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DOJ: To Address “Defective” Accountability System, Chicago Must Renegotiate Police Union Contracts

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Now we know what the Department of Justice (DOJ) found in Chicago after a 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department: a “defective” police accountability system whose failures are tied to public distrust in police and Chicago’s murder spike. Among the roadblocks to reform noted in the report were police collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), including the three agreements for police supervisors, currently in negotiations, and the contract for rank-and-file cops, which expires on June 30.

The DOJ report, released Friday, “found reasonable cause to believe that CPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the deficiencies in CPD’s training, supervision, accountability, and other systems have contributed to that pattern or practice.”

The report continues:

We found that officers engage in tactically unsound and unnecessary foot pursuits, and that these foot pursuits too often end with officers unreasonably shooting someone—including unarmed individuals. We found that officers shoot at vehicles without justification and in contradiction to CPD policy. We found …that officers exhibit poor discipline when discharging their weapons and engage in tactics that endanger themselves and public safety, including failing to await backup when they safely could and should; using unsound tactics in approaching vehicles; and using their own vehicles in a manner that is dangerous.

The DOJ noted that CPD uses force against blacks almost ten times more than against whites and called on the city to tackle serious systemic deficiencies whose consequences disproportionately impact black and Latino communities. In a release following the report, Black Lives Matter Chicago called for “the immediate reopening of all closed police shooting investigations within the last four years.”

The report was released a week before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, whose incoming administration is expected to lean less on the 1994 civil rights laws that enables the feds to compel reforms of local police departments when they find a pattern or practice of constitutional violations. The law allows for agreements between cities and the feds known as consent decrees, which are filed in and enforceable by federal courts, in comparison to less stringent measures, such as technical assistance letters or memorandums of agreement.

The findings come as no surprise, says Ed Yohnka of ACLU Illinois. “What it really did is confirm what residents in Chicago have known for years, which is the system itself for policing is simply broken,” he said.

The report also affirms a critique offered last April by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task force: Union contracts are a major piece of the police reform puzzle in Chicago.

Contracts as roadblocks

Any perceived attack on public employee contracts and labor protections can raise hackles, especially in a heavily Democratic state like Illinois. Yet activists, policing experts and politicians have increasingly targeted the FOP contracts as a fundamental barrier to police reform and demanded that certain provisions be stripped in the next round of negotiations.

In April, the accountability task force found that police contracts institutionalize the code of silence in the police department that shield cops from accountability. “The collective bargaining agreements between the police unions and the City have essentially turned the code of silence into official policy,” the task force report read.

Friday’s DOJ report echoed many of the criticisms of police union contracts raised in the task force report. The DOJ highlighted the myriad ways the agreements hinder how police are monitored, investigated and disciplined for misconduct. People issuing complaints against the police, for instance, must sign sworn affidavits under threat of perjury. Legal experts have said such rules intimidate victims of misconduct and discourage reporting.

Here’s a list of other CBA provisions that the feds said hamper investigations of police misconduct and should be change:.

  • The contracts allow officers accused of misconduct or involved in shootings to delay interviews.
  • The agreements mandate disclosure of a complainant’s identity to an accused officer before questioning, which is problematic because many complainants fear police retaliation.
  • The agreements limit investigations into misconduct complaints filed more than five years after an incident, and requires the destruction of most disciplinary records older than five years.

“The City fails to conduct any investigation of nearly half of police misconduct complaints,” the report said. “In order to address these ignored cases, the City must modify its own policies, and work with the unions to address certain CBA provisions, and in the meantime, it must aggressively investigate all complaints to the extent authorized under these contracts.”

The DOJ report called the city’s failure to investigate so many complaints a major blow to police accountability, saying, “these are all lost opportunities to identify misconduct, training deficiencies, and problematic trends, and to hold officers and CPD accountable when misconduct occurs.”

The city also shares some of the blame for rarely using override provisions in the contracts that would help investigators circumvent the affidavit step, said the report. The report said DOJ staff interviewed investigators with the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which investigates allegations of police misconduct along with CPD’s Bureau of Internal Affairs (BIA), and that they relayed that using overrides is not encouraged at IPRA. The DOJ also alleged that IPRA fails to provide training on how to use the process.  “Not surprisingly,” said the report, “this override provision was used only 17 times in the last five years.”

