Militant gov't-unions, front-groups angered

A reader with New York City labor ties called in to report a strategy meeting underway right now at the SEIU/32BJ HQ on Sixth Avenue at which an unusually broad coalition of labor leaders and elected officials - both legislators and Council members - are plotting a major fight against the city and state education funding cuts.

The meeting is being hosted by AQE, EdPAC, ACORN and UFT, and the attendance list reads like a who's-who of Democratic politics. There are approximately 150 people present, including 43 state lawmakers who showed up in person and didn't merely send a staffer to take notes.

Also on hand are: WFP Executive Director Dan Cantor, UFT President Randi Weingarten, Ernie Logan of the principals union, 32BJ President Mike Fishman, UNITE-HERE Executive Vice President Peter Ward, CLC Executive Director Ed Ott, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

Just to name a few.

The immediate focus, according to my source, is Mayor Bloomberg's surprise mid-year budget cut of 1.75 percent ($180 million), since it's already underway and has led to the demise of test preparation classes and after-school programs.

But of equal concern is the proposed $324 million cut Bloomberg has proposed for 2009 and the $193 million reduction of the CFE settlement that Gov. Eliot Spitzer included in his 2008-09 executive budget.

"These people are fired up and ready to fight," my source said.


News Guild influence shines glory on unions

By virtually every indicator, 2007 was a dismal year for American workers. Job growth slowed, unemployment jumped and wages lost what little ground they had gained against inflation since 2003. There is one sliver of good news: the percentage of American workers who belong to a union rose for the first time in three decades.

The Labor Department reported that the number of workers belonging to a union grew by 311,000 to 15.7 million. That means union members increased from 12 percent of the American work force in 2006 to 12.1 percent last year. In the private sector, unions’ share of workers inched ahead from 7.4 percent to 7.46 percent. While the rebound is tiny, and might yet prove to be a statistical mirage, it is the first recorded increase in organized labor’s ranks since the 1970s, when almost one in four workers belonged to a union.

There is little doubt that American workers need unions. Wages today are almost 10 percent lower than they were in 1973, after accounting for inflation. The share of national income devoted to workers’ wages and benefits is at its lowest since the late-1960s, while the share going to profits has surged. The decline in unionization has been a big part of the reason that workers have lost so much ground.

The future of organized labor is not cause for great optimism. Employers have become more aggressive about keeping unions out. Competitive pressures from globalization, deregulation and technological change have resulted in the loss of many union jobs.

Indeed, unionization rose last year partly because of the slow pace of job creation in nonunionized sectors of the labor market. The jump in unionization rates in the construction industry, for example, was partly attributed to the steep decline in residential construction, where there are fewer unions, while the more heavily unionized commercial construction sector remained strong.

Still, the uptick offers hope that the renewed emphasis on organizing workers by some of the nation’s largest unions — like the service employees’ union, the Teamsters and others that split off from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to form the Change to Win coalition — might start paying dividends despite the difficult odds.

A bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize workers died in the Senate last June. Congress should take up this issue again to stop companies from using threats and other aggressive tactics to keep organized labor out, and to help win workers their rightful share of the economic pie.


Teachers union strike sets poor example for kids

The teachers and their union should be ashamed of themselves! The offer by the school board prior to the strike was more than fair, and unfortunately the hotheads in the union prevailed. As role models and mentors for students, this was not the proper action to demonstrate to impressionable students. The teachers were saying “if you won’t give us what we want, then we will strike.” This teaches children that temper tantrums are an acceptable method of getting what you want.

Unions were formed to protect workers from being abused by greedy owners, but now serve little purpose except to threaten work stoppage until their demands are met. The majority of the citizens in Downingtown (and Chester County, PA) do not have benefits anywhere close to what the teachers have. Many are without any form of health care coverage, let alone 100 percent taxpayer paid!

I am hoping that the new salary rates and benefits for these teachers is published so that Joe Citizen can see what he is being taxed for! In most jobs, raises are earned by improved productivity and job knowledge. Just reporting for work and doing your job is not sufficient to warrant an annual raise. Have test scores increased? Are students learning and retaining more than they were a year ago?

Look what the teachers have done to the economy. In addition to teachers, the schools employ many others. The cleaning crew, food service personnel, office staff, bus drivers and others lost their wages for the duration of the strike. Was this fair to them? What about their lost wages? Will the union compensate them? If any one of us was dissatisfied with our jobs, and were turned down for a raise, the manager would say, “if you don’t like the pay, there’s the door.”

- Jonathan Nutt, Honey Brook, PA


Using racism to enforce union-only thuggery

Yesterday Philadelphia City Council approved resolution 11 building trade unions' diversity plans clearing the way for the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion project to begin. The $700 million state-funded project is projected to be an economic windfall for the city.

Mayor Michael Nutter spurred a divided Council to approve the plans by issuing an executive order establishing The Mayor's Advisory Commission on Construction Industry Diversity. This will be a 15-member oversight committee. It will study and make recommendations on how more diversity can be brought to the building trades. It will also monitor union diversity on the Convention Center job and all large construction jobs public and private here in the city.

At the end of the unusual all-day Council session members were calling the day "historic." Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller claimed their actions, combined with the release of union membership information including breakdowns of ethnic make-up and member residency, will push unions to develop new hiring practices. They believe their actions will result in construction sites that look more like Philadelphia neighborhoods in terms of the diversity of minorities and women included in the work crews.

