Public Employees and the Public Interest

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1900

Well before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began his unholy crusade, the Right was heavily promoting its claim that public employee unions are a threat to the public. The title of a 2009 book by conservative ideologue Steven Greenhut said it all: Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

What the union bashers are trying to obscure is that public employees have a long history of supporting policies that promote the broad public interest. This goes back to the very roots of the public employee union movement.

In the 1890s teachers in Chicago created a federation that became the first real teachers union and one of the pioneers of public employee unionism in general. When the federation, led by Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin (illustration), was confronted with a move by the board of education to cut teacher salaries because of a purported fiscal crisis, the teachers responded to the claim of a revenue shortfall in a creative way. They launched an intensive investigation of tax dodging by some of the largest corporations in the city, finding that property tax underpayments amounted to some $4 million a year (serious money back then).

Tax officials were reluctant to crack down on powerful business interests, so the teachers sued, eventually winning a favorable ruling in the Illinois Supreme Court (though the U.S. Supreme Court later went the other way).

A cynic might say that the teachers were simply acting in their self-interest by finding a new revenue source that would help restore their lost wages. Yet their goal was also to find funds that could improve conditions in the schools—and those conditions were truly abysmal. In his 1975 history of the American Federation of Teachers, William Edward Eaton writes that in the 1890s:

The teachers of Chicago daily faced the horrors of overcrowded, unsanitary buildings stuffed with too many children and controlled by an impersonal bureaucratic structure. This they did with poor pay, no job security, and no pension system.

The efforts of teacher organizations to address these problems, through collective bargaining as well as tax justice campaigns, also redounded to the benefit of the students and their families.

The Chicago teachers were also an important force in the passage of the Illinois Child Labor Law of 1903. That cynic might say this was aimed at boosting school enrollment and increasing the demand for teachers. Maybe so, but can anyone deny that banning child labor was also a boon for society as a whole, aside from sweatshop proprietors?

In the decades that followed, unions of teachers and other government employees have been among the strongest advocates of a vibrant public sector. They have continued to be leading critics of corporate tax dodging and opponents of efforts to gut public services. Unions such as AFSCME have been at the forefront of campaigns to stop the contracting out of government functions and the privatization of public assets such as highways—practices that usually work to the detriment of taxpayers as well as public employees.

The state and local public employee unions accomplished this against all odds. Denied the protection of the National Labor Relations Act, they had to get states one-by-one to recognize their right to organize—the right that is at risk in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It took a period of remarkable militancy in the 1960s and 1970s—including defiance of laws banning strikes by public employees—before they made significant progress. Among those strikes was the 1968 walkout by sanitation workers in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting to show his support when he was assassinated.

And even then there were often severe fiscal limits on the ability of public employees to bargain for substantial wage gains. To compensate, many public unions put more emphasis on securing better retirement benefits for their members. These pension rights—in effect, deferred wages—are now under attack as if they were some giant giveaway.

The real giveaways are the lavish business tax cuts and corporate subsidies that the likes of Gov. Walker promote at the same time that they are demanding severe concessions from government workers. The great confrontation of 2011 comes down a question of whose interests are more closely aligned with those of the public at large: those who teach our children, drive our buses and put out fires in our homes—or superwealthy individuals and large corporations that are reluctant to create new jobs.

With each passing day, the momentum is moving in favor of the descendants of the 1890s Chicago teachers who are fighting for their rights and for the public interest in Madison, Columbus and other capitals across the nation.

Note:  A new movement called US Uncut is organizing actions around the country calling for a crackdown on corporate tax dodging as an alternative to harmful cuts in government programs such as education.

Sucked Into the Offshoring Whirlpool

Critics of the $787 billion Recovery Act complain it is not doing enough to revive the economy, but they rarely ask why the companies that are receiving stimulus contracts and grants are not hiring more people. Now one of those recipients is facing a growing controversy over its employment practices in a case that helps explain why jobs remain in short supply.

Appliance maker Whirlpool is under fire from organized labor for its decision to shut down a 1,100-worker refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana and shift the work to a company factory in Mexico. The announcement was actually made last August, but it did not get national attention until recently, when union activists realized that Whirlpool had been given a $19.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart appliances.” The funding was part of the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion pot of money to encourage the development of the smart transmission grid.

