Port strike appears on hold until Tuesday

After 24 hours of bargaining, talks between the union representing about 930 clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were broken off. They have plans to resume on Tuesday at 1 p.m., and the clerks have agreed not to strike before then, according to a union official. The union and employers have been negotiating terms of a new three-year contract, seeking to replace an existing contract that expired at midnight June 30, 2007. Negotiations have been occurring since early May, but the two sides have been divided over issues such as pay raises, health benefits, and technology. Under the expired contract, full-time port clerical workers earned about $37.50 an hour, or $78,000 a year, received a pension, healthcare benefits and 20 paid holidays a year.

In a last attempt to avoid a strike that could paralyze the nation's largest port complex, the union submitted its "last, best and final offer" to employers on Sunday, just before a midnight strike deadline. John Fageaux Jr., boss of the Office Clerical Unit of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said representatives of the companies "basically walked away from the table." The union's offer "wasn't officially rejected, but [company representatives] said they could not respond and wouldn't be available to meet again until Tuesday."

"I'm not optimistic at all about it," Fageaux said. "We've done all we can and the employers told us earlier they weren't going to budge from their earlier position."

The two sides were able to close the gap on salaries, but there are still "four or five open issues," including technology and the employers' desire to establish "tiered healthcare," under which new workers would get lower benefits.

Fageaux, unable to comment on the specifics of the latest union proposal, did say that "it addresses a great deal of the employers' needs and we've made a lot of concession in an effort to avoid a strike."

"I don't believe the employers are acknowledging that and they've taken the position that it's their way or the highway," said Fageaux.

Representatives of the Longshore union, which controls most jobs on the waterfront, said they would honor picket lines if clerks decide to go on strike.

A strike would effectively shut down the twin ports, through which more than 40 percent of all imported goods pass. Together, the ports handle around $275 billion worth of cargo a year.


Workers distrust UAW in legacy cost buyout

No matter how much of the $96,000 hospital tab Don Hartman has to pay for quintuple bypass surgery, he's still grateful for his health insurance from General Motors Corp. Hartman, 79, a retired auto worker from Salem, Ohio, still hasn't received all the bills from his February operation, and he doesn't know exactly what his portion will be. But just who pays the health-care tab for Hartman and thousands like him is likely to be the major issue as contract talks open between Detroit's three automakers and the United Auto Workers union.

The outcome is important to Indiana, where the UAW is estimated to have about 100,000 members, nearly half of whom are retirees. GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group would like to get rid of what amounts to an estimated $90.5 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care, a problem that is just now coming to the forefront in the auto industry.

"It's a national, perhaps international, crisis," said Tom Clay, director emeritus of state affairs for the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan group that has studied the state's unfunded liabilities.

Short of a national health-care plan, a possible solution being discussed is a company-funded trust fund run by unions that pays for retiree health care.
The idea surfaced last year in contract talks between Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and the United Steelworkers.

After a three-month strike, Goodyear agreed to put $1 billion into a union-run fund. In exchange, the steelworkers assumed liability for the company's estimated $1.2 billion in retiree health- care costs.

The auto companies, all of which are restructuring because of billions in losses, want the UAW to do the same. They have discussed the idea with the union in advance of the talks, which formally opened Friday with Chrysler and will begin Monday with Ford and GM.

Although the UAW won't comment on the prospect of a trust, it recently agreed to a Goodyear-style deal with Dana Corp., which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In exchange for taking on a $1 billion retiree health-care liability, the UAW received $780 million in cash and stock, or about 78 cents on the dollar.
Goodyear funded about 83 percent of the total obligation, and analysts have said the auto companies will try to get the UAW to settle for 50 percent to 60 percent of the total.

But a recent agreement between auto-parts supplier Dana and the UAW shows that may be low.

"Our expectation for an equivalent GM/Ford health- care deal at around 60 cents per dollar now seems increasingly optimistic," wrote JPMorgan analyst Himanshu Patel in a note to investors.

Similar trusts have been set up in the public sector. In New York state, teachers unions in the Poughkeepsie and Kingston school districts run trusts that pay health-care costs for active and retired employees.

The Goodyear and Dana trusts must gain court approval, and some Goodyear workers fear the union got hoodwinked.

"That money ain't going to last forever," said Ed Huth, a 42-year employee in Akron, Ohio.

Heading into the contract talks, auto workers have the same fears. Hartman, who retired in 1990 from GM's assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, doesn't trust either the union or the company to control the trust. "I would want someone watching over each others' shoulders," he said.