"I am excited," Mayor Nutter proclaimed after he signed the executive order. "City Council should be commended for stepping forward and being dedicated to pursuing ... economic opportunity for all people. City Council should be proud of the leadership they provided."

Mr. Nutter said he thought the membership numbers submitted by the building trades were sometimes better than expected.

"In many instances some of us were pleasantly surprised by the information," he confirmed.

The goals approved for building trades are 20 percent minority and 25 percent Philadelphia residents. The Convention Center project is expected to be 25 to 30 percent minority.

The mayor confirmed Finance Director Rob Dubow would be able to now sign the operating agreement that will allow the Convention Center expansion to go to bid.

Under an ordinance passed in December, Council is required to approve the diversity agreement plans before they can sign a Project Labor Agreement. A PLA usually needs to be in place prior to bids going out. A PLA has not typically been a part of construction agreements in Philadelphia.

The first PLA the building trades agreed to here was with the school district in 2006. The district at the time was beginning to bid $2 billion in construction.

A PLA sets working conditions on a job, describes how management labor disputes are resolved or arbitrated, and usually guarantees there will not be a strike or work stoppage at the site.

Mr. Nutter told reporters he believes the state and the Convention Center will insist on a PLA for this job. Council recessed their regular Thursday session last week and continued on diversity agreement plans through yesterday. There was a push to introduce the resolutions and get them passed but also a strong effort to hold unions accountable.

On one side of the divided council were Councilwoman Miller and Councilman Darrell Clarke. They wanted to move ahead with the approvals as quickly as possible on the expansion (and the resulting jobs).
They were worried if Council didn't move quickly the funding and project might fall apart.

Officials certainly gave them cause for alarm. Gov. Ed Rendell told reporters yesterday delays meant higher costs. The $700 million from the state was all there was. If costs went higher the deal would be lost.

Convention Center Chairman Buck Riley said yesterday he was worried unless Council moved two conventions scheduled for 2011, the jobs, and the city's reputation would be in trouble.

On the other side of the issue was Councilman Wilson Goode.

Mr. Goode claims much more information was needed from many of the building trades unions. He felt strongly enough about this to be the only member of Council to vote against nine of the 11 diversity plan resolutions.

After the vote he commented, "I believe a lot of progress has been made since Nov. 30 [when Council was first asked to approve the Convention Center expansion agreement and the diversity issue became the stumbling block to the agreement]."

Mr. Goode, however, still plans to push the building trades to create more diversity in their ranks. Asked how, he replied, "At the end of the day, I still have subpoena power."


News Union honcho opposes Mrs. Inevitable

I don't care right now who you plan to vote for next November. My primary concern is that, after Tuesday, you strive to - as completely as possible - ignore the election until around Halloween, because we have so many much more important things to work on as citizens of this country, not the least of them being the creation of a credible system of hand-counted paper ballots and other election reforms. But my secondary concern is for the Democratic primaries. It's important that you take part and cast your vote for Barack Obama. Come November, you can vote for McCain or Paul, Nader or McKinney, or your pet llama, or for the Democratic nominee. But it should be a high priority for all of us to ensure that the Democratic nominee is not Hillary Clinton.

Right-wing nuts who have not wised up a la Ann Coulter or Rupert Murdoch to how closely Clinton shares their nutty views should vote in the Democratic primaries if they can, and vote for Barack Obama. Why risk having the woman you consider the devil become president? Why waste your time in a Republican primary already guaranteed to nominate Mr. 100-More-Years-of-Iraqi-Liberation? Why not do everything you can to stop the favorite candidate of that communist rag, the New York Times?

Dead armadillos and other middle-of-the-roaders who understand Clinton's corporate militaristic plans should vote for Obama instead, because he comes closer to Clinton's agenda than any other candidate and stands a much better shot of winning the general election. The fact is that the general election will be all about Iraq. News from Iraq will compel this. McCain's inability to talk about anything else will compel it. The corporate media's belief that ultimately the public loves wars will compel it. And Hillary Clinton will never survive it. The video of the speech she made when voting to authorize the invasion, combined with video of speeches she's made condemning the occupation will be enough to sink her. She'll make John Kerry look like a model of decisiveness and consistency.

The vast majority of us, who oppose Clinton's agenda of media conglomeration, corporate trade agreements, extended occupations and mercenary wars should vote for Obama because there is a chance that, with enough effort, we can turn him into something significantly better, and because even if we can never have any impact on him, he is already a significant cut above Clinton. The main reason we know that there is hope for Obama is that he wrote a good book before he wrote the primary pablum packed in "The Audacity of Hope." The Obama book that's worth reading is "Dreams from My Father," a work of intelligence and kindness of the sort we have no record of Clinton ever producing.

But the lesson Obama teaches himself in that book is that his father failed to properly kiss up to those in power. We now see Obama doing just that. He wants us to all just get along, and he pretends there was a lovely age in the past in which we did. His first act in office was a refusal to challenge the election results from Ohio 2004. He didn't give us NAFTA, but he has his heart set on keeping it in place. He wasn't married to Bill Clinton, but he admires his middle of the roadism. He didn't vote to authorize the invasion, but he voted over and over again to fund it, defends the appropriateness of war as an instrument of policy, refuses to forswear the policy of aggressive wars, and wants to make the world's biggest military even bigger. He didn't fall for the WMD lies, but he professes to believe in Bush's good intentions and opposes impeachment.

