Altoona, PA teachers prepared to strike over pay

With the start of a new year for students in the Tyron (PA) Area School District days away, a new contract for teachers may hinge on the results of a state-produced fact-finding report due Monday.

The Labor Relations Board fact-finder, brought in by the district's school board and the Tyrone Area Education Association, eliminates any threat of a work stoppage until at least Sept. 6. That date marks the end of the 10-day cooling-off period required by state law after the report's release.

The time frame gives both sides an opportunity to reject or accept the state's suggestions on finding common ground on a new contract, Superintendent William Miller said last week.

"We're not really concerned," Miller said of the possibility that the district and teachers would be unable to forge an agreement. Should either side or both sides reject the report, the cooling-off period would require the board and the association to vote a second time. If the district and its teachers fail to agree on the report’s recommendation after that vote, a walkout could send students home.

The last time teachers walked the picket lines in Tyrone was in Miller's second year as superintendent, 35 years ago. Miller said he didn’t foresee a teachers' strike this time.

"School will be opening," he said.

Whether teachers remain on the job largely depends on how the report addresses the main sticking point of contract negotiations: how quickly teacher salaries rise in accordance with years of service.

Teachers negotiator Steve Everhart said Friday that he was unable to comment on the report, but he said teachers are holding out because when compared with other districts across the county and state, it takes far too long for teachers to reach their maximum career salaries.

While the district's current starting salary is $32,000, it would take a new teacher 41 years to reach the maximum salary, far longer than neighboring districts, Everhart said.

A Bellwood-Antis teacher, he said, would reach that same salary mark in 15 or 16 years.

In dollar terms, a Tyrone teacher, over the course of a career, lags behind a Bellwood-Antis teacher by about $135,000, Everhart said. Countywide, the average difference is $120,000.

"We're losing excessive numbers of young teachers," he said, citing the loss of a half-dozen teachers last year.

Fixing the inequity would have little effect on the taxpayer, but not addressing it will have an affect in the classroom, he said.

Everhart said teachers are going elsewhere, even if it means they initially will make less money.

The reason is that other districts have pay scales that limit the maximum salary a teacher can make, and in those districts, a teacher tends to make more money than teachers at Tyrone over the course of a career.

Although Tyrone has no ceiling for noncost-of-living- related pay increases, it would take more time than most teaching careers last to reach the maximum salaries teachers elsewhere had been earning for decades.

School board negotiators were unavailable for comment, but Everhart described the talks as "friendly and cordial the whole way through" since both sides sat down at the table last October.

Through its Web site, http://taea.psealocals.org, the teachers association hopes to inform parents and taxpayers about the pay discrepancies, said Everhart, an English teacher.

The association would much rather ink a new five-year contract without walking out, he said.

Like other parents in the district, Trudy Aungst heard the strike rumors and was concerned.

"I think it's somewhat scary because I want the best for my daughter," she said.

She also worries a strike could make it harder on her daughter, a fifth-grader going to the middle school for the first time.

"She'll be just getting into a routine, and then she'll be home again," she said.

Besides the routine, there are child care concerns for working families, Aungst said.

"It's going to be a mess," she said.


Judge favors illegal immigrant union-organizer

A federal immigration judge on Friday allowed a prominent Portland-area union organizer and illegal immigrant to return to Mexico voluntarily instead of deporting him, calling his repeated use of a false identity "unfortunate" and a "tragedy."

The decision was what Jose Alfredo Cobian of Molalla had been hoping for and allows him to leave the country with one less black mark on his immigration record. It also preserves a greater possibility that he can gain permission to return to the United States legally some day.

Assistant Chief Counsel Margaret Rosenast of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had asked for a removal order, commonly called deportation. Removal orders prohibit people from legally returning to the United States for a period of a few years to a lifetime, said Dorothy Stefan, chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Seattle office, which includes Oregon.

Cobian, 37, built a typical American life for himself and his family based on a false name. Now his deception is uprooting the entire family, including his U.S.-born son and daughter. The grade-school-age children are U.S. citizens and speak little Spanish, said David Shomloo, Cobian's attorney.

Cobian's wife and children left on a flight for Mexico on Thursday to set up their new home and arrive in time for the start of the Mexican school year, Shomloo said. U.S. Immigration Judge Michael Bennett gave Cobian a week to join them.

Cobian said he was surprised at the judge's decision not to formally deport him but declined to comment further.

