Out-of-state union cash colors Ohio ballot

Political advertising on Cleveland TV will reach wall-to-wall levels in this weekend's closing rush to Tuesday's primary. The tide will crest on election eve, when a two-minute commercial for Barack Obama will air during newscasts across the dial. The unusually long spots were added in a final burst of activity that saw Obama outspending Hillary Rodham Clinton more than two-to-one in buying TV time in Cleveland.

The margin is more than three-to-one including ads in support of Obama from the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers. The SEIU, which spent $279,175, and the UFCW, spending $144,575, combine for more than 500 commercial spots through Monday on Cleveland's five commercial stations.

The Obama campaign itself booked almost $775,000 in time on the stations over the past week, or more than a thousand spots. The Clinton campaign added about $320,000 in local TV time amounting to more than 530 spots.

Independent buys announced by 527 groups in support of Clinton failed to materialize. No Republican candidates booked local commercial time for Tuesday's GOP primary.


Union organizers swarm Ohio

With fat snowflakes pelting Joe Williams' black Teamsters jacket, the union steward methodically hands Barack Obama fliers to often-indifferent workers as they stream into this giant UPS facility outside Toledo. "Someone has to care," he screams over the bustle of a nearby street. "We need more jobs -- bring our jobs back. I care. I ain't given up."

A few miles down the road, a few retirees painstakingly fill out dozens of postcards, pleading with fellow union members to support Hillary Clinton. The cards say Clinton will bring jobs back to this economically depressed region. "We are hurting," says Marilyn Allamong, a stack of unfilled postcards waiting on a worn folding table in front of her. "We really need someone to back us. Hillary is that person." Inside AFSCME's one-story, bland office building and on the snow heaps at the edge of UPS' parking lot Friday -- this is where the decisive voters are in this historic Democratic primary.

In fact, the future of the Democratic Party is weighing heavily on the shoulders of blue-collar workers in rust-belt Ohio cities like Toledo, where voters are largely skeptical of free trade, longing for better health care and worried about their children's education and the Iraq war.

The burden is apparently being taken seriously by a voting bloc that has slowly become less and less influential over the decades.

Unions in Toledo -- one of the most unionized cities in America -- have staked out sides in this battle in almost equal balance, while the rank-and-file struggle to decide which candidate best speaks for them. Voters from union households in the state make up more than 40 percent of Democratic primary voters, one of the highest proportions in the nation.

"Basically, white union workers are probably going to decide this," says Benjamin Bates, an assistant professor specializing in campaign and policy communication at Ohio University in Athens.

Plus, as goes Ohio and Texas Tuesday, so goes the Democratic nomination, experts agree.

While Obama has won 11 straight primaries or caucuses since Feb. 5, losing Tuesday in such delegate-rich states would prove a real setback. Clinton's camp has conceded the New York senator needs to win both states to wrangle a clear shot at the nomination.

Clinton's best chance at a solid victory Tuesday, polls suggest, is in Ohio.

A few weeks ago Clinton was believed to have a lock on the critical union vote.

Yet, in Wisconsin's recent primary, a slight majority of union voters went for Illinois' junior senator. Several large unions backing Obama also have recently stepped up efforts to persuade members to follow suit.

In an apparent move to shore up support in the state, Clinton has plans to return to the Buckeye State for the two days before voters hit the polls, leaving behind Texas and its higher delegate tally.

A shaky base

Union endorsements or vote tallies in other states can hardly paint an accurate picture of which way similar voters are leaning in Ohio.

By far, good-paying work is the top issue for these voters.

Ohio has lost a third of its manufacturing jobs, nearly a quarter-million, since 2000 and workers seem to blame free-trade deals like the one Bill Clinton pushed in the 1990s with Mexico and Canada, called NAFTA. Obama has tried to tie the former first lady to that deal.

But other dividing issues -- race, gender or the Iraq war -- could make the difference for some.

Moreover, endorsements by a union's top brass do not guarantee the workers will follow suit in the voting booth.

Take 21-year-old Ashley Postma, a Teamster sorter at the UPS facility, the third largest in the nation. Postma cares about jobs and NAFTA, but all that is background noise as she frets that her husband might get shipped off to Iraq soon. He just finished basic training.

"I'm just not sure yet between the two," she says.

The Teamsters are officially backing Obama.

Hillary Clinton supporter Barb Leidel also is at odds with her union. The 71-year-old retiree works part-time at Meijer and is a longtime member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

That union officially backed Obama, so she gave up her free time Friday to fill out postcards at the AFSCME headquarters with friends.

"I'm going to give them a piece of my mind," she barks, referring to her union's leadership.

Getting out the vote

For union officials, getting the rank-and-file votes to back up their celebrated endorsements is key as the clock tickets toward Election Day. Like other unions, the Teamsters have brought in volunteers from other areas to bolster the volunteering ranks and sell Obama at Ohio factories and truck stops.

Travis Mumm, a 23-year-old Teamsters intern from Gurnee, will spend at least a week in Toledo doing just that.

"We have been at this since Tuesday," he says energetically after a UPS security officer asks the small group to move away from the slushy street to prevent car accidents.

