Union tactics under attack

A racketeering lawsuit filed by Smithfield Foods could deter unions across the nation from criticizing corporations, some legal experts say.

After a 15-year struggle to fend off unionization of Smithfield's giant Bladen County plant - the world's largest pork slaughterhouse - the company is alleging that the union amounts to a criminal organization.

Smithfield is one of a handful of corporations fighting unions with a federal law often used in mob prosecutions. As a result, the suit has taken one of the Southeast's largest union fights into new territory.

The threat of complex and expensive federal lawsuits, which can target not just unions but the community groups that support them, "is certainly going to have a powerful impact on free speech," said Marion Crain, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

The suit, filed in Richmond, Va., last month, accuses the United Food and Commercial Workers union of engaging in extortion and asks for about $5 million in damages. It says that union members orchestrated a public smear campaign designed to hurt the Smithfield, Va.-based company's business. Union members offered to stop only if the company agreed to bargain with the union.

The suit uses a federal law known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was designed to target organized crime. In the past few years, companies have used it against unions in rare instances -- but there is still little legal precedent for such a use of the law.

"Our company has been under attack," Joe Luter IV, head of the division that runs the company's slaughterhouses, said Tuesday in a meeting at The News & Observer. "This lawsuit was a last resort, and it's not something that we wanted to do."

Luter said the intent is not to set legal precedent on how unions can operate but to end the union's harassment of Smithfield.

Corporate campaigns

In the past year, the Washington D.C.-based union has waged a national campaign to pressure Smithfield to recognize a union at the Bladen County plant, which employs more than 5,000 people and slaughters about 32,000 hogs a day. Religious and civil rights groups in cities around the country have joined the union in protesting outside stores that sell Smithfield products, threatening boycotts and heckling celebrity chef Paula Deen, who promotes Smithfield products. Protesters crashed the company's shareholder meeting this summer.

In addition, the union has brought more than a dozen complaints of unfair labor practices against the company in the past 18 months, many of which federal regulators have dismissed.

The company has agreed to a union election, which would allow employees to choose whether they want union representation. But the two sides cannot agree on how the election would be conducted, so it has not been scheduled.

A few months ago, Smithfield enlisted G. Robert Blakey, a University of Notre Dame law professor who is a leading expert in the use of organized crime law. He helped the company file the suit two days after Smithfield broke off talks with the union about holding an election.

Blakey said this week that unions nationwide have launched more aggressive campaigns against companies, pressuring their customers and trying to hurt their share prices. He said those tactics are unfair and have forced corporations to look for new weapons.

"Basically what [the unions] have said is, 'Either recognize us or we're going to put you out of business,' " Blakey said. "A company has a right to conduct its business without external pressure."

Crain agreed that unions are using more antagonistic strategies than in the past, a tactic they refer to as "corporate campaigns." But she said unions have been forced down that path by ever-weakening labor laws that allow companies to break laws with impunity and use appeals to hang up the results of union elections for years.

At the Smithfield plant, two union elections in the 1990s failed, and both times the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company unfairly harassed and fired union supporters. However, the federal board's rulings took years to come down. Just this year, the company agreed to pay more than $1 million to employees it fired during union elections in 1994 and 1997.

Crain said that if the courts set a precedent that forces unions to stop corporate campaigns, they will be left with few options to recruit new members.

"This may not be the best way for employees to select unions," Crain said of the corporate campaigns. "On the other hand, it may be the only way."

She also said the federal suits open the possibility that any group that criticizes a corporation could become the target of legal action.

Reactions to the suit

Union representatives say the suit is a legally baseless act of retaliation. Gene Bruskin, who heads the Smithfield campaign, said the suit is "fundamentally an attack on democracy and free speech and the right of any citizen in America to question the conduct of a corporation."

Plant employee Lois Burns, a union supporter, said he is disappointed that the company has chosen to spend its time and money to file a lawsuit rather than negotiate the terms of a union election. He said he is still hopeful that the plant will one day be unionized.

