Dems to unionize day-care workers by decree

Washington state Democrats are poised to help one of the state's most powerful unions possibly swell its ranks by as many as 12,000 members with legislation that would give child care center owners and workers collective bargaining rights worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

House Bill 2449 would allow the day care center owners and workers to join either the Service Employees International Union or a separate teachers union. They would then be entitled to negotiate with the state for increased reimbursement rates for children from low-income families.

Proponents of the bill say it would improve the quality of care for all children in day care and improve benefits for the low-wage workers who are entrusted to look after those children.

But critics say the measure is a huge state giveaway that would increase pressure on an already bloated state budget. They're also concerned about expanding a contractual arrangement that directly finances a politically active union.

Under the contract negotiated last year for home day care workers, the state pays roughly $3 million a year into union bank accounts for dues taken directly from provider reimbursements, according to Department of Early Learning documents.

The arrangement with day care centers would likely be similar.

Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, said collective bargaining rights are the best means for making sure the Legislature does not allow the issue to fall out of focus in the future.

"There's a huge gap still between what we provide in subsidies and what it actually costs to provide the care," he said. "We are way, way behind even with the significant contribution from last year."

Like many Democrats, Pettigrew has benefited from SEIU campaign contributions and agrees that the union is a political force to be reckoned with.

The fastest-growing union in Washington, SEIU represents more than 100,000 workers in the state.

Its Local 925 membership includes 23,000 education and public service workers, 12,000 family child care workers, 6,500 University of Washington employees, 3,500 public school employees, and 1,000 public service workers at public and nonprofit organizations in the state.

Besides helping with campaigns, the union is also known for using its members and money to vigorously work against lawmakers who stand in its way.

But Pettigrew said there was never any quid pro quo and there's nothing wrong with policymaking that facilitates a union's growth.

"They have tapped into a group of folks that have been ignored for an awfully long time," he said.

Conservatives -- including Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center -- questioned how the line between campaign contributors and elected officials who negotiate contracts could remain clear under the proposed arrangement.

"What's really startling about this is that the state is basically becoming a bill collector for the union," she said. "When you have a contract, you are supposed to have an arm's-length relationship so that the interests of the parties are clearly defined and not veiled to the public."

There are 118,000 children enrolled in the 2,092 child care centers in Washington.

For the state, it's a fast-growing expense.

Last year the state increased subsidies to day care providers who care for children from low-income families from $138 million in the 2005-07 budget to $214 million in the current biennium.

Two years ago 10,000 home day care centers won collective bargaining rights and in turn negotiated a $45 million increase in reimbursement rates.

Last year nonunion child care centers received a $32.4 million increase in subsidy payments from the state to care for low-income children.

Kim Cook, president of SEIU Local 925, which represents education workers, including home day care workers, said state subsidy rates for day care centers are currently 60 percent of what families who pay privately are charged.

"Right now the private-pay parents are subsidizing state kids," she said. "If you can get that rate up to an equal level, then it's more equally balanced and the centers can afford to pay better."

In this case of the new legislation, day care center managers and workers would both be unionized.

"It's really about bargaining with the state, not bargain with your boss over hiring and firing and the traditional issues that unions often deal with," she said.

Cook said the bill would not directly increase wages but rather the reimbursement rate that the state pays day care centers.

"If you ask any one of them how they make ends meet, it's not by making a profit -- it's by pumping every penny they can get into wages to try to attract workers," Cook said.

Finne said the bill does not provide any guarantee that wages would increase along with the subsidies.

"They are saying this is a new kind of collective bargaining that is only for the narrow purpose of negotiating rates, not for subjects under traditional collective bargaining such as wages and other benefits," she said. "This bill wouldn't give them power to negotiate wages and work situation."

Likewise, she said turnover rates are exaggerated.

Kari Koens, owner of Tomorrow's Future Child Development Center, in Mount Vernon, disagrees. She said the measure is long overdue.

To keep the 16 employees she needs to care for 80 children, Koens said she is in a never-ending hiring mode.

"If we were to receive higher reimbursement rates, I would be paying my employees more," she said. "That would lead to higher quality of care, because we wouldn't have such a high turnover rate."

Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, strongly supports the bill.

"They are some of the lowest-wage workers doing the most important work," he said of child care workers.

As to the future costs of additional collective bargaining, Chopp said it was a good investment.

The bill recently passed in the House and is now being considered by the Senate.

Gov. Chris Gregoire "supports paying people a living wage, and what that legislation looks like remains to be seen," said her spokesman Aaron Toso. "We are trying to work through all issues."


Barack no longer upset with labor unions

Aides to Sen. Hillary Clinton today accused rival Sen. Barack Obama of flip-flopping because of union efforts in Ohio on his behalf. Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said the United Food and Commercial Workers, which endorsed Obama earlier this month, was planning television ads supporting him. Another union, the Service Employees International Union, reported spending more than $900,000 in recent days to pay for phone banking and direct mail supporting Obama.

