SEIU shuns labor peace, invites decert repeat

Just four months after securing a first-ever contract for service workers at Rady Children's Hospital, the union that waged the hard-fought battle for the labor agreement is on the ropes. Union-member workers are pushing for a decertification vote that, if successful, would remove the Service Employees International Union from the hospital and nullify a two-year contract that covers 700 of Rady's 3,200 employees.

A defeat could stifle the union's plans to organize more service workers at other hospitals in San Diego County - a key part of the group's national strategy to boost membership. Union leaders, meanwhile, have accused managers of violating contract provisions that allow union representatives to meet with workers at the hospital and to represent them in grievance proceedings.

Management has continued efforts to discredit the union and to sow discontent among its members, said Macrina Cale, a certified nurse assistant and union negotiator. "Now, the employees are confused," Cale said last week. "Everything is: They (managers) are good and SEIU is bad."


January 2004: Service workers at Rady Children's Hospital narrowly vote to join the Service Employees International Union after a yearlong organizing campaign.

February 2006: Workers vote against decertifying the union for the first time.

March 2006: Workers reject a second decertification effort.

September 2006: Negotiations between union and management collapse after the union rejects a contract offer from the hospital.

March 2007: San Diego City Council rejects SEIU's request to subject Rady's plans to build a new patient tower to further environmental reviews and clears the way for the $260 million construction project to begin.

March 2007: Service workers who are unhappy with union representation file a decertification petition with federal labor regulators, setting the stage for a third vote that could remove SEIU from the hospital.

April 2007: Workers approve a labor contract after union leaders agree to resurrect the company's offer from six months earlier.

A series of unfair labor practice complaints filed by the union against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board must be investigated before the decertification vote is held.

The recent rancor has crushed any hopes that a cooling-off period would follow the contract ratification.

"The path they are going down right now doesn't sound like it will be productive for anyone," said Craig Barkacs, a University of San Diego professor who teaches classes on business law, ethics and labor. "What it signals to me is that distrust and suspicion abound here."

Hospital interpreter and union member Lucila Conde said she had hoped the signing of a contract would usher in an era of cooperation and coexistence, but that hasn't been the case.

"There has been no peace," Conde said last week.

The national union, which represents 1.9 million workers, has made growth among health care workers a top priority. Local union leaders are hoping to hold up the Rady contract as an example of the benefits that the union could bring to workers at other hospitals.

Aside from Rady, SEIU's only other health care presence in the county is at Kaiser Permanente, where the union represents about 200 mental health workers. The union represents about 15,300 other people in the county, mostly janitors and government workers.

"The union definitely wants to grow in San Diego County," said Richard Barrera, the regional political organizer for SEIU's United Healthcare Workers West division. "We're hoping Children's Hospital is a first successful effort to unionize workers in this category."

But a vote by Rady workers to decertify the union could have the opposite effect on those goals, at least in the short term, said Barkacs. "It would certainly be seen as a setback," he said.

Service workers such as housekeepers, secretaries, janitors and cafeteria employees are attractive targets of labor organizers because they typically earn the lowest wages at hospitals, several labor experts said.

"People at the lower end of the compensation scale see unions as an opportunity to improve their compensation," Barkacs said. "To the extent that unions can offer that, they will have people willing to listen."

SEIU organizers see San Diego County as fertile ground for growth. "Our estimates are that there are probably over 20,000 people who work in service category jobs (in the county) that are unorganized," Barrera said.

Rady managers are pushing for a decertification vote to be held by the end of September, but balloting cannot occur until the National Labor Relations Board reviews a series of unfair labor practice complaints filed by the union in recent weeks.

Sally James, a clinical assistant who is part of the bargaining unit represented by SEIU, said she started circulating a petition last fall seeking the vote because she believed the union was doing a poor job representing workers.

"I think the union is very bad," she said last week. "It's too political. It's not a hometown union for our hometown hospital."

Just as the petition was gaining steam among workers at the hospital, the union suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of the San Diego City Council.

