First new strike threat of 2008 - It's SEIU!

Barring a last-minute settlement, picket lines will go up today at Ellis Park as union parimutuel clerks go on strike. The clerks on Friday evening overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer that would cut their wages 24 percent and eliminate most of their fringe benefits. Their previous contract expired late Monday night.

Track owner Ron Geary says concessions are needed to help the ailing track survive long enough to find out if Kentucky voters will agree next year to allow racetracks to operate casinos to boost revenues.

Members of Local 541 of the Service Employees International Union voted down the track's contract offer by a vote of approximately 40-3, union officials said. The old contract expired late Monday night.

Union officials started making plans for setting up picket lines at the three entrances to the track property, such as consulting with Kentucky State Police about where picket lines could safely and legally be set up. Picket lines would be set up around 8:30 a.m. today and remain in place until about 8 p.m., Brenda Lynn, vice president of SEIU Local 541, said.

As of presstime, no settlement had been reached. But Herman Fehler, president of the Louisville-based union, said picket lines would probably be put on hold if a last-minute tentative agreement was reached. Any settlement would ultimately require the approval of rank-and-file members.

"The main thing is, we're still in negotiations," Bob Jackson, the track's longtime director of operations, said Monday. "Mr. Geary spoke to Herman Fehler last Friday evening and Saturday morning. Herman was going to get back with Ron to discuss some other ideas. "We anticipate maybe trying to get something together" to avoid a strike, Jackson said.

"That would certainly be my preference," Geary said later. "But so far, the union has not come one inch. I haven't heard from Herman, so I'm not very optimistic myself," he said. "It's their call," Geary said. "They'll be the ones walking out and abandoning their jobs."

"Until tomorrow (today) comes, nobody knows," Jackson said. "But we will be open as usual," strike or not.

"January to March is always our slowest time anyway," Geary said.

Fehler said he has tried to encourage Geary to extend the previous contract for one year, while Geary said he has asked the union to approve concessions for one year.

Either way, they said, that would provide time to see if Kentucky voters approve a possible referendum next November to allow casino-style gambling at racetracks. If Geary receives a casino license, the additional revenues from expanded gaming could erase the approximately $2 million that Fehler said Ellis Park is losing per year.

"The bottom line is, we want him to wait," the union president said. "We would like a one-year extension to get us through the referendum vote."

About 75 clerks work at the track during the live summer meeting, but only a few clerks work during the rest of the year. The union also represents about 10 valets who assist jockeys.

Gov. Steve Beshear is expected to ask the 2008 General Assembly to approve legislation authorizing a voter referendum.

If no late-night deal was reached and the parimutuel clerks go on strike, Fehler said supporters of unions and union members likely won't cross their picket line. The union president said reduced revenues could pressure Geary into presenting a better contract offer.

But Geary said reducing the costs of parimutuel clerks -- Fehler has said the concessions would amount to $300,000 per year -- is one of several steps he has taken to cutting overhead.

"We in effect laid of 75 percent of our year-round work force when we closed the backside training center down," Geary said. "And there have been other sacrifices."

"We're just trying to salvage an 86-year-old racetrack," he said.

Geary said the $15.80-per-hour wages in the last contract is far in excess of the $11 that clerks are paid at the Indiana Downs off-track betting parlor in Evansville.

The $12 offer he made "is more than what my competitor is paying," he said.

But union officials say Ellis pays less than at other tracks such as Churchill Downs and Keeneland.

In the days leading up to the contract deadline, tensions at the track began to build.

Abe Holtz, a 43-year veteran clerk at Ellis Park, said he was told Saturday by Jackson to not come to work Sunday or Monday, though Holtz would be paid for those days.

Jackson "said I was soliciting (track customers) all day" seeking their support for the union, said Holtz, a member of the Local 541 Executive Committee who is the highest-ranking union officer at the track

Holtz disputed that he was creating tension at work. "I'm probably the ideal employee," he said. "I'm dependable. I give good service. They don't get complaints on me."

On Saturday, he said, "People came up to me all day and said they supported the union. I'd say, 'Thank you for your support.' "

Holtz said Jackson told him he would be removed from the premises if he came back to the track.

He called the move "an obvious attempt to weaken the union in the workplace by removing my representation."

Holtz also claimed that Jackson shredded some union documents and that a replacement worker was at the track Saturday, observing how the clerks did their work.

Jackson declined to comment on such matters.


DOL unit singled out for budget cut

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards has announced its criminal enforcement data for Fiscal Year (FY) 2007, highlighting increases over previous years.

Court-ordered restitution of union funds has risen in each year since FY 2001, with only one exception. In FY 2001, the amount was just under $2 million and in FY 2007, the amount was over $32 million.

Criminal case processing is up 10 percent over FY 2001 (406 from 370), while convictions are up 16 percent (118 from 102). The bulk of the cases involve the embezzlement of union funds.

"Workers' union dues are being aggressively protected with more than $100 million ordered returned in this decade," said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Labor-Management Standards Don Todd. "Criminal activity such as we've found in these cases must be uncovered and prosecuted wherever possible. The workers that own this money deserve nothing less."

