Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Have You Slugged Your Teacher Today?

Okay, honestly, WTF is this about?

This is the third scare-piece I've read on this topic, but, look as I might (and have), there's no there there.

I just don't understand what these people are talking about. There's not one mention in this piece of a single instance of union activity that is putting the unsavory squeeze on one employer in the current (or any specific) context. Let me say that again: Greenhouse gives not one solitary example of a threatening gesture on the part of labor. (Whatever happened to supporting assertions with examples? Has journalism finally gone so hopelessly fuckwit that mere assertions now suffice to anchor an opinion or a point of view in the New York Times?) Rather, he simply plays scribe while the GOP paints "YOUUU-NYUNS!" in those big wiggly letters that signify "spooky" on the side of the kids' haunted house each October--presumably to the accompaniment of some gleeful, Tea-Partying theremin player just off-stage. Even the title, "Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions!" just seems carefully calculated to simply shriek "BOO!" to a distracted audience. Curb them from doing what? Exactly? Making you shudder at the swoon-inducing prospect of their doing something remotely curb-worthy at some alarming point in the near or distant future? The only evidence on offer here is that of fear-mongering about the idea of even the most anemic labor representation.

    “They’re throwing the kitchen sink at us,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re seeing people use the budget crisis to make every attempt to roll back workers’ voices and any ability of workers to join collectively in any way whatsoever.”
There's talk of Republicans being miffed about Unions wielding undue influence in elections, but shutthefuckup!--that's idiotically absurd. While unions are pretty savvy about where their political dollars go, they've been outgunned in that domain for decades: business and corporate political organizations were outspending Labor more than five to one late in the Carter administration, and Labor is now just a speck on the landscape--financially and organizationally. There were 224 labor PACs in '76; a decade later there were 261. Looking at the other side, we saw an increase in corporate and trade PACs from 922 to 2182 over that same interval. And it only got worse from there. The tax-cut-and-spendthrift Reagan made sure of that. The GOP just wants to put the final nail in the coffin of the American worker right now, the second they get hold of the fucking hammer--no waiting!--and silence forever the traditional voice of our working middle class. But please, for the sake of appearances, couldn't they at least have waited for some cheeky, strapped worker somewhere to pipe up and ask for a living wage?

And what's this--what fresh hell is this?!:

    “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” Mr. Walker, a Republican, said in a speech.
Oh dear. Seriously, those insufferable, no-tax-paying elementary school math tycoons and their bling-encrusted Bentleys--don't they just make your righteous fucking blood boil? This is a pathetic example of the proverbial (rumored) tempest in a (hypothetical) teacup, and it's pissing me further off than I've been pissed in some time. It's like the privileged bully in the schoolyard kicking the malnourished kid in the teeth after stealing his lunch money for an entire year--just to make absolutely sure he keeps his mouth shut about the whole affair for the foreseeable future. Rich.


      1. Is there nothing to preserve our beleaguered millionaires from the rapacious depredations of elementary school teacher's. Is there nothing that can check the unfettered economic juggernaught of the public employee?

        Seriously, unions haven't been relevant for the past 25 years. The very idea that they wield some kind of unseemly political power is absurd on the face of it. If they had any power at all, they have used it to prevent the rampant offshoring of American jobs that has so hobbled our economy and undermined the middle-class. That the NYT chooses to publish this kind of propaganda ought to dispel the myth of liberal media bias. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

      2. Do I feel sorry for state employees that can retire before the age of 50 with a $100k pension? Yeah, not so much. Read this:

        I'm sorry guys, I'm no friend of the Republicans, but as far as I can tell state employees have it far, far better than a lot of folks right now. Not all of them, mind you, but let us not be one-sided in our assessment of the situation. While on the one hand, hundreds of state employees are being laid off because of budget restrictions, on the other hand you have this whole other group that is sucking the state teat for every last drop they can get, and frankly, that's lame.

