Barack bends over for Big Labor cash

Partisan unionists puts $200 million dues to Dems

It may not seem as if Barack Obama will need that much extra financial help after breaking his pledge to accept public campaign financing, thereby freeing his campaign to outspend rival John McCain by as much as he can raise. But Obama will also benefit from an unprecedented effort by labor unions still smarting from two straight presidential elections in which their efforts failed to prevent George W. Bush from claiming the White House.

This afternoon, AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman sketched out the plans of the labor coalition, which is expected to announce its official endorsement of Obama in the next few days. The coalition has budgeted $53.4 million for the 2008 campaign -- more than the $48 million it spent in 2004 -- and it expects its 56 member unions to spend more than $200 million overall on electing Obama and congressional Democrats. It will deploy 250,000 volunteers to reach a total of 13 million union members and their families, she said, and use more sophisticated micro-targeting tools than it has in the past.

The top targets for the AFL-CIO's presidential campaign efforts will be in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- the swing states where it has the most members. All except Ohio voted Democratic in 2004, which may make the effort seem defensive in nature, but at the same time, Obama's prospects for picking up a few new states elsewhere mean that he could be in good shape if he, and the unions, can hold the Rust Belt steady for him. In Ohio alone, the coalition says, it expects more than two million voters to be members of AFL households, or of households that belong to Working America, an organization the AFL has created for people who cannot join unions at their workplaces.

The AFL will also spend a lot on congressional races, aware that Obama's chances of enacting its priorities -- such as "card check" legislation making it easier to organize workplaces -- would be much higher with large congressional majorities. It will be involved in every "viable" Senate race in the country, including the races in Alaska (where union membership is actually relatively high), Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia; and 60 House races. While union membership is much lower in the South, Ackerman argues that the AFL had an impact in helping the Democrats win recent special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi by turning out what members there are in those districts.

Of course, the AFL also invested heavily in 2004, with disappointing results (although exit polls showed John Kerry faring better with voters in union households than with white working-class voters as a whole.) The difference this year, Ackerman said, is that the AFL has an earlier, more aggressive effort underway to frame the opposition in a negative light. The upside of not knowing until this month who the Democratic nominee would be, she said, was that it left the AFL free to focus its attention on defining McCain. Since early March, the coalition says it has distributed 1.5 million leaflets at work sites and knocked on the doors of 60,000 union swing voters with information about McCain's stances on card-check legislation, health care, and trade policy. The coalition takes credit for some of the recent poll numbers showing McCain trailing Obama among union voters and voters worried about the economy.

In now swinging behind Obama, the AFL will be going to work for a candidate who had far less backing during the primaries from AFL unions than did Kerry and Al Gore -- the bulk of Obama's labor support in the primaries came from the rival Change to Win coalition, which includes the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Ackerman acknowledged that Obama was still a relatively unknown quantity for many members, but said she believed that could be overcome.

"We know that union voters don't know a lot about Senator Obama, obviously," she said. "Voters who may not have the most comfort level with him, who may not know where he stands ... who may not know much about him personally, that's our job to get information out to them. Union members will have more information about economic issues than any other voter."


Obscure union front groups feed attack machine

Labor unions treat President Bush like a piñata

Spending the summer on a bus with a 35-foot scowling George Bush on the sides sounds, well, different. Julie Blust is accustomed to the double takes as the Bush Legacy Bus rolls from city to city. The 45-foot, 28-ton bus, powered by politically correct biodiesel fuel, started Wednesday on a nationwide tour that included Canton on Saturday. Some 150 cities will be visited in the five months before the presidential election.

Inside is Mr. Bush's nightmare -- every one of his actual and alleged policy mistakes. At the rear is a gasoline pump that computes fuel costs when Bush took office and today's prices.

Every inch of the bus is anti-Bush from the exterior to the walls and floor of the interior.

The effort is funded by Americans United for Change, an anti-conservative group funded by labor unions and other political groups.

"We're not part of the Obama campaign," Blust said, "but we don't think he would object."

They are targeting congressional districts of members who have voted 90 percent or more for Bush legislation.

Blust said the most common question asked is, "How did you fit all of his disasters on one bus?"