"If people pull together, we'll have a union," said Burns, who lives in Fayetteville.

The union has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which is expected to be heard this winter.


AFL-CIO steps up for UFCW consortium

The AFL-CIO today handed out anti-Tesco leaflets at the U.K. supermarket chain's new Fresh & Easy grocery location in Anaheim.

The national labor consortium accuses Fresh & Easy's parent company of poor environmental and labor practices. (Ed.'s note: See related story: "UFCW front group bedevils non-union giant".)

"They've been involved in the past with child labor in Europe, and we want to clear up that fact," said Orange County AFL-CIO Political Director Tefere Gebre. "What they claim to be and what they are is different."

The Anaheim store the company describes as a neighborhood market is one of a half dozen Fresh & Easy stores opened in Southern California – the latest will open its doors in Laguna Hills Wednesday. The chain – Tesco's first U.S. venture – bills itself as being environmentally friendly and pro-employee, though it's non-union.

"Basically, we're dedicated to being a good – no strike that – a great employer," said Brendan Wonnacott, a Fresh & Easy spokesman. "All positions start at $10 an hour, and everyone works over 20 hours a week, so they are eligible for full healthcare benefits."

He also said the new store in Laguna Hills will use about 30 percent less energy than a typical grocery store.

AFL-CIO officials will be passing out handbills at the Anaheim store on Lincoln and Western from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday.


SEIU takes organizing out-of-bounds

District 300 food-service workers and the Service Employees International Union took their regional push to unionize to the school board this week.

But school board President Joe Stevens pushed back, saying the meeting’s public participation was not the proper place to dredge up complaints on food provider Aramark or bolster their cause.

SEIU is collaborating with about 2,000 food-service workers from the Chicago suburbs to form a union. Chicago and a few suburban districts already are in a union. The workers are employed by food-service subcontractors Aramark and Arbor Management.

“I’m going to ask you to stop,” Stevens told Laura Garza, SEIU’s director of institutional services, shortly in to her presentation Monday. “I want it to be known that there is a labor action going on with Aramark, and I truly believe that the comments being presented here regarding Aramark are misplaced and inappropriate,” Stevens said. “So I will not let you continue.”

Monday’s school board meeting was the first where unionizers tried to make their case, SEIU Communications Director Erica Hade said. Garza disputed Stevens’ actions but ultimately sat down.

Before Garza was stopped from speaking, a school service worker complained of poor working conditions and bad food-storage conditions.

The Meadowdale food-service worker told the board that she used deep freezers and milk coolers that did not work properly.

A broken freezer, she said, froze the milk that she had to distribute to the children for three weeks. Many children threw away the frozen milk, she said.

“We don’t have the equipment I need to feed these kids,” she said. “And this happens at all of the schools.”

Superintendent Ken Arndt urged parents and staff to contact him directly if they believed that students were not being properly fed.

“Those are serious accusations,” Arndt said.

He noted that he received few complaints about food quality and service.


New state AFL-CIO boss started out as Teamster

When members of the Utah AFL-CIO elected Jim Judd as their vice president earlier this year, they were essentially endorsing him as their president. After all, their long-time president and highly respected leader, Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley, was struggling with lung cancer. So by re-electing Mayne and placing Judd behind him, there was a strong sense that he would be their next president.

Now, after Mayne's death Sunday, Judd is poised to succeed a man whom he described as irreplaceable. "There is no way anyone can replace Ed Mayne," Judd said. "We are just hoping to build on his legacy and maintain the influence he carried."

Judd has been a union man for more than 30 years, starting out with the Teamsters in the early 1970s in Las Vegas. In 1977, he joined the Ogden Fire Department and the local chapter of the Professional Fire Fighters of Utah. Two years later, he was elected president of Local 1654.

He has served as the organization's state president since 1985. He will continue to serve in that capacity, even after taking over the helm of the AFL-CIO.

