Category Archives: Labor

Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.

twu-local-234-1

Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by Philly.com.  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor

Education Matters, But Direct Anti-Poverty and Inequality-Reduction Efforts Matter More

I once began a K-12 education talk by putting the following two questions on a screen.

1. What is the single policy change that would most improve the quality of K-12 education?
2. What is the single policy change that would most reduce the opportunity gap between low-income and high-income students?

I asked audience members to, by a show of hands, indicate which question spoke to them more.  They had three choices:

A) Question 1
B) Question 2
C) Doesn’t matter, since both question 1 and question 2 have the same answer

Stop and think for a second about which choice would have prompted you to raise your hand.

If you would have selected choice C, you would have been joined by about 90 percent of the audience at my talk.  I expected that result.  In a culture in which politicians routinely say things like “education is the closest thing to magic we have here in America” and cite low graduation rates in low-income areas as evidence of our education system’s failures, that view is unsurprising.

It’s also completely wrong.  The overwhelming evidence that choice C is incorrect falls into at least five primary buckets:

1) There are large gaps in test score performance in the United States before students enter kindergarten. The graph shown below, from the Economic Policy Institute, documents the extent of these gaps (there are gaps in various cognitive and noncognitive skills as well), and as Sean Reardon has shown, there is evidence that they close during the school year, only to reopen during the summer months.  The gaps have declined in size since the late 1990s, but they are, in Reardon’s words, “still huge.”

EPI Kindergarten.png

Inequitable access to preschool for low-income students is definitely part of the problem here, but gaps are apparent in infancy and probably due mostly to differences in housing, nutrition, medical care, exposure to environmental hazards, stress, and various other factors.

2) Decades of research into the causes of the gap in test scores between low-income and high-income students in the United States has consistently found a limited contribution from school-based factors. In the US, variations in school quality seem to explain no more than 33% of the discrepancies in test score performance; this number, which has been around since 1966, considers the influence of a student’s classmates to be a school-based factor (it arguably isn’t) and thus seems to be a conservative upper bound. Most studies put the school-based contribution to what is commonly called the “achievement gap” closer to 20%, with about 60% attributable to “student and family background characteristics [which] likely pertain to income/poverty” and the other 20% unexplained.

3) Economic success in this country is less common for low-income students who are successful in school than for high-income students who are unsuccessful in school. The graph below, made using data from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, compares the distribution of adult economic outcomes for children born into different quintiles of the income distribution with different levels of educational attainment.  If education were the prime determinant of opportunity, we’d expect educational attainment to determine these adult economic outcomes.  Yet the data show that children born into the top twenty percent who fail to graduate college typically fare better economically than children born into the bottom twenty percent who earn their college degrees.  In fact, the born-into-privilege non-graduates are 2.5 times as likely to end up in the top twenty percent as adults as are the born-poor college graduates.

Mobility - Pew

4) The test scores of students in the United States relative to the test scores of students around the world aren’t all that different than what students’ self-reports of their socioeconomic status would predict. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has an “index of economic, social, and cultural status” which incorporates family wealth, parents’ educational attainment, and more.  There is a gap in test score performance between students who score high on this index and students who score relatively low on it in every country in the world.  The size of the gap varies by country, as does the median test score, but there is a strong correlation overall between students’ socioeconomic status and their performance on standardized tests.  The first graph below, in which each data point relates the average socioeconomic index score for a decile of a particular OECD country’s students to that decile’s average performance on PISA’s math test, depicts this relationship.

OECD Test Scores - All.png

As the next two graphs show, test score performance for the bottom socioeconomic decile in the United States falls right on the OECD bottom-decile trend line, and while U.S. test scores for the second decile are a little below the OECD trend (as are U.S. scores for the next few deciles), socioeconomic status seems to explain American students’ performance on international tests pretty well overall.

OECD Test Scores - Bottom Decile.png

OECD Test Scores - Second Decile.png

5) The distribution of educational attainment in the United States has improved significantly over the past twenty-five years without significantly improving students’ eventual economic outcomes. While people with more education tend to have lower poverty rates than people with less education, giving people more education neither creates quality jobs nor eliminates bad ones, as Matt Bruenig has explained.  A more educated population (see the first graph below), therefore, just tends to shift the education levels required by certain jobs upwards: jobs that used to require only a high school degree might now require a college degree, for example.  The “cruel game of musical chairs in the U.S. labor market” (as Marshall Steinbaum and Austin Clemens have called it) that results is likely part of why poverty rates at every level of educational attainment increased between 1991 and 2014, as shown in the second graph below.

Bruenig1.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig2.png

Source: Matt Bruenig

Bruenig’s analysis lacks a counterfactual – the overall poverty rate may well have increased if educational attainment hadn’t improved, rather than staying constant – but it’s a clear illustration of the problem with primarily education-focused anti-poverty initiatives.

None of this evidence changes the fact that education is very important.  It just underscores that direct efforts to reduce poverty and inequality – efforts that put more money in the pockets of low-income people and provide them with important benefits like health care – are most important if our goal is to boost opportunities for low-income students.

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Filed under Education, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

The Sound Reasoning Behind a $15 Minimum Wage

The New York Times Editorial Board recently endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage.  A proposal at the federal level would phase in $15 an hour in small increments over a period of several years and would still, as the Times mentions, set a wage floor in 2020 below what most low-wage workers need to provide for their families.  Yet Slate’s Jordan Weissmann believes that “the argument in favor of a $15 federal minimum is…extremely weak,” and that the endorsement is “emblematic of a progressive movement that has fixated on a much higher minimum as the answer to the problem of low-wage work while refusing to grapple with the potential downsides.”

Weissmann supports a federal minimum wage above $10 an hour and possibly in the $12 an hour range; like Alan Krueger, one of the economists who authored some of the landmark research on the minimum wage, his argument against $15 surely comes from a good place.  His assertions are substantively wrong, however; proponents of a $15 federal minimum have grappled with the points he makes and have decided that the case for a $15 federal minimum is actually much stronger than Weissmann’s.

The crux of Weissmann’s argument is that, “if the government forces wages too high, businesses will eventually cut back on hiring.”  $15 would be “too high,” he argues, because it is higher than “historical and international norms.”

Weissmann is correct to note that a $15 minimum wage would affect a larger share of low-wage workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in Seattle, Washington, where a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour is already being phased in.  He is also correct to note that the research literature on the minimum wage largely speaks to moderate increases in the minimum wage, not to what might happen if it were increased to $15 an hour.  Proponents of a $15 minimum wage know these facts; they just don’t agree that they’re disqualifying.

The thing is, opponents of the minimum wage have been claiming for years, based on flawed but standard economic theory, that the mere existence of a minimum wage will kill jobs.  A huge body of research over the past twenty years has shown that these arguments are wrong: most studies suggest that the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment, and while there are credible studies that find small negative employment effects, there are also alternative theories out there, and a few findings to back them up, about why a higher minimum wage could, in some cases, actually lead to more employment.  Not having research about what would happen at $15 does not mean that it would cost jobs – it just means that, if we go to that level, we can’t be certain that the minimum wage’s opponents will continue to be so wrong about its effects on the job market.

