Dem Gov. cuts retiree bennies, no union protest

Tens of thousands of retired Pennsylvania workers have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for health care needs under a cost-cutting measure ordered by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Rendell made the decision to pass the additional costs to state retirees without consulting with the union representing the retirees or the state Legislature. As you can imagine, state retirees are not happy with the governor's arbitrary move, which kicked in Feb. 1.

"We have no choice. This is being shoved down our throats," said William Wise, a state retiree who lives in Limerick and has been working hard in recent weeks to help spread the word about Rendell's decision.

Rendell issued the executive order covering 50,000 state state workers who retired before July 1, 2004, as a cost-cutting measure. I know it's hard to put the words Ed Rendell and saving money in the same sentence.

The move is expected to save the state $94 million a year. That's a drop in the bucket when you consider Pennsylvania government spends $70 billion a year.

The new co-pay rules cover about 50,000 state workers who retired before July 1, 2004. The Rendell administration negotiated revised benefits for workers who retired after July 1, 2004. There are about 62,000 state retirees.

No one can deny the cost of providing health care benefits to state workers and retirees has risen dramatically. The state pays $550 million a year for health benefits to retirees alone. That's up from $336 million just four years ago, according to state budget officials.

The reason costs have grown so much are pretty obvious. State government is one of the biggest employers in Pennsylvania. There are more state workers, which means there are more state retirees and those retirees are living longer.

(Pennsylvania is the nation's third-oldest state, according to U.S. Census Bureau, with one in five residents over the age of 60).

Without any changes to the benefits retired workers are getting, Pennsylvania faces an estimated liability of $14 billion to continue providing health care coverage to its government retirees, according to the Rendell administration.

The new regulations will provide employees who retired before July 1, 2004, with the same reduced benefits as those who retired after that date. That means instead of a $7 co-pay for a 30-day supply of medicine, the new plan will impose three levels of co-pays: $10 for generic drugs; $18 for name-brand drugs on the state's preferred drug list; and $36 for name-brand drugs not on that list.

Medical co-pays will increase from $15 to $25 for visits to specialists and from $25 to $50 for emergency-room visits.

And traditional Medicare coverage will be replaced with a Medicare private fee-for-service plan (for those retirees who qualify for Medicare.) That change is coming on April 1.

It's interesting to note that the changes do not apply to state lawmakers or retired employees of the state Legislature, which has its own top-of-the-line retirement benefits.

There's not much retirees can do about the changes other than gripe about them. A few letters to the editor have appeared in state newspapers. Some retirees have contacted their legislators but have been told lawmakers can't do anything for them since the governor has the authority to reduce the benefits. There have been some scattered protests across the state by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), but few people have noticed.

Fundamentally, I've always believed that government workers should receive comparable compensation and benefits as those in the private sector. It's hard to get sympathy for your cause when so many fellow Pennsylvanians are in the same predicament or in many cases, have it much worse.

I don't know what the solution is. It's wrong to make these changes after the retirees were promised certain benefits by politicians.

I guess what really bothers me about the new rules is that Gov. Rendell has increased state spending by $6 billion since he took office in 2003. He's also increased state debt by another $2 billion and the debt could rise to $3 billion before he leaves office.

Rendell loves to spend other people's money. He finds money for inefficient mass transit systems, for sports stadiums and for Hollywood studios that want to film in Pennsylvania. Retired state workers don't matter to Rendell. His attempt to save money on the backs of retired workers seem callus to me.


UFCW racketeers to go on trial

A United States federal court has allowed a civil case brought by pig processing giant Smithfield Foods and Smithfield Packing Company under the RICO statute against the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and others to move forward.

The court denied the Union’s Motion to Dismiss the case while permitting Smithfield the opportunity to amend one of its several counts to more closely track the provisions of the statute.

The companies believe their ability to pursue the case is a pivotal step toward upholding the law, protecting the rights of Smithfield’s workers, and preventing further damage to Smithfield’s business.

After several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation, Smithfield filed a civil suit in October to seek relief from what it described as the extortionate corporate campaign by the UFCW and their agents over the last several years.

In the complaint, Smithfield says that the UFCW initiated a corporate pressure campaign for the expressed purpose of forgoing a secret ballot election and forcing the company’s "voluntary" recognition of the union as the sole bargaining representative for the hourly employees at the pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

Smithfield is seeking compensatory and consequential damages to their business and property, damages resulting from the union's acts and omissions, exemplary and punitive damages for the union's intentional, and malicious misconduct and equitable relief as might be appropriate. Smithfield is also seeking reimbursement for reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs and any other relief the court deems just and proper.


Governator plays right into union hands

There is little doubt that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would like to influence the outcome of the run for this year's Republican presidential nomination.

From his inviting all candidates to an abortive climate change/global warming forum in New Hampshire (what else could a California governor mean by inviting presidential hopefuls to meet him in the first primary election state?) to his frequent mentions of candidates like former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, Schwarzenegger's yen for a presidential nominee he likes better than incumbent George W. Bush is obvious.

The question: How can Schwarzenegger expect to influence his party nationally when he has done little or nothing for Republicans in his home state?

Some California Republican activists even believe he's deliberately sabotaged the state party. One example: In 2006, he spurred the GOP to borrow $3 million and spend it on his re-election campaign, promising to make sure it got repaid. He has not kept that promise, and the debt is a big reason the state party is in trouble now.

Meanwhile, as the party languished $1.7 million in the red as of the end of last October, the governor's own fundraising set records, topping $125 million over six years.

