Showrunners assume bad faith, abandon offer

Not so quick. That’s the message from Hollywood’s top primetime scripted comedy and drama producer-writers, who about three weeks ago banded together to support striking writers. They will not return to work immediately despite renewed negotiations between the AMPTP and the WGA.

The hundred or so members of the ad hoc, loosely structured United Showrunners coalition still plan to honor their earlier offer to management that they would return as soon as negotiations resume, but not in line with the Nov. 26 date for a renewal of negotiations.

Instead they will wait to make sure management are serious about working out a new contract, according to Steve Levitan, Executive Producer, of “Back To You,” creator of “Just Shoot Me,” and writer/producer on “Frazier” and many other shows. Levitan emailed me over the weekend: “We have been asked (by the WGA) to stay out until we’re sure that they are bargaining in good faith. Most expect it to be a very short negotiation.”

Many of the Showrunners will be meeting informally tonight at a Mexican restaurant in West Los Angeles just as an opportunity to mingle. No other meetings of the group are scheduled at present, and one Showrunner said over the weekend if things go well, there will be no future reason to meet.

Levitan and the other show runners are coordinating closely with Patric Verrone and the Writers Guild negotiating committee, which itself is loaded with Showrunners like Marc Cherry, creator of “Desperate Housewives” and Carol Mendelsohn of “CSI.” That was done on purpose to put the Showrunners front and center in the guild leadership, unlike the writer’s strike in 1988, when Showrunners ended up being a divisive force. This time around, the Guild laid the groundwork in advance of the job action to ensure that Showrunners would be with them.

“I think we’re all aware in the Guild that those Showrunners who (in 1988) pushed everybody to come back have been proven wrong,” says Levitan, “so were very much aware of that. We’re 100 percent committed to what the Guild is seeking here. We put ourselves on the line to demonstrate our solidarity.”

There has been an almost amazing show of solidarity by the Showrunners and as a result every major studio and network has had to shut down shows. Even when it was torture and heart break not to be there, the Showrunners have stayed away this time. At least one or two have gone to work as producers but they are a tiny minority. For the most part Showrunners have presented a solid front on behalf of the Guild.

The Showrunners who are on strike do so in the face of serious legal liability. A Showrunner has a lot more to lose than someone who is just a writer on a show. He or she (mostly he) is also a corporate manager, and as a manager has a contract to produce that show even if there is a strike. So Showrunners are in clear violation of their contract as a producer when they walk. Many have received a letter from a network lawyer warning saying that as a Showrunner they are “in breach” of their contract and may be sued by the network or production company.

Among the Showrunners front and center with Levitan were Christopher Lloyd (”Back to You,” “Frasier”), Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”), Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (“The Riches”), and Josh Friedman (“Sarah Connor Chronicles”). Others who signed the ad included Donald Todd (“Samantha Who?”); David E. Kelley (“Boston Legal”); Greg Berlanti (“Brothers & Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone”); John Wells (“E.R.”); Marti Noxon (“Private Practice”); and Chuck Lorre (“Two And A Half Men”).

Dr. Neal Baer (yes, he’s a real medical doctor), the Showrunner on the long-running, critically acclaimed series “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit,” and a member of the Guild negotiating committee, told me over the weekend he still expects to receive a legal letter, but he also understands that each Showrunner has to make their own personal decision. “It’s not easy,” adds Baer. “I feel people just have to act on their conscience. I’m not going to make a judgment about anybody else (continuing to work).”

Baer pointed out the ephemeral nature of the Showrunners offer to management. With each passing day, more shows shut down because there are no more scripts, which also means that there will not be anything left to produce. So the writer side put the producer side out of work.

Baer felt so badly about the pending layoff of his colleagues that he flew to New York where the show is produced and spent time answering questions for about 200 people, from grips to Teamsters to his co-Executive Producer and director Ted Kotcheff. . He took the questions on bits of paper passed to him in a bunch so that there was no way to identify any individual. He was on a plane back to L.A. about five hours after he had arrived.

While Levitan is one of the instigators of United Showrunners, he is not the leader. There is no single leader. There wasn’t even an organization until a group of Showrunners participated in an ad in Variety supporting the guild’s actions. “We wanted to get everybody on the same page and it grew out of that. So this did not even exist a couple weeks ago. But we know we are very powerful group for both sides,” Levitan said last week.

On November 7 when Showrunners came out to picket in front of the main gate at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, a sense of camaraderie developed. They had agreed to meet after picketing that day at the nearby Smokehouse restaurant. When they got there, the group felt there wasn’t sufficient privacy. So they had lunch, and arranged to meet later that afternoon at the WGA offices in West Los Angeles.

That meeting was unstructured and got a loud at times. There was no moderator, no leader, although Levitan and a few others had helped get it organized. They had come together with a helping hand from the guild but outside the guild’s auspices. The WGA did pay for the hats that the writers received when they arrived at Disney to picket, which were black with white lettering: United Showrunners. And the WGA provided meeting space.

