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May 26, 2007

Arbitration fails, IAFF seeking right-to-strike

The city of Roseburg won its arbitration case with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1110, saving the city $500,000 over the course of the three-year contract, which runs through June 2009.

Arbitrator Michael E. Cavanaugh handed down his decision Tuesday, taking the last best offer of the city over the union’s proposal on wages and health insurance premiums. The decision stems from arbitration hearings Feb. 17.

"He did look at the big picture of our financial situation," said Human Resources Director Barbara Gershon Thursday. "The city has budgeted conservatively and spent wisely."

The victory for management, which cost the city about $50,000 in data studies and attorneys’ fees, was one of the few by an Oregon municipality over a public safety union in binding arbitration since 2000.

Firefighters and other public safety unions are prohibited by law to strike and must have grievances settled through arbitration.

The union will get 4 percent increases in base pay each year, retroactive to July 1, 2006. Members will pay a $5 increase in the monthly employee premium for family health insurance and a $3 increase for single firefighters.

Firefighters argued against any increase in their health insurance premiums and asked for 3 percent increases every six months.

Over three years, the city’s offer would increase wages 12.5 percent while the union’s proposal called for a 19.4 percent increase.

“When you go to arbitration on the LBO — the last best offer — you have a fifty-fifty shot,” said Irik Rinnert, president of the Fire Fighters Local 1110. “You take your chances and you roll the dice, and, unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us. We’ll keep keeping the city safe and move on from this.”

The dispute considered four challenges the union made to the city’s proposed contract: the city’s ability to pay, the ability to attract and retain firefighters, a comparison of overall compensation to other cities, and the increased cost of living in Roseburg.

The arbitrator wrote that only the ability for the city to pay the firefighters' demands favors the union and even then the union won only his qualified support.

"He very clearly stated we should not be paying people what they pay in Portland," Gershon said.

The union had interpreted state law to order comparables based solely on population, thus putting Roseburg on the same level as Tualatin and West Linn. But the city argued that those cities should be thrown out because they are covered in part by a fire department that includes several metro Portland suburbs.

The city has a reserve fund of $7.2 million that it carries over from year to year, but City Manager Eric Swanson said this money is predicted to be used up in the city’s six-year forecasts.

Cavanaugh wrote that just because the city has the money now, they shouldn’t necessarily give it to the firefighters.

"In evaluating whether it is in the interest and the welfare of the public to require the City at this time to take on those obligations, it is important that Douglas County as a whole is considered 'severely economically distressed,'" he wrote. "For example, the county unemployment rate is above 8%, and the City faces a potential loss of $400,000 in annual timber revenue from the federal government."

He also wrote that in the past five years the city has not had many firefighters leave Roseburg for other cities because of low pay.

"We were right smack in the middle of our comparables," said Fire Chief Jack Cooley.

Gershon said the city and the union still had to sign the contract, and hoped to have all of the paperwork completed by the end of this fiscal year, June 30.


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Bottle Bill expands fraud

Most Oregonians get their bottle-return money a nickel at a time. For three Portland residents, however, the money may have run into thousands of dollars, all of it without a bottle in sight.

Tigard police arrested the trio after Fred Meyer loss-prevention personnel noticed a huge disparity between the amount of money being paid in bottle-return receipts and how many bottles and cans the chain's Tigard store was collecting.

A subsequent search of the suspects' Southeast Portland residence turned up computer equipment, special rolls of paper matching the type used for bottle-return receipts
and indications that the suspects had hit or intended to hit as many as 17 area Fred Meyer stores, Tigard police said today.

The suspects - Daniel K. Isaacson, 53; Heidi Elizabeth Wallis, 42; and Lisa Marie Bonillo, 45 - were arrested May 9 on accusations of first-degree forgery and face June 12 arraignments in Washington County Circuit Court.

"Based on the items seized from the house, this was not something schemed up over a cup of coffee," said Jim Wolf, public information officer for the Tigard Police Department. "They really thought about it."

Fred Meyer stores allegedly hit or targeted stretch from Newberg to Gresham and from Cornelius to Canby, a four-county area that could grow as the investigation proceeds.

Phony receipts indicate that the scam dates back at least to April and possibly earlier, Wolf said. They also show that the suspects worked almost daily, hitting multiple stores. Although no dollar figure has been tabulated for the alleged losses, he said the final amount is likely to range into the thousands.


