Missouri to remain a safe labor-state

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Legislation that would prohibit employees from being forced to pay union fees isn’t going anywhere in the Missouri General Assembly. Several individuals with divergent points of view on the issue expect the bill to find little support in the legislature.

Under current law, someone who takes a job at a labor-represented company must pay the union for representation - even if the worker decides not to join the union. Under proposed legislation that has come up in the legislature through the years, unions no longer could require nonmembers to pay fees as a condition of employment.

The push for this measure - which is called "Right to Work" by proponents and "Open Shop" by opponents - came up for a statewide vote in 1978 and was defeated by a substantial margin. Bills regularly have been introduced but have failed to gain noticeable traction.

Proponents of the measure argue that rescinding such regulations would prompt Japanese car manufacturers to flock to the state. They also say that enacting the regulation puts the state on a better playing field with surrounding states - such as Oklahoma.

Opponents see such bills as a way to weaken unions’ financial bottom line. They also question whether "Right to Work" or "Open Shop" states see an economic boon.

Rep. Steve Hunter, R-Joplin, has introduced the legislation the past few sessions. The four-term lawmaker said he didn’t have a hearing on the bill because he thought his fellow lawmakers had no desire to push the measure through.

"We don’t have the will of either body to do anything," Hunter said. "I think we’re going to have to go to ground zero and melt down before they realize we need to do it."

Hunter said he would define "ground zero" as the state experiencing tremendous financial challenges. He noted that Michigan - a state with a sizable union population - is considering enacting the regulation in the midst of a severe economic downturn. "What forced the issue was for it to get bad enough economically that the states had to do something," he said.

Herb Johnson, the secretary-treasurer for the Missouri branch of the AFL-CIO, said "Right to Work" has little support in the legislature. "There’s just no support for it. There’s no support for it even in the Republican side of the General Assembly," he said.

Johnson said that because Hunter’s bill only has the support of roughly 30 or 40 lawmakers, he doesn’t expect anything to shift. He described Rep. Ron Richard, R-Joplin - who is slated to become speaker if the GOP maintains control - as a "sensible" individual who wouldn’t push for a fruitless cause that sparks animosity.

"It’s kind of a new beginning in politics for us in Missouri because of term limits," Johnson said. "If there’s anything good about term limits, it forced us to work with the Republican Party and Democratic Party. … We do work with numerous people in the Republican Party. A whole lot of them support of our core issues."

Hunter said that he agreed there would have to be a unified front among Republicans for the bill to stand a chance.

"Right now, our economy’s healthy enough that a lot of them don’t see the need," Hunter said.

"They don’t see down the road the benefits that it could bring to the state. And a lot of them quite frankly don’t have the guts to do anything unless they’re forced to."


Who dares to openly defy organized labor?

The group behind getting a "right-to-work" initiative on the November ballot filed a campaign finance report late Thursday night that provides little information on who provided money for a signature-gathering effort.

The Colorado Right-to-Work Committee said it received roughly $288,000 in cash contributions, most of which came from an apparent nonprofit group that can accept campaign money without disclosing where it came from.

The entity, identified as Protect Colorado Jobs, likely registered as a 501(c)4 organization. Gifts to such groups are not tax-deductible, a distinction that allows for lobbying and political campaigning.

"It's federally regulated by the IRS, and they (groups) are able to move within and around campaign finance laws," said Rich Coolidge, spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman. "Certainly, the secretary is committed to and supports transparency in elections." But, "as long as they're falling within the laws . . . state enforcement agencies' hands are tied," Coolidge said.

John Berry, the attorney who handled the filing for the Colorado Right-to-Work Committee, could not be reached at his office Friday to comment on who provided money to Protect Colorado Jobs.


Labor-state unions fire-up, defy Governor

After snarling Friday rush hour traffic in downtown Providence with a “Unity March” from the Westin Hotel to the Statehouse, a coalition of labor and community groups held a rally in support of state workers, immigrants and union labor. As the procession moved past the Providence Place Mall and up the sprawling Statehouse lawn, the marchers, some carrying picket signs, other carrying umbrellas against the cold drizzle, chanted, “We’re fired up, and we can’t take it no more.”

The march and rally were intended as a show of strength by various unions at a time when state employees are being targeted for cuts and asked for givebacks in their benefits, while state officials struggle to plug holes in the state budget this year and next that are gushing red ink.

“You can not have a democracy without a fighting, independent, viable trade union movement,” said AFL-CIO secretary/treasurer George Nee, warming up the crowd of several hundred, many of whom were visitors in Providence for the Jobs with Justice national conference, which is being held this weekend at the Westin.

“We are here to give a clear message to politicians at the national, state and local level, that we will not tolerate being divided and we will not tolerate all the cheap shots being taken,” Nee said. “We are not going to let workers be divided by public sector or private sector, by gender, by sexual orientation, by ethnic group. We are all workers and we work for a living and we make this country great.”

Sarita Gupta, executive director of the national Jobs with Justice organization, described Rhode Island as “a small state that has a huge fight ahead of it. Rhode Island is a part of a national movement that knows the value of unity over division.”

