After Janus, The Country’s Largest Public-Sector Union Takes Stock of Its Movement

Originally published in The Intercept on July 5, 2018.
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The annual meeting of the National Education Association, the country’s largest public-sector union, held in Minnesota this week was much more high stakes than in years past. Typically, the convention is a chance for educators to vote on bread-and-butter issues like budget priorities and advocacy target areas. But the 8,000 or so students, retired teachers, and NEA delegates who descended on the Minneapolis Convention Center had more existential questions on their minds. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt a crippling blow to public-sector unions, they debated strategies to expand their membership, keep union members apprised of their rights, and recover from the impending financial loss that is sure to happen in a post-Janus world.

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled last week that despite laws requiring public-sector unions to represent all workers in a workplace, fees charged to non-members to support the costs of collective bargaining violate the First Amendment. For more than four decades, the Court has held it constitutional for unions to collect money from non-members to support the costs of negotiating contracts on their behalf. Janus overturned that precedent, meaning that employees can now enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay for it. Labor unions are bracing for substantial revenue loss.

Now, the choice before teachers is paying either hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues, or nothing at all. The NEA, which represents a little over 3 million members, is forecasting a loss of 370,000 members over the next two years. Approximately 88,000 educators have been non-members paying NEA agency fees, and the union anticipates at least several hundred thousand current members will also rescind their union cards.

“Janus was nothing more than a pretext for the Koch brothers and all their funded-friends to push for union members to drop out,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “With Janus, they don’t care about the [agency] fee payers, they care about reducing our resources and our actual members.” She pointed to the multi-million dollar effort recently launched by a Koch-backed group to persuade dues-paying members to opt-out.

In light of these realities, the NEA approved a two-year budget at its convention that scales back union expenditures by $50 million. Union leadership maintains that this scaleback will not impact the organization’s political activities. “We’re looking at getting economies of scale as best we can,” explained Jim Testerman, the senior director at the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “How many more meetings can we do digitally, can we cut back on food, travel, are there different ways to approach the work. We also didn’t replace 40 staff who retired in January.”

While some states where NEA wields the most influence, like California, New York, and New Jersey, have required non-members to pay agency fees, the recent wave of teacher strikes that exploded across the nation in states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma occurred in right-to-work states — which purport to protect workers from being required to join unions, but make collective bargaining more challenging and don’t require agency fees. Conservatives point to the walkouts as proof that agency fees aren’t really necessary. But workers in right-to-work states say they understand their efforts are aided by the national unions, which will certainly take a financial hit from Janus.

Back in the 1980s, when Eskelsen García was a 6th grade teacher, she served as bargaining chair for her union in Utah, a non-collective bargaining state. “There’s still a lot you can do without anyone’s permission,” she said. Just as superintendents and school board members largely supported the teachers who went on strike in red states this year, Eskelsen García said many administrators have shown willingness to bargain with unions even when not compelled to by state statute.

Indeed, at the NEA convention, despite the looming financial threats, the thousands of attendees were palpably emboldened by the teacher walkouts, collective actions that gave them a renewed and clearer sense of their own power. Though the protests were not union-initiated — beginning spontaneously with the grassroots — Testerman, of the NEA’s Center for Organizing, said his union is working to marry “the organic and the organized” as actions erupt. “It’s something we got better with over time, and Arizona was a good example,” he told The Intercept. “You don’t want the union to take it over, but having some organized entity who can get you permits and porta-potties and things like that can help you get even more done.” According to Testerman, Arizona’s NEA affiliate has seen an 8 percent increase in its membership since last year. “I don’t think the walkouts are over,” he added, noting that the future of the movement will depend on what happens in upcoming legislative sessions.

Delegates Reject Proposal to Open Union Membership to Supporters

One of the most contentious items considered at the NEA convention was a proposed constitutional amendment to create a new category of union membership, open to “any person who demonstrates support in advancing the cause of public education” and “advocates for the mission, vision and core values of the Association.”

The idea was formed last year in the wake of Betsy DeVos’s nomination to lead the Department of Education, Eskelsen García explained, when parents and community members flooded the NEA with questions on how they could speak out in opposition to DeVos and better support public education. Then, in the midst of the teacher strikes, the NEA president said, the outpouring support from non-educators proved crucial in building a broad political coalition for the walkouts. Under the proposal, so-called “community ally” members would pay minimal union dues but would be ineligible to vote on union matters or hold governance positions. The biggest opportunity this membership category would create, supporters explained, would be to make it possible for community allies to contribute to the NEA’s political action committee; only NEA members can legally contribute to the PAC, and given the expected decline in membership, this change would have given the PAC an additional stream of funds. The proposal also would have enabled the union to contact supportive members of the public directly. “We’re organizers in our bones,” Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “Why not organize them?”

The proposal triggered heated debate on Tuesday afternoon. Some members voiced concerns about opening up the union to outside political influence. “Selling stockholder shares in our union is a dangerous one,” warned a delegate from Michigan. “When you purchase stock, you expect a return on your investment.” Marshall Thompson, a delegate from Minnesota, called the idea half-baked. “Does my union card mean something or not?” he asked. “Bill Gates should not be able to buy one.”

NEA leadership defended the proposal, explaining that four other major unions, including AFCSME, have a similar membership category for the public, and all but 14 of the NEA’s state affiliates do too. For example, the Pennsylvania NEA affiliate has a “Partners for Public Education” membership category. Plus, NEA leaders added, community allies would have the same $5,000 political contribution limits to the PAC as do regular members. Tripp Jeffers, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying a version of it already works well in his state. “We get by with a little help from our friends,” he quipped. Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, also defended the amendment, reminding the audience that the parents and community members who walked alongside educators during Arizona’s six-day teacher strike were instrumental in helping the union rebut the political narrative that their action was solely about teacher wages.

That was not enough to convince the 8,000 delegates, though. The measure was narrowly defeated on Wednesday, with just over 60 percent of delegates voting in favor. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Reauthorization and Affirmative Consent

Janus has also sparked a legal and political debate over whether dues-paying members need to proactively reauthorize their union membership. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, states that “neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” Conservatives have latched onto this “affirmative consent” idea to say that all those represented by a union, members and agency-fee payers alike, should have to affirmatively opt-in.

But labor groups have taken an alternative reading. At the NEA convention, the union’s general counsel Alice O’Brien told the crowd of delegates that Janus “does not mean that unions have to re-sign existing members. Janus is about fee payers,” she said. “Nothing in Janus supports an employer [who] insists a union must submit new proof that existing voluntary members want to remain members.”

Eskelsen García told The Intercept that the NEA has already received reports of school districts and school boards asking unions to submit new proof of membership. “But Janus doesn’t require that, and part of our mission right now is we have to make sure that our folks across the country understand that Janus was very specific in saying you can’t require a non-member to pay fees,” she said. “It doesn’t require re-signing up members, but we anticipated there would be a lot of misinformation from the Koch brothers and others. We’ll get this straightened out.”

The question over re-commitments first arose three years ago, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an anti-public sector union case considered to be the predecessor of Janus. (Friedrichs also challenged public-sector agency fees, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in 2016 resulted in a 4-4 decision that left the fees alive until Janus was brought before the court.) Despite the teacher union’s position that re-commitments are not legally necessary, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have been working since then on getting re-commitments from all their members. The AFT reports that out of 800,000 members in 18 states with agency fees, more than 500,000 members have pledged membership renewals since January.

“The re-commit campaigns have really been an organizing strategy to go out and talk to our members about what these Supreme Court cases mean, and the value of belonging and acting collectively,” Testerman told The Intercept. “If members don’t know who the union is and what the union stands for, they are not likely to remain a member and we’re not taking anything for granted.” He said the NEA has seen a growth in membership for the last three years in a row, at an average of 0.5 percent per year.

But the tactics some union affiliates have taken to secure member re-commitments have stirred controversy, and they may be legally vulnerable in the post-Janus world.

In Minnesota, for example, the 86,000-member statewide teachers union asked educators to fill out membership renewal forms for the 2017-18 school year, authorizing the union to deduct dues. The forms included a fine-print disclosure that said “this authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on September 24 and ends on September 30. (emphasis added)”

The general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said the Minnesota teachers union was “betting that most teachers will just sign the card without reading it, or understanding what it means—and just keep paying.”

Los Angeles teachers took a similar approach. In its recommitment campaign, the United Teachers of Los Angeles asked members to sign membership forms with fine print that said, “This agreement shall be automatically renewed from year to year unless I revoke it in writing during the window period, irrespective of my membership in UTLA.” The legal language was first reported by Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog site. “So a teacher who takes an administrative position, or leaves teaching altogether, and is then ineligible to be a UTLA member, will still be on the hook for dues payments until the next window comes around,” Antonucci surmised.

Both the Minnesota and Los Angeles re-commitment forms are constitutional under Janus’s “opt-in” requirement, said Charlotte Garden, a professor at Seattle University Law School. She added that she “also expect[s] the National Right to Work Foundation or other anti-union groups to challenge them in court, arguing they aren’t solicitous enough of objectors.” Garden said those types of challenges will “bring into conflict” two beliefs held by conservative members of the Supreme Court: that unions “must take various affirmative steps to facilitate the rights of objectors they represent” and that “employees should be held to the contracts they sign.”

Some conservative-backed litigation is already coming down the pipe.

Eight NEA state affiliates, including some in New York, Maryland, California, and Washington, are currently targets of class action lawsuits seeking to recover agency fees previously paid to the teacher unions before Janus. “The lawsuit we filed is a refund of the fees that were illegally retracted,” said John Bursch, the lawyer who filed the class action on behalf of California teachers. Alice O’Brien, the NEA’s general counsel, reminded delegates at the convention that whomever replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement just hours after siding with the majority in Janus, could help decide whether unions must pay back agency fees or not.

