AFL-CIO expands its 2008 political agenda

The labor movement showed what it is made of Aug. 7 at Soldier Field when 17,000 union members and their families challenged seven Democratic presidential candidates to explain to the nation how they will change things.

The biggest presidential debate in history was, however, only one event among several in which the AFL-CIO leadership further developed a working families agenda.

During their Aug. 6-8 executive council meeting here, union leaders set plans to deal with labor’s endorsement of presidential candidates, to overcome Republican roadblocks to easier union organizing, to ensure labor’s influence in the political arena well beyond the 2008 elections and to make universal health care for all Americans a reality.

A month ago, the council decided not to endorse a particular candidate and issued a statement declaring that member unions are free to endorse in the primaries if they wish. It is expected, of course, that virtually the entire labor movement will back the Democratic nominee in the general election.

In its statement issued the day after the presidential debate, the council praised all the contenders and said the 17,000 gathered at Soldier Field “had met with the next president of the United States and six other candidates.” The candidates at the gathering were Senators Joseph Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama, former Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

“The Democratic candidates are strong on issues most central to working people’s lives,” the council statement read, but still need “continued engagement” from unions and their members “to promote full understanding of workers’ difficulties and dreams.”

The council continued: “It is clear that our members support a number of the candidates. Many of our members told us the candidates are impressive. For this reason the AFL-CIO has decided not to proceed with a decision process that would lead to support for a single candidate at this time.”

On the issue of the right of workers to choose union representation, the council noted that there is unanimous agreement among the seven Democratic presidential hopefuls on backing the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill would require companies to recognize and bargain with a union as soon as a majority of employees indicate by their signatures on cards that they want union representation.

The council went a step further, however, and urged member unions to demand that candidates disclose exactly how they would achieve passage of the EFCA, particularly since no one expects that, even with a Democratic victory, the right-wing will roll over and play dead on this issue.

The Employee Free Choice Act passed the Democratic run House this year 241-185, and then, despite winning a 51-48 majority vote in the Senate, stalled because the GOP garnered enough votes for a filibuster.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who was at the council meeting, said, “I don’t want someone who just says he or she will sign the EFCA into law. I want someone who will show how he or she is going to help quarterback it.”

The executive council also made it clear that labor’s involvement in the electoral arena will go well beyond the 2008 elections. Labor is getting ready to plunge into the battles for control of state legislatures, according to Karen Ackerman, the federation’s political action director.

“Unions won’t just concentrate on the top of the ticket. We’re looking at the legislatures now, with an eye towards redistricting after 2010, when lawmakers could re-draw state and congressional district lines to elect more worker-friendly candidates,” Ackerman said in an interview during the council meeting.

“And there may be more to come in the House, the Senate and among governorships,” she said. “After all, who would have thought at this time two years ago, that Virginia and Montana would be in play?” She was referring to two U.S. Senate races won by Democratic and labor-backed candidates James Webb and Jon Tester in Virginia and Montana, respectively.

On another key issue, the council decided to put universal, quality health care at the top of its national election agenda, putting it on a par with its drive to pass the EFCA.

The council did not, however, endorse specific health care legislation. Some of its member unions, including the Steelworkers, the California Nurses Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, back HR 676, which would set up a government-run, single-payer system that would cover everyone and eliminate private insurance companies altogether.

The council set up a special health care panel of union presidents to develop proposals for which plan the federation should support.


SAG member celebs fatten Democrats' coffers

Obama harvests maximum $2,300 donations from Hollywood stars George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith. Clinton draws support from Danny DeVito, Christie Brinkley and Quincy Jones; the front-runner's campaign returns $4,600 to designer Vera Wang after she mistakenly donates twice the legal limit for primary and general elections.

Michael Douglas, Oliver Stone and Barbra Streisand spread cash to multiple Democrats; Michael Moore hasn't donated to anyone. On smaller roster of Republican-friendly stars: Kelsey Grammer and Adam Sandler back Giuliani.


Gov't union blasts Vancouver strike poll

Polling firm Ipsos-Reid is conducting a survey of Vancouver residents about the city's contract proposals in the city workers' strike, something their union calls "an absolute waste of money" that could further delay negotiations.

