Texas state workers initiate campaign to improve abuse services

Public service workers can make a difference in people’s lives. For example, last year workers in the Texas Child Protective Services (CPS) division of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) investigated more than 175,000 charges of child abuse involving 297,000 children and removed 17,000 children from abusive homes. The work of these public servants no doubt saved lives and improved the lives of others.

There are, however, many more who need these services but aren’t getting them. Texas’ child population is nearly 7 million and growing. But DFPS funding has not kept up with population growth.

Unfortunately, anti-public service lobby groups have said that they will try to cut the state’s budget again in 2013. If DFPS falls victim to these proposed cuts, as is likely, the situation will likely deteriorate.

The Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 has launched a campaign to build support for an agency budget that will improve the state’s capacity to protect abused children.

Members of TSEU who work at DFPS in February met with DFPS leadership to provide input about what the agency’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years should look like and, a month later, testified before a state Senate committee about problems affecting the agency’s ability to serve a growing child population.

When TSEU members met with DFPS Commission Howard Baldwin and Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Sims, the workers urged the commissioners to seek funding that would restore client services cut last year, establish a career ladder designed to reduce employee turnover, set manageable caseload standards, and reject foster care privatization expansion.

One of the client services that TSEU members urged the commissioners to restore is the Kinship Program, which may be axed in September because the Legislature eliminated funding for it. The program allows abuse victims to live with relatives or close friends instead of going into foster care.

Myko Gedutis, TSEU lead organizer for Southeast Texas, said that TSEU would continue to monitor and provide input toward the drafting of the agency’s budget. The biggest obstacles to a fair DFPS budget are pressure from anti-public service lobbyists to cut spending beyond the $15 billion cut last year and a $5 billion a year structural deficit caused by the state’s antiquated revenue system.

More recently, TSEU members testified at a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing on Child Protective Services.  Stephanie Diaz, a CPS investigation supervisor in Aransas Pass, near Corpus Christi, and a TSEU member, said that the biggest problem facing CPS and its clients is the “dangerously high caseloads (that) contribute to high turnover and poor casework. These issues compound each other constantly, so it feels like we are not making progress and those of us on the frontlines are being run into the ground.”

Diaz said that the average caseload for a Child Protective Services investigator in her region is 30. The national standard is 14. The high caseload and the demand to move cases through the system often lead to cases not receiving the full attention they deserve.

“We, as social workers, and you, as Legislators and human beings, should put yourselves in the shoes of those families DFPS serves,” Diaz said.  “Would you want your caseworker to give you more than five minutes of their time before making life changing decisions for you and your family?”

The employee turnover rate at CPS is 25 percent; the state agency average is about 15 percent. More than 53 percent of staff have less than three years experience.  The high turnover rate has had its biggest impact in the Austin area, where according to the American Statesman, only 45 of the 95 authorized CPS investigator positions are filled causing a backlog of 1,000 cases.

Susan Rial, an investigation supervisor in Arlington, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, told senators that reducing the turnover rate and retaining qualified experienced caseworkers will require job improvements such as establishing a career ladder that provide an incentive for workers, whose starting annual salary is between $32,200 and $36,700, to stay on the job.

Rial also urged lawmakers to reject proposals to reduce employee health care benefits and eliminate their pensions. “When weighing the pros versus the cons (on whether to stay), all to often the cons win out for new staff,” Rial said. “Two major reasons staff do decide to stay are because of our health care and pension benefits. Undermining these benefits by converting to 401(k)s or health savings accounts will undoubtedly create an exodus from our agency. This is a legislative change to stay away from.”

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German public service workers stage warning strikes

After two days of warning strikes, ver.di, the union representing federal and municipal workers in Germany, returned to the bargaining table on Thursday for the latest round of negotiations with the German government. On Tuesday, ver.di’s leader Frank Bsriske told striking workers at the Frankfurt airport, “We’re at a crossroads” as the union prepares to hold a strike authorization vote among members if negotiations fail to produce a decent wage increase for Germany’s 2 million public sector workers employed by the federal government and municipalities.

