Union Pension Funds and the Power of Capital

By Steve Brier

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Walking to work, I came across a building trades union-run informational picket line near my office. The NYC Concrete Coalition was picketing the Church Pension Group (CPG), which invests union pension funds. It seems that CPG has invested in a hedge fund, the Baupost Group, that is partnering on a huge real estate project on the east side. The $600 million project will be built by SSC Highrise, a “very irresponsible construction contractor,” according to the flier the workers were distributing. SSC’s principal, Seth Klarman has been found guilt of racial discrimination, wage theft, and tax fraud, according to the flyer.

What is to be done? According the picketers, we’re all supposed to call the Baupost CEO to complain. That’s a good idea and we should all do that, if possible. But complaining to a hedge fund billionaire about his desire to make money seems a bit like splitting in the wind. It makes one nostalgic for the days when building trades workers would take a more militant stance, shall we say, against scabs and non-union contractors. Shaming a hedge fund CEO (an unlikely outcome if there ever were one) isn’t going to make much of a difference for building trades workers and their union.

Dr. Steve Brier is a Murphy Institute Consortial Faculty Member and Prof. of Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Fighting Sexism in the Workplace

By Steve Brier

The New York Times recently ran back-to-back articles in their “This Working Life” column by Rachel Swarns. The first article, which appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of the paper, describes the firing of a pregnant low- wage worker, Angelica Valencia, from her position at Fierman Produce Exchange in Queens, where she earned $8.70 an hour packing potatoes. Her job, which frequently required overtime work, led her to get a doctor’s note indicating that her “high risk” pregnancy required that she not work beyond 40 hours a week. The company insisted that both overtime and heavy lifting of boxes were essential parts of the job and, despite passage by the City Council more than a year ago of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the company refused to make an accommodation for Ms. Valencia and fired her in August. The company claimed that she was unable to continue working because she was at “high risk” in a workplace “that was fast-paced, was very physical and involved machinery.” Continue reading Fighting Sexism in the Workplace

Harsh Prison Sentences: A Labor Issue?

Is mass incarceration a labor issue? According to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

According to Dave Jamieson, writing in the Huffington Post, Trumka is prepared to give remarks on Friday “offering robust support” for California’s Porposition 47, a proposal that would downgrade non-violent crimes to misdemeanors, thereby rendering thousands of state and county prisoners eligible for immediate release or sentence reduction.

Trumka’s prepared remarks state, “It’s a labor issue because mass incarceration means literally millions of people work jobs in prisons for pennies an hour — a hidden world of coerced labor here in the United States…It’s a labor issue because those same people who work for pennies in prison, once they have served their time, find themselves locked out of the job market by employers who screen applicants for felony convictions.” Continue reading Harsh Prison Sentences: A Labor Issue?

Students Fight Back in Philadelphia

By Steve Brier

In the latest ominous sign of the ramping up of the neoliberal agenda to undermine public funding for public institutions, the state-appointed Philadelphia School Reform Commission (PSRC), which has managerial control over the city’s public school system and its 130,000 students, on October 6th unilaterally cancelled the longstanding contract it had with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), as reported earlier on the Murphy Institute blog.

This public school crisis was the result of decades of systematic underfunding of public institutions by the state of Pennsylvania, which is now firmly in the political hands of Republicans — especially the reactionary Governor Tom Corbett, who cut close to $1 billion from the state’s education budget over the past few years.

While the city’s teachers are understandably dispirited by the cancellation of their contract, the schools’ students and parents are helping them fight back. One parent criticized the PSRC for trying to have teachers underwrite their own health care costs, concluding that this was tantamount to “robbing the children.”

Students have refused to remain idle in the face of this struggle, using social media like Twitter and Facebook to organize a walkout and a series of mass demonstrations in support of their teachers. Continue reading Students Fight Back in Philadelphia

Things to Come? The Philadelphia Case

Photo via Wikipedia

By Stanley Aronowitz

Appointed by the Republican Governor Tom Corbett, the School Reform Commission (SRC) unilaterally canceled the Philadelphia Public Education contract on Monday, October 6th. The agreement covers 15,000 teachers and other staff workers. And SRC announced that it intends to take over the union-controlled benefits program and impose 5%-13% employee contributions instead of its current fee-free features. The union was not notified of the Commission’s move in advance. Its president Jerry Jordan promised to fight and said the union would consider “job actions” if members were ready for them.

Since the financial depression of 2007-2008, public sector unions have been on a seven-year defensive. Many contracts have been negotiated with below-inflation rate salary increases, or none at all. Health and pension benefits almost inevitably require employee contributions, and many programs are diluted. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers negotiated a nine-year agreement (four of them covering the past years of zero salary raises) that fails to match the actual inflation, although the benefits program remains unchanged.

Philadelphia education workers are not plagued by a Taylor Law prohibiting strikes or job actions, but the Pennsylvania bargaining environment is no less grim. Continue reading Things to Come? The Philadelphia Case

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