Wednesday, January 30, 2013

False Slogan

Recent events in mid-western states have caused a setback to organized labor.  Indiana and Michigan have recently adopted so-called right-to-work laws.  Unfortunately, there is very little understanding of what the so-called right-to-work law does. 

While watching TV recently, I observed a local attorney on television who remarked that because Texas was a right-to-work state an employer could terminate an employee at will.  It is clear that even an attorney does not have an accurate understanding of what “right-to-work” laws do.

First of all, the right-to-work law is misnamed in that it gives no one a right to be employed.  In fact, right-to-work laws have just the opposite effect because they give inadequate protection to non-union workers and are grossly unfair to the unions themselves.  The local attorney was correct in that the State of Texas is what we call an “at will” employment state--which simply means an employer can fire an employee for no reason and is only prohibited from terminating an employee for certain prohibited reasons. Those are generally the reasons contained in federal law. The only state prohibition against termination is terminating an employee for failure to commit an unlawful act.

The Texas right-to-work law, as well as those in other states, simply provides that no employee can be contractually or otherwise forced to pay union dues.  The reason such laws are unfair to unions requires a brief understanding of the federal labor laws. 

Under federal laws, unions may organize by receiving a majority vote among a particular group of employees called a bargaining unit.  The majority must vote to bring in union representation.  Once the employees elect to have a union represent them, the union is then obligated to represent everyone within the bargaining unit.  The representation is mandatory for every employee within that unit without regard to whether or not the individual pays dues to the union.

As an example, assume a non-union member is unfairly terminated or disciplined and desires to file a grievance under the union contract.  The union is obligated to pursue the grievance on behalf of the non-union employee even though the employee is a “free-rider,” enjoying all the benefits of the union contract but not participating in financial support of the union.

The situation described above is very like the citizen who would elect to pay no taxes, should he or she have that option, and yet the government would be obligated to furnish police, fire and other governmental services to them just the same as were furnished to taxpaying citizens.  I doubt any rational person would agree that such a situation would be fair to citizens who pay taxes. And the same applies to unions.  The “free-rider” who elects not to pay union dues because of a right-to-work law enjoys all the benefits of the union’s representation and bargaining and yet has a free ride.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Goings-on for Political Junkies

For many years Texas was a one-party state.  Although statewide officeholders ascribed to being members of the Democratic Party, there were two definite factions of the Party.  There were historic fights between conservative Democrats and the faction which called themselves loyal Democrats.  The largest split came between factions led by Lyndon Johnson and the old loyalist Allan Shivers.  It was said things were so good with Democrats that they needed someone to fight with so they decided to fight with themselves.

There are definite signs that since Texas has become basically a one-party state with Republicans holding all statewide offices and a majority of the Legislature that there are signs of trouble in paradise.

It appears Rick Perry, after having made such a poor showing in his short-lived attempt to run for president, has lost a good deal of his luster among his fellow Republicans.  Some Republicans have decided they have been “waiting in the wings” long enough, indicating there will be a real inner-party squabble during the next election cycle.

It is not a well-kept secret around the Capitol that Attorney General Abbott has let the insiders know he intends to run for governor no matter what other candidate may appear on the ballot–including the current occupant of that office.  Abbott is obviously “feeling his oats” in view of the fact that recent fund-raising efforts have raised him about 4.5 million, on top of the 18 million he has in the bank.  This compares more than favorably with Rick Perry’s recent fund-raising efforts which raised less than 4 million; and unlike earlier times, Perry has only 6 million on hand in his re-election account.

There are other signs that even Republicans are getting somewhat disenchanted with Rick Perry and his long tenure as governor.  Recently, members of the Legislature expressed serious doubts about Perry’s largesse through grants to various funds intended to spike economic growth in Texas.  Even some Republicans are questioning the fact that several million dollars were allocated to friends of Perry who have been donors to his election efforts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A couple of freshman representatives have introduced bills which would bring more transparency to the governor's efforts and another has introduced a bill to prohibit him from double-dipping, drawing both his salary as governor and his retirement benefits as a past member of the Legislature. 

There are other contests already visible on the horizon.  Land Commissioner Patterson and State Comptroller Combs have both announced their intention to seek the office of Lt. Governor; along with Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.  All have million-dollar plus war chests already raised and all believe that they are the leading candidate for such office.  In addition to these announced ambitions, it appears Lt. Governor Dewhurst is not ready to give up the ghost, even after his poor showing against Senator Cruz in the recent primary election.  All of the intramural squabbles among Republicans should make for interesting days for those of us political junkies who enjoy watching such goings-on.  Stay tuned.

Ethics and Pay

It is often said, particularly in the service industry, that one gets what one pays for. Fortunately for the citizens of Texas, it is my belief Texans get far more than they pay for in the service of the members of its Legislature. It is no secret that I often take strong issue with the actions, or lack of action, on the part of various legislators. Nonetheless, I developed a keen respect for those willing to give their time and effort in an attempt to make Texas a better place.

