A robust and vibrant public square is an essential foundation of democracy. It is the place where the important public issues of the day are subject to free and open debate, and where our ideas of what is in the public interest take shape. It is the ground upon which communities and associations are organized to advocate for policies that promote that public interest. It is the site for the provision of essential public goods, from education and healthcare to safety and mass transportation. It is the terrain upon which the centralizing and homogenizing power of both the state and the market are checked and balanced. It is the economic arena with the means to control the market’s tendencies toward polarizing economic inequality and cycles of boom and bust. It is the site of economic opportunity for historically excluded groups such as African-Americans and Latinos.
And yet in America today, the public square is under extraordinary attack. A flood of unregulated, unaccountable money in our politics and media threatens to drown public debate and ravage our civic life, overwhelming authentic conceptions of the public interest. Decades of growing economic inequality menaces the very public institutions with the capacity to promote greater economic and social equality. Unprecedented efforts to privatize essential public goods and public services are underway. Teachers, nurses and other public servants who deliver those public goods are the object of vilification from the political right, and their rights in the workplace are in danger. Legislative and judicial efforts designed to eviscerate public sector unions are ongoing.
In response to these developments, a consortium of seven organizations—the Albert Shanker Institute; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; the American Prospect; Dissent; Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor; and the Service Employees International Union—has organized a to bring together prominent elected officials, public intellectuals, and union, business and civil rights leaders “in defense of the public square.”
Teachers in China are joining other workers in protesting their compensation and working conditions, reports the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights-monitoring and research group founded in Hong Kong in 1994 (CLB’s executive director, Han Dongfang, is a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors).
Throughout the past three months there have been at least 30 strikes by Chinese teachers. In the map below, which is taken from the CLB article, the numbers are strike frequencies. Many of them occurred in smaller cities and higher-poverty inland areas. For example, last month, over 20,000 teachers went on strike in cities and districts surrounding Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.
The article notes that low (and/or unpaid) salaries are a recurrent theme in the protests, but there are a couple of other issues on the table that may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. education policy.
Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum -- ever more narrowly -- to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.
What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been -- so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.
There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality. In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example. In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance.
Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)
If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963. As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War. He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin. Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces. Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.
Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976. He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor. When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support.
“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.
Our guest authors today are Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill. Norman Hill, staff coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, is president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Velma Hill, a former vice president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), is also the former civil and human rights director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They are currently working on a memoir, entitled Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain.
Richard D. Kahlenberg and Moshe Z. Marvit have done a great service by writing Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice, an important work with the potential to become the basis for a strong coalition on behalf of civil rights, racial equality and economic justice.
In the United States, worker rights and civil rights have a deep and historic connection. What is slavery, after all, if not the abuse of worker rights taken to its ultimate extreme? A. Philip Randolph, the founder and president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, recognized this link and, as far back as the 1920s, spoke passionately about the need for a black-labor alliance. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s protégé and an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., joined his mentor as a forceful, early advocate for a black-labor coalition.
Some people have the unfortunate idea that unionism is somehow antithetical to or incompatible with being a professional. This notion is particularly salient within education circles, where phrases like “treat teachers like professionals” are often used as implicit arguments against policies associated with unions, such as salary schedules and tenure (examples here, here, here and here).
Let’s take a quick look