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.

Detroit bankruptcy case heads to Wednesday hearing on labor union pension challenges
By Bernie Woodall, July 23, 2013, Reuters
Labor unions trying to stop Detroit from cutting pensions filed a new challenge to the city in bankruptcy court as the federal judge overseeing the case said he would hear arguments on Wednesday. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes agreed on Monday to a request by Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to fast track a hearing on whether other courts can hear lawsuits against Detroit, while it seeks federal bankruptcy court protection. Concerned that retirement benefits will be slashed, Detroit retirees, workers and pension funds have filed three lawsuits, including one backed by the United Auto Workers union, in state court in an effort to derail the biggest Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. A Michigan court judge, for instance, has ordered Orr to withdraw the July 18 bankruptcy filing. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, which represents about 70 percent of Detroit’s civilian workforce, on Monday argued if the other lawsuits were stopped, Orr, Michigan’s governor and others would be able to continue to operate beyond state constitutional authority. However, many legal experts said they expect Judge Rhodes to put the other cases on hold. “Federal bankruptcy law generally trumps state law,” and is designed to do so, said Stuart Gold, a Detroit-based bankruptcy lawyer at Gold Lange & Majoros PC. (read article)

With Diminished Clout, Unions in Detroit Face Uphill Battle
By Christina Rogers and Matthew Dolan, July 23, 2013, Wall Street Journal
Detroit’s municipal unions on Monday stepped up protests against proposals to slash worker benefits as part of the city’s bankruptcy, but they face an uphill fight. A series of political setbacks has left union leaders scrambling for leverage as Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, with the backing of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, works to restructure the city’s $18 billion in long-term liabilities through bankruptcy court. United Auto Workers President Bob King, speaking publicly on the Detroit bankruptcy filing for the first time Monday, said he is outraged at how the city’s 20,000 public-sector employees have been treated by the governor and the city’s new leadership. “I know how bargaining can work in difficult crisis situations,” Mr. King said. “In the auto industry, labor with management, the community and government, we all worked together and look at the industry now.” Al Garrett, head of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25, said the city didn’t try to bargain with unions in good faith. “Part of this is to create a narrative that people say there is nothing else they can do” but file for bankruptcy, Mr. Garrett said, referring to comments by Messrs. Snyder and Orr about the dire state of the city’s finances. “We say there is something they can do. They can sit down at the bargaining table.” (read article)

Many Tennessee labor contracts unfinished, state says
By Hannah Hoffman, July 23, 2013, Statesman Journal
Nearly 6,000 state employees still have contracts being negotiated, now that the state’s Department of Administrative Services has reached tentative agreements with its two largest unions. Tom Perry, the state’s labor relations manager, said Monday that about 10 contracts are still in negotiations. Those cover 5,961 employees, he said, many in criminal justice fields. The state announced last week it had reached deals with its two largest unions, Service Employees International Union Local 503 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75. The contracts had very similar terms, and Perry said most of the smaller unions typically follow suit when negotiating their own contracts. General provisions of those contracts, which union members have yet to ratify, are: • Cost-of-living adjustments of 1.5 percent on Dec. 1 of this year, and 2 percent on Dec. 1, 2014. • Maintenance of a 5 percent employee share of health insurance premiums, the state picking up the rest. The split was instituted two years ago. • Restoration of experienced-based pay increases, commonly called “step” increases. • An end to unpaid furlough days, which most state employees — including those not represented by unions — have had to take during the past four years. • No change in the 6 percent state pick-up of employee contributions to the Public Employees Retirement System. The contracts also provide a path for a 3 percent employee co-pay by 2015 for some workers. It will apply to employees who choose the less-expensive health care option as long as that option is available to at least 95 percent of employees statewide. Perry said most of the remaining contracts likely will follow those general lines. He said the most unusual request from any union came from SEIU Local 503, which wanted a variety of social justice provisions included in the deal. Among them was a request that the state aggressively sue banks that lost money for investors during the 2008 market crash. (read article)

