Michigan UAW Local gives strike notice

Newly unionized workers in the Lansing area are expected to vote on a possible strike. Bridgewater Interiors in Delta Township received a letter recently from the union telling them a strike vote will take place on July 31st. Bridgewater Interiors is a supplier for General Motors. UAW officials say they're negotiating on the workers' first contract with Bridgewater. Officials also say the strike vote is standard procedure for all plants that are in negotiations. They say striking is a last resort.


Teamster fiasco forces Nashville police reorganization

A Metro officer who was the Teamsters liaison with the department was decommissioned and assigned desk duty due to continuing criminal investigation. In a letter sent Thursday to Teamsters Local 327 President Jimmy Neal, Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas said all communication between police leaders and the Teamsters organization would be directed to Teamster attorney Jack Byrd. This change occurs during an ongoing criminal investigation involving Teamster employee Calvin Hullett and potential accomplices.

"Please understand that nothing in this correspondence should be construed as an intent to sever the relationship between the Metropolitan Government and the Teamsters as the duly elected representative of the sworn police officers," Serpas said. "It is, however, incumbent upon the police department, due to the above described broadening events, to evaluate our position/relationship on a daily basis. Until the criminal investigation and matters arising from it can be satisfactorily resolved, it is necessary that the administration of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department refrain from any direct contact or communication with any persons/officials employed by the Teamsters organization."

Metro officer Roy Dunaway was decommissioned Thursday and assigned to desk duty in the police department's Warrants Division.

In his letter to Neal, Serpas wrote, "Regarding Officer Roy Dunaway, the Teamster liaison, sufficient information has been received by the department to require that he be immediately relieved of any law enforcement authority and placed on restricted assignment. No police department employee will be authorized to replace Officer Dunaway as Teamster liaison during this interim."


Nurses picket dozens of Cal. hospitals

Tanya Moreland has worked as a registered nurse for 27 years, 22 of them at Marian Medical Center, and she says she has seen the quality of patient care decline because of a low ratio of nurses to patients. Moreland joined a group of about 75 other Marian nurses Thursday night to picket with signs in front of the hospital as part of a statewide effort to publicize the California Nurses Association's dissatisfaction with the progress of contract bargaining with Catholic Healthcare West. “We wanted to bring that forward (to the public), so they're aware of what's going on,” Moreland said.

The union planned demonstrations at 20 Catholic Healthcare West hospitals across the state Thursday, according to the California Nurses Association. Locally, pickets were held between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria and French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo. Registered nurses from Arroyo Grande Community Hospital joined the picketing as well.

The deteriorating conditions at Marian Medical Center have been at their worst, Moreland said, in the roughly 10 years since Catholic Healthcare West took over ownership.

Picketers said that support poured in, in the form of honks from passing vehicles, and they particularly enjoyed the feedback from an engine of Guadalupe firefighters and a construction crew.

Catholic Healthcare West pointed out in a written statement that the pickets at Marian Medical Center, French Hospital Medical Center and Arroyo Grande Community Hospital did not mean that workers were striking.

“During this time, the delivery of patient care will not be affected in any way,” the Catholic Healthcare West statement said.

“We are confident the negotiations will result in a contract that is mutually acceptable,” CHW added.

CHW's Central Coast hospitals will continue a strong, positive relationship with its employees, the statement said.

“We have the most competent, well-trained, highly skilled nurses and healthcare workers in the area,” CHW said. “We appreciate the hard work of our nurses in continuing to provide the highest quality care for our patients and communities.”

Bargaining for a new agreement began in April, and the union is dissatisfied with a lack of progress, according to the California Nurses Association. The hospital chain and the union are bargaining for a new contract covering nine hospitals in Southern California, CHW said.

Three years ago, the nurses at the nine hospitals organized as a single bargaining unit, and the contract now being negotiated is the first one for that bargaining unit, according to Catholic Healthcare West.

Affected nurses have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike if their contract is not resolved soon, said the nurses association.

The California Nurses Association claimed that Catholic Healthcare West has refused to guarantee sufficient nurse-patient ratios, has proposed major health benefit “takeaways” and has offered a non-competitive retiree health plan.

