Texas State Employees Union fights for the public good in higher education

Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 University Caucus are urging the public to join their Fund Our Future campaign by signing their online petition at Change.org.

The campaign is aimed at making the public good rather than private interest the primary goal of higher education in the state. “For decades now private interest has driven higher education policy in Texas,” said Ted Hooker, TSEU organizer. “The result has been higher costs for students and their families at state universities, more privatization on university campuses, lower pay and less job security for front-line university employees, and a crippled higher education system that isn’t meeting the needs of the Texas public.”

At one time, Texas invested heavily in higher education. In 1986, state funding accounted for 55 percent of all funding for state higher education institutions. The result was low tuition that made a college education affordable and accessible. This investment helped the Texas economy to grow.

But in the 1990s, the Texas government began to disinvest in public higher education. By 2006, state funds provided only 35 percent of the funding for Texas’ public higher education institutions. The percentage was even lower for large campuses. State funding for the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M dipped below 20 percent.

To make up for this funding shortfall, Texas universities sought out more private funding and raised student tuition and fees. In 2003, the Legislature deregulated student tuition resulting in a steady and steep increase in the cost of higher education.

The Dallas Morning News reports that since 2003 students and their families are paying 55 percent more in tuition and fees at Texas’ public universities.

Reduced state funding also caused universities to seek other ways to cut budgets. Front line workers at these universities have borne the brunt of these cuts.

At one time, the state included university workers in cost-of-living pay raises given to state employees. That stopped in 2003 at the same time that tuition was being deregulated.

As a result, pay for campus workers has stagnated.

“The lowest paid state worker in Texas is a university worker,” said Anne Lewis, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and an independent documentary film maker.

One reason that pay has stagnated is that cost-of-living raises have been replaced by so-called merit raises, which are often arbitrary and unfair.

“A few years ago, an edict went down that one-third of the department workers would get a decent raise, another one-third would get a pittance, and the final one-third would get nothing,” said Lewis. “My department figured out a way around this but many did not.  I know more than one department enforced this policy.  A worker I know has not had a raise in four years.”

“A young friend of mine who’s worked at UT for about ten years made $23,000 a year when she started, and now she makes $26,000,” said Leslie Cunningham, a TSEU activist.

In addition to seeking more state funding for higher education, TSEU’s Fund Our Future campaign is seeking to include university workers in pay raises that state employees may be getting this year.

Texas state universities are also hoping to save money by privatizing more of their services.

“UT- Austin, Texas State, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Houston, Prairie View A&M and others have announced plans to follow in the footsteps of Texas A&M and privatize campus support services,” said Hooker.  “Last year, Texas A&M laid off 1,600 food service, landscaping, custodial, and maintenance workers – outsourcing their jobs to Compass Group, USA.  While many of these workers were able to secure employment with Compass, they lost their state health care and retirement benefits.”

The Fund Our Future campaign is also aimed at stopping this privatization.

“(The university workforce) should operate as a collective within the university and all contributions in service of the institution should be recognized as valuable,” reads a statement by the TSEU University Caucus. “Privatization fractures that cohesiveness by banishing vital operators from the community and sending the message that those contributions are not valuable.”

TSEU and several other groups of UT-Austin students and university workers are organizing opposition to a UT-Austin privatization plan authored by the private consulting company Accenture, a Bermuda-based company tha botched an attempt to privatize Texas’ health and human services.

The Fund Our Future campaign has also been conducting a grassroots mobilization effort to increase the state’s funding for higher education. In 2011, the state’s higher education budget was cut by nearly $1 billion. Fund Our Future is seeking a restoration of the funds cut and more public investment in higher education.

The campaign has had some impact, but the proposed budgets by the Senate and House doesn’t fully make up for the 2011 cuts and doesn’t provide extra funding for the expected higher enrollment.

“The online petition is another attempt to keep lawmakers focused on the need to adequately fund higher education,” Hooker said. “We’re also planning other mobilizations such as a call-in and day of action. Whatever happens during this session of the Legislature, TSEU will continue to organize and mobilize for more higher education funding. Our jobs and livelihoods depend on it. So does the future of Texas.”

