Friday, June 03, 2005

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005, Friday

Copyright 2005 The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle of Higher Education

June 3, 2005, Friday


LENGTH: 2650 words

HEADLINE: Advancing in Age


Amid the students scurrying to and from the library here at North Carolina State University, a professor with a shock of white hair shuffles along slowly. When a colleague a few feet away calls out to him, the elderly man doesn't respond.
A few blocks away, a silver-haired botany professor who is recovering from knee surgery rests her cane outside her office. In another building, an old-timer in industrial engineering marvels at today's technology, recalling the days when he relied on his trusty slide rule.
Older professors have become a familiar sight on this campus. The changing composition of the faculty here and at colleges around the country shows that academe has come to a new age -- literally. That means less room for younger faculty members. While newly minted Ph.D.'s may silently curse older professors for sticking around and holding onto the jobs, colleges themselves have no clear choices. Older professors offer a wealth of scholarly contacts and depth of experience. But colleges with low turnover may miss out on cutting-edge knowledge and novel teaching methods. They may have a less diverse faculty, outdated curricula, and professors who are uncomfortable with the latest technology. Administrators also worry that the number of older faculty members has grown out of proportion to the faculty as a whole.
Some of the statistics are startling. In the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track faculty members age 50 or older jumped from about a third in 1984 to more than half in 2001. In 1984 there were only two tenured faculty members over the age of 69. By 2001 the system had 90 such professors.
Other colleges face a similar demographic shift. A decade ago, at the University of Arizona, less than 17 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty members were 60 or older. Now, almost one in four professors is that old. At Wichita State University, 29 percent of the faculty were 55 or older a decade ago, and 41 percent are that old now. Nearly one out of 10 professors there is 65 or older. At private colleges, experts say, the situation is compounded: The type of pension plans that most private institutions offer tend to reward professors for working longer.
While the national population is aging as a whole, factors specific to academe magnify the trend. Ten years have passed since Congress ended mandatory retirement, a policy that had allowed colleges to require faculty members to retire at age 70. Many professors hired during the great expansion of academe in the 1960s and 70s are now reaching their golden years. And, because many people are living longer -- and need financial resources to do so comfortably -- more and more professors are delaying retirement, some of them indefinitely.
But colleges are not powerless to combat those trends. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a professor of industrial and labor relations and economics at Cornell University and director of the Higher Education Research Institute there, suggests using a carrot-and-stick approach. That means using incentives to encourage people to retire. And making retired faculty members who are no longer on the payroll feel involved with their institutions by offering them office space or the chance to advise students. He says that some colleges allow officials to approve who can get retirement incentives on a case-by-case basis. That may help them avoid losing star professors, whom administrators want to keep around for their marquee value. Colleges can also take steps to reinvigorate older professors who do want to continue to come to work. And when that doesn't work, tactics like post-tenure review can persuade underperformers to quietly retire.
Economic Imbalance
On most weekdays a group of professors in the economics department at North Carolina State gets together for lunch, and this Wednesday during spring exams is no exception. Nine professors meet in the department's windowless conference room. They unpack sandwiches and carrot sticks, diet sodas and yogurt. At least half of the professors are balding or graying. Many look like they are pushing 60, if not older.
The exception is the department's lone assistant professor, Denis Pelletier, 32, who good-naturedly accepts his place as the department's one member under 40. The department has 22 professors, and about two-thirds of them are over 55, according to the department's chairman, Douglas K. Pearce. Twenty are full professors, generally between about 58 and 64, he says. All are men.
"There's a problem looming in the future, I think, if we don't begin hiring young faculty," says Stephen E. Margolis, who stepped down in June after seven years as chairman of the department. But with so few junior professors in the department, he says, it's been difficult to recruit other young people. "New Ph.D.'s we're trying to hire look around and think, Well, who are going to be my colleagues? They look for a community of people their age."
The recruiting process also puts some stress on Mr. Pelletier, who had to serve on the search committee for a junior professor last year despite the pressure of being on the tenure track himself. The department did hire a new assistant professor -- its only woman -- who will arrive this summer.
Mr. Pelletier, who came to North Carolina State two years ago after receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Montreal, says the toughest part of being the only young person in the department is having few friends his age there. "I'd like to have a beer buddy," he says. "Someone maybe on a Friday to unwind with."
During the daily lunches, he says, his colleagues often bring up the subject of colonoscopies or talk about some provost from the 1970s. "In 1976," says Mr. Pelletier, "I think I was potty-trained."
Having fresh talent, says Mr. Margolis, would bring in a steady flow of new perspectives and techniques. It would also bring connections to up-and-coming scholars from other institutions. "An academic department doesn't do well in isolation," he says. What's more, the older economics professors are "perhaps not as active as they were in their early 40s and 50s."
There are benefits, though, to having so many experienced senior professors. Mr. Margolis points out that they help with advising, and that they have strong connections to alumni, which has aided fund raising. They also have far-reaching institutional knowledge.
Edward W. Erickson, a 69-year-old economics professor, has taught at North Carolina State for 40 years. He plans to retire next June -- although, he says, he gets better at teaching every year. But when asked to recount the last time he created and taught a course from scratch, he takes a long pause. Finally, he responds: "1984." Mr. Pelletier, in his first three semesters as an assistant professor, has done the preparatory work required to teach three new courses.
Professors like Mr. Erickson say they have stayed so long in academe because it is a great job. A colleague, Michael B. McElroy, says teaching gives him satisfaction and identity in life. "I get disoriented when I'm not teaching and I take summers off," says the 63-year-old associate professor. "I feel this loss of connection with students." Mr. McElroy admits that he's not much of a researcher, and instead teaches three courses a semester, the usual load for faculty members who do not do research. He tried teaching a section of introductory economics two years ago but found he lacked the patience to explain definitions and do the constant drilling that the students in an intro course need.
That is another complication with having so few junior professors: It's harder to offer a full range of courses. Late in their careers, many professors become increasingly specialized and sometimes eschew the basic courses that departments have to offer. And some older professors simply start slowing down.
While Mr. McElroy says he continues to put in a full day's work, logging more than 40 hours a week, he is scaling back. "I want to open up to other things," he says. This summer he will travel to Paris for three weeks with his wife. He started French lessons in January, has been studying French history, and reads Le Monde each day. Still, he says of his job, "I like what I'm doing and plan to do it indefinitely."
The economics department is not the only one at North Carolina State with a surfeit of older professors. Industrial engineering, too, has more than a few graying faculty members, including a 78-year-old who has taught at the university since 1967. Another engineering professor, Richard H. Bernhard, 71, is about to begin his 48th year of teaching. Mr. Bernhard walks with a slight limp, having had hip-replacement surgery two years ago. But he exhibits the energy of someone considerably younger. He credits his verve to the excitement of working on a dynamic campus.
People are living longer, he says, because they feel useful. Mr. Bernhard's CV is a testament to his own usefulness: He is a member of the Faculty Senate and the executive committee of the College of Engineering, campus delegate to the Faculty Assembly of the University of North Carolina system, and chairman of the university's parking-and-transportation committee (even though he walks to work every day). He ran for chair of the Faculty Senate last year, losing out to his friend Nina Strömgren Allen, a professor in the botany department. She is 69.
Flexibility is one aspect of academe that keeps Mr. Bernhard on the faculty. "You can work as much as you want or as little," he says. He says he is also in no rush to leave Raleigh, where the weather is mild most of the year. Like many college towns, Raleigh has a strong sense of community and is brimming with culture. He also appreciates having smart colleagues and a department chairman who, he says, values him. "If you're appreciated, ... if you have a pleasant environment," Mr. Bernhard says, "why the hell stop?"
Ms. Allen, the botanist who won the Faculty Senate chair election, enjoys what she does but has different reasons for delaying retirement. A mother of five, she started her academic career late and took eight years out to raise her children. After her husband died, she had to put all five through college on his pension. She keeps working now because she needs the money. Ms. Allen's retirement fund, half of which was invested in the stock market, took a nose dive during the recent economic downturn, like those of many other professors. Ms. Allen acknowledges that there are certain things she can't do anymore -- "like walk," she says, half-jokingly. She uses a cane after having surgery to replace one of her knees. But she says she doesn't mind working.
"I'm not worn out," she says. "I still find it fascinating." It helps, she says, to have a collegial department in which many of the professors are women. And when boredom strikes, she says, there is always a new subject to explore.
New Blood
Younger professors can invigorate departments. Several years ago, Christopher R. Gould, chairman of the physics department here, said the faculty was getting along in age. But through seven retirements and the creation of new faculty lines, the department has been able to hire 15 faculty members.
The influx of young people has breathed new life into the department. There are seven women on the 38-person faculty, and only two professors over age 65, says Mr. Gould. A creative tension has developed between the young faculty members and those who have been here for years, he says. And having more women has encouraged a stronger focus on diversity issues.
Even the curriculum has benefited. When some faculty members tried to establish a new introductory physics program, Mr. Gould says, the older professors were skeptical. So he offered it to the department's newer faculty members, who jumped right on it. That helped him restaff the entire introductory curriculum. "I'm not sure we could have pulled that off without all these younger faculty," the chairman says.
While the economics department would love to hire a legion of junior professors during the next few years, financial realities prevent that. State revenue is down, and Ira R. Weiss, dean of North Carolina State's College of Management, which houses the economics department, has committed to giving the department just one new hire a year. "Is the faculty happy with the commitment I've made?" he asks. "No." But his hands are tied, he says, acknowledging that the longer the department goes without hiring new faculty members, the harder attracting top-quality people will become. There is a concern, he concedes, that the department's reputation may be suffering.
At Northeastern University, where Mr. Weiss was dean of the business school, he was able to offer buyouts to faculty members on a case-by-case basis. He says he has not ruled that out at North Carolina State.
What to Do?
What can colleges do to avoid the problems posed by an age imbalance in the faculty? Robert L. Clark, an economist at North Carolina State who studies faculty demographics and retirement, has created models of the faculty both at the university and in the 16-campus system.
For starters, he says, colleges should do similar research on their own faculties. By creating models that track retirement rates, faculty age, and changes in hiring trends, colleges would be able to study the effects of different hiring and retirement scenarios and manipulate the models with projected growth patterns to predict the future.
Mr. Clark is a proponent of "phased retirement," which provides incentives for professors to move gradually away from full-time work. In North Carolina State's program, for instance, professors give up tenure in exchange for three years of half-pay and full benefits, during which they have to work only half-time. Such policies not only help colleges know when specific retirements will take place, but also smooth faculty members' transition to retirement. Mr. Erickson, the economics professor, is entering his second year of the program; he calls it "practice retirement." Mr. Clark also advises institutions to study various incentives to learn how each one would affect their faculty. Only then can administrators be prepared for what's coming.
At the University of California at Berkeley retiring professors who win the approval of their department, dean, and a vice provost can become "professors of the graduate school." Such professors agree to retire but are then reappointed for three years or more. They are not paid a salary but can apply for grants, are often given laboratory or office space, and sometimes advise graduate students. The program helps officials hang on to professors they want to keep around, while still encouraging retirement. Some of the university's star faculty members have signed on, including Charles H. Townes, 89, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for his role in the invention of the laser.
Mr. Ehrenberg, of Cornell, agrees that phased retirement is an effective strategy: "It allows people to try out doing other things, and often ... they discover they like it." Colleges should also try to make retirement look attractive, he says, by designing programs or centers for emeritus professors, so they won't feel abandoned when they stop working. And if retired professors are willing to teach a course or two, all the better for the institution.
Sometimes, though, incentives are not enough. Mr. Ehrenberg suggests that when departments require everyone to pull his or her weight -- for instance, by not excusing older professors from teaching core courses -- some would rather retire than keep up.
Eventually the bottleneck of older professors at North Carolina State will give way. "If nothing else," says Mr. Bernhard, "people are just going to die."

