ACORN 'Citizens Services' exposes Barack

Related Citizens Services stories: here
More ACORN stories: here

Tides and union-backed group mixes charity, gov't grants with political consulting, activism

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign paid more than $800,000 to an offshoot of the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now for services the Democrat's campaign says it mistakenly misrepresented in federal reports.

An Obama spokesman said Federal Election Commission reports would be amended to show Citizens Services Inc. -- a subsidiary of ACORN -- worked in "get-out-the-vote" projects, instead of activities such as polling, advance work and staging major events as stated in FEC finance reports filed during the primary. FEC spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger said it is not unusual for campaigns to amend reports, even regarding large sums of money.

But, said Blair Latoff, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee: "Barack Obama's failure to accurately report his campaign's financial records is an incredibly suspicious situation that appears to be an attempt to hide his campaign's interaction with a left-wing organization previously convicted of voter fraud. For a candidate who claims to be practicing 'new' politics, his FEC reports look an awful lot like the 'old-style' Chicago politics of yesterday."

In response to the RNC's position, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an e-mail: "The RNC can concoct all of the outlandish conspiracy theories they want, but when we saw that our FEC report didn't accurately reflect the field work CSI was hired to perform we corrected it. It's pretty bold for the RNC to attack us for a clerical error after John McCain's campaign was just forced to return $50,000 raised by a foreign national through a number of contributors who weren't even supporting McCain."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the campaign's error on FEC documents doesn't seem extraordinary, especially considering the huge amounts of money being spent.

"It's rare that people don't file any amended reports. If he has a pattern of lots and lots of amended reports, that would be more noteworthy than an occasional one," Sloan said.

Jim Terry, spokesman for a group that tracks ACORN, said Citizens Services Inc.'s involvement in the Obama campaign raises bigger questions.

"All of this just seems like an awful lot of money and time spent on political campaigning for an organization that purports to exist to help low-income consumers," said Terry, chief public advocate for Consumers Rights League, a Washington, D.C., advocacy outfit with a libertarian outlook.

"ACORN has a long and sordid history of employing convoluted Enron-style accounting to illegally use taxpayer funds for their own political gain," Terry claimed. "Now it looks like ACORN is using the same type of convoluted accounting scheme for Obama's political gain."

Obama is the CSI's first national candidate, although the company has worked for several regional candidates in recent years, said Jeff Robinson, CSI's executive vice president.

"Our contracts were relatively small for Obama," he said, declining to specify amounts because of "proprietary" rights of CSI's clients. The largest project for Obama was during the Ohio primary, he said.

"That was a very short-term contract for one week of work. In Ohio, they asked us to do canvasses in five cities statewide," Robinson said.

The Ohio primary was March 4. According to FEC records, the Obama campaign paid Citizens Services Inc. $832,598.29, from Feb. 25 to May 17.

A Trib analysis of campaign finance reports showed Obama paid CSI for services that stood out as unusual. For example, CSI received payments of $63,000 and $75,000 for advance work. Excluding the large payments to CSI, the average amount the Obama campaign spent with other organizations was $558.82 per check on more than 1,200 entries classified as advance work.

Citizens Services Inc. is headquartered at the same address as ACORN's national headquarters in New Orleans. Citizens Services was established in December 2004 to "assist persons and organizations who advance the interests of low- and moderate-income people," according to paperwork filed in Louisiana. In a 2006 ACORN publication, Citizen Services Inc. is described as "ACORN's campaign services entity."

ACORN describes itself as the nation's largest grass-roots community organization of low- and moderate-income people, operating in 110 cities across the country, including Pittsburgh.

Founded in Arkansas in 1970, ACORN long has been considered a political ally of the Democratic Party. It has received praise from leading Democrats, such as Howard Dean and former President Bill Clinton, for its community activism, especially regarding efforts to increase housing for low-income people and restoration work after Hurricane Katrina.

Early in his career, Obama worked as an organizer for Project Vote, an ACORN offshoot, and represented ACORN in legal actions, according to various published reports, including Associated Press articles. ACORN's political action committee endorsed Obama in the primary.

The organization has sparked controversy.

Accusations of voter fraud have followed ACORN's canvassing projects in about a dozen states. ACORN has dismissed the charges as politically motivated allegations from conservative groups, yet cases are pending and, in other cases, ACORN workers have entered guilty pleas. For example, three ACORN workers pleaded guilty to submitting phony voter registration forms in Washington, and eight ACORN employees pleaded guilty to federal election fraud in Missouri.

ACORN is at the center of a scandal involving a $1 million embezzlement by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke. ACORN discovered the embezzlement in 2000 but did not alert law enforcement officials.

ACORN's management committee instead negotiated an agreement to have the Rathke family repay the stolen funds, according to a report in The New York Times. The Rathke brothers resigned from ACORN this summer after news reports disclosed the embezzlement. A donor agreed to repay the most of the money, the Times reported.

Sunday Alabi, an ACORN activist and spokesman in St. Paul, is one of CSI's three-person board of directors. Alabi described CSI as a nonprofit consulting firm related to ACORN.

"I do not know the day-to-day work of what they do. I'm on the board," Alabi said, referring other questions to Robinson, the executive vice president.

Robinson said CSI is a "not-for-profit political and campaign management firm, much like any political consulting firm."CSI is not tax-exempt under any IRS code, he said. Without tax-exempt status, the organization isn't bound by IRS restrictions for nonprofits on political activities.

"We have a wide range of clients. We provide political campaign management. We provide field services," Robinson said. "Our clients are typically considered liberal. Our clients are labor unions, liberal to progressive candidates, nonprofit organizations on the liberal side of the political spectrum."

In 2006, CSI collected all the signatures and managed successful statewide ballot measure campaigns in Missouri, Ohio, Colorado and Arizona to increase the minimum wage, he said. "We have a good reputation. We provide good services."

Regarding CSI's nonprofit status, Robinson said: "We are organized specifically not to make money, but we make money. There are no profits. We have a staff of 60 people around the country, and that eats up our entire profit. We're not a for-profit corporation, but we are not a group like a United Way."