Whether you think $15 will pose an employment problem is thus a matter of conjecture.  Weissmann is entitled to his beliefs, but it’s worth highlighting that a) the proposed increase is phased in in increments, giving businesses time to adjust, b) corporate profits are near all-time highs (as is executive compensation), suggesting that most businesses that employ low-wage workers can easily absorb the labor costs (one recent analysis of the fast food industry even suggests that firms could absorb a $15 minimum wage without a reduction in profits), c) Weissmann’s arguments mirror those of the minimum-wage-increase naysayers who have repeatedly been wrong, d) Weissmann’s summary of the evidence from Puerto Rico is woefully incomplete; a more thorough look does not actually support his case, and e) even economists, who typically lean towards embracing standard but flawed supply-and-demand theory, have split opinions on what might happen under a gradually phased-in $15 federal minimum wage.*

The fact that a $15 federal minimum wage would affect more workers in Little Rock, Arkansas than in higher-wage states can also be viewed as an argument in favor of larger increases in the minimum wage – they provide more help to a larger number of low-wage workers who are struggling to get by!  As Weissmann himself acknowledges, it takes around $20 an hour for a single parent to raise a child even in states with the lowest costs of living.  He gives surprisingly short shrift to the huge risk in not raising the minimum wage high enough: that it will lock in insufficient income support for millions of low-wage workers who desperately need additional money.  The fact that the nationwide movement for $15 has been driven by the very workers who would be affected by the policy change suggests strongly that they view the definite downside posed by a lower minimum wage – less compensation for their hard work – as a whole lot scarier than the indefinite possibility that $15 might cause some reductions in employment.  The argument against $15 could theoretically be used to reject every bold new policy proposal that helps people; it’s really hard to make progress if you don’t push past historical and international norms every so often.

In addition, while I applaud Weissmann for his concern about low-wage workers being able to find jobs, advocating against higher wages for millions of people is an odd way to address this concern.  The minimum wage does not exist in a vacuum; it is one policy among many that can be used to help low-wage workers.  While Weissmann correctly notes that the Earned Income Tax Credit and minimum wage are complementary, he fails to consider whether direct job-creation programs and/or policy that addresses firms’ decision-making in response to minimum wage increases could complement the minimum wage as well.

So while Weissmann thinks the New York Times underweights the potential and unknowable risk of heretofore unseen levels of job loss, I believe (along with hundreds of economists) that he underweights the immediate, definite risk of keeping the minimum wage too low.  I encourage him to, at the very least, consider policy tools that can mitigate his concerns without depriving low-wage workers of much-needed income.

*Update (1/5/16): It’s also worth noting, as minimum wage expert Dave Cooper has reminded me, that “the fear of a negative impact on jobs is a bit too simplistic. The concern is that the higher minimum wage could reduce the total aggregate work hours among low-wage workers, but even if that occurred, those workers would still be better off if, even while working fewer hours, the higher hourly wage caused their annual earnings to rise.”

Correction (1/25/16): The original version of this post misspelled Weissmann’s name.

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Filed under Business, Labor

Friedrichs and Bain Explained

California public school teachers working in traditional school districts are by default members of their local teachers associations, which may be affiliates of either the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is the state branch of the National Education Association (NEA), or the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  While teachers unions, like all other organizations, certainly aren’t perfect, they fulfill several roles that benefit students and teachers alike and are important, powerful advocates for low- and middle-income populations in general.

Despite these facts (or, perhaps, because of them), teachers unions have been under attack for quite some time.  And the anti-labor movement, fueled by wealthy individuals and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been alarmingly successful.  Union membership reached a historic low of 11.1 percent in 2014 (6.6 percent in the private sector and 35.7 percent in the public sector), 25 states have adopted inappropriately-named “Right to Work” laws that deprive workers of bargaining power, and an inaccurate, misleading anti-union narrative has permeated public discourse.

Unions won a major victory in California in 2012 when we (I was a CTA Election Campaign Lead at the time) beat back Proposition 32, but the news has been less stellar since, particularly for teachers unions.  In 2014, Judge Rolf Treu sided in favor of the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, a misleading lawsuit that attacked various aspects of teacher employment law.  Though the weakness of both the plaintiffs’ argument and the decision suggests that the case may be overturned on appeal, it still represents a dangerous threat to important employee protections that could reverberate beyond education.  Two more recent California cases, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and Bain v. California Teachers Association, present related dangers for labor more generally, especially because the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Friedrichs early next year.

As was the case with Vergara, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about both Friedrichs and Bain.  The discussion below thus sets the record straight on how teachers-union dues and spending work in California, explains the basic arguments of both Friedrichs and Bain, debunks myths the plaintiffs have propagated, and explains why courts should rule against the plaintiffs in both cases.

How Teachers-Union Dues and Spending Work in California

Spending by teachers unions falls into two legal categories: it is either “chargeable” – that is, pertaining to collective bargaining and classified as nonpolitical – or “nonchargeable,” or classified as political.  Public school teachers in CTA-affiliated schools have three options when it comes to paying union dues:

1) If a teacher takes no action, he or she pays for both the chargeable and nonchargeable portion of CTA spending. Whether or not a teacher pays dues to their local association for nonchargeable spending may vary from local to local.

2) If a teacher marks a box on his or her membership form (shown below), that teacher can choose not to contribute towards CTA’s political activities. The teacher must still pay the nonchargeable portion of his or her dues, but that money remains in CTA’s general fund and can be used only for chargeable activities.  A teacher selecting this option remains a full-fledged member of the union.

Teachers who do not want to contribute to CTA’s political activities can check a box on a one-page form to opt out.

Teachers who do not want to contribute to CTA’s political activities can check a box on a one-page form to opt out.

3) A teacher can affirmatively opt out of paying the nonchargeable portion of his or her dues altogether. This decision must be made each year for which a teacher wishes to opt out.  A teacher who exercises this option and pays lower dues is considered an “agency fee payer.”  Agency fee payers are still represented by the union in collective bargaining and labor disputes, but they lose some advantages associated with union membership, the most significant one being the right to vote in union elections.

Each year, CTA must determine the portion of its spending that falls into the chargeable and nonchargeable categories.  It is required by law to send a “Hudson notice” showing the breakdown and the amount of the agency fee to any teacher who has chosen option 3 in a previous year.  Teachers receiving the Hudson notice also receive a letter explaining that they have at least thirty days to decide whether to opt out of the nonchargeable portion of dues again in the coming year (which they can do either by filling out a simple one-page form, shown below, or by writing a letter).

Teachers who want a rebate for the political portion of their dues can fill out this simple one-page form.

Teachers who want a rebate for the political portion of their dues can fill out this simple one-page form.

In recent years, CTA has designated about 65 percent of its dues to be “chargeable.”  If an agency fee payer disagrees with the unions’ stated breakdown between political and nonpolitical expenses, he or she can check a box on the above form to initiate an independent review of the union’s expenses.  The fee payer does not need to be present or provide evidence for that review, the costs of which are all borne by the union.

Friedrichs and Its Free Speech Arguments

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs seek to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which in 1977 established that public sector unions could charge all employees for activities related to “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes” – that is, that public sector unions could require employees to pay the chargeable portion of union dues.  The plaintiffs in Friedrichs prefer not only to make all union dues optional, but to change the default dues setting to “not contribute,” forcing members to take affirmative action to allocate any money at all to the union.

Building on Abood’s holding that public sector unions cannot compel employees to contribute to any “ideological cause,” the plaintiffs in Friedrichs assert that the distinction between collective bargaining activity and ideological lobbying activity undertaken by a public-sector union is a meaningless one.  They make four arguments in this vein:

1) They assert that “the broad fiscal impact of bargaining about wages and benefits makes it political speech about public affairs” (emphasis theirs). In other words, they note that public schools are funded by taxes, and that teacher compensation is a large part of what is covered by that funding.  Since the allocation of tax dollars is a matter of public importance and collective bargaining influences that allocation, they argue that collective bargaining must be considered political.

2) They contend that, because collective bargaining often pertains to matters debated in the education policy world, it is inherently political.

3) They argue that because the political activity of California’s teachers unions sometimes focuses on issues that are also collectively bargained (laws related to teacher employment, for example), it is absurd to argue that collective bargaining is somehow different from lobbying.

