make your livelihood. Sure the state has big problems and we need to work together to solve them. But you do us all a disservice by promoting a race to the bottom. That won't be a good place for any of us, including you.

OK, the space below is for the usual half dozen of you to proclaim me a socialist, communist of social engineer. (Yawn) Go for it.


NY Carpenters' criminal union officials

Bad tidings always carry an added sting when delivered during the holiday season, which is one reason there's not much of a festive spirit right now over at the offices of Carpenters Local 157 on East 25th Street.

A few days after Thanksgiving, the local's 4,500 members learned through the grapevine that most of their top elected officers had suddenly been ousted—for reasons that were not immediately clear. Rumor was that the local was also being taken over by the national union, but this too was hard to nail down. What was known was that the monthly membership meeting was abruptly canceled, as was the annual Christmas party—a move that really added insult to injury.

"Nobody knows what the hell is going on," griped a veteran carpenter who called this newspaper in a vain attempt to find something out.

A couple of phone calls quickly established that yes, the city's carpenters union was again embroiled in a corruption scandal, and yes, the parent union had stepped in, and yes, heads had already rolled.

You'd think that in the age of computers and mobile phones (which I can confirm are possessed by the vast majority of the city's rank-and-file carpenters), the details of this coup would have already been shared with the membership. But here it is, three weeks later, and the key information has yet to be imparted by the New York City District Council of Carpenters to these hardworking New Yorkers.

For details, members had to turn to a new, and very unofficial, website (local157.blogspot.com). There, carpenter John Musumeci posted a press release from the district council that shed only the faintest light on the situation: "Some representatives assigned to work in Local 157 were not performing their jobs in the manner expected of them by the District Council," it stated with all the clarity of mud. Here then, based on discussions with several sources, are the facts of the matter as assembled by the Voice:

The first official out the door was William Hanley, 55, the $140,000-a-year president and business manager of Local 157, who resigned his position shortly before Thanksgiving. Hanley's sudden retirement came after he was confronted with evidence gathered by William Callahan, the union's court-appointed independent investigator. The evidence was in the form of cell-phone records that suggested the union leader had spent many weekday afternoons roaming Long Island, where his family happens to have a splendid waterfront home, instead of working the streets of Manhattan's East Side, where his members are employed.

Similar evidence was presented against Hanley's second-in-command, financial secretary Fred Kennedy, who made the same quick career choice. Local business representative Daniel DeMorato was suspended from his post and reassigned. But another target, local vice president George DiLacio, told his interrogators to get lost. DiLacio refused to give up his elected post at the local but was summarily fired from his $127,000-a-year job as a union representative.

Callahan's report on his findings has yet to be made public, but excerpts from it were quoted in a letter to the local from national carpenters union president Douglas McCarron. In it, McCarron quotes Callahan describing Local 157 as "a mismanaged mess where [business agents] come and go as they please, following few, if any, rules."

The ousted officials couldn't be reached, but a friend of Hanley's said the carpenter had simply decided to throw in the towel. "He was at a point where he didn't care any more," said the friend. "He just wanted to go."

As well he might. Even though its ranks are filled with bright and active blue-collar workers, the carpenters union has been unable to climb out of a 30-year-long quagmire of corruption. Several recent heads of the union's 25,000-member district council have faced corruption charges: Teddy Maritas disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1982 after he was indicted in a mob-bribery scheme; Paschal McGuinness was acquitted of corruption charges, but was forced to retire when federal prosecutors hit the union with a 1990 civil-racketeering case; Fred Devine was convicted of stealing more than $175,000 in union funds.

The current council leader, Michael Forde, was convicted in 2004 of taking a $50,000 bribe from a mobster's son-in-law while seated in a Hooter's restaurant on West 56th Street. The money was alleged to have sealed a promise that Forde would look the other way while nonunion workers renovated the old Park Central hotel. The conviction, however, was set aside after the judge determined that members of the jury had spoken disparagingly of union officials during the trial, and had read an account of the affair in the Voice. Forde's retrial has been put off repeatedly. It is currently scheduled for January.