However, the override option contained in the contract is still problematic, according to the report. For investigators with IPRA or BIA to use the override, they have to obtain an affidavit from the other agency’s director verifying that he or she has reviewed “objective verifiable evidence” and concluded an investigation should ensue. “Not only does this process undermine the independence of IPRA, and create an additional procedural barrier to investigating misconduct, but requiring that objective verifiable evidence exists before an investigation can be undertaken puts the cart before the horse,” said the report.

The report also notes that the provision to destroy records after five years “not only may impair the investigation of older misconduct, but also deprives CPD of important discipline and personnel documentation that will assist in monitoring historical patterns of misconduct.” Similarly, the CBAs prevent CPD’s Behavioral Intervention System and Personnel Concerns Program, both programs meant to flag problem officers, from considering misconduct allegations older than five years and limits how “not sustained” complaints (how complaints are classified when investigators claim allegations can’t be proven true or false) are used to determine if an officer should be placed in the programs.

The DOJ also recommended changes to the “command channel review” process, outlined in the union contract and embedded in department policy, that allows various supervisors above an officer to review and comment on disciplinary decisions. The process undermines accountability, said the DOJ report.  The DOJ agreed with the mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force that the process “provides a platform for members who are potentially sympathetic to the accused officer to advocate to reduce or eliminate discipline.”

“We recommended to the City during the course of this investigation that it modify the CCR process, and instead have discipline decided at a disciplinary conference headed by a single individual whose decision is reviewed directly by the Superintendent,” said the report, which named the command channel review as one of numerous factors undermining police accountability in Chicago.

The report claimed that these failures of the city’s accountability systems contributes to distrust of police and erodes the relationship between communities and law enforcement, which in turn makes it harder for police to solve murders and other crimes.

The FOP’s response

On Friday, minutes before the report was released, FOP President Dean Angelo issued a press release decrying the 13-month  investigation as “lightening speed.” The release expressed concerns that the DOJ rushed the report ahead of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration:

In all practicality, to have completed this investigation in LESS than one year’s time brings to surface several concerns: the main one being timeliness. Completing an investigation into the 12,000 member Chicago Police Department, and in a City with over 2 million citizens in less than one year clearly brings to light that the outgoing DOJ wanted to issue a report before the new Administration takes over on January 20, 2017. What also remains to be seen is whether or not the Report might be considered compromised, or incomplete as a result of rushing to get it out before the Presidential Inauguration. Everyone who reads this document should be as concerned about the timeliness of this Report as the FOP.

Attempts to reach Angelo after the report was released were unsuccessful. But in past interviews with In These Times, Angelo has insisted that the DOJ probe could be a boon for the union, whose members could benefit from better training and equipment as part of reforms. But he has defended the “Police Bill of Rights” section in the union contract, which contains the affidavit rule and heavily influences misconduct investigations. Angelo has said such protections are necessary to discourage frivolous complaints and unfair interrogation techniques that could endanger cops’ jobs.

The DOJ probe was sparked by the killing of a black teen named Laquan McDonald, who was walking away from police when officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times. In November 2015, the release of a video the city fought to keep under wraps spurred public outcry, mass protests and calls for federal intervention. The incident also put the FOP under increased scrutiny and accusations that the union uses its influence to protect bad cops at all costs. A supposed account from numerous cops at the scene of the shooting, relayed through an FOP spokesman, turned out to be false. And the FOP hired Van Dyke as a janitor after he was suspended without pay. Amid this increased visibility for the FOP, the FOP’s contract with the city was thrust into the spotlight like never before.

In the aftermath of the McDonald video, calls for contract changes rang out from city hall, propelled by allegations from activists and politicians that the agreement makes it hard to conduct effective investigations of police misconduct and sets the bar too high for flagging or firing cops like Van Dyke whose encounters with civilians had already led to several lawsuit settlements and more than 20 complaints before he killed McDonald. The CPD is currently trying to fire Van Dyke, who is facing trial on murder charges. CPD is also trying to fire other cops who allegedly lied about the shooting—but the FOP is trying to block their dismissal.

The Chicago Urban League, an organization that has advocated for African Americans since 1916, took aim at the FOP in a statement released Friday.

“We know that reactions to this report will vary from anger and disgust to, unfortunately, but quite probably, repudiation from the Fraternal Order of Police,” said the statement. “But the Chicago Urban League believes that the report must be viewed as a milestone. It is verification of the worst of what we’ve been and continue to be, but offers a viable path to what we want to become.”

