Sunday, February 23, 2014

Union Workers Get Smacked

In case you missed it, the anti-union movement is alive, well, and gloating over its success while working people in both the public and private sectors suffer from stagnant and negative wages, more expensive benefits and the prospect of losing what dignity they have at the altar of unfettered free enterprise and wealthy-worship.

The story of the UAW's loss at the Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week because of scare tactics imposed by Republican national and state legislators is well-known. The surprising part is that VW seemed to be friendly to the idea of representation given that they had envisioned a workers council, which is prevalent in many other countries, that would protect worker's rights and act as a partner in running the plant. This could still happen, despite the right's irrational fear of unions, but it weakened the already-fragile union movement and did damage to its efforts in the south.

The picture is similarly bleak in the Midwest, as Governor Scott Walker's Wisconsin experiment is burying public union workers. A new report in the New York Times shows that many towns and cities are finding that they have more money to spend, or at least less debt, because of the anti-union laws passed in 2011, but that workers are being devastated by the law, called Act 10. In short, public unions were stripped of their collective bargaining rights on anything except salaries, but even they were to be capped at no higher than the inflation level. The result is a one-two punch.

Demoralization is the flip side of Act 10. In Oneida County in northern Wisconsin, the county supervisors jettisoned language requiring “just cause” when firing employees. Now, said Julie Allen, a computer programmer and head of the main local for Oneida County’s civil servants, morale is “pretty bad” and workers are afraid to speak out about anything, even safety issues or a revised pay scale. “We don’t have just cause,” she said. “We don’t have seniority protections. So people are pretty scared.” 

Assessing Act 10, Lisa Charbarneau, Oneida County’s director of human resources, said: “It’s been a kind of double-edged sword. It’s saved some money, but it’s hurt morale. It’s put a black eye, so to speak, on being a government employee, whether management or hourly. All government employees seem to have taken a hit, there’s this image that they’re sucking all these good benefits.”
Leah Lipska, the president of Local 1, scoffs at Mr. Walker’s famous suggestion that public employees are the “haves” in society, noting that many earn less than $35,000 a year. And the law, says Ms. Lipska, an information systems technician with the state corrections system, has made things much worse. 

“My family is now on food stamps,” said Ms. Lipska, a mother of three who earns $18.62 an hour. (Her husband’s computer installation business is struggling.)
This simply reinforces the idea that GOP orthodoxy on economics is dangerous. Taking money out of people's pockets and making them afraid to speak up because they might lose their jobs will not in any way help the economy to grow. And Scott Walker wants to be president (shudder).

Meanwhile, here in New Jersey, where the governor also wants to be president but won't be, the end of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf's term is proving rather dangerous for teacher rights. The Superintendent of Newark's schools is asking Cerf for a waiver so she can ignore seniority while making massive cuts to Newark's teaching force. Even better, or worse, is the suspicion that Anderson is doing this to protect the Teach for America teachers she's hired at the expense of more expensive, experienced educators. Anderson was a former executive at Teach for America.

This assault on both tenure and negotiated rights would be the most serious attempt by the know-nothing corporatists on the teacher's associations in the state. It would also be an opportunity for Cerf to make a final, lasting imprint on the state's education system that has already seen an ineffective evaluation system and massive cuts to school programs go into effect during his and Christie's term. My sense is that Cerf won't do it because the governor is facing multiple investigations into questionable behavior by his aides, and Christie won't need the added attention, but this would be an opportunity for both men to show their conservative bona-fides and take some eyeballs of the GW Bridge and Sandy affairs.

The bottom line is that the bottom line is guiding everything the GOP touches these days and public workers continue to be obstacles to knock over and criticize. Never mind that these are the same middle class workers who need to start spending if the economy is to make a broad rebound and will need to lead the country if it is to educate its next generation of citizens.

Can you say, "Organize?"

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Monday, February 17, 2014

The Tide's Coming In But the Cerf's Out

Anyone who's been paying attention to New Jersey politics and education should have seen this one coming from a mile away: the resignation of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. What makes it even more predictable is that he's taking a job with his good buddy, and former Education Chancellor of New York City, Joel Klein. Those two might be the only people currently working in education today who are making big time money. There's a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with improving schools.

Governor Christie is talking a good game about extending the school day and year and is making noise about having public workers contribute more to their pensions and benefits than they are now, but those proposals won't become law as long as the focus is on Sandy funds and the George Washington Bridge. The same is true of a new Charter Schools bill, vouchers and weakening employee sick day policies. Done. Over. Not going to happen. The new teacher evaluation system is up and running and is working just as poorly as those who know about the teaching profession said it was going to work, so there's not much more a Commissioner can do. Cerf is smart enough to see this, so it's goodbye for him. And I can't really blame him.

