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Archive for September, 2011

9-27-11 007 

“CONGRESS BROKE IT, CONGRESS CAN FIX IT”

Postal workers and allies held 485 rallies across the USA today to call for passage of legislation to save the US Postal Service without the sacrifice of jobs and services. Support for passage of HR 1351, already co-sponsored by nearly half the US House of Representatives, was a theme at the rallies, which were organized by the four unions that represent postal workers (American Postal Workers Union, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union, and National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association) joined in a campaign called “Save America’s Postal Service.”

“Despite what you may have heard, the Postal Service isn’t broke. Nor is it losing billions of dollars a year delivering the mail. And a taxpayer bailout isn’t imminent. Reduced services are being presented as a foregone conclusion, but they’re not,” organizers said.

“At the heart of the Postal Service’s current problem is a 2006 congressional mandate that the Postal Service pre-fund future retiree health benefits for the next 75 years and do so within a decade—a burden no other public agency or private firm faces,” according to the organizers. “The Postal Service is actually paying, out of its operating budget, for the future retiree benefits of people who haven’t been born yet. That cost—$21 billion since 2007—accounts for 100 percent of the agency’s red ink over that period. House Bill 1351, which has bipartisan support and nearly 200 co-sponsors, would address the pre-funding issue.”

“Congress created the problem. Congress can fix it,” said Janice Kelble, Legislative9-27-11 009 Director for the NH Postal Workers Union at a lunchtime rally in downtown Concord. Another larger rally took place at Manchester City Hall later in the day.

Speakers included leaders of the 4 postal unions, who said they are not accustomed to working together so closely. Hopefully this day of action will show them the importance of collaboration.

Other speakers included Mark MacKenzie of the NH AFL-CIO, Representatives Pat Long and Steve Shurtleff, Terry Lochhead of the Alliance for Retired Americans, Rev. John Gregory-Davis of the Meriden UCC Church, Rev. Gail Kinney of the S. Danbury UCC Church, and former Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, who is 9-27-11 025 again seeking the US House seat in the First Congressional District.

The current occupant of that seat, Rep. Frank Guinta, has not given his support for HR 1351. The state’s other Congressman, Charlie Bass, has separated himself from most Republicans by adding his name as a co-sponsor.

I was honored to be a speaker at both rallies. Instead of talking much about the Postal Service, about which I know far less than most of the people who attended the rallies, I tried to put the current attempt to downsize the Postal Service in the context of a 9-27-11 035 decades-long assault on the public sector.

The ideology of market fundamentalism, which has taken hold in the USA since Reagan’s administration, is based on a belief that profit-driven enterprises are always better than those tied to government. Enforced throughout the world by the IMF, World Bank, and “free trade” agreements, market fundamentalism calls for privatization, de-regulation of business, fiscal austerity, “free trade,” and weakening of workers’ power, all in the service of international investors and a “good business climate.” In such a belief system, ta public postal service is suspect.

As Naomi 9-27-11 026Klein explained in The Shock Doctrine, market fundamentalists pounce when crisis strikes. And if the crisis doesn’t occur on schedule, they are ready to  create one. That’s what’s going on now with the “deficit crisis,” I said.

The deficit was caused by a privatized health care system, a de-regulated financial sector, tax cuts for the wealthy and the corporations they own, and a couple of wars. Instead of attacking the causes of the deficit, the “solutions” now being advanced call for more privatization, more de-regulation, more “free trade” agreements, more tax cuts, and the destruction of unions. Proposals to lay off postal workers and cut mail services have to be seen in this political context9-27-11 001.

In addition to passage of HB 1351, public sector workers should join together with  private sector workers and with everyone who depends on the services they provide, I said. Together we need to build a movement that reclaims legitimacy for services provided through means that are accountable to the people, not to the investor class.

If you ask me what should be done to fix the Postal Service, I say start by asking the workers. They know more than anyone.

9-27-11 041

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9-15-11 005

Will Committee Propose Minor Changes to Existing Law or End of Public Worker Unions? 

It’s no secret that the tea-crazed element in the Republic Party is out to destroy unions, and with their disappearance further depress wages and benefits for workers across the labor market. With manufacturing unions in a weakened state due to globalization and technological changes, anti-union attention has shifted to the public sector.

