2/11/08

Act of God has unintended consequences

On the surface, the Writers Guild strike has been a conflict between writers and suits over compensation from new methods of distributing content. But it has also provided handy cover for the powers that be to derail the creative community's gravy train.

Their chief weapon is a legal tenet known as force majeure (literally, "greater force"), a clause in most writers' contracts that allows the studios to cancel deals in the event of a Writers Guild work stoppage. For years network bosses have talked about trimming development deals for writers and scaling back the annual literary boondoggle known as pilot season. Now it is happening.

NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker announced on Jan. 20 that the network will no longer develop TV pilots and will instead put most shows straight on the air to see if they succeed.

Additionally, he plans to have his lagging network bow out of holding a big gala for the upfronts - an expensive and cumbersome spring ritual in which networks preview, promote, and presell the fall schedule to advertisers with extravaganzas at venues including New York City's Radio City Music Hall.

"Many of the vanity deals and the big overall deals just haven't paid off," Zucker told Fortune. "We want to revitalize the industry. We don't want to go out of business."

Though they are not as vocal as Zucker - whose Peacock network is airing more unscripted programming - the other networks and studio bosses are making similar moves.

The major casualty of force majeure has been the "overall" deal. These glitzy holdovers from the pre-cable days of the Big Three networks paid as much as $2 million a year to writer-producers who would be given a paycheck, an office, and an assistant at a studio or network in exchange for sending their ideas along for consideration. Each year, show ideas culled from the writers under contract - along with pitches from outside - would go into development. Across the big broadcast networks, some 150 pilots could be developed to various stages of completion, and a handful would finally air at a cost that could reach $10 million for a one-hour drama.

"It was an awesome deal for writers that became unworkable financially for the studios as people's eyes moved from their televisions to their computers," says Jill Soloway, a writer-producer who lost one of her two overall deals last month with ABC affiliate Touchstone. She was one of many to get the ax around Jan. 14, a day industry publications dubbed Black Monday after close to 100 development deals were slashed by CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and others.

Not even celebs are immune: Also in January, CBS (CBS, Fortune 500) and ABC canceled the overall deals of Hugh Jackman and Taye Diggs, respectively. (Stars like Jackman and Diggs could get such deals as part of their agreement to "attach" themselves to network shows - not always to great effect, as witnessed by Jackman's short-lived CBS series Viva Laughlin.)

CBS Inc. chairman Leslie Moonves says he was not planning anything quite as sweeping as NBC's move. Yet all the networks have cut back meaningfully. "This will force changes in how we do business, and probably we've been heading that way for a while," Moonves says.

No one is sure how long the new austerity will last - especially if the writers come back and the hits don't. But even as Hollywood's creatives reel from the strike's unintended consequences, many knew this day would eventually come. "I hate it, but I'm not surprised by it," says Rick Rosen, co-founder of Endeavor talent agency. "It is going to be an awakening."

(money.cnn.com)

Publicly-funded labor-activism in NoCal

The Center for Labor Research and Education (Labor Center) is a public service and outreach program of the UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (formerly the Institute of Industrial Relations), and an affiliate of the UC Miguel Contreras Labor Program.

Founded in 1964, the Labor Center conducts research and education on issues related to labor and employment. The Labor Center's curricula and leadership trainings serve to educate a diverse new generation of labor leaders.

The Labor Center carries out research on topics such as job quality and workforce development issues, and we work with unions, government, and employers to develop innovative policy perspectives and programs. We also provide an important source of research and information on unions and the changing workforce for students, scholars, policymakers and the public.

(laborcenter.berkeley.edu)

Casino dealers reject UAW organizers

In a HUGE setback for the UAW (aka United Against Workers), dealers at Kansas City's Argosy Casino Hotel & Spa rejected representation by the ailing auto workers' union by nearly two to one on Saturday night. The overwhelming 113-68 defeat marks the third time the UAW has been beaten back in its attempt to replace the dues lost in the auto industry with money earned by casino dealers.

Argosy Casino general manager Tom Burke said he was very happy about the results, stated Kansas City.com. “They lost significantly,” he said. “We’re very, very pleased with the results tonight. Most of all, we are very grateful to our dealers for seeing through the UAW’s negative and divisive tactics in an effort to force its way onto our property, attempting to drive a wedge between us and our dealers.

