Saturday, December 31, 2005

London Transit Workers Strike On New Year's Eve

Taking a page from TWU Local 100, the London transit union has called for an immediate strike for New Year's Eve. From Reuters:

LONDON - Hundreds of thousands of London New Year’s Eve revelers faced transport chaos on Saturday as underground rail station staff staged a 24-hour strike on one of the busiest nights of the year.

The RMT union said the industrial action would take full effect around mid-evening as staff failed to turn up for their shifts following the strike’s midday start.

The walkout threatened to undermine a planned free underground service which had been due to run from 11:45 p.m.

Transport officials said they hoped to be able to provide some service on all underground lines but advised passengers to plan alternative routes home.

Some 3 million people use London’s underground, also known as the Tube, every day, though the numbers go down during the weekend.

The Tube is the oldest underground rail network in the world with 275 stations.

The RMT union is striking over the introduction of new work rosters which they say will reduce safety levels on the underground.

“The rosters that London Underground intend to impose would reduce the number of station staff on duty at any one time, in many cases by more than half,” RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said in a statement. “We believe that that would leave stations with insufficient cover, especially in emergencies.”

Operator London Underground denied the routes were unsafe and said there would be no reduction in station staffing.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone and London Underground condemned the strike, saying it may ruin the night for revelers in London where celebrations include a fireworks display at the London Eye wheel on the south bank of the River Thames.

The strike will also affect a New Year’s Day parade which starts at Parliament Square at midday on Sunday and features 10,000 performers from around the world.

Parade publicist Dan Kirkby told BBC radio the strike threatened to ruin two years’ of preparations. “London deserves better than this,” he said. “We are urging people to take a little time and effort, come on overground trains and drive and walk.”

A second underground strike has been set for Jan. 8.

Gee, it' a shame the transit strike's going to ruin the New Year's Day parade in Parliament Square and force New Year's Eve revelers to miss the fireworks display over the Thames.

I guess the drunks will just have to stay home and set fire to trash cans at the stroke of midnight in order to celebrate the New Year, eh?

It is nice to see unions learning a lesson from TWU Local 100, though.

If a transport workers union is going to strike, it should do so when it will cause maximum effect, like the week before Christmas or on New Year's Eve.

If a teacher's union is going to strike, the week the standardized tests are slated to be given seems to be the perfect opportunity to let the politicians and the public know just how essential teachers are to the running of the system.

TWU 100 and the RMT union in London know the lesson about the timing a strike.

Unfortunately the current leadership of the United Federation of Teachers does not.

In the first place, they don't believe in striking because it's against the Taylor Law (a law passed in 1967 by cynical politicians looking to undercut the power of NY public employee unions), but even if they did believe in striking , they wouldn't call it during Regents week when a teacher's strike could cause the maximum effect.

No siree, UFT Preznit Randi Weingarten would call a strike in the summer, right after summer school ended and a few weeks before the regular school year starts.

Cuz' she wouldn't want the strike to be an inconvenience to her buddy, Mayor Moneybags, or her kissing cousin, Chancellor Klein, you know?

Plus she wouldn't want to disrupt the school year by anything as unseemly as a strike.

This is why UFT members got screwed in their last contract while TWU members were able to strike, get a pretty good contract, and $8,000-$14,000 pension refund checks to boot.

Although, to be fair, Randi Weingarten did win UFT members a toilet paper concession from Mayor Bloomberg, as she notes on this new United Federation of Teachers blog called EdzUp.

News Media Decides TWU Took MTA, Pataki To The Cleaners

I know that when I first wrote about the tentative contract agreement between the TWU and the MTA, I thought that the transport workers union had been taken to the cleaners by the MTA for agreeing to have workers pay 1.5% of their salaries toward health care costs as part of the contract deal.

But the more details that emerge about the tentative contract agreement between the TWU and the MTA, the more I think TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint really took the MTA and Governor Bagman to the cleaners.

And the news media seems to think the same thing. Just take a look at today's news coverage over the pension refunds Toussaint won for TWU members in the contract. First, the NY Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has signed an agreement that guarantees to compensate transit workers more than $100 million if elected officials in Albany block a critical component of the contract settlement that the authority reached with the union this week, according to several representatives on the union's side.

The officials disclosed the existence of the agreement when they were asked to respond to Gov. George E. Pataki's threat to block the proposed contract provision, which calls for about 20,000 transit workers to receive thousands of dollars each in refunds for a portion of pension contributions they made between 1994 and 2001.

On Thursday, after many newspaper editorials and fiscal conservatives denounced the refunds as inexcusably generous to a union that had staged an illegal strike, Mr. Pataki's office warned that the governor was inclined to veto the legislation that would be required to refund the money.

Under the side agreement, the officials said, the substitute compensation could come in the form of cash bonuses, and would be paid out of either the transportation authority's operating budget or its surplus.

David Catalfamo, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki, said that no one in the governor's office had been told of - or had known of - the refund provision before the tentative settlement was announced on Tuesday. He also said yesterday that the office was unaware of any separate agreement that would provide the refunds if the Legislature or Mr. Pataki blocked them.

Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority's chief negotiator, declined yesterday to comment on whether there was a separate agreement outside the six-page memorandum of understanding that the two sides signed on Tuesday.

Asked about the pension refunds, he said: "It wasn't a last-minute highway robbery. We knew what it cost as part of the agreement. I was comfortable with the agreement and I am pleased with it."

The refunds have become a lightning rod for critics who assert that the provision, no matter what its real fiscal effect, gives the appearance of rewarding the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which staged a 60-hour strike last week in violation of the state's Taylor Law. "The governor was clear: The T.W.U. has broken the law and they will suffer the consequences," said a spokeswoman for Mr. Pataki, Joanna Rose.


As a one-time payment, the refunds would total about $132 million, the authority says. Union negotiators have put the figure as high was $200 million.

One union representative said the union's negotiators recognized that the agreed-upon pension refunds could run into trouble in Albany, so they asked for a separate agreement "as a backstop."

The three mediators who developed the framework that ended the strike - Richard A. Curreri, Martin F. Scheinman and Alan R. Viani - said they had been unaware of any side agreement.

Mr. Viani said he thought that even without a separate commitment by the transportation authority, by law it would probably have to compensate the transit workers if the pension refunds are blocked by the Legislature or the governor.

Now the Daily News editorial page:

Looked at in the very best light, Gov. Pataki exerted a singularly feckless lack of command over negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union - and wound up getting snookered by his own man at the table, MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow.

The governor's aides said yesterday that Pataki was absolutely, unequivocally unaware that Kalikow had agreed to a pension giveaway that will enrich as many as 20,000 strikers with payments of up to $14,000 each - handsomely rewarding the lawlessness of Roger Toussaint's brigades. The aides said Kalikow never told Pataki he had reached a tentative contract by promising to give the TWU at least $110 million from the MTA treasury.

Such an admission is quite damning because it casts Pataki as an out-of-touch bumbler while portraying Kalikow as a con man caught trying to flimflam the governor and the public. Adding to a lousy sense of getting fleeced, Kalikow & Co. tried to hide the pension promise in a secret side deal, separate and apart from the contract.

What say you, Kalikow? Nothing. He and his partners in crime, MTA Executive Director Katherine Lapp and Labor Relations Director Gary Dellaverson, have gone to ground rather than take responsibility for their actions. They must emerge from their holes, because they've got a lot of explaining to do. It'll take courage, as the first question will be: Pataki says you kept him in the dark. True or false?

As for the governor, he needs to come clean, too. The contract provision in question obligates the MTA to use its best efforts to persuade the Legislature and Pataki to enact a law giving back money that union members paid to the city pension system from 1994 to 2000. They have no valid claim on the money and should not get it.

Pataki has twice vetoed measures that would have given the money to TWU members, telling the union to take up the issue in collective bargaining. Now that the union has done so, he says he may veto such a bill again. But weaseling with the word "may" doesn't cut it. The public and, for that matter, the TWU rank and file need to hear that he would kill the idea again.

Then there's Kalikow's secret agreement, which states the MTA will pay the money regardless of what Albany does. Is that so? Last we heard, the MTA board, thick with Pataki appointees, has the last word on ratifying the contract and, presumably, the side deal. So the governor is obliged to state whether he will instruct his representatives to vote against the pension maneuver. He should. He must.

If the MTA board vetoes the pension refund side deal between the MTA and the TWU, the tentative contract agreement deal will fall apart and the two sides will be at an impasse again. The city will again face a crippling transit strike, only this time the MTA, the governor, and the mayor will be portrayed as the bad guys for killing the tentative contract agreement.

So go ahead, MTA board members/Pataki associates - kill the contract deal. Let's see where that gets you in the court of public opinion. Or reality.

People aren't going to care why you killed the contract deal; they're only going to care that you brought the city back to the brink of another crippling transit strike.

