August 2, 2002

Solidarity Helps Ensure Security


WALTHAM, Mass. -- "Solidarity forever": The dramatic rescue of nine coal miners trapped 240 feet underground in Pennsylvania last weekend gives new meaning to the historic rallying cry of the American labor movement. Rescue crews used sophisticated machinery to pump out freezing water and pump in warm air to keep the men alive. They relied on huge drills to dig deep below the surface, and on medical helicopters to transport the rescued men to the hospital.

Ultimately, however, it was not modern technology but the miners' determination and teamwork that enabled them to endure cold, water and hunger during their 77-hour ordeal. The nine pressed against each other and sat back-to-back "anything to produce body heat," according to one of the survivors. They shared what little food they had, agreed on a strategy (to seek higher ground rather than fight their way through the water) and buoyed each other's spirits. They even tethered themselves together with rope so that they would "live or die as a group," one of them said. Under the circumstances, individualism would have been deadly.

The miners' story riveted the attention of a nation at war with terrorism and eager for good news. But it provides us with more than just a happy ending. What happened in Pennsylvania shows us the value not only of solidarity but also of unions.

The Bush administration seems to believe that collective action on the part of workers -- and specifically the right of certain federal workers to join a union -- is a potential threat to national security. The president favors a plan for the proposed Department of Homeland Security that would allow for "managerial flexibility." Many critics contend this would mean that the new department's 170,000 employees would lose civil service protection and with it the right to form and join a union.

About a quarter of the new employees already belong to unions of some kind. According to the administration plan, the head of the new department, together with the Office of Personnel Management, would devise a new personnel system that would facilitate the hiring and firing of workers.

Presumably the nation cannot afford the luxury of a homeland security work force that wields some power over the terms and conditions of its own labor wages, hours and benefits. Such a possibility, the president seems to be suggesting, would hamstring the federal government and weaken the nation's ability to respond effectively to threats both internal and external.

But unions make a workplace both safer and more efficient. In 1907, for example, 239 Pennsylvania miners were killed in a single explosion, and over the next half century, an average 400 miners died every year in Pennsylvania in mine accidents. But mine safety regulations and modern mining equipment -- the result of the organizing and relentless prodding of the United Mine Workers of America -- substantially reduced the number of mining fatalities. Nationwide, there were only 42 in 2001.

Still, some might argue that the United Mine Workers might have had a role to play decades ago, when mining was a dangerous occupation for hundreds of thousands of men, but those days are long past. In the early 21st century, few workers find themselves in life-threatening situations day in and day out. Thus, the argument goes, unions are less necessary. The proportion of American employees who belong to unions today -- about 13 percent -- is down from its historic high of about a third of the total work force in the early 1950's.

This notion that unions are superfluous -- or, worse, somehow subversive to the nation's well-being -- is deeply troubling. By denying Homeland Security employees the right to union membership, the federal government would be emulating business practices that seek to keep workers separate from one another and make it difficult to speak or act with one voice on their own behalf.

Yet historically, unions have facilitated unit cohesiveness, to use a military term. They enable people who care about each other to cooperate better and to advance their own interests and those of the organization; they help workers put the needs of the group over personal desires. Presumably this is just the kind of work force we want in the war against terrorism.

The labor movement's hard-won struggle for legitimacy -- enshrined in the New Deal's Wagner Act of 1935 -- represents not just a milestone for organized labor. It is a landmark in the history of American civil rights. And it is the preservation of those rights that is one of our central goals in the war against terrorism. Which raises the larger question: Just what sort of "homeland security" does the new department seek to protect?

Jacqueline Jones is a professor of history at Brandeis University and author of "American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
  Aug. 22, 2002, 11:57PM

