Worker Rights

  • The Institute sponsors seminars, discussions and publications that focus on free trade unions as the expression of the fundamental right of freedom of association--a right guaranteed in all major international human rights conventions and essential to the health and well being of democracy as well as the stability and equitable growth of the economy.

    These rights have been eroded in every region of the world, partly as a result of economic changes flowing from globalization, most prominently the emergence over the past four decades of globalized finance capital that has weakened business ties to local and national economies. This development has greatly diminished the leverage that workers and their organizations have with relation to employers. One of the results has been a massive redistribution of wealth to the top tiers of society, and the deep weakening of independent, free labor movements. The Institute's programs explore this phenomenon in research, publications and sponsored events, from three-person panel discussions to international conferences.

  • Let’s Celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week by Acknowledging and Repairing A VERY Broken System

    Each May, as the school year winds down, districts across the country will soon celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. In previous years, receiving doughnuts, gift cards, and T-shirts was a nice way to end the school year. One could even laugh at the less than stellar tokens of appreciation, like the mini box of raisins with a sticker that exclaimed “thank you for ‘raisin’ student achievement.” But, amid COVID-19 and a host of new challenges that are facing educators, this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week may function as a going away party for many teachers who will soon leave the profession.

    That unfortunate reality of rising teacher burnout has serious consequences across the education system and requires greater attention to reverse this alarming trend. To put a number on this problem, a recent report found that 55% of teachers will leave the profession sooner than they had planned, and a staggering 90% are suffering from burnout (Kamenetz, 2022). I am one of these statistics. After years of suffering from burnout, I finally hit my breaking point — a persistent eye twitch induced by stress — and left the profession. After walking out of my classroom, I raced straight ahead to do as much research as possible on teacher burnout because I love the profession, and I know we must improve it for educators. 

  • Sidney Hillman’s Legacy: Honoring a Free Press, Advancing Workers’ Rights

    Guest author Harold Meyerson, editor at large of The American Prospect, a former op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, a longtime judge of the Hillman Awards and a Shanker Institute Board Member, reminds us on Press Freedom Day that a free press and a powerful workers’ movement are two necessary components of a vibrant democracy.

    This evening in New York, a number of journalists, union activists and kindred progressives will come together for the annual presentation of the Sidney Hillman Prizes, which for the past 72 years have been awarded to journalists who, as the Hillman Foundation puts it, “pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.” The Foundation bestows its awards in a number of categories: book, newspaper, magazine, broadcast and web, and this year, received more than 500 entries from which the judges chose the winners.

    Unlike virtually every other journalism award contest, there’s no fee for submitting an entry. There is, in fact, a long tradition of Hillman exceptionalism, beginning with the fact that the awards and the foundation were created by a union. Sidney Hillman was the longtime president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the co-founder (with John L. Lewis) of the CIO, a lifelong champion of social unionism (to which the union’s construction of housing for New York’s clothing workers attests), and the labor leader who was closest to Franklin Roosevelt. When he died in 1946, the union began considering how best they could honor him. What they came up with was a foundation that would award journalism “in service of the common good,” a foundation that the union and its successors funded well into the current century.

  • Will Inflation Break the News? A Press Freedom Question

    NATIONAL PRESS FREEDOM DAY

    Next Tuesday, May 3, is National Press Freedom Day. I thought of that, and what a free press should mean, when I read Will Inflation Break the News? by David Dayen in the American Prospect. In this piece Mr. Dayen points out that, while inflation is causing people to cancel their subscriptions to streaming services, there is a more disturbing story behind The Great Cancellation, as it has (of course) been called. Over time, as more and more professional news publications find themselves behind a paywall, we’ve made access to our free press more exclusive and more vulnerable to the same economic factors that cause us to rethink paying for Disney+. More paywalls being constructed around professional journalism means more constricted access to that celebrated free press we cherish. At first glance, as Mr. Dayen points out, professional journalists can move to Substack to create their own revenue streams that support them to stay in the profession they love. Like the inflation question, does gigifying a free press save it? Is more high-quality journalism behind a paywall representative of a free press, especially as growing social media sites welcome unregulated and sometimes dangerous ideas?

