Unions drive truck through anti-bribery loophole

A loophole in a contested law designed to limit the monetary contributions of vendors seeking government contracts to individuals with collective bargaining authority may have allowed the Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers (TFT) to funnel cash to the campaigns of two members of the Toledo Public Schools Board of Education, a practice one Ohio campaign finance expert labeled as “a clear-cut case of legal money laundering.”

The political candidate funds of TPS board members Jack Ford and Lisa Sobecki received $1,700 and $8,884, respectively, in monetary or other contributions from several TFT-funded elected officials at the local and state levels or their political candidate funds or both.

Those individuals' campaign funds received a combined $7,575 in cash donations from the TFT in 2007, according to campaign finance reports on file with the Lucas County Board of Elections. Several of the officeholders who received contributions from the TFT were not up for re-election last year.

Calls made Jan. 9 and 10 to TFT President Francine Lawrence for comment were not returned. Secretary Lisa Flemmings said none of the TFT's officers was present at the union's offices at 3:15 p.m. Jan. 10. She said there was no one present who could comment on behalf of the TFT.

Spirit of the law

The law in question, House Bill 694, came about in the wake of the Coingate scandal involving former GOP fundraiser Tom Noe, who, among other things, was convicted of illegally funneling contributions to the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush. Though H.B. 694, known as Ohio's “pay-to-play” law, puts a $2,000 limit on the amount labor organizations such as the TFT or their political action committees (PACs) can contribute to candidates or officeholders who would or could be the decision-making authorities in collective bargaining situations, it does not prevent those groups from channeling money through other political campaigns to bolster the coffers of union-backed candidates.

“If you don't restrict the candidate-to-candidate giving or the candidate-to-party giving, then of course it's a major loophole. And it's a loophole you can drive a truck through,” said Catherine Turcer, a campaign finance expert who works as director of the Money in Politics Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan study that monitors campaign contributions in Ohio. “It's not illegal to channel money where you want it to go.”

Turcer said practices such as the funneling of contributions through other political candidate funds circumvents the intent of campaign finance laws such as H.B. 694 by “not reining in the influence of money in politics.”

“Not only does it violate the spirit of the law,” Turcer said, “it doesn't get at what the law was intended to do, which was to restrict the influence of those who want something from our elected officials.”

‘The nasty local system'

Bob Sopher, a longtime Lucas County Democratic Party precinct committeeman and former chairman of the 16th and 24th wards, said there was nothing unusual about funds being funneled through other political funds.

“That's just the way the nasty local system works,” said Sopher, who has since resigned from all elected and appointed positions he occupied in the party. “It's something that I've been personally against for a long time.”

Sopher said it is common for local politicians to host fundraisers in non-election years for the sole purpose of raising money to give to other candidates.

“It basically holds new people out of the system” that don't have political connections, Sopher said.

Dan Farbrother, secretary and treasurer for Teamsters Local 20, said it is routine for his union to give money to political candidates in non-election years. He said he believes other unions follow the same practice.

Robert Hadley, a member of the Lucas County Republican Party executive committee, said receiving contributions from two local unions he has had past experiences with doesn't come easy.

“I'm very close to the boys in the Teamsters and I'm fairly close to the boys in the UAW and they selectively pick who they contribute to,” Hadley said.

State Rep. Mark D. Wagoner Jr., a Republican who represents District 46, said if the TFT planned to funnel money through other political candidate funds to reach the candidates it supported, its actions sidestepped the intent of H.B. 694.

“If that in fact were the case, that would seem to be against the spirit of trying to end the pay to play that House Bill 694 was trying to accomplish,” Wagoner said.

According to campaign finance records, the TFT contributed $2,000 each to Sobecki's and Ford's political candidate funds between June and October last year. The TFT gave to the campaign funds of several state and local officeholders who previously contributed to Ford's or Sobecki's campaign or both, or did so after receiving dollars from the TFT.

Sobecki, when made aware of similarities between her contribution lists and the TFT's expenditure lists, said, “People support who they would like to support during the election process.”

Sobecki said her loyalty lies with doing what is best for the entire school district, and not the special interests of one of its bargaining units.

“As an elected official, you make the best decision for this district as a whole,” she said. “That's what I said I would do and that's what I will continue to do.”

To her knowledge, Sobecki said the TFT did not solicit contributions on her behalf.

“What they did behind their doors, they did behind their doors. I can't control that,” Sobecki said.

Ford had not returned calls for comment at press time.

The donations

The TFT made a $1,210 contribution April 27 to the campaign fund of State Sen. Teresa Fedor, Teresa Fedor for Senate, and a $1,900 donation Oct. 17. Fedor's campaign gave $2,500 Oct. 1 to Sobecki's candidate fund, Friends of Lisa Sobecki, and $500 Nov. 2 to Ford's campaign, Citizens with Ford.

Fedor, who was ousted Jan. 9 from her position as Ohio Senate minority leader, has the TFT listed in the affiliations section on her Web page.

Fedor had not returned calls for comment at press time.

The Edna Brown Campaign Committee received $100 from the TFT April 27. Brown, the District 48 state representative, gave $100 Oct. 10 to Ford's campaign. She also gave a combined $160 to the campaign of another school board candidate, Harold Mosley, between June and October.

Brown said she gave to Ford and Mosley because she maintains friendships with both men. When asked if she planned to funnel the contribution the TFT made to her to Ford, Brown said, “Absolutely not.”

District 47 State Rep. Peter Ujvagi's political candidate fund, Citizens with Ujvagi, received $140 April 14 and $650 Oct. 25 from the TFT. It gave $50 to Sobecki's campaign Sept. 10.

Ujvagi had not returned calls for comment at press time.

Friends of Skeldon Wozniak, the political candidate fund of Lucas County Board of Commissioner's President Tina Skeldon Wozniak, received a $200 contribution from the TFT March 21. It gave a combined $300 to Sobecki's campaign between June and October, and $200 to Ford's campaign Nov. 2.

Skeldon Wozniak said she made contributions to Ford and Sobecki because she was familiar with their backgrounds and felt they were the most qualified candidates for board seats. She said “there was no connection” between donations the TFT made to her political fund and those contributions Friends of Skeldon Wozniak made to the Ford and Sobecki campaigns.

The TFT gave $200 to Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken's political candidate fund, Elect Pete Gerken Committee, April 14, which then gave a combined $950 to Sobecki's campaign between May and October, and $300 to Ford's campaign Nov. 2.

Gerken said, “There was no agreement in place,” between him and the TFT to contribute to TFT-backed candidates for the Toledo school board. He said neither Lawrence nor any of the union's other leaders approached him or his campaign about contributing to Ford and Sobecki.

“The TFT has always supported me, and I look forward to their support in the future,” Gerken said.

Toledo City Councilman Michael Ashford's political candidate fund, Citizens for Ashford, received $250 April 14 from the TFT. It gave $500 to Ford's campaign Sept. 30 and $1,000 to Sobecki's campaign Oct. 30. Sobecki's campaign made a $60 contribution to Citizens for Ashford Nov. 27.

Ashford had not returned calls for comment at press time.