My interaction with Commissioner Cerf came last January, and I wrote about it at length here and here. In short, I was not impressed with either his answers to my questions or his attitude towards education. His main point throughout our discussion was that the state Board of Education supported him, and as long as that was the case there wasn't anything he needed to change. He had little to say about the mechanics of teaching, because he never was a teacher, so the subject was foreign to him, and he seemed to be a completely political animal, which didn't surprise me. So when the Christie Administration scandals began piling up, I figured he would be one of the first to leave because, really, there isn't going to be much else to do on education.

Whoever becomes the new chief will essentially be a caretaker for the rest of Christie's term. They'll get to oversee the implementation of the Common Core Curriculum Standards and the PARCC tests and all of the mischief that those will bring. The test scores will ruin some teachers' careers and of course there's all that Facebook money to spend in Newark, but otherwise, I don't see the Democrats caving the way they did in 2011. It will be up to the next administration, presumably, OK, hopefully, a Democratic one, to undo some of the damage. By that time, Cerf will be on to a new adventure.

Meanwhile, education professionals will be left to comply with rules that don't make sense, that don't contribute to the education of children, that saddle districts with unfunded costs associated with unproven and dangerous policies, and that reflect an attitude that doesn't trust educators to, you know, educate. That's hardly a legacy to be proud of.

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Star-Ledger to New Jersey: Oops.

We'll get right to it.

Tom Moran, the Editorial Page Editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, is now regretting the paper's endorsement of Chris Christie for Governor in 2013. Am I supposed to feel bad? Reassess my political beliefs? Cancel my subscription?

I will do none of those, but I will shake my head and lament the media landscape that deigns to recognize Chris Christie as a politician worthy of a second term. Or a first term for that matter. Many other writers have already pored over Moran's writing, and if you want a blisteringly accurate analysis of his blindness on Christie's educational policies, then please take a detour here.

I have two favorite passages from Moran's article. Here is the first:
Yes, we knew Christie was a bully. But we didn’t know his crew was crazy enough to put people’s lives at risk in Fort Lee as a means to pressure the mayor. We didn’t know he would use Hurricane Sandy aid as a political slush fund. And we certainly didn’t know that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was sitting on a credible charge of extortion by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
With all due respect to Moran, and I do agree with him on many issues, I knew that Christie was a nightmare way before he actually lulled the rest of New Jersey to sleep. He did put people's lives in danger by cutting programs to the poor, the less fortunate, and to schools by making cuts that could have been alleviated with a small increase in revenue. He did treat Sandy as a political event right after it happened and rode that wave all the way to this past November since he didn't have an economic record he could successfully run on. His YouTube videos also showed that he had no patience for anyone who disagreed with him and that he would not take any responsibility for the negative aspects of his policies. I can't speak for Kim Guadango, but she and Christie do make a wonderful team.

So when Moran says that we didn't know, he's wrong. Many of us did know and tried to make it clear what was happening. But the Christie ad machine was too well-oiled and too loud. Blame yourself, Mr. Moran. Leave the rest of us out of it.

And now for the second:
And let’s not forget his opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono. She was not up to the job of being governor — even in the view of many Democrats. She got the party’s nomination because more credible candidates, including Cory Booker, backed out in the face of Christie’s strength.
I have not forgotten Barbara Buono and the ethical, caring campaign she ran. Nor have I forgotten that she spoke about the people who make up the majority of New Jersey; people who need to work for a living and whose lives have not benefited from the governor's policies and, indeed, are being asked to give more while the wealthy are not. She was, and is, certainly up to the job of being governor.  The problem is that Moran cannot recognize the difference between a noise machine and beautiful music. That the Democratic Party did not support her is a problem that I recognized and wrote about. President Obama could have come to New Jersey, and he abdicated his responsibility. But you can't make the connection between Barbara Buono's ability to run this state with the lack of endorsements.

Governor Chrisite has always been an ego-driven bully and he has now been wounded politically. What was going to be one of his main campaign weapons, his outrageously inappropriate berating videos, will now be his greatest liability. He'll need to come up with a different persona in order to reclaim the political middle if he wants to be president, and that will be extremely difficult. Will the core conservative Republican voter shun him? Probably not, but that's not where elections are won.

Chris Christie has won his final election victory. He was always as he appears now, and it was always apparent to those of us who looked hard at his record and actions. That the Star-Ledger is just noticing tells us all we need to know about its myopia.

