Friday, August 31, 2012

Wayne State to End Tenure, Other Universities to Follow?

Wayne State University in Detroit has proposed a new contract that would make it the first research university in the U.S. to abolish tenure, according to a recent article in Labor Notes. Other public universities are likely to follow suit (or attempt to) in order to cut labor costs as they grapple with years of declining revenue.

The proposed contract would effectively remove peer review and give administrators more power to get rid of faculty, including for financial reasons. (Veteran professors cost universities more, since they have more years of service credit). The administration also wants the right to fire faculty for participating in or supporting political actions that “interrupt the normal daily teaching.”  

Terrible for Students and the Public
The purpose of tenure is to provide protection for academic freedom. Professors and teachers who lack tenure can be dismissed at will, for any number of reasons that have little or nothing to do with the quality of their teaching. Without tenure, professors could be compelled to focus their research on topics generated by the administration or by private interests that stand to gain from the research, thus infusing the research with a bias that could undermine its validity.

This could have grave repercussions for the public in the case of medical and scientific research, especially considering that some corporate funded research contracts give the corporation the right to determine which data will (or won’t) be published. For example, a contract could forbid the publication of data revealing that a new medicine is no more effective than existing or cheaper alternatives. Without tenure rights, a professor would have fewer protections if she or he refused to accept such funding, particularly if it was being pushed by administrators.

Loss of tenure would also be bad for students. Teachers often advocate for the wellbeing of their students or the integrity of their academic programs. Tenure protects this kind of free speech. Without tenure, professors could more easily be fired for advocating positions opposed by administrators. Furthermore, without tenure, professors would have a more difficult time resisting administrators who pressure them to change their grading policies or curriculum in order to improve the university’s profile and fundraising abilities, even if such changes eviscerate the integrity of the course or undercut the objectives of the department.

The university has roughly 3,000 faculty members, approximately one-third of whom are tenured or tenure-track. They are represented by AAUP Teachers Local 6075, an AFT affiliate.

Today in Labor History—August 31

August 31, 1909—Francisco Ferrer, the Spanish anarchist educator and creator of the first Modern Schools (Escuelas Modernas), was charged as “author in chief” of the uprising known as the “Tragic Week.” He was executed on October 13, 1909, leading to worldwide condemnation. Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the protests that followed, while supporters created new Modern Schools throughout the world, including dozens in the U.S.
John Reed
August 31, 1919 – The Communist Labor Party of America was formed in Chicago by John Reed and others. The party evolved into the American Communist Party. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1929 – The Trade Union Unity League was founded by 690 delegates from 18 states fleeing the conservative American Federation of Labor. The League, a wing of the Communist Party, pushed for organizing workers along industrial lines, rather than by craft, like the AFL, with all workers in a given industry together in one big union. At its peak, the League had 125,000 members and, in 1930, led a protest of nearly a million jobless workers in a dozen cities to demand relief and unemployment insurance. The league fell apart in the late 1930s due to competition from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had launched a wave of successful organizing drives. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1933 – Italian American labor organizer, Giovanni Pippan was murdered during his campaign to organize the Italian bread wagon drivers of Chicago.
(From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1939 – Nearly all 430 workers at the California Sanitary Canning Company participated in a massive walkout. The majority of the workers were Mexican-American women. They were demand union recognition for their affiliation with the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, & Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). They eventually won a union contract and wage increase. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1968 -- Canadian elementary school students near Montreal occupied their school, demanding reforms. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1980 – Solidarnosc forced the Polish dictatorship to sign a 21 point bill of rights allowing workers to organize in independent unions. The agreement came after two months of crippling strikes that began at the shipyards of Gdansk. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1983 – Polish police used tear gas and water cannons on 10,000 Solidarity demonstrators. (From the Daily Bleed)

August 31, 1991 – The second Solidarity Day demonstration occurred in Washington, D.C., with over 350,000 union members demanding workplace fairness and health care reform. The first Solidarity Day took place 10 years earlier in the wake of the PATCO firings. (From Workday Minnesota)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Abuse With Benefits for Domestics in Liberal California

California’s legislature will be voting this week on a piece of legislation (AB 889), dubbed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was authored by San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano and Oakland assemblywoman Fiona Ma. The new law would allow nannies, maids, home health care workers and other full-time domestic workers to cook their own meals in their employers’ kitchens and entitle them to the same overtime pay, guaranteed breaks, sick leave and workers compensation privileges already granted to most other workers.

