AFSCME quits failed U. of Minnesota strike

In the end, the missed paychecks and the impending loss of health insurance were simply too much to overcome. So the picket lines at the University of Minnesota disappeared, those on a hunger strike went out to lunch and the two-week strike of clerical, health care and technical workers for higher wages came to an end Friday.

Although it rejected the same deal last week, the union's bargaining committee opted to accept the university's settlement offer of an extra $300 annually and to return to work as early as today. In doing so, the workers gave up their effort for an extra 1 percent raise, above the university's original deal that set off only the second strike of campus workers in 60 years.

In voices filled with frustration and anger, local leaders of the strikers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, called the increases "inadequate" even as they accepted them. "We are shocked by the administration's absolute disregard for people's lives," said Gladys McKenzie, chief negotiator for the union. "The university should be ashamed."

University President Robert Bruininks said in a statement that he was pleased the strike has ended. "Striking workers will be returning to their jobs as early as [today]," Bruininks said. "We look forward to their return and coming back together as a community."

When about 1,000 workers walked off the job Sept. 5, some faculty members held classes off campus and politicians stopped by to speak in support of the strikers. But by the time the strike reached the two-week mark, the number of striking workers dropped below 900.

A dent in strikers' wallets

While union officials spoke of how much stronger their union is now than before and how the university didn't win, the striking workers paid a price.

A striker earning the average salary of $35,444 lost nearly $1,800 in wages in missing 13 days of work. In the end, the workers prompted the university to increase its prestrike offer by $50 per year before taxes.

Clerical and technical workers will receive 2.25 percent raises in each of the two years in the contract while health care workers will receive a 2.5 percent raise. Better than 90 percent of the workers will also continue to receive "step" raises of about 2 percent on their hiring anniversary dates for experience and longevity.

All workers will receive a $300 lump-sum payment annually. Workers who are no longer eligible for step increases will receive an additional $300 lump-sum payment each year.

When the strike began, union officials were seeking raises of 3.25 and 3.5 percent per year.

Jonathon Warnberg, a clerical worker who works with students with disabilities, said the only reason he was able to stay afloat financially was because he sold music equipment before the strike.

"Speaking as a single guy who rents and doesn't own a car, I live a very minimal lifestyle," Warnberg said. "I am not certain I am going to do so well to rebound from this, much less someone who has a family and a mortgage to pay."

That's part of the reason why the bargaining committee made the decision Thursday night to accept the offer and return to work. The proposal will be voted on by the union membership in early October.

Strikers also knew they would have to return to work by the end of next week so they could work one day in the current two-week pay period and keep their health coverage.

"We all know realistically that this is a huge strain on our members' finances," said Phyllis Walker, the president of the local representing the clerical workers.

"Our members are very concerned about their health insurance, and we have to go back to work to make sure they maintain their health insurance."

Fast broken at Jasmine Orchid

In addition to AFSCME workers returning to the job, Friday marked the end of a hunger strike by a group of students, faculty members and union supporters.

The group did not eat for five days, drinking only water and juice. On Friday afternoon, the hunger strikers went to Jasmine Orchid in Stadium Village and ate for the first time since Sunday night.

"It was a really hard five days for us, but a really hard three weeks for AFSCME," said political science graduate student Isaac Kamola.

"The university right now is in crisis. There are a lot of unhappy people."

While the union didn't secure significant financial gain, many said this was about more than just money.

"When you go on strike, there are some things that you can measure and some that you can't," Walker said. "One thing you can measure is how much money you lose. The things that you can't measure are the things that really, really matter in the long run. The strength that builds in the union from doing that, the way people feel for themselves because they stood up and fought. People become empowered, that's what came out of the 2003 [clerical workers] strike and that's what's coming out of this strike."


Streets unsafe during teachers union strike

When he's in school, Martin Jones would like more say over the structure of his day. The same goes for the time he's had to spend away from his seventh-grade classroom at Wirth-Park Middle School this week because of the deadlock between District 187 leaders and the Cahokia Federation of Teachers.

The teachers union began its strike Monday. At issue for workers: salary. At issue for Martin, a 14-year old accustomed to responsibility and structure at home: a lot of loose time on his hands, and with it the potential for school quarrels to spill over into the streets.