Negotiations ahead

NBC News reports that the city has already begun negotiations over reform measures, which a judge will oversee. What’s less clear is how Trump’s administration will enforce those measures. Yohnka said the city needs a sustained reform effort with independent oversight, and that signing a consent decree before Trump gets keys to the White House would help ensure that.

“With the political instability, what they’d be better off doing is signing a consent decree—and doing it by next week,” Yohnka said.

Trump’s nominee to replace Lynch as U.S. attorney general and lead the DOJ, Jeff Sessions, has sent strong signals that he isn’t a fan of consent decrees. He said at a Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that the DOJ probes undermine the public’s respect for cops. “I think there’s concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department who have done wrong, and those individuals need to be prosecuted,” Sessions said.

While Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s statement acknowledged the city has a lot of work to do, he touted reform measures his administration has already initiated, including an updated use of force policy, training initiatives and plans for a new independent civilian agency that would investigate allegations of police misconduct. He also acknowledged—and sought to dispel—fears that the reforms will lack teeth without backing from the next presidential administration.

“As we move forward, there are questions about what the next administration in Washington will do, but we know with certainty what we will do in the City of Chicago,” Emanuel said. “We will continue on the path of reform because that is the path to progress.”

Early Friday evening, activists with Black Lives Matter Chicago help a press conference with relatives of Rekia Boyd, Ronald Johnson and other Chicagoans killed by police officers. Activist Kofi Ademola led the press conference, which was captured on video and posted by DNAinfo Chicago, and blasted the mayor’s reforms as hollow, including a new civilian oversight agency that Ademola said still leaves too much power in the hands of city officials and the FOP.

Ademola also accused the mayor of trying to coverup the McDonald killing, and cast doubt on the prospect of Emanuel and the city steering Chicago toward serious reform without federal enforcement.

“The so-called reforms they have been making since the investigation are empty and hollow and ceremonious at best,” Ademola said. “We know that they don’t want community control of the police.”

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on January 14, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Adeshina Emmanuel is an independent Chicago-based journalist and an Ida B. Wells Fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. He is a former reporter for DNAinfo Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Reporter.

Public Employees Are Leading the Way on Making Government Work Better

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallDespite being one of the most frequently cited boogeymen of right-wing extremists and the target of bipartisan policies that cut their pay and benefits, government employees are very frequently part of the solution and are leading the way in innovating on new and better ways to work with management and improve services and costs. A new report released by the Jobs With Justice Education Fund, Improving Government Through Labor-Management Collaboration and Employee Ingenuity, written by Erin Johansson, research director at Jobs With Justice, provides plenty of examples of this very phenomenon.

The report focuses on examples of government employees at the federal, state and local level who have found innovative ways to find efficiencies, improve or maintain customer service in the face of fiscal woes, reduce health care costs, train a quality workforce and proactively address major policy shifts. Several of the examples detailed in the report include:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration and National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) working together to successfully roll out new technology at 17 of 20 air traffic control centers, saving millions of dollars in software development costs.
  • The Naval Sea Systems Command and AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department implementing a system for improving productivity that proved successful enough at reducing inefficiencies that it was expanded to all four shipyards.
  • Charlotte County Public Schools partnering with its unions to tackle rising health care costs by creating a self-funded health plan with a free clinic for employees and their families.
  • The state of Michigan and the UAW employing “lean techniques” to reduce lobby wait times for social services clients from three hours to 30 minutes.
  • The Ohio State University partnering with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) to encourage employee participation in a wellness program, which led to a quadrupling of union member participation.

The report’s authors conclude:

“All of these cases give us hope that we are entering a new era in which labor-management relations lead the way to both improved public services and improved work-life experiences for public servants. The status quo is no longer sustainable for workers, employers and taxpayers. We urge all government officials and union leaders to read these cases and catch the wave.”

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on January 23, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

9th Circuit: Garcetti Does Not Apply to Public University Employee's Teaching and Academic Writing

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

secunda-paulFor those of you like me that follow the development of First Amendment law in the public employee space, times have recently been depressing for employee advocates in this post-Garcetti world that we now inhabit in the United States.

