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. 

Supreme Court Takes Pass on Union-Organizing Case
By Brent Kendall, December 10, 2013, Wall Street Journal
The Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed course in a closely watched labor case, saying it wouldn’t decide an issue related to union organizing. The high court removed the case from its docket, dismissing it as “improvidently granted,” meaning the court concluded that it made a mistake in agreeing to hear the case. The court last month heard oral arguments to consider an organizing tool labor unions have used for decades. The case centered on agreements in which an employer pledges to remain neutral with respect to a union’s effort to organize its workers. The employer also may provide employee lists or other assistance. In exchange, a union may agree to refrain from picketing or criticizing the employer in public. The central question in the case was whether such agreements violate federal labor law. Last year, a federal appeals court in Atlanta held that such aid could be a “thing of value”–something which, to deter corruption, federal law prohibits employers from providing and unions from accepting. Three justices dissented from the court’s decision to dismiss the case. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the dissenters, said the court’s decision to leave the issue unresolved “could negatively affect the collective-bargaining process.” (read article)

One year after historic right-to-work legislation, results are uncertain but divide remains
By Ted Roelofs, December 10, 2013, Michigan Live
The predictions were both dire and dramatic. But one year after Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation, it has yet to prove either the body blow to labor or the boon to business many foretold. That comes as no surprise to experts like Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard. “This is not a game-changer because the game had already changed,” Ballard said. Ballard noted that unions were in decline well before Michigan joined 23 other states with right-to-work provisions. The law, signed Dec. 11, 2012, says that public and private workers cannot be compelled to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment. By then, union membership in Michigan had fallen from 919,000 in 2003 to 629,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union members accounted for less than 17 percent of wage and salary workers in 2012. In 1989, they accounted for 26 percent. It was 45 percent in 1964. “The other forces that have weakened unions for the last 60 years are far more important than this. If you draw a graph, the decline of manufacturing looks a lot like unions as a percentage of the labor force,” Ballard said. As for business, it is hard to find evidence the measure has sparked new outside investment. (read article)

Detroit ruling should wake up California unions
Editorial, December 10, 2013, San Jose Mercury
A federal judge’s ruling last week that Detroit employees and retirees could lose pension benefits in bankruptcy court is a warning to California labor unions. Confidence that public pensions are secure, even if a city goes bankrupt, has encouraged unions to resist any attempt to change promised future benefits. But Detroit’s is the second federal ruling that pension benefits, even those already earned, are similar to other debts in bankruptcy filings and can be altered by the court. Nobody wants to reduce payments to retirees living on fixed incomes. So government agencies need the legal tools to ratchet back future pension promises to public employees to a sustainable level. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed is proposing an initiative to amend the California Constitution to allow changes in future pension accruals through collective bargaining, like all other forms of compensation. This may bring the debate front and center next year. Today unions aren’t legally allowed to agree to lower pension accrual rates for current employees even if a majority of members wants to. (read article)

Bloomberg in last clash with NYC teachers over $3.5 bln claim
By Edward Krudy, December 10, 2013, Reuters
The administration of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is lining up for one last showdown in its $3.5 billion dispute over retroactive pay raises with the city’s public school teachers. With just three weeks remaining before his team cedes power to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Bloomberg’s administration will cite accounting rules at a closed-door state hearing on Wednesday as it tries to shut the door on any retroactive raises being paid out as bonuses in future years, according to people taking part in the hearings. In the administration’s view, the rules stipulate that any lump-sum payout must be booked in the year it is made, not spread out over years. The amount owed would be too big a hit for any one year and would break the city’s balanced budget requirement, they say. The stance effectively closes down any attempt by the teachers for a settlement along those lines, at least with the Bloomberg administration. (read article)