The TFT gave $100 March 21 to Friends of Joe McNamara, the political candidate fund of Toledo City Councilman Joe McNamara. McNamara gave a combined $630 to Sobecki's campaign between June and October, and $100 Oct. 10 to Ford's campaign.

Friends of Joe McNamara contributed $500 to the political candidate fund of Richard Brown, who dropped out of the TPS board race after he was charged with several counts of child endangering. McNamara contributed $60 to Richard Brown's campaign June 25. The TFT contributed $1,000 to Richard Brown's campaign July 16.

McNamara was honorary co-chairman of Sobecki's campaign.

“I thought she was one of the best candidates out there, so I supported her financially,” he said. McNamara said he was not endorsed by the TFT in 2006 when he won his City Council seat. He said no one from the TFT contacted him to solicit funds for any school board candidate's campaign.

The political candidate fund of Toledo City Councilwoman Lindsay Webb, Friends and Neighbors of Lindsay Webb, received a $150 contribution from the TFT Aug. 1. It made an in-kind contribution valued at $671 to Sobecki's campaign Nov. 6 for a mailing. Webb said the mailing her political fund contributed to Sobecki was sent to Point Place residents. It featured images of Webb and her parents, and Sobecki and her family, Webb said. Webb's mother teaches in the Toledo school district.

“At no time did Fran Lawrence or any of the senior level staff at Toledo Federation of Teachers ask me to support Lisa Sobecki,” Webb said. “I support Lisa Sobecki because I believe in Lisa Sobecki.”

The TFT contributed $150 Aug. 1 to the political candidate fund of Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz. Friends of Kapszukiewicz made a $460 in-kind contribution for food and beverage to Sobecki's campaign Oct. 29. Kapszukiewicz made a $200 contribution to Friends of Lisa Sobecki May 24.

Kapszukiewicz said he supported Sobecki's candidacy because she has been a friend to him for several years. He said his political fund donated to several other campaigns last year.

“I've never talked to anyone at the Toledo Federation of Teachers about Lisa Sobecki's candidacy, ever,” Kapszukiewicz said.

Records show the TFT contributed $100 March 21 to the political candidate fund of Toledo Municipal Clerk of Courts Vallie Bowman-English. The Committee to Elect Bowman-English made an in-kind contribution valued at $1,482 Nov. 6 to Sobecki's campaign for a mailing. It contributed $30 to Richard Brown's campaign June 25.

Bowman-English said she contributed to Richard Brown because they “grew up in the same church,” and Sobecki because she was impressed with her previous volunteer work. She said she has never had discussions with the TFT about campaign contributions and that she would not accept donations to her campaign with strings attached to them.

“I wouldn't take money based on someone saying you have to do something,” Bowman-English said. “I wasn't put in that position.”

The TFT contributed $2,300 Jan. 19 to Steel for School Board, the political candidate fund of TPS board president Steve Steel. Steel for School Board contributed a combined $600 to Sobecki's campaign in October.

Steel, when questioned why the TFT made such a significant contribution in a non-election year, said, “You'd have to ask the TFT.” He said there was no agreement or understanding he would use some of the TFT's contribution to his political fund to bolster the coffers of TFT-backed candidates.

The TFT gave $125 to Sylvania City Councilman Mark Luetke's political candidate fund, Citizens for Mark Luetke, Aug. 17. Luetke contributed $30 to Richard Brown's campaign June 25 and $40 to Sobecki's campaign June 27. Luetke said Richard Brown and Sobecki were the most qualified candidates when he made his contributions. He said no one from the TFT solicited money from him.

“There's a dynamic in Lucas County that if you contribute to any campaign, your name makes it onto the mailing list for other campaigns,” Luetke said. “Typically, new candidates will go through filings of old candidates and draw prospects from those old lists.”

The Committee to Elect Marty Skeldon, the campaign fund of Marty Skeldon, who unsuccessfully ran for the Toledo City Council District 5 seat, received $200 from the TFT May 25. Skeldon contributed $50 to Ford's campaign Oct. 9.

Skeldon had not returned calls for comment at press time.

The TFT contributed $100 March 21 to Konop for Lucas County, the political candidate fund of Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop, which gave $30 to Richard Brown's campaign June 25.

Toledo City Councilman George Sarantou, a Republican, said he has contributed to other political candidates, but his donations typically range in amount from $25 to $50.

“In my travels, most public officials don't have a huge amount of money in their campaign accounts in non-election years,” Sarantou said.
Law contested

Whether the TFT was subject to a $2,000 contribution limit to individual school board candidate campaigns remains to be seen because Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge John Bender struck down H.B. 694 in December. Bender ruled the law was unconstitutional because an erroneous version of the bill filed with the secretary of state did not match the version the General Assembly passed in December 2006.

Maria J. Armstrong, chairwoman of the government relations department for the law firm Bricker & Eckler LLP, which has offices in Columbus, Cleveland and the Cincinnati-Dayton area, wrote in an e-mail that Bender's decision is “not journalized yet, meaning that the judge has not issued a final appealable order yet. … Once Judge Bender's opinion is journalized, H.B. 694 will be officially stricken in its entirety, but subject to appeal by the attorney general.”

Jeff Ortega, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said Bender declared the law unconstitutional, but left it in effect pending his final order.

“We're telling people to operate as if the law is in effect,” Ortega said.

Bender issued a stay regarding labor provisions in the law, meaning they are not enforceable until a final ruling in the case is issued.

Jim Gravelle, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, said Dann's office would decide whether to appeal Bender's ruling once Bender issues his final order in the case.

Turcer said H.B. 694 is not foolproof because it does not prevent groups or candidates from funneling contributions.

“You're certainly not getting the best government that you can because you're not reining in the influence of money in politics,” she said.

Lack of oversight

Sobecki's contribution lists showed a $1,000 donation from the TFT June 19 and another of equal value on Sept. 5. Reports provided by the board of elections show the TFT failed to report the $1,000 contribution it made to Friends of Lisa Sobecki in September.

Kelly Mettler, an auditor for the Lucas County Board of Elections, said the agency does not cross reference contribution lists.

“It's a matter of having a program in place to do it,” Mettler said. “There's no program to do that double check.”

Mettler said there is no way to ensure contributions are reported by both the receiver and contributors required to report donations by law.

“We hope that they do that, but we don't really have a system to cross reference every report with every contribution,” Mettler said.

TFT influence

With the election of Ford and Sobecki, three of the TPS board's five members have received contributions from the TFT in 2007, including Steel.

Superintendent John Foley said he hopes political influence will not play a role in how the board conducts itself when setting the policy and direction of the district.

“I would hope that those influences are not part of the factor and that they'll do the right thing,” Foley said.

Foley said it is his staff's job to negotiate with the TFT and other unions prior to March 31, the date when contracts with the district's bargaining units expire.

“It shouldn't be political,” Foley said of the contract negotiation process. “[School board members] are to vote on a contract and not negotiate one.”

School board candidate Cheryl Catlin, whose fundraising efforts were more than doubled by Ford's almost $17,000 in contributions, said the TFT used its dollars to get the candidates of its choice elected.