Twelve years ago, he joined the executive board of the Utah AFL-CIO. During that time, he worked with Mayne on a number of labor issues. He also watched Mayne navigate the labor-oppositional Utah Legislature as a senator, building relationships with officials from both sides of the aisle.

Mayne was elected as the state president in 1977 at the age of 32. At the time, he was the youngest state president in the nation. After his re-election this year, he was the longest-serving state president in the nation.

"Ed set the example of what a good leader should be," Judd said. "He established coalitions to get the job done. ... I plan to follow that template which he created."

The issues, especially fair wages and safe working conditions, will not change for Judd. And his approach, he said, will be the same as it was for Mayne.

"You need to be consistently vigilant in standing up for the right of the working families in Utah," he said. "We need to make sure their voices are heard, and we're always going to be advocating for those who are less fortunate."


WGA responds to strikebreakers

The Writers Guild of America, West said it was disappointed late-night talk-show host Carson Daly planned to cross the picket line and return to work. All U.S. late-night shows have been dark since the WGA went on strike Nov. 5.

"We're disappointed at Carson Daly's decision to return to work," the WGAw said in a statement on the guild's Web site.

"Mr. Daly is not a writer and not a member of the WGA, unlike other late-night hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who have all resisted network pressure and honored our writers' picket lines. We're especially appalled at Mr. Daly's call for non-Guild writers to provide him with jokes. We hope he'll change his mind and follow the lead of the other late-night hosts," the WGAw statement said.

The Hollywood Reporter said Tuesday new episodes of "Last Call with Carson Daly" are expected to be taped this week so NBC can start airing them next week.


Writers' solidarity erodes during strike

NBC's "Last Call with Carson Daly" is about to become the first late-night talk show to defy the writers strike and resume production. Daly, who is not a member of the Writers Guild, will begin taping new episodes of his Burbank-based show this week for airing next week, an NBC spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

The half-hour "Last Call" airs at 1:35 a.m. EST weeknights, but whether Daly's first new episode would air next Monday or Tuesday was initially unclear. No guests were disclosed.

Writers Guild spokesman Gregg Mitchell declined to comment.

Daly is not the first talk-show host to go back into production. Ellen DeGeneres, who is a member of the union, has continued taping her daytime syndicated talk show after shutting down the first day of the strike. But "Last Call" becomes the first to break ranks among the late-night shows, which all had chosen to air repeats rather than tape new shows without their striking writers.

It was unclear what effect, if any, the return of "Last Call" would have on other late-night talk shows, which include NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," and ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Comedy Central's late-night news-and-commentary spoofs, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" with Stephen Colbert, have also been in reruns.

There was no immediate word on when any of those shows might follow suit and return with new episodes.

On Monday, contract talks with the studios resumed for the first time since movie and TV writers went on strike Nov. 5. The Writers Guild is seeking more money for material distributed over the Internet and cell phones.


Illegal Russian strikers fail to hold the line

Ford production resumed at a factory in the Leningrad region of Russia on Wednesday despite picketing by labour unions, who have been striking since Nov. 20, a Ford spokeswoman said. "Production has resumed," Yekaterina Kulinenko told Reuters.

The factory will operate one shift per day using workers not taking part in the strike, Kulinenko said. Out of 2,000 workers, 1,300 were prepared to work, she said.

The workers went on strike eight days ago to demand a 30 percent wage increase. The factory's administrators have said they will not negotiate with the unions until the workers go back to work.

The factory's union held a one-day warning strike on Nov. 7, but a court deemed it illegal as it did not follow procedures in preparing for the walkout.

The Ford factory produces 300 Focus model cars per day and plans to invest $100 million to increase that capacity to 125,000 cars per year. The head of the factory has warned that the strike may impact these plans.


SEIU joins picketing writers amidst news blackout

Striking writers met with Producers for the second day in a row as negotiations continue. The Writers Guild of America has attracted support from other, non-show business unions. Today, a show of support came as the Service Employees International Union joined the picket lines at CBS Television City.

"They think if they can break one, they can break all of us," said SEIU member Ursula Epps. The SEIU also joined striking writers and stagehands in New York City.