In budget talks, federal employee benefits on the block
By Kevin G. Hall, December 10, 2013, Sacramento Bee
Federal workers have a target on their paychecks as Congress works on a new budget deal this week. Congress is looking to restore some spending to defense and federal agencies ordered cut two years ago, but it needs other ways to offset that. While few want to raise taxes or cut popular programs such as Medicare, there’s seemingly broad support to cut pay or benefits for federal workers. A majority of Americans, 55 percent, supports cutting federal pay and benefits, according to a McClatchy-Marist Poll this week. The top budget man for the Republicans wants federal workers to contribute more toward their pensions. President Barack Obama also has proposed making them pay more to their pensions. Their pay already has been frozen for three years. So how do federal workers compare with the private sector in pension benefits? First, they have both defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans, a rarity these days. Defined-benefit plans, which guarantee a worker a fixed pension in retirement, have been largely phased out in the private sector. Beginning in the 1980s, defined-benefit plans began being replaced by defined-contribution plans, which require the worker to contribute a portion of their income into a 401(k) retirement account or some similar tax-deferred investment plan. (read article)

In Las Vegas, Labor Secretary promotes trades, calls for minimum wage hike
By Laura Myers, December 10, 2013, Las Vegas Review Journal
America’s economic survival depends on training more middle-class workers in manufacturing, building and other trades, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told a union group meeting Monday in Las Vegas. Perez also made the case for raising the federal minimum wage so people with low-paying jobs don’t have to live in poverty. And he argued for extending unemployment benefits in the meantime to help workers still struggling to find work as the nation’s economy makes a slow but steady comeback. “It really is a matter of fairness,” Perez told reporters at a news conference, speaking of a minimum wage hike. “Nobody who works a full-time job should have to live below poverty.” He said U.S. production has increased 94 percent since 1979 yet real wages have gone up only 3.2 percent during that same time period. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. President Barack Obama supports proposed legislation by U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and George Miller, D-Calif., that would increase that to $10.10 an hour, Perez said. In Nevada, the minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. Getting personal, Perez said his father worked two jobs to make ends meet and ensure his children got a good education. Perez said he was 12 years old when his father died an early death. Perez, on the job as labor secretary only 130 days, said this was his third trip to Las Vegas, although he joked that he doesn’t gamble and so he hasn’t personally profited from his trips. (read article)

Union-backed group aims to turn America’s West blue
By Dustin Hurst, December 10, 2013, Watchdog.org
Examining the Portland, Ore.-based Bus Project, one could use plenty of adjectives to describe the operation’s tactics and activities: aggressive, unique and innovative. The one descriptor that group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, wants you to believe, though, is the least-fitting: nonpartisan. Sure, the group holds a banner that professes to soar above partisan politics. “Not left. Not right. But Forward,” preaches the site of The Bus Project’s Montana affiliate, Forward Montana. A look under the hood reveals something far less innocuous: a hyper-partisan structure dedicated solely to turning America’s West blue. And these buses, rolling in Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Washington, are gassed up thanks to labor unions and left-wing foundations. (read article)

ALEC has tremendous influence in state legislatures. Here’s why.
By Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, December 9, 2013, Washington Post
Last week, hundreds of state legislators, representatives of major international corporations and conservative policy experts gathered in Washington for a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The meeting (like one earlier this year in Chicago) attracted large protests by progressive activists and union members. The meetings and protests also occurred on the heels of leaks of ALEC’s internal documents by the British newspaper the Guardian. ALEC, a national nonprofit membership organization, describes itself as a “nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public,” but ALEC has also been characterized by the New York Times as a “stealth business lobbyist” and as a “bill laundry” for corporate policy ideas by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. ALEC is best known for producing model legislation for state governments that maps closely to the economic interests of the firms that are members of the group. In recent years, ALEC has promoted bills that would privatize state services, cut taxes, weaken unions (especially in the public sector) and soften or eliminate labor and environmental regulations. (read article)