The meeting got some press coverage, but even that left at least one veteran comedy series Showrunner frustrated: “I think the meeting has been mischaracterized. Some, especially Nikki Finke, were accurate in detail but inaccurate in tone. The meeting was described as being heated. You have to understand it’s a room full of Showrunners! It’s a room full of people used to professionally saying something and having everyone else in the room go, ‘OK, that’s how we will do it.’ And I think it was startling for a lot of us. We would say something. Somebody would have a different opinion, and we would want to say, ‘Well, did I not make myself clear? I thought I just explained how this was going to go.’ There was about an hour of that and all of a sudden it dawned on people ‘Oh wait a minute this has to be a different kind of forum’. And once we went through that process, the level of consensus was very high.”

They understood what made them powerful, recalls the same veteran writer, producer and Showrunner: “The feeling was that almost to a person that holding back producing duties has an effect on the companies. The question is always what effect does it have? And the greatest effect it has is a symbolic effect. I find it when I’m out on the picket line and I wear my United Showrunners hat, and there are other writers there and they talk about how it makes it easier for them to come to the picket line when they see Showrunners who have put themselves in the line of fire legally. I think it raises the Esprit de corps when the boss is standing next to you.”

Shawn Ryan, who was pained because he had to skip work on the series finale episode of “The Shield,” which he created, as well as production on his CBS show “The Unit,” explained why they did it in an open letter shortly after the gathering.

“At the Showrunners Meeting it became very clear to me that the only thing I can do as a Showrunner is to do nothing,” wrote Ryan. “I obviously will not write on my shows. But I also will not edit, I will not cast, I will not look at location photos, I will not get on the phone with the network and studio, I will not prep directors, I will not review mixes. These are all acts that are about the writing of the show or protecting the writing of the show, and as such, I will not participate in them. I will also not ask any of my writer/producers to do any of these things for me, so that they get done, but I can save face.”

“I truly believe that the best and fastest way to a good contract is to hit these companies early, to hit them hard and to deprive them of ALL the work we do on their behalf,” added Ryan. “How do we ask our staff writers to go out on strike as we continue collecting producer checks?”

At the meeting there was an informal, unwritten but apparently sincere pledge by the top Showrunners not to forget the younger, more vulnerable among them. They made an agreement that if one was sued, they would treat it as if it was all of them being sued.

This agreement apparently doesn’t mean any of the Showrunners will help others with legal expenses. According to Levitan, what it does mean is that when the strike ends, they will only go back to work if all legal threats are dropped against each and every one of them. How that works in practice is yet to be seen.

It appears unlikely that if there is a fairly quick resolution that Showrunners United will continue on as an organization. The fervent hope of all the members appears to be that there will be no need. They can put their black hats on the shelf as a memento of what they went through.


Unions set to steamroller political opposition

Organized labor is flexing its muscles, showing that it is tired of taking it on the chin. If the unions have their way, between now and Election Day, even the ultra-right lock on the White House and Congress could be broken.

Unions flexed their muscles in off year election campaigns that ended in victories Nov. 6. Thousands of union members combed neighborhoods, button-holed people at worksites, and operated phone banks to rack up wins for labor at the polling places.

Nowhere was this truer than in Kentucky where incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher is now job hunting. “This was payback time,” said Bill Londrigan, Kentucky’s AFL-CIO president. Fletcher was hated by labor because he had cancelled collective bargaining rights for state workers. He had privatized Medicaid and had advocated wage roll backs for state workers.

His opponent, Democrat Steve Beshear, won by a 20 point margin. Fifty eight percent cited the economy, education or health care as their top reason for voting for him.

Cusp of a major shift

The figures support conclusions drawn right after the election by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who said, “We’re on the cusp of a shift that could re-define American politics for decades to come. Working people want real health care reform that covers every American. They want their freedom to form and join unions restored. They want to stop the hemorrhaging of good, middle class jobs out of the country and they want a secure retirement.”

If labor achieves its aim of duplicating the way it operated in Kentucky this year all over the country next year, the right wing could be in serious trouble.

Seven thousand union members who live in the Bluegrass state worked on labor’s campaign. They distributed 465,000 leaflets on a one-on-one, face-to-face basis at worksites and at people’s homes. Some 65,000 of those distributions were done on Election Day. In the last four days of the campaign 2,100 union members made 75,000 phone calls to “pull” union voters out to the polls. On the last Saturday, 440 union members talked to 8,000 union families in their homes.

Close NLRB for ‘renovations’

Labor’s growing offensive against the right seems to be leaving no stone unturned. On Nov. 16 unions staged mass marches and rallies in more than 20 cities across the country, demanding that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) be “closed for renovations.”

The unions were saying, essentially, that when you have a corporate-friendly NLRB in charge of protecting workers’ rights, it is akin to the old tale of the fox guarding the henhouse.

In Nashville, Tenn., it was a very evil looking six-foot-tall fox that took on the role of the NLRB as union members marched in front of the board’s regional offices to protest its long line of anti-labor decisions since President Bush took control.

The decisions the unions are out in the streets protesting include the board’s elimination of the right of some 8 million, including nurses, building and construction trade workers, journalists and others, to form unions by expanding the definition of “supervisor.”

The NLRB has issued 60 rulings that make it harder for workers to form unions but easier to get rid of existing unions, that make it easier for employers to escape liability for breaking the law and weaken already ineffective remedies, and that make it easier for employers to discriminate against union supporters and replace strikers.

