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A State Without Children

Way down in his weekly roundup column, Ted Nesi highlights another point from the recent RI Kids Count report:

One statistic that stood out: Rhode Island now has the fifth-lowest birth rate in the country, following a 15% slide in the number of babies born here over the last decade. What does that mean for the state’s future? It’s already having an effect on the economy, with Care New England saying the decline in births is hurting revenue at Women & Infants.

That’s an understated example of the effect of this dynamic.  Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the effects of an increasingly sterile population.

To touch on one narrow political matter: As I’ve pointed out in Tiverton and for the state as a whole, our public schools have generally lost about two full grade-levels worth of students in the last decade.  Picture no fourth and no fifth grade students in the entire state; that’s how much enrollment has decreased.  This leaves a bureaucratic, unionized, and expensive education establishment demanding increased budgets to educate fewer children, which its partisans do against a taxpaying public that has less and less actual use of the schools.  That battle alone will be huge in Rhode Island.

But even an issue of that magnitude is as nothing to the reorientation of a society with fewer children.  The way people think and interact with the world will change on that basis.  Indeed, not having children (or not having multiple children) takes pressure off of people to become full adults, making them more susceptible to the pitch of the “government plantation” advocates to look to central planners as parents to us all.  It also makes us vulnerable to people from other cultures in which Peter Pan has been held at bay.

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Leader Patricia Morgan Files Bill to Repeal (Clearly Unnecessary) Tolls

On behalf of all Rhode Islanders, thanks to Minority Leader Patricia Morgan for filing a bill to repeal RhodeWorks’ truck (wink) tolls. (See her statement after the jump.)

Governor Gina Raimondo asserted the need for tolls as a financial necessity to repair state bridges which were/are some of the worst in the country but, by golly, we just don’t have the will to find the money in the state budget (even though it’s a MAJOR public safety issue, danger, danger, Will Robinson).

However, the governor has decisively rebutted her own assertions about the fiscal necessity of tolls, as StopTollsRI.com (disclosure: I act as their spokesperson) pointed out in a letter to the Providence Journal on Sunday, by proposing a brand new, $30M/year spending program.

“Free” college tuition is at best nice to have (and it certainly would not solve the state’s employee skills gap, as the governor claims). If there is money in the budget for an expensive nice-to-have item, then it is clear that there is money for a less expensive vital service such as bridge repairs.

Legislators can now vote to repeal tolls, secure in the knowledge that public safety did not necessitate the passage of this highly destructive new revenue stream and confident that the money can be found in the budget to repair the state’s unsafe bridges. The governor has helpfully done this hard work for them.

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 4: Flanders in the Outside Lane, Ruggerio on the Inside

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were Robert Flanders’s play for the U.S. Senate, Raimondo’s tuition talking point, and Dominick Ruggerio’s insider senate presidency.
Click full post for audio.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, April 11, at 2:00 p.m.

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The Union’s Shocking Admission… Which Nobody Will Notice

Confessions of my naive idealism are becoming a theme for me, perhaps, but I still find casual admissions such as the following, from Ian Donnis’s weekly TGIF column on RIPR, partly shocking and partly comforting:

The National Education Association Rhode Island, a influential force in state politics, is likely to support Governor Raimondo for re-election next year. NEARI Executive Director Robert A. Walsh Jr. acknowledges that retired teachers are among those still fuming about the pension overhaul spearheaded by then-Treasurer Raimondo in 2011. Yet Walsh, speaking on RI Public Radio’s Bonus Q&A this week, offered this explanation for why the incumbent Democrat is likely to get NEARI’s support in 2018: “I think that the election of Donald Trump significantly changed the game in this state. It is imperative that the Democrats retain control of the governorship …. My approach to this is a very pragmatic one. You’ve heard me advertise for alternative candidates to the lieutenant governor — ‘come on down, we’ll help you run against Dan McKee [see #4].’ I am not advertising for alternative candidates to Gina Raimondo. We must retain the governorship and we must retain our Democrats elected in the Senate and in the United States Congress. And the Republicans are going to drop money in this state and go after us as a package, so it’s imperative that the team stays in place.”

