St. Louis Teamster slumlords

Broken windows and a rusted canopy greet visitors to the Council Tower Apartments in midtown St. Louis. But the deteriorating conditions don't stop there. City inspectors condemned part of the building earlier this summer after pieces of the facade began to break away, leaving a pile of rubble that blocks a basement exit. City officials fear that the bricks could continue to fall, possibly even on the highway below.

The Grand Boulevard building also has been cited for excess trash, leaky plumbing and roach infestation. State elevator inspectors have identified numerous violations over the past several years, noting that often only one elevator is available to service the tower's 27 floors. Many of the tower's residents are elderly, disabled or both. Even if they could afford to leave, for many, it would not be easy. "We have tried so hard to get somebody to just listen to us plead our case," said resident Darlene Way, 58, who suffers from degenerative arthritis.

The trouble at Council Tower comes at a time when the city is facing problems at two other apartment complexes that also serve low-income or elderly residents. Council Tower was built in 1969 by the Teamsters union, which owned the building until it was acquired by a prominent real estate family, the Sansones, 10 years later.

The building is run by the Sansone Group's property management division and owned by a nonprofit corporation, the Council Tower Association, whose officers, according to the most recent report available from the state, list Sansone's Clayton headquarters as their address.

Sansone officials refused repeated requests for an interview. They say they are pursuing a claim with their insurance company to fix the most pressing problem at the tower: the dozens of bricks that have fallen off the east wall.

Sansone also says it has applied for emergency repair funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizes rent at the tower. Meanwhile, the city is concerned that the crumbling facade — visible from westbound Highway 40 (Interstate 64) — presents an increasingly dangerous scenario for motorists.

In a recent e-mail to a HUD official, Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman wrote that the situation has been a problem for more than a year. The tower's owners, Geisman wrote, "have told our Public Safety Department that they do not intend to do anything about it until their insurance company pays the claim."

"This situation has reached a new level of severity," Geisman wrote. "When the bricks started falling last year, they fell from the lower part of the wall — now they are falling from the upper part of the wall on this tall building, and in the Public Safety Department's opinion there is a danger of them falling onto I-64."

Council Tower representatives must appear in city housing court on Wednesday to address the falling bricks and other code infractions.

City officials want the problems fixed without shutting down the building — a step that would require relocating the tower's elderly and disabled residents. That's not something that tenants, many who need help moving around, want to do.

"They want to die here," said resident David Clinton, 61, who walks with a cane and is blind in one eye.

Local HUD officials are watching closely. The agency has a contract with Council Tower worth about $719,000 a year. If the building is completely condemned, one option HUD would have is to stop payment.

For now, residents are organizing, reviving the building's tenant organization to address their concerns. One key issue is elevator service, which they say is spotty, at best.

"It's a crap shoot to even get out of here," said tenant Carol Newman, 66, a former nurse who now uses a wheelchair.

Newman lives on the sixth floor, though that's not always where she ends up.

"The elevators are so funny," she said. "No matter what floor you push, they will take you anywhere."

Of the building's three elevators, only two are operational, and one of those is frequently occupied by maintenance workers, noted the Missouri fire marshal's office after a June visit.

On July 19, Sansone distributed a memo to tenants promising improvements that will make long waits for the elevator "a thing of the past."

"When the total modernization of the elevator system is completed," the memo said, "the modernized controls and speeds of the new system will make it seem like we have six elevators instead of three!"

The elevator issues at Council Tower are similar, though not as severe, as the problems at Plaza Square near downtown. State inspectors last week were in the process of shutting down most if not all of the elevators at the apartment complex. While HUD is not involved with Plaza Square, the department recently cut off its support to another downtown building, Centenary Towers, which was declared a "public safety nuisance" because of chronic crime and vandalism.

James Heard, director of HUD's St. Louis office, said the problems at Centenary Towers and Council Tower are part of a larger concern: A building supply that is not up to the task of supplying affordable housing to a growing elderly population.

"Aging housing stock is an issue," Heard said. "When we start looking at the stock here in St. Louis and across the country, there are some problems."

For Council Tower residents, the concerns are more immediate. In June, city health inspectors wrote that residents at 15 apartments had complained of roaches. One tenant complained of gnats, while another voiced concerns about rodents.

Far more worrisome for tenants, though, is what happens if there is a fire — which has happened before at Council Tower. In October 1998, a blaze gutted a 21st floor apartment at the tower. About 150 firefighters responded to the fire, in which 160 elderly residents were evacuated. One firefighter was hospitalized, but no residents were hurt.

Even so, residents fear that the unreliable elevators could lead to a catastrophe.

It would be a "crypt," Newman said.

At their appearance in housing court this week, a city judge could fine Council Tower's owner thousands of dollars — up to $500 for each of about 15 violations, according to the city counselor's office.

Way said that she and other tenants are trying to arrange transportation to be at the court hearing.