In fact, Schwarzenegger's own contributions to his campaigns come to far more than his party's debt. Over the years, he's spent well over $8 million on his own behalf. If he really cared about his party, he could easily open his checkbook and bail it out instantly.

But the governor shows little inclination to do that. Perhaps that's because he appears more comfortable consorting with Democrats on most issues than with Republicans.

Take global warming and climate change. Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and former Democratic Asemblywoman Fran Pavley of Los Angeles County carried the landmark 2006 bill that now requires California to reduce carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions to 1990 levels within a little more than a decade. Schwarzenegger signed that law over strong Republican opposition.

Many in the GOP still do not accept the entire notion that human activity contributes heavily to the global warming that has caused, for instance, the melting of all but one of the many glaciers once visible from the ironically named Glacier Point landmark in Yosemite National Park.

On health care, Schwarzenegger was plainly more comfortable all through last year with Democratic-sponsored plans for making insurance universally available than with Republican ideas for more piecemeal methods to decrease the numbers who lack coverage.

It's been more than three years since he last spent significant time campaigning for Republican legislative candidates or helping them raise more than token amounts of campaign cash.

And in the last three months, ever since the party put out word that it is seriously in hock, Schwarzenegger has done little or nothing to help.

Perhaps that's because party officials elevated San Diego County's Ron Nehring, far to Schwarzenegger's right on most issues, to state chairman last year. Perhaps it's because he feels party organizations are unimportant in California, where he got virtually no help from the official GOP apparatus in his 2003 recall election run and needed no help to get re-elected in 2006.

Maybe it's also because he's given up on the GOP altogether. For sure, Schwarzenegger has sometimes touted current New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a possible independent candidate for president.

He's also said he has no plans to run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Barbara Boxer when his term expires at the end of 2010.

Maybe he feels he might not win a Republican primary, since he's so far left of most of his party cohorts.

In any case, he allowed the party to stop paying executive directors in many counties during the current runup to the Feb. 5 primary when he could have funded all those jobs by staging one small fund-raising dinner or forking over a little of his own cash.

The consequence is that Republican get-out-the-vote efforts next month will be considerably less than they might have been.

That could conceivably lead to passage of Proposition 93, the lone truly partisan proposition on the upcoming ballot, a measure that would allow the current Democratic legislative leadership to remain in control in Sacramento for at least four more years.

In short, Schwarzenegger could have helped his party out of a serious bind that might have consequences at the polls, but instead he sat on his hands.

Which makes it highly ironic that he somehow thinks he ought to have a hand in choosing his party's national standard-bearer.


Lots of reasons to worry about union organizers

In 2008, if corporate America looks solely at union membership statistics combined with an increasing number of employer-friendly National Labor Relations Board decisions, some companies might conclude there is little reason to worry about unions.

The percentage of the U.S. workforce that is unionized is at its lowest point in 20 years. However, organized labor has begun a steadfast march towards successful implementation of a new strategy for growth. This began mostly with the 2005 formation of Change to Win, a new labor federation made up of seven former AFL-CIO unions.

Today, the labor movement is utilizing a reinvigorated, employer-focused approach to organizing.

Instead of relying on traditional elections, unions are implementing innovative and aggressive "top down" corporate campaigns aimed at increasing membership through external pressure tactics including litigation, legislative initiatives, regulatory intervention, political tactics and public anti-company media campaigns.

In addition, unions are shifting dollars heavily toward organizing efforts. During its September 2007 convention, Change to Win announced that 75 percent of their $750 million budget would be used to fund organizing campaigns.

Union success is no longer based solely on persuading employees to vote for them, but rather on pressuring employers to agree to unionization.

Faced with an onslaught of union tactics designed to tarnish the employer's reputation, disrupt its operations, increase its costs, erode its customer base, create protracted litigation and otherwise destroy profitability, some employers may find that voluntarily recognizing the union or otherwise agreeing to remain neutral during a union drive is an attractive refuge.

However, many companies can and do fight back.

Employers can turn corporate campaign tactics back on the union by conducting "reverse" vulnerability audits to identify and exploit union weaknesses. Employers have also turned to litigation, raising various creative claims based on union-organizing tactics. Perhaps most importantly, employers can develop and implement strategies to head off corporate campaigns before they even begin.

What can an employer expect from "top-down" union campaign strategies? A few examples:

Litigation Pressure

The number of class-action lawsuits initiated on behalf of workers, but orchestrated by unions, is rapidly increasing.

Corporate campaign-related litigation has taken various forms, such as Fair Labor Standards Act collective actions, class-action litigation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, antitrust litigation, securities litigation, challenges to plant relocations and closings under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act or the National Labor Relations Act, and other union-sponsored legal action seeking to demonstrate a commitment to workers or attacking purported corporate excesses.

Corporate Pressure

By targeting key stakeholders in a company, such as employees, customers, clients, vendors, suppliers, creditors, institutional shareholders and boards of directors, the labor movement seeks to gain influence from the inside out.

Unions, as shareholders, may attempt to introduce proposals and resolutions designed to influence the election of union-friendly board members. Unions often contact companies that do business with an employer, urging them to place pressure on the company to help the union's cause.

Public Pressure

Unions wage war in the court of public opinion by attempting to elicit sympathy for workers and animosity toward the employer, often at well-known companies.

