The war on public-sector unions

November 6, 2009

State and local governments are making deep spending cuts wherever they can, and taking aim at the power of public-sector unions. Lee Sustar documents this latest turn in the long war on labor--and talks to activists who are putting forward an opposition.

THE LONG war on unions is escalating in the public sector as the recession wipes out tax revenue and triggers deep budget cuts in states, large and small.

The biggest headlines have come out of California, where 193,000 state workers have suffered pay cuts of at least 14 percent because of "furlough" days, while thousands more have endured layoffs.

But the picture is similar everywhere. To take two examples from recent days: In Iowa, Gov. Chet Culver will cut $520 million in state spending by ordering furloughs for 3,258 employees and layoffs for 180, while leaving 230 positions vacant. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell anticipates laying off hundreds of state employees just in time for the holiday season, in addition to the 300 Pennsylvania government workers who have already lost their jobs.

This list could go on.

In some cases, the attacks on unions go beyond layoffs and furloughs to target union organization itself.

In Detroit, Mayor Dave Bing has tried to claim that the city's fiscal crisis allows him to unilaterally "terminate" union contacts covering about 4,500 workers--and he's already ended the practice of deducting dues from workers' paychecks. He seems to be taking his cue from Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, who's using new laws to sweep aside union contracts--in order to lay off 25,000 public employees and privatize big chunks of government services.

Protesting teachers' layoffs in Washington, D.C.
Protesting teachers' layoffs in Washington, D.C.

But even the far smaller government spending cuts that have become routine in the recession are having devastating results--not only for union members, but the public that relies on crucial public services.

For example, in Chicago, layoffs are set for Cook County Stroger Hospital, the health care provider of last resort for the uninsured and the poor. "The county has recently given layoff notice to 80 nurses, but it's not due to funding issues, but a reorganizing of the hospital to make it more on par with private institutions," said Dennis Kosuth, a member of the National Nurses Organizing Committee at Stroger. "The layoff notices have instilled some fear for the future of the hospital among nurses."

TEACHERS UNIONS are the biggest targets of all. Budget cuts have already cost 40,000 teacher jobs in the course of the recession. In Hawaii, public schools face 17 "furlough Fridays" during the school year, forcing parents to try and find ways to raise money to keep schools open.

The message from the White House about this blow to our children's education? Be grateful to us, because things could have been worse.

According to government figures, the $787 billion stimulus package passed earlier this year prevented tens of thousands more teachers from getting pink slips. Nevertheless, school kids face the loss of skilled and effective teachers, bigger class sizes and fewer resources, even as Wall Street bonuses soar and the Pentagon war machine gears up for another Afghanistan surge.

The education cuts alone should be at the center of a national debate on social priorities, led by a president who promised "change." Instead, the crisis is being used by the White House to give added momentum to ongoing efforts at school privatization dressed up as "reform."

Under President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program, money-starved states and school districts can tap $4.3 billion in federal education money if--and only if--they lower barriers to the creation of charter schools and impose merit pay on teachers, regardless of existing collective bargaining agreements.

That's a twin-barreled attack on the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA), which together represent the biggest single sector of unionized workers in the U.S. today. As David Rapkin, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) board of directors, put it:

It's political blackmail, plain and simple. Sell the soul of public education, make decisions that will ultimately hurt not just teachers, but kids and communities, or else we'll starve your schools. No serious research ties merit pay to student achievement, while much of the literature shows it actually does a great deal of harm.

So what you have is the federal government putting a gun to our heads in order to further a dogmatic, blatantly ideological agenda. They don't care about educating kids; what they want to do is privatize education and bust unions.

The cutting edge of school privatization has been in the post-Katrina New Orleans school system, where a majority of kids now attend charter schools, and the remaining public schools are starved for resources.

But now the central front is shifting--to the Washington, D.C., school system, where Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee laid off 388 high-seniority teachers while keeping hundreds of newly hired teachers on the payroll in complete disregard of a contract with the Washington Teachers Union.

Meanwhile, in New York City, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg campaigned for re-election on the promise to move 100,000 students--10 percent of the total--into charter schools.