Iran gov't making the wrong enemies

Iran has sparked a storm of protest from trade unionists around the world after imprisoning a bus driver known as the Lech Walesa of the Islamic Republic. Mansour Osanloo, who leads a 17,000-strong bus workers' union, was abducted on the streets of Tehran on July 10 by an unidentified gang, thought to have been secret policemen. He had just returned from a trip to Europe, including Britain, where he met officials from the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) to discuss the government harassment his members were suffering.

Now he is languishing on unspecified charges in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison - described as the 'Islamic Alcatraz' - on the orders of Saeed Mortazavi, a hardline judge accused of presiding over numerous human rights abuses and illegal detentions. Osanloo's imprisonment comes as part of a clampdown on dissidents by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government, in which scores of pro-democracy activists and academics have been arrested over the past five months.

But unlike some of his fellow political prisoners, Osanloo, 48, has largely restricted his activities to campaigning for better working conditions for his union members, demanding increases in their wages and better protection against Tehran's appalling smog.

He has insisted: "All we are asking is for Iranian workers to be treated as free human beings, not as slaves."


Even that, however, has invited the ire of Iran's mullahs, for whom any independent organisation with a large membership poses a potential threat similar to Solidarity, the Polish shipyard workers' union led by Walesa, which opened the first major cracks in communism in the early Eighties.

In Brussels, Osanloo described the intimidation which union members had faced, with some members having been arrested 10 or more times, and family members, including children, being beaten, detained and subjected to inhumane treatment.

The international union, which represents nearly 5 million transport workers in 148 countries, has now written a letter to Ahmadinejad's office, urging him to free Osanloo immediately.

A spokesman for the ITWF, Sam Dawson, said: "Osanloo has pushed to create an independent and democratic trade union in Iran, and that appears to be something that the regime is not happy with."

Osanloo was on his way home from work when the bus in which he was a passenger was pulled over by a carload of men, some allegedly armed with clubs and knuckle-dusters. They dragged him into their vehicle, telling passers-by who tried to intervene that he was a 'hoodlum and a thug' who was wanted by the police. Witnesses said he was beaten up during the abduction.

His abductors carried no identification, but drove a Peugeot car of a kind commonly used by the security services.


Steelworkers strike shuts down west coast forestry

About 6,000 coastal forestry workers in British Columbia went on strike Saturday, with no new talks in sight. The workers, members of the United Steelworkers, are from Island Timberlands and 31 member companies of Forest Industrial Relations, including West Fraser Mills Ltd. and Western Forest Products Inc.. Workers at International Forest Products put up picket lines late Saturday afternoon.

Union spokesman Stephen Hunt said the plan was to halt movement in the industry. "All the workers have withdrawn their services from the coast forest operations, so the entire coast is shut down in forestry," he said. As of Saturday, Hunt said there were no plans to negotiate with any representatives from the four bargaining tables. He said the main issues were work scheduling, severance and protection from contracting out.

Forest Industrial Relations spokesman Ron Shewchuk said the employers weren't willing to move on their offer, which addressed shift scheduling issues and improvements to benefits.

He said his calls to the union weren't returned Saturday, and that he found out the strike was officially under way from a reporter.

"We've gone as far as we're going to go," he said. "If the union is interested in accepting our offer or bringing it to its members for a vote, than we're interested in talking."

Shewchuk said the company moved on several issues and what they have at the table is a comprehensive offer.

The last time B.C.'s coastal forestry workers went on strike was in 2003. That strike ended after three weeks when the provincial government stepped in.

The government appointed Don Munroe, a long-time mediator and arbitrator, to direct a new contract, which expired June 15.

Some analysts say the companies will be in no hurry to settle the dispute. Kevin Mason of Equity Research Associates said with the strong Canadian dollar and weak U.S. housing market, some companies are losing money - so shutting down for some time could be a good thing.

"For the companies, there's no impetus to get back to bargaining on this, he said Friday.

"If you had a backdrop of a really strong industry that was going on right now, then there would be a little more incentive to get back to the table, but we're not in that situation."

Hunt expressed frustration with the process of trying to communicate between four bargaining tables. He said the union tried to get the employers to come together so they could negotiated at the same time, but the offer was turned down.

The union also suggested the companies hold meetings at the same hotel, Hunt said, but that suggestion was also turned down.

"It's really been complicated and painfully slow," he said.


Muni union action set to grow to 6,000 strikers

Six thousand Vancouver municipal workers are expected to be off the job by the end of Monday, bringing everything from day-care, garbage collection, rock concerts, libraries and other services to an indefinite halt. As both the city and its workers remained at a stalemate Saturday, Vancouver sent its non-union workers into contingency mode in preparation for a city-wide strike.

On Friday, Mayor Sam Sullivan made it clear there'd be no bargaining through the weekend, and directed city manager Judy Rogers to implement the city's contingency plan. "There are no plans to go back to the bargaining table by the city. In order to get back to the bargaining table, the union needs to bring their expectations more in line with the fiscal reality of taxpayers," said Vancouver city spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees said it was shocking that the city would not come to the bargaining table on the weekend.

