— Labor —

April 17, 2013


Union Rules and "Unique System" Drive Up Overtime for State Government Community Living Aides

Justin Katz

Suzanne bates has another state-payroll-related investigative report on the Ocean State Current, this one covering a job titled "community living assistant."

These are high-school-educated employees with average regular pay below $36,000, who've been able to triple their pay with overtime and other salary enhancements, topping out near $130,000. Their job entails helping the residents of group homes, with at least two CLAs watching over four to six patients on a 24-hour basis. Obviously, there's apt to be downtime.

Especially notable, in this case, is the role of union rules in driving up the overtime costs. A decade ago, the department attempted to introduce "floaters," who could cover shifts at more than one of the facilities. The union objected that the strategy wasn't fair. On the other hand, senior CLAs can effectively "float" around the state... as long as they're doing it for overtime.

As we continue to sort through the outrageous spending for which so of Rhode Islanders' income is confiscated through taxes, Suzanne's doing a great job of filling in the picture of how the game works.

Read here.


April 4, 2013


Another State Route to Riches: Institutional Attendants Earning Six Figures

Justin Katz

The job listings for “institutional attendants (psychiatric)” positions in the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals (BHDDH) offer a salary in the mid-$30,000s, and payroll information available through the RIOpenGov project of the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity suggests top regular pay in the low-$40,000s.

In 2010 and 2011, however, almost all of those employees added significantly to their pay by working extra hours, as well as other salary enhancements and bonuses that the state reports as “overtime.” A significant number of them doubled their base pay or more.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


February 8, 2013


Binding and Bound by Legislation

Justin Katz

Interesting things happen when news producers order wall-to-wall coverage of a storm set to arrive in a day or two and visibility of anything but snow moves toward zero. Over the last twelve hours, two such things came flashing out of the blizzard of pre-blizzard forecasting and caught in my eye via email.

The first was in the humdrum yet esoteric area of legislative rules for the Rhode Island House of Representatives. ...

The other bit of legislative shrapnel to pierce the snow coverage is the annual bid to give union employees of public schools (teachers and others) access to binding arbitration in matters of money.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


December 18, 2012


The Right to Not Have to Pay For a Job

Patrick Laverty

When I was in graduate school, I had my first experience with a "closed shop". I had borrowed enough money to pay for my tuition but didn't do the usual thing that students do, and borrow enough for things like rent and food. So I had to find a job, and one that was fairly flexible as I was in a program that often included weird hours and schedules. I applied to the local grocery store to bag groceries. I got the job and that's when the store manager told me about the fact that the employees are unionized, that there's a joining fee and there'd be weekly dues taken out. I immediately had the realization that this job was not for me. I'm working to support me, not someone else. I didn't need the benefits that a union negotiates, so I want nothing to do with the union. I declined the job and went to work at a non-union pizza shop. Rent money problem solved, food problem solved. Every penny I earned went to either me or the government, not a third-party.

I often remember my experience when I see people complaining about the "free rider" problem, as described in the Providence Journal where Bloomberg's Michael Kinsley tells us his view of Labor Law 101.

Without a rule like [Taft-Hartley], unions faced a “free-rider” problem: People could enjoy the benefits of union membership, including negotiation of wages, without sharing in the cost. Not only was this unfair to those who did pay their share, but it made organizing a union significantly harder. Why should I pay union dues if my fellow workers don’t?
Ok, I have the solution to this free rider problem and it's not new. Let me negotiate my own deal, as I do in my non-union job. If I could have done that at the grocery store, I would have stayed. Let me decide whether I want to be in the union, pay their dues and receive the benefits that they have negotiated. Or maybe I don't want to be in the union, pay their dues and I'll work out my working arrangements with the employer. That seems to be an easy solution. I'm not calling for outlawing unions, people can still have those and be able to collectively bargain, just allow for a choice. If you choose to not pay the dues, you're on your own. You don't get the benefits of the union. If the employer chooses to pay non-union employees much less or offer lesser benefits, I'm ok with that. That is the deal new hires can agree to. Or, they can simply join the union and get the benefits. I don't see the problem there.

Kinsley also asks:

For principled conservatives, there is another question: Why should there be laws that limit the freedom of individual employers to negotiate any deal they want with their employees? Or at least that ought to be a question for conservatives, though I’ve never seen any of them struggling with it.
Excellent question and one I completely agree with. There should be no laws that prevent me from negotiating any deal with my employer. Exactly! Leave me alone and let me negotiate it. I don't want someone else doing that for me, and most of all, I don't want to be forced to pay someone else to do that for me. So no, there should not be any laws that limit the freedom of individual employers to negotiate any deal they want with me.

The other problem that I see with the way unions work in Rhode Island is that the employer needs to collect the employees' union dues for the union. This is idiotic. Union loyalists will extol the virtues of their union and all the great things they've done. Outstanding. I'm happy for them. They see and approve of the benefits they get for membership in the union. If that's the case, then they should be able to set up and automatic payment from their bank or simply send a check every month.

I personally value the benefit I get from my local YMCA. I like being a member. I set up a bank transfer to automatically pay the YMCA each month so I can continue receiving the benefits of the YMCA. No one requires my employer to withhold my membership dues and send those along to the YMCA, so why is it any different for a union? Could it possible be that the union's members don't actually see the benefit and wouldn't pay it?

I believe we should live in a state where I am not required to pay someone as a condition of my employment. Period. Let me work out the compensation package with my employer. That's my business. If I can't have that then let's at least have the first step where the employer is not burdened with needing to collect a third-party's dues and send them along. If the third-party wants that money, they can collect it from their members themselves. Anything else just doesn't make sense.


December 12, 2012


Things We Read Today (41), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Two narratives on the economy; a health exchange story the media is missing; government as pretend leader; powerful teachers' unions (plus Ted Nesi's Rolodex)

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...



State Comparisons: Right to Work and Beyond

Justin Katz

A stunningly biased article by AP writer Jeff Karoub on the front page of today's Providence Journal likely captures the attitude of most in the Rhode Island media on the issue of right-to-work legislation, as enacted into law in Michigan, yesterday:

The GOP-dominated House ignored Democrats’ pleas to delay the final passage and instead approved two bills with the same ruthless efficiency that the Senate showed last week. One measure dealt with private-sector workers, the other with government employees. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed them both within hours, calling them “pro-worker and pro-Michigan.”

Yes, that plea-ignoring, ruthless GOP. Not mentioned in the article, in the paper, or in any mainstream RI media that I've seen was reportage of a unionist mob tearing down a large tent set up by Americans for Prosperity, while bystanders plead with them to stop because people were inside, and physically attacking a conservative commentator, after a Democrat legislator promised that "there will be blood."

The Projo's reporters are a unionized subset of the AFL-CIO, after all.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 29, 2012


Things We Read Today (37), Thursday

Justin Katz

Changing unions' privatization strategy; the government spending ratchet; the government spending racket; and the trap of dependency.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 28, 2012


Rhode Island's Government Payroll: Living Beyond Our Means

Justin Katz

When a family comes to a decision about purchasing any product or service, it doesn't merely accept the seller's sense of what's reasonable. In addition to the market rate, consumers must take into account the quality of the thing they're buying as well as their own ability to afford it.

With deteriorating infrastructure, doubts about the quality of government services, and the high-profile specter of unfunded municipal and state retirement liabilities looming over the state during this current period of economic stagnation, the compensation of public-sector employees has become a subject of heated debate about fairness and affordability.

A study that I’ve just produced for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity shines a stark light on the comparison of the public sector in Rhode Island to the private sector that supports it financially. Using a refined methodology for collecting data, economists William Even, of Miami University, and David Macpherson, of Trinity University, find that state and local government employees here enjoy a 26.5% "premium" in total compensation over their private-sector neighbors — even after controlling for variables like education, experience, and broad job category. That compares with 18.8% for New England and 14.9% for the United States as a whole.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 18, 2012


Per Iowahawk: Hostess Shrugged

Monique Chartier

Citing an inability

to fulfill customer orders or sell product at their retail stores

and a lack of money to wait out a prolonged strike, Hostess announced Friday that it will return to bankruptcy court to request liquidation.

It's difficult not to see some resemblance to the denouement of the Brown and Sharpe strike right here in Rhode Island. (Contemporaneous labor perspective of that strike here.)

The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union denies that its work stoppage precipitated this action.

The truth is that Hostess workers and their Union have absolutely no responsibility for the failure of this company.

One interesting item in this CNN article: as part of its counter offer, the company had offered its workers a 25% equity stake in the company. This, however, did not seem to appeal to the union and/or its members.

Normally, my attitude towards private sector unions and how they conduct their business is one of complete indifference. But shouldn't they be ultimately motivated by and provide guidance on the basis of what is best for their members? This one appears to have missed this concept and has "succeeded" in marching its members straight off a cliff.

[Title of this post coined by Iowahawk in a tweet.]


November 3, 2012


A Familiar School Committee Time Line

Justin Katz

"I had the sense that everybody around the table knew that we were part of the same team.” That's how Tiverton School Committee member Carol Herrmann described negotiations with the teachers' union this summer. On August 14, the committee passed the contract extension.

It isn't surprising that the negotiations would be "cordial," as Herrmann put it. Negotiating for management were Herrmann (a union teacher), Deborah Pallasch (Herrmann's campaign partner in 2008), Superintendent William Rearick (formerly a union teacher), and Finance Director Douglas Fiore (who works for Rearick). Chairwoman Sally Black is a retired union teacher.

The committee's "negotiations," so to speak, with the people of Tiverton have been less cordial.

In January 2009, the committee approved a contract with retroactive raises despite residents' fears that the recession would continue. And voters at the May 2009 financial town meeting (FTM) refused to approve the committee's requested budget increase.

The school committee meeting a week later was heated. One guidance counselor told the committee: "I am the last person on this Earth that would want to hurt a child, but you need to make a statement… to get people to the town meeting."

As it happened, the Obama administration's stimulus filled the gap and then some.

In May 2010, Pallasch proposed an increase, as an FTM voter, that essentially made the stimulus a permanent part of the budget. Herrmann's husband, Nick Tsiongas, then made the familiar threats; if her budget didn't pass: "We will begin by closing one of the new elementary schools… eliminating all extracurricular activities… every sport and every after school activity… middle school band, high school chorus… and then five or six teaching positions at the high school."

We'd heard that before, and we've heard it ever since, including before this year's financial town referendum (FTR), which has replaced the FTM.

For the upcoming FTR, the "five-year plan" that the committee mentioned when it approved the teacher agreement calls for a school department appropriation of $29,106,009, an increase of $1.2 million (4.3%), well over the state tax cap.

And the cycle continues. The only way to stop it — and to make the people of Tiverton feel as if they are the ones "on the same team” — is for voters in Tiverton to elect Susan Anderson, Ruth Hollenbach, and me to the school committee. We will insist that the district maintain its programming within the budget that taxpayers feel they can afford, without threatening to "hurt" children in order to "make a statement."


October 2, 2012


Things We Read Today (22), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Economic development options, from all-government to government-dominated; the heartless-to-caring axis in politics; Southern New Englanders' "independence"; solidarity between Romney and his garbage man; the media coup d'etat.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 26, 2012


Things We Read Today (19), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Believing the political worst of priests; spinning bad SAT results; the skill of being trainable; the strange market valuation in Unionland.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 17, 2012


Things We Read Today (12), Monday

Justin Katz

Chafee shows his bond cards, Chicago exposes a metric discord, Rhode Island misses the skills-gap/business-cost lesson, QE3 misses the inflation nebula, and college majors miss the mark.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...



Rhode Island Politics: a Game That the State Can't Win

Justin Katz

People periodically give me incredulous looks when I tell them I dislike politics.  The campaign horse race is a roundabout annoyance of spin, and more importantly, it simply isn’t appropriate to view politics as a team sport.  Depending on the level of government, thousands or millions of people’s lives are directly affected by the policies that result.

Note that I’m saying that the team-sport mindset is not merely inadequate or imperfect; I'm insisting that it is inappropriate.  There’s just no such thing as an objective referee or rules.  Imagine if, over the course of some major sporting event, the winning team were able to rewrite the rules in their favor.  We'd rebel against that even when nothing more is invested than our ticket price for entertainment; how much more ought we to recoil from it in relation to our very communities!

Yet, sports may be the closest metaphor available for us to organize the idea of politics, with its mix of partisans and special interests in competition, into a form that we can get our heads around.  Thus, WPRI's Ted Nesi comments, in his bullet-pointed Saturday column.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Currenet...


September 13, 2012


Things We Read Today (10), Thursday

Justin Katz

Madness overseas and at home, lunacy in the Fed, the disconcerting growth of government, and the performance art of public-sector negotiations.


September 10, 2012


Teacher Walkouts in Chicago, Conspicuous Details

Justin Katz

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that 25,000 public-school teachers are picketing, rather than teaching, today.  The details are a bit distant from Rhode Island for a finely tuned analysis, but it's fair to say that the union is not fighting a political class on the verge of right-to-work legislation.  A significant political emphasis on "labor peace" can just mean that the goalposts move.

In this case, Chicago school district administrators are saying that they offered 16% raises over four years. The union is complaining about health benefits, teacher evaluations, and job security.

Taking a long-term view, though, the key sentence in the entire story, by reporters Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, Joel Hood, and Kristen Mack, may very well prove to be the one that I've emphasized in the following paragraph:

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 6, 2012


Slow Adjustment to the Teacher Union Machine Continues in Chariho

Justin Katz

This video by Evan Coyne Maloney succinctly presents a critical part of the small-government, free-market perspective on one of Rhode Island's most intractable difficulties:

The machine by which teachers' unions turn public dollars into union-organization profits and political patronage is clear and unambiguous.  One could argue that the process is for the better, for one reason or another, but Coyne Maloney accurately follows the money.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 2, 2012


Unemployment: Thinking Out Loud

Patrick Laverty

Here in Rhode Island, we're one of the few states to still be increasing the unemployment numbers. We're currently at 10.8%, and second highest in the nation. Making matters even worse, the number of jobs available is also in decline.

We have many people looking for work and fewer jobs available for them to take. Meanwhile, these people are getting help from the state in the form of unemployment insurance. The unemployed are people receiving a few hundred dollars a week for up to 47 weeks now. It's certainly not a good situation.

Meanwhile in the midwest, North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, somewhere between 2.9% and 3.0% due to an oil boom. The same article mentions:

North Dakota, the state with the nation's lowest unemployment rate, capped a decade of economic prosperity with dramatic population growth in its biggest cities. Fargo added nearly 15,000 residents to hit a record population of 105,549, the Census Bureau reported Wednesday. Its fast-growing neighbor of West Fargo added an additional 11,000 residents to reach a population of 25,830.
Hmm, business booming, low unemployment rate and the population grows? Wow, interesting how that works. Let's see if we can work something out here that is mutually beneficial to Rhode Island, to the unemployed and to the states who need workers.

Picking numbers, let's say that on average, the unemployed in RI are collecting $300 a week for the maximum 47 weeks. That's more than $14,000 the taxpayers are covering for each person.

Keep in mind here, I'm not blaming the unemployed or stating anything negative about them. The plan I'm about to mention is 100% voluntary and no one is forced to take part. It's more trying to set up a win-win for everybody.

Let's incentivize the unemployed to go where the jobs are. If you're unemployed and have more than $5,000 remaining to your possible unemployment benefits, we will pay you $5,000 to move out. We will basically pay the moving expenses for the unemployed to go elsewhere, along with the counseling for which states have the highest need, such as North Dakota. When a person would like to take advantage of this program, we track them with their social security number, as joining this program eliminates them from any further unemployment benefits in the state of Rhode Island. They are bought out.

Again, this is completely voluntary. It's just another program that people can take advantage of if they choose to, and they can only take advantage of it if they are eligible for RI unemployment benefits.

We see that the job numbers in RI are decreasing and we're not seeing any great signs of the unemployed being able find jobs quickly. When there is a mismatch between supply and demand, you work to balance the two. Aiming for increased demand (jobs) has not worked, and this would work on the other end, reducing the unemployed (supply).

Incentivizing people to go where the jobs are will reduce the number of people looking for work and reduce the strain on the state's unemployment insurance budget.


August 28, 2012


North Kingstown Employees Strike to Maintain Public-Sector Premium

Justin Katz

One question lost in the heat of this school year's example of the annual opening-day labor dispute is: Why should school children pay more for janitorial services than anybody else would?  The practical answer is that parents are very sensitive to the treatment of their children, and that's just one of the points of leverage that public-sector unions have.

According to the North East Independent, writing in July, janitors in North Kingstown used to make $19.47 per hour. Since the school committee voted to switch from the in-house union to the private GCA Services Group, while keeping the same workers, that hourly rate has fallen to $15.17. That's a substantial drop of 22%, and it comes with greatly inferior benefits.  But in Rhode Island's continuing jobs recession and apparent economic decline,  it isn't clear that public-sector jobs, especially in schools, ought to be notably inviolable.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...



"Education Support Professionals" Block School Opening In North Kingstown

Marc Comtois

In June, the North Kingstown School Committee voted to privatize the union jobs of 26 custodians. Twenty of the twenty-six were re-hired by the private company--GCA--that was brought in to take over.

The committee voted to award a bid to GCA to privatize the district’s custodial department and will plan to award the contract at its meeting Tuesday night. Though the staff got the axe, GCA has made a verbal agreement to hire all of North Kingstown’s current custodians as long as they pass a BCI check. The custodians will be rehired at the company’s “enhanced wage.”

The committee also moved to reject the ESP (Education Support Professionals) contract and made substantial changes to its support staffing. Though the committee agreed 4-2 (Benson and Dick Welch opposing) to grant the paraprofessionals a one-percent pay increase (up from the superintendent’s recommendation to freeze salaries), it also eliminated life insurance for ESP, cut three sick days and one personal day and established new buyback rates for employees who opted out of health care. (Those new rates are now $2,500 for family and $1,200 for individuals.)

Employees who work fewer than 30 hours per work will no longer be eligible to receive health care through the school department. (Formerly, the cutoff was 20 hours.) The committee also authorized the hiring of 12 part-time employees to replace six full-time positions – a move that will save the district approximately $198,000.

NK School Committe Chair Kimberly Page explained it wasn't an easy decision to privatize. Now, via Bob Plain, we learn that the NK School Committee is--according to the NK school unions--engaging in "economic violence" (gotta love the hyperbole), which is why the NK school unions united in solidarity to close the schools for the sake of, er, 6 jobs. Or maybe there's more to it than that.
Education special interest groups, such as the teachers unions, are experiencing a decline in membership. As Stephen Sawchuck reports in Education Week, “by the end of its 2013–14 budget, NEA [the National Education Association] expects it will have lost 308,000 members and experienced a decline in revenue projected at some $65 million in all since 2010. (The figures are expressed in full-time equivalents, which means that the actual number of people affected is probably higher.)”
Look, it's pretty simple. This is only a little about jobs and mostly about power for unions. They certainly didn't shut down school for "the children." Or is shutting down a school district what we're call "education support" now? (Wait, don't answer that!).

For those who think handing these support services over to contractors will result in diminished quality, well, guess what? If the people of North Kingstown aren't happy with the janitorial services, they can go to School Committee meetings and complain. That's one benefit of hiring a private company to do these services: if NK taxpayers demand better results and they don't happen, they can fire GCS and find someone new. I know, it's amazing but true. It happens all the time in the private sector. Really.


July 26, 2012


Talking Teen Unemployment and the Minimum Wage on the Dan Yorke Show

Justin Katz

630AM/99.7FM WPRO has posted my appearance on the Dan Yorke show, Tuesday, in two segments. The first is the initial half hour introducing the research from the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity and touching on some conclusions. For the second hour, Economic Development Corp. board member and VIBCO President Karl Wadensten joined us in the studio for a broader discussion.


July 25, 2012


Temporary Means Temporary

Patrick Laverty

While watching the 11 pm news tonight on Channel 10, I saw a story about the 67 former employees of the Department of Labor and Training (DLT) protesting their layoff.

I get it, layoffs are bad, I wish everyone who wants a job could be employed. I also get what they're saying about the irony of them being laid off because they were the ones who helped the unemployed receive benefits and search for a new job. Rhode Island has such a high unemployment rate that this probably isn't the department that we should be cutting. So why aren't we keeping these people on staff?

Department spokeswoman Laura Hart said most of the positions were always expected to be temporary because they were funded by now-exhausted federal stimulus dollars.
Isn't this exactly what some were asking when the federal stimulus money became available? What happens when that money dries up? No one ever gave a straight answer there. Well now we all know what some suspected. When the money is gone, the jobs are gone. Why is this hard to understand? Also, when you take a job on a temporary basis, you go into it knowing there's a likelihood that you will be laid off at the end of that temporary period. I see jobs listed all the time for a "10 month contract" or something similar. When that ten months is up, there's a good chance that you're going to be unemployed again.

It might be interesting to see what has happened to every position in the state that was hired with temporary stimulus money. Are they still employed? Is the federal government still picking up the tab or did it switch over to being state-funded?

Along the same lines, this was a tough call for some governors. A few, including Bobby Jindal in Louisiana refused the stimulus money for unemployment benefits because he also saw this sort of situation coming and knew it would simply add to his state's burden.

“The federal money in this bill will run out in less than three years for this benefit and our businesses would then be stuck paying the bill,” Jindal said. “We must be careful and thoughtful as we examine all the strings attached to the funding in this package. We cannot grow government in an unsustainable way.”
And some in Rhode Island wonder why we're ranked last in so many economic rankings? If an organization decides to rank states based on unsustainability, I'd expect Rhode Island to finally show up right near the top.


June 3, 2012


Now Who's "Created This Problem?"

Patrick Laverty

Did you catch the article this week by Tim White on pension averages and this other great nugget called "Option IV"?

Of course we all remember a few months back when the Cranston firefighters' union President Paul Valletta accused Treasurer Gina Raimondo of "creating this problem."

Valetta charged that there is no pension problem as stated by the General Treasurer but instead this is just playing politics. “She created this problem, she created this pension problem on April 13th of this year and now she’s riding in on her white horse with this pension legislation before you to solve this problem and why did she do that? We will find that out in three years,” said Valletta.
However, this article by Tim White has to make you wonder who at least is playing a large part in creating this problem.

First we have Providence Firefighters Union President Paul Doughty making some inaccurate claims (yes, I'm looking at you Politifact). White references Doughty's claims of the average firefighters' pension being about $25,000 per year.

But here is what Doughty isn’t saying: the average retired firefighter’s pension is $48,142 a year – nearly double the average amount Doughty highlights in radio, print and television interviews. That's according to 2011 pension data the city provided to WPRI 12 in response to a public records request.
And back to that "Option IV" thing. We hear about how so many of the pension systems are drastically underfunded and many of us have questioned the politicians as to why these systems have been so underfunded. Some have also questioned why the unions didn't hold the pols' feet to the fire in keeping the systems properly funded. Well, we might have found one reason for that.
Here's how "Option IV" works, based on an actual example from city records: When Firefighter “X” retired in 2012, he opted to take $153,000 out of his pension account in a one-time cash payout, which is the amount of money he contributed to the pension fund from his paycheck over the years. That reduced his annual pension from $34,000 to $24,000.

Records show 1,475 of 3,148 retirees – nearly half of all Providence pensioners – used "Option IV." The ratio is even higher for public safety retirees, with 55 percent taking the lump sum cash payment upon retirement.

If "Option IV" wasn't available and those retirees had been forced to leave the money in their pension accounts, the average city pension would be much larger than the amounts Doughty cites in interviews.

Imagine that. You pay into the pension system for your career and then upon retirement, you get to take it all out in one lump sum that you can then do anything you want with it. So at that point, many would think that the retiree is off the books. Nope. That person still receives a pension, however at that point, it is 100% of the taxpayer funded. Part of what helps these investment funds is having the capital to earn interest. If that capital isn't there, less interest is earned and the fund further lags.

What's worse is as White mentions, until the rules changed, retirees on disability could withdraw their own money and not see any reduction in their pension. Imagine what that did for the fund's balance. Oh that's right, we don't have to imagine it, we're seeing it up close and personal now.

It's things like this that show the problems are multi-faceted and the blame doesn't just go in one direction. And as for Option IV, that name is more than a little ironic as this perk has helped to put the state on life support through an IV.


April 24, 2012


Secretary of State Advertises For A Union

Patrick Laverty

The Providence Journal has a story today by Randal Edgar about a "bug" on the Secretary of State's envelopes. For those unaware, a bug is a little icon that is placed on an item or a screen, sort of like advertising. You're probably familiar with the television network bugs during their programming. On NBC, they'll have the little peacock logo or recently, I've seen the peacock with the Olympic rings under it. That's what is referred to as a bug.

The Secretary of State's office takes it one step further. Their envelopes have a pretty large bug under the return address in the upper left corner. It's the logo of the United Steelworkers union. Take a look for yourself here.

Was the office aware this was going to happen? Are they ok with it?

Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis says the union symbol — or bug, as it is commonly known — is on his office’s envelopes because they were printed by a union shop and union shops “routinely put their bug on the material they print.”

Gee, if I knew the state was in the business of taking ads on their stationery in exchange for cheaper rates, I'd probably give them all the envelopers they need with the Anchor Rising URL on it. I'd probably even do this for free.

According to the article, the state saved $400 over the next lowest bidder and the order of 70,000 envelopes for $2,485. Also interesting in the article, though might not mean anything at all:

The company hired to handle the job was Regine Printing Co. Inc., of Providence — a company that has also done work for the Mollis campaign, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. The Mollis campaign paid Regine $480 in 2011 and $2,868 in 2010, while also hiring other printers, according to the reports. In addition, two Regine employees donated to the Mollis campaign during 2010 and 2011, contributing a total of $525.
Umm, nope, nothing sounds too fishy there.

Well, I guess over here at AR, we should just keep our eyes open for any upcoming state purchase requests. Let's see what we have in that advertising budget for the next time when you get a mailing from the state, maybe it'll have the Anchor Rising "bug" prominently displayed.


March 19, 2012


Full Time Pay To Attend College

Patrick Laverty

In the video below, WJAR's Jim Taricani dug up a provision in Rhode Island Local 580's contract that says they may attend college full time to obtain a master's degree in social work while being paid their full time salary. I am familiar with businesses that offer a tuition reimbursement plan, but I'm not familiar with any that let their staff take a leave from their job and attend school full time while still collecting their full salary.

On top of receiving their full pay while attending college, the state (again, that's you and me, the taxpayers) pay half of the cost of the schooling. One thing that was not mentioned in the video was whether these employees are going to school full time and still keeping a full time case load as well. However, reading an associated document on the turnto10.com web site shows the employees using the benefit are "out on Ed leave"

What has this cost so far? Since 2007, the salary cost has been $1.1 million paid to the employees while on education leave and the cost of the schooling has been slightly more than $100,000 for 18 employees. On the latter part, that sounds like either one incredible bargain or a few of them never completed it or some of those 18 just began. Because remember that $100,000 is just half the cost. That puts the average at just a little more than $10,000 per employee. How in the world can you get any master's degree for about $10,000? So there's clearly more to that story too.


February 2, 2012


Legislation to Beat Cities and Towns Senseless with Their Own Amputated Legs

Justin Katz

Fresh on the heels of Governor Chafee's declaration of the Year of the Cities and Towns, Reps. Scott Guthrie (D, Coventry), Roberto DaSilva (D, East Prov., Pawtucket), and John Savage (R, East Prov.) have introduced legislation (H7317) that may win the sure-to-be-tough contest for union-loving lunacy:

28-7-7.1. Representation of towns and cities - maximum legal fees. — Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary contained in any general or public law, rule or regulation, legal fees pertaining to a labor contract entered into by a city or town, shall not exceed two tenths of one percent (0.2%) of the value of the contract.

Says Guthrie in the associated press release:

"My legislation is not intended to interfere with contract negotiations, or muddle the legal process associated with them... My legislation is intended to be a form of property tax relief, by setting a specific monetary cap on legal fees so they do not grow and grow like top seed."

One needn't be but so cynical to think that his legislation just might be intended to add a restraint on the employer in negotiations. They have to fight with the knowledge that a buzzer will eventually go off requiring them to lower their gloves and take whatever beating is coming their way.

Then again, given the lack of a "what then" in the legislation, a municipality surely would gain some immunity to accusations of unfair negotiation tactics if it unilaterally imposes contract terms the day that the law says its paid advocate has to go home.


January 4, 2012


The Dogs That Didn't Bite in Pension Reform

Justin Katz

Two aspects of this Monday editorial in the Providence Journal, lauding Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo for progress in her school district are interesting.

For one, multiple Projo columnists have compared Democrat General Treasurer Gina Raimondo favorable with Republican reformers in other states, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasick, on the grounds that union intransigence illustrates that the Republicans' method of reform wasn't sufficiently collaborative. Yet, here we have Gallo receiving the full union-thug treatment (short of physical violence, which even the thugs must have seen to be a losing proposition against a diminutive older woman), and the editors hailing the "cooperative efforts."

More pointedly, the editors detail some union-friendly legislators' efforts to bully Gallo in order "to disrupt public-spirited efforts to improve Central Falls High School." The essay also mention's last year's conspicuously high absenteeism among teachers. It ought also to have mentioned the aggressive campaign of threatening nastiness that Gallo experienced when things were at their roughest.

What's interesting about that is how it compares with the relatively light touch of the unions and their members during the supposedly radical pension reform. Sure, they held a fun evening rally one warm evening. Sure, some paid union leaders made some silly statements and issued threats of electoral defeat. But where was the real heat?

Reform was necessary for both Central Falls schools and for the state pension system. In both cases that was and is impossible to deny. In both cases, union deals had to be pushed back. Yet, there's a marked difference in the tone of the response, with the smaller of the two skirmishes sparking a higher degree of venom. What could account for that?


December 18, 2011


“You want to play hardball, and that’s what happens.”

Patrick Laverty

That was the answer given by SEIU Local 580 President Phillip Keefe about his union's response to the fact that Crossroads RI decided to back Engage RI in the recent pension reform discussions. In today's Providence Journal, Crossroads' president said they're getting some of their donation cards back with a different response from the past.

“Some of them were quite vulgar,” Nolan said. “Some of them were threatening. Some of them were, pardon me, ‘Why the [expletive] don’t you ask Engage Rhode Island for a donation!’"
Keefe doesn't deny that his organization could be behind the feedback.
The union sent letters last month to its 1,000 members, he said, and followed up with discussions at membership meetings about directing their charitable contributions away from organizations such as Crossroads and Family Services of Rhode Island, which are affiliated with EngageRI. Any nonprofits that support an organization that is “slamming” union members, he said, should expect similar treatment.
And then, he went on further:
“These people are targeting you and your families. You can act now by simply not using the services of these groups or contacting them directly to voice your concern … [and] when you run into them at the office or in the community feel free to express your displeasure with their position.”
So SEIU 580 is telling their people that when they see members of Crossroads RI (and other Engage RI supporters) at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, or walking down the street, express their displeasure with the Crossroads' position. The letter told the union members that they should voice their displeasure to anyone they believe is taking money out of their pockets? Really? And the response is "You want to play hardball, this is what happens", really? So if I'm not happy with what their union does, I should heckle their members every time I see them? Is that what all taxpayers should do? If I don't like the union's contract, should I shout down my local teachers, the guy driving the plow, the people working at Town Hall? When I see them at the grocery store, should I tell them what I think? Is that really what Phillip Keefe is advocating for? Wouldn't that be interesting if many taxpayers started harassing his union members in public like this and the response was "You want to play hardball, this is what happens." Sounds pretty good to me.

While no one is or ever should be required to donate to any organization, Crossroads RI said they are down about $100,000 in their usual donations since the pension discussions. Crossroads is one of the organizations that takes care of homeless people, women and children included. This is who the union is turning on. Apparently, "I will not support any organization that works to cut my pension." is more important to these people than children sleeping on the street and having food to each. But it's good to see that SEIU 580 is out to protect the little guy.


October 29, 2011


Jobs, Who Creates Them?

Patrick Laverty

In GoLocalProv.com today, Dan McGowan tells of how Rhode Island has shed more government jobs, as a percentage, than any other state in the country since 2007. He uses some nice numbers and percentages to show the facts.

In total, Rhode Island lost about 4,400 government jobs over four years, ranking 33rd among states in jobs lost. The state now has about 59,900 government employees.

The 6.84 percent reduction over four years is the highest in the country

Ok, so there's nothing wrong with using percentages and raw data like that. But let's look at it another way. We have 59,900 people employed by the taxpayers. According to the 2009 census, RI had about 1.05M people living here. Doing a little math there shows that one in every 17.5 people living in the state is employed by the state or a municipality. That's not one in every 17.5 working people, that's one in every 17.5 people. That includes babies, students, retirees. If I knew how to figure out how many people are actually of working age, I'd better know just how many people working in the state, work on the taxpayer dime.

McGowan also goes on to very casually mention that states like New Hampshire and North Dakota actually gained government employees. Why is that not surprising when those states are actually growing their economy? North Dakota is experiencing a bit of a boom as currently the fastest growing state in the country. New Hampshire is a pro-business state. So to compare Rhode Island to those states would be comparing apples to dump trucks.

The article also gets opinions from Kate Brock, the executive director from Ocean State Action who says that cutting state employees is killing the economy. I don't understand how costing the taxpayers less by not having to pay for bloated payroll will harm the economy. It means not as much money will need to come out of taxpayers' pockets, so we will have more money to spend on the economy, to spend on businesses that are still trying to make it in Rhode Island. This is exactly how you grow an economy, not hurt it.

Carcieri was on the right path when he cut the government workforce. In my own random experience, he didn't go far enough. We've all seen the reports of government employee waste, with examples like the guy literally sleeping on the job.

We do have many problems in this state, especially with regard to the government, but cutting too many government jobs definitely is not one of them.


October 6, 2011


NEA-RI Promotes John Leidecker

Monique Chartier

EastBayRI reports - exclusively, it appears - in an article that also describes the latest development (mediation) in the stalled Bristol/Warren teacher contract negotiations. Mr. Leidecker is the lead negotiator for the NEA-RI in those talks.

... Mr. Leidecker, negotiator for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association (NEARI), was recently found guilty of cyberstalking by a Superior Court judge. Though some, including his target, former Bristol/Warren Representative Doug Gablinske, have called for him to step aside as negotiator now that the court has spoken, that won’t happen.

Instead, he’s been promoted. Once Mr. Leidecker finishes these negotiations, he will step aside as a “UniServe,” the union’s name for one who negotiates contracts across the state, and will step in as Deputy Executive Director of NEARI. Once he leaves, the plan is to make Linda LaClair, a long-time librarian at the Kickemuit Middle School who now works for NEARI, the district’s new UniServe.



October 3, 2011


Block on the Labor-Social Welfare Crackup

Justin Katz

Moderate Party founder Ken Block has been circulating an interesting letter:

I have been waiting for someone to call out Bob Walsh on his comments in the September, 22, 2011 Providence Journal article "Business Coalition Backs R.I. Pension Reform."

Since no one else has yet taken Mr. Walsh to task, I will now do so.

The article describes how Crossroads RI and Family Services of RI - two prominent providers of social services to the needy - have joined a coalition whose mission is to advocate for thorough pension reform in the upcoming special legislative session in October.

The NEA chief has this to say about about Crossroads' joining the coalition: "They should think long and hard about who is the bigger supporter of social services - the unions or the Chamber of Commerce. Labor is their ally, not the business community."

Mr. Walsh's error in logic is that Crossroads is choosing between 'Labor' and 'Business'. I am fairly certain that Crossroads is looking at the issue as to how the organization can best assure that their funding stream from the State is maintained into the future.

Rhode Island's pension crisis threatens everything that the State government touches. If Rhode Island's pension problems are not fixed, an ever growing chunk of tax revenues will go solely to keeping the pension system afloat - to the detriment of funding schools, building roads and yes, funding worthy organizations such as Crossroads RI and Family Services of RI.

It is time for Labor's union bosses to meaningfully engage in helping to resolve Rhode Island's pension problem - a problem that these bosses have helped to create. Red herrings like selling off Twin River or trying to frame the pension issue as 'Labor' versus 'Business' are attempts to distract an easily distractible public from a simple truth: If we do not fix the pension problem, every aspect of Rhode Island's economy and society will be massively and permanently harmed.

Pension reform is not an us versus them issue. Successful pension reform means a stable and guaranteed pool of retirement monies for pensioners and a kick start to rebuilding Rhode Island's ailing economy. Failed or incomplete pension reform will keep Rhode Island on our downward spiral into the economic abyss.

Perhaps recent cuts to social-service spending at the state level helped advocates for the less fortunate to see the writing that others of us have long seen on the wall. If businesses cannot operate and productive residents continue to leave, there will be no tax revenue to divvy up against the various groups that survive on government revenue. It may be easier for the government-dependent to pretend that they can survive without a thriving economy, but they can't, and ultimately, they'll have to fight over what the government is able to confiscate from the shrinking pool.

The shared interest of public-sector labor and the needy isn't much deeper than a mutual interest in having the government redistribute money, and the pension crisis threatens to absorb more of it than social services groups can afford. What's particularly interesting, though, is that the alliances that have formed like fingers around Rhode Island's throat have created another division: between the members of various groups and their government-class leaders.

The deeper alliance, that is, is between the labor leaders, like Mr.Walsh, and the professional advocates who usually speak for the poor. They represent the core of the left-wing movement, and although a few groups might splinter off, the members who actually suffer by the difficulties of bad governance will have to replace their own leaders before a new paradigm becomes possible.

Mr. Walsh should take note of that fact. Eventually, the teachers who ultimately give him his power will figure out that his interests aren't the same as theirs, much less of the state in which they live and work.


September 9, 2011


The Employee's Leverage

Justin Katz

Statements such as the following are so foreign to my way of seeing things that there must be some fundamental question at the bottom of the difference:

To understand how we got here, first consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard -- really, really hard -- brands you as profoundly un-American. All well and good. But today, the driver is no longer American industriousness. It's something more predatory. As Rutgers political scientist Carl Van Horn told the Associated Press recently: "The employee has no leverage. If your boss says, 'I want you to come in the next two Saturdays,' what are you going to say -- no?"

Employees should have plenty of leverage. The company has already invested in their training. They've got institutional knowledge and contacts that take time to develop and that could help competitors even more than just as a matter of training, not the least because employees could take clients and other valuable employees with them. Smart employers also need to protect organizational moral and sense of community purpose.

Never mind that bosses are actually human beings with emotions and moral senses, too.

Leverage comes in making one's self of value. This applies in greatest to degree to star employees, but even those who are merely competent are more valuable than they probably realize — the workforce is full of laziness, dishonesty, cantankerousness, and other qualities that could harm a business's operations. If people want jobs that allow them never to have the courage to stand up to managers on an individual basis, then that comfort is going to come at a price.

Admittedly, multiple factors have made such courage more difficult. For one, prices have adjusted to the assumption of two-income households. For another, we've waded into a swamp of new necessities — from cell phones to expensive higher education — without which we think our lives would be incomplete. (It's one thing to see such things as tools to increase personal value; it's another to think them necessities for which funding must be found.) For a third, government regulations have decreased the ability of employees to take their institutional and occupational knowledge and start off on their own to compete.

That's where this difference in perspective becomes so critical: In the solutions that we believe will alleviate the situation. If employees are helpless cogs, then one will call for more government regulation of employers, more forceful confiscation, and more empowerment of third-party labor organizations. If employees are the company's and the nation's most valuable asset — merely boxed in by cultural and regulatory factors — then one will call for changes in those areas.

The authors of the above-linked essay, Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery don't dive into the former pool, but the only solution that they describe (actually, the beginning of a solution) is to complain to friends and coworkers. Such communication could be a first step in either direction, but it too often precedes the next step of voting for officials who promise to tilt the playing field rather than the next step of standing up too the boss.


September 8, 2011


The Projo's Preferred Narrative

Justin Katz

I notice that the wire story that the Providence Journal chose for its coverage of President Obama's Labor Day speech didn't make mention of the call to arms of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. The omission would be one thing if the article were narrowly focused on President Obama's words (that is, if they took the spin that only what the president said is newsworthy), but even that isn't applicable:

Before Obama's speech U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis picked up the UAW's frequently used "fired up, ready to go," slogan today as she urged union members to provide vocal support to U.S. President Barack Obama, who soon will unveil a new jobs plan.

"It won't be an easy thing to do," Solis said. "We know some will fight us and...some will say we can't afford to invest in our workforce."

Solis also criticized those who are trying to reduce the salaries, benefits and collective bargaining rights of union members.

I suppose a major figure in labor warming up Obama's audience with declarations that unions should target the opposition in such a way as to "take the son-of-bitches out" doesn't quite fit the narrative of Tea Party as terrorists versus the well-meaning president (who can only be faulted for giving in to the extreme Republicans in his urge to hear all sides).


September 1, 2011


Using the Legislature to Increase Union Leverage

Justin Katz

Senator Frank Ciccone, who was a leading voice for legislation to generate some monopoly business for a particular media purchase agent and who makes $161,168 working for the Laborers' State Council, wants to provide micromanagement-level oversight of quasi-public entities:

In a letter that went out to the top administrators of these agencies on Aug. 25, Ciccone posed a series of questions, such as this: Does the agency give bonuses to any of its employees? Does it pay overtime?

Does it provide any form of compensation to its board members, including "travel, lodging, meals, training and, or education and if so, please provide a list of all compensation and/or reimbursement that board members received in FY 2011?"

Does the agency make "charitable and non-charitable contributions" and, if so, did its "employees or board members receive any benefits from [these] contributions, such as tickets, meals or golfing?"

Each letter also asks the administrator of each agency to "please list all gifts, benefits or other compensation that vendors or consultants gave to employees or board members in FY 2011."

That looks to me like an information-gathering effort for his union employer and its other allies in labor. Just another indication of why it doesn't have to be illegal to be corruption in Rhode Island.

It occurs to me, incidentally, that public-sector unions are essentially quasi-public entities, inasmuch as they collect their revenue directly from government revenue and conduct their activities with in and for the purpose of government operations. Surely, they should be receiving bullying letters and demands from legislative boards, especially considering the recent antics of executives in the National Education Association Rhode Island.


August 23, 2011


Compressing the Same Workforce

Justin Katz

What am I missing in this story?

Providence teachers on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to approve a three-year contract that guarantees that every fired teacher will be returned to the district in exchange for substantial concessions.

But:

The unprecedented decision to fire every teacher and close five schools left teachers and parents angry and demoralized. Although the mayor later recalled three-fourths of the faculty, the remaining teachers had to apply for openings via a job fair this spring that some felt was unfair.

So the city closed five schools but is still going to employ the same number of teachers? The article mentions fewer sick days, longer school days, an end to seniority, and the union's dropping a lawsuit that had sought to prevent the end of seniority-based hiring. No doubt there are significant savings in the deal, and ending seniority is a structural change worth some negotiation. The end of seniority was coming, though, and it's probable that the long-term expenses of a too-large workforce will soon swamp the savings of a dropped lawsuit.

At the least, this is a good example of the inefficiencies of government and the lethargy with which it changes.


August 16, 2011


Life Expectancy Follow Up

Justin Katz

You'll recall, from a couple of weeks ago, the commentary of Robert Barber, a retired Cranston police captain eight years into a retirement that he began at 50. Well, PolitiFact has looked into his very specific claim that "law-enforcement officers die 10 years earlier than the general population" and found it wanting:

Whether a person was age 50, 55, 60 or 65, the life expectancies of the police officers were slightly higher than for other workers. For example, men age 60 who had taken regular retirement were projected to live to age 82.7, versus age 81.9 for workers who were not in the public safety field. (Firefighter rates were close to those for police officers.)

Even when CalPERS added in all the men who had retired as a result of work-related injuries, the life expectancies of the police officers were essentially identical to other public employees. The life expectancy for someone age 60, regardless of why they stopped working, was 81.8 years, just a tenth of a year lower than for regular workers.

According to other research cited, public safety officers appear only to have shorter life expectancies than other public-sector employees. (Apparently, nobody lives longer than female public-school teachers.)

Why Barber's statement is only "false," not "pants on fire," I'm not sure.


August 12, 2011


Saving Everybody from Themselves

Justin Katz

On July 14, Andrew put up an excellent post responding to a comment from Michael Morse and explaining what we mean when we talk about the inherent corruption of the public sector, particularly with respect to unionization:

When someone regularly deals on a firsthand basis with people in need of real help -- and in the case of public safety workers, people who are in real danger -- it is natural to prioritize the needs of those making or answering calls for help ahead of the monitions raised by people not immediate in distress, who are asking for relief from the strains they feel are being created by publicly-imposed obligations. But just like self-interest is not inherently bad, but leads to problems when pressed too far, so too can the impulse to help those whom we have most direct contacts with create problems and confusion, when effects of our actions on people outside of our personal interactions are too severely discounted. No human being is immune to this, which means no human system is immune to this.

The next day, Michael made a relevant appearance in a Bob Kerr column titled, "It keeps happening because no one tries to stop it":

... among the shooting victims and stabbing victims, those injured in traffic accidents and those hurt in fires, are the drunks. There will always be the drunks because, says Morse, they are a problem that is tolerated rather than dealt with. There have been a few initiatives, some trying to shift the focus from the physical to the psychological. But they haven't gotten anywhere. The drunks keep falling and the city has to keep picking them up.

"They're survivors," says Morse. "I don't get angry. They're using the tools at their disposal. They get to eat and get cleaned up at the hospital. If they're a little too ripe, they get new clothes."

There will always be drunks, but I'm not sure one can blame society for not "dealing with" their problems. Indeed, it's not unlikely that public efforts to assist alcoholics reinforce the thinking and bad impulses that draws them to the bottle in the first place. (Rephrasing it from language of personal decisions and responsibility to language of psychological disease doesn't gain us any ground, here.)

Being familiar with Bob Kerr, I'm comfortable inferring that his means of dealing with alcoholics problems would take some form of government action to alleviate "root causes." If they've got some diagnosable medical issue (such as depression), he'd have the government provide them with treatment and medicine. If they're lacking for material comforts, he'd have the government supply them. If they're chronically unemployed, he'd have the government employ them, train them, and give them subsidies while waiting for them to conclude that working a whole lot harder for a little bit of income beyond the subsidies makes sense.

In other words, he'd respond using methods that have seemed to me only to prolong adolescence and cultivate dependence when applied to teenagers.

Kerr begins and ends the column lauding a woman who took time out of her life to stop and call 911 to help a particular drunk passed out on the street. Even in a libertarian construct, there is an extent to which we are obligated to deal with drunks, even if only to keep them from disrupting the lives of everybody else. If the expense isn't too great relative to the society's wealth, picking them and helping them home is preferable to turning them into criminals.

But the error to which we incline when we take that woman's compassion as a model for public policy is one of hindering long-term objectives in the service of the short-term gratification that comes with feeling compassionate. We will never eliminate the problems of human society and remain human. To alleviate those problems, though, and to improve the lot of our fellows as individuals, we ought to focus less on assuring them that we will do everything we can for them and more on creating a society in which the rewards of better decisions can overcome the lure of self destruction.

That means making it less difficult for people to find ways of supporting themselves. It means getting government out of the way of both productive activities and destructive stumbles. And it means returning to a confidence in higher purpose and more profound truths than a Marxist can admit.


August 11, 2011


The Verizon Strike - Reality Calling

Monique Chartier

Disclaimer preamble: The matter of labor unions does not move me either to cheers or to condemnation: neither the philosophy itself of workers banding together - now that we are many decades past sweat shops - nor as the cause of the state's current fiscal travails. (The overwhelming responsibility for the latter accrues to our elected officials - but more on that some other time.)

45,000 Verizon workers went on strike Sunday.

I sincerely hope that they arrive at a new contract soon. It's no more fun for employees to walk the picket line than it is for managers, et al, to work double shifts trying to service customers.

I just have one question (and a follow up).

These employees have been paying zero towards their health insurance?

Verizon wants unionized workers, who currently pay no monthly premiums for health care, to begin contributing at least $100 a month, or $1,200 a year.

And they propose to continue doing so?


