Union organizers invade Pennsylvania

Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday portrayed rival Barack Obama as a talker rather than a doer who does not believe what he says on Iraq, energy and foreign trade. "There's a big difference between talk and action ... but if you are going to talk, you ought to mean what you say," Clinton told a cheering crowd of about 2,000 during a midday rally in Harrisburg.

Obama, who opened his Pennsylvania campaign in Bucks County, responded in an interview with The Inquirer, saying that on Iraq, Clinton was still "trying to finagle her way out of her misjudgments on the most important foreign-policy issue of our time."

He was back home in Chicago by the time he learned that he had won yesterday's Mississippi primary, the last event before Pennsylvania votes on April 22.

Clinton, on the second day of an in-state swing that concluded with a rally at Temple University, once again became the sharp-edged candidate who had attacked Obama's preparedness to be president before defeating him in Ohio and Texas last week.

In Harrisburg, she accused Obama of not being sincere about his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq.

"My opponent said he'll have them all out in 16 months, and then one of his foreign-policy advisers says to the foreign press: 'Don't pay attention. That's just talk for the campaign,' " Clinton said.

It was a reference to a recent flap in which Samantha Power, an Obama adviser, told a newspaper in Scotland that candidates would not be bound by their campaign rhetoric in dealing with the Iraq war as president. She was forced to resign because she called Clinton a "monster" in the same interview.

Obama told The Inquirer that his commitment to a 16-month timetable was firm and unchanged.

"This notion that Sen. Clinton can twist the words of an adviser who's not even speaking in an official capacity on my behalf and try to tag them on me is the kind of politics that results in us not getting much stuff done," he said.

Clinton delivered a populist speech in Harrisburg, blasting oil companies, Wall Street hedge-fund managers, and health insurers, and vowing to make college more affordable. "We're going to have to fight to make the changes against the special interests that have dominated Washington," she said.

She drew cheer after cheer from the crowd, which included many state workers on lunch break wearing green AFSCME T-shirts. The public employees' union has endorsed Clinton.

She also criticized Obama for his visit to a Bucks County company that makes equipment that converts wind energy into electricity. She said it was hypocritical for him to talk about alternative energy after voting in 2005 for President Bush's energy bill, which gave tax breaks to oil companies.

"When he had a chance to say no to Dick Cheney and the oil companies, he voted yes," Clinton said. "I said no. He said yes."

Obama's campaign noted that the bill also included tax credits aimed at developing renewable fuels.

Even as she pressed her attacks, Clinton was forced to respond to comments by Geraldine A. Ferraro, the Democratic Party's 1984 vice presidential nominee, who said that Obama was "lucky" to be where he was.

"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," Ferraro told the Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance, Calif. "And if he was a woman [of any color], he would not be in this position."

Members of the Obama campaign expressed outrage at Ferraro's comments and called on Clinton to strip her of any role in her campaign. Ferraro has raised money for her fellow New Yorker.

"When you wink and nod at offensive statements," said Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, "you're really telling your supporters that anything goes."

Clinton said she disagreed with Ferraro's characterization. "It is regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides, because we've both had that experience, say things that kind of veer off into the personal," Clinton said, according to Associated Press. "We ought to keep this on the issues."

With Clinton and Obama both in the eastern part of the state and former President Bill Clinton touring in the west, the campaign for Pennsylvania was fully joined yesterday.

Jane Petermann attended the Harrisburg rally and said she agreed with Clinton that Obama was too great a risk. "It's kind of scary, putting someone in office that is untested," the Lancaster resident said. "Our country is in a lot of trouble, and we need someone who can get us out of it."

A new poll by Susquehanna Polling for Triad Strategies, a Harrisburg-based lobbying group, had Clinton at 45 percent and Obama at 31 percent, with the rest undecided or not supporting anyone.

Obama's one stop was in Fairless Hills at the factory of Gamesa USA, a Spanish wind-energy firm, located inside the old U.S. Steel Fairless Works.

After a tour of the facility, during which he autographed a windmill blade that was more than 100 feet long, the Illinois senator held a town-hall meeting with about 300 people, most of them Gamesa employees.

In brief opening remarks, Obama talked about his plans to invest $150 billion over 10 years to create green-energy jobs. He praised Gamesa and other companies for "turning Bucks County into a center of green jobs in America."

He said of Pennsylvania: "The challenges people are facing here aren't that different than the ones I'm hearing about as I travel all around this country."

With his voice echoing off the ceiling and walls of the cavernous facility, he took a series of questions covering the cost of living, school violence, the role of labor unions, and illegal immigration.

Although he didn't deliver his trademark, stem-winding speech, his listeners said they were satisfied.

"He was my candidate to begin with, and he was better than I expected," said Beth Rovito of Hatboro, a recruiter for Gamesa. "He's one of us; he's not one of them. He's not a politician."

The long campaign day concluded with Clinton's evening rally at Temple's McGonigle Hall, where she roused the crowd of 3,000 with calls to end tax breaks for job-exporting corporations, extend health insurance to all, and break free from dependence on imported oil.

She did not repeat her earlier attacks on Obama, saying simply that she had the "experience and understanding" to serve in troubled times.


Labor-state burlesque

To say that the reform agenda that Eliot Spitzer campaigned for as a gubernatorial candidate has been largely unachieved would be an understatement. After barely a year in office, in which tales of his administration’s alleged dirty tricks and threats against opponents dominated the news, Spitzer is certain to depart having done little to end the massive dysfunction that characterizes Albany and that has left New York voters increasingly cynical about their state’s government.

Whether Spitzer’s replacement — Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, a longtime Albany insider — can bring a measure of needed reform is an open question, considering that he doesn’t have a personal mandate from voters and lacks the political capital to tame the power brokers who rule Albany.

