Ex-labor boss-lawmaker goes to federal court

A once prominent labor leader who was indicted on corruption charges for stealing $2.2 million from the government, his union, and a Little League baseball association, is gearing up this week for the beginning of his much-anticipated trial.

Brian McLaughlin, who served 14 years in the N.Y. state Assembly until he stepped down last year, has a pretrial conference in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on Thursday. The case will start jury selection on Monday.

Mr. McLaughlin's freefall as a major powerbroker was dramatic: Four years ago he was being talked about as a possible candidate for mayor. His trial is expected to be closely watched by labor leaders and political observers in the city who were shocked when the union boss was criminally charged.

Mr. McLaughlin, a Democrat of Queens, was replaced as head of the New York City Central Labor Council after a team of FBI agents swooped into his West 15th Street office in March 2006 and left with a number of padlocked briefcases. Seven months later, Mr. McLaughlin surrendered to authorities and pleaded not guilty to 44 counts of racketeering, embezzlement, conspiracy, and fraud. At the time, U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said the allegations "add new meaning to the term ‘hand-in-the-till,'" and accused the labor boss of accepting bribes from city street lighting contractors.

Neither Mr. McLaughlin nor his lawyer, Michael Armstrong, could be reached for comment yesterday. A spokeswoman for the Mr. Garcia's office, Yussill Scribner, referred questions about the case to public court documents. Via email, she declined further comment on the case, including regarding whom the prosecution would be calling to testify.

Mr. McLaughlin was one of the most influential and popular labor leaders in the city. Many politicians, including Mayor Bloomberg, who picked up the assemblyman's endorsement in his re-election bid, courted his support.

Mr. McLaughlin — who rose from a rank-and-file electrician to the helm Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers before going on to take over the Labor Council — has gone back to union electrical work since being charged in the case.

He is just one of a string of Albany elected officials who have been criminally charged in recent years. They include: a former state comptroller, Alan Hevesi, who resigned and pleaded guilty to a felony charge earlier this year; state Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr., who is facing charges for using state money for personal endeavors; Assemblywoman Diane Gordon, who is facing bribery charges, and a former Democratic party boss in Brooklyn, Clarence Norman, who was convicted on felony charges.

In June, the New York City Central Labor Council, which is an umbrella group for 400 unions, elected Gary La Barbera, who has a reputation for cleaning up corruption, as Mr. McLaughlin's replacement. According to published reports, the council, which was not implicated in the McLaughlin case, brought in auditors last year to determine how the former labor boss got away with allegedly embezzling money. Mr. McLaughlin could face life in prison if convicted.


SEIU strikers stage Social Services walk-out

Workers at the Erie County (PA) Office of Children and Youth were expected to continue picketing Monday after declaring an impasse in contract negotiations. About 100 union workers went on strike Friday, after negotiations on a new contract broke down.

The last contract expired on Dec. 31. Workers had remained on the job, despite voting to approve a strike last month after the county offered a four-year contract with 3 percent raises in each of the first three years and a 3.2 percent raise in the final year.

Gene Walczak, one of about 100 members of Pennsylvania Social Services Union Local 668, said the county has spent too much time studying the pay issue. "Why don't they save the taxpayers' money and spend 50 cents to call (neighboring) Crawford County and ask what their pay is," Walczak said. "We're tired," said Betti-Jo Gilbert, another striking worker. "We are underpaid and overworked."

The strikers wore purple shirts and carried signs reading, "Ask abused children what I'm worth to them." The workers said their jobs have become more difficult since the May 2004 death of Brittany Legler, a disabled 15-year-old girl who was beaten by her adoptive mother. A new CYS director and new policies have resulted in larger caseloads for CYS workers, Walczak said.

Common Pleas Judge John Bozza on Friday issued an injunction keeping about 40 intake workers and staff at the county's Edmund L. Thomas Juvenile Detention Center on the job through the weekend. It was not immediately clear what might happen to those workers on Monday.