Another major initiative of OLMS has been an increase in the number of union audits. In FY 2004, increased staffing enabled OLMS to establish a new unit with the express mission of increasing OLMS audit presence in international unions, as well as assisting local unions in meeting disclosure requirements, thus enhancing compliance.


Gov't unions flex political muscle for Dems

Spurred by a recent Supreme Court decision, independent political groups are using their financial muscle and organizational clout as never before to influence the presidential race, pumping money and troops into early nominating states on behalf of their favored candidates.

Iowans have been bombarded over the past few days with radio spots supporting John Edwards that were paid for by a group affiliated with locals of the Service Employees International Union, which just kicked in $800,000 — on top of $760,000 already spent.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., rolled across Iowa on Monday in a customized black-and-gold bus emblazoned with his picture and the logo of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has spent several hundred thousand dollars supporting him. And at campaign events in Iowa, backers in AFSCME union shirts turned out Monday to show their support for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Those appearances come in addition to the union's $770,000 advertising campaign promoting her candidacy.

The groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with the campaigns. But the candidates, while often distancing themselves from these efforts, certainly benefit from their activities. Iowa airwaves have been filled with commercials from the groups as they take advantage of the June ruling that lifted a ban on broadcast messages from independent groups within 30 days of a primary or caucus.

In the final two weeks before the caucuses Thursday, independent groups have so far spent at least $5 million in Iowa, with much of the money benefiting the campaigns of Edwards and Clinton. During the last presidential-primary-election cycle, these groups spent nothing on advertising before the caucuses, largely because of the prohibition on such activity in the 30 days before nominating contests. But independent groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org played a major role in the 2004 general election.

Independent groups can act as a vehicle for negative advertising that campaigns are reluctant to engage in. The Club for Growth, for instance, has spent $700,000 so far, largely on broadcast spots here and in other early-voting states that criticize Republican Mike Huckabee's record on taxes while he was Arkansas governor, an effort that has received several hundred thousands of dollars from an Arkansas political rival of Huckabee.

And the shifting stand on abortion by Mitt Romney, a Republican former governor of Massachusetts, has come under attack in broadcast advertisements here and in New Hampshire from the Republican Majority for Choice, a group of Republican women who support abortion rights.

Supreme Court ruling

The June ruling, in a case involving a Wisconsin anti-abortion group, allows television "issue advertisements" from third-party groups — whether unions, corporations or wealthy individuals — to run right up to Election Day. Under the McCain-Feingold law, which limits the role of money in campaigns, these spots were to cease 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general one.

"This more permissive standard," said Kenneth Gross, a veteran campaign-finance lawyer, "means there will be more money, more ads and more saturation."

Unlike national political parties and their candidates, many of the interest groups face no limits on how much they can take in from their contributors and often do not have to disclose their donors' names until after an election. As a result, it is difficult — if not impossible — to determine just how much money they are spending. While they are ostensibly independent of a candidate's campaign, restrictions on coordination between the two are considered so murky that they are often difficult to apply.

In Iowa, the efforts on behalf of or against the candidates involve not only television and radio advertisement but also the nitty-gritty of a campaign: direct-mail brochures, bus tours, pep rallies, telephone calls, educational efforts to explain the caucuses and traditional get-out-the-vote efforts. Independent groups pay for billboards, banners, yard signs, caps, T-shirts and mugs and set up Web sites on behalf of their favorite candidates, efforts that often look as though they were produced by the campaign itself.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is the only leading Democrat who has not attracted support from any of these groups in Iowa. By contrast, Clinton and Edwards are the biggest beneficiaries of independent efforts, largely because of the union support the two have garnered. Meanwhile, both candidates are proponents of stricter campaign-finance rules.

Edwards, in particular, has made tightening such rules a cornerstone of his campaign, putting him in a delicate position as he denounces expenditures coming indirectly from some of his closest supporters, such as locals of the service employees' union.

On the campaign trail, Edwards has called on the groups, known as 527s for the section of the tax code they fall under, to stop running advertisements supporting him. But he has said he will not ask them directly.

"They are part of the law, but let me be clear: I am asking this group and others not to run the ads. I would encourage all the 527s to stay out of the political process," Edwards said over the weekend.

Firefighters aid Dodd

Dodd is getting a spirited boost from the firefighters association, which is traveling with him on a 23-city tour on a bus with an enormous picture of him and the union's logo on its side.

"You can see that bus from two miles away," said Harold Schaitberger, the union's president, who flew in from Washington to lead the effort for the 287,000-member union.

Schaitberger declined to say how much the group planned to spend, other than that it would be "a considerable sum."

The bus tour shows how the lines are blurred: A previous tour cost the union $100,000, while this one, using the same bus, is being paid for by the campaign. The union has also posted "hundreds" of 4-by-8-foot Dodd signs, he said. Federal records show the group also spent more than $10,000 in the past few days on billboards and $102,000 on full-page advertisements in Iowa's 23 largest newspapers last Sunday.