Wolfson said Obama complained bitterly about union efforts on behalf of former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) in Iowa, but seems content to accept the support in Ohio.

"The Clinton campaign applauds and supports involvement of unions in the process," Wolfson said, noting that Clinton has been a major beneficiary of labor spending during the primaries. "We are concerned about Senator Obama's flip-flopping on outside political spending."

Obama did raise concerns about outside groups during the Iowa contest, although his complaint was rooted in the departure of a senior Edwards adviser who then oversaw union work on the candidate's behalf, said Bill Burton, Obama's campaign spokesman. Union spending is permitted, but it cannot be coordinated with the campaign.

Burton declined to respond to Wolfson's complaint.


Compulsory unionism becomes campaign issue

A Republican-controlled political group is targeting Iowa Rep. Elesha Gayman, D-Davenport, with television ads criticizing her on property taxes and the state’s right-to-work law.

Gayman, who is facing a stiff challenge for re-election this fall, claims the ads are aimed at helping her Republican opponent. But the committee, run by the House’s top Republican, says they’re simply aimed at pressuring her on issues before the state Legislature.

The latest ad accuses Gayman of raising property taxes, and a previous spot criticized her for backing a Democratic proposal to force workers to pay a fee if they’re covered by union contracts.

The ads began running about a month ago.

“It’s a campaign tactic. It’s a campaign year. There’s a reason this didn’t come out last year,” Gayman said Friday. “They’re after my seat.”

Gayman, who represents western Scott County, Eldridge and parts of west Davenport, is being challenged by Republican Ross Paustian, a Walcott farmer.

The seat is a top Republican target.

The ads have run on cable TV and are paid for by the Iowa Leadership Council, a group organized under the Internal Revenue Code that allows it to raise unlimited contributions.

The council raised $214,550 in the last six months of 2007, according to IRS records, with the largest donors the Reynolds American tobacco company, which gave $40,000, and MidAmerican Energy Holdings, which donated $25,000.

House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, said the ads aren’t an attempt to influence the fall election, just this legislative session.

“This General Assembly should do something to reduce the property tax burden,” he said.

In December, the Legislative Services Agency projected property taxes will go up $500 million over the next six years if there is no change in local tax rates.

The projected increase is being driven by higher agriculture values.

Rants is pushing a proposal to revamp the state’s property tax system, which he says would slice the projected increase in half.

He tried unsuccessfully last month to get the Legislature to pick up the local property tax increase that would result from raising basic state aid to schools.

The ads are running in just three legislative districts. Rants said they were chosen not because they’re fall election targets, but because cable TV rates “weren’t terribly expensive” there.

Gayman, however, says the explanations are a smokescreen because the Democratic leadership has made clear the union fee bill, dubbed fair share, won’t even come up for debate because there isn’t enough support to pass it.

It failed last year.

She also says there’s no bill in the Legislature that would raise property taxes by $500 million.

“This is not about any real bill. This is a fear-and-smear campaign,” she said.

Gayman argued she led an effort to save property taxpayers $12 million last year.

Backers of the fair share proposal say it forces nonunion workers to pay for the benefits they’re now getting for free.

Critics say it forces people to essentially join unions and would hurt the state’s economic development efforts.


Newsroom union slapped with three ULPs

A day after union officials filed another unfair labor charge against the Santa Barbara News-Press, newspaper lawyers fired back yesterday with three new charges, including harassment.

Among the charges, News-Press attorney Barry Capello claimed that in or around September 2007, former newsroom employees Dawn Hobbs and Tom Schultz approached and harassed News-Press workers tasked with filling tucks and distributing newspapers. In one case, he alleged that they attempted to stop the workers from delivering the papers around 2 a.m. in a Santa Barbara public parking lot.

“[The News-Press employees] were verbally harassed, and in one case, [Hobbs and Schultz] actually attempted to prevent them from leaving the lot and distributing the papers,” Capello said. The charges, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, contend that the alleged actions violate three NLBR laws.

Ira Gottlieb, an attorney for the newsroom’s union, the Graphics Communication Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said the charges were baseless and that he expects the NLRB to dismiss them.

“We’re confident that there’s no factual or legal basis for this charge,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb, who said he is speaking for Hobbs - who would not comment because she was not yet familiar with the charges - as well as Schultz, questioned the details and legitimacy of the paper’s charge.

“This is a city parking lot, not the News-Press parking lot,” Gottlieb said. “There was no attempt by anyone to prevent the News-Press from doing whatever it was they were doing in that parking lot.”

This most recent filing follows a year-and-a-half-long contentious battle between former newsroom employees and the News-Press. Since July 2006 when top editors left the paper, at least 40 employees have quit or been fired, many contending that Wendy McCaw, the newspaper’s owner, had allegedly attempted to manipulate the news. Hobbs and Schultz were fired for alleged bias in their reporting last February, a termination the union claimed was illegal.