Now comes a pro-employee decision (yes from the 9th Circuit) concerning the application of Garcetti to a public university professor’s teaching and writing at school.  Readers may recall that the Garcetti decision itself punted on the issue of whether the new standard – no First Amendment speech protection for public employees speaking pursuant to their official duties – also applied to the university academic setting where substantial issues of academic freedom also exist (this is less of an issue in the K-12 environment where public school teachers have less discretion in conveying the curriculum and do not generally do scholarship).

In Demers v. Austin (9th Cir. Sept. 4, 2013), the Ninth Circuit considered a case in which “a tenured associate university professor (at Washington State University]. . . alleged that university administrators retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment for distributing a short pamphlet and drafts from an in-progress book titled ‘The Ivory Tower of Babel.’” The case focuses primarily on the pamphlet, as not enough evidence was put in the record concering the book.

Judge Fletcher, writing for the unanimous panel, came to four important conclusions:

1.  Garcetti does not apply to teaching and writing on academic matters by teachers employed by      the state.  In other words, Garcetti is basically silent on this issue as mentioned above, and the 9th Circuit found that matters of academic freedom play a more prominent role in this context that requires a different legal test. (“We conclude that if applied to teaching and academic writing, Garcetti would directly conflict with the important First Amendment values previously articulated by the Supreme Court [on academic freedom elucidated in Keyishian and other cases].

2.  Instead, teaching and writing by university professors comes direclty under the Pickering balancing test, whereby the rights of the public employee to speak on matters of public concern are balanced against the employer’s right to run an efficient government service. (“We hold that academic employee speech not covered by Garcetti is protected under the First Amendment, using the analysis established in Pickering.”).

3.  So although the university professor here prepared and circulated the pamphlet pursuant to his official duties as a university professor (and thus, would normally have no First Amendment protection under Garcetti), the 9th Circuit concludes that speech was on a matter of public concern (thus satisfying the Connick test) and that there was a chance that the Pickering balancing of interests could come out in favor of the employee.  The court therefore remands on this and a few other related issues.

4.  In any event, the individual defendants in the case would not be held liable because of the unsettled nature of this area of the law.  In short, they enjoy qualified immunity.

This is not the first case finding that there is an exception to Garcetti for teaching and academic writing.  TheFourth Circuit came to a similar conclusion in the Adams public university professor case of 2011. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if this represents a growing consensus among the lower federal courts on this issue and whether this case will be subject to review en banc or by the Supreme Court.  My thought is that although en banc review is certainly possible, there is not yet enough division and consideration of this issue by other circuit courts to warrant Supreme Court review.

This article was originally printed on Workplace Prof Blog on September 9, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Secunda is an associate professor of  law at Marquette University Law School.  Professor Secunda is the author of nearly three dozen books, treatises, articles, and shorter writings. He co-authored the treatise Understanding Employment Law and the case book Global Issues in Employee Benefits Law.  Professor Secunda is a frequent commentator on labor and employment law issues in the national media.  He co-edits with Rick Bales and Jeffrey Hirsch the Workplace Prof Blog, recently named one of the top law professor blogs in the country.

Strong Grassroots Actions Block Mass. Pension Scheme

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Image: Mike HallUnion members in Swampscott, Mass., this week showed just how grassroots democracy works when a coalition of unions from the North Shore Labor Council mobilized to turn back an attack on public employees’ health care and retirement security.

First a little background. In the Bay State, municipal employees’ health and retirement benefits, while negotiated on a local level, are part of a state-administered system. However, a Massachusetts “Home Rule Petition” law allows cities and towns to seek exemption from certain state laws and regulations.

In February, Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to seek a Home Rule Petition to cut town workers’ pensions by moving from the state system’s defined-benefit plan to a self-administered defined-contribution plan, and to change health care benefits. But a Home Rule Petition must be approved at a Town Meeting. In Swampscott, a town of about 14,000, that meant approximately 250 voter-elected Town Meeting members had to give the OK.

That’s when union members went to work to convince Town Meeting members that not only would the changes proposed for the teachers, firefighters, police officers, librarians and other public employees hurt the workers, it would save no money and be a major financial risk for Swampscott.

With a few months before the May 6 Town Meeting, unions and the labor council mapped out a mobilization strategy that included leafleting and neighborhood door knocking by union members, spotlighting the danger of the Home Rule Petition scheme. Postcards to each union member in town urged them to get in touch with their Town Meeting member—more than likely a neighbor or friend—to vote against the cuts to health care and retirement.

