Category Archives: Labor

Dear Councilman Grosso: Please Be Our Ally and Support 77

Dear Councilman Grosso,

We’ve met before. I worked at a bar in Chinatown that you used to frequent. We only spoke a few times, but I remember feeling proud to have you as our guest because you had a reputation for being an ally – an advocate for women and for the LGBTQ community. I’m writing to you today to ask you to be an ally to vulnerable workers in Washington, D.C. by supporting Initiative 77, which will raise the wages of tipped employees and help stabilize a flawed system.

The restaurant industry in Washington has afforded me many opportunities as both a bartender and manager. I have a deep respect for my service industry peers, and when my colleagues came out against 77, I voted “no” alongside them. In retrospect, the pressure in the industry was substantial to oppose, and then to repeal. Yet when the voters of D.C. popularly supported 77, I began to realize that our conversation about the initiative had been imbalanced. We had not heard from bartenders who supported 77 and, perhaps most importantly, we had not heard from many of the most vulnerable members of our industry.

In support of these vulnerable workers, I testified against the repeal of 77 after most of the Council had left for the night, dashing from work after last call at 1:00 a.m. and returning to close the bar after my testimony. While I waited my turn, I heard the fears of my colleagues who work in some of the city’s most renowned restaurants. They testified that 77 would catalyze the decline of our vibrant restaurant industry. Many fears reminded me of those I heard when other voices lobbied against paid sick days. Meanwhile, so many whose fears are realized on a daily basis went unheard that night. Once more, I will try to speak for them, as one of them.

I have felt the volatility of subsisting on tips. At that Chinatown bar, our staff sometimes missed a week’s income when bad weather drove everyone away. More recently, while pursuing my graduate degree, I worked daylight hours, which cut my income to a fraction of what it had been. While I earned meager tips off a handful of guests, I meticulously cleaned and prepped the bar for the busy night ahead. The system allowed my hard work to go unpaid.

I believe that Initiative 77 is a step toward professionalizing this industry and giving all tipped workers the stability and respect that they deserve. This is a bill meant to help the most vulnerable in our industry. It is for women who smile through degrading treatment because we need a tip. It is for underpaid immigrants who toil tirelessly to keep things running, often doing double the work for half the pay. It is for the welfare of our residents who are not chosen to work in the city’s highest-grossing restaurants.

I have seen enormous, unjustified disparities in pay. As a manager, I’ve seen the books. I’ve seen what restaurants spend on turnover, and I’ve witnessed the revenue lost from an undervalued and sometimes uninspired workforce. I also know that rising expenses are absorbed through small increases in food and beverage prices. The industry will shift to accommodate a higher base wage.

The Council has repeatedly asked these vulnerable workers to show themselves. It has asked why they have not spoken more loudly. Councilman Grosso, as an ally, I believe you know better. These groups are more dependent on good relationships with management and staff than they are on any city law. And they already voted once. I am asking you to stand for them. I am asking you do what’s right.

Supporting 77 is a way for you to stand for the rights of all tipped workers across our city. With your support of 77, you’re not choosing between restaurants and workers; you’re choosing to create a more just and equitable system for all.

Aubrey DeBoer

Aubrey DeBoer is a bartender and restaurant manager in Washington, DC with nearly 10 years of industry experience. She has been a Ward 5 resident for the past eight years.

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Filed under Business, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System

Listen to Tipped Workers

Minimum wage expert Dave Cooper said on a recent podcast episode that the DC Council’s September 17 hearing on DC’s Initiative 77 was “probably the craziest city council hearing/state-level policy hearing I’ve ever been to, and I’ve testified in a bunch of different places.” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was, as Cooper noted, hostile to anyone speaking in favor of upholding the initiative and raising wages for tipped workers. Observe Mendelson interrogate Sophia Miyoshi, for example, a five-year veteran of DC’s tipped-wage workforce who helped run the “Yes on 77” campaign. As the video below shows, Mendelson looked her up on social media and used the fact that she had recently moved and hadn’t updated her Facebook and LinkedIn pages to try to discredit her testimony.

Miyoshi’s voice is an important one, especially given the “No on 77” campaign’s constant refrain that we should #ListenToTippedWorkers. It is true that a number of servers and bartenders have spoken out against receiving a raise. But in addition to their arguments’ inconsistency with the facts, these workers comprise an unrepresentative subset of employees in DC’s tipped industries. For one thing, a full 27 percent of DC’s tipped workforce labors outside of the restaurant industry. Nathan Luecking, a high school social worker in Ward 8, testified that the tipped jobs most commonly available to the parents of students he works with are not in “the higher-end restaurants uptown,” but as “hairdressers, nail technicians, parking lot attendants, and food delivery drivers.” He noted how one student’s parent, who works as a hairdresser, “does well on tips when folks have money to spend, like back to school or after tax refund season. However, for the rest of the year, she struggles to make predictable income, and some months she can’t pay her rent or utilities on time.”