A Dec. 26, 2007 ruling sided with the fired employees and the union, mandating that the News-Press rehire Hobbs, Schultz and others. The paper is expected to appeal the ruling in the coming week.

Gottlieb said that yesterday’s charges amounted to little more than an attempt to distract readers.

“It’s just a diversion for their own bad public image,” he said.


Environmental unsustainability of union dues

An effort by the Port of Los Angeles to rid the region of unhealthy diesel pollution from aging big rigs is being threatened by a labor-management issue. Under a new clean-air plan, both independent drivers and employees of the new greener big rigs will be entitled to health insurance, and the licensed carriers will be responsible for seeing that their trucks meet tough standards for both clean air and safety.

Unions are using all their clout to get a mandate that all participating drivers be required to become employees of trucking companies serving the ports, which would make them easy to organize.

The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners has been leaning toward requiring trucking companies to hire the independent truckers. But the companies worry that this would encourage unionization efforts that would put them at odds with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Such an employee provision would likely lead to lawsuits by trucking firms and delays in cleaning the air. That's just not acceptable considering the harm these diesel emissions cause in the harbor area.

As L.A. officials consider the best course to reduce diesel pollution at the Port of Los Angeles, their main goal should be improving air quality in the region as quickly as possible. Labor-management issues should be secondary.


Legalizing anti-democratic union thuggery

The fact that the deceptively named resolution called the “Employee Free Choice Act” will ultimately pass the Minnesota House of Representatives is bad news for every working man and woman in the state.

The House Commerce and Labor Committee recently expressed their support for the resolution. This resolution supports a federal bill that will strip workers of the right to a federally supervised private ballot election when deciding whether to join a union and replace it with a system where workers have to choose in public. Talk about an invitation for coercion and intimidation.

Our lawmakers should be ashamed. Secret ballots are an American tradition. Lawmakers themselves are elected with secret ballots, and we wouldn't dream of forcing voters to publicly declare their vote.

And not one lawmaker can defend it. All they will say is that union membership is low, and they need to find some way to increase it.

It is disappointing to see our state representatives wasting valuable time in St. Paul by supporting federal bills that kowtow to union bosses and strip our rights. We will remember in November.

- Phil Raines, director of government affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Minnesota.


Marking non-union voters absent

Politicians better start paying attention to a group that comprises one-third of all voters: small business owners and their employees. That's the message the National Small Business Association is sending with its new campaign, "Small Business: 70 Million Strong ... And Voting."

Despite the fact that small businesses create most of the new jobs in the United States, small business "continues to be an afterthought for many lawmakers and candidates," said NSBA President Todd McCracken.

NSBA is urging small business owners and employees to speak out as part of the overall small business community.

Public opinion polls show that small businesses are one of the few institutions viewed favorably by most Americans.

"We want to drive home the point that small business comprises 33 percent of the voting population in the U.S.," said NSBA Chair Marilyn Landis, president of Basic Business Concepts Inc. in Pittsburgh. "We want to let people know that the small business community is a force to be reckoned with."

A survey conducted on Super Tuesday by the National Federation of Independent Business found that 80 percent of small business owners thought that presidential candidates weren't adequately addressing issues that are important to them, especially health care.

NSBA wants candidates to talk more about how small businesses fit into their health care reform plans, and it wants to hear more about tax reform, access to capital and energy.

Meanwhile, the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship, wants presidential candidates to explain how they would promote innovation and long-term economic growth.

It has identified several policy areas that have the greatest impact on helping innovative entrepreneurs succeed. These include: finding skilled workers, dealing with rising health care costs, re-examining the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, promoting trade, and dealing with long-run fiscal challenges like Medicare and Social Security.

Many small business owners make campaign contributions to political candidates, either individually or through trade associations. Among groups specifically representing small businesses, NFIB is the biggest player, giving $234,137 to congressional candidates so far this election cycle. Republicans received 83 percent of NFIB's money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

NFIB's contributions pale compared with the $1 million or more given through the end of 2007 by each of the top 10 PACs in the country. These PACs include five labor unions, trial lawyers, AT&T, the American Bankers Association, the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the National Association of Realtors.

For more information, see www.nsba.biz/vote.

In other news from Capitol Hill:

* Congress didn't show home builders the love, so home builders won't show Congress the money - at least for now.

The National Association of Home Builders announced it won't make any more contributions to congressional candidates until further notice because Congress has failed to do enough to help the housing industry.

"Over the past six months, Congress and the administration have not adequately addressed the underlying economic issues that would help stabilize the housing sector and keep the economy moving forward," said NAHB President Brian Catalde.

Home builders hoped for more help than they got from the economic stimulus legislation signed into law by President Bush Feb. 13. The bill temporarily increased the conforming loan limit for loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which should increase the availability of mortgages in high-cost markets. But home builders wanted a two-year increase, not just one year.

