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

A touching movie
In my opinion, Gracie can bend it in most ways. The cast was amazing, Carly Schroeder may not be an A-list star, but her emotions and connection to the script are obvious. Elizabeth Shue and her brothers took a real-life experience and tragedy and adapted it to the screen; maybe parts of the script are lacking, but the reality of the story is what matters.

Should you ask Andrew or Elisabeth Shue anything about the movie, their eyes will light up, showing how much they care. This is their life; how can you say that it is from an alternate universe? It's the universe that they lived in. Going through such a tragedy almost takes you to an alternate universe; unless you've gone through it you couldn't understand it. Even if none of that matters to certain people in the audience, the clear message of "you can do anything" is something that most Americans could hear. This movie was truly a touching movie that I will never forget.
Kelly, Mill Valley

"Numerous Inaccuracies," Letters, 6/27

Behind the dispute
How do you know when an employer has engaged the services of an anti-workers'-rights consultant (union buster)? They refer to unions as "third parties" and declare that labor's sole reason for existing is duping workers out of dues money. They accuse the union of distributing "marketing materials" as if they were a business. They attack the credibility of unions and their community allies. They attack journalists who do not report things precisely as they want them reported, even though in the case of Emma Pollin's article the information came from the company itself in many instances. Then they turn around and say they are union-neutral (whatever that means), value their place in the community, and are innocent pawns in a situation over which they have no control. Well, here's another clue for you all: "neutral," "innocent" employers do not hire union busters to break up organizing drives!

The dispute at Farmer Joe's is not hard to understand. When the store opened, workers came to the union for assistance in organizing. The organizing drive continued along well until the owners hired American Consulting Group. The next thing you know, activists start getting hammered. First the company denied hiring ACG at all, then said they hired them to "educate" the employees. What was the nature of the education? To school them on their right to a decent wage, working conditions, and the right to organize themselves into a union? No, it was to threaten and coerce them from pursuing the union. That's what union busters do. Farmer Joe's can protest their neutrality and innocence all day long but the fact remains they're just another employer engaging in an antiworker campaign and portraying themselves as a great employer. I have never seen an employer admit to their misdeeds in a situation like this, and I have dealt with multinationals and mom-and-pops under similar circumstances.

I note that at the end of the letter the company extends an offer of access to the Express, without employer interference, to check out working conditions, etc. That's interesting, because access and noninterference by the employer is the cornerstone of the neutrality card-check agreement the union has been seeking all along. These agreements have resolved disputes at the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco involving UNITE-HERE and in Alameda at Nob Hill with our union.

Maybe Farmer Joe's should put its neutrality where its mouth is and extend the same offer to the union. That would go a long way to resolving the situation.
Mike Henneberry, union rep-communications director, UFCW 5, Hayward

"Pulp Factions," Music, 6/27

The return of Tiger Beat
Oscar Pascual's puff piece on magazines starting record labels missed an important part of the equation. Filter and Fader are both the publishing tools of marketing and promotions companies called Filter and Cornerstone respectively. Both magazines prominently feature clients of the firms who own them in spite of varying claims of independence between the different segments of their businesses.

I applaud the owners' entrepreneurial spirit and business savvy to create synergistic businesses with multiple revenue streams, but on a cultural level, we need more record labels like we need anal warts. What we do need is a better music press with a higher degree of ethics and more responsibility in its coverage. The music industry has always been driven by hype, but to see the independent and DIY sector that flourished in the 1990s devolve into coverage so blatantly bought and paid for is heartbreaking. This practice turns whatever writing that might be legitimate in these magazines into Tiger Beat with better haircuts, sleeker ads, and heavier paper stock. No, thanks.
Cory Brown, Absolutely Kosher and Misra Records, Emeryville

"A Dangerous Place,"
Water Cooler, 7/4

Things as they are
Stereotypes about flatland and hillside neighborhoods have in the past contributed to city neglect of and public resentment toward this beautiful but dangerous neighborhood. Thanks for seeing things as they are, rather than as we imagine them to be.
Janice Thomas, Berkeley

Express cleans up at East Bay Press Club
The Express won nine first-place awards in the East Bay Press Club's 2006 Excellence in Print Journalism contest, the most of any newspaper or magazine in the Bay Area. The Express won seventeen awards in all, finishing third behind the San Francisco Chronicle and The Contra Costa Times, which won 22 awards each. The awards were announced July 13 at the club's annual banquet. The contest set a record this year, with 426 entries in 33 categories.

Express staff writer Robert Gammon won three first-place awards. His cover story "We're Outta Here" (4/12/06), about a massive mining operation that will devastate the Sunol-Ohlone wilderness, won in the General News category. His cover story "Trouble in the Air" (10/18/06) won in the Business Feature category. Gammon and former staff writer Chris Thompson won in the Sports Feature category for their cover story "The Fremont Athletics" (11/29/06), an inside report on the Oakland Athletics' upcoming move to southern Alameda County.

Staff writer Kara Platoni won second place in the In-Depth or Investigative Reporting category for her cover story "Dealing in Death" (7/5/06), an intensive examination of the infamous San Leandro gun store Trader Sports. Staff writer John Birdsall won third place in the Criticism or Reviewing category for On Food, his engrossing weekly restaurant reviews. Staff writer Rachel Swan tied for third place in the Best Profile category with "The Player and the Pilgrim" (11/22/06), her opus about rapper Saafir. And Express editor Stephen Buel won third place in the Long Feature category for "The Quick and the Dead" (7/26/06), his firsthand account of deadly street races at the Port of Oakland.

Ex-staffer Chris Thompson also won first place for Best Technology story, "Publishers vs. the Censorbot" (8/2/06), a look at how Google's practice of withholding ads threatens Web journalism. Thompson, who now works for the Village Voice, also won Best Columnist for City of Warts. Former staff writer Lauren Gard won two first places — one for Best Profile for her cover story "What's Wrong with This Picture?" (12/6/06), an eye-popping account of Oakland photographer Frank Cordelle; and the other in the Lifestyle Feature category for her cover story "Fat! Fit? Fabulous!" (9/13/06), a report on the Health at Every Size movement.

Former music editor David Downs won first place in the Criticism or Reviewing category for his weekly music column Press Play. He also won two third places for "Drinking the Bills Away" (7/5/06) in the Business News category and "Smooth Criminal Fingers" (10/11/06) in the Best Editorial category. Former editorial fellow Eliza Strickland won first place in the Long Feature category for "Identity Theft" (1/25/06), her in-depth report on the downfalls of Indian gaming. She also won third place in the Best Technology category for "Nice Nanostuff, But Is It Safe?" (1/25/06). Finally, Express contributor Alex Handy won second place in Lifestyle Feature for "They Walk Among Us" (6/7/06).


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