Obama's hopeless "Hope" book, while far more daring and honest than anything coming out of the Clinton camp, has a chapter on the Constitution that is written exactly as if we still had the whole thing intact. Obama admires Reagan and believes in cooperating with Republicans. He can describe the personal suffering of NAFTA's victims and refuse to consider repealing it, suggesting that to do so would be a backward move against inevitable "globalization." He can describe McCain's amendment against torture as the easiest vote he's made, and refuse to discuss Bush's erasure of it with a signing statement. Obama refuses to commit to not using signing statements himself.

His proposals to address global warming are delusionally weak and limited. His analysis of the media's influence on candidates is, like the media's own coverage, devoid of any mention of which policies the media corporations favor. He thinks withdrawing "too quickly" from Iraq would make things worse. He can describe the joys of flying in private jets and never mention who owns them. He defends Bill Clinton's elimination of welfare, claims blacks are 90 percent of the way to equality, and suggests that the response to Katrina had nothing to do with race.

But it's possible that Obama has dumbed himself down to near Clintonian levels because he believes it's the only way to get elected. And it's possible that, even as his father's son, once he is the ruler of the largest empire ever seen, he won't need to do any more kissing up. It's possible that, with enough pressure, he will listen to the demands of citizen activists. I didn't say probable, just possible. And that's not possible to even fantasize about with Hillary Clinton. There are few, if any, areas in which Clinton is not as bad as or significantly worse than Obama. She has a long record of horrible governance. She is guaranteed to be a disaster, as is the man she would lose to: John McCain.

In Louisiana when they had a KKKer running against a corrupt bureaucrat, bumper stickers read "Vote for the crook, it's important." I don't advocate backing Obama because a bunch of his supporters believe he's better than he is. And I don't advocate believing he's better than he is. But I will say this: Vote in the primaries on Tuesday for the corporate mediocrity with the charismatic and vacuous platitudes. It's important.

- DAVID SWANSON is a co-founder of After Downing Street, a writer and activist, and the Washington Director of Democrats.com. He is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and serves on the Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, TNG-CWA. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as Communications Coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson obtained a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1997.


Media strike coverage glorifies workers

I miss The Office. A lot. Thankfully, though, my favorite show will likely return soon, as the writers’ strike appears set to end this week. Likely, this will be heralded as a victory for fairness.

To most, unions are the good guys, fighting for fair wages and just treatment. Opposing these principles are big, greedy businesses eager to abuse workers, firing them willy-nilly, paying them less than they’re worth, and ruthlessly busting their earnest attempts at organizing.

This narrative seems particularly pervasive here in Hyde Park: From University of Chicago students rallying behind the campus clerical workers union, to community members blocking a hotel deal because the operating company doesn’t use unionized labor, the vocal consensus is decidedly pro-union.

The problem with the simplistic portrayal of good workers vs. evil businesses is not necessarily with its depiction of employers—of course they’re greedy—but with its glorification of employees. Workers who form unions are self-interested in the same way businesses are.

Unions, just like firms, are happy to promote their own interests, even at the expense of others. Take teachers’ unions, for example. Most, like the National Education Association (the largest labor union in the country), have long opposed merit pay. They argue that it is not effective—but even if it were, unions would still be against it since it’s not in many of their members’ best interest.

This brings up another problem with unions: They represent all workers with one voice, when in fact different workers have competing interests. In the case of merit pay, good teachers are likely to be in favor of it (provided there is a way to accurately measure teacher performance), while bad teachers would be against it. How can the union, then, advocate for both groups? Put simply, it can’t.

In the end, unions provide unfair protection for below-average workers, and unnecessary protection for good ones. Many union contracts, for example, make it difficult to fire workers. The rationale is that employees should only be let go with “just cause” and that they deserve “due process” if they believe they’ve been terminated unfairly. This sounds reasonable enough, but in practice it means that employers will be hesitant—for fear of the protracted and costly process that could follow—to get rid of inefficient workers. In turn, businesses will be less likely to hire new workers, knowing that they might be stuck if they make the wrong choice.

This is all great news if you’re already part of a union. Even if you’re not that good at your job, you’re unlikely to get fired. Plus, you won’t have to face as much competition because it’s harder to break into the field. On the other hand, it’s not good for the rest of us. It means worse service or products if you’re a consumer, higher costs if you’re an employer, and a more difficult road if you’re a job-seeker.

There are many other reasons why unions are bad for anybody who’s not in one. They artificially raise wages, which distorts incentives and hurts businesses and consumers alike. They negotiate collective contracts, which generally fail to provide incentives for harder and better work, as pay is usually based on seniority. Their power structure (like those of some businesses) breeds corruption. They sometimes strike, causing a ripple effect that hurts many members of society (like my not being able to watch The Office).

In a free society, workers should be allowed to unionize as they see fit. They just shouldn’t expect special protection—and we shouldn’t have to pretend that unions are good for the rest of us.

