Californians sign petitions to trim union benefits

California Secretary of State Bowen has given the go-ahead for an initiative by former Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman to slash retirement benefits for police, firefighters, and other public employees.

Richman and the right-wingers backing this initiative now have 150 days to collect the million signatures or so required to qualify it for the June 2008 ballot. That ballot is expected to be stuffed with a number of other Republican-backed measures.

Unions can be expected to go all out against this measure, which may drive up Democratic turnout for what was once expected to be a sleeper election. You can bet SEIU, Firefighters, and law enforcement unions will spend whatever it takes to crush the initiative - if it qualifies.

Here's the title and summary from Attorney General Jerry Brown:

REDUCES PUBLIC PENSION AND RETIREMENT HEALTH CARE BENEFITS. CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. For peace officers, firefighters, public safety, and other public employees hired after July 1, 2009, this measure: reduces pension and retirement health care benefits; increases minimum retirement age; restricts early retirement; increases minimum age and years of employment needed to qualify for retirement health care benefits; and limits post-retirement pension increases. For all public employees this measure: prohibits retroactive increases in retirement benefits; requires public employers to make annual payments to fund future benefit costs; and allows public employers to adjust retirement contribution rates in future labor agreements. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Major reductions in annual pension contribution costs for employees hired on or after July 1, 2009, offset to an unknown extent by increases in costs for other forms of public employee compensation. Major short-term increase in annual governmental payments to prefund retiree health benefits, more than offset in the long run by annual reductions in these costs. (Initiative 07-0024.)


Federal program helps Teamsters organize high schoolers

The Teamster's Schools to Career program has expanded beyond the technical high schools, bringing students from the classrooms of Bridgeport, Stratford and Shelton public high schools into the Sikorsky Aircraft factory. Rocco Calo, Teamsters Local 1150 secretary-treasurer, said the program has grown rapidly, going from a handful of kids to 72 in just six years.

"It's a win-win for everybody," Calo said. Sikorsky gets a look at potential new employees, which is important for a company where the average age of its factory workers is 48. On the other side, not only do area kids get a chance to see there are good paying jobs in factories, he said, but there's also a chance they can become a full-time employee. Many of the seniors are being offered jobs this year, Calo added.

"It's going really well," said Joseph Grabinski, Teamster's Local 1150 chief health and safety steward and the schools-to-career program coordinator. Grabinski started at Sikorsky more than 20 years ago, working sheet metal, but moved off the floor about six years ago to become a union official and to help start the program. Platt Technical High School in Milford and Bridgeport-based Bullard Havens Technical High School were the first program participants, back in 2002.

The WorkPlace Inc. uses a federal grant to cover the cost of training mentors in the program, but Sikorsky pays the students' wages. The Teamsters use union dues to pay for a banquet at the end of the program and to cover some other costs along the way.

The students who are accepted to the program earn about $18 an hour, the starting union wage, and have to go through all the same steps an adult employee would have to go through, Grabinski said.

For example, the students have to pass drug tests, enroll in the union, pay dues and perform their duties.

But to get into the program they have to do a little more than the average adult job seeker might. Grabinski said in October, the schools pick the students who will participate during the upcoming summer, but those students must have "good grades, good attendance records, good attitudes and be good citizens." The participants must have volunteered in some charity program during the year, Grabinski said.

This year, the program drew students from Bullard, Platt and Ansonia's Emmett O'Brien, Waterbury's Kaynor Tech, Bridgeport's Aquaculture, Harding, Central and Bassick schools, Stratford and Bunnell high schools and Shelton High.

Grabinski said they decided to bring the public schools into the program because Sikorsky has openings in positions that are not trade focused. In the past, kids in plumbing were being put into jobs working on computers instead of with their hands — it wasn't a good match, he said.

So far it seems to be working out, according to Grabinski and Paul Jackson, a Sikorsky spokesman. "It's an extremely worthwhile program," for a lot of reasons, Jackson said, including that it creates better workers because they have to learn how to teach someone else to do their job.

"I think when you need to communicate something it forces you to think it out very clearly," Jackson said.

Grabinski agreed.

He said the interns come in eager to learn, and that spreads to the workers who have been selected to mentor them.

"These guys are focused on working. They're happy," Grabinski said of the interns. In turn, the mentors are telling him, "It's a pleasure to come to work."

In the end, Grabinski said he thinks this attitude comes about because Sikorsky workers understand "What we do for ourselves doesn't matter in the long run. It's what we do for others. How we touch their lives."


