Gov't union strikers to parents: You are scabs

My fellow soccer parents are in despair. Our kids aren't playing much soccer these days. Vancouver's civic strike has meant most of the fields are covered in grass that's grown up to our children's knees. It's a hassle to figure out where to store one's rotting garbage. It's disgusting to live with the swarms of fruit flies that populate most Vancouver kitchens these days.

But for soccer parents, the strike has become more than an inconvenience, now that our kids have nowhere to play and practice. So parents have begun to take matters into their own hands. Around the city, they are beginning to haul out their lawnmowers and cut the grass on those public fields themselves.

Many members of CUPE, Vancouver's striking union, are taking serious issue with this development. At one point last week, rumours were swirling around the soccer community that the union might even picket some games. Clearly, many CUPE members believe these parents are scabs.

They believe that, by mowing the fields, concerned parents are stealing union work. Further, by making it possible for citizens to use the fields, they are making it easier for all of us to survive this strike. And if it's easier to survive it, then CUPE believes we won't put pressure on their employer to get the thing settled as soon as it might otherwise be.

I can understand why the strikers are frustrated. Walking up and down the picket line, being ordered by CUPE brass not to sit or play games to relieve the boredom, must be an awful way to spend one's day. And most of them are by now missing their pay packets, not to mention their jobs, which I have no doubt they take pride in and enjoy doing.

But it's a step too far to accuse local soccer parents of scabbing.

Not one of them is profiting from doing CUPE's work. Those parents aren't getting paid a cent to mow the acres of fields. They're doing it because they're desperate to salvage their children's soccer season.

And, they're not doing it to make this strike easier on the folks at City Hall. They're just trying to support their kids' rights to have fresh air, exercise and a safe place to play.

They are no different from the people on my street who have found a million different ways to dispose of their garbage. Some of us have hired people to take it away. Others regularly gather theirs up and take it to friends in Richmond and Burnaby. That's all work that used to be done by the union. If that's union busting too, then the city is crawling with scabs.

None of us want this ridiculous strike to drag on a day longer than it has to. We all want things to get back to normal. But, in the meantime, we can't be blamed for doing what we can to keep our lives in working order.

A message to the union: if your members refuse to mow the playing fields, then don't blame taxpayers for doing it while you're on strike. Getting paid to cut the grass might be a job that belongs to CUPE members, but the fields themselves belong to the citizens of this city.


Card-check chaos as Teamsters organize law enforcement

Scott County (MO) Sheriff's Department employees have been in talks with local Teamsters union officials about the possibility of joining the union. The talks come after a Missouri Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this summer that granted public employees the right to unionize. But the legalities of the situation are still in doubt.

Representatives of the Teamsters Local 600, which has offices in Cape Girardeau, approached the Scott County Commission on Tuesday, asking commissioners to grant their approval for sheriff's department employees to join their union. Robert Hutchings, business manager of Local 600, said more than 90 percent of the department's employees have signed "intent cards" expressing their desire to be included in the union.

But Scott County commissioners have asked for an election to be held among department employees, a common procedure when employees unionize. Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said the signing of intent cards might not necessarily mean employees are actually committed to unionizing the department, something an election can decide with more accuracy.

Currently, state statutes have no provisions to recognize unions, and an election to make the department a union shop would have to be conducted with the blessing of the state. The situation leaves Hutchings wondering what will happen next. "What we're trying to find out is what system we have in place now," Hutchings said Friday.

Under a Supreme Court ruling handed down in May, governments aren't bound to reach agreements on contracts with public sector unions, but if they do reach a contract agreement, the agreement is binding.

Burger said he had no comment related to any beneficial or detrimental effects of the unionization of the sheriff's department.

"I've had a lot of people talk to me about whether it will be good or bad, but really that's irrelevant," Burger said. "What the Missouri Supreme Court or legislators put into effect, we have to abide by."