While many voters, union or not, are still undecided in this close election, Toledo residents certainly are aware their ballots -- and maybe their concerns -- are weighing heavy on the minds of Obama and Clinton.

Political ads blanket the TV and radio here. Phone calls from campaign workers interrupt dinner time. And the candidates or their surrogates are making repeated trips throughout the region, shaking hands and holding rallies in Republican hamlets, affluent suburbs and depressed cities alike as they search out every possible supporter.

"At this point -- yeah, it feels like it may matter a little bit," Postma says, her eyes searching the UPS parking lot filled with scores of cars.


Labor-state unions block Right-To-Work petitions

A proposed petition drive that would call for a vote in November on whether Michigan should become a right-to-work state is looking less likely. Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO, told The Oakland Press this week that it appears supporters of the "right to work" petition drive are running out of time to get on the November ballot.

Ken Braun, a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has argued that a right-to-work law would help Michigan's economy out of the current slump, also said this week that it would be difficult to gather the signatures needed to put the issue on the November ballot.

At this point, it doesn't appear right-to-work supporters are well-enough organized to collect the signatures needed to get on the ballot, Braun said. "They're also well within the 180 days" that state law allows for collecting signatures, he said.

"The longer we go, the less likely this is for 2008," said another Mackinac Center official.

Supporters of a constitutional amendment supporting a right-to-work policy, effectively banning what is known as a closed shop, must turn in appropriate paperwork to the secretary of state by the end of the business day July 7.

Petitions calling for an initiative to change state law by a referendum would have to be turned in by May 28.

Over the past year, the Mackinac Center and some business leaders around Michigan have suggested that the state would be better off if it adopted a right-towork policy that allows individual employees to choose whether they should belong to a union.

"On several measurements, the trends between 2001 and 2006 were more favorable toward right-towork states than they had been in the period covered (in an) earlier study.

"In light of Michigan's current economic difficulties, this leads to the conclusion that the case for making Michigan a right-to-work state has only become stronger," the Mackinac Center said in a paper published last year.

Michigan is one of the most unionized state in the United States and, since the 1940s, has been a "closed shop" state, which means employees can be required to join a union as a condition of employment.

The closed-shop rule is written into existing labor contracts.

The state's unions also have made it clear that they were prepared to go all out to block movement toward any kind of initiative or amendment.

Gaffney said the state AFL-CIO put more than 4,000 volunteers into the field on the date of Michigan's presidential primary, on the chance that supporters would attempt to collect signatures as voters went to the polls.

The volunteers, including more than 800 from Oakland County, had been taught to persuade voters not to sign the petitions. "We were ready for them, but they didn't show up," Gaffney said.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Laborers Council, which represents more than 12,000 construction workers across the state, has financed an extensive advertising campaign attacking the concept of right to work.

Gary Jorgensen, business manager for the laborers council, declined to say how much the union has committed to the campaign, which included billboards, radio spots and television commercials featuring former Detroit television anchor Bill Bonds.


Show-Me state weighs worker-choice

Lawmakers are proposing a change to labor laws that would establish Missouri as a right-to-work state. In January, Rep. Steve Hunter, R-Joplin, introduced legislation - HB 1811 - that would prohibit agreements between unions and employers requiring some workers to pay union dues as a condition of being hired.

In Missouri and 27 other so-called labor-states, workers and employers now have the right to negotiate union security clauses when a majority of workers at a site signify that they want to form a union. Under the union security clause, non-union employees are required to pay fees or dues for the economic benefits from union representation but not the costs of the union’s political, legislative, social and charitable activities. The bill sponsored by Hunter essentially would make any union security clause null and void if it required employees to join a union and pay fees to that union or any third party as a condition of employment.

Last month the bill was referred to the Special Committee on Workforce Development and Workplace Safety, where it still waits for a hearing date to be set. Hunter, who chairs the committee, has been unsuccessful in the past with similar right-to-work bills.

Herb Johnson, secretary-treasurer of Missouri AFL-CIO, said it is the same bill Hunter has introduced in the past, and it has failed to gain widespread support.

"I don’t believe it has any traction," Johnson said.

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, who co-sponsored the bill, said support is growing because of the struggling manufacturing industry in the state.

He said that in 1970, the automobile industry in Missouri was second only to Michigan, but today "we’re not in the top 10 anymore, and the reason is we’re not a right-to-work state."

According to the National Right to Work Committee, 22 states have passed right-to-work laws, including all but two - Illinois and Kentucky - of the eight states that border Missouri.

Greg Mourad, legislative director for the National Right to Work Committee, said right-to-work states have experienced greater job growth. He said that Oklahoma, which passed a right-to-work law in 2001, went from last to first in the nation in job growth.

"A lot of companies will not even consider moving into non-right-to-work states," Mourad said.

Johnson said that contrary to arguments made by right-to-work advocates, "open shop" laws like the one proposed by Hunter hurt workers by allowing non-union members to receive union benefits without paying into the system, which results in lower wages, less health-care and retirement benefits.

"In Missouri, … we believe we have a fair law," Johnson said, but Hunter and his supporters want to change it "because it weakens unions."