"It was essential that we maintain the status quo," county attorney Charles Agresti told the Erie Times-News. "There are 1,600 kids in the system right now. These caseworkers have developed relationships with those children. An interruption in that service would have been detrimental to the children."

Agresti did not immediately return a call to his cell phone on Sunday. His wife said he was out of town for the day.


Striking teachers union refuses to settle

Teachers in the Harrison Hills (OH) School District have entered their second week of a labor strike. The teachers union and school board members met at the Holiday Inn in Weirton Sunday for more than eight hours.

According to a press release from union spokesperson Linda Rusen, little progress was made in efforts to end the strike. Teachers waited at a social hall in Hopedale to hear from their bargaining team. The teachers have decided to return to the picket lines.


Calls for labor solidarity ring hollow in Buffalo

As members of an exclusive group with high pay and benefits, they have a lofty sense of entitlement. Corporate executives? Actually, the description was aimed at blue-collar autoworkers, the vanguard of the working class. “I have no sympathy for these overpaid, underworked slackers,” one local factory worker named Jim wrote on a Buffalo (NY) News Web log. “I have no pension; I’m not guaranteed lifetime health care.”

The two-day strike last month at General Motors Corp. drew an outpouring of support for the United Auto Workers. But it also drew a barrage of criticism, exposing a rift in the Buffalo Niagara community and among the ranks of working people. “No one on this plan[e]t can get a UAW job, unless you have a family member working already,” another anonymous Web writer said.

Whether it has any basis, the anonymous griping is widespread enough to show a broad vein of resentment against the UAW — surprising in a union stronghold like Buffalo. The barbs were thrown on the day that the UAW walked out of GM plants around the country, including the 1,500-job Town of Tonawanda Engine Plant.

Union members locally are set to vote today on the tentative agreement that ended the strike. The four-year deal sets wages at $28 an hour and includes $13,056 in additional pay and benefits, the UAW estimates.

Of 30 blog posts about the strike on The News Web site, 12 were critical of the UAW. About the same number defended the union, and the rest were neutral. The autoworkers union holds a place in history as advancing the rights of U.S. factory workers in general. Auto strikes in the 1930s demonstrated the power of group action and put other employers on notice.

But during the two-day GM strike last month, critics in the region lambasted the autoworkers for boosting pay to unsustainable levels, driving jobs out of the country, increasing the cost of cars and hoarding jobs for relatives through a referral system for new employees.

Unionized jobs drop

Such a barrage might not be a surprise in other places, but it arose in a city with a strong blue-collar heritage and, with the inclusion of public employees, one of the highest levels of union membership in the country. With its history of such industrial employers as Bethlehem Steel, Trico and General Motors, Buffalo has a base of working-class traditions that respect unions.

That may be changing as union ranks thin and industry departs, leaving most workers worse off than unionized counterparts. Since 2000, the level of union membership in the region has fallen from more than 30 percent to 26 percent. Jobs in manufacturing, a union stronghold, plunged 21 percent during the same period, leaving 62,300 last year. The largely non-union service sector, with 463,000 jobs, accounts for the bulk of the employment in the area.

A regional UAW official said he understands the resentment but disagrees with it.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to negotiate good pay and benefits for many years, which has helped communities across the U.S. — including this one,” said Kevin Donovan, assistant director for UAW Region 9. The pay flows back into the economy, supporting the tax base and businesses, he said.

Workers who resent the pension and health care benefits of the autoworkers should have similar compensation of their own, he said.

“Those in lower wage brackets, working people who can’t get health care, . . . I empathize with them, I feel everybody should have a these things,” he said. The UAW is pushing for broader health coverage nationally.

Union supporters on the Internet echoed the point in stronger language.

“Instead of criticizing your fellow American worker, you should be finding out what you can do to support him, to support yourself,” one wrote.

Autoworker wages have long topped the scale for factory work nationwide, and Western New York is no different. The median income for all production workers in the region is $28,210 a year, or an hourly rate of about $13.50, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than half the rate at GM.

Whether the pay gap is good or bad depends on your point of view. While critics call the UAW “greedy,” union hard-liners are railing at their leadership for rolling back previous gains.

