Politics in America: Politicians at State and Federal Levels Consistently Overestimate Popular Support for Conservative Positions

US elected leaders, and those that work for them, think their constituents are far more conservative than they are. The good news is that this means there is far more support for a progressive political agenda than one might think.  The bad news is that without sustained popular activism it is doubtful that elected leaders will change their policies accordingly.

The misinformed views of those running for state office

In August 2012, David E. Broockman and Christopher Skovron, surveyed candidates running for state legislative offices across the US.  They asked them their own positions and to estimate their constituents’ positions on same-sex marriage and universal health care.  Then, they compared candidate estimates with their constituents’ responses to questions on those issues that were included in a large national survey.

They found that “politicians consistently and substantially overestimated support for conservative positions among their constituents on these issues.”  More specifically:

The differences we discover in this regard are exceptionally large among conservative politicians: across both issues we examine, conservative politicians appear to overestimate support for conservative policy views among their constituents by over 20 percentage points on average. In fact, on each of the issues we examine, over 90% of politicians with conservative views appear to overestimate their constituents’ support for conservative policies. . . . Comparable figures for liberal politicians also show a slight conservative bias: in fact, about 70% of liberal officeholders typically underestimate support for liberal positions on these issues among their constituents.

The figure below illustrates their results.  Each scatter point represents a different district and shows the candidate estimate of district support for the issue in question and the actual surveyed district support for that issue.  Districts where the candidate accurately estimated the district position would be positioned along the linear grey line.  As we can see, both the blue line representing liberal politicans and the red line representing conservative ones lie beneath the grey line, showing that district residents are far more favorable to both these two issues then either liberal or conservative politicians think.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when Broockman and Skovron resurveyed the politicians in November, they found that “politicians’ perceptions of public opinion after the campaign and the election itself look identical to their perceptions prior to these events, with little evidence that their misperceptions had been corrected.”

They did another survey in 2014 of the views and perceptions of state legislative candidates and office holders, this time asking about more issues, including ones dealing with gay and lesbian marriage, gun control, the right to abortion, and the legalization of illegal immigrants.  Once again they found that:

politicians from both parties believed that support for conservative positions on these issues in their constituencies was much higher than it actually was. These misperceptions are large, pervasive, and robust: Politicians’ right-skewed misperceptions exceed 20 percentage points on issues such as gun control—where these misperceptions are the largest—and persist in states at every level of legislative professionalism, among both candidates and sitting officeholders, among politicians in very competitive districts, and when we compare politicians’ perceptions to voters’ opinions only. That Democratic politicians also overestimate constituency conservatism suggests these misperceptions cannot be attributed to motivated reasoning or social desirability bias alone.

It’s no better at the federal level

Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Matto Mildenberger and Leah C. Stokes did a similar study on the federal level. In 2016 they surveyed the top legislative staffers of every House and Senate member, asking them to estimate their constituents’ support for repealing Obamacare, regulating carbon dioxide, making a $305 billion investment in infrastructure, mandating universal background checks for firearm purchases, and raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour.  Then, they compared their estimates to district or state-level survey results.

They summarized their findings in a New York Times op-ed as follows:

if we took a group of people who reflected the makeup of America and asked them whether they supported background checks for gun sales, nine out of 10 would say yes. But congressional aides guessed as few as one in 10 citizens in their district or state favored the policy. Shockingly, 92 percent of the staff members we surveyed underestimated support in their district or state for background checks, including all Republican aides and over 85 percent of Democratic aides.

The same is true for the four other issues we looked at . . . . On climate change, the average aide thought only a minority of his or her district wanted action, when in truth a majority supported regulating carbon.

Across the five issues, Democratic staff members tended to be more accurate than Republicans. Democrats guessed about 13 points closer to the truth on average than Republicans.

Below is a visual summary of their results.

The authors also found corporate lobbying to be an important cause of this misrepresentation of public opinion. As Hertel-Fernandez, Mildenberger, and Stokes explain:

Aides who reported meeting with groups representing big business — like the United States Chamber of Commerce or the American Petroleum Institute — were more likely to get their constituents’ opinions wrong compared with staffers who reported meeting with mass membership groups that represented ordinary Americans, like the Sierra Club or labor unions. The same pattern holds for campaign contributions: The more that offices get support from fossil fuel companies over environmental groups, the more they underestimate state- or district-level support for climate action.