“It really felt like it was about money,” Catlin said of her election loss. “I think that the Toledo Federation of Teachers puts a ton of money into the campaign to gain influence on the board,” she said.

Myers, who also unsuccessfully ran for the TPS board in 2005, said without a significant amount of dollars in campaign coffers, getting one's message and platform to reach the public becomes a limited process. Myers' camp raised nearly a combined $14,000 in monetary and in-kind contributions for the 2007 election.

“If you don't get on TV, then you have a serious issue with regards to getting your name out,” he said. “I tried to” but it wasn't financially feasible.

School board vice president Robert Torres said he understands it could be considered a conflict of interest for board members to receive large contributions from the district's collective bargaining units.

“The safest way to go is to build your campaign around grassroots fundraising,” Torres said.

Officers and staff members listed on the TFT's Web site contributed a combined $890 to Sobecki's campaign, records show.

Myers said he understands why the TFT and its members contribute to school board candidates.

“The TFT, they're fighting for their survival,” Myers said. “Of course they're going to be aggressive in supporting the candidates that are going to support them.”

Myers said the public's influence on elections has dwindled while that of special-interest groups has grown.

“The internal groups are becoming much more of an influence in school board elections than the public is,” he said. “It's an issue that people need to think about.”

addendum from - Editor Michael S. Miller:

Sometimes, it may look like a duck, quack like a duck and swim like a duck; a few bird experts may even call it a duck. But unless the duck quacks and submits itself to examination, a prudent journalist doesn't label it a mallard or call it Daffy.

In analyzing the campaign finance reports from last November's TPS School Board election, there appeared to be a pattern of donations that allowed the Toledo Federation of Teachers to skirt a recent (and contested) law that capped its donations to preferred candidates. There is no way to trace specific donated dollars and as yet no evidence exists of a conspiracy or organized plan to channel funds, but a study of campaign finance records shows several local officials, most in a non-election year for them, received TFT donations to their campaign funds. Subsequently, several of those politicians donated to TPS Board of Education campaigns.

This seemed unusual, and apparently no laws were broken, but it seemed, and was confirmed to be, against the spirit of the law. But this is Toledo Free Press — Johnny Hildo doesn't work here. We do not anonymously accuse elected officials with whispers and hints.

Almost every source involved in the story cooperated, but Francine Lawrence, president of the TFT, did not return phone calls for two business days, even though her receptionist said she received our messages. Nor did anyone answer her home door when we knocked the evening of Jan. 10. Nor did anyone from TFT, though implored to, offer to speak with us. There is no law saying they have to, but their cooperation might have gone a long way toward answering some legitimate questions. What follows is an analysis, the first in a series, of how people and organizations in Lucas County donate money to politicians, and how and where that money is used. Perhaps the appropriate governing bodies will help us reach the reluctant sources involved.

Many people we spoke to called the duck a duck; some just gave us the bird. We present this story so Lucas County citizens and voters can ask themselves, and their elected leaders, if this is business as usual in Lucas County, or if more accountability needs to be applied.


Union writers opt for Financial Core Status

When Hollywood’s studios walked away from the bargaining table last month, striking screenwriters came out swinging. They filed a legal complaint, boycotted an awards show and picketed late-night television programs.

But the militant tactics may be creating fissures within the guild. In particular, some writers wonder whether they are actually doing more harm to themselves than their opponents. “It’s a classic rope-a-dope, like the Ali-Foreman fight,” said John Ridley, referring to the 1974 boxing match in Zaire during which George Foreman outpunched Muhammad Ali for seven rounds, only to fall, exhausted, in the eighth.

Mr. Ridley, an open critic of the striking writers guilds whose credits include the “Barbershop” and “Third Watch” television series, created ripples here last week when he became the first prominent writer to break publicly with the Writers Guild of America West by declaring “financial core” status. Such standing allows someone to pay union dues and work for employers under its contract without observing its rules as an active member.

Earlier, a handful of soap opera writers — including the two head writers for “All My Children” — took a similar step, even as other writers continued with a strike that began on Nov. 5 when some 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of America East walked out.

Such actions have been rare, and they mark the extreme edge of discontent within the guild, which has — like the major companies they oppose — so far retained a united front as it seeks more compensation for new media, among other issues.

Yet they point toward a growing unease among some guild members that the hardball tactics are backfiring, damaging the public image of the guilds and the well-being of many writers, without making a dent in the biggest companies that oppose them.

Things got sufficiently tense this week that Jon Stewart, a guild member who returned to “The Daily Show” on Monday without writers, questioned in a barbed on-air quip why the guild was willing to sign an independent agreement with David Letterman’s production company and not others.

Similar blowback erupted this week, when the threat of guild pickets chased celebrities away from, and ultimately shut down, the Golden Globes ceremony planned for Sunday evening. The move was intended to pressure NBC into returning to the bargaining table.

(The writers had already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the companies of failing to bargain in good faith.)

Instead, according to executives who requested anonymity to avoid further complicating dealings with writers, Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, a division of General Electric, has toughened his stance. Despite entreaties from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the event’s sponsor, he refused to let go of the Globes broadcast so a picket-free gala could proceed.

Meanwhile, Barry Adelman — executive producer of the Golden Globes telecast for Dick Clark Productions and a 31-year member of the writers guild — thought he had a solution that would allow the show to go on. But his offer to the writers, granting a prime-time showcase to the president of the West Coast guild to make his case, was rebuffed. Mr. Adelson declined to comment.

A less senior writer, Matt O’Neil, was provoked by the Globes shutdown to circulate an unusually pointed e-mail message to about 30 writers and industry players. “I don’t have a problem with any of the negotiating tactics we have used ... until now,” Mr. O’Neil wrote.

In an interview, Mr. O’Neil, who is working toward his first produced movie credit, said he was supportive of the strike’s goals, but added: “It’s very easy if I am a very big-time writer to sit on a picket line. It’s not as easy for a person who is on the way up or things are just starting to happen.”

The guild’s tactics, of late, bear the stamp of its strike coordinator, Jeff Hermanson. A veteran of blue-collar labor battles on behalf of carpenters, garment workers and others, Mr. Hermanson has long argued that companies require more stick than carrot.

In a phone interview Thursday, Mr. Hermanson said that some self-inflicted damage was inevitable in a strike.

“There’s always a need for sacrifice in order to achieve your objective,” Mr. Hermanson said. He said the members’ resolve had been strengthened by support from the Screen Actors Guild.

Yet writers found themselves in conflict with a well-liked fellow writer last week when they picketed “The Tonight Show” and its host, Jay Leno, and then began an investigation into whether his writing of his own monologues violated the union’s strike rules.

“How does fighting against Jay Leno and his decision to write his own jokes help get us a contract?” Craig Mazin, a former board member of the West Coast guild, wrote on his blog, artfulwriter.com.

Two of the most prominent soap opera writers to return to work are James Harmon Brown and Barbara J. Esensten, the co-head writers of “All My Children” on ABC, according to someone briefed on their decision who would discuss it only anonymously. The writing team, whose credits include “Guiding Light” and “Port Charles,” accepted financial core status and returned to work in late December.

