The parliamentarian. A democracy work-around.

I have been following the story about the Senate parliamentarian and the exclusion of a federal $15 minimum wage from the pandemic relief bill with interest.

You could say it is triggering.

As a yearly delegate to the national conventions -called Representative Assemblies – of the National Education Association and the Illinois Education Association I have seen how the leadership can use parliamentary rules and procedures to undermine real democracy.

One year I joined with other delegates calling on the leadership to create on the IEA website a place where politically active members could search for like-minded members. For privacy purposes, members would opt to sign up rather than having it be automatic.

Pretty simple and easy. But it took political action out of the direct control of leadership and the lobbying department.

At the NEA and IEA Representative Assemblies they have a person who puts a price tag on proposals. If the leadership wants to kill a proposal they have the “pricer” put some outrageous cost to the idea. That would kill it every time. And there was no appeal.

Our simple idea was given a $25,000 price tag.

That was the tell. Delegates understood that leadership was sending a message they wanted our idea to die.

The idea that the parliamentarian of the Senate can kill the federal $15 minimum wage when most Americans support the idea?

That is a tell.

A message that the Democratic Party leadership wanted it to die.

John Laesch for Aurora mayor.

Being an advocate for teachers, our unions and pension over the past decades has brought me into contact with some really great folks.

One is John Laesch.

John is a long-time activist for labor and social justice in the western suburbs and Fox Valley.

When we were in the fight for our constitutionally and contractually promised pension benefits and we were fighting against the most powerful pols in the state, like former Speaker Mike Madigan, John was right there.

“Come out and speak,” John would email me. “I’ll get you a crowd.”

And he would.

Aurora is a proud working class town.

The incumbent is a pro-business mayor.

John is a pro-working class candidate.

Easy choice.

Trust? Illinois still refuses to pay its pension bill.

The latest Speaker of the Illinois House, Chris Welch, believes that a progressive income tax amendment can be passed in Illinois if the state promises to direct the revenue towards paying off the state’s $140 billion dollar pension liability.

When I heard the Speaker’s idea, my first response was that it was a great idea. Anything to address the pension debt.

Welch’s theory was that the reason the amendment failed last time was the lack of trust on the part of Illinois voters that we wouldn’t just be handing the corrupt politicians in Springfield more money to fill their pockets and the vaults of corporations like Commonwealth Edison.

I was for the amendment, but the voters aren’t wrong not to trust Springfield. And I don’t see how Welch’s proposal will create trust.

Take Governor J.B. Pritzker’s current 2021 budget proposal. It claims to be making a full pension payment when it isn’t.

It includes the statutory contribution to the state’s public pension funds. And all the Springfield reporters dutifully reported that there would be no cut in the state’s contribution from last year.

Only the statutory contribution is not what the state owes to meet its obligation and prevent more debt. “Statutory” should be translated as the legislature made up a number and blew it out their collective butts.

The actuarial amount owed, the amount actually needed to keep from growing the liability is several billion more that the statutory amount.

They short the pension system every year, after year, after year, after year. And this year again.

Not exactly a trust-building thing, right?

Joe Cahill in Crain’s says as much. “Yet the funding gap continues to grow, because the state isn’t contributing the amount actuarially necessary to cover future pension obligations.” Or to reduce the debt on past unmet obligations.

If state Democrats were interested in trust they would make proposals that address the actuarial obligations that would at least decrease the growing pension liability.

Instead Cahill supports the idea of a constitutional amendment that would take out the pension protection clause.

Pritzker, Welch and their party should go after the pension deficit itself. Before seeking more revenue from taxpayers, political leaders should do everything in their power to shrink pension obligations. That means attacking the driving force behind rising pension debt: compounded annual cost-of-living increases for pensioners.

Eliminating cost-of-living raises would require a constitutional amendment to delete a clause barring any diminution in pension benefits. Pritzker and legislative leaders declined to propose such an amendment when they asked voters to approve an amendment eliminating the state constitution’s provision that precludes graduated income tax rates. That omission sent a clear message about the Democrats’ priorities, and the likelihood that money from a graduated income tax would be spent responsibly.

If Pritzker and Welch are serious about winning trust, they’ll allow Illinoisans to vote on a standalone constitutional amendment repealing the so-called “pension protection clause.” To build public support and treat retirees fairly, such an amendment could be narrowly drawn to permit only reductions in future pension increases under the COLA mechanism.

