High labor costs blamed for News Union woes

After three days of closed door meetings — so closed that the principals had to sign confidentiality agreements — Minneapolis (MN) Star Tribune management and labor just issued a joint statement about the discussions. There's not a ton new, though some previous themes were underlined and emphasized. Publisher and part-owner Chris Harte terms the paper's revenue decline "precipitous."

The good news, such as it is, is that the Strib still has a far-reaching brand — here, print declines are outweighed by online gains — but the company cannot monetize it. To put it in memo-speak, relative to the rest of the newspaper industry, "The Star Tribune compares favorably in terms of reach and market position but unfavorably in terms of production costs."

Therefore, "Harte emphasized that expenses will have to be cut to get through the immediate financial challenges."

Labor is, of course, a major expense. (And, we should note, a major asset.) Strib Newspaper Guild co-chair Graydon Royce said layoffs weren't mentioned in what he described as "introductory" sessions. But don't be too reassured, Strib workers: Specific cuts didn't come up at all. Still, I'm told management is looking for substantial expense cuts throughout the company by early summer.

What is different about the current skein of meetings is that it's not classic bargaining: The Strib imported Restructuring Associates Inc. as a mediator to find a common way forward before the union's contract expires this summer. Formal bargaining will commence at some point. Next week, union leadership will meet with Strib employees to assess whether they should participate in this pre-bargaining or go right to the mattresses.

Speaking for himself, Royce is in favor of letting the current talks go forward, but adds he was "a bit underwhelmed" by them. "Not at the issues, but underwhelmed at how much did or did not talk about specific problems. But I guess that wasn't their intention."

As reported here previously, the cash the Strib takes in from operations is diving below its debt payments. That could put owners Harte and Avista Capital Partners in violation of their agreements with lenders, a problem PiPress owners MediaNews Group is having. Harte and Avista Capital Partners would have to dig into their own pockets (unlikely, given the Strib's declining asset value) or sell (tough, since like many homes, the Strib may be worth less than its mortgage). Most newspaper experts I talk to say you can't cost-cut your way out of huge debt — the nut is too big and brand damage high — but it doesn't mean management can't try.

Asked whether management discussed this dynamic, Royce demurred, because of the confidentiality clause. "The only thing I would say on the debt thing is that I would direct you to your own previous posts; you've got all the information."

Here's the memo:
Star Tribune Union Leaders and Management Hold 3-Day Business Education Session March 21, 2008 — For the past three days Star Tribune management and union leaders met to discuss the serious financial issues facing the company and the newspaper industry.

Publisher Chris Harte opened the business education meetings by telling attendees that the Star Tribune's current financial difficulties result from a precipitous drop in revenue while expenses have remained virtually flat.

Harte and six Star Tribune senior managers gave presentations outlining the company's current market and financial position. Additionally two outside industry experts gave presentations on the state of the industry.

Dan Sullivan, professor of media management and economics at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism, and John Lariccia, a partner at Bain Consulting, said that some of the problems facing the national industry and the Star Tribune are systemic — declining readership and the proliferation of media outlets on the Internet that compete for audience and advertising. Others are cyclical, such as the current economic downturn.

In addition to Harte, Star Tribune speakers included Dan Shorter, president of digital media, Dave Montgomery, chief financial officer, and senior vice presidents David Walsh, advertising; Steve Alexander; circulation; Nancy Barnes, news; and Kevin Desmond, operations.

All the speakers agreed that the Star Tribune is at a crossroads, and they stressed that the company's brand strength and market leadership are keys to future growth. Harte emphasized that expenses will have to be cut to get through the immediate financial challenges.

Other highlights of the presentations included:

— Comparisons relative to other newspaper companies. The Star Tribune compares favorably in terms of reach and market position but unfavorably in terms of production costs.

— The financial obligations of the company, including debt.

— The commitment to future growth. While the immediate challenge is to reduce expenses, the long-term viability of the company depends on growth.

In the next few days the unions will meet as a council or among their memberships to determine whether they will continue to participate in a joint problem-solving process to address issues raised in the sessions.


Port of Los Angeles goes Teamster-only

On March 20, the Port of Los Angeles approved its Clean Truck Program, which will bar owner-operators from the port by 2012. That port and the Port of Long Beach proposed matching programs, but in February, Long Beach deviated from the shared plan when it approved a provision that allowed owner-operators to continue serving the port.

While the Teamsters back the employee-only plan, it has its detractors, including the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The American Trucking Associations filed comments with the Federal Maritime Commission March 3, stating that the port’s plan was pre-empted by federal law.

Last fall, Sean Connaughton, maritime administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation, told both ports that the employee provision may be beyond the scope of their local authority.

Plan opponents also have said the growing driver shortage will be compounded by the federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, expected to eliminate some drivers who don’t qualify for the program. Workers who require unescorted access to secure areas of maritime facilities and vessels and all U.S. credentialed mariners must enroll for TWIC by Sept. 25.

Los Angeles port officials said the program will accelerate replacement of higher polluting trucks with cleaner trucks, provide market incentives to encourage private investment and create a capitalized, asset-based drayage system at the nation’s largest container port.