For another, most of the servers and bartenders who comprise 40 percent of DC’s tipped workforce have different experiences than the people wearing “No on 77” pins. “Many of those who oppose Initiative 77 have been in the restaurant industry for 15 to 20 years and have been treated well by their bosses,” former DC tipped worker David Sexton, who also testified on September 17, pointed out to me after the hearing. “It’s great that the system has worked out for them, but for the majority of tipped workers it has not.”

Because of fears of employer retaliation, the voices of this lower-wage majority of tipped workers have been underrepresented in DC’s debate. Even when employees and bosses have a strong relationship, employees rightfully worry about taking public political stances their bosses might not like. Will it affect their shift schedule or their next request for time off? Will they be less likely to get a raise or a promotion? The safer route, if you’re struggling to make ends meet and don’t want to rock the boat, is to stay quiet. When bosses invite campaigns into their workplaces to spread misinformation and employees feel overt pressure to take certain stances – as multiple witnesses testified they did – is it any wonder more haven’t spoken out? Thea Bryan, one of the brave tipped workers who has been vocal in her support of Initiative 77, was fired shortly after giving a speech on the issue.

For those interested in hearing them, however, we now have ample documentation of these workers’ voices. Well over a dozen people who have spent time working in tipped jobs in DC courageously stepped up and testified publicly at the hearing.

“Many former tipped workers might have stayed in the restaurant industry if not for the hostility, wage theft, and abuse they faced, which is in no small part a result of the failed subminimum wage model,” Sexton told me. These are some of their and current tipped workers’ stories, in their own words.

Eric Harris Bernstein

“I have been a bartender most of my adult life. I have bartended in five cities, including for two years right here in DC, where I made a base wage of around $3 per hour. Now that I am pursuing my graduate education in the Bay Area, I have returned to bartending in order to support myself. In my current position, like all tipped workers in California, I make the full minimum wage – in my case, $13.23 per hour. I make that in addition to tips, which hover between 17 and 22 percent of sales.

I told this to a friend who bartends in the Penn Quarter and he was shocked. He had assumed, based on the National Restaurant Association’s talking points, that tipping had disappeared in California. That is the degree to which NRA scare tactics have defined and misdirected this debate. I am here to correct the record.

I am here to tell you that this additional base pay will make an enormous difference in the lives of your constituents, as it has in my own. It will lift families out of poverty, as it has in other fair wage cities and states. And it will improve the restaurant industry, as it has in booming fair wage restaurant towns like Seattle and Portland.

I’d also like to correct the record on another matter. A number of councilmembers have stated that current law guarantees DC’s tipped workers the full hourly minimum wage. It does not. Under current law, if a DC restaurant worker earns $300 in tips on Friday, but earns no tips on Monday, they are earning just $3.89 for each hour they worked that day. The balance between the tipped minimum wage and the full minimum wage is not made up by the restaurant but is pulled out of the $300 already in that worker’s pockets.

In other words, the current system pulls tipped workers down towards the minimum instead of building them up beyond it…Restaurant workers have a right to a reasonable base pay that does not eat into their tips. No other industry is exempt from this obligation.”

Thea Bryan

I have been bartending on and off for many years…Most recently I have been working at a well-established restaurant in Ward 3 called Arucola. On a recent Saturday night when it was pouring down rain I made S27. Not because no one was tipping but because it was dead due to the torrential downpour outside. Tell me, do any of you get paid less because the weather is bad? $3.89 is not a fair wage and it doesn’t make up for times when business is slow, like January, February, August, when it’s raining, when it’s snowing. Workers deserve a fair hourly wage to help offset the slow times…

There has been a lot of conversation as to why more tipped workers aren’t speaking out in favor of this initiative. I can give you my personal experience, which is the endless harassment I have received. There has been a concerted effort to find out where I work. Per the threats people want to come in and not tip me or get me fired. I have felt the wrath of other coworkers, with whom I generally have had great working relationships, only to hear them make false claims about Initiative 77 being a push to stop tipping. This is untrue. The misinformation on this has been ubiquitous and unyielding. Interesting that the same coworkers fighting against this were just weeks later complaining about not being able to make ends meet with their tips. Fearmongering of the loss of livelihood has caused many to engage in vitriolic rhetoric against anyone who is perceived as a threat.”

Woong Chang

“I’ve been living here in DC since 2009 and I’m a current tipped worker in Ward 5. I’m here today not only as a restaurant worker but also as a deeply concerned citizen, to urge the city council to respect the will of the voters and vote no on this preposterous bill named “Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018”…

Quite frankly, I could sit here and tell you all the stories, statistics, and data, both anecdotal and scientific, but…you’ve heard them all, we’ve been having this conversation since 2012. This personally is my third time testifying on behalf of raising the tipped minimum wage here in DC.

So instead, here’s something you haven’t heard much. In fact, this is why I’m fighting for the elimination of the tipped minimum wage. My dream, ever since I started in the restaurant industry, has been to see the day that my industry is ‘professionalized’…This is what I love to do and this is what I am passionate about.

