Striking forestry union in Home Depot boycott

Members of the United Steelworkers (USW) from five coastal local unions have begun distributing leaflets to consumers at four outlets of The Home Depot in Langley, Abbotsford, Nanaimo and Courtenay as the initial phase of a continent-wide consumer awareness campaign to convince consumers not to purchase wood products labeled by Western Forest Products, Interfor and Weyerhaeuser (Cedar One).

USW members have been on strike for three weeks against Western, Interfor and other employers over working conditions, including those affecting health and safety. Since 2004, many employers, backed by a BC-government-legislated collective agreement, have imposed work days of 12-16 hours, when hours on the job and travel time are factored together.

"We would like consumers to avoid purchasing these labeled products and we urge Home Depot, and all other retailers and distributors, to avoid carrying wood products produced by struck employers," said USW Western Canada Director Steve Hunt.

Since January, 2005, more than 65 BC forest workers have been killed. Last year a coroner's jury confirmed that unsafe shifts and contracting out have increased the likelihood of injuries and fatalities.

The leaflet says that by not purchasing these labeled products, consumers support a safer, better forest industry in BC, and one that provides quality products.

Home Depot is the world's largest home improvement specialty retailer, with well over 2,100 stores around the world. Last year it had over US $90-billion in sales.

The USW is Canada's most diverse union, representing more than 280,000 men and women working in every sector of Canada's economy. It is North America's largest industrial union with with more than 850,000 active members.


Gov't union strikers vow to keep fighting

Emotions were high at a CUPE rally outside city hall as striking city workers made a show of strength after last week's breakdown in negotiations. During Friday's rally union leaders vowed to strike until a "fair" settlement was reached. Hundreds of striking city workers showed up, many wearing placards that read "Sam's Strike," others waving violet CUPE flags.

Union leaders had sharp words for city negotiators that were met with cheers and laughs.CUPE leaders say the city is refusing to budge from the offer workers already turned down in a forced vote just before striking. The union says the city also refuses to match the agreements negotiated in other municipalities across the Lower Mainland.

"What the hell are they waiting for?" called out CUPE secretary-treasurer Mark Hancock from the podium.

Hancock said the union's strike funds were strong and workers could remain on strike for a long time to come.

"Money is not an issue. You will not starve these workers out."

CUPE negotiators are angry that the city has refused to meet with them for more than a few hours before talks were called off on Thursday.

But city spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny said the city was "blindsided" by the union's decision to leave the table and break the media blackout. He said negotiators thought they were getting closer to a deal.

And while the union said the city wouldn't meet face-to-face, the city says the union wouldn't respond to the city's wage-and-term offer with a counteroffer.

"City of Vancouver negotiators offered all three CUPE bargaining teams a package that is very close to the settlement package accepted by CUPE locals in North Vancouver," said Dobrovolny in a statement.

The GVRD is closing the Coquitlam and North Shore transfer stations today to catch up with trash removal.

The Matsqui, Maple Ridge and Surrey stations will remain open, but may have lineups.


County scrambles to cope with SEIU chain reaction

When Kern County, Cal. supervisors started handing out raises to some departments recently, it created a domino effect resulting in dozens of raises, some as high as 18 percent, and even one at 24.5 percent. And the snowball of salary bumps isn't over yet. Supervisors have offered raises of 10 percent or more to employees in more than 200 different job classifications as part of a disputed contract with the Service Employees International Union.

Budget guardians say the county can afford it, for now. But Michael Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers' Association said the chain-reaction raises and big pay increases worry him. "They've abandoned the principle of taking one-time money and putting it into one-time expenses," he said. "Where does it stop?" He does support the county's idea of privatizing pensions to take the burden off the county’s self-funded retirement program.

Chain reaction

It all started after supervisors re-established a lieutenant rank within the Sheriff's Department.

To keep pay fair within the sheriff's management team, said county Employee Relations Officer Bill Douglas, commanders were given a substantial raise.

That raise totalled up to 18 percent, according to the county’s formal contract with the Kern County Sheriff's Command Association.

And, like ripples in a pond, that triggered demands from other county employees.

Kern County Fire Chief Dennis Thompson and the people in his deputy and chief deputy positions all got a 17 percent raise to even things out.


A similar scenario played out with the county's attorneys.

When District Attorney Ed Jagels noticed his second-in-command, Dan Sparks, made less than Assistant County Counsel Steve Schuett, he asked supervisors to match Sparks’ pay to Schuett's.

Supervisors granted the request, then had to bless another round of raises when Public Defender Mark Arnold requested, in all fairness, that he and his staff be given the same pay as other county-employed lawyers.