Yesterday was the first day of the secret talks. An anonymous source reported to the LA Times that "nothing substantive" had been reached at the end of the first session. Both sides are honoring a self-imposed media blackout during the negotiations. The writers have been on strike since November 5th.


Oregon paper neglects to name AFSCME in strike story

Mornings are a choreography of teamwork in the Roseway Heights Early Childhood Development classroom. Teacher Carlyn Flores reads to students while educational assistants Kevin Young and Sabrina Kerr set up art projects or work one on one with severely disabled students.

The classroom has 10 students, half of whom have disabilities ranging from autism to developmental delays. But Flores, Young and Kerr have worked as a team for five years, so they know how to read one another, know how to read their kids.

"I love my job," Young says. "I feel like I'm really making a difference in these children's lives."

But on Friday, substitutes may replace Young and Kerr. Members of the Multnomah (OR) Education Service District's classified staff union, to which Young and Kerr belong, have announced they will strike. Tonight, the two sides hold their last scheduled mediation session in an attempt to avoid such upheaval.

The union, which has been without a contract since July 1, authorized a strike Nov. 13 after negotiations that began in January failed. Union members say they are paying more for health insurance. District officials point to rising premiums and say they can't cover all of the increases.

The district provides a variety of services -- including special and alternative education -- to the eight Multnomah County school districts. If a strike occurs, the largest number of missing employees will be educational assistants such as Young who often work one on one with students with disabilities.

Members of the union -- which also includes custodians, payroll specialists and office assistants -- say the decision to strike has been difficult.

"I'm a little worried," Young says. "I do this job because I feel good about it. . . . It just comes down to dollars and cents. Costs are going up, and I don't think we're being unreasonable in our demands."

The district says it has no choice but to hire substitutes. For the past week, district leaders have been combing substitute lists, offering $14.29 an hour for early-childhood classes and $16.53 an hour for school-age classrooms, says district spokesman Mark Skolnick.

But even the most qualified substitutes won't know the kids the way Young does. Each student has a particular need, particular fears. One student is petrified of windup toys.

"We all know the different facets of the kids," Young says. "We know what the kids get upset about."

The district says it recognizes that expertise but can't close its programs if a strike occurs.

"We are going to do the best we can do under the circumstances, knowing that it does present a challenge to replace their expertise with substitutes," Skolnick says. "They are an integral part of every single classroom, important to the teacher, important to the kids."

At Troutdale's Arata Creek School, Noelle Allen worries about substitutes. Her students -- ninth- through 12th-graders with social and emotional disabilities -- don't respond easily to strangers, she says.

The educational assistant started planning precise lesson plans a week ago for substitutes, in case the strike happens. But even the most qualified substitutes could rock the stability of the classroom, she says.

"Some kids don't do well with change," she says. "They don't feel comfortable with strangers telling them what to do."

Members have authorized a strike before -- the two sides came to an agreement before the union walked -- but this one feels different, Allen says. This time, she is torn. She doesn't want to leave her students, but last year her insurance costs went up $130 a month. Her take-home pay is going down, and she's a single mother.

"There's still a lot of emotional upheaval, but this time around it feels more like we have to do this," she says. "Actually standing up for ourselves feels kind of good."

Between crafting lesson plans, Allen has called her parents. Could she and her daughters come stay with them if the strike goes on for too long and money gets tight, she asked. She warned her daughters that Christmas may be light this year.

"I'm just trying to not show them that I'm scared, too," she says. "But we have to stand up for ourselves."


Teachers union rejects negotiated deal - again

The Austintown (OH) Education Association voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to reject a tentative agreement that was negotiated with the school district last weekend. Both sides were saying Tuesday evening they aren't sure what will happen next.

Sandra DeCerbo, AEA president, said there has been no talk of a strike. She said the membership has not even issued a strike authorization vote for its leaders at this point. The school board has called an emergency meeting for 5:45 tonight, said its president, Michael Creatore. Creatore said he expects the board will confer with its attorney. The meeting is closed to the public.