Union Web sites post news articles and press releases exposing the "greedy employer" as a "bad citizen of the community" by targeting issues such as wage rates for employees, disrespect for customers, product issues, pension mismanagement and corporate misdeeds.

Change to Win maintains an entire Web site devoted to its campaign to organize a major retailer, WakeUpWalMart.com.

Thanks to Internet technology, unions can present themselves as streamlined, well-run and efficient -- allowing them to shed the enduring image of labor unions as antiquated relics of a bygone era.

Unions have also engaged celebrity spokespersons to appear on behalf of targeted workers. For example, actor Ben Affleck recently attended a press conference with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to endorse SEIU organizing efforts at Boston's teaching hospitals.

Strikes, Picketing and Civil Disobedience

The labor movement has expanded beyond traditional strikes and picketing by joining with community leaders, clergy and social-justice groups around a shared social or economic theme, such as poverty wages or lack of health-insurance coverage. The union may facilitate civil disobedience tactics, such as protests, hunger strikes and demonstrations. All of these activities are designed to maximize negative publicity and pressure on the targeted employer.

Political Pressure

Defeated in the Senate in 2007, the union-backed Employee Free Choice Act would have amended the National Labor Relations Act to: (1) require employers to recognize unions based on card checks alone; (2) impose mandatory mediation and arbitration in first contract negotiations; and (3) substantially increase penalties imposed on employers for labor-law violations during organizing campaigns and first-contract efforts.

Observers indicate the bill will likely make a comeback, particularly in light of the potential change in the composition of the legislature and a new president as a result of the 2008 elections.

Regulatory Pressure

By filing charges or "whistleblowing" claims with various regulatory agencies -- such as federal, state and local safety/health authorities, equal employment opportunity agencies, federal and state departments of labor and transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration -- labor organizations have defended workers while capitalizing on perceived safety, equal-employment, wage-hour and other workplace issues.

In addition, unions are actively petitioning for a changed NLRB rule that would require employers to recognize and bargain with a union that represents only a minority of their employees, if there is no union with majority status.

Unionized and partially unionized companies are feeling the effects of these targeted efforts as well. Competition among unions has increased as they individually vie for a decreasing number of organized workers. Raiding between competing unions is on the rise.

How can a company fight back? Employers are responding with both proactive and defensive strategic litigation approaches as well as other initiatives to reduce the corporate-campaign threat posed by the labor movement.

The first step in combating the "top-down" campaign is to develop a comprehensive strategic labor relations plan:

Prevent your company from becoming a target.

Each employer should develop an integrated labor-relations program that takes into account the emerging labor landscape.

An employer should assess its own corporate vulnerability and revise/implement "best practice" and "best response" programs that minimize the chance of becoming the subject of an extended union corporate campaign.

The employer should revisit its current labor-relations philosophy (whether the company is entirely unionized, union-free or somewhere in between) to determine what is appropriate in light of its current and future goals. A partially unionized employer should anticipate new union demands and negotiating goals as well as develop strategies to deal with tactics employed by the specific union, including a probable corporate campaign, work stoppages and living wage/health-insurance initiatives.

The following is a list of initiatives employers should undertake:

Optimize employee satisfaction.

Satisfied employees have less of a perceived need to join a union. Examining current employee attitudes and morale may help identify concerns that, if left unresolved, could escalate into significant issues in a corporate campaign.

Conduct a vulnerability assessment.

Know and correct company weaknesses. Ensure compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements. Understand potential bargaining units and adjust business operations and structure to address "community of interest" vulnerabilities. Conduct a review of company handbooks to ensure that policies are "state of the art" and lawful.

Develop a response strategy.

Develop a strategy and related policy statements to deal with the following pressure points of a corporate campaign: political pressure/inquiries, media, labor pressure, client/customer inquiries, employee inquiries, shareholder/board pressure and vendor interventions. Understand and be able to articulate the basis for the company's labor/employee relations philosophy.

Prepare proactive and responsive communications.

Be prepared to authoritatively communicate with the board, all levels of management, employees, customers, the media, vendors, suppliers, lenders, political leaders and the general public.

Conduct management training.

Train in areas such as creating an issue-free environment, early recognition of employee unrest or union activity, ways to support employees' choice to remain union-free, lawful speech about unions, practical ways to comply with equal employment opportunity laws, wage-hour laws and best HR practices.

Conduct a "reverse" vulnerability assessment.

Analyze the union as an employer, a bargaining representative, a taxpayer, a shareholder, a trust-fund fiduciary and a plaintiff/defendant/respondent in a lawsuit or agency proceeding, and develop a counter-campaign, when necessary.

Consider litigation.

When unions go too far in corporate campaigns, creative litigation may be the appropriate response.

Potential claims against certain union conduct may include defamation, invasion of privacy, trade libel/injurious falsehood, intentional interference with contractual relations or prospective advantage, unfair competition, fraud/deceit, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duties, civil RICO violations, malicious prosecution/abuse of process, and secondary boycott in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

Employers are increasingly turning the litigation tables on organized labor. Tort actions claiming defamation, slander and libel are available to counter some of the "over the top" statements made by unions during corporate campaigns. Statements that damage a company's business character may be actionable.

For example, a union engaged in a labor dispute against a commercial laundry service sent a mass mailing to women of childbearing age in the community. The postcards suggested that a hospital and its affiliates failed to make certain that bed linens were free of "blood, feces, and harmful pathogens." A California state court awarded nearly $17.3 million in damages to the hospital for harm to its business and reputation.

