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Chicago teachers say 0.5% of the schools budget stands in the way of ending their strike

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Chicago teachers say that just half of one percent of the Chicago Public Schools budget is between what they would accept to end their strike and the city’s current offer. That’s $38 million as the strike closes schools for a ninth day. Not only that, the teachers point to nearly $100 million of costs that have been moved from the city budget to the schools budget.

“The payment for police in our schools, $33 million, which has traditionally been paid for by the city, was shifted to the schools; a pension payment that has traditionally been paid for by the city has been shifted to the schools,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates told Chicago Tonight. “So you have nearly $100 million of cost-shift from the city to the school budget at a time when we need it, at a time when the city is now, clearly, balancing their budget on the backs of our students.”

Another key issue is 30 minutes a day of prep time that elementary school teachers lost under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to CTU, “Teachers used that time to contact parents, grade papers, prepare lesson plans and update curricula, reducing the amount of unpaid labor they put in outside of the work day. While CPS counts that half hour as ‘instructional minutes,’ for many teachers that time is spent wiping up spilled milk and cleaning up after students as they eat their breakfasts in the classrooms.”

SEIU Local 73, which represents many school support staff from custodians to classroom assistants, has reached a tentative deal to end its strike, which started alongside the teachers strike.

Meanwhile, over in Massachusetts, teachers in Dedham won an agreement and unanimously ratified it after just one weekday of strike. It was the first teachers strike in 12 years in the state, where public workers are legally prohibited from striking.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Corporate America freaks out over Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Ben White

Democratic-leaning executives on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and across the corporate world are watching Elizabeth Warren’s rise to frontrunner status in the Democratic primary with an increasing sense of existential panic.

And they feel mostly paralyzed to do much about it — other than throwing money at other candidates and praying.

Warren’s grassroots fundraising prowess shows she doesn’t need big corporate money. She’s got $26 million in the bank. And taking her on directly just makes her stronger with her populist base. Any attack on Warren from the tech or Wall Street worlds just turns into an immediate Warren talking point.

When CNBC host Jim Cramer did a piece on money managers freaking out about Warren, the candidate grabbed the clip and tweeted above it: “I’m Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message.”

It’s led to fairly widespread frustration that Warren’s rise seems unstoppable.

“There’s really not a damn thing you can do about Warren. There is nothing,” said one prominent Wall Street hedge fund manager and Democratic bundler who is raising money for a Warren rival. “It’s the same thing Republicans went through with Trump. You look at her and think what she is going to do is going to be horrible for the country. But if you say anything about it you just make her stronger.”

This fund manager, like a half-dozen other executives interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name for fear of being directly attacked by Warren. Some, however, are happy to ring the alarm, no matter how Warren might use their words.

“What is wrong with billionaires? You can become a billionaire by developing products and services that people will pay for,” said Leon Cooperman, a billionaire former Goldman Sachs executive who is now CEO of investment firm Omega Advisors and who predicts a 25 percent market drop should Warren become president. “I believe in a progressive income tax and the rich paying more. But this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on.”

Earlier in the campaign, executives suggested they found Warren at least a more palatable alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an avowed democratic socialist. Warren, a former Republican, has said she’s a capitalist “to my bones.” Even now, some billionaires are urging calm.

“‘Ninety-seven percent of the people I know in my world are really, really fearful of her,” billionaire Michael Novogratz told Bloomberg over the weekend. “It’s a little carried away.”

But more broadly the mood has shifted as Warren now leads Biden in some national and early state polls. And she has intensified her rhetoric toward Wall Street and the tech industry in particular.

At last week’s debate she stressed that she would no longer take any money at all from tech or Wall Street executives, after having success with tech donors earlier in the campaign.

“If we are going to talk about Wall Street and having some serious regulation over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives,” Warren said, an indirect dig at former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have held high-dollar Wall Street fundraisers.

“You can’t go behind closed doors and take the money of these executives and then turn around and expect that these are the people who are actually finally going to enforce the laws. We need campaign finance rules and practices.”

The current strategy among centrist, corporate-friendly Democrats is mostly to hope and pray that Biden — or perhaps Buttigieg or even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — can still take her out and prevent a possible Warren presidency that could upend business models and reshape entire industries.

Most are not ready to jump over to Trump, but some at least ponder the idea.

“I don’t assume all these people would go to Trump. Plenty of them think there is much more at stake than just narrow industry interests or tax rates,” a second hedge fund executive said. “There are a bunch of financial people that at the end of the day, if she’s the candidate, they will still support her. They won’t raise money for her because they can’t. But they will still support her because of what the alternative is.”

Among other things scaring corporate America and rich people, Warren has pledged to institute wealth taxes and break up tech giants and Wall Street banks. She has taken sharpest aim at the private equity industry, introducing the “Stop Wall Street Looting Act of 2019” that would essentially wipe out some of the industry’s most lucrative practices.

Much of this would be hard to enact without large majorities in both houses of Congress. But Warren could do a great deal in the regulatory world to appoint strict overseers and push much more stringent rules while rolling back the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts.

As of now, there is no organized Stop Warren strategy.

The closest thing that has emerged lately is a vague whisper campaign that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could ride into the Democratic primary at the last minute if it appears Biden is really failing. But even Bloomberg’s closest confidants admit there is little chance he could succeed.

“Mike’s calculation, rightly or wrongly, is that the same people who back Biden would back him,” said a person close to the former mayor. “But it’s by no means clear to him or to anyone that it’s even possible.”

Political observers view a late Bloomberg run as even less likely to succeed.

“First of all Bloomberg is older than Biden, even though he doesn’t look it,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. strategist at AGF Investments, the Toronto financial firm. “And the big impediment is he’s out of step with his own party. The activist base would be appalled by someone so pro-Wall Street.”

Biden’s dip in the polls — coupled with his troubling report of just $9 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter — has anti-Warren Wall Street types looking hard at other Democrats, led for the moment by Buttigieg, who has built a strong core of well-heeled fundraisers led by hedge fund manager Orin Kramer.

According to recently released figures, Buttigieg raised around $25,000 from executives at finance firms including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management in the third quarter. And he raised around $150,000 from donors who described their occupation as “investor.”

Overall, Buttigieg is now in much stronger financial shape than Biden with around $23 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter to around $9 million for the former vice president. Klobuchar has just $3.7 million, which leads many big donors to think she doesn’t have a shot to last long after early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire next year.

