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Posts Tagged ‘Amy Traub’

Worst City Policies of 2010

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

amytraub4Corruption Takes a Toll in Bell
Progressives know government can be a powerful force for good in people’s lives. So it’s particularly devastating when the people charged with upholding the public trust — local officials with the potential to improve the lives of their constituents — instead betray the public. The year’s most notorious case of municipal corruption occurred in the town of Bell, California, a working-class community outside of Los Angeles. The city’s highest ranking officials secretly paid themselves exorbitant salaries and benefits, misappropriated city funds, and gave themselves illicit low-interest loans, according to criminal allegations and reports by the Los Angeles Times. To add insult to injury, the Bell case provided the Right with a pretext to attack the wages and benefits of rank-and-file public workers, suggesting that teachers and sanitation workers (who wouldn’t see Bell-style compensation if they worked for a century) were similarly compromised. For destroying public trust and providing yet another revolting example of people at the top abusing their power, the corrupt practices of Bell officials rings out as one of the worst policies of 2010.

Blood from a Stone in New York
It might be enough make Ebenezer Scrooge squirm. In New York City the homeless population has grown to 36,600, up from 33,600 five years ago. At the same time the, city has cut services for the homeless and plans to further reduce funding for the Department of Homeless Services by $19 million over the next 18 months. But when the city announced its plan to charge working homeless families rent for sleeping in city shelters the public outcry was instantaneous. City officials insisted the program was an effort to instill greater responsibility in homeless families. But as one homeless advocate pointed out, “They are taking money… that could otherwise be used to help themselves get out of the shelter system. We’re dealing with the poorest people, the people who are the most in need, and we’re asking them to pay for a shelter of last resort.” Under intense pressure, the city has since changed its stance. Working homeless families are now encouraged to put part of their income into savings. But for attempting to place an even more onerous burden on the poorest of the working poor, New York City’s plan to charge homeless families rent finds a home among the worst policies of 2010.

Who Turned Out the Lights in Colorado Springs?
Smacked by the recession, many cities faced revenue shortfalls and tough budget choices in 2010. But few towns resorted the type of draconian service cutbacks seen in Colorado Springs, where residents voted against a property tax increase and the town instead opted to turn off streetlights (although residents who can afford to could choose to reactive their lights); shrink the police department any rely on private taxicabs to help with law enforcement; and leave neighborhood parks to wither (people with time and resources can volunteer to maintain their own local green spaces). “We did have a transit system,” the Vice-Mayor told NPR. “That’s gone almost completely now.” Many commentators denounced Colorado Springs as an object lesson in the consequences of anti-tax extremism, but the city’s small-government stance hides an inconvenient truth: a major source of Colorado Springs’ economic strength is its reliance on the military and other state and federal public employment to anchor the local labor market. For gutting public services in accordance with a narrow, me-first ideology, Colorado Springs’ cuts join our list of the worst policies of 2010.

Anti-Immigrant Fever in Fremont
In January, Kris Kobach will become Kansas’ new Secretary of State, but his destructive influence already extends far beyond the borders of the Sunflower State. For the last several years, Kobach has made a cottage industry of advancing harsh city and state anti-immigrant statutes characterized by high municipal costs, significant damage to the local economy, and tremendous potential for discrimination against anyone who “looks” like they might be an unauthorized immigrant. This year, a Kobach-written ordinance was enacted in the town of Fremont, Nebraska, which banned hiring or renting to unauthorized immigrants. Although implementation has been blocked by a lawsuit, the ordinance’s divisive impact is already being felt. Many of the city’s long-time officials are resigning or retiring, noting that the immigration fight “wears you down.” Taxpayers also feel the bite: the town raised property taxes in anticipation of an expensive legal battle. For exemplifying what one local attorney called “the power of fear” as it faced an increase in (predominantly legal) Latino residents, Fremont’s anti-immigrant ordinance is one of the worst of 2010.