When Spitzer ran for governor in 2006, lack of confidence in state government was widespread, with 58 percent of New Yorkers saying that they were dissatisfied with Albany, according to a poll commissioned by the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for Public Policy. At the time, nearly half of poll respondents said that either they or a family member had considered leaving the state — perhaps not surprising, considering that New York led the 50 states in out-migration, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Behind state residents’ discontent were a number of well-known problems that seemed resistant to reform. Powerful special interests — from public-employee unions to health-care groups — controlled much of the agenda in Albany, driving up spending on employee salaries and on benefits and subsidies to favored groups like hospitals and nursing homes. Legislators treated the state budget as a personal cookie jar, filling it with “earmarked” spending—that is, spending requested by individual members of the legislature that often gets approved under the radar screen. In 2006, legislators and the governor divided some $200 million in such “member items” among themselves.

Not content with this taxpayer-funded cookie jar, the state has also created a bevy of public authorities and commissions — at last count, a staggering 640 or so — that operate mostly outside the state budget. These authorities, according to a series of investigations into their workings, are often patronage mills loaded with lucrative positions for politicians’ friends and political allies. They are also largely unaccountable, and many have the ability to raise money through debt offerings. At last count, they have accumulated an incredible $100 million in debt; New York taxpayers are on the hook for at least a third of that total.

This lack of accountability is a key factor in New York’s increasingly out-of-control budget. The state’s Medicaid program, for instance, is twice as large as the next-biggest state program, in California, even though California’s population is nearly twice that of New York. Similarly, most New York public employees can count on lavish health-care and retirement benefits — including the option of retiring with virtually full benefits at age 55 in many cases, a far better deal than most private-sector workers now have. The porcine budget has helped create a knee-buckling tax burden that has dramatically weakened the state economy. A recent Tax Foundation study, for instance, found that nine of the country’s ten most heavily taxed counties (out of a total of 783) are in New York State. The total state and local tax burden in New York now amounts to nearly 14 percent of personal income. Adding in the federal tax burden, New Yorkers are now forking over nearly 38 percent of their income to government, the highest percentage since at least the 1970s. No wonder that even with Wall Street’s extraordinary earning power, the state’s overall economic growth has been anemic for years.

Fed up with this situation, New Yorkers have been yearning for change. The Manhattan Institute’s 2006 survey found that two-thirds of state residents favored a constitutional limit on the growth of state spending, while more than two-thirds favored term limits for state officials. About 64 percent of poll respondents said the state should cure its persistent budget deficits by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. Mindful of how resistant New York’s public officials had been to reform, 64 percent of residents told MI that they favored granting voters the right to initiative and referendum, through which voters could directly make changes to state law.

Spitzer had promised to pursue reform — including taming Medicaid, reining in public authorities, and reducing pork. He accomplished little of that, and in fact the state’s budget ballooned during his short tenure. Now David Paterson waits to take control. The best that can be said about him is that he knows his way around Albany, having spent 20 years there, and that his fellow legislators like and respect him. He won’t enter office facing the resentment that Spitzer engendered. On the other hand, as a virtual unknown throughout most of the state, Paterson also has little political capital outside Albany. It’s not even clear whether he will be the most powerful Democrat in the state capital, or whether that role will now fall to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who, along with Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, has ruled Albany for years. Both men are major impediments to change.

To reform New York, Paterson would have to stifle the state legislature’s tendency to overspend on pet projects, grab greater control of state authorities that squander taxpayer resources, and clamp down on out-of-control Medicaid spending. He would also have to seek ways to return democracy to New York State—through promoting initiative and referendum, or through changing the way that legislative districts are drawn in New York, stripping that power from the legislature, which has used it to carve districts in which incumbents are virtually assured of reelection. He could even try both methods.

But despite Paterson’s affability and the respect he garners in Albany as a straight shooter, there’s little in his past to suggest that he’s ready to take on these weighty problems. Instead, with a policy agenda to the left of Spitzer’s, Paterson may turn out to be an agent for even higher spending and higher taxes in New York. Indeed, the Working Families Party, the quasi-socialist party that continuously lobbies for higher taxes in New York (including a recent proposal for a controversial income-tax surcharge on wealthy residents), is closely aligned with Paterson, having helped him gain his previous position as State Senate minority leader.

Paterson will need to work hard merely to bring credibility and a measure of respect back to the governor’s office. New York needs much more than that, though—it needs a long-term program of reform. If Paterson can’t, or won’t, embark on such a program, New Yorkers face another three years in which their state government is in the hands of those who would exploit it and squander taxpayer resources. In that case, other reformers — perhaps Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, or maybe even Rudy Giuliani — would be lining up for a shot at the governor’s office in 2010.

At least, New Yorkers have to hope so.

- Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is a coauthor of The Immigration Solution.


Our privileged government-unions

“Touching the third rail of politics” used to mean any attempt to reform the cost of entitlements, especially Social Security. Despite the fact that all realistic estimates show all levels of government -- federal, state, and local -- barreling toward insolvency, there is still little or no effort to solve that problem. And while that one goes unsolved, another has arisen.

While one political taboo remains, another -- one that may prove equally damaging -- has grown. What no legislator dares say outright is that the only pot of money big enough to solve the problem is the one that can be wrung from the waste and inefficiency in America’s public sector at both state and federal levels. And that requires taking on a powerful and expanding special interest group: the public employee unions.

In 2005, a New York Times investigation found that as much as 40 percent of the Empire state’s $45 billion annual Medicaid budget was frittered away through fraud, mismanagement, abuse, and the indifference of Albany lawmakers. Two years earlier the Yankee Institute for Public Policy did a study for the October/November issue of the American Enterprise, which showed that if all 47.6 million U.S. public school children were educated with the same efficiency as private and parochial schools, the cumulative savings annually would be greater than all the state budget deficits combined.