Delta pilots picket airports, talk strike

The troubles for Delta Airlines continue. Tuesday, Delta pilots were outside the Columbus (GA) Municipal Airport as part of a multi-city picketing caravan. The pilots are upset over a five-year contract dispute with Delta connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA). The pilots are fighting for better work rules, schedules, and pay. Their current contract has not been amended since 1998, despite being eligible for amendment in 2002. The company and the pilots have attempted negotiations in 289 meetings.

"The only thing that's going to help us close this process out is a real tangible deadline and only one body can impose that deadline and that's the National Mediation Board," says Rick Bernskoetter, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA).
But even with a deadline, things could get worse before they get better.

"We could find ourselves in a cooling off period and if we can't negotiate a contract in the days we are given, then we're free to engage in what's called self-help and for the pilot group that spells strike," says Bernskoetter.

News 3 spoke with ASA representative Kate Modolo by telephone Tuesday afternoon. She says no one is happy with the length of time it's taking to come to terms on a new agreement.

She went on to say ASA is hopeful the upcoming mediation will result in an acceptable resolution for both sides.

The next meeting is scheduled for August 28 in Washington, D.C.


Unions spend millions for events, charities

Michigan labor unions raise millions of dollars a year from their members, and it costs millions more to do everything from pay the legal bills to keep the lights on. But unions also spend their money on other items as well - conferences at swanky hotels and airfare to get there, golf outings at upscale courses as well as postage and charitable donations.

In 2005, the last year for which most complete records are available, Michigan unions spent more than $6 million on lawyers and legal work, the highest single category. They also spent nearly $5 million getting to and attending conferences, regional meetings and training sessions, records show.

Typical is the trip made by officers of two locals of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union. They attended an officer training session meeting in Florida in 2005 and both spent more than $7,000 on the event at the Westin Diplomat Hotel, a four-diamond rated resort on the Atlantic Ocean.

Members from Local 333 in Lansing and 174 in Coopersville, northwest of Grand Rapids, attended the conference. Tim Haggart, Local 333's business manager, said the conference was for officer training and the site picked by national leaders of the union.

When asked to describe the hotel, Haggart said: "It's all right."

The Diplomat, according to its Web site, has its own marina, two pools with cabana service and a spa.

The plumbers aren't the only ones whose meetings take them out of the region.

Postal workers from APWU Local 281 in Grand Rapids attended a conference at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, where they spent nearly $9,200.

More often, Michigan unions stay close to home. The Soaring Eagle Resort and Casino in Mount Pleasant snared nearly $170,000 in business from the UAW, the Michigan Education Association, the Plumbers and National Association of Letter Carriers.

Unions have a charitable side as well, and Michigan unions poured money into local and national causes, ranging from $100,000 checks by the UAW to the Red Cross and Salvation Army to lesser amounts to other groups.

A number of union organizations sent money to Louisiana and Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, with the SEIU Local 79 in Detroit sending $10,000 to the city of Monroe, La., and Electrical Workers Local 685 sending the same amount to their national fund for Katrina.

Local 223 of the Utility Workers sent nearly $23,000 to The Heat and Warmth Fund, which helps Detroit area residents keep the heat on during the winter months.


Steelworkers organize Boston taxi drivers

Boston cab drivers hope a united work force will give them a stronger, more influential voice in dealing with regulators. The United Steelworkers of America is helping cabbies organize the Boston-Area Taxi Drivers Association to lobby around issues such as better meter and insurance rates and improved working conditions, including possibly health-care coverage.

Similar taxi drivers alliances are in place in Denver, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Montreal. In Boston, an organizing committee of drivers is developing bylaws and a constitution for the new association, which will be open to cab drivers licensed by the Boston Police Department's hackney unit. The group so far has heard from 1,000 cab drivers interested in joining.

"They need to be recognized as a work force that contributes to the economic viability of the city," said Donna Blythe-Shaw, a United Steelworkers organizer. "The regulating agencies have to recognize that it's important for them, as well as the drivers, that they can make a living and not be in debt each time they get into their taxi."

The average Boston taxi driver who doesn't own a medallion must make $10 an hour just to break even: $7 to lease a cab and medallion and $3 for gas, driver Bernie Allen said.

"Most of the drivers are shift drivers, and we're trapped in the business," said Allen, who works six 12-hour shifts a week. "You're working so many hours just to pay your bills."

Since the National Labor Relations Board considers cab drivers to be independent contractors and not employees, they don't have the right to unionize and collectively bargain. The Boston group will function as an independent association - with legal representation - that is a chartered, associate member of the United Steelworkers.