A prime time to organize? A look at the latest UAW campaign at Alabama’s Mercedes plant
By Dawn Kent Azok, July 23, 2013, Alabama.com
The United Auto Workers union has an active organizing campaign at Alabama’s Mercedes-Benz plant, and now might be the group’s best chance of securing a foothold in the state’s auto industry. Previous attempts to organize at Alabama’s first auto assembly plant have been unsuccessful. But this attempt at the Tuscaloosa County factory has the backing of the German labor union, IG Metall, which also is aiding UAW efforts to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. It’s also the UAW’s first significant effort at Mercedes since the automaker, like the rest of the global industry, cut jobs and production in response to the deep sales slump of 2008 and 2009. These days, output has grown to record levels, and the company is adding jobs and new products. But the memories of the tough times remain, for some. And, the UAW has stepped up its efforts across the Southeast. UAW President Bob King has said the union’s longterm survival depends on organizing auto plants in the region. (read article)

Worker Centers Offer a Backdoor Approach to Union Organizing
By Kris Maher, July 23, 2013, Wall Street Journal
Community Groups Aren’t Restricted by National Labor Laws Governing Unions. Juan Campis was sweating in the 90-plus degree heat as he whipped a white towel across a gleaming black Chevy TrailBlazer at a carwash here—one of six in the city that was unionized in recent months with help from two nonprofit community groups. “They’re the ones that kept us all together and showed us the steps we needed to take,” Mr. Campis, 20 years old, said of the community groups. Workers probably wouldn’t have joined the union without daily contact from the two groups, he said. The community groups, called worker centers, are often backed by unions. But they aren’t considered “labor organizations” by law because they don’t have continuing bargaining relationships with employers. That gives them more freedom in their use of picketing and other tactics than unions, which are constrained by national labor laws. The new approach is sparking a backlash from some businesses, who call it an end-run around labor laws that can be used to help unionize new groups of workers. Community groups exempt from national labor laws governing unions are giving rise to a new approach to union organizing, prompting backlash from some businesses. Kris Maher reports on Lunch Break. Photo: David Kasnic for The Wall Street Journal. The Center for Union Facts, which opposes organized labor and gets much of its funding from corporations, said it is launching an advertising campaign criticizing ties between unions and worker centers. (read article)

Obama NLRB Picks Seen as Pro-Union as Two Republican Oust
By Laura Litvan and Jim Efstathiou Jr.,July 23, 2013, Bloomberg
President Barack Obama’s labor board nominees are seen as being at least as pro-union as the two forced out by Republicans last week, giving businesses little reason to expect a change in board decision-making.
The new National Labor Relations Board nominees — Nancy Schiffer, a former AFL-CIO associate general counsel, and Kent Hirozawa, chief lawyer for the board’s Democratic chairman — testify today to the Senate’s labor panel after Obama agreed to drop two picks he named in 2012. The swap helped end a stalemate and allowed confirmation of other stalled nominees. Business can’t breathe easy, because Schiffer, 63, and Hirozawa, 58, have views on labor issues that are similar to the positions of the candidates they would succeed, said Randel Johnson, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “They are both pro-union and they will likely follow the same tack as the people that they replace,” Johnson said yesterday in an interview. “Business faces some tough battles in front of the newly appointed board.” (read article)

Small victory: BART, unions both negotiating
Michael Cabanatuan, July 22, 2013, SF Gate
With a possible second BART strike just 13 days away, the transit agency and its labor unions still seemed far apart on Monday but did agree on one thing: Both sides said they want to knuckle down at the bargaining table and work out a deal. The unions and BART management were meeting with state mediators Monday at Caltrans headquarters in downtown Oakland. Still, the disagreements continued away from the table. Service Employees International Local 1021, BART’s largest union, held a press conference outside bargaining to release what it called an “investigation” into BART’s chief negotiator, outside labor attorney Thomas Hock. The union alleges that Hock is a union buster accused of a long record of labor law violations and a history of provoking strikes. It also blasted him for being unavailable for 10 of the final 14 days of bargaining. BART held a press conference at MacArthur Station to unveil a wooden mockup of the interior of its new rail cars – and to promote its need to buy 1,000 new rail cars, modernize its train control system and build a larger and upgraded train maintenance center. Meanwhile, an Aug. 4 deadline for a potential second strike looms. BART’s two biggest unions, SEIU and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, agreed on July 4, at Gov. Jerry Brown’s request, to call off their four-day strike, resume train service and extend their contract for another 30 days while negotiations continued. (read article)