Arnold pulled down a 24.5 percent raise.

Not over yet

Negotiations between the county and its largest union, SEIU Local 521, are strained.

The county's last offer to the union, posted on the SEIU Web site, shows a base salary increase of 4 percent.

But many job positions would see much more money under enhancements in the basic county offer.

Some raises are proposed to go as high as 38 percent.

To counter-balance the cost of some of those raises, the county has proposed splitting SEIU member employees’ pensions into half-pension, half-investment system.

A long drought

County union leaders say it’s been years since they got a decent raise.

Over the past four years general employees have only received a 2 percent raise.

Union officials agreed to those minimal raises in order to lock in improvements to county pension programs.

But county pay lagged in competitiveness, according to a 2006 report from County Administrative Officer Ron Errea, and it became hard to attract new workers.

That phenomenon, coupled with growing retirements, resulted in major vacancies in most county departments.

Now that county budgets are good, union officials argue, it is time to catch up.

Aimee Barajas, a spokeswoman for SEIU, said the larger raises offered to specific job classifications were needed to put those positions at the median of pay compared to similar counties.

Hundreds of employees, she said, were making 10 or 20 or 30 percent less than their peers.

"We are still talking. We think there is still an opportunity for settlement," she said.

The future

Douglas and county budget director Debbie Stevenson said the county can afford it this year.

"It's no secret that we have a good bit of money in the budget," Douglas said. "What is unanswered is, in a couple of years if the economy goes down and assessed (property) valuation decreases, will we be able to sustain?"

The total cost of all these raises to the county isn't clear.

Stevenson said the county has not set aside a specific amount of money to deal with the cost of raises, but has plenty of cash in its contingencies to cover this year’s costs.

Stevenson said the challenge of giving raises is always whether the county can afford to keep paying those rates when budgets turn bad.

But, she said, the county is conservative in its budgeting and will increase its reserves from $34 to $48 million this budget year.

By the numbers

Big Kern County raises

Here are some examples of raises either proposed or given to Kern County employees during recent negotiations.

4% — Base increase for general employees, proposed

17% —Kern County Fire Chief Dennis Thompson

18% — Kern County sheriff’s commander

20% — petroleum geologist, proposed

22.5% — park ranger I, proposed

24.5% — Public Defender Mark Arnold

30% — Supervising criminalist, proposed

38.5% — Occupational therapist, proposed


Strike talk echoes as professors picket University

After he became president of Eastern Michigan University, John Fallon says he invited the head of the professors union for a dinner in Depot Town to get acquainted. The dinner, which included the wives of both men, set the tone for his strained relationship with the professors union during his two-year tenure, Fallon recalled.

That was the summer of 2005 - a year before the union went on strike during contract talks. John and Sidney Fallon said they used a gift certificate to Cady's Grill as a chance to sit down with Howard Bunsis, boss of the EMU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and his wife.

But after the women excused themselves for a few minutes, Fallon said, Bunsis warned him the professors planned to strike in the fall of 2006 when their contract expired.

Bunsis vehemently denies saying that, adding that the dinner only involved pleasantries and talk about families. "It would be totally irresponsible for a union leader to talk about a guaranteed strike a year before negotiations start," he said in an interview last week.

That conversation - and the differing accounts of it - illustrates the gulf that existed between union leaders and the president during much of Fallon's time at EMU. Prior presidents have faced that same gulf.

After an initial honeymoon period, problems between the union and Fallon surfaced in April 2006, when Fallon named longtime administrator Donald Loppnow as provost and vice president for academic affairs. Bunsis and others protested, not over Loppnow's appointment, but because of their lack of input in the decision.

The climate further deteriorated when professors went on strike as the fall semester began, and negotiations broke down. A state fact-finder was later appointed, leading to a contract settlement in the spring.

Particularly disturbing to Bunsis and other union leaders was the administration's decision to walk away from the negotiating table on Sept. 5. Bunsis said the two sides were close to a deal and could have settled that evening.

But Fallon said the administration's stance was dictated in part by the hard line taken by some regents, including then vice chairman Tom Sidlik. Fallon said Sidlik repeatedly insisted on a salary increase of only 2 percent. Professors ultimately agreed to a four-year deal with salary increases ranging from 3.5 percent to about 4 percent.

Sidlik, who is now board chairman, declined to comment for this story.

Bunsis maintains he never spoke to Fallon about union matters. "I never got the sense he was engaged in labor relations," he said.