"It's becoming very clear who is wanting a strike in the city," said Paul Faoro, the CUPE Local 15 boss, which represents inside workers such as community centre staff. Strike action started Friday when the city's 2,000 outside workers, represented by CUPE Local 1004, walked off the job three days ahead of schedule. As the outside workers, which includes garbage collectors, established picket lines at around noon, the city's inside workers and librarians served their own 72-hour strike notice to the city.

If a deal is not reached by the end of the weekend, 2,500 inside workers will be in a legal strike position as of 8 a.m. Monday, and the city's 900 library staff will be in a legal strike position by 4 p.m. Monday.


Retroactive pay raise for NY Teamsters

About 80 Department of Public Works employees in Utica, NY will receive raises under a newly-approved contract. The city entered into a three-year contract with Teamsters Local 182, which represents public works employees. The previous agreement expired March 31. Union members will receive a 2.5 percent raise, retroactive to April. In April 2008, they'll see another 2.5 percent increase and in April 2009 it will be 3 percent. Employees who work overtime on Thanksgiving or Christmas will receive two times the hourly rate, as opposed to time-and-a-half, the agreement states. The new cost to taxpayers is about $115,000, which is about three-fourths of 1 percent of the tax levy, Budget Director Anthony Arcuri said.


NZ hospital union unhappy about competition

The Service and Food Workers Union denies it has an ulterior motive in a pay dispute involving 800 hospital service workers. The cooks, cleaners and orderlies were locked out by their employer Spotless Services after serving notice of strike action. The company says it has a leaked union email saying that a good outcome would be getting rid of Spotless, and a better one would be clearing contractors from the public sector. The email was written by the union's northern secretary, Jill Ovens. Ms. Ovens says she would prefer hospitals to be run without contractors, but insists the union is still willing to negotiate with the company.


Vancouver strikers want flexibility during Olympics

Vancouverites could find themselves receiving some essential services only if municipal inside workers and library staff join outside workers on the picket lines Monday. And, says city spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny, while the city's 600 managers will strive to continue those services, they certainly can't do the work of the 6,000 unionized staffers who might be walking picket lines come Monday.

Among the services not considered essential is garbage pickup. Twenty thousand homes were without pickup on Friday. Outside workers who began limited job action Thursday walked out at noon Friday. Mayor Sam Sullivan has said the unions won't agree to a longer contract so they have a strike mandate during the 2010 Winter Olmpic Games.

The two sides last met on Tuesday but remain far apart on wage issues. “We're in full-blown strike mode,” said CUPE Local 1004 president Mike Jackson on Saturday. “It's just disappointing this had to happen. It's unfortunate the city of Vancouver is unwilling to get to the table.”

Dobrovolny said the city has posted information and is setting up a hotline for residents with tips on storing garbage if the strike drags on for an expected six to eight weeks.

Vancouver's main landfill in suburban Delta is also closed, disrupting commercial garbage disposal, he added.

Besides garbage collectors, the outside workers strike involves parks workers, road-maintenance staff and those who run municipal day camps for kids, among other tasks.

More than 2,500 children were registered for those camps.

But he said the final decision on whether to withdraw those services was up to the union.

Parks will remain open and Dobrovolny said special events will go ahead as scheduled.

They will face a real test next week when the Celebration of Light, a fireworks competition that draws hundreds of thousands to Vancouver's downtown waterfront nightly, begins Wednesday.

Cleanup will be an immense challenge, Dobrovolny acknowledged.

If inside workers strike, a much larger array of services, including city-run recreation centres and various licence and permit offices, could be shut down.

About 400 inside and outside workers at the District of North Vancouver and its recreation commission, represented by CUPE local 389, were also holding rotating job action.

The unions are opposed to 39-month contracts being offered by municipalities that are designed to ensure labour peace until after the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

They say the term is too long and the wage package is inadequate.

Dobrovolny said the two sides are too far apart to resume bargaining. He said Vancouver's offer is final and it has no additional money to improve it.

“It exceeds inflation,” he says. The benefits package is generous.”

Besides the strikes in Vancouver and North Vancouver district, there's potential for labour disruptions in Delta and Burnaby.


NJ Gov. pressures UPS for gay Teamsters

Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey sent a letter on Friday urging United Parcel Service to provide the same benefits for civil union partners as it does for married couples, intervening for the first time in the question of whether companies are appropriately following the state’s mandate for equal treatment of same-sex couples. The letter stemmed from complaints made by a truck driver for the company who has been unable to get health benefits for her partner after they became one of the first New Jersey couples to obtain a civil union. In February, the state became the third in the nation to authorize civil unions.