Given the political context, New Hampshire labor activists and allies looked with apprehension on the creation of a committee made up of State Representatives and Senators to “study collective bargaining by public employees.” The committee’s mandate, established by passage of HB 580, gave the committee no more guidance than contained in those six words.

Sen. Raymond White said creation of the study committee was “an offshoot of all9-15-11 004 the discussions around pension reform.” While HB 580 did begin as a bill to overhaul the pension system, the context was actually much wider and more ominous. White may have forgotten that the House budget plan included a measure, introduced by Rep. Neal Kurk, that would turn all public sector workers into “at will” employees at the expiration of collective bargaining agreements. And HB 580 itself, also sponsored by Rep. Kurk, included the following provision in the version approved in the House:

Following the end of the term of a collective bargaining agreement and during any period of negotiation, the status quo shall be maintained as to the wages, hours, and conditions of employment of employees in good standing. Except where required by statute, the continuation, after the expiration of the agreement, of the provision of any medical, dental, and life insurance benefits, retirement or pension benefits, and any other fringe benefits, shall be subject to the exclusive authority of the public employer.  [emphasis added]

In other words, the clear intent of the House was to strip unions of their power. The Senate, no hotbed of pro-labor sentiment, kept this radical approach out of the budget and pension bills. Instead of just killing HB 580, which would have been a desirable outcome, the Senate proposed the study committee as an alternative. .

Following the study committee’s first meeting September 15, it seems that this group is out to tinker with collective bargaining, not destroy it. The bigger assault depends on whether the legislature over-turns or sustains Gov. Lynch’s veto of HB 474, the Right-to-Work (FOR LESS) bill, and in an array of bills to be considered next year.

The study committee began its work by electing Rep. Gary Daniels, the ant-union head of the House Labor Committee, to be its Chairman, and Rep. John O’Connor to be its Clerk. Daniels made it clear that their scope is only the state and local public sector, for which the collective bargaining process is set out under RSA 273-A. (That public employee collective bargaining is governed under state law, not federal, appeared to be news to Rep. Steven Winter, a former airline pilots’ union member who voted for “Right to Work.”)

David Lang of the International Association of Firefighters explained that the current system could be improved. In particular, the lack of dispute resolution methods in the law can make it hard to complete complex negotiations in a system where contracts not only have to be approved by union members and municipal officials, but also funded by votes of school districts and town meetings. Nothing that his own union, in Hampton, has been without a contract for six years, he said, “There has to be an end in sight.”

Unions are not just about pay and benefits, Lang testified. The issue the promoted unionization of Hampton firefighters, he said, was the quality of protective clothing. The union contract made it more likely that firefighters would return home alive after work. Acknowledging the sensitivities of taxpayers – a group that includes union workers – Lang said it’s “important for workers to have an understanding of what the pay and benefits are going to be” in order for cities and towns to attract workers to serve as police officers or firefighters.

Mark MacKenzie, who now serves as president of the NH AFL-CIO, was a Manchester firefighter when the law covering public sector collective bargaining was established. It was through collective bargaining, he said, that firefighters were able to improve their gear and training. Union contracts are not responsible for the rising cost of health care, he said.

Other speakers included Laura Haney of the NH Federation of Teachers; Diana9-15-11 006 Lacey, Jay Ward, and Dick de Seve of the State Employees Union; and Dean Michener of the School Administrators Association. In the back-and-forth between committee members and speakers, attention kept returning to whether negotiating sessions should be videotaped and broadcast on public access cable TV.

If the committee keeps its attention on minor matters, the committee report, due Dec.1, might be of relatively little consequence. It’s still possible that Kurk-like proposals will be put on the agenda.  We’ll get more indications at the committee’s next meeting, Thursday, September 29, at 9 AM. Rep. Daniels said there would be other opportunities for members of the public to present testimony before the committee winds up its work in November.

Regardless of this study’s outcome, attention should be focused on the 2012 legislative session, for which 794 bills have been proposed by House members. At this time, the details of these bills are still being worked out, so all we can see are their titles. But these include such gems as:

“Prohibiting all public employees from participating in collective bargaining,” “Requiring 100% consensus vote by union members to be included in a collective bargaining agreement,” and “Prohibiting the state from withholding the union dues of state employees.”

The war on the workers goes on.