4) They assert that recent legal precedent suggests broad acknowledgment that the reasoning in Abood was incorrect, and that Harris v. Quinn in particular implies that the time is ripe for overturning Abood.

In the plaintiffs’ view, rules about inherently political activities like collective bargaining constitute a violation of employees’ free speech rights.

Part of this argument is bizarre on its face, as evidenced by the plaintiffs’ suggestion that union negotiations about class size and teacher employment protections are analogous to “threats to ‘blow off their front porches’ during a labor dispute or protest signs declaring that ‘God Hates Fags.’”  However, the plaintiffs are correct that recent legal precedent has significantly weakened Abood – given the makeup of the current Supreme Court (which is responsible for that precedent), it wasn’t a surprise that the Court decided to hear Friedrichs.

The plaintiffs also make a legitimate point about the fuzzy distinction between political and nonpolitical activity, but they ignore the fact that we draw seemingly arbitrary lines between the two all the time.  For example, many large corporations have lobbyists who fight against unions and labor standards, charitable arms that donate to organizations that undermine unions and labor standards, and managers who discourage unionization (both legally and illegally) at their stores – each of these activities is overlapping and affects the public interest, but only the first is typically classified as political.  Or consider the artificial division between the “news” and “editorial” teams at mainstream media outlets: “news” reports contain a plethora of implicit assumptions in them, but only editorials are technically considered political.

The activities classified as nonpolitical above can have a substantial fiscal impact; corporations that offer low wages and meager benefits increase the need for government support of low-income workers, for instance, and news articles exert a major influence on public policy debates.  For this reason, the plaintiffs’ arguments, if accepted, could potentially invalidate a whole lot of rules that differentiate political from nonpolitical activity.  It would simply be incorrect to suggest that Walmart and the Wall Street Journal engage in nonpolitical activities and unions don’t.

There is a legitimate question of where to draw the line between political and nonpolitical speech.  But even if there were a coherent argument about why public sector negotiations about working conditions should be considered more political than other forms of speech mentioned above (a condition that doesn’t appear to be satisfied), such an argument would still present an intractable problem: if accepted, it would likely restrict the ability of managers to discipline employees.  As Ian Millhiser explains at ThinkProgress, even Antonin Scalia foresees this potential problem (though that certainly doesn’t mean he’d be unwilling to rule against unions in Friedrichs) – if contributions to collective bargaining can violate an employee’s free speech rights, employer rules about the discussion of compensation packages and working conditions almost certainly can as well.

Fine – The “Political Speech” Argument Doesn’t Hold Water.  But Why Shouldn’t Nonmembers Be Allowed to Opt Out of Chargeable Spending?

The Supreme Court held in Abood that unions could collect an “agency fee” (the portion of dues that funds chargeable union spending) from nonmembers for two primary reasons:

1) The promotion of “labor peace:” The government has an interest, according to the Court’s opinion in Abood, in minimizing the potential for conflict between employees. The agency fee helps ensure that an employer will negotiate with one and only one bargaining unit, thus reducing the likelihood of employee disputes.

2) The prevention of “free rides:” Teachers unions cannot exclude nonmember teachers from the contracts they negotiate – all teachers, whether they are members or not, reap the benefits of the higher wages, better benefits, improved working conditions, and employee rights that unions secure. Without the agency fee, union members would be forced to subsidize the benefits of nonmembers.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs contend that these reasons are not compelling.  They argue that, while labor peace concerns should prevent multiple, rival unions from co-existing, “the fact that public employers have an interest in dealing with one union rather than many…does not justify the additional and quite different proposition that the state can force all employees to support that one union [unless] ‘free riding’ would cause the extinction of the exclusive union” or if it would lead to a loss of benefits for the free-riding members.  Teachers unions, the plaintiffs argue, cannot (and have not even tried to) show that the invalidation of agency fees would weaken nonmembers’ benefits or threaten the unions’ existence.

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs also argue that it is the norm for advocacy groups to secure benefits for nonmembers – because “free riding” is allowed for doctors who don’t join the American Medical Association, they contend, it should be allowed for teachers as well.  They assert that whether or not coverage under union-negotiated contracts is even a benefit for nonmember teachers is debatable, as collectively-bargained contracts may include components (like the provision of retirement benefits or certain salary structures) with which nonmembers disagree.

Mainly because they believe labor peace and free rider concerns cannot justify what they term “compelled speech,” the plaintiffs in Friedrichs insist that “Public-Sector Collective Bargaining Would be Unconstitutional Even If It Were Not Core Political Speech.”

Yet there are several gaping holes in the plaintiffs’ arguments.   First, teachers unions could actually mount a clear and compelling case that the invalidation of agency fees would cause substantial harm to their operations.  Unions in states that have restricted collective bargaining are reeling; in Wisconsin, for example, where Governor Scott Walker initiated an anti-union crusade in 2011, compensation has fallen by 10 percent for members of the Wisconsin State Employees’ Union.  NEA membership in the state has fallen by a third and AFT membership by half.  Those are probably some of the reasons why both proponents and opponents of Friedrichs assert, in most articles written about the lawsuit, that it presents an existential threat to teachers unions.  To be fair, unions that step up their organizing efforts and effectively advertise how they benefit workers may be able to remain relevant even if the lawsuit proves successful (AFSCME, the SEIU, the NEA, and AFT are already focused on doing so), but a ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor would clearly make organizing significantly harder.

Second, the plaintiffs’ claim that union-negotiated contracts might harm rather than benefit some nonmembers is a red herring (and debatable, though let’s assume it’s true for the purposes of this argument).  While some nonmembers might think they could obtain more attractive compensation packages and better working conditions by negotiating independently with their school districts, members on the whole are definitively better off (in terms of compensation and working conditions) because of the union.  And there isn’t a multi-issue advocacy organization in the world, the American Medical Association included, in which every person covered under the group’s advocacy supports every action the group takes.

This claim also misses a key point about public goods: people must sometimes contribute to things they might not want because other people depend on their contributions.  To take the most obvious example, I support very little of our government’s defense spending, but I still have to pay the portion of my taxes that fund it.  Similarly, individuals who don’t want health insurance must still buy it, as taxpayers would otherwise be forced to subsidize their care. In both of these scenarios, as in the union case, allowing people the option to decline to fund part or all of the given service would make the whole system worse for those who depend on it.  Whether an individual wants everything in a collectively-provided service is less relevant than both whether that individual’s contribution is necessary for sustaining the service and whether the service is an important one to provide.

Nor are such mandated contributions limited to the public sector.  As Gordon Lafer explains, lawyers must pay mandatory fees to practice law and condominium owners are required to pay association fees.  Lafer also observes:

[E]mployer associations themselves refuse to live by the same rules they seek to impose on unions.

In Owensboro, Kentucky, the local Building Trades Council decided to withdraw its membership in the local Chamber of Commerce, but asked if it could still receive full member benefits even though it would no longer be paying dues. Absolutely not, answered the Chamber. “It would be against Chamber by-laws and policy to consider any organization or business a member without dues being paid. The vast majority of the Chamber’s annual revenues come from member dues, and it would be unfair to the other 850+ members to allow an organization not paying dues to be included in member benefits.”

Third, the whole idea that contributions to collective bargaining constitute “compelled speech” is preposterous.  While individuals who want to work as teachers in most traditional public schools today must pay the agency fee and accept the terms of their collectively-bargained contracts, individuals who want employment in any job must accept contracts that contain a variety of demands from their employers. Whether they’re negotiated by worker representatives or mandated by employers without union input, conditions of employment are conditions of employment.