"We may need a trailer," she said.

The group has no use for Sens. John McCain and George Voinovich.

"They have weakened America's security abroad while neglecting and undermining important priorities here at home," according to a handout.

Still, Blust says her group "is not endorsing any candidate."

On the video screens are tapes of Katrina victims, health-care patients and workers. Perhaps the most sobering display is the dog tags and boots of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Iraq by an Iraqi soldier he was training.

As the bus rolled up Market Avenue S, a scooter rider almost fell off staring at it instead of the road.

"That happens a lot," said Blust.


Union puts scabs on trial

Zero-tolerance for picket-line dissent

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is going after four of its members who crossed the picket line during a November 2007 strike by support workers at Saskatchewan's two largest universities. Brad McKaig of Local 1975 said the union's constitution allows it to hold a trial of sorts - five other members of the union have been elected to a panel that will hear the facts of the case and issue a ruling of guilt or innocence.

"The penalty can be up to and including wages they would have made during the strike," McKaig explained Saturday. "So if they made $3,000 working by crossing the line then the union can claw that back. If they refuse to pay it, then we go to small claims court and get a court order and garnishee their wages."

"It's like, 'this is what you benefited by crossing the line during the strike and that's what the union wants back' - so they didn't profit by it."

McKaig said the union understood that the strike would be financially hard on people, and even arranged for loans or alternate jobs for some members.

"Everyone had to work, but they didn't have to work crossing the line for the employer."

He said the pressure to pursue the matter came from the union membership itself, which didn't want the foursome "getting away with it."

"Some of them were a little less than gracious when the strike was over," he said. "They were thumbing their noses at their fellow employees. 'You poor so-and-sos, I was getting paid while you were out walking the line at 35-below.' "

University administrators tried to negotiate an amnesty clause during bargaining, but the union wouldn't agree.

The names of the workers have not been made public.

After the nearly month-long strike, a strong majority of the 2,400 workers voted in favour of a new deal, which happened under the threat of government action if the two sides couldn't reach an agreement on their own.

Even though the new contract was approved, the two most contentious issues - benefits and wage hikes tied to performance reviews - were to be settled through binding arbitration.


AFSCME greed costs California students

Students Screwed By Labor Union For A Little Extra Cash

If you live in California, you’re no stranger to union strikes and all the drama that comes with their various protests. Even if you don’t, no doubt you recently felt the impact when every television show (except for Celebrity Fit Club, thank Jesus) was forced to take a little break because Hollywood writers ran out of creativity or money or something- but I digress ...
Recently, union struggles have severely impacted the University of California (UC) campuses.

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents some 20,000 University of California healthcare and service employees (5,400 employed at UCLA alone) has organized its members who have been working for months on expired contracts.

Unlike the writers, members of AFSCME’s local 3299 have continued to work while trying to get a living wage worked into a new contract with the UC system. Instead of a non-stop picket, AFSCME has been organizing on specific days to make a statement.

Students in the University of California’s 10-campus system have been very supportive of AFSCME by participating in various walk-outs and protests. Beyond that, many students showed a great deal of initiative by creating various Facebook groups and facilitating events (including a boycott and hunger strike!!!) in order to make sure UC officials knew they were standing in solidarity with the workers. In addition, several student-run organizations at the UC campuses have formally, and publically, endorsed AFSCME 3299’s fight.

On June 13, UCLA had their College of Letters and Science Commencement at Pauley Pavilion. Bill Clinton had agreed to give the commencement address to over 4,000 students, surrounded by their family and friends who year after year, fill Pauley Pavilion to capacity. Days before commencement, (and right in the middle of finals), these soon-to-be UCLA graduates were basically given the finger by AFSCME. The union’s leaders urged Bill Clinton to renege on his scheduled commencement address at UCLA citing the ongoing fight between AFSCME and the UC campuses and their scheduled picket at the graduation ceremonies.

Now, I’m a big fan of Bill. Somehow I remember Clinton being elected in 1992 (I was 7…) and being excited for reasons that I couldn’t explain. That excitement carried on and has not returned since. Yes, I’ve heard of Barack Obama– he just doesn’t do it for me.

