The nation’s teacher unions should be leading the fight for mandated vaccinations, not opposing it.

NEA President Becky Pringle and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Both oppose mandated vaccinations for teachers.

“Vaccinations must be negotiated between employers and workers, not coerced,” says Weingarten. The National Education Association supports allowing an option for weekly testing for teachers instead of requiring a vaccine. New York’s state United Teachers union likewise opposes a vaccine mandate.

This is utter nonsense.

What is to negotiate? What do the leaders of the AFT and the NEA want in return.

Safer classrooms isn’t a good enough deal for them?

This is from the same union leaders that went along with Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top which required teacher rankings and evaluations to be linked to individual student test scores.

Music teachers being evaluated on how their students did on a standardized math test.

What happened to collective bargaining then?

Who would think that Randi Weingarten and Florida governor Ron DeSantis would both be opposed to what they call coercive mandated vaccinations.

Randi says that regular testing should be an alternative.

No.

Regular testing should be mandated too.

Leave Ben and Jerry alone.

The Illinois General Assembly won’t pay their pension bill, but wants to police how it is invested.

A committee set up by the Illinois legislature is investigating Ben and Jerry’s ice cream since the ice cream company announced that they would not be selling their product in Israeli occupied Palestine.

Ben and Jerry’s has long been a company with a progressive conscience.

And a good product.

The Illinois investigation arises out of a 2017 law, passed unanimously by the legislature, that prohibited state pension funds from being invested in companies that went along with BDS. 

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.

There is so much wrong with this law and the investigation of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

The most obvious is that the public pension systems are hundreds of billions in debt because the state never paid their share and continue to short their actuarial payments. 

This alone should disallow them from having anything to say about how our retirement funds are invested.

It is also a clear violation of the first amendment right to free speech. If Ben and Jerry’s wants to support the rights of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories, what does that have to do with our pension investments.

Most of the world condemns Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as violating basic human rights.

By the way, I have no objections to our TRS board of trustees establishing a code of ethics or policy of social justice investing. 

But that is something that should be decided on between public pension members and our board of trustees.

The legislature should stay out of it.

That goes for the Chicago City Council. Shortly after the Illinois General Assembly adopted the BDS law, the Chicago City Council unanimously followed suit.

50 – 0.

It’s interesting what the Chicago City Council can unanimously agree on.

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial pointed out:

Illinoisans have only to look to the disturbingly long queue of former lawmakers charged with crimes or facing federal probes to know that ethics is not the Illinois General Assembly’s strong suit.

It certainly disqualifies them from policing the politics of our pension investments.

The Butter Man and the Red poet.

When I was just a little boy living in Philadelphia, my family would drive the stretch of the Jersey Turnpike that goes to Atlantic City and stop just twenty minutes shy of the famous boardwalk and beach to where Walter and Lillian Lowenfels lived.

The Lowenfels lived next to a cemetery in the little town of Mays Landing, New Jersey.

Walter and Lillian were close friends of my folks. Walter was a poet, a scholar of Walt Whitman, editor of the Daily Worker, a communist and a co-defendant of my father and seven others from Philly in one of the Smith Act trials that were taking place in a dozen American cities at the same time.

The Smith Act was a McCarthy Era law that charged dozens of local and national leaders of the Communist Party with advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government.

Mind you, they weren’t charged with violently assaulting the U.S. Capitol building. They were charged with a crime of having a belief in socialism and advocating, thinking and organizing against cases of social injustice.

On one of our drives to Mays Landing we found ourselves behind a truck with a load of fresh New Jersey corn. Every few feet some ears of corn would fly out the back of the truck on to the highway. Dad would stop right in the middle of the road and Mike and I would jump out and quickly grab some corn.

By the time we got to Mays Landing we had dozens of the freshest corn ever, which Lillian then cooked for dinner.

We slathered it with butter.

As it happens, Walter was the brother of Albert L. Lowenfels who was known as The Butter Man.

