05/31/2019

Public employees score wins on privatization

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That old wolf in sheep’s clothing, privatization, is still menacing public services. Leaders from across the nation representing members of AFT Public Employees swapped strategies on overcoming privatization at their program and policy council meeting in May.

PPC Chair Jill Cohenour, a water scientist by profession and also a Montana state senator, described how her governor visited Alabama and returned with the notion that privatizing part of his new prekindergarten proposal would be a good idea—even though Montana has never directly privatized taxpayer-funded public schools at any level of instruction. The House Education Committee tabled the legislation but the idea did not die easily, as some state legislators tried to tie pre-K privatization to an unrelated measure. “It was ugly stuff,” said Montana Federation of Public Employees President Eric Feaver.

member to member texting

“Because the union stood up,” Cohenour said, including lots of member-to-member texting for the first time ever, MFPE was able to engage the public and halt that privatization scheme.

Also thanks to MFPE, a pay raise for public employees was taken up at the beginning of the legislative session. “That never happens,” Cohenour said. By the middle of the session, lawmakers had passed a bill raising wages for state and university employees starting next year.

In another facet of how privatization threatens public services, the leaders reviewed risks to public pension funds invested in private prison companies, which now operate about 8 percent of U.S. prisons. Not only do such investments suck up fees and generate profits for financial institutions that state their explicit desire of destroying unions, but these firms are mismatched with our other values. They profit from housing immigrant children in cages, they lobby against prison reform and they are loath to respond in the face of prison unrest, as outlined by Colorado member Eric Olsen on AFT Voices. Private prisons put both worker and public safety at risk.

Leaders discussed ways to counteract investment in private prisons by public pension funds, including running for pension trustee seats themselves, attending pension fund meetings and taking members to these meetings. Trustees listen to union investors, they said. Public pension trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to reject investments that would undercut public services, and sometimes they need to be made aware of this responsibility.

On a related note, affiliates with members who work in correctional facilities learned of a free conference coming up this summer, the National Symposium on Corrections Worker Health, to be held Aug. 1 in Boston.

North Dakota’s legislative session also is complete, reported Gary Feist, a state tax accountant and president of the North Dakota Public Employees Association. Even though the price of oil is not up by much, he said, the industry is helping replenish state coffers. So is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year allowing states to collect online sales taxes. North Dakota estimates that it will collect $20 million from new filers in the current year.

Like other state affiliates, our union in North Dakota is trying to get the public employee retirement system on a more stable financial footing. Still, some ultra-conservative lawmakers are trying to chisel money from pensions and healthcare benefits, which, Feist warned, will drive away would-be employees.

“I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult to retain new employees by 2020,” he cautioned, adding that some job openings already have no applicants. “Recently, 15 people told us it was their last day,” he said. “All that knowledge going out the door. When you swing so far to the right, this is what happens.”

[Annette Licitra/MFPE photo]