And as for Pataki's hope to use his tough anti-union negotiation stance as a springboard for his 2008 presidential ambitions, not so much, eh? The Daily News and many other media outlets are portraying Pataki as a bumbler who got taken to the cleaners in the contract agreement while he was out giving "tough guy" interviews to CNN and NY1.

Oh, well, George. I guess you can always go back to your career as Al D'amato's bagman now that your political career is mercifully at an end.

And finally, as for me, I just want to say I was wrong about Roger Toussaint. While I remain concerned by the health care concessions he gave to the MTA because it is obvious that Mayor Moneybags (or whichever GOP lapdog succeeds him) will use it against the UFT in future contract negotiations, it is becoming increasingly clear as more details emerge about the contract agreement that Toussaint completely outmanuevered the MTA/Pataki/Bloomberg on nearly every other account. He managed to pull a three day strike, then get the state to pay the Taylor Law fines for his workers despite the governor's insistence there would be "no amnesty." And then he outmanuevered Pataki again by creating a side deal with the MTA that ensured the pension paybacks would happen whether Pataki vetoed them up in Albany or not.

Now that is union leadership.

UFT Preznit Randi Weingarten (or Le Gran Fromage, as she is becoming known in certain blogosphere circles) should take some notes from Toussaint for her future negotiations with the city.

But she won't, of course.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Lackluster Year On Wall Street

While it truly was a bad year to be a worker, even investors didn't make out so well in this year's edition of the Bush economy. From Jerry Knight at the Washington Post:

The closing bell clunked today as the stock market ended one of its most lackadaisical and lackluster years ever.

The Nasdaq Stock Market composite index gained just 1.4 percent over the past 12 months -- the smallest annual move since that index was invented.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 0.6 percent for the year, setting another record for going nowhere.

The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index recorded a 3 percent gain, which means the average stock did better than either the blue-chip Dow or the tech-heavy Nasdaq. Still 3 percent--4.5 counting dividends paid by the S&P stocks--was a paltry payoff considering investors could earn more than 4 percent on certificates of deposit or government bonds.


Thumbing their noses at Wall Street strategists who encouraged their clients to buy stocks by predicting a "Santa Claus" rally, the traders who rule the market used the last week of the year to cash in what few profits they were able to make. In the process they drove down the market some more, leaving anyone still holding stocks with little to show for the year.

What went wrong? The weather was the worst thing. By slashing oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and trashing the economies of coastal states, hurricanes delivered a painful blow to the economy. As oil prices hit records, consumers began pulling in their horns and honking in derision at gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. Detroit had a disastrous year: forced to bribe drivers to buy domestic vehicles, it still saw sales erode.

The Iraq war drained billions out of government coffers producing record budget deficits at the same time soaring oil imports gave the U.S. its worst trade deficit ever.

And the Federal Reserve's relentless increase in interest rates--which almost everyone agreed was necessary -- finally began to pinch.

Interest rates ultimately killed any hope of a year-end rally when a train wreck that Wall Street had seen coming for months finally occurred.

As the Fed boosted short-term rates over the past year, longer term interest rates, which are set by the bond market, refused to follow along. So many investors around the world are eager to buy U.S. bonds that the government could borrow all the money it needs without raising rates.

Usually rates on 10 year bonds are about 1 percentage point higher than rates on 2-year bonds. But the gap narrowed to a tiny fraction of a point and finally disappeared this week. On and off during the week, 2-year bonds were actually paying higher rates than 10 year ones.

Economists call that phenonomon an "inverted yield curve." They note that the last four times it has happened, the U.S. has gone into a recession. Wall Street insists this time will be different and maybe it will. But the threat of a recession ahead prompted many investors to cash in their stock profit gains this week, ending the year on Wall Street with a clunk.

Funny, wasn't Bush bragging just a couple of weeks ago about what a great economy he had created?

Doesn't seem like Wall Street made out so well.

And we know the working class and middle class got screwed by stagnant wages, inflation, and soaring health care/education/retirement costs.

So why do reporters keep repeating the meme that the Bush economy is rolling on all cylinders?

Just tonight on the PBS show Washington Week, Washington Post columnist David Broder noted that Bush's strength right now is the economy and what he needs to do is convince more people how fine a job he is doing creating jobs, creating growth, etc.

And yet, outside of the GDP numbers from the third quarter, most economic statistics point to a pretty lackluster economic recovery that seems to be quickly losing steam. Some economists have already started talking about the inevitable slowdown coming in 2006 and when the yield curve inverted earlier in the week in the bond market, even the talking heads on CNBC started
asking if we were heading for a recession.

So where's the strong economy? How is this economy a political strength for the preznit?

It seems to me that morons like David Broder simply take the talking points they're handed by Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett and Ken Mehlman and repeat them like they're gospel truth ("Rove says the economy's strong? Well, then it must be strong...")

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Recession on Horizon: Consumer Edition

For a couple of years now the American economy has been propped up by cheap money, the Housing Bubble, gobs of consumer spending and a Federal Reserve printing press that's been working overtime to keep currency moving into people's hands.

I have been saying that it's only a matter of time before the whole economic house of cards comes tumbling down. The bill for our Bush Economic spree has got to come due eventually, and frankly, very few people in this country have got the funds to pay it.

Take this article from Newsday as an example:

The consumer heyday finally may be over.

And that could mean big changes ahead.

For the past several years, the U.S. and regional economies have rested on the backs of consumers who kept buying houses, cars, computers and other gadgets, even when their wages weren't keeping up and jobs weren't plentiful.

Now, all of that may change. Interest rates are rising, energy costs continue to pinch budgets and there's more concern than ever over debt levels and the lack of personal savings. More importantly, perhaps, the housing market likely has reached its top -- and 2006 may be the year it softens.

That adds up to a halt in exuberant consumer spending and the potential for far slower economic growth, unless more business spending kicks in. Virtually no one is predicting a recession in 2006 -- but many are predicting an economic slowdown.

"2006 will be a little more dicey," said Martin Cantor, the director of economic development for Sustainable Long Island, an advocacy group. "If you don't consider the consumer tapped out, then I think you're misjudging or being too optimistic about economic growth."

Just ask Annette Dowd. The 51-year-old mother of two from Melville had been feeling pretty good about her financial situation. But as the price of gasoline and heating oil skyrocketed, and her property taxes continued to rise significantly, her family sank deeper and deeper in debt. Now, she and her husband, Michael, have $13,000 in credit card debt plus a home equity line of credit for $60,000, on top of their mortgage.

Now, Dowd is cutting back everywhere she can, even as she recently went back to work part-time to make ends meet. She slashed the family's discretionary spending by 75 percent and avoids even short trips to save gas. Before, she would have a big annual Christmas party that cost as much as $1,000. This year, it was just a small brunch with bagels. Just a couple of years ago, the Dowds considered buying a bigger house; now, she says, they'd never be able to afford the larger mortgage.

2006 is likely to be a year of even more cutbacks, she added.

"I'd like to have my monthly bills come out to be the same as our income," Dowd said. "But instead we go month-to-month and, usually, we're short."

If you looked only at economic data, you'd be surprised by the Dowds' story, since most of 2005's statistics portrayed solid fundamentals and good growth. The reality for local families, however, is quite different. Many area residents say they have never felt the economic expansion take hold, especially because job creation has been weak and wages haven't grown fast enough.

In 2006, the data likely won't be as good and people will still be tightening their belts -- a recipe for a potentially significant slowdown in the economy, experts said. But the biggest story is likely to occur once the predicted shift in the housing market takes hold.

Tell me if I'm wrong, but doesn't it seem kinda over the top to be carrying $13,000 in credit card debt, $60,000 home equity loan debt, and a large outstanding mortgage when you're already in your fifties and nearing retirement age?

Doesn't it seem worriesome for the American economy as a whole that many Baby Boomers are in similar straits to the Dowds or even worse off, carrying massive amounts of credit card debt and large outstanding mortgages?

I mean, what's going to happen when and if people like the Dowds can't make their credit card payments and/or mortgages anymore. Mrs. Dowd already says there's not enough money left over at the end of the month to pay off all of the bills. Won't that situation worsen if energy prices spike again, the job market tightens, or interest rates continue to rise?

Won't it be bad for the American economy if a bunch of Dowds all across the country have their houses foreclosed and get thrown into the new Dickensian bankruptcy system because they overextended when Uncle Alan Greenspan was lowering interest rates and encouraging consumers to spend early and often?

I know the new meme gaining currency is that business is going to pick up the spending slack from the American consumer, but what happens if business, particularly the banking and credit lending industries, start to find profits declining because half of America is up to its eyeballs in debt?

Won't that mean business can't pick up the spending baton from consumers? Won't that mean a slowdown?

How's This For Scary News?

From Reuters:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow warned lawmakers on Thursday that a legally set limit on the government's ability to borrow will be hit in mid-February and urged Congress to raise it quickly.