I also remember being a little upset (jealous, even) in 1998 when Monica Lewinsky became famous for crawling around in the Oval Office. At that point, I had yet to even see a man’s penis, but if I had that opportunity, I would have been all over it… Surprisingly, my stint as an intern in early 2007 was without scandal- since then is a different story. But again, I digress…

Bill Clinton ended up pulling out of the UCLA graduation ceremony because he refused to cross the picket line.

Early in June, prior to all of the UC commencement ceremonies, a previously approved two-day strike was called off by AFSCME leaders due to the fact that the UC officials agreed to start contract talks again. Why did AFSCME decide to pull this scheduled strike, but not the one to take place at graduation?

Of course, the union president had a few pennies on the matter: “I’m very glad that people are supporting our cause and sending a message to the university that they can’t treat workers this way.” I think I might have missed the AFSCME “message to the university.” Was there one? If there was, they’re certainly doing it wrong.

Soon after, the UC officials issued this statement: “We do feel that it’s unfortunate that the union has pushed for these cancellations, since they have no bearing on negotiations and only serve to disrupt the commencement ceremonies for students and their families.” Instead, the only obvious message was that AFSCME will screw over students who they so desperately want to continue providing services to.

And it wasn’t just Bill Clinton. Former state Assembly Speaker, Fabian Nunez was supposed to speak at UC Davis’ commencement. Nunez was also scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley two years ago, but a separate AFSCME strike helped put a stop to that as well. Rep. Hilda Solis, Rep. Henry Waxman, and retired Army General Wesley Clark were all scheduled to speak at different departmental ceremonies at UCLA, but wouldn’t cross the picket line. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who was a possible contender for Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate had she won the nomination) was scheduled to address UC San Diego students. Assemblywoman Fiona Ma and Assemblyman John Laird were scheduled at UC Santa Cruz.

AFSCME members should be publicly shamed for taking a special piece of graduation away from the students who have been nothing but supportive since day one. I understand that there is a deep truth to the allegations that the real assholes here are the insanely rich UC officials, but AFSCME made a very strategic move in a very political game: as a general rule, most democrats do not cross picket lines. Now AFSCME has the “backing” of all of these democratic leaders– but possibly only by default.

Unfortunately, we live in an all-or-nothing kind of culture where people are unable to accept that change sometimes has to come in small doses. In February, UC officials offered an additional $16 million and AFSCME turned it down because it was short of their per- hour goal. AFSCME should have just taken it. If the Governator’s proposed budget passes, $240 million will disappear from the UC system. I wouldn’t count on a raise after that…

One AFSCME woman who cleans dorm rooms at UCLA said she makes just under $11 an hour. A patient-care worker noted that she makes $16 an hour, but her counterparts at Kaiser Permanente make $18. We all know that $11 an hour isn’t exactly a living wage, but c’mon. AFSCME claims that their workers typically earn 25% less than their counterparts at other places. If that’s the case, I’m going into the janitorial business, or I’ll get a medical technician job at Kaiser.

It can’t actually be that bad, right? I don’t see AFSCME members fleeing the UC campuses in pursuit of that identical job that pays 25% more. There are many pros and cons when it comes to unions, but when unemployment is as high as it is and there’s a budget crisis in the state, if you’re making $11 an hour to clean a dorm room, you’re a goddamned baller.

So hey, if that $11 an hour job isn’t good enough for you, I know plenty of people willing to take it off your hands ...


Pro-union Dem Governors on the mend

No slowdown for the labor-state, union-only agenda

The governors of New York and Oregon are doing fine after surgeries Saturday to remove a cataract and a gall bladder, respectively. New York Gov. David Paterson's recovery is going smoothly after his successful surgery, spokeswoman Erin Duggan said. The 54-year-old governor is "doing absolutely fine" and planned to resume his normal schedule Sunday, she said. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, 68, planned to leave Salem Memorial Hospital on Sunday after having his gall bladder removed, said spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor.

Paterson was sedated during the procedure at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City but went to the recovery room alert. He was home by early afternoon.