Another case, filed in February 2017, takes square aim at union opt-out rules. In Yohn v. California Teachers AssociationRyan Yohn and seven other California educators objected not only to paying agency fees but also to bureaucratic hurdles employees must go through if they want to opt-out of union membership. The teachers argue workers should have to affirmatively opt-in to a union, not opt-out. “We’re not free-riders, we’re forced riders,”one plaintiff told Education Week in February. The case is being brought by the Center for Individual Rights, the same libertarian law firm that brought the Friedrichs suit.

Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told The Intercept that she has no doubt that conservative groups will aim to push the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus for cases like Yohn. “I’m afraid that Janus has opened up additional fronts in the war these groups are waging on public-sector unions and the labor movement more generally,” she said. “We will see litigation for years.”

Union-Friendly Legislation in the Wake of Janus

In anticipation of a Supreme Court decision striking down agency fees, unions have been lobbying state legislators for the last few years to support new bills that could help labor strengthen its position. Specifically, labor organizations have pushed for new measures that would more easily allow union representatives to make the case for membership to new public-sector employees and to limit the services unions have to provide to non-members.

Last year in California, the legislature passed two such bills: one that allows public-sector unions to give presentations to new employees during their job orientations, and another that restricts what government employers can say to their staff about the pros and cons of joining a union. Two bills are pending now that would give labor groups an opportunity to weigh in on a worker’s intent to cancel their union dues.

Maryland legislators passed a bill this spring requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative within 30 days of their hiring or by their first pay period. It became law in April without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a more expansive bill in May that gives unions a number of new protections, including the right to meet with new employees for at least a half hour within 30 days of being hired and a guarantee that public employers will provide the union with exclusive representation contact information for all new employees.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April signed what he called “the Janus bill,” which in addition to providing unions with contact information for all new public-sector workers, also makes clear that unions are not required to provide non-members with the full range of union services. For example, non-members facing disciplinary charges will now have to obtain their own attorneys, whereas the union covers legal representation for dues-paying members. Last week, immediately following the Janus decision, Cuomo issued an executive order to protect public employee contact information from those who may try to target them in union opt-out campaigns. It was mostly a symbolic gesture, since the state already has similar privacy protections on the books.

Aside from these bills, Sharon Block of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor and editor-in-chief of the On Labor blog, put forth another legislative proposal to help unions cope after Janus. “The simplest, and the most effective, move would be for states to change, quite subtly, the accounting system for union dues,” they wrote last week in Vox. While unionized public-sector workers currently earn about 17 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts on average, the now-unconstitutional agency fees have comprised about 2 percent of that wage premium. Under the system reviewed by the Supreme Court, employers paid this 2 percent to workers, and workers then had to pay that money back to the union as an agency fee. “But if public employers simply paid the 2 percent directly to the unions — giving the same 15 percent raise to employees but not channeling the extra 2 percent through employee paychecks,” Block and Sachs wrote, “then there would be no possible claim that employees were being compelled to do anything, and thus no constitutional problem.”

“We’re up against something pretty scary,” Lily Eskelsen García said this week in Minneapolis, speaking before thousands of delegates. “Janus is the latest attack on our union, but this ain’t our first rodeo… We don’t get scared, we get ready.”

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Supreme Court’s Janus Decision Opens A “Pandora’s Box” For Public-Sector Unions

Originally published in The Intercept on June 28, 2018.
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Six years after Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito first signaled his interest in striking down agency fees on First Amendment grounds, he authored a crushing blow to public-sector unions in a giddy 5-4 opinion issued Wednesday.

Janus v. AFSCME resolved whether agency fees, also known as “fair-share fees,” can be collected from public-sector employees who do not wish to be members of a union. Under the law, a public-sector union has to represent all workers in a workplace, irrespective of whether they opt to be union members. Charging agency fees has historically enabled unions to avoid the free rider-problem — without them, employees could enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without paying the dues required to support union activities.

This week, the Supreme Court affirmed that no agency fee or any other form of payment can be deducted from an employee, “nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” The decision has immediate ramifications for the nearly 7 million state and local government workers represented by a union, of which 58 percent are women and 33 percent are African-American, Asian-American, Pacific Islander, and Latino. There are 17.3 million public-sector workers across the nation.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that there’s a constitutional difference between a union’s political activities and its collective bargaining work. Compelling workers to fund the former would infringe on their freedom of speech, the court ruled in 1977 in a unanimous decision known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. But, the justices determined in Abood, requiring agency fees to support collective bargaining work was constitutional. Now the court has taken a knife to that distinction.

Many expected this outcome two years ago, when the court heard Friedrichs v. California Teachers Associationa case in which 10 public school teachers challenged the constitutionality of their mandatory agency fees on First Amendment grounds. While the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the teachers’ position, the Supreme Court seemed inclined to side with the challengers. But when Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February of 2016, the court ended up issuing a 4-4 decision, preserving the 9th Circuit’s ruling. On Wednesday, the conservative members of the court got a second bite at the apple.

Writing for the majority, Alito was extremely dismissive of AFSCME’s argument that labor organizations will be less effective if agency fees are struck down. To support its case, Alito pointed to the 28 states that currently have laws on the books prohibiting agency fees as proof that those fees are not essential to avoid conflict between competing labor advocacy groups — something both U.S. employers and American labor law discourage.  Even without agency fees, Alito argues, workers in 28 states enjoy exclusive representation.

“Whatever may have been the case 41 years ago when Abood was decided, it is thus now undeniable that ‘labor peace’ can readily be achieved through less restrictive means than the assessment of agency fees,” the majority opinion reads.

When it comes to the free-rider problem, the court was similarly dismissive, citing the arguments raised by unions as “insufficient to overcome First Amendment objections” and not representing a compelling state interest to begin with.

In the dissent, authored by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, Kagan writes that the majority “fails to reckon with how economically rational actors behave.” She argues that the majority ignores the basic fact that public-sector unions must represent all workers in a workplace, in contrast to private groups that can choose to represent only those who actively opt-in. Kagan also notes that the “Court today wreaks havoc on entrenched legislative and contractual arrangements,” rendering thousands of city, county, and state contracts across the country illegitimate. In other words, previously existing collective bargaining agreements in the public sector will now need to be re-negotiated, many of them all at once. New York City, for example, currently has agency fees in 144 contracts with 97 different public-sector unions. “[The majority dismantles these agreements] with no real clue of what will happen next — of how its action will alter public-sector labor relations,” the dissent states. “It does so even though the government services affected — policing, firefighting, teaching, transportation, sanitation (and more) — affect the quality of life of tens of millions of Americans.”

Conservatives immediately cheered the decision.

“The Supreme Court has freed millions of American workers from manipulation by union bosses that misrepresent their interests,” said Tim Huelskamp, president and CEO of the right-wing Heartland Institute, in a statement. “On the heels of this decision, every state should move quickly to certify that no American worker is ever compelled to give their hard-earned money to support self-serving union bosses.”

The plaintiffs in Janus and the cases that helped lay the legal foundation for it were supported by a web of conservative legal advocacy groups and right-wing foundations, including the Center for Individual Rights and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

In a statement released after the Janus decision, Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, declared that “despite this unprecedented and nefarious attack” the “American labor movement lives on, and we’re going to be there every day, fighting hard for all working people, our freedoms and for our country.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoed the dissenting judges, calling the Janus decision “a warping and weaponing of the First Amendment, absent any evidence or reason, to hurt working people.”

While unions are resolving publicly to fight back, they have also begun to prepare for the worst. The National Education Association, for example, which is the nation’s largest public-sector union, is forecasting a loss of 307,000 members over the next two years, and is planning to reduce its expenditures by $50 million during that period. There are currently 3 million members in the NEA.

Progressive economists say that Americans should expect to see economic inequality increase as public-sector unions adjust to a post-Janus world. According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, “[a]s union membership has fallen over the last few decades, the share of income going to the top 10 percent has steadily increased.” When union membership peaked at 33.4 percent in 1945, the share of income going to the top 10 percent was 32.6 percent. By 2011, when union membership was down to 11.1 percent, the share of income going to the top 10 percent reached 48 percent. The gap is even more stark when it comes to wealth: In 2017, the top 1 percent of American households owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, a higher share than at any point since 1962. The top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. EPI attributes these trends to the lack of bargaining power that non-union workers have to negotiate their wages, among other factors that have made wealth distribution more unequal.

The Janus decision, though long expected, begets a new period of uncertainty in American labor relations. As The Intercept previously reportedsome labor activists, like those in the International Union of Operating Engineers, argue that Janus may have some unintended consequences that empower unions. If, as per Janus, collective bargaining is speech, then it is subject to powerful First Amendment protections. The majority may have inadvertently opened up the floodgates for countless new union-led lawsuits against governments that try to restrict their speech, by, for example, limiting the scope of their contract negotiations to predefined topics. Dismantling Abood, they say, could open “a tremendous Pandora’s box.”

The Teachers’ Movement Goes Virtual

Originally published in The Atlantic on April 11, 2018.
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When West Virginia teachers initiated a nine-day labor strike this past winter, they secured national attention and a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma and Kentucky educators followed suit, with Arizona teachers threatening to do the same. Amid all this organizing was another strike threat, not previously reported, last week in California: between teachers in online classrooms and the organization that employs them.

Students enrolled in virtual schools (sometimes called “cyber schools” or “virtual academies”) take their classes online. It’s a small phenomenon, representing less than 1 percent of students, but a fast-growing one. According to the National Education Policy Center, about 279,000 students enrolled in virtual schools in 2016, up from roughly 200,000 in 2012. Education experts have been concerned by the growth of virtual K-12 education, especially virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted virtual charter schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But, in practice, virtual schools, especially charters, have tended to deliver significantly lower academic results than brick-and-mortar ones. “Academic benefits from online charter schools are currently the exception rather than the rule,” wrote the authors of a 2015 report from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes.