Before his sudden retirement, Hanley was viewed as a strong contender to lead the union should Forde finally be forced from office. Considered popular with the members, Hanley was a third-generation carpenter. Both his father and grandfather ran the local before him. Gene Hanley, William's dad, ran into his own problems back in 1987, when investigators managed to plant a bug in his office in the local's headquarters. The device picked up conversations between the elder Hanley and contractors seeking relief from having to pay full union wages and benefits to workers.

"You could hear the desk drawer open and close as he put the envelopes inside," said an investigator who worked on the case. Gene Hanley was ultimately sentenced to a four-year term for taking bribes.

No specific allegations were ever lodged against the son, but William Hanley was made well aware that prosecutors were taking a hard look at him as well. Over the past year, federal prosecutors won indictments of two shop stewards with close ties to Hanley and who had been assigned to oversee a massive renovation of the old Met Life buildings on Madison Avenue. The stewards, both of whom were local officers, were charged with defrauding the union by submitting phony reports that omitted the names of dozens of union members.

One of the stewards, Frank Proscia, pled guilty in late October. The other, Michael "Mickey" Annucci, is due to go to trial next month. When Annucci was arrested last year, investigators suggested that he help himself by telling what he knew about corruption. Like what? asked Annucci. Like about Bill Hanley, the investigators answered, according to an affidavit filed in the case.

Carpenters are pretty well inured to these goings-on by now, but the members of Local 157 have been burning up their cell-phone minutes over the last month complaining about how they're kept in the dark. Although no official notice has gone out yet, a day-long hearing is expected to be held on December 18. It will be attended by top leaders of the national union in Washington, who can expect an earful from rank-and-file discontents.

One of the questions that members are likely to raise is why only Local 157's officers were scrutinized about their attendance records. While no one I spoke to could vouch for the whereabouts of the ousted officers all day long, several said they could always rely on finding Hanley and Kennedy at the local's offices before 6 a.m. every morning, handling inquiries and making calls to contractors. Asks one disgruntled nail-driver: "Did they check any other locals to see where their officers are all day?"

The probe also follows criticism by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office that, prior to the Hanley probe, investigator Callahan had been largely ineffective in his role. Members have also protested that the investigator has focused more on Local 157 than Forde's home base, which covers Manhattan's West Side. Callahan's supporters, however, say he has just been following the evidence. The Hanley probe, they say, was spurred by an anonymous tip to his "corruption hotline." If so, carpenters' cell phones are likely to start humming.


Arkansas in Top Third in Nat'l Report Card

We obtained an advance copy of the inaugural edition “2007 Index of Worker Freedom (IWF): A National Report Card” that will be released Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. by the Alliance for Worker Freedom (AWF).

The 2007 IWF is the first state-by-state comparative study that measures the level of worker freedom by analyzing policy as well as quantitative state data. With this inaugural edition, the AWF has taken the first step in providing a metric to use as a basis for time-series and trend analysis from this point forward.

Brian Johnson, AWF’s Director of Policy related that “With the recent political alignment between the Left and Big Labor unions, and the most recent invasions on worker freedom, it has become apparent that certain states are placing more emphasis on respecting workers rights than those which support controlled and regulated labor markets. This unique, first ever publication has never been more needed.”

Founded in 2004, the AWF is dedicated to the protection of workers rights, to combat anti-worker, pro-union legislation and educate the public about the plight to protect workers rights. AWF serves as an advocate using research, lobbying and education efforts to protect workers rights and to improve the right of ordinary workers. Grounded in free market labor economics and constitutional freedoms, AWF seeks to inform the public and national legislators about the benefits and perils of decisions concerning workers rights. AWF works to raise awareness of abuses by labor unions within the political system. AWF believes that free markets and free citizens are the best formula for workers and that ownership and individual self-determination are the hallmarks of pro-labor public policy.

The IWF National Report card identifed Arkansas with a grade of "B" which placed Arkansas in the top 19 states; 16 states received grades of "D" or "F." The report further addressed Arkansas as follows:

To improve on this grade in the future, Arkansas must increase its personal protection of public employees’ financial rights to become competitive in the region.

