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.

What Progressives Can Learn From Their California Failures
By Conor Friedersdorf, April 2, 2013, The Atlantic
The Democratic Party has conquered the Golden State’s levers of power. But political victory doesn’t guarantee good governance. In California, my home state, Democrats have dominated the capitol since roughly 1970. In the last four-plus decades, they’ve controlled both houses of the state legislature for all but two years. They dominate the state bureaucracy and the leadership of most major cities. And they’ve long dominated the vast majority of statewide offices, the governorship excepted: Since Ronald Reagan departed in 1975, it has gone back and forth between Democrats (like current and former governor Jerry Brown) and Republicans, most recently the moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite this, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times opinion writer, has managed to write a column that proceeds as if, insofar as partisans can be blamed, Republicans are entirely to blame for the state’s woes, which he thinks are exaggerated, while Democrats bear no responsibility. But I’d be guilty of false equivalence, dear reader, if I didn’t assure you that Democrats bear more blame, largely because they’ve had the opportunity and responsibility to exercise so much more power, and weren’t exactly starved of revenue compared to what other states take in. Disagree? Fine, let’s set aside the question of who is more at fault. Here is a weaker claim. Democratic rule in California has included serious sins of omission and commission by the progressive-liberal coalition that has more often than not been in charge, and the left would do well to learn from those mistakes so that it can govern better, instead of pretending, like Krugman, that they don’t exist, and that everything would function smoothly if only they were able to raise state taxes. Here are five examples of misgovernance for which they bear full or partial responsibility. (read article)

Michigan right-to-work law heading to court this week over alleged violation of Open Meetings Act
By Jonathan Oosting, April 02, 2013, Michigan Live
Michigan’s new right-to-work law is heading to court this week, but the state is hoping it won’t stay there long. Attorney General Bill Schuette is requesting immediate dismissal of a suit that seeks to invalidate the controversial new law due to an alleged violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette is expected to consider the state’s motion at a Wednesday morning hearing in Mason. The ACLU of Michigan will ask Collette to advance the case, arguing that the state violated the Open Meetings Act by locking citizens out of the Capitol building in early December as lawmakers considered right-to-work legislation inside. “There was both a technical and a spiritual violation of this important law that requires there to be a significant amount of transparency in the government decision making process,” executive director Kary L. Moss said Monday. “Michigan citizens were deprived.” (read article)

Debate on Maine labor bills gets heated
April 2, 2013, Augusta Times-Union
A legislative hearing on two Republican-sponsored bills that would make Maine a right-to-work state and reduce the power of unions got heated. The bills at issue on Monday were introduced by Amherst Republican state Rep. Lawrence Lockman. One would prohibit mandatory union membership or payment of union dues as a condition of employment. The other would eliminate a provision in state law that automatically deducts public-sector union dues from state workers’ paychecks, regardless of union membership. Independent state Rep. James Campbell of Newfield was ruled out of order for speaking against the bills. The 79-year-old Campbell suggested that some people want to roll back the minimum wage to the 75 cents an honor he made when he was younger. (read article)

GOP Moves to ‘Modernize’ Union Contracts in Michigan
By Bill Hoffmann, April 1, 2013, Newsmax
Conservative activists in Michigan are taking another swipe at unions, urging Republican lawmakers to ban exclusivity clauses for public-sector unions, The Detroit News reports. A ban would put a stop to the state’s recognition that a union is the sole representative in bargaining for a particular group of workers. The proposal comes on the heels of Michigan’s just-passed right-to-work law, which took effect only five days ago, that makes financial support of a labor union optional in unionized workplaces. Labor supporters fear the law will lead to “freeloader” workers who reap the benefits of union collective bargaining without having to pay dues. Republican state Rep. Mike Shirkey, the lead advocate of the right-to-work law, has drafted a bill to eliminate exclusive representation for unions. “The freeloader argument only exists because unions choose to put the exclusivity clauses into contracts,” Shirkey told the News. “I think this is the next modernization of union-worker contracts in the government sector.” (read article)