The association also alleged that CHW is trying to lay the groundwork to sell hospitals and turn a quick profit by refusing to ensure that nurses will be protected by their California Nurses Association contracts if a sale occurs.

Kevin Baker, a Sacramento-based labor representative from the union, said that registered nurses on the Central Coast earn an average of $10 less per hour than the next highest-paid nurses who work for Catholic Healthcare West elsewhere in California.

Baker said that more than 98 percent of affected nurses on the Central Coast have voted to authorize a strike if the bargaining team decides to do so.

“Today was just like a dress rehearsal,” he said Thursday.

“We really want to bring attention to the public ... because the public is the patient, and that's who the nurses are there for.”

Baker said that if a strike took place, involved hospitals would be notified 10 days beforehand and teams of nurses would be ready to work if needed.


Politics creates useless trash-hauling monopoly

Dramatic events like the Vancouver, B.C. civic workers' strike give rise to helpful questions. Like: Why do we grant an effective monopoly on residential garbage pickup to city employees if they then use that position to pressure taxpayers at periodic intervals?

Like: Is there a complexity to garbage services that requires the services of well-paid public sector workers whom we will in due course have the privilege of supporting by way of fully indexed pensions for the rest of our mutual lives? The answer to the second question is, simply, "No." Ordinary businesses routinely look after commercial waste management in Vancouver, and all garbage services in some cities. It works fine. The answer to the first question involves politics and is therefore more complicated.

In any strike where the government, a.k.a. the public, is on one side of the table, the best weapon for the union side is public inconvenience. The idea is to force the politicians to settle because the voters are complaining. Higher settlements may mean higher taxes tomorrow, but that is tomorrow and at least the garbage goes away for today.

So public sector unions love pressure points, and fight to preserve them. So would I; so perhaps would you in their shoes.

But from a principled point of view, third-party effects of labour disputes should be minimized in a civilized society. How to proceed?

Garbage could simply be made an essential service in law. But that logic, extended, would make the right to strike in the public sector meaningless. This is an argument few want to tackle today and beyond city powers anyway.

However there is another approach.

As background, there is a reason that homeowners do not have a realistic choice between the Canadian Union of Public Employees' garbage folks and this or that waste management company. In theory anyone can arrange for private trash collection, but the hook is that city council includes the cost of garbage in your tax bill, and it won't give you a rebate if you make other arrangements. Hence the effective monopoly. Who wants to pay twice?

Council could change that, by removing the garbage fee from our taxes, setting requirements and standards for waste management -- cleanliness and so on -- just as it does for taxis, say, and then allowing competition. (This could include competition by bids from groups of existing municipal workers, a solution the Swedes have used in running hospitals).

You, the householder, could take your pick, pay the price, and if you want to keep your current city garbage truck in business, feel free.

Realistically, making that move overnight would lead to a real labour war.

People, including sanitation workers, build their lives on the reasonable expectation that they can rely on governments not to change ground rules too quickly. Overnight reform is not going to happen.

But we should get started, with the objective of gradually privatizing residential waste management services so that as the current public work force ages and retires or transfers to other departments, the municipal role in this simple but necessary service fades away.

How to proceed?

The city conveniently divides into 10 or 12 geographical areas. At the time of the next municipal election there could be a plebiscite measure asking people whether they want their area to convert to private pickup.

The highest "Yes" area could then become the test ground for garbage freedom day, with a contract given to the low-bid company in that one part of Vancouver. If the idea works, expand it gradually.
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And to be fair: If the undoubted vigorous CUPE counter-campaign against a "Yes" vote resulted in there being no area with a majority in favour, then leave things alone for the time being.

But in the longer run there is an important principle at stake, which is the right to do lawful business with whomever you choose, whether or not the majority approves.

For example, if you like to shop at a particular smaller supermarket, you might think it wrong to also have to pay for municipally owned and civil servant staffed Public Food Corp. stores, even if 90 per cent of Vancouverites supported that concept.

The idea of choice and voluntary transactions runs very deep, and is part of the fundamental right in our society called "freedom of association." That very principle is incorporated in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 2(d)) and was recently used by the Supreme Court of Canada to uphold union rights in a dispute with the Campbell government.

