12/24/07

Massive union political slush funds flow in Iowa

With a little more than 2 weeks to go before Iowa votes, there is not much more the campaigns can do to move numbers but ground game, organizing and getting their supporters worked up. This is the time 527s -- independent groups which can spend thousands of behalf of candidates but are not allowed to coordinate in any way with any campaign -- jump in and start helping their chosen candidates.

Among Democrats, the two main stories for now have been (1) how little negativity there has been in 527 ads -- a stark contrast from 4 years ago where Dean and Gephardt bashed each other through independent groups, and (2) the fact that no 527 has jumped in on Obama's behalf.

Politico's Ben Smith tallied up the totals as of Thursday night and found three groups (AFSCME, AFT and Emily's List) agitating on Clinton's behalf for a total of more than $1.8 million; and two groups (the Carpenters union, and SEIU) working on Edwards's behalf for a total of almost $1.3 million.

Since then two big developments: "The Alliance for a New America" (seemingly funded by the SEIU) has dumped in nearly 3/4s of a million to help Edwards and run tons of ads across the state in the week after Christmas; and FEC filings show that pro-Hillary group spent $300,000 dollars in a single day yesterday, with most of it coming from Emily's List. It is unclear where the money will be used, but probably in Iowa the most and New Hampshire to some degree. There have also been very small groups that have been spent very little money but hoped for some publicity (such as "Democratic Courage" which prepared negative ads against Obama and against Clinton).

(huffingtonpost.com)

Unions take Casino War to the California ballot

For the past decade, much of the tension in the push to expand Indian gambling in California has been generated by organized labor and its political allies.

The hotel and casino workers union UNITE HERE! has waged a relentless campaign for a stronger hand in organizing – the ability to establish a union simply by persuading a majority of workers to sign cards in support of a union. No election is required.

OVERVIEW

Background: A casino workers union, UNITE HERE!, has been the main opponent to four new Indian gambling compacts in California, contending the agreements need stronger organizing provisions to protect employees.

What's changing: That claim has come under question after the United Auto Workers, which represents casino workers elsewhere, recently created a union under traditional organizing rules at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

The future: Californians will weigh issues such as gambling expansion and worker rights when they vote Feb. 5.

Indian casinos, where employees toil under surveillance cameras and have limited recourse against employer retaliation, can't be organized under the old-fashioned way with contentious campaigns and secret elections, labor leaders insisted.

But the United Auto Workers did just that last month, scoring a lopsided victory against a major casino in Connecticut after a six-month campaign.

The UAW win at Foxwoods Resort Casino has attracted national attention and prompted a round of second-guessing in California, where labor's push for what's known as “card-check neutrality” has led to another expensive ballot fight over tribal gaming.

UNITE HERE! is a major backer of four measures – Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 – on the Feb. 5 ballot that could block new gambling agreements, or compacts, for a group of powerful tribes that have refused to grant stronger organizing rules.

A racetrack owner and two other tribes also are bankrolling the referendums for Sycuan of El Cajon, Pechanga of Temecula, Agua Caliente of Palm Springs and Morongo of east Riverside County. The opposing camps have raised more than $40 million for the battle, with more to come.

The four tribes say their existing compacts have permitted conventional union organizing with secret elections for the past seven years.

The UAW victory “just goes to show if a union actually tries to organize and workers want a union, they can have it,” said Jacob Mejia, a Pechanga representative.

But John Wilhelm, a president of UNITE HERE!, warned the UAW's victory at Foxwoods might prove hollow. It will be much more difficult to get a contract from the Mashantucket Pequots, the tribe that owns Foxwoods, he predicted.

It will take years to exhaust probable appeals to the National Labor Relations Board and federal courts. Even if the UAW prevails at the end of that long process, they still might be unable to negotiate a contract, he said.

“Absent an agreement either to arbitrate or some other method of concluding the collective bargaining, there is no effective way to strike a tribal casino, because the right of workers to picket a tribal casino has never been established,” Wilhelm said.

For those reasons, he said, “we think the NLRB process will prove to be a false hope for those employees.”

A handful of California compacts that allow card-check organizing don't permit lengthy appeals and have a process, including binding arbitration, to arrive at a contract, Wilhelm said.

“That's why there are contracts and better conditions in several tribal casinos in California,” Wilhelm said.

As it attempts to replace the dwindling ranks of auto workers, the UAW has become a growing force in the flourishing gambling industry. It represents casino workers in Detroit, Atlantic City and Rhode Island.

At Foxwoods, UAW officials said some of the casino's 2,400 dealers asked the union to step in. The dealers had grown increasingly frustrated with management indifference to stagnant wages and eroding benefits, said Jacqueline Little, a poker dealer with 15 years at Foxwoods.

The dealers approached the UAW because it had organized dealers elsewhere and negotiated “much better working conditions than we had, and we were working in one of biggest and best-known casinos in the world,” Little said.

On Nov. 24, more than 60 percent of the dealers voted to join the UAW.

“It's historic,” said Bob Madore, the UAW's director in the region. “It's going to go down in the books . . . and the domino effect it's going to have is of a seismic magnitude.”

Although they target different workers, such as food and beverage and other hospitality workers, UNITE HERE! had tried in vain to organize at Foxwoods for years.

Ironically, the UAW succeeded at Foxwoods with the help of a landmark decision that UNITE HERE! won in a lawsuit against the San Manuel band of suburban San Bernardino. In that case, a court ruled in February that Indian casinos are subject to federal labor laws.

Jack Gribbon, UNITE HERE!'s political director in California, said it took eight years just to get to the San Manuel verdict.

UNITE HERE! has some 440,000 members nationally, with 125,000 in the casino industry. The union represents roughly 5,000 workers at four California Indian casinos, including the Pala Casino, Spa & Resort in north San Diego County.

The Communication Workers of America represent several thousand workers at two other casinos, San Manuel's and the Viejas Casino in Alpine.