Creatore has said he doesn't expect the board to continue negotiations with the AEA.

Last weekend's bargaining session came about at the request of the union after its membership rejected what was considered a last and best offer by the board. That rejection came Nov. 14 as 75 percent of the membership shot the offer down.

In last weekend's bargaining, some changes were negotiated in the offer, Creatore said. He said, for example, that co-pay for health insurance went from 10 percent to 8.5 percent.

This time, he said, 80 percent of the membership rejected it.

"We gave in on deductibles for hospitalization," Creatore said. "We negotiated fairly."

DeCerbo said, however, that the disagreement is not financial.

"The focus is on contract language pertaining to selection process for committees dealing with curriculum and schedule structure," or how class scheduling is done, she said.

She declined to be more specific, though she acknowledged some of the disagreement is over an extra planning period teachers have at Fitch High School. Creatore has said before he doesn't see the need for two planning periods rather than one.

DeCerbo also had some harsh words for Creatore.

"I firmly believe these two negative votes are a direct reaction from the membership toward all the verbal abuse the outgoing school board president has directed toward the Austintown teachers these past few years," she said. Creatore did not run again for his seat, and will leave his post in January.

"Hopefully, with his departure, the school board will adopt a more positive attitude toward their professional teaching staff and allow the board's negotiating team to meaningfully address teachers' concerns," she said.

Creatore said the board's consensus all along has been to work out the issue of the extra planning period.

He said teachers teach for five 50-minute periods a day, and the board believes they should teach for six. He said that with the extra planning period, teachers are teaching for only 4.2 hours a day.

"We pay them for 7.5 hours a day," he said. "How do you justify 4.2 hours in front of our kids?" He said the extra planning period "is a total waste" of $750,000 a year, and that it was identified as a problem in a state performance audit and in a curriculum audit.

"So it's not just me saying we have a problem," he added.

Creatore challenged DeCerbo to justify the extra planning period to the community, but she declined, saying she isn't sure how to respond.

"I don't want to debate him in the press," she said.

As far as his leaving is concerned, Creatore said, he believes the union plans to bide its time until January to get a majority of the board "to give in and continue to poorly negotiate contracts."

"For decades, the board of education has allowed the teachers union to take every spare dollar out of our school district," he said. "Taxpayers should soundly reject any requests for tax increases when we have teachers working 4.2 hours and being paid for 7.5."


El Paso sanitation strikers replaced

The El Paso Disposal, the city's largest solid waste hauler, has hired more than 70 permanent employees to replace the union members who went on strike last week, a company official said Tuesday.

"We have hired permanent replacements for all the employees that walked out," El Paso Disposal's district manager George Wayne said.

Wayne told the El Paso City Council on Tuesday that his company negotiated with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 351 since workers voted in the union in September 2006 and reached agreements on almost 30 contract articles.

But, he said, the union went on strike over economic issues last week, giving the company the right to replace them. The union's El Paso business agent, Victor Aguirre, said that no such agreements were reached and that the question of whether the new workers are permanent is far from settled.

"We have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board that they have engaged in unfair labor practices," Aguirre said. "If the board issues a complaint, then this would be an unfair labor practices strike.

"That would make it illegal for the company to permanently replace the workers.
But, he said, a final resolution could be a long way off and that worries him.

"I'm not worried about what the board will do," he said. "The board will issue a complaint. The company said if the workers strike, they would be permanently replaced. That's illegal.

"I'm worried because they have the option to appeal this
until the cows come home. That could take six years."

Aguirre said the union has lodged eight complaints of labor violations charging, among other things, that El Paso Disposal's management engaged improperly in direct dealings with employees.

That is the reason the union went out on strike, he said, not the unresolved economic issues.


Picket-line hypocrisy in Hollywood

What's the difference between an illegal immigrant on a job and a "scab" that crosses a picket line? After all, aren't people both merely seeking work where they can find it? Aren't both willing to toil at a lower wage in an effort to feed their families?