Three thousand trade unionists marched and rallied at NLRB headquarters in Washington D.C. while thousands more marched or rallied at other events in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., St. Louis and Tampa, Fla.

In Albuquerque, N.M., union members were joined by community and religious activists and city and state lawmakers in a rally outside the federal building, drawing cheers and honks of support from pedestrians and drivers passing by.

NLRB chairman, Robert Battista, who is supposed to be unbiased and neutral when it comes to workers, unions and labor law, issued a statement calling the protests “shrill.”

New level of militancy

Labor’s upsurge is not just limited to elections, fighting for manufacturing jobs, fighting for labor organizing rights, for health care, for fair trade policy and fighting against the anti-union efforts of the Bush administration. The fight for wages and justice at the workplace is also high on its agenda these days.

Recent and current strikes seem to display a new level of militancy.

In the first strike in its 121-year history, the stagehands’ union local in New York has shut down much of Broadway, while a walkout by 12,000 Hollywood writers is creating problems for television and film producers.

These strikes come close on the heels of strikes by 74,000 workers at General Motors and 45,000 at Chrysler.

When 350 stagehands went on strike Nov. 16, closing down 27 Broadway shows, it was after the producers announced a policy that would reduce the number of stagehands per production as well as the overtime that stagehands would receive.

G.M. and Chrysler workers went on strike after the auto makers demanded reduction of their responsibility for retiree health plans and a lower wage scale for new hires.

Whether the strikes result in victories is a question but what is not in question is the high level of readiness by both unions and their members to use the strike weapon when they feel it is necessary.

The Writers Guild took to the picket lines after Hollywood producers refused to increase the payments they give writers from sales of DVD’s and refused to offer extra payments when many works were used in new media like the Internet or cell phone transmissions. Many writers were furious that the producers continued to offer them only 5 cents in payment per DVD.

Sleeping giant awakes

The highly publicized strikes are by no means the only ones that show a new level of union militancy. Six hundred nurses went on strike two months ago at Appalachian Regional Healthcare, a chain of nine hospitals in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The strike was their response to management demands for higher health insurance premiums, less holiday pay and cuts in paid hours.

Finally, the heightened activity by labor includes a dramatic increase in organizing.

In the last year alone, unions have organized tens of thousands of low-wage workers, particularly at hotels, in child care, janitorial service and home health care.

When you put all these trends together, many observers say, you see a sleeping giant waking up.


Union political crimes will cost members $580,000

A union-financed advocacy group that played a major role in the 2004 elections has agreed to pay a $580,000 fine after the Federal Election Commission concluded it illegally ran advertising against President Bush and in favor of Democrat John Kerry.

In an agreement announced Monday, the FEC said the now inactive Media Fund spent $53.4 million during the contest on television, radio and newspaper ads and direct mail that made reference to Bush or Kerry. The FEC said the fund violated campaign finance laws because it accepted unlimited donations from labor unions and expressly advocated the defeat or victory of a political candidate.

The Media Fund is the latest in a string of so-called 527 organizations the FEC has fined for their activities during the 2004 presidential campaign. They include groups, such as the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth and the liberal MoveOn.org.

Lawyers for these groups have argued that at the time of the campaign they believed they were acting within the law. But the FEC has concluded that 527 organizations that stated their desire to influence the presidential election through fundraising, public statements or advertisements violated the law. Such activity, the FEC has said, could only be conducted by political committees registered with the FEC that abide by contribution limits and public disclosure requirements.

The issue has centered on the emergence of the 527 groups, nonprofit organizations named after the section of the Internal Revenue Service code that governs their activities.

The Media Fund was formed in 2003 as part of a broad effort by liberal and union-related activists to confront Republican voter mobilization efforts and defeat Bush. In August, another group allied with Democrats, America Coming Together, agreed to pay a $775,000 fine.

The settlement with the Media Fund comes nearly four years after campaign finance watchdog groups filed complaints against it and others, alleging they improperly influenced the 2004 election with money raised outside federal limits.

The agreement was announced one day before the FEC was scheduled to vote on new regulations governing how far a corporation or a union can go in mentioning candidates for political office in ads that are ostensibly advocating for or against an issue. Some critics have said the rule could give nonprofit groups financed with unlimited corporate or union money greater leeway to influence elections.

Activists allied with Democrats and Republicans already are forming nonprofit groups to run ads and influence the electorate in anticipation of the 2008 election.


Calif. lawmaker is 100% AFSCME

Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) continued his 100 percent lifetime voting record with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) this session as he again received the highest score on their annual legislative report card.

“Senator Yee has been a great champion for workers and their families his entire political career,” said Willie Pelote, AFSCME International’s Assistant Director of Political Action. “Through his leadership, workers are more protected, tax dollars are spent more efficiently, government is more transparent, and our public boards are more accountable. While Senator Yee earned the highest score on the AFSCME report card, it is impossible to truly measure the impact he has made on lives of our members.

The AFSCME report card looked at several bills, including two authored by Yee, that ensure fairness and equity for working families – specifically the 1.4 million workers represented by the union.. Earlier this year, AFSCME Local 3299, which represents over 20,000 University of California (UC) employees, honored Yee with their Legislator of the Year.

“The AFSCME report card is one of the best indicators of the work we are doing in Sacramento,” said Yee. “I am proud to represent working families and help AFSCME – the nation’s largest public-sector union – build a more equitable society.”