With a minimum wage of $6.25, Arkansas is above the Federal minimum wage of $5.85. A higher minimum wage hurts small business investment and increases unemployment in lower classes. Further, by not having paycheck protection laws, union bosses are free to spend members’ dues on any political cause of their choosing— regardless of the member’s personal preferences and/or beliefs. These laws are essential to not only securing worker freedom, but ensuring honest political representation.

Arkansas, by not offering a defined contribution pension plan, limits their employees’ freedom by offering non-portable and non-personally-controlled pensions. In addition, Arkansas law requires prevailing wage determination if the project exceeds $75,000. Virtually all major construction projects on state or federal roads and infrastructure exceed this amount. This prevailing wage hurts the average worker at the benefit of Big Labor.

- Bill Smith, ARRA New Service Editor


Hoffa favors Clinton-crony bid for bankrupt mega-baker

Yucaipa Cos. LLC and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters late Thursday said they had submitted a preliminary plan to bring Interstate Bakeries Corp. out of bankruptcy under Yucaipa’s control.

Missing from the plan was Bimbo Bakeries USA, which in early November had said it was teaming up with Yucaipa and the Teamsters to put forth a plan to reorganize IBC. Bimbo said Thursday that it was “not currently in the position to submit a bid” for the Kansas City-based wholesale baking company, which has been in bankruptcy since 2004.

The plan from the Teamsters, which represents 9,500 of IBC’s 25,000 employees, and Yucaipa, based in Los Angeles and headed by billionaire Ron Burkle, would “identify a viable path for IBC to emerge from bankruptcy with the greatest likelihood of success.”

The plan puts a $580 million valuation on the company and says it will maximize the value of IBC for its various constituents.

“We are pleased that with Yucaipa’s unwavering support we have reached this important milestone in IBC’s Chapter 11 case,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters general president. “After more than three years in bankruptcy, IBC is now poised to emerge from Chapter 11 as a stronger and healthier company.”

Interstate has been in bankruptcy reorganization since September 2004 and in November filed its own plan of reorganization, which provided for $400 million in post-bankruptcy financing and also put a $580 million valuation on the company.

The key difference is that the Yucaipa bid has the support of the Teamsters, which came after talks between the union and IBC broke down in October. The talks faltered over Interstate’s plans to drastically remake its distribution system, which the Teamsters said was an unworkable plan. IBC was also asking for concessions on wages and health and welfare, in addition to ones it had already received from the union.

IBC declined to comment on Thursday’s developments.

The Teamsters said its members would be making concessions under the Yucaipa plan but did not specify what those would be.

“Although sacrifices will be required from employees of IBC … we believe this plan will preserve the greatest number of jobs,” said Rich Volpe, who was involved in talks with Yucaipa and previous ones with IBC.

Calls to Yucaipa were not returned, but in the Teamsters release, Burkle said the company was looking forward to moving ahead with its plans.

“We are excited by the opportunity to revitalize a company like Interstate Bakeries that has provided good union jobs for so many years to working Americans,” Burkle said.

Yucaipa and the Teamsters teamed up last year in another company that was in bankruptcy, Allied Holdings Inc., and eventually its plan of reorganization was the one approved by the bankruptcy court.

Other parties interested in putting forth their own plans of reorganization for IBC have until Jan. 15 to do so. If there are multiple bidders, there will be an auction on Jan. 22. The bankruptcy court is scheduled to make a final determination on Jan. 29.


SEIU blocks Nevada health care investment

A major union that represents thousands of Nevada health care workers has urged the federal government to block UnitedHealth Group's pending $2.6 billion purchase of this state's largest health insurer.

Jane McAlevey, executive director of Las Vegas-based Service Employees International Union Local 1107, said in a letter to the Justice Department that the bid by UnitedHealth to buy Sierra Health Services Inc. "will ultimately harm patient care."

The letter released Thursday states that the deal is likely to "substantially reduce competition in numerous markets, including the delivery of health care at hospitals."

In the Las Vegas area, the result could be "substantially lower reimbursements to hospitals," McAlevey said, adding the prospect of reduced patient care provides "a substantial basis" for the Justice Department to challenge the deal.

