Organized Labor's Expectations For Obama

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) backed Barack Obama in this year's election; they were the single largest donor to either party. Andy Stern, SEIU president, hopes this effort will translate into influence in the new administration.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. During the election organized labor went all out for the Democrats and Barack Obama. One union, the Service Employees International, the SEIU, became the single largest donor to either party, and raised over $80 million for the Democrats. That kind of money translates into influence, and it's no secret that the powerful head of the SEIU, Andy Stern, expects that when he calls the White House they're going to answer the phone. Andy Stern expects - he hopes also for quick action on two issues in particular - health care and the so-called check card - Check Bill which would replace secret ballots in elections for union recognition. And he now faces questions about his union's involvement in the Blagojevich scandal in Illinois.

Andy Stern joins us in just a moment. Later, on the Weekly Opinion page, questions and answers about Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme on Wall Street. But first, SEIU president Andy Stern. If you'd like to talk with him about his agenda, his influence, his expectations in the future of organized labor, give us a call, 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Just go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. And Andy Stern, nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. ANDY STERN (President, Service Employees International Union): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: The criminal complaint filed against Illinois Governor Blagojevich states that an unnamed SEIU official had two conversations with the governor about a three-way deal. The president-elect would get to name his successor in the U.S. Senate. The governor and/or his wife would get a high-paying union job, and the union would get presidential favors to be named later. Did you know anything about this before the charges were made public last week?

Mr. STERN: No. When I heard the charges I was rather shocked and picked up the phone, and we called Patrick Fitzgerald's office. We said that…

CONAN: He's the U.S. prosecutor in Chicago.

Mr. STERN: The U.S. prosecutor in Chicago said that anything we could do to help in his investigation of Governor Blagojevich, we'd be more than happy to do, but it was rather surprising.

CONAN: We should also note that complaints as the unnamed union official does not say the unnamed union official did anything wrong or that the SEIU did either. But in any case, have you since talked with the FBI?

Mr. STERN: We're going to cooperate with Patrick Fitzgerald in any way he wants to. We have, you know, made ourselves available, and I just think it is clear that no one in SEIU has been accused of doing anything wrong and from everything we know, we are just there to provide whatever help we can.

CONAN: The complaint says that Governor Blagojevich expected the unnamed SEIU official to run this idea up the flagpole. You sit at the top of that flagpole. Again, you heard nothing about this?

Mr. STERN: I was not involved in any of that, and you know, I think we're going to leave it to Patrick Fitzgerald to get to the bottom of this. I think there's a lot of discussions going on with the federal prosecutor in terms of his own investigation, and we'll help any way we can.

CONAN: Have you spoken with Governor Blagojevich since the election?

Mr. STERN: I think I'm going to leave it right there.

CONAN: Well, according to several news organizations, including NPR, an internal SEIU email identifies the unnamed official as Tom Balanoff, the head of the SEIU Local Number 1 in Chicago. Is that true as far as you know?

Mr. STERN: I think that's what you said, and I think that's what's being reported.

CONAN: And will you confirm or deny?

Mr. STERN: I don't know - have any independent information on that.

CONAN: You know Tom Balanoff well, though.

Mr. STERN: I do know Tom Balanoff very well. He is a great leader, and he was the one responsible for our justice for our Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston. Five thousand members joined our union. The low-wage workers are pretty proud of what he did.

CONAN: Is the union in any way investigating what he may or may not have done?

Mr. STERN: I think we can just say we're going to keep working with the U.S. attorney.

CONAN: All right. The organization that Governor Blagojevich was allegedly trying to get a well-paid position with is called Change to Win. Three years ago you broke away from the AF of L to CIO to form a federation of unions called Change to Win. You said at the time you had fundamental differences - basic strategy with the AF of L and especially increasing membership. A lot of people - you posed yourself as a different kind of union leader, and now we find this. And again, there's a lot smoke. So far we know nothing, and there's allegations of corruption involving a local in California, and there's other - this comes away with the same - the impression people are going to get is the same old thing.