Tantalizing examples of what can be extracted from reorganizing government abound. Public universities, which have already suffered declining taxpayer support over the last two decades, have actually improved their productivity to around 2.5 percent annually -- approximately the same rate as private American industry. Declining government support led to the elimination of needless bureaucratic overhead, the substitution of adjunct and part-time instructors for tenure-track faculty, and the redesign of courses to make better use of online technology.

New Zealand, which in 1984 initiated a sweeping privatization of national and regional services to forestall national bankruptcy, provides endless examples of how streamlining government to bring expenses in line with revenues actually improves the overall quality of services. Employees in transportation were reduced from 5,600 to 53, in forest services from 17,000 to 17, and in the national Ministry of Works from 28,000 to 1 -- all with no loss of service or safety to the public.

The problem, of course, is that importing such savings to America will not go down well with public employee unions, which have grown accustomed to extracting generous benefits from politicians. August, 2006, data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that the average federal civilian worker earns $106,579 a year in total compensation, or twice the $53,289 in wages and benefits for the typical private employee. Since 2000, federal pay has risen 38 percent, or double the pay increases for workers in manufacturing, retail, finance, private health care, and construction.

At the state level, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, government workers have been collecting nearly 50 percent more in total compensation than the average private sector employee, with taxpayers subsidizing 128 percent more than private employers to fund health care benefits and 162 percent more on retirement benefits.

When budget pressures have occasionally forced politicians to make modest demands for increased productivity, the response from public employees has been less than generous -- witness the 2005 holiday transit strike in New York City and repeated threats of illegal walkouts by nurses throughout the University of California system.

More worrisome is the ease with which disgruntled union members have resorted to violence, the intimidation of co-workers, and life-threatening negligence to get their way. An investigation by the Connecticut attorney general into a strike against state-funded nursing homes found that picketers had removed identification bracelets from Alzheimer’s patients, fed chocolate to diabetics, and loosened bolts on lifts used to support elderly patients.

In Washington State, the federation of state employees demanded that Olympia legislators fire 800 government workers who would not join the union. Further south, the National Labor Relations Board actually had to overturn an organizing campaign by the notoriously bellicose California Nurses Association because members threatened health workers who opposed the union, telling one his “little kittens would look good in a frying pan.”

Most politicians have kept their mouths shut about changes they know are needed: more competition in K-12 education, a reliance on cost-conscious insurance companies to manage government-funded health care, and a sweeping privatization of many other government services. But by the end of the next president’s first term, lawmakers will have no choice but to extend the productivity revolution, which began in corporate America under Reagan, to the sprawling public sector.

Public employee wages and benefits will also have to be brought in line with private industry. Anticipating these changes, the Government Accounting Standards Board, the national association of public finance officers, has already told states and cities to reserve for any post-employment worker benefits (GASB statement 45) and is developing performance measures for social programs.

Government unions will resist serious reform with demonstrations, radio and television ads funded by member dues, and regrettably the threat -- occasionally materializing-- of violence. Already public employees are engaged in a furious effort to fortify their numbers by organizing a new class of employee: child care providers, home health aides, and others who are not employed directly by government, but whose salaries are reimbursed through entitlements.

But as time goes on, union leaders will discover that their leverage is not strong enough to prevent needed streamlining of the public sector. There may once have been a time when low wages and few benefits gave government workers the right to voter sympathy; but today we live in a world where, according to the National Compensation Survey, school teachers make more in wages and benefits than private sector engineers, architects, and computer scientists -- at the same time keeping their ten weeks of summer vacation.

Neither will the public be happy to learn that the price tag for previous concessions to labor will be much higher than even the official estimates. According to a December, 2007, study by the PEW Center on the States, the under-funding of public employee retirement benefits is “about $731 billion.” In some states, including Connecticut, Delaware, and Hawaii, the per capita liability already exceeds $5,000.

Government employees will also find that the march of technical innovation has greatly reduced their ability to extort concessions by shutting down vital public services. Television coverage of the New York City transit strike naturally focused on the hordes of stranded subway commuters forced to walk to work across the Brooklyn Bridge or cram uncomfortably into mandatory car pools, but thousands of others were able to do their jobs electronically from home with relative ease.

Eventually many public employees will see that they too have a vested interest in the productivity adjustments necessary to resolve the debt crisis, especially at the local level where state legislatures have considerable latitude to restructure failing municipalities. Consider what happened after the third largest city in Massachusetts, Springfield, flirted with default and was placed under the autocratic thumb of the state’s Finance Control Board (FCB) in June of 2004. Almost immediately more than 500 administrative, teaching, and paraprofessional positions in the schools were eliminated; there were unilateral cuts in cost-of-living benefits to retired city employees; salary schedules for new government hires were reduced; and the school day was lengthened.

Across the country, America’s seventh largest city, San Diego, California, provides an ominous example of what public employees can expect if they fail to provide voters with more value for their tax dollar. When the dark clouds of bankruptcy appeared in 2005, this Democrat-dominated city elected a Republican mayor, who refused to impose new taxes. Instead he immediately pushed laws to require voter approval for any pension benefit increases and to allow landscapers, mechanics, and contractors in the private sector to bid for municipal business.

And something else happened, which could further persuade labor leaders to make needed productivity concessions. Discovering evidence for criminal collusion between previous administrations and the public unions, city attorney Michael Aguirre, a self-described “liberal Democrat,” brought suit in federal court to have worker benefits granted since 1996 rolled back on grounds that they violate conflict-of-interest laws. If successful, this action could create a legal precedent for challenging public employee contracts in every jurisdiction where the dominant political party is unduly influenced by government unions.

Elected officials may not yet be ready to touch the new “third rail” of politics, but the looming fiscal crisis makes a showdown between government workers and other voters inevitable. But if Americans will not suffer the tyranny of an English king, they will certainly not become the economic slaves of their public servants.

- Lewis M. Andrews, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy at Trinity College.


Overzealous AFSCME organizing delayed

A lawyer in the Minnesota Attorney General's office who has been an advocate for a union organizing effort has been placed on administrative leave, a few days after she openly raised ethical concerns about how several lawsuits were filed.