August 1, 2011


Re: Disabled (Ha!)

Justin Katz

Monique's already expressed a justified skepticism about this:

Former firefighter John Sauro remains permanently and totally disabled from doing his job in the Fire Department, an orthopedic surgeon has concluded after a special examination.

But the surgeon recommended additional tests to confirm his finding.

The report by Dr. Anthony DeLuise Jr. was submitted Wednesday to the city Retirement Board, which voted to have the additional tests done.

Sauro, you'll recall, retired in his late thirties with his tax-free disability pension of $45,600 and fully paid health benefits and at age 48 spends a great deal of time bodybuilding. As Monique highlights, Dr. DeLuise's conclusion was based on a physical exam, viewing of WPRI's sting video of Sauro's workout, and the decade-old medical records that won Sauro his boon in the first place.

This initial finding is just part of the process, of course — which process appears designed to delay and give politicians and bureaucrats plenty of opportunity to grant Sauro and his union a soft exit from the public spotlight. Meanwhile, in the wave of controversy and careful phrases, like "permanently and totally disabled from doing his job," the larger question is lost:

  • Even if Sauro has difficulty with a very limited range of motion
  • and even if the risk of further injury makes it inadvisable for him to perform active firefighter duties
  • should a public-safety-job-related injury mean that the employee never has to work another day in his life even though his impairment is so minimal as to be unobservable?

July 29, 2011


Feedback and the Public Sector Exemption

Justin Katz

A recurring theme arose when the Providence School Board voted to eliminate administrator unionization:

[Stephen Kane, executive secretary of the Association of Providence Public School and Staff Administrators] now worries that the fate of each administrator will be left to "the whim of the School Board. Of course, it's going to get personal. It's going to get political."

You can call it "whim" or "judgment," but granting responsibility throughout any organizational hierarchy is the most effective way to ensure efficiency and productivity. Whether the goal is corporate profit or public education, whether consumers react to policies through purchase decisions or taxpayers through votes, administrators must be accountable to policy makers, and policy makers must be accountable to stakeholders.

Unions certainly change the calculation a bit for their members, but not unlike resistors in an electrical circuit, they inherently distort the feedback loop by distributing some of that responsibility onto labor processes. That can have its benefits, but over the long term, it hinders the organization's ability to adjust to the interests of those it ostensibly serves.

And when the organization is a government entity, it can survive by fiat as problems fester.


July 28, 2011


Productivity Isn't in the Union Interest

Justin Katz

The budget battle has come and gone, but one section of an op-ed that Independent state Senator Ed O'Neil published in May is worth considering:

George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, has said publicly that we should give our state workers a chance to improve productivity. They know best how to get the job done. I agree with Mr. Nee on this point.

Operational excellence is a natural outcome of people working as a team. Everyone needs an oar in the water to get our costs down. A new day has dawned, and Rhode Islanders are beginning to realize that we need to work together to get our state operations lean. That means better thinking, better systems, better tools, and better leadership.

Employees may "know best" how their workplace functions, but it isn't in their interest to be more efficient. In the business world, employees at least know that increases in their pay require expansion of their employers' revenue or dollars freed up through productivity. They also know that their jobs are at risk if the financial reality goes the other way.

In the government world, increases in pay are tied to political leverage. It doesn't have to be that way; super-productive workers could lead to low-cost government that satisfies more recipients of government services while not causing excessive pain to taxpayers, thus accruing credit to elected officials, but decades of maneuvering by bureaucratic administrators and labor unions have left us in an untenable position.

Citizens are paying so much, often for services that they don't want, that a correction is necessary. Therefore, employees would be far down the line in profiting from the efficiencies that increased productivity would create — after decreasing debt and eliminating deficits and after decreasing the cost of government to residents. Organized union entities have even more reason to undermine efficiency: An employee might stand to profit if his or her high efficiency eliminates the need for the public to hire additional workers, but the union to which he or she belongs would stand to lose dues and political clout.



Public Sector and Politics

Justin Katz

Last night, Monique reviewed some Anchor Rising posts with guest host Tony Cornetta on the Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


July 27, 2011


Private and Public Sector Differences in Calculation

Justin Katz

The intention of the City of Providence to hire 72 new firefighters would make an interesting case study for anybody learning about public administration:

When an hourly employee in the private sector quits, it is not unusual for the employer to put off hiring a replacement. Instead, the employer has another person pick up the slack on overtime pay. ...

But that is not what the City of Providence is going to do in the Fire Department. ...

According to [Administration Director Michael] D'Amico, the initial crop of new hires would cost the city $2,195,000 a year but overtime would be reduced by an estimated $1,872,000 in fiscal year 2013 and then by an estimated $3,744,000 annually. ...

The second crop would not save on overtime costs because those hired would replace firefighters who are expected to retire. But the new group would be paid lower wages than the senior people they replace, so the city will save an estimated $270,000 in fiscal year 2016, according to D'Amico.

Two critical differences between the private and public sectors, changing the calculation for each, are that private-sector companies don't necessarily hire at the bottom rung, because experience is critical. New hires in the fire department therefore stand to make much less than current employees, especially current employees on overtime.

The second difference is that private sector companies don't tend to be bound in their quest for efficiencies by "minimum manning" requirements that force them to have a certain number of employees on the job. That's a separate debate, but it does give companies more latitude to adjust to their changing workforces.

One big omission from the article, and perhaps the hiring decision itself, is the calculation of pensions and other retirement benefits (such as healthcare). In keeping with the discussion that we've been having about the use of pensions to hide the real cost of public labor. It may be cheaper right now to bring on new firefighters, but as we're learning, the accumulation of retirees can create a substantial annual burden.


July 26, 2011


NEARI's John Leidecker Rallies the Troops Against the South Kingstown School Committee ... and South Kingstown Children

Monique Chartier

The following e-mail was sent out recently, presumably to all members of the NEARI.

Background: South Kingstown's teacher contract expires at the end of August. Daniel Kinder, referenced in the e-mail, is the attorney advising the South Kingstown School Committee. Here is what the School Committee said recently about negotiations between the town and the NEA-SK. You will also glean from the e-mail that the NEA-SK filed a complaint against the SK SC with the State Labor Board, accusing the Committee of bargaining in bad faith and "surface bargaining".

Bigger picture, the NEARI (which incorporates the word "education" in its name) is fighting, in South Kingstown and around the state, the shift away from seniority authorized by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Why? How exactly does the hiring and retention of teachers basis seniority rather than merit ensure that students receive a good education?

Dan Kinder is at it again and we need your help.

Here is the background:

The South Kingstown School Committee has refused to bargain with the teachers over seniority, transfer, assignment, layoff and recall. This, after the teachers agreed to significant concessions. We have filed an unfair labor practice charge for bad faith bargaining and surface
bargaining.

This past Wednesday, Dan Kinder filed a complaint for Declaratory Judgment before Judge Savage. The complaint, in short, asks the judge to declare that Title 16 (Education law) supersedes Title 28 (Collective Bargaining). If we lose that, we will no longer be able to bargain seniority, transfer, assignment, layoff and recall.

These same questions are pending before other bodies at the moment. The Providence Teachers Union has asked the Board of Regents to respond to the Commissioner's statements on seniority. And, again, we have the bargaining issue before the Labor Board.

Kinder failed to include the Labor Board as a party in the complaint, despite specifically requesting a ruling that would end the Board's authority. Judge Savage said she would not set a briefing schedule unless all the parties were before her. We are supposed to be back in her court this coming Thursday.

The link is to CitizenSpeak and we are trying to pressure the SK School Committee to withdraw the suit. Your help is greatly appreciated. I'm copying this to our Sisters and Brothers at the RIFTHP, since it is of obvious significance to them.

Here's the link:

http://www.citizenspeak.org/campaign/skteachersspeak/stop

Thanks,

John Leidecker
Assistant Executive Director
NEARI




Who Is Talking About Fairness

Justin Katz

I'm beginning to wonder whether all of the stories are like this or whether there's some other reason so many of the people who step forward to be faces of the pension crisis seem unlikely to evoke sympathy. Here's one from the hearing at which Central Falls Receiver Robert Flanders asked public-sector pensioners to agree to a cut in their benefits:

Michael Long, a retired police sergeant who said he suffered a neck injury when he was run over during a shooting, got a big round of applause and later a standing ovation when he asked Flanders, "Where is the fairness?"

Long, now a practicing lawyer, said that the retirees are being asked to surrender up to $20,000 of their pensions that are in the $35,000 to $40,000 range. Bankruptcy, he suggested, might be a better option.

"We will take our chances," he said.

Well might Long take the risk of bankruptcy, considering that he's got another income as a lawyer. According to this posting Long was on the force for just eleven years, and as reported in the New York Times, he's 54 and lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts.

A reasonable guess would be that Long has already collected his pension for about twenty years, perhaps twice the number of years that he worked as a police officer. Justifiably, he used the resources offered to build a new career as a lawyer (and moved or remained outside of the punitive state from which his pension is drawn). So where's the fairness for the Rhode Islander who cannot find work and has no tax-free disability pension to support a change of occupation? Where's the fairness for those who expect never to be able to retire at all thanks to the government albatross dangling from the economy's neck?


July 24, 2011


Crediting the Good, While Debiting the Bad

Justin Katz

It's come up in the comment sections, but I've been meaning to comment on Michael Morse's essay describing the ghosts that haunt the urban firefighter-EMT's dreams after twenty years on the job since I first read it in early June. Michael puts those who focus on the affordability of public-sector pay and pensions in a delicate position — deliberately, I imagine. Who could look such a man in the eye and balance tax rates against the trauma of his experience?

Such balances have to be made, however, and both sides of public policy questions have to be weighed. Were resources unlimited, and were human nature less complex, we might be able to assess the value of every job based on the case that its practitioners could make for themselves. As it is, we have to be a bit more circumspect about various measurements of value.

For one thing, firefighters and EMTs are not solely rewarded through their pay and benefits. Michael provides a bullet list of dramatic scenes — murders, suicides, child abuse, and accidents — but (for this particular essay, at least) he places his hand over the other side of the ledger. How many days did he drive home justifiably feeling heroic? How many lives has he had the opportunity to save? People to help? His twenty years haven't been a long slog of death and unavoidable failure, and while one can place a dollar value on neither the strain of helplessness nor the euphoria of defeating death and destruction, at some abstract and variable point, they would surely balance without any monetary compensation at all to make up the difference.

The careful reader might note a mild contradiction in Michael's text: When speaking of the passage of time between his early days on the job and the present, he writes that "20 years passed in the blink of an eye." Yet, a few sentences later, "20 years in firefighter time is a long, long time." That's hardly an "a-ha!" catch on my part. "The blink of an eye" is a mere turn of phrase, and the reference to "firefighter time" evokes the fullness of the days, weeks, and months. An important point hides within the contrast, though.

Michael's twenty years have been rich in experience, and despite the tone of his essay, not all of them have been haunting and negative. Some midlevel corporate functionary who's trudged through the same length of time among gray cubicle walls bathed in florescent lights pushing numbers along some process watching his body soften and sag every time the computer screen goes blank won't have the smell of charred infants in his nostrils, but neither will he know the pulse of a revived heart beneath his palms. Time is slow, indeed, for those with no cause to blink.

Even with life affirmation and a sense of purpose somehow factored into the equation, it may very well be that twenty years is too long for some men and women to spend battling flames and injury in particular environments. If that's the case, it still isn't obvious that the solution is twenty to thirty years of retirement, particularly when the cost thereof threatens the very solvency of the local civic structure. Perhaps the solution lies in the opposite direction — removing the incentive to linger on the job for so long, making firefighting an experience shared by more people, earlier in their lives. Or perhaps the necessary changes needn't be so dramatic.

Whatever the case, I can only encourage Michael to enlist the memories of his victories in the fight against his demons. An unsustainable pension system can in no way substitute for the strength that he has within.


July 20, 2011


Lack of Sympathy for the Pensioner

Justin Katz

Time will tell whether I'm an isolated cold heart or part of a growing swell, but I'm having trouble mustering the sympathy that the preferred storyline implies I should feel for public-sector pensioners. The "human angle" that the Providence Journal tried to emphasize in an article yesterday provides an excellent example:

In fact, [Donald] Cardin, 46, who retired [from the Central Falls fire department] in 2008 after 22 years as a firefighter, needs to work to pay the bills. He formed his own company, D'Amico Painting Contractors, in North Providence. He climbs ladders, scrapes shingles and spreads on new coats of latex because he can't live on an annual pension of $36,000, which breaks down to $28,800 after taxes.

I have no problem stipulating that anybody who "retires" at 43 should have to continue working in some fashion. At that age, the money that the pensioner receives shouldn't be more accurately described as "residual income" from a previous job, or somesuch. And Cardin may consider that guaranteed $36,000 "peanuts," but one must wonder how many of the painters with whom he competes have such a nice cushion, including (it must be noted) his completely free Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

That's the perspective that ought to dominate during meetings of General Treasurer Gina Raimondo's pension advisory board. Instead, we get reports of this:

Some panel members questioned whether state and local plans are meeting professional recommendations that retirees should receive anywhere from 65 to 80 percent of their salaries when pensions, Social Security (if applicable) and personal savings are added up.

Alicia H. Munnell, former assistant to the Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and head of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, said she is worried that people are not in the habit of putting money into savings, and that public pension plans need to take this into account.

By the time one retires, one should have saved enough and paid off enough of their mortgages and so on to scale back on expenditures once they're no longer employed. In the private sector, with its absence of official retirement ages, readiness is part of what determines whether a worker can stop working. There's no reason public sector employees should be any different just because they can band together in powerful unions that help elect the people who make decisions about their income.

Moreover, if "people" are not saving enough in general, then it makes little sense to take more money out of their paychecks in order to fund defined benefit pensions for folks retiring well before they've truly exhausted their working years. That's why, when I read such statements as this, I remain unmoved:

"One can debate whether it's good or bad, fair or unfair policy, but legally it makes no difference," contended Tarantino. "We've read and heard a lot about 'broken promises,' and there's a visceral reaction to that. In the world according to John Tarantino, people should keep their promises."

Granted, lawyer John Tarantino was laying some sympathetic gauze over his argument that the state should be able to change the terms of existing pensions, but this stuff about "promises" ought to be considered more specifically. When most of the pension "promises" that are strangling our towns, states, and nation were made, I was just beginning to work and not of voting age. I didn't even live in Rhode Island. Why should I insure public employees against the possibility that they didn't save enough to retire comfortably in their forties and fifties?


July 19, 2011


Training for Jobs That Don't Exist

Justin Katz

Under normal circumstances, this program might be an unalloyed positive, and I do believe that every student should have some familiarity with construction and trades:

On Olmsted Way, a short street across from the Wanskuck Mill on Charles Street, 10 graduates of the YouthBuild Providence program are at work this summer, renovating 24 apartments in two buildings at the Olmsted Gardens affordable-housing complex. ...

In the YouthBuild Providence program, www.youthbuildprov.org, part of the national YouthBuild network, low-income youths ages 16 to 24 work to earn their GEDs or high school diplomas while also learning job skills by building affordable housing. Marques said the 10-month educational program includes alternating weeks of classroom work and on-the-job training.

The money for the program appears to come, ultimately, through the federal government, in part (one infers) by paying for the projects, which thereby operate with the inexpensive labor. But are public dollars spent on training for a flailing industry really a good idea?

The organization's Web site calls construction "a booming industry in our state that is poised for substantial growth." Another article in Sunday's Providence Journal, however, describes the industry's employment position as follows:

In building construction, slight job gains in commercial and industrial construction are being swamped by losses in residential, where foreclosures, tight credit and depressed prices have taken a toll. In June, residential and commercial building companies employed 1.2 million workers, down 15,900, or 1.3% from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department.

Back in October, Rhode Island led the nation in its percentage of construction jobs lost, and I haven't seen any evidence that much has changed. That means that job training programs focusing on building are adding low-end labor to an industry that already has a great deal of downward pressure on employment and salaries. And a 10-month program does so relatively quickly.

That sounds like a blueprint for stagnation for older workers and disappointment for new entrants to the trade. Were it a (gasp) for-profit program — with enrollees paying for their training — it would have to adjust to economic trends. With government funding, the folks making the financial decisions aren't those who stand to gain or lose by graduates' success or failure, and the bureaucracy in place to funnel the funds generates its own motivation.


July 14, 2011


The Meaning of Corruption

Carroll Andrew Morse

Commenter Michael responded to Justin's statement from earlier in the week concerning "the faulty attitude under which the public sector has become corrupted" by saying…

The public sector is not corrupted. These generalized comments, written as fact are what prompts me to draw the proverbial line in the sand and defend the public sector without participating in any worthwhile debate due to the preconceived "fact" that my employment status and ethics are questionable, and my work and compensation tainted.
I'm going to cover a fair amount of ground in a short space, so there may be a gap or two...

To understand the rift that has opened between public sector organizations and the public, the meaning of corruption has to be understood in its broadest sense. The term corruption as used in news reports usually denotes acts of thievery and dishonestly committed by a public officials or employees. Corruption, however, also suggests something that happens before the corrupt act, i.e. how it is that surrendering to temptation might change a person.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr succinctly and poignantly discussed what he called "the corruption of self-interest" in his essay on the realism of St. Augustine...

It is this powerful self-love or, in modern terms, "egocentricity", this tendency of the self to make itself its own end or even to make itself the false center of whatever community it inhabits, which sows confusion into every human community....
(What, you mean Reinhold Niebuhr and St. Augustine aren't the first sources you think of, when discussing public labor tensions in Rhode Island?)

Humans are susceptible to the temptations that arise not only from the self-interest expressly highlighted by Niebuhr, but also from an interest in helping those who immediately surround them. Most obviously, personal interests widen to take into account an individual's family and immediate friends. In the case of many public employees, the widening beyond strict self-interest frequently takes another form. When someone regularly deals on a firsthand basis with people in need of real help -- and in the case of public safety workers, people who are in real danger -- it is natural to prioritize the needs of those making or answering calls for help ahead of the monitions raised by people not immediate in distress, who are asking for relief from the strains they feel are being created by publicly-imposed obligations. But just like self-interest is not inherently bad, but leads to problems when pressed too far, so too can the impulse to help those whom we have most direct contacts with create problems and confusion, when effects of our actions on people outside of our personal interactions are too severely discounted. No human being is immune to this, which means no human system is immune to this. (Well, maybe DMV clerks are immune. Whether you are right in front of them or completely out of their sight and mind seems to make no difference to how they treat you).

The social and political environment that individuals live in will either enhance or dissuade the potential for the corruption of self-interest that exists in all of us. We have learned from history that the potential is greatly enhanced when one person or group is given power over others to say that we're taking from you what we deserve, that we will tell you how much you owe us, and that there's nothing you can do to alter how much we are going to take. This is a dynamic that has created lots of turmoil throughout history. To maintain a functioning society that does not succumb to that turmoil, political institutions need to be designed to dissuade more than enhance this tendency of one group of people to try to take from another in pursuit of their personal interests. The emphasis is on the political here because political institutions are the most easily changed. Social systems can be changed too, but more slowly and with more unpredictable results. The laws of economics cannot be changed, no matter what liberals and progressives may think.

Unfortunately, right now in the United States, we live under a number of governmental processes that do more to enhance than to dissuade the inescapable potential for corruption that is part of the human condition. For a small example, consider the mischief with disability pensions from Rhode Island's recent past. Were the people who took advantage of this flaw in the system granting them early "retirements" fundamentally different from people now? Are we going to confidently claim that we are significantly more honest than our predecessors from just a decade or two before? I think a more reasonable answer is that a badly designed system allowed the worst impulses that exist in everyone to be enhanced and acted upon.

For a more important example, consider the period of time where the union representatives on the City of Providence retirement board were allowed to vote themselves benefits, regardless of what the representatives accountable to the entire community might decide. The union reps voted themselves huge benefit packages, without regard to how paying for those benefits would impact the community. They didn't outright want to hurt others, but since the union reps felt the positive effects of their decisions directly, while the negative impacts were on people they weren't directly connected to, they didn't care. This is a crystal-clear manifestation of Niebuhr's concept of the corruption of self-interest sowing the seeds of confusion into the community.

To prevent the corruption of self-interest from running rampant through our government, we need to restore some basic checks and balances into our political systems that insure that government being responsible to all of the people. We cannot let one group of citizens make extreme long-term claims on a piece of the livelihoods and property of others, without expecting some very negative consequences. We cannot leave a future generation encumbered by circumstances they are not responsible for. It is our responsibility, as citizens in a democratic society, to design a system that passes along to the next generation as much of the stuff we know about making government work despite the limitations of human nature, while not saddling the next generation with our mistakes. Right now, we have a political system that too often exhibits an unfortunate tendency to do the opposite.


July 12, 2011


Pensions Are an Example, Not the Whole Problem

Justin Katz

I'm skeptical that anything substantial will come of the current push for pension reform among elected officials, but even if some positive change results, I'm concerned that elected officials and the public alike will wipe their hands together with a collective "problem solved." This article explaining that growing pension costs promise to eat up whole increases in school budgets for the next fiscal year, for example, doesn't offer any hint that labor costs have been doing just that for years, decades.

But let's start with the faulty attitude under which the public sector has become corrupted:

"In some regards the state Retirement Board made its adjustments in a void without thinking about the wealth of the communities in the state or conflicts with the tax levy cap," Peder A. Schaefer, assistant director of the [Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns], said.

The only consideration that the Retirement Board ought to make when setting payment requirements is what reasonable predictions should be applied. The fact that the promises of elected officials will be difficult to requite does not lead to the conclusion that the state ought to pretend otherwise, which is what Schaefer is ultimately suggesting.

The executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Tim Duffy, gets a little closer to my main subject, though:

"Hopefully the pension review commission will address this major problem," Duffy, from the school committee association, said. "Otherwise we have a situation that doesn't even allow for critical decision-making by school committees. "They won't even have the ability to weigh what [programs] are most important to student learning because basically they'll have budgets that are just funding a retirement system."

This dynamic is nothing new. Schools have been ending programs (like music) and forcing parents to pay separately for sports precisely because school budgets, which almost never actually decrease, whatever enrollment may do, are basically just funding the salaries and benefits of the adults employed within them. Pensions are unique because they were future payments that administrators didn't have to slip into the system on an regular basis, as they have had to do with salaries and more immediate benefits, like healthcare.

Even with those, though, the game is stacked in the unions' favor, with steps, longevity, and the arsenal of budgetary tricks that make voters believe that they have no choice but to pay up. We don't need structural changes just for pensions. We need them for our entire school system.


July 5, 2011


Providence used as example of how "Compensation Monster [is] Devouring Cities"

Marc Comtois

Steve Malanga looks at the national problem of cities in over their heads (particularly because of pension promises) and uses Providence (and New Haven, CT) as examples:

Cities are also running out of fiscal alternatives to deal with their deficits. Like states...many cities have used one-shot revenue deals, hidden borrowing, and other gimmicks to bolster their finances. The weak economy has lasted so long, though, that these techniques have been exhausted. To balance its 2010 budget, for example, Providence, Rhode Island, borrowed some $48 million (using its fire stations and headquarters as collateral); it also drained most of its reserve fund, which shrank from $17 million to $2 million in just one year. Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings subsequently downgraded the city’s bond ratings by two notches, essentially ending its ability to use fiscal gimmicks. But Providence still faces a budget squeeze because its retiree costs amount to 50 percent of tax collections.
Nationally, the rate of growth of such local expenditures outpaced state and federal:
Local governments also helped bring on their current budget nightmares by carelessly expanding hiring and wages in recent boom years. In the decade leading up to the 2008 financial crash, the number of workers for cities, towns, and schools increased 16 percent, even though the country’s overall population grew just 12.5 percent. Wages also increased, and, of course, the hiring frenzy made those pension obligations even worse. The result: over the same decade, the total in wages and benefits that public schools paid to teachers and noninstructional staff (to take one category of public-sector worker) jumped an amazing 72 percent, despite moderate increases in student enrollment.
As Ted Nesi highlighted, albeit over a longer period, local government payrolls increased while state payrolls went down. Some argue that the cuts in state jobs have led to the increases at the local level. But, looking at Nesi's chart, it's obvious the local growth doesn't equate to the state reduction.



NEA Disapproves of and Supports Obama

Marc Comtois

Anyone who keeps abreast of education issues knows that teachers are not particularly enamored with President Obama's education reform: Race to the Top (RI Ed. Commissioner Deborah Gist certainly takes heat for her local championing of this national policy), school turnaround models (think Central Falls) or expanding charter schools are just a few policies that rank-and-file teachers regularly castigate in comments sections at various blogs (education or political) or newspapers, for instance.

That's why it was no surprise when, in a recent address to the national convention of the NEA, Vice-President Biden was greeted with loud applause when he stated that, according to the AP, "there's widespread unhappiness among teachers for the Obama administration's education policies."

That's the same AP story explaining that the NEA has already endorsed President Obama for re-election. (No word yet if the RI tactic--tacitly endorsed by the silence from NEARI leadership--of having six-figure union leaders harass and bully* political opponents will be part of the national effort of the NEA).

I suppose the argument is that the NEA has no where else to go, right? It's too bad the rank and file have put themselves in the position of removing half of the electorate from political consideration. You'd think an organization composed of people who deal with all types of kids and their parents would be a little less inclined to have such an attitude. Maybe be a little more open minded. After all, conservatives are generally the ones who support more local control for education (instead of the imposition of, we're oft told by teachers, unrealistic, idealistic education mandates from above). Federal guidelines are inherently less flexible than those controlled locally. Local entities can more easily put pressure on local politicians and bureaucrats to effect change (for good or ill), whether that pressure is applied regarding teacher pay and benefits or the more important education quality and student-centric issues.

But it's pretty obvious that pedagogy and policy really are second-tier concerns. Actions indicate that the real concern of the rank and file--as the binding arbitration legislation shows and no matter the "for the children" gloss that is put out--is pay and benefits (not surprising nor meant to be damning--we all have our fiscal self-interests). I guess the NEA leadership is banking that the Democratic Party still provides the best chance for being "taken care of" as far as monetary compensation while "job quality" issues (ie; federal mandates and student-centric reform) take a back seat. The lack of dissent amongst the rank and file regarding the Obama endorsement indicates the NEA leaders' political calculations are correct.

*Incidentally, remember the big anti-bullying push in schools this year? Glad NEARI is setting an example.


June 30, 2011


UPDATE: For Binding Arb, as the Magic 8-Ball Might Say, It's Very Doubtful

Carroll Andrew Morse

Lisa Blais of the Rhode Island Tea Party just posted the following to her Facebook page...

League of Cities and Towns received assurance that binding arb. will not be a problem tonight. RI School Committee Association Exec Dir. given same assurance but will not leave the State House until the session is officially closed. We may indeed be out of the woods for this year.
ADDENDUM:

Jennifer D. Jordan has a story up at 7-to-7, including an official quote from House Speaker Gordon Fox...

House Speaker Gordon D. Fox announced at 7:45 Thursday evening that a bill that would expand binding arbitration for teachers will not move foward, ending one of the most contentious battles of the last days of the legislative session.



All You Need to Know About Binding Arbitration

Justin Katz

GoLocalProv puts the added price tag of binding arbitration for teachers at $2 billion (albeit with few specific details). For my part, I'd say that National Education Association of Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh tells us all we need to know about binding arbitration:

Expanding the binding arbitration law to teachers and other school employees would mean "no strikes, no work-to-rule, no disruption of the education environment," Walsh said. "It will bring labor peace and let teachers teach and just focus on the kids."

Take a moment to roll that statement around in your mind and consider its various angles. People who are willing to "disrupt the education environment" and the communities that they supposedly serve to secure high pay raises and low copays are willing to give up their weapons for binding arbitration. That's how much they expect binding arbitration to work in their favor.



Arbitration and History

Justin Katz

Marc and Matt Allen continued the conversation about binding arbitration on last night's Matt Allen Show and went on to talk a bit about Michelle Bachmann. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


June 29, 2011


UPDATE: Binding Arbitration Passes the Full Senate

Carroll Andrew Morse

The binding arbitration bill has already passed the full Senate, 20-17.

UPDATE:

According to the information of the General Assembly website, Senator Frank Lombardo voted for binding arbitration in committee, in a 5-3 vote for passage, but against the measure on the floor. With the ex-officio votes available (Senators Paiva-Weed, Ruggerio and Algiere can vote in all committees), Senator Lombardo's vote didn't necessarily impact the outcome, but if he is unable to provide a good explanation for why he flip-flopped in the span of several hours, he should from now on be dubbed "The Johnston Joker".



FLASH: Senate Committee Adjourns Arbitration Hearing...then Quickly Reconvenes and Approves

Marc Comtois

Monique called into Matt Allen to report that the Senate Labor Committee had approved binding arbitration after having ended the hearing, clearing the room and then quickly reconvening to vote.

Voting YES (to pass the bill)
Ciccone
Doyle
Goodwin
Lombardo
McCaffrey

Voting NO
Hodgson
Picard
Fogarty

There is still hope in the House, which is hearing testimony as we speak (though supposedly no vote will happen tonight).



Matt Allen on Binding Arb

Carroll Andrew Morse

Matt Allen of WPRO (630AM) is on top of the binding arbitration issue, via his Twitter feed...

Gop State Reps Watson and Ehrhardt send an open letter to the Speaker to adjourn tomorrow and forget binding arb.
15 minutes ago

Larry Berman says the Speaker wants to review the new binding arb bill and review testimony.
1 hour ago

House Speaker's spokesman Larry Berman tells me there will be no vote on Binding Arb. tonight in Labor Committee. Only testimony.
1 hour ago



Re: Binding Arbitration Bill Made Public

Carroll Andrew Morse

This is the current language in Rhode Island law on the right of public school teachers to strike...

"Certified School Teachers' Arbitration", 28-9.3-1(b) It is declared to be the public policy of this state to accord to certified public school teachers the right to organize, to be represented, to negotiate professionally, and to bargain on a collective basis with school committees covering hours, salary, working conditions, and other terms of professional employment; provided, that nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to accord to certified public school teachers the right to strike.
This is the proposed language in the binding arbitration bill being heard in House and Senate committee hearings today...
28-9.3-9.2 Conduct of teachers during arbitration -- Proceedings -- (a) No certified public school teacher shall participate in a strike.
There is very little difference.

The deal being offered to RI taxpayers is that, in return for being stripped of their rights to have democratically accountable representatives determine how money is to be spent on public schools, they will receive absolutely nothing. This is, of course, what RI teachers' unions refer to as taking a "bargaining" position in good faith.



Binding Arbitration Bill Made Public

Marc Comtois

The arbitration bill has been made public (PDF) along with a press release explaining the rationale. A "Last Best Offer - Final Package" model has been added:

The legislation changes the arbitration process to one in which the complete “Last Best Offer” from both teachers’ unions and management is considered in its entirety, as opposed to the current approach in which various elements of proposals are considered individually. It extends matters eligible for arbitration to wages, and changes the manner in which arbitrators are selected. Under the current system, one arbitrator is chosen by each side in negotiations, and the third arbitrator is selected from the American Arbitration Association. The new legislation proposes that the third arbitrator would be selected instead by the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court from a list of retired judges and justices.
The legislation also outlines what the arbitration panel is supposed to consider before making a decision:
28-9.3-9.2.1 Factors to be considered by the arbitration board. – The arbitrators shall conduct the hearing and render their decision upon the basis of a prompt, peaceful and just settlement of wage or hour disputes or working conditions and terms and conditions of professional employment between the teachers and the school committee by which they are employed. The factors to be considered by the arbitration board shall include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) The interest and welfare of the students, teachers, and taxpayers;
(2) The city or town’s ability to pay;
(3) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for other Rhode Island public school teachers;
(4) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for the same or similar skills under the same or similar working conditions in the local operating area involved; and
(5) Comparison of education qualification and professional development requirements in regard to other professions.
According to various reports, mayors, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, RISC, the Moderate Party, the RI Tea Party and others are against the legislation. For example:
The bill’s opponents say they are concerned that the expansion of binding arbitration would instead place job protections for teachers ahead of sound educational policy.

“The temptation for an arbitrator to look at financial issues — to the detriment of the contract overall — is overwhelming,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

“If the union says they are willing to freeze pay and give an additional 5 percent to health care, but insist on no changes to existing language that protects, for example, 30 paid days of teacher sick leave each year, will an arbitrator say, ‘Well it’s a good financial deal?’ ” Duffy said.

“Our concern is, the unions understand the difficult environment for wages right now, so what they will use binding arbitration for is to dig in on the contract language they want to protect....We know teacher unions are worried about teacher seniority and teacher evaluations,” Duffy said. “Binding arbitration is a way of handcuffing the entire education-reform movement.”

The only apparent supporters of this legislation are teacher unions. Why?

Are pensioned and retired judges the best people to assess whether the contract proposals offered by municipalities are a result of fiscal reality? Will communities be more generous than otherwise in hopes of possibly "winning" the "last best offer" showdown? What will inevitably happen is that both union and community proposals will mean more dollars for the unions. Like I said before: binding arbitration = tax hike.

Finally, the whole concept of binding arbitration provides an "out" for our elected officials, making it easier for them to avoid really negotiating when that is a major part of the job that we elect them to do. "It wasn't us, the arbitrator made the decision."



Standards for State Employment? Who'd Have Thought?

Justin Katz

An op-ed from Common Cause Rhode Island Executive Director John Marion raises one of those issues that is apt to make the average Rhode Islander wonder why things don't work that way already:

The key to solving this [hiring] problem [in the General Assembly] is to put in place sound human-resources practices — in this case an employee-classification plan. This plan would contain a salary structure to be used to guide who is paid how much, and for what work. With this plan in place the public could hold the General Assembly responsible for any raises that deviated from the salary structure for any given job. ...

Determining what is necessary to do a job requires you to look at the job content, the job context, the intensity of the mental processes required and the effect of the work on results. The content of a job includes which knowledge and skills are necessary to complete the work, including any specialized knowledge. The job context includes the conditions the person works in, such as the seasonal nature of different tasks. Looking at those factors you can create a job description to then be used in recruitment or performance evaluation for that position. Those who do the hiring, in this case the leadership of the General Assembly, would have to justify hires, raises or promotions on the basis of objective qualifications for the position.

In areas dealing with union labor, the contracts do some of that work, but that only highlights additional ways in which such a system would benefit the public — by moving matters of employment further from the negotiating table.

In any event, the reform is so obvious and straightforward that it would surely require a concerted fight over at least a decade to even bring it into the realm of possibility. For the time being, we should just try to make names like that of Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's special assistant, union-boss son Stephen Iannazzi infamous.


June 28, 2011


Everybody Wants Action

Justin Katz

Everybody's telling us to call our legislators. An email from the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC):

THE WORST SCENARIO IS NOW UPON US, AS RISC HAS WARNED. IF THERE WERE EVER A TIME TO PICK UP YOUR PHONE OR EMAIL YOUR LEGISLATOR, IT IS NOW!

THE LABOR UNIONS HAVE STRUCK A DEAL WITH HOUSE AND SENATE LABOR COMMITTEES TO PASS BINDING ARBITRATION.

HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE:

Binding Arbitration means even more crushing property taxes...RHODE ISLANDERS ARE ALREADY HURTING WITH HIGH TAXES, BUT THIS UNION POWER GRAB WILL FORCE THEM FROM THEIR HOMES AND CAUSE FISCAL CHAOS IN OUR LOCAL CITIES AND TOWNS.

CALL TODAY AND SHOW UP AT THE STATE HOUSE TOMORROW! IF THIS PASSES, RI TAXPAYERS ARE TOAST. IT COULDN'T BE MORE SERIOUS.

Later, from Ken Block and the Moderate Party:

Binding arbitration is back - and the stakes are huge.

There could not be a worse time for our legislature to consider tieing the hands of local elected leaders by removing from their toolbox the ability to negotiate local labor contracts.

Binding arbitration places the responsibility for negotiating local labor contracts with an unelected third party. We can ill afford to allow an outsider to determine local tax rates, which is in effect what will happen if the expansion of binding arbitration is allowed to proceed.

In a sane polity — and I offer this as a suggestion to those who remain sane around here — any legislator who plays any role in advancing binding arbitration would be considered forever unelectable no matter what he or she might subsequently say or do. But this isn't a sane polity; it's Rhode Island, and if (as rumors suggest) Democrats and labor leaders exchanged a mere wince at the end of state-employee longevity payments for binding arbitration, then they've merely found another variation of the one-time fix.

With binding arbitration, your elected officials cease to be the ones with the final say on expenditures of your money confiscated via taxation. If this is the deal that's been struck, then all Rhode Islanders for whom leaving is a realistic possibility should probably do so.

That conclusion comes, not the least, because only with the death of binding arbitration can there be considered to exist a glimmer of hope that the the state's civic culture could right itself. If binding arbitration comes to be, the wave of groups — from RISC to the Moderate Party to the Ocean State Policy Research Institute (OSPRI) to the RIGOP to Anchor Rising — are no longer "reform groups," but must be considered the voices of a subversive minority, fighting a rear-guard action mainly so that historians can report that some lone voices warned the state.



Binding Arbitration = Tax Hike

Marc Comtois

The House and Senate Labor Committees will be conducting simultaneous hearings and votes on binding arbitration laws tomorrow. A fait accompli? Probably.

Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, whose organization opposes the legislation on grounds that it would make local taxpayers liable for the decisions of an unelected panel, said the move by both labor committees to act on the same legislation on the same day "does not bode well for our ability to stop its happening."

"It indicates a deal has been cut between the House and the Senate leadership to pass a binding arbitration bill," Duffy said. "It seems that the teacher unions have convinced legislative leadership that since the fiscal 2012 budget ended longevity bonuses for state employees they should be awarded binding arbitration as a concession. The state gets $4 million in savings and local government gets to pay for it with a new unfunded mandate."

Quid pro quo (OK, enough Latin)...no one should be surprised. We've been warning about it for a while. Why is it so bad, you may ask? Because it basically takes away the ability of school committees or city and town councils to actually negotiate with unions. Instead, the unions can play a waiting game, go to an arbitrator (or arbitration panel) who will, in the best case scenario, cut the baby in half between two proposals. Arbitrators are wont to look at so-called "comparables"--contracts and compensation data from other communities--that inherently benefit unions (someone, somewhere is always paying more) all while ignoring the actual ability of communities (ie; taxpayers) to pay. The end result: taxes go up.


June 27, 2011


Teacher Union Logic... Maybe It's Me

Justin Katz

There are a number of weird statements in this article about the Providence Teacher Union's attempts to protect seniority-based hiring. First is this statement, which I'm not sure is entirely meant to say what it does but indicates a mentality that surely exists in the public school system:

The new BEP is designed to ensure that the most effective teachers are placed in classrooms of students who have the most need.

If the "most effective" teachers are serving the children "most in need," what about the other students? Somehow our system seems to favor hard cases, which is fine, to an extent, but it doesn't seem like the best strategy for building a globe-leading advanced nation.

Then there's the peculiar union worldview:

[Union lawyer Marc] Gursky says it makes no sense to talk about seniority before the state has rolled out a new system for teacher evaluations, which will begin to take place statewide this fall.

"To say that seniority can't be a factor before you have an evaluation in place is like putting the cart before the horse," he said.

Evaluations and minimizing seniority-based decisions would seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, one way to find a merit-based system that works is to let administrators begin experimenting.

But the weirdest statement may be this one, in reporter Linda Borg's paraphrase:

The PTU argument is similar to one made by the Portsmouth School Committee two weeks ago. In a lawsuit filed against the Portsmouth Teachers Union, the School Committee claims that it has final say over how teachers are assigned. The committee, in April, approved a new hiring process that diminishes the role of seniority in staffing decisions.

The Providence Teacher's Union is arguing that the state can't insist on an end to seniority, and the Portsmouth School Committee is arguing that it has a right to end seniority in contravention of contractual habits. How are those the same?



The Value of a Dream Job

Justin Katz

An agreement appears to be near completion that would prevent the layoffs of 75 Providence police officers, but Friday's human interest story in the Providence Journal — highlighting young officers' sense of their "dream jobs" — touches on broader considerations pertaining to public-sector workers:

By March, [Sean Lafferty and Matthew McGloin] were named Officers of the Month for their numerous arrests, which contributed to a 50-percent drop in drug-related calls in the West End.

"We love coming to work. We know in our hearts that what we're doing is good. We're proud to be here," Lafferty said. "We don't want to leave."

Added McGloin: "This is our dream."

How bizarre is a system that places such men in the first wave of layoffs? And how much more productive would the police force be if they set a bar with which other officers felt at least some tangible incentive to compete? As with much else in the public sector, the rules appear designed to force the administrators and the public to make the worst decisions if ever they seek to rein in expenses.

Another point worth salvaging from the article is that jobs can have value beyond their pay:

[Donald] Castigliego had given up a well-paying job in the mortgage industry for this, spending months in the academy at minimum wage before hitting the streets as a rookie officer. "Other than my son, it's probably the proudest thing in my life," he said.

The layoffs have left him heartbroken, Castigliego says.

"I think people should realize — and I speak for my class — there's 25 guys who didn't take that job for a paycheck. They all gave up a lot to take this job," Castigliego said. "And every single one of those guys loves this job, and is here for the right reasons. We're not just a number."

Just because a job is fulfilling doesn't mean it shouldn't pay well, but the fact that people want a job is clearly an aspect of compensation. What's happened over the past half-century is that public-sector unions have taken advantage of the fact that they can appeal to voters, not to mention apply political weight to elect friendly bosses, so as to skew all such calculations. A fulfilling job that pays very well, with great benefits and uncommon job security, is not just a dream, it's a fantasy.

As reluctant as we may justifiably be to push back the expectations of motivated and well-meaning young men and women, there is no alternative, because the perpetuation of such a system cannot but come at the expense of others' dreams.


June 24, 2011


In and Out of the Public Sector

Justin Katz

The conversation was mainly of Esserman and arbitration when Monique called in to the Matt Allen Show, on Wednesday. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


June 21, 2011


Yes, Let's Address the Problem

Justin Katz

I have to express agreement with this comment that Project Future 2000 and Beyond founder Osiris Harrell made during discussion of the proposed Cranston mayoral academy:

"Public schools can be fixed if you people focused on what's wrong with the public schools, instead of spending all this time in trying to reinvent the wheel," Harrell said.

The difference is that many of us believe that the underlying problem with public education is the unioniized, bureaucratic morass into which it's been dragged, and by layering in some degree of competition, to highlight the problems of the public school system by contrast, charter schools can at least begin to change the discussion from the well worn rhetoric of unions and other entrenched players.


June 15, 2011


A Glimpse Behind the Union Curtain

Justin Katz

We've all made such mistakes as the Internet allows... replying too quickly for rationality to assert itself, sending mail to the wrong person, accidentally forwarding a conversation thread to parties with whom we shouldn't share them. When RI AFL-CIO President George Nee accidentally replied to an email by Providence Journal columnist Ed Achorn that he appears to have intended to forwarded to somebody else, however, he gave us a glimpse of labor's backroom exchanges.

Achorn had expanded his inquiry into the matter of Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio's hiring of Stephen Iannazzi, a union colleague's college-dropout son, at $90,000 per year to include Nee, and subsequently received the following reply:

the man has little to do with his time, i will not reply or speak to him, you can send this to marl if it helps but it doesn't appear that they can back him off, great reporter he just figured out i am the chair of the baord

"Backing off" may refer to a threatening email that Achorn mentions earlier in the column, or perhaps it refers to some other strategy. After all, Achorn's long been a target of the local labor hierarchy, which sends minions to disrupt his public speeches and such.

Whatever the case, it's surprising that the entrenched union powers would allow the cracks to begin showing over such a minor matter as a near-nepotistic job swapping, especially at a time when the spotlight is already on the unsustainability of their sweet pension deals. Even a mild inquiry into union-backed scholarships that Iannazzi had received from the Rhode Island Institute for Labor Studies begins to reveal the deeper game: The Institute's executive director, Robert Delaney ($113,822 total compensation, plus benefits), comes into the public eye by refusing to answer Achorn's basic questions and brings with him Carolina Bernal, who also works for the Institute and whom Governor Chafee appointed to his newly labor-friendly Board of Regents for Elementary Secondary Education.

That dot connects to Board of Regents member Colleen Callahan, who would be Mrs. Delaney if she'd taken her husband's name and who works for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and health Professionals, taking home $183,971, plus benefits.

An interesting task for somebody with the time (which would be me were I able to make a full-time job of Anchor Rising) would be to create a chart of the various union positions and their associated salaries, as well as the personal links of the people who hold them. Such a resource might shed some light on the environment in which young Iannazzi procured his job and why powerful union leaders might want to back people away from the house of cards, lest they breathe a bit too heavily on it.


June 10, 2011


Seniority Means Efficiency in Whistleblowing?

Justin Katz

Can't say I buy the rationale that Eloise Wyatt offers for preserving seniority policies among public school teachers:

By eliminating seniority you get rid of the protection that lets teachers speak, up and stand up when an administration is hurting children. In my time as a special-education teacher in Providence, it was common for administration to save money to shortchange or totally deny students the services they were required to have by law.

Only when students had teachers protected by seniority was there someone to advocate for those students. It is not only special-needs students who can get ground up in by administration. Often students need an advocate. Sadly, any teacher who speaks out now might find themselves without jobs.

That might be an argument for tenure (although one must then wonder why every employee of every conceivable business doesn't need such protections), but seniority? What if it's a young teacher who sees the need to advocate for students? Indeed, it seems far more likely that fresh eyes in an educational system are more apt to spot the inappropriate activities that have worked themselves into the school's culture.

Of course, even by considering the topic to this extent, I'm allowing for the sake of discussion the assertion that teachers are more likely than administrators to be students' advocates. It seems to me that, in a properly run school, the principals, superintendent, school committee, and other non-teaching personnel would have at least as much motivation to ensure that students are well served and their parents satisfied with the job that the schools are doing.


June 9, 2011


More Commentary on Stephen Iannazzi

Justin Katz

My situation may be unique (although I doubt it), but one of the consequences of Rhode Island's political and economic structure is that it is so darn difficult just to get by and raise a family that little time remains to keep a consistently watchful eye on local political corruption. Such has been the case in my efforts to garner commentary on the union-rep nepotism that brought 25-year-old Stephen Iannazzi into a $90,000 State House job.

But the responses have come trickling in, nonetheless.

To recap, young Iannazzi's boss, Senate Majority Leader Dominique Ruggerio has defended the hiring in no uncertain terms. East Bay state Senator Louis DiPalma defended it, as well. Responding to an inquiry from me, several local elected officials took varying positions. Since then, Tiverton Town Council Member Rob Coulter sent the following:

Thank you for calling this to my attention. I agree that the qualification profile and the close relationships connected with such a highly paid public position are grounds for serious concern and further inquiry.

While obviously this involves a state – not Tiverton – position, we all share a common interest in transparent, efficient government. With Rhode Island suffering from the third worst unemployment rate in the nation, I’d say taxpayers, and other state employees for that matter, deserve a thorough confirmation of whether this $88,000 position was, and still is, appropriately filled. Perhaps a more thorough explanation will satisfy these questions which have been fairly raised, and I hope that our Senate delegation will take the appropriate steps to ensure public confidence in the integrity of the public hiring system and that taxpayer dollars are being spent fairly and wisely.

Coulter's fellow Tiverton Town Council member Joan Chabot looked into general salary levels:

I have reviewed the Providence Journal article that you indicated in this email and conducted some research into JCLS. I couldn't easily find hiring/compensation procedures for the JCLS, but found only that it should be similar to the procedures used by the executive branch.

I also researched salary information for a legislative assistant/legislative aide position to get an idea of the "going" rate. That research produced an average salary of $46,000 for a legislative assistant/aide at the state level.

Based on this research, I think it is very suspicious that a person with no experience and no college degree could qualify for a legislative aide position with a starting salary of $88,112. Common sense dictates that this issue deserves further explanation and scrutiny.

Many questions come to mind... What was the hiring process? Were there other applicants for this position? Were interviews conducted? What are the salaries of other legislative assistants/aides? Is this person’s salary in range of the other assistants/aides? If it is, why is the salary range so high?