Union greed drives California to bankruptcy
By Steven Greenhut, April 1, 2013, Franklin Center
Few non-local people pay much attention to the goings-on in Stockton, a hard-pressed Gold-Rush-era industrial city of 300,000 that sits in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley at the eastern edge of the California Delta. But bondholders, taxpayers and government officials throughout the country will be listening to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Klein’s expected ruling on Monday as he decides whether the city may remain in bankruptcy and pursue a plan that stiffs its bondholders. If Klein sides with the city, then municipalities will face a disturbingly low bar for pursuing bankruptcy. They will be emboldened to choose Stockton’s course — i.e., using bankruptcy as a strategic policy tool to offload debts without having to confront the main reasons that they went bankrupt in the first place, such as lush pensions. Bankruptcy will no longer be a policy of last resort. This should have an impact on bond markets. If the city wins the case, argued March 25-27 in the Sacramento federal courthouse, then the public-sector unions and the scandal-plagued California Public Employees Retirement System are right. No matter what problems befall a city, public services and taxpayers suffer first while union members and public retirement systems are protected. (read article)

Deal between union, business leaders moves U.S. closer to immigration overhaul
By Alan Gomez, April 1, 2013, Detroit Free Press
Senators welcomed an agreement by business and labor officials that would remove a key hurdle to a major immigration overhaul, but they cautioned Sunday that much work remains to be done and that no final deal has been reached. The compromise between officials at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO would create a W-Visa program that would bring in up to 200,000 foreign workers a year to do janitorial, hospitality and construction work. As outlined Saturday by the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, the plan would establish a Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research to recommend changes to the number of visas for low-skilled workers given out each year. The accord addresses one of the biggest issues facing legislators negotiating a sweeping immigration bill that would legalize the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants, strengthen border security and change how the U.S. grants visas. (read article)

OP-ED: Is it time to revisit CEQA?
By Sue Lempert, April 01, 2013, The Daily Journal
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has a major challenge. He’s the new chair of the important Environmental Quality committee, which among other things, will be considering possible changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA. Gov. Jerry Brown called for reform of CEQA in his State of the State address. Now, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is introducing Senate Bill 731 to do just that. Both the governor and Steinberg feel the act has been used or misused for corporate competition (one corner gas station trying to stop a competitor from adding more pumps), by unions to force project labor agreements, and by opponents of infill development and transportation projects to delay or stop work. (read article)

Pensions: Why CA is So Screwed Up, in a Nutshell
By Chris Reed, April 1, 2013, San Diego Union Tribune
So CalPERS’ actuary, in a fit of unusual honesty, says the pension giant’s finances are in bad shape in the long run and need to be firmed up. But Alan Milligan realizes that asking his labor-dominated board of directors to have public employees pay more toward pension costs is a nonstarter. So what does he do? Daniel Borenstein has the details: “He told the board that CalPERS needs more taxpayer money than previously thought from state and local governments and voiced concern about ‘slow progress toward full funding.’ CalPERS, at last accounting, had about 74 percent of the funds it should. “To understand his proposed rate increase, consider pension costs for the California Highway Patrol. The state is already expected to pay 33 cents for every dollar of payroll in fiscal year 2014-15, and 39 cents by 2018-19. “Under Milligan’s proposal, the rate would reach 44 cents. That’s an overall 33 percent increase over the five-year period … “ So CalPERS’ actuary wants to firm up CalPERS’ long-term stability by socking taxpayers, and what is the expected reaction from unions? “Labor representatives will protest the higher rates, even though Milligan’s proposal does not require employees to pay more — and even though it will make their pensions more secure. The problem for them is that employers would have less money for salaries.” Feel free to scream or cry or laugh or do all three. CalPERS’ board is hostile to having to properly fund pensions because then there would be “less money for salaries.” (read article)

Unions focus organizing efforts on service sector workplaces
By Lorraine Mirabella, April 01, 2013, The Baltimore Sun
After spending three decades at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, Kevin Hux eagerly joined efforts this past year to unionize his workplace. “I joined this union to have some kind of voice and be protected,” said Hux, 55, who started in housekeeping shortly after the Inner Harbor hotel opened and now sets up tables for conventions and receptions. Because of staffing cuts, Hux said, he now shoulders tasks that three workers would have handled several years back. Hux and other employees have been working with organizers from Unite Here, which represents hospitality workers and has embarked on a national campaign aimed at unionized and nonunionized Hyatt hotels. The union is fighting what it says is a growing trend, led by Hyatt, of hotels reducing permanent staff and hiring temporary workers instead. Hyatt Regency managers defend employment policies, and say wage and benefit packages are competitive in Baltimore. The hotel says it has a long history of productive relationships with unions such as the Teamsters, International Longshoremen’s Association and Workers United. “Despite all the union claims, we feel Hyatt maintains one of the best workplaces in the city,” general manager Gail Smith-Howard said. Hotel organizing efforts in Baltimore and elsewhere, along with campaigns at other tourism-related businesses such as casinos, are part of a larger goal by unions to improve wages, benefits and working conditions in service sector jobs, union representatives and labor experts say. Such jobs have largely replaced traditional blue-collar jobs, such as manufacturing, in the United States. (read article)

