Union Watch Highlights

Here are links to the top stories available online over the past week reporting on union activity including legislation, financial impact, reform activism, etc., from California and across the USA.

Labor Unions: Obamacare Will ‘Shatter’ Our Health Benefits, Cause ‘Nightmare Scenarios’
Avik Roy Avik Roy, July 15, 2013, Forbes
Labor unions are among the key institutions responsible for the passage of Obamacare. They spent tons of money electing Democrats to Congress in 2006 and 2008, and fought hard to push the health law through the legislature in 2009 and 2010. But now, unions are waking up to the fact that Obamacare is heavily disruptive to the health benefits of their members. Last Thursday, representatives of three of the nation’s largest unions fired off a letter to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, warning that Obamacare would “shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.” The letter was penned by James P. Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Joseph Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union; and Donald “D.” Taylor, president of UNITE-HERE, a union representing hotel, airport, food service, gaming, and textile workers. “When you and the President sought our support for the Affordable Care Act,” they begin, “you pledged that if we liked the health plans we have now, we could keep them. Sadly, that promise is under threat… (read article)

Robots to revolutionize farming, ease labor woes
By Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea, July 15, 2013, Times Union
On a windy morning in California’s Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, metal contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds. The engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand. The thinner is part of a new generation of machines that target the last frontier of agricultural mechanization — fruits and vegetables destined for the fresh market, not processing, which have thus far resisted mechanization because they’re sensitive to bruising. Researchers are now designing robots for these most delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies. Most ag robots won’t be commercially available for at least a few years. (read article)

Business Groups Watch Senate Action on Filibuster Ban
By Melanie Trottman, July 15, 2013, Wall Street Journal
The ban on filibusters that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to adopt could clear the way for Democrats to confirm several people who would run influential labor agencies, and that’s worrying the business community. Labor secretary nominee Thomas Perez could be more easily confirmed, as could the two recess appointees who have been sitting on the National Labor Relations Board since President Barack Obama skirted the Senate to install them early last year, avoiding Republican opposition. Business trade groups and employer lawyers say the combination would reactivate a vigorous regulatory agenda that would limit employers’ rights while expanding those of unions and employees. “The pro-union agenda hoped for by labor during the Obama administration has been largely stymied through litigation. The confirmations of these nominees would be like pushing a reset button giving labor hope that change as promised may finally come,” said Michael Lotito, a San Francisco-based attorney who co-chairs law firm Littler Mendelson’s Workplace Policy Institute. It’s unclear if or when such a ban would be invoked, and what circumstances would prompt Mr. Reid (D., Nev.) to seek it. And there’s also partisan tension over Mr. Obama’s picks to lead other agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—where a recess appointee is in charge—the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Export-Import Bank. (read article)

Vacancies and Partisan Fighting Put Labor Relations Agency in Legal Limbo
By Mark Lander and Steven Greenhouse, July 15, 2013, New York Times
“The N.L.R.B. is a four-letter word in South Carolina,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. The agency, the National Labor Relations Board, has functioned without a full slate of five members, and with its existing appointees in legal limbo, for Mr. Obama’s entire presidency. This chronic disarray, experts say, has left the 80-year-old agency rudderless, throwing into doubt dozens of rulings on the nation’s thorniest labor disputes. Republicans have never been enamored of the board, generally viewing it as a New Deal creation to foster unionism. But their anger spiked in 2011 when the board’s acting general counsel filed a case against Boeing, asserting that its plan to open an aircraft assembly plant in South Carolina constituted illegal retaliation against the company’s workers in Washington State for repeatedly going on strike. (read article)

Miami-Dade County pays millions to employees who work full time for labor unions
By Patricia Mazzei, July 15, 2013, Miami Herald
More than 40 Miami-Dade County public employees are collecting $2.65 million-plus in salaries from taxpayers so far this year — but they don’t have to do their county jobs, the Miami Herald has learned. The 42 employees are excused from their work duties to serve as union representatives, and they cannot be fired for not doing county work under Miami-Dade’s agreements with the 10 unions representing workers. On paper, the exempt union workers hold a variety of positions, from six-figure police and firefighters to lesser-paid public-transit workers. The Herald examined the extent of publicly funded union representatives after newly elected Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera said he could not fire a property evaluator who wasn’t showing up to work despite his $86,238 annual salary. “I was just trying to stand up for the taxpayers,” said Lopez-Cantera, who disagrees with the exemption practice. “The unions should make do with their own revenue. If they do expect taxpayers to subsidize their operations, then there should accountability.” (read article)

