February 14, 2015

The big three

The Gentle Reader may perhaps recall my campaign to update the WV state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up." Here is another reason why:

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a story about a person sentenced to prison after a car wreck that left chickens, marijuana and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) scattered on Interstate 79. If memory serves, there was an AK-47 on hand as well.

In my friend's words, "He had it all...and lost it."

(I seem to recall that in the wake of the accident a WV game began where people would come up with their own list of three random things scattered on the interstate, but it would be hard to top the real thing.)

February 13, 2015

Thoughts on a topic I'd rather avoid

One issue I don't usually work on or say much about is abortion. I really understand how people feel on all sides of this issue. However, since the WV House of Delegates passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest, I feel compelled to speak up.

Here's what I really think, which probably won't win me any friends on any side:

There is a huge difference between making something illegal and making it go away. See Prohibition, war on drugs, etc. When it comes to abortion, I'd prefer the latter, in the sense of trying as much as possible to eliminate the conditions which drive people to consider it, legally or otherwise.

And may I just observe that there is a big difference between being pro-birth and being pro-life. Some people who are loudest when it comes to legislating about the uteri of others seem to lose interest in the fetus after it gets here. But here's the deal: as Jethro Tull sang, "Life's a long song." If one claims to be for it, one should put up or shut up and try to make it as decent as possible for as many people as possible all the way to the end of the line.

February 11, 2015

It's not all bad

There's plenty of terrible news rolling out of West Virginia these days, so it's good to highlight some good news. One thing WV does right is feed kids in its school system, thanks largely to my friend Rick Goff, of the Office of Child Nutrition and general rock star and his staff. 

According to WV News Service,

A new survey has found the state has the highest percentage of qualifying students eating school breakfast in the nation...
Statistics show that kids who eat breakfast in school have better attendance, better test scores and fewer discipline problems. As one school official put it, students can't be hungry to learn if they're just plain hungry.
West Virginia has truly been a leader in this field. Let's hope that this continues to be the case.

February 10, 2015

Testing 1 2 3

The latest brilliant idea from the Republican-led WV legislature is pretty predictable: drug testing welfare recipients. There are probably as many myths about people on welfare as there are about the changing of the seasons

People may not realize just how small WV's TANF (Temporary Assistance For Needy Families) program is. In December 2013, it was around 9,800 adults out of a population of 1,850,000 or so.

If you want to be exact, that's 0.0052972972972973 percent of the population, if I read my calculator correctly.

There are also many misconceptions about how much cash assistance TANF recipients get here. The average benefit is $340 for a family of three.

I don't think you can buy a whole lot of welfare Cadillacs with that. Ones that run anyway. And, while I'm no expert on the local drug scene, I kind of doubt you'd be able to buy much of the "good" stuff with that either.

Some such laws have been declared to be unconstitutional, such a Florida's which was struck down by a federal court in Dec. 2014. Even if WV's proposed law survives a legal challenge, odds are the testing won't unmask many users. Six months after passing a drug testing law, Tennessee officials found only 37 users out of over 16,000 applicants.

February 09, 2015

Here they go again

The Gentle Reader may recall some...well...unfortunate remarks made about rape, legitimate and otherwise, by Republican politicians over the last few years.

The latest, alas, comes from West Virginia, where Delegate Brian Kurcaba spoke last week about the good things that could come from it, as in the babies that may issue from the women who are presumably the inert vessels for the deliverance thereof. He later attempted kinda sorta to distance himself from those remarks, but not too convincingly.

Always nice to have men pontificating and legislating about the bodies of others, right?

(Note: that was irony. Or maybe sarcasm.)

February 08, 2015

Racing to the bottom

I've been unusually prolific in writing op-eds in the Charleston Gazette lately, mostly because things are so awful. Here's the latest, about efforts to bring right-to-work-for-less to WV. Somebody has to feed the trolls.

It’s starting to feel like open season on working people at the state Capitol.

First, the Senate Government Organization committee pushed through a bill attacking West Virginia’s prevailing wage law, which could reduce the number and quality of local jobs for local workers. It could also compromise worker safety while opening the door to cheap, low-quality labor from out-of-state for public projects.