Senator Yee teamed up with AFSCME on two high profile bills this legislative session – SB 190, the Higher Education Governance Accountability Act and SCR 52, legislation calling on the University of California (UC) Board of Regents to share governance of the UC Retirement Plan with the workers.

Among the reforms in SB 190 is a requirement that all executive compensation packages be voted on in an open session of a subcommittee and the full governing board. The bill also requires full disclosure of the compensation package with accompanying rationale and public comment on the specific action item.

AFSCME organizes for social and economic justice in the workplace through political action and legislative advocacy. AFSCME represents a diverse group of service and health care workers in the public and private sectors.


Right to Work law boosts Virginia over neighbors

Maryland lawmakers wrapped up a special session early Monday after approving $1.3 billion in new taxes and lawmakers and passing a bill to let voters decide whether to legalize slot machines.

In doing so, the Democrat-dominated General Assembly swept aside a Republican proposal for two years of slower budget growth, to give revenues time to catch up with spending.

Will all of this close the $1.5 billion budget gap? We doubt it, because in their rush to get through the session, legislative leaders ignored the possible unintended consequences of their actions.

Attorneys had argued that adding their services to those subject to the state's sales tax would only cause law firms to relocate to nearby states, from where they could continue to serve their Maryland clients.

Why couldn't the same happen with computer-service companies? Granted, the services sought from those firms are often needed more quickly, but in a state seeking more technology-related jobs, does it make sense to give such firms an incentive to leave?

Republicans also noted that for large companies, hiring an in-house computer technician is no big deal, but for small companies, that's often not an option. The same might be true of the decision to raise the corporate income tax to 8.25 percent. That's still lower than Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which have rates of 8.7 percent, 9.9 percent and 8.75 percent, respectively.

But Virginia's rate remains at 6 percent, which, when coupled with the fact that it's a right-to-work state, gives it yet another advantage in the search for jobs.

Income taxes were raised on the state's top earners, but lawmakers also raised the exemption for those earning up to $150,000 by $800. On Monday, The Baltimore Sun said that the move would cost county governments $82 million.

The state's sales tax went from 5 to 6 percent, making Maryland the same as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but not Delaware, which has no sales tax. Virginia's sales tax is 5 percent.

During a session devoted to finding new revenues, lawmakers decided to enact some new spending plans, too.

Programs approved included $600 million to cover another 100,000 of the 800,000 who are uninsured in Maryland and a $50 million plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The bay program's funding originally was to come from a new square-foot tax on development, but now will be funded with the reallocation of some funds and the use of some fees on rental cars.

The possible revival of the square-foot tax in the 2008 session is something the local delegation should keep an eye on.

Tobacco taxes will jump from $1 to $2 per pack. Pennsylvania's tax is $1.35, Delaware's is $1.15, West Virginia's is 55 cents and Virginia's is 30 cents.

The new Maryland rate might inspire more to quit, but could also send more smokers across state lines for their smokes.

That possibility is an example of what we fear in the next session. Now that these programs have been set in motion, if the revenue measures put in place don't cover the costs, other taxes might be approved or aid to local governments cut.

For example, the bill introduced "for discussion purposes" that would force counties to pay a greater portion of the employer's share of teacher pensions might be resurrected.

To those who say that couldn't happen, we remind them that we once believed that no state official would ever be so heartless as to threaten closure of the Potomac Center or the Western Maryland Hospital Center, just to balance the state's budget.

But year after year, the threats keep coming, frightening the state's most vulnerable citizens and their families. If state officials can do such things without batting an eye, don't bet they won't dump more of the state's expenses back on local governments.


UAW picks fight against formidable foe

The lockout of Gunite Corp. workers could last a long time if it follows the pattern of a disastrous labor clash with the same company.

A lockout at a Henderson, Ky., wheel plant owned by Accuride, Gunite’s corporate parent, dragged on for four years. The plant’s 400 employees continued picketing until the union local was dissolved in 2002.

United Auto Workers International revoked the local’s charter in a case that garnered national attention after those union members overwhelmingly rejected several contract offers that would have cut the work force by 75 percent and dismantled seniority rules.

That labor debacle was on the minds of leaders of UAW Local 718, which represents 136 employees at the Rockford foundry, as their contract with Gunite ran out.

“We were actually thinking that if we called a strike, (Gunite) may have used that as an excuse to shut down the foundry,” said president Rick Kardell. “But we honestly believe that that foundry produces so much product at such a low price that they can’t afford to shut it down. We’re not worried right now that it’s going to become a Henderson, Ky., but we know it is a possibility.”

Today, the company is running an advertisement in the Rockford Register Star pointing out that more than 75 percent of the union employees made more than $70,000 last year, while 46 percent made more than $80,000.

The company’s contract offer included 2 percent wage increases per year over three years and a $1,250 signing bonus for employees, a perk now forfeited because the union didn’t vote on the contract before a company-imposed deadline Sunday.

“This is a regrettable situation — one that we went to great lengths to prevent,” said Gunite director of operations Bruce Fiji in a written statement. “The company and the union’s committee spent hours and hours at the bargaining table discussing the parties’ proposals.”

