Labor-relations experts cringe

Related card-check stories: here

Kris Dunn: Federal Bailout of Unions is a Career Killer for HR Pros

If you’ve read my blog or this column since their inception in 2007, you know I try to keep things light. I like to mix pop culture with HR practice, link to some interesting content and ask the fun questions—questions like "Does Your HR Job Stink?" and "Why Do Companies Keep Jerks Around?"

OK, questions that are fun to you, only if you happen to be twisted like me. This column is different. Instead of wondering if the PHR/SPHR is worth your time or why your employees post their résumés in broad daylight, this time I’m wondering if you’ll have a job in 2010.

Did that get your attention? Because today I’m focusing on a piece of legislation that would cripple the competitiveness of American business, limit the rights of employees and eliminate the need for independent-thinking HR pros, all in one easy-to-sign law.

I’m talking about the Employee Free Choice Act. Raise your hand if you’ve heard of the act. America’s lucky if 10 percent of you raised your hands.

And that’s the point. If signed into law, the Employee Free Choice Act would radically change the American workplace, and your life as an HR professional. Most members of our profession have no clue the change is right around the corner. It’s not your fault, but it’s time to get in the know.

The act, which passed in the House of Representatives last year but failed in the Senate, deals with how workplaces are organized by unions. To better understand the changes the Employee Free Choice Act would bring, you first need to understand the current law on how unions can attempt to organize the workplace. Then you can contrast it with how the act would open the door to widespread organizing by limiting the rights of your employees. Here’s a quick primer on how unions currently get voted in, and how that would change under the Employee Free Choice Act:

Current law:

1. The union in question interacts with employees (and vice versa), gauging interest and commitment to an organizing campaign.

2. Once the union establishes there is sufficient interest, union cards (officially known as authorization cards) are introduced into the workplace, usually by having pro-union employees approach other employees and ask them to sign a card to indicate their interest in having a union represent them. A signed union card under the current law simply means the employee is interested in moving the process to a secret ballot, where the employee is free to confidentially vote "yes" or "no" to union representation.

3. Once the union gets enough signed cards, the cards are turned in to the National Labor Relations Board to move the process forward. By law, a union only needs 30 percent of employees to sign the cards, but unions usually don’t turn cards in to the NLRB until they have 50 percent, since that’s what is required in an election to officially certify the union).

4. If enough cards are signed, the NLRB calls for an employee vote, and a 30-day campaign begins. During this campaign period, the employer has an opportunity to hold meetings and discuss the merits of remaining union-free with the employees. Employees use this time to collect information and develop informed decisions regarding whether they want to be represented by the union in question.

5. At the end of the 30-day campaign, an election is held via secret ballot that allows all employees to submit a confidential vote, just as we vote for our elected officials.

6. The votes are tallied, and if the majority of employees submitting a ballot in the employment unit in question vote "yes" to union representation, the union is certified and the company begins the process of negotiating an agreement with the union.

Proposed law under the Employee Free Choice Act:

1. Steps 1-3 apply, but the process ends with card-check certification of unions. Under the act, if the NLRB finds that a majority of an employment unit’s employees have signed union authorization cards, the NLRB will certify that union as the exclusive bargaining representative without holding an election. No real safeguards exist in the new law to deter unions from misrepresenting what the employees are signing, or from omitting/misrepresenting the true ramifications of a signed card.

2. No informational campaign, no private/confidential election. Period. You should be concerned by now.

The right to a confidential election/ballot is eliminated under the act. That’s a shocking right to take away from employees. It’s also a very, very big deal for HR pros.
Most pundits (Republican and Democrat alike) agree that if the Democrats take the White House, the act will pass both the House and the Senate, mainly because it won't face a presidential veto. To be clear, I’m not focusing on the act as a political issue; I’m focused on it as an employee and HR issue.

Still wondering why the Employee Free Choice Act is a big deal to you as a HR pro? Here’s a primer:

1. You’re responsible for being an advocate for employees AND for being a business agent: If you’re progressive as an HR pro, you like to find ways to contribute to business results. Examples include being an advocate for pay for performance on a daily basis, making tough calls on nonperformers and trying things "on the fly" from a benefit perspective. Kiss that flexibility goodbye under a bargaining agreement. You manage by what the contract says. Period.

2. You’re responsible for creating and maintaining a workplace free of intimidation and harassment: As an advocate for this type of workplace, you should automatically be against the Employee Free Choice Act, because eliminating the confidential election sets up the perfect opportunity for intimidation in your workplace. Sign the card and you’re with us, or don’t sign the card and we know you’re against us. Make your decision now, with no graceful way to back out later if you so desire. Nice.

3. Under the act, you lose the opportunity to tell your story: Under the current system, the company has the ability to tell employees why they believe a union isn’t necessary. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, the union can be voted in before you knew you had a problem.

4. If a union is certified via card check under the Employee Free Choice Act, the employees are going to come to you once they figure out what has happened: Get ready for the question "How could you let this happen?"—even from employees who signed cards. Misinformation will be rampant, and with the elimination of the campaign period and election there will be no effective counter to what employees are told to get them to sign a card, or for intimidation that occurs in the workplace. Employees will still hold you accountable, thinking you could have done something.