The stimulus package also didn't include a provision that would have expanded the net operating loss deduction. Under current law, a business loss can be deducted from taxes paid for the past two years. Home builders wanted Congress to expand this carry-back provision to five years, so they could receive rebates on the taxes they paid during their boom years. This would have given many home builders a much-needed infusion of capital, according to NAHB.

Builders also wanted Congress to allow cities and states to issue tax-exempt mortgage bonds that could be used to refinance existing loans for troubled borrowers.

NAHB had been a major source of campaign money. In the 2006 election cycle, its PAC gave $2.9 million to congressional candidates, ranking No. 3 in contributions behind the National Association of Realtors and the National Beer Wholesalers Association, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Republicans got 73 percent of its money that cycle.

For the 2008 election, NAHB's PAC had contributed $865,800 to congressional candidates through the end of 2007. The Republicans' share fell to 55 percent. NAHB's ranking had dropped to No. 17 among PACs.

NAHB's PAC still had $1.4 million in cash on hand at the end of 2007, however, so it's not as if the housing industry's hard times had left it without money to give. For more information, see www.nahb.com


SEIU members to go out on strike

Security officers who protect main downtown office buildings were set to walk out at 6 a.m. Monday following a breakdown in contract talks over the weekend. Service Employees International Union Local 26, the union representing some 750 security officers at large office buildings in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, said its members would strike to attain affordable health care.

Saturday night "companies that employ security officers, including ABM, American, and Securitas, walked away from the bargaining table without reaching an agreement that provides affordable health insurance for officers and their families," the union announced Sunday.

Working without a contract since Jan. 1, security officers voted Feb. 9 to authorize their bargaining committee to call a strike as a result of unfair labor practices. Teamsters Local 120, whose members drive delivery trucks, and the affiliate unions of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council have said that they will honor picket lines should security officers call a strike.

Rallies to support the strikers will be held at 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday at 8th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis, the union said. In addition, the Workers Interfaith Network will hold a candlelight vigil in front of the Ameriprise Building, 7th St. and 2nd Ave., at 6 p.m. Monday.

Health insurance premiums can be as high as $835 per month for security officers, the union said. As a result, only 13 security officers - just two percent - are enrolled in the family health insurance offered by their employer. Only 17 percent of security officers are enrolled in any health insurance from their employer.


Labor-activism program restored at St. Joe's

When longtime labor organizer Barbara Rahke came to Philadelphia in 2005, she was stunned to learn that this union town didn't have its own union-leadership school. "For a major metropolitan area, it was weird all the way around," said Rahke, who had worked in Detroit and Ithaca, both of which had thriving labor schools to teach the nuts and bolts of union leadership.

Next Monday, Philadelphia will have such a school - the Comey Institute of Industrial Relations at St. Joseph's University. The Jesuit university and the Philadelphia AFL-CIO are resurrecting the Comey Institute, founded in 1943. It had withered away from a lack of funding just before Rahke came out of retirement in 2005 to become executive director of PhilaPOSH, a labor-funded organization for worker safety.

Enrollment is open for its first classes. Rahke will be one of the teachers for a course on worker safety.

"Education leads to more professional relationships in the collective-bargaining arena," she said. "That's what keeps bad things from happening."

Named after Father Dennis J. Comey, known as a waterfront peacemaker for his role in mediating labor disputes at Philadelphia's docks, the institute will offer a combination of practical and theoretical courses designed to help unions, community groups - and even management - understand the complexities of labor relations.

The credits will count toward a degree at St. Joe's, if the students pursue a diploma. They'll be the cheapest credits on campus - $60 total for a three-credit course.

The institute's initial roster skews more toward the practical side - worker safety, conflict resolution, labor law in the construction industry, grievance and arbitration, and public relations.

One of the courses, Public Sector Labor Law, will be immediately relevant, as contract talks begin this year for the city's employees.

It's not surprising that the institute would offer such a course as part of its initial round. Its director, Thomas Paine Cronin, retired last year as the head of one of the city's largest public-sector unions, District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Cronin hopes to broaden the course selection to offer classes in, for example, labor in the global economy, or race and gender in unions.

"There's a lack of understanding of unions in what they do and what they fight for - certainly a lack of class-consciousness," he said.

Typical students may include shop stewards, union presidents, and bargaining agents.

Cronin also believes that some of the skill and sociology classes would be useful to community group leaders who may not have access to other ways of acquiring this kind of knowledge.

"I think in today's environment, with all the restrictions and anti-labor attitude, it's important for unions to be as well-informed and educated as humanly possible," he said, "and also for community groups and religious groups to have the same information."

Cronin said the courses aim to help unions and management draw on the legacy of Father Comey, who believed that communication and education for workers and managers were the keys to labor peace and productivity.

Comey started the school near 17th Street and Girard Avenue, then a manufacturing district and his boyhood neighborhood. His parents were Irish immigrant factory workers, and he was one of eight children.

William Madges, the dean of St. Joe's college of arts and sciences, said he hoped the institute would develop online courses to create a broader base and attract more financial support.