Late yesterday the city confirmed its polling and released results of two questions to 24 hours. Ipsos-Reid asked: If Vancouver offered city workers a 17.5 per cent wage increase over five years would that be fair and reasonable? Results showed 89 per cent agreed. The pollster also asked: Are you concerned about the impact on your city taxes of that wage offer? Sixty per cent agreed.

City spokesman Jerry Dobrovolny said: "We needed to understand the public's level of tolerance for a settlement that is that high."

But the other questions obtained exclusively by 24 hours included:

- How would you rate the job city managers have done replacing striking workers?

- How much have you been affected by the strike?

- Do you support or oppose the strike action?

Results of answers to those questions were not made available.

Opposition Vision Vancouver councilor Raymond Louis said he's concerned the polling is an expensive public-relations exercise.

"Are we wasting money on a public relations exercise instead of bargaining?" he asked.

"It's an absolute waste of money," says Barry O'Neill, Canadian Union of Public Employees B.C. president. "By the time you tabulate the results you should be at an agreement."


SEIU strikes state mentally disabled care unit

Members of the New England Health Care Employees SEIU Local 1199 have gone on strike against Sunrise Northeast, a company that provides care for the mentally retarded under contract with the state, a union spokeswoman said. Deborah Chernoff, a spokeswoman for District 1199, said the picket lines were set up at 7 a.m. Friday at two locations, including the administrative offices of Sunrise Northeast in Hartford, Connecticut.

Picket lines have also been set up at a location in Columbia. Sunrise Northeast is a private agency that provides contract services for the Connecticut Department of Mental Retardation to about 130 clients with developmental disabilities.

"We had negotiations last night. We were not able to reach agreement," Chernoff said Friday.

Chernoff said the union represents 189 direct care worker at 23 Sunrise locations. She said contract talks broke down Thursday night over medical benefits and wages.

Phone messages seeking comments were left at the company's main office in Miami and at its administrative office in Hartford.


Strike-bound Canada looks to Mexico for workers

While the United States Congress turns up its nose at immigration reform, Canada is poised to start negotiations that would bring even more Mexican workers into this country. An agreement to strike a commission into increased labour mobility is expected to be among the key accomplishments connected with next week's summit of North American leaders in Montebello, Que.

Mexico's ambassador to Canada, Emilio Goicoechea, said in an interview that the idea is to expand an already successful program that brings in thousands of Mexican agricultural workers every year. Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will hold a private meeting Wednesday.

“The first step will be a declaration from the leaders and the political will to do it, and the question of how it will happen will be up to a working group that will work out the details with Mexican and Canadian legislation,” Mr. Goicoechea said Thursday.

In June, the U.S. Senate rejected a bill that would have allowed more Mexican workers to legally enter the country and would have granted citizenship to some of the millions already there illegally. Since then, Washington passed a bill cracking down on illegals, sparking an outcry from American farmers who depend on the workers.

Canada currently takes in 12,000 Mexican workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, but is examining ways it could bring in even more people to fill low- or semi-skilled jobs. There has also been talk about more mobility for energy workers, especially for Alberta.

Mexico is also expected to raise with Canada the issue of contraband weapons flowing north and south from the United States, and what can be done collaboratively on the issue.

The discussions are another indication of the deepening relationship between Canada and Mexico, a hemispheric success story for both countries. Bilateral trade has been increasing, and there has been more co-ordination in areas such as energy, defence and security.

Canadian prime ministers, including Stephen Harper, have cultivated closer personal ties with their Mexican counterparts over several years.

Mr. Harper was one of the first leaders to congratulate Mr. Calderon on his victory last year, and attend his November inauguration.

“They're becoming good friends, they trust each other, and that's something really important in order to develop better relations in the future,” said Mr. Goicoechea.

Still, a few irritants remain.

Canadian officials acknowledge that the number of Mexican visitors turned away at airports and land crossings is increasing, a sore point with the Mexican government. Last year, a high-profile Mexico City lawyer was turned away at Vancouver's airport when attempting to visit a client.

And some Mexican agricultural workers have complained of ill-treatment by Canadian employers. The issue has gained a high-profile particularly in Quebec, where news reports say the Canadian government has done little to investigate the allegations.

