Voters prefer secret-ballot union elections

Related story: "Dems warned about voter-opinion on EFCA"
Related story: "Another survey pans unions' #1 agenda item"

Very interesting. Candidate after candidate backed by organized labor has sworn allegiance to the Employee Free Choice Act, but if a new survey is any indication, that support could cost them votes in the fall elections. The survey of Senate races in Colorado, Minnesota and Maine shows voters supporting secret-ballot elections in the workplace, which the Employee Free Choice Act would destroy.

Voters in Colorado, Maine and Minnesota favor federally supervised secret and private ballot elections over a process where the majority of workers simply sign a card and workers’ signatures are made public to their employers, union organizers and co-workers. In fact, the overwhelming majority of voters agrees that secret and private ballots are the cornerstone of democracy and should be kept for union elections. Voters are concerned that intimidation of workers by management or union leaders could be a serious problem in union organizing elections.

When it comes to Congress taking action on this issue, Colorado, Maine and Minnesota voters prefer leaving federal union laws the way they are now. The majority of voters opposes a bill in Congress called the “Employee Free Choice Act” which would replace federally supervised secret and private ballot elections with a process that requires the majority of workers to simply sign a card to authorize organizing a union.
The survey was conducted by the Coalition for a Democratic Workforce by John McLaughlin of McLaughlin and Associates. The National Association of Manufacturers is a founding member of the coalition. (News release here.)

We've seen the card-check legislation become an issue so far in only one election when the conservatives at the Red State blog cited it in endorsing Sean Parnell, the Republican primary challenger to Rep. Don Young (R-AK).

But the issue should certainly figure prominently in many fall campaigns, with organized labor making campaign contributions contingent on a candidate's support. Thing is, labor doesn't like to talk about what the measure actually does -- eliminating secret ballots -- which suggests a political vulnerability. Candidates who oppose card check and who educate the voters as to the measure's anti-democratic core could do very well for themselves.

We saw the news about the survey at Marc Ambinder's blog at The Atlantic, which was then reported at the Las Vegas Sun's news update blog. Points go to the Sun's Michael Mishak for explaining what card check actually does: "Specifically, the bill would allow workers to sign a card signifying their preference for a union instead of voting in a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board." Wish more reporters were as careful.


GM shutdown monkeywrenches UAW strike

General Motors Corp. said Saturday two pickup truck plants idled by the strike at parts maker American Axle will reopen for about a month each. At the same time, an SUV plant in Arlington, Texas, will be shut down.

GM spokesman Dan Flores said the automaker managed to find enough parts to allow factories in Oshawa, Ontario, and Fort Wayne, Ind., to run shifts building Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. Those plants have been shut down since Feb. 29 and will reopen in the next couple of weeks.

The Arlington, Texas, plant that builds SUVs, meanwhile, will go on four-week layoff starting March 14th.

A parts shortage created by the six-week United Auto Workers strike at American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. has forced GM to all but halt production of its slow-selling but highly profitable large trucks and SUVs.

GM shut down part of its Janesville, Wis., truck plant but continued to run a shift.

Arlington was the only truck-building factory in the United States and Canada not affected by the strike.

Flores wouldn't specify where the parts are coming from, though several analysts have said GM is likely using parts from an American Axle plant in Mexico.

The move is evidence American Axle's ability to get parts from Mexico gives it leverage in the dispute with the UAW, said labor expert Harley Shaiken of the University of California Berkley. Even with 30 factories affected by the strike, GM so far has able to get the products it needs.

Chrysler LLC, also a customer of American Axle, has been receiving parts from the parts maker's Mexican plants.

The UAW's impact also is dulled by a slumping U.S. auto market and especially weak demand for larger vehicles, which has left GM with excess supply of vehicles that use American Axle parts.

"These Mexican plants are an important lever," Shaiken said.

GM has continued production at its plant in Sialo, Mexico.

Arlington is one of five GM factories threatening to strike the automaker if local contracts aren't seen reached. The other plants are in Flint, Lansing, Warren and Parma, Ohio.

Union locals representing those plants this week told GM they would go on strike if local contracts are soon reached.


FiCore membership good enough for Clooney

George Clooney has quit the writers' union varsity team. The Oscar winner, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the 1920s-set football comedy Leatherheads, in theaters today, has had a falling out with the Writers Guild of America after not receiving credit for penning the film's screenplay.

Per Variety, the WGA ruled in a 2-to-1 arbitration vote that the 46-year-old Clooney was not entitled to have his name listed onscreen alongside cowriters Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly, despite his estimate that he rewrote a large chunk of their original screenplay.

As a result, the A-lister quietly decided last fall to change his status to "financial core." Fi-core members, as they're called, are covered by the basic union contract as stipulated by the WGA's constitution, but pay lower dues and have drastically reduced union privileges than regular members.

Once a member chooses to go fi-core, the decision is permanent and that person loses voting rights and cannot run for office or attend union meetings. In essence, they stop participating in WGA activities.

Why would Clooney take such drastic action?

He told the trade that he felt he had been wronged by an organization he's supported through thick and thin, most recently during the contentious strike.

"When your own union doesn't back what you've done, the only honorable thing to do is not participate," he said, adding that in no way did he try to cut out Brantley and Reilly from receiving credit.

Instead, Clooney believed he deserved to be recognized for his script work. He said he would have dropped out of the WGA completely after the arbitration ruling, but for the fact he would have had a tougher time writing screenplays for future projects, since the major Hollywood studios are bound to honor their contract with the union.

