A Bizarro World Justin Katz illustrates some realities that The Current’s Justin Katz thinks ought to be relevant to Rhode Island’s debates about unionization.
As I told John DePetro in our segment last week, the attack on Sinclair Broadcasting and Channel 10 in Rhode Island has the feel of scapegoating, as if the mainstream media writ large wants to offload its own sins onto a creature it can banish into the desert. That sense arose again whencombining two items from the Providence Journal.
The first is a column by Executive Editor Alan Rosenberg, who describes how the paper’s national owner, GateHouse Media, provides lots of content and support for local papers, without “must run” stories as with Sinclair. Conspicuous, here, is that the content for which Channel 10 is currently under fire was essentially a corporate advertisement promising straightforward news, in contrast to “fake news” from elsewhere.
Well, just last week, I got identical emails at exactly the same time from the Providence Journal and Fall River Herald, both GateHouse outlets, asking me to subscribe: “Real News, Because the truth Matters. Truth and Honesty. We know what matters.” That sounds quite a bit like the Sinclair spots, which included language like, “We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced, and factual.” Is it really the difference between journalistic integrity and a threat to our democracy that Sinclair had its news anchors read its version of that ad?
The second relevant item in the Providence Journal is an article by Katherine Gregg about a protest of fewer than two dozen people against Channel 10. Anybody who’s followed local labor union activities will recognize the names of Patricia Ricci and Louis Rainone, and that connection is intrinsic:
“I am here to protest Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s attempt to muzzle what we think is free speech,″ said Scott Molloy, the retired University of Rhode Island labor-studies professor who appeared to be leading the protest by the newly formed “Free Speech Coalition.”
Rainone’s group, Jobs with Justice, is heavily funded by local labor unions, such as the RI AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO is an umbrella union covering Katherine Gregg’s labor union at the Providence Journal. Shouldn’t that connection be worth a parenthetical note in an article about union activists attacking a competing news outlet?
Whether it’s removing market signals with a value-added tax or creating incentive to block new children through zoning, public policy shouldn’t remove its red flags and should seek to address original problems, not symptoms.
Gail Heriot takes the birthday of labor hero Cesar Chavez as an opportunity to point out a change in union activities since Chavez’s heyday:
Things are different now. Instead of focusing on their members’ wages as the bottom line, union leaders are often unwavering in their support for the leftist party line. It’s about political power. In order to gain or keep it, they seek to keep the coalition together, even if it means sacrificing the short-term good of their own members. Fight global warming. Support abortion rights. Honor same-sex marriage. Elect Democrats. Any of those may or may not be good policy. But none is directly the concern of farmworkers as farmworkers. Somehow union leaders have to believe that in the long run their members will be better off by maintaining the coalition.
The problem with this strategy is that it’s so easy to lose sight of the people you are supposed to be representing. The thinking gets very complex. It gets easy to confuse policies that benefit union leaders (or just make them happy) with policies that benefit union members. One can always come up with a story about why the policies you personally favor will, in the long run, benefit the rank-and-file members too. Sometimes it’s just wishful thinking. Keeping the goal simple is a better guarantee that the fiduciary will remain loyal to the beneficiaries’ interests.
One wonders about such things often, in Rhode Island, where the labor unions (particularly government labor unions) seem to be behind every left-wing cause, not only through support but also through funding. Does every public school teacher in Rhode Island, for example, support the full range of their union’s activities? The prospect seems… implausible.
Indeed, this changing attitude — with unions’ seeming to treat labor services as the fundraising mechanism for their real purpose of progressive activism — may be a big contributor to opposition to unions. It may also be a big factor leading to the Supreme Court’s pending ruling on compulsory union membership.
Regular readers know I put a lot of emphasis on incentives as a way to understand events and a key consideration when crafting policies. The $250 million school bond proposed for the November ballot is a good example.
On the front end, the incentive is very strong for school districts and municipalities to let facilities deteriorate. First, the law is structured to give advantages to labor unions organized at the state and even federal level, creating incentive for them to manipulate the political structure. Then, elected officials have incentive to tilt budgets toward organized labor, drawing money to compensation. Next, having learned from that experience over time, taxpayers have incentive to squeeze money out of budgets so that even higher taxes aren’t paying again for things like maintenance that they thought were already included and that might be diverted again if available.
On top of it all, the near certitude of passing bonds for dire repairs creates disincentive for regular maintenance from the start. This mechanism creates incentives for financial interests and investors, and the bias toward big projects brings in the incentive that got me thinking of these things. As Dan McGowan reports for WPRI:
Fix Our Schools R.I., a 501(c)4 nonprofit formed last week, will spend the coming months “educating communities across the state about what this plan is and how it would affect them,” Haslehurst told Eyewitness News. …
The organization lists its address as 410 South Main St., the same building as the Laborer’s International Union of North America. Haslehurst said it will share space with the Occupational and Environmental Health Center of Rhode Island, a nonprofit that has an office inside the building.