The contract on which UAW members are voting today is being called a serious effort to stop the erosion of auto industry jobs in the United States. It shifts GM’s burden of retiree health care to a fund managed by the union. In return, GM guarantees work at U.S. plants.

The UAW built up pay and benefits during the decades when the Big Three reaped high profits and faced little threat of foreign competition, said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo.

“A lot of it stems from jealousy,” he said of UAW critics. Even other unions can’t hope to match the autoworker package that includes pension and health care after 30 years on the job.

But Wheaton doesn’t buy the argument that high UAW wages pushed car makers to move production overseas. Wages would have to fall more than 90 percent to be competitive with those in China, he said.

More pay for others

On the other hand, the chance of being organized by the UAW spurs other manufacturers here to pay more than they would otherwise. “Transplant” automaker Toyota, for example, pays about $25 an hour at its U.S. plants.

“There’s no way Toyota would pay anywhere near that if they didn’t have the threat of being organized,” Wheaton said.

For Buffalo factory workers earning a fraction of UAW pay, that’s not much comfort. Jim, 45, said he earns $12.50 an hour as a machinist at a small company. He pays $23 a week from his pay for health care and dental. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

“It’s very galling to me to see these people strike for the kind of wages they make,” he said.

As a former manager at GM in Tonawanda, Gordon Marinoff of Amherst has another perspective. He managed the former Chevrolet foundry, a part of the plant complex that was later torn down. He blames both management and union for inflexible practices that caused the company to shrink jobs while rivals gained market share.

“I believe in unions, but not the way they operate today,” he said. “The golden goose is just about finished.”


Unauthorized strike strands schoolkids

Some St. Louis city school bus drivers have walked off the job this morning in an unauthorized strike, leaving hundreds of children without transportation to school.

Scores of drivers are picketing near Laidlaw Transit headquarters in the 5300 block of Hall Street in St. Louis. Drivers at the scene apologized to the children but cited the need for better pay and benefits, according to broadcast reports.

The contract for drivers expired yesterday, but the union agreed to a 90-day extension, according to Fox 2 News. Those participating in the strike could lose their jobs.


Gov't union strike leaders divided by deal

The bargaining committee representing Vancouver, B.C.'s striking outside workers is recommending they reject the settlement proposed by mediator Brian Foley. Dave Van Dyke, a CUPE local 1004 bargaining committee member, said the deal gives the employees the wages and contract term they were seeking, but falls short in other key areas.

Striking library workers were also advised by their bargaining committee to hold out for a better deal. Library workers leaving the meeting of local 391 at the Croation Cultural Centre said the union's demands regarding pay equity with the city workers were ignored by mediator Brian Foley.

"The recommendations were really divisive, but our solidarity is strong and the attempts to divide us haven't worked," said library worker Gillian Doan, who works at the central library.

The city's inside workers, members of CUPE Local 15, were being advised by their bargaining committee today to accept Foley's recommendations.

Foley released his recommendations on Friday and workers attended information meetings over the weekend.

The 3,500 outside workers have been on strike since July 19.


Upstart butchers cut into UFCW market share

If the labor movement is dying, it's not because of Eric Grumbrecht, 42, an Acme butcher from Warminster. He would say it's the fault of his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers. "They are the laziest organizers on the planet," he said. "I've never seen anyone in the UFCW organize squat."

So Grumbrecht decided to start his own union to organize butchers, bakers and deli workers at Genuardi's, a division of Safeway Inc. That sets up this $21.27-an-hour butcher in a fight with a corporate giant that books $40.2 billion in annual revenue, and a union with 1.3 million members nationwide and a $230 million budget.

Think of Grumbrecht as a labor entrepreneur. He has the heart and hustle, he says, found in those who start the kinds of organizations that challenge their worn-out predecessors.

Grumbrecht has his work cut out for him, and UFCW officials say he is a novice, ill-equipped for the task.

Here's what's not at issue:

Acme butchers, represented by UFCW, earn more money and have better benefits than nonunion butchers at Genuardi's.

