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“An Assault On Collective Bargaining”: The Common Thread Of Supreme Court Decisions, “You’re On Your Own”

Although the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case is getting most of the attention today, the other major case the justices decided, regarding public-sector unions, could prove to be even more significant. And in both cases, the court had a common message: You’re on your own.

That may not be how the union decision, Harris v. Quinn, looks on first glance. Indeed, the conservative majority cast it as a conflict between the freedom of individual workers and the interests of a union, and they sided with the workers. But make no mistake: This case is one part of a larger assault on collective bargaining, and the majority even hinted in its decision that there would be more to come. So often, cases such as these come down to questions of power: who has it, who doesn’t and on whose behalf should it be exercised. And this court’s majority knows where power belongs.

Harris v. Quinn was a case about whether home health-care workers in Illinois, who are paid by Medicaid, would have to pay some dues to the union that negotiates salaries and benefits on their behalf even if they choose not to join. If they were allowed to become free riders, getting the benefits of union representation without paying for it, the union’s position becomes far less sustainable. But the court held that the workers’ free speech rights were violated by the requirement, since the union might say things with their money that they disagreed with (though none of those dues go to political activity, and they aren’t required to actually join the union if they don’t wish to). The court said that it could strike down the law because these workers aren’t state employees even though they’re paid by Medicaid; it also described the 1977 case that allowed the requirement on state employees as having “questionable foundations,” a signal that the court may be gearing up to overturn that case and deal a fatal blow to all public-sector unions.

It’s no coincidence that the public sector is the core of what remains of union power in the United States today. And taken together, today’s two decisions mark yet another step in a direction this court has long been moving: toward more power in corporate hands, and less for ordinary people.

One does begin to wonder where the court sees any limits on corporate power at all. In Citizens United, the court ruled that corporations have free speech rights that enable them to spend all they want to influence the political process. In Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that corporations have religious rights that trump the rights of their employees and allow the corporation to pick which laws it would like to follow and which it would like to ignore. The decision extends the corporation’s control over its employees’ lives beyond what happens when they’re working, beyond even things they do that could affect their work, to a purely private arena that touches on their employment only because that’s where they’re getting their health insurance.

And as Harris v. Quinn shows, the court’s conservatives become concerned about workers and their rights only when some subset of workers is seeking to undermine unions, which exist to equalize the power imbalance between employers and employees.

In other words, both these cases are about power, and this Supreme Court is determined that it be moved more and more into the hands of those who already have it. And you can bet there’s more to come.

 

By: Paul Waldman, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, June 30, 2014

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Public Sector Unions, Supreme Court | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Another Disservice”: The Supreme Court Would Prefer People With Disabilities Receive Care From Disgruntled, Low-Wage, High-Turnover Workers

By a 5-4 decision, the usual conservative Supreme Court majority today struck a blow against public-sector unions by ruling for the petitioners in a case called Harris v. Quinn.  Most of the press coverage focuses on the worrisome implications for collective bargaining. I have little to add in that conversation, significant as it surely is. But I am sorry to see this decision for some more specific reasons, as well.

This particular case unfolds outside my door, in Chicago. Pamela Harris is a direct care worker who sued the state of Illinois over the way it handles collective bargaining arrangements and union dues. My family has used the type of services provided through the Illinois Home Services Program under dispute. My brother-in-law Vincent—who lives with intellectual disabilities and some related health challenges caused by something called fragile X syndrome—receives services every day from unionized direct care workers, in his group home and in his workshop.

With its decision in Harris, the Supreme Court has torpedoed a practical and equitable partnership. People with disabilities could receive the in-home personal assistance they need. The men and women who perform this important work could receive a fair day’s wage for the work they do. Now that arrangement—and the well-being of both groups—is in jeopardy.