The two writers did not respond Thursday to messages left at their offices.

Still uncertain is whether doubts about the conduct of the strikers will provoke organized resistance. Writers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution by other members, said last week that at least 50 prominent writers have formed a network of dissent.

That group is unlikely to make any public break with guild leaders until they see whether the Directors Guild of America — approaching contract negotiations with producers — reaches a deal that can become a model for a writers’ pact.

For the moment, Mr. Ridley has been warning writers who are seeking his advice about financial core status not to be hasty.

“I’m in a place where I can do it and survive,” he said. But, he cautioned, “there will be repercussions.”


UAW mum about tribal Casino War tactics

The election victory by the United Auto Workers to represent dealers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino will lead to stepped up efforts to organize other Indian-run casinos in the United States, a top union official said.

With union membership at historically low levels, organized labor sees the profitable and growing number of casinos as fertile territory to increase its presence.

“I do think this will embolden workers at tribal casinos around the nation,” said Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the UAW in Detroit.

She would not say whether the union is working on other casino organizing drives.

The union victory November 24, following a campaign that raised issues such as pay, health insurance and cigarette smoking by casino customers, was the first since a federal court ruled earlier this year that the National Labor Relations Act applies to tribal casinos. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected arguments by a California tribe that as a sovereign government, it should not be subject to federal labor rules.

The 1,289-852 vote by Foxwoods workers to establish a union “certainly gives momentum,” Bob Madore, director the UAW’s Region 9, which covers New England, Puerto Rico and part of New York, said Monday.

Union officials are now turning their attention to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, seeking ideas from Foxwoods workers and forming a negotiating committee, he said.

“It took us six months to get this campaign together. What comes later comes later. We need to focus on a contract,” Madore said.

The Mashantucket Pequots, who operate the casino, will file objections to the election with the National Labor Relations Board, tribal spokesman Bruce MacDonald said. Details on the objections were not available, he said.

The federal agency certifies union representation elections before contract talks begin.

Executives at the nearby Mohegan Sun casino, owned by the Mohegan Indian tribe, say they are not worried about a union organizing drive there.

Mohegan Sun Chief Executive Mitchell Etess said the casino and its workers have an “outstanding relationship.”

Lee H. Adler, who teaches employment law at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, said the UAW’s win at Foxwoods could speed up efforts by unions to organize Indian-run casinos.

“It will certainly increase the unions that are interested in organizing the casinos,” he said. “Whether it will result in more casinos getting organized will in part depend on the first contract, how Foxwoods responds and what the union learns from its organizing campaign.”

Getting a contract could be difficult, Adler said.

“Depending on Foxwoods’ position, getting a first contract is not as easy just because you win an election,” he said.

Employers have sometimes ended union recognition if a contract has not been negotiated within a year, Adler said.

Nationally, union representation last year was 12 percent of the work force, down from 12.5 percent the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The union membership rate has steadily declined from 20.1 percent in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the federal agency said.

In contrast, tribal gambling has grown into a $22 billion-a-year industry with casinos in 28 states. About 250,000 people, mostly non-Indians, work at the nation’s 400-plus tribal casinos.

The Communications Workers of America represents about 1,200 workers at two tribal casinos in California, and the Teamsters union is seeking to organize workers at an Indian casino in Michigan.

Jeff Farmer, director of organizing for the Teamsters in Washington, D.C., said the federal court decision in February to apply federal labor law to Indian-run casinos was an important ruling, but does not affect the union’s strategic organizing plan that targets key industries it represents, such as trucking.

“This is a hugely lucrative industry, hugely profitable,” he said. “I think the goal is to have middle class jobs that can sustain a family.”


Court rebuffs NLRB, OKs illegal-worker unions

Companies can't refuse to negotiate with unions even if they find that many of the laborers who formed them are in this country illegally, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In a split decision, the majority acknowledged that the 1986 federal Immigration Reform and Control Act makes it illegal for any firm to knowingly employ undocumented workers. And that law requires companies to fire any worker who is not authorized to be here.

But Judge David Tatel, who wrote the majority opinion, said that doesn't mean the union, formed before the company discharged the illegal workers, is not valid. More to the point, he said the firm cannot now refuse to bargain with that union.

That conclusion irked Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who said the company should be able to overturn what he said was a "tainted union election."

The case involves Agri Processor Co., a New York firm that deals in kosher meats.

But the ruling is significant nationwide because it was handed down by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which adjudicates disputes over the National Labor Relations Act.

At the center of the dispute is that law's definition of what constitutes an "employee."

Attorneys for the firm, pointing to the 1986 immigration law, said the undocumented workers, by definition, could not be employees. That, they said, made the election in which they participated invalid.

The National Labor Relations Board disagreed, which led to this appeal.

Tatel said the exceptions in the labor act include agricultural laborers, domestic workers, individuals employed by a spouse or parents, and independent contractors. He pointed out that nowhere is there any language saying the worker must be in this country legally.

Tatel acknowledged the immigration law was enacted after the labor act. But he said that law never altered the labor law's definition of an employee.

"Where two statutes are capable of coexistence, it is the duty of the courts, absent a clearly expressed congressional intention to the contrary, to regard each as effective," he wrote.

Tatel also pointed to the report of the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering the federal immigration law.

"It is not the intention of the committee that the employer-sanctions provision of the bill be used to undermine or diminish in any way protections in existing law, or to limit the power of federal or state labor relations boards," that report states.

In fact, the report specifically cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says the purpose of the federal labor law "helps to assure that the wages and employment conditions of lawful residents are not adversely affected by the competition of illegal alien employees who are not subject to the standard terms of employment."

But Kavanaugh, in his dissent, said the federal immigration law was approved after that Supreme Court ruling. And that, he said, "changed the legal landscape," a change the judge said effectively alters the definition of who is an employee.


AFSCME, Clintons coordinate new positive strategy

A wave of negative television advertisements that Senator Clinton was expected to unleash on Senator Obama this week will likely be shelved until Super Tuesday next month in light of the changed dynamics of the Democratic race following her win in New Hampshire, political strategists and ad consultants said yesterday.

"I would be very wary of being the first to draw blood," a Democratic ad maker not affiliated with any presidential campaign, John Lapp, said. "You have such an advantage doing the response, being able to call the other person negative, and then you go ahead and lower the boom."

Mr. Lapp, who advised Richard Gephardt in his 2004 presidential bid, said he expects the next round of ads from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to point up each other's flaws only in an indirect way. "For the near future, they'll be positive, aspirational, and at most have very collegial comparatives with no names mentioned," he said. The ad maker said Mr. Obama's ads will likely talk about getting away from "the old politics," while Mrs. Clinton's will probably allude to the dangers of inexperience.

Unions and political groups are likely to be the first to unveil hard-hitting spots in Nevada and South Carolina, if anyone chooses to do so. The first serious negative TV foray on the Democratic side in Iowa and New Hampshire came from a union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which spent about $340,000 on ads challenging Mr. Obama's health care plan.