A spokesman for Attorney General Lori Swanson said Assistant Attorney General Amy Lawler was disciplined for failing to go through proper channels to voice her concerns, not for her union-related activity. In a letter to legislative leaders, Swanson, a DFLer, accused union leaders of attempting to "stir the pot" with the controversy as part of a campaign to organize attorneys in the office.

Lawler, who has worked for the office since November, did not return telephone calls on Tuesday but told the Associated Press that she was exploring her options. She said her suspension on Monday, first reported by the online newspaper MinnPost.com, serves as a "chilling message" to other attorneys who might consider speaking up about the way the office is run.

"I don't think this would have happened if I weren't active in the union-organizing effort," Lawler said.

Union leaders pledged legal support for her.

Talked to media

Stories about Lawler's concerns were reported last week on Minnesota Public Radio and MinnPost.com. In an interview afterwards, Lawler said the attorney general's office is obsessed with the union mobilization, describing an atmosphere of being "bombarded with anti-union messages."

Lawler had also raised concerns about the motives the office might have had in pursuing two lawsuits that she filed; she said she felt as if the suits were part of an effort to gain publicity on consumer-protection cases for Swanson. She said a supervisor later told her that the suits would stand up to scrutiny if they were challenged as being frivolous.

"That's the standard, we'll file lawsuits as long as we won't face ethical sanctions for them. That's a very low bar," Lawler said in the interview. But she said she believed the suits she filed had merit.

Swanson, who took office in January 2007, was not available for an interview Tuesday. However, Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson said Lawler was placed on paid administrative leave for failing to register her concerns about any possible ethical violations with the Minnesota Board of Professional Responsibility, required under an attorney's rules of professional conduct.

In a letter to Lawler, Olson said she expected the assistant attorney general to provide a letter by the end of the week detailing her allegations. Olson said Lawler had recently sent her an e-mail assuring her that she did not have ethical concerns about the cases.

"This is not a punishment for someone speaking to the media, nor does that have anything to do about any union-organizing efforts," Olson said. "I am concerned that someone has gone public and indicated that this office is bringing lawsuits that are not meritorious, that violate ethical rules. That contradicts written and verbal statements by the same person making these allegations."

The dispute comes at a time when the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union has been aggressively pursuing an organizing effort in the attorney general's office. Swanson has resisted the union, as have previous attorneys general.

Swanson has contended that state law prohibits assistant attorneys general from unionizing and on Monday produced a briefing paper to legislative leaders outlining her concerns. She said assistant attorneys general operate much like aides to legislators or in the governor's office.

"It is a common tactic for organizers to 'stir the pot' and get louder in their rhetoric as an organizing effort falters," she wrote.

Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, said that it appeared Lawler had been punished for speaking out about her concerns and that the union was consulting legal counsel about assisting her. "Who will uphold our Constitution if Minnesota's top lawyer expects her own employees to surrender their right to free speech and assembly?" Seide asked.


Labor brawl serves SEIU a dues loss

An explosion of insults between officials from the Service Employees International Union and the California Nurses Association capped a scrapped effort Tuesday to sign up 8,300 workers at eight Ohio hospitals. Workers at Catholic Healthcare Partners facilities had been scheduled to vote on joining the SEIU Wednesday and Friday in a National Labor Relations Board election.

The Cincinnati-based chain had taken the unusual step of calling for the election, hospital officials said, after a union organizing drive led to an agreement for both the SEIU and the company to avoid a battle over the issue. But the hospital Tuesday withdrew its petition for the election, hospital spokesman Orest Holubec said, as a result of "disruptive tactics" by the nurses association.

"We had wanted an atmosphere free of pressure," Holubec said.

SEIU officials claim the nurses group in the last week "flooded" the hospitals with organizers as well as pamphlets attacking the SEIU, which had been organizing the Ohio workers for the past three years.

"They ran a union-busting operation," said Dave Regan, SEIU District 1199 chief. "What is unbelievable is that it was done by an organization that purports to be a union."

Officials from the nurses group said they stepped in "to stop a backroom deal." The group formed the National Nurses Organizing Committee several years ago to represent nurses outside of California.

"I can't think of enough bad things to say about the lack of democracy here," said Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the 80,000-member nurses association, which has tussled over the years with the 1.5 million-member SEIU.

While DeMoro claimed that the SEIU lacked support from the more than 3,000 registered nurses at the hospitals, Holubec said there "was no evidence" of workers wanting to join the California-based group. If the nurses group had shown its support previously, it could have sought a place on the ballot, Holubec added.

As for the future, DeMoro said, no election is planned.


USW members use secret-ballot against union

Today's secret ballot vote at the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Covington (VA) will offer union workers three options. The choices are: retaining the United Steelworkers International union as Local 8-675's bargaining representative; choosing representation by the new Covington Paperworkers Union Local 675; or rejecting both -- which would be a vote for no union representation, an outcome that seems unlikely.

The National Labor Relations Board will oversee the voting, which will occur inside the mill throughout the day. Because ballots will be received until 11:45 p.m., vote results will not be available until early Thursday.

More than 970 workers at the plant have been USW members. In October, voicing frustration about stalled contract talks with MeadWestvaco and alleging that negotiators from the international had failed to adequately represent them, a group split away and formed CPU.

USW International President Leo Gerard has acknowledged that the international made some mistakes during negotiations.

But he and other USW officials emphasize that the union workers at the mill will be best served by the international's continued representation, national clout and diverse resources.

About 1,400 people work at the paper mill and other MeadWestvaco facilities nearby. The company is the largest taxpayer and employer for Covington and Alleghany County. The sprawling plant's operations also support businesses in the larger region, including many small, independent operators who supply pulpwood.

Both the USW and CPU predicted Tuesday that they will prevail.