EMILY's List, a political-action committee that supports women running as Democrats, is making a special effort for Clinton. Its campaign is titled "You Go Girl!" and is directed at women who have never attended a caucus.

The group's polling showed that Clinton had a 2-to-1 lead among women who had not previously attended a caucus. As a result, that group, which EMILY's List pared to 60,000 names, became the focus of its efforts with a direct-mail campaign, a phone bank and a "You Go Girl!" Web site. All efforts feature women with Midwestern accents explaining how the caucus works and urging the women to support Clinton.

Maren Hesla, director of the effort, says it has cost $300,000 so far and "we're not done spending."

Clinton is also the beneficiary of a $770,000 television-advertising campaign from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The union estimates it will spend more than $1 million on this television campaign.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners has formed a group, Working for Working Americans, that has paid around $500,000 for television spots supporting Edwards.

Edwards is also benefiting from more than $1.5 million from the Alliance for a New America, which has primarily been running a radio campaign in Iowa. While most of the money has come from service-union locals, one big donation of $495,000 was given by a longtime Edwards supporter on Friday.

The name of the donating entity is Oak Spring Farms, which lists its address as Central Park South in New York. The entity is a partnership between Rachel Mellon, the 96-year-old widow of Paul Mellon, and her lawyer, Alexander Forger. Oak Spring Farms had previously given $250,000 to Edwards' One America committee, a 527 committee he set up to fight poverty.


The Collectivist Jobs Myth

Is a public-sector job really as good as a job created in the private sector? I've been wondering about this a lot lately, in part because I just finished a book about the period of the first great American experiment in public job creation, the New Deal. Critics have written that I failed to appreciate the value of New Deal emergency jobs. But the quality of government-paid jobs is also relevant because of the Democratic presidential candidates' interest in that 1930s experiment.

To hear the candidates talk, a repeat of 1930s-scale government job creation is dangerously overdue. John Edwards has proposed that government take the lead in creating types of jobs--"green collar" and "stepping stone"--to serve the two goals of protecting the environment and giving lower earners new skills. Dennis Kucinich is calling for a new green version of FDR's Works Progress Administration.

A structural disaster--the collapse of the levies in New Orleans or the bridge in Minnesota last summer--adds a sense of moral urgency to the debate. Hillary Clinton is warning that "We're trying to build our children's future with our grandparents' infrastructure." Republican Mike Huckabee's talk about domestic infrastructure investment as crucial to our "economic viability" sounds similar.

Academics are backing the politicians up. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution recently suggested that intelligent planning is the key to success: "smart policies and investments on infrastructure can foster productive growth in our economy, sustainable growth."

Given this Edifice Complex, the actual quality of New Deal spending, job creation and growth are worth a second look. The record is less impressive than the rhetoric implies.

The New Deal government indeed spent a lot. Nowadays Congress considers a 1% increase in the budget tantamount to treason, or nirvana, or both. President Roosevelt had no time for paltry 1% changes. He nearly doubled the federal budget in his first term. The WPA that Mr. Kucinich mentions spent several billion all by itself. The idea, as the New York Times put it, was for Washington to do work that could "not be undertaken by private industry." A second multibillion-dollar project, the Public Works Administration (PWA), was headed by Harold Ickes, the father of the Clinton adviser. PWA schools, swimming pools or town halls went up in nearly every county of the U.S.

The New Deal also created a lot of jobs--millions. And the New Deal did cause significant business activity. Industrial production--factory activity, basically--came back to 1929 levels around the time of Roosevelt's re-election. All of these outcomes are taken as evidence of public spending's success.

But what really stands out when you step back from the picture is not how much the public works achieved. It is how little. Notwithstanding the largest peacetime appropriation in the history of the world, the New Deal recovery remained incomplete. From 1934 on--the period when the spending ramped up--monetary troubles were subsiding, and could no longer be blamed alone for the Depression. The story of the mid-1930s is the story of a heroic economy struggling to recuperate but failing to do so because lawmakers' preoccupation with public works rather got in the way of allowing productive businesses to expand and pull the rest forward.

What was wrong with those public works jobs? Many created enduring edifices--New York's Triborough Bridge, for example, the Mountain Theater of Mount Tamalpais State Park outside San Francisco, the Texas Post Office murals, which were funded by Henry Morgenthau's Treasury. But the public jobs did their work inefficiently. That was because the jobs were scripted to serve political ends, not economic ones.

One of the saddest accounts of the public-works job culture I came across involved a model government farm in Casa Grande, Ariz. The men were poor--close to "Grapes of Wrath" poor--but sophisticated. They knew that the government wanted them to share jobs. But they saw that the only way for the farm to get profits was to increase output and to stop milking by hand. Five dairy crew men approached the manager to propose purchasing milking machines to increase output. They even documented their plea with a shorthand memo:

"Milking machine would save two men's labor at five dollars per day . . . Beginning in September would save three men's wages or $7.50 on account of new heifers coming in."