This week, ver.di called two warning strikes that lasted for a short time. On Monday, 80,000 public sector workers in Berlin and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s largest state, walked off the job for a day. Strikers included bus drivers, sanitation workers, kindergarten staff, and some hospital workers.

Tuesday’s action was smaller but more dramatic as workers at the country’s seven largest airports downed tools for periods ranging from nine to five hours. The strikes caused Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, to cancel 450 flights.

Bsriske said that public sector workers moderated their past wage demands to help the country climb out of its economic slump caused by the financial crisis of 2008, but during the last two years, the German economy has picked up steam and that it’s now the right time for public service workers to regain some of that lost ground.

As a sign of the nation’s improving economy, Germany’s Federal Statistics Office reported yesterday that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in March dipped to 6.7 percent, lower than had been expected and the lowest that it has been in 20 years.

Ver.di is demanding a 6.5 percent wage increase, but the government so far is offering only a 3.3 percent increase, 2.1 percent in the first year of the contract and 1.2 percent in the second year.

Bsriske said that considering the billions of euros that the German government gave to banks to bail them out after their risky financial transactions put them at risk of going out of business, the wage increase sought by public sector workers is entirely justified.

The federal government appears unwilling to budge from its initial offer. Interior Minister Hans Peter Friedrich has indicated that the government may ask a mediator to help resolve the dispute. If the talks do go to mediation, the union’s hand is weakened because strikes are illegal while mediation is in progress.

The outcome of the contract talks will have an effect far beyond the public sector. Contracts affecting 9 million private sector workers are set to expire this year, and the final settlement of the public service wage dispute will likely serve as a guideline for wage increases in these contracts.

Companies with contracts expiring this year include Deutsche Telekom, whose workers are also represented by ver.di, and Volkswagen, whose workers are represented by Germany’s largest union IG Metal, which has already announced that it will be seeking a 6.5 percent wage increase in the new contracts it negotiates this year.

As the government inched closer to calling for mediation to resolve the dispute, ver.di members remained defiant. “We’ve shown we’re ready to strike to defend our pay claim and that’s definitely not in the government’s interest,” said Jan Jurczyk, a ver.di spokesperson in Berlin to the Wall Street Journal.

Teen’s death, Wisconsin workers have one thing in common

At first glance, it might not appear that Trayvon Martin and public service workers in Wisconsin had much in common. Martin lived in Florida about 1,300 miles away from Wisconsin. Martin was a bright teenager with a promising future ahead of him. Those serving the public in Wisconsin are adults, most of whom are well into the public service careers. The one common thread connecting them is that both are the victims of state laws inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC’s members are state lawmakers with a pro-corporate agenda. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, members pay an annual membership fee of $50, but 98 percent of the group’s funding comes from corporations and sources other than the annual fee. ALEC provides model legislation and research support that pro-corporate state lawmakers and social conservatives use to advance their legislative agendas.

Trayvon Martin was shot and killed one night a month ago as he was walking home from a convenience store. His killer George Zimmerman has not been arrested because state prosecutors think Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch leader, was acting under the authority granted him by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which ALEC helped write.

Stand Your Ground authorizes the use of deadly force by a civilian who believes that a crime is being committed and that his or her life is in danger. Zimmerman, who the Miami Herald reports, followed Martin after he left the convenience store because Martin “looked high, walked too slowly in the rain, and appeared to be looking at people’s houses.” The fact that Martin was a young African-American male wearing a hoody also led Zimmerman conclude that Martin was a “suspicious character.”

The two exchanged words, and what happened next is still unclear. What is clear is that Zimmerman used his pistol to shoot Martin, who was armed only with a bag of Skittles he purchased earlier.

The Herald today reports that police officers investigating the incident originally recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter, but that the local police chief decided not to do so because he thought Zimmerman was acting under the state’s Stand Your Ground law.

(Martin’s parents are pushing state prosecutors to continue investigating the case and to prosecute their son’s killer. They are asking supporters to sign a petition to this effect and have so far gathered more than 2 million signatures.)