Some background on the case: In 2003, the governor of Illinois declared that direct care workers were public employees, because they received much of their pay directly from the state, through its Medicaid program. This made it possible for them to unionize and to engage in collective bargaining with the state of Illinois, which they did by electing to have the Service Employees International Union represent them. The state negotiates with SEIU over what to pay workers, much as it would for any other set of public employees. Home health care workers can choose whether or not to join the union. But even those workers who opt not to join must pay an administrative fee, since they benefit from the higher pay that SEIU negotiates on their behalf. Or at least that’s how it was before Harris and some other workers filed a lawsuit, claiming the obligation was unfair, and the Supreme Court sided with her.

Put aside, for the moment, the debate over union dues and fees. There’s no question that these collective bargaining arrangements are important—or that they’ve made a huge difference. And here’s why they are especially important here. Illinois has traditionally ranked near the very bottom in national rankings of disability services.  Not coincidentally, Illinois has also been subject to nine-figure lawsuits and consent decrees that reflect our troubled history of over-reliance on state institutions in the care of people with disabilities.

Illinois, like most other states, has a history of shamefully under-paying men and women who provide home- and community-based care.  In 2012, the national median wage of personal care aides had declined to $9.57 per hour. Ironically, direct care workers are also extremely likely to be uninsured. According to materials from the Care Campaign, an advocacy group for direct care workers, the average direct-support wage in Illinois is $9.35 per hour.

Governor Pat Quinn, to his great credit, is trying to address both of the above concerns. Rectifying them requires intricate compromises among many stakeholders. The state has an interest in high-quality, economical services that meet its legal obligations to individuals with disabilities.  Direct care workers require minimally decent wages to support themselves and their families.

Individuals with disabilities and their families have a big stake in this, too. They—we–require a stable and motivated group of direct care workers to perform important and difficult work. The alternative is to receive services from a disgruntled, low-wage high-turnover group of workers who are unlikely to provide competent and humane care. We consumers know first-hand why these issues are important. We know our great human debt to the men and women we trust so intimately to support people we love.

Direct care work will never pay particularly well. Yet the partnership under dispute provided a fair and practical mechanism through which workers could bargain for decent wages and working conditions. It’s noteworthy that many of the nation’s most prominent disability rights advocacy organizations signed an amicus brief supporting the state of Illinois in this lawsuit. Most are now very disappointed.

Now that this partnership has been overturned by the Supreme Court, our state, direct care workers, and individuals with disabilities face a difficult choice. Direct caregivers can simply be hired and supervised as traditional public employees. This would deprive individuals with disabilities of the ability to select, supervise, and hire their own caregivers.  We can also shift a cumbersome management burden onto people with disabilities and their families, while depriving direct care workers of the collective bargaining mechanisms they seek. Neither option seems particularly fair or practical for anyone involved.

I lack the expertise to judge the broader ramifications of this case or its legal niceties. I do know that it disserved the people my family and so many others trust every day to care for our loved ones. It disserved us, too.

 

By: Harol Pollack, The Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago; The New Republic, June 30, 2014

July 1, 2014 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Supreme Court, Unions | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Travesty In Chattanooga”: Republicans Making Sure Their Own People Are Kept In As Submissive A Position As Possible

I wish I could say I’ve never seen the likes of the campaign of intimidation that led to the vote against UAW representation at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee on Friday. But I did, as a child growing up in a Georgia textile company town in the early 1960s, where public schools began the year on Labor Day, the word “union” was not said out loud, and people still graphically remembered National Guardsmen being called out to break a strike at Callaway Mills back in 1935—the same year Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act.

I’m a little rusty on my labor law, but I’m reasonably sure that any employer who issued the sorts of threats made by Republican politicians in Tennessee (including Sen. Bob Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam, and a variety of state legislators, backed by national conservative figures like Grove Norquist) against a unionization effort would have been in blatant violation of the NLRA. But that’s what makes the incident such a travesty: it wasn’t the employer fighting the union (VW by all accounts was neutral-to-positive towards unionization, which would have facilitated establishment of the kind of “work council” the company had set up at other international plants to help maintain good employer-employee relations). As Brent Snavely of the Detroit Free Press reported (probably incredulously):

The crusade by anti-union forces in Tennessee, including the state’s governor and senior senator, is as much a fight with Volkswagen management as with the UAW.