A quick look at the health center’s IRS filing shows that it’s a labor union organization, with AFL-CIO poobah George Nee as the treasurer.
‘Round and ’round the incentives go, to the point that running things efficiently — in the way people run their households, planning ahead and all that — seems almost to be an impossible task. Be skeptical of anybody who tells you that this is a “once in a generation” investment that fixes a problem. After all, when the debt payments subside, the incentive will be to find more projects in need of debt or to build the payment amount into regular budgets.
When teachers retire early, they can continue to receive health insurance under the School Department’s plan until they reach the age of 65. Then they go onto Medicare’s Plan 65. That is provided for under the labor contract.
These early retirees had been receiving dental insurance and life insurance until age 65 as well. However, the School Committee determined those benefits were a “past practice” not included in the labor contract, and ended them as of Nov. 16 last year. Now, however, the five teachers who announced their upcoming retirement well before November will receive the dental insurance and life insurance until they reach age 65 as well.
One could argue that the “compromise” was that the school committee is not barred from changing this absurdly generous benefit going forward, but then, the unions aren’t barred from renewing their inappropriate tactics. They haven’t even been chastised for using them already.
The union has simply said that it won’t do something it never should have threatened to do in the first place.
This episode again emphasizes the imbalance in our government, especially in our schools. The labor unions are essentially in place for eternity, once certified, so when they aren’t able to win the political contest over the school committee, securing friendly “opposition” in negotiations, they are free to simply make the job difficult until new people are in place. The incentives are for the union constantly to push the envelope and for the school committee to be maximally accommodating.
So, over time, school committees across the state have allowed a system to develop that fails students and robs taxpayers.
I’ve been slow to share it, here, but the recent Providence Journal editorial on the return of perpetual-contract legislation to the General Assembly is important to read and take to heart:
Like a painful rash that keeps returning, the idea of “evergreen contracts” is back before the Rhode Island General Assembly. Year after year, union leaders who want even more taxpayer money revive this campaign.
Under this special-interest measure, police, fire and teacher contracts would remain in effect indefinitely after they have expired. The idea is to weaken the bargaining position of local cities and towns and pry more money out of the taxpayers, already burdened with some of America’s most crushing property taxes.
A fair accounting of this policy suggests that Rhode Island’s insiders understand that they’re really just managing the decline of the state. Theoretically, perpetual contracts could benefit either side, given the circumstances. We all understand that when the economic pressure would be on lower compensation for unionized employees, they’ll just sit on their contracts until things improve. When the economic pressure goes the other way, promoting higher pay, local governments could be the ones to sit on the contracts.
However, everybody from the unions to municipal and school district leaders to the Providence Journal understands two things:
- Economic flourishing isn’t in Rhode Island’s future unless the state can break insiders’ strangle hold on the state, and that doesn’t look likely, absent a terrible crash.
- Interacting with that point, the deals that unionized government employees get in Rhode Island are so generous that it’s even less plausible to imagine circumstances in which Rhode Island’s economic growth would be so strong that the government would struggle to find people willing to work for that amount of remuneration.
Add in the fact that union employees can disrupt government services much more readily than government agencies and school districts can get out from under their unions, and it’s clear why this is such a one-sided issue. At least the insecurity of a lapsing contract instills some discomfort among Rhode Island’s privileged class, which gives elected representatives a little leverage. Whether or not they take advantage of that leverage — which hinges, in large part, on whether they were elected with the unions’ help — is another question.
With collective bargaining, opposing sides are supposed to negotiate in good faith. Perpetual contracts provide little motivation for a union to reach an agreement. This is great for unions, bad for already overtaxed voters. Another case of legislators motivated by self interest.
— Bruce Waidler (@Bruce_Waidler) March 16, 2018
— RI Center for Freedom⚓️ (@RICenterFreedom) March 13, 2018
— Sal Nuzzo (@salnuzzo) March 14, 2018
In the Newport Daily News, Sean Flynn highlights another example of the outrageous behavior among teachers union organizers, which ought to embarrass well-intentioned, professional teachers:
Superintendent of Schools Colleen Burns Jermain sent a notification to all parents on March 1 informing them that the conferences would take place between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on three days this week, one day at each school, the same as has been done in past years. …
The conflict reached a new flashpoint over the weekend with an advertisement in this newspaper paid for by attorney Jennifer Azevedo, who is an assistant executive director of the National Education Association RI, on behalf of the Teachers Association of Newport. The ad claimed the parent-teacher conferences would be held during the regular school times at each school on the designated days. Regular school hours are staggered between 7:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. among the three schools.
