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  • Unions = Jobs

    Written on February 10, 2011

    America needs stronger unions… This piquant idea recently occurred to a New York Times business writer as he contemplated the economic question of the day: Where are all the jobs? It’s the question on everyone’s minds. Most economic reports indicate that the economy—at least the corporate profit and Wall Street side of it—is recovering slowly. Profits are soaring and U.S. GDP is up, but job creation remains sluggish, at best.

    So what do unions have to do with it? Before exploring that issue, let’s review why job creation—or it’s lack—is worrying people who are paid to worry about the economy. According to a recent National Journal article, "The Great Recession wiped out what amounts to every U.S. job created in the 21st Century. But even if the recession had never happened the United States would have entered 2010 with 15 million fewer jobs than economists say it should have."

    The article adds that, while the period 2001-2008 witnessed "solid growth" in GDP and corporate profits and a low unemployment rate, job creation was far lower than at any time since World War II.

    What happened?

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  • Are Public Employee Unions To Blame For States' Budget Crises?

    Written on February 9, 2011

    A disturbing number of people are blaming public sector unions for states’ current budget crises (also here, here and here). Their basic argument is that unions have seriously exacerbated budget shortfalls because a significant proportion of state spending is tied up in employee compensation, and unions, via collective bargaining, increase salaries and benefits.  As a result, so the line goes, unions have created unsustainable expenses for state governments in a time of declining or still-recovering revenues.

    Needless to say, the relationship between unions and state revenue/spending is complex.  The claim that unions are responsible for state budget gaps (or at least for larger gaps) is therefore extremely difficult to examine, especially during a fiscal crisis. Nevertheless, we can take a quick, modestly rigorous look. 

    There are 30 states that provide collective bargaining rights for state employees, virtually all of them via state laws. One way to evaluate the merit of the accusations above is to see whether states that allow collective bargaining have more severe budget problems than those that do not.

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  • Egypt In Crisis: Independent Unions Emerge As Leaders

    Written on February 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own. This is the first of several posts on events in Egypt.

    January 25, 2011 was the beginning of a peoples’ revolt in Egypt, a revolt whose outcome is still unclear. What is clear is that, after a smothering 30-year rule, Egyptians have broken the stifling collar of oppression to demonstrate for democracy and freedom. Also at issue are the corruption, high unemployment rates, inflation, and low minimum wages that impoverish even the hardest working, most educated people.

    All of this has become fairly well known to Americans over recent days. What is far less known is the role of the small, repressed independent Egyptian labor movement in keeping Egyptian hopes and spirits alive. On January 30, in the middle of Tahrir Square, those workers and their representatives announced the formation of the new "Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation."

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  • Ready, Disclaim, Fire

    Written on January 31, 2011

    Earlier today, newly-elected Michigan Governor Rick Snyder released his "Citizens’ Guide to Michigan’s Economic Health." The general purpose was to provide an easy-to-understand presentation of the state’s finances, and to encourage local governments to do the same. These are of course laudable goals, but one of the report’s major findings, also mentioned in the governor’s press release, was a familiar one:

    Average annual compensation of state employees (including salary, wages, and benefits) was over twice the average annual compensation of private sector workers in 2009.
    As might be expected, many reporters and editors dutifully ran this outrage-inspiring finding as a headline (also here and here), even before the report was officially released: State workers make twice as much as private sector workers. Governor Snyder rolled out the report as part of his presentation to the Business Leaders for Michigan Summit, in which he spoke about the state’s fiscal situation.

    I’ve already discussed how these gross comparisons of public and private sector workers – whether nationally or in a single state – are invalid. That is, they compare two completely different groups of workers: Public employees, who are mostly professionals, and private sector workers, many of whom work in lower-wage, lower-skill jobs. But this time, you don’t need to take my word for it. After featuring the “twice as much” finding in a header and pull-out quote, the governor’s report says it directly:

    However, this analysis does not compare private and public sector employees with similar jobs, years of experience, or education.
    Let me translate that for you. It means: This comparison is meaningless.
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  • The Unbearable Sadness Of Being Anti-Labor

    Written on January 31, 2011

    I recently came across this article (published last year) by Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner about the relationship between President Obama and labor unions, and I was struck by one of its sentences, which refers to the now-stalled Employee Free Choice Act. The sentence is simple enough:

    Union leaders believe that with card check they could vastly increase their dues income.
    This kind of statement is neither uncommon nor particularly inflammatory. But it speaks volumes. It is simultaneously remarkable and pedestrian, a window into the premises of an anti-union viewpoint.