And it appears that corporate influence may have more to do with campaign contributions than the quality of corporate arguments.  As Eric Levitz, discussing the work in the Intelligencer, points out, “The study . . . found that ‘45 percent of senior legislative staffers report having changed their opinion about legislation after a group gave their Member a campaign contribution’ — and that 62 percent of staffers believe that ‘correspondence from businesses’ are ‘more representative of their constituents’ preferences than correspondence from ordinary constituents.’”

None of this means that we should abandon electoral work.  But it does make clear that simply working to elect “good” people, and hoping for the best, will only continue the country’s rightwing drift.  There are real forces at work encouraging elected leaders to create their own realities favorable to rightwing positions, including the willingness of conservatives to aggressively and regularly communicate their views to their representatives and, no doubt more importantly, corporate lobbying backed by financial contributions and a careful monitoring of votes.

We can overcome these forces, but only if we build strong popular movements that are able to organize and mobilize people to fight for the things we want, thereby shifting the terms of political debate and the consciousness of politicians in the process.  And, back to the good news: the studies above show that popular sentiment is far more receptive to progressive change than we might think from recent election outcomes and government policy.

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We Need To Strengthen The Public In The US Public Sector

Many people have given up on the idea of government as an instrument of progressive social change, especially the federal government.  They think that the federal government is dominating and distorting economic activity and, more often than not, believe that the cause is a bloated, highly paid, and selfish federal workforce.

In fact, federal programs are increasingly being delivered by private contractors.  As a result, private employees doing work for the federal government now outnumber the federal workforce.  Moreover, in most cases, they are paid far more than the public employees they replace.  And, as more federal work is carried out under the direction of profit-seeking firms, there is good reason to believe that programs are reshaped to ensure that it is the private rather than public interest that is best served.

The declining share of federal workers

As a Public Goods Post explains:

the federal government workforce has not increased in absolute numbers in half a century. Not only is it the same size now as it was in the 1960s, since the 1980s it has shrunk. There are actually fewer government employees now than there were under Reagan even though the population has grown by over 30%.

As a consequence, as we see below, the size of the federal workforce as a share of the total civilian non-farm workforce has steadily fallen.  It is now less than 2 percent of the total.

The growth in private contractors

While the size of federal workforce has remained relatively unchanged for decades, the same is not true for real federal government spending on consumption and investment, as seen in the figure below.

So, how has the federal government been able to boost its activity with a relatively unchanged workforce?  The answer is an explosion in the use of private contractors.

According to the Public Goods Post,

the federal contractor workforce dwarfs the federal employee workforce nearly four-fold.

This massive third-party workforce has been mostly hidden from public view, kept intentionally out of sight by corporations and their lobbyists who have the most to gain, as well as by elected officials who want to claim that they are not growing government. Moreover, federal corporate contractors operate behind a shield of secrecy, enabled by their de facto exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and ensuring that they can operate without public scrutiny.

Fattening the corporate sector at public expense

This outsourcing of federal activities to private firms is likely an important reason for people’s dissatisfaction with government: they are far more expensive and their goal is profit not service.

A Project on Government Oversight study examined compensation paid to federal and private sector employees, as well as annual billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupational classifications covering over 550 service activities.

It found, among other things, that:

Federal government employees were less expensive than contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed.

Private sector compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all 35 occupational classifications we reviewed.

The federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.

Here are some examples of the compensation bias favoring private contractors:

As bad as it is, this compensation bias is far from the whole story.  The fact is that public regulators incur significant costs trying to develop contracts that are supposed to ensure acceptable private contractor outcomes as well as actually monitoring performance.  And shortfalls in performance, an all too frequent outcome, require either additional federal expenditures beyond those initially stipulated in the contract or a lowering of public standards.

Moreover, a recent review of “the extensive global empirical evidence on the relative efficiency of the private versus public sectors” found no evidence:

that there is any systematic difference in efficiency between public and private sector companies, either in services which are subject to outsourcing, such as waste management, or in sectors privatized by sale, such as telecoms. . . .

This picture is further confirmed by examination of nine sectors which are most often subject to privatization, outsourcing and PPPs – buses, electricity, healthcare, ports, prisons, rail, telecoms, waste management and water – and the same results hold true in each sector: the evidence does not show any superior efficiency by private companies.