This should certainly send up a red flag in government spending at a time when the state can least afford an $88K legislative aide. I’m certain we can find several college graduates that would take the job for half the salary. Our state legislators should be questioning this issue and pushing for answers from the JCLS now that they are aware of the situation. And if irregularities are found, then the situation must be addressed.

From the RI House, Representative Dan Gordon (R, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton) responded as follows:

I believe that at a bare minimum, the questions that have been posed by the media and the public regarding the hiring of Mr. Iannazzi must be answered. The lack of responses thus far are certainly lending to the cloud of suspicion.

As a State Representative and custodian of taxpayer dollars, it is troubling to me that there are obvious family and labor ties involved in hiring this young man. I’m certain the people would like to see his resume, what exactly are the job duties of a Senate Aide that justify an $88,112 salary with state benefits, how the position was advertised, and the resumes of the other applicants. I know for a fact that highly qualified degree holders have offered to do the job for half the salary. Let’s see some transparency from the Senate chamber.

And Rep. John Edwards (D, Tiverton, Portsmouth) mailed the following on House stationery:

Thank you for contacting me in reference to Senator DiPalma's remarks concerning a recent hire by the Senate Majority Leader. While I do not know this particular individual or of his qualifications, I was surprised to read that someone so young was so well compensated.

My experience has been that the level of income this young man receives is normally reserved for someone more experienced in their field. Again, I will re-iterate that I have no knowledge of his qualifications.

The hiring and personnel process in the General Assembly should be addressed to bring more transparency to it, to allow more people to apply for these positions. I have spoken to Speaker Fox, concerning the recent pay raises he has given to a number of House employees. I expressed my disagreement with his decision and shared the many outraged calls and emails I received from my constituents. The leadership of the General Assembly needs to be sensitive to the concerns of our constituents on this matter, especially in the midst of this deep and long recession.

So, I've not yet found another elected official willing to take DiPalma's astonishing step of defending Ruggerio's hire of his union pal's son at an absurdly high salary, but I've also not seen indication of any sparks for further action. I'll soon be posting a chart of people I've contacted and their responses (or lack thereof), as well as contacting more elected officials and other people involved in state and local politics.


June 8, 2011


Both Sides of the Labor Mouth

Justin Katz

This has got to be my favorite argument that labor reps are making now that the problems are no longer deniable:

"If you incentivize and stop burning your overtime, you'll get $6 million in the blink of an eye," [union lawyer Joseph] Rodio said Tuesday. Officers see the loss of prized overtime as a concession.

I think it was Rodio who told Dan Yorke, the other day, that the problem is that the city of Providence was irresponsible in the salaries and overtime that it gave to union police officers. Of course, the union has fought and will fight any attempts to achieve reasonableness, but hey, that's the system.



An Acute Example of the Broader System

Justin Katz

If you skipped the historical essay to which Marc linked on Monday, give it a read. It concerns the making of the pension mess in Providence, and its most valuable insight, in my view, is the light that it shines on the entire dynamic created by public sector unions.

The defining statement comes from firefighter and Local 799 union President Stephen Day, who was a member of the 1989 Providence Retirement Board that then Chief of Administration John Simmons said "broke the city":

"All we did" on Dec. 6, 1989, says Day, "was vote in broad daylight and do what we had the right to do. If we had the authority to do this, we were going to do it. You can't fault someone for being aware" of the laws. "I don't regret it at all."

Of course, union leaders typically have good reason to be aware of the law, because they work so hard in such a long-term coordinated fashion. Step one was to give the unions the controlling hand on the Retirement Board:

During the 1970s, Senate Majority Leader John P. Hawkins, a former Providence firefighter himself, and other senators began advocating legislation that would add two union representatives to the city's Retirement Board, thus tipping the balance. The legislation eventually passed around 1977.

Step two appears to have been to insert some innocuous-seeming language in the city's home-rule charter, and step three was to lob a court case into the system (to a judge with who knows what motivation) to change the nature of the board's authority:

The [spring 1989] case involved a Providence police officer, Walter Bruckshaw, who, along with 100 other city employees, wanted to buy credit in the city pension system for work they had done for other government agencies. The Retirement Board denied them. The court ruled the city's home rule charter, which went into effect in 1983, granted the Providence Retirement Board control over city pension decisions.

And voila. Day and his counterpart in the police union, Richard Patterson, ran for seats on the board promising to "boost the pensions of current and future retirees. The result? Compounded cost of living adjustments (COLAs) of 3-6%, tripled minimum pensions for police and firemen, and reduced minimum years of service. As city administrators strove to control the bleeding, the unions maneuvered these issues into contract negotiations. Then came all of the individual Pension Board decisions:

In 1991, every police officer who retired in Providence –– 21 in all –– received a job-related disability pension from the Retirement Board.

Of the 53 firefighters leaving their jobs, the Retirement Board approved disability pensions for 48 of them.

So, yes, Day's statement about authority isn't without justification, but the authority ultimately comes not from the narrow scope of Providence politics and governance, but from the reality of public-sector unions in the first place. The unions get a seat at the negotiating table as employee representatives, and they get a hand in the political process that determines those with whom they'll be negotiating. That's simply the incentive structure of the system, and as becomes more undeniable with every passing month, the incentives are far too strong even for fiscal reality and inevitability to overcome.


June 3, 2011


To Whom Chafee Would Give a Refund

Justin Katz

Some last-minute budget amendments that Governor Lincoln Chafee has submitted to the General Assembly are telling with regard to his attitude and priorities:

In another budget amendment, [Budget Officer Thomas] Mullaney announced a "medical-benefit holiday" for state workers, that will spare them, for one pay period, of having to contribute to their health insurance benefits. ...

The reason: the state's numbers crunchers said they initially overestimated by $3.086 million how much the state is likely to need to cover the cost of the self-insured benefits.

So, in the governor's view, when the state overestimates the cost of employee benefits and budgets accordingly, it should in some way transfer the excess to employees. That's certainly defensible, and it might even be advisable, but then we move on a few paragraphs:

Asked how Chafee intends to pay for the 25 new DMV staffers and other additions to his original spending plan, spokesman Michael Trainor pointed to the recent upswing in revenue collections in the months since Chafee laid out his $7.66-billion budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. His new proposal stands at $7,753,482,420.

State budget analysts now believe revenue will run $53.8 million ahead of earlier estimates for the year that ends June 30, and $65.9 million ahead for the year that begins July 1.

That is, when the government collects more in taxes and fees than it expects, in the governor's view, it should spend every penny, mostly in ways that will build in the expenses for future budgets to, for example, pay for hired employees. As writer Kathrine Gregg goes on to note, the total increase in revenue projections is $113.3 million, which "could be used to offset the projected $331-million deficit next year."

Not if this governor has his way.


May 25, 2011


Selling Pension Reform: The No-Blame Game

Marc Comtois

When traveling the state and talking to various union groups, it's understandable--politically, yes, but also pragmatically--that General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is refraining from playing the blame game (well, except for various "politicians" of the past). She needs unions on board to make reform happen and if the rank and file can understand the scope of the problem and be persuaded that there is no malice in reform, then perhaps union leadership will not resist. So, we have this:

[S]he stressed that politics, not public employees, are to blame for a “broken” pension system that is endangering the security of their retirements, while also threatening to crush taxpayers with billions of dollars of debt.

“If there’s anything to blame, it’s politics,” Raimondo told more than 300 members of Local 580 of the Service Employees International Union gathered at the Cranston Portuguese Club off Elmwood Avenue. “For decades, politics has trumped honest, financial accounting.

“The fault does not lie with you. ...You have done nothing wrong. You have played by the rules,” she said. “The fault lies with a poorly designed [pension] system that has been faltering for decades.”

She's correct in that union members did nothing explicitly wrong in paying into the pension system crafted and promised by their leadership and mostly Democratic politicians. But she's also glossing over things. After all, union members did have a role to play in the "politics" she condemns. They are, at the least, implicitly responsible for the current pension mess for supporting and electing the union leadership and Democratic politicians that crafted this fiasco. The same leaders who don't necessarily play by the same rules.:
Both of the SEIU’s national pension plans issued “critical status letters” to their members in 2009​—​the Pension Protection Act requires such letters to be issued when funds can cover less than 65 percent of their obligations. The SEIU, however, maintains a separate pension plan for its national officers that was funded at 98.3 percent, according to the latest data.
Or actively undermine Raimondo's proposals while standing right next to her:
Frank Flynn, the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, told his retirees that the potential pension cuts that Raimondo outlined a day earlier, including a suspension of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for retirees are “just examples. They are not recommendations at this point,” he said.
For Raimondo, it's certainly easier in the short-term to suggest to people that they are victims than to tell them they are at least partially to blame for the events that have led to their current problem. For union members, it's easier being a victim than confronting the fact that you were naive, duped or made bad choices in trusting who you did with your future.

As for the politics, in the long term, if real reform happens, then this soft-sell tour may not insulate Raimondo from union ire (though it will ultimately be the General Assembly's stamp on the reform). Then again, there is no historical or political reason to believe that the General Assembly will be proactive, so, while I don't doubt her sincerity at all, politically it looks like she'll be able to present herself as a pro-union, "pragmatic progressive" reformer and maintain her future political viability.


May 6, 2011


Sleepy Public Construction Methods

Justin Katz

I've had occasion to drive through the construction site of the new Sakonnet River Bridge in Tiverton quite a bit, lately, and no matter how many times I see it, I never fail to be impressed with the structural inefficiency of the work habits. The other day, I saw three employees gabbing over two who were doing masonry work while two stood nearby to direct traffic in those infrequent instances when a construction vehicle had to cross the sparsely traveled back road and a police officer sat in his car. One wonders if that's where WPRI reporter Tim White's latest catch got the idea that it'd be just fine to sit in his car to eat, read, and sleep for three or more hours per day:

That dozing fellow is Department of Transportation engineering technician Kevin Coulombe, who is responsible for inspecting road and bridge materials. White notes that Coulombe oversaw the Barrington Bridge project "which was $11 Million over budget and took twice as long as expected."

According to Transparency Train, Coulombe's 2008 salary was $50,712, so clearly he's no Stephen Iannazzi. Perhaps if he actually works his full six hour day (or whatever it is) he can reach that high level of extreme competence.



But Who Dropped the Anchor?

Justin Katz

RI General Treasurer Gina Raimondo uses an apt metaphor to describe the significance of the state's public pension problem:

"If you remember one thing from me this afternoon, remember this," Raimondo said, speaking bluntly: "fixing this state's pension system is not an issue, it is the issue. Our state retirement debt is an anchor holding our state back and preventing our growth into the future."

She goes a bit far, to my mind, in that state and municipal governments have sunk myriad anchors over the year — of taxation, regulation, mandates, and so on. Pensions are notable because they provide a stark dollar amount of looming debt. How much the state has lost in economic activity because its policies are constructed to pool power in the hands of a few narrow classes (mostly related to tax-revenue-related employment in one way or another) is not so easily calculable.

Perhaps out of political calculation or perhaps because she's not ready to begin discarding the worldview that her progressive supporters recognized in her, Raimondo leans quickly away from the larger problem underlying the state's pension difficulties:

She acknowledged the challenge is complex and emotional. "I am extremely sympathetic to our state employees and our teachers. They did everything they were told. They have paid into the system as they were told. They have worked hard faithfully every year. It's not their fault. And we should not blame employees. The fault is that the system was designed poorly. And if you're looking for a culprit, I believe that culprit is politics."

For some 30 years, she said, elected officials extended benefits for retirees without putting enough money aside to pay for them.

Let's not soft-pedal this. Among the "everything they were told" was voting for particular candidates for political offices at both the state and municipal levels and engaging in such activities as strikes and work-to-rule in order to foster an environment favorable to their side of negotiations. (Indeed, the number of politicians who have been union members over those 30 years is probably too high to count.) With only so much they could give away to labor in the open, those friendly politicians gave away money that wouldn't come due for years to come.

The culprit may be politics, as Raimondo insists, but it has been a politics dominated by and consciously perpetuated by employees and their unions. The current crop of such politicians cannot ignore the pension problem much longer (despite the hypnotic cooing of union propagandists), and although it's possible that they'll change what needs to be changed without naming it, that outcome isn't very likely.


May 3, 2011


The Advantaged Class at the Town Level, Too

Justin Katz

Providence Journal reporter Mark Reynolds dipped into the pension situation in Johnston, on Sunday, focusing on this case:

Fire Lt. William R. Jasparro was 41 when he ended his 20-year career as a Johnston firefighter in 1990.

Jasparro's retirement package paid him about $18,255 per year [with cost of living adjustments] — based on half of his final years' earnings. He went to work in construction and later took a job at the state's Central Landfill, which ultimately paid him $80,000 a year.

Most folks would be satisfied with a "retirement" benefit payable for 30-plus years (plus health care coverage for life), assuming he lives to the median age for men and doesn't hand it off to a spouse. Eight years into his retirement (or perhaps "second career" would be more accurate), Jasparro sued to be bumped up to a disability pension, which would have yielded 100% of salary, tax free. At least by the article's description, it doesn't sound as if he had much of a case, but the town settled, giving him 67% of salary, tax free.

It occurs to me that Rhode Island would profit from a town-by-town investigation, with the results aggregated somewhere to give the public a fair sense of just how pervasive such deals are. How many people are collecting retirement benefits while working in another branch of the state's public sector? It'd be interesting to know. For example, another Johnston retiree, 51-year-old former police detective and union president John Nardolillo, is now a police officer in West Greenwich. Whatever his salary is, there, he's taking home $33,982 based on his previous career.

Growing up, I planned to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and adjust my income expectations accordingly. Rhode Island's public sector clearly has more than its share of people whose focus is mainly on working the system. And there's a lot of system to work. As much attention as I pay to such matters, I don't believe I've ever come across this factor, before:

Also, under Rhode Island law, the state pays the tuition for the disabled firefighter or police officer and his or her children to attend any Rhode Island state college.

It'd be interesting to see a total cost of that benefit and have the list of beneficiaries combed for young retirees who go on to second careers or intensive weight-lifting hobbies.


May 2, 2011


The Message of Union Defense

Justin Katz

A whopping 300 union teachers and organizers showed up for a weekend event at URI's Ryan Center to back the opinion stated, as follows, by National Education Association Rhode Island President Larry Purtill:

In Rhode Island, he said, many teachers distrust state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist and her aggressive approach to changes that echoes the priorities of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

These include rigorous teacher evaluations, removing ineffective teachers, overhauling the nation's worst-performing schools and expanding public charter schools.

Message: We don't want change! Especially if it means evaluations and targeting those union members who are most vulnerable... because incompetent.

There is, however, one theme that's worth teasing out of the bunch, because it relates to a frequently made point:

Paul Taillefer, president-elect of the Canadian Teachers Federation, noted several key differences between the two countries, including Canada's more robust teacher selection, preparation and mentoring programs, the high regard society has for teachers and a stronger social safety net for students.

"We have medical and food programs that extend beyond the school walls that help students and level the playing field," he said. ...

"Her favorite refrain is, 'We can’t make any excuses,'" [North Kingstown High School history teacher Jay] Walsh said. "Well, we aren't making any excuses. When we ask these questions, we are trying to acknowledge that what we do in the classroom is connected to many other things outside of the classroom."

I don't support pursuing a government as broad as Canada's, but if the problem hindering our students' success lies outside of the education system, then we need to change the way we allocate resources to address that. If teachers aren't the key, then we should decrease our spending on them and target factors that really would help us, as a society, achieve our objectives.


May 1, 2011


So Next Month's Field Trip is a Tea Party Rally, Right?

Monique Chartier

Obviously it will be, if the goal really is for Pennsylvania's children to participate in "good citizenship, free expression, fairness and thoughtful deliberation" and not that they are blatantly being used as pawns on an egregious scale to advance a selfish agenda.

On Tuesday, across the state of Pennsylvania, unions and other Left-wing organizations will be boarding buses and heading to the state capitol in Harrisburg to engage in a mass rally to fight for economic and social justice and against budget cuts. The rally, is being organized by the Coalition for Labor Engagement and Accountable Revenues (CLEAR) which is comprised of government unions, such as AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), PSEA (part of the NEA), SEIU, as well as the AFL-CIO, IAFF, UFCW and others. ...

In addition, there will be elementary schoolchildren bused in from all over the state.
In Lancaster, PA, concerned parents contacted the local newspaper with their concerns, which caused one school to cancel the “field trip”:

Plans to have Wickersham Elementary School students participate next week in a rally opposing cuts in the state education budget have been canceled in the wake of complaints from parents. ...

In a letter to parents accompanying the permission slip, James said the trip would provide an opportunity to “model the role of good citizenship, free expression, fairness and thoughtful deliberation.”

“Please join us as we … travel to Harrisburg to let our voice be heard for a responsible budget for public education,” he urged parents in the letter.



April 30, 2011


Where Rhode Island's Tax Dollars Go

Justin Katz

Cranstonite John Sauro was a year and some older than I am when he retired from the Providence fire department with a disability pension in 2000. Now 48, collecting a tax-free disability pension of $45,600 per year (on top of $1,800 that the city pays for his health care each month), Sauro spends his time on light hobbies like lifting 205 pounds on the incline bench at the local gym:

Target 12: Feel the Burn: wpri.com

I'm not sure why their shouldn't be criminal charges for what appears to be blatant fraud. Instead, according to WPRI reporter Tim White, Sauro walked right through a 2008 ordinance that required him to recertify his injury. If the system is that easy to skirt, then it might as well be considered part of the scheme.


April 26, 2011


An Illustration of RI's Advantaged Class in Cranston

Justin Katz

Like the swapping of high-paying public jobs for the sons of union leaders, the fact that Cranston is currently paying $67,107-86,778 annual pensions to six former police chiefs feels emblematic of the state's broader systemic corruption:

In the past 20 years, Cranston has hired — and retired — six police chiefs.

Most served three years or less at the helm of the Cranston Police Department and they ranged in age from 48 to 51 when they retired. Their pensions are based on their salaries on the day they retired — with no minimum tenure or averaging of final years of pay.

The retirements placed six top-salaried employees on Cranston's pension payroll with guaranteed minimum 3-percent cost-of-living raises each year for life.

There is clearly a class that lords it over Rhode Island. Get into the club, and you're set for life. Otherwise, you'll spend your years in the state with a target on your back... or rather, on your wallet. All but one of these ostensible community leaders retired in his 40s.


April 20, 2011


Is It Really Profit if There's Future Retirement Debt?

Justin Katz

Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, might just get to the heart of the pension/retirement issue when he explains the following, by way of arguing that the U.S. Post Office is a profitable enterprise:

Congress requires the postal service to put $5.5 billion of its earnings each year into a separate account to "pre-fund" future retirees' health care insurance far into the future.

No other business or government agency has such a requirement. The postal service won't actually spend the money it puts away for "pre-funding" until many years from now.

Yet it counts as a loss on its balance sheet today.

Whether it's accurate to say that no other organization faces such a requirement (which is also different from saying that none utilize the methods anyway), I don't know. The question that comes to mind is: why shouldn't government agencies and businesses put aside money for benefits to be paid to current employees when they retire? Inasmuch as the payment is obligatory, the expense is being incurred in the present through the continued employment of the worker.



The Priorities of the Bargaining Unit

Justin Katz

Maybe it's just an overzealous union leader, but it's hard to believe that this isn't a parody:

The Scranton police union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city for an off-duty drug arrest made by Police Chief Dan Duffy in March.

The complaint, which was filed with the state Labor Relations Board on April 14, takes issue with the chief arresting a man who was allegedly in possession of marijuana because the chief is not a member of the collective bargaining unit and was "off duty" when the March 20 arrest was made. ...

... the union president said the chief, as member of management, should not actively root out crime or randomly patrol neighborhoods while off duty because it violates union agreements that protect rank-and-file officers' employment. The union is concerned city administrators will have more leverage to lay off police officers because "Chief Duffy will step in" and do the work, Sgt. Martin said.

Somehow, the principle that labor agreements should come before public safety, and anything that increases the latter, doesn't seem quite right. One might even call it immoral and wonder whether collective bargaining in the public sector doesn't tend toward that sort of view.


April 19, 2011


Meet the New Toady, Same as the Old

Justin Katz

Charles Wales, of Cranston, makes the argument that they were, indeed, the bad old days back before public-sector unionization:

Yes, they were indeed bad times: Elected and many non-elected persons held sway over municipal departments. Favors, assignments and promotions were granted, often without the smallest indication that merit was considered. Lackeys, sycophants and toadies were the winners from the lowest worker up to department heads. City departments had become the playthings of those ranging from the very prominent to shadowy figures patrolling in the political background.

My fellow non-union Rhode Islanders may wonder, upon reading that passage, what has really changed. Well, obviously, what's changed is that unions are now integrated with that corrupt spoils system. Remember Mayor Laffey's battles over the crossing guard union? His run-in with the fire fighters? And let's not limit ourselves to Cranston, especially when we've got the Iannazzi-Ruggerio connection so fresh in our minds.

If the situation was as Wales describes it, one could argue that having employees who weren't part of the spoils system helped to permeate government with whistle blowers on the taxpayers and voters' side. Now it's possible to collectively buy them off... "possible" being used, here, in exclusion of the question of whether the local society can afford to support the system in perpetuity.


April 18, 2011


Re: Local Governments Founded in Deception

Justin Katz

Rhode Island Association of School Committees Executive Director Tim Duffy commented as follows to the post in which I suggested that pension problems are a self-inflicted wound among governments, especially local governments:

The wound is not a locally self-inflicted one. School committees are not responsible for pension debt. We do not negotiate these benefits with unions. The rates we pay are determined actuarially and that is driven by factors set in state law. How long it takes an employee to become vested, when they can retire, when they can begin to draw down a pension, what % of pay the pension is set at, how much their pension increases annually, COLAs, are all embedded in state statute. During the 1990's recession the state changed the employer contribution ratio, from 60% state – 40% local to 40% state – 60% local. So when the retirement board changes the actuarial assumption, as they should, and it results in an increased unfunded liability, locals get to bill the pay.

A lot of communities are doing less with more, but our hands are tied by collective bargaining statutes that create an unleveled playing field in favor of the unions. Teacher unions can employ work to rule as a protest against management and hurt students in the process. Illegal teacher strikes, while infrequent, don't result in any financial penalty for teachers. Binding arbitration awards for police and fire have largely ignored a community’s ability to pay and in many instances have set conditions for retirement, selected costlier health care providers, and set manning and staffing levels.

When the legislature passed 3050 lowering the property tax cap, a bill we supported, it also required the state to fund mandates passed by the General Assembly or initiated by regulations of a state agency. The FY 2012 budget, like budgets before it, does not appropriate money for mandate reimbursement. In many instances local government is failing, but not necessarily due to any fault of locally elected officials. Rather much of the failure can be laid at the feet of state leaders who have passed the accountability buck down to the locals while denying them the authority to act in the interests of their citizens, taxpayers and students.

That's a reasonable response, but it requires a certain amount of acceptance of Rhode Island's paradigm for governance. Having watched school committees play at bringing negotiations to a close while continuing to promise that any raises would be retroactive, no matter how many times the union scuttled an agreement, I'm not willing to buy into the game.

More importantly, local government has played its role in the system of unions dominating the Statehouse and the Town Hall, as well, cycling taxpayer dollars into public-sector coffers.
As the elected officials closest to the voters, school committees (and town councils) should have pushed back harder. So, "self-inflicted" may be too strong, but only if one excludes passivity.

As the General Assembly has changed the pension system detrimentally to municipalities, those local governments should have taken steps to decline participation in the system altogether. If that didn't prove feasible, they should have insisted that new costs be worked into existing personnel costs, pushing salaries and other benefits down, as well. Let the unions decide whether they'd rather take their winnings in cash, benefits, or retirements.

There are surely dozens of actions, practical and political, that school committees could have taken to fight back. To my experience, they've been content to play along, complaining about labor and the legislature, to be sure, but also observably happy to have places to which to pass blame.

And if the system had pushed back more, then at the very least, those with an investment in the pension system wouldn't have been so complacent about its being sacrosanct.


April 13, 2011


RE: Paying the Pension Piper - Board Approves ROI Assumption Reduction

Marc Comtois

Earlier today, the pension review board was presented with an actuarial study concerning the RI Pension system. After the presentation, the board voted 9-6 to reduce the assumed rate of return on pension investments from 8.25% to 7.5%, which was the figure recommended by the study. The ProJo has the roll call:

• General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, serves as chairwoman YES

• Richard A. Licht, state director of administration YES

• Thomas A. Mullaney, associate director of the state budget office, designated by the state budget officer YES

• Daniel L. Beardsley, president of the R.I. League of Cities and Towns YES

• Four public appointees -- two by the governor and two by the state treasurer, all subject to Senate approval (years in parentheses represent when terms expire)

Gary R. Alger (2011) YES

Frank R. Benell Jr. (2013) YES

M. Carl Heintzelman (2011) YES

Jean Rondeau (2012): YES

• Two active teacher representatives; Finelli serves as vice chairman

William B. Finelli YES

John P. Maguire NO

• Two active state employee representatives elected by working teachers union members

John J. Meehan NO

Linda C. Riendeau NO

• Louis M. Prata: active municipal employee representative elected by working union members NO

• Two retiree representatives elected by the plan retirees

Roger P. Boudreau NO

Michael R. Boyce: NO

Sorry union delegates, covering your eyes and ears isn't going to make the problem go away.


April 12, 2011


A Union Ratchet

Justin Katz

Yes, a bill is a long way from a law, and this one, which Andrew caught the other day, has only one sponsor, Spenser Dickinson (D, South Kingstown), but it really is quite a suggestion:

When a contractor employing members of a recognized union and providing services for more than twenty (20) hours a week to another person, firm, or corporation is replaced, and a new contractor engaged, the employees of the succeeding contractor will be admitted to membership in the union representing the employees of the prior contractor unless already unionized, as set forth herein.

The bill goes on and on, encompassing every conceivable scenario: not only spanning the completion of one contract to the beginning of another, but also requiring that the full-time employees that a company might hire after having contracted for unionized services immediately become part of the union.

One suspects that Mr. Dickinson's contracting company is a union shop, and although I'd wager we won't see this particular bill become law, it's helpful to have a glimpse, every now and then, of the sorts of goals that shrewder and more subtle political minds have targeted.



Dependence on Corruption

Justin Katz

Not to belabor the conversation about high-priced union executives, but certain aspects highlighted in our comment section point directly toward one of Rhode Island's major problems.

As Marc mentioned, yesterday, the head of Local 1033 of the Laborers' International Union, representing 900 municipal workers, Donald Iannazzi, makes $265,870. It's worth pointing out that the city's charter caps the salary of the mayor of Providence at $125,000. That is, the system by which Providence operates allocates more than twice as much money for the salary of an employee representative than for the person who has the responsibility of running the organization for which those employees work.

Moreover, the current mayor, Angel Tavares, gave himself a 10% pay cut. That's certainly relevant to attempts by commenter Russ to distract with comparisons of high-priced CEOs in private industry. Most private companies make their money by developing, manufacturing, or processing something. As obscene as some executives' compensation packages may be (and as representative of the need to increase other organizations' ability to compete as it is), the comparative pay of the CEO and the general workforce has to be considered relative to the value and profitability of the product.

In a labor union's case, the "product" is, in large part, the pay of the general workforce. So, it's a bit more egregious for the union leaders to coast along with their fortunes as workers give concessions. And to the extent that labor leaders are responsible for the broader well-being of their employees, they should have been the ones demanding full accounting of the pension system and, in Providence specifically, evidence that the city was in good health.

Now throw in Iannazzi's job swapping with fellow Laborers' International administrator and RI Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. Ruggerio's son works for Iannazzi, and now Iannazzi's son pulls in $88,112 at the age of 25 as a "special assistant" to Ruggerio. For all of the talk about classes that union members foment, that's precisely what Iannazzi and Ruggerio represent: An insider class to whom economic reality does not apply.

They get away with it, though, because as Michael exemplifies with his tangential comment to Marc's post, too many people are reliant on the corrupt system. If they aren't enraptured with talk of unique rights and battle with corporate big-wigs, caught up in sweeping rhetoric that they must take an ever greater portion of taxpayer dollars in order to stand as the last bulwark of the middle class, they are dependent on union vein-tapping and persuaded that, but for the union, they'd be working for free.


April 11, 2011


Cuts for the Little Guy, Not for the "CEO"

Marc Comtois

Sheesh. I just found out the CEO of a 900-employee operation, who just cut employee pay and increased their health care payments, pulls down $265,870 a year. And while his workers are all worried about pension problems and their retirement future, he's looking to retire next year at 55 and has few of their worries. Meanwhile, he got his kid a cushy $88,112 job working for a buddy and he employs his buddy's kid. Typical rich guy stuff, huh? Must be nice. I'll tell ya, there's nothing worse than those country clubbers.


April 8, 2011


Buying Into the Pension System, 'Cause We Can Afford It!

Marc Comtois

"Bill would help Teachers Retire Early" says the ProJo headline to Randall Edgar's piece. Really? How about "Bill Would Increase State Pension Obligation", because that's what it really does.

Looking to expand on an option that is already available to most public school teachers who have worked in private schools, state Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III is sponsoring a bill that would allow teachers who have worked in “for-profit” schools to purchase retirement credit in the state Teachers Retirement System.

If adopted, Senate bill 0145 would allow those teachers to buy up to five years of retirement credit by paying the “full actuarial value of each year” they want to add, just as most teachers with private school experience can do now.

Ciccone, a Providence Democrat, said he sponsored the bill for a constituent, Jane Bernardino, who told the Senate Finance Committee Thursday that it would cost her about $70,000 to $75,000 to buy enough credit to retire, assuming the contributions were based on 20-percent of her current salary.

“I’ve been teaching for 31 years,” she said. “I only have 25 years invested in the retirement system.”

Good deal, pay $70-75k now, retire five years early and get your entire investment back within a couple, three years. Meanwhile, taxpayers get to subsidize your retirement for a couple extra years. It's great that our pension system is in such good shape.



A Tale of Pensions

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi has allowed far-left radical Tom Sgouros guest-posting privileges to his blog, which the latter used to offer an excellent example of his typical rhetorical style. Sgouros likes to explain complicated issues as if he's writing for children, so as (it appears) to leave the adult reader with a "well, gee" feeling and to breeze by the relevant points and objections.

First, a view from a high level: The essay is 1,055 words, and Sgouros spends the first 296 (28%) tallying an "unfunded liability" for education and roads. The next 125 words (12%) explain why he thinks the perspective that he's just described, and funding such expenses with investment income, would be "stupid."

With the next 125 words, Sgouros introduces his actual topic, pensions, and the principle that he's attempting to inject into thinking on the topic: "the goal is not full funding of the system; our goal should be simply making sure the checks don't bounce, at the lowest cost to the taxpayers, employees, students in the schools and drivers on our streets." He rephrases the question for another 138 words, and now two-thirds of the way into his essay, begins to let the reader in on what he's suggesting:

The people who say we can't re-amortize our pension obligations because it would make it more expensive would have you believe that we are going to pay off the liability by 2029, as called for under the current schedule. In truth, it's an absurd argument because neither option is going to happen. The cost of paying off the unfunded liability is what's breaking our backs, not the cost of servicing current obligations. Both options involve making escalating annual payments that are not within the bounds of either fiscal or political reality.

Translation: Treating current pension obligations as debt is completely unworkable. In fact, he goes on to compare the above choice to his own choice between two private jets that he couldn't afford to charter, anyway. Let's fund our pensions, he states, "at the lowest cost possible and not fret that because we can't afford the expensive way to do it, we can't do it at all."

Just in case the reader is wondering whether we can afford to pay retirements directly from current revenue, Sgouros preemptively offers the number of the upcoming year's pension expenses: $800 million. That's fully 10.4% of the total budget that Governor Chafee has proposed, but Sgouros has a ready explanation for its being so large. Governor Carcieri. Through "abrupt" changes to employee benefits, Sgouros argues, the state pushed a bunch of state workers into retirement. He doesn't bother to mention that we'd still be paying them as employees if they hadn't retired. He also doesn't elaborate that these folks would have retired in the relatively near future, anyway, and therefore merely joined the expense pool a little earlier, but that's not important, to him.

What is important is that he exit his argument rapidly, at this point, without offering a clear statement of his proposal and its costs. What's important, to Sgouros, is that we stop all this crazy talk about adjusting benefits to make the obligation more reasonable and just pay the obligation, year to year, without assessing just what it is our elected officials have promised. If we look at it as a debt that elected officials have incurred while failing to fund it year after year, we might begin to wonder why our children should be saddled with political hand-outs from old politicians. If we come up with a big scary total of what we owe in pensions, the public might demand that the benefits be reduced, but if we take it in annual billion-dollar bites, maybe apathy can continue to win out.

Sgouros closes as follows:

In other words, shortsighted and hasty changes enacted by people who did not really understand the situation have made the system’s problems much worse. Do we really want to do that again?

See, they didn't understand the problem. Not like Sgouros does. Can't you tell by the way he just explained it all in terms comprehensible to a twelve-year-old? Come now. It's nap time. Put your lunch money in the bag.

Look. I don't know the unabridged history of pensions in Western civilization, but it seems to me that we fund them the way we do so that the employing organization doesn't have every employee on its books for the rest of his or her life. The employer and employee put aside money as part of the employment arrangement while it is active so that the obligation (or liability) is covered by the time he or she departs the company.

The problems are, one, that a system that guesses what the investments will be able to fund and promises benefits at that level makes it too easy to offer big promises, and two, that a society with a shrinking population and whose progressive changes to the civic order are destroying those qualities that enabled its dynamism will just not create the investment returns that such a system requires. That's why defined benefit programs are almost unheard of, these days, except among government workers who can work to elect their bosses, who then make unworkable promises and force taxpayers to come up with a method of funding them at some point in the future.

We fund schools directly because students are a continuous stream. We fund roads directly (well, pretend that we do) because they are an annual expense. We fund pensions through savings and investments because they are an expense that begins when the employment relationship ends. Sgouros wants us to think as pensioners as wards of the state for the rest of their life.

Of course, anybody familiar with his work is apt to conclude that he'd be just as happy to make everybody a ward of the state. After all, then he and his really, really smart buddies — who really understand the problems that we face — can adjust the system so that it works right. And isn't that what we really all want? To put aside the disagreement and allow the smart folks to do what we all know, deep down, needs to be done?

That approach is working out so well with President Obama, isn't it?


April 4, 2011


Pensions from the Top

Justin Katz

This paragraph from a weekend PolitFact points to the really disturbing part of news about $100,000-plus pension payments:

The Wisconsin report didn't compare starting retirement salaries. It simply catalogued the elements each state used to calculate the amount. To do the calculation, you take a worker's final average salary (usually the average of the last three, four or five years of employment), multiply that by the number of years of service, and multiply that by a percentage that varies widely.

In that light, the thing that ought to really bother taxpayers isn't so much the huge pensions (although they are rightly eye-catching), but the path that some people take to them. Take this guy, for instance:

Former House Speaker Matty Smith retired in 1993 with a $73,000 pension that reflected his 15 years as a legislator and his much higher-paying stint as state court administrator before he — and then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fay — were forced to resign amid a scandal over a high-level cover-up of the theft of court money. ...

Smith's pension is based on his 15 years as a part-time legislator, his 5 1/2 years as Supreme Court administrator, his 4 1/2 years as a Providence schoolteacher in the 1960s, another 4 1/2 years of credit — he was allowed to buy at a one-time cost of $432 — for his years as an archivist and special lecturer in history at Providence College, and 6 months in the Army.

With 3-percent compounded annual increases, Smith's pension has grown to $100,078.56.

There's so much that's clearly wrong with this scenario that it feels redundant to list it all, but the largest part is basing a pension on a high-end political patronage job and many years as a part-time legislator. That alone creates incentive for corruption, because securing that golden retirement depends upon maintaining a political position for a long time and being in sufficient good graces with public administrators empowered to grant high-salary jobs to cash in those years of "public service."



Whose Voice Are We Hearing?

Justin Katz

Another interesting aspect of the article on Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's new regulations that Marc mentioned yesterday is the way in which one of the objections is answered in a separate article on the same page:

"If they gut collective bargaining, they are heading down a road to destroy public education," said Larry Purtill, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

"Because in negotiating, you get the voice of the teacher who is in the classroom every day," he said. "And that's an important process. Without it, you take that voice away."

The other article is about negotiating difficulties between Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo and the union with which she negotiates. Gallo wishes to modify negotiations so that they follow a "streamlined compact," which would involve teachers, administrators, parents, and even students and vary from school to school:

"I think unions are an important check against the capricious actions of a supervisor," Gallo said. "But I also think unions come out more powerful [in a compact] because all 330 [teacher] voices are heard, not just the voice of the union leadership.... Dissent should be heard."

We could even bring in Julia Steiny, whose column on the facing page suggests that a rigid pension system that discourages changes in career path serve neither teachers nor students well:

When I write or speak about making pensions more portable and flexible, some teachers respond with effusive agreement. They say that they've had a great 12, 15, 20 years, but that now they're done. They want to do something else. But they can't afford to give up their investment in the teacher-retirement system, with its very attractive promises. They panic about becoming like the bitter burnout down the hall.

In general, I suspect most teachers would find much to like about life outside of the union pen, especially the best teachers.


April 2, 2011


A Subject for Saturday Daydreaming

Justin Katz

So the public-sector labor unions in Wisconsin, on top of threatening businesses that decline to take a side in their fight for a continued monopoly on government jobs, have found a judge to interfere in the legislative process in an unprecedented way and are now pushing to change the makeup of the state's Supreme Court to preserve the stay. But this part sets me daydreaming from within must-collapse-before-reforms-are-possible Rhode Island:

... In 2001, Utah made the collection of payments to union political funds optional, and nearly 95% of public school teachers opted not to pay. In 2005, Indiana GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels limited collective-bargaining rights for public employees, and today only 5% of state employees pay union dues.

Some union supporters recognize the problems with coercive dues payments. Tom Geoghegan, a noted union lawyer, wrote in the Nation magazine last November that it should be "a civil right to join, or not to join, a labor union." He said it was time to "repackage labor law reform, even over the protest of organized labor itself." He noted that workers in countries "like Germany are free not to pay [their dues]—and many don't." Indeed, the U.S. is filled with powerful groups, such as the American Association of Retired Persons, that thrive on voluntary payments because they are seen as providing genuine services to members.


April 1, 2011


Koch Brothers and Unions

Marc Comtois

Oh, the shades of gray!

A number of organizations are advocating a boycott of the products that come from companies owned by the Koch family. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it could potentially hurt the wrong people.

The Koch brothers own Georgia Pacific. It is an American consumer goods company that makes everyday products like facial tissue, napkins, paper towels, paper cups and the like. Their plants are great examples of American advanced manufacturing. Incidentally,

GP makes most of its products here in America. The company’s workforce is highly unionized. In fact, 80 percent of its mills are under contract with one or more labor union. It is not inaccurate to say that these are among the best-paid manufacturing jobs in America.

This presents a dilemma and a paradox. While the Koch brothers are credited with advocating an agenda and groups that are clearly hostile to labor and labor’s agenda, the brothers’ company in practice and in general has positive and productive collective bargaining relationships with its unions.

While some companies are running from investment in American jobs, The Koch brothers’ Georgia Pacific just reached agreements with its primary union in the paper industry to invest more than a half a billion dollars in capital to essentially create two state-of-the-art machines that conserve fiber and energy at two separate union mills.

While certainly there are disagreements from time to time on what the right pension program is, or right wage increases and incentives, or the right formula for health care cost sharing, ultimately we end up with negotiated solutions.

That from Jon Geenen, International Vice President of the United Steelworkers. The difference, of course, is that the unions that the Koch Brothers have a working relationship with operate in the private sector, where reasonable negotiations between equal stakeholders actually take place. Keeping the management/employee relationship balanced is beneficial to the company and its employees. The Koch Brothers anti-unionism, if one is to judge by their actions, is focused on the public sector. While Geenan believes this "a dilemma and paradox", the Koch Brothers, and many other people, are not so conflicted. Like it or not, there is a difference.


March 30, 2011


Some Pension Crisis Solutions

Marc Comtois

Local 2882 President Cathy Paquette:

The answer to the pension problem … is, if you hire more state workers ...You would get more people paying into the pension system, and you won’t have any unfunded liability.
Yeah, I get it. More workers now to pay for current retirees. Then we just keep hiring more, every year, to pay for the increased future liabilities. And so on. Makes perfect sense.

Cynthia Volante, social worker, Department of Human Services:

It’s time our elected leaders began to hold the people who wrecked our economy accountable and demand from them they clean up the mess they created and stop coming after the people who serve the state. We [are] already paying more for property taxes, fuel, food and our children’s education. Enough is enough.
Question: What if "the people who wrecked our economy" are "our elected leaders"?



How the Game Is Stacked for the Teachers' Unions

Justin Katz

Predictably, teacher-legislator James Sheehan (D., North Kingstown) is vocally opposed to Providence Schools' attempt to save the necessary money while causing the least amount of harm to students. At bottom, Providence's approach is an attempt to keep the teachers who offer the most value per dollar, which will also allow it to keep more teachers, because the highest-paid and most-senior teachers are not necessarily immune. Sheehan thinks that the law requires Providence to raise taxes and cut services so that it can keep its most expensive teachers whether or not they're the most effective:

In the Richard Phelan v. Burrillville School Committee decision, on Aug. 26, 1991, the commissioner of education held that: In conducting our inquiry as to whether a bona fide financial exigency exists in a particular case, we will consider such factors as the money-saving measures other than tenured-teacher dismissals implemented by the school committee, and the proportion that the amount saved as a result of the school committee's money-saving measures, including the amount saved from the dismissal of tenured teachers, bears to the budgetary shortfall. In short, a school board/committee may only fire as many teachers as is necessary to cover the budgetary shortfall.

Firing all Providence teachers does not meet the latter standard of proportionality, especially when one considers that the dismissal of some hundreds of teachers, as opposed to all 1,926 teachers, would likely have been sufficient to cover the expected school-budget shortfall. Moreover, even these dismissals do not take into account the savings generated from the proposed school closings as well as other cost saving measures.

If financial exigency does not permit the mass terminations of all Providence teachers, as it appears, then Providence teachers must be dismissed according to the contract, namely on a seniority basis.

I'd argue that the district really does have to fire all teachers so that it can rehire the faculty that it requires to meet its budgetary and educational requirements. That there is likely to be substantial overlap of the new faculty with the terminated one is merely a testament to the value of district-specific experience.

Of course, the longer-term necessity is for school committees to stop agreeing to contracts that attempt to lock them into stultifying personnel practices. Unfortunately, Rhode Island's so-called leaders seem not to recognize pitfalls until they hurtle off of them. Or perhaps too many of them, like Sheehan, have a financial interest in maintaining the practices that are pushing the state to its doom.


March 27, 2011


Re #1 to a Question from the Woonsocket Fire Department Restructuring Discussion

Carroll Andrew Morse

In response to Monique's post on the restructuring of the Fire Department by the Woonsocket City Council, commenter Tom Kenney asked...

Are you willing to negotiate with the unions for those concessions or is your answer the same as many conservatives are proposing...do away with collective bargaining altogether?
Here's how I would answer the first part of that question, if it had been addressed to me.

1. I would not be willing to "negotiate" when obvious mistakes need correcting. For concrete examples of what I mean by obvious mistakes, think of 1) substitute-teacher pay in Providence 2) the stories from Massachusetts about firemen going out on disability at a higher pay-grade than their official rank, because they were doing a higher-rank desk job as a temporary fill-in when they became injured.

If there are practices that increase costs to the public, without improving the effectiveness of public services, then the public doesn't have to "give something back" to have them fixed. Relevant to the original conversation in Monique's thread, if it is true that there are contracts that allow overtime to be paid because of some paper-distinction about whether someone should be on or off duty during a particular hour of the week, not because of the total numbers of hours worked in a week, this is the kind of provision outside of any legitimate need for negotiation. (This is different from saying there shouldn't be any such thing as overtime).

2. I would not be willing to enter negotiations that begin with unions taking a position that "we're entitled a big piece off-of-the top of the tax-levy beyond the salaries for the positions that are established because of decisions made 20 years ago, and this cannot be altered except maybe by changing the size of the piece off-the-top by a percentage point or two".

I believe that history teaches that this dynamic is a major source of the poisoning of relations between public unions and the public; a full explanation of the historical dynamic I am referring to is here. This does not mean that I do not believe that steps have to be taken to take care of people who have relied on the good sense of the "negotiators" of Rhode Island's past (ha ha ha ha) to provide for their futures, but going forward into our future, steps need to be taken now to prevent this issue from continually recurring.

Finally, I believe that if the barriers between public safety unions and the public described above were to be removed, members of public safety unions would find a base of support for their work that is broad and strong amongst the public, and that is a better long-term bet than is relying upon promises made by top-down and very shortsighted political machines.


March 23, 2011


A Chance to Mend the Teachers' Health Insurance Board

Carroll Andrew Morse

A bill will come before the Rhode Island Senate Health and Human Services Committee today, S0483, that would if passed alter the mandate of the "Uniform Public School Employees' Health Care Benefits Program Committee" (aka the "Teachers' Health Insurance Board"). This board was created by the legislature two sessions ago over a veto by Governor Donald Carcieri and is comprised of representatives of private organizations -- no gubernatorial appointments or Senate confirmation involved -- who have been granted the power to create binding rules on local school committees for selecting teachers' health-insurance plans.

In case you are wondering which organizations participate in this board and whom they have selected as their representatives, the current membership is available on the Secretary of State's website in the minutes of the January meeting

Ned Draper, RIASBO, Business Managers
Ron Tarro, RIASBO, Business Managers
Larry Purtill, NEA, National Education Association
Bob Walsh, NEA, National Education Association
Bob O’Brien, RISSA, Superintendents
Mike Clarkin, RISSA, Superintendents
Ben Scungio, RIASC, School Committees’ Association
Cathy Kaiser, RIASC, School Committees’ Association
Frank Flynn, RIFT, RI Federation of Teachers
Jim Parisi, RIFT, RI Federation of Teachers
Ken DeLorenzo, Council 94
Donald Ianniazzi, LIUNA
It really puts a new spin the understanding of what union leaders mean when they advocate for "collective bargaining", when you can pretty clearly see through an example like this one that the goal is "collective bargaining, in the cases where we can't get outright legal authority to require the public to provide what we tell them to".

Three Democratic Senators, Hanna Gallo (D-Cranston), Frank DeVall (D-East Providence), and Louis DiPalma (D-Little Compton/Newport/Middletown/Tiverton) (not Senators thought of as members of the Michael Pinga caucus, by the way, which means the bill has support from more than the usual RI Senate stalwarts) have submitted a bill that would make the role of this board purely advisory, freeing school committees to exercise their independent judgment on behalf of their constituents, and protecting basic governing principles of separation-of-powers and that decisions involving expenditures of public money should made be by publicly-elected representatives.

We could have an interesting debate about what the proper term is for describing the form of government where leaders of a limited set of restricted-membership organizations get to make decisions that require public monies to be spent on their own restricted-membership organizations -- but it is not democracy, in any understanding of the term.

Let's pass S0483, and make this debate into a truly academic one.

UPDATE:

National Education Association Assistant Exeuctive Director and Government Relations Specialist Patrick Crowley informs via the comments section that there is a consensus amongst his and other unions in favor of the legislation changing the Uniform Public School Employees' Health Care Benefits Program Committee to an advisory status only.


March 22, 2011


At Least It's Being Considered

Justin Katz

The legislation has so little chance of coming anywhere close to enactment that proposing it is mainly theatrics, but it's definitely a show worth performing, if only to remind people that the process exists to make it happen:

[The bill by Rep. Joe Trillo (R, Warwick)] would rewrite the rulebook on negotiations with public-employee unions, limiting contracts to one year, limiting talks to the issue of wages, making all contract provisions "null and void" when a contract expires and requiring city or town council approval of contracts negotiated by school committees.