In his column that appeared in last Friday’s New York Times, Paul Krugman observes that ALEC’s model legislation, like Stand Your Ground, doesn’t always directly help corporations, but it helps create “a political climate that will favor even more corporation-friendly legislation in the future.”

In the case of Stand Your Ground, its passage was as much about mobilizing social conservatives to vote for candidates who would support pro-corporate legislation like the privatization of Florida’s prison as it was to enhance the right to carry and use weapons. (The Teamsters killed the prison privatization attempt.)

In Wisconsin, ALEC’s influence in the passage of the infamous 2011 Act 10 is undeniable. Act 10 cut benefits of public service workers and denied them their right to bargain collectively, which advanced ALEC’s goal of weakening the labor movement.

Unlike Stand Your Ground, Act 10 was not a piece of model legislation, but ALEC was heavily involved in its passage. Gov. Scott Walker while a state legislator was an ALEC board member. Both the Wisconsin Senate Leader, Scott Fitzgerald, and the state Assembly Speaker, his brother Jeff Fitzgerald, are ALEC members.

The Center for Media and Democracy reports that while Act 10 wasn’t written by ALEC, it “comports with ALEC’s sweeping anti-union agenda,” which mirrors Corporate America’s anti-union agenda.

ALEC’s corporate benefactors, which number in the hundreds, include Walmart, Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, State Farm, and UPS. (You can find a more extensive list at the Center for Democracy and the Media’s ALEC exposed website.).

ALEC’s executive director is Ray Scherbele, who before he assumed the leadership of ALEC, worked as a lobbyist for Verizon. While he was working for Verizon, he represented Verizon on ALEC’s board of directors.

“ALEC is a one-stop shop for corporations  looking to identify friendly state legislators and work with them to get  special-interest legislation introduced,” reads a report by People for the American Way. “It’s win-win for corporations, their  lobbyists, and right-wing legislators. But the big losers are citizens whose  rights and interests are sold off to the highest bidder.”

Texans rally to save our schools

About 4,500 educators, parents, and other public education supporters rallied in Austin on March 24 to save Texas’ public schools, which suffered $5.5 billion in funding cuts last year and are facing more on the horizon.

Speakers at the rally, organized by the Save Our Schools coalition, said that if public school supporters waited until next year to fight impending public education budget cuts, it will be too late. They urged those in the audience to take information they learned at the rally back home and use it to organize support for re-funding public education.

Diane Ravitch, a professor of education history at New York University and a leading advocate for a progressive, national public education policy, sent a message of support to those at the rally. Ravitch, who was attending a similar event in Oregon, said that she grew up in Texas and knew first hand how important good public schools were to the health and well-being of the state’s economy and civil society.

Unfortunately, the de-funding of public schools threatens to undermine not just public education but the whole of society. “Without public education,” Ravitch said. “Our whole society will suffer.”

She said that the people cutting public education budgets are the same ones who want to divert more public funding to privately operated charter schools and privately owned testing companies.

John Folks, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, gave the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry a failing grade for passing a school finance budget that cut $4 billion from the state’s primary source of school funding and another $1.5 billion in grant funding that supports special programs such as dropout prevention and pre-K classes.

Folks said that last year’s budget cuts resulted in 12,000 fewer teachers in the classroom, larger class sizes, the closure of schools, fewer student services such as counselling, and cutbacks in vocational education. He blamed the cuts on the state’s structural deficit–an antiquated tax system that doesn’t produce enough revenue to keep up with Texas’ growing student population.

In 2006, Texas lowered property taxes statewide, Folks said. Lawmakers promised to make up this lost revenue with a business margins tax, but the tax is so full of loopholes that it never generated the promised revenue. Last year, it brought in $5 billion less than anticipated, nearly the entire sum of the school funding cuts. That $5 billion annual shortfall will continue to repeat itself unless the structural deficit is addressed.

He also said that more teacher layoffs and reduced services will take place when school begins next fall unless Gov. Perry and the Legislative Budget Board free up $2 billion from the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s $9 billion plus reserve fund, to make up the anticipated shortfall.