Robb said the driving force behind the right-to-work bill centers around making Missouri an attractive state to automotive and other industries looking to expand or relocate.

"We’re at a competitive disadvantage," he said. "I’m not anti-union," but "whether it weakens the unions is irrelevant."

Mourad said the National Right to Work Committee will offer all the support it can to help pass the bill in Missouri.

"I know that Representative Hunter is very dedicated to it," he said.

"We have a lot of work to do," but "we certainly would like to see a roll call" vote "this session."


UAW - American Axle strike damage mounts

A labor strike at American Axle and Manufacturing Holdings Inc. shut down three more General Motors Corp. truck plants Friday. But the most immediate pain likely will hit dozens of Michigan suppliers who make parts for GM's high-volume pickup trucks. "GM's truck program has such high volumes that this is going to cause a fair amount of grief for (small) tier two and tier three suppliers," said Jim Gillette, a supplier analyst in the Grand Rapids office of CSM Worldwide.

Although sales of full-size pickups and SUVs are falling, GM's trucks comprise "the biggest vehicle program in North America," Gillette said.

Last year, GM sold 1.28 million full-size pickups and SUVs out of total U.S. sales of 3.87 million cars and trucks.

GM spokesman Tom Wickham said truck plants in Flint; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Oshawa, Ont. would close indefinitely at the end of the second shift.

The automaker's Pontiac truck assembly plant closed Thursday because of a lack of axles and other parts from Detroit-based American Axle. All four idled plants build the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups.

The shutdowns affect about 11,140 hourly workers, including 5,295 in Michigan.

If the American Axle strike isn't settled by Monday and GM's plants remain closed, GM's workers become eligible for state unemployment benefits and United Auto Workers union supplemental pay, Wickham said.

Analysts say GM should weather a weeks-long strike because it has about a three-month supply of pickups and SUVs on dealers' lots. But buyers could see a shortage of certain model variations.

Large GM suppliers, such as Delphi Corp., ArvinMeritor Inc. and International Auto Components Group, which is made up of former Lear Corp. operations, could take a big financial hit from the truck production interruptions within several weeks, said Erich Merkle, an auto industry analyst at IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids.

"The supply base is in a weakened state," Merkle said. "This could be a recipe for disaster."

About 3,650 UAW workers struck American Axle's five U.S. plants, including those in Detroit and Three Rivers, on Tuesday.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said American Axle wants to cut wages to as little as $14 an hour from about $28 an hour and eliminate retiree health care and defined-benefit pensions for active workers.

American Axle said it needs steep cuts in hourly labor costs to compete with companies such as Dana Corp. and Delphi that reduced wages and benefits through bankruptcy proceedings.


UAW - American Axle strikers were misled

The smell of burning wood hangs over Holbrook Street, with American Axle's hulking factory flanking both sides. On driveways and sidewalks in between, striking workers trace a path into the mounting snow as they circle the smoldering barrels for warmth. In the middle of a pelting Michigan snowstorm Friday, strikers bundled up to withstand the elements to try and endure what many of the 3,600 union members now say could be a weeks -- or months-long strike.

That's a striking change from earlier in the week, when workers expected a short, largely symbolic work stoppage of a day or two, similar to last year's strikes against General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, and an American Axle walkout four years ago. Talks between the United Auto Workers and American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. broke down Monday after the union contract expired.

Now pensive workers expect a bitter battle with an employer for whom they once loved to work for, and its Chairman Dick Dauch.

"We used to love coming to work here and thank God for what Dick Dauch has done for this company," Mike Skiba, an inspector at the plant said as he walked the picket line. "He seems to forget he built this successful global business on the backs of the workers in these five factories."

The strikers work at the five original Michigan and New York factories that Dauch bought from GM in 1994 to create American Axle. Since then, the parts supplier, with $3.3 billion in 2007 sales, added offices or factories in 11 other countries.

Dauch has said the company must lower its total labor costs -- wages, benefits and retirement -- from $73.48 an hour to the $20- to $30-an-hour range to be competitive with other North American suppliers. Union leaders interpret that as a $14-an-hour cut to average hourly wages that now stand at $28.15.

Asking workers to accept that reduction is "disheartening," said Dana Edwards, UAW Local 235 shop chairman, who represents the striking workers.

Edwards talks about how Dauch, who often holds town hall meetings and routinely chats with line workers, would always ask him about his father, a retired 34-year veteran of the plant, mostly with GM.

"My father chose to stay here rather than flow back to GM because of the plans Dick Dauch set forth -- most of which he delivered on," Edwards said. "He still asks about my dad, but I'm not sure he's as in touch with his current workers."

Today marks the 14th anniversary of American Axle's founding. In an interview this week, Dauch indicated that with the workers on strike, the milestone is bittersweet.

"We would have liked to celebrate, but not with our work force on the sidewalk," he told The Detroit News.

Dauch said the labor battle is about making the company cost competitive with other unionized U.S. suppliers, such as Dana Corp., which significantly lowered its labor costs through bankruptcy.

Workers, such as Skiba recognize changing market conditions, including falling sales of the SUVs and trucks on which American Axle supplies parts, but he hoped workers would be rewarded for their quality and service.