Here’s one of your state’s two teachers unions: part of the Democrat “team.”  There is no line between the party and the labor union that takes taxpayer dollars and shuffles them back into political activism.

In a healthier society with a greater appreciation for the founding principles of the United States, this would be a scandal — the sort of thing that would be uncovered through an undercover investigative report.  Instead, it’s proclaimed proudly on a publicly subsidized radio station, and nobody in the state but an outré blogger will bat an eye.

I’ve said it before, but it merits repeating: Rhode Island isn’t fully a representative democracy anymore.

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Overcoming Confusion About Government and Unions

Crossing over the state line, I came across a curious essay by often-acerbic Fall River Herald columnist Marc Munroe Dion.  To some extent, I’m sure, his iconoclasm is just keeping him from fitting into standard political categories, but I can’t help but think that he’s a little confused.

Dion complains about the growing disparity between the plush deals of government workers and the hardships of those paying the bill.  He even asks a question that’s been on my conservative, small-government mind lately when he ends his column, “When can we call this looting?” But Dion also insists:

It isn’t so much that city employees are getting too much, as it is that the rest of us are getting too little.

I don’t want to see police officers NOT have a union. I want to see YOU have a union, too.

I want the average working person to have health care and a pension. I want you to retire at 55. It’s too late for me. I’m 59, and still showing up every day.

A city can’t prosper if the financial gap between citizens and city employees keeps widening.

You’ve got government employees’ continuing to get privileged status — such as retiring at age 55 — and Dion recognizes it isn’t affordable and that the cost is creating a dead end for economic advancement.  So, to whom, I wonder, does he think private-sector unions would be able to pass a similar bill?  The mystical, mythical Rich?  To the extent that they exist as an identifiable class in a city’s economy, they’ll just move their operations elsewhere or close up shop and go to work for somebody else.

The bottom line is that unions function for government employees because government can force people to pay.  The private businesses with which private-sector unions must work can’t do that.

The only solution is to back government up so it’s affordable and not obtrusive with regulations in order to give the private sector as long as it needs to find a local angle.  The ensuing growth will increase the leverage of private-sector workers and the margin for public-sector workers, too.

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Appropriate Context for Retiree Complaints

I’ve been surprised to find my opinion of the Providence Journal commentary pages falling under the editorship of Ed Achorn, but this is a terrific editorial note following a letter to the editor by a retiree in the state pension system, in which she complains about the unfairness of limited cost of living adjustments (COLAs):

The writer retired at 58 from the Bristol Warren Regional School District as a secretary, then went to work in the private sector for 11 years.

The context is especially relevant because in the letter Kathleen Moran insists: “If the governor has money to pay for tuition for students, who as well as their parents, are able to work, she should pay retirees COLA, as some are not able to work.”  To fill in some details, Moran retired in 2000 having contributed all of $22,011 toward her pension, and by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, she’d already collected $227,538.  That is, she was coming pretty close to getting back her total investment every single year.

Now, I don’t support the tuition plan, but mainly because Rhode Islanders shouldn’t succumb to the ideology that says government is their way to take what they want from other people.  Indeed, we’re overdue to get fed up with the sense of entitlement among those who already hold that belief.

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One Side Wants Both Public and Private Schools; the Other Wants a Monopoly

Denisha Merriweather has a powerful school choice story, as told by Alexandra DeSantis on National Review Online.  And it has made an advocate of her:

In her view, education policy ought to be a bipartisan issue, and she thinks the strength of the school-choice movement lies in its inclusive mindset. “I do feel like the public-school advocates or the teachers’ unions always want an ‘us or them’ mentality. In their minds, you can’t have both,” she explains.