Cobian entered the United States illegally in 1989. He later purchased the birth certificate of Jose Luis Mendoza, a California boy who had died as a child, and assumed the little boy's name. In 1996, he used the name to apply for a Social Security card and later used the false identity to obtain a U.S. passport as well as legal residency status for his wife, also a Mexican immigrant. His wife was unaware that her status was based on fraudulent documents. When the couple's children were born, they also took on the last name of Mendoza.

The family bought a house and settled in Molalla. Cobian worked as a carpenter and became a well-liked union organizer for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, pushing for better pay and working conditions for workers.

He was arrested in 2006 after a routine computer check of information that Cobian submitted for his 2005 passport application matched the dead boy's records.

Cobian cooperated with authorities and admitted his wrongdoing. After he was barred from working in the U.S., he continued to receive support from union members, who raised voluntary donations for the family's living expenses. Union members also helped fix up Cobian's house to prepare it for sale.

Before his family returned to Mexico this week, Cobian's wife surrendered her legal residency status, and the family changed their legal names to Cobian. Because the children are American, it's possible for them to petition for their parents to return to the United States after they become adults.

The judge made it clear that Cobian's crimes - especially his use of a false identity to obtain legal residency status for his wife - were serious. He said deportation would have been the expected outcome.

But he said that he had the legal ability to exercise his discretion in the case and had decided to do so, describing the decision as a "close call." The judge said he wanted to bring finality to the case.

"I do wish you the best, sir," Bennett told Cobian.


Striking gov't union disavows trashing of Mayor's house

Vancouver, B.C. Mayor Sam Sullivan said a pile of rank garbage dumped in front of his home Friday morning was a "natural result" of efforts to tie his name to the current civic strike. Although the mayor did not directly blame the striking unions for the mess Friday morning, he did acknowledge placards on the picket lines that proclaim the civic dispute "Sam's Strike."

"There are people that have tried to personalize this strike around me. I think this is a natural result of that campaign," Mr. Sullivan said.

A pile of fetid trash that included take-out containers, rotting food and used diapers was strewn in front of the mayor's Yaletown condominium Friday morning. The words "Sam's Strike" and "Fuck 2010" - a reference to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a point of pride for the mayor - were scrawled on the sidewalk in red spray paint.

The Anti-Poverty Committee, a militant group of Downtown Eastside activists, claimed responsibility for the action. Thomas Malenfant, an APC member who was charged with breaking into the Premier's office in May, said Friday in an interview that a group of between five and 10 APC members carted the trash to the mayor's residence around 6 a.m. Friday.

Mike Jackson, president of CUPE 1004, which represents Vancouver's outside workers, said the union wasn't involved in the dumping and didn't support it.

"We don't condone any type of violent act, any type of act that has no business being done. We're a respectable union and we follow the laws," Mr. Jackson said. The union boss added the mayor's "insinuation" that the union or its slogans played a role in the attacks was inappropriate, noting the APC has had a beef with the mayor long before the current municipal strike.

Despite the "personal attack," Mr. Sullivan said he would not be derailed from performing his duties. In relation to the strike, he said, his "role right now is to not politically interfere or micromanage this process."

"It's my deepest desire to see this strike resolved as soon as possible," the mayor added.

Mr. Sullivan said he was not behind Thursday's two contract offers to CUPE 15, the city's striking inside workers union; that was the work of the city's bargaining team.

According to a statement on the union's strike website, CUPE 15's bargaining team is still poring over the two different offers, both of which contain a 17.5-per-cent wage increase over five years as well as an Olympic partnership agreement. The union is expected to respond to the offers publicly on Monday.

Although he would not comment on the content of the offers given to the other union, Mr. Jackson did term it "bizarre" that the city dropped the two offers on CUPE 15 "out of the blue" instead of inviting them back to the table.

Mr. Jackson also agreed with the city's assertion that CUPE 15 is the harder of the two unions to reach a deal with. He said the unions are sticking together and neither will leave the other "out to dry."


SEIU union members file charge against SEIU

Hello www, SEIU's bullying of its staff continues to be met with resistance. Local 721's attempt to force an unfair contract including a demand to waive legally protected rights has so far been resisted with the staff voting down their contract proposal by a wide margin days after filing an Unfair Labor Practice Charge against the employer. Apparently it is a violation of labor law to demand a waiver of legally protected rights as a precondition of settling a contract.

The 721 staff union, UURLA, had a long standing contract with legacy local 660, one of the more highly regarded and successful SEIU locals in California yet 721 management doesn't seem to believe that their staff are deserving of anything remotely similar to the 660 contract. We do not yet know where this fight will go but its clear that there's plenty of dirty laundry yet to be aired out.

