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Weekly Digest – October 3, 2013

Compiled by Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel

Federal Workers Nationwide Protest Government Shutdown

As the deadline for the U.S. government shutdown neared on Sept. 30, federal workers around the country protested Congressional Republicans' refusal to fund operations unless Obamacare is repealed. “We have dedicated public servants here. They’re basically being used as guinea pigs,” said Mike Mikulka, a vice president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 in Chicago, where nearly 100 government employees rallied. Mikulka, an environmental engineer, said the cleanup of an arsenic-contaminated site in Wisconsin he was supervising will be delayed. Other demonstrations took place in Boston, St. Louis, and Portland, Oregon.

Labor Dept. Won't Issue Jobs Data During Shutdown

While the shutdown of the federal government forces furloughs for 800,000 employees, Americans won't be able to find out what's going on in the rest of the job market. The Labor Department says it has no plans to release its monthly jobs report, which covers the unemployment rate and the number of jobs employers added, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics will have only three employees working. The report is due out Oct. 4, and much of the work on it was scheduled for this week, said a department official.

Supreme Court to Inspect Neutrality Agreements

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a case on whether “neutrality agreements”—in which employers agree not to interfere with union organizing campaigns—are legal. UNITE HERE is appealing a ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that said when a Florida greyhound-racing track let union organizers speak to workers on its premises in 2004, it violated an anti-bribery provision of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that says employers can’t provide a union any “thing of value.” The Court might have decided to consider the case because the justices think the lower court’s decision is “a grievous mistake,” said Massachusetts labor lawyer Robert Schwartz, “but there’s always the concern that they’ll uphold the circuit court.” Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 13.

BART Spends $3,400 a Day for Union-Busting Lawyer

With a second strike looming next week, California's Bay Area Rapid Transit system has paid about $3,400 a day for its chief negotiator. As of mid-June, BART had paid Thomas P. Hock, a lawyer with Veolia Transportation—a company with a long history of anti-union violations—$198,000 for 58 days of work, including more than $36,000 for first-class airfares, hotels, food, and wine on top of his $350-an-hour fee. Union members say that extra is about what an entry-level BART custodian takes home in a year after taxes. Negotiations remain deadlocked, with the unions saying the raise BART is offering would be canceled out by increases in health care and pension costs.

Pension Foes Prepare California Initiative

A group of mostly right-wing policy advocates in California is preparing a campaign to put an initiative that would dramatically cut public workers’ pensions on the state’s 2014 ballot. A leaked draft of the proposal defines employees’ “vested rights” as only covering years they’ve already worked, thus making it legal to reduce the amount they accrue for future years of service. San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, is a main backer of the idea, but others involved in the planning have included the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, Texas hedge-fund billionaire John Arnold, and Ed Ring, editor of Reed pushed a similar initiative city voters approved last November, but it’s being challenged in court.

Chicago Tries to Deny Retroactive Pay Hikes

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to deny nearly two years’ worth of back pay to 3,000 city employees, their union charged Sept. 24. “We need wage increases that keep pace with the rising cost of city living for our members, but what the administration has offered doesn’t meet that standard,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. Their contract expired more than a year ago, and the city’s latest offer doesn’t include any retroactive raises, he said. The union is also demanding guarantees that, whenever city services are privatized, those jobs will “remain with city residents at comparable wages and benefits,” but Emanuel has kept legislation to do that bottled up in the City Council’s Rules Committee.

Wisconsin Unions Accuse State Labor Panel of Contempt

Six Wisconsin public-employee unions on Sept. 24 asked a state judge to hold the state’s Employment Relations Commission in contempt for continuing to schedule decertification elections for more than 400 locals, as required by Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 anti-union law. Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, who decided last year that the law’s restrictions were unconstitutional, ruled earlier last month that the commission can’t enforce them, but did not issue a formal injunction. The commission argued that the unions had asked for the elections; the unions countered that if they hadn’t, they would have been automatically decertified under the law. Lester Pines, an attorney who represents teachers’ unions in Kenosha and Madison, said Walker wants to decertify as many unions as he can and the commissioners are “puppets” defying the court order.

Carteris Elected SAG-AFTRA VP

Former Beverly Hills 90210 actress Gabrielle Carteris was elected Sept. 26 as executive vice president of SAG-AFTRA. The more than 350 delegates at the union’s national convention picked Carteris over Mike Hodge, head of the New York local. The convention was the union’s first since it was formed last year by the merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. With more than 165,000 members, SAG-AFTRA is the largest entertainment union in the industry.

Conn. AFL-CIO Names First Woman Head

The Connecticut AFL-CIO elected Lori Pelletier executive secretary-treasurer Sept. 27, making her the first woman to head the 135,000-member federation, and the first openly gay person to lead a state labor federation. Pelletier, a 50-year-old former Pratt & Whitney machinist, had been its second-ranking official for 14 years. However, she will have to take a 21% pay cut, as the state federation is trying to cut costs. “I've been at far too many rallies where our people were getting laid off and we see CEOs making huge money,” she said. “We were not going to do that at the AFL-CIO.”

NY Court Rules Musicians Are Employees, Roadies Aren’t

Touring musicians working for a management company should be covered by unemployment insurance, but the roadies who unload their gear aren’t, a New York appeals court ruled Sept. 26. The state Appellate Division upheld the state Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board’s decision that Columbia Artists Management had enough control over the musicians’ performances—including paying them a flat weekly salary and being able to fire them for alcohol or drug abuse—for them to be employees, not independent contractors. But because the roadies only unloaded equipment trucks and didn’t work inside the venues, the court said Columbia didn’t have to pay unemployment insurance for them.

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