Mr. Goicoechea said his country would like to see a system set up to protect and assist seasonal workers when they're in the country. He said for example that a worker who is fired with or without cause has little recourse, and few resources sometimes to even buy a ticket home and settle accounts.

“Basically, what Mexico wants is that the human rights of Mexican workers who come to Canada are respected, and that there exist mechanisms that can quickly resolve disagreements between parties.”


Strike authorization sets stage for UAW bargaining

UAW Local 652 union members employed by General Motors in Lansing have decided to strike if the United Auto Workers fails to reach a new contract agreement with GM. Yesterday's vote was among the first to take place at plants across the country. GM, Ford and Chrysler are negotiating new contracts.

A strike authorization vote doesn't mean a strike will happen. The head of the UAW Local in Lansing says 97% of the membership vote in favor of the strike as a show of support for the UAW's negotiating team. The locals were asked to hold strike votes before the end of the month. The automakers' contracts expire September 14th.


S.C. Teamsters school bus drivers strike looms

A potential strike by local school bus drivers is back on the table. They will decide Saturday whether to accept a new contract with their employer or to take steps that could ultimately lead to a strike. Bus drivers for the Beaufort (South Carolina) County School District received letters this week from their union, Teamsters Local 509, indicating there will be a "contract ratification/strike vote" from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, said union secretary Powell Caldwell.

The union has been negotiating with the drivers' employer, Cincinnati-based First Student, for increased wages and better treatment. The district pays First Student $4.2 million to provide the drivers and maintain some buses. Most of the district's 120 drivers belong to the union. On Saturday, union members will be asked to cast secret ballots indicating whether they approve of First Student's latest offer.

If they support the offer, then negotiations are over.

If they reject it, the union can either continue negotiating with First Student or call a strike, Caldwell said. The union likely won't call a strike if it feels progress is being made during negotiations, he said.

"A strike is really a last resort," Caldwell said.

Negotiations between Teamsters Local 509 and First Student have been simmering since early August when local media reported -- based on information the district received from First Student -- that a strike vote was imminent.

But some drivers at the time said they weren't even aware of a possible strike vote. Since then, no strike or contract vote has been taken.

That will change Saturday, two days before students who attend traditional-calendar schools return to class. About 12,000 students take the bus to school every day.

The district is working with First Student officials on a back-up plan to get students to school should drivers strike. Some of the drivers don't belong to the union. It's also possible that not everyone who belongs to the union will strike, said John Williams, assistant superintendent for information services.

First Student may temporarily be able to provide drivers from other school districts along the East Coast that haven't begun school yet, Williams said.

Parents may also be encouraged to carpool in the mornings, he said. In the afternoons, the district may have to run double routes, meaning drivers would drop off a bus load of students and then pick up another to take home.

"So students at a school may have to wait longer for a bus ride home," Williams said.


A union-busting habit

A small crowd of health-care workers from a big nonprofit hospital chain tried to deliver a letter to their boss one bright morning last week. The letter contained a plea on behalf of the 61 workers who signed it: They wanted a meeting. Since the beginning of the year, they say, their efforts to form a union have been blocked - skillfully and repeatedly - by their employer.

The cluster of workers trotted from the CVS on Main Street in Orange, California to a lovely plantation-style brick building a couple of blocks away. They rang the bell. An elderly woman poked her head out, clearly flustered by the 18 guests on the front steps. The group asked to speak with the Mother Superior.

It was like something out of a Michael Moore film - except that instead of Roger Smith or Charlton Heston, the workers were looking for Sister Katherine Gray, chairwoman of the board of directors for the St. Joseph Health System.

"She's not available," the woman told the group on the steps of the Mother House. One of the group asked if they could see another sister. "No. No. No one is available," they were told. They handed her the letter and were promised it would be delivered to Sister Katherine.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange trace their roots back to 17th-century France; the order is well-known for a solid record of commitment to the poor. They've marched with Cesar Chavez and supported janitors' and garment workers' union-organization efforts. They opened their first hospital in Eureka in 1920 after the big flu epidemic of 1918, giving birth to a health-care system that is now 14 hospitals strong and served just more than 2 million patients last year.

