Evan M. Lopez
Jobs With Justice (JWJ), the labor organization whose Philly chapter has dedicated its entire existence to raising hell about security service giant AlliedBarton, is used to not getting quite what it wants. When it tried to unionize Temple guards, it ended up winning the workers a few sick days. When it tried unionizing Penn guards, it won them a few sick days, plus a $5 per hour raise specifically for guards who ride bicycles (weird). And for the past two years, its dogged attempts to get the Philadelphia Museum of Art to look it in the eye and tell it to fuck off have proven mostly fruitless.
But in the past month, JWJ has seen two of its biggest victories against AlliedBarton yet. On March 16, the Northumberland County Commissioners stopped subcontracting security work out to AlliedBarton for $193,000 a year, because, "We want to be fair to the employees," Commissioner Kurt Masser told local paper The Daily Item (famous for being the most adorably named newspaper in Pa.). Then City Councilman Bill Greenlee received a March 31 letter from Art Museum director Timothy Rub saying, "The museum urges AlliedBarton to respect the wishes of the majority of the security officers and bargain in good faith with the [Philadelphia Security Officers Union]." The PSOU is the union the guards voted to approve Oct. 10, 2009 — though AlliedBarton filed an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) alleging " inconsistencies in the election," thus preventing the union's recognition ever since.
Finally, it seemed, the museum was taking a stand. But that supportive statement didn't come completely from the benevolence of the Museum's vividly colored heart: Greenlee had dangled the prospect of withholding the museum's $2.3 million appropriation. Sort of. "To be honest, I've never said that directly," Greenlee says. "I've said we don't want to have a problem with the [Council] hearing [April 12]."
At that hearing — at which council members took turns berating AlliedBarton, according to the account posted on the pro-union thatfinalstraw.com — Rub said that, although AlliedBarton's contract was now month-to-month and the museum would consider competing bids, he also planned to let the NRLB process play out, no matter how long that takes.
That part about the museum growing a spine? Not so much.
GOVERNMENT IN THE SUNSHINE
You know how this state has an open-records law that some state officials would just as soon pretend doesn't exist? No? Well, you're not in the newspaper business. But we are. So it is with no small amount of joy that we celebrate the recent (albeit partial) victory of the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Prison Legal News (prisonlegalnews.org) — seriously, we cannot believe you've never heard of it — over the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC), which apparently does not think you are entitled to know how much money it has paid out in legal damages to prisoners and employees in recent years, even though they're writing those checks with your money. "The litigation spending," explains PLN editor Paul Wright, "is a barometer of how well or poorly run a prison is."
According to court records, in February 2009 Wright filed a request under the state's Right to Know Law (RTKL) for records related to any claims in excess of $1,000 that PDOC paid out between 2001 and 2008. PDOC told him they'd be happy to ... right after Wright cut them a check for $8,750 . By PDOC's guesstimate, he was asking for 35,000 pages of information — 175 cases per year (!) times 25 pages per case times eight years — and they were charging him 25 cents-per-page for copies.
Wright refined his search, and asked for electronic records and a spreadsheet listing the settlements and payments the department had issued. PDOC's response: The electronic records don't exist, so $8,750, please.
"When they say they don't track their litigation, that's quite the stunning management failure at every level," Wright says. The department also denied Wright's request to waive the fees, a courtesy the RTKL allows for requests made in the " public interest ."
Wright appealed to the Office of Open Records (OOR), arguing that the price the PDOC was asking far exceeded what other agencies — state, federal and local — had asked for similar requests. OOR decided that PDOC's fees were legit; however, it also said that PDOC had to make the records available for Wright to inspect — though not copy — within 30 days.
Both sides appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania : Wright, because he thought the fees were prohibitively exorbitant; PDOC, because it wanted the chance to go through the records and see if there were any to which Wright wasn't entitled . On April 8, a three-judge panel remanded the case back to OOR, and ordered PDOC to provide a better explanation for its estimates and why it had denied the fee waiver. Meanwhile, the judges instructed OOR to allow PDOC to review the records before turning them over. Wright considers the ruling a victory, although "weaker than I hoped for."
In an e-mail, PDOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton says the fee that the department demanded was for copies, and that PDOC never tried to charge Wright for labor costs . Also, she says, Wright rejected PDOC's proposal that he review cases from a smaller time frame at a lower cost.
Wright says he came away from the experience with the distinct impression that PDOC would rather him not see those records: "I'm disappointed that government agencies in Pennsylvania are basically so intent on concealing this information . I think it's just a sad commentary on both the lack of openness and accountability that they don't want to disclose this stuff."
DEPT. OF YUPPIE PUPPIES
By: Evan M. Lopez
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Here at A Million Stories, we're animal lovers. We really are. But there's just something a little crazy about the fact that over the past few years, as the economy slid into the first, then the third, then the ninth circles of Dante's hell, the pet insurance industry boomed.
That's right: Around the same time Grammy was being told her skin cancer treatment wasn't covered because of some "pre-existing" freckle she had a few decades back, Pooky, that goddamned 8-year-old Chihuahua who will just not shut up, was enjoying regular checkups and preventive flea treatments.
For instance, according to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (VPIC), the company insured 916 pets in Philadelphia in 2004. But in 2010, 2,072 — more than twice as many — have insurance. No one, not even the PR guy who hipped us to this fascinating news nugget — and then declined to be quoted, because, well, who the fuck knows — knows why there's been a spike.
Funny thing is, it turns out that pet insurance has nearly as many loopholes as ours does. For instance, if you try to sign up your 11-year-old cat for insurance, you'll be turned away: Age 10 is the cut-off for VPIC. And any pre-existing condition that your pet's been treated for — or even shown physical signs of possessing — won't be covered.
Sorry about that, Sparky. Guess you're gonna have to live with those heartworms after all.
This week's report by Jeffrey C. Billman, Holly Otterbein and Andrew Thompson. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.