5. You’re going to be less than satisfied with your HR career in a union shop: If you’ve spent your career as an HR manager/director/VP in a union-free environment, you’re going to be bored in an employment unit that is represented by a union. Your flexibility to innovate and help employees will be dramatically reduced, as the bargaining agreement is the sole document by which you’ll manage the workforce. Skills like yours aren’t really required in that type of environment.

So what are you to do about all this? It’s late in the game, so your options are limited. Get in the know about how the Employee Free Choice Act would restrict the rights of your employees. If you are politically active, let your representative and senator know how you feel from the perspective of an HR professional. Most important, understand how this law would change the game and get ready, if it is passed and signed into law, to proactively educate your workforce on what’s at stake if they do sign an authorization card. You won’t have the luxury of a campaign period if the act is signed into law.

Finally, the worst thing about the Employee Free Choice Act isn’t its effect on us as HR professionals. It's how stunningly anti-employee the act is. Ability for employees to keep their feelings about unionization private? Gone. Ability for employees to listen and carefully contemplate both sides of an argument regarding representation? Gone.

Ability for an employee to vote in an election via the democratic process we all take for granted? Priceless ... but gone if the Employee Free Choice Act is passed and signed into law.

- Kris Dunn


Labor-state blues

Why unions need a federal bailout

Rhode Island’s labor unions are losing members faster than they can add them. But organized labor continues to have a powerful voice in state politics, due in part to a web of creative alliances that include the state Democratic Party, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and progressive social organizations such as Marriage Equality Rhode Island.

The alliances expand labor’s forces as membership dips to its lowest point in more than a half-century. They help improve the image of unions among an increasingly critical public.

But there is also a practical effect on elections.

More than 100,000 potential Ocean State voters have direct or indirect connections to labor unions, according to federal statistics and the membership numbers from organized labor’s allies. That’s the same number of people who voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Rhode Island’s record-setting presidential primary in March.

“They have made some very smart tactical moves to broaden their base to include not only rank-and-file union members, but a whole new class of constituents,” said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island.

Thanks to traditional campaign finance laws that don’t limit political communication with its members, Rhode Island labor has a more direct influence on local elections than any other interest group.

Lawmakers speak openly of the political fallout that can result from bucking labor. And union leaders aren’t shy about holding their Election Day power over lawmakers’ heads.

“I plan to communicate all commitments, or lack thereof, to our members,” Marcia B. Reback, longtime president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said in a letter to all General Assembly members late last month requesting a commitment to oppose any legislation that would cut public employees’ pension benefits.

Unions are empowered, despite membership declines, because they have sharpened get-out-the-vote tactics that help turn out more members than ever before.

“I think there was an old feeling that all a union leader had to say was, ‘Hey, vote for these guys,’ and people would follow automatically. I think that was always a myth,” said George Nee, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Rhode Island, a federation of several local unions. “We are much more aggressive, targeted and sophisticated.”

Labor unions have political action committees flush with cash to donate to like-minded candidates in races where a few thousand dollars and a few hundred votes can go a long way.

But there is little doubt that organized labor’s strongest political asset is its manpower.

Unions and their allies are regularly able to rally hundreds of volunteers for local races. “We have our membership broken down by House district and Senate district. We know where people live. We can knock on doors. We can do house meetings, mailings,” Nee said. “That’s the work that makes the difference.”

One doesn’t have to look hard to find an example of labor’s ability to influence elections.

Frank Ferriwasn’t supposed to win the District 22 special House election.

Ferri had never run for office. If he was known on Smith Hill at all, it was only because of his work as a gay-rights activist.

The state Democratic Party and House Speaker William J. Murphy had endorsed his primary opponent, Edgar Ladouceur. But Ferri, an openly gay bowling alley owner, sailed to victory in the primary and general elections.

That’s largely because organized labor and its allies backed him, believing that his progressive positions would be more favorable to their agenda.

While the endorsement may have raised some eyebrows among working class union members, Ferri’s selection was not surprising.

He previously led the group Marriage Equality Rhode Island, which shared office space with the organization known as Ocean State Action, and had a seat on the latter organization’s board.

Ocean State Action, a collection of labor unions and social advocacy groups, receives about one quarter of its annual operating budget from organized labor, according to tax records.

The organization is housed in the Cranston building owned by the state’s second-largest labor union, National Education Association Rhode Island. And NEARI’s executive director, Robert A. Walsh, is the secretary-treasurer, or chief financial officer, of Ocean State Action.

Labor and its allies through Ocean State Action played an active role in Ferri’s campaign.

Ocean State Action’s political action committee, the Progressive Leadership Fund, gave him $800 –– more than half of all his campaign expenditures prior to the October election, according to campaign finance reports

But more important, Nee said that labor poured “at least a couple hundred” volunteers into the Warwick district to help Ferri defeat the endorsed candidate in the primary. They knocked on doors of union members, made phone calls and stuffed envelopes.

Aside from union members, volunteers from the environmental group and labor ally Rhode Island Clean Water Action played a key role.

“Clean Water Action endorses candidates, so working with Ocean State Action’s PAC, we coordinate our efforts,” said Clean Water Action’s executive director, Sheila Dormody, who is also vice president of Ocean State Action’s board of directors. “We can send our resources to other places to make sure the progressive candidates have the support they need.”