"If we are together, we will have a say in the community of Boston," cabbie Mikhail Glikberg said. "Now, nobody wants to listen to us."

In 1998, when the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission said it would increase fines for minor cab driver violations, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance organized a 24-hour strike of more than 40,000 drivers. It's threatening another strike next month to protest rules requiring cabs to install global positioning systems.

Boston cab driver and longtime activist Bob Turner hopes Hub drivers can pull together and get things accomplished as well. "There isn't much solidarity in the cab industry until there's a real crisis," Turner said.


Another Vancouver union goes on strike

Road and bridge maintenance workers in parts of Greater Vancouver, B.C. have now joined others on strike across B.C. Picket lines went up at noon Monday by 65 BCGEU members who work for Mainroad Howe Sound Contracting, which maintains the North Shore highways, the two bridges spanning Burrard Inlet and the Cassiar tunnel.

Motorists could face longer delays if there are any accidents on a bridge during the strike, union spokesperson Evan Stewart said, even though essential services levels have been set and union members are to respond to emergencies.

"If there's an accident on a bridge or an approach, it's going to take longer for it to be cleared or the lanes to be cleaned up," he said.

Mediator Vince Ready has joined the talks to try to find middle ground.

A separate firm, Mainroad Contracting, handles road and bridge maintenance in the rest of the Lower Mainland and its unionized workers have not yet conducted a strike vote.


'Joey the Clown' testifies he didn't murder federal witness

Reputed mob boss Joseph (Joey the Clown) Lombardo told a jury Tuesday he once shined police officers' shoes and ran a dice game approved by a Chicago alderman but denied he committed the murder that could send him to federal prison for the rest of his life.

"On Sept. 27, 1974, did you kill Daniel Seifert?" defense attorney Rick Halprin asked the haggard-looking, 78-year-old Lombardo, who a federal marshal brought to the witness stand in a wheelchair. "Positively, no," Lombardo said in a husky voice. He answered the same way when asked if he was "ever a capo or a member of the Chicago Outfit."

Lombardo's testimony, which included a sprinkling of the wisecracks that gave him his nickname, offered an unusual close-up of a man whose name has figured in the annals of organized crime for decades.

Lombardo recalled that as a boy in Chicago he often visited a police station and shined shoes for 50 cents.

"They were very cheap people," Lombardo said offhandedly.

"Let's not press our luck," Halprin quipped, drawing a laugh from spectators but an immediate warning from U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel that there was nothing funny about the case.

Lombardo is one of five alleged mob members charged with a racketeering conspiracy that includes gambling, extortion, loan sharking and 18 murders that went unsolved for decades until the FBI's Operation Family Secrets investigation.

The indictment alleges Lombardo is responsible for the September 1974 murder of Daniel Seifert, a suburban Bensenville businessman who was about to testify against him in a mob-related case.

Seifert was shot and killed by a ski-masked gunman outside his office.

Also on trial are James Marcello, 65, Frank Calabrese Sr., 69, Paul Schiro, 70, and Anthony Doyle, 62.

Lombardo went to federal prison in 1982 for conspiring to bribe then-U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon of Nevada and a second mob-related case involving Las Vegas casino skimming.

Witnesses have described him as the boss, or capo, of the Chicago Outfit's Grand Avenue street crew — an allegation he denies.

Lombardo testified that after being a shoe-shine boy he turned to running a floating craps game sanctioned by a Chicago alderman.

"You can't get anything done without your alderman," Lombardo said. "You want to get a zoning change, you go see your alderman. You want a dice game, you go see your alderman."

Lombardo said he grew up to hold legitimate jobs but also ran errands for bail bondsman and businessman Irwin Weiner, who befriended him and helped finance lucrative real estate deals.

He said he came to know Seifert because Weiner and Seifert co-owned International Fiberglass Co. and helped him get a job there.

Witnesses had testified earlier that when they did business with International Fiberglass they knew Lombardo as "Joe Cunio." He testified that he sometimes used the name Cunio in business dealings because a man named Lombardi was getting bad press and he wanted to avoid confusion.

Lombardo acknowledged that he made purchases at a radio equipment store prosecutors say was the source of a police scanner found in a getaway car following Seifert's murder. But he said it was Weiner - who died years ago - who wanted the equipment.

"Yes, I made pickups there for him," Lombardo said. "He told me to pick up stuff for him and I picked it up."

Asked by Halprin about his conviction on charges of plotting to bribe Sen. Cannon, Lombardo claimed he merely trying to help another friend, insurance executive Allen Dorfman, who headed the huge Teamsters Central States Pension Fund.