Failure to do so potentially risks throwing the country into its first default in history, Snow warned in what has become virtually an annual rite as U.S. borrowing needs spiral.

``The administration now projects that the statutory debt limit, currently $8.184 trillion, will be reached in mid-February 2006,'' Snow said in a letter to 21 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate released by Treasury after financial markets had closed.

Snow said that Treasury, if the debt limit was not raised by then, would have to take ``extraordinary actions'' to keep paying its bills for everything from Social Security to national defense spending.

Even if Treasury took ``all available prudent and legal actions to avoid breaching the statutory debt limit, we anticipate that we can finance government operations no longer than mid-March.''

The debt limit was last raised in November 2004 by $800 billion to its current level. The letter to Congress does not specify an amount the Treasury wants the ceiling set at this time.

But he said quick action was needed to preserve the U.S. ability to borrow in global capital markets at the lowest rates possible.

``A failure to increase the debt limit in a timely manner would threaten this unique and important position,'' Snow said.

The call for an increase in the debt ceiling typically provokes a round of criticism from opposition politicians over excessive government spending and the process is drawn out until nearly the last possible moment.

Treasury officials had said in November it was bracing for hefty borrowing needs in the January-March quarter, likely around a record $171 billion, and that it likely would hit the debt limit in that period.

Among other factors, the Treasury cited increased spending for rebuilding Gulf Coast areas hit hard by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

A Republican preznit, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a Republican majority on the Supreme Court.

Yet the nation has hit its debt limit ceiling twice in the last year and a half.

Remind me again, how is this current version of the Republican Party conservative?

Winners and Losers: The NY Times Analysis of The Transit Strike

The NY Times declared Roger Toussaint and the TWU victors in their strike battle with Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Pataki and the MTA in this article today:

He was excoriated on tabloid front pages and by the mayor and governor. As thousands streamed across the Brooklyn Bridge on a frigid night during last week's transit strike, someone in a car yelled out his name, prefacing it with a curse.

But now, a day after details of an agreement between the transit workers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were spelled out, Roger Toussaint, the union's president, seems to have emerged in a far better position than seemed likely just a few days ago.

Mr. Toussaint, whose back appeared to be against the wall last week, can boast of a tentative 37-month contract that meets most of his goals, including raises above the inflation rate and no concessions on pensions. Indeed, several fiscal and labor experts said yesterday that Mr. Toussaint and his union appeared to have bested the transit authority in their contract dispute.


But if there is a real winner in the walkout that hobbled the city at the height of the holiday season, it is the union members who went out on strike, and the man who led them.

"It's a good contract for the union in that it does keep in place, for the most part, benefits that are extremely favorable to them," said Steven Malanga, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research organization, who called last week for firing the strikers. "For them, you can say this is a great deal."

When Mr. Toussaint appeared before television cameras at 11 p.m. on Tuesday to announce the settlement, he commented little except to read an impressive list of new worker-friendly provisions: raises averaging 3.5 percent a year, the creation of paid maternity leave, a far better health plan for retirees, a much-improved disability plan, the adoption of Martin Luther King's Birthday as a paid holiday, and increased "assault pay" for bus drivers and train operators who are attacked by passengers.

Then Mr. Toussaint announced a big surprise: Some 22,000 workers will each receive thousands of dollars in reimbursements for what are considered excess pension contributions; for several years, these workers paid more toward their pensions than other workers. For those workers, that money will easily offset the fines of slightly more than $1,000 that most of them face for taking part in the illegal strike. The union itself could still face a $3 million fine that a judge ordered because of the 60-hour strike.

"The union did especially well, all things considered," said David L. Gregory, a labor relations expert at St. John's University. "Toussaint got everything he needed, and he also got what he needed in terms of the bigger picture. With the strike, he mollified the radical left in his union and helped placate the middle of his rank and file who were demanding to be treated with dignity and respect."

While the list of concessions Toussaint won from the MTA is indeed impressive, note this concession Toussaint gave to the MTA:

The authority did not come away empty-handed, however, as it obtained a major concession: For the first time, the 33,700 transit workers will pay a portion of their health insurance premiums.


By getting the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, to agree to have subway and bus workers pay 1.5 percent of their wages toward health premiums, the authority took an important step to rein in soaring benefit costs. That provision is expected to save the authority $32 million a year. Not only that, the union agreed that its workers' contribution toward their health premiums might increase if the authority's health costs continued to climb.

Employee contributions will start out at 1.5%. Of course health costs will continue to climb, so I don't think it's out of line to say the MTA will want 5% employee contributions next, then 8%, then 10% and so on...

While the reimbursement of excess pension contributions is an imaginative stroke by Toussaint that will more than offset the strike fines for many of the TWU members and while Toussaint seems to have won many other concessions from the MTA that seemed impossible before the strike, I have to say that as a UFT member, I remain concerned about the health care concession Toussaint gave to the MTA. I am loathe to put forth this precedent that municipal union members will cover part of their own health care costs with the stipulation that employee contributions to health care costs will continue to rise as costs rise for the city and/or MTA.

Note this passage about what Bloomberg will likely do with the health care concession precedent set by the TWU:

One part of the settlement could prove a boon to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who, like the authority, is eager to rein in benefit costs.

"What happened on health care is an important precedent for the mayor in terms of the city's collective bargaining," said Charles M. Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed advocacy group. Noting that only a small fraction of city workers now pay a portion of their health premiums, Mr. Brecher said that if the city obtained an identical provision, with workers contributing 1.5 percent of wages, it would save around $300 million a year.

If you're a cop, fireman, teacher, or other city worker, expect to ante up for health care costs next time your contract comes around.

And if you're a member of the UFT, expect to pay more than 1.5% toward health care costs. Remember, Randi Weingarten is a lot dumber than Roger Toussaint and when it gets to contract negotiation, no one gets her clocked cleaned like Randi Weingarten.

As for pension issues, note this from the Times article:

Professor Gregory said the authority had achieved one of its - and the mayor's and governor's - main pension goals during the dispute. "The M.T.A., as a representative of public employers, has achieved an important objective: It has put the issue of soaring public-employee pension costs front and center in the public consciousness," Mr. Gregory said.

That, he said, might pave the way for the State Legislature to enact a pension law that reduces pensions for future government workers and cuts government pension outlays.

I cannot imagine, given the vast array of complaints about state pension costs from all levels of government, how the 25/55 pension tier that Randi Weingarten promised UFT members in the last UFT contract is ever going to come to pass. Given the economic realities of the future (or at least what the government claims is reality) you have to see the state raising the pension age and time needed rather than lowering both.

Overall, I have to admit that Toussaint did better with this contract than I first thought when news came down about it Tuesday night. Obviously the excess pension reimbursements and other deal sweeteners really change how the contract is viewed by most people, although I tell you that I remain very alarmed by the health care contribution concession that I believe will come to back to haunt municipal unions in the very near future.

Nonetheless, when considering winners and losers in the strike battle, I think this passage from the Times article says it all:

In the view of E. J. McMahon, director of the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy, the transportation authority failed an important test when it agreed to the pension reimbursements. This, he said, negated the punitive aspects of the fine.

"If you want to calculate, 'Is it a win for the M.T.A.?' you'd want the union to be less inclined to strike in the future," he said. "You want this to do something that makes the union members think, 'I don't want to do this again.' You don't seem to do that when you offset the fine for such a large number of workers."

So maybe, just maybe, hardliners in the UFT can force Weingarten and the Unity hacks who were so conciliatory to the mayor to take an offensive tact in the next teachers contract negotiations with the city?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Gutted Bank Lending Standards Coming Soon To A Town Near You

Thank God bank-owned Republicans and Democrats are willing to shill for the banking and credit lending industries and sell out American consumers. From the LA Times:

Lenders Target State Laws
An industry that makes home loans to people with poor credit wants uniform federal rules that could undo tougher consumer protections.

By Jonathan Peterson, Times Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — A booming industry that makes home loans to people with fragile credit is lobbying Congress for nationwide rules that regulators and consumer advocates warn would roll back tougher state protections.

The debate comes as millions of Americans have taken out loans with higher fees and interest rates than the mortgages granted to people with solid credit. As these "sub-prime" loans have proliferated, so have complaints from borrowers who say they've been slammed by surprise fees and high-pressure salespeople.

More than two dozen states, led by North Carolina, have moved into a vacuum created by weak federal regulation, imposing their own laws targeting abusive practices. The industry's five biggest players are based in California, and one, Orange-based Ameriquest Mortgage Co., is nearing a $325-million settlement with 33 states over allegations of bait-and-switch tactics, inflated appraisals and other issues.

Amid increasing scrutiny of their operations, lenders have rallied behind a bill sponsored by Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.) that would impose uniform national rules on the industry, which last year issued $530 billion in higher-cost mortgages.