Put differently, the plaintiffs are arguing that a school district can legally require its teachers, if they want to stay employed, to teach 35-student classes, to supervise events without pay after the school day is over, to attend meetings that they don’t think will help them improve their teaching, and to accept whatever salary the district is willing to offer.  But the same district cannot legally require its teachers to allocate a portion of their salaries to a group that negotiates those terms of employment on the teachers’ behalf.  According to the plaintiffs, employers can make employees follow rules unless one of those rules ensures that employees have a say over the rules they have to follow.  Such a position plainly has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with views about who should have power in employer-employee relationships.

In short, requiring nonmember teachers to pay the agency fee is perfectly reasonable and similar to a range of practices in both the public and private sectors.  Teachers unions fulfill a variety of very important roles, many of which would be difficult to impossible to fulfill without the agency fee requirement.

Okay, Okay!  I Get That It’s Reasonable to Require the Agency Fee.  Can’t We At Least Change the Agency Fee Payer Process?

The plaintiffs in Friedrichs conclude by arguing that, at the very least, CTA’s requirement that dissenting teachers opt out of nonchargeable (political) dues each year is unconstitutional.  They assert that teachers should ideally have to opt in to nonchargeable dues and should definitely not have to renew their objections to such dues each year.

Enter Bain v. California.  The plaintiffs in Bain do not challenge the existence of the agency fee. They write: “The categorization of expenses as “chargeable” or “non-chargeable” is not at issue in this action. Plaintiffs do not object to paying the chargeable portion of dues as a condition of union membership.”  Instead, they contest the loss of union membership associated with opting out of nonchargeable dues.  The core argument from the Bain plaintiffs’ preliminary statement reads as follows:

9. Teachers who wish to remain members of their unions must contribute to both the unions’ “chargeable” and “non-chargeable” expenditures. In other words, every teacher who is a union member is forced to fund the unions’ political and ideological activities.

10. Resigning union membership has significant adverse consequences for a teacher. By becoming a non-member, a teacher is forced to give up important employment-related benefits that are available only to union members. For example, a non-member teacher is forced to forgo the ability to participate in the unions’ disability insurance program (including insurance that is necessary for full maternity-leave compensation), legal representation in cases of employment disputes, death and dismemberment compensation, and disaster relief, among many other benefits.

11. The teachers’ unions ensure that these employment-related benefits are available only to their members, and not to non-members, despite their obligation to negotiate equally on behalf of all teachers…Indeed, the unions use their exclusive bargaining status to ensure that these benefits are not provided by the employer, and therefore not available to non-members, so that teachers are deterred from (and penalized for) exercising their First Amendment right to opt out of contributing to the unions’ political and ideological expenditures.

12. In addition, by becoming a non-member, a teacher is forced to give up her ability to vote in elections that determine the union’s leadership and its collective bargaining position, and prevented from voting on employment-related matters, such as whether to adopt the collective bargaining agreement that determines the terms of teachers’ employment.

13. Because of these substantial employment-related benefits and voting rights that are available only to members, many teachers who do not wish to contribute to the unions’ political or ideological activities are effectively compelled to abandon their First Amendment rights and join (or remain members of) the unions. By punishing teachers for—and deterring teachers from—exercising their First Amendment rights, this arrangement violates the First Amendment.

14. Plaintiffs are public school teachers who wish to retain the employment- related benefits and voting rights that come with union membership, but also wish to exercise their First Amendment right to avoid contributing to the unions’ political or ideological activities. They seek the same right to opt out of funding the unions’ political and ideological activities that non-members have. They should not be forced to make the untenable choice of either (a) abandoning their First Amendment rights or (b) abandoning the employment-related benefits and voting rights the unions secure only for their members.

This argument would be pretty convincing if key parts of it weren’t misleading and/or untrue.

First, the Bain plaintiffs’ claims about benefits available exclusively to members are deceptive.  For example, they assert that “legal representation in cases of employment disputes” falls into this category.  While that’s technically correct – nonmembers do not have access to CTA lawyers – the plaintiffs fail to mention that union representation when a teacher has a grievance, which is sufficient in most cases, is provided to members and nonmembers alike.

Another example is maternity leave, which the plaintiffs in Friedrichs also mention.  Though CTA does not provide nonmembers with the same opportunity as members to purchase a specific disability insurance package that covers maternity leave, nonmembers have the opportunity to purchase very similar plans on the individual market.  Importantly, the complaints in both lawsuits omit the fact that the basic parental leave all employers in California (with 50 or more employees) are legally obligated to provide – up to twelve weeks of leave during which an employee still has health insurance coverage and a guaranteed job when she returns – are only available because of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which unions were instrumental in helping to pass in 1993 (they also played a major role in securing California’s Family Temporary Disability Insurance program, which workers can use concurrently with the leave under FMLA and CFRA, in 2002).  In addition, some local teachers associations secure additional parental leave benefits, which go beyond those guaranteed by FMLA and CFRA, from their school districts.

In other words, the maternity leave “benefits” referenced by the plaintiffs are hardly benefits at all and are significantly less important than the benefits teachers unions are fighting to strengthen all the time.  The Bain plaintiffs’’ assertion that “unions use their exclusive bargaining status to ensure that [certain employment-related] benefits are not provided by the employer” is a blatant fabrication.

The deception here actually runs even deeper: while there’s no evidence that unions try to restrict benefits available to employees, the employers the Bain legal team typically represents do engage in that kind of behavior.  Lead attorney Theodore Boutros’s bio, for instance, proudly touts his role in helping to ensure that Walmart would not be held accountable for sex discrimination (resulting in lower pay and fewer promotions) against over 1.5 million women in 2011.  And the organization behind Friedrichs, the Center for Individual Rights, has strong ties to individuals and organizations, like the Koch Brothers and ALEC, that routinely put the kibosh on paid leave initiatives (not to mention workers’ abilities to secure a decent living).

The hypocrisy aside, the plaintiffs have their seemingly most legitimate argument when it comes to agency fee payers’ loss of voting rights – in some respects, there’s an important debate to be had about this practice.  Agency fee payers contribute to the unions’ collective bargaining activities, and since most union votes have a significant impact on collective bargaining, one could argue that agency fee payers deserve the right to vote in union elections.  Though letting agency fee payers vote might exacerbate the free rider problem, forcing teachers to choose between contributing to disliked political spending or losing the ability to vote seems unfair.

The problem with that formulation, however, is that it’s based on a false choice.  As explained earlier, teachers in districts represented by CTA can opt out of contributing to nonchargeable expenditures while remaining full-blown union members – with the right to vote and the ability to purchase CTA’s preferred disability insurance package – if they check a box on a simple one-page form.  Teachers who exercise this option will still pay full union dues, but all the money they contribute will go towards the unions’ chargeable expenditures, which the Bain plaintiffs (unlike the plaintiffs in Friedrichs) admit they aren’t contesting.

This option is actually a much better solution to the plaintiffs’ manufactured problem than is agency fee payer – it lets teachers opt out of contributions to nonchargeable expenses while simultaneously addressing the free rider concern.  Its very existence should nullify the lawsuit.  In fact, it’s probably a large part of why a judge dismissed Bain in September.  Unfortunately, however, the plaintiffs plan to continue pursuing the case.

What It Boils Down To

The fact that Friedrichs and Bain rely on a variety of misleading and/or dishonest claims illustrates what’s really driving these lawsuits. They aren’t about free speech or free choice and they’re not about constructing sensible policy.  Instead, they’re about undermining organized labor and further diminishing union strength and worker bargaining power.

For wealthy interests who benefit when workers lose and those congenitally opposed to teachers unions, these lawsuits are thus welcome.  But those who truly care about workers’ rights and are interested in the facts would do well to oppose both Friedrichs and Bain.

*Unions were also instrumental in

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Update (12/5/15): This post was revised to note that unions also helped secure California’s Family Temporary Disability Insurance program in 2002.