However, the ad campaign prompted an internal fight at AFSCME after locals supporting Mr. Obama strenuously objected.

This week, after a report in the Huffington Post that the union and others were considering creating a new group to target Mr. Obama, Afscme's president, Gerald McEntee, issued a denial. "AFSCME is not about the business of swift-boating any Democratic candidate. We will not be party to any effort of this type. Our campaign is about promoting Hillary Clinton — not tearing down any other candidate," Mr. McEntee said. His statement did not address the previous ads going after Mr. Obama.

The issue is complex because, by law, officials who talk regularly with the candidates and their aides are not permitted to be involved in the union's independent expenditure efforts. Officials at AFSCME's headquarters said they could not clarify what impact the statement would have on the semi-autonomous operation.

Meanwhile, a group that ran $1.6 million worth of radio and TV ads in Iowa supporting John Edwards, the Alliance for a New America, plans to sit out Nevada and South Carolina, a source involved with the group said.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Obama, Jennifer Psaki, said his campaign is advertising at the moment in Nevada. One spot promotes Mr. Obama's health care plan. The other includes clips of a widely praised speech he gave in Iowa in December. Mrs. Clinton's campaign did not respond to an inquiry about its ads.

Of course, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have many ways doubts about each other without resorting to paid TV spots. "In Iowa, nobody wants to go negative on television, so really it's a war underneath the radar screen, and it has more to do with how the press interprets it than anything else," one of Mrs. Clinton's top strategists, President Clinton, told Charlie Rose on PBS last month.

In New Hampshire, Mr. Clinton complained about flyers and opposition research that he said Mr. Obama's campaign was circulating. The former president then blasted Mr. Obama for allegedly waffling on the Iraq War.

Mr. Obama's allies called attention yesterday to an interview in which one of Mrs. Clinton's backers, Attorney General Cuomo, said a benefit of New Hampshire and Iowa is that candidates can't "shuck and jive" to avoid hard questions. Mr. Cuomo's office said the comment was a general observation directed at both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton also faces the possibility of an onslaught of negative ads from conservative groups who have long held her in disdain. Three federal judges in Washington held a hearing yesterday on a request by a conservative group, Citizens United, that it not be required to disclose donors backing television ads for a film critical of Mrs. Clinton, "Hillary: The Movie."

Under federal law, broadcast and cable ads that mention a federal candidate and are aired during certain periods before elections have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission along with the sources of funds for such ads.

Three judges who heard the case expressed skepticism about claims that the film is just a discussion of issues and not a veiled political attack.

"Once you say, 'Hillary Clinton is a European Socialist,' aren't you saying vote against her?" Judge Royce Lamberth asked, according to the Associated Press. When a lawyer for the group, James Bopp, said the film was not related to her presidential campaign, the judge indicated he viewed that as ridiculous. The judges did not rule immediately on the request for an injunction against the disclosure rules.


Teamsters hidden agenda exposed

Teamsters Union Local 142 says it has kicked prominent Gary (IN) businessman Jewell Harris Sr.'s hauling company out of the union, and it wants Harris to pay $330,000 in withdrawal payments.

The union's pension fund sued Harris' Gary company, Enterprise Trucking and Waste Hauling Inc. of Gary, in U.S. District Court to recoup money owed to the fund. Union attorney Teresa Massa said it was the fifth such lawsuit.

But Harris said the union's claims are inaccurate. He says he only owes $39,000 to the union, and he's waiting for the collective bargaining unit to begin contract negotiations with him again. "There is a hidden agenda here," Harris said of the lawsuit. "The contract expired, and we're waiting for them to notify me that they want to commence negotiations."

Harris said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Hammond was part of an elaborate tactic to whittle away at the concessions Harris won from the union following a bitter labor strike.

"I have no information that the union has any interest in dealing with this employer any time in the future," Massa said. "It's pretty clear that the union can no longer deal with Enterprise, because it won't pay its contributions."

Harris said the union's civil lawsuit against his company is unrelated to his criminal fraud trial, scheduled for later this month, in which he has pleaded not guilty to double-billing the city of Gary for hauling work.

The civil lawsuit says Enterprise Trucking has been removed from the union and now owes $330,735 as a "withdrawal liability."

Jewell Harris Jr., an attorney for Enterprise, said the union's figure is not an actual reflection of what the company owes in outstanding payments to its workers pension and welfare funds. And he added that the union's actions against Enterprise were unprecedented.


Catholic teachers union stages sick-out

Most of the 375 unionized lay teachers at 10 high schools run by the Archdiocese of New York called in sick Thursday amid a contract dispute.

Among the affected schools were Our Lady of Lourdes in Poughkeepsie and John S. Burke in Goshen. John A. Coleman Catholic High School in the town of Ulster was not affected because it operates independently of the archdiocese.

Eight of the 10 schools, serving about 5,000 students in New York City and its northern suburbs, sent their students home early after 347 teachers represented by the Lay Faculty Association failed to show up for work, the archdiocese said.

Archdiocese spokesman Joe Zwilling said all the one-day "sickout" would do is disrupt the day for the students and cost teachers a day's wages.

Union business manager Henry Kielkucki defended the action. "It's the best thing we've ever done," he said. "It's too bad that students lost education over it and that the teachers lost money. There's no reason that this couldn't be hammered out at the negotiating table."

The teachers have been without a contract since Aug. 31.

Zwilling said the two sides last met with a mediator in December. He said the union rejected its "last, best and final" offer, which called for salary increases of 17 to 19.5 percent over three years, based on years of experience, for a top salary of $58,000. Top-paid teachers now make $54,000. The offer also called for teachers to contribute to the cost of their health insurance.

Kielkucki said the union was asking for a top salary of $60,000 for teachers who hold master's degrees or doctorates, and added that any raises would be lost to health-care premiums.

In comparison, the top salary of a New York City public school teacher with a master's degree and 22 years on the job is $95,000 per year. The average salary is $68,000.

Zwilling said the number of teachers who stayed out ranged widely from school to school.

Seven out of 39 teachers stayed out at John F. Kennedy High School in Somers (in Westchester County), and 46 out of 52 called in sick at Our Lady of Lourdes in Poughkeepsie.

Only Kennedy and Moore Catholic High School on Staten Island kept students in class for the entire school day.

A total of 420 teachers, including the 375 union members, work at the 10 schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island, Goshen, Poughkeepsie, Hartsdale, White Plains and Somers.

Kielkucki said the union would wait before planning any other action but would not do anything for at least the next seven days, when students will be taking their midterm exams.

The union went on strike in 2001 in a dispute over salaries and benefits.


SEIU howls at Governator

As a world-class body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger followed the timeless rule of the gym: no pain, no gain.

As governor of California, that same adage could be applied to his deficit-riddled 2008-09 state budget proposal. The Republican governor has called for a 10 percent across-the-board cut in state spending, and he and his aides say there will be plenty of pain. The goal is to spread it evenly to cut into a projected $14 billion deficit, and but many state employees believe that some will feel the pain more than others.