"What we are going to say is 'Help us save our home,'" Way said. "We don't want to move, but we don't like where we are living."


Newspaper monopolist withdraws union recognition

Media News Group - the chain that has captured a near-monopoly of the East Bay newspaper world - busted its newsroom union Monday. The announcement came at the end of a lengthy e-mail from John Armstrong, president and publisher of the newly consolidated Bay Area News Group-East Bay (BANG-EB).

By merging the 130 union jobs in some newsrooms with the 170 non-union positions in other papers, the company now claims less than 50 percent representation - enough, said Armstrong, to end recognition. The newly consolidated East Bay media enterprise joins key newsroom operations of all the East Bay papers owned by newspaper baron Dean Singleton and his Media News Group.

The chain has encircled the Bay Area after its buyout of the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News and affiliated papers once owned by Knight-Ridder, a chain that vanished in a buyout by Sacramento-based McClatchy Newspapers and a sell-off of unwanted papers.

Media News now owns every daily newspaper in the Bay Area with the exception of the two San Francisco papers, the Chronicle and the Examiner.

Other Media News papers include the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent-Journal, the Vallejo Times-Herald, Fremont Argus, Tri-Valley Herald, San Mateo County Times, the Hayward Daily Review and the Monterey Herald , along with the Daily News and Hills newspaper groups, which include small locally distributed papers like the East Bay Daily News, the Berkeley Voice and the Albany Journal. Identical articles frequently appear in many or all of the outlets Media News now owns.

Other regional papers in the MNG fold are the Vacaville Reporter and the Woodland Democrat.

"We've filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board," said Dean Cuthbertson, president of the newspaper union, Local 39521 of the Newspaper Guild-CWA.

"There was a labor board representative taking testimony today," he said.

"We were expecting it," said one shop steward. "I was disappointed that we didn't do more today." A proposal to hold a march on the offices of the Contra Costa Times and Hayward review was rejected by another union leader. "Instead, we're all supposed to be wearing something red today," said the steward.

The Bay Area, once a bastion of the newspaper union, has been hard hit by the wave of consolidations and downsizing that have swept the industry.

In a letter to BANG corporate counsel Marshall Anstandig, representative Carl Hall of the Northern California Newspaper Guild/Typographical Union called the move "a grave error. Your citing of numbers and percentages doesn't mask what I consider to be a blatant attempt to destroy a 20-year tradition of progressive labor relations in the East Bay news industry."

Gloria LaRiva, who heads the union's typographical sector, said the move follows others at the San Jose Mercury News, which is owned by the same chain.

"Dean Singleton is a disaster who turns out cookie-cutter newspapers" and kills jobs, she said.

Typographers lost 22 positions in San Jose when MNG outsourced production work to India and to non-union sectors of the paper, LaRiva said.

The union lost 34 jobs at a unionized plant in Hayward when it was shut down and printing shifted to a new plant in the same city "where the mailers now earn $2 an hour less," she said.

Along with drastic newsroom cuts previously announced at the Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, Singleton's move represents a major blow to organized journalism in the Bay Area, said one union member.

Armstrong buried the bad news at the end of a 18-paragraph e-mail sent to BANG-EB that announced the formal start of the consolidated newsroom, revealed that operating profits should increase by three percent in the current fiscal year following a 10 percent decline the year before, and the announcement of a $7 million investment in new technology to help make the merger more efficient.

He took up the union in the closing three paragraphs, dropping the bombshell in the penultimate paragraph: "Accordingly, we withdrew recognition from the Guild effective today."

LaRiva said more bad news lies ahead for union workers. Teamsters who print the Chronicle will lose their jobs in two years when printing is outsourced to a Bay Area plant operated by a Canadian firm.

While the new move combines editing functions into centrally administered desks, the papers have been consolidating reporting functions since shortly after Singleton acquired two Knight-Ridder papers.

While once reporters from different papers would attend the same event and write individual stories, many papers no carry the same story and the same byline—reducing the diversity of coverage of community news.


SEIU over-organizes, pickets Modesto medical center

More than 10 months of contract talks between a union and Tenet Healthcare Corp. boiled over onto the sidewalks Monday outside Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, as the labor group demanded a fair contract for hospital workers at DMC and 13 other Tenet hospitals in California. Members of the Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers-West marched adjacent to the Florida Avenue hospital, blaming the prolonged negotiations on Tenet and charging that the company's cost-cutting was having a negative effect on patient care.

The union represents about 700 employees at DMC, as well as workers at Doctors Hospital of Manteca and a total of 7,000 employees at 14 Tenet hospitals in California who unionized in a master agreement in 2003. Among the covered employees are respiratory therapists, nursing assistants, licensed vocational nurses, lab workers and clerical staff.

The SEIU and Tenet started negotiations on a new contract for the national chain's 14 hospitals about three months before the Dec. 31 expiration of the initial contract.

