Judge smacks down uncivilized strikers

Citing "threats of violence and intimidation," Acting State Supreme Court Justice Marianne Furfure has issued an injunction barring picketing Dresser-Rand strikers from interfering with access to the factory. In a 15-page ruling filed Tuesday, Furfure found that illegal acts have been threatened or committed by union members who have been on strike since Aug. 4.

"Impeding access to the Dresser-Rand facility by effectively blocking access across the crosswalks ... in the guise of picketing is not lawful behavior," Furfure wrote. "Additionally, placing video cameras up to the windows of vehicles leaving the facility is another form of intimidation and harassment."

The judge said Dresser-Rand proved during three days of hearings last week that threats of violence and intimidation have been made against those who have crossed the picket line. "These actions are not just isolated incidents of rowdy behavior at the beginning of a strike, but acts of threat, intimidation and harassment that have continued and extend beyond the picket line to nearby businesses and the homes of employees," Furfure wrote.

The judge said police have not been able to adequately address the ongoing blocking of access to the facility because of the use of police scanners on the picket lines.

Furfure said the circumstances do not justify a limit on the number of pickets at any one location, which Dresser-Rand had requested.

"It is not the number of picketers but the conduct displayed which is unlawful," she wrote.

Dresser-Rand said in a news release that it is "extremely pleased" with the decision.

"This injunction will help us protect our salaried employees, our newly hired replacement workers, and perhaps most significantly, those employees that have chosen to cross the picket line and return to their jobs," said Dan Meisner, human resources manager at Painted Post.

Furfure's order prohibits pickets from:

• Interfering with people or vehicles entering or leaving the Dresser-Rand factory.

• Hindering traffic flow by placing people, vehicles or other obstructions in the way of traffic.

• Picketing in or across any crosswalks.

• Videotaping or photographing the occupants of any vehicles entering or exiting the property.

• Assaulting, harassing or molesting employees, their families or others having business with the employer.

• Threatening or intimidating employees, their families or others either in person, by telephone, electronic means or in writing.

• Shouting, using obscene or abusive language or gestures.

• Using police scanners on the picket line.

Representatives of Local 313 were unavailable for comment Wednesday. About 400 union members walked off the job Aug. 4 after their three-year contract expired. The cost of health care coverage and contract language covering work rules are the major issues in dispute.


Teachers' strike 'consultant' shown to have faked injury

As a teachers' strike entered its fourth day, Harrison Hills officials released video of a pedestrian-van crash that happened on the picket line Tuesday. Superintendent Jim Drexler did not comment on the video itself, but said he wants the public to watch the video and come to their own conclusions.

John Avoris, the alleged victim on the picket line, said a Huffmaster Security van ran over his foot. Thursday, Avoris reiterated again that he was struck by the van that was hired by the school district to provide security during the strike. "I had to go to the hospital. I was transferred there. The van's tire ran over my foot," Avoris said. "I got the tire mark on my shoe."

John Tabacchi, Hopedale city solicitor, said no charges had been filed as of Thursday afternoon.

"After I get the report, I will review them, go over the witness statements and determine if there is sufficient evidence to file charges," Tabacchi said.

Tabacchi said he is awaiting police reports from a number of accidents reported on the picket lines.

Another person was rushed to the hospital earlier this week after she also claimed a van struck her on the picket line. No charges had been filed in that case either.


Space shuttle strikers break record

A strike by 450 space shuttle workers broke a record on the Space Coast on Wednesday. The picket line has continued for 113 days, which is the longest strike ever at Kennedy Space Center, WESH 2 News reported.

The workers and management can only hope it will end soon. It's been so long that the picketers are making themselves at home with equipment such as fans and rocking chairs.

Life on the picket line isn't easy, but management sent a message meant to tell workers it's not ready to end the strike. Temporary replacements for the striking shuttle workers are being hired.

The workers interpreted the message differently. They said the company is showing signs of strain. "I know they're having a hard time. There is no way that you can lose this many workers, this many seasoned people doing these jobs," striking shuttle worker Louie Hanna said.

Kevin Propst's wife has cancer, but she's missing her treatments because the couple has no insurance while on strike.

"This space program means everything to all of us, and that's why were fighting here to keep these jobs," Propst said.

The workers run the cranes that lift the shuttle, operate the crawler that rolls it out and provide logistics at the launch pad.

The strikers believe something is about to give, but management said it can run the shuttle program without them.

They've rolled out the shuttle for launch now for the second time since the strike began.