CSI is a "separate organization entirely" from ACORN, he said.

"ACORN is a client of ours," Robinson said. "ACORN has a lot of different partner organizations. We are a partner, but we are separate."

Robinson is listed on several Web sites as national deputy political director for campaigns and elections at ACORN. He is also listed as political director at the nonprofit Communities Voting Together and as a consultant at Project Vote. He did not return phone calls or an e-mail request for a follow-up interview.

Money flows back and forth between ACORN, Citizens Services Inc., Project Vote and Communities Voting Together. ACORN posts job ads for Citizens Services and Project Vote. Communities Voting Together contributed $60,000 to Citizens Services Inc., for example, in November 2005, according to a posting on CampaignMoney.com. Project Vote has hired ACORN and CSI as its highest paid contractors, paying ACORN $4,649,037 in 2006 and CSI $779,016 in 2006, according to Terry of the Consumers Rights League.


Union bigs dominate Dem delegates in Denver

Most ordinary voters don't realize who calls the shots

Union members from around the country will arrive in Denver next week for the Democratic National Convention. A quarter of the more than 4,200 delegates to the convention are active or retired union members or union household members, and they’ll help get the word out about the economic issues that are at the heart of the 2008 elections.

On Sunday, many of the labor delegates will join Colorado union members and their families for a Labor Caucus to get ready for the convention and the election season. The Democratic convention will be a great opportunity for the union movement to highlight the important issues this election year and get ready to get out the vote.

Cindy Spanyers of Alaska and John Clark of Missouri are two delegates who will attend the convention and make sure working families are represented in the election and beyond.

Spanyers is a member of the Alaska Public Employees Association (APEA-AFT) and a delegate from Juneau. Alaska has been closer in presidential polling this year than it has in decades, and the state also has a key U.S. Senate race.

Spanyers says core economic issues like jobs, trade and health care are motivating her this election cycle. She supports Barack Obama for president because of his strong positions on those issues.

As the years go by, we’re finding that more and more people are not able to reach middle class status. Wages are stagnant, costs are going up, and the elusive retirement programs are just harder and harder to come by these days.

At the convention and throughout the fall campaign, Spanyers says she’ll be working to educate others about crucial pro-worker policies like the Employee Free Choice Act. After the convention, she’ll help carry out Alaska’s Labor 2008 political mobilization program.

Spanyers is making a major commitment to get to the convention, driving more than 2,600 miles from her home state to Denver to attend.

John Clark of IBEW Local 1 in St. Louis is among 16 labor delegates attending the convention from Missouri, a critical swing state in the presidential race. The state also has a competitive governor’s race: "I hope we can show the nation that the Democratic party can come together and turn our country around. Organized labor needs to play a principal role in making certain that gets done in Denver."


College activists double-crossed by SEIU

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Campus contractor Aramark won't be drawn into anti-Stern uprising

Student activists on several college campuses are speaking out against one of the nation’s largest labor groups, claiming they were deceived and used as “pawns” by the Service Employees International Union.

The students’ grievances, outlined in an open letter to SEIU leadership, allege a “disturbing pattern” where SEIU undercut students’ efforts to help organize service workers on at least four campuses.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that SEIU leaders often see students and campus workers as little more than pawns to use as they see fit,” the letter states. “SEIU has sought to maneuver these pawns in a way that brings new members and dues into the union in the short term but keeps workers in poverty and actually hurts our collective efforts to help unions grow at a massive scale.”

SEIU, the nation’s fastest growing union, has about 1.7 million members, many of whom work in cafeterias and dining halls on college campuses. On some of these campuses, students have organized rallies and even hunger strikes in support of workers’ rights.

The letter alleges that SEIU officials encouraged students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to help organize food services workers, while at the same time entering into a deal with the workers’ employer that would insure there would never be a union at North Carolina.

The SEIU agreement, first reported upon in May by the Wall Street Journal, grants the so-called “Big 3” service employers the right to determine where SEIU will organize workers. Aramark Corp., which provides food services to North Carolina’s campus, was among those included in the agreement, the Journal reported.

“The deal ensured UNC workers could not join SEIU by letting Aramark decide which workers could join the union,” the letter states. “Not surprisingly, UNC workers didn’t make Aramark’s list.”

SEIU officials refused to comment for this story. Asked about the letter, Aramark officials issued a statement, dismissing the allegations as part of a campaign against Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, who has been praised as a reformer by some and criticized by others for his methods.

“The information in the letter from the student organizations to Andy Stern is simply not true,” Aramark’s statement reads. “We would never even attempt to respond to such a document, which seems to be part of an anti-Stern campaign.”

Secret Deal Promises ‘Labor Peace’

A summary of the “Big 3” agreement, which was provided to Inside Higher Ed, details how SEIU allowed employers – not workers – to dictate where unionization would take place. The agreement, forged by SEIU and another union known as Unite Here, cedes the power to declare union sites to two major food service providers, Compass Group USA and Sodexho Inc. Along with Aramark, which had a similar agreement according to the Journal, Compass and Sodexho are the major food service providers on college campuses across the country.

In addition to empowering the companies to determine where workers can organize, the agreement insures that unionized workers won’t strike or even make derogatory remarks about the companies.

Union members were not informed of the deal, which specifically stipulates that secrecy is “critical to the success” of the agreement.

So what do the unions get from this deal? In the words of the agreement, the unions get “labor peace.” In short, the companies agree not to interfere with unionization efforts, as long as workers only organize on the sites the companies have approved.

The SEIU agreement may be unusual in that it so overtly empowers employers, but unions have been increasingly inclined to make painful compromises given the eroding strength of labor laws in the U.S, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“It does have a bad odor to it, absolutely,” said Lichtenstein, who directs UC-Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. “But I want to make the point that it’s just an extension of what unions have been forced to do.”