“Our goal was to reduce budgets, spreading reductions evenly, closing gap as broadly and equitably as we possibly can,” said H.D Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, which writes the governor’s budget blueprint. The alternative, Palmer added, to an across-the-board cut would be drastic slashes and the elimination of several programs.

As the governor unveiled his new spending plan this week, state agencies were braced for the deep cuts. It was the talk of the Capitol: Who was going to get hit, and by how much?

Whatever happens over the next few months as the budget is crafted, few expect the unilateral cuts to become law without some serious legislative tweaking, but the proposal is the opening salvo in what promises to be a tough year for state agencies and state employees.

Already, Democratic leaders are calling for “priorities” in determining where cuts should be made. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, in a pointed rebuttal to the governor’s state of the state address, called the proposal “political leadership at its worst.”

The governor’s cuts drew howls from organized labor, even before the proposal was unveiled.

“We’re not about to picket for 8 percent reduction here and 6 percent there, but we think the governor is not offering a creative approach,” said SEIU Local 1000 spokesman Jim Zamora. “We need to look at all alternatives. By saying 10 percent across the board, that’s inherently unfair. Some agencies are already understaffed, do you cut more or just not staff? We’re trying to figure out what each department is going to do.”

Zamora points to a finding by the state legislative analyst that found that $6.5 billion in corporate and personal income tax are uncollected each year. He says filling the 349 vacancies at the state’s tax collection agency, the franchise tax board, “will go a long way to closing the gap.”

But that’s unlikely to happen. If anything, the governor is proposing eliminating vacant positions in some state agencies, like the department of corrections, to try to realize savings in the state budget.

Other liberal advocates say the governor should be looking at the revenue side, not just arbitrary cuts.

“If you want waste, fraud, abuse, go to the tax system,” said Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist with the California Tax Reform Association. “There is a lot of low hanging fruit in the revenue system. We believe government has to look into all loopholes and exemptions before draconian cuts are made.”

Goldberg said that CTRA will be releasing a report that points out $17 billion in revenue the state is leaving on the table.

Conservatives were not impressed. “That’s good talk, but realistically, it’s not going to happen,” said Senate Republican Leader Dick Ackerman, R-Irvine. “The voters are the ones who use those tax exemptions.”

Ackerman called the 10 percent proposal a “good start,” saying that Senate Republicans are on the same page with Schwarzenegger in the claim that the state is spending too much.

“The state agencies will continue to deliver services to people who truly need them,” Ackerman said.

But not all agencies are expecting a budget reduction, Jay Alan, Deputy Director of communication for the governor’s office of Homeland Security, doubts his organization will feel any cutback.

“Public safety is not something you want to scrimp on,” said Alan. “Anything involved with state public safety gets looked at in a different kind of way. It depends on the funding source and critical nature of it.”

And Palmer said debt service would be another area of the budget that will be immune from the cuts. Programs like benefits to retirees cannot be reduced by law.


Labor-owned Assembly retaliates against GOP

After four years, the state’s Labor and Training director, Adelita Orefice, is leaving her job to take a newly created position as deputy secretary of the state Office of Health and Human Services, the governor announced yesterday.

The fate of Orefice’s labor job has been up in the air. Last spring, Orefice found herself in the middle of a political battle in which Governor Carcieri withdrew her name for reconfirmation because she faced an almost certain no-confidence vote by a Senate committee.

The Carcieri administration blamed the trouble on political retaliation by union leaders upset with Orefice’s role as the whistleblower in the scandal involving Beacon Mutual Insurance, the state’s dominant workers’ compensation insurer.

Orefice, 42, an ex-officio member of the Beacon board, helped bring attention to the findings of a confidential audit, commissioned by Beacon board members, that delved into allegations that the company was “providing unfairly discounted insurance rates to individuals and companies with connections to its Board of Directors.”

State officials did not say if yesterday’s job transfer was connected to that incident.

The governor also announced that Sandra Powell, a 19-year veteran of the Labor Department, will replace Orefice as the interim director of Labor and Training.

Orefice shared the news of her departure with colleagues in an e-mail yesterday afternoon, saying she’d chosen to accept the new position “after much consideration” and felt confident in Powell’s leadership.

“Please know that although I am leaving the Department of Labor and Training, I will always have the deepest respect and affection for my DLT family and take tremendous pride in the work we have achieved together over the last four years,” she wrote.

Orefice did not return calls for comment yesterday.

“Lita Orefice has done a terrific job as Director of the Department of Labor and Training,” Carcieri said in a statement. “In fact, Lita has gone above and beyond the call of duty on numerous occasions.”

The governor also referred to what he called Orefice’s role as a Beacon whistleblower. “As a result of Lita’s courage, Beacon’s board and management have been overhauled and criminal investigations have been launched against those who were responsible for the company’s problems,” he said.

Beacon officials had similar praise for Orefice’s “integrity and commitment” as a board member. As an ex-officio board member, Orefice served only in her capacity as Director of Labor and Training. As a result of yesterday’s job transfer, Powell will assume her seat on that board.

AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer George Nee, a former Beacon board member whom Carcieri last year blamed for having “convinced the Senate leadership” to vote down Orefice’s reconfirmation, did not return calls for comment last night.

Orefice, in her new deputy position at the Office of Health and Human Services, will be paid $119,558 — nearly $6,000 more than she was paid in her Labor department position. She will be responsible for helping to oversee the DHS’ day-to-day operations as well as administering the state’s massive Medicaid budget.

The new deputy director position will take the place of the former, and currently vacant, chief of staff position, according to Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal. He could not say how long the chief of staff job has gone unstaffed.

Sen. John Tassoni, D-Smithfield, questioned how the administration could move Orefice into a position “without having a position there. I mean, are we going to have a public hearing…?” he asked.

“Here we are with a half-a-billion deficit and we are just making jobs for people. It’s a disgrace,” said Tassoni, a senior business agent for Council 94, American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Powell’s former $93,000 job as assistant director for the department’s Workforce Development division, will go unfilled, Neal said.

The state’s Labor department is responsible for an array of job and job-training programs. It also oversees work-force protection programs including unemployment insurance, temporary disability insurance and workers’ compensation.


Las Vegas dealers discuss unions

Dealers at the Flamingo say they are being hauled into meetings where top managers at the Strip resort tell their captive audiences why they shouldn't follow workers at Caesars Palace and Wynn Las Vegas by trying to organize a union.

Wynn Las Vegas dealers joined Las Vegas Dealers Local 721, an affiliate of the New York-based Transport Workers Union of America, after the resort began giving some of the tip money collected by dealers to casino managers. Dealers at Caesars Palace voted on Dec. 23 to also organize under the Transport Workers Union.

The closed-door meetings at the Flamingo, which is owned by Harrah's Entertainment, include heated criticism of unions, with managers belittling earlier efforts by the Transport Workers to organize dealers at the New Frontier, the dealers say. Dealers at the New Frontier approved a union contract in 2001 but the union was decertified in 2002.

Current union drives on the Strip can be traced to May, when Wynn dealers unionized in response to the tip-sharing decision by management.

Dealers at Caesars, which is also owned by Harrah's Entertainment, voted last month by a 3-to-1 margin to follow their Wynn colleagues and join the Transport Workers.