Saying the group seeks access to “basic needs,” such as health care, education and housing, Gupta declared, “We’re not demanding something outrageous here. We are not the greedy ones. We are demanding basic human rights.”

Many of the group’s messages were directed toward the state’s governor, who has become both the bogeyman and the whipping boy for labor interests, particularly those of state workers.

To bring state spending under control, Gov. Donald Carcieri has endeavored to slash state employee jobs, health care, retiree health care and pensions.

“We’re here to tell Gov. Carcieri it’s time to support workers … it’s time to show some respect for workers,” said Paul Booth, national organizing director for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

“This governor of yours … is proposing to push more people out of the middle class. He wants to eliminate jobs, laying off state workers. He wants to force state workers to take a cut in their benefits. He’s privatizing jobs, shipping them out to his friends in the private sector.

“We defy him,” Booth declared to the cheers and whoops of the crowd.

The rally prompted a heavy law enforcement presence, with numerous State Police supplementing Capitol Police in keeping an eye on the protest. Police wearing bright orange raincoats lined up on the Statehouse steps just behind the stage where the speaking program took place. There was a large gray Sheriff’s Department school bus, the kind used for transporting prisoners, standing by in a nearby parking lot.

“We need politicians with some guts,” Booth said. “The guts to go to people in the top income brackets, who benefit from the flat tax that is costing the state millions in revenue, and are not afraid to make them pay their fair share. And if the (politicians) we have won’t do that, we’ll get us some new ones. We have what it takes to tell Carcieri and all the others that we won’t give in and we won’t give up.”

Roxanne Rivera of SEIU Local 615 said that when Carcieri issued his recent executive order clamping down on illegal immigration in the state, “he did attack immigrant workers. We need to stop putting the blame for the economic problems in the state on the working people of this state. The American dream must include everyone.”

Calling the notion that labor unions are anti-immigrant “pure bull----,” Scott Duhamel of the State Building Trades Council said, “We were built on the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants.”

National Education Association executive director Robert Walsh attacked the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce for wanting to take money out of workers’ pockets “so the richest people in this state can keep their tax breaks in tough economic times.
“How many workers have to take a furlough day so the top corporate CEOs can keep their yachts gassed up? It makes no sense.”

Calls to the governor’s office seeking comment were not returned late Friday afternoon.


Vindictive writers blackball fi-core members

Although the writers strike has been over for almost three months, the Writers Guild of America continues to wage war with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Now, an April 18 letter to WGA members from WGA West president Patric Verrone and WGA East president Michael Winship has rankled not only producers but many union writers and actors as well. In their letter, the WGA presidents revealed the names of 28 writers who opted for financial-core status during the 100-day strike.

Workers with fi-core status -- also known as fee-paying nonmembers -- can work union and nonunion jobs while remaining eligible for benefits, including health insurance and pension, by giving up their full union membership but continuing to pay the base annual dues, withholding the portion of dues that goes toward such activities as political campaigns and contract negotiations. The WGA collects dues quarterly: Members pay the guild 1.5 percent of their gross quarterly earnings plus $25. There is no minimum payment. Those who go fi-core cannot vote in union elections or hold office.

Other than John Ridley (Barbershop, Third Watch), who announced in early January he'd opted for financial core status in response to differences with the guild over the strike, the fi-core writers listed in the letter are employed on soap operas, some of whom -- such as Paula Cwikly (The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives), Hogan Sheffer (Days of Our Lives), and John F. Smith (The Bold and the Beautiful) -- have won Daytime Emmy and WGA awards. George Clooney announced in early April that he had filed for fi-core status in fall 2007 after losing a dispute over co-writing credit for Leatherheads. Clooney was not on the WGA list, which only included scribes who withdrew during the strike.

Not only did the union name names, but the presidents included in their letter harsh words for those who resigned during such a critical juncture for the union. They called the writers "a puny few who...consciously and selfishly decided to place their own narrow interests over the greater good. This handful of members...must be held at arm's length by the rest of us and judged accountable for what they are -- strikebreakers whose actions placed everything for which we fought so hard at risk."

The AMPTP entered the fray April 22 as the fi-core writers' defender, contending the WGA's action amounted to "blacklisting." The producers organization filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the WGAW and WGAE, claiming the guild subjected the writers to "scorn and opprobrium by openly publicizing their names and referring to them as 'strikebreakers' and the 'puny few.' "

The AMPTP's complaints continued, "The WGA directed WGA members, including showrunners and others who have the power to hire, fire, discipline, and adjust grievances, to boycott the blacklisted writers by holding them 'accountable' and by keeping them 'at arm's length.' "

The next day, the WGAW called the charges "legally baseless" and said they "represent an intrusion by the studios into an internal union matter." The writers union said in a statement, "By taking financial core status, a writer has chosen to resign his union membership and leave a community of writers. It is not a private act, because it directly affects the livelihood of all guild members, especially during a strike. Accordingly, the guild leadership believes that it was appropriate to inform all members of the actions of these former members. Contrary to the studios' claim, the guild has not encouraged anyone to refuse to hire a resigned former member." The WGA and AMPTP declined to comment further.