During Monday's 90-minute rally, the union cited a survey of hospital workers at 11 Tenet hospitals. According to the union, almost 30 percent of employees who responded said their hospital department was understaffed on a weekly basis.

One-fourth said that, due to the short staffing, they were unable to answer patient calls for assistance in a timely manner. Employees also reported delays in bathing and feeding patients, giving medications to patients and filling physician orders for treatments.

According to the union, six of 10 employees said they had experienced trouble with faulty or broken equipment in the past year and 45 percent reported instances in which equipment or supplies were not available.

Sal Pena, a DMC pharmacy technologist, was among the 200 who participated in the protest, including DMC workers, union officials and members of other labor organizations.

"I am tired of Tenet's cost-cutting," Pena said. "I am tired of their unwillingness to put patients first."

Tenet responded that the survey's methodology was flawed. The questions appeared to be written to elicit negative responses and the survey was done online, so nothing stopped people from filling it out multiple times, said Tenet spokesman Steve Campanini.

"They have been putting out a lot of misinformation and half-truths," Campanini said. "Their accusations are an insulting attack on the work done every day by our dedicated employees and physicians."

DMC Chief Executive Officer Denny Litos said in a letter to employees and community leaders that the hospital scored above the national average on a federal government Web site comparing patient-care quality at hospitals.

His letter added that the Modesto hospital spent $19 million for equipment and facility improvements in 2006 and 2007.

Still, the union insisted that Tenet was forced to make cuts after agreeing last year to pay $725 million to settle federal charges that it overbilled for Medicare patients.

Karen Barlow, a DMC respiratory therapist and a negotiating team member, said layoffs at the hospital have created more work for remaining workers and employees are leaving for higher pay offered at other facilities in the area.

She said Tenet has refused to consider pensions and retirement health benefits for employees and has sought up to a seven-year contract, when three years is the industry standard.

The two sides were close to agreement in late July, when Tenet suddenly withdrew from the bargaining table, she said.

Tenet's explanation was that SEIU's national organization made a last-minute demand for organizing privileges at about two dozen Tenet hospitals in other states.

An SEIU official countered that Tenet had agreed to allow the organizing and then reneged.

"Nobody is asking Tenet to do anything other than what other hospitals are agreeing to," said John Borsos, administrative vice president for SEIU in Sacramento.


NJ teachers' union endorses federal crime suspect

They are the chosen 88. The political action committee of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union, has endorsed 88 candidates in state legislative races. It did not endorse in every race. It did endorse in the 38th District. NJEA PAC gave a thumbs-up to Sen. Joseph Coniglio.

Coniglio, a plumber by trade, is a good union guy. He also was a really good guy for Hackensack University Medical Center. He was so good at his side job as a paid consultant for HUMC that he is now under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office. He received a "target letter," an indication that a criminal indictment may be pending.

Yes, the good plumber is innocent until proven guilty. But there is a big, dark cloud over his head. Why would any political action committee decide to ignore the strong possibility of a long rainy season?

In a press release, NJEA President Joyce Powell emphasized the importance of public education and the need for NJEA PAC to thoroughly vet candidates. She said, "It is important for professional educators to take the time to interview and exchange ideas with their elected officials, so they can understand the complexities of educating children in today's world."

Really? The release states the committee voted on the recommendations of local interview teams. A spokesman for NJEA PAC could not say who was on the team that interviewed Coniglio. He said that candidates were sent questionnaires, and that past voting records were also scrutinized.

The "target letter" was not an obstacle to an endorsement because it did not come up on the questionnaire. "Our process is very narrowly defined," the spokesman said.

That's one way of looking at it. How could a group of educators not question a candidate under federal investigation about a possible indictment? NJEA PAC did not endorse in every legislative race. In its press release, it stated future endorsements were still possible. Why not hold out on endorsing in the 38th until the U.S. Attorney's Office's investigation is complete?

Organized labor has fought hard battles in the United States. It is responsible for ensuring that many American workers are treated and compensated fairly. But unchecked, unions have made more than inroads for members. Many of the public employee contracts in New Jersey are bleeding the state's coffers. It is hard to understand how NJEA PAC had the best interests of public education in mind when it endorsed Coniglio.

Another troubling endorsement is Assemblywoman Nellie Pou in the 35th District. In 2006, Pou thought nothing of campaigning for good pal Anna DeMolli to receive a plum position in the Paterson School District. Paterson schools are under state control. Pou tried to make race an issue in why DeMolli was overlooked for a promotion. She failed. She also failed to discover that her friend had not formally applied for the job she did not get.

Perhaps at one time in the Paterson school district someone could have been handed a job without even applying for it, but not any more. Is this the kind of legislator NJEA PAC wants -- a state official who publicly lobbies for her friend to receive promotion in a school district?

If NJEA PAC wants to be seen as a forceful advocate for better education and for legislators who put students' interests first, it should start broadening its "narrowly defined process."