The International Herald Tribune, June 2, 2005, Thursday

Copyright 2005 International Herald Tribune
The International Herald Tribune

June 2, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 740 words

HEADLINE: U.S. telecommunications unions are facing an uphill battle

BYLINE: Matt Richtel

SOURCE: The New York Times


Lisa Morowitz feels worn down.
Morowitz, a longtime union coordinator, spends her days trying to organize cable workers at Comcast. The workers are not only declining to sign up but also in many cases have voted to sever links to unions.
"We're not winning we're losing," said Morowitz, who is 39 and works for the Communications Workers of America, the dominant union in telecommunications. "If we don't move the direction this industry is moving, we could become obsolete."
Unions in general are struggling in the United States, with just 12.5 percent of the total work force unionized in 2004, compared with 22 percent in 1980, but they face a particularly bleak future in the telecommunications industry.
The industry was once a labor stronghold, after the Bell telephone monopolies became unionized in the late 1930s. But mergers, deregulation and technological change have reduced the number of jobs at the traditional phone companies while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in cable and wireless companies, which are largely nonunionized.
Since 1985, the number of union workers in telephone and data services has been cut by more than half, to fewer than 275,000 from 625,000.
To slow the rapid decline, unions are fighting to organize workers at cable and wireless companies. They have had little success, apart from a big victory in 2000 at Cingular Wireless.
At Comcast, the largest cable provider in the United States, workers have voted to decertify nearly two dozen union shops in the past three years.
The labor battle took on a new intensity last month when the Communications Workers of America published in three major newspapers a full-page letter signed by 112 members of Congress asserting that Verizon Wireless was not cooperating with labor groups.
Verizon Wireless countered by circulating among employees a document that favorably compared its benefits and wages with those at Cingular Wireless, still the only U.S. wireless company with a unionized work force. In April, the Verizon Wireless chief executive, Dennis Strigl, sent a letter to members of Congress urging them not to sign the union petition, calling it an unfair attack.
The employees "have repeatedly rejected the efforts of the union to insert itself between them and their company," Strigl wrote. "Unfortunately, the union will not take 'no' for an answer."
The communications workers' union contends that Verizon Wireless has harassed organizers and moved three major call centers from the Northeastern part of the country to Southern states where it is traditionally more difficult to organize.
The union has focused on Comcast and Verizon Wireless. But it is trying to organize other companies, too. The Communications Workers of America and other international unions plan this month to try to spur talks with T-Mobile, a national wireless carrier, by negotiating with executives from its parent company, Deutsche Telekom.
But reversing the antiunion tide would be enormously difficult. In 1985, unions represented 375,000 workers at the regional Bell telephone companies and 250,000 at AT&T, said Jeff Keefe, an associate professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.
By 2004, the union work force at the Bells had dropped to about 229,000, and AT&T's was below 30,000, Keefe said.
Meanwhile, the wireless industry has grown to about 171,000 employees, with only about 22,000 workers at Cingular unionized. In the cable industry, which has 133,000 workers, only about 7,000 are unionized.
In terms of pay and benefits, the difference between union and nonunion workplaces can be substantial, Keefe argues.
Based on research compiled by Keefe and Harry Katz, a professor at Cornell University who studies collective bargaining, a union technician at a Bell company in 2003 earned an average of $46,500 a year, compared with $39,400 for a technician in the wireless industry and $35,700 at a cable company
Katz said the erosion of collective bargaining in telecommunications was not as severe as in the garment and textile industries but was as bad as, if not worse than, that in many other industries.
The unions, he said, need to modify their message to give workers a sense that organized labor can protect them in a time of economic turbulence but in an age when few employees need to worry about industrial hazards like "losing a limb in a steel plant."

The American Prospect, June 2005

Copyright 2005 The American Prospect, Inc.
The American Prospect

June, 2005


HEADLINE: Labor's Civil War;
The Sweeney revolution is definitely over. But is the Sweeney era? Inside the tumultuous battle over labor's future.