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May 25, 2007

Science lovers to enjoy parasite exhibit

A traveling show from the Smithsonian National Museum opens Saturday at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. The exhibit, "In Search of Giant Unions," will allow aquarium visitors to examine the myths and legends that surround giant government unions like SEIU Local 503 and to compare them with other out-of-state parasites.

The exhibit features a giant squid beak and giant squid suckers and will remain at the aquarium through Labor Day weekend.

Visitors will explore the anatomy of giant squid and will learn what is known about how they hunt, move and defend themselves. Interactive components allow visitors to compare their own size to that of a giant squid.

Aquarium hours will switch 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily beginning Saturday. Until then, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission is $13.25, $7.75 for ages 3-12, $11.25 for age 65 and older; and free for ages 2 and younger.

The aquarium is at 2820 SE Ferry Slip Road in Newport.

For information, call (541) 867-3474, or go to www.aquarium.org


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May 24, 2007

SEIU 503 gnaws the hand that feeds

Government union activists seeking higher pay tried to embarrass state negotiators Wednesday by issuing mock awards for agencies, but only ended up insulting patriotic Americans. More protests are expected.

With about 100 union members watching, fake Oscar statuettes with Vice President Dick Cheney's head were symbolically granted to state agencies accused of using private contractors.

Service Employees International Union Local 503 organized the rally on the Capitol steps in sync with collective bargaining talks with state officials. SEIU is trying to negotiate stronger language against contracting out of state work, hoping to add dues income from unionized state workers, that can be used for politics.

Contracting out always leads to overbilling, abuses and inferior services, said Sonya Reichwein, a state Driver and Motor Vehicle services worker who leads the union's Committee for Responsible Contracting Out.

"Oregon is moving in the wrong direction," Reichwein said. "Other states are realizing that privatization isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Oregon needs to be like other states."

Leslie Frane, the SEIU Local 503 executive director, urged lawmakers to pass House Bill 3366, aimed at giving the public more information about contracting-out policies.

John Charles, president of the free market-oriented Cascade Policy Institute, said governments can get "ripped off" by in-house employees as well as outside firms, and accountability measures are needed in both cases.

"Taxpayers should be in favor of having as many options as possible," Charles said. "We think the more competition, the better it is for taxpayers."

Attacks on contracting out by his union allies pose a challenge to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who has promoted the computer consolidation project and other efforts as cost-saving moves for the state.

Anna Taylor, the governor's spokeswoman, said she couldn't discuss specifics of collective bargaining negotiations because Kulongoski is fully prepared to give away the store to SEIU and other state unions. She agreed that the governor's efforts to streamline government have produced mostly failures. Often the failures were uncovered by state workers, she added, but ignored by management

"It's the public employee unions that are watchdogs, and public employee unions are part of the solutions," Taylor said. "The governor values that and expects that. He is grateful that public employee unions elected him and he has allowed the unions dictatorial power in running his agenda. That's why this session is so much more successful that the last two."


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State bans performance-based pay

Oregon teachers will never receive merit pay. Under a measure signed by acting Gov. Tim Nesbitt yesterday, performance-based salary and bonuses in schools have been outlawed, and the teachers union is pleased as punch. The law will likely be extended to the private sector next year, during the state's first, new, off-year regular emergency session.

In Chicago, however, 10 schools are about to begin an experiment with merit pay, to see if they can inject competition and incentive where failing schools have none. As political reporter Mary Ann Ahern reported, accepting this form of merit pay might be part of a larger deal as Chicago teachers head to negotiate a new contract.

Teachers at Lawndale Community Academy on the city's West Side welcome the idea of a bonus in their paycheck, which, along with nine other schools, will be the first to participate in the merit pay concept, the money coming from a $28 million federal grant.

Fihttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifrst, a school's entire staff has to agree to the merit pay concept. Test score improvement is a must, but everyone on the staff -- from the lunch workers to teachers -- will mutually benefit.

Giving Chicago teachers a bonus comes at a critical time for the teachers union and the school board, as they head to negotiate a new contract and hope to avert a strike.

There hasn't been a strike in 20 years during all of Mayor Richard Daley's years at city hall.