Supporters say the measure is needed to replace a hodgepodge of state and local lending laws. Some of those laws, lenders say, make it costlier to extend credit to higher-risk borrowers. In at least one case, a lender says it cannot offer North Carolina customers the lowest possible interest rate because of restrictions in state law.


Consumer groups say the Ney-Kanjorski bill is a thinly veiled attempt to undo tough state regulations where they exist, and to prevent new laws from being adopted.

"If we've done a public good here, why does that standard have to be diluted?" asked Joseph A. Smith Jr., North Carolina's banking commissioner.

The national proposed standards, for example, would be more permissive than several state measures when it comes to the practice known as flipping, in which loan agents persuade borrowers to refinance after a short period, in some cases just months after they took out their existing loan.

Flipping generates new fees and commissions for lenders and loan agents and can put cash in the pockets of borrowers. But it also chips away at homeowners' equity and may saddle them with costlier terms than they expected.

The practice has been abetted by rising housing prices which enable loan salespeople to tell borrowers that they can painlessly tap the added equity in their homes. But if home prices level off or decline, some debtors could find themselves with homes that are worth less than their mortgages, and they could face a heightened risk of foreclosure.

Consumer advocates are backing a bill by Reps. Brad Miller and Melvin L. Watt, both North Carolina Democrats, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) that would parallel the North Carolina law by including a strict ban on flipping and requiring borrowers to get counseling before signing higher-cost loans. Unlike Ney-Kanjorski, it would not prevent states from imposing stricter requirements.

The mortgage banking industry has donated nearly $2 million to lawmakers in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ney and Kanjorski led the pack, with each reporting the same amount — $38,250 — from the industry.

Ney, who has been subpoenaed as part of a widening federal criminal probe of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was not available for comment. Kanjorski's office did not respond to questions.

The industry is "hopeful there will be action early next year," said Wright H. Andrews Jr., a lobbyist for the lenders.

Gee, which bill do you think Congress is going to pass and the preznit is going to sign - the bill that guts tougher state laws on the credit lending industry or the bill that creates a uniform tougher federal regulation of the credit lending industry but still allows states to create tougher laws if they so chose?

Sheesh. How much money is enough money for the credit lending and banking industries?

After passing the bankruptcy bill earlier this year, the banks and credit card companies have now made it virtually impossible for individuals to declare bankruptcy and make a fresh start in life no matter how they incurred their personal debt.

Remember, not everybody gets into debt because of personal irresponsibility, as the banking/credit card industries and the politicians they own would have you believe.

Some people, through unfortunate circumstances, like job loss and/or illness, incur large amounts of debt (and fast accruing interest on that debt that often amounts to more than the original debt!) that they are now saddled with for life under the new bankruptcy guidelines.

Now the credit lending industry wants to make sure people who are credit risks have access to crazy loan schemes that will tap out the equity in their homes and increase a debt load they will be stuck with for life?

Good God, welcome to the United Banking and Credit Card States of America - a nation governed by the moneyed interests, for the moneyed interests, and of the moneyed interests.

And let's remember, shall we, that corporations can still declare bankruptcy with equanimity and drop nearly all of their debt burdens. It seems that our righteous politicians, like Mr. Ney and Mr. Kanjorski above, are very big on pushing "personal responsibility" for individuals but not so much for corporations or bank-owned politicians.

I guess when it comes to making the laws of this country, it always come down to this old maxim for the politicians: In The Almighty Dollar We Trust.

If you've got the dollars and are willing to spread 'em around, they'll make the laws for you.

Makes me proud to be an American.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

TWU Got Taken To The Cleaners

Well, the TWU and the MTA have agreed to a tentative contract, and if I were a TWU member who had gone out on strike for three days and lost six days pay plus taxes, I would not be happy about this piece of shit contract. From The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit workers' union reached a tentative settlement yesterday in which the authority abandoned its demand for concessions on pensions and the union agreed to have all workers pay a portion of their health insurance premiums, officials involved in the negotiations said.

Last night the executive board of the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, voted 37 to 4 to approve the tentative 37-month contract. One member abstained.

The tentative agreement calls, for the first time, for all transit workers to pay 1.5 percent of their wages toward health insurance premiums, cutting into the raises they receive. That comes on top of the fines of slightly more than $1,000 that most transit workers face for participating in last week's illegal transit strike.

The settlement calls for raises of 3 percent in the deal's first year, 4 percent in the second year and 3.5 percent in the third year. The subway and bus workers' current base pay averages $47,000 a year, and with overtime, their average yearly earnings total $55,000.

10.5% raise minus 1.5% a year over three years for health care costs adds up to a snowjob for TWU members.

If I were them, I would be storming TWU headquarters and demanding Roger Toussaint's resignation.

Jesus, if Toussaint was going to accept a piece of shit contract, why go out on strike? Couldn't the TWU have gotten screwed in the deal without losing $3 million to fines and six days pay plus taxes for each individual worker by striking.

Sorry, it's late and maybe I'll think differently in the morning, but this TWU contract is a terrible loss for transit workers and they have every right to feel pissed at the union leadership for leading them into a strike and then selling them out during the mediation process.

I would bet Toussaint is going to get a serious challenge from the dissidents in his union next time a presidential election comes around.

Which is more than what happens in the UFT where Randi Weingarten - or "El Presidente" as she is known in certain circles - will not face a serious challenge for the leadership of the union despite her miserable failure in every contract negotiation she has taken part in.

Either way, tonight feels like another defeat for labor and another victory for the union-busting billionaire mayor.

I hope he chokes on all his billions.

Recession On The Horizon?

From the Associated Press:

NEW YORK - Stocks tumbled Tuesday, as the bond market gave signals that in the past have preceded economic slowdowns. The Dow Jones industrial average, which lost more than 105 points, chalked up its worst single-day performance since late October.

The yield curve, the spread between the yields of short-term and long-term bonds, inverted for the first time in five years. That means short-term interest rates were higher than long-term interest rates. Investors have been watching the yield curve closely because, in the past, inverted yield curves have preceded recessions.

But the bond market could be signaling no more than a harmless slowing in the economy, said Jon Brorson, head of growth equities at Neuberger Berman in Chicago.

“We’ve never seen a recession without the yield curve inverting, but the corollary is not true: Just because the yield curve inverts does not mean we’re going to have a recession,” he said.

Volume in equity markets was light, exaggerating the effect. Some of the decline might also be attributed to investors’ clearing out their portfolios for the end of the year.


The last time the yield curve was inverted was 2000 noted Charles H. Blood Jr., senior financial markets analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. At the time, “it served its classic function of a warning,” he added.


Investors have been watching for months as bonds’ long-term yields and short-term yields grew closer. “Although an inverted yield curve does not always imply an economic recession, it has predicted a profit recession 100 percent of the time,” Merrill Lynch’s North American Economist David R. Rosenberg said earlier this month.

I'm not smart enough or knowledgeable enough about the "business of business" to know if this inverted yield curve means a recession is on the horizon, but I do know that the economy is not on as strong a footing as the Bush administration or its apologists would like us all to believe.

Between the record U.S trade deficit, the record U.S. government debt, the record American consumer debt, the miniscule U.S. savings rate, and the Housing Bubble, I don't think it takes a Milton Keynes to figure out something's got to give in the American economy.

Obviously Uncle Alan Greenspan created the Housing Bubble by lowering interest rates in 2001 to diminish the effects of the Bush Recession.

Now we've got an economy that's propped up on the cheap money the American government has been printing hand over fist the last couple of years and lending out to anyone with a Social Security number.

But eventually, as we all know in our own lives, the bill for the spending spree comes due and must be paid.

Don't you kinda get the feeling the bill is coming due right about now?

Which is not to say that we're heading for a recession next quarter.

But you have to wonder how much longer the Bush administration, Wall Street, and some of the other financial wizards can keep this economy pasted together with smoke, mirrors, and consumer spending.

Daily News Says TWU/MTA Set To Agree To Contract Deal

As a member of the UFT, I don't like this rumored contract deal between the TWU and the MTA much at all:

Transit Union leaders will convene today and possibly accept a new contract - which would put an end to the labor strife that led to a three-day strike.

Sources said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Transport Workers Union Local 100 are close to a three-year pact that calls for raises of 3%, 4% and 4% for its 33,700 workers.

The framework of the deal would require all workers to contribute toward health insurance, but would not change the existing pension plan or retirement age, sources said.

While health care costs would rise, retirees would see improved health coverage, sources said.

The local's executive board has been told to report to its headquarters on West End Ave. today. It must approve any potential pact and call a ratification vote by members.


Union leader Roger Toussaint can say he held the line on pensions; he was vehemently opposed to raising the retirement age from 55 to 62, and fought raising pension contributions for new hires.

MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow can point to the workers' first-ever contribution to health premiums. Transit officials have said pension and health care costs are soaring, and that without workers paying for some of their costs, fares could rise.