“The provision of employee benefits to civil union partners on the same terms as spouses would be more than a symbolic gesture of your company’s commitment to eliminating discrimination,” the governor wrote. “Spousal benefits are a key element of the financial and physical well-being of working couples and their children.” Company officials said on Friday that they had not received Mr. Corzine’s letter, and that the question of providing benefits to the driver, Nickie Brazier, is tied up in the legal complexities of a continuing contract negotiation with her union.

But beyond the specific situation at the company, the governor’s letter hinted at the possibility of a broader battle that advocates for same-sex couples have warned about since a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling last fall saying that all couples must be treated equally, but leaving to the Legislature whether to achieve that through same-sex marriage or civil unions. Without marriage, the advocates say, many companies — either willfully, or because of the resulting legal confusion over how to define “spouse” — will not treat same-sex couples equally.

Andrew Koppelman, a law professor at Northwestern University and author of the book “Same Sex, Different States: When Same-Sex Marriages Cross State Lines,” cited two pressing issues as states wrestle with the evolving definitions of couples: “tangible benefits” and “symbolic approval.”

“If you read the New Jersey statute, it gives couples all the same rights and responsibilities and benefits” as heterosexual couples, Mr. Koppelman said. The objection that gay couples have is that civil unions are “different, and by implication, inferior to heterosexual unions.”

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay-rights organization, said that to date, 193 of the 1,359 couples who have registered for civil unions in New Jersey have reported to him that their companies are not recognizing their unions, though none have yet filed suit to challenge the law. “Companies are offering a gazillion excuses,” Mr. Goldstein said. “The law says civil union partners should be treated as spouses,” he said. “It doesn’t say they are spouses.”

Some companies, particularly those that are self-insured — like 51 percent of New Jersey businesses — contend that federal law creates obstacles to providing equal benefits. Some cite the federal Defense of Marriage Act, while many others, including United Parcel Service, refer to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The act, known as “Erisa,” pre-empts state laws and allows self-insured employers to choose how to define “spouse.”

“Erisa doesn’t say that companies have to discriminate,” said David S. Buckel, a senior attorney at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who is representing Ms. Brazier. “Their argument is that Erisa gives them a choice. The question is, will they make the right choice?”

A spokesman for United Parcel Service, Norman Black, said the company had a policy of extending domestic partner benefits to all of its employees, but had been advised by its lawyers that it could not give such benefits to employees represented by the Teamsters union under a contract that does not expire until next summer.

In May, the company wrote to Ms. Brazier, saying that the company could not provide her partner, Heather Aurand, with health benefits because the state of New Jersey “does not currently recognize same-sex marriages.” Ms. Brazier’s health plan, the company said, provides benefits to her “legal spouse” as defined by state law. “In summary, you cannot add Ms. Aurand as a spouse because New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages,” the letter concluded.

Mr. Buckel, of Lambda Legal, said when he read the letter from the company, “I fell off my chair.” For advocacy organizations, there was no better evidence of the limitations of the civil union law than the company’s letter.

But in his response to United Parcel Service, Governor Corzine disagreed, arguing that New Jersey’s law in no way prevents the company from providing benefits. “New Jersey law intends that civil union partners be viewed as partners under all facets of New Jersey law and that a reference to ‘spouse’ in a legal context, including in a contract, embraces civil union partners,” he said.


Marathon bargaining results please SEIU

Union members at Forum Health in Ohio may not be on the picket lines soon after all. Union officials said sufficient progress was made during an 18-hour negotiating session Thursday and Friday for the Youngstown General Duty Nurses Association to rescind its notice of intent to strike against the health-care system. The nurses union had issued a strike notice Monday, and by state law would not have been able to strike for 10 days after that.

Eric Williams, nurses' union boss, said talks will resume Monday morning. The collective bargaining agreement, which was to expire at midnight Thursday, will remain in effect for the time being, Williams said. Williams said the last negotiating session went from about 10 a.m. Thursday to 4 a.m. Friday.

Forum Health called the progress made toward renewal of a work agreement during the marathon bargaining session "significant."

The YGDNA/Ohio Nurses Association represents some 600 registered nurses at Northside Medical Center and Beeghly Medical Park in Boardman.

David Regan, Service Employees International Union District 1199 boss, said he is pleased to learn "that ... a decision was made to rescind the 10-day strike notice."

District 1199, which earlier this year agreed to a new contract, represents about 1,400 employees at Forum Health's Western Reserve Care System, which includes Northside and Beeghly Medical Park. SEIU members are also at Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital in Warren.

Regan said he is also pleased to learn that Forum Health officials have committed to cease all plans to reduce services in anticipation of a work stoppage.

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