And organizing workers into a union is a challenge.

The right-to-work folks say unions do not succeed, because laws protect workers the way unions once did, because humanely managed companies do not need unions, and because workers do not want to pay dues to corrupt unions.

Unions do not succeed, labor leaders say, because companies fight back tough, firing ringleaders even though it is illegal, and because laws that are supposed to protect workers are barely enforced.

No wonder, both say, that union membership is down.

"I hear a lot of stories about how labor is on the decline, but I have 800 cards of people who want to join a union," said Grumbrecht, a black-leather-jacketed biker who describes himself as "the bald . . . guy on the Harley who gets chased out of stores."

To seek an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, a petitioning union needs to have cards signed by one-third of a work unit. Another union can join in if it can add one card from one worker in the unit.

About 30 to 50 independent unions go through this process a year, estimates Carol Lambiase, an international representative for the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the largest independent union not affiliated with a labor federation such as the AFL-CIO. The UE serves as a clearinghouse for independent unions.

In one month, Grumbrecht and his fledgling union have filed petitions to represent butchers, bakers, and seafood and deli workers at Genuardi's stores in North Wales, Warrington and Doylestown - about 85 total. An election for the North Wales store is set for Oct. 19.

"This issue has come up before. We've been lucky that our employees have not felt the need for a third party," said Maryanne Crager, Genuardi director of public affairs.

After Grumbrecht started meeting with workers, Genuardi's butchers got an across-the-board raise of $1-plus an hour to $19.50. Was it to stave off the union, as Grumbrecht contends, or simply an annual raise, which is Genuardi's stance?

It is not unusual for companies to raise wages in response to a union-organizing drive, and it is also not unusual for companies to give annual increases - Genuardi's says merit raises are given every six months.

Annual butchers' raises for 2006 and 2005 were 20 cents an hour each year, according to one employee who checked pay stubs.

When Grumbrecht filed to organize the North Wales store Sept. 10, UFCW Local 1776, in nearby Plymouth Township, joined in.

Piggybacking on his hustle, Grumbrecht said.

Not at all, says president Wendell Young 4th, whose 19,461-member local has been trying - unsuccessfully - to organize Genuardi's workers for almost a quarter-century.

"We'd rather be the tortoise that actually gets something for our workers," Young said.

Given the might of Genuardi's parent, Safeway, butchers and bakers who want a union are going to need the kind of experienced help a large local like 1776 can provide, Young said.

"He has no resources," Young said of Grumbrecht. "If the workers get intimidated, if there are needs, he doesn't have one penny to help them. He has no ability to help them get jobs at other stores."

"He put those people right in the crosshairs."

Four years ago, Safeway, a 1,740-store chain based in California with an 80 percent unionized workforce, was one of three supermarkets that together locked out 70,000 California supermarket workers in a five-month strike.

To say there is bad blood here is to put it mildly. Young does not have much nice to say about Grumbrecht, and Grumbrecht's descriptions of Young are unprintable.

Young says Grumbrecht may be angling for a union leadership job - a charge Grumbrecht dismisses with a hoot. ("It's very tempting to take a big-money job, but if I were really looking for a job, I've committed to suicide," he said. "After this, I'm gone. I'm going to cut meat. That's what I do.")

Grumbrecht said it simply bothered him that his butcher friends at Genuardi's made less money than he did, even though they cut meat just as well.

Now on disability leave from his job at Acme, Grumbrecht is a regular rank-and-file member of UFCW Local 152, of Hammonton, N.J., which until recently represented butchers on both sides of the river. Under a recent reshuffling of UFCW locals, butchers in newly organized UFCW stores in Pennsylvania will be represented by Local 1776.

Grumbrecht said when he first began to organize Genuardi's workers in the summer of 2006, he hoped to start a new UFCW local for all store employees. Later, he and his Genuardi's organizing team split off and set up a separate union, because, he said, Genuardi's workers told him they wanted their own local and did not want to be part of 1776.

The union's too big to pay attention to their issues, said one Genuardi's butcher, who did not want to be named because of his job situation.