On first review, this has the feel of parents who are tearing their children apart as they head toward divorce, but that analogy isn’t applicable. The union advertised publicly in a way that presumed to set school policy. Here’s the ad; it’s extremely misleading, with no indication that it’s actually part of a disputed policy. This is the union saying, “Whatever your elected and appointed school administration might think, we run the schools.”
Hopefully, the Supreme Court will give teachers the ability to get out from under this thuggish organization when it decides its Janus case this year. Be that as it may, parents and voters should respond to this abuse of contracts to figuratively rip the contracts up.
And any legislator who votes for the legislation to make teacher contracts last forever unless renegotiated ought to find him or her self unelectable.
RI governor is remarkably generous handing out raises at the expense of SOMEONE ELSE (taxpayers), most of whom will get nothing like this kind of raise themselves. https://t.co/v66bYO2wW7
— Monique C (@MoniqAR) March 9, 2018
— RI Center for Freedom⚓️ (@RICenterFreedom) March 2, 2018
— Monique C (@MoniqAR) March 2, 2018
The "free rider" claim is a red herring. Unions don't have to be exclusive bargaining agents; it's a power they demand. Then they insist on being paid for their services by employees who never sought those services. Those employees aren't free riders, they're hijacked riders. https://t.co/TUAuQhdd6f
— Jeff Jacoby (@Jeff_Jacoby) February 28, 2018
Sorry, intellectually dishonest. Teachers can have a union, they just can't compel their fellow teachers to join and pay dues as a condition of employment. Actually makes unions better – makes them work to prove there worth to all employees. https://t.co/CJ7tCjZQaO
— LoughlinRI1 (@LoughlinRI1) February 27, 2018
Taking up Providence pension woes, Dan McGowan and Walt Buteau highlight a recent study concluding the following:
Wainwright Investment Counsel LLC projects the beleaguered fund would have an additional $305 million today if city leaders made the correct yearly payments between 1996 and 2006 and again in 2010 and 2012, an amount that would bring the city’s current pension funding level close to 50%.
The firm calculated the amount that city leaders failed to contribute to the system – $111 million – and the monthly returns the actual money in the retirement fund saw between July 1996 and June 2016. Between 1998 and 2002, Wainwright estimates the city shorted the fund by $76.8 million.
Keep in mind that this means the rest of the shortfall was due to generous benefits hidden under faulty assumptions:
Providence is still solvent, but its pension system was just 25.8% funded as of June 30, 2017, with an unfunded liability that exceeds $1 billion.
So, skipped payments account for less than one-third of the missing money. The other 700-some million dollars are a result of elected officials’ giving away too much in benefits and deceiving the public about the cost by gaming the actuaries’ calculations. The key piece of that deception has been (and continues to be) the discount rate, or the rate of return expected on the investment.
Both elected officials and labor union leaders (who often helped elect the people with whom they’re negotiating) haven’t minded understating the cost of government employees. Both union members and taxpayers should be furious, but taxpayers shouldn’t be held liable for promises that they had no realistic means of preventing.
And as the bill comes due, we can be sure that the exploding tax bills and collapsing services will push taxpayers — including those collecting government pensions — somewhere that they don’t have to pay for it.
This is only way the state could ever survive. https://t.co/jZHgurIjJ8
— John DePetro Show (@JohnDePetroshow) February 24, 2018
— RI Center for Freedom⚓️ (@RICenterFreedom) February 23, 2018
Discussions about protecting students in school, perhaps by arming teachers, should be conducted maturely, not by listening to kids saying the darndest things.
In July 1998, plaintiff suffered a right shoulder injury while performing his firefighter duties. Mr. Sauro had been a firefighter since August 5, 1991. In October 2000, the board granted plaintiff an accidental disability pension for his on-the-job shoulder injury. In April 2011, footage of plaintiff lifting substantial weights at the gym aired on a local television channel. The board subsequently ordered plaintiff to submit to an independent medical examination (IME). At the 2011 IME, it was determined that the plaintiff remained disabled from his 1998 injury. Again in 2013, the board directed plaintiff to undergo an IME, to be conducted by Brian McKeon, M.D., in Boston, Massachusetts; plaintiff refused to do so because, he asserted, he was bedridden due to both physical and psychological illnesses. The city then hired a private investigator to undertake surveillance of plaintiff. In September 2013, plaintiff was observed leaving his home, driving his vehicle, and shopping at various retail stores. On December 18, 2013, the board voted to suspend plaintiff’s accidental disability pension based on his failure to attend the IME that had been scheduled for October 16, 2013.
To lay out the calendar, then, Sauro worked for seven years. He then lived off of this benefit for 13 years, until WPRI’s Tim White caught him doing a strenuous workout. The payments have continued over the course of the past seven years while the matter was tied up in court.