FedEx battle with Teamsters spills into court

FedEx Corp. is speeding toward a collision inside an Indiana federal courthouse where drivers at the company's ground-delivery unit are demanding full-time status. The court is weighing suits filed by 150 independent contract drivers who say they are treated as full-time employees and should be paid as such. Limiting the FedEx ground-delivery unit's use of contractors may wreck its chances of gaining on larger rival UPS. The unit helped FedEx take as much as 19 percent of the ground-delivery market, while UPS has fallen from 82 percent to 70 percent in the past decade.

Losing the battle could flatten the company's model of using workers who are self-employed and don't get benefits or paid time off. FedÂEx may have to buy as many as 15,000 drivers' trucks for $45,000 apiece. That $630 million bill could jump even higher if health care, pension costs and back pay are added.

"Treating any particular class of workers as independent contractors is, in many ways, an all-or-nothing proposition," said Carey Bartell, a labor lawyer at Reed Smith in Chicago. "If you're right, you avoid certain expense and hassle. If you're wrong, however, you can lose big."

The FedEx cases are before a federal judge in South Bend, who will decide after a hearing later this month whether the claims of contractors from 29 states should be combined in a single lawsuit. If the suit goes forward, the court will decide if the law allows for making the jobs full-time.

FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said the drivers' trucks aren't all worth $45,000 and potential damages shouldn't be based on that amount.

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages, including back pay, the cost of buying or leasing trucks and renting uniforms and equipment.

The lawsuit is one of several disputes involving the company and the Teamsters union. On July 24, a former FedEx contract driver selected by the union went to a congressional committee to testify about working conditions.

FedEx, which has 280,000 employees, provided the court in Indiana with e-mail messages between Teamsters officials and lawyers that purport to show the unions are driving the lawsuits.

David Welker, a Teamsters' campaign coordinator for the parcel and small-package division, said there is a two-front battle for workers' rights in Congress and in court.

To obtain permission to sue on behalf of all 15,000 drivers, the workers must show their cases have common facts and legal issues. To win the lawsuit, they must prove that FedEx exerts the same amount of control over the contractors as regular employees in areas such as work schedules and appearance.

Some drivers say that by the time they deduct costs that include fuel, maintenance and paying for replacement drivers when they are sick or on vacation, they clear only about $30,000 after being paid $75,000 by FedEx.

Not all drivers favor full-time status. FedEx claims that only a fraction of the 15,000 contractors are critical of the system.

FedEx lost a similar case in California, where a state court in Los Angeles ruled that the company owes 200 drivers $5.3 million in expenses. The case is being appealed. Gannett Co. won a claim last year when newspaper carriers in Kentucky lost a bid to have the National Labor Relations Board classify them as full-time employees.

The FedEx ground unit's contractor model has broadened the company's appeal to small businesses, which historically relied on UPS, said Donald Broughton, an A.G. Edwards & Sons analyst in St. Louis.

The company's system contrasts with that of UPS, the largest employer of Teamsters union members. UPS employs its drivers full-time and owns the trucks.

"FedEx Ground can grow faster in the contractor model because capital costs are lower with contractors buying the trucks," Broughton said.


UAW strikers rally in New York

More than twenty unions from the Southern Tier showed their support Saturday morning for Dresser Rand workers on strike. Dresser Rand workers have been on strike for eight days and many Southern Tier unions showed their support for them. Dresser Rand went on strike last Saturday after the company and union couldn't come to an agreement on healthcare. More than 400 workers are on strike. Union leaders will be meeting Dresser Rand company officials on Wednesday for further talks.

Various union officials say they're providing support to Dresser Rand workers because they may have the same problems one day. They say unions are the one thing that protects a worker's lifestyle and future. One union worker from Schweizer Aircraft Corporation in Horseheads says her contract is up in February and she wants things to go smoothly.

"If we don't support all the unions in this area, we're all facing the same problems right now where companies don't want to pay for our healthcare, they don't want to help us, they want us to foot all the bill," says Penny Scranton, of the UAW union.


Workers file legal complaints against UFCW

Two employees at Safeway in Polson, Montana have filed complaints against the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 4, saying they weren't allowed to leave the union. Complaints by Gerald Rasmussen and Carla Crandall say the union took dues from their paychecks, rejected their requests to resign from the union and threatened them with being fired if they did not remain in the union.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation says in late April, Safeway employees voted to eliminate the mandatory dues clause from their contract. The foundation said the local was challenging the election.

Nicolai Cocergine is boss of UFCW Local 4, based in Butte. He says the local is involved with the National Labor Relations Board and the foundation, quote "regarding some technical issues about providing notices to union members." The union must file an answer to the complaint by Monday. A hearing is set for September 18th in Polson, with an administrative law judge of the labor relations board.


John Edwards - AFL-CIO debate entrance

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