In casino fight, Orlando tourism leaders raise the specter of unions
By Jason Garcia, July 22, 2013, Orlando Sentinel
Led by Walt Disney World, the Orlando tourism industry is lobbying hard to prevent the construction of Las Vegas-style casinos in Florida, arguing that the multibillion-dollar resorts would undermine the state’s family-friendly reputation. But the industry is wary of something else, too: unions. Orlando tourism businesses fear the arrival of casinos, which are heavily unionized in markets such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, could spur efforts to organize in more Florida hotels, according to a report prepared by Spectrum Gaming Group, a firm hired for nearly $400,000 by the Florida Legislature to study the impact of expanding gaming. Hoteliers would face higher costs if new unions successfully negotiated better wages, benefits and work conditions for employees. Spectrum, which issued its first report this month, said the concerns about unions were raised in a meeting with executives and lobbyists representing several prominent Central Florida tourism interests, including Disney World, whose work force is already organized, and non-union employers such as Universal Orlando and the Orlando World Center Marriott. Representatives for Disney, Universal and Marriott all declined to publicly discuss the issue. Rich Maladecki, the president of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association and another participant in the meeting with Spectrum, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. (read article)

Labor Expert: Prison Guard Split Is ‘Warning Shot’ To Unions
By Shawn Johnson, July 22, 2013, Wisconsin Public Radio
Labor expert Gary Chaison says the split of prison guards from the Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU) is a “warning shot” to unions nationwide. Chaison is a professor of labor relations at the Massachusetts-based Clark University where he teaches courses on collective bargaining and the history of strikes in America. He says the decision by prison workers to split off from the once-powerful Wisconsin State Employee Union and form the Wisconsin Association for Correctional Law Enforcement was “gutsy,” but that only time will tell if it was a smart one. “In times of uncertainty, you can’t necessarily say that smaller is better in the world of unions,” says Chaison. Chaison says with a shift toward more austerity in government, unions nationally are in more of a defensive mode. Big public employee unions that don’t have the negotiating power they once did are constantly looking for ways to keep their smaller bargaining units happy. “Every public employee union in the United States right now is essentially asking itself ‘What can we do to keep the folks happy on the local level whether they’re teachers or firefighters or police?’” says Chaison. “And if you don’t do a good job, then what’s happened in Wisconsin serves as a warning to them, you can lose them.” Chaison says public employee unions in other states have generally succeeded at sticking together. He expects Wisconsin’s unions did not because they lost so much bargaining power here. (read article)

California Labor Group Lists Controversial Consultants
By Abby Livingston, July 22, 2013, Roll Call
The California Labor Federation has issued a “Do Not Hire” list that includes six consultants who allegedly took part in creating direct mail that slammed two Democratic state lawmakers for supporting unions in their races against Democratic challengers. “The following Democratic political consultants were involved in two campaigns in 2012 that directly attacked labor unions and caused damage to the labor movement,” read a statement on the CLF’s website posted earlier this month. “In response to those actions, the Executive Council of the California Labor Federation approved a motion submitted by the California Professional Firefighters, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California to encourage all unions, labor councils, allies and candidates seeking our support to not hire these consultants until further notice.” The same controversy prompted the break-up of the direct-mail firm Mack|Crounse Group last winter. An arm of the Western Growers Association, a trade association that bills itself as representing “family farmers,” sponsored the 2012 mail pieces. The two candidates on the receiving end of the mailers lost, and furious California Democratic operatives started to investigate the creative source of the mailings. “It was really an exhaustive research effort and there were a number of sources and interviews that were conducted in that effort,” CLF spokesman Steve Smith told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview last week. (read article)