There is a lot of criticism about public education, in particular how it's funded in New Jersey. On a federal level, we have the problematic "No Child Left Behind." On a state level, we are plagued with too many horses' behinds putting personal agendas ahead of the public's needs. New Jersey is ill-served by politically powerful organizations that, through endorsements and campaign contributions, continue to populate local and state government with mediocrities.

As recent headlines suggest, mediocrities are now being replaced by either convicted felons or officials under indictment or investigation. The fine line between perks and "perps" is disappearing like sand on the Jersey shore.

Coniglio should drop out of the race. Most Democrats in Bergen County want to see him leave. Yet NJEA PAC is content to bury its judgment and head in the sand. The appreciative senator/plumber perhaps can lay an underground pipe for the PAC. Even narrowly defined organizations need air.


AFL-CIO's gift to Democratic Party

On Aug. 7, candidates contending for the Democratic Party presidential nomination faced the questions of the country's largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO. For the most part, the workers asked the right questions. The capitalist politicians had all the wrong answers.

Seventeen thousand union members attended the debate, held at Chicago's Soldier Field and aired on MSNBC. Union members submitted many of the questions to the AFL-CIO via email. The moderator, news host Keith Olbermann, facilitated the debate.

The debate's most interesting segment was when the audience directly asked questions. All of the questions expressed the most pressing issues facing the working class today: the war on Iraq, pensions, healthcare, worker protection and on-the-job safety, veterans' benefits and rights, the rights of undocumented workers and the right to organize.

Deborah Hamner, whose husband was killed in the Sago mine accident last year, asked the first question. She asked Senator Biden about worker protection and on-the-job safety. When Biden launched into a reactionary speech on foreign policy, the audience booed and demanded that he answer the question.

While Biden's response gave a glimpse of the utter falsity of the capitalist politicians’ claims of addressing workers’ needs, other candidates fared better.

The AFL-CIO-sponsored debate was a gift to the Democratic Party. The labor federation has consistently poured millions into backing Democratic campaigns - a strategy steeped in class collaboration.

Senators Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, former Senator John Edwards and others were given a national platform to posture as the real workers’ candidates - announcing they had sponsored bills in workers' interests, walked picket lines and defended union organizing.

The candidates may have appeared on a picket line or sponsored a particular bill that never passed Congress. But they are all candidates of the capitalist class. Workers' interests will never be represented by the Democrats. Their responses made this clear.

Every candidate, except Kucinich, refused to call for an immediate end to the war; for universal, free health care; and end to NAFTA and the WTO; and so on. Even their most seemingly progressive statements were tempered with compromises necessary to confirm their undying loyalty to the interests of corporate profit.

Kucinich made the most progressive statements, but even these revealed an inherent flaw. The audience applauded wildly when he called for an end to the war in Iraq now. As the applause died down, he called for an international "peacekeeping" force to replace the U.S. occupiers.

Any U.N. or other international military force would do the bidding of U.S. imperialism and represent the continued denial of the Iraqi people's right to self-determination.

Kucinich repeatedly said he would be president in a "workers' White House." Aside from fact that Kucinich has no hope of becoming president or even the Democratic nominee in 2008, what he proposes is impossible under capitalism.

The working class needs and fights for many of the things Kucinich discussed: the right to organize, health care and pensions.

But these rights will never be won by making a liberal capitalist president. They can only be won by a militant workers' movement engaged in every aspect of the working-class struggle.

No capitalist candidate that stands for the "right" of the capitalist class to exploit workers for ever-greater profits can also claim to stand with workers. These interests are diametrically opposed.


Labor union bosses don't share workers' pain

In the past five years, pink slips have descended upon tens of thousands of union workers in Michigan, while others have seen their health care and pension benefits gutted and wages frozen or cut. But in many cases, labor's pain stops at the union hall door. During the toughest economic times for organized labor in decades, union leaders are more likely to keep their jobs and get raises than the members they serve. A Detroit News analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data revealed a growing pay divide between labor bosses and the rank and file who pay their salaries with their dues.

Michigan's biggest unions represented 60,000 fewer workers in 2006 compared with 2002. While membership plummeted 14 percent, jobs at union halls remained safe, dropping less than 1 percent. Workers who kept their jobs saw the disparity between their paychecks and those of their union bosses grow. The pay gap between the state's 50 top-paid labor leaders and union workers has grown by $18,000 since 2002 - an economic chasm expanding by almost $10 a day.

Records supplied to the Labor Department by the unions themselves show that the state's 50 top-paid union officials now earn an average of $186,000. More than 1,000 labor officers and staffers in Michigan made more than $100,000 in 2006, more than twice as much as the average union worker.

The pay disparity is taking a financial toll on many union halls across the state. Fewer workers generate less in dues, the lifeblood of a union. With dues down and union officer pay up, a greater percentage of union budgets is going to pay labor leaders. That leaves less cash for worker protection, negotiating and organizing.