The St. Joseph Health System says it endorses its employees' rights to unionize. Yet some nurses say the hospital chain blocked them from forming a union under the powerful California Nurses Association, and service workers in their Northern California hospitals say their efforts to unionize under SEIU United Healthcare Workers West have been repeatedly thwarted.

Hospital representatives say the sisters endorse their employees' rights to choose whether or not they want union representation. They say they honor the federal rules set forth by the National Labor Relations Act.

For David Cox, a soft-spoken pathology technician who has worked for St. Joseph Hospital in Santa Ana for 34 years, the delivery of the letter was a big step. "Our goal today was not to be confrontational," he says in between comments about his respect for the legacy of the order.

"We want to move this forward," Cox says. "We are serious about forming our union."

Cox says he and other health workers at the hospital had never tried to unionize before. But now, he says, "It's become a critical mass of employees who see that there are issues in our industry they can have an impact on together. We're the ones delivering the patient care. We want to be part of the process."

"We want to lay down some ground rules," says Dianna Cooper, a phlebotomist at St. Joseph Hospital who says she has been harassed twice and written up for speaking to people about unionizing during work hours. Employees are asking for a new set of systemwide rules that would allow them to carry out a fair election process and protect them from sophisticated anti-union organizing efforts by the network.

"The nurses' failure is why we're hoping for new rules," says Cox.

In 2002, a group of nurses at St. Joseph Hospital put in a call to the potent California Nurses Association - a union that is now a fixture at most big hospitals in California - and began talking to some of their fellow nurses about unionizing (see Nick Schou's "Critical Mass," Nov. 28, 2002).

Nurses were interested in having an election, says Mary Obershlake, a St. Joseph intensive-care RN. But soon after their first efforts, the hospital began holding "educational sessions" and mandatory meetings on the subject of unions, Obershlake says. She and other workers were paid to attend the sessions and were approached by senior-level management they had never seen or met before, she says. Obershlake, who is as reverent when it comes to the legacy of the order as Cox, says the anti-union effort was frustrating and sophisticated.

"'You're going to hurt the hospital,'" she remembers being told. "Everyone that I can think of, myself included, subscribes to and is committed to the values and the mission of St. Joseph's. When you are given the impression - or told - that what you're trying to do is going to hurt the mission, that really is a tremendous roadblock."

Suddenly, she says, nurses got raises and more paid time off. Soon, co-workers were averting their eyes from Obershlake in the hall, nervous about being caught talking to her. She remembers a conversation with one of the St. Joseph's nuns, whom she had befriended while they volunteered together. The sister urged Obershlake to consider that a union wasn't really necessary for a nurse like her, one with an education and a decent wage.

Priscilla Yaeger, a financial counselor at Santa Rosa Memorial, a St. Joseph system hospital in Northern California, says management intercepted her efforts to discuss unionization with co-workers in 2004. "I was called in with my supervisor and a member of HR, and I was told under no circumstances was I to talk about union organizing," she says. Like the nurses in Orange County, Yaeger and her co-workers also attended mandatory meetings with experts and consultants.

Yaeger, too, remembers a conversation with a sister. "She said, 'You know, when the sisters organized with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers, it was because they were deprived. I feel that the workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who want this are greedy,'" Yaeger says she was told. "That was the word she used: 'greedy.'"

Joseph Norelli, San Francisco-based regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Santa Rosa Memorial was found guilty in one unfair labor charge in December 2005. The board found that "people were threatened with adverse consequences, questioned about union sympathy or that of others; and people were promised that if they didn't support the union, they would receive benefits," he said. The hospital settled with the health-care workers' union, which means they agreed to voluntarily remedy the alleged unfair labor practices without admission of guilt, Norelli says. Two other charges filed against the hospital were dismissed in 2005 and earlier this year.

Charges filed with the NLRB against St. Joseph, St. Jude and Mission hospitals within the past four months are still under investigation.

The Santa Rosa incidents, along with signs of intimidation at his own hospital, prompted Cox (who says he has been called in twice and warned by HR) and local area workers to ask for the meeting and for a systemwide fair-election agreement. The old National Labor Relations Act rules, which were drafted in 1935, are outdated and don’t hold up against sophisticated intimidation efforts, he and his co-workers believe.