Wal-Mart’s Broken Promises in Chicago
It’s no secret that mega-retailer Wal-Mart desperately wants to get a foothold in urban markets. Similarly well-known is Wal-Mart’s dismal record on workers’ rights and its devastating impact on small businesses. New Wal-Mart stores have been shown to destroy nearly as many jobs as they create, push other stores out of business, and to drive down wages for workers throughout the entire community. In Chicago, where the retail chain has ambitions to open “several dozen” stores, Wal-Mart’s strategy included buying off community leaders with charitable donations and splitting union solidarity by pitting construction unions versus retail unions. But most shamefully, Wal-Mart reneged on an agreement it had made with the unions and city leaders that helped secure City Council approval of its second Chicago store. City Aldermen and labor leaders thought they had an unwritten agreement with Wal-Mart to pay workers 50 cents above minimum wage and to give workers a minimum 40 cent raise after the first year. They thought wrong. The same day that the store was approved, Wal-Mart announced that there was, in fact, no wage deal. To Wal-Mart, for breaking a promise, and to the political leaders who failed to get a binding deal, the approval of Wal-Mart in Chicago is one of this year’s worst city policies.

John Petro contributed to this article.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog,

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Best City Policies of 2010

Friday, December 17th, 2010

amytraub4Denver Sparks Parental Involvement En Espanol
The experts agree: parental involvement has strong positive effects on students’ achievement in school. When parents are engaged with their child’s education, attendance improves, grades and test scores go up, and graduation rates rise. But how can school districts involve parents who don’t speak English? In Denver, where three in five students are Latino and many have parents with poor English skills, the school system has taken to the radio waves. Through an hour-long weekly program called “Educa” (educate) the Denver Public Schools connect with Spanish-speaking parents about school policies, events, and issues in public education. Parents can also call in with questions about their children’s school and the education system. The first-of-its-kind program broadcasts on three popular Spanish-language radio stations and has more than doubled its audience — to 54,200 unique listeners — over just a few months. For engaging immigrant parents in a format that speaks to them, the Denver schools’ multicultural outreach efforts come in loud in clear on our list of the best policies of 2010.

Good Jobs Prevail in Pittsburgh
Eager for new development and jobs, cities commonly give developers multi-million dollar tax breaks to sweeten the pot and to get shovels in the ground. But when subsidies are given to projects that create low-wage jobs that keep families in poverty, taxpayers get the short end of the stick. Workers making poverty-level wages at publicly subsidized developments must still rely on public assistance like food stamps, Medicaid, or rental assistance. The result is economic dependence more than economic development. To make sure that taxpayer investments would pay off for city residents, Pittsburgh passed a common-sense piece of legislation: if a developer wanted tax breaks for a new development, workers in the new taxpayer-subsidized hotels, supermarkets, or office buildings must be paid the industry-standard prevailing wage. In an affirmation of the law’s successful implementation in Pittsburgh, the surrounding Allegheny County quickly adopted a similar law. For ensuring that public tax dollars create good jobs with decent wages, Pittsburgh’s prevailing wage law earns a spot on our list of 2010′s best public policies.

Less Lock-up in New York
Treating young offenders like hardened criminals makes no sense — sending a kid in trouble to a juvenile prison greatly increases that young person’s chance of becoming an adult offender. Detaining kids also costs more money than community-based programs, which have a much better track record of preventing future criminality. Luckily, New York City is moving to eliminate unnecessary detention for youthful offenders, many of whom would otherwise be locked up while simply awaiting trial. The city is putting more kids into effective community-based alternatives to detention and reserving secure detention for only the most violent youthful offenders. New assessment tools have been developed to determine which youth should be sent to secure detention and which would be better served in the community. The bottom line is that secure detention for youth is now seen as the option of last resort, rather than the default option. For doing what’s best for youth, the community, and the taxpayer, New York City’s juvenile justice reforms are among this year’s best public policies.