The data, which doesn't include leaders of most public-sector unions, raises questions about whether labor leaders are sharing the economic struggles of their members. "It takes scarce resources from within the labor movement and starves activities that are desperately needed," said Mark Brenner, co-director of Labor Notes, a pro-labor monthly magazine that tracks union pay.

Pay gap grows within unions

Union leaders and members have long complained about the millions paid to CEOs in salaries and perks. For instance, Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., was paid more than $28 million last year -- that's over 450 times more than the average line worker at the company. And Michigan's top corporate titans had their average pay more than double since 2001, The News reported in May.

Less known to the public - and to many union members - is the growing pay gap within many unions.

In 2006, the highest-paid union official in Michigan was Grosse Pointe Park's Walter "Ralph" Mabry, the former executive secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters. He was paid more than $410,000 last year -- up $26,000 from the year before. That's a 6.7 percent pay hike at a time when his union lost 5 percent of its members, records show.

"That's silly," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, about Mabry's pay. "Those are the kind of things that make them (union officials) look bad."

Mabry's pay was set by the union's executive committee, comprised of about 70 voting delegates. According to a statement from the union issued Monday, the regional council has annual revenues of about $22 million and 100 full-time employees.

"The bottom line is that the MRCC membership is well represented by a strong organization whose operations are efficiently managed by its officers and staff, who receive fair compensation for the work that they do," the statement read. It was provided by the carpenters' public relations firm.

Mabry, who could not be reached for comment, was sentenced last year to 24 months in federal prison for conspiring to receive more than $120,000 in "extraordinary benefits" for work on his home. He stepped down the day he was sentenced. He is currently out on bond as he appeals the conviction.

Mabry isn't the only union leader in Michigan who rakes in a big paycheck. Consider:

# Five officers from Michigan locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents grocery workers at Meijer, Kroger and Farmer Jack, were paid more than $200,000 last year. Top union pay at local grocery stores reaches about $40,000 for a butcher, with most cashiers, baggers and stockers making far less.

# Luigi Battaglieri is the executive director of the Michigan Education Association, the union that represents more than 150,000 teachers and other education professionals in the state. Last year, Battaglieri was paid $334,174, including a lump sum for unused vacation and sick time he cashed in after he resigned as president to become executive director.

The teacher union's executive director pulled in nearly double the pay of Michael Flanagan, Michigan's state superintendent for public instruction. Flanagan took a 5 percent pay cut in 2005.

Battaglieri declined to comment for this story, but an MEA spokeswoman defended the pay of the union's top leadership, saying it is necessary to attract qualified professionals.

# Willie Hampton, head of Local 79 of the Service Employees union in Detroit, saw his pay jump 25 percent from 2002 to 2006, reaching $155,874. During that same time, his union has lost 30 percent of its membership. Hampton did not return calls seeking comment.

Alex Shulman, the local's chief of staff, said Hampton's salary, as well as other staff members, was set by the executive board and then approved by the members. In most unions, workers ultimately approve the pay of their leaders.

Roles changed over time

Labor leaders have come a long way since Samuel Gompers took a pay cut from his cigar-making job to help create the American Federation of Labor in the late 19th century. He helped forge the AFL into a 4-million-member powerhouse that sought to win better conditions and higher wages for workers.

Most union leaders were paid little or nothing through the 1930s, when fiery labor organizers were left-leaning activists who believed all workers should be paid the same, said Roland Zullo, a research scientist who has studied union leader pay at the University of Michigan's Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations. "Historically, these were the kind of folks who would do a lot of work for you for little money," he said.

As unions became more established, labor leaders turned their attention from organizing to collective bargaining. "Negotiating a contract requires legal and economic expertise," Zullo said. "You began to see a professionalization that you didn't have before."

For many of today's union leaders, it's been years since they last worked the assembly line or taught in a classroom. And some are lawyers and accountants.

As union leadership became more of a white-collar job, some leaders began to collect management-level pay.

The exact size of those paychecks is sometimes difficult to determine. Many union officials get paid from one source, such as their local or the international union office. But some get paid by from multiple sources -- a local, an area council, the international office, even another union.

For instance, Teamsters Local 337 in Detroit paid President Larry Brennan a $101,000 salary in 2006. But he also received $18,000 from Teamsters Joint Council 43 and another $50,000 for being an international representative of the union, for a total salary of $169,000.

Then there was the $12,000 in allowances, $15,000 in business expenses and another $4,400 in "other" compensation. All told, the Teamsters paid Brennan $200,701 in 2006.

Brennan did not return calls seeking comment.

Such salaries, while dwarfing those of the rank and file, have seldom raised eyebrows. As long as membership and benefits were growing, it seemed no one complained, Zullo said.