The grant was not directed to the Evansville plant, but unions are nonetheless indignant that a company engaged in exporting jobs to a foreign low-wage location is receiving federal aid. The company made things worse for itself by warning workers not to participate in a planned protest demonstration featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union at the plant, IUE-CWA Local 808, has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the warning.

This situation shows the difficulty of using stimulus funds or other incentives to generate employment at a time when so many large corporations no longer have an interest in producing things in the United States.

Consider Whirlpool. For decades its production activities were almost entirely located in the USA. In the 1980s that began to change as the company started to focus more on overseas markets. It bought large shares in the Canadian company Inglis, Mexico’s Vitromatic and then the European appliance business of the Dutch company Philips. In 1990 Forbes wrote that Whirlpool was “going global—with a vengeance.”

If Whirlpool’s foreign expansion was meant only to meet demand in foreign markets, that would be one thing. But the company began a process of reducing its manufacturing in the United States and other developed countries while increasing it in foreign low-wage havens. One of its favorite havens was Mexico. In the late 1980s the company closed numerous U.S. plants and shifted production to Mexican maquiladora plants. In 1996 the plant in Evansville lost about 265 jobs when some refrigerator production was moved to Mexico. In 2003 Whirlpool shifted some production from its facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas to a new plant south of the border.

The latter move came a decade after a bitter dispute between the company and the workers in Fort Smith represented by the Allied Industrial Workers union. In 1989 Whirlpool unilaterally imposed concessions on members of AIW’s Local 370, prompting the union to launch a national boycott of the company. In 1991 the head of the local confronted Whirlpool executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting, calling on them to abandon their “narrow-minded, shortsighted, union-busting behavior.” The dispute was not settled until 1993.

In 2006 the Evansville and Fort Smith plants lost a total of about 1,200 jobs to Mexico.  Or, in the antiseptic terms of Whirlpool’s press release: “The company also is adjusting its workforce levels at several of its North American manufacturing facilities to optimize production levels and take advantage of its expanded manufacturing footprint.”

In other words, the current shutdown plan in Evansville is just the latest in a series of “adjustments” by which Whirlpool is ridding itself of decently paid U.S. workers and replacing them with much cheaper labor abroad. The 1,100 losing their jobs are the remnant of a Whirlpool workforce in Evansville that back in the early 1970s totaled nearly 10,000 (photo). Companywide, 26 of Whirlpool’s 37 production facilities are now located outside the United States.

It did not seem to occur to Whirlpool that there was anything unseemly about accepting federal stimulus funds at a time when it was closing a domestic plant. In fact, something similar happened seven years ago. In 2003, during a period when the downsizing of the Evansville plant was already under way, the company accepted a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy – via the Indiana Department of Commerce – to help develop a new manufacturing process for energy-efficient refrigerators produced in Evansville (source: Associated Press, February 8, 2003 via Nexis).

Until the federal government is prepared to do something serious about offshoring, it should at least refrain from giving financial assistance to firms that engage in the practice, even if the aid is going to a different part of the company—and even if it is for a laudable purpose such as promoting energy efficiency. The federal government now has a (non-public) contractor misconduct database to help it avoid giving procurement awards to bad actors. Perhaps there should also be a list of job-exporting companies which would be ineligible for federal aid until they reaffirm their commitment to domestic production.

ARRA as a Corporate Rescue Plan

A war of words is raging over the impact of the Obama Administration’s $787 billion stimulus program, which is now one-year old. Conservative members of Congress are mounting a relentless assault on what they see as an abject failure, even as many of them unabashedly promote and at least implicitly take credit for individual American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) projects in their home districts.

Meanwhile, the office of Vice President Joe Biden has issued a report insisting that ARRA has created or saved 2 million jobs and has brought many states back from the brink of fiscal disaster. The stimulus effort, Biden insists, “is going well.”

The debate boils down to an age-old disagreement between those opposed to allegedly wasteful social spending and those who believe government has to reinforce the social safety net during a time of economic distress.

Both sides are ignoring the fact that ARRA, to a significant degree, is a rescue plan not just for unemployed workers and struggling state governments, but also for parts of corporate America. This goes far beyond the roughly $50 billion in business tax breaks that Republicans last year insisted be part of the plan.

