'We’re passing card check'

2008: A coming-out party of Dem special-interest groups

If you ever want a window into the needs and desires of the labor movement, you should listen to Stewart Acuff. And if you get within 50 yards of Acuff, you’ll be listening: The snow-bearded activist, now the AFL-CIO’s director of organizing, projects his voice like an opera singer. He grips the podium, white-knuckled. He clasps his hands, then pulls them apart with a snap. When I saw him at the Take Back America conference in Washington in March, his reedy voice grew rougher and louder as his speech went on.

“My brothers and sisters,” he said, “if we go into 2008 with an even larger mobilization of workers behind this legislation, with even more commitment to win the election in 2008, and put this on the agenda in 2009, I’m here to tell you today that we will pass this legislation, in the House, overwhelmingly! We will pass it in the Senate! We will defeat a Republican filibuster! And we will have a president who signs the Employee Free Choice Act! And we can get back to the business of restoring the American dream for millions and millions of workers!”

What’s the Employee Free Choice Act? If you aren’t a lobbyist in Washington, a union worker, or an employer nervously trying to prevent your staff from organizing, you might not have followed the twisty history of the latest attempt to increase private-sector unionization. “Card check,” as it is usually known, would allow employees at a company to bypass secret-ballot elections and declare their intent to unionize by simply signing cards. If adopted, it could portend the most revolutionary change to labor law since the 1940s.

The battle over card check is part of a much larger story of Campaign ’08: the coming-out party of Democratic interest groups.

For the first time since 1992, Democrats are eyeing complete control of the executive and legislative branches, with all of the spoils of appointment and legislative scheduling that would entail. Unions want to grow their numbers. Green industries want tax incentives. Trial lawyers want a ceasefire in the war on torts.

If these groups could actually form a line in January, the unions would be at the front. Card check was the brainchild of organizers who had watched their numbers tumble as manufacturing jobs moved out of the rust belt and successive conservative administrations made it tougher to organize. President Bill Clinton, signer of NAFTA, did little to stop the skid from labor’s point of view. The organizers have learned their lessons, pushing members of the House and Senate—including the junior senators from New York and Illinois—to commit in writing to card check.

“When we started working on this legislation five years ago,” Acuff said at Take Back America, “people in Washington said it would never be taken seriously, never pass the laugh test.” Bills were introduced in 2003, 2005, and 2007. The first two times, they never reached the floor, with Republicans arguing that labor organizers usually win unionization elections anyway and that 90 percent of those results are approved by the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board within two months. In 2007, with the Democrats in charge of the legislature, the same bill passed the House easily and won 51 votes in the Senate, but that wasn’t enough to proceed to an up-or-down vote. All along, the effort has faced a veto threat from President Bush.

Things are different now. Democrats believe that as many as nine Republican-held Senate seats are vulnerable in 2008. The AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and allied unions plan to spend $360 million on the 2008 election. That’s around $200 million more than the unions spent in the Kerry-Bush race. As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slug it out for the nomination, the AFL-CIO is running a $53 million campaign attacking John McCain—portraying him as a right-wing ideologue who co-sponsored the Secret Ballot Protection Act, the GOP’s attempt at making kryptonite against card check.

All that union money comes with a promise: What’s good for unions will be good for the Democrats. Greg Tarpinian, a Change to Win organizer who spoke at the Take Back America panel, pointed out that union membership was one of the strongest determinants for a voter choosing a Democratic ballot. “If union membership was 10 percent in Ohio in 2004,” he argued, “John Kerry would be president.”

If card check passes, Tarpinian has only one worry: the ability of the National Labor Relations Board to “keep up with the demand” for brand new unions. Those new brothers and sisters of the labor movement will start paying dues; said dues will find their way to new Democratic campaigns like salmon finding their way upstream.

Republicans and business lobbyists are watching all of this with a sense of resigned horror. They know Democrats will have the votes, and they believe that the end of secret ballot elections will be not just bad for business, but bad for democracy. They also see card check as the tip of a spear. One Republican staffer worried to me about collective bargaining rights for public employees. “Do we really want fire-fighters to start striking?” he asked.

The unions stand to be the biggest beneficiaries of an all-Democratic Washington. Affordable housing advocates, meanwhile, want the 2007 Federal Housing Finance Reform Act, which created a $3 billion fund bankrolled with tax revenue and the profits of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, to be spent on more housing units instead of held up by concerns over budget deficits. Trial lawyers have paid their dues: The American Association for Justice spent $6.3 million to elect Democrats in 2006 through its political action committee, the most of any single PAC. For the first half of this decade, the plaintiffs industry fought a rearguard action against the tort reform movement, which Republicans have been using to limit the size of settlements. Trial lawyers lost a big battle when the Senate passed class action lawsuit reform in 2005, but they haven’t given much ground since then. When the Democrats come back, plaintiffs expect to go back on offense.