Labor Unions Are Underwriting the Republican Party’s Civil War
By Andy Kroll, December 9, 2013, Mother Jones
The Republican Main Street Partnership, led by former Ohio Congressman Steven LaTourette, plans to spend millions of dollars in the 2014 midterm elections supporting what it calls “the governing wing of the GOP.” LaTourette’s group aims to give political support and air cover to more moderate Republicans open to compromise in Congress, neutralizing the efforts of conservative stalwarts such as the Club for Growth and getting Ted Cruz-style hardliners out of Congress. The Main Street Partnership is a hybrid entity—part super-PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money but must disclose its activities, and part nonprofit, which can accept anonymous donations but can’t focus primarily on campaigns and elections. LaTourette has said his group plans to get involved in eight to 10 Republican primaries, and the Main Street Partnership has raised nearly $2 million to date. Yet according to National Journal, a good chunk of that money comes from two unlikely sources: the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. That’s right: Two prominent labor unions are underwriting a group stoking the civil war that threatens to tear apart the Republican Party. (read article)

Unions Launch California Labor Lawsuit Over Contract Clause Clawback
By Gordon Gibb, December 9, 2013, Lawyers and Settlements
Representatives of California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) have likened a California labor lawsuit brought by labor unions to a Hail Mary pass in football. However, the apparent confidence of the BART board in defending itself against union allegations of wrongdoing and bad faith is in stark contrast to the plaintiffs who assert “a deal is a deal,” in accusing the employer of reneging on an agreement. According the Contra Costa Times (12/3/13), the dispute centers on a clause in a recently negotiated contract that provides for six weeks of paid leave to care for a newborn, or an ill or injured family member – in addition to normal provisions for vacation pay and sick leave. The BART board, according to the report, is characterizing the paid leave agreement as a clerical error in the contract and voted November 21 – following initial agreement of the proposed contract by both sides – to require that approval of the proposed contract be conditional on a new union vote on a revised contract without the paid leave clause. The paid leave provisions would saddle the BART transit authority with additional costs, although it would depend on how many union members would take advantage of the perk. The labor contract would cost BART $67 million over four years. The paid leave provision could cost the Authority an additional $6 million, to $44 million over the life of the contract. BART wants the paid leave provision struck from the contract. The unions are sticking to their guns, saying that the provision was in the original proposed contract that was agreed to by both parties. (read article)

Conservative Colorado School Board Survives Four Years of Union Onslaughts
Mark Baisley, December 9, 2013, Townhall
In 2009, one conservative community in Colorado determined to improve the economic and social outlook for their children by upgrading its K-12 education system for the 21st Century. With a voter affiliation advantage of better than two to one, the county Republican Party was able to stack the majority of the local school board with conservatives by effectively broadcasting its endorsements. The teachers union, an affiliate of the ACLU, was certainly concerned. Like their model for nearly every other large school district in the U.S., they maintained a happy control of the board, the labor force, and the superintendent. The community’s desire for relevant, world class preparation of its youth simply was not part of the education establishment’s equation in 2009. There were many a great teacher who stood tall in the face of the systemic stagnation. But Douglas County Colorado wanted, and their young students deserved, a rising tide for all boats. The community leadership recounts today that they did not, at the time, realize the big fight that they were picking four years ago. (read article)

Teachers unions face moment of truth
By Stephanie Simon, December 8, 2013, Politico
Teachers unions are facing tumultuous times. Long among the wealthiest and most powerful interest groups in American politics, the unions are grappling with financial, legal and public-relations challenges as they fight to retain their clout and build alliances with a public increasingly skeptical of big labor. The National Education Association has lost 230,000 members, or 7 percent, since 2009, and it’s projecting another decline this year, which will likely drop it below 3 million members. Among the culprits: teacher layoffs, the rise of non-unionized charter schools and new laws in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan freeing teachers to opt out of the union. The American Federation of Teachers has been able to grow slightly and now represents 1.5 million workers — but because many new members are retirees or part-timers who pay lower dues, union revenue actually fell last year, by nearly $6 million, federal records show. Moreover, the membership of the NEA and AFT overlaps considerably; some 663,000 workers show up on both rolls because their locals maintain dual affiliations. That double counting inflates perceptions of the teacher lobby’s combined strength. Total union membership isn’t 4.5 million — it’s 3.8 million. (read article)