Under this plan, licensed motor carriers sign concessionaire agreements containing fees and requirements with the port and are responsible for owning and maintaining the trucks. The concessionaires will commit to a phased-in system under which the port would have 100 percent employee drivers by 2012. Concessionaires will be allowed temporary or part-time employees.

The current drayage system with owner-operators “provides no incentive for improving efficiency and no financial means to replace the existing truck fleet with cleaner, more efficient trucks,” said port officials. “With owner-operators in the present port drayage earning $10 to $12 per hour on average after fuel and necessary truck maintenance costs, truck drivers elsewhere earning $20 per hour or more have no incentive to work in port trucking.”

In November, Los Angeles approved a progressive dirty truck ban schedule to begin Oct. 1, by prohibiting all pre-1989 trucks. By 2012, all drayage trucks operating in the port will have to meet 2007 federal emission standards, which will reduce port truck pollution by an estimated 80 percent.

In December, both port commissions approved cargo fee tariffs to accelerate the replacement of the existing truck fleet by assessing a $35 gate fee per 20-foot container unit to generate funds to help underwrite the replacement of the existing truck fleet.


UFCW threatens strike against big grocers

Union leaders representing workers in contract negotiations with Giant Food and Safeway said yesterday that they are bracing members for a strike as talks with the Baltimore (MD) area's two largest grocers stall. Safeway and Giant Food, meanwhile, have begun advertising for temporary workers as contracts covering 23,000 workers near expiration March 31.

The companies said hiring additional staffing is standard during contract negotiations. Safeway said in a newspaper advertisement that the hiring of temporary employees was in "preparation for a possible labor dispute." The grocers said they plan to keep stores open if there is a strike.

Safeway and Giant referred calls about the labor bargaining to attorney Harry Burton, who is leading negotiations for the two grocers. He declined to comment on specifics.

Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 in Landover and Local 27 in Baltimore said the supermarkets are seeking concessions that they are not willing to give.

"At this point there very likely could be a work stoppage," said Tim Goins, vice president and director of legislation for UFCW Local 27. "There hasn't been a whole lot of movement from the company."

Union members will take a strike vote April 1 if agreement has not been reached or talks aren't extended.

On its Web site, UFCW Local 400 said the companies continue to ask for "givebacks that the union considers unacceptable." It said the main issues involve pensions, health and welfare benefits, wages, new hires, vendors and new technology.

Buddy Mays, president of UFCW Local 27 and a lead negotiator, said the companies are seeking additional co-pays and higher health care costs for employees, among other things. He also said they want concessions from retirees, though he declined to give specifics.

Unionized supermarkets have been saying for several years that they need concessions to hold down labor costs to successfully compete with nonunion grocers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., that have lower payroll and benefits costs.

Health care has been one of the biggest issues.

5-month strike

In 2003 the issue set off a bitter supermarket strike in Southern California, where about 70,000 UFCW workers went on strike for five months at 850 stores owned by Safeway, Albertsons Inc. and Kroger. That strike cost the grocers billions of dollars in revenue.

Mays said local union members feel they made enough concessions in their last contract, signed in 2004.

That contract created a tiered system under which new hires paid higher co-payments than existing workers and had longer waiting periods for health care coverage.

Higher deductibles

Current workers saw their annual deductible jump from $100 to $200, and co-payments and prescription drug costs increased.

"We felt like we gave them the opportunity last time to compete better with union and nonunion competition," Mays said.

If Giant and Safeway workers strike, it would be the first time in at least three decades. Local 27 last went on strike in 1963 and Local 400 in 1973, Mays said.

The two sides are scheduled to meet again Tuesday.


Unions monkeywrench GOP governor

More than two months have passed since Governor Carcieri announced plans to force all of state government’s 15,000 employees to take six unpaid work days before July. The furlough proposals would save state taxpayers $14.8 million, according to the governor, and help close a current-year deficit of more than $150 million. But the governor cannot impose his plan unilaterally.

He needs the cooperation of labor unions and several state departments not under his control. To date, neither the unions nor the other departments have agreed to give up the equivalent of 10 percent of their salary over the next three months.

And the clock is ticking.

“I think it is fair to say that the window of opportunity is getting smaller as we near the end of the fiscal year,” which is July 1, the governor’s spokesman, Jeff Neal, said yesterday.

Key administration officials have met with labor leaders who represent the vast majority of the state’s work force on an almost weekly basis for the last two months. The longer the negotiations drag on, the more difficult it will be for employees to give up six paid days in the time that remains this fiscal year.

“When they were first proposed, they were talking about one [unpaid day] a month. Now you’re at basically two a month, which is basically one a paycheck. That’s pretty harsh,” said George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

But the governor might be able to save $14.8 million without furloughs. There’s much more on the table than that.

While neither side would go into detail this week, negotiations include furlough days for the next fiscal year, health-care benefit reductions, giving the governor broader authority to replace union workers with private contractors, layoffs and contract extensions. The vast majority of the state employee unions’ contracts expire at the end of June.