The UAW's previous election losses in the Casino Industry include Trump Marina in Atlantic City, as well as the Atlantic City Hilton.

In 2007, in an effort to turn around its dramatic membership losses in the auto industry, the UAW began targeting the nation's casino dealers. Despite winning several NLRB elections nearly a year ago, the union has failed to negotiate its own contract for any of the dealers represents.

The one contract in the casino industry the UAW currently has is in Detroit, as the UAW is part of a coalition of several unions that negotiated representation of casino workers as a political deal in that city.

Clearly, the Argosy dealers apparently saw through the UAW's campaign and refused to let this union of unemployed auto workers gamble with their livelihoods.

(employerreport.blogspot.com)

Dems pander to unions, deny worker-choice

Recent articles in The Roanoke Times lament the lack of bipartisanship in Virginia's House of Delegates. As usual, it's the Republicans who bear the brunt of the attack. In fact, in the Jan. 28 edition, Ward Armstrong, minority leader in the House, is praised as the "anti-bully" leader, one who will not be pushed around by those mean, old Republicans ("Ward Armstrong: the anti-bully," Jan. 28 news story).

And what has sparked this outburst? Simply put, a failed attempt by the Democrats, pandering to unions, to repeal Virginia's longstanding right to work law, which allows workers to choose whether they want to join a union or not.

Del. Adam Ebbin, D-Henry, submitted this repeal bill, then asked that it be withdrawn. Republicans insisted on a vote to let citizens see how delegates voted on this important issue.

The right to work law has brought more industries and jobs to Virginia than anything else. I can understand why Armstrong did not want Virginians to see where Democrats stand on right to work. That's why he told them not to record their vote during roll call.

Accountability before bipartisanship.

- Phillip W. Unger, Blacksburg, Virgnina

(roanoke.com)

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AFSCME defends 3-person garbage trucks

Taking out the trash and buying a six-pack of beer in Bloomington (IL) already costs more than it did two weeks ago. Soon, washing dishes and taking showers may too, as could new clothes and concerts at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum. All in an effort to stave off a $3 million budget shortfall.

For years, a strong economy generated the tax money the city needed to add services and programs with little need for those types of fee hikes. Now a slowing economy, pension and Coliseum expenses, and a drop in tax revenues has changed that, leaving city officials scrambling to pay the $75 million general fund tab that kicks in May 1.

In addition to several expected tax and fee hikes, they’ve also agreed to carve $1.5 million from the city budget and plan to shave $1 million more.

That combination will eventually solve the current problem, but may also be a harbinger of things to come. Mayor Steve Stockton already has warned that more fee hikes are likely.

“It has been the policy of past councils to put additional strain onto the general fund and not raise rates,” Stockton said. “No doubt we will need to talk about this.”

Debate expected to continue

In recent months, the shortfall and how to solve it has generated considerable debate among city officials and the larger community.

Unexpected costs for the police and fire pensions, the Coliseum and flat-lined sales tax revenue are blamed for the budget shortfall this year. That has sparked a debate on cutting services and raising fees, but also on how the city has spent its money. Many aldermen say they are concerned with the large expenses such as the emergency dispatch center, the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the Coliseum that have added staff, but smaller perks and costs have raised eyebrows, too.

The $1.5 million in cuts approved by the council include travel, staff awards dinner, postage and savings in insurance premiums.

Last month, council members agreed in principle to hike the city sales tax from 7.5 percent to 7.75 percent to generate roughly $2.5 million in annual revenue. Most of that money, $1.9 million annually, will be earmarked to pay the construction bonds used to build the Coliseum.

In addition, council members approved a hike in the city’s package liquor tax from 2 to 4 percent, generating an additional $300,000 a year. They also raised the monthly garbage fee from $5 to $7 per household, adding $600,000 to the city’s coffers.

Aldermen won’t receive specifics from City Manager Tom Hamilton on the additional $1 million in needed cuts until March. Talk includes cutting seasonal staff, computer equipment maintenance and park programs.

Programs studied

The council also is expected to discuss other areas where it could save money over the long term, including garbage. Nearly $6 million annually is spent for trash collection, bulk waste pickup and curbside recycling.