On May 6, the hard work paid off when the Home Rule Petition was defeated by better than a 3-to-1 margin.

The unions that carried the campaign to victory included AFSCME, Fire Fighters (IAFF), MassCOPS (an IUPA affiliate) and NEA.

This article was originally posted on the AFL-CIO on May 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

The Truth About Public Employees, the New Convenient Scapegoats

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

kari-lydersenIt’s become a common refrain: public employees from teachers to parking meter attendants to firefighters to nurses are bleeding state and local budgets dry with exorbitant wages and pensions.

As recent news reports and communiqués by conservatives have pointed out, a portion of public sector employees do earn what many middle- and working-class Americans would consider very generous wages and benefits. USA Today reported that on average, public workers earn $11.90 more per hour than comparable private sector workers.

But such numbers constitute misleading propaganda, according to labor analysts and proponents and several recent studies, including an April report by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS). “At its heart,” Amy Traub wrote in the The Nation in July, scapegoating of public employees is an insidious way to divide public and private sector workers who share many of the same interests.”

The NIRS study noted that when education and work experience are considered, state and local employees earn 11 to 12 percent less than comparable private sector workers; and their compensation is still lower when their benefits plans are figured in (6.8 percent lower for state workers and 7.4 percent lower for local workers).

The study notes that while public employees may appear to earn more than their private sector cohorts (for example in Michigan), when their education is considered they are actually earning less than they theoretically could on the private market. The study found 23 percent of local and state workers have college degrees, compared to only 16 percent of all federal workers.

The average state worker appears to earn more only because the state hires more of those in the highly educated categories that tend to earn more, not because workers with the same education earn more in the public sector.

When public employees do earn high wages and receive great benefits, rather than engendering resentment and jealousy, labor proponents say, these should be held up as examples of the security and quality of life that all working people should enjoy, whether in the public or private sector.

Although a small percentage of public sector salaries may be relatively high, they are doubtless still only a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on defense, state tax breaks to corporations and the like.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently opined:

Public servants are convenient scapegoats. Republicans would rather deflect attention from corporate executive pay that continues to rise as corporate profits soar, even as corporations refuse to hire more workers…It’s far more convenient to go after people who are doing the public’s work – sanitation workers, police officers, fire fighters, teachers, social workers, federal employees – to call them “faceless bureaucrats” and portray them as hooligans who are making off with your money and crippling federal and state budgets.

The story fits better with the Republican’s Big Lie that our problems are due to a government that’s too big.

Public employees do periodically make headlines for gaming the system – collecting two pensions simultaneously, collecting a pension while still working a public job, or getting a “promotion” immediately before retirement to boost their pension, for example.

But Reich notes that such pension exploitation is a relative rarity, and most public employees are lucky to collect modest pensions that don’t even cost much to taxpayers. An average government worker who retires with a salary of $45,000 will collect a $19,000-a-year pension, he says—“few would call that overly generous.”

While they’re working, most public employees contribute a portion of their salaries into their pension plans. Taxpayers are directly responsible for only about 14 percent of public retirement benefits. Remember also that many public workers aren’t covered by Social Security, so the government isn’t contributing 6.25 [percent] of their pay into the Social Security fund as private employers would.

CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, describes the reality for California public employee pensions, on a “myth busting” website addressing common misconceptions—including the idea that “public pension benefits are excessive and a drain on the public.”

The average CalPERS pension is about $25,000 per year. Half of CalPERS retirees receive $16,000 per year or less in benefits. Unlike the private sector, many CalPERS members do not receive Social Security, making their CalPERS pension their sole source of pension income, other than savings.

The site also says that: “California public retirees put back $2 into the economy for every $1 they receive in pensions.”

Many Republicans argue that even granting collective bargaining rights to public sector employees is a recipe for financial disaster and endangers the public. Nevada, North Carolina and Arizona are among the states that don’t allow collective bargaining for government employees. Labor advocates argue there’s no reason a right enshrined in labor law and guaranteed to private sector workers should be denied to dedicated public employees. If the right to strike endangers public welfare in any way – for example among firefighters or police officers – they can still be allowed collective bargaining rights with some of the same strike-related caveats that affect workers in private industries from transportation to healthcare.

