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:

California’s Pension Reform Legislation Allows Cities to Bypass Collective Bargaining
By Ed Mendel, September 4, 2012, Calpensions
Pension reform approved by the Legislature last week gives many cities new cost-cutting power that some have been unable to win from public employee unions at the bargaining table. The legislation does not cover a quarter of California cities, 121 of 482, that operate under their own charters rather than general law. Among them are several with well-publicized pension problems: Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Jose. But for most cities the legislation extends retirement ages, caps pensions and gives new hires a lower pension by imposing a single formula (rolling back increases after SB 400) instead of allowing bargaining on a menu of different formulas. The legislation calls for a 50-50 split of “normal” pension costs between employers and employees. As current contracts expire, if unions do not agree to equal cost sharing in bargaining by 2018, cities can impose an employee contribution increase. (read article)

A Reverse Wisconsin: In Michigan, unions try to enshrine union power in the constitution
Editorial, September 4, 2012, Wall Street Journal
The latest evidence of Big Labor’s dismay over its declining national clout is playing out in Michigan, where a measure headed for the ballot in November would entrench monopoly union power in the state constitution. The amendment would reduce the ability of Michigan lawmakers to change labor laws and end-run efforts to give workers a choice about whether to join a union. The proposed amendment text would make the “rights” to organize and bargain collectively a constitutional guarantee, and any state law that would “abridge, impair or limit” collective bargaining would be repealed. Last Monday, the… (read article – subscription required)

California unions hold power but face peril
By Dan Walters, September 3, 2012, Sacramento Bee
Anyone who was paying attention to the California Legislature during the hectic final days of the 2012 session last week could see the political clout of the state’s labor unions. Countless union-backed bills whipped through the Capitol and onto Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. Although union lobbyists lost a few battles, they could count many more victories. With the Legislature’s Democratic majority utterly beholden to unions for political sustenance and with a governor, Jerry Brown, whose 2010 campaign relied on union financing, unions and their 2.4 million members are at the apogee of political influence. Nevertheless, Labor Day 2012 also finds those unions facing a ballot measure that could erode their political influence as they face declining popularity and long-term membership shrinkage. (read article)

California Pension Deal Reflects Democratic, Union Ties
By Juliet Williams and Judy Lin, September 3, 2012, Monterey County Herald
Union leaders grumbled this week when Gov. Jerry Brown released a compromise deal with Democrats to scale back pension benefits for the state’s public employees, but it was far less than a resounding victory for the Democratic governor. While Brown and Democratic leaders hailed the deal as sweeping and substantial, the governor failed to get critical elements that he previously said were needed to better protect taxpayers for years to come. The deal will increase the retirement age for new employees, eliminate numerous abuses of the system and require workers who are not contributing half of their retirement costs to pay more. Missing were three pillars of the 12-point proposal Brown announced last October. There is no hybrid system that includes a 401(k)-style plan so public employees would bear some of the investment risk, as private-sector workers do. Nothing was done to reduce skyrocketing health care costs promised to current workers when they retire. And there will be no independent members or guarantee of independent financial expertise on the union-dominated board of the state’s main pension fund. The changes also will not be embedded in the state constitution, meaning they can be altered by majority vote of a future legislature. (read article)

Labor unions try to wield electoral clout seen in Ohio’s SB 5 fight
By  Jack Torry  and  Emily Wilkins, September 3, 2012, The Columbus Dispatch
A year after delivering a stinging rebuke to Gov. John Kasich at the polls, organized labor hopes to maintain its momentum in this year’s elections while simultaneously trying to stem   a decline in union membership in Ohio. On this Labor Day, as President Barack Obama campaigns for re-election in Toledo, labor-union backers remain bolstered by their landmark defeat through a state ballot issue last year of Senate Bill 5, a Republican attack on public-employee collective-bargaining rights. Dennis Willard, spokesman for We Are Ohio, an organization created to fight Senate Bill 5, said that the group now is focused on winning passage of a statewide issue that would hand control of drawing new congressional districts from political parties to an independent panel. (read article)

On Labor Day, Trying Times for Organized Labor in California
By Rick Orlov, September 3, 2012, Daily News
It has been a trying time for unions in Los Angeles and across the nation as workers mark Labor Day in the face of demands for pension reform, salary cuts and furlough days off work. “It is clear that what we are facing is the need for more good jobs, for an economic rebound,” said Maria Elena-Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the umbrella group representing some 800,000 workers. “We need to have a better economy to create the jobs we need if we are to come back as a city, as a nation,” Durazo said, echoing comments made not only by people in the labor movement, but from the business and political realm as well. At all levels of government, unions are being asked to scale back salaries, benefits and pensions, as many in private industry have already done. And on the political front, the union’s greatest strength is being challenged with Proposition 32, which would ban paycheck deductions and contributions to any politician who decides a contract under their control. (read article)

AFSCME Prepares to Fight Any Attempts to Change Current Workers’ Benefits
By Hazel Bradford, September 3, 2012, Pensions & Investments
Several high-profile court cases and the prospect of more might be writing the next chapter of public pension reform, as bold — or desperate — legislators take aim at current workers’ benefits, once considered untouchable. “There is just so much pressure on state budgets, and pensions eat up more and more of them. It’s going to drive more changes, and a lot will be decided in the courts,” said Amy Monahan, professor of law at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who specializes in pension law. Right now, all eyes are on New Jersey and Rhode Island, where legal challenges to dramatic pension reforms affecting current workers await decisions by the states’ supreme courts. Similar cases also have been filed by employee groups in Louisiana, Michigan and New Hampshire, challenging benefit changes that include greater employee contributions, higher retirement ages or lower pension multipliers. “It’s an emerging area of law,” agreed Steve Kreisberg, director of collective bargaining at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Washington. While he doesn’t expect widespread cuts to current workers’ benefits, “we’re preparing for it. Any change is a deal we will fight.” (read article)