ON TUESDAY, MAY 3, 167 OF THE AFL-CIO'S 426 employees reported to work to find that their positions had been eliminated. Whole divisions were being scrapped, publications abolished, programs terminated. Some departments were being consolidated, and 61 new positions being created within them, but the house that Federation President John Sweeney had built was, by Sweeney's own decree, being partially torn down.
The Field Mobilization Department -- a nebulous division that employed 67 field reps for disparate assignments across the nation -- was being merged into the political program, with 30 positions eliminated outright. The federation's monthly magazine, America@Work, was being discontinued. The policy office was being reduced in size and merged into a joint operation with the legislative office. The International Affairs Department, which director Barbara Shailor had transformed from the planet's last bastion of Cold War vigilance into its most effective proponent of global social democracy (and brought 20,000 unionists from around the world to the Seattle demonstrations of 1999), was to be abolished and merged into the Solidarity Center, with a greater focus on union-building endeavors.
Two days later, much of the staff gathered in the President's Room at AFL-CIO headquarters to meet with Sweeney and his chief of staff, Bob Welsh. Amid understandable wailing and gnashing of teeth, Welsh was emphatic about one point: Staffers who'd lost their jobs should direct at least some of their anger at a coalition of insurgent unions. As quoted by labor blogger Jonathan Tasini, Welsh told the crowd that "unions representing 40 percent of the federation put forth proposals to cut the staff of the federation in half. It's against this background we've made tough choices."
The "background" Welsh alluded to was a sustained and unprecedented barrage of demands from some of the largest unions that the AFL-CIO all but dismantle its existing structure in order to devote half its resources to organizing. The federation, they said, should rebate half the dues of those member unions with credible organizing programs of their own (about $ 35 million a year, they estimated) and devote an additional $ 25 million in royalties from the AFL-CIO's credit card to organizing as well. Sweeney and his supporters had rejected those moves, but now, facing the possibility that some of those unions might leave the federation altogether, they were instituting a smaller ($ 15 million) organizing rebate program of their own, which was one reason why the ax was falling.
Many today fear that the cuts at the AFL-CIO presage a bloody succession of self-inflicted wounds within the movement. With a sometimes startling ferocity, union leaders are accusing one another of indifference to the erosion of labor's strength and a chronic incapacity to do anything about it. While the first accusation is largely bogus, the second is sadly true -- save for a handful of unions that have transformed themselves into successful organizing machines. Today, the leaders of some of those unions have embarked on a campaign -- which may take the form of a rancorous challenge to Sweeney's re-election -- to reshape the movement along the lines of their own organizing-oriented unions. At the same time, some of them are threatening to leave the AFL-CIO if Sweeney prevails -- a parting likely to weaken labor's vaunted political operation and possibly set union against union in a scramble for members. It's a moment of both peril and opportunity for labor, though peril looms as much the larger of the two.
IT'S NEARLY A YEAR SINCE ANDY STERN, THE PRESIDENT OF the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), first threw down the challenge to Sweeney and the AFL-CIO, telling wildly cheering delegates gathered in San Francisco last June for the union's quadrennial convention that it was time either to "change the AFL-CIO or build something stronger." Of all the attacks Sweeney had weathered, this might have been the unkindest cut: The SEIU was his old union, and Stern had been the young firebrand whom Sweeney had plucked out of a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, local 25 years earlier and promoted to organizing director. Stern had done his job too well: While the rest of the labor movement was shrinking, the SEIU doubled its membership during Sweeney's tenure to 1.2 million, adding an additional 600,000 new members since Stern succeeded him in 1996. It was now the federation's largest affiliate, home to 11 percent of the federation's members and source of 11 percent of the federation's budget. And now Stern was hurling ultimatums: The federation had to put vastly more money into organizing and compel the merger of smaller unions unable to organize into larger ones. Either the AFL-CIO would shape up or the SEIU would ship out.
And not just the SEIU. For several years, it had allied itself -- for a time in a now-disbanded coalition called the New Unity Partnership (NUP) -- with a number of other unions with ambitious and successful organizing programs (there weren't many). The unions included the Laborers, headed by Terry O'Sullivan; the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees (UNITE), headed by Bruce Raynor; and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), headed by John Wilhelm (the latter two merging in 2004 as UNITE-HERE). Alarmed by labor's decline -- unions represented 35 percent of the U.S. workforce when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged back in 1955; today, they represent a scant 12.5 percent, and a sickly 7.9 percent of the private sector -- these leaders had long been calling on the AFL-CIO to do more to address the crisis.
As early as 2002, Wilhelm asked the federation to consider a huge campaign, beyond the capacity of any one affiliate, to unionize Wal-Mart, America's largest employer, whose policies and practices reduced the living standards not only of its own 1.2 million employees but of countless others at its thousands of suppliers and subcontractors. With labor under assault, Wilhelm said, unions had to make tough choices (for which his own union staff, which he had pared down largely to organizers and corporate researchers, could serve as a model). The federation, he argued, should be spending 75 percent of its budget on politics and organizing. This was war; sacrifices would have to be made. "We have to blow up the AFL-CIO bureaucracy," he told a Los Angeles labor forum in February. "The staff should be cut by at least 50 percent."
Along the way, the NUPsters picked up some allies -- chiefly, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) -- to form a bloc constituting roughly 40 percent of the federation's 12.5 million members. At the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Vegas in early March, the insurgents presented their proposal that the federation rebate half the dues payments of those unions with substantial organizing campaigns in their core industries. If unions were to grow, every dollar not spent directly or indirectly on organizing was a dollar wasted.
Vegas proved to be a bloody ground. A coalition of unions representing 60 percent of the federation's membership beat back the insurgents' resolution. Led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the majority grouping argued that serious organizing was impossible given the erosions in labor laws once intended to protect unions' rights to organize. The proper goal of the AFL-CIO, this faction argued, should be to elect a Democratic Congress and president who'd pass new laws permitting workers to organize again. To that end, the executive council, in a meeting marked by rancorous exchanges between Stern and AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, passed a resolution doubling the size of its political budget.
The differences between the two camps were in part experiential. AFSCME is entirely a public-sector union that lives and dies by political elections, and when Republicans captured the governor's offices in Indiana and Missouri last November, their first move was to rescind collective-bargaining rights for the state's public employees. Most manufacturing unions, the United Steelworkers most prominently, lined up with AFSCME, too; unions that had seen their core industries exported to other, cheaper-labor countries found little to like in the NUPsters' call to bolster organizing only in unions' core sectors. Directing more funds to organizing the dying manufacturing sector didn't impress such unions as a good use of money at all.
STERN, WHOSE UNION HAS ORGANIZED 49,000 CHILD-CARE workers in Illinois and 41,000 home-came workers in Michigan this spring, emphatically disagrees. "Other than when jobs are going overseas," he says, "there's not an employer where -- with enough time, money, and strategy -- you don't have a legitimate shot at building a union. Others think you have to legislate ourselves out of the problem -- elect friendly officials, pass labor-law reform. We think you have to grow your way out of the problem." Stern is all but contemptuous of those leaders who despair of organizing, calling them "a group of leaders who are defeated, who believe they can't grow."
By the end of the Vegas meeting, the movement's cracks had widened to chasms. UNITE-HERE considered disaffiliation; Teamster officials talked secession, too.
Sweeney returned from Vegas, then, facing a double threat: Some unions were threatening to pull out, and Wilhelm was sounding out support for a challenge to Sweeney (whose current term will be up at the AFL-CIO's convention, July 25-28, in Chicago). The threats were interconnected: If Sweeney couldn't keep the unions from leaving, perhaps Wilhelm could. "The longer [this fight] goes on without being resolved," one union president said in April, "the more problems John Sweeney has. He can't assure his colleagues he can manage this."
In late April, Sweeney's problems were compounded when four of the insurgent unions -- the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, the Teamsters, and the Laborers -- abruptly moved to dismantle the crown jewel of the federation's operation, its political program. They informed the federation that they were withdrawing the names of their members from the AFL-CIO's political files, the computerized list with which labor wages its national, state, and local campaigns. The action threatens to undermine the foremost voter-mobilization campaign in the Democratic Party's universe.
Facing mounting threats, Sweeney responded. The May 3 layoffs he announced were part of a massive restructuring of the federation along the lines that his critics had suggested. In addition to the $ 15 million set aside for organizing, he called for the establishment of Industry Coordinating Committees to plan organizing campaigns, like the Wal-Mart effort, that no one union could take on.
"If this had happened two years ago, the NUPsters would have applauded," one federation insider noted. But the dissident leaders quickly made clear that Sweeney's reforms were too little and too late -- and that Sweeney himself had become the issue. "John Sweeney and the people around him are not capable of carrying through the reforms," UNITE-HERE's Raynor told me.
Indeed, in speeches to a Teamster conference in Las Vegas on May 9, Stern, Wilhelm, Raynor, O'Sullivan, and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa made cumulatively clear the growing intensity of the split in labor. "The American labor movement at the level of the AFL-CIO has lost its way," Wilhelm told the Teamsters. "It's lost its energy. It's lost its hope. And that's a crime . . . . We aren't going to accept it . . . . And we're going to teach the AFL-CIO that they shouldn't accept it, either!"
Ever since the merger of UNITE and HERE one year previous, Wilhelm had been the logical candidate to challenge Sweeney. His credentials as an organizer and strategist were beyond dispute -- and nowhere more so than in Vegas, where he built the hotel local from 17,000 members to more than 50,000 through a program of member mobilization that other unions could only dream about. His bona fides as a social visionary were in good order, too: It was Wilhelm who'd persuaded the AFL-CIO to reverse its historic opposition to undocumented immigrants and to become, in fact, the nation's leading advocate of immigrant rights. Unlike Stern, he'd taken care to maintain good relations with most of his fellow union presidents. As AFL-CIO presidents are elected by the presidents of the federation's affiliated unions, and not the rank and file (which means just 15 men determine the outcome of the election), this was no small virtue.
Wilhelm's was hardly the most fiery speech the Teamsters heard, however. That came from Stern, who documented the decline in labor numbers and declared, "That's what John Sweeney doesn't get. That's what those other unions don't get . . . . If unions think that the labor movement can allow this to happen, they can kiss my ass!"
FOR AMERICAN LABOR, THE SEASON OF BLOOD AND KNIVES has arrived. Longtime allies have turned on one another; personal relationships have frayed. Sweeney himself, endeavoring to hold things together, ascribes some of the tension to the times. "We have to understand," he told me, "that the political climate of the past four and a half years is the worst in modern labor history. It's made us angry and frustrated."
Indeed, whole sectors of organized labor look to be on the brink of crumbling. Airline unions are powerless to stop the shredding of their members' contracts. The once-mighty United Automobile Workers (UAW) is stuck in an industry whose two largest employers, General Motors and Ford, seem poised for huge cutbacks. Seventy thousand supermarket workers in southern California last year waged a long and bitter strike only, in the end, to accept pay cuts and reduced health benefits for new hires. The Bush administration is gunning for unions as well, with a distinct possibility that the three Bush appointees to the five-member National Labor Relations Board may wholly or partially invalidate the "card check" method of unionization -- under which employers agree to forgo an election once a majority of workers have signed affiliation cards with the union -- that has been the main way that unions have organized workers over the past decade.
Time was when workers seeking to organize could hold fair elections under the terms of the National Labor Relations Act -- but that was a long time ago. The steady and sickening decline in membership since the AFL and CIO merged 50 years ago has resulted in large part from the realization of employers that they could violate the terms of the act with impunity. According to research from Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Cornell University's Center on Labor Education Research, employers threaten to close their work site in 21 percent of organizing drives, and one worker in 20 on such campaigns is fired -- both tactics proscribed by the act, but for which the penalties are negligible.
Even at the time of the merger, a small number of labor leaders -- most particularly, the UAW's legendary Walter Reuther -- saw that unions had to do radically more to boost their membership, which had not grown as a percentage of the workforce for a decade. But Reuther's sense of urgency was not widely shared, as Solomon Barkin, the in-house intellectual for the old Textile Workers Union, noted in a brilliant paper, prefiguring today's debate, that he wrote in 1961. Unions were resting their great organizing drives of the '30s and '40s at their own peril, Barkin argued. The economy was growing in those sectors where unions were missing.