One year later: How has right-to-work changed Michigan?
By Lindsay VanHulle, December 7, 2013, Lansing State Journal
A year after right-to-work laws were approved with the promise of radically changing Michigan’s business climate, little has actually changed. And, any changes likely won’t be realized for years, if at all. While proponents trumpeted the laws as necessary to draw companies to Michigan, there are no examples of businesses that have done so because Michigan now is a right-to-work state. And organized labor, whose leaders blasted the legislation as a union-busting attempt in the state that gave birth to unions, has seen far fewer defections among its members than originally feared. To be sure, some union members have bolted and more could follow, since right-to-work provisions don’t take effect until current contracts expire. But leaders say the defections are just a fraction of total membership. Most workers, they contend, are choosing to stay with their unions. “When you’re dragged to the edge of the cliff, you get serious and you scratch and you fight really hard,” said Ray Holman, legislative liaison for United Auto Workers Local 6000, which represents nearly 17,000 state employees. “The people have been very supportive. I think in some ways (we) have encouraged or inspired people to think about what it means to be in a union and what it means to have a strong collective bargaining team.” (read article)

Union leader: pension reform law ‘grand larceny’
By Stefano Esposito, December 6, 2013, Chicago Sun-Times
One day after Gov. Pat Quinn signed pension reform into law, a top union leader blasted the package as “grand larceny” even as a leading bond-rating agency predicted Friday it could “substantially ease” Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation, $100 billion pension crisis. Henry L. Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said it’s outrageous that the General Assembly has chosen to cut meager benefits for state workers, while voting to hand out huge tax breaks to corporations doing business in Illinois. “Clearly what happened this week was unconstitutional,” said Bayer, speaking during a labor relations law conference at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. “What happened this week was grand larceny.” The tax breaks Bayer referred to involved Senate votes to let Archer Daniels Midland, Univar and Office Depot keep state withholding taxes, but the measures stalled when the House adjourned Tuesday without taking action. Bayer said he presumed a lawsuit would be filed “relatively quickly,” but didn’t elaborate. Labor unions have vowed to take the legal fight all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court. Bayer acknowledged that a few have profited handsomely from the pension system through the years. (read article)

Confusion Still Reigns for Wisconsin Public-Sector Employers
Jon E. Anderson, December 6, 2013, Godfrey & Kahn S.C.
Wisconsin public-sector employers are still dealing with the aftermath of 2011 Act 10 and the various legal challenges brought by unions concerning the Act. Two federal courts have validated the law in its entirety, but a state-court ruling overturning parts of the law is awaiting decision of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Some public-sector employers have negotiated new one-year labor contracts while the validity of the law remains unresolved. Some of these employers have addressed a wide range of subjects of bargaining, while others have decided to negotiate only base wages in discussion with their unions. Others have developed personnel handbooks in a meet-and-confer process with the union, and some have been less transparent in that process. Others have refused to bargain at all, preferring to adopt a wait-and-see approach, given the various conflicting rulings. Public-sector employers are carefully watching the so-called Colas decision that sits now in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Judge Colas, in a decision issued last year, invalidated certain parts of the law, including the prohibition on bargaining over subjects other than “base wages” and the annual recertification process. The legal wrangling over the Colas decision on the recertification process has created even more confusion. (read article)

Not All Labor Unions Are Equal
By David Macaray, December 6, 2013, Huffington Post
Which brings us to policemen and police unions. This is where our E-board parted company with those hope-to-die adherents of union “solidarity.” The majority of us (it wasn’t unanimous) agreed that if we were cops, we’d “whistle-blow” every time we saw a fellow cop do anything unworthy of the profession — stealing money, planting evidence, beating a suspect, etc. Union “brotherhood” aside, we’d blow the whistle on every dirty cop we saw, no exceptions. We’d become well-oiled snitching machines. Why? Because when you carry a badge and a gun, and, literally, have the power of life and death, you need to be held to a higher standard than a pipe-fitter. A policeman’s role transcends unionism. Indeed, a union that knowingly protects sadistic cops is no better than one that knowingly protects child-molesting teachers. Cops aren’t factory workers; they aren’t accountants or clerks or book editors. There’s a qualitative as well as a civil difference between policemen and other professions. (read article)