Buttigieg raising significant cash from Wall Street executives may make him a target of both Warren and Sanders. But a Buttigieg campaign official said it would not have an influence on his policies toward the industry. “People are coming to us because of Pete’s message and they are seeing and hearing real excitement and enthusiasm around him,” the official said. “We have over 600,000 individual donors to this campaign and our grassroots energy is very, very strong. We have events where people give more money and events where people give $10 or $15 and people who give $1 or $2 online.”

Perhaps the biggest hope among centrist Democrats is not that Biden finally catches fire again or that Buttigieg bursts to the top. It’s that Warren’s time as the frontrunner takes a toll. Signs of that emerged in the Democratic debate last week as Klobuchar and others went after Warren for not being clear how she would pay for “Medicare for All” and refusing to say that she would raise taxes. Warren is now pledging to come up with a plan to pay for her plan.

Some executives also say they hope that moderate Democrats in swing Senate and House seats up in 2020 will begin to get scared of running with Warren at the top of the ticket and start to agitate harder for Biden or someone else.

“What it’s going to take is moderate Democrats in swing states and swing districts who are terrified of running with her at the top of the ticket coming out and doing something,” said a senior executive at one of Wall Street’s largest banks. “But nobody wants to piss her off. Nobody wants to be on her bad list.”

This executive said if Warren gets to the general election that Trump — whose campaign had $83 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter — would paint her as a threat to the American economy. “No one has really run opposition research on her yet. She’s skated pretty clean up till now. If you get her in the general, Trump and the RNC will paint her to the left of Mao. You look at the history of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis and Massachusetts liberals and it’s not very good.”

This article was originally published at Politico on October 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ben White is POLITICO Pro’s chief economic correspondent and author of the “Morning Money” column covering the nexus of finance and public policy.

Prior to joining POLITICO in the fall of 2009, Mr. White served as a Wall Street reporter for the New York Times, where he shared a Society of Business Editors and Writers award for breaking news coverage of the financial crisis.

From 2005 to 2007, White was Wall Street correspondent and U.S. Banking Editor at the Financial Times.

White worked at the Washington Post for nine years before joining the FT. He served as national political researcher and research assistant to columnist David S. Broder and later as Wall Street correspondent.

White, a 1994 graduate of Kenyon College, has two sons and lives in New York City.

The coming Chicago teachers strike could be felt across the country

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

This week, 35,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago are set to walk off the job in a dramatic citywide strike.

The strike—which is expected to begin on Thursday—comes on the heels of other mass walkouts by teachers in states from West Virginia to Arizona and California. And rather than simply bargaining around issues of pay and benefits, Chicago teachers are demanding investments to uplift public education in the face of austerity and privatization.

Today, Rebecca Burns reported for In These Times on the strategy being employed by the Chicago Teachers Union of “bargaining for the common good” and the promise it holds for unions across the country that are seeking to win gains for not just their members, but the entire working class.

Throughout the lead up to the strike—and during it, should it take place—In These Times will be providing an inside, on-the-ground perspective with analysis and reporting from the viewpoint of rank-and-file teachers, organizers and working-class Chicagoans.

For background on the issues at play in the strike and its national implications, check out our earlier reporting on why presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is standing with Chicago teachers, as well as Kari Lydersen on the tensions between teachers and the newly elected Chicago mayor who ran on a progressive agenda.

Check back in to InTheseTimes.com throughout the week for further coverage of this developing labor action, and what it means for organizers and union members across the country who are fighting for the rights of workers everywhere.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 14, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. miles@inthesetimes.com @MilesKLassin

Bernie Sanders to Chicago Teachers: Worker Militancy Is Key to Fighting the Corporate Elite

Thursday, September 26th, 2019

When Chicago teachers led a historic strike in 2012, they boasted the critical backing of the public—but high-profile political allies were hard to come by. With then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the teachers’ nemesis, national Democrats stayed far away from the fight, and even a number of so-called “progressive” city council members opposed the walkout, including the now-disgraced former 1st Ward Alderman Proco ‘Joe’ Moreno who referred to the strike as “selfish.”

On Tuesday night, a very different scene was on display inside the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020—headlined a raucous rally to support the teachers in their ongoing contract fight with new Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Sanders was flanked by union leaders, community activists and a number of the city’s newly-elected democratic socialist aldermen, all of whom pledged to back the teachers. As Sanders stated as he took the stage, “I think that the Chicago school board should be very nervous.”

The Chicago visit marked a continuation of Sanders’ unique approach to his second presidential campaign, in which he’s not just supported labor battles, but positioned them front and center—manifestations of the political revolution he aims to foment. He has utilized his vast email and phone lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and directly targeted bosses such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in order to raise workers’ wages. He has joined rallies of striking workers—as he plans to do Wednesday in Detroit to back the UAW’s ongoing strike. And, fundamentally, he has used his campaign as a vehicle to propel the revitalization of a militant U.S. labor movement.

But these aren’t acts of beneficence. To Sanders, an invigorated movement of the working class is the only way to achieve the type of bold redistributive policies that are central to his campaign, from Medicare for All to the cancellation of all student debt.

As Sanders stated at the teachers’ rally Tuesday, “For the last 45 years there has been a war in this country by the corporate elite against the working class of our nation.” And, he continued, “the only way to win prosperity for working people is when we significantly increase membership in trade unions all across America.”

“It’s about dignity”

Tuesday marked the first day of voting among CTU members on whether to authorize a strike, which could begin as soon as October 7. The union, which claims over 25,000 members, must reach a threshold of 75% of ‘yes’ votes to ratify a walkout. If recent history is any indication, that won’t be a herculean task. Ahead of the 2012 strike, nearly 90% of all CTU members who cast a ballot voted to walk out. In 2016, the figure was even higher—close to 96%—though that action was ultimately narrowly avoided.

Contract negotiations have reached an impasse over demands by teachers for more wraparound services and classroom resources at city schools. The union claims that there remain far too few librarians, social workers, counselors, nurses and paraprofessionals to adequately staff the district’s 514 schools, and that the Lightfoot administration is refusing to address these shortages in firm contract language. Teachers are also calling for smaller class sizes, investments in special education, and support for undocumented students through a “sanctuary school” program.

“This is about way more than just pay,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey to the boisterous crowd of teachers and supporters Tuesday night. “It’s about dignity, and the fact that our schools suffer from critical staffing shortages…It’s about the schools that Chicago’s children deserve.”