The trend is growing. As the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools points out, "Today, a record 14 communities have more than 20 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools, eight more than the number from just three years ago. Additionally, 72 communities now have at least 10 percent of public school students in charter schools, 27 more than three year ago. These numbers illustrate that charter enrollment growth remains strong."

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) already has 9 percent of its students in charter schools--that's 59,122 students, the most of any school district in the country. Now, LAUSD wants to put 50 brand-new schools and 200 "underperforming" ones through a "Public School Choice" initiative that encourages charter schools operators to take control of them.

Under the school board's legally questionable move, the teachers' union, UTLA, can submit its own proposals for reform or simply allow outside entities to move in. Those angling for control of LA schools include the nonprofit Green Dot, which has an impressive array of corporate foundations behind it.

The Los Angeles Times editorial page, hostile to the UTLA and a vociferous proponent of school reform, declared that the reform must go through, or else: "If the Public School Choice initiative does not emerge as a strong reform policy, L.A. Unified will be signaling its ongoing inability to fix itself and its schools--which could prompt an outside takeover of the district."

The LA Times hard-line stance reflects the extent to which the city's establishment, led by billionaire investor Eli Broad, is determined to roll over the UTLA and its reform leadership.

When UTLA planned a one-day strike to protest layoffs of some 4,000 teachers and other school employees, LAUSD obtained a judge's temporary restraining order that barred the walkout on penalty of fines that would have bankrupted the union and stripped the teaching credentials of strikers. The judge's order recalled a New York judge's injunction against striking subway workers in New York City in 2006, which has left the union financially crippled to this day.

It's a none-too-subtle message to public-sector workers: If you're going to resist, you'd better be ready for the fight of you lives.

THIS TYPE of onslaught is all too familiar to members of unions in the private sector, where the percentage of workers has dropped from more than 30 percent in the 1950 to just 7.6 percent today.

Public-sector workers have seen plenty of attacks previously: the 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in the PATCO union who were fired by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 worked for the federal government, and the smashing of their union gave the green light for the most aggressive management attacks on unions in industry since the 1930s.

But in general, the public sector has been friendlier territory for organized labor, notwithstanding the fact that several Southern states bar collective bargaining agreements with unions. Overall, 36.8 percent of public-sector workers are organized. Thus, in the effort to grind down union power, federal, state and local government officials are taking their cue from private employers.

Business has used the recession to extract concessions from organized labor and squeeze workers harder, both in union and nonunion environment. The numbers tell the story: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, worker productivity in manufacturing rose 1.2 percent in 2008, even as manufacturing jobs declined 3.4 percent and hours worked fell by 3.9 percent. While those percentages may seem small, they represent vast gains for capital.

The labor movement's response to this new wave of attacks ranges from paralysis to capitulation.

The United Auto Workers' (UAW) embrace of the Obama administration's proposal to restructure General Motors and Chrysler has led to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, the elimination of union work rules built up over decades, big cuts in benefits and a six-year ban on strikes. At Ford, workers recently voted to reject those concessions. But the UAW, once the pacesetter for a steadily rising standard of living for U.S. workers in the decades following the Second World War, is still collaborating with employers in a race to the bottom.

Now that same sort of partnership-at-all-costs unionism is coming to the teachers' unions.

In a recent article on the Huffington Post, AFT President Randi Weingarten rebranded the AFT as "public school entrepreneurs, trying new approaches, taking some risks and looking for promising ventures--all in the quest to improve student learning. Our efforts are magnified by the tremendous backing of our fellow education entrepreneurs--five of America's most prominent private philanthropic foundations." The money went to nine local teachers unions to support a variety of projects, including towards greater "collaboration" with school officials and developing programs that tie teacher pay to test scores.

The foundations that bankrolled much of the AFT's "Innovation Fund"--the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation--are some of the most aggressive proponents of charter schools.

And in a signal that the AFT leadership is willing to adapt to that agenda, Weingarten added, "With the exception of vouchers, which drain vital resources from public schools, everything is on the table in terms of reform, as long as it is good for kids and fair to teachers."