"We still make the best damn axle in the world right here on Holbrook," he said.

Despite the bitter temperatures, the thought of a 50 percent wage cut keeps strikers motivated.

"At $14 an hour, you can't afford to pay for a mortgage, a car and a kid in school," said Dennis Dombrowski, a job setter at the plant, whose son attends Michigan State University.

Even a prolonged strike is unlikely to fracture the rank and file's relationship with union leadership, said Richard Block, professor in the Michigan State University School of Labor and Industrial Relations.

"The UAW is a very democratic union and is very in touch with its members," he said. "Considering what's at stake, these workers will be willing to stay out there for months."

Some workers expressed concern that there have been no talks between the company and union since Monday.

Machine operator Pam Ward said the stalemate will continue until American Axle's largest customer, GM, gets involved.

Ward, who wore a full-length purple coat and held a Styrofoam coffee cup in her mitten, said she and her UAW colleagues are prepared to wait as long as it takes.

"I'm a polar bear, so I like the cold," the Detroiter said. "For everyone else, keep the coffee on, keep the fire going and keep moving."


UAW strikers mistaken about 'corporate greed'

American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc said on Friday its five U.S. plants subject to a strike by the United Auto Workers union were not profitable and "have not been for years." In a statement, the Detroit-based auto parts supplier said its other U.S. and international plants were profitable because of lower cost structures in those locations.

The statement from American Axle came on the fourth day of a strike by the UAW against the company's plants in Michigan and New York.

The work stoppage has affected about 3,600 union workers at American Axle and forced four General Motors Corp truck assembly plants to be idled because of a shortage of parts.

The UAW has charged American Axle with unfair labor practices and says the company withheld information the union required in order to assess its need for the sharply reduced wage levels it has demanded.

In its statement, American Axle denied that claim, saying it "has honored its duty to negotiate in good faith" and "has not engaged in unfair labor practices."

The UAW's charge with the National Labor Relations Board represents a legal move intended to keep American Axle from hiring replacement workers.

If American Axle took that step and was found to have violated fair labor practice, it could be forced to hire back striking workers or pay them back wages under U.S. law.

In its statement, American Axle said it was only seeking wage levels that would make it competitive with its U.S. rivals in the market for axles and related components led by Dana Corp which recently emerged from bankruptcy.

The supplier, which was spun off from GM in 1994 and still relies on GM for almost 80 percent of its revenue, said its hourly labor cost per worker under the just-expired UAW contract had been $73.48 per hour.

It said that was about three times higher than the company's competitors are paying in the United States.

American Axle "cannot accept terms and conditions that put the company at a significant competitive disadvantage in the U.S. automotive supply industry," company co-founder and Chief Executive Dick Dauch said in a statement.

No talks between the UAW and American Axle have been held since Monday and none are yet scheduled, a spokeswoman for the company said on Friday.


Unions go hog-wild in Ohio

It's not wise to campaign in Ohio and not sign Tony Packo's buns. Toldeo's famous and homely hot dog and chili stop -- Tony Packo's Cafe -- is known as a must-visit campaign stop on the Buckeye trail. Hundreds of autographed hot dog buns line the walls. The signers range from the peculiar, like Lee Iacocca and Bob Vila, to the historical, like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

George W. Bush signed a bun and so did Bill Clinton.

Ominously, Al Gore and John Kerry, the two most recent Democratic presidential candidates to fail, did not sign Tony's buns. They also failed to carry Ohio.

So it was smart thinking by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to have autographed buns at Tony's. Clinton's is on file from when she was First Lady, encased in a memorial plaque with her husband's bun.

Just in case, Chealsea Clinton stopped by this week to update the family's Toledo bun tree.

Obama, on the other hand, didn't show up. The Packo staff handed off one of the Styrofoam buns to a campaign aide, who deftly got it signed and returned. It is currently awaiting display.

Mike Johnson, assistant gift shop manager, said they don't like to get their buns signed on the sly.

"That kind of sullies the collection," he said.

But for Obama, he said it was allowed because Illinois' junior senator was tied up at a rally of more than 10,000 supporters when he came into town this week.


Campaign 'till it hurts (Friday, 6:41 a.m.)

David "Woody" Woodfill has written about 200 post cards today and his wrist aches.

A University of Toledo hat pulled tight over his shoulder-length hair, he pens the message.

"Dear Union Brother," it reads. "As a fellow AFSCME member, I'm urging you to vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton..."

Woody has been a member of one union or another for more than 40 years and longs for the glory days of manufacturing in Ohio.

"I can remember when the factory whistles howled," he says. "You just don't hear them anymore."

Growing up on Toledo's east side in the 1950s, he recalls the hum and smoke of the huge plants. The Sun Oil refinery, Unicast, Kasko Mills, they're all gone now.

"You can thank NAFTA," says the 66-year-old. "Those jobs are gone to Mexico and China. How can you compete with 36 cents per hour?"

He's supporting Hillary Clinton. He likes her ideas for health care. He doesn't think much of Republicans or George Bush. "He's one strange ranger," Woody says.

A "political junkie" who's loved politics since he was a kid, the lifelong Democrat volunteered on John F. Kennedy's campaign even though he was too young to vote.