St. Joseph's approved its own code of conduct - a one-page list of what management will and won't do when employees are trying to organize - about six months ago, says senior vice president and chief human-resources officer Bill Murin. "We wanted to be sure we clearly set the guidelines for our organization," he says. Included in that list is a pledge that the entire St. Joseph Health System will not hold mandatory meetings and that it will respect employee choice. Adriana Lynch, vice president of marketing and corporate communications, says she speaks on behalf of all the sisters in stating they honor an employee’s right to seek union representation.

When asked if the creation of the code was prompted by employee complaints or by the unfair labor charges that have been filed against several of the system's hospitals, Lynch says, "That code addresses some of the normal worries, regardless of what had happened in the past. The past is a long time ago."

Regarding the complaints of intimidation that employees cited in the letter, Lynch says this was the first she had heard of such incidents. "I can tell you for sure, we want any of these issues to come forward because we want them resolved," she says. "We will not tolerate any oppression to their right to express their opinions."

As for mandatory staff meetings and issues that have occurred at other hospitals, Murin says, "I can't speak directly to that. I've only been here a year." He said he is aware of the pending charges against the three Orange County-area system hospitals.

Murin and Lynch say the sisters and the network don't find it necessary to draw up a new agreement because their code of conduct and the National Labor Relations Act rules are enough. They said other hospitals in the network have had success with their unions, including St. Mary's in Apple Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial (where nurses are represented by a local nurses' union, they said).

Cox says he and his co-workers wish they would have been asked for their input regarding the code of conduct. Murin said he is open to hearing what employees now have to say. His office called Cox within hours of the letter's delivery to schedule a meeting for this week.

Father Angelito Perez, chairman of the Santa Rosa Diocesan Priests' Council in Northern California, says the system's code of conduct is not enough. "There are discrepancies," he says. The Diocese of Santa Rosa raised questions for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange when they heard from parishioners. "As a pastor, I began to hear complaints from parishioners who work there, who are afraid to go public and are intimidated when they ask for help in building a union."

Earlier this year, 28 clergy members from the Santa Rosa diocese, including Father Perez, and hundreds of other faith-based organization members signed a full-page ad in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat asking the sisters to honor what is known as a "Free and Fair Union Election Process." The diocese also endorses the agreement David Cox and the Orange County St. Joseph’s network employees are seeking.

"Catholic health care is not just another economic activity or product; it's a demonstration of our faith and our commitment to human life and dignity," Perez says. "That's where I came from. I have nothing against the sisters." In fact, he says, he has a tremendous respect for their work, making the subject painful for him.

"It's very sad that we even have to talk about this topic," he says. "It's sad in the sense that although they say they're practicing the social teachings of the Church, it doesn't come across to our workers."


Teamsters join Engineers on Calif. picket line

The Teamsters Local 70 held a barbecue at the picket lines in front of Valley Power on Adams Avenue on Monday to support striking workers from Operating Engineers Local 3. “We are here to show the workers our support and want to help them in the same way they helped and supported us,” said Chuck Mack, head of the Teamsters Local 70.

The Valley Power shop on Adams Avenue is the only one to be unionized and is presently the only shop with striking workers. Valley Power took over Stuart and Stevenson in 2005, removing all health benefits and pensions.

Workers have since tried negotiating with Valley Power, resorting to a strike on July 10. In the midday heat, Valley Power strikers and the teamsters exchanged stories about their experiences while they marched with signs and hamburgers in hand.

This was one of several lunch-strike events held throughout the month recalls striking worker Moises Alcerreca. The scene on Monday was definitely a change of pace from events last week, when striking Valley Power workers traveled north to hold a solidarity rally in front of Valley Power’s West Sacramento shop, marking one month of striking.

“We got a response out of them, but it wasn’t formal” recalls strike ring-leader, Stephen Villa.

Other striking workers who were present on Friday, gathered around Villa to explain what happened. According to Ezra Boone and Roger Towle, a West Sacramento Valley Power worker commandeered the hose of a fire engine he was repairing, spraying the striking workers with a mixture of foam and water.