All of those contracts were negotiated by unions established through either card-check or other agreements with the casinos.

During a nearly yearlong deadlock over the compacts for Pechanga, Sycuan, Morongo and Agua Caliente, tribal leaders asked repeatedly why labor had not attempted to organize their casinos under the collective-bargaining terms provided in their 1999 compacts.

Assembly Democrats, who blocked the compacts at labor's behest, privately were asking the same question as they endured pressure to approve the multibillion-dollar deals that promise a much larger cut of revenues for the state.

In testimony before a Senate committee in April, Gribbon and Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, said unique conditions at Indian casinos make it virtually impossible to organize workers under existing rules.

For example, Gribbon has said, one tribe granted access but set up an organizing table under a surveillance camera. Moreover, although tribes agreed to allow organizing, workers have little recourse against intimidation or harassment, Gribbon said.

The UAW was also concerned about retaliation against workers. So it decided to organize off-site, rather than on Foxwoods' premises. The union obtained dealers' home addresses through public records held by the state gaming commission, which licenses the dealers.

The union then concentrated on house calls and one-on-one sessions with workers scattered from New York City to Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the UAW's Madore said.

Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University labor authority, called the UAW's approach “cutting-edge.”

“That would be considered not only part of the new union organizing in terms of which sectors they're trying to organize, but also the method of organizing, the method of recruitment would be considered an aggressive, full-court press,” Cornfield said.

The UAW's victory ultimately will be judged by what the union can deliver in a contract. That figures to be a long and difficult process.

“The Mashantucket Pequots will no doubt appeal the court ruling making them subject to federal labor law, and will probably be able to avoid meaningful collective bargaining while that case makes it way through the courts,” predicted Jeff Haydu, a sociology professor and labor specialist at the University of California San Diego.

Little, the Foxwoods dealer, said her co-workers know “we're not going to have a contract anytime soon. We're prepared for that.”

The stakes are high for the UAW, the Mashantucket Pequots and tribes nationally, the UAW's Madore said.

“There is going to be some healing that needs to take place,” he said. “Once that takes place, I think rational people will sit down and make rational decisions . . . Eventually, the workers here are going to get a contract one way or the other.”

(signonsandiego.com)

Newspaper unionists disrespect property rights

Employers can prohibit workers from using the office e-mail system for union activities, so long as they prohibit solicitations from any outside organization, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled.

The board said its 3-2 decision sets a new labor relations standard that allows employers to prohibit union activity through the company's e-mail system while at the same time permitting office chitchat and personal messages.

The decision, released Friday, upheld the management of the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper in a case involving e-mail messages sent by Suzi Prozanski, a copy editor and Newspaper Guild leader, during contract negotiations in 2000 and the warnings the company gave her.

The board said two of the messages were "solicitations to support the union," and the company was justified in enforcing a policy that forbade the use of e-mail for "non-job-related solicitations." It ruled against the paper on a third message, saying it was "simply a clarification of facts surrounding a recent union event."

The three-member majority said it was reversing an administrative law judge's decision that the newspaper couldn't ban union messages at the same time it allowed "jokes, baby announcements, party invitations, and the occasional offer of sports tickets or request for services such as dog walking."

They added that a federal appeals court had distinguished between personal and union use of an office bulletin board and it was following the court's rationale.

The two dissenters said given the way e-mail "has transformed modern communication, it is simply absurd to find an e-mail system analogous to a telephone, a television set, a bulletin board, or a slip of scrap paper."

They said an e-mail is not like phone lines or bulletin boards that have limited capacity.

Newspaper and union leaders at the Register-Guard did not respond immediately on Saturday to requests for comment.

Randi Bjornstad, current president of the newspaper's union, said the decision, "takes labor law in new and disturbing directions with regard to the rights of employees."

The AFL-CIO's general counsel, Jon Hiatt, called the decision another in a series on the part of Republican board majority aimed at hobbling unions.

"There have to be accommodations to workers' rights even though the company owns the property," he said.

(ap.google.com)

Union-only-ism hobbles Philly quota-seekers

Being Asian, a contractor and a businesswoman, Vicki Lee would love to get her hands on some of the $700 million that will be spent to expand the Convention Center.

But, she won't be bringing any unionized Asian bricklayers to the job site, even if her firm, Old Philadelphia Associates, does get a masonry or caulking contract. "I've never met any Asian construction workers from a union," she said.

Under legislation enacted Wednesday by City Council, unionized Asian firms like hers must get 5 percent of the dollars, and Asian construction workers must get 5 percent of the labor hours.

If the mostly-white building trades have been slow to bring African Americans into unions, they have been beyond molasses in recruiting Asians. And Asians have not been pushing to join unions, nor have their leaders agitated for union jobs the way African American leaders have.

"Our numbers are miserable," said State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, an African American Democrat from West Philadelphia, commenting about the number of black union construction workers. "Theirs are worse."

Asian leaders, union officials and Asian contractors say several factors come into play: a lack of interest by Asians, a lack of outreach by unions, a lack of access to traditional paths of union membership because of language and culture, and a lack of growth opportunities for Asian contractors.

In Philadelphia, where 43 percent of the population is African American, there's a chance for blacks to come close to City Council's goal of 25 percent inclusion.

But with Philadelphia's Asian population numbering 67,654, or 4.5 percent, it won't be easy to make City Council's 5 percent goal, especially since there seem to be few Asians in construction unions. Lee said her union bricklayers and masons are mostly Irish and Italian.

"You can never reach 5 percent," Lee said. "No way."

The Rev. Thomas Betz agreed.

"I don't know what the answer is to that dilemma," said Father Betz, from the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church, a Chinatown anchor.

"Here is a thing being built in the shadow of Chinatown, and there won't be any Asians on the job site."

Where are the Asians?