The Consumer Product Safety Reform Act, passed this year, is a model of what to expect in a Democratic future. The law doubled funding for the eponymous safety commission to $155 million by 2015, set no caps on damages, and empowered state attorneys general to make federal cases if they have “reason to believe that the interests of the residents of that State have been, or are being, threatened or adversely affected by a violation” of consumer safety. It passed the Democratic-controlled Senate by 79-13, aided by the scare over tainted toys from China.

But unions outmatch every other member of the Democratic coalition in demands and expectations. Now is their time. One organizer told me that a Democratic comeback would mean that the party had “no more excuses” for not giving them what they wanted. At Take Back America, Acuff said the party should gift-wrap anything wavering Republicans want if it will get the bill to a floor vote. “If we have to build a bridge somewhere to get it passed, then build the damn bridge!” he said. “If we have to rename a highway after somebody, rename the highway!”

Another activist, relaxing after a day of sessions and meetings, regaled me with stories of how businesses bust unions, how the National Labor Relations Board punctures budding movements, and how essential it was to change the system. He repeated my question back to me. “If we get a Democratic president, are we going to pass card check?” He leaned back and grabbed a Miller Lite from one of his brothers coming back from the bar. “If the sun comes up in the morning, we’re passing card check.”

- David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.


Defending forced-labor unionism is costly

Unions reach out-of-state to expand war chest

The nation's largest unions are turning Colorado into a battleground state, throwing big dollars behind a local issue committee that's fighting the right-to-work ballot initiative and pushing a pair of competing measures. Labor interests say they may spend as much as $35 million to defeat the right-to-work initiative, which seeks to ban compulsory union membership in Colorado.

"Whenever something like that comes on a ballot, national labor forces come into play," said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

More than $1.1 million of the nearly $1.6 million raised so far came from the Washington, D.C., offices of powerful unions such as the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Nearly $500,000 came from local chapters of the Teamsters, the SEIU and other labor groups.

"In many ways, Colorado is more of a battleground this year than it has been in the past," said Mitch Ackerman, Colorado president of SEIU. "The political landscape here has changed quite a bit, and we're most likely going to be a presidential battleground."

In 2001 in Oklahoma, the most recent state to pass a right-to-work law, unions and business groups burned through more than $11 million.

"This battle will cost upwards of $25 million to $35 million," said Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado's Future, the group fighting the right-to-work initiative.

Knox said this showdown will be more expensive than Oklahoma's because it comes during a presidential election.

"There's just more things in the ethers, so to speak," he said.

Looming in August is the Democratic National Convention, which will be held at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

"The DNC is here, and they're very pro labor . . . and if there's a right-to-work initiative on the ballot, they're going to think Colorado is not very favorable to labor," said Ray Hogler, a management professor at Colorado State University.

The right-to-work measure has been certified by the secretary of state's office for the November ballot and will appear as Amendment 47. Thus, Ackerman and other labor leaders are reaching out to national headquarters for support.

SEIU has contributed the most money thus far to Protect Colorado's Future, with $630,000 coming from its Washington, D.C., general fund and $48,000 from Local 105, according to state records. SEIU has nearly 10,000 members in Colorado.

Protect Colorado's Future is also behind a pair of initiatives that would hold executives criminally liable for corporate fraud and require businesses to provide reasons for firing workers. The group still has to gather signatures to get those measures on the ballot.

"We're not supporting those and we're not helping get signatures, but we're all in the same coalition basically because of right-to-work," said Jeanne Beyer of the Colorado Education Association.

Beyer's group, representing about 38,000 schoolteachers, is an affiliate of the National Education Association, which has contributed $130,000 to Protect Colorado's Future.

A Better Colorado, the group behind the right-to-work initiative, has raised $200,250, with $200,000 coming from Golden-based CoorsTek. A separate group that collected signatures for the measure raised about $300,000.

"We expected the unions to spend a significant amount of their members' dues to fight Amendment 47," said Kelley Harp, a spokesman for A Better Colorado. "We will have enough funds to run a winning campaign and to counter any misinformation they spread."

He wouldn't say how much proponents of the measure expect to spend to get it passed.


UFCW angered by worker-choice proposal

The state of Colorado's title board on Wednesday approved two ballot initatives that aim to strengthen workers' rights. Initiative 93 would require employers to provide a "safe and healthy" workplace for employees. Initiative 96 would require employers to provide annual cost-of-living wage and salary increases to all employees. Both measures were filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 in response to the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry's endorsement of an anti-union "right to work" initiative.