This would be a lie. Lying to the voters is no way to build trust.

Even if they were successful in erasing the pension protection clause from the Illinois constitution, it would have absolutely no impact on the current $144 billion pension liability.

It would have no impact on the contractual and constitutional obligations to current Tier 1 and Tier 2 members of the Teacher Retirement System.

The bill still has to be paid.

Trust me.

Amazon, southern Black labor and the future of union organizing.

There’s a union vote taking place in Bessemer, Alabama right now.

The Amazon distribution center in Bessemer is over 85% Black and female.

The mail-in union vote will determine if Bessemer warehouse workers will be represented in collective bargaining by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Amazon is worried. Mail-in voting began on Monday, Feb. 8. It’s a seven-week process in which ballots will be sent to the 5,805 people who are part of the bargaining unit that the NLRB determined. And they have seven weeks to return those ballots.

Black Alabama has a long and radical labor history connected at the hip to the long fight for racial equality.

NY Tiimes African American columnist Jamelle Bouie reminds us of that history.

That radicalism was at its strongest within the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. “Originally an outgrowth of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that helped launch the I.W.W. in 1905, Mine Mill developed a national reputation as a radical, left-wing union during the 1930s,” the historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes in “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.” Most members of the union — like most iron ore miners in Birmingham, where the state’s steel industry was headquartered — were Black, and while its high-ranking officials were white, Black workers held the majority of middle- and low-level leadership positions within the union. Included among them were Communists, who helped spearhead Mine Mill’s organizing drive in the wake of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which had opened the door to unionization in large swaths of the economy.

You can bet that if Amazon workers vote union in Alabama, Amazon workers all over the country will know and will be encouraged to do the same.

Alabama is a right-to-work state and Amazon pats itself on the back for paying more that the minimum wage.

In a December 2020 article, Bloomberg reported on how new Amazon warehouses drag down wages in the local area, even though the company is paying more than minimum wage. In New Jersey, for example, warehouse workers were making $24 an hour before Amazon moved in, paying $15 an hour. In 2019, warehouse workers in New Jersey earned about $17.50 per hour. 

African American voters in the South were key to taking back the Congress and the White House in 2020.

But justice is more than an electoral map.

It is not an overstatement to say that a victory against Amazon led by Black workers in Bessemer, Alabama can transform the progressive and labor movements in the entire country.

“But Syria is a sovereign country,” Jen Psaki tweeted at the time. That is so 2017.

Joe Biden orders the bombing of Syria in order to reduce tensions?

While we’re waiting for a Covid relief package to come out of a Congress controlled by the President’s Party, we are already bombing Syria and we’re not even two months into this administration.

What is it about Democrats love for bombs?

When it was Trump bombing Syria, the current Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki tweeted,“What is the legal authority for strikes? Assad is a brutal dictator. But Syria is a sovereign country.”

For the Biden administration, national sovereignty is an issue only when Trump does the bombing.

This time, Assad wasn’t the excuse.

The administration said the rockets were aimed at a small Shia group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam.

This can only be seen as sending a message to somebody. But there apparently was a body count to this message.

The Biden administration says it plans to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and back away from its predeccesor’s war-mongering approach.

Ironically, the administration has said the bombing of Syria is intended to de-escalate tensions in advance of returning to talks with Iran.

What am I missing here?

So, in the mean we are waiting for the Democrats to deliver a Covid relief package and vaccinations to become more available.

And $15 an hour minimum wage has been ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian.

We need to get our priorities straight.

Will the meaning of “yes” be on the test? The tests are back.

“As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. You don’t have to tell me. Tell Joe!

Betsy DeVos may have been the worst Secretary of Education ever.

Check that.

Not “may have been.” She was the worst Secretary of Education ever.

But even Betsy DeVos knew that holding schools accountable for federally mandated standardized tests during the worst pandemic in a hundred years made no sense.

She cancelled them.

When Joe Biden was running to replace Donald Trump he was asked about standardized testing.

“Will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in schools.”

Biden answered, “Yes.” “Teachers should be able to determine curriculum in their schools.”

But that has all changed and the tests are back.

“Yes” means “no”.

In a letter to state education leaders, acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum wrote that the Biden administration will not consider waivers of federal testing requirements this year.

The requirement to administer state exams was waived by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in spring 2020.

The announcement embodied a “frustrating turn” for the administration, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers’ union and who supported Biden in the Democratic primary against Bernie.