That's what Michael Fera, president of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 592, wants to know. "I would love to have Asians. Where do I get them? I don't know," he said. "It's a shame."

A relatively small union, Local 592 has an apprentice class that numbers 39. Eighteen are minorities, a good record. Not one is Asian.

In the five years since the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades started keeping computerized records of its applicants, 1,782 people have asked to become apprentices.

Just two have been Asian.

There is one Asian in the current apprentice class run by Local 19 of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. "He walked in off the street," said Charles McClure, who runs the local's training facility on Columbus Boulevard.

In any given year, there are hundreds of applicants for 100 spots in the city's Diversity Apprenticeship Program, which prepares minorities to take the entrance tests required by most trades.

"We've never had an Asian apply," said Anthony Lewis, managing partner for the program. The program has not recruited Asians, and no Asians have reached out to the program.

"I think it's a cultural barrier," he said.

It might be.

"People from this community are less inclined to deal with the mainstream because they feel they are misunderstood, or they won't understand," said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp.

"They don't like dealing with the formalities of agreements, paperwork and contracts. Things are done with a handshake in the community. There is reluctance to deal with the government, and these are the cultural things that come into play," he said.

First-generation Asians may not know English, several Asian contractors and community leaders said, so those skilled in the trades prefer to start their own businesses and work in the Asian community, rather than join a union and bring family members with them.

That cycle feeds on itself, said Katherine Ng, for Wu & Associates in Cherry Hill, a general contracting firm founded by engineer Raymond Wu.

"When immigrants come here, because of the language barrier, you end up working for friends and relatives. If you get going in that cycle and you are successful, there is not a lot of motivation to go outside that cycle," she said.

Asian companies, she said, are also reluctant to put themselves in situations where there is conflict - and conflict seems to be associated with unions, particularly in the case of the Convention Center expansion.

"If there are other opportunities, why not pursue those?" Ng said. "We'd rather deal with smaller jobs that are more pleasant."

Because many Asian contractors are nonunion, there are few employers to sponsor for union apprentices. And because there are few Asian union members, their children are less likely to follow them into the trades, a typical path to union membership.

Narasimha "Nick" Shenoy, an engineer who owns S&G Electric Inc., managed to get one Asian, Ashok Simon, an Indian like himself, into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98's apprentice program.

But S&G isn't big enough to sponsor more apprentices and still keep the required ratio of apprentices to full-fledged journeymen.

Many Asians are not interested in a career in the construction trades, said Shenoy, who also heads the Asian American Chamber of Commerce.

That's particularly true for Asians from China, Taiwan, India and Japan, he said.

Simon, now a journeyman, agrees. "Most of the people from India are looking for white-collar jobs," he said. "I may make more money, but they are looking for more status."

Many Asian immigrants arrived in this country as educated professionals. Even if they had to take blue-collar jobs to survive, they push their children to join the ranks of doctors, lawyers and engineers, not plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters.

But the professional path doesn't appeal to everyone.

James Nagle, 26, who is half-Chinese, attended college for a few months, "but I didn't like it," he said. "I like electrical work." His uncle, Ken Wong, president of China Power & Light, a small electrical contracting firm, was able to get Nagle and his brother, a graduate of La Salle University, into Local 98's apprentice program.

Cindy Suy, who is the executive director of the Cambodian Association, said the Cambodians who came to Philadelphia in the mid-1970s may be the Asian immigrants who would gravitate to construction. They are survivors of Cambodia's "killing fields," when the educated were systematically massacred.

"The doctors were all killed," she said. "The reason the others survived is because they were farmers and fishers," she said. In the United States, they get menial work in factories because they are not literate in Cambodian, or English.

Their children, she said, would be interested in construction work and unions. "We don't know about it," she said. "What do you do? Go in the phone book and look up union? Look up electrician? That information is zero in our community."

(philly.com)

For AFSCME, it's Mrs. Clinton at all costs

Looks like the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees - which backs Hillary - may be preparing to go live with a Web site attacking Barack Obama.

According to a report filed with the FEC late yesterday, AFSCME has plunked down nearly $5,500 in spending for "Web site design," and the filing specifies that the expenditure "opposes" Obama.

We're seeing the proliferation of these "attack" Web sites, but who knows what kind of traffic they command or whether they're at all effective beyond getting "free media" by getting stories written about them. At any rate, stay tuned for this anti-Obama one.

(tpmelectioncentral.com)

Dems spar over huge SEIU slush fund

Barack Obama took aim at Democratic rival John Edwards at an Iowa campaign event Saturday, unleashing his harshest criticism yet of the former North Carolina senator for not using his influence to end the actions of third-party groups that support his presidential campaign in Iowa.

"John said yesterday he didn't believe in these 527s. You can't say yesterday you don't believe in it, and today three-quarters of a million dollars is being spent for you,” said Obama. “You can't just talk the talk. Everybody talks change, but how did they act when it was not convenient, when it's hard?"

This week, the Obama campaign has tried to draw attention to what it describes as Edwards’ links to several 527 groups — independent organizations that can raise unlimited funds for ads that can create an environment favorable to their candidate of choice, as long as they do not directly advocate that individual's election.

Its loudest complaints have been about the Alliance for a New America, a Service Employees International Union-linked group which is advertising in support of John Edwards. "The individual who's running the group used to be John Edwards' campaign manager," Obama said Saturday. Nick Baldick, Edwards' 2004 campaign manager, is now part of Alliance for a New America.

The group’s ads praising Edwards are already running on Iowa radio, and Obama said today that it had purchased $750,000 in television time as well. Later, the Illinois senator told reporters that if Edwards wanted to get the ads off the air, he “has such a good relationship with the person who runs it, I suspect that he should be able to get it done.”

He also told the crowd Saturday that Edwards had not done enough while in office to combat the influence Washington lobbyists.