According to Clooney's longtime producing partner, Grant Heslov, who runs their Smokehouse production company, Leatherheads had been collecting dust for the past 17 years before Clooney decided he wanted a "lighter" project after Good Night, and Good Luck.

So the Michael Clayton star went to work rewriting almost every scene to make the film a throwback screwball comedy—at which point he received the go-ahead from Universal to make the movie.

"George liked Leatherheads, but said it never felt quite right," Heslov told Variety. "He took it to Italy with him, and I remember when he called to say he thought he'd solved it. One thing that you clearly see, if you read the original, the subsequent drafts and then his draft, is that he wrote the majority of the film."

However, when a director applies for writing credit on a project, under WGA rules, the dispute automatically goes to an arbitration panel.

Heslov said he and Clooney were "shocked" and felt that the WGA fumbled the ball on this one.

"We both thought Duncan and Rick would get first position credit, which they deserved. But this wasn't right," he said.

Clooney said he refrained from appealing because he didn't want to appear to be feuding with the guild during the run-up to the strike.

Heslov pointed out that going fi-core was Clooney's "form of protest," which he wanted to keep from being made public.

"We're both big union guys," said the producer. "Between us, we belong to 12 unions. I think they made the wrong decision, and he was within his rights to respond by going financial core."

A rep for the WGA declined to comment on the matter.


Labor-state boasts union density gain

Pennsylvania became the fourth-largest union state in the country in 2007 by adding enough members to surpass both New Jersey and Michigan, the U.S. Department of Labor has reported. Breaking a five-year streak of membership declines, Pennsylvania unions added 85,000 members in 2007 — enough to boost it past New Jersey and Michigan, both of which lost members last year.

Those 830,000 employees represent 15.1 percent of the state's workers, up from 13.6 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. labor department.

Pennsylvania is also quickly closing in on Illinois, the state in the third spot. Illinois saw its total drop from 931,000 to 842,000 last year.

“This is growth which has surprised everybody. It's hard to put a finger on,” said Mark Price. He's a labor economist for Harrisburg's Keystone Research Center, a non-profit economic research and policy group.

Nationally, the percentage of workers who belong to unions rose slightly, from 12 percent to 12.1 percent. That marks the first increase since the 1980s, according to the labor department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Price said the gains seem to be coming in construction, trade/transportation/utilities and education/health services unions.

“We are really growing on the health care side,” said William George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “Four hospitals won elections last year.”

Construction has also been strong, particularly in Western Pennsylvania, due to the start of some projects that had been delayed and the implementation of incentives that motivated employers to expand in or relocate to Western Pennsylvania, he said.

“I think the low, cheap dollar has increased our employment too,” said George, adding that international companies could afford to make products in the U.S. as a result. “The labor is cheaper because the dollar is [worth less].”

Locally, union members made their presence felt in Bensalem this year, where they successfully pushed to have Philadelphia Park's new casino construction project designated as a union job. And the United Steelworkers Union got a bump in Bucks County last spring, when about 400 employees at the new Gamesa wind turbine plants in Falls joined.

Price said stronger recruiting efforts and economic uncertainty also could have played roles in the shift.

“I think [unions] are working harder than they have in the past [in recruiting],” Price said. “Clearly, there's more of an emphasis on organizing. Historically, tough times have spurred on union membership quite a bit.”

Workers may believe unions offer them an additional layer of employment protection in today's uncertain economy, he said.

“In tough economic times, the jobs are going,” said Wayne Ranick, spokesman for the United Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh. “People see they are much more vulnerable.”

George agreed.

“Some of this is philosophical,” he said. “People are concerned about their pensions when they retire and they're concerned about the health care systems. ...and the immigration issue is causing infiltration on jobs.”

Whether unions help address those issues is debatable, according to Brian Johnson, policy director at the Washington D.C.-based Alliance for Worker Freedom.

“In today's upwardly mobile society, unions are no longer relevant,” he said.

His organization opposes collective bargaining and maintains that labor unions usurp the power of individual employees to represent themselves. It fights what he called all “pro-union and anti-worker” legislation.

And while his group supports the right of employees to join a union, it doesn't support unions using their power to pressure workers into joining or forcing them to pay dues, he said.

“Most workers know that they don't need a union to own their own home, own their own health care, own their own retirement or own they own small business,” Johnson said in a statement.

He called the slight national up-tick in union membership “marginal” and noted that organized labor hit its peak in 1979 and has been declining ever since.

Johnson said the United Auto Workers Union membership dropped from 538,448 members in 2006 to 464,910 members last year.

“The real issue is workers are blatantly rejecting the UAW,” he said. “With a 14-percent, one-year decline, it is clear that the UAW and all unions are on the way out.”

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., which tracks announced job cuts and layoffs in the auto industry, reported that car companies announced a total of 78,880 cuts in 2007.

Lonnie Golden, professor of economy and labor studies at Penn State's Abington campus, said it was interesting that union numbers were on the rise, despite the fact that much of the job growth in the last few years has been in industries that are not typically unionized.

“One year does not make a trend, but they have been able to recoup the losses they had for the last four or five years,” Golden said of the Pennsylvania numbers. “It's a big bump for one year.”

Price said time would tell whether the increase in union membership is a trend.

“If this [increase] is a real trend, it'll take a couple of years to see,” he said. “Right now, they're back to where they were in 2003 in terms of union density.”