Chantal Coudoux

“I am a DC native who grew up in Ward 6, moved to Ward 4 and then returned to Ward 6…I have been a part of the restaurant industry here and in California for over a decade…

As the daughter of a refugee, I prioritize the folks who work support staff roles…and do not make 60k or 80k a year in this industry; the folks who came to DC not because of the trendy restaurant scene but because of other global forces; the folks who if they lose their jobs, cannot just bounce to the next one; the folks who make restaurants run but who aren’t up front and center; the folk who might not speak English as their first language; the folk who like my father cannot vote in the U.S. because of immigration status or incarceration. These are the folks who are overwhelmingly victims of wage theft, who will not bring up to an employer that they did not receive minimum wage because this would cost them shifts or their job entirely.

To be clear, I am not one of those people. I was born with skin color privilege, the “right” nationality and the “correct” native language. But these folks are my blood and chosen family. I say all this not because they need me to “save them” or their tips or to speak for them, but in solidarity with workers whose voices were never heard in the conversation. I talked with these folks; I listened when they told me it did not matter if they spoke up or they were too scared to given the racist administration we are facing or they did not trust in the council to not overturn the initiative. Yes, industry people were split but the electorate heard these lost voices. You apparently did not, just as you are choosing to ignore voices of the electorate.”

Aubrey DeBoer

“I voted ‘No’ on Initiative 77. However, I am here today to defend it. Since the election, I have come to read and understand both sides of the issue, and I believe that many of the arguments against it were false. Furthermore, I believe the fundamental duty of a modern democracy is to respect the voice of the people. Implementing 77 is an opportunity for us Washingtonians to do just that.

For 8 years, I have worked as a professional in the service industry…

Often, our livelihoods as service workers are jeopardized by the uncertainty of what we might make that night. The minimum wage wouldn’t erase this uncertainty, which restaurant workers broadly acknowledge, but it would be a step in the right direction. Now, our tenuous tips put us in precarious situations. We are at the mercy of unpredictable generosity of guests, which subjects us to toleration of all kinds of bad behavior.

When the #metoo movement began to swell online, I laughed away the thought of posting my own experiences. Why would I? Harassment is nearly a daily issue. Tipsy guests misread my friendliness as an invitation for advances. But I just need their money. Men take advantage of a crowded room to grab me. And I just need their money. People yell insults about my intelligence or my body. And I still need their money. This is my income. Guaranteeing a stable base wage would be a step towards professionaIizing this industry and giving restaurant workers Iike me the respect that we deserve.”

Ann Eveleth

“I live in Petworth and I am a registered voter in Ward 4. I am also currently employed as a restaurant server, and I have worked in the industry for more than 15 years spread across my working life, including nearly 6 years here in the District. The proposal to overturn the will of the majority of voters who supported Initiative 77 not only threatens the benefits I expected to gain as a restaurant worker by having my industry (finally!) upgraded to 21st century labour standards, but also directly threatens to flush my own vote in favour of the initiative down the toilet, along with those of the other 47,229 voters who will be retroactively disenfranchised by such a move, especially in wards whose demographics are most representative of the most vulnerable workers in the District…

I began my first restaurant job as a high school student in downriver Detroit in the 1980s. The so-called ‘tipped minimum wage’ then , in the 1980s, was about $1.85/hr federally. Today, in 2018, more than 30 years later, it still sits at $2.13 an hour. That’s basically an increase of one penny a year over three decades – it’s practically a world record in wage suppression and it’s only been sustained due to the unbending resistance by the powerful lobbying group known as the ‘other NRA,’ the National Restaurant Association…

I have a great deal of sympathy for the genuine fears of some of my coworkers in the industry, but I submit that these fears are based on projections based on NRA propaganda in this post-truth climate, and not based on facts.”

Abdul Fofana

“I’ve been working in the hospitality/service industry for 11 years…I’m currently the lead server-slash-banquet captain at Dirty Habit DC…

I am a strong supporter of Initiative 77. I support the initiative for several reasons, but most importantly because restaurants must now make staffing decisions that both benefit the restaurant as well as its employees. Washington DC’s restaurant market is highly competitive with new restaurants constantly opening. Business owners often find themselves scrambling to fully staff their restaurant with qualified and talented individuals. Due to the oversaturation of restaurants, managers and owners are instead hiring less-experienced staff. This results in overstaffing in order to accommodate the lack of experience. Restaurants do not currently take into consideration overstaffing because of how low the wages are for their front-of-the-house staff…

With Initiative 77, the wage increases will be a benefit to guests, employees, and business. Managers can now construct hiring and floor plans with the goal of hiring talented, experienced employees…With the greater talent, less tipped employees can cover the floor…With greater talent, guests enjoy the dining experience without preventable hiccups in service. With greater talent, employees are happy with their wages, empowered to push farther in their hospitality careers, and refer others to work in such a beautiful field. Initiative 77 is a win for everybody involved in the hospitality industry.”

Matthew Hanson

“I am a Ward 7 resident, a former tipped worker, and the Director of DC Working Families. I am here today to testify in support of one fair minimum wage and against the proposed legislation to repeal it.

When voters go to the polls, we expect our decisions at the ballot box to be respected. When Republicans in Congress have attempted to interfere in our local decisions, we have stood up against their efforts, regardless of where we stood on the issue, because we understand it’s important to respect the democratic process.