        Worse still is the cluster-fuck of a public school system that we have, at least here in NY. Because of the power of the Teachers' Union in this state it's virtually impossible to fire a school teacher in anything resembling a timely manner, regardless of the infraction. Please take a look at this article from the New Yorker regarding the so-called Rubber Rooms we have here as well as some ridiculousness called, apparently, the "Absent Teacher Reserve". An excerpt:

        "The contract includes a provision that, this fall, will allow an additional seven hundred to eight hundred teachers to get paid for doing essentially no teaching. These are teachers who in the past year—or two or three—have been on what is called the Absent Teacher Reserve, because their schools closed down or the number of classes in the subject they teach was cut. Most “excessed” teachers quickly find new positions at other city schools. But these teachers, who have been on the reserve rolls for at least nine months, have refused to take another job (in almost half such cases, according to a study by the New Teacher Project, they have refused even to apply for another position) or their records are so bad or they present themselves so badly that no other principal wants to hire them. The union contract requires that they get paid anyway."

        Full article:

        Don't let anyone tell you, as the headline here would seem to indicate, that this Rubber Room business has changed in the last couple years:

        My favorite paragraph:

        "The union did not appear to sacrifice much in the deal. While the agreement speeds hearings, it does little to change the arduous process of firing teachers, particularly ineffective ones. Administrators still must spend months or even years documenting poor performance before the department can begin hearings, which will still last up to two months.
        As the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, has increased efforts to get rid of teachers the city deems ineffective, the number of teachers in rubber rooms has grown. There are now about 550, costing the city $30 million a year."

        Trying to depict workers in the public sector as being bullied school children is not only a misrepresentation of the current situation, but it makes you guys seem as if you are unwilling to acknowledge the full scope of the issues we are dealing with, at least here in NY (as well as in CA and other states from what I understand).
        I appreciate that we are dealing with some serious issues with current and impending budget cuts, let’s just not be one-sided and pretend like unions and union members don’t have their best interest as their top priority.

      3. This cops and firefighters issue is a special case of *workers* gaming the system while their departments turn a blind eye--or perhaps even implicitly encourage it--not an instance where unions are interceding on behalf of workers and the practice in the current climate to demand unfair compensation. It will be dealt with, like any other glaring instance of bad faith that come oozing to light: by changes in the policies and contractual structures that permitted it--and hopefully by some kind of negotiated settlement that limits the damage that cases currently in process can still do. Every contract has loopholes and lever points that let those who are clever enough to find them (and venal enough to exploit them and get away with it) to shovel money and unfair advantage through them. The point is not to expect this not to be the case, but to respond swiftly and decisively as and when they become apparent.

        It is worth noting here that the above case runs counter to the rule--namely that, in general, Population Survey data indicate that, while unionization tends to increase the prevalence of premium pay for overtime (as well it should, else why bother?!), it also tends to reduce the both the incidence and extent of overtime hours.

        As for the "Rubber Room" scandal, well, just coincidently, one of my best friends here in DC is actually involved in the evaluation of that mess in a legal capacity--at the top end. What I've learned from this party is that (1) while the worst-case examples are certainly the best *news* choices (they make smashing copy!), they are hardly the rule, and it's iresponsible to suppose that spoiled fruit accurately represent the contents of the orchard. Also, bear in mind that New York is trying to get rid of a lot of teachers in a very short time frame, which *guarantees* congestion under the best of conditions. The "rubber room," as it's called, is simply what schools did when the necessity of due process, required under *both* the Education Law and in the collective bargaining agreement, meets annoying congestion and clusterfuck in the pipeline to resolution. And let's be clear: due process is a right for a reason; students can--and sometimes do--get rid of teachers they don't like simply by making an allegation of wrongdoing. Often those allegations have some factual basis, but sometimes they do not. It's gotta be sorted out. And it's not like the Unions simply demand that employers handle the legal or the physical disposition of these limbo cases in this way. (The police, for example, often just send people home while it's sorted out.) But it does make for some delicious reading, and even cathartic venting! Something very like this happened in Pennsylvania not long ago, and the school in question wasn't even giving the accused the dignity of a "rubber room." I believe Pennsylvania now has a sixty day requirement for the resolution process.