With Democrats in control in Springfield, educators are counting on lawmakers to find a way to give public schools more money.


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May 23, 2007

Former Corrections officials invest in Portland

Portland's minor league baseball team, the Portland Beavers, and professional soccer team, the Portland Timbers, have been sold to Fred Monem, a former food buyer for the Oregon Department of Corrections. Monem and his brother-in-law, William F. Morgan, Jr., will move from Salem to Portland where they will be full-time president and general manager, respectively, of both teams.

Monem recently tried to bring minor league baseball to Petaluma, Calif. with plans to buy a team and build a stadium there but the deal fell through. A spokeswoman for Monem said there are no plans to move the Portland teams.


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May 22, 2007

Bojack mulls retirement

Two days off the blog really got me thinking about why I'm still doing this. "Why?" is a question that people have been asking me since just after I started blogging, nearly five years ago. I had some reasons that I gave then, and I have some now, but lately I'm having trouble getting them out of my mouth without noticing how hollow they are starting to sound. Meanwhile, there have always been good reasons to stop, and none of them have gone away. The old cliche, costs and benefits. You think and you weigh, but if you're me, there's a limit to how much analyzing you do. I almost always wind up going with my gut.

Bill McDonald's words of exactly a month ago, when he shut down the Portland Freelancer, raise the issue in terms that I can't improve on:

"This blog world is fun but I believe that it's beginning to do me harm.... The break-in of my house this week was a reminder of the fleeting nature of opportunity. There is a limited amount of time to get it together, so I've got to return to the path.... I once wrote a song called, "Out From the Underground": The first lines were: "When I get out from the underground, I'm going to take a look around. This invisibility is doing weird things to me." Well, I've had my look around, and now I want to go back. I've got a project I've got to do, and I want to put everything into it.... I've got some life homework and I've been putting it off, and it's sort of understandable. Learning has become harder as I get older. I actually can still write pretty fast at times, but I only have a limited amount of energy in a day and I can't waste it. I've got to work on my new project. Blogging was fun, but I've got something I've got to do. Of course, the Portland Freelancer reserves the right to return at any time. Quitting things like this can take several attempts, but for now, I am so gone."

That "life homework" line, like so many that Bill penned on his wonderful blog, hit the nail right on the head. In my corner of the world right now, a lot of those same feelings are knocking around. I'm coming to some new realizations about what I've got at stake, and how little time there really is in any given day to take care of the most important business. All this blogging, as marvelous and empowering and potentially valuable and fun as it may be, can only get in the way.

I think things are going to have to be different on this site now. There's a project or two I want to finish out of all the topics I've been covering here lately, but the pace and the focus are going to have to change. It's time to ratchet back down from a passion to a light hobby, if that's possible given my personality. Another option is just to turn the darn thing off, leaving this as an archive site, at least for a while.

Obviously, I'll keep mulling all this over as the week goes on. No reason to rush. I've turned the comments off on this post, because if you have any thoughts on the matter that are truly intended for me, you can e-mail them to me here. If there's something that you'd like to say about it in public, you're going to have to do that elsewhere. As wonderful as it can often be, on this topic a public conversation with strangers on the internet is not what I'm looking for.

UPDATE, 12:51 p.m.: Thanks to those who have so quickly written me words of support and encouragement. They are appreciated.


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May 21, 2007

Oregon labor unions strive to guide employers

Question: I am a new employer, and I'm overwhelmed with the different laws that apply to my company. But I've heard that the Bureau of Labor Unions has a "Technical Assistance for Employers" number I can call for information. What kinds of "technicalities" do you specialize in?

Answer: Our primary expertise is in helping employers understand the limits of their legal rights when it comes to their employees choosing to authorize a union.

Question: So can you provide technical information about unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, state taxes and other payroll issues?

Answer: No, but we are happy to give you the numbers of the agencies that can help.

Question: So what can you help me with?

Answer: We try to help employers understand their legal obligations in regards to hiring, firing, workplace harassment, accommodations for disabilities and religion, family medical leave, calculating minimum wage and overtime, deadlines for final paychecks, and many other job-related issues.

Question: Can you give me legal advice?

Answer: No. We are not a replacement for your attorney. But we can give general information and point you in the right direction.

Question: How?