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What’s Wrong with the Democratic Party

Two things that happened this week illustrate much of what’s wrong with the Democratic party.

First, Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon doubled down on Clinton’s commitment, voiced at the last Democratic debate, to avoid any tax increases at all on the “middle class.”  Second, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) endorsed Clinton for president.

Taken together, these events demonstrate a long-term problem that plagues Democrats and prevents the growth of a truly power-balancing agenda: the prioritization of political opportunism over principled policymaking.  Despite the presence of an increasingly viable progressive alternative, Democrats continue to lean against their own interests in the mistaken belief that it will help them win elections. Then they wonder why we’re stuck with rising inequality and a political system rigged against the majority of the population.

For starters, Clinton’s and Fallon‘s attacks on Sanders’ single-payer health care proposal were wildly misleading.  Fallon cited a scary-sounding statistic about the cost of Sanders’ plan when it would actually save Americans significant amounts of money: taking private insurers out of the mix would lower overall health care costs and thus boost disposable income for most Americans.  Clinton gave a similarly disingenuous description of Sanders’ plan at the debate – she said Sanders would “eliminate Medicare” when he would actually expand it (in fact, Sanders frequently touts his plan as “Medicare for All”).

Fallon is right to insist that “the wealthiest Americans finally start paying their fair share” – higher taxes on the rich could raise a sizable amount of money and are an appropriate first step – but it’s unlikely that policymakers could make the investments America needs without at least some additional contribution from the bottom 96 percent of families, the members of which, at least in Fallon’s mind (see table FINC-07), are all apparently included under the heading of “middle class.”  (It’s also relevant that Sanders, much to Donald Trump’s chagrin, is far more committed to making the wealthy “pay their fair share” than is Clinton, perhaps because wealthy donors bankroll Clinton’s campaign.)

Social Security and Medicare, two of our most important and effective government programs, are financed by payroll taxes that hit the actual middle class, as would be paid family leave legislation introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (of which Sanders is a co-sponsor).  Complaints about taxes that pay for these sorts of programs are supposed to come from Republicans, not the Democratic frontrunner.  The Clinton campaign’s anti-tax rhetoric obscures the fact that social spending is well worth taxpayer dollars; it lends credence to attempts to gut government revenue sources and slash important programs.

Unions can’t be fans of such rhetoric, as it spells trouble in the long-run for both their members and the disadvantaged populations for whom they advocate.  Compared to Clinton, Sanders also has a much better record and equivalent or better policy positions on just about every issue that unions care about.  Yet the majority of national unions to endorse so far have jumped on the Clinton bandwagon (the exceptions are National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union).

Why are unions endorsing the candidate less in sync with their interests?  The most likely reason is (what they believe to be) political pragmatism.  It’s natural to want to be remembered as early allies and to want to be as involved as possible in Clinton’s policymaking process; especially if they believe a Clinton victory to be inevitable, unions may view an early endorsement as the best way to curry favor with and influence the platform of the eventual nominee.

This perspective isn’t crazy; the American Federation of Teachers in particular, the first major union to endorse Clinton, has almost certainly had a hand in Clinton’s “evolving” rhetoric on education policy.  Union endorsements probably also played a role in Clinton’s reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

At the same time, the unions’ political calculus undermines progressive goals.  It sends a terrible message to both Clinton and the Democratic Establishment: that even in the primary, unions care more about backing the anointed frontrunner than they care about working for candidates who actually fight for their values.  As Glenn Greenwald observed several years ago:

There’s a fundamental distinction between progressives and groups that wield actual power in Washington: namely, the latter are willing (by definition) to use their resources and energies to punish politicians who do not accommodate their views, while the former unconditionally support the Democratic Party and their leaders no matter what they do…Any self-interested, rational politician — meaning one motivated by a desire to maintain power rather than by ideology or principle — will ignore those who behave this way every time and instead care only about those whose support is conditional.

Union support for Clinton is also misguided because Sanders can definitely win both the primary and the general election.  He’s significantly more popular than Clinton among independents, White voters, and young people and has better overall net favorability ratings.  While Sanders is currently much less popular than Clinton among Black and Latino voters, that’s in large part due to a lack of exposure and name recognition.  As Cornel West notes, his support should grow “once Black [and, I’ll add, Latino] people find out who Brother Sanders is.”

This year’s primary election is, in many ways, a referendum on the soul of the Democratic party.  Will the party’s main virtue continue to be what it isn’t (as crazy as the Republicans)?  Or will the Democrats begin to live up to the principles they purport to stand for?  We won’t know for at least a few months, but in the meantime, both the Clinton campaign and union leaders should take a long, hard look in the mirror.

lesserofevils

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor, US Political System

Hillary Clinton’s Less than Stellar Record on Trade

In this post, Part 4 in a series on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Emilio da Costa describes Clinton’s record on international trade and business issues. Emilio, who holds a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning from Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from Stanford, can be contacted on Twitter or by email.

Emilio da Costa

Emilio da Costa

During her career in government, Hillary Clinton has routinely prioritized the interests of corporate profiteers while neglecting the rights of workers. Her support of so-called “free trade” agreements in particular illustrates where her priorities lie.

While in the Senate, for example, Clinton backed agreements with Chile, Singapore, and Oman despite their clear lack of labor protections. As David Sirota and Matthew Cunningham-Cook reported for the International Business Times:

At the time, the AFL-CIO said, “The labor provisions of the Chile and Singapore FTAs will not protect the core rights of workers, and represent a big step backwards.” The union federation also opposed the deal with Oman. Its president, John Sweeney, noted that “the State Department has identified Oman as a destination country for men and women who become victims of  trafficking and forced labor.”

In some cases, Clinton even directly worked against improved labor standards for workers in other countries. In a piece for The Nation, Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives utilize content from cables obtained by WikiLeaks to describe how Secretary Clinton’s State Department lobbied the Haitian president to help multinational clothing retailers undermine a minimum wage increase unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament:

Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.

The factory owners told the Haitian Parliament that they were willing to give workers a 9-cents-per-hour pay increase to 31 cents per hour to make T-shirts, bras and underwear for US clothing giants like Dockers and Nautica.

But the factory owners refused to pay 62 cents per hour, or $5 per day, as a measure unanimously passed by the Haitian Parliament in June 2009 would have mandated. And they had the vigorous backing of the US Agency for International Development and the US Embassy when they took that stand.

To resolve the impasse between the factory owners and Parliament, the State Department urged quick intervention by then Haitian President René Préval.

“A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control,” argued US Ambassador Janet Sanderson in a June 10, 2009, cable back to Washington.

Two months later Préval negotiated a deal with Parliament to create a two-tiered minimum wage increase—one for the textile industry at about $3 per day and one for all other industrial and commercial sectors at about $5 per day.

Clinton’s record is very similar when it comes to the most recent “free trade” agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has been the subject of well-deserved scrutiny, and not just from “liberals” like the Economic Policy Institute’s Robert E. Scott, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and former US Labor Secretaries F. Ray Marshall and Robert Reich. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, the economist famous for, among many things, his role in the deregulation of the US financial system, has also raised doubts about the merits of the agreement. Here’s Summers in a surprisingly populist op-ed for The Washington Post:

First, the era of agreements that achieve freer trade in the classic sense is essentially over. The world’s remaining tariff and quota barriers are small and, where present, less reflections of the triumph of protectionist interests and more a result of deep cultural values such as the Japanese attachment to rice farming… A reflexive presumption in favor of free trade should not be used to justify further agreements. Concerns that trade agreements may be a means to circumvent traditional procedures for taking up issues ranging from immigration to financial regulation must be taken seriously…

[The US economy] has supported the greatest economic progress in the history of the world in emerging markets and is working spectacularly well for capital and a cosmopolitan elite that moves easily around the world. But being pressed down everywhere are middle classes who lack the wherewithal to take advantage of new global markets and do not want to compete with low-cost foreign labor. Our challenge now is less to increase globalization than to make the globalization we have work for our citizens.