Keep your ears out for this one, apparently UURLA's brothers and sisters to the North at Local 521 have filed Fair Labor Standards Act violation claims for not being compensated for their long and irregular hours of work. It's unfortunate that a stubborn management beant on forcing unfair contracts on its staff forces these kinds of actions.


Journalists' union calls strike over pay

Swedish journalists' union, SJF, has stepped up action against newspaper proprietors, calling a one-day strike at a number of publications for September 4th. The strike will initially affect regional newspapers Helsingborgs Dagblad, Ystad Allehanda and Trelleborgs Allehanda. Gefle Dagblad staff will strike on September 5th.

The only people who will be allowed to work at the papers are the editors and those staff on business trips overseas or on courses. Staff on holiday will still receive holiday pay for the duration of the strike. The strike marks an escalation of the conflict over pay, in which the union has so far chosen limited forms of industrial action such as overtime bans and bans on changing work rostas.

Agneta Lindblom Hulthén, chairwoman of SJF told news agency TT that the strike was in response to the Swedish Association of Newspaper Publishers (Tidningsutgivarna), which she alleged had tried to find ways around the measures taken so far.

"They have tried to get around our measures in a variety of ways in a way which does not follow standard practice on the Swedish labour market, and we must respond to this. If the effects of our measures are not noticed then this could continue for half an eternity," she said.

Björn Svensson, chief negotiator for the Swedish Association of Newspaper Publishers, said his organization would not take further counter-measures against SJF.

"We note that SJF has chosen to escalate the conflict instead of finding a constructive solution," he said.

Replying to SJF's accusation that employers had tried to circumvent the industrial action, he replied:

"If they can't even say how we have got around the measures it is hard for me to comment."


Strike at VT nuclear plant delayed

A tentative agreement was reached late Friday in a contract dispute involving Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and about 157 workers, averting - for now - the possibility of a strike, a plant spokesman said. Negotiators for the plant's owners and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers agreed to terms and the union's rank-and-file workers will vote Monday, according to plant spokesman Larry Smith.

Jim Farrell, a spokesman for Utility Workers Union of America Local 369 in Braintree, Mass., which had planned to gather with Vermont Yankee's union workers in a strategy session Saturday, said the session had been called off because an agreement had been reached. George Clain, the union's business manager, could not immediately be reached for comment. A telephone message left at union headquarters was not immediately returned.

"This averts anything awful happening at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow," said Smith, referring to a deadline after which union leaders had said a job action was possible.

Terms of the deal were not available.

The agreement came on a day in which Vermont Yankee officials moved to quell public concern about safety.

Their leaders reached a tentative agreement with plant owners last week, but rank-and-file members rejected it in a vote Tuesday.

On Friday, a handful walked a picket line across the street from a hotel where negotiations were under way, carrying signs that read "Honk if you hate greed," "Entergy Vermont Yankee hanging union out to dry" and "I don't want to strike, but I will" as passing motorists beeped their horns in solidarity.

"I'm looking at retirement and they're going to be taking my benefits away," said Dave Truesdell, 60, a chemist who has worked at Vermont Yankee for three decades. "I'll just have to work until I die. That's what they want anyway."

The union has given Vermont Yankee 72-hour advance notice of a possible job action, and the 72 hours expires Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

Smith said the plant -- running at 50 percent power since Tuesday's incident -- would continue operating even if a strike occurred, with nonunion supervisors and managers stepping in for the workers if they go out on strike.

"This is 157 out of 500 workers. Part of our contingency plan is to have all of those positions fully available with our senior staff, training instructors, people that normally provide oversight or supervision over these folks who may choose to not be on their job," said Smith.

At issue are wages and benefits, he said.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said strikes have hit nuclear plants in the U.S. at least three times before, most recently in 2003 at the Oyster Creek plant in Forked River, N.J. That lasted three months.

The NRC has a plan ready to go into effect in the event of a strike.

"We would have round-the-clock coverage for at least the first four weeks," he said in an e-mail.

Specially assigned staff would be looking at "whether required positions were being properly staffed; whether there were any human performance issues due to fatigue, overtime use, unfamiliarity with activities, etc.; and whether there are any problems getting specialty maintenance workers."

Workers said the plant would be less safe if replacements step into the union jobs, but plant officials rejected the assertion.

Safety has been a major concern this week.

On Tuesday, a huge section of the 50-foot tall housing that surrounds a bank of 11 "cells" in a cooling tower collapsed suddenly in a shower of water, wood, plastic and asbestos, forcing the plant to cut power in half.

Sabotage and terrorism have been ruled out as causes, although a state homeland security official was among those at Vermont Yankee on Friday.

