UFCW forced to mount RICO defense

A federal judge on Tuesday gave the go-ahead to Smithfield Foods Inc.'s racketeering lawsuit against a union that's waged a lengthy campaign to organize thousands of workers at the company's massive hog slaughterhouse in rural North Carolina.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne turned away the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's efforts to dismiss Smithfield's lawsuit but told Smithfield lawyers that under the law, the company must specifically allege how the union would use proceeds gained as a result of its activities, which the company hadn't done in its original complaint brought in October against the UFCW, its local chapter and other defendants.

In its lawsuit, the Smithfield-based meat company alleges that the defendants violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, which originally was designed to fight organized crime. The company alleges that the union's so-called "smear campaign" involving its efforts to unionize Smithfield's Tar Heel, N.C., plant amounts to extortion, taking away Smithfield's intangible property — the ability to conduct business the way it chooses.

"They're prepared to put you out of business if you don't succumb to their demands," which is the definition of extortion, Thomas G. Slater argued.

He also said that once the company has to recognize the union, Smithfield will have to change the fundamental way it does business, and would put the company at a distinct disadvantage, possibly in the form of higher salaries, increased benefits and other enhancements.

In a statement, Smithfield said the ruling "is a pivotal step toward upholding the law, protecting the rights of Smithfield's workers and preventing further damage to Smithfield's business."

Phone messages left Tuesday evening for Gene Bruskin, who is leading UFCW's efforts to organize the Tar Heel plant, and Leila McDowell, another union organizer, were not immediately returned.

Robert Weinberg, a lawyer representing the union, argued unsuccessfully that Payne should dismiss the lawsuit, saying Smithfield couldn't prove how union activities amount to extortion because the company has failed to show how the union and other defendants deprived it of actual property.

Weinberg argued that the UFCW's only goal is to secure voluntary union recognition for the 4,650 workers at the plant, the world's largest hog-slaughtering operation.

He argued that Smithfield was unable to show the defendants conspired to engage in an ongoing pattern of extortion.


Out-of-state union cash colors California ballot

Supporters and opponents of the seven propositions on California's Feb. 5 ballot have raised over $133 million through mid-January, according to the California Voter Foundation (CVF), a nonprofit organization that is tracking proposition fundraising through its nonpartisan voter education web site.

"California voters face a number of complicated propositions this election," said Kim Alexander, CVF President. "Following the money is a great shortcut that helps voters get to the bottom line and find out which interest groups are supporting and opposing each measure."

On Proposition 93, which would weaken California's term limit law, proponents have raised $11.8 million, with the California Teachers Association the top donor, at $2 million. Opponents have raised $5.7 million, less than half as much as supporters.


Union-thug voter-blockers awaited in Colorado

Union-choice advocates are beginning to circulate petitions to get a "right to work" initiative on the November ballot in Colorado. Organizers have until the middle of April to submit about 76,000 valid signatures to put the measure up for a vote.

The initiative would prohibit workers from being forced to become union members or pay union dues. Advocates say the measure would help Colorado businesses remain competitive with 22 other states in the nation that have similar laws.

Critics say the law would let "free-rider" nonunion workers enjoy benefits paid by dues-paying members.

Political consultant Rob Fairbank, an organizer of the ballot campaign, said the movement has gained support in the business community since November, when Gov. Bill Ritter signed an executive order that gives collective-bargaining rights to state government employees.

Fairbank declined to identify any of the supporters or how much money has been raised.

Analysts have estimated that to acquire enough signatures, supporters will need to spend about $280,000, much of it to hire people to circulate petitions.

Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., said his research shows that "right to work" states have higher rates of job creation but lower wages than in mandatory-union states.

He said his group has not yet taken a position on the ballot measure.


Labor-state Teamster organizers abandon FedEx

The Teamsters voluntarily canceled an organizing election scheduled for February 1, 2008 at the FedEx Home Delivery facility in Worcester, MA. The withdrawal signals a defeat for the union, which was seeking to organize FedEx owner operators in Worcester.

February's election was originally scheduled to take place in 2006, but the Teamsters delayed it with legal maneuvers. This is the Teamsters' fourth failed attempt to organize contractors in Worcester.