The Teamsters Union wanted Cannon to kill a trucking deregulation bill on Capitol Hill. Lombardo said he had no interest in what Cannon did about the bill but was merely hoping to help Dorfman.

The mammoth pension fund was riddled with corruption when it was headed by Dorfman. Weeks after Lombardo, Dorfman and Teamsters International President Roy Lee Williams were convicted, Dorfman was shot and killed in mob fashion while on his way to lunch with Weiner.

Halprin asked if Lombardo got any money from the pension fund.

"Not one penny," Lombardo said.

"Well, what did you get out of the whole situation?" Halprin asked.

"Fifteen years and five years probation," Lombardo said.


Pay gap divides labor bosses

Ron Gettelfinger and Robert Potter are separated by philosophies and tax brackets. As president of the United Auto Workers, Gettelfinger is one of the hardest working and most influential labor leaders in the nation. He meets with presidents, negotiates with CEOs and manages a $300 million organization with more than 500,000 workers.

As president of one union hall of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Potter had a much lower profile. He led a membership one-twentieth the size of the UAW, located in one state instead of 50, with the average member earning less than half as much as the typical UAW worker. Yet in 2005 Potter was paid about twice as much as Gettelfinger. The UAW president earned just more than $156,000 in total compensation that year; Potter, in his last full year as president of UFCW Local 951, made $305,000.

Despite being one of the most powerful union leaders in the nation, Gettelfinger earned less in 2006 than three people in Potter's one union hall.

Differences in union hall pay scales are often as glaring as the pay gap between union and non-union shops. Some labor organizations lavish their officers with high salaries and generous benefit packages unavailable to the rank-and-file, while others tie their compensation to that of their members assembling cars or building homes.

The disparity has less to do with economics than with the cultures that have developed in different labor organizations. Those differences are particularly pronounced today, as many union members face uncertain futures and shrinking paychecks.

How two of Michigan's largest unions pay their leaders -- and the philosophies behind those paychecks -- offers a glimpse into the inconsistent world of labor boss compensation.

Years ago, pay was similar

Thirty years ago, unionized autoworkers and grocery employees earned similar salaries.

Barb Mezzapelle worked for the now-shuttered Chatham grocery chain in Metro Detroit in the early 1970s. Chatham employees were members of one of several food-worker unions that later merged to form the UFCW.

Barely out of high school, Mezzapelle made $20,000 a year as a union-represented management trainee -- the equivalent of $96,000 today.

She recalls her father, a union electrician, was stunned at the size of his daughter's paycheck. So was she. "For a 20-year-old kid, that was a lot of money," Mezzapelle said. "They (the union) could negotiate anything and get it."

In the early 1970s, UAW workers, with generous overtime, could earn $20,000 a year. Over time, UAW salaries rose, while grocery wages fell.

By the time Mezzapelle left Chatham to start her own business a few years later, she and her family could have led a middle-class lifestyle on her grocery salary. By the time she returned recently to work an overnight shift as a cashier at Meijer, things had changed. She now earns $8.50 an hour -- far less than she made at a grocery store more than 30 years ago.

"It's like pennies compared to before," she said.

Indeed, the pay gap between autoworkers and grocery workers is now profound. While UAW members can make as much as $29 an hour plus generous health and retirement benefits, union workers at Kroger, Meijer and elsewhere can earn as little as minimum wage, $7.15 an hour, often pay more for health care and receive fewer benefits.

That is, unless you're a grocery union leader.

Union hall keeps its jobs

Tough times are nothing new for the cashiers, stockers and butchers of UFCW Local 951, the largest local in the state. Membership at the local, which primarily represents workers at Meijer, has dropped from about 40,000 in 2000 to 28,000 today. Some stores have closed, and those that remain employ fewer workers. Eliminating baggers from checkout lines cost 6,000 union jobs, according to Potter. Technological advances, such as self-serve check-out lines, have eliminated many more.

About the only place not losing jobs is the union hall. While the union local was losing 30 percent of its workers in six years, the number of union officers and employees dropped by four -- from 103 to 99. Most of those who remained continued to receive raises.

Current Local 951 President Marv Russow argues that it's the wrong time to cut union hall staff. The union has dedicated more employees to recruitment in an attempt to curb its membership decline. Those members who remain often are facing more economic struggles and need additional services from the union.

"You can't condense yourself to prosperity," said Russow, Potter's successor. "The key is finding ways to expand services to our union."

But as membership (and the corresponding dues) plummeted, the local has spent a higher and higher percentage of its $11.5 million budget on salaries. In 2000, Local 951 members paid $78 a year toward union hall salaries; by 2006, that figure had jumped to $91.32.