"It's way more violent in the streets when there's no school," he said Thursday morning, seated on a soft couch in the cool, dark living room of his family's tidy home in the St. Joseph Gardens neighborhood. Martin hasn't been involved in any fights, but he said there was a fight just down the street from his house a few days ago during a time when the kids would have been in school.

Cahokia police said there hasn't been any noticeable increase in juvenile trouble since the strike began.

Most weekdays, Martin's alarm clock sounds at 5:15, which leaves him time to wake up slowly, help his two younger sisters get ready for school, and catch the 7:15 bus for Wirth-Park, 4 1/2 miles away.

On Thursday, he had just finished sweeping the kitchen floor at a time that would normally see him in second-period gym class, playing organized dodgeball or basketball against the eighth-graders.

Since the strike began, he has kept busy -- helping care for his younger sisters or accompanying them, often with their mother, on errands and outings. Occasionally, he has picked up the book "Old Yeller" or just spent time with a friend in the same boat.

Yet, the idea of trouble lingers among a handful of concerns that occupy his and other Cahokia schoolchildren's days when there seems little to do, especially when they know they ought to be in school.

Nowhere to go

Students here are at loose ends -- particularly the younger ones, who rely heavily on adults for structure, supervision or at least a ride to the library, the park or a baby sitter.

"We have 30 extra students in the building all day," said Michelle Wright, who operates Michelle's Place, a child-care center in Novia Plaza.

The center, which takes children ages 5 through 12, is open from 6 a.m. until midnight. With 76 children registered, her business is running at capacity, and her waiting list is growing. She has the strike to thank for that.

"As far as business, it's not bad for me, but for our community and our children, I hope they can work out an agreement," she said.

Parents, she said, have become more preoccupied with concerns about the strike.

"They want to know: 'How long will it last?'" she said.

Everywhere, young people and their parents are struggling to come up with ideas for what to do since the strike brought their routines to an abrupt halt.

"We're just sitting there watching TV," said 5-year-old Diamond Scott, who on Wednesday morning was at the library with her two older cousins, Najwa Crenshaw and Tere McGraw. Their grandmother had dropped them off, and they planned to be there until at least 4 p.m.

Yet, the three seemed to understand on some level why their peers might turn to the television.

"Just sitting at home all day doing nothing isn't going to make you any smarter," said Tere, who attends Cahokia High School. She echoed Martin's concern about students with too much time on their hands getting into trouble.

"It's called being on the corners," interjected Diamond, who said she misses having lunch with her friends and talking with her teacher.

Najwa, who attends Wirth-Park, said she misses her social studies class, as well as talking with some of the school staff.

The Cahokia Public Library has seen traffic increase by roughly 100 people a day since the strike began. Library director Kathy Armstrong said school-aged children account for the general swell.

"They have nowhere to go during the day so they just come here," she said, adding older students choose to avail themselves of the computers there, for Internet and e-mail.

Nothing to do

Zach Corey, 16, occupied himself with a handheld Nintendo DS while his friends, Nikki Readhead and Andrew Kline, both 16, perused the library shelves for a good read. Andrew drove the trio.

"It's quieter here than at my house," he said.

For Zach, a reprieve from school nights means he can work extra late shifts at the Dairy Queen in nearby Columbia. The days, however, are a different story.

Nikki said time off school has allowed her to spend more quality time with her father.

Both of Andrew's parents work full day shifts. In his estimation, "There's nothing to do."

The three friends preceded their jaunt to the library Wednesday with a cruise over to the local Wal-Mart, then spent time hanging out at the nearby Dairy Queen.

"Today was fun," Nikki said with more than a little sarcasm.

When will it end?

This week, they also made a point of visiting with their teachers on the picket line, trying to stay informed.

"The teachers say they don't want to strike, but that the district is refusing to negotiate," Nikki said, adding that before the walkout, their teachers tried to explain the difficulty of living with a pay freeze and why they were asking for salary increases.

When the discussion got too serious for him, Zach remarked, "Look at it this way. When you're 19 and (just) graduating, it won't be your fault."

It was a joke but it shows the concerns that Martin has played out in his own mind over the last few days: That his life isn't yet in his own hands.

Seventh grade is hard enough when you have to contend with school uniforms, let alone just three minutes to get to your locker and grab a fresh set of books before changing classes.

If anything, the events of this week have reinforced one idea he has long held about grownups:

"They always want their way," he said.