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“There’s mean things happenin’ in this land” go the lyrics of an old protest song labor day 2011 09 05 032 written by John Handcox, an organizer with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union during the Great Depression.  When Tom Juravich performed it this afternoon at the Bread and Roses Festival, none of the people singing along could have missed the song’s topical nature.  If we listen to the economists, the Great Recession has been over for two years, but even members of that often detached profession acknowledge that the economic “recovery” is leaving thousands of people behind. 

With state and local budget cuts sending public sector workers to the unemployment offices, where they are joined by hospital workers and staff of nonprofit agencies whose employers have lost public funding, life is getting pretty mean.  In my state, legislators are adding injury to insult by trying to impose new laws to reduce or eliminate the rights of workers to have a voice in the affairs of their workplaces.   Mean things, indeed, are happening in this land.

My friend Jan says it shouldn’t require two PhDs to explain how the erosion of workers’ rights and labor standards is related to the reduced clout of organized labor, but it can be useful to have academic research that proves the obvious.  A recent article by Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld in the American Sociological Review uses equations and statistics to show the correlation between the decline in union membership from 1973 to 2007 with rising income inequality in the USA.  “Unions helped institutionalize norms of equity,” they say, “reducing the dispersion of nonunion wages in highly unionized regions and industries.”  In other words, wages go up across the labor market when unions are strong.  When employers and their political allies succeed in busting unions, it’s not only the former union members who lose out. 

According to Western and Rosenfeld, de-unionization is responsible for one-third of increased wage inequality among men and one-fifth among women.  (Other causes include educational inequality, technological change, and trade, they say.)

Today’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester brought together  union members, lmark mackenzie labor day 2011 allies from social justice groups, and friendly politicians, all united in efforts to stem the growing income gap by stopping the assault on unions.  Mark MacKenzie, President of the NH AFL-CIO, praised public safety and utility workers who performed their jobs during the recent tropical storm and said, “We want a New Hampshire that cares about people, that cares about the middle class.”  Governor John Lynch, who vetoed the “right to work for less” bill and the bill eliminating the state’s minimum wage, received more than one standing ovation and encouragement to seek a fifth term. 

That the moderate Lynch is seen as such a vital champion is an indication of how mean things have gotten.   Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien and the ALEC/Tea Party faction that controls the legislature is determined to overturn the right-to-work veto. Legislative committees are ready to go to work on dismantling pubic sector collective bargaining and privatizing state departments.  More than a dozen more anti-union bills are already on the agenda for the 2012 legislative session. 

If we want to preserve the middle class, it might behoove us to remember how the labor movement got started in the first place.  That’s one reason to attend the annual Bread and Roses Festival in Lawrence. The festival takes its name from a major textile strike that broke out in 1912 when 20,000 workers went on strike to protest cuts in wages and hours. 

In the words of the festival’s sponsor,

For nine weeks in a bitterly cold winter, over 20,000 workers, mostly new immigrants, dared to challenge the mill owners and other city authorities. Thousands of picketers, many of them women, faced state militia armed with guns and clubs. But the strikers were generally peaceful. The two fatalities were both of strikers. A cache of dynamite, first attributed to the strikers, turned out to be planted by mill owners and their friends in a clumsy plot to discredit the strikers and their radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World. Observers were impressed by the strikers’ inter-ethnic cooperation, their soup kitchens, the important role of women, and their reliance on song to bolster their spirits and express their beliefs. Some women strikers reportedly carried banners proclaiming “We want bread, and roses too”, symbolizing their fight both for subsistence and for dignity. Although the use of the phrase here has never been documented, the “Bread and Roses Strike”, symbolizing the fight for subsistence and dignity, has stuck as the name for this seminal event.

The strikers won public sympathy, drew on solidarity from workers in other communities, and won the strike.   According to Steve Thornton, a union organizer steve thornton @ bread & roses from Hartford, 200,000 workers saw their wages rise because employers feared they would face similar strikes otherwise.  (Western and Rosenfeld would say the Break and Roses strike helped “materialize labor market norms of equity.”)  Speaking in the festival’s labor history tent, Steve said the 1912 strike inspired unions in Connecticut and spread the concept of industrial unionism, an alternative to the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor that so easily led to divisions among workers in the same workplace.  

The IWW also spread the concept of free speech, which Steve said really meant little “until unions won it.”  Their practice was to insist on holding public rallies in public places, even when public officials denied them permission.  Sometimes they ended up filling the jails, not just the streets.  

The IWW slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all” is due for a comeback.   It would help if we can find some sociologists to prove it’s still true.

 

 

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