Well and good -- but freedoms work both ways, and freedom of association supports customer rights, too. If council won't move on this basic issue, perhaps some civil liberties group will ask for a court declaration that the policy in effect forcing us to use city garbage services is not constitutional.

This kind of basic change is surely not what CUPE had in mind in going out on strike, but there is the adage to remember: "Be careful what you ask for ..."

The longer this dispute goes on, the higher the stakes. At some point this option has to hit the table.


NLRB sides with RI nurses, against hosptial

A judge has ruled that Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island was guilty of an unfair labor practice when it banned a pro-union sticker worn as a lapel button during contract talks involving the contentious issue of mandatory overtime. In a scathing 26-page decision, Judge Wallace H. Nations accused hospital officials of making an issue of the sticker either to drum up support for their bargaining position or out of frustration with the negotiations, which were dragging on inconclusively while the union attacked the hospital in the newspaper and on TV.

“I believe that the “KNOW RESPECT” sticker was banned by the hospital as part of its tactics in negotiations or out of frustration with the negotiations and for no other reason,” Nations said in the July 20 decision.

A hospital news release that characterized the sticker as stressful to patients and inflammatory “appears to me to be trying to create an issue around the button to garner support for the Hospital’s bargaining position,” the judge wrote.

Nations, an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., also found hospital officials guilty of intimidating employees by interrogating them about whether they planned to cross the picket line in the event of a strike.

The employees weren’t told the reason they were being questioned so that the hospital could call in enough non-union employees to take care of patients during a walkout, Nations said.

“In each case, the supervisor failed to provide any assurance that employees would be shielded from reprisals regardless of how they responded to the question of whether or not they intended to cross the picket line,” he wrote.

Memorial Hospital said it was disappointed with the ruling, which requires the hospital to post notices announcing that the actions that its supervisors took were illegal and to undo the disciplinary measures that were taken against nine button-wearing nurses who were union members.

“It was never our intent to stifle union members’ free expression. We respect and value all of our employees. Our concern at the time was, as it always is, our patient’s well being,” hospital spokeswoman Louise C. Paiva said.

“A decision on whether to appeal the ruling has not yet been made and is under consideration with legal counsel,” Paiva said.

Chris Callaci, a field representative for the United Nurses & Allied Professionals, hailed the decision as a “complete victory,” noting that both of the unfair labor practices charges that the union brought against Memorial Hospital had been upheld.

The charges arose from the hospital’s actions during last summer’s dispute over a new contract for nurses and other unionized hospital employees.

Although the dispute was settled without a strike, the key issue — mandatory overtime — lingers. On June 29, Governor Carcieri vetoed a House bill that would have banned the practice, except in emergencies, at health-care facilities all over the state.

In his veto message, Carcieri characterized mandatory overtime as a collective bargaining issue. The governor’s spokesman, Jeff Neal, said yesterday that the governor believes that disputes over the practice should be settled through contract talks, not legislated out of existence by the General Assembly acting at the union’s request.

Callaci was critical of Carcieri, saying the governor either didn’t notice what happened during the contract talks between Memorial Hospital and Local 5082 of the United Nurses & Allied Professionals, or didn’t care.

Mandatory overtime is a stopgap measure taken to prevent interruptions in patient care because of inadequate staffing. It involves ordering nurses about to finish to one eight-hour shift to work all or part of another shift when a staff shortage occurs.

Upset that the hospital had rejected a union-backed proposal to end the practice, on Aug. 25, nurses at Memorial Hospital began wearing buttons that said “KNOW RESPECT” in letters that faded so that the message became “NO RESPECT.”

The buttons first appeared on union members’ lapels three days after Local 5082 issued a strike notice. Lisa Pratt, Memorial’s vice president for human resources, said she found the buttons objectionable because the message was “ambiguous.”

“Who was it directed at?” Pratt testified. “What did it mean?”

At Pratt’s request, hospital employees were ordered to stop wearing the buttons. Nine nurses received verbal or written warnings when they refused.


State union laws help, hinder employment options

Edward Sioui has always been able to make a living in Michigan without a college degree. So in July 2001, when his mom had a heart attack in Arizona, he figured it would be easy to pick up, move near her, and maybe enjoy living in a warmer climate for a while. Exactly 364 days later, frustrated by his meager paychecks and sweltering in the desert heat, he and his wife, Debbie, headed back to Michigan.

