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  • Teacher Insurgency: What Are The Strategic Challenges?

    Written on February 13, 2019

    The following post was the basis for a talk by Leo Casey, the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, which was delivered at “The Future of American Labor” conference held February 8th and 9th in Washington, D.C. 

    There is every reason to celebrate the “Teacher Spring” strikes of 2018 and the more recent strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago’s charter schools. They provide ample evidence that American teachers will not acquiesce to the evisceration of public education, to the dismantling of their unions and to the impoverishment of the teaching profession. A powerful new working class movement is taking shape, with American teachers in the lead. But to sustain the momentum of this movement and to build upon it, we must not only celebrate, but also reflect and think strategically – we must address the strategic challenges this movement now faces. 

    Today, I want to focus on two strategic questions posed by this “Teacher Insurgency:”

    • First, how mobilization differs from organization, the changing relationship between the two and what that means for our work; and
    • Second, the relationship between protest, direct action and strikes, on the one hand, and the struggle for political power, focused on elections, on the other, as well as the role both play in our work.

    At the outset, I want to be clear that my approach is a broad one, viewing the current movement not only through the lens of labor history and working class struggles, but also as part of the history of protest movements as a whole, with a particular emphasis on the civil rights movement. There are many reasons for this approach, but one particularly compelling reason lies in the intimate connections between the civil rights movement and America’s public sector unions, including teacher unions. We know, of course, that Martin Luther King was an ardent supporter of the labor movement, and was assassinated in Memphis while he was organizing support for striking sanitation workers in an AFSCME local, and that A. Philip Randolph was both a labor leader and a civil rights leader. But what is perhaps less understood is that the leaders of the teacher unions and public sector unions in the 1960s, the period during which they became established, formidable forces, were often veterans of the civil rights movement. And most of these leaders drew upon their experiences as civil rights activists as they organized their unions.

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  • Where Al Shanker Stood: Labor Law Reform

    Written on April 11, 2018

    This month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was working in support of the union rights of striking African American sanitation workers. We thought it was an opportune time to reprint this July 17, 1977 piece, in which Al Shanker turned over his weekly column to his friend and mentor Bayard Rustin, advisor to King on nonviolent protest strategies, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and founding president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    The nation's labor laws need to be reformed to give workers a fair chance to organize. Enlightened opinion has long recognized that unions are essential if workers are to have any hope of dealing on an equal basis with their employers.

    The nation's basic labor relations policy was expressed in the Wagner Act of 1935 as "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and "protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization and designation of representatives of their own choosing." The Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin amendments to the Wagner Act undermined those principles by creating an imbalance in favor of employers.

    Although companies no longer employ the brutal anti-union methods of the past, many have adopted a sophisticated arsenal of devices -- legal, illegal, and extralegal -- to interfere with and frustrate the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

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  • Domino Effect: The AFL-CIO And The End Of Communism

    Written on June 15, 2017

    Our guest author today is Paweł Zyzak, an award-winning Polish historian, civic activist, and currently an advisor to the Polish Investment and Trade Agency. The following is drawn from a recent talk about his new book, Efekt Domina: Czy Ameryka Obaliła Komunizm w Polsce? (Domino Effect: Did the United States of America Overthrow Communism?).

    Surprisingly, the Polish publishing industry has very few works on the topic of Washington’s policies towards communist Poland. There are a few reprints of books by American authors dealing with Polish issues, but these are hardly Polish experts and they focus on secondary issues, such as John Paul II’s cooperation with Ronald Reagan or the CIA’s support for Solidarity, which is in fact hard to trace. Or, for example, Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), in which Greg Domber tells mainly an official version of the Reagan Administration.

    Thus, mine is the first history published in Poland to recognize the American labor movement and the American anti-communist Left as having a rightful place in bringing about the Polish transition from communism. Thanks to a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, I was able to reach all available American archives and historical witnesses, as well as articles and studies on the AFL-CIO’s activities and the American government’s policies towards Poland. And thus my book, which one might say is a “missing link,” deals with not only Poland’s modern history, but America’s as well.

    Poland was indeed an element in the political strategy of the Reagan administration as part of the destabilization of the Soviet empire (at least during President Reagan’s first term), but the title of my book (Efekt Domina) recognizes that it was the AFL-CIO‘s leadership that argued Poland was the place from which the domino effect leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc would originate. And it was the AFL-CIO leadership that actually had the decisive impact in bringing that about.

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  • Thinking About A Third Category Of Work In The Trump Years

    Written on February 14, 2017

    Our guest author today is Benjamin Sachs, the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School. This post, originally published at OnLabor, is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    During the last few years of the Obama Presidency, we saw a productive debate over the question of whether changes in the organization of work called for a new legal categorization of workers. In particular, the question was whether we need a third category, intermediate between “employee” and “independent contractor,” to capture the kinds of work arrangements typified by gig economy firms like Uber. Seth Harris and Alan Krueger, in a leading example, called for the creation of a legal category they named “independent worker,” which would grant some – but not all – protections of employment law to workers engaged in these types of work relationships.

    There were several primary points of contention in the debate. One was whether such a third category actually was necessary, or whether the existing categories of employee and independent contractor were flexible and capacious enough to capture the new work relationships. Harris and Krueger took one position on this question, I took another.