Right now, 18 people work on six, three-person crews to collect garbage, but other cities use one-person trucks.

“We should be looking at the latest techniques and equipment so we can plan for the best, most efficient system for the city,” said Ward 4 Alderman Judy Stearns.

But Michael Jefferson, a regional representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 699, said one-person trucks may not result in the savings some think.

“One person can’t cover that much ground as quickly as a three-person truck,” said Jefferson.

In addition, the up-front cost of buying new trucks can be a major expense, Jefferson added, noting the $260,000 trucks are nearly twice as costly as current city vehicles.

Employee cuts?

More study also is needed on an early retirement program for senior employees that some think should be considered.

Ward 3 Alderman Kevin Huette and Ward 9 Alderman Jim Fruin are skeptical any program would save the city money — especially if an employee would have to be replaced, as in the case of department administrators.

Hamilton does not have estimates on how much might be saved. In the meantime, the city has a hiring freeze in the wake of the budget debate and nine positions remain unfilled.

But the loss of employees does not sit well with Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt, who said fewer employees will eventually hurt city services.

“If there were people lollygagging around, I’d be asking a lot more questions about our staffing levels,” Schmidt said.

The Coliseum problem

But the U.S. Cellular Coliseum remains the elephant in the room.

The city must find a way to pay down the downtown facility’s $29.5 million bond debt because, despite a projected operating profit of more than $700,000 for the fiscal year ending April 30, the number of events has not generated enough revenue to do so since it opened nearly two years ago.

In its first year, the Coliseum cost the city an unexpected $2.5 million; this year’s costs are pegged at $1.6 million. In October, an audit of the Coliseum’s financial records concluded the bonds should be accounted separately from operations and the Coliseum’s management has repeatedly maintained its 10-year contract with the city does not require it to pay for the bonds.

As to the current shortfall, an additional ticket fee will be studied. But the mayor estimated a $1 tax would generate only about $400,000 annually, or about 20 percent of the bond payment.

That reality, and the need to rebuild reserves, now means a sales tax hike is likely this summer. A majority of council members support the raise — the first in eight years. A final vote could come at tonight’s council meeting.

The reserve fund, which helps cover bills and emergencies, is about $4.6 million — about $3 million short of what financial experts recommend. The council will consider raising the reserve minimum to 15 percent of its budget at its meeting Monday.

But Huette said the city shouldn’t be given “a new pot of gold” to solve its problems.

“I have been vehemently opposed to the sales tax (increase) because once that money comes in, that tax will never be reduced,” he said.

But there is a grudging agreement that something must be done, and few other options would raise the necessary amount of revenue.

More costs to come

But even more sales tax revenue won’t solve all the city’s budget woes.

The mayor warned that long-term plans for a $25 million-plus regional water project and a $3 million deficit in the city’s sewer fund may mean more fee hikes before too long.

After droughts in the 1980s, city officials decided they needed another water source in addition to Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake. A proposal would use the Mahomet Aquifer as the source, but no funding has been set aside to finance the project.

Water Department Director Craig Cummings said a plan presented last year would hike water rates 7 percent, about $3 per month, for several years to begin saving for the project. But costs have already increased since then.

The city also is studying how to solve a $3 million sewer fund deficit. The minimum rate, less than $3 per month, hasn’t been raised since 1996. City officials aren’t sure how much of a hike would be needed to cover the shortfall.

Sewer rates haven’t been increased in more than a decade. For now, the general fund is covering the deficit. The minimum rate of $2.72 per month hasn’t been raised since May 1996. At this time, there are no estimates on how much rates could be increased.

“This council will have to decide: Do we address this or do we let someone else deal with the sewer fund?” Stockton said.

Taxes and fees

The city of Bloomington will likely use a combination of $2.5 million in budget cuts, $600,000 in annual fee hikes and $3 million in tax increases to cover a $3 million gap in its general fund and annual payments toward the $29.5 million in bonds for the U.S. Cellular Coliseum.

Approved:

- $1.5 million in cuts to areas including seasonal personnel, Miller Park Zoo hours, insurance premiums, and travel and training budgets.

- $2 monthly bump to garbage fees, from $5 to $7, expected to generate an extra $600,000.