For many of us, this isn’t just about defending a fair and equitable raise for tipped workers, it’s about defending our decision at the ballot box. One that voters took very seriously.”

Pearl Rose Hood

“I have worked as a tipped worker for nine years at a variety of establishments…From my very first job, and through the years, I have been distraught by the income instability and by employers’ lack of empathy in following regulations put in place to protect workers’ well-being. I experienced wage theft at Woodberry Kitchen, owned and operated by Spike Gjerde, where we tipped out a portion back into the house, so back into the pockets of its millionaire owners…

I have worked as a bartender, server and as support staff; as a busser and food-runner. I can say that support staff, who also depend primarily on tips, are typically paid much less. Support staff are often immigrants, people working more than one job, supporting many others. I don’t believe they are being fairly represented today.

I have been pressured to vote no on 77. My most recent employer required us to hand out “vote no” cards with every customer’s check. I received numerous emails detailing how to email my councilmembers and testify against Prop 77. I know of an industry colleague who was fired from her position in southwest [DC] because she would not solicit customers to vote no.

I believe there is misinformation and fearmongering from the part of employers and restaurateurs. Tipped workers, especially the lowest-earning ones, are scared for their livelihoods to a degree that keeps them from feeling able to speak up.”

Dia King

“I have been a valet driver for 4-and-a-half years. I’ve lived and worked in DC most of my life and I currently live in Ward 7.

When I first started working as a valet, I was paid $7 an hour plus tips. Now, 4-and-a-half years later, I still have not gotten a raise. Even though I have asked many times, they typically make up excuses like saying it’s not in the budget, and even one time they simply refused. Yet at the same time I have witnessed multiple increases in valet rates, and as I also noticed, when the valet rates went up, my tips went down.

I enjoy working at the hotel and all of the relationships that I have built. I have met so many amazing people, guests, co-workers and even celebrities. I have stayed at my job because I like it, but as a professional, I feel undervalued.

When working, I am required to “post up,” which means stand up straight, don’t lean for hours, have a smile on my face, greet every guest who comes to the hotel, and I’ll get 100% on my shop score if I add ‘I’ll be happy to.’

How can I be happy to make our guests happy if my company won’t take care of me? I live in a city where the cost of living is constantly going up. Rent, food and transportation continues to increase while my wage stays the same. If our guests can afford $50+ for parking then my company can afford a livable wage for me.”

Sophia Miyoshi

“I have worked in the restaurant industry primarily as a tipped worker for seven years, and throughout this time I learned that working in this industry is hard work that requires physical, mental, and emotional labor. I also learned that it is one in which abuses, biases, and harassment can run rampant. On top of the intensity of the work we also have to endure sexual harassment from customers, coworkers, and even bosses, racial discrimination in hiring and promotional practices, immigration threats, wage theft, and general daily abuses.

Because of what I experienced and witnessed working in restaurants, and all that was tolerated and normalized, I wanted to do what I could to improve the industry that I hold so close to me. I became a member at the Restaurant Opportunities Center and eventually left the industry to be brought on as a community and worker organizer, which is my role today.

I am here in support of Initiative 77…

Restaurant work is a profession, and therefore, in the restaurant industry, we should be treated as professionals. Working in the restaurant industry has been highly devalued and many people do not see or treat these jobs as a career. It is not possible for our industry to be truly professionalized when we are being paid $3 to $5 an hour. Professionalism starts with professional wages.”

Nteboheng Maya Mokuena

I am a Ward 5 resident and I am here to testify in support of Initiative 77.

Not only am I climate and racial justice organizer, but I am a former tipped employee. While some bartenders and waitresses may earn more than $15/hour with tips, that is not the case for many tipped workers in DC. I know specifically when I worked in different cafes that there would be nights when I would take home $2 in cash after splitting it with my fellow employees. My income insecurity as a tipped employee meant not only living paycheck to paycheck, but that in order to earn more tips, I did need to endure more sexual harassment, I needed to wear more makeup, and I needed to take on more shifts while maintaining my status as a full-time student at American University…

It’s important for workers to not have to depend upon the graciousness or harassment of customers to receive living wages — that is the responsibility of the government and our employers.”

Trupti Patel

I happen to be a bartender…Last week my “sister” suffered an emotional breakdown at work. She was at her breaking point to be at work on a day/shift where all of us (2 bartenders and 6 servers) were on the floor for at least 3 hours with no patrons due to bad weather. The indifference displayed by the management to all staff that was in clear economic anxiety was the straw that broke the camel’s back. To hear ‘it’s just one bad day, it’ll pick up later on in the week’ is not a comforting response when you’re living on an economically precarious shift to shift pay cycle…I’d learn later on that she had become homeless due to the economic instability of being a tipped service industry worker and that all of her belongings were to be auctioned off that day. She was counting on coming to work and being able to earn an income that day, but when your income potential is put at the mercy of unpredictable factors such as weather, unfair scheduling, and whims of generosity from strangers it’s in reality economic roulette each shift.”

