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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The AGO unionization flap: Can we talk?

We had a laugh yesterday afternoon at Minnesota Lawyer’s offices. When we put a poll on our main website asking voters whether we thought the attorneys at Minnesota’s Attorney General’s office should be allowed to unionize, votes soon started trickling – and then flooding – in, as people on both sides of the issue frantically clicked the “yes” and “no” options. (The anti-union folks seem to have been much busier.)

The response demonstrated (take your pick) A) the passionate feelings this issue stirs; B) the silly lengths that some on both sides will go to in order to make their point.

We’ve covered this story to some length, but a year after it first emerged, the basic facts remain the same: AFSCME wants to form a union in the AG’s office, the AGO is digging in its heels, lots of lawyers (about one-third) have left the AGO, and morale in the office is bad and getting no better.

In the meantime, we’ve gotten numerous anonymous communications from pro-union folks (both on this blog and via e-mail) about the heavy-handed tactics that continue to be used against AGO employees, but little of substance around which to build a story that wouldn’t be one-sided and full of unsubstantiated speculation.

At the same time, the AGO is as uncooperative with us as it is with other media outlets, refusing to return calls and failing to follow through on Data Practices Act requests. Lori Swanson and her loyalists seem all too happy to see this story go unreported, even if means pushing ethical boundaries. And current and former AGO employees who could potentially contribute to the story are either unwilling to speak for attribution or have a pro-union axe to grind.

That puts us and other outlets in a bind, because while there might still be a story to be told at the AGO, most of what we’ve heard is hearsay, and we can’t use hearsay. We have all the Deep Throats we need on this one.

If there truly is more to be told, we hope a few people from both sides of this issue will drop their cloak of anonymity and let us know.


Anonymous said...

It is a given that anyone currently working in the AGO who would like to keep their job is going to be highly reluctant to be attributed as saying anything other than praises of the current AG and her deputies.

What do journalists do in such a situation? Ignore the story? No. They protect the identity of their sources. Ask the other side for a response. Then report on the story. This can't be the first time that people in the middle of a story have felt too vulnerable to go on the record.

You've already suggested in your post that there is indeed a story in the AGs efforts to kill the story -- not responding to public data requests, doesn't sound like compliance with the law. Sometimes the cover up is what you get caught for -- ask Scooter Libby and Richard Nixon. Does Lori Swanson really want to be added to that club?

Anonymous said...

What a piece of work is a journalist? Not much, apparently.

Anonymous said...

What Mr. Heilman appears to be saying that a journalist has to at least to know who his source is to write a story. A source can request anonimity -- but the journalist has to know who the source is to judge how credible the information is. Makes sense to me.

On the other hand, I think Mr. Heilman and other journalists should be concerned if the AG is really ignoring the Data Practices Act -- a state law she is supposed to uphold.

Anonymous said...

Just a clarification to your post... from what I understand, it is the AG's STAFF that is trying to organize the AGs Office. Not AFSCME and not a disgruntled political insider--just normal people wanting to secure a sane workplace.

Anonymous said...

Minn Lawyer should clarify: have the "Deep Throats" Dan refers to requested or been offered to be kept anonymous but have otherwise been willing to ID themselves to the journalist?

Dan Heilman, staff writer said...

Thanks, everyone, for your responses. To the 8:06 a.m. commenter, you're correct -- I wouldn't mind quoting someone anonymously if I at least knew who the person was.

Anonymous responses to a blog post simply have no context or credibility in news research, no matter how full of facts they might seem to be.

And 11:08 p.m, you're also correct -- the employees are doing the organizing (or trying), with AFSCME's support.

Anonymous said...

C'mon! If the lawyers representing bridge collapse victims can use the GDPA to pry info out of MN/DOT by using the courts, why can't the Minnesota Lawyer journalists? If I recall, the GDPA even has provisions for attorneys' fees for those forced to turn to the courts to obtain public documents.

Mark Cohen, editor said...

I like to think of anonymous blog postings like bread crumbs -- if they lead to credible, verifiable information, they are helpful. By themselves, not so much. Just think of the other side of the coin, if we received a bunch of positive stuff about the AG's Office, could we just assume it was coming from a credible source? I think not.

We are aware there are two competing factions in the AG's Office right now -- one pro-union, and one (depending on the terminology you want to use), "anti-union" or "Swanson loyalist." How big each of these groups is a matter of conjecture without verifiable information.

Just from the number of employment ads the AG's Office is running recently, it also seems apparent that claims there has been significant turnover are true. (And we ran an article last summer demonstrating the significant turnover that had occurred in the first few months of the regime. We also then detailed the union's frustration with the impasse that exists in the office.)

Dan Heilman has been on top of this story and is always willing to listen and incorporate new credible information from either side. He can be reached directly at (612) 584-1556 or by e-mail at dan.heilman@minnlawyer.com. (To the9:48 commenter above -- let Dan know what documents you think would be helpful to a story.)

Just to add my own two cents worth, I think the office is capable of a lot of good and currently has some excellent priorities. The divisive atmosphere is not healthy and needs to be dealt with in a constructive way.

Anonymous said...

For those of you attending your DFL precinct caucus on Tuesday, I encourage you to propose a resolution addressing organizing by state employees, such as the following. (Apologies to my Republican colleagues, I am unfamiliar with Republican caucus resolution procedures.)

WHEREAS, the DFL Party recognizes the fundamental right of workers to organize and bargain collectively; and

WHEREAS, state employees should not be forced to compromise their obligation of serving the people of the state in the interest of serving the politics of the an elected official; and

WHEREAS, the people of the state are better served by state employees who develop expertise in their field and do not fear losing their job at any time and for any reason.

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED, that the DFL Party will honor its proud history and support the efforts of the majority of attorneys and legal assistants to organize in the Attorney General’s Office; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that anyone seeking the DFL Party’s endorsement for a state constitutional office shall be asked, immediately prior to a vote for that endorsement, whether he or she will voluntarily recognize any attempts by employees to organize in the office of the position sought.

Anonymous said...

Did you talk to AFSCME, did you talk to the attorney who was fired for union activity, did you request to see payments made to attorneys leaving the AGO? How about talking with the AGO's clients? As for the MGDPA requests, there are mechanisms to enforce the Act that might be worth pursuing.

Mark Cohen, editor said...

Yes, we did as a matter of fact review several of the severance agreements for employees who had left the AG's Office. Not surprisingly, there was nothing about union activity (or much else of substance) in the agreements. They were payouts (in the $10K range or so as I recall) not altogether dissimilar to what you might see in a corporate severance agreement. What were you expecting? We have also had conversations with the union on several occasions.

Don't assume we haven't done our homework. I would reiterate Dan's point that if there is indeed more of a story here (from either side), the best way to get it told is for informed sources to contact our reporter with credible information.