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  • Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

    Written on October 28, 2011

    Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

    The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

    The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

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  • Do Americans Think Government Should Reduce Income Inequality?

    Written on October 24, 2011

    With all the recent coverage of Occupy Wall Street and President Obama’s jobs bill, we’ve heard a lot of polling results showing that a large plurality of Americans supports raising taxes on high earners, and that this support is strong among both Democrats and Republicans.

    The campaign to raise taxes on high-income households is part of a larger ideological notion that reducing inequality by such means as taxation and welfare programs is a proper function of government. Supporters (e.g., Democrats) argue that progressive taxation helps to ensure that high earners pay their “fair share” in supporting the public resources, such as schools, roads and law enforcement, that are necessary (but not sufficient) for their success. Republicans, on the other hand, tend frame the issue directly in terms of government intrusion – the government is unfairly “picking winners and losers," and stifling innovation and risk-taking. The assumption seems to be that many Americans don't care for the generic idea of government taking an active role in reducing the gap between rich and poor, even though they tend to support many of the specific means by which this occurs, including not only raising taxes on high earners, but also public education and programs like Medicaid.

    So, it might be interesting to see what Americans think of the broader idea that government has a legitimate role in reducing income inequality. Let’s take a quick look.

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  • An International Perspective On Corporate Pay

    Written on October 14, 2011

    Our guest author today is Michael Tims, associate professor of biology at Montgomery College in Takoma Park, Maryland. Some of his writing can be found on his science blog, Bardo's Calculus, as well as at the Hyattstown Mill Arts Project, where he is a board member.

    The growing wealth gap in the United States has worried some commentators for years. The length and breadth of the economic crisis, and the suffering it has brought with it, have moved those concerns into the mainstream. One aspect of this development that warrants more attention is the connection between declining rates of unionization, and the incredible gap between the pay of workers and their bosses.

    As corporate resistance to unions has increased and union density declined, the discrepancy in pay between management and worker has grown extreme. Since the mid 1970s, the average multiple of CEO pay to worker pay has increased from 28x in 1970 to 158x in 2005, to almost 400x in 2010. . Their average "total realized annual CEO compensation" is currently $12 million, according to Governance Metrics International. During this same period, worker pay has stagnated and fallen behind inflation, despite an historic rise in workforce productivity

    This phenomenon of high pay disparity in the industrial world is uniquely American, with the next highest countries being Britain (25x), Sweden (13x), Germany (11x) and Japan (10x). Claims that these pay levels represent success on the part of the CEO appear to be misleading.

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  • The Cutting Edge Of Teacher Quality

    Written on October 11, 2011

    The State of Michigan is currently considering a bill that would limit collective bargaining rights among teachers. Under the proposal, paying dues would be optional. This legislation, like other so-called “right to work” laws, represents an attempt to defund and create divisions within labor unions, which severely weakens teachers' ability to bargain fair contracts, as well as the capacity of their unions to advocate on behalf of of public schools and workers in general.

    Last month, Michigan State Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekoff (R- West Olive) was asked whether he thought the bill would pass. He responded in the affirmative, and added:

    It's an opportunity to let teachers get farther away from union goons. That should give them a better chance to break away from the mediocrity. That should make things better for our schools and our children.
    Well, there you have it, folks. We’ve been wasting our time by designing rigorous standards and overhauling teacher evaluations. The key to improving teacher quality is not training, compensation or professional development.

    It’s goon proximity.

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  • Public Servants Versus Private Contractors ... Again

    Written on September 22, 2011

    Has the battle over public sector compensation turned a decisive corner? Have much-maligned government workers won an evidence-based victory?

    Reasonable people might think so, thanks in part to a study by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan group that keeps close tabs on government operations. According to the findings of the POGO report – findings that they call "shocking" – the "federal government approves service contract billing rates … that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services."

    More specifically, federal government employees cost less than private contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed – and non-federal private sector worker compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all of the reviewed classifications. In one case, contractor bill rates were nearly "5 times more" than the full compensation rates paid to comparable federal workers.

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  • Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

    Written on September 16, 2011

    Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."

    Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.

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  • Labor In High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect And Invisibility

    Written on September 6, 2011

    The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

    This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

    Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

    The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

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  • What Makes A Union Successful?

    Written on September 5, 2011

    On Labor Day, we reprint the following passage from Al Shanker's "State of the Union" speech at the August 1992 AFT convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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  • Grand Bargaining

    Written on September 2, 2011

    With Labor Day upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about three apparently unrelated pieces of sociological research, and how all point to the role of laws, policies, and institutions as "signalers" of the social values that we share.

    First, in an unpublished paper, Stanford University’s Cristobal Young examines the role of unemployment insurance in encouraging prolonged job search effort. Second, in a talk earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Shelley Correll (also at Stanford) discussed how greater awareness of laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) make it harder for employers to discriminate against those who take it. Third, a recent article by Bruce Western (Harvard University) and Jake Rosenfeld (University of Washington) argues that unions contribute to a moral economy that reduces wage inequality for all workers, not just union members.

    I think that these three pieces of scholarship tell a similar story: policies, laws and institutions have impact beyond their primary intended purpose. Unemployment benefits are more than the money one receives when jobless; laws pertaining employment rights are more than rules enforced by the imposition of sanctions; and unions are more than organizations seeking to improve their members’ wages and working conditions. These policies, programs, and institutions also have a symbolic importance—they signal a consensus about what we value and desire as a society which simultaneously shapes the lens through which we judge our own behavior and that of others.

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  • Big Labor?

    Written on August 3, 2011

    As you may know, Congressional Republicans have stalled legislation to reauthorize the operation of Federal Aviation Administration, partially closing down the agency since July 25 at the cost to the U.S. government of $30 million a day in lost tax revenue. This state of affairs will continue at least until Congress resumes in September. What you may not know is that the source of the dispute is whether airline and railroad workers in the  private sector should have the right to organize unions by winning a simple majority of votes (the way elections are conducted in every other public- and private-sector union election). Republicans are against this, and are instead insisting that unionization should require a majority of all possible votes within the unit, irrespective of turnout.

    For me, at least, this was objectionable in and of itself, but it's always a little odd to hear the rhetoric used by some Republicans in these types of situations, specifically when they are reported to see themselves fighting off an advance by "big labor" in the private sector.

    Big labor. The pejorative is beginning to carry the ring of someone living in a time warp. What do I mean?

    Most people know that union membership in the U.S. has declined over the past few decades, but it seems that many aren’t aware of the extent and breakdown of this trend. So here are the basic data on union membership over time.

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