Bay Area Subway Strike Re-Ignites the Feud Between Unions and Silicon Valley
By Gregory Ferenstein, July 14, 2013, The Daily Beast
A Bay Area subway strike re-ignited a debate in which the tech world claims unions thwart innovation while unions argue that Silicon Valley destroys jobs. Gregory Ferenstein sorts out the dispute. None of the top Internet firms have labor unions, and it has made Silicon Valley a lightning rod for civil liberties proponents. So, last week, after several prominent technologists in the Bay Area came out against a subway union strike in San Francisco, it provided a convenient excuse for critics to again brand the tech community as greedy oligarchs. “There’s a reason why so many people are hating on the techies,” wrote Slate’s Andrew Leonard, after quoting one Valley executive who argued that we should find a way to replace BART workers with a computer, “Get ‘em back to work, pay them whatever they want, and then figure out how to automate their jobs so this doesn’t happen again.” There’s a very good reason why Silicon Valley has always been union-averse: unions aren’t fans of technology. “Unionizing the tech industry would be a disaster for the economy and innovation,” wrote TechDirt’s Mike Masnick. “Unionization takes away the necessary flexibility of both workers and employers, greatly slowing down the pace of innovation.” Case in point: labor unions have aggressively fought ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft that threaten taxi drivers with increased competition. As a result, a multi-billion-dollar industry of applications that permit people to share their cars has been paralyzed. (read article)

Labor Laws: New York’s Unions See Mixed Results in 2013 Legislative Session
By Nick Powell, July 14, 2013, New York City & State
Now that another legislative session is in the books in Albany, pundits, lawmakers and the media can evaluate which interest groups and organizations came out ahead and who was left wanting. The only consensus regarding the outcome of this session is that the legislative results for organized labor ran the gamut, from overwhelming success for certain unions and coalitions to a bitter disappointment for others—though with several major labor initiatives passing and little legislation going through with wide-ranging consequences for labor, it’s safe to say that labor unions fared pretty well this go-around. Speaking with City & State in January, AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento outlined a long list of priorities that organized labor hoped to see realized. The AFL-CIO represents 2.5 million members in the state, and includes public and private sector unions, as well as smaller trade unions. Included in their agenda this year was a minimum wage hike, revamping the unemployment trust fund and passing legislation supporting farmworkers’ rights, among other priorities. The political landscape of each session is amorphous, with certain initiatives taking precedence based on various factors, including which party controls the Legislature and which items Gov. Andrew Cuomo would most like to see passed. Priorities can sometimes change within a matter of weeks, and legislation that may have once languished, such as reforming the state’s gun control laws, will suddenly move to the forefront of the lawmakers’ consciousness due to extenuating circumstances, such as a national tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. As a result, Cilento said, if a labor coalition or union is able to get one or two items on their agenda introduced as legislation or signed into law, it’s a small but significant victory. (read article)

In Labor Board Filibuster Fight, Republicans Kindly Offer To Take Over Agency
By Dave Jamieson, July 13, 2013, Huffington Post
The Senate is locked in a filibuster fight that GOP leaders claim could ultimately destroy the chamber. At the center of this showdown sit President Barack Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, the five-member body that enforces labor law on businesses and their workers. Democrats are demanding Republicans pledge not to filibuster the president’s picks for the panel, which will not have enough board members to function in August if the stalemate isn’t broken. Given the choice between what they say will destroy the Senate or allowing the president’s nominees to serve on the labor board, the GOP isn’t budging. But they do have a counteroffer. Republicans said they won’t negotiate on two of Obama’s nominees, both Democrats already serving on the board, because their recess appointments have been ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, and they didn’t resign when Republicans demanded them to. But a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Republicans are willing to move on Obama’s three other nominees — two Republicans and one Democrat — in order to keep the board at a quorum. There’s just one small catch. If Democrats were to accept this GOP proposal, the labor board may be comprised of a Republican majority within a matter of months, never mind that a Democrat occupies the White House. (read article)