Handwriting the postcards gets monotonous, but Woody takes the edge off by listening to the Rolling Stones on an old Sony Walkman. He's likes the stuff from the 1960s best: Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and the Beatles.

"It's Geezer Rock," he admits. "But I still like it."

-- Vincent Pierri


Jobs key in Ohio (Friday, 11:48 a.m.)

Ohio creeps up on you quietly. When the invisible border slips passed, it looks a lot like neighboring rural Indiana and nothing like the packed suburbs of Chicago.

But off the interstate, you quickly realize you are no longer in Illinois. The same kind of strip malls line the roads, but they are filled with foreign signs that read: Rite Aid and Waffle House.

The talk here, of course, is nearly all election, as the airwaves are crammed with 30-second ads showing a warm-hearted Hillary Clinton and the same side of opponent Barack Obama.

You see Obama preaching to a stadium of fawning young folks. "We can," he says, end the war, fix health care, reduce pollution and create jobs. Clinton's ads boast the same, but she also claims she is the one who can actually deliver.

It's a blitz unlike anything seen in Illinois before its Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primary, as the two Democratic candidates try to reach each and every Ohio voter, as many times as possible, before this crucial primary contest on Tuesday.

Along with Texas, the Buckeye State is one of two possible final battlegrounds in the political war between the New York and Illinois senators. It is also a state accustomed to attention from those wanting to be president - a state often shifting between Democratic and Republican rule.

But the attention has clearly done residents little good beyond the excitement of frequent campaign rallies and the always informative blizzard of TV ads and colorful mailers. Ohio's unemployement rate is higher than the nation's average and it has been shedding blue-collar jobs like pricey diesel in the scores of idling semi-trucks that line the interstate rest stops.

So, it is these voters and this state that is in a prime spot to anoint the next Democratic presidential nominee, and perhaps the next resident of the White house.

Welcome to Ohio, where "With God, all things are possible," or so says the state's motto.


No complaint as unions overpay politicians

A News Tribune examination of political action committee contributions to Duluth (MN) candidates showed three instances in which PACs gave Mayor Don Ness more than the $300 maximum allowed. The News Tribune also rechecked Ness’s campaign contributions report and found three instances where three individuals gave more than the $300 maximum.

While each instance is a potential campaign finance violation, Ness said in an e-mail that he either didn’t know about the payments or sent them back when he got the checks, calling the overpayments “an honest mistake made during a very hectic month.”

Ness was sent a $500 check at the end of December from the AFSCME Minn. People Committee Council 5 PAC, which Ness said he immediately sent back.

“I hadn’t received the AFSCME endorsement, I didn’t need the money, and it was over the maximum amount,” he said.

Jim Niland, AFSCME Council 5’s legislative and political action director, said earlier in the week that he wasn’t aware Ness had returned the check. After checking with his bookkeeping department, Niland said he found the check was not cashed. He said an amended report would be filed with the state campaign finance board.

Niland said he had thought a mayor could receive contributions of up to $500.

Two Duluth-based PACs, Electricians Local 242 IBEW and the Duluth Building Trades Volunteer Fund, reported separately in their campaign finance reports that two $300 checks were sent to Ness in October. Jim Brown, business manager for Local 242 and treasurer for the building trades, said after the News Tribune contacted him that it was discovered both checks were mailed in error.

“We don’t know how it happened, but it did,” he said.

Ness said after checking his records that he had unknowingly accepted two $300 checks from IBEW, but he could not find a record of accepting two $300 checks from the Building Trades. Regardless, he said, he mailed both organizations $300 checks on Friday.

As for the individual contributions, Ness said they probably were an oversight or misreporting, such as forgetting to add a spouse’s name. A couple can contribute $600 total.

All told, Ness was possibly sent or may have accepted $1,450 more than what was allowed — 1.3 percent of the $107,131 he raised during the campaign.

“During the six weeks leading up the election, we accepted 500 contributions, with contributions being sent to different addresses and with different campaign staff handling the data entry and deposits,” he said in an e-mail. “We did our very best to keep accurate records — and on at least a couple of occasions we sent checks back to folks. Obviously, a couple got past us. The very fact that we entered it twice and submitted it in our campaign finance reports should be an indication that it was an honest mistake and we simply didn't realize that we had accepted two checks from the same organization.”

If anyone feels a campaign finance law was violated, under Minnesota law it would have to be reported to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which would then decide whether a complaint should be forwarded to a county attorney for prosecution. Mary Beth Gossman, a staff attorney for the office, said no complaints have been filed for any race on the 2007 Duluth elections.


SEIU official Overtime Joe smacked down

An Oregon judge has rejected an attempt by the elected leader of Oregon's biggest state employees union to collect nearly $110,000 in overtime pay he said he was owed as president of Local 503 of Service Employees International. In essence, Marion County Circuit Judge Albin Norblad said Joe DiNicola is management, and thereby exempt from overtime.

DiNicola continues to face a recall effort mounted by union members upset that he tried to collect huge overtime payments. DiNicola has been on leave from his job as a corporate tax auditor at the Department of Revenue since becoming the local's president in 2004. The union has paid his regular salary, plus a $400 monthly stipend, a $245 monthly car allowance and a flexible medical benefit of $140 a month.