The pension issue was the biggest stumbling block to a deal. The union wanted to drop the retirement age from 55 to 50, while the MTA wanted it raised to 62 for new workers.

The agency also wanted new hires to fork over 3% of wages for retirement plans, up from 2% given by current workers.

That change would save the MTA relatively little money in the short term. Toussaint and other labor leaders saw it as an attempt to set a precedent so municipal unions could be pressured to accept similar concessions.

Transit workers also abhor the idea of an older retirement age because of the health risks, emotional and physical, that come with their jobs: inhaling bus fumes, working inches from the subway's electrified third rail in the subways, having people regularly jump onto the tracks to commit suicide and toiling every day in a terrorist target.

A new pension scheme for new hires also could split the union into two camps, union members feared.

The union initially sought three straight years of 8% raises, while the MTA at first offered a two-year pact amounting to a 5% wage increase, some of which was only guaranteed if sick time taken was reduced.

Bus drivers, the largest job title, have a starting salary of about $35,000 a year and a top salary, not including overtime, of about $50,000. Including scheduled overtime, the base pay rises to about $58,500.

Here's my problem with the contract:

By agreeing to have employees contribute part of their salaries to health care costs, Toussaint and the TWU have opened the doors to having employees carry much or most of the burden themselves in the near future.

Employee contributions to health care costs will start out at 2% or 3%.

Then in the next contract the the employee contribution will be 5% or 6%.

Then 10%. Then 15%. And so on...

Now I know my friends in the private sector will say they are paying something for their health care, why shouldn't public employees pay something for their health care?

But the private sector employees I know who are paying for part of their health care have a much better plan than GHI, the city plan.

Also, the environment and conditions public employees work in tend to be much harsher than private sector work environments and conditions.

Take the subways, for instance. How many private sector employees (e.g., Citibank, Morgan Stanley, General Mills, etc.) work in an environment loaded with rats, sewage, dirt, lead, asbestos, noise, and potential crime?

How much do you want to make a bet some of those problems I listed above contribute to medical conditions that some subway workers suffer from?

As a New York City public school teacher, I have been exposed to both asbestos (a custodian found an old, crumbling asbestos blanket in my classroom last year) and mold (which I am allergic to). I am also exposed to a shitload of dust on a daily basis (another allergen for me.) The heat in the building is so god awful hot and dry that I have begun to suffer from excema on my arms, shoulders, and hands.

I will not say that these conditions have been completely caused by the conditions and environment I am exposed to on a daily basis as a public school teacher, but they certainly are exacerbated by them. And interestingly enough, when I am on vacation for any extended period of time, my mold and dust allergies and my excema get much better. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not.

Yet, the city thinks I should carry some of the burden of my health care costs despite the fact that the city doesn't want to provide safe, clean and health working and teaching environments for teachers and children.

I have an idea for future contract negotiations with the city that I think should solve this problem over employee-funded health care contributions

Let's tie employee contributions to health care costs to city contributions to safe, clean, and healthy working conditions.

As soon as the city provides safe, clean, and healthy work environments for its employees, we'll pick up a percentage of our health care costs.

Now that's a deal I'd sign up for.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Arnie's Move To The Center Ain't Workin

Poor Gropenfuhrer, nobody trusts him anymore, not the left or the right. From the LA Times:

SACRAMENTO — Humbled by his special election defeat, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is counting on state lawmakers to let bygones be bygones next month as he refocuses his political efforts in the Capitol.
"He's making every effort to work hand in hand with the Legislature," said Margita Thompson, Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman.

But California government, which Schwarzenegger declared last year was so dysfunctional that it required an overhaul by voters, is shaping up to be even more treacherous terrain for the governor in the coming election year.

"The power has shifted back to the Legislature," said Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D-Glendale). "I think the Democrats are in the driver's seat."

Much of the core of the Democratic Party is disinclined to give the Republican governor any political victories that might help get him reelected next year, lawmakers and lobbyists say.

Labor unions, which have substantial influence over the Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate, are still furious with the governor for trying to weaken their benefits and political influence. Emboldened by their success in leading the fight against Schwarzenegger's four initiatives last month, they are expected to adopt an even more aggressive posture when lawmakers return to Sacramento on Jan. 3.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure not to do anything with the guy," Frommer said. "You have a Legislature that, quite frankly, is not too happy with him. And you've got a Democratic Party and a lot of the constituencies that are pushing hard to keep the governor on the mat in order to set the stage for whomever the Democratic nominee is next year."

The governor also is facing pressure from his right. Republican lawmakers and party activists are concerned about the way he has refocused his administration toward the center since his special election loss.

Since November, Schwarzenegger has appointed a former executive director of the Democratic Party as his chief of staff. And he endorsed an unprecedented borrowing program for public works, something that unnerves the party's fiscal conservatives.

Most GOP lawmakers are more conservative than Schwarzenegger, but he needs their support because two-thirds of the Legislature is required to pass the state budget and to put measures on the statewide ballot.

"The reality is, nothing gets done unless Arnold Schwarzenegger can persuade at least six Republicans in the Assembly and two in the Senate to go along," said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.


Once again, the biggest opposition against Schwarzenegger may come from California's labor unions, which spent more than $100 million to defeat him in November. Unions representing teachers are demanding that the governor increase education funding by $5.5 billion. They say he promised them billions in late 2003 in exchange for their agreeing to defer some funds guaranteed for schools under Proposition 98.

The administration says no such promise was made. But unions made the issue a major part of their campaign against his special election agenda and consider his defeat a mandate for him to restore the money.

"I don't know how the governor could possibly do the State of the State without addressing education funding and how he's going to pay back the money that's owed," said Gale Kaufman, a political consultant for the California Teachers Assn. and the Assembly's Democrats.

Perata and Nuñez said Schwarzenegger needs to repay some of the education money this year.

Labor leaders also are planning to press the Legislature to revisit changes they made to California's workers' compensation insurance system in 2003 and 2004.

The changes are projected to lead to an estimated 38% drop in employer costs in the first two years, according to the state insurance commissioner. But unions complain that insurers have cut the benefits of injured workers too deeply while pocketing most of the savings.

Barry Broad, a lobbyist for the Teamsters and several other unions, said labor's goal is to get new legislation passed and get rid of Schwarzenegger.

"This is a governor who went after us with hammer and saw, said very nasty things about labor unions and how they are to blame for the world's problems," Broad said. "We're not likely to give up on any strongly held principles … for this guy."

I'm glad to see labor unions, especially the teachers union, trying to bury the Gropenfuhrer this year. It would be silly and suicidal for unions to work with this guy on anything and risk helping him get reelected after what he pulled the last two years.

Randi Weingarten should take note that labor unions CAN destroy popular Republican politicians when GOPer's are on the wrong side of the issues, like the Gropenfuhrer was last November.

As for the right-wing, I bet Arnie's gonna have to come out with some real wingnut immigration program to satisy them, a move which should take the sails out of his repositioning to the center.

Poor Gropenfuhrer. Nobody likes him anymore, not even his home town in Austria, which just renamed the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium to the more generic Graz Stadium because Arnie wouldn't commute Tookie Williams' death sentence.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Mike Lupica: When Bloomberg and Pataki Say They Are Trying To Save The Gov't Some Money, Hold Onto Your Wallets

Omigosh, the New York Daily News publishes just its second critic of the hardline bargaining positions of Mayor Moneybags and Governor Bagman took during the transit strike:

This is no defense of Roger Toussaint of the TWU, no defense of the strike that tried to cripple the city for a couple of days near Christmas. But now that the strike has been settled, do not make George Pataki or tough-talking Michael Bloomberg or Peter Kalikow of the MTA into heroes of the city just because they were on the other side. They are not heroes. They are politicians. It is clear by now that when these particular politicians talk about the finances of this city, it is not just transit workers who should keep a hand on their wallets.

Everybody should.

At a time when the three of them, the governor, the mayor and Kalikow of the MTA, wring their hands about the future of New York City, when they make it seem as if that future somehow is tied to the pension fund of the transit workers, please remember that they are the same people who wanted to give away the Hudson Railyards to the New York Jets football team so that the Jets could build a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan.

Those 13 acres are the last great undeveloped piece of Manhattan. Pataki and Bloomberg and Kalikow were ready to give it away to another rich guy — Woody Johnson, the slow owner of the Jets — for what amounted to tipping money.

Kalikow, hero of the strike, was originally going to sell land appraised at $900 million — MTA land — to the Jets for $100 million.

Then he acted like the roughest character in town by getting them to raise their bid to one third of the appraised value. Kalikow only did that at the time because Cablevision had come in with an offer to buy the land for $400 million and then put up the $350 million to build platforms over the railyards.