Americans Are Warming Again to Unions. Will the Relationship Last?
By Christopher Matthews, July 12, 2013, Time
With the struggles in recent weeks over Obamacare implementation, immigration reform, and the debt ceiling, you would be forgiven for not noticing the fierce battle being fought in the United States Senate over an obscure federal agency called the National Labor Relations Board, which is tasked with enforcing federal labor law and protecting worker’s rights to collectively bargain. The Senate and the President have been locked in a multi-year battle to fully staff the agency with 5 commissioners, and if some sort of deal isn’t reached by late August, the NLRB will be incapable of reaching a quorum, rendering the agency unable to function. This drama is occurring against a backdrop of a decades-long decline in union participation, with just 11.3% of workers overall belonging to unions. The past few years have been particularly rough for the labor movement, as they have suffered set-backs on the state level, and failed to secure hoped-for labor law reforms during the first two years of the Obama Administration, when Congress was ruled by large Democratic majorities. That being said, recent polling from both Gallup and Pew reveal that Americans’ support for unions has risen of late, with the Pew poll showing 55% of the population holding a favorable view of unions, the highest level since before the financial crisis. This recent uptick in support for unions can be partially attributed to the slowly improving economy, as it is accompanied by similar increases in favorability for corporations. On the other hand, there are a few trends — namely income-growth stagnation and the fact that corporate owners are taking a larger share of the national income than they have in generations — that would lead one to expect increasing support for unions. (read article)

Union workers from around the country gather in Detroit to protest Michigan ‘attacks’ on labor
By Khalil Al Hajal, July 12, 2013, Michigan Live
A national conference of young union workers is taking place in Downtown Detroit this weekend, and hundreds of participants took the gathering to the streets Friday to protest emergency management and the state’s right-to-work law. The New Wave Conference of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees takes place every three years, and union leaders chose Detroit for this year’s event because they view Michigan as “the heart of the recent attacks against” organized labor. The crowd rallied outside City Hall, at Hart Plaza and along the riverfront, ending at the steps of the Renaissance Center. Protestors draped a banner that read “another world is possible” over the Joe Louis Fist. Many dressed as nerds, poking fun at Gov. Rick Snyder’s “one tough nerd” slogan. Many carried signs that read “It’s about democracy.” One sign read “Orr-ible,” referring to Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, appointed by Snyder earlier this year to take over city government and address the city’s ballooning debt, ailing services and $380 million budget deficit. Orr has been pushing hard for concessions from pension and union officials as he tries to reduce the city’s debt. (read article)

Labor unions keep strong grip on Pennsylvania politics
By Eric Boehm, July 12, 2013, Delaware Daily Times
On a sunny afternoon in early July, Fredrick Anton was finishing his lunch at a popular Harrisburg café. As Anton, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and a longtime prominent voice in conservative circles of Pennsylvania politics, headed for the door he nearly bumped into Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for a wide range of labor unions. “Congratulations,” Anton said, shaking Bloomingdale’s hand, an acknowledgement of political victories scored by the unions in the recently-completely budget season in Harrisburg. “We’re not done yet,” Bloomingdale said in return. It was hard to tell exactly what he meant. In Pennsylvania and across the nation, the fight between business groups and their Republican allies against big labor and its Democratic defenders surely will continue. But something in Bloomingdale’s tone seemed to indicate a deeper significance. At a time when powerful labor unions in other industrialized states were watching their influence wane, the significance of unions in Pennsylvania politics is not done, at least not yet. (read article)