The truth about Andy Stern's corruption

On Wednesday, March 19, at 8:52 p.m., Scott Carlson, executive director of California Alliance to Advance Nursing Home Care, was apparently in an optimistic mood. Carlson is a former executive with the Arkansas–based nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises. And until last week he ran the Alliance, a lobbying organization that helped negotiate labor contracts that have discouraged nursing home workers from informing the press, or regulators, about poor conditions for patients.

This was achieved through a pact between nursing home chains and the two-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation's largest union, which represents nurses, orderlies, and other healthcare employees. Under the pact, the union would use its clout with California Democrats to push nursing-home-industry goals such as tort reform, which would limit patients and their families' right to sue in cases of wrongful death or injury; in exchange, the chains selected facilities where the SEIU could absorb workers into union ranks. This was part of national SEIU leader Andy Stern's strategy of collaboration rather than confrontation, and included deals in Washington state, Missouri, and California designed to rapidly add to union ranks on terms attractive to employers.

But in Sept. 2005, the strategy stalled when Sal Rosselli, the leader of the SEIU's California healthcare affiliate, denounced the collaboration on moral grounds. He particularly objected to the union's failed attempt to push California legislation that would have limited patient lawsuits against nursing homes. This was "neither good policy nor politically winnable," the president of United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW-West) wrote in a memo to SEIU's Washington headquarters. "We cannot sacrifice principles such as adequate consumer protection for organizing rights."

The dispute steadily escalated until Rosselli resigned from the union's national executive committee in February, denouncing Alliance-derived labor contracts as stifling the rights of workers and patients. But Carlson saw cause for hope in this public conflict.

"Maybe [the dispute] will be finally resolved by the parent union," Carlson wrote in a March 19 e-mail to Gary Passmore, executive director of the nonprofit Congress of California Seniors, which was obtained by SF Weekly. "That would then create opportunity for all responsible stakeholders to effectively collaborate on behalf of California nursing home residents. If that occurs, I anticipate that a coalition of nursing home companies would seek to join together with stakeholder groups — such as yours — and again seek opportunity for further collaborative action."

Five days later, Carlson's wishes seemed to come true: Stern wrote to Rosselli, announcing legal preparations to take over the California affiliate and throw out its local leaders. Carlson's prescience about Stern's plans seems suspicious — as if he had inside info from his pals over at SEIU.

Carlson, for his part, said anybody familiar with internal SEIU politics could see it coming. Indeed, internal union memos, transcripts, and reports document a growing feud between Rosselli and Stern, who had sought to move thousands of nursing home employees to an affiliate more amenable to the Alliance agreement.

"More SEIU representatives than I can remember — from UHW-West, Local 6434, and SEIU International — have spoken to me about resolving the SEIU internal conflict for many years," Carlson wrote in an e-mail.

I asked Carlson whether a takeover of UHW-West by Stern would mean that negotiations with nursing home chains might be able to move forward, as his e-mail to Passmore suggests.

"No. It means only specifically what it says," he wrote in response. "I believe you have been a leading source of inaccurate news about the California Alliance to Advance Nursing Home Care. Please don't now seek to commit libel or defame me by speculating intent or new facts into my private communication with another person."

In response to my March 31 inquiry, Carlson told me he was resigning from the Alliance, effective immediately. He said this was part of a dissolution plan that had been in the works since December. While nursing home companies wait in the wings in hopes of fulfilling Carlson's March 19 prediction that they'll again "join together with stakeholder groups" in a labor alliance, the conflict within the SEIU may escalate. Union takeovers can be violent, and UHW-West has stepped up security at its facilities in the event that the national union attempts to physically take them over. Rosselli has hired political consultant Eric Jaye to devise media strategy to derail the attempt. Stern, meanwhile, is the labor movement's greatest media whiz.

The resulting coverage might baffle readers accustomed to labor-beat stories about union leaders battling against companies — not among themselves. So it's important to keep in mind that the issues at the heart of this conflict are simple and relevant to everyone. It's about your mom, your former teacher, yourself, and everyone else who will end up in a profit-driven nursing home, now that the government has all but given up on direct care for the elderly. Three years ago, Rosselli took a stand against his Washington union overseers' nationwide strategy of enticing employers rather than confronting them. And in the case of the nursing home industry, these enticements were too morally repugnant to abide.

The ordinarily drab Oakland headquarters of United Healthcare Workers-West was festively jammed last Thursday with a hundred people wearing the union's signature purple T-shirts. "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! Andy Stern has got to go," they shouted 30 times in unison.

As one member after another stepped up to a temporary podium to denounce "officials in Washington, D.C.," UHW president Rosselli, a smallish man in neatly pressed shirt and pants and short-cropped hair, rocked on his heels in time with the chanting.

Stern is "trying to intimidate me," Rosselli said in an interview. "He's used to being able to crush people who speak out against him."

This show of force is designed to make the SEIU's national leadership think twice before attempting to take over union facilities, freeze bank accounts, and fire staff loyal to Rosselli.

This procedure, called "trusteeship," was designed to oust corrupt local bosses. In this case, however, the power play appears to have little to do with corruption, despite Stern's strong language. Instead, he appears to be threatening a takeover of this SEIU affiliate as punishment for moves by Rosselli to upend the cozy alliance between the union and nursing home chains. Carlson, for his part, points out that Rosselli had resisted efforts by Stern to move UHW-West nursing home workers into another SEIU affiliate — one whose leaders happen to be more amenable to collaboration, rather than confrontation, with nursing home companies.

Discerning the truth or falsehood of Stern's corruption claims may require a judge. But there's plenty of evidence that something other than corruption has boiled the blood of SEIU's leadership.

