Unions' disproportionate political impact

It was a big week for labor endorsements and for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who was backed by unions with a total of more than 2 million members and retirees. In Nevada, his big score was the carpenters, who have more than 12,000 members and are known as one of the most active and organized here.

On three days' notice recently, 700 of them showed up at Las Vegas City Hall to demonstrate. That ability to turn them out has labor leaders and politicos pointing to the carpenters and Marc Furman, their leader, as a good get for Edwards. "We can have a disproportionate impact because we can get people where we need them, and a caucus is all about getting people where you need them," Furman said to me a while back.

Edwards, who recently moved some staff from Nevada to Iowa, touched down for a brief visit to commemorate all the endorsements. He'll need labor’s manpower if he has any chance here.

So who’s left?

Well, of course, there’s the Culinary Union Local 226, which has 60,000 members and is the most well-organized politically.

There seemed to be hints Edwards might pick up Culinary recently when Bruce Raynor, co-president of Culinary parent UNITE HERE, representing 450,000 hotel and apparel workers, told The Wall Street Journal that Edwards is his favorite candidate and that the union would be endorsing someone soon.

But Culinary Political Director Pilar Weiss, in an interview with The Politico’s Ben Smith, said Culinary and its members will make up their own mind and endorse in December, regardless of what UNITE HERE does. Culinary generally backs winners.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) had a private meeting with Culinary shop stewards before hosting a recent town hall in a black, working-class neighborhood in Las Vegas. His campaign seems to have grasped that he’s not making inroads among working-class voters, and they’re trying to shore up support within that community. A Culinary endorsement would be a huge lift to his campaign.

Aside from Culinary, the candidates are working a few other unions hard, knowing that labor will drive turnout.

The Service Employees International Union has 15,000 members and is led by Executive Director Jane McAlevey, who's added 6,000 workers during her tenure and is in the middle of more organizing campaigns. About two-thirds of members are registered to vote, and the goal is to get to 90 percent.

Headquarters in D.C. are paying for 30 SEIU members to act as full-time organizers. They will organize by shop, and then outward from shop into neighborhood.

SEIU will make an endorsement decision at its September meeting in Washington.

The Nevada State Education Association has 28,000 members. They live in every precinct in the state, and 75 percent of them are registered. They're educated, professional and tend to vote in greater numbers than their union counterparts, although with their high level of education and media consumption, they may be more inclined to make their own decision on caucus day rather than follow an endorsement.

The association is led by Lynn Warne, a new president and fourth-grade teacher on leave, as well as the active political team of Julie Whitacre and longtime Nevada Democratic consultant Dan Hart, whose tough-minded mail campaign helped defeat a state senator last year.

The National Education Association will provide a list of acceptable candidates, and then the Nevada State Education Association's board will decide whether to endorse, and whom to endorse, sometime in the fall. The national association will likely flood the state with money and operatives if the Nevada Democratic caucus proves to be significant.

Roberta West is the president of the Nevada board of the AFL-CIO and is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has 7,000 members here.

The union has a core caucus team of 50 members who will train workers and lead them in the run-up to the caucus.

West said she's unsure how many members are registered. The United Food Workers' parent is a massive and deep-pocketed union, which combined with the service employees union to take on Wal-Mart, and headquarters could send money and experienced operatives here.

The Teamsters have three locals in Nevada and are led by Gary Mauger, Wayne King and Mike Magnani. The three locals represent about 11,500 members, which could be a potent force if they can organize and mobilize.

The AFL-CIO, which has 200,000 Nevada members, won’t endorse before the caucus, though its affiliates are free to. The federation is running its own caucus training and turnout operation, however, and so will be an important player in January.


Chicago Teamsters officials indicted in election fraud

On Tuesday, Richard Lopez took over as president of the 12,000-member Teamsters Local 743 and promised to "stand up for working men and women the way the Teamsters has always looked out for me."

On Friday, federal prosecutors announced Lopez had been indicted for helping steal a 2004 election that kept him and others in power. Three other union employees were also charged with conspiracy to commit fraud in the scheme, in which ballots were allegedly diverted from union members to friends and family members of the four who were not eligible to vote. The four were also charged with embezzlement or theft of the ballots.