The controversy that’s accompanied news of SEIU’s agreement is part of a much larger philosophical battle within the labor movement, Lichtenstein notes. Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, has promoted labor “density” – driving up the percentage of unionized workers in a given sector – as the key to success in the fight for greater workers’ rights. But the union has pursued density at the expense of progress for workers, according to some students and critics within SEIU.

Chapel Hill Students Allege Betrayal

Student activists have proven reliable allies to labor groups in recent history, and SEIU eagerly solicited their support at Chapel Hill. But, according to the letter, students did SEIU’s bidding on campus only to be left in the lurch.

According to the letter, North Carolina students began organizing workers – at the behest of SEIU – in 2005. They were joined in these efforts by workers from the Southwest Workers Union, a joint labor venture of SEIU and Unite Here. But after working side-by-side with the students, who said they were subjected to Aramark executives’ intimidation, the union leaders abandoned the cause, the letter states.

“When summer break came, the SWU organizers left, promising to return the following year,” according to the letter. “After weeks of unreturned phone calls, students and workers learned that SEIU leaders had cut a deal with Aramark.”

Students who were involved in organizing workers at Chapel Hill did not respond to multiple e-mails sent to addresses listed in the university’s directory. An anonymous student, however, called the whole affair at North Carolina “a spectacular failure” in a recent article published by The Nation.

Aramark’s statement disputed claims that executives had engaged in acts of intimidation.

“Our employees have the right to choose whether or not to join a union in a process that is free from coercion or intimidation,” the statement says.

Labor Risks its Future

Lichtenstein, a longtime labor scholar, said SEIU risks alienating the future of the labor movement – even if compromises prove an effective long-term strategy for bolstering membership.

“The students are motivated by this kind of ideological, emotional and political vision of unionism — and correctly so — and I think SEIU is in danger of pushing that aside,” Lichtenstein said.

It should also come as little surprise that, given the choice, Aramark would not want unionization on a campus like Chapel Hill – a bastion of pro labor sentiment with a history of grassroots organization and student activism, Lichtenstein added. But it would be in SEIU’s interest to have such campuses organized, he said.

“They should have insisted: We insist on North Carolina or Berkeley, one of the hotspots,” Lichtenstein said.

Chapel Hill’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops was particularly active in trying to organize Aramark workers on campus, and several members of the student group were among 15 signatories to the SEIU letter. But the national offices of Students Against Sweatshops did not endorse the letter’s criticism of SEIU, opting instead to quickly issue a statement of neutrality on the issue.

“We respect the right of each of our affiliates to act autonomously,” the letter states. “However, we as a national organization are committed to remaining neutral in SEIU’s internal conflicts and those of all our union allies.

SEIU and Students Against Sweatshops have close ties and have worked together on campaigns, and the student group gets most of its funding from unions. But Students Against Sweatshops and SEIU officials did not respond to inquiries about whether SEIU specifically provides money to the student group.

‘Appalling’ Actions in California

Student criticism of SEIU is not limited to the events that unfolded in North Carolina. As the letter notes, University of California at Irvine students had their own frustrations about SEIU’s interference.

According to the letter, SEIU nearly stymied an effort by the local union to have Aramark employees hired by the university, thereby granting the workers the same benefits as Irvine staff. At the height of the local union’s campaign in 2006, SEIU organizers – in apparent collusion with Aramark – tried to get the workers to join SEIU and abandon their local union, students said.

“We already had a relationship [with the workers],” recalled Carla Osorio, a former student who aided the local union. “We already had our campaign going on, and then this other union comes in that was shady.”

Despite SEIU’s attempts to woo workers, the employees ultimately stuck with their local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. They were hired by UC-Irvine in September of 2006.

“This blatant effort by Aramark to undermine the workers [sic] efforts is not surprising, but SEIU’s complicity is appalling,” the letter states.

Elsewhere in California, students have also complained about SEIU’s treatment of union members at Stanford University and Santa Clara University. Since unionized workers on those campuses were transferred into Service Workers United – part of SEIU and Unite Here — they’ve “received little to no support,” according to the letter.

The unionized workers at Santa Clara and Stanford were employees of Bon Appétit, a company owned by Compass Group. Compass Group is one of the “Big 3” employers covered under SEIU’s controversial agreement.

Zev Kvitky, the former president of a local union that represents 1,500 workers at Stanford and Santa Clara, said SEIU is alienating young people at its own peril.

“I don’t want to see the union behave in a way that engenders distrust,” said Kvitky, who works with a group seeking SEIU reform. “I think it actually could result in long-term harm in the labor movement.”

Kvitky, who backs a group called SEIU Member Activists for Reform Today (S.M.A.R.T.), said students are right to have the impression that they have been used.

“I think there probably are clearly times where the union has kind of used students as leverage,” he said. “I don’t want to say as pawns, but certainly as leverage in order to win these agreements or win these campaigns. And I think that creates a lot of resentment on the part of students.”

— Jack Stripling


NYT ends SEIU 'bad news blackout'

More Andy Stern stories: here
Related Tyrone Freeman stories: here

Will other tree-killers in the Andy Stern Club follow suit?

If anything symbolized the success of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing union, it was the campaign in 1999 to organize 74,000 home care workers in Los Angeles County. It was the largest successful unionization drive in the nation since the 1930s.

But now the service employees’ union has been embarrassed by disclosures that the local representing those workers has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to companies run by the wife and various friends of the local’s president, Tyrone Freeman.

Annual reports filed with the Labor Department show that the local paid $177,000 last year to a video production firm run by Mr. Freeman’s wife, Pilar Planells. The local’s training center has often paid more than $90,000 a year to a child care firm run by Mr. Freeman’s mother-in-law. In 2006, the local paid $16,000 to a basketball team coached by Mr. Freeman’s brother-in-law. The expenditures were first reported by The Los Angeles Times.

The service employees’ union announced Wednesday night that Mr. Freeman, wanting to clear up the matter, had asked the parent union to place his local in a temporary trusteeship. He also said he was taking a temporary leave of absence, effective immediately.