Sheriff Rick Walter echoed that sentiment, and said the decision is one the employees have to make.

Hutchings said his union never approaches workers about organizing with the Teamsters, but lets them approach the union, which is what happened in Scott County's case. Hutchings said he's also had queries from other area public employees seeking information about unionizing, but didn't specify where those inquiries came from.

Walter said his employees approached him on the matter before seeking out the union.

"Some of the guys had come to me first and asked, 'Is this going to hurt you?'" Walter said. "I said, 'You guys do what you want to do. The Supreme Court said you can, so that's up to you.'"

The main reasons expressed by employees for wanting to unionize were job security in the case of a new sheriff being elected and the possibility of lower health insurance premiums, Walter said. Scott County workers currently pay $51.08 per month in premiums for their own coverage and $442.69 per month for themselves and a spouse.

Hutchings said the union can often guarantee premiums for three to four years in advance, instead of changing every year, and those premiums are often cheaper than employers can give.

Walter said he's heard about many police around the state taking similar measures to explore their rights to unionize.

But Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan said he's heard no talk about unionizing among his employees. In the Cape Girardeau city department, non-management employees are part of the Cape Girardeau Police Officers Association, part of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Currently the association works on a "meet and confer" standard for contract negotiations, under which government employers are under no obligation to honor contract negotiations, said association president Bill Bohnert.

Association members pay dues but don't receive benefits like insurance, Bohnert said, but the association is a tax-exempt organization. The association also sponsors youth sports teams and holds fund-raisers for local charities.

Bohnert said the organization is awaiting clarification on how state law applies to public employees before exploring any collective bargaining options.

Cape Girardeau firefighters are unionized but work without a formal contract.


Teachers to strike, classes canceled

Classes are canceled in the Cahokia (IL) School District Monday and teachers will be walking the picket line. This comes after the teachers' union and the school district failed to reach a contract agreement. The official deadline was supposed to be midnight. But that's really just a formality. The district has already rejected the union's counteroffer, meaning the strike is set to begin.

Parents like Donald Jeffries, aren't pleased. "I think it's not good for the kids because the kids need to be in school. And they need to make up for those days off at the end of the school year."

But it seems Cahokia is at an impasse. A marathon bargaining session Friday failed. The teachers asked for a one-year contract with a 3.5% raise. The district is offering 2.25%. Now informational pickets will turn to the real thing, as teachers officially go on strike.

"Here it is the final hour, they still haven't come through with an offer," Union President Brent Murphy said. "In fact, their offer really hasn't changed. We've rejected it twice. They just shuffle the money around."

"They've made no effort to end this. And it's very disappointing to see an administration and board of education wanting a strike. I mean that's what's going on here," Dave Comerford, spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers said.

Board officials say that's not the case. They say the district simply can't afford to pay more in the long run. "We're just holding a position right now because we could be able to pay down debt if we do what they're proposing, but then we'll be mortgaging our future over the next few years," School Board President Richard Sauget Jr. said.

And so the immediate future is clear; school has been canceled. Both sides say they want to get back to the bargaining table, but no date has been set.

Donald Jeffries and his family have their own ideas. "I just hope that they get it over with. Just give them what they want and let our kids go back to school and learn. That's the most important part."

There are about 300 teachers in the union, plus another 200 service workers. They plan to hit the picket line about 7:30 a.m. No word on when classes will resume or how long this strike might last.


Solidarity Kids Theater kicks in for AFSCME strikers

From $5 bills to checks for thousands of dollars, donations poured in at Saturday night's fundraiser to benefit striking workers at the University of Minnesota. Supporters filled the meeting hall at the CWA Local 7200 building on Lake Street. Unions and individuals stepped up to contribute to members of the AFSCME clerical, technical and health care unions who have been on the picketline since Sept. 5.

The largest donation was a $7,000 check from Education Minnesota - the statewide educators' union - presented by President Tom Dooher. "We will continue to contribute every week until you get a fair settlement," he announced.