An employee of the NLRB, who spoke with Back Stage on condition of anonymity, said his organization does not have any hard and fast rules about unions releasing the names of fi-core workers, and the law regarding the issue is gray. He noted it is common for a union to release the names of "scabs" after a strike, but it would be illegal if a union made threats or incited violence or retribution against nonmembers. "For example, posting a list in the union hall or publishing a list in a union newsletter of nonmembers...would generally be lawful," the NLRB employee told Back Stage via email. "Posting or publishing a list of nonmembers along with their addresses, phone numbers, and names of family members with a caption, 'Here are the scabs; we know where they live and who their family members are,' might be found to be violative as there is an underlying message that something could happen to the nonmember and/or his/her family."

While the WGA presidents didn't go that far, the NLRB employee said threatening to prevent nonmembers from obtaining work would also be illegal. He said the NLRB will conduct an investigation during which the AMPTP and WGA will be given an opportunity to provide evidence and witnesses. A source close to the fi-core writers listed said they are considering filing a class-action lawsuit against the WGA.

Daytime Dilemma

"Fi-core was set up to let people have freedom of choice," said manager Brad Kramer, who represents two of the writers listed in the WGA letter: former Days of Our Lives head writer Hogan Sheffer and former co-head writer Meg Kelly.

Kramer was outraged that Verrone and Windship castigated his clients without considering the financial difficulties daytime writers face. The WGA presidents addressed this in their letter, stating, "Even in cases of deep financial distress, there were other options, including generous no-interest loans from our strike funds, which would have sustained them until the end of the strike and beyond. That's what unions are for."

But Kramer said his clients were not made aware of such loans, and he questioned how writers such as Kelly, the head of a one-income family, could have paid back a loan after she lost her job due to the strike. "Meg would have lost her house had she not gone fi-core, and [she] couldn't take care of her kids," said Kramer. "Period. It's very easy for [Verrone and Winship] to say she could have sacrificed.... If she takes a loan, how does she pay it back without a job?"

Kramer said Sheffer, who also faced financial difficulty, continued writing for Days during the strike in hopes of saving the other staff writers' jobs. "The show's ratings were in trouble, and he was told there were no writers to write," said Kramer. "So he went back to try to save the writers on the team and help the show. That's half the reason the other writers went back too." Unfortunately, five of Kramer's seven clients who write for Days, including Sheffer and Kelly, lost their jobs due to the strike, though Kramer declined to specify the reasons.

The manager pointed out that daytime writers are in a more tenuous position than other WGA members: Their jobs are usually temporary, and the daytime genre is slowly dying out, due to low ratings and the growing popularity of reality shows. "They're the people who are in the worst position of any of the writers, because daytime is going away," he said. "I would hope that the leader of the pack would understand that these people are trying to pay their bills and make the money to survive for the rest of their lives."

Kramer said it's too early to tell whether the WGA's letter will adversely affect Sheffer's or Kelly's careers. "When people talk badly about others, unfortunately, sometimes other people listen," he said.

A New Blacklist?

On blogs and online message boards, screenwriters immediately reacted to the WGA presidents' letter. Many who were outraged at the action echoed the AMPTP's comparison between naming fi-core members and the House Un-American Activities Committee's Hollywood blacklists of the late 1940s and early '50s.

"The word blacklisting keeps cropping up," Craig Mazin, writer of Superhero Movie and Scary Movie 3 and 4, wrote on his blog, the Artful Writer. "The public exposure, the thinly veiled exhortation to not hire these people, the list of names, and the accusation of disloyalty and treachery...is born of the same human frailties that led to the blacklists of the '50s."

Although going fi-core is a federal right, the practice has been a contentious issue among Screen Actors Guild members for years. In June 2007 the guild's national board approved new rules that effectively made an actor's decision to consciously leave the union a permanent choice. SAG had no comment when asked if it would make the names of its fi-core actors public.

Actor Tom Ligon, a former member of SAG's New York board, wrote on Showfax.com's message board, "I do not support union members going financial core. However, I had family members and friends who were blacklisted in the '50s, and nothing justifies an action that even hints at a whiff of that. The [WGA] could have just as well listed their names without comment or suggestion."

However, some SAG actors supported naming fi-core workers. On Showfax.com, SAG member Brad Blaisdell wrote that fi-core writers "absolutely should be branded." He continued, "Everyone should know who they are, and the unions should do everything possible to make their name and their actions public. They are a scourge to the union and its members."

"I would never turn in a neighbor for political activities -- even unpopular ones," wrote a poster who asked to be identified as "a working/vested SAG member." "But if my neighbor was an actor who scabbed and worked off the card? I'd turn them in in a heartbeat."

The WGA presidents' letter, including the list of the 28 fi-core writers, is available at www.wga.org. For more information on SAG's fi-core policies, visit www.sag.org.


Denver Post provides pro-union influence

A group called the Colorado Right-to-Work Committee spent $307,000 to collect signatures for the right-to-work ballot measure, according to records filed with the secretary of state. The expenses included $22,000 in mailing and printing costs that were contributed in-kind by Denver-based consulting firm Politically Direct, which headed the signature-collection process.