Early in the last century, Walter’s brother Albert was president of the Hotel Bar Butter Company and was the first to package butter in quarter pound sticks.

He was also instrumental in promoting the legalization of coloring margarine to make it look like butter.

Colored margarine had been illegal. Legalization of colored margarine might seem to be a strange position for The Butter Man, but Albert thought the law was a hardship on the public. In spite of expectations, butter sales didn’t drop as a result of the change in the law.

Earlier in his life, Walter had left the butter business to go to Paris to write poetry. Not entirely successful at his poetry, he came home in 1934. While in Paris he had hung out with the expats and become a Marxist.

Back in the U.S. he went back to work with his brother Albert, but not for long before joining the Communist Party and editing the Philly edition of the Worker.

Today’s New York Times Magazine features a story about Jeff Lowenfels.

Jeff is the long time garden advice columnist for the Anchorage Daily News.

Lowenfels is not that common a name. I knew Walter and Lillian had four daughters.

But could Jeff be a grandson?

As best as I can figure, Jeff is the grandson of Albert and grand nephew of Walter.

The Times calls Jeff “an accidental climatologist” since his writing and observations over 40 years have documented climate change although that was not the original intent.

When Joe was running he promised to repeal the WEP/GPO.

President Joe Biden poses for his official portrait Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Library of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

When Joe Biden was running fore president his campaign issued a plan for older Americans.

You may not have heard much about it lately, but you can read it here.

Among other promises Joe made was the elimination of the WEP/GPO.

And while he has much on his plate at the moment what with the resurgence of the pandemic and a too bipartisan an infrastructure bill, I just want to remind him what his Plan for Older Americans said about the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset.

Eliminate penalties for teachers and other public-sector workers. Current rules penalize teachers and other public sector workers who either switch jobs or who have earned retirement benefits from various sources. The Biden Plan would eliminate these penalties by ensuring that teachers not eligible for Social Security will begin receiving benefits sooner – rather than the current ten-year period for many teachers. The Biden Plan will also get rid of the benefit cuts for workers and surviving beneficiaries who happen to be covered by both Social Security and another pension. These workers deserve the benefits they earned. 

That’s a good plan, Joe.

In the middle of the pandemic Burger King said work sick or go home with no pay.

In 2017 the Chicago City Council passed a sick leave ordinance that required companies doing business here to provide 5 sick days a year to their workers. It passed 48 to nothing.

In typical City Council style, it was a grand gesture that went on the shelf to collect dust until 2019 when an office was created to actually enforce a number of pro-worker laws that the Council has enacted regarding sick leave, scheduling and minimum wage.

The office was given a budget and five investigators.

Yesterday we saw some results.

Major props to one of my favorite alders, Susan Sadlowski Garza who headed the work force committee in Council and to one of my favorite organizations, Arise Chicago.

The city of Chicago reached settlements worth more than $1.1 million with Mondelez and a Burger King franchisee for alleged violations of its paid sick leave ordinance.

The separate agreements, announced Thursday, include $935,000 in restitution for almost 3,000 Chicago workers allegedly denied full sick leave benefits under the city’s 2017 law.

A footnote to the story is the relationship of Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Alder “Slow” Eddie Burke and Tri-City Foods, which owns the Burger Kings.

See,  it was Tri-City Foods that refused to pay sick leave to 2,473 employees at 40 Burger King locations in Chicago from July 2017 through November 2020.

Work sick or go home without pay they said in the middle of a pandemic.

And it was Tri-City’s CEO  Shoukat Dhanani who gave $10,000 to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign. The donation was arranged by “Slow” Eddie.

Many believe it was the news of Preckwinkle’s money relationship to Eddie Burke that sunk her campaign for mayor.

Ben and Jerry.

Several years back the Illinois legislature passed a bill that banned the investment of my pension funds or any state pension funds in companies that divested in Israel to protest Israeli policies towards Palestinians and settlements. 