“And we on the school-choice side are not saying that at all. We’re saying, ‘Let’s all be productive, and let’s all serve our children.’ That’s one thing that really sets us apart from those who are pushing for the public-school system,” Denisha continues. “Why can’t we have more choices, and all the choices? [The unions] can’t understand that we do want to keep the public schools. We just want all of these other choices, too.”

In some respects, she’s incorrect about that.  The unions, and the rest of the education establishment, have a different vision of what government schools should be — namely, the monopolistic control of all education, with only the exceptions that the very wealthy can carve out with their own money.  That’s what “both” means to them.

Where poor performance and high cost become so outrageous that a somnolent public begins to wake up to the problem, the establishment will concede very limited reforms, perhaps to the degree of setting up a private school system within government itself (that is, charter schools).  To rephrase Merriweather, it’s not that the establishment doesn’t believe that we can have both a public school sector and a healthy private school sector;  it’s that the establishment doesn’t want both to exist.

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Labor Unions, Less About Workers and More About Government

The American Interest offers what might be termed a labor thought for today if it hadn’t been sitting in my bookmarks for a week:

It’s significant that ground zero for public sector union reform is the upper-Midwest, once the capital of organized labor. Democrats try to cast such reforms as a betrayal of workers, but in a post-industrial age when half of union members are public employees whose demands for fatter benefits packages come at direct expense of the taxpayers, many voters don’t see it that way. As James Sherk noted in our pages last year, “A movement formed to defend blue-collar laborers now fights primarily to help white-collar workers expand government.”

That point cannot be sufficiently emphasized:  labor unions, overall, are now dominated by the public-sector subsegment, which has a very different model.

In the private sector, the union negotiates with management for the share of profits from sales to customers that goes to the workers.  In the public sector, the union helps elect management with whom it can conspire to take more money from taxpayers, who must either leave the area or pay up once the unions achieve political dominance, as they have in Rhode Island.  That is, in the public sector, it’s a process more resembling theft than negotiation.

Of course, one should note that the strength of unions in the private sector, such as it is, often comes with their ability to manipulate the law to force clients — mainly governments — to use union labor or to box competitors out of big markets — like government projects.  In that regard, even more of organized labor should properly be seen as existing in the public sector.

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Educational Efficiency Requires Lower Spending

Here’s an interesting study.  It’s from GEMS Educational Solutions, and I found it via a positive mention in a Guardian article, so we’re probably not talking a right-wing group, here.

The study compares certain educational statistics across countries, and one of its principles is that “inefficiency can be a result of either underpaying or overpaying teachers.”  By that measure, the United States would become more efficient (better managing results versus tax rates) by lowering salaries by five percent and increasing class sizes by 10%.

Rhode Island’s teacher salaries are top 10 for the country, so 5% would be too low for our state.  Also, the 15.3 student:teacher ratio listed on GEMS’s application compares with a Rhode Island average of 8.

To be clear, these are back-of-the-envelope comparisons.  A more-thorough review might require adjustments of the numbers (different years, different teacher roles included in the student ratios, etc.).  I come across people, though, especially locally, who find inconceivable the idea that less spending on anything government does might be bad.

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The Rigged System of Unions and Town Government

The cliché about the news media is that readers will always find reports in their own areas of expertise erroneous, and something similar applies to news reports from one’s own town:  What’s happening locally seems to prove the point of the whole broad world.

Even adjusting for that tendency, though, I have to say that Tiverton controversies are starting to feel as if we’ve come just an inch away from making it legal for town employees to walk into our homes and take our money. As I write on Tiverton Fact Check:

Such proclamations become more difficult to believe each time it appears that town employees are learning the lesson from former colleagues’ reaping the rewards of (alleged) bad behavior. We had Town Foreman Bob Martin and his pal, former Town Administrator Jim Goncalo. Last year, it was an entire shift of police officers led by overtime king Lieutenant Timothy Panell. And now it’s the fire department’s turn, with firefighter Patrick White:

The case of a firefighter who was terminated in early 2015 for allegedly abusing sick leave has been settled, with the town agreeing to pay $175,000.