John Kuhn, superintendent of Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District, located in a rural area about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth, said that the over use of standardized testing has perverted education, “killing knowledge that is not on the test. It also erodes the autonomy and authority of local school boards.”

Kuhn said that it was a shame that lawmakers could find $500 million to pay a British company called Pearson to produce a new standardized test while at the same time it was cutting education spending by $1,000 per student and that state leaders have chosen to focus education spending solely on improving standardized testing results while ignoring societal factors that lead to poor performance in the classroom–parental unemployment, racial inequality, child homelessness,  poverty, etc.

Those attending the rally were urged to pick up a pamphlet, Building Support for Public Education, and share the information with friends and neighbors. The pamphlet among other things debunks some of misinformation used to justify cuts to education. For example, public education opponents say that half the state’s education budget is wasted on administrative expenses. The fact is that 49 cents of every education dollar funds goes to teachers, 43 cents funds campus expenses such as transportation, utilities, lunches, building maintenance, etc., and only 8 cents funds administration.

Those at the rally were urged to get involved in the upcoming primary elections whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. “You need to stand up and ask every candidate whether he or she supports Texas public schools or supports cutting their budgets,” said one speaker.

Unions’ day of action kicks off 99 Percent Spring

Carrying a banner reading, “Fight for good jobs, stand up to corporate greed at Verizon,” members of the Communication Workers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, other union members, and other supporters marched across downtown Washington DC to rally in front of Verizon Center’s F Street entrance.

The DC demonstration was one of more than 100 actions that took place in 35 states on March 22 during a Day of Action for a fair contract at Verizon. The Day of Action also kicked off the 99 Percent Spring offensive  to oppose corporate greed and challenge corporate power. Thousands of union workers, social movement activists, members of the faith community, and progressives took part in the March 22 actions.

CWA and IBEW have been negotiating with Verizon for nine months on a new contract for the company’s 45,000 East Coast workers. The company  continues to demand steep concessions from  its union workers that include cuts to their health care benefit, elimination of their pension plan, outsourcing of their jobs, and new work rules that make workers’ jobs less secure.

Meanwhile, Verizon increased CEO Lowell McAdams’ annual compensation from $7.2 million a year to $23 million a year. Over the last four years, compensation packages for Verizon’s top executives totalled $283 million.

At a national CWA union hall meeting held by teleconference, CWA President Larry Cohen told members that Verizon’s greed is emblematic of today’s corporate culture. Jim Weitkamp, CWA District 9 vice-president, reported to the meeting that even though AT&T made $31 billion in profit the last two years, it has joined Verizon’s race to the bottom by demanding that its workers accept cuts to their health care and pension benefits. CWA is currently negotiating a new AT&T contract for West Coast workers. The current contract expires in April.

Cohen said that CWA and IBEW will continue to negotiate with Verizon for a fair contract but that workers can’t fight this greed one contract at a time; instead, we need to build a broad movement that unites union and non-union workers, social justice movements, and progressives in a fight “to reclaim democracy and economic justice.”

The Verizon national Day of Action was the first step toward building this broad movement, which Cohen called the 99 Percent Spring. Cohen said that CWA, other unions, community groups, MoveOn, and other organizations will be holding a series of non-violent, direct actions to expose corporate greed and dramatize how their greed is driving down living standards for all workers.

Greedy corporations have come “to dominate both parties,” Cohen said. “So we’re building a movement in the streets to reclaim America. We’re committed to training 100,000 people in non-violent direct action.”

Cohen said that one-day Spring Training sessions will be held during the week of April 9-15, during which those attending will learn what caused today’s economic disparities, learn how to tell their own stories about these disparities, and learn non-violent, direct action techniques.

He said that CWA has a goal of getting 2,000 members to sign up for Spring Training and urged members attending the union hall meeting to sign up for it. By the end of the meeting, more than 500 had done so.

In the meantime, CWA and IBEW continue to find other ways to pressure Verizon to agree to a fair contract.  CWA and IBEW urged the Federal Communications Commission to take a hard look at a marketing agreement between Verizon and four cable companies.