State conservative groups plan US-wide assault on education, health and tax
By Ed Pilkington and Suzanne Goldenberg, December 5, 2013, The Guardian
Conservative groups across the US are planning a co-ordinated assault against public sector rights and services in the key areas of education, healthcare, income tax, workers’ compensation and the environment, documents obtained by the Guardian reveal. The strategy for the state-level organisations, which describe themselves as “free-market thinktanks”, includes proposals from six different states for cuts in public sector pensions, campaigns to reduce the wages of government workers and eliminate income taxes, school voucher schemes to counter public education, opposition to Medicaid, and a campaign against regional efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The policy goals are contained in a set of funding proposals obtained by the Guardian. The proposals were co-ordinated by the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups that act as incubators of conservative strategy at state level. The documents contain 40 funding proposals from 34 states, providing a blueprint for the conservative agenda in 2014. In partnership with the Texas Observer and the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Guardian is publishing SPN’s summary of all the proposals to give readers and news outlets full and fair access to state-by-state conservative plans that could have significant impact throughout the US, and to allow the public to reach its own conclusions about whether these activities comply with the spirit of non-profit tax-exempt charities. (read article)

Fast-food workers strike, protest for higher pay
John Bacon, December 5, 2013, USA Today
In Washington, D.C., dozens of people carried signs and marched while singing “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way, it’s no fun, to survive, on low low low low pay.” In New York City, about 100 protesters blew whistles and beat drums as they marched into a McDonald’s chanting “We can’t survive on $7.25.” And in Detroit, more than 100 workers picketed outside two McDonald’s restaurants, singing “Hey hey, ho ho, $7.40 has got to go!” One-day labor walkouts were planned at fast-food restaurants in 100 cities Thursday, with protests in scores more cities and towns across the nation. Organizers, actually a loose-knit group of labor advocates mostly led by the Service Employees International Union, are pressing for an increase in the federal minimum wage, higher wages in the industry, and the right to unionize without management reprisals. (read article)

Proposal Could Cost Half a Million Jobs
By Bill McMorris, December 5, 2013, Washington Free Beacon
Hourly wage increases advocated by labor groups could kill more than 450,000 jobs, according to a new report. Union-backed labor groups, including Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15, are staging nationwide walk-outs and demonstrations at fast food chains across the country calling for starting wages of $15 per hour. Their success could spell economic disaster for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s 2.5 million fast food workers, according to an analysis from the Employment Policies Institute. “We find that roughly 460,000 jobs would be lost in the fast food industry as a consequence of a $15 minimum wage,” the EPI report found. “This is a conservative estimate because it only includes employment loss among those who hold a fast food job as their primary employment. Including those who work in the industry as a second job would increase the estimates.” The group estimated that employment falls 3 percent for every 10 percent increase in labor costs. The $15 wage is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25—and nearly 50 percent higher than the $10.10 wage proposed by congressional Democrats. EPI warned that the doubling of wages would lead the restaurants to “replace jobs with less costly, automated alternatives—including self-service ordering kiosks and even automatic burger makers.” “These fast food protestors can either have a $15 minimum wage, or they can have the same number of jobs in the restaurant industry. But they can’t have both,” EPI spokesman Michael Saltsman said. (read article)