Of late there has been some public outcry about ethical lapses of members of the state Legislature. The criticism generally centers around the fact that legislators have outside employment. As an example, a recent news article took to task several members of the Legislature because one ran an insurance agency and voted on matters related to insurance. Another was in the small loan business and was criticized for standing on the floor of the House and defending the industry in which he was involved.  The current rule of thumb, ethically speaking in the Legislature, is that a member of the House or Senate is free to vote for any measure that affects that member in the same manner as everyone else in the same situation is affected. In a part-time Legislature where members of the Legislature receive the princely amount of $600 a month for their service, that seems to be a fair standard of ethical conduct.

Generally, stringent rules of ethics are not very effective in policing ethical conduct--particularly when, as in Texas, the agency charged with policing ethics is more of a toothless watchdog than anything else.  A shining example of the weakness of the Texas Ethics Commission is when they ruled that taking a check instead of cash did not amount to bribery or violate the ethical rules of Texas.

Frankly, with part-time service in our Legislature, I would rather depend on full disclosure by each legislator as to the general source of his or her income, as is now required. The benefit of part time legislators is that they live in the community and generally face the same everyday challenges as do their constituents.  If the folks want to have an insurance agent represent them in the Legislature and vote on matters relative to insurance policies, homeowner decisions, etc., so be it.

If ever the state of Texas wants to get serious about having a serious contingency in its Legislature, the Constitution should be amended to require annual sessions of at least 6 months and pay its legislators about $100,000 per year, as well as awarding them a general expense allowance for the operation of their Austin and local offices.  The annual sessions and the increased salaries should be accompanied by strict rules against outside employment or income.

For years I held forth, to anyone who would listen, advocating better pay for members of the Legislature. But, I have finally reversed my tactics in this matter and now throw in with the naysayers and simply say this:  If you paid a decent salary to members of the Legislature, then any kind of trashy folks could serve, and not just those with trust funds or sufficient incomes to sustain themselves in Austin.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Corporate Welfare

The Republican leadership of Texas continues to act just as what they are–Hypocrites, with a capital “H.”  Recently, Attorney General Abbott and Senator Cronyn were beating their chests claiming they have protected the children of Texas because they have raised the penalties against people who abuse children.  That’s all well and good, but penalties are imposed on abusers of children after the fact.  It does very little for most of the children in the state of Texas.  

On the other hand, Cornyn, Abbott, Perry and others do not seem concerned at all that Texas has more children without adequate health care protection than any other state in the union.  Texas has more children living in poverty than any other state in the union.  

As I’ve said many times before, these great Republican leaders seem to care greatly for the unborn child, throwing roadblock after roadblock against abortions that our Supreme Court has deemed legal.  At the same time, they appear to give little concern, certainly almost no action, to the lot of the children who are already born.

In the wake of recent mass murders, Republicans deny that loose gun laws pose any problem.  They are quick to blame mental health as the root cause.  These same Republicans however are the very folks responsible for starving mental health programs of funding.  In fact, Texas is a prime example of spending more on prisons and less on programs to prevent crimes!

Even more hypocritical are the mental health 'blamers' who refuse to close loopholes in background checks which would allow finding those with mental health problems.

Further evidence of the hypocrisy of our Republican leadership and the majority of the Republicans in our Legislature is that we continue to hear that Medicaid--which offers medical assistance to the elderly and poor--, food stamps and unemployment benefits are a ruination to the state...that they cause people to land in a hammock rather than a safety net.  However, while condemning the so-called welfare to the poor, elderly and needy, Texas has gone headlong into subsidies for the very rich, who obviously are not in great need.  A recent study noted by the New York Times and the Dallas Observer, as well as earlier reports in the Houston Chronicle, revealed Texas government gives away approximately 19 billion dollars every year to corporations in the form of benefits.  These include tax abatements as well as direct subsidies to large gas companies, whose profits are at an all-time high.  It also takes into account the 300 million dollar slush fund which Governor Perry insisted on having at his disposal while we were cutting funds to education by 5 billion dollars.  

Recent examinations of the science companies and start-up businesses subsidy programs insisted on by our governor have revealed a substantial number of them have gone bankrupt or out of business. And study has revealed that another large number of these companies have failed to meet the promised quotas of employees who, they represented, would be on the payroll to help lower unemployment in Texas.  

So, the next time your state representative or state senator starts carping about the welfare state in the United States, remind him or her about the fact that Texas gives away almost 1/4th of the big, corporate welfare sops given in the United States–more than any other state in the union.  Business lobbyists for special interests may call it creating a good business climate in Texas.  I call it a big corporate welfare give-away.