February 01, 2019

SB 451 is the third wave of the war on workers

Senate Bill 451 is the third wave of major attacks on working people in West Virginia. Each wave targeted a particular group of workers by weakening unions, the organizations that protect their interests. And many people may not realize that unions that help set work standards and advocate for policies that benefit all workers, not just their own members.

Here are the basics: there are three main types of unions: industrial, craft unions (often building trades) and public sector unions--and each in turn has been targeted. Here's how:

Industrial unions. When Republicans (just a fact) gained control of the WV legislature in the wake of the 2014 elections, they moved quickly to undermine industrial unions through so-called "right to work" (RTW) legislation, which is really right to work for less.

RTW undermines the democratic process. In a free labor state, workers vote whether or not to join a union. If the majority votes yeas, all are members and are covered in the contract the union negotiates. If the majority decides they no longer want to be union members, they can have another election to de-certify the union.

With RTW, workers can continue receive the benefits of union membership--wages, benefits, hours, conditions--without paying dues, even though the union is obligated to represent them in grievances. The end result is weaker unions, which ultimately leads to worse conditions for all workers, union or non-union.

Craft unions. For many decades, construction workers were protected by a prevailing wage laws, which was designed to ensure that workers on public construction sites were paid decent wages. This was designed to protect the public against fly by night contractors that use cheap and often unskilled labor and to protect local skilled workers. Building trade unions generally offer apprenticeship programs that guarantee a trained and skilled workforce. Non-union contractors are under no such obligation.

In 2016, the Republican-led legislature (again, just a fact) repealed West Virginia's prevailing wage laws.

That leaves...

Public employee unions. Probably the largest group of public sector workers protected by unions or workers' associations are those in the education field, including teachers and school service personnel. In some places, public sector workers have collective bargaining rights. In WV, they don't as of know, but still advocate for members and represent them in the workplace.

Senate Bill 451 goes after them by the so-called "paycheck protection" provision, which is more like "paycheck reduction. It makes it more difficult for workers to pay dues to the organizations that represent their interests. It also adds a penalty for work stoppages.

The biggest threat, however, is that of undermining public education altogether via charter schools, education savings accounts, and privatization. Teachers in charter schools aren't required under 451 to be covered by PEIA or the teachers' retirement system. Private entities can set their own payment and standards.

Conclusion: at least they're consistent. And working people need to be just as consistent, by showing solidarity with all workers, regardless of industry or type of union or any of the many ways rulers have tried to divide us. And, let's face it, it's high time to recognize the pattern.

January 29, 2019

"Why in the world are we doing this?"

Say what you want about WV Governor Jim Justice--I certainly have. But he does have his moments. One of these occurred today at an impromptu press conference on the ominous omnibus senate education bill.

His main message was "why are we doing this?" While he admitted education in WV could be improved, he came out strongly against charter schools and attacks on teachers' organizations (paycheck "protection," which is more like paycheck reduction). He admitted that he believed the senate bill was at least partially an act of retaliation against teachers. He said that he'd veto the bill in its current form and urged that it be broken up into component parts, each of which could be considered independently. And he called for the passage of a clean pay-raise bill for teachers and state workers.

The main theme seemed to be that we don't need something this divisive, saying "Come on, we're better than this."

It's still unclear how the senate under the leadership of Mitch Carmichael will respond or what the house thinks about the whole thing. In a worst case scenario, the veto, if it happened within a certain time, could be overturned by a simple majority.

Still, he came out and strongly said things that many of us have been saying.

Obviously, it's nowhere near over and we need to stay on this. Still, this was something that probably nobody was expecting this morning.

January 27, 2019

The Ominous Omnibus

Christmas tree” is a slang term for a piece of legislation that tries to do too much, as in you hang all kinds of things on it. A perfect example of this is the West Virginia Senate’s mammoth omnibus education bill.

Some people I know have already taken to calling it the “ominous bill,” which may be a better fit.

I wish I thought of that.

The proposed legislation could and should be broken up into any number of separate bills, each to be debated on its merits, which in some cases are nonexistent.

To be fair, some provisions are good, such as raising pay for teachers and school support workers and allowing retirees to convert unused sick days into PEIA coverage.

Other provisions, however, would clearly damage public education and move the state further down the road to privatization. These include charter schools, education savings accounts and other means for draining resources from public schools.

Incredibly, the bill actually raises the student/teacher ratio for elementary classes.

Still other provisions seem designed to punish teachers and school workers for their historic victory through a strike last year which improved conditions for thousands of West Virginia families, inspired similar successful efforts in other states and revitalized the movement of working people. These include provisions that make it more difficult for workers to pay dues to the organizations that represent their interests and punish work stoppages even if superintendents cancel schools.

This is what revenge looks like. It’s also a not-too-subtle warning to the peasants on the dangers of revolt.

West Virginia’s children and families deserve better. All of them.

For starters, we need adequate funding for education that includes infrastructure, personnel, equipment, textbooks and materials, including pay raises for teachers and support workers and sustainable funding for PEIA. We don’t need another round of corporate tax cuts that would make it harder for state and local governments to support schools.

When it comes to school reform, we need to say yes to innovation but no to privatization. Obviously, we need new and better ways to deal with trauma, promote STEM learning and encourage entrepreneurship. However, these steps can be taken through existing mechanisms such as community schools and innovation zones.

Gov. Jim Justice hit the nail on the head when he said, “I just believe that today as we strive to provide a better education for everyone, we don’t really need to cherry pick the privileged until we get our public education system in a really good way.”

We need to lower student/teacher ratios, not increase them."

We need a major effort to address mental health issues for students. These are tough times to come of age in West Virginia. We need mandated ratios of mental health professionals and nurses in schools. We also need a statewide task force to identify needs, gaps, best practices and come up with a plan to address the needs. This isn’t a luxury; it’s a matter of basic safety.

Another positive step would be to strengthen Local School Involvement Councils (LSICs), including the creation of a statewide LSIC advisory committee and the representation of students, mental health professionals and disadvantaged parents on local LSICs. We also need a virtual schools advisory council consisting of teachers, facilitators, administrators, parents and students to promote best practices in online education.

To really seal the deal for a better future, we should support an expansion of after school programs, including a transportation component; enhanced early childhood and in-home family education; and expanding debt-free post-secondary education.

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The real “school choice” facing West Virginia is one between progress and promise or privatization and punishment.

As the old Appalachian mining song goes, “Which side are you on?”