In October 2007, Smithfield Foods filed a widely publicized lawsuit against the United Food and Commercial Workers Union under the federal RICO statute.

Smithfield claims it has been the target of a corporate campaign for several years and that the UFCW conspired to extort Smithfield's voluntary recognition of the union until it acquiesced or was run out of business.

In the same month, a defamation suit filed by Cintas Corp. was permitted to proceed to trial after the judge in the matter denied summary judgment to UNITE HERE, the defendant. Cintas claims that a press release published by the union contained false statements and caused Cintas' stock to drop, resulting in the loss of as much as $300 million in a matter of minutes.

In today's world, executives need to be vigilant to ensure their organizations continuously strive to be issue-free.

From a preventive labor-relations standpoint, companies must strive to be an "employer of choice." Most organizations develop positive human resource programs. However, even companies with "best practices" need to review their strategies and approaches on a regular basis in light of the changing labor landscape.

Corporate campaigns can have an impact on shareholder value, public reputation and many other key barometers of company success. Being proactive and preventive is important in navigating through increasing union activism.

- Lynn C. Outwater is managing partner of Jackson Lewis's Pittsburgh office. She has been designated as a "Super Lawyer" in the Labor and Employment Law Practice Area in Pennsylvania for the last three years and currently serves on the SHRM Foundation Board of Directors. Outwater frequently lectures on labor and employment law topics for national and regional employer associations.

- Denise R. Brossman joined Jackson Lewis as an associate in the Pittsburgh office in October 2007. Prior to that, she was an associate with Littler Mendelson in Pittsburgh, where she represented management exclusively in all aspects of labor and employment law.


Labor strike ripple-effects are oft-ignored

Depending on its duration, the United Auto Workers' strike against the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin that began Friday could have broader economic and social significance in the region. The strike pay of $200 a week provided to picketing workers by the union is far less -- as little as one-quarter -- than workers' regular wages. Plant employees make an average of $21 to $22 an hour. State economist William Mezger said the state's average manufacturing wage is about $18 an hour.

And striking workers cannot supplement their strike pay with unemployment payments, because they are ineligible, said Mezger, who works at the Virginia Employment Commission. That leaves them with significantly less money to spend in the local economies. The plant employs nearly 3,000 workers.

In addition, employees of various supplier industries in the region could lose their jobs if those companies lose truck-parts orders, Mezger said. In adding up the effect of the strike, their lost income also could have economic consequences.

However, the severity of the strike's consequences depends on how long it lasts.

A short strike is well within the Southwest Virginia economy's ability to bear, Mezger said. He said the New River Valley's other two large employers, Radford University and Virginia Tech, are pumping millions of dollars into the region's economy.

But a long strike would likely delay big-ticket purchases, including houses and cars, and hurt sales of related products and services.

"Things won't be as good as they normally are in that area," he said.

In addition to economic fallout, there is sometimes social fallout.

"You have the ill will that occurs with a strike," said Marc Cryer, a teacher and researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "There are always people who feel very strongly about the damage that strikes cause. That can divide people even in the same family."

This is especially true in the auto industry, where the work is often steady and many workers and their families have strong feelings about the work and about where they work. Such feelings may go back generations, said Cryer, who is on the staff at the university's Center for Labor Education and Research.

On the positive side, if the strike is successful, "it will draw workers together," Cryer said. "It could be a catalyst for change in a small community, too. As people get together and realize they have power as a group, they may use it in other ways."


Racketeering UFCW unit clears Mrs. Inevitable

The following is a statement by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the 100,000-member UFCW Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, regarding recent attacks on Sen. Hillary Clinton related to her having once served on Wal-Mart's board of directors.

RWDSU families are proud to be in the forefront of the campaign to keep Wal-Mart from opening in New York City -- and we are equally proud of our close friendship with Sen. Hillary Clinton. We know from experience that Hillary understands that strong unions built the American middle class. We know from experience that union families can count on Hillary to be on their side, not once or twice, but whenever she is needed.

We know from experience that Hillary shares our belief that Wal-Mart and other retailers have a moral responsibility to respect every worker's right to organize.

She has stood with us and has been and continues to be supportive of our efforts to call attention to Wal-Mart's business practices that hurt working families. And she has lent her voice to calls for the giant retailer to change its ways.

Over the last seven years American workers and their families have been brutalized by corporate greed and unprecedented government indifference. Based on our experience we are convinced that, as president, Hillary would work from day one to restore workers rights and the institution of collective bargaining.

Some politicians only stand up for labor at election time, but we know from experience that Hillary will be there for workers and their unions long after the ballots are counted.


Labor lawyers use enviros for union-only thuggery

With shameless abandon, lawyers and monied players are abusing the state's premier environmental law – the California Environmental Quality Act.

Lawmakers enacted CEQA in 1970 so citizens could identify development projects that posed an unacceptable environmental impact, and change them or challenge them. Over the years, various interests have hijacked this law for non-environmental purposes, and conservation groups have looked the other way.

All of us know about "neighborhood groups" that have exploited this law to prevent construction of affordable housing. Corporations have used CEQA in an attempt to stifle competition. An example is the Westfield Corp., the Australian owner of the Downtown Plaza mall, which is now suing the city over its approval of the railyard development, slated to bring new retail and housing to downtown.

Labor unions are an even larger abuser of CEQA. In recent years, labor groups have used environmental lawsuits, or the threat of such suits, to stop or slow down power plant construction, hospital expansions and housing developments. The unions' lawyers always seem to disappear once a developer has signed an agreement to hire only union labor.