In that respect, the TPP doesn’t look good. Scott discusses how free trade has historically depressed US wages and why the lack of enforceable currency provisions in the agreement could lead to job losses. Reich and Marshall caution that its “patent provisions risk delaying or even preventing generic competition, thus keeping lifesaving medicine out of patients’ hands.” Warren details how the agreement’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions “would allow big multinationals to weaken labor and environmental rules” and why, despite the fact that the “TPP is being hailed as the strongest free trade agreement yet,” our terrible enforcement record when it comes to previous agreements (and the same empty promise being made over and over again) belies that claim.

What does all of that have to do with Clinton? As Sirota and Cunningham-Cook note, Clinton was a strong supporter of the TPP during negotiations:

In a 2012 speech in Australia, Clinton referred to TPP as “the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field. And when negotiated, this agreement will cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment.”

But that was just one speech, right? Wrong.

In a 2012 speech in Singapore, Clinton explicitly promoted the TPP as an initiative that “will lower barriers, raise standards, and drive long-term growth across the region.” She also used the collective “we” in describing the work being done on the pact, saying, “we are making progress toward finalizing a far-reaching new trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” She also said “we are offering to assist with capacity building, so that every country in ASEAN can eventually join.” The video of the key part of her speech can be seen here:

In fact, even CNN, which judging from the recent Democratic primary debate seems to unabashedly favor Clinton, published an article listing 45 times that Secretary Clinton pushed the very trade bill that she now claims to oppose.

Her flip-flop, as Sirota and Cunningham-Cook note, is typical:

Clinton has a history of abruptly changing positions on trade policy. When running for president in 2008, she criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite reports that she supported it while her husband was president. Clinton also pledged to oppose a proposed free trade agreement with Colombia. Only two years later, as secretary of state, she backed that deal while her family’s foundation received money from a Colombian oil firm and its founder.

Though she has tried to justify her reversal this time around, her claims are unconvincing. As Tim Lee explained at Vox:

In the interview with PBS’s Judy Woodruff where she came out against the treaty, she cited two specific objections: It doesn’t have language dealing with currency manipulation, and it has provisions that favor big drug companies over patients.

These are totally plausible arguments for opposing the TPP. But they make no sense as reasons for Clinton to change her mind about the treaty.

Why not? Because, as Lee describes, the “pharmaceutical language in the TPP is better than expected” and “currency manipulation was never going to be part of the TPP.”  If Clinton was serious when she lauded the “gold standard” TPP for “free, transparent, fair trade” in 2012, she should be even more supportive of the deal now.  Instead, the minute that the TPP became widely unpopular, she changed her position, saying that it didn’t meet the “high bar” she had set for it.

I can only draw three logical conclusions from these remarkable contradictions:

  1. Clinton had not read the TPP prior to making her “gold standard” statement and was blindly supportive of it.
  2. She did read it, and she honestly believed what she said in 2012, but is now willing to falsely appear critical of it.
  3. She did read it, her statement in 2012 was a total lie, and now it’s in her interest to lie again and appear concerned.

Unfortunately, none of these conclusions give me any reassurance that it would be a good idea to entrust Clinton with more political power.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Labor, US Political System

Organized Labor Should Endorse Bernie Sanders

The National Education Association (the union to which I used to belong) is considering an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  This decision, like the American Federation of Teachers’ endorsement of Clinton on July 11, would be a huge mistake.

One reason is that it would violate members’ trust.  As Peter Greene, Steven Singer, and Anthony Cody have noted, teacher voice is too often ignored in education reform conversations.  If the NEA follows the AFT and makes a presidential primary endorsement without ample membership involvement, its teachers will feel silenced by their own union.  Not only would that likely depress voter mobilization efforts and spark a backlash within the union, it also runs counter to the very principles of what a union is supposed to be.

An early Clinton endorsement would also be a mistake because she’s a suboptimal candidate.  While Clinton is far more union-friendly than anyone running for the Republican nomination, her labor credentials are significantly worse than her main challenger in the Democratic primary, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders has been a steadfast union supporter since the 1970s.  His advocacy on behalf of workers as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s helped foster the growth of the city’s socially-responsible business culture.  “Thanks to the enduring influence of the progressive climate that Sanders and his allies helped to create in Burlington,” The Nation reported in June, “the city’s largest housing development is now resident-owned, its largest supermarket is a consumer-owned cooperative, one of its largest private employers is worker-owned, and most of its people-oriented waterfront is publicly owned. Its publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department, recently announced that Burlington is the first American city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.”

Sanders has continued to advocate for the same causes in Congress over the past 25 years.  In 1994, for example, he introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, legislation designed to strengthen collective bargaining rights.  He currently supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workplaces to hold union elections, and plans to introduce a new Workplace Democracy Act this fall.  He has “convened annual meetings of labor activists to help them develop more successful organizing and bargaining strategies” and still walks picket lines with workers.

To be fair, Clinton also supports the Employee Free Choice Act.  Her campaign rhetoric is pretty pro-union, and the promises she makes in her video to NEA members don’t sound all that different than those made by Bernie (videos below).

But Clinton’s record is significantly worse than Sanders’.  She served on the board of directors of Walmart – which to this day remains one of the nation’s most notoriously anti-union businesses – from 1986 to 1992, for instance.  According to reports that surfaced in 2008, Clinton sat through dozens of board meetings without ever speaking up on behalf of organized labor.  Instead, she stated that she was “proud of Wal-Mart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else.”  Though she has since renounced Walmart’s business practices, Clinton maintains close ties with Walmart executives and lobbyists.  And during her presidential campaigns, she’s surrounded herself with staffers who have troubling anti-union connections.

The following meme, describing cumulative donations the candidates have received over the past thirty years, is illustrative:

Clinton has worse policy positions on key union issues as well.  Bernie Sanders has been a leader in the effort to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a “free trade” deal that could undermine environmental and consumer safety protections and have harmful impacts on workers both in the US and abroad; Clinton, despite recent attempts to distance herself from the TPP, was heavily involved in negotiating and promoting it.  Sanders has been a vocal proponent of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage by 2020, which workers around the country are campaigning for; Clinton long resisted taking a specific position on the issue and only recently spoke favorably about raising the federal minimum to $12-an-hour.

Sanders’ positions on education issues also tend to be more power-balancing than Clinton’s.  Both candidates have called for universal pre-K and increased college affordability, but while Sanders believes education is a right that should be guaranteed free of charge to all students, Clinton hypocritically opposes free college for “kids who don’t work some hours to try to put their own effort into their education.”  At the K-12 level, Sanders also has a stronger vision and record. After initially supporting the House of Representatives’ version of No Child Left Behind in May of 2001, he voted against the final version of NCLB that year because he foresaw problems with “the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions;” Clinton, on the other hand, cast her vote in favor of NCLB.  Sanders believes that “the federal government has a critical role to play” in education policy, one that includes “guaranteeing resource equity,” “increased emphasis on a well-rounded curriculum,” and providing “the resources necessary to provide effective professional development;” Clinton might not necessarily disagree, but while Sanders asserts that he will “direct education funding toward the low-income students who need it most” in his response to the AFT’s candidate questionnaire, this commitment is noticeably absent from Clinton’s writeup.