Mr. STERN: Well, I think what we're seeing is the same old thing, and that's the right-wing Republican attack machine on the move again. You know, I think we saw in the Washington Post blog today a discussion of how we're seeing the same old politics of destruction and guilt by association. We heard John McCain yesterday talk about, we're sort of wasting our time. At the moment where American workers are facing the greatest crisis, where our country needs to come together and solve these problems, where we had an election that was all about change, it is really sad that the same people who didn't want Barack Obama, the same people who now don't want workers to have health care or free choices, are going to drive a smear campaign against the president-elect and anyone else in their way, and I don't think that's what America wants anymore. We had a really serious moment of change, and I think we need to all focus on that.

CONAN: And we're going to talk about your agenda and what you hope for works, but I just need to clarify a point. The Blagojevich investigation is part of a smear campaign?

Mr. STERN: I think when you see the kind of things that - no, the investigation is a very serious allegation. Now, what's the smear campaign are ads that are being run and comments that are being made in newspapers. They're trying to…

CONAN: The full-page ad in today's New York Times.

Mr. STERN: In today's New York Times, for instance, trying to attack the president-elect. You know, there are videos up by the Republican National Committee. There are blogs up by the Republican National Committee. Big Business ran ads today. You know, Mark McKinnon, Bush's top strategist, is one of leaders of the front group. This is the Bush right-wing attack machine in its full glory at a time where America needs to focus on the economy. I think Patrick Fitzgerald is totally capable of getting to the bottom of this. But I think what we're seeing is the same old politics of destruction which Americans rejected on November 4th.

CONAN: And this is coming up also in the context of the bailout for Detroit, the two of course big automakers and the UAW of course came in for its share of criticism largely from Republican senators last week in their debate over the bailout which failed in the United States Senate. As you look ahead, is this issue number one if those two companies don't get money they say this month they're going to have to declare bankruptcy.

Mr. STERN: You know, we are at the most significant crossroads in economic history since the Great Depression, and it was really sad last week to hear Republican senators from the south who are willing to ship American jobs overseas with bad trade agreements. We're willing to ship American jobs overseas by giving tax breaks to corporations that offshore, protect their state, or protect their company, and not protect their country. I mean, America is at a fundamental time of change, and you would hope that rather than beating up on the middle class, and as we saw from a memo that came out recently sort of firing what they called their first shot in the Employee Free Choice Act, the Republicans do not seem to get we had an election. Americans want someone to care about them, and we have a bunch of senators who seem to care more about Nissan and Honda and Hyundai.

CONAN: Who have major auto plants in many other states.

Mr. STERN: And said nothing when they all got huge tax breaks and huge incentives to locate their businesses in their state. General Motors - we should give credit to in the big three. They invented employee-based healthcare. They invented the employee-based pension system. They tried to do good for their workers. They made enormous mistakes in their management in terms of running their business but to stand up for foreign companies and not stand up for your country is something I just don't understand. ..TEXT: CONAN: Our guest is Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, the largest - the fastest growing union in the United States - two million strong. We're talking about the future of organized labor. And after the Obama election you've described this in some of your writings as well, the new deal. Is that what you expect?

Mr. STERN: What I expect is that Barack Obama will do what he told the American people he would do, and I think we're beginning to see it already. He would find a way to provide quality, affordable health care for every American. He would stimulate the economy to get people back to work. He would deal with the needs we have about a new energy policy. You know, all I think we all hope for and expect and want to encourage Barack Obama to do is to do what his policies have been pretty clearly laid out, and I think he's appointed a cabinet, and he's ready to roll.

CONAN: A lot of people on the left have looked at that cabinet and said, wait a minute. This is not the change we voted for.

Mr. STERN: Well, you know, I think what we're very lucky to have is president-elect who actually is going to have a cabinet to implement his policies. And his policies are pretty clear. I mean, he's had campaigned on them for over two years. He's talked about exactly what he wants to do. I think he's found a group of people to implement his policies. He's not looking for new ideas. He's looking for a way to implement his ideas, and Americans, I think, understand they need him to do it quickly. And they need him to have the experience to do it effectively as well.