The vote of the Illinois House was unanimous, including that of my own rep. Will Guzzardi. I wrote Will expressing my disappointment in his vote. Will Guzzardi wrote me back explaining he thought “the Jews needed a win.” 

Ben and Jerry no longer own Ben and Jerry’s, but they voiced support for the decision to stop selling Ben and Jerry’s in occupied territory. 

So in stepped  (get the name) The Israeli Boycott Restrictions Committee of the Illinois Investment Policy Board who will meet to approve setting a 90-day deadline for Unilever (which now owns B&J) to reverse the decision by Ben & Jerry’s. 

What the Investment Policy Board is doing is searching through my pension investments to see if any Unilver companies have pension funds invested in them. BTW, if I tried to track investments by my TRS I couldn’t do it because I have been told it is proprietary information. 

Back when the legislature passed this stupid bill I pointed out that for a group of politicians to vote on how our pension funds are invested when they failed to even fully fund it is a cruel joke. 

Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, said in a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday, “We are also proud Jews. It’s part of who we are and how we’ve identified ourselves for our whole lives. As our company began to expand internationally, Israel was one of our first overseas markets. We were then, and remain today, supporters of the State of Israel,” the founders said. “But it’s possible to support Israel and oppose some of its policies, just as we’ve opposed policies of the U.S. government.”

Repeal the WEP/GPO.

The National Education Association’s position on the WEP/GPO couldn’t be clearer. They want full repeal of both pension provisions and so do I.

The Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduces the earned Social Security benefit of those of us in over a dozen states who are members of a public pension system like Illinois’ Teacher Retirement System.

The Government Pension Offset (GPO) denies spousal death benefits to a spouse who is a member of a pension system like TRS.

I got my first Social Security card at 12. My first job that I paid into the system I got when I was 16. My last deduction was when I was 38. I paid 6% of my income into Social Security and that was matched by my employer.

Anne paid in her entire working life.

That’s a lot of our money that the government can legally confiscate.

In an article from the NEA’s Education Votes in 2016, Angela Litvinov explains it well. Everything in it is true today except the bill numbers have changed. Every year a bill to repeal WEP/GPO gets enough co-sponsors to pass the House. It never comes to a vote.

By Amanda Litvinov

Jim Sproul was confident he had all his ducks in a row when he retired in 1997 after 29 years in education. As a long-time leader in his association and a past president of the Kentucky Education Association, he had assisted many members on their path to retirement and understood how the system works.

He was abundantly aware that two controversial laws—the Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision (GPO-WEP)—could drastically reduce retirement benefits for teachers like him.

GPO reduces public employees’ Social Security spousal or survivor benefits by two-thirds of their public pension — 9 out of 10 people lose their entire spousal benefit, even if their spouse paid Social Security taxes for many years.

WEP reduces the earned Social Security benefits of an individual who also receives a public pension from a job not covered by Social Security — meaning hard-working people lose a significant portion of the benefits they have earned themselves.

But Sproul thought he would be exempt from the reduction in benefits, because he had paid into the Social Security system for the required 30 years. “Like many educators, I held second and third jobs throughout my teaching career,” Sproul explained. Unfortunately, not all of those years of Social Security-covered work met the earnings threshold.

“So imagine my shock when I handed in my paperwork to start drawing Social Security at age 65 and discovered that instead of receiving over $970 each month, I would receive only $390,” Sproul said.

Like Sproul, countless educators and other state and local employees who have dutifully served in the public sector are unfairly losing retirement benefits they or their spouses have earned because of these laws enacted in the 1970s. Finally, nearly four decades later, there are two efforts in Congress to retool or repeal GPO-WEP.

The U.S. House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing Tuesday to discuss possible reforms to GPO-WEP with the intention of treating public servants more fairly. But the National Education Association has serious concerns about one of the proposals on the table—while the Equal Treatment of Public Servants Act (H.R.711) addresses inequities perpetuated by WEP, it leaves the GPO intact and could actually broaden its application and enforcement.