As Barkin saw it, labor could not effectively move into growing sectors of the economy because the CIO, in the 1955 merger, had lost the debate with the AFL over the crucial question of how the new federation would be structured. In the '30s, when the CIO itself hired the organizers and planned and executed the organization of such hitherto unorganized industries as auto and steel, "The regional offices of the CIO, unlike the AFL, became the headquarters for many union campaigns," Barkin wrote. CIO President Reuther wanted the AFL-CIO organizing department to retain that capacity, but AFL President George Meany, who became AFL-CIO president at the 1955 merger and served in that position until shortly before his death in 1979, insisted on a more federated structure.
"The dominant belief in the central body," Barkin wrote caustically, "is still basically that of the old AFL -- that the responsibility for new organization rests with the individual internationals." Such a system could never adequately organize new industries. The AFL-CIO, he argued, should "have the authority to initiate campaigns in those areas and among those groups where it feels no adequate efforts are being made . . . . Vested rights of national unions must not be allowed to stand in the way of the transcendent interests of the movement as a whole."
Barkin's fears proved as prophetic as his suggestions were unheeded. For 40 years after the merger, the AFL-CIO, and most of the union movement it headed, was indifferent to organizing. In the '60s, led by AFSCME's Jerry Wurf and the American Federation of Teachers' Albert Shanker, huge breakthroughs were made in organizing public-sector workers, but the decline of private-sector unionism continued unchecked. Not until 1995, after two decades of decline, when Sweeney ousted longtime AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland on a platform of boosting labor's organizing and political clout, did the federation even turn its full attention to the challenge of rebuilding the movement.
For a time, all was bright. Hiring Steve Rosenthal as the AFL-CIO's political director, Sweeney poured resources and talent into the federation's election work. Labor's political program became the model for all voter-mobilization efforts, and by 2000, labor's share of the electorate had risen to 26 percent (from 14 percent in the last Kirkland-era election of 1994). Sweeney created an organizing department within the federation, and he raised the organizing budget -- for a while, at least -- to 30 percent of its total expenditures, and set that goal for member unions. He told the affiliated unions that labor needed to grow by a million members a year for the next 20 years to regain its strength at the time of the merger, and for a time, the federation's weekly news bulletin, Work in Progress, kept a running total of the number of new workers organized that year.
Midway through 2004, however, Work in Progress quietly dropped its running total of new members; the figures were so low they could only constitute an admission of failure. Only a handful of unions have reached the 30-percent target, and many unions have abandoned organizing altogether. The unions that have made the change to organizing mode come from both the pro- and anti-Sweeney camps: the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers among the oppositionists; AFSCME and the CWA among supporters; and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), whose presidential preference remains murky. But changing to organize entails persuading members to increase their dues heavily to fund such a transformation, the hiring and/or training of hundreds of organizers, and the development of crack corporate research teams. Though the AFL-CIO Organizing Department has offered excellent training programs, most unions haven't been willing to make that leap. One survey of California unions in 2002 found that just five internationals employed 48.9 percent of all the organizers in the state; the SEIU alone employed 22 percent of them.
Two departures from AFL-CIO staff signaled the limitations of Sweeney's success. In 1997, Richard Bensinger, the federation's first organizing director, was asked to leave; his constant exhortations to organize had begun to rankle the internationals' presidents. And after the 2002 elections, Rosenthal, a close friend of Stern's, left to form a massive "527" voter-mobilization organization, America Coming Together. Midway through George W. Bush's first term as president, it was clear that the Sweeney revolution had stalled. "With Rosenthal's departure," said one union staffer, "it became acceptable for those behind the Sweeney revolution to trash it."
In the eyes of his critics, Sweeney did not push his colleagues hard enough for change. Raynor calls him "a consensus builder -- that's his hallmark." This was not, in the parlance of the dissidents, a term of praise. But when Stern began arguing that the AFL-CIO should abandon a search for consensus, a debate erupted over the how-tos of union organizing. CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen and a number of other CWA leaders criticized the SEIU for top-down organizing, arguing that educating and mobilizing the rank and file, through a system of hyperactive shop stewards, is the only way to ensure union democracy and growth. In the CWA's view, the SEIU moves more like an army than a democratic union.
But it moves. Cohen's arguments aren't entirely wrong, but they are prescriptions for disengagement with the bulk of the American workforce until such time as the law changes or American workers revolt en masse. "Look, if CWA shop stewards all go on leave to work in nonunion workplaces, I'd agree with CWA," says one SEIU official. "People with a radical past are focusing on the 8 percent that's unionized. They don't see that the movement is on its deathbed."
BUT HOW DOES A MOVEMENT DEVOTED TO SERVICING THAT 8 percent organize the other 92 percent? How does a movement rooted in the Northeast, the Midwest, and on the West Coast organize in red-state America, where it needs to boost its numbers if the Democrats are to become a competitive party at the national level? How does it organize Wal-Mart, which is rooted in the red states?
Labor -- all wings of labor -- has been moving slowly toward a collective Wal-Mart strategy for some time now, particularly since the UFCW, which would have jurisdiction, plainly stated that organizing the behemoth is beyond its capacity. The one union leader who has been calling for such a campaign for years is Wilhelm. "There are clearly some seminal campaigns, important to society as a whole, that no one union can do on its own," he recently told me. "Wal-Mart cries out for an AFL-CIO approach." For starters, Wilhelm and his fellow dissident presidents suggest that the federation devote its $ 25 million a year in credit-card royalties to a long-term Wal-Mart organizing campaign -- a proposal that Sweeney has not embraced.
Which doesn't make Wilhelm a "top-down" guy. From the history department at Yale (his alma mater, whose clerical workers he organized in the mid-'80s) to the cocktail waitresses at the Luxor (one of the Strip hotels represented by the Vegas local whose size he tripled), Wilhelm has been uncommonly adept at building rank-and-file organizing committees, mobilizing thousands of workers, and winning groundbreaking contracts.
As president of HERE since 1998, Wilhelm built what is surely the leanest union staff of any major international, hiring organizers and corporate researchers in part through savings achieved by killing off other departments (health and safety among them). Wilhelm taking over the AFL-CIO might be a little like a guerrilla leader who's fought in the hills for many years finally occupying the capital.
Wilhelm's critics complain that his union is not merely lean but understaffed and disorganized, that Wilhelm's record as a manager leaves much to be desired. They also note that HERE has endorsed Republicans -- among them, New York Governor George Pataki, who assisted HERE in winning collective bargaining at tribal casinos. Wilhelm's record of strategically endorsing Republicans may commend his candidacy to such centrist union leaders as the International Association of Fire Fighters' Harold Schaitberger, another occasional GOP endorser who has not been aligned with the dissidents but who recently sent a blistering letter to Sweeney excoriating the AFL-CIO president's management of federation affairs.
In many ways, a Wilhelm presidency would be less the negation of Sweeney's than its logical successor. An articulate speaker as well as a skilled negotiator, Wilhelm would provide the kind of public presence labor needs if it is to become more of a movement and less of a rickety federation incapable of the kind of death-defying organizing campaigns it needs to survive.
But Wilhelm has yet to declare his candidacy. With most federation presidents still supporting Sweeney, the dissidents' campaign plan -- other than to threaten the dissolution of the federation should Sweeney be re-elected -- remains unclear. "SEIU fouled up this campaign from the beginning," says one union leader, when Stern raised the specter of disaffiliation back at the SEIU convention in July of 2004. "In the year leading up to the most important [U.S. presidential] election in decades," said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard late last year, "we didn't need any damned distraction."
While the 71-year-old Sweeney is well liked personally by labor leaders across the spectrum, it was by no means a given that he could have engendered support for another term as AFL-CIO president before the current controversy began. When he took office in 1995, he pledged he'd serve for 10 years, and it was widely expected he'd step down this July. "Sweeney wasn't thinking of running again," says one of the AFL-CIO president's associates. "But Andy didn't just anger him; he infuriated a number of [presidents of] affiliates, who asked John to run again."
Should Wilhelm run, this cross will be his, not Stern's, to bear. A few union presidents fairly bristle with cultural resentment at Stern, and, to a lesser degree, Raynor and Wilhelm, whom they see as having set themselves up as hip leaders in an otherwise square movement. "Why did they do the NUP thing at all?" one leader wonders. "It came off as a clique, as guys who thought they were better than everybody else."
On Monday, May 16, a wholly different group of union leaders -- including the presidents of the AFT, the UFCW, the Fire Fighters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- convened to discuss their own ideas for alternatives to Sweeney. It's by no means a given that these unions would support a Wilhelm candidacy, but the meeting raised the prospect of yet another insurgency and even deeper problems for the AFL-CIO's current administration.
IF WILHELM AND UNITY DO NOT PREVAIL, WHAT THEN? The SEIU will surely secede; whether by itself or with others is as yet unclear. "Under the right circumstances, everyone would be ready to go with SEIU," says one dissident leader. But those circumstances would involve a mass secession, and it's not clear how many unions are willing to initiate that game of chicken. "My organization has never threatened to pull out of the AFL-CIO," Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan told me at the March executive-council meeting, "and has no intention of doing so." McEntee, for one, believes that all the unions but the SEIU are bluffing, in order to gain leverage for Wilhelm's candidacy. The Amalgamated Bank of UNITE-HERE, for instance, is vulnerable to huge withdrawals of union deposits should UNITE-HERE opt out of the AFL-CIO. (The CWA has already withdrawn $ 50 million.)
Blogging two days after the dissident presidents' speeches to the Teamsters, Stern wrote glowingly of "the combined strength and proud histories of the 5 million union members represented by our unions [the dissident coalition]." But if all were to leave and set up a rival federation, the new group would lack the clear definition of, say, the CIO, which was united around the principles of industrial unionism and activist liberal politics. The dissident unions may all argue for the imperative of organizing, but while the SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and the Laborers have transformed themselves into kick-ass organizing machines, the Teamsters and the UFCW have made no such transition. Similarly, the five unions occupy a fairly broad political spectrum: In 2004, the Teamsters were Dick Gephardt's biggest supporters, while the SEIU was a gaggle of Deaniacs.
Even if the SEIU goes off all by itself, many union officials believe that, in the words of one, "a Hobbesian world [will be] created." Some fear that the SEIU's vaunted organizing machine will fight other unions for new, and maybe current, members -- fears Stern takes pains to allay. "Our intention is not to start a war," he says. "We'd work with the AFL-CIO on everything that makes sense. We have no intention to start any campaign where an AFL-CIO union is already organized. But if somebody goes against us? God help the union that picks that fight."
Whatever the case, the act of disaffiliation is sure to complicate the life of the AFL-CIO's state federations and central labor councils that wage their political and lobbying campaigns with money and activists provided by the SEIU. In Los Angeles -- home to the most politically potent labor council in the land, and one in which the SEIU is the dominant union -- council leader Miguel Contreras (who died, suddenly and prematurely, on May 6) was already building a series of parallel organizations to preserve a de facto, if no longer de jure, unified political operation.
But the biggest question is whether secession would help labor grow. The resources that the SEIU would gain from not paying AFL-CIO dues come to a little more than $ 10 million a year -- real money, but a small fraction of the SEIU's total organizing budget. Labor needs to pool its resources, not divide them, to have even a chance to grow. It needs to redirect resources from unions and sectors and states where unions have maintained a presence to those sectors and states where they do not yet exist. It cannot wait until labor law is reformed to begin this project. Labor's present business, if it does not organize, is the business of dying.
These changes require something more than a federated structure to direct unions' affairs; they require the recreation of a movement. That's why the thrust of Wilhelm's as-yet-undeclared candidacy is so crucial to labor's survival. At the same time, that's also why the prospect of the crumbling of labor's central body, and the internecine warfare that may break out in its wake, is so perilous.
"Where the hell is Moses when you need him?" O'Sullivan said in his talk to the Teamsters in Vegas. "I mean, parting the Red Sea is nothing compared to the challenges we face as a movement." With no Moses on the horizon, and with the future of America's working and middle class very much at stake, labor now needs to make its own miracles.