City and unions argue Anchorage labor law in court
Associated Press, July 22, 2013, NewsObserver.com
A battle over a new Anchorage labor ordinance is making its way through court where a Superior Court judge will rule on whether voters should get an opportunity to repeal the law through a referendum. The city and two labor unions have presented preliminary filings, and oral arguments are set for Aug. 19, according to the Anchorage Daily News. The fight stems from a lawsuit targeting a rewrite of the labor law spearheaded by Mayor Dan Sullivan. The ordinance was narrowly passed by the Anchorage Assembly in March. The new law limits annual raises for city employees, restricts incentive pay and bonuses in future contracts and takes away the right to strike. The city rejected a referendum proposed by workers and labor officials, setting up the unions’ legal challenge. A decision by Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth is expected to hinge on his interpretation of a 2009 state Supreme Court decision. That ruling said citizens could bring forward referenda only on laws that make significant changes and set new policies, as opposed to laws that clarify measures already on the books. The unions argue that the new labor law makes both small and large changes, but its wide overall sweep makes it legislative and subject to a popular vote. “(T)he breadth of the changes and the uniform direction — all increasing control by management and decreasing the rights of unions and union members — cannot reasonably be dismissed as administrative changes,” the unions’ brief states. “Collectively, the changes establish new law.” (read article)

Why the Revival of US Labor Might Start With Non-Union Workers
By Amy B. Dean, July 22, 2013, Huffington Post
For workers in America, it can be hard to know where to turn when a boss pays you late or not at all, doesn’t provide benefits, or just yells at you for no good reason. That’s why a Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO that focuses specifically on nonunion workers, launched a website last month that makes it easy to get that kind of information. FixMyJob.com is a bit like WebMD, but instead of typing in your aches and pains, you tell it about problems at your workplace. Launched on June 5, the site has already garnered 5,000 visitors, according to Working America organizer Chris Stergalas. After choosing from a comprehensive list of workplaces and problems, visitors to FixMyJob.com get a set of resources and options for taking action. While unionization is a part of the solution for many problems, the site also informs workers about labor laws and instructs them on how to advance proposals to defend their rights. The site is a part of Working America’s expanded new campaign to organize people in their communities in all 50 states, says Executive Director Karen Nussbaum. In both online and offline campaigns, Nussbaum said, the aim of Working America is to reach beyond the workplace and rally support at the local level for a pro-labor agenda. Working America’s list of priorities includes living wage laws, expanded health care, adequately funded public schools, and the protection of voting rights. Before the launch of Working America, Nussbaum had served as founder and director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women; as director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor; and as an advisor to former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. I recently spoke with her about her vision for Working America, about FixMyJob.com, and about what the 50-state expansion means for the prospects of union revival. Working America was founded in 2003 partly as an answer to the question of how to mobilize people who are not union members but would benefit from activism by and for working people. (read article)

Butte hosts one-of-a kind labor school: Labor union experts
By Renata Birkenbuel, July 21, 2013, Montana Standard
Even while in the throes of labor, Butte union stalwarts can have some fun while networking among similar souls this week at Montana Tech. For the first time since 2006, historically union top-heavy Butte plays host to the 57th Grace Carroll Rocky Mountain Labor School at Tech all week, from July 21 to 26. “Butte’s rich union history provides a fitting backdrop for the comprehensive training that will cover everything from labor law and union organizing to leadership development and communications,” touts Sandi Luckey, event organizer and Montana AFL-CIO communications director. Historically, each region in the country held its own school. Only the Rocky Mountain Labor School survives. “It is the only school of its kind in the United States,” said Luckey. “I’m excited about it. It was a really strong decision to have it in Butte.” But union-entrenched Butte will not be the only representative, as participants hail from all over the United States. As of Friday, at least 220 union members from across the country have registered for the annual school. They hail mostly from the Western states, but also from the Eastern seaboard. Butte’s John Roeber, 58, president of the Montana State Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager for Boilermakers Local No. 11, will send several younger union members. “We want them to be able to understand organization and collective bargaining,” said Roeber, a 35-year union member. “For the administrators, we want them to know how to do the financing and work with the Department of Labor.” (read article)