Responding to Obama’s criticism, John Edwards said he had only learned of the group’s actions through the media, and would prefer it if their ads did not air. “I don't have any direct control over it because the law requires that I stay out of it. But I would prefer that all the 527’s, not just this one, but all the 527’s stay out of Iowa,” he said, emphasizing that he had no authority to make that happen.

He also fired back at Barack Obama over lobbyist contributions. “I'm proud of the fact that I've never taken any money, unlike Senator Obama, never taken any money from a Washington lobbyist or a PAC [political action committee].”

During his last presidential run, Edwards faced similar complaints from rival candidates after campaign aide Jonathan Prince allegedly resigned before the Iowa caucuses to help run a 527 that benefited Edwards’ candidacy.

This year, Obama’s campaign has complained that independent groups have poured millions into Iowa on behalf of both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards leading up to that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, now less than two weeks away.

On Thursday, Obama — who has used attacks from Democratic rivals to raise funds for his White House run – made a new bid for campaign cash based on actions by some of those third-party groups.

“Right now groups supporting Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are flooding Iowa and the other early states with millions of dollars in paid ads, phone calls, and mailings,” he wrote in a fundraising email sent to supporters Thursday. “Some of it is negative and even deceptive, and a lot of it is paid for by huge, unregulated contributions from special interests.”

(politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)

Teamsters, UFCW rejected by FreshDirect workers

Warehouse workers at FreshDirect, the online grocery delivery service, voted overwhelmingly against union representation this weekend, according to the company and the two unions vying to represent the workers.

The vote was held about two weeks after the company suspended and lost scores of employees who could not provide accurate records of their residency status. Most of them were Hispanic and many of them were among FreshDirect’s most experienced workers.

The National Labor Relations Board conducted the vote, by secret ballot, on Saturday and Sunday.

Workers at the plant, on Borden Avenue in Long Island City, Queens, could vote for Local 348 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 805 of the Teamsters or “no union.”

According to the company, about 80 percent of the 530 employees who participated voted “no union.”

Evan Theis, a spokesman for the Teamsters, said that FreshDirect usually had more than 900 warehouse workers. But many left in advance of a check by federal officials of employees’ immigration status.

“I think even though the results of the election turned out the way that they did, FreshDirect has now put itself in a very large, very deep public relations hole,” Mr. Theis said.

Citing the imminent federal audit, the company sent out a memo this month asking that workers update their files with the appropriate documents, like Social Security cards. From 100 to 300 of the warehouse workers then left their posts or were suspended.

Last week, the company, which serves mostly affluent New Yorkers, held a job fair. It offered $7.85 an hour for jobs packing groceries at night, in near-freezing temperatures.

The past weekend’s vote brings to a close a contentious battle between the company and the two competing unions. Both unions said the threat of a federal check was a scare tactic to keep the unions out of FreshDirect.

Jose Merced, an organizer for the food workers’ local, said Sunday that FreshDirect had sought “to create an atmosphere of fear and terror.”

He said the union would resume organizing efforts at FreshDirect next year.

Mr. Theis, speaking for the Teamsters local, said, “The best thing the company can do to restore the trust on their own is offer the workers a better standard of living, while not retaliating against those workers who have called them to account in the past.”

Although the warehouse workers decided against a union, Jim Moore, the company’s senior vice president for business affairs, said in a statement released on Sunday that FreshDirect’s approximately 500 deliverymen have been in a union since last year and are working under a collective bargaining agreement.

(nytimes.com)

Nasty Dem scuffle reveals undisclosed union cashflow

Once upon a time, back when America had a strong middle class, it also had a strong union movement.

These two facts were connected. Unions negotiated good wages and benefits for their workers, gains that often ended up being matched even by nonunion employers. They also provided an important counterbalance to the political influence of corporations and the economic elite.

Today, however, the American union movement is a shadow of its former self, except among government workers. In 1973, almost a quarter of private-sector employees were union members, but last year the figure was down to a mere 7.4 percent.

Yet unions still matter politically. And right now they’re at the heart of a nasty political scuffle among Democrats. Before I get to that, however, let’s talk about what happened to American labor over the last 35 years.

It’s often assumed that the U.S. labor movement died a natural death, that it was made obsolete by globalization and technological change. But what really happened is that beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor.

Don’t take my word for it; read Business Week, which published an article in 2002 titled “How Wal-Mart Keeps Unions at Bay.” The article explained that “over the past two decades, Corporate America has perfected its ability to fend off labor groups.” It then described the tactics — some legal, some illegal, all involving a healthy dose of intimidation — that Wal-Mart and other giant firms use to block organizing drives.

These hardball tactics have been enabled by a political environment that has been deeply hostile to organized labor, both because politicians favored employers’ interests and because conservatives sought to weaken the Democratic Party. “We’re going to crush labor as a political entity,” Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, once declared.

But the times may be changing. A newly energized progressive movement seems to be on the ascendant, and unions are a key part of that movement. Most notably, the Service Employees International Union has played a key role in pushing for health care reform. And unions will be an important force in the Democrats’ favor in next year’s election.

Or maybe not — which brings us to the latest from Iowa.

Whoever receives the Democratic presidential nomination will receive labor’s support in the general election. Meanwhile, however, unions are supporting favored candidates. Hillary Clinton — who for a time seemed the clear front-runner — has received the most union support. John Edwards, whose populist message resonates with labor, has also received considerable labor support.

But Barack Obama, though he has a solid pro-labor voting record, has not — in part, perhaps, because his message of “a new kind of politics” that will transcend bitter partisanship doesn’t make much sense to union leaders who know, from the experience of confronting corporations and their political allies head on, that partisanship isn’t going away anytime soon.

O.K., that’s politics. But now Mr. Obama has lashed out at Mr. Edwards because two 527s — independent groups that are allowed to support candidates, but are legally forbidden from coordinating directly with their campaigns — are running ads on his rival’s behalf. They are, Mr. Obama says, representative of the kind of “special interests” that “have too much influence in Washington.”