While some teachers gravitate to virtual charters because of the flexibility it offers, salaries can be low, and class sizes are, on average, much larger than in brick-and-mortar charter schools or traditional public schools. (Though virtual teachers don’t have to manage physical classrooms, large class sizes still equate to a heavier workload.) The overwhelming majority of virtual teachers are not unionized. But in 2014, educators at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), California’s largest network of online charter schools with more than 10,000 students and about 450 teachers, decided to create a union, California Virtual Educators United, under the umbrella of the California Teachers Association. After two years of legal battles, CAVA recognized the teachers’ union, and starting in September 2016, the parties began negotiating their first contract over salaries, class sizes, and other issues.

The negotiations represent an important test case of how educators might wield power in a future where online education becomes even more common. According to Brianna Carroll, a high-school social-science teacher in Livermore, California, and president of the teachers’ union, bargaining had been slow-going, especially in recent weeks, when negotiators hit an impasse over class size. Educators said the number of students under their supervision had spiraled out of control, with some teachers stuck overseeing virtual classrooms exceeding forty students, and demanded class sizes be capped. “Either you have teachers who are burning themselves out because they’re trying to meet the needs of everyone, or you aren’t meeting the needs of everyone,” Carroll told me. “It’s really one or the other.”

April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, declined to comment on many details of the negotiations. “CAVA is dedicated to working together with CVEU to reach a fair and equitable settlement so that we may continue to build upon CAVA’s unique and special achievements in support of the students and families across California,” she told me in an email.

While virtual schools across the country face some of the same struggles roiling traditional public schools, namely decreased state funding per pupil even after local economies have rebounded since the recession, virtual teachers also have to reckon with a newer threat: the involvement of for-profit companies that seek to deliver profits to their investors. CAVA, for instance, is a nonprofit network, but its operations are deeply intertwined with K12 Inc., a publicly traded company based in Virginia. K12, founded in 2000 by William Bennett, the education secretary under Ronald Reagan, and Ronald Packard, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the nation’s largest supplier of management services and curriculum for virtual charters. The company, according to Education Week, has built a powerful lobbying operation in more than 20 states.

While CAVA describes its schools as independent, Jessica Calefati of San Jose’s The Mercury News, who investigated the arrangement back in 2016, found tax records showing that K12 employees themselves had established more than a dozen online schools in California. CAVA contracts with K12 for all sorts of services: The company provides the schools’ curricula, oversees their budgets, trains teachers, offers technical assistance, and even handles media communications. Calefati wrote, “Accountants and financial analysts interviewed by this newspaper, including several who specialize in school finance, say they’ve never seen anything quite like the arrangement between K12 and the public online academies.” (A CAVA official called The Mercury News investigation a “gross mischaracterization” of the organization’s work.)

CAVA teachers say they organized a union in part to push back on K12’s corporate influence over their schools. “For so long it’s been focused on how to use this charter-school concept to turn a dollar, rather than how to use online tools to support more students,” said Carroll, the union president. “We’re really using the union to push CAVA to have different goals.”

The virtual charter network might benefit from some new goals. In 2016, then-state Attorney General Kamala Harris alleged that K12 and CAVA had used false advertising and inflated their student-attendance numbers to collect extra state funds. Harris also alleged that K12 had trapped the network in debt by saddling cava with an unfair contract. CAVA and K12 agreed that year to settle with the state for $168.5 million. K12 emphasized it had admitted no wrongdoing, and said the attorney general “grossly mischaracterized the value of the settlement just as it did with regard to the issues it investigated.” In an email to The Atlantic, the K12 spokesperson Michael Kraft disputed the AG’s characterization of the schools as indebted. Also in 2016, The Mercury News reported that fewer than half of  CAVA’s high-schoolers earned diplomas, and almost none were qualified to attend the state’s public universities. (K12 disputes this, noting the state does not always have reliable data for nontraditional schools with higher student mobility rates.) CAVA was also hit with a nearly $2 million fine in 2017 after California’s Department of Education found continued issues with attendance reporting and other practices. (CAVA disputed this, releasing a statement that CAVA schools “demonstrated they were consistently operating in full compliance with all state laws and regulations” and planned to appeal the financial penalty.)

Last fall, faced with a stalemate with CAVA over salaries, workday length, and class size, the teachers authorized a strike: More than 90 percent of the 450-member union voted to back their bargaining team if it called for walking off the job. Shortly after that, CAVA administrators tentatively agreed to some new concessions, according to copies of signed agreements provided by the union: a pay raise, a shorter work year, and fewer employment duties, among others.

Still, the fight around class size remained unresolved. CAVA teachers argued that class-size limits would improve academic quality. Carroll said the charter network maintained during negotiations that caps would hinder their needed flexibility. (CAVA declined to comment on its position on class sizes.) When they were still unable to reach an agreement, following a two-day fact-finding mediation last week, union leaders announced they were preparing for a first-of-its-kind strike. A virtual-charter strike would have meant that all online classes would be canceled, and teachers would meet in person to picket at locations such as the CAVA offices in Simi Valley. The strike was to be held in late April or early May.

But the day after the teachers’ strike announcement, April Warren, CAVA’s head of schools, proposed a compromise resolution: Classrooms could be capped at about 30 students, according to a copy of the signed agreement provided by the union, and if a classroom were to exceed that threshold, the teacher would be compensated accordingly. The teachers agreed. “I think the strike played a huge role in helping us resolve this, because that’s what CAVA was constantly saying—‘well, we don’t want a strike,’” Carroll said. Warren declined to comment on the strike threat, but on Monday, she confirmed the parties had reached a tentative agreement and were “working on a timeline for full ratification.” A spokesman for K12 declined to comment.

Carroll says teachers at other virtual charter networks have been reaching out to her, intrigued by her and her colleagues’ union work. While the West Virginia and Oklahoma teacher strikes demonstrate how educators at traditional public schools can still assert formidable collective power, just 11 percent of charters in the United States are currently unionized, and among virtual charters, that number stands at 9 percent. There are several reasons for this: Most charter-school backers and funders take a relatively anti-union stance, asserting that unions will impede a school’s flexibility, and therefore its ability to deliver the best education possible for students. Unions have also been slow to organize charter-school teachers, long viewing them as scabs who threaten their livelihoods. Labor groups have softened their stance towards charter teachers in recent years, but tensions remain as unions continue to work politically to halt charter-school growth.

A successful contract negotiation for cava teachers, though, could help ignite similar efforts elsewhere. The anything-goes approach to virtual education has made it alluring to operators trying to cut costs or make a buck. But if their workers have any say in the matter, online charters’ freewheeling days may be numbered. That would be good not just for educators but for the students entrusted to them.

Radio show on Janus v. AFCSME and striking teachers

I was kindly invited onto a California radio show, Beneath the Surface, yesterday to talk about recent happenings in the world of labor — namely the Supreme Court case challenging public sector union agency fees and the recent West Virginia teacher strike  and potential teacher strike in Oklahoma.

I was joined by Shaun Richman, a regular source of inspiration for my labor stories.

Can listen here: http://archive.kpfk.org/index.php?shokey=bts_friday

The Right Is Trying to Bring Down Public Sector Unions. It May Bring Much More Down With It.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 25, 2018.
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In the middle of last week, Dixon O’Brien, a 60-year-old engineer, and his union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, quietly filed a federal lawsuit against Lincolnshire, a village in a northern suburb of Chicago. Together they raised issue with Lincolnshire officials using taxpayer dollars to fund a statewide lobbying group, the Illinois Municipal League, which advocates for things like limiting collective bargaining and reducing pension benefits. “O’Brien objects to the use of his tax money to fund private organizations that lobby and/or engage in other political activities that run directly against his economic interests and his political beliefs,” the complaint reads.

On Thursday, the head of the same union filed a federal lawsuit against Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, challenging portions of state law that requires unions to provide representational services to non-dues paying members. “It is absurd that state law forces unions to provide equal representation and service to public sector workers who are not members and pay nothing toward associated costs,” said union President James Sweeney in a statement.

And then on Friday, the International Union of Operating Engineers Locals 139 and 420 filed a federal lawsuit against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, challenging a law he signed in 2011 that dramatically restricts public employee collective bargaining rights. The unions argue that the law’s restrictions impinge upon their protected free speech rights under the First Amendment.

These three consecutive lawsuits are a warning to the Supreme Court that if it buys into an extreme conservative argument being used to undermine labor unions, the justices are going to take a lot more than just agency fees down with them.

On Monday the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31 – a case experts have long predicted could strike a mortal blow to public sector unions. The plaintiff, an Illinois state worker named Mark Janus, has argued that he has a First Amendment right to avoid paying anything to a union that bargains on his behalf. With the current ideological leanings of the court, the plaintiff — and the conservative groups backing his lawsuit — face strong odds of victory.

But while most of the media has focused on the fact that the Janus case stands to decimate union coffers – and by extension, Democratic Party coffers – some labor activists and legal scholars have begun sounding the alarm on what they say would be the unintended consequences of the suit, effectively opening up the floodgates for countless lawsuits like the recent ones filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers. If Mark Janus doesn’t have to pay his agency fees because collective bargaining is speech he disagrees with, then collective bargaining is speech. And it can’t be restricted. Indeed, when some of the lazier advocates of Janus lay out the case, they accidentally argue on behalf of  unions’ right to free speech. “Because government is both employer and policymaker, collect­ive bargaining by the union is inherently political advocacy and indistinguishable from lobbying,” wrote George Will on Sunday, directly implicating the First Amendment.

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has held that there’s a constitutional difference between a union’s political activities and its collective bargaining work. Compelling workers to fund the former would infringe on their freedom of speech, the court ruled in the 1977. But under current law, collective bargaining is different. Imposing conditions, such as requiring mandatory dues, or limiting the scope of their negotiations to wages and benefits, is fair game.