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Miners march for fairness at Patriot Coal

More than 7,000 people marched through the streets of Charlestown, West Virginia to protest Patriot Coal’s attempt to eliminate health care benefits for retirees and to reduce wages, benefits, and working conditions for Patriot’s union miners. Sixteen people including seven rank and file United Mine Workers of America members and UMWA President Cecil Roberts were arrested after staging a sit-in on the steps of Patriot’s headquarters.

“This is a crime,” said Roberts referring to Patriot’s actions. “We’ve been robbed, tricked and lied to. This cannot stand – and with thousands of us from all over the country marching today and keeping up this fight tomorrow, it will not stand.”

Patriot in July 2012 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is seeking permission from the court to modify its collective bargaining agreement with UMWA. The modification would allow it to eliminate health benefits for 10,700 retirees, survivors, and family members and to reduce benefits, wages, and working conditions of its union miners to levels that are closer to those of non-union miners.

Patriot in 2007 was spun off from Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal company.

UMWA has filed suit charging that the spin-off was fraudulent. According to UMWA, the spin-off was designed to set Patriot up for failure in order to shed Peabody of retiree pension and health care costs. The spin-off resulted in Patriot assuming 43 percent of Peabody’s pension and health care liabilities but only 11 percent of its productive assets.

Many of the retirees affected by Patriot’s proposal never worked for the company.

“I never worked a day for Patriot Coal,” said Shirley Inman, a retired miner. “I don’t care what the corporate name is, those executives made us a promise: We’d mine their coal, and in exchange we’d have good health care while we worked and after we retired. I kept my promise; they should keep theirs.”

On April 2, the day after the mass march in Charlestown, Patriot creditors and Patriot itself sought permission from the bankruptcy court to further investigate the spin-off to determine whether it was fraudulent.

“Patriot is a Peabody creation,” said the creditors’ lawyers in a court filing. “Peabody selected which of its mines would become Patriot’s. Peabody determined what projections would underlie Patriot’s business plan. Peabody decided which liabilities it would retain and which it would unload onto Patriot.”

UMWA has also been holding demonstrations at Peabody’s world headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri and has launched a Fairness at Patriot campaign.

Patriot’s proposed modifications would allow it to reduce labor costs, including its obligation to retirees, significantly.

Patriot is proposing that health care coverage through the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement be eliminated. Union miners still working for Patriot would receive health care through a less generous plan that Patriot’s non-union workers have.

For retirees, Patriot proposes setting up a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA. The company would initially fund the VEBA with a $15 million lump sum payment, well below the $71 million that the company spent on retiree health care benefits in 2012. Patriot says that the VEBA could receive as much as $300 million in future profit-sharing to sustain it.

These profits, if they do materialize, will come from cuts to wages and benefits that Patriot hopes to gain through its bankruptcy filing. According to Patriot’s proposed modification, wages for its union miners would be reduced to “the compensation level of Patriot’s more than 1,200 non-union employees who perform exactly the same jobs as the UMWA-represented miners.”

Patriot acknowledges in its court filings that its proposal if accepted “will impose a very real hardship on unionized employees and retirees.”

The problem faced by UMWA members at Patriot is a problem that has become all to common. As union membership declines, workers have less power to negotiate and maintain fair collective bargaining agreements.

A decade ago union miners were about 30 percent of the coal mining workforce. Today, union miners are about 20 percent of the workforce. When the UMWA was at the height of its power, it represented even a larger percent of miners. At that time, UMWA was able to win trend setting health care benefits for members and families.

Despite the challenges facing union members, UMWA’s march for justice at Patriot has had an impact. Nearly all of West Virginia’s political leaders have lined up in support of the miners. The West Virginia House passed a resolution urging Patriot to maintain its retiree health care benefit.

“Patriot doesn’t have to go down this road,” Roberts said. “We can help Patriot solve its problems, with a solution that keeps the promises made to retired miners, and provides decent pay, benefits and working conditions to active miners.  Patriot’s problems are not rooted in competition with other coal companies, they’re rooted in not having the assets to pay Peabody’s and Arch’s (another company that spun off its retiree liabilities to Patriot) bills.”