"Reduced reimbursement leads to cutbacks in services, less investment in equipment and lower staffing levels," the letter states, adding that the result could be "dangerously high patient-to-nurse staffing ratios."

The SEIU letter follows a letter from Gov. Jim Gibbons asking the Justice Department to resolve "widely varied" estimates of the market impact of the deal. Gibbons said he's concerned that consumers could be hurt if UnitedHealth ends up with an "overwhelming HMO and Medicare market share."

McAlevey and other critics of the deal say United would go from a 12 percent share of the HMO market in Nevada to an 80 percent share, and in the Las Vegas area from a 14 percent share to 94 percent.

But UnitedHealth spokesman Tyler Mason has disputed the percentages, saying the market share of the combined companies would be only 28 percent statewide and 33 percent in the Las Vegas area.

Mason also has said that UnitedHealth and Sierra promised there would be no premium increases "as a direct result" of the deal."

The Justice Department's approval is the last one needed for the buyout to go through. Regulators in Nevada, California and Arizona already have endorsed the plan - although Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto still could intervene.

Sierra Health has 310,000 members in employer-sponsored plans in Nevada and another 320,000 people in plans for retirees and government workers. The company posted 2006 profit of $140.5 million on revenue of $1.72 billion.


Unions' endless lust for Continental dues

The Transport Workers Union is making another bid to represent about 7,900 baggage handlers and cargo agents at Continental Airlines after losing close elections the past two years.

The Continental ramp workers would be a prized catch for any union. The president of the Transport Workers says they are the biggest group of nonunion employees in the heavily organized airline industry.

Last year, the TWU got more than 3,300 votes but fell about 300 short of a majority. It also lost by a slim margin in 2005. The union is back after a mandatory 12-month waiting period between elections.

Ballots went out Tuesday, and voting ends Jan. 9.

"These people should have a union," said James C. Little, the TWU's international president. "But if we don't win this one, maybe it has to be the Teamsters or the IAM — maybe it's not us."

The International Association of Machinists has positioned itself to step in if TWU loses again, but the IAM and the Teamsters have also failed in attempts to organize the ramp workers at Houston-based Continental.

Continental pressured all workers to take pay cuts in 2005, after the airline lost nearly $1 billion in five years. Ramp workers saw their wages cut nearly 10 percent.

They got 2 percent raises last year, but TWU and its supporters say that pilots and mechanics will get their lost wages back much sooner because they have unions to negotiate new contracts.

"They just blow us off," said Robert K. Rose, a customer service agent in Houston who has been trying to organize his co-workers for more than a decade. "Corporations today worry about stockholders and the numbers. It's up to employees to take care of themselves."

Julie King, a spokeswoman for the airline, said the ramp workers bore only their fare share of cost reductions in 2005.

"All of our employees participated in cost reductions up to and including our CEO," she said. "Our employees are also participating in a new profit-sharing program so that when the company does well, all of our employees are rewarded."

Continental paid $111 million in profit sharing this year, and King said the company expects to increase that by 30 to 40 percent next year. As of Sept. 30, it had set aside $157 million for profit sharing, $59 million more than in the same period last year.

Continental earned $343 million last year — its best profit in six years — and another $491 million through the first nine months of this year. The company has more than 40,000 employees.

King said proof of the airline's treatment of the ramp workers is that TWU and other unions have failed in several elections over the past 12 years.

The prospect of higher pay appears to be the union's big issue, but benefits and work rules are also important to airline workers.

Cassandra Bowles, a customer service agent in Newark, N.J., for more than two years, said managers have made false promises about pay and discriminated against pregnant women. She said her disability pay was limited when she took leave early in her pregnancy last year, resulting in three months of no pay.

"I lost a lot of money," Bowles said. "It'll be different (with a union). We would have the right kind of maternity leave for high-risk pregnancies."

Union organizers say it's difficult to judge where they stand as voting begins. They thought they would win last year.

They say many recently hired workers may be reluctant to vote for the union, and they concede that union dues are an issue for ramp workers, who don't earn as much as pilots or mechanics.