“We have been concerned about the layoff issue and privatization issue from the beginning,” Nee said. “It’s been pretty clear that the administration would like to see changes in the plan design and copay arrangement. That would be a part of it if the contracts are extended.”

Neither Neal nor Nee was willing to say how close they are to a deal.

“I’m still sort of cautiously optimistic that we can come to some sort of agreement,” Nee said. “I don’t think either side has been dragging its feet. We’ve met anytime they’ve indicated they want to meet … I think both parties have been working pretty hard and pretty seriously to get a deal that deals with the short-term economic discomfort and job security issues down the road.”

THE NEGOTIATIONS come at a time when Carcieri’s relationship with organized labor is tenuous at best.

Last June, the Republican governor announced plans to eliminate 1,000 state jobs and replace union employees with private workers for “every state service that could possibly be performed more efficiently by the private sector.” It was a move that shocked union officials, who had been in the midst of negotiations with the governor’s office to restructure their contracts.

“Both sides have to be willing to put aside some of those problems of the past in order to get a solution,” Nee said yesterday.

But organized labor’s current incentive to negotiate, Nee said, is not to help the governor.

“We don’t look at it like we’re helping the governor, to be honest. We look at it like, listen, the State of Rhode Island has got some serious fiscal problems; the state work force is a significant part of the state budget. The responsible thing to do when the state you work for is in trouble is to try to do your fair share.”

Meanwhile, the governor has not backed down on his campaign to cut 1,000 state positions by laying off state employees, cutting contract workers, reducing benefits and not filling vacancies.

In all, the governor’s office has publicly said that the personnel cuts would save the state $100 million, which would help close a budget deficit for the coming year that is now projected at $384 million but might be much more.

Data released by the administration yesterday suggest that the work-force reduction plan is moving slowly.

The governor’s office issued 154 layoff notices in November and told 426 more state workers (dubbed the “B list”) that their jobs might be targeted.

As of March 15, 136 of those who initially received layoff notices had left state service. None on the B list had received a layoff notice, according to Neal, although he said the administration would issue 55 to 60 notices next week. So far, the state has cut at least 57 contract employees.

Altogether, the state has lost 926 employees this year through layoffs, retirements and standard vacancies, according to the administration’s data.

The state has not suspended all hiring, however, even as the layoff process continues.

A total of 683 workers have been hired this year through March 15, according to data released by the administration. Most of the employees have been hired through departments out of the governor’s direct control, such as the judiciary, higher education and the attorney general’s office. But 218 of the new employees came under the governor’s watch.

“While some critical positions are being filled as they become vacant, the number of unfilled vacancies has grown dramatically and we are filling positions at a far lower rate than we would any other year,” Neal said.


Highly-paid striking nurses shout down scabs

Patients who arrived Friday at Bay Area hospitals affiliated with Sutter Health were greeted by chanting nurses on picket lines under the watchful eyes of security guards. Hundreds of registered nurses kicked off a 10-day strike, marking their third walk-out in less than six months.

Inside the hospitals, surgeries continued. Replacement nurses, many of whom came from other states, cared for patients.

"It's just as smooth as glass here," said Jonnie Banks, a spokeswoman for Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. "It's really been without incident."

The picket lines seemed noticeably smaller than during the previous two walkouts, but that did not diminish the strikers' fervor.

The nurses carried signs reading "Safe Staffing Saves Lives," "Patients Before Profits," and "No Take Aways."

"We're doing this to retain nurses and to keep what we've worked hard for," said Bonnie Morgan, an operating room nurse at Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch.

Both sides agree the dispute is not about salaries.

Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and Berkeley has offered a 16.5 percent wage hike over 3 1/2 years. That would increase the average pay for a full-time nurse from $123,000 to $145,000.

Sutter Delta, facing increased competition to keep its nurses from joining a recently opened Kaiser hospital nearby, raised pay 15 percent late last year. That brought the average annual salary for its nurses to more than $114,000.

Many of the hospitals have offered salary increases ranging from 18 to 20 percent over four years.

The dispute centers around meal and break relief, safe lifting policies, and health and retirement benefits, union leaders say.

Mary Ann Voellinger, a supervisory nurse who has worked in Eden's emergency room for 22 years, said there were three days last week when she did not get an afternoon break because there was no one to relieve her.

The hospital will provide penalty pay in such situations, she said, but that does not help create a better atmosphere for patients.

"We deserve a break," she said. "It's been exceedingly busy during flu season. If you could clone yourself or split yourself in two, it might be safe."

Eden spokeswoman Banks said the hospital recently hired 16 additional registered nurses for break relief, but Voellinger argued that the hospital remains understaffed.

Viki Ardito, chief nursing officer at Alta Bates Summit, said the hospital has enough people for break relief but the union is upset that some are licensed vocational nurses instead of the more highly trained registered nurses.

The nurses also are seeking a special team to lift patients because of the injuries many nurses incur.

Alta Bates Summit spent $1.2 million for lift equipment last year. That resulted in an 83 percent drop in lift-related injuries for nurses, Ardito said.

Several relatives of patients said they noticed little difference in care Friday.