- Matt Barnum


UAW strike v. Volvo, day 5

Five days after contract negotiations ceased, striking workers continued to walk the picket line Tuesday at Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin, Va. Thousands of workers from southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia walked off the job at midnight last Friday when the current contract expired, Volvo spokesman Jim McNamara said. Currently, negotiations between the company and United Auto Workers Local 2069 have ceased, McNamara confirmed.

“Unfair labor practices is the reason we’re on strike,” UAW Local 2069 President Lester Hancock said Monday, while walking the picket line at the plant.

Hancock declined to cite specific reasons why contract negotiations ceased and workers went on strike.

Late last year, Volvo announced a impending layoff of up to 650 workers this year. However, Hancock said this was not the reason for the strike.

Hancock said the union realizes the “whole trucking industry” is in a downturn, which could spur the layoff. “It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s not just Volvo.”

McNamara also declined to cite specific reasons for the strike.

“If it were up to the company, Volvo, we would still be negotiating and our people would still be at work,” he said. “And we’re surprised that the UAW has used plant health and safety as a reason for striking.”

McNamara said negotiations on the current contract began on Jan. 8, “and continued until the union left the bargaining table” at the time of the strike.

“Volvo is committed to the collective bargaining process and we are willing to continue to bargain in good faith until an agreement can be achieved,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., pledged to stand by the striking workers Monday while speaking to a crowd of more than 1,500 at the United Auto Workers Annual Legislative Political Conference in Washington D.C.

“We have a situation down in Dublin that is on my mind today, and it is on a lot of your minds, I’m sure,” Webb said. “I am very concerned about the UAW Local 2069 strike that began last week, and I’m going to be watching it closely. We want a good resolution. We want the kind of business in Virginia that the plant affords, but we also want our workers to be taken care of. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that happens.”

The Dublin Volvo plant employs just under 2,900 individuals, McNamara said. About 2,600 of these employees are members of the local UAW.

Many employees of the plant reside in Mercer, McDowell and Monroe counties in West Virginia, and in Tazewell, Bland and Giles counties in Virginia.

The New River Valley plant manufactures all heavy duty trucks for Volvo and Mack Trucks sold in the United States and Canada, McNamara said.

“In terms of size, it is the largest truck plant globally for the Volvo group,” he said.

Although the volume of trucks produced at the plant fluctuates from year to year due to market demands, McNamara said at the time of the strike the plant was producing about 100 trucks a day, most of which were Volvo.


Government-union takes dues hit in California

In another hit from the slumping housing market, Riverside County (CA) is laying off nearly half of the employees in its building and safety department, county officials said Thursday. The department issues building permits, reviews plans and makes inspections. It relies entirely on fees charged to builders and residents to fund operations.

With business down by more than half, there is no work -- and no money -- for the employees, said Nick Anderson, the department's director. The Riverside County Building & Safety Department had 97 filled positions at the start of the year. Effective Wednesday, the department will let go 40, mainly engineers, building inspectors and supervisors, Anderson said.

"In the last two years, we have been informing our staff of the declining revenues," he said.

"We have been upfront with them," Anderson said. "It was a hard decision to make. It was troublesome. Since there was no work for them, we had no alternative."

The level of activity in the department now is closer to what officials saw 10 years ago, Anderson said. In 2004 and 2005, the department issued about 2,000 building permits a month. Now, the department is issuing only about 800 -- 40 percent below that earlier level, he said.

The union that represents the employees disagrees with the county's assessment and believes the employees do not have to lose their jobs.

"Many of these civil engineers have been working at the county for 20 or more years," said Patrick Chandler, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 721.

"The civil engineers, when we met with them, said they had a backlog," Chandler said. "There is enough work for them to do."

He said the county has contracted out for plan checks and has had inefficient business practices.

"We understand there is a downturn in the economy, but we want to ensure our members are looked out for," he said.

Chandler declined to say whether the union plans to file a grievance with the county. The union is requesting more information and discussing how to proceed, he said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Roy Wilson said Thursday that the county is facing cutbacks across the board.

"Money isn't coming in to pay the salaries," he said.

Wilson said the county is working with the union to make sure the employees find new work. Some have been offered early retirement, he added.

The layoffs are the latest bad news stemming from the downturn in the housing market. The slump also is translating into reductions in the property and sales taxes collected, two revenue sources that local governments rely heavily on to fund basic services such as police and fire protection.

Last month, county officials revised their estimate for property-tax revenue growth for next year to 4 percent from 8 percent. They said cuts and a reduction in expenses will be needed to balance the budget.

No Job Cuts in S.B. County

San Bernardino County officials also are expecting a tough budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But spokesman David Wert said Thursday that the county has no plans to reduce the staff of the Building and Safety Division.

"They still have more than enough work to support the staff they have," Wert said.

The slowdown in construction has meant developers have more time for planning new projects in an effort to be ready for when the market rebounds, said Borre Winckel, executive director of the Riverside County chapter of the Building Industry Association.

The downside, Winckel said in a recent interview, is the Riverside County doesn't have the revenue for the same building and planning departments as before, meaning the level of service could go down.

30 Positions Left Vacant

In addition to the layoffs, the Riverside County Building Department has not filled 30 vacant positions because of the lack of business.

"We have been trying to transfer people into other departments. There have been about eight people moved over to the Transportation Department," Riverside County spokesman Ray Smith said.

For others, Smith said, officials are working with the county Human Resources Department to try and link employees with potential new jobs.