Citing air pollution concerns, the union had asked the council to delay issuing a building permit to Rady for the construction of a six-floor, 116-bed patient tower until the hospital had further reviewed the project's effect on the environment. But union representatives found little support for their claims, and the brazen stand turned into a costly strategic blunder.

During a March 26 City Council meeting, union representatives argued that the hospital had not adequately measured the potential effect of exhaust that will be produced by construction vehicles and equipment used to build the facility.

However, project supporters said the complaints were baseless and were part of a campaign by the union to pressure managers back to the negotiating table after contract talks stalled last September. The campaign included appeals to some of the nonprofit hospital's donors and protests staged in front of the hospital and at several hospital fundraising events.

Rady Chief Executive Officer Kathleen Sellick told council members that the new tower was badly needed to relieve overcrowding in the hospital's main building, and that any delay would risk endangering the health of the county's sick children who rely on the hospital for care.

Sellick also said rising construction costs would add $40,000 to the project's $260 million price for each month that the work was postponed.

Some of the harshest criticism of SEIU's effort came from representatives of the United Nurses of Children's Hospital, a union that represents 850 nurses and 350 technical workers at the hospital, who compared the tactics to blackmail.

"The children of San Diego are not and should never be a bargaining chip," said intensive care nurse Nichole Kennelly .

Councilman Jim Madaffer called SEIU's move “one of the most despicable hijackings of a public process that I've ever witnessed.”

The council unanimously rejected the union's request to postpone the construction project, mirroring an earlier vote by the city's Planning Commission.

Although SEIU's tactics were judged extreme by some, they didn't surprise Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

"They are a union that is both very effective on the organizing side and plays hardball when they need to," Jacobs said.

In many cases, those tactics have paid off, making SEIU's United Healthcare Workers West one of the fastest-growing unions in the country in recent years, Jacobs said.

The union also has built cooperative relationships with some of the largest hospital operators in the state, including Kaiser Permanente and Catholic Healthcare West, Jacobs said.

"In a number of cases where there was heavy resistance (to unionizing efforts), once an agreement was reached, some very productive partnerships were created," Jacobs said.

The defeat of the Rady union before the San Diego Council, coupled with the emergence of a decertification petition among dissatisfied SEIU members, marked a shift in the protracted local labor battle. Service workers at Rady voted to organize in January 2004.

After the council vote, union negotiators quickly shifted strategies, offering to return to a contract proposal that had been put forward by the hospital six months earlier but rejected by the union.

Within a few weeks, the two sides had reached an accord that included a minimum hourly wage of $10 for all workers in the bargaining unit; raises ranging from 8 percent to 11 percent spread over 14 months; monthly health insurance credits; and a promise from hospital managers not to outsource cafeteria and housekeeping jobs.

Workers approved the contract 161-47 on April 19, but neither side publicized the vote.

Five days later, Sellick sent a letter to employees announcing that the hospital had hired an "expert employment relations consulting firm" to work on the upcoming decertification vote.

The move signaled management's intent to continue waging battle against the union, Barrera said.

SEIU leaders suspect that the firm specializes in breaking unions, but hospital managers have rebuffed their requests for the consultant's name.

When asked last week about the identity of the consultant, Rady spokesman Ben Metcalf said, "I'd rather not go into that. It is what it is - a consultant who talks to us about how to go forward on union issues."

Requests to interview Sellick and other hospital managers were denied.

One thing hospital managers have been clear on is their desire to see workers throw out the union. "We are encouraging employees to vote no in the decertification vote, which means voting against the union," Metcalf said.

The union has been down this road before. Twice in early 2006, SEIU faced decertification votes at Rady and triumphed both times.

Conde said she hopes the third try will produce the same outcome and an end to the strife.

"I hope this doesn't drag on," Conde said.


Garbage woes mount due to gov't union strike

Vancouver's garbage continued to pile up Friday as the city's outside workers entered the 26th day of their strike. Even residents who depend on private companies to haul away their trash are being affected.

At a posh condominium in Vancouver's Point Grey community, bags of rubbish have piled up in the parking lot. The private firm that carries away the garbage, BFI Canada, has been delayed by packed transfer stations.