But with Michigan enduring a brutal economic restructuring, labor boss salaries are under increasing scrutiny. Today, unions have seen their ranks dwindle to the lowest levels since World War II. Once one of the best-paying states in the country, Michigan has dropped to the middle of the pack, a fall that has run parallel to the drop in union membership.

"They're really up against it. They're in a situation where there are no easy answers," said Lowell Turner, a labor expert at Cornell University in New York.

With reduced membership and dues, Turner says union expenses should come down -- including leaders' pay. "If your members are taking a 10 percent pay cut, the leaders should be taking a 10 percent pay cut," Turner said.

It doesn't always happen that way.

The members of Madison Heights-based Local 876 of the United Food and Commercial Workers had a difficult choice in 2005. With Farmer Jack trying to survive in the cut-throat grocery business, members were asked to accept benefit cuts. The union agreed to a 10 percent pay cut.

After workers approved the pay cut, Victoria Collins, then-president of the local, tried to console members. "We know this contract was a tough sacrifice for many of you and commend all of you for an agreement that protects your co-workers and their families," she said at the time.

That year, while 10 percent of workers lost their jobs and the rest took the pay cut, Collins' pay as president of the Madison Heights-based local jumped 29 percent to nearly $170,000. Her $38,000 raise was itself more than the annual salary of most Local 876 workers.

"I voted for the pay cut (in 2005) because I wanted to keep my job," said Diane Burt, 52, who worked at the Farmer Jack in Wixom for 27 years. "If we voted it down, they might have shut us down right then."

Within months of the pay cut, workers received letters from their union notifying them that union officials had "voted themselves raises," Burt said. "We were pretty upset they were using our dues to feather their own nests."

Following the recent sale of Metro Detroit Farmer Jack grocery stores, many Local 876 members face uncertain futures. Some found lower-paying jobs at Kroger or Busch's. Burt is unemployed.

"They (UFCW leaders) were in it for themselves," Burt said. "They pushed us aside when it was over."

Collins moved to the UFCW headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she was paid $205,754 in total compensation in 2006, according to reports filed by the union. She left the UFCW recently and officials there were uncertain where she now works. Attempts by The News to contact her were unsuccessful.

Expert suggests salary cap

The University of Maryland's Morici believes most top union officials are working hard for organized labor, not themselves. He pointed to John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, the labor umbrella organization which has nearly 10 million members. His total compensation topped $291,000 last year, including a salary of nearly $250,000. A CEO with similar responsibilities would typically make several times that amount.

"You can say what you want about these people, but they're not greedy," he said.

Then, he suggested a caveat for organized labor: "Nobody should make more than John Sweeney."

Nationwide, more than 100 others did. In Michigan, only Mabry and Battaglieri reached Sweeney's pay grade. But more than four dozen make more than $150,000, including three Teamsters, eight from the UFCW, 12 from the UAW, and 18 from the MEA, the state's largest teacher union.

Labor Notes' Brenner recently suggested a $100,000 salary cap for union officials, saying unions could save millions of dollars that could be better spent on organizing.

"It's an enormous missed opportunity," he said. But any discussion of saving money by trimming dues-funded salaries, Brenner said, is a nonstarter.

In Michigan, unions spent $4.3 million on salaries over $100,000 in 2005, the last year for which records are complete. The UAW spent $1.8 million above it; the Michigan Education Association nearly $1.1 million.

Karen Schulz, an MEA spokeswoman, questioned whether an "artificial cap" would cause labor organizations to lose talented staff members. "I don't think that would go over very big with folks," she said.

Last year, 123 MEA staff and officers had salaries that exceeded $100,000.

Several retiring MEA employees also saw their annual pay pumped up by cashing in on unused vacation and sick time.

"MEA officers and staff know that they're well paid and we work hard to give our members their money's worth," Schulz said.

There's some good news, too

Not all the labor news is bad. Union workers continue to earn more than nonunion workers. The average Michigan union worker in the private sector earned $23.75 an hour in 2006, compared with $21.37 for nonunion workers. And at some locals, officers and union staff have felt the wrath of the budget axe.

In Flint, UAW Local 659 has watched its resources dwindle with every shift reduction and layoff. Once home to more than 15,000 engine and metal fabricating workers, the local now has about 3,700 members -- and 800 of them make $13 an hour, far below the UAW norm.

The cuts have been devastating for the local, which once had two active halls. With the loss of every worker, the local loses up to $55 a month in dues.

"It's been difficult," said Walt Duvernois, president of the local.

Since becoming president two years ago, Duvernois has been forced to make cuts. Pay has been cut and some office workers have been laid off.

There once were five full-time union officers, now there are two. The local is also considering the sale of one of its halls.

Despite the cuts, some continued to do well: two secretaries with Local 659 made $101,000 and $95,000 last year.