Savvy Power Woman hooks Jumbo Union into Big Business

Anna Burger reaches into her bag, pulls out a file and offers up the numbers: 8 out of 10 Americans think corporations' profits only benefit the top earners, that companies are too focused on the short term, that their actions contribute to driving down wages.

Burger is the most powerful woman in the labor movement, and her union - the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU - sponsored this latest public opinion poll.

True, the survey questions are loaded, almost along the lines of, "Do you think marauding profiteers are good for America?" And the conclusions provide an unsurprising feed to labor's long-running anti-management storyline. Moreover, these latest poll numbers are tempered by opinion polls showing that labor's Democratic allies now running Congress are equally unpopular.

But what's striking is that Burger, the union's secretary-treasurer, is here at all. We are sitting on a patio outside a Ritz Carleton conference room in Dana Point, California, where some of the most important women in corporate America have gathered for Fortune's annual Most Powerful Women's Summit.

"This not the normal way I spend my Monday's and Tuesday's," laughs Burger, a willowy woman with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.

Indeed, Burger -- who started her labor-organizing career as a social worker in Pennsylvania -- spends most of her time with nurses and janitors and the maids who clean the Ritz and other posh hotels, at least when she's not being courted by Democratic presidential candidates eager for SEIU's support. (The union, which is the fastest growing in the nation, recently disappointed those same candidates when it decided to put off until next week a decision about endorsing a candidate in the Democratic primary race.)

That Burger was eager to join this business-minded gathering highlights a new and evolving two-pronged approach among some U.S. labor leaders, who now combine the typical combative stance toward management, especially at nonunion shops, with a search for common ground.
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Two years ago, SEIU President Andy Stern was leading a protest campaign against nonunion Wal-mart (Charts, Fortune 500), and the activist group he helped launch still complains about the behemoth box store. But earlier this year SEIU and Wal-mart joined together in a call for national healthcare reform. Likewise, Stern recently joined with the Washington CEO group, the Business Roundtable, on healthcare.

"We really do want to figure out how to build new opportunities and partnerships [in order] to share the prosperity of this country," says Burger, who heads up Change to Win, a powerful political alliance of seven unions, representing six million workers, that is sure to throw its considerable activist and financial weight around in the '08 election.

But at the Fortune gathering, Burger couldn't help but notice continued huge gaps between the thinking of labor and management. While the women CEO's at the summit talked about their responsibility to shareholders, she said, they usually left out workers and communities.

And while executives swapped advice on reducing healthcare costs through company wellness programs and better information technology, Burger argued that Congress needs to take action to cover 47 million uninsured Americans, a level of government market intervention that makes plenty of executives nervous.
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And after hearing a session on DNA mapping, she is taking the idea to union locals, noting that it's a health benefit that shouldn't be confined to the well-off. (She adds that DNA researchers would benefit from a more diverse pool of clients.)

But on a personal level, Burger will always have one enduring bond with her corporate female peers. Like the upper echelons of corporate America, labor was always a man's world. Her father was a Teamster, and she was the first female president of her SEIU local in Pennsylvania, a state dominated by male-oriented industrial unions.

She recalls that when she was the only woman in the room -- which was always -- she would plant herself at the head of the table so that she couldn't be ignored.

Then she would insert her opinions. "I figured out where to air differences and where to find common ground," she says.

Just like she's doing now.


Striking union apologizes to company

The United Steelworkers has issued a retraction and apology to TimberWest Forest over a video the union released Sept. 26 that members claimed showed a company contractor felling trees into a lake on Vancouver Island.

"The United Steelworkers have learned that the body of water in question is not mature and permanent, but the result of obstruction of a stream which causes the formation of the body of water depicted. That body of water has now drained so that the area shown in the video is now a grassy area, drained by one or more small streams," the union stated in a news release.

At the time, TimberWest accused the union of using the video as a pressure tool in the coastal forestry strike, now in its 10th week. TimberWest released its own photos to counter the union claim, that showed the region was dry.


Schools signal advance surrender to teachers' strike

Members of Reynolds (PA) Education Association won’t decide until Monday if they’ll strike, but the school board is preparing students and their parents for what will happen if the teachers set up a picket line. School board President Jeffrey A. Colson sent a letter home to parents Thursday explaining procedures for school operations if a strike is called.

The school board and union will meet Monday to try and settle a contract, and the union has said if a deal isn’t reached, it will strike Tuesday morning.

If there’s a strike, classes will be canceled for all students from Tuesday until the school board receives official notification that the teachers will return to work. Exceptions are students who attend the Mercer County Career Center and Keystone Education Center, Colson said.

