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  • Bart Simpson: Worker Rights Activist

    by Burnie Bond on October 15, 2010

    If (like me) you’re not a regular viewer of The Simpsons show, you will have missed a controversial new opening sequence created by British graffiti artist Banksy, which aired this past weekend. The segment, which mocks the show for outsourcing much of its animation work through a South Korean company, began to go viral until yesterday, when Fox asking for the video to be pulled from YouTube and other venues (see here).

    The scene begins much like the regular opening, but with "Banksy" scrawled strategically across the town of Springfield. Bart is seen writing punishment lines on the school blackboard, as usual, but this time "I must not write all over the walls" covers every wall of the classroom. The sequence continues almost as usual until we see the family is seated on their couch.

    Suddenly, we shift to a dark, cavernous space where row upon row of sweatshop workers are seen to be laboring hard to produce this image. A small child ferries the film over to a vat of dangerous chemicals. We glimpse kittens being thrown into a woodchipper to make stuffing for Bart Simpson dolls. A shackled panda hauls a wagon loaded with the finished dolls, while a depleted unicorn is used to punch holes in the center of DVDs. The skeletons of expired workers litter the scene. It ends with a shot of the 20th Century Fox logo surrounded by barbed wire.

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  • Privatization's Dark Side

    by Randall Garton on October 14, 2010

    Privatization advocates argue that private sector workers deliver comparable services more cheaply than their public sector counterparts. The truth is that sometimes they can, but very often they can’t. And, as documented by a recently-released General Accountability Office (GAO) study on federal outsourcing, the savings can sometimes come at a very high price, including employees’ lives.

    The GAO reports that contractors have been awarded billions of dollars in federal contracts, despite having histories of federal safety, health and labor law violations. Some of violations have been extensive and serious. One food supplier was cited more than 100 times for health and safety infractions, including one instance in which a worker was "asphyxiated after falling into a pit containing poultry debris." This same employer was later ordered by a federal court to "properly compensate" more than 3,000 workers.

    Another contractor violated fair labor laws when it "coerced employees" and in another incident refused to rehire a worker due to "prior union involvement." This federal contractor has been ordered to pay $4.4 million in back wages to 2,100 employees since FY 2005. It also agreed to pay nearly $300,000 in back wages to African-American workers after a discrimination suit.

    The list goes on and on. GAO auditors found that half of the 50 largest fines levied by the Labor Department between fiscal 2005 and 2009 were aimed at 20 federal contractors. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division which oversees federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and child labor requirements, assessed these contractors for more than $80 million in back wages. Despite these problems, in fiscal 2009, the government awarded these 20 worst companies more than $9 billion in contracts. None lost their right to bid for federal contracts, even temporarily.

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  • Teacher Contracts: The Phantom Menace

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 13, 2010

    In a previous post, I presented a simple tabulation of NAEP scores by whether or not states had binding teacher contracts.  The averages indicate that states without such contracts (which are therefore free of many of the “ill effects” of teachers’ unions) are among the lowest performers in the nation on all four NAEP exams. 

    The post was largely a response to the constant comparisons of U.S. test scores with those of other nations (usually in the form of rankings), which make absolutely no reference to critical cross-national differences, most notably in terms of poverty/inequality (nor to the methodological issues surrounding test score comparisons). Using the same standard by which these comparisons show poor U.S. performance versus other nations, I “proved” that teacher contracts have a positive effect on states’ NAEP scores.

    As I indicated at the end of that post, however, the picture is of course far more complicated. Dozens of factors – many of them unmeasurable – influence test scores, and simple averages mask them all. Still, given the fact that NAEP is arguably the best exam in the U.S. – and is the only one administered to a representative sample of all students across all states (without the selection bias of the SAT/ACT/AP) – it is worth revisiting this issue briefly, using tools that are a bit more sophisticated. If teachers’ contracts are to blame for low performance in the U.S., then when we control for core student characteristics, we should find that the contracts’ presence is associated with lower performance.  Let’s take a quick look.

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  • Narratives To Nowhere

    by Arch Puddington on October 12, 2010

    Our guest author today is Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House.

    I once appeared on a panel on the state of press freedom with a man who had been a reporter with one of America’s prestigious news weeklies. He told of having been on assignment in the Middle East during an especially bloody terrorist atrocity, carried out by Hezbollah, that had killed a number of Americans. When the journalist asked a Hezbollah contact why his group had committed the atrocity, the response was: "You ignored us before we were terrorists; now, after this act, you take us seriously."

    The message that the reporter took from these chilling words was not that the men who made the decisions for Hezbollah were ruthless murderers. Instead, he discovered a measure of wisdom in the terrorist’s rationalization: The Western democracies, and especially the United States, had for too long held sway over how events were interpreted, history was written, and the news was reported. He saw as altogether encouraging the emergence of differing narratives about world events, especially in combustible regions like the Middle East, where the voices and opinions of the victimized had been suppressed for too long.

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  • It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's The Superman Movement!

    by Eugenia Kemble on October 8, 2010

    Yes, it’s the Superman Movement. Most filmmakers must secretly dream of a sequel that is bigger, better, and more important than the original. The makers of Waiting for Superman are apparently no different. "For us, the theatrical release is just the start of social action," says Jim Berk, CEO of the aptly named Participant Media, the studio behind the movie (see here). "When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," confirms Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman.

    In 2009, these leaders decided Participant needed its own organizing arm, so they invented TakePart.com, a website tied to an extensive network of social action websites. TakePart, which constructs a special operation for every film, also offers advice to potential activists on their chosen issues – what to do and how to do it.