The men were willing to strike if they didn't get the machines, though they feared they might lose their precious places on the farm if they did strike. Their fears proved justified. "You're fired," the workers later recalled the manager replying when he saw their careful plan. The government man was horrified at the idea of killing the jobs he was supposed to create. "You're jeopardizing a loan of the U.S. government, and it's my job to protect that loan. You're through, everyone of you, get out."

A related problem was that the New Deal's emergency jobs were short term, lasting months, not years, so people could not settle into them. This led to further disruption. In the very best years of Roosevelt's first two terms, unemployment still stood above 9%. Nine percent is better than horrendous, but it hardly is a figure that induces hope.

One could interject that such arguments do not take into account the context--the paucity of other jobs, the dust storms, the deflations, the homelessness, the incomprehensible real privation of the period. But in the later part of the 1930s, the same model infrastructure projects did their part to prolong that privation. The private sector, desperate, was incredibly productive--those who did have a job worked hard, just as our grandparents told us. But the government was taking all the air in the room. Utilities are a prime example. In the 1920s electricity was a miracle industry. There was every expectation that growth in utilities might pull the country through hard times in the future.

And the industry might have indeed done that, if the government had not supplanted it. Roosevelt believed in public utilities, not private companies. He created his own highly ambitious infrastructure project--the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA commandeered the utility business in the South, notwithstanding the vehement protests of the private utilities that served that area.

Washington sucked up much of the available capital by selling bonds and collecting taxes to pay for the TVA or municipal power plants in towns. In order to justify their own claim that public utilities were necessary, New Dealers also undermined private utilities directly, through laws--not only the TVA law but also the infamous Public Utilities Holding Company Act, which legislated many companies out of existence. Other industries saw their work curtailed or pre-empted by government as well.

What about that oft-cited rising industrial production figure? The boom in industrial production of the 1930s did signal growth, but not necessarily growth of a higher quality than that, say, of a Soviet factory running three shifts. Another datum that we hear about less than industrial production was actually more important: net private investment, the number that captures how many capital goods companies were buying relative to what they already had. At many points during the New Deal, net private investment was not merely low, but negative. Companies were using more capital goods than they were investing in.

All this tells us that while some companies were gunning their engines for the moment--the industrial production--they had little hope for productivity gains in the years ahead. Business no longer believed in business. Five years into the New Deal, companies across the country were mounting what Roosevelt himself described as a "capital strike."

People became accustomed to a sort of calculus of frustration. The closer the country got to the prosperity of 1929, the more impossible reaching such prosperity seemed. The 1930s came to be known as the always recovering but never recovered decade. The Dow itself confirmed this pessimistic assessment by stubbornly remaining below 1929 levels through World War II and into the 1950s.

The relevant points for today are simple. The famous "multiplier effect" of public spending may exist. U.S. cities do indeed need new highways, new buildings and new roads, maybe even from government. But these needs should be weighed against damage that comes when officials create projects and jobs for political reasons.

An emergency such as a Great Depression, a Sept. 11, a Katrina, can serve as a catalyst for an infrastructure project and for job creation too. But the dire moral quality of that emergency does not guarantee that the project undertaken in its name will be more efficient than your standard earmark.

In other words, candidates may want to be careful as they climb onto FDR's shoulders. The New Deal edifice may look solid, but it doesn't form a good basis for the American future.


Unions in last-minute blitz of negative attacks

The Iowa presidential caucuses are supposed to represent the triumph of face-to-face campaigning over attack ads and candidate posturing on televised debates.

"You like to open the hood and kick the tires, then take each of us out for a test drive," Illinois Senator Barack Obama told Iowans in small towns and cities this week, paying tribute to the special vigilance of voters here. For the New Year's holiday, candidates are trying new ways to reach voters in person, from a giant party in Des Moines hosted by Bill and Hillary Clinton to a series of Mitt Romney "huddles" with voters watching college football games on television.

But polls in Iowa, while constantly subject to change, suggest that negative attacks and television advertising continue to drive big movements by the candidates, despite all the time they spend on the hustings.

In both the Democratic and Republican races, candidates have dipped in the polls whenever opponents have attacked them - giving new force to the political adage that negative campaigning, while distasteful to voters, is the most effective tool in the electoral playbook.

New York Senator Clinton was riding high in the Democratic polls through the summer and early fall, until her two top challengers - Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards - began pounding away at her vote to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and her flip-flop over whether to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Obama declared his intention to get tough with Clinton in a New York Times interview, but Edwards went even further, casting her as a captive of special interests.

Clinton's poll numbers dipped, and Obama had assumed first place in most polls by early this month. Then Clinton sought to make an issue of the fact that Obama's health plan did not require middle-class people to buy insurance, and AFSCME, an influential labor union that is backing Clinton, ran radio ads declaring that Obama just wasn't serious about universal health coverage.

Meanwhile, under the radar, radio commentators and a right-wing Christian newspaper spread falsehoods that Obama is secretly a Muslim. (He is a member of the United Church of Christ in Chicago.)