The group has raised $289,000 in cash donations since November from an organization called Protect Colorado Jobs. The Post reported previously that the backers of that organization include HealthOne, American Furniture Warehouse and other corporate donors.

Another group called A Better Colorado will finance the measure's public outreach and has raised $200,250 — with $200,000 coming from Golden-based CoorsTek. That group has spent $186,000.

The right-to-work measure would ask statewide voters to amend the Colorado Constitution to say that workers can't be mandated to join a union and pay dues or fees. The initiative's signatures have been certified by the secretary of state's office and the measure will show up on November's ballot as Amendment 47.

A labor-backed group that will challenge the measure and push two competing initiatives has raised $1.58 million.


Workers idled by ILWU anti-war protest

The handling of cargo at seaports from Southern California to Alaska ground to a halt Thursday as several thousand longshoremen skipped work to protest the war in Iraq. At the nation's busiest seaport in Long Beach and Los Angeles, normally bustling marine terminals were transformed into ghost towns by midday as container ships and tankers sat dockside waiting to be unloaded.

Similar circumstances were reported across the West Coast, though port authorities weren't anticipating any long-term effects as dockworkers were back on the job by evening.

"In most cases, (shippers) have known this was going to happen for a while and they were able to plan," said Port of Long Beach Spokesman Art Wong.

"The worst part of it seems to be for the truckers. They came down here this morning not knowing what to expect and now most of them are just sitting around waiting."

Indeed, truck drivers did show up to collect and deliver containers shortly after the 8 a.m. day shift began, but were turned back when terminal operators advised them of the labor shortage.

"I was trying to pick up a load this morning, and I was at the speaker and suddenly security came out and run us all out," trucker James Laudermill, 48, of Wilmington, told The Associated Press. "We've got work, but everything is on hold until tonight. That's a whole day of no work."

On a typical Thursday day shift, which stretches from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., about 6,000 dockworkers handle the loading, unloading and processing of roughly 10,000 containers at 29 West Coast ports, said Steve Getzug of the Pacific Maritime Association, an organization representing marine terminal operators.

Defiance of order

The day shift was the only work shift affected by labor no-shows Thursday.

The May Day job action came in defiance of an April 30 order by a federal labor arbitrator ordering longshore labor leaders to tell their members to report to work.

Employers had been anticipating a possible labor disruption since the International Longshore and Warehouse Union voted in February to take the day off in protest of the war.

"Longshore workers are standing down on the job and standing up for America," said Bob McEllrath, ILWU president, in a statement. "We're supporting our troops and telling politicians in Washington that it's time to end the war in Iraq."

In Long Beach and Los Angeles, America's trade gateway to Asia, operations at most shipping hubs were at a standstill most of the day, though some light activity was reported.

Rich McKenna of the Southern California Marine Exchange said 18 ships were scheduled to arrive Thursday in both ports, including seven container ships, which typically require the most labor to unload. A dozen or so other ships were already berthed, McKenna said.

Little impact

The economic impact of Thursday's missed shift is expected to be negligible.

"The impact is very modest because No. 1, a lot of shippers were anticipating this and had planned in advance, and No. 2, import activity at the ports was already running well below levels seen in previous years because of the (economy)," said Jack Kyser, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. "It's an annoyance and some people are going to lose some money, but it's not a devastating situation."

Thursday's action came despite a last-minute appeal by employers - backed by a labor arbitrator - that sought to compel longshoremen to report for work.

"We are severely disappointed that the union leadership failed to keep its end of the bargain," Getzug said.

At the ILWU Local 13 dispatch hall in Wilmington, the union's largest, work was offered to longshore workers Thursday morning and afternoon, but few showed up to accept.

Typically, workers are assigned to a marine terminal prior to their shift.

"We had a regular dispatch and the work was there for those who wanted it," said Ray Benavente, a longshoreman and vice President of ILWU Local 13, which represents some 20,000 members in Southern California.

"We're getting reports that the people who did take jobs were turned back once they got to the terminal because there weren't enough bodies to get the job done. As for the participation in the (protest), I can't say for sure."

The ILWU, which represents more than 40,000 dockworkers at 29 U.S. West Coast ports, is currently negotiating a new labor contract with the PMA.

The current pact expires July 1.

Employers said Thursday's protest does little to bring the sides closer to an agreement.

"Shutting down the ports in defiance of the contract and the arbitrator's order in no way benefits an already-fragile U.S. economy," Getzug said.

"We have a lot of serious issues to resolve at the bargaining table, and the nation cannot afford uncertainty about the reliability of the West Coast ports."

Dockworkers also failed to show up at ports in Oakland, San Francisco, Tacoma, Seattle, Portland, Port Hueneme and elsewhere. In the Bay Area, longshoremen participated in anti-war and worker-rights rallies, though no such actions were reported in the Los Angeles area, where immigration reform was the theme for protests downtown.

Decision debated

Longshoremen voted in early February to hold a "stop-work" meeting during the May 1 day shift to protest U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

The decision came after a lively internal debate among ILWU members, who were ultimately swayed by a group of longshoremen from Oakland and San Francisco, many of whom are Vietnam veterans, sources said.