How America’s unions can reinvent themselves in the new economy Union
By Jon Terbush, December 5, 2013, The Week
Fast food workers nationwide are staging a massive 100-city strike Thursday to call for higher wages and harassment-free union representation. It’s the latest iteration of a growing movement, buoyed by union support, to raise income inequality to the forefront of political debate. The pleas for union representation are particularly notable given how unions have steadily eroded over the past half century. Union membership fell by 400,000 last year alone, dropping to its lowest level as a percentage of the work force since the 1930s. Democrats and labor reps have touted unions as an effective way to alleviate the widening wage gap — Democrats are even making income inequality a central message of late. And though the trend will take time to reverse, there are a number of ideas for reinvigorating America’s dwindling unions. Partly to blame for the decline in union membership is a downturn in public opinion. Today, a slim 54 percent majority of Americans approve of labor unions, down from a high of 75 percent in the mid-1950s, per Gallup. As a result, more people are opting out of unions when given the chance, a phenomena goosed by so-called “right to work” laws. Indiana, which passed such a law in 2012, saw its union membership plummet by 56,000 last year. One possible solution to that swing, hidden in plain sight, is to get the economy back on track and drive down the unemployment rate, which remains stuck at 7.3 percent. (read article)

Union workers coerced into political positions
By Maxford Nelsen, December 5, 2013, The Seattle News Tribune
People deserve to know their vote makes a difference, and all citizens have the right to expect that elections be free of coercion. Unfortunately, special interests too often muffle the voice of the people and distort the democratic process. The recent state Senate race between Democrat Nathan Schlicher and Republican challenger Jan Angel in the 26th District was no exception. In terms of electing candidates, the race was the most important election in the state this year. Labor unions threw their considerable weight behind Schlicher. The Washington State Labor Council touted his “100 percent labor voting record” in the last legislative session, and Schlicher expressed his intent to advance a “pro-labor agenda” in the future. Unfortunately, much union activity in this election, like all others, relied on money forcibly extracted from union members. According to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), about $1.6 million was raised to elect Schlicher. Our analysis revealed just over 30 percent of these funds, or about $500,000, ultimately came from labor unions. Tired of all the negative political advertising on TV? The bulk of labor funds, about $300,000, went to support negative advertising against Schlicher’s opponent. Furthermore, our estimates do not account for the full range of election spending by unions. A legal loophole allows union officials to avoid reporting any spending on the “political education” of their members. In this election, “Labor Neighbor,” the Washington State Labor Council’s “member-to-member political action program,” was dedicated to “engaging fellow union members” to “explain why Schlicher has earned labor’s strong support.” While undeniably intended to influence the election, none of the funds spent on “Labor Neighbor” efforts must be reported to the PDC. (read article)

California Unions Brace for Showdown over Pension Reform
Newsmax.com, December 4, 2013
For California’s public-sector unions, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed’s proposed statewide ballot measure for pension reform is a call to arms – and they’re bringing out the big guns. Reed, a Democrat, has taken only preliminary steps in his quest to amend the state constitution to allow changes in future pension benefits for current public employees, a move to help local governments control soaring retirement-related spending. Courts have interpreted the constitution as now barring changes to a public employee’s pension after he or she was hired. But the state’s powerful unions have already begun to push back, portraying Reed’s plan as a right-wing attack that would unfairly threaten the retirement security of policeman, firefighters and other public servants. The unions have recruited some two dozen elected local officials to speak out against the proposed amendment. They say they could spend even more on the fight than the $75 million they shelled out in 2012 to defeat Proposition 32, a ballot measure that would have eviscerated union political power. “When you’re trying to put a stake through the heart of the labor movement, people will come out of the woodwork,” said Steve Maviglio, spokesman for the campaign against Prop 32 and for the unions lining up against Reed’s proposal. “I could say that if a measure like this moves forward, it’ll outstrip what was spent on Prop 32.” (read article)