Texas State Employees Union mobilizes members for a pension increase

Members of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 staged a mass call-in to members to the Texas House Appropriations Committee to urge them to support HB 2395, which would fully fund the pension fund for state employees and give state retirees a much needed cost-of-living pension increase, something they haven’t had since 2001.

“Unfortunately, state employee salaries have always lagged behind salaries for commensurate job duties in private industry, so we started out behind”, said TSEU member Rebecca Lutz, who worked for the Department of Health and Human Services.  “Now it has been eight years since my husband and I retired, and the price of gasoline has increased, the price of groceries have increased, utility expenses have increased, and medical expenses have increased. However, there has been no increase in our pension. As a result, our standard of living has steadily decreased, and will continue to do so, unless there is an increase to equal the cost-of-living increases.”

The Lutz’s aren’t alone in feeling the bite of higher prices. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, it would take $131 today to buy what $100 bought  in 2001.

And as Lutz points out, Texas state employees salaries lag behind salaries for comparable work in the private sector and in many local government jobs; consequently, pensions for most retired state employees are at best modest and in many cases quite low.

The median monthly pension for Texas state retirees is $1,523, and for nearly one-third of these retirees, their monthly pension is $1,000 or less before taxes and insurance deductions.

Like their active employee cohorts, retirees while they were working contributed between 6 percent and 6.5 percent of their monthly salary to their pension fund.

Most retirees recognized that the pension they earned while serving the public would be modest, but they also assumed that it would be enough to provide them some degree of retirement security.

But today’s economy has changed, and those changes have made middle-class life less secure and created challenges that threaten retirement security.

For one thing, the new economy has caused more retirees to enter retirement carrying substantial amounts of debt.

For example, the cost of a higher education has increased so much that some retirees are still paying off higher education loans for their children.

“Before I was eligible for retirement I frequently worked two jobs so I could support my children.  I was in a senior level management position but as a single parent, my salary was not adequate to meet our needs and the college expenses,” said Janice Zitelman, a TSEU member who served two terms on the Texas Employee Retirement System Board of Trustees.  “Some people say that children should begin supporting themselves when they turn 18, but most know that does not provide for a good start on adult life.  While I was working two jobs my children were also working and going to school.  When I had the  opportunity to retire I took it, knowing that I would need to continue working.  The advantage was that I had income from my pension and my new employment.  Ten years after I retired, I am still trying to pay off my children’s college education and the last one graduated in 2005.”

Alice Embree, a TSEU member who worked for the Office of the Attorney General’s Child Support Division, also found herself paying off higher education loans well into her retirement.

“My husband and I have been paying a parent plus loan off, and we’re finally done six and one-half years after I retired,” said Embree.

But Embree is also facing another challenge. Her adult daughter will be returning to Texas after working in El Salvador and will be facing some medical expenses, which Embree will likely have to pay for because her daughter doesn’t have health insurance.

She’s not alone. According to the Texas Medical Association, “Texas is the uninsured capital of the United States. More than 6.3 million Texans – including 1.2 million children – lack health insurance. Texas’ uninsurance rates (is) 1.5 to 2 times the national average.” The uninsured rate for adults between 19 and 64 in Texas is 33 percent.

Retirees like Tom Herrera, a TSEU member who worked for the Department of Human Services, are also facing increased medical expenses of their own.

“When my wife and I retired in 1998, we reduced expenses by living in a small house in East Austin,” said Herrera. “The idea was to reduce expenses in order to live on a fixed income and free of debt. But I got sick and have to take medication, whose cost has increased substantially because of  higher deductibles and higher co-pays. I recently realized that the medication costs may make it difficult to replace my vehicle which now has 89,000 miles. Despite living in a zip code in which many lower income service providers live, inflation, especially higher health care expenses, has steadily become a problem.”

Opponents of public pensions say that pensions cost too much, but the state employees’ pension is a cost efficient form of employee compensation that is good for employees, retirees, and the public.

Currently, state pension contributions to the state employee pension fund are 0.046 percent of the entire state budget. Raising the state contribution rate to 10 percent of payroll would increase the share only to 0.065 percent.

In a broadcast urging all members to participate in pension increase call-in, TSEU told members, “(The passage of HB 2395) will ensure a healthy, fully funded pension fund for all current and retired state employees and bring us closer to winning a cost of living raise for all current state retirees.”