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The Changing Immigration Landscape

Although the main stories in the press focus on gridlock and the lack of compromise, that doesn't mean that things aren't slowly changing in the United States. As usually happens, change is driven by the people as they react to circumstances created by the politicians, and that in turn leads to more calls for change. Politicians, meanwhile, usually lag behind the grass roots calls because they are essentially reactive beings loathe to offend or move too fast.

Consider immigration. There is clearly a need to reform out immigration laws, and most of that is related to things other than a path to citizenship. The Republicans have already felt the wrath of Hispanic voters, but because most of the conservatives have safe districts, and because of their irrational fear of giving President Obama any political victory, the party doesn't full see the urgency for a vote this term.

The latest argument is that Obama is not to be trusted with the law because he's already made executive changes to the ACA, and the GOP fears that he will make similar changes to anything they negotiate with him. Now, though, they're being called out by Senator Charles Schumer. His idea is to pass the law, but have it become operative in 2017, after Obama leaves office. After all, the ACA was passed in 2010 and didn't become fully operational until 2013. Why not immigration? The GOP's answer, through Rob Portman of Ohio, seems somewhat promising, but overall the Republicans have little interest in taking voters' minds off the health care rollout, even if millions of Americans now have the security of health insurance.

Make no mistake that immigration reform will get done sooner or later. Sooner, it will be done with Republican input. Later, it will be done solely by Democrats because the growing Hispanic community will see the GOP as an obstacle. The next Republican presidential nominee had better drop the deportation rhetoric if they want to have any chance of being elected.

Meanwhile, the country will move forward with or without the politicians. As it always has.

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Christie Forecast: Cloudy With a Chance of Falling Sky

Forget about rain, snow, sleet, freezing rain or any other objects that might be falling down over the next few days in New Jersey. The real forecast is that the sky is falling on Governor Chris Christie and he has little time, and no room for error, if he wants to regain his reputation as a bully leader anytime soon.

The problem isn't that he's an able politician, because he is whether you disagree with him or not, or that he can get the Democrats to sign on to what will be his signature accomplishment, which was to raid public employees' pockets and blame them for the recession enact a pension and benefits bill that made public employees pay more for their pensions and benefits (discovered the strike through key, didn't I? OK, I'll stop).

No, the problem with Chris Christie is that his style finally caught up to him. He is a big guy with a big personality who doesn't suffer people whom he considers fools very patiently. Now his main personal strategy has him gasping for clean political air, which is usually in short supply in this state, and it's choking him.

The latest example is a memo the Governor's Office released in response to former Port Authority official and main player in the GW Bridge traffic scandal, David Wildstein, who said that he had evidence, still unreleased, that shows Christie knowing about the lane closings as they happened. That contrasts with what the governor told the public at his two hour news conference after the scandal broke.

Now, I understand that both parties play the blame game and the strategy has always been that if you're accused of something to deny it, either truthfully or to stonewall and hope the investigation shows nothing, and to attack your opponents. This memo, though, is officially in the Hall of Fame for its vacuous and lame attempt at slurring Wildstein. From the article:
The memo listed five incidents as evidence, saying that “as a 16-year-old kid,” Mr. Wildstein had sued over a school board election; that he had been “publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior”; that he had a controversial tenure as mayor of Livingston, N.J.; that he had been an anonymous blogger; and that he “had a strange habit of registering web addresses for other people’s names without telling them.”
I'm assuming that you've stopped laughing.

Suing over a school board election? Doesn't that qualify you to be in the  He-Man Government Hater's Club? What about being accused of deceptive behavior in social studies class? As a social studies teacher, I now have ultimate political power over most of the approximately 2,500 students who have sat in my classes over the years. Can't wait for some of them to run for office. Controversial politician? Like you, Governor? Anonymous blogger? Not anymore.

In sum, the governor has bupkis on this guy. If he did, he would have released it weeks ago and would have gone on the offensive as he did in most other cases. If he wanted to play hardball, he would have offered to pay Wildstein's legal fees so he could defend himself without having to out Christie with what they both know is true. Firing Wildstein, and former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly,  has now opened the governor to all kinds of problems, because those people are now trying to save their lives. Some of what they say will be wrong, but much of it will be true. And Christie knows that.

The Bridge is not the only problem the governor has because there are reports that he didn't implement the reconstruction aid program from Sandy until a full 10 months after the money was delivered to NJ. My sense is that this is going to be a bigger problem than lane closures. That was done for political payback; stalling aid to people whose houses were now in the Atlantic is far worse.

And pundits said the President had a rough fifth year. Christie's win in 2013 will be his final election victory.

For more please go to: and Twitter @rigrundfest