The vote was certified by the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 3.

Joseph Carbon, lead organizer of the Transport Workers Union in Las Vegas, said he will meet with dealers from Caesars on Thursday to begin formulating negotiating points.

A negotiating session with Caesars management has not been scheduled, but Carbon said he expects the two sides to hold their first meeting in the next few weeks.

"They're going to have to sit and bargain with us in good faith," Carbon said. "Hopefully, we can reach a common ground, and that is what our intent is."

Carbon said the union has received authorization cards from dealers at several properties, but union officials won't decide which property to organize until after they meet next week.

Jan Jones, Harrah's senior vice president of communications and government relations, said in a statement Monday that the company does not believe the Transport Workers Union is good for the employees. The best type of partnership is for the dealers and the company to work together, the statement said.

"We are committed to communicating directly with our employees," Jones said. "We believe the dealers have the right to fully understand the reputation and business practices of this union, along with the facts about collective bargaining."

Management at the Flamingo is fearful dealers there are ready to organize, the employees said.

"They are pretty much are saying if we unionize ... we are going to lose and they are going to do the same thing they did at Wynn and take our tips," said a dice dealer who attended one of the meetings.

The dealer, who did not want to be identified for fear of recrimination, is undecided about whether to join the union but didn't like the tone of the meeting.

"I don't care one way or the other," the dealer said of the potential outcome of a union drive. "I just don't like the idea of being threatened."

The dealer said Flamingo Las Vegas President Don Marrandino spoke at the meeting and suggested union representation would be detrimental to the workers.

The dealer paraphrased Marrandino as saying, "We might turn around and do what Wynn did."

Another dealer who was leaving one of the required meetings said the Flamingo executives "repeated the dealers at the Frontier just made a horrible deal (with the Transport Workers)."

Carbon said a companies have the right to call mandatory meetings to discuss union issues.

However, he said the union office has received calls from dealers at various Harrah's properties complaining that management is making threats that could be bordering on harassing dealers under federal law.

"People have the right to organize," Carbon said. "It just seems like Harrah's feels like it is exempt from that. It's the people's right afforded them by the federal government to organize into the union of their choice without any coercion or interference from either party."


Rewarding union misbehavior in Los Angeles

The new Los Angeles police headquarters is already a fiscal disaster for city taxpayers, with the sole bid for construction $30 million more than estimated. Now the Los Angeles Board of Public Works is scheduled to vote on January 9 to assess taxpayers with more costs resulting from a construction union breaking its promise not to strike.

As part of a Project Labor Agreement signed in 2006, construction unions made a contractual promise not to strike in exchange for a union monopoly to build the police headquarters. The Operating Engineers union went on strike anyway in August, delaying the project by 14 days. Now the city proposes paying $343,000 in overtime wages to the unions to get the project back on schedule. Why are taxpayers rewarding unions for violating the no-strike clause?

- Kevin Korenthal, Los Angeles/Ventura Chapter, Associated Builders and Contractors


Unions expert at mail-in ballot manipulation

For all those Puebloans who were confused by November’s mail-in ballots and those who oppose all-mail balloting on principle (count us in), watch the (Colorado) Legislature closely.

The General Assembly convenes today, and Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon, a Denver Democrat, said at a recent hearing, “I’m looking for the simplest solution and the one that I think has the greatest likelihood of letting everybody vote and counting the votes accurately.”

While we don’t profess to be mind readers, we’re willing to bet the farm that Sen. Gordon’s “simplest solution” is all-mail balloting - for every election.

Right now, Colorado law precludes that in general elections. And Secretary of State Mike Coffman wants to keep it that way, holding elections at polling places while allowing mail ballots for those who actually are out of town on Election Day. Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert Ortiz has stated his support for that kind of election as well.

We suspect Sen. Gordon and some of his fellow Democrats - but not all of them by a long shot - want to make Colorado the second all-mail balloting state in the nation, after Oregon. But all-mail balloting is nothing but an invitation to election fraud.

People posing as “helpers” can sway some elderly voters in nursing homes. Bosses could unduly influence employees. Union officials could likewise influence members. Enough of that could determine the outcome of a close election, and that’s something everybody who believes in fair and honest elections should abhor.

So keep an eye out for news from the State Capitol. All-mail balloting is a land mine to avoid.


Striking writers strategy: Divide and conquer

A deal with Harvey Weinstein appears likely. Could the Writers Guild plan to divide and conquer be working?

Once talks broke down between Hollywood's striking writers and the studios and networks that employ them, the Writers Guild of America opted for another plan: divide and, if all goes according to plan, conquer.

The strategy is to break the impasse with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by striking interim deals with the individual companies involved. The hope is that one or more of the major media companies--think Viacom or Disney--will be willing to break ranks with the alliance, forcing the others to follow suit. While the strategy's effectiveness is hardly guaranteed, the approach is not only logical but wise, according to labor experts.

"It's a common strategy because often a union is not powerful enough to take on an entire industry all at once," says Daniel Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University. "For that reason, it's a very strategic way of proceeding."

On Thursday, the writers appeared to have another agreement in place. The New York Times reported that the Weinstein Company, an independent production company, will announce a deal with the guild. The company could not be reached for comment.

What makes the Hollywood scenario somewhat unique is the fragmented makeup of the alliance. Unlike the concentrated nature of many employer groups, the studio side is made up of smaller shops like the Weinstein Company and massive media conglomerates like News Corp. (nyse: NWS - news - people ), which makes the vested interests different and side deals feasible.

There aren't a lot of industries that have a structure where you can easily play one or more against each other, explains Cornfield. He likens the guild's sequential bargaining approach to that of the United Auto Workers during its 2007 strike negotiations. Rather than hammer out a single deal at once, the union negotiated company by company. In this case, General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) came first, followed by Ford Motor (nyse: F - news - people ) and finally Chrysler.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley, finds parallels in a showdown between the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Northern California's grocery chains.

There were three major players in the market, and two came on, leaving one, in this case Safeway (nyse: SWY - news - people ), isolated. Consumers had another place to go, putting the squeeze on Safeway to agree to the same terms as the others.

Thus far, the Writers Guild has publicly announced only two interim agreements, with a handful of others reportedly in the works.

David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, struck the first deal with the guild just before the new year. The agreement allowed the Late Show With David Letterman and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, both of which he owns, to return to the airwaves with a full stable of writers earlier this month. (The other late-night hosts have also returned without writers.)

Tom Cruise's United Artists, the defunct studio that he and partner Paula Wagner revived after they were unceremoniously dumped by Viacom in 2006, came next. Though the terms of the early-January deal haven't been disclosed, the bottom line remains: While the rest of the studios remain dark, the MGM-owned studio can start hiring writers and get back to work.

While media reports have expressed concern over the slow pace and limited number of agreements, Cornfield isn't worried. "They're further ahead than if they try to take on the whole industry at once and not get anywhere," he says.

In the meantime, the incremental gains have delivered boosts in both morale and public opinion. "It shows that they're making progress," says Jacobs of the interim agreements. "And in this case, that's a win for the guild because it's a demonstration that what they're asking for is not unrealistic."

