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Est. April 5, 2002
March 16, 2017 - Issue 690

Storming Union Foundations:
Protections, Pen-Ben
Organizational Supporters

"Teachers have been mandated to increase
their pension contributions in numerous states,
New Jersey, Wisconsin, Indiana, and others. 
But what is most striking is that at the same
time these payments have been boosted, states
have held the line on teachers’ salary upgrades
which have resulted in an overall decrease
in teachers’ earnings."

Betsy DeVos is on a crusade to meet with the major stakeholders of public education: public school superintendents, principals, teachers and major organizations. Braving the pushback, she continues to make her case for school choice--vouchers and charter schools—and local control with limited accountability. However, DeVos’s campaign is a distraction that covers up more sinister efforts to disassemble public education and the union sector.

In the meantime, the Trump administration is poised to storm the foundations of unions’ growth and stability by attacking the very foundations of their existence. Since 1947, with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, labor unions have experienced unending restrictions on their ability to organize and grow. The corporate reform Cartel’s systematic evisceration of the public sector is continuing and becoming stronger on an annual basis, causing a steady decline in union membership across the private- and public-sectors, although at a lesser clip in the latter. Basic safeguards, pensions and benefits, and union backing have been eroded.

Union protections are being undermined via legislative initiatives and court challenges. As noted in earlier columns, passage of right-to-work laws has increased dramatically at the state level during the past five years, making significant inroads in traditionally union-oriented states: Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. As Republican governors and/or legislatures have come to power, they have moved quickly to undermine union defenses: Republican Governors Bruce Rauner (IL), who unilaterally decreed that state home care workers would no longer be subject to union agency fees and Scott Walker (WI) and the Republican-controlled legislature, who eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers. Walker is currently the model for the Trump administration’s assault on K-12 public education.

The Friedrich v. California Teachers Association, a suit over union agency fees, has been adjudicated, for now, by the U.S. Supreme Court in the unions’ favor on a tie vote (4-4). Rebecca Friedrich, a California teacher, was recruited and financed by a Cartel-funded interest group to challenge the agency fee statute which had been upheld since the Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision in 1977. With the expected confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it is anticipated that the Abood decision will be overturned when the next Friedrich-type case finally reaches the Court. (Janus v. AFSCME, also out of Illinois, is currently moving through the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court process and is projected to be next in line.)

Pensions and benefits are the other, current privatization targets. Teachers have been mandated to increase their pension contributions in numerous states, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Indiana, and others. But what is most striking is that at the same time these payments have been boosted, states have held the line on teachers’ salary upgrades which have resulted in an overall decrease in teachers’ earnings. Many teachers have retired as they see themselves at an economic standstill, replaced by an essentially contingent workforce (80 percent of whom only stay for two years). These replacements are largely comprised of Teach for America (TFA) graduates, another Cartel-funded organization. TFA teachers are non-education hires who have six-weeks training before being dropped into the most socially- and economically-disadvantaged classrooms, primarily in urban areas populated by poor students of color. For their service, many receive a discounting and/or elimination of their student loan debts.

Other strongholds of union and public education are national organizations that have been steadfast in their support of unions and K-12 public education:

NAACP: The nation’s premier civil rights organization has been in the fight to sustain public education for nearly a century. It has advocated for school desegregation, equal funding, special education students’ needs, and a host of civil rights issues. It is now being courted and funded by conservative education reform Cartel members as they seek to gain allies in the belly of what they consider the public education monopoly. The NAACP has attempted to remain firm in its resolve as it recently called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.

United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF): The major organizations representing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have received a combined $50+ million dollars in donations from the Koch Bros., leading members of the Cartel. These contributions are designed to “win friends and influence people.” The Kochs have been successful in having an impact on the development of new majors, they selected, at these institutions. In addition, the public relations impact has been noteworthy.

National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT): National teacher unions have been approached by Eli Broad and Bill Gates, two of the wealthiest Cartel members, to award them grants to “allegedly improve” public education. The Gates grants were accepted while Eli Broad’s were rejected. Somehow the unions discriminated between the intentions of these two financial angels despite the fact that the goal of both is to weaken them substantially and wipe them out. The unions’ propensity to negotiate with ardent enemies to what they stand for is reminiscent of surrender.

Although the Cartel has vastly more money than the unions and the broader public at their disposal, teachers and their supporters can prevail by involving “… more local people … as part of an impressive grassroots ground operation, with organizing by teachers and their unions, by parents, and by students” as they did in defeating question #2, which would have expanded charter schools, which appeared on the November 2016 Massachusetts’ ballot. What unions and public education advocates did, across racial and social class lines, was to ORGANIZE and beat the education reform Cartel with a well-coordinated ground game.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 




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