Clean Water Action already had a year-round team of paid canvassers devoted to promoting environmental issues. For the Ferri election, the organization simply diverted canvassers to Ferri’s campaign.

Much the same scenario played out in Rhode Island’s 2006 U.S. Senate race between Lincoln D. Chafee and Sheldon Whitehouse. Nee says that labor coordinated “literally thousands” of volunteers to contact its members for Democrat Whitehouse, who narrowly defeated the incumbent Republican.

Nee says winning elections is simple.

The single most effective way to influence a vote, he said, is for one union member to talk to another about a candidate.

“There’s no magic,” Nee said. “You just have to get someone to do it.”

Labor unions and their allies walk a fine line when it comes to influencing elections. State and federal campaign finance laws have strict limits on what is, and isn’t, permissible.

That may be why Ocean State Action is actually made up of three distinct organizations — the Ocean State Action Fund, Ocean State Action and the Progressive Leadership Fund — although their boards have common members and the organizations have the same staff.

The Ocean State Action Fund is registered as a 501(c)3 –– a “public charity” federal tax designation, which allows donors to make tax-deductible contributions. The Ocean State Action Fund has an annual operating budget that is three times the size that of Ocean State Action, and it finances the entire payroll for those who work in Ocean State Action’s office, according to the most recent tax records publicly available.

501(c)3 entities are generally not supposed to engage in any political activities, although some voter registration activities are permitted, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Federal law gives Ocean State Action –– a 501(c)4, or a “civic league and social welfare organization” –– some flexibility to engage in political activities, as long as that is not the organization’s primary purpose, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But neither 501 organization is allowed to campaign for specific candidates, according to Richard Thornton, director of campaign finance for the state Board of Elections. “They can basically advocate for or against an issue, but not candidate-related advocacy,” he said. “Any entity can advocate on issues, not candidates.”

The Ocean State Action Fund, for example, notes on its most recent IRS filing that it spent $29,241 in tax year 2006 on lobbying activity, which included mailings, rallies and direct contact with lawmakers.

Legally, only the organization’s political action committee, the Progressive Leadership Fund, is allowed to donate to or campaign for candidates, according to Thornton. Rhode Island PACs can give up to $1,000 to a candidate per calendar year (capped at $25,000).

Meanwhile, labor unions also have limits on their participation in elections.

Most have PACs that are legally able to donate to candidates. Campaign finance reports show that most of them have healthy bank accounts.

National Education Association Rhode Island’s political action committee, for example, had $133,857 on hand at the beginning of the year. The United Food and Commercial Workers had $13,020 on hand; followed by Council 94’s PAC with $9,664; and the United Nurses and Allied Professionals: $9,018.

While the political action committees regularly donate to Democratic candidates (the NEA’s PAC distributed $45,575 to candidates over the past two years, according to the Board of Elections), Nee said that labor unions have a huge advantage over other interest groups.

“Every PAC, whether you’re from huge corporation or a small union, everybody’s limited to $25,000 in aggregate contributions for the year and $1,000 to individuals. There’s a level playing field,” he said. “That’s not where you win or lose.”

Federal law does not limit labor’s ability to communicate with its own members.

Labor has detailed lists of the names, addresses and contact information for the estimated 75,000 union members in Rhode Island. Union canvassers can visit the households as many times as they want, send unlimited mailing or make unlimited phone calls.

“We can spend unlimited dollars on communicating with our own members,” Nee said.

In the 2006 race for the U.S. Senate, for example, Nee said that labor had “literally thousands” of people staffing phone banks, knocking on doors and sending out fliers.

“To us, that’s what democracy is.”

TOMORROW: Some are looking to change the state Ethics Code, which allows lawmakers who work for unions to vote on labor bills.


Congress puts unions first

Dems insert pro-union subsidies into every bill

Every 26 seconds, a student drops out of high school in the United States. National test scores reveal that half of all low-income fourth graders cannot read. Given such alarming statistics, you’d think that helping at-risk kids would be the top education-related priority on Capitol Hill.

Apparently not. As far as Congress is concerned, the real problem with public education in America is that it’s not environmentally friendly enough.

On Wednesday, the House passed the “21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act,” a $6.4 billion school-construction program. Essentially, it’s a regulatory gift bag for environmental groups and labor unions

The legislation creates a new federal grant program to provide states and local school districts with money to build and modernize schools. Among the reasons offered by Chairman George Miller’s Education and Labor Committee for supporting the legislation: to “create jobs in the construction industry” and make “schools that are more energy efficient and reliant on renewable resources of energy” to reduce “emissions that contribute to global warming.

Under the plan, states and localities would be required to use federal dollars to make schools consistent with environmental standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council. States also would receive funding to encourage state agencies to track public schools’ carbon “footprints” and energy efficiency. In all, the Congressional Budget Office projects the program would cost $20.3 billion over five years.

Environmental groups aren’t the only special interests the legislation rewards. Labor unions win, too. The legislation includes the Depression-era Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage regulations, which require projects funded by the program to pay workers wages at least equal to similar projects in the locality.

Just for good measure, the House approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) that requires school-construction projects to use only American-made steel. This limits flexibility and drives up the cost.

This is the first major K-12 education package to pass the House this Congress - which shows what liberals’ true priorities are.