Emblematic of the local's pay gap was Potter. In 2004, union-represented lead store clerks at the top of the scale at Meijer received a 1.9 percent raise -- 35 cents an hour. That same year, Potter's total compensation increased 5.2 percent -- from $229,000 to $237,000. In 2005, when Meijer employees at the top of the scale received no raises, Potter's total compensation jumped 29 percent, reaching $305,000.

At most Meijer stores in Michigan, top pay is nearly $20 an hour for a butcher. Most make far less. Meanwhile, Potter has a condo in Grosse Pointe Park and a home on more than seven acres in Grand Haven. He owns four cars, including a Cadillac and a Corvette, according to Michigan Secretary of State records.

The Labor Department raised questions about the local's spending, including unreported income for Potter, who was president of Local 951 for 26 years before leaving last year to become chairman of the food industry's Joint Labor Management Committee.

"I'm not embarrassed or apologetic about what I make," Potter told The News. "Even at my highest salary, I was never in the top 20 in the UFCW in the country."

The UFCW's labor bosses are among the highest paid in the United States, with 33 officers making more than $200,000 in base salary in 2006 -- many of whom earned thousands more by drawing additional paychecks from the union's international office. The average UFCW member earns between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, with many at Michigan grocery stores earning less.

Potter believes Gettelfinger is underpaid for the work he does. He argues that comparing the UFCW with the UAW is misleading because different unions have different philosophies about compensating their leaders. He said he had to pay his staff at Local 951 well because "they get recruited" for other jobs, Potter said. "There was about a half dozen times when I was recruited for jobs that paid twice as much. You try to keep good people."

Two of those good people were Potter's son, Michael Potter, who earned $95,673 in total compensation in 2006 as communications director, and Tamara Vander Ark, who earned $121,467 in total compensation as an executive board member and representative. Vander Ark and the elder Potter live at the same address in Grand Haven, according to public records. Vander Ark declined to describe the nature of their relationship.

It's different for Gettelfinger

On the other side of the state, Gettelfinger finds himself in the news almost every day. His union's core industry has been under assault for decades and increasing pressure from Asian and European automakers has the Big Three crying that their unionized workers must concede -- again -- on benefits, pensions and wages in order to remain competitive.

For his efforts, Gettelfinger earned more than $158,000 in total compensation in 2006. Nearly 1,200 people in organized labor across the county and 33 in Michigan made more than Gettelfinger, who, in accordance with UAW bylaws, also declined about $37,000 in compensation for his role on the DaimlerChrysler supervisory board, the German equivalent of a board of directors.

"We do this job because we believe in what we're doing and not to get rich or have retirement homes here or there," said Elizabeth Bunn, the secretary-treasurer of the UAW, the No. 2 post at the union. She was paid about $135,000 last year.

Both Gettelfinger and Bunn were elected at the union's national convention in 2002 and were re-elected last year. Their compensation is set at the convention, with a formula for annual increases established then. Their raises have been modest, holding to cost of living.

"Our salaries come from dues dollars and that it is our obligation to the membership that we not be paid in some way that's disproportionate to what they're earning and that's recognition of just how hard our members work," Bunn said.

Since its inception, the UAW has been at the forefront of the labor movement, fighting for company-paid health and pension benefits and unemployment protection. Its comparatively high salaries, earned through strikes and contract negotiations, helped create Michigan's blue-collar middle class.

Gettelfinger's salary and that of other top UAW officials reflects a long-standing culture at the UAW that perceives the union as a social movement, rather than a job.

"It's not a job, it's a cause," Gettelfinger has said.

Reacting to stormy economic times causing the union to lose 150,000 members since 2000, the UAW's national headquarters has shed more than a sixth of its staff since 2002. "We have been really engaged in a lot of belt tightening," Bunn said.

Some belts aren't as tight as others. Gettelfinger isn't the highest paid UAW official in Michigan. That title goes to Ron Gajeski, recording secretary at Utica's Local 400 that has lost 5,000 members since 2001. Gajeski was paid a total of $173,904, including more than $10,000 for expenses. He said his 2006 pay was high because he cashed in some deferred compensation; he declined to answer other questions.

Two other officials of Local 400 make more than $138,000, records show. The local's bylaws, approved by the members, specify that top officials' pay is linked to some of the highest paid UAW officers at the national headquarters in Detroit.

Bylaws also grant $200 a week to the top four officers to cover gas, insurance and expenses. Other employees and union members get $65 or $35 weekly for similar expenses. Officers are eligible, like plant workers, for longevity pay and bonuses.