"We discovered some top-down deals made between SEIU Washington, D.C. staff with our nursing home employers that ... limit their voice to speak up for themselves and their patients," Rosselli said on the radio show Democracy Now on Feb. 15.

On the same program, Stern ally and SEIU executive board member Dave Regan, who has served as a Stern proxy in this dispute, suggested Rosselli's words constituted treason. "This is the absolute, most despicable kind of behavior that Sal is willing, through his actions on this program, in California and other places, to weaken the strength of members of my union," Regan said.

Reporters rarely cover organized labor anymore unless there's a major strike. So internal union goings-on fit in the public mind somewhere near confusing yet vital topics such as the mortgage-based-derivative instruments that nearly tanked the U.S. economy last month. Both are arcane subjects not worth paying attention to until catastrophe falls.

But the outcome of the SEIU internal dispute could mean life or death for patients nationwide. If Stern succeeds in taking over California's largest healthcare union based on trumped-up charges against Rosselli, it could ensure the success of a cynical view of healthcare labor relations where contracts are the result of self-interested collaboration between union bosses and corporations, to the exclusion of workers' and patients' interest.

To understand the stakes in this feud, it's useful to revisit the tragic death eight years ago of Mary Hochman, a 52-year-old night nurse at Beverly La Cumbre nursing home, a Santa Barbara affiliate of Beverly Enterprises for which Carlson served as California-based vice president of operations.

According to news accounts, Hochman walked onto a beach and shot herself in the heart after a months-long dispute with her employer. Her problems began when she tried to report that a nurse's aide had hit an 81-year-old man with dementia. According to Contra Costa Times reporter Carolyn McMillan, Hochman said in a sworn affidavit that she was told to cover up the information.

"If a nurse cannot protect her patients, I do not want to be a nurse," Hochman wrote in her suicide note. "This has taken all hope away from me."

Hochman's note, along with a journal detailing instances where she was told to cover up incidents of abuse and neglect, helped spur a federal raid on the nursing home. A subsequent investigation revealed patients suffering beatings and maggot-infested bedsores, culminating in a $2 million settlement against Beverly relating to preventable deaths. The investigation also spawned a dozen civil suits, according to press reports.

After the Hochman investigation and settlement, Beverly Enterprises sold off its nursing homes in California and Carlson took on his consulting role as head of the California Alliance for Nursing Home Reform.

As a result of the agreement, nursing homes obtained what some calculate as $3 billion in additional state subsidies thanks to a bill pushed by the SEIU. The union also lobbied to ensure the bill did not include provisions supported by patients' rights groups that would have set standards guaranteeing high-quality care. The union added hundreds of nursing home workers to its ranks. But the labor contracts that resulted included a scandalous detail: The union was discouraged from informing regulators, or the press, in cases of bad patient care. Under traditional contracts, whistle-blowers such as Hochman could report abuses to the union and feel protected. The Alliance contracts, however, seemed to have the opposite intent.

Under California's understaffed, toothless system, lawsuits are one of the few deterrents for-profit nursing home chains face to prevent them from turning their facilities into charnel houses. Tort reform of the type advocated by the Alliance might remove this deterrent.

Under Stern's "modern" collaborative strategy, such protections are apparently worth sacrificing to grow the union. And during the next few weeks, readers will see a confusing account of his efforts to enforce this view.

"Stern is basically declaring a jihad against dissenters," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a California nonprofit that describes itself as dedicated to "fighting corrupt corporations and crooked politicians."

"This is a do-or-die issue for them," he continued. "Sal Rosselli is a labor leader who stood on principle. He stood with consumers against the nursing home industry."


Stern sabotages UHW-SEIU

Unions protect economy from Warming law

An eco-friendly governor, an activist attorney general and a willing legislature arrived at the State House this year with plans to make Maryland a testing ground for some of the nation's most ambitious environmental policies. Then the economy tanked, and they found that it's not easy being green.

Much of Gov. Martin O'Malley's environmental agenda is headed toward passage in the General Assembly - at least in some form. He has backed new goals for reducing energy consumption, boosting renewable energy and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

But the administration has had to temper many of those proposals when confronted with questions about the impact on businesses and energy costs for consumers. Even labor unions, a loyal constituency for O'Malley, fought to water down a global-warming bill.

Lawmakers have put restrictions on a proposal to cut carbon dioxide emissions. They delayed O'Malley's proposed mandates for renewable power.

They diverted money from his energy efficiency programs in favor of immediate electrical rate relief. And they made concessions to developers and local officials in a shoreline protection bill.

"When the country is in a recession, and we're having foreclosures, and we're confronting all of those issues, clearly those kinds of debates take precedence," said Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

O'Malley, a Democrat, has argued that administration proposals would spur the economy, lower utility bills and help the environment. But he concedes that some ideas have been a tough sell amid the deteriorating economy.

"It's hard to connect all those dots when you're facing the foreclosure of your home," O'Malley said in an interview. "Everyone is anxious, and everyone is fearful; and in that context, the pressure of paying your bills today can blind us to the importance of making a better tomorrow."

Despite the pushback in the legislature, environmentalists say that the overall result of the session represents a significant endorsement of their agenda. Even the bills that have been scaled back - or seen funding trimmed or deadlines delayed - represent far-reaching environmental initiatives, they contend.

"A lot of stuff is going forward that's still strong and good," said Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland. "How strong they end up after going through the whole process is the question."

