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  • What Democracy Looks Like When We Actually Show Up

    Written on April 7, 2011

    As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.

    No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.

    Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.

    But, as always, we should put this figure in context.

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  • Are Teachers Driving The Public/Private Sector Earnings Gap?

    Written on April 4, 2011

    A great deal of the debate surrounding public sector unions focus on how much public employees earn versus private workers. Every credible analysis – those that account for huge differences between public and private workers in terms of characteristics like profession, education, and experience – find that public compensation is competitive or lower than that of private-sector workers (for recent examples, see here, here, and here, or a review here).

    I have, however, heard a few thoughtful observers make the point that virtually all these analyses include education workers, and that this might be a little misleading. It’s a fair point. Roughly one in five state/local government employees are in fact K-12 teachers, while another five percent are professors at public colleges and universities. This is important because analyses of public/private sector compensation essentially compare public employees with workers with similar characteristics (education being the most important one) in the private sector. The research above indicates that workers with more education pay a larger “price” for working in the public sector, whereas many lesser credentialed, lower-skilled government jobs actually pay more. Since many teachers have master’s degrees (and professors Ph.D.’s), and they are such a huge group, it’s reasonable to wonder if they might be skewing the overall estimates.

    So, I decided to see if a comparison of public/private compensation that does not include teachers and professors would yield very different results. Let’s take a look.

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  • Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

    The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.

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  • In Performance Evaluations, Subjectivity Is Not Random

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Employment policies associated with unions – e.g., seniority, salary schedules – are frequently criticized for not placing the highest premium on performance. Detractors also argue that such policies, originally designed to protect workers against discrimination (by gender, race, etc.), are no longer necessary now that federal laws are in place. Accordingly, those seeking to limit collective bargaining among teachers have proposed that current policies be replaced by “performance-based” evaluations – or at least a system that would make it easier to reward and punish based on performance.

    Be careful, argues Samuel A. Culbert in a recent New York Times article, “Why Your Boss is Wrong About You." Culbert warns that there are serious risks to deregulating the employment relationship, and leaving it even partially in the hands of the employer and his/her performance review:

    Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance ... is subjective.
    This viewpoint may sound obvious, but social science research reminds us that the whims of subjective human judgment are not random. The inefficiencies that Culbert mentions are inevitable, but so is the fact that bias tends to operate in a manner that disproportionately affects workers from traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as women and African Americans. What’s worse – it’s just as likely to occur within as between groups, and we often do it without realizing.
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  • Fundamental Rights At Work

    Written on March 11, 2011

    As Wisconsin public employees reorganize for a long fight in the wake of the state GOP’s "midnight strike" at collective bargaining rights, it brought to my mind one of guest blogger Heba El-Shazli’s posts on Egypt. In it, she notes that Egypt’s new, independent unions are demanding reformed labor laws that incorporate the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    For many people, this reference probably begs the question: What the heck is actually in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?  The startlingly intense loathing of collective bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin GOP, and their supporters, is incentive enough to elaborate on this document.  

    Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits ILO members " to respect and promote workers’ rights and principles”  in four categories:  freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. These are the “core” principles of the ILO, and are incorporated into its "conventions" – an expression of the ILO labor standards. This is the heart of this venerable, tripartite organization, in which business, labor, and government representatives share a place at the table.

    These conventions are not simply some amorphous “rights” dreamed up by union leaders. They are well-established international law, approved and reviewed by employers, unions, and government representatives.

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  • An Update From The Independent Labor Movement In Egypt

    Written on March 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    The revolution in Egypt has unleashed a torrent of pent up frustration and protest from Egyptian workers in all walks of life. For weeks, beginning the day after former President Hosni Mubarak resigned, workers have taken to the streets to demand respect for basic worker rights and democratic principles. Their grievances are fundamental and share much in common with their U.S. counterparts now protesting in Wisconsin and elsewhere: the right to bargain collectively with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Egyptian workers have been protesting at many worksites all over the country:

    • More than 6,000 teachers protested in front of the Education Administration building in the governorate (state) of Qena in Upper Egypt.  A majority of teachers are now working under temporary contracts without benefits. Teachers are calling for the end of these temporary contracts that cheapen their profession and cause much professional insecurity. 
    • Hundreds of workers from the iron and steel factory who were hired as “temporary contractual” workers demanded payment of three months’ worth of overtime and other benefits, and an end to their “temporary” status.

    The never-ending “temporary contract” is a tactic to weaken workers’ rights, which  has been widely used in both the Egyptian public and private sectors. In response to teacher protests, the new Education Minister did announce on Feb. 28 that the teachers who had been working under temporary contracts for more than three years will be made permanent as long as they are able to pass the teacher proficiency tests, which the Ministry will administer on March 25.

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  • How To Make A Misleading Public/Private Earnings Gap Disappear

    Written on March 5, 2011

    USA Today last week published yet another story claiming that public sector workers make more that their private sector counterparts - this one saying that Wisconsin is one of many states where this is the case. Their “analysis” used data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and compared total compensation (salary+benefits) between workers in the private sector and state/local government.

    No matter how many times they are told that you can’t just make a straight comparison of dissimilar groups of workers, apparently they still don’t get it. Incredibly, this particular article admits as much, and even quotes economist Jeffrey Keefe, who tells them that the gross comparisons don’t account for important sectoral differences in education and other factors. In other words, their numbers don’t tell us much of anything about public versus private sector compensation. Still, there is the headline: "Wisconsin one of 41 states where public workers earn more." How many people saw that headline, and now believe that public workers are “overpaid?"

    USA Today, of course, is not alone. These assertions have lately become insidious, coming from governors, commentators, and others. But when a major national newspaper decides to run this story at this politically-charged time, based on their very own “analysis," a separate response seems in order.

    I’ve discussed this issue before, but maybe it would be more helpful to show how the data are more properly analyzed in a step-by-step fashion, using 2009 U.S. Census microdata (the American Community Survey, available from the wonderful organization IPUMS.org). Here’s how you make a false earnings gap disappear in five minutes.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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  • Bahrain: Workers Lead The Way

    Written on February 25, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Bahrain has been rocked by turmoil since Feb. 14 – with protesters calling for political reforms from Pearl Square’s "towering monument of a pearl," in the heart of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. It is the country’s Tahrir Square, its own seat of Liberation. In contrast to Egypt, though, Bahrain’s path to freedom been slower and more violent. On Feb. 17, the government brutally attacked protesters, killing four and injuring dozens. The next day, security forces opened fire on a crowd of thousands marching in funeral processions for the previous day’s victims.

    In the midst of this chaos, a young and independent Bahraini labor movement is finding its voice. In response to the government’s violence, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), with a membership of 66 unions – around 25% of the workforce – threatened a general strike if the government did not back off, start talking to demonstrators, and permit peaceful protest to continue.

    And the government backed off.

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  • A Wisconsin Moment For Our Education Policy Debate

    Written on February 24, 2011

    There is an obvious, albeit somewhat uncomfortable connection between what’s happening in Wisconsin and what’s been happening in education policy discussions.

    A remarkably high proportion of the discussion is focused – implicitly or explicitly – on the presumed role of teachers’ unions. The public is told that our school systems are failing, and that teachers’ unions are at least partially to blame because they protect bad teachers and block “needed” reforms such as merit pay. In this storyline, unions are faceless villains that put the interests of adults above those of children.

    Wisconsin represents a threat to this perspective in at least three important manners.

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