My Way or the Highway in Austin
n Austin, TX, whose frustrating traffic congestion provided the backdrop for the movie “Office Space,” drivers waste an average of one and a half days stuck in traffic every year. Some business leaders pushed for a conventional response to congestion: wider roads and more highways. But the city opted to go down a different path. Recognizing that they could never build enough highways to eliminate traffic congestion, lawmakers instead put a $90 million bond issue on the ballot to improve Austin’s existing streets and make them more hospitable to pedestrians and bicycles. According to blogger Austin Contrarian, “Most of Austin’s roads outside of the central core were laid when the city was more rural than urban. no sidewalks, no bicycle lanes, no sewers, no street trees. But once rural roads now cut through major population centers.” Austin voters approved the bonds on November 2nd. For affirming that transportation investments must include more than just new highway miles, Austin’s bond walks straight onto our list of the best policies of 2010.

Cleveland Sues the Banks
It’s the story of the decade: Ameriquest, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and other banks raked in record profits speculating on mortgages, pushing more and riskier home loans onto borrowers who clearly never had the means to pay them back. Then the house of cards collapsed. Foreclosure rates soared and cities were left to pick up the pieces. Arson, property deterioration, and crime in neighborhoods devastated by foreclosure imposed steep costs on municipalities just as the recession decimated their tax base. So some cities decided to fight back. The 2010 documentary “Cleveland vs. Wall Street” tells the story of one such fight, as the city of Cleveland sued more than twenty major banks for setting off a chain of events with negative consequences “entirely foreseeable by Wall Street.” When a federal appeals court rejected the case earlier this year, Cleveland announced it would continue its fight to the Supreme Court. For striving to hold Wall Street accountable for the devastation it wreaked in its neighborhoods, Cleveland’s suit wins a place on our best policy of 2010 list.

John Petro contributed to this article.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog,

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Bloomberg’s Job Killing Budget Cuts

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

amytraub4It’s the city’s ninth round of budget cuts in three fiscal years, and the most brutal. Mayor Bloomberg calls for 6,201 layoffs of public workers in the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years. Instead of responding at our firehouses, serving our frail elderly, and helping job-seekers perfect their resumes on the library computer, former New York City employees will instead crowd the unemployment lines – where, given the fact that there is just one job opening for every five Americans looking for work, they are likely to remain for some time. But this understates the impact on New York’s economy.

When we lay off public workers, we not only lose the services they provided to New Yorkers but also their spending power as city residents. As a result, laying off 6,200 New York City workers means destroying an additional 1,860 private sector jobs. The last thing New York needs is another 8,000+ jobless.

Think about it: the administrative worker in the city finance department who used to support her family on $45,000 a year now qualifies for a maximum $405 a week in unemployment benefits. She’ll buy cheaper groceries, cancel the cable, pull the kid out of ballet lessons, and put off the next shoe purchase, for starters. Suddenly the neighborhood grocery store, shoe shop and ballet studio have lost revenue: multiply that and they’ll quickly be ready for more layoffs of their own. Small businesses already on the edge may close up shop completely. In the meantime, New York taxpayers pick up the tab for her unemployment benefits as our former city worker searches in vain for a new job. It’s a bad deal all around.

Worse still, destroying 8,000 jobs in New York City is completely unnecessary. Economists find that progressive tax increases on higher income households do far less economic harm than spending cuts and layoffs. As the Fiscal Policy Institute has pointed out, New York City could raise $1 billion by raising personal income taxes on residents making more than $250,000 a year while still reducing taxes for lower-income households. Studies at the national and state level find that wealthy taxpayers do not flee tax increases in significant numbers. Yet Mayor Bloomberg has categorically ruled out such an increase, arguing that killing jobs and decimating city services is preferable.