GRAPHIC: Picture 1, Under Attack: AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, ROGER L. WOLLENBERG/UPI/LANDOV; Picture 2, Different Times: George Meany and Walter Reuther, 1955, AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTO

National Journal's Technology Daily, June 1, 2005, Wednesday

Copyright 2005 National Journal Group, Inc.
National Journal's Technology Daily

AM Edition

June 1, 2005 Wednesday

HEADLINE: LABOR: Union Workers Having Tough Time With Tech Industry

Union organizers are having little success recruiting workers
from wireless and cable companies, The New York Times reports.
The number of unionized workers in every industry has dropped
significantly since 1980, but the future of unions in the
telecommunications sector appears particularly bleak. "We're not
winning, we're losing," said Lisa Morowitz, union coordinator
for the Communications Workers of America (CWA). "If we don't
move the direction this industry is moving, we could become
obsolete." After the Bell company monopolies were unionized in
the late 1930s, the telecom sector had a large union presence,
but mergers, deregulation and innovation have caused workers to
flock from traditional phone companies to the largely union-free
cable and wireless companies. Besides a 2000 deal to unionize
workers at Cingular Wireless, labor groups have had few
successes. Comcast workers have voted to abolish nearly two
dozen unions in the past three years, while CWA is currently
locked in a fight over labor issues with Verizon Wireless. Harry
Katz, a Cornell University professor,
said unions need to change
their message to convince workers that unions will be helpful
during turbulent times.