David Sexton

“I am a Ward 4 Resident. I was a tipped worker in D.C. for 2 years. I left last fall in part because of the unsustainability of the work.

I am here to testify in support of the full implementation of Initiative 77. As a former tipped employee in the District of Columbia, I found that the current wage system is volatile and hostile to workers. The subminimum wage of $3.89 per hour is little more than a tax buffer, meaning tips are the only way for servers to make ends meet. When the cost of labor is subsidized by customers, pay becomes unpredictable and can change every period. Anything from weather, illness, or a customer’s mood could impact my tips. A bad night or week meant working more shifts the next, leading to irregular schedules and unpredictable results. This lack of a safety net often led to difficult decisions. Without a fair wage, I felt compelled to go to work sick because I was afraid to lose the money. As a Type 1 Diabetic, I often worked through episodes of high and low blood sugar when I should have taken a break or gone home because I knew that I could not miss that opportunity to make money.

Under a tipped wage system, many workers also make less than minimum wage whenever they work outside of a service period. For example, at one tipped job that I held last year, up to a quarter of my shifts were spent opening and closing the restaurant before and after service. Because there were no customers during this period, my colleagues and I earned less than $4 an hour for our hard work. This drags down the average wage, forcing us to borrow from our ‘good shifts’ to offset paltry earnings. It’s an unequal system that requires workers to maintain the owner’s property and get little in return. It’s an unfair, two-tiered wage system that no white-collar employee would accept. Tipped workers deserve the same…

The movement to repeal Initiative 77 has been bankrolled by the National Restaurant Association, management consultants, and is backed by people like Mark Meadows in the House Freedom Caucus. When powerful interests publicly claim the initiative is unaffordable and spend hundreds of thousands dollars pitching to progressive voters, I have to wonder if they care about the many or the few.”

Chandrasekaran Shanmugam

I live in Maryland and work in DC. I [have been] working in [the] hospitality industry for 15 years in various positions.

I would like to bring the following to your attention in support of Initiative 77…

People voted for Initiative 77 in the same ballot that many of you were selected to represent us.

Your victory and the Initiative 77 victory are each side of the same coin. You cannot take one and ignore the other…

It is simple math that $15 per hour with tips will give more earnings than $3.89 with tips. In the states where one fair wage is implemented workers get tips in addition to the one fair wage.”

Griffin Tanner

“I’ve lived in DC for 6 years and I am a Ward 1 resident. I worked in the restaurant industry in DC for 3 years first as a runner and later as a bartender. However, this past June, after the election, I transitioned out of the industry. I believe this is significant. I am speaking here today because I am no longer at risk from unfavorable treatment from an employer and there’s several people still in the industry who support 77 but don’t feel comfortable speaking out against it in the face of “Save Our Tips” posters. So I’m here today to uplift those voices…

My own experiences working in the service industry show why initiative 77 would be a positive change for service workers.

When initially hired as a bartender, I earned $7 an hour plus tips, but about half a year into the job, our employer suddenly lowered the base wage to $3 an hour. That’s over a 50% decrease in base wage because our tips were quote unquote “high enough.” This dramatically lowered my expected earnings and affected my financial planning and security. About half of our staff quit. I considered leaving but was in in the middle of pursuing a degree and not in a position to search for a new job, so I had to rearrange my finances and cut back on spending to deal with the decrease in earnings.

Now, the company was not wrong for doing this because it was completely within their legal right. However, workers should not be subjected to this kind of unpredictability in earnings, whether it’s from changes to their base wage or from other characteristics in the industry such as inconsistencies in tippings throughout the year. With I-77, a stable base wage would prevent such unpredictability.”

Venorica Tucker

I am a 70-year-old African-American woman who has raised my children by myself (I have three sons). I was born and raised in Washington, DC and have worked in DC as a tipped worker all my life. I now live in Prince George’s County. I work very near here, at two very prominent places, providing food service and receiving a tip…

I discovered ROC and I supported many of the programs that they initiated, programs like ban the box, paid sick days, and their advocacy against sexual harassment in the workplace. I have been working to help them realize one fair wage and Initiative 77. So I was very happy on election night when I saw that we in fact had won when we were told we probably wouldn’t.

And when I hear you, Mr. Chairman, make the comment that you’ve heard the people, you’ve heard the workers, and the workers are all opposed to this – I’m a worker, 70 years old, working in this industry…For you to say that we’re saying ‘we don’t want this,’ that’s not the truth…

You’ve met with these people, not with us, the people who are for Initiative 77, but you’ve met with the people opposed to Initiative 77, and you’ve coached them, you’ve told them what to come here and say, and I am so disappointed in this kind of action.”

(Tucker’s allegations are accurate and confirmed by reporting in The Washington Post.)