Other unions that made major gifts included the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, Service Employees International Union Local 26, UNITE HERE Local 17, Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association and a number of AFSCME local unions from across Minnesota.

Striking workers enjoyed a performance by the Solidarity Kids Theater and read letters of support from unions at other universities and elected officials, including presidential candidate Barack Obama.

On Friday, AFSCME negotiators received a proposal from the university administration that they deemed "unacceptable."

"The offer represented no additional money for the cost of living increase, remaining unchanged at 2.25 percent for clerical and technical workers and 2.5 percent for health care workers," said Local 3937 President Barb Bezat. "The offer, which does not differ significantly from the last proposal by the university, included a $300 lump sum for everyone and a conditional offer of a $300 lump sum in each year for people at the top of the range."

In the 2007 session, the Minnesota Legislature boosted the university's appropriation by 12 percent. The strikers and their supporters, including a number of lawmakers, said the increase should enable the administration to negotiate a 3.25 percent pay increase.

Two weeks ago, the university reached a settlement for a 3 percent raise for Teamster-represented employees.


Alberta's wildcat strikers defy unions

Alberta's booming construction landscape is being disrupted with pickets and protests as a complicated labour law that hobbles building trade unions from striking is being attacked by hundreds of workers.

The giant Petro-Canada upgrader project in Edmonton was crippled for several days last week after unionized workers refused to cross picket lines set up by carpenters and other tradesman seeking higher wages but unable to stage a legal strike.

Alberta legislation passed two decades ago says that if 75 per cent of the province's two dozen building trade unions have settled their contracts, the others must follow suit without a strike or lockout - using an arbitrator if necessary.

Most of the trades have already settled, but the carpenters, roofers, and plumbers and pipefitters are holdouts. The provincial labour board has filed a cease and desist order against the wildcat strikes and the labour minister has set up a tribunal to arbitrate a contract settlement.

But many frustrated workers are defying the province and their own union by staying off the job. Hundreds turned out for daily protests in front of the labour board offices in downtown Edmonton and about 300 marched on the legislature Friday.

Scaffolder Frank Lander, a single dad who moved to Alberta from Newfoundland, said the dispute has created a new type of solidarity among those who work in the building trades.

"All the workers are here by their own choice, not by the union's choice," he said in an interview at the noon-hour rally. "My union told me to go back to work and let them deal with it."

Lander says he expects this dispute will eventually be settled in court, but that's not going to stop him from continuing to picket and protest against a labour law he believes is unique in Canada.

"If this was any other province, we probably would have gone on strike and the contractors would have said, 'We'd better work with these guys or we're not going to get anything done."'

Labour Minister Iris Evans concedes it's been a difficult situation for her to handle given the "many complexities" of the law that was originally designed in 1988 to avoid labour strife.

"It's not a comfortable situation," Evans said in an interview. "When you are a minister of the Crown, you have to abide by that law, even though it doesn't mean that you're not concerned about the issues that are being raised."

The minister insists that the workers must obey the law and return to work. But once "things cool off," the government will review the labour law and decide whether changes are needed.

"We can engage in discussions, listen to them and see whether or not there's another way."

Libby Davis, the federal NDP's labour critic, visited Edmonton on Friday and said she doesn't know any other jurisdiction that limits the right to strike in the way Alberta does.

"I was shocked to find out Alberta's labour laws are so out of whack with the rest of the country," Davis said. "I can certainly understand the enormous frustration and angst that these workers have."

Alberta's labour law undermines basic labour rights, she said.

"I don't know of any other jurisdiction where a union's right to strike is contingent on a whole set of complex rules about what other unions may or may not be doing."

But Alberta's construction companies defend the legislation.

Neil Tidsbury is president of Construction Labour Relations, which represents 130 construction firms in Alberta including several of the companies that are being affected by the wildcat strikes. He said the law was designed so that unions could not hold the construction industry hostage with strikes and walkouts.