Some lawmakers and lobbyists have said the environmental and energy proposals would have dire consequences. They have drawn comparisons to the state's effort to deregulate the energy industry, an idea championed by the legislature a decade ago and now lampooned by many of those same lawmakers, who say it only led to higher electrical rates.

"No one should think that these bills have been diluted to no effect. They are still big policy shifts," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland. "This has huge ramifications for our lifestyle and our economy."

Annapolis took on a decidedly green bent last year when O'Malley took office.

The 2007 session kicked off with multiple screenings of Al Gore's global-warming film An Inconvenient Truth. Lawmakers passed a bill aimed at reducing emissions from cars and trucks, and enacted legislation to ban dishwasher detergent containing phosphate, one of the bay's main pollutants. Environmentalists declared that a new era had begun.

But they have seen setbacks since then. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved late last year to block so-called "clean cars" laws. Maryland and other states responded with a lawsuit.

Also, Maryland lawmakers recently acted to delay the phosphorus detergent ban by six months, largely to appease large companies such as Procter & Gamble, which makes Cascade detergent and has a plant in Hunt Valley.

"That was one big misstep of the session," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of a preservation group, 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Nonetheless, O'Malley made environmental and energy initiatives a major part of his modest agenda this year. Several of his proposals have drawn little opposition, such as a bill to require green construction practices for state buildings and schools. But others have faced resistance.

Among his most sweeping proposals are bills designed to reduce the state's energy consumption 15 percent by 2015 and to double the amount of renewable energy that power companies must provide for sale to customers. The clean energy goal - 20 percent of Maryland's power by 2022 - is higher than a target set by the District of Columbia but lower than New Jersey's.

Opponents argued that such mandates artificially raise the price of electricity, and Republicans criticized the administration for not addressing the need for new power plants and more transmission-line capacity.

The administration contends that an average household eventually would save $190 a year through reduced energy use, and that renewable power targets would add less than 1 percent to electric rates. Still, many lawmakers were worried.

The result: A two-year delay in ramping up renewable energy requirements to allow time for projects to come online, plus money diverted from conservation programs to small utility-bill rebates and additional aid to low-income families behind on their bills.

"We had to spend a lot of time in the session talking about more budget cuts, and we thought we'd be able to focus on problem-solving," said Malcolm D. Woolf, the director of the Maryland Energy Administration. "Everyone was a whole lot more sensitive to the economic impact of these bills."

Another priority of O'Malley and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler - overhauling the state's 24-year-old law restricting bayshore development - has been weakened, in part because of the administration's desire for consensus from developers, environmentalists and state officials.

The administration accepted an amendment that leaves local governments in control of enforcing the law, but environmentalists concluded that other features of the bill, including sanctions against contractors who violate the law, were worth the trade-off.

"The environmental community has learned you can't expect it all," said Fred Kelly of the Severn Riverkeeper watchdog group. "We think we need to compromise a little bit more to get the laws actually enforced."

The Senate approved the bill Friday only after changing a key provision, reducing the proposed shoreline setback for new buildings in rural areas from 300 feet to 200 feet. The current law requires only a 100-foot setback. The House of Delegates accepted that change yesterday.

The bill facing the toughest slog may be the most far-reaching. The Global Warming Solutions Act would require the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, with a goal of 90 percent reduction by 2050. The original proposal made the 90 percent figure a requirement, but industry opposition got it scaled back to a goal.

Though not part of O'Malley's legislative agenda, he has embraced it. With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, Maryland is particularly vulnerable to the sea-level rise expected from global warming, he has said.

But it has drawn intense opposition from manufacturers and an unusual ally - labor unions. The United Steelworkers, which represents about 5,000 workers statewide, opposes the bill.

"I've spent more time in Annapolis the last month and a half than I have in my whole career, maybe," said Jim Strong, a USW official. He said his union supports fighting global warming with national legislation but opposes Maryland's bill for fear it would drive manufacturers to other states.

With dozens of steelworkers looking on, the Senate approved the warming bill - but with an amendment sought by manufacturers and the AFL-CIO. That change would require the state Department of the Environment to get legislative approval for each step it wants to takes to reduce the greenhouse gases tied to global warming. The House has not acted on the bill.

Activists, who note that other labor unions support the bill, still hope to get it tweaked to clarify the agency's authority to take some steps without legislative review. They say the 25 percent reduction is achievable through incentives included in the energy-efficiency legislation.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and sponsor of the bill, argues that the 90 percent goal and the shorter term mandate still represent a major step for Maryland.

"It could be one of the most significant environmental legislative sessions we've had if all goes well," Pinsky said.

"For the most part, they're still strong bills," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and veteran environmental advocate. "But it's hard to tell where they'll end up."


Teamsters attack Democrats

Massachusetts lawmakers who switched their votes to help Speaker Sal DiMasi defeat Governor Patrick's casino plan now must worry about the impact with voters. DiMasi reportedly promised political favors and appointments to persuade changes of heart, but the challenge for those legislators swayed may be staying in office.

Teamsters Union officials, disappointed that the casino jobs they envisioned will not be forthcoming, wrote representatives who helped defeat the casino bill that the union would be supporting candidates against them in the next election. The AFL-CIO has said it will take casino voting into consideration when endorsing candidates.

DiMasi's office tried to mitigate the damage, releasing a letter referring to many votes in the past in which the suspect legislators supported union issues such as increased minimum wage, parental leave, and other union causes.