He lauded the women but criticized his predecessors -- calling them "greedy, really greedy" - for granting high salaries to some union hall employees. Another secretary was laid off and a fourth took a $20,000 pay cut last year. More cuts loom, he said.

"You never condemn a person for what they make," he said. "But you've got to be a realist. We've got to keep the hall open."


SEIU's illegal intermittent 'bargaining' strikes

If workers participate in a union-organized one-day walkout, do they still have to call their employer if missing a shift? Yes, according to a recent local case that went to the National Labor Relations Board’s three-member board in Washington, D.C.

In summer 2006, Service Employees International Union Local 2000 was in the midst of contract talks with Swope Ridge (Kansas) Geriatric Center. The facility had about 40 union employees, most of whom are certified nursing assistants who care for the elderly.

Talks continued even though the previous contract had expired. During that time, the union staged two one-day walkouts on separate weekends, lasting from Saturday afternoon to the following Sunday afternoon, which included workers walking a picket line in front of the facility.

In both instances, the union gave Swope Ridge a 10-day notice. Swope Ridge was prepared for the job actions, resulting in no disruption of patient care, according to the NLRB's decision.

However, Swope Ridge issued written disciplinary warnings for some of the employees who picketed but did not call their supervisor in advance about missing their shift. No employee was fired as a result of picketing, according to an NLRB official.

Nevertheless, the agency's Overland Park office issued an unfair labor practice complaint against Swope Ridge, arguing the workers were striking and thus protected under federal labor laws from disciplinary action. Swope Ridge argued that the union's notices were not adequate and did not substitute for the employees' responsibility to call if missing a shift.

Last March, administrative law judge Gerald A. Wacknov ruled in Swope Ridge's favor, and the NLRB's Washington board affirmed his ruling in late June.

Wacknov essentially decided that because these job actions were "intermittent" and "partial," they were not afforded the same protections under federal law as a full-fledged strike. Rather, it was part of the union’s bargaining tactics.

“... The union's intent to continue engaging in repeated work stoppages as a part of its underlying bargaining strategy until a contract is reached, absent any contrary evidence, may be clearly presumed; and the strikes were in furtherance of this strategy," he wrote.

The union said it was disappointed in the decision, saying no employee struck more than once.

"The union did not plan a series of intermittent strikes," responded Craig Becker, a lawyer for the union. "Rather, it struck only twice, on different weekends because employees work every other weekend and the union wanted all employees to have the opportunity to participate in the strike."

Becker said the union is considering asking to have the case reviewed in federal appeals court.

A lawyer for Swope Ridge did not return calls for comment.


Rats feast on gov't union strike

Vancouver health officials are sifting through mounds of garbage littering Vancouver's streets with plans to make pickup an essential service if the mess is deemed unsafe to human health.

"We are making rounds and monitoring areas, watching garbage and seeing if it's piling up excessively," said Vancouver Coastal Health spokeswoman Laurie Dawkins. "Medical health officers do have the right to order garbage to be picked up if they feel that it represents a public health risk." Dawkins said at this time officers are ripping open bags and taking photos of the mess, but heaps of trash have not been deemed unsafe yet.

She did not have specifics on what would trigger a call to resume pickup - which may only be temporary - but said the Downtown Eastside is one of the most concerning areas. "For example, areas in the Downtown Eastside where you're also getting human waste, unfortunately, mixed in there, that could be a potential health risk."

City spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny confirmed that health officials can recommend that city garbage collection be deemed an essential service as the strike progresses.

Provincial medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall said leaching liquid garbage and additional animal feces could also be potentially unsafe byproducts of the garbage.

"Rotting garbage itself doesn't necessarily contain any harmful pathogens, but if it attracts seagulls or scavenger birds, and they're pooping all over the place, their feces can contain organisms that cause illness," Kendall said. "Then their feces has to get from the garbage dump to (human) food somehow."

For the most part, Kendall said, the rubbish is more an issue of "odour and unpleasantness" rather than a human health concern. "In general, the health hazards are not as much as you might imagine from the smells," he said.

Stinky to most, the garbage piles are a boon to rats. The additional food sources combined with this summer's mild temperatures are creating an optimal breeding ground for the rodents, pest control experts warn.

"Conditions are just perfect for an increase in the population," said Canadian Pest Control owner Wayne Page.

Right now, Page said, not many rats are in homes and buildings, since they're too busy tucking into the putrid rubbish outside.

"Come cold weather, the populations that are currently outside are going to go inside and look for some warmth and look for better nesting sites," Page said.

Zelko Koncarevic, owner of Leader Pest Control, explained that a rat's reproductive cycle is about 2 1/2 months, meaning that the anticipated population spike will not be visible until the fall - just as rats start heading indoors.

Koncarevic said he saw a similar pattern in the last city strike. "That was so many rats, that was (an) incredibly big problem," Koncarevic said.

Although they can spread diseases, Dawkins and Kendall said the rodents are normal in our city and do not necessarily pose a health risk.