With state silent, union chief names workers comp judge applicants
By Andy Marso, July 12, 2013, Topeka Capital-Journal
A labor union leader provided the names of nine applicants for a workers’ compensation judge opening Thursday after a state agency refused to name them. As judicial-related think tanks debated this week Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision not to disclose the names of applicants for the Kansas Court of Appeals, the Kansas Department of Labor similarly withheld the applicants for an administrative law judge opening in Wichita. But Kansas AFL-CIO executive vice president Bruce Tunnell, who is on a new committee tasked with picking a nominee from among the applicants, released their names as soon as he received them. “I think it’s the same way as with the appeals court,” Tunnell said. “The names should be public, and if people don’t want their names to be associated with it, then why are they applying?” After a July 1 meeting of the new nominating committee, Larry Karns, director of the Labor Department’s Division of Worker’s Compensation, said he believed there was little that would keep the administrative law judge applicants’ names from being disclosed. But a department attorney denied a subsequent request for the names, citing an exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act that gives agencies discretion on releasing information about potential employees. Karns, in an email sent this week, stood by the decision. (read article)

WashPost’s DePillis Notes Labor Unions Wrote D.C.’s Anti-Walmart Bill
By Ken Shepherd, July 12, 2013, News Busters
On Thursday, my colleague Jeffrey Meyer noted how the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis failed to explain to readers how unionized retail outlets would benefit from an exemption in the cynically-titled Large Retailer Accountability Act, the D.C. Council bill that would require large retail chains like Walmart to pay employees at least $12.50/hour. Today, to their credit, Post editors did publish a 12-paragraph piece by the Post’s Lydia DePillis, who noted that it was “labor leaders” who “drafted the bill originally” and attempted to blackmail Walmart, saying “they would pull the bill if” the company “agreed to collective bargaining.” DePillis also quoted an anonymous source on a city councilman’s staff explaining “when all labor pulls in one direction, that is a powerful thing to this council.” All the same, DePillis still failed to explain just how pro-union and anti-worker’s rights the Act would be, nor did she quote any opponents of the bill in her story. “If the measure stands, whether or not Wal-Mart follows through on its threat to leave D.C., unions will have avoided their nightmare scenario. Having a low-wage, non-union competitor figuring into future bargaining sessions with the area’s unionized grocers,” DePillis observed, couching labor unions as a victim of more competition and lower prices in the retail sector in the District. Of course, the average consumer, particularly the cash-strapped consumer, would benefit, but DePillis failed to find anyone to represent that perspective. Instead, DePillis proceeded to quote AFL-CIO official Joslyn Williams saying, that if Walmart builds stores in the District and succeeds in drawing customers, that “Giant and Safeway [would] be saying we’re losing money, we need givebacks from the workers.” (read article)

Unions write large checks to Boston mayoral candidates Martin J. Walsh and Felix G. Arroyo
By Andrew Ryan, July 11, 2013, Boston Globe
State Representative Martin J. Walsh received a hefty financial boost in late June as he and other Boston mayoral candidates scrambled to meet an end-of-the-month fund-raising deadline. A union representing painters and Boston Public School custodians sent Walsh a check for $10,000, an amount 20 times larger than the maximum donation allowed by an individual contributing to a campaign. Another mayoral candidate, Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo, deposited a $13,000 check late last month from a union that represents doormen, security guards, window washers, and other building workers. Labor unions and a few other organizations are allowed to donate large sums to political campaigns under a provision of state campaign finance law that could have a significant impact on Boston’s crowded race for mayor. (read article)

Union prevents Werfel from canceling IRS bonuses as promised
By Patrick Howley, July 11, 2013
Acting IRS commissioner Danny Werfel’s promise to suspend taxpayer-funded bonuses to IRS officials might not be fully realized because it will violate a contract between the scandal-plagued agency and a public-employee labor union. “In this unprecedented budget situation, I do not believe the IRS should pay performance awards this year to employees, managers or executives,” Werfel wrote in an email to IRS employees this week. “This is not a reflection of the quality or performance of the work done by you and your colleagues, but rather an unfortunate byproduct of the difficult budgetary situation we find ourselves in,” Werfel wrote. The IRS is currently under fire after revelations that it improperly targeted the tax-exempt nonprofit status of conservative groups. But due to a union contract Werfel will not be able to successfully halt all bonuses this year. The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents IRS employees, said that bonuses already promised to unionized IRS workers must be paid, because the bonuses represent work done in 2012, before Werfel canceled bonuses. (read article)