If the Janus plaintiffs win their case, this critical distinction would be dismantled. (A decision is expected by June, when the court’s term ends.) A union’s bargaining and political lobbying would be treated the same — as protected free speech. In other words, the court would actually be elevating the free speech standards of bargaining. That, in turn, could bring with it new legal protections.

“If the plaintiffs are right that collective bargaining is political speech indistinguishable from lobbying, well, the flip side of that coin is that that protected free speech can’t be restricted,” said Ed Maher, a spokesperson for the International Union of Operating Engineers. “We don’t think this has been thoughtfully considered by the plaintiffs, and it is our belief that a win for Janus will open a tremendous Pandora’s box.”

This Pandora’s box, Maher suggested to The Intercept, holds all sorts of chaotic possibilities for the U.S. legal system and state governments across the country. Nearly all states impose some form of restriction on collective bargaining, limiting who can bargain and what workers can bargain over. If the Janus plaintiffs win in court, the theory goes, then workers could start bringing First Amendment challenges to limitations on their bargaining rights, like the restrictions Walker, the Wisconsin governor, passed in 2011.

And, as the three cases filed last week demonstrate, they’ve already started.

Courts have long sought to avoid applying First Amendment rights to unions. From the earliest court decisions that concerned worker protests in the 19th century, as labor writer and strategist Shaun Richman has written, judges have tended to treat unions “as criminal conspiracies that interfere with employers’ property and contract rights.” And while courts have chipped away further at the free speech rights of workers and unions over the last half-century, they have also expanded the free speech protections afforded to employers and corporations.

Ann C. Hodges, a labor law professor at the University of Richmond agrees that a win for the Janus plaintiffs could invite all sorts of new legal challenges. Writing recently for the American Constitution Society, Hodges said:

Courts have regularly ruled that states like Wisconsin can provide collective bargaining rights to some groups of employees and not others, using the rational basis test to find no equal protection violation… But if all union activity is protected political speech, then these distinctions implicate fundamental rights, invoking strict scrutiny for such classifications. Thus, the differential treatment of employee groups by the states may not survive. Indeed, unions may even have an argument that there is a constitutional right to collective bargaining.

Equally unlikely to survive are many governmental employer restrictions on employee speech. A long line of cases allows government employers to impose various restrictions on employee speech. The Supreme Court distinguishes employee from citizen speech, permitting employers to limit and control employee speech in the interests of the government as employer… A ruling in favor of the Janus plaintiffs could obliterate the distinction, requiring employers to tolerate much unwanted speech by their employees.

Some left activists remain understandably skeptical that Janus could lead to some interesting or even good opportunities for labor, arguing, as Richman wrote, that a judiciary that “that could buy such a craven argument as Janus will refuse to take the precedent to its logical conclusion and shamelessly waving away workers’ free speech rights.” But if the anti-Trump backlash leads to a wave of liberal judge appointments, the legal landscape could grow significantly more friendly for unions over the next few election cycles. Plus, unless Janus ends with an extremely narrow ruling, it would be a while before the Supreme Court could really stamp out all the knock-on cases, even if it wanted to. In other words, legal chaos could reign for years in the lower courts.

Richman goes so far as to say that Janus “could hand new liberal majorities a roadmap for restoring a legal balance of power between corporations and workers.” Or, as Sweeney of Local 150 puts it, “The free speech rights being invoked by the union-busters behind Janus work both ways.”

How Labor Is Thinking Ahead to a Post-Trump World

Originally published in The Intercept on January 21, 2018.
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The American labor movement, over the past four decades, has had two golden opportunities to shift the balance of power between workers and bosses — first in 1978, with unified Democratic control of Washington, and again in 2009. Both times, the unions came close and fell short, leading, in no small part, to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today.

Just over 10 percent of workers are unionized, down from 35 percent in the mid 1950s. Potentially, though, a wave of Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 could give labor groups one last chance to turn things around. With an eye toward that moment, labor’s leading strategists are coming together to build a program that avoids the mistakes of the last two rounds.

Strike One: 1978

The National Labor Relations Act — a foundational law that guarantees the rights of private sector employees to unionize — was passed in 1935, and more than 40 years later, President Jimmy Carter, urged on by the AFL-CIO, came out in support of federal labor law reform. “The purpose of this [proposed] legislation is to make the laws which govern labor-management relations work more efficiently, quickly, and equitably and to ensure that our labor laws fulfill the promise made to employees and employers,” Carter said at the time.

The law would have addressed a number of issues that still remain on labor’s agenda today, such as faster union elections and tougher penalties for employers who refuse to bargain and violate labor law. “We didn’t try for revolutionary things; we pushed for things we thought we could get broad support for,” said Ray Marshall, who had served as labor secretary in the Carter administration. But with 59 votes in the Senate, a 44-year-old freshman Republican from Utah, Orrin Hatch, had filibustered the law, and it failed.

One of the revolutionary things the administration did not try for was the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill, which guaranteed a federal job to anybody who wanted one. It represented the height of labor’s aspirations coming out of the Great Society and what liberals (at least the ones who had not turned toward the free market as the answer) saw as one of the final legs of the stool. Carter was having none of it, and a much-weakened version went through instead. Anger at Carter’s inability to deliver for labor led many unions to back the primary challenge launched by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Despite Carter’s reputation as a progressive and the good work he has done since leaving office, his presidency is not remembered fondly in many union households.

Strike Two: 2009

The labor movement had another rare opportunity in 2009. Barack Obama had won the presidency, and Democrats not only took over Congress, but also seized an unexpected 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Labor wasted no time vocalizing its demand for the passage of the Employer Free Choice Act, a law known as EFCA that would have given workers the right to join a union as soon as a majority of employees signed cards in support of the move. The legislation also would have stiffened penalties on employers who violated labor laws and forced recalcitrant employers to negotiate contracts with new unions.

The unifying idea behind these three reforms was that policies were needed to make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain contracts once they did. Research at the time showed a steep rise in the illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s, and the National Labor Relations Board election process — to certify or decertify a union as a unit’s bargaining representative — was widely seen as tilted toward anti-union employers. Even when workers did vote for union representation through NLRB elections, many employers then refused to bargain, with only 38 percent of unions securing a contract within a year of certification.

Unions started discussions around EFCA in 2003, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. In 2007, Kennedy and Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Peter King, R-N.Y., introduced the bill, which passed in the House 241-185 — including 13 votes from Republicans. Though EFCA also had majority support in the Senate, it was blocked by a Republican filibuster.

So when Democrats took control in 2008, with a filibuster-proof majority to boot, the prospect of EFCA’s passage was tantalizing.

In 2009, progressives believed the odds were in their favor — all it would take was getting the votes of all 59 Democrats and independents, and hanging on to Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who co-sponsored the 2007 bill. Unions predicted they could add at least 5 million members to their rolls in just a few years if EFCA were to pass.

The business community hated EFCA, correctly recognizing that it would have shifted power relations between workers and employers. “This will be Armageddon,” the vice president for labor policy at the Chamber of Commerce complained. Before his inauguration, Obama told the Washington Post he knew the business community saw EFCA as “the devil incarnate.”

But the politics ended up being far more treacherous than labor anticipated — or perhaps more than the movement allowed itself to see.

“We never had 60 votes for EFCA, we just didn’t,” said Sharon Block, who worked as senior labor counsel for Kennedy on the Senate committee on Health, Education Labor, and Pensions in 2008. “We didn’t have all the Dems, even though we were closer than we had been before.”

Though EFCA tackled several areas, the provision that remains most memorable is “card check,” which would have allowed workers to form a union once a majority signed pro-union cards. (Labor organizers prefer the term “majority sign-up,” but card check is what stuck.)

The proposal was deeply controversial, in part because unions found it tough to explain why they were discouraging NLRB elections, in which workers could vote by secret ballot. Suddenly, Democrats and unions found themselves on the defensive, pushing back against arguments that they were anti-democratic. EFCA opponents argued they were merely trying to protect workers from coercive employee pressure — a talking point that resonated even as they expressed no similar concern regarding the similar, well-documented pressure coming from employers.

“There was a lot of not terribly sexy, but good reforms in EFCA to shape public opinion along the lines of fairness and stopping intimidation, but instead the conversation was about fattening the coffers of union bosses through anti-democratic methods, that unions don’t want you to have the right to vote,” recalled Louis Nayman, who worked then as a director of organization at the American Federation of Teachers. “Opponents even got George McGovern, the darling of the left, to do a 60-second anti-EFCA ad paid for by [anti-union activist] Rick Berman.”

Labor leaders still disagree about the reasons for EFCA’s failure.

Some say it’s the fault of moderate Democrats — like former Sen. Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas — who said she’d only vote for the bill if the card check provision was removed. (Lincoln lost her re-election bid to a Republican in 2010.)

Others blame Obama for not prioritizing the legislation, instead putting his energies and political capital behind health care reform.

And some say it had to do with a weak ground game from the labor movement and progressives, who never really mobilized the public enough to hold Congress and the president accountable. “There was this ‘Hey we just got you elected and now you owe us’ way of thinking about the world,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Obama at some point said, ‘You’ll have to make me do it,’ and that was not taken seriously to the degree it needed to be. To do something that will significantly shift power relations in the U.S. cannot be done quietly as a negotiated deal, it cannot happen without a loud clamor for it. It needs to be big enough and presented in ways people can understand.”

Block, the former lawyer to Kennedy in the Senate, doesn’t think Obama’s lackluster advocacy really made much of a difference. In fact, she said, some version of EFCA probably would have gotten through, but the final blow came when Senate Democrats lost 60 votes following Kennedy’s death. When the Massachusetts Democrat died of brain cancer in August 2009, he was succeeded by Republican Sen. Scott Brown, and the filibuster majority was no more, and EFCA never came up for a vote again.