DC37, a public employees’ union with a big stake in avoiding city job cuts, has identified still more sources of new revenue. The city could more seriously enforce its existing tax laws on billboards and cell phone antennas, for example, and could crack down on inappropriate property tax exemptions, making certain that when non-profits sell land to for-profit companies, property taxes are once again levied on those previously exempt parcels. Yet there’s no sign that these common sense proposals are on the table either.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

New York's Lousy Jobs (And How We Can Make Them Better)

Friday, November 26th, 2010

amytraub4Should we tear down the city’s middle class? Or work to turn lousy jobs into good ones? That’s the policy choice facing New York’s city and state leaders. So far, their decisions aren’t encouraging: for years New York has failed to use its economic development programs to promote the creation of good, family-supporting jobs. Now it is welcoming Walmart’s industry-decimating low-wages with open arms. The state has so far failed to take a stand against $1 billion a year in wages stolen from New York’s lowest-income workers, but instead is spoiling for a fight of a very different sort: vowing to scale back the pay and retirement security of middle-class teachers, transportation workers, and other public employees.

The result? A disappearing middle class amidst the proliferation of lousy, low-wage jobs. It doesn’t have to be this way.

For the time being, New York City is getting more lousy jobs. We are gaining retail and restaurant jobs — positions that often lack benefits and fail to pay a living wage – while losing middle-class jobs in the public sector and manufacturing. To make matters worse, education and health care – among the few bright spots in New York City’s recovery over the past year (as well as the state’s job growth over the past decade) — are the very areas Governor-elect Cuomo has vowed to cut.

As a result, the disappearance of New York’s middle class is likely to accelerate. We may continue to be home to more millionaires but we’re also apt to see more people with jobs showing up at food pantries because they’re not earning enough to feed their families.

None of this is inevitable. The economic trends impacting New York today were heavily shaped by past public policy decisions at the federal, state, and local level. Meanwhile the choices made by our political leaders today could redirect (or intensify) the way the city’s economy develops. What will New York stand for?

If we’re stung by the loss of good jobs, one reaction is to turn our resentment on the folks who still have solid middle-class careers: deplore teachers who still have protection from arbitrary layoffs and insist that the biggest problem New York faces is that parks department workers still have pensions. We could assert the worker protections they enjoy are outdated, trash the compensation these public workers earn, and turn their jobs into lousy jobs too.

While we’re at it, we can welcome Walmart into the city and insist that it’s perfectly acceptable for people to go to work every day and still need food stamps to feed their children. Maybe the teachers we’re laying off can get jobs there.

Or we could try something different.

We could, for example, to look at the hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development subsidies the city spends every year and insist that these taxpayer dollars be used to promote jobs that allow working people to support their families. New York could emulate Pittsburgh’s decision to stop using subsidies to foster poverty wages. We could pass the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act to insist that the mega-developments underwritten by our public dollars pay decent wages. These measures won’t put an immediate halt to the decline of job quality in New York, but at least they’ll put the city’s economic muscle on the side of the angels.

We could also work to ensure that the job standards we have now are enforced. New York’s minimum wage is an inadequate $7.25 an hour, yet a fifth of the city’s low-wage workforce (317,200 working people) are cheated out of even that meager pay or fall victim to other workplace violations in a typical week. The state’s Wage Theft Prevention Act, now languishing in Albany because the Assembly and Senate passed slightly different versions, would be a step towards enforcing the laws now on the books to protect New York’s lowest paid workers.

It’s not too late for New York to take a stand for good jobs, strengthening and expanding the city’s middle class rather than tearing it down. But the longer New York waits to reverse course, the more difficult it will be.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Will Albany Stop the Wage Thieves?

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

amytraub4It’s difficult to imagine anything more basic to a free economy than the right of an employee to be paid for his or her work. Yet this fundamental right is violated in New York’s low-wage industries as a matter of routine. Research from the National Employment Law Project concludes that a fifth of the city’s low-wage workers – an estimated 317,200 working New Yorkers – are paid less than the minimum wage in a given week. Even more are cheated out of the tips they’ve earned, their overtime pay, or the meal breaks they’re legally entitled to. It’s not a case of a few “bad apples” but a well-documented, pervasive pattern of wage theft throughout the city.

In March, I wrote about powerful state legislation drafted and promoted by community organization Make the Road New York to cut the state’s epidemic of wage theft. The Wage Theft Prevention Act stiffens penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encourages workers to come forward, and provides new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases – and ensuring violators will pay up.