The cost-of-living wage increase initiative requires increases to be pegged to the same "consumer price index for Colorado used by the state department of labor and employment to make changes to the state minimum wage."

In 2006, Colorado voters approved Amendment 42, now part of the state constitution, which requires the state's minimum wage to rise in accordance with the CPI used for Colorado. But Initiative 96 would apply to all employees, not just minimum-wage employees.

Two years ago, critics of Amendment 42 argued that no Colorado-wide CPI exists, and that it was unfair to peg wage increases throughout the state to the Denver-Boulder-Greeley CPI, an urban index that might not reflect the situation in Colorado's rural areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes a West regional CPI, which encompasses 13 states including Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah.

Doug Friednash, an attorney representing the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, raised a similar argument about Initiative 96.

"There is no such thing as a Consumer Price Index used for Colorado," Friednash said. "The voters are entitled to know which index is going to be used."

Michael Belo, an attorney representing the UFCW, said it was clear that whatever index was used would be the same one the state was using to set the minimum wage, which currently is the Denver-Boulder-Greeley CPI.

The title board considers only whether proposed initiatives meet the state's "single-subject" rule.

Proponents now have until August to gather 76,000 valid signatures from registered Colorado voters in order to get the initiatives placed on the November ballot.


Gov. uses the ballot to fight for union dues

Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Bill Ritter shifted their focus to the November elections after wrapping up the 2008 legislative session, promoting a ballot initiative to make it harder to change the state constitution and another to end property-tax deductions for the oil and gas industry.

Ritter said the Legislature made significant progress on health care, education funding and renewable energy.

His biggest disappointment: The failure to get money to fix crumbling bridges and roads.

Ritter said there was no political will to deal with the state's infrastructure among Republicans in an election year. He added that even though it's a major safety issue, he won't call a special session because it would require raising fees or taxes that would need the backing of a bipartisan coalition that doesn't exist.

"I feel like this conversation broke down around politics," Ritter said Wednesday.

Republicans blamed Ritter and Democrats for negotiations breaking down and said the issue will have to wait until next year. They said raising fees to pay for roads would put a heavy burden on families trying to cope with soaring gas prices.

Ritter said he believes voters will approve an initiative to end property-tax deductions that allow oil and gas producers to credit up to 87.5 percent of the prior year's property tax liability from their severance taxes. He said it would provide the state with more than $200 million a year.

Under Ritter's proposal, 60 percent of that amount would go to a fund called Colorado Promise Scholarship, 15 percent for the industry's local effects on transportation and water quality, 15 percent for wildlife habitat, and 10 percent for clean energy projects. Part of the money would be put into a trust fund so students wouldn't lose their scholarships if revenues decline.

Ritter said he wants to keep dueling initiatives among labor and business off the ballot.

Business leaders are pushing a measure asking voters to make Colorado a "right-to-work" state that would prohibit mandatory union membership or mandatory union dues. Labor leaders are promoting seven ballot initiatives, including proposals to require employers to provide annual cost-of-living increases and health insurance.

"I'm still involved in this effort to try and get the right-to-work measure off the ballot, along with all the labor measures off the ballot," Ritter said.

Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, said he also would like to stop a ballot measure that would ban affirmative action in state government and higher education.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said he's promoting an initiative that would ask voters to let the state keep tax surplus refunds under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, to invest in the State Education Fund. He says his plan would create a rainy day fund, particularly for education, while asking voters to eliminate mandatory education spending increases under Amendment 23.

Romanoff said lawmakers approved a measure to ask voters to protect the constitution by making it more difficult to propose constitutional amendments.

Under the measure (Senate Concurrent Resolution 3), backers of constitutional changes would have to collect 50 percent more signatures than those just seeking to change a state statute.

They also would have to collect signatures from each of the state's seven congressional districts after rural areas demanded a bigger say in what goes to the ballot.

Romanoff said he couldn't get support for his plan to ask voters to let the state keep tax surplus refunds under TABOR for the State Education Fund. He said he will try to get an initiative on the ballot through the petition process.


SEIU - CNA feud only getting worse

Labor Lobby Melee: Union Rivalry Gets Physical

Up to six busloads of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizers and members started a scrum inside the lobby of a hotel holding the Labor Notes Conference in Dearborn, Michigan, on April 12th. Labor Notes is a monthly progressive and union democracy journal. The SEIU group wanted to disrupt the banquet hall dinner where California Nurses Association (CNA) leaders, who SEIU accuses of busting an Ohio union drive, addressed 800 conference participants from various unions.