      4. (Continued from above)

        The point is not that there's no problem, it's that in the current economy and political climate, it's tempting to dredge some cases from the bottom of the barrel and tar an entity that's high on the GOP's shitlist for problems that are systemic or that represent bad faith on the part of particular individuals. If you think Unions are bad, try living in a world where they're eliminated--or never existed. We'll take that weekend back, thank you, and the eight hour workday, and the five hour work-week, and yes, the overtime pay as well.

        Lastly, as regards the best interests and priorities of organized labor, right now, I think they'd take mere survival as a good start. I stand by my metaphor--you can't spend so much as twenty minutes perusing the last three decades of labor history and not come away with the stark and overwhelming realization that they've just pretty much been persistently getting their asses kicked since the mid-seventies.

        That said, these are indeed frustrating stories. I just don't see how they can responsibly be made to mean what these delicious news stories, with their selective reportage, attempt to make them mean.

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      6. New Yorkers often find if difficult to believe that us West Coasters don't follow every bump and shiver of their local news cycle. Believe it or not, we have our own problems to deal with out here. Public employees are easily vilified in a society that doesn't feel that government adds any value to their lives. They're just salary sponges, so let's throw them all out of a job. I mean, fuck, who needs librarians; I've got the internet. As the spouse of a public employee, I know personally how much they make (not very) and how hard they work (very) and how much shit they have to take because of it (more than anyone else I know, or can think of). The perception of bureaucratic sloth is sustained by a relative handful of high-profile bad apples, and political appointees who draw six-figure salaries as "advisors". They're not "most" public employees, and they're certainly not the ones being laid off, by and large.
        I'm comfortable with my grasp of economic and labor history, and I think I'm better informed about the choices confronting the state of Washington in the face of a $2.6 billion budget hole than most of the people I know, but to suggest that I'm "unwilling to acknowledge the full scope of the issues" on the basis what makes the news in NY is laughable.

      7. Very late to the party here, but I promised to weigh in when I could, so here goes (it’ll be in a few parts).

        As an initial matter, it is simply depressing to see the success with which the right wing has been able to dress up public employees in the drag of one of their favorite mythic stereotypes -- the Welfare Queen, the non-existent recipient of public aid who drives a Cadillac and buys booze and cigarettes with food stamps. Seriously, it’s the same trope. Public employees – people who work for a living – are painted as a bunch of sponging parasites. Coincidentally right at the time when the conduct of the Banksters and their enablers in government have caused such a cataclysmic financial crisis that public budgets at the state and local level have imploded. What an absolutely convenient time to distract the rubes with a scapegoat.

      8. Let’s move on to some specifics now.

        Upthread is a pointer to a New York Times article about some cops in Yonkers who apparently gamed their pension rules to boost their pensions upon retirement by logging big overtime hours in their final 1-2 years, thus increasing their highest three earning years, which is the baseline that pension plans typically use for the purpose of calculating benefits (e.g., average of the highest three years multiplied by some fraction, with years of service factored in). Lets’ just stipulate that some cops in Yonkers have found a way to boost their pensions by taking more overtime than they otherwise would. And let’s just leave to one side the fact that they could not have done this without their (non-unionized) superiors’ blessings. That some cops gamed their pension rules somewhere is not evidence of a widespread problem. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” To be sure, the article goes on to promiscuously intermingle some statistics regarding police pensions statewide – as if by this unfair juxtaposition one is supposed to conclude that some kind of pension abuse is rife statewide – but that’s hardly apposite. (Thirteen retired police officers in New York City draw pensions of over $100,000? How *dare* they! It’s not like they spent years doing a dangerous job that takes a dire toll on their bodies and minds … oh, wait.)

        So what this really boils down to is resentment at the fact that cops (and by extension public employees in general) have pensions in the first place – which is usually coupled with the assertion that the pensions are overly generous and are what’s bankrupting the poor state and local governments who are saddled with the impossible task of keeping the pension funds flush.

