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Workers Unite

Campaigning in the 20th District heats up as Kirsten Gillibrand pockets a slew of labor-union endorsements


Few onlookers were surprised when Republican U.S. Rep. John Sweeney failed to receive the endorsement of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) at its convention Monday at the Desmond Hotel in Albany.

The bigger surprise came when the labor federation gave its endorsement to Kirsten Gillibrand, Sweeney’s Democratic challenger in the 20th District.

“Kirsten had overwhelming support within that district,” said Mario Cilento, director of the AFL-CIO public-relations department. “She has forged a relationship with the rank-and-file members of the local union, and that related back to the endorsement. She had great support on the floor with the delegates at the convention, and that earned her our endorsement.”

The union’s backing of Gillibrand was not necessarily expected, according to Cilento.

“There weren’t really any expectations,” he said. “A candidate needs two-thirds majority support among delegates to receive our endorsement, so it’s a pretty high threshold.”

Delegates could have voted to endorse neither candidate in the 20th District race, as they have during previous election cycles, but several members spoke in opposition to such a motion. While Sweeney received support from select delegates, their murmurs were overpowered by the hundreds of representatives who voted for the union to stand behind Gillibrand.

Sweeney also was passed over for AFL-CIO endorsements during his previous reelection campaigns within the past four to six years, according to Cilento.

This is despite Sweeney’s earlier ties to labor—his father was president of a shirt- cutters union in Troy—and the more than two years he spent as New York state commissioner of labor. During his years as commissioner, Sweeney “gave the Labor Department a more pro-active role throughout the state and nation,” a biography on Sweeney’s 2006 campaign Web site said. “His efforts focused on reducing onerous government regulations on business and stimulating economic growth while protecting the well-being of the state’s workforce.”

AFL-CIO officials contend Sweeney’s congressional voting record tells another story, one in which the congressman’s voting on labor issues often has failed to protect working families.

“His overall voting record played into it,” Cilento said of the lack of support for endorsing Sweeney at Monday’s convention.

The national AFL-CIO tracks congressional voting records on its Web site, Senators and representatives from each state are rated based on how they vote on working-family issues, including Social Security, Medicare, unions and workplace safety, among others.

In 2005, Sweeney’s record aligned with the union’s position on labor issues 27 percent of the time. During the entirety of his seven years in the U.S. House of Representatives, he has voted for working-family issues 35 percent of the time, according to the Web site.

“It’s notable that the AFL-CIO has opted not to endorse in this district in the past,” said Allison Price, a spokesperson for Gillibrand’s campaign. “But this year, they decided to support the challenger because they’re sick of Congressman Sweeney’s lack of record in supporting working families.”

Even without the AFL-CIO backing, Sweeney already has secured endorsements from the Saratoga Fire Fighter’s Union and the Greater Capital Region Building and Construction Trades Council.

Representatives from Sweeney’s campaign could not be reached for comment.

For Gillibrand, the AFL-CIO backing will be added to a list of other labor endorsements, the most recent of which was announced last week by the New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest union. These approvals represent “the big two” among labor endorsements, according to Price. Additional support has come from at least 16 other labor organizations.

“I think it is a bit like a snowball,” Price said of the multiple endorsements. “You get one, and it keeps rolling downhill, but the main reason is that John Sweeney has been playing politics with several issues that affect working families.”

Many of the endorsements will come with dollars and union-organized campaigning to back up expressed support.

“We will undertake an extensive grassroots campaign,” Cilento said of the AFL-CIO effort. He detailed an operation that will include mailings, phone-bank calling and union members visiting fellow members to discuss issues and candidates.

New York’s 20th District includes all or portions of Columbia, Dutchess, Essex, Delaware, Greene, Otsego, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.

—Nicole Klaas

What a Week

Dry Run

According to a recent report in the Aug. 21 issue of The New Yorker by Seymour Hersh, Israel asked U.S. officials for permission to launch a full-scale offensive against Hezbollah months before fighting began—before the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier that supposedly triggered the war. Hersh further reported the U.S. officials looked at the conflict as “the mirror image of what the United States has been planning for Iran.” A former senior intelligence official reportedly told Hersh that Vice President Dick Cheney said: “What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it’s really successful? It’d be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in Lebanon.”

All the News Not Printed

In the Aug. 13 issue of The New York Times, Public Editor Byron Calame revealed that the paper had in fact delayed publication of James Risen’s article on the Bush administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping so that it would not run before the 2004 elections. The Times had previously indicated that the article could not have run before the elections. However, Calame reports that Times executive editor Bill Keller now claims that “a major reason for the publication delays was the administration’s claim that everyone involved was satisfied with the program’s legality.”

Future Use

The future of Insite, North America’s only legal, supervised drug-injection facility, remains uncertain as the Sept. 12 deadline for Canadian federal government approval to continue the facility approaches. Insite, located in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, allows addicts to inject their own drugs in the presence of health professionals. During the past two years, more than 7,000 people have registered at the facility, with average daily visits of around 600 individuals. Insite first opened in 2003 as a scientific-research pilot project.