“The foam and water got on our feet,” says Towle who ran into the street to avoid getting wet.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon arrived at the scene just as the spraying began.

“We asked our storm water department to look into the discharge and find out if it included chemicals or cleaning agents,” says Mayor Cabaldon.

The West Sacramento water department did not return results as of Wednesday when the Times went to press, however, if the solution did include chemicals or cleaning agents, it would be considered unlawful.

The Mayor of West Sacramento is one of many city leaders and representatives apprised of the Valley Power strike. Berkeley City councilman Kriss Worthington wants to end Berkeley’s relationship with the company and has put a motion on the September 11 ballot which would cease the city’s use of their repair services.

Although the locations and dynamics of the strike have changed, and the worker’s voices are being heard by a wider audience, the goal of the strike has remained the same.

Their new mantra “Get ‘em from every angle” has joined forces with their familiar chant “What we want is what we had” as striking workers continue to ask that their health benefits and pensions be returned.

In the meantime, union members and strikers have started a fund called the “Hardship Strike & Lock-Out Fund” to help workers with health and other costs while they are on strike.

Representatives from Valley Power have not been available for comment.


Temporary workers run Dresser-Rand on strike

More than 400 workers at the Dresser-Rand plant in Painted Post will stay on strike for the foreseeable future. The first round of talks between company and IUE-CWA Local 313 union leaders produced no results and no more talks are scheduled. The strikers took to the streets 12 days ago over proposed changes to the health care plan and other parts of the union contract. And despite losing money and benefits, they say they're prepared to stay on the picket lines.

"Corporate greed is going to ruin the United States. It's just going to ruin it. It's going to ruin it for everybody. So we might as well stand tall now and not have to worry so much in the future," said John Abbey. "Can't be good for either side, I don't think, but we'll hold out," said David Holmes.

Dresser-Rand leaders say they've been keeping up production at the Painted Post plant with temporary workers.


Big Labor: $20,000,000,000/year business

With $20.1 billion in aggregate annual receipts, Big Labor has become Big Business with a twist. It gets much of its money through force. Approximately 80% of union contracts contain some form of 'union security' requirement forcing employees to pay union dues or fees as a condition of employment. And, after being forced to fork over much of their hard earned wages to Big Labor Bosses, these workers have little say in how the money is spent.

The National Institute for Labor Relations Research recently released a report, "Big Labor: A $20 Billion-a-Year Business". See excerpt following:

"A review of union disclosure forms conducted by the National Institute for Labor Relations Research just three years ago found that total compensation for union officers and staff members constituted 35% of total union receipts from dues and fees. The current review shows that total compensation has skyrocketed to just over half of dues-and-fees receipts.

"And during federal election years, most paid union officers are assigned to work on political campaigns for months at a time. In every election cycle, the thousands and thousands of union officers and staff members who "volunteer" full time for political campaigns while continuing to collect their forced dues-funded salaries and benefits constitute an unreported, "in-kind" political contribution from Organized Labor to its chosen candidates worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"In addition to paid "volunteer" time, other forced dues-funded "in-kind" political contributions include union propaganda mailings, phone banks, and get-out-the-vote drives. The total value of such contributions cannot be estimated precisely.

"However, in a February 20, 2005, op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, union activist Jon Tasini acknowledged that the value of forced dues-funded electioneering dwarfs the roughly $100 million in reported contributions to federal candidates and so-called "527 groups" that the union hierarchy has made in recent campaign cycles.

"Mr. Tasini, a former union president and the former national director of the union front group "American Rights at Work," now heads the Labor Research Association, a New York City-based union consulting operation. In his op-ed, he reported that several "union political experts" had told him that "unions spend seven to 10 times what they give candidates and parties on internal political mobilization."

"So, Mr. Tasini continued, "we're talking $8 to $12 billion on union internal political mobilization" in "federal elections alone" between 1979 and 2004. No other type of nonprofit organization has sufficient staff to make "in-kind" contributions of anywhere near this magnitude. And business certainly has no parallel political army, since profit-minded shareholders rarely if ever are willing to release their managers from normal business for months on end so that they can politick full time."

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