He blamed his family's inability to make a living in Arizona on the state's open-shop, or right-to-work, laws, which hinder union growth. Even with cheaper housing, he couldn't make ends meet on $12.25 an hour, and the work environment rankled him.

"You're not treated with any respect," Sioui says, who is happy to be back in Michigan even though he is currently laid off. "You're just dispensable, and they know it, so they treat you that way."

Sioui is among the blue-collar workers who are dismayed that business leaders and politicians are talking about making Michigan the country's 23rd state with an open-shop or right-to-work law. Right-to-work is the phrase union opponents use to describe what unions call open shops. Under such laws, union membership is not required to get a job, and workers can choose whether they want to be in a union, even if a company is unionized. That makes it harder for unions to organize new members in already-unionized plants and makes it more difficult to bring unions to new sites. Ultimately, unions say, it means more non-union workers earning lower non-union wages.
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That the discussion is even happening in Michigan, which ranks fourth in the nation for its number of union-represented employees, is dramatic. Union pride — and influence — runs deep here, the birthplace and current home base of the United Auto Workers. It's a state where holidays are extended by union days off, such as the Monday after Easter and a week around July Fourth. And where even non-unionized white-collar workers admit their wages and benefits wouldn't be where they are without the influence of the UAW.

Yet the issue has come up, including in the Michigan Legislature. And not at a good time for the UAW. Although in early stages — and perhaps without much hope for taking effect — the right-to-work movement is another pressure on the union, which has just launched negotiations on new contracts with Detroit's struggling automakers. The UAW and the automakers will spend the rest of the summer hashing out what may be monumental changes for union workers' wages, job security and health care benefits.

Proponents say a right-to-work law will help Michigan revive its economy because businesses will be more amenable to moving to the state. States with such laws, they argue, are among the fastest-growing in the country.

Waning hope

Michigan is a state that is quickly losing hope. It is in its longest stretch of job losses since the Great Depression, say economists at the University of Michigan. From 2000 to 2006, the state lost 336,000 jobs and is predicted to lose an additional 33,000 by the end of 2008. Its unemployment rate in June was 7.2%, the highest in the nation.

And the state's largest industry, automotive, shows little sign of turning around. Because of the cyclical nature of the auto industry, people in Michigan are used to economic ups and downs. But the downs are becoming longer-lived than the ups.

To regain some of its economic health, Michigan needs to attract different industries, such as alternative fuel production, health care and tourism. But right-to-work proponents say the strong union presence keeps new industry away. A weaker union base would help attract more businesses, they argue.

"We've got to do something bold, something dramatic," says Lawrence Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Michigan that promotes business interests. "This is the one best thing that can break the perception around the country that Michigan doesn't have a friendly work environment. Nothing would do that better than a right-to-work initiative."

Republican state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk introduced a right-to-work bill in March. It would change the state's closed-shop laws, which compel hourly employees in unionized workplaces to join the union. Although the bill likely won't go anywhere — it remains stuck in the Democrat-controlled House Labor Committee — there is a chance that a citizen's group could put a right-to-work initiative on the ballot.

"If Michigan were to become a right-to-work state, it would do a lot to move us in the right direction to become economically viable," Hoogendyk says. "Michigan has the most talented workforce, the best entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic. But the ones who make the investment decisions are not making the decision to come to Michigan."

The fact that lawmakers and business leaders feel comfortable introducing the idea of open-shop laws in Michigan demonstrates how much weaker unions already are in the state, which in the past dozen years has seen violence erupt over labor issues, as in the Detroit newspapers strikes in the mid-1990s. Job losses in the auto industry have trimmed UAW ranks to about 500,000 today from 1.5 million in 1979, making the union less of a threat as it shrinks.

Unions not sitting back

Still, the unions, which made up 19.6% of Michigan's workforce in 2006, aren't going to sit by and let the state enact rules that will weaken them. The day after Hoogendyk introduced his legislation, an e-mail from the AFL-CIO hit the inboxes of all of the state's representatives and staffers outlining the downsides to open-shop laws.