The Recovery Act represents a big step in the direction of what was once called industrial policy. Billions of ARRA dollars are being used by the federal government to encourage the development of new industries in areas such as renewable energy and health information technology that are seen as the foundation of future economic growth. Billions more are being spent on traditional procurement contracts to boost private-sector activity.

Here are some examples of larger injections of ARRA funds going directly to the corporate sector:


Hemlock Semiconductor, a joint venture of Dow Corning (itself a joint venture of Dow Chemical and Corning Inc.) and two Japanese companies: $141 million for the production in Michigan of polycrystalline silicon used in solar panels.

Wacker Polysilicon North America LLC, a subsidiary of the German chemical company Wacker Chemie: $128 million for a plant in Tennessee that will produce polysilicon for solar cells.

United Technologies Corporation, the big military contractor: $110 million for new equipment at its Pratt & Whitney plants to help produce more energy-efficient jet engines.

Alstom, the big French power and transportation equipment firm: $63 million for a Tennessee facility that will produce the world’s largest steam turbines for nuclear power plants.


Johnson Controls: $299 million for work on nickel-cobalt-metal battery cells

A123 Systems Inc.: $249 million for work on nano-iron phosphate cathode powder and electrode coatings.

General Motors: $105 million for production of high-volume battery packs for the GM Volt.


American Electric Power Company: $334 million for the development of a chilled ammonia process to capture CO2 at a power plant in West Virginia.

Southern Company Services: $295 million for the retrofitting of a CO2 capture installation at a coal-fired power plant in Alabama.


ION HoldCo LLC, a partnership led by Sovernet Communications: a $39 million grant to expand fiber-optic broadband in rural areas of upstate New York.

Biddeford Internet Corp. (dba GWI): a $25 million grant to extend a fiber-optic network to rural and disadvantaged parts of Maine.


Solyndra Inc.: a $535 million loan guarantee to support the construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing facility for cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels.


Lockheed Martin: $165 million to work on the crew vehicle for NASA’s Project Orion.

Clark Construction Group: $152 million to design and build a new headquarters for the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, DC.

General Motors: $104 million to supply light trucks, station wagons and alternative fuel vehicles to the General Services Administration.

GlaxoSmithKline: $62 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to do research on the H1N1 flu vaccine.

To this list can be added the thousands of contracts that states have awarded to private companies to carry out ARRA-funded activities such as highway repair, school construction and environmental remediation.

It is surprising that there has been so little debate on the relative merits of all these projects and programs – as well as on the wisdom of providing direct subsidies to profit-making entities. Are these grants, contracts, tax credits and loan guarantees a smart investment in the future or nothing more than business boondoggles?

With a significant portion of the Recovery Act going to aid corporations, we also have a right to ask why they are not creating more jobs with the taxpayer funds they have received. It would also be helpful to know – though the limitations of ARRA data collection make this difficult – how good are the jobs that have been created (in terms of wages and benefits) and whether those jobs are being equitably distributed among different portions of the population.

If we are ever going to reach any meaningful conclusions about the whole stimulus endeavor, we’ve got to go beyond tired debates about Big Government versus the Free Market. Like the bailout of the banks and the auto companies, ARRA is changing the relationship between the public and private sectors. Now we need to know whether the new arrangement is working and who is reaping the benefits.

Can the Redlining of U.S. Workers Be Stopped?

wind turbineWe’re meant to believe that corporations make their investment decisions based on carefully considered financial and competitive considerations. Yet a recent announcement by a Chinese manufacturer of turbines for wind energy shows how political pressure can quickly change business priorities.

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announced that it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large wind farm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a long series of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reports that the group launching the $1.5 billion project—a joint venture of China’s Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equity firm U.S. Renewable Energy Group—was intending to take advantage of U.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texas wind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much bigger employment impact—2,000 to 3,000 jobs—would be felt at A-Power’s factories in China.