The difference – at least in the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America – is Hollywood liberalism and the bicoastal 213/212 area-code universes that ideologically feed it.

For what the strike by the WGA has revealed yet again is that outrage among the Los Angeles-Manhattan intelligentsia over corporate greed, unfair labor practices, stagnating wages and vanishing job security is directly related to the income and education level of those threatened.

Consider for a moment the hundreds of thousands of Californians who have been forced from jobs in construction, landscaping, auto body repair, cable installation and a host of other jobs by an alliance of employers and an ethnocentric lobby that's hungry for demographic power.

These aren't crop-picker or dishwasher jobs that Americans allegedly won't do, but, rather, entire skilled and semiskilled industries that have provided the butter and bread for the working-class table.

Where is the outrage within Hollywood's fabled "Thirty Mile Zone" for these displaced workers?

If there's any anger at all, it's actually directed at the American workers and their supporters for daring to speak out against the employers and the illegal immigrants who replace them on the job. They are belittled as bigots and dismissed as protectionists unable to adjust in a global economy.

But when college-educated writers earning six-figure incomes that are padded with residuals take a bottom-line hit, the rage can be heard from Malibu to Martha's Vineyard.

The writers have taken to the streets for increased profit participation in the DVD and online markets. Those who have crossed the line to continue work have been labeled far worse than just "scabs," and Ellen DeGeneres has faced the scalding wrath of the guild for daring to continue her show through the strike.

Now imagine what would happen if the studios decided to break this strike by using Canadian writers – by the thousands – who, coincidentally, were in the country illegally. And imagine if the political establishment then turned on the striking writers in support of the Canadians, labeling the American writers as hate-fueled "xenophobes."

The Canadian government, in cooperation with the networks and the entertainment lobby, might set up a web of advocacy groups staffed with legal teams to support the Canadians who were, after all, simply willing to accept compensation that Americans considered too low.

As unlikely as those circumstances may seem, that's pretty much what has happened over the past two decades in a wide array of working-class industries. Blue-collar communities have faced greater competition from workers illegally in the country, while simultaneously watching their access to education, health care and other social services suffer as a result of overcrowding and limited resources.

But on the Left Coast today, illegal immigrants who replace blue-collar American workers are portrayed as heroic, "hardworking immigrants." But the very moment they were to take a job from a privileged class of Americans (screenwriters, for example) you can bet they'd get an instant Hollywood makeover into job-poaching "scabs."

As they scream about the networks' greed and unfair practices, it's a safe bet that many of these writers – who earn an average of $200,000 annually – have a nanny at home who doesn't speak English. How many of them are paying their nannies overtime? How many are covering their payroll taxes, disability and unemployment insurance? Do they get paid time off? Do they offer health insurance?

Hardly. And that's precisely why illegal immigrants get the job.

In a fine touch of irony, the so-called "reality" television shows, which are cheaper nonunion productions, may actually provide the networks with enough fresh programming to prevail in the strike.

If that happens, the guild's writers will get a small taste of the bitter reality show that working-class Americans have been subjected to for years.


I walk the line - badly

I've been in the Writers Guild of America for nearly 40 years. That means that during the first two decades of my TV writing career, I was on strike just about every three years. But the last time we struck was in 1988. That one lasted almost six months. It hurt the TV networks because they lost viewers they never got back. It hurt writers because most of us aren't wealthy, and it's difficult to go that long without earning a living. It even harmed people who aren't in show business, but whose livelihoods depend on those who are.

A lot of civilians have no sympathy for our side because, one, they think we're a bunch of overpaid hacks and, two, they think they could do what we do better than we do it if only they, too, had decided to fritter away their lives on such tomfoolery.

The fact is most of the 12,000 members of the Guild are living hand-to-mouth because only a small percentage of that number manage to sell a script or get a writing gig in any given year.