Verizon wants to buy additional wireless spectrum from the cable companies and in return will allow the cable companies to sell services over its wireless network, a deal that CWA and consumer advocates say will hurt competition in the wireless and cable markets. Union members recently urged Senators to oppose the joint marketing deal.

In New York, CWA is opposing a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to de-regulate Voice over Internet Protocol, the use of the internet to provide telephone service. According to the CWA, de-regulation would help Verizon create a monopoly with no oversight or consumer protection.

In Maryland, CWA members attended a hearing of the state Senate Finance Committee to oppose a piece of legislation proposed by Verizon that would allow it to sell landline assets without approval from the Public Utilities Commission.

Unions join movement against foreclosures

In San Francisco, members of ILWU Local 91 joined community activists to occupy the home of a union member whose family was evicted after Well Fargo foreclosed on their home. In Detroit, members of the UAW and other unions joined a protest in front of the JP Morgan Chase Detroit headquarters. Protestors delivered a Notice of Default to the bank for its failure to live up to a consent decree it signed last year in which it agreed to stop unjust foreclosures.

By supporting the movement against foreclosures, unions are taking a fundamental value that improved the lives of their members–solidarity– beyond the workplace and extending it into the community, partly out of a commitment to social justice and partly out of the realization that unions can no longer improve members’ lives by confining themselves to narrow on-the-job issues.

Take what’s going on in Detroit. The demonstration at JP Morgan Chase was called to support Alma Counts, an 82 year-old partially paralyzed widow. It was organized by a coalition including People Before Banks, Moratorium Now, Occupy Detroit, Occupy Our Homes, and UAW Local 600.

Ms. Counts and Washington Mutual agreed to a loan modification, which set her monthly payment at $728, which she paid regularly. In 2009, JP Morgan Chase began servicing the loan. According to Vanessa Fluker, Ms. Counts’ attorney, Chase arbitrarily raised her payment to $1,400, which Ms. Counts, who lives on a fixed income, was unable to pay; consequently, the bank foreclosed on her.

“Ms. Counts represents tens of thousands who are in the same predicament,” Fluker said. “You can do everything right. You can fight to keep your home, but it doesn’t matter. . . . This is happening to tens of thousands  of people in the city and in the state.”

These foreclosures are killing our communities, said Bernie Ricke, UAW Local 600 president at the Chase demonstration. “They bring down property values, which erodes the tax base and curtails public services.” It’s vicious cycle that eventually leads to blight and strains the budgets of local governments.

That is what is happening in Detroit today. As the tax base has eroded and revenue slowed to a trickle, city debt has grown, and Detroit’s Mayor Bing and Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder are on the verge of agreeing to the appointment of Financial Accountability Board with the authority to impose severe austerity measures and unilaterally void union contracts to reduce worker wages and benefits.

In San Francisco, the ILWU has a long history of fighting for social justice outside of the workplace. On March 16, members of Local 91 joined with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to re-claim the home of Local 91 member Dexter Cato, who had been evicted by Wells Fargo.

Cato was the victim of what ACCE calls the bank’s “dual tracking program.” Cato, the widowed father of four, worked out a loan modification plan with Wells Fargo and began making payments. Despite the modification and the fact that Cato was making payments, the section of the bank that carries out foreclosures had Cato evicted and put the home up for sale.

According to ACCE, the dual track system has resulted in thousands of foreclosures in the Bay Area. “We are demanding that Dexter Cato and families throughout San Francisco get affordable modifications and that all banks apply a widespread moratorium on all foreclosures,” read a statement issued by ACCE on the occupation of the Cato’s home.

Cato’s house is located in Hunters Point, a largely African-American community in San Francisco. Some of Cato’s neighbors are facing eviction. “They’re foreclosing on my home too,” said a neighbor to the San Francisco Bay View. “It’s happening up and down this street. Wells Fargo and the other banks are terrorizing this community.”

“This neighborhood was built with the sweat and blood of Black people, who came here to work in the Hunters Point Shipyard,” said Mesha Monge-Irizarry to Bay View. “Now their descendants are fighting to save their family homes – to keep from being forced out of their own community by these criminal banks. Power to the hood!”

