Monday, October 31, 2011

Unions Oppose Oakland General Strike

No Big Surprise:

Oakland's unions have declared that they won't support the General Strike on November 2, called by the Occupy Oakland movement in response to the police brutality against their movement that occurred last week. In addition to tear gas, concussion grenades and bean bag bullets, an Iraq vet was nearly killed when a police projectile hit him in the head.

According to the Atlantic Wire, the Peralta teachers union and the ILWU have both publicly stated they won't call for a strike on November 2. Few, if any unions will, in fact. It is illegal for unions to join in solidarity strikes under the Taft-Hartley Act, which was enacted after America's last great General Strike, which occurred coincidentally in Oakland, in 1946. Officially supporting the General Strike could result in millions of dollars in fines and legal expenses to the unions. Additionally, both unions have said that to call a strike requires a vote of their general membership, something that they cannot easily pull off under such short notice.

However, if recent history is any indication, ILWU members will walk off the job anyway and join the protestors. The Peralta teachers union said it would do what it can to have its members there. The big question is, will other unions support their members' participation and, if so, will enough participate to result in a General Strike?

Today in Labor History—October 31

Paris Communards at the Barricade, March 1871
October 31, 1870 – French national guards revolted on this date during the siege of Paris. There was also a massive demonstration in front of the Town hall supporting the Paris Commune. (From the Daily Bleed)
Seattle's Hooverville
 October 31, 1931 – Occupy Seattle was inaugurated. Led by unemployed lumberjack Jesse Jackson, the first Hooverville was built on vacant land owned by the Port of Seattle near Pioneer Square. Within two days over 50 shacks were erected and by 1934, 600-1000 people were living in them. By 1941, Seattle's “Hooverville” covered 25 blocks. Hoovervilles eventually spread throughout the country. (From the Daily Bleed)

October 31, 1978 – 30,000 oil workers in Iran struck against the repressive rule of the Shah. (From the Daily Bleed)

October 31, 1989 – In El Salvador a bomb killed 10 trade union leaders at union headquarters. A major FMLN offensive followed. (From the Daily Bleed)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Today in Labor History—October 30

October 30, 1916 –IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) members were forced to run a brutal gauntlet by vigilantes in Everett, Washington. A few days later, between 5 and 12 Wobblies would be shot dead by vigilantes during the Everett massacre. Tensions had been growing during a severe depression. The IWW had arrived to support a five-month long shingle workers strike. When a boat full of Wobblies arrived in Everett, the sheriff asked who their leader was. “We all are!” they shouted back. The sheriff said they couldn’t land and the Wobblies said, “like hell we can’t.” Someone fired a shot. No one knows who, but the majority of Wobblies were unarmed and the majority of subsequent rounds did come from the vigilantes on shore. (From the Daily Bleed)

October 30, 1986 – Attorney General Ed Meese urged employers to begin spying on workers in locker rooms, parking lots, shipping and mail room areas and even in the bars to try to catch them using drugs. (From the Daily Bleed)

Occupy Public Education—Blame the 1% for Low Test Scores

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
The following is a letter to the editor I sent to the S.F. Chronicle in response to their Sunday Insight editorial: "The end of No Child Left Behind."

Sunday’s Insight editorial suggested students and teachers need to work harder to improve educational outcomes, yet they are already working harder than ever. Many now have homework and test prep in kindergarten. Increasing numbers are taking and passing AP classes, including low income and minority students. Teachers are working longer to implement reforms to improve educational outcomes.

Pundits and critics fail to acknowledge that school failure is due far more to socioeconomic factors than teacher quality. Even conservative Hoover Institute researcher Erik Hanushek argues that test scores are only 10% attributable to teachers, while most school success comes from “out-of-school” factors like family income.

The smoking gun is that the achievement gap exists before children even start school. David Burkam and Valerie Lee observed 60% higher cognitive scores among affluent versus low income kindergarteners, while Betty Hart and Todd Risely found similar class-based differences in language development and IQ among three-year olds. The gap only increases over time, as affluent children participate in more enriching afterschool and summer activities; enjoy better attendance, diet, healthcare; and suffer less financial stress.

To see significant improvements in education, we must first close the wealth gap and ensure all students have material security at home.

While the above was submitted to the Chron to comply with their 200 word limit, I found the editorial troubling on several other accounts. The author implies that teachers unions stand in the way of progress by opposing using student test scores to rank schools and evaluate teachers, calling this the “show stopper,” without any reference to the fact that student test scores cannot measure teacher quality and, at best, are a measure of students’ family income or how bought into school they are.

There is no mention in the piece about the $20 billion or so that the state has ripped off from (and still owes to) public education over the past three years. There is no mention that California now has one of the five lowest rates of per pupil spending in the nation. The was no critique of high stakes tests and accountability or suggestion that they are all red herrings, at best, that allow us to continue to blame teachers and ignore the more salient causes of low student achievement.

NCLB and all high stakes testing and accountability regimes need to tossed out the window. If only 10% of school success is attributable to teachers and they are already working harder than ever, it is certainly time to start addressing the other 90% of school success.

Interestingly, since most of this 90% is due to growing poverty and poor school funding, it can be directly linked to the increasing wealth of the 1%, who, by demanding record low income, business, capital gains and inheritance taxes, help ensure  that states lack the revenues to fund education. Their wealth, luxury and security are only possible by keeping their taxes low relative to ours and by keeping their wages and profits high compared to our incomes.

Therefore, while the Occupy movement, the 99%-ers, blame the 1% for their own bleak job prospects and declining standards of living, the 1% is also far more responsible than teachers for declining educational outcomes. Without increased taxes on the richest Americans, schools will continue to be defunded each year. Without increased wages and living standards for workers, poverty will persist or worsen, increasing the numbers of children who come to school malnourished, ill, homeless, and stressed.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Brown to Public Employees: Work Until You Drop!