"We've embarked on this venture, not because it will be a revenue source, but because of our values," Madges said. Jesuits, he said, believe in service and in the human dignity of all workers.

The AFL-CIO is providing classroom space, plus some publicity help. The labor federation also lobbied for St. Joe's to restart the program.

The Comey Institute of Industrial Relations will not be housed in St. Joe's business school, but in its liberal arts college.

"My guess," Madges said, "is that the business school is perhaps more focused on creating managers and business leaders and may not be the place to address the issues that laborers have."


AFSCME goes all-out for the Clintons

Local union members in Scioto (OH) County are campaigning over the phone for Hillary Clinton. Hillary supporters inside the painters union in Portsmouth - are making thousands of calls to members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees across the state.

The union is hoping to gain support for Clinton leading up to the March 4th Ohio primary. AFSCME members are also helping folks get registered to vote during the campaign calls.


Firefighters queue up first in line

Now that Buffalo (NY) firefighters have been promised their long-awaited raises, several other city unions want to know when they'll see the money. News 4's Rob Macko reports. City workers who plow and take care of the streets, repair equipment, and dispatch police and fire calls haven't had a raise in nearly seven years.

Their union leader is happy to hear firefighters are getting a raise, but says his workers should, too. Friday, Buffalo firefighters union president Joe Foley received news that firefighters will get a five-and-a-half percent pay raise for the first time in nearly seven years.

The Buffalo control board lifted the wage freeze last summer.

An appellate court recently ruled the raise needs to be paid.

Foley, president of Firefighters Local 282, said, "I have every reason to believe that -- the mayor told me he's committed to it -- that he's going to do it. If he fails to do that, we're back in court."

While firefighters have reason to be optimistic, the situation isn't as hopeful for some of the city's other union workers.

Bill Travis, president of AFSCME Local 264, said, "I think we've got a ways to go before we could even have a tentative agreement to even bring back to have a vote on it."

AFSCME Local 264 represents 525 of the city's blue collar workers, including plow drivers; streets crews; sanitation, water, and engineering workers; mechanics and police and fire dispatchers.

They've been working without a contract since July 1, 2002, and haven't had a raise since July 1, 2001.

Travis said, "I think more and more have went out and got additional employment when they can, and I think that they've made many sacrifices with their family in order to survive seven years without a pay raise."

Travis says the average AFSCME salary is $31,800.

He says they've had some conversations with the city, and will continue talking.

But he says the control board doesn't make it easy.

Travis said, "The control board has basically stymied any negotiations, what are considered real negotiations, because they don't physically sit in the room, but they're there."

During Thursday's State of the City address, Mayor Byron Brown called for the control board to shift from hard to an advisory role.

Travis says that would help negotiations.

He believes the mayor wants to get a contract resolved.


Dem's Ivy League collectivist rhetoric

The rhetoric of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about the sad state of America is reminiscent of the suspect populism of John Edwards, the millionaire lawyer who recently dropped out of the Democratic presidential race.

Barack Obama may have gone to exclusive private schools. He and his wife may both be lawyers who between them have earned four expensive Ivy League degrees. They may make about a million dollars a year, live in an expensive home and send their kids to prep school. But they are still apparently firsthand witnesses to how the American dream has gone sour. Two other Ivy League lawyers, Hillary and Bill Clinton, are multimillionaires who have found America to be a land of riches beyond most people's imaginations. But Hillary also talks of the tragic lost dream of America.

In these gloom-and-doom narratives by the well-off, we less fortunate Americans are doing almost everything right but still are not living as well as we deserve. And the common culprit is a government that is not doing enough good for us, and corporations that do too much bad to us.

In the new pessimistic indictment, the home mortgage meltdown has not occurred because too many speculative buyers were hoping to flip houses for quick profits. It had nothing to do with misguided attempts of government and lending institutions to put first-time buyers in homes through zero-down payments, interest-only loans, and subprime but adjustable mortgage rates — as part of liberal efforts to increase homeownership rates.

And there apparently are few Americans who unwisely borrowed against their homes a second and third time to remodel or purchase big-ticket consumer items — in the belief their equity would always rise faster than their debts. Nor are we to look at this downturn as part of a historical boom-and-bust cycle in the housing industry — the present low prices and nonperforming loans the natural counterresponse to the overpriced real estate of the last five years.

Likewise, students are failing to graduate from college because there are too few government-guaranteed student loans. We don't hear that thousands enter public universities without basic reading and mathematical skills — or that their college problems might in part be the fault of their own misplaced priorities in high school, and in part the fault of a mostly therapeutic educational system, offering fluffy courses and self-esteem training rather than rigorous math, science, literature and history classes.

Nor is there ever mention of teachers' unions, the system of tenure, or a vapid, politically correct curriculum, as explanations why our students are not competitive in the global marketplace.

