Rhode Island state workers face budget ax

January 22, 2009

Brian Chidester, a member of the Bristol-Warren Education Association, reports on the challenges ahead for teachers and state workers faced with a new round of budget cuts and union-busting attacks.

THE FIRST week of 2009 witnessed a full-on assault on Rhode Island's teachers and public employees, spearheaded by Gov. Donald Carcieri and supported by his cousin, East Providence School Committee Chairman Anthony Carcieri. After years of vile propaganda, but stymied initiatives, the Carcieri boys might actually prevail.

Gov. Carcieri has been trying for years to attack the powerless and aid the powerful. He is the only prominent Republican in Rhode Island; the General Assembly is dominated by Democrats of all shades. But they've been content to sit back and let Carcieri rip.

Carcieri used police for a physical assault on the Narragansett Indians in 2003, and he fought their plans for a casino in 2006, only to replace theirs with a state-funded casino. In 2008, he targeted immigrants with a vague and overarching "executive order" deputizing the state's police and public employees as ICE agents.

And in 2006, with overwhelming support from Democrats in the General Assembly, he passed a major tax cut for Rhode Island's rich, which--he promised--would create many new jobs. Rhode Island now has a 9.3 percent unemployment rate, second in the nation only to Michigan.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri is leading the attack on public workers
Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri is leading the attack on public workers

But Carcieri's favorite target all along has been state workers and teachers.

As a result of the tax cuts for the rich, Rhode Island went from a budget surplus at the beginning of the decade to one of the worst budget deficits in the nation in per capita terms in 2008 and 2009. The budget for 2009 is now in deficit to the tune of $357 million--in a state of scarcely 1 million people, and that number has been decreasing.

Yet Carcieri has laid the blame for the deficit on state workers, teachers and their unions. At one point, he tried to implement furlough days, shutting down state government and not paying the workers. This attempt failed in court.

He was successful in implementing a two-tier pension plan in 2007, which reduces benefits for those with less than 10 years in the system. For the "Plan B" workers, his pension "reform" boosted the retirement age for teachers, cut the amount of benefits upon retirement, and cut health care coverage for retirees under age 65.

In July 2008, workers in ASFCME Council 94, the largest union of state workers, overwhelmingly voted down Carcieri's attempt to balance the budget on their backs with a four-year contract that would have frozen wages in the first year and increased workers' health care contributions. But with the administration refusing to budge--and with last fall's economic meltdown upping the pressure--workers voted narrowly to accept the same lousy contract a few months later.

Carcieri's latest attack came in a televised address on January 7, in which the government announced his emergency supplemental budget. The new budget calls for massive cuts in education funding and state funding to cities and towns; changes to pension rules effective April 1 that would force all state workers and teachers under the same rules now in effect for "Plan B" workers; and the outright elimination of cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.

The pension changes, if implemented, could mean a mass exodus of teachers three months before the end of the school year. And forget about going on strike--that's already illegal for teachers and state workers under state law. This bill would make it a crime even to wage a work-to-rule campaign!

The budget still needs to be approved by the General Assembly. However, the signs so far haven't been encouraging. The state's Democrats had no rebuttal to the governor's televised address. They have consistently stood by the governor's pledges not to raise taxes on the rich. And almost two weeks later, they haven't presented any alternative budget.

Instead, the Democrats blame their spinelessness on...us! Typical is the response of state Rep. Ray Gallison of Bristol, in a letter to a member of my union. After condemning the governor's plan as "union-busting," Gallison continued, "Unfortunately, the governor has several groups and some members of the media behind him, while at the same time your union has remained silent. The governor has the only plan out there and has received positive press."

Actually, response to the governor's plan has been quite hostile. In the comments section of the Providence Journal Web site, many people wrote in angrily to call for taxing the rich. But the Democrats, as always in this bluest of blue states, seem content to let the attacks continue unhindered.

RHODE ISLAND teachers are also facing a union-busting attack that could set a nasty precedent.

Rhode Island has one of the highest unionization rates in the country, and public school teachers are 100 percent organized, with strong contracts and job protections, relatively high salaries, and good health and retirement benefits. This makes us a prime target for the Carcieris of the state.

Like Anthony Carcieri, the East Providence School Committee chairman, who announced January 2 that East Providence teachers' salaries would be cut by 5 percent and their health care contribution raised from 0 to 20 percent, effective January 5. Carcieri claims that this is necessary to close the East Providence Schools budget deficit of over $4 million--a deficit the school committee has allowed to fester for years before just now discovering they had to do something about it.

