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  • Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

    Written on July 7, 2011

    A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

    It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

    In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

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  • The Un-American Foundations Of Our Education Debate

    Written on April 21, 2011

    Being from Spain, one of the first things that struck me as odd about the U.S. education debate was the ubiquitous depiction of “bad teachers” as the villains of education and “great teachers” as its saviors. Aside from the fact that this view is simplistic, the punish/praise-teachers chorus seemed particularly off-key—but I wasn’t sure why. I think I may have figured it out. I think that it may be un-American.

    Let me explain. This is a nation that is supposed to be built around specific core values, such as individual effort, hard work, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions. If so, isn’t the fixation on teachers—to the seeming exclusion of students and parents—an indirect rejection of basic American principles?

    This is not a discussion of what the good/bad teacher doctrine misses —we know it misses numerous dimensions of the education enterprise—but rather, what this doctrine assumes and how these assumptions conflict with the values that one expects most Americans to hold.

    One problem with the narrow focus on teachers is that it views students exclusively as passive recipients of their own learning. Not to get too technical here, this goes back to a central question in the social sciences: namely, agency versus structure. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own choices. Structure refers to the conditions that shape and perhaps limit the range of alternative choices that are available. Western culture tends to favor agency over structure as an explanation for actions, a view which one would think would run particularly deep in the U.S.

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  • Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

    Written on March 18, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

    The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.

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  • Fundamental Rights At Work

    Written on March 11, 2011

    As Wisconsin public employees reorganize for a long fight in the wake of the state GOP’s "midnight strike" at collective bargaining rights, it brought to my mind one of guest blogger Heba El-Shazli’s posts on Egypt. In it, she notes that Egypt’s new, independent unions are demanding reformed labor laws that incorporate the International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

    For many people, this reference probably begs the question: What the heck is actually in the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work?  The startlingly intense loathing of collective bargaining rights by Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin GOP, and their supporters, is incentive enough to elaborate on this document.  

    Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits ILO members " to respect and promote workers’ rights and principles”  in four categories:  freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced or compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to employment and occupation. These are the “core” principles of the ILO, and are incorporated into its "conventions" – an expression of the ILO labor standards. This is the heart of this venerable, tripartite organization, in which business, labor, and government representatives share a place at the table.

    These conventions are not simply some amorphous “rights” dreamed up by union leaders. They are well-established international law, approved and reviewed by employers, unions, and government representatives.

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  • An Update From The Independent Labor Movement In Egypt

    Written on March 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    The revolution in Egypt has unleashed a torrent of pent up frustration and protest from Egyptian workers in all walks of life. For weeks, beginning the day after former President Hosni Mubarak resigned, workers have taken to the streets to demand respect for basic worker rights and democratic principles. Their grievances are fundamental and share much in common with their U.S. counterparts now protesting in Wisconsin and elsewhere: the right to bargain collectively with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Egyptian workers have been protesting at many worksites all over the country:

    • More than 6,000 teachers protested in front of the Education Administration building in the governorate (state) of Qena in Upper Egypt.  A majority of teachers are now working under temporary contracts without benefits. Teachers are calling for the end of these temporary contracts that cheapen their profession and cause much professional insecurity. 
    • Hundreds of workers from the iron and steel factory who were hired as “temporary contractual” workers demanded payment of three months’ worth of overtime and other benefits, and an end to their “temporary” status.

    The never-ending “temporary contract” is a tactic to weaken workers’ rights, which  has been widely used in both the Egyptian public and private sectors. In response to teacher protests, the new Education Minister did announce on Feb. 28 that the teachers who had been working under temporary contracts for more than three years will be made permanent as long as they are able to pass the teacher proficiency tests, which the Ministry will administer on March 25.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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  • Bahrain: Workers Lead The Way

    Written on February 25, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Bahrain has been rocked by turmoil since Feb. 14 – with protesters calling for political reforms from Pearl Square’s "towering monument of a pearl," in the heart of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. It is the country’s Tahrir Square, its own seat of Liberation. In contrast to Egypt, though, Bahrain’s path to freedom been slower and more violent. On Feb. 17, the government brutally attacked protesters, killing four and injuring dozens. The next day, security forces opened fire on a crowd of thousands marching in funeral processions for the previous day’s victims.

    In the midst of this chaos, a young and independent Bahraini labor movement is finding its voice. In response to the government’s violence, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), with a membership of 66 unions – around 25% of the workforce – threatened a general strike if the government did not back off, start talking to demonstrators, and permit peaceful protest to continue.

    And the government backed off.

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  • A Very Happy Egyptian-American

    Written on February 11, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Today is a great day! A Glorious Day! A day of rejoicing, of celebration, of jubilation, and of so much more than words can describe! Today, Mubarak resigned and Egypt is now in the hands of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces  under the leadership of the Field Marshall Tanatawy. This is a new dawn for a New Democratic Egypt.  This is a revolution that began peacefully on 25 January, and which galvanized all Egyptians from all social classes, men and women. What a message is being sent to everyone all over the world and especially in the Middle East – a message that political change can be achieved by the people and peacefully.

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  • Name: Egyptian ... Address: Tahrir Square

    Written on February 8, 2011

    Our guest author today, writing from Cairo, is Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS), who last year accepted the AFL-CIO’s 2009 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Egypt’s independent labor movement. The article is reprinted, with permission.

    Now, I am proud to be Egyptian. I can sit in the evening among my children and grandchildren and tell them the story of the revolution; the story of boys and girls who refused the injustice and tyranny under which we have lived for years and years. I will tell them the story of Mohamed and Boulis [Peter]: the two boys who stood one against the other, each of whom hates and wants to destroy the other ... I will tell them how Boulis and Mohamed stood shoulder to shoulder confronting tyranny. I will tell them how Muslims protected churches against the violence of the regime’s thugs and how Christians guarded Muslims while they performed their prayers in Tahrir [Liberation] Square.

    I will tell them that I have no explanation except that this infamous regime made us reveal our worst part. I will tell my children and grandchildren how thousands, or rather tens of thousands, including young and very beautiful girls demonstrated and that those beautiful girls were not harassed. I will tell them that young males used to listen to the speeches of young females and received orders from them to keep order during the sit-in.

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  • Egypt In Crisis: Independent Unions Emerge As Leaders

    Written on February 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own. This is the first of several posts on events in Egypt.

    January 25, 2011 was the beginning of a peoples’ revolt in Egypt, a revolt whose outcome is still unclear. What is clear is that, after a smothering 30-year rule, Egyptians have broken the stifling collar of oppression to demonstrate for democracy and freedom. Also at issue are the corruption, high unemployment rates, inflation, and low minimum wages that impoverish even the hardest working, most educated people.

    All of this has become fairly well known to Americans over recent days. What is far less known is the role of the small, repressed independent Egyptian labor movement in keeping Egyptian hopes and spirits alive. On January 30, in the middle of Tahrir Square, those workers and their representatives announced the formation of the new "Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation."

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