"We want to provide whatever help we can," he said.

Some in the building industry are optimistic that the housing market will rebound. When it does, the Building & Safety Department once again will be busy and need workers.

Anderson said those let go now "will be on the top of the list on any rehires."

Supervisor Jeff Stone, the board's vice chairman, said the need to lay off the employees is unfortunate.

It's not just a matter of revenue, said Stone, who represents southwestern Riverside County, an area that had experienced a building boom. There is no work for the inspectors and engineers, he said.

"We have tried our hardest to relocate as many people as we can," Stone said "The ones that are being laid off, unfortunately, there was no place to put them."

The county as a whole, like the employees, is a victim of the economic slowdown, Stone said, citing the tough budget year supervisors are facing.

"We hope it is short-lived and we can bring them back," Stone said.


Tax-funded union advocacy tanks get results

Ken D. Sagar has been elected Iowa AFL-CIO president by the executive council, effective Feb. 1. He replaces Mark L. Smith, who served the Iowa labor movement for 28 1/2 years as secretary-treasurer and as president. Sagar is from IBEW Local 204 in Cedar Rapids, where he served as business manager for almost 13 years. He was elected as Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in 1997.

Sagar is also treasurer for the Iowa Democratic Party, serves on the Iowa Workforce Development Board, the John L. Lewis Museum Board and the Labor Advisory Committee at the University of Iowa Labor Center.


Federal court ruling favors News Union

A federal judge ruled Monday that the Seattle P-I must arbitrate a union dispute over its online reporter position. U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly's ruling favors The Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, which represents most P-I nonmanagement employees.

The P-I's union is fighting to make sure that online work is considered union work. The P-I has countered that the dispute is not constructive and that online work is separate from other work covered by its contract with the Guild, in large part because the union agreed to let it be separate in a 1998 New Media Agreement.

The judge was not asked to decide whether the Internet work should be considered union work.

P-I Associate Publisher Kenneth F. Bunting said Monday that the newspaper is considering an appeal.

The dispute arose after the P-I hired a nonunion reporter to work for its Web site, seattlepi.com. Most of the P-I's reporters, photographers, copy editors and artists belong to the Guild. Its new media employees do not, and the new online reporter is a member of the new media department.

The Guild filed a grievance in July challenging the hire. It then filed a federal lawsuit seeking to compel the P-I to settle the dispute in binding arbitration.

The P-I and its parent, The Hearst Corp., had argued that the grievance is not subject to arbitration and is moot because of the New Media Agreement. The union says that it terminated the agreement in 2006.

In his Monday ruling, the judge ruled that the New Media Agreement was indeed terminated, but reserved the right to decide later whether the union gave reasonable notice when it unilaterally ended the agreement.

"We sincerely hope that the P-I takes this as an opportunity to change its course and sit down with the Guild and acknowledge its responsibility to recognize that it has contractually agreed that all reporting work has to be given to people being represented by the Guild," Guild lawyer Dmitri Iglitzin said.

Even while the lawsuit was ongoing, both sides have met in recent weeks to try to resolve the dispute. At a recent hearing, Zilly hinted that the two parties should negotiate an agreement without outside help. Bunting said Monday, "I agree with what the judge had to say a couple of weeks ago, which was that the issues ultimately have to be decided by the parties and through negotiations as opposed to by a third party."


Concerted effort to outlaw non-union labor

Mass. Governor Deval Patrick won the backing of the state's largest labor organization for his casino proposal yesterday, giving him a strong partner to help him pressure skeptical legislators. AFL-CIO leaders voted unanimously at an executive board meeting to endorse Patrick's plan to license three resort casinos around the state as a way of spurring economic development and creating jobs.

Patrick has launched a concerted effort to round up organized labor support for legalized gambling, and this is the biggest endorsement so far. The AFL-CIO has more than 400,000 members from 700 local unions. Patrick's casino effort also has the backing of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; UNITE HERE, which represents hotel and food service workers; and Teamsters Local 25, which sent letters to legislators saying they risked losing endorsements if they voted against casinos.

AFL-CIO officials said yesterday they would make the casino proposal one of their top priorities this year, on par with healthcare reform and education. They said they plan to lobby legislators vigorously and will take a lawmaker's stance on casinos into account when deciding whom to endorse and campaign for over the course of this election year. The union also plans a grass-roots campaign, encouraging members to write letters to local papers, call radio talk shows, and call legislators.

"We're engaged," said Robert J. Haynes, president of the AFL-CIO. "We're happy to participate in this effort. We think it's very, very good for the Commonwealth, and we're going to do our best to make sure it's passed. . . . We're going to be very aggressive."

Haynes said there are no plans to field candidates against those who vote against casinos. Still, the move presents many lawmakers with a difficult choice: whether to support the governor's controversial casino legislation or risk alienating a powerful interest that helped many of them get into office.

"We are trying to encourage the Legislature to bring this to a hearing, to a debate, and to a vote, up or down," said Patrick, flanked at a hotel ballroom by two dozen union workers holding signs that read, "CASINOS = 20,000 jobs for Massachusetts."

Patrick's casino legislation has provisions that would encourage casino developers to use union workers, and it also gives organized labor a seat on an advisory committee that would have influence over casino regulations.