The East Providence Education Association's (EPEA) contract with the school district expired on October 31, 2008, without any resolution in sight. On the contrary, the school committee stalled and picked fights over bargaining rules, finally calling for arbitration without even having attempted to bargain in good faith. While the arbitration took place, the EPEA filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the state labor board--the ruling has yet to be made.

Meanwhile, the arbitrator came to a halfway solution, in which teachers would take no pay raise in the first year of the contract and accept a moderate co-pay on health care for the first time. EPEA members voted overwhelmingly to accept the nonbinding settlement. But the School Committee rejected it out of hand, announcing its unilateral pay cut on teachers a few days later.

The School Committee has been backed to the hilt by the city administration, which has intervened in court on its behalf. East Providence Mayor Joe Larisa told the Providence Journal: "The big labor contract that finally expired was as outrageous as it is unaffordable. Now that the damage has been done, the options left are a crazy 15 to 20 percent property-tax increase against our hard-hit taxpayers, bankruptcy or finally setting reasonable and fair compensation for all school employees."

So will Mayor Larisa also accept an immediate, "fair and equitable" 5 percent pay cut?

Many teachers believe the school committee's actions are illegal, and that the cuts will be overturned in court. But the courts have thus far dragged their feet, and in the current economic crisis, there is no guarantee that the EPEA will prevail. And if they don't, it will be a horrific union-busting precedent right as the recession sets in.

As Bristol-Warren Education Association President Linda Laclair wrote in an e-mail to union members: "The import of this is obvious. Seems like the trend (starting with the governor threatening to impose changes on the union last year, to Providence's [Democratic Mayor David] Ciccilline trying to impose a change in health care [on Providence city workers], and, lastly, and perhaps, most significantly, the efforts of the EP School Committee) to render the idea of collective bargaining meaningless is well underway."

SO WHAT should teachers and state workers do to ward off this offensive? The answer isn't easy. Many unionized public employees are feeling the brunt of media attacks that blame them for having (relatively) secure jobs while many in the private sector are laid off.

This sense of bad times meaning lowered expectations is having an impact on the unions. Unlike previous years when teachers' unions without contracts went on strike or waged work-to-rule campaigns, no such action took place. Instead, state workers worked under an expired contract until they accepted the governor's lousy deal in a worsening economic context. Teachers in several districts went back without a contract, and now are in a worse position, due both to the Wall Street meltdown and the union-busting attacks.

Should we simply work under expired contracts, keeping our heads down and riding out the storm? Some argue that this approach, though it would mean no pay raise (for those not receiving step raises in the first 10 years of teaching), would at least avoid the possibility of concessions on our health care co-pays.

But the problem is that by avoiding direct struggle, even in bad conditions, we leave the initiative in the hands of the public sector bosses. The East Providence example shows that we can't trust them to let us slide by.

It's also not enough to simply argue that it's unfair to balance state and city budgets on the backs of public employees. As National Education Association of Rhode Island Uniserv Representative John Leidecker told the Providence Journal, "This crew in East Providence makes the management in the auto business look like geniuses...It was their own negligence and malfeasance that caused the [city's fiscal woes]. But it's the employees who suffer."

Leidecker is absolutely right, and the same could be said about Gov. Carcieri's administration. But it doesn't answer the question: What do you do about the budget deficits?

This is why the unions must make serious political and economic demands on the state. It's not enough to fight for our own contracts, all of which exist in a context of crisis that is much larger than any local agreement can solve.

Instead, we must make demands that counter the attacks from the governor and his allies, and that provide our own alternative. These include:

No to Carcieri's supplemental budget. Attacking public workers and cutting their pay and benefits will only aggravate the state's economic crisis by immiserating almost 10 percent of the state's workforce. Cutting funding to cities and towns will only force them to raise already-high property taxes in a deflating real-estate market--or cut municipal services to the bone.

Tax the rich. Rhode Island's budgets over the past decade have included massive giveaways and tax concessions to the rich and to corporations. It's unfair that ordinary people pay 7 percent sales tax on most basic consumer goods, while the rich pay no taxes at all on their yachts!

Bail out the state. The federal government handed out more than $1 trillion in free money to banks and other corporations What's a half-billion dollars to bail out the smallest state?

Only by raising these broad demands--and backing them up with our own town-hall meetings, demonstrations and job actions--will teachers and state workers ward off the worst anti-labor attacks in decades.

Further Reading

From the archives