"They [SEIU protesters] were banging on the doors like a marching band base drum. Real quick they rushed through the door," said Roland Day, a unionized dockworker from Baltimore.

In the lobby, Day said that he and dozens of other conference participants formed a human chain in the attempt to stop the SEIU rush, but ended up clashing with organizers Frank Hornick and Rachel Holland who were accompanied by a horde, hundreds thick, of purple t-shirt-clad SEIU protesters.

"I tried to stop the big guy and was holding him back with all I had," Day said.

Hornick, the 6'4" son of miner, said he had worked on the three-year campaign to organize more than 8,000 healthcare workers at Ohio-based Catholic Healthcare Partners (CHP) facilities. He explained how CNA organizers had descended on the campaign's March 2008 culmination to encourage nurses and other workers to vote against affiliating with the SEIU. The election was canceled before going to a vote. The CNA has begun to organize nurses nationally, competing with SEIU for members.

"Our intent was to educate the conference; they knew what we were there for," Hornick said. Holland, a petit 5'4", told The Indypendent she sustained hand cuts and was "football tackled" by a conference participant and that SEIU's goal was to "draw to light union-busting by unions."

Things quickly got out of control in the lobby, as fliers spilled to the floor and a cacophony of chants, noisemakers and screams ensued from the SEIU group's push towards the banquet doors.

"SEIU should hold their head in shame. Some of their people had purple bandanas over their face like the anarchists at WTO protests," said Frank Halstead, a California Teamster.

In the midst of the donnybrook, retired union member Dianne Feeley was shoved to the floor by a SEIU member and hit her head on a the end of a table requiring stitches.

"I don't feel the person did it on purpose," Feeley said. Feeley commented she didn't think many in the SEIU crowd knew they were protesting at a labor solidarity conference.

A Battle for the Nurses

Central to the SEIU-CNA dispute are accusations by both organizations of raiding each other's members and campaigns, and disagreements about the direction of the labor movement. The CNA is a mix of progressive politics -- empowering female nurses to take on Republican politicians for the public interest -- and old-style unionism. The CNA only organizes nurses, prompting cries of elitism from the SEIU, which organizes healthcare professionals including nurses and technical workers, but also health aides and other service workers. The SEIU is almost singular in its mission, organize workers at all costs, and provokes criticism for its consolidation of smaller locals into mega unions and that it is autocratic and top down.

With the Ohio health care chain, the SEIU signed an election agreement where management agreed to be neutral and not to coerce workers against the union and SEIU would not run a traditional union drive. The SEIU had employed traditional organizing tactics for three years -- running a campaign against the employer while rallying workers -- but still couldn't overcome CHP's anti-union campaign.

"When you see a worker at a captive audience meeting, you'll see how scared they are," said Hornick, referring to an employer mandated anti-union meeting.

"When the employer agrees not to run an anti-union campaign, that's historic," Jennifer Farmer a SEIU spokesperson said.

But the devil is often in the details and in other neutrality agreements with employers, the CNA and even some SEIU locals accuse SEIU of selling out the workforce and the public interest. Furthermore, the CNA distributes literature with SEIU President Andy Stern on the cover of trade magazine Human Relations Outsourcing Today talking about how companies can outsource their labor relations to unions, arguing that unions be hiring halls a practice that has long existed in some industries.

"Their vision to grow is focused on signing agreements with corporate employers, essentially agreeing to anything," Charles Idelson, CNA spokesperson said, referring to SEIU's push to gain more members.

In California, the SEIU negotiated an agreement (now expired) with the nursing home industry that brought the union thousands of members but also included provisions against workers reporting bad employer practices to authorities and the union agreed to lobby for tort reform favorable to the nursing homes.

The feud is only getting worse. The CNA obtained a temporary restraining order against the SEIU April 16th for following the association's members around the country to picket them. SEIU, however, got the order dismissed April 21th. Both unions have competing websites that bash each other and seem willing to further escalate the battle with no mediation in sight.


Pro-union mayor to sit down with SEIU

Jumbo union OKs big janitor strike in L.A.

Hours after contract negotiations broke down, janitors authorized a strike in a near-unanimous vote Wednesday and launched walkouts at buildings across Los Angeles County. The union is seeking unspecified wage increases, but the main issue is to narrow the gap between janitors with the highest and lowest pay, said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877.

A two-tier pay system exists in the county, with janitors in downtown Los Angeles and Century City earning $1.30 an hour more on average than janitors in areas such as Santa Monica, the Westside and Burbank, Garcia said.

Separately, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he would hold a closed-door meeting today between union leaders and key building owners at City Hall. Janelle Erickson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said, "Both sides understand that a prolonged strike would hurt both business and working families."