Tech companies, engineers clash over cap on high-skilled worker visas
By Jennifer Martinez, March 31, 2013, The Hill
Senators negotiating a comprehensive immigration bill will get reminded on Monday of the need for temporary worker visas, as the cap is expected to be hit a few days after the government starts accepting applications. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees immigration, starts accepting applications for 65,000 H-1B visa slots on Apr. 1. But this year the agency anticipates that it may hit the visa cap within the first week that it starts accepting applications and could revert to a lottery system for first time since 2008. Tech companies say the expected influx of petitions illustrates the desperate need for Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap so they can hire top foreign talent. “The current numbers are outdated and don’t take into account all of the innovation and technology that’s occurred over the last twenty years,” said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, a partner at Monument Policy Group, which lobbies on behalf of Microsoft and LinkedIn in Washington. “Basically we have an arbitrary number that’s not aligned in any fashion to our country’s need for labor requirements.” (read article)

Building unions labor for traction
By Daniel Geiger, March 31, 2013, Crains New York Business
Despite pick up in construction activity, developers still have edge in negotiations. In another sign of a rebound in the housing market, the Zeckendorf brothers announced in December that they will build a 44-story, $500 million condominium tower across from the United Nations. Predictably, given the location and the siblings’ track record as arguably the most successful ultra-high-end residential developers in the city, the units are expected to fetch tens of millions of dollars apiece. What is surprising, though, is that those apartments will be built using a special package of work-rule and wage concessions from construction unions that is expected to shave as much as 20% off labor costs—a savings of millions of dollars. Such agreements became common during the recession. Their continued use as the market recovers, especially by developers of some of the city’s priciest projects, marks a departure from past recoveries, when labor costs typically have bounced back with a vengeance to drive construction costs to new highs. This time around, early indications are that the old, notoriously volatile pattern may be changing—a shift that most observers credit to the striking rise of nonunion contractors in recent years. “A [developer] today has options,” said Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, a group that represents union contractors. Instead of simply “take it or leave it,” these days developers of all but the very largest of projects can opt to hire nonunion contractors, or use that option as a threat to negotiate lucrative concessions from unionized ones. (read article)

California’s largest teachers union now backs bill to ease firing
By Laura Olson, March 30, 2013, San Jose Mercury
California’s largest teachers union is backing a measure that would make it easier to discipline and fire teachers accused of misconduct after successfully fighting a similar proposal last year. Lawmakers this week will take up AB375 by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, which would speed up the appeals process after a teacher is fired and add homicide charges to the list of offenses that can spur a teacher’s removal by a school district. It would still allow a panel of teachers and a judge to resolve dismissal disputes instead of giving districts the power to make a final decision, a provision in last year’s bill that teachers unions opposed. The measure also has support from Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat who spearheaded last year’s attempt to revise the process in response to a Los Angeles elementary school teacher who was accused of blindfolding students and feeding them his semen. Under current law, teachers who are fired can appeal their case to a three-member disciplinary commission of a judge and teachers chosen by both sides, a process that can take years to resolve and can cost school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Districts have long complained that the process is cumbersome and expensive, but unions have stridently fought attempts to change it. Union leaders say the new proposal would shorten the dismissal process in a way that still allows charges against teachers to be handled fairly. “It streamlines the process, it makes it less expensive, and it doesn’t leave our members hanging for so long,” said Eric Heins, vice president of the California Teachers Association. That view is in stark contrast to last year’s comments from the union, which represents 325,000 California teachers and is a deep-pocketed political supporter of Democratic lawmakers. (read article)