The bill would also end payments for unused sick time, bar unions from deducting dues from members' wages, require an employee to work at least 30 hours a week to receive health care and retirement benefits and put all new hires into a 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement system, like those common in the public sector.

Labor's choke-hold on Rhode Island has to be loosened, but for any catalyst to have a chance, it will have to be much more subtle. Of course, that means that, even if enacted, it would be much too slow.


March 21, 2011


Binding Arbitration for Municipal Employees

Carroll Andrew Morse

A second bill to be heard by the Labor committee tomorrow (H5700, h/t Mike Puyana) looks like an attempt to create binding arbitration for municipal employees who are not police officers, firefighters or teachers. There is a scattering changes made by this bill, but I believe this strikeout is the key one...

28-9.4-13. Appeal from decision. -- (a) The decision of the arbitrators shall be made public and shall be final and binding upon the municipal employees in the appropriate bargaining unit and their representative and the municipal employer on all matters. not involving the expenditure of money.
If I am reading this correctly, this would extend a binding arbitration provision that currently exists in Rhode Island law regarding non-financial matters concerning municipal employees to financial ones.



Binding Arbitration for Municipal Employees

Carroll Andrew Morse

A second bill to be heard by the Labor committee tomorrow (H5700, h/t Mike Puyana) looks like an attempt to create binding arbitration for municipal employees who are not police officers, firefighters or teachers. There is a scattering changes made by this bill, but I believe this strikeout is the key one...

28-9.4-13. Appeal from decision. -- (a) The decision of the arbitrators shall be made public and shall be final and binding upon the municipal employees in the appropriate bargaining unit and their representative and the municipal employer on all matters. not involving the expenditure of money.
If I am reading this correctly, this would extend a binding arbitration provision that currently exists in Rhode Island law regarding non-financial matters concerning municipal employees to financial ones.



The Latest Proposed Government Privilege for Rhode Island's Unions

Carroll Andrew Morse

A bill (H5701) which would expressly give union contracts higher authority than local ordinances and city and town charters will be heard tomorrow by the House labor committee (h/t Mike Puyana)...

Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, in the event of any conflict between the terms of a collective bargaining agreement between a public sector employer and a public sector employee organization and terms of any charter or ordinance of any city or town, the conflict shall be resolved in favor of the collective bargaining agreement.
Granting private, restricted-membership groups special privileges for overriding the decisions of elected governments is not compatible with the fundamental tenants of democracy.


March 15, 2011


The Providence Substitute Situation and Demanding Negotiations to Correct a Mistake

Carroll Andrew Morse

Justin's post from yesterday mentioned that Providence Mayor Angel Tavares' decision to send dismissal notices to all current Providence teachers relates directly to the cost of substitutes. According to data available from the Rhode Island Department of Education website, Mayor Tavares has picked a reasonable area for reform, as the per-pupil costs of substitute teachers in Providence have for the past decade been significantly above the state average…

YearProv. Per-Pupil
Substitute Teacher Costs
Rest-of-RI Per-Pupil
Substitute Teacher Costs
2003-2004$356$119
2004-2005$431$124
2005-2006$366$128
2006-2007$436$132
2007-2008$503$140
2008-2009$416$137

In terms of total dollars, this amounts to between about $6 million and $9 million more being spent by Providence per-year than would be, if substitute costs were at state average…

Year Prov/RI Difference in
Substitute Teacher Costs
Number of
Providence Students
Annual Prov. Cost
Above State Average
2003-2004$23726,690$6,338,404
2004-2005$30725,497$7,816,854
2005-2006$23826,716$6,362,091
2006-2007$30426,531$8,057,344
2007-2008$36325,986$9,420,456
2008-2009$27924,664$6,870,397

Putting things into a budgetary perspective, if Providence's substitute costs had been reformed in the first year of the Cicilline administration (humor me here) and brought into line with the state average, and all other school costs were held equal, the Providence education budget could have been expanded from its FY2003 level to its FY2009 level (the last year for which data is available) with less-than-1% annual increases.

This problem is more than just fiscal. Paying two to three times the state average for substitute teachers is not an "inefficiency"; it is a mistake. It makes public services more costly without doing anything to improve their quality. A school administration shouldn't have to "give something back" in order to correct an outright error that provides no value and only costs to the public.

There can be little doubt that the repeated drawing of lines in the sand by union leaders, behind which everything about a job intransigently is placed -- including practices that in no way serve the public interest -- has contributed greatly to Mayor Tavares' decision to send dismissal notices to the entire Providence faculty. His drastic, across-the-board action is no less likely to bring about change than would an effort to get union cooperation on an isolated issue, where a union is inclined to protect its economic benefits, despite no one else benefitting in any way from the current situation.

In theory, it doesn’t have to be this way. Public-sector unions could realize that their special position within government monopoly systems for delivering public services entails some responsibility for considering the public interest when determining acceptable "negotiating" goals, and that certain options that lack discernable public value need to be closed off. But I don't know that this theory will ever match up to reality.

Stephen Beale has more information on substitute teaching policies in Providence, at GoLocalProv.



State Labor Board: Prosecutor and Judge (twice)

Marc Comtois

I guess I'm not as up on the workings of the State Labor Board as I should be. I was unaware that the State Labor Board could "issue a complaint" against someone, then hold a hearing to determine if that same complaint was valid in the first place.

The state Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint against Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist for “creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation” at the state Department of Education during the tumult in Central Falls last year. The board is holding a hearing at 9 a.m. Tuesday at its Cranston headquarters....After an investigation that included testimony from both sides, the Labor Relations Board issued its complaint in January....Both sides will be asked to testify under oath Tuesday.

After the hearing, the state Labor Relations Board will determine if the complaint should be upheld or dismissed at the next board meeting.

This sounds like a process problem or, dare I say, inefficiency, to say the least. Basically, regardless of the merits of the complaint, is it really the most efficient (not to say unfair) system that has the same individuals hearing the same issues by the same people two times for the sake of...what? Possibly changing their minds? Does that actually ever happen?



Like a Profession, or Something

Justin Katz

The specifics could be adjusted elsewhere, but the general attitude that Julia Steiny describes at Blackstone Valley Preparatory Charter School, although there's no revolutionary "paradigm change," as the education academics like to contrive, seems like a profound shift. Note, especially, the handling of the teaching professionals:

... at Blackstone Valley the two-teacher classroom [with more students] is the beginning of a leadership-development continuum designed to grow each teacher's responsibility, autonomy, compensation and personal goals. New or "fellow" teachers plan and teach, but also learn alongside an experienced "lead" teacher. As lead teachers become even more practiced, they might become grade leaders for common planning time, or run professional development, or research a new technique and teach it to the others. Eventually, master teachers could become a Head of School. ...

So everyone in the organization has goals. Chiappetta says, "Some of our people want to be lifelong classroom teachers, so we'll support them becoming master teachers. Others say, 'I want to go to med school in a few years and be a pediatrician, with teaching experience under my belt.' Right now, three teachers leave early to take classes for their graduate degrees, and make up the time on Saturdays. We want to help you invest in yourself and move forward."

Gone is the rigid put-in-your-time factory model of public schools in general. At least by the impression that Steiny gives, the school hires the best candidate for each position, and being human beings, they're each potentially approaching the job from different backgrounds and with different plans. The administrators keep the project on track and are accountable for their results, because if their faculty doesn't succeed, students won't sign up.


March 14, 2011


What Elected Officials Have Negotiated For

Justin Katz

Anchor Rising readers are already familiar with the explanation of the problem basic problem with public-sector unions in a democracy that Andrew Klavan offers in the following video, but it's worth a watch nonetheless:





This article describing why Providence Mayor Angel Tavares had to give teachers termination notices, rather than layoff notices, provides excellent evidence of the results of the tilted system:

If they are laid off, teachers are placed on a recall list. Those teachers who do not wind up with full-time jobs by the beginning of the school year are placed in the group of "regulars in pool." By agreement with the union, these substitute teachers have to be called in to fill temporary vacancies before any other category of teachers. ,,,

"Regulars in pool" are the most-expensive substitutes because they are paid at their full step. In addition, regulars in pool can also receive family health-care coverage, a longevity bonus and an advanced-degree bonus, depending on how many days they work. ...

But here's the real reason why regulars in pool are more expensive than the other substitute teachers, according to Clarkin:

"The district calls in the most expensive [subs] because they have to pay them anyway," Clarkin said. "If you need a sub, they get brought in first."

So teachers who are laid off tend to stick around in the system at full pay even if they don't work. Typically, not enough teachers would be laid off to fill up the substitute list, but with school closings, that outcome is likely next year.

Any one of high salary, lavish benefits, or job security would be tolerable if school committees had negotiated with one of the others as a priority. But the push back against unions is occurring because they've managed to transform negotiations into a process of moderating the rate at which they get all three.


March 11, 2011


Wrapping up Wisconsin

Marc Comtois

Now that it's official, here's what they did in Wisconsin regarding public employee unions.
1) "...the bill meant that the state wouldn't have to lay off public employees."
2) "...[took] away the ability of unions to bargain over pensions and health care." Just like the Federal Government employees. This was an attempt to gain flexibility not provided by 3-year (or more) contracts. Health care and pension costs have climbed faster than contracts make accommodation for.
3) "...limit pay raises, which can still be negotiated by unions, to inflation." Of course, if the cap in a collectively bargained agreement is set by CPI/inflation, what's the point in collectively bargaining?
4) "...requires public-employee union members to contribute 5.8% of their pay to pensions". Rhode Island workers would dream of that number.
5) "...pay 12.6% of health-care premiums out of their wages, up from 6% on average". Again.
6) "...eliminates automatic collection of dues by the state". That's a hit to organized union leadership.
7) "...requires each public union in the state to get recertified every year by vote." Again.

As William Jacobsen points out, the rubber will hit the road when:

...tens of thousands of Wisconsin public employee union members...will have the choice for the first time in memory of deciding whether to join the union and pay the union dues, which have been estimated in the $700-1000 per year range.

The public employees will have to make a choice, take a pay increase or pay the union.

I think we know how that vote will turn out, and whether the employees -- once given a choice -- will buy what the unions are selling.


March 10, 2011


Chafee Shows Us Who's Boss

Justin Katz

Another interesting fact emerges when comparing Governor Carcieri's last five-year forecast with Governor Chafee's first. This table shows the degree of change that the former has made from the latter forecast:

2012 2013 2014 2015
Personnel expense -$16.8 M -$12.3 M -$27.9 M -$45.5 M
State operations (including personnel) -$43.7 M -$38.4 M -$53.6 M -$71.3 M
Aid to local governments $13.6 M $69.1 M $100.1 M $139.7 M

So, for 2015, if we find the difference between the amount that Chafee intends to increase revenue ($302.5 M) over and above the amount that he plans to reduce the deficit ($240 M), we get $62.5 M. Add that to his reduction in operations (however fanciful that may actually prove to be), and we wind up with $133.8 M, which is almost the amount by which he's increasing the aid to local governments, most of which winds up in the hands of municipal-level unions, including his biggest supporters, the teachers' unions.

So, tax and fee payers are paying the entirety of Chafee's deficit reduction, and state workers are picking up the bill for a good chunk of the wealth being funneled to their comrades at the local and city level.



National Solidarity, Forever (and Blind) - Coming to Providence

Monique Chartier

GoLocalProv reports exclusively.

The American Federation of Teachers is poised to unroll a $1 million to $2 million ad campaign to fight Providence Mayor Angel Taveras over the mass terminations of city teachers, sources tell GoLocalProv.

The substantial media buy could escalate a standoff that has already seized the national spotlight, making Rhode Island one of the key battlegrounds between unions and budget hawks determined to rein in deficits and unfunded pension liabilities.

“Unions will fight this war on as many fronts as they have to, regardless of whether it’s their ‘home turf,’” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “This is a battle about survival to them. It’s just that fundamental.”

People, repeat after me: We're dead broke.

By the way, note the re-emergence of a certain long lost political consultant.

Guy Dufault, a retired publicist who has worked with labor unions, said the situation could escalate into an all-out PR war. “There’s no question the wholesale terminations were an attack on unions. You can’t deny that,” Dufault told GoLocalProv. “From a precedent-setting standpoint, if these terminations are then turned around and used to get rid of senior teachers, I think it would be war.”

Unfortunately, he forgot to update his talking points before coming out of retirement.

He said the real fight is between the haves and the have nots—rich Republicans and the workers the unions represent.

That's rich! Keep talking, Guy; you're a real asset ... to somebody, anyway.


March 7, 2011


A Fantasy Compromise

Justin Katz

Earlier, I mentioned Julia Steiny's contribution to the belated march of red flags throughout the Providence Journal. Steiny's piece is interesting because she attempts to draw a line through the ranks of teachers:

... in the shrill, righteous rhetoric, sometimes screamed by both the left and the right, teachers are lumped together as if they are a homogenous group, with the same interests. Good teachers deserve far better. Academically, they're the best allies of the kids. Fiscally, they're our best buy.

Steiny elides the fact that the teachers have effectively assented to this treatment by, first, joining together into a collective and, second, failing to exhibit deep differences of opinion among themselves. It isn't really fair to fault the "righteous rhetoric" when educators present a unified face.

To be sure, Steiny notes that in "pay-to-play states, teachers can refuse to join" unions, but "payback for bucking the union can be ferocious." How much more ferocious things must be in states, like Rhode Island, in which union membership is compulsory. Indeed, I wonder whether it's possible to go from there to a "right to work" scenario in which teachers have a right to form unions but also a right not to participate in them, as Steiny suggests. In Rhode Island, the unions are already formed, which means that teachers would have to break away one by one. That sounds like a recipe for a divided workforce devoting far too much behind-the-scenes energy to the labor battle.

It's actually surprising that Steiny doesn't agree, given other observations in her article:

Unions are private-sector businesses with leaders that make fat six-figure salaries. If they do not give their teachers good customer service, state laws should not keep them in business. A pot of compulsory dues allows unions to ignore dissenting rank and file and use the money to, for example, fight much-needed reforms to professionalize hiring, or to weed out bad teachers, or to extend the school day (which every charter school has already done). Unions cling to hiring by seniority with a death grip, even though it is clearly detrimental to education.

Surely, Steiny has had some taste of the tactics that such vested interests will use against those who speak against them. Is that a battle that we want to impose on our best educators?

For their part, they've arguably already proven their disinclination for the fight by failing to speak out already.



The Line of Awareness Crossed Too Late?

Justin Katz

If the Sunday Providence Journal is any measure, commentators as a class have moved toward greater concern about the effect of Rhode Island's stacked public-sector deck. From Froma Harrop to Julia Steiny to Mark Patinkin. Here's an interesting bit from Patinkin's offering, which imagines the Starship Enterprise reaction:

"But things seem more peaceful and stable than Planet Wisconsin, which I heard was in upheaval over budget issues."

"Au contraire, Captain. The unfunded pension liability in Wisconsin is $252 million. Here in Planet Rhode Island, the state treasurer herself puts it at $5 billion or more. That's 'billion' with a 'B,' Captain." "Impossible, Spock."

The main difference is that peculiarities of Rhode Island politics filled all of the important policy-making seats in the government with people who have proven themselves inclined to ignore problems for as long as possible in order to maintain the status quo. We're already in worse condition than states that are taking steps to solve their budget problems, and we're digging in for a while longer.


March 4, 2011


The Union Rhetoric and Financial Reality

Justin Katz

You know, this sort of talk can only expand the sense of unreality between unions and the general public:

"Something is insane in Providence," [American Federation of Teachers President Randi] Weingarten said, standing on the steps of City Hall. "On a week where teachers and students were taking a well-deserved break, a secret plan was being hatched in Providence. They thought no one would be there to hear it. Fire everyone — that was their plan."

Maybe it's because my family hasn't been able to afford to go anywhere during vacations since my honeymoon a dozen years ago, but it strikes me as peculiar to assume that February vacation finds full regiments of teachers flying off to vacation spots around the globe. It seems, rather, that a better time to slip secret plans through would be just before they leave or just after they return.

Moreover, Weingarten manages to remind the general public that the protesting horde just wrapped up another full week off — a winter break, not to be confused with the Christmas break or the soon to arrive spring break. Let the kids decompress, by all means, but are Rhode Island's schools running so smoothly that there's no need to fill time out of the classroom with strategy sessions, evaluation of successes and failures, and professional development — all within scope of the enviable employment packages that teachers already receive?

In similar regard, this statement from a parent at the rally emphasizes the point:

"Mr. Mayor," said Maria Almestica, "we don't want 35 kids in a classroom. This is not OK. Our children should be learning, not worrying. You're messing with their futures."

The children shouldn't have to worry that the city in which they live will not remain financially solvent, and they shouldn't have to worry that their state cannot produce adequate employment to allow them to remain within its borders when they enter the workforce. The status quo of the Rhode Island public sector is not sustainable, and at bottom, that is what's messing with students' futures.


March 3, 2011


Union Rhetoric and Fiscal Reality

Marc Comtois

There was a rally for Providence teachers yesterday and union leaders, who never met a crisis they didn't like to exploit, regaled the crowd with unsurprising rhetoric that served to add heat but shed little light.

AFT Union President Randi Weingarten:

[The Providence teacher dismissal notices are] the most wrong-headed thing I have seen in a season of wrong-headed actions against American workers....Something is insane in Providence...On a week where teachers and students were taking a well-deserved break, a secret plan was being hatched in Providence. They thought no one would be there to hear it. Fire everyone — that was their plan....Mass firings don’t fix the budget. They say, ‘This is a city that doesn’t care about schools.’
Got that? A liberal urban mayor and his staff of like-minded folks were hatching a "secret plan" that no one wold "hear". To seriously think that this is a purposefully malicious act on the part of the Mayor and his staff is ridiculous. Apparently, the best way to keep it secret is to announce it at press conferences and public meetings. Maybe the execution wasn't perfect, but a progressive conspiracy against a bloc of progressive political supporters this ain't. And, for the thousandth time, a notice of potential "dismissal" is a far cry from being "fired."

RI AFL-CIO President George Nee:

You agreed to Race to the Top. And it got you fired. Mr. Mayor, support collective bargaining. Let’s not go down the road with Wisconsin.
Logical fallacy alert. (If one supports reform it doesn't logically follow that one will be fired). Everything that has been done has been done as per the agreement that was collectively bargained. The teachers were dismissed because layoffs wouldn't have allowed for the flexibility required to balance the budget.

This is the new reality and it's not just the Democratic Mayor of Providence who is staring at deficits and proposing cuts. Democratic Governors in New York, Maryland, California, West Virginia, Missouri and Connecticut (just to, you know, name a few) are also proposing job cuts and pensions and salary changes to help balance budgets.

So, rhetoric or reality? Union-busting, secret plans hatched by a liberal Democrat and his staff in the middle of a public meeting and presented at a press conference? Or dealing with budget deficits in one of the few ways available as per a collectively bargained contract?


March 2, 2011


When the the Rules Don't Work to the Teachers' Union Advantage, Obviously the Rules Must Immediately Be Changed

Carroll Andrew Morse

In yesterday's Projo, Linda Borg reported that Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith wants Mayor Angel Tavares to reconsider his decision to formally dismiss all of the teachers in the Providence School System...

The Providence Teachers Union president offered the School Board another option Monday night: send out letters that include the possibility of layoffs and terminations....

Smith, who met with Taveras on Sunday, said the mayor offered to recall approximately 1,400 teachers, but Smith proposed another solution: including the option of layoffs in a new letter.

However, as noted later in the story, the conventional reading of Rhode Island law says that it's too late to initiate a change...
After the public comments, School Board President Kathleen Crain stressed that that board’s hands were tied by a state law that says teachers must be notified of their employment status by March 1.
Hold on though -- a group of Democrats at the State House have suddenly decided that March 1 is obviously too early a date for making decisions for the next school year, and have already proposed changing the notification date for layoffs and dismissals (House Bill 5540)...
This act would extend the notification date for the dismissal, suspension or lay-off of teachers from March 1 to May 15.
So as long as Rhode Island legislators have had the epiphany that the March 1 date isn't sacred and can be changed, shouldn't we also be considering moving the notification date past the end of the school year, and at least pretend that this change is not being proposed solely for the of benefit particular union in a particular situation?

Changing the law to create a personnel process less disruptive to education process is deserving of discussion. Changing the law to benefit a single organization in its particular maneuvers is not.

ADDENDUMS:

Last month, a bill was introduced to the RI House that would move the notification date to June 1 (H5297). It was scheduled for a hearing that was postponed at the sponsor's request (J. Russell Jackson of Newport). Does this mean that today's bill indicative of some kind of negotiation going on in the legislature about a new date, or is this a routine case of multiple bills being submitted to the RI legislature on the same subject with rank-and-file legislators letting leadership decide which one, if any, will get a vote?

Also last month, Julia Steiny discussed the early notification date and its ramifications in her Projo column, available here (h/t Marc).

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Another Acronym to Track

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, discusses the latest acronym with which active citizens must acquaint themselves:

... OPEB stands for "other post-employment benefits" and, in Tiverton for example, includes health, dental and life insurance covering employees and their families after their retirement.

According to a press release announcing the issuance of the final report from the Rhode Island Senate Municipal Pension Study Commission, the unfunded OPEB promises that cities and towns have made to their employees amount to $2.4 billion. As the Providence Journal highlighted when reporting on the release, this is on top of about $2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that cities and towns have incurred. ...

Eventually, of course, the bills begin to come due. Tiverton currently covers its OPEB responsibilities on a year-to-year, pay-as-you-go basis, amounting to nearly a million and a half dollars annually. For fiscal 2010, the expense was $1,362,886. That's more than 4% of the tax levy, for that year. It's also only 42% of the GASB-suggested payment (technically called an "annual required contribution"), which was $3,222,448. A payment of that size would have been 10% of the levy.

In fact, if Tiverton were to make the "required contribution" to all of its post-employment obligations, it would be storing away about 18% of its tax levy, each year, to keep public employees retiring young.


March 1, 2011


Unions: Cause or Coincidence?

Justin Katz

Thomas Russell of Barrington pushes a logical error frequently confused for an argument:

I am (unfortunately) old enough to remember the state of education before the birth of teachers unions. Teaching positions were treated as patronage jobs, and salaries were so low that many graduates only turned to teaching after they failed to find work doing something else.

It is ironic that so many people seem to want to return teachers to that status even as they proclaim themselves to be champions of education improvement.

Education has so dramatically changed in ways entirely apart from the employment arrangements of teachers that it's nearly got to be a deliberate avoidance to voice Russell's point. Most profoundly, the importance of education is much more frequently proclaimed, and for a broader cross-section of Americans than it was in those pre-union days. That is, society has come to value education (at least in the abstract) so hugely that the value of those who provide it is unlikely to decrease just because they don't periodically go on strike, work to rule, or otherwise bully school committees into signing unaffordable contracts.

Personally, I hope and expect education employment reforms to elevate teachers' status, because they will no longer be associated with such unseemly union behaviors... not to mention union characters who need not be named, here.

Of course, this accepts Russell's statement of history for the sake of argument. I, myself, am too young to remember those olden days, but the statements of respect for teachers that one frequently hears from folks who were their students suggest that his assertion is, at best, exaggerated.


February 24, 2011


Human Nature and Unions

Justin Katz

That was the topic Andrew introduced when he called in to the Matt Allen Show, last night. Stream by clicking here, or download it.



More Union Differences

Monique Chartier

Further to Marc's post, David Brooks outlined additional differences between public and private labor unions in a piece Tuesday about the Wisconsin situation.

Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

As to that penultimate sentence, with school committees around the state littered with teachers, union members and/or their spouses as well as prominent paid union staffers sitting in the General Assembly, Rhode Island is Exhibit A of public sector unions "helping choose those they negotiate with". The result of that "help" has been decades of short-sighted elected officials who have irresponsibly bestowed upon the state expensive government, chronically unbalanced budgets, high taxes and even higher unfunded post employment liabilities.

Returning to the difference between solidarity public and solidarity private, I would add just one more item to all of the excellent points raised by Brooks, Goldberg and Comtois: along with us non-unionized folk, private unions are on the issuing rather than the receiving end of the disbursements that fund public compensation and benefits.



Rhode Island Union Rally Gets National Notoriety

Marc Comtois

As first reported on the Matt Allen Show, Adam Cole was in a confrontation with a union brother at the recent union solidarity rally held at the State House. National blogs are picking up the story, particularly the quote from a union brother, "“I’ll f**k you in the ass, you faggot!” Nice. Here's the video (confrontation starts around the 7 1/2 minute mark).

Another, longer video shows similar attitudes though, to be fair, it also shows that Cole and his fellow camera-wielders were somewhat confrontational during the pre-rally--asking about the Tea Party (and at least one mentioning that President Obama isn't a U.S. citizen and some One World Order stuff....Oy). That being said, it doesn't excuse a union brother threatening to "take them outside and stick it [the camera] up your a**" (about 7 minutes into the aforementioned longer video).


February 23, 2011


An Intro to the Sources of Public Unrest with Public Unions

Carroll Andrew Morse

Let me try and find a basic principle of conservative philosophy that I believe that many public union members will agree with, that human nature is fixed, that the fundamental nature of 21st Century Americans is not intrinsically different from the people of centuries past. If we today do have it better than the previous generations, it is because our predecessors developed for us through hard experience some decent ideals to live by (after living through other ones that didn't work so well), and bequeathed to us a set of institutions capable of nurturing and growing those ideals.

But if human nature remains the same, then we know that in any era -- present era included -- that when you tell a certain class of people, be they royalty, guild members, corporate leaders or union members, that they have a privileged position in the governing process -- and especially in appropriating resources from the general citizenry -- they will tend to take more and more, until the general citizenry starts to push back. Public employee unions are no more immune to this dynamic than are any other form of human organization. And, over the past 50 years, public employee unions in the United States have been given, or perhaps taken, a privileged position in the process of dmeocratic governance.

This, more than the immediate set of fiscal particulars, is what is driving the conflict that has exploded in Wisconsin and Indiana, and is what needs to be rebalanced, in order to resolve the situation.

Now, I know that public employee union members authentically bristle at being called a "privileged class", so I will lay out exactly what kinds of governing privilege I refer to, and especially how those privileges conflict with the foundational ideas and processes that make a democratic system work…



The Union Difference

Marc Comtois

Once again--because public employee union leaders are doing their best to conflate the two--let's re-emphasize that there's a difference between private sector and public employee unions. Further, as Dan Yorke brought up this morning, despite proclamations made at rallies, most of the middle-class isn't unionized (nor intends to be). Starting with the latter, while it's true that public employee union members are in the middle-class (some are even in the upper middle class), that's different than implying that most of the middle class are union members. They're not

In 2010, the union membership rate--the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union--was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today....In 2010, 7.6 million public sector employees belonged to a union, compared with 7.1 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public sector workers (36.2 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private sector workers (6.9 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 42.3 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and fire fighters. Private sector industries with high unionization rates included transportation and utilities (21.8 percent), telecommunications (15.8 percent), and construction (13.1 percent).
Second, Jonah Goldberg summarizes the difference between public and private unions:
Traditional, private-sector unions were born out of an often-bloody adversarial relationship between labor and management. It's been said that during World War I, U.S. soldiers had better odds of surviving on the front lines than miners did in West Virginia coal mines. Mine disasters were frequent; hazardous conditions were the norm. In 1907, the Monongah mine explosion claimed the lives of 362 West Virginia miners. Day-to-day life often resembled serfdom, with management controlling vast swaths of the miners' lives. Before unionization and many New Deal-era reforms, Washington had little power to reform conditions by legislation.

Government unions have no such narrative on their side. Do you recall the Great DMV cave-in of 1959? How about the travails of second-grade teachers recounted in Upton Sinclair's famous schoolhouse sequel to "The Jungle"? No? Don't feel bad, because no such horror stories exist.

As Goldberg explains, President Kennedy saw political opportunity in allowing government workers to unionize so he proclaimed that they could via Executive Order. We know that even Franklin Roosevelt didn't think public employee unionization was a good idea. Neither, as Goldberg writes, did George Meany (the first AFL-CIO leader), who said that it is "impossible to bargain collectively with the government." Because there is a huge difference in what goes on at the bargaining table between a private union/employer and a public union/government bureaucrat. Goldberg again:
Private-sector unions fight with management over an equitable distribution of profits. Government unions negotiate with friendly politicians over taxpayer money, putting the public interest at odds with union interests, and, as we've seen in states such as California and Wisconsin, exploding the cost of government.
That's the fundamental difference and that's why--despite my personal experience--I do support private unions, but not public.

ADDENDUM: Yorke makes the cogent point that RI union members are actually doing themeselves a disservice by calling for solidarity with their Wisconsin "brothers and sisters." For while the Wisconsin members have been dodging realistic contracts for some time now, RI unions have "come to the table" and made concessions and currently contribute to their own benefits at a level just now being approached by the Wisconsin members.


February 21, 2011


Getting to Graduation

Justin Katz

In addition to everything else on the educational plate, Rhode Island needs to increase its graduation rate, even as it requires a diploma actually to mean something:

Statewide, 76 percent of the Class of 2010 graduated within four years, up a percentage point from the previous year.

More than 2,900 of their classmates didn't receive a diploma last year, although a small number of these students stayed for a fifth year in hopes of graduating.

If these fifth-year students graduate in June, they will be counted in the state's five-year graduation rate next year.

The 2010 five-year graduation rate, which uses a formula to include both the Class of 2010 and students from the Class of 2009 who needed an extra year to graduate, was 79 percent.

The article notes some helpful activities at Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, but it comes back to the same ol' problem:

The program added 90-minutes to the school day and cost about $90,000 extra for teaching and transportation. But, the director said, the investment paid off.

Everything costs extra money, and it's money that administrators and school committees have already spent on lucrative contract deals. Rhode Island has to change its paradigm to an assertion that school employees are paid to accomplish an objective, and they'd better do so within the resources already allocated.


February 20, 2011


Wisconsin Doctors' Notes; Wisconsin Protests: It's for the Chi-hhhilll-dren

Monique Chartier

The protests at Wisconsin's capitol have been carried out for the children. Truly! Just ask the Reverend Jackson and the protesters.

Speaking to a near-capacity crowd from the second level of the Capitol rotunda, the civil rights activist [Jesse Jackson] led protesters in chants of "Save the teachers. Save the children." Protesters swayed as Jackson led them in a rendition of the song, "We Shall Overcome."

Isn't it beautiful?! All of this agitation has nothing to do with the preservation of advantageous compensation terms or the bargaining structure that ensures its perpetuation. It's all about "saving the children".

Oh, and you know about those "sick" teachers who bunked work to attend the protests, forcing the cancellation of classes at several Wisconsin schools? They don't need to worry about the repercussions of an unjustified absence from work because

doctors from various hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes covering public employees' absences from work.

The bill would strip public unions of most of their collective bargaining rights.

For most of the past week, thousands of union members and their supporters have protested Walker's measure at the Capitol. Some have called in sick so they could demonstrate here.

On Saturday, family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.

The issuance of bogus sick notes to excuse the classroom absences of hundreds of unprofessionals resulting in the hampering of the education of thousands of students: prima facie, it's for the children! Right, doctor?


Video Addendum - Snap diagnosis of Walker Pneumonia


February 19, 2011


Fund: Why Wisconsin?

Marc Comtois

John Fund explains why Wisconsin is such a big deal to liberal/Democrat/unionists. First, though, he summarizes what got their panties in a bunch:

Mr. Walker's proposals are hardly revolutionary. Facing a $137 million budget deficit, he has decided to try to avoid laying off 5,500 state workers by proposing that they contribute 5.8% of their income towards their pensions and 12.6% towards health insurance. That's roughly the national average for public pension payments, and it is less than half the national average of what government workers contribute to health care. Mr. Walker also wants to limit the power of public-employee unions to negotiate contracts and work rules—something that 24 states already limit or ban.

The governor's move is in reaction to a 2009 law implemented by the then-Democratic legislature that expanded public unions' collective-bargaining rights and lifted existing limits on teacher raises....The labor laws that Wisconsin unions are so bitterly defending were popular during an era of industrialization and centralization. But the labor organizations they protect have become much less popular, as the declining membership of many private-sector unions attests. Moreover, it's become abundantly clear that too many government workers enjoy wages, benefits and pensions that are out of line with the rest of the economy.

The symbolism and history of Wisconsin as being in the vanguard of Progressivism is playing a key role:
The Badger State became the first to pass a worker-compensation program in 1911, as well as the first to create unemployment compensation in 1932. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—the chief national union representing non-federal public employees—was founded in Madison in 1936. And in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to grant public employees collective-bargaining rights, which influenced President John F. Kennedy's decision to grant federal employees the right to join unions three years later.
Further, Governor Walker's reforms will undercut some of the, um, "advantages" union organizers have enjoyed:
Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government's practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year.

"Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits," [Labor historian Fred] Siegel told me. After New York City's Transport Workers Union lost the right to automatic dues collection in 2007 following an illegal strike, its income fell by more than 35% as many members stopped ponying up. New York City ended the dues collection ban after 18 months.

Myron Lieberman, a former Minnesota public school teacher who became a contract negotiator for the American Federation of Teachers, says that since the 1960s collective bargaining has so "greatly increased the political influence of unions" that they block the sorts of necessary change that other elements of society have had to accept.

Walker hopes to change that.



When the Numbers No Longer Add Up

Justin Katz

The timing of Wisconsin's contribution to the era of global protest coincides profoundly with a new report on pensions from the Rhode Island Senate:

The new report also factors in the cost of other post-employment benefits, which cities and towns, as well as the state, have only recently begun to show on their accounting statements. With those costs added to the pension costs, whether state-managed or locally managed, the annual payments needed to keep pace with current and future retirement benefits begins to eat up a significant portion of some local tax levies.

What sorts of numbers are we talking about?

While the unfunded liability for locally managed pension plans totals about $2 billion, the unfunded liability for other post-employment benefits totals another $2.4 billion, according to the report. This does not include the millions of dollars in retirement obligations that cities and towns share with the state for teacher pensions.

From the sampling of numbers reported in the Providence Journal, there appears to be significant variation from municipality to municipality, but the average city or town would have to devote about one-quarter of its annual budget to support employees who are no longer working. Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Johnston would need 59%, 57%, and 47%, respectively. And, again, that's excluding payments that the state subsidizes.

Keep in mind, too, that government continues to operate and to grow. This is an after-the-fact payment to those who've already retired.


February 17, 2011


On Wisconsin

Marc Comtois
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Plunge right through that line!
Run the ball clear down the field,
A touchdown sure this time.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Fight on for her fame
Fight! Fellows! - fight, fight, fight!
We'll win this game.
I mentioned Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's budget plans that include a reconfiguration of state employee union benefit packages and collective bargaining, in general. Union members aren't happy, with teachers staging sick outs and protests being held. About that. Remember how we were all told that it was a time for reasoned, responsible debate? Apparently that didn't get through to Wisconsin unionists.
Here's a summary of why they are upset:
Pension contributions: Currently, state, school district and municipal employees that are members of the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) generally pay little or nothing toward their pensions. The bill would require that employees of WRS employers, and the City and County of Milwaukee contribute 50 percent of the annual pension payment. The payment amount for WRS employees is estimated to be 5.8 percent of salary in 2011.

Health insurance contributions: Currently, state employees on average pay approximately 6 percent of annual health insurance premiums. This bill will require that state employees pay at least 12.6 percent of the average cost of annual premiums....

Collective bargaining – The bill would make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. These changes take effect upon the expiration of existing contracts. Local law enforcement and fire employees, and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from these changes....

Limited term employees (LTE) – The bill would prohibit LTE's from being eligible for health insurance or participation in the Wisconsin Retirement System.

State employee absences and other work actions – If the Governor has declared a state of emergency, the bill authorizes appointing authorities to terminate any employees that are absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees that participate in an organized action to stop or slow work.

Quality Health Care Authority – The bill repeals the authority of home health care workers under the Medicaid program to collectively bargain.

Child care labor relations – The bill repeals the authority of family child care workers to collectively bargain with the State.

University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics (UWHC) Board and Authority – The bill repeals collective bargaining for UWHC employees. State positions currently employed by the UWHC Board are eliminated and the incumbents are transferred to the UWHC Authority.

University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff - The bill repeals the authority of UW faculty and academic staff to collectively bargain.

University of Wisconsin law professor Anne Althouse has more pics and vids. This is only the beginning, too, as both Republicans and Democrats--including the Obama Administration--look to re-tool teacher compensation and work rules and implement various reforms.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Stand up, Badgers, sing!
"Forward" is our driving spirit,
Loyal voices ring.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Raise her glowing flame
Stand, Fellows, let us now
Salute her name!


February 15, 2011


Card Check Unions, and Maybe More, Come to Rhode Island

Carroll Andrew Morse

The House of Representatives Labor Committee is hearing a bill today on card-check unionization for public employees (H5134). Under the proposed law, secret ballot elections during a unionization process could be bypassed by public employees, if 70% of the members of potential bargaining unit publicly affix their signatures to “authorization cards”. No analogous card-check procedure for decertification of a public employee union is provided for in the proposed law.

If I may be informal, one question raised by the introduction of this bill is “why bother”, i.e. how much further does public employee unionization have to go in Rhode Island? When I put that question to an individual familiar with various issues of interest to Rhode Islanders, the response was to point me to a clause that would be added to the definitions section of the law…

(9) “Public Employee” includes an individual employed by the state, subdivision of the state, or quasi-public entities.
Currently, there is no explicit definition of "public employee" in the law, and given the location of this clause, this new definition would extend not only the card-check provision to employees of quasi-public entities, it would extend the entire labor relations act to the employees of quasi-public entities.

So how far, exactly, would adding quasi-public agencies expand the scope of public-employee unionization in Rhode Island?


February 12, 2011


Wisconsin Governor Takes on Unions to Solve Budget

Marc Comtois

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is squarely taking on the unions to help fix his state's budget problems (h/t).

Elements of Walker's proposal include state employee wage increases limited to the rate of inflation unless approved in a voter referendum. State workers -- other than police, fire, and inspectors -- would lose many bargaining rights and could opt out of paying union dues after current contracts expire, with dues no longer collected automatically.

State workers will have to raise the amount they contribute to their pensions to 5.8 percent of salary, and double their contribution to health insurance premiums to 12.6 percent of salary. Wisconsin's unfunded pension liability is $252.6 million, according to Moody's Investors Service.

People aren't happy:
The proposal drew outrage from labor unions and Democrats in the state, which has a $137 million budget deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30 and larger deficits to come.

"If Republicans get their way, workers will no longer be able to negotiate over the hours they work, the safety conditions they labor under or the health insurance and retirement benefits they and their families depend on," Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller said in a statement.

Republicans--who control the state legislature--anticipate a tough road but think they have no other real options.
"We are out of money and the options are few. We can either raise taxes -- which is absolutely off the table -- reduce spending or lay off workers," Jeff Fitzgerald, the Republican Speaker of the State Assembly, told local radio.

"I expect the Capitol to explode" with protests, Fitzgerald said. "It's going to be a very difficult week."

Nonetheless, it is expected that the Governor's plan will pass.


January 27, 2011


Give Them Time... and Money

Justin Katz

Although writing from Michigan, Kyle Olson has it right when it comes to his perspective on education happenings in Central Falls:

Central Falls students deserve a high-quality education. But instead, families are told to be patient as administrators and the teachers union hold meetings and create 45-page reform plans. And now the federal government gives the district a big check, which simply buys the defenders of the status quo more time.

At the School Committee meeting in Tiverton, this Tuesday, the committee and administrators turned part of their budget discussion into a plea that they lack the resources for early interventions that might improve results, particularly standardized test results, for students down the line. They talked about revenue sources that Portsmouth has that Tiverton doesn't; they speculated as to why Portsmouth's per-student cost might be lower, including the possibility that the town has fewer special education students. (Some quick research that I did online while they talked showed that a good portion of the difference is specifically in instruction, meaning the cost of teachers.)

As far as I'm concerned, that's all beside the point. Each town and city has the tax base that it has and the student population that it has. The principle studiously ignored during such discussions is that organizations must be built to do the work that must be done with the resources that they actually have. If that means that a particular district must pay teachers significantly less in order to hire math coaches or whatever else might be needed, then so be it.

The approach to labor and salary that has become part of public school culture begins with the premise that teachers should make roughly the same wherever they work, and the unions manipulate politics and local budget processes in order to prevent any real systemic balance of price, resources, and value. Pouring more money — whether local, state, or federal — into the equation causes the price of educators to go up and when the flow of revenue ebbs, programs and services go on the chopping block so that salaries never have to adjust downward.


January 17, 2011


An Inevitable Course, Once on It

Justin Katz

Iain Murray and Vincent Vernuccio remind us that public sector unionization is not an age-old practice:

Public-sector unionism is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow its public employees to unionize, and other states then followed suit. In 1962, Pres. John F. Kennedy issued an executive order allowing federal employees to join unions. Since then, union membership in the public sector has grown by leaps and bounds. In January of this year, for the first time, government-sector union membership was larger than union membership in the private sector. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 22.2 million government workers in the U.S. Almost 8 million of them are unionized, compared with only 7.4 million in the private sector. These unions are at the forefront of the movement for more expansive and expensive government. They use forced dues to lobby for greater pay and better benefits.

Of course, they've covered a lot of ground (and absorbed a lot of the economy) in that time. As the authors note, "government employees have, for years, cared more about their compensation than most taxpayers have." They are among the biggest wielders of political money, and they aren't likely to loosen their grip, nor politicians to force them to do so, unless an equivalent opposition arises:

... Politicians kowtow to government-employees' unions, who in turn support their election campaigns. Once those pro-union candidates are elected, they can provide more pay and benefits to the unionized government employees. The union then collects dues from its members, which enables it to give more political support to the politicians, and the cycle goes on.

Those in such unions don't like to hear it, but in the long-term, it is not proven (and reason exists to doubt) that their practices can coexist with a vibrant capitalistic and democratic society.


January 7, 2011


Supporting the Untouchables

Justin Katz

As periodically happens, Mark Patinkin has dipped into politics to voice the thoughts of many a conservative... or many a reasonable Rhode Islander:

Just as troubling is the size of these pensions. By year 10 of retirement, off that $89,273 base salary, [Providence Deputy Assistant Fire Chief Dan] Crowley will draw a $66,796 pension now that he's remained in management. He would have drawn a fatter $79,049 had he accomplished his "demotion." But my goodness — even the "humbler" $66,796 takes your breath away. Off an $89,000 base? Aside from CEOs, show me the private sector pension that's anywhere near that rich. No wonder property taxes are unaffordable in this state. How can it feel to be struggling on $40,000 a year while having to support $70,000 pensions for retired city employees, some of whom are in their 50s and working second professions?

I can attest that it's maddening. Worse still are the accusations from those who enjoy playing with other people's money that those of us who wish to apply the brakes "hate the community." Yup, that's the game: If you can't afford the ever-escalation and recession-proof livelihoods of public sector workers, it's an affront to the notion of town spirit, as it were, even if part of the frustration is the fact that higher tax rates make it more difficult to participate in town-based activities, like youth sports.


December 31, 2010


Damn the NYC Sanitation Department

Monique Chartier

... not because their catastrophically timed labor action caused death, injury and serious inconvenience to hundreds of thousands but because they have succeeded in the impossible: casting the micro-megalomaniac mayor of that city in a favorable light by exculpating him.

The New York Post reports.

Selfish Sanitation Department bosses from the snow-slammed outer boroughs ordered their drivers to snarl the blizzard cleanup to protest budget cuts -- a disastrous move that turned streets into a minefield for emergency-services vehicles, The Post has learned.

Miles of roads stretching from as north as Whitestone, Queens, to the south shore of Staten Island still remained treacherously unplowed last night because of the shameless job action, several sources and a city lawmaker said, which was over a raft of demotions, attrition and budget cuts.

Now how can we blame Bloomberg for the snow removal disaster???

On a more serious note, civil lawsuits against both the sanitation labor union and individual members are almost certainly on the horizon. And the calls for criminal charges are not out of line. Individuals so charged need to keep in mind the discredited status of the defense, "I was just following orders".

Solidarity Forever is great up to the point that it endangers human life. Though an exceedingly rare occurance (pay and "purchased" politicians aside, most organized professionals take rather the opposite view of their position), NY Local 831 decisively and repugnantly crossed that line this week.


December 28, 2010


Let Imbalances Correct Themselves

Justin Katz

One hears in this op-ed by David Mabe the thinking behind centralization's inevitable failure over time:

Even in these times of high unemployment, forecasts of labor shortages are becoming more prevalent. New England has long boasted a highly educated population relative to other parts of the country, but the retirement of Baby Boomers and net loss from population migration suggest that the demand for skilled workers will increasingly outpace the supply. These and other looming demographic shifts threaten to hamper regional recovery efforts. ...

Universities, and especially community colleges, according to Modestino, should focus on degree-completion initiatives, increased financial assistance for students, and greater opportunity for career training and professional collaboration to fill looming workforce gaps; such areas of focus would produce a "win-win-win" for employers, for the regional economy, and for the students themselves.

Where the "win-win-win" inevitably falls apart is a mismatch of incentives. When the mandate comes from the government to "do something," taxpayers end up funding the sorts of education that young students prefer (light and easy to pass) and the courses that educators, on the whole, prefer to offer (subjective and difficult to quantify). The result is another cost layered into the economy with inadequate translation into economically productive jobs.

Let private industry work independently with educational institutions to finance the aid and courses that they specifically need, then let students choose those subsidized paths... or not. "Degree-completion initiatives" will move students toward that piece of paper, but not necessarily toward the skills that they actually need.


December 23, 2010


The NEA's Penchant for Bad Analogy

Justin Katz

Another RI Blogger has caught an interesting bit of the education debate:

Ok, I can understand why the assistant executive director of the teachers’ union would be upset, for one [Teaching for America teachers] are not dues-paying NEA members. If additional teachers are needed, of course he will want more full time, dues-paying teachers employed. Second, many of the numbers and results that these TFA teachers are showing are making his members look bad. TFA injects energy into the schoools that even they admit isn’t sustainable by the same people long term. Yet we keep the teachers in the classrooms for 20 years or more.

One other aside that is wrong with Crowley's analogy is teaching is an art and being a surgeon is a science. Do we require painters to get an education so they can be professional painters? Do we require singers and other musicians? No. Those are arts that you either can do or can't do. Either you can teach, or you can't. An education can get you better at it, but skills in the arts is something that you have.

He's reviewing an article about the innovative teacher-recruitment organization by David Scharfenberg in the Providence Phoenix, and the comment is from National Education Association Rhode Island Assistant Executive Director Patrick Crowley, who predictably is sour on the notion of expediting the teacher-certification of college graduates from other fields:

To contend that a college graduate with no formal training is qualified to teach, he suggests, is to contend that teaching is something less than a profession; a task worthy of amateurs. It is an attitude, he says, that would seem absurd in other fields.

"I know how to use a knife and I went to college," he says. "That doesn’t mean I can be a surgeon."

I'd suggest that Crowley's analogy is actually flawed in a way that doesn't require any such distinctions between art and science. Indeed, the art-science duality is an overstated factor in general, since most professions contain elements of both. Even a painter does well to understand the science of art — the theory and history behind the craft. The art of a profession comes in finding a way that one's own proclivities can be leveraged for maximum benefit of the end goal — whether that is creating compelling canvases or conveying intellectual concepts to children.

To return to the surgeon-teacher comparison, one could argue that teacher education programs are akin to curricula that give would-be surgeons in-depth review of the use of scalpels and patient-relations as their main focus, while a hypothetical Surgeons For America takes biology majors and allows them expedited lessons in the practice of working with an actual human body. Put differently, the question is whether it's better for a surgeon to know how to manipulate the organs or to know what the organs actually do and where they actually are.

Both routes will work, but in certain subjects, at least, it's not unreasonable to expect a content expert to be able to master the practice of teaching more effectively than an education-theory expert could master the content. After all, even those educated in the science of teaching have to learn the practice over time.