Garcia declined to name the commercial office buildings where the first walkouts were scheduled to begin Wednesday night, saying it would take away "the element of surprise." He said that if the union's demands were not met, widespread walkouts could begin next week.

Janitorial contractors "refused to make any progress on bridging the disparity, and the janitors feel very disrespected," Garcia said. "We're looking to get this resolved without a strike, but unfortunately the companies are unwilling to give us an economic proposal that settles the issues between us."

But Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the contractors, said the pay gap issue "was off the table, according to our understanding."

Davis said the cleaning companies offered annual raises of 50 cents an hour for three years and 55 cents for the fourth year under a proposed contract, but they were rebuffed. He said the total package, including benefits, amounted to a $3.55-an-hour increase.

"We're shocked that the union would act this way," Davis said. "They had in mind a certain offer and we didn't reach it, so now they have to justify a strike."

He said the building maintenance companies involved in the bargaining included Able, ABM Janitorial Services and DMS.

Local 1877's members include 6,000 janitors in Los Angeles County. Their contract, last renegotiated in 2003, expired April 30.

In Orange County, where 2,000 janitors are represented by the union, members voted Saturday to authorize a strike.

On Wednesday morning, about 600 janitors -- clad in purple union shirts and chanting "Si, se puede" ("Yes, we can") -- held a rally in downtown Los Angeles.

Rebeca Vazquez, 42, a janitor at Century Plaza Towers in Century City, said she attended "so that the companies see that we're not asleep, that we're awake and ready to fight."

Union organizer Raphael Leib said this round of contract negotiations was especially important given the current economic downturn. In Los Angeles County, janitors earn about $10.70 to $12 an hour.

"Right now, as the economy goes into a recession, the people who are hit hardest are the lowest-paid workers," Leib said. "Janitors are disproportionately affected."

The janitors have garnered support from other labor groups.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has urged the county's 350 unions, representing 800,000 union members, to support the janitors by refusing to cross picket lines.

And the Orange County Labor Federation, which represents 80 labor unions and 140,000 union members, also announced support for the strike.

Garcia said the union was hoping to avert a strike as long as the one in 2000, when janitors staged a three-week work stoppage. That strike helped galvanize immigrant workers across the nation and was considered a watershed moment for Los Angeles labor.


Ending non-union school construction

First school district in Ohio to sign a union-only project labor agreement

Site work is under way for construction of new elementary schools in South Point and Burlington, Superintendent Ken Cook said Monday. Construction on the two schools, which will cost $15,404,424, will begin late this month or in early June and should be finished in about a year, Cook said. The two schools should be ready for students for the 2009-10 school year, he said.

The school district rejected the first round of bids and then signed a project labor agreement with the Tri-State Buildings and Trade Council on the project. The agreement calls for union construction trades to be used on the project. The bids came in $15,000 lower this time, Cook said. Early Construction Co. of South Point is the general contractor for the two schools.

“I think it will work out real well for us,” Cook said. “I think we’ll get a quality product. We have quality trades working on the project.”

Ironton school officials became the first school district in Ohio to sign a project labor agreement with the trades council, which represents thousands of union workers in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. South Point became the second school district to sign a project labor agreement.

“This could be a trend,” said Steve Burton, business manager for the building and trades council. “I’d like for it to be a trend. It should be noted that the bids came in lower with the project labor agreement.”

The two elementary schools will be about 54,000 square foot, one-story buildings. Both schools will have separate gymnasiums and cafeterias for students from kindergarten through the 5th grade, Cook said.

The new South Point Elementary School will be built on the site of the former South Point Middle School building. South Point Elementary students are staying into their current school until the new one is ready. Meanwhile, Burlington Elementary School students are attending class in the former South Point High School building. The new Burlington Elementary School is being built on the site of the former school which was torn down earlier this year.

The new schools will have 900 square foot classrooms and more technology than the two schools built in 1959, he said.

“We’ll have bigger classrooms and the most technologically-equipped elementary schools in the state,” he said.

“We hope the schools are under roof by January so construction can continue through the winter,” Cook said.

Bovis Lend Lease, a Columbus firm, is construction manager for the elementary schools. The same firm was construction managers for the new South Point High School and South Point Middle School which opened earlier this school year.

Boggs Roofing of Huntington was selected for the roofing work. Ken Houston of Columbus will do the masonry. Dixon Electric of Huntington will do the electrical work. Mechanical Construction Co. of Portsmouth will do the heating and air conditioning. Peterman Plumbing of the Canton, Ohio, area will do the plumbing work while Brewer Fire Protection of the Charleston, W.Va., area will do the sprinkler system, Cook said.