A USW news release suggested loyalty to its camp remains among "a large majority" of union members.

Roy Hall, CPU president, predicted the new local will win.

"We're feeling very optimistic," Hall said. "We all have the feeling we'll win decisively."

Becky Johnson, a MeadWestvaco spokeswoman in Covington, said the company has not taken sides and will not.

She said MeadWestvaco does not anticipate problems at the mill between the factions after vote results are in.

"Everyone has worked together really well so far," Johnson said. "We have no reason to believe it will be any different."

Union members have been working under the terms of a contract that expired in December 2006. USW Local 8-675 has continued as the local bargaining unit, but contract talks broke down months ago.

During previous negotiations between the union and MeadWestvaco, sticking points have included health care coverage, pension contributions and a company proposal to make boundaries among maintenance trades more porous.

Mike Yoffee, an organizing director for USW International, has been in Covington since November, he said.

He agreed that the international has spent a lot of time, money and effort in its campaign to keep the Covington union members in the USW fold.


"Because if the bargaining and the negotiations become a disaster, it's going to ruin a thousand people's lives and the lives of their families," said Yoffee, referring to union members at the paper mill.

But he acknowledged also that the international is concerned about how the breakup in Covington could influence other USW locals around the country.

"We don't want to be running around trying to do this all the time," he said. "It's painful to see this kind of problem."

Hall said the USW International's concerted efforts suggest it fears "the larger implications of us being successful for workers."


UAW strike v. American Axle, week 3

As the UAW's strike at American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. stretched into its third week, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger criticized the company as negotiating on a "one-way street." Meanwhile, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors Corp., American Axle's largest customer, said the strike was "not a huge issue" for the automaker because it had ample supply of trucks on dealers' lots.

The first round of talks since the strike began all but stalled Monday, with the end of face-to-face negotiations.

But dialogue between the sides continues, Gettelfinger said Tuesday during the "Paul W. Smith Show" on WJR-AM (760).

"As long as they come to the bargaining table with the attitude that they're not going to negotiate -- that they're going to dictate -- we're not going to get an agreement," Gettelfinger said.

The company has sought to cut wages by about half, to $11.50 and $14.50 an hour. It said it needs concessions to be competitive against other companies that have cut their labor costs.

"We're not asking for anything that the UAW has not given to many of our competitors, including Dana, Ford and Chrysler axle operations," said American Axle spokeswoman Renee Rogers.

In a statement Tuesday night, the company said talks were to continue Thursday.

Adrian King, president of UAW Local 235, which represents workers at American Axle's manufacturing complex in Detroit, declined to comment on the details of negotiations. But he stressed the importance of the strike and negotiations.

"This is a pivotal fight we're in right now," King said.

Wendy Thompson, the local's former president, said a major sticking point for the union is saving from closure two plants in New York and a forging plant in Detroit.

American Axle has said that without the labor concessions, all plants involved in the current negotiations -- which cover 3,650 UAW members -- could be in jeopardy.
For GM, weak market helps

The strike has forced GM, which accounts for nearly 80% of American Axle's revenue, to cut production or shut down 29 plants nationwide.

"We are losing some production for sure, but at this point, the impact on retail sales has been negligible because of the inventories and the rather weak market," Wagoner said Tuesday at a breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Dealers aren't experiencing a shortage of GM pickups and SUVs.

GM vehicles for which American Axle supplies parts, such as the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and Silverado pickup, have sat on dealer lots for two and three months before selling, according to J.D. Power & Associates, based on data for the first two months of the year.

Forecasting and consulting firm CSM Worldwide said GM is shifting its inventory of American Axle parts to Arlington, Texas, where it makes the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade.

That plant has enough parts to continue production until the end of the month, according to a message posted on the Web site of UAW Local 276.

Still, KeyBanc analyst Brett Hoselton expects GM to start pressing for a deal, as dealers start to draw down on the company's supplies of large SUVs.

"We believe the automaker may begin exerting more influence on discussions very soon, which suggests the possibility of significant near-term progress," Hoselton wrote in a note to investors Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the impact on other GM suppliers continues to grow.

Lear has temporarily laid off about 1,100 employees at 10 plants that have had to slow production or shut down due to the strike.

Delphi Corp. has temporarily laid of 1,600 workers at five plants, including factories in Saginaw and Wyoming, Mich.


UAW strikers v. Volvo still out

More than five weeks after members of United Auto Workers Local 2069 went on strike outside the Volvo Trucks North America plant in Dublin, Volvo announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the union on terms of a new three-year contract. In order for UAW Local 2069's roughly 2,600 members to return to work, however, the union must first ratify the new agreement.

Reached by cellphone Tuesday night, UAW Local 2069 Vice President Tim Barnes said members "are just ready to be informed on what the offer is," and the union was trying to schedule times for a pair of ratification meetings.

While firm dates and times had yet to be hammered out by Tuesday night, Barnes said the meetings would likely be held Friday or Saturday at New River Community College.

If members vote to ratify the agreement, Barnes said workers could go back to work within one or two days.

UAW Local 2069 went on strike Feb. 1 after the union was unable to reach an agreement with Volvo about a new contract. Since then, union members have taken turns picketing outside the truck manufacturing facility, often waving signs and chanting.

Production at the plant, one of the region's largest employers and Volvo's only heavy-duty truck plant in North America, halted for more than three weeks.

In an early letter detailing the union's reasons for striking, UAW Local 2069 President Lester Hancock said members were upset by "unreasonable proposals that would erode the wages and benefits that we've fought so many years to achieve and protect."

Throughout the strike, union members have also said that Volvo was looking to dismantle their recall rights and health and safety protections.

Volvo, however, denied those assertions and expressed confusion about the union's decision to strike.

In a letter announcing a return to bargaining March 5, Per Carlsson, president and chief executive officer of Volvo Trucks North America, highlighted three issues that seemed likely to play a key role in talks, including "increased health care cost sharing" and "the exceptionally high degree of manpower movement and higher-than-average absenteeism in the factory."