The casino bill is before the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. While Patrick called for a deadline for action yesterday, no hearings have been scheduled, and there are indications that it faces an uphill battle.

Twelve of 19 members of the committee said they are inclined to vote against the proposal unless wholesale changes are made, according to an informal Globe poll in December. Three members said they are leaning in favor of the proposal, and four said they are on the fence.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi is seen as a chief obstacle. His office released a statement yesterday responding to the union move. "We understand that union leaders want jobs for their members, but the question is, what kind of jobs do we want?" the statement said. "We think the focus should be on higher-paying, stable jobs in the life sciences, biotech, and the innovation economy."

Other legislators said that the union endorsement was significant, but that its effect would be minimized on a hot-button issue that has many other interest groups trying to chime in.

"I definitely think this has an impact," said Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat who is skeptical of the casino proposal. "But how many people vote on a major issue like this based on a single group, even one as powerful as this. I don't know that it changes things dramatically."

While the unions are a powerful and organized constituency, casino opponents have been working to become more organized, including the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the League of Women Voters, and the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

"I'm not afraid of them, and I'm not afraid of Donald Trump on this," said Laura Everett, spokeswoman for Casino Free Mass, a coalition of statewide groups opposed to casinos. "We have a larger question here about what kind of jobs we want. Are we cultivating a dynamic, forward-looking job force, or are we settling for quick fixes?"

In recent weeks, the governor has increasingly sought to put pressure on legislators to act by appealing directly to their constituents across the state. Patrick made a pitch in an annual address last month before the Massachusetts Municipal Association and mentioned it in his impassioned State of the State address. Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray invited 20 mayors to the State House specifically to talk about casinos. Several Cabinet members have started making appearances at meetings across the state to encourage local officials to get behind the plan.

Patrick also put $124 million in projected casino revenues into his budget, putting fiscal pressure on legislators to act on his proposal. The AFL-CIO said yesterday it is not taking a position on whether the casino revenues should be included in the budget.

Unions love casinos because they result in thousands of new jobs for constructing roads, hotels, and resorts and potentially unionized jobs in the casinos themselves.

Casino salaries would average about $45,000 to $50,000 and would add $50 million to $80 million to the state tax rolls, Patrick said. He also argues that his casino proposal would create 20,000 new and permanent jobs and 30,000 construction jobs, although some critics have suggested those estimates are overblown.


Routine picketers deploy inflatable rat

A $200 million upgrade at Keystone Cement, one of the biggest construction projects in Northampton (PA) County, has reopened years-old conflicts between unions and nonunion contractors - and drawn out a local union's giant inflatable rat.

Three weeks ago, the beady-eyed rat that Lehigh Valley Carpenters Union Local 600 has toted to dozens of Lehigh Valley construction projects, showed up at Keystone's East Allen Township plant. The group routinely pickets when union officials believe contractors are paying below-market wages to out-of-state or foreign workers.

"It hurts," said union representative Jose Cruz of Tamaqua. Out-of-state contractors "come into this area and lower the standards and the wages," he said, standing on the picket line next to Route 329.

However, Keystone officials stress that they've hired many local and union contractors for the project, and that the plant improvements should keep the facility open for decades and preserve the union jobs of cement workers.

Keystone employs roughly 200 Lehigh Valley residents, and nearly all of them are represented by United Steelworkers of America, plant manager Stephen Hayden said.

Of the 23 contractors working on the Keystone improvements, 19 are from Pennsylvania or nearby in New Jersey, Hayden said. All have assured Keystone that they comply with labor laws.

The cement workers' contract forces them to cross Local 600's picket line, though they support the carpenters union's action, said Jonathan Wolfel, United Steelworkers district representative. "Obviously, we would have hoped that the company would have used all union contractors in that modernization project," he said.

The improvements at Keystone will include a new kiln to turn local limestone into cement using less fuel and with less impact on the environment, Hayden said. The improvements include a 320-foot limestone-heating tower, which went up in November 2007, and a 200-foot silo, built last week, for storing raw limestone.

Both were constructed by Borton, of Kansas, using a ''continuous pour'' technique, Hayden said. Each structure is an enormous single piece of concrete with almost no seams.

''There are only a few contractors in the United States that can perform this kind of work. ... Borton is one of those contractors,'' Hayden said, adding that Borton did similar work at another Keystone plant in South Carolina.

Borton has become Local 600's main target. Soon after work at the East Allen plant began, the union tipped off the Northampton County district attorney's office that Borton might have illegal workers on the site, according to documents provided by the union.

That led to an investigation by federal Investigations and Customs Enforcement agents, who arrested seven Mexican nationals at a home in Bath on Oct. 19, 2007. It is unclear how many of those seven were working on the Keystone project, but Hayden confirmed that ICE agents also came to the work site to tell Borton officials some of their employees had been arrested.

Borton Chief Executive Officer John Kretzer was unavailable to comment, but company officials told Keystone their hiring practices passed the ICE agents' review, Hayden said.

ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly said he couldn't discuss any open investigations.

The inflatable rat has become a trademark of pickets by Local 600, part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. One recent target was the $125 million construction of the Promenade Shops in Upper Saucon Township, where the union picketed for eight months.

Construction work at Keystone will only increase in the next several months, as dozens of contractors finish the tower and work on the new kiln. Borton also will build two more concrete silos in April, Hayden said.