BIW workers stiffed by IAM, weigh decert

Angry BIW workers demand answers

Local Machinists union members at Bath Iron Works peppered a representative of their international lodge with questions and accusations Monday during a lunchtime gathering outside the Local S6 Washington Street union hall. The local members — angry about the ongoing suspensions of Local S6 President Mike Keenan and at least two of his fellow officers — blasted Grand Lodge Representative Tom Holl after he said he had no updates on the parent organization's investigation into Keenan and others.

Some in attendance yelled to Holl that he "won't be there (in the local union hall) for long." The comments spotlighted grumblings that the 3,400-member Local S6 could cut ties with the International Association of Machinists over what many members believe is a political ouster of their elected leaders.

Local S6 of the Machinists union is the largest labor union at Bath Iron Works.

The process by which a local union dissolves its relationship with an international parent organization is called "decertification." According to the National Labor Relations Board, decertifications can only take place near the expiration of a contract — and the Local S6's contract with BIW expires May 18.

"We're still not being heard," said electrician John Upham after Monday's gathering. "(Decertification) has been mentioned — not really discussed, but people are not happy with the IAM and their strong-armed tactics. When they removed Keenan and the elected officers, democracy went out the window."

John Carr, spokesman for the International union's eastern territory, said talk about decertification could affect adversely the union's stance going into contract discussions.

"Now isn't the time to be divisive," he said this morning. "During this negotiation period, it's crucial to remain in solidarity — suggesting anything else would send the wrong message to the company."

Many members in attendance Monday believed International President R. Thomas Buffenbarger would be addressing the lunchtime crowd of about 100 shipyard workers, saying they'd received fliers suggesting the union's top official would field questions. Buffenbarger did not emerge, although he was in Maine to kick off contract negotiations between the Machinists union and BIW on Monday.

Instead, Holl stood on the union hall porch and weathered a heated exchange with the members who turned out.

"You ask questions and you don't get answers," said one member, who didn't want to be identified because he said he is a union steward and didn't want to be "the next to be hauled in there and suspended."

"I took vacation time," he continued. "Here I am and here (Buffenbarger) isn't. It's a little disheartening."

Carr said Monday afternoon that any fliers promising Buffenbarger's presence weren't distributed by the Machinists union, and those hoping to see him during the lunchtime gathering were misled.

"There was no agenda for him to be there," he said.

Holl, however, did address the crowd, although he rarely had definitive answers for the vocal members on hand. Members asked when the investigation into Keenan and others would be complete, how much Holl's salary is, and whether their union dues would increase without a locally elected officer representing their interests in dealings with the International organization.

For various reasons, Holl said he did not have answers for those questions. The trial committee reviewing charges against Keenan and his team — which range from financial mismanagement to pornography on union computers — has 60 days from an April 14 hearing to make its determination.

Keenan, who has refuted each allegation against the suspended officers in a letter to Buffenbarger, attended Monday's rally as well.

He asked Holl whether documentation detailing the union's goals in the contract negotiations has been changed since the membership reviewed it at an April 20 meeting.

Holl said he did not know because he is not involved with the contract negotiations.

Carr said this morning that contract proposals considered by the membership on April 20 were derived from member surveys that weighed the members' concerns about job security, retirement benefits and wages, among other things.

"The meeting was to present the proposals," he said. "The only thing voted on by the membership in attendance were those proposals. From what I saw, over 90 percent of the people in attendance voted for those proposals. There was some open floor discussion, and there were several suggestions on things that were taken into consideration."

After several minutes in front of the largely hostile audience, Holl went back inside the union hall, leaving clusters of workers along Washington Street with time left on their lunch break.

"I was so disappointed by what I saw here with 12 minutes to go (in the break)," said Keenan as the crowd dispersed. "I've had a lot of people holler at me (as local president), but I've never walked away when my bosses are talking to me. If the members' dues are paying your salary, you stand there and take it."


Oklahoma teachers quitting union

Solving public education's problems

A really big development in getting at our major societal problem of illiteracy, and all its fallout evils, happened last week. It was one of several things in a row, that should help increase public awareness of this serious condition that leads to poverty, misery and crime. Teachers are beginning to quit the teachers union! If this spreads it could result in solving one of the major problems in public education today.

Two teachers at John Marshall high school announced they were not joining the teachers union and said they were going to ask other teachers to do the same thing.

In Oklahoma, we have a right to work law, so that neither the union nor the school district can require teachers to belong to the union to have, or keep, their job. Good teachers get no benefit from the union. Only the bad teachers benefit, by being virtually guaranteed they won’t be fired. (There are ways, but difficult.)

Since the union plan guarantees the same pay for bad teachers as good teachers, there is no incentive for professional teachers to sign on to the low performing schools.