We also hear oil prices are sky high and our own auto industry is failing due to windfall profits and corporate greed, but there's no discussion of the fact that oil-rich autocracies like Russia, Venezuela and the Gulf monarchies have obtained a stranglehold on the global petroleum supply.

For Hillary and Barack, our automobile manufacturing crisis is not the result of uniquely lavish union health and retirement packages for American autoworkers. The government is somehow mostly to blame for Detroit's meltdown and the energy crisis, not Americans' own tastes in the 1990s for large gas-guzzlers and big homes, and their concurrent opposition to nuclear power plants, oil drilling off the coasts and in Alaska, and conservation of resources.

Wal-Mart, free trade and our debt to China also come in for blame. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton suggests that America's middle classes have more purchasing power and accumulated consumer goods than any people in history.

In reality, our acquisitiveness is a result not of corporate greed, but of our fondness for shopping at discounted warehouse mega-stores, whose goods are the result of hard work of hundreds of millions of low-paid Chinese. They not only toil long hours to make our cheap televisions and stereos, but their government lends us the money at low interest — through massive buying of U.S. government bonds — to buy their stuff.

To the extent we have any social and legal problems from unchecked illegal immigration, it has nothing to do with the cynicism and corruption of the Mexican government that deliberately exports, exploits and profits off its own people. The problem is not the fondness for low-paid, off-the-books illegal labor among the upper-middle classes, nor the disdain for the law of illegal immigrants themselves, who crowd to the front of the immigration line. Instead, America's xenophobia, blame-casting and insensitive government have made it needlessly rough on 11 million arrivals who otherwise did us a favor by coming.

As Sens. Obama and Clinton try to outdo each other in blaming government for our lack of individual responsibility and promising solutions by raising taxes to give us more government, they offer little change and less hope.


Ohio leftists pack the house for Barack

Sen. Barack Obama rallied a packed college basketball arena this afternoon, criticizing his chief opponent's support for trade treaties and bringing his criticism of the domestic auto industry to a city dotted with car plants.

Obama, campaigning in advance of the March 4 Ohio primary, filled the 9,000 seats at the University of Toledo's Savage Hall. He made only a couple mentions of his chief opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton. His now-familiar appeal for hope and change was clearly tailored to a city and a state worried about the impact of international trade and the loss of factory jobs -- even when his comments might not have been popular.

As he has during months of speeches, TV commercials and debates, Obama brought up his May speech to the Detroit Economic Club, where he offered harsh criticism of Ford, GM and Chrysler for failing to build more fuel efficient cars.

"At first, nobody clapped," the Illinois senator said of the speech. It was a potentially touchy subject in a city where Chrysler employs more than 2,500 workers making Jeep SUVs. But he cast his call for more efficiency as vital to making the Detroit Three competitive and keeping their factories open.

"We can't let Toyota and Honda dominate the fuel efficient market," he said.

The crowd was a mix emblematic of what has become Obama's cross-cultural appeal: African-American families just out of church in their Sunday finest; college students in T-shirts and jeans; and union workers, including members of the Teamsters, which endorsed Obama this week. It was, said former Toledo mayor Keith Wilkowski, the largest rally in the city's history for anyone other than a sitting president.

The stakes in Ohio are high -- officials of both campaigns have suggested that Obama could install himself as the presumptive Democratic nominee if he can win here or in Texas, which also votes on March 4, while Clinton could re-energize her flagging hopes with significant wins in both. Both have focused on Ohio's economic troubles, a theme Obama used to draw a contrast between himself and Clinton.

"Senator Clinton has gotten mad at me because I've said she supported NAFTA," Obama said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, finalized during the administration of Clinton's husband and deeply unpopular with labor.

Obama in mail advertising has criticized Clinton, saying she once supported NAFTA but now wants to change it. "You can't take credit for everything that was good in the Clinton administration and then not take credit for everything that people don't like," he said to cheers.


College faculty in decertification vote

The future of the union representing Michigan Technological University faculty is up in the air. Today is the second day of voting on whether the faculty want to continue being represented by the American Association of University Professors.

A Tech professor filed a so-called decertification petition last October. Thirty percent of the faculty signed the petition, which stated that they no longer wanted the AAUP to represent them in collective bargaining.

Contract talks between the AAUP and the school were suspended when the petition was filed. Bargaining will resume if the faculty votes to retain the union.


Socialists: Union retreat dooms the Clintons

A day after defeating Hillary Clinton in the February 19 Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucuses, Barack Obama picked up the nomination of the 1.5 million-member Teamsters union. Support from the Teamsters was one of a number of important union endorsements received by the Illinois senator and Democratic Party presidential candidate over the past several weeks.

On Wednesday, the Change to Win federation of unions, which includes the Teamsters, also officially backed Obama. The coalition’s nomination process requires that unions representing two-thirds of the federation’s membership endorse the candidate. To date, four of the coalition’s seven member unions have endorsed Obama.