When Bruce Ratner, the most caring owner in all of sports, saw an opening to build 17 high-rise buildings around Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson in Brooklyn, all these high-minded politicians who squeezed transit workers this week immediately rolled over for Ratner, too. Another land grab by a rich owner, another time when the biggest politicians in the city and state did everything except put a bow around the property.

Again: We are all in perfect agreement that this is a strike that hurt everybody. Nobody wanted it. Nobody liked it. So many innocent people got hurt by it you couldn't begin to count them.

Toussaint's place in the city's history is fixed, and there is little he can do about it. But please note that in the last hours before the strike, as News columnist Michael Daly pointed out the other day, the MTA got up in the face of this union and demanded new TWU workers pay 6% of their salary into pensions.

This is the same MTA that offers sweetheart deals to any rich sports owner who comes along with a hand out. This is the same governor, the same mayor, who were prepared to roll over for Woody Johnson.

These are the guys who taught the members of the TWU a lesson this week.

How come nobody on NY1 or WNBC or WCBS or WABC or the news radio channels or the New York Times or the New York Daily News or the New York Post or the New York Sun brought up last week that Bloomberg and Patak were ready to give away the West Side rail yards for pennies on the dollar and are still giving away MTA land in Brooklyn in a sweetheart deal with real estate developer Bruce Ratner?

How come only Roger Toussaint and the TWU were the bad guys last week for trying to stand up and protect their wages, pensions, and health care benefits?

Might it be that NY1 and WNBC and WCBS and WABC and the news radio channels and the New York Times and the New York Daily News and the New York Post and the New York Sun are corporate-owned entities fully pushing the anti-union, pro-union-busting politics of their owners?

Might it be that the reporters and media people in New York City, doing the propaganda work for the owners of their respective papers and news outlets, are hypocrites and liars who are selling the public a bill of goods instead of telling us the truth about the economic realities in this city?

Might it be the newspapers are just publishing bullshit and the radio and TV stations airing lies?

Christmas in Iraq: Post-Election Edition

The preznit and his administration propagandists have gone on a frenzied media tour trying to convince Americans the situation in Iraq isn't as bad as it seems and anybody who thinks it is going badly is just a "defeatist" who hates freedom and America.

Given the small rise in his poll numbers (from the high 30's to the low 40's), you might think the preznit's campaign to convince America all is right with the Iraq war might be working.

Unfortunately for the preznit and his merry band of liars and p.r. people, reality is a little harder to manipulate than public opinion.

Here's the situation in Iraq, via Reuters:

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least five Iraqis and a U.S. soldier were killed in violence in Iraq on Sunday as fresh street protests over election results kept up tension that has soured the mood after a peaceful ballot 10 days ago.

In the turbulent northern city of Mosul, the killing of a Sunni Arab student leader abducted after heading a demonstration against the election results prompted accusations by mourners at his funeral against militias loyal to the victorious Shi'ite Islamists and their Kurdish allies in the interim government.

President Jalal Talabani, meeting the U.S. ambassador who is mediating in efforts to transform the newly inclusive parliament into a viable government, urged Sunni leaders to join a new, broader coalition. Otherwise there would be no peace, he warned.

Disappointed Sunni and secular parties have demanded a rerun of the December 15 election and threatened to boycott parliament, a move that could damage U.S. hopes of forging a consensus that can keep Iraq from breaking up in ethnic and sectarian warfare.

But despite militant rhetoric, seemingly aimed at increasing their leverage, Sunnis are negotiating with others to build a governing coalition on the basis of the existing poll results.

Meeting U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in his Kurdish power base of Sulaimaniya, Talabani said: "Without the Sunni parties there will be no consensus government ... without consensus government there will be no unity, there will be no peace."


After a lull during the election, secured partly by fierce security measures and partly by an informal ceasefire by Sunni rebels hoping for representation in parliament, deadly attacks have picked up. Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed in one assault on Friday as were 10 worshippers at a Shi'ite mosque.

A U.S. soldier was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack near Kirkuk on Saturday and troops marking Christmas had no respite on Sunday; an Abrams tank, the giant bulwark of American armored might, was left in flames after a dawn attack in eastern Baghdad -- witness said a roadside bomb blasted it.

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed an attack on a tank and the military said later a U.S. soldier had been killed when his vehicle was hit by an explosive device in Baghdad, though it was not immediately clear whether it was the same incident.

Two car bombs, parked by the roadside, went off around lunchtime, wounding three Iraqi soldiers and a civilian in the city center and three policemen in eastern Baghdad, police said.

Two soldiers were killed and six wounded in a mortar attack on an Iraqi base at Mahmudiya, just south of the capital.

In Kirkuk, where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen are vying for control of the northern oilfields, a civilian was killed and seven wounded when a car bomb went off close to a police patrol.

Further north, in Mosul, Iraq's third city where ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds are also high, a roadside bomb killed a policeman when it detonated close to his patrol.

Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq said in an Internet posting on Sunday it had abducted and killed three Arab women and an Arab man working for U.S. authorities and the Iraqi government.

Abductions and killings of women have been rare in Iraq, where thousands of civilians have been kidnapped by insurgents or gangs seeking ransom since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Anger flared round Mosul's university campus, one of Iraq's most distinguished, after the bullet-riddled body of the head of the student union was found on Sunday.

The body, found with the victim's hands bound behind his back, also bore marks of strangling, a hospital source said.

Gunmen had grabbed Qusay Salahaddin from his home on Thursday, two days after he had led a demonstration against the election results, and bundled him into the trunk of a car before driving off, said Mohammed Jassim, a friend of the victim.

From there, Salahaddin used his mobile phone to call for help, Jassim said, accusing Kurdish peshmerga militia: "Save me, the peshmerga have kidnapped me," Jassim quoted Salahaddin, a Sunni Arab, as saying before the line went dead.

Among some 2,000 fellow students gathered at a mosque where the body was taken, accusations quickly flew against another favored target of Sunni Arab complaint, militia forces loyal to one of the main Islamist parties in the Shi'ite Alliance bloc.

No group claimed responsibility for the killing.


Mosul -- one of two cities named by U.S. President George W. Bush before the election as a model of progress in Iraq -- has been at the forefront of complaints of voter fraud this year.

Provisional national results of the December 15 election show the Shi'ite Alliance bloc should come close to retaining its slim majority in the new legislature, despite a big turnout by Sunni Arabs who boycotted a poll in January.

That has sparked protests in recent days in Baghdad and elsewhere by Sunni and secular parties, despite assurances from U.N. and other officials that irregularities under investigation affect only an insignificant proportion of the ballot.

In between all of the accuasations of voter fraud and the sectarian violence, Knight-Ridder reports that the few Sunni candidates who were elected to parliament last week will be disqualified because they were high-ranking Baath Party officials when Saddam was running the country:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - An Iraqi court has ruled that some of the most prominent Sunni Muslims who were elected to parliament last week won't be allowed to serve because officials suspect that they were high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Knight Ridder has obtained a copy of the court ruling, which has yet to be circulated to the public.

The ruling is likely to dampen Bush administration hopes that the election would bring more of the disaffected Sunni minority into Iraq's political process and undermine Sunni support for the insurgency. Instead, the decision is likely to stoke fears of widening sectarian divisions in a nation already in danger of descending into civil war.

Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral official of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, told Knight Ridder that he would honor the court's decision and that none of the accused Sunnis would appear on the final list of parliament members.

The commission is still counting ballots and said it would have the final list of winners sometime next month.

But preliminary results showed that some of the prominent Sunni politicians on the list had likely won seats. Among those who could lose their seats are: Adnan al-Janabi, the second-highest ranking member of the constitutional committee and a top candidate on U.S.-backed former prime minister Ayad Allawi's slate, and Rasem al-Awadi, a National Assembly member and also on Allawi's slate. Five members of the Iraqi Accord Front, the principal Sunni electoral slate, also were on the list.

Saleh Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician, said that the ruling would agitate already frustrated Sunnis who are questioning the validity of the elections.

"The streets will tell you their reaction," Mutlaq said.

On Friday, thousands of Sunnis demonstrated in Baghdad, charging that the election was rigged in favor of the majority Shiite Muslims. The demonstration wasn't a reaction to the court decision because the Iraqi people hadn't learned of it.

"I came to protest against the fraud. There are some Shiites in my neighborhood who told me that they voted twice," said Omar al-Samaraee, a 25-year-old taxi driver who marched in the demonstration. "Should a government be formed based on the current results of the elections, then I think it will be illegitimate."

If the sectarian violence and election protests are bad this week, just wait until the court reveals that these Sunni candidates have been disqualified from sitting in the parliament.

How will our friends in the American media, who lapped up the Bush propaganda about the election almost as readily this month as they did during the January elections, report the violence and discord?

Will they finally acknowledge that despite the administration's best efforts to propagandize the situation in Iraq, this country is heading for serious sectarian violence that no amount of p.r. can change?