If that wasn’t enough, there is also likely to be a push for misnamed “right to work” legislation, which has nothing to do with the right to employment. It can more accurately be called “right-to-work-for-less.”

If enacted, it promises to speed up the shrinking of what remains of the middle class in West Virginia and adversely impact non-union as well as union workers.

Here’s a brief summary of the situation: As things now stand in free labor states like West Virginia, if the majority of eligible workers in a private sector site vote to join a union in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, all workers belong to the union.

Getting to that point isn’t easy, as some employers intimidate workers in an effort to discourage or defeat the election.

Once in a union, all workers then have the right to representation in the event of grievances and all benefit from the wages, job safety, benefits and working conditions negotiated by the union, which can be substantial.

After a successful vote to organize, if the majority of workers no longer want to be represented by the union, they can petition for a vote to decertify the union.

(Historical note: the coal miners who worked at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine were once represented by the United Mine Workers union. Once Massey acquired the mine, it was successful in pushing through an election to decertify the union. You know how that story ended.)

The current process for union representation is no different from any other kind of election. For example, if the majority of voters elect someone to political office, that person will generally serve in that position until he or she retires or is voted out of office. Or if duly elected representatives pass a law, that law goes into effect until it is repealed by other legislation or declared unconstitutional by the courts.

Further, if a union member conscientiously objects to the use of union dues to support other purposes than direct representation, he or she has the right under the Supreme Court Beck decision to pay reduced dues that only cover those expenses.

Right-to-work-for-less laws undermine the basic democratic process. In states that have such legislation, unions are legally obligated to represent all workers, even those who don’t support the costs of such representation. The free riders get all the benefits of membership without contributing to the cost of getting them. In the end, this drags down wages and benefits for everyone.

If that kind of thing applied to other areas, I suppose you could drive 100 miles per hour in a school zone if you didn’t want to be represented by the officials who set the speed limit.

So much for the technicalities of the law: Why should we care about this?

n First, if right-to-work-for-less laws were a cure-all for quality of life and well-being, we’d expect states that have them to be at the top of the list on such things. However, last year, Politico compiled the results of 14 state rankings on quality of life issues, such as income, education levels, graduation rates, life expectancy, crime, etc. They came up with a ranking for 50 states and the District of Columbia. It didn’t specifically look at labor laws.

Only three of the top 10 states ranked for quality of life had right-to-work-for-less laws. On the other hand, all five of the lowest-ranked states did. Right-to-work-for-less states made up only nine of the top 25 states, but 15 of the bottom 25.

That reminds me of some drug commercials on television, where side effects sound worse than the conditions the pills aim to cure.

n Second, wages for all workers are lower in right-to-work-for-less states than in free labor states. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker makes $1,500 or 3.2 percent less per year in those states than comparable workers in free states, even if you factor in differences in the cost of living.

n Third, a 2011 study found that employer-provided health insurance and employer-sponsored pensions were both lower in those states than in free labor states.

It’s true that union members generally earn higher wages than their non-union counterparts. They are also more likely to have health care benefits, paid sick leave, vacations, and pensions. Those are the kinds of benefits that make for stable families and communities.

However, there is a positive “spillover effect” from union to non-union workers. Many non-union employers offer competitive wages and benefits due to the standards set by collective bargaining agreements. Some employers even pay higher than union wages to avoid unionization.

Further, some of the basic things that we take for granted as part of living in a decent society are hard-won gains that union members fought and sometimes died to gain for everyone. These include things like the abolition of child labor, basic safety regulations, limits to the hours someone can be compelled to work, overtime laws and programs such as Social Security.

In the public policy arena, union members frequently support legislation that benefits all workers, not just union members. To use a local example, last year, unions supported an increase in the state minimum wage, even though their members earn higher wages. Labor has also been in the front lines of other struggles for justice, such as the Civil Rights movement.

Bottom line: if extremists in the West Virginia Legislature push this law through, it won’t just affect union members. It will drag down many more working families and communities and speed up our race to the bottom.