        Let’s start with the “pension envy” point. Why is it that a public employee’s having a pension is considered a scandal? I suppose we are supposed to recoil in horror that some cops and firefighters in New York (people whose jobs involve inserting themselves into situations most of us would prefer to avoid, like burning buildings or armed robberies) receive pensions that will provide a more-or-less middle-class lifestyle upon retirement. Color me un-scandalized.

        I get that a lot of people in the private sector have shitty jobs without pensions. And many in the private sector who do have pensions (leaving aside highly compensated types) have the less desirable “defined contribution” plans rather than the “defined benefit” plans that are still common (though not universal) in the public sector. But that’s not because public employees do have pensions. It’s because Wal-Mart and McDonalds and other low-wage employers won’t provide such benefits. And, since it’s so goddamn hard to organize a union (thanks to decades’ worth of Republican erosion of federal labor law), there’s no union on the scene to ameliorate the horrendously unequal bargaining positions between employer and employees and thus push the employer to provide pension benefits. But I really don’t understand the reasoning that because some people don’t get pensions to supplement meager social security payments in old age, we should take away pension benefits from public employees who do. (And one should also bear in mind that public sector jobs disproportionately require specialized training and/or advanced degrees – precisely the types of jobs that, in the public sector, usually come with fringe benefits like pensions.)

      9. The real scandal with public sector pensions is that state and local governments have been shortchanging their pension funds—and simply raiding them—for years in order to raise operating cash without raising taxes. Public pensions, unfortunately, are not regulated by the federal law that regulates private-sector pensions, so much of this skullduggery can be accomplished without fear of sanction. For some detail, please see Yves Smith’s recent piece demonstrating more than a decade of theft by the State of New Jersey from its workers (

        At the same time of course, we also have seen years of public pensions being managed shittily by (mostly Republican) officials who decided to take the money that they hadn’t already stolen from the state pension funds and blow it at the craps tables of the new casino finance economy brought to us by our friends the Banksters. Throughout the late 90s and the aughts (the naughty-aughties perhaps?), public pension managers started dabbling in high-risk crap—private equity, real estate, derivatives—to a degree that was as unprecedented as it was inconsistent with prudent fiduciary standards. Some states took extraordinary measures to make sure they could help investment banks make big fees by selling these rubes their fancy horseshit: South Carolina, for instance amended its constitution to lift restrictions on pension investments—restrictions that had wisely required that all but a small proportion of the state’s pension fund be invested in very safe assets like treasuries.

        I could go on, but for present purposes, the sum of the matter is this. The “pension crisis” is not the fault of the folks who naively though that after years of public service they could enjoy something better than a diet of cat food in their dotage. It is, in fact, the product of a parasitic class of spongers—but that class consists of Banksters and Republican politicians, not public workers.

      10. The Steven Brill piece about “rubber rooms” is one of the most tendentious pieces of shit I’ve read in a lifetime of reading tendentious pieces of shit.

        It is entirely true that the backlog in processing employee discipline and discharge cases in the NYC school system was immense. It is equally true that the teachers who were the subject of those proceedings spent a very long time going to the functional equivalent of detention hall while awaiting their hearings. But that’s about where the truth ends in that piece.

        First and foremost, let’s clear up the misconceptions about “tenure” or, as stated upthread the idea that “it’s almost impossible to fire bad teachers.” “Tenure” in public schools is not some kind of guaranteed sinecure. It actually means two things: “just cause” and “due process.” That means, one, the employer has to have a reason to fire a teacher that is not arbitrary or retaliatory, and two, the teacher gets to have a hearing before final action is taken. It is not "almost impossible" to fire "bad teachers" by reason of tenure protections. It merely requires cause and a forum in which to make the case that the cause standard is satisfied. If management cannot make the case, then management needs to do a better job documenting its case.