"This is not our fault," BFI district manager Joe Rajotte told CTV British Columbia. "We are simply jammed at these transfer stations and can't get our trucks unloaded."

The industry association representing several private waste management companies in the Lower Mainland is asking customers to be patient.

There are a limited number of transfer stations open, creating long line-ups of up to three hours.

"It's getting worse by the day," said Rajotte.

"There have been three days this week where we've only had two sites open to us, of the six available to us before the strike happened."

The B.C. Trucking Association estimates that for every garbage truck waiting to use one of the transfer stations, there are an additional 20 vehicles owned by residents, desperate to drop off their trash.

Piles of refuse are growing ever larger, and transfer stations can only hold so much.

Vancouver resident Ted Huang, a camera operator for CTV British Columbia, is depending on people from outside the affected area to take away some of his trash.

"I call my son on his way home. He lives in Richmond," he said.

"He will pick up my garbage and take it back to his home. I know it's not right, but it's the only way to keep the area clean."

One local artist, upset by the amount of trash, has started selling T-shirts that show rats gorging on the excess garbage. Above the picture it reads: "Garbage Vancouver 2007."

"I feel frustrated," she said.

Even some picketing workers have bought the shirt.


Court may void FedEx non-union labor deal

In a federal courtroom in South Bend, Ind., FedEx Ground drivers are preparing for a showdown in a case that will decide if the company's 15,000 drivers are independent contractors or employees owed benefits, overtime and expenses.

What is at stake is the very model that helped FedEx Ground quickly become one of FedEx Corp.'s best performers, accounting for 17 percent of its $35 billion in revenue in 2007, six years after the division was formed.

But just as critical is the edge it has given FedEx over rival UPS, where drivers and couriers are the Teamsters' single biggest stronghold. Union strife at UPS in 1997 and 2001, for instance, drove thousands of customers to FedEx. Over a decade, UPS has lost 10-12 percent of market share.

"My guess is that the independent contract structure gives FedEx a 15- to 20-percent advantage on total compensation costs on benefits alone," said labor economist David Ciscel, professor emeritus at the University of Memphis.

"But there could be all sorts of advantages we're not seeing."

Since 2001, when the first case was filed in California, some 160 drivers have filed suits in 29 states, including Tennessee, saying they are really full-time employees treated like contractors.

The cases are before a federal judge in Indiana, who will decide with hearings beginning in late November whether the contractors' claims can be combined in a class-action suit.

If the case goes forward as a single suit, a jury will decide if the law makes the jobs full-time positions, with benefits and protections required by law.

More than 80 percent of the plaintiffs no longer work for FedEx. Suits filed by some 160 drivers contend they are really full-time employees. More than 80 percent no longer work for FedEx.

Suits filed by some 160 drivers contend they are really full-time employees. More than 80 percent no longer work for FedEx.

"If FedEx won, they would win every suit, but if they lose, they lose big-time, too," Ciscel said. "Without knowing for sure, I've always thought the whole relationship was to thwart unionized drivers and not so much about cost considerations."

Under the system, the FedEx "jobbers," as they call themselves, buy their routes, vehicles and fuel. They cover their own maintenance costs, buy FedEx uniforms, scanning equipment and pay insurance and taxes.

FedEx pays them per delivery, but it does not say how much.

For the vast majority of the drivers, the system works fine, FedEx says, providing it a flexible workforce and giving thousands of entrepreneurial-minded people a way to profit from its success.

"We know that defending the independent contractors is the right thing to do," said Maury Lane, FedEx spokesman. "This is the kind of service our customers have asked for."

Its 15,000 drivers deliver 3 million packages a day in the company's fastest-growing and most-profitable division. In the quarter ended May 31, revenue in FedEx Ground was up 12 percent to $1.6 billion.

In Tennessee, five plaintiffs are seeking $50,000 apiece to cover expenses, including fuel, maintenance and lost benefits.

One is Buddy Johnson, 30, who left FedEx in 2005 after trying a year to make a route in fast-growing DeSoto County pay off.