The New York Times, June 1, 2005, Wednesday

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

June 1, 2005 Wednesday
Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section C; Column 3; Business/Financial Desk; Pg. 1

HEADLINE: Unions Struggle as Communications Industry Shifts



Lisa Morowitz, a longtime union coordinator, knows the taste of defeat.
She spends her days trying to organize Comcast cable workers. But not only are the workers declining to sign up, they have in many cases voted to end existing union ties.
''We're not winning, we're losing,'' said Ms. Morowitz, who works for the Communications Workers of America, the dominant union in telecommunications. ''If we don't move the direction this industry is moving, we could become obsolete.''
Even as unions struggle nationwide, with just 12.5 percent of the total work force unionized in 2004 compared with 22 percent in 1980, they face a particularly bleak future in the telecommunications industry.
The industry was once a labor stronghold after the Bell monopolies became unionized in the late 1930's. But mergers, deregulation and technological change have reduced the number of jobs at the traditional phone companies while creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in cable and wireless companies, which are largely union-free.
Since 1985, the number of union workers in telephone and data services has been cut in half, to fewer than 275,000, from 625,000.
To slow the rapid decline, unions are fighting to organize workers at cable and wireless companies. They have had little success, outside a big victory in 2000 when they organized workers at Cingular Wireless.
At Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, workers have voted to decertify nearly two dozen union shops in the last three years.
The labor battle took on newfound intensity last month when the Communications Workers of America published in three major newspapers a full-page letter signed by 112 members of Congress contending that Verizon Wireless was not cooperating with labor groups. Verizon Wireless countered by circulating among employees a document that favorably compares its benefits and wages to that of Cingular Wireless, the only wireless company with a union work force.
In April, Verizon Wireless's chief executive, Dennis F. Strigl, sent a letter to members of Congress urging them not to sign the union petition, which he said was an unfair attack.
The employees ''have repeatedly rejected the efforts of the union to insert itself between them and their company,'' Mr. Strigl wrote. ''Unfortunately, the union will not take 'no' for an answer.''
The communications workers union contends that Verizon Wireless has harassed organizers and moved three major call centers from the Northeast to southern states where it is tougher to organize. It plans to hold a pro-union rally Wednesday in Meriden, Conn., the site of a Verizon Wireless business customer service center.
Also Wednesday, the union plans to organize a protest rally at Comcast's annual meeting in Philadelphia.
The union has taken greatest aim at Comcast and Verizon Wireless. But it is trying to organize other companies, too. The C.W.A. and other international unions plan later this month to try to jump-start talks with T-Mobile, one of the five largest national wireless carriers, by negotiating with executives from its German parent company, Deutsche Telekom.
But reversing the antiunion tide will be enormously difficult. In 1985, unions represented 375,000 workers at the Bells and 250,000 at AT&T, said Jeffrey H. Keefe, an associate professor of labor and employment relations at Rutgers University.
In 2004, the union work force at the Bells dropped to about 229,000, while AT&T's union work force dipped below 30,000, Mr. Keefe said.
The wireless industry, meanwhile, has grown to about 171,000 employees, with only about 22,000 workers at Cingular unionized. In the cable industry, which has 133,000 workers, only about 7,000 workers are unionized.
In terms of pay and benefits, the difference between union and nonunion workplaces can be substantial, Mr. Keefe argues. Based on research compiled by Mr. Keefe and Harry C. Katz, a professor at Cornell University who studies collective bargaining, a union technician at a Bell company in 2003 earned on average $46,500 a year, compared with $39,400 for a technician in the wireless industry and $35,700 at a cable company.
Mr. Katz said the erosion of collective bargaining in telecommunications was not as severe as in the garment and textile industries, but as bad, if not worse, than in many other industries.
The unions, he said, need to modify their message to give workers a sense that organized labor can protect them in an era of great turbulence. ''Employees are not worried about losing a limb in a steel plant,'' Mr. Katz said. Conveying a message that resonates with prospective members in the current environment is an issue ''the unions are struggling to answer.''
Larry Cohen, executive vice president of the communications workers union, which represents 2.5 million workers worldwide, said the union had made some strides. In a rapidly changing industry, the union, he said, can negotiate better benefits, training and pay for workers and prevent management from eliminating jobs arbitrarily or changing work conditions.
But given the antagonism of the industry to unions, Mr. Cohen said, workers are often too tired to fight. The battle with Comcast highlights challenges faced by the C.W.A.
In November 2002, Comcast completed its acquisition of AT&T Broadband, a company in which union representation had been steadily growing. Since Comcast's takeover, 22 bargaining units from the former AT&T Broadband have voted to decertify their union status, including one in Fresno, Calif., where technicians voted 92 to 58 on May 12 to get rid of the union. In California alone, the union lost decertification votes at Comcast shops in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Modesto -- all in 2003. Comcast still has 22 union shops.
Comcast says workers are voting to decertify because they may be more satisfied with Comcast management, which it says is more receptive to worker needs than the national top-down management of AT&T Broadband.
David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast who oversees human resources there, said the votes were evidence that workers under Comcast management did not feel they benefited from union representation.
''We take pride in providing a safe, enjoyable and productive work environment,'' he said. Workers ''do not need to be represented by a union to gain all of the advantages.''
But the company does aggressively lobby for its cause. One worker, a technician in Fresno who voted to retain the union in the recent election, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear he could lose his job, said that in the five weeks preceding the vote, the company flew in human relations managers to meet with workers collectively as well as individually by taking workers out for drinks and lunches. Some even rode with technicians on service calls, the worker said.
Mr. Cohen, the Comcast executive, declined to talk about the specifics of the Fresno vote. ''We convey our message in all ways we're permitted to under the National Labor Relations Act,'' he said.
In at least once case, the National Labor Relations Board found that Comcast violated federal labor rules. In a ruling dated April 13, the labor board concluded that Comcast of Maryland had threatened, coerced and fired employees to dissuade them from working with the Teamsters.
In that case, the board ordered the company to reinstate two workers to positions they previously held. The board also ordered Comcast to stop discharging or coercing employees involved in union activity and putting them under surveillance.
The company has been vigilant in warding off union organizing efforts. A leadership training document Comcast published in January 2003 instructed managers on how to spot possible union activity. One section -- titled ''Early Warning Signs'' -- urged managers to look for situations where ''employees not normally seen together are seen gathering'' and for ''increased curiosity and questions about benefits and policies.''
Managers are also told to look for employees who want things ''in writing.'' In some cases, workers have been given written warnings about discussing union activities with colleagues on company time.
At the same time, the Comcast manual also informs managers that among the best ways to prevent union inroads is for the company to offer competitive wages and benefits, provide excellent working conditions and to allow employees to express their complaints.
''We are anything but antiunion,'' Mr. Cohen of Comcast said. Ms. Morowitz, 39, hopes to persuade those workers that being part of the union has big advantages. As the only full-time communications union staff member trying to organize Comcast, she focuses her time on California, which was a union stronghold in the days of AT&T Broadband. The union estimates there are about 6,000 Comcast workers in California, not including contract workers.
She meets with Comcast workers, usually at the workers' request, telling them about the union election process.
The meetings are held in secret, she said, because she said that Comcast had a history of harassing workers involved with union activism. The mood is often upbeat, but she said she was pessimistic about her meetings yielding any success.
''Comcast has so relentlessly bad-mouthed the union, we are unlikely to have a successful election,'' she said. ''Even if we succeeded, the real question is, Can we get a contract?''
Joining her at some meetings is Yonah Camacho Diamond, a service technician and union shop steward who works in San Francisco for SBC, which is unionized. Mr. Diamond, 34, said he was lobbying Comcast workers not for the sake of the union but because he believed that telecommunications on the whole is becoming inhospitable to workers.
The days of the professional telecommunications worker ''are not long for existence,'' Mr. Diamond said. ''I've got a good job at a good wage, with a pension and a 401(k). But that may not be available to me, or my son, in the future.''


GRAPHIC: Photos: Yonah Camacho Diamond, at blackboard, and Lisa Morowitz, third from left, are working to organize Comcast workers in California. (Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times)(pg. C1)
Lisa Morowitz, at a union hall in Oakland, Calif., said unions could become ''obsolete'' in the communications industry if membership trends were not reversed. Overall union membership has plunged since 1980. (Photo by Jim Wilson/The New York Times)(pg. C4)Graph tracks union membership among all wage and salary workers, since 1985. (Source by Analysis of census data by Barry T. Hirsch and David A. Macpherson)

The New York Times, May 31, 2005, Tuesday

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

May 31, 2005 Tuesday
Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section A; Column 1; National Desk; Pg. 13

HEADLINE: A Summer of Discontent for Labor Focuses on Its Leader's Fitness for His Job



