The Reports of Unions’ Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State

There’s a good deal of crowing in conservative circles this week about the new 2012 numbers on union membership. Union membership nationally fell by about 400,000, to 14.4 million. Union membership in Pennsylvania declined 45,000, including 59,000 in the private sector.

Of course, for anyone who cares about, say, the American Dream, democracy, and rising living standards, the newest numbers are bad news. A simple chart put together by the Center for American Progress shows that unions are vital to the middle class. As unions have weakened, so has the share of income going to middle-income workers – and the gap between the 1% and the 99% has mushroomed.

As this blog has noted, inequality undermines not only economic opportunity, but it also slows economic growth and makes our democracy less responsive to typical families and the public good (and too responsive to rich special interests).

One silver lining in the new numbers is the great variation that exists across states. Unions are growing in some places. Another silver lining is that the weaker unions get, the more evidence we get that this is a bad thing. Evidence such as the fact that the top 1% of the population took home 93% of the increase in income in the United States in the last year for which we have data. And evidence such as the skills shortage in U.S. manufacturing: surprise, surprise, if you pay workers poorly and don’t invest in them, you can’t attract and retain the factory talent you need.

Fifteen years ago, we outlined why America needs “new unions for a new economy” – and noted that we couldn’t see how to restore widely shared prosperity without a revival of unionism. The evidence for our position grows with each day.

But beneath the overall numbers, even in Pennsylvania and even in manufacturing, there are signs of revival. Take, for example, a unionized Schott Glass plant near Scranton, which is pioneering a new labor-management apprenticeship program.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of unions’ death are greatly exaggerated.

Confused About Voter ID? You’re Not Alone

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

The eyes of the nation are truly turned to Pennsylvania as the ACLU is back in court today challenging Pennsylvania’s strictest-in-the-nation Voter ID Law. The Commonwealth Court is hearing evidence to determine whether the new Department of State voter ID will do the trick to ensure that anyone who needs an ID can get one, for free, in time to vote in November. If the state fails to make that case, the judge could issue an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect.

Early evidence seems to indicate that could happen. As has reported (subscription), Judge Simpson indicated Tuesday he will consider an injunction and has asked lawyers to be prepared to provide input on its scope and force. 

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center released a report on this topic exactly. The report, Moving Target: Pennsylvania’s Flawed Implementation of the Voter ID Law, asks the question: "How is PennDOT handling the new Department of State ID?" The answer, in layman’s terms, is simple: Not so good.<!–break–>

Seven months after the law was enacted, PennDOT offices still do not all have information about the Voter ID Law, including a poster prepared by the Department of State and basic fact sheets for voters to take.

Worse, we went looking for information about the new Department of State voting ID, and we couldn’t find any. The only information that was available was a press release on the topic issued on July 20 — and to get it you had to ask for it.

PBPC partnered with SEIU staff who conducted observations and interviews in 44 PennDOT driver's license centers between Sept. 10 and 17. They asked PennDOT staff what voters had to do if they wanted a voter ID and if a person who lacked certain documentation could still get an ID.

Across the state, in one-third of the cases, the staff never mentioned the Department of State ID. In close to half the cases, PennDOT staff gave information that was wrong, including telling observers that they would have to pay for the PennDOT ID.

In the most surprising finding, PennDOT staff indicated they would discourage people from getting a Department of State ID because it could only be used for voting purposes. Well, yeah, that was the whole point.

Many PennDOT staffers were genuinely interested in helping people get an ID, but the line staff, information officers and examiners were confused, couldn’t answer questions and had to get help from supervisors to provide even basic information. 

One staffer summed it up well: “We got training for what that was worth, but it’s all confusing because they keep changing things."

So guess what happened? Department of State officials announced Tuesday that they were changing the rules again. An admission that the process is still too hard for voters to get the ID.  

The grounds keep shifting and voters will pay the price. We recommend that the state delay implementation until they can get the procedures in place and everyone who needs it can get an ID. If they won’t do it, Judge Simpson should.