In fact, on practically every topic – from criminal justice issues to health care to foreign policy – Sanders has Clinton beat.  His platform isn’t perfect, but it’s far and away more in line than Clinton’s with what typical Democratic voters profess to want.  As far as I can tell, nobody at the AFT (or NEA) actually argues that Clinton has better policy positions than Sanders; their endorsement processes seem to be driven by the belief that Clinton is more electable.

The problem with that thinking is twofold.

First, Sanders is actually just as electable, if not more so, than Clinton.  In national polls that pit potential Democratic nominees against potential Republican nominees, Sanders and Clinton do about as well as each other.  If Sanders had anything like Clinton’s name recognition, he’d almost certainly outstrip her; among voters who know who he is, Sanders’ favorability is much higher than Clinton’s (see page 5).  He’s shooting up in Democratic primary polls as more and more voters learn about him and now holds sizable leads in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Oregon.  College students prefer Sanders to Clinton by more than a 3-to-1 margin, policy positions like the ones he holds are wildly popular across the board, and his campaign is showing no signs of losing momentum.

Second, the biggest impediment to a Sanders victory is none other than the political calculus the unions seem to be engaged in.  Politicians are electable if people are willing to support them, while concerns about electability generally undermine progressive goals and become self-fulfilling prophecies.  Rather than settling for Hillary Clinton because they – erroneously – think she’s the best that people will buy, unions should rally behind the better candidate – Bernie Sanders – and start selling him to the American public.

Labor for Bernie, a grassroots movement started by rank-and-file union members, could ultimately prove more important than endorsements from the major national unions.  And Sanders already has the support of National Nurses United.  Nonetheless, it’s incumbent upon NEA leadership, and the leaders of other major unions, to start paying attention to why so many union members feel the Bern.  Sanders, much more than Clinton, deserves organized labor’s official support.

Update (10/3/15): The NEA endorsed Clinton – without any explanation of why members should prefer her to Sanders.

Update (10/26/15): For those interested in the analysis behind the updated meme below, which compares donations during the 2016 presidential campaigns alone, see this post.

Bernie Hillary Meme

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor, US Political System

Social Justice Unionism, Education On Tap Style

I recently discussed why teachers unions are important agents of social justice on “Education On Tap,” a Teach For America (TFA) podcast created by Aaron French. I really enjoyed the conversation – French goes above and beyond his promise to make the show “a little bit of fun” – and appreciated TFA’s continued (though still very young) efforts to deconstruct myths about organized labor and education reform ideas.

You can listen to the podcast below:

A couple additional details on two of the topics we discussed:

1) How we refer to education stakeholders: We often use the phrase “reformer” to describe people on one “side” of the education debate. As Nick Kilstein explains, we typically think “reformers” do the following:

1. Support market forces including choice and competition as a mechanism to improve all schools. This is usually done through vouchers and charter schools.

2. Support business practices including evaluation, promotion and merit pay to motivate and attract teachers

3. Hold that teachers and schools should be accountable for student achievement, usually measured by standardized testing

4. Support alternate paths to the classroom through programs like Teach For America

5. Affiliate themselves with no-excuses charter schools

However, neither French nor I (nor Kilstein) are crazy about this term, for a few reasons. First, the group of people we call “reformers” sometimes have drastically different views on these topics. For example, opinions about the appropriateness of suspending students vary widely among people who support the rapid expansion of charter schools. Because “reformers” don’t hold monolithic views, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to lump them all into the same category.

Second, using the term “reformers” erroneously suggests that only a certain group of people support school improvements. However, teachers in unions and other critics of typical education reform efforts fight for school reforms themselves; they just have a different (and, on balance, more evidence-based and theoretically sound) perspective about which reforms we should pursue on behalf of students in low-income communities. Despite misleading claims to the contrary, very few people actually support the “status quo” in education. Though the word has become associated with negative imagery for a lot of education stakeholders, nearly everyone is a “reformer” to some extent.

Third, the use of a term like “reformers” reinforces the notion that there are two polarized “sides” in education debates, the “reformers” and their opponents. As I discussed with French, I believe the “sides” are much less in opposition than they sometimes appear to be, and that most people in education are in general agreement on the vast majority of issues. The more we can deconstruct the notion of “sides,” the better.

That said, I don’t have a great solution to either the first or third problems (for the second, I’d recommend that we use clunkier phrases more like “proponents of market-driven reforms to education” and “advocates for a comprehensive social justice approach to education policy” when we can). Categories can be useful for brevity’s sake, and as is evident below, it’s hard to construct an argument while avoiding categorization altogether. Still, I think it’s worth reflecting on our naming conventions as we endeavor to be more nuanced.

2) Why unions are power-balancing advocates for low-income kids: French explained during our discussion that many people believe the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA, the local union for which I served as an Executive Board member from 2012 to 2014) to be an atypically progressive union. In reality (and I believe French agrees), the vast majority of unions, including national teachers unions like the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), are some of the most power-balancing institutions out there.

Recent research by Martin Gilens confirms this fact: unions consistently advocate on behalf of less advantaged populations on a wide range of social justice issues. They serve as an important counterbalance to wealthy interests and exploitative policies, and have made extremely important gains for working Americans throughout their history. It’s probably not a coincidence that the steep decline in unionization over the past thirty years has coincided with a steep increase in earnings, income, and wealth inequality.

That doesn’t mean unions can’t be wrong on certain issues. We should absolutely condemn the behavior of police unions that defend racist positions, for example, and demand that they be held accountable and change. Teachers unions shouldn’t be immune from criticism, either, and it’s imperative that we confront them when we believe their positions are misguided. Not all teachers unions have realized their potential as social justice unions just yet, and while I firmly believe that a different approach from the education community would help more of them do so, organized labor must also proactively analyze and revise practices that don’t fit its mission.

Yet we must also remember that teachers unions have very strong track records on behalf of low- and moderate-income families, and more credibility as advocates for low-income kids than many of the people and organizations who malign unions. Even if you think certain teachers unions are wrong about aspects of education policy, it’s completely inaccurate to argue that their existence harms low-income kids. The empirical evidence is clear (much clearer, in general, than the evidence about education policy ideas) that teachers unions are a major net positive for low-income populations.

There’s joint responsibility to change the tone of education conversations, and union members must avoid becoming reflexively defensive when confronted with criticism. We do ourselves and our students a disservice when we react by ignoring people outright or slinging insults right back; instead, we should try to understand the legitimate elements of critiques, address them, and educate people on where they’re wrong and how to have more productive dialogue.

At the same time, union members and leaders are understandably offended when proponents of market-driven reforms (making an attempt!) imply that union opposition to these reforms is borne of laziness, selfishness, and/or incompetence. Everyone needs to remember that teachers in unions, who are directly student-facing and who will actually implement education reform ideas, typically have good ideas about what students need, and that both private and public sector unions are important advocates for low-income people in general. While there is some shared responsibility, the tone of the debate cannot change until proponents of market-driven reforms acknowledge these facts. The sooner anti-union messaging becomes a thing of education reform conversations past, the sooner we can collaboratively develop great policies for students.

A big thank you to French for having me on the show, and hope you enjoy the podcast!

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TFA, CTA, and What It Means to Be a Union

A former instructional coach and one of only five people selected nationwide as a 2012 recipient of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, Jen Thomas is now President of the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA).  In this post, also destined for the next issue of the California Educator, Jen discusses the California Teachers Association’s (CTA’s) recent cover story about Teach For America (TFA) and the responsibility that comes with being part of a union.

SJTA President Jen Thomas

Jen Thomas

Like any president would be, I was delighted when I received the October edition of the California Educator and saw one of San Jose TA’s members smiling from the cover. Clinton Loo was not only a very talented math teacher, but a member of our local’s governing body: he spent the 2013-2014 school year as our Secretary-Treasurer.