In addition to the Teamsters endorsement, other Change to Win unions pledging their support to Obama include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which endorsed him last week; and UNITE Here, which gave its endorsement in early January. The United Farm Workers, which had already endorsed New York Senator Hillary Clinton, abstained on the vote, as did the Laborers’ International Union and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (which had endorsed John Edwards, who has since dropped out).

The AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers union have yet to officially endorse Obama or Clinton. Clinton presently has the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Machinists, the Letter Carriers, the Bricklayers and the American Federation of Teachers—all AFL-CIO-member unions.

Announcing their support for Barack Obama, the various union officials sought to describe their endorsement as a bold step forward for labor. In so doing, they are attempting to foster illusions that an Obama candidacy will champion the interests of working people, and that putting a Democrat in the White House would result in a shift in government policy, improving the lives of union members and their families.

Typical of these statements were those of SEIU Secretary-Treasurer and Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, who said, “Our members and the 40 million workers in our industries are real people who work hard picking the crops, stocking the shelves, preparing and serving our food, building, cleaning and guarding the skyscrapers of our big cities. They drive our buses and trucks.” For them, she said, “this election is about changing America to win a better future for our children.”

An Obama presidency, she said, would have “the power to turn that dream into reality.” The SEIU official did not elaborate on what specific policies Obama would advance to counter the growing social inequality that is driving millions of working class families in America into poverty. She could not because any real struggle for social change would require a challenge to America’s corporate elite and the political establishment, something both Obama and Clinton oppose. Obama offers at best token economic measures in the face of a growing social crisis.

Commenting on the Teamsters endorsement of Obama, union President James P. Hoffa claimed that Obama “will fight to rebuild our transportation infrastructure”—a key issue for the union—and “work with us to address critical issues from our ports to our highways, rails and airports.” The Teamsters chief failed to elaborate that Obama is proposing to spend only $6 billion a year on infrastructure repair, a tiny fraction of the $1.6 trillion engineering experts say is required to repair the nation’s infrastructure to decent condition.

That the unions would throw their support behind the Democratic Party in the 2008 elections was never in question. However, the speed with which a number of unions representing millions of these workers have now swung over to the Obama camp as he assumes the role of frontrunner and likely nominee is noteworthy. UFCW President Joseph Hansen expressed this perhaps most crudely, when he commented that “Obama is the frontrunner now, and we decided now was the time to make an endorsement.”

A top SEIU official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the New York Times, also indicated that the service workers union’s shift to Obama was “not an anti-Hillary move,” but was aimed at avoiding a contentious fight at the Democratic convention that could weaken the party’s chances in the November election.

The union bureaucracy is eager to secure the perks that will come from backing the winning candidate, and is positioning itself to play its traditional role: helping to channel the discontent of workers behind the Democrats. The support of the union leadership for the Democratic Party as a whole, and Barack Obama in particular, is an expression of the union bureaucracy’s slavish support for this big business party.

As union membership shrinks and working conditions deteriorate in the form of wage cuts and attacks on health care, retirement and other benefits, the unions have no independent perspective to offer working people to counter this assault. Instead they pour union members’ dues money into the coffers of the Democratic Party campaigns.

At stake in the endorsements are millions of dollars in union funds and the mobilization of thousands of foot soldiers in the race, first for the Democratic nomination and ultimately for the presidency. The AFL-CIO, with more than 10 million members, has budgeted $54 million for the 2008 campaign, up $6 million from 2004, to support Democratic candidates for president and in dozens of congressional races.

The SEIU, with 1.9 million members, expects to collect more than $30 million for the 2008 campaign, making its PAC (Political Action Committee) one of the biggest in the US. The union has contributed close to $700,000 so far to Democratic candidates.

The UFCW is one of the largest unions in the country with 1.4 million members. Its endorsement of Obama was a blow to the Clinton campaign, as the union is seen as influential in upcoming primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. In Ohio, the UFCW has 70,000 members working in supermarkets and food processing; in Texas, many of its 26,000 members are Latinos working in the meatpacking industry.

With the Teamsters endorsement of Obama, the union had activated a 50-state election campaign blitz, with special emphasis on “swing” states, where the presidential race is predicted to be close between the Democrats and Republicans. The Teamsters have 60,000 members in Ohio and 17,000 in Texas, where primaries scheduled for March 4 are seen as make-or-break contests for Clinton.

Virulently chauvinist, the Teamsters bureaucracy is in the midst of a campaign to stop Mexican truckers crossing the Texan border under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Teamsters’ support for Obama came only days after he declared his opposition to the pending US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

Campaigning over the weekend in Ohio, a state hard hit by manufacturing job losses, Obama stressed his opposition to NAFTA, promoting the reactionary notion that the jobs of American workers can be saved on the basis of pitting workers in the US against their brothers and sisters in Mexico, China or other countries. In Ohio, he has attacked Clinton because NAFTA was passed during her husband’s term in office.