The rally also featured teachers giving first-hand testimonials of why they are voting to authorize a strike. Jamie Schnall, an educator at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, echoed Sharkey’s claims, saying: “Large class sizes aren’t just in my kindergarten classes, it’s the entire building. They take more time to plan, to incorporate into lessons, and more time to get individualized attention. We need class size limits.”

And Adlai E. Stevenson Elementary teacher Norma Noriega highlighted the need for strong contract language guaranteeing safety for undocumented youth. “Our students are terrified of ICE,” she said. “We’re demanding sanctuary for all of our students. We fight for sanctuary because our students deserve to feel—and be—safe in their schools.”

“Everybody is going on strike”

But CTU members aren’t the only school workers on the verge of striking. Tuesday’s rally was also organized alongside SEIU Local 73, a union representing more than 29,000 workers, over 7,000 of whom who work in education-related positions such as custodians, special education assistants and security guards.

Local 73 members are demanding higher pay, increased staffing and an end to privatization deals that purge their ranks—such as the city’s agreement with contractor Aramark that brought private custodians into public schools, and left them in horrendous conditions. The union’s membership has already voted overwhelmingly to go out on strike, which could begin as soon as next month—potentially coinciding with that of the CTU.

Already in Chicago, thousands of nurses have gone out on strike in the past week at the University of Chicago Medical Center. On Monday, teachers at Passages charter school, who are members of the CTU, voted unanimously to authorize a walkout. And Chicago Park District employees announced at Tuesday’s rally that more than 94% of their members have voted to strike.

These actions come on the heels of recent strikes by Chicago hotel workers and orchestra musicians, as well as the first charter schools strikes in the country. Taken together, these displays of collective and concerted worker action represent a new approach for the city’s labor movement, moving into offense after years of being on its heels.

Jeanette Taylor, newly-elected alderwoman of the 20th Ward, summed up the newfound state of affairs at Tuesday’s rally, saying: “Everybody is going on strike in this city, and this is the right thing to do. We’re at a time in our lives when we can’t be silent anymore…we’ve got to stand and fight for each other.”

During his speech, Sen. Sanders urged the Chicago school board to “Sign a contract that deals with the desperate shortage of school nurses, of social workers, of librarians and of other critical staff that keep our schools going.”

“When we talk about valuing work, it’s not the hedge fund managers on Wall Street that we should value,” he continued. “It’s the teachers of this country, it’s the staffing, it’s the school nurses and the librarians.”

Supporting unions from the campaign trail

This isn’t the first time Sanders has used his 2020 campaign to lend support to Chicago workers in the midst of a labor dispute. In June, the campaign used its contact lists to call on supporters to join graduate student workers at the University of Chicago on their picket line. The campaign had previously done similar outreach to support striking workers at McDonald’s, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Mercy Health-St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. This mobilization, conducted through texts and emails, stands as an apparent first in modern presidential politics.

Directly pressuring employers to raise wages has been another strategy employed by Sanders’ campaign. The senator’s “Stop BEZOS Act,” introduced last fall, aimed to rein in corporate welfare and force large companies like Amazon to pay their workers a living wage. Weeks after the legislation was released, Bezos—the richest man in the world and a longtime target of Sanders’—raised his employees’ starting wages across the board to $15 an hour.

In each of these instances, Sanders did not single-handedly advocate for workers’ rights—he followed the lead of grassroots movements that were already putting forward bold demands. Whether it was grad student union members or the Fight for $15 movement, Sanders merely lent his support and voice to the labor struggles already underway. And the victories, such as Amazon’s wage raise, were made possible by organizers and rank-and-file activists—not simply a presidential candidate. Still, this type of overt worker solidarity has become a trademark of Sanders’ 2020 run.

The appearance in Chicago came the same day Sanders rolled out his wealth tax proposal, which would hit the top 0.1% of households and raise up to $4.35 trillion over the next ten years. Sanders has said that this money could be directed toward early childhood education, his ambitious housing plan and funding a Medicare for All system. Under the proposal, Jeff Bezos would be forced to pay $9 billion a year in taxes. As Sanders told the New York Times of his plan to target the super-rich, “I don’t think billionaires should exist.”

Sanders isn’t the only major presidential candidate to voice support for the Chicago teachers. On Sunday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “I stand shoulder to shoulder with the Chicago teachers making their voices heard to demand living wages, smaller class sizes, and all the things teachers need to do their jobs well.” The following day, former Vice President Joe Biden followed suit, tweeting, “I’m proud to support Chicago’s educators as they fight for fair wages, full staffing, and smaller class sizes.”

Seven years ago, Chicago teachers were able to emerge victorious in their strike even without help from the mainstream political class—locally or nationally. But today, following a wave of teacher strikes across the country which has shifted the political terrain decidedly in the direction of rebelling workers, and with all of the top Democratic candidates and an array of left-wing city council members in its corner, the CTU is poised to carry forward what the union initiated in 2012.

As Sanders said Tuesday night of the newfound labor insurgency, “What we are seeing is teachers standing up and fighting for justice.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on September 25, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. miles@inthesetimes.com @MilesKLassin

Teachers union urges Senate to avert the next school shooting by passing gun laws now

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

The American Federation of Teachers is calling on the Senate to pass gun legislation to help make schools and other public places safer. Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, addressed a letter to Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, urging them to hold a vote on an assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and red flag legislation.

”Tragically, too many of our nation’s schools and communities are being terrorized by the effects of gun violence,” Weingarten writes, according to a report in The Hill. “We must work to pursue and implement commonsense solutions to reduce these acts of violence.”

Weingarten describes the laws proposed as having “been informed by members’ firsthand experiences in schools and communities touched by gun massacres.”

It’s significant that the teachers union is focusing this message on the Senate, since it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who is standing in the way of gun safety legislation—along with so much else.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on August 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Chicago Teachers Are Threatening To Strike Against New Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Here’s Why.

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

kari-lydersen

In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took to the streets with thousands of supporters in a seven-day strike that was ultimately seen as a victory against “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel.

A lot has changed since then. The recent wave of teachers strikes and walkouts across the country—from West Virginia to California—has won significant gains, not only in compensation for teachers but also in student resources and overall respect for public education. Back in Chicago, Emanuel and his hand-picked corporate school board have been replaced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a black lesbian whose campaign platform on education largely mirrored the CTU’s agenda, and a school board comprised largely of educators and community leaders.