These are certainly important new protections that these workers have been denied up until now. According to a report by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 90% of the domestic workforce (93% of whom are female) has never received overtime pay. Over 90% reported having their meal breaks cut short or denied entirely. 75% of the child care workers and 35% of the housekeepers in Los Angeles County were paid less than the minimum wage. Domestic workers are also often subjected to physical and verbal abuse, in addition to the long hours and low pay.

However, even with these changes, domestic workers will remain among the poorest paid workers in the state.

The new law says very little about a reasonable living wage. What it says is vague: “The Department of Industrial Relations may (emphasis added by Modern School) apply the provisions of Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order 15 to domestic work employees.”  Wage Order 15 calls for the state minimum wage to be paid to workers covered by the law. AB 889 would include domestic workers under Wage Order 15 and, according to the wording, “may” require they be paid the state minimum. However, even if the state requires the current minimum wage of $8.00 per hour, domestic workers would still not be earning enough to support a family with any sort of material security or wellbeing.

Attempts to increase the rights and privileges of domestic workers has traditionally been opposed by private health care and homecare organizations, as well as some disability and seniors’ rights groups, out of fear that such rights would impact their bottom lines (in the case of the healthcare organizations) or reduce the quality of their care (in the case of disabled people and seniors).

Both of these perspectives are absurd. Private businesses can (and do) make handsome profits without violating labor laws. AB 889 would merely extend existing labor protections to domestic workers.

The wellbeing of seniors, disabled people, children and others who depend on the services of domestic workers, of course, should be a significant concern. Many of these are private employers of domestic workers and, at the same time, many are also living on minimal fixed incomes. Yet this should not entitle them to deny their employees basic workplace rights or pay them so little. Rather, like most social services, the state needs to dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy and their businesses to generate sufficient revenue to provide generous domestic services to everyone who needs it AND generously compensate those who do this work.

Global Education Strike

The International Student Movement is calling for global education strikes on October 18th and November 14-21 to protest education privatization schemes and the corporatization of public education. They want the teachers to join their movement and are asking teachers to check out their website and plan solidarity actions for these dates.

Some of their demands are tangible and achievable—like increasing education budgets, decreasing student debt and slowing or halting the giveaway of public education resources to private business—but not from a couple of days of street protests. Rather, achieving these goals will require either a remarkable change in public sentiment and political action or significant and prolonged strike actions by teachers and other education employees.

At the same time, much of their program is naïve or incoherent. For example, they bemoan that public education is being turned into a commodity and that school employees are being exploited, as if this wasn’t always the case? In order for employees to not be exploited they must cease to be employees and for education to not be a commodity it must be entirely free. These are both good goals, but they are not attainable without social revolution and certainly aren’t going to result from a few days of protests.

They also argue that education should “primarily work for the emancipation of the individual, which means: being enabled to critically reflect and understand the power structures and environment surrounding him-/herself.” Yet shouldn’t emancipation involve freedom from domination by these “power structures,” and not just an acknowledgement of their existence?

Today in Labor History—August 30

August 30, 1834 - Union delegates from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other East Coast cities met to form the National Trades Union, which united craft unions to oppose the wealth of a tiny minority. Although they were active for just a few years, the NTU paved the way for more than 60 new unions. (From Workday Minnesota)

August 30, 1971 – Ten empty school buses were blown up in Pontiac, Michigan to prevent the daily bussing of 8,700 children to achieve racial balance in the city's schools. (From the Daily Bleed)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

California Democrats Robbing Kids to Enrich the Wealthy

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons

Friends and colleagues often assume I’m a Democrat based on my criticisms of the Ed Deform movement or the political system. I try not to feel insulted by this name-calling, but then feel bad that my arguments were weak enough to lead them to this embarrassing conclusion.