December 22, 2010


Watching the Slow-Motion Crash of the Regionalization Train

Justin Katz

It may not add up to a silver lining, but hopefully folks are beginning to see why Anchor Rising contributors have been very suspicious of calls to regionalize or centralize government and its services:

[League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Dan Beardsley] also spoke of new limits on municipal contracts to ban: automatic renewals for expired agreements; retirement benefits that exceed the statewide standard, should one be adopted,and provisions such as minimum manning rules that limit municipalities' ability to close or reorganize departments.

Beardsley said those changes were needed to undo years of bad laws and, in his opinion, excessive arbitration decisions that had unreasonably increased municipal benefits such as pay for unused sick time.

[AFL-CIO President George] Nee said the contracts were the result of both sides agreeing to the terms, and it was disingenuous for municipal officials to blame unions for the deals they signed themselves.

Frankly, Nee's right. The people whom Rhode Islanders have allowed to operate local governments have acceded to union demands much too enthusiastically. Moreover, they haven't adequately pushed back against mandates and statutes at the state level that have tilted the game board in the direction of unions and other special interests. Only when things begin to fall apart do they begin to strike poses of complaint.

But note, in that process, that the state has not been the source of reason. The larger, superseding government and its officials have been drawing municipalities in the harmful direction, not striving to hold them back. What on Earth makes folks think that giving them more direct control — as with statewide teacher contracts, more say on healthcare programs, and a stronger position in local affairs — will be to the better?

Even just a few paragraphs away, we get this:

John C. Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said while proposals in the report for a city merger or for a regionalization of services were interesting, other options might be considered, too, such as the state simply taking over all city services in Central Falls.

All that means, it seems to me, is that the unreasonable costs of Central Falls' agreements will be spread across the entire state. Hiding those costs and deflating accountability is clearly not the way to bring the city or the state toward the practice of better decision making.



Call in the Gov

Justin Katz

This'll be a useful test case for Governor-elect Chafee:

On the snowy steps of the high school, Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said he had called Chafee Tuesday morning and asked him to convene a group of teachers, school and district administrators, union leaders and state education officials to "move this school forward, because the students of Central Falls deserve nothing less."

The governor-elect indicated he would help, Flynn said, although no details have been settled yet.

The image comes to mind of Chafee in a vintage campy Batman costume running to a special phone in his office. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new governor implements the union-friendly changes that we're all expecting.

Step one, most likely, will be for him to step forward and bring everybody "to the table" in a one-sided equivalence that turns the notion of transforming Rhode Island's school system right around. The question is how quickly those intransigent bureaucrats and administrators who insist that reform must mean reform will be pushed out of their seats.


December 21, 2010


Setting Up the Failure

Justin Katz

Although the majority of the teachers probably just wanted to keep their jobs, observers with a cynical (I would say "realistic") opinion of labor unions likely foresaw the Central Falls teacher absences issue back when Superintendent Fran Gallo unfired the high school faculty back in May. There is no way union organizers want the transformation model of reforming the school (or any model, really) to work, particularly as it's been initiated from the education commissioner down, and I'd suggest that the employee attendance record at the school proves that enough teachers are willing to pull the union rope to cause problems:

The high rate of teacher absenteeism has sparked a new wave of outrage and fed the ongoing debate about how to improve the nation’s worst-performing schools.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators. In all, about 15 teachers resigned between June and November; two others retired. One position remains unfilled, according to school officials.

As you may recall, the other alternative was the "turnaround model," by which the entire teaching staff would have been fired, and no more than 50% could have been rehired. One suspects substantial overlap among three groups:

  • The retirements and absentees
  • Teachers who look to the union playbook for ensuring the failure of reform
  • Central Falls High employees who would not have been rehired under the turnaround model

The lesson for Rhode Island administrators and commissioners is clear: Making those who oppose reform integral to it is not likely part of a formula for success.

ADDENDUM:

And let's not allow the issue to slip into the background without marveling at this deal:

According to the contract, teachers receive 15 sick days a year at full pay and are allowed to accumulate up to 185 sick days — which takes slightly more than 12 years of service to accrue. They also receive two personal days each year.

Veteran teachers with at least six years of service are also entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay; teachers with 15 or more years are entitled to 50 days, also at full pay.

If I'm reading that right, in a (give or take) 180-day school year, a Central Falls teacher can theoretically have 237 available paid days off. Presumably, there are procedures in place to review extended sick leave, but by the numbers, a teacher could work just six weeks a year for two years.


December 14, 2010


Dangerous Initiatives Set to Rear Their Heads

Justin Katz

I'm at the Tiverton School Committee meeting, and three of our General Assembly representatives are reporting on goings on at the State House: Rep. Jay Edwards, Sen. Walter Felag, and Senator Louis DiPalma. Some highlights of interest to Anchor Rising readers:

  • During pension discussion Superintendent Bill Rearick mentioned that the savings on teacher pensions last year are swinging the other way, with an 18% increase, this year, and other municipalities should expect the same.
  • Edwards has heard that binding arbitration for teachers' unions is back on the table, this year.
  • He has also heard that a statewide teacher contract is also making its way toward the legislature.
  • DiPalma noted that the union-heavy healthcare consolidation committee will be putting forth its recommendations in June. (For information about why that's bad see here.
  • Edwards further noted that he believes House Speaker Gordon Fox Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello to be "conservative" on issues related to teachers' unions.

ADDENDUM:

This is barely related, but I"m squirming in my seat, so I've got to express the thought to somebody. After an administrative presentation of the high school's activities related to New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation, the committee is discussing all of the factors related to all of the usual priorities of education: academics, civic awareness, and so on. All well and good, but I can't help but wonder what this has to do with 31% proficiency in math and 21% proficiency in math.

Everybody's very animated and interested in the discussion of how to provide a "21st Century Education," but I think the tendency is to skip past the basics.

ADDENDUM II:

Per Mr. Edwards's correction in the comment section, I've corrected the last bullet point above. See here for elaboration and video.



Pawlenty:"The moral case for unions...does not apply to public employment."

Marc Comtois

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty went over familiar ground regarding public employee unions and leads him to conclude:

The moral case for unions—protecting working families from exploitation—does not apply to public employment. Government employees today are among the most protected, well-paid employees in the country. Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them.
Key to his conclusion is his comparison of what was and what is when it comes to the make up of unionized America. It's worth highlighting. First, what was:
When Americans think of organized labor, they might think of images like I saw growing up in a blue-collar meatpacking town: hard hats, work boots, tough conditions and gritty jobs. While I didn't work in the slaughterhouses, I did become a union member when I worked at a grocery store to help put myself through school. I was grateful for the paycheck and proud of the work I did.

The rise of the labor movement in the early 20th century was a triumph for America's working class. In an era of deep economic anxiety, unions stood up for hard-working but vulnerable families, protecting them from physical and economic exploitation.

What is:
Much has changed. The majority of union members today no longer work in construction, manufacturing or "strong back" jobs. They work for government...Since January 2008 the private sector has lost nearly eight million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000.

Federal employees receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector. And across the country, at every level of government, the pattern is the same: Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt.

This is why Franklin Roosevelt thought public employee unions were a non-starter. For his part, Pawlenty explains the politics of how this happened--despite the warnings of FDR--and offers some ideas for what needs to be done to fix it.


December 2, 2010


How Are Union Members Like Mushrooms?

Justin Katz

National Education Association of Rhode Island President Larry Purtill has sent a message to members of his union:

Despite these results, I knew that those who disagree with our vision and mission would not stop their attacks. What I did not suspect was the ferocity that those attacks might take. On the air, outrageous comments have been made about staff and our organization and certain talk shows have fueled the fire with over-the-top remarks. The facts are these: UniServ Director John Leidecker has been charged with a misdemeanor relating to emails. The specifics of the charge are still unclear, and he will be obtaining his own legal counsel to represent him in this matter. No other employee or leader of the organization was involved in the alleged activity, and John is continuing to work while waiting for resolution of this issue.

Those who wish to know just how unclear the charges against Liedecker are can get exact quotations from some of the evidence on WPRI.com (see here and here.

A positive outcome from this controversy would be an increase in the number of teachers who come to see Liedecker's behavior not as some aberration, but as a perfect fit for the pattern of practices in which their union's leaders engage. Liedecker, along with his associate, Pat Crowley and others, is a familiar face at every hostile union event. He was even one of two NEA agitators to attend a speech by Providence Journal editor/columnist Ed Achorn at the Barrington library a while back; curiously, he left shortly after I began liveblogging

This — not some antipathy toward teachers or their profession — is why many of us take such a sour view of education unions.



Spin, Not Denial: Walsh on the Leidecker Charge

Monique Chartier

Bob Walsh, Executive Director of the NEA RI, whom we all wish a speedy recovery from his procedure today, called in to the WPRO Dan Yorke Show yesterday morning. After clarifying that his "medical leave" involved a previously scheduled surgery and not a ploy to distract from the NEA's travails, he went on to address the arrest of NEA RI Assistant Executive Director John Leidecker.

I can't say too much about the incident, so to speak, other than I have great faith that John Leidecker on my staff [edit - or is that "and my staff"?] will be fully exonerated and this at best would be would be in the sophomoric prank category, not anything to do with communicating fraudulent information to voters. Most people in Representative Gablinske's position laugh such things off. I mean, if I send you an e-mail, Dan, and said I was corresponding from Dan Yorke with a different name, you would probably laugh or be mildly annoyed. Instead, Representative Gablinske sends State Police officers to our office to pick up Mr. Leidecker's computer, which seemed to be a bit excessive, but they're just doing their job. ...

But this will have its day in court. I have great faith that this matter will be disposed of and seen as frivolous on Representative Gablinske's part.

What's interesting here is that, rather than issuing a blanket denial or - more realistic - aver that he knows nothing about this matter, the Executive Director of the NEA RI, at four distinct points, attempts to play down or minimize the alleged activity.

sophomoric prank

laugh

a bit excessive

frivolous

It appears that we are past the question of culpability and on to damage control.


November 30, 2010


The Ability to Take Leads to Tone-Deafness

Justin Katz

Sure, President Obama's proposal to freeze the pay of federal employees is an attempt to start the debate in a position much more favorable than a reasonable political compromise would suggest. The bottom line is that the federal government has to do less and, therefore, require many fewer employees.

Still, even as that debate plays out, it's worth allowing ourselves to be astonished at the tone-deaf comments of public-sector union leaders:

A pay freeze could affect thousands of federal employees for years to come as their retirement benefits are dependent on the "High 3," the highest average basic pay they earn during any three consecutive years of federal service.

"I don't think it's quite right; we're going to get slammed with that," said Roland B. Sasseville, the current Pawtucket chapter president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "If they freeze it now, [federal workers] are going to have a lull in their earnings."

"A lull in earnings"? A lull in earnings while so many Americans are, at best, watching their quality of life — current life, right now, not some long off retirement that they may never live to see — decline year after year while they sink into debt-chained servitude? Such are the sparks of revolution.


November 29, 2010


A Right-Reform Fly on the Wall

Community Crier

Remember when a raucous School Committee meeting in East Providence gave reason to hope that the game might be up for the National Education Association's unchallenged control of Rhode Island education? If so, odds are that Anchor Rising plays in that memory. We liveblogged, photographed, recorded, and analyzed. And it made a difference.

Two days later, East Providence union president Valerie Lawson and NEA lawyer John Liedecker were on the Dan Yorke show, with Jim Hummel filling in. Lawson was explaining that the teachers would never shout down a member of the public who held the microphone; rather, teachers were a little overenthusiastic in cheering for the next person in line to speak. Hummel played a clip of audio from the recordings linked, above, that proved Lawson to be lying, and Liedecker had to jump into the conversation to change the subject.

The point is that we were there, and because we were there, people had access to the truth about what happened. That is why it's so important that Rhode Islanders who want to pull the state back from the brink help us to create a full-time job within Anchor Rising. So that we'll be there when it matters.

Please email or call (401-835-7156) Justin to pledge support for 2011. We're still a long way off, but pledges only commit you to payment if we achieve our goal.


November 18, 2010


Foretelling the Future in Cranston

Justin Katz

Steven Frias, a Steve Laffey ally of old and author of a book on Cranston's political history, relates the origin of school committees' authority to negotiate contracts (even though they can't tax to pay for them) and binding arbitration for police and fire. Sadly, there are some discouraging parallels to our proximate future:

The leader of the state association of firefighters pledged to "mount a lobbying campaign for compulsory binding arbitration that will shake the foundations of the state capitol." In 1968, police officers and firefighters descended upon the State House to support binding arbitration for police and firefighter unions.

In response, the General Assembly passed the desired legislation over the near-unanimous objections of municipal officials, who said that binding arbitration would take away the ability to set tax rates from elected officials and from average citizens at town financial meetings. But a compliant Republican governor, John Chafee, signed the bills into law with no formal explanation while his spokesman suggested that binding arbitration should be "given a try."

With binding arbitration came longevity bonuses, minimum manning, and lifetime healthcare benefits regardless of age of retirement. No doubt, some of the usual suspects are hoping that the late governor's son will oversee a repeat of the process for teachers across the state, although they've already got most of those benefits, so the objective is to build a firewall around them. Or at least we can hope that their objective doesn't go beyond that.


November 13, 2010


Turning the Strike Tables

Justin Katz

Helen makes an interesting suggestion:

Would a strike of non union people be illegal? If everyone who is not in a union stopped working, if business owners refused to open, would that be illegal?

It would certainly be a show of private-sector weight were the Rhode Island economy simply to stop for a couple of days. Just the mere fact of the sort of organization and unity of purpose would send shivers down the spines of those who rely on their ability to siphon their livelihoods through taxes and public fees.

On the other hand, announcing such an event and having limited participation would have the opposite effect — affirming for those in power that they are, indeed, in control. When one considers that a great many people cannot afford to lose a day's income and that, unlike unionized workforces, they would have nobody with whom to negotiate to receive retroactive pay.

Of course, one truth hovers over the entire discussion: Were emotions so elevated as to make such an event possible, we who desire rightward reform in the state would have been able to accomplish more by the usual route of the election.

Sadly, the more likely outcome is an unorganized, but de facto, strike as productive people leave the state.


November 10, 2010


The Transition to Reinvigorated Decline

Justin Katz

Bob Walsh is on Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee's transition team? National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh is preparing the way for Rhode Island's next governor? Boy, they (you know whom I mean) aren't even trying to hide it anymore.

Two hyperbolic scenarios arise in my imagination. In the first, a simpering Chafee begs, "Please, Mr. Walsh, don't make me put you on my transition team. They'll know!" In the second, he ambles into Walsh's office: "Gee, Bob, you're so smart and savvy. I really need your help to bring me the final steps to the State House." Being thoroughly convinced of Chafee's cluelessness, I suspect the latter is closer to the truth.

And so, Ed Achorn writes:

The real problem comes when [Chafee] turns to fiscal and economic issues. He ran on a platform of hiking the taxes of some of the state's poorest and most vulnerable people to, in effect, redistribute their meager wealth to some of its richest political interests — the public-sector unions. Rather than insist on deeper staff and benefit cuts at the local level, Mr. Chafee favors a 1 percent sales tax on essential items such as food and medicine.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. He also favors expanding binding arbitration, which is at the top of the unions' wish list, because it tends to benefit them at taxpayer expense.

Will he also support another union scheme — postponing contentious pension reform by refinancing the state's pension debt? That delay would add billions of dollars to the obligations of Rhode Island taxpayers and make our problem vastly more difficult to solve.

Today's paper articulates what we who've paid attention have known all along: that Chafee owes his success to the public-sector unions:

Here's the way it worked: the big unions — including the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association of Rhode Island, the United Nurses and Allied Professionals and District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union — contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Ocean State Action which, in turn, spent the money on Chafee's behalf. ...

The NEA "advocacy fund" gave Ocean State Action $102,000 to help Chafee; the Federation of Teachers, $50,000; the SEIU, $9,500, UNAP, $2,500 and the Ocean State Action coalition, which includes nonunion groups such as Clean Water Action and Marriage Equality Rhode Island, contributed $35,500 toward its "victory campaign." The Sierra Club kicked in $250, and the National Organization for Women, $125.

From its headquarters next door to the NEA on Bald Hill Road in Cranston, Ocean State Action then spent roughly $187,228 to help Chafee, according to its latest "independent expenditure" filings with the state Board of Elections.

And then there's the built-in campaign force — and a certain number of guaranteed votes — of people who make their comfortable livings from government coffers.

You know Rhode Island has made a reckless pick for governor when you find yourself hoping that the General Assembly will offer a reasonable restraint...

ADDENDUM:

It's not as immediate a concern, in the context of a state governor, but let's not forget that Chafee has also tapped former Planned Parenthood Medical Director Pablo Rodriguez, as well. It says nothing positive about our pending — looming — governor that he's seeking transition assistance from a man who finds affirmation in his experience of performing abortions in a room filled with Christian images.


November 5, 2010


Union Theory Proven

Justin Katz

The best election-results quotes from Rhode Island conservatives/reformers came out of East Providence:

[Soon-to-be-former School Committee Chairman Anthony] Carcieri laughed in the face of defeat and said, "The public has spoken, so get your checkbooks out. We'll be paying a lot of taxes in the near future."

Soon-to-be-former Mayor Joseph Larisa points to the deeper lesson of the election:

... Larisa said the results show "East Providence is now bought, owned and paid for by organized labor. This election proves that misrepresentation and money can buy elections in East Providence."

Actually, the more significant proof that the results offer is of the rationale for banning public-sector unions. In this case, the unions didn't like the parties with whom they were negotiating, so they've elected themselves new ones. Union members are fully within their rights to do so, but to allow them an organized — often statewide or national — movement funded via negotiated salaries and mandatory dues tilts the balance to an unjust degree.

In effect, public-sector employees are doubly represented, as employees and as employers taxpayers. Since it would be contrary to principles of democracy to disenfranchise them, it would be fair and reasonable to bar their unionization.


October 28, 2010


France Has Nothing on the RI Public Sector

Justin Katz

Folks are rioting in France because they feel retirement at 60 to be a birthright. In Rhode Island, public-sector unions promote the birthright of retiring much earlier, collecting pensions, and starting second careers. That's what was on Mark Patinkin's mind yesterday:

Sarkozy is worried that 60 is a ruinously young age for pensions in France, and yet we have 43-year-olds collecting on the back of taxpayers. The question isn't whether firefighters deserve it, it's whether taxpayers can afford it. We can't. The result, said Van Noppen, is that cash-poor city governments have been forced to reduce the count of employees who do work in order to pay the pensions of 43-year-olds who don't. At least they don't work for the taxpayers; they've gone on to second jobs even as they collect pensions. It's an irony: The point of pensions was not to feather the nests of productive workers, but to support those too old to work, or who earned a cushion for their legitimate golden years. I've never seen 43 — or 54 — described as the start of the golden years.

This system has to change dramatically. Now.


October 16, 2010


Union Versus Husband

Justin Katz

The proper scope of union activities has been a topic of conversation, around here, lately, and I've been drawing my line mainly where the union become a broader advocate for its members in the public, specifically political, sphere. Here's a particularly curious instance:

I'm Jade Thompson and my husband, Andy Thompson, is running for the Ohio House of Representatives. I am a teacher at Marietta High School. Imagine my chagrin when my friends and colleagues began showing me the awful attack ads against my husband which they had received in the mail. Now imagine my dismay when I saw that those defamatory mailers were paid for by the Ohio Education Association — my teachers' union. In effect, they are using my union dues to attack my husband! This is a new low, even for the OEA.

The worst part is that Mrs. Thompson cannot withdraw her support for the union without leaving her job — indeed, without pretty much abandoning her career.


October 11, 2010


The Give Me Mine Vote

Justin Katz

It's pretty clear, from a recent Brown University poll that about one-fifth of the electorate in Rhode Island are in the die-hard public sector camp:

On the other hand, a large percentage — 73.3 percent — opposed raising the state sales tax, while 18.9 percent supported the idea. And 74.7 percent opposed raising the state income tax, while 19.3 percent supported the idea.

When asked about measures that would affect state employees, 46.6 percent supported unpaid furlough days, while 38.4 percent opposed the idea, and 57.9 percent supported a defined-contribution pension plan for new state employees, while 21.1 percent opposed the idea.

Basically, 20% of survey respondents want higher taxes to support the deals currently offered to public-sector employees. I can't say, of course, how much overlap there is between wanting to increase the sales tax and wanting to increase the income tax, but I'd wager that it's significant — constituting, overall, a statement of "whatever it takes." That's a significant portion — especially given its greater likelihood actually to vote and to become active before election day — but it's not overwhelming.

The route to countering that bloc will be to isolate their issues in the face of a single candidate — who, incidentally, has made it abundantly clear that he's their guy:

... during and after the Marriott Hotel lunch, [Lincoln] Chafee insisted that [Frank] Caprio’s $100 million in promised [pension] savings are illusory, because his plan "won't standup to legal scrutiny."

"It's hard to believe that a court would agree that somebody that has been paying into a certain pension fund for 30 years, all of a sudden has a new pension plan. It's hard to believe a court, beyond the fairness issue, would say that is legal," Chafee said.

Determining, beforehand, that the union's ever-present threat of expensive litigation will prove indomitable is a classic ploy of union-bought candidates for office. It simply is not difficult to believe that an objective judge would allow the state to change the terms of an insupportable pension system, at least for investments not yet made. In other words, the fact that employees have been paying into a system does not mean that they have a legal right to see that system perpetuated. Some aren't yet vested, which means that they don't even have a claim to the fruits of their investments thus far, and others can be told that different rules will apply to payments made from this moment forward.

The more extreme measure — which may yet prove necessary — would be to transfer the vested payments into a defined-contribution plan that is financially comparable, but with better terms for the state. But I don't think any candidates have gone that far.


September 21, 2010


Under Union Governance

Justin Katz

Janet Daley's reminiscences of union-run England as it was some decades ago sound eerily familiar, although even Rhode Island, among the states, still has far to fall before matching her experience:

In the 1980s, as now, the justification for nihilistic persecution of the innocent citizen was The Cuts: the diabolical reductions in spending which the Tory government was reputedly making to public services. Except that it wasn't. For all the determined rhetoric, the Thatcher government never succeeded in reducing public spending. Funding for the NHS — which became, in the language of the spinners, a "toxic" issue for the Conservatives — increased in real terms every year under the Tories.

What produced (or facilitated) the mythology of "Tory cuts" was the capping of local council rates: in order to curb the robber baron antics of Loony Left councils, whose escalation of the rates was killing whole swaths of urban Britain by driving out businesses and property owners, the Conservatives placed a limit on what we now call council tax. The consequence of this was that local councils had to make cuts in services. In the great spirit of Left-wing social conscience, the Labour ones made sure to cut the most high-profile, front-line services in order to milk the public outrage that would do maximum political damage to the government. So it wasn't the gender equality outreach officers who were first to go: it was Meals on Wheels.

No, we don't yet have overt extortion from public trash collectors, who'll dump garbage on the lawns of low "tippers," as Daley describes. But tactics such as targeting critical, rather than frivolous, services are the same and the end goals are related.

Public-sector unions create a structure that institutionalizes and perpetuates the concept that public employees can exert political pressure to ensure special deals for themselves — although they call them just deserts that they've earned. When financial reality requires "Tory cuts," it's natural for public employees to consider proving to voters just how critical their services are.

We should take England's experience as a warning against broadening the reach of government (as into healthcare) and, by extension, the unions that come to dominate it.


September 20, 2010


The Union's Political Game is Twisted from the Beginning

Justin Katz

I don't think WRNI reporter/commentator Scott MacKay would take offense at the suggestion — or bother to deny — that he's got a union-friendly worldview, but I wonder whether it's occurred to him that this imbalance in political influence might be structural and unfair in its core:

Union activists and their allies in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party won some big victories. The legislature that takes office in January is likely to be more liberal that the one that adjourned in June.

There is no secret as to why this happens; forget the peddlers of arcane conspiracies. The liberals and labor union members take elections seriously. While the business leaders squawk, labor leaders walk, as in door-to-door campaigning in districts across the state. ...

But there is a solution to the State House labor-business imbalance. Business advocates should leave their boats on the moorings some weekends and try selling their case to door to door to average voters.

Put aside the class-warfare angle. What MacKay elides, here, is that labor leaders and their activist allies make their livings by the activities for which MacKay applauds them. Business leaders — whether of the boat-owning sort or the just-getting-by-working-eighty-hours-a-week (and daily-thinking-about-leaving-the-state) set — must engage in politics on their spare time and with money piled upon the already burdensome costs of operating in Rhode Island.

Not only that, but when it comes to public sector unions, their politicking directly helps them to increase their revenue. And it is ultimately taxpayers' money that is being used to fund campaign activities on behalf of candidates who wish to transfer more of it to their union supporters.


September 16, 2010


Who's the Industrialist?

Justin Katz

Always desirous of sharing the wise observations of my fellow Rhode Islanders, I recommend Raymond Palmieri's recent letter to the editor:

Union leadership now plays the role of the industrialists.

The Aug. 25 Wall Street Journal reported that the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) "have a combined $88 million or more to deploy in this year's election cycle." That is money spent to keep its hold on favored politicians and maintain its strong influence in both our federal and state governments. Union leaders freely spend hundreds of millions of dollars of their members' money supporting political candidates and agendas that many of their members may not agree with. They have no say in the matter.


September 12, 2010


The Fight Changes Over Time

Justin Katz

A common theme that one sees in the talk of the history of movements and political factions — and on which I comment frequently — arose in a recent Bob Kerr column:

"They knew nothing about the history of labor," [Studs] Terkel recalled. "The young have no sense of yesterday. She was sort of a yuppie girl, and she said she hates unions, they're terrible. So I asked how many hours a day she worked and she said eight hours. And I asked why she didn't work 15 hours a day. People did. I asked her how she thinks she got to work eight hours a day. People were hanged for that right. She had not the slightest semblance of what the labor movement is all about. You look at newspapers in this country and you'll see a business page, but there's no labor page. I think in some sense we've lost a sense of history, of who we are."

The flip side of ignorance of history is elision of the present with it. That members of a "labor movement" once fought for then-needed and now-appreciated rights and privileges, doesn't mean that those who now occupy their positions are driven with the same motivation or fighting for the same purpose. That fifteen-hour workdays were too long does not mean that forcing the public to pay for eight and only receive six hours of work from its employees is reasonable. (Let's put aside, for this post, the question of whether unions' means of achieving more reasonable labor practices were the best means available.)

The sorts of people who are happy to oppress their fellows to advance their own ends won't tie themselves to particular approaches or political categories. Across generations, they'll gladly take on the rhetoric and putative calling of those who fought their intellectual forebears.

Nobody questions that the young do not appreciate history, but sometimes those among their elders who've chosen a particular thread of heritage with which to associate lose a sense of how things change.


September 6, 2010


Motivation in the Private Sector

Justin Katz

Both sides of the coin that the Providence Journal editorial board describes in this passage from an unsigned essay concerning public labor in Central Falls are overly broad assertions, but the sentence that I've italicized seems especially presumptuous:

... as virtually anyone who has dealt with public employees at the state and local levels can attest, don't expect many workers to take a relaxed view toward the "no-overtime" rule. As soon as a municipal office's closing time arrives, they tend to be outta there fast. People in the private sector, driven by financial fear, tend to extend their time a bit to provide customer service to help keep their enterprise afloat.

No doubt, some private sector workers put in extra time out of worry that management will otherwise crack down on them, and others are surely afraid that a failure to go work beyond minimum hours will cut into the entire company's competitive edge, but I'd wager that going above and beyond is motivated in the majority of private sector cases by ambition. Employees putting in extra effort, that is, are more likely to be hoping to advance than hoping not to backslide.

The inverse is the common complaint, among managers and ambitious workers, about unionized labor. Sure, they secure baseline rules for employees, but that baseline can also be a ceiling for those who wish to get ahead.


August 31, 2010


One Workforce for the Price of Two

Justin Katz

Providence real estate agent Mark Van Noppen notes the numerical consequence of one aspect of the city's labor practices:

Not a bad gig: Become a Providence firefighter at age 20, work the 23 years required to collect a pension and retire at 43. But Providence taxpayers — its property owners — have to pay a pension to that retired 43-year-old for at least 20 years more than they should. There are 2,905 retirees in the system. City councilors say that there about 250 firefighters waiting only for the full passage of their contract before retiring.

The city now pays for more than two health-insurance plans for every full-time permanent worker still on the job. Try running a business with that anchor round your neck!

He closes by noting that local politicians appear willing to let this train run the state right off a cliff, rather than muster the will to make dramatic corrections. As I've long been arguing, the gravy coalition may have so strong a grip on the levers of power that its constituencies simply outnumber those who live and die by the economic health of the state, creating the self-reinforcing conclusion that those who wish to strive and thrive do best just to leave.

In that way, public discussion of what reforms would be reasonable wallows in the shallows of "don't touch mine." Why, for example, shouldn't it be the case that pensions and retiree healthcare starts at a certain age no matter the year that an employee transitions out of his or her job? The fact that firefighting, for example, takes its toll on the mind and the body shouldn't mean second careers must be fully underwritten for those who've put in their time with public service. Go on and enter that new phase of life, but you'll still have to wait until a minimum age before you're considered "retired" for pension and public healthcare purposes.

Even to make such suggestions is considered a hostile attack, and too few Rhode Islanders will dare to come to their defense for reforms ever to be seriously entertained, even, ironically, if those expecting the fantastic deals will ultimately see them undermined by their own weight.


August 28, 2010


Some Sacrifice

Justin Katz

Sometimes people have to say what they have to say, I suppose, but this comment out of Cumberland really points to the different world in which some Rhode Islanders live:

School Supt. Donna A. Morelle stated that the committee and the administration "are greatly appreciative of the sacrifice made by the teachers."

So what "sacrifice" are the teachers making? Giving up a vacation week or two? Higher health insurance payments? More realistic retirement expectations? Not quite (emphasis added):

Teachers this year will defer half of a 2.5-percent salary increase, half of an increase that comes with a new salary step and half of the payment teachers with credits or degrees beyond a bachelor’s degree receive, according to Roderick McGarry, president of the Cumberland Teachers Association. ...

Also in the agreement, announced Monday after the Cumberland Teachers Association and School Committee approved it Wednesday, is waiving a 2.5-percent salary raise in the academic year that begins September 2011.

The new accord adds another year to the contract, which the union president stated would give teachers additional security through the 2012-2013. Teachers will get a 1-percent salary increase in the first half of that year and an additional 1.5-percent salary increase in the second half, McGarry said.

So payments expected during the coming school year will be deferred until the future (when, the school committee inexplicably assumes, finances will have improved), raises next year will be eliminated (although the teachers will presumably see an actual increase because the deferral will end), and their guaranteed raise in the subsequent year will be less than expected. In effect, the contract uses accounting gimmicks to downplay the fact that union members will be receiving 1.25% raises (on top of step increases and other remunerative opportunities) during an era of crippling government deficits, high unemployment, and general economic malaise.

That, in the public sector, is called "sacrifice."


August 27, 2010


Extreme Screening: Only One Gov Candidate Gets a Questionnaire or Invite from the NEA RI

Monique Chartier

... before the endorsement (of that same candidate).

The gubernatorial campaigns of John Robitaille (R), Ken Block (M) and Frank Caprio (D) have all confirmed the absence of an NEA RI candidate questionnaire in the inbox and the non-ringing of the phone for the invitation to be interviewed that never got made.

In fact, following upon the AFT endorsement in late July, the Block campaign specifically asked the NEA RI for an audience. The silence from that organization continued uniformly deafening. And John Robitaille clarified that while he is seeking no union endorsements, he has agreed to meet with any labor union which extends an invitation to him and, on that basis, has met with the executive boards of the SEIU and Carpenters Local 94.

When a company or government agency has an RFP for which they have a certain vendor in mind, they might tailor the RFP as much as possible towards that vendor. Most of the time, though, they at least go through the motions of offering the RFP publicly or to all qualified vendors.

In this case, however, the "agency" or "company" is comprised of rank-and-file union members. Did the NEA RI leadership individually poll every single member to determine that support for Senator Chafee was 100%? Or did they make the top-down decision to formally "vet" only one candidate for consideration?

If the latter, wasn't that a little disrespectful of their membership?


August 22, 2010


A Show of Pension Reform

Justin Katz

As you read the article, your mind is just beginning to recover from this:

In a theoretical case of a 20-year-old firefighter hired today, retiring in 2030 on a base pay of $100,000, and collecting a pension for 30 years, the difference between compounded and simple is $41,129. At age 70, in the year 2060, the firefighter’s pension would be $181,000 on a simple 3-percent COLA and $222,129 on a compounded COLA.

When reporter Donita Naylor hits you with this:

[Providence Councilman John] Igliozzi, who also serves on the boards that oversee retirements and pension investments, said that with 30 firefighter positions going unfilled and 250 firefighters becoming eligible for retirement in the next two or three years, "almost half the Fire Department is going to be new" hires.

One reels. The first paragraph presumes a person retiring at forty years old and doubling his annual income — while doing nothing — by the time most of his contemporaries will actually begin considering retirement. On the compounded scale, the firefighter will have received $4.49 million dollars in pension payments by his seventy-first birthday. On the simple scale, he'll have received $4.13 million. And this is presented as pension reform?

Sure, the numbers add up. On the compounded scale, those 250 folks soon to replace proximate reitrees would cost $1.12 billion by 2060, while on the simple scale, they'd cost $1.03 billion, savings of $90 million ($3 million per year), but that's still $1.03 billion for 250 people for 30 years of no work, after only 20 years of work. And who's to say what life expectancy will actually be by that point.

It appears that, after decades of politicians' making pension promises with which they wouldn't have to deal, the current crop is promising reforms that won't take effect until most of them are dead, and still won't amount to much by way of savings.

Want more? As far as I can tell, these numbers don't include benefits like healthcare.

As soon as possible, pensions should be shifted to 401(k)s. At the very least, they shouldn't begin to pay out until a certain age, no matter when the person opts to retire.


August 19, 2010


A Question on Pensions

Justin Katz

I actually agree with former Johnston Policewoman Michele Capelli's lawyer that the town has no right to demand that she repay a disability pension excess that was given to her erroneously — much less simply remove it from her bank account — unless there was some criminal activity involved in giving her the money in the first place. Johnston should improve its system for tracking such things and move on from here.

But the same article gives some information for which, I realize, I've no basis to know how to feel:

As of June 30, 2009, the town had 27 disabled retirees earning an average monthly disability pension of $3,088, according to records.

An average of $37,000 per year isn't all that much, assuming the retirees aren't actually receiving the money as gravy on top of other income, and we should definitely provide for public servants who are hurt in the line of duty. But is that number of retirees high? I don't know. Compared with my own experience in construction, it certainly seems like a lot of people to be paying for not working, but I wonder if a study has been done of other Rhode Island towns as well as municipalities in other states.

That's really the relevant question, and it seems like the sort of thing that somebody in the press, the government bureaucracy, or a think tank should be concerned about. Oh, to have a think tank's resources!


August 14, 2010


Union Cites "Management Rights", Blocks Unionization Attempt

Marc Comtois

Did you hear about the guy who tried to unionize the unions office and got fired (h/t)?

Jim Callaghan, a veteran writer for the [United Federation of Teachers] union, told The Post he was booted from his $100,000-a-year job just two months after he informed UFT President Michael Mulgrew that he was trying to unionize some of his co-workers.

"I was fired for trying to start a union at the UFT," said a dumbfounded Callaghan, who worked for the union's newsletter and as a speechwriter for union leaders for the past 13 years.

Callaghan said he personally told Mulgrew on June 9 about his intention to try to organize nonunionized workers at UFT headquarters.

"I told him I want to have the same rights that teachers have," said Callaghan, 63, of Staten Island. "He told me he didn't want that, that he wanted to be able to fire whoever he wanted to."

Unions are all about management rights when they're the management, I guess.
Callaghan said that yesterday morning, he was hauled into a meeting with UFT officials, including CFO David Hickey, and told only that he was being fired from his job and had a half-hour to clear out of the office.

"They gave me no reason, no letter, no cause at all," said Callaghan, who insisted that he has received no reprimands or notices about problems with his work. He noted that he wrote six stories in the most recent newsletter for teachers.

Callaghan said the union-busting bullying continued after he was told he was fired, when UFT leaders called in a detail of six uniformed cops to remove him from his office because he wasn't leaving fast enough.

Callaghan said he decided to unionize the 12 UFT writers after a colleague was fired last year without cause.

"We have no protections and no disciplinary process," he said.

The UFT had no comment, but noted that overwhelming majority of their employees are union members. Callaghan plans on complaining to the National Labor Relations Board that the UFT union is anti-union.


August 12, 2010


Government Giveaways... to Itself

Justin Katz

Matt and I discussed the federal government's billion dollar giveaways to states to make up for their poor management and failure to adjust to the economic times, on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


August 5, 2010


Topics Local and International

Justin Katz

Last night Monique and Tony Cornetta talked, on the Matt Allen Show, about Iran, teachers' unions, and partisan ethics. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


August 4, 2010


Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path

Marc Comtois

Faced with an insurmountable $13 million cut in state and local funding, the Warwick School Committee voted to freeze pay and impose a 20% health care co-pay for all of its employees last night.

Before the vote, School Committee Chairman Chris Friel stressed that these are not actions the district wants to take but it has no choice faced with insufficient funding for its budget of about $161 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

He said the district did not want to cut programs that directly affect students, such as sports, gifted classes, mentoring and all extracurricular activities.

Unions are not happy.
The action is in apparent violation of the School Department's contract with its roughly 1,000 teachers represented by the Warwick Teachers Union, with teachers slated to lose a 2.75 percent raise this year....The leaders of the two unions that represent almost all school employees - the teachers union and the Warwick Independent School Employees union - vowed that they will respond with swift court action.

"I feel stabbed in the back," teachers union president James Ginolfi said, noting that the first he and other union executives heard of the School Committee's plan was less than an hour before it took action in executive session.

"We listened to what they had to say and said we'd get back to you," Ginolfi said, adding that the school board is sending a public message that it has no regard for a legal agreement. "I am shocked," he said.

The union has been playing the "we'd get back to you" game or the "we're willing to listen" game for some time now. The School Committee is obligated to have its budget finalized shortly after the City Council approves the school budget and was already late in doing so. They couldn't wait any longer. The situation called for urgency and the unions seemed to be content with playing the same collective bargaining games that worked in the past (see the "Addendum" in the extended post for a timeline). That isn't working any more. It's apparent that the Warwick School Committee felt like there wasn't much expeditious movement occurring on the other side of the table and felt like the only path left open--a tough one--was to unilaterally make these cuts and changes. That's something that the Warwick City Council backed away from. Whether the solution is viable depends on the next stop in the process: the courthouse.

Continue reading "Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path"

June 29, 2010


What's Worth Economic Disruption in a Recession

Justin Katz

This mindset is well beyond my capacity for sympathy, and almost incomprehensible:

Trains stood still and children played instead of going to school as workers around France went on strike to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Neighboring countries suffered along with Paris commuters as walkouts by drivers delayed or canceled trains from Italy and Switzerland. Some flights were dropped or delayed. ...

The ranks of demonstrators swelled in comparison to a similar protest May 27. The Interior Ministry put the number of protesters around France at 797,000—double the number in May.

Such incidents should stand as a warning to the United States — a path not to take (any farther).


June 6, 2010


Tightening the Union Loop into a Noose

Justin Katz

It could just be that I'm in my annual phase of presummer burnout, or it could be an indication of the complexity that Big Government imposes on a democratic society — to such degree that it ceases to be possible for the individuals who comprise that democracy to function as they must — but the number of fronts for manipulating the public sector feel like they've been multiplying, lately.

The issue that brings that statement to mind is the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) legislation that Democrats have brought to the table in Washington, which Bradley Smith describes, here. Given my usual areas of focus, this part earned a bracket in the margins of my issue of National Review:

DISCLOSE's partisanship is apparent in its different treatment of corporations and unions. Every major federal campaign-finance-reform effort since 1943 has attempted to treat corporations and unions equally. If a limit applied to corporations, it applied to unions; if unions could form PACs, corporations could too; and so on. DISCLOSE is the first major campaign-finance bill that has not taken this approach. For example, it prohibits corporations with government contracts of as little as $50,000 from making independent expenditures in elections or engaging in "electioneering communications." This very low threshold would bar not only large contractors such as Boeing but also thousands of small businesses from exercising the rights recognized in Citizens United. Yet no parallel provision exists for unions that bargain with the government for multimillion-dollar benefit packages. Corporations that received TARP funds are prohibited from spending, but unions at those companies — which in many cases benefited far more from the bailouts than shareholders — are not.

Smith doesn't go far enough, to my mind, by raising this as a matter of teams in a partisan dispute. It's actually part of a broad effort to shift the role of unions in our political society. Recall a post from November that noted, tangentially, that hospitals receiving federal money are barred from lobbying the government while their workers' unions are not (see "addendum," below). As the federal government continues to grow — especially in the amount of our economy for which it takes direct authority — the loop whereby businesses rely on the unions with which they negotiate to lobby the government will tighten into a noose, excluding organizations that are not unionized and siphoning off more money for politicians, bureaucrats, and the unions that serve as the middleman transferring economic wealth to the public sector.

ADDENDUM:

I've said before that among the greatest advantages of blogging to a mixed audience is that one is more likely than not to have errors or inadvertent stretches corrected. In that vein, Stuart called me on the statement about hospitals receiving federal money being barred from lobbying the government. Going back to my initial citation, I see that I paraphrased the following poorly:

SEIU's corporate campaigns, however effective, are nothing new. Stern's real breakthrough came when he realized that labor could offer a carrot as well as a stick Around 50 percent of SEIU's members work in the health-care industry as nurses, hospital attendants, and lab techs. The facilities that employ such workers benefit from a number of government programs. SEIU's pitch was simple: Let us organize your workforce, and we'll use our lobbying power to push for increased government spending on health care.

It worked. Fred Siegel and Dan DiSalvo recently observed in The Weekly Standard that, "under the brilliant leadership of Dennis Rivera, [SEIU Local] 1199 built a top-notch political operation, and with the hospitals, which were barred from political activity, formed a partnership to maximize the flow of government revenue." The alliance has been so successful, they wrote, that New York now spends as much on Medicaid as California and Texas combined. Rivera now serves as the SEIU's point man on national health-care-reform legislation, with over 400 union staff members working full time at his disposal. Sen. Chuck Schumer called him "one of the few key players" shaping the final bill.

In essence, I joined concepts that were only related: The union offers lobbying clout, but the political activity from which hospitals are barred probably doesn't have to do with the federal dollars that the lobbying seeks, but rather with such things as bans on non-profit political activities. My understanding is that unions are not so restricted.

So, the statement in specific was incorrect, but the point remains valid. To the extent that government restrains the employer in political activity and speech, while leaving unions exempt from those restraints, the union and the government gain leverage versus the productive organizations.


June 4, 2010


Cross Every Picket Line

Justin Katz

Circumstances have made me slow to respond to this, and my position will hardly be a surprise, but I did want to express — ahem — solidarity with RIGOP Chairman Gio Cicione (as well as the RI Young Republicans) on the matter of crossing a union picket line to hold a Central Committee meeting at the Westin Providence hotel:

Explaining why the state Republican Party, along with the Rhode Island Young Republicans, decided to hold its State Central Committee meeting at the hotel, party chairman Giovanni Cicione said: "If Democrats continue to torture every local business with threats of strikes and boycotts, especially in the midst of this recession, Rhode Island will soon find itself with no employers left."
I'll go further: All taxpayers should make a point of doing business with companies that are facing union strikes. Trying to hurt employers in the midst of this recession is among the most asinine strategies that Rhode Island's unionists have yet conceived.

June 2, 2010


When Management Acknowledges Its Own Cards

Justin Katz

Two factors are obvious in making Rhode Island school committees behave as if authority over the jobs is ultimately a weak card in negotiations: Some members see giving as much money as possible to teachers as one of their rightful objectives (whether they're teachers, themselves, or have some other reason for alliance), and other members are people who see their positions as a matter of community service, and they entered them not expecting to have to stand against organized, bare-knuckle negotiators.

Of course, Rhode Island has also set up a series of implied rules and what one might call "legal insinuations" that have led motivated school committee members to hesitate. That's why it took East Providence's challenging those insinuations — and winning — before its school committee could arrive at this point:

While it seems one-sided, the pact secures teachers' salaries and benefits. The School Committee imposed its 2009 salary and benefit cuts after the previous contact expired.

Read the article for the details, but the point that I wish to highlight, here, is that running the school system is not exactly a powerless position, when it comes to negotiations. It's well past time for Rhode Islanders in positions of authority to stop shirking their responsibility to think and act independently of the deadly, draining illusion drawn for the benefit of the state's public sector unions.


May 26, 2010


A Freeze Would Preserve Everything

Justin Katz

Well, it's certainly not rocket science, but it's nice to know that New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie and I have come to the same conclusion when it comes to schools' supposed funding problems (subscription required):

In the last three years, state and local government-employee compensation grew 9.8 percent, compared with 6.9 percent in the private sector. That’s $1.43 in compensation growth for public employees for every $1.00 in compensation growth for private employees.

Those raises cost money, at a time when state tax revenues have taken a hit because of falling incomes and less consumption. For a time, states were able to close much of the gap with stimulus dollars. In New Jersey, now that the stimulus is running out, teachers' unions are urging the extension of a "temporary" tax increase inflicted last year upon residents making over $150,000 annually, and the elimination of the school-funding cut.

As Christie noted, this tax increase (as well as teacher layoffs and cuts to spending on classroom supplies) can be avoided by means of enacting a pay freeze. An April Rasmussen poll found 65 percent of New Jersey voters support a teacher-pay freeze. But while a handful of local unions agreed to accept one, the vast majority balked at the governor's demand. In return, Christie urged voters to reject proposed school budgets in elections on April 20. (In New Jersey, school budgets must be approved by voters annually.)

It has amazed me that school committees across Rhode Island have been talking school closures and the elimination of extracurricular activities. Requiring public-sector staff to experience even just a small amount of the economic pain makes all the problems go away. Of course, that's assuming that there really are problems. A frequent complaint about school departments is that their budgets are entirely their own concoction, and it's clear whose side school committees and administrations are on, for the most part, when it comes down to it.



The Subtle Tactics of the NEA

Justin Katz

In an article about securing union approval of Rhode Island's application for federal Race to the Top education funds:

[NEARI President Larry] Purtill also said he is carefully monitoring the acrimonious situation in East Providence, where the School Committee last year unilaterally cut teachers' wages, forced teachers to pay more of their health insurance costs and recently threatened to cut wages again. East Providence is a NEARI local.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals had their Central Falls problem resolved, and the NEA wants its sweetener, too. Race to the Top is looking more and more like a poison pill.


May 16, 2010


Central Falls: Tomorrow's News Today

Justin Katz

The press releases are coming out concerning an administration-union deal in Central Falls. First in the emailbox was the union's take:

The Central Falls Teachers Union and the Central Falls School District reached a tentative agreement Saturday to implement a transformation plan for Central Falls High School for the 2010-11 school year in a way that involves all stakeholders—administrators, teachers, students and parents—to create a pathway toward excellence for everyone at the school.

Both the school district and the union agree that while this has been a difficult process for everyone involved, the negotiations resulted in a newfound appreciation for shared responsibility, and a solid commitment to bring lasting solutions that will improve teaching and learning at Central Falls High School.

As part of that agreement, which is pending ratification, the current staff will return to the school without having to reapply for their jobs. Teachers will need to recommit to their jobs and interview with the new principal. The agreed upon plan would also incorporate important changes designed to increase student achievement. These include a longer school day, more after-school tutoring, a new evaluation system designed to inform teaching and learning, and targeted and embedded professional development, among other changes. Details of the agreement will be released following a ratification vote by Central Falls teachers at a meeting Monday. A press conference is scheduled at the high school at 3:30 p.m.

Followed, just now, by two cents from Education Commissioner Deborah Gist:

I am really pleased that the Central Falls School Department, under Dr. Frances Gallo’s leadership, and the Central Falls Teachers Union have come to a tentative agreement about a plan to transform Central Falls High School, and that they will do that work together. The ideal situation is when we can do this important work collaboratively, and that's why this agreement is so promising. ...