Weingarten's idea of fairness was on display in a teachers' contract in New Haven, Conn., which she personally helped to negotiate. According to the Wall Street Journal, the contract, which allows administrators greater freedom to close schools, includes "tough performance evaluations and fewer job protections for bad teachers." According to Weingarten, it's "a model or a template" for future teachers' contracts.

THAT'S BAD news for rank-and-file teachers and more militant local leaders who are trying to hold the line on privatization, defend union rights and put forward a genuinely democratic vision of school reform, based on fully funded schools and parent-teacher-community alliances. In UTLA, the reform leaders and the Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) are strategizing over next steps.

Elsewhere, rank-and-file militants are organizing to challenge the retreat by Weingarten and her counterpart, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

In recent elections in the United Educators of San Francisco, a new caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union, made a strong showing and captured several seats on the union's executive board earlier this year. In Chicago, where the corporate-driven school reform movement took off in the late 1990s, another new group, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), just won their union's two seats on the pension board. Given that schools CEO Ron Huberman has made pension "reform"--i.e., cutbacks--a top priority, CORE will be at the forefront of a key struggle for the union.

Rebuilding--indeed, saving--the teachers' unions won't be quick or easy. But the pieces are coming together for stronger resistance. In New York City, a new formation, the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), has brought together longstanding militant groups to challenge the retreat of the United Federation of Teachers, where Weingarten was president before taking the top spot nationally.

"It's the beginning of a grassroots movement of teachers who are willing to fight the assaults on public education, like charter schools, and put forward a vision of quality public education," said GEM activist Megan Behrent, a high school teacher in Brooklyn.

The K-12 schools aren't the only place where resistance to the cuts is taking shape. At the University of Vermont, the faculty union, affiliated with the AFT, was central to a wider fightback against the cuts.

"In the face of public scandals about administrative bloat and financial mismanagement, the United Academics AFT/American Association of University Professors full-time unit won a surprisingly superb contract in September as the union threatened a public campaign," wrote Helen Scott and Nancy Welch, who teach English at the university. "The part-time union subsequently won a far less good contract, but avoided givebacks."

That was just one battle in a longer war, however. The university successfully pushed through major budget cuts despite a big campaign by faculty members and students that involved a student walkout--and the faculty union had to be pushed into supporting the fight. "The elected leadership of the union is quiescent to the extreme; they only reluctantly signed onto the campaign, and are even more reluctant now to challenge the continuing cuts," Scott and Welch wrote.

A similar struggle is unfolding on a much larger scale at the University of California, where a contract fight by the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE) became the focal point for a one-day strike and walkout September 24 across the UC system. At a time when the biggest public-sector union in California, the Service Employees International Union, has failed to mobilize its members against cuts, UPTE helped spark a wider fight.

Central to the solidarity effort is AFSCME Local 3299, the UC union that last year won a strong contract after a campaign that included a one-day strike and several marches and demonstrations. Local 3299 has refused UC's demand for unpaid furlough days, so the administration has targeted the local. As Kathryn Lybarger, an activist in Local 3299 at UC Berkeley, put it:

They intend to make up the savings, in a far more punitive manner, that they would have gained if we had agreed to their furlough program. This means a cut of about 4 percent or more for our members, which is equal to the amount of pay raise we won this year from our recent contract fight. Note that the funding shortfall from the state is less than 3 percent of UC's overall budget. Smells like revenge from UC against a union that kicked their ass.

More and bigger battles lie ahead at UC and beyond. Tax revenue shortfalls are expected to worsen, even as the economy recovers, so governments at all levels will be seeking to squeeze as many concessions out of workers as possible. In the UC system, activists have set March 4, 2010, as a day of action.

The UC solidarity movement should serve as a marker for the entire labor movement. At a time when governments claim that budget deficits mean there's no alternative to the cuts, the workers, students and faculty at UC have changed the debate, questioning the social and political priorities in California and beyond--and fighting to change them.

As the attacks on public-sector workers and services continue to mount, that example couldn't be more timely.

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