Public Sector Unions

  • Teacher, Democrat, Union Chief

    The seventh author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Eugenia Kemble, president of the Foundation for Democratic Education and founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    We are now at a time when basic freedoms are threatened, public education is systematically attacked and unions are crumbling. More than at any time since Al Shanker's death 20 years ago, this remarkable teacher’s most important legacy needs our attention.

    At the core of this legacy was Shanker's fixation on the idea and practice of democracy. It bubbled up to the top of his agenda early and raw from a mix of personal experiences, including anti-Semitic bigotry, the tough working life of his parents, and the voiceless experience of teaching in schools run by autocrats. And it was refined by exhaustive reading of such pragmatist philosophers as John Dewey and Charles Saunders Pierce, religious theorist, Reinhold Neihbur, the anti-communist, Sidney Hook, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and many, many, many more.

    Al believed that union leadership was democracy leadership — in the running of the union, and in its role as a defender of public education, free trade unionism and political democracy here and around the world.

  • A Father And A Fighter

    The fifth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is his daughter Jennie Shanker, adjunct professor at Temple University, and a member of the Temple adjunct organizing committee. Eadie, Adam, and Michael Shanker also contributed to the piece. You can find the other posts in this series here.

    It’s been 20 years since my father passed away at the age of 68, and he’s still not far from the thoughts of family and friends. The many incredible events of the past year have made his presence palpable for us at times, as the repercussions of the election unfold in the news.  

    His life’s trajectory was formed by the personal struggles of his family, the lens through which he saw the world. His parents were immigrants who moved to this country to escape the pogroms in their home territory between Poland and Russia. His mother came over on a boat at the age of 16 with her mother, arriving after weeks at sea with pink eye. She was denied entry into the country and was forced to turn back. She returned by herself a year or so later and settled in NYC. She worked behind sewing machines, rotating between different sweatshops that hired her for short periods of time. Her long hours of hard work, lack of decent working conditions, low pay and lack of job security led her to the unions of her day.

    My father attended public schools in NYC, speaking only Yiddish in the first grade. He was unusually tall as a kid, had a large port-wine stain birthmark on his neck, and he was a Jew. Hitler’s Germany would have an ongoing presence in his family life.

  • In Search Of Tough Liberals In The Age Of Trump: Remembering Al Shanker

    The next author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2007). You can find the other posts in this series here.

    I met Albert Shanker in September 1995, just a year and a half before his untimely death.  I made an appointment to interview him for a book I was writing on affirmative action policies in college admissions.  My father, who taught high school, used to clip Shanker’s columns in the Sunday New York Times and share them with me.  So I was excited to meet the man whose writing on education, labor, civil rights and democracy spoke to me so profoundly.

    Shanker cut an imposing figure.  He was 6’4” with a deep voice and his office at the American Federation of Teachers had an impressive view of the Capitol.  He wasn’t one for small talk so we got right down to business.  On the issue of affirmative action, I strongly identified with Shanker’s position – wanting to find a way to remedy our nation’s egregious history of racial discrimination but simultaneously wanting to avoid a backlash from working-class whites, who also had a rightful claim to special consideration that racial preferences failed to acknowledge.

  • Public Intellectual: The Legacy Of Al Shanker

    Twenty years ago today, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, Al Shanker, died. To mark the occasion, we have asked a number of individuals – some who knew and worked with Al and some who have studied his life’s work – to reflect on the continuing relevance of his ideas and his principles. We did so out of a conviction that Shanker’s ideas and principles are not simply matters of historical interest, but of real contemporary value at a time when public education, unionism and American democracy itself are in a state of profound crisis, under attack in unprecedented ways. Beginning today with this post, we will be publishing these reflections (you can find the full series here).

    For a half-century, Al Shanker labored as a teacher and educator, as a unionist and as a democrat. In each of these fields, he was a political force to be reckoned with, shaping public policy and thinking in significant ways. Yet unlike most important political actors on the American scene, Shanker was a public intellectual who relished vigorous debate and reveled in the world of ideas. He brought an open mind and a penchant for critical analysis, a fierce commitment to rational discourse and logical argumentation that relied on evidence, to all that he did. His political engagement had a deeply intellectual cast.

    As the executive director of the institute established by the AFT to honor Shanker by carrying on his life’s work as an engaged public intellectual, I have often thought about Al’s example. What strikes me most about Shanker the thinker was his refusal to become entrenched in his views or to allow his beliefs to harden into inflexible dogmas. One story in particular comes to mind.

  • Build A Precariat Strategy

    Our guest author today is Guy Standing, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    All forward marches towards more freedom and equality are led by and for the emerging mass class, not by and for yesterday’s. Today, the political left in America and Europe is in disarray because they have not taken heed of that historical lesson. Trump is one nightmarish outcome of that failure.

    Today’s mass class is the precariat, not the old industrial proletariat. It is scarcely news to say we are in the eye of the storm of the Global Transformation, the painful construction of a global market system. The crisis, analogous to the crisis moment of the Great Transformation that preceded it, is epitomised by the aggressive populism of Trump, playing on the fears, deprivations and insecurities that had been allowed to grow in the preceding three decades.

    But the left needs to step back from entering the vortex of the storm Trump is generating, to reflect on a strategic response, to build a new vision of a Good Society that responds to the insecurities and aspirations of the precariat.