But Max Rorty, who visited a patient at Alta Bates Summit in Oakland, said she noticed that the traveling nurses were having difficulty figuring out the chart system, and a supervisory nurse wasn't available when she asked for one.

"It's really hard to equal the care of people who have been doing this for years," she said.


Union nurses stream across picket line

Registered nurses employed by Fremont-Rideout Health Group hit the picket lines Friday in an attempt to force hospital administrators back to the negotiating table. The nurses have been without a new contract for about a year. Roughly 50 joined the picket lines early Friday morning at both Fremont and Rideout hospitals. By noon, an organized rally drew 150 nurses, family members, community members, and representatives from local labor unions. They encouraged nurses to stand their ground.

Fremont-Rideout CEO Theresa Hamilton said 147 nurses employed by Fremont-Rideout crossed the picket line and reported to work during the day shift, which begins at 7 a.m. at both hospitals. Ninety-four nurses reported for the evening shift, Fremont-Rideout said.

Hamilton and other hospital administrators said they do not see a need to resume negotiations.

"Our, best, last and final offer is generous and competitive," said Tresha Moreland, vice president of human resources.

Hospital administrators turned the strike — meant to be a 24-hour demonstration — into a lockout. Fremont-Rideout officials said that in order to get quality replacement nurses, they needed to offer them 10-day contracts. A simultaneous strike by nurses at Bay Area hospitals has made the business of getting temporary nurses competitive.

Striking local nurses say this was simply an intimidation tactic meant to encourage them to report to work.

Nadene Henderson, an RN at the Fremont-Rideout Cancer Center, said she would have participated in the strike, regardless of its duration.

"I'm disappointed the hospital decided to lock us out," she said.

The last offer made by hospital officials in January — which they claim is final — includes a 5.5 percent wage increase, additional retirement benefits and easier access to health care provided by Fremont-Rideout facilities.

That offer, they said, is still on the table.

Moreland said the nurses are trying to force mandatory union membership, which would only serve to benefit the union. Administrators want membership to remain optional.

Pro-union nurses rejected the offer three weeks after it was presented.

Nurses who have crossed the picket line say that working is their own way of fighting for patient care.

Stephanie Bone, one of three RNs selected by hospital administrators to speak on behalf of non-striking nurses, reported to work through each of the three strikes.

"I didn't become a nurse to turn my back on a patient," she said. "I don't think walking out is a way to solve issues."

Striking nurses said they will not back down or accept the offer from hospital administration.

They have attracted some support from local residents.

Lee Bright, 59, of Marysville, has monthly doctor visits at the Cancer Center. He said he has witnessed intimidation of nurses inside the hospital.

"The nurses have a right to have a life. I back them 100 percent," Bright said.

Rose Sanders, a striking emergency room RN from Rideout, said pro-union nurses are fighting for a closed shop so that all nurses can benefit from the union's work.

"We don't want people to get all the benefits and not contribute," Sanders said.


Union wants members to collect more taxes

As California struggles to bridge an estimated $8 billion budget deficit, it just so happens that's about the same amount the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates the state loses annually in uncollected taxes. No one is suggesting that much money could be recovered, but state officials are exploring new methods to crack down on tax cheats, including hiring more private tax collectors.

The Board of Equalization – which collects sales and use taxes in the state – on Wednesday approved a task force to consider hiring outside tax collectors and other options.

Reaching outside the civil service ranks to rein in tax scofflaws is adamantly opposed by the Service Employees International Union, which represents the BOE's 400 collectors.

SEIU officials say collecting unpaid taxes could go a long way to solving the state's budget woes but believe new technical equipment and training that civil servant collectors recently received should be given an opportunity to show improvement.

"Just during the past year in our collection section we (received) Internet search tools to help us locate taxpayers that have more or less disappeared from our radar, owing the board money," Bobbie Smith, a union representative and collector, told the panel.

Randie Henry, deputy director of the BOE, told the board that private companies have expressed "significant interest" in contracting with the state.

Among the speakers who lined up to address the Board of Equalization for a chance to collect the roughly $95 million the BOE writes off as uncollectible each year was Johan Klehs, who was a member of the board from 1994 to 2002.

Representing the Los Angeles law firm of Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, Klehs said the firm has collected about $1.5 billion for more than 1,800 public agencies in the country.

"We want to share our knowledge with the board for what works and doesn't work in utilizing a private collection vendor on a partnership basis," Klehs told the panel.

The BOE has authority to contract with vendors for out-of-state collections, but legislation is required to allow private collectors to operate within the state.

While SEIU has vowed to fight such a proposal, the Franchise Tax Board, which collects personal income and corporate tax in California, has had statutory authority to hire private collectors since 1988. The legislative analyst estimates about $6.5 billion goes uncollected each year.

Theresa Gray, a spokeswoman for the board, said it has contracts with three firms to augment its staff of 750 collectors.

Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed 10 percent across-the-board cuts for most state agencies, his budget calls for hiring 500 employees for investigations and tax collections.


Union disputes election defeat

The big union's fight against the upstart continues after a tight election won by the fledgling Covington Paperworkers Union Local 675. During a March 12 secret ballot vote, CPU apparently wrested from United Steelworkers International the right to represent about 972 union workers at the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington (VA).