- 2 percent increase in the city’s package liquor tax will likely generate $300,000.

Pending:

- $1 million more in cuts expected to come before the City Council in March.

- A sales tax increase from 7.5 percent to 7.75 percent likely will be voted on today. Passage would generate about $2.5 million in new annual revenue.

- Raises to water and sewer rates will be studied. Money is needed to fund the creation of a second water supply for the city and pay for a $3 million deficit in the sewer fund.

- A possible ticket fee at the Coliseum also will be studied.

(pantagraph.com)

AFSCME organizes for power

Labor-state strike threat pays off for union

Unionized workers in Pennsylvania have approved a new three-year contract with Channellock Inc., the Meadville-based maker of hand tools. Members of Local 1917-3 of the United Steelworkers Union approved the contract on a 136-120 vote Saturday morning at the AFL-CIO building in Meadville.

The contract covers about 320 unionized workers at Channel-lock’s two plants — South Main Street in Meadville and Route 102 in Vernon Township. Channellock, Meadville area’s largest industrial employer, has about 420 total employees. The new contract is effective Monday. The current three-year contract will expire at the end of today. The union was prepared to go on strike Monday if the new pact wasn’t passed.

The new contract includes wage increases each year, as well as a one-time ratification bonus for each worker, but has changes in retirement and health insurance programs. Both sides expressed relief an agreement was reached. The two sides had been in negotiations for the past month.

“It was a difficult negotiation,” said Don Hornstein, Channellock Inc.’s vice president of human resources. “We’re very happy it’s ratified and looking forward to continuing to produce the very best hand tools in the world.”

“Yes, we’re still at work,” union President Charles Groger said when asked if he was happy the contract had passed. “It’s the best we had offered to us.”

Neither Groger nor Hornstein offered many specifics on the contract.

The contract does include straight wage increases the first two years, but the increase in the third year depends on job classification. Neither would discuss the amount of increase or the size of the one-time ratification bonus for workers.

The new contract also freezes the pension plan benefits in place for current workers. The current workers still will be eligible for those pensions when they meet plan qualifications.

Under the new contract, the company now will offer 401(k) plans for current workers and new hires.

Employees now will have six different medical plans to choose from with varying deductibles and contributions, depending on the plan chosen.

(meadvilletribune.com)

GOP set to relinquish labor-state leadership

The increasing probability that Republicans will lose control of the New York state Senate for the first time since the 1960s has pointed conversation in Albany to an intriguing topic of speculation: Once Joseph Bruno is dethroned, what would Democrats do with their power?

I posed that question to several Democratic lawmakers, and their responses suggest that the difference between the parties as it relates to legislative priorities is far more striking than one might assume given the leftward drift of Mr. Bruno.

In their appeal to voters, Republicans are promoting themselves as the last defense against an out-of-control, authoritarian governor.

The focus on Mr. Spitzer minimizes the extent to which Senate Democrats have a mind of their own and adhere to a political philosophy that, while overlapping with some of Mr. Spitzer's agenda, is more closely aligned with progressive social and fiscal policies.

An issue of great divide between Republicans and Democrats in Albany is rent control.

A decade ago, Mr. Bruno tried to eliminate rent control laws altogether, and last year his conference shot down a push by Democrats for new regulations that would have significantly slowed down the rate at which regulated apartments in the city are decontrolled and thus eligible for higher market rents.

Democrats told me they would renew that push and would also back a repeal of the so-called Urstadt law, passed in the Rockefeller era in 1971, which handed to Albany authority over New York City's rent regulation laws.

The shift on rent control would be one consequence of New York City becoming the Senate's geographic base of power. Another change — and one suburban voters should pay attention to — would be in the distribution of education aid. Senate Democrats would want to see more money going to New York City schools and less to Long Island districts.

In our conversations, Democrats repeatedly brought up the Rockefeller drug laws, the mandatory sentencing statutes for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. "We would like to see the Rockefeller laws fixed so folks are not serving these extraordinary periods of prison for relatively minor matters," a Harlem Democrat, Bill Perkins, told me.

Democrats envision pressing for a repeal or a far more significant scaling back of the law than what was approved by Senate Republicans and Governor Pataki in 2004.