The attacks seem to have worked: In the latest round of polling, Obama is now locked in a tight three-way race with Clinton and Edwards, who appears to have benefited from time out of the spotlight - and out of range from attacks - for several months while his poll numbers were low. Edwards believes he has the momentum to win the caucuses. If he does, Iowans who chose him may be left to ponder whether they were drawn to his fiery populist message, or to the fact that he was the least sullied of the Democrats' Big Three.

Negative campaigning has also defined the Republican race. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, spent heavily to build a strong organization in Iowa and outhustled the rest of the GOP field in campaigning. He was atop the polls for most of the summer and fall until one of his rivals, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, began challenging him relentlessly in debates and on the campaign trail. Romney and Giuliani each contended the other was soft on illegal immigration and too much of a spendthrift, among many other disputes. The feuding helped sink both candidates.

By November, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had emerged as the new Iowa front-runner, buoyed in part by his sunny demeanor and positive message.

Romney used his enormous financial advantage to launch a major TV ad campaign drawing attention to the 1,033 pardons and commutations Huckabee granted to convicts during his nearly 10 years in office. Soon after, Huckabee began dropping in the polls and is now in a close race with Romney.

One of the two seems destined to win; two other major GOP candidates, Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona, have stopped campaigning in Iowa. Another, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, has risen slightly in some polls but still lags.

Yesterday, Huckabee called a press conference to announce that he had filmed his own attack ad against Romney's record - but wasn't going to run it, believing that the public deserved a more positive campaign.

But he showed the ad to the media, just in case any reporters wanted to see all the dirt he'd uncovered.


NYT: Unions are a special interest group

Barack Obama has always excited big Labor and other Democratic constituencies, even if they weren’t necessarily ready to endorse him for the presidency. Now, though, as Mr. Obama goes all out to undermine a surging John Edwards in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, that cordial relationship is being put to the test. Mr. Obama has essentially charged that Mr. Edwards is a hypocrite because, while Mr. Edwards has said he favors banning unregulated campaign money from outside groups, his campaign is getting millions of dollars worth of assistance from outside contributors — namely unions. What’s remarkable about this line of attack is that, while Mr. Obama is aiming squarely at Mr. Edwards, he also risks alienating some of the most powerful interest groups in Democratic Washington.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, here’s what’s going on: several state chapters of the mighty Service Employees International Union have endorsed Mr. Edwards and set up an independent entity — the kind of so-called 527 that Edwards himself has decried in the past — to run ads on his behalf. They even hired his 2004 campaign manager, Nick Baldick, to oversee the operation. (The state and municipal workers union and Emily’s List are also in Iowa, dropping a lot of cash in support of Hillary Clinton.) Mr. Obama, the only one of the three leading candidates who hasn’t received a big union endorsement, has repeatedly called on Mr. Edwards to ask his labor friends to stand down. Mr. Edwards has responded by saying that he still opposes such groups in theory, but that he isn’t involved in the union effort and is powerless to control it.

In order to understand the subtext of this argument and why it’s piquing some emotions back in Washington, you have to pay attention to language. In complaining generally about unregulated money in Iowa, Obama’s campaign has invoked the term “special interests.” This is, of course, how Republicans like to describe unions, so for a Democrat to use that term in reference to nurses and teachers, as Paul Krugman has noted over on the editorial page, is seen by some— Mr. Krugman included —as an act of betrayal. Obama’s campaign told me last week that they had never explicitly labeled unions as “special interests,” but if that was true then, it isn’t now. A Powerpoint presentation released by the campaign this morning includes a slide titled “Special Interest Spending on Behalf of Edwards and Clinton,” along with an itemized accounting of what the unions have spent.

The real question all this poses, though, is whether John Edwards is serious about reforming American politics. The idea that he never knew of all this money coming his way — or that he couldn’t possibly do anything to stop it now, when his closest political ally is in charge of the effort — is a little insulting. More likely, Mr. Edwards believes he’s being true to his convictions about money in politics because he simply doesn’t see union money as part of the problem. The general view among Democrats is that special interests are people with power (pharmaceutical companies, defense contractors), while unions are dues-paying institutions that aggregate the power of ordinary Americans.

To put this another way, if your boss plunks down 500 bucks for 100 lottery tickets, he’s using his wealth to unfairly game the system. If you and your co-workers each contribute 10 bucks to buy the same 100 tickets, then you’re simply pooling your resources in order to give yourselves a fighting chance.

There’s an attractive logic to this argument, except that, in practice, it runs into some nettlesome inconsistencies. For instance, the National Rifle Association is also a dues-paying group that aggregates the power of its members, as is the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and I doubt very much that Edwards or other Democrats would describe these as anything other than special interests. Just like the N.R.A., Big Labor tries to manipulate elections to gain access and favor for its members. That doesn’t make unions a corrupting influence; as Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, always says, unions have been the greatest antipoverty program in American history. But it does make labor a special interest, whether Democrats like it or not.