Parochial school and special education students who ride Reynolds buses will be able to continue to do so. Any questions about transportation can be directed to Karen Sherwood at 724-646-5525.

If a strike is called, the district will try to continue to offer all student activities including sports and marching band, Colson said.

The district’s Web site will have updates on the strike and the school board also plans to notify the media when new information is available, he said.

According to the Web site, teachers can strike twice during a school year and the first strike must end in time for the school year to be completed by June 15. Teachers can strike for about 18 days if school is held on all holidays except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and Memorial Day.

A second strike can last about 11 days and the school year would need to be completed by June 30.

The Web site also contains specific information about contract negotiations. A news release from the school board posted Thursday said negotiations have reached a critical point and the major unresolved issues include salaries, fringe benefits and early retirement.

Some sticking points for both sides are health care and co-payments. In the board’s latest proposal, they asked the teachers to pay premium co-payments for health insurance, with teachers paying $25 for individual coverage and $50 for family coverage in the first year of a new contract.

In the 2010-11 school year, the last year of a new contract, those co-payments would rise to $50 for individuals and $70 for families.

“Most of the district’s taxpayers would welcome such modest co-payments for health insurance,” the board’s news release said.

The union said in a news release Wednesday the public needs to know the teachers are trying to save the district money and the co-payments the board proposed would be the highest for any teachers in Mercer County.

“We've made considerable movement and money-saving concessions in a number of areas, including agreeing to move all of our members from a traditional indemnity health care plan to a PPO,” said Gino Tofani, union president and chief negotiator.


Opposition reported to UAW-GM deal

Workers began voting this week on the agreement reached between General Motors and the United Auto Workers union, which on September 26 ended a two-day strike by 73,000 GM workers, the first national auto strike in three decades.

There is widespread anger among rank-and-file workers towards the sweeping concessions accepted by the union. The deal freezes the wages of current workers, slashes the pay of new hires in half and abolishes employer-paid medical coverage for retirees. In exchange the UAW bureaucracy was given control of a multibillion-dollar retiree health-care trust fund.

Seven of the ten largest locals—including those in the Michigan cities of Pontiac, Lansing, Detroit and Flint—are voting this week, with the 2,600-member local at the Lordstown plant in eastern Ohio voting Monday. Results are expected by October 10.

The UAW has dispatched scores of highly paid bureaucrats across the country to try to sell the deal at union meetings. The union’s campaign of lies and half-truths has been echoed by the news media, which has claimed workers won unprecedented job guarantees. In reality, the deal paves the way for the shutdown of three plants—in Indianapolis, upstate New York and the Detroit suburb of Livonia—and the continual slashing of jobs by GM, which has eliminated more than 30,000 jobs since 2005.

On Wednesday Bank of America upgraded GM stock, citing the automaker’s “more favorable than expected labor agreement with the United Auto Workers.” The broker added, “the elimination of the UAW healthcare liability at a better than expected 25% discount (including the higher pension liability) results in a higher valuation for GM stock.”

Analyzing the deal, auto analyst Brian Johnson of Lehman Brothers said the contract “represents a significant unwinding ... of the automobile entitlement economy.”

Details continue to emerge underscoring the historic scope of the betrayal by the UAW. The Detroit Free Press reported Wednesday that a “little-observed detail” all but eliminates the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), a gain won by workers during the bitter 67-day strike in 1970 to protect wages against inflation.

Under the contract workers will lose thousands of dollars due to the diversion of a substantial portion of their COLA pay to help GM pay for current and retiree health-care costs. According to analysis by the paper, each worker will lose $6,240 in COLA payments over the course of the four-year agreement.

GM will take $270 million from workers’ COLA to pay for health care for active workers. Another $180 million will be diverted from workers’ COLA into the new VEBA, or voluntary employee beneficiary association, the $30 billion retiree health-care fund, which will be controlled by the union.

In addition to COLA diversions, auto workers will see co-payments for doctor’s visits more than double, rising from $10 to $25, and will receive no hourly wage increases, only lump-sum payments. In the face of rising living costs this will amount to a de facto pay cut for workers whose wages have stagnated over the last 15 years, rising just 1.5 percent above inflation annually since 1992.

The situation for newly hired workers will be even worse, with most earning $14 an hour—less than the hourly average for nonunion workers—receiving reduced medical benefits and a 401(k) retirement plan instead of an employer-paid pension.