If Phil Mendelson and his colleagues on the DC Council (particularly Kenyan McDuffie, Trayon White, Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, Vince Gray, and Brandon Todd) were truly interested in listening to tipped workers, these stories would give them pause. If they were truly interested in the facts, they’d take a closer look at the evidence a plethora of researchers, clergy, businesspeople, women’s rights advocates, civil rights lawyers, worker advocates, public officials, and other DC residents also presented to them at the hearing, and on many other occasions. And if they were truly interested in representing the people of DC – rather than the wealthy business executives who have donated to their campaigns – they wouldn’t be trying to repeal what their constituents voted for.

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Hold Up, Bernie! Stopping BEZOS Requires a Different Approach.

Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos may be the wealthiest person in the history of the world: as of September 6, his net worth is $168 billion. At the same time, his company’s employment practices are terrible. At Amazon fulfillment centers (the warehouses in which they prepare orders for delivery), wages are low, conditions are grueling, and attempts to unionize are squelched at every turn. If Bezos made, say, $10 billion over the past year instead of the $84 billion he actually made during that 12-month time period – if he was unbelievably, ridiculously rich rather than record-breakingly rich – he could have given each of his employees worldwide (not just the warehouse employees) a $130,000 bonus.

That’s the backdrop for the Stop BEZOS Act, a bill Bernie Sanders just introduced in the Senate. Like a similar bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Ro Khanna last summer, the Stop BEZOS Act (which stands for “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act”) would make large employers – defined as those with 500 or more employees – pay taxes equivalent to the amount of federal money spent on their workers’ public benefits. That is, the Sanders and Khanna bills would penalize employers whose employees’ incomes are low enough to qualify for SNAP (food stamps), free or reduced-price school meals, rental assistance, and health coverage through Medicaid.

Unfortunately, these bills reinforce dangerous stereotypes about public assistance, are likely to do more harm than good, and should be opposed. There are much better ways to fight back against the corporate greed and low wages Sanders and Khanna rightly condemn.

To understand why the approach in and messaging around these bills is so damaging, consider the tweet and embedded video clip below from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

On the one hand, it’s great to see a Fox News host calling out the underpayment of workers by insanely rich people. But note the way Carlson talks about this problem. Amazon “employees are so poor, you’re paying their welfare benefits.” Bezos is “offloading his payroll costs onto taxpayers.” This language is designed not just to get people angry about Bezos – it’s set up to pit “taxpayers” and “you” – Carlson’s viewers – against people who struggle to make ends meet and receive public assistance. One possible response to this message is “you’re right – Bezos should be paying his workers more!” Another, especially given the programming typical from Fox, could very well be “Why the hell am I, a taxpayer, paying for welfare benefits for other people? Let’s cut them!”

Though Sanders and Khanna are two of the most reliably power-balancing members of Congress and mean well, their language is alarmingly similar to Carlson’s. Sanders pitched his bill with the promise that “the taxpayers of this country would no longer be subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country who are paying their workers inadequate wages.” Khanna said “taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for paying the expenses of workers employed by multibillion-dollar companies.” Sanders and Khanna are clearly blaming rich people, not people who are struggling to get by, but they’re still creating a distinction between “taxpayers” and the workers who receive public assistance.

This distinction is a false one. Workers receiving public assistance are themselves taxpayers. Their overall taxes are lower than those of richer people, largely because we have a moderately progressive federal income tax. But when it comes to federal payroll taxes and state and local taxes, such as sales taxes, they actually pay a higher percentage of their incomes than rich people do.

Another problem with Sanders’s and Khanna’s framing is that public benefit payments that help struggling workers make ends meet are not “subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country,” as Sanders claims they are. Amazon pays workers poorly because they can, not because food stamps, rental assistance, and Medicaid are working overtime to keep working families and vulnerable adults afloat. Does anyone really think that, were these programs to be cut, Amazon would start paying their workers enough to live on? The company’s concern is their profits, not keeping their workers out of poverty.

Moreover, the level of public assistance in this country is far too low. According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, for instance, the average household in the second income quintile (the 20th to 40th percentile) made $30,600 a year in market income in 2014, which isn’t too far off the median income of an Amazon worker today. This average household receives $6,200 in “means-tested transfers,” which include the programs the Sanders and Khanna bills deal with, and after Social Security, Medicare, a few other programs, and taxes are factored in, this average household takes home $44,500 annually. That’s still $6,500 lower than the budget a one-parent, one-child household would need to “attain a modest yet adequate standard of living” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a city with a lower cost of living than most other places in the country. In a more expensive area and/or for a bigger family, it’s not even close to what the household would need. This bill erroneously suggests that Amazon’s workers would be fine without public assistance if Amazon were to raise wages, but the reality is that higher wages would be unlikely to obviate the need for families to have additional support.

Public benefits are an excellent use of our tax dollars. Not only do they help people meet their basic needs in the short run, they carry long-run benefits for kids as well. And since a lot of people living in poverty are unable or not expected to work, public assistance would be needed even in an economy in which all companies treated their workers fairly. We should be expanding public benefits – as both Sanders and Khanna surely agree – not lending credence to the arguments of people who seek to demonize them.