The spending by Mr. Freeman’s local, United Long-Term Care Workers, has brought a burst of questions and criticisms about whether a local that represents workers earning $9 an hour on average should be spending money this way. The local represents 155,000 workers who take care of the aged, infirm and disabled, usually in their homes.

“Long-term-care workers work hard, and they need a powerful union to serve their interests,” said Tim Jemal, chief executive of a public affairs firm and a former spokesman for the local. “Reports of nepotism and lavish spending smack of hypocrisy. These actions betray the trust of the workers who place so much hope in the union to better their lives.”

The disclosures about Mr. Freeman, 38, have embarrassed Andy Stern, the service employees’ president, partly because he took Mr. Freeman from a union job in Georgia and appointed him first as the leader of one Los Angeles local, then to his position as head of Local 6434. That local was formed in 2006 when the union consolidated six smaller locals.

“A lot of us were excited that the S.E.I.U. organized home care workers because it meant it was representing the working poor,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But then Tyrone Freeman comes along and tarnishes the image of the S.E.I.U.”

A spokesman for Mr. Freeman, Scott Mann, said Mr. Freeman was busy with meetings on Wednesday and was not available for an interview.

In a statement this month, Mr. Freeman said the accusations against him included many mischaracterizations.

Mr. Freeman has said that all the expenditures were aimed at helping his union’s members and were approved by the local’s 55-member board.

He said his wife’s firm, Lotus Seven, had won its contract through competitive bidding to make videos about the local.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. Freeman had refunded $9,856 the union paid to a cigar lounge after its article appeared.

The disclosures about Mr. Freeman come as Mr. Stern has sought to transfer 65,000 home care workers into Mr. Freeman’s local from a local in Northern California that is led by an outspoken Stern critic, Sal Rosselli.

Mr. Rosselli, who has resisted efforts to move workers from his local, said, “We and many others in California and beyond have long been expressing concerns to Stern about the leadership of the long-term-care union here.”

In a statement on Wednesday night, Michelle Ringuette, a spokeswoman for Mr. Stern and the parent union said: “These allegations are of serious concern to all of us, and we support Mr. Freeman’s decision to put the best interests of the members first. We are committed to protecting our members through strong and steady leadership and with a fair, free and accountable investigation.”

Under Mr. Freeman, the local paid more than $400,000 to sponsor a charity golf tournament, which spent some $100,000 more than it took in. To help attract interest in the tournament, the union paid $50,000 to a former Los Angeles Rams running back, Eric Dickerson, and $50,000 to his foundation.

Mr. Freeman ran unopposed for president of the local last March, but the federal Labor Department is investigating complaints that the local had imposed unreasonable barriers to running. Its bylaws require members to collect more than 4,800 signatures to get on the ballot.

“These aren’t factory workers who can easily gather signatures on the factory floor or in a parking lot during a break,” said Arthur Fox, a lawyer for the worker who has challenged the election. “These workers are isolated. They don’t have a clue who else is in the union. It’s a totally onerous burden. It’s virtually impossible for a rank-and-file person to get all these signatures.”

Federal law bars unions from erecting unreasonable barriers to running for office.


Anti-corruption measure on labor-state ballot

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Can vicious cycle of gov't contracts and political kickbacks be curbed?

A ballot measure to make it harder for government contractors — and unions that represent government workers — to give political contributions has been placed on the November ballot. Meanwhile, Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman's office said Thursday it will have to do a closer count of the signatures gathered for another initiative aimed at preserving government affirmative action programs.

Coffman on Thursday designated as Amendment 54 a measure that says that the owners and officers of companies or organizations that have sole-source government contracts worth more than $100,000 cannot give political contributions to candidates or parties during the term of the contract and for two years after it ends. The measure defines unions that have collective bargaining agreements with governments as sole-source contractors.

The ballot measure is sponsored by the Independence Institute, a Golden-based organization already pushing another ballot measure — Amendment 49 — that would prohibit the deduction of union dues from government workers' paychecks.

Organizers needed 76,047 valid signatures, and they submitted a total of 125,196 signatures. A sample of 6,260 showed there were more than enough valid signatures, Coffman's office said.

But the signature-counting isn't over for an initiative aimed at defeating another ballot measure that would eliminate state-sponsored affirmative action programs.

Coffman's office said it must do a line-by-line count of signatures gathered for the initiative because the number of valid signatures in the sample reviewed was too close to the threshold needed to certify the measure for the ballot.

The initiative is being pushed by foes of Amendment 46, a ballot measure that would end race and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and education. The counter-initiative would allow affirmative action programs currently permitted by federal courts to continue.


Scandal-plagued ACORN does Denver

Code Red for voter-fraud fighters in Denver

ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) will stage two events at the Democratic National Convention: A non-partisan voter registration mobilization on Sunday and a "Bagels and Ballots" breakfast and conversation on Wednesday.

On Sunday, ACORN members, volunteers and delegates will converge upon Denver neighborhoods to sign up eligible citizens to register to vote. The voter registration mobilization begins at 1:30 p.m., on Sunday, Aug. 24 at Christ in the City Church, 2824 Welton St. ACORN plans to sign up its 60,000th voter in Denver for the November election. (ACORN will host a similar event in Minnesota during the Republican national convention.)

"Through voter registration, we are encouraging our neighbors to become a part of the democratic process while empowering them to improve their lives, their communities and our country," said ACORN member Linda Medlock.

This person-to-person contact has made ACORN successful in bringing new people into the democratic process. ACORN's is nearing its goal to help 1.2 million people complete voter registration applications by Labor Day.

Volunteer canvassers will talk to residents about issues of concern to their communities, and help them complete paperwork that is forwarded to local registrars of voters. No experience is required to volunteer. All participants will receive training on Colorado registration laws and will be paired with experienced volunteers for the afternoon.

On Wednesday, "ACORN Votes" the federal PAC organized by ACORN's elected leadership, will host delegates during a "Bagels and Ballots" reception from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, 650 15th St. (between California and Welton St.). The reception will include a briefing on ACORN's platform which calls for federal action to strengthen low and moderate income families and neighborhoods.