If you’re going to base much of your presidential campaign on ridding politics of unregulated money from influentihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifal interest groups, then you can’t expect to just exempt those groups you happen to like — or who happen to like you. There’s no way around it: that’s what Mr. Edwards seems to be doing.

As for Mr. Obama, you have to wonder if making this argument, right or wrong, could haunt him later, especially if he doesn’t win the nomination and wants to make another run for higher office. As one labor activist pointedly told me, Democrats running for president aren’t supposed to go after their friends. Maybe Iowans will remember Mr. Obama’s stand against special interests when they go to caucus Thursday. I’m pretty sure some unions will remember it longer than that.


Unions are not a political special interest group

With one issue after another, our economy and democracy have been undermined by special interests. This is so much a part of the American landscape now that we hardly seem to notice.

Some people would rather keep things simple, thinking that once the Republicans are out of the White House, Hillary Clinton (and Bill) will move back in, and all will be well again. Some think that Barack Obama is going to find a graceful way to get special interests to either sit down at the table with him or just fade away. I'm an idealist, but even I know that will not happen.

I believe John Edwards will take on the tremendous challenge of taking back our democracy from special interests. I'm frustrated that he's had less money to get his message out; I realize this is because he doesn't take special interest money. I've also been very frustrated that the media has focused simplistically on a two-horse race, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In these last days before the primary, pay close attention to what John Edwards is really saying. Look past the pleasant face, the southern drawl, and listen to the fight in him, the fight so badly needed. There is so much that needs to be turned around now, so much to get right, at home and abroad. It won't happen if special interests have their way. They need to be removed from the playing field. John Edwards is the only candidate committed to making this happen.

- Victoria Parmele, Northwood, NH


Teamsters in at Santa Barbara News-Press

It was a big news day around the Santa Barbara News-Press situation. Here is some of what I've confirmed tonight:

* Star investigative reporter Scott Hadly joined the exodus, according to newsroom sources who said he resigned and cleaned out his desk. He cited owner Wendy McCaw's front-page note to readers this morning that characterized the meltdown of her paper as a disagreement about local coverage. Most staffers appear to view that as an outright lie printed on the front page, and more resignations are predicted.

* At 3:30 Thursday afternoon, about thirty of the remaining staff — including almost all reporters — stood up at their desks and walked silently to publisher Travis Armstrong's office to present him with a letter announcing that they are now represented by the Graphic Communications Conference of the Teamsters union. The letter demanded that Armstrong observe journalism ethics, restore the traditional separation of news and opinion, and invite the six top editors who have resigned to return. The staffers requested an answer in writing by 5 pm Monday. Armstrong, described as shaken by the show of solidarity, called the action inappropriate and ordered them to return to their desks.

* Reporters and other sympathetic staffers plan to silently protest outside the News-Press offices during their lunch break at 12:15 pm Friday. They were barred from speaking to the news media or divulging anything about the internal workings of the News-Press in a memo last week, so no current employees are expected to speak. It's possible, however, that Hadly or ex-columnist Barney Brantingham will appear.

* Veteran journalist and author Lou Cannon, who lives in Santa Barbara, submitted a letter to the Santa Barbara Independent blasting the ethical violations and direction of the News-Press under McCaw's and Armstrong's leadership. Cannon, a former political reporter at the Washington Post and elsewhere, is a biographer of Ronald Reagan who also wrote a book about the Los Angeles Police Department. Cannon addresses the letter to Armstrong, the opinion page editor who last week was made publisher with full control over the newsroom — shortly after then-editor Jerry Roberts was forbidden from reporting Armstrong's guilty plea for drunk driving. Cannon urges Armstrong to resign. Excerpt:

Wendy McCaw owns the NP, and she is entitled as its owner to endorse any idea, no matter how goofy. Once upon a time in our country, editorial pages were indistinguishable from news pages. Opinions and facts mingled freely, and most newspapers represented a faction, party, or cause. This changed throughout time not because publishers became better people, but because they learned — as Mrs. McCaw has not — that people don’t trust the news when it is merely an expression of opinion. In order to sell more newspapers and raise advertising rates, publishers realized they needed the readers’ trust. That is how modern newspapers evolved.

It is not an “editorial difference” with Mr. Roberts when the owner, former food writer, and you suppress a story that you have pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. That is a violation of your own previous policy because you obviously put your personal embarrassment ahead of the news. I understand that your rationale is that you are not a public figure. If so, you should take your name off the masthead and give up your column. You are the public face of the newspaper — all the more so because of your owner’s reclusiveness — and readers have a legitimate interest in your transgressions, as they do those of other public figures. (It was a foolish suppression, since more people now know of your plea than would have if you just published the appropriate small item in the paper. But that’s beside the point.)...

We all have to answer for what we do. In time, advertisers will learn they are paying rates for a newspaper that claims 41,000 subscribers and now has 38,000 and dropping. What will Mrs. McCaw and the former food writer do then — fire themselves? More likely, you will get the blame, especially if the declining paper is full of wire-service stories instead of local news, as it is today. But there are still honorable courses of action open to you. You could resign. Or you could write a column apologizing for suppressing the story about your actions, which are not trivial....