Upper East Side Democrat Liz Krueger predicted that the Senate "would become a pro-choice majority conference literally overnight," rallying behind Mr. Spitzer's Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act, which would protect and strengthen abortion rights in the state, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

It's much less clear whether Senate Democrats, some of whose members tilt conservative on social issues, would immediately join the Assembly in legalizing gay marriage. At the very least, they would probably get behind a civil unions bill.

A Democratic take-over, Ms. Krueger said, would also effectively end the debate in the Legislature over whether to restore the state's death penalty.

After a spate of trooper shootings, Republicans last year demanded that Mr. Spitzer and the Democrat-controlled Assembly pass legislation that would revive New York's dormant death penalty statute in cases involving the murder of police officers and terrorists. "You won't hear the continued cry to bring back the death penalty," Ms. Krueger said.

Ms. Krueger also pointed to an issue where Senate Democrats and Mr. Spitzer don't see eye to eye: taxes. Her conference, she said, favors "a progressive and more equitable model of taxation," similar to the proposals championed by the union-backed Working Families Party.

Whereas Mr. Spitzer has refused to tinker with the state's income tax, Senate Democrats would likely seek to increase the rate for wealthier residents and perhaps lower it for those on the bottom of the ladder.

The Senate Democratic solution to the problem of rising property taxes may be to allow school districts outside of the city to raise revenue by taxing income instead of property, according to Bronx senator Jeff Klein, a rising star in his conference.

Democrats insist, however, they would demonstrate more fiscal restraint than their Republican counterparts, if only because they wouldn't face the same pressures to curry favor with voters as Republicans have in a Democrat-leaning state.

"You'll see a stronger commitment to fiscal responsibility," a Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan Democrat, Martin Connor, said. "They walk off with hundreds of millions of pork dollars. We don't need it. We're not trying to support an artificial majority. I don't need $5 million to buy my district in November."

As for the question of allegiance to Mr. Spitzer, who is clearly hoping that the Senate Democrats will be one problem he doesn't have to worry about, lawmakers left it open. "I don't think we're going to be yes men and women," Mr. Connor said.

In other words, Mr. Spitzer, who prides himself as a moderate Democrat, may be their patron, but he's not their master.

(nysun.com)

Union lobbyists fund politicians' trips, gifts

California state legislators spent nearly $700,000 in donations from corporations and special interests within the past three years to pay for international junkets, meals and lodging at domestic resorts and for entertainment and gifts without justifying how the expenses were related to their jobs.

A review by The Chronicle of more than 10,000 credit card statements filed with the secretary of state from January 2005 to July found that lawmakers spent:

-- Nearly $164,000 on greens fees and other expenses at golf courses in California, Nevada and Hawaii.

-- More than $50,000 at casino hotels in Las Vegas, Reno and on California Indian reservations.

-- More than $80,000 on trips to Hawaii.

-- More than $44,000 at wineries.

Lawmakers declared that all of the spending was reasonably related to legislative, governmental or political purposes, as mandated by state law. But because there is no requirement that legislators provide any details explaining how the spending was job-related, taxpayers and voters have no way of judging for themselves if the expenses were appropriate.

San Ramon Assemblyman Guy Houston, for example, spent $125 in campaign money at a Jet Ski rental shop on Maui, justifying the expense in public reports only as candidate travel.

Fremont Assemblyman Alberto Torrico used $185 in donor money for a round of golf in Napa, while Orange County Assemblyman Todd Spitzer used $139 in contributor money to buy a wedding gift for one of his campaign aides - also without detailed explanations.

The state's political watchdog agency will move to close that loophole at a hearing this week, when it considers new rules requiring elected officials to provide more details about their spending.

Under the rules, lawmakers will have to report how many people benefited from a specific expense - such as a lunch or dinner. They also must disclose whether they, members of their family or their campaign committee chair benefited from the spending, and provide a brief explanation why the spending is job-related.

The new Fair Political Practices Commission rules come as private activist groups are increasingly scrutinizing an election system under which incumbents remain mostly unchallenged once in office but still raise piles of campaign cash they don't usually need for electioneering.