For years, liberals have blamed the “under-funding” of No Child Left Behind for many problems in American education. (In fact, federal spending on K-12 education is set to grow by 36 percent during the Bush presidency.) But instead of focusing on hiring more teachers or giving more money to high-poverty schools, the House chose to invest in building environmentally friendly schools. In fact, this $6 billion new program is nearly half as large as the entire Title I program, the main federal education program geared toward helping kids in high-poverty schools.

Just imagine what good that $6.4 billion could do as scholarships to disadvantaged kids. More than 600,000 kids could receive scholarships worth $10,000 a piece to escape low-performing public schools and attend a school of their parents’ choice. Beyond helping these students, the exodus from the public-school system would ease crowding (reducing the need for new buildings) and relieve state and local education budgets. State and local policymakers then could decide how to use the saved money to improve education.

Of course, the Green Schools legislation isn’t actually meant to improve education. The real purpose is to expand federal power, and give Congress more control over decisions once left to those at the local level. Anyone listening to the floor debate over H.R. 3021 might have thought they were watching a school-board meeting. Fixing the plumbing in your local public school shouldn’t be a congressional concern.

Fortunately, President Bush is expected to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, and Senate action is unlikely. So Americans shouldn’t expect to see any federally mandated “green” schools soon. But it should serve as a preview of what Congress is planning for education. It may earn an “A” from liberal interest groups, but it deserves an “F” from parents and taxpayers.


Labor-state known for its strikers

Michigan's enduring image

Growing sales of foreign nameplates and the low value of the dollar is spawning new automotive factories in this country -- but that growth is unlikely to come to Michigan, especially after strikes this year and last reinforced the state's image as a hostile labor environment, several experts say.

A bitter 12-week-long walkout that ended last month against Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. and two recent strikes against General Motors Corp. plants broadcast images across the country of angry pickets and workers at odds with their employers, images that those entrusted with bringing jobs to this state hoped were fading into history.

"Unfortunately, it reinforces a lot of stereotypes about the auto industry at a time when it's the last thing the auto industry needs," said Hank Cox, vice president for communications at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers. "There are a lot of positive things going on in Michigan -- it's a shame that the legacy issues keep coming up."

For the first time, Asian automakers sold more vehicles last month in this country than Detroit's Big Three. Those foreign automakers are seeking to bring plants to the United States -- but so far not to Michigan -- as the relative low value of the dollar and increasing transportation costs makes importing from overseas more expensive. Those developments make the timing of Michigan's labor unrest that much more unfortunate, analysts said.

"Such high-visibility strikes come at the worst time because we should be bringing manufacturing into Michigan," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

Cole, a board member for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said the status of unionized labor is the first question any prospective manufacturer asks about moving into the state.

Since foreign automakers started moving to the United States in the 1980s, they've favored Southern states, where organized labor is rare. Even this year, Honda Motor Co. is constructing an engine plant in Indiana and Kia Motors Corp. is building a factory in Georgia. Volkswagen AG is shopping for an American site and Michigan is a finalist but not expected to land the plant.

Skilled labor force is an asset

Other experts say the impact of the recent walkouts is overstated. Foreign automakers are unlikely to change their location preferences, with or without labor peace, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Michigan has something else going for it: A skilled and available worker base," Shaiken said. " I don't think the strikes will be defining. Michigan remains a place to invest."

Shaiken pointed out that the UAW reached highly competitive labor agreements with Detroit's Big Three automakers last year with relatively minimal labor disruption. Some expected those short walkouts to last weeks.

That agreement, and job guarantees that the union won, helped keep existing manufacturing in Michigan.

In GM's restructuring plan unveiled last week, the company slated four plants for closure, but only one was represented by the UAW and none were in Michigan. One of the factories to be shuttered was in Mexico, while plants in Flint and Detroit were told they would get new products.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has pushed initiatives to both attract and retain manufacturing, as well as new industries such as filmmaking and alternative energy.

"Companies are choosing to invest in Michigan because of our competitive business climate, outstanding work force, and our unmatched quality of life," she said last week during a visit to a Bay City software firm.
Alabama lures foreign plants

Alabama is one of the states that has successfully courted the likes of Honda, Toyota Motor Corp. and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz.

Steve Sewell, executive vice president for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, said availability of an educated work force is the top concern for such companies, but Alabama's status as a right-to-work state is often touted. In right-to-work states, joining a union cannot be a condition of employment.

"Right-to-work can be an advantage if a company wants to have a direct relationship with its employees, without a third party," he said.

Michigan's best opportunity to gain new manufacturing jobs is in areas outside Metro Detroit, Cole said.

He said Michigan needs to break its "monolithic image" of wage rates and unionization levels being the same statewide. Foreign companies often don't realize that outside southeast Michigan, the state has wage rates and levels of unionization comparable to Southern states, Cole said.

A Center for Automotive Research study also has shown that foreign corporations do not like to compete with similar companies for labor. But they also seek a well-educated work force and a strong education infrastructure -- one of the things Michigan's public universities represent in many areas of the state.

"Southwest Michigan and the Thumb are potentially very attractive areas to locate," Cole said. "In the Saginaw-Flint-Detroit corridor, that's a hotbed for engineering, but you're not going to see much new manufacturing."