The sad footnote to the resignations of good journalists was provided by the Los Angeles Times, which apparently tried to get a comment from you or the owner and instead had to talk to someone in San Francisco, who was a NP spokesperson. That’s a strange practice for a local paper, don’t you think?

I hereby cancel my subscription to the Santa Barbara News-Press, which has forfeited the trust of the community.

* Cissy Ross, the paper's former business editor, announced in a letter printed in the Independent that she also is cancelling her subscription. "While journalists elsewhere are fighting for the right to print articles of important national interest, it saddens me that the NP is becoming a national symbol of failing to provide basic community reporting. I encourage others in the community to cancel their subscriptions in protest. This deeply saddens me, as I began every morning with my local newspaper. When I worked at the NP, I gave up many hours with my family to make sure I did my part to contribute something of significance to the local coverage, as does everyone in the newsroom."


Socialist celeb stumps for SEIU-backed candidate

Actor and activist Danny Glover campaigned in North Las Vegas for John Edwards. Glover met Saturday with community leaders and campaign volunteers and also stopped by a chicken and waffles restaurant.

In remarks to patrons, the Lethal Weapon star underscored the basic themes of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign. He praised Edwards' work with labor unions and said he believed Edwards was the candidate most concerned about the middle class.

The former North Carolina senator is trailing in polls in Nevada.


Unions slog for Edwards

It was 19 degrees and snowy when Doug Watts began canvassing door to door for John Edwards on Monday, no small thing for a guy sent from Louisiana bayou country to stump for his union's favorite candidate.

"This white mud is giving me a bit of a problem," said Watts, a 41-year old chemical plant operator who was among hundreds of union members working to lift Edwards up over the finish line in Thursday's Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Though Edwards is not the kind of candidate who typically gains the labor vote -- he's not from a state with strong unions -- he has worked harder than any Democratic presidential candidate to court labor voters. Since he was a vice presidential candidate in 2004, Edwards has walked the picket lines in labor disputes across the country, and he has spoken to labor groups everywhere.

And though he did not get the overwhelming support of unions that he hoped for, he did get enough to be considered a viable candidate in Iowa.

His labor supporters can be seen all over this key state. Union members chant at rallies, slog through major Iowa cities handing out fliers and put up big bucks to buy air time to promote their candidate.

Edwards continues to reach out to them. He has made his campaign soundtrack the proudly blue-collar songs of Bruce Springsteen. Until recent days, he shunned suits for the more proletarian look of jeans and a pullover. He has picked up labor lingo, referring to members of the crowd as "brothers and sisters."

On Monday, members of such unions as the steelworkers, Iowa Postal Workers, state chapters of the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and Unite Here paid him back, going door to door in key cities across Iowa handing out Edwards literature.

At a recent Des Moines rally, members of the United Steelworkers clad in in blue T-shirts warmed up the crowd with a call and response:

"President," shouted Greg Hinds, a millwright from Wisconsin who is coordinating the steelworkers' effort for Edwards in Iowa.

"Edwards," responded more than 50 steelworkers.

In a library in Iowa City, dozens of purple-clad members of Service Employees International Union, mainly female health-care workers, had their own chant.

"We love Elizabeth. We love John. We want to see them on the White House lawn."

Though Edwards' union support is strong, some labor unions backed Clinton, who, along with Obama, has performed better in national polls. Clinton has won over such groups as the American Federation of State and County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers. Obama has state-level union endorsements but has not won the backing of national groups, though some unions have withheld their endorsements.

Peter Francia, an expert on labor's role in politics, said Edwards has done remarkably well given that he's from a low-union state. He cautioned, though, that it is too soon for Edwards to call the labor vote a slam dunk.

"The fact that the endorsements have gone to both sides, some for Edwards and some for Clinton, to some extent the labor vote will cancel itself out," said Francia, a political science professor at East Carolina University.

"On the other hand," Francia said, "if Edwards didn't have the ground support from union members from Iowa, he would have very little chance of winning the caucus or winning the nomination."

Ads draw fire

For one thing, Edwards has been substantially outspent in Iowa by Clinton and Obama. Labor groups have tried to give him a lift, spending at least $2 million on those independent TV ads. Clinton has been aided by a $1.3 million effort by union supporters.

Last week a new group called The Alliance for a New America, started by a Service Employees International Union local chapter, began advertising heavily in Iowa for Edwards.

The group is classified by tax code as a 527-independent group and can take unlimited contributions. It is headed by Nick Baldick, a Washington consultant who managed Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign.

The alliance has been sharply criticized by Obama's campaign, which says Edwards is using a loophole to raise special interest money despite campaigning against special interest influence.

Edwards said again Monday that he has called on independent groups to stop running such ads. But he said they are beyond his control. He also said that he is the only major presidential candidate who has not taken contributions from Washington lobbyists or from political action committees.