But union members say employees have to work between 60 and 75 hours a week to earn those high wages because the plant is understaffed. And economic issues are not the problem with the company’s offer, Kardell said. The real issue is contract language that would change overtime rules, eliminate the union’s say in setting workplace policies, and open the shop to non-union workers, Kardell said.

“We know we make a good living. We don’t dispute that,” Kardell said. “I guess we’re fighting for our right to have a voice in the workplace and they’re trying to take that voice. ... Most of the people on the line are insulted and disgusted. After all the work we’ve put in, all the hours over the years, this is the gratitude we receive. We get locked out.”

The two sides have not scheduled talks, although the company said its current offer remains. Gunite builds brake drums and other wheel parts for the automotive industry.


New UAW standard unacceptable to Bakers' union

The vast majority of the 51 striking RedCo Tea Co. workers are protesting parts of a contract that don’t affect them.

Workers in the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Local No. 50 union have been picketing from 6 a.m. until after 5 p.m. every working day since Nov. 1 outside the company’s Little Falls (NY) facility.

They’re striking because proposed two-year contracts aren’t fair to new employees, said Joyce Alston, president of Local No. 50. Younger workers would have to contribute more to their medical insurance and wouldn’t be eligible for the standard company pension plan available to longtime employees.

“You just can’t have that kind of divide,” she said.

There is some concern that if the changes were made for younger workers, they would eventually be shifted to apply for all workers, Alston said.

RedCo Tea Co. officials had no comment Tuesday.

Under the proposed contracts, the company has asked new employees to pay for 25 percent of their medical insurance and enroll in 401(k) programs instead of a traditional pension plan, according to union leaders.

Striking as a last resort
On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO Central New York Labor Council provided turkeys to the workers, and Local No. 50 supplied side items such as stuffing.

“We want to make their Thanksgiving as nice as possible under the circumstances,” Alston said.

Frankfort resident Bob Paro, 45, has worked at the company for 27 years. He said he was happy to receive a free turkey.

“It comes in real handy since the funds are a little low right now,” he said.

Workers don’t want to be striking, but they also want to stand up for new employees because it’s a tradition at the plant, Alston said.

Little Falls resident Kathy Reed, 47, and her daughter, Jessica Reed, 22, were two of the protestors Tuesday. Kathy Reed has worked there for 27 years, but
Jessica Reed could fall under the new contract plan.

Kathy Reed recalled how experienced workers helped her when she was starting her career.

“The older people didn’t give up on us or throw us under the bus,” she said.

No new talks
Unionized workers make up the entire production staff at the Little Falls facility, so only managerial and clerical workers remain, said Debra Hagenbuch of the Central New York Labor Agency.

On Tuesday, members of local branches of other unions, including the Teamsters and the United Mine Workers of America, showed their support for RedCo workers by joining their picketing in Little Falls.

There is no sign of new negotiations, said Joe Svingala, vice president of Local No. 50.

While standing in the rain, Svingala said he would rather be sitting at a table negotiating.

It shows a lot about the workers that they’re dedicated to striking even though the contract dispute doesn’t affect most of them, he said.

“I think that a lot of credit should go to the workers,” he said.

Mohawk resident Gail Domion, 59, plans to spend her Thanksgiving cooking dinner for herself and her son. She has worked at the company for almost 34 years.

The free turkey will help, Domion said.

“When you’re self-supporting, it’s very hard,” she said.


Nurse doesn't trust SEIU disinformation

Re. "Workers' plan for hospital union is upset":

I found the comment made by union officials that the two SEIU branches were too different to compare rather disingenuous. Both belong to the SEIU umbrella organization, and each has enough of a presence in our county for all parties to evaluate their track record.

All who are being approached by both sides of the union/non-union argument would be wise to educate themselves on the facts and move beyond the propaganda and rhetoric each side offers.

In addition to the information that the employer and unions will provide, there are at least two agencies that can provide resources for the individuals to educate themselves — the National Labor Relations Board and the National Right to Work Foundation.

However, if the employees at Citrus Valley really want to learn how the SEIU operates, they need only take a look at the recent King/Harbor Hospital debacle. This hospital was nearly entirely represented by one or more of the SEIU union arms, and their only claim to fame was their involvement, along with the Department of Health Services, in the absolute and complete collapse of the hospital.

But look on the bright side. The SEIU made sure that all their 1,600 represented employees got to keep their employment. It's just too bad that they couldn't ensure that the community of South Los Angeles got to keep their hospital.

Geneviève M. Clavreul, RN, Pasadena


AFSCME bluffs, City Council blinks

A controversial Duluth city council meeting scheduled for Monday was canceled. The vote was on a tentative labor contract between the the city and its AFSCME union.

Late Friday afternoon, Chief Administrative Officer John Hall emailed councilors asking for the meeting to be canceled. Hall says he is now optimistic the union will reconsider accepting that certain contract language be omitted. The language focuses on when management can reduce employees' hours. Hall says he has had contact with the union's negotiating team and believes there may still be an opportunity for them to reconsider.

But Dave Wiesen of the union's negotiating team says he doesn't believe the union will allow the contract language be omitted because he says it protects staff from getting their hours cut. He says he doesn't know why Hall thinks the union will change its stance.