Beyond the bad messaging, the Sanders and Khanna bills, if enacted, would likely cause immediate problems. As my former colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Bob Greenstein, Sharon Parrott, and Chye-Ching Huang explain:

The bill would create powerful incentives for employers to minimize the number of workers they hire who likely qualify for Medicaid, SNAP, and the like — that is, workers in low-income families — and instead hire or retain people less likely to qualify for these benefits…

The bill includes a provision barring an employer from asking job applicants about their benefit receipt. But an employer does not need information about whether a job applicant is receiving benefits to take steps that limit the hiring of workers likely to receive benefits…That’s because information about a worker’s family and health often emerges in job interviews and even more so after an individual is employed. Some employers also get information about dependents for the purpose of administering various benefits or withholding the proper amount of taxes from paychecks…

Moreover, prospective employers that couldn’t secure such family-related information directly could look for other indicators of whether an individual’s household income is likely low and whether the worker and his or her family likely qualify for benefits — including, in particular, a worker’s race, gender, and neighborhood

Finally, some employers may pressure employees not to sign up for programs for which they qualify to reduce the tax penalty on the employer. Even without such pressure, some workers may decide that receiving benefits that their families need has become too risky…[T]he bill’s tax penalties would likely influence employer decisions on which employees to let go when they trim their workforces to cut costs, such as during recessions…The chilling effect could be substantial…

In addition, the legislation would likely lead to substantial corporate lobbying efforts to restrict eligibility and cut benefit levels for core low-income assistance programs, because doing so would reduce companies’ tax bills — effectively making a cut in Medicaid, SNAP, school meals, or rental subsidies akin to a direct corporate tax cut.

The good news, as Greenstein, Parrott, and Huang note, is that there are much better ways to achieve what Sanders and Khanna are trying to achieve. Some of the most direct ways to raise worker wages are to mandate higher minimum wages, break up huge companies like Amazon through antitrust legislation, and, perhaps most importantly, strengthen labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions. We should also raise the corporate tax rate and actually “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies,” which would mean closing federal corporate tax loopholes and pressuring cities and states to stop giving away huge “economic development incentives” (read: tax breaks) to large corporations like Amazon, which has thus far received over $1 billion in state and local subsidies and paid a whopping total of zero dollars – that’s right: zero – in federal taxes in 2017.

Sanders and Khanna already support these alternative ideas, and I applaud them for the way they’ve consistently championed worker rights and sought to hold large corporations accountable. I encourage them to double down on those efforts while reconsidering both this bill and their rhetoric about public assistance. That would probably lead to less enthusiasm from Tucker Carlson, but it would help people living paycheck to paycheck a whole lot more.

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Filed under Business, Labor

Written in 2017, Relevant in 2018 and Beyond

With the year drawing to a close, and because I like lists, I wanted to highlight the ten pieces I wrote in 2017 that I believe remain most relevant for 2018 and beyond.

#10: The Trump administration’s ongoing attack on workers (The Washington Post, August 30)
Donald Trump pledged during his campaign, that, with him in office, “the American worker will finally have a president who will protect them and fight for them.” In this piece, Jared Bernstein and I tick off a multitude of ways in which this promise has turned out, predictably, to be false. The list has gotten longer in the time since we went to press (check out Jared’s recent interview of Heidi Shierholz on how the Trump Labor Department is trying to help employers steal workers’ tips), and it will be important to continue to shine a light on team Trump’s anti-worker actions in 2018.

#9: The Paul Ryan Guide to Pretending You Care About the Poor (Talk Poverty, November 20)
Speaking of the disconnect between Republican politicians’ rhetoric and their actual actions, this satirical piece outlined the way in which Paul Ryan sells his help-the-rich-and-punish-the-poor agenda as the opposite of what it actually is. With the Republican tax cut for rich people signed into law, Ryan has already trained his sights on eviscerating programs that help the poor. Don’t let anyone you know fall for how he’ll spin it.

#8: Why Medicaid Work Requirements Won’t Work (The New York Times, March 22)
Elected officials who share Ryan’s disdain for poor people will likely try to add work requirements to their states’ Medicaid programs in 2018. Here, Jared and I explain why that policy’s main effect is just to deprive people of needed health care.

#7: Seattle’s higher minimum wage is actually working just fine (The Washington Post, June 27)
The Fight for $15 has been incredibly successful over the past few years; 29 states (plus DC) and 40 localities now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Yet the not-so-brave quest some economists and politicians have undertaken to hold down wages for low-wage workers continues unabated, and they jumped all over a June study of Seattle’s minimum wage increase to proclaim that workers are actually better off when we allow businesses to underpay them. A closer look at the study, of course, reveals that it proves nothing of the sort, so keep this rebuttal handy for the next raise-the-wage fight you find yourself engaged in.

#6: Below the Minimum No More (The American Prospect, May 30)
Abolishing sub-minimum wages is the next front in the minimum wage wars; while many jurisdictions have raised the headline minimum wage, most have failed to satisfactorily address the exemptions in minimum wage law that allow businesses to exploit tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and teenagers. It’s about time we had one fair minimum wage for all workers, as this piece explains.