A coalition led by the League of California Women Voters, California Common Cause and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing a ballot measure for November that would change how legislative districts are drawn in an effort to create more competition in the election process. Backers of the initiative also hope it would help break the hold big special-interest money has on legislative races.

Meanwhile, political ethicists strongly suspect that campaign money is being used to support lavish lifestyles.

"They're taking trips, buying expensive items and giving gifts," said Robert Stern president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a government watchdog group in Southern California. "They're not using the money on campaigns."

The issue came to a head last fall, after news reports raised questions about Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez' spending tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money while on trips overseas.

The spending included $5,149 for a meeting at a wine shop in Bordeaux, France, and $2,562 for office expenses at a Louis Vuitton store in Paris.

While a recent audit completed by the state Franchise Tax Board found Núñez had substantially complied with campaign record-keeping rules, questions remain about his and other legislators' use of campaign money.

Los Angeles County Sen. Ron Calderon, for example, spent nearly $85,000 on more than a dozen trips to resort hotels in Maui, Las Vegas, Mexico, even Taiwan, according to The Chronicle's review of his spending through the end of 2007.

During the second half of last year, the Montebello Democrat ran up expenses at Bandon Dunes golf course in Oregon, the Bacara Spa in Santa Barbara and Caesars and the Palms in Las Vegas; the Pebble Beach Resort; the Fairmont and the Four Seasons hotels in Maui; the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego; the Four Points Sheraton in Los Angeles; the Hollywood Roosevelt; and the Parker in Palm Springs.

Meanwhile, the senator accepted more than $130,000 into his primary campaign account during the second half of 2007 from a variety of sources, including such corporations as Exxon Mobil, Philip Morris and Countrywide Financial Corp.

In a statement, Calderon declined to detail his spending but said all of it was lawful and "made within current FPPC regulations," he said. "If new regulations are approved requiring a more detailed accounting of campaign expenditures I will gladly adhere to those regulations."

Assemblyman Houston, a Republican who will be termed out of office at the end of this year, spent $15,000 on gifts and travel expenses from 2005 to 2007. The trips included an annual sojourn to Maui with his family for a legislative conference sponsored in part by corporations and labor groups with business before the Legislature.

Houston said he uses campaign money lawfully but said he was not prepared to provide an explanation of every expense. He said he believed the Jet Ski rental was related to the Hawaiian conference but could not recall any details.

"If the rules are changed and we have to log everything - that's what we will do," he said. "I think I've followed the law."

Houston said he uses campaign money from time to time to buy equipment for the state Capitol's Republican softball team, of which he is the captain.

"There's some things that you look at and it might look strange but as long as there is a connection to what we do and how we engaged with people, it's appropriate," he said.

Democratic Assemblyman Torrico was one of the few legislators who agreed to review his spending line by line and give an explanation.

Statements show that Torrico spent more than $28,000 in campaign contributions for travel expenses and gifts over the past three years. That included $2,478 at MGM Grand in Las Vegas; $394 at the Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln (Placer County); and $214 at the Pechanga Casino in Southern California.

He said all of it related to his job as a legislator: The trip to the MGM in Las Vegas was for a fundraiser. The dinner at Thunder Valley was attended by two other legislators and several lobbyists. The overnight stay for himself and his chief of staff at the Pechanga hotel was to talk to the tribal leaders about their agreement with the state on gambling revenues.

"I take my reporting seriously," he said. "People need to know who is raising money and how people are spending money - they have the right to know."

He said that to be successful in Sacramento, lawmakers have to be able to talk freely to lobbyists, union representatives, business leaders and other politicians. He said dinners at expensive restaurants are not uncommon and he'd rather use campaign money than let someone else buy his meal.

"Politics is a business of relationships and people," he said. "So a lot of times, (the spending) is just so that we can get to know each other."

Republican Assemblyman Spitzer said his job demands that he exchange gifts sometimes with supporters and staffers - just like any business executive. He defended his use of campaign money to buy a wedding gift for a campaign aide, saying their relationship was professional not social.

"She was my fundraiser, and it makes perfect sense to me to use campaign money to buy her gift," he said.

Ross Johnson, chairman of the state's political watchdog commission, said the key flaw in the current reporting law is that there is no way for the public to determine if an expense is legitimate.