AFSCME swats back at Minnesota A.G.

Related Lori Swanson stories: here

The dust-up between Minnesota's Attorney General Lori Swanson and union officials trying to organize lawyers in her office continued at the state DFL convention this weekend. The union — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 — handed out leaflets criticizing Swanson, a DFLer.

“Union Busting Is Disgusting!” the leaflet stated. “Tell Attorney General Swanson to stop union busting and recognize the union chosen by her staff attorneys.”

Swanson has been criticized for her management tactics, while the union’s efforts to take on an office that has traditionally been friendly to labor issues have raised eyebrows. Though they were limited in scope, two reports in recent weeks have cleared her office of acting unprofessionally.

- Mike Kaszuba


Right-to-work laws benefit states, workers

Worker-choice v. forced-labor unionism

Douglas C. Buckler's recent commentary ("Right-to-work laws hurt business climate," May 30) grossly mischaracterizes the economic benefits of allowing workers to freely choose whether or not to associate with a union. Buckler suggests that right-to-work states suffer economic "penalties" for protecting workers from coercive unionization. While it's hardly surprising to find a union official defending an arrangement that ensures his organization can pay him using the dues workers must pay or be fired, his selective use of statistics fails to capture the numerous economic advantages of Right to Work states.

The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has published a response to the deceptive, union-backed study cited by Buckler. The institute demonstrated that states that protect employees' freedom of association enjoy higher real wages and lower costs of living. In other words, workers' paychecks go much further in economically vibrant right-to-work states because the goods they purchase are significantly more affordable.

From job creation to the number of employees covered by health insurance, Right to Work states have consistently exceeded their non-Right to Work counterparts in almost every metric of economic performance.

While the moral case for a right-to-work law rests on the principle that no worker should be compelled to join a union against his or her will, the economic benefits of protecting employee freedom are also clear. Michigan lawmakers would do well to heed the example of their more prosperous right-to-work neighbors when contemplating what to do about the Wolverine State's economic woes.

Mark Mix, President
National Right to Work Committee
Springfield, Va.


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Labor-state unions pose as victims

Organizers max out state's union density

Labor union membership in Rhode Island is at its lowest point in more than a half-century. Powerful Democratic legislators, long rumored to be “in labor’s pocket,” now support cutting benefits for unionized workers. And a growing chorus of critics — Governor Carcieri among them — blames unions, at least in part, for the state’s mounting fiscal problems.

Organized labor is in trouble in the Ocean State.

“I think we have to reevaluate the strength and the clout of the unions,” said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, a union member herself. “They don’t have the clout that they used to. The question is how much do they have left?”

The answer to that question may determine how the state climbs out of the worst budget deficit in more nearly two decades. Facing a $425 -million deficit for the coming fiscal year, Smith Hill politicians are considering tens of millions of dollars in cuts aimed at state government’s 15,000 workers, the vast majority of whom are unionized.

If unions flex enough muscle to block labor cuts affecting unionized employees, they’ll the money will have to be made up elsewhere somewhere else —perhaps with less education funding aid for cities and towns, reduced benefits for low-income Rhode Islanders , or potential tax increases.

Measuring organized labor’s strength isn’t easy.

It shows itself, in part, in the State House hallways, where union lobbyists and their allies dwarf the presence of other interest groups. But hallways tell only part of the story.

The rest plays out away from public view –– in political campaigns, federal tax filings, and in the leadership of nonprofit organizations, where union leaders have crafted a network of political alliances that directly or indirectly influence the key decisions of the Democratic leaders who control Ocean State politics.

The labor movement has a strong voice in the debate over public employee benefits. That largely reflects the growing divide between public and private union membership. More than 63 percent of public-sector workers –– teachers, police, firefighters and state workers –– belong to unions, compared to just 7.5 percent in the private sector.

But organized labor also has a strong voice in discussions about over health-care cuts for the poor, reduced benefits for foster children, environmental causes like such as recycling, and even gay marriage.

Rhode Island unions have formed unique partnerships with a host of seemingly unrelated environmental and social advocacy groups. Through this, relatively weak organizations gain a stronger voice in state affairs. And In exchange, labor unions strengthen political alliances, expand their bank of volunteers that help elect pro-labor candidates, and improve their image.

“That’s why, for all the attacks we take, they’ll never knock us down. We’re too rooted in the community,” said George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Rhode Island. “We’re like an oak tree. Our roots are deep.”

NOWHERE ARE these alliances more apparent than inside inside than the cramped offices of Ocean State Action, a nonprofit organization housed on in the first - floor of the Cranston building owned by the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

Ocean State Action’s board of directors includes representatives from the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women, Clean Water Action and several labor unions. The gay-rights advocacy group , Marriage Equality Rhode Island, also shares their office space.

Ocean State Action, which regularly hosts State House rallies and lobbies legislators, spent $138,037 in 2006 to “to affect legislative policymaking in areas of economic and social interest,” according to its most recent IRS form 990. And roughly one quarter of its funding — more than $34,000 — came from labor unions that year.

The connections extend beyond financing.

Ocean State Action’s “ secretary-treasurer,” a union title generally equivalent to the chief financial officer, is Robert A. Walsh Jr., the executive director of the group’s upstairs neighbor and landlord, the National Education Association.