“As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning,” said Weingarten.

You don’t have to tell me. Tell Joe.

On teacher pensions, wrong said Fred.

Right said Fred? Nope. Wrong said Fred.

Somebody named “Fred” commented on the blog post I wrote the other day about the WEP/GPO.

To review.

The WEP is a provision in the current Social Security statutes that reduces teachers’ earned Social Security benefits by up to 90% when we are also in a public pension system like Illinois’ TRS.

The GPO provision takes away spousal benefits from TRS members.

I wrote that President Biden has said the punitive provision should be repealed and Illinois’ Republican Congress member Rodney Davis is sponsoring a bill to do the the same. As in previous years the bill will have lots of supporters but will fail to be enacted. It’s all political theater.

“Fred” wrote, “Another law that public employees don’t like. Imagine the cost to employers and taxpayers and fixing it! Hasn’t it been a bargaining chip in negotiations for years: raise our pensions because we don’t get social security? Would you agree to reducing your teachers’ “full career” pension by the amount of social security? With pick-up plans, most of teachers’ own pension contributions are made by the schools in all events. And with current funding deficits, based on actuarial manipulation, your pension security is getting worse as each day goes by.”

Amazingly, every single sentence in this comment is false.

Not some. Everything except the part about another law public employees don’t like.

“Imagine the cost to employers and taxpayers and fixing it!” write “Fred”.

We don’t have to imagine. The Illinois legislature passed a bill creating a Tier 2 pension system for every teacher hired after January 1st 2011. It was a reform intended to reduce the pension debt and state liability. The legislation reduces the benefit and lengthens the number of years a teacher must work to qualify.

When the first Tier 2 teacher retires, their pension benefit will likely be less than they would have received under Social Security and will violate federal law. School districts and taxpayers will be on the hook for millions of unpaid retirement benefits.

It was another brilliant fuck up by the Illinois General Assembly that remains to be fixed. It is a pension bomb ticking away.

“Fred” asks: Would you agree to reducing your teachers’ “full career” pension by the amount of social security?

How stupid do you think teachers are? We paid 9.4% of our paychecks every week into TRS. Social Security payments are around 6% with the employer paying a equal share. School districts in Illinois save that 6% and pay around 1% and we paid over 3% more than with the Social Security tax. For local school districts and taxpayers the current system saves them money. By the way, local taxpayers are teachers too. A fact often forgotten by those like “Fred”.

The Social Security benefit we are denied under the WEP “windfall” provision are the contributions to Social Security for summer work we did or work in the private sector before or after our careers in teaching.

And “Fred” is also wrong about who pays our pension. Not school districts primarily. 44% of our pension is paid for by return on the investment of our shorted pension funds. If fully funded the return on our investments would be far greater in an actual dollar amount. Working teachers pay into it every paycheck. The state legislature budgets a portion but it is never the actuarial amount. The General Assembly always shorts their payment, which is the only reason for the $1.4 billion dollar liability.

Robert Lyons: Our teacher pension.

For years Bob Lyons represented retirees on the TRS board of trustees. Now retired from the board, he still keeps us up to date.

By Robert Lyons, retired teacher and former member of the TRS board of trustees.

I taught for thirty-two years and took advantage the last year the state offered the five plus five option to retire early. That was in June of 1994, so come June of this year I will have been re-tired for twenty-seven years.

In that period covering a year short of sixty years I have never met anyone that claimed they went into teaching to gain the pension. While it was just something that happened at the end of our teaching, it has proved to be an outstanding benefit to cap a rewarding career. The only drawback is that our pension system was not drawn up with the aid of normal accounting standards and the help of an actuary.

Instead it was created by politicians and their time horizon was quite different compared to actuarial science. Instead of a goal to achieve full funding in the near future, the politicians from the start were only willing to provide sums small enough to allow them to take advantage of existing revenue for more “popular” projects sure to gain votes. When told that insufficient spending would cost the state more money in the long run, the legislators basically showed they really only cared about the next election. Of course, the lack of money spent early has cost the state much more money later.

The State of Illinois today is painfully learning why credit card companies are so happy to accept only minimum payments from their card holders as the state now finds itself making payments to the fund in the billions to make up for “saving” thousands of dollars earlier.

The Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) ended its fiscal year on June 30, 2020 with $52.3 billion and was 40.5% funded.