Obama is playing the national chauvinist card not because he believes it will advance the interests of workers in Ohio or elsewhere. He is adopting the demagogy long used by the AFL-CIO to divert workers’ anger over growing economic insecurity away from big business into denunciations of foreign workers for “stealing American jobs.” This stance may be problematic in the run-up to the March 4 primary as Obama courts votes from Latinos, who make up 35 percent of the state’s population.

The Democrats have consistently lined up with Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration on cutbacks in social programs, tax cuts for the rich, attacks on workplace safety, and other legislation protecting corporate America and further enriching the wealthy.

The Democrats regained the majority in Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections largely on the basis of widespread antiwar sentiment within the American population. But since gaining that majority they have continued to fund the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provided the key votes to pass legislation legalizing domestic spying and other attacks on democratic rights in the name of the “war on terror.”

In speeches, Obama has pledged to be a “president who will listen to Main Street—not just Wall Street” and has promised tax cuts for working families, increased wages and a government that would “protect pensions, not CEO bonuses.” But among his most powerful backers is Warren Buffett, the second-wealthiest individual in America, with a net worth of some $52 billion. And Robert Wolf, CEO of UBS America, has been responsible for bringing in millions of dollars from other multimillionaires to finance Obama’s campaign.

In their praise of Obama, the union heads have failed to mention that one of his key backers in the Virginia primary was Governor Tim Kaine, who in dealing with a $641 million shortfall in the state budget has proposed delaying annual raises for state workers organized in the Virginia Public Service Workers Union.

In the end, the wellspring of support for Barack Obama from the trade unions is the product of their craven support for the Democratic Party and the political establishment as a whole. While they speak of the “change in the air” that accompanies the Obama campaign, union leaders are fearful of a movement within the working class and among young people that threatens to erupt into a challenge to the profit system. Above all, they want to block any break on the part of working people with the Democratic Party and any struggle that develops outside of it.

The union leaders also have a vested interest in perpetuating the myth that Barack Obama is a friend of the working class. A successful Democratic presidential campaign would reward them personally, in the form of the inevitable perks and positions that would be doled out should a Democrat be installed in the White House. They are wagering that an Obama nomination would provide the best conditions for making that happen.


Strike draws mention on Oscars show

With the writers strike over for a dozen days, the bitter work stoppage stayed very much in the background at Sunday night's Oscar ceremonies. If not for host Jon Stewart, the strike would have been largely unacknowledged. And Stewart mostly limited his commentary about it to the top of his opening monologue. "These past three and a half months have been very tough. The town was torn apart by a bitter writer's strike, but I'm happy to say that the fight is over," Stewart said. "So tonight, welcome to the makeup sex."

Stewart made no mention of the fact that his own "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" returned to the air last month with writers over the objections of the WGA. Indeed, he went out of his way to cast his sympathies with the scribes, noting that "Juno" writer Diablo Cody had taken a pay cut in going from exotic dancing to screenwriting.

"Of course, there's some collateral damage left over from the strike -- emotionally, economically, perhaps worst of all the cancellation of the legendary Vanity Fair Oscar party," he said. "They said they did it out of, quote, respect for the writers. You know a way they could show respect for the writers? Maybe, one day, invite some of them to the Vanity Fair Oscar party. I promise -- they won't mingle."

Stewart also repeated the assertion by WGA leaders that the approach of the Oscars had been an impetus for both sides to get the deal done, then told the audience that they should take a moment to congratulate themselves before switching subjects.

The impact of the strike might have led to more clips being used. Until two weeks ago, when the WGA leadership reached a deal, the look and feel of the Oscarcast had been murky at best -- given the probability that stars would not cross a picket line -- with the presumption that the show would lean heavily on footage from prior shows.

Midway through the show, Stewart noted that had the strike continued, the producers would have been forced to resort to even more clip packages. He then intro'd a pair of salute segments: one for binoculars and periscopes and another for bad dreams with a succession of shots of thesps waking up screaming.

But after that, the elephant in the room became an afterthought and it was almost as if the strike had gone away with two notable exceptions late in the show.

Diablo Cody began her acceptance speech for original screenplay by saying, "This is for the writers, and I want to thank all the writers."

And Helen Mirren tweaked studio execs in her intro for Best Actor nominees.

"Ambition, amorality, greed, deviousness, usury, venality, remorse, nobility, generosity, decency and good old fashioned cojones," she said. "I know these sound like the description to be a successful studio head but these are facets of the performances of our leading actor nominees."

No one else came close to mentioning the WGA strike.

Cody and the Coen brothers had also won their respective WGA awards, but the guild had called off the Feb. 9 ceremony in Los Angeles and merely announced the winners during a low-key "recognition reception" in New York -- a few minutes before the beginning of a WGA membership meeting at the Shrine in downtown Los Angeles to hear details about the deal that would end the strike.

There was also no mention of the prospect of a SAG-AFTRA strike this summer, even though George Clooney and Tom Hanks -- who both served as presenters -- have been pressuring SAG to begin negotiations as soon as possible.


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