City of Anchorage, unions argue labor law in court
By Nathaniel Herz, July 20, 2013, Anchorage Daily News
The five-month-old fight over the city’s new labor ordinance is now winding its way through court, where a judge will decide whether or not voters should get a chance to repeal the law through a referendum. The two sides — the city, and a pair of union officials — have both made their preliminary filings in the case, and oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 19, with a decision from Superior Court Judge Eric Aarseth expected after. The lawsuit is targeting a rewrite of city labor law spearheaded by Mayor Dan Sullivan that passed the Assembly in March by a 6-to-5 vote. The law sharply limited annual raises for city employees, took away their right to strike, and restricted incentive pay and bonuses in future contracts. That infuriated workers and labor officials, who then moved to repeal the law through a referendum. But the city rejected the referendum proposal on legal grounds — which set up the unions’ challenge in court. Aarseth’s conclusion will likely hinge on his interpretation of a single relevant decision from the state Supreme Court in 2009, which said that citizens could only bring forward referenda on laws that make big changes and set new policies, rather than laws that clarify measures that are already on the books. “This case is an interesting test of the extent to which the Anchorage electorate can and should be able to participate in direct lawmaking,” said Jason Brandeis, an assistant professor and constitutional law scholar at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Justice Center. “It’s getting at: Does this qualify as one of the types of matters that citizens should be allowed to vote on, or not?” Aarseth, the judge, was appointed by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005. He is a registered Republican, though both sides said they saw him as nonpartisan in his decisions. (read article)

Labor Cleans Corbett’s Clock In Legislative Session
Editor, July 18, 2013, Philly Record
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 long-time 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 completed 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 organized 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)

Cantor cites labor union concerns to knock ObamaCare
By Justin Sink, July 18, 2013, The Hill
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Thursday cited a letter from union groups slamming the president’s signature healthcare reform law as further evidence that the Affordable Care Act should be scrapped.
“The ObamaCare legislation is a total rewrite of the kind of health care that we can expect,” Cantor said in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” “These union leaders say it not only is going to be bad for healthcare, but they say it is going to be bad for jobs. It will actually harm the 40-hour workweek that the union community has for so long been about in this country.” The letter, written to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by leaders James Hoffa of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Joseph Hansen of The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and D. Taylor of UNITE-HERE, warns “the law as it stands will hurt millions of Americans.” “The law creates an incentive for employers to keep employees’ work hours below 30 hours a week,” the union leaders wrote. “Numerous employers have begun to cut workers’ hours to avoid this obligation, and many of them are doing so openly.” (read article)

Labor reform needs more than right-to-work
By Rick Berman, July 17, 2013, Daily Caller
After the shockwaves made by the passage of right-to-work laws in the former union bastions of Indiana and Michigan, the Ohio Senate recently rejected a similar law for their state. This development has reformers asking themselves: Where do we go from here? Not very far, unfortunately — labor law is a uniquely federal issue with only a few carve-outs for states to mull. Thankfully, federal legislators have an opportunity that state labor reformers do not with the Employee Rights Act. Co-authored by Senator Orrin Hatch, the ERA shares the same mission as right-to-work: Make the workplace completely fair and democratic for all employees nationwide. Some of the ERA’s provisions are already well-known. Political protection, which requires that union officials receive the explicit written consent from members before spending mandatory dues on political activities, is one. The rationale behind political protection is simple: 43 percent of union households voted for the GOP in 2012, yet 91 percent of union money went to Democrats. This vast chasm between the union officials and their members shows that when it comes to politics, employees from the machine floor to the office are directly funding something they wouldn’t otherwise support. Another key ERA element is the secret ballot. This would require that all unionization votes be conducted in the same manner as elections for public office—with secrecy and anonymity. If a secret ballot is good enough to elect a president of the United States or the president of a labor union, then it’s good enough for union certification as well. (read article)

Labor dispute could cost Escondido $1 million
By David Garrick, July 17, 2013, Union-Tribune San Diego
Escondido may have to pay as much as $1 million in back pay and other compensation to a group of employees who claim they were illegally laid off three years ago during the Great Recession. In a recent decision, the state’s Public Employment Relations Board said it appears Escondido failed to properly negotiate the 2010 layoffs of its entire six-member code compliance division. The board set a trial date of Sept. 16. The workers claim city officials violated state law by replacing them with part-time employees doing the same work and by failing to engage in collective bargaining before the layoffs. City officials have repeatedly said they didn’t violate employee bargaining rights or any other labor regulations. In arguments submitted to PERB, the city said negotiating severance packages for the laid-off employees fulfilled the city’s obligation to engage in collective bargaining. In its March 8 ruling, however, PERB disagreed. Jennifer McCain, assistant city attorney for Escondido, said this week she was confident the city would be vindicated at trial. “The city’s position is we complied fully with the law,” she said. “The layoffs were appropriate.” (read article)

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