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Issue: "What is art?," March 20, 2004

Death throes?

WITH MEMBERSHIP AT AN ALL-time low of just 12.9 percent of the work force, the nation's major labor unions are coming out in force to organize their political efforts to defeat President Bush this November.

At its meeting in Florida last week, the AFL-CIO asked affiliate members for an additional four cents per member per month to fund a $45 million campaign to support likely Democratic nominee John Kerry in the general election.

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Despite some good economic news recently, more than 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since President Bush took office. With nearly 26 percent of those casting ballots in the 2000 election coming from union households, it's likely many of them have felt the pain of a slow recovery.

Yet, it's too early to tell whether union chiefs can rally their members around Sen. Kerry. That's largely because the unions split their endorsements during the primary season between Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

It wasn't until Feb. 19, long after Rep. Gephardt and Gov. Dean were eliminated as potential nominees, that the AFL-CIO officially endorsed Sen. Kerry.

Rush half-hour

EAGER TO SEE HIS FAMILY AFTER a long day at the office, the 25 minutes Thorne Spence spends driving home to the St. Louis suburbs seems to take an eternity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mr. Spence's daily commute is only average.

As part of its new American Community Survey, the Census Bureau reported that the typical worker in America's largest metropolitan areas now spends 24.4 minutes getting to work each day.

With an average commute of 38.4 minutes, New York City residents spend an average of about one full week a year getting to work. New York's drive times are the longest in the nation, a full five minutes longer than Chicago's.

Also among the longest commutes are Philadelphia (30.3 minutes), Riverside, Calif. (29.8), Baltimore (29.7), Washington, D.C. (29.4), San Francisco (29.2), Oakland, Calif. (29.1), Los Angeles (28.5), and Boston (28.2).

So which cities offer the paths of least resistance? Most of them are in the Midwest, including Wichita, Kan., which ranks last on the list of 69 metros with a commute average of just 16.5 minutes. Also near the bottom were Tulsa, Okla., Omaha, Neb., Oklahoma City, Okla., Lexington, Ky., and Toledo, Ohio.

Southern California grocery workers overwhelmingly approved a new contract with supermarket operators, ending a four-month strike that cost three major grocery chains hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales and put 59,000 employees on the picket lines. The approved contract requires employees to pay for health benefits for the first time and offers no raises.

Now that Cingular Wireless has announced its buyout of AT&T Wireless, AT&T says it will likely introduce a new mobile phone service under the same name after the sale is complete. Regional provider Qwest Communications also jumped into the fray this week, offering a new national calling plan using Sprint Corp.'s wireless network.

Mel Gibson's gamble on The Passion of the Christ paid off enormously, riding a storm of religious debate to $212 million at the box office in its first 12 days. The nation's No. 1 movie for two consecutive weeks is expected to surpass $300 million, which would be the highest revenues for any film Mr. Gibson has been involved with.

While monthly sales of semiconductors dropped slightly in January, the industry's $15.6 billion in worldwide sales during the first month of 2004 was 27.4 percent higher than for January 2003, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

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