The thing, though, is that both of these 527s represent union groups — in the case of the larger group, local branches of the S.E.I.U. who consider Mr. Edwards the strongest candidate on health reform. So Mr. Obama’s attack raises a couple of questions.

First, does it make sense, in the current political and economic environment, for Democrats to lump unions in with corporate groups as examples of the special interests we need to stand up to?

Second, is Mr. Obama saying that if nominated, he’d be willing to run without support from labor 527s, which might be crucial to the Democrats? If not, how does he avoid having his own current words used against him by the Republican nominee?

Part of what happened here, I think, is that Mr. Obama, looking for a stick with which to beat an opponent who has lately acquired some momentum, either carelessly or cynically failed to think about how his rhetoric would affect the eventual ability of the Democratic nominee, whoever he or she is, to campaign effectively. In this sense, his latest gambit resembles his previous echoing of G.O.P. talking points on Social Security.

Beyond that, the episode illustrates what’s wrong with campaigning on generalities about political transformation and trying to avoid sounding partisan.

It may be partisan to say that a 527 run by labor unions supporting health care reform isn’t the same thing as a 527 run by insurance companies opposing it. But it’s also the simple truth.

(nytimes.com)

Katherine Heigl: I can't cross the picket line

She can't get her act together on Grey's Anatomy, but in real life, Katherine Heigl has romance down to a science. The Emmy winner swapped vows with musician Josh Kelley on Sunday in private nuptials in picturesque Park City, Utah.

Heigl told reporters ahead of time that there would be no celebrities on the guest list, but fellow Grey's castmembers Sandra Oh, T.R. Knight, as well as Private Practice's Kate Walsh, joined a small gathering of friends and family who arrived at the Stein Eriksen Lodge on Thursday to watch the couple tie the knot.

The 30-minute ceremony was officiated by Unitarian minister Tom Goldsmith and was followed by a reception nearby. Knight told People magazine afterward that the occasion was both "incredible and beautiful."

Kelley popped the question last summer, a little more than a year after Heigl was cast in his music video for "Only You," and she turned out to be the only one for him. The crooner's 2005 tune "Katie's Song" was a direct reference to his lady love.

While Heigl had been feeling the pressure that comes with handling all those last-minute wedding details, even imploring an E! News reporter at one point to help "fix my seating chart," the ceremony seemingly went off without a hitch.

"You have a fantasy of this big day, this big moment and the sentimental aspect of it," the bride-to-be told Entertainment Tonight last week, "but I think at the end of the day, I find there is a different level for both of us to the relationship.

"It is important to honor our families and honor the tradition, to stand up in front of all of these people and say, 'It's you and me, and that's it for life.' I hope I can just chill out—somebody might need to slap me!"

That wasn't necessary on this day, as far as we know, but it proves that big-day jitters are an equal-opportunity affliction.

Heigl also told Extra that she and Kelley didn't leave much to chance before saying their I-do's.

"We've talked a lot about it," she said. "Like, 'Are you having second thoughts here?' And he's like, 'No, I'm so ready for this,' because it's already been 18 months of planning, and we're both just ready for this to happen already."

And that's not the only thing the Knocked Up star is ready for.

"I'm super excited to have a family," she said. "I've always wanted a family, a large family. [We'll wait] like, a year."

As for the here and now, Heigl would only hint at the honeymoon destination, telling ET that they're "going to a beach, somewhere beautiful and romantic."

The timing appears to be right for a lengthy getaway, at least. Production on Grey's Anatomy shut down weeks ago due to the ongoing writers' strike, a conflict that in all likelihood will prevent the 29-year-old thesp from finding out in person whether she'll be pairing her new Supporting Actress Emmy with a Golden Globe.

"I can't cross the picket line," she has said of the Jan. 14 ceremony. "I've been asked by my guild not to, and I feel like I have to honor that. I really hope they get a waiver, 'cause I really wanna be there."

The Writers Guild denied the waiver request to allow striking scribes to contribute to the show, but there's always the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where Heigl is nominated as part of the Grey's ensemble. That ceremony has been granted union support, making it likelier that it will have Heigl's in-person support as well.

(eonline.com)

No-vote unionism law dubbed "Unemployment Act"

About this time last year, we received an email from a reader who asked if we believed America’s competitive success was linked to its relative lack of corruption.

Having just spent two weeks in Latin America, where we heard countless stories of systemic governmental misbehaviour, we replied that we agreed. Yes, the US has its share of corruption, largely in public works projects, but, we wrote: “Virtually no one starting a company in the US today has to worry about covering the hidden costs of bribes, pay-offs and kickbacks.”

The notion seemed so self-evident to us that, as we sent the column into our editors, one of us commented, “This ought to be a quiet week.”

Talk about being blindsided! That column was one of our most controversial of the year, inflaming slews of readers who accused us of everything from ignorance to collusion.

“Stop it! It is a known fact that private enterprise owns the government, paid for with bribes in the form of campaign contributions,” one typical letter read. “The whole American system is rigged, and you’re either idiotic or blind not to know that,” said another.

And that was just in January. As 2007 unfolded, we were to write four more columns that sparked particular sound and fury. Now, most of our columns receive a hefty response with general commentary on our point of view. That’s not what we’re talking about, here. We’re talking about columns that generated an avalanche of mail with ... well, let’s call it “heightened emotions”.

Take our March column decrying the Employee Free Choice Act. That bill would have allowed organizers to start unions by getting 50% of employees, plus one person, to sign union cards — instead of the current procedure, which involves a federally supervised secret ballot. If our column on corruption set off a firestorm, this one unleashed a conflagration. This time, however, we weren’t surprised.

We knew that organized labour loved the legislation. Why wouldn’t they? By removing the secret ballot, it would make unionization much easier. We also knew many businesspeople feared it to their bones, feeling — as we did — that if the Act was made into law, it would be a real blow to American competitiveness. We considered it the “Unemployment Act”.