    As you read David Dayen’s piece below, reposted here with permission of The American Prospect, ask yourself what a free press means to you and should mean to all of us. He offers solutions at the end, ideas to save a truly free press. He tempers it by admitting he may be biased as a career journalist himself. I don’t share his bias. I am a classroom teacher by training. In my teacher leadership career I have felt the sting of feeling mis-quoted, the ire at not being called for a response, and even the embarrassment of not being relevant to a story I felt was central to my work. Notwithstanding my vainest moments with the press, I agree that a thriving free press is vital to a thriving democracy. Both deserve our efforts to save them.

    Mary Cathryn Ricker

  • Strikesgiving

    October has ended with Scranton educators and Las Cruces bus drivers announcing job actions, along with the on-going strikes of miners in Alabama, nurses in Worcester, MA, hospital workers in Buffalo, NY, 10,000 John Deere workers and  Kelloggs’ workers, but #Striketober is far from over. But we both see this optimistically.

    Certainly these are labor disputes, however, seen in contrast to all the news around The Great Resignation (also known as The Big Quit), these workers are actually demonstrating an enduring commitment to their work via their united voice. These workers have had every opportunity to walk away from their work permanently, like those who have done so amidst the Great Resignation. However, they are using their collective agency to commit to their jobs by telling their employers (after trying every other way of making their point) how to be a place that will retain them and how to make their workplaces better. These workers are so committed to their work that they are willing to strike to get their employers’ attention, and to make their work bearable so they don’t have to quit. They are walking out rather than walking away and by doing so, giving their employers the opportunity not to be another Big Quit statistic.

    At 6 percent, U.S. private sector collective bargaining is near the bottom of the world’s democracies. In part the quit rate celebrated in the media is directly connected to the slugfest with employers that workers must endure in order to organize and bargain. Passage of the PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act and further reforms would help, along with increasing union support for the organizing upsurge now evident across the private sector.

  • Amazon Workers: The Struggle For Human Rights And Workplace Dignity

    Our guest authors today are Norman and Velma Hill, lifelong activists in the Civil Rights and Labor movements. Norman Hill served as the president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1980 to 2004, the longest tenure in the organization’s history. He remains its president emeritus. His wife of 60 years, Velma Murphy Hill, was an assistant to the president of the United Federation of Teachers, during which time she led a successful effort to organize 10,000 paraprofessionals working in New York public schools.  She was subsequently International Affairs and Civil Rights Director of the Service Employees International Union.

    One of the most gratifying aspects of living a long life is realizing that the best history refuses to stay put as history. Nearly 60 years ago, we stood among the quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial as civil rights activists and organizers of the monumental 1963 March on Washington.

    What many may need to be reminded of today is that this demonstration of soaring speeches, righteous demands, and the power of broad-based and racially diverse coalitions, were as much about the second decade of the 21st century as they were about the midpoint of the 20th.

    The movement’s leadership, characterized in iconic figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Ruether of the United Automobile Workers union, and A. Philip Randolph, himself a storied labor leader, could not then specifically see a behemoth employer called Amazon, or a valiant struggle of thousands of its warehouse workers in north-central Alabama. But men and women like King, Ruether and Randolph could see, with crystal clarity, the inextricable binding of economic insecurity with the most persistent, virulent forms of racial discrimination and disparities of justice and opportunity. They understood, as we do, that free and independent labor unions are essential to this nation’s democratic society.

  • Strikes And Power: Reflections On The "Black Lives Matter" Strike Of NBA Players

    The NBA players "Black Lives Matter" strike has been criticized by some on the left, suggesting that the "radical action" of the players was co-opted by the "neo-liberal" Barack Obama, much of it riffing off the discussions described in this article. This criticism makes me wonder about the depth of understanding of how strikes and collective action operate. And behind that lack of understanding are some naïve conceptions of power—what it is, of how it is built, and how it can be used.