The ensuing uproar—with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond—got the joint venture’s attention. While not abandoning the plan to import turbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable Energy Group announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That’s good news for the job-starved American economy, but all the attention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problems concerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farms does not generate much employment—once built, they basically run themselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing the turbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric, large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic production of these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms such as Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo (Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solar components. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon—and have often received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on this sector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. For example, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily in Colorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solar manufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domestic production have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor. Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealed that it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavily subsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It would follow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, which already does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites, which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It’s also not the case that foreign firms are always worse than domestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Within the wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weaken their unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMI Industries, which fought a Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain’s Gamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania to unionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company is foreign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S. workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing the components of the economy of the future.

Corporate Cookie Monsters

hartongThe Pyrrhic victory achieved by the Stella D’Oro workers in the Bronx — they won an eleven-month strike but are slated to lose their jobs anyway — says a lot about what is wrong with American capitalism.

One lesson is obvious: there is no fairness in a collective bargaining system in which employers can make unreasonable demands (which in this case included a 20 percent pay cut and elimination of paid vacation and sick days), pretend to bargain until an impasse is reached and then bring in strikebreakers when the workers are compelled to walk off the job.

The Stella D’Oro situation was unusual in that a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge finally ordered the reinstatement of the strikers, but that was only because he found that management failed to provide the union, Local 50 of the Bakery Workers, an audited financial statement to substantiate company claims of financial distress.

Whatever satisfaction the workers, who exhibited amazing solidarity during the strike, took in the NLRB ruling was dampened by the company’s subsequent announcement that it plans to shut down the plant, which has been in operation for more than half a century. The company abided by its WARN Act notice obligation, but in the current economic climate it will be difficult for workers to find other employment within 90 days.

Much has been made of the fact that Stella D’Oro is now owned by Brynwood Partners, one of those bloodsucking private equity firms. Brynwood — headed by Hendrik Hartong Jr. (photo) — certainly deserves plenty of scorn for its treatment of the workers. This is a firm, after all, that did not hesitate to accept taxpayer funds in the form of a 2008 Manufacturing Assistance Grant of $175,000 from the Empire State Development Corporation. It has also received property tax abatements from New York City.

Apparently Brynwood, whose website brags that its investments have earned a 28.8 percent overall rate of return, thought it was under no obligation to give back to the community and to its workers. It is unfortunate that among the investors in Brynwood are public pension funds such as the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System.

While the Stella D’Oro dispute is certainly a case of private equity behaving badly, it should be admitted that the cookie company was not always a model employer under its previous owner, publicly traded Kraft Foods, which in 2006 sold the business to Brynwood. In 2002 and 2003 Teamsters Local 550, which represented the company’s delivery drivers, clashed with Stella D’Oro management during negotiations on a new contract. The Teamsters struck the company in February 2003 to block what the union said was a plan to replace union drivers with non-union ones, and soon the walkout spread to other Kraft facilities in the New York metropolitan area. It appears the union got crushed.

The behavior of the Cookie Monsters who have run Stella D’Oro shows that removing barriers to union organizing is not the only urgent task for labor law reform. The system also needs to be changed to prevent unscrupulous employers from undermining unions already in place.

Once High-Flying Developers Now Looking for Federal Aid

Opponents of the auto industry bailout, who warned that it would prompt other business sectors to ask for similar consideration, are probably feeling vindicated. Only days after the Bush Administration did an end run around Senate Republicans and agreed to provide a Detroit rescue package using bank bailout funds, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that commercial real estate developers are seeking their own federal assistance package. They are warning that, without such aid, thousands of office complexes, shopping centers, hotels and the like could join the country’s foreclosure tsunami.

There’s one major difference between the auto industry and commercial real estate that justifies a bailout for one and not the other: the number and quality of jobs at stake. The Big Three provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs (too well-paying according to certain Southern Senators) that have helped workers achieve a middle-class standard of living. Real estate developers, by contrast, are primarily responsible for substandard retail and janitorial positions. While the Service Employees International Union has helped improve wages and benefits for some building services workers, most of those jobs don’t take people far out of poverty. While it would be a shame for janitors and clerks to lose their jobs, preserving those positions does not have the same urgency as saving the estimated 1.2 million direct and indirect jobs linked to the Big Three.

Rather than bailing out their employers, it would make more sense to use federal funds to help retail and janitorial workers find better jobs elsewhere in the economy. In the speculative boom of recent years, the real estate business built far too many office buildings and shopping centers, and many of those properties will probably not survive the current shakeout. While there is a strong case that the country needs a domestic auto industry, it is much harder to argue that every commercial property needs to be kept in operation.

And if Congress does decide it is necessary to prevent a commercial real estate meltdown, it should keep in mind that these same developers now looking for aid have repeatedly pressured local governments for property tax abatements and other subsidies. A report I wrote last year (with two colleagues) on the big mall owner General Growth Properties, which is now struggling to survive, found that the company had received more than $200 million in such subsidies and another $9 million in savings as a result of aggressive filing of property tax assessment appeals. Previous (unpublished) research I did on the country’s largest mall operator, Simon Properties, found $380 million in subsidies and savings from assessment appeals. In both cases, the data come from an examination of only a portion of the malls owned by the company. Also remember that Wal-Mart used a gimmick called captive real estate investment trusts to avoid paying an estimated $2.3 billion in state taxes.

Perhaps Congress should require developers to use part of any bailout to repay the subsidies they received from local governments that are now facing dire fiscal conditions.

But even that would not provide a compelling case for a commercial real estate bailout. In a country that still hasn’t devised a comprehensive plan for stopping home foreclosures, we shouldn’t be worrying about saving the owners of superfluous office towers and big box stores.

Richard Shelby: United States Senator or Foreign Corporate Agent?

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby has emerged as the leader of Republican opposition to a federal rescue of the Big Three U.S. automakers. Shelby would have us believe that his position flows out of a deep belief in market forces. “The strength of the American system,” he said recently,” is it allows us to take risks—to create, to innovate, to grow, to succeed and sometimes to fail.”

While Shelby (seen in photo with Saddam Hussein) is credited by some for consistency in that he also opposed the big federal bailout of financial institutions, he’s been called a hypocrite because his home state lavished major economic development subsidies on Asian and European automakers—a total of more than $750 million to Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai over the past 15 years. These transplants, all non-union, have given the Yellowhammer State one of the country’s largest auto sectors, albeit one that is foreign controlled.

Shelby insists that Alabama’s handouts to the foreign automakers are not relevant to the current debate, but what he and his critics are both ignoring is that the funds channeled to the likes of Mercedes and Honda have not been only state and local. The federal government has also provided assistance to the transplants, and Shelby, along with other members of the Alabama Congressional delegation, helped that happen.

A stroll through the archives of Alabama’s newspapers on Nexis makes this clear. In 1993, when Mercedes was lured to the state with a $250 million incentive package, Shelby praised the deal, stating: “Alabama put together a smart investment package that in both the short and long term will yield solid results for our state” (Birmingham News, 9/29/93). Federal money helped pay for some of the highway improvements that were promised to Mercedes to make the site more appealing (Birmingham News, 10/21/93).

In 1999, when Honda was induced to build a plant in Alabama with a $250 million package of its own, the Alabama delegation quickly mobilized. On May 7, 1999, Michael Brumas of the Birmingham News reported: “Alabama members of Congress said Thursday they will be looking for ways the federal government can help underwrite part of the costs associated with building the new Honda plant at Lincoln. And the lawmakers pledged to help the automaker maneuver through the federal bureaucracy as it prepares to build the plant.” The article said Shelby, as chair of a transportation appropriations subcommittee, was expected to funnel money for road projects near the site.

In 2001, when the Korean automaker Hyundai was deciding where to locate its first U.S. plant, Shelby and other members of the Alabama delegation met with the company (Birmingham News, 10/11/01). After the state won the plant with yet another package of around $250 million, Shelby arranged for $445,000 in federal funds to go to the Alabama Tombigbee Regional Commission, which planned to arrange free bus and van service to take construction workers to the Hyundai site (Montgomery Advertiser, 9/10/02). And these are only the cases that found their way into the press.

Shelby is far from the only senator to have used his office to arrange for federal funds to help a company in his state. But the fact that Shelby has worked so hard for the foreign automakers and now opposes measures deemed necessary to protect the jobs of three million American workers in the auto industry and related sectors makes one wonder whether he should be seen as a U.S. Senator or a foreign corporate agent.