The challenge ahead

A report summarizing the discussions and outcomes of an October 2017 conference titled “Restoring Public Control of Public Goods” began as follows:

Over the past thirty-five years, government in the United States has been vilified and vitiated through a movement designed to de-legitimize government in the eyes of the public, to reduce government’s capacity to operate, and to replace that capacity with private contractors and other forms of privatization. . . .

We now are left with:

  • An increasingly hollowed-out, de-moralized, de-professionalized, and devalued government;
  • A hidden and growing “shadow government” of corporate contractors;
  • An array of expensive false economies–since, in fact, contracting out regularly costs taxpayers more than direct government provision of services;
  • Public goods that are so invisible as to be under-valued, and are therefore underfunded or struck from the budget;
  • Counter-productive systems of performance measurement that create further harmful (if sometimes unintended) consequences;
  • A citizenry that under-appreciates, or are unaware, of the public goods they receive.

The private sector has been quietly and efficiently winning its war to control and profit from public sector activities.  One can only hope that the recent interest in socialism will encourage a renewed popular commitment to work with public sector workers to resist this war on the public and build a new, more accountable, not to mentioned well-financed, public sector.

US Public School Teachers: Declining Pay, Growing Militancy

Strikes continue to be an effective way for teachers to improve their living and working (and by extension student learning) conditions.  And, polls show that a strong majority of parents continue to support them.

Popular support for teacher strikes remains strong

The education pollster PDK recently asked adults what they thought about teacher salaries and whether they would support teachers if they struck to improve their conditions.   According to PDK,

73% of Americans surveyed in the 2018 PDK poll say they would support public school teachers in their community if they went on strike for higher pay. Even among public school parents — those who would be most directly affected by a strike — 78% say they’d support a teacher walkout.

This strong public support was certainly visible during the spring public teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.  And it continues this fall.  For example, teacher strikes delayed the start of the new school year for thousands of students in Washington state.  As Don McIntosh reports in the Northwest Labor Press:

As many as 5,000 teachers went out on strike the week before Labor Day at seven Southwest Washington school districts — districts where school superintendents tried to hold on to funds the Legislature had granted for long-overdue teacher raises. In each case, strikes were authorized by overwhelming majorities — from 93 percent to as high as 98.4 percent. The strikes resulted in the complete closure of whole school districts, postponing the school year’s start for over 60,000 students.

Highlighting public support for Evergreen High School teachers, McIntosh writes:

All day long, passing motorists honked their support, and parents, students and members of the community dropped by bringing water and snacks. Some parents handed out strips of paper with a message: “We love you and support you! Thank you for taking the time to show us what it means to stand up for yourself even when it is difficult.”

“Kids and parents and dogs, everybody’s walking the line with us,” [Evergreen Education Association president] Beville said. “Among all the things that we expected when we went on strike, the most unexpected was the overwhelming support we’re getting from the community. Even on Facebook, when people post negative messages, parents are jumping on them like piranhas.”

Washington teachers ended their strikes with sizeable wage increases in five districts, but remain out in two others.  School officials in Tumwater in Thurston County and Longview in Cowlitz County filed injunctions in an attempt to force teachers back to work.  County judges in both districts declared the strikes illegal, but significantly refused to impose any penalties; the strikes continue.

Teacher pay is too low

While right-wing politicians like to portray public school teachers as a “labor aristocracy,” profiting at the expense of ordinary workers, the fact is that teachers have suffered real wage declines.  A case in point: average teacher pay in Washington state fell 8 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars over the last 16 years according to figures from the U.S. Education Department.

More generally, as a Guardian article explains:

American teachers are getting paid less – even though they are better qualified than ever, new research has found.

Teacher salaries are down by nearly 5% compared with before the Great Recession – and it’s not because teachers are younger or less educated, according to the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

In fact, the opposite is true.

And, as the following figure shows, not only has teacher pay fallen over the last seven years, the gap in earnings relative to other college educated workers has significantly grown.

In fact, an Economic Policy Institute study determined, as shown below, that there is no state in which public school teachers are paid more than college graduates.

The teacher wage penalty has dramatically grown, even when wages are adjusted for “education, experience, and other factors known to affect earnings.”  More specifically the Economic Policy Institute study found that the regression-adjusted wage gap for all public sector teachers grew from 1.8 percent in 1994, to 4.3 percent in 1996, and reached a record 18.7 percent in 2017.