Or will they continue to push some of the Bush line that democracy is starting to take hold in Iraq when the reality seems to be the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of American lives to create either a Shiite-controlled Iraq with close ties to Iran or just chaos.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Christmas Message From Pope Panzer

A heartwarming message from the Nazi Pope, via Reuters:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict, ushering in his first Christmas as Pontiff, on Sunday urged the world's Catholics to be beacons of peace in a troubled world and offered a special prayer for an end to strife in the Holy Land.

The 78-year-old German-born Pope, who was elected last April 19 to succeed Pope John Paul, celebrated a solemn Christmas Eve mass in St Peter's Basilica to lead the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics into one of the holiest seasons of the year.

"Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness," he said in his homily before the congregation in a packed basilica.

And then he asked all Catholics to go out and bash homosexuals for being an abomination to all things Godly.

That's our Pope Panzer for you.

He's all for peace and love.

Unless your gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

Then he's for your eternal damnation.

I'd like to add my own Christmas blessing tonight by referencing Mark Twain:

I hope Pope Benedict spends eternity in John Bunyan's hell.

Homophobic fucker that he is.

Happy Holidays.

Road to Serfdom

This NY Times article by Stephen Greenhouse on the "pension woes" crisis in the United States really set me off this morning:

Fast-rising pension costs for government employees - the issue that helped set off this week's transit strike in New York City - are a problem confronting cities, counties and states nationwide, causing many budgetary experts to predict a wave of painful fights over efforts to scale back government retirement programs.

Many officials and fiscal experts assert that across the nation government pension plans face a shortfall of hundreds of billions of dollars. From New Jersey to California, government officials say that attempts - either through contract fights, legislation or public referendums - to limit the amount of money that states and cities contribute to pensions are inevitable and overdue. Labor unions, for their part, say that the worries are overblown.

"Every level of government in New York City, New York State and in states across the country face large and growing pension obligations," said E. J. McMahon, a budget expert at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group. "If nothing is done to bring pensions under control, all the other headaches that state governments will be facing in the next 20 years on needs like education and health will be enormously worse."


Many government employees and their unions assert that the campaign to trim pensions threatens America's social contract for the middle class: a respectable pension.

Saying that in recent contracts they had sacrificed wage increases or better health benefits for solid pensions, many public employees and their unions assert that governments are betraying their commitments by seeking to now cut pensions. Further, they argue that much of the shortfall in pension financing could be erased by a strong stock market in the next several years.

"A lot of people are exaggerating the size of the problem," said Gerald McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1.4 million government workers. "Right-wing think tanks and conservative Republicans want to do away with traditional pension plans and replace them with much-cheaper 401(k)'s at the same time they want to give all these tax cuts to the rich."

The fight over public-sector pensions follows a movement to cut private sector pensions. In recent years, corporation after corporation has complained about what they assert are the onerous costs of pensions.

Bethlehem Steel, United Airlines and other companies, saying they could no longer afford it, have stopped paying into their pension plans, forcing the government to step in and absorb billions of dollars in costs. And now Delphi, the giant auto parts company that filed for bankruptcy in October, is threatening to do the same thing.

Meanwhile, some companies, Hewlett Packard among them, have replaced their traditional pension plans with 401(k) plans.

Many courts have ruled that cutting the pensions of current public employees - as opposed to future ones - violates the Constitution, which prohibits governments from breaching contracts. As a result, taxpayers must pay for full pensions promised to government employees.

When private companies go bankrupt and leave badly underfinanced plans, a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, steps in to insure the workers' pensions, although many workers end up getting smaller pensions than their companies had promised. The agency is running a $23 billion deficit this year and many policy makers fear that its liabilities could mushroom if many more large corporations file for bankruptcy and dump their pension obligations on the government.


To control soaring pensions costs, the authority at first demanded raising the retirement age for future employees to 62. Workers can now retire at age 55, after 25 years on the job, and receive pensions equal to half their earnings. They average $55,000 a year, including overtime.

After the union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, resisted that demand, the authority made a new proposal, that future transit workers pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, compared with 2 percent for current workers.

The transportation authority is working closely with Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who say it is vital to trim fast-rising pension outlays for state and city workers because they threaten the government's ability to provide education, policing and other basic services. New York City's annual pension outlays are expected to jump to nearly $5 billion in 2008, more than double the level in 2004.

Mayor Bloomberg repeatedly called the strikers greedy. "The public says, 'I don't want to pay more taxes and I don't get these kind of benefits,' " he said yesterday. "You have no idea how many e-mails I got, 'I don't make that kind of money. I don't have those kinds of pension benefits. Why are people striking?' "

But Roger Toussaint, the president of the transit workers' union, said the walkout was aimed at stopping an employer offensive nationwide to cut pensions and other benefits. He said the transportation authority was mimicking corporate America.

"What you have here is a scandalous attempt on the part of the M.T.A. to jump on the bandwagon," he said.

Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

More profits for the investment class. Less pension, health care and salary benefits for private sector workers.

Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

More tax cuts aimed at the investment class and corporate loopholes aimed at keeping Wall Street happy. Less pension, health care, and salary benefits for public sector workers.

Inflation's up. Health care costs are up. Energy prices are up. Food prices are up. Housing prices are up.

Workers wages are stagnant and benefits are being cut.

The only thing going up for workers is their productivity.

And their debt load.

Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

And Mayor Moneybags has the balls to say TWU workers and other public employees shouldn't expect a respectable pension anymore (even though they have often exchanged wage compensation or health care benefts for these pensions) because employees in the private sector no longer receive traditional pension plans?

Come on, Mr. Mayor, don't you think many people realize that greedy rich fuckers like yourself are trying to squeeze everybody in both the public and private sectors out of their pension and health care benefits so you can garner a few more tax breaks and percentage points of profit in your stock portfolio?

And why should it follow that just because private sector employees are exploited by their employers that public employees, though they are ostensibly protected by unions, should follow suit?

Good God, one of the reasons why public employees were able to win pension and health care concessions years ago from government was because they were unionized.

It stands to reason public employees would have an easier time keeping these benefits from being undercut by the investment class because they are protected by their union contracts.

Private employees, on the other hand, are relegated to relying upon the kindness of strangers and the vagaries of the market.

Which is why the Republican Party and their Corporate Overlords have spent the last thirty years in a concerted campaign to tar union workers as lazy, undeserving bums and unions as harmful to business.

Let's face it, the fewer the number of unionized workers, the less compensation that will be paid to middle class and working class employees, and the more money the investment class will make.

Maybe it's time to reintroduce the word "serf" into the American vernacular.

Because that's where all of this is heading. The investment class owns the rest of us, pays us like peasants, and we in turn keep them happy by dutifully working for garbage and purchasing their products.

Ironically, the more the investment class squeezes the working and middle classes, the more the investment class may hurt itself in the future.

The American capitalist system currently is chigging along under the power of the American consumer to purchase a lot of the crap produced by the Multi-Nationals.

Many American consumers are ordinary working and middle class Americans.

But the more Mayor Moneybags and the Corporate Overlords squeeze the middle and working classes of wage compensation and health and pension benefits, the less likely it is that the American consumer can keep propping this piece of shit economy up.

Which means lots of trouble for ALL economic classes in the near future.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Back To Work

TWU members are back to work today and, according to the MTA, the buses and subways are running normally.

We will be rushing to and from work today, thinking about last minute Christmas shopping, vacation plans, holiday parties, work projects being put on hold for the holidays, etc.

How many of us will be thinking about the TWU workers who get us to our stations and/or bus stops safely every day?

How many of us will be thinking about all the blue collars workers across this country who are being asked to take wage cuts, pension benefit cuts and health care benefit cuts so that the investment class can squeeze a few more percentage points of profit out of their stocks or from their tax cuts?

How many of us will remember that in the class war against the middle and working classes, the Bloombergs of the world are winning big-time battles?

How many of us will remember that the next pension or health care benefit Bloomberg (or some other corporate lord) comes for might be our own?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Transit Strike Over For Now

TWU members went back to work at 4 PM today:

On the third day of a citywide transit strike that has left millions without subway and bus service, union leaders ordered their members to begin returning to work this afternoon, ending a 60-hour walkout that caused much hardship but also brought out the creativity of New York commuters.

Transit officials said limited subway and bus service could resume within hours, though normal service could take up to 18 hours to restore.


The order to return to work came after executive board of the Transit Workers Union, Local 100, voted 38 to 5 with two abstentions to accept a preliminary framework of a settlement as a basis to end the walkout.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had already agreed to the framework, which was devised by state mediators after all-night negotiations with the union and the authority.

"We thank riders for their patience and forbearance," President Roger Touissant said outside union headquarters this afternoon. "We will be providing various details regarding the outcome of this strike in the next several days."