Paterson is legally blind. The cataract was discovered during an emergency procedure last month to relieve pain from acute glaucoma.

Kulongoski is expected to be out of the office for most of next week but make a full recovery. Kulongoski had to cancel plans to attend a Western Governors Association meeting in Wyoming because of the surgery.


Clooney joins Hollywood dues dispute

Related story: "Clooney opted for FiCore union membership"

Big Entertainment unions propose dues hike

Here's how toxic the SAG-AFTRA feud has become: George Clooney has decided to declare his neutrality. The battle between the two unions has been a gory sideshow, with the town resigned to production halting on July 1. Clooney made the point that there's only one winner in an actor-vs.-actor brawl: the congloms.

The SAG-AFTRA fight over how to get a decent deal has devolved to the point that Clooney last week came up with two proposals to break the logjam: increasing union dues (currently capped at $6,000 a year) for big earners like himself to $6,000 per $1 million; and creating a panel of megastars such as Tom Hanks and Jack Nicholson to meet annually with studio heads to adjust salaries.

Clooney's not just any star, and he hasn't shied away from guild politics. He joined Hanks, Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep earlier this year in urging SAG to start negotiations ASAP. And he resigned from the WGA to protest the refusal of guild arbiters to give him screenplay credit for "Leatherheads."

"What we can't do is pit artists against artists," he says, "because the one thing you can be sure of is that stories about Jack Nicholson vs. Tom Hanks only strengthens the negotiating power of the AMPTP" referring to the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.


Andy Stern deals with desert disorganization

Toxic feud at SEIU’s top ends with resignations

The terms for the resignations of the top two leaders of one of Nevada’s largest unions were laid out over salad and breadsticks at a Las Vegas Olive Garden on Tuesday night. Andy Stern, international president of the powerful Service Employees International Union, had sent his personal representative, Larry Fox, to end a deep divide in the Nevada local that jeopardized years of progress.

Over dinner, Vicky Hedderman, the local’s longtime president, told Fox her union had been dysfunctional for the better part of the past year. She attributed the chaos to the vicious daily leadership struggle between her and the local’s hard-charging executive director, Jane McAlevey.

The relationship was toxic. The solution, she said, was simple.

Hedderman offered her resignation on the condition that McAlevey would do the same. The personality conflict — and deep disagreements over the direction of the local — had gotten in the way of the union’s business, she said.

Hedderman said she had made the same offer twice previously — in August to Stern, and in November to Fox. By then, Hedderman had called on the Labor Department to investigate her own union over what she called a rigged election. If her offers to quit seemed like heated rhetoric back then, they now seemed sensible.

In the intervening months, the rival California Nurses Association had nearly succeeded in poaching 1,100 nurses from the SEIU at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals and had begun campaigning at University Medical Center, the SEIU’s flagship hospital.

“Everything was at risk,” Hedderman said. “It got worse and worse as time went on. There was no healing. It got more and more polarized. You just can’t take care of business when you have that going on.”

Hedderman complained that McAlevey ran a top-down shop and stifled member dissent. McAlevey said aggressive tactics were necessary to pull the union out of years of mediocrity. Her bravado (her nickname was “Hurricane Jane”) impressed some members but alienated others, along with key figures in political and labor circles.

The morning after the Olive Garden pact, McAlevey offered her resignation.

The infighting, she had decided in recent weeks, had become an overwhelming distraction to the union’s contract talks and political agenda. The feeling crystallized last month when, in McAlevey’s absence, dissident members led a successful coup of the local’s leadership board. Besides, McAlevey had felt for some time that the brunt of her work as a reformer was complete.

The two leaders, their relationship strained beyond saving, did not speak with each other about their resignation deal, using Fox as an intermediary.

The differences between McAlevey and Hedderman exploded into open warfare after a disputed election last summer in which several Hedderman supporters won seats on the local’s executive board.

That election was tossed out on a technicality and a new one was scheduled.

As tensions mounted Hedderman said she e-mailed Stern. “I said I had no problem stepping down if (he) took her out of Nevada,” she said. “It wasn’t taken very seriously.”

In the run-up to the second election, McAlevey and other paid union staffers — whose job it is to represent all members — successfully campaigned for a favored slate of candidates.