Still, after months of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the powerful teachers’ union may again go on strike in the fall, with the union demanding Lightfoot make good on her promises. Union leaders say that contract talks have changed little since Emanuel’s departure, with the Lightfoot administration continuing a “unilateral” approach, in CTU President Jesse Sharkey’s words, even when taking positive steps like announcing the hiring of hundreds of more nurses and social workers.

More nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and paraprofessional staff such as clerks and teachers’ aides are among the key demands of the union, which wants those changes quantified and enshrined in the contract. In a system with over 500 schools, the union notes that there are only 128 librarians, down from 454 in 2013, and schools with a full-time librarian are concentrated on the wealthier, whiter North Side.

There are only 108 school nurses, and most schools have a nurse present only one day per week, according to a fact-finding document produced by the union as part of the contract negotiations. The National Association of School Nurses recommends one nurse for every 750 students, according to the document, while CPS has one nurse per 2,859 students. School social workers similarly handle five times as many students as recommended by the National Association of Social Workers. The union says the recently-announced hiring will only make a small dent in the school system’s need, and that the move needs to be negotiated and codified with the union.

“As a candidate, Lori Lightfoot put out a bold vision for transforming public education in Chicago, one that was largely cutting and pasting from the work we’ve been doing over the last decade,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates. “The mayor though has not set up the infrastructure to make that happen. Her team at the negotiating table is the same team that Rahm Emanuel had at the negotiating table. I think it’s pretty impossible to have a transformative lens but employ some of the same people who have been responsible for closing 50 schools and dismantling special education services.”

Most of the union’s key demands are aimed at bolstering the quality of public schools and students’ experience, including by increasing the budget for school sports and trades programs as well as improving special education. The union is also demanding CPS take a stand on larger issues that affect students, parents and educators, by curbing charter school expansion, supporting campaigns for affordable housing policies and officially designating the school system a “sanctuary” for undocumented people. The CTU gained sanctuary school provisions in contracts this year at a number of charter schools the union represents, after striking at three different charter networks.

The Lightfoot administration, which did not return requests for comment, has so far largely ignored such issues in its offers and its write-up to an independent fact-finder meant to inform the negotiations. That fact-finder is expected to release its official report on Aug. 26.

The administration has emphasized what it frames as generous raises for teachers. However, the union says the proposed raise of just under 3 percent per year is unimpressive, noting that the administration’s proposal would also force union members to pay more for health benefits, partially negating the impact of the raise. Thanks to a state law that changes funding formulas and other sources, CPS has about a billion more dollars available annually than in recent years, according to the union, which cites a study by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and a July 2018 school board financial outlook presentation. Yet students and teachers have not seen benefits from the additional funds.

CPS teacher compensation has lagged behind all other comparable large districts in the nation, according to data in the union’s report for the independent fact-finder. The report cites a 2012 study by the University of Illinois showing that CPS teachers work on average 58 hours a week, including prep time in the evenings and on weekends. The median salary for CPS teachers stands at $75,180.

The union argues that the paraprofessionals it represents are particularly underpaid. Nearly a quarter of paraprofessionals make less than $31,980 a year and around two-thirds make less than $45,510 per year, the federal qualifier for free and reduced-price school lunches, respectively, for a family of four. And CPS has overseen massive layoffs of paraprofessionals in recent years, leaving teachers and the remaining paraprofessionals with heavier workloads.

The union is also calling for better pay and protections for substitute teachers, to help address a chronic shortage—especially in the most troubled schools, where difficult working conditions make substitutes reluctant to take assignments. A “use-it-or-lose-it” policy for teachers’ time off also exacerbates the need for substitutes, since teachers can’t be compensated for days off they don’t take.

And the union wants reform of evaluation procedures that tend to penalize teachers of color and teachers in the most economically challenged neighborhoods.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who endorsed Lightfoot, sees the administration’s hardball approach as a “negotiating tactic” that “stems mostly from the Rahm Emanuel period.” He hopes things will change once Lightfoot herself switches gears from the ethics reform work she has prioritized so far and gets more involved in the negotiations.

“There just isn’t enough money to do things that you might have agreed to,” Simpson added. “The issue is going to be: Can they find a compromise position that recognizes the financial limits but at the same time makes the teachers feel valued and that they’re getting some financial help from the system?”

When the administration makes a final offer, the union will bring it to their members and potentially take a strike vote, with Sept. 25 the earliest date they could legally strike, according to Sharkey. The school year is set to begin Sept. 3.

Sharkey said that the administration is currently “on a collision course” with the union. Whether through a strike or not, he’s hopeful that Chicago will see the kinds of victories that teachers recently gained in other states, including in Los Angeles where aweek-long strike in January led to commitments to hire nurses and librarians, cap class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent.

Davis-Gates added that the union’s current fight in Chicago is part of an ongoing national trend “because racism is a national trend.”

“Students are told to grin and bear it because we do not find value in their communities,” said Davis-Gates. “Teachers—because it is a profession dominated by women—are told to grin and bear it, because never in the history of our society have we respected the work women do. So I think yes, we will continue to see teacher rebellions across this country because sexism is still what it is, racism is still what it is. It’s my hope teachers everywhere continue to see their voice as an asset, and their ability to withhold their labor as their power.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on August 7, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

 

Here’s Why LA Teachers Are Walking Out in a Historic Strike

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

After nearly two years of bargaining, public-school teachers in Los Angeles have initiated a strike in protest of their district’s policies. Starting today, teachers are picketing outside of their workplaces, underscoring an inveterate lack of investment in public schools made worse by a pro-charter-school “austerity agenda.”

From April of 2017 to January of this year, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—which represents more than 35,000 teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—had been in negotiations with the district, and eventually reached an impasse. The union’s proposals address grievances including preferential funding for charter schools, and such related problems as inflated class size, inadequate support for special and bilingual education, and excessive standardized testing.

The strike is the culmination of a protracted battle against the de facto privatization brought on by the growth of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated—that is, independent of local school board regulations. In Los Angeles County, charter-school enrollment has risen 35.7 percent since 2012 to 2013, rendering the county, among dozens of others in California, one of the fastest-growing hubs of charter-school education.