DiNicola filed a wage claim with the state after the Local 503 board ruled he was not eligible for overtime. Norblad agreed in a Feb. 21 ruling, saying DiNicola qualifies as a "bona fide executive, managerial, and/or administrative employee" who is exempt from overtime. Neither DiNicola nor his attorney, Kevin Lafky could be reached for comment.

Board member Star Holmberg, one of the supporters of removing DiNicola from his position, said the court action should spur the campaign to collect signatures on a recall petition. She said some union members wanted to see if the courts found merit in his wage claim before considering whether to sign a recall petition.


Feds bust Writers Guild dues-embezzler

A former assistant administrator of a Writers Guild fund and another woman were charged today with conspiring to embezzle $17,228.61 by creating a bogus beneficiary of a union fund that paid union members for their works that were sold, distributed and aired abroad. In a one-count criminal information filed today, former WGAW Foreign Levies Fund Assistant Administrator Michelle Trinh, 28, was charged with setting up her accomplice as a Guild member or heir to receive three checks written approximately one year ago. In a separate one-count information, Tracey Howze, 45, was also charged with conspiracy.

In plea agreements also filed today, Trinh and Howze, both Los Angeles residents, agreed to plead guilty.

The information charges that Trinh and Howze conspired together to falsify the union’s database so that checks would be issued to Howze from the fund, which is held in trust by the Guild for disbursement to members and their beneficiaries or heirs. Foreign film societies receive payments from taxes levied by governments from the sale of blank videocassettes and digital video disks, and from showing films and television programs in foreign countries. The WGAW receives a portion of the foreign levies and disburses them to those WGAW members who wrote the material. Trinh was the assistant administrator of the fund until March 2007 when she was terminated.

Trinh and Howze will be summoned to appear in United States District Court in Los Angeles for arraignment next month. The charge of conspiracy carries a maximum statutory penalty of five years in federal prison.

The conspiracy charges are a result of an investigation conducted by the U. S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards (OLMS) in Los Angeles. OLMS enforces labor laws that impose financial responsibilities on union officers and employees to properly account for the receipt and disbursement of funds. This case was conducted with the full cooperation of current officers and employees of the Guild.


WGA strike leader faces the damage

The scenario sounds like the end of a classic television or film script: a battle ends, a victory is declared, and the exhausted combatant warns: “we’ve only just begun to fight.” That’s an exaggeration version of what ex-Teamster Patric Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild of America, West, now faces. A new contract with Hollywood studios was ratified this week, officially putting an end to the writers’ strike. “Now we now have three years of enforcement to do,” Mr. Verrone said in an interview Wednesday, sounding neither enthusiastic nor exhausted.

The guild succeeded in setting a formula for Internet media payments, assuring that writers will be paid when they create Web episodes or when their content is re-purposed online. It also secured the right to review and audit the online deals made by studios.

“We have to be vigilant to make sure those deals are fair,” he said.

Additionally, now that the guild had some jurisdiction over scripted online video, the guild must develop guidelines for digital members.

“We’re going to have to adopt our own membership standards for people who write a certain amount of digital content,” Mr. Verrone said. Writing one television episode doesn’t automatically qualify a writer for guild membership; similarly, “I don’t know how many Webisodes it will take,” he said.

Mr. Verrone said that his group would continue to try to represent writers on reality shows and animated programs. While the guild represents the writers on some individual programs, it pulled the broader proposals relating to reality and animation off the table during negotiations with the studios alliance last month.

The strike raised the profile of the writers on those shows, Mr. Verrone said, making it easier to direct guild members “not to work on those programs unless they are covered.”


Teamsters engage Casino War v. Wisconsin tribe

A local service union will gauge interest from casino workers statewide to unionize. "We're looking to see if there's any interest in the workers organizing at their workplace," said Beth Kirchman, a business representative with Local 662 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union. "If they are interested, we'll be working with them, helping them organize."

An informational meeting has been scheduled for March 19 at the United Amerindian Center in Green Bay, which has been working with various labor groups in responding to requests from casino employees who are concerned about wages and hours, director Stephen Crowe said.

A recent court decision — reversing 30 years of hands-off approach by the National Labor Relations Board to sovereign tribal governments — paved the way for efforts to organize workers at tribally owned enterprises. In a decision released Feb. 9, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled that the National Labor Relations Act applied to tribe-owned enterprises.

Tribal spokeswoman Bobbi Webster said the business committee, the elected body of the Oneida Tribe of Indians, is aware of the court decision but has yet to discuss the possibility of workers organizing at the casino. "I would think that if something is going to be proposed, we will be involved," Webster said, declining to comment on the situation before formal talks are held.

Wisconsin has 25 on-reservation gaming locations, according to the state Department of Administration. At least five are on the Oneida reservation, which spans both Brown and Outagamie counties, with the largest facility being Oneida Bingo & Casino on Airport Drive in Ashwaubenon. The tribe is one of the largest employers in the area, but it's unclear whether this effort will go beyond the casino workers.