'This is a complete victory for FedEx Home Delivery contractors in Worcester and a total defeat for the Teamsters,' said Paul Callahan, FedEx Ground's Senior Vice President of Contractor Relations. 'These 18 independent contractors sent a clear message to the union that they want to remain just that ' independent. As small business owners, they want to make business decisions for themselves, without third-party interference. At FedEx Home Delivery, we believe contractors have the right to make their own decisions and we will continue to defend their right to do so.'

'We appreciate the relationship we have with our contractors,' Callahan said. 'Moreover, we support our contractors' desire to manage and grow their own businesses and to continue delivering the exceptional service our mutual customers in Massachusetts have come to expect.'


UNITE in RICO-inspired campaign v. Aramark

School predators don’t always appear as shadowy figures lurking on the fringes of playgrounds. Sometimes they come in brightly lit corporate offices wearing three-piece suits.

Detroit area union officials and politicians charge that Aramark Corp., the Philadelphia-based company that bills itself “a global leader in professional services,” is preying on Detroit public school system students.

According to figures compiled by the Unite Here union, Aramark has broken its promises to turn over to the school district revenues from the lucrative public school food service program. Activists from several unions protested the situation on Jan. 18, at a rally in frigid weather in Detroit’s New Center.

In the 2000-2001 school year, the food service program generated $4.5 million for the district, according to Unite Here. Since Aramark took over the following year, total revenues for the district has not reached that level.

When Aramark took over in 2002, the union reports, it promised to bring in more than $25 million for the cash-strapped district’s general fund over the course of the five-year contract. Unite Here says that Aramark turned over only $1.4 million and the company never once brought in more revenue than the district had generated when it managed food services in-house. And over the course of the contract, Aramark was paid $6.6 million in management fees.

Despite all of this, Aramark’s contract with Detroit Public Schools was renewed in 2006.

Unite Here reports that Aramark has a track record of shabby performance. It was fired two years into its five-year contract in Philadelphia and it was the subject of state probe in Houston for not keeping an accurate count of free meals to district students. Taxpayers ended up shelling out $200,000 penalty in that case.

Phil Schloop, vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers and business manager of Local 547 said it is a matter of accountability

“It's time for real answers from Aramark,” he said. “Aramark has literally taken millions from our schools. It’s time we take our money back.”

State Senator Irma Clarke-Coleman, who also spoke at the rally, said the school district desperately needs the money to buy supplies and fund programs for students.

“I’ve always been for the children,” she said. “I want the money to go to the children.”

To learn more about Aramark’s record, go to www.factsonaramark.info.


Union democracy in break-down

The takeover of a local union that refused to hold elections is a sign of how democracy has broken down, according to some retired members.

Early this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union stepped in and took trusteeship of Local 1036 in Camarillo. Local 1036 represented about 3,000 workers in the grocery strike and lockout in 2004, as well as in negotiations with supermarket chains in 2007. Its coverage area includes Ventura County, Arroyo Grande, Santa Barbara and Bakersfield.

Hearings on the trusteeship are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Bakersfield and Camarillo. It was important to make the hearings accessible for union members, including having a Spanish translator on hand, said Shaun Barclay, a UFCW international vice president and Western region director who is overseeing the trusteeship.

The hearings will help determine how long Local 1036 stays in trusteeship, as will Barclay's assessment of whether the local is operating smoothly.

"It is not my interest to keep a local under trusteeship any longer than necessary," he said, adding, "It is not my practice to release one prematurely."

The trusteeship came after the local union's executive board refused to hold elections as required by its bylaws, the International Union's constitution and federal law. The local union had been heading toward a merger with Local 770 in Los Angeles. If that merger had gone through, no elections would have been necessary. But Local 1036 members voted against the merger.

In a letter, the local executive board informed the International Union that "there has occurred an irremediable breakdown in the governance functions of Local 1036 which makes it impossible for Local 1036 to effectively service its members" and "it is impossible to conduct fair executive officer ... elections."