Labor unions and business reach deal on new work visas for undocumented workers
By Arturo Garcia, March 30, 2013, The Raw Story
A deal between labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would allow undocumented immigrants the chance to apply for legal resident status as part of a new work visa program, CBS News reported on Saturday. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and chamber president Tom Donohue reached the agreement by phone late Friday night in a conference call with Sen. Chuch Schumer (D-NY), a member of the bipartisan “gang of 8″ Senators who has been pushing for an overhaul of immigration policy in recent months. The deal ABC News reported on Saturday boosts the chances of an immigration reform package the group hopes to introduce on April 8, when Congress returns from a two-week recess. A spokesperson for one of the members, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), said on Twitter, “Senate negotiators are making good progress on immigration reform, but we’re not done yet.” The program would approve “W” visas for up to 200,000 workers a year, with the annual number monitored by a new federal agency. Participants would have the freedom to change employers and apply for U.S. resident status, neither of which they can do under current immigration law. The deal would also allow workers to make as much money as their trade pays in their location. (read article)

Markey, Lynch wooing unions
By Allison Thomasseau, March 30, 2013, The Lowell Sun
The Democratic primary contest for U.S. Senate between U.S. Reps. Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch has become a battle for union backing, and the candidates’ drive for endorsements may have a benefit of mobilizing rank-and-file support for whoever wins. Despite primary-election endorsements, Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh said most unions will likely endorse whichever candidate wins the primary in the June 25 general election. “One endorser said we were choosing between a friend and a brother, and I appreciate that,” Walsh said. “Once the primary is over, I suspect all this activity around these issues will benefit the nominee.” Markey gained the endorsement of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on Tuesday. He already has the support of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, American Teachers Association and the Service Workers International Union. Lynch, who is a union official with the iron workers, has the support of the Massachusetts Building Trades Association, Massachusetts Nurses Association and the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts AFL-CIO is waiting until after the Democratic primary on April 30 to endorse a candidate and left endorsements up to individual chapters. “Lynch has been a card-carrying union member for decades, and conventional wisdom would be that (the unions) line up in his favor, and that hasn’t come to pass,” said David Guarino, a Democratic political consultant. (read article)

Labor Unions Urge Chapter 11 Reform
By Vincent Ryan, March 28, 2013, CFO Magazine
Bankruptcy has become a way for U.S. companies to reorganize and restructure on the backs of their employees, said union executives at a recent hearing. When companies declare bankruptcy, increasingly it’s the unionized employees bearing the brunt of financial restructuring. At least that’s the view of union heads who spoke at the American Bankruptcy Institute’s latest field hearing on reforming Chapter 11 law. In recent years, they said, distressed businesses have rejected collective-bargaining agreements (CBAs) and terminated retiree health benefits and pension plans without seeking equal sacrifice from other stakeholders and creditors. There’s evidence to support the claim: 363 sales – in which a buyer structures the deal as a purchase of assets and doesn’t take on the debtor’s obligations – represent 21% of all business bankruptcies since 2000. Such structures are allowing companies “to facilitate escape from pension obligations,” said Joshua Gotbaum, director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The obligations get shifted to the PBGC, which is funded by premiums collected from defined-benefit plan sponsors. Gotbaum cited numerous cases where this had occurred ­– Friendly, Georgetown Steel, Levitz, Mosler, Oxford Automotive, and Relizon. Executives from the Air Line Pilots Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and the Transport Workers Union said workers’ rights in all kinds of bankruptcy cases have been eroded. (read article)

Labor unions call first day of Right-to-Work law ‘dark day’ for Michigan
By Carol Hopkins, March 28, 2013, The Oakland Press
The first day of Michigan’s new right-to-work law brought a range of reactions from both sides of the issue. UAW Local 653 President Mike Warchuck had choice words. “It’s a sad day for labor,” said Warchuck, from his office in Pontiac where he represents 1,200 autoworkers. “This law has no place in Michigan. It’s a dark day in history.” The law allows workers to choose not to financially support unions that bargain on their behalf. The right-to-work law measure passed in December 2012, making Michigan the nation’s 24th state to pass it. The law that took effect applies to labor contracts that are extended or renewed after Wednesday. Many unionized employees won’t be affected for months or years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 629,000 wage and salary workers were union members in 2012. Of the 1,013 Michigan adults surveyed this winter by Michigan State’s Institute for Public Policy, 42.7 percent said they believe the new law will help the economy. Another 41 percent said it will hurt. Michigan Freedom Fund President Greg McNeilly said: “This is a monumental day for working families in Michigan. “Joining a union—or not—should be an individual worker’s choice and now here in Michigan, making that choice will not cost one worker his or her job. Michigan took a huge step forward today in the battle to protect residents’ civil rights and to empower working families.” (read article)