Sean O'Brien, president of Teamsters Local Union No. 25, said," There are fewer and fewer job opportunities in the commonwealth of Massachusetts that do not require a college education. We believe casinos would have helped to address this economic problem."

Several of the lawmakers under attack were upset by the union reaction. Representative Michael Rodrigues mentioned his own support of labor through the years and complained,"It's a typical 'What have you done for me lately?' "

Still, the politicians had to be aware there was a national spotlight on this issue. While those who opposed the plan from the start can claim moral high ground, the legislators who were turned by DiMasi's carrot-and-stick routine should suffer for their shaky values and easily swayed votes.


UFCW hikes dues for strike

Residents may soon be seeing picket lines at Save-On Foods. With employee contracts expiring March 29, Save-On union representatives announced they will hold a strike vote for stores under Overwaitea contracts from Squamish to Hope next week. UFCW 1518 President Ivan Limpright announced at a meeting of shop stewards on Monday night (March 31) that a temporary dues increase vote will accompany the strike vote, and will be conducted as a mail-in ballot to all members in British Columbia. The announcement was greeted unanimously by a standing ovation from everyone in the packed meeting room, according to a union press release.

“There is a serious wage problem. It’s a serious problem, but it’s not complicated – in fact it’s pretty simple – the wages aren’t high enough,” said Limpright. “Tied in directly with that, is the fact that the two-tier contract doesn’t work either. It kills any realistic hope for opportunity, for the ability to see some light at the end of the tunnel, to be able to earn a living wage.”

Members from Save-On stores in Zone 1 – Squamish to Hope – will vote Thursday (April 10). Safeway members are scheduled to vote on Tuesday (April 8) while union members from the converted PriceSmart stores will vote Wednesday (April 9).

“We have made it clear that we’re here to negotiate a contract, not a labour dispute,” said Limpright, “but we are not seeing any indications that either Overwaitea or Safeway are taking the issues seriously at this point. “The time has come to send them a message, and we’re asking the members to help deliver that message with a strike vote.”

In response to The Chief’s enquiries, the Overwaitea media relations office issued a statement saying the company is “disappointed” in the union decision given the commitment on negotiators to arrive to a renewal agreement “everyone can feel good about” by April 30. The company also states that the union’s claims of rollbacks are false.

“We feel this action is unnecessary,” read the statement, “as we’ve told them repeatedly that we want to bargain a fair renewal collective agreement that works for our team members and for our company. “And we have not asked to take anything away from any existing team member in any of our discussions with the UFCW Bargaining Committee. In other words, we have not asked for any rollbacks from current team members.”

Details on times and locations for the votes will be mailed to all union members, along with details on picket pay and the temporary dues, according to the union website.


Union-repressed Catholic teachers

Union dues are not optional

After five years of behaving like the well-modulated chorus to John Hickenlooper's mayoral authority, the Denver City Council appears to be anxious to sing solo. Unfortunately, rather than examining Denver's strong-mayor city charter to determine where their real power might rest, some are succumbing to noise emanating from a chronic squeaky wheel: the pressure by labor unions to organize city employees.

I hope the legal but entirely inappropriate behind-closed-doors meeting with organizers at DIA convened by councilmen Chris Nevitt, Paul Lopez and Doug Linkhart isn't a harbinger of things to come. It's critical for public officials to conduct the public's business in public. And, if any member of the council thinks he has the authority to grant collective bargaining and binding arbitration to 7,500 city employees without going to a vote of the people (as Teamster's local organizer Ed Bagwell insists), he or she needs to spend some serious time with the city attorney and read the charter!

Ed Bagwell is directing efforts to unionize the city employees covered by Denver's independent Career Service Authority. Later this month, the union plans to conduct an employee petition drive, believing employees aren't satisfied with the salaries, benefits and protections afforded by the CSA. Currently less than 10 percent of those employees are union members — perhaps for good reason.

• The average salary for a CSA employee is more than $50,000 per year, and the benefits add approximately 30 percent, or $15,000, per year.

• CSA employees are paid based on independent prevailing wage surveys and enjoy ample (and free) rights and protections regarding discipline and job security. Union dues can be costly and are not optional.

• Denver's sick and vacation benefits and accrual policy is substantially greater than the region's median, mode or average, according to Mountain States Employer's Council data.

According to the MSEC, average maximum vacation accrual is 120 hours, regardless of total years worked. By contrast, after 10 years of service, the Denver city employee can accrue up to 336 hours, paid out at full salary upon separation or retirement.

Payout to CSA employees for unused sick time is equally generous, compared to regional public and private employees. According to MSEC surveys, the median number of paid sick days is six or seven annually. Denver employees are paid for a maximum of 12 per year. Upon retirement or separation, the median payout ceiling totals 53 to 57 unused days. For a Denver city employee, the allowable payout tops at 120 days — more than twice the regional median.

Career Service employees were cranky in 2003 and 2004 when decreased revenues and voter approval of Amendment 1A — providing greater flexibility in assessing worker productivity and raises — resulted in changes to the status quo. Health insurance rates rose and for the first time employees had to make a modest contribution to their pension. The result was lower or flat take-home pay and changes in the way merit salary increases could be evaluated.

Nonetheless, in an environment where Colorado's typical working person is paying more for health care and many union retirees are seeing their pensions shrink or evaporate, Denver's CSA employees enjoy job security, good wages, excellent benefits and too-generous sick and vacation accruals.

City councilors' ability to respond to constituents depends on good working relationships with city employees. The council's decision last October to override the mayor's veto and put money into across-the-board employee raises rather than fund a more discerning merit pay approach (articulated in 1A) reflects that symbiosis.