While UAW President Ron Gettelfinger dismissed the issue as a non-starter in Michigan, James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said his union is ready to fight.

"We will mobilize our members," says Hoffa, whose union has a smaller presence in Michigan than the UAW does. "Right-to-work causes divisions among the workers when the workers need to be united."

Oklahoma is the most recent state to enact open-shop laws. In 2001, with 8% of its population represented by unions, compared with a national average 12%, state Republicans took on the battle to enact right-to-work with support of businesses including Wal-Mart (WMT), the state Chamber of Commerce, and most of the state's newspapers. Labor groups led the opposition. The two sides spent $11.4 million in the showdown over a ballot initiative. Supporters of right-to-work painted the issue as one of individual liberty, arguing that workers should not be compelled to join a union if they don't want to. Opponents argued that the law would lead to lower wages and benefits.

The issue drew nearly a million votes, passing with 54% of the vote.

Since it became Oklahoma law in 2003, "The effect has probably been rather minimal, plus or minus either way," says Mickey Hepner, associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.

Personal income in Oklahoma grew 7.6% last year, the third-highest growth in the nation, according to the Department of Commerce, but that was attributed to growth in the oil and gas industry, which has been in Oklahoma for decades. Businesses have invested $2.5 billion in the state since 2001, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, and about 28,000 jobs have been added.

Yet, there have been some big hits to the economy, as well. General Motors (GM) closed its Oklahoma City plant in February 2006, eliminating 2,000 jobs. Bridgestone Firestone closed its Dayton Tire plant in Oklahoma City in December. And the clothing manufacturer that makes Wrangler jeans shut a Seminole, Okla., plant in 2003, moving operations to Mexico. Union membership in Oklahoma is now 5.4%.

Right-to-work laws make less sense as businesses become more globalized, Hepner says. "We're competing against Mexico and China and Honduras and India for labor, and frankly, no matter how far labor costs go down (in the USA), it's still going to be cheaper to produce things over there than here in Oklahoma. Right-to-work is not going to stop that globalization process."

Michigan's prospects

Proponents of right-to-work could be helped by a growing dissatisfaction in Michigan with the unions. A recent spate of automaker buyouts that gave hourly workers up to $140,000 in some cases or paid-in-full college educations in others irked white-collar workers at the same companies, many of whom were laid off without any safety net at all.

And the automaker jobs bank — which preserves hourly workers' jobs even when there is nothing for them to do — has earned the UAW the derisive nickname "U Ain't Working."

In the past few years, the UAW also has drawn criticism from some labor supporters for its spending. The union last year was still taking local leaders on conferences to places such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Cape May, N.J., and spending $65,000 on pens and keychain gift sets.

Even as its members fear wage cuts and job losses, the union pays its own staff well. According to documents filed with the Department of Labor, out of 1,100 employees, the UAW pays about 650 of them more than $95,000 a year.

The UAW would not comment.

"What's disheartening about the UAW is that, despite their rapid decline in membership, there's still a shocking amount of national staff to members," says Chris Kutalik, labor activist and co-director of Labor Notes, a union newspaper.

Bureaucratization is an ongoing problem for the UAW, Kutalik says, one that it can't afford to ignore for too much longer because it hurts the union's credibility with its members and with the general public. "With all the cards that are stacked against unions today, it really weakens them."

Still, open-shop laws are not the answer, he says. It's the massive amount of layoffs that "are sucking the economic base out of the state," not unions. "Wrecking the right for representation for unions and the ability for working people to defend against these giants is going to exacerbate the problems," he says.

Ellis Boal, a Michigan attorney who has represented union members in lawsuits against the UAW, says workers have more legal rights in a union.

"Union workers face powerful companies they are working for," Boal says. "Workers always will do better if they band together and bargain together rather than if they have individual deals separately."

Michigan voters won't have to make a decision this year. A citizens group led by an anonymous businessman has met several times to talk about bringing right-to-work to the ballot but decided it didn't have enough funding this year to wage what would no doubt be an expensive, ugly campaign against Michigan's unions.

"I think Michigan will one day be a right-to-work state," says Leon Drolet, a former Michigan state representative who is involved with the citizens group. "It's just a question if there's going to be anyone left in the state for it to matter."

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