"Stop-work" meetings are routinely granted by the employer through a provision in the union's labor contract, though such gatherings are usually reserved for the less-busy night shift.

After management got word of the protest, they denied the union's request, and the ILWU indicated in an April 8 letter that it would tell the rank-and-file to report for work on the day shift.

But as the date drew closer, union members hinted that the protest would proceed as planned.

In late April, labor arbitrator John Kagel was brought in to help settle the dispute and sided with employers. On Wednesday, he ordered the union to inform its members to report to work as normal.

The directive, however, was apparently ignored by the union's rank and file as marine terminals up and down the coast reported skeleton work forces throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Despite the potential backlash, union leaders stood by their members, saying the goal was to generate something "newsworthy" to promote their end-the-war message.

"We're loyal to America, and we won't stand by while our country, our troops, and our economy are destroyed by a war that's bankrupting us to the tune of $3 trillion," McEllrath said Thursday. "It's time to stand up, and we're doing our part today."

It was unclear if the PMA will attempt to punish the union for Thursday's action.

Meanwhile, support for the ILWU was pouring in from across the globe, including in Iraq, where workers shut down oil and shipping hubs for one hour at the country's southern seaports.

"The courageous decision you made to carry out a strike (today) to protest the war and occupation of Iraq advances our struggle against occupation (and) to bring a better future for us and for the rest of the world as well," according to an e-mailed statement by the General Union of Port Workers in Iraq.


Are AFSCME jobs overpriced in San Diego?

Waste collection, street sweeping and road maintenance are among 11 municipal services San Diego will consider outsourcing to private businesses in an effort to save money, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced Friday. Privatizing the 11 services would cut 291 municipal jobs and save the city $63.1 million in expenses, according to city officials.

But union officials representing city employees questioned the timing of the announcement, which came as contract negotiations between the mayor's office and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 127 have stalled.

The mayor identified 11 services currently provided by the departments of Environmental Services and General Services that could potentially be outsourced -- solid waste collection, greenery compost facility operations, container delivery services, dead animal pickup, street sweeping, pavement markings and signs, and the maintenance of storm drains, traffic signals, streetlights, streets and sidewalks.

"I have chosen to move forward with these services because they have great potential for offering the city a better overall value if delivered through a competitive procurement effort," Sanders said.

The city's managed competition program was authorized by 60 percent of voters in November 2006 with the passage of Proposition C.

Managed competition permits private companies to bid on contracts to provide some city services. If a private business offers to provide the service for less money than the city, the service can be outsourced.

Most of the jobs that would be outsourced are held by blue collar workers represented by AFSCME, whose officers questioned the process.

"We are ready and willing to compete," AFSCME Local 127 President Joan Raymond said following the mayor's announcement. "We are not afraid of competition as long as the process is fair."

She was joined by about a dozen members of AFSCME Local 127 who attended Sanders' news conference at City Hall.

Damian Tryon, a union representative, said private businesses can provide public services for less money if they don't pay their employees a "living wage," like the city is required to do.

Tryon alleged that some private companies ignore the city's minimum wage laws and threaten their employees with termination if they complain.

"That's an unfair advantage to tell someone you do not have the right or the ability to get the wage that is due to you because if you do we will put you out of work," Tryon said.

AFSCME Local 127, which represents about 1,900 city workers, is in labor negotiations with the Mayor's Office over a new contract.

Raymond said the talks have broken down and that the mayor's negotiating team canceled meetings over the past two days.

"It's hard to negotiate when the other side doesn't show up," she said.

Before any city jobs can be outsourced, an independent board must review the service and make a recommendation to the City Council, which can either accept or reject the proposal.

Contracts awarded to private companies would be limited to five years.

City Attorney Michael Aguirre said cautioned that outsourcing city services could create problems.

"I think the contracting-out process is something that potentially is going to be very disruptive to the city," he said.

Sanders denied that privatization was a way to circumvent a decades-old city law called the People's Ordinance that ensures residents do not have to pay a fee for trash collection.

"We still have to pay for the trash collection," Sanders said. "Whether it is city employees or whether it is somebody else that is picking it up, that is something the People's Ordinance demands, so we feel comfortable we are not trying to bypass that at all."


'The employer is the target and not our ally.'

I am not surprised Dave Regan doesn't remember our argument. I am sure he hears my concerns all the time, but the conversation stuck with me because I was not used to hearing those kinds of arguments from people in the social justice movements I'd been working in.

But I am surprised that he feels entitled to say who is and who isn't welcomed at meetings of trade unionists. Many of his union brothers and sisters might have said the same of Regan and his local, 1199, after they engineered a dirty campaign in Cleveland in 2003. Cuyahoga County human services agencies had refused to give 1199 a neutrality agreement.

In retaliation, the union campaigned hard against a levy designed to raise money for services such as foster care and meals for senior citizens. As I learned while doing research for the AFL-CIO, the issue was highly divisive in the local labor movement. If the levy hadn't passed, public sector workers -- including union members -- would have lost their jobs. Some might argue that what 1199 did in Cleveland was a serious attack on workers -- would they then be justified in using physical force to keep Dave Regan from speaking at any labor event in the future?