Challenges ahead

Teacher strikes have been fueled by a number of factors in addition to the wage declines highlighted above, including new testing mandates which crowd out instruction and planning time, and cuts in education budgets which have left teachers with outdated materials and overcrowded classrooms.  The recent Janus decision and the efforts of the rightwing State Policy Network to weaken public sector unions makes clear that the teacher movement cannot stand still if it hopes to maintain if not actually build on its recent gains.  Public school teachers will have to strengthen their unions and deepen their community ties, and in concert with other public sector workers, build a campaign that makes clear the importance of a well-funded and accountable public sector and the need for new progressive tax measures to raise the required funds.

Obviously, this is no simple task.  It is not just a rightwing fringe that opposes public sector unions and raising taxes to ensure a healthy public sector that meets community needs.  For example, as the Intercept reports:

State Policy Network member think tanks generally do not disclose their donors. Several are generously funded by foundations controlled by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the State Policy Network affiliate in Texas, inadvertently revealed its donor list several years ago. The donor list included foundation grants from the Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, Altia, Geo Group, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, and the Claude Lambe Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit controlled by the Kochs, among others.

In short, we are engaged in a real class struggle and that understanding has to be built into our organizing from the very beginning.

Forgotten Workers And The US Expansion

There is a lot of celebrating going on in mainstream policy circles.  The economy is said to be running at full steam with the unemployment rate now below 4 percent.  As Clive Crook puts it in Bloomberg Businessweek, “The U.S. expansion has put millions of people back to work and economists agree that the economy is now at or close to full employment.”

Forgotten in all this celebration is the fact that wages remain stagnant.  Also forgotten are the millions of workers who are no longer counted as part of the labor force and thus not counted as unemployed.

Forgotten workers

One of the best indicators of the weakness of the current recovery is the labor market status of what is called the core workforce, those ages 25-54.  Their core status stems from the fact that, as Jill Mislinski explains, “This cohort leaves out the employment volatility of the high-school and college years, the lower employment of the retirement years and also the age 55-64 decade when many in the workforce begin transitioning to retirement … for example, two-income households that downsize into one-income households.”

The unemployment rate of those 25-54 reached a peak of 9 percent in 2009 before falling steadily to a low of 3.2 percent as of July 2018.  However, the unemployment rate alone can be a very misleading indicator of labor market conditions.  That is certainly true when it comes to the labor market status of today’s core workforce.

A more revealing measure is the Labor Force Participation Rate, which is defined as the Civilian Labor Force (i.e. the sum of those employed and unemployed) divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population (i.e. those of working age who are not in the military or institutionalized). Because there can be significant monthly swings in both the numerator and denominator of this measure, the Labor Force Participation Rate shown in the chart below is calculated using a 12-month moving average.

As we can see, the Labor Force Participation Rate for the 25-54 core cohort has sharply declined, from a mid-2000 high of 84.2 percent, down to a low of 81.9 percent in July 2018. Mislinski calculates that:

Based on the moving average, today’s age 25-54 cohort would require 1.6 million additional people in the labor force to match its interim peak participation rate in 2008 and 2.9 million to match the peak rate around the turn of the century.

A related measure of labor market conditions is the Employment-to-Population Ratio, which is defined as the Civilian Employed divided by the Civilian Noninstitutional Population.  As we can see in the next chart, the Employment-to-Population Ratio of our core cohort has also declined from its mid-2000 peak.

Again, according to Mislinski,

First the good news: This metric began to rebound from its post-recession trough in late 2012. However, the more disturbing news is that the current age 25-54 cohort would require an increase of 1.2 million employed prime-age participants to match its ratio peak in 2007. To match its mid-2000 peak would require a 3.1 million participant increase.

The takeaway

Both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio are useful measures of the employment intensity of the economy.  And in a healthy economy we should expect to see high values for both measures for the 25-54 age cohort. That is especially true for a country like the United States, where the non-market public provision of education, health care, and housing is quite limited, and an adequate retirement depends upon private savings.  In other words, people need paid employment to live and these are prime work years.