        Now the “rubber room” evolved because due process requires that the teacher not actually lose her or his job based on pure accusations (what a concept!), while at the same time if the accusation is that the teacher is unfit to be in the classroom, then you have to take the teacher out of the classroom. The NYC school system decided to resolve this dilemma in the most humiliating and punitive manner possible: by forcing teachers to come to work every day and then sit in a room with nothing to do for eight hours a day. They did this rather than give these accused teachers clerical work or simply let them stay home while their cases were processed. Compounding this was the fact that there were a lot of cases (owing to trigger-happy management), and the process was not as well-designed as it could have been. Hence teachers in “rubber rooms” for months and months. Believe me, this is not due to teacher or union preferences. The rubber room experience was miserable and punitive, and it was designedly so. It was designed to—and did—result in many teachers saying “fuck this” and quitting before their cases were resolved. Again, not an evil union scheme.

        By the way, if one is going to cite Brill’s tendentious piece, one might do well to at least update one’s material. The backlog of cases is now gone. The tenure process in New York has been collaboratively reformed. See NY Ed law 3012-c. There is a revamped evaluation and improvement plan process and a streamlined hearing system. Hearings must, under the statute and the new union contract, be complete within 60 days. That time limit is being followed.

        A final note: The reasons for “tenure” are well known: to protect some measure of academic freedom, to give talented people an incentive to stay in a difficult and relatively low-paying career, and to give people who have rendered years of competent and dedicated service some protection against arbitrary or retaliatory discharge--due process for working folks--what a radical idea!

      11. As if my own filibuster wasn't a thread-killer, I leave y'all with the recent words of AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka, cuz, well, he's good:

        "In state capital after state capital, politicians elected to take on the jobs crisis are instead attacking the very idea of the American middle class, the idea that in America, economic security—health care, a real pension, a wage that can pay for college—is not something for a privileged few, but rather what all of us can earn in exchange for a hard day's work.

        "November's election has unleashed a coordinated effort to block the path to the middle class with an attack on workers' rights. When I say an attack on workers' rights, I am not talking about demands for concessions in tough times by employers. Wise or not, such demands are a normal part of collective bargaining. I am talking about the campaigns in state after state, funded by shadowy committees created in the wake of Citizens United, aimed at depriving all workers—public and private sector—of the basic human right to form strong unions and bargain collectively to lift their lives.

        "This attack is fueled by the enthusiasm – and the financial support -- of people like Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, and Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire publisher behind Fox News. Both participate in a committee formed to raise business funds to attack public employees, based on the proposition that firefighters and nurses and medical orderlies are overpaid.

        "It's a funny thing, when the firefighters arrived at the World Trade Center on September 11th and started that long climb up the stairs to rescue the bond traders trapped on the upper floors, it didn't occur to any of them to call up and ask, "What's it worth to you for us to come and get you?" So how did we come to the point where our country's ruling class thinks that firefighters like Stan and teachers and nurses are the problem, and people like Lloyd Blankfein and Rupert Murdoch are the solution?

        "And in some state capitals we see not just an attack on the middle class, but an attack on economic rationality itself. What else can explain governors like Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Scott Walker in Wisconsin rejecting high-speed rail through their states? Turning their backs on jobs, turning their backs on their own state's future. Betting on misery and anger, rather than hope and progress – and common sense.

        "George Orwell once said it was fashionable among the really rich to bemoan the materialism of workers. I can't fathom what spiritual values drive billionaire Pete Peterson to make more millions by doing a leveraged buyout of Hilton Hotels and then trying to take health care away from the people who clean the rooms for $12 an hour. But I know from my own experience in the coal mines that when Hilton workers stand up for their health care it's not about money—it's about their families' lives—the difference between lives dogged by fear and lives of dignity and security.

        "And I don't know what deep moral force drives Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase to fund attacks on firefighters' pensions, but I know why firefighters and construction workers have always needed early retirement—because you can't run into burning buildings in your sixties carrying a hundred pounds on your back. Too old to work and too young to die has real meaning when you don't have a Goldman Sachs partnership to live off.

        "If it is really true that we cannot afford to make the investments we need to sustain a middle class society, then we will end up a winner-take-all society, a faded casino that pays a big jackpot now and then, but is headed inexorably downhill."