The VEBA scheme will give the union control of one of the biggest investment funds in America. The union, egged on by Wall Street, will have financial incentive to reduce benefits in order to maintain a steady stream of income to the hundreds of union bureaucrats in the UAW.

Corporate America is also hailing the VEBA scheme as a model for other industries, such as the airlines, which want to dump their health-care obligations. The percentage of companies that provide employer-paid benefits has dropped from 69 percent in 2000 to 60 percent today and will continue to plummet, foisting the responsibility and expense of rising medical costs on the backs of workers and their families.

The GM contract is just the beginning. As negotiations begin with Detroit’s other Big Three automakers—Ford and Chrysler—it is becoming clear that these companies want to press even further in their concession demands. As the Wall Street Journal noted Tuesday, Chrysler and Ford want even greater flexibility to close plants and to reduce pension benefits.

Workers who spoke with the World Socialist Web Site expressed their opposition to the contract. A young worker with five years at the Pontiac Truck & Bus plant, a member of UAW Local 594, told the WSWS, “They are totally destroying the middle class. The rich have too much and now the union is going to be in control of billions. These companies are going to the Third World to take advantage of their workers and get rid of our jobs. Now they want the new hires to get $14 an hour. How are you supposed to live on that?”

Members of UAW Local 735, who work at GM’s transmission plant in Willow Run, Michigan, voted on the contract Wednesday afternoon. They expressed opposition to the contract and frustration over the lack of any organized opposition to it.

Donnie Phillips, who is eligible to retire in a few days, told the WSWS he had wanted to park his truck with a large sign at the entrance to the union hall, urging his co-workers to reject the contract. “My sign was going to say, ‘Vote No to Corporate Greed.’ I have been trying to tell these people I work with something about what is going on,” he continued. “They have been taking and taking and taking and not giving us anything.

“They are going to give the GM bargaining team big bonuses just to rub it in our face. My dad retired from GM and my mom retired from Ford. My grandparents and my whole family worked in the auto plants.

“When I came in, I made a deal to give them 30 years. My 30 years is up on the tenth of this month. They are taking our medical. The pension is next. And they want to pay half price for new hires.

“You know what ‘long-term temporary employee’ really means? I used to be a union organizer, and I have seen what they do. They set up a revolving door and they never have to pay benefits.”

Jim Neff was emphatically opposed to the contract settlement. He has 29 years seniority and will be eligible to retire on the first of April in 2008, “If I’m still here,” he added.

Because Neff will be reclassified as a “non-core” employee under provisions of the new contract, the company will gain the right to force him to take a more difficult, or even dangerous, job assignment—a move aimed at forcing him out of the plant in order to replace him with a low-wage employee.

“They are taking our medical,” he said. “What is five doctor visits a year? Last year I had a heart attack. I had to see the doctor 20 times.”


AFSCME fights for discredited police officer

Despite receiving numerous commendations and medals, including the Courage of Connecticut and Medal of Valor, throughout his seven-year career with the city's police department, members of the Board of Police Commissioners unanimously voted Thursday night to terminate Officer Greg Blackinton.

Though board members were also tasked with making a similar decision about Officer Brian Andrews' future with the department, they decided not to terminate the four-year veteran officer, but to instead suspend him without pay for a period of 45 days, effective today.

The decisions to terminate Blackinton and suspend Andrews were the culmination of two Loudermill hearings presented to the board Thursday night as the result of recommendations from police Chief John DiVenere to terminate both officers. The chief's recommendations were made on the heels of three separate internal investigations into citizen complaints filed against Blackinton, and two internal investigations into Andrews.

Both Blackinton and Andrews had been placed on paid administrative leave about two weeks ago, the day after Blackinton apprehended a convicted sex offender suspected of raping a 13-year-old city girl hours earlier.

Thursday's hearing was attended by at least 50 members of the city's police department and by more than two dozen members of other departments throughout the state, as a show of solidarity for their fellow officers.

After the decisions were rendered, Richard Gudis, an attorney for the Connecticut Council of Police AFSCME Council 15, of which the city's police officers union Local 754 is a member, who represented the two officers, said the fight was not over. Gudis said the union would appeal Blackinton's termination before the American Arbitration Association, known as the Triple-A, and it would also appeal Andrews' suspension before the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration (SBMA).

The Local 754 Union president, Officer Peter Kot, said, "Obviously the union is disappointed at the outcome ... We will continue to fight for Officer Blackinton's job back and for Officer Andrews' to have his suspension reversed."
The initial complaint against Blackinton was made by Philip Pelletier, a security officer at the Bristol Commons shopping plaza on Farmington Avenue, who claimed that on July 7, the officer refused to call a supervisor when Pelletier asked that he do so.