Walsh regularly joins other union leaders in playing a visible role at State House rallies to protest budget cuts that would hurt Ocean State Action’s members.

“The reality is that for a lot of our various advocacy organizations and service organizations, it takes organized labor sometimes to push them over the top in terms of helping them build the power they need to win on their issue,” says Karen Malcolm, executive director of Ocean State Action. “In turn, labor gains new alliances and partnerships. Labor gains support –– whenever you work an alliance there is a give and take.”

Moakley called the formation of alliances “a smart strategic move” for a group that is losing members by the thousands. “They have developed into multi-faceted organizations and that’s something that will keep them in the game,” she said.

And The alliances extend beyond other interest groups.

Currently, AFL-CIO President Frank J. Montanaro is the National Committeeman for the state Democratic Party, and Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, serves as its assistant treasurer.

And a host of new alliances — similar to Ocean State Action — have has sprung up in recent years. They have names like the Campaign for Rhode Island’s Priorities and Unity R.I., and they often include the backing of the same labor leaders seeking to broaden their union’s reach and change its image.

“The face of labor has definitely changed,” Moakley said. “They may be in the process of reinventing themselves.”

Montanaro, for example, is also listed as chairman of the board for the group Working Rhode Island, according to 2006 tax filings submitted by the nonprofit group that boasts more than 100,000 active and retired members.

Working Rhode Island, which was created in 2004, is essentially a political arm of the labor movement, although it cannot make financial donations to candidates. The group regularly organizes rallies (such as the State House event last week that drew 2,000 rowdy union supporters), purchases buys political advertisements, and produces the weekly television show, Labor Vision, which often knocks labor’s critics. (For more on the rally, see M. Charles Bakst’s column on D1.)

“The governor thought this grand alliance was forming and that we were going to raise millions of dollars to spend against him,” laughed Working Rhode Island’s secretary-treasurer, Walsh, the same man who heads the National Education Association of Rhode Island and serves as the secretary-treasurer of Ocean State Action.

Working Rhode Island, according to Walsh, holds has monthly board meetings at the Smith Hill headquarters of the AFL-CIO. (Nee also sits on the Working Rhode Island board.)

Tax records suggest that Working Rhode Island serves as a conduit that distributes for distributing large sums of money to and from labor’s allies.

So far this year, Walsh says, Working Rhode Island has given $25,000 to Ocean State Action.

Working Rhode Island formed on Jan. 1, 2004, Walsh says, largely to bring those Rhode Island unions together that weren’t already united under the AFL-CIO. There was considerable infighting, acknowledges Walsh, before the groups came together to increase their collective voice in Rhode Island politics. “It was crazy not to have one table to sit down at,” he says.

The recommended membership fee for each union is $6 per member per year, although some pay a bit more, according to Walsh. Working Rhode Island was funded in the tax year 2006 largely from the following donations:

According to the group’s 2006 IRS tax form 990, Working Rhode Island’s top contributors include: Rhode Island AFL-CIO ($255,000), the National Education Association of Rhode Island ($73,500), the United Nurses and Allied Professionals ($23,400) and Harrah’s Operating Company Inc. ($200,000), which was backing a ballot measure that year aimed at installing building a casino in Rhode Island, against Governor Carcieri’s wishes.

The IRS form did not specify how Working Rhode Island spent its money, although $284,279 went to the production of a “publication regarding the rights of working people in the state of Rhode Island.” Another $337,567 went to produce “radio spots regarding the rights of workers in Rhode Island.” Walsh acknowledges that the form wasn’t as specific as it perhaps should have been.

Working Rhode Island, which has no paid staff, spends $24,000 each year to produce Labor Vision, which runs on public access television and often features Walsh as a host. Walsh said that the group also regularly spent thousands to help sponsor events hosted by groups such as Clean Water Action and Ocean State Action.

APPROXIMATELY 15 percent of Rhode Island’s work forceworkforce — or 75,000 people — were members of labor unions in 2007.

That’s a drop of 1,000 workers from the previous year and 4,000 from than the year before that, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think the whole idea of this being a union state is changing,” Moakley said.

An estimated 26 percent of the state’s work force workforce belonged to unions in 1964, according to a 2001 study published in the Monthly Labor Review.

And membership numbers have has been falling steadily since the exodus of industrial jobs that dominated the end of the last century. Labor unions, whose which draw political and practical strength is drawn largely from their its dues-paying members, have been desperately reaching out to new industries in recent years to control the losses.

Public-sector employees have dominated the union ranks in recent decades as the private sector continues to shed union jobs. positions.

In 1987, for example, there were more private-sector union workers (49,514) than public-sector employees (46,092), according to unionstats.com, which tracks labor trends based on the Current Population Survey. At that time, 13 percent of all private jobs were unionized, compared with to 66.6 percent in the public sector.

The disparity continues today. While public-sector membership peaked in mid-1990s the mid-1990s at close to 70 percent, last year, 63.7 percent of public workers belonged to unions. The private-sector percentage had fallen to a new low of 7.5 percent.

Labor has struggled to increase its ranks and influence for decades, according to Nee, who became a full-time State House lobbyist for the AFL-CIO in 1983. He recalls major legislative defeats that date back to the repeal of unemployment benefits for strikers in 1985.