Critics call this practice "greenmail," a polite term for legal extortion. The combined effect is to drive up the cost of new houses, hospital beds and other projects, with little or no benefit for the environment.

Consider the example of William Kopper, a former mayor of Davis. Kopper is suing, or threatening to sue, the railyard, the Greenbriar project in Natomas, Placer Vineyards and the Yuba Highlands project in Yuba County over alleged CEQA violations. Kopper won't disclose his clients, but his history is well known.

In the late 1990s, the Mid-Valley Trades Council hired Kopper to challenge the impacts of a proposed auto raceway in Yuba County. After the trades council reached agreement with the developer, Kopper dropped his objections. "I wasn't authorized to do any more work on it," Kopper told The Bee.

A few years ago, Kopper sued to halt Roseville's westward expansion. The lawsuit was dropped after developers signed a project labor agreement with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 340, the United Association Local 447 and the Sheet Metal Workers Local 162.

Oddly, environmental leaders in California have remained mum on this hijacking of environmental law. Their silence reflects a marriage of convenience between labor and environmental groups and, possibly, some financial entanglements.

For several years, a group called California Unions for Reliable Energy has used CEQA to slow or block power plants, including a geothermal plant in Imperial County. As it happens, CURE employs a law firm founded by Tom Adams, the current president of the California League of Conservation Voters.

Defenders of CEQA should be outraged. They also should be worried. As the abuses and misuses mount, they create ammunition for industry groups that would like to see California's landmark law revoked or seriously weakened. Greenmail hurts CEQA's credibility. Why are leading environmentalists complicit with their silence?


SEIU mini-strike begins in labor-state

About 50 janitors who work at Providence College began a three-day strike yesterday after negotiations failed to bring about an agreement on a new contract. The workers are members of the Service Employees International Union Local 615, which represents some 12,000 janitors across New England. Their contract with Hurley of America, the subcontractor that Providence College hired for cleaning services, ended at midnight Thursday.

The strike began yesterday about 7 a.m., when the workers formed picket lines around two of the main entrances to the campus, one on Huxley Street and another on Eaton Street. The union said it planned to end the strike tomorrow, with the janitors returning to work Monday.

The strike comes just as Providence College is playing host to a large number of visitors. This is Family Weekend for upperclass students, and about 700 families are expected to attend, said Ed Caron, vice president of the college. That would probably bring about 1,000 visitors to the Providence campus, which has about 3,800 undergraduate students.

Caron said the dispute was between Hurley and the union, and that the college cannot intervene as a matter of law.

“Under federal law, we cannot be involved in the negotiations,” he said. Some students have requested that the university intervene, but Caron said that “it’s not a choice.”

He said that pickets were orderly and civil yesterday, and that the campus was operating normally. There were some workers from Hurley who cleaned the 49 buildings on campus as usual.

Sasha Warner-Berry, an organizer for the union, said the main issues behind the strike were pension and wage increases, as well as the term of a new contract.

Right now, the janitors make between $11.43 and $11.89 an hour, depending on the shift.

“The company’s offer did not come close to where we wanted to see the wage increase,” she said. “Our goal is not only to have a cost-of-living increase, but also to help move the families out of poverty.”

The janitors, Warner-Berry said, make only about half of what the Rhode Island Poverty Institute says a Rhode Island family needs to cover their basic necessities.

As for pensions, she said the company had proposed a five-year contract with no increase in pension benefits, but the union wanted some increase over that period.

A spokesman for Hurley of America in Boston did not return a call for comment.

However, Hurley has posted a “fact sheet” on campus to tell its side of the dispute. It said the union “walked away from a generous offer and ordered its members to strike.”

The company said it offered the union a wage increase of 50 cents per hour per year over five years. That amounts to increases of 3.7 to 4.4 percent each year, or a total of about 22 percent over five years.

The company said it would continue to provide 100-percent employer-paid health insurance, a pension plan and an optional 401(k) plan, additional paid time off and increased paid vacation. The offer represented a total compensation increase of nearly 30 percent over the five years, Hurley said.

On the picket line yesterday, the janitors were joined by students and professors, many of whom have shown support for the union’s cause, said Warner-Berry. Besides marching with the pickets, students brought them coffee, food, scarves and gloves on a day that was rainy and cold.

She said that some 20 or 25 teachers either canceled classes, or moved them off campus, in support of the striking janitors.


Teamsters authorize airline strike

On Tuesday, January 29, 2008, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 747 Executive Board approved the petition submitted by Miami Air International crewmembers for strike authorization.

Miami Air pilots have been in negotiations with the Company since June 2006 and have not had a wage increase in 8 years. A Tentative Agreement was overwhelmingly rejected by the pilot group in April 2007, and the former Miami Air Pilots Association (MAPA) merged with Teamsters Local 747 in August 2007. Negotiations have been conducted under the auspice of the National Mediation Board since October 2007 with virtually no progress.

"The pilots of Miami Air deserve no less than their peers in the industry -- a guarantee of annual wage increases. The Company needs to recognize the hard working men and women who make the Company profitable. The IBT is committed to doing whatever it takes to achieve a fair and equitable contract for our Miami Air members," said President of IBT Local 747 Gene Sowell.