AFL-CIO’s Trumka looks to remake U.S. labor movement
By Peter Wallsten, March 27, 2013, The Washington Post
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Wednesday he is crafting a new plan to remake the American labor movement, which is struggling to retain clout in Washington and state capitals amid a steep decline in membership. In an interview taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, Trumka said he was seeking a more formal alliance with other key elements of the Democratic Party’s liberal base, including civil rights organizations and women’s rights groups. The hope, he said, is to then broaden union membership beyond the traditional realm of workplace-based organizing. “The labor movement is definitely in a period of change,” Trumka said. “We’re no longer going to allow employers to decide who our members are. We’re going to decide who our members are. We’re going to open up our arms to people who want to join our movement.” Trumka’s initiative is a response to what has been a difficult time for labor unions. State lawmakers across the country have moved to scale back organizing rights for public employees and others. A shrinking base of manufacturing jobs that once formed the backbone of organized labor has further depleted the pool of potential members. And despite high hopes four years ago that President Obama and the Democrats would pass legislation making it easier for workers to organize and perhaps laying the groundwork for rebuilding union power, the measure never made it to fruition. Moreover, thorny issues such as immigration have exacerbated tensions among some unions in the labor federation and between the AFL-CIO and other union groups. (read article)

Labor Union Members Rally At The Mo. Capitol, Call On Lawmakers To Defeat “Anti-Worker” Bills
By Marshall Griffin, March 27, 2013, St. Louis Public Radio
Around 200 labor union members rallied outside the Mo. Capitol on March 27th, 2013, voicing opposition to “anti-worker” bills in the Mo. House and Senate. Labor union members from across Missouri descended on the State Capitol today, hoping to convince lawmakers to defeat bills they say are anti-worker. The Missouri House and Senate have both passed so-called “paycheck protection” bills, HB 64 and SB 29, which are now awaiting further actions in each chamber. The measures would bar public employee unions from automatically deducting dues from workers’ paychecks without written consent. Mike Lewis of the Missouri AFL-CIO spoke against the bills at a rally today outside the Capitol. “Our fight against paycheck deception is part of a long struggle, but it’s a struggle to get you full collective bargaining rights like you should have,” Lewis said. Brooks Sunkett also addressed the crowd of around 200 on the South Lawn of the Missouri Capitol. He is the Communications Workers of America’s Vice President for the Public Sector. “We need to fight back for worker’s rights,” Sunkett said. “We need to build community groups with taxpayers, civil rights groups, with women’s rights groups, with environmentalists, until we have justice, not only for public workers, but for private sector workers.” (read article)

Ann Arbor approves new contract with city’s largest labor union 3 days before right-to-work starts
By Ryan J. Stanton, March 25, 2013, Ann Arbor.com
Three days before Michigan’s controversial right-to-work law is set to take effect, the city of Ann Arbor has struck a deal on a new contract with its largest labor union. The Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME Local 369 and its roughly 270 members. The contract is effective as of Monday and runs through Dec. 31, 2017. Because the contract starts before the new state law takes effect, the city’s AFSCME union won’t face the consequences of right-to-work for more than four and a half years. The vote on the new contract was 9-0 with Council Members Christopher Taylor and Mike Anglin absent. The right-to-work law, which goes into effect Thursday, makes it illegal to require financial support of a union as a condition of employment, which is expected to weaken unions as some members opt to no longer pay dues. But until existing contracts expire, like AFSCME’s will at the end of 2017, union employees must continue to pay dues. The city’s human resources department recommended approval of the new AFSCME contract, which was renegotiated early and supersedes a contract set to expire on Dec. 31, 2013. (read article)

 

About the author: Jack Dean is editor of PensionTsunami.org, formed to monitor developments in all three pension spheres nationwide — public employees, corporations and social security. PensionTsunami, like UnionWatch, is a project of the California Public Policy Center. Dean is a former newspaper editor and a past executive director of the Reason Foundation. He has been active in politics for more than three decades and currently serves as president of the Fullerton Association of Concerned Taxpayers.

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