Unions exploit Foxwoods in Casino War

Encouraged by the success of table game dealers, a second group of employees at Foxwoods Resort Casino have asked federal officials to hold a vote to unionize. Local 30 of the International Union of Operating Engineers filed paperwork late last week petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to represent 260 engineers, carpenters and other facility workers at the southeastern Connecticut casino.

"The organizing drive was brought to us by the workers," said William Lynn, lead organizer for the local.

Lynn said the desire of workers to organize followed November's successful vote by blackjack, poker and other table game dealers to join the United Auto Workers, the first successful union drive at the tribal casino.

But like the 2,600 dealers, the engineers will face opposition from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns and operates Foxwoods. The tribe has said that because it's a sovereign nation, the casino on its reservation is not subject to federal labor law. The tribe is challenging the UAW vote, and it issued a statement saying it will oppose the operating engineers, as well.

The NLRB has set a hearing date for Monday on the operating engineers' petition. Under federal law, a union must submit signatures from 30 percent of the potential members of the bargaining unit to request a vote.

Lynn said the union collected signatures from well over 50 percent of its potential members. The reasons employees gave for wanting to join a union included higher costs for health benefits, the employee discipline process, and how the tribe handles workers' compensation, he said.

A third union is active at Foxwoods. Local 371 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union is trying to organize an estimated 12,050 workers, including bartenders, servers and kitchen workers. Brian Petronella, president of the local, said Tuesday that the goal is to file a petition with the NLRB in the fall.


Organized labor losing its grip on middle class

With two celebrity-class candidates, Democrats have seen their presidential contest draw record voter turnout and an influx of Latinos and younger Americans to the party. But some are becoming concerned that the party now risks losing its hold on a more established set of needed supporters: blue-collar workers. The fears are strong enough that the AFL-CIO today will announce a multimillion-dollar campaign to discredit Republican candidate John McCain among union households and link him to President Bush's unpopular economic policies.

A separate labor-backed group, the Campaign to Defend America, has launched a television ad portraying McCain as "McSame as Bush" on issues including the Iraq war, economics and energy policy. The spot ends with a picture of the two men embracing.

It is all part of a preemptive effort to stem battleground-state defections by union households and other working-class voters known as Reagan Democrats -- swing voters who have been courted by both parties ever since they tipped the balance for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

"That vote is up for grabs," said David Bonior, campaign manager for John Edwards' failed Democratic presidential bid. "We will have to work incredibly hard," he said, to blunt McCain's potential appeal to working-class voters, which is based on his status as a war hero and his reputation as a political moderate.

The AFL-CIO became concerned after polls and focus groups found considerable willingness among union members to consider supporting McCain, regardless of which Democrat won the nomination.

Republicans have signaled that they have the Reagan Democrats at the top of their target list. Ken Mehlman, a former GOP national chairman who is informally advising McCain, said the campaign's blue-collar outreach would attract Reagan Democrats for the same reason the former president did: McCain is seen as frank, a good leader, strong on defense and opposed to tax increases.

Some analysts say the threat of defections to McCain will be particularly acute if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee. In many of this year's caucuses and primaries, Obama has lost working-class white voters to rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. Holding on to those voters in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania will be one key to the party's efforts in November against McCain, the presumed GOP nominee.

"The Obama campaign has not been very successful in connecting with middle-aged, older, white working-class voters," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster who has done work for the AFL-CIO and is not affiliated with any candidate. "It is very important for them to understand why that is so because those are the kinds of voters who have been swing voters in the last two general elections."

Democratic voters have shown fairly consistent demographic patterns during the primary-season balloting: Clinton's strongest support has come from a coalition of lower-income and older voters, while Obama in most states has been strongest among blacks, upscale voters and the young.

A test of the party's effort to secure blue-collar workers will come April 22 with the Pennsylvania primary. On Tuesday, Obama won the Mississippi contest 61% to Clinton's 37%.

Looking toward the general election, labor strategists were alarmed by polls and focus groups of undecided union members that showed McCain doing well in match-ups with either Democratic candidate, said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO. But those focus groups also found that union members knew very little about McCain's economic positions, including those the labor federation opposes.

The AFL-CIO hopes to change that with a campaign in 23 states to publicize his record through mailings, a new website and protests at McCain events.

Among other parts of McCain's record, the effort will highlight his vote against increasing the minimum wage and his support for free trade bills that the labor federation says cost Americans jobs.

"People know that McCain was a POW and a war hero and for campaign reform," Ackerman said. "What they don't know is that his position is in lockstep with the failed Bush administration on issues of economic security."

Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, said, "Reagan Democrats support low taxes and less regulation, which Sen. McCain's record has consistently supported."

Blue-collar workers are especially important to court because they make up the group most likely to switch party allegiance, Garin said.

Bonior argued that Obama has had trouble winning that constituency -- a problem he shares with past Democratic candidates John F. Kerry, Al Gore and Michael S. Dukakis.

"He has an academic approach to politics that doesn't go well with Reagan Democrats," said Bonior, a former House member whose Michigan district was a bastion of such voters.

In Ohio, exit polls found that Clinton won by double-digit margins among less-educated voters and union members. A key question is whether those voters would switch allegiance in November to Obama if he won the party's nomination or be lured to the McCain camp.

Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said he was confident that the Illinois senator could win support from Clinton backers and that he would attract more independent and GOP voters than Clinton would.

"Clinton voters are good Democrats whose votes we will fight for in a general election," Burton said.

To deliver its message in the coming weeks, the AFL-CIO will send 1 million fliers to members in battleground states, visit 400,000 union households on a single day in May, and launch protests to highlight McCain's record on mortgage foreclosures, healthcare and tax breaks for wealthier Americans.

