November 07, 2019

Learning from Kentucky

The victory of Andy Beshear over Matt Bevin in the Kentucky governor's race has gotten nationwide attention. For good reasons. There are two key factors that seemed to tip the balance--and two kinds of constituencies that, if united in solidarity, could kick up all kinds of dust.

First, it almost never pays to antagonize public school teachers and support workers, as this Huffington Post item reminds us. I'm proud of the West Virginia education workers who helped inspire their Kentucky colleagues. I still love that picture of someone in Kentucky holding a sign that said, "Don't make us go West Virginia on you."

I hope West Virginia school workers in turn follow their example in showing up and voting next year.

But it wasn't just the teachers in Kentucky that made a difference. The other major factor was Medicaid expansion. Andy Beshear's father Steve expanded the program to low income working adults when he was governor. That decision brought coverage to 400,000 adult Kentuckians.
It also opened up the way to addiction treatment, as I mentioned in this 2017 post, which refers to
a 740 percent increase in substance abuse services since the expansion.

In addition to dissing teachers, Bevin also proposed draconian reporting requirements (disguised as work requirements) that would have cut off health care for tens of thousands of Kentuckians who gained from the expansion and taken millions of dollars out of the states economy.

As this article in The Hill notes, Andy Beshear specifically campaigned on defending the expansion and rescinding Bevin's attack on the program.

I don't think either the teachers and school support workers or the people who wanted to defend Medicaid could have done it alone. I'm not sure how consciously it happened, but together they did.

That kind of bridging solidarity takes some work. I've heard poor peoples' advocates say disparaging things about teachers and vice versa. It can amount to divide and rule from below, a luxury we can't afford now and one that never did us any good.

I think it comes down to this: over the last few decades wealth and power have been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. We're not just talking about the richest one percent. It's more like the richest one-tenth of a percent.

The majority of the population, therefore, does not greatly benefit by the existing division of wealth and power and thus at least potentially could benefit from and support a more equitable arrangement, whatever differences there are between us.

Imagine what might be possible if we got really good at consciously reaching out in solidarity, joining forces and showing up for each other.

November 06, 2019

West Virginia's construction workers deserve better

In 2016, the West Virginia Legislature repealed the state’s prevailing wage law, which set pay standards for workers on public construction projects.

The intent of prevailing wage laws was to prevent these projects from turning into a race to the bottom, with out-of-state contractors profiting at the public expense by underbidding local businesses and importing low wage, low skill workers laboring under unsafe conditions.

The idea for that kind of legislation didn’t come from a bunch of labor radicals. Rather it was the brainchild of two Republican U.S. senators, James J. Davis of Pennsylvania and Robert L. Bacon of Long Island, New York.

In 1927, Bacon was angered to learn that an Alabama contractor won a bid to build a veteran’s hospital in his district, bringing in poorly treated workers to do the job. In his words, they were “herded onto this job, they were housed in shacks, they were paid a very low wage, and ... it seems to me that the federal government should not engage in construction work in any state and undermine the labor conditions and the labor wages paid in that state.”

In his view, setting locally based wage standards for public projects would ensure fairness and allow local and distant contractors to compete for bids on an equal basis.

Davis believed that the government had a responsibility to “comply with the local standards of wages and labor prevailing in the locality where the building construction is to take place.”

Their legislation, known as the Davis-Bacon Act, was passed in congress in 1931 and became the model for state prevailing wage laws, including the one that used to protect West Virginia’s workers and contractors.

Opponents of the legislation, who, as far as I can tell, are also opponents of working people generally, argued that repealing the legislation would save taxpayers money.

For example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, argued at the time that “without prevailing wage, you could build five schools for the price of three.” He also claimed that the repeal would save the state $200-300 million annually.

If that really happened, the state would have a huge budget surplus. Instead, the governor has ordered $100 million in cuts due to a budget shortfall.

And the School Building Authority reported in 2017 that, while workers’ wages had gone down on school projects since repealing prevailing wage, “the overall cost of school construction does not reflect a reduction of overall construction costs on SBA projects at this time. At this time the SBA is not realizing an overall savings that would allow for the construction of ‘five new schools for the price of three,’ as some have previously claimed.”

What did go down were the inflation-adjusted wages of carpenters, electricians and operating engineers.

I find it particularly disturbing that repealing prevailing wage seems to have reduced the number of younger workers in apprenticeship programs. In 2016, there were over 5,400 active apprentices. By 2018, that number dropped to 4,400.

That’s 1,000 fewer people likely to earn a living wage with the kinds of benefits it takes to raise a family with a degree of economic stability — a real loss to many struggling communities.

Worse still is the decline in worker safety. On-the-job construction injuries increased by 26 percent since repeal, according to a study from Michael Kelsay, economics professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Frank Manzo, of the Midwest Economic Policy Institute. The study was commissioned by the Affiliated Construction Trades and the West Virginia State Building Trades Council.

According to the report, “Costs associated with worksite injuries and an overall decrease in worker productivity have offset any savings from lower labor costs, resulting in public school construction costs that are not statistically different since prevailing wage was repealed, even after adjusting for inflation.”

Then there’s the hit to local businesses. The shift from union to non-union contractors winning construction bids opens the door for a larger share of out-of-state firms “performing work on taxpayer-funded school projects, and taking their earnings back with them to their home states upon project completion.”

Any way you look at it, repealing our prevailing wage law was a bad deal for West Virginians. It’s time for the Legislature to undo the damage.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

November 05, 2019

At least this didn't happen in West Virginia

I'm so relieved that this happened in Florida and not here.

Commissioners in Citrus County Florida declined library funding for an electronic subscription to the New York Times because it was "fake news."

The vote was apparently unanimous, with member Chris Carnahan reportedly saying, “I will not be voting for this. I don’t want the New York Times in this county.”

I mean God forbid public libraries carry materials with diverse points of view. The results could be...democracy or something.

According to Forbes, the vote happened shortly before Trump ordered all federal agencies to cancel subscriptions to the Times and the Washington Post.

I just hope this doesn't give anybody ideas...

November 04, 2019

Urgent zombie fungus fly update

Sometimes I think natural selection, to the extent it can be personified, sniffs glue or ingests some other kind of trippy substance.

Witness this New York Times story about a fungus that takes over the body of a fly, turns it into some kind of zombie, makes it act erratically, kills it but causes it to land in an opportune place and in an opportune position, continues to grow inside the dead fly's body, and then shoots out spores "as if from microscopic cannons" to infect more flies.

How cool is that? I mean, unless you were a fly...

It should be noted, however, that zombie flies, unlike human zombies in movies, don't eat living flies, although would be pretty awesome.

If that isn't enough to get your week off to a good start, scroll down the Times article to access another article about a fungus that turns ants into zombies and causes their bodies to explode.

Holy Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Batman! And zombies.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN WV, the Gazette-Mail's Phil Kabler had a great column on the myth of the "war on coal" and Trump's revival of the industry.

STOP THE PRESSES! It doesn't happen very often, but I agree with conservative commentator Hoppy Kercheval about the need for congress to keep its promise to retired coal miners.