"ACORN is concerned about stopping foreclosures, obtaining affordable healthcare and gaining living wages," Medlock said.

SOURCE Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)


AFL-CIO's Acuff reveals union power agenda

More EFCA stories: here
More card-check stories: here

Labor federation seeks political blockade of Washington, D.C.

Legislation that would allow organizers to unionize workplaces without secret-ballot elections has the potential to significantly shift the balance of power in the workplace, a fact being highlighted in Maine this summer by television ads and other marketing initiatives.

Currently, employers can require a secret ballot election, but under the Employee Free Choice Act, sometimes referred to as the "card-check" bill, employees could unionize as soon as they get a majority of workers to sign cards in favor of a union.

Supporters say the legislation will end what they call the unfair advantage of employers to dictate the method of deciding whether workers can unionize. Opponents, though, say the change would take away workers' right to an anonymous vote.

This afternoon, a rally will be held in Monument Square in Portland from noon to 2 p.m. to protest the legislation, part of a cross-country series of rallies and voter registration drives by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Labor representatives, meanwhile, are trying to collect a million signatures nationally on a petition in favor of the bill.

Both labor officials and industry representatives claim that their primary interest is to protect workers from undue coercion or intimidation from the other side.

Employers require an election to buy time for anti-union efforts that are aimed at intimidating workers, said Stewart Acuff, assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO and the chief spokesman on the legislation. "It's not a right if you are afraid to exercise it." By contrast, a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says labor intimidates workers even now, and will even do so even more under the proposed law.

"People sign cards to just get the union organizer off their back," said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the U.S. Chamber's Workforce Freedom Initiative. "We think workers are smart enough to figure out on their own if they want to belong to a union."

Spencer, who is speaking at the Monument Square rally, said educating Mainers on the issue was particularly important to the U.S. Chamber because Maine is one of several targeted states. It has a U.S. Senate race with opponents on different sides of the issue.

The bill itself has been shelved for this Congressional session, but remains a hot election-year topic.

In Maine, ads aired earlier this month that tied the legislation to the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who opposes the legislation, and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-1st District, who supports it.

Both campaigns condemned the television ads, which featured actor Vince Curatola as an apparent labor-union boss. Curatola also played gangster John "Johnny Sac'' Sacramoni on the HBO television series "The Sopranos."

The legislation also has been a raised in connection with the presidential race. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. held mandatory meetings with store managers and department supervisors to warn that if Democrats win in November, the party likely would push through the Employee Free Choice Act.

Sen. Barack Obama is a co-sponsor of the legislation, while Sen. John McCain opposes it.

Today, when a union effort is under way, workers are asked to sign cards seeking a union. At that point, one of two things can happen: An employer can accept the cards and recognize the union, or it can require an election.

The vast majority of businesses require an election.

Acuff's position is that requiring an election is unfair to organizers and potential union members because employers use that time to "intimidate and harass" the workers and undertake anti-union activities, such as hiring outside consultants and coaching managers on how to oppose the effort.

In 2007, half of all initial elections were conducted within 39 days of the filing of the petition; 93 percent were conducted within 56 days, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

"During an election campaign, there is a considerable amount of pressure on workers," Spencer acknowledged. "It comes from unions, from employers, from co-workers. The problem with the bill is that it puts another point of pressure on the worker: The pressure to sign the card. That's just increasing the pressure on the worker."

Spencer said the employers' interest is in making sure workers vote their conscience. "The employers I talk to say that if workers want to organize, that's fine. We just want them to do it by secret ballot. We don't want them harassed or intimidated by the union organizers," Spencer said.

Backers of the bill note that workers can still vote under the Employee Free Choice Act. At any time, if 30 percent of the workers want an election, they can have one. Spencer challenged the unions' position that the current environment wasn't working, noting that they win about 55 percent of the elections.

"What's the problem? They know how to win elections," he said. "The unions just want a situation where they know they will always win."

Both sides agree the legislation won't be going anywhere this session, since there aren't enough Senate votes to overcome a filibuster.

Waiting for the 111th Congress doesn't bother labor: Acuff said supporters have seen significant momentum building in support of the legislation since it was first introduced in 2003. "We've gotten larger and larger numbers of co-sponsors every time we've introduced it," Acuff said, noting the House vote this year was "a huge milestone."

Spencer said he anticipates that the bill will move swiftly to the Senate, where "it will all be about mathematics" - or whether the Democrats have gained the 60 seats needed to overcome a filibuster.

Acuff is counting votes, too.

"We want to build a filibuster-proof Senate, that's part of why the (Senate race) is so important in Maine," Acuff said.


Labor rule can't save unions

A caution from Down Under to U.S. unionists

It should be a fine time to be a union leader in Australia. Having bankrolled Labor victories in every state and territory and ejected the evil anti-union conservatives from Canberra, the planets are aligned for a revival of union power under a Rudd Labor Government. Now consider the real world. Even with the ALP running the country, union relevance is anything but assured. And unions know it. That's why strikes are back in fashion. But recent attempts by unions to flex their muscle to prove they still matter, only confirm that they probably don't.

It's true that unions can point to a long list of successful special pleading. Recall the secret deal between then Victorian premier Steve Bracks and the Police Association over pay, weapons and taxpayer-funded legal representation for police facing corruption charges in return for union support during the most recent state election. In NSW, raw union muscle explains occupational health and safety laws with a duty of care that presumes employer guilt and gives unions the right to prosecute OHS breaches, claiming a handy percentage of any fine paid. Labor lawyers call it a moiety but it's really union payola.

And sure, unions have applied political heat to secure big pay rises in the public sector. Witness the 15.2 per cent won by Victorian teachers in May and the pay offer of 21.7 per cent to teachers in Western Australia last month. Unions are now threatening rolling strikes in South Australia and NSW unless Labor governments cave in to similar demands. After a long period of industrial peace where strikes fell to a low of 135 in 2007, with 50,000 lost working days, down from 1519 strikes and 1.3 million working days lost in 1987, unions are back.