The effort represents a new flank in the Democrats' critique of McCain, who has been pummeled from the left over his support for the Iraq war. Labor strategists see an opportunity to muster their economic arguments against McCain, which they say will do more to move working-class voters.

"When the discussion is on the economy, we feel confident we can move voters our way," said Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO.

"When it is about Iraq and foreign policy, we are less confident."


Teacher unions said to protect incompetence

The Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., is spending $1 million on television and newspaper ads and a billboard in New York's Times Square and will offer $10,000 to the 10 instructors it deems the nation's worst to quit their profession. The campaign's Web site targets about two dozen unions, including the Tulsa (OK) Classroom Teachers Association.

Sarah Longwell, director of communications for the campaign, said the districts were not listed as a "ranking of the worst districts" -- they were the only ones of more than 100 surveyed to respond to Freedom of Information requests.

The group reported that of 2,136 tenured teachers in the Tulsa district, only two were fired and six more "appear" to have resigned or retired instead of being fired between 2003 and 2006.

"It's easy to believe that the vast majority of public school teachers in Tulsa are doing a good job, but it's a near impossibility that fully 99.9 percent of its tenured teachers deserve to be in front of kids," the Web site states.

Linda Hendrix, an Oklahoma Education Association advocate assigned to the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, questioned the accuracy of the data and the bias of the group behind the campaign.

"We don't hire teachers; we don't evaluate teachers; we don't terminate teachers," she said. "The process for terminating teachers is all set out in school board policies and a very detailed state law that deals with taking any issues with a teacher's performance."

Roger Holder, the compliance officer for Tulsa Public Schools, said that more often than not, bad teachers are allowed to resign rather than being fired.

That is not because of the employment contract negotiated by the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association but because of state due-process laws that make it difficult and costly to fire teachers, he said.

"It's not necessarily a bad process, but it can take as much as 60 days to get a school board hearing, and the teacher is suspended with pay," he said. "Then, the teacher can appeal the termination to district court, and that could take up to four or five months.

"It could cost $20,000 to $30,000 in attorney fees, continuing their salaries during the process, plus paying a substitute teacher," Holder said. "Unless there's a danger to kids, then it becomes an issue of time and money."

Holder said teachers frequently choose to resign or retire when they "see the writing on the wall" in the form of written reprimands and negative evaluations by principals.

He also estimated that 10 percent of the 200 to 300 first-year teachers hired annually by TPS are not offered a permanent contract after their temporary, one-year contract expires.

Hendrix, the OEA's rep for the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, said the Cen ter for Union Facts' Web site included two inaccuracies about state policy in Oklahoma.

It states that teacher strikes are permitted, although they are not, and that Oklahoma is not a right-to-work state, when it is.

Hendrix also said it should be known that Rick Berman, the group's executive director, has made a career of targeting employee unions in various fields and industries.

"I think he personally makes millions of dollars in the process of doing these things," she said. "The national Chamber of Commerce and their affiliates commit about $8 million annually to support this (Center for) Union Facts, so it's big business and corporations that are behind this."

Web site: Center for Union Facts


Strike threat was supposed to help bargaining

Good Shepherd Home (Fostoria, OH) administration and union workers, despite help from a federal mediator, were unable to come to a tentative agreement on a new contract Tuesday afternoon. Officials with the United Food & Commercial Workers union Local 911 met for three hours Tuesday with Good Shepherd Home Executive Director Chris Widman and the board of trustees. A mediator with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service had been called in to assist both sides, but was unable to bring either side closer to where they stood when the union’s contract expired Jan. 15.

President of UFCW Local 911 Jeff Stephens said he was disappointed with the inability to come to an agreement Tuesday.

He said the roughly 135 union members are to vote Friday and the decision whether to commence the strike Saturday.

Stephens said there may be the possibility of a vote not to strike, but he said one never knows for sure until the voting takes place.

“If they rejected it last time, I expect they’ll reject it and then take the action to strike,” Stephens said.

Widman said he and the board of trustees had hoped to come to an agreement Tuesday but will continue meeting with the union and work to maintain resident care until the situation is resolved.

“It’s unfortunate that we’ve not been able to get to a tentative agreement at this time and by not being able to get to an agreement it causes apprehension and discontentment with people on both sides of the aisle,” Widman said.

Widman said the administration at the facility are working to implement their work stoppage intervention plan. He said the plan is implemented to make sure residents continue to receive the care they’ve come to expect from them.

Widman said one of the primary aspects of their plan is to fill in any of the gaps created by the striking employees with workers to take their places in the short term until the situation is resolved.

“We’re trying to identify where the gaps are and then put the proper people in place and continue to provide the proper care,” Widman said.

Widman said he’s not sure when the next meeting with union officials will take place or how many union members may cross the picket line and continue working, but he said he hopes an agreement can be reached quickly.

“I do not have any idea when it will end, but we will continue to reach out to the union and to sit down and work out an agreement,” Widman said.

Stephens said he thought the two sides were very close to an agreement but said Widman and the board of trustees refused to budge from their final offer made in January when the contract expired.

Stephens said the two issues both sides are in disagreement on are wages and insurance. He said the union was asking for a 3 percent wage increase each year of the new contract compared to administration’s offer of 2 percent. He said they also wanted to freeze employee’s insurance rates at their current levels so they can still afford it.

“Two percent to our asking for 3 percent; we don’t think that’s all that out of the ballpark. It’s about 10 cents an hour more and many of them make less than $10 an hour, it’s a little more so they can support their families,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the union is also preparing to file unfair labor practice charges against Good Shepherd Home through the National Labor Relations Board. He said the charges may be filed sometime within the next week to 10 days.

“We believe they may have done some illegal actions related to bargaining. These actions are currently under investigation,” Stephens said.


Newspaper union mocks outsourcing

From the Memphis (TN) Newspaper Guild: The Newspaper Guild leads humorous protest against outsourcing. Work at The Commercial Appeal is being shipped overseas. Today, some advertisements for Memphis-area businesses are being laid out by workers in India. At least one Commercial Appeal worker has already left because he doesn't see the point of continuing under these circumstances.