Miami Air International employs approximately 100 pilots, flying Boeing 737s throughout the world. Miami Air conducts charter flights for South Florida professional sports teams such as the Miami Heat, the Florida Marlines, Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightening, along with other NHL, MLB, NBA and college teams through the country. Additionally, Miami Air charters flights for cruise and travel organizations such as Club Med and Royal Caribbean International, Fortune 500 companies, and governmental agencies including the United States Air Mobility Command (USAF AMC) by providing transportation for troops and cargo.

Founded in 1903, The International Brotherhood of Teamsters represents 1.4 million hardworking men and women throughout the United States and Canada.


Discouraging non-union labor in Los Angeles

In difficult economic times, it might seem foolhardy to pass up contracts, but that’s precisely what Dennis Furden is looking at doing. As chief financial officer for Tri-Signal Integration Inc., a Sylmar-based “open shop” – or non-union – electrical contracting firm, Furden is bracing for the spread of union-sponsored project labor agreements on local public works projects.

That will leave him with what he sees as an unenviable choice: pay more out-of-pocket or pass up dozens of contract opportunities. “Either way, this hurts our bottom line,” Furden said.

A project labor agreement, or PLA, is a deal reached between the building trades unions and a public agency; it requires contractors to hire workers for major construction projects through union-sponsored hiring halls and pay fees into special benefit funds largely operated by unions. In exchange, the unions promise not to strike or otherwise disrupt the work. PLAs have been around in some form since the major dam-building public works projects of the 1930s.

Union officials claim these agreements save taxpayer dollars by speeding up projects and guaranteeing quality workers. But non-union contractors say conditions in these agreements inflate the cost of contracts and provide strong financial disincentives for bidding, thereby reducing competition.

In the next few months, a series of project labor agreements are expected to win approval in the Los Angeles area, including at two big Los Angeles city agencies – the Community Redevelopment Agency and Department of Public Works – and possibly two other cities. Assuming all of these win approval, they will represent the largest expansion of project labor agreements in L.A. County since 1998, when the Los Angeles Unified School District approved a project labor agreement for most of its construction and renovation projects.

And that’s not the end. Union leaders aren’t shy about their larger goal. “We would like to see these agreements negotiated with all public entities that are engaged in major construction projects in the region,” said Richard Slawson, executive secretary and treasurer of the Building Trades Council of Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

The net effect would be to enlarge the pie for union contractors, and literally force non-union contractors to either deal with unions or go elsewhere – perhaps outside the county – for work.

“Companies that cannot meet these requirements simply won’t bid on PLA’s,” said Kevin Korenthal, director of government affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors.

Pension plans

One such company is L.A.-based BergElectric Corp., one of the nation’s largest electrical contractors.

Briscoe says PLAs are being used by the building trades unions to preserve the union workforce at the expense of non-union contractors. If PLAs come into the city of Los Angeles, he said he will bid in projects in other cities without PLAs.

“We will not bid on a PLA project because the PLA requires you to pay into union pension plans,” said President Don Briscoe. “We have our own benefits and pension plan. It’s not competitive to have to pay into two plans.”

Furden pegged that additional cost at about $6 per hour per worker.

But Slawson disputed contentions of non-union contractors that project labor agreements cost more. He noted that under existing prevailing wage laws in California, contractors must already pay union-scale wages and benefits to workers hired for these projects. He said the purpose of requiring non-union contractors to pay into a benefits fund is to ensure that benefit dollars are there for employees once the project finishes and they are laid off.

What’s more, Slawson said that project labor agreements allow non-union contractors to hire a certain number of apprentices at significantly lower pay scales than standard workers. Most of the apprentices, however, are trained through the building trades unions, which means non-union contractors must go through union hiring halls to gain access to them.

One of the trade groups representing non-union contractors, Associated Builders and Contractors, is trying to set up its own apprentice training program, but that effort is in its infancy.

One thing is for sure, the PLAs are hitting the non-union contracting industry at the worst possible time, when the residential construction market has slowed and the commercial construction market is slowing. Contractors are now more reliant on public sector projects than they have been in years.

Both the Department of Public Works and the Community Redevelopment Agencies have been approving PLAs on a project-by-project basis since about the year 2000. Both agencies claim these PLAs have resulted in projects coming in at or ahead of deadlines, with a minimum of labor disruptions.

Now, each agency is trying to standardize their PLAs and apply them to their larger projects.

“We want to come up with an agreement that will cover the bulk of the work where we have a great desire to finish in a timely fashion,” said John Reamer Jr., inspector of public works for the Department of Public Works.

The department doles out more than $400 million per year in projects. A dollar threshold for the PLAs has not yet been established.

Minimizing impact

In an attempt to stop – or at least blunt the impact of – these project labor agreements, non-union contractors have been furiously lobbying public agencies.

They have won some minor concessions: For example, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has agreed to allow non-union contractors to keep a certain number of non-union workers on projects. And the Department of Public Works has pledged to take their concerns into consideration while crafting its PLA in the next several weeks.

“Our goal is to spend more time with the opponents of PLAs and make sure that in the end, this is a sound document,” said Julie Gutman, a Public Works commissioner and labor law attorney who is helping the agency craft its PLA.

Moving these PLAs forward represents a major victory for the region’s building trades unions, which have been pushing for agency-wide agreements in the City of Los Angeles and in other cities around the county for almost a decade.

Slawson said that besides the Los Angeles Unified School District, PLAs are already in effect in Carson and San Fernando and that negotiations are in process with two other cities in L.A. County. He would not name the cities, saying it was up to those cities to disclose the negotiations through their own public meetings processes.