The cost of losing EFCA was devastating, said Block. “We had put all of our eggs in that legislative basket and we didn’t win. And we really haven’t seen fundamental labor law reform since then.”

Carrie Gleason, who directs the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, said EFCA would have generated momentum to do even more, but after it failed, “the labor movement lost steam on a broader agenda.”

Though it was unsuccessful, Nayman, who is now retired, thinks the movement to pass EFCA alarmed and energized mainstream Republicans, who were suddenly fearful that unions might dramatically boost their membership, thereby increasing Democratic power throughout the United States.

“Right-wing funders capitalized on that and said, ‘Let’s never be put in this position again, let’s go after their money,’” said Nayman, who draws links between EFCA’s failure and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s subsequent rise to power, which came in part as a result of his focus on weakening public sector unions.  “When you aim to shoot the king, you better kill him, and with EFCA that didn’t happen,” Nayman said. “Every action has a reaction.”

“During the EFCA fight, I think there was a lot more energy on the business side, it felt like there were more people being brought in to canvass against it than there was union rank-and-file being brought to pressure Congress,” reflected Lawrence Mishel, who led the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in D.C., for decades until his retirement in December.

One consequence of failing to pass anything major on the federal level was a shift to state and local labor organizing — turning to city councils, legislatures, and ballot initiatives. The Fight for $15, for example, took off in 2012 and over the next five years, led to a wave of successful efforts to raise the minimum wage, pass fair scheduling bills, paid sick days, and paid family leave.

“A lot of us looked at the Fight for $15 in the beginning and thought they were out of their minds,” said Jacobs. “But they ended up changing the whole debate, in part by going out with clear, bold demands everyone could understand.”

But one result of all those local gains has been a push by Republicans in states to pass “preemption” laws, which prohibit local governments from passing laws on certain issues, effectively blocking cities from passing progressive legislation. “We’ve made tremendous gains, but with Republicans pushing for national preemption, everything is at risk if we don’t organize and build power in Congress,” said Gleason.

A Better Deal and Beyond

In 2017, a group of prominent congressional Democrats, including Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, unveiled a package of labor reforms, under the banner “A Better Deal for American Workers.” The package includes ideas to strengthen the right to strike (by banning the permanent replacement of striking workers), push for mechanisms to ensure employers negotiate a first contract with unions (similar to what was proposed in EFCA), and ban so-called right-to-work laws, which have allowed workers to shirk paying fees to unions that represent them.

Mishel, the recently retired economist, called the Better Deal ideas “seriously bold” and Jacobs of UC Berkeley agreed, adding that the proposals seem to reflect “a much deeper understanding” among Democratic leadership and Democratic thinkers of what ultimately needs to be done. (Card check is notably not included in the list of Better Deal proposals.)

Also on the table is a bill called the Workplace Action for a Growing Economy Act, backed by the labor federation AFL-CIO. The WAGE Act would make it easier for workers to organize, stiffen penalties against employers who violate labor law, and give workers the right to file discrimination lawsuits if they’re punished for union activity.

At AFL-CIO’s convention in October, the union passed a resolution pledging to protect workers’ right to organize, heighten employer penalties, make negotiating first contracts easier, and protect immigrant workers from exploitation and retaliation.

Damon Silvers, director of policy and special counsel at AFL-CIO, told The Intercept that the group’s immediate strategy is to focus on those four planks and push for the WAGE Act, ultimately launching a longer-term conversation about what more fundamental change is needed.

The looming question is whether these ideas are enough to confront the challenges faced by working people in 2018. Most labor experts agree that if these proposals had passed back in 1978, when Hatch famously filibustered attempts at reform, economic inequality could look very different today. But what about now?

Larry Cohen, Our Revolution board chair and former president of the Communications Workers of America, said labor should aim higher, since no Republican would vote for any of the Better Deal ideas anyway. “If our frame is collective bargaining, how does that look in the rest of the world, and why do we come up short?” Cohen asked, noting that it’s much harder to bargain collectively in the United States compared to many other democratic countries. “Everyone lectures us about the global economy, and we need to lecture back,” he said.

In the meantime, labor is sliding backward. The Supreme Court will issue a decision later this year that could severely weaken public sector unions, and President Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board is doing its very best to overturn critical pro-worker decisions issued during the Obama era. And, because the basic structure of the National Labor Relations Act hasn’t changed much since it was first established in 1935, employers have had decades to develop new legal strategies to weaken the law; their strategies include forced arbitration and misclassifying workers as independent contractors.

A number of creative proposals have been floated recently — and might attract attention from progressive legislators looking for ways to stand out in a competitive 2020 primary.

Among these ideas include a push to end at-will firing, and a call for workers to demand their rights be treated as constitutional rights. “I think this frame is very helpful to talk about the core of what it means to have more of a say at your job,” said Gleason. “The right to free speech at work, the idea that your employer can’t just fire you because they don’t like you or because you spoke up about your beliefs. … I think people in America don’t really realize how powerless they are at their jobs until it’s too late.”

Other ideas include exploring so-called sectoral labor standards — where workers across entire industries, such as all finance workers or all retail workers, bargain collectively. Sectoral bargaining has been an important lever for workers in countries like France, Germany, and Brazil. Right now in the United States, workers collectively bargain with their individual employers, but sectoral bargaining would mean negotiations could take place industry-wide.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Fight for $15 and a union is that the need for real transformative demands are important,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice. “People want demands that are worth the risk.” Gupta’s group is exploring proposals like the idea of universal family care and “co-enforcement,” under which community-based organizations would partner with workers to help enforce progressive labor laws.

Jacobs said pushing for joint-employer liability, meaning pushing legislators to end corporations’ ability to shirk legal responsibility through franchising, also needs to be on the table. While the NLRB under Obama started to address this issue through a critical decision issued in 2015, the NLRB reversed the ruling last month, making it once again extremely difficult to hold corporations liable.

Nayman hopes to see a greater willingness among progressives to reach out to moderate Democrats on labor reform. “I would not start my conversation with Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown, I would start with the Blue Dogs, because you’re going to need them too,” he said. “Rather than treating moderates as enemies and sellouts, recognize that we’ll need them on board for this.”

“The lesson [from EFCA] is you don’t wait until the wave hits, you begin to work when times look tough,” added Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at AFL-CIO. “So we’ll begin drafting and introducing legislation, which we’ve done in terms of the WAGE Act, and we’re going to work on getting support from members and candidates.”

Unions should precondition endorsements for candidates on a commitment to support the WAGE Act, he added. “The lesson is get to work, regardless of the political environment you’re in, build support, awareness, and be ready.”

The New Fight For Labor Rights

Originally published in The New Republic on September 28, 2017.
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The American labor movement currently stands at one of its lowest points in history. Barely one-tenth of all workers belong to a union—down from more than one-third in the 1950s. Over the past half-century, the courts have gutted legal protections for striking workers, curtailed their ability to engage in political action, and granted employers broad “free speech” rights to frighten them out of unionizing. Under President Trump, workers are likely to be besieged by even more hostile attacks from Republicans and their corporate allies—including calls for a national “right to work” law that would strip unions of their ability to collect dues. If the labor movement hopes to survive in the twenty-first century, it will need a new strategy.

For more than 80 years, workers have primarily relied on protection from the National Labor Relations Act, the landmark measure passed under FDR that prohibits unfair labor practices and encourages collective bargaining by private-sector employers. But the law has been so watered down by unfriendly court decisions and legislative amendments that it offers little recourse for the labor movement going forward. Today, according to a new report by a leading think tank, workers would be better off if they adopted a strategy that turned to a different and more sacrosanct set of constitutional guarantees: the Bill of Rights.

According to Shaun Richman, a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers, workers should not just defend their rights as employees, but should also start championing their liberties as citizens. In a report for the Century Foundation, Richman argues that just as corporations have gone to court to claim broad constitutional protections, workers should assert their fundamental rights to free speech and equal protection under the law. “Unions have rarely if ever argued that these cases violated their own constitutional rights,” Richman says. “Rights-based rhetoric was kept out of their whole legal strategy.”

Consider several recent cases that unions argued—and lost—under the National Labor Relations Act. In 2011, workers at a Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise in Minneapolis launched a campaign to protest the company’s refusal to provide paid sick leave. In response, the company fired six workers involved in the protest. But when the union representing the employees, the Industrial Workers of the World, accused the company of violating the National Labor Relations Act, a federal appeals court ruled in July that the company had the right to fire its employees for engaging in “disloyal” conduct.

At the same time, Congress and the courts have sharply curtailed the ability of workers to go on strike, especially in solidarity with others. It is now illegal for truck drivers to refuse to make deliveries to stores where workers are on strike, or for cleaners to refuse to wash linens from hotels where workers are protesting. In 2006, Roger Toussaint, then the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, was sentenced to ten days in jail for leading a transit strike that crippled New York City. Employers, meanwhile, have retained the right to lock out workers who are engaged in collective bargaining, and to fire employees without just cause.

To Richman, cases like these underscore the benefit of a rights-based strategy. After all, punishing employees for speaking out against their boss—whether on a flyer, a T-shirt, or Twitter—would seem to violate their First Amendment right to free speech. Similarly, going on strike should fall under the constitutional right to free assembly, and union organizing embodies the right enshrined in the Thirteenth Amendment to be free from “involuntary servitude.” In effect, Richman argues, unions should go on offense in the courts—and brandish the Constitution as their most powerful weapon.

“After the election, it’s clear Democrats need to do something to win back workers,” Richman says. “But they don’t really know what to do. Why not push the courts to establish a right to strike? Or the right to be free from arbitrary terminations from your job?”