In recent years, Los Angeles charter-school advocates have generated unprecedented financing: Pro-charter groups, for example, were responsible for more than two-thirds of the $14.3 million in campaign spending in a May, 2017, LAUSD school board election. That election saw pro-charter candidates clinch a majority and, the following year, appoint former investment banker and deputy mayor Austin Beutner as superintendent.

Much of this growth can be attributed to charters currying favor with Wall Street and Silicon Valley as grounds for tax breaks, real-estate investments, and business opportunities. In Los Angeles specifically, charter schools have become the pet projects of prominent billionaires, including Netflix chief Reed Hastings and real-estate developer and financier Eli Broad.

UTLA contends that the political climate of the school board has stripped traditional public schools of funding. A 2016 report commissioned by the union found that charters had siphoned $591 million from traditional public schools. The union also says that the district has $1.86 billion in “unrestricted” reserves, which UTLA claims can be used to fund LAUSD’s public schools. Beutner argues that the reserve funds exist, but are already being spent.

According to UTLA treasurer Alex Orozco, there’s no evidence the reserve funds have been spent, and the current distribution of funds has bred untenable student-to-teacher ratios. Orozco told In These Times that he visits schools with average class sizes in the 40s—a number that LAUSD’s own statistics for middle- and high-school classes confirm.

Beutner responded to these concerns via an article in the Los Angeles Times, proposing “to add teachers and reduce class size at 15 middle schools and 75 elementary schools in communities that have the highest needs.” UTLA holds that this falls short. “You can just feel the disrespect,” Orozco said. “The proposal that he put out addressed class size, which in the 16 months that we were in negotiations, not once did they address class size. But they addressed class size at the bare minimum, which is focusing on our neediest schools.”

Availability of essential personnel outside the classroom, including nurses, librarians, counselors and school psychologists, has also been compromised. For the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year, California ranked as the worst state in student-to-teacher librarian ratios. Meanwhile, California suffers a troubling shortage of school nurses. UTLA maintains that nearly 40 percent of LAUSD public schools have a nurse for only one day a week. According to Orozco, many schools are forced to pay out of pocket for a nurse.

This scarcity disproportionately affects students with disabilities and special needs, who may benefit from more regular visits. After appointments, nurses and school psychologists “are spending a lot of time doing paperwork,” says special-education teacher and UTLA rank-and-file member Allison Johnson. “So if they’re only there one day a week, then how much time are they actually getting to provide care for the students?”

Johnson’s concerns raise questions about the district’s support for students who depend on accommodations for disabilities, language barriers, and other needs. Traditional public schools are legally required to provide for these students. Charter schools, however, aren’t held to the same standards. A report from the Los Angeles Board of Education found that, as of 2014, the percentage of total LAUSD charter students with severe disabilities was less than one-third that of traditional district schools.

Another symptom of charterization, UTLA says, is an excess of standardized testing. According to UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl, the district requires up to 18 discretionary standardized tests—despite mounting nationwide criticism of standardized testing—in addition to those mandated by the federal and state governments. Orozco told In These Times that these tests are administered so frequently in order to generate school performance data, which can be leveraged into justifications for charter models.

Tests “make it very easy for the charters to come and privatize our schools based on this data that was collected by these exams that really are not necessary,” he said. “We want our teachers to be able to use their professional judgment and assess the kids in many other different ways.”

When contacted for comment, LAUSD referred In These Times to its website, which includes the following statement: “We hear our teachers and want to work with them. Los Angeles Unified and teachers agree—smaller class sizes, more teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians in schools would make our schools better. We know teachers deserve to be paid more and a working environment where kids can have the best possible education.”

In addition to its class-size reduction proposal, LAUSD has offered a six-percent pay raise to teachers, back pay for the 2017 to 2018 year, and no changes to their health benefits. In anticipation of a strike, the district has already hired 400 non-union substitute teachers for its more than 600,000 students.

Still, UTLA, frustrated by “20 months of fruitless bargaining and lies and manipulation,” as well as Beutner’s and other criticism in the media of the educators for their demands and decision to strike, feel this is far from enough. Echoing the concerns of many of her colleagues, Johnson argues that while a strike isn’t ideal, teachers have been left with no choice.

“It’s not about the raise,” she said. “People are mad. They want things to change. They want the profession to be respected and to have what we need to be able to function as educators.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 14, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Gay teacher says she suffered months of homophobic harassment with no end in sight

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

A gay middle school English teacher, Amy Estes, said she had to take a mental health leave after student harassment grew more and more intense and her school did little to mitigate the problem.

It all began when a former student asked to stay in touch with her and followed Estes on Instagram. After Estes posted a photo of herself and her partner, the former student saw the photo and spread word to other students at Spring View Middle School in Rocklin Unified School District in California, Estes told ThinkProgress.

“So much of the conversation was negative and hurtful. It wasn’t like ‘She’s gay, that’s whatever,’ it was ‘Oh that’s gross. That’s disgusting,’” Estes said of the hurtful comments students posted about her online.

Estes said she experienced harassment, was told to take down a poster meant to help LGBTQ students feel safe, and felt that the administrators said LGBTQ student would need to adhere to requirements others did not.

Last September, a student approached her to tell her students were talking about her online. She informed the administration, but they minimized it as “middle school drama,” Estes said. She then had a conversation with a student who she believed was one of the most involved in the discussion of her sexuality online, at the suggestion of administration, but the student denied being involved. Estes said that student misbehaved several times in class that were unrelated to the harassment, and she reached out to his mother. But the mother accused of her of making it personal, Estes said.

“The tone of email was that I was retaliating against her child for something he didn’t do and that she had seen the things on Instagram and Snapchat and that was my private life, and how dare I rope her child into it?” Estes said. “And I was blindsided at that point. I didn’t realize how huge it had gotten. So I went to the administration again and still nothing happened. They basically said ‘OK we will deal with that parent from here on out but there is nothing we can do otherwise’ and I said ‘Well I think we should address this on a larger scale.’”

Estes said that since she shares English with a group of 120 students and three other teachers, she suggested that teachers have a conversation with the whole group to confirm that “Yes, I’m gay, and you figured it out. Here’s how we are going to deal with it.”

“The principal’s words exact words were ‘Well we don’t want you coming out unless it absolutely comes to that,’” Estes said.