The decline, over the business cycle, in both the Labor Force Participation Rate and the Employment-to-Population Ratio for our core cohort strongly suggests that our economy is undergoing a profound structural change, with business increasingly organizing its activities in ways that require fewer workers. More specifically, the lower values in these measures mean that millions of prime age workers are being sidelined, left outside the labor market.

It is hard to know what will become of these workers and by extension their families and communities.  Moreover, this is not a problem only of the moment.  This cohort is still relatively young, and the social costs of being sidelined from employment—and here we are not even considering the quality of that employment—will only grow with age.  We can only hope that workers of all ages will eventually recognize that our growing employment problems are the result, not of individual failings, but an increasingly problematic economic system, and begin pushing for its structural transformation.

What Next For The Teacher’s Movement?

Public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona have won meaningful salary gains for themselves, and in several cases other school workers, and real although limited increases in education spending.  Unfortunately, their demands for significant tax reform, including new taxes on corporations and the wealthy to fund a more general increase in public services, remain largely unfulfilled.  Hopefully, the lessons learned and the connections made will lead to more democratic and powerful unions and worker-community movements for change that can carry the fight forward.

Teachers deserved a raise

Teachers definitely deserve a raise.  A recent Economic Policy Institute study by Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel finds a substantial and growing wage and compensation gap between what teachers and other similarly educated workers earn.  For example:

  • Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ‑1.8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ‑17.0 percent in 2015.
  • While relative teacher wage gaps have widened, some of the difference may be attributed to a tradeoff between pay and benefits. Non-wage benefits as a share of total compensation in 2015 were more important for teachers (26.6 percent) than for other professionals (21.6 percent). The total teacher compensation penalty was a record-high 11.1 percent in 2015 (composed of a 17.0 percent wage penalty plus a 5.9 percent benefit advantage). The bottom line is that the teacher compensation penalty grew by 11 percentage points from 1994 to 2015.
  • Collective bargaining helps to abate the teacher wage gap. In 2015, teachers not represented by a union had a ‑25.5 percent wage gap—and the gap was 6 percentage points smaller for unionized teachers.

The figure below highlights the growing wage gap between public school teachers and similar workers (controlling for age, education, race/ethnicity, geographic region, marital status, and gender).

The next figure shows that in no state are teachers paid more than other college graduates.  In fact, as the EPI study points out:

The ratio for the overall United States is 0.77, meaning that, on average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn in wages. . . . In 18 states, public school teacher weekly wages lag by more than 25 percent. In contrast, there are only five states where teacher weekly wages are less than 10 percent behind.

And, as the table below makes clear, teachers suffer an overall compensation gap, with their benefit advantage not nearly big enough to compensate for their large and growing wage penalty.

The rightwing playbook

Teacher victories in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona were made possible by strong community support for their strike actions.  However, teachers and other activists need to prepare for the likely rightwing counter attack, which will aim to break the newly created bonds of solidarity and support for collective, militant action.

A Guardian newspaper article, which includes a secret three-page manual on how to talk about teacher strikes produced by the State Policy Network, sheds light on rightwing fears and planning.  The State Policy Network is “an alliance of 66 rightwing ‘ideas factories’ that span every state in the nation,” that is well funded by, among others, the Koch brothers, the Walton Family Foundation, and the DeVos family.

The manual talks about the need to discredit the strikes by portraying them as harmful to low income parents and their children.  But it also recognizes that this is a challenging task.  For example, it says:

A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going vital from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc.  This is an opportunity to sympathize with teachers, while still emphasizing that teacher strikes hurt kids.  It is also not the right time to talk about social choice—that’s off topic, and teachers at choice-schools are often paid less than district school teachers.

As to what should be said, the manual encourages rightwing activists to respond to concerns about insufficient school funding by calling for more efficient use of existing monies, in particular by reducing “administrative bloat” and “red tape.”  And, it has special advice for those that live in states where taxes have been recently slashed:

That is obviously a challenging message to counter.  But you can consider something like “One of the most important things we can do to make sure our schools are properly funded is to have a strong economy where everyone who can work can find a job and contribute to the tax coffers that fund the government. Lower tax rates help contribute to stronger job growth.  Also lower taxes on individuals let teachers keep more of the money they earn.”