    In a limited sense, it is of course true. Unions do want to expand their membership. A larger membership brings more influence and benefits for existing members (as well as other workers), and dues income is one of the tools necessary for accomplishing these goals.

    But the implication of the sentence - that unions and their leaders are only out for more money - illustrates how some people who maintain an anti-labor perspective, with its focus on economic self-interest, seem largely unable or unwilling to acknowledge what it means to be a part of something bigger than one's own interests, and to employ collective means toward collective ends.

    And that is sad.

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  • Meet The Bureaucrats

    Written on January 23, 2011

    You needn’t look far to see that state public employees are under intense scrutiny. Politicians and other commentators are using rhetoric that is simplistic and often misleading. But, in the debate over their relative value, these state workers have an additional problem: I get the strong feeling that most Americans have little idea what they do.

    If you ask the average person to describe what a public employee does, you might hear the word “bureaucrat." Those who wish to dismantle large chunks of the public sector have come to use the term as the pejorative for all public servants (most often in the federal government context) - probably in the hope that it will conjure up images of large government buildings filled with endless rows of faceless, overpaid desk workers collating papers.

    So, who are these state public employees? What are they actually doing? These are very basic questions, yet they are rarely addressed in detail, at least not lately. And, let’s be honest – in one way or another, our tax dollars do pay for these workers’ services, and regardless of your views on state budget troubles, it’s always good to know what you’re paying for. Luckily, of course, the question is easily answered. In the simple table below, using 2009 data from the Occupational Employment Statistics program of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, I present the breakdown of state government workers by occupational category (note: these categories are comprised of varying numbers of similar detailed occupations, and while my examples in the table are the largest, they are not the only ones in each category).

    In order to summarize this table, let’s suppose you’re invited to a party to meet ten people, who are a roughly representative sample of the 4.5 million state employees across the nation. Let’s meet the bureaucrats!

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  • Death Of A Teacher Union Icon

    Written on January 4, 2011

    The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.

    Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

    While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.

    We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:

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  • Whom Do Americans Trust? Nurses...And Teachers!

    Written on December 8, 2010

    Just a couple months after the prestigious Institute of Medicine urged that nurses be seen as “full partners” in redesigning the American health care system, they have received another vote of confidence, this one from the American public. According to the most recent Gallup poll, for the 9th straight year (and the 11th year in all), the American people ranked nurses as the most honest and ethical workers in the country.

    When asked to the rate the ethics and honesty of people in a variety of occupations, 81 percent of those surveyed gave a “very high/high” rating to nurses. Doctors received a very high/high rating from a still respectable of 66 percent of respondents.

    Despite being regularly scapegoated by politicians and the media for the past several years, grade school teachers still edged out doctors by 1 percentage point (a statistical tie),  with 67 of those polled expressing high regard for the profession. Although this places teachers fairly high on the list of trusted professions—in fourth place, behind nurses (81 percent), military officers (73 percent), and pharmacists (71 percent)—the teacher bashing has apparently had an effect: Teachers have lost ground since the 2007 version of this survey, when they were rated "very high/high" by 74 percent of those surveyed.

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  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    Written on November 23, 2010

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

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  • GDP: Government, Democracy, Prosperity

    Written on November 11, 2010

    Public spending has been under relentless attack in the U.S. since before President Ronald Reagan first took office.  The notion that “shrinking government” grows the economy, builds character and may even save our immortal souls is now one of the verities of our political discourse: public=bad; private=good. Indeed, it was the central belief uniting Tea Party members during this year’s campaign. Research and experience don’t support this conviction, but here we are.

    The massive government spending that was deployed to push the economy back from the brink of depression has aggravated the always inflamed passions on this issue. With red lights flashing and sirens wailing, anti-spending Tea Party-backed politicians are now riding to Washington to slay – or at least rein in – the beast of government.

    This is the narrative we live with.

    There is an alternative narrative however, supported by years of research, that tells a different tale, one in which public spending is a positive good, for the economy and society. In this narrative, public spending rises naturally as societies prosper and voters – demanding better infrastructure and better public services for themselves and their families – understand the need to pay for the kind of society in which they want to live.

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