WashPost Highlights D.C. Passing ‘Living Wage’ Law, Ignores Union Exemption
By Jeffrey Meyer, July 11, 2013, Newsbusters
Walmart, the nation’s largest retail employer is in the process of building the very first of its planned six brand-new stores in Washington, D.C., but the liberal city council plans to welcome them into the city with new legislation mandating that the company “pay their employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage.” Yet in his 27- paragraph story in the July 11 Washington Post, staff writer Mike DeBonis ignored how the legislation exempts large retailers with unionized workers from paying the premium minimum wage. The Arkansas-based retailer has threatened to halt construction on its planned six stores, citing the fact that the added labor costs inject uncertainty about the profitability of the operations given the new law’s mandates. DeBonis noted that the law requires “[r]etailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger would be required to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour.” Curiously, however, DeBonis failed to mention an exemption in the law that shields unionized companies like grocery chain Safeway from the bill. DeBonis choose to cite union supporters who support the de facto tax on Wal-Mart, without explaining why unions would love a proposed law that would exclude them from its penalty. (read article)

Walmart: The Big Labor White Whale
By Barbara Comstock, July 10, 2013, Townhall
Imagine you’ve finished a long, trying day at work. You’ve picked up your two toddlers from childcare, and stop at your local Walmart store on the way home to pick up some groceries. After successfully managing your shopping cart and two squirming little ones you finally reach the checkout aisle, sighing with relief as you realize that your day is almost done. But once there, you find that Big Labor protesters, most of whom don’t even work at Walmart, have taken over the store. They are chanting loudly and yelling directly at cashiers because they are not currently union members – and your long day is getting longer. This is how today’s desperate union bosses have taken to gaining membership – making life miserable for employers, customers and even employees who they repeatedly harass, just to get them to become dues paying members. Today, with only a little more than seven percent of the private sector workforce belonging to a union, most hardworking taxpayers find that federal and state laws and regulations on wages, workplace safety and discrimination policies already provide them, by law, what unions used to provide in the past – but without the bite from their wallets. So if workers aren’t demanding unions, what’s Big Labor to do? They now engage in bullying and intimidation campaigns against large un-unionized companies who haven’t surrendered to previous public relations attacks. The idea is to make it too expensive and inconvenient for customers and employees alike not to surrender to union bosses – regardless of what the employees might choose. Walmart is one of the most popular targets, because as the nation’s largest employer, their non-union status means that union bosses don’t have their cut of the salaries of 1.4 million workers. (read article)

Unions seek to rig California initiative process — again
Editorial, July 9, 2013, San Diego Union-Tribune
State labor unions are once again trying to twist California’s century-old initiative process to work in their favor by going after paid signature collectors. They’re backing AB 857, which would require at least 20 percent of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the state ballot to be collected by unpaid individuals. Professional petition firms must register with the secretary of state and comply with all sorts of new regulations, while their petitions must be of a different color and carry a disclaimer. The bill — which sailed through the Assembly and on July 2 was approved by the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, which sent it on to the Committee on Appropriations for an Aug. 12 hearing – is a pretend reform. Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, the bill’s author, maintains that because of paid petition circulations, the state’s initiative process — born in 1911, when California amended its constitution to allow voters to directly pass laws — “has become one of the favorite tools of well-financed special interest groups.” Don’t be deceived. The state’s biggest “special interest groups” are the powerful public employee unions, which routinely rally their own troops on behalf of legislation they like. As a result, they don’t need to rely as heavily on paid signature collectors as other, smaller organizations trying to place a measure before voters. And while AB 857 makes life more difficult for paid circulators, it makes things much easier for unions. Signatures collected by members of unions would count toward the 20 percent mandate, even if they are solicited via direct mail. The bill also repeals a requirement under existing law that circulators must be registered, or qualified, to vote in California, leaving the door open for unions to bus in circulators from other states. (read article)

 

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