Striking teachers descend on West Virginia’s Capitol to demand pay raises

From ABC News:

Thousands of striking teachers descended on the West Virginia Capitol on Monday, forcing officials to briefly cut off access to the building six days after Gov. Jim Justice and unions representing the teachers reached an agreement on a 5 percent pay raise that was subsequently rejected by the state Senate.

The Capitol – closed after 5,000 people had entered early Monday , posing security concerns – was reopened an hour later, but teachers continued to vent their frustration over the lack of progress in agreement over a pay raise. Their strike, in one of the poorest states in the country, has disrupted education, forced working parents to scramble for child care and put children who rely on meals at school at risk of going hungry.

The strike entered a new week Monday with teachers waiting for state lawmakers to agree on a pay raise; House and Senate negotiators scheduled a Monday afternoon meeting to try to resolve their differences. The statewide strike has kept public schools shut for 277,000 students and 35,000 employees for a week.

In a state with a 17.9 percent poverty rate, teachers, bus drivers and other volunteers are collecting food and helping to distribute it to students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches at school. Teachers were sharing stories about how they’ve donated their time, their own money or their own food for that cause. At least two GoFundMe pages have been launched in support of the walkout.

“It does make you feel good because we are helping them,” said Ann Osburn, a special education teacher at Buckhannon Academy. “I think we’re reaching as many as we can. We’re getting as much help out there as we can for those kids.”

Rachel Stringer, as a stay-at-home mom from Cross Lanes, hasn’t had to struggle to find care for her five children, but numerous friends are in a bind. She said her biggest challenge has been making sure her children don’t forget what they’ve learned this school year. Despite the long layoff, Stringer is supportive of the teachers.

“They deserve to be paid,” she said. “They deserve to be able to have insurance.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Hears Fiery Arguments In Case That Could Gut Public Sector Unions

From NPR News:

The Supreme Court heard fiery arguments Monday in a case that could remove a key revenue stream for public sector unions.

A sharply divided court could be poised to overturn a 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that would further undermine an already shrinking union movement.

Attorneys for Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, argue that people like Janus, who choose not to join a union, shouldn’t be compelled to pay partial union fees. The union argues that he should because he benefits from collective bargaining negotiations. The Supreme Court agreed in 1977, but that could change with the new conservative tilt of the court.

When a decision is reached, expected in June, all eyes will be on Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was uncharacteristically quiet in Monday’s proceedings. He asked no questions and is likely to be the deciding vote, given that the other justices split 4 to 4 in a similar case in 2016. That case was decided just after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the balance didn’t seem to change Monday.

“You’re basically arguing, do away with unions,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued at one point in questioning the attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, William Messenger.

On the other side, conservatives sympathized with Janus’ argument that the unions are political, and people shouldn’t have to join a union they disagree with on politics.

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that what unions do affects policy and therefore makes them political. “How do negotiation over wages not affect the state budget?” he asked.

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked David Frederick, the attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Illinois affiliate, whether a ruling against AFSCME would reduce its political influence.

Frederick agreed that it would.

“Isn’t that the end of this case?” Kennedy asked.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan warned against the potential breadth of the decision, which would affect 23 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which have similar laws on the books.

“Thousands of municipalities would have contracts invalidated,” Kagan warned. “Those contracts probably cover millions, maybe up to over 10 million, workers.”

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS conservatives set to strike down union fees on free-speech grounds

From today’s LA Times:

Paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech—except perhaps at the Supreme Court.

This year, the high court is poised to announce its most significant expansion of the 1st Amendment since the Citizens United decision in 2010, which struck down laws that limited campaign spending by corporations, unions and the very wealthy.

Now the “money is speech” doctrine is back and at the heart of a case to be heard this month that threatens the financial foundation of public employee unions in 22 “blue” states.

Like Citizens United, the union case is being closely watched for its potential to shift political power in states and across the nation.

The legal attack on the campaign funding laws was brought by conservative activists who hoped that the free flow of money from wealthy donors would boost Republican candidates. And since 2010, the GOP has achieved big gains in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.

Conservatives also believe the attack on mandatory union fees has the potential to weaken the public sector unions that are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

“This is a big deal,” Illinois’ Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said in September on the day the Supreme Court said it would hear the lawsuit that he initiated. A court victory would be “transformative for the state of Illinois, transformative for America and the relationship between our taxpayers and the people who work for our taxpayers.”

Read the complete article here.

Cal State Faculty Unions protest Chancellor Tim White’s campus visits, prepare themselves for strike

Hundreds of thousands of Cal State students will not have to worry about their professors going out on strike after the union representing faculty members failed to authorize a work stoppage on Tuesday.

That reprieve may be temporary, however. The leaders of the California Faculty Assn. warned they could still hit the picket line in the near future if their salary demands are not met.

“Faculty are ready and willing” to go on strike, said union President Jennifer Eagan, a professor at Cal State East Bay in Hayward.

The union, which represents nearly 26,000 professors, lecturers, counselors, librarians and athletic coaches at the 23-campus system, and Cal State administrators have been in deadlock since June 2015 over salary increases for the 2015-16 academic year.

The union has demanded a general 5% pay hike. Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White has offered a 2% increase, despite the lack of any raises over the last six years in the post-recession climate.

Click this link for video clip of today’s rally at Cal State LA:  IMG_7744


Does Tenure Protect Bad Teachers or Good Schools?

From today’s NYT “Room for Debate”:

Teacher tenure laws deprive public school students of their right to an education by making it difficult to remove bad teachers, a California judge ruled on Tuesday. The case, Vergara v. California, pressed by parents backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire, David Welch, is expected to be the first of many around the country to take on tenure.

