Friday, October 12, 2007

Smoking Surcharge Is New Low For Tribune Co.

In the entire inept and squalid record of CEO Dennis FitzSimons and his lackey, David Hiller, at the Tribune Co., there is no greater low than was reached this week with the announcement that beginning New Year's, the company will charge Tribune-employed smokers and their family members who smoke a $100-a-month surcharge on their health insurance.

I do not smoke, but this sad innovation can only be viewed as the beginning of a new effort by this stinking corporation to impose ever more onerous and unacceptable conditions on its unhappy employees, so unfortunate as to fall into the grip of men who make the old corporate robber barons seem almost generous in comparison.

This, clearly, is only the first such step. Pretty soon, if its gets away with it (and there are already grievances pending), Tribune will be imposing surcharges for drinking, for obesity, for having had cancer, and a whole host of other conditions which will eviscerate the whole traditional meaning of health insurance.

Health insurance in American business has generally covered all workers and their families equally. Now, this vital principle is to be scrapped, and it is not a long way to Nazi-style genetic testing to determine which employees are liable to live longest, and which debilitating diseases they are likely to have. Then, those ill-fated people will be made to pay through the nose for any health insurance at all.

I thought there was a smell in the room when Hiller recently addressed the Times retired employees association. Now, we know what it was. This poor excuse for a publisher was fixing not only to pester the employees with a personal "blog" they will not be able to avoid, but now he is going to alter toward oblivion the most basic employee benefits. It is indeed sadistic.

What a contrast with the old days of Chandler family ownership of the L.A. Times and other Times-Mirror newspapers. Because the Chandlers, despite occasional faults, realized that a happy work force is a skillful work force, and the many benefits they gave their employees were consistent with the best employment practices in the country.

No more. From the very first days of Tribune ownership of all these newspapers, there has been a veritable plot to denigrate both the quality of the papers and the lives of their employees.

The latest move is what we have come to expect from Dennis FitzSimons (Legree). Fortunately, Teamsters who already represent some employees at the Baltimore Sun have filed grievances, noting that the new health insurance surcharges violate the contracts under which they work.

We can only hope that the National Labor Relations Board will move in on these wrongdoers, reverse their surcharges and levy a large punitive fine on the scoundrels.

Another feature of the new Tribune insurance provisions is that family members who could be covered under health insurance at other firms will be charged a $75-a-month surcharge if they enroll in Tribune insurance.

The whole insurance industry is bad news. We find in every disaster -- from Katrina to personal disability -- that these dishonest companies squirm to avoid fair claims payments. But the new Tribune health surcharges will give even insurance a bad name, and if this company gets away with it, other companies are sure to follow.

Kevin Roderick, the LA Observed proprietor who has, to his credit, taken a more and more jaundiced view of FitzSimons, Hiller and company, does us the service of quoting Michael Mayo, a columnist at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, on what all this means.

"Naturally, this makes me wonder what other unhealthy sins will be surcharged in coming years," Mayo writes. "Will there be fees for alcohol use? Eating fast food? Having high cholesterol? Not adhering to proper weight/body mass guidelines? The other thing that gets me is that there's no reward for not being a smoker. If the company imposed a surcharge on smokers and then gave a proportionate break to all the non-smokers, I could maybe be a little more positive about the whole thing."

Don't get me wrong. I don't think smoking is a good idea. But I have to recognize that for millions of people, it is a hard habit to shake. Now, in addition to the diseases caused by smoking that may ultimately end their lives prematurely, those of them unfortunate enough to work for Tribune Co., are going to have to pay this surcharge, if this bunch gets away with it.

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Former Sen. and Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore is sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations for his pioneering work on global warming. This has come about just at the right time, when global warming is absorbing more and more public attention, and there have been new, innovative ideas about how to deal with it. One, this week, was to place solar panels like satellites high above the Earth to generate electricity and send it by geomagnetic relay to Earth. The originators believe this could provide all the electric power the Earth needs.

It is probably too late for Gore to run in the 2008 election for President, and, having seen him recently when he was interviewed by CNN's Larry King, I wonder if he has improved any as a public speaker. But, still, congratulations to him are certainly in order. Many men, after the discouraging results in 2000, when he won the popular vote but lost the Presidency, would have retired to private life. For Gore, his public life was only beginning.

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