Ultimately, the Act did pass in the US House of Representatives, but stalled in the US Senate. Regardless, for weeks after our column was published, we received torrents of emails. Tallying them up now, it’s amazing to see they actually ran 2:1 in favour of our position — perhaps a reflection of our readership, more than anything else.

But without a doubt, the negative responses were the most colourful of the year, our favourite still being the letter that read: “Jack, We’ve got you scheduled to run sewing machine #13 when you get to hell. By the way, that’s a non-union shop.”

A similar level of passion greeted our column about Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Yankees baseball team, whose contract with the team became a cause célèbre in November.

For the record, our purpose with the column was to illustrate the importance of keeping contract talks quick and private. But by a margin of 3:1, readers told us that our Torre example was, pardon us, off base.

“If you want to write about how to back a beloved employee into a corner and out the window of a high-rise so you don’t look like the bad guy, then use Torre,” as one put it. “You missed the point. Joe deserved better.”

By contrast, our most popular column this year was the love letter that we wrote to Gen Y. This is a group of young people who — despite their negative press — we have consistently found to be engaged, worldly, entrepreneurial and hungry to win.

Apparently, our view struck a chord, as that column elicited a rush of letters from grateful 20-somethings, as well as their employers, professors ... and even some of their parents.

“Thank you!” one mother wrote, “At last someone has the guts to see these kids as we see our daughter and her friends—the hope of the future.”

Finally, a July column on bosses who get it all wrong didn’t spark controversy as much as inspire a boatload of advice to us ... about what we failed to mention in our list of the top five boss dysfunctions. One reader even sent us a list of 15 instances of bad behaviour we left out.

But we were perhaps the most taken aback by the email we received from a reader who hung the column in her cubicle. A few days later, a manager told her to take it down and stop “pushing the envelope”.

We would say, never stop that! Especially, keep pushing back at us. We look forward to opening a whole new envelope of hot topics in 2008.

(livemint.com)

Police union raid evokes AFL-CIO, SEIU Big Split

Worcester (MA) police jump ship to upstart union, but at what cost?

It's easy to see the recent Worcester police officers' vote to switch unions as a sort of sales victory, with the upstart, Lowell-based New England Police Benevolent Association convincing rank-and-file cops that it has more to offer than the entrenched International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

That's the way many people, including many union members, frame discussions of inter-union conflicts, but it's not necessarily the best way to understand what makes a union good or bad for the people it represents.

Not that the NEPBA story isn't a compelling one. Since several leaders of the Quincy-based IBPO broke off and formed the union in 2005, NEPBA has won over about 2,500 officers, many of them disgruntled IBPO members, according to Jerry Flynn, executive director of the upstart NEPBA.

In the Worcester election, held Dec. 6, NEPBA blew IBPO away by a 252-19 vote.

Boys In Blue

Flynn cites a number of complaints about IBPO that he says were the driving force behind NEPBA's victories. He says many members aren't thrilled with the $200,000-plus salaries of top IBPO officials, the fact that many of those officials were never cops themselves, or the fact that the union increasingly represents all kinds of government workers, not just those with badges.

Plus, Flynn said, some members want to walk into Beacon Hill offices on lobby days and get the kind of instant recognition that comes with affiliation with the AFL-CIO. NEPBA is part of the International Union of Police Associations, an AFL-CIO union. IBPO is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which broke from the established union umbrella two years ago to form the Change to Win federation.

Discussions on Internet message boards frequented by cops locally and across the state suggest that many simply don't see IBPO as offering enough help negotiating contracts to justify what members pay in dues.

Some of these complaints may be valid. Certainly, it hurts union leaders' credibility when they make far more money than the people they represent, and it may be hard for someone who's never driven a cruiser to fully appreciate the concerns of those who do. But looking at a union as a product to be purchased does nothing to help workers in the long run.

Sometimes unions do a bad job of representing their members simply because they have lazy, incompetent or corrupt leaders. But often the reason is that they just aren't strong enough. And the way unions gain strength is by organizing. When more workers in an industry become union members, they put more pressure on their bosses to offer better pay, benefits and working conditions. When more workers in a society become union members, they push public opinion, and politicians, in a worker-friendly direction.

A Losing Battle

The Worcester police officers recognize the importance of strength in numbers when they want the weight of the AFL-CIO behind them in state legislators' offices. But with the unionized percentage of the U.S. labor force at 12 percent and dropping steadily, that weight is less and less each year.

If union members want to build their strength, they may sometimes have to open their unions to people in a different industry who need representation, something that Joe Carlson, president of the Central Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said is now more the rule than the exception. And they may have to pay extra dues that go not toward lawyer fees but toward organizing workers who have never had a union (something SEIU and Change to Win demand more of from affiliates than most unions do).

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with what NEPBA is doing. By many accounts it is filling a void - providing representation for officers who hadn't been getting the support they needed. (And I'm inclined to think some complaints about IBPO might be justified since union officials didn't return my calls, and I think talking to reporters is one of the unpleasant burdens that union officials ought to shoulder.) But if the union and its members want to do well in the long term, they should make sure they're making decisions based on more than a sales pitch about what the union can do for them.

(wbjournal.com)

France to abandon anti-work, 'Stone Age' labor laws

President Nicolas Sarkozy has sprinkled the parched French economy with dozens of little enticements since his election in May, all paving the way for an assault on the crux of France's woes: the labor laws.

France is in the "stone age of labor relations," says his budget minister, Eric Woerth. At negotiations with unions and employers last week, Sarkozy pledged to drag the country into the globalized age in the coming weeks and months.

In the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, France ranks 18th out of 131 countries thanks to top-class infrastructure, transport links and business culture. But it slipped from 15th last year, dragged down by red tape and its notoriously inflexible labor market, which ranked 129th.