Some longtime observers of the labor movement are skeptical that unions will embrace Richman’s call to arms. “I’ve found that unions are very shortsighted,” says Bill Fletcher Jr., co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal and a former education director of the AFL-CIO. “There’s a conservatism that exists in the labor movement—a sense that doing anything different might be too radical, or could be misperceived, or could lead to an uncertain outcome.”

Given the bleak state of affairs for workers, however, some argue the labor movement has little left to lose. “There’s no point thinking that if labor sticks with the status quo, they will survive,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island. “The National Labor Relations Board under Obama was probably the best it’s been for labor since LBJ. But even that kind of incremental progress is just not enough when you’re at total war with the Republicans.”

 

When it comes to corporations and employers, the courts routinely adopt a rights-based position. Unlimited campaign contributions are protected as a form of free speech. Denying the right of unions to collect dues from all employees is defended as “the right to work.” Employers have the right to permanently replace striking workers, and to put economic pressure on other businesses to support their own economic interests. Richman points to cable television providers that have blacked out an entire channel rather than submit to a rate increase from the channel’s network—and have even urged viewers to call the network’s CEO to complain. “Why is the use of the secondary boycott legal when employed by media companies,” Richman writes in his report, “but illegal when exercised in solidarity by workers?”

Richman spells out a variety of rights-based cases that unions should take to court—where even conservative judges have proven to be receptive to constitutional arguments. Unions should argue that workers have a free-speech right to protest their employers. If they are locked out on the job, workers should assert their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. And they should challenge right-to-work laws and the bans on solidarity boycotts and so-called “signal picketing”—such as protests in front of a company that mistreats its employees—as violations of their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. “Simply put,” Richman argues, “unions are hampered by rules that would never be applied to corporations, or to any other form of political activism.”

In addition to fighting in court, workers and their allies need to educate the public about workplace inequality and pressure Democratic lawmakers to block anti-labor judges. They also need to begin outlining a clear pro-worker agenda for whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. The Obama era showed just how brief the window of opportunity can be for advancing labor rights. That’s why, even though the GOP currently controls all three branches of government, and the courts still tilt to the right on matters of labor law, unions and their supporters must wage a war on all fronts. “It would be horrible if people thought we could just pursue a long legal strategy and ultimately win in the courts,” says Stephen Lerner, a labor strategist and architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. “It has to be part of a concerted strategy—winning both legally and legislatively.”

In a way, there’s no better time than now to implement a rights-based labor strategy. After all, Lerner points out, some of the greatest gains in labor history have come from workers organizing to fight illegal or unprotected conditions—whether it was farmworkers going on strike to protest low wages, or public school teachers mobilizing for collective bargaining rights at the state level. It’s not just Republicans holding back workers—it’s also the timidity of unions themselves. “There has to be a willingness to break the law as a way to highlight injustices,” Lerner says, “to show we can go on offense.”

 

A Charter Union Case Heads to Federal Court

Originally published in The American Prospect on September 5, 2017.
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In May 2016, teachers at International High School (IHS)—a charter school in New Orleans—voted 26-18 in favor of forming a union. Yet more than a year later, school administrators are still refusing to bargain, insisting that the teachers do not fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. (There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana.) In February 2017, the NLRB voted 2-1 against IHS’s challenge, concluding that the teachers are indeed private workers under their purview rather than public employees.

Yet IHS, still refusing to bargain, is now taking its case to the Fifth Circuit—the first time a federal appellate court will rule on such a challenge. The outcome of this suit could affect labor law for charter teachers not only at IHS, but throughout all the Fifth Circuit states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Last summer the NLRB issued two decisions concluding that charter school teachers are private employees. In both cases, the NLRB ruled that charters were “private corporation[s] whose governing board members are privately appointed and removed,” and were neither “created directly by the state” nor “administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate.” The NLRB found that a charter’s relationship to the state resembled that of a government contractor, since governments provide the funds but do not create or control the schools.

These two decisions were important because they helped clarify whether charter school teachers fall under the legal jurisdiction of their state’s labor boards (which only exist in those states that have enacted laws granting public employees collective bargaining rights) or the NLRB. Charter operators have been known to challenge efforts to unionize under either jurisdiction, depending on which board their staff petitioned for the right to unionize.

To make its determination, the NLRB relied on NLRB v. Natural Gas Utility District of Hawkins County, a 1971 Supreme Court case where the justices found Hawkins County to be “political subdivision”—and therefore public—by looking to see if it was created directly by the state, or administered by individuals responsible to public officials or the general electorate. Applying this “Hawkins test” to charter schools, the NLRB concluded in 2016 that the publicly-funded privately managed schools do not qualify as political subdivisions.

But IHS (represented in court as Voices for International Business and Education, Incorporated) argues that the NLRB’s previous charter school rulings are not applicable to them, citing specific characteristics of Louisiana’s charter school law, and the unique reality that nearly all public schools in New Orleans are charters.

In court filings, IHS says it should be considered a political subdivision under the “Hawkins test” because their charter school is closely regulated by Louisiana, and has a board of directors that can be removed by state officials. Moreover, IHS says that since the overwhelming majority of public school students attend charters, this demonstrates that “[IHS] is a public school functioning as a political subdivision of Louisiana” since the state is obligated to provide public education.

IHS also makes a few arguments beyond the Hawkins test, such as saying that exempting the school from the NLRB’s jurisdiction “honors congressional purpose” because it would ensure that “vital public services like education are not disrupted by labor disputes.”

Although IHS is focusing specifically on its own school within the context of New Orleans, charter operators throughout the Fifth District have also weighed in to support IHS’s case. The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Texas Charter Schools Association filed an amici curiae urging the federal court to find all public charter schools in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction. According to the legal brief, Louisiana has 146 charter schools, enrolling 84,000 students, Texas has 761 charter schools, serving 315,000 students, and Mississippi has three charter schools, enrolling 400 students.

But which side of the public-or-private controversy charter schools come down on seems to vary with political geography. While in the IHS case, the state charter associations insist that all charter schools should be considered political subdivisions (and therefore public) under the “Hawkins test,” when charter teachers at the Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy filed for union representation with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in 2010, the school responded by saying its teachers fell under the purview of the NLRB, because their charter was a privately incorporated nonprofit, governed by a corporate board. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the most prominent national charter advocacy organization, filed an amicus brief in support of CSMA’s position, arguing that “charter schools are intended to be and usually are run by corporate entities that are administered independently from the state and local governments in which they operate.”

The difference, of course, is that in Illinois, a state where public employees have collective bargaining rights, charter teachers will more likely be able to win unionization campaigns as public employees. In Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, where most public employees have no such rights, a court ruling that the teachers are public employees and not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB will mean that management is under no legal obligation to enter into bargaining with them.

The National Alliance for Public Charter schools did not return The American Prospect’s request for comment on the IHS case and how it relates to the Alliance’s CSMA brief.

IF IHS’S ARGUMENTS SUCCEED in court, there are a number of different ways the Fifth Circuit could rule. At its narrowest, the appellate court could say that this particular charter school does not fall under the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Going a bit further, the court may instead say that the NLRB does not apply to this type of charter school; Louisiana has five different categories of charters, and IHS is designated a “Type 2” school. The Fifth Circuit could go even broader, ruling that no charter school in the state of Louisiana falls under the NLRB’s purview. Or at its most broad, the appellate court could rule that no charter in the entire Fifth Circuit (Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) falls under the NLRB’s jurisdiction, which is what the state-level charter groups are pushing for.

When courts have overturned an NLRB ruling, they have generally tended to tailor their decision narrowly. Still, the Fifth Circuit is hardly a left-leaning court, so it’s hard to predict how the judges might rule.

Legal battles aside, many of the teachers who voted for the union in May 2016 no longer work at IHS, citing harassment and intimidation they experienced during the subsequent school year.

One teacher, Chvonne Simmons, left IHS at the end of May, after teaching science there for four years. “I was not offered a contract to return, and it blew me away because the year before I was the science department chair,” she says. Simmons felt the 2016-17 academic year was very hostile, and she believes that union-supportive teachers were singled out for punishment. “In all my years of teaching and my years at IHS I had never been written up, and all of a sudden I was getting in trouble,” she says.

Another pro-union teacher, Jennifer Boyce, left IHS on her own last month, saying she had felt targeted, and ostracized. “After voting ‘yes’ for the union I was written up three times, after having taught for 13 years and never receiving a corrective action,” she told me.

There is no statewide collective bargaining law for public school teachers in Louisiana, but collective bargaining is still legal (unlike in other southern states such as Texas and North Carolina). Some public school teachers in Louisiana—such as in St. Tammany Parish and Jefferson Parrish—have negotiated contracts, but that’s because there were union-friendly school boards willing to do so. There is nothing in state law that can compel a Louisiana school board to bargain if it doesn’t want to.

So in some ways, charter school teachers in Louisiana actually have more legal protections right now than traditional public school teachers, since falling under the NLRB’s purview means the federal labor board can compel schools to bargain with unions. If IHS wins its court, charter teachers at that school, and perhaps across the state, would still be allowed to bargain contracts, but would no longer have the federal labor board’s help in compelling their employer to do so. In other words, it gets a lot harder.

A representative from International High School told The American Prospect they do not have any comment, as the court case is open.

“On the surface, this case is about an arcane question of federal agency jurisdiction; in reality, it is about union busting, plain and simple,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and I am hopeful that the court sees through the administration’s bullying and acknowledges the educators’ right to bargain a fair and flexible contract, just as their peers have done at hundreds of other charter schools in New Orleans and around the country.”

It will be several months before the Fifth Circuit issues its decision.

Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 11, 2017.
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At the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual TEACH conference in July, union president Randi Weingarten gave a provocative speech about school choice, privatization, and Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “Betsy DeVos is a public school denier, denying the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy,” Weingarten declared. “Her record back in Michigan, and now in Washington, makes it clear that she is the most anti–public education secretary of education ever.”