Lopez, 53, a village trustee in Maywood, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Keith Spielfogel, said his client is "absolutely innocent of these charges."

Attorneys for the other three could not be reached for comment.

But Richard Berg, who ran against Lopez's slate of incumbents in 2004, said the indictment proves "the election was stolen from me and all the members of Local 743."

The battle for control of Local 743 -- which is based on the South Side -- pitted Berg against longtime incumbent Robert Walston. Lopez ran on Walston's ticket as secretary-treasurer.

The feds allege that Lopez -- along with Cassandra Mosley, 51, of Gary; Mark Jones, 48, of Joliet, and David Rodriguez, 35, of Chicago -- devised a "scheme to defraud Local 743" by diverting hundreds of ballots that had been returned to the union by mail because the addresses were old or no longer good.

The four allegedly changed the addresses in a union database and had the ballots sent to friends, relatives or associates who weren't union members.

Berg complained to the Labor Department, which found the ballots had been diverted. In a July settlement, union officials admitted that a controller shredded the eligibility list, which "may have affected the outcome" of the election, according to the settlement in U.S. District Court. The union agreed that the Labor Department will supervise a union election later this month.

Berg plans to run again.

"I'm very happy we were vindicated," he said. "Hopefully we can get real representation and clear up the local."

Walston resigned as union president earlier this week, and Lopez took his place. Walston was not mentioned in the U.S. government's complaint.


Nashville police decertify Teamsters

“Law enforcement officers need to be controlled, directed, and led by law enforcement officers not Teamsters.”

There are some major changes ahead for the men and women who protect Nashville. Just as the investigation of the Teamsters local takes on a new twist, Metro police officers give the teamsters something else to think about.

In a vote late Friday, 671 members of the Metro police force voted to decertify the teamsters, and 122 voted to keep the union. Final results are expected to be certified within 5 days.

It means the Fraternal Order of Police will win back its role as bargaining agent for nearly 1,200 Metro officers.

Local F.O.P. President Danny Hale, says, “The Teamsters proved they don't understand our job just because of some of the things that came up with - the criminal activity, come on give me a break we uphold the law we don't break it.”


Cal. gov't unions in pension reform smackdown

In a preview of the harsh fight expected next year, California public unions are already campaigning against a pension-reform measure some 14 months before it potentially even goes before voters.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, representing about 9,000 officers, recently started airing radio ads in Los Angeles urging the public to disregard petitions to place the measure by former Assemblyman Keith Richman on the ballot. "If you value the job that your police officers, firefighters and teachers do for the community, please don't sign this petition," say the campaign ads.

The radio buy, although relatively small, is an unusual early sign of the degree to which unions are gearing up to fight Richman's effort. "We just feel very strongly about it," said PPL President Tim Sands. "We're going to fight to tell people the truth - that we need to keep the benefits to hire the brightest and best." Sands declined to disclose how much the union is spending on the ad campaign, but said it is running on KFWB-AM (980) for about six weeks.

Richman's measure aims to lower the costs incurred by state and local governments for pension and retiree health care benefits. It raises the

retirement age and lowers benefits for new state and local government employees hired after July 1, 2009.

It would also limit the percentage of final pay a government employee earns in retirement to 60 percent or 70 percent. Currently, thousands collect pensions worth 100 percent of their final salaries or more, plus lifetime health benefits.

The move comes amid growing concern about soaring pension and retiree benefits. Many city, county and state government agencies awarded unions generous benefit packages in the late 1990s when the stock market was hot.

Today, unfunded pension liabilities threaten to bankrupt some municipalities and increasingly concern state officials. One concern is that money needed for education and other public services increasingly goes toward pensions and retirees' health care benefits.

Signatures needed

Richman, a Granada Hills resident, heads the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. He said current unfunded pension and health care liabilities, for all city, county and state workers, range from $200 billion to $300 billion.

Richman believes his measure could ultimately save state and local governments some $500 billion over 30 years.

Richman has not even begun collecting any of the 694,354 signatures he will need to submit by Jan. 10, 2008. He only received official approval of the wording from the state Attorney General's Office in mid-August.

Because he is aiming for the November 2008 ballot - and specifically does not want it in the February or June elections because an expected lower voter turnout would favor the unions - he is not in a rush.

He expects to need about $1 million to fund the signature drive.