GOP Not Alone in Cutting Costs for Public Pensions
By Josh Boak, September 3, 2012, The Fiscal Times
To hear it from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the Republican National Convention last week, only the GOP is willing to challenge public employee unions on their generous pensions and benefits. In his Tampa speech, Walker celebrated surviving a June 5 recall election after taking on public unions to reduce the number of people who are “dependent on the government.” But when it comes to state government pensions, the stereotype that Republicans alone are cracking down on unions is not entirely accurate. California Gov. Jerry Brown and fellow Democratic state lawmakers overcame union objections and approved reforms on Friday that limit benefits, raise the retirement age, and increase the personal contributions made into the pension system by state employees. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, enacted changes in March for future state retirees that are estimated to save $80 billion over the next 30 years. (read article)

Costa Mesa Councilman Righeimer’s case another black eye for police
By Todd Spitzer, September 2, 2012, Orange County Register
When I left the Legislature in 2008 because of term-limits and returned to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, I immediately returned to the courtroom and jury trials. When I picked my first jury in the North Orange County Justice Center, in Fullerton, I was immediately struck by the difference in attitude I encountered, compared with when I had picked nearly 100 juries from 1990-96. This time around, prospective jurors being interviewed were much more suspicious about the police and, in some instances, downright hostile: “All police lie”, “The police cover up for their buddies.” I was pretty shocked. This jury pool was drawn from conservative North Orange County, the police enjoyed so much respect and appreciation, the defendant basically had to prove his innocence. So now a few bad cops have tainted the entire profession. (read article)

On Labor Day, trying times for organized labor
By Rick Orlov, September 2, 2012, Los Angeles Daily News
It has been a trying time for unions in Los Angeles and across the nation as workers mark Labor Day in the face of demands for pension reform, salary cuts and furlough days off work. “It is clear that what we are facing is the need for more good jobs, for an economic rebound,” said Maria Elena-Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, the umbrella group representing some 800,000 workers. “We need to have a better economy to create the jobs we need if we are to come back as a city, as a nation,” Durazo said, echoing comments made not only by people in the labor movement, but from the business and political realm as well. At all levels of government, unions are being asked to scale back salaries, benefits and pensions, as many in private industry have already done. And on the political front, the union’s greatest strength is being challenged with Proposition 32, which would ban paycheck deductions and contributions to any politician who decides a contract under their control. (read article)

Gloria Romero: The Trials of a Democratic Reformer
By Allysia Finley, September 1, 2012, Wall Street Journal
Former Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson once referred to Sacramento as a “cowtown,” but Gloria Romero, a pro-labor Democrat who served as California’s Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2008, takes exception to the belittling description. The capitol building in Sacramento, she says, has “the eighth most powerful economy in the world under that dome,” and it operates not unlike other wealthy kleptocracies. “There’s no other way to say it politely. It’s owned.” Topping the list of proprietors is the California Teachers Association, which she calls the most muscular union and political player in the state. Then there are the unions for nurses, prison guards, firefighters and police. Call them California’s “deep state.” Ms. Romero now heads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a large tent of liberals who are as diverse as an Occupy encampment but united by a common desire to improve accountability in public schools. The group supports Democratic school reformers running for political office and promotes legislation that toughens standards. But before taking up her current charge, Ms. Romero served a dozen years in the legislature, where she was known for trying to clean up the capital’s cronyism and corruption. (read article)

In U.S., Labor Union Approval Steady at 52%
by Jeffrey M. Jones, August 31, 2012, Gallup
A slim majority of Americans, 52%, approve of labor unions, unchanged from 2010 and 2011, and up only slightly from the all-time low of 48% in 2009. Americans had been far more approving of unions before 2009 than they have in the last few years. Gallup first asked Americans whether they approved of labor unions in 1936, and 72% did at that time. Labor union approval peaked at 75% in January 1957, and remained above 60% until 1978. Approval held just below 60% through 1991, and generally hovered around the 60% mark through 2008. The drop in approval to 48% occurred in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency and after the 2008-2009 financial crisis and recession. (read article)

Grocery union fails in bid for Fresh & Easy price tags
By Eric Hartley, August 31, 2012, Los Angeles Daily News
A union effort to attack the nonunion Fresh & Easy grocery chain by forcing it to put price tags on each individual item, instead of using shelf tags, has fallen short again, with an appeals court ordering the plaintiffs to pay the company’s legal costs. Grocery workers’ unions have battled the chain for years, picketing stores, producing attack literature and funding efforts to organize employees. Two years ago, they found a new battleground: price tags. Saying Fresh & Easy violated a little-known California law that requires a “clearly readable price” on 85 percent of packaged goods, three union officials sued the store in 2010. The men, all employees of United Food and Commercial Workers affiliates, said they visited several Fresh & Easy stores – including one in Van Nuys – checked products on the shelves and found the stores didn’t meet the requirements. In the midst of a trial in Los Angeles Superior Court last year, the grocer’s lawyers asked Judge John P. Shook to rule in their favor without having them put on a defense. The judge agreed, finding the plaintiffs’ testimony was not credible and they had misstated what the law requires. On Thursday, an appeals court also ruled in Fresh & Easy’s favor and ordered the union employees to pay the chain’s appeal costs. (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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