At 71, after nearly half a century in the union movement and after a decade leading the nation's main labor federation, John J. Sweeney is facing his toughest time ever.
The percentage of American workers belonging to unions continues to fall, President Bush is seeking to weaken collective bargaining rights for 700,000 federal workers, and many unionized companies are cutting back once-unassailable benefits, like health insurance and pensions.
But for Mr. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the biggest battle may be a nasty internal struggle -- the federation's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, is threatening to secede if, as many expect, Mr. Sweeney wins a new four-year term this summer. And several other major unions have hinted that they, too, might leave the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation of 57 unions and 13 million workers.
''We need to make far-reaching changes and have a leader committed to such changes, and that leader is not John Sweeney,'' said Andrew L. Stern, president of the service employees union, which has more than 1.7 million members.
Mr. Stern seeks to push Mr. Sweeney into retirement, but Mr. Sweeney is digging in -- and is voicing anger with Mr. Stern, a one-time protege, saying his divisiveness is weakening the movement.
But Mr. Stern's critique of Mr. Sweeney has strong support from four other unions -- the Teamsters, the laborers, the food and commercial workers, and Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and apparel workers. The five dissident unions represent more than a third of the membership of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
With such unrest, many union leaders agree that the labor movement is at a crossroads: one path might lead to disastrous division and hasten labor's decline, while the other might lead to a revival.
Mr. Sweeney's simple response to his critics is: ''I believe I'm the right person to lead the changes we need.''
What has split organized labor into pro- and anti-Sweeney camps is a debate over the best direction for labor and who would be best to lead the movement and reverse its decline. Mr. Sweeney's opponents say that he is tired and not charismatic or forceful enough. They also say he has not gotten labor to put nearly enough money and energy into rebuilding its membership rolls through organizing campaigns; the percentage of private-sector workers in unions has plunged to 7.9 percent from 35 percent in the 1950's.
Despite the criticism, Mr. Sweeney is favored to win re-election. No challenger has emerged, and his backers say he has the support of more than 70 percent of the delegates to the federation's convention in July. Mr. Sweeney received a major lift on Thursday, when the United Auto Workers -- which has given some backing to Mr. Stern's criticisms -- endorsed the incumbent.
That endorsement, union leaders say, makes it less likely that John W. Wilhelm, who heads the hotel and restaurant division of Unite Here, will make good on a threat to run. Mr. Sweeney has faced opposition only once, in 1995, when he was first elected to a two-year term; since then he has won two four-year-terms.
''It looks like I have the votes,'' Mr. Sweeney said in an interview on Friday. ''Like any election, I run as if it's the toughest election of my life.''
But Mr. Sweeney's opponents still hope to press him to step aside.
''John's style of leadership is consensus building, but the labor movement in 2005 doesn't need consensus -- it needs dramatic change to grow,'' said Bruce Raynor, who is the overall president of Unite Here and an ally of Mr. Stern's. ''John can win vote-wise, but do you count that as a win? If you win and drive the labor movement apart, that's not a win.''
Usually soft-spoken, Mr. Sweeney can be gruff with critics, business leaders and conservative politicians, giving speeches characterized by fiery words but a flat, unexciting style. He has dedicated his life to the labor movement, often telling audiences how he, as a boy in the Bronx, attended union meetings with his father, a bus driver.
He rose to become president of New York's largest union of doormen and janitors, then became president of the Service Employees International Union -- and he admits to feeling pained that the union he once headed is threatening to secede.
Adding personal drama to the feud, Mr. Sweeney was long Mr. Stern's mentor when Mr. Sweeney led the service employees union and Mr. Stern was its organizing director. Mr. Sweeney hired Mr. Stern, attracted by his vision, forcefulness and impatience -- his blow-through-the-obstacles streak. Now Mr. Stern is using those traits to undercut him.
''I've long been an admirer of Andy's,'' Mr. Sweeney said. ''But I really resent this attitude, that 'if I have differences and I don't get my own way, I'm leaving the federation.'''
In June, Mr. Stern's executive board is expected to give him a green light to quit the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if he chooses. Such a walkout, especially if other unions join in, would badly hurt the federation, costing it more than 10 percent of its dues money, creating a public relations disaster and probably resulting in unions raiding each other's industries.
Mr. Stern, whose union has added 600,000 workers in the past decade, has repeatedly said that if the A.F.L.-C.I.O. does not embrace enough change, he will seek to build something better, presumably an organization outside the federation that would seek to attract workers and sympathetic young people.
Frustrated that the number of workers in unions has fallen while overall employment has grown, Mr. Stern faults Mr. Sweeney for not getting labor leaders to spend far more on organizing and for doing too little to get small unions to merge to form larger, stronger ones.
Mr. Sweeney thought he had met Mr. Stern more than halfway last month when he announced a platform encouraging union mergers and pressing unions to spend more on recruiting nonunion workers. Mr. Sweeney and his backers seem puzzled and angry that Mr. Stern still appears intent on walking.
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Mr. Sweeney was the man to unite labor and push it forward.
''He's an excellent leader, a man of vision,'' Mr. McEntee said. ''Facing Bush, the Supreme Court, the House and the Senate being in the hands of what I would consider right-wing conservatives, we need a united labor movement now more than ever. I'm truly concerned that some unions might leave. We can't be as strong as a federation with them gone. Nor can they be as strong if they leave.''
Even many Sweeney critics praise him for transforming the federation's political arm into a formidable lobbying and election machine; it is often viewed as the Democrats' leading get-out-the-vote operation. Mr. Sweeney's backers praise him for getting 20 unions to become more aggressive in organizing workers, though Mr. Stern questions why it took so long and insists there is still far too little organizing.
Indeed, Mr. Stern and his allies have hammered Mr. Sweeney for not backing their proposal to spend $60 million -- half the federation's budget -- on organizing and on giving rebates to individual unions to organize. Mr. Sweeney, who proposed spending $22.5 million on such efforts, said devoting half the federation's budget to unionizing would prevent it from fulfilling its responsibilities in politics, collective bargaining and other areas. He said the budgetary changes Mr. Stern proposed would force him to lay off 100 staff members, after he already laid off 100 of the federation's staff of 420.
Mr. Sweeney's backers say that the federation's spending $60 million instead of $22.5 million on unionizing would not make a big difference since individual unions spend more than $300 million a year on organizing.
Mr. Sweeney said that the decline in union membership was not his fault. ''We've gone through some horrible times, losing close to three million manufacturing jobs just during the Bush years, and many of them were good, middle-income, good-benefit union jobs,'' he said. ''We haven't done enough organizing to keep up with those job losses.''
In explaining his decision to run again, Mr. Sweeney talked of growing up in a home where three things were paramount: family, faith and his father's union. He spoke as if he was on a mission and discussed past divisions that were ultimately healed, as when the United Auto Workers quit the federation in a dispute over the Vietnam War.
Mr. Sweeney said he still hoped to keep the service employees in the fold. ''It's a worry that any affiliate would think of seceding,'' he said. ''But I will do my damnedest to try to avoid that.''
Some labor experts called it an inopportune time for infighting. ''Given that labor's on the defensive, a split right now would really hurt them,'' said Richard Hurd, a labor relations professor at Cornell University. ''If labor comes out of this bitterly divided and the aftermath is internecine warfare, where unions go after each other, then it only plays into the hands of the enemies of labor.''

The Washington Post, May 31, 2005, Tuesday

Copyright 2005 The Washington Post
The Washington Post

May 31, 2005 Tuesday
Final Edition

SECTION: Financial; E01

HEADLINE: Logging On With A New Campaign;
Staffers Use Tactics Learned With Candidates to Pressure Wal-Mart

BYLINE: Amy Joyce, Washington Post Staff Writer

It's a Thursday morning in a downtown office building on K Street. Five staffers are fielding phone calls, soliciting help, blogging and brainstorming. Handmade posters are taped to drab walls, tracking their plans and progress. White boards are scribbled on, erased and scribbled on some more. Boxes sit unpacked. Dating lives have been put on hold. There are no plans for a summer vacation. Weekend rest is fleeting.
In other words, not much has changed since these staffers were with the Howard Dean, Wesley K. Clark and John F. Kerry presidential campaigns. But this time, they are trying to win one for the Wal-Mart workers.
Their group is the latest manifestation of the ongoing campaign to change Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest private employer. After years of failed attempts to help Wal-Mart workers organize a union, leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers are trying an Internet-oriented approach developed in recent failed presidential campaigns.
When Joseph T. Hansen became president last year, he decided to switch from approaching employees inside the stores to putting on a wider campaign designed to win over the company's customers and general public. His hope is that public reaction and negative publicity will force the company's executives to change some practices.
In January, the UFCW hired 29-year-old Paul Blank, former political director of the Howard Dean presidential campaign. He pulled together a team of other young former staffers from failed Democratic presidential campaigns to start a grass-roots effort to draw in consumers. The group calls its effort Wake-Up Wal-Mart, and it tries to use tools developed in political campaigns.
"For a number of years, we were going by the rules," attempting to sign up workers under rights granted by the National Labor Relations Act, said William T. McDonough, head of UFCW's organizing department. "We got very frustrated."
The mega-retailer's public image had already taken some hits before the campaign began, in part because of earlier attempts by organized labor to draw attention to what it argues is the downside of Wal-Mart's dominance. Wal-Mart is facing the largest ever class-action lawsuit charging gender discrimination. Its critics say it does not pay a fair wage and creates a burden for localities because it fails to provide adequate health care for its workers. Wal-Mart has agreed to pay $11 million to settle a federal investigation that found hundreds of illegal immigrants were hired to clean its stores.
McDonough said two well-known failed organizing attempts showed that the unions had to change their tactics: Wal-Mart eliminated meatpacking positions nationwide and began to sell prepackaged meat after meatpackers at a store in Texas voted to organize in 2000. The company said it had intended to do so before the workers voted for a union. "That had a chilling impact on any other organizing," McDonough said. Wal-Mart in April closed a Jonquiere, Quebec, store where workers had voted in a union. Wal-Mart said the store was underperforming. And so the union decided to respond with a more public campaign.
"It's a very small group dealing with very big things," Blank said. Involved in politics and campaigns since he worked in Bill Bradley's office at age 12, he most recently worked for Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign director.
The other staffers include Buffy Wicks, 27, an antiwar activist who worked on the Dean campaign and is Wake Up's political director, and Jeremy Bird, 26, who grew up in Missouri and whose mother used to work for Wal-Mart. He went to Harvard Divinity School and was a Dean campaign worker "until the bitter end."
Brendan Bush, 25, runs the group's blog. He was on the Internet crew for the Kerry campaign. "Back before I knew I was a Democrat," he said, he teased his uncle who was proud of his union membership in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. The group's communications adviser, Chris Kofinis, 35, helped originate the campaign and was a strategist for, a Democratic group that worked to pull Nader voters to other candidates.
Wake-Up Wal-Mart's first major action was to garner opposition to Wal-Mart for Mother's Day. The group launched a campaign called "Love Mom, Not Wal-Mart." Shoppers signed a petition promising not to buy a Mother's Day gift at the store. News of the petition went out on blogs and community activist sites. About 22,000 people signed the online promise in the week and a half before Mother's Day. Kofinis said he considered the signatures a success, not because they had an impact on Wal-Mart sales, but because he thinks they helped raise awareness of the group's criticisms of Wal-Mart.
Visitors to the organization's Web site can also enter their Zip codes to find nearby Wal-Marts and then promise, online, to take responsibility for focusing attention on that particular store. Many people signed up to do this during the Mother's Day campaign, gathering signatures for petitions criticizing Wal-Mart or standing near stores to tell people about Wal-Mart practices they dislike. "We're focusing on people who might go to Wal-Mart and don't know the facts and might change their behavior," Kofinis said.
The UFCW's membership includes employees at grocery stores, which are facing stiff competition from Wal-Mart stores, known as Supercenters, that also sell groceries.
Wal-Mart has no plans to deal with Wake-Up Wal-Mart. "We do not plan to talk with them," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams in an e-mail. "Some of our critics are open-minded people who are genuinely concerned about issues and want to make the world a better place. We reach out to them and try to work toward common goals. Other groups simply pull publicity stunts to further their own narrow self-interests -- and Wake-Up Wal-Mart is clearly in that category."
The UFCW is not the only union pursuing a different kind of strategy. The Service Employees International Union backed a group formed earlier this year called Wal-Mart Watch. Much like Wake-Up Wal-Mart, it is trying to build alliances with other groups that disagree with Wal-Mart policies.
Some labor experts think the UFCW's different effort is long overdue. "It surprised me that it took so long for UFCW to realize it doesn't work on a store-by-store effort," said Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Recently, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoed a bill that would have effectively required Wal-Mart to pay more for health benefits in Maryland, and voters in a Los Angeles suburb rejected an initiative to open a Supercenter there.
Though Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. "has said he will not raise wages, if you get more stuff like the vetoed Maryland law and in Los Angeles, I think that they will begin to make some accommodations in both wages and health care," said Nelson N. Lichtenstein, editor of the upcoming book "Wal-Mart: Template for 21st Century Capitalism?" and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Some believe they are seeing the beginnings of that already: Wal-Mart is launching a massive counteroffensive to protect its image. It is spending millions of dollars on advertisements in which employees praise the company as a great place to work. For the first time, Wal-Mart invited 100 journalists to its Arkansas headquarters this spring.
At a recent morning staff meeting in Wake-Up Wal-Mart's conference room, staffers pored over the clips from the day's papers and Web sites that mentioned Wal-Mart. Many were about a supposed whistle-blower fired from the company. "Have we reached out to his lawyers?" Blank asked.
"We should get people on the Hill" who sponsored the whistle-blower legislation to respond, Kofinis said.
"We're also still getting play on this Medicaid thing, which is great," Blank continued, referring to stories about Wal-Mart workers who turned to Medicaid because they couldn't afford the company's health coverage.
His colleagues were getting antsy. Their cell phones were ringing, legs were wiggling, and the staff just wanted the morning meeting to be over so they could get back to work.
With that, Blank rallied his troops: "Trust me, they are meeting 18 hours a day to figure out what to do with us."