In September, the union and city reached a tentative agreement on a contract, but union membership has yet to vote on it. Hall says the union is stalling and last week asked the council to approve the contract, without the union's vote--something the union strongly objects to.

Hall plans to head back to the negotiating table with the union sometime this week and believes an agreement could be reached.

The city council is still scheduled to vote on the contract, but it will now happen at its next regular meeting--no matter what happens in negotiations.


Teamsters call illegal transit strike in Chicago suburbs

More than 200 Pace bus drivers and mechanics servicing the suburban transit agency's northwest garage walked off the job early today, cutting service to nearly 22,000 riders on what authorities have said will be the busiest travel day of the year.

The strike was announced by Teamsters Local 731, which represents about 175 drivers and 50 mechanics operating 22 Pace routes in the north and northwest Chicago suburbs, Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot said. Picket lines are being set up outside the garage in Des Plaines.

Wilmot said the union rejected the suburban bus agency's contract offer earlier this month, effectively authorizing a strike. But the union had indicated it was willing to participate in further bargaining sessions before actually walking off the job, he said.

"In our eyes this is an illegal strike," Wilmot said. "Our belief was that the union was going to come to the table and negotiate."

Union representatives were not immediately available for comment.

Wilmot said Pace was "in the process" of working out dates for mediation with the union and was not notified of the strike in advance. There is no plan to continue service with replacement workers, he said.

The walkout comes in the midst of the crush of people looking to get out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday. Wilmot said many commuters will be forced to find alternative routes to O'Hare International Airport, which is serviced by Pace Route 250.

"It certainly is unfortunate because we have service that operates to O'Hare, and there are a lot of routes that will not be available today affecting schools, hospitals, and shopping malls," Wilmot said. "To do this on the busiest travel day of the year is pretty disappointing."

The Woodfield, Lincolnwood, Old Orchard, Northbrook and Golf Mill shopping centers are affected. Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

The routes affected by the strike are: Route 290-Touhy Avenue, Route 270-Milwaukee Avenue, Route 208-Golf Road, Route 209-Busse Highway, Route 210-Lincoln Avenue, Route 637-Wood Dale Rosemont CTA, Route 690-Arlington Heights Road.

Also, Route 694-Central Road-Mt. Prospect Station, Route 610-River Road-Prairie Stone Express, Route 221-Wolf Road, Route 223-Elk Grove-Rosemont CTA Station, Route 225-Central-Howard, Route 226 Oakton Street, Route 230 South Des Plaines, Route 234-Wheeling-Des Plaines, Route 240-Dee Road, Route 241-Greewood-Talcott.

And Route 250-Dempster Street, Route 215-Crawford-Howard, Route 272-Golf Mill-Westfield Shoppingtown Hawthorne, Route 422-Linden CTA/Glenview/Northbrook Court and Route 423-Linden CTA-The Glen-Harlem CTA.

The strike is the latest problem for the suburban bus agency fraught with budget woes and disputes with its parent agency, the Region Transportation Authority.

Last week, faced with a $50 million deficit for 2008, Pace's board of directors approved a new budget calling for "devastating" service cuts -- including evening service on all routes -- and fare increases in January unless long-stalled mass transit funding legislation is approved.

Fares on all Pace bus routes will increase to $2, and all paratransit, dial-a-ride, taxi-access program and vanpool rides also will cost more. Pace will no longer accept CTA passes except for the CTA/Pace 30-day pass.

In addition to eliminating all evening service after 7 p.m., Pace will cut 24 weekday routes, weekend service on 78 routes, and 65 Metra feeder and shuttle routes. Pace will also eliminate 230 jobs.

This latest doomsday scenario would occur Jan. 20, the same day that the CTA plans to eliminate 81 bus routes, raise fares to as high as $3.25 a ride and lay off more than 2,400 employees, without resolution to the months-long deadlock in Springfield.

Only two rounds of last-minute stopgap funding -- tapping 2008 money and redirecting a federal transit grant -- have prevented Pace and the CTA from already implementing most of the service cuts.

The fare increases and service cuts would cost Pace nearly 11 million fewer rides next year, officials estimated. This comes at a time when Pace ridership is at near-record levels. Pace served 3.7 million passengers in October, a 3.1 increase over 2006 and the third-highest October since the transit agency was formed in 1981.


AFSCME budget brainstorm: Cook County sues itself

In a bizarre twist to Cook County’s budget woes, the county’s public defender on Tuesday announced that he is suing County Board President Todd Stroger in a bid to get needed funding for the office.

A suit filed by Public Defender Edwin Burnette contends that the office is unable to fulfill its constitutional task to represent the indigent because of layoffs, hiring freezes and other steps ordered by Mr. Stroger and the board. It asks a third unit of county government — a circuit court — to order the reinstatement and reimbursement of all office personnel, and to mandate other actions to ensure “the independence and autonomy of the office.”

An attorney for Mr. Stroger and the co-defendants in the case, presidential chief of staff Lance Tyson and comptroller Joseph Fratto, termed the lawsuit "ridiculous."

Burt Odelson said if the public defender doesn't like his budget, "he should have come to the board like the state's attorney did and lobby" for more money. "You don't file lawsuits to ask for more appropriations," Mr. Odelson said. "That's not the way our democracy is based."