Baristas Unite!

In our service-based economy, it is no surprise that Starbucks finds itself at the center of the continuing struggle for workers’ rights. Daniel Gross, organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, was fired in what many allege was retaliation for his union activities. This is apparently the fourth time within the past year that Starbucks has fired an IWW barista involved in labor activity.

Phone Home, Expensively

Prison-family advocates are still fighting to end the exorbitant rates charged on calls from inmates

The rate charged by Verizon for calls made by inmates in New York state prisons is an illegal tax, according to Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights. These calls are billed a premium 630-percent higher than the rate charged the general public.

“Every time an individual has been billed these rates,” she said, “they have been forced to pay an unlawful tax.” And it has been going on for 10 years.

Last month, CCR learned that Walton v. New York, a case they brought in 2004 to challenge the contract Verizon/MCI has with the state, will be heard in front of the Court of Appeals, the state’ highest court.

More than 500,000 phone calls are made monthly from New York state prisons, according to the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice. Each call, which can only be made collect through the Verizon system, is charged a premium of $3 per connection and $.16 a minute. From the money raised, the state receives a commission of 57.5 percent.

Meeropol simply doesn’t see how this is legal.

“The state makes a couple different arguments,” she said “They try to make the argument that much of the money is spent on programs that also benefit the families of prisoners. There are some programs . . . such as the family-reunification program that does receive some small amount of money. . . . But if you look at the amount of money that is spent on these programs, it is a minority that they are getting from the contract.”

“The bulk of the money is spent on HIV care,” she added, “and staffing for prison-health provisions.”

When contacted, the DOCS directed inquiries to a 2003 press release. In it, the agency claimed that $39 million was raised from the program in fiscal year 2002, more than $22 million of which went to the state. Of those funds, only $5 million were spent on family related programs. The rest was used for general operational costs.

These operating costs, CCR’s lawsuit contends, ought to be absorbed by the state. The millions of dollars in commissions have provided the state an opportunity to fund general operations through an unlegislated tax, Meeropol said, “an unlawful tax. And it is being levied in a discriminatory manner against individuals who have loved ones in prison.”

The lawsuit also argues that the tax invades the First Amendment rights of family members of prisoners and lawyers of prisoners who are burdened in their ability to communicate with their loved ones or their clients.

“This cost is being leveled unfairly on the family members of prisoners,” she said. “There is no reason to make them pay for something that benefits all members of the state.”

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens) agrees.

“It is just another tax on a family who was going to pay it simply because their loved one is in jail,” he said.

Aubry sponsored legislation (A07231) this year that would have acted to regulate the rate a phone company can charge prisoners. The bill passed through the Assembly, but a similar bill died in the Senate.

“We did an investigation and looked at the cost of these calls,” he said, before authoring the bill. “What we found was that they were essentially exorbitant. . . . The amount of money that was being generated for the state and for the company was extraordinary.” And it is being bilked, he said, from some of the most vulnerable in our state.

“Grandmothers and children,” he said, who just can’t afford to travel to visit their loved ones. “Most of the prisoners come from the city and most of the prisons are upstate. So physically to get to them, it is an extraordinary trip for poor people.”

“So while we are making money off of these families—and it is the families, not the inmates,” Aubry added—“we are causing ourselves more problems, we have to spend more money because those who are not successfully rehabilitated they come back and cost the system an incredible amount of money, much more than the amount of money we make off this phone system.”

Aubry is addressing a correlation between the strength of the bond that prisoners have with their families while in prison and their ability to come out of prison and stay out.

“The chances are just better,” said Alison Coleman, director of Prison Families of New York. She pointed to a study done by the California Department of Corrections. The study showed that “men and women in prison who maintain relationships with their loved ones are more likely to complete their parole without incident.”

Three years ago, Coleman submitted a petition to the state’s Public Service Commission [“1-800-Cash-Cow,” Newsfront, Aug. 25, 2003] in the effort to change the rate charged by MCI (now Verizon/MCI).

Since then, she says, nothing has changed.

“Nothing, except that more and more people all over the state are aware of this problem. We have been carrying on a really extensive grassroots campaign. But what does that mean?” she asks. “I don’t know.”

“There is no one that I have talked to that says, ‘Gee, that sounds like the thing we ought to do.’ Nobody,” Aubry said. “Even those people who believe that it is a good resource for the [prison] system. It is our responsibility as the state; the prisoners already have to pay fees for being indicted and incarcerated. Those fees are already in place. The families should not have to pay fees for desiring to be a part of their loved one’s life.”

—Chet Hardin

Chris Shields

Breaking Boards With Clinton

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) took time out of her busy schedule Monday to enjoy a karate demonstration at the Arbor Hill Community Center. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, also pictured, stopped by to rub shoulders with the former first lady. Clinton had put in an appearance at the AFL-CIO convention earlier that day in Albany to rally the troops and give a shout-out to her fellow Democrat (and candidate for U.S. Congress) Kirsten Gillibrand.

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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