That’s right. We paid him (and his union lawyer, naturally). The “neutral” arbitrator in the complaint sided with the union member.

One of the problems with settling is that neither side can claim vindication.  The institutional bias toward that sort of ambiguity, like union contracts and arbitration practices, is part of the problem.  Rhode Island has created a fundamentally dishonest system of government.

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A Deliberate Spectrum of Protest, from Riots Up

Overall, a Wall Street Journal article by Peter Nicholas and Carol Lee doesn’t exactly paint the picture of a White House in disarray, but rather of an ambitious president mixing things up and having to make adjustments in the process.  Those are very different stories, mostly of interest to those addicted to political news.

The more broadly significant, in my view, is this passage:

[Randy Bryce, political director of the local ironworkers union,]  learned through labor contacts the Secret Service had done a security check at a Harley factory in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He began organizing car pools and buses to bring demonstrators to the middle-class suburb in heavily Republican Waukesha County. Also, “we put up phone numbers for the [Harley] public-relations department and pretty much anybody we could get hold of,” Mr. Bryce said.

At Harley, which never acknowledged Mr. Trump planned a visit, executives became nervous about demonstrators, said a person familiar with their thinking. As word spread of the mounting protest, Mr. Trump’s appearance was canceled—at whose behest neither side has said.

Let’s stipulate that the labor union was planning a more-or-less standard union protest, maybe with some tense moments, but generally with a sense of control.  Even controlled protests, however, are now happening in an environment of potential riots, as seen at the University of California in Berkeley.

The first layer of threat against a company that takes the unextraordinary step of welcoming the President of the United States is that it will face organized boycotts and vitriol on social media.  If that isn’t sufficient, progressives have ensured a looming threat of property destruction, too.

Somehow, I don’t see this having the long-term effect that the activists want, but we’ll see.

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Weird: Good Teachers Want Pay Flexibility; Not-so-Good Ones Want Rigid Pay

Check out this unsigned editorial in the Wall Street Journal about an amazing innovation in Wisconsin education: letting school districts pay teachers based on their value to the schools!

As Stanford University economic researcher Barbara Biasi explains in a new study (which is awaiting peer review), Act 10 created a marketplace for teachers in which public-school districts can compete for better employees. For instance, a district can pay more to recruit and retain “high-value added” teachers—that is, those who most improve student learning. Districts can also cap salaries of low-performing teachers, which might encourage them to quit or leave for other districts. …

She also found changes in salary structure. For instance, salaries in Green Bay increased about 13% for teachers with five to six years of experience but a mere 4% for those who had worked 29 or 30 years. Salaries among teachers with the same seniority also diverged more. In Racine the opposite occurred. Green Bay was able to pay better teachers more without regard to the lock-step pay scales traditionally dictated by unions.

Well, you don’t need a degree from Rhode Island College to reason out why this would be so: “better teachers gravitate to districts where they can negotiate their own pay while lousy teachers tend to migrate toward those where salary scales are regimented.”

I’d add that it’s not just teacher quality.  Some teaching roles are easier than others, taking less learning and less work, depending on grade level or subject.  Sometimes unique challenges will be entirely specific to a school.

Only a system run primarily for the benefit of labor unions would organize something as critical as educating children in such a ridiculous way.

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Superior Court Reverses RI Labor Relations Board in Warwick Schools Case

RI Superior Court has ruled that the State Labor Relations Board erred in ordering the Warwick School Committee to seek arbitration with the Warwick Teachers Union under the conditions of the expired contract. As report by the Warwick Post:

In May 2016, the State Labor Relations Board ruled the Warwick School Committee had engaged in unfair labor practices by failing to arbitrate WTU grievances under their contract, an extension of which expired Aug. 31, 2015. The Board originally ordered the School Committee to “cease and desist from refusing to participate in the processing of grievances, including proceeding to arbitration.”