Furden said passage of additional PLAs would likely mean Tri-Signal would pull back from some projects, just as it has when other PLAs were struck.

“As a non-union contractor, these PLAs force us to do things and spend money that union contractors don’t have to do and we can’t compete for these contracts,” Furden said. “It eliminates the open market. I view it as legalized corruption and graft for the protection of labor unions.”


Right to Work law boosts Alabama ranking

In the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) first economic ranking of all 50 states, Alabama, with its low income, business and property taxes, no estate tax and “right-to-work” status was ranked as the 18th best state in the country in terms of its economic outlook. The report, RICH STATES, POOR STATES: ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index, was a collaborative effort from authors Dr. Arthur Laffer, nationally recognized economist, and Stephen Moore of the “Wall Street Journal.”

According to the authors, Alabama could have earned higher marks, but for its high workers’ compensation costs and poor tort litigation system.

“Our economy has been doing well, attracting businesses, jobs, and new residents, but we can do better,” said State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin and ALEC’s state Chairman. “As this report shows, we need to stay on course with our low tax rates and at the same time address the need for tort reform legislation.”

The authors identify 16 policy variables with a proven impact on the migration of human and investment capital in and out if states. According to their findings, a record eight million Americans moved from one state to another last year, revealing which states have the most dynamic and desirable economies, and which are "has-been" states. The winners in this contest are generally the states with the lowest tax, spending and regulatory burdens. The biggest losers are California, the Northeast, and the Midwest.

“The historical evidence is clear: States that keep spending and taxes low exhibit the best economic results, while states that follow the tax-and-spend path lag far behind,” said Jonathan P. Williams, Director of ALEC’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force. “Today, many states stand at a crossroads, and it will soon become apparent if lawmakers choose to use history as a guide for their actions. No state has ever taxed its way into prosperity. This is not about Republican versus Democrat, or left versus right. It is simply a choice between economic vitality and economic malaise.”


SEIU to serve healthy mini-strike in labor-state

Nurses and other workers at 29 HealthPartners clinics in Minnesota are prepared to strike for two days, Feb. 13 and 14, if they don't get a contract with tougher workplace and patient safety standards.

The Service Employees Union International provided written notice to HealthPartners about the planned work stoppage after the contract for 1,495 workers expired Thursday night. The Bloomington-based health system is creating backup plans to keep its medical and dental clinics open those days.

Borrowing ideas from nursing contracts in California, the local workers want to use arbitrators to settle disputes with doctors or clinic administrators over workplace safety, said Ryan Nagle, a spokesman for SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. While safety discussions already take place, the arbitration requirement will add "some teeth to those discussions," Nagle said, and ensure that concerns are addressed.

The stance seems odd considering that HealthPartners has been honored for its team approach to patient care, said Dr. Brian Rank, medical director for the health system's clinics.

"Our nurse-to-physician staffing ratio is comparable or better than other large clinic systems in our community," Rank said in a written statement, "and our clinic staff members have multiple systems to anonymously report any safety or compliance concerns for investigation and resolution."

SEIU does not have similar language in other clinic contracts, but workers at HealthPartners are looking to set a new standard, Nagle said. Other traditional issues such as pay and benefits have largely been addressed, he said.

HealthPartners offered a three-year contract with 3 percent raises each year, cheaper group health coverage for retirees, and other benefits.

SEIU represents mostly support workers at area hospitals, while the Minnesota Nurses Association represents the hospitals' registered nurses. In this instance, SEIU represents clinic nurses, physician assistants, dental hygienists, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, opticians and others.


Sending school choice to the back of the bus

It's official -- teachers union boss Larry Moore has filed paperwork with the elections office that indicates he intends to run for the Fresno Unified school board against trustee Manuel Nunez.

Moore has been pondering a run at Nunez's seat since last summer. He decided to challenge the incumbent after Nunez and three other trustees -- Tony Vang, Janet Ryan and Michelle Asadoorian -- gave Superintendent Michael Hanson a 35% salary increase.

Moore said the raise was approved without community input and before the state figures out its budget that could include cuts to education.

Nunez, who has been a trustee since 1990, said the board majority "did the right thing" in giving the superintendent a raise because Hanson and his administrative staff provide good leadership.

Three seats are up for election in November -- Nunez, Ryan and Carol Mills. The nomination period doesn't open until June 9. But Moore filed papers Monday to form a fundraising committee for his school board campaign, a county elections official confirmed.

Moore, a computer science teacher, has spent eight of the past 10 years as president of the powerful Fresno Teachers Association, which has played key roles in getting its candidates elected to the board.

Moore said he plans to retire as a Fresno Unified teacher once the school year ends. His term as union president also expires at that time.

Tribes split on propositions

There's a "huge, huge division going on" over four tribal gaming deals on Tuesday's ballot, says Fresno-based American Indian advocate Laura Wass.

Supporters point to the increased state payments called for in the deals. Opponents call the compacts "sweetheart deals" that reward significant political campaign donations by the four tribes.

Wass, a spokeswoman for the Fresno chapter of the American Indian Movement, is firmly in the "no" camp. Gaming has "been one of the worst things that ever hit Indian Country," she said.

A "yes" vote on Propositions 94-97 means that four casino-operating Southern California tribes would be authorized to add 17,000 slot machines. A "no" vote on each proposition would nullify the compacts approved last year by the Legislature -- though the tribes are widely expected to press their case in court.