More dangerous are some of the ways in which the rightwing actually seeks to punish or intimidate teachers.  Jeff Bryant, writing at OurFuture.org provides a sobering list:

Leading into the two-day teacher walkout in Colorado, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would lead to fines and potentially up to six month’s jail time for the striking teachers. The bill was pulled, when it became clear even some Republicans weren’t too keen on the measure.

In Arizona, a libertarian think tank sent letters to school district superintendents threatening them with lawsuits if they didn’t reopen closed schools and order striking teachers to return to work. It’s unclear how or whether the threat will actually be carried out now that teachers are back on the job.

In West Virginia, where teachers used a nine-day strike to secure a five percent raise, Republicans have vowed to get their revenge by cutting $20 million to Medicaid and other parts of the state budget to pay for the increase. No doubt, when the axe falls on these programs, Republican lawmakers will be quick to blame the “greedy” teachers.

In Kentucky, Republican Governor Matt Bevin accused striking teachers of leaving children exposed to sexual assaults or being in danger of ingesting toxic substances because teachers weren’t at school. Now that the uprising has ended, Bevin has turned his revenge against teachers into an effort to take over the largest school system in the state and take away local control of the schools.

No doubt, this is just the beginning, which means that activists need to move quickly to build on victories and expand their challenge to existing relations of power.

The challenges ahead

One hopes that teacher activists in states where strikes have taken place are finding ways to build upon recent mobilizations to build organizations and revitalize their unions.  And, that they are also reaching out to other public sector unions, with the aim of building a broad alliance that can spearhead a grass-roots movement for new progressive taxes and a more class conscious vision of state policy. Despite the dangers, this is a hopeful political moment for all of us.

Public School Teacher Strikes Show Workplace Organizing Pays Off  

While those at the top of the income pyramid continue to celebrate economic trends, the great majority of working people continue to struggle to make ends meet.  However, teacher victories in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona demonstrate that broad-based sustained workplace organizing, labor-community solidarity, and importantly a willingness to strike, can change the balance of power in favor of working people and produce meaningful gains.

Teacher Strikes

West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona are all considered red states, with legislatures that have aggressively reduced taxes on the wealthy and corporations, slashed spending on social programs, and gutted union rights for public sector workers by denying them the right to collectively bargain or strike.  Yet, after months of careful workplace and community organizing, West Virginia teachers launched a nine-day strike in February that shut down the entire state’s public school system and won them and all other state workers a 5 percent salary increase and a government promise to convene a task force to find ways to reign in worker health care costs.

Oklahoma teachers followed with their own workplace and community actions and a nine-day statewide strike in early April. The day before the start of the strike the legislature hurriedly approved salary increases of $6000 for teachers and $1250 for support staff, and days later a modest $40 million increase in the education budget.  This wasn’t enough to convince the teachers to call off their strike; they had demanded a raise of $10,000 for teachers and $5,000 for support staff, $200 million for increased school funding, $213 million for state employee raises, and a $255.9 million increase in health care funding.  However, after the head of the state’s largest teacher’s union called for an end to the walkout, saying that it had achieved all it could, teachers, many reluctantly, agreed to return to work without further gains.

Arizona teachers have participated in workplace actions and demonstrations to press their demand for salary increases for themselves and other education workers and a significant boost to the education budget.  The governor, hoping to avoid a threatened strike, announced a plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, including a nine percent raise this year.  The teachers weren’t satisfied: they didn’t find the governor’s plan to raise their wages financially realistic, they wanted raises for all school workers, and they wanted school funding returned to its 2008 level.  In a statewide vote of teachers and other school personal, approximately 80 percent voted to walk out on April 26 if their demands were not met.  This would be Arizona’s first statewide walkout.

While the gains won in these states are not sufficient to reverse decades of concerted action by state legislatures to undermine public services and public workers, they are impressive nonetheless and should encourage a renewed focus on and support for workplace organizing and collective action.

Organizing To Win

These victories did not come easily.  Teachers were willing to take the bold step of engaging in a technically illegal strike for at least two main reasons.  The first is that they have endured terrible working conditions for years, conditions which also weighed heavily on those they teach.  For example, per student instructional funding in Oklahoma was some 30 percent below its 2008 level.  Some 20 percent of the state’s school districts were forced by financial pressures to adopt four-day school weeks.  Textbooks remain in short supply and out of date. Classes are so overcrowded that many students must sit on the floor.  And the state’s public school teachers and staff had not received a raise in ten years; pay was so low that many have been forced to work multiple jobs.