But like all strategies, the splintering approach isn't without flaws.

The way Rob Seber, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, sees it, it's only a good strategy if the guild can make those terms all the same. "If they start to strike individual deals where there's an exception here, an exception there," he says, "then they end up losing the advantage of a single, national collective-bargaining agreement."

Varying agreements could add some complexity and confusion to the negotiation process going forward, adds David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University.

Cornfield admits he's slightly concerned that the current tactic runs the risk of cracking the united front of the Writers Guild. When you have some members back at work while others remain on the picket line, he says, that's always a reason to fear.


Government assumes custody of unionism

Going from a high-water mark of 35 per cent (in the 1950s) to the measly 12 per cent it is today, national union membership has clearly taken a beating. Lots of reasons, not least of which is passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which, with its comprehensive restrictions on union activities, has proven to be a genuine impediment to the labor movement.

Taft-Hartley aside, here are three larger, overarching factors that have contributed to the decline of unions.

1. The hollowing-out of the country's manufacturing base and, with it, a decline in those industry jobs which, historically, had not only been strongly organized but well paid.

We're speaking mainly of the automobile, steel, paper, and heavy equipment industries.

Even the auto industry, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW)-one of the most successful and innovative unions in American history-took tremendous hits during the seventies and eighties, losing hundreds of thousands of members.

Americans are still buying cars and trucks at a brisk pace, but it no longer even registers as "news" that foreign markets have decimated U.S. sales. That is now a "given." And those Japanese auto companies that have set up shop in the U.S. made certain to situate their plants in right-to-work states in the Deep South, areas hostile to organized labor.

If we subtract all the non-manufacturing and service jobs (nurses, civil servants, police and firemen, teachers, etc.), there are barely 6 per cent of union workers engaged in the manufacture of products. When you lose your base you can't expect to maintain your membership. Worse news: Unless something momentous and unforeseen occurs, it's unlikely we're ever going to get these industries back to anything approaching their previous numbers. That era, along with the quality jobs and UAW glory that went with it, is over.

2. Government has assumed custody of key union provisions.

From overtime pay to hours of work, to guaranteed days off and employees' rights and standards, laws have been passed by the state and federal governments to address such issues. Government has effectively co-opted much of what only union contracts traditionally did.

For example, where joining a union was once the only way to get premium pay for overtime, or "penalty pay" for showing up and being sent home when there was no work, those goodies are now mandated by state and federal statutes.

Safety is another example. Where it once required specific language in a union contract to insure that a workplace was safe and secure, the passage, in 1970, of the Occupation Health and Safety Act (OSHA), made every employer in the country accountable to a federal safety code. Today, an employee need only pick up the phone and dial OSHA's number to complain about an unsafe working condition and, chances are, he will be placed in contact with a field agent.

Tangentially, many businesses manage to keep unions out by providing their employees with comparable wages and benefits. Even though union wages are still significantly higher, across the board, than non-union wages, many companies are able to keep out unions by providing compensation and benefits (vacations, pensions, health insurance) that compare favorably to those of union shops, thus obviating the need for organizing.

What hurts most in these cases is that the people ("free riders") receiving these comparable wages and benefits think they're making it on their own, without having to rely on a union. In truth, without the existence of unions, there's no telling how low base wages for unskilled blue-collar work would fall, with nothing to prop them up except the federal minimum wage.

3. Changes in demographics and culture.

There is a decreased respect for the role of organized labor, for its founders, its battles, its overall narrative, and an alarming lack of interest in labor's political and social implications.

High school history and civic textbooks of the Baby Boomer generation (and the one preceding it) routinely included accounts of the achievements of labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, et al, mentioning them in much the same way they mentioned political leaders and social reformers.

Today, it would be ludicrous to expect a high school history text to single out specific contemporary labor leaders who've made a difference-unless it was something scandalous or bizarre (e.g., the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa).

We've also witnessed a marked decline in our sense of community. This can be seen in the fact that fewer people are willing to march in Labor Day parades, or enroll in social clubs or civic organizations, or attend community events.

And there is a obvious spillover into politics. Today, everybody seems to want to call himself an independent rather than a Republican or Democrat, having grown increasingly frustrated with the traditional two-party system. The same sense of faux-independence applies to working people as well. Workers prefer to think of themselves as incipient, yet-to-be-realized entrepreneurs rather than proletarian toilers.

Identifying oneself as part of a larger entity-a union, a community, even a neighborhood-no longer holds the appeal it once did, just as collectivism no longer makes as much sense as it once did. With everyone's sights set on upward mobility, fewer people are comfortable publicly identifying themselves as blue-collar, because doing so cuts them off from the prestige that comes from lucrative jobs/careers.

With those values now in play, who the hell wants to march down Main Street in a Labor Day parade wearing union colors?

There's an anecdote told about John D. Rockefeller which reflects this change in cultural attitudes. It occurred during the Depression. A group of poor people congregated outside the gate of Rockefeller's mansion, and began banging the covers of his metal trash cans and shouting insults, making a terrible racket.

The police were summoned. But because the police were sympathetic to the demonstrators, they waited several minutes, watching the protest with interest, before breaking up the demonstration. Their deep-seated sympathies lay with the protesters.

Today, that episode would play out differently. Besides poor people not having access to a wealthy industrialist's home (he'd be isolated inside a gated estate, with his own private security force patrolling the place), it's unlikely the city police would react sympathetically.

Rather, they'd treat the demonstrators like criminal trespassers and drive them away, possibly arrest them. They would likely treat them with contempt. Why? Because working people don't have the core respect they once had. Simple as that.

- David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000.


Starbucks serves non-union lattes

Starbucks’ 2006 Corporate Social Responsibility report promises a "great work environment" and notes that it expects its suppliers to respect "the rights of individuals" and to adhere to international standards regarding worker treatment, but the Seattle-based caffeine retailer reportedly fell a little short in its stance toward some of its U.S. employees who may have been exercising their lawful rights to support unionization efforts at some Starbucks locations.

The Wall Street Journal got access to some Starbucks emails and reported Jan. 9 that Starbucks managers took a list they found online of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations graduates and figured out which of them were current Starbucks employees in an effort to stymie organizing efforts. The emails recommended that local managers be informed about the identities of the handful of employees that were found to have studied labor relations at Cornell and noted that some of them were "at risk" to getting axed.

The revelation occurred several days after Starbucks announced, in an unrelated development, that chairman Howard Schultz would succeed CEO Jim Donald, who indeed was axed.

In a letter on the company website, Schultz explains how Starbucks "developed a culture based on treating each other, our customers and our coffee growers with respect and dignity."

I guess that dignity doesn’t apply to the privacy and workplace rights of some Starbucks employees who choose to advocate for more benefits and unionization.

In New York, Starbucks faces allegations of National Labor Relations Board violations, dating to 2005, brought by the union attempting to organize Starbucks locations.

Apparently for Starbucks and many other companies, including Wal-Mart, promises of corporate responsibility sometimes end when it comes to labor relations.


Citizens tackle union stronghold

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