Public Sector Unions

  • College For All; Good Jobs For A Few?

    A recent study by the Center for Policy Research (CEPR) asks the question that must be on the minds of college grads, now working as coffee shop baristas: “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?" The answer: swallowed by corporate profits and the personal portfolios of the ultrawealthy.

    Despite the fact that the American economy has experienced “enormous” productivity gains since the late 1970’s, the study finds that the number of “good jobs” (defined as those paying at least $37,000 per year, with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan) has declined from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 24.6 percent in 2010.  This discouraging trend was strong even before the onset of the country’s economic crisis: in 2007, the year before the onset of the recession, only 25 percent of college grads had “good jobs."

    CEPR notes that the prevailing explanations for the failure to share productivity gains are “technology” and lack of necessary skills among American workers. But, if this were true, the CEPR study argues, one would expect college grads to have a higher share of good jobs than they did 30 years ago. They don’t. Instead, at every age level, today’s college grads are less likely to have a “good job” than their 1970s counterparts. This is especially surprising, the researchers note, since twice as many Americans now have advanced degrees as compared to the 1970’s.

  • The New Middle East: Democratic Accountability And The Role Of Trade Unions

    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.

    Since the shock of 9/11 and the tragedy that ensued, many policy analysts have questioned whether or not Islam is compatible with democracy, while  ignoring countries such as Indonesia (the largest Muslim nation in the world) as well as  India, Turkey, and  others with large Muslim populations.

    Now, in the aftermath of Arab Spring, Islamist political parties have gained political power through elections in the Middle East and, for many analysts, the jury is still out: Can Islamist governments be responsive to the people who elected them? Will it be one person, one vote, one time?  It appears that these questions are about to be answered:  The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which governs Turkey, has been in the forefront for many years. In Morocco, a majority of voters also handed power to the Justice and Development Party (PJD), a party inspired by Turkey's moderate Islamists. Tunisia’s Al-Nahda (Renaissance) party and its prime minister were elected to office after free and fair elections.  In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) established by the Muslim Brotherhood, won the Presidential elections and his new prime minister has formed a cabinet.

    Against this background, the fundamental challenge to these governments in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is economic and not religious. The newly-minted Islamist governments are going to be tested daily and this time held accountable by voters who are no longer afraid to speak out.

  • Reviving Labor After Wisconsin: Unions Need A New Approach Emphasizing Civil Rights

    Our guest authors today are Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a civil rights attorney. They are authors of the book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy By Enhancing Worker Voice.

    Conservatives are calling the failure of public sector unions to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker labor’s “Waterloo.”  Just as private sector unionism has declined from a third of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 7 percent today, Charles Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post, “Tuesday, June 5, 2012, will be remembered as the beginning of the long decline of the public-sector union."

    This forecast seems an exercise in hyperbole (many voters don’t think recall elections are an appropriate response to policy disputes) but the setback for labor was indeed serious.  One of the lessons of Wisconsin is that if public sector unions want to survive, they need to find ways to help revive trade unionism in the private sector.

    The fates of the two sectors are deeply intertwined.

  • Teachers And Their Unions: A Conceptual Border Dispute

    One of the segments from “Waiting for Superman” that stuck in my head is the following statement by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter:

    It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.
    The distinction between teachers and their unions (as well as those of other workers) has been a matter of political and conceptual contention for long time. On one “side," the common viewpoint, as characterized by Alter's slightly hyperbolic line, is “love teachers, don’t like their unions." On the other “side," criticism of teachers’ unions is often called “teacher bashing."

    So, is there any distinction between teachers and teachers’ unions? Of course there is.

  • Jobs And Freedom: Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right

    Our guest authors today are Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill. Norman Hill, staff coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is also the former civil and human rights director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are currently working on a memoir, entitled Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.

    Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit have done a great service by writing Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, an important work with the potential to become the basis for a strong coalition on behalf of civil rights, racial equality and economic justice.

    In the United States, worker rights and civil rights have a deep and historic connection. What is slavery, after all, if not the abuse of worker rights taken to its ultimate extreme? A. Philip Randolph, the founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recognized this link and, as far back as the 1920s, spoke passionately about the need for a black-labor alliance. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protégé and an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., joined his mentor as a forceful, early advocate for a black-labor coalition.

  • The ‘Snob’ Debate: Making High School Matter For Non-College-Bound Students

    Our guest author today is James R. Stone, professor and director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education at the University of Louisville.

    The current debate about “college for all” centers on a recent speech made by President Obama in Troy, MI, in which he argued that all young people should get at least some post-high school education or training. Republican presidential primary candidate Rick Santorum, in a misreading of Obama’s remarks, responded with a focus on four-year degrees alone—suggesting, among other things, that four-year college degrees are overrated and that the president’s emphasis on college devalued working people without such degrees. The political chatter around this particular back-and-forth continues, but the issue of “college for all” has rightly raised some serious issues about the content and direction of U.S. education policy both at the high school and post-secondary levels.

    Statistics seem to show that the college-educated  graduates of four-year institutions earn more money and experience less unemployment than their non-college-educated peers. This has fueled the argument is that college is the surest path—perhaps the only path—into the middle class. But the argument confuses correlation with causality. What if every U.S. citizen obtained a community college or university degree? Would that really do anything to alter wage rates at Starbucks, or increase salaries for home healthcare aides (an occupation projected to enjoy the highest demand over the next decade)? Of course not.

  • The False Conflict Between Unionism and Professionalism

    Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).

    Let’s take a quick look at this "conflict," first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers.

  • The Teachers' Union Hypothesis

    For the past couple of months, Steve Brill's new book has served to step up the eternally-beneath-the-surface hypothesis that teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to improving educational outcomes in the U.S. The general idea is that unions block “needed reforms," such as merit pay and other forms of test-based accountability for teachers, and that they “protect bad teachers” from being fired.

    Teachers’ unions are a convenient target. For one thing, a significant proportion of Americans aren’t crazy about unions of any type. Moreover, portraying unions as the villain in the education reform drama facilitates the (mostly false) policy-based distinction between teachers and the organizations that represent them – put simply, “love teachers, hate their unions." Under the auspices of this dichotomy, people can advocate for changes , such as teacher-level personnel policies based partially on testing results, without having to address why most teachers oppose them (a badly needed conversation).

    No, teachers’ unions aren’t perfect, because the teachers to whom they give voice aren’t perfect. There are literally thousands of unions, and, just like districts, legislatures and all other institutions, they make mistakes. But I believe strongly in separating opinion and anecdote from actual evidence, and the simple fact is that the pervasive argument that unions are a substantial cause of low student performance has a weak empirical basis, while the evidence that unions are a primary cause of low performance does not exist.

  • The Cutting Edge Of Teacher Quality

    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.

  • Public Servants Versus Private Contractors ... Again

    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.