In comparison the State Employees Retirement System (SERS) was 38.7% funded, the State University Retirement System (SURS) was 42.2% funded, the Judicial Retirement System was 39.3% funded and the General Assembly Retirement Systems (GERS) is only 17.1% funded.The total unfunded liability for the state asof June of last year was $144.3 billion.

Governor Pritzker’s FY 2022 budget announced last week calls for a total pension contribution from the general revenue fund of $9.4 billion, plus $1.1 billion from other state funds, and $264.8 million specifically earmarked for the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund.The state’s payment to TRS alone is $5,693,707,000.

Also, in the governor’s budget is the full state contribution to TRIP, our medical insurance, of $143,369,000.

This is significant because in his first two budget Pritzker had zeroed out that contribution to make it appear he was “saving money.”

Since the General Assembly put it back in when they passed the budget the last two years, the governor has simply accepted reality this year.

The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund is separate from TRS and, as you may know, is paid for by the city of Chicago.

At one time CTPF was 100 percent funded.The city asked the state if they could skip payments and was given that permission.

Between no new payments for a number of year, plus losing money in both the dot com bust and the Great Recession of 2008, CTFP is now down to funding of 47.4%.

The city is now making its payments plus the state, out of guilt I would suggest, also makes a contribution.

I have given you this information before, but it is well worth repeating. 

Where Does Your Pension Come From:

Proceeds from Investments 40.30%

Composite of sources of revenue from FY 2001 to FY 2020.

Contribution from Active Teachers: 15.75%

Required payments from School Districts: 2.34%

Contribution from State of Illinois: 41.57%

If we were fully funded, or anywhere close to it, the money from investments would be a much larger percentage and the other three sources would be much smaller. TRS makes money with our investments, but now every year it is required to sell funds that are making a profit in order to provide the pensions that we are living on. TRS has on average made 7.7% annually for the last thirty years and 9.17% annually for the last forty years.

The MADness of the nuclear arms race continues. It’s older than I am.

When the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 it not only brought to an end World War II, it began the nuclear arms race that continues to this day.

While no other atomic weapons have been used in war, untold numbers of people around the world have died from the effects of nuclear testing.

As a deterrence to nuclear arms proliferation – one early excuse for U.S. nuclear arms expansion -it has been a complete failure as more nations join the nuclear club, breaking the U.S. and Russian monopoly on nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War with the Soviet Union both countries functioned on the basis of a peace through mutually assured destruction, appropriately labeled MAD. The theory was that neither side would start a war knowing that it would lead to global destruction.

Winston Churchill described it this way: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.’

Yet many are convinced that MAD, as a policy of deterrence and non-proliferation, have only made the world more dangerous.

The madness (pun intended) has gone on so long that the intercontinental ballistic missiles that form the basis of our nuclear arsenal have become obsolete, at least according to the U.S. military.

The aging Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles that have formed the land-based leg of the nation’s nuclear deterrent triad for half a century can no longer be upgraded and require costly replacements, Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command said.

“Let me be very clear: You cannot life-extend the Minuteman III [any longer],” he said of the 400 ICBMs that sit in underground silos across five states in the upper Midwest.

“We can’t do it at all. … That thing is so old that, in some cases, the drawings don’t exist anymore [to guide upgrades],” Richard said in a Zoom conference sponsored by the Defense Writers Group.

Where the drawings do exist, “they’re like six generations behind the industry standard,” he said, adding that there are also no technicians who fully understand them. “They’re not alive anymore.”

The Biden administration is considering modernizing the nuclear arsenal. Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said he has made his concerns known in several meetings with President Joe Biden. Without giving specifics, he said the meetings had “gone very well” and added that Biden is open to a review of the nation’s current nuclear strategy.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the order of President Donald Trump, called for a $1.2 trillion modernization of the nations nuclear arsenal including replacing the aging Minuteman.

Will Biden approve such an expenditure?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which has its famous Doomsday Clock presently at 100 seconds (corrected: not minutes) to midnight, says replacement of the Minuteman and continuing the nuclear arms race is irrational.

America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.

The US Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.

On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill.

Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association Association and Bloomberg News, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.

To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24 million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84 million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3 million hospital stays for covid-19 patients. It’s enough to build a massive mechanical wall to protect New York City from sea level rise. It’s enough to get to Mars.

For over 70 years the nuclear arms race has been a bi-partisan affair.

Joe Biden and the current Democrats in control of Congress could start to end the madness if they wanted to.