UAW members express doubts about future

Chris (Tiny) Sherwood, president of UAW Local 652 in Lansing, sat in his office Friday afternoon with a picket sign behind his chair and a bottle of champagne on his desk.

A week after the original deadline expired for General Motors Corp. and the UAW to reach new contract terms, Sherwood, who represents a large portion of the GM workers in Lansing, still is not sure which one he'll use first: the picket sign for striking or the bottle of champagne for celebrating.

"I've been doing this for 40 years," said Sherwood, who has been through contract talks every few years since starting work at a GM plant in 1967. "This is the weirdest one I've done."

GM workers prepared Friday for their second straight weekend of uncertainty. GM was picked more than a week ago by the UAW as the strike target.

The move put GM as the lead company in the contract talks, as well as the potential subject of a strike. As of press time Friday, a strike had not been called but workers were on notice that they could be asked to walk out at any time.

In Lansing, where GM has had operations since 1908, the UAW contract talks and their implications on the future have become a hot topic of conversation and anxiety.

GM has about 6,000 workers in Lansing, with the bulk at the Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant, part of Local 652, and Lansing Delta Township Assembly, part of Local 602.

Lansing workers also know the pain of GM's falling U.S. market share. In the 1970s, GM ran a half-dozen plants and employed more than 20,000 workers in Lansing.

Lansing workers keep a long-term view, often reminded by family members of the GM and UAW legacy.

Maurice Morrell, a 32-year-old worker at the Lansing Delta Township plant, is in the early part of his career, but health care and retiree benefits are among his chief concerns in these contract talks.

GM is pushing hard to create a voluntary employee beneficiary association, called a VEBA, that could save the company money but also transfer the risk for covering health care to the union.

Heading into work Friday afternoon for the second shift, Morrell of Lansing said he hopes the UAW fights hard to protect former workers.

"My father retired from here," said Morrell, a third-generation GM worker and UAW member. "I want to make sure he's still secure."

David Dimond, a 60-year-old worker at the plant, agreed. "The retirees is the main thing," said Dimond of Grand Ledge. "I don't want to see them roughed up. ... They worked hard all their lives. They're on a fixed income."

The possibility of a VEBA is a major wild card in the talks, said Mike Earl, a 38-year-old worker at the plant.

The UAW should work with GM to help it compete with foreign automakers, said Earl, who lives in DeWitt. But he's worried if the VEBA runs out of money.

"It's been a big question," Earl said. "What is it? And how good is it?"

Sherwood said he's been getting a stream of calls from active workers and retirees during the past week. He does not blame UAW members for being concerned, he said.

In a place like Lansing, people trusted GM for generations to provide them with a good job and secure retirement.

At his plant, Lansing Grand River Assembly, all they have to do is look across the parking lot to see how fast things can change.

Another assembly plant that was once a core part of the GM manufacturing machine and the Lansing community has been torn down.

GM workers and retirees are skeptical of a VEBA and changes to benefits, Sherwood said. They do not want to lose anything else, he said.

"They figured they paid the price enough in this town," Sherwood said. "They see this as GM screwing up a promise they made to them when they retired."


Striking teachers blame district for football forfeit

Despite hopes that the stalemate between District 187 employees and administrators soon will come to an end, school board members say they won't meet until Monday to discuss their next move.

Superintendent Jana Bechtoldt said administrators sent an e-mail to union leaders asking for potential bargaining dates. She said school leaders also are waiting to hear back from Cahokia (IL) Mayor Frank Bergman, who has pledged to help the district find more money to pay workers the raises they want.

"We've asked for a new federal mediator, and we're waiting to hear back from the union as far as getting some dates to meet," Bechtoldt said. Bechtoldt said school is canceled Monday. It's the sixth consecutive day classes have been lost to the work stoppage.

But union leaders accused administrators of dragging their feet and said they likely are dooming the previously undefeated Cahokia High School football team to a second forfeit loss because board President Rich Sauget is taking in a University of Notre Dame football game instead of trying to strike a deal over the weekend. Sauget could not be reached Friday afternoon for comment, and representatives at his office only said that he was "gone for the day."

"While the board president roots for the Fighting Irish, the Cahokia team will be quickly losing any opportunity to play their game scheduled for next Friday, Sept. 28," Cahokia Federation of Teachers President Brent Murphy said. "Illinois High School Association rules require the team to have three practices before it can play another game. If a contract agreement is not reached by Monday evening, the team will have to forfeit another game."

Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman Dave Comerford confirmed union members received the communication from the school board, but said it was "extremely vague" and didn't indicate that administrators are planning to make a new offer to the 300 teachers and 200 secretaries and support staff.

"We're willing to meet whenever they are," Comerford said. "I don't know why they're stringing this out."


ALPA sickout suspected at USAirways

US Airways canceled 30 flights on Friday because 110 pilots called in sick, or six times more than normal, said the airline. Most flights affected were shuttles, and none involved Pittsburgh service, said spokeswoman Andrea Rader.

On a given day, 15 to 20 of US Airways' 4,600 pilots call in sick, she said. "There's no evidence of a build-up of sick calls for (Saturday). We haven't canceled any more flights," she said.

Generally, pilots in the East are irked about an arbitrators' ruling in May with seniority and pay formulas that favor less-experienced pilots in the West, home to US Airways' 2005 merger partner, America West. After two years of talks, the airline and the Air Line Pilots Association are far from a unified contract for the two groups.

But ALPA's executive council on Thursday found "no basis" to set aside the arbitrator's ruling. A union rift led some pilots to try to decertify ALPA as bargaining agent, in favor of a newly created US Airline Pilots Association. Both unions distanced themselves from the so-called "No Fly Day" and urged pilots not to participate in the job action.


City searches for end to gov't union strike

The stage was set today for a vote that could end the city's second-longest civic strike. Negotiators for the city and two of its striking union locals - representing inside and outside workers - agreed today they will formally present their positions to private mediator Brian Foley next week. Foley will then write a series of non-binding recommendations, which city managers will consider and union leaders will take to their 5,000 striking members in a vote.

"This doesn't mean the garbage will get picked up, but this is our first commitment to get a vote," said Mark Thompson, a professor emeritus at the Sauder School of Business at University of B.C.

There's been no agreement that negotiators for the city or for CUPE locals 15 and 1004 will vote to endorse Foley's recommendations, Thompson said. But since both sides are weary with a strike that has dragged on since late July, it will be politically difficult not to support them, he said.

"[CUPE 1004 president] Mike Jackson [would] have to stand up in front of his members and say, 'Stay on strike,'" said Thompson. "When you've been out for nine weeks, you'd better have a darn good argument," he said. Approving Foley's recommendations allows both sides to save face as well, said Thompson. "It's non-binding, so neither side has to say, 'We knuckled under,'" he said.

No dates were set, but the vote could happen in about two weeks. Such a vote is decided by a simple majority of those voting, said Thompson, but there's no guarantee it will end the strike. "What if one local votes yes and the other votes no?" he said. "There are lots of permutations here."

At 65 days and counting, Vancouver is approaching its longest municipal strike ever. Outside workers, including garbage collectors, went on strike on July 19, followed by their inside counterparts three days later.

Talks have broken down three times as both the union and the city appear to be at loggerheads on a half-dozen major issues, including the scheduling of auxiliary workers and whether a unionized member can be laid off if the city decides to contract out services to the private sector.

Last week, both sides entered mediated talks with Foley. As a private mediator, he has no powers under B.C.'s labour laws, but he can propose solutions if both sides agree.

While neither side could be reached for comment as they remained in a "media blackout," both sides referred to Foley's process as "enhanced mediation" in their respective statements.

Negotiators for Vancouver's striking library staff, CUPE Local 391, continued negotiating today under B.C. Labour Relations Board mediator Debbie Cameron.


B.C. Steelworkers strike: No end in sight

Two months after a bitter labor dispute over working conditions shut down the coastal forest industry, both sides have settled into a war of attrition that some observers say could last until Spring.

"There's a short window of opportunity for both sides to get back to the table, but it's closing fast," said Kevin Mason, an independent analyst with Equity Research Associates. "Harvesting becomes spotty in November, and the winter months are problematic. So if something doesn't happen in the next couple of weeks, there's no point in going back before 2008."

There's little incentive for either side to get back to the table, Mason said. For companies, the dollar near par and depressed housing markets in the U.S. have damaged operating conditions, taking away some of the strike's sting. Besides, logging is still being done by contractors who are either non-union or have received union consent to carry on.