Laws that make it difficult to fire workers even when a company is losing money discourage hiring, economists say. They also make France a less attractive place to invest in.

"The most important thing is reforming the labor market and getting the politics right to get this reform done," says Eric Chaney, chief European economist at Morgan Stanley and an adviser to the French finance ministry since 1997.

Sarkozy has introduced more flexibility into the labor market by effectively eliminating the former Socialist government's 35-hour work week. But that still leaves the hefty "Code du travail" of labor laws.

A new code is to take effect in May. But Laurence Parisot, head of the French employers' federation MEDEF, said it makes things worse. According to the Labor Ministry, the new code will have 3,652 clauses, compared with 1,891 currently.

The government's talks with employers and unions on a streamlined labor contract have yet to show much progress. Now Sarkozy has set a Jan. 15 deadline, or he will push his own law through a parliament dominated by his fellow conservatives.

"My will to change is unshakable, because our country needs change, it is awaiting change with impatience, aware of the delay during past decades," Sarkozy told the meeting.

Sarkozy is in effect trying to rewrite a social contract set in stone during France's booming 1960s. Working in his favor are his dominance of parliament and a tail wind of public opinion that senses France must adapt to the new economic order or decline.

But he must tread carefully to assure a financial sector eager to surge forward, while placating labor unions that fear their rights are under attack.

Thus his 2008 budget introduced measures to control health spending and discourage early retirement, but also imposed a tax on stock options. To crack the 35-hour work week, he is encouraging employers and employees to negotiate their own deals to allow staff to work longer hours for more pay.

French society is traditionally wary of the free market, and Sarkozy speaks of his brand of capitalism as a "moral" one, which the French can embrace, says Morgan Stanley's Chaney.

"Slamming Wall Street and taxing stock options goes down well in France. It doesn't make a difference to companies — they know how to reward their workers," he said.

Sarkozy also wants to encourage the rich to remain in France through lower taxes. The top rate has been cut to 50 percent from 60 percent, while inheritance tax exemptions have been raised. An income tax credit has also been introduced for new mortgage-holders.

New tax breaks and financing initiatives have been introduced to encourage small companies, and businesses of all sizes are hailing plans to raise a tax credit for research and development to 30 percent from 10 percent.

Sarkozy is also moving to liberalize the price-fixing rules that govern the retail sector. To cut red tape for business, the government is thinking about introducing opt-outs to a law that requires all company documents to be available in French — a touchy subject in a society that feels its national language is under siege by English.

"There is a big effort today and that's to make the administration business-friendly," Stephane Richard, the top adviser to Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, told the AP.

"It's true for taxes. It's true for labor laws. We have a big cultural delay in this domain."

Taken together, economists say the main impact of the measures has been to create a positive image among investors and a feel-good factor among consumers.

"French society is maturing," said Daniel Gronier, chairman of Toyo Ink Europe, a unit of the Japanese ink specialist. "The vision of the globalization phenomenon is becoming more realistic. The new president is saying out loud what a lot of people are thinking."

One of the sharpest signs of resistance came in November, when public transport workers struck for nine days over Sarkozy's proposals to make rail workers work as many years as the rest of the population before retiring.

But that weapon may be blunted by a new law, taking effect Jan. 1, which will require transport workers to guarantee a minimum service during strikes.

The outcome of the November strike was seen as a victory for Sarkozy's broader reform agenda. Commuters, often sympathetic to labor walkouts, quickly lost patience with train drivers whose privileges most see as unfair.

France's economy lagged the European average in 2007, expanding 1.9 percent compared to 2.6 percent for the 13-nation euro zone, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. economy grew 2.2 percent over the period.

One reason is French workers spend less time on the job — 35.9 hours per week compared to the EU average of 37.4.

Sarkozy is determined to boost growth by one percentage point, and this "obsession" may strengthen his resolve when the inevitable protests begin, said Patrick Artus, chief economist at Natixis and a government adviser.

"We are all in agreement that France needs to work more," he said.

(ap.google.com)

Labor-state goes for union-only public works

Butler Township (PA) received bids for its multi-million-dollar sewer expansion project. But officials are not certain when a contract will be awarded. Apparently the township doesn’t need as many sewer units or equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) as first thought when the project was designed.

Supervisor Ransom Young said two developers with proposed residential projects in the township have changed the number of sewer connections needed.

Young said he spoke to Phil Rizzo, developer of Crystal Penn Ridge at Lake of the Four Seasons, on Tuesday. Rizzo said he does not plan to use the township sewage system for his proposed development anymore. Crystal Penn Ridge needed 1,200 EDUs.
Also, Woodmont originally requested about 1,000 EDUs for its development but now needs only 266.

Young said the township needs to talk to the state Department of Environmental Protection to see if the sewer expansion project can be put into phases because of the decrease in demand for EDUs. The township eventually will need all the EDUs anticipated in the original plan due to development, he said, but right now they are not a necessity.

“If we’re talking about 2,200 units less, we may not need a plant of this size right now,” Young said.

If the state approves doing the expansion project in phases, the township may have to put the project out for bid again.

Young noted the township took a different approach in the bidding, as it went with a “project labor agreement” that gives local trade unions the first chance on bids. The township used this approach, he said, because it felt the community is more of a union area and would get more of a response.

Young thanked planning commission member Joseph Zeller, who is a representative of the Greater Pennsylvania Regional Council of Carpenters Local 645, Scranton, for being the liaison for the project labor agreement.

The township only received one bid for the general/mechanical contract. Quandel Enterprises Inc. bid $15,417,000 and an alternate deduct of $375,000. This portion of the contract, Young said, would encompass the sewer building.
The alternate deduct prices reflect different options on how the plant expansion could be constructed.

Five bids were received for electrical work.