Hedderman retained her position as president, but many of her allies lost.

She and several losing candidates complained to the U.S. Labor Department, which found several violations in a preliminary report, including the use of union funds and membership rosters for internal political purposes.

Stern’s attempts to mediate the discord through Fox in November failed. Meanwhile, McAlevey publicly attributed the problems to a small but vocal group of disgruntled members and highlighted the union’s huge gains, including standard-setting contracts in the health care industry and robust political participation.

The infighting is now taking its toll: the California Nurses Association is threatening to unseat the SEIU at three St. Rose Dominican hospitals.

McAlevey said the local’s chaotic executive board meeting last month caused her to consider Hedderman’s joint-resignation proposal, which she first learned about several weeks earlier.

Several rank-and-file union members aligned with Hedderman complained that the board majority had inappropriately earmarked union money to hire a private detective to find the source of media leaks regarding the local’s botched presidential primary endorsement of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Because the local’s bylaws prevent accused board members from voting, the board minority, generally aligned with Hedderman, had the power to suspend the board majority for three months.

The de facto overthrow occurred while McAlevey was in Puerto Rico for the union’s national convention. Early the next morning she persuaded the international executive board to put the local’s actions on hold.

After that, McAlevey queried the international leadership about a “quick, smart transition” for new leadership.

Stern sent Fox to Nevada again, this time amid reports that the California Nurses Association had sent organizers and literature into University Medical Center, the base for much of SEIU’s expansion in the state.

Then came dinner this week. The international union confirmed Fox’s visit but declined to offer details, except to say that the two leaders’ decisions to resign were their own.

When the resignations take effect July 1, McAlevey will be replaced by Vicky Baca, a former registered nurse, longtime organizer and head of the international union’s public employees division. McAlevey will transfer to SEIU international’s payroll but remain as a consultant to the local for the next four months.

Shauna Hamel, the executive vice president and a McAlevey ally, will succeed Hedderman as president.


Union political operative put on paid leave

Barack taps SEIU organizer for common good

New York's Haitian community and Barack Obama supporters have something to celebrate - a dynamic local labor leader, Haitian American Patrick Gaspard, has been named national political director of Sen. Obama's presidential campaign. In this position, Gaspard - who is executive vice president for politics and legislation for the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East labor union - will work to develop relationships with labor unions, elected officials and political groups in the Democrats' battle for the White House.

"This election offers a clear choice between John McCain's agenda for continuing the failed policies of George W. Bush, and Barack Obama's vision for change," said Gaspard. "I am proud to be a part of this campaign, and I look forward to working to bring people together across the country to elect Barack Obama."

Gaspard has lobbied for the 1199SEIU for about a year and he's been heading volunteer efforts in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other primary elections states for the union since it endorsed Obama in February. Gaspard will take a leave of absence from his job with the 1199SEIU.


Rep. Baron Hill, Indiana DINO

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

Democrat wants to end secret-ballot union elections

Is the Employee Free Choice Act on your political radar? If it is not, it better be. It has the potential to be one of the most damaging pieces of legislation for employers and employees that has been seen in decades.

What is the Employee Free Choice Act?

* It provides that a union could be certified to represent your employees with a simple majority of your employees signing an authorization card, therefore the slang term for this legislation, "card check." This requirement for employees to publicly sign a union card to join a union would do away with the current practice of private ballot elections in organizing efforts. At issue is whether or not workers should continue to have the right to vote in privacy like we do in every other election in this county. Because there is no private ballot, the way each worker votes is made known not only to their co-workers but also to union organizers and their employer. This atmosphere would be ripe for extreme peer pressure, harassment and intimidation. This is wrong. Workers deserve the continued right I to make these important personal decisions in private, without fear of coercion or reprisal from union organizers, their employer, or both. The right to a private ballot is a cornerstone of our democracy The voting booth is so private that couples who have been married for years will not disclose to each other whom they voted for in the last government election. Yet, can you believe this fundamental right is under assault in the U.S. Congress? It gets worse.