"I can see a log boom moving to market right now - the second one today - and two chip barges went by this morning," said Mason, whose Gibsons office overlooks Howe Sound.

And B.C.'s bouyant economy has absorbed many workers who would otherwise be on the picketline, taking the pressure off to get back to their old jobs.

"We won't be crawling on our knees to go back to work," said Doug Tingley, a Greater Vancouver area sawmill worker who is now employed by a residential tree services contractor. "A lot of people are not relying on strike pay. We are not going to let the companies win. Outside work is our way of preventing them from breaking the union."

The dispute began July 21 when the United Steelworkers union, which represents 7,000 forest workers, struck 34 forest companies. The issues are over principles: Hours of work, shift schedules, and contracting-out.

However, the strike is hurting other third-party companies that are not part of the dispute. The province's largest pulp and aper company, Catalyst Paper, is affected because its supply of wood chips has been hit. Corporate affairs vice-president Lynn Brown said the company has shut down some operations to ensure the chips it has are put to the best use. Chip inventories are down.
"We are getting 50 per cent of our wood supply from companies that are not affected by the strike," Brown said.

And many of the custom-cut sawmills on the Fraser River are running, but are concerned about their log supply.

"We are looking after our customers," said Donald (Chick) Stewart, owner of S&R Sawmills. "We are managing, but we are worried that if they don't get back to logging pretty soon, we will get into the winter months when there is snow. If that happens, it could go on and really hurt until next Spring."

S&R's five mills are running a total of eight shifts, employing 500 people.
The strike was described by Andy Smith, an Interfor negotiator, as unlike any other. The structure of the industry has changed - there are more contractors - and not all contractors are at the four bargaining tables. Forest Industrial Relations has the largest table, bargaining for 31 employers, while Interfor and two other major companies (TimberWest Forest and Island Timberlands) are bargaining separately with the union.

No talks are taking place, and the union leadership spent the two-month-mark for the strike attending a convention on other issues in Toronto, far from the coast and the bitter strike.

But Gary Kobayashi, business agent for Steelworkers Local 1-2171, which covers much of Greater Vancouver and the central coast, said work is going on behind the scenes to resolve the dispute.

"I think the possibility of a settlement is there," Kobayashi said. "Some of the companies are putting out feelers to the union on what it would take to solve this strike."


UFCW fails Ontario millers

The lockout which has kept workers at Horizon Milling from refining flour at the Elm Street plant in Port Colborne, ON is closing in on the five-month mark.

On Tuesday, it will be five months from when about 60 employees with the United Food and Commercial Workers local 416P turned down a new contract, which called for a reduction in benefits, salary, pensions and a removal of severance, as well as a wage freeze for three years.

Since then, the employees haven't heard anything from the parent company, Cargill, on a compromise solution, and now instead of punching in to work, the employees from the former Robin Hood now punch wood into a barrel to keep themselves warm at night at the lockout camp outside of the plant.

"Not a peep," said Kevin Lallouet, financial officer with the local union. "Not a 'we're going to try this' or a 'we're going to do that.' Nothing." Cargill is now reportedly shipping the raw material, wheat, out of the factory by train to a refining plant in Minneapolis.

Then, the finished product is allegedly being shipped back to Ontario, ending

up in a tanker yard in Hamilton, where companies can receive it on trucks and take the wheat to the final customer.

Coupled with the fact that the employees emptied the warehouse in the days leading up to the lockout, as they were directed to do by Cargill, and the plant will soon have nothing left.

"By the end of this week (Sept. 21), the plant should be empty," said Lallouet. "In hindsight when you look back and look at how things were happening, it almost looks like they were orchestrating the whole thing."

He said many of the locked-out workers have found other jobs, simply being unable to wait for the company to make some concessions on the contract. But the workers will not sign the contract that is currently on the table from Cargill, said Lallouet.

"There's too many unknowns," he said. "I could sign that contract today and be out of a job tomorrow."

Robert Myer, director of corporate services at Horizon Milling, would only say there is no "new news" regarding the situation and right now, the company and the workers are in "wait and see" mode.

"I know that's not much of a soundbite," said Myer. "But that's the reality of it."

Myer wouldn't comment on the situation inside the factory regarding the exporting of the raw material to other refining plants, but did say that Horizon Milling is taking "every precaution to keep their valued customers."


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