Although to many Americans, there appears to be progress in visibility and legal protections for the LGBTQ community since same-sex marriage became the law in all 50 states in 2015 and films depicting queer relationships have flourished at award ceremonies, the reality is very different for queer and trans teachers. There is no federal law that gives specific protections to queer and trans workers. Only 20 states and Washington, D.C. have these protections for both queer and trans workers. California is among those states and public schools are required to teach LGBTQ history, but at Spring View, Estes still faced barriers to LGBTQ inclusion.

“There are students in my classroom that I know are queer and they’re seeing this, like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening to an adult. What would happen to me if I were out with my peers?

A 2017 Center for American Progress survey found that 36.5 percent of all people in the LGBTQ community surveyed hid a personal relationship and 62.9 percent of those who experienced some kind of discrimination hid personal relationships. In the workplace, LGBTQ people of color were more likely to hide gender identity and sexual orientation from employers than white people in the LGBTQ community. A 2017 report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio found that one in five people in the community said they were discriminated against when being considered for a promotion, applying for a job, or looking for housing.

Estes’ experience is similar to other teachers who administrators failed to support when they were criticized by parents who disapproved of queer teachers being out in the classroom or simply acknowledging the existence of people in the LGBTQ community. Of course, one of the main differences is that Estes was outed and did not get the chance to control how people learned she is gay. But the lack of administration support once the information came out fits a pattern. A Texas elementary school teacher, Stacy Bailey, was suspended after she mentioned her wife to students. A Kentucky chorus teacher, Nicholas Breiner, lost his job a month after he came out as bisexual on Instagram, which he said he did to show LGBTQ students they are not alone. Breiner said the deputy superintendent questioned him about his sexual orientation. In 2015, a teacher read a book about two princes falling in love and dealt with significant parent backlash, but administrators did not have his back. Teachers have lost their jobs after getting married.

Estes said there is still a lot of fear among teachers in the LGBTQ community about being themselves in the classroom.

“I don’t want to categorize my district specifically at all but what I have heard from a number of teachers is that despite marriage equality being the law of the land there is still a lot of living in the shadows,” Estes said.

Estes added, “The idea that I could just offhand mention my partner and what our life is like to students — that isn’t something that just happens for gay teachers. It is a reality for many queer teachers that we might have certain legal rights but in terms of just being ourselves, I think there are a lot of unwritten rules. The assumption that my mentioning my female partner somehow that’s going to be turned into pressure for students to be gay or how-to course on gay culture.”

After harassment became worse, Estes took steps toward greater privacy on all of her personal social media accounts. But students found her professional social media and posted hateful language on a professional video on student discipline produced for her master’s program on school leadership, she said. Estes said she went to administrators again and worked on a plan for a lesson on tolerance, with administrative encouragement but without administrative help, to address the issue. Administrators didn’t approve of her approach and said they’d get back to her with revisions but didn’t. Months later, not long after a student made homophobic comments on a school project, and progress stalled yet again, she went to her union representative.

Estes said that after she went to various teachers union representatives who eventually referred her to a lawyer, she thinks some people in the community perceive her as out to make money, but she wants them to know she is doing this for the LGBTQ community.

“There are students in my classroom that I know are queer and they’re seeing this, like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening to an adult. What would happen to me if I were out with my peers?’” she said.

Thirty-three percent of LGBTQ students said they were physically harassed in the past year because of sexual orientation and 23 percent were physically harassed because of their gender, according to a 2014 survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Estes said that, unrelated to the harassment issue, she mentioned the idea of starting a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) to administrators. A GSA is a student-led group that gives students in the LGBTQ community a safe space to fully be themselves. Some schools have resisted GSAs after conservative residents and parents objected to the creation of these student-led groups. One school district’s board even considered eliminating all student groups simply to avoid the assertion that they were targeting a GSA.

Although it was not a requirement for other clubs to have administrators or counselors at meetings, Spring View said an administrator or counselor would have to be present at GSA meetings, she said.

In 2016, Estes also put up a GLSEN poster meant to affirm queer and trans students, but the school principal asked her to remove it. She followed orders. After that incident and other indications that staff may not be comfortable with talking about LGBTQ issues, Estes went back to the principal to talk about inclusion at the school. She said the principal said she would “see what the district has in mind” and in the 2017-2018 school year, she broached the issue again.

“I felt strongly that I should be able to hang up the safe space sign. So I went to principal again and said ‘I really need to hang this up’ and she said ‘I’ll look into it in the district and in the meantime don’t do anything until I have given you permission to do so’ and so I didn’t. I followed up with her and nothing happened. She never got back to me. When I approached her again, she said I’m still looking into it.”

After struggling with harassment and what appeared to be a lack of concern from administration on how to make LGBTQ teachers and students feel welcome, Estes, who has had anxiety and depression since her teens, took a mental health leave. She is still on that leave until she feels comfortable going back to work.

Community members have spoken in front of the school board to support Estes after the harassment she experienced for months. During the school board meeting earlier this month, school board president Todd Lowell said the Rocklin Unified School District will make sure that “all our students, staff and families feel welcome, safe and supported” and said Estes’ comments were one side of the story, according to ABC 10.

The Rocklin Unified School District said it could not answer all of ThinkProgress’ questions due to pending litigation. However, in response to a question about whether teachers in the LGBTQ community are expected not to be out in the classroom, Diana Capra, spokesperson for the district, responded, “The District has the same expectations of all its teachers.” When asked about the GSA issues Estes mentioned, Capra said, “While we can not comment regarding Ms. Estes specifically due to pending litigation, we can share with you there are Gay Straight Alliance groups at some of our secondary District schools. They are initiated through the regular process to start a student club.”

Capra added that its middle and high schools have wellness programs for students and staff and plan to include parent, guardian and staff resource nights around social emotional wellness strategies. She said it has sent administrators and staff to The Museum of Tolerance, which the district says help “better understand and support students and staff who are LGBTQ.” Capra said staff is implementing strategies for intervention in situations where people are being treated unfairly. The district will also roll out a plan for inclusivity in its schools “that involves engaging staff in examining belief systems and behaviors before it moves into adopting formal programs and strategies, in order to ensure enduring outcomes for our District so all students and staff feel welcome, safe and supported.”

Estes said she doesn’t want a punitive approach for students who participate in this kind of harassment. She said she wants consequences to be more in line with restorative practices that allow students to talk to each other about the hurt they’re experiencing and repair relationships. She has been working with a lawyer to reach an agreement with the school district but did not reach one at the time she spoke with ThinkProgress.
This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on June 26, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 
About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits.