However, before responding too quickly to special interest and anecdote, council members ought to consider a much quieter and more powerful constituency: the public interest and the taxpayer.


Feds help indict gov't-union official

The former president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1749 has been indicted for felony theft, District Attorney Fred Hernandez announced this week. Raul B. Castorena, 60, 804 E. Seventh St., Del Rio, TX was arrested March 10 as a result of the indictment, Hernandez wrote in a press release about the incident.

Hernandez said Castorena was indicted for the offense of theft in an amount over $1,500 but less than $20,000.

Hernandez said he presented the case to the March session of the 63rd District Grand Jury following an investigation by Jose L. Lopez, investigator for the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

In his press release, Hernandez noted the charges arose from allegations that Castorena over the last five years used union phones and cell phone to make unauthorized private calls which were then paid for with monies from union dues.

These calls were made without the knowledge or consent of the union membership, Hernandez said.

Hernandez added that Joe S. Mejia, current president of the AFGE Local 1749, initiated the investigation after he took office and noticed the past expenditures.

AFGE Local 1749 is comprised of civilian flight personnel from Laughlin Air Force Base and has a current membership of approximately 325 members.

Hernandez said Castorena himself had been a union member for nearly 25 years.

Hernandez in announcing Castorena’s indictment this week noted, “The union discovered this problem and took action on its own to see that a proper investigation was done. Investigator Lopez did a very thorough job.”

Hernandez said that theft of the type alleged is commonly referred to as theft of services. Hernandez said the offense is a state jail felony and carries a potential punishment of up to two years confinement in a state jail facility and a fine not to exceed $10,000.

Hernandez also said a defendant can also be ordered to pay restitution to his victims.


Gov't unions resist dues hit in Oakland

Salaries for Oakland, CA employees are going up and up — and there's no telling if the trend will change anytime soon. The number of city employees earning at least $100,000 increased 15.1 percent to 1,333 from the 2005-06 fiscal year to 2006-07. The number of employees earning $200,000 jumped 73.8 percent to 73.

And even as the city prepares for huge budget cuts, it's not clear that salaries for highly paid employees will take a hit, as union contracts set pay for the vast majority of city workers and as it remains uncertain how successful the police and fire departments will be in curbing overtime pay.

Overtime pay was, once again, a primary culprit in what some describe as a bloated city payroll in 2006-07. The total overtime tab was $50.9 million — $29.4 million more than what was budgeted.

Of that $50.9 million, $28.5 million went to the police department and $17 million went to the fire department.

"The private joke of all City Council members is, in the next life we're all coming back as firefighters because you get so many days off and you get really good pay," said Councilmember Jean Quan (Montclair-Laurel), head of the council's finance committee. "On the other hand, they risk their lives when you have fires." Fourteen of the 25 highest paid city employees worked in the fire department, including Fire Battalion Chief Michael Miller, who made $271,978, $122,480 on overtime, and was the city's highest paid employee. Quan and the other seven members of council receive annual pay of $66,899.04.

Debate about salaries comes as the city is staring at serious budget challenges. Officials are moving to close a $9.5 million deficit in the current fiscal year and are bracing for what could be $30 million or more in cuts in 2007-08.

Council President Ignacio De La Fuente (Glenview-Fruitvale) said essential services, particularly public safety, must be maintained. For De La Fuente, that puts salary freezes on the table.

"We're going to have to look at everything," he said.

There's no easy fix to salary increases, though.

Police pay, for example, is locked in under the terms of a contract approved last month. Beginning July 1, starting pay for police officers will be about $78,000. Because the department is still badly understaffed, overtime pay can push even beginning officers above the $100,000 threshold. Officers are also guaranteed 4 percent annual pay increases.

The firefighters' contract, meanwhile, expires June 30. So do contracts for city employees represented by Local 21 of the Professional and Technical Engineers union and SEIU Local 1021. While impossible to determine what the exact details of the contracts will be, it's not likely they won't include some cost-of-living increases.

So far, city staff has moved to address its $9.5 million budget deficit without cutting salaries or laying people off.

Karen Boyd, a spokeswoman for City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, said staff implemented a hiring freeze for all non-sworn positions about a month ago. She also said departments have been prohibited from using salary savings from personnel vacancies for operating costs.

And officials are trying to ensure that as many positions as possible are paid for with outside funding sources, such as state grants, rather than with general fund dollars.

"We're definitely looking to close that deficit without layoffs," Boyd said. "That's the goal. It looks like we're on track to do it."

Layoffs or no, the salary situation has some residents seeing red. Just ask Robert Klinger, 61, and his wife Mary Becker, 54.

"It's absurd," Klinger said. "It's absurd. It's just nuts."

"It's just another way the city of Oakland rips people off," Becker said.

The couple moved to Oakland eight years ago and live in the San Antonio district. They were particularly critical of the $255,471 Edgerly drew in pay last year. They said that high salaries can be justified for good police officers and firefighters, and for someone in Edgerly's position, too, if quality services are being delivered.

They don't see it that way at all.

"Instead, we're the fourth-most dangerous city in the country," Klinger said. "The salary question is a balance of what you get for your money. We don't get anything for our money."

Quan, while far less critical, sees it in the same light. She noted that Oakland is looking to fill a position atop the Community and Economic Development Agency.

"In order to recruit somebody really good," she said, "if he brings a huge amount of retail to the city and we pay him $300,000 a year, it might be a good investment. Maybe we can make it partly bonus (pay). It's a question of what does the person bring back in value?"