    Strikes are one form of collective action, an organized withdrawal of labor. The strike is designed to generate leverage that can compel action on the part of other actors—almost always, an employer. (Strikes can also be against the government, but most often they are against the government as employer—think of the Teacher Spring Strikes or safety strikes against government compelling teachers to provide in-person education in unsafe conditions.) Consequently, strikes almost always come with specific demands, and the leverage they generate is used to achieve as much of those demands as is feasible.

    Strikes can have a symbolic component, an assertion of dignity by the strikers. Think, for example, of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, with the famous picket sign "I Am A Man." (Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting that strike.) The most powerful strikes have this component. But the symbolic component of a strike does not exist on its own: it rests on the foundation of the actual demands. In the case of the Memphis sanitation strike, the demands about the terms and conditions of work gave meaning and content to the assertion of dignity. Once this symbolic statement has been made, a decision to remain on strike should be based on what can be done to create maximum leverage and win as much of the demands as possible.

  • The Early Years Of The New York City Teachers Union

    New York Citys Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP) has published an appeal to grant protected landmark status to the “12-story Beaux Arts style office building” at 70 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building was built in 1912 for George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher of education textbooks, a collector of rare books, a philanthropist and a peace activist. For many years, the GVSHP tells us, the building was a haven for radicals and liberals.” I immediately recognized the address as that of the offices of the New York City Teachers Union (TU) for two decades. There is an intriguing story behind that address and the Teachers Union, and it provides a revealing window into the political history of early teacher unionism.

    In the same year as 70 Fifth Avenue was built, Henry Linville and a small number of New York City teacher comrades launched a publication, The American Teacher, to report on the economic and professional status of the educator workforce and the politics of American public education. Linville was a biology teacher of some note with a Ph.D. from Harvard; one can still find copies of influential science textbooks he authored. He was a democratic socialist and pacifist who had a particularly close relationship with Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party. The two worked together in an unsuccessful effort to oppose American involvement in World War I.

    In the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization between British and American leftists, with London and New York as the two intellectual centers in this exchange of ideas. From the Womens Trade Union League and the settlement house movement to Fabian Society proposals for reform and the idea of labor party, from anti-imperialist support of Irish and Indian independence to militant suffragist tactics and campaigns for birth control, sex education and the decriminalization of gay sex, New Yorkers often drew inspiration from their British counterparts. The American Teacher followed the development of the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, and New York teachers on the left increasingly looked to it as a model of what could be done in the United States.

  • The Size And Legitimacy Of Gender And Motherhood Pay Gaps In Cross-National Perspective

    Gender pay gaps receive due attention in high quality academic (e.g., England 2005) and non-academic research worldwide (e.g., IWPROECD), as well as in the media. It is often overlooked, however, that the size of the gap (and the gender difference in other labor market outcomes, such as career interruptions and their length) varies by job characteristics, such as occupational status, as well as by individual characteristics, such as age and, as discussed below, parenthood status. 

    The existence of wage cuts incurred by working mothers across countries and welfare regimes (henceforth “motherhood penalties”) is a well established, albeit not always well understood, phenomenon (e.g., Budig et al. 2016Abendroth et al. 2014). In Poland, for example, there is a common misconception that mothers do not incur such penalties. One major reason for this is that OECD reports systematically show that Poland has one of the smallest gender pay gaps (GPGs) among all OECD nations. This leads many to infer that, since the gaps are small, there must not be motherhood penalties. 

    The problem is that these data do not control for important productivity characteristics, such as education, working hours, and experience. For example, in Poland (and elsewhere), women are better educated than men, which means that simple unadjusted estimates would understate gender pay gaps. The simple approaches are also misleading insofar as they do not control for occupational prestige, job complexity, and income. Studies conducted in the U.S., for example, show that the size of the gender pay gap is correlated with these variables (England et al. 2016). That is, women in high prestige, more demanding, and better-paying jobs experience higher penalties, especially when they become mothers, than women in low and medium level occupations. 

    So, is the situation in Poland as rosy as the OECD estimates make it out to be?