Retirees devastated as promised insurance goes poof


WHEN the Simpson Pasadena Paper Co. sold its plant three years ago, David Wilson took early retirement so he could continue to receive medical insurance. It was an attractive offer for Wilson, who was 56 at the time, because he and his wife would have insurance until they would be covered by Medicare at age 65. But that tidy arrangement abruptly ended this summer when Wilson, along with 180 other employees, received a letter from the company saying they'd have to start paying $150 a month per person in premiums for health insurance. And, the plan wouldn't begin to cover their bills until they had first paid $1,000 in deductibles for physician services and $200 in deductibles for prescription drugs. And even this reduced plan will end in two years. "It's been devastating," said David Wilson, who worked for the paper mill for 33 years and lives in Manvel. "We took a beating sometimes on wages to keep our insurance," said Wilson, who collects $360 a month from his pension. "Then we end up like this: They try to cancel on you." Wilson has found another job, repairing garage doors. But the loss of insurance is a big worry because like many other early retirees, his new employer doesn't offer the benefits. To make matters worse, his wife, Dana, was laid off from her customer service job at Reliant in April. Skyrocketing insurance costs have pushed other employers to make substantial changes to their benefit plans. John A. Markson, a benefits consultant at Towers Perrin in Houston, said he has seen several companies scaling back coverage, increasing deductibles or charging more for premiums. The news is a shock to retirees because when the plant was sold, Simpson officials told employees that the only way they could get the insurance was to take early retirement, said J.C. Johnson, executive vice president of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Local 4-1 in Pasadena. They assumed that if they signed up for early retirement, they'd get the insurance until they reached 65, said Johnson, who faxed over some of the correspondence. But Cliff Slade, human resources manager for Simpson Investment Co. in Seattle, said the company can't afford the insurance because health insurance costs have exploded. In 1999, the company paid an average of $600 per family for medical care. Within two years, the expense doubled. Simpson said in the disclosure statement given to retirees it might change or cancel its retiree medical care plan. Instead of immediately canceling the insurance, Simpson Investment Co., which owned the Pasadena mill, opted to pass along some of the costs to all of its retirees. Shifting some of the costs cut the company's expenses to about $400 per month per family, giving former workers time to look for alternatives. Salaried retirees were also hit with the higher costs. But company officials haven't decided whether the company will cancel the insurance for its retired salaried employees in two years. "This is not an easy decision for Simpson," said Slade. "We have parents ourselves." The cuts in retiree medical benefits come on the heels of cutbacks in life insurance for retirees, said Markson. About four to five years ago, some companies figured life insurance wasn't as important a benefit to a group of people who don't have a lot of financial obligations, said Markson. Several years ago, then-President Bill Clinton suggested expanding Medicare voluntarily to those 55 and older who are laid off and can't find or afford new insurance. That way, they'd be covered but at a lower rate than the private market. A bill that would expand Medicare to those 55 and older is pending. But it's been stalled since it landed in the House Ways and Means Committee in March 2001. It's upsetting, said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who is a co-sponsor of the Medicare bill, because older workers who can't find insurance really need some type of affordable bridge. Dana Wilson said she has tried to find new health insurance, but with her husband's high blood pressure, age and smoking habit, the best she could find on the private market is $1,000 a month. And that's with an annual deductible of $2,000 per person. Instead of working part-time in her later years as she had planned, Dana Wilson said she needs to find a corporate job -- with benefits. But, in this economic climate, that's not so easy. To voice comments, telephone 713-220-2000 and dial in code 1002. Send e-mail to


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

  Aug. 26, 2002, 11:34PM

$25,000 bonus for HISD chief before board

Tied to student performance


HISD Superintendent Kaye Stripling is eligible for $25,000 in incentive pay this year based on student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The incentive pay is part of her $250,000-a-year contract. But just how much she should get, and what formula will be used to set an amount, isn't. So board members will meet in a closed session next month to establish a guideline based on how well the district has boosted test scores of minority and economically disadvantaged students. And, overall the district has seen improvements. According to the spring 2002 TAAS results, black, Hispanic, white and economically disadvantaged students in the Houston Independent School District improved their performance on all tests compared to 2001. The district's Hispanic, black and economically disadvantaged students still lagged behind white students, but the gap between the groups in reading, math and writing shrank. For example, last spring 84.8 percent of black students passed the reading portion of TAAS, compared with 96.7 percent of white students. This spring, 89.4 percent of blacks passed reading, compared with 97.5 percent of whites. The math passing rate for Hispanic students in 2001 was 85.9 percent, compared with 95.5 percent for white students. This spring, 91.3 percent Hispanic students passed math, compared with 97.1 percent of white students. Board members said Monday they hadn't decided on whether Stripling had earned the maximum amount, but felt the incentive pay was critical to improving the system. "I think it would be very premature to assume that all that $25,000 is going to be granted," said trustee Kevin Hoffman. "There are a lot of things we need to discuss. It's an important part of the contract." Incentive pay was included in former superintendent Rod Paige's contracts. He earned the maximum of $25,000 three times during the seven years he served as superintendent. Other years he earned less, and in 1998-99 he earned nothing. Stripling said Monday she hasn't given the bonus any thought but is pleased with student performance growth. "It's reasonable. It helps keep us focused," said Stripling. "I like the idea of being held accountable, of being held to high expectations. I think it's motivating. I have no idea whether I earned $25,000 or not. I should be held accountable and rewarded if the board sees fit." Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, questioned why higher level district administrators get greater incentive awards than teachers who work directly with the students. She also questioned why the contract didn't expressly state what calculations would be used. "Creating the criteria after the test scores are in makes it suspect at best," said Fallon. "I like Kaye, but the interesting thing is that the further away you get from kids, the bigger your bonus. I like the idea of rewarding growth, but on the other hand I've got a real problem with the disparity."

Inequity of teachers' benefits

Per the Chronicle's Aug. 16 article, "Texas teachers use pension loophole to boost benefits,:" U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., and the General Accounting Office have missed the real inequity in our current Social Security laws in their rush to accuse teachers of abusing the system. They have it backward: Teachers are not abusing the system; they are being abused by the system. Texas is one of 11 states that don't require school districts to join the Social Security system -- in spite of the fact that many teachers have worked and earned or have become teachers after having other professions and earning the required 40 quarters. These teachers discover at retirement that because their school district is not part of the Social Security system, they will have their Social Security benefits earned in other jobs offset by more than $3,600 annually. Further, most educational employees also lose their entire spousal benefit, even though their deceased spouse paid into the Social Security system through employment taxes. The current Social Security laws reach into the pockets of Texas teachers and steal benefits that were rightfully earned and that are available to individuals in the private sector. They discourage qualified individuals from entering the teaching profession from other fields at a time when the nation is facing a drastic teacher shortage. Instead of maligning teachers for attempting to collect a portion of the benefits that are rightfully theirs, Shaw would be better spending his time to support the federal legislation aimed at eliminating this law so teachers could receive the benefits they (and their spouses) have earned. Gayle Fallon, president, Houston Federation of Teachers


 Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle