Political MoJo

How Common is Union Busting?

| Wed Dec. 7, 2005 5:15 PM EST

Via Nathan Newman, an organization called American Rights at Work has just released a new report showing how widespread union-busting is among American employers. Some of the findings:

  • 30% of employers fire pro-union workers.
  • 49% of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union.
  • 51% of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism.
  • 82% of employers hire unionbusting consultants to fight organizing drives.
  • 91% of employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors.
  • As Nathan says, a majority of American workers would likely join a union if given the option. Most aren't given the option. ARW argues that major changes to labor law are needed to change this—including establishing "card checks" as a process for union organization, whereby a workplace would be unionized if a majority of workers simply signed a card, plus much tougher penalties for any employer that violated labor laws. But there's also something of a catch-22 here: Effective pro-labor legislation will be very difficult to pass in Congress without a strong labor movement agitating for it, but it's hard for the labor movement to become strong so long as the law is biased against unions.

    So what to do, what to do? One of my favorite "out of the box" labor proposal comes from Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman, who have argued that "open-source unionism" is the way forward:

    [Right now,] workers typically become union members only when unions gain majority support at a particular workplace. This makes the union the exclusive representative of those workers for purposes of collective bargaining. Getting to majority status… is a struggle. The law barely punishes employers who violate it, and the success of the union drive is typically determined by the level of employer resistance. Unions usually abandon workers who are unsuccessful in their fight to achieve majority status, and they are uninterested in workers who have no plausible near-term chance of such success.

    Under open-source unionism, by contrast, unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it--maybe for a very long time. These "pre-majority" workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members. They would gain some of the bread-and-butter benefits of traditional unionism--advice and support on their legal rights, bargaining over wages and working conditions if feasible, protection of pension holdings, political representation, career guidance, access to training and so on.

    And even in minority positions, they might gain a collective contract for union members, or grow to the point of being able to force a wall-to-wall agreement for all workers in the unit. … Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed.I don't really know what the upsides and downsides of this proposal are—it looks like all upside to me, but it's certainly worth debating, rather than waiting around hoping that pro-labor Democrats will ever regain power and fiddle with the law.

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    Democrats, Politics, and Iraq

    | Wed Dec. 7, 2005 2:50 PM EST

    Yesterday, Kevin Drum took Wesley Clark to task for his New York Times op-ed laying out how to "change course" in Iraq. Indeed, read as an actual policy proposal, Clark's op-ed had nothing more than a few decent ideas punctuated by bouts of wishful thinking. It's nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, it's probably not an actual policy proposal.

    Health Care Inequality Grows

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 11:39 PM EST

    A new Health Affairs report out today. Good and bad news. Here 'tis. Good: those Americans living in relatively well-off communities, along with retirees on Medicare, are enjoying better access to health care than ever before. Cardiac and orthopedic surgery is in particular making great strides. High fives all around.

    Oh, right, the bad: both the uninsured and Medicaid recipients are receiving increasingly worse access to basic care, especially after the last recession, as states face budget crunches. For instance:

    Adhering to commitments to not give up hard-won gains in eligibility, most state Medicaid agencies have used other techniques, including reducing or freezing provider payments, eliminating certain benefits, instituting copayments, setting service limits such as total inpatient days or prescriptions covered, shrinking periods of guaranteed eligibility, and narrowing the time window for reapplying for coverage renewal.

    Medicaid payment reductions and freezes have exacerbated problems with access to key services such as mental health and dental care, as well as many types of specialty care. Applying copayments, eliminating benefits, and setting arbitrary limits on services is seen by some observers as "cost shirking," which leaves providers caring for these patients in the position of either dropping them or absorbing the cost of their uncompensated care. More commonly, providers avoid undertaking care for these patients to evade such discomforting situations.The reduced access to dental care is a critical one. Malcolm Gladwell touched on this awhile back in his New Yorker article on health insurance, but the bad effects of tooth decay, common among those who can't afford to see a dentist, start to multiply very quickly. First your teeth start turning brown and rotting, then you're pulling them out with pliers to stop the pain ("They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab a hold of them, and they work their way out"), then you can't eat fruits and vegetables, which invariably leads to further health problems, and then you can't ever land a job that requires you to be seen by other human beings—such as a bank teller, or a receptionist—since no employer will hire a receptionist with brown stumps in his or her mouth.

    Dentures are sometimes an option, but many state Medicaid programs won't cover dentures unless all your teeth have been yanked out with pliers, and if the dentures are made incorrectly and don't fit quite right, an adjustment can cost hundreds of dollars—it's usually cheaper just to toss the ill-fitting dentures in a drawer than shell out $200. So "problems with access to… dental care" are a big deal.

    The Health Affairs study also notes that public mental health services have been cut in recent years. In Orange County, pop. 3,000,000, the county mental health agency has a crisis inpatient unit of exactly 10 beds. For instance. I'm guessing it's obvious how and why these cuts can be devastating, but it's worth adding that in the absence of a decent public mental health system, throwing a person in jail often becomes the primary way to treat the mentally ill—after all, state health budgets may have an upper bound, but the sky's the limit for the correctional system, even during a downturn. Needless to say, prison mental health services are often only slightly less humane than kicking a homeless guy in the stomach.

    At any rate, Medicaid access is getting marginally better of late thanks to the recovery, as state deficits start to shrink, but the program is still in a shaky state, especially since more and more Americans are losing their private insurance and signing up for the program. (Well that, and Republicans are wetting themselves over cutting billions from the program to show how "bold" they are about reining in spending.) Inequality in both access to and quality from care is widening all across the country. The only real question is whether the Health Affairs authors are right to be so cynical when they say that they believe "U.S. society is prepared to tolerate trading off pursuing excellence for some, at the expense of deteriorating care for others."

    The Impact of Urban Sprawl

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 10:27 PM EST

    A while back, Witold Rybczynski wrote an article in Slate about how urban sprawl was inevitable, had happened throughout history, and was impossible to stop. Naturally, it was pointed out that while that might be true, not all sprawl was created equal. Some forms are worse than others. A random bit of clicking around the World Bank's site dredged up this old study which can make some of the differences here a bit more palpable.

    To see what we're dealing with here, take Boston (for some reason there's incomplete data on San Francisco). Boston's already a fairly spread-out city, but if its "population centrality" was as spread-out as Atlanta's, Bostonians would be driving about 9 percent more. Public transit also matters: If Boston had Atlanta's rail system, total driving would increase by about 5 percent. (If it had a transit system as shoddy as, say, Dallas', there would be even more driving.) The distribution of jobs to housing matters too. Boston has a very even mix in this regard, but if it was to become more unbalanced like, say, Washington D.C., driving would increase by roughly 9 percent. (I'm eyeballing the calculations here.)

    That doesn't seem like such a big deal, but taken together, these changes start to have a real impact—the authors point out that if you could wave a magic wand and make Atlanta similar to Boston, then total driving per household would decrease by 25 percent. Obviously no one has a magic wand, and maybe people prefer living in Atlanta-type cities to Boston-type cities, although who can fathom why, but it's certainly something to consider.

    Kansas City boy suspended from school for speaking Spanish during recess

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 9:49 PM EST

    Zach Rubio, a student at Turner School District's Endeavor School in Kansas City, Kansas, was recently suspended for two days because he spoke Spanish during recess, which, among other things, is not against school policy. Despite Zach's not breaking any rules, however, the principal, Jennifer Watts, explained: "We are not in Mexico, we are not in Germany."

    Where are we, Ms. Watts? Oh...I almost forgot, we're in Kansas, where the schools are dedicated to teaching nonsense, and the line separating church and state gets thinner every day. Why not go ahead and prohibit students from speaking their native languages?

    In fairness to the Kansas school system, Zach was allowed to return to school once news of the suspension reached Superintendent of Schools Bobby Allen. His father is waiting for an official apology, but isn't likely to get it. Principal Watts will not talk with the local newspaper. Feel free to drop her a line and see if she'll talk with you. Just don't email her in Spanish.

    Poll Numbers on Torture

    Tue Dec. 6, 2005 8:36 PM EST

    A growing number of Americans think torture and physical abuse are acceptable tactics in the war on terror. A newly released Associated Press poll finds that a shocking sixty-one percent of Americans think the use of torture can be justified to obtain intelligence from suspected terrorists. Assuming the polls and methodologies are comparable, that marks an increase over last year, when an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only thirty-five percent of Americans thought torture was a justifiable policy.

    Americans are apparently not alone, according to the AP: A majority of those surveyed in South Korea, Britain, France and Germany agreed that torture is a useful tool in the war on terror, in addition to large minorities of 37-49 percent in Canada, Mexico, Italy and Spain. However, allies abroad differ with Americans over secret detention centers. While a striking sixty-three percent of Americans said they would support the secret detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects for intelligence, in each of the foreign countries previously mentioned large majorities would oppose such U.S. operations on their soil.

    That disagreement is a continued sore point as Secretary Rice travels through Europe to sell a difficult diplomatic message that neither confirms nor denies recent allegations that the CIA is operating secret interrogation sites on former Soviet facilities. Meanwhile, according to a recent ABC report, the US has already moved the detainees in Eastern European detention facilities to undisclosed locations in Northern Africa, completing the relocation quickly before Secretary Rice arrived in Berlin for a four-day effort to rehabilitate US-European relations.

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    Military Resists Weapons Cuts

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 3:04 PM EST

    More fascinating news on the military budget front. The Wall Street Journal reports today (page A1) that the Air Force is going to cut 30,000 to 40,000 personnel over the next decade in order to save some of its big-ticket weapons programs:

    To stay within its expected budget, the Air Force is planning to cut at least 30,000, and perhaps as many as 40,000, uniformed personnel, civilians and contractor-support staff through fiscal 2011, military officials said. The exact composition of the cuts isn't known, though their thrust is clear: "This is one way to pay the bills without messing around with our weapons programs," said one official involved in the Air Force budget.
    It looks like the Air Force will use that money to keep both the Joint Strike Fighter program—a costly purchase that was once called "unexecutable" by the GAO—along with a system of "missile-warning satellites" built by Lockheed that has been years late and costing "more than three times as much as its initial $3 billion budget." Both programs were under fire from the Pentagon but it seems the Air Force managed to deflect the axe by going after personnel instead. And yes, in case anyone was wondering, "the shift is good news for the nation's major defense contractors." As I recall, about a month ago, the Army proposed something similar in response to the Pentagon's demands for $11.7 billion in cuts from them: the service offered to reduce its force structure, at a time when the Army is already stretched thin, rather than touch its own procurement budget.

    Now perhaps someone knows better than I, and surely there are a lot of ins and outs involved here, but it sure looks like defense contracts are dictating the type of military we have, rather than the other way around...

    The Truth About Rendition

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 2:34 PM EST

    It would be a full-time job to catalogue all the lies that come out of the Bush administration. But here are two important ones. Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings calls the president on his statement today that "we do not render [detainees] to countries that torture." Not even the most Clintonian parsing of that statement could make that true.

    Meanwhile, in the Christian Science Monitor, Tom Regan swats down Condoleeza Rice's claims about rendition, and compiles evidence that innocent detainees have been captured, rendered abroad, and tortured. Numbers are hard to come by, but here's one attempt:

    One [US] official said about three dozen names fall in that category [those mistakenly detained]; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by Al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the Al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

    "They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.

    Alito and Executive Power

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 2:23 PM EST

    Dahlia Lithwick has an important piece today in Slate, trying to figure out how Samuel Alito would rule in various "war on terror" cases if he ever makes it to the Supreme Court. Alito doesn't have a lot of experience in this area, but when the opportunity has arisen, the man has always—always—ruled in favor of greater police and government power. Odds are he'll side with the president when Bush wants the power to detain people without charging them, or ask for a "blank check" during a state of war—something that previous Courts have refused to give him.

    Back when it looked like Harriet Miers was going to be the nominee, I wrote a long-ish post noting that an expansion of executive power has always been a longtime Republican goal, and Alito looks like he's willing to further that. It's not just "war on terror" powers; the GOP has long wanted executive privileges in secrecy matters and the power to control the executive branch free from congressional oversight. While Alito's views on Roe v. Wade will certainly take up the bulk of the time in his upcoming Senate hearings—and in a just world, the Democrats would filibuster him for it—but his views on executive power should get a thorough scouring as well.

    Fun with Defense Contracting

    | Mon Dec. 5, 2005 4:32 PM EST

    David Cloud's report in the New York Times today about the Navy's plans for future shipbuilding is interesting for two reasons. First, there's the surface reason: the Navy appears to be scaling back its plans for a war with China, and adjusting its procurement budget so that the service can play "a greater role in counterterrorism and humanitarian operations." A while back, Defense Industry Daily did a profile of the Littoral Combat Ships that seem to be the centerpiece of this new look, so that gives some of the flavor here. But Cloud's report is also of interest because you can detect undertones of the Navy's growing budgetary conflict with Congress.

    The Navy has been slowly losing the battle to preserve its funding over the past few years, partly because both the Bush administration and many members of Congress don't seem to believe that ships and submarines are wholly relevant to the so-called global war on terror, and partly because shipbuilding has become hideously expensive. The Navy's FY2006 budget requested only four new ships, scaled back from the six they were planning to request the year before, and well below the eight per year that naval officials would reportedly prefer. (Figure it this way: If ships have an average life span of 35 years, then the current fleet of around 281 ships will need to buy 8 new ships every year to maintain itself.)

    But Congress has had other ideas, and in March asked the Navy to provide two future shipbuilding plans: one, for 325 ships, seems to be the one the Navy is telling the Times about, for obvious reasons. The other was a much smaller plan to pare the current fleet down to 260 ships by 2035. The CBO compared the two plans here: one major difference is that the 325-ship plan has far more "surface combatants," which, for anyone less-than-convinced about the coming war with China or Russia, probably look a bit less than necessary. Judging from recent defense budget debates, Congress appears to be leaning closer to the 260 ship, with the Senate as always being more generous with spending than the House.

    The main concern seems to be that shipbuilding costs are ballooning far beyond what anyone envisioned. Not surprisingly, the Soviet-style command economy hasn't worked very well for the defense industry. The Navy had earlier proposed, as a way of keeping its costs down, that two shipyards compete for the right to build all DD(X) destroyers, rather than let the two facilities "share" production, without any incentive to compete. Naturally, twenty members of Congress opposed the idea, since competition would defeat the "share the wealth" mentality that supports inefficient contracts. At least this year, the House tried to put a stop to some of these inefficiencies by imposing cost ceilings on future ships, but ultimately these debates often come down to which members of Congress need contracting jobs for their constituents, and how powerful those members are. (After all, the supposedly "budget-conscious" House also marked up an additional $2.5 billion for two DDG-51 destroyers.)

    Worth noting, though: it's always a leap of faith to try to guess whether Congress is really scaling back the procurement budget, as it appears to have done for FY2006. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out that many procurement costs may have just been shoved into the future. A favorite trick is "incremental" funding, where Congress appropriates only part of the money needed to complete a ship, figuring that the rest will get added on in later years (after all, if the Navy only needs a couple million more to finish up a nuclear submarine, who's going to say no?).

    Back to Cloud's original story, though it's also not exactly clear whether the Navy really needs to build 32 new ships, at a cost of an extra $13 billion a year, by 2020. I certainly don't know, but it's a question worth asking. A June 2005 CRS report on naval transformation lays out some of the issues being debated here. On the one hand, the Navy has been trying to change in a lot of ways you'd expect, so that it can do things like operate in coastal areas and improve its response time. This certainly came in handy with the Navy's rapid response to the tsunami in Indonesia last year, a move that probably did as much for national security as anything else the military's done since 2002. On the other hand, the Navy seems to be placing a fair bit of emphasis on "strategic defense against ballistic missiles," which usually leads to some dubious spending decisions.