When I’m feeling masochistic, I’ll correct them by saying that I do not support either party, and end up having to list recent “betrayals” by popular Democrats. Of course, they are not really betrayals. Anyone who is really paying attention can see that the Democrats, like the Republicans, are members of the same class of bosses, bankers, lawyers and landlords who monopolize all the wealth and social power. While the Democrats may pay lip service to the concerns of unions, women, the LGBT community and other “interest” groups, their policies never threaten (and general bolster) the ability of the capitalist class to increase their profits and wealth.

Thus it should be no surprise that California’s Democratic leaders in the legislature are preparing to vote this week on a Pension Deform bill for public sector employees that was proposed 10 months ago by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. The revised plan includes raising the retirement age to 62 and increasing employee contributions to 50%, according to the SF Chronicle. It would also cap pensions at $132,000 per year.

The $132k cap might seem reasonable. After all, who makes this kind of money? The cap wouldn’t affect teachers, bus drivers, nurses or the vast majority of public sector employees, at least not for now. However, while a $132k annual salary might seem large by today’s standards, it will become a relatively low salary within a few years due to inflation. Also, even calculated in today’s dollars, a $132k salary would only yield $66,000 per year in benefits for a retiree—(salary multiplied by 0.02 multiplied by 25 years of service)—a decent income if your home is paid off or if you are living in an inexpensive community. In San Francisco, however, a retiree could easily spend more than one-third of this just on housing costs.

Union Busting 101
This pension “reform” legislation is a dual purpose bill. It not only forces workers to pay for the greed of Wall Street (the pension “crisis” is primarily due to investment losses caused by the economic meltdown), but it also drives a wedge into the unions by dividing veteran workers, who will retain most of their current pension benefits, and younger workers who will pay more out of pocket and receive fewer benefits and have to work longer to earn them.

Indeed, the legislation can be seen as an attack on our children, making it much harder and riskier for them to retire, while also lowering their standards of living prior to retirement by sapping more of their take home pay to cover their increased pension contributions. By forcing them to work longer and capping their benefits, they will have fewer healthy years to enjoy their retirements and less to live on. Gov. Brown proudly declared that the changes would make public employee pension benefits for future hires lower than when he took office in 1975, the SF Chronicle reported. 

The unions are arguing that any changes to pensions must be collectively bargained. Many are already preparing lawsuits and ballot initiatives to oppose the legislation, since it undermines existing contract agreements and usurps unions’ power to negotiate this important benefit. I have not heard of any that are asking their members to prepare for a strike action, which will likely be necessary to reverse this juggernaut.

If they fail to halt this legislation, there a two-tiered system will be created, with new hires getting a worse pension plan imposed on them by the state and veteran employees maintaining a better pension plan and the right to collectively bargain any future changes. When younger workers recognize that they are getting a raw deal compared with their veteran colleagues, they may see their unions as impotent or biased against them, especially if the unions do not take aggressive job actions to halt the legislation. This would make it harder to organize and mobilize them for other workplace struggles, thus weakening the overall strength of the unions.

The legislation could also lead to future collective bargaining problems for current employees. For example, even though the legislation allows current employees to negotiate increases in their contributions, this “privilege” implies that legislators intend to ask for increased contributions. Current employees may therefore find themselves in the position of having to choose between raises or pay cuts, increased health care contributions and/or increased pension contributions in future contract negotiations.

A Gift to Wall Street and the Wealthy
Ultimately, any cuts to public employee pensions will be made not to save the program, as legislators and pundits are fond of saying, but to preserve record low tax rates for the wealthy. As long as unfunded pension liabilities can be covered through increased employee contributions and through reduced and delayed benefits, there is no need to raise taxes on the wealthy or to threaten state spending that benefits their businesses.

None of the political parties are friends of working people. Lesser evil, perhaps, but at what cost? Real wages and living standards have been steadily declining for the majority of Americans for the past 40 years. During this time the Democrats have either sat idly by and enjoyed the ride or voted for policies that have hastened the trend.