  • The Future Of Worker Voice And Power

    Our guest author today is David Madland, Senior Fellow and the Senior Adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    My goal is to provide a long-term vision of how we can address the fundamental economic and democratic challenges faced by our country, as well as to discuss some realistic steps for state and local governments to take to move us toward this vision.

    Today’s economy does not work very well for most people. Wages have been stagnant for decades and inequality is near record highs. Many voters blame politicians for these problems – for doing the bidding of CEOs while leaving workers with too little power to get their fair share.  Voter anger and the politicians fortified by it have put our democracy in real trouble.

    There are of numerous reforms necessary to ensure that workers have sufficient power to raise wages, reduce inequality, and make democracy work for all Americans – including those that reduce the influence of money in politics and that promote full employment.  But among the most important reforms are those that give workers a way to band together and have a strong collective voice.  Collective voice enables workers to negotiate with CEOs on a relatively even footing and to hold politicians accountable.  When workers have a strong collective voice, not only can they increase their own wages, but also improve labor standards across the economy and provide a key counterbalance to wealthy special interests, making politicians more responsive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. 

    But we need new and better ways for workers to achieve that strong collective voice.  Fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are members of a union – meaning that 93 percent are left out of the current system.

  • Economic Shocks And Attitudes Toward Redistribution

    In the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007, as well as the subsequent recession, there has been a great deal of attention paid to income inequality. Specifically, there was a pervasive argument among many Americans that the discrepancies in income between the top and bottom are too large, and that the fruits of economic growth are predominantly going to the highest earners (the so-called “one percent”).

    Among those who believe that income inequality is too high, the solutions might include policies such as more progressive taxation, stronger regulation, and more generous policies to help lower income families. That is, they might generally support some increased role for government in addressing this issue. Insofar as individuals’ attitudes tend to respond to changes in their own circumstances (e.g., Owens and Pedulla 2013), as well as to overall economic conditions, one would possibly expect an increase in support for government efforts to reduce inequality during and after the financial crisis.

    We might take a look at this proposition using a General Social Survey (GSS) question asking respondents to characterize their support (on a scale of 1-7) for the statement that the government should reduce income differences between the rich and poor. The graph below presents the average value of this scale between 1986 and 2014. Note that higher values in the graph represent greater support for government action.

  • Basic Facts About Who Pays State And Local Taxes

    Taxes, particularly income taxes, are among the most divisive and controversial issues in any nation, and this makes perfect sense – people care about how much they pay and how it is spent. Yet most of the constant, heated debate about taxation focuses almost entirely on federal taxes, with state and local taxes receiving far less attention.

    Periodically, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) releases an important and interesting analysis of who pays state and local taxes – that is, the tax burdens among households with different incomes. The latest version of this report was published last year. The findings are worth knowing for anyone interested in public sector services, including education.

    ITEP reports that state and local taxes overall are highly regressive, which means that poorer households pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than do higher income households. This finding is summarized in the figure below, which is taken directly from the report (note that these are national averages, and that the breakdown varies by state).

  • The Civic Power Of Unions And The Anti-Union Political Agenda

    This is the second of two posts on the political dimensions of the Friedrichs case. The first post can be read here.

    Before Justice Scalia’s sudden death, it appeared that, through the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority would succeed in imposing “right to work” status on public sector working people across the nation. As discussed in a previous post, there were signs that this conservative bloc was looking to deliver its decision in time to sideline the four largest public employee unions – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – from the 2016 elections. Not coincidentally, these are also the unions that have the strongest political operations in the American labor. If Scalia had not died and these intentions were realized, what would have been the impact on the 2016 election and beyond?

    To grasp the full impact of a negative Friedrichs decision, had the conservative justices been successful in their plans, it is necessary to gauge the effect that public employee unions have on the political activism of their members. Ironically, insight into this question can be gleaned from an essay that exhibits a critical attitude toward public sector unions and collective bargaining, Patrick Flavin’s and Michael Hartney’s “When Government Subsidizes Its Own: Collective Bargaining Laws as Agents of Political Mobilization.”1 (Hereafter, F&H.) While not without analytical flaws, a number of which will be discussed below, F&H contributes to the literature with a new way of measuring the effect of teacher unions on teacher political activism and engagement, above and beyond voting. (Teachers have always voted at consistently high rates, with over 90 percent turnout in presidential elections and over 80 percent in mid-term elections.) Consequently, F&H places in relief the union contribution to member political activism that was targeted by the SCOTUS conservatives.

  • The Political Calculus Behind Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

    When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered its March 29 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the announcement of a 4 to 4 deadlock was something of an anticlimax.  Ever since the sudden February 12 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS watchers had anticipated just such an impasse. Based on Scalia’s questions when the case was argued before the Court a month before his passing, the late justice appeared to be the fifth vote for a decision that would have overturned 40 years of precedent – in effect, imposing “right to work” status on all those working in the public sector and eviscerating their unions. Without this vote, the four remaining conservative justices failed to constitute a majority.

    In the days following this decision, observers across the political spectrum described the judicial deadlock in Friedrichs as a victory for public sector workers and their unions (at least for the moment). A more definitive resolution of the issue awaits Senate confirmation of Scalia’s successor, whether President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, or someone yet to be named by the next president.

    But, so far, what has been missing from most media commentaries is a recognition of the immediate political import of the Court’s impasse, and most especially, its impact on the 2016 election campaign. To understand the full political dimensions of Friedrichs – how the Court’s conservative majority seem to have been prepared to use the case to sway the election – a brief review of the case is necessary.