We have nothing against India or Indians, of course, but we feel it's a slippery slope and we want to keep our jobs here.

A group of Commercial Appeal workers is planning a lighthearted look at the issue -- we'll be having a tongue-in-cheek street theater event in which we urge employees to pack up and move to India to follow jobs that are being sent there.

There will be a lot of color and excitement as the workers in costumes play Indian records, hand out Indian candy, and tell employees all about the virtues of the Asian subcontinent.

Background: The Newspaper Guild is a labor organization that represents Commercial Appeal employees. Commercial Appeal workers covered by collective bargaining agreements have not had a raise in more than five years.

The Commercial Appeal is one of the region's most important media outlets and this event offers you a look at its inner workings.

Where: The Commercial Appeal -- Beale Street entrance
When: From 7:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 12.
What: Humorous street theater protest against outsourcing
Visuals: Workers in costumes will urge their co-workers to move to India.

Sounds like great fun. See you there!


Newshand defends labor union lobbyists

It is beyond dispute that the nation has entered something of a new political period. There are so many strange features that people who were used to the old one seem positively disoriented. Among the most stunning characters in the new order is Barack Obama, whose answer to every criticism is that petty complaints about him are a sign that the old politics are out of step with the new politics, which is what the nation so clearly wants.

It's an argument that seems to be working. This new style of politics, it is said, has no place in it for lobbyists who are seen as little more than slaves to "special interests," a slippery term that is itself susceptible to multiple definitions.

If there is a single theme to the Obama presidential campaign, it is this: Big problems can be solved if traditional political concerns like "who wins and who loses" can be set aside in favor of a bipartisan focus on the common good.

Alluring as that prospect might be, it's unrealistic because national unity of that sort is always short-lived and accompanied by unhappy events. It grossly underestimates the difficulty of resolving any of the major policy disputes facing the country.

The nation needs lobbyists just as it needs the so-called special interests they represent.

There really are no good and bad special interests. They are just, well, "special." They are the teachers union, the trial lawyers, the gay rights lobby and the "open borders" crowd. They are also the ethanol lobby and the drum-beaters for more regulation of greenhouse gases.

These are, of course, some of the groups blessed by the Obama campaign. Clearly not blessed are those groups that favor more domestic drilling of oil or, heaven forbid, the construction of nuclear power plants.

So how is the nation going to solve the "energy crisis" without resorting to the rough and tumble style of politics that is characterized by the clash of "special interests?"

The short answer is that we won't.

In 2005, when Republicans still controlled Congress, a law was passed that bestowed generous tax credits on utility companies willing to file permits for new nuclear power plants. Under the terms of the act, the permits must be filed no later than this year and construction on the plants must begin no later than 2013.

The fruit of this law is about to become evident. It could be that by Dec. 31, as many of 30 permits will be filed for plants that can cost up to $7 billion each.

Nuclear plants now provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity, but no new plant has been permitted in this country in 30 years. The window of opportunity for building new plants is a very narrow one. It is highly unlikely that the 2005 law will be extended by a Democratic Congress, and it is virtually certain that the construction of every proposed plant will now be vigorously opposed.

Similar dramas will be played out on a host of other issues, including health care, immigration, Social Security reform and trade policy.

It is simply childish to pretend that these and other policy conflicts can be approached, let alone resolved, without the clash of interests.

Lobbyists, whether one likes it or not, are needed. The idea that drug policy should be set without giving an audience to the drug companies, or that nuclear policy should be fashioned in an informational vacuum, is frightening.

If there are any special interests more special than others these days, it is surely not the drug or oil companies. It is the ethanol lobby, the global warming interests and, yes, the labor unions.

When one hears these folks maligned as often as "big oil," we will know we have actually entered a new political era.

- Al Knight of Buena Vista (alknight@ mindspring.com) is a former member of The Post's editorial-page staff. His column appears twice a month.


Union fight spotlights ailing industry

Campaigning by two unions vying to represent United Airlines mechanics has become a vitriolic battle pitting a specialized craft union against one representing a larger labor movement. Wrapped up in the fierce competition between the incumbent Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association of Aurora and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, seeking to take over representation of the mechanics, are questions of what a union's mission is, how organized labor should handle outsourcing and how much influence unions have when airlines are struggling.

Voting started Feb. 26 and ends March 31. Meanwhile, the campaigns have become nastier, with some of the lobbying finding its way online via a disputed video on YouTube.

The video, posted by the AMFA, depicts comments made at an informational session by a United mechanic who supports the Teamsters. In the clip, the mechanic is discussing United's outsourcing of maintenance work to Asia. When the topic of where the work was sent comes up, he is shown saying, "They all look the same to me over there."

The video is edited to repeat the phrase multiple times.

Richard Petrovsky, the mechanic in the clip, said he has rescinded the comment and that he was talking about maintenance bases, not people.

"The point that I'm making is that it doesn't matter if it's in Korea or China or El Salvador," he said. "If I offended anybody, I'm absolutely sorry."

Petrovsky said AMFA is using the clip as a campaign tool. Meanwhile, attorneys for both sides have exchanged letters, and the AMFA has refused to remove the video.

"You can't unsay what you said," said Joseph Prisco, president of AMFA Local 9.

The Teamsters, for their part, have criticized AMFA on United's outsourcing and job cuts. AMFA has pointed to protections it negotiated for United mechanics and benefits of its open negotiations process.

AMFA is a craft union that focuses on the interests of mechanics, rather than seeking to represent workers generally.

AMFA is "not part of the house of labor," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "If you're not part of the family, there's an antagonistic relationship."

"There's nothing that's comparable to the airline industry in terms of the pressure, the tension, the animosity," he said.


Teachers unions exposed

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