“It’s never been easy. It’s some people’s political agenda … to say these people get everything they want,” he said in an interview from the AFL-CIO’s Smith Hill office, which overlooks the State House. “I would say by and large, we’ve done a pretty good job of ensuring that workers get decent protections under the law … and we’re proud of that. But it’s a struggle.”

Carcieri, a vocal critic of labor unions in the past, declined to be interviewed for this article.

But at least one national organization suggests that labor leaders in Rhode Island haven’t been struggling quite as badly as their counterparts around the country.

The worker-choice group , the Alliance for Worker Freedom, which studied labor policies in each of the United States, notes that Rhode Island has the 12th-highest union density in the nation, with more union members as a percentage of its work force workforce than every New England state except but Connecticut (15.6 percent). The national average is just over 12 percent, according to federal data.

Overall, the organization gave the Ocean State an F — 0 out of 10 — for having among the most labor-friendly policies in the country. Connecticut was the only New England state to share the worst possible score, which judged such things like as the state’s public pension system, collective bargaining rights, worker compensation laws, the minimum wage and “union shop” laws that mandate union membership as a precondition of employment.

The Alliance for Worker Freedom noted that Rhode Island’s current policies are more friendly friendlier to labor unions than practices in states with higher union densities such as like Ohio (C-), Michigan (C) and Alaska (C).

Despite the rankings of outside groups and the series of complex alliances, there is evidence that Rhode Island’s labor unions are on their heels.

Mounting public criticism of regarding generous lifetime pensions has have caught the attention of lawmakers, who have passed a series of changes in recent years — and even in recent weeks — that were strongly opposed by organized labor.

As state and local budgets are strained, lawmakers’ priorities seem to have shifted away from preserving worker pay and benefits that are increasingly falling they see as out of step with the private sector.

“Over the years, we’ve been very generous [to labor],” said Stephen Alves, the Senate Finance Committee chairman. “Times have been good. We’ve been able to afford it. Now, we can no longer afford it. We don’t have money. We’re knocking kids of off RIte Care. … Everybody knows things have to change.”

“The idea of [state retirees] getting health care forever needs to change,” said Alves said. “If I had to go back [to labor] and say you have to work five additional years [to qualify for retiree health care benefits] and I could keep a kid at least getting adequate health care, in my book, that’s more of a priority.”

And William J. Murphy, the Speaker of the House and arguably the most powerful politician on Smith Hill, isn’t considered a friend to organized labor. Murphy recently made news when he unexpectedly endorsed a 401(k)-like retirement plan for all new state workers instead of the current system that gives retirees fixed payments for life.

The labor movement faction was not happy.

“We’re in a very, very difficult time right now. You’re going to probably suffer some losses in this time. The question is staying strong enough so when things get better, you can rebound,” said Nee, adding that labor is playing a lot more defense than offense these days. “We’re drafting a lot of linebackers right now.”

But, does Nee think that labor unions have tremendous influence on Smith Hill?

“We hope so. That’s our goal,” Nee said. “Our goal is to be as strong a force as we can to protect the economic interests of working people. We’re not going to shy away from that. I guess it’s for others to judge how much power we have.”

TOMORROW: Unions retain a lot of power in elections, and six union officials are among the state’s legislators.


Rep. Patrick Murphy, Pennsylvania DINO

Related story: "Public opinion survey on card-check"

Democrat wants to end secret-ballot union elections

Fighting for Workers’ Rights to Organize ... Original Co-sponsor of and Voted for H.R. 800, the Employee Free Choice Act

* Stiffens penalties for employers that use illegal tactics to intimidate organizing workers.
* Guarantees that after the formation of a union, employees will be able to negotiate a contract.
* Requires employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers supports its creation.


Labor's approval ebbs

U.S. appears to buck global trend

Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has lost public support this month, according to a poll by Newspoll published in the Australian. 56 per cent of respondents are satisfied with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader’s performance, down seven points since mid-May.

Australia held a federal election in November 2007. Final results gave the ALP 85 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives. ALP leader Kevin Rudd was officially sworn in as prime minister in December, bringing an end to the 11-year tenure of Liberal leader John Howard as head of Australia’s government.

Howard failed to retain his seat in the Bennelong constituency and stepped down as Liberal leader. Brendan Nelson—a former defence minister—defeated former environment minister Malcolm Turnbull in an internal leadership ballot by just three votes. 36 per cent of respondents are content with Nelson’s performance as leader of the opposition.

In the preferred prime minister category, 66 per cent of respondents choose Rudd, while 17 per cent pick Nelson as head of government.

On Jun. 5, Rudd said political leaders from the Asia-Pacific region should assemble a strategic group similar to the European Union (EU), declaring, "The key thing is to enhance security and regional cooperation, which at present is fragmented. (...) Remember the region is currently host to a whole range of unresolved territorial conflicts—the Taiwan Straits, the Korean peninsula, Kashmir, involving a whole range of nuclear weapons states."


IWW preps global protest v. Starbucks

Related Starbucks stories: here

Day to protest continuing anti-union discrimination

The Union of Comerical and Hotel workers CNT-AIT in Sevilla, Spain along with the Grand Rapids Starbucks Workers Union (IWW) have announced a Global Day of Action scheduled for July 5th. The two groups are asking social organizations, unions, and individuals from around the world to promote and participate in this day of action.