The next day, the WTU filed a motion to amend the decision to maintain the terms and conditions of the contract until a new contract was settled, which the State Labor Relations Board granted without further hearings.

“The Board issued its Amended Decision in this case on the Union’s motion without further hearing. The School Committee, it appears, was provided no opportunity to present for the Board’s consideration the particulars of any proposed departures from the terms of the expired CBA, along with its reasons why it should not be constrained by the Board’s status quo rule. In doing so, the Board acted arbitrarily and erroneously,” Gallo wrote.

The key point lay in the timeline of the items that the WTU sought to arbitrate: in short, they came after the contract had expired and therefore did not fall under the old contract.  As Judge Gallo explained:

“The Court’s review was limited to whether the layoff grievances were arbitrable,” Gallo wrote in his decision. The Supreme Court, he said, “held the obligation to arbitrate a grievance survives expiration of a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) only where the grievance arises under the contract.”

“Unlike in Litton, where the employer refused to discuss or participate in any grievance process with the union regarding the layoffs, here, the School Committee did engage with the Union regarding the two grievances filed after the expiration of the contract. See 501 U.S. at 194-95. There is simply no evidence in the record to support a finding of bad faith bargaining in violation of § 28-7-13(6) and (10). Under the circumstances, the Board erred in concluding that the School Committee committed an unfair labor practice,” Gallo wrote.

“After review of the entire record, this Court finds the Amended Decision of the Board was clearly erroneous based on the evidence of record. Substantial rights of theSchool Committee have been prejudiced. Accordingly, the Amended Decision of the Board is reversed,” Gallo ordered.

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At Providence Journal, Union Sympathy Overshadows Reporting

I still can’t get over the headline that the Providence Journal gave to Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article about the school choice rally at the State House:

At R.I. State House, Trump proposal overshadows rally for school choice

Add in the contrast with the relatively objective first paragraph, and the agenda of the folks who write the headlines couldn’t be clearer:

Thursday’s annual School Choice rally at the State House, which brought together dozens of private and religious schools, carried some additional weight this year due to President Donald Trump’s pitch to dedicate $20 billion in federal education dollars for vouchers.

So for the first time of this annual event, the President of the United States is bringing “additional weight” to the issue, and that “overshadows” the rally?  That’s just a bizarre way to frame the story.  It’s as if the headline writer called up the self-interested activists at a teachers union and asked them how to spin it.

For her part, Borg quickly recovers her bias in the subsequent paragraphs, highlighting that charter schools (which are the government’s attempt to edge into the private school market) didn’t attend the event and giving paid lobbyist William Fischer an opportunity to dismiss broader school choice than that provided by his paying clients in the government charter school interest group.  (Observe that Borg doesn’t label Fischer as a lobbyist, but as a “spokesman” — “lobbyist” having the unavoidable taint of organizations that want to push their selfish interests.)

The open question is whether the journalists at the Providence Journal are akin to activists deliberately pushing an agenda or are just so steeped in left-wing ideology that they really can’t get their brains around a truly multicultural movement, aligned more with conservatives than progressives, that wants to increase freedom and improve students’ education with much less direct personal interest than cash-flush labor unions.

Or maybe it’s just personal allegiances on the journalists’ part.  After all, although they don’t like to talk about it much, they are all AFL-CIO union members, themselves, and the AFL-CIO has a “partnership agreement” with the National Education Association (NEA), which is very strong in Rhode Island.