The bill passed both the state Assembly and Senate in the last legislative session. Yet because each chamber passed a slightly different version of the legislation the bills must be reconciled before the law can be enacted. Legislators will have a small window to act on the bill in the upcoming legislative special session: The Wage Theft Prevention Act sponsored by Senator Diane Savino and Assemblyman Carl Heastie should be a priority.

Clearly low-wage workers and their families are hurt deeply when income they’ve earned is stolen from them. But an environment of pervasive lawlessness at the bottom of our labor market also harms New York’s small businesses, drains revenue from the already depleted city and state budgets, and retards the city’s overall economic recovery.

When enforcement of workplace laws is as lax as it is now and penalties are so low, corrupt employers can simply factor the risk of getting caught into their cost of doing business. As a result, businesses that cheat their employees can come out ahead, leaving responsible, law-abiding business owners at a competitive disadvantage. Small businesses with low margins face the greatest difficulty competing against rivals that are willing to break the law to lower their costs. Enforcing the law would level the playing field for everyone.

Both New York City and New York State face daunting revenue shortfalls that have led to very tight budgets. New York’s epidemic of wage theft makes the situation worse. The state loses an estimated $427.9 million a year in reduced unemployment insurance payments, workers’ compensation premiums, and personal income tax revenue as a byproduct of wage theft. New York City also loses income and sales tax revenue when employees get cheated out of their wages. By improving enforcement of wage and hour laws New York can begin to reclaim a portion of this lost revenue.

There are also broader economic consequences when money is taken from the pockets of New York’s lowest income workers. Workplace violations rob low wage workers of an estimated $3,016 annually out of average wages of just $20,644 a year. New Yorkers living on such low incomes tend to spend their paychecks quickly, buying food, clothing, and other essentials in their communities. By deterring violations, the Wage Theft Prevention Act will keep these wages from being sucked out of our neighborhoods, enabling workers to support their families and put dollars to work rebuilding New York’s economy.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

A Race Between Philly and NYC on Paid Sick Leave?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

amytraub4As New York continues to waver on enacting overwhelmingly popular legislation that would guarantee working people the right to earn paid sick time, other cities are catching up fast.

Consider Philadelphia, where I had the opportunity to attend an event on earned paid sick leave yesterday. Spurred by advocates from PathWays PA, Women’s Way and other members of the Pennsylvania-based Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces policymakers in the City of Brotherly Love are considering their own legislation based on San Francisco’s highly successful paid sick leave guarantee

In a recent study, I analyzed Philadelphia’s situation and how a law similar to San Francisco’s might work there. I found that 210,000 working people in Philadelphia – two out of every five private sector workers in the city – currently lack even a single paid day off to recuperate if they get sick or take care of an ill loved one. As in San Francisco, guaranteeing paid sick time to these workers would not negatively impact Philadelphia’s job growth or business growth. The conclusions are broadly similar to the Drum Major Institute’s findings regarding New York.

Yet Philly may be moving faster to address a problem that’s pressing in both cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a hearing on paid sick time is expected in Philadelphia this fall. Meanwhile, in New York, the City Council has held multiple hearings, but it’s unclear when the bill will come to the floor for a vote.

Councilman William Greenlee, co-sponsor of the Philadelphia bill, offered a sports analogy, insisting that Philadelphia would prove its policy leadership on paid sick time just as the Phillies would surely trounce the Yankees. Will New York stand for that?

In all seriousness, the national movement for paid sick days is growing, and New York risks falling behind cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where the State Supreme Court now stands poised to rule on a paid sick ordinance approved by voters in 2008. As a result, not only will more than a million New Yorkers continue to make do without what most Americans say is a “basic workplace right,” but the nation’s largest city will miss an opportunity to do something of national importance, setting a powerful policy example for the country as a whole.