Arc Electric bid $1,232,600 with a $2,800 alternate deduct; Cavanagh Electrical Contracting Inc., $1,734,220 with no alternate deduct; G.R. Noto Electrical Construction Inc., $1,093,000 with an alternate deduct of $6,000; J.B. Electric Corp., $1,229,369 with an alternate deduct of $5,000, and Lombardo and Lipe Electrical Contractors Inc., $1,532,600 with an alternate deduct of $1,500. All bids will be reviewed by the township solicitor and engineer.

(standardspeaker.com)

Unions assume worker, retiree insurances

Before things go from bad to worse, unions and companies often turn to VEBA trusts -- though they are not all the same.

VEBA health trusts have been around for decades, but looming retiree health care costs have pushed them to the forefront of recent union negotiations and likely will keep them in the spotlight for years, experts say.

Companies are looking to VEBAs, or voluntary employees' beneficiary associations, as a way to move massive health care liabilities off their books and into VEBA health trusts. Unions are agreeing to VEBAs because they offer a chance to secure at least some health benefits in the face of uncertain futures.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC all agreed to multibillion-dollar VEBAs this year as key parts of their new UAW contracts, but these automakers are far from alone in turning to VEBAs.

"It's not like it's a new thing," said Chip Kerby, who focuses on employee benefits as a partner in McDermott Will & Emery, a Washington, D.C., law firm. "It's a thing that's being utilized now because the parties that are facing each other across the table in these situations of economic distress have decided that it is maybe the last, best shot for preserving some of the benefits that the union retirees have been expecting."

Automakers not alone with VEBAs

VEBAs became a central part of this year's UAW contract talks, but they've been around since 1928. Created by federal tax law, VEBAs are nonprofit organizations that can be used to cover benefits for people who share a common employer.

The United States has 9,193 VEBAs, according to the most recent IRS statistics. A wide range of companies has set them up for at least some of their employees: DTE Energy, J.C. Penney, Hallmark, Northwest Airlines, Colgate-Palmolive.

Much of the activity around VEBAs started in the 1980s when new accounting rules required public companies to disclose estimated liabilities for future health care expenses. Similar rules also applied to government employers.

These new rules made retiree health care expenses a more "visible factor" for companies and government employers, said Kathryn Bakich, senior vice president and national director of health care compliance for the Segal Co., a Washington, D.C., employee benefits consulting firm.

VEBAs also became one option for dealing with health care expenses as companies and employee groups became involved in lawsuits or bankruptcy proceedings over who should pay for these benefits.

"Those reasons have always been some of the genesis for them," Bakich said. "Probably in the last year there's just been more of those litigations, more of those bankruptcies involving a lot more employees."

Necessary option for steel union

The steel industry, which dealt with a string of bankruptcies and plant closings during the 1980s and '90s, reluctantly has become a hotbed of VEBA activity.

VEBAs often arise in situations that involve organized labor. VEBAs set up through collective bargaining agreements have no limits on how much can be contributed to the trusts.

They also often come about as a result of financial crisis. Facing the threat of losing all health care coverage, unions often see this as the best possible option.

The United Steelworkers have set up more than 40 VEBAs going back to 1986, said Wayne Ranick, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers international union in Pittsburgh. Last year, the union negotiated a VEBA for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. retirees.

The United Steelworkers would prefer not to be so familiar with VEBAs, Ranick said. "We don't want to be going around promoting VEBAs. We're basically facing a national health care crisis and VEBAs are the Band-Aid on the problem."

But VEBAs have provided the union a way to help retirees in situations where the alternative may be no coverage at all, he said. Some of the steelworker VEBAs are for retirees whose companies no longer exist.

"When a company goes bankrupt, the company abandons them, the government abandons them, everyone abandons them," Ranick said. "These were good members. They earned these commitments that are now being dropped and violated. You try to do your best for them."

Not always a smooth transition

The transition to VEBAs is not always smooth. Caterpillar Inc., a Peoria, Ill., maker of construction equipment, is facing a class action led by the spouses of retirees who claim the company has gone back on its promise to provide them health care coverage. Caterpillar shifted retiree health coverage in 1998 to a VEBA, which ran out of money in 2004.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment on the case, pending in U.S. District Court in Memphis, Tenn. Caterpillar would not talk about specifics but said the VEBA was not meant to last long-term.

"It was set up to temporarily cover premium costs for retirees," said Caterpillar spokeswoman Rachel Potts.

Comparisons to the VEBAs for Chrysler, GM and Ford retirees, which the UAW has said will last for 80 years, are not appropriate, she said. "There are fundamental differences in the two," Potts said.

Bill Scott, bargaining chair for UAW Local 974, which represents workers in the Peoria area, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but he also took exception to the assertion that the Caterpillar VEBA had failed.

The union negotiated the VEBA as a short-term fix, he said. Caterpillar put $32 million into the VEBA to cover the inflation-driven part of retiree premiums for a 6-year contract.

The two sides knew they would have to revisit the issue in 2004 when the contract expired, Scott said. "It did exactly what it was supposed to do."

More VEBA talk ahead

Absent some major move on national health care, VEBAs likely will be a topic of discussion for years, especially with the new, massive VEBAs in the auto industry, experts say.

Retirees, politicians and government agencies will be watching closely, said Kerby, the benefits lawyer.

"I'm fairly certain given the magnitude of some of these arrangements that there's going to be a lot of pressure for government oversight," Kerby said. "We could easily see congressional hearings on some of these things down the road."

Unions also are likely to continue considering VEBAs as an option as they watch the broader trend of employers cutting back on health care, said Bakich, of the Segal Co., a benefits, actuarial and consulting firm.

"I can't predict how many people will get their retiree health benefits from a VEBA," Bakich said. "But I think if you look at the general declines, this is a way of stopping or at least putting a stalemate on that declining availability of retiree health care and a way of assuring that there are funds set aside to provide retiree health benefits."

(freep.com)

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