In his complaint, Pelletier said he approached Blackinton, who had been seated in his cruiser in the plaza's parking lot, and asked the officer to instruct some teens to leave the plaza. After ascertaining that to Pelletier's knowledge the teens had not caused any trouble that night but the security guard wanted them removed based on prior bad behavior, Blackinton told Pelletier he could not tell the teens to leave, but could advise them not to cause trouble.

Angry that Blackinton would not force the teens to leave, Pelletier told Blackinton to call a supervisor to the scene, to which Blackinton responded that Pelletier could call the supervisor himself.

According to Ursula Haerter, an attorney from Robinson & Cole, who represented the chief and city in the Laudermill hearing, in reviewing the complaint against Blackinton, Detective Sgt. Thomas Calvello later determined the officer's actions violated two sections of the department's code of conduct, including conduct unbecoming an officer.

Haerter stated that as a result of the complaint against him, for which the officer had not yet been disciplined, Blackinton sought the assistance of a fellow officer to retaliate against Pelletier by issuing the security guard a ticket for failure to comply with state law governing registration of his vehicle, which had New York plates, despite Pelletier's living in Bristol.

To exemplify her point that Blackinton sought revenge against Pelletier for filing a complaint, Haerter read copies of transmissions between Blackinton and a fellow officer over the Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) in their cruisers, sent two nights after the complaint was filed, in which Blackinton told the other officer to "pinch" Pelletier for the registration violation.

Simultaneously, according to Haerter, Andrews was using department databases to research Pelletier's registration and license information, which she said he did on four other occasions over the next two weeks, before finally pulling the security guard over and issuing him a ticket, which was the basis for another internal investigation.

Haerter said that as a result of the ticket, Pelletier filed a second complaint in which he alleged that the enforcement action was strictly a case of an officer retaliating against him for filing a complaint against another officer, a claim Andrews has denied but which led to a second internal investigation into Blackinton and the first into Andrews.

Based on those two internal investigations, Haerter said it was obvious that Blackinton was upset about the initial complaint filed against him and attempted to collude with his fellow officers to exact revenge on Pelletier, but he was unsuccessful in his efforts with one officer but successful with Andrews. The third internal investigation into Blackinton, and second into Andrews, Haerter said, was the result of "another citizen complaint from a different citizen this time." She said that on July 21 Blackinton had stopped a vehicle which he noticed had expired registration stickers, and obtained permission from the motorist to search the vehicle.

Haerter said Andrews was sent by dispatchers to back Blackinton on the call, but when the motorist changed her mind about the vehicle search and requested that a supervisor be called to the scene, neither officer called for the supervisor. She filed a complaint against the officers. In response to Haerter's presentation of the "factual basis" for DiVenere's recommendation to terminate the officers, Gudis said there was no retaliation on the part of either Blackinton or Andrews in the matter concerning Pelletier, nor was there any misconduct on the part of either officer in the matter concerning the motorist. Gudis said what Haerter called retaliation and dereliction of duty on the part of both Blackinton and Andrews, he and other law enforcement professionals would call good police work.


Teachers strike OK'd in PA, district ready to operate

The union that represents Quakertown Community Schools' support personnel has authorized its members to call a strike if a contract settlement can't be reached. Union members on Saturday voted 123 to 7, with two abstentions, to let members call an emergency meeting to seek a strike vote if needed, said Gary Smith, a representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, based in Montgomeryville.

The vote "was not a strike vote. It simply allows us to move to that step if negotiations fail to move forward," said Smith, who is the PSEA liaison representing the support services union.

Quakertown support staff employees provide school lunches, perform maintenance and custodial duties, fill secretarial services and serve as classroom instructional aides. The previous four-year contract ended June 30, but employees continue to work under the terms of the expired contract.

In a letter to parents Wednesday, Superintendent Lisa Andrejko wrote that a strike by the Quakertown Educational Support Personnel Association was possible, but not imminent.

"At this time QESPA has not yet informed the district of an actual date of a strike," Andrejko said in the letter.

It said the union is required by law to give the superintendent 48 hours notice of a strike.

Andrejko said the school board negotiates contracts, and she is not directly involved in those negotiations.

"We have a plan if the worst happens, and the support staff goes on strike," Andrejko said. She declined to offer full details of the plan, but said schools would stay open.

"Students may have to bring in bag lunches," she said. "Some services would be diminished. Office phones would need to be manned by principals and other managers."