Cruz said the Local 600 picketers have no plans to leave Keystone anytime soon.


California voters curbed seniority corruption

One big reason term limits remain so popular in California 18 years after voters imposed them via a 1990 ballot initiative is that they guarantee new faces and assure that power doesn't remain in the same hands for very long. The same political party, maybe. But never the same individuals for more than a few years.

So it was no accident that voters eventually saw through the facade of Proposition 93's claim of reducing term limits and realized this measure was designed solely to ensure that 42 present state legislators would be able to serve either four or six more years than current limits allow. Two of them were the leaders of the Legislature's two houses, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez of Los Angeles and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata of Oakland.

Both bet heavy political capital on their pet initiative, dunning other legislators for many thousands of campaign dollars while circulating petitions to qualify the measure, then campaigning for the measure over the last three months.

But they lost, and handily. Which means a new era will soon begin in the Legislature.

Will the "post-partisanship" that has seen Nuñez often look like a cuddly lap dog for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger continue with different individuals in control of legislation and the budget process? Will the same policies pushed by Nu ez and Perata persist when they depart?

The answers are likely no and yes.

Schwarzenegger has spent so much time wooing the current leaders that he has not done much with their potential successors. People like Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Albert Torrico of Fremont, both possibilities as the next Assembly speaker, have not been on the A list for Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver.

Neither have Sens. Mark Ridley-Thomas of Los Angeles, Joe Simitian of Palo Alto and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento.

None of the potential successors to the present leaders - who don't figure to hold their key jobs much longer because of their defeat on Proposition 93 - has been as cozy with Schwarzenegger as Nuñez and Perata.

Who gets the key jobs will depend in part on whether Assembly Democrats want another relatively long-term speaker like Nuñez, elevated during his first term in Sacramento, or someone who won't be around long enough to dominate.

The same in the Senate. If senators want a long-term leader, they might choose Steinberg, who could serve until 2014, or Gloria Negrete-McLeod of San Bernardino County, who also could serve six more years. If they want a short-term interim leader, they could go for Gilbert Cedillo of eastern Los Angeles County, due to be termed out in 2010.

One thing that seems likely: The new leadership will probably hail from either Southern California or the Central Valley. For many Southern Californians feel they have not received as much of the benefit from bonds passed last year as their region should have, based on its large population, and Southern California lawmakers have the votes to make sure they hold the reins of at least the Assembly and most likely the Senate, too.

None of these figures wants to discuss freely how he or she might differ from Nuñez and Perata on leadership. But the very least voters can hope is that the new speaker doesn't run up a long record of spending campaign dollars on luxury items and travel, as Nu ez often did, and that the new Senate leader doesn't have to spend years trying to fend off a federal corruption investigation, as Perata is still doing.


News Union gets testy at The Washington Post

While the Washington Post is our hometown newspaper, it's also part of a larger corporate behemoth. And like many a corporate behemoth, this one is seeing some turmoil in the ranks.

In recent days, large ads have been appearing in Metro stations decrying an ongoing labor dispute between Post production workers - the folks who actually put the paper together for delivery - and Post management. The production workers, part of the Communications Workers of America, claim that they have worked for five years without any wage increases and without a fair contract. They also allege that Post management is demanding the right to draw funds from the workers' pension plan, regardless of the $324.5 million in profits the Washington Post Co. took in during 2006.

This is hardly anything new. Heck, we wrote about it almost three years ago. It's also not something that's limited to the Post -- in early 2006, workers at WJLA/NewsChannel 8 similarly accused their bosses of undermining worker rights in contract negotiations.

For its part, Post management responded in a recent article on the dispute by saying that they offered the workers a contract three years ago, only to be rebuffed. "The union has chosen a public relations campaign rather than negotiations at the bargaining table to address the pension issue, which has prevented mailroom employees from receiving wage increases and better retirement security," said Rima Calderon, the Senior Director for Communications at the Post Co.

Sounds like the usual he said, she said.


SEIU admits inefficiency, corruption

The union hates Gov. M. Jodi Rell's plan to split the Department of Transportation into separate highway and transit authorities, but bus and rail advocates love the idea. Rell unveiled her plans to create distinct highway and transit departments, with the latter responsible for oversight of rail, bus, airport and seaport operations, during a budget address Wednesday. The governor said she saw the move as the best approach to addressing what has become a dysfunctional department.

Connecticut created the DOT in 1969 from the departments of Highways and Aeronautics, the Connecticut Transportation Authority and the Commission of Steamship Terminals. At that time in state history, Connecticut was consolidating a lot of functions and reducing the number of agencies. In 1969, Connecticut did away with county government.

The Connecticut State Employees Association SEIU Local 2001, which represents DOT workers, condemned the plan Thursday. In a press release, the union said the move would not address cultural failings in the department that have contributed to inefficiency and corruption.

Scandals — from employees accepting trips and work on their homes to failing to catch shoddy work by contractors — have continued to crop up over the last few years.

The union claims the problem is with a management that owes its allegiance to contractors instead of the state. Specifically, the union has pointed to several high-profile former DOT employees who left the department to take jobs with transportation consulting firms.

While the union was upset with Rell's plan, which would require legislative approval, multiple transit advocates applauded the move.