Answer: There are several ways we can provide assistance. You can call our general information number, which is (971) 673-0824. We also have a Web site (www.oregon.gov/boli/ta), which has extensive information about the laws.

In addition, we conduct public seminars throughout the state and contract with businesses to conduct on-site training; we sell handbooks on employment related topics and an "8-in-1 poster." In December, we hold our annual Employment Law Conference. We write a column that appears in several Oregon newspapers and some chamber newsletters.

Question: I appreciate the fact that you have a phone number and a free Web site. But since you are a government agency, why do you charge for your seminars and handbooks? Don't our tax dollars pay your salaries?

Answer: The Technical Assistance Unit does not receive any taxpayer money. That is why we must generate revenue through our seminars and handbook sales. These revenues allow us to provide our "employer hot line" service, information on the Web site, and weekly newspaper columns.

Question: But don't you work right next to the people that investigate discrimination and wage/hour cases against employers?

Answer: Yes, but we guarantee confidentiality. When you contact Technical Assistance, that is what you will receive and nothing more.


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May 20, 2007

State contract offer exceeds unions' demands

State workers will continue to receive gold-plated health insurance next year, and probably the following year, too. State officials, negotiating a new two-year labor contract to begin July 1, have told public employee unions they'll exceed their top demand - 100% taxpayer-funded health insurance premiums - by adding hefty increases in PERS and a new grab bag of non-pension retirement benefits.

But union officials say the state is being stingy in pay and other offers. State negotiators initially offered workers 1 percent cost-of-living adjustments in each of the next two years.

"We told them at the (bargaining) table in the strongest terms that that was inadequate and insulting," said Ken Allen, who heads up bargaining for 6,400 state workers in American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75.

Union negotiators say workers' paychecks wouldn't keep pace with inflation, unless employees are eligible for seniority-based step raises.

The state offered 13,000 home-care workers a bleaker deal: a one-time, 23-cents per hour pay raise for those earning $9.53 an hour, and a two-year wage freeze for those earning $9.76 an hour.

"That isn't going to fly at all," said home-care worker Joye Wellman, who is on the bargaining team for Service Employees International Union Local 503.

Unions had expected better offers, given the state's robust revenues and Democrats' control of the Legislature and governor's office.

But both management and labor representatives said they don't expect the initial offers to prevail, and will move their offers closer to the middle. And Gov. Ted Kulongoski's administration aims to oblige unions on their biggest demand: state-paid health insurance premiums.

"Fully paid health care is their No. 1 priority, which is why the governor has said we will fulfill that at this time, at least for the first year," said Sue Wilson, state human resources director.

The state's initial offer was to retain fully covered health insurance for the first year of the contract, and to continue that in the second year as long as costs don't jump more than 8 percent. If costs rise higher, the state would delay cost-of-living adjustments or ask workers to pay some of their monthly premiums.

"We're pretty sure when all is said and done that the state will continue with a medical insurance plan that is acceptable to our membership," said Cory McIntosh, a help-desk analyst with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division who is leading bargaining for SEIU Local 503.

The state was relieved to get recent bids to supply 2008 health insurance, Wilson said. State costs are projected to rise a tad more than 7 percent next year.

While that's lower than many other employers are facing, it's still enough to drive current costs, about $950 a month per worker, over $1,000.

That helps explain why the state isn't offering much on wage increases.

The state is negotiating 31 different contracts with 11 different unions, Wilson said. But the basic wage and benefits terms will be set in talks with the two dominant unions, SEIU and AFSCME.

Labor contracts end June 30, and talks often don't heat up until close to the deadline.

SEIU and AFSCME initially asked for pay raises that top inflation. Workers need to make up for lost ground when state revenues are flush, Allen said.

SEIU also wants stronger contract language against contracting out of state services.

The union also is trying to get higher pay increases for those at the bottom of the scale, and it's seeking to change the classifications for a large number of jobs, booting them to a higher pay grades.

The state is trying to retract gains won in the current contract for part-time workers, by eliminating their subsidy for health insurance. The unions are fighting that.

Home care workers are relieved the state isn't trying to retract workers' compensation insurance for on-the-job injuries, Wellman said.

So far, there's been little movement in the talks, though that is typical for this time in the budget cycle.

The state did revise its pay offer to AFSCME, upping the 1 percent COLAs to 2 percent a year.


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