Not only are Republican legislators accusing Volkswagen of backing the UAW, some of their leaders on Monday threatened to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the three-year-old assembly plant in Chattanooga if workers vote this week to join the UAW.

So addicted are Tennessee Republicans to the “race to the bottom” approach to economic development that they are willing to risk the good will of an existing employer in their zeal to make sure their own people are kept in as submissive a position as possible. President Obama’s reported comment during a Democratic retreat last week that the pols involved in this union-busting effort are “more concerned about German shareholders than American workers” is one way to put it; I’d say they’ve internalized the ancient despicable tendency of the southern aristocracy to favor the abasement of working people as an end in itself.

This incident is also a pretty good symptom of the radicalization of the Republican Party. It’s one thing to oppose collective bargaining rights for public employees, or to defend “right-to-work” laws that interfere with the contracting rights of employers and employees and create “freeriders” who benefit from union collective bargaining without paying dues. But now the very existence of private-sector unions, a familiar part of the American landscape for most of the last century, is under attack from Republican politicians.

I thought it was bizarre when SC Governor Nikki Haley said in her 2012 State of the State address: “We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina.” Turns out she was ahead of the curve.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, February 17, 2014

February 18, 2014 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Preserving The Race To The Bottom”: Just How Much Do Republicans Hate Unions?

If you ask Republicans about their antipathy toward unions, they’ll say that letting workers bargain collectively reduces a company’s ability to act efficiently in the marketplace. If you knew anything about business, the market advocates will patiently explain, you’d understand that unions, with all their rules and conditions and strike threats, only make it harder for the company to make its products. Let management make decisions about things like wages and working conditions, and the result will be higher profits and more jobs, which will benefit everyone. In almost all cases, the corporation agrees; after all, union workers always earn better wages than their non-union counterparts, and they give power to the employees, which no CEO wants.

What most people probably don’t realize is that this inherently hostile relationship between management and unions isn’t something that’s inherent in capitalism. In fact, in many places where there are capitalists making lots of money, corporations work—now hold on here while I blow your mind—cooperatively with unions. One of those places is Germany, and one of the biggest German companies, Volkswagen, is right now embroiled in a union election in Tennessee that has turned into a bizarre spectacle that is showing the true colors of American conservatism. If you thought conservative were just laissez faire capitalists, seeking freedom for businesses to create prosperity, you’re dead wrong. What they actually want is something much uglier.

On Monday, our own Harold Meyerson explained the context and history driving this election, but the short version is that in its Chattanooga plant, Volkswagen wants to create a “works council” of the kind that companies in Germany use, which is a system where management and workers come together to set policies, plan strategy, and solve problems. The details of U.S. labor law require a union if such a council is going to be created, which is one reason VW has seemed supportive of the United Auto Workers organizing the plant. Although VW hasn’t come out and said they support the union, the signals they’ve sent strongly suggest that they do. “Our works councils are key to our success and productivity,” said the VW executive who runs the Chattanooga plant.

So faced with a union-friendly corporation, what have Republicans in the state done? One might expect them to say, “Every company should have the freedom to decide how to deal with its own workers; we may not be big fans of unions, but that freedom is what capitalism is all about,” or something like that. But no. The Republican governor and state legislators have begun issuing threats that there won’t be any future tax incentives for the company if the union wins the election. In other words, tax incentives are vital to bring jobs to the state—but if they’re union jobs, we don’t want them. We’d rather see our constituents unemployed than see them get jobs with union representation. So what you now have is Republicans fighting against a corporation to try to impose their vision of management-labor relations, one the corporation doesn’t want.