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Discount Rate Assumptions and the Certainty of Tax Increases

After years attempting to interpret public documents related to pension funds to understand the method of deciding what a reasonable investment return assumption would be, I finally have it straight from a municipal investment advisor. As I’ve posted on Tiverton Fact Check:

Me: So if a town comes to you and says, “We want to hit this number,” you say, “Well, what’s your risk?,” and that’ll play into seven-and-a-half percent.  The fact that the town can then in 20, 30 years increase taxes to make up for the loss, then you have a little higher tolerance for risk, so you can go up to 7.5%, which you may never hit, but in the end of 20, 30 years, you’ve got other assets — taxpayers — you can take money from.  Is that part of the conversation?

Gene McCabe, Director of Investments for Washington Trust:It is.

In the not-too-distant future, I suspect it’ll become unreasonably expensive for us municipal assets.  Elected officials and government employees should start pondering what will happen when assumptions about how much money can be confiscated from Rhode Islanders prove as fanciful as assumptions about high returns at the stock market roulette wheel.

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Unions Gain Strength in Failing State

The headline from Eric Morath’s Wall Street Journal article holds true for the country: “Share of U.S. Workers in Unions Falls to Lowest Level on Record.”

The share of American workers in unions fell to the lowest level on record in 2016, showing a return to the downward trend for organized labor after membership figures had stabilized in recent years. …

Only 10.7% of workers were union members last year, down from 11.1% in 2015, and from more than 20% in the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, the same does not hold in Rhode Island.  In our state, the percentage of “wage and salary workers” (those who work for somebody else) who are union members went up from 14.2% in 2015 to 15.5% in 2016.  Helping that percentage go up, to some degree, was the fact that the total number of workers actually dropped in Rhode Island over the year, from 483,000 to 481,000.  However, the absolute number of union members also went up.

A government stranglehold, both bolstering its employees and imposing restrictions on the private sector (often in favor of labor unions) is putting the state into a sort of death spiral as workers whose employment is either directly or indirectly subsidized by government hold on and those doing the subsidizing are finding themselves out of work… or out of the state.

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Fix-the-System Reform Means Preserving the Very Things Causing the Problems

Andy Smarick, of the American Enterprise Institute, explains how President Obama wasted a whole lot of money for zero results in education reform:

The final IES report on the SIG program is devastating to the Obama administration’s legacy. An evaluation commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly.

As I’ve periodically written, fix-the-system education reforms that seek to preserve the very qualities that are causing the problem — predictable labor union incentives, central planning, the disconnect of decision making from bill paying, and a lack of direct accountability to students and parents — cannot work. We must admit this.

In any area of life except government (specifically, progressive government) it would be considered pathological to look for all sorts of complicated ways to avoid addressing the underlying problem of unhealthy behavior.  Unfortunately, the clear objective of those who do such things (specifically, progressives) is to make government do things it shouldn’t be doing, so of course perpetuating that activity becomes the irreducible factor.

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Surprise: Teachers’ Unions Are Just Political Activist Groups

I’ve written several times in the past that employee representation services are simply the fund raising mechanism for teachers’ unions’ real reason for being: progressive political activism.  Here’s Paul Bedard in the Washington Examiner:

Promoting a “National Day of Action” on Thursday, the NEA said, “On Thursday, January 19, the day before Donald Trump assumes the presidency, thousands of students, parents, educators and community members from across the nation will hold rallies in front of school buildings to inclusively stand up for all students.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to represent their members enough to ensure that they stay members (with wide rivers of funding) at the expense of those whom progressives claim to support.  David Harsanyi in The Federalist:

… teachers unions are the only organizations in America that openly support segregated schools. In districts across the country — even ones in cities with some form of limited movement for kids — poor parents, most typically black or Hispanic, are forced to enroll their kids in underperforming schools when there are good ones nearby, sometimes just blocks away.

The National Education Association spent $23 million last cycle alone working to elect politicians to keep low-income Americans right where they are. Public service unions use tax dollars to fund politicians who then turn around and vote for more funding. The worse the schools perform, the more money they demand. In the real world we call this racketeering.

It’s a travesty that teachers give these organizations a prominent, lucrative place in our government.

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