The National Labor Relations Board, which held and supervised the election, must certify the vote before CPU's victory becomes official.

On Wednesday, USW petitioned the NLRB for a new election.

Its petition cited 15 examples of alleged misconduct by CPU in the weeks and months preceding the election. The objections included alleged harassment and intimidation of USW members at the paper mill.

CPU won the election by 14 votes, receiving 465 votes to USW's 451.

CPU responded this week to USW's allegations with a release from John Fishwick, a Roanoke lawyer who has represented CPU for months.

Fishwick said that "CPU ran a straight and honest campaign" and "will vigorously fight to uphold the free and fair election results."

Willie Clark, an NLRB regional director based in Winston-Salem, N.C., said the labor board will conduct an initial investigation of USW's allegations and determine whether a formal hearing is necessary.

The NLRB will delay any vote certification decision until USW's objections and CPU's rebuttals are reviewed thoroughly, Clark said. The review process could require a month or more, he said -- or even longer if initial NLRB decisions are appealed by the parties.

In October, CPU split from the USW, an international powerhouse among labor unions, to form its own local to negotiate with MeadWestvaco for a new labor contract. The previous contract expired in December 2006. Union members have continued working at the mill under its terms.

Officers and members of CPU have claimed that USW's negotiators failed to adequately represent the best interests of the paper mill workers in contract talks last year with MeadWestvaco.

Fishwick said CPU is ready to renew long-stalled contract negotiations with MeadWestvaco.

During earlier talks, issues have included health care coverage, pension contributions, wages and company proposals to make boundaries between maintenance trades more porous.

MeadWestvaco is the largest taxpayer and employer for Covington and Allegheny County.


Iowan lawmaker backs Right To Work law

Tax reform, economic development and renewable energy will be on state Sen. Mark Zieman's menu should his bid for re-election be successful. The Republican from Postville, who represents Senate District 8, is running for his fourth term. The district covers Chickasaw, Howard, Winneshiek and Allamakee counties. "As a farmer and the owner of a small business, I bring a broad range of experience and knowledge to the table," Zieman said.

He wants to apply those attributes to a number of issues facing his constituents, such as encouraging the economy to grow and creating a better atmosphere for business. He would also like to see more initiatives to make the state a leader in fuel technologies and to bring business to rural areas.

"We need to encourage economic growth by building on our efforts to make Iowa a leader in alternative energy, retaining Iowa's right-to-work status and reforming Iowa's outdated property tax system," he said.

Some lawmakers are concerned a law requiring nonunion workers to pay for union services, often called fair share proposals, may erode the state's right-to-work law.

Zieman said he has a "proven track record" of working for taxpayer interests, including proposals that would protect civil liberties and promote business.

"The time is right for Senate leadership to step up and create legislation that makes and keeps Iowa a great place to live, work and play," he said.

Zieman is the ranking member of the State Government committee. He also serves on the Education, Judiciary, Rules and Administration, Transportation and Ways and Means committees.


Union impedes worker pay, decert begins

A group of Spirit AeroSystems employees has begun an effort to decertify its professional and technical union. Organizers say the major issue with the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace is a performance bonus plan given to non-union salaried employees that isn't in the union's contract.

About 2,375 Spirit employees are represented by SPEEA's Wichita Technical and Professional Unit. Engineers are represented by another SPEEA unit and are not affected.

Decertification organizers must collect signatures from 30 percent of the represented employees in order to petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.

There are a number of reasons for the effort, said Nate Adams, a Spirit supply base analyst and one of the employees organizing the decertification effort.

"The team believes that SPEEA is an impediment to us," both in worker productivity and in company profitability, Adams said.

Being part of the union has cost workers thousands of dollars in lost bonuses, he said.

SPEEA and Spirit will begin negotiations in the next 45 to 60 days. The technical and professional unit's contract doesn't expire until July 2011, but the contract calls for the renegotiation of wages and benefits this year.

The bonus program is the union's No. 1 issue, said SPEEA Midwest director Bob Brewer. The union and the company already have discussed the bonus plan, Brewer said.

"We all have a lot of agreement on the philosophy on what the plan means to every salaried employee at Spirit," he said.

Brewer said it is frustrating that the decertification effort could impede work to get the bonus plan.

"We are going to make it happen in some way, form or function," he said.

Spirit spokeswoman Lisa Conklin said the company declined to comment.

A similar decertification effort was successful at Boeing Wichita last year. Technical and professional workers narrowly voted out SPEEA.

Boeing employees had rejected decertification and reaffirmed the union in 2004 during another effort.


UAW strikers share their pain

One hundred workers at the International Automotive Components plant in Lebanon, Va., have temporarily lost their jobs because of a strike by auto workers in five American Axle plants in Michigan and New York. "We were forced to release about 100 employees on a temporary layoff at our Lebanon facility since the United Auto Workers/American Axle strike began in late February," said David Ladd, executive director of marketing and communications for IAC said Thursday.

Nearly 4,000 union members who work for American Axle started walking the picket line in late February. American Axle makes axels, drive shafts and other equipment for the automobile industry.