This article was originally posted on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Keeping it Public (If the Libraries Don’t Sway You, the Blazing House Might)

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

amytraub4Last week, the New York Times reported on Library Systems & Services, a private, for-profit company that an increasing number of towns are contracting to take over their local public libraries. The company pares budgets and turns a profit by, among others things, replacing long-term employees with those who will “work.” In the article, CEO Frank Pezzanite mocks “this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries” and ridicules the idea that “somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” The problem? Local residents seem to believe there is something all-American – and possibly sacred – about this community institution. I know where they’re coming from.

Public libraries represent the best of American tradition of local communities chipping in for the common good, while advancing democratic values of free inquiry and universal access.

Through our local libraries, we all contribute to create a public space where anyone can access the world’s outstanding literature, music, and film; popular entertainment; the fruits of human knowledge and insight; computer and internet access; resources for jobseekers and students; edifying speakers; programs that engage schoolchildren; and story hours that delight the youngest members of our community. I’m never going to check out that new Janet Evanovich novel (or, for that matter, Bill O’Reilly’s latest bestseller) but I’m damn glad my tax dollars paid for it to be available on the shelves. The common resource is bigger than any of our individual tastes.

Something of that is lost when a profit-driven company turns a community institution into a source of private gain. It’s not just the likelihood that public employees earning middle-class salaries will likely be turned out in favor of less experienced staff – although I’ve written in opposition to that as well. Rather, it’s the idea, articulated by American Library Association President Robert Stevens in response to the Times article, that for-profit libraries may not “remain directly accountable to the publics they serve.” Or, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, “shifting ownership onto businessmen allows the state to relinquish moral obligations… A social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right.”

The point may be subtle when we’re talking about computers and books on a shelf (no matter how critical a part of democracy) but it’s hard to ignore a house on fire. This morning at Think Progress, Zaid Jilani describes the situation in Obion County, Tennessee, where fire services are funded by subscription fees rather than general tax revenue. Those who pay the fees can call the fire department to save lives and extinguish blazes. For those who can’t or won’t shell out for the service, Jilani’s headline says it all: Tennessee County’s Subscription-Based Firefighters Watch As Family Home Burns Down. Maybe there’s something to the “American flag, apple pie” thing about public services after all…

This article was originally published in DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Why the State of New York’s Unions Should Concern Us All

Friday, September 10th, 2010

amytraub4Talk to a working New Yorker, and the odds are one in four that she belongs to a union. That’s a rate of union membership more than twice as high as the country as a whole, note CUNY professor Ruth Milkman and graduate student Laura Braslow in their new study, “The State of the Unions: A Profile of 2009-2010 Union Membership in New York City, New York State, and the USA.” Their research provides a rich analysis of data on union demographics and industry composition in the city, state, and country, and suggests some hidden strengths and challenges of New York’s economy.

New York City is home to 800,000 union members, with particular union density in the public sector and the health care and social assistance industries. By and large, these union jobs continue to be good jobs: the CUNY analysis finds that union members in New York City earn more than non-union workers, while national statistics suggest that they are also more likely to earn middle-class health and retirement benefits.

Unionized positions represent a particularly important source of good jobs for people of color: African-American New Yorkers (37% unionized) and city residents born in Puerto Rico (41% unionized) are among the most likely to be union members. National data also indicate that people of color see especially strong benefits from collective bargaining, suggesting how important unions are to sustaining New York City’s African American and Latino middle class. Women also get a big boost in job quality as a result of union membership – it turns out that working women in New York are as likely to be union members as men.

What the statistics don’t capture is the way that high union density also improves job standards for workers are not union members, as when the city’s large non-union hotels pay wages far above the national standard because New York’s hotel union has effectively set a higher industry-wide rate. New York’s unions have also helped to advance a political agenda that benefits workers far outside their membership: consider the pivotal role New York unions played in the successful fight to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2004, or the efforts unions are making today to guarantee paid sick time to all working people in New York City.

In effect, New York’s relatively high rate of unionization mitigates the city’s extreme inequality, carving out a bastion of middle-class jobs in an economy increasingly divided between Wall Street’s resurgent masters of the universe and everyone else. Yet this mitigating power has sharp limitations: the CUNY analysis illustrates how retail sales, the restaurant industry, and other service jobs in the city remain largely non-union. As a result, these sectors suffer not only low wages and few benefits, but widespread cases of wage theft and other violations of basic employment standards. Lousy jobs proliferate where unions are absent.