Andrejko said the district could not hire strikebreakers -- outside people to fill positions -- while support staff are engaged in a work stoppage.

"We determine what essential services are, and do our best to fill them with administrative staff," Andrejko said.

Striking workers would not be paid. Smith said retroactive pay could become another negotiating issue if the workers strike.

"We want to work with the district and negotiate with them, but their proposal and ours are still night and day," union president James Mayer said.

Mayer said that since negotiations began in January, school board members have missed meetings or did not come prepared.

"The way we've been treated during this process is disrespectful to the employees," Smith said. "They wouldn't treat teachers like this."

Mayer said school board members on the negotiating team are Paul Stepanoff, Kelly Van Valkenburg and Manuel Alfonso. Reached by telephone, Alfonso said he couldn't speak about negotiations. Efforts to reach Van Valkenburg and Stepanoff were unsuccessful.

Smith said negotiations are all about money.

In June 2006, the school board adopted an $80.4 million budget that increased taxes for the owner of a home assessed at the district average of $25,327 to about $2,994 -- an increase of about $62.

Mayer said the support services payroll part of the budget is less than 1 percent.

Under this year's budget, salaries and benefits for all district employees represented 66.6 percent of the spending plan, or $54.2 million, according to school Business Manager Sylvia Lenz.

The four-year teachers pact will increase starting salaries from $41,222 in 2006-07 to $43,745 in 2009-10. Top salaries will go from $92,069 in the first year to $97,705 in the final year.

"We're not looking to be at the top," Mayer said. "We just want to be able to keep up with inflation."


Will SEC favor card-check corporate elections?

Shareholder activists are blasting proposals by the Securities and Exchange Commission affecting investor rights in corporate elections, suggesting the agency's approach would not resolve a long-smoldering dispute.

"I think this is a case where more work needs to be done," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, said after a recent hearing on the matter.

One of the SEC proposals would give corporations broad authority to block shareholders from putting their own director nominees on official company election materials. Another would sanction such powers, but only by groups representing 5 percent of a company's stock ownership.

The first approach "would obliterate the ability of shareholders to make resolutions," and the other would be "unworkable," said Ann Yerger, executive director of the Council of Institutional Investors.

"Even the 10 largest public pension funds combined would be unlikely to meet this threshold at a public company of any size, whether it be a large-, mid- or small-cap company," said Yerger, whose council represents pension plans with more than $3 trillion in combined assets.

Investors can nominate their own candidates for board seats but must pay for mailings and materials. Such expenses discourage independent challenges, say critics who contend that contested elections of directors can enhance the quality of board debates.

But opponents say that making it easier for maverick candidates to appear on company ballots would give undue power to special interests and hurt shareholders.

"Simply put, proxy access is a bad idea whose time has passed," said John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents large companies.

The SEC has been trying for years to bridge the divide on the issue, and Chairman Christopher Cox has said he wanted to have new rules in place for next year's corporate annual meetings. Changes should be "cautious and measured," Cox said when the SEC put forth its proposals in July.

A public comment period on the SEC will end this week, and the agency's staff is expected to review the input for at least a month before making recommendations.

Beyond board elections, the SEC's initiative has prompted questions about whether the commission would grant companies broader authority to bar shareholder resolutions on such issues as global warming.

Such resolutions often are taken up in annual meetings, though companies can ask the SEC staff for permission to keep them out. The SEC is seeking public comment on a provision that would grant companies broad authority to block all such advisory resolutions offered by shareholders.

Regulators also are considering ways to sanction online communications as a way for shareholders to submit non-binding resolutions. As a result, some investors fear that online chat rooms could take the place of shareholder resolutions at annual meetings.

"We'd be thrilled to have a discussion, say on executive pay, online," said Timothy Smith, senior vice president of Walden Asset Management and a longtime investor activist. But he said there would be "across-the-board opposition by investors" if the SEC sought to use such forums to replace shareholder resolutions.

At one point in the hearing, Democratic lawmakers pressed Castellani of the Business Roundtable on the meaning of "special interests," a term often applied pejoratively to shareholder activists in this debate.

Frank wanted to know whether shareholder resolutions about corporate involvement in Darfur or Iran were "in the special-interest category."

"Not if it were determined to be in the best interest of all shareholders," Castellani said.

The answer didn't satisfy Frank: "You're just dodging the question."

At that point, Smith offered a general assertion: "The business community too easily falls into, 'I don't like that point you're raising. You're a special-interest group.'"

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