Letters for the week of July 18-24, 2007 

Readers chime in on UC pensions, Farmer Joe's, and the most invasive of all species.

"Invasion of the Bay Snatchers," Feature, 6/6

We're the aliens
The most destructive alien species that actually lives IN the bay is the striped bass, introduced from the East Coast. It is directly responsible for the dearth of salmon, steelhead, smelt, and undoubtedly several other native species in the bay and delta. However, the most destructive alien species of all is ... us.

When the Spanish arrived on the West Coast, you could walk across the rivers on the backs of salmon and steelhead — 238 years later, you are hard-pressed to find any at all.

Nuclear worms? Overbite clams? Well, how did they get here? Most of the plants and animals we consider pests accompanied us on our migrations. Norwegian wharf rats, German cockroaches, Russian tumbleweeds, English starlings, French snails, European rock doves (pigeons), the list goes on. And on ...
Joseph Thomas, San Francisco

"Parsky's Party," Feature, 5/9

Protecting UC workers
The University of California has again failed its workers. For too long, UC has prohibited workers from having any real voice on their pension plan governance. In fact, for over six years they have unilaterally canceled elections to the UC Retirement System Advisory Board, preventing workers from any meaningful representation, even on a purely superficial advisory body.

Finally, in June, the UC held elections to the advisory group but made it nearly impossible for an estimated 10,000 employees to cast a vote, paving the way for two administrators to win the seats allocated for "workers." In effect, this was a sham election that has disenfranchised thousands of workers.

Over the repeated objections of workers and their representatives, UC held the advisory group election by asking employees to vote on the Internet using an e-mail account and a personal identification number code on file with the university. However, many of the 9,000 service workers and some of the 10,000 patient care employees represented by AFSCME Local 3299 do not have Internet access or an e-mail account and PIN code, and therefore were unable to vote. Workers without an e-mail account and PIN code who attempted to gain access to the elections process via the Internet were not provided even basic instructions on how to exercise their rights. Unsurprisingly, two members of the administration were elected to the UCRS advisory group — Tricia Hiemstra, a benefits manager at UC Santa Barbara and John Sandbrook, the executive officer to the administrative vice chancellor at UCLA.

At best, this flawed election was inept. At worst, it was an intentional effort to disenfranchise thousands of workers who were not provided e-mail accounts or have access to computers for their jobs. Moreover, UC officials should never have held an election that required computer literacy as a prerequisite to voting. In addition, UC failed to provide much of the voting information, including the ballot and PIN code setup, in the various languages UC workers understand. The result — many workers were never afforded a reasonable opportunity to have their voices heard.

Fortunately, the Senate Education Committee recently approved legislation that I am authoring which calls for workers to receive more than just a voice on the weak and discredited advisory board, but shared governance of the pension plan itself. The bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 52, is a response to recent revelations regarding conflicts of interest in the management of the UC pension plan and the fact that the once-top-performing plan is now significantly underperforming when compared to similar pensions.

The UC Retirement Plan is the only state public pension plan that is not governed at least in part by the workers who contribute to it. As a result of UC's questionable investment decisions, 120,000 UC workers are unfairly being asked to increase their contributions in order to restore the fund to fiscal health. The administration at the University of California must begin to consider the interests of the students, faculty, staff, and the public, and end their practice of managing this public asset as if it were a private trust. Our tax dollars must be managed and protected in a fully transparent, efficient, and accountable manner.
Leland Y. Yee, Ph.D, assistant president pro tem, California State Senate

"Farmer Joe's Woes," Water Cooler, 5/16

Check the Web site
I appreciate the Express' ongoing coverage of the Farmer Joe's controversy, but I encourage you to look further into an important aspect of the dispute that hasn't gotten much attention: the owners' engagement of a union-busting consulting firm. You previously reported the union's allegation that Farmer Joe's had contracted with American Consulting, as well as Joe Tam's inability to "remember the name" of their consultant, which in any case, he said, had been hired just to "educate" employees. When I was in the store last month and asked Diana Tam, she confirmed that they had hired American Consulting.

A few minutes with Google offers much enlightenment on this question, and I encourage readers — and, especially, Farmer Joe's customers — to check out American-Consulting.com. What you'll find is a firm that proudly trumpets its services to employers seeking "union prevention and campaign services" and "union avoidance." So much for not hiring union busters. According to its web site, American Consulting labor relations services include "union prevention programs" and "educational counterorganizing campaigns" (maybe that's what Joe meant when he said that the consultant was really all about educating employees). Employers who hire the firm are assured of its "unparalleled success in designing preventive programs that continues to keep thousands of our clients union-free."

Now I have no idea whether Farmer Joe's employees were fired for union organizing or for good cause. Moreover, I had been a loyal Farmer Joe's customer since the original store opened and was thrilled at the new, larger store's potential for the struggling MacArthur/Fruitvale intersection right in my neighborhood. But all those signs up in the store asserting that "we will defend our employees' rights and honor their decision" have no credibility, given that the Tams have signed on with — and no doubt paid big bucks for — "union avoidance" services. And whether they're a "small business" is not the point; I understand that employees at the Food Mill, an Oakland stalwart and much smaller neighborhood business, have long been unionized.

This entire debacle is extraordinarily sad. The Dimond neighborhood really needs Farmer Joe's. But we don't want our neighborhood to become a haven for anti-union employers. With great regret I'm mostly shopping elsewhere — even fighting that damn parking lot at Berkeley Bowl, which I'd hoped never to see again. I retain hope, though, that a way will yet be found to bring the parties together and resolve the stalemate that now prevails. Please keep covering the story.
Marcia Henry, Oakland

"Gracie Can't Bend It," Film, 5/30


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