Last year, when Mr. Stroger unveiled proposed double-digit spending cuts throughout county government, Mr. Burnette said his office would be able to comply. Mr. Burnette was appointed public defender by Mr. Stroger’s father, John Stroger, who left office two years ago after suffering a stroke.

But Mr. Burnette then “did not recognize the full consequences of Mr. Stroger’s game plan on his office,” his attorney, William Hooks, said at a press conference announcing the suit.

The suit contends that a staff of about 435 assistant public defenders is handling 126,474 felony cases for approximately 112,000 poor people accused of crimes, giving it a workload 60% above national standards. While the office budget has been cut 26% in the past three years, Mr. Stroger has hired or promoted friends and political supporters for jobs paying $200,000 or more, Mr. Hooks said.

Mr. Hooks said the office must be kept separate from normal budget give-and-take because it has a unique, specified role that cannot legally be shortchanged.

Mr. Burnette did not attend the press conference, but Mr. Hooks was accompanied by the head of the union local that represents most office workers and which joined in the suit.

Kulmeet Galhotra, president of AFSCME Local 3315, said the office “has not hired a new attorney since June, 2006.” While about a dozen laid-off lawyers were recalled to work, attrition has cut the number of assistant public defenders from 465 at the beginning of last year to 430 to 440 now, Mr. Galhotra said.

Mr. Burnette said the court has named him a special Cook County state’s attorney in the case. That means his fees will be paid by the public until the case is resolved.


Broadway strike boss in disappearing act

As the strike that ate Broadway stretched through its second week with no end in sight, an absence was felt yesterday on the picket line. Where was union chief James Claffey?

Three miserable-looking stagehands, shoulders stooped, coffee cold, stumbled in the drizzle around the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where a sign proclaimed that Kevin Kline was appearing in "Cyrano." Not today. I approached a man who wore a sign detailing his many complaints. He said gruffly, "We're not allowed to talk. None of us is allowed to talk."

Where, oh where, is Mr. Claffey - the proud stagehand and union honcho who is leading this strike? For the first time since the stagehands walked off the job, throwing people out of work, bad press has begun to follow, as average New Yorkers start seeing the strikers as greedy.

But yesterday, Claffey was not on the picket line. Not in his office. Nowhere.

I sought word from strikers at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where "Little Mermaid" was not playing. And a man wearing a coat announcing he's a "line captain" woke out of his coma to tackle a picketer.

"Talk to nobody!" he commanded, before following me down the street to another theater.

"Don't tell her anything!" he ordered a striker named Cecil, and he reprimanded me for daring to walk down a public street.

When did Broadway turn into the Soviet gulag?

"Line Captain" instructed me to go to headquarters of Local One. But there, the receptionist said neither Claffey nor the union's spokesmouth, Bruce Cohen, was available.

I reached Cohen by phone, and he said Claffey would not talk.

Cohen insisted that the producers are the greedy ones, raking in record profits, while trying to cut union wages. He said the average stagehand makes in the "high 80s" - and only a handful earn $150,000 a year.

It is hard to cry for these well-paid workers - men and a few women who treat the public like dirt.


Teamsters lift strikers' spirits

It wasn't quite "Day of the Locust," but union scribes swarmed Hollywood on Tuesday in a solidarity march ending near Graumann's Chinese Theatre.

The WGA march down Hollywood Boulevard sought to keep strike commitment high among the rank and file before a Thanksgiving break in picketing and then the resumption of negotiations with studio reps Monday. The WGA hasn't held any bargaining sessions with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers since Nov. 5, the first day of the now 17-day-old strike.

"This is to show solidarity and let the companies know that we continue to be serious in wanting to negotiate a fair contract," said Jonathan Feldman, a TV writer and one of the parade marshals on hand to coordinate a crowd that police estimated at about 1,500 and the WGA said reached 4,500.

Three big Teamsters rigs were parked along the truck route, and members of SAG and AFTRA joined the writers at the event. "I think this says we're all in this together," said Amy Brenneman, star of ABC's "Private Practice" and a SAG member. "I almost wept when I saw the Teamster trucks."

Brenneman noted that her husband, Brad Silberling, is a member of the DGA negotiating committee that eventually will be working through similar issues the writers are facing in their contract talks with the studios. Film and TV contracts for SAG and the DGA run through June 30, but the WGA's pact with the studios expired Oct. 31.

Singer-actress Alicia Keys performed two songs for the massed writers before their march began.

"Without lyrics, there can be no music, and without writers, there can be no great stories," Keys said.

Sandra Oh, who stars on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," was among those addressing the marchers outside the Chinese. Others on hand included WGA West president Patric Verrone and Teamsters Local 399 secretary-treasurer Leo Reed.

The route the marchers took, running between Vine and Orange streets, is lined with T-shirt shops, boutiques and fast food restaurants whose proprietors appeared a bit blindsided by the closure of Hollywood Boulevard for the WGA event.

"I knew there would be people carrying signs and such, but I didn't know they were going to shut down the street," said Eric Carter, an employee at Hollywood Men's Wear. "No disrespect, though, because they're hurting, too."

But at Greco's Pizza, a long line of hungry marchers seemed to present the one worker on hand with too much afternoon business.