Plenty of tribes have lined up on the "yes" side, including the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, which hopes to one day build a $250 million casino in Madera County. But other tribes are helping to bankroll the "no" campaign.

No Valley tribes have made contributions to either side, according to a recent check of campaign filings. Most analysts say the vote outcome will have little effect -- positive or negative -- on North Fork's dealings with the state.

Parra endorses Obama

Assembly Member Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, would seem to be just the kind of endorsement Barack Obama needs.

Parra is a woman and Hispanic. Polls show Hillary Clinton doing well with voters in those demographics, so any endorsements the Obama campaign can get from politicians like Parra can only help him in California, where he trails Clinton in the latest polling on the Democratic presidential primary.

Parra visited Obama during a March trip to Washington, D.C., and endorsed him right away. "I had read his books. I talked to him about the presidential race, told him I was from the Central Valley. He was very interested and asked me for my endorsement. And so I said yes ... right there on the spot."

Other Hispanic state lawmakers endorsing Obama include Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, and Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, who has long pushed to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

Clinton, meanwhile, has racked up endorsements from several Hispanic heavyweights, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. Juan Arambula, a Democratic Assembly member from Fresno, also has endorsed Clinton.

Chamber weighs in early

The filing period for candidates hasn't even opened, but the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce's political action committee wasted no time in issuing endorsements for June's Fresno City Council elections.

The chamber announced this week that it will support Council Member Larry Westerlund, running for a second term in District 4, and newcomer Lee Brand, running to replace Council Member Jerry Duncan in District 2.

Duncan, who cannot run for a third term, is running for mayor.

The move was a calculated effort to send two messages, according to Amy Huerta, government affairs manager for the chamber.

"We wanted to show how strong of candidates we have in Larry and Lee," Huerta said. "Also, we wanted to discourage competition from people who might become stragglers in the race."

Huerta said chamber members encouraged Brand to run for City Council. She said Westerlund has a strong history of supporting businesses.

The chamber did not endorse a candidate for District 2, where attorney Andreas Borgeas is the only candidate so far. Huerta said the chamber plans to wait to make an endorsement in that race until the filing period, which runs from Feb. 11 through March 12 in races like District 2 without an incumbent. Brian Calhoun, the current District 2 council member, cannot seek a third term and is challenging Fresno County Supervisor Susan Anderson for her seat.


Teamsters face dues hit in Indiana

Teamsters Local 364 chief union steward Mike Helman admits there were a few signs that the future was not bright at Clark National’s Broadline Foodservice Business, also known as Clark Foodservice.

Still, looking for a new job as a forklift driver was not on the forefront of his mind after 25 years at Clark. “We saw some of the business disappearing,” he said. “Business has been on the decline. I don’t know if ‘blown away’ is the right word,” he said regarding the official announcement the union received Thursday night and Friday morning from Clark National Inc. officials.

The key parts of that announcement locally are, all 80 union workers including drivers and warehouse workers will lose their jobs. So will approximately 70 other personnel at the South Bend facility at 1901 North Bendix Drive, according to both Helman and Teamsters Local 364 business agent Gary Monroe.

“Basically, they informed members they were closing,” said Monroe. “They gave us a WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) notice. They will be closing in 30 to 45 days and actually have to pay for 60 days.”

Calls were placed to both Clark National Inc. and U.S. Foodservice, the latter of which announced it was purchasing certain key operating assets of the South Bend broadline foodservice distribution business from Clark National.

An official with U.S. Foodservice, whose corporate offices are in Rosemont, Ill., referred questions to Clark.

Repeated messages to Clark National’s Public Relations Department were not returned.

U.S. Foodservice is a full-service distributor with more than 27,000 associates in over 70 locations nationwide. The company distributes food and related products to 250,000 customers across the United States including restaurants, hospitals, hotels, schools, government and other establishments where food is prepared outside of the home.

For Monroe, the goal now is to not only find jobs for union members, but to see what kind of severance package he can get for Local 364 members.

“We are going to have a meeting a week from Saturday … to see what can be done with the company as far as any kind of benefits after the 60-day period,” he said. “I think maybe we can get something done.”

Helman said he hopes the package includes some health care extension and some kind of severance pay based on years of service “to get these families through the tough times.”

He estimates as many as 50 to 60 percent of the union members have worked at Clark for more than 20 years.

“Many of us have been working here since we were kids,” Helman said. “All’s we can hope is that they will be fair with some type of severance package. The Hindmans, the one’s that owned Clark, have always been pretty fair with us, so we are hoping we get some kind of fair severance package.”

In the meantime, Local 364 will try to find work with other companies it has contracts with, Monroe said.

“It’s a great work force,” he said, adding Workforce Development help also will be sought.

As far as union employees, warehouse workers were earning about $16 per hour or at least $33,200 per year, not counting overtime, and drivers were making $17.50 to $17.80 or about $37,000 per year prior to overtime, Monroe said.

Drivers, because of their commercial driver’s license, would likely have better prospects at finding new jobs, Monroe said.

Monroe said the news caught him off guard Thursday.

“We didn’t know any of this until (Thursday) morning,” he said. “Mr. Hindman came in wanting a meeting with the chief union steward. Basically, they told us it was going to close and what’s going to happen.”

Setting 80 union members and 150 Michiana employees out in the job market in the current economy isn’t promising, admitted Monroe.

“The way this economy is there is not a lot of jobs,” he said. “But we are going to try to help them find work.”


Labor-state taxpayers disgruntled

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