My excitement turned quickly to concern, though, when I saw the title of the article in which Clinton was featured: “Teach for America: Do-gooders or school Rhee-formers?” My concern was the rhetorical choice this framing implied. My colleagues and friends from TFA are either “do-gooders” with the saccharine naiveté that implies, or agents of Michelle Rhee and her intolerable demagoguery.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.  

As CTA, this article highlights two serious problems: inadvertently undermining our union brothers and sisters who came to us from the TFA program, and not resolving the problems generated by the organization.

1) CTA members who come from Teach for America should feel that they are as valued and supported as any other teacher entering the classroom.  First and foremost, a teacher is our colleague. We must be united in support of one another, and that starts with being extremely careful with how we frame important questions about the changing political landscape in our profession when these questions can lead to division in our ranks.

2) What are we doing about these issues and are they unique to Teach for America members?

  • High TFA turnover is an issue, but about 50% of all teachers leave in their first five years, driven out by workload, wage stagnation, and the abject failure of our society to prioritize education.  Many TFA corps members stay in San Jose for long past their two-year mandate and often they leave for the same reason any teacher leaves: The job is entirely unsustainable. Our compassion for that should be where we anchor this conversation.
  • No, five weeks training is not enough time to make a quality educator. We’ve also seen teacher training programs of a year or even two years that do not produce teachers ready to face the real strains and struggles of the classroom.  Poor preparation puts a terrible burden on our system; what are we going to do about it?
  • That TFA members don’t become actively involved in the union because they see themselves as education transients is a broad statement and contradicted by our experience in San Jose. Perhaps we are unique, but TFA corps members and alumni don’t deserve to all be painted with the same brush.
  • Where’s our plan to be as strong as Leadership for Educational Equity? Let’s build on our political strength and create a powerful support and training program to elect public officials from the teaching ranks.

Issues of training, policy, and politics; issues of values, arrogance, and teaching as a hobby – all of these are valid and worth a discussion aimed at remedy rather than rhetoric. In the meantime, every CTA member past and present – regardless of how they came to the classroom – should believe that we are united together in support of the work we do for our students, our colleagues, our communities, and our futures.

That’s what it means to be a union.

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The Political Lens: What Global Warming and Wright v. New York Have in Common

During the 2003-2004 school year, my chemistry teacher told my class that global warming wasn’t occurring.  I believed her.  When I attended New Jersey’s Governor’s School of International Studies in the summer of 2005, a professor told me the opposite – the evidence for global warming, and for the human contribution to it, was virtually incontrovertible.  Confused about what to think, I began to research the issue.  I also reached out to some of my other former teachers to ask for their input.

Three things became immediately clear.  First, most popular articles about global warming contained more empty rhetoric than useful information.  The mainstream media, as it far too frequently does, focused not on the truth but on grandstanding and a false sense of balance.  Second, I didn’t know enough climate science to look through a given study’s results and determine their legitimacy.  Third, I didn’t have to – a different approach could tell me everything I needed to know about each study’s likely veracity.

Global warming research falls into two categories: research by legitimate scientists and “research” funded by big energy interestsLegitimate scientists, who have no economic incentive to lie, conclude that global warming is a manmade crisis deserving our immediate action.  The few studies that suggest otherwise are normally sponsored by organizations like Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute, interest groups with billions of dollars invested in the activity responsible for global warming.

As with global warming, knowledge of the individual and organizational incentives behind opposing “sides” of any debate provides us with critical information.  This “political lens,” though not completely foolproof, reminds us that certain claims deserve a larger dose of skepticism than others.  The agendas behind a movement are especially important to consider when we lack in-depth knowledge of a particular issue.

In education policy debates, “reformers” far too often selectively and inaccurately apply the political lens or dismiss its importance.  That dynamic surfaced after Stephen Colbert interviewed former CNN anchor Campbell Brown on July 31. Brown’s organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, had filed Wright v. New York three days before the interview.  Wright, modeled after Vergara v. California, challenges several aspects of teacher employment law.

A small group of teachers, parents, and grassroots organizers showed up to protest Brown’s appearance on the show.  Colbert, responding to the protesters and the Twitter hashtag #questions4campbell, asked Brown about her organization’s funding sources.  Brown refused to disclose her donors.  Amidst the criticism that followed, various stakeholders have rushed to Brown’s defenseThey continue to argue that a focus on Brown’s donors and political affiliations is a “desperate effort to distract from the real conversation” about teacher employment law.

The truth of the matter, however, is that educators would love to focus on substantive conversations about teacher employment law.  Teacher “tenure” and dismissal and layoff procedures, though they are intended to protect both student and teacher access to a positive, productive educational experience, don’t always work as intended.  Unions recognize this problem and recommend legislative improvements that simultaneously address issues with the execution of the laws and preserve their important components.  We also frequently discuss the laws on their merits.  Additionally, student advocates would love to see reformers, unions, and legislators engaged in substantive conversations about how to unite behind and fight for causes that matter considerably more for the lives of low-income students: in-school causes like funding equity and improved teacher support and out-of-school causes like the living wage and immigrant rights.

Unfortunately, pro-Wright propaganda, featured much more prominently in the mainstream media than legitimate arguments for the defense, often drowns out these “real conversations.”  No teacher has a job for life, competent school districts can and do dismiss bad teachers, and there is absolutely no evidence that teacher employment law causes inequities between low-income and high-income schools***, yet relatively large swaths of the American public have bought Brown’s misleading narrative and harbor severe misconceptions about the statutes and their effects.  Brown isn’t leading her crusade with a rigorous analysis of the facts and sound logical argument; instead, she “addresses” the lawsuit’s substantive critiques by ignoring inconvenient statistics and logic and implying that disagreement indicates a disregard for the well-being of children.  It’s hard for the public to understand the nuances of education law and research when Wright supporters prominently and erroneously equate opposition to the lawsuit with the defense of horrible teachers.

Thus while education law and research is arguably less complicated than the science behind global warming, the political lens is equally important to consider in this debate.  It’s theoretically possible that the unions who defend teacher employment law do so to protect teachers who call students names and sleep in class.  And it’s theoretically possible that Campbell Brown and her unnamed donors care more about the lives of low-income kids than do the unionized teachers who work with them every day.  It’s also theoretically possible that Exxon produces more honest research about global warming than does the entire scientific community.  But these theoretical possibilities are all extremely unlikely.

Instead, it’s significantly more likely that Campbell Brown’s donors, like the people who funded Vergara v. California, actively exacerbate economic inequality.  That Wright v. New York and Vergara conveniently allow them to undermine organized labor and distract us from the ways their business and political activities harm the families of the very same low-income students they purport to help.  That teachers in unions care deeply about delivering an excellent education to their students, and that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from its negative narrative, erroneous claims and premises, and failure to provide solutions to the actual causes of teacher quality issues.  In other words, looking through our political lens reminds us that there are literally billions more “adult interests” in support of Wright v. New York than in its defense.

Educators must continue to clarify facts about teacher employment law and support responsible reforms.  Most proponents of challenges to the statutes are well-intentioned, and a focus on agendas alone would not do the issues justice.  It is also entirely legitimate, however, to call attention to the profit and political motives behind lawsuits like Wright and Vergara.  Knowledge of donors and allies helps us understand why, when unions and Campbell Brown present conflicting information about the law’s intent and effects, Campbell Brown’s claims warrant significantly more suspicion.

Campbell Brown graphic

***While the plaintiffs in Wright, unlike those in Vergara, do not erroneously contend in their complaint that the laws cause inequities between low- and high-income schools, the idea that low-income students are disproportionately impacted by bad teachers was mentioned by Brown in her appearance on The Colbert Report and still surfaces in discussions of the lawsuit.

Update: A version of this post appeared on The Huffington Post on October 2.

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