Back to the past, that is. You see, unions have a problem. Workers are not racing to the union cause. Not even union wins with friendly Labor governments have stemmed the decline in union membership. It now stands at about 19 per cent of the workforce, driven by their core base in the public sector. In a tight labour market with a skills shortage, you'd think unions would be riding high. They are not.

Members are leaving the cause. Not even the ACTU's extensive and expensive Your Rights at Work campaign managed to attract new members. Numbers have fallen 90,000 since last year.

ACTU leader Sharan Burrow knows why: the Howard government and a "hostile Work Choices system". That was a convenient excuse for a while. With Labor running the show, what's their excuse now? The fact is that blaming others for their loss of relevance has only blinded unions to reality.

If unions have a decent product to sell to workers in the form of benefits that flow from union membership, workers should be joining up in droves. Instead, having for so long relied on special pleadings and legislative favours from Labor governments as a marker of their success, unions grew complacent about the genuine needs and preferences of workers. Numbers may be their death knell. More important, behind the numbers is a stubborn, outdated themvus approach to management pushed by an equally antiquated union leadership that prevents unions from adapting to the changing preferences of workers and the long-term needs of business.

Unions' long-term addiction to entrenched legislative privilege and collectively enforced monopolies has left them unable to understand or promote the individual choices of workers. Witness their ramped-up scare tactics in recent weeks against individual contracts and non-union collective agreements. Unions know that Telstra is a test case of their relevance. The giant telco employs 21,000 workers on Australian Workplace Agreements out of a total permanent workforce of 34,000. Imagining that unions were back in the driving seat under a federal Labor Government, unions overplayed their hand during negotiations over a new enterprise agreement. They demanded a side agreement that Telstra said was illegal under workplace laws because it contained union-friendly prohibited content which did not require the approval of employees.

For the first time in Telstra's history, the company ended enterprise negotiations, arguing that unions were focused on boosting union power rather than the day-to-day concerns of workers. With Telstra now negotiating a non-union collective agreement with workers in its wholesale division, and the prospect of individual agreements, unions have pumped up their campaign against the telco, contesting a secret ballot for employees to approve any deal.

A union movement that has long opposed secret ballots is a movement that lacks fundamental confidence in its own relevance. What are they afraid of? If union-negotiated agreements are superior, workers would be flocking to unions and unions would not need to worry about other non-union employment arrangements offered by employers. A secret ballot of employees would not be a hurdle to union success if they were offering what workers wanted. Instead, a new generation of workers has been embracing a new generation of workplace arrangements that unions do not want.

Labor MP Craig Emerson has called on the trade union movement to "modernise if it is to survive and prosper in Australia's open, competitive economy". He says that would involve offering a bundle of services to members beyond representation in workplace bargaining, including advice to workers on individual bargaining. That hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, unions are left to ponder why they can only attract one in 10 young employees to the union cause. Is this John Howard's fault, too? Try this out for size. Gen X and genY are shunning the one-size-fits-all union model of collective union agreements. More and more workers are working very differently, willing to put a larger part of their pay at risk in return for more generous performance-based bonuses. These workers have enough faith in their own abilities to put their performance on the table to be tested, and rewarded.

Faith in individual ability does not fit the collectivist union model. Which is why unions are howling at any company, such as Telstra, that continues to offer individual contracts after the demise of AWAs in March. But if unions imagine that Kevin Rudd's workplace laws will revive their relevance, they are misguided.

They mistake power for relevance. Power can be doled out through government favours, such as new laws that secure unions a place at the negotiating table. And having bought Rudd's electoral victory, they can naturally expect delivery of this kind of union power.

Union relevance is an altogether different matter.

Relevance will only be secured when unions realise that workers work differently in today's market. Until then, unions will remain a crumbling relic of the past, dependent on special pleading and government privilege for an existence that is daily undermined by deserting members.


Assault on workplace democracy

More EFCA stories: here

Dems, unions used to insist on secret-ballot union recognition elections. Not anymore.

On the question of secret ballot in union elections, George McGovern remains one of the few members of his party willing to put the principles of democracy ahead of the prospect of political gain ("My Party Should Respect Secret Union Ballots," op-ed, Aug. 8). Such is demonstrated in the letter penned by my friend Rep. George Miller in defense of the deceptively named Employee Free Choice Act (Aug. 15).

If enacted, EFCA would decimate worker rights to freely and privately choose whether to join a union. Union bosses and other employees would know whether an individual had signed a card indicating support for the union, leaving those workers who prefer not to organize subject to enormous pressure from those who stand to gain politically in a unionizing drive.

Equally troubling, the bill puts collective bargaining on autopilot by requiring that if newly formed unions fail to secure their desired outcome, contract terms will be unilaterally imposed by an arbitration board. Sen. McGovern was right to stand up against this assault on workplace democracy.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.)

Related George Miller video: "Secret ballot absolutely necessary"


Feds wrist-slap union embezzler

More union embezzlement stories: here

Bush Administration goes easy on union bigs

A Lima woman was sentenced to two years probation for embezzling funds from the union she served. Amy Cross, a former secretary for Utility Workers union Local 308, was sentenced to two years probation and 90 days of home confinement after pleading guilty to one count of embezzlement involving union funds, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Thursday.

Cross was required to pay back the $31,886 she admitted to stealing from the union before pleading guilty. The plea came following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor Management Standards. Cross was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Toledo.

U.S. Attorney Dave Bowers said the money was taken between January 2003 and December 2006. He would not say how Cross embezzled the money or what led to the investigation.

"We are limited to giving what is in the public record," Bowers said.

The Office of Labor Management Standards' criminal enforcement program includes investigation of embezzlement from labor organizations as well as other labor-related crimes.


Another union embezzler caught

More union embezzlement stories: here

Local law enforcement overwhelmed by national epidemic

The former president of a Red River Army Depot union admitted in court Wednesday to taking money from the organization. Forty-three-year-old Willie Chambers III of Texarkana pled guilty to embezzlement and theft of labor union assets in federal court.