On April 24th, 2008 a barista named Monica was fired for her union activity from a Starbucks in Sevilla, Spain. She was a member of the Union of Commercial and Hotel Workers of the Confederacion Nacional de Trabajadores (CNT). Now with the support of all CNT affiliates, the International Workers Association, and the Starbucks Workers Union (IWW) they are demanding justice for Monica.

The treatment of Monica in Spain by Starbucks is similar to the charges of anti-union discrimination being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This new Grand Rapids investigation comes less than a year since Starbucks signed a settlement agreement with the NLRB claiming they would end intimidation against baristas interested in joining the Starbucks Union.

The Grand Rapids Starbucks Workers Union (IWW) calls on everyone interested in social justice and worker's rights to confront global coffee giant Starbucks on July 5th with international solidarity. For Monica in Spain, for baristas in Grand Rapids, and for coffee farmers around the globe.

Grand Rapids Protest:
4 pm July 5th
Starbucks at 28th St. and East Beltline

The CNT of Sevilla have produced a weblog for the Day of Action (in spanish):

To get involved locally contact:
Grand Rapids Starbucks Workers Union
grandrapidsstarbucksunion [at] yahoo.com
PO Box 6629
Grand Rapids, MI 49516


SEIU sets national protest against inequality

Union wants more money, power

In December, I wrote about Robert Greenwald's attempt to mobilize outrage against Gilded Age-like inequality and the hedge-funders with his War on Greed series of short films. Now, another creative effort is being led by the Service Employees International Union, with July 17 protests scheduled in 100 cities in twenty-five countries.

Stephen Lerner, the director of the SEIU's private equity project, told the New York Times, "We think the buyout industry and the way it operates are systematic of what's wrong in this economy. We want to make them responsible corporate citizens."

The SEIU is focused on the Carlyle Group and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and how they game the system to take over companies with little of their own money, lay off workers, reap the profits when they resell, and pay a lower tax rate than their own secretaries do.

I called closing this tax loophole that allows mega-billionaires to be taxed at 15 percent--lower than most working Americans--a litmus test for Democrats on whether the party stands for working people, and leading Senate Democrats failed.

The good news is that Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Barack Obama, quickly spoke out against the decision by Democrats not to take on the loophole after more than twenty lobbying firms worked to preserve it. At the time the campaign issued a statement saying, "If there was ever a doubt that Washington lobbyists don't actually represent real Americans, it's the fact that they stopped leaders of both parties from requiring elite investment firms to pay their fair share of taxes, even as middle-class families struggle to pay theirs. When I'm President, the American people won't have to spend record amounts on lobbying to get their voice heard in Washington. I will close tax loopholes for big corporations...."

But it will take a lot more than closing an obscene tax loophole to reverse thirty years of tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, and deregulation that promoted corporate interests at the expense of consumers--all of this bankrolled by conservatives and corporations to instill blind faith in the market as a magic elixir that can solve any problem.

The result is that we now live in a Second Gilded Age. (And The Nation will hold a name Name Our Epoch! contest starting next week. The winner will be selected by our all-star progressive panel of judges--historian Howard Zinn, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich and novelist Walter Mosley.) The richest 1 percent of Americans currently hold wealth worth nearly $16.8 trillion, $2 trillion more than the bottom 90 percent. According to the Center for American Progress, since 1979 the average income for the bottom half of American households has grown by 6 percent. In contrast, the top 1 percent of earners have seen their incomes rise by 229 percent during that same period.

With less money available, Americans are forced to make tough choices on how to spend diminishing disposable incomes. The largest increases in consumer spending between 2006 and 2007 was on necessities: fuel, food staples, and medical bills. Medical bills now account for almost one-fifth of average family income. The divide is so huge, the Wall Street Journal now dedicates a full-time reporter to cover what the reporter calls "Richistan."

In January 2007, Congressman Barney Frank said dealing with income inequality was his top priority as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. He summarized the impact of conservative, free-market ideology run amuck this way: "The rising tide lifts all boats has always been a problem. If you think about that analogy, the rising tide is a very good idea if you have a boat. But if you are too poor to afford a boat and you are standing tiptoe in the water, the rising tide goes up to your nose."

Next week, The Nation will publish a special issue on income inequality, exploring how rising extreme inequality is undermining our common good. It will include a 12-step blueprint for action for citizens and smart elected officials who care about reducing concentrations of wealth, reducing poverty and rebuilding our infrastructure.

Those who believe in the promise of this country--that more perfect union--need to advance, unflinchingly, a program that explicitly aims to reduce concentrated wealth and power. Early this spring, a national coalition of organizations put forward a bold set of proposals to cut poverty in half over the next decade. But this effort may well go nowhere so long as concentrated wealth defines our nation's political and spending priorities. Until we seriously tax the holders of that extreme wealth (the upcoming issue reminds people that under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower the highest marginal tax rate was 91 percent, compared to the current 35 percent) we'll lack the funding resources necessary to undertake any bold poverty-fighting, middle-class promoting, initiative.

Be sure to read The Nation's special upcoming issue. And on July 17, be a part of SEIU's Take Back the Economy effort.


This is OUR time.

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