SEIU deluges California's local politicians

Contract talks between Kern County and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are not going well. In fact, beginning next week, they will have a referee. Union members have been flooding the Board of Supervisors meetings to talk about their concerns, saying they want an increase in wages and benefits in order to better support their families.

They also said other employees in the county, who work under a contract, are getting paid more for the same work. Union members voted this week to ask the Central Labor Council to support them if mediation talks break down and a strike is called.


Gov't union arbitration model fails smell-test

The strike in Vancouver by CUPE workers and the strike by the United Steelworkers in the coastal forest industry offer vivid examples of the differences between public- and private-sector job action.

In a nutshell, the private-sector dispute is constrained by the competitive pressures of the marketplace. In the current dispute, the companies are making no money on existing capital investment and are risking permanent damage to the long-term viability of their enterprise because customers will secure sources of lumber elsewhere. The workers, on the other hand, do not enjoy the same level of job security as their public-sector counterparts, and hence risk permanent job loss if the enterprise is significantly damaged.

While their short-term rhetoric is predictably at odds, both parties have a stake in the long-term viability of the industry, and hence contracts must reflect the competitive reality.

In the case of the public-sector strike, no such constraints exist. The public monopoly means that the customers are held hostage by the labour dispute and hence there is no chance that the enterprise, in this case the government, will go out of business. Workers know they will always have a job to go back to. In the absence of competitive pressure, the most effective weapon for the unionized workers to press their demands is to sufficiently inconvenience the public so that they will pressure the politicians to make a settlement.

What is clear is that the application of "the private-sector strike" model to a public-sector monopoly without the constraints offered by a competitive environment has proven to be highly problematic, both financially and in terms of public inconvenience. As Angus Reid spokesman Craig Worden recently summarized in light of recent poll results, "British Columbians are very supportive of unions up to a point, but when it starts to affect their lives in a negative way, then that support will start to wither away."

Inevitably, inconveniencing the public during public-sector strikes leads to calls for a new way of negotiating contracts. But that is far easier said than done. As a July 24 Treasury Board of Canada report reminds us, there are only three avenues available to determine remuneration: One side (read government) decides unilaterally; both sides agree; or a third party dictates terms.

My bet is that many Canadians would favour a third-party approach as possibly the "fairest" means to a solution. Unfortunately, in practice, as the Treasury Board report pointed out, "studies consistently find that productivity, ability-to-pay, and labour-market disequilibria play little role in shaping arbitral decisions."

Not taking into account the ability to pay on the part of taxpayers is a recipe for financial disaster, which makes this approach unacceptable to government. In practice, the arbitration model has tended to exacerbate financial problems by focusing on comparability within the public sector, no matter whether existing contracts are financially viable or not.

Given that governments don't like the arbitration model and unions understandably don't like government-legislated settlements, calls for changes to the current bargaining model amount to little more than wishful thinking. Besides, despite having to swallow imposed settlements from time to time, the Treasury Board study, as well as others, makes clear that overall public-sector union negotiators have done very well for their members, especially lower skilled ones, when compared to their private-sector counterparts. Which is hardly an incentive to embrace change.


Double-barreled strike voted in Ohio

Noneconomic issues caused members of the joint Teamster/United Steelworkers of America employed at McDonald Steel to vote Thursday to go on strike if a work agreement isn't reached. The unanimous vote to strike is about "respect and dignity, not economics," said Chris Colello, president and business agent for the union that represents 94 workers at the steel plant.

Colello said the intent-to-strike notice will probably be received by the company Monday. There is a five-day cooling-off period after the notice is received before a strike can occur, possibly as soon as Aug. 10, the union leader said.

McDonald Steel spokesman William Farragher, said company officials were "stunned" by the strike vote and rejection of the company's proposal. "We thought it was a good offer," he said.

What's in offer

Farragher said the four-year-plus-a-month proposal included 3.5 percent wage increases in each of the four years; and incremental increases in the company's contributions to the employees 401 (k) plan that would match 50 percent of the employee's contribution by the fourth year of the agreement.

"Obviously we're surprised. We feel the offer is generous and we hope to get the issues resolved," Farragher said.

A strike would be hard on the company's customers and employees, he said.

Colello said the strike vote was a "referendum on the treatment of employees by management ... and the twisting of contract language by the human resources department."

Union members voted to reject the company's offer on July 19 and then the same package was sent back, Colello said.

Thursday, the members said in a "loud and clear voice that they are not taking it anymore. We hope that the company will respond by fixing the problem. They know what it is," said Colello.

No negotiating sessions were scheduled as of Friday, but Colello and Farragher both said they expected talks would occur in the near future.


UFCW pickets block heartless, greedy new grocery

A campaign launched by UFCW Local 8-Golden State is asking shoppers in South Sacramento not to shop at a new, non-union Foods Co supermarket in the area.

The campaign, which includes direct mailings, handbills and on-site informational picketing, points out that employees at the store are getting lower wages and poorer benefits than workers at unionized Foods Co stores in other parts of Sacramento.

"Union supermarkets are an important source of decent jobs in South Sacramento," said Jacques Loveall, president of UFCW 8-Golden State. "Foods Co's heartless and greedy policy will mean lower wages and more suffering in the community."

Union members and their supporters began walking an informational picket line outside the store at 7421 W. Stockton Blvd. on July 25. Participants are handing out leaflets that ask customers not to shop at the store. Shoppers are being directed to nearby union stores operated by Bel Air, Food Maxx, Food Source, Raley’s, Safeway and Save Mart.

"At union stores, employees earn good wages with health care and retirement benefits," Loveall said. "It's shameful that Foods Co wants to deny these things to the people of South Sacramento."


Mayor's Teamster bribe was ordinary politics

A bribery case against former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales has been officially closed after prosecutors said Friday they will not pursue an appeal or another grand jury indictment over the alleged corruption involving the city's garbage contract.

Prosecutors had alleged Gonzales and his aide brokered a backroom deal with Norcal in 2000 that resulted in the hiring of Teamsters, instead of lower-paid union workers, and then shadily passed off the extra labor expenses in a garbage rate hike that cost taxpayers an additional $11.25 million.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge John Herlihy ruled that prosecutors mistook ordinary political maneuvering for bribery.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores Carr said winning an appeal seemed unlikely and launching another grand jury investigation would probably not produce any new evidence to bolster the case.

A judge in June dismissed the criminal case against Gonzales, his former budget director Joe Guerra and Norcal Waste Systems Inc. over what he found to be faulty grand jury instructions based on an overly broad interpretation of the bribery law.

"He interpreted the law more narrowly than we had and it's unlikely that a court of appeal would overturn his ruling," Carr said.

However, Carr, who took on the top prosecution post earlier this year, stood by her predecessor's decisions that led to the grand jury indictment of the mayor in 2006.

"The only way to get to the truth was to get testimony under oath," she said, adding that she believes the public still benefited from the prosecution by exposing details of what happened.

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