Monthly dues are twice an employee's hourly rate of pay — a worker who earns $25 an hour would pay $50 per month or $600 per year. The local and TWU headquarters split the money 70-30.

In these kinds of elections, which are run by the National Mediation Board, a majority must cast votes for the union for it to win. "No" votes and workers who don't vote both count against the union.

TWU officials expect to win majorities at Continental's big hubs in Houston, Newark and Cleveland but are worried about smaller outposts.

Little, the international president, said that in small airports where there are just a handful of bag handlers and cargo agents, "bonds are tighter, and maybe management does special favors. We fell short in those bases last year."

Continental is also facing other labor issues.

Contract negotiations will heat up next year with its mechanics, represented by the Teamsters, and with the Air Line Pilots Association. Both groups are working under contracts that can be amended at the end of 2008.


Unions dues pumped into California Assembly politics

Organized labor extended its winning streak in special elections this week, as Warren Furutani claimed victory in the 55th Assembly District.

Labor groups unleashed an army of precinct walkers and phone-bankers in the days and weeks leading up to Tuesday's vote, giving Furutani the margin he needed to beat Carson Councilman Mike Gipson in a low-turnout election.

However, Furutani just missed the majority vote needed to avoid a Feb. 5 run-off election with Libertarian Herb Peters and American Independent Charlotte Gibson.

"We're confident we got about 3,000 of our voters to the polls," said Javier Gonzalez, executive director of Strengthening Our Lives, a labor-funded independent expenditure group that spent $250,000 trying to elect Furutani. "We actually weren't worried."

The Assembly seat opened up when former Long Beach City Council member Laura Richardson was elected to Congress to serve out the term of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died in April. Richardson also had key help from labor's ground organization in winning another low-turnout special election.

"The L.A. County Federation really knows how to do that," said political consultant Allen Hoffenblum. "They just have it down pat."

Furutani won with about 8,600 votes - nearly 3,000 fewer than he received in a regular primary in June 2006, when he lost. In that election, turnout was 29 percent, compared to 10 percent on Tuesday.

Furutani had labor's backing in the 2006 race, but with a higher turnout, its ground campaign was not as significant in determining the outcome, and Richardson won.

Even the battle-tested union workers had to struggle to get their voters to the polls.

"We have to convince people they have to vote, and it's very difficult," said Maribel Perez, a janitor who walked precincts for Furutani. "A lot of people didn't know there was an election for the Assembly."

Furutani has been backed by labor unions since his first race for the Los Angeles Unified school board, in 1987. That length of commitment was the decisive factor that gave him the endorsement, said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Fed.

Gipson, who has been on the Carson council for 2-1/2 years, is employed by United Teachers Los Angeles, and has worked as political director for two locals of the Service Employees International Union. Gipson has advocated strenuously for better retirement benefits for Carson's union employees and has routinely brought union issues to the fore at council meetings.

But once the L.A. County Fed backed Furutani, business groups started funding Gipson. The Alliance for California's Tomorrow, a coalition of corporate concerns including tobacco, energy, and billboard companies, put $235,000 into an independent expenditure campaign for Gipson.

Furutani's supporters saw that as an attempt to elect a "moderate" Democrat in a union stronghold.

"That's fine if that's the district, but not in our backyard," Gonzalez said.

Abel Valencia, an ironworker from South Gate, walked neighborhoods in Carson for Furutani. When he encountered undecided voters, he argued that Furutani would help protect their wages, retirement plans and health benefits.

Between the County Fed and the independent group, Furutani's supporters visited 20,000 homes, made 60,000 phone calls, and sent 177,000 mailers.

Fittingly, Furutani's victory party was held at the Laborers Local 507 hall in Lakewood, where a large crowd of union workers gathered to celebrate.

"Labor's what it's all about," Furutani said in his victory speech. "You delivered the victory."


Teamsters burned by school board

An Indianapolis company will assume management of the Richmond Community Schools' transportation department despite reservations expressed by two school board members and stronger opposition from a score of angry bus drivers.