Then yesterday, Republican Sen. Bob Corker claimed, “I’ve had conversations today and based on those am assured that should the workers vote against the UAW, Volkswagen will announce in the coming weeks that it will manufacture its new mid-size SUV here in Chattanooga.” There are two things to understand about Corker’s statement. First, it doesn’t pass the smell test: the Chattanooga plant is the only Volkswagen factory in the world that doesn’t have a union, and the company has already made its good relationship with unions in general, and its desire for a works council there in particular, quite clear. And second, that kind of blatant attempt to intimidate workers into voting against the union when the election is going on is probably illegal, and could result in the election being halted and rescheduled.

What this issue has revealed is that while one might have thought that as far as conservatives are concerned, the creation of workplaces in which employees are given low wages and few benefits, and generally treated like crap, was merely a means to an end, the end being corporate profits and maximum freedom for business owners. But what we’re now seeing is that a powerless and beaten-down workforce isn’t a means to a larger end, and it isn’t a byproduct. It is the end in itself. It’s the goal. Here you have a highly profitable company that wants to have a more cooperative relationship with its workers, and obviously sees a union as a path to that relationship, because they know that they can work that way with unions, since they do it already all over the world. But the Republican politicians don’t care about what the corporation wants. They are so venomously opposed to collective bargaining that they’ll toss aside all their supposed ideals about economic liberty in a heartbeat.

One of the absurd arguments they’ve made is that other companies, like suppliers, won’t want to come to Tennessee if there’s a unionized auto plant there, as though it were some kind of infection others would fear they might catch. That’s ridiculous, of course—if you have a company that makes car parts, and VW wants to buy thousands and thousands of your parts, you’re damn sure going to set up shop next to their factory if that’s the best way to make money. What Republicans are really afraid of is that the union will come in to the Chattanooga plant and things will work well. If that happened, the rationale for the race to the bottom would be severely undermined. And the idea that corporations can do well by treating their employees like partners and not like enemies might indeed spread.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 13, 2014

February 14, 2014 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Unions | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Cancer Growing On Our Society”: Progressives Must Stand Up Against The Right Wing War On Public Employees

For many years the American Right — and many of the most powerful elements of corporate and Wall Street elite — have conducted a war on public employees.

Their campaign has taken many forms. They have tried to slash the number of public sector jobs, cut the pay and benefits of public sector workers, and do away with public employee rights to collective bargaining. They have discredited the value of the work performed by public employees — like teachers, police and firefighters — going so far as to argue that “real jobs” are created only by the private sector.

Last week a conservative court ruled that by going through bankruptcy the city of Detroit could rid itself of its obligation under the state constitution to make good on its pension commitments to its retirees.

It should surprise no one that the Republican Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is demanding that a budget deal with the Democrats include a 350 percent increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees. That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2 percent for every federal worker. And that cut would come after a three-year pay freeze and multiple furloughs caused by the Republican “sequester.”

Unbelievably, in Illinois the right wing Chicago Tribune and the state’s corporate elite snookered the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing changes in that state’s pension laws that slashed the pensions of its public employees. The changes affected all state employees and many of Illinois’ teachers. All of them had faithfully made their required contributions to the state’s pension funds for years, even though the legislature regularly failed to make its required payments so it could avoid raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens.

Illinois cut teacher pensions, even though many do not participate in the Social Security system and the state pension is their only source of retirement income.

All of these attacks on public employees — and cuts in public sector expenditures in general — are premised on two myths that are simply untrue.

Myth number one. The Right claims we live in a period of scarcity that requires extreme public sector austerity. They claim “we just can’t afford” to pay people like teachers the pensions that we had agreed to in the past, because “America is broke.”

This, of course, is simply wrong. In spite of the hardships brought on by the Great Recession that resulted from the reckless speculation of Wall Street banks — and even though George Bush thrust our country into an unnecessary war that cost our economy a trillion plus dollars — America is wealthier today than ever before in its history.

Per capita income in America is at an all-time high because productivity per person has gone up 80 percent since 1979.