While the UAW doesn't have the eye-popping salaries earned by top UFCW labor bosses, it does have many officers making more than $100,000. Nearly 700 UAW officers and staff in Michigan alone have a total compensation from the union that exceeds $100,000, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. That data doesn't include other officials, estimated in the hundreds, who are appointed to union jobs paid by the Big Three. They are benefit and safety representatives and low-level union officials who sometimes are paid for 12-hour days, seven days a week. Many make more than $100,000 a year.

One local makes tough cuts

In Saginaw, the wrenching switch from General Motors Corp. to Delphi Corp. and then the concessionary deals made with the parts maker have triggered a belt-tightening. After Mike Hanley won a runoff election last year to become president of UAW Local 699 in Saginaw, he found that the local couldn't maintain its spending practices. Dues were down substantially. Most of the work force that had earned $29 an hour a year earlier had taken buyouts; new hires earned $14 an hour.

So Hanley, a former House Democratic leader in Lansing, helped rewrite the bylaws. His pay as president was cut. Instead of accepting 50 hours of pay from the plant, as the national UAW contract allowed, Hanley retired and takes his pension plus a roughly $30,000 salary from the union. The local also cut some perks, including the monthly $60 gas allowance for union officials. He slashed the number of hours union employees spend away from their jobs to work on union business (hours for which the union footed the bill). He now edits the local's newsletter himself, a job that the former president's daughter used to be paid $55,000 a year to do.

Hanley said there was little choice -- financially or philosophically.

"It (the changes) put us into the world where 90 percent of our workers live," Hanley said.

Those same economic realities are beginning to be felt at UFCW Local 951. Russow's base salary is $182,000 - notably less than the $250,000 Potter earned in base salary in 2005, his last full year at the union hall.

Some veteran employees retired in 2006 (after being given sizeable bumps in salary to increase their pensions), and their replacements are earning 20 percent less.

Russow said the local is being "fiscally responsible."

"We didn't feel it was right to go to members and ask them to pay (us) more," Russow said.

"Certainly we make a good living, we're not denying that. But we have said, look, our members are going through some challenges, and we're not immune to that."


Ohio Steelworkers threaten strike tonight

Employees at Republic Engineered Products are prepared to strike tonight if a deal isn't reached with management on a new contract. A memo from the national chapter of United Steelworkers was sent to employees and posted at the East 28th Street plant on Tuesday, keeping them apprised of negotiations that are taking place this week in Pittsburgh with representatives from all five of Republic's plants in the United States.

"We are very far apart and short on time to resolve some of the most significant outstanding issues," the letter stated. "We are still fighting an uphill battle to negotiate a fair contract with REP before our current collective bargaining agreement expires Wednesday." The letter said a strike has been set for 11:59 p.m. if negotiations fail.

Union representatives from plants in Massillon, Canton, Gary, Ind., and Lackawanna, N.Y., are all having the same problems with negotiations as Lorain, said Don Golden, president of United Steelworkers Local 1104 in Lorain.

One of the main issues is wages, which Golden said are about $3 an hour below industry standards. That’s because the union agreed to reduce its expected wages by 15 percent when it negotiated the last contract five years ago because Republic was losing money and falling into bankruptcy, Golden said.

"We've done a lot to save this facility, but the company is doing good now, and we want to be paid what the rest of the industry is," he said.

The unions have been negotiating in Pittsburgh for weeks and throughout last weekend, but only a few areas have been agreed upon, such as job structure and duties.

Besides an increase in wages, the union also wants a commitment from Republic to reinvest in itself to stay competitive in the market, as well as assistance for people who are laid off, including health care and a promise to continue paying into workers’ pension funds if the layoff is brief.

Golden said striking will be the last resort and that the union is willing to extend the contract deadline if management shows that it is willing to work things out.

"A strike is a last-ditch effort, and we'll do everything we can to try to prevent it," he said.

Representatives from Republic in Lorain did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.


Police union pickets, anger rises

After Aurora, Ill. police officer Michael Perez was passed over for a promotion for the eighth time, he’d had enough. Last month, he quit. "If I stay, there's nothing left for me here," he said. Perez was among the more than 100 police officers and their supporters to picket outside city hall Tuesday, protesting what they call mistreatment and unfair practices by city officials.

They waved signs reading, "Weisner unfair to police" and "Police deserve a contract." The Association of Professional Police Officers' last three-year contract expired March 6. The two sides have been negotiating a new one since early 2007, with both accusing the other of holding up talks.