CONAN: We want to get callers in on the conversation as well. Our phone number 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Ed, and Ed is on the line with us from Stockton in California.

ED (Caller): Hi, Andy.

Mr. STERN: Hey Ed.

ED: Hey, the reason why I'm calling is I'm asking - I'm trying to find out - I'm a security officer out here in Stockton. And I work through a company called Intercon which is contracted out to all the Kaiser medical facilities here in California. And I've been fighting for three years to try to get the officers unionized, and it's just not happening. And I'm wanting to know why. Why is it taking so long? They said that they would unionize us. They all agreed to it, but it just hasn't happened. I've been fighting for this for three years, and we striked a few times. We've begged to Kaiser to please, you know, put this right now. I think the thing with the president - I think that getting this implemented right away is a good thing, and we need it. We need it. The officers in California - the security officers in California - they need to be unionized.

CONAN: And Ed are you working through the SEIU?

ED: No.

CONAN: OK.

ED: I am - I - we - the SEIU does - they're assisting us in getting unionized, yes. But I don't work with the union.

CONAN: Oh, but that would be the union if you got recognized - OK.

Mr. STERN: Yeah.

CONAN: Andy Stern, go ahead.

ED: It would be the SEIU. So, basically we're just wondering why it's taking so long?

CONAN: Well, I think you're asking the $64,000 about why we need the employee Free Choice Act. You know, we have a system in our country that when workers want to have an organization and they - in this case, you know, make a demand on their employer, which is Intercon, who works for Kaiser.

Mr. STERN: Correct.

CONAN: You know, we begin World War III, you know. And rather than just allowing the workers, when a majority are interested to begin, to discuss with their employer their wages and benefits, working conditions as you know, we begin World War III. We have to take all kinds of you know, ridiculous actions at a time when people should be trying to work together. It creates all kinds of conflict. Then, you get employers like Intercon who just you know, decide that they know the law is on their side. They know that there aren't effective ways for workers you know, to really get the job done quickly. And so this goes on and on and on, forever and ever, and workers get frustrated. Thank God, Ed, that you're still sticking with us, because we're going to get this job done for you.

ED: I appreciate it, I really do. It's something that needs to happen.

CONAN: Ed has there, have there been elections for a union there?

ED: No, not yet.

CONAN: And are there any schedule?

ED: Not to my knowledge, but I'm sure that they'll let me know as soon as they are. Like I said, I'm one of the first few people that started trying to get the officers unionized, you know, that work for Intercon.

CONAN: OK.

ED: So, it's been a battle, and I'm just - I'm tired. I want it to hurry up. I want it to happen.

Mr. STERN: It's not right.

CONAN: Ed, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate.

ED: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'll talk more about the Free Choice Act when we come back and also about secret ballots and why these are controversial. Our guest is Andy Stern, the president of the SEIU. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255 or zap us an email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Many of the biggest economic stories lately revolved around the issue of labor. U.S. autoworkers and layoffs in general, health care coverage for employees, the Republic window and door factory sit-in in Chicago. Today we're talking with Andy Stern, head of the fastest growing labor union in the country, the Service Employees International. If you'd like to speak with him about his agenda, his influence, his expectations, and the future of organized labor, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. We were talking about the Employee Free Choice Act which you would like to see President-elect Obama, well, sign I would think, within the first hundred days. That's what I've read.

Mr. STERN: Well, what we need in America is an economic policy that works for everyone. And clearly what we saw in 1935 is when a president at a similar time faced a huge economic, he did three things. He began to try to stimulate the economy. He began to try to make sure that people had work, and then he wanted to make sure that the government - since the government couldn't solve every problem that workers could bargain with their employers to make sure they could share in the wealth of a growing economy. And the good news was for 40 years - I mean, this is the Employee Free Choice Act is not new. For 40 years, workers who wanted to bargain with their employer simply when a majority signed cards begin the process. And America worked a lot better. We created the greatest middle class in the world. And I think, with the growing inequality we face today, we need some non-governmental solutions to be able to make sure that workers get to reap the rewards not the just share shoulders and executives.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Steven in San Rafael, California: I'm a supporter of unions. How does your guest defend his proposal to eliminate the secret ballot for union formation?