Chaos at the PennDOT

(Charging for an ID makes this a poll tax. – promoted by John Morgan)

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Now that Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson has given the green light to Pennsylvania’s strictest in-the-nation Voter ID Law, tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians will have to make their way to their local PennDOT office to get a photo ID. We can tell you, it won’t be easy.

This summer, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center recruited volunteers to visit PennDOT offices across the Commonwealth and tell us about their experiences trying to obtain free photo ID under the new law. The results of that survey are in our new report, Pennsylvania’s Identity Crisis: Rushed Implementation of Voter ID Law Puts Voting Rights at Risk.

Volunteers visited 43 PennDOT centers in 27 counties across the commonwealth, representing three-quarters of the state’s population. They completed a survey that looked at very simple things: whether there was signage, if forms were available, if there was information that the IDs could be available for free, if volunteers got accurate information. We were surprised just how difficult it was for our volunteers to get the right information and the right forms – and they knew exactly what to ask for. 

The report finds that voters are likely to be frustrated in their attempts to secure a free ID from PennDOT. Some volunteers found the offices weren’t open the first time they visited and they had to return another time. There was no signage and limited information in half the sites, and the forms needed to secure a free ID were not available most of the time. In almost half the cases, voters received information that proved to be incomplete or inaccurate from staff at the centers. Problems were as likely to occur in Franklin and Luzerne counties as in Philadelphia or Allegheny County.

Providing a free ID to anyone who needs it is one of the key constitutional tests of the validity of a state’s voter ID law, and we found Pennsylvania is not making the grade. Most volunteers were not told they could have an ID for free, and in 30% of the visits, they were told incorrectly they had to pay.

Few Informed that Voter ID Could Be Obtained at No Cost

We report on a man who took 16 people from his church to the PennDOT at 8th and Arch Street in Philadelphia, where they were told incorrectly they had to pay for a photo ID. Twelve of the 16 didn’t have the money with them and left empty-handed.  

The Department of State is rolling out a new Commonwealth ID next week, which may end up creating more problems than solutions. 

The bottom line is that the Commonwealth isn’t ready to get an ID to everyone who needs it for the November election, and unless we put on the brakes, people will be disenfranchised. They sure ain’t making it easy. 

What is Pat Toomey Doing? Inequality and America’s Future

A blog post by Stephen Herzenberg, originally published at Third and State.

Let me connect three dots for you. Draw your own conclusions about the impact of Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s proposal in the super committee to reduce the federal deficit.

Dot Number 1 – The American middle class is shrinking: The New York Times reports this morning that the middle class is shrinking in America – based on where people live.  In 2007, the latest year studied, 44% of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods, down from 65 percent of families in 1970. A third of families lived in very high-income or poor neighborhoods now, up from just 15 percent of families in 1970. The case example used to illustrate this national trend – the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Dot Number 2Toomey proposes to increase after-tax inequality further: In the super committee, Congressional Republicans, led by Senator Pat Toomey, have advanced a plan that they say would raise revenues by closing tax loopholes and eliminating tax breaks while cutting spending by $1.2 trillion. But a closer look shows that, of $3.5 trillion raised by the elimination of loopholes and tax breaks, $3.2 trillion would lower tax rates for the wealthiest. The plan would lower taxes at the top a lot more than simple extension of the Bush tax cuts for the very rich. So the impact of Senator Toomey’s proposal would be to increase economic inequality after taxes: affluent families would pay less in taxes and the middle class and the poor would face cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs.

Dot Number 3High inequality undercuts core American values (opportunity, democracy) and weakens our economy: High levels of economic inequality – such as now exist in the United States – undermine intergenerational mobility (also known as “the American Dream”). (For evidence, see the links in this earlier blog post on inequality or this one or see this online video by Richard Wilkinson.) Such inequality also contributes to the erosion of political democracy – shifting the country further from one person, one vote towards one dollar, one vote. And, third, high levels of inequality undermine economic and productivity growth. Let’s process that again: the end of the American Dream; the erosion of democracy (wasn’t America – and Pennsylvania – the birthplace of democracy?); and a weaker economy. Three strikes and you’re out.