#5: Protect the Dreamers (The American Prospect, September 28)
Republican Senator Jeff Flake claims that he voted for the Republican tax bill after “securing…commitment from the [Trump] administration & #Senate leadership to advance [a] growth-oriented legislative solution to enact fair and permanent protections for #DACA recipients.” In this piece, Jared and I note how a clean Dream Act is the only approach that politicians who truly care about helping immigrants would find acceptable; Flake must be held accountable for supporting it. State lawmakers should also be pressured to take the steps we outline to combat the xenophobia emanating from the White House.

#4: U.S. Intelligence Agencies Scoff at Criticism of Police Brutality, Fracking, and “Alleged Wall Street Greed” (34justice, January 9)
To date, there is at best remarkably weak evidence behind many prominent politicians’ and pundits’ claims about Russian interference in the US election. I read the report that is the basis for many of these claims when it came out in January and, as I noted at the time, it’s almost comically propagandistic. Some Democrats’ disregard for actual facts when it comes to allegations of Russian hacking and “collusion” is troubling, as is the McCarthyite climate in which people who challenge the Democratic Party Establishment are accused of being secret agents of Vladimir Putin. Those who would prefer a more reality-based Russia discussion in 2018 would do well to take a half hour to watch Aaron Maté interview Luke Harding about this topic.

#3: Amen for Alternative Media (34justice, May 2)
An obsession with Russia conspiracy theories is far from the mainstream media’s sole problem. The problem also isn’t a paucity of Republican journalists, as the May/June issue of Politico posited. Instead, as my response to Politico discusses, the mainstream media’s problem is one of subservience to power. Independent media are doing the public a great service by exposing us to information and viewpoints often absent from corporate cable and major newspapers, and it is essential that we fight to protect and promote independent media in the years ahead.

#2: The Progressive Agenda Now: Jobs and Medicare for All (The American Prospect, April 3)
Given Republican control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, one would be forgiven for urging social justice advocates to focus their energies on policy defense. But that would be a mistake, as Jared and I note in this column, both because the best defense is sometimes a good offense and because, if we want to enact the policy millions of people need, we must lay the groundwork for that policy as soon as possible. There is much more beyond a federal job guarantee and Medicare for All that we have to flesh out and advocate for, but those two big policy ideas wouldn’t be too shabby a start.

#1: We Don’t Need No “Moderates” (34justice, July 29)
Putting the right politicians in power is the prerequisite for enacting most of the policy changes we need to see. Those who tell you that “moderate” or “centrist” politicians are more “electable” than social-justice-oriented politicians are wrong, and there is never a good reason – never – to advocate for the less social-justice-oriented candidate in a Democratic primary. The results of the 2017 elections only underscore this point. It’s time we got to work electing true social justice advocates to positions of power.

Happy reading and happy new year!

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Filed under 2018 Elections, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, US Political System

34justice Partners with Run It Black

I’m excited to announce that 34justice is partnering with Run It Black, a podcast on “sports, politics, culture, and the intersection of race” from David Tigabu and Mike Mitchell.  Mike taught me much of what I know about podcasting, and David is no newcomer to 34justice, having previously authored a great piece for us on how the co-option of Christianity helps explain the election of Donald Trump.  Besides being good friends of mine and knowing far more about pop culture than I ever will, David and Mike have awesome insights about the connections between racism and various other forms of oppression.  Often containing fascinating historical context, their episodes are both entertaining and informative.

You can listen to Run It Black episodes directly through 34justice’s new Run It Black widget, which can be found on the top right-hand-side of our webpage on a desktop computer and towards the bottom of the page on a mobile device.  You can also tune in on iTunes.  Here’s a quick overview of the first five episodes (from earliest to most recent):

What to do about the NFL?
Find out why David and Mike are boycotting the NFL this year and what they think of the Floyd Mayweather versus Conor McGregor showdown.

The Politics of Hurricanes
People of color suffer most when natural disasters strike, are often de-prioritized during our inadequate responses to such disasters, and will continue to face disproportionate harm if we fail to address climate change.  David and Mike explain.

Jemele Hill Was Right
Hill’s Black colleagues backed her up when she called Donald Trump a White supremacist, but ESPN didn’t.  David and Mike discuss the Right-wing backlash to race-conscious sports media before delving into some statistics on and possible remedies for the racial wealth gap.

Puerto Rico’s Colonial Disaster
As David and Mike note, our government has treated Puerto Rico significantly worse than it treats US states during times of natural disaster, a problem consistent with a long history of unjust policy towards Americans on the island.  They also comment on the evolution of NFL players’ protests against racial injustice.

The Enduring Significance of HBCUs
While neither David nor Mike attended an HBCU, they’ve thought a lot about the important role such institutions play in improving opportunities for Black Americans.  They note HBCUs’ many strengths, why some criticisms of HBCUs are misplaced, and the curious case of HBCU presidents accepting Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House.

Especially if you aren’t getting enough Run It Black between episodes, I highly recommend following the podcast, as well as David and Mike, on Twitter.  Happy listening!

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Filed under Environment, Gender Issues, Labor, Poverty and the Justice System, Race and Religion, Sports, US Political System

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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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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Filed under Education, Labor

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