From the outset, I have said that my one commitment is to ensure that we provide the best possible education for the students of Central Falls High School. The tentative agreement reached today is evidence that all parties can put aside their differences and work in the best interest of our students. Now it's time to move forward and work together to make Central Falls High School one of the best schools in Rhode Island.

We'll see who got what, but I have to think that the teachers have become increasingly nervous as the applicant pool to replace them has approached the 1,000 mark.


May 11, 2010


Everything's Negotiable in the Race to the Top

Justin Katz

I'm not a fan of saying, "How high?," when the federal government says, "jump," and waves around a bunch of money. It's also detrimental to begin seeing federal dollars as some sort of cost-free windfall.

That said, the Race to the Top matter has brought forward the true face of labor unions and highlighted their strategies and motivation:

Recently, union officials have told Gist they want her to intervene in union-management strife in Central Falls and East Providence. While those two disputes continue, they said, they can't support the aggressive reforms Gist says are needed to fix failing schools. Gist and other state officials have said repeatedly that they cannot intervene. In Central Falls, the union local is fighting plans by Supt. Frances Gallo to terminate the entire teaching staff of the low-performing high school and hire back only 50 percent. In East Providence, the union is outraged the local school committee unilaterally cut teacher salaries and forced teachers to pay more into their health insurance. Both cases are currently in the state's courts.

"You want that $75 million? Well, make these two little problems go away. Make it clear who runs the show around here." (Not an actual quotation, by the way.)

Rhode Island's educational system is failing children and costing residents far too much — to the point that, in combination with other factors, it's strangling the state's economy. The law will decide what local remedies are allowed. To unions, though, that's not good enough. Any chance to extort for the result they want is legitimate, in their eyes.

And that, in case you needed further example, is why it's so dangerous to look toward consolidation and the movement of governing authority to higher tiers of government.


May 4, 2010


"Do you have to love labor unions to be a good Democrat?"

Marc Comtois

Blogger Mickey Kaus is running for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary in California and thinks its time for the Democratic Party to re-think their relationship with unions (h/t).

It's time for Democrats, even liberal Democrats, to start looking at unions and unionism with deep skepticism.

I don't mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they've been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don't need a union so much, do you?

I agree. Unions fought the good fight "back in the day" and served as a much-needed check on corporations as they gained hard-won victories for workers. Government regulations and oversights were instituted. But once those battles were won, union leaders expanded the definition of "union rights" and warned of bogey men so that they can keep the membership always fighting for something more and keep themselves in power. But this has led to problems for private sector unions whose demands resulted in a sort of workplace stasis.
At the same time unions were winning government protections, changes in the economy were making mainstream unionism itself an impediment to growth. We are no longer living in a World War II world in which big, slow-moving bureaucratic organizations are the engines of prosperity. Only fast-moving, flexible organizations prosper today. Technology changes too rapidly. Firms have to be able to make snap decisions: expand here, contract there, change the way they work every day. That was the lesson of Japan--how 1,000 little improvements in productivity can add up to a big advantage.
As Kaus explains, too many unions are stuck in the 1950's and their solution is to keep doing what worked in the '50's. Yet, even though times have changed, more strident unionism is "the official Democratic Party dogma. No dissent allowed." As market forces have shrunk private sector unions, government unions continue to grow, funded by tax dollars appropriated by the Democrats they've hired. In particular, Kaus is no fan of the modern teacher unions:
When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it's been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.
He also knows that some Democrats recognize the problem:
"The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits...while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide...but at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact."

That quote is from Willie Brown, a Democratic hero, explaining why the state may go the way of Vallejo and General Motors. Easy for him to say; he's retired. But you won't catch any Democrats who are running for office saying it. They're too dependent on organized labor's money and muscle.

I doubt that Kaus will win his bid for Senate and I also doubt that there will be a serious rift between the union leaders and Democrat politicians any time soon. After all, the system works for them.


April 27, 2010


SNL: The 2010 Public Employee of the Year Awards

Marc Comtois

The nominees:

Markeesha Odom: Works at St. Louis DMV. At 24 years old, already twice name Missouri's surliest and least cooperative state employee.

Dennis Cosgrove: School custodian in Queens, NY. Set a record with 3200 hours on the job. All on overtime! Like many NYC custodians, Dennis is a year round resident of Florida.

Anthony Scalise: A clerk in the probate court of Mercer County, NJ. Elevator inspector for the city of Trenton and on 100% disability from his first city job in the sanitation department where an accident left him with a crippling fear of cats.

Watch below for the winner!


April 26, 2010


Making Committees Choose Between Funds and Friends

Justin Katz

Chris Powell notes a strategy worth considering:

Nominations for Connecticut's mayor of the year should include Wallingford's William W. Dickinson Jr. for proposing, in the town budget he recently submitted to the Town Council, to reduce the school board's budget by exactly the amount the board planned to pay raises to teachers. The mayor thus clarified that school budgets aren't being cut but rather that school systems are being cannibalized by their employees.

The statement could be even more effective in towns that are between contracts — such as Tiverton. Especially in the case of financial town meetings, taxpayers could send a clear message that they've got a preference for certain line items in the district's budget.

When school committees are unwilling to force concessions beyond the point at which their budgets grow 6% (and are failing to achieve even those) during an historic recession and 2% inflation, it seems to me that some undeniable lessons from the people paying the bills are in order.



Labor Peace, Town or State

Justin Katz

Julia Steiny makes a reasonable point about the ability of the General Assembly — with limits and mandates for local teacher contracts — to ensure "peace at the local level," but her assessment doesn't go quite far enough:

And this is the point: labor peace must be bought. And nothing is excluded from negotiations. Everything is subject to bargaining rights.

To prevail in negotiation, weak-kneed management has often won what it wanted, extra minutes of instruction or commitments to professional development, by giving away expensive perks such as more generous sick leave. To hide or delay paying for the give-away, perks were often additions to retirement benefits.

The operative clause is that "labor peace must be bought"; if it isn't bought at the local level, it will be bought at the state level. As we've recently seen, AFL-CIO honcho George Nee sneezes, and Providence quakes. If reformers somehow manage to push contractual limits through the General Assembly, it will only happen on the terms of National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Bob Walsh. And we can be sure that those aren't terms that we should prefer to what we can secure with labor decisions close at hand in our own communities.

Look. The basic calculation is as follows: If the people of Rhode Island don't care enough to counterbalance the unions when it comes to electing school committee members, and if there aren't three to five residents willing to stand against union aggression as elected officials in each municipality, then the even larger court of the state government is not a place that we want the ball in play.


April 23, 2010


Re: The Biggest Faction in the General Assembly

Justin Katz

The comments to Marc's post on the number of General Assembly members who benefit from public pensions are understandable, but most miss the point. Cutting the General Assembly's pay and authority isn't going to address the essential problem — namely, that an official position that doesn't pay much will attract those who have other motivations, including other ways to profit. It's nice to think that "community service" will suffice, but devoting so many hours to such a position over a limited number of months per year puts quite a cost on that service. Retired teachers and such whose unions have given them so much have motivation to put in time for "union service," but most Rhode Islanders simply cannot justify the time.

As to cutting the legislature's authority, while that may be a laudable goal, we'd have to begin by cutting the government's authority. Otherwise the power currently held by a large number of legislators would be given to a handful of administrators and bureaucrats. In other words, change in that direction would have to go in the other direction.

Frankly, I'd be willing to argue for paying the General Assembly members more given two reforms:

  • Representation is aligned directly with cities and towns, making it clear whom members represent, and providing a clear path from local politics to state politics.
  • The "part-time" of the legislature is spread out across the entire year, with fewer hours per week. In other words, make the schedule more in line with what working people can manage.

Unfortunately, the people who would have to enact such changes like their current advantage, so such reforms would be the project of decades, and I'm not sure Rhode Island has that long.


April 17, 2010


Union Comfort Would Be Evidence of Danger

Justin Katz

My main argument against looking toward centralized levers — whether in Providence or Washington — to reform education has essentially been that national teachers' unions are better situated to manipulate higher tiers of government than are concerned residents acting through democratic processes. Within the scope of town politics, an active group can have some hope of countering union propaganda, legal, and bullying tactics — not the least by changing the composition of elected bodies. At the state level, the excess funding that the union system creates for activist administration and lobbying will be of greater value.

That's not to deny that voters and a handful of forward-looking government officials could throw an important curve into the game, before the unions adjust their focus to those officials' offices. That possibility is perhaps what evoked union concern about RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's application for federal Race to the Top funding, and its absence is what ought to concern voters about the shift in tone for the second round of competition for those dollars. It's now clear that union support was critical for the causes of the two states that won initial funding, and that support will require that unions have an advantage in the centralization process:

During frank discussions, several speakers said fear and a sense of alienation kept most of the state's teachers union locals from supporting the first application. Of particular concern was a pledge to make student test scores and other evidence of student growth count for more than half of a teacher's evaluation. But the application was vague about exactly what factors would be used to assess a teacher's performance.

"There was a tremendous sense of fear," said Mike Crowley, president of the Rhode Island School Committees Association. "There was fear not knowing what this evaluation will look like. I think [teachers] want to come to the table, and we, as school committees and superintendents, also need to understand it, since we will be expected to carry it out."

The only way toward substantial reform is from the bottom up. Town residents must insist on evaluations that take student achievement into consideration, implemented by accountable administrators with the authority to make substantive changes. State and federal strategies that have any hope of winning union support will only tie the hands of local school administrations.


April 15, 2010


Magic Numbers and Pension Politics

Justin Katz

Rhode Island GOP Chairman Gio Cicione makes a good point about pensions and General Treasurer Frank Caprio:

In fact, Mr. Caprio knew better a long time ago. As early as April 2002, when he was Senate finance chairman, Mr. Caprio indicated that an 8.25 percent return had "proved to be an overly optimistic assumed rate of interest for the fund" (reported in The Journal on April 17, 2002). Nonetheless, throughout his career in the General Assembly and his tenure as treasurer, Mr. Caprio promulgated this budget fantasy to mask the truth from taxpayers and from public employees who will depend on the state pension fund to provide their retirement benefits.

As a candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial election, and with the pension fund in trouble, Mr. Caprio is working now to appear fiscally responsible, but he has a lot to explain about his two-decades-long political record of endangering the retirement of public employees and increasing the pressure on taxpayers to fill the holes in the fund.

I'd expand the criticism to anybody in government who complied with the conspiracy to behave as if such expectations were founded in reality. Anytime people in government — or in any capacity — get to make up numbers that determine what they can do with the money at their disposal, others should be skeptical. They should be especially wary if the predictions are anything other than clearly conservative.

We are where we are, however, and it appears that Big RI Labor is content to lean on public officials to find some way through the mess that they've jointly created. Since the magic of government accounting cannot reach beyond the printed page into actual transfers of funds (at least in sufficient amounts), it's going to come down to one of two options: Taxes are going to have to increase greatly, or pensions are going to have to be trimmed. Union members should not risk tremendous confidence that it will be the former.


April 14, 2010


The Little Policy Details That Say So Much

Justin Katz

Sometimes, in the noise and rancor of politics and budgeting, one's attention becomes monopolized by particular details. Consider the following:

[The state's public-employee unions'] chief target: a proposal to limit annual pension increases to the first $35,000 in retirement pay initially. The $35,000 would go up each year, in keeping with the Consumer Price Index, and legislative budget writers stripped from their final bill a provision that Carcieri sought — to reinforce a right they already have to adjust these cost of living adjustments of up to 3 percent annually.

By way of comparison, Massachusetts has, for more than a decade, limited its annual pension increases to the first $12,000 in retirement pay.

There's no excuse for so much of what goes on in Rhode Island. Oh, there are rationalizations and complaints, and they'll continue to float to the surface as bubbles long after the state has drifted to the bottom. But the poor leadership and self-serving lobbying have no justification but greed and corruption. One class rallies and demands the continuation of ill-advised and unsustainable handouts, and another class suffers until its members reach the threshold of whatever's keeping them in the state.

The cycle continues, and down we go.


April 10, 2010


What Are You Working Toward?

Justin Katz

Scott Adams really captured something with this edition of his Dilbert comic strip:

Dilbert.com

Our progressive readers will no doubt declare this to be the reason that unions and government are necessary parties in the employment exchange. From my perspective, it's the reason that government ought to make it easier for all of us Dilberts to step out on our own and compete with our oppressive bosses — or at least work for some entrepreneur who can profit by luring dissatisfied talent from incumbents.


April 9, 2010


NEARI Report: the Supplemental Budget Process (and Much More)

Monique Chartier

The following was sent this afternoon to members of the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

I am not sure what was reported in the paper this morning since reporters were posting stories as they were briefed, but some of those turned out to be premature. The House Finance Committee did vote out the supplemental budget in an extraordinarily short time once it began. We arrived at the State House around one and they did not start their scheduled 11 am meeting until after 8 pm. For all those not yet eligible to retire, the COLA was changed to apply only to the first $35,000 of retirement income. This number would be indexed, which means it goes up each year. The eligibility age to receive the COLA was raised to 65. (Reps Fierro, San Bento and Savage voted against the changes.)

Reps received more phone calls and emails than ever before in such a short time, but we cannot stop now. We all need to remember that when this first leaked out on Monday the COLA cap was at $12,000 with no indexing. I truly believe your efforts had an impact – now we need to push them to vote “no” for any changes at all. Enough is enough and it stops now. Keep calling and emailing. It will be critical over the weekend as those reps leaning our way need our support and we need to turn the others around. We do have support in the House, and the Senate has been fighting this all along.

All the unions impacted are asking their members to come to the State House this Monday after work to lobby and show opposition to these changes. They are caucusing at 3 pm and meeting at 4 pm. Since the House vote will be Tuesday, this will be our opportunity to raise our collective voices. You and your members need to be there. We have been sending a very strong political message that a vote for this is a vote against public employees, teachers, and working women and if you do so, do not expect our help in November. We need your help on Monday delivering that message!

To show how unions working together can have an impact: at 4 pm a new budget item appeared out of nowhere that called for all municipal employees to contribute a minimum of 15% toward health care despite any collective bargaining agreements. At 7 pm, George Nee, president of the AFL-CIO, was called to the speaker's office and was told to tell the other union leaders that that item was off the table. (The only mildly pleasant moment of the evening came around 9 pm when a reporter for the Journal was running around the hearing room looking for that article since they has already posted it as a major headline a few hours previously.)

There was one other surprise that the reps on the Finance Committee did not know about, and I think they were not even sure about it when they voted. All teacher and school employee contracts must now be approved by both the local school committee and town council/city council with at least one public hearing held prior to the vote. If that ends up being the case, I believe we move to do away with school committees because they will have become useless in the process. (I know what you are thinking.) In addition to opposing the COLA changes, ask your reps to oppose Article 9 as well.

I mentioned this past Monday earlier and now it seems like such a long time ago. In three days time, though, we held two conference calls, send an all member email, blogged, tweeted and everything else in between. It all led to a member response level never seen before. I want to thank you and ask you not to stop. Remind your colleagues to do the same. To do nothing means we agree with what is happening and I know you don't.

A special thanks to local presidents, officers and staff who have been working to put an end to this. We need to be as energized as ever. I am certainly ready to take our opposition to the next step and beyond when you are, but right now it starts with more phone calls and a huge turnout on Monday.


April 8, 2010


The Union Does School Administration

Justin Katz

It was hard not to give some credit to the union-run New England Laborers/Cranston Public Schools Construction Career Academy when it gave some of its money back to the town to maintain sports programs. Of course, one wondered why it would have extra money — charter schools aren't fully private schools — but the sentiment wasn't without its noble tinge. Well, Cranston School Committee member Stephen Stycos says there's more to the story, and as usual, it begins with an apparent conflict of interest:

I questioned the change and argued that if the Laborers charter school had $193,840 for the union, it should also give $193,840 to the Cranston public schools. [Michael] Traficante, who chairs the charter-school board of directors and the Cranston School Committee, and is an employee of the Laborers union, countered that the former superintendent promised the union would only have to pay for the "construction craft laborers instructors" for the school's first five years.

And here are some of the results:

Mr. Traficante, however, said the Laborers charter school wanted to help with Cranston's financial woes and came forward with a transfer of $187,218. In response to questioning from several School Committee members, we discovered that this "gift" was the state's reimbursement for special-education services already paid by the Cranston public schools. Had the charter school kept the money, it would have been paid twice for the same special-education services — once by its partner, the Cranston Public Schools, and once by the State of Rhode Island. Since Cranston pays for the special-education services, Cranston should automatically receive the money. ...

(The construction craft laborers instructors, however, who are hired by the union, receive a school-year wage and benefit package equal to $97,751, while a comparable technical assistant at Cranston's vocational school earns $45,870 in wages and benefits.)


April 2, 2010


Get That Board a Rubber Stamp

Justin Katz

This is curious:

A state advisory board on Monday opted not to vote on a potentially controversial plan to overhaul the state’s unemployment law.

Thus, the matter will be left to legislators and Governor Carcieri to decide without benefit of the board’s recommendation. ...

The reversal came after [Chairman William] McGowan acknowledged having heard from a number of small businesses that were opposed to the tax aspects of the plan, and after it emerged that at least two of the board’s members were prepared to vote against the plan.

I could be wrong, but it sounds to me like it's a bad plan, given the economy, and the board members weren't going to give the lawmakers the political cover that they wanted, so they canceled the vote.


April 1, 2010


The Risk of a Recreational Medicine

Justin Katz

My ambivalence about legalizing marijuana carries into this legal development, but I post it mainly as an interesting civic conundrum:

Tens of thousands of Californians are obtaining medical marijuana recommendations from physicians so they can use pot without fear of arrest.

But they still can lose their jobs.

California's Proposition 215, passed by voters in 1996, approved the use of marijuana for a wide range of ailments. But it doesn't require employers to make accommodations or waive any workplace rules for legal cannabis users.

On one hand, if employers feel that use of a particular substance, even outside of work, represents a potential risk of any kind, they ought to be able to continue testing for it. Employees are free not to work there, to take the initiative to compete in the market, or to attempt to affect the business by influencing its customers. On the other hand, although I always found (more than a decade ago) that pot does affect one's mental alertness even after its effects have worn off, but then, so does alcohol.

Whichever way the coin falls, though, I hope that this remains a state-by-state issue.


March 29, 2010


Balancing Public Sector Pay From the Town to the Nation

Justin Katz

I've already been arguing, at the town level on up, that the economic downturn needn't tax the future, through debt, nor decrease programs that local folks want. Glenn Reynolds offers a bit of evidence that I'm right:

What if government workers earned the average of what private workers earn? States and localities would save $339 billion a year from their more than $2.1 trillion budgets. These savings are larger than the combined estimated deficits for 2010 and 2011 of every state in America. In a separate survey, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis compares the compensation of public versus private workers in each of the 50 states. Perhaps not coincidentally, the pay gap is widest in states that have the biggest budget deficits, such as New Jersey, Nevada and Hawaii. Of the 40 states that have a budget deficit so far this year, 28 would have a balanced budget were it not for the windfall to government workers.

Rhode Island has been giving away the store, on this count, and many of the paying customers have been leaving, making matters worse. It's well past time to turn that all around. Perhaps folks who've just gone along to get along are starting to understand what's been happening as the decades have rolled on by.


March 26, 2010


Hey, Don't Worry About Federal Ed. Money

Justin Katz

Even if Rhode Island doesn't win federal largess for its education improvement plan, as Marc is suggesting we will not, we still have every reason that we've always had to hold our heads high, such as this one that Julia Steiny mentioned last Sunday:

After the 1960s, many states went back to their labor laws to limit, assertively, the scope of bargaining. Apparently, Rhode Island now has the broadest labor laws in the country. Virtually nothing is off the negotiating table.

Oh, wait...



First to Unemployment

Justin Katz

Rhode Island should not, under any circumstances, increasingly burden the state's employers with the costs of its unemployed, but clearly, something must be done to adjust for our long-term burden of unemployment. This conversation is therefore very necessary:

The state Department of Labor and Training on Wednesday proposed sweeping changes to Rhode Island’s unemployment-insurance system to try to restore the state's unemployment trust fund to solvency.

The plan would gradually raise the state unemployment tax paid by more than 30,000 employers in Rhode Island and cap or reduce benefits that an unemployed worker could receive.

The mix of solutions is a matter for extended debate, but this suggestion makes absolutely no sense to me:

Benefit changes would apply only to people filing claims in the future, not to those currently collecting, officials stressed.

Frankly, I see no justification for that distinction, except (maybe) to keep the state from having to recalculate anybody's benefits. It's not as if the currently unemployed invested more into the system, and it's not as if those who are still working will have additional time to prepare for a change in unemployment benefits that they don't yet know that they'll require.

Under the same logic, one could argue that no businesses that are currently making payments for their unemployment insurance should see an increase in their rates.


March 21, 2010


Re: Pensions; Why Should Healthcare Be the Only Calamity on Your Mind, Today?

Monique Chartier

Further to Justin's post, in the matter of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy by the City of Prichard, Alabama, a judge ruled ten days ago that public employee retirees do not have any greater standing than other creditors.

A bankruptcy court judge denied a motion Tuesday that would force Prichard to pay its pensioners, saying they do not qualify as administrative claims -- or day-to-day obligations -- of the city.

The judge gave the city until May 19 to file a reorganization plan.

Returning now to Rhode Island, asked on the Helen Glover Show a couple of weeks ago about the thought process of the all-powerful Speaker of the House on the matter of our under-water public pension system, former Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey replied,

I think actually Gordon Fox ... understands the depths of the problem. I think he's just going to play his game of roulette, also, where he's going to try to be in office as long as possible and he has to be beholden to the special interest public union leaders. And he thinks they control their votes. And so that's what he's going to do. He simply is just going to play out the game. And with $6.6 billion in assets, he thinks he can play it out until he gets out of office and leave it for somebody else to deal with.

Could Smith Hill leadership really harbor the notion that they could skate by this situation? Especially in view of the sharply escalating, budget-busting contributions that are required from the tax-payer as long as pensions are not addressed?

Alternately, could they be waiting for enough Rhode Island cities to declare Chapter 9 and for the fiscal situation on the state level to deteriorate so badly that they have to say to their public employee supporters, "Sorry, we have no choice but to ..." But to what? Whatever solution they may propose at that point, almost assuredly, it won't be as "nice" as the ones on the table now. And no one denies that those already stink on ice. Accordingly, though it might be tempting politically, would waiting for the disaster to actually strike really be such a wise course?



Pensions; Why Should Healthcare Be the Only Calamity on Your Mind, Today?

Justin Katz

As you can see, I'm catching up on the items in my "to blog" pile. Here's a pension-related exercise in predictive mathematics (paragraphs copied out of order):

For more than a decade, the state has anticipated annual returns of 8.25 percent for its giant fund — currently valued at almost $7 billion — needed to cover retirement payments for thousands of retired state workers and teachers. ...

The difference between Rhode Island’s 8.25-percent projection and [Wilshire Consulting's] 6.9-percent suggestion could mean tens of millions of dollars for state and local governments already facing mounting pension costs. ...

While losing $2.4 billion during the near-collapse of financial markets between January 2008 and January 2009, the pension fund earned an average of 2.79 percent each year over the last 10 years, according to information provided by the state treasurer’s office, which manages the fund.

To repeat: A pension fund predicted to return 8.25% annually actually returned 2.79%, so the solution with which government officials are toying is changing the prediction to 6.9%. See, in government, predictions can be tweaked to coincide with political feasibility, not actual results. It's not like we're talking about real people's lives, or anything.


March 20, 2010


The Dangling President

Justin Katz

Let's order things clearly: It was objectionable for a Central Falls high school teacher to dangle an Obama doll upside down with a sign saying "Fire CF Teachers," because it involved the students in a union dispute. Talk of its being a hate crime is utterly outlandish:

To Clifford Montiero, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, the effigy represents a lynching of a black man, and brings back painful memories of decades of injustices.

"In my mind, this is a hate crime, and the teacher should be charged," Montiero said. "This teacher feels he can demean the president of the United States, an African-American who has overcome all this hatred. It is wrong. And when you take a nonviolent environment like a classroom, and introduce violence and hatred into it, you have crossed the line."

Even calling the thing an "effigy," as the Providence Journal does, goes a bit far. I look at the picture and I think Laugh In, not Mississippi Burning, with the President popping out to offer a one liner.


March 18, 2010


Meant to Be Versus Is

Justin Katz

Not unexpectedly, my column in last month's Rhode Island Catholic was my first to garner a letter to the editor of that paper. I'm not sure, though, that William Schecher, of Smithfield, understood what I was trying to say when he writes:

The whole purpose of unions is to join together for the common cause of protecting and advancing the welfare of all workers, whether they belong to a union or not. This begins with a local union, whose members’ freedoms and initiatives must come together in solidarity as one, in negotiating contracts either in the public or private sector, or on a local or national level.

That may, indeed, be "the whole purpose of unions" in an idealized ideological vision (or in literature that unions push on their members), but it is not the reality of their activity. Indeed, my argument was that it's not a likely outcome based on the incentives of their structure.

A union aggregates the power of its members for concentrated political and economic force. Union leaders often use their political capital in ways that have little to do with their members, and they must devote much of what's left to keep the workers under their umbrella feeling as if they benefit financially by their membership.


March 15, 2010


More Re: Committee Wins

Justin Katz

Here's the decision from Superior Court Justice Silverstein: PDF.

About halfway through the document, it appears that Silverstein would draw his lines very tightly around his ruling in favor of the school committee:

Under the language of § 16-2-9 a school committee must bargain in good faith with certified public school teachers in accordance with Title 28 and honor current collective bargaining agreements. However, under a narrow set of circumstances, when such collective bargaining negotiations have reached an impasse and there is no longer a valid collective bargaining agreement, a school committee must comply with the mandate in subsection (d) and avoid maintaining a school budget that results in debt.

However, in most of the substantive ways in which Anchor Rising readers might want a little bit of breadth to the ruling, they won't be disappointed. For one, the judge determined that a never-ending contract is not implied by existing laws (citations deleted):

Although the Union contends that the Committee was under a statutory duty to continue to adhere to the terms and conditions of the expired CBA until a successor agreement was realized, the Court disagrees. Title 28 does not contain such a mandate pertaining to school teachers' labor contracts, and in fact under § 28-9.3-4, "no contract shall exceed the term of three (3) years." Further, when previously discussing the effect of an expired contract this Court found it to be no longer valid and cited to Providence Teachers Union v. Providence School Bd., City of Cranston v. Teamsters Local 251, In Providence Teachers, when discussing the effect of a general arbitration clause in an expired contract, the Court stated that "[a]n expired contract has by its own terms released all its parties from their respective contractual obligations, except obligations already fixed under the contract but as yet unsatisfied." Here, the CBA by its terms expired prior to the implementation of the disputed salary and benefits changes. Therefore, the Court finds that the CBA was no longer binding and the Committee did not "abrogate any agreement reached by collective bargaining."

And when a school committee finds itself facing a budgetary shortfall (determined as a measure of its best knowledge on the date that it takes action), and when the contract has expired, employees don't have an overriding claim to district money beyond other line items under the committee's control (citations deleted):

The Union has continually argued that there were other avenues that the Committee could have taken to reduce the FY 09 deficit. However, this Court remains mindful that under § 16-2-9 the Committee is vested with the entire care, control, and management of the interests of the East Providence public schools. Further, under the same provision the Committee has both the power and the duty to adopt a school budget. Accordingly, this Court will not discuss whether the changes to the teachers' salary and benefits were the only or even the best possible way to comply with the balanced budget mandate of § 16-2-9(d). However, this Court does note that the parties stipulated that the teachers' salaries and benefits consumed 63% of the Committee's total revenue from all sources for FY 09. Therefore, given the mandate in § 16-2-9(d) that a school committee "shall be responsible for maintaining a school budget which does not result in a debt" and the evidence before this Court that the Committee was, in fact, facing a debt for FY 09, this Court declares that the Committee acted lawfully under Title 16 by implementing the teachers' salary and benefit changes.

Lastly, Siverstein found that the State Labor Relations Board cannot, in effect, make law to suit its rulings (citations deleted):

The Court is mindful that when deciding such questions, the SLRB is empowered under § 28-7-22 to issue orders and award the relief it deems to be appropriate. However, our Supreme Court has cautioned that "[n]o state official by administrative action can affect the substantive rights of parties as they have been set forth by an affirmative act of the general assembly." Further, as indicated supra, administrative agencies are bound by statutory schemes and a decision or award is invalid if the decision or award contravenes a statutory scheme.

March 13, 2010


La Cosa AFTstra

Justin Katz

Columnist Mark Patinkin has been focusing on the teacher dispute in Central Falls for weeks, now, but an essay on teachers who (quietly) disagree with the union's activities brings to the fore a central reason that many of us have a constitutional aversion to unions:

"As a C.F. High School teacher I agree with you," the e-mail said. "The Union blew it. The only mistake you made was writing that we voted it down. This is untrue because we were never given the chance to vote. The Union leadership made the decision for us and many of us are not happy."

Why not express that unhappiness?

"Many fear Union retribution," the letter said. ...

"You have to understand," one wrote, "not only would I be going up against my own teacher's union, I would leave myself open to abuse from every teacher's union in the country and perhaps beyond."

No doubt, some union organizer or other has pointed to Patinkin's column, and will point to this very post, as evidence that breaking ranks and speaking out will only open the union to political attack. One can hardly dispute that "solidarity" is part of what empowers unions to accomplish what they do. That doesn't, of course, mean that members or society at large should want them to accomplish those ends. Indeed, the insidious problem of silence is that it allows union reps to pick their own objectives and limit all internal objections to a controlled, intimidating environment.



Keeping the Pension Blood Flowing

Justin Katz

I didn't want to let this one slip by without mention:

The business-backed [Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council] found that the state taxpayer contribution to those pensions nearly tripled over the last decade, jumping from $79.9 million in 2001 to a projected $218 million in the coming year. ...

... Overall, state personnel expenditures will consume $1.7 billion in the coming year, according to the report, which found that retirement costs are the fastest-growing component of personnel spending.

This trend just can't be maintained. Voters have to learn to look past this sort of rhetoric from unionists:

Yet [National Education Association Rhode Island Executive Director Bob] Walsh acknowledges that the report will fuel criticism that his workers' benefits are too rich, especially given the shift in the private sector.

"Just because the private sector jumped off a financial bridge, does it mean we should follow?" he asked...

People who benefit from big government like to argue that voters can, by their votes, decide to do anything: Private businesses determined that they couldn't sustain generous pension benefits, but voters and their representatives can just choose differently. In a limited, short-term sense, I suppose that's true. In a sense that acknowledges reality, however, the laws of economics will decide differently, or at least exact a price that voters wouldn't have been willing to pay had they been well enough informed to anticipate it.


March 10, 2010


Spin on the Health Panel

Justin Katz

Rep. Joseph McNamara (D, Pawtucket) — himself the Alternative Learning Program Director for the Pawtucket School Department — recently published an op-ed defending legislation that he submitted (and which passed) that created a healthcare panel to design insurance benefits for all of Rhode Island teachers. (The legislation, incidentally, inspired the introduction of our legislative stooge list.) The intention of his essay is to lull Rhode Islanders back to sleep, on this matter, but he shouldn't succeed.

Most centrally, his argument cites internally incompatible benefits to the legislation. First:

... the Department of Education studied the issue and found that combined purchasing of health benefits for education employees could save up to $15 million a year.

Yet, second:

... the legislation provides that "choice of benefit plan designs, medical insurance cost-sharing, payment for waiving medical insurance, eligibility for receiving benefits and providing benefits for retirees shall continue to be negotiated" by the districts.

If districts remain able to choose different programs from different insurers, then the maximum savings cited by McNamara cannot be achieved. In other words, the law can only function by limiting school districts' options. Indeed, that is its plain purpose. Note this sly admission that the law amounts to another unfunded mandate:

... it includes the requirement that the value of at least one of the plan designs "shall not be greater than the lowest" plan in effect today.

I don't have the time, just now, to sort through every district's actuarial report, but general familiarity with the issue is enough to suggest that the "lowest plan" is hardly a discount program. If there were such a plan currently in effect, McNamara would surely have cited it as evidence; that he doesn't offer any details for this claim suggests that vagueness suits his political purposes. Essentially, the legislation ensures that the now-mandated health insurance benefits will never decrease, except perhaps minimally with inflation. As for districts' ability negotiate cost-sharing and so forth, here's the actual language (PDF):

Choice of benefit plan designs from those approved in accordance with section medical insurance cost-sharing, payment for waiving medical insurance, eligibility for receiving benefits, and providing benefits for retirees shall continue to be negotiated pursuant to sections 28-9-3 and 28-9-4.

28-9-3 and 28-9-4 do not lay out rights to negotiate certain parts of a contract. Rather, they deal with arbitration. I'm open to correction from legal experts, on this, but defending how one takes the phrase "pursuant to," it would be plausible to argue that the only way to reduce healthcare costs within McNamara's legislation would be through arbitration.

It's a simple matter of reasoning: During a time of growing dissatisfaction with the imbalanced remuneration of public-sector employees, one such employee introduced legislation mandating health insurance benefits with heavy influence from the relevant unions. Keep your eye on that ball; the rest is just fancy footwork.

(Of course, since the legislation passed, attentiveness must be to having it repealed and removing all .)


March 9, 2010


Taking the Discouraged into Account

Justin Katz

Back when I made my (thus far) erroneous prediction that Rhode Island's unemployment rate would hit 14 or even 15%, I didn't take into account the effects of discouraged workers. Doing so, the rate would actually be much higher than that.

It is, without a doubt, a confounding variable, which is why I'm not so sure that this statement can be considered to be accurate:

Forecasters say a larger work force is a positive sign in that it shows that formerly discouraged workers who had given up searching for work are confident enough in the job market to start looking for employment again, even if it takes time to find it.

Put aside questions about the encouragement that we ought to take from the impressions of discouraged workers about the prospects of the economy. I've seen no evidence in print or in life that such confidence in the job market is actually a factor.

It seems more plausible, to me, that "discouraged workers" are seeing their allotted time of unemployment benefits running out and are therefore redoubling their efforts. If that's the case, then one effect of extended jobless payments has been to temporarily shrink the workforce, which is arguably a good thing in the short-term, although the long-term effects of taking that money out of the economy and habituating people to not working may swamp any advantage.

It may also be the case that spouses and children are entering the workforce because the primary household earner has been having such trouble. In other words, an increasing workforce, in the current economic circumstances, could be either a good sign or a bad one.


March 8, 2010


General Assembly Waiting for Problems to Fix Themselves

Justin Katz

Honestly, I don't know how Rhode Islanders can read articles like this one without wanting to storm the State House. In brief, the General Assembly is now letting months pass by without resolving this year's nine-figure budget deficit, and every day of delay makes the task more difficult, thus building political tolerance for the most dim-witted (but typical) solutions:

Key legislators acknowledge that the delay has forced them to consider options that may balloon future deficits, such as refinancing the payment plan for the $4.33-billion unfunded portion of the pension system for state workers and teachers.

Any homeowner should know that the possibility of refinancing the house to pay the grocery bill ought to be evidence that it's time to cancel the premium channel package from the cable company, but the General Assembly marches on, even after years of one-time fixes that have without doubt harmed the lives of future Rhode Islanders — applying stimulus funds to programs that will require continued revenue once the federal largess dries up, sacrificing future tobacco settlement money at a loss, and so on. At a first-year savings of $40-45 million, reamortizing the pension debt wouldn't even come close to addressing the $220 million budget gap, yet it's the only big idea floated as a possibility in the article. And here's the shiny new House Speaker, Gordon Fox (D., Providence):

"No COLAs for life, for instance, for me is a non-starter," Fox said. "Do you want someone when they're 80 years old to be living in poverty? I don't think we, as a society, want to do that."

Being inclined to be charitable, I'm not sure whether to ascribe that statement to stupidity or dishonesty. Eliminating automatic cost of living adjustments (COLAs) to pension payouts in no way prevents the General Assembly from enacting such increases in pension benefits as will prevent 80-year-old former state employees (many of whom would have been retired for more than twenty years, at that point) from starvation. Thus far in his time as speaker, the only case that Fox has competently backed is the case for relocating beyond his taxation reach.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel DaPonte (D, East Providence, Pawtucket) dips into the musty playbook for the "blame the governor" card:

"People understand that it's the chief executive and department heads that manage the state on a day-to-day basis," DaPonte said. "The General Assembly does not run departments. We pass a budget, and year after year after year, departments overspend."

I'd replace "understand," in that quotation, with "have been misled into believing." It is the General Assembly that tells the departments what work they must do and what money they must hand out. And that's the one area the shysters refuse to go, because it's how they buy their offices.


March 6, 2010


Long-Term Unemployment, Private Sector Only

Justin Katz

By now, you've likely decided whether or not you agree with the statement that the Obama administration's approach to "stimulus" was meant not so much to stimulate growth in the private sector economy as to shore up the public sector and insulate government at all levels from the real effects of the recession. Whether the private sector will begin to grow again of its own accord and bail out the borrowing of the public sector remains to be seen.

George Mason University Economics Professor Alex Tabarrok is specifically worried about the bifurcation of the workforce:

... I am more worried, however, about the long term consequences of creating a dual labor market in which insiders with government or government-connected jobs are highly paid and secure while outsiders face high unemployment rates, low wages and part-time work without a career path. ...

Moreover, once an economy is in the insider-outsider equilibrium it's very difficult to get out because insiders fear that they will lose their privileges with a deregulated labor market and outsiders focus their political energy not on deregulating the labor market but on becoming insiders ...

Once again, we in Rhode Island have an especially relevant perspective on the direction in which the country is now headed, inasmuch as we've tested the waters, found them frigid, and continue to beckon in the other states anyway. We're well accustomed to arguments that the problem is that public-sector union jobs kept up with inflation while private-sector employment did not, and that we shouldn't respond to the latter by bringing down the former. We've all heard the "I got mine" responses that lie behind all related debates with supporters of public-sector unions.

It can be disorienting how quickly the very same advocate can switch from proclamations about fairness to denials that inequitable balances in the pay and benefits matter for measuring government employment packages. All we can do is stiffen our jaws and patiently explain that the objective isn't to tear down the publicly backed segments of the middle class; it's to prevent financing that group from strangling the economy that ultimately must support it.


March 4, 2010


Issues on Suburban Minds: Regionalization and Arbitration

Justin Katz

I know many of the right reform crowd in Rhode Island disagree with my general take on regionalization, but I'm relieved to see this, from Tuesday's Newport Daily News:

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, and Rep. Deborah L. Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, met with members of the Town Council and School Committee before the regularly scheduled council meeting to discuss legislative issues. Both legislators said they would not support any regionalization of municipal functions unless the communities involved agreed to the consolidation. ...

Weed and Ruggiero both agreed that the impetus should come from cities and towns.

I'm even more relieved to see this:

When Weed asked school officials for a list of their legislative priorities, several members held up wrists bearing plastic handcuffs.

"No binding arbitration," Kaiser said, referring to legislation that would require binding arbitration for teachers. "This is not the time to handcuff school committees."

Council President Michael Schnack agreed. "There is no negotiating with binding arbitration," Schnack said. "You get a terrible contract and terrible results."

Weed said she did not think the idea had a lot of legislative support.

Of course, continual vigilance will be required. A lack of legislative support is not necessarily a good enough reason for legislation to fail.


March 3, 2010


When Union Leaders Head for a Cliff

Justin Katz

Mark Patinkin tells an interesting anecdote in relation to the Central Falls teachers' firing:

I have been in a union for 30 years, and have come to feel that in standoffs with management, members often get into a collective self-righteousness that makes them vote against their individual good. ...

In the mid-'90s, I was reading a union publication that proudly featured a service being offered to striking journalists in Detroit. The service was a mobile food pantry in the back of a truck. It was visiting a picket line. There was a picture of newspaper people "shopping" for handout food in the pantry. They needed the service because they'd been out of work for a long time.

My reaction: Why is the union proud of this?

I'm not sure how Mark's union is or was structured, but in unions with national organizations behind them, once you get beyond the particular employer, striking doesn't affect the union leadership. Indeed, the disruption and realization of the threat contribute to their power.



C.F. Teachers Union: Two, Four, Six, Eight; When in Doubt, Litigate!

Monique Chartier

From yesterday's ProJo 7 to 7 News Blog.

The Central Falls Teachers' Union filed three unfair labor practice charges with the state Labor Relations Board Monday, its first move to appeal the mass firings of 93 teachers, support staff and administrators at the city's only high school.

And the basis for the charges?

Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, which represents Central Falls, said the local filed three charges against Central Falls school district: failure to negotiate; refusal to provide information to the union; and the terminations themselves.

This seems pretty easy to dispense with.

1. Central Falls did, in fact, negotiate with the union, earnestly and at length.

2. You can't negotiate without providing information.

3. Terminations are the natural conclusion to unsuccessful negotiations IF the ultimate goal - a good education, for example - is something more than perpetual employment at an ever rising price.

Who is ultimately to blame for these unsuccessful negotiations is a separate matter. By refusing to put this matter to a vote of its members, it is the C.F. teachers union which is to blame. That they failed to put it to a vote has turned out to be a bad mistake, one that the union hopes to correct with litigation. (Whoops, no, my mistake. Let us not forget that all of the union's actions, including the overwrought candlelight vigil, are - all together now - "for the chiii-hilll-dren".)



Management-Union Friendship and Money Seeking

Justin Katz

Linda Borg's Sunday Projo article, "In Providence, more collaboration than conflict," weaves a tale of cooperation between the the city's schools superintendent and its teachers' union leadership:

Call it a tale of two cities.

While the superintendent and union president have been going at it in Central Falls, Brady and Smith have worked together on a plan to radically reshape five of the state's lowest-performing schools.

Her Saturday article, "Providence teachers face job uncertainty," gives some indication as to why. First of all, Providence has already effectively experienced the "turnaround model" that has Central Falls roiling:

Teachers, however, had to reapply for their jobs, and only 50 percent of the existing staff chose to do so. What made Hope High School successful was that, in the end, the teachers who stayed were committed to making radical changes, from moving to longer class periods to spending more time planning instruction.

Union President Steve Smith credits "the faculty" with initiating that idea, but whatever behind-the-scenes maneuvering there may have been, it was ultimately a difference in the union's behavior, not the district's plan. Further along in the same article, we find a clue that might explain the two sides' inclination to cooperate (emphasis added):

But for teachers to embrace dramatic change, they want the district — and the state — to give them the resources they need to get the job done, Smith said. He is bringing those concerns to School Supt. Tom Brady so that the School Department can push for federal monies to pay for additional support, whether it's creating alternative classrooms for disruptive students or remedial classes for students who are performing below grade level.

Let's take as given that the cooperation in Providence is desirable, whatever its motivation. We still should consider such evidence as the newly proposed funding formula. Providence has been underfunded, and no doubt stands to drink deeply from any pool of Race to the Top federal money that comes to the state. The Department of Education has determined that Central Falls, by contrast, is already receiving much more state money than is "fair."

In summary, the Providence union has already acquiesced to the sorts of changes that the Central Falls union is fighting, and education leaders on both sides of the negotiating table in Providence have reason to expect their good behavior to be rewarded mightily.


March 1, 2010


Rocky Waters in the Dem-Union Love Affair

Justin Katz

I'd like to believe reports that big labor is in throes of disappointment with Obama and the Democrats:

Labor’s high hopes for major gains under President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress have dimmed, raising fresh doubts about union leverage even in the best of political times.

I'd suggest that the "best of political times" is not likely to coincide with the worst of economic times, which has surely limited the Obama administration's ability to hand over the keys to the treasury. After all, the Democrats had to use much of the political capital they'd allocated for labor by preserving the jobs of public-sector union members under the deceptive guise of "stimulus."

I love this part, too:

Some labor experts say unions have come up flat in mounting an effective liberal response to conservative "tea party" activists who helped Republican Scott Brown win the special Senate election in Massachusetts to succeed Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, who died last year. An AFL-CIO poll showed that 49 percent of union households supported Brown.

"There’s been no indication that there’s muscle behind their money," said Leon Fink, a labor historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "There was no equivalent mobilization for public works or for a progressive health care measure."

Not to give anything away to the opposition, but the tea parties' success manifestly isn't a story of superior organization and "activism," as generally understood. The unions' problem on this count may be observed a layer below the surface of the above paragraphs: The unions are trying to mount a "liberal" response when many of their members have different ideological tendencies outside the direct application to their careers.


February 28, 2010


February 27, 2010


630AM/99.7FM Host John DePetro at RISC's Winter Meeting

Justin Katz

John DePetro took on the role of first featured speaker at the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition's 2010 winter meeting, described in my liveblog of the event. (More video in the extended entry.)

Continue reading "630AM/99.7FM Host John DePetro at RISC's Winter Meeting"


Board of Regents Member Angus Davis at RISC's Winter Meeting

Justin Katz

NOTE: Any members of the media who couldn't make it to the meeting and rely on this video for future reports are encouraged to do so, but a brief note of the video's source would be appreciated.


Rhode Island Board of Regents member Angus Davis came out with guns blazing in a surprise speech at the Winter meeting of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, as described in my liveblog of the event. (More video in the extended entry.)

Davis was especially animated when discussing an email from gubernatorial candidate Linc Chafee at the beginning of this clip.

Yesterday, I received an email from Senator Chafee. In this email, Senator Chafee asked for clarification on whether or not teachers had really been offered 100% job security, describing it as, quote, the basic question that must be settled, unquote. He said he does not want to, quote, inherit the labor mess, unquote, as he works to build a more prosperous Rhode Island as governor.

What kind of leadership thinks the basic question about a school in which only half of children graduate and 90% can't do basic math — what kind of leadership thinks that the basic question involves job security for its adults rather than the educational outcomes for its children?

Continue reading "Board of Regents Member Angus Davis at RISC's Winter Meeting"


Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo at RISC's Winter Meeting

Justin Katz

NOTE: Any members of the media who couldn't make it to the meeting and rely on this video for future reports are encouraged to do so, but a brief note of the video's source would be appreciated.


Herewith, the video of the speech given by Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo at the Winter meeting of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, as described in my liveblog of the event. (More video in the extended entry.)

Although the entire speech is notable as the most comprehensive statement of Supt. Gallo's position that I've seen (and I don't claim to have searched high and low), the beginning of this segment may be a new news item:

I'll answer now, although I was never asked by anyone: No. We can't mediate now. I'll say it clearly, and I mean no offense to anyone, but those ads continue. What kind of an effort at true desire for change when you keep those ads.
Continue reading "Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo at RISC's Winter Meeting"

February 26, 2010


Yeah, We Have No Idea

Justin Katz

Here's another instance of the disconnect of the labor unions:

"We think it’s an outrage," Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union, said, as hundreds of union supporters from across the state began flowing into Jenks Park. "Our members are feeling awful, devastated. How would you feel, being terminated?"

One gets the impression that, on some level, they don't believe that anybody ever gets laid off anywhere. Some construction companies in the Newport area have laid off almost as many employees as work in Central Falls. The worst part is that the teachers could have avoided the whole thing if the unions weren't so intent on standing their ground in hopes of averting a statewide conflagration of concessions and reform.



Not Much of an Education Story

Justin Katz

We're in sad circumstances when this hardly seems like much of a story at all:

The [Cranston] School Committee Tuesday approved a nearly $123.6-million budget that eliminates high school teams, the enrichment program [aka, honors programs], the elementary school strings, band and choral program, and lays off about 16 employees.

The teams cut are: freshman baseball, basketball and football; girls junior varsity field hockey; golf (coed); tennis (boys and girls); and indoor track (boys and girls).

Rhode Island students are being palpably harmed because adults lack the imagination and political will to beat back other adults' greed. Which brings us to Pat Crowley testifying before the RI House Finance Committee:

The education cuts would apply immediate pressure on municipalities to raise property taxes, cut staff or reduce student programs, according to Patrick Crowley, assistant executive director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

What's missing from Crowley's list is something that officials fear to make a public point about: reductions in remuneration. The reason is that it's the obvious necessity. They behave as if negotiations and concessions are some mysterious bending of reality that happens when officials and union leaders get together for verbal fencing behind closed doors. They're wrong, and they should fear (as I do) that continuing failure to step forward into the light and declare the game over will result in voters' demanding a Central Falls in every town.