Until this past Monday, it had been 19 years since I walked a picket line. Moreover, it had been about 35 years since I walked one at CBS Studio Center on Radnor Avenue, in Studio City. Back then, I worked for Talent Associates, an independent production company responsible for the Rock Hudson-Susan St. James series, "McMillan & Wife."

During that strike, the WGA had employed a campaign of divide and conquer. They invited production companies to keep their doors open and their cameras grinding by signing favored-nations pacts with the Guild. That meant that they would abide retroactively by whatever terms the WGA and management ultimately agreed upon. In the meantime, this gave the companies a distinct advantage over their competitors and hastened the day when their competitors would follow suit.

As a result, I found myself in the odd position, legally and morally, of not only crossing my Guild's picket line twice a day, but of leaving my office every afternoon at 3 o'clock to take my turn on the line at the front gate and going back to work an hour later.

Mainly because I haven't had much of a TV writing career once I foolishly tempted fate by turning 50, and partly because the majority of those 12,000 members only joined the WGA during the past 10 or 15 years, I didn't recognize a single face when I signed in for picket duty the other day. It seems that the Guild had under-estimated the turnout. By the time I arrived, they had run out of picket signs. Still, I was assigned to join my fellow writers at the corner of Radnor and Ventura Blvd.

I was undeniably self-conscious. It's hard not to feel redundant when picketing without a picket sign, but in for a penny, in for a pound. So off I went. As I reached the intersection, I looked around again and once again didn't recognize anyone. There was a group of seven or eight fellows huddled by the stoplight, and I figured I'd mingle there. At least they all had picket signs, and I figured if I stood near them, it wouldn't be as obvious that I didn't. The last thing you want to look like at my age, after all, is a writers' groupie. However, as I approached, the group all began to chant for reasons I can't imagine, "We're queer and we're here." While undeniably catchy, they're probably not the words to put a chill in the heart of management. Still, they were enough to make me veer off at the last second.

After standing around for about 15 brain-numbing minutes, I was on the verge of taking off when some busybody handed me his sign. Soon, one of the picketers suggested we split up into two groups, half of us crossing to the south side of the street. Then every time the light turned red, each group would cross in the opposite direction. That at least gave us a sense of purpose beyond just looking as if we were picketing the Samuel French Book Store.

One young woman had been thoughtful enough to provide Trivia Pursuit cards. So I got to quiz myself for several street crossings. I only got two of the six questions right on the first card. But I kept exchanging cards with her, promising myself that I'd get to go home as soon as I got all six questions on a card answered correctly. That took another 20 minutes. When I handed that card back, she asked me if I wanted another. "No thanks," I said, "I've nothing more to prove."

Then I handed off my sign to a lady and went home.

The nicest part of the experience was that the teamsters who drove past all honked their horns very loudly as a sign of solidarity, as did a great many civilians, who also gave us the two-finger V for Victory sign. But having been through all this many times before, I'm only too aware that after three or four months of TV re-runs, the same people will be giving us the one-finger salute. I understand that it's not that they like the guys on the other side, guys like Sumner Redstone, Leslie Moonves and Rupert Murdoch, more than they like us, but those greedy so-and-so's aren't out there carrying picket signs or playing havoc with people's viewing habits.

But for my part, the only really good thing about a WGA strike is that it serves to remind millions of Americans that Leno, Letterman and all the other talking heads on the tube don't really make it up as they go along.

- Burt Prelusky


Were Teamster organizers involved in toll booth robberies?

When the Indiana Department of Transportation operated the Indiana Toll Road, toll collectors were unionized - at least until Gov. Mitch Daniels eliminated collective bargaining rights with organizations representing state employees.

Now, the Teamsters may represent toll collectors. On Jan. 23, 2006, Statewide Mobility Partners, a joint venture between Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA of Spain and Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Australia, won the right to operate the Toll Road for 75 years with a bid of $3.8 billion. SMP then formed the Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. to operate the Toll Road.

With the Toll Road in the hands of private business, some toll collectors are interested in organizing again, this time with the Teamsters. The decision will be made Friday, Dec. 14, when toll collectors will vote on whether to join the Teamsters.