H.R.711 would replace the WEP with a new “public service fairness formula” that would take into account the years a public sector employee paid into Social Security versus the years that employee paid into a public pension system while working in a position not covered by Social Security. But there are still major problems, including that fact that employees who do not vest in a public pension plan would still have their benefits reduced. Also, those who did have 30 years of Social Security-covered earnings that meet the threshold would no longer be exempt from having their benefits reduced.

A far better proposal has already been introduced. NEA strongly supports the Social Security Fairness Act (H.R.973/S.1651), which would fully repeal both the GPO and WEP.

“No one is asking for benefits they or their spouse haven’t earned,” said Sproul. “Occasionally when I’m talking to elected leaders about situations like mine, they say they are trying to prevent ‘double dipping.’ I remind them that I spent my whole career ‘double working.’”

Sproul now works full-time at the family-owned tire store where he has been employed for 37 years. He enjoys the work, and considers himself lucky.

“I don’t think I’ll ever reach 30 years of Social Security-covered work at the required threshold,” said Sproul, “but I’ll be alright. Some folks I know are really struggling without the benefits they were counting on. Lawmakers should help them.”

Summer and the sound of learning gain.

I drew our skateboarder.

I’ve not been watching much of the Tokyo Olympics, although I did watch 22 year old Yuto Horigome win the street skateboarding gold.

It made me think about last summer and the kid next door and street noise and elote carts and teaching and learning.

Last summer the kid next door was teaching himself to skateboard. All summer for hours on end he would go back and forth in the street in front of our house, ending with his attempt to flip the board and land on it.

Hour after hour of the noise of wheels on the street and then that sound of the flip and the skateboard hitting the ground. The noise evidence that he had failed again to hit the landing.

Nobody coaching. Nobody watching. Nobody grading him. Just his perseverance.

Every summer has had a street noise.

For a few summers it was the sound of the soft serve truck that parked in front of our house and played The Entertainer over and over until the last of the kids got their cone.

For years it was the horn of the elote and helado carts.

And the bicycle bell on the painted ones selling mango flowers or a cucumber on a stick.

One summer it was kids playing hoops, the hoop being a black plastic milk crate we nailed to our hellstrip ash, much to the disapproval of a few of our neighbors.

As a teacher I think about the neighbor kid teaching himself to skate. Nothing we offer in school could provide the motivation that drove him to spend hours and hours, day after summer day trying to master that flip.

Mostly failing. Always learning.

As a teacher I wish I could bottle that.

Over the winter our skateboarder moved.

This summer the street is quiet.

The WEP/GPO is a tax for being a woman educator in Illinois.

Retired female teachers face discrimination two ways (actually more than two).

The WEP/GPO rule that denies teachers in the Teacher Retirement System the Social Security spousal death benefit is a direct assault on women.

In a 2018 study of the top pension earners in TRS, only 18 of the top 100 were women. 

The majority are white, male administrators. 

No surprise there.

Seventy six percent of the state’s public school teachers are women, but male educators out-earn women’s annual salaries.

It is more likely that women teachers take time off for child birth and child rearing which reduces their working years and their credits to TRS.

And many of Illinois’ towns have two school districts that divide the higher paying high school from the K-8 schools with a worse salary schedule.

More men tend to teach at the high school level. Women are likely to be K-8 teachers.

As a result, women TRS members, on average, receive a smaller retirement benefit.

Since most of the states retired teachers are women they are the primary victims of the WEP spousal death penalty as well.

It is quite literally a tax for being an Illinois female educator.

If your spouse receives a Social Security retirement benefit and dies first, as a member of TRS you get nothing according to WEP.

Normally a death benefit goes to the surviving spouse.

Not if you are a teacher or other covered government worker.

Most are women.