Given labor history, it is no surprise that butchers are leading the fray, said history professor Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

"The butchers were the first workers in the food-processing world to unionize," he said. "They are skilled. They have a certain leverage because you have to have the meat fresh. They are crucial. They are one of the profit centers in the supermarket."

It is also not surprising, he said, that the UFCW wants to pick up this organizing drive.

"If there's a bunch of workers who want to be union - there will be all sorts of unions circling around," Lichtenstein said. "They are competing. 'We're more militant.' 'We're more stable.' 'We've got the best research.' "

In the end, he said, most independent unions affiliate with larger unions because they have resources for modern organizing - researchers, publicists, lawyers.

Grumbrecht can definitely see the advantage of it.

"I'm one man with a budget of, I guess you'd say, zero," Grumbrecht said, sitting on his patio with a couple of Genuardi's butchers. But, he says, workers do have power.

The pressure is mounting. Grumbrecht's back up to three cigarette packs a day, chewing Rolaids like candy. He holds workers' hopes in his hands. The responsibility "literally makes me sick.

"My problem is my ignorance," he said. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."


Hollywood strike script in development

As talk of a Hollywood writers' strike continues to build momentum, broadcasters are gearing up for the worst. In fact, the conversation throughout much of the industry has turned from "if there's a strike" to "when there's a strike."

Most analysts had initially assumed that the writers, whose contract with the movie studios and TV networks expires Oct. 31, would hold off from striking, opting to later join forces with actors, whose contract is up in June. But several sources now suggest that writers could make a preemptive move, striking as early as November.

A primary issue for TV writers is the streaming of scripted content over the Internet and how writers should be appropriately compensated for that. After a much-publicized impasse over the summer, the Writers Guild of America West last week resumed negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the networks and studios. At press time, the parties had not reached an agreement.

Broadcasters have spent much of the past year preparing for a possible strike by stockpiling scripts for current series, ordering more nonscripted series and mapping out possible news, sports and specials programming to air in vacant time slots. More recently, the networks have made several direct-to-series orders, foregoing the pilot process in the hope of fast-tracking projects before a strike could be called.

Whether a strike takes place sooner or later, most analysts agreed business as usual would be seriously impaired. A July '08 strike would halt production on all '08 scripted series. A November '07 strike would halt production on all current scripted series.

What remains in question is which side would be hurt more by a strike. If the nets are forced to replace their scripted programs with a combination of reality, news and sports content, there is no guarantee those time slots would be returned to scripted series after a strike. In that circumstance, writers lose.

"Once the networks figure out a business model with which they can thrive, and not only survive, they might stick with that new model," cautioned Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios.

But at a time when the nets are struggling to keep viewers, yet another migration away from TV could be devastating to broadcasters.

Advertisers compare the current situation to the Major League Baseball strike of 1994.

"Everyone thought those baseball fans would come back, and they didn't," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, executive vp at Starcom Entertainment. "I think this really could be a tipping point for Hollywood."


Striking teachers union rejects late-night offer

The Harrison Hills (OH) Teachers Assn. was negotiating with the Harrison Hills City Board of Education through federal mediator Jack Yoedp of Pittsburgh late Sunday in the Holiday Inn at Weirton.

HHTA spokeswoman Linda Rusen said the negotiations began at 3 with more than 50 teachers in attendance to show support. When the negotiations began, she said, the board submitted a proposal to HHTA. Although she said she did not know what was specifically included in the proposal, it wasn’t received well by members of the association.

“It’s not what we’re looking for,” she said. “They (board members) are saying they’ll give us a higher percentage (pay increase) but will take away insurance. That’s just my guess.” HHTA submitted another proposal that the board was discussing as of 10:20 p.m. Earlier, at about 9, Rusen said, “I’m hopeful considering they’ve been in there for six hours.”

She said the HHTA would remain on strike today if a tentative agreement is not reached. If no agreement is reached, today marks the eighth day the association, comprised of about 140 teachers and certified staff members, has been on strike.


Government union-contract campaign rally

Related Posts with Thumbnails