Now the spin from all involved begins. Bloomberg gave a press conference, Pataki made the rounds of the cable news channels, Toussaint spoke outside of TWU headquarters and a few dissenting TWU executive board members made some angry remarks to the press.

Bottom line is this: until the contract is settled and the details become known, we cannot decide which side won this labor war.

One thing I do know.

After three days of the transit strike, Bloomberg and Pataki were hearing it from big and small businesses in the city to get the strike ended.

While it's true that the union could not have afforded to stay out on strike much longer, it is also true that businesses in the city could not have afforded the lost revenue much longer either.

Which is why both sides were willing to try the mediation route and call a truce in the strike, at least for now.

We'll see if they can actually hammer out a contract agreement next week.

And then we'll take stock of the winners and losers in this strike.

Obviously I, for one, am hoping Toussaint got the pension concessions completely off of the table.

Question is, were Pataki and Bloomberg desperate enough to end the strike to take the pension concession demands off the table, did Toussaint blink on pensions, or was there some sort of compromise on the issue.

The press reports seem to hint at a compromise on the pension issue, but you have to wonder, given the intactable positions taken by both sides on the issue, exactly what kind of compromise could have been worked out by the mediator.

I guess we'll just have to wait until next week or so to see.

The MTA Is Breaking The Taylor Law Too

All we hear in the corporate media is how the TWU is breaking the Taylor Law by engaging in an "illegal strike." But Juan Gonzalez of the NY Daily News notes that the MTA is breaking the Taylor Law too:

MTA's violating Taylor Law as well

Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg have vowed drastic penalties for the striking members of the Transport Workers Union for violating the Taylor Law.

Yet the mayor and the governor have been completely silent about violations of the same Taylor Law by their own appointed officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The most well-known portion of the law, Section 210, states that "no public employee or employee organization shall engage in a strike."

That is not, however, the only provision of the law. Other sections also provide protections to public employees.

City union leaders and state lawmakers keep trying to point that out. They say the MTA itself trampled a key provision of the Taylor Law by demanding that TWU President Roger Toussaint accept an inferior pension plan for future members of his union as a condition of a new labor contract.

Section 201 of the law clearly states that "no such retirement benefits shall be negotiated pursuant to this article, and any benefits so negotiated shall be void."

Only the Legislature has the legal authority to approve changes in public employee pension systems.

Not the MTA. Not the mayor. And not the governor all by himself.

That's the way it always has been.

MTA officials have claimed for several days that reforming the union's pension plan became the main unresolved issue to a settlement.

"That's what's known as an impermissible subject of bargaining," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), who is chairman of the Assembly committee that oversees the MTA.

Sure, unions and public agencies sometimes agree, as part of an overall labor settlement, to jointly petition the Legislature for pension changes, but management can't simply force a union to accept a worse retirement plan.

"If the governor is going to be a tough guy about the Taylor Law with the union, he should be tough as well on the law when it comes to the MTA," Brodsky said yesterday.

This crippling strike could be over in hours if Pataki ordered the MTA to adhere to the same Taylor Law he wants the union to respect.

Toussaint said as much to a group of 40 city labor leaders in a telephone conference around noon yesterday. He repeated it a few hours later in a meeting with several dozen black political and religious leaders and in a press conference later in the afternoon.

His plea is now being taken up by many leaders eager to bring labor peace back to the city.

Municipal union leaders, headed by teachers union chief Randi Weingarten, urged the mayor and the governor to set aside the pension issue for now. Meanwhile, several state legislators made the same pitch in Albany.

If there are reforms needed in public employee pensions, they say, they should be negotiated with all the unions involved in the city's retirement system, not by singling out the transit workers union as a test case.

But even before Toussaint spoke, Pataki delivered yet another blistering criticism of the strikers. Worse, he tried to escalate the conflict by urging no further contract talks until the union returns to work.

In two previous illegal transit strikes during the past 50 years, union leaders and public officials always kept negotiating until they reached a settlement.

Thankfully, MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow moved forward yesterday with serious mediation efforts that continued late last night. Kalikow appears to be the only top MTA official eager to reach a deal.

His boss Pataki, on the other hand, is eager to prove to the nation what a tough-guy President he would make. In Toussaint and his 33,000 union members, he sees his ticket to fame.

So what if the public has to endure a few more days of a transit strike that never should have happened in the first place? Who will listen to a bunch of union members engaged in an illegal strike, the governor and the mayor seem to think.

We'll soon find out if they're right.

It is interesting how the corporate media forgets to tell us that the MTA is also violating the Taylor Law by demanding pension concessions from the union.

Must just be an oversight by the reporters, right?


One thing about Pataki: if he is under the delusion that he can use this strike to prove what a tough guy successor he would be to the original tough guy preznit, King George the W, Pataki should be quickly disabused of the notion.

Perhaps somebody would like to float a nation-wide poll of GOP 2008 presidential hopefuls and show Pataki he's garnering low single digit support just below Kinky Friedman and the Teletubby Falwell thinks is gay?

Hell, Pataki couldn't even get reelected governor, let alone get elected president.

Somebody needs to tell him that people just want him to go back to whatever rock he crawled out from under 12 years ago and leave us all alone.

Scorched Earth Strike: May As Well Go Bankrupt

The press coverage this morning across the board suggests the TWU is in trouble. The union is being fined $1 million a day, a judge is threatening to throw the leaders into jail for contempt, the city has gone to court to get larger fines levied against individual workers that would come out of their pockets, not union coffers, and editorial boards and talking heads across the city are talking about what a disaster Toussaint has created for himself and his members.

So what's a striking union leader to do when the shit has really hit the fan and everything looks blackest? According to the Director of Urban Research at the CUNY Grad Center, Toussaint could keep the union out on strike for a long period of time, hoping to force the MTA's hand through scorched earth warfare:

With the fine against the union growing by $1 million each day, Mr. Toussaint may well hope to shoot the moon, reasoning that the financial penalties might grow so large, and bankruptcy so certain, that his union might just as well stay out for 30 days as for 3.

Or, as John H. Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University Graduate Center, put it, "The union recognizes that there is no difference between unbearable fines and doubly unbearable ones."


By no means is everything lost for Mr. Toussaint and the union, Mr. Feinstein said.

"There are any number of honorable exits for him, but the first thing he has to do is get back to the bargaining table," Mr. Feinstein said.

Many labor experts say the best opportunity to reach a settlement is over the next few days. If the work stoppage drags on for more than a week, union leaders, already facing union bankruptcy, may feel they have little more to lose, and union members, facing large fines, may believe that the longer they stay out the more likely they will somehow win amnesty, reducing the fines.

Perhaps this is the best strategy for Toussaint if the MTA won't give on the pension concession demands.

Kalikow called Toussaint's remarks yesterday at a press conference that the union would return to work if the MTA took pension concessions off the table "outrageous, " which seems to indicate the MTA (and the real powers behind the board, Bloomberg and Pataki), won't give on the pension concession demands.

At least not right away.

But after 15 or 18 days of a strike that starts to shaves a few zeroes off the GDP ($400 million a day x 15 days = lots of trouble for Bloomberg, Pataki, et al.), I bet they'd be a little less adamant about the pension concession demands.

I'm not sure the union can actually hold out that long.

I'm not sure they should hold out that long.

But if the Bloomberg/Pataki position is that they won't give on anything in the negotiations now that the TWU is on strike, or worse, demand an end to the strike before they'll return to negotiations, perhaps a scorched earth strike strategy is the best tactical response for the union.

Stay out long-term, declare bankruptcy (just like the airlines and other red-blooded American coporations who want to avoid paying their debts!), and force Bloomberg and Pataki to deal with the strike fall-out for a month or more.

And let's face it, bankruptcy has worked really, really well for Delta, United, American, Continental (Pension responsibilities? What pension responsibilities?)...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Toussaint: Take The Pension Issue Off the Table And We'll End The Transit Strike

This seems pretty simple. From the NY Times:

Roger Toussaint, the leader of the transit workers union, said today that his members would return to work only if the Metropolitan Transit Authority took its pension proposal off the table, but he added that the union was ready to resume negotiations right away.

His remarks during a news conference this afternoon came as the city's first transit strike in 25 years stretched into its second day and as the heated verbal jousting between Mr. Toussaint and the governor and mayor intensified, with both sides complaining about the propriety and legality of the other's conduct..

"Provided that the pension issue comes off the table, that would be a basis for us to go back to work," Mr. Toussaint said. He later added: "We are prepared to resume negotiations right away. We wouldn't end the strike as a condition of negotiations."

Soon after he spoke, several government employees' unions including those representing teachers, firefighters and municipal workers backed the transit workers union's demand for the M.T.A. to drop the pension issue from negotiations.

Drop the pension concessions demands, Mr. Mayor and Governor Bagman, and the trains and buses will start moving immediately.

Seems to me you guys could end this strike pretty quickly if you wanted to.

The question is, do you want to?

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