But it was Weingarten’s remarks about choice and segregation that ultimately drew the most fire: She highlighted politicians who had used school choice as a way to resist integration following Brown v. Board of Education; she argued that the use of private school vouchers increases racial and economic segregation; and she emphasized that privatization, “coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Her speech came on the heels of a new Center for American Progress report, entitled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which presented similar historical arguments. CAP and the AFT—liberal institutions that sparred over education reform during the Obama years—held a joint event on the report the week before, emphasizing that voucher programs generally benefit the most advantaged students, lead to increasingly economically segregated schools, and divert needed resources from public education. With Trump in the White House, teachers unions and the influential liberal think tank have apparently found some common ground.

The backlash from conservatives and education reformers was swift and fierce. TheWall Street Journal editorial board argued that Weingarten’s speech demonstrated that she “recognizes that the public-school monopoly her union backs is now under siege, morally and politically, for its failure to educate children, especially minority children.” Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called CAP’s report “misguided, misleading and historically inaccurate.” And Peter Cunningham, who runs an education reform advocacy group, wrote in response that Weingarten was just projecting the flaws of traditional public schools and unions onto her opponents.

While many of these critics have long championed dismantling much of the public sector, there is something conspicuous about American liberalism’s newfound focus on school segregation.

Though CAP and teachers unions regularly speak about educational “equity,” it’s no secret that neither have been very vocal about school segregation in the past few decades. CAP, which strongly touted charter schools during the Obama years, had nary a word to say then about charters’ impact on racial and economic isolation. Even now, as CAP takes a new outspoken stand on private school choice and segregation, it has stayed silent on the segregative risks of chartering.

The relationship between teachers unions and desegregation efforts has been complicated, too.

In some respects, teachers unions served as leaders for the pro-integration liberal establishment during the years following Brown v. Board. Historian Jonna Pereillo traces these dynamics in her book Uncivil Rights. Teachers unions joined forces with civil rights activists to push for integrated schools, reduced class sizes, increased health and social services, and improved school facilities. Charles Cogen, who served as the president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers between 1960 and 1964, and then as AFT president from 1964 to 1968, took strong stances in support of rezoning and school integration. Pereillo notes that Cogen pushed his union “to fight the tendency of many Northern liberals to see both sides of the integration debate,” emphasizing that liberal teachers should “stand by a forthright and consistent decision” to push for integrated schools. The UFT’s highest ranking black officer, Richard Parrish, also filed an amicus curiae in the Brown caseand the AFT later expelled some Southern locals that refused to cooperate with the Supreme Court’s decision.

But while unions backed efforts to integrate and equalize public schools, they generally opposed initiatives that would have required transferring educators into schools they didn’t want to work in. Focused on the unequal work environments between black and white schools, unions argued that to transfer teachers against their will would represent yet another example of teachers’ lack of agency over their professional lives.

Put differently, the AFT and its affiliates played an important role pushing for integration, but when teachers were asked to make the same sacrifices as bused students, unions pushed back, firmly asserting that working conditions in black schools would have to be improved first.

By the late 1960s, many black parents grew increasingly frustrated with the teachers unions’ stance—one they felt was cowardly and racist, and an excuse to avoid serving their children. Many also grew increasingly disillusioned that public schools would ever actually integrate, and, as part of an ideological and strategic shift away from integration to black power, they began pushing for greater decision-making power over their local segregated schools, including who should be allowed to teach, and what subjects educators should be allowed to teach. Teachers, in turn, balked at having their job requirements dictated to them by non-educators, internalizing it as yet another sign that they lacked agency over their professional lives.

And as the teachers-union movement grew—UFT membership, for instance, soared 66 percent between 1965 and 1968—thousands of the newer members proved to be more conservative in political orientation. “Unionists who had once enacted progressive social and political works through their unions now found themselves at odds with a growing number of new members who wanted little to do with civil rights projects,” Pereillo writes about the period.

In the 1970s and 1980s, court decisions that mandated busing for integrational purposes became an explosive issue for many white parents of school-age children. In such presumably liberal bastions as Boston and Los Angeles, busing opponents won elections to school boards and other public offices, at times shifting public discourse and policy well to the right, and not only on education issues. The fierce political opposition to so-called “forced busing” led much of the liberal community, including teachers unions, to turn its attention, resources, and political capital elsewhere. Activists within the African-American community also began to focus less on integration and more on issues such as funding disparities and school discipline. While school desegregation had always been controversial, the busing backlash transformed it into a third-rail issue.

But beginning in 2014, issues of racial justice began to re-enter liberal rhetoric in a more overt way. Following a wave of high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the public started to grapple more openly with the legacies and realities of American racism. Teachers unions were not immune to this reckoning.

In the summer of 2015, at the National Education Association’s annual meeting, members voted on a historic new resolution to fight institutional racism, which they defined as “the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” That same summer, the AFT formed its own Task Force on Racial Equity to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for young black men.

Yet despite powerful new cases against segregation from a diverse set of thinkers—including writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and researchers like Raj Chetty—neither the AFT nor the NEA had yet to tackle segregation head on, even with their increased focus on issues of race and discrimination. And elsewhere in the liberal community, fears of provoking more white backlash in a nation where white nationalism was on the rise put a damper still on discussions of desegregation.

This tension was illustrated last summer, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when I had the opportunity to interview NEA President Lily Garciaabout her views on education policy.

Rachel Cohen: There’s been a renewed national discussion around school integration since the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education two years ago. School segregation was notably absent from the Democratic Party’s K–12 platform. Why isn’t school segregation getting more attention, and do you think the NEA could play a bigger role in pushing desegregation forward?

Lily Garcia: If you take a look at the most highly segregated schools, if you’re looking at all Latino kids, or all African American kids, then you’re mostly looking at charter schools. Poor communities usually end up being described as “poor, minority” communities. Why do those words go together? Why do those two adjectives have to describe the same communities? You can’t just treat the school. You have to treat the entire community. You have to treat poverty.

Integrating schools will not cure the poverty that affects those students. What they’ve done to integrate schools in some places where I’ve been is that they’ve closed down the school in the black neighborhood, and put those kids on a bus, and shipped them for an hour to the white school. They usually broke up the community so that you wouldn’t have a majority-minority school. We’ve seen [integration] done so poorly. What we really want to focus on is equity.

Cohen: Do you draw a distinction between the movement to integrate schools and equity?

Garcia: When you talk about school integration, there’s so much more than let’s just have black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom. You can do that simply by assigning kids to different schools. But why are there deep pockets of poverty where black and brown children live? You have to be talking about the roots of what’s going on.

Garcia’s responses were emblematic of the union’s fraught position. They expressed an obvious concern with questions of racial justice, broadly defined, but a resistance to engaging the specific, narrower question of racial segregation. Indeed, Garcia’s criticism of busing, and especially her dismissal of integration as “hav[ing] black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom,” might strike civil rights advocates as akin to the talking points deployed by conservative defenders of segregation. This language is not unusual in certain education reform circles, but less common coming from a more progressive organization. And while AFT President Randi Weingarten had spoken more supportively about integration efforts than her NEA counterpart, she too had avoided directly answering questions about her union’s role in addressing segregation, and acknowledged that busing opposition has made integration advocacy difficult. As recently as last year, almost no one in the liberal establishment seemed inclined to tackle school segregation head on

Until now.

There is no question that the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education has created a new political landscape for liberal organizations, including on the issue of school integration. The attacks on the Trump administration’s school choice agenda as segregationist have both reflected and led to a wave of liberal concern over segregation.

Over the past six months, the focus of liberals’ education policies has changed. DeVos was rightly skewered in February when she praised leaders of historically black colleges and universities for being the “real pioneers of school choice,” failing to recognize that HBCUs were created as a response to unabashed racial discrimination. Critics seized upon this blunder as evidence that the school choice movement does not care about or understand segregation.

Liberals and teachers unions have also jumped at the opportunity to assail school privatization as racist, a perspective many had long believed but far fewer had verbalized. Now, when attacking DeVos’s enthusiasm for tax credit scholarships and private school vouchers, progressives point to Trump’s support for such racist policies as immigrant deportations and police brutality; his administration’s enthusiasm for vouchers and charters, they say, must be understood as yet another extension of the president’s discriminatory agenda.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president of education policy.

The Century Foundation, another influential liberal think tank, published research in March that emphasized the risks that private school vouchers pose for integration efforts. (CAP and the AFT relied on this research when crafting their recent talking points on school choice.) Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Atlantic that policies to promote school integration took “a significant hit” from the Trump administration when it recently killed a $12 million grant program to support local districts boosting socioeconomic diversity.

While these critiques are overdue and welcome, the timing sometimes seems politically convenient. For instance, the grant program Kahlenberg lamented was only months old at its time of death, established in the final days of Obama’s eight-year presidency. Prior to that, his administration by and large refused to promote desegregation in the bulk of its major education initiatives. In some instances, Obama’s education team even incentivized policies that exacerbated racial and economic isolation, in part by treating competitive grant applicants who served segregated populations more favorably than those targeting diverse ones.

Many liberal institutions have modified their rhetoric on issues of segregation since Donald Trump came to power, but some still only invoke it when referring to vouchers. CAP and the Century Foundation, for example, have directed their focus on the segregative effects of vouchers, but much less so on charters.

Political tribalism plays a role here.There was great pressure, both explicitly and implicitly, for progressive organizations to defer to the charter-friendly agenda of the Obama administration. And it’s simply easier for labor to politically oppose Trump and DeVos than to fight Obama and Arne Duncan (Obama’s education secretary), even when the latter could be relatively cold to teachers unions (and they to him).