I am also surprised that Regan believes that because Labor Notes was going to have Rose Ann DeMoro speak at their conference, it was ok for fired-up protesters to try to force their way into an extremely crowded room where the vast majority of people had nothing to do with the CNA-SEIU. But when SEIU president Andy Stern shared a stage with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in 2007, I don't recall any unions looking to crash that event, despite the fact that many union members, including some SEIU members and staff, were appalled at Stern's action. Stern was on the stage with Wal-Mart because he decided that SEIU was going to partner with the notorious union buster on healthcare, a position he announced at the last minute to his colleagues in Change To Win. One of those unions, UFCW, had been campaigning against Wal-Mart for years.

Is DeMoro a greater threat to the labor movement than Lee Scott? The contrast between the two is even more stark when you realize that DeMoro was invited to speak at Labor Notes last November, not for what happened in Ohio, but for the work her union has done to promote single-payer health care in California and to defeat the horrendously anti-union ballot initiatives Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to pass in 2005.

Other unions may give SEIU and Stern a pass on these kinds of cozy arrangements with corporate executives -- partly because of their organizing record and partly because of the tradition of not criticizing other unions publicly. I believe, along with Dave Regan, that it's a good thing to publicly disagree about strategies and tactics that we think will harm workers. We just disagree about the methods.

I watched Susan Horne speak, and heard others from Ohio speak as well. I know they are angry. I know SEIU staff are angry too. But the labor movement has a long tradition of protest, and I believe there were many other options for expressing that anger other than shouting people down and using physical force to get into a banquet hall. SEIU could have called the conference organizers and ask them to cancel DeMoro's invitation. They ould have called for a debate between Regan and DeMoro about what happened in Ohio. They could have tried to educate the 1,000 union members and unorganized workers in attendance, most of whom had no idea of the issues at hand. They could have maintained a lively picket line in front of the conference, or leafleted those coming in the hotel. Some SEIU members chose to protest by not attending the banquet. All of these seem appropriate avenues for expressing outrage. SEIU staff bullying conference attendees does not.

Dave Regan's comments seem to suggest that the Labor Notes workshop was for academics to debate "their issues." Clearly he's never been to Labor Notes, or he would know what the conference is, and who it's for. This is not an academic conference, but an activist one. Rank and file workers from just about every union in the US -- as well as union activists from 20 other countries -- come together to learn skills and debate strategies. Although some labor allies, such as labor educators, attend, the vast majority of participants are union or workers center members or staffers, most of whom come on their own dime. Labor Notes is a rare space in our movement where workers can talk to people in other industries and occupations, learn from one another's struggles, and celebrate a few of our victories.

It is a scary world when we choose to reduce the idea of democracy to an "issue," as if it is something we need therapy to deal with. I've heard the argument more than once that democracy is a luxury we don't have time for, but I don't buy it. This argument assumes that unions actually function better without democracy, when all decisions are made by "smart" people at the top. The last 50 years have shown countless instances where unaccountable leaders -- who treat members as an afterthought -- made bad decisions. These decisions -- and the undemocratic ways they were made -- helped us get us into labor's current woeful state.

Democracy broadly defined is not about every worker going to endless meetings, or voting on every decision the union makes. It's a deeper concept that gets to the heart of what is wrong with our current economy: ordinary people have little say over their work and their lives. Having a union is an important step towards gaining some control, but only when the union is in the members' hands -- when it is really their organization.

Democracy is also the mechanism by which workers can debate out their different priorities and interests -- so that everything from their contracts to their union's political activities reflect those priorities. Those that don't have strong preferences don't have to participate, but those who do care should be able to do so. I am a union member, teach labor studies and train students who work for unions. I'm fully committed to the need for workers to have a union. But it matters what kind. I'm not interested in substituting one set of undemocratic practices (from our bosses) for another (from labor's self-appointed leaders).

But this argument is not about Dave Regan, and it is not about me. As Dave put it in his post, its about which side are you on? Today the distribution of wealth is more unequal than its been any time since the Great Depression. Every day, employers are changing the rules of the game in their favor. But there are cracks in the corporate order. Hundreds of thousands of workers are marching in Mexico City against oil privatization; millions have engaged in workplace actions in China against factory owners producing for multinational corporations. We can't let ourselves get distracted and forget who the real enemy is. This is the time to remember that the employer is the target and not our ally.

I don't pretend that the democracy is easy, or that we even know what it looks like. We have lots to learn from people in places like Brazil, India, and Argentina, who are experimenting with new forms of organization that give working people more voice in their workplace and their community. They are working from the ground up, building it the hard way but in a way that is more likely to lead to enduring, real change. They are not taking shortcuts -- why should we?

I didn't write what I wrote to choose sides between the CNA and SEIU. I believe the fight going on between the unions is destructive to all of us who fight for worker's rights. But disagreements and debates will always be there, even if every worker in the country is in a union. We need to be able to disagree with one another in a respectful and productive way that doesn't tear each other apart, or rely on bullying or brute force to settle things. Once we lose the ability to do that, we've lost the fight.

- Stephanie Luce teaches at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.


