Teachers Urge Divestment from Private Prisons

Negin Owliaei Researcher, Institute for Policy Studies

It’s been just over a year since West Virginia teachers began their historic strike, kicking off a new era of education organizing. And educators across the country have spent the last several months building on the public support for protesting teachers and highlighting how dire their working conditions have become without adequate funding.

Striking teachers have shown that they’re concerned about far more than pay and benefits. The #RedForEd movement has brought issues of social justice to the bargaining table, placing their labor fight in the broader struggle for equity in their communities.

Teachers and their unions are expanding the fight for more just communities beyond contract negotiations. A recent two-part report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) exposes how public pensions are intertwined with some of the most harmful institutions out there — immigration detention centers and private prisons.

AFT released the first report, which identified managers that invested in immigration detention centers in August, shortly after the Trump administration adopted its family separation policy across the border. The second part, released last month, examined the companies and asset managers that profit off private prisons and mass incarceration. In both reports, the union urges trustees to divest from companies that fuel both industries — whether that be companies like General Dynamics, CoreCivic and GEO Group, which directly own and operate detention centers and private prisons, or the hedge funds and private equity firms that find other ways to profit off incarceration.

Both reports make the human rights case for divesting from prison profiteers. Private prisons and immigrant detention centers both primarily affect communities of color. And both have long been accused of human rights violations. Why should pension funds make their way to industries solely designed to lock humans up?

Those human rights issues affect how teachers work, too. Striking teachers have raised the issue of racial equity in the classroom — immigration and incarceration issues are at the top of the list of problems. AFT cites research from the Economic Policy Institute that shows the intimate connection between criminal policy and education policy. As the AFT report explains, children with incarcerated parents are more likely to develop learning disabilities and drop out of school.

“Children’s cognitive and noncognitive problems, to which parental incarceration contributes, and the concentration of children of incarcerated parents in low-income minority neighborhoods and in segregated schools, create challenges for teachers and schools that are difficult to overcome,” the EPI report says, calling for an end to the war on drugs and the mass incarceration it fuels. “How educators can add their voices to demands for an end to this war is a challenge that we should all begin to confront, if our other educational reform efforts are not to be frustrated by unjustifiable criminal justice policy and practice.”

As the movement for justice in education grows, divesting from prison profiteers is one of the concrete ways educators can join the call to end mass incarceration. A handful of cities and states, including New York, New Jersey, and California, are already leading the way.

“As a parent and the spouse of an educator in New Jersey,” said Byheijja R. Sabree, a member of the Journey for Justice Alliance, which supported the report, in a statement from AFT. “I was surprised to find out that part of my husband’s pension money was being used to fund the prisons we are desperately trying to keep our children out of. The pension fund in our state just voted to get out of these risky investments, and I know other states are following suit. Pension funds can play a powerful role in holding private prison companies accountable.”

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Reposted from Inequality.org

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Photo from Getty Images

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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