"They told me this was a $40,000- to $50,000-a-year job. That was before expenses," said Johnson, now in the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell in Clarksville, Tenn. His annual take-home pay was closer to $20,000, he said.

"At Christmas 2004, when it snowed in Memphis, some jobbers got stuck and had to get a wrecker. FedEx made the jobbers pay for the wreckers themselves. They also made us pay for our tires, oil changes, transmission flushes," said Johnson.

He paid $3,500 for the route, plus $500 or $600 a month on his truck note.

"One time, when my starter went out, I had to rent a van from Enterprise. It could not be Hertz because Hertz has yellow trucks. FedEx wanted us to have white trucks."

Besides the money woes, FedEx had the right to add packages to Johnson's route, he said, loading him up with South Memphis parcels when it couldn't find drivers to take that route.

"My route was exploding because of the housing boom, and I couldn't keep up. FedEx thought I should buy another truck, but I couldn't because I was barely getting by."

When Johnson quit, his truck, he said, had 100,000 miles and was worth $9,000 or $10,000.

"But I still owed $15,000."

Opponents say the system allows FedEx a hard-working, unified workforce that isn't independent at all.

"It's an ingenious way to pass a lot of their costs onto their workers," said Chris Gilreath, a Memphis attorney representing the Tennessee plaintiffs.

"I don't think it is what the law allows."

However, Tim Hughes, 46, says he's grossed six figures since he added a second truck in 1997. Today, he has nine employees and five trucks working routes on Lamar and Shelby Drive.

"When you're trying to make 150 stops and 30 pickups and do it all in an eight-hour day, you've got to know what you are doing," he said.

"It takes special people. I consider what I do to be the elite part of the trucking industry," said Hughes, who has taken advantage of all opportunities he could, including aligning with FedEx managers and salespeople willing to help him.

He does much of his own maintenance and once worked 28 days without a day off. But he's reluctant to take credit for his success.

"The stuff that I deliver in the morning, other people have picked up on time throughout the country. All those other contractors are expecting me to get those packages delivered on time."

But he's quick to say he worked six years before he could afford to take his family on vacation.

"If I had been an employee for anyone else, I probably could not afford to send my daughter to an SEC school. FedEx offers contractors eight or 10 incentives. A lot of places don't offer anything."

Incentives include monthly bonuses for people who deliver all their packages and show up to work each day. There are also bonuses for safe driving and route growth. Another bonus rewards drivers for longevity, with incremental increases tied to years of service. Drivers who keep a $1,000 balance in their truck maintenance funds get a "little extra each quarter," Hughes said.

Analysts say the independent contractor model itself isn't flawed. The challenge is making sure midlevel managers apply expectations uniformly across the company.

"The drivers were told they would be given the opportunity, all they had to do was deliver the packages," Gilreath said. "They were discouraged from building their own rapport with customers."

The first of the cases was filed in Los Angeles in 2001. A state court there ruled that FedEx owed 200 drivers $5.3 million in expenses. FedEx appealed the decision, saying the trial judge erred in claiming the workers should be classified as full time.

Monday, a California appellate court rejected the company's claim, saying the workers indeed qualify as full-time employees.

"We are going to continue to review our legal options," Lane said. "We disagree with the ruling and are considering what our legal options are. It's clear we will be able to give our customers the kind of service they know and have to rely on."

Lawyers say recent rulings by the National Labor Relations Board about the drivers' right to unionize could have some bearing in the Indiana court.

The NLRB found in six consecutive cases in the Northeast that the FedEx Ground drivers are employees. The decisions are important because the National Labor Relations Act does not apply to contractors.

"The Indiana court will see that other judges going through rigorous analysis have come to that conclusion," Gilreath said.

But Bill Sossaman, labor attorney here, says the judge may only consider criteria germane to the suits.

"The Indiana court would have no authority to make any type of ruling based on the NLRB," he said.

On the other hand, he said, "it would be natural for a judge to take into consideration that another agency had found them employees under another law.

"I would say that it makes it only slightly more likely that he would find them to be employees."