February 25, 2010


Jobs Americans Won't Take?

Justin Katz

This little blurb stuck out as I sifted through the newspaper, the other day. Why should this be so:

Despite high unemployment in Connecticut, Census jobs are going begging.

The Hartford office of the U.S. Census Bureau is struggling to fill between 1,000 and 1,500 temporary jobs that pay $15 to $22.75 an hour.

More than 4,200 have applied for the jobs, but the census office needs to recruit more by April 27 because most will drop out or never show up for the jobs.

Are people becoming used to idleness and dependency, or is something else going on here?



From the Garden to the Ocean

Justin Katz

One must suspect that Ed Achorn is link-seeking when his column addresses both state-government dependents and the state of my youth, New Jersey:

Ultimately, while the public-employee unions and other government-fed special interests keep fattening up, the middle class suffers from a loss of jobs and opportunity, and the poor suffer from a loss of charitable dollars. The quality of life goes down, as money to pay for vital government services disappears, leaving a state with poor roads and bridges, aging school textbooks, leaking roofs and canceled sports programs, while the politically connected demand the same plush benefits they have long received.

In the comments to my Sakonnet Times letter, a teacher is claiming that he can't possibly survive with a 5% cut. The disconnect from what the rest of us have been experiencing is palpable. There's just not much more my family can cut from its budget, and nothing more we can trim and still justify living in a state that won't recover from its economic slump for years to come.

We have to turn things around quickly, in Rhode Island, because the downward spiral is self-propelling; the faster it goes, the faster people will leave, and the faster it will go. It isn't a matter of whether public-sector employees can afford a cut. If current trends continue, the cities and towns and the state will find it more difficult to pay them every year.



Politics & Pupils

Justin Katz

Monique and Matt talked Central Falls and Chafee on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


February 23, 2010


The Cause of the Firings

Justin Katz

Every working Rhode Islander, and all of those looking for work, can see the disconnection of Central Falls union rhetoric:

"We still hold that this termination of the entire faculty is a violation of the contract and contrary to state law and federal law as well," [teachers union President Jane] Sessums said. "This is a termination of the entire faculty without cause, we believe."

You want cause?

  • Only 4% of students proficient in math in 2008-2009, up from 3% the year before, with 75% "substantially below proficient."
  • Only 45% proficient in reading.
  • Only 29% proficient in writing.
  • Only 17% proficient in science.
  • A 48% graduation rate.
  • A 50% failure rate for the current school year.

As a body — and it is the teachers' decision to be handled as a collective union — the teachers are failing. Every year, every day, students are deprived of a successful educational experience. That must change, and since the union's been blocking the avenue for change that doesn't entail a mass firing, a drastic step must be taken.



The Same Old Local Political Roundabout

Justin Katz

As circumstances deteriorate, it's instructive to observe the varying reactions and strategies for handling them. In Tiverton, the established order, so to speak, has redoubled its efforts to keep the negative focus on Tiverton Citizens for Change in the hopes that people won't notice that the plans for improvement bear a striking resemblance to the plans that got the town into its current mess. I've got a letter pointing out the 'round-and-'round nature of the debate:

On January 27, 2009, the school committee approved a largely retroactive contract for teachers that ate up about $300,000 of that year’s budget, added approximately $150,000 to the current year’s, and is contributing more than that to the $600,000-plus increase in salaries and benefits budgeted for the next fiscal year. At a November 2008 meeting, Ms. Pallasch argued for approval, saying, “Let's start working on the new one, and give ourselves a little bit of room to refocus on the classroom and away from the adults.” The argument was that we should resolve the running dispute while there was still time to negotiate the subsequent contract amicably.

At the time, I spoke up to predict that the union would not negotiate. Rather, it would wait out the recession based on the obvious reasoning that it could avoid concessions during hard economic times and — as we’ve taught its members to expect — receive retroactive raises when times improved. I also handed out a chart showing that there had been no abatement of the increases in teacher salaries and benefits in the past decade. Indeed, the per-pupil dollar amount had gone up more (54%) than the same number for the state as a whole (40%). Over the same period, the chart showed that most other expenditures had hardly moved.

Well, negotiations did not resume with an amicable tone. Indeed, in August, the union pointed out a clause in the contract extending it for another year. The school committee had somehow missed the trick that it was supposed to notify the union of its intention to negotiate the next contract a full month before the previous one was actually approved. Changes in healthcare copayments for which the committee had budgeted went out the window. So did negotiations.

And the usual suspects are back, making all of the union's arguments for it in advance of the debate. Wealthy people wanting to increase taxes rather than stand firm with the organized labor behemoth that has soaked up a growing portion of our educational and municipal funds.

The system is broken. Revving it up for another season is not the solution.


February 22, 2010


"Rally For Fairness" - Solidarity to Descend on Central Falls

Monique Chartier

[This fascinating e-mail was forwarded to me tonight. It has presumably been circulated to all members of NEARI.]

As you are aware, Commissioner of Education Gist and Superintendent Gallo of the Central Falls School District are set to fire all 74 of the district's high school teachers tomorrow. In one of the most blatant acts of anti-unionism in decades, the leadership of the district has decided, instead of providing the resources necessary for a quality education, to point fingers and blame teachers for the administration's lack of appropriate action. Join with teachers, parents, students, union members and concerned individuals at a rally tomorrow to support the Central Falls teachers.

The Rally for Fairness is tomorrow, Tuesday, February 23, 5 PM, at Jenks Park on Broad Street in Central Falls. It is time your voice is heard in the struggle to protect collective bargaining and ensure every student has the resources available to succeed. The district is moving forward with this inappropriate and illegal action even though, following teacher evaluations over the past two years, not one was put on corrective action. It is moving forward without following due process, engaging in nothing more than a union busting tactic.

For more information go to www.CentralFallsKidsDeserveBetter.com. There you can sign a petition in support of the teachers and learn more about the schools in our state's smallest community. You can also stay updated by following Central Falls High on Twitter and checkingthe NEARI website, www.neari.org, tomorrow for the latest on the rally and directions. We encourage you to follow NEARI on Facebook and President Larry Purtill on Twitter for this and other valuable information.

Your local president has been invited to a meeting at NEARI this Thursday, February 25, with Commissioner Gist. It is an opportunity for him/her to ask questions and raise concerns about the events taking place in Central Falls and Rhode Island's Race to the Top application. You can also see your local president, if you have not already done so, to lend your name to those of your colleagues who are concerned about the content and process involved in submitting the application. Concerns over the lack of collaboration in writing the grant, the use of test scores to make up 51% of a teacher's evaluation, automatic termination after two ineffective years of evaluation, elimination of the I Plan and certification tied directly to evaluation, and the drive to make one out of every five schools in Rhode Island a charter or mayoral academy are just a few of the issues in the grant application.

It is up to you to speak out against these hasty political changes that will not improve student performance. NEARI supports highly effective teachers in every classroom, a strong evaluation system, and appropriate professional development. What we don't want to see are teachers and staff blamed for a lack of resources and a weak political will to do what is right. Join with your colleagues so you do not become the next Central Falls, East Providence or Glocester.



Toward More Christian Unions

Justin Katz

My February column for The Rhode Island Catholic takes up the subject of the Church's support for labor unions:

Catholic theology enters the political mix with the holding that God works through the individual conscience. What organized labor does, in the ideal, is to combine the power of individuals to construct a stronger, more substantive assertion of human conscience. In the workplace, the purpose is to counterbalance the economic power of business leaders or the political power of government officials.

The problem is that these sources of power are not parallel. A company gains influence by increasing the importance of its products and services to the market. The source of a business's power is therefore manipulable as a means to an end and constrained by regulation, competition, and employee morale. The source of a government's power is the entire society, and we rightly constrain its actions through civic structure. The parallel dynamic and constraints for unions are complicated by the doctrine that people — union members — must always be ends in themselves, with inviolable rights to pursue their own interests. And it's a much more comfortable (and remunerative) project to extort money from local communities than to fight foreign tyrannies on behalf of a distant workforce.


February 21, 2010


The Unions Cannot Survive a Perpetually Down Economy

Justin Katz

The thing that most irks me about unions in general and public-sector unions in particular is their way of obscuring natural alliances for the benefit not of their members, but of their organizers and political allies. Now, I can't speak to the in-fights that union discipline may be keeping out of public view (although I suspect many union readers just chuckled at the notion of such organization), but the workers should realize and begin reacting — soon — to the dire straits into which their leaders are steering them.

Consider this ho-hum article about inadequate funding for public-sector unions in Rhode Island:

The study shows that Rhode Island has no reserves for state employees' retirement benefits and handles them on a pay-as-you-go basis. ...

Karpinski, who oversees the state's pension plans but not other retiree benefits such as health insurance, said that due to some pension reform measures and full annual payments to the plans, the state system is on the road to recovery. But, he stressed, the key question is, can it keep the momentum given the tough financial times the state is facing?

As Rhode Island government and political structures are currently compiled, state workers must begin to consider the possibility that their pensions will evaporate entirely. There are no reserves, and "catching up" requires an economic recovery that nobody sees on the horizon — nobody, that is, who hasn't been seeing one on every horizon for the past two years. If the state responds per its habits and attempts to squeeze more revenue out of residents and businesses, they will leave, and leave the state worse off for it.

The only long-term hope for the unions is to become free-market advocates extraordinaire, with a little bit of faith in the winds of economic freedom. Rather than sticking by the tried-and-doomed alliances that have left them trying to subsist off a rotting economic carcass, they must realize that, when times are flush, nobody cares much about their greatly remunerative deals. Lower taxes. Eliminate mandates. Erase regulations.

Private citizens are only loosely tied to the state. Union members are lashed to it with career investments and retirement plans. They need the economy to take off. The reason for optimism is that Rhode Island is such a naturally attractive place to live and do business that throwing of the unnecessary governmental weights will make recovery light work. The reason for pessimism is that union culture leaves labor leaders' way of doing business as secure as, well, as secure as established politicians in Rhode Island.


February 19, 2010


Learning to Hear the Union

Justin Katz

Mike at Assigned Reading is dead on that the Newsmakers head-to-head between Central Falls union representative Jim Parisi and Superintendent Frances Gallo is very revealing about the two sides' priorities. Perhaps the most crystallized example of unions' determination to spin rather than inform — because everything's "negotiable" — comes at approximately 9: in the video:

Asked about the extra tasks that the administration is requesting from teachers, Parisi says:

What people aren't informed of is that Central Falls teachers already have more common planning time and professional time than any other public school district in the state, because we were a willing partner to make that happen. How come the union and its teachers don't get the credit for something like that?

Sounds like a reasonable statement, no? The teachers are already working hard, compromising, so that they can accomplish as much as possible for their students. Well, the spin unravels when Gallo explains:

That time is taken out of the school day — out of the instructional school day. We're trying to add the time to the after school time so that the instructional day remains such. We actually have an instructional day of just over four hours.

In other words, that state-leading planning and sit-down time was negotiated as time away from the most difficult part of the job: interacting with the students. A union will brag about helping its clients to lower their blood pressure — leaving out, of course, that it does so with a knife.


February 17, 2010


Trading Schools for Raises

Justin Katz

The Newport Daily News isn't very friendly about putting information online, so I don't have a link to the story, but I read this weekend that the Tiverton School Committee is floating the idea of closing the town's high school. In hopes of saving $450,000, as I recall, the town would either send its students elsewhere or bring in a charter school company to run things.

Meanwhile, in West Warwick, closure of an elementary school is expected to save $750,000, with the students dispersed to other schools and fifth graders heading to middle school. A reader emails:

So you are looking at placing 10 and 11 yr olds with potentially 15 y/o kids in the middle school. It gets even worse, its one thing to save the $750,000 but to then budget $900,000 in Teacher Step raises is mind boggling. Closing a school to fund Teacher raises, West Warwick is currently in the top 5 in salaries, with the top step at approx. 79,000 and health care contributions this year at 10% and next yr at 15%.

Here in Tiverton, the proposed increase in salaries, for next year, is $535,954. In other words, multiple Rhode Island communities are toying with the idea disrupting the lives of the students for whom they have responsibility in order to fund pay increases for well-remunerated public-sector workers in the middle of a painful recession and the economic collapse of the state. As if to add insult to injury, evidence of the quality of education in the state continues to be negative, such as this from the Providence Business News:

According to the College Board, 1,766 students in Rhode Island's class of 2009, or 17.3 percent of the class, took at least one A.P. exam during high school, compared with 26.5 percent nationwide. That was up from the 1,555 students in the class of 2008 who took an A.P. test and 1,112 in the class of 2004. ...

The organization said 10.7 percent of last year's class — or 62 percent of A.P. test-takers — earned a passing score of 3, 4 or 5. That was up from the 9.5 percent who passed at least one the prior year, but lower than the 15.9 percent of students who did so nationwide.

If we're to resist the urge to let emotion run away with us, we must admit the probability that some of the school closure talk is little more than a ploy to rile the public to accept tax increases and shame the teachers' unions into accepting concessions. Even so, the current dynamic is unacceptable: that the anxieties of residents are being manipulated in an attempt to achieve the obvious and reasonable step of holding salaries flat, or even trimming them a little, for professionals who, as a group, are failing their students.


February 13, 2010


The Union Chooses Firings

Justin Katz

Anybody who's surprised that the teachers' union in Central Falls has chosen to stare down mass firings and do battle rather than submit to some eminently reasonable additional responsibilities should think through the future scenarios of the game.

With administrators now standing firm on key planks that were previously popular political catch phrases, the unions are going to challenge authority way up to the top — to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and beyond. Their secondary strategy will be to delay significant changes until they have an opportunity to change the players. They've lost no ground in the General Assembly, either in recent elections or in the selection of the new speaker of the house, and they've an opportunity to affect the governor's office, this year, which means access to the Board of Regents, from which the commissioner ultimately derives her authority.

If the unions can delay the mass firings, through friendly labor review authorities and the courts, for even just one year, they'll have time to re-rig the game entirely in their favor. If they lose on questions of authority, they'll use their political clout to turn the top-down model to their favor. In other words, when voters, school committees, and district administrators seek localized, bottom-up reforms, the newly enhanced authority of the state and the education commissioner will be used to squelch the movements before they can begin.

Consider the thoughts of the only Central Falls teacher whom I've seen offer public comment outside of the union channel:

Sheila Lawless-Burke, an English-as-a-Second Language teacher, said teachers are not opposed to working harder — or longer; they simply want the opportunity to negotiate the details of their contract, not have it imposed from above.

"It's all about the politics," she said, "about making Fran Gallo look good. The issue is having the right to negotiate. Once we allow the superintendent to get her foot in the door, where will it stop?"

Even under circumstances of dire failure, the unionists want to assert their rights to drive up costs and usurp management authority. What Lawless-Burke ignores is that politics is the game of figuring out "where it will stop" when differences of opinion negate a hard rule. It will stop when the public decides that the superintendent has exceeded her mandate. That's how politics work.

It's also the reason that local administrations and the state education bureaucracy should devote some of their attention to fostering community-level involvement of additional players. I mean not only extending some budgetary authority for the schools to town councils and mayors, but also opening channels of communication and cooperation from taxpayer groups and the like.

The top-down reforms, in other words, require a complementary bottom-up foundation, not only to solidify local support from the folks who ultimately pay the bills, but also to rope in stakeholders who will cry out when the unions attempt to manipulate the game at the top. The unions may succeed in reversing Commissioner Gist's reform efforts such that the options offered to failing districts all entail additional benefits for union members, but they'll find it much more difficult to silence constituencies who've been allowed into the decision-making process.



Hurting a Dedicated Constituency

Justin Katz

In an article about the ways in which Democrats' preferred policies hurt black Americans, Kevin Williamson emphasizes union racism and especially the minimum wage:

THE first answer many economists will give to that question is: the minimum wage. Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate who spent much of his career showing how government programs reliably end up hurting those they are intended to help, was scathing on the subject, calling the minimum wage "one of the most, if not the most, anti-black laws on the statute books." And he's not alone: Acongressional survey of economic research on the subject, "50 Years of Research on the Minimum Wage," has a string of conclusion lines that read like an indictment, the first three counts being: "The minimum wage reduces employment. The minimum wage reduces employment more among teenagers than adults. The minimum wage reduces employment most among black teenage males." Other items on the bill: "The minimum wage hurts small businesses generally. The minimum wage causes employers to cut back on training. The minimum wage has long-term effects on skills and lifetime earnings. The minimum wage hurts the poor generally. The minimum wage helps upper-income families. The minimum wage helps unions." Helping the affluent and high-wage union workers at the expense of the young, the poor, the unskilled, and small businesses: That amounts to a lot of different kinds of injustice, and it also amounts to a wealth transfer from blacks to whites. ...

And it's not just that the minimum wage prices some low-productivity workers out of the labor market: It's that it prevents entry into the labor market in the first place for the most marginal would-be workers. If Will the candy hustler's real economic output is worth $6.67 an hour, his implied wage on the subway, he's unemployable with a $7.25 minimum wage. He can sell candy on the subway, but he can't sell candy for Big Candy Corp., make connections, learn what it's like to go to an office every day and have a boss, get references, get promoted, and sign up for the tuition-reimbursement program. And that, not the paltry lost income of a minimum-wage job, is the price he pays. Very few American workers actually earn the minimum wage--about 1 percent, in fact--but the minimum-wage job is a gateway into the labor force for many young workers. The value of your first job isn't the money you earn from it: It's your second job, and your third. With the right experience and network, a candyman like Will can do well for himself. But without that first job, he has a much higher chance of becoming a statistical blip on the long-term unemployment charts than a middle manager at Hershey or a salesman at Cadbury.

Perhaps for reasons of length, Williamson doesn't even touch on the deleterious effects of liberal social programs (from the welfare state to easy divorce to abortion on demand) and extra-statutory principles (like identity politics) that have destroyed family structures in minority communities. If the Ku Klux Klan had called grand meeting in the middle of the last century to contrive a national conspiracy that would effect long-term evisceration of blacks' progress, the bigots could hardly have done so more effectively than the American Left.


February 12, 2010


A Clash of Realities in Central Falls

Justin Katz

You'd think some higher-up planner in the teachers' union would begin advising members that it's time to back off for a while for the purpose of public-impression rehabilitation. Apart from the wholly inappropriate imagery of using a candle-light vigil for a union action, the particulars of the circumstances in Central Falls are absolutely certain to elicit a response of "are you kidding me" from any Rhode Islander not in the thrall (or payroll) of the union.

First there's the performance of the high school (news report and Dept. of Ed. PDF):

  • Only 4% of students proficient in math in 2008-2009, up from 3% the year before, with 75% "substantially below proficient."
  • Only 45% proficient in reading.
  • Only 29% proficient in writing.
  • Only 17% proficient in science.
  • A 48% graduation rate.
  • A 50% failure rate for the current school year.

Then there are the salaries:

The average teacher's salary at the high school ranges between $72,000 and $78,000 a year, because most are at the district's top step, Gallo said.

That's without incorporating benefits and all of the other perks of being a public school teacher. Then there are the demands for doing what any professional should be expected to do when collectively performing so abysmally:

Gallo said she offered to pay teachers $30 an hour for two additional weeks of training in the summer. Gallo also said she would try to find grant money to pay teachers for 90 minutes a week of after-school planning time, also at $30 an hour.

But she says she has no extra money to pay for other changes she is pushing for, including lengthening the instructional day by 25 minutes, so teachers work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. instead of 7:50 a.m. to 2:25 p.m. She wants teachers to formalize a rotating tutoring schedule, so a teacher is available to help students for an hour before or after school, and she wants teachers to have lunch with students one day a week.

"Right now, they have no duties," Gallo said. "But I don't want them to see lunch as a duty. I want them to establish true relationships with not a few students, but all students." ...

Union officials have been pushing for $90 per hour and want the district to pay for more of the additional responsibilities.

Then there is the transparent mealy-mouthedness from the union, with this on the one hand:

James Parisi, a field representative of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Allied Health Professionals, said that Gallo had asked teachers to work a longer school day, attend after-school training and set aside two weeks in the summer for professional development. Parisi said the union balked because the district wasn't willing to pay teachers enough for the additional time and work.

And this on the other:

"We've been supportive of the transformational model, we think it's the right path," [Central Falls Teachers' Union President Jane] Sessums said. "But we need more details. We've never been opposed to the additional time that is needed. Our concern is that we really get an opportunity to understand what is necessary."

It's time for those teachers who've retained a modicum of professional integrity to step forward and tell the union to back off. They've a responsibility to improve the school in which they work without proclaiming that poor performance should justify even more reward.


February 11, 2010


Contrasting Candlelight Vigils

Monique Chartier

On Tuesday, a candlelight vigil was held for the five people killed in a fire over the weekend.

Also on Tuesday, the Central Falls teachers union held a candlelight vigil because they had received layoff notices.

Projo.com actually had a picture and story about each vigil on the front page last night which accented the comparison.

Let's assume for a moment the worst motives on the part of the superintendent: she laid all teachers off on a whim, not because the district has been chronically low performing. (John Depetro just pointed out that 50% of students in the Central Falls system are failing.)

Even under the hypothesized circumstance of a completely baseless layoff, isn't a candlelight vigil overly dramatic and inappropriate? Don't such vigils usually pertain to more profound matters of death, war or a violent crime spree?


February 10, 2010


Even FDR Was Wary of Public Employee Unions

Marc Comtois

This article by Rich Lowry and this piece in the Wall Street Journal both alluded to Franklin Roosevelt's wariness towards public employee unions. I was surprised. So I dug around and found one source that supports this claim. In a letter to a public employee union, Roosevelt explains that, yes, they do have a right to organize, but there are some restrictions:

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.
Well, that hasn't really come to pass now, has it?
Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."
Interesting that he viewed strikes by Federal employees in such a way.



Ahh, the Transparency of the Campaign Finance Reform Inspired 527 Schemes

Marc Comtois

We've heard the caterwauling in reaction to the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding corporate political donations. But, whether you like the idea of big business giving directly to political candidates or not, you have to admit that at least it's a relatively transparent process. A simple check of any number of sources will readily reveal who gave how much to whom. The same cannot be said of other organizations--particularly 527's. Here's a good example of the shenanigan's that go on (emphasis is mine):

Continue reading "Ahh, the Transparency of the Campaign Finance Reform Inspired 527 Schemes"

February 9, 2010


Post-Contract Expectations Make All the Difference

Justin Katz

Megan McArdle highlights an important distinction between union and individual employment contracts:

Obviously, people who are not in unions write employment contracts, which are similarly hard to write. But non-union employment contracts operate in an environment where both sides often hope to continue the relationship beyond the initial term. This offers quite a bit of good-faith flexibility, because people who are too rigid about the exact letter of their contracts are apt to find that their contract isn't renewed. Even in contracts with a very definite term, there are reputational considerations. That's just not how unions operate, because the union can't be fired by the employer. When the contract expires, you're going to negotiate another contract. The result is that people in non-union employment contracts can tolerate quite a bit more ambiguity on both sides than people in a collective bargaining situation.

That's the dynamic that the school committees and town councils of Rhode Island must address. If intransigence from the unions may result in reconfigured hiring policies or a more stringent baseline for the next contract, they'll be more apt to be reasonable — and their members will be less inclined to such practices as work-to-rule.


February 8, 2010


State Exceptions to Unemployment

Justin Katz

Owing to some legislation put forward by union-friendly state Senator John Tassoni (D, Smithfield, North Smithfield), I've been poking around state law related to unemployment insurance. Tassoni's bill would remove the word "private" from the following paragraph related to the state's workshare program:

"Eligible employer" means any private employer who has had contributions credited to his or her account and benefits have been chargeable to this account, and who is not delinquent in the payment of contributions or reimbursements, as required by chapters 42 – 44 of this title.

The obvious question is why public employers wouldn't be eligible for this program in the first place, and I can't say that my digging has led me to an answer. It has, however, unearthed a peculiar exemption. Government employers don't have to make regular contributions to the unemployment trust fund and can instead reimburse the fund for benefits paid to laid-off employees. Why should that be allowed?

My understanding is that employer payments into the fund are invested (assuming a positive balance) and are not reimbursable upon the closing of the business. When a particular employer lays off workers, its payment rate goes up (in the same way that auto insurance goes up after an accident or ticket), and when the fund is low, employers have to pay more in order to build it back up. Public-sector employers that make pay-as-you-go reimbursements to cover executed benefits do not contribute to the body of money that earns investment returns, and since they don't make regular payments, they would not pay more no matter how many employees they lay off or how low the fund might be.

This doesn't appear to be relevant to Tassoni's bill, however, because it would still only apply to an employer that has "contributions credited to his or her account." The new question is therefore what proportion of public employers make contributions, and the previous question about the reason for their initial exclusion from the workshare program remains.

Of course, the issue of more general concern is why the state's largest employer — i.e., the state and its subsidiaries — wouldn't have to participate in a program that is ostensibly set up to spread employment risk.


February 3, 2010


Making the Trial Their Expense

Justin Katz

Chris Powell offers it in a different context, but his idea would be a brilliant defense against the ever-looming sledgehammer of litigation threats in contract disputes:

The boards that have capitulated to the lawsuit threat say it is all a matter of avoiding litigation expense. But if a board really believes that First Cathedral is so preferable as a graduation site and that the religious objection is so contrived, it could stand its ground without incurring much expense at all. For a board would not have to prove its case in court; the plaintiffs would have to prove theirs. A board could put up as elaborate a defense as it wanted, or none at all. The plaintiffs almost certainly would call school officials as witnesses anyway, and so without special expense they would have a chance to tell the court how they saw things. Maybe volunteer counsel could be found for the board. Damages seem unlikely. It’s an issue likely to come up again elsewhere, so it may be worth adjudicating.

In any event, a school board that capitulates only to avoid the expense of litigation here is advertising wimpiness, advertising that it does not have the courage of its convictions and thus inviting a lot more litigation over grievances far less serious than this one.

If it gets to the point of being a choice between capitulation and lawsuits during negotiations, seek volunteer lawyers (perhaps from a local taxpayer group) to offer the minimal defense that would procure a ruling. That way, unions bear costs and face risks when filing suits, and the elected officials do not. (Well, of course there's always some risk, considering that judges can do just about anything, these days.)


February 1, 2010


Formulas, Formulas....funding, weighing and otherwise

Marc Comtois

I was surprised to learn that Warwick is alone in "weighing" its students based on whether or not they have an IEP (Individual Education Plan). It goes like this: kid with normal educational needs = 1; kid with IEP = 1.5 (and sometimes 2). So, as the Warwick Beacon reported last week, "there are 10,482 students enrolled in Warwick schools. Or are there 11,582 students?" Obviously, with a cap on class size of 28, this can affect how many teachers can be hired. To use an extreme example, If there are 28 IEPs, that really means there are 56 kids, and thus two teachers are required.

[T]he school administration is looking at all ways it can save. Increasing class sizes by eliminating weighting isn’t likely to occur until after the teacher contract expires in August of 2012, if then. Nonetheless, the weighting system that is unique to Warwick is being considered. It’s not the first time.

For as long as school human recourses and counsel Rosemary Healey can remember, elimination of weighing has been on the list of School Committee demands at the opening of contract negotiations. That demand has always been dropped for some other concession.

She said the weighing system was introduced in the 1980s and has been a part of the teachers contract ever since.

How expensive is it?
No one has figured out the precise cost of weighting students, but it is estimated to have resulted in the hiring of an additional 110 teachers. Each teacher is estimated to cost the department $100,000 based on salary and benefits. That’s an annual cost of $11 million.
According to Richard D’Agostino of the Warwick School Department, 20% of Warwick students have IEPs. And that's down a few percentage points since Warwick instituted a more comprehensive screening process! I don't doubt that there are legitimate benefits to IEPs for those who truly need them, but I don't like the way this emotionally-loaded "bargaining chip" is being played.
Teachers Union President Jim Ginolfi likewise acknowledges the prevision may be unique to Warwick, but also in part credits it for making the system outstanding.

“I think Warwick is in the forefront. Warwick has always been in the forefront with special education students”, he said. Elimination of weighting would not correlate into a reduction of costs since the district would still be obligated to meet the requirements of those students with an IEP, says Ginolfi.

“They’re going to need more time to devote to those students”, he reasons....Ginolfi argues that there is flexibility with weighing.

He observes the district has options. It can put all special education students in a single class; it can move IEP students into resource classrooms for special instruction, and it can introduce special education teachers into classrooms where there is a mix of IEP and regular students.

Until they enter negotiations Ginolfi can’t say whether weighing is one of those issues the union would hold out for. As for trimming costs, Ginolfi offered no suggestions.

“Education is expensive”, he said, “and that is why we need a (funding) formula at the state level.”

Ginolfi's "options" are calculated to be unappealing to parents of kids with IEP's, who (understandably) won't be happy about what sounds like "warehousing." But that will all have to wait, because the real unionist solution boils down to: "Sorry, can't help ya...let's wait for contract negotiations or a funding formula."


January 31, 2010


A Refresher on Teacher Salaries

Justin Katz

Pat Crowley's in the comment section slinging mud at my numbers. For consistency's sake, here's the relevant chart for the state as a whole:

Crowley's claim is that the increases in teachers' salaries are not keeping up with inflation. One could argue the relevance of that fact on the grounds that everything else must therefore really not be keeping up with inflation. One could argue the relevance of that fact, I should say, if it were a fact. There are two ways in which Crowley likes to make the inflation claim deceptively. The first, less applicable here, is to look at the category of "instruction" and draw his inflation numbers from that.

When he tried this trick back in 2007, I explained that, while the "instruction expenditures" category increased 19.8% from 2000 to 2006, in comparison with 19.9% inflation, teasing out teacher pay showed their salaries increasing 28.1%. Last year, I put the point in graphical form:

Another method that Crowley employs, that is probably more relevant in the current context, is to lump all teachers together to hide the continual increases in all of their salaries. I've looked at this, too, and the trick is that Rhode Island has been on a teacher-hiring spree:

Obviously, hiring young teachers will bring down the average salary. Indeed, the more teachers we hire, the more it appears that their pay isn't going up:

Of course, the system must then deal with this mass of teachers as they progress through their sometimes double-digit salary increases, what with cost-of-living adjustments and steps combined. Brace yourselves, Rhode Island; salaries and benefits are going to be absorbing much more of the budgets for your students' schools, and the odds that the very same teachers will be able to turn around their abysmal results with even fewer resources are slim to none.


January 30, 2010


The Usual Ommission from School Budget Fights

Justin Katz

Anchor Rising readers shouldn't have any trouble guessing (let alone discerning) what's missing from this report out of Cranston:

Wednesday night, on what was the first chance for the public to speak on the proposed budget, students, coaches and parents flocked to Cranston West's auditorium, where the School Committee budget hearing was moved to accommodate the expected crowd.

Many donned team jerseys (revealing a clear home-team advantage) and defended the value of sports and the added push that rivalry brings.

"Don't expect us to give up without fighting for what we have worked so hard to build up," Deanna Archetto, a senior who swims for Cranston West, told the School Committee.

"There have to be other options that don't involve chopping from the bottom," she said.

The $1.1-million in proposed cuts — which include the elementary school enrichment program along with strings, band and chorus, following the recommendations of a court-ordered performance audit — follow the state Supreme Court ruling last month that found the district ignored the financial reality, continued to overspend its budget and then sued the city for additional money.

For readers who may be new to the site, I offer this clue:

At a time when the executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island is playing games with an application for nine-figures of federal assistance so as to keep his union's members above accountability,* residents who wish to protest cuts to sports and other services should target their ire where it belongs.

* Which is not to say that I support the continued federal takeover of our educational system. I'm merely pointing to the clear priorities of the teachers' union.


January 27, 2010


Bankrupted for Solidarity

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi reports:

The increase in the share of all Rhode Island workers belonging to a union posted an even more dramatic increase, jumping to 17.9 percent. ...

In New England, no state had a larger share of workers in a union than Rhode Island. It was followed by Connecticut (17.3 percent), Massachusetts (16.6 percent), Vermont (12.3 percent), Maine (11.7 percent) and New Hampshire (10.8 percent).

The Labor Department also reported that the median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers were $908 for union members last year, compared with $710 for employees not represented by a union.

Given that a majority of union workers are now employed by government, the declining pool of non-union workers is increasingly having to fund the livelihoods of their better-paid neighbors. Moreover, with unions by definition highly organized, where public policy is apt to lean in their favor, in opposition to the private sector, especially within the public sphere, where market forces apply only weakly.


January 26, 2010


Unspinning the Union

Justin Katz

Capers Jones responds in an edition of the RISCy Business newsletter to the pension-related spin of Patrick Crowley, of the National Education Association, Rhode Island. After citing a number of statistics related to public-sector employees and education with which all Rhode Islanders should be passingly familiar, Jones writes:

These statistics show that government pensions have been impacted by the rapid increase in government employees compounded with the rapid increase in government salaries and benefits. This information indicates that it is time to do a serious analysis of how many government workers are actually needed to run our towns, schools, and the state itself.

For more than 30 years Rhode Island has experienced meteoric increases in government and educational employment compounded by much higher salary increases than private business. Now these two compound issues are coming together in massive and unsustainable pensions. Nationally, unfunded government pensions are approaching a trillion dollars and may trigger the fiscal collapse of more than half of the states.

The sooner those whom Crowley ostensibly represents realize that collapse of their system and of the local economy is the only likely outcome of a failure to reform, the better it will be for everybody.


January 22, 2010


A Local War Against Reality

Justin Katz

In keeping with the War on Reality theme, our state's most egregious propagandist has been striving to insert another grain of sand into the minds of Rhode Islanders who don't like to think too hard:

The key feature of the pension system is that the bulk of the funding comes not from the taxpayers but from the workers themselves and the investment decisions made by the pension fund. This is why for every one dollar spent by the taxpayers on the public retirement fund there is $4.56 generated in economic activity — money that is spent in local economies and in local businesses. A return on investment like this is something the state should celebrate, not denigrate.

Luckily, even the General Assembly is not wholly amenable to Patrick Crowley's charade:

"That dollar comes from someone," [Rep. Laurence] Ehrhardt [R, North Kingstown] said. "Doesn't it then have the same effect on the other end?"

"No, it doesn't" Crowley responded.

Ehrhardt listened to the explanation but gave no ground.

"I have a graduate degree in economics," he said when Crowley had finished. "I completely disagree with you."

Need this be explained? Every dollar that a union member puts into the pension fund comes directly out of the economy in the form of taxation or spending that he or she might otherwise undertake. The same is true of every dollar that the taxpayer contributes. (Actually, the taxpayer contributes it all; one major aspect of Crowley's scam is to treat these as separate contributions.) Where those dollars would be spent, rather than invested, they necessarily take away from expenditures on which Rhode Islanders place a higher value, whether dire necessities or quality of life indulgences, and where they would be invested, anyway, there's no reason to assume that a pension fund will have better returns.

I fear too many of our fellow residents, especially those who occupy seats in government, will be all-too content to store Crowley's grain of imaginary sand and allow it to turn into a pearl for unionized public sector workers and bankruptcy for the state.


January 19, 2010


What Consolidators Are Missing

Justin Katz

I suppose this Projo editorial opposing the newly legislated board for statewide health insurance benefits for teachers is better late than never, but the editors continue to keep two and two from being joined:

Obviously, Rhode Island can do much better than rushing through a new system whereby a panel of special interests reward themselves at the taxpayers' expense. The approach adopted is, in essence, a new and costly mandate on local communities, with less, rather than more, local input into spending decisions that affect the bottom line.

That will always be the case, once the messy reality of human self-interest is introduced to the shiny machinations of planners. Better policies on a case-by-case basis may delay the deterioration as power and money are consolidated, but they will never prevent it.

More importantly, though, we all should have learned by now that there are other aspects of Rhode Island's government that must be fixed prior to consolidation. Handing a mandate to consolidate to the ruling class that has brought Rhode Island to its knees is like buying a home-owner's insurance policy from the thief who just broke in and stole all of your belongings.



Blame and Motivation in Education

Justin Katz

Friday night's Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show featured Rhode Island House Minority Leader Bob Watson and legal analyst Lou Pulner, and I was surprised to find Pulner nearly standing alone when the conversation turned toward the teachers unions' blocking the state's federal Race to the Top application (on which the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals has just changed its position):

Matt Allen: The teacher unions in Rhode Island are stuck, because they do not want teacher evaluation to be dependent upon student performance. I guess Deborah Gist's proposal is 51% of teacher performance and evaluation will be based on student performance and standardized tests.

Lou Pulner: Gee, what a bummer that would be, huh? Think about it --- that we're actually going to rate our teachers based upon how they're students are doing in class and on exams.

Bob Watson: And you know what's always interesting is you wonder if you inventory the rank and file, how many of them are in agreement with the positions that the teachers union's take.

LP: I'll bet you 80%. They don't want to lose their job because they're doing a poor job.

BW: On certain core issues, I think you're right. But then there are other areas, I think that there are certain areas where some of the better teachers --- and I happen to have a brother that's a teacher and a sister that recently retired, my mother's a teacher, having retired, so I've got some bias, I suppose.

MA: My soon-to-be wife is also a public school teacher.

LP: But she's not political, you told me.

MA: She's not political.

BW: And when I knocked on doors in East Greenwich and campaigned for office, I found one of the predominant ...

LP: Where is your brother a teacher?

BW: In Cranston.

LP: OK. Good schools. East Greenwich, good schools. But if your brother were a teacher in Central Falls or Pawtucket, maybe you wouldn't be taking this position.

BW: As I said, one of the predominant second incomes in East Greenwich is a teacher's salary, and I've often found myself talking to a teacher from all sorts of parts of the state. They live in East Greenwich; they may teach in Central Falls. They have the same interests in having quality teachers in the schools, because when the good teachers are in a classroom next to a teacher that's slacking off and just not carrying their weight, trust me, all morale is reduced.

LP: But what happens, then, Bob? Then they bump in to a Classical High School because they have seniority.

BW: When it comes to certain issues relative to compensation, they share common ground, but I also think that, were it put out to a vote --- maybe it would have to be a secret vote, not one of those hold a paper card up in a room full of peers --- but if it were to come to a vote, I think more teachers than not would support this.

LP: But we're talking about a hundred million dollars that could come to the state of Rhode Island for educational purposes.

MA: Here's the thing, and I gotta tell you my soon-to-be bride's job has affected my opinion on this, because I get to see the inside, and let me just tell you this. Let me offer you up a piece of information. I know --- this is not from her, but from other situations that she's told me about --- where you have classrooms that might as well be hospital wards, because they are required by law to teach all sorts of kids and in all sorts of situations and all sorts of backgrounds and everything else.

LP: But special-ed can be backed out.

MA: Let me tell you something: Special ed is not backed out. Special ed, at least where she teaches, is in the classroom, with everybody else, and so you have these kids in this room, and they all have to pass the same standards that everybody else does, and then you gotta... you know... what kid didn't take a shower this morning, what kid didn't get breakfast this morning, what kid had to deal with a mother's boyfriend that night, what kid had to deal with this and the other thing, and one kid's got restive leg syndrome, so he can go and do jumping jacks in the back of the classroom whenever he wants to do it.

LP: Matty, I love you, but pillow talk aside between you and your betrothed is the fact that we need $100 million to enhance our education here in the state of Rhode Island, and the fact is that teachers ought to step up, and maybe they ought to work a little bit harder to make sure the students in their class are achieving.

BW: You know, Lou... show me a bad student, and I bet there's a bad parent at home waiting for that kid.

LP: Every time? Not every time.

BW: More times than not, Lou, and let's face it: We have too many people having children, and they don't keep the responsibility of raising those children properly.

LP: That's the babies are having babies argument. You're getting violent, Bob; you're getting violent right now. [Laughter.] This is VRT at its best.

BW: I can't use words on the radio, but I want to make my point: blame the parents; don't blame the teachers. A lot of good teachers try to do what they can, and Matt just explained just a typical day in a classroom.

LP: Bob, you don't think there are teachers in there who have the same curriculum and the same syllibus for forty freakin' years, and they're going through the motions.

BW: Because certain things don't change. Math doesn't change. Reading, writing, arithmatic shouldn't change.

MA: Let me just say this: I think that there's a happy medium. I think that student performance should be a factor. I just don't know how much of a factor it should be.

LP: For $100 million, I say raise it up a notch.

MA: I think we do need to go through and separate the wheat from the chaff, though, in the teachers' ranks, because some people I hear about need to go.

Coming from the legislative leader of the opposition party in Rhode Island, Watson's position is just not acceptable. Indeed, if it's an indication of the alternative that voters have in November, parents needn't wait until then to determine that they have to move or find a way to pay for private school. Watson's commentary is so knee jerk as to be dumb and so biased as to be offensive.

According to the latest Infoworks! document (PDF) from the state Department of Education, fewer than one-fifth of Rhode Island high school students are proficient in science, and just about one-quarter of them are proficient in math. Are 75-80% of Rhode Island's public school students living with bad parents? Or is Mr. Watson a bit too sanguine about 40-year-old lesson plans? (I use that reference emblematically, not literally.)

Matt's introduction of the conditions in some classrooms only highlights the critical factor. Note that he had to become intimate with a teacher before hearing about the challenges that education policies can present for them. As somebody who pays attention to local news, he's surely been very well aware of proposed salary cuts and healthcare copay increases, but when was the last time teachers worked to rule because their working conditions made it impossible for them to perform?

Perhaps if teachers' pay were strongly tied to the performance of their students, they'd be taking the lead in education reform, rather than standing in its way as a unionized matter of course. That probability brings us to the bigger problem of our blameless system. Let's quote Watson again:

Blame the parents; don't blame the teachers.

In the archetypal example of the Rhode Island Way, Watson here attacks the one group in the educational chain that is not on a government payroll. The General Assembly blames the towns, because after all, they have direct control over contracts and policies. The school committees and administrations blame the General Assembly for mandates and insufficient funding and the unions for contractual demands that drain control and resources. The teachers blame all of the above as well as the parents.

Well, if the folks on government payrolls have no power to improve the quality of education in the state, then those payrolls ought to be decimated. They're a waste of money. Redirect the resources to "good parents," so they can select an appropriate private school, and to social workers, so they can assist the "bad parents."

But I don't believe that the blame lies solely with the group whose main interest in the education system is through the well-being of their children. If we step back from the finger pointing and look at the situation as adults seeking to develop a functional educational machine, it is clear that mechanisms for incentives and accountability must be introduced. Evaluate teachers almost entirely on their performance, with formulas that adjust to the actual students — their challenges and their prior performance — and give the ultimate say to administrators, who are in a position to know all of the less-tangible considerations. On the other end, keep the General Assembly and federal government out of the equation.

In that way, the communities that are most affected on a personal level will have the ability to trace and change problems from the school committee dais down to the classroom in a chain accountability rather than evaded responsibility.


January 14, 2010


Labor Gets its Special Health Care Deal

Marc Comtois

At the end of this post I alluded to the special deal that unions--after much b***ing and moaning-- have extracted from Team Obama Health Care Force. In short, the tax on so-called "cadillac plans" won't be applied to collectively bargained health plans. Heritage's James Sherk observes:

What a deal. Unions want the health care spending, but they do not want to pay for it. Obama gave them just that. It also makes for a great recruiting pitch: join a union, get a tax cut.
No doubt. But wait, there's more!
That is just one of the many handouts unions get in the health care bill. It sets aside $5 billion to subsidize the costs of employer health benefits for early retirees. Few nonunion employers, of course, pay pension and health benefits for workers to retire at 55.

Or consider the small business exemption from the employer mandate for businesses with less than 50 employees. All businesses, that is, except construction companies. The costly employer mandate applies to any construction firm with more than four workers. Why would Congress kick small construction contractors when they are down? Because the construction unions asked Congress to. They did not want their small competitors to get out from under the bill’s costs and gain a competitive advantage. What if those costs put small contractors out of business? That is just too bad.

Nothing like looking out for the little guy, eh? But back to the exemption: Daniel Foster looks at the tea leaves:
Look for Obama and Congressional Democrats to the expand the union carve-out to cover a swath of the "middle-class" (the universal solvent of American politics), so they can camouflage this massive giveaway to a pet constituency.

One House Democrat is already saying a "consensus" could be built around such a scheme by further increasing the Medicare payroll tax and applying it to capital gains to make up for lost revenue.

This would amount to nothing less than a bill of attainder against on all constituencies that are not especially useful to the president and his party.

The shell game continues.


January 4, 2010


Why the Proposed Teachers' Health Insurance Board is an Unconstitutional Violation of Separation of Powers

Carroll Andrew Morse

A non-trivial question concerning the new teachers' health insurance board proposed by the legislature but opposed by the Governor is which branch of government it would belong to.

It's obviously not the judiciary.

And as currently structured, the board cannot be an offshoot of the legislature. A legislature has no power to delegate its statewide lawmaking authority to a group of non-legislators operating outside of the normal lawmaking process -- unless it is through the rule-making authority of an executive branch agency.

That leaves the executive branch, which makes sense, as this new board is basically a regulatory agency charged with overseeing the actions of school committees in certain aspects of teacher contract negotiations. However, the legislature does not have the power to designate anyone it chooses as makers of administrative rules that ultimately carry the force of law; according to the principle of separation of powers, this power can only be delegated to a constitutionally recognized executive.

This aspect of separation of powers, fundamental to the structures of our state and Federal governments, is spelled out directly in Article IX Section 5 of the Rhode Island Constitution…

The governor shall, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, appoint all officers of the state whose appointment is not herein otherwise provided for and all members of any board, commission or other state or quasi-public entity which exercises executive power under the laws of this state; but the general assembly may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they deem proper, in the governor, or within their respective departments in the other general officers, the judiciary or in the heads of departments.
Rhode Island legislators have no basis for ignoring Article IX and replacing the Governor with labor unions or other organizations in making appointments to state boards (no matter how much they might like to) unless they're claiming the authority to create new branches of government without needing a constitutional amendment.


January 3, 2010


Re: Is a New Way for Labor to Limit the Options

Justin Katz

Turning on my home computer after a weekend on the road, I was relieved and concerned to see the legislative bomb that Andrew has spotted. Relieved that we've come across this in time to shine some light. Concerned because I recall glancing at these bills back when they were on the agenda and making the conscious determination that I didn't have time to sort through them for pluses and minuses; the reform movement, in Rhode Island, really has to find some way to finance folks who'll take it upon themselves to comb proposed laws for this sort of thing.

Having reviewed the language, I'd add one more reason that legislators who refuse to let the veto stand should face a heavy political cost. Note this language in the House version:

... School district employees whose collective bargaining agreements expire on or after July 1, 2010 shall, upon expiration of such collective bargaining agreements, receive benefit plans authorized in accordance with chapter 27-72. ...

Upon implementation of the uniform health care benefit plan designs or at such other time as specified herein or as specified in sections 28-9-3.2 and 28-9.4-3, all public school districts and charter schools shall implement one or more benefit plan design(s) authorized in accordance with this chapter.

Not only does this law place any healthcare benefits in the hands of a union-dominated board accountable only to union members, it mandates that schools must offer them. Whether there's a feasible public or private alternative or schools just can't afford healthcare benefits anymore, they'll have to provide them. And not only union schools, but charter schools, as well. Once again, the sinking ship of state reveals the rats trying to shore up all that they can, rather than helping to keep the vessel afloat.

Again, now that it's been vetoed and noticed, any legislator who helps to make this a law should find him or her self out of office at the earliest opportunity.

ADDENDUM:

We can also take this legislation as evidence that reformers must be very, very careful about any budgetary or developmental strategy that calls for consolidation.


December 28, 2009


The Members' Interests Are Not Primary

Justin Katz

Mike, of Assigned Reading, noticed a strange omission of activism on the part of his and other teachers' unions:

Teachers enjoy some of the best benefits available. And as a result, we working class Americans will be subjected to a 40% premium tax, a punishment for having healthcare plans better than most Americans.