Meanwhile, members of Local 91 signed up to take shifts at Cato’s home to make sure that the foreclosure sale doesn’t take place. On the first day of the occupation, Local 91 members stood on the front porch and led the crowd chanting, “Nationalize the banks!”

Dictatorship of the technocrats in Greece and Detroit

More than 20 years ago, Lucio Magri of the now defunct Communist Party of Italy observed that because of capitalism’s internal logic, which is to expand privilege for the few at the expense of the many, Capital from time to time runs afoul of formal democracy. When this happens Capital’s impulse is to suppress democracy.

Post-industrial Capital’s first choice for doing so, according to Magri,  is neither an authoritarian dictatorship nor fascism; instead, it prefers to endow appointed experts with the authority to supersede elected officials–a dictatorship of the technocrats if you will.  Two examples are now underway on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Greece, the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund last November demanded and received the resignation of Prime Minister George Papandreou after he suggested that Greeks should vote whether to accept  austerity measures proposed by the three institutions, which have become known as the Troika. The Troika demanded the austerity measures in return for loans to help Greece service its huge debt obligation. Papandreou was replaced by an unelected, MIT-educated banker with a PhD in economics.

Back in the US, Michigan’s governor and Detroit’s mayor are negotiating an agreement designed to deal with the city’s heavy debt load. The agreement, called a consent decree, would result in the appointment of a Financial Advisory Board with the authority to reduce and privatize city services, terminate contracts with public service workers’ unions, and ignore elected officials on the City Council.

The Troika was reluctant to allow a vote on its austerity plan. It would impoverish more Greeks and was opposed by a nine to one margin. The Troika believed that a popular rejection of its plan would lead to a disorderly default on the country’s debt, which would jeopardize the worldwide banking system; consequently, it had Papandreou replaced with Lucas Papademos, who served as Vice-President of the European Central Bank between 2002 and 2010.

Papademos then oversaw the imposition of the country’s second round of austerity measures in two years. Meanwhile, the Troika organized an orderly default that cost private bondholders dearly, but prevented, at least so far, a general fallout.

Meanwhile, the austerity plan for a second time cut pensions, slashed services, reduced pay for government employees, and reduced the minimum wage. Annual economic growth has been reduced to -7 percent and business curtailed so badly that a strong economic recovery that could alleviate the current misery is unlikely.

Like Greece, Detroit, the US city hit hardest by the nation’s de-industrialization policies, is in financial trouble. Only two auto plants remain in the Motor City, and a population that once exceeded a million is now about 700,000. As a result, the city’s tax base and revenue have shrunk leaving the city mired in debt.

Last summer, Mayor Dave Bing insisted that city employee unions agree to concessions to help the city service its debt. The unions were reluctant, but eventually agreed. Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder said that the concessions weren’t enough and prepared to implement Michigan’s Emergency Management Act, which allows the governor to appoint financial managers with broad powers to manage local governments in financial distress.

Last week Michigan’s state treasurer Andy Dillon drafted a consent decree outlining how the Emergency Management Act would be implemented. The draft calls for the appointment of a nine-member Financial Advisory Board and a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, and a chief human resources officer. The board and the newly appointed officers would manage the city’s day-to-day affairs. The mayor would retain some policy-making functions, but the City Council would be reduced to a rubber stamp.

Negotiations between the mayor and governor over the consent decree have faltered over details, but if an agreement is reached, the first order of business for the appointed advisory panel and the city’s new officers will be to reduce city services and unilaterally break the city’s contracts with its workers’ unions.

Al Garrett, president of AFSCME Council 25, which represents 60,000 city workers in the State of Michigan, said the purpose of the consent decree is to make sure that the city does not default on its loans. “There’s no concern about services, or with the city living up to its contracts,” Garrett said. “It’s about making sure that bond holders are paid.”

The bankers’ coup in Greece will expire in April when new elections are held, but Garrett says that the consent degree contains no time limit for  how long the Financial Advisory Board would run the city. “The only people protected by the consent decree are the Wall Street folks,” Garrett said.