About 15 people have responded to the unionization meeting, Crowe said. The Amerindian center will sign an agreement of exclusivity with the Teamsters Local 662, saying it won't take efforts to another union, but there's been no promise of money that the center badly needs.

"We know the interest has been out there," said Tom Strickland, of Local 662. "This is the first step. We'll do whatever it takes and give the resources."


AFSCME renegs, county savings evaporate

Union employees at a county-run nursing home in Reedsburg (WI) will not take a pay cut or pay more for their health insurance, as offered during negotiations to keep their jobs. That means the Sauk County will pay about $420,000 more for kitchen and housekeeping services in 2008 than it would have by outsourcing the work to two private firms, according to the county's fiscal estimates.

After two contractors said they could do the work cheaper, Sauk County Health Care Center union employees — whose jobs were on the chopping block — offered to take a $1 cut in pay and pay an additional 10 percent of their health insurance costs.

But fiscal estimates showed the county could have saved $365,000 by hiring private firms, even with the union concessions.

An oversight committee recommended outsourcing the 24 positions. But the county board turned down that recommendation by a narrow margin last week, choosing county employees over contractors.

But a union official says that doesn't mean staff will take the concessions offered during negotiations.

"As far as I'm concerned, at this point, there is no agreement that we will do that," said Bill Moberly, a union representative for AFSCME Wisconsin District Council 40. He said the oversight committee's recommendation to outsource effectively rejected the union's cost savings proposal.

That means the county will pay about $420,000 more for kitchen and housekeeping services than it would by subcontracting the work, according to the county's estimates.

But Moberly said outsourcing might not be entirely off the table yet. Board members have told him proponents are working behind the scenes to get a vote of reconsideration on the outsourcing proposal at the board's next meeting.

"I don't know if this is over yet or not," Moberly said.

Board of trustees member — and outsourcing opponent — Arthur Carlson said he is concerned that some are trying to convince supervisors who voted against outsourcing to change their position for a future reconsideration vote.

"I don't like that," he said. "It's behind-the-scenes bribery, if you ask me."

The issue of outsourcing does not appear on the agenda for this morning's meeting of the Sauk County Health Care Center Board of Trustees. And County Board chairman Marty Krueger, who voted in favor of outsourcing, said the issue is dead.

"It isn't on the table as far as I know," Krueger said Friday.

He said his main priority now is bringing some stability to the nursing home by finding a new administrator.

The board of trustees will meet in closed session this morning to consider candidates for the position.

The nursing home has been without a permanent administrator since January 2007, when former Interim Administrator Kenneth West took over. West's contract couldn't be extended passed Aug. 28, so the county entered a $20,000-a-month contract with a health care consulting firm to replace him.

The Health Care Center Board of Trustees interviewed two candidates from a field of 13 qualified applicants in September, but later decided to reopen the search.

Interim Administrator Delores Rydberg took over for the consulting firm in October, but only agreed to serve a six-month term and will be leaving her post mid-April.

Krueger said at least one candidate will be interviewed during today's meeting.

Sauk County Personnel Director Michelle Koehler said in an e-mail that application documents from final candidates will be open for public inspection after the committee narrows the field.


Dems keep playing the class-warfare card

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are battling over working-class voters in their nomination campaign; either would face a challenge from Republican John McCain in November for those voters. In a general election match-up, both Clinton and Obama would trail McCain among voters who don't have a college degree, according to data from a Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll. McCain gets half of those voters, the Feb. 21-25 poll found.

Lower-income voters -- those making $40,000 or less -- still break for the Democrats. The gap narrows moving up the economic ladder. Those making $40,000 to $60,000 favor Obama over McCain 48 percent to 41 percent. Above $60,000, McCain grabs 50 percent support to Obama's 43 percent. The Arizona senator has a major advantage among those earning $100,000 or more a year, drawing 55 percent in a contest against Obama and 61 percent against Clinton. McCain overtakes Clinton starting at the $40,000 mark.

Clinton, a New York senator, is arguing she would peel away a sizable number of Republican women. Yet, the poll data show that Illinois Senator Obama does a better job drawing them. He gets 17 percent of female Republicans in a two-way race. In a Clinton vs. McCain race, McCain draws more Democratic men, at 18 percent, than the 12 percent of Republican women Clinton would attract.

The poll shows McCain still has some work to do with self- identified religious conservatives, 40 percent of whom said the Arizona senator isn't a true conservative. When faced with a choice, though, 70 percent of those voters said they would cast a ballot for McCain over Clinton or Obama.

* * *

Independents have been moving closer to Democrats in primaries and polls. McCain, however, is one Republican who does well with this bloc, which comprises about a third of the electorate. He easily defeats Clinton among independents in a general election match-up, the Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showed. One red flag for McCain is that independents have turned against the conflict in Iraq; by better than 2-to-1 they say it wasn't worth going to war.

* * *

March 4 is a high-stakes showdown for the two Democrats. Clinton, 60, is counting on winning in Texas and Ohio to keep going. What does she do if she loses one of those states?

"I don't think about it like that," she said.

Campaign adviser Harold Ickes said there are still so many states and territories yet to vote -- 16 -- that Clinton shouldn't be counted out.