    A second question was whether a third category would result in ‘leveling up’ or ‘leveling down.’ One hypothesis was that if we created a new category – independent worker or something similar – workers previously classified as independent contractors would be shifted up (as it were) into the new category and thus granted expanded protections relative to what they enjoyed as contractors. The other hypothesis, the more pessimistic one, was that workers previously classified as employees would be shifted down into the new category and thus offered fewer protections relative to what they enjoyed as employees.

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  • The Future Of Worker Voice And Power

    Written on January 30, 2017

    Our guest author today is David Madland, Senior Fellow and the Senior Adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    My goal is to provide a long-term vision of how we can address the fundamental economic and democratic challenges faced by our country, as well as to discuss some realistic steps for state and local governments to take to move us toward this vision.

    Today’s economy does not work very well for most people. Wages have been stagnant for decades and inequality is near record highs. Many voters blame politicians for these problems – for doing the bidding of CEOs while leaving workers with too little power to get their fair share.  Voter anger and the politicians fortified by it have put our democracy in real trouble.

    There are of numerous reforms necessary to ensure that workers have sufficient power to raise wages, reduce inequality, and make democracy work for all Americans – including those that reduce the influence of money in politics and that promote full employment.  But among the most important reforms are those that give workers a way to band together and have a strong collective voice.  Collective voice enables workers to negotiate with CEOs on a relatively even footing and to hold politicians accountable.  When workers have a strong collective voice, not only can they increase their own wages, but also improve labor standards across the economy and provide a key counterbalance to wealthy special interests, making politicians more responsive to the concerns of ordinary Americans. 

    But we need new and better ways for workers to achieve that strong collective voice.  Fewer than 7 percent of workers in the private sector are members of a union – meaning that 93 percent are left out of the current system.

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  • Contingent Faculty At U.S. Colleges And Universities

    Written on September 9, 2016

    In a previous post, we discussed the prevalence of and trends in alternative employment arrangements, sometimes called “contingent work,” in the U.S. labor market. Contingent work is jobs with employment arrangements other than the “traditional” full-time model, including workers with temporary contracts, independent contractors, day laborers, and part-time employees.

    Depending on how one defines this group of workers, who are a diverse group but tend to enjoy less job stability and lower compensation, they comprise anywhere between 10 and 40 percent of the U.S. workforce, and this share increased moderately between 2000 and 2010. Of course, how many contingents there are, and how this has changed over time, varies quite drastically by industry, as well as by occupation. For example, in 1990, around 28 percent of staffing services employees (sometimes called “temps”) worked in blue collar positions, while 42 percent had office jobs. By 2009, these proportions had reversed, with 41 percent of temps in blue collar jobs and 23 percent doing office work. This is a pretty striking change.

    Another industry/occupation in which there has been significant short term change in the contingent work share is among faculty and instructors in higher education institutions.

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  • Perceived Job Security Among Full Time U.S. Workers

    Written on August 18, 2016

    In a previous post, we discussed some recent data on contingent work or alternative employment relationships – those that are different from standard full time jobs, including temporary help, day labor, independent contracting, and part time jobs. The prevalence of and trends in contingent work vary widely depending on which types of arrangements one includes in the definition, but most of them are characterized by less security (and inferior wages and benefits) relative to “traditional” full time employment.

    The rise of contingent work is often presented as a sign of deteriorating conditions for workers (see the post mentioned above for more discussion of this claim). Needless to say, however, unemployment insecurity characterizes many jobs with "traditional" arrangements -- sometimes called precarious work -- which of course implies that contingent work is an incomplete conceptualization of the lack of stability that is its core feature.

    One interesting way to examine job security is in terms of workers’ views of their own employment situations. In other words, how many workers perceive their jobs as insecure, and how has this changed over time? Perceived job security not only serves as a highly incomplete and imperfect indicator of “real” job security, but it also affects several meaningful non-employment outcomes related to well being, including health (e.g., Burgard et al. 2009). We might take a very quick look at perceived job security using data from the General Social Survey (GSS) between 1977 and 2014.

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  • Why We Defend The Public Square

    Written on May 7, 2015

    The following are the texts of the two speeches from the opening session of our recent two-day conference, “In Defense of the Public Square,” which was held on May 1-2 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The introduction was delivered by Leo Casey and the keynote address was delivered by Randi Weingarten. The video of the full event will be available soon here.

    Remarks by Leo Casey

    We meet here today in “defense of the public square.”

    The public square is the place where Americans come together as a people and establish common goals in pursuit of our common good.

    The public square is the place where Americans – in all of our rich diversity – promote the general welfare, achieving as a community what we never could do as private individuals.

    The public square is the place where Americans weave together our ideal of political equality and our solidarity with community in a democratic political culture, as de Tocqueville saw so well.

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  • ‘A Single Garment Of Destiny’ For American And Bangladeshi Workers

    Written on May 2, 2013

    “Injustice anywhere," Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."

    Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny."

    In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.

    Neither of these terrible events was “an accident." In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable.

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  • Bart Simpson: Worker Rights Activist

    Written 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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