It looks like rats may be feasting at their leisure this summer. The positions of CUPE and the city remained entrenched over the weekend after negotiations broke down Thursday.


Home health care workers strike on Long Island

As temperatures rose yesterday afternoon, so did the voices of about 60 home health care workers on strike outside the Hempstead office of Premier Home Health Care Services Inc. The workers, wearing purple hats and T-shirts reading "Invisible No More," marched on the sidewalk outside 50 Clinton St., hoping the home health care provider would agree to negotiate contracts, including higher pay, health insurance and paid sick leave. They are expected to picket again today.

The workers, along with those on strike at the Ronkonkoma office, represented about half of Premier's 250-member workforce in Nassau and Suffolk counties. They have been trying to obtain contracts since joining 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East a year ago, said Helen Schaub, a union organizer.

"None have health insurance," Schaub said at the Hempstead site. "Even in New York City, Premier's workers have insurance, and they refuse to do the same for workers out here."

Schaub said the wages - less than $8 per hour - are very low compared to other home care workers on Long Island and at other unionized agencies in New York State.

"We are willing and ready to sit down with them and negotiate as soon as possible," said Keith Joseph, vice president of Premier's home care division in Nassau, who was among those on strike.

Employees in the Hempstead office referred questions to the corporate office in Westchester County, which did not return multiple calls yesterday.

Workers said they were willing to strike every day this week.

"Whatever it takes, we have to do it," said Jean Douglas of Elmont. "Because we care for these people, and nobody cares for us."

Douglas, who has worked for Premier for eight years, said she hopes for better pay, health insurance and paid vacation, holidays and sick days.

"Sometimes you really feel sick, but you know if you don't go to work you don't get paid, and that's a sick person taking care of a sick person," she said.

David Targansky, of Long Beach, said the agency told him when he was hired in December that he could expect to make $11 per hour. Since then, he has not made more than $7.25 per hour, he said.

Targansky added that most of the patients and their relatives, who were told of the strike ahead of time, support it.

It was unclear yesterday who is taking care of Premier's patients while workers strike, but at least one expressed support.

"I feel they are doing the right thing," said Vita Vitabiando, 92, of Commack. "Today is hard living. If you haven't got insurance, you're doomed. I feel for these people."


Vancouver gov't union strike: A turkey

CUPE members would rather be talking turkey. But yesterday they were cooking turkey. CUPE members are on strike in Vancouver. Yesterday was Day 24 of the strike in which inside and outside City government workers, from librarians to garbage collectors, are off the job. But workers at Carnegie Center's low cost cafeteria on the Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest neighborhood, are on the job because Labor Relations has labeled the cafeteria an essential service. This is partly because people volunteer at Carnegie to earn 80 cents an hour in vouchers which they trade for food in the cafeteria. People can also use money to buy meals in the cafeteria.

And you don't need much money. Yesterday CUPE members, along with volunteers, produced a turkey dinner and here's what you got for three dollars:

* Turkey: everybody got a mix of white and brown meat.
* A scoop of steamed red cabbage.
* A scoop of steamed carrots, not overcooked, still a bit crunchy, with a few green peas tossed in.
* Brown rice, short grain. Carnegie switched to brown rice last year after years of serving white rice.
* A large slice of homemade brown bread with margarine.
* Chocolate chips and banana cake, with chocolate icing. Carnegie makes their desserts and muffins low in sugar. There is a diabetes epidemic in this neighbourhood, so if you want to skip the cake, they’ll let you chose an apple, banana, or orange for dessert instead.

The City-funded cafeteria in Canada's most used community center wasn't as busy last evening as usual. That could be because the strike has closed services which draw a steady stream of people into the building, Canada's most used community center: the small Vancouver Public library just off the lobby, and the public access computers in the basement and on the 3rd floor. But even with a slower evening than usual, the sixty meals - that's the number prepared seven evenings a week - would probably sell out. Other food is sold at the cafeteria too: soup for 75 cents, sandwiches, low-sugar blueberry muffins, and even homemade granola for a buck a bowl with soy drink or milk to pour over it.

And CUPE hasn't cut off the coffee. Despite the strike, you can still get a good cup of coffee in the basement of Carnegie. There is a volunteer on duty - a few volunteers are still allowed to work in the building, but only in food service - selling coffee down there. It's Guatemalan, freshly ground everyday. Sixty cents for a small takeout, with real cream. There's a television blaring down there too, but not much else going on during the strike.

When Phil, a security guard, walked through the cafeteria as people ate their turkey, a volunteer asked him about the strike. The City doesn't want to bargain, Phil responded. The City, though, accuses CUPE of not wanting to bargain. CUPE is up against the current Non-Partisan Association City Council which is less union-friendly than the previous Committee of Progressive Electors City Council which CUPE helped bring to power. "It looks like it could be a long strike," Phil said.


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