And adding insult to injury is the fact that state legislatures in all three states have slashed spending on education and teacher salaries in order to finance massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.  A case in point: The Arizona legislature has cut approximately $1 billion from schools since the 2008 recession while simultaneously reducing taxes.  No doubt the fact that such regressive policies were often supported by both Democratic as well as Republican lawmakers, as in Oklahoma, also encouraged teachers to embrace direct-workplace action rather than more traditional lobbying to force needed legislative changes.

The second reason is that strike votes were proceeded by months of organizing that informed and created bonds of solidarity.  West Virginia was a model. Forums were held in most schools which educated and also encouraged local leadership development, teachers joined by other school workers engaged in ever more militant school-based actions, and eventually strike votes were held in every school with the participation of all teachers and staff regardless of union affiliation.  Teacher activists, most of whom were rank and file union activists, used a variety of methods, including social media, to build a strong state-wide network to coordinate their work.  The strike was called only when it was clear that it had the support of the overwhelming majority of teachers, support staff, and school bus drivers.

This strong rank and file base was key to the strike’s success.  After five days, the Governor and teacher union leaders announced that a deal had been reached and called for an end to the strike.  However, the rank and file refused.  They held their strike until the state legislature actually approved an agreement that met their demands.

The Oklahoma strike was less successful in part because a weaker union movement meant fewer trained labor activists.  This made it harder to engage in school-by-school organizing and forge a strong state network. As a consequence the strike was launched without the same level of workplace organization and connection to other education workers such as support staff and bus drivers.  And as a result, it made it much harder for rank and file teacher activists to effectively oppose the teacher union leadership’s call to settle for what was won and to return to work.  It is likely that Oklahoma law, which requires that 75 percent of the legislature vote in favor of any revenue hike, also contributed to teacher willingness to end the strike.

Arizona teachers are now preparing to strike.  Teachers in Kentucky and Colorado recently engaged in one day walkouts, shutting down schools and demonstrating at their respective state capitals to protest low wages and inadequate education budgets.  Discussions continue in both states about the possibility of renewed strikes to win their demands.  We should be studying as well as supporting all their efforts.

Reasons to Celebrate

These teacher strikes are important and have deservedly won widespread community support.  They have raised the salaries of teachers and other education workers, thereby helping their schools attract and retain talented people.  They have also boosted state education budgets, which benefits the broader community, especially students and their parents.  They also shine a spotlight on the destructive consequences of past tax giveaways to the rich and powerful and the need for new progressive sources of tax revenue.  Finally, they show that workers can effect change, improving their own living and working conditions, even under extremely hostile conditions, through sustained workplace organization and audacity.

Taxes, Inequality, And Class Power

No doubt about it, the recently passed tax bill is terrible for working people.  But as Lance Taylor states in a blog post titled “Why Stopping Tax ‘Reform’ Won’t Stop Inequality”: “Inequality isn’t driven by taxes—its driven by the power of capital in relation to workers.”  Said differently we need to concentrate our efforts on shifting the balance of class power.  And that means, among other things, putting more of our energy into workplace organizing and revitalizing the trade union movement.

The rich really are different

Taylor uses the Palma ratio to highlight the growth of income inequality.  The measure, proposed by the Cambridge University economist Jose Gabriel Palma, is defined as the ratio of the average income of a wealthy group relative to the average income of a poorer group.  Taylor calculates Palma ratios “for the top one percent vs. households between the 61st and 99th percentiles of the size distribution (the ‘middle class’) and the sixty percent at the bottom.”

The first figure looks at Palma ratios for pre-tax income.  The second figure uses disposable or after-tax income.

In both figures we see growing ratios, which means that the top 1 percent is increasing its income faster than the other two groups, although the gains are not quite as large in the case of after-tax income, suggesting that taxes and transfers do make a small but real difference.

Be that as it may, the ratio of the top group’s after-tax income relative to Taylor’s middle group grew 3.85 percent per year over the period 1986 to 2014, while the ratio with the bottom group grew 3.54 percent a year.  As Taylor comments, “Such rising inequality is unprecedented. These rates are a full percentage point higher than output growth, and are not sustainable in the long run.”