As a result of the rulings, Home Delivery drivers in Wilmington, Mass., and Windsor, Conn., have voted for Teamster representation.

The NLRB certified the Teamsters Local 25 in Boston as the collective bargaining agent for the Wilmington drivers. FedEx said its only option will be to refuse to bargain with the group.


Illegal strikers earn cease-and-desist order

Another illegal picket at any of Emcon Services' workyards will result in immediate legal action, said company president Frank Rizzardo. The company, contracted by the provincial government for road maintenance on the central and north Island, was targeted by striking B.C. Government and Service Employees Union members twice recently.

The picketing members from Victoria - where the union is in a legal strike against Mainroad Contracting - kept workers out of Emcon's Nanaimo yard on Aug. 10, and hit Nanaimo, Parksville and Cumberland yards this week. "We don't have a legal strike in Nanaimo," said Rizzardo. "In our areas the guys are working."

Emcon won a cease-and-desist order against the illegal pickets from the Labour Relations Board Wednesday. "We got that without dispute - that's the part that's telling," Rizzardo said. "The union knew outright that they'd be doing something illegal." Rizzardo said he won't put up with any more such action. "We will sue if it occurs again and seek financial compensation," he said.

BCGEU negotiator Gary Bennett said the initiative was taken by striking workers, although the union was aware of the pickets and complied with the LRB ruling as soon as it was issued.

"Frustrations are building," Bennett said.

BCGEU members are on strike in nine of 28 road contract areas in B.C.

Issues include wages and benefits, contract term and contracting out. Rizzardo said because contractors have fixed 10-year deals with the province, there is no flexibility to offer more wage improvements than already provided in existing contracts.

Mediator Vince Ready is involved in attempting to resolve the dispute and met with the two parties Tuesday, with another meeting expected next week.


Workers reject Steelworkers, union demands recount

Non-professional workers at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, CA have voted to reject the United Steelworkers Union.

The non-professional units voted 177-165 against joining the union with five votes contested and 11 votes for joining the Service Employees International Union. Because of the contested votes, a clear majority is not yet certain, and there may be a runoff election.

Although technical units voted to join the union, the collective votes of two units of service workers remain in question. Technical workers voted 63-56 in favor of joining the USW.

St. Mary spokesman Randy Bevilacqua said that it's now time for reconciliation. With respect to the uncertain vote, he said, the hospital looks forward to a quick determination.

The voting was conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency over the course of Thursday and Friday.

This is the second time in the last three years that St. Mary's technical and service workers - typically employees in laboratory, radiology and custodial departments - have voted on unionizing.

The first time, a substantial majority voted against unionizing.

United Steel Workers field representative Maria Somma said this time she wanted to make sure that sentiment was sufficiently strong to warrant another effort at unionizing.

She said that employees are disgruntled over low pay, reduced hours, rampant favoritism and understaffing.

Hospital management has been dismissive of the claims, saying that they are typical accusations made by labor unions.

CEO Jason Barker and spokesman Bevilacqua have said pay is competitive for hospitals in the Inland Empire, and workloads and staffing are determined according to the hospital's capacity to serve the community.


Vancouver braces for yet another strike

Negotiations between hotel workers at four downtown Vancouver, B.C. hotels have broken down with the union representing the workers calling for a strike vote before the end of the month.

More than 1,400 workers at the Hyatt Regency, Renaissance Vancouver Harbourside, the Westin Bayshore Hotel and the Four Seasons Hotel, will be voting on whether to go on strike on August 29, UNITED HERE Local 40, the union representing the workers, said in a news release today.

Hotel workers are concerned that their pay is not keeping up with the ever-increasing cost of living for working families in Vancouver, the union said.

"Twenty years ago my rent was one quarter of my monthly wages, now the cost of my rent is more than half of my monthly wages," said Beth Marshall, a server at the Hyatt Regency. "This makes living in Vancouver increasingly impossible.

"Given this situation we have no choice but to prepare for a strike, we are fighting for our futures and the future of jobs in our city," she said.