Question Number 1Why? On a day when a national newspaper is using Philadelphia to illustrate the erosion of the middle class, why is Senator Toomey championing ideas that threaten the most cherished American values (opportunity, democracy) and the country’s future living standards? You’d have to ask him.

The Hilarity of Presidential Politics

I am tired of the nomination process.

It has become a joke; it’s not even democracy. It’s all about scoring cheap political points, invoking the death of our beloved public officials and depending on possible further assassinations of rivals to continue race’s in your favor, using back-room party insiders to override votes, race-baiting and scaring white people into voting for you. We have been bombarded with the horse race headlines, boxing reference, spin, finger-wagging, angry and belligerent ex-presidents, the “low-blows” and the lack of more vital news to make it worth watch the boob tube. However, this race is one of the most important things in our lifetimes to keep up on, so I digress.

What has happened while The Pennsylvania Progressive has been gone? Not much. We still have more potshots being swung by these candidates. We have our own Ted Kennedy being diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. We have Sen. Hillary Clinton invoking the horrible assassination of RFK to win a nominee battle. We have Barack Obama and McBush attacking each other with name-calling words like “appeaser” and “political posturing.” In a climate where hurricanes, earthquakes and cyclones are growing more and more to be a constantly-occurring phenomenon ripping the country in pieces, where man-made global warming is getting worse, we have an Administration that is so out of control that it is declaring peacemaker and hero Nelson Mandela a terror suspect, where our civil liberties and human rights are openly violated to the point that our Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, can openly admit to advocating torture as a national policy, that our most unpopular president in history is looking to make our own country into a Brave New World-like police state– we are in trouble, and in a horse race that can determine the very fate and path our country goes on from now on we still have not fully taken the opportunity to get the American public to force our officials to focus on answering the real issues squeezing at our necks.

I am disgusted at our corporate media. They’re not covering the real stories that count- and why do I care this late in the game when they’ve been ignoring the real issues for a while now? Well, things are getting significantly worse and they are feeding into our amnesia as a country about the real challenges that we face. We have U.S. companies that are skirting international law to provide the Chinese government with new ways to suppress its people and all the media talks about is whether or not it is okay to have the Olympics in Beijing. Hey, how about impeaching our aiding and abetting, cronyistic president and stuffing his ‘executive privilege’ to hide and lie and blow stuff up in other people’s countries up his rear-end, and throw him in jail where he belongs? We have a executive branch of government that advocates for violating the Constitution and spying on American civilians and giving government grants, taxpayer money, contracts to telecom and other corporate companies for them to do it. We also have 2 branches of Congress that are allowing them to step on our hard-fought Constitution and ignore the balance of power.

There is so much going wrong now the pot is boiling over. Now is the time to force our candidates to answer the issues IN SPECIFICS that will determine whether the future of not only us but the future of the ones we love will be in jeopardy. Demand more. The real issues are not being talked about. The same partisan politics of attack words, wedge issues and hollow terms will not solve our most neglected problems. Our most immediate, critical problems are- health care, the environment, gas prices going up to $10 a gallon, jobs and opportunity, foreclosures, social mobility, worker’s rights, college affordability, whether our small businesses can be supported over mass consolidation, food inspection oversight, unequal and unfair trade and exploitation, sweatshop labor, bad Chinese products, protection of our ports, our disaffected youth competing with the world’s youth for jobs and their livelihood, the 4,000 dead troops and the brave ones stuck in stop-loss and in their 3rd-4th tours in Iraq in an endless war that McBush advocates continuing for 100 years, etc. The status quo is not acceptable anymore. We should not worry about funny names, skin color and the gender of our officials. We need to hold them up to the real problems, and we need change, now.