* If an employer and a union are engaged in bargaining for the first time and are unable to reach an agreement, arbitration will be forced and the result binding for two years.

* It increases the amount an employer is required to pay when an employee is discharged or discriminated against during on organizing campaign to three times back pay. Additionally, there are civil fines up to $20,000 per violation against employers found to be willfully violating employees' rights during an organizing campaign.

On the record. This proposed legislation called H.R. 800 has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives 241 to 185. A companion bill in the U.S. Senate (S. 1041) is currently under consideration. The Indiana members of the U.S. House of Representatives have recorded their votes on this issue. Representatives Julia Carson, Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, Baron Hill and
Pete Visclosky all voted in favor of this legislation. Standing up for worker rights and voting to protect private ballots were representatives Dan Burton, Steve Buyer, Mike Pence and Mark Souder.

President Bush has promised a veto. But however this issue turns out this session, it is not going away What if there is not a presidential veto threat after 2008?

This legislation is organized labor's highest legislative priority today and will continue to be. This is their litmus test for members of Congress that they support. Unions seek to reverse the decline in union membership by facilitating the organizing of workplaces through legalized coercion and intimidation.

Call to action. Whether you are an employee or employer, make your voice heard. If you need assistance with how to do that, visit www.myprivateballot.com. Indiana organizations that have declared their public opposition to this "card check" legislation include the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indiana Manufactures Association, Associated Builders and Contractors, Indiana Retail Council, Indiana Petroleum Council, Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association, Indiana Grocery and Convenience Store Association, and Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

Remember. Your vote. In America it's as sacred as the Constitution. And it is to be cast in private. A right that belongs only to you. Don't let your Congressman, who was elected by secret ballot, take away your right. What could be next??

- J.R. Gaylor is president and CEO of the Associated Builders & Contractors of Indiana Inc. He also serves on the board of directors of the Indiana Construction Roundtable and on the board of trustees for Vincennes University.


Steelworkers' dues embezzler pleads guilty

Union coffers make easy pickings

A former union official is to be sentenced in federal court Oct. 2 after she pleaded guilty Friday to embezzlement. Betty Wing, 42, of Ann Arbor, admitted to stealing about $6,600 in 2003 and 2004 while she was secretary-treasurer of the United Steelworkers of America Local 1077, which was formerly the United Paperworkers International Union Local 1077.

Wing paid herself for activities she falsely claimed to have performed on behalf of the union and added digits to existing checks to increase the amount she was paid, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a news release.

Wing, who was represented by the Federal Defender Office, faces up to six months in prison when she is sentenced by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow.

"Union members have a legitimate expectation that their leaders will not operate with their hands on the till," U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy said in a prepared statement.


City union official upset by bribery revelations

FBI probes Detroit special-interest relationships

A waste contract approved last year by the City Council is under federal investigation and the involvement of at least one council member is under scrutiny, persons familiar with the case confirmed. The Detroit City Council voted 5-4 in November to award Synagro Technologies, Inc. a contract to handle the city's processed sewage for close to $47 million a year.

The FBI has been investigating allegations of corruption in connection with the contract, two persons familiar with the investigation said. The investigation has involved at least one court-approved wiretap, one of the sources said. The investigation of the waste contract is part of a broader investigation involving several City Hall contracts that has been active in the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for several years.

The contract involves hauling of sewage and also provides for the construction of a plant that would incinerate part of the sludge and convert part of it into a crop fertilizer. The plant would be located in the Delray section of the city on east Jefferson, across the street from the city's waste water treatment plan. The city council approved the contract as part of its normal business operations.

"I'm very glad there's an investigation," said John Riehl, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which opposed the contract because it threatened the jobs of more than 100 members who work at an incinerator where the sludge has been burned.

"We knew there was shady business, just from trying to deal with the City Council about it."

Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who had initially been vocal in opposition to the contract but switched her deciding vote from opposing to supporting the contract, is among those said to be under investigation in connection with the deal, a person familiar with the investigation said.

Detroit criminal attorney Steve Fishman would neither confirm nor deny Saturday that he is representing Conyers.

"It would be grotesquely premature for me to comment on any of this," Fishman said. "Call me back when you have something of substance."