Teamsters blame school enrollment drop on privatization

Employee reductions are scheduled to be voted on by the Gwinn (Michigan) school board at its meeting Monday. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. at the Gwinn High School Library. "Now that we have worked more on our budget over the summer and we looked at our enrollment, the board personnel committee will be recommending some reductions for the upcoming school year," Superintendent Steve Peffers said.

The reductions will be addressed in the areas of secretarial, maintenance, food service and will include the elimination of one bus route.

"It will be combined into two other routes," Peffers said in regards to the bus routes.

He added that only one position will actually be cut, while other positions are being reduced from full-time to part-time jobs. The reductions will amount to the equivalent of five or six full-time positions.

Peffers attributes the reductions to the district’s decreasing enrollment and state funding.

"Right now we're approximately 40 to 50 students below last year's enrollment," Peffers said.

However, he added that since last week more students have been trickling in at the school, so the numbers could change.

"Our enrollment is difficult to project every year," Peffers said. "We do have transfers in and out of the district every year."

As far as state funding goes, the district is basing its budget off of last year's state aid numbers.

"We're still planning on no increase in state aid," he said.

Peffers added that the discussions of staff reductions have been on the table for several months and should not come as a surprise to anyone. He also said that additional reductions are possible in the next two to four weeks.

Roberta Jacobson, chief steward for Teamsters Local 14 - which is the union that covers bus drivers, food service workers and secretarial staff - said there will be staff reductions in her union. As a result, some people will no longer receive health care benefits. Jacobson also attributes the decrease in enrollment to the cuts.

"The problem is, you don't know how many kids we're going to have until the beginning of the school year," she said.

In addition to the looming staff cuts, Teamsters Local 14 is negotiating a new contract with the Gwinn school district.

"I really, really have a positive outlook," Jacobson said. "I believe that we're very close to an agreement. The only sticking point was the health insurance co-pay."

Jacobson added that her union has taken an overwhelming amount of cuts in the last five years.

"The biggest one being the cut of the custodial staff," she said. "The privatization (in 2006) has really changed the economy of the area."

She further explained that although custodians are hired locally, the supervisor and company that employs the custodial workers for the school district is headquartered downstate.

"The local money is going out of the area," she said.

A new contract negotiation meeting has not been set as of Friday.

The district settled contracts with the teacher's and paraprofessional unions in July.


Union maintains corrupt NBA ref acted alone

Tim Donaghy may not have been the only NBA referee betting and potentially fixing the outcome of games. News has surfaced that Donaghy is prepared to implicate 20 refs in a growing NBA gambling crisis. The report on 1050 ESPN Radio in New York said Donaghy will provide prosecutors as many as 20 names of other NBA officials and will detail their involvement in some form of gambling, believed to include betting in casinos.

The offenses may not include criminal activity, according to the report, but could violate NBA policy and lead to firings that would decimate the officiating staff. Twenty referees would make up about a third of the league’s roster. Meanwhile, the referees union maintained that Donaghy is the only NBA referee known to have engaged in gambling activities.

On August 15, Donaghy appeared in a Brooklyn federal court and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting wagering information through interstate commerce.

Donaghy told U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon that he used coded language to tip Battista about players' physical condition and player/referee relations. In doing so, Donaghy disclosed classified information that he obtained as an NBA referee. Donaghy initially received $2,000 per correct pick, but his calls were so accurate that Battista increased his take to $5,000. In total, he received $30,000 to pass inside information to the bookies. Another high school friend of Donaghy's, James Martino, acted as the middle man. Donaghy also admitted that he had a severe gambling addiction, and is currently on medication to address it.

Donaghy specifically admitted to passing information about two games during the 2006-07 season. Prosecutors also said that Donaghy bet on games himself. Battista and Martino are currently in federal custody and awaiting arraignment on conspiracy charges. Donaghy was fined $500,000, and will also have to pay at least $30,000 in restitution. ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson believes that Battista is one of the FBI's prime targets, based on the large amounts of money he bet.

He was released on a $250,000 bond and is currently awaiting sentencing on November 9. He could face up to 25 years in prison. However, he will almost certainly get far less than that if he cooperates with the government


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