But Richman believes the early campaign is a sign that the unions consider him a legitimate threat to convince the public that reform is needed.

"They're obviously taking our efforts very seriously," Richman said. "I think they are concerned. They recognize the issue of skyrocketing public-employee retirement costs is becoming better known by the public.

"And I'm sure that they recognize that our initiative - which would simply change the retirement age and require a full career's work for a full pension - is something that the public receives very well."

So far, the PPL is the only group actively attacking Richman's measure this early. But other unions are waiting in the wings.

Dave Low, chairman of a union coalition formed to lobby on pension issues, said his group met with the PPL recently to discuss the issue and the police union offered its ad to anyone who wanted to air it elsewhere in the state.

Unions unite

The coalition, called Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security, includes more than 30 unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and other state and local employees.

It was formed soon after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to reform the pension system in 2005. Unions were highly successful that year in launching early attacks against his effort before it even got on the ballot.

Unions characterized Schwarzenegger's plan as cutting benefits for widows of police officers and firefighters, and the governor ultimately withdrew the measure entirely rather than submit it to voters.

Low said an equally strong effort is likely against Richman's plan.

"I think we will spend whatever it's going to take to defeat it," said Low, who is also assistant director of governmental relations with the California School Employees Association.

"We'll have to do some analysis to find out what that number is. This is such an important issue and has such a dramatic effect on employees that we'll dig deep to come up with whatever it takes."

Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger this year revived his effort to reform the pension system but decided to take a slower and more inclusive approach.

He and legislative leaders appointed a 12-member commission this year, including membership from public unions, to study the problem and make some recommendations by January 2008.

The Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission has been holding monthly hearings around the state, with its next set for Sept. 21 at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Low also is on the governor's pension commission and so far said he is satisfied with how the panel is proceeding. But he said it is not yet clear what type of reforms it might eventually recommend.

Ultimately, the California School Employees Association would rather see reforms negotiated on an individual basis during contract talks between various government agencies and their employees, Low said.

Richman presented his ideas to the commission in April. But no matter what its final recommendations, he is not optimistic that the Legislature would pass them because of the public unions' strong influence in Sacramento.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst with the University of Southern California, said it is fairly unusual for ads to air about an initiative that has yet to qualify for the ballot.

In this case, it could be an indication that unions are genuinely worried that the measure might gain popular support.

"It's a pre-emptive strike," Jeffe said. "It's what happens when you have all the money in the Western world and you're nervous. Why not cut it off at the pass?"


Enviros join striking Steelworkers' picket line

British Columbia's striking forestry workers have just enlisted an unlikely ally: environmentalists. Yesterday, representatives from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee took to the picket lines with the United Steelworkers Union, outside the offices of Western Forest Products in Duncan, B.C.

It's an odd pairing, considering the wilderness committee, Canada's largest environment group with 30,000 members, has a history of campaigning against logging across the province. Over the years, it has helped to stop logging activity in the Carmanah Valley, Stein Valley and in parts of Clayoquot Sound near Tofino.

"Everyone knows that since the '80s we have been working to protect old-growth forests and established parks, but we also believe that we can protect forestry workers' jobs at the same time," Ken Wu, the committee's campaign director, said from the picket line.

B.C.'s coastal forestry workers went on strike July 20, driven primarily by the issues of contracting out, hours of work and severance pay for partial mill closings.

Mr. Wu said his organization believes in fair treatment of forestry workers, and together his group and the union can work toward sustainable logging practices.

Over the past year, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee has been working with USW and other unions and environmental groups to stop the export of raw, unprocessed logs and ensure a guaranteed supply for B.C.'s pulp and paper mills.

Mr. Wu said it was a natural progression to support the union on the picket lines. However, he said yesterday's rally was the first he knew of in which a wilderness-protection group aligned itself with striking forestry workers.

"We don't want to return back to the days of the 1990s where timber workers are pitted against environmentalists," he said. "We want to focus on where we have common ground, while we continue to move forward to protect old-growth forests as well."

Scott Lunny, staff representative for the national office of the United Steelworkers, said the union is happy for any support it can get. And while he acknowledged the two groups have some conflicting goals, he said their alliance isn't that peculiar.

"It's not surprising that activist groups, whether they're unions or environmentalists or just community activists, get together where they have common issues and try to put forward a common solution," he said.