Buffalo News (New York), May 29, 2005, Sunday

Copyright 2005 The Buffalo News
Buffalo News (New York)

May 29, 2005 Sunday




BYLINE: By Kevin Walter - News Editorial Writer

Matthew L. Schwartz looks for all the world like any other college student, albeit one who is crackling with barely contained energy.
Whole paragraphs spool out of him in unbroken torrents: cogent observations, ambitious goals, cocky self-assurance. A trained observer might recognize the outlines of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, and might even guess that special education played a role in his success. Just how important a role, though, wouldn't be clear until this 20-year-old spells it out in four unambiguous words: "It saved my life."
Special education can do that, and it's the No. 1 thing to understand about this federally mandated program. It is expensive and time consuming, but it has given better lives to millions of students with a range of disabilities, creating taxpayers out of people who might otherwise have relied on social services.
The No. 2 thing to understand is that the program is unwieldy, haphazardly managed and that, as a result, it needlessly siphons millions of dollars away from students in general education. This mainly happens when children who do not need special education are placed there anyway, consuming services they may not need, or could attain at less expense.
That kind of misuse usually occurs as a result of good intentions gone awry, but it is also not hard to find evidence of motives that are less than pure. Administrators want to avoid costly hearings over special education placmements and services. Teachers look for an easy way to dump a difficult student from their classes. And, sometimes, parents try to poach the academic advantages that special education can provide. More time on tests may produce better SAT scores and admission to a better college. It's human nature, and it happens.
To Schwartz, though, such issues represent the exception to the rule. A Long Island native who is charging toward a double major and double minor at UB, Schwartz credits special education with helping him overcome a battery of disabilities that, in addition to ADHD, includes Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The young man who once suffered from rage attacks and felt like a medical "guinea pig" now burns with self-confidence.
"I came in here knowing I was going to kick ass," he said.
What is special education? In a nutshell, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- or IDEA -- guarantees a "free, appropriate public education," delivered in the "least restrictive environment" to qualifying students: those whose ability to learn is impaired by one or more of 13 disabilities.
Depending on severity of the disability and the student's "individualized education plan," special education may be delivered entirely in the general education classroom, entirely in a separate classroom or building or, frequently, in some mix. Services may include more time on tests, extra instruction, occupational therapy and psychological counseling.
Special ed students may attend class in a general education classroom with two teachers. One is the "regular" teacher responsible for the whole class. The other is a "consultant teacher" whose assignment may be just a few special ed students, but whose influence can benefit the entire class -- if the teachers know how to work together. (To understand how complicated a task that can be, think of it as a marriage -- with 25 children.)
Importantly, the federal law, enacted in 1974 and most recently reauthorized in December, makes special education a legal right, one that defines responsibilities, provides remedies and invests parents with tremendous clout. The resulting bureaucracy is massive and not infrequently chaotic. It frustrates educators, intimidates parents and provides a living to lawyers.
And it is expensive. It takes money to test students to determine if they need special education -- well over $100 per student in psychologist time alone, not counting the cost of expensive testing tools. It costs money to convene a district's Committee on Special Education, which decides if a student requires special education and, if so, what services he needs. Beyond the pay of professionals on the committee, a district may also have to hire substitute teachers to fill in on days of committee hearings.
It costs money -- a lot of money -- in preparation time for administrators and especially in legal fees for the "impartial hearings" that may occur when parents and schools disagree (the district may have to pay the parents' legal bills as well as its own). And, of course, it costs money to provide the educational services needed by children with disabilities.
In Lackawanna, location of several group homes associated with Baker Victory Services, special education instructional costs amounted to $9.3 million in 2002-03, or 39 percent of the district's total instructional cost. Buffalo spent $131 million, or 30 percent of its instructional costs. That doesn't count legal expenses and other non-classroom costs.
Even in wealthier districts, the dent made by special education is significant. In Amherst and Williamsville, districts spent 19 percent of their total instructional budget on special education, far less than the rates of Buffalo and Lackawanna, but still large enough to give administrators and taxpayers incentive to control the cost.
As in all of education, school districts perform at wildly different levels in special education, and the effects of failure can be pernicious. Students with learning disabilities are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to end up in prison.
Money, competence and a school's attitude toward educating every student all play large roles in the number of students classified and how well they are served.
Poverty is a parasite
Start with money or, more accurately, its absence. When it comes to special education, poverty is a parasite, simultaneously producing disabilities while diminishing the ability of schools to address them.
Children born into poverty may run a gamut of hardships: single parents; parents having to work two or more jobs; household drug abuse, possibly causing fetal abnormalities; domestic violence; incest; parental illiteracy; poor nutrition; lack of reading and other mental stimulation; lack of discipline; insufficient sleep and other deprivations.
That puts those students behind from the start, said Christine Sawran, principal in charge of special education in the Lackawanna City School District. "They come to your school in such poor shape, with so many deficits, you have to improve their skills before you can ever begin to teach them," she said.
Poor children are not certain to encounter any of these problems, of course, but they are more likely to suffer them than kids from wealthier homes. Any one of these deprivations can foment a disability or at least ensure that the child starts school behind his peers. And without early intervention, such disadvantages can morph into diagnosable disabilities. "You can definitely create a disabled student," said Rebecca Cort, deputy education commissioner in charge of New York's special education system.
That's one of the reasons areas of high poverty have greater concentrations of students in special education; why Buffalo, with 23 pecent of families in poverty, has nearly 20 percent of students in special education, while East Aurora, with a poverty rate of less than 3 percent, has only 6.8 percent in special ed. It's among the reasons that Lackawanna, with a poverty rate of 13 percent, has 16.1 percent of its students in special education, while Amherst, whose poverty rate is 5 percent, has only 8.3 percent classified. Money matters.
But that's only the start of how poverty undermines students in special education, because if the lack of money helps to create the need for services, it also impairs the ability to deliver them. Buffalo, one of the poorest cities in the nation, has less money to devote to the kind of academic interventions that can prevent the need for classification in special education or, for the students already classified, money that can buy more and better services.
Consider psychologists, who are responsible for testing students before they are classified in need of special education. Buffalo, with a median household income of $24,175, has 50 psychologists serving about 9,200 special education students. That's an average of 184 students per counselor.
Meanwhile, in East Aurora, where the median income is $51,470 -- more than double Buffalo's -- three psychologists serve 175 special ed students. That's an average of 58 students per psychologist. Put another way, students in wealthier East Aurora have three times the access to psychologists.
The trend extends to other services, as well. Special ed students in East Aurora have six times greater access to counselors, and while Buffalo's general education population has slightly greater access to extra help under a program called academic intervention services, the need is far greater, given the effects of poverty.
Indeed, teachers in poor areas, especially urban ones, already have their hands full. The entire student population lives with the increased risk of destructive social influences, and collectively arrives at the schoolhouse door less ready to learn than students in wealthier districts. "Our kids start from behind the moment they walk in the door," said Sawran, of the Lackawanna school district.
That not only increases the number of students needing help, but also complicates the task of differentiating between students who truly need special education and those who may require some other kind of assistance. And perhaps to belabor the obvious, with so many students unprepared for school, less time, money and energy are available for any one of them, including those placed in special ed.
Parents under strain
Poverty isn't the only reason some districts have greater concentrations of special education students. Comparatively wealthy districts can have widely varying proportions of special education students, suggesting that some schools are not screening well.
For example, school districts in East Aurora and Lewiston-Porter each have median incomes of around $51,500, yet East Aurora had only 6.8 percent of students in special education in 2002-03, while Lewiston had 11.8 percent, or about 75 percent more.
Grand Island and Orchard Park also have similar median incomes, of around $60,000, but Grand Island's special ed rate is 9.5 percent while Orchard Park's is 13.9 percent, nearly half again as many. The state average is 11.9 percent.
Variances aren't always so significant, and several factors can influence them. Nonetheless, they offer a window on a national phenomenon: Despite efforts to control referrals, districts are woefully inconsistent in how they classify students for special education. It's not hard to understand why.
The parents of students with disabilities are likely to be under severe emotional strain, and they have specific rights under federal law. Educators, meanwhile, who are in the business of helping children learn, may be poorly equipped to resist an aroused parent who is determined to secure special education services for his child, especially when refusal may trigger a punishing round of administrative hearings, and may be financially illogical, to boot.
For example, if denying a parent's wish prompts a series of administrative hearings that cost $50,000 or more, generating reams of paperwork and devouring staff time, while the educational services sought would cost the same or less, why bother?
In the end, though, "why bother?" is the wrong question asked at the wrong time. The better question is, "How did it come to this?"
Not the only answer
Of the many misconceptions about special education, the most damaging -- educationally, financially and emotionally -- may be that it, alone, is the tool for serving children who have trouble learning. It isn't. In fact, special education stands at the end of a progression of possible interventions, any one of which might be a more appropriate response to many learning difficulties.
Under special education, for example, students are issued a formal "individualized education plan" that might include being given more time on tests. But any teacher already has the authority to give any student more time on local tests, or if a student's problems suggest it, to present a test in different format. No hearings, no committee meetings and no additional expense are required for a teacher to respond to the educational need of a particular student. All that is needed are teachers and principals who are aware of the tools at their disposal and are ready to use them.
If more help is needed, administrators, based on their own observations, can provide additional reading instruction to students who are lagging. They don't need to refer a student to the district's special education committee, develop an individual education plan and identify the child as needing "special education," which in the eyes of many people, retains an unfortunate and unfair stigma.
Some of these interventions are codified in other aspects of federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the No Child Left Behind law. Yet special education is often the solution of first resort, even though it stands at the end of a continuum of possibilities.
In some cases, where disabilities are severe, for example, special education may be an obvious need. But one of the law's unintended consequences is that, in empowering parents to launch an expensive and time-consuming process, it encourages them to reach immediately for that lever even if some other kind of help is more appropriate. At the same time, the law pressures school officials to accede to parents' wishes, even if they believe special education is not the right response.
Given the power vested in parents, the main hope of schools to restrict special education referrals to those where it is truly appropriate is for districts to show parents that they have all students' education needs at heart. Parents who believe that well informed school officials are working diligently on their children's behalf will be more likely to accept lesser initial interventions than those who mistrust the school bureaucracy and choose to exercise the clout that Washington has conferred on them.
Reducing unwarranted referrals to special education is both possible and cost-effective. A new report commissioned by the Erie County Association of School Boards cites an intriguing pre-referral program adopted by the seven districts in the Schuyler-Chemung-Tioga BOCES in the Southern Tier.
Under the program, called "7Share," classroom teachers collaborate with an instructional support teacher to provide extra help to struggling students. The results were dramatic: Of the students who took part, 76 percent improved their academic performance and 37 percent improved in their behavior.
Even more to the point, 45 percent fewer students were referred to special education in the first year of the program and 42 percent fewer in the second year. The study was conducted by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
7Share's success is clear, but it depended, in good part, on the willingness of parents to cooperate, said Laurie Comfort an instructional support teacher who spends one day a week organizing the program. Districts worked to secure that cooperation by presenting evidence of achievement, including videos of students already in the program. They built on previous success.
"If a parent comes to a principal now, saying, "I want my child tested,' the principal asks, "Can we try this first?'" said Comfort. If the student doesn't respond to that intervention, then he moves into the special education system.
Sometimes, Comfort said, students with difficulties respond after only a short time with an instructional support teacher -- as little as 15 minutes -- offering encouragement to parents and students. (This raises an intriguing question: How much of the problem is in a student's ability to learn and how much is in a teacher's ability to instruct? The improving academic performance of students with disabilities strongly suggests that teaching skills are a significant issue.)
But for a program such as this to work, districts must win the trust of parents who wield tremendous clout under the federal special education law. That trust doesn't exist everywhere. Building it, one observer says, begins in the principal's office.
"You can tell a school that's welcoming to parents," said Susan Barlow, director of parent training at The Parent Network of Western New York, a Buffalo-based organization whose mission is to help people with disabilities reach their potential by educating their parents and the professionals who serve them.
For example, she said, a recently retired principal in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district dealt with a severe disciplinary problem at Holmes Elementary School by concentrating on educational management during staff meetings, taking a year to go through a book on the subject. The principal, Mark Kaiser, also reduced the number of work rules from 40 to two and then, most tellingly, visited every home in the district.
Discipline problems at Holmes Elementary School plummeted to an average of three a month from 147, Kaiser said, and test scores rose, enough to win an annual statewide award from the State Department of Education. Said Barlow: "To me, that's leadership."
That's not a story about special education specifically, but it is one about building trust. As a result of Kaiser's efforts, parents of students at Holmes Elementary saw flesh-and-blood proof that the school was interested in them and their children. Without that cornerstone of confidence, all education, especially special ed, rises on an unstable foundation.
Driving innovation
Trust is only the beginning of the special ed gauntlet, though, because once school officials have gained it -- or even if they haven't, for that matter -- they still face the task of educating students whose ability to learn is compromised by disability.
The good news is that schools are figuring out how to do this. Academic progress is uneven, but each year shows an increase in the percentage of students with disabilities earning Regents diplomas. In 2003-04, the figure was 65.9 percent, having risen about a percentage point a year over three years. What is more, those improvements are working to the benefit of all students.
The bad news is that too many of them are doing so on their own, with too few resources, including money, training and easy access to best-practice models.
Nevertheless, special ed is driving many innovations in education, from co-teaching to "universal design" in instruction, which applies digital technology to break through the barriers raised by disabilities. Because most special ed students spend much of their time in the regular classroom with general ed students, such improvements also bolster the ability of all students to learn.
"Consultant teachers" are a good example. Consultant teachers work in the regular classroom with a general ed teacher, providing specialized help to certain special ed students, as well as other students. In addition, when a teaching pair have a good relationship, they can be resources for each other.
Susan Cecula is a special education teacher who spends two hours a day in Lisa Herrington's fifth-grade class in the Niagara Wheatfield school district. Although her primary responsibility is for four special ed students in that class, she works with the entire class, including small groups that combine special ed students with others who are having trouble learning but are not in special education.
"It's a huge benefit for the regular ed kids," said Herrington, and not just academically. It's also increased the acceptance of children with disabilities by other students, because unlike the past, when students with disabilities were segregated, those children today are often a normal part of the classroom landscape. "A lot of regular ed kids don't know anything different," she said.
Colleges are offering student teachers tools for navigating the tricky currents of the classroom relationship between instructors. It really is like a marriage, said Alice Kozen, an assistant professor of education at Niagara University, who instructs future special ed teachers. The nuts and bolts of making it work are necessarily up to the teachers, themselves. But the task is complicated by the job's relative newness. Even the professionals are just beginning to truly examine what role the consultant teacher should play, Kozen said.
All in all, special education can be like walking through a hurricane, yet in the midst of the storm are thousands of teachers, principals, administrators, judges and, yes, lawyers who manage nonetheless to keep their eyes on the ball: the education of children who were once written off as unteachable but who, it turns out, are anything but.
Most of these students are of average or above-average intelligence, but need to learn in different ways. For example, a mathematical concept taught algebraically may be lost on some students. Teach it geometrically -- that is, in a more visual way -- and the light may suddenly go on.
Something like that happened to Randall Borst, the University at Buffalo's director of disability services. Borst, legally blind since birth, said his teachers would not allow him to say that he couldn't accomplish a particular task. "I had to say, "I haven't found a way to do that yet,'" he said.
This was long before special education was law, yet he was expected to learn. He did.
Even for students of less-than-average intelligence, the availability of special education can make the difference between a life that is dull and one that offers rewards. Students who are mildly to moderately retarded, at one time consigned to the dark corners of education, do better when they are included in the general education classroom.
They won't function at the levels of their nondisabled peers, but they are more likely to reach their maximum potential, including the real possibility of employment, and are more likely to find acceptance in the world than if they had been squirreled away, as though they had done something wrong, and never expected to achieve anything.
"People learn what they can do rather than focusing on what they can't do," said Lynne Sommerstein, director of the College Based Transition Program at Buffalo State College, a non-credit program for students with significant disabilities.
Burden for local taxpayers
In order to increase the number of special education success stories, educators are going to need more financial support than they've received up to now. Upgrading buildings and equipment to serve students with disabilities costs money. So do classrooms with two teachers.
Yet, the federal government, which in 1974 pledged to pay 40 percent of the additional costs of special education, is paying only 19 percent, less than half the amount it promised.
Even that amount varies by state, and according to a report that looked at 1998-99 figures, New York was among lowest-compensated states, with Washington paying only 6 percent of costs and Albany kicking in another 36 percent. That left local taxpayers to fund 58 percent of special education costs, a real burden in poor cities such as Buffalo, where the need is especially high and the ability to pay for it especially low.
It's a shortsighted policy, as the success of students like UB's Schwartz attests.
The costs and benefits of special education are considerable. Adequate funding, a more efficient use of the special education money districts already receive, better training and consistent classification policies by informed and trustworthy school officials will go a long way toward ensuring that other students struggling with disabilities are given the chance for a full life without unnecessarily diverting resources away from the rest of the student population. That's not the case now.

GRAPHIC: Illustration by Daniel Zakroczemski/Buffalo News File photo Schwartz: "It saved my life." Charles Lewis/Buffalo News Fifth-grade teacher Lisa Herrington works with a student at Colonial Village Elementary School in the Niagara- Wheatfield district. Herrington, like some general education teachers, often works alongside a special education teacher. Charles Lewis/Buffalo News Special education teacher Susan Cecula, left, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Herrington, go over lesson information as student Stanley Moore looks on. Table: Special education by the numbers Costs for special education students can be more than twice that for general education students, so it's important to correctly classify those who truly need the program. [see microfilm]