The two cooling towers are used to cool water that has been used to cool plant components before it can be returned to the Connecticut River.

Vermont Yankee officials say the structure is not related to safety issues, but nuclear watchdog groups said the incident calls into question other safety assurances made by Vermont Yankee's owners and want it shut down.

On Friday, plant officials showed the damage publicly for the first time, admitting small groups of news reporters, photographers and TV news crews in to see it and ask questions. They said cleanup won't begin in earnest until they understand what caused the collapse.

"It looks worse than what it is," said John Dreyfuss, director of nuclear safety assurance, who said the plant will not return to full power for days or weeks.

"Certainly, we want to understand what happened here," he said, standing next to the collapsed section as representatives of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the state and Vermont Yankee inspected the wreckage. "We need to understand the cause. We are very deliberately dismantling this cell here."

He said it did not appear the collapse was related to the plant's boost in power last year, from a 540-megawatt capacity to a 610-megawatt capacity.

The New England Coalition, an anti-nuclear group, had warned that boosting the plant's output could result in just such a collapse.

A consulting firm inspected the cooling towers and reported they were in good shape in 2005. The cooling tower structure was inspected this spring and found to be in good condition, said plant spokesman Rob Williams.


Strikers block paving crew on highway

There were some tense moments in Falkland Wednesday as a paving crew’s activities were brought to a halt by striking road maintenance workers. Members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union forced Emil Anderson Construction to stop work because the union claims the company was doing tasks they would do while working for Argo Road Maintenance. "We shut them right down," said Gary Cooper, bargaining committee member.

Emil Anderson Construction has a contract with the Ministry of Transportation to resurface Highway 97 in Falkland. "They went outside of the boundary of the contract and did shoulder and pothole repairs and work on signs," said Cooper, who claims such work is covered through an essential service agreement with BCGEU and Argo.

"Under the strike, we have been doing that work." BCGEU’s 115 local members at Argo have been walking the picket line since late May.

Cooper claims the Ministry of Transportation may have been involved in the work being done Tuesday.

"They come into an area on strike and thumb their nose at us," he said.

Ministry officials state they weren’t aware of the conflict in Falkland, and Emil Anderson Construction says it has done nothing wrong.

"We were doing the work that is covered under the contract," said president Mike Jacobs.

"We are not doing road maintenance work. We are doing capital refurbishment."

On late Wednesday, Emil Anderson Construction successfully received a court injunction against the BCGEU so paving could continue.

In terms of the labour dispute between the BCGEU and Argo, mediator Vince Ready is still trying to bring both sides together.

"We've heard through the rumour mill that talks are going positively and in the next few weeks, there could be a framework to bring the dispute to a conclusion," said Cooper.

The stumbling blocks have been wages, benefits and contracting out.


Unions in fight for Kauai hotel workers' dues

Princeville Hotel workers who were originally scheduled to vote today on whether to unionize will have to wait a few weeks to cast their ballots. On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board on O'ahu agreed to postpone the election at the request of one of the two unions vying to represent the hotel’s 300-plus employees.

According to the board's officer-in-charge, Tom Cestare, Unite Here! Local 5 intervened to request that additional staffers be allowed to vote. Local 5 is a branch of Unite Here!, a national union that represents dozens of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Inc. properties, including the Sheraton Kauai Hotel & Resort in Po'ipu. Starwood is also the Princeville Hotel's parent company.

While Local 5 has negotiated contracts for 3,200 Starwood workers statewide and is interested in adding Princeville to that list, the union was not the first on the scene, according to International Longshore and Warehouse Union representative Tracy Takano.

Takano said Local 142 of ILWU, which represents the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa on-island, has been talking to Princeville workers about organizing for two years.

With Starwood's plans to renovate the Princeville Hotel and upgrade it from the Luxury Collection to its St. Regis brand, Takano said employees are anticipating change and new responsibilities - hence reception to the idea of union representation.

In early July, when the union felt it had obtained majority support, Takano said ILWU filed a petition with the board to run a certification election at the hotel, or a vote to unionize.

"At the time we filed, Local 5 was not on the scene," he said.

Local 5 organizer Daniel Kerwin said the union joined the race because of its experience dealing with Starwood.

"We ... believe that with our 57 Starwood hotels we have the leverage it takes to get great contracts," Kerwin said.

Local 5 Secretary-Treasurer Eric Gill, who is more directly involved with the Princeville talks, did not return calls for comment.

Since being added to the ballot, Local 5 has twice requested that the board modify the list of eligible voters.

According to Local 5’s Web site, it first asked that the board include PBX, concierge and casual workers, which were excluded in the original ILWU petition.