The International Union put the local union into trusteeship Jan. 3, removing its executive board members, including George Hartwell, the local union president since 1992.

Though removed from power, some executive board members kept their staff positions, which raised the ire of some members.

Barclay said it is common for ousted officers to keep their staff positions in a trusteeship. Their job duties are modified, but their jobs still have to be done, so they remain employees unless the reason for the trusteeship warrants otherwise, he said.

Hartwell was employed through his position as president, which ended Dec. 31. He is no longer with Local 1036 and could not be reached for this story.

Some say that the local union has been run in a way that doesn't always serve its members best and often avoids a democratic process — seen most blatantly in the decision not to hold officer elections.

Hartwell was being challenged for the presidency by another union member. It has been speculated that the challenge was why the elections were never held.

Some say that the problems extend beyond Local 1036. They argue that the "old boy network" often leads to actions designed to keep those currently in power from losing their positions.

Merger voids election

Several point to what happened to former Local 1036 member Marvin Armas and draw parallels with the current situation.

Armas is now retired and living in Santa Maria. He joined Local 899 in 1958 when he was 16.

In 1986, he was one of several candidates who ran for president of Local 899, going up against a president who was appointed to the position by the previous executive board. He won.

The election was in September, with Armas scheduled to take office in January 1987.

Instead, he was called in and told that Local 899 was going to merge with the local in Bakersfield. Local 1036 was formed and Armas was out as president.

Armas saw it as the International Union stepping in to maintain control.

"They felt, and still do feel, that they are going to run everything from Washington," he said. "Their attitude is they do know best."

Armas started working for Local 1036 in 1988. He wanted to be involved, but often felt he was left out of the process. When he became secretary/treasurer, a position that is usually second in command, Hartwell had two assistants to the president who often were given the assignments he should have had, he said. His name wasn't even on the letterhead.

He objected to negotiations and deals he felt didn't serve the membership, and he opposed the decision to pay Hartwell about $100,000 for vacation time and sick leave he hadn't taken.

"There were things that came up that I was adamantly opposed to that I had no control over," he said.

So he retired.

Armas said he would like to believe that the next step for Local 1036 is an election. But based on his own experience, he thinks it's more likely it will be split up and parceled out to other locals.

History of issues

He's not the only one who's doubtful.

Bill Pearson also predicts an eventual merger.

Pearson speaks from his experience as a former UFCW local union president in Minnesota. Now retired, he lives in Arizona and spends a good chunk of his time talking with union members and posting his insights online. He said online blogs finally offer a place to voice grievances in a public setting in the hopes of creating change.

"I loved what I did," he said. "I was also very frustrated because of the bureaucracy. I was fighting with them as much as I was fighting with employers."

He echoed Armas' stance that mergers have been used to keep incumbents in power.

He mentions a 2006 case in Northern California, where a member was running for president of Local 588. That union was joined with Local 1288 and the president of 588 became president of the merged local. There was no election.

As for the president of Local 1288, forms filed with the U.S. Department of Labor show he took home $679,949 in total compensation for 2006. The local union had about 4,679 members before the merger.

Such examples show that what has happened with Local 1036 is not a one-time event, Pearson said.

There is a trend to merge into ever bigger local unions, with the idea that there is strength in numbers and more resources and bargaining power. But Pearson said growing bigger has made the union less democratic.

"This isn't what organized labor should be," he said. "It should be about working men and women fighting for justice on the job."

Barclay said the whole intent of the trusteeship of Local 1036 is to restore the democratic process there. When the time comes, the local union will be released from trusteeship through a membership vote. Barclay said there has been no discussion of a merger.

Past trusteeships have ended with their memberships voting on a merger or an officer election, he said.

Barclay said his staff has worked hard to keep communication open with the members of Local 1036 and the response has been positive. Any recommendation will be with the members in mind, he said.

"In every case, in every trusteeship I've ever worked on, my recommendation is based strictly, completely and entirely on what I believe is in the best interest of the membership long term," he said.