Police officers can't strike, but union officials say they want people to know their frustrations, which include understaffing, changing in promotion protocols and a policy allowing third parties to file officer complaints.

Both sides declined to provide specifics on the new contract’s salary and benefit requests.

"We're going to be reasonable," APPO President Wayne Biles said. "We're not asking for anything outrageous."

Aurora officers are among the best paid around with "extraordinary benefits," city spokesman Carie Anne Ergo said. After five years of service, an officer's base pay is about $75,000, she said. Officers now receive 4 percent yearly raises.

One of the union's biggest concerns is understaffing. A city of Aurora's size should have about 400 officers, Biles said. It's authorized to have about 300, he said, leading to forced overtime and burnout.

"This is a safety issue," he said.

City officials agree more officers are needed and have committed to adding more each year, Ergo said.

But even if more people were hired now, there's no place to put them, with police headquarters squeezed for space, she said.

"The mayor was among the first to make a commitment to build a new (police) facility," she said.

Union officials also take issue with how officers are promoted.

The process is secretive, union attorney Tim O'Neil said. Despite officers like Perez, who reluctantly retired after 30 years of service, having experience and top ratings, others were promoted, he said.

"It depends on who you know," he said. "It's almost nepotism."

Ergo said the chief and his staff have a choice of several people to promote from the department’s civil service list.

City officials say they respect the union's right to express its opinion. They'll continue to operate in "good faith," with an ultimate goal of approving a contract that rewards officers and protects taxpayers, Ergo said.

Biles said the two sides last met about a month ago, calling the mediation "a joke." Union leaders will meet again with the city "anytime, anywhere," he said.

"We have not dragged our feet," he said. "If Weisner tells you the union's been dragging their feet, he's a liar."

Ergo called such statements "completely untrue." The city brought in a mediator to move forward, she said. "If anything, (the union) has been slow to respond to our efforts," she said.


Newspaper union fight displays journalism ethics

After a year of name calling, serial litigation and dozens of newsroom defections, American journalism's nastiest in-house squabble debuted in a courtroom here Tuesday. Attorneys for eight fired journalists accused Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw of trying to quash a union organizing drive, while the publisher's lead lawyer argued that the employees overstepped their authority and tried to seize control of the newspaper.

The case contrasts two approaches to journalism and raises questions about how much an owner or a publisher should be involved in determining what ends up in print.

The case has become a cause celebre among journalists nationally and to the residents of Santa Barbara largely because of McCaw's combative stance toward her former employees. The 56-year-old publisher has three other legal cases pending against her former editor, a local alternative newspaper and a reporter for a national journalism review who was critical of the paper's management.

In recent op-ed pieces, McCaw has depicted herself as a lonely holdout for journalistic standards against an ethically bankrupt - and biased - mainstream media.

The National Labor Relations Board's complaint against the News Press cites nearly 20 instances in which supervisors and others at the paper allegedly took improper actions against employees who planned to join the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters union. In addition to the terminations, the paper is accused of spying on and interrogating the union activists, issuing reprimands and poor performance appraisals, and canceling the weekly column of writer Starshine Roshell, who subsequently left the paper.

During opening arguments Tuesday, Ira Gottlieb, a lawyer for a division of the Teamsters Union, told an administrative law judge hearing the case for the NLRB that the fired journalists and other employees subjected to discipline only wanted a fair say in the future of a newspaper they cared about.

"The News-Press was dead set upon killing the union drive, discouraging union support, demolishing the aspirations of the employees who wanted and still want . . . to have a hand in improving the newspaper and gain a voice and influence over their terms and conditions of employment," Gottlieb said. A. Barry Cappello, the lead attorney for McCaw, countered that the case did not present "traditional labor-employer issues."

"These are employees who will testify that their sole goal was to take control of the newspaper," Cappello said, "so the publisher [would have] no control of what is written in the newspaper and how it is written." He added in his opening statement that McCaw was merely trying to rein in workers who had an inflated "sense of entitlement to write what they wanted, when they wanted" and who, when challenged, denigrated their own paper and publisher.

After a hearing that will continue until at least mid-September, administrative law judge William G. Kocol will have to determine whether the employees were improperly fired in retaliation for union activities, a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The workers then could be entitled to back wages and benefits and possible reinstatement.

The opening testimony in the case Tuesday came from News-Press Associate Editor Scott Steepleton, the top editorial employee at the newspaper. Steepleton said veteran reporters Melinda Burns and Anna Davison were fired because they injected bias into news stories. Six others lost their jobs when they hung a banner on a pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 that read: "Cancel Your Newspaper Today!" Steepleton called it an act of "disloyalty against the company."