"I think it's a great idea," said Chris Gallo, a Shelton accountant and president of Connecticut Commuters Inc. "We need to focus the state on transit, and the only way transit is going to get the attention it deserves is to have a cabinet-level department."

Bridgeport Port Authority Director Joseph Riccio Jr. also likes the idea.

"As the director of the Port Authority and vice chairman of the State Maritime Commission, I think it's great that the governor is recommending the separation of the DOT and that there will be more focus on other modes of transportation, rather than the highway," Riccio said. "The more attention being paid to the maritime community and Connecticut's three-deep water ports, the better."

James Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, said his group of rail advocates has not taken an official position on the proposal, but would probably take it up at their next meeting. From a personal perspective, Cameron said he thought the idea was excellent.

"I think it makes sense," Cameron said. "It would bring Connecticut in alignment with the rest of the nation."

Cameron said no other state, as far as he knew, has a DOT that oversees transit. The other states have separate transit agencies, he said.

Many train advocates have long complained the DOT has been a highway-dominated department. If there was one concern Cameron had, he said, it's that the two years Rell plans to take to separate the agency could paralyze the department and hamper the work it needs to do on roads and rails.

But Michael Critelli, Stamford-based Pitney Bowes Inc.'s executive chairman and the head of the task force Rell appointed to reform the department, said he thinks the governor is moving at the right speed and for the right reasons.

Although Critelli's committee did not take a definitive position on splitting up the department, Rell's reasons for doing so are grounded in much of the report's findings, Critelli said.

What the reform committee found was a dysfunctional department, Critelli said, and it makes sense to create two focused agencies.

He said taking two years also makes sense, because otherwise she would risk "taking a dysfunctional agency and making two dysfunctional agencies."

By taking this time, Critelli said, the governor can implement a lot of the recommendations the committee made that were aimed at addressing some of the department's structural and organizational problems.

For example, Critelli said, the committee advocates streamlining processes and making sure the talent of DOT employees is being used in the right jobs.

He also said the DOT has started to reform its accounting department and there is no reason to stop that process because the two new agencies could share one financial management office. Engineering, he added, could likewise be shared.

But the state should be careful of rushing into two very distinct agencies that don't communicate and work together, Critelli said.

Connecticut's transportation system is multi-modal, he said, which means people are just as likely to drive a car down a road, hop a train and then board a bus for one trip as they are of taking a single train or car ride.


Mobsters thick with Teamsters

U.S. and Italian law-enforcement officials rounded up dozens of organized-crime figures Thursday, including the entire top leadership of New York's notorious Gambino family, in what was described by authorities here as the biggest takedown of the Mafia in recent memory.

Sixty-two people were indicted in New York on charges ranging from murder and extortion to the theft of union pension funds, and as of Thursday morning, 54 of them were in custody. Those indicted include the Gambino family's acting street "capo," John "Jackie the Nose" D'Amico, and the under-boss and the consigliere.

D'Amico was not yet in custody. Several officials said he was believed to be on vacation.

Members of the Genovese and Bonanno crime families were also arrested, but most of those indicted and nabbed were from the Gambino family once led by John Gotti, who was known as "The Dapper Don" and "The Teflon Don." The indictment names three Gambino family "captains," three acting "captains," and 16 family "soldiers" with numerous counts of racketeering and extortion, most of which carry prison sentences of up to 25 years.

"These charges strike at the very core of the Gambino family," U.S. Attorney Benton Campbell said at a news conference .

The sweep is the result of a multiyear investigation that involved, among other things, an informant who infiltrated the Gambino family and provided authorities with hundreds of hours of tape-recorded conversations.

Authorities in Italy also announced a series of arrests of major Mafia figures in coordinated raids. The transatlantic operation was called "Old Bridge." Italian magistrates signed more than two dozen arrests warrants, according to news agencies, and several top crime figures, mostly in Sicily, were in custody, the news agencies said.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi called the raids "a brilliant operation against organized crime," according to the Reuters news agency.

The indictment unveiled at the federal court in Brooklyn details a web of organized crime stretching back three decades, including seven murders from as far back as the 1970s.

The indictment also documents the links between the Mafia and the construction industry in New York, describing several of the largest New York construction firms as allegedly controlled or influenced by the Gambino family and paying a "mob tax" to operate with protection. Through the construction companies, the Gambino family was able to steal union dues and pension benefits, the indictment alleges.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the sweep managed to smash one of the Gambino family's most profitable enterprises, illegal gambling.

While officials hailed this takedown as a major victory against the mob, they also cautioned that organized crime is still a major force in New York.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said, "Organized crime still exists in the city and state of New York. ... It's as unrelenting as weeds that continue to sprout in the cracks of society."

'Elmo' and 'Fat Richie'

Colorful nicknames are sprinkled throughout Thursday's federal indictment of dozens of people accused of ties to the Gambino crime family, including:

-- Vincent "Elmo" Amarante
-- Thomas "Tommy Sneakers" Cacciopoli
-- Domenico "The Greaseball" Cefalu
-- John "Jackie the Nose" D'Amico
-- Vincent "Vinnie Hot" Decongilio
-- Joseph "Joe Gag" Gaggi
-- Anthony "Buckwheat" Giammarino
-- John "Johnny Red Rose" Pisano
-- Richard "Fat Richie" Ranieri


AFSCME gov't union protests in Calif.

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