Brave new world of confronting employers

The effective use of the Internet by unions has long been a subject for discussion inside the labor movement and amongst labor-friendly academics. The debate just took a big, fast, sharp left turn with an announcement last week from the union representing Italian IBM employees.

A virtual job action allows participation from teleworkers and home workers around the globe. With the decline of trade union density in the face of globalization and new forms of work organization (home work, telework and such) in the North, the Internet seemed to offer at least a partial solution (where access was relatively easy) to retaining members and recruiting new ones.

To some segments of labour movements in crisis, particularly that of the US, the internet took on the role of a life raft. Unions, this school of thought went, were to be judged on the extent to which they effectively used the net. Those that did well by these criteria would survive and grow; those which didn't, were likely to continue to decline.

But even amongst the most fervent of internet advocates, within the labour movement there was a recognition that certain kinds of very basic organizing and action would require, demand really, face-to-face contact and communication between workers. Last week those nay-sayers may have been proved wrong.

Rappresentanza Sindacale Unitaria IBM Vimercate (RSU), has, announced online (naturally) that sometime this month its 9,000 members, employees of IBM, will mount a job action, an information picket designed to inform the public (but especially IBM clients) about the company's employment policies — online.

They won't be refusing to touch their computers. This isn't really a strike. To the contrary, union members will probably be spending more time at their keyboards than ever, when the action starts.

What the union is organizing is a picket of IBM's "island" on Second Life, the online alternate world.

The RSU's statements indicate absolutely nothing odd or unusual or groundbreaking in what the RSU members are looking for from IBM:

"While IBM is one of the companies with major profits," said the RSU, "its employees are receiving very few fruits of this big mountain of money. (sic)"

What is unusual, to say the least, is the choice of Second Life as the place to confront IBM.

Second Life is an immense computer game (for lack of a better word) in which something like nine million users adopt cartoon characters called avatars which they then direct, (anonymously if they wish), though an online existence. The avatars shop, eat, buy, sell, work, paint, talk, romance and vacation.

Second Life is one of several current flavours of the month when it comes to social networking websites. Corporations (and some governments: you can get investment and tourism information for several countries at their Second Life "embassies") have been quick to see the advantages to having a presence there.

You can take your avatar shopping and buy stuff for your avatar to use within Second Life, or buy merchandise for use by the real you in what Internauts call "meatspace".

There's been some use of Second Life as an alternative to tele- and video-conferencing, but for the most part corporations see Second Life (and other sites like it) as one big advertising/retail tool. IBM has made what most observers agree is a large commitment to its corporate avatar or presence on Second Life.

So, on the face it, it only makes sense for RSU to follow IBM onto Second Life and fire something of a warning shot by having a small army of avatars inform the Second Life population about the their employer's behaviours.

The job action would be no different than picketing a store or a meeting or a conference and handing our leaflets, right?

Yes. But there are a few added dimensions to this effort that have the potential to add some new items to the workers' toolbox.

First, the action involves 9,000 people (or their avatars) converging on one location (albeit virtual). Something that, if it happened in the real world would take a lot of time and resources to organize and execute.

More importantly perhaps, this is an action that can literally take place at a moment's notice, which makes it much harder for an employer to react to.

Second, and the RSU itself recognizes this, this is the kind of action which could unite IBM employees around the world:

The high offices of the company are worried, because this action will spotlight the creation of a global union alliance — that is, engaging the unions from over 16 countries worldwide, including the new IT boundary: India.(sic)

While technically the dispute is between IBM Italia and RSU, there's nothing to stop IBM workers around the world from expressing their unhappiness with the corporation by joining in.

International solidarity is nothing new to the labour movement, but this is something remarkable: focussed, simultaneous, potentially global and, quite possibly effective in drawing in workers who are not (yet) unionized. To date, non-union workers have been largely left out of actions like these. As well, international actions are almost always an afterthought and are effectively time-delayed and step-removed from the target employer (eg, dockers refusing to handle struck goods).

Third, the labour movement globally has had huge difficulty in organizing home workers generally, teleworkers in particular.

Unlike in a factory or office, teleworkers don't have routine, non-task-related communication amongst themselves. There is no lunchroom, no after-work beer for these workers. They don't, in other words, have informal opportunities to organize amongst themselves.