As the decision suggests, the purpose of disability pensions is “to compensate work-injury-related disabilities and encourage qualified persons who are relieved of those disabilities to return to work.” We shouldn’t have a system in which an injury on the job that doesn’t leave one unable to do any job becomes the equivalent of one of those old lottery tickets that paid out a decent annual income as a prize.
On his still-new Web site, Russell Moore shares a conversation he had with a couple of guys at the gym:
That’s when the second gentleman spoke up.
“If you live in Rhode Island, and you’re not in a public sector retirement system, you’re a sucker,” he said. “You’re paying for lavish benefits you’re not going to get.”
I’ve been covering government and politics in Rhode Island since 2005. Never in my life had I heard the situation put so succinct–or so blunt. You can’t argue with his logic.
And there you go. The anecdote raises two questions for those who aren’t on the winning end of that seesaw:
- Why are you here?
- What are you doing to stop being a sucker?
Too many people choose to leave. We need everybody to speak up. If folks (especially business owners) are worried about the consequences of doing so, get in touch with those who are active, as we’re working on ways around the obstacle of intimidation.
If Laborers union rep Michael Sabitoni wants to accuse the Center of wanting people to die, perhaps he should be a little bit more thoughtful with his numbers.
For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, this week, the topic was the clarity we’re getting from Providence Democrats, Rhode Island progressives, and teachers unions.
Calabro's comments were revealing – a translation of what she said is; "We won't raise the safety issues that thousands of children are exposed to, but we WILL use safety issues to get a raise."
— Rep Mike Chippendale (@MikeWChip) February 8, 2018
— NewsTalk 99.7 & AM 630 WPRO (@wpro) February 6, 2018
It’s nice to see the Left acknowledge, even tacitly, that they can’t win without the advantage of legalized theft against the workingman.
In line with previous research by Roland Zullo, who found that right-to-work and limitations on collective bargaining make it more difficult for unions to bolster turnout, this research found that right-to-work laws reduce turnout in presidential elections by 2 to 3 percent. Indeed, studying individual-level survey data, the authors found that the share of blue-collar workers reporting a get-out-the-vote contact declined by 11 percent following the passage of right-to-work laws, with no concomitant effect on white-collar workers.
The share of campaign contributions from private-sector unions also drops by 1 to 2 percent, as does fundraising by Democratic candidates in state and local races.
The effects aren’t impactful just for unions and the Democratic Party but also for the progressive movement more broadly. Working-class candidates—who past research finds are more likely to be progressive on economic issues—are less likely to win elected office after the passage of a right-to-work law. Right-to-work states have between 1 and 3 percent fewer working-class elected officials (defined as working in a non-professional, blue-collar job before running for office) in the legislature, and send fewer working-class candidates to the US House of Representatives.
So, when the large portion of the population that has been forced to join a union in order to work is given the opportunity to work without contributing to a union, money and campaign support for Democrat and far-left candidates drops.
I’ve been saying for a while, now, that employee services is really just the way in which modern labor unions (particularly those in the public sector) raise money and build leverage. Their real mission is partisan politics and advancing a left-wing ideology. The above findings certainly don’t contradict that theory.
As Rhode Islanders contemplate the significance of the AFL-CIO’s apparently getting its way and killing a public referendum on public financing of the proposed PawSox stadium, and as we consider the possibility of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars of debt into building and fixing schools that local governments failed to maintain, and as House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello collects around $90,000 at a single fundraising event, Megan McArdle’s musings on government unions and might-as-well-be-government unions are worth a read:
… as the Times notes, both the cost of labor and the amount of labor that’s used contribute a great deal to those bloated bottom lines. Why does Paris, with its feisty unions, manage to use fewer workers than New York City, and get jobs done for a fraction of the cost?
Because New York unions are politically connected, and for various reasons, the American government is particularly vulnerable to capture by these sorts of interests, especially as regional partisanship hardens. New York City is a one-party town in a very blue state; while New Yorkers may occasionally vote for a Republican mayor or a Republican governor, the down-ticket offices are filled in the Democratic primary. Those politicians have no interest in angering a large segment of their base that has a lot of cash for campaign contributions, and is well organized to turn out and influence elections. And the finance industry throws off such a vast river of cash that they can get away with bloated construction budgets. So no one has any incentive to crack down on wages or featherbedding.
Unionization and the sheer size of government have combined to create a political system that is in large part dominated by people voting to give themselves other people’s money.
In a free market, somebody selling something (including his or her labor) is constrained by the possibility that the customer will simply go elsewhere or forgo the purchase. As insiders endeavor to make sure that Rhode Island taxpayers do not have the choice to forgo the purchase of a new PawSox stadium, we can see how the constraint on labor unions in modern Rhode Island is not far short of the possibility of actual revolution.
As Southern New England government squeezes everybody in order to keep growing, more people will begin paying attention to what they’re having to give up.