The strike has led to market slow downs in other automotive parts companies such as IAC.

"Its part of the domino effect spreading across the auto industry as a result of the strike at American Axel," Ladd said. "Many suppliers have been forced to take similar actions following the actions of our General Motors customer."

Ladd said company officials are monitoring the strike daily and remain hopeful that it will be resolved in the near future.

According to the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority Web site, IAC employs more than 400 people in the Lebanon plant.

Ladd said the company began the temporary layoffs the week the strike began on Feb. 27. The company issued layoffs to 20 to 30 workers at a time, he said.

IAC is based in Dearborn, Mich., and has operated the Lebanon plant since it purchased the facility from Lear in December 2006. The company makes vehicle interior components and systems such as door modules and floor consoles as well as instrument panels and other automotive parts.

In a news release issued earlier this month, union officials say its members are on strike at American Axel in order to "preserve good paying U.S. manufacturing jobs" at the company.

"Our union is a responsible organization, and we’ve worked through complex problems at Chrysler, Ford, GM, Delphi, Dana and other companies," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said in the release. "But negotiations can’t be a one-way street."


UAW strike harms Canadian workers

The strike at American Axle and Manufacturing in the U.S. is hitting more big auto-parts suppliers here. Kitchener Frame, a subsidiary of Martinrea International Inc., has temporarily laid off about 550 workers – including more than 400 in the past week – because of the ripple effect of the American Axle walkout in the United States.

The strike by 3,650 American Axle workers in Michigan and western New York, now in its fourth week, has shut down or partially closed about 30 General Motors operations, including its truck plant in Oshawa.

It has idled thousands of GM workers, but also negated demand for auto parts from scores of suppliers and triggered more layoffs.

Kitchener Frame produces frames for GM's plant in Moraine, Ohio, which makes sport-utility vehicles. That assembly plant relies on axle components from American.

Mike Devine, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 1451, confirmed the latest layoffs at Kitchener Frame and added that regional suppliers such as Lear Corp. have also reduced output and staff because of the strike.

Other suppliers in the Oshawa area have reduced output and laid off staff because of the stoppage at the truck plant.

Devine said about 150 workers will remain on the job at Kitchener Frame because they make undercarriage components for the Cadillac model at an assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., and for sport-utilities at the CAMI Automotive operation in Ingersoll, Ont.

American Axle workers walked off the job on Feb. 26 when company negotiators proposed steep wage cuts so it could become more competitive with rival firms.

GM indicated the auto giant has enough inventory for its models at the idled assembly plants for another month before dealers face shortages.

Kitchener Frame could close by the spring of 2010 because it has no contract beyond that date to produce frames for the GM TrailBlazer and Envoy sport-utes in Ingersoll.

Meanwhile, American Axle has moved some parts production for Chrysler LLC from the U.S. to Mexico. A Chrysler spokesperson said plants in Newark, Del., and Saltillo, Mexico will continue production indefinitely because American Axle moved the work to its Mexican operations.

The strike has not forced the closing of any operations of Chrysler, American Axle's second-biggest customer behind GM.


Workers comp a tool for gov't-union dues

Like the mugger who says he won't kill you if you give him your money, the legislature's Labor and Public Employees Committee is filled with faux kindness this year. Having conceded firefighters are no more susceptible to multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and prostate and testicular cancer than ordinary people, the panel wants to bestow special benefits upon its friends and supporters in the public-employee unions.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which has fought the good fight on this issue, presented evidence this month that the entire bill, which includes partial reinstatement of an expensive, unfunded heart-and-hypertension mandate, is unwarranted. What it got was watered down, but still fiscally toxic.

During better times for Republicans in the mid-1990s, the heart-and-hypertension law was repealed. Previously, it was widely believed police and other emergency workers were more susceptible to such diseases than civilians and should get supercharged workers' compensation when felled by them. But research since then, including recent findings by Dr. Noel Weiss of the University of Washington, debunked that myth. The reality is public-safety workers should get the same benefits as anyone else who is unable to work after suffering from these conditions.

However, the politics — the power exerted by the unions — leads to a sharply different conclusion. That's why the committee brings up these issues year after year.

Thanks to the CCM and the committee's three Republicans, including Rep. Selim Noujaim of Waterbury, the committee jettisoned some of the bill's worst elements. Gone are the firefighters' cancer provision and the presumption that public-safety officers' heart disease is job-related. But municipalities still would have to prove public-safety workers who come down with hepatitis, meningococcal meningitis or tuberculosis contracted these diseases somewhere other than on the job. That's hard to do and requires distasteful personal intrusion.

What's infuriating about these constant attempts to inflate public-employee salaries and benefits is the unions do it because they can, because they have access and because Democratic lawmakers count on them at re-election time. These lawmakers should have the courage to back up their union-coddling with funding for the mandates they impose, thereby taking on themselves the political risk of state tax increases such gifts inevitably would require.


Angry gov't-unions given a time-out

A Statehouse stalemate over a proposal to give public-employee unions more power at the bargaining table was broken briefly Friday, but only long enough to set the stage for a spirited debate next week. Republicans and Democrats agreed to delay a Senate vote on the measure until Monday. The deal limits that debate to six hours.