The school corporation's board of trustees approved a contract with the Sodrel Transportation Group's Student Transit division Wednesday in a move expected to save money and maximize the use of its Salisbury Road bus garage.

But opponents say bus drivers won't get jobs that come with the same salaries and benefits they make now.

The contract, which was approved by a 5-2 vote by the school board, will eliminate about 50 employees from the payroll but the school corporation's assets, including the garage, buses and equipment will remain the property of RCS. The school corporation is the first district to approve such a contract, which is allowable under Indiana law.

Bus drivers attending Wednesday's meeting had hoped the board would at least postpone the decision after two board members expressed concerns. Julie Ripperger and Aaron Stevens said they needed more time to make an informed decision.

"I'm not really convinced that this is the best decision for our students," Ripperger said.

Nor were the bus drivers.

"They keep telling the good parts to it," said Harold Callahan, a 10-year bus driver, who claims Student Transit's jobs won't be as "comparable" as RCS officials claim.

But the administration has maintained that any bus driver who applies for a job with Student Transit will make similar money -- a sum that includes additional compensation to independently purchase an insurance plan.

Teamsters Agent Jerry Hayden, who is trying to help drivers unionize, said Student Transit won't offer full-time jobs and isn't afraid of hiring out-of-town employees.

"It's all misinformation," Hayden said.

Rodger Smith, RCS' director of school operations, says Sodrel has promised it intends to hire local workers first -- unless none apply. All bus drivers employed by Sodrel follow the same Indiana-mandated safety standards, he said.

"We are not going to be compromising the safety of our children," Smith said.

Hayden said bus drivers would continue to picket outside the school corporation's administrative offices.


Collectivist celebs show pride in their unionism

Nominees were excited Thursday by the recognition from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. but vexed by the possibility of pickets at the Golden Globes.

"It would be very hard for me to cross a WGA picket line," said David Cronenberg, a longtime WGA member and director of "Eastern Promises," nominated for drama film. "Everybody will have the same problem."

Glenn Close, nominated for her leading role in the FX series "Damages," said, "I would never cross a picket line."

The point could be moot: The strike could be settled by the Jan. 13 telecast on NBC, the Writers Guild might grant the show a waiver -- or scribes may decide it would be in their best interest not to picket as well as to allow writers and supporters to bring attention to the issue on worldwide TV.

Ryan Gosling ("Lars and the Real Girl") joked that he's going to find guidance from a fellow nominee: "I want talk to Tom Hanks about it because I imagine he always does the right thing."

"Hairspray" director Adam Shankman said he thought the writers would be doing themselves a disservice by not attending.

"I think it would be a smack in the face if there was striking at the ceremony because it would be undermining the achievements of their own guild, and that would be reprehensible. I think it's a horribly counterintuitive idea to strike something that celebrates their own membership," he said.

AMC's rookie series "Mad Men" snagged a drama series nom. The show's presence at the Globes would certainly help expose new viewers to the skein, but exec producer Matt Weiner -- an Emmy-nominated writer for "The Sopranos" -- says he may not be there to celebrate his good fortune.

"I will not cross the picket line," said Weiner, who had hoped to begin writing season two a few weeks ago but is waiting for a settlement before starting up.

"There's no way I would cross a picket line," added the show's leading man, Jon Hamm. "Not only in respect to Matt, but I'm in 100% agreement with him in this fight. It would be a drag not to go, but you have to take a stand."

Some said it was too early to make a decision.

John Travolta, tabbed for "Hairspray," said, "I have faith that as long as communication and consultation are happening, things will work out. We just have to respect the process."

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton, nominated for his work on "Atonement," said, "I'm not sure whether or not I'll attend the ceremony, but I'm going to take advice and see what develops. I'm very aware of the circumstances."

"Entourage" supporting actor Jeremy Piven said, "I don't know about whether or not I'll be attending because to be honest with you, I don't know a lot about the rules and limitations of what is happening. I need to look into it."

"Samantha Who?" nominee Christina Applegate added: "Oh yeah, of course, I'm planning on attending. Everything's so up in the air right now. It's a strange time for all of us because our future is in someone else's hands."


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