Steepleton offered mixed testimony as to how much notice the reporters had been given of their alleged bias. He said Burns had been warned in several annual performance evaluations although never cited separately or disciplined. The journalist's lawyers countered that she had been commended as an exemplary employee in 2000 and won several awards.

The editor acknowledged that Davison had not received prior warnings about bias and said her termination early this year centered on a single story. Davison failed to quote any of the numerous opponents of a streetscaping project that uprooted dozens of trees and could have found such views if she had read letters to the editor in her own paper, Steepleton said.

Lawyers for the employees tried to show "disparate treatment" of the union activists by introducing examples of a handful of other instances in which reporters did not present both sides of an issue but were not disciplined. Cappello said he would provide evidence to counter those claims.

Gottlieb argued that the firings of those who posted the banner were intended as a "death blow" to the union but instead seemed to inspire more support from employees. Cappello countered that the act had nothing to do with the union organizing but simply "denigrated the product and tried to hurt the product" - a finding that could put the employees outside the protection of the labor act.

McCaw bought the newspaper in 2000 from New York Times Co., raising hopes that local ownership would insulate the venerable newspaper from the economic woes plaguing other dailies. Internal disagreements at the paper exploded into public view last summer, when Editor Jerry Roberts, four other top editors and venerable columnist Barney Brantingham resigned en masse.

The journalists said they were protesting improper meddling by McCaw and editorial page editor Travis Armstrong in news decisions. They cited management's decision to block publication of a story about Armstrong's drunk driving conviction and a reprimand issued to journalists for publishing actor Rob Lowe's address in a story about his proposed home construction, something McCaw said was an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Union activists said the exodus now totaled about 50. Although the News-Press has hired replacement workers, the city desk reporting staff has been reduced to four from 14, according to several journalists who have left the paper. McCaw's spokeswoman would not confirm or deny those figures.

Many Santa Barbarans say coverage has become noticeably thin. The City Council and county Board of Supervisors don't get the attention they used to, they claim. And several people noted that the newspaper initially relied on wire services, not its own reporters, to cover the Zaca fire that has loomed in the mountains north of town for more than a month.

"It's about this thin and most of it comes from the AP," said local carpenter Craig Harris, pinching his thumb and forefinger almost together. "They hardly have any local writers anymore."

The News-Press has suffered a more precipitous decline in circulation than most other daily papers, dropping 9.5% during the week, to 38,000, for the six-month period ended March 31, compared with the period a year before. McCaw blames the decline on her former employees' attacks on the newspaper.

Some local readers said they have turned elsewhere for their news, although the alternatives don't yet offer the comprehensive coverage of a fully functioning daily newspaper. The upstart Daily Sound newspaper, launched just last year by a recent college graduate, soon plans to expand from five to six days a week and has increased its press run to 8,000 papers from 2,000. The Santa Barbara Independent has picked up Brantingham as a columnist and has grown by about 10 pages per edition from a year ago, according to Publisher Randy Campbell.


SEIU's rolling bargaining-picketing hits the OC

About 250 employees of several hospitals owned by Tenet Healthcare Corp. of Southern California held a lunchtime rally outside Garden Grove Hospital today demanding better health insurance benefits. The rally was organized by the Service Employees International Union, which represents employees working in 14 California hospitals owned by the Dallas-based corporation. Union Vice President Barbara Lewis said today's rally was the first in a series of actions the union will take to protest the management's attitude on providing health benefits to their employees.

"It's ironic that these people who dedicate their lives to provide health care have to fight for their own benefits," she said. Lewis said the company wants its employees to bear cost increases in health insurance for the next seven years, which is unacceptable.

But Tenet spokesman Steven Campanini said this was merely a union stunt and an attempt to turn negotiations in its favor. Campanini criticized the union for releasing what he called a "flawed survey" slanted with negative questions.

Lewis said the survey taken by Tenet employees across California showed that 36 percent of the employees believe staffing in their facilities have decreased and 46 percent say they lack equipment and supplies on a regular basis.

Campanini said the survey and the rally were just a way for the union to attract attention.

"A majority of our employees are actually upset at the union for causing this type of disruption," he said. "The union's accusations are an insulting attack on the work done every day by our dedicated staff."

The employees' contract expired Dec. 31. Negotiations broke off Aug. 1 and the union is trying to get company officials back at the bargaining table, Lewis said.

The union plans to have a similar rally Aug. 21 at the Tarzana Regional Medical Center.


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