Conyers could not be reached Saturday and a woman who answered the door at her home near Palmer Woods said she had no comment. She was absent from Detroit City Council for the latter part of the week and told colleagues she was being treated for a medical condition. Conyers is the spouse of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

FBI Special Agent Sandra Berchtold said Saturday she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy declined comment.

It is not known which council members are targets in the federal probe.

Synagro, a publicly traded national company based in Houston, Texas, partnered with Detroit-based RAS Development to help win City Council approval of the contract and to build in assurances that local firms would benefit from the contract dollars.

RAS is headed by Rayford W. Jackson, a Detroit businessman whose name was connected with an earlier City Council controversy over the sale of city-owned properties by Henry Hagood, the city's former planning and development director, to friends of his.

A 2006 audit by City Auditor General Loren Monroe found that many of the Detroit Neighborhood Development Corp. homes sold to Hagood's longtime friends Dalton Brown, Marcellus Oree and Vershawn Oree were first sold to Rayford Development or RAS Development Group, companies headed by Jackson.

Jackson could not be reached Saturday. Synagro did not return calls to their Houston offices Friday and Saturday. Michigan company officials could not be reached Saturday.

Rumors about a possible investigation have swirled around City Hall for more than a week.

James Canning, spokesman for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, said the mayor had no comment.

Council President Kenneth V. Cockrel was contacted Saturday morning on his cell phone but said he could not immediately comment.

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel also declined comment Saturday morning.

Recently Conyers was criticized for an outburst where she called the council president "Shrek" and for traveling to Europe, Hawaii and other destinations to attend conferences on behalf of the city pension board. Those trips were paid with retirement fund dollars.

A spokesman for the water department, George Ellenwood, said his only information about the probe has come from news reporters.

"No one in the water department has been contacted or been approached about this by law enforcement," Ellenwood said on Saturday. "If they were, that would have come through the law department and we would have cooperated fully."

City officials say it's cheaper than the $52 million a year it would take to process the sludge using its 40-year-old incinerator complex, which would include $125 million in federally required upgrades.

Synagro plans on burning 60 percent of the sludge using fluid bed incineration, which burns hotter and more consistently than the city's current technology, Pam Racey, a Synagro vice president, said earlier. The rest will be treated by the city and Synagro will work with Michigan farmers to apply it as fertilizer.


Labor-state News Union takes dues hit

Guild beset by leftism, paper-stream waste, red ink

The (Albany, NY) Times Union has accepted buyout applications from 25 of its employees, Publisher Mark Aldam said Friday. The newspaper received 30 applications, but Aldam said five were rejected because those positions "would require replacement" and therefore not achieve cost savings. The paper also cut six positions in its press and engraving operations earlier this month "to match the current production demands," Aldam said.

"There will be no further involuntary job eliminations at this time," he said, despite tough economic conditions.

The Times Union in May offered voluntary buyouts to employees in every department, hoping to reduce the newspaper's staff by 30 workers. At the time, the newspaper had about 500 employees.

Among other benefits, the buyout package offered employees one to three years of health insurance, based on service and minus their co-pay, and two weeks of pay for each year of employment with the company, up to a year's salary.

Employees with at least 20 years of service were eligible for an additional lump-sum payment of $11,000, while those with 30 years of experience were offered $22,000 and those with more than 40 years were offered $33,000.

Fourteen of the employees whose buyouts were accepted are in the Newspaper Guild of Albany/Communications Workers of America, the union said Friday. Six of those workers are in the advertising department, four are in news, three are in circulation, and one works in tech support.

"We're glad no one faces a possible layoff at this time," said Tim O'Brien, president of the guild. "We're sorry to see so many of our colleagues go, but glad they could do so with extra money and extended health insurance."

Media outlets both locally and nationally have been facing dramatically increasing costs and declining advertising revenue as consumers migrate to online news sites, which, so far, do not provide the same level of advertising revenue.

Several local media outlets have laid off workers this year, including the WAMC network of public radio stations; public television and radio network WMHT; television stations WTEN Ch. 10 and WXXA Ch. 23; and the Daily Gazette.


SEIU organizer amps convention

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