"The statute is very clear," he said. "(But) unless through regulation we say you've got to provide some brief description of what was the legislative, governmental or political purpose for an expenditure - the law is meaningless."

Johnson, a former California state legislator, declined to comment on specific candidates' expenses, saying that his agency plays a judicial role over election activities. But he said he hopes the new rules make it easier for candidates to know when to use campaign money and when not to.

"In my heart, if it is a legislative or governmental purpose, the taxpayers ought to pay for it," he said. "And if you can't justify that expense to the taxpayers, then maybe you ought not to engage in that expense."

The new disclosure rules will apply only to travel spending of campaign funds outside California. Officials said they wanted to focus first on spending outside the state because they believe that misspending is more likely to occur far from home.

But The Chronicle analysis found more than half of the legislators' travel spending - $395,000 - took place in California, at plush hotels and casinos, golf courses and wineries.

There are also questions about campaign money that is spent by lawmakers at the end of their legislative careers or who left office years ago.

Former Democratic Assemblyman Rod Wright of Los Angeles was termed out of the Legislature in 2002. But records show that he spent more than $8,000 in campaign funds that remained in an active account in 2007 - mostly for meals in fine restaurants in the southland including Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main in Santa Monica.

Wright said all of the expenses were appropriate because he plans to run again this spring - for a seat in the state Senate.

(sfgate.com)

The most influential state employees

Lawmakers should reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed 5% raise for California's politically powerful prison guards' union, the state's nonpartisan fiscal watchdog said Thursday. Correctional officers have received more than adequate pay increases in recent years that have far surpassed those of other state workers, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill said.

The guards have been among the most influential state employees in recent years by virtue of their union's dues-funded war chest, which is used to contribute to politicians and to run public relations campaigns touting their interests. In the last five years, the guards' compensation has climbed 34%, more than twice the rate for an average state worker, Hill said in her report. The guards account for 40% of the $9.2 billion in personnel costs from the state's general fund.

Hill said the salaries and pension improvements the union had won, in addition to other benefits, have made it easy for the state to fill vacant posts in the prisons.

"For all of these reasons, the job of state correctional officer may now be the most sought-after in the California economy," she concluded, saying another increase is not needed.

Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said Hill's report would sink already low morale and could provoke rank-and-file officers to stop working. He said her call to reject the proposed raise showed "contempt" for the idea that the guards' pay should keep pace with that of other law enforcement personnel, such as state police officers, who have received comparable increases.

"I truly believe that it is going to be difficult for [the union] to prevent wildcat work stoppages by some of its members," Corcoran said. "To my knowledge, no one at the [Legislative Analyst's Office] has ever been gassed. No one at the LAO is required to wear a stab-resistant vest to sit behind their desk."

The raise proposed by Schwarzenegger was intended to sweeten a one-year package that was otherwise undesirable to the officers.

His administration is attempting to impose its own terms after a breakdown of negotiations with the union, whose contract expired in 2006.

Hill, whose report described the governor's relationship with the guards as "completely dysfunctional," recommended that lawmakers approve elements of the administration's plan that would give the state more power to manage the prisons -- including monitoring sick leave, reducing overtime and assigning guards to certain posts.

But she warned that those provisions could prompt costly lawsuits by the union alleging violation of state and federal labor law.

In December, the state's Public Employment Relations Board rejected the administration's plan to impose its "last, best and final offer" for three years, limiting it to one.

Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Personnel Administration, said Thursday that the administration stands behind its proposal, including the raises. But it is not clear that lawmakers will approve it.

"There's a number of issues around which we might look to reject this," said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who chairs a public safety committee. "It appears the administration wants to put forth the last, best and final [offer] without having gone through the negotiations."

The union, which has about 30,000 correctional officers, has wielded significant political clout, contributing more than $12 million to candidates and causes since 2000, according to campaign finance reports.

It donated $2 million to the campaign against an initiative, which was on Tuesday's ballot and supported by state legislative leaders, to change California's term limits law. Voters rejected the measure.

The donations came months after lawmakers, on the final night of last year's legislative session, failed to pass a bill that would have circumvented Schwarzenegger and awarded the guards a raise. Corcoran argued the union had not been proficient in shaping recent policy, failing last year in its opposition to Schwarzenegger's $7.7-billion plan to overhaul the prison system.