"Meatball sandwich?" the employee repeated to one customer. "Sure, but it's going to take 15 minutes."

Free food was on offer at several intersections along the route, much of it provided by CAA. The talent agencies stationed employees at six spots along the march route, toting trays of scones and cider.

In addition to WGA placards, marchers carried homemade signs, including one reading "Young, Restless, On Strike" and another incorporating a life-size image of John Wayne and the message, "It Ain't Hollywood Without Writers." A balmy day seemed to help lend a festive atmosphere to the proceedings.

"From a strike perspective, a guess I'm just hoping to show the people doing the negotiating (that) we're still solidified," TV scribe Kerry Lehart said. "And after a few weeks of picketing, it's nice to get out here and feel that you're not in this alone or with just 25 other people. You're part of a community."


Dresser-Rand strikers' strategy: Go for lockout

Striking Dresser-Rand workers offered Monday to return to work under terms of their expired contract, but got no response Tuesday from the Houston-based company.

Monday's offer ended the 15-week strike at the Painted Post (NY) factory, but didn't resolve the differences preventing agreement on a new contract, said Steve Coates, president of Local 313 IUE CWA. "Nobody has actually gone back to work yet," Coates said. "If they do want us to come back to work, a date will be set. Their only response was, 'We'll get back to you.'"

Dresser-Rand spokesmen Daniel L. Meisner in Painted Post, Adam L. Nightingale in Olean and Blaise Derrico in Houston did not respond Tuesday to messages seeking comment on the union's action.

Coates said the decision to offer to resume working under the contract that expired Aug. 4 was made by the international executive board of the union.

It was delivered to a federal mediator by IUE CWA President James D. Clark. "It's just going to be a strategy on our part," Coates said. "It puts the company in a position where they have to make a choice if they want to return us to work or lock us out."

The union and the company remain "miles apart" on terms of a new contract, Coates said.

"The company is hell-bent on us swallowing this contract they shove across the table," he said.

Negotiators for both sides met Thursday, Friday and Monday without reaching agreement.

"We made several language changes to get more in line with what the company wanted," Coates said.

During a lockout, Coates said, Dresser-Rand would be unable to continue to hire permanent replacement workers.

The company said earlier that it will soon have 100 permanent replacement workers on the job, including about 25 who started training this month.

When the union offered to send the 400 strikers back to work Monday, Local 313 shut down its picket lines on East High Street and North Hamilton Street in Painted Post on the advice of union lawyers. More talks are scheduled for Monday, Coates said.

"We'll continue negotiating," he said. "This union committee is working very hard to reach an agreement."

Both company and union representatives have said that the major unresolved issues are language governing work rules and the cost of medical insurance coverage.

The Dresser-Rand proposal calls for a 10.5 percent pay increase over three years. The company said the average wage at the factory is $20.45 per hour.

Coates said union members will continue to receive strike benefits until they go back to work.

Dresser-Rand Co., which employs about 800 at Painted Post, makes compressors for industrial and military use.

The labor dispute at times became acrimonious. The union filed unfair labor practice charges, accusing the company of failing to negotiate in good faith.

The company obtained an injunction prohibiting union members on picket lines from harassing people trying to enter the factory.

Shortly after the strike began, Dresser-Rand withdrew its application for state Empire Zone tax breaks for a $2.5 million project that was expected to create 50 jobs at the Painted Post factory.


UAW boss expects strike to shut down Navistar

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger on Tuesday defended his union's strike against Navistar International Corp (NAVZ.PK: Quote, Profile, Research), saying the month-old walkout was hurting the truck- and engine-maker more than the Warrenville, Illinois-based company was admitting.

"I think it's more effective than you might realize," Gettelfinger told the Reuters Auto Summit in Detroit.

Asked to explain the timing of the strike, which comes in the middle of a sharp downturn in truck and engine orders that Navistar claims has allowed it to meet orders by simply moving production to non-union plants in the United States and Mexico, Gettelfinger said: "There is never a right time for a strike."

He added: "But we were put in that position by the company ... So we made a decision, that ultimately rests with me, that we were going to shut them down."

The UAW went out on strike against Navistar on October 23, almost three weeks after a contract covering about 3,700 workers expired, citing what it characterized as unfair labor practices at International Truck and Engine unit, the company's major operating unit.

Hours before the strike announcement, the UAW filed a complaint against Navistar with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the company had violated the law by shutting down a UAW-represented assembly plant in Springfield, Ohio, and was withholding information in negotiations.

Navistar had announced in September that it would shift production of medium-duty trucks from Springfield to two non-union plants until a contract was ratified in order to satisfy orders from customers.

The two sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Monday for the first time since the strike began.

On Monday, Dan Ustian, Navistar's chairman and chief executive officer, told the Reuters Auto Summit he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the talks "because it's difficult to determine why we're on strike in the first place."

Ustian said he believed the strike was a mistake made by a union distracted by its efforts this fall to sign complicated new contracts with the three Detroit automakers. He said he would know very quickly if the restarted talks with the UAW were likely to result in a deal -- a sentiment echoed on Tuesday by Gettelfinger.

Gettelfinger said the UAW hadn't decided whether he would personally get involved in the talks with Navistar.

"We'll get a sense of the tone of the meeting," he told Reuters, "and then we'll go from there."


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