Do tenure’s job protections prevent bad teachers from being fired or do they provide for greater stability for low-paid faculty?

Read several viewpoints in this debate here.

Labor meeting stresses immigration reform, reaches out to non-unions

At one of the largest annual gatherings of union workers nationwide, overtures are being made  to reform the labor movement by forming official alliances with non-union progressive causes including that of immigration and the environment. Sunday in Los Angeles the AFL-CIO kicked off its largest annual convention of union members, and called on unions across America to innovate by expanding membership to include non-union members or risk losing more ground.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said of the call for reforming union membership and alliances:  “”We have to create an economic, political and legislative climate where our members can succeed. Our opposition is well-financed and determined.…We’re too small to do it alone.”

The AFL-CIO is a 12-million-member that will now be aligning itself with progressive groups such as the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and the National Council of La Raza to strengthen political voices of the left. This will help consolidate the myriad viewpoints that are represented within the Democratic Party while drawing attention to some basic problems with American society that must be addressed, including declining unions, stagnating wages, high unemployment, and contingent work.

Union membership in the U.S. has slipped to 11%, from 35% in the 1950s, and currently sits at historic low point.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez spoke yesterday to workers gathered at the annual convention, citing the need for expanding union membership, enforcing labor laws, and reforming immigration, an increasingly difficult problem to reconcile with American workers’ interests in protecting their jobs.

“Nobody who works 40 hours a week should have to live in poverty,” he told union leaders. “As we work together, we will build a better America. As we work together we will bring the middle class to thrive again. As we work together, we will make sure that everybody has the ladder of opportunity to climb.”

LA city workers rally for living wage

From yesterday’s LA Times Local:

Hundreds of workers rallied outside the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, demanding an increase to the “living wage” that county contractors are required to pay employees.

“We should not forget one of the goals of the civil rights movement was the end of poverty,” said Michael Green, a regional director of SEIU 721, which represents 55,000 county workers.

The living wage ordinance was enacted by the Supervisors in 1999 as a response to private firms that the county contracted with paying workers low wages that left them reliant on county-funded healthcare and social services. The living wage was increased in 2006 and currently stands at $9.64 per hour if the employer is providing health benefits and $11.84 per hour if the employer is not providing health benefits.

Labor leaders have argued that the wage has failed to keep pace with inflation, and Green noted that poverty in the area has increased 17% in the last five years.

“The Board of Supervisors needs to set an example,” he said. “Our message is simple — it is time to take another look at Los Angeles County’s living wage.”

Noise from the rally could be heard inside the board’s chambers, where members were holding their weekly meeting. The protestors never entered the chamber and ended their hourlong rally at 1 p.m.

Forty minutes later, board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who benefited from millions of dollars in labor spending on his bid to be elected to the board in 2008, directed county staff to provide an update on the living wage ordinance and cost-of-living increases.

“It seems  to me that we wish to be current in terms of what the living wage is for the workforce in the County of Los Angeles,” he said.

Hidden tax on expensive health care coverage may hurt public workers

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) many states that see the wisdom of compliance are setting up health insurances exchanges, but under a little known provision called the “Cadillac Tax,” public unions in particular may be punished for winning their members generous plans with little flexibility for changing them.

The tax was inserted into the ACA at the last minute with the encouragement of many economists who argued that generous plans made consumers insensitive to the spiraling costs of health care. Plans with greater benefits and coverage gained popularity among government employees, police officers, firefighters and teachers unions, but effectively insulated the individually insured from absorbing the skyrocketing costs of coverage.

The tax will affect public unions employees adversely because their plans, which are covered by collective bargaining measures, are more difficult to change without incurring substantial losses. As a result workers will be penalized by the ACA for having good health care coverage, a result that was not intended according to many economists.

“I think it was misguided all along,” said former labor secretary Robert Reich. He complained that the tax amounted to “a blunt instrument that could too easily become a bargaining chip for cutting back benefits of workers. Apparently, that’s what it’s become.”

According to the tax measure, any plan with a cost above a certain threshold in 2018, $10,200 annually for individual plans and $27,500 for family plans, will be taxed at 40 percent of their costs in excess of the limit. Although some cutoffs exist for retirees and some workers in high-risk professions such as police officers, the tax will hurt a number of public union employees.

Many see a disadvantage here that runs contrary to the spirit of ACA to make health insurance more accessible by making it more affordable. Public employee unions from Boston to Orange County are now trying to find ways of cutting health care benefits to avoid the tax charge set to take place in 2018. However, some economists contend that reining in the costs of health care is what the ACA is primarily designed to do.

“This is intended to shift compensation away from excessively generous health insurance toward wages,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at MIT and Obama health care policy advisor.

Stockton, CA files for bankruptcy

The city of Stockton will file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection after it failed to find acceptable terms for restructuring its ballooning debt. In a 6-1 vote the city council voted to adopt a budget that is tied to a bankruptcy plan.

The annual budget beginning July 1 calls for defaulting on $10.2 million in debt payments, as well as cutting $11.2 million in employee pay and benefits under union contracts. Those contracts could be voided by the bankruptcy court, a move likely to aggravate the deepening conflict between the public sector and public employee unions.

The city of Stockton with 292,000 residents becomes the largest U.S. city to go bankrupt, but the ongoing recession, along with right-wing instigated austerity measures, raises doubts about the solvency of the public sector at all levels as cities, counties, and states continue to struggle with declining tax revenues and increasingly expensive employee benefits. The aggravation of this conflict is quickly becoming the single largest struggle for worker rights since the 1967 Civil Rights Act.