Campaign manager Maggie Williams said they already have volunteers working in Wyoming, which votes March 8, and Pennsylvania, which holds a primary on April 22.

Obama, 46, isn't coasting. His campaign just opened an office in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and will open one in Philadelphia today. In Mississippi, which votes March 11, Obama has an office in Jackson and a handful of staff. In Wyoming, he has offices in Cheyenne, Laramie, Rock Springs and Casper.

* * *

McCain and his onetime political nemesis, President George W. Bush, will be doing a delicate balancing act to campaign together, downplaying their policy disagreements and muffle any lingering animus dating to their 2000 battle for the Republican nomination.

"They don't spend their time stuck in perceived faults and injustices of the past," said Karl Rove, architect of both of Bush's presidential campaigns.

McCain, 71, likes to keep a bit of distance. The two will brush past each other in Texas the day before the primary there. McCain will take his campaign to Bush's backyard on March 3 for a fundraiser and town hall meeting in Waco, just 23 miles from the president's ranch in Crawford. Bush is at the ranch this weekend for a meeting with Denmark's prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The president heads back to Washington just before McCain is scheduled to touch down.

* * *

The day after Clinton and Obama took aim at the North American Free Trade Agreement in Cleveland this week, the Commerce Department e-mailed a press release touting the virtues of the 14-year-old agreement.

"Nafta demonstrates the benefits trade can bring to all countries," the agency said.

Was the administration bolstering presumptive Republican nominee and Nafta supporter John McCain?

"Absolutely not," said Commerce spokesman Richard Mills. He said the note was tied to Secretary Carlos Gutierrez's trip this week to Mexico to promote business ties between the two nations. Any connection to the quarrel in Cleveland, Mills said, was completely coincidental.

* * *

Obama's low-key humor often is effective on the trail. Sometimes it falls flat.

Meeting with Teamsters President James Hoffa and union members in Ohio, Obama was given a leather jacket with the labor group's logo.

Obama, who won the union's endorsement, joked that he was sure it would fit because he "and Jimmy are about the same size."

Hoffa, about six inches shorter and 30 to 40 pounds heavier, didn't appear to be amused.


Bill Clinton holds court for AFL-CIO

Former President Bill Clinton closely compared his record with that of George W. Bush last night. His conclusions? The 1990s were better than the 2000s - and his spouse, as president - could pick up where he left off nearly eight years ago when they left the White House.

"Look at this decade and compare it to the 1990s, not because we want to go back, but because you have to understand history not to repeat it again," said Mr. Clinton, while touting the qualifications of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton before hundreds of union members at the Dayton Miami Valley AFL-CIO Southwest Ohio Awards Banquet last night.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton will face-off against Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Ohio Democratic presidential primary. The senators are vying for Ohio's 162 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, which could be instrumental in deciding the close race for the party's presidential nomination.

Last night's appearances in Dayton and later at Stebbins High School in nearby Riverside, Ohio, were the first on a nine-stop tour that has the former president traversing Ohio for three days.

Mr. Clinton's "Solutions for America" tour, where he is speaking on behalf of his candidate, will land him in Findlay, Marion, Mansfield, Wooster, and New Philadelphia today.

In Dayton, Mr. Clinton spoke about his wife's plans for tackling unemployment, energy policy, health care, the Iraq war - and trade agreements, a key sticking point for union members.

"Her proposal is no more trade deals for several months until the ones we have are reviewed," Mr. Clinton said, adding that Mrs. Clinton would rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, and establish a special officer charged with enforcing trade agreements.

"Upstate New York has been hit just like Ohio. Same deal," Mr. Clinton said about job losses. "We've got to enforce the trade laws."

His message of fair trade was well-taken by the union crowd, despite the former president's support for NAFTA during his presidency. Worker advocates and unions often cite free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, when placing blame for plant closings and job losses.

Pete McLinden, a lawyer with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union in Cincinnati, characterized Mr. Clinton's White House years as an overall "good presidency," although the former president angered some with his stance on NAFTA.

"A lot of people weren't happy with NAFTA, but those were good years in contrast with the last eight years," under President Bush, Mr. McLinden said.

Mr. McLinden plans to vote for Mrs. Clinton on Tuesday, saying he favored her experience over Mr. Obama's message of change. "I believe in change, but I believe actions speak louder than words," he said.

The underlying message last night was the union members have hope that their issues will gain traction on the platform of the eventual Democratic nominee for president.

Georg Wood, an employee of the city of Dayton and who is supporting Ms. Clinton, said last night that unions members "have issues that every American family has."

"We need to be represented in Washington by the top person in our country," Mr. Wood, 50, said. "They need to work for us, not corporations."

Georgia Nowlin, an AFSCME member from Dayton, believes Democrats have two labor friendly candidates in Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. She's sorry she'll have to cast a vote for one and not the other on Tuesday.

"We wish both of them could run together," said Ms. Nowlin, who wore an "AFSCME for Hillary" T-shirt last night. "That would be a nice ticket."

Whichever candidate wins, Ms. Nowlin said she is "hoping and praying" that the labor movement will be heard at the polls this year.


UAW's American Axle strikers speak out

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