I don’t think this will come as a big shock to anyone who follows this issue: labor unions don’t particularly care for H.R. 4297, the House Republican’s proposal to update/revise the Workforce Investment Act (WIA).
In a blog post last week, just before a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on the bill, the AFL-CIO characterized it as an attempt to “hand over the nation’s publicly-administered job training and workforce development system to the corporate sector.”
In addition, in a letter sent to members of the Committee last week, labor organizations echoed the concerns about program consolidation raised by workforce development advocates like the National Skills Coalition (see NSC’s Executive Director’s testimony from the hearing last week) and from the National Coalition for Literacy.* The letter, signed by 11 union organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association, and SEIU, argues that consolidation would “eliminate the targeting of resources to workers and communities where the needs are greatest” and “make programs more vulnerable to funding cuts and pit one group of workers against another in competition for limited resources.” They go on to argue that “[s]uch consolidation of funding streams will undermine the accountability of the entire WIA system, enabling states to manipulate their resources in a manner that will result in the neglect of populations with the greatest needs.”
The bulk of the letter, however, is focused on the changes the bill would make to the composition of state and local workforce investment boards. According to their letter, H.R. 4297 would impose a new requirement that two-thirds of those board members be selected from the business sector, and it eliminates the mandate that the boards include at least two worker representatives nominated by unions and labor federations. The bill also eliminates the requirement that labor organizations have an opportunity to comment on state and local plans. The letter calls for unions to “be fully represented on WIA boards so that the workers are heard in the decisions that profoundly affect their careers.”
The board composition issue is interesting from an adult literacy perspective. As many of you reading this likely already know, WIA is made up of several different titles. Title I is concerned with the federal job training system (and hence the place where the language around workforce investment board composition is found), and Title I issues tend to dominate discussions about reauthorization. Title II, meanwhile, also known as “Adult Education and Family Literacy Act,” is focused entirely on adult and family literacy, and is typically less controversial (or even discussed). Back in 1998, when WIA was originally authorized, the goal of the law was to create an integrated employment, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation system. Those who advocated for the inclusion of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act in WIA argued that this would encourage more coordination between job training programs and adult education programs. I’ll leave it to others to discuss the degree to which the law has been successful in that regard.
But getting back to the board composition issue: I think it’s safe to say that even if all of the “unified plan” program consolidation language (see my earlier post about this) was taken out of the bill—which would make adult education advocates much happier with it—labor groups would still be strongly opposed to it over the board composition issue, and that makes the prospects for a bipartisan bill much less likely.
In addition—and here is my point, finally—whatever your position is on the composition of workforce investment boards, the wrangling over labor union participation is largely irrelevant to the adult and family literacy programs covered under Title II.
I understand—from both a strategic point of view and as a matter of policy—why the inclusion of adult and family literacy in WIA made sense back in 1998. My point is simply to note that every WIA reauthorization proposal seems to spark big, fundamental disagreements over issues in Title I, and even when our field is handed a bill we can support, we can still be held hostage, legislatively, to those Title I disagreements. Sometimes it feels like being trapped in the back seat of a car while the folks in the front seat argue about how to get it started again.
*The usual disclaimer here: I am a member of NCL’s board of Directors and participate in the development of NCL’s policy positions—but the opinions in this blog are my own.