Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘DMI’

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.

Don't Let Government Get Its Hands on Healthcare

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

According to Paul Krugman, that’s the unofficial rallying cry of the conservative opposition to health care reform. Across the country, much of the oxygen in the debate is sucked up by the tragic irony of Medicare recipients speaking out against a government takeover of health care. If the misinformation swamps our chances of overhauling the system, it will be an unmitigated disaster.

Yet it’s only the most vivid example of how too many Americans are blinded by anti-government ideology to the basic facts of how the nation’s economic and political system functions. And nobody says it better than Krugman. In his column on Monday, the economist pointed out that the very “government meddling” denounced on the right appears to have saved the economy from the worst of the economic crisis. Yet as Krugman has argued in the past, we could potentially be in much better economic shape than we are today – with hundreds of thousand fewer people out of work, for example – if we had disregarded calls to limit the size of “government meddling” and enacted a larger and more effective stimulus in the first place.

This ain’t just about Paul Krugman, perceptive though I think he is. Nor is it simply about the big national debates on health care and economy. Again and again, good, even necessary public policy smacks up against public ignorance about the way government is already deeply and intrinsically involved in structuring markets that are made to appear “free” of interference. Clear-eyed libertarians can argue that we’d be better off with a self-sustaining, self-regulating free market. The distortion comes in when we imagine that unobstructed free markets brought us the benefits we enjoy today.

Consider a point John Petro illustrated a few weeks back, in which investing in mass transit and changing land use policies gets painted as intolerable government coercion. In effect, spending public money to extend new roads, new sewer lines, new electric wiring and emergency services to areas on the exurban fringe is invisible, but public investment in light rail shows the long arm of big government. Similarly when a municipality makes a zoning ordinance that permits only large lots with single family homes in a given area, that’s the free market. If zoning regulations are altered to permit condos or mixed-use buildings, suddenly the government has “interfered.”

The same dynamic was at work from very rise of the modern American right in the suburbs of Orange County, California, where communities that owed their existence and day-to-day economic prosperity to lucrative government defense contracts, infrastructure spending, and federally insured home loans nevertheless launched contemporary conservatism with a fierce opposition to taxes and other manifestations of what they saw as unwarranted government interference in their apparently “self-made” lives.

Ideology neatly obscured the extensive public subsidies underlying ostensibly private success. It continues to do so today, preventing us from asking the genuinely relevant questions: not whether we should have government involvement, but which public actions will most effectively promote broad-based prosperity, helping to strengthen and expand the American middle class in both the short and long-term. Starting with this question helps us to evaluate whether aid to homeowners makes more sense than a bank bailout, for example, or whether food stamps make better stimulus than tax cuts. It makes it harder to distinguish between government action that lifts us all up and policy that benefits the few.

Amy Traub: 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 article originally appeared on DMI Blog on August 11, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

How to Get Work-Life Balance

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Workers are parents. Workers are caregivers for their elderly and disabled adult loved ones. And yes, workers get sick sometimes and have to stop working and take care of themselves. The question is when our workplaces are going to acknowledge these all-too-obvious facts and provide basic benefits that let working people handle their non-work lives without going broke.

The answer, of course, is that we get what’s known as “work-life balance” or “family-friendly” benefits – like paid sick days, paid family and medical leave, and child care benefits – when we oblige employers to give them to us. Employees with in-demand skills do that now, and the good news is, employers are generally not scaling back workplace flexibility policies during this recession. (See this new study from the Families and Work Institute for the first piece of good employment news I’ve read in a while.)

But what about the rest of us? We’ve got two complementary and mutually reinforcing ways to make sure the boss lets Daddy stay home with Sally when she gets the flu. The first is government regulation: in recent weeks, I’ve made the case that the nation should set up a national system of paid family leave insurance and mandate that employers provide paid sick days.

The second way to ensure that our work lives give ground when necessary to the exigencies of the rest of our lives is to organize a union and put family-friendly benefits on the bargaining table. A recent report by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the Labor Project for Working Families highlights the effectiveness of this approach. Among the findings:

* Union workers are more likely to receive fully paid and partially paid family leaves than their non-union counterparts.

* Union workers are more likely to have paid sick days, and to have paid time off they can use to care for sick children.

* Union workers are more likely to have child care benefits, from referral services to dependent care reimbursement accounts.

* Companies with a unionized workforce are five times more likely to pay the entire family health insurance premium, and when union employees do have to pay part of the premium themselves, they are responsible for a smaller share.

* Unions can even increase access to benefits that are mandated by law for a much wider range of workers. For example, although the federal Family Medical Leave Act has guaranteed unpaid, job-protected leave for many workers at large companies for over 15 years, surveys suggest that many employees still don’t realize they have this right. Others are too afraid to use the leave they’re entitled to. But, as the report explains, unions “educate members on what their workplace rights are and how to exercise them; they monitor the workplace and ensure that policies and rights are being enforced; and they protect workers from retaliation when they exercise their rights.”

As the last example suggests, unionization and government action complement each other, with public policy granting protection to a broader range of working people, and unions increasing the ability of their members to fully exercise the rights they’re given by the law. More of us will get more balance in our work and lives if the nation pursues both routes aggressively: make it easier to join unions while also fighting for paid leave and other “balance” policies for everyone. Since unions themselves are among the most dedicated advocates of regulations providing family-friendly benefits for all employees, these strategies are also mutually reinforcing.

Amy Traub: 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 article originally appeared at DMI Blog and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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Deal or No Deal on Union Contracts

Friday, July 17th, 2009

People want to join unions because it enables them to negotiate for better wages, better working conditions, and, ultimately, a better standard of living.

As I’ve argued in the past, the U.S. needs to reform the arduous course of forming unions in order to rebuild the American middle class. But we also need to focus on the process of negotiating itself. Recent research by Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University finds that employers frequently continue the campaign of delays and intimidation that lead up to union elections during the negotiation of the union’s first contract. As a result of employers’ often illegal refusal to bargain in good faith, more than half of workplaces still lack a collective bargaining agreement a full year after a union is elected. In 37% of workplaces, there is still no contract two years after the union election. For one in four workplaces, there is still no contract more than three years out. If unions are effectively blocked from achieving anything on their members’ behalf, there is little point in forming a union in the first place.

This discouraging record of contract negotiation explains why the Employee Free Choice Act not only makes it easier to organize a union, but includes measures to ensure that employees and management agree on a first contract swiftly. Under EFCA, if negotiations on a first contract drag on for 90 days without being resolved, either the union or management can refer their dispute to a federal mediator. If the mediator is unable to reach a deal within an additional 30 days, the dispute will go to binding arbitration with the arbitration agreement binding for two years.

While the Drum Major Institute has been strongly critical of binding arbitration in cases where individual employees or consumers face larger and better equipped corporate opponents on what amounts to an uneven playing field, the process is more likely to produce a fair result when unions and companies meet each other as equals over the bargaining table. Indeed, a recent Economic Policy Institute summary of how first contract arbitration works in Canada observed that “with the guarantee of a contract at the end of the process, both sides would focus on actually negotiating instead of stalling or filing unfair labor practices charges.”

When both working people and their employers genuinely aim to come to an agreement about workplace issues, collective bargaining can be a democratic and rational process. Reforming the rules to make mediation and arbitration an option for first contracts will help to ensure that good faith negotiations carry the day.

Amy Traub: 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 article originally appeared on DMI Blog and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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