Mr. STERN: This is a misinformation. It does not eliminate the secret ballot. What it says is that the workers get to choice whether or not they want to have a union when a majority sign up or when they ask for the election. So, what we're doing is changing this from being the employer's choice, from being the employee's choice. And that seems very appropriate. After all, we're talking about an organization of workers who then only get to bargain with their employer. We don't get to choose who the employer's representation, whether it's a chamber of commerce or trade association. Workers should have the same right to make a choice of a secret ballot or signing up when a majority of people have cards and beginning the process.

CONAN: A lot of moderate Democrat are said to be very cautious about this bill because we're asking companies to - well, I think you would agree that companies would make less money if this bill pass. It would cost them more to operate because their employees will be making more in a recession. This is going to drive some companies out of business.

Mr. STERN: I don't think we're asking the companies to make much more. I think we have this problem. Lee Scott makes $15,162 an hour. Wal-Mart has been enormously successful in the last year. The Walton family has made $30 billion more. And the workers make 10.68 an hour. So, we're trying to figure out a better way to make sure that everyone shares in the success of the company. We used to have a time in America, and it worked a lot better, when CEOs made 43 times what the average worker makes. They now make 344 times. So, the issue isn't costing more. The issue is lots of people contribute to the success of a company, and shouldn't we all share a little bit more fairly.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Mark with us from San Antonio.

MARK (Caller): Good morning. I'm a former United States attorney. I just retired about a year ago, and I was in Chicago for 33 years. Without a doubt Chicago is the most politically corrupt city in the United States. But that being said…

CONAN: Many would argue Washington D.C., but go ahead, Mark.

MARK: Well, yeah. The guest's statement with regard to the smear campaign by Republicans. I'm a Democrat. I voted for Obama, and let's assume for a second that the statement is correct that there is a smear campaign going on by the Republicans.

Mr. STERN: And that's what John McCain - that's what John McCain is saying just so we make it clear.

CONAN: Did he say smear campaign?

Mr. STERN: Well, I think he said there was a campaign being run that was really inappropriate.

CONAN: OK. Yeah.

MARK: And is that any worse than the political corruption and the corruption in organized labor? Most of the people that we sent to jail in Chicago for racketeering had direct ties to organized labor or were in fact officers of organized labor, and that's been going on for as long as my career went on. And I don't know that - and certainly I'm not intimating that all unions are corrupt, but some of the biggest ones have been. And it has been my experience that regardless of what the membership wants, a lot of those unions did whatever they felt was best for the people running the unions, and organized crime that had their hands in those labor unions.

Mr. STERN: Well, I'm very proud to say that in our union, you know, we've had a long history here of rooting that corruption on our own. Any organization has some bad apples. We can look at Bernie Madoff who just took $50 billion and was seen as pillar of societies so - in Chicago I appreciate - has a lot of different issues. You know, the issue for unions are - is that we need to represent our members interest not our leaders interest. And in SEIU, I think the success of our growth, the ability to get low-wage workers who are janitors and security officers, homecare workers, childcare workers an opportunity just to get a chance in life, people that do really God's work. You know, something we're really proud of. And so, you know, we think every institution has a responsibility you know, to keep itself at the highest standard of ethics, and that's exactly what we intend to do.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: Let see if we can go now to - this is Amy. Amy with us from El Nido in California.

AMY (Caller): Yes, hi. Good morning. I'm an SEIU member, and health care worker in California. And I'm very concerned, Andy. I read in the Wall Street Journal recently about our top union officials colluding with employers like Aramark. And, you know, I was in Puerto Rico with our international convention. I know about the scandal there and now this scandal with Blagojevich. And my question is isn't it a problem when unions collude with employers instead of solely advocating for workers like me?