The law has actually been doing what it was intended to do - preventing a "renegade" union from holding out for a better contract or striking to follow a political agenda, said Tidsbury.

"When the trades have settled with us, they do so in good faith and they do so on trust that we aren't going to give anybody else more when settling later. Otherwise we'll never get anybody to settle."

With the Alberta economy booming, labour groups are spoiling for a fight.

"Construction workers and their unions in this province are in an impossible situation," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, as he stood among pickets eating donated pizzas and preparing to march on the legislature.

"This is really the first time that workers are in the driver's seat and they really have leverage. But now they're discovering that they're not able to take advantage of the power that the market is giving them."

McGowan said he's skeptical about the promised review. There was a similar promise after a bitter, violent strike at Lakeside Packers two years ago, but no major changes were ever made.

"Now in a time of prosperity, when workers should be getting a bigger piece of the pie, the time has come for this law to be changed so that bargaining can happen on a more even playing field."


AFSCME strike hurts pets

University of Minnesota administrators say it's been business as usual since the AFSCME strike began, but workers on the picketline at the St. Paul campus beg to differ. "Oh, yeah, it's business as usual," sneered striker Erin Lane, standing outside the prestigious animal hospital where she normally works as a certified veterinary technician. "Just go look in there."

The University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center is the crown jewel of this quiet St. Paul campus, which spills over from the city's northwest border into the suburb of Falcon Heights. It is the Mayo Clinic of animal hospitals, and it earned the school, for better or worse, its nickname: "the cow campus."

But when certified veterinary technicians like Lane, members of AFSCME Local 3937, traded their hospital scrubs for picket signs last week, operations at the hospital dwindled to a near halt. Strikers say that's bad news not only for pet owners, but for veterinary students and the university's bottom line.

The hospital currently is accepting only emergency cases, and according to striking veterinary technicians, that means no routine appointments, no new chemotherapy patients and no animals who need major workups or surgery.

More, any pet admitted on an emergency basis must arrive at the university hospital, according to veterinary technician Darcy Farmer, with "catheters placed, blood drawn and x-rays taken."

Why? Because that's the work Farmer (who walks the picket line with a sign that reads "Who's watching your pet today? All the techs have walked away!") and her striking colleagues normally do.

It's also work certified veterinary technicians teach to the university's veterinary students.

One fourth-year veterinary student, who requested anonymity, said classes this year have been "a lot more difficult because they don't have the help that we need. We rely on the techs if we need help or have questions."

Darcy Farmer walked the picketline outside the university Veterinary Medical Center. The reverse side of her sign reads, "Who's watching your pet today? All the techs have walked away!"

On the picket line, strikers reported hearing from other students that the school had turned to upperclassmen to cover technicians' teaching responsibilities.

"Normally, certified veterinary technicians teach freshmen clinical skills like animal handling, injections and how to do basic things like blood draws," Lane said. "Apparently, they are ordering senior veterinary students to teach those labs.

"That's not appropriate. We're really disgusted by that. Our students are not paying to teach freshmen. It's not their responsibility. By the time they get to us in their senior year, we're still teaching them."

Veterinary technicians also questioned how much practical experience students could get working with live animals when the university's veterinary hospital is accepting only emergency cases.

"Students aren't learning as much because they don't have as many animals coming through," Farmer said. "Students are all going to have to share (animals), and it's going to decrease the quality of their education."

Limiting admissions also decreases the flow of revenue into the animal hospital, which can't be good for the university's bottom line.

But on the picket line outside the hospital, striking veterinary technicians are more concerned about their students, their patients and, of course, their own sources of revenue.

"None of us can afford to bring our pets to the university's hospital because we make so little," Farmer said. "But we love our jobs."

Said Lane: "It's weird to come here like normal every day and then just stand here outside the hospital."

In other words, it's anything but business as usual.

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