Teamster locals in four counties are working together on the project, said Jerod Warnock, business agent and organizer for Local 135 of La Porte County. While salary and benefits are at issue, Warnock said toll collectors are distressed about working conditions.

"Safety issues have been coming up for quite some time," Warnock said. Most recently, a toll collector was robbed at the Notre Dame exit in South Bend. He said that in the past 20 years, toll collectors have been robbed six times along the 157-mile toll road.

Exit 77 (the Notre Dame exit) is busy during commuting time and on days when Notre Dame has football games, graduations and other major events, but it isn't busy at 3:40 a.m., when the robbery occurred, said Matt Pierce, director of communication and government relations for ITR Concession.

Warnock agrees. "Let's face it: People out driving at 3:30 a.m. are either coming from work or out looking for trouble," he said.

Operating a booth with only one employee poses other considerations, Warnock said.

"Just to use the rest room, toll collectors have to put up a little sign informing drivers that they will be back shortly."

In addition, toll collectors get no lunch hours and no other opportunities for breaks. "I'm not sitting here trying to bash the administration," Warnock said. "But these are some of the concerns the toll collectors have."

Toll booths are fitted with panic buttons as well as telephones. "Plus we train our employees," Pierce said.

Pierce said Toll Road authorities are in the process of installing automatic payment machines, a move that would eliminate the need for toll collectors during the overnight shift in remote areas. The machines likely would allow for rest room breaks as well.

Will that result in lost jobs?

Temporary employees would be affected, he said. The Toll Road employs 244 full- and part-time toll collectors and 82 temporary collectors. No evidence suggests having two people in a booth would deter potential robbers, Pierce said.

"Just to be clear," he added, "there has been no policy change (regarding the number of toll collectors in each booth) since the lease agreement. Traffic flow always dictates the number of employees on duty."

He said it is easy to be reactionary about the recent robbery. "But our concern is all about the possibility of one of our employees being hurt."

About the effort to organize toll collectors, Pierce said employees "have every right to make that choice."


Cold strikers reject negotiated settlement

Striking union members from the province's two universities gave a resounding "No" to their employers' final offer.

Eighty-five per cent of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 1975 members voted against the offer from the Universities of Regina and Saskatchewan. Voting took place over the past two days in Regina and Saskatoon with 72 per cent of the union membership casting ballots.

CUPE 1975 represents roughly 2,400 workers at the two universities, whom have been on strike since Nov. 2. The union's leadership had been urging members to reject the offer.

"The membership has sent a strong message to the employer that they do not want to accept what they have put on the table. I hope the employer is listening and comes to the table on Friday with a better offer," said local CUPE president Don Puff.

The two universities are expected to meet with the provincial conciliator on Friday. The union has stated it would be ready to meet as early as today and through the weekend in order to negotiate a settlement.

Barb Pollock, vice-president of external relations for the U of R, contended that the offer was fair and key compromises were made in an effort to end the dispute. The offer would have provided union members with a 17.85-per-cent wage and benefits increases over three years, including retention bonuses, increased pension contributions and one-time funding into a benefit account.

"From our side, up until this past Monday, it was indeed the offer we felt had to be final. We don't have bottomless pockets. We're going to have to take a look at what we all have to bring to the table," said Pollock.

The two sticking points for the union remain benefits packages and the universities' plan to link wage increases to performance reviews.

"We want those two issues dealt with and if they're dealt with, we can sign a collective agreement," said Puff.

Further contingency planning among out-of-scope staff at the U of R will continue with an eye on the calendar. Final exams for the fall semester will begin Dec. 8 and classes for the winter session start Jan. 8.

"Where we go with anything further in a change of services is actually going to be figured out over the next few days. In our contingency planning, we evaluate virtually daily and we have to make sure exam preparations, exam booklets, that kind of thing, that they're dealt with. Also we have to make sure books and book lists and so on are up and available for students for January," said Pollock.


"You shoulda taken care of me ..."

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