According to court records, Chambers took just over $6,800 from the union between January and July of 2007. Chambers is a former president of the Red River Army Depot International Guards Union of America Local 124. Chambers faces up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine and restitution of the money he admitted taking. A sentencing date has not been set.


When does worker-choice = anti-union?

When it's one of tree-killer Si Newhouse's pundits

An anti-union group hoping to build opposition to a law designed to make it easier to organize is using some pretty tough ads (look here and here) featuring one of the country's most famous TV crime families to attack Democratic Senate candidates.

The New York Times reports that the group is active in at least eight states, including Oregon. I haven't seen the ad - featuring one of the stars of "Sopranos" - pop up here, but stay tuned. It sounds like there's a lot of big money backing this campaign.

Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley, the Democratic candidate for Senate, is a natural target for this campaign because he played a role in passing a "card check" law in the 2007 legislative session that made it easier for public workers to unionize.

UPDATE: Actually, a separate but related anti-union group - the Employee Freedom Action Committee - is already running this TV commercial in Oregon hitting at Merkley.


Labor law reforms proposed for Michigan

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Eight Ballot Measures We Would Like to See

The recent Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that keeps a sweeping reform of state government off the ballot has focused attention on the ballot measure process itself. The proposal, called Reform Michigan Government Now, was rejected for technical reasons but it was also extraordinarily bad public policy. However, that doesn’t mean citizen-led initiatives are bad. In fact, the right ballot measures would let voters go over the heads of legislators who are proving themselves unwilling or unable to fix Michigan’s urgent fundamental problems.

A slide show the Mackinac Center for Public Policy discovered on a UAW Web site revealed that RMGN was a sneaky attempt to give one political party control of the courts and the Legislature. Because that idea likely wouldn’t be popular with voters, partisans dressed up RMGN with dozens of provisions that polled favorably, such as cutting lawmakers’ pay. Had it made it on the November ballot, it might have passed.

Here are eight ballot measures that would each offer voters a single, honest, straightforward opportunity to fix something that’s not working well in Michigan right now. Over the years, Mackinac Center analysts have recommended each of them as good policy. If they were on the ballot, voters could decide.

* Right-to-Work. A right-to-work law means that employers cannot agree to fire a worker for not supporting a union. Unions retain their monopoly bargaining status, but right-to-work protection is one step toward workplace fairness and state economic recovery. From 2002 to 2007, Michigan lost 5 percent of its jobs while the 22 right-to-work states increased their payrolls by 9 percent. A right-to-work law would send an unmistakably strong signal that Michigan is serious about fixing its image as a union-dominated, unfriendly place to build a business. Maybe even a stronger signal than all those tax-funded Jeff Daniels ads from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

* State Spending Limitation. Allow state spending to increase, but only in proportion to growth in population and inflation. If a version of this plan proposed in 2006 would have been in effect, it would have returned about $8 billion to Michigan taxpayers from 1995-2007 and built a $2.5 billion rainy day fund. Contrast that with our current chronic overspending and budget deficits. A similar plan produced refunds of $3.25 billion to Colorado taxpayers from 1997 to 2001.

* Universal Education Tax Credit. A plan we proposed in the late 1990s would leave intact the constitutional prohibition on vouchers while allowing parents to choose the safest and best public or private schools for their children. The tax credit would be available for income earners, property owners and businesses who support the education of a child attending the school of his or her choice. The credit would be limited to half of the state’s per-pupil spending allotment, which we estimated would have saved the state’s School Aid Fund more than $500 million in the 10 years prior to 2008. The state could use that savings to increase per-pupil spending on students whose choice is the public system. Contrast this with recent cuts in per-pupil spending and waiting lists at charter schools.

* Compensation for regulatory takings of property. Property regulations can be an invisible tax that chases businesses from the state or keeps them from locating here in the first place. For example, overzealous wetlands regulation can effectively "take" property from its owner by severely restricting its use. One way to better balance the public benefit and private cost of such regulations would be what Oregon and Arizona voters passed in 2004 and 2006, respectively, which call for governments to either compensate a property owner for legal restrictions placed on property, or let the owner use the land as intended.

* Paycheck protection. When unions take dues right out of worker paychecks, some of those dollars inevitably get spent on politics. For example, the MEA took $66.6 million from school employee paychecks in 2007 and it spent $2.3 million on politics that year (not counting PAC money, which is separate). Paycheck protection would require the union to get workers’ consent first. Every union dollar spent on politics should be a voluntary dollar. California voters nearly passed such a measure in 2006.

* Right-to-work, limited to public school teachers. Gov. John Engler told the Legislature in October 1993 that no teacher should lose his or her job for deciding not to support a labor union. Not every teacher might opt to support a union, especially when MEA officials argue they must accept lower salaries for teachers when they get school boards to purchase costly union-affiliated health insurance. MEA disbursements in 2007 totaled $124.7 million, of which it reported spending $16.4 million on representation and $56.3 million on overhead. Teachers could decide whether their dues are a good value, and unions would have an incentive to serve members better.

* Supermajority or voter approval of tax increases. Sixteen states have at least some sort of legislative supermajority requirement to raise taxes. One innovative proposal would require voter approval of all tax increases unless passed by a 3/5 supermajority of both houses. This likely would have prevented last year’s highly unpopular $1.4 billion dollar tax hike that sparked a recall campaign against House Speaker Andy Dillon but did not erase the state’s budget deficit.

* Part-time legislature. Little evidence suggests that Michigan would be less well governed with a part-time Legislature like those in 40 other states. In 2007 our state lawmakers became the second-highest paid in the nation.

Ballot initiatives and referenda are among the most powerful tools available to citizens for controlling their own government. Michigan is one of just 27 states where residents can vote directly on constitutional and certain legislative questions, and one of only 15 states that let the people enact and overturn laws and constitutional amendments. Yet, most Michigan voters aren’t aware they can wield such legislative power of their own.