In addition, teleworkers tend to perceive themselves as "professionals", a term used by their employers to distinguish them from "workers". The Second Life job action presents an unusual opportunity for contact, communication and organizing among and between the IBM workers.

Lastly, this is an action and a venue for that action that speaks the language of the workers themselves. It is a high-tech picket for high-tech workers aimed at a high-tech employer.

Unless IBM changes its tune, sometime later this month we'll see just how effective an action like this can be.

On paper — er, on screen — this looks like it may mark a significant shift in the way unions in some industries can effectively confront employers, all while organizing workers in industries with traditionally low union density.

Stay tuned to Workplaces for more information about innovative job actions in today's changing workplaces.


AFSCME fed up, will picket City Hall again

City and union officials are digging in their heels over an eight-month contract dispute, each convinced their side is right and fair.

About 200 union members - including labor groups from other cities - are expected to protest and picket Monday in front of Quad Cities, Ill. City Hall, before the start of the 6:45 p.m. city council meeting. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) Council 31, which represents 73 Rock Island public works employees, led a similar march on Aug. 27.

"Workers are asked to work more and more for less and less. Workers are fed up with it," Dino Leone, staff representative for the AFSCME council, said Friday.

AFSCME Local 988 A is fighting a city plan to schedule its employees to be on standby 24 hours a day, for a week at a time, in case they need to be called in to work overtime. Compared to the current policy, where workers could get three hours pay - up to $75 - for being on call (and not called in to work) over 24 hours, the city wants to cut that to $25 per week.

At issue is the best way for the city to ensure a prompt response to all snowstorms, wind storms, and water-main breaks. The union says the current system works, if used properly and consistently.

"They have never had a problem with it before, and shouldn't have a problem with it now," Mr. Leone said. "The only thing they want to do is shift the burden on the backs of employees, on their families and on their children."

Standby pay has rarely been needed in the past because these workers responded as needed without being put on standby, public works director Bob Hawes said. However, in recent years many employees have not responded to, or declined, requests to work overtime, he said.

"The process relies on people answering the phone," Mr. Hawes said, noting a previous program that supplied workers with free pagers didn't work.

"There are a number of employees that respond all the time. They work tons of overtime," city manager John Phillips said. "It's putting more work, more pressure on those that do respond."

The city has traditionally avoided paying to put workers on standby to better control costs and avoid paying people for not working, he said. Under the current contract (which expired March 31), standby costs if implemented fully would be about $100,000 a year. The proposed contract would cut that to $30,000, Mr. Phillips said.

There have been times in the past year when response to water-main leaks and snowstorms have been delayed because workers haven't responded quickly enough, Mr. Phillips said. For example, of nine storms last winter requiring an after-hours response, a crew reported for work within one hour only three times.

Mr. Phillips said one weekend, he remembered seeing a private contractor out plowing streets, because city workers were not available.

"To hire a contractor to do this work, it's a slower response, and it's more expensive," he said. "We'd prefer to have our own people do this work."

Under the city proposal, the burden of responding to emergencies would be shared more equally, they say. Workers would know "far in advance" when they're on call, to coordinate personal plans, and they would be able to trade weeks with other employees.

This could translate to being on standby every few weeks, Mr. Leone argued, and employees' "children and family will never be able to count on them on their days off or their time off," he said.

Standby is typically only needed between November and April, Mr. Leone said, and its regular use would require people to work overtime (which pays time and a half).

"Supervisors could do a better job of determining when standby is needed. What they want to do is be lax in their job, their responsibility, and put the burden on the employee," the union leader said.

"The other part of it is, (the proposal is) not only too often, but the compensation, $25 for a whole week, that's ridiculous," he said.

He said the city's proposal would be disruptive to workers' families.

Mr. Phillips said the city has an obligation to be family-friendly to all families, noting response delays "cause unacceptable public safety and public health risks."

"You need snow to be removed quickly for families that try to get kids to school," he said. "We're concerned about our employees as well as the whole city, which has relied on good service from public works. We want that to continue."

The city and union have another bargaining session scheduled for next Thursday, and there are still 12 economic issues left to resolve, Mr. Hawes said. There already have been 16 bargaining sessions since January.

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