Your Excellency, Please Let Us Retire (Image by Mike Benedetti)
California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to cut pension costs would force new teachers to work years longer before they could retire and give them substantially smaller pensions. Those of us currently employed at schools would have to pay roughly 1% more out of our paychecks toward our retirement, amounting to a 1% cut in take home pay. However, the increased costs for teachers could end up being more than 1% if CalSTRS lowers its expected rate of return according to Topics in Education.

Teachers unions heavily supported Brown’s run for governor, giving him millions to support his campaign. They naively believed he would support their members’ interests, despite a well-documented history of violent union-busting and charter schools promotion as mayor of Oakland. Brown repaid the unions with trivial gifts, like appointing a CTA lobbyist to the state board of education and not slashing education funding as much as he could have. However, his attack on teachers’ pensions and the reduction in living standards it will impose on both working and retired public sector workers should have the unions preparing for a General Strike!

The pension “reforms” would significantly decrease benefits, especially for new workers, and raise the retirement age from as early as 55 for some public sector workers to 67 for all new employees who aren’t involved in “safety” work. The plan would apply to all public employees, including state, local, municipal and education workers.

In a particularly absurd statement, Brown said at a press conference that “The plan will make the pension system more sustainable and fair to taxpayers and the employee.”

The plan would supposedly cut the state’s pension costs by billions of dollars over the next 30 years, according to Topics in Education. However, making people work longer, retire on less, and earn less on the road toward retirement is the exact opposite of fair to employees. To be totally honest, it would screw employees!

As it is, no one can survive entirely on a teachers’ pension in most Californian cities. Thus, most retirees must continue working part time, move to a cheaper part of the world, or be fortunate enough to have other investments or a wealthier spouse or partner. Cutting benefits will only worsen this.

The “reforms” will also drive down living standards for working teachers who have seen their take home pay slashed repeatedly over the last three years in the form of increased healthcare premiums, furloughs and, in some cases, wage cuts. The vast most were not earning that much to begin with. Another 1% reduction in take home pay means that many teachers will have trouble making ends meets and supporting their families.

Furthermore, the less one earns today the smaller their future pension. Since pension benefits are based on an employee’s salary during the final years of employment, and raises build up over time, pay cuts now significantly reduce the potential pay during those final years. Virtually no California teachers have had a raise in the last three years, thus reducing this potential for most teachers, while some of the cuts to take home pay may also contribute to this reduced pension potential.

The plan can hardly be considered fair to taxpayers, either, as the majority of taxpayers are low and medium income workers who contribute a higher percentage of their income toward taxes than do the state’s 600,000 millionaires. Fair to taxpayers would involve the wealthy paying substantially more, which would improve the state’s fiscal health, giving it much more flexibility to deal with its numerous budgetary problems, including pensions. Furthermore, the public sector pension “crisis” is the result of fiscal mismanagement by taxpayer-funded pension managers who continue to bungle on in their current jobs at taxpayer expense, combined with the economic crisis, which was due in part to the illegal activities of bankers and investors who have so far paid nothing in penalties or restitution.

Meanwhile, Brown’s plan would do nothing to address the pensions’ unfunded liabilities, which are entirely the state’s responsibility. If the courts require the state to start pay them down, it could result in an enormous increase in its share of the contributions to public pensions, which would directly affect taxpayers.

Today in Labor History—October 29

October 29, 1918 – The Wilhelmshaven sailors’ mutiny in Germany, with sailors taking over a naval base, garrison and the city of Kiel. Soldiers, sailors and workers councils were established. The German government fell less than two weeks later. (From the Daily Bleed)

October 29, 1929 - This day became known as "Black Tuesday," as the Stock Market took its biggest crash in history, marking the beginning of the Great Depression, (From Workday Minnesota)

October 29, 1966 - The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in Chicago. (From Workday Minnesota)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Obama Care: Let the Poor Die in the Streets

The Obama administration gave California the green light to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from Medi-Cal, the Los Angeles Times reported this week. The plan calls for cuts of 10% to providers, including physicians, dentists, clinics, pharmacies and most nursing homes. The new plan would give doctors only $11 per office visit. As a result, fewer doctors will be willing to treat the 7.6 million poor and disabled Californians served by the Medi-Cal program.

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services told the Times that the decision gives California the flexibility necessary to address its budget shortfall. The cuts are expected to bring in an extra $623 million, out of a total $14 billion annual Medi-Cal budget.

Of course increasing taxes on the state’s 600,000 millionaires is out of the question even though a 1% tax on millionaires would bring in $6 billion per year or ten times what the cuts would save (a conservative estimate based on the assumption that all millionaires earn exactly $1 million per year).

California also wants to implement co-pays for Medi-Cal recipients and limit the number of times patients can see a doctor. Poor patients would have to cough up $5 for each doctor's visits, $50 for emergency room visits and $100 a day for hospital stays. Most would be limited to seven doctor’s visits per year. The latter limitation seems almost punitive, as the increased costs to users alone would likely limit their use of the program. More significantly, the increased cost for hospital visits will likely result in some patients foregoing emergency services for potentially life threatening conditions in hopes they can save a few bucks and ride it out at home. As a result, the number of preventable deaths in California will probably grow.

California already spends less on Medicare than any other state. It has been setting the national standard for how far states can go to gut the program and jettison their poor and indigent residents. By allowing California to further slash Medi-Cal, the federal government has set a precedent for other states to follow. With the unemployment showing no signs of abating and existing jobs continuing a downward spiral of low wages and lousy or nonexistent benefits, the number of Americans dependent of programs like Medicare will only grow.