Michigan lawmakers are unlikely to pass any of these eight ideas into law any time soon, even though a case can be made that each one would help turn around Michigan’s moribund economy. Sometimes the people have to act when legislators won’t.

- Joseph G. Lehman is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. He will become the Center’s president on Sept. 1, 2008.


Ugly racism incident at IBEW in Philly

Related story: "City of Brotherly Racist Unions"
More union racism stories: here

A noose was found hanging in a building at the Children's Hospital Of Philadelphia [CHOP], prompting the local FBI to investigate the act as a possible hate crime, reports MyFoxPhiladelphia.com.

CHOP officials said an employee found the noose hanging in an electrical shop on Aug. 11. The newspaper said sources claimed a white employee of the International Brotherhood Of Electrical Workers [IBEW] hung the noose on a light fixture on the 13th floor of the Aberson Pediatric Research Center. After an investigation, the worker alleged to have put it there was fired.

Sources also said that the worker was asked three times to take the racially offensive noose down by an African-American co-worker. When he repeatedly refused, he was reported, investigated and fired.


AFSCME offered a free lunch

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Labor-state public servants consider more pay for less work

Union members who make up most of the town's staff are considering a proposal to move to a four-day work week, resulting in of Provincetown (MA) Town Hall being closed on Fridays.

The union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents 48 non-management municipal staff members, is currently negotiating a new three-year contract with the town. Since funds for a three-percent raise were voted down at April Town Meeting, the union was “told to be creative because the town didn’t have any money,” according to Joyce Matthews, president of AFSCME local.

Staff would still put in a 40-hour work week but spread it over four days, instead of the current five. Town Hall offices would be open one additional hour per day, resulting in most municipal offices closing at 6 p.m., instead of 5 p.m. The building department, which currently closes at 4 p.m., would remain open until 5 p.m., Matthews said. Scheduling for the department of public works and transfer station is still being deliberated.

In addition, union members would be paid for their daily lunch hour, resulting in a 10-hour paid workday if the contract is approved. Currently, staff is paid for eight hours spread over a nine-hour day, with an unpaid lunch hour.

“[Town Hall staff is] moving to trailers in November so that’s why we thought it would be a good time to try it out and see how it works,” said Matthews, referring to the anticipated Town Hall restoration, which will move most town employees into portable trailers in the Jerome Smith parking lot. “We hope the public will embrace it. We’re hoping it saves a lot of money for the town.”

One area of savings mentioned by the union would revolve around energy costs. Having Town Hall open one day less might lower electricity and heating bills, Matthews said. In addition, she said, operating town-owned trucks and other vehicles four days instead of five could save on fuel costs.

The union is scheduled to vote on the new contract Monday, Aug. 25. If members approved the three-year agreement, selectmen would then have to sign off on it.

For more on this story see the Aug. 21 edition of the Provincetown Banner.


Judge forces angry SEIU strikers back to work

Nursing home wary of disgruntled militant workers

After six months on strike, 220 workers at one of the largest nursing homes in the Bronx were feeling relieved, delighted but still somewhat angry when they began returning to work on Thursday morning.

The employees of the Kingsbridge Heights Rehabilitation and Care Center returned to work largely because a federal judge issued an injunction last week ordering the nursing home to resume paying the workers’ health insurance premiums. The home’s decision to stop paying those premiums caused the workers to walk out on Feb. 20.

“It feels real good going back to work,” said Fay Whitter, who has worked as a certified nursing assistant at Kingsbridge for six years. “At first the mood was tense — we from the 5 a.m. shift didn’t go back in until 8:30.”

Because the strike lasted so long, the nursing home, at 3400 Cannon Place in the west Bronx, made the employees go through a new orientation. The strikers received messages of support not just from dozens of New York politicians, but also from Senator Barack Obama, who once spoke to the strikers via conference call.

Last week Judge Denise L. Cote of Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that Kingsbridge Heights had violated the law not only by stopping its health insurance payments, but also by spying on workers, threatening to fire them if they went on strike and giving them bonuses as an incentive to quit their union, 1199 S.E.I.U. United Healthcare Workers East.

After Judge Cote issued her injunction, Kingsbridge Heights asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to stay her injunction. But the appeals court declined to do so. As part of the injunction, Judge Cote ordered the nursing home to reinstate the strikers if the union made an unconditional offer to return to work — which the union quickly did.

John T. McCann, a lawyer for the nursing home, said it had no comment about the strikers’ return to work. Ms. Whitter said she was surprised that when the nursing home’s owner, Helen Sieger, spoke to the returning workers, she was not at all conciliatory. “She came out very angry,” Ms. Whitter said. “She said, I want you to know I will appeal the judge’s decision and I will win.”

Ms Sieger was arrested on Aug. 8 on felony charges, accused of not paying her employees’ workers compensation insurance for nearly a year. Ms. Sieger, who faces up to four years in prison, pleaded not guilty and was released on $150,000 bond.

Soon after the nursing home stopped paying health insurance premiums, the workers lost their health coverage. Without such insurance, Ms. Whitter ran up tens of thousands of dollars for tests and examinations because she was suspected of having breast cancer. “I have bills that will make your head swell,” she said.

Jacqueline Codwell, a certified nursing assistant for three years, was glad to be back at work. “I was nervous at first about going back,” she said. “But when I came and I see all my co-workers looking so nice, it built up my confidence.”

The workers said their return was somewhat solemn because Thursday was the birthday of a striker, Audrey Smith-Campbell, who died in May after working as a nursing assistant at the home for 29 years. After her health coverage was cut off, Ms. Smith-Campbell stopped paying $600 a month for her asthma medication. She died of cardiac arrest soon after suffering an asthma attack.

“Remembering her, makes us feel even stronger going back in,” Ms. Codwell said. “I didn’t do this fight for myself,” she continued. “It was hard to be out for six months, but I felt proud. The rain and heat made it hard. I did this for my daughter so she could see that when something you do is right, stand up and don’t give up.”


ACORN knocks on the door

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