Detroit’s lesson for unions: Ask for what’s fair and sustainable
Editorial, December 4, 2013, Washington Post
Judge Steven W. Rhodes’s decision to allow Detroit to file for municipal bankruptcy may prove to be a landmark in the history of urban America. This is only partly because it enables the fabled Motor City to make a desperately needed “fresh start,” as Judge Rhodes put it. Hemorrhaging population, plagued by inadequate public services and saddled with $18?billion in debt, Detroit had little alternative but to seek permanent relief from its creditors. Now the city is that much closer to the day when it can implement emergency manager Kevyn D. Orr’s farsighted plan for reactivating vital functions such as police, street illumination and derelict housing clearance. The case gets its potentially historic significance from Judge Rhodes’s holding that the city may reduce pension payouts to public-union workers as part of a settlement with creditors. It’s the first time that a federal court has concluded that Chapter 9 of the federal bankruptcy code trumps state-law protections for public-worker pensions, even in states, including Michigan, that had purported to shield them via a state constitutional provision. This appears to set a powerful precedent for at least the 24 states that specifically authorize municipal bankruptcy, and possibly the others, too. Consequently, mayors and city councils in distressed municipalities could wield enhanced bargaining power in their negotiations with public-sector unions. Help us limit unfunded-pension liabilities, they can argue, or you may find yourself dealing with a bankruptcy judge some day. (read article)

Union Workers Say Illinois Pension Bill Is Unconstitutional, Vow To Take Fight To Court
By Sara Burnett, December 4, 2013, Huffington Post
The passage of a landmark bill to address Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension crisis means the yearslong fight over how to address the massive shortfall now likely shifts to the courts, where its fate — and much-needed relief for the financially troubled state — remains highly uncertain. Lawmakers approved a measure Tuesday to eliminate the $100 billion unfunded pension liability by cutting benefits for workers and retirees. Public-employee unions promised quick legal action if Gov. Pat Quinn signs the bill, which the Chicago Democrat said he will do “promptly.” The unions argue that the legislation violates a provision of the state constitution that says pension benefits may not be diminished. They criticized lawmakers who voted yes for approving a bill they say is clearly unconstitutional. “A majority of legislators ignored and defied their oaths of office today — but Governor Pat Quinn doesn’t have to. He can stay true to his oath and the legal promise made to public employees and retirees by vetoing this unfair, unconstitutional bill,” a coalition of unions known as We Are One Illinois said in an emailed statement. “If he doesn’t, our union coalition will have no choice but to seek to uphold the Illinois Constitution and protect workers’ life savings through legal action.” But Quinn said he believes the legislation is constitutional and will be upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court. “It is necessary for the economic good for the people of our state, and I think the court will see it that way,” he said. (read article)

L.A. social workers may strike despite progress in labor talks
By Seema Mehta, December 3, 2013, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles County social workers plan to strike Thursday if progress is not made toward lowering their caseloads, according to sources familiar with the ongoing bargaining but who were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly. The news comes as the Service Employees International Union Local 721 — the county’s largest public-employee union, representing 55,000 workers — announced significant progress in negotiations in an email to its members. Union employees have been working without a contract for more than two months. Both sides have agreed on the county covering increased 2014 premiums for most healthcare plans, as well as a 6% raise that most of the county’s other unions have already agreed to, a $500 bonus in 2014 and $400,000 in ride-share subsidies, according to the email. A sticking point is that the union wants the first part of the 6% raise — a 2% increase — to retroactively go into effect Oct. 1, the day after the previous contract expired. (read article)

San Jose Police Approve New Union Labor Pact
By Bay City News, December 3, 2013, NBC Bay Area
The San Jose police employees’ union has ratified a tentative labor contract with the city but members remain concerned about the exodus of officers to other cities and the adequacy of disability benefits, a spokesman said. The San Jose Police Officers Association’s membership voted 79 percent to 21 percent for the proposed work agreement that by 2015 would restore wage levels officers earned back in 2009, SJPOA spokesman Tom Saggau said. The tentative agreement next goes before the San Jose City Council for final ratification at the council’s Dec. 10 meeting. The SJPOA and the city signed the tentative agreement on Nov. 19, which granted officers a pay raise of 10.66 percent over a 2.5-year period and a one-time 2 percent cash bonus based on officers’ annual salaries. San Jose cut the pay rates of police officers and all other city employees by 10 percent when a national recession drastically reduced tax revenues for the city in 2010. (read article)

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