Bye-Bye Bully 

Community colleges get tough on bullying in the workplace; and the stalwart Maudelle Shirek may not give up her seat that easily.

Mean people suck. They should be punished. How? By forcing them to be nice -- or else!

That's the gist of the new workplace antibullying policy passed last month by the Peralta Community College District board of trustees. The so-called "civility and mutual respect" policy states, in part, "Demeaning, intimidating, threatening, or physically or emotionally violent behaviors that affect the ability to learn or work in the college environment depart from the standard for civility and respect and are unacceptable." It goes on to warn that district employees caught being unacceptably cruel will be subject to disciplinary action (and/or a time-out). Visitors to the district's four campuses -- Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland, Vista in Berkeley, and Alameda College -- who are caught being mean (and/or extorting lunch money) also may be asked to leave.

Peralta is the first public entity in the state to pass such a policy, according to Gary Namie, author of The Bully at Work and director of the Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute in Washington. Namie, who has appeared on CNN and MSNBC, headlined at a three-hour bullying workshop that brought about fifty people out to Laney last week. He calls workplace bullying the "silent epidemic," and claims one in six employees are bullied (usually by their bosses).

Work bullies, Namie says, scream and berate, insult, nitpick, steal credit for others' work, make impossible work demands, and generally engage in a campaign of psychological abuse. Unfortunately, as Namie sees it, employers too often reward aggressive behavior and see it as a sign of strength. What they don't usually see are the hidden costs -- poor morale, high turnover, lower productivity by employees who use all their sick time. And while there are laws on the books to protect employees from racial or sexual harassment, Namie says bullying gets a pass. His institute's literature says, "Until there's a law, workplace bullies endanger the health, careers, and families of their targets with no accountability or consequences."

Namie says countries such as Canada and Sweden -- wimpier ones -- have adopted antibullying laws, but there's been more resistance here. He hopes to persuade a state lawmaker to introduce a bill next year. It wouldn't be the first: A piece of antibullying legislation introduced last year ended up getting dropped by its author, West Hollywood Assemblyman Paul Koretz.

Namie blames the bill's demise on the election of that bully, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that's an oversimplification. Organized opposition to the bill came not only from the state chamber of commerce, but also the state associations that represent city and county governments. Those organizations pointed out that civil servants already have more protections than the spotted owl. Did they really need more? A rep from the state Professionals in Human Resources Association, meanwhile, questioned why such a law was warranted: "I understand employees' concerns about how 'mean' managers affect the workplace, but I do not agree with legislating a civility code."

Peralta may be famously dysfunctional, but is a policy banning meanness really necessary? Longtime Laney math teacher Bill Lepowsky thinks so. He was the driving force in getting Peralta's leaders to adopt the policy.

It all started two years ago with Lepowsky's own experience being bullied by a fellow Peralta employee he wouldn't identify. He says the bully spread false accusations about him -- a common work-bully tactic -- and tried to stain Lepowsky's otherwise spotless 32-year record at the college. The nightmare ended with a written apology from the chancellor, Lepowsky says. Most bullying targets, however, aren't so lucky. "Had I not succeeded as completely as I have in achieving vindication," he says, "it might have appeared to an outsider a couple of years ago that it was I -- and not the abusers -- who had been at fault."

Michael Mills, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, argues, as does Namie, that the trustees' new policy actually goes too soft on bullies. Nonetheless, Mills says that by passing a civility policy, the board is putting all the district's hotheads on notice. "People can still look at you and hate your guts," he says, "but they'd better not act on it."

Shirek 2

Berkeley City Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek created a stir when she showed up at a union endorsement meeting last week asking for labor to support her re-election. What's strange about that? On one hand, nothing. It makes perfect sense that the 93-year-old civil-rights icon and labor stalwart would ask for help from her local allies in the Service Employees International Union. And she's had the backing of noncop labor since she was first elected to the council in 1984.

But here's the hitch: Shirek isn't even on the November ballot. The city clerk recently disqualified the local pol after her aide, apparently unaware of a rule change, didn't turn in enough nominating signatures from people actually living in her South Berkeley district.

The snafu seemed to spell victory for Max Anderson, a former Shirek political ally who got tired of waiting for Maudelle to retire and decided to run against her. Anderson had hoped to capitalize on growing disenchantment among those in Shirek's district who felt she did little to represent them. Her office had a reputation for not returning constituents' phone calls. And people whispered that she dozed off during council meetings.

But Shirek spread word among unionistas that she might wage a write-in campaign to keep her job. Now, most write-ins have almost no chance of victory. Shirek, however, is a local legend: With her shock of white hair, this proud granddaughter of slaves has been the face of Berkeley progressivism for two decades, if not longer. She also would have the support of the East Bay's other lefty icon, Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Though Shirek would need luck to win, worried lefties privately fear she'll do just enough damage to split the progressive vote and ensure not-as-lefty candidate Laura Menard's victory.

Whether she'd split the prog vote remains to be seen, but Shirek did succeed in dividing the union. The various SEIU locals are recommending a dual endorsement for both Shirek and Anderson. And even though an attendee says Shirek announced she was running as a write-in, Mike Berkowitz, her political strategist, insists to Feeder that she hasn't made up her mind. Write-in candidates can't even pull papers until September 7, so Berkowitz says she'll wait a little bit before announcing her final decision.

Feeder didn't want to take Berkowitz' word for it, though, so he left messages for Shirek at her office and home. By deadline, Shirek still hadn't returned Feeder's call. Perhaps she confused him with a constituent.


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