The NIRS “Out of Balance” study concludes:

Although the current recession calls for equal sacrifice, the long-term pattern indicates that state and local workers are not, on average, overcompensated. If the goal is to compensate state and local sector employees in a manner comparable to those in the private sector, the data do not call for reductions in state and local wages. If anything, they call for increases.

An organization called Brave New Foundation has collected stories of public employees facing layoffs and wage freezes, describing the effect on their own lives and on citizens who need their services. A blogger on the site NewsHound reported:

It absolutely infuriates me the way the right wing is trying to demonize – in an effort to cut back benefits of public workers at the same time that they demand a giant windfall from the public by way of tax cuts for the wealthy.

This post was originally published on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Puerto Rico's working families to appeal Governor's massive layoffs

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Image: Kate ThomasIn July 2008, Republican Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño enacted Law 7 in a two-day period. He then invoked the law in 2009, effectively firing 28,000 employees across all sectors of public services–and all without demonstrating any alternative solutions or proving financial necessity.

As a direct result of Law 7, thousands of working people who provide essential services in education, healthcare, the environment, and social services in Puerto Rico have lost their livelihoods, while the Commonwealth citizens have endured a dramatic loss of essential services.

Today at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit (located here in Boston, MA), 28,000 working families throughout Puerto Rico represented by lead plaintiffs from the Central Federation of Workers (UFCW), the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), the Service Employees International Union SPT 1996 (SEIU) and the United Auto Workers (UAW) will hear opening arguments.

This article was originally published on SEIU.org.

For more information regarding this case, you can contact Meghan Finegan at Meghan.Finegan@seiu.org.

About the Author: Kate Thomas is a blogger, web producer and new media coordinator at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union with 2.1 million members in the healthcare, public and property service sectors. Kate’s passions include the progressive movement, the many wonders of the Internet and her job working for an organization that is helping to improve the lives of workers and fight for meaningful health care and labor law reform. Prior to working at SEIU, Katie worked for the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) as a communications/public relations coordinator and editor of AMSA’s newsletter appearing in The New Physician magazine.


Public Employees Under Attack

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Image: James ParksThe people who teach our children, protect us from crime, put out fires in our homes and make sure our water is clean are under attack. Conservative pundits and politicians across the country are using the economic crisis to attack public employees and portray them as privileged compared with everyone else. They use the fact that public employees, many of whom are union members, have been able to keep their well-funded pensions, reasonable hours and decent pay to stir up rage from those who have lost these benefits in the private sector.

Many cash-starved state and local governments have used these same arguments as a cover to cut services, personnel and pension benefits to balance their budgets and weaken unions.

Several new studies should put those arguments to rest. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that state and local public employees are actually underpaid. In “Debunking the Myth of the Overcompensated Public Employee: The Evidence,” Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe found that, on average, state and local government workers are paid 3.75 percent less than similar workers in the private sector.

The study also found the benefits that state and local government workers receive do not offset the lower wages they are paid. The differential is greatest for doctors, lawyers and professional employees, the study found. Read Keefe’s report here.

Public employees also work hard for their lower pay, often putting themselves in danger. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), nearly two in five state and local government workers—more than 1.4 million— worked in either physically strenuous jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions. Notably, almost half (47.5 percent) of local government employees between ages 55 and 65 held such jobs. If the retirement age were increased, the report says, many of these workers, due to the physical challenges of their jobs, would have to leave the workforce before they are eligible for full retirement benefits. Read the CEPR report here.

Writing in the New York Daily News, Dan Morris of the nonpartisan Drum Major Institute for Public Policy says the attacks on public employees are absurd and dangerous.

…if public-sector workers become cheap, expendable labor, they will contribute less to the tax base and spend less, blunting private-sector job creation. A healthy public sector is just as good for the investment banker as it is for the unionized electrician.

EPI estimates that every 100 public-sector layoffs result in about 30 private-sector layoffs because the subsequent loss of income dampens consumer spending and thus weakens the economy. Says Morris:

The race to the bottom is a callous attempt to lower expectations for employment at a time when millions of people are counting on them to be raised. No victory worthy of the name can be achieved on those terms.

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

About The Author: John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He runs the Progressive Urban Model Policies (PUMP) Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to organize and share best practices in policy design and implementation. His writing on urban issues has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and his recent research has been covered in Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media outlets.

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.

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