The Two-Tier Provision in the Chicago Teachers Union’s Tentative Agreement, Explained

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

The tentative agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) struck with district management less than an hour before a midnight October 10 strike deadline has been hailed by many as a victory. Facing another round of concessionary demands, the union managed to extract $88 million from the mayor’s corporate slush fund to restore some badly needed funding to the school system. The union also managed to win an increase in compensation.

But the way that the compensation is structured—with current teachers keeping their current 7 percent pension “pickup,” and new hires receiving a salary increase in lieu of a pension contribution—has some critics decrying the deal as a solidarity-killing, two-tier contract. A pickup is the percentage of a worker’s pay that an employer puts directly into a pension fund.

The CTU’s House of Delegates meets Wednesday to deliberate over the tentative agreement and vote on whether to send it to the entire membership for ratification. If the deal is rejected, there is no guarantee that management will agree to more of the union’s demands—or even return to the table.

Two-tier contracts are an emotional subject in the labor movement. Beginning in the 1980s, employers used threats of off-shoring and sub-contracting, as well as their legal “right” to permanently replace striking union members, to force a wave of wage and benefit givebacks across many unionized industries. In order to make these cuts more palatable to the members who would have to vote on their ratification, unions negotiated agreements where current workers preserved most of their pay and benefits while future hires would bear the brunt of the cuts.

There are many epithets for this sort of thing, but the most common may be selling out the unborn. These ticking time bombs blow up years later, as the “new” hires become a larger portion of the bargaining unit and resent their veteran colleagues both for their more generous compensation packages and for the fact that the older workers signed away their younger colleagues’ right to enjoy the same. As the veterans become a minority in the workplace, there is an obvious financial incentive for supervisors to push them out through aggressive discipline. In such a situation, worker unity in future rounds of bargaining is hard to achieve.

To be clear, not all “two-tiers” are alike. The powerful New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council accepted a two-tier wage structure after surviving a 27-day strike in 1985. But the tiers only impacted workers during their first year of employment. By year two, all workers were earning the same pay rate. And, decades later, ending the tiered pay scale remained a union bargaining priority.

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) accepted a two-tier pay scale at Chrysler when the company went bankrupt in 2009. It was so severe that new hires earned only half the hourly wage of veteran employees. When members voted down a 2015 successor agreement that did not go far enough in reversing the double standard, the UAW was able to renegotiate a deal that brings newer workers closer to the traditional pay scaleover the course of seven years.

The CTU’s proposed “two-tier” is a bit more of a shell game than those concessions. The fight over Chicago’s 7 percent pension pickup has more to do with symbolism than anyone’s actual paycheck. Pension systems are complicated things that only accountants and union researchers fully understand. But basically, a pension fund needs a certain amount of money coming in every year in order to guarantee a livable retirement income for actual and projected retirees. Currently, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund has set that target at 9 percent of every pension-eligible employee’s annual income.

Before the CTU won collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, teachers had most, if not all, of their pension contributions deducted directly from their paychecks. Over the years, the CTU was able to bargain for 7 of that 9 percent to be contributed directly into the pension fund, instead of paid as a salary increase and then immediately deducted as a personal pension contribution.

Obviously, the difference between putting 7 percent in pension contributions directly versus rolling it into salaries, and then immediately deducting it, makes no financial difference to the employer. But the 7 percent became a visible target for Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It was money they could portray to the public and the press as “extra” compensation that teachers get that other workers don’t and demand that teachers give it up. (It should be noted that Chicago teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are the only thing that stand between them and an old age spent subsisting on cat food.)

Under the tentative agreement the CTU is considering, the pay for new hires would increase by an additional 3.5 percent in two successive years. It’s not entirely clear how soon new hires would be responsible for paying the full pension contribution.

Teachers at charter schools also participate in the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) at the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) are currently bargaining over the very same pension pickup, and have set a Wednesday strike deadline.

I was a part of the bargaining team that negotiated the first contract at UCSN in 2013. Because we had a significant amount of bargaining leverage in the wake of a very public insider dealing scandal, we realized that those negotiations were our best shot to get the charter network to pay more than the whole lot of nothing that it had been contributing to teachers’ pensions.

We were successful. That 7 percent was a part of an overall compensation package we were going to win anyway. But by directing the employer to put it towards the pension, we politicized a different figure: the network’s starting salaries. Because charters compete in the same labor market as the district to recruit new teachers, the salaries they can offer are key. If that 7 percent had simply been rolled into base pay, UCSN would be able to quote starting salaries that appear to be larger than what the district offers, but really aren’t, giving the union leverage to raise wages in future negotiations. Now that starting salaries at Chicago Public Schools will appear to be 7 percent larger—if CTU members ratify the deal—the salaries that UCSN offers will appear even less competitive.

As for ratification of their contract, CTU members have to decide how important the symbolism of that 7 percent is and what impact it will have on future rounds of negotiations. The shifting of that 7 percent from one column in a spreadsheet to another strikes me as a last minute ploy to give Rauner and Emanuel a face-saving narrative that allows them to say they didn’t suffer a humiliating defeat in this round of bargaining.

“This is not a perfect agreement,” said CTU president Karen Lewis. “But it is good for the kids. And good for the clinicians. And good for the teachers, and the paraprofessionals.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

Calm Down: SCOTUS’s ‘Friedrichs’ Case Won’t Mean the End of the American Labor Movement

Monday, July 20th, 2015

David MobergWhile most liberals were celebrating the Supreme Court’s June rulings affirming both marriage equality and Obamacare, many labor leaders were already worrying about next year. They feared that the court might hear a case that many of them saw as potentially delivering a crippling blow to the union movement: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. And at the last minute, the court announced it would.

If a majority of the Supreme Court justices back the plaintiff in the Friedrichs case, promoted by a variety of right-wing, anti-union organizations, they will likely overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education court decision. The Supreme Court ruled in Abood that when a public employee union provided benefits, such as collective bargaining or grievance processing, to both members and non-members alike, the non-members could be charged a “fair share” or “agency shop” fee to cover an appropriate share of union expenses. Critics of the Friedrichs petition say that if justices agreed with its complaint, the Supreme Court’s action would have the effect of passing a national right-to-work law for all public employees (even though public employed collective bargaining rights are primarily matters of state law).