Connecticut: Ethics sacrificed at union altar

Public-employee labor unions tend to protect lazy and incompetent workers, though not without reason. Absent such protections, it would be easy for a mayor to fire a good employee for a minor slip-up and replace him with some politico's ne'er-do-well son-in-law. Everyone tolerates this state of affairs, viewing it as an acceptable tradeoff. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and the House crossed it this week.

Lawmakers have been wrestling with ethics legislation ever since a series of shocking scandals culminating in the 2004 resignation of former Gov. John G. Rowland wracked Connecticut state government. The debate during the current legislative session centered on whether to empower judges to revoke pensions for miscreant officials and employees in state and municipal government. Some foolishly pushed for manifestly unconstitutional retroactive revocations, apparently because they saw this measure as an opportunity to "get Rowland." The Senate finally gathered its wits and settled for a bill applying the revocation authority to future cases.

Then the House threw a union-labeled monkey wrench into the works, voting to exclude unionized lawbreakers from the pension-revocation sanction. Only elected and appointed officials, comprising a minuscule percentage of the payroll, would be subject to this penalty.

The House version is unfair and may be unconstitutional because it imposes radically different punishments for the same offense, depending on the status of the government employee who commits it. It also fails to discourage theft, bribe-taking and other crimes by union workers, and fails to protect the public from the likes of former New Haven police officer William White, who will pull down a pension of $94,000 per year after he completes his 38-month federal prison sentence for corruption.

Much of what legislative Democrats do is aimed at serving their patrons in the public-employee unions in exchange for money and manpower at re-election time, but rarely is this kinship so obvious. Clearly, the Senate should stand firm, even if it means letting the ethics bill die this session. And constituents should ponder the question of whether the union system is any less incestuous than the old regime of political hacks and their relatives that it was intended to supplant.


SEIU readies Puerto Rico raid

Related story: "SEIU ready to solve Puerto Rico decert snafu"
Related story: "SEIU official eyes dues bonanza in Puerto Rico"

Labor leader Dennis Rivera will be the grand marshal of this year's National Puerto Rican Day Parade, to be held on Sunday, June 8 in New York City. It's the first time the 51-year-old parade will honor a labor leader, said the parade's chairwoman, Madelyn Lugo. "It was about time," she said. "He's been working for a long time in the labor movement, to which we Puerto Ricans have participated a lot." The Puerto Rican parade is one of the city's most massive and colorful events, attracting over 2 million people every year to Fifth Ave.

Rivera, the longtime head of Local 1199 SEIU, New York's largest health care union, is vice president of the international union, which has 1.6 million members nationwide.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-Brooklyn), the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, received the parade's Life Time Achievement Award.


Striking UAW preps surrender to American Axle

For related American Axle stories, click: here.
For UAW stories, click: here.

The United Auto Workers union is close to reaching an agreement with American Axle & Manufacturing that will accept company demands on every major issue, including cutting wages and closing at least two plants. More than 3,600 workers have been on strike at AAM for ten weeks.

Details of the agreement have been reported on blogs run by American Axle workers and in the media. The Detroit Free Press reported on Thursday that a framework for a settlement was near, and would include the closure of two plants, substantially lower pay for all workers, and the breaking up of the national agreement into separate plant-by-plant contracts. The newspaper cited “people briefed on the talks” as the source for its information. Talks are expected to continue throughout the weekend.

According to the Free Press, wages would be cut to $17 an hour for production workers, $14 for non-production workers, and $25.50 for skilled trades workers.

Before the strike, American Axle workers earned $28.15 an hour, with skilled trades at more than $30 an hour. The terms outlined above would mean a pay cut of between $11 and $14 an hour (or upwards of $25,000 a year) for most workers.

Prior to the strike, the UAW had agreed to substantial wage cuts that would have given workers a few dollars an hour more than what they would receive under the framework reported by the Free Press.

Two forging plants would be closed—at Tonawanda, New York, and in Detroit, Michigan. A third plant in Three Rivers, Michigan could also be closed.

Shutting down the Detroit forge plant would mean the loss of hundreds more jobs in a city that has been devastated by the decline of the US auto industry and the outsourcing of labor to cheaper locations in the US and internationally.

The closure of the Tonawnada plant would likely mean the end of American Axle’s operations in the Buffalo, New York area, further devastating a region that, like Detroit, has been hit by the destruction of its manufacturing base. Tonawanda employs about 400 workers, and a companion finishing plant, whose future existence is also questionable, employs about 110. Last year, American Axle idled a plant in Buffalo that once employed over 2,000 workers.

According to reports on blogs run by American Axle workers, the company was prepared to keep the forge plants open if the workers accepted $10-$14 an hour wages for production workers. If the forges are shut, the work there will be replaced by low-wage plants in the US and Mexico.

The closure of these plants will leave only two remaining—the manufacturing facilities in Detroit and Three Rivers, provided that the latter remains open. Extremely significant is the proposal to break up the remaining plants into separate contracts. This framework, which has been adopted by the UAW at other auto parts suppliers, would serve to pit the different plants against each other in a competition for lower wages and benefits, under the threat of closure.