Mr. STERN: I think what we need to appreciate is that it's enormously important in the 21st century to try to build an America that works for everyone. And working with employers like health-care workers do in Kaiser, like out where you are in California, like health-care workers do in New York where we have huge partnerships with our employer, you know, I think we need a 21st-century version of unions where people try to work together. And I appreciate that everyone doesn't necessarily see that from the same point of view. But I think that 20th century conflictual way did not create America that works. And I'm glad you know, to imagine a 21st century way that follows Barack Obama's lead where employers and unions try to find common ground, trying to find an American way forward. And I think that is going to be the key to the excess of 21st century.

CONAN: Amy?

AMY: I completely agree, Andy, that that's the way we should work. I happened to be a Kaiser medical social worker, and I agree that we need to work with employers. My concern is when top union officials work with employers behind my back and collude with them trading our organizing rights and agreeing to such standard wages without my involvement. That's my concern. To me that is not a 20th-century - you know, 21st-century union model.

Mr. STERN: I'm not - you know, I'm not sure what you're talking about, but I think Kaiser is a perfect model and a very good example of where despite this…

AMY: I agree, but Aramark is not.

Mr. STERN: Despite a lot of criticism as you know, from many other unions about our desire to work awhile ago to get out of a situation where there were too many strikes and too many differences. We found a way to have a partnership. In Aramark and Sodexho those workers are trying to find a way to have a partnership with their employer, and we've seen many, many, many workers who never had a union, never had health care, had never gotten a raise, seeing their lives fundamentally change, and that is what this union movement about - is changing workers' lives, and that's what we intend to do.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much for the call.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

AMY: Bye.

CONAN: Here's an email from Keith in San Francisco. If the government under President-elect Obama or successive Democratic president does manage to implement national health care, pension reform, living wage rules, et cetera, what role will labor unions play in the American economy down the road? Will it be worth the five percent or so in dues that many union members currently pay?

Mr. STERN: I think it's hard to imagine in the long run that we're going to have an American economy where the government controls everything. You know, I think our health-care system that we're talking about - Barack Obama is talking about - is a public-private partnership as it currently is. I think our pension system will always have a certain role for private sector as well as Social Security and other social benefits we'll have for the public sectors. So, I don't really want the government to involved in every single aspect of the employment relationship. I think there are certain things governments do, and there are certain things the market and the private sector does, and I think collective bargain is the way you begin to reconcile those difference. If you're an employer like Wal-Mart with 1.8 million workers, is a lot different than if you're working for a small nursing home with a hundred employers. And I think you know, we need non-governmental solutions which I happen to believe can come about by workers and employers working together, whether it's through collective bargaining or other forms of associations, because that's how we get things done. That's how we build teamwork in America.

CONAN: Let's go to Doug, and Doug is calling us from Chicago.

DOUG (Caller): Hey, this is Doug. My question is, you know, we're not - we're an independent contractor. We work all over the state of Illinois. We get picketed on a pretty regular basis any time we're getting work close to a city, and I'm just wondering, you know, if the unions are really trying to look out for people, why did they take and try and take our job away from us, and then why do they spend a lot of money and wasting their time picketing the job that they're not going to get anyway?

Mr. STERN: Well, you know, we just heard a debate in America which I thought was an important one about the differences in wage rates between some auto companies and the others. And the responsibility of the union is to not let competition just be about wages. We need to have everyone be paid the same which is what you see in our janitors in Chicago or New York or San Francisco. We don't want one employer to be less competitive than another. So, what happens if you're - let me just explain, so if you're an independent contractor, you're not paying workers' compensation, you're not paying unemployment compensation, your employer is not paying, you know, any of those things, and I'm not saying you are, but we see that all over the country with people cheating the government, making other employers pay for their health care and their unemployment. That's not a fair way to compete, and so we have laws in the books about what really is an independent contractor, and I think it's a responsibility of all of us to enforce the law, and make sure everyone pays their taxes, everyone pays their unemployment, everyone pays the Social Security, so everyone competes equally.