Gov't union effort couldn't stop Fla. tax cut

Florida's Amendment 1 passed easily Tuesday night, riding comfortably on the coattails of its No. 1 supporter, Gov. Charlie Crist, and defying pollsters. Realtors gathered in a hotel bar at the bay front Renaissance Vinoy Resort cheered as the results were splashed across large-screen TV's. Fireworks could be seen exploding over Tampa Bay.

"The people of Florida have spoken and they have demanded relief, tax relief," Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp told a cheering crowd of about 50 supporters. "This is a great day for Florida."

With 79 percent of the precincts reporting, here was the vote on Amendment 1:

# Yes: 2.38 million votes, 64 percent

# No: 1.32 million, 36 percent

The victory was more about the dismal state of Florida's economy and lawmakers will have to be more creative than ever to keep schools afloat, warned Florida Education Association chief Andy Ford, one of the measure's chief critics.

"Tonight the voters of Florida have indicated that they are strapped financially and that they need immediate relief ... even at the cost of funding our schools and other vital services," he said in a written statement.

Buoyed by the results, lawmakers are poised for another round of tax- cutting proposals, including measures that would make it easier for property owners to challenge their assessments in court and giving breaks to waterfront hotels and marinas.

"This is not the end of the fight," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic and a key Senate negotiator for the proposal. "I think it sends the message that the people of Florida are ready to put a limit on the money local government spends."

The results mean that for the first time, homeowners will be able to take their accumulated Save Our Homes assessment savings with them when they move. Homes worth more than $50,000 will get a boost to their $25,000 homestead exemption, but not for school taxes, saving the average homeowner $240.

Commercial and non-homestead property owners will see a 10 percent annual Save Our Homes-like cap on their assessments. Businesses will get a $25,000 exemption on the tangible personal property taxes they pay on items such as equipment, wiping more than 1 million small businesses off the rolls entirely.

Opponents, including teachers, firefighters and government worker unions, were bracing for the worst. Teachers predicted more failing schools and local governments warned about loss of services and cutbacks in police and fire protection.

The race was close until the polls opened. Crist adviser and former Chief of Staff George LeMieux said earlier in the day that internal polls as late as Sunday showed the measure reaching only 59 percent, just 1 percent shy of the 60 percentage points needed for passage.

The passage was not only a personal victory for Crist, but a testament to the power of fundraising. Supporters at Yes on 1 racked up more than $4.1 million, including $1 million donations each from the Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Power & Light.

Opponents, including the Florida Education Association and the Florida Professional Firefighters and the Florida League of Cities, raised a little more than $2 million.


Union members suspected in embezzlement

Palo Alto (CA) police officers have searched the residences of the four Children's Theatre employees presently on administrative leave, reportedly confiscating computers, according to several sources.

"We conducted search warrants and I cannot comment on what we confiscated at this time," Police Chief Lynne Johnson replied in an e-mail to a query from the Weekly Tuesday afternoon.

But Phil Plymale, president of the City of Palo Alto chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said Tuesday the homes of Assistant Director Michael Litfin, Costume Supervisor Alison Williams and Box Office Assistant Richard Curtis -- all union members -- had been searched and computers were taken last week.

The employees, who were put on paid leave following the abrupt closure of the theater Jan. 24 due to a "financial crimes" investigation, were also instructed to stop talking to Plymale, he said.

The home of theatre Director Patricia Briggs also was searched.

The case is linked to thefts from the theater last summer, Johnson has said. Theater staff reported a printer, cash, coins and checks were missing on June 18, but later discovered other losses, including video equipment that was hard to find, according to sources.

About two weeks ago, theater staff again contacted police to inquire about progress on the theft investigation, Plymale said.

A week later, the theater was closed. It was reopened Monday for a rehearsal for the play, "The Giver," due to open Friday -- but city officials locked the theatre doors, allowing only cast members and parents in or out.

Johnson said Tuesday she did not know when the investigation, which is currently being conducted by one primary investigator, would be complete.

"We're working on it as fast as we can," she said. "It's so complex."


Casino War moves out of the courtroom

After several days of testimony, a National Labor Relations Board hearing over a union vote at Foxwoods Casino has wrapped up. The casino owners, the Mashantucket Pequots, filed complaints with the NLRB after dealers voted 1,289 to 852 in favor of a union represented by the United Auto Workers. The tribe challenged the validity of the election on several fronts.

