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.