So we keep right on having some elementary schools in the Oklahoma City district -- and all across America -- where more than half the 4th graders can not read.
As I have preached to you to the point of boredom, this begins the drop-out cascade. It grows with each subsequent school year until half the high school freshmen in Oklahoma do not graduate from high school.

What happens to these hordes who can not read well enough (140,000 OKC adults) to get a decent job? They wind up in poverty and misery.....and crime.

The other good things that happened last week included the formation of a city-wide organization of all literacy-promoting agencies and groups to work together to combat the problem of the adults whom we have failed to teach to read.

It also is a societal problem that impacts all of us, in addition to the poor souls who have been cheated out of learning to read by a public education system that has failed them.

On top of that, The Oklahoman has run two top of page editorials on the illiteracy problem and the new efforts to solve it. Bravo to Christy, David and Ed!


UAW strike v. American Axle, week 11

Local UAW reps abandon talks

United Auto Workers negotiators from out-of-town union locals were not at the bargaining table Wednesday with top American Axle officials, but talks continued to try to end the 72-day strike against the Detroit-based auto supplier. Company and union officials said talks are progressing even without the plant-level bargainers.

UAW representatives from Three Rivers and New York returned home after a month of near continuous negotiations in Detroit with American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc.

"They've returned to talk to their members," said Bill Alford, vice president of UAW Local 235, which represents Detroit workers.

Company spokeswoman Renee Rogers said negotiations "are moving forward."

"They are talking about economic issues that are mostly handled by the International folks that are at the table," she said.

Negotiators for UAW Local 235 were also absent Wednesday, Alford said. Strikers at Local 235 haven't been briefed on the talks since a meeting April 20.

Alford said Local 235's leadership is focused on "taking care of the workers," including informing them of food banks and social service agencies.

Some 3,650 workers walked out on Feb. 26, after rejecting the company's proposal for steep wage and benefits cuts.

Wendy Thompson, the retired former president of Local 235 and a vocal critic of accepting steep wage reductions, said the departure of local negotiators could indicate that talks have soured after details of a proposal emerged in recent weeks.

That deal called for workers to accept wage cuts ranging from $5 to $14 per hour, depending on position, and the closure of two forge plants, in exchange for $140,000 buyouts or a $90,000 buydown bonus to stay at a lower wage.

Thompson said those wage reductions were only acceptable to the UAW if the forge plants in Detroit and New York remained open. Those two locations employ 760 union members.

"Why would you give (American Axle CEO) Dick Dauch exactly what he wants after being out on strike for 10 weeks?" she said.

Negotiators returning home is not an indication that talks have broken down, and is common during marathon talks, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Local negotiators may be checking with membership to assess interest in a possible deal, or an agreement may not be close, so negotiators' day-to-day presence is not needed, he said.

"The heavy lifting is still going on," he said. "If local officials are needed, they could be back very shortly."

The strike has impacted production at about 30 General Motors Corp. plants, but a GM van plant in Wentzville, Mo., will resume production Monday after two months of being completely shut down.

A spokesman for GM, American Axle's biggest customer, said the company obtained the parts it needed for that plant, but didn't specify the source. American Axle has ramped up production at a Mexico factory during the strike.

Strikers at American Axle's Detroit plant say they've received little information about negotiations.

"Everyone is frustrated, we're tired of it and want to go back to work," said David Fudge, a striker from Hamtramck. "We hear something is close... then it never comes."


California union declares victory in Texas

A nurses' union declared victory again late Tuesday after an arbitrator upheld the state's first successful election to establish a nursing union. Texas affiliate of the National Nurses Organizing Committee/California Nurses Association voted March 27 to organize nurses at Tenet Healthcare Corp.'s Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center in Houston.

The Houston vote is important to Dallas-area nurses and patients because it could foretell how similar union votes might end here. Under Tenet's agreement with the unions, nurses at the company's Dallas-based hospitals cannot vote to form a union until 2010.

Tenet said it had received reports that union supporters threatened and coerced nurses opposed to unionization. The Dallas-based hospital system filed objections to the vote with both the National Labor Relations Board and the arbitrator of an agreement Tenet signed with unions last year. That agreement, which guaranteed the unions the right to organize in various states, called for fair elections, free of negative attacks.

Tenet said the Cypress Fairbanks vote — which came in at 119-111 in favor of organizing — should be held again because union representatives created an "atmosphere of intimidation." Tactics included taking pictures of nurses who opposed the union against their wishes, removing a large poster created by the opposing nurses and providing misinformation on the voting process that prevented eligible nurses from voting, according to Tenet.

Tenet appeared before the Houston-based arbitrator in the case last month.