“Organized labor has more than held its own in New York relative to the nation,” the CUNY study concludes, “[but] in absolute terms unions have lost considerable ground in both the City and the State over the past few decades, especially in the private sector… In labor’s glory days, a strongly unionized private sector helped foster a strongly social-democratic political culture in New York City. The precipitous drop in private-sector density is among the factors that have threatened to undermine that political culture in recent years.” If New York’s unions continue to decline, New York’s middle class may continue to disappear with it.

This article was originally published on DMI Blog.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Target Wall Street Greed, Not Public Employees

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010
Credit: Joe Kekeris

Credit: Joe Kekeris

Too often when economic times get tough, scapegoats are found in the wrong places. Wall Street greed and double-dealing sparked much of the nation’s recent near-financial collapse, yet many in the chattering classes instead are attacking public employees for this rolling recession.

Economist Dean Baker puts the situation in perspective:

Fifteen million people are not out of work because of generous public employee pensions. Nor is this the reason that millions of homeowners are underwater in their mortgages and facing the loss of their home. In fact, if we cut all public employee pensions in half tomorrow, it would not create a single job or save anyone’s house. The reason that millions of people are suffering is a combination of Wall Street greed and incredible economic mismanagement.

Even as a consensus is emerging among economists that the United States should put job growth ahead of deficit cuts, a new study focused on New England finds that the region no longer can afford to spend scarce resources on tax credits and other business giveaways. Instead, it needs to channel economic development efforts to rebuilding neglected infrastructure and improving education for people at all levels. “Prioritizing Approaches to Economic Development in New England” provides

ample evidence that infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, energy transmission systems, drinking water, and the like) and education are effective approaches for creating jobs and generating economic growth.

The study, by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, finds the New England states have too long viewed funding for public services and economic development as competing interests—and that’s a false dichotomy. Sounds like the study can apply to the rest of the country as well.

Demonizing the public sector harms the U.S. middle class, writes Drum Major Institute for Public Policy (DMI) Research Director Amy Traub, who reminds us how fundamental the jobs they do are to our everyday lives:

It’s easy to lose sight of the other ways that a strong public sector supports our economy. Middle-class Americans and the businesses they work for rely on good schools, clean and safe streets, and high quality public services and infrastructure. In so doing, they depend on the dedicated teachers, police, firefighters, librarians, sanitation workers, parks employees, and support staff that keep states and cities running.

States and cities face very real fiscal challenges, but the cause is falling tax revenue due to the deepest recession in decades—not excessive spending or lavish compensation for public workers.

Further, Traub has a recommendation for Congress, some Democrats included:

Trashing our middle class in an effort to cut costs is short sighted. Downgrading the middle-class pay and benefits of public workers only speeds their erosion in the private sector, undermining everyone who works for a living….Rather than attacking public pensions that afford retirees a middle-class standard of living, [lawmakers] should be thinking about how to increase retirement security for millions of private-sector employees with meager savings.

As Progressive States Network points out, extremist anti-worker organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council have been trying to gut public employee pensions for years—and they are using the recession as a public relations platform.

There is no crisis in most state retirement systems, even according to the numbers of the researchers demanding state leaders take unneeded action to cut the incomes of retirees.  And despite the hype from a few carefully selected anecdotes of retirees gaming pension systems, the reality is that the overwhelming number of public employees receive pretty bare-bones benefits, in some cases not enough even to keep them out of poverty.

Corporate backed anti-worker groups are the winners when the public taps into public-employee blame game. Wall Street is another big winner. The CEOs of Big Banks and the financial industry are happy to see the finger pointed at public employees. It means America’s workers are fighting each other and not united in targeting the real culprit of our economic misfortunes.

This article was originally posted on AFL-CIO NOW Blog.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

Obama's Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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