The governor, who has not received contributions from the union, worked with the guards on a renegotiation of their last contract, in 2004.

(latimes.com)

Health care worker preps lawsuit v. union

A Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, orderly is preparing to sue his union after a tangled bureaucratic web has left him in a legal purgatory. "It gets so frustrating, there's days you want to sit and cry," his wife Debbie Palmer says, who has made countless letters and phone calls on her husband's behalf in the last five years.

James Palmer, 55, began working as an orderly at the Victoria Hospital in 1975. Although he never went to school for nursing, he was trained on the job, and now works in a surgical ward performing the same duties as a licensed practical nurse (LPN). However, through a complex province-wide process called Joint Job Evaluation (JJE), an initiative attempting to amalgamate 1,200 health-care worker job titles into about 270, Palmer was reclassified as a special care aide.

Palmer appealed his classification to a reconsideration committee, made up of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) and the Saskatchewan Association of Health Organizations (SAHO).

Although the committee reclassified Palmer as an "orderly" in 2005, he wasn't satisfied. He says that job description falls far short of his responsibilities at work.

The JJE process has a guiding principle of equal pay for equal work, but Palmer says he's been underpaid by at least $44,000 over the past five years compared to his LPN colleagues.

"This has gone beyond the money," Palmer said. "What have I done wrong? I don't believe I've done anything wrong."

Meanwhile, the hospital, which has backed Palmer through the process, has told him to keep doing all his regular duties.

According to Palmer's lawyer, Keith Amyotte, the inappropriate job title is putting Palmer and the Victoria Hospital in a risky and "impossible" position.

"If he strictly adheres to (the orderly job description), he would no longer be able to function in his job on an acute care surgical ward," Amyotte writes in a letter so SAHO and the unions. "This would place Victoria Hospital and the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region in a position of liability to Mr. Palmer for constructive dismissal.

"On the other hand, if he continues to perform job duties that he has performed for the last 30 years, he could be seen as performing duties beyond his job description scope of practice. Again, this places Victoria Hospital and the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region in a vulnerable legal position, should any patient care concern ever arise, or any workplace injuries occur."

(canada.com)

WGA's ex-Teamster strike leaders call it quits

The heads of the striking Writers Guild of America urged members to end their crippling three-month strike yesterday after reaching a tentative deal with the Hollywood studios.

"Continuing to strike now will not bring sufficient gains to outweigh the potential risks...The time has come to accept this contract and settle the strike," the guild's presidents said in a letter.

The union leadership explained details of the proposed contract to members on both coasts yesterday. The 12,000 rank-and-file members could return to work tomorrow if they support the agreement.

"I'm hoping for a deal," said Mark St. Germain, 53, a former writer for "The Cosby Show" as he arrived for the WGA East session in Manhattan.

"Everybody wants to go back to work under the right circumstances," St. Germain added.

Oscar-nominated WGA member Michael Moore said the strike was already a success because the writers stood up to the powerful studios.

"I would expect it from the steelworkers or the auto workers," Moore said. "The fact that it was a bunch of people that got beat up at school because they liked to sit and write in their journals is kind of impressive.... This is a great moment for organized labor in this country."

Also at yesterday's meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Broadway were writers Nick Pileggi ("Casino" and "GoodFellas") and Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle"), among many others.

The walkout has idled thousands of actors, crew members and others, inflicted a $1 billion hit on the Los Angeles County economy, and forced weeks of reruns for hits like "Desperate Housewives" and "24."

It also put picket signs in the hands of celebrity writers such as "30 Rock" star Tina Fey and Seth Meyers of "Saturday Night Live."

The crux of the dispute between the writers and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was residuals for work distributed on the Internet. Under the proposed deal, the union will now receive:

- A fixed residual of $1,200 a year for one-hour shows streamed online, with an additional bump of 2% from the distributor's gross on the show in the third year of the contract.

- Jurisdiction over certain projects created specifically for the Internet, and increased residuals for downloaded movies and TV programs.

WGA East President Michael Winship was confident of a "yes" vote on the three-year deal. "No negotiations are perfect," he said, "but I think we've done very well."

(nydailynews.com)

Going on strike can make things better

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