AAM is reportedly threatening to close Three Rivers in one year if the concessions are not high enough. The company is insisting on a clause that would allow it to shut the plant down if the company’s financial situation worsens.

Over the past 25 years, the UAW has worked to impose concessions by blocking any mobilization of workers across the auto industry. Separate contracts are negotiated at separate companies, and concessions at one become the foundation for demanding concessions at another. This model is now being extended within each company itself, as a means of breaking up any solidarity among the rank-and-file.

In an attempt to push through the concessions, American Axle and the UAW are reportedly discussing a $140,000 buyout and $90,000 buy-down package. Workers who accept the buyout package have little opportunity for gaining decent-paying employment elsewhere, and also face the loss of health benefits.

Wall Street responded positively to the Free Press story, interpreting the news as a sign that major concessions could be won from the workers, thereby boosting investor profits. Lehman Brothers auto analyst Brian Johnson wrote in a note, “We believe that the implication from the emerging details of the agreement being worked out between AXL [American Axle] and the UAW is bullish for AXL.”

On Friday, workers on the picket line in Detroit reacted with anger to the contract terms reportedly being discussed. Scott, a worker with 14 years’ seniority, said, “They want to buy us down to Third World wages. With the rising cost of gas and groceries, it is going to have a devastating effect. There are people out here who will not be able to live off $17 an hour, people who have homes and car payments to make.”

About the role of the UAW, Scott remarked, “The policy is — win for the company lose for the blue collar.”

Dwayne responded by saying, “To me it seems like American Axel preferred a strike. They knew they could get the work from the plant in Mexico and they are saying you can stay on strike for as long as you want. I believe AAM and General Motors had this worked out. They decided they were going to wear us down to get what they wanted.”

One worker told the WSWS, “This betrayal is the fault of the international union. When they cancelled the rally last Friday we knew they were selling us out. We knew from this act alone that the bottom was falling out. We are not as dumb as they think.”

Another worker said, “They say they are for us, but they aren’t and we know it. How can you have unity in the union when workers are paid two different wages for the same job?”

Plans for a sellout underscore the fact that there is no way for workers to oppose the demands of American Axle so long as the strike remains under the control of the UAW bureaucracy. While workers face an enemy in the form of American Axle’s corporate management and CEO Richard Dauch, they face a no less bitter foe in the UAW.

It is critical that strikers elect rank-and-file committees to take the strike out of the hands of the UAW bureaucracy. These committees should make a direct appeal to workers throughout the auto industry—in the United States and internationally—to wage a common struggle against the concessions imposed by the corporations. The committees should organize opposition to any proposed concessions contract and prepare to mobilize a “no” vote.

The issues facing American Axle workers are of a piece with those faced by workers throughout the country and internationally. Fundamentally, auto workers confront the consequences of the failure of capitalism, a social system defended by the unions and both big business parties. A new political movement of the working class is necessary, and the SEP urges American Axle and other auto workers to attend our May Day Meeting to discuss the basis of this movement:

May Day 2008: Capitalism, socialism and the working class

Sunday May 4, 3 pm
Wayne State University
Bernath Auditorium, David Adamany Undergraduate Library
5155 Gullen Mall
Detroit, Michigan


Another UAW strike in Michigan

After failing to agree on a contract, about 100 workers at the Douglas Autotech Corp. in Bronson have gone on strike. Friday, dozens of United Auto Workers Local 822 workers slogged through heavy storms to picket in front of the Douglas Autotech building on Albers Road. The strike came after the company — which manufactures directional controls for clients such as John Deere and Hummer — failed to reach a contract agreement with union members, UAW Local 822 President Mary Ellis said.

On Tuesday, Douglas Autotech heads asked for an extension of contract negotiations, which the UAW declined.

The new contract, an update of one first drafted in 1941, had been on the table since Jan. 24. This is the first strike at the company in more than 25 years.

"They haven't really been serious about this the whole time," Ellis said. "And what they wanted from us was just not acceptable."

Ellis said some of the demands from Douglas Autotech included cutting off health care to the company's 128 retirees, as well as significant wage drops. Another stipulation, Ellis said, was to offer a $4 reduction in hourly wages for employees returning from lay-offs. The average employee wage is $15 per hour.

A representative for Douglas Autotech, which is owned by the Japanese company Fuji Kiko, said the company is not commenting on the strike or contract negotiations.

"Our last two contracts were concessionary, where we've given things and done what we could to help the company, because we know they have to survive," Ellis said. "But so do we."

Current employees have no post-retirement health insurance options, something that was cut in past contract negotiations, Ellis said.

As of early Friday evening, Ellis had yet to hear from Douglas Autotech representatives, despite her offer to meet with them "anytime, 24 hours a day."

While on strike the workers are paid a weekly wage of $200 from the UAW, which also provides basic health insurance.

Picketing employees said though being on strike will hit them hard financially, they won't bow to further cuts.

"We really didn't want to strike, but we've basically been forced to," Jim Risnei, a 15-year employee, said. "We struggle as it is with the cost of living, and what they were trying to offer, nobody would agree to."


Socialists update UAW-AAM strike, week 10

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