The two big teachers unions (American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association) and the two biggest unions of other public employees (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]), responded with alarm to the court’s announcement:

“We are disappointed that at a time when big corporations and the wealthy few are rewriting the rules in their favor, knocking American families and our entire economy off-balance, the Supreme Court has chosen to take a case that threatens the fundamental promise of America—that if you work hard and play by the rules you should be able to provide for your family and live a decent life.

“The Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that have made it possible for people to stick together for a voice at work and in their communities—decisions that have stood for more than 35 years—and that have allowed people to work together for better public services and vibrant communities.”

Whether celebrating from the Right or mourning from the Left, many observers saw the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case as another nail in the coffin of the labor movement.

There are good reasons to be concerned. A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would legally and morally permit some workers to be “free riders”—individuals who take advantage of what the union by law must provide them without paying for it. Perhaps more important, it would disregard the fundamental reasoning behind the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)-protected “union security clauses.” The law was intended to encourage collective bargaining, and if some workers could opt out of supporting collective bargaining, legislators reasoned, they would weaken the institution.

From a practical point of view, unions would lose income that they could be using to improve conditions for all workers, including organizing the unorganized (although only voluntary political contributions, not dues money, can be used for union political advocacy). And a ruling in favor of the plaintiff would be a symbolic blow, a legal slap in the face, to a movement which has endured many such blows in the past.

But there are many other reasons to think that, win or lose on this case, the labor movement may not be as seriously damaged as many now fear.

First, there is a chance that even with this very conservative court (whose conservative bloc split enough times to give the liberal bloc some unexpected victories this past term), a majority might vote against the Friedrichs plaintiffs. The Supreme Court has narrowed interpretations of Abood in recent related cases, such as Harris v. Quinn. In that case, the court ruled that home care workers paid by the state are not state employees and thus are exempt from fair share requirements. Conservatives typically argue that agency fee payers are forced to financially support speech with which they disagree, thus violating the First Amendment. They have even argued that collective bargaining constitutes political speech for public employees.

But surprisingly, as the union lawyers noted in their response to the Friedrichs petition, normally arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has offered strong arguments in defense of the agency fee, going beyond the usual “free-rider” critique of people getting benefits without paying their cost.

“What is distinctive, however, about the ‘free riders’ who are nonunion members of the union’s own bargaining unit is that in some respects they are free riders whom the law requires the union to carry—indeed, requires the union to go out of its way to benefit, even at the expense of its other interests,” Scalia wrote in the case of Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association. Scalia would have to perform some pretty spectacular legal acrobatic maneuvers to move from that position to rejection of a “fair share” fee.

But even if unions lose the Friedrichs case, it need not be the end of the world. It might even prompt some change in strategy that would strengthen unions.

For starters, non-member workers who pay agency fees make up only about 9 percent of the public sector workers who are covered by union contracts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. And though the “fair share” payment varies by union, local, region and other factors, it is always at least a substantial reduction from full public worker union membership fees. With union density more than five times as great in the public sector compared to the rate of unionization in private business, and with unions feeling pressed for money already, any loss of public union income hurts, but it may not be a “life or death” situation, as some fear.

Also, it is hard to gauge how much difference Abood has made in the growth of public unions since the decision was handed down in 1977. At that time, 33 percent of the public sector was unionized (nearly 5 million members), and 40 percent were under contract; in 2014, 36 percent were members, and 39 percent under contract, according to Union Stats. Membership peaked at 39 percent of public workers in 1994, the same year that 45 percent were covered by a contract, then dropped to around 35-36 percent membership recently. (The number of public sector members peaked at 8.7 million in 2009.)

So it seems that having the Abood union security protection may have helped the public sector unions keep pace with employment growth and avoid, until recently, setbacks from massive employer attacks. But the effect seems modest. An AFSCME spokesperson emphasized that the union grew to be powerful before fair share; the implication is that they could do it again.

But didn’t Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 lead to huge union membership losses as a result of eliminating fair share payments? Yes, there were great losses, as the Washington Post reported: “The state branch of the National Education Association, once 100,000 strong, has seen its membership drop by a third. The American Federation of Teachers, which organized in the college system, saw a 50 percent decline. The 70,000-person membership in the state employees union has fallen by 70 percent.”

But unions lost the right to bargain over almost everything, lost dues check-off, were forced to have representation elections ever year and suffered other assaults that led to members no longer paying dues. The loss of fair share payments played a small role in the overall union losses. Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels rescinded an earlier executive order from Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh granting union representation rights to state employees almost as soon as Daniels took office in 2005. Now Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying to wipe out a broad swath of worker rights. If a win on Friedrichs emboldens the right-wing Republicans in the scope of their attack, then it could lead to other measures that could be disastrous.

Fourth, as labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan writes in his recent book Only One Thing Can Save Us, no unions in Europe have the legal security protection U.S. unions have that permits a requirement that all workers either join or pay a fee to a recognized union in their workplace. Yet they have still fared relatively well. Of course, most European unions benefit even more from the laws that often extend the terms of union negotiated wages in an industry to all workers in the industry, whether they belong to a union or not.  That would make an enormous difference in the U.S., well worth even giving up an agency shop fee in order to obtain it, as Geoghegan makes a case for (which is one reason why it is unlikely to happen).

Finally, unions have discovered that there are other ways to deal with workers who are not on their membership rolls. For example, for the first half of last year, AFSCME set out to organize as full members 50,000 of the fair share payers or other non-members in workplaces where they had contracts. They organized 90,000. Some cases were easy—such as workers who thought they were members but weren’t. Renewing the drive this year, the union has signed up 50,000 more, according to an AFSCME spokesperson. The National Education Association has signed up 13,000 fair share payers as members, and other public sector unions are undertaking similar campaigns.

Internal organizing takes staff time and money, and some unionists fear that if the fair share requirement is dropped, not only agency dues payers but also current members may decide not to pay full dues or become full voting members. It is a risk, and the internal organizing adds new demands on already overstretched unions. But it also may lead unions to turn their membership into the active, educated force in the workplace and in the public arena that it already claims to be but all too often isn’t.

The biggest danger of a Supreme Court victory for anti-union forces in Friedrichs is the potential for encouraging more and more devastating legal and political attack on workers who want to organize. Bad as times are now, they could get worse. But the best defense—as well as the best offense to gain improvements—is a highly motivated, well-organized and politically savvy union workforce.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 15, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is David Moberg. David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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