What is also noteworthy is that the Palma growth rates for both the middle and bottom groups are quite close.  This is important because it shows that inequality is largely driven by the top earners pulling income from the rest of the population, rather than a widening income gap between Taylor’s middle and bottom groups.

An IMF study of the relationship between income inequality and labor market institutions in twenty developed capitalist countries over the period 1980 to 2011 came to a similar conclusion, although it focused on the top 10 percent rather than the top 1 percent. As Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitro, the authors of the study, explain (and illustrate in the figure below):

As with measures of income inequality, changes in the distribution of earnings indicate that inequality has risen owing largely to a concentration of earnings at the top of the distribution. Gross earnings differentials between the 9th and 5th deciles of the distribution have increased over four times as much as the differential between the 5th and 1st deciles. Moreover, data from the Luxembourg Income Survey on net income shares indicate that income shares of the top 10 percent earners have increased at the expense of all other income groups. While there is some country heterogeneity, the increase in top income shares since the 1980s appears to be a pervasive phenomenon.  

Class power counts

As we can see in the first figure above, rich households, with a mean income of greater than $2 million a year, have “40 times the income of the bottom 60 percent and 13.5 times payments going to the middle class.” In the figure below, Taylor illustrates the source of that income.  One way or another, he finds that it comes from capital ownership and profits.

As we can see, labor compensation has grown rapidly over the last few years, and now exceeds $500,000 per year.  Still, it represents only roughly nine percent of the total, significantly less than either of the other two main income categories, proprietor’s income and interest and dividends.  Proprietor’s income, interest and dividends, and capital gains all flow from ownership.  So, in fact, does an important share of labor compensation which includes bonuses and stock options.

As Taylor explains:

Given that the bulk of income of the top one percent comes from profits through one channel or another, the obvious inference is that the rising Palma ratios in Figure 1 were fueled by an ongoing shift away from wages in the “functional” income distribution between labor and capital.

The question is why wages of ordinary households lagged.

After examining patterns and trends in business profits, Taylor concludes that the primary answer lies in the ability of firms to hold down wages.  Among the reasons for their success:

Changes in institutional norms (laws, unionization and other of the game) surely played a role. Robert Solow (2015) from MIT, the doyen of mainstream macroeconomics, observes that labor suffered for reasons including “the decay of unions and collective bargaining, the explicit hardening of business attitudes, the popularity of right-to-work laws, and the fact that the wage lag seems to have begun at about the same time as the Reagan presidency all point in the same direction: the share of wages in national value added may have fallen because the social bargaining power of labor has diminished.”

Divide-and-rule in a “fissuring” labor market, as described by David Weil (2014) is one aspect of this process. Globalization, which came to the forefront in the 2016 Presidential election, also played a role.

The IMF study again provides support for this conclusion. A simple correlation test of the relationship between labor market institutions and inequality produced “a strong negative relation between the top 10 percent income share and union density.”  Econometric tests that attempted to control for technology, globalization, financialization, tax rates and a host of other variables confirmed the relationship.  As the authors explain:

Our benchmark estimates of gross income inequality indicate that the weakening of unions is related to increases in the top 10 percent income share. A 10 percentage point decline in union density is associated with a 5 percent increase in the top 10 percent income share. The relation between union density and the Gini of gross income is also negative and significant.

On average, the decline in union density explains about 40 percent of the 5 percentage point increase in the top 10 percent income share . . . . By contrast, the decline in unionization contributes more modestly to the rise of the gross income Gini, reflecting the somewhat weaker relation between these variables. However, about half of the increase in the Gini of net income is explained by the decline in union density, evidencing the additional and statistically significant relation between this institution and redistribution. The decline in union density was a widespread phenomenon which, as our estimation results suggest, could be an important contributing factor to the rise in top income shares.

The takeaway

Taylor doesn’t minimize the significance of the ongoing tax changes.  But as he states:

it took 30 or 40 years for the present distributional mess to emerge. It may well take a similar span of time to clean it up.  Progressive tax changes of $100 billion here or $50 billion there are not going to impact overall inequality. The same is true of once-off interventions such as raising the minimum wage by a few dollars per hour.

Long-term improvement requires changes to the present situation that can cumulate over time.

And that requires rebuilding labor’s strength so as to secure meaningful wage increases and a transformation in economic institutions and dynamics.  As the IMF study makes clear, fighting for strong unions must be an important part of the process.