House File 2645 would open contract negotiations to a much wider range of subjects beyond pay and benefits. It would, for example, allow teachers union officials to include class size and discipline policies as part of contract talks.

Union officials say the bill would give public employees leverage to correct real-world workplace problems.

"We call it 'pencil dust,' the shavings that are left behind when you sharpen your pencil," said Danny Homan, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. "They're little tiny things that really don't matter when you look at one by itself. But they're important to some people, and they're an injustice."

There was an uproar among Republican lawmakers when Democrats offered this proposal earlier this week. House Republicans dragged out the debate for more than 12 hours, they said, to give Iowans more time to digest the proposal and offer opinions. Senate Republicans used a full 24 hours of stall tactics to delay debate in their chamber. They even threatened to extend the dispute into the Easter holiday.

Senate Democrats on Friday agreed to wait until Monday to debate the bill. In exchange, Republicans agreed to limit the debate. Lawmakers, some of whom worked through the night Thursday, then headed home for the weekend.

The bill represents the first substantial change to the public employee collective bargaining law since it was written in 1974. Gov. Chet Culver on Friday said he would carefully review the bill if it arrives in his office.

Opponents of the bill say it would strip power from management and elected officials and could raise property taxes if expensive union proposals are forced on governments by an arbitrator.

"The only people who are in favor of this are unions," said Sen. David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan. "All the local governments are opposed to it. That shows you where the lines are drawn."

The idea is to make sure that union members have the same power as managers to choose topics at the bargaining table, said Sen. Robert Dvorsky, a Democrat from Coralville.

Many public employers in Iowa entertain discussion even though they're not forced to by law, but others are less flexible, he said. The bill would allow a neutral third party to hear grievances and render binding decisions.

AFSCME's contracts with the state include the grievance provision for the bulk of state employees, Homan said. But of the 110 contracts the union has with cities, counties and school districts, only half have the so-called "discipline and discharge" option. That affects 10,000 workers, he said.

All public workers under the bill would be able to negotiate for the right to contest a job evaluation they feel is unreasonable or inaccurate. Workers could also negotiate their pay day, for example.

Some employers say they don't want to specify a date in case there's a computer glitch or illness in the payroll department, Homan said, "but for workers, when it comes to payday, they're kind of looking for that paycheck."

Some workers, such as mechanics or road workers, have to buy their own tools. They know it when they're hired, Homan said. The bill would allow them to negotiate for replacements if their tools break or are stolen.

Thousands of public employees have little recourse other than to hire an attorney if they believe they were fired or disciplined unjustly, Homan said.

"If I wear red shoes to work and my boss doesn't like red shoes, he can fire me. There's nothing I can do," he said.

John Gilliland of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry said that when it comes to public employees, managers negotiate with taxpayers' money.

"You have to balance that bargaining differently than you would in the private sector," he said. "Our public sector workers have great benefits and salaries that are out of sync with the private sector. I'd say they've done very well under the current collective bargaining agreements."


Carpenters union takes dues hit in Montana

After 15 years running the shovel in the log yard, Gary Tobol was resigned to Tuesday's announcement of an indefinite closure of Stimson Lumber Co.'s mill in Bonner (MT). He's worked lumber for 40 years, from Anaconda to Bonner, and ridden out the tumult in the timber industry.

“I've been into logging most of my life,” said Tobol, 59, with a shrug. “It would have been nice to stay open a little longer, but we've got to get the price of lumber up. It's just tough all over.”

Top brass from Portland, Ore., visited the Bonner mill Tuesday afternoon, giving crews 60-day notices of the shutdown. About 92 hourly workers and 10 salaried workers are affected.

The mill, which closed for one month in February, reopened on March 3. Now crews will work for two more months, but then prospects appear bleak.

“We would expect the shutdown to last 12 months or more,” said Jeff Webber, vice president of manufacturing. “We're going to run out the log deck and inventory and that will take about two months to do.”

He attributed the closure to the downturn in the timber industry. Earlier in the day, Webber had delivered similar news affecting about 60 employees at Stimson's mill in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

“It is really just due to the effects of the housing market today and the reduction of lumber demand in North America,” Webber said. “It has gone from 60 billion board feet two years ago to an estimated 40 billion board feet this year.”

He said a skeletal staff of about a half-dozen workers will remain as security for the 165 acres Stimson owns in Bonner.

Mike Woodworth, business manager for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 3038, said the union will meet shortly with management. They will try to negotiate a severance package for workers and urge Stimson to pay for some health care of dislocated workers.

He said the closure is not unexpected, especially after the Bonner plywood plant closed in July 2007.

“It is a bitter pill to swallow and, initially, the people are bitter. But they will get over that real quick,” he said. “Some people are relieved that it is finally over with and they can get retraining and go on. There is life after Stimson Lumber.”

For now, Bonner's future is in flux.

Missoula developer Scott Cooney, who closed on the purchase of 42 former company houses on Jan. 14 and a 133-acre log yard from Stimson in early March, said he wants to buy the entire property. Given his background in industrial cleanup, he would be able to deal with some of the environmental issues on the property.

“It has never been a secret that it is my desire to buy the whole site from Day One,” Cooney said.

He said the cleanup of the Stimson plant would be a concern for any buyer.

“It makes a sale quite a bit harder,” he said. “It will be a barrier for anyone involved.”

Webber declined to comment on a possible sale of the property to Cooney. Asked if Stimson intends to retain a presence in Bonner, Webber said, “For the time being, we don't have any immediate plans to leave.”

Cooney envisions a burgeoning community that preserves its milltown heritage, while taking advantage of Bonner's location at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers with some recreation-related businesses.

“It's imperative that the community diversify its economic base and remove the cyclical basis of the wood-products industry,” Cooney said. “I'm not concerned by the mill closing, not in the slightest bit. I think that community is going to flourish regardless of the mill being there.”

Bonner residents, absorbing the latest company news, also see another transition under way with the Superfund cleanup and removal of soils tainted by mine and smelter tailings at nearby Milltown Reservoir.

It appears this is the final chapter of Bonner's storied milltown history, dating back to 1889. Union leader Woodworth said Stimson is the fourth of several logging companies in Bonner, including Anaconda Forest Products, U.S. Plywood, Champion International Corp. and, finally, Stimson Lumber Co.

Cooney, who is wooing residents to share in his vision of growth for the community, recently raised rents on the 27 occupied homes in Bonner. He said the increases are needed to help defray the costs of maintenance on the homes, but says current tenants will be given the first chance to buy if the homes are placed on the market. No one will be evicted, he vowed.

“We're addressing the structural deficiencies and insurance, water and sanitation” issues, Cooney said.

Rents weren't consistent under Stimson and gradually will increase over the next few months, said Cooney's assistant, Erin Kunzelman. Monthly rents, which ranged from $375 to $500 under Stimson, will increase to about $450 to $750.

For some of the displaced Stimson employees, the rent increases and plant closure will force relocation.

Gerald Caluori, 50, said he's survived eight or nine plant closures across the street from the house where lives with his 9-year-old daughter. He's been told to expect his rent to increase from $450 to $650.

“I have a feeling, once the mill shuts down, that a lot of people will move out,” he said. “We're losing a good-paying job and will have to find something else. I don't want to work in this industry any more. It's too risky. There is no job security.”

Woodworth said a rapid-response team - informing people of available benefits and how to apply for them - will take place in the next few weeks.

He said the transition may be difficult for some people, estimating about one-third of the plant employees were in their 50s.

Wolf Ametsbichler, manager of the Missoula Job Service, said employees will be able to tap into dislocated worker funds and Trade Adjustment Act programs.

Monique Fortmann, director of the Missoula County Public Schools Adult Education Division, expects response will be similar to actions taken after Stimson's layoff in April 2007. At that time, her agency helped 73 of 133 impacted employees.

“We're able to put together instructional programs, assess skills and do career exploration,” she said. The rapid response meetings will “happen within about one month. It is nice to get the information out so people can start thinking and planning.”


Union members in holiday Prog swoon

At Barack Obama’s second stop in his Oregon campaign journey, the senator from Illinois opened the town hall-style meeting with his “fierce urgency of now” message. “We cannot wait,” he said, referring to ending the war in Iraq, combating global warming and investing in America’s youth.

Obama addressed a crowd of about 3,400 Friday afternoon at the Salem (OR) Armory Auditorium.

He said Americans have never paid more for gas or college and that health care costs for Americans have gone up more the 78 percent since George W. Bush took office.

The message of hope coupled with action hit home for at least one mid-valley resident.

Sonya Reichwein, a DMV worker from Albany, came to Salem Friday along with about 200 Service Employees International Union members.

Reichwein, the SEIU local 503 vice president, said she had decided to support Obama after seeing him speak last fall.

She attended the union’s political conference in Washington, D.C., and listened to Obama’s current opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as well as former Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Chris Dodd and Gov. Bill Richardson.

Richardson, who announced his endorsement of Obama at the senator’s Memorial Coliseum stop earlier in the day Friday, did not appear during the Salem rally.

Reichwein said before the program began Friday that Obama is a powerful speaker and she wanted to hear what he had to say.

“He just seems to be in touch with what’s important, with reality,” she said.

The things that are important to Reichwein, 40, include health care for all Americans and lower interest rates.

“I’m a state employee, so we have good health care,” she said. “Without that, I don’t see how they make things work.”

She said her mother takes a medication that costs $300 a month.

“If they weren’t retired military, I don’t know what they would do,” she said of her parents.

Reichwein said she believes Obama is the best candidate for working families.

“When I heard Hillary Clinton, and when I heard John Edwards, they were talking about what they could do for us. He was talking about what we can do together. It was much more personal.”

Obama also appeared in Corvallis and Eugene Friday and planned to be in Medford today.

He and Hillary Clinton are the main presidential hopefuls on the ballot in the Oregon primary. Ballots will come out about May 3, and the last day to vote will be May 20.


Bargaining kicks off with a protest

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