Of course the Right is able to make the case that “we can’t afford” to pay our teachers as much as we once did, because everyday Americans feel like they have been losing ground – which of course they have. That’s because virtually every dime of that increase in our per capita national income went to the top 1 percent.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to change the rules of the game that have been rigged over the last three decades to bring about this result. By cutting the incomes, pensions and collective bargaining rights of middle class public employees rather than raising taxes on the wealthy, we make the problem worse.

But from the standpoint of the corporate Wall Street elite, that is precisely the idea. They want to continue to siphon off more and more of America’s bounty. And they want to shrink the public sector, because they don’t want to pay taxes at rates like they did back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when the American middle class was born and the portion of our national income going to the top 1 percent actually dropped.

That gets us to myth number two.

Myth number two. The right wing is doing its best to convince ordinary voters that the only way to make our economy grow and create “real jobs” is to cut public sector spending and allow big corporations and Wall Street to control a bigger and bigger portion of the country’s wealth.

Unfortunately, even the most basic understanding of economic history — or a shred of common sense — make clear that this is categorically untrue.

Historically, spending by government has been a critical engine for long-term economic growth.

America’s investment in universal public education has provided the indisputable foundation for our economic expansion.

The public infrastructure of roads, airports, and public transportation are essential to all economic activity. Rural electrification, our system of farm to market roads, the agricultural extension service — and a whole system of federal programs to stabilize the agricultural economy — have made possible the most productive food production system in the history of humanity.

The Internet was invented by the American government. GPS navigation that is essential to modern commerce, was developed by our government, and depends on a system of government-run navigation satellites.

Anyone who has ever been to a third world country that is ravaged by starvation and disease understands that the nutrition and health of a population is a prerequisite to vibrant economic activity. People can’t work hard if they are hungry or sick. Government provides the public health infrastructure that gives us sanitary water, picks up our garbage, disposes of our wastes, protects the quality of the air we breath and invests in the research that underlies most new medicines. And the government food stamp program is intended to prevent a significant number of our people from going hungry.

And just try to engage in productive economic activity in a society where there is no physical security, where there is no functioning police or fire protection, or that is constantly threatened by war or conquest or civil strife.

People who argue that investments by government do nothing to create economic growth — or that the only “productive” economic investments are made by a bunch of investors on Wall Street, many of whom are nothing more than professional gamblers — are just plain nuts.

Cutting back on the public sector — and demonizing public employees — has nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity — or with “redirecting” our resources into “more productive” uses. In fact, just the opposite.

The greatest threat to our economy is the shrinking buying power of everyday Americans and the growing concentration of wealth in the 1 percent. Economic inequality is a cancer growing on our society.

Fact is that if ordinary people don’t get a proportionate share of the income from increased economic productivity, it stands to reason that they won’t have the money to buy the products the economy produces. That leads to economic stagnation and recession, it’s that simple.

Every economic and political decision we make should be viewed through the lens of whether it reduces or increases that economic inequality. When it comes to public employee pensions and wages, the corporate elite tries to convince ordinary people that the choice is between “lavish” benefits to public employees or education for our kids. They play upon the resentment that most ordinary people feel that their incomes have been stagnant for three decades to pit them against middle class public employees.

Of course the real choice is not whether ordinary people must fight over the crumbs, while the Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” jet off to gamble in Monaco on their private jets. It is whether to further reduce the share of income going to middle class teachers, fire fighters and police officers or to increase taxes on millionaires.

It’s time for Progressives — and Americans of all stripes — to wake up and smell the coffee. Without a robust, efficient, well functioning public sector, our economy will fall behind in the world and our standard of living will drop.

Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

We have to attract the best and the brightest to staff our government. That requires that the teaches, firefighters, police officers, maintenance people, researchers, clerks, constituent service workers, programmers, air traffic controllers, managers, construction workers, corrections officers, policy analysts, and everyone else who works for our governments must be respected, well compensated, and have the right to collectively bargain over the wages and working conditions.

It’s time for us all to stand up against the Right Wing war on public sector employees.

 

By: Robert Creamer, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 9, 2013

December 10, 2013 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Economic Inequality, Public Employees | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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