    Charter school funders gloated and applauded when an early preview clip of Superman was shown at a Grantmakers for Education (GFE) conference in Baltimore last fall. GFE is made up of a wide array of education funders, ranging from powerhouses like Gates, Broad, and Walton, to community and family foundations of every stripe. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is an active member.) Participant was already drawing the foundation world into Superman’s policy and action orbit, hoping its dollars would follow the movie’s message.

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  • We Interrupt This Message

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 7, 2010

    So, I’m reading an opinion piece by Harold Meyerson in the online edition of yesterday’s Washington Post. Meyerson starts by talking about how teachers’ unions get blamed for everything. All of a sudden, in the middle of the text, right after the second paragraph, the piece is interrupted by the following message:

    (Watch a video of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee discussing the D.C. Public School system.)
    Strange, I thought. Then, right after Meyerson gets going again, criticizing “Waiting for Superman” and hailing the Baltimore teachers’ contract as meaningful progress, I am interrupted yet again:
    (For more opinions on the trouble with America's education system, read Jo-Ann Armao's "Is the public turning against teacher unions?" and a Post editorial "Education jobs bill is motivated by politics.")
    Now I am taken aback. I’m reading this piece defending teachers’ unions, and at two separate points, in the middle of the text, the Post inserts links: one to an editorial implying that the education jobs bill is a gift to teachers’ unions; one to a video of Michelle Rhee; and the third a short article by Armao that is fair but has undertones. Opinions within opinions, it seems.
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  • A Hypocritical World Bows A Little More Deeply to Workers' Rights

    by Randall Garton on October 6, 2010

    What to think? The UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) last week approved by "consensus" the creation of a "Special Rapporteur" on freedom of association and assembly. Special Rapporteurs are empowered to investigate, monitor and recommend solutions to human rights problems. In this instance, the Rapporteur will review members’ compliance with a UN resolution on these fundamental rights.

    The first reaction to this development, of course, must be skepticism, leavened with deep suspicion. The UNHRC’s membership is usually heavily weighted toward nondemocratic states which routinely infringe on citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, including many nations with a majority Muslim population. As a result, the Council, formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has a long record of pursuing any and all human rights allegations against Israel with single-minded fury. So, when such a body, with such a disgraceful record, creates a Special Rapporteur on any subject, it necessarily sends a shiver down the spine.

    Still, it is interesting. What makes the resolution intriguing is that Russia, China, Cuba, and Libya – who love to grandstand at the Council – opposed the Special Rapporteur and "disassociated themselves" from it, though they chose not to upset the "consensus" applecart by calling for a vote. Their objections make interesting reading. To sum up, they are all for freedom of assembly and association (sort of). They just don’t need some UN guy snooping around, raising questions, talking to people, and writing reports. Even worse, if they don't cooperate with the snooper, he’ll write a report about that.

    Well.

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  • Talking About But Not Learning From Finland

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 5, 2010

    Finland’s education system has become an international celebrity. Their remarkable results are being trumpeted, usually in the “What can we learn from them?" context. Yet a lot of the recent discussion about what we can learn – as far as concrete policies – has been rather shallow. 

    Right now, the factoid that is getting the most play is that Finnish teachers come from the “top ten percent” of those entering the labor force, whereas U.S. teachers don’t. But without knowing the reasons behind this difference, this fact is not particularly useful.

    Although there has been some interesting research on these issues (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), I still haven’t really seen a simple comparison of Finnish vs. American policies that can help us understand what they’re doing right (and perhaps what we’re doing wrong). I am not an expert in comparative education, but I have assembled a few quick lists of features and policies. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that we do everything Finland does, and cease doing everything they don’t. It's very difficult to isolate the unique effects of each of these policies. Also, more broadly, Finland is small (less than six million residents), homogeneous, and their welfare state keeps poverty and inequality at one of the lowest levels among all developed nations (the U.S. is among the highest).

    But if we are going to learn anything from the Finnish system, it is important to lay out the concrete differences (I inevitably missed things, so please leave a comment if you have additions).

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  • Performance-Enhancing Teacher Contracts?

    by Matthew Di Carlo on October 1, 2010

    ** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post.

    Please check out our two other posts (here and here), which present summaries and discussions of the actual evidence on the relationship between unions and test scores.

    For years, some people have been determined to blame teachers’ unions for all that ails public education in America. This issue has been around a long time (see here and here), but, given the tenor of the current debate, it seems to bear rehashing.  According to this view, teachers unions negatively affect student achievement primarily through the mechanism of the collective bargaining agreement, or contract. These contracts are thought to include “harmful” provisions, such as seniority-based layoffs and unified salary schedules that give raises based on experience and education rather than performance.

    But a fairly large proportion of public school teachers are not covered under legally-binding contracts.  In fact, there are ten states in which there are no legally binding K-12 teacher contracts at all (AL, AZ, AR, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TX, and VA). Districts in a few of these states have entered into what are called “meet and confer” agreements about salary, benefits, and other working conditions, but administrators have the right to break these agreements at will. For all intents and purposes, these states are free of many of the alleged “negative union effects."

    Here’s a simple proposition: If teacher union contracts are the problem, then we should expect to see higher achievement outcomes in the ten states where there are no binding teacher contracts.

    So, let’s take a quick look at how states with no contracts compare with the states that have them.

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  • Walmart To South Africa?

    by Randall Garton on September 29, 2010

    South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company.  Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa

    "We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."

    Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:

    We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law. 
    The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
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