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BART strike could have long-term impact on unions (Read More…)

By Andrew S. Ross
October 20, 2013

A few days before it all went down the tubes, Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, had this to say on the organization’s website:

“Whether BART closes down this week will come down to one issue and one issue only: whether the BART Board of Directors shows leadership or continues to act to hold Bay Area transit riders hostage by using the same playbook a small minority of elected officials in Washington, DC have used to close down our federal government.”

BART riders and other denizens of the Bay Area so far haven’t seen it that way. Quite the reverse: The unions are the hostage takers - a furious public has said so in overwhelming numbers. The unions are the ones who have closed down BART.

And, like the Republican Party in Washington, the unions appear to have suffered some serious damage. “The danger to labor is if the strike goes on for a while, then the unthinkable begins to be discussed - like banning all mass transit strikes,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at UC Berkeley.

That discussion has already begun, in letters from California lawmakers to Gov. Jerry Brown, from state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who said he “looking into legislation that could prevent future strikes,” a petition drive by a Democratic Assembly candidate in the East Bay seeking the same, and a piece by editorial page editor John Diaz in Sunday’s Chronicle supporting a Republican proposal that BART unions be made to honor the no-strike clause in their last contract.

“This could have long-term implications, especially for BART unions,” said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State’s College of Business, who sat in as an observer at the union-management negotiations. “Public employee unions have been under enormous pressure, including here.”

Changing perceptions

So far, local labor organizations appear to be standing firm behind BART’s unions. “Today’s strike was not an outcome workers wanted. But it was the only outcome management would allow,” Pulaski said in a statement Friday. “The California labor movement will continue to support BART workers in their fight for a fair contract.”

An executive with a Bay Area union local said: “I haven’t heard of other unions pulling back their support. But the situation definitely raises issues of how unions are being perceived by the public. To many we’re just another special-interest group.”

Shaiken added: “In the 1950s, when unions went on strike and gained something, everybody cheered, including nonunion people, because that meant they could gain things too. Now it’s turned on its head. Unions want something and the reaction is, ‘What about us?’ “

Growth in state

Both Shaiken and Logan say they see no evidence, yet, of a broader antiunion surge in California. Indeed, union membership in the state grew last year by 110,000, compared with a 500,000 drop nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Where employment rights have weakened elsewhere, they’ve strengthened in California,” Logan said, pointing to several bills passed in the latest legislative session.

Nationally, despite the continuing setbacks, public opinion may be emerging from the deep freeze. A Pew Research Center survey in June found a 51 percent approval rating for unions, up 10 points from its previous survey in 2011. Whether that applies to unions like BART’s, whose members make considerably more in pay and benefits than the average private worker, is a different story. The similar goodies enjoyed by pre-bailout auto workers in the late 2000s “looks to have done lasting damage to unions’ favorability ratings,” Pew said.

The state’s Democratic lawmakers, tied financially to unions, have for the most remained studiously quiet on the matter. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer issued anodyne statements Friday, along the lines of “both sides need to get back to the table and resolve this dispute,” and to “work to an agreement that is fair for management and workers.” Pelosi’s office has been in touch with both sides, I was told.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein was more forthright earlier last week when she urged the BART unions to accept the deal on the table before Thursday’s breakdown. “Strikes don’t work; they leave deep scar tissue,” she said.

Brown’s office said Friday that the entire contract - not just the work rules components that ultimately sank the deal - should be subject to binding arbitration. Brown first floated the idea last month, but “the management, the union and most of the Legislature thought that wasn’t the right way to go,” Brown said.

“The parties can arbitrate right now, and they should,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said Friday.

Broader implications

As for Brown calling a special session of the Legislature to consider the Republican proposal to enforce the previous contract’s no-strike clause, Westrup said: “At this point it would not lead to the quick solution the people of the Bay Area want and deserve.”

That lets Democrats in the state Legislature off the immediate hook, a place they’re happy to be, judging from a Chronicle poll Saturday in which the vast majority didn’t offer an opinion on a strike ban.

Should the strike go beyond a few days and anger mounts and public opinion doesn’t change, they might take a stand. And that could have implications for the broader labor movement.

Posted by Admin on 10/21 at 08:52 AM

Big Labor going under Supreme Court’s microscope (Read More…)

OCTOBER 3, 2013

Supreme Court justices will be putting Big Labor under a microscope during their current term. The justices will hear cases dealing with issues ranging from President Obama’s abuse of his recess-appointment power to pack the National Labor Relations Board with pro-union activists, to Big Labor’s attempts to pressure businesses and local governments into forcing their employees to join favored unions.

It’s good news that Chief Justice John Roberts and his eight black-robed colleagues are doing this. If anything, the justices should have been bolder because union bosses are exempt from a surprising number of laws that apply to everyone else.

One of the cases the justices have yet to hear is Ralphs Grocery Co. v. United Food and Commercial Workers. The case involves UFCW Local 8’s creation of a picket line directly in front of one of the nonunion chain’s stores in Sacramento. This went on, not for weeks or even months, but years.

Ordinarily, that would be trespassing, because the picket line was on Ralphs’ property. That is not the case in California, though, where the anti-trespassing law has a specific carve-out for unions. This covers not just business locations but private residences, too. Nevada has a similar exemption. In Pennsylvania and Illinois, unions are exempt from state anti-stalking laws. People who follow you home and lurk in front of your door are legally protected if they can claim they are engaged in union activity.

There are even more outrageous examples than that. As the Capital Research Center recently documented, Big Labor officials have often been able to wriggle free from extortion charges, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Enmons case. The case exempted most union activity from the Hobbs Act, the federal government’s main anti-racketeering law.

As in the trespassing and stalking laws, the legal theory is that organizing to form a union deserves special protection, since many of the activities would otherwise fall under the criminal laws. That’s not much comfort to Matt and Mike Pestronk, contractors whose use of non-union labor attracted the ire of the Philadelphia Building Trades Union. The Pestronks have had to deal with threats, assaults on their employees and vandalism. It got so nasty that union activists covered one Pestronk building with pictures of Matt’s wife and various bathroom wall obscenities.

In Buffalo last year, union lawyers, aided by the AFL-CIO, cited the Enmons ruling to ward off charges in a case where a construction company owner was stabbed in the neck, among other outrages. The National Institute for Labor Relations Research has tallied 8,799 incidents of union violence between 1975 and 2007, only 3percent of which resulted in convictions.

There are other exemptions, too. In a 1982 case, the Supreme Court ruled that federal whistleblower protection laws do not apply to union employees. As a result, they can be legally retaliated against for uncovering serious corruption. It is hard to see how any of these exemptions serve the cause of justice or workers’ rights. The Supreme Court should take a hard look at all of them.


Posted by Admin on 10/07 at 10:09 AM