"I'm against the 527s," Edwards told CNN. "They ought to be outlawed."

The Edwards response did not satisfy the Obama campaign.

"If Edwards can't stand up to his own former aides, how can [he] stand up to the special interests in Washington?" David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager said in a memo.

Beyond the on-the-ground help and the ads, labor is providing the organizational muscle to get Edwards voters to the caucuses.

For several weeks, the steelworkers union has been sending volunteers to Iowa from around the country to help Edwards. On Monday in Des Moines, there were 50 from out of state from places such as California, Alabama, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to Hinds.

"There is something about him that I connect with," said Hinds, the millwright from Wisconsin.

"He was a poor kid who grew up in a mill town. Everything he's gotten, he's earned. He remembers that. He remembers what it's like to have nothing. He is reaching back to us to bring us along with him."

Hinds likes Edwards' support for universal health care, his push for fair trade deals and his unabashedly pro-union sentiments.

'We are going to win'

Sarah Swisher, political director for the Iowa Service Employees International Union, said dozens of members of their state locals have been coming to Iowa to help Edwards from such states as California, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota.

"We have a very aggressive get-out-the vote effort," sad Swisher, a 51-year old former nurse from Iowa City who is also vice chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party.

"I think we are going to win," Swisher said.

If Edwards does win, labor will be in a position to claim some of the credit.


Union-based beliefs carry over into office

"I'd rather face the anger of the people than the anger of God," Mike Huckabee, Arkansas Governor.

Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, is not the kind of Christian politician who apologizes for his faith. Quite the opposite. The U.S. Republican presidential hopeful, who has recently emerged as a serious contender, once offered the above mentioned quote to explain his controversial decision to reduce the death sentence of a convicted murderer to life in prison.

While Huckabee's open expressions of faith - and the impact it has on his public policy positions - are more obvious than some of his opponents, the notion of politics and religion is far more entrenched in American politics than in our own.

There's a certain irony here in that the U.S. constitution includes the notion of the separation of church and state, something that does not exist in Canadian law or tradition. It's also a notion which is routinely misunderstood. It was meant to protect religion from the state, not expunge it, as some people would like to do.

An August, 2007 Pew Forum poll found that 69 per cent of Americans polled say that it is important for president to have strong religious beliefs. One assumes similar poll in Canada would show the opposite, even though polls consistently show the vast majority of Canadians claim to believe in the traditional Christian God, even though fewer and fewer attend weekly Church service.

Having just returned from a three-week road trip through several southern U.S. states, the importance of religion in the day-to-day lives of the people is obvious. From the number of Churches to the numerous billboards touting various religions and/or religious-based messages, to the prominence of religious news in the local newspapers and broadcasts, Christianity is a major force in the American psyche.

In Canada, however, the anti-religious forces appear to be winning.

Witness, for example, the seemingly endless examples of officialdom attempting to edit our any mention of "Christmas" during this Christmas season. Earlier this month, for example, there were the nitwits who run an Ottawa school who decreed that the word "Christmas" had to be excised from the song "Silver Bells," on the spurious grounds that it might "offend" those who are not Christian. And store clerks are ordered to say "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." Just which "season" is it exactly?

Nobody dares suggests similar editing when it comes to the major celebrations of the other faiths in this country. Nor should they. So why is it that only Christians and Christianity seem to be open targets? Worse, with few exceptions, it is not people from our minority religions who are clamoring to edit out Christian references, it is misguided, overtly small "l" liberal "Christians" who are leading the parade away from any public expressions of faith.

While Americans want their political leaders to subscribe to a strong faith-based code, Canadians openly complain when politicians dare express a religious-based view to explain their actions.

Why? Why should politicians be expected to leave their religious beliefs outside the front door of Parliament or the provincial legislatures while all their other core beliefs are deemed to be appropriate?

Do we ask union leaders, for example, to set aside their labor-based beliefs when they get elected? Do we ask bankers to forget the economic beliefs which obviously guide them in their public policy positions? Of course not.

Yet, as Stockwell Day discovered when he lead the Alliance Party in a federal election, outward expressions of religion are met with outright hostility from other politicians and, alas, the vast bulk of the mainstream media. People say, a politician is entitled to believe whatever he wants, "but he shouldn't be shoving his religion down our throats."

It's okay, however, for the aforementioned union leader to get elected and rewrite labor-management laws based on his union experience and beliefs. It's okay for our elected bank manager to rely on his financial experience to fashion the next budget. In both these examples and countless more -politicians who are acting on a certain set of beliefs are "shoving" those beliefs down our throats, particularly the throats of voters who disagree with them, but they're entitled to do that because they've been elected.

By the same token, if Huckabee, an ardent pro-life advocate, does get elected as president of the U.S., we can certainly expect legislation to limit the number of abortions, a view he holds based on his religious convictions.

That would make a lot of people unhappy, but most Americans won't be arguing that he's not entitled to display the courage of his convictions. Not in Canada, however. Here, the idea of faith-based ideology has been literally herded back into the closet. Pity.

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