DOUG: Well, if you're familiar with the Illinois law then you know that you have to have workman's comp and all that to work. So, anybody that's legal has that. And that's not really the question. I mean, the question is, I mean, our employees get paid more than union scale anyway, so I mean, why? Why are they going to work for union? They can work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. They're not going to go work for the union, and if the union comes in and tries to shut my job down, I mean, that kind of gets a little frustrating.

Mr. STERN: I totally - you know, listen. If people are being paid well, people are obeying the law and following the law, you know, God bless them.

DOUG: OK.

CONAN: Doug, good luck.

DOUG: Yup.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Walter. Walter with us from Middletown, Connecticut.

WALTER (Caller): Yeah. Mr. Stern, I'd like to ask you why and before Congress at the present moment, there is a bill sponsored or co-sponsored by no less than 90 representatives, HR676, which calls for universal single-payer national health insurance, which is the only solution, the only viable solution to the current health care crisis, and the only solution that your rank and file employees including myself that endorsed, while you reject HR676 in favor of some nebulous plan put together by Barack Obama, somewhat similar to Hillary Clinton's, that essentially guarantees every American the right to pay for their own health insurance at a very premium rate through companies that will cap that form - the form of care that…

Mr. STERN: I pretty - I understand. You know, A, we were the first union in America to endorse HR676.

WALTER: Not you, though.

Mr. STERN: SCIU. Yes.09

WALTER: I'm not talking about (unintelligible)...

Mr. STERN: So, yes, we were - under my direction and leadership, we endorsed HR676, one. Two is this is not an academic debate. For a hundred years, America has been the only nation on earth that has not found an American solution to the health-care crisis. And we are on the verge today for the first time in my lifetime under Barack Obama's leadership as a result of this election of making sure every man, woman, and child has quality affordable health care. And the two things we know about health care is the longer you wait, the worse it gets. And that if you let the perfect be the enemy of the good, nothing will happen. We have a chance to solve this problem once and for all. It'll improve America's competitiveness. It will get America started on the road to a health-care system we all can be proud of, and I don't think we should miss the moment.

CONAN: You're basically saying single-payer would be a better system, but can't pass right now?

Mr. STERN: I would say single payer has been around a long time. It has obviously lots of advantages. It's never been tried in the United States. It's just an academic argument at this point in time that is not going to happen. Pete Stark acknowledges it, and many of the supporters in Congress acknowledge it. Let's get something done in America because people are dying every day, or suffering every day, or insecure because they don't have health care.

CONAN: Walter, thanks very much for the call. Our guest is Andy Stern of the SEIU. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to Dee, Dee with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

DEE (Caller): Yes, sir. Yes. I'm enjoying the show. I just wanted to, I don't know, just looking at this historically this seems to be - and correct me if I am wrong. In America we vacillate between extremes. You know, either business is not treating labor correctly, then we have to go after them, and then as soon as labor gets some power, they start abusing their authority. Is there no systemic formula that we've come up with yet that can blend the two together so that we could move forward in a progressive manner?

Mr. STERN: Well, here is what I'd like to say - here is what I'd like to say, America has sort of grown in this, you know, conflict-resolution version of labor and management. But we're now in a global economy. America has to be a team, you know, we can't afford to be fighting with each other when people are competing against us in countries like China all over the world. In Ireland when they faced this same problem, business, labor, and government came together, and they made a plan. And they turned Ireland, whose greatest export products was its people, into the second most successful economy in Europe. I think we need that kind of plan now in America. I think business and labor and government has to come together. We can't be choosing one or the other. We need to have an American plan, and that's going to require all of us to participate and to give and take for the best interest of our country.

CONAN: Here's, in a way, a follow-up question from Ryan in Grand Rapids, Michigan by email. Since union's real power comes from their ability to strike, how is the current economy with an abundance of unemployed workers reduce your leverage? CONAN: Ah, Andy Stern, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate you coming down to visit with us.

Mr. STERN: Thank you.

CONAN: Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union joined us here in Studio 3A. Coming up, who's to blame for the massive Madoff Ponzi Scheme? And, well, how to crook proof your portfolio. The Opinion Page is next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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