But Arbitrator Diane Dunham Massey sided with the union, and her decision is final and binding. The National Nurses Organizing Committee will represent nearly 300 registered nurses at the Houston hospital and already have started working to negotiate the state's first collective bargaining contract with nurses.

"We want to make it clear that we still feel that our non-union Tenet hospitals and their employees can work best together without the involvement of a union," said Tenet spokesman David Matthews in a statement. "We still believe that our employees are better off without third party representation, but that choice is – and has always been – theirs to make."

Keith Merritt, an emergency room RN at the Houston hospital said he's looking forward to negotiating a contract, "where we achieve a stronger voice for patient care."

"We are extremely gratified that the democratic vote of the Cypress Fairbanks nurses has been protected, and their voices upheld," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the NNOC. "This is another banner day for Texas RNs and patients."

The NLRB, the regulator of labor law, is expected to review the case next week.


Close call: Iowa almost became a labor-state

After four months of week days in Des Moines and weekends in Listening Posts and meetings at home, I am ready for a slower pace. I will still maintain an aggressive schedule of meetings and events in every corner of the District, but my days move to teaching and working on the farm. How would I characterize this session? Some good policy was passed with solid bipartisan support, while there are now new laws that I believe will be detrimental to Iowa for decades to come. Without exception, this poor policy was run through the Legislature on party-line votes. This is probably why the Des Moines Register gave this year’s legislative session a grade of “C.” My grade assessment would be even lower; primarily due to poor fiscal policy as defined by our State Auditor.

My analysis in this column includes eight positive achievements of the last session and eight negative actions. My lower than average grade is a reflection of the long-term detrimental effects of these negative actions on the future of this state.

First the positive achievements:

• Our bipartisan health care bill addresses portability, covering all Iowa children, and medical records efficiency.

• We continued to follow through on our educational promises including teacher salaries, early childhood, and university funding.

• Iowa’s Right to Work law was preserved. Barely. With 47 Republicans and 3 Democrats standing firm, we stopped an aggressive attack by one vote! Another year of one-party control and we could lose our Right to Work status.

• No state tax on your federal stimulus checks.

• A new pilot project for volunteer fire departments will allow sharing of resources while preserving the integrity of the individual community departments.

• We narrowly avoided a “last-minute” attempt by a few legislators, backed by the ACLU, to weaken our drunk driving laws.

• REAP funding, resources for conservation and water quality, and several bills (two of them inspired by West Branch science students) to reduce mercury, oil, and other pollutants in the environment were passed with strong bipartisan support.

• Making the SILO (penny for schools) statewide will bring millions in school infrastructure and property tax relief to this area. Amidst spin and misinformation from a few interest groups and pro-urban legislators, a bipartisan core held firm in our support.

Now the policies detrimental to our future:

• Statewide core curriculum was passed but bipartisan attempts to include rigorous standards were defeated. Despite the rhetoric, this is a sad case of the state educational bureaucracy maintaining the status quo.

• The Senior Living Trust will be nearly emptied. Amidst misleading claims of filling the Trust, the dollars are actually spent in the same year as the deposits, leaving the balance at its lowest mark and nearing extinction.

• A collective bargaining bill described as “devastating” and “harmful” by a flood of local groups and organizations was passed rapidly and without a public hearing on a straight party-line vote. Will the Governor sign it?

• The casino exemption for the statewide smoking ban will go down as one of the most hypocritical laws this session. A sad example of the influence of money in politics.

• No commercial property tax relief. Nothing but another committee to study the problem.

• Community college tuition will increase and our county fair funding was cut at the same time the Governor’s salary was raised by over 10% and statewide offices received 24% raises. This was party-line voting at its worst.

• Despite promises made before the tobacco tax passed, Medicaid reimbursement (only 1%), nurses’ salaries, and health care affordability should have merited more attention.

• A total lack of fiscal responsibility in budgeting. In two years we have a 17% increase in state spending ($900 million). This is more than all eight of the previous bipartisan budgets combined. Despite the political spin and claims of full reserves (something required by law and related to the level of spending), we are heading for a fiscal train wreck and guaranteed demands for tax increases. (Send me a note and I will be happy to provide the non-partisan statistics that outline this problem.)

I believe the lesson for this session is that both parties sharing power works best. One-party control often leads to extreme policy and a lack of fiscal responsibility whether it is the Democrats today in Des Moines or the Republicans a few years ago in Washington. Bipartisanship is where we find both common sense and the middle ground…both a reflection of where Iowans want us to be.

Thanks for allowing me to serve you. Do not hesitate to contact me throughout the interim with concerns, opinions, or problems.

- Jeff Kaufmann


Thanks union bosses!

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