One would think the teachers’ unions in particular would be loud and vocal in their opposition. This would be true if the teachers’ unions were most interested in teachers. But when push comes to shove, the unions will put down their arms if it helps secure a victory for the Democrats.

I wonder if union organizers ever get heat from their members for activism that is either unrelated to or actually hostile toward their interests. The impression, from outside, is that there's a sort of compromise between teachers unions and teachers, such that the former pull all kinds of stunts and compromise the quality of education in order to provide ensure incessant growth for the remuneration of the latter, who pay dues more as a fee for service than as a cost of entry. In other words, the union gets to do whatever it wants, because it's really an independent organization from the workers whom it supports.

Somehow, I don't think it's supposed to work that way.


December 18, 2009


If the Legislation Weren't So Irredeemably Stupid...

Justin Katz

... I'd wonder whether we had an effect on this issue. Governor Carcieri has vetoed the apprenticeship gift to large, union contractors legislation:

In accordance with the provisions of Section 14, Article IX of the Constitution of the State of Rhode Island and Section 42-1-4 of the Rhode Island General laws, I transmit, with my disapproval, 2009 H 5582, "An Act Relating to Labor and Labor Relations."

This act would decrease the ratio of apprentices to journeymen in various fields of trade and industry.

Although I am a strong supporter of apprenticeship programs, and believe that such programs are necessary to maintain and foster a dynamic workforce in the building trades, this bill is flawed and could have some unintended consequences.

Apprenticeship ratios should provide ample opportunities for young people to enter the ranks of the skilled workforce and at the same time allow for a level of supervision and on-the-job training commensurate with their needs. It is unclear that the ratios proposed in this bill strike that delicate balance.

If the ratios allow for too few people to enter the building trades it will be nearly impossible to replenish the aging workforce in this area. It is also important to acknowledge that there is a cost to operating an apprenticeship program, and that cost must be borne by someone. Labor unions, though not exclusively, have traditionally operated many of the apprenticeship programs. In doing so, they bear a cost that other contractors and companies -- those that do not operate such a program --- do not incur.

In closing, although I am sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the proponents of this legislation, I am equally concerned that the proposed remedy may have unintended consequences that could harm many businesses and workers. I look forward to working with the various impacted parties to hopefully find some other more balanced solution.

I should also note some inside information that the legislative supporters of this bill — including House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, who proved himself unfit for public office in his passionate speech on its behalf in the special session, this autumn — wanted to make a performance of their support but didn't really want it to become law. Two lessons from that suggestion: legislation can be a dishonest business, and the unions shouldn't fall for the fake support from the recipients of their support and largess.


December 7, 2009


We Need a Taxpayer Grievance

Justin Katz

How can an entity — whether a business, a town, a nonprofit, whatever — operate like this?

[Little Compton Firefighter Fred] Melnyk was off duty at the time, out of uniform, and had been in the fire-station earlier at 11:16 when the medical incident in question was called in. An emergency medical technician (EMT) with cardiac training, Mr. Melnyk immediately responded to the call by himself, driving the Rescue 1 to the scene at John T. Martin Road, one mile from the station.

He later found himself stranded there when two other firefighters, who had arrived in two separate fire trucks, fresh from finishing another nearby incident, took Rescue 1, with a patient inside, and drove to Charlton Memorial Hospital, 30 minutes away.

That left Mr. Melnyk with the two parked fire trucks that needed to be returned to the station. With him was the fire chief and his command car. A decision was made (that Lt. Woods later grieved) that Mr. Melnyk, still off duty and at no cost to the town, would drive the two trucks back to the station, and not leave them parked on John T. Martin Road, a task Mr. Melnyk accomplished in two trips, ferried back to the residence by the chief in the command car.

Lt. David Woods has filed a grievance claiming that he should have been called in for his four-hour minimum of overtime pay, receiving $127.36 for around twenty minutes worth of work.


December 5, 2009


A Process of Suffocation

Justin Katz

The relationship is perhaps not entirely direct, but two stories from last Saturday's paper strike me as thematically related. First:

Because of poor design and construction and lack of maintenance, the underground parking garage at the Providence railroad station has suffered so much structural damage caused by leaking water that the state Department of Transportation says it might have to be closed.

The 360-space garage is a key transportation facility whose importance is likely to increase. It's the most convenient station parking and is full of commuters' cars on weekdays. The station will see more use, and presumably need more parking, when the state extends rail service south of Providence over the next two years.

At a time when Rhode Island desperately needs to ensure smooth sailing for the economy, public transportation infrastructure is crumbling. And second:

The head of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority's biggest union has threatened a strike if state officials remove binding arbitration, a mechanism for settling deadlocked contract disputes, from state law governing the authority. ...

RIPTA officials said that the possibility of eliminating binding arbitration for RIPTA employees came up at a meeting of a legislative committee looking into the authority's operations. RIPTA officials said they were asked to take the issue before the authority board of directors. The legislators suggested that RIPTA request that arbitration be removed from the authority's enabling legislation.

Even just a hint that officials might be considering the possibility of potentially revisiting binding arbitration sparked threats of the union's nuclear option. (Gee, that binding arbitration thing must really not be in a union's interests!)

In sum: During the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, with the state kept solvent merely through the ill-advised deficit spending of a radical U.S. president, as our transportation infrastructure falls apart under our desperate feet, public sector unions have their eye firmly focused on their own grubby hands. Rhode Island can't afford to tolerate this extortion and abuse any longer.


December 4, 2009


Regionalization Won't Make the Unions Go Away... Quite the Opposite

Justin Katz

Somehow, this strikes me as a preview of the "benefits" of regionalization in Rhode Island:

Just hours after he closed the Douglas Avenue fire station, Mayor Charles A. Lombardi ran into a legal stumbling block from the firefighters union Wednesday afternoon and he agreed to temporarily reopen the station. ...

Firefighters want [Providence County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey] Lanphear to keep Lombardi from shutting down the station and reassigning personnel, about 12 employees, to three other stations in town.

Note that this wasn't even about eliminating positions — just moving work locations. The only savings that regionalization might promise, in such instances, is to spread out the cost of lawyers for participating towns and cities. Of course, the whole point of regionalization is to instigate this sort of change, so municipalities would be sharing an increased expense.

Prior to any regionalization efforts, towns and cities will have to begin asserting themselves in contract negotiations to regain management rights. My suspicion is that, once they've taken such a step, regionalization will look like far less of a panacea, because the situation would have already improved dramatically.


November 30, 2009


The Union Shadow Government

Justin Katz

The "must read" label is a bit too easy to throw around, but a post on BigGovernment.com concerning union expansion — like a cancer in the canals of government bureaucracies — deserves it. We begin with this reminder of a peculiar story that some of you might have heard recently:

This past September Lisa Snyder, a 35 year old Michigan mother, made the news when she received a disturbing letter from the Michigan Department of Human Services. In it, the letter warned her that she was in violation of the law. Her offense? Watching a handful of neighborhood kids each morning for about 20 minutes as they waited at the end of her driveway for the school bus to arrive, with the blessing of their parents. State law in Michigan prohibits the home supervision of unrelated children for more than four weeks in a year without a child care provider license. Turns out a neighbor had complained and the Michigan Department of Human Services, the watchdog for home child care licensing, intervened by sending the warning letter. In Michigan, state employees for the DHS are represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union. Coincidentally, the union that represents the state’s home child care workers? Also the UAW.

Bring that mentality into the realm of healthcare, and the image begins to be frightening. Consider:

Also in Michigan, a story of three women who run their own independent businesses out of their homes, caring for neighborhood children. They each recently received a letter indicating that they are now dues-paying members of the Child Care Providers Together Michigan union — a complete surprise to them.

After a 2006 Executive Order by the Michigan Governor awarded the union (a partnership of UAW and AFSCME) bargaining rights for home child care workers, all it took for the union to convert all 40,000 child care workers to dues paying members was 5,900 signed union authorization cards. That left some independent home child care workers, who'd for years considered themselves self-employed, feeling dismayed and stunned.

A neat chart illustrates the path whereby government subsidies that parents used to help pay for independent child care services brought the self-employed professionals who accepted the payment under the dark shadow of "public service." In its current form, healthcare reform would move anybody who deals in health and wellness into the target zone of aggressive and politically powerful unions. In theory, in keeping with the Michigan example, "card check" would make it possible for a minority of people within a particular industry could unionize the entire group.

Such a structure would be good for people who like consolidated power within their own reach, but bad for the economy and bad for freedom.


November 27, 2009


The Focus of the Advocates

Justin Katz

Julia Steiny's column last Sunday focused on declining numbers of students in Rhode Island, but the paragraphs on the cause stick in the mind:

Mather elaborates, "In general terms, people leave New England because of job growth elsewhere. Many young people go to New England for college, but when they're finished or ready to start a family, they go where there are more opportunities, more affordable housing, and a warmer climate."

Well, but NCES shows that also-not-warm mountain states Idaho and Colorado both will enjoy double-digit growth, 26 and 19 percent respectively, between 2006 and 2018. Even Nebraska and Minnesota are growing.

So yes, says John Simmons of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the state's economy is the issue. He sighed as he rattled off a laundry list of badly needed changes to the state's tax structure, health-care system, pensions, and onerous regulatory burden. "If we don't begin to make changes today, by 2012, the problems become unsolvable. This has to be faced."

If it were actually true that, as outgoing National Education Association General Counsel Bob Chanin put it, "what unions do first and foremost is represent their members," it seems to me their focus would be wholly different. They wouldn't be funding left-wing Web sites and advocating for growth-killing progressivism.

Over at Assigned Reading, Mike, himself an RI teacher, reacted to a speech by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten thus:

Weingarten reveals through her speech what is an essential conflict: teachers unions only play for one team. Teachers unions have become arms of the Democratic party, activists for liberal causes and champions of politicians on the left. By aligning themselves with one side, they have effectively created enemies of the other. And they are major players in the blame game.

It isn't only the divisiveness and political activism, per se, to which union members ought to object, in this. They should find it unacceptable that the union organizations to which they pay so much in dues, and whose baggage they must carry, locally, are ideologically hindered from advocating for policies that would help membership in the long-term — policies that increase the wealth of taxpayers and expand the class of young clients.


November 24, 2009


Losing Sleep Over and Paying Attention to Education

Justin Katz

I've got a letter in the online version of the Sakonnet Times (prospectively in the print edition out tomorrow) that begins thus:

Residents who wish to understand the gradual deterioration of Rhode Island's public school system need only contrast school committee meetings addressing two issues: teacher contract negotiations and abysmal standardized testing results. The passion that sets the auditorium on fire when adults' high pay and lavish benefits are threatened with mild budgetary restraint is nowhere to be found when, say, only 25.8% of eleventh graders prove proficient in science (down from 30.5% the year before).

I go on to make some general suggestions regarding the necessary shifts in attitude and policy.

While I'm on the topic: The Tiverton School Committee's workshop on merit pay is tonight at 6:30, in the high school library.


November 18, 2009


Moving Money Around in Different Ways

Justin Katz

This quote from John Derbyshire's book, We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, which I found via a review by Kyle Smith, in National Review, gave us opportunity for discussion and encouragement 'round the construction site:

American parents are now all resigned to beggaring themselves in order to purchase college diplomas for their offspring, so that said offspring can get low-paying outsourceable office jobs, instead of having to descend to high-paying, unoutsourceable work like plumbing, carpentry, or electrical installation.

In order to extend our conversation, I did a quick online search to see if anybody's posted a little more context and noticed — as I increasingly have — that the entire book has been posted online by Google, with searchable text. I'm torn.

It's great to have the high caliber of books bumping up Web content, and for hard to find literature, it's certainly a useful service. Everything that's entered the public domain would have to be fair game (and much of it was already online, somewhere). But I worry that nobody will ever manage to develop financial incentive to write books if they're readily available for free.

To be sure, it would be uncomfortable to read an entire publication in the format provided by Google, but e-readers are increasingly popular, and computer screens are increasingly readable. Our society is going to have to work something out, but with the current speed of technology, making the ability to process and distribute content at high speed, an entire literary culture could fall away while the lawsuits and compromises run their course.


November 6, 2009


Swing and a Miss

Marc Comtois

This morning, the NEA's Pat Crowley's lamely attempted to use Alinsky's Rules #5 (Ridicule) and #11 (" Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it") on Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and put up a post that displayed the sort of empathy and prudence we've all come to expect. In the post, Crowley vaguely alluded to getting the "Gist" (ha...ha...) of what the new Education Commissioner abilities were and then linked to this video with no further explanation. I suppose the reader was to anticipate that some egregious evidence contra the new commish was about to be laid out.

Instead, we saw a video that originally accompanied this story from the Washington Post from February this year (and which was mentioned in this story from the Johnston Sun Rise in October).

A few years ago, Deborah [Gist] said, she was flipping through a copy of the Guinness book and realized she didn't want to grow her toenails to epic lengths and had little chance of running 100 meters in less than 9 seconds. "Then I got to this record and it said 'Most Kisses in a Minute.' I've kind of been known for being affectionate in my kissing, and I thought, 'That's it. That's the one.' "

All she needed was 109 people -- you see, the record is for most consecutive kisses by different people.

On Saturday, about 140 people gathered at the house....She withstood the onslaught, and Vince and I clicked 118 kisses, minus six disqualifications, for a total of 112 and a record (pending Guinness's approval).

The event raised $20,000 for the Wellness Community, a cancer-support organization in Bethesda.

Gist was inspired to raise the money after her uncle died from cancer. I guess Pat thought this all was supposed to cast a negative light upon Gist, though I'm not sure what conclusions were to be drawn.

Understandably, the commenters to Crowley's post also apparently missed why this was so important to Pat and many praised Commissioner Gist for being light-hearted and caring (and even a community organizer!). I wouldn't have even commented on it...except now the post and the comments it generated have disappeared--"- This diary has been removed "--though reference to the comments can be found by checking some of the user profiles (like here, here or here) and this comment also mentions the disappearance of the post.

Why the post and comments were removed is obvious; it ends up putting Crowley, not Gist, in a poor light. But instead of blank space, maybe an explanation is warranted, guys? Regardless, it would appear the commissioner is winding Pat up so much with talk of teacher evaluations and dropping seniority that its affecting his well-known judgment and tact....ahem...or maybe he's just jealous that he didn't get a chance to kiss the commish himself.


November 3, 2009


Chariho Teachers Approve Contract: Stepping Away from Steps?

Marc Comtois

As the ProJo reports, the Chariho teachers have approved a new contract (PDF) that includes nearly the complete eradication of the traditional increases (go "here" to see what I mean by "traditional") in the hard-coded contract step increases. This is what the Chariho contract looks like:

chariho-teach-09.JPG

Usually, a step contract would have something like a 2.5% annual salary increase for each pay step. Not here. This time the teachers' union and district agreed on a step schedule that remained constant over three years for steps 1-8, decreased for steps 9 and 10, fluctuated for step 11 and (apparently) added a new step 12 in 2010-11.

As I've shown by including the "Yr X Raise" column, that doesn't mean that teachers aren't getting a raise every year, it just means the usual increase in pay that comes via a step increase isn't being further compounded by a raise on each step, too. As an example, I've highlighted (in blue/green/red) what the "real world" salary increases would be for a new teacher as they progress to 2011-12 under this contract. Being guaranteed over a 6% increase per year still ain't a bad deal.

Whether or not we agree with the amount of increases from step to step, it is significant that there is no raise being applied from year to year for each step. Whether or not this will inspire--or embolden--other districts to follow suit will be interesting to see.


October 29, 2009


Update: Permanent Contracts Sent Back To Committee

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here is the status report on the permanent contracts bill, from the state legislature's website...

Senate Bill No.713
BY Perry, Levesque C, McCaffrey, Miller, Sosnowski
ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO LABOR AND LABOR RELATIONS - CERTIFIED SCHOOL TEACHERS ARBITRATION
(would amend section 28-9.3-9 to provide that if a successor collective bargaining agreement has not been agreed to by the parties)
{LC1814/1}

02/26/2009 Introduced, referred to Senate Labor
04/01/2009 Scheduled for hearing
04/01/2009 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
06/03/2009 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/03/2009 Committee recommends passage
06/04/2009 Placed on Senate Calendar
06/11/2009 Senate read and passed
06/16/2009 Referred to House Labor
06/25/2009 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/25/2009 Committee recommends passage in concurrence
06/25/2009 Placed on House Calendar
10/29/2009 Placed on House Calendar
10/29/2009 House voted to recommit to House Labor

Total Bills:1

Legislative Data System Room 1 10/29/2009
State House, Providence, Rhode Island 05:41 PM

This should finish the issue for this session, barring a literal back hallway meeting of the Labor Committee, which is still procedurally feasible -- but no longer politically feasible.



Where Even the Watchdogs Are Corrupt

Justin Katz

WPRI's been promoting its newest Target 12 investigation as "The Biggest Yet"; reporter Tim White sends along some specifics in advance of the official revelation:

CRANSTON – The Rhode Island State Police have opened a criminal investigation following a Target 12 Investigation into government waste.

The investigation, which airs tonight at 11 p.m., reveals four state workers at the Department of Labor and Training at home or on personal errands while on the clock. The investigation implicates the entire "Fraud Unit" at the DLT, a division designed to root out unemployment fraud and phony disability claims.

State police Lt. Colonel Steven O’Donnell says they were approached by state officials after Eyewitness News presented the DLT with their findings. O'Donnell says detectives are looking into possible charges of obtaining money under false pretense.

The four employees, identified by Eyewitness News as Debra Lombardi, Allyn Bosworth, David O'Brien and Claribel Terrero are suspended with pay pending the outcome of both the internal and criminal investigation, according to DLT spokesperson Laura Hart.

Their supervisor, Katherine Catanzaro has temporarily been reassigned, Hart says.

Target 12 obtained time sheets and itineraries of the fraud investigators that show they were not only on the clock when they were at home or on errands, but the itineraries reveal they claimed to be out on an investigation at the time.

On Sunday, I wondered whether it's possible to recycle something so thoroughly rotten as the Rhode Island government. When even the people assigned to seek out fraud are behaving fraudulently, the wondering may cease; tear the whole thing down and start again.



Update: Yorke Reporting that the Permanent Contract Won't be Passed Tonight

Carroll Andrew Morse

Dan Yorke of WPRO (630 AM) is reporting that he has spoken with House Speaker William Murphy's spokesman Larry Berman, who says that the permanent contract bill has been placed on the House calendar for procedural reasons only, because it needs to be officially tabled before the end of the session.



Perpetual Contract: Making a Spark in a Gunpowder Factory

Justin Katz

Andrew's news might explain the lack of the usual angst from the state's unionists over legislative assurances that binding arbitration is dead, for the time being: The unions' first choice — perpetual contracts — is alive and well. You'll recall that the deadly bill, S0713, passed the Senate and the House Labor Committee and then mysteriously disappeared during the time of tea parties and ramping up town hall anger.

Binding arbitration grew in it's place, of course, and wouldn't it explain a lot of strange behavior from the General Assembly and the unionists, especially those associated with the National Education Association, if the pair of bills are a connivance to inflate an over-sized union life-raft as the ship of state goes down? Get everybody to react to binding arbitration and then send in the more vicious animal through the back door. Ed Achorn's column on binding arbitration reads even more darkly in this new context:

Many Rhode Islanders, suffering from "learned helplessness" and biding their time until they too can join the great middle-class migration from the state, have given up whimsical notions that legislators here would ever serve the public interest. In their view, the politicians will never be happy until the sign that adorns Dante's Inferno is placed along all roads and highways leading into the state: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

If this legislative ghoul does come to life, this week, the backlash should be quadruple what it would have been against binding arbitration: not only based on the demerits, but also in reaction to the deception.



BREAKING: The Permanent Contract is Still Alive in the Legislature

Carroll Andrew Morse

Following a comment from "Madmom", I checked the General Assembly's official online calendar, and found this...

Senate Bill No.713
BY Perry, Levesque C, McCaffrey, Miller, Sosnowski
ENTITLED, AN ACT RELATING TO LABOR AND LABOR RELATIONS - CERTIFIED SCHOOL TEACHERS ARBITRATION
(would amend section 28-9.3-9 to provide that if a successor collective bargaining agreement has not been agreed to by the parties)
{LC1814/1}
02/26/2009 Introduced, referred to Senate Labor
04/01/2009 Scheduled for hearing
04/01/2009 Committee recommended measure be held for further study
06/03/2009 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/03/2009 Committee recommends passage
06/04/2009 Placed on Senate Calendar
06/11/2009 Senate read and passed
06/16/2009 Referred to House Labor
06/25/2009 Scheduled for hearing and/or consideration
06/25/2009 Committee recommends passage in concurrence
06/25/2009 Placed on House Calendar
10/29/2009 Placed on House Calendar


Total Bills:1

Legislative Data System Room 1 10/29/2009
State House, Providence, Rhode Island 10:06 AM

This is not the binding arbitration bill, but the bill that says that expired contracts remain in force, if no new agreement is reached. The verbiage added to state law is...
(f) In the event that a successor collective bargaining agreement has not been agreed to by the parties, then the existing contract shall continue in effect until such time as an agreement has been reached between the parties.

CONTINUING...

Speculation: The argument you will hear made in support of this bill is that the legislature needs to freeze everything as is, while it figures out how to create new rules for cities and towns, new rules intended to limit the decision making authority of the democratically elected local governments on local budgets. (Of course, you won't hear this last part in any of the "we temporarily need permanent contracts" arguments I suspect will be heard today. Also, remember that even if this is pitched as a "temporary" fix, temporary permanent contracts are likely to last "only" as long as the temporary increase in Rhode Island's sales tax passed 20 years ago and still going strong has lasted).

The people need to take a direct message to the legislature: Fix your own fiscal mess first, before you even begin to consider extraordinary measures like stripping locally elected officials of the authority to make meaningful fiscal decisions for their communities. Don't deny local representatives of the people the ability to decide how to spend the people's money on local matters.

AND FINALLY (FOR NOW)...

No matter what trickery the legislature attempts with this bill, today is not the end of this matter. This bill will certainly be vetoed by the Governor, meaning that another session will be necessary for a veto-override. This does not mean that people can afford to wait to express their opposition on this matter beginning right now, but as we head into the 2010 elections, every candidate for General Assembly needs to be asked to explain to what degree they believe that state-authorized unelected arbitrators and permanent contracts should be allowed to override the power of elected officials, when it comes to making the best decisions for their cities and towns.


October 28, 2009


The Audacity of the Union

Justin Katz

If you've paid even moderate attention to union squabbles in this state, you've got to drop your jaw at some of the pro-binding arbitration ads that the National Education Association is putting out. Look at the clippings at the top of the picture highlighting all of the lawyers fees and other bad effects of recent negotiation disputes; all of them originate with the unions. They file the lawsuits. Their intransigence leads to work-to-rule.

I'm also reminded of a comment that local Tiverton unionist and guidance counselor Lynn Nicholas made when the union was pushing for retroactive pay, last year. The audio is available at the end of this post, but the relevant portion is as follows:

Has anybody... tried to figure in what it's going to cost for lawyers fees once we get back into arbitration? Have you begun to think about that?

Two observations: First, lawyers are still needed in arbitration and the steps leading up to it, and negotiations that ultimately land on an arbitrators desk for a binding decision will surely be hard-fought. Second, the cost of lawyers that the union intended to impose on school districts has been a repeated threat during negotiations; are we to believe that the unions are going to give up this weapon — indeed, promote its relinquishment as a salable benefit — for an arbitration regime that won't unduly benefit them?

Let the word go out: No legislator who votes for binding arbitration should be considered worthy of being reelected, no matter what else he or she might do while in office, because not only would that have been a vote to benefit the unions at the expense of the residents, but it would also affirm deceit as a central tool in Rhode Island's political system.


October 26, 2009


Preemptive Support for Evaluations

Justin Katz

Is it too cynical to be suspicious of union enthusiasm to develop evaluation standards for teachers?

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals has received a $200,000 national grant to develop a much more demanding method of evaluating and mentoring new teachers. The union will work closely with four urban school districts: Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

"The union is tired of being portrayed as a protector of bad teachers," said union president Marcia Reback. "We have no interest in having incompetent teachers in our classrooms. We want to have good, rigorous, substantial evaluations."...

The peer-evaluation system would work as follows: a consulting teacher would observe, evaluate and mentor between 8 and 10 novice teachers over the course of a year. In the spring, the consulting teacher would recommend whether the new teacher should be awarded an additional contract. A board comprising administrators and union representatives would make its recommendation to the superintendent, who, in turn, would offer advice to the local school committee.

So a group of union reps and administrators (often previous members of the union) translate a union member's review of another union member to the superintendent, who brings it to the elected representatives on the school committee. Sounds like an attempt to derail evaluations that would involve more stakeholders, such as students, parents, and taxpayers, at a more fundamental level.

It always rankles, by the way, to hear union executives talk about "our classrooms." Perhaps public clarification of ownership is in order.


October 24, 2009


Okay, I'll Bite

Justin Katz

Presumably, Pat Crowley — by his strenuous logical standards — would also believe that we needn't listen to pacifists, or even military minimalists, were we to consider dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran:

Look, if the answer is you simply don't believe teachers have the right to collectively bargain, I wish you would stop beating around the bush and just say it. If so...fine, then there is no need to debate the merits of binding arbitration with you. We can simply move on.

Yes, teachers should have a right to bargain as a collective, but individual teachers should have a right to bargain as individuals, and districts should have a right to construct the policies that will best serve their students and their communities. The unionist might object that the collective couldn't function without including every potential employee, that giving management an alternative would decrease the union's leverage, but we're talking rights, here, not the policies that most benefit labor organizations.

Personally, I believe that unions have become a cesspool of stultifying principles, metastasizing humanity's baser motivations and producing an hospitable environment for evil. I'd further decry the extent to which they tend to weigh public discourse down to the level of reasoning that Crowley exhibits in the linked post (and to which his boss, Bob Walsh, disappointingly gave voice in multiple appearances on WPRO, yesterday).

Only within the acrid womb of such a beast as a public-sector labor union could one be so immune to objectivity as to believe that all statements are necessarily cynical ploys that may be dismissed based on the underlying assumptions of the orator. The bottom line is that binding arbitration will have particular effects on contracts and therefore on municipal and state budgets. The National Education Association of Rhode Island desires those effects. Various allied citizen groups do not. Those who are not yet convinced, either way, should observe the debate and seek what makes sense to them in the exchange.


October 22, 2009


"Modified" Binding Arbitration: A Bad Idea is Still Bad Even if It's Tweaked

Monique Chartier

Following upon a very well attended hearing yesterday,

Opponents clogged the State House committee room, spilling into the marble hallway and lining the walls. Some held signs of protest above their heads for hours.

It was an unusual display for a workday hearing on a legislative proposal entitled simply, “School Teacher Arbitration.”

the Providence Journal's Steve Peoples reports this morning on the latest status of binding arbitration.

[Spokesman for House Speaker William Murphy Larry] Berman characterized the draft legislation discussed Wednesday as “a touchstone for a larger discussion of the issue itself,” suggesting a modified version may emerge.

Andrew had pointed out that binding arbitration undemocratically (and possibly unconstitutionally?) removes the expenditure of tax dollars from the hands of elected officials and places it in the hands of (usually biased) non-elected ones who do not answer to the taxpayer/voter.

And Justin highlighted the cost of such a system in Connecticut; namely, compensation adjustments that go only one way.

What would a modified version of binding arbitration look like? Compensation adjustments that continue to go one way, just at a slower rate? (As tax revenue on Smith Hill and around the state has been going in the other direction for the third year in a row, this doesn't seem terribly feasible.) Would elected and non-elected officials take turns writing checks on the taxpayers' account so it's non-democratic "only" 50% of the time? (Still sounds undemocratic to me.)

So let's throw it open to suggestions. How would you "modify" binding arbitration - still leaving in place the current precedents and arbitrators which tilt significantly to one side of the table - to make it a fair, equitable and democratic process?



Andrew & Matt Talk Binding Arbitration

Justin Katz

Last night's Anchor Rising on the Matt Allen Show was a bit more expansive than usual, as Andrew and Matt discussed binding arbitration's relationship to governing philosophy. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


October 21, 2009


ProJo Notices the Stacked Arbitration Deck

Marc Comtois

A couple days ago I noticed that, with the arbitration bill coming up, Sen. John Tassoni had just been approved as a mediator. (The ProJo story reporting this also mentioned a few others). That led me to remark that it looked like the arbitration/mediation deck was being stacked ahead of time. The ProJo editors have also noticed and they also bring up a good point: familiarity won't benefit the taxpayers:

Citizens also have a right to wonder: Just how fair would “unbiased” mediators be under such a system?

There’s good reason to wonder. Under the system, both sides of the table would choose an arbitrator. But here’s the rub: Chiefs of either the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers would be dealing with arbitrators over and over, while each city and town would interact with arbitrators only occasionally. This would place a strong financial incentive on an arbitrator to shade his or her calls toward the unions, in hopes of being hired the next time. Ruling against the taxpayers in one community would pose far less of a career risk.

UPDATE: Allow me to piggyback on this clarification from ProJo:

The Oct. 21 editorial “Sen. Tassoni’s new job?” — about legislation mandating binding arbitration in disputes involving teachers unions — referred to both labor arbitrators and mediators. While the binding-arbitration legislation has not yet been approved, typically state-approved arbitrators are chosen from among a group of different names than state-approved mediators. As the editorial states, Sen. John Tassoni has landed on the state’s list of qualified mediators.



Should Arbitration Rulings Outrank the Law? It's a Feature, not a Bug Say Advocates!

Carroll Andrew Morse

I'm not entirely sure how authoritative this reference is, but the website called Rhode Island Arbitration –dot- com is promoting the fact that the decisions of arbitrators can take precedence over the law…

Did You Know…Courts cannot overturn an arbitration award.

Typically, the courts cannot overturn an arbitration award because the arbitrator made a mistake of law or fact. Even if a court would have decided the case differently under existing law, the court will still enforce an arbitration award that differs from what it would have decided.

The site has a definite astroturf feel to it, so the above "feature" may not be referring specifically to the law in Rhode Island.

But it sure does give a strong hint as to how much power arbitration advocates feel should be given to a few individuals over the lives of others, outside of any regular framework of electoral or legal accountability.


October 19, 2009


Binding Arbitration, the Board Game

Justin Katz

Let's you and I play a game. We'll start out with you giving me a certain sum of money. Then every five minutes, I'll propose how much more money you should give me, and you can propose a slightly lower increase, and if I refuse to accept those terms, we'll take our disagreement to a "neutral" third party who'll give me the increase I demand about 60% of the time and give me the increase you offer the other 40% of the time. Sound good?

Not surprisingly, the Providence Journal's newest regular contributor, Tom Sgouros, union consultant and an intellectual force behind the 2008 Economic Death and Dismemberment Act, thinks that's a nifty way to resolve the hardest fought teacher contract battles. As he writes, with the folksy, personalized calm of an infomercial:

To me, binding arbitration seems as good a way as any to resolve these kinds of conflicts. In binding arbitration, two sides present their "last best" proposals to a neutral panel of three arbitrators (one chosen by each side and one chosen by both) who decide between them. The arbitration statute spells out the permissible grounds for a decision, too, so it's not as if arbitrators can just make up stuff.

Of course, as Andrew put it on Matt Allen's Violent Roundtable, Friday night, we don't take that approach in other public interactions. The General Assembly doesn't take issues that it's having difficulty resolving to a "neutral" third party to set policy on, say, prostitution, gambling, or a school funding formula. The people whom we elect and hire just have to work things out or pay the political consequences. Also of course, as I describe in the current issue of Providence Business News, binding arbitration seems somehow always to result in an increase in teacher remuneration, in Connecticut, even in the most struggling towns. And it's never below a 2% raise. Curious.

The tack that the union backers have decided to use in opposition to such observations is to explain that binding arbitration is not to blame (or credit) for Connecticut's having the highest-paid teachers in the nation, the Education Enhancement Act of 1986 is. That's fine, so far as it goes, but the point isn't that binding arbitration will give Rhode Island that last little kick to the top, from the fourth highest-paid teachers in the nation to the absolutely highest-paid teachers. The point is that binding arbitration would prevent communities from adjusting remuneration downward when the towns run out of money, the parents realize that less and less money is available for the programs that define a well-balanced and opportunity-rich education, or the residents realize that their big bucks are buying pitiful proficiency in math and science.

And union-promoted clichés notwithstanding, teachers are very well paid and are not likely to suffer a change in that reality. Sgouros makes a play for just such an insinuation, with the following:

In 1986, despite seven years of binding arbitration law, Connecticut teachers were only 19th in the country in surveys of teacher pay. The average teacher salary then was around $13,000, and it was not hard to find teachers moonlighting as weekend bartenders, editors, writers, and construction workers, where they were paid more than in their "main" gig.

In the interest of charitable discourse, we'll assume that it was an innocent error that Tom cites the number for the average beginning teacher salary but calls it the average salary overall. Perusing data compiled by the American Federation of Teachers, one finds that the average salary in Connecticut was actually around $27,000 (11th highest in the nation) — and let's not forget that we've seen roughly 96% inflation since 1986, so those salaries are actually twice as valuable as they seem, from our current perspective.

As for beginning teachers — fresh out of college, or in the middle of a career change — having to work additional hours at a second occupation, well, such is not a foreign experience to other young professionals. Stepping back from the pro-union rhetoric, emphasized in the binding arbitration debate, it's clear that what's being requested is not fairness, but continued treatment as some special class removed from the experiences of fellow Rhode Islanders.



RE: Binding Arbitration

Marc Comtois

As Monique notes, the bill requiring binding arbitration in union/town disputes is slated to be heard this Wednesday. You can also hear NEA/AFT funded radio advertisements touting the bill. I wonder why labor unions--which traditionally take pride in being negotiating pit bulls--are apparently going all warm and fuzzy over the prospect of a supposedly fair and equitable process? What happened to taking pride in all of their victories? Well, in addition to Justin's explanation, could it be they know what the local roster of arbitrators looks like?

State Sen. John Tassoni, a Smithfield Democrat who until last spring was a senior business agent for the largest state employees union, has landed on the state’s list of qualified mediators to call when there is a state or local labor dispute.

Though his newly formed company — The Sentinel Group — has not yet won any state or local mediation contracts, it is now within a small, select group that the state purchasing office has deemed qualified for use. Tassoni has offered his services for $125 an hour, $1,000 a day.

Some on the list are better known than others, including Bernard Singleton, a state pensioner, former top official in the National Education Association of Rhode Island and state labor director in the DiPrete administration; and Gerard P. Cobleigh, who is one of the lead lawyers for the largest of the state employee unions and Tassoni’s former employer: Council 94, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Deck = stacked? It would seem those "in the know" know that the winds are shifting in a particular direction, regardless of the "hearing" on Wednesday.

UPDATE: NEA's Bob Walsh writes in the comments that I'm "mixing up mediation and arbitration, and mediators and arbitrators." I'm not mixing it up. I understand the difference: Mediators try to help parties come up with a mutual decision; arbitrators are selected by both parties to make a decision for them. As the ProJo report continues, it seems like the qualifications for mediators and arbitrators are similar and that they come from the same pool:

The minimum qualifications to get on the state’s list of potential mediators include “a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university” and five years experience “as an arbitrator and/or mediator for labor management matters, or a lawyer representing parties” in such matters.

Tassoni is a 1976 Smithfield High School graduate, who lists the New Horizon Computer Learning Center in Cranston, the George Meany Labor Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Institute for Labor Studies and Research in Cranston as his higher-education experience.

As for his “relevant skills and experience,” his resume notes that he is chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing and Municipal Government, and a member of the Senate Labor Committee who has over the years, in his union roles, had to “negotiate union contracts and resolve union grievances” and research, prepare and present cases for arbitration.” {emphasis added}

So, is there any chance that cross-pollination between mediators/arbitrators occurs? That's the impression I get. If not, my apologies.


October 18, 2009


Broke by Binding

Justin Katz

I've got an op-ed in the upcoming Providence Business News addressing a topic that's on a great many Rhode Island minds: binding arbitration.


October 16, 2009


Work of the Hand Is Not Exclusive of the Mind

Justin Katz

Marc's post on education and "dirty jobs" — the entire recent discussion about college and the necessity thereof — brings to mind this passage from Walter Rose's wonderful book The Village Carpenter, which reflects on Rose's family business as the era of the automobile and the machine came on strong:

These words are not to the old who, like myself, have passed the years of prime, but to the youth, whose years of promise lie before him. He seeks to acquire a personal knowledge of the craft, the ability to achieve as others have done and still do. Is he prepared to pay the price, in time and study of the principles of the craft, and the details of its execution? In my father's day seven years of apprenticeship was not thought too long to obtain this knowledge. When I was a youth the term had become reduced to four or five years. To-day there is a general disinclination for any apprenticeship at all, and a sad misconception as to the amount that has to be learned. But all the quickening processes of science have failed to train the human mind at a more rapid pace, and those who have studied woodcraft for half a century find themselves still learning and quite unable to pack all their knowledge into a nutshell for the convenience of a beginner. The training is not that of the university; it is, however, quite as exacting in its own way and so merits equal recognition and respect, and it is encouraging to note that this idea is slowly gaining ground.

Slowly,indeed. The Village Carpenter was originally published in 1937.


October 13, 2009


Is the Gig Up for the RI Education Industry?

Justin Katz

It's worth your time, if you haven't already read through the Sunday Providence Journal article about RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's elevation of the state's standardized test requirement for prospective education students to the highest in the country. The college and university estimates of how many students would miss the mark are head shakers, but of particular value is revelation of the gig, the game, the scam of educator education:

"Everybody understands what Commissioner Gist wants to do and I think her goals are laudable," [acting higher education commissioner Steven] Maurano said. "We absolutely want to work with her to do whatever we can to improve the quality of teachers in Rhode Island Schools. The concern that the institutions have is that if you raise the score for the Praxis I too high in one fell swoop, we will deny a significant number of students the opportunity to get into teacher prep programs."

Limiting the "opportunity" to enter into teaching programs is kind of the point, isn't it? It gets better:

Teacher training programs argue that there are several other safeguards before a student graduates, including requiring that students pass a series of exit exams in specific subjects toward the end of their program, called Praxis II, and perform student teaching for a semester.

Rhode Island requires high cut scores for these exit exams and they are a better indicator of the kind of educator a new teacher will become, say Byrd and Eldridge.

Reporter Jennifer Jordan doesn't explore how the percentage of students who pass the exit exams correlates with the estimates of how many would fall short of higher entrance scores, but the underlying argument is telling. Those who run training programs want a low bar for the students rushing to give them money, but a high bar for achieving the goal that motivated the exchange. In typical Rhode Island fashion, the objective appears to be to introduce waste (of time, money, and human potential) for the benefit of those who live off of it.

The most suitable names for such behavior might make a good question in the vocabulary portion of the Pre-Professional Skills Test.


October 12, 2009


An Association of Associates

Justin Katz

I've procured a copy of the proposed change in the Ethics Commission's general advisory pertaining to union members' voting, as elected officials, on contracts and such that affect other locals of their unions (PDF). There's nothing in it that will surprise those who've been following along, and frankly, with the exception of replacing "adequate" with "expanding," it's hard to argue with this:

Individual labor union members pay dues to the local bargaining unit of which they are a member, a portion of which is retained by that local unit, with some other portion ordinarily flowing up to the statewide and, when applicable, nationwide, umbrella organizations. While each local bargaining unit and statewide organization is structured and functions somewhat differently, it is generally the case that one of the primary missions of any given union is to secure adequate compensation and benefits for its membership; this being the case, we opine that an individual dues-paying member of any given local bargaining unit is a business associate, as that term is defined by R.I. Gen. Laws section 36-14-2(3), of both the local bargaining unit to which the individual pays dues and the statewide entity to which a portion of those dues flow. What this means in practical terms is that when a duly-authorized representative of a local bargaining unit or its statewide affiliate is representing the local or statewide entity before a person subject to the Code who is also a member of that local or the statewide umbrella entity, the person subject to the Code must recuse from taking official action in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws sections 36-14-5(f) and 6.

Closing any of these corruption loopholes (not unlike the prostitution loophole) that we're able will only benefit the state. Of course, it's probably too little, too late to prevent the state's financial collapse.


October 10, 2009


What Governs a Town?

Justin Katz

That layoffs of police in East Providence are "the first in years" in Rhode Island is surprising, but not particularly noteworthy. In fact, we should hope that organizations — whether companies or municipalities — will operate in such a way as to ensure consistent, long-term employment. It's difficult, however, not to see some sort of relationship with a story out North Providence:

[Mayor Charles] Lombardi said he held off on filling vacancies in the Police Department in recent months for financial reasons, which triggered several union grievances and set off a legal debate about the extent of his control over police staffing. Lombardi argues that the Town Charter gives the mayor discretion to determine whether a replacement will be appointed when a police officer leaves the department.

The police union argues that the department's organizational chart is governed by the contract, which prohibits "changes resulting in reduction in ranks" or "department strength."

Employment contracts should not be allowed to modify the rules by which a constitution or charter is operated. Elected officials lack the right — and should lack the authority — to negotiate such documents away.

Add this scheme to the list of practices that reformers must end if Rhode Island is ever to recover.



The Williams Story and a Different Caste

Justin Katz

The story of former RI Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams's second family is certainly worthy of the adjectives that have thus far been used to describe it — "odd," "creepy," and so on. With or without further details, though, it's essentially a window into another world in which such creatures thrive, and in which such facts as this swill about:

They brought in $198,000 in salaries last year, according to personnel data gathered by state controller Marc Leonetti. Pamela DosReis, 44, earned a $58,000 base salary, plus $9,709 in overtime and bonuses.

Her husband, Frank, 45, had a base salary of $50,455, plus just shy of $80,000 in overtime and bonuses.

On a personal level, one can congratulate the DosReises for their good fortune in acquiring attractive financial circumstances. As the people funding those circumstances, suspicion and recriminations are more in order, whether focusing on a powerful man who could pull such lucrative strings, on a system that makes an elite of public servants in an economically struggling state, or both.


October 8, 2009


A Little Less Tilt on the Union Playing Field

Justin Katz

Perhaps there is hope that the winds are changing (too slowly, of course) in Providence Journal reporter Steve Peoples' story on the RI Ethics Commission's movement toward a decision that would expand the prohibitions against union members' participation, as public officials, in matters pertaining to other locals under the same umbrella organizations. A 2008 advisory opinion from the Commission provides a good example:

The Petitioner, Vice Chairperson of the Narragansett School Committee, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may participate in subcommittee negotiations with the bargaining unit of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Education Association, to negotiate the Narragansett teachers’ union contract, given that she is a member of the Professional Staff Association at the Community College of Rhode Island, which is also represented by the National Education Association.

Heretofore, in the consensus view of 31 opinions since 1995, according to RI Ethics Commission staff lawyer Esme DeVault, the answer has been "go ahead," but would become, under the proposed change, "better not." Hopefully, the guardians of Rhode Island's public trust have caught on that unions are organizational structures, not vague clubs entailing mutual interests. Imagine the outcry from the usual suspects with union affiliations if a local manager of (say) a CVS were to involve himself as a public official in the affairs of a different CVS store in his hometown.

One option for resolving conflicts of interest that ought to be on the table, but isn't, is for those public officials to quit their unions without losing their jobs. Rhode Island is like one of those games in which two knobs tilt a maze through which the player must work a marble, only the knobs only change the degree to which the board tilts toward the union hole — never away.


October 2, 2009


Re: Solidarity in Kicking the Blind Veteran into the Street

Monique Chartier

Justin says

Think of the thoroughness of the union mentality (or dementality) necessary for no union members, of several occupations, to see the immorality of preventing disabled veterans from reaching the hospital or to take pains to minimize the effects of their "action."

Indeed, a mentality is at fault here but it is important to focus on the parties with the faulty mentality who bear direct responsibility for these unacceptable incidents. Commenters Joe Bernstein and RIBorn have identified them.

Joe B: On the other hand the misguided action by the transit workers is impacting people who are disabled as a result of serving this country who also have exactly zero involvement in the labor dispute.

RIBorn: While the state may have no control over the picketers, there should be discipline coming to the bus drivers and police officers.

In point of fact, those veterans would have safely arrived at their destination despite the picketing if another group had simply done their job: the bus drivers and, secondarily, those police officers who came to the scene and failed to abate the situation.

It's one thing for a group to picket. It's a completely different, much darker, thing for a second group to make the conscious decision to place the health and well being of disabled or ill veterans behind excessive deference to a particular group's first amendment expression.

Yes, over the course of two days, everyone realized their mistake. In the case of the bus drivers and police officers who have an official capacity and responsibility, one that specifically involves protecting public citizens and especially veterans, that was two days too long.

There's a time and a place for solidarity. This clearly was neither. Shame on those bus drivers and police officers for not immediately recognizing that fact and thereby allowing an allegiance to warp their priorities; i.e., to become a mindless mentality.


October 1, 2009


Solidarity in Kicking the Blind Veteran into the Street

Justin Katz

Somehow I missed the story from last week that Joe Bernstein raises in the comments to the previous post. The Providence Journal story appears to have run on Saturday:

On Monday and Tuesday morning, [blind veteran Michael] Graichen said Friday, the bus driver explained there was a picket line [at the VA Hospital] he wasn’t going to cross, and he let Graichen out at Roger Williams Hospital. ...

A VA spokesman said his efforts to speak with protesters on Monday were met with profanities. Bullhorns and shouting disrupted traffic on Chalkstone, said James W. Burrows, director of communications at the VA Hospital. When he called the police, he said Thursday, the responding patrol cars honked in solidarity with the protesting unions.

On Wednesday, a 12-foot banner was added to the display. It said: "VA Medical Center / Construction workers with NO Health Care Insurance. / Shame on the VA."

On Thursday, Burrows said, a Providence police officer responded to the VA Hospital to tell protesters they had to stay on the sidewalk and not use the bullhorn.

By Friday morning, the tone had changed.

Think of the thoroughness of the union mentality (or dementality) necessary for no union members, of several occupations, to see the immorality of preventing disabled veterans from reaching the hospital or to take pains to minimize the effects of their "action.". The kicker? The picket wasn't even over current jobs, but was anticipatory of stimulus dollars potentially flowing out of state.

Yet, we allow the organizations that foster such an atmosphere and mentality to interweave themselves, through metastasis, into such critical public roles as police, fire, and education.

ADDENDUM:

Comments Michael to the previous post:

It happened for a day, the bus drivers realized their mistake, the workers who were picketing apologized, in writing and the story should be over.

It appears to have happened for two days. More importantly, though, this was a "mistake" like mugging an old lady on a street corner is a "mistake." The point is that the perpetrator ought to know in advance that what he's doing is wrong.

And the story will not be over until the principles and practices of unionized groups are diverted from the culture of selfishness and aggression that fosters such "mistakes."



The Never-Ending Union Contract

Justin Katz

Marc confessed, on last night's Matt Allen Show, that he's tempted to forsake all and join a union, arguing that they're impervious: as individuals, union members get away with everything, and as bodies, their contracts can't be allowed to expire. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


September 30, 2009


RE: Warwick Crossing Guards - Contracts are Forever

Marc Comtois
The Board, therefore, finds that the Employer has engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to bargain in good faith and by unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment, and by failing to participate in statutory dispute resolution procedures.
Thus has the RI State Labor Relations Board rendered its decision to reinstate the prior contract of the Warwick Crossing Guard union (Local 1033). "[T]he Employer [The City of Warwick} has engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to bargain in good faith..." According to the "majority" of 3 on the Board (I looked at the rules and regs for the Board and could find nothing stating a tie goes to the union...), the City of Warwick didn't bargain in good faith because they "entered into negotiations with a mind 'hermetically sealed against even the thought of entering into an Agreement with the Union'." They support this with the following:
[T]he City Council issued a resolution directing the City's administration to "formally notify the Union representing the Crossing Guards that it [the City] is exercising its option not to renew the Collective Bargaining Agreement in order to explore the pos