The board approved that request; however, the latest intervention on Monday sought to further include working supervisors and accounting workers.

Takano, however, is not convinced that the additions were necessary, saying that "just about everybody in the hotel" was eligible to vote to begin with.

"Our opinion is that the workers should have voted and the majority would have chosen ILWU," he said.

The Princeville Hotel's spokeswoman was not available for comment by press time.

The National Labor Relations Board will meet Wednesday in Honolulu with both unions and the employer. A decision on whether to honor Local 5's request as well as a new date for the election should follow about two weeks later, Cestare said.


Striking gov't union scoffs at latest offers

A union rally is set to coincide with next week's expiry of two new city contract offers, raising fears at city hall that Vancouver's striking inside workers will reject the deals and stay off the job.

"We're quite pessimistic in terms of what they [union negotiators] are going to be doing," said city spokesman Tom Timm in an interview Friday afternoon. "It certainly appears that they are going to simply say 'no' and that the strike will carry on."

On Friday, Vancouver's three striking Canadian Union of Public Employees locals announced a march from Science World to city hall beginning on Wednesday at 1 p.m. - one hour after the city's most recent offers are set to expire.

"Pull on your marching shoes and join your fellow CUPE members and walk to city hall to tell our employer to negotiate with us," said the notice, which was posted on a website dedicated to CUPE negotiations in B.C. "Bring your picket signs and your appetites and earn picket duty hours!" it said.

On Thursday, the City of Vancouver issued two contract offers to CUPE 15 workers, giving negotiators until this coming Wednesday at noon to respond.

The city has said one of the offers is essentially the same as the five-year, 17.5-per-cent wage increase settlement reached recently in North Vancouver. The second offer, the city has said, is similar but addresses other issues that have been raised by both the city and the union during the ongoing negotiations.

Officials with CUPE Local 15 -- representing Vancouver's inside workers -- did not return calls on Friday, and instead posted an online notice saying they will remain quiet until Monday.

"CUPE 15's bargaining committee will be taking the weekend to continue to review the City of Vancouver's two proposed offers and is expected to respond publicly on Monday," said a statement issued by the union on Friday. The notice made no mention of Wednesday's march.

In a statement issued the day before, officials with CUPE 15 said they were "hopeful a negotiated settlement can be reached," and that they would "have further conversations with the employer [on Friday]."

Timm said the union and the city did speak on Friday, but that the conversation did not go as city officials had hoped.

"We were hoping they would have an answer for us in terms of one of the offers we put out there," said Timm. "What they want to do is set bargaining dates to start talking from there and continue to bargain." He said the city had not issued the offers with thoughts of further negotiations.

"We were hopeful that after a five-week strike [those offers] would do it," he said. "We did not intend that this was going to be a starting point for another round of negotiations to move in their direction."


Disgruntled Steelworkers picket without striking

Union member workers at Philips Lighting in Bath, NY let the public know Tuesday they are not happy with the light bulb manufacturer. The union held an "informational" picket outside the plant on State Route 54 to protest what it claims are contractual violations committed by management.

"We had a very good turn out despite the bad weather," said Bill Drake, the United Steelworkers Local 1013T boss. The union, which represents about 365 employees, claims Philips has violated the four-year labor agreement that went into effect April 1. Picketing was done in two-hour periods at the end of the workers' shifts throughout the day Tuesday.

The picketing did not stop work nor was it meant to, Drake said. He said the union may continue to voice its displeasure but is not likely to perform a work stoppage strike.

MaryJo "Jobie" Ames, an employee with the company for 30 years, was out with a sign encouraging cars to beep their horns.

"The morale in this plant is the worst I have seen it in 30 years," she said. "We've always had issues but never felt until now that we had no input."

The union has filed three charges against Philips with the National Labor Relations Board and filed grievances with the company, Drake said.

He said Philips began denying a long-standing practice of allowing workers to take a Friday and Monday off to extend the weekend on holidays. Also, the company began requiring employees to fill out vacation request forms and wielding the right to deny a request.

Ames said an employee with 37 years experience was denied a day off, despite his seniority.

Another issue was Philips' denial of a negotiated $12,000 retirement incentive, Drake said. The company claimed the money was only meant for people who signed up to retire by July 2, he said.

"The company is not following the contract that was negotiated," said Rich Butler, a union employee.

The company said Monday that the strike was not authorized and that it plans to follow the proper grievance procedure - which does not include making the issue public, said Andre Manning, company spokesman.

Philips Lighting manufactures light bulbs and is located on State Route 54, north of Bath.


Preparing to fight the new war

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