Overtime slowdown?

Both the police and fire departments have moved to curb excessive overtime pay. Whether that translates to fewer employees making

$100,000 in years to come is another question.

For now, with the police department short officers despite a recent focus on recruitment efforts, Bob Valladon, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said the overtime shifts are needed to keep Oakland safe.

"The overtime being worked today needs to be worked," he said. "If they want to hire more people to work and pay them in straight time, great. I don't have any problem with that. But the overtime being worked today needs to be worked."

Valladon took home $192,989 last year, more than half of it in overtime. He said if officers are pulled off their overtime shifts, "there's going to be more robberies, there's going to be more homicides, there's going to be more burglaries."

Investigations also rely on overtime. Police Sgt. Tony Jones was the second-highest paid city employee at $267,935. Together, Jones and police Sgt. Jim Rullamas, who pulled in $246,916, investigated 32 of Oakland's 127 homicides in 2007.

City management hopes boosting staffing to the department's authorized strength of 803 officers, combined with a new shift plan where officers work 12-hour shifts, will reduce overtime pay.

In fact, reduction in overtime was a key selling point of the 12-hour shift plan, which was implemented in January after an arbitrator sided with the city against the union's objections.

City data shows that before the 12-hour shift plan, police overtime pay averaged about

$1.05 million every two weeks. Since January, that figure is down slightly to $990,000. The difference pencils out to savings of $1.56 million a year, though officials hope more will be saved if the department can fill its vacancies.

"I think the public is clamoring to make sure we get to 803," Boyd said. "And that's certainly our priority too."

One side effect of the focus on 803: filling park ranger positions takes a back seat. Currently, only three out of eight ranger positions are filled, Boyd said. One ranger, Kent McNab was the fourth-highest-paid city employee last year. He earned $188,079 in overtime pay on top of a $71,104 base salary.

The fire department is also wrestling with staffing issues. Fire Chief Daniel Farrell said adding 20 to 25 firefighters later this year should cut into hefty overtime payments.

Under a labor agreement, the fire department must fill shift vacancies with people of the same rank. If a fire lieutenant can't work a certain shift, for example, he or she must be replaced by another lieutenant — not someone of a lower rank.

In 2006-07, three of 12 battalion chief positions were unfilled. That meant huge amounts of overtime for people with that rank.

Battalion Chief Miller was the top paid employee. Battalion Chief Edward Kilmartin, at $258,813, was sixth. And Battalion Chief Eleanor Bolin-Chew, at $250,663, was ninth.

Farrell said all 12 battalion chief positions are now filled.

Numbers that lie

Just about every year, a civil engineer named Abelardo Placido is among the highest-paid employees. He came in at 10th in 2006-07, earning $250,046. Another engineer, Kenny Lau, was 11th, at $249,780.

Most of the money they earned, however, did not come from the city. They each received base salaries of $101,586, but their extra pay was covered by developers willing to fork over the big bucks to pay for sped-up permit processing.

"The developers are happy to have their plans expedited and these two folks are happy to work the overtime," Boyd said.

Pay for police officers working special events such as Raiders, A's and Warriors games and concerts also comes from outside sources. And pay for officers working on certain specialized law-enforcement programs such as DUI checkpoints comes from state or federal grants.

Visit http://www.insidebayarea.com for a complete list of all employees making more than $100,000.


Corpses found behind union hall

Three bodies were discovered Saturday in an illegal dumping area near 45th Street in Kansas City, west of the Blue River. The bodies appeared to be adults and were not badly decomposed, said Sgt. Tony Sanders, a police spokesman. Police detectives and representatives from the Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office would not comment on the age, gender or race of the bodies, pending autopsies.

A Kansas City Water Services Department worker helping volunteers during an annual cleanup of the Blue River discovered the first body about 9:30 a.m., Sanders said.

The worker was using a backhoe to remove trash and junk from a wooded area when he found what appeared to be a human body under a pile of garbage.

The man called 911, and homicide detectives were dispatched to scour the area for evidence. Shortly thereafter they discovered a second body nearby under some ground cover.

They found the third body about 12:45 p.m. All three were within a few feet of each other in a ravine area near a property line that separates privately owned land from a tract owned by a railroad, investigators said.

The place where the bodies were uncovered lies behind industrial and office buildings on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, including the old Teamsters building at 4501 Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.

The area is overgrown with trees and brush, and littered with garbage and scrap metal. The train tracks, including one set on an old wooden bridge, are just to the east.

Investigators wrapped up their work at the scene at 5:30 p.m., about seven hours after arriving. Three white crime scene vans and several patrol cars were stationed much of the day at East 45th Street and the railroad tracks, near the river.

Sanders said the worker who discovered the first body wasn’t available to comment.

“He’s pretty upset,” Sanders said. “That’s kind of shocking.”

About 50 volunteers in blue T-shirts, a team of students from Longview Community College, were picking up trash in the area. As several left for a lunch break, they said they weren’t aware of any trouble until police arrived.

“We just kind of assumed it was a body, but we didn’t see anything,” said Rodney Minniear, 21, of Lee’s Summit.

Vicki Richmond, cleanup coordinator for the event sponsored by the Friends of the Lakeside Nature Center, said some crews were removing debris along the river corridor, and 600 volunteers picked up trash streamside.

The annual cleanup dealt with a similar situation in 2006, when a body was discovered in the water behind the 4600 block of East 75th Street.


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