The tribe claimed the UAW intimidated workers as it sought to unionize them. The union has denied those claims. Administrative law judge Raymond Green who presided over the hearing says he expects to issue his ruling in early March.

The NLRB oversaw the Nov. 24 election and the Pequots also contended ballots and election notices were not printed in the Chinese spoken by about 700 of the dealers. The Pequots also tried to argue that federal rule does not apply to tribal sovereignty and the tribe's gambling business.

Both sides expressed confidence Tuesday that their arguments will prevail.


Union-happy Gov. triggers organizing war

One labor union's website says, "State Employee Partnership Breakthrough!" followed by photos of state employees smiling and giving the thumbs-up to Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter's executive order allowing state workers to form bargaining groups.

A competing website touts its leaders' long history of defending worker rights and invites state employees to fill out membership forms authorizing the state to deduct $15 a month for dues.

The Colorado Association of Public Employees/Service Employees International Union, or CAPE/SEIU, and the Colorado Public Employee Alliance, or CPEA, are among the labor groups using the Internet, fliers, mailers and lunch-hour breaks to win over state workers not already affiliated with a union.

Ritter's order requires unions that want to represent any one of eight state employee groups — from information-technology workers to health-service workers — to file a petition with signatures from at least 30 percent of the group's members.

That allows them to participate in an election. A union must get more than 50 percent of the vote to be the designated representative for the category.

One union, the Association of Colorado State Patrol Professionals, or ACSPP, has already cleared the first hurdle. The union, which wants to represent state troopers, submitted a petition with signatures from 70 percent of all eligible employees. Bill Thoennes, a state Labor Department spokesman, said 711 troopers were eligible to sign the petition.

Ritter's order, issued in November, grants about 32,000 state workers the right to form bargaining groups. He said such groups will allow the state to better partner with its workers to solve problems.

The CPEA was formed late last year after its predecessor, the Colorado Federation of Public Employees, dissolved after a dispute with its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT. The new union is affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.

Its competitor, Colorado WINS, or Workers for Innovative and New Solutions, is made up of CAPE/SEIU; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and AFT.

The fight for members promises to be aggressive.

CPEA has taken issue with recent fliers that Colorado WINS has distributed to state workers. In the materials, Colorado WINS tells state employees that it can negotiate health care benefits on the employees' behalf, a statement that CPEA president Jo Romero questions.

Romero said CPEA began getting phone calls over the weekend from state workers and CPEA members who were concerned about Colorado WINS' fliers.

She doesn't think Ritter's order allows unions to negotiate with the state on health benefits or salaries, and her group is asking the governor's office for clarification.

"The executive order doesn't say explicitly that you can negotiate benefits and wages," Romero said. "We have not told employees, 'Join our organization and we will negotiate benefits and wages for you.' That was not a promise we could make."

Dawn Le, a spokeswoman for Colorado WINS, said her group believes that a section of the order entitles unions to bargain over salary and wages.

She points to language stating that "partnership agreements that govern discussions of matters impacting all covered employees . . . or that necessitate statewide uniformity . . . shall be negotiated on a collaborative basis." Issues pertaining to "statewide uniformity" include salary and wages, she said.

Kathy Zamperini, a CAPE/SEIU member and state worker, said she has gotten signatures from fellow employees in support of Colorado WINS, but reaction is often mixed.

"We're having a difficult time with some of our employees," she said. "I think some people are just apathetic. A lot of people don't know what the governor has done."

Others, she said, don't want to be saddled with union dues.

Raymond Hogler, a professor of management at Colorado State University, said he is not surprised that some workers are resisting.

"This is a not a very pro-union state, and employees may decide they don't need a union," he said. Others may be afraid to join a bargaining group for fear of retaliation from a manager, Hogler said.

To be successful, union members "need to convince (other employees) that they would be better off with union representation," he said.

State Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he is concerned that some unions may be overly aggressive in pursuit of signatures.