But now, with Trump in office, the NEA has adopted its first new policy position on charter schools since 2001—and it’s far more harsh than its old one. Among other things, the new policy blasts charters for helping to create “separate and unequal education systems” that harm communities of color, language that clearly harkens back to the Brown decision. The AFT has long been more generally critical of charters than the NEA, in part because charters are more heavily concentrated in cities where AFT locals dominate. But now with Trump, the AFT has also begun incorporating sharper critiques of segregation into its criticism of school choice. (The latest comes this week in a Dissent article by Leo Casey, the executive director of the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute.)

A longtime NEA staffer has noticed “a real uptick in interest” in discussions of segregation at union headquarters over the last year. For a very long time, the staffer said, unions have been influenced by the same political climate that affected other liberal institutions, viewing many earlier desegregation efforts as either abject failures or politically toxic. In recent years, though, as the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute has published more and more on the harm caused by racial and economic segregation, the NEA staffer says they can tell it’s having an impact internally within their union. “Having an organization like EPI, with its stature in the labor movement, focusing on this issue really does change the dynamics,” the staffer said. While for decades progressives have looked at desegregation as a political dead end, the calculus—at least in some ways—appears to be changing.

If unions and think tanks are recent arrivals to the reinvigorated movement to promote school integration, they’re still ahead of much of the country, and civil rights advocates will surely welcome their help. But they may also have an opportunity to learn from organizations that have been fighting these battles far longer. Notable among these is the NAACP, which has long focused on the intersections of school choice and racial segregation. Partly due to concerns about segregation, the organization approved resolutions in 2010 and 2014 raising issues about charter schools. This was followed by a resolution in 2016 calling for a moratorium on new charters until more research could be done, and last month the civil rights group published a new report outlining policy improvements they plan to push for in the charter sector going forward. The NAACP’s campaign against segregation more broadly has been central to its mission since its founding over a century ago.

It’s important to recognize the complicated factors that bring groups to the 21st century’s burgeoning civil rights movement, because right-wing critics will certainly not hesitate to cry hypocrisy or opportunism. But there’s opportunity here too: opportunity for labor and policy organizations to develop a stronger commitment to school integration, learning from the experience of civil rights veterans; and opportunity for those veterans, who need allies now more than ever, to hold newly vocal advocates accountable for long-professed commitments to integration and justice. Political coalitions are always imperfect at their start, but that’s never meant a powerful movement couldn’t be forged from them in the end.

 

This Is the Wrong Way to Fight Inequality

Originally published in New Republic on August 3, 2017.
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So first, the good news: The notion that income inequality has caused harm in America has finally broken into the hubs of elite opinion. The sort of socio-political tastemaker who not so long ago denied the problem, has moved on to dissembling about it instead. That’s progress, of a sort.

Dream Hoarders, a book by Brookings senior fellow Richard Reeves, is the latest entry into the debate. Reeves accepts that the United States has become a land of vast economic divides. But having established some common ground with the Occupy Wall Street worldview, he steers the conversation in a direction any plutocrat would love—away from Wall Street, CEOs and the owners of capital. The real problem, Reeves tell us, lies with the upper-middle class.

Reeves’s argument is seductive because it starts with some understated truths. He’s right to say that the top fifth wields a disproportionate amount of political muscle, and benefits from a bevy of tax breaks, subsidies and privileges that undergird what he calls a “glass floor” beneath them. Tax shelters, such as the mortgage interest deduction, offer savings to the rich, while zoning restrictions bar poorer families from the neighborhoods where the upper-middle class clusters. This group is also embedded in social networks that open a backdoor to success, whether through legacy admissions to selective colleges or parental connections that lead to an internship. All of these mechanisms quietly and effectively transfer wealth and power from one generation to the next.

But Reeves is less worried that only a small portion of people enjoy such affluence. In fact, Reeves seems broadly untroubled by inequality, per se. His priority in Dream Hoarders isn’t combatting inequality but improving “relative mobility”: the process by which someone can move up in economic rank, even if that means bumping someone else down a notch. “Downward mobility is not a wildly popular idea, to say the least,” he writes. “But it is a stubborn mathematical fact that, at any given time, the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population.” That may be true, but it’s not a “stubborn mathematical fact” that only 20 percent of the income distribution should be able to afford comfortable, prosperous lives.

Reeves underlines his point by making clear that he’s uninterested in the kind of social democratic policies that foster greater equality in European countries like Sweden and Finland. “America’s problem is not that we are failing to live up to Danish egalitarian standards,” he writes. “It is that we are failing to live up to American egalitarian standards, based on fair market competition.” The main challenge, he stresses, is to “narrow gaps in human capital formation” so that the “contests” people compete in will be truly fair. “The problem is not that society is too competitive,” Reeves informs us. “It is that it is not competitive enough.” Society has grown unfair, he surmises, partly because the upper-middle class is engaging in “anticompetitive ‘opportunity hoarding.’”


Among the many problems with this strange view of inequality as something like an antitrust issue is figuring out when someone’s gone too far and broken the rules. Dream Hoarders clumsily attempts to demarcate which of the upper middle class’s advantages are legitimate, and which are “unfair” and “anticompetitive.” Reeves sees no problem with affluent parents showering their children with many different types of privileges that they can use to get ahead in our economic rat race. SAT tutors, cello practice, and Mandarin lessons are unproblematic in his view. On the contrary, he sees them as “great, indeed laudable” ways to support “human capital formation.” It’s only when the opportunities of the privileged start to hurt other children, he explains, that it becomes a problem.

A prime example of “opportunity hoarding” occurs when a parent makes a call or writes a check to their alma mater in order to help their kid get into college. (Reeves admits he doesn’t have good data on how common this practice actually is.) Another example is when parents use connections to help their kid score an internship. Amazingly enough, despite his professed interest in fair contests, Reeves does not support banning unpaid internships, concluding that to do so would be “too draconian, illiberal.” He suggests instead that the government fund low-income students who wish to take them, but acknowledges there’s little political support for the idea.

At first glance, it’s awfully hard to see a distinction between Reeves’s approved “human capital formation” and his disallowed “opportunity hoarding.” After all, in both cases, wealthy parents are leveraging their position to give their children a head start over their peers. Reeves has an answer for this—sort of. He concludes that “opportunity hoarding” only takes place when the opportunity in question is valuable and scarce, and the hoarding itself is “anticompetitive.” He discerns a difference between “parental behavior that merely helps your own children and the kind that is ‘detrimental’ to others.”

Unfortunately, this carefully-parsed dividing line is delicate to the point of collapse. What is, for instance, the most likely result of a cello lesson: artistic enrichment, or a bullet point on a resume? Unless those lessons turn into a lifelong passion or a performance career, their main effect is surely to grant children an edge over rival applicants in the race for academic recognition. The line blurs the other way too: Presumably most parents angling for a legacy admission to an Ivy believe their children stand to grow personally from the experience.

When you’re committed, as Reeves is, to a vision of society as a zero-sum battle for economic advancement, then self-betterment and bruising competition for resources look one and the same. Any new skills or experience—“human capital formation”—may also prove an advantage that can be brought to bear against others, while anything that helps someone beat out a competitor and move up the economic ladder could ultimately prove enriching.

If Dream Hoarders fails to locate all the pathologies of the monied professional class, maybe it’s because Reeves is on the inside, looking out. The book carries all the hallmarks of 90s-style Democratic Party thinking, both in its lust for market-style competition in private life and its attitude toward taxes as “a necessary evil.” And for a book supposedly meant to awaken class consciousness, it has awfully little interest in exploring the working class, or even the labor movement. The word “unions” makes just one appearance in Dream Hoarders: Reeves breezily mentions the decline in trade unions as one “competing explanation” for growing wage disparities, before urging his readers’ attention back to “education and skills” as core causes of mounting inequality.

Reeves seems untroubled by the Democratic Party’s transformation into the party of meritocracy and individualism. Though he criticizes the upper-middle class for its sense of entitlement, he remains largely approving of their values—evident from the solutions he proposes to “opportunity hoarding.” Rather than implore his Bethesda brethren to leverage their influence for national card check and single-payer healthcare—policies that explicitly place individuals on even footing with regards to critical economic questions—Reeves encourages his peers to consider expanding home visiting programs, and whether it might be beneficial to shuffle K-12 public school teachers around.

Despite the scale of the problems he supposedly wants to tackle, Reeves’s policy recommendations fall far short of addressing them. On one hand, he’s imploring Americans to build a relentlessly competitive society, and on the other, worrying that everyone might be competing a little too hard after all, and, if they don’t mind, may want to take it all down a notch. Thankfully there are better ways forward.

Pressuring the one percent is essential for any serious agenda to lessen inequality; this can’t be breezily dismissed, as Reeves too often attempts. He points out, smugly, that to tax only the absurdly wealthy would be insufficient to fund the entire progressive agenda. But who is making this point? It’s hard to find anyone on the American left who has proposed writing the top fifth out of the debate altogether.

Moreover, we don’t need the notion of “opportunity hoarding” to see why it’s bad that a privileged fifth of Americans retreat to quiet cul-de-sacs served by stellar suburban schools. You barely need to squint to identify an older, stronger, and further-reaching critique lying just beyond Reeves’s: In many cases, he’s just railing against segregation and its burdens. A twinned agenda of civil rights and aggressive redistribution would address most of the problems that Dream Hoarders claims to identify.

Though Reeves tries to suggest that anything outside of “fair market competition” would be antithetical to American values, Americans shouldn’t have to compete their way to economic security. Progressives concerned about inequality would do well to heed the advice of Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal, who recently urged Democrats to “redouble their commitment to labor, abandon the obsessive focus on the preferences of American professionals, rein in the most predatory parts of the economy, and throw their weight behind simple, universal programs that would improve citizens’ economic and social lives.” Hoarding dreams gets a lot harder when there are plenty of them to go around.