Monday, July 4, 2011

State Workers' Union Win Agreement, But Attacks on Students, Poor Still On

Joseph Piette
Published Jul 1, 2011 7:14 PM

Just days after hundreds of state workers rallied in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa., state workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13 and the Service Employees union came to a tentative agreement with Pennsylvania government officials.

SEIU Local 668 President Kathy Jellison stated, “The proposal that the commonwealth initially put on the table called for a 4-percent wage decrease, a significant reduction in employee leave, rolling furloughs and huge give-backs in health care, which would have severely hurt our members, their families and retirees. Through hard work and determination our team was able to significantly ratchet back the demands of the commonwealth and maintain the status quo in many cases ... The tentative agreement includes a 10.75-percent wage increase over four years, no significant increases to health care contributions and no rolling furloughs.” (

While contracts with 17 state employee unions expire June 30, the AFSCME and SEIU settlements traditionally are used as a template for agreements with smaller unions in Pennsylvania.

The four-year agreements were won despite give-back contracts forced on public workers in nearby states. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie and legislators of both parties sharply increased state and local workers’ contributions for their health insurance and pensions, suspended cost-of-living increases to retirees’ pension checks, raised retirement ages and decreased union bargaining rights.

In addition to demanding a new contract without givebacks, a major demand of the June 21 labor march and rally in Philadelphia was, “No cutbacks in state services.” Hundreds of state workers listened to speakers in Love Plaza before taking over the streets around Philadelphia’s City Hall.

SEIU Local 668, which represents state social workers and units for developmentally disabled people in the Philadelphia area, organized the protest rally.

Speakers at the rally criticized Gov. Corbett’s massive cutbacks, calling them unnecessary, especially if taxes were fairly applied to corporations. Some 70 percent of corporations currently avoid any tax payments.

The unionists also called for enacting taxes on the gas-drilling industry.

Betsey Piette of the International Action Center asserted that the money communities need is there but the rich are unwilling to spend those funds to serve the working class. She called for ending the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and spending those funds instead on providing union jobs in working-class communities.

Slashing funds for social needs

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett may have wanted to concentrate his efforts on slashing funds to programs that benefit the working class, rather than directly attacking the state workers’ unions, which are a better organized sector of the workers.

His administration is close to finalizing a state budget agreement that may slash as much as $471 million from the budget for the Department of Public Welfare, including $280 million in Medicaid cuts. (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 21)

The cuts would end Medicaid coverage for 100,000 Pennsylvanians, says Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. Medicaid provides health coverage for 2.3 million low-income, elderly, and/or disabled Pennsylvanians, 50 percent of whom are under 18 years old.

Additional cuts include about $37 million in cash grants — welfare — to the poorest Pennsylvanians, and $38 million from programs that help low-income people afford child care while they work, or train for work, so they can afford to survive without welfare. It’s also proposed to cut by nearly $400,000 the state’s food-purchase program for the food pantries frequented by the needy.

The cuts in programs for the poor are in addition to severe cuts in education. Higher education cutbacks include 19 percent, or a total of $130 million, for Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University, as well as cuts of 18 percent, or about $90 million, from the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education.

Corbett also wants to reduce public school aid by $550 million and eliminate $259 million in subsidies for programs such as all-day kindergarten.

The state’s budget deadline is June 30.

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