"I know of one case of an employee having someone come to her home and knock on the door," he said. "I have had employees say to me, 'I don't feel like I need a union.' That's the concern."


Labor-state political operatives push gambling

Bay State unions are preparing to play hard ball on Beacon Hill in an all-out drive to win approval for casino gambling. State labor leaders - as they prepare for an annual confab next week organized by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO - are weighing a revamp of the rating system by which legislators are judged on their records on labor issues.

One concern is that lawmakers can win high marks by voting for lots of noncontroversial bills, even as they fail to follow the union line on big issues such as expanded gambling.

Some union officials are urging the state AFL-CIO to significantly reduce a lawmaker’s labor rating if he or she fails to back the union on a key issue such as casinos, said state Rep. Brian Wallace (D-South Boston), who attended a recent strategy session.

It is a view endorsed by Louis Ciarlone, president and business manager of IBEW Local 123, which represents workers at Suffolk Downs, the site of a proposed casino.

“We have to fight fire with fire,” Ciarlone said. “You can’t be with us 99 times and buck us on this.”

Meanwhile, winning a low rating from the AFL-CIO could have dire consequences for some lawmakers as they face re-election, Wallace said.

Overall, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO rates lawmakers’ voting records on a percentage scale, measuring how many times they line up behind bills endorsed by the labor group. If a legislator’s labor rating falls below a certain threshhold, the union stops making campaign contributions, Wallace said.

“It’s an election year. Having labor with you in a district like mine, it makes a big difference,” Wallace said.

Labor leaders are looking for ways to pressure recalcitrant lawmakers as unions prepare to aggressively lobby for Gov. Deval Patrick’s casino proposal. The casinos will create thousands of new jobs, union officials contend.

“We have to fight at least as hard as the governor is going to fight on this,” Ciarlone said.


Teachers union disgruntled in Puerto Rico

At the end of her teaching day, Felicita Figueroa would like nothing more than to leave her crumbling, rat-infested school building in the Puerto Rican capital. But to pay her bills, she needs to stay late and offer private tutoring sessions.

So she will not hesitate to join an island-wide strike that could begin as early as Friday — even though participating in an illegal walkout could cost her the job.

"I can't take 30 years of this," said Figueroa, 28, adding that her annual salary of $19,500 barely covers food and her share of rent for a small apartment.

With contract negotiations at an impasse, the union that represents most of the 42,000 teachers in the U.S. island territory has threatened a strike to demand pay raises, smaller class sizes and repairs of neglected school buildings.

The starting salary for a teacher in Puerto Rico is $19,200 — lower than any U.S. state and about a third less than the average on the mainland. Puerto Rican teachers with advanced degrees can earn a starting base salary of up to $24,156.

The cost of living, meanwhile, is generally higher in Puerto Rico, with utilities and consumer goods often more expensive than in the U.S. The price of a new car, for example, is 15-25 percent higher, according to the island's consumer affairs agency.

"If I am going to quit in three or four years because I'm not able to save anything, it doesn't make a difference if they kick me out now" because of the strike, said Figueroa, a chemistry teacher.

A strike could leave participants vulnerable to dismissal because of a Puerto Rican law forbidding the disruption of the public education system. The island's government labor relations board decertified the Teachers' Federation last month after a core group of its members authorized a walkout.

The threat has divided the union's roughly 32,000 rank-and-file members, with some arguing teachers should consider their first strike since 1993 only as a last resort.

"I agree that conditions are miserable and we need to apply some pressure, but not with a strike. We still haven't used up all our options and we don't have a support fund for a strike," said Kenneth Hall, a gym teacher in San Juan.

The government, which has been in contract talks with the union for nearly two years, notes that teachers are eligible for pay increases awarded periodically to public education employees, including a $1,200 pay hike approved in December. The governor and other top officials have said the strike does not have the support of many teachers.

But union leaders say a strike may be necessary to force the government to discuss its key demands — including a pay increase of 18 percent for teachers.

Some teachers say they are prepared to accept smaller raises if the government shows greater commitment to reducing class sizes and improving their buildings.

Figueroa teaches at a school on an old military base in San Juan, the Miguel Such Vocational School, where buildings have peeling paint, mold stains the walls and exposed electrical wiring hangs from ceilings. Teachers frequently hear rats scampering across the rafters, and their droppings litter some classrooms.

The territory's education secretary, Rafael Aragunde, said the government has invested $150 million in repairs for school buildings over the last four years but it is unreasonable for teachers to expect sudden, drastic improvements.

Some teachers do not like any of their options.

"The strike is necessary but doesn't have support," said Carmen Guzman, a 12-year veteran. "We are between a sword and the wall."


Teachers union strike fails to stop all sports

Downingtown (PA) school officials said before the teacher's strike that an effort would be made to continue varsity and junior varsity sports. (Teachers have rejected a 4.5% salary increase.) It looks like the district's athletic department is maintaining the status quo.

"We canceled today's freshman girls' basketball game, but the girls' and boys' junior varsity and varsity games are on for tonight," Downingtown West athletic director Ken Sigle said before tonight's games.

League leading Downington West was scheduled to play Coatesville in a big Ches-Mont League boys' game at home; the girls were on the road at Coatesville.

The Downingtown East girls, who already have wrapped up their fourth straight league crown, were at home against Avon Grove. The Cougar boys were at Avon Grove.

The East and West wrestling teams are scheduled to tangle tonight at East.


Union takes pay freeze to delay outsourcing

Both sides emerged looking relieved after Teamsters negotiators, representing Seattle Times truck drivers, met for the first time last week with a quartet of officials from Penske Logistics, which is related to the truck-leasing company. They had justed discussed Seattle Times Co. plans to outsource the trucking unit for both the Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to Penske starting Feb. 29. Penske's proposal to hire only Teamsters to drive trucks for the Times left the union optimistic; the Teamsters, in turn, muted their earlier threats to fight the outsourcing to Penske.

The goodwill didn't last long. A Times Co. unfair labor practice complaint arrived at Teamsters Seattle headquarters after the meeting, charging the union, which represents 74 truckers and mechanics, failed to bargain in good faith during the period leading up to the end of their contract a month from now. The Teamsters immediately fired back with their own complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), countering that not only was it the Times that was refusing to bargain in good faith but that the Seattle Times Co. had tried to intimidate the truckers by issuing "a fraudulent document purporting to be a WARN Act notice," telling the Teamsters their Times jobs would be going to Penske.

WARN Act notices must be sent by employers to workers involved in large layoffs at least 60 days before the jobs are terminated, according to federal law. The Times sent its WARN Act notice for the Feb. 29 Teamsters layoffs on Jan. 15.

In a press release Tuesday, Jan. 29, outlining its position, Teamsters Local 174 noted that it had agreed to a one-year wage freeze to ease what Times officials say is a critical financial crunch. "Rather than using that time to regroup," said Rick Hicks, secretary-treasurer of the local, which represents the truckers, "the Times used it to find a way to force wage cuts through outsourcing."

The exchange of labor complaints sets the stage for a showdown between the city's two daily papers, which function under a joint operating agreement (JOA) under which the Times handles printing, trucking, and marketing for both it and the P-I — and the Teamsters, who are fearful that a wholesale outsourcing of Times trucking could set a precedent for other financially stressed newspapers around the country.

Zero hour could come as soon as Thursday, Jan. 31, by which time the Times is required to give the Teamsters another formal notification that their contract is terminated and the outsourcing will begin.

If the Times does not file the notification, says a person involved on the Teamsters side of the negotiations, "our position is that the contract continues and the outsourcing is illegal." If the Times goes ahead with outsourcing plans anyway, this official says, "we'll take legal action, which could include a strike."

On the other hand, if the Times does not give Teamsters truckers the required 30-day notice, it could be signaling that the outsourcing will not take place as planned — that other options may be on the table. Jill Mackie, a Times spokesperson, told Crosscut last week that while the Times had sent out a "letter of intent" about outsourcing plans to the Teamsters, the outsourcing deal was not yet final.

On Tuesday, Jan. 29, Mackie did not respond to voice and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Yet another problem could derail Times outsourcing plans. Officials at the Teamsters international headquarters in Washington, D.C., are watching the Seattle negotiations closely. Teamsters negotiators here, and visiting union officials from D.C., have warned the Times that the international union has veto power over any outsourcing deal between union-represented drivers and the Times. If the Times goes through with its outsourcing threat, other papers around the country might see the deal as a model for a quick way to cut costs, further reducing the union's clout with an already shrinking newspaper industry.

"My understanding is that if the Times attempts to do this outsourcing Feb. 29 without negotiating with the union, this is a strike issue for the Teamsters," says the official involved in the negotiations.


Lawmakers bandy about gov't-worker strike-ban

Republican legislators demeaned a Democrat-sponsored ban on Colorado state employee strikes as a “bait and switch” and “joke” Tuesday — and then helped to pass the measure.

House members approved House Bill 1189 by a significant margin on its second reading, sending it to a third and final vote today and then on to the Senate. Gov. Bill Ritter has said he will sign the proposal if it hits his desk.

The measure by Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, bans workers in the state personnel system from striking and can lead to fines and misdemeanor charges against any who violate the law. Riesberg has billed it as a clarification of a Nov. 2 executive order in which Ritter awarded employee unions more bargaining power but banned them from striking — a clause Attorney General John Suthers said would not hold up in court.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, introduced a more stringent strike ban that set up $500 daily penalties against workers, decertified unions involved in strikes, prohibited public employment for strikers for one year and included all public workers, including teachers.

But his bill died along a party-line vote in the same committee that recommended Riesberg’s bill.

So, when HB1189 came to the floor Tuesday, Gardner led an assault on it, trying to add on his more stringent penalties, broader scope and worktermination clauses. Each amendment was shot down along largely party-line votes, as Riesberg argued the fines and jail time in his proposal “are adequate.”

Rep. Victor Mitchell, a Republican who represents Teller County, said the bill that remained “is a joke.” Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, urged Republicans to reject it.

But a majority of Republicans, including Bob Gardner, ended up backing the measure.

Because a handful of strongly pro-labor Democrats voted against it to “protect the state workers' right to strike,” — as House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora said — the bill likely would have died without some GOP backing.

“I think the sense in our caucus is that we’re not happy with this, but it’s slightly better than nothing,” Bob Gardner said.

State workers have had the right to strike since Colorado passed its Industrial Relations Act in 1915 but largely have had only loosely organized unions before Ritter, a Democrat, signed his executive order. The order sets up a framework whereby elected union representatives can bargain with department heads over issues such as work safety and pay, but it stops short of allowing traditional collective-bargaining tactics, including binding arbitration.

Teachers unions in various parts of the state have gone on strike 14 or 15 times during the past 40 years and several department heads told Gardner they have no strike contingency plan, fueling his argument that harsh penalties are needed to avert potential work stoppages.

Though the battle has ended in the House, it’s expected to be renewed in the Senate. A GOP senator has introduced a bill to overturn Ritter’s order, and Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, said Tuesday that Republicans are likely to propose amendments to HB1189 similar to Bob Gardner’s.


SEIU chief visits stronghold, upstages Prez

As President Bush issues his final State of the Union address tonight, food-service workers and custodians with Portland (OR) Public Schools will be holding a rally that Andy Stern , president of the Service Employees International Union, says represents the true state of our country.

After eight months of negotiations, Portland Public Schools is still hoping to slash salaries of its cafeteria workers and custodians, some of whom are Portland Public Schools graduates incidentally.

Stern, who's in town today and for a brief period tomorrow, will address the rally a little after 6 pm. Earlier today he told WWire that the proposals put forward by Portland Public Schools feel like "revenge." (In 2002, the school district fired all of its 300 custodians and outsourced their jobs. They then fought to have that firing ruled illegal, which the Oregon Supreme Court did in 2005.)

"The Portland situation is a microcosm of why America has growing inequality and is on the verge of economic disaster," Stern says.

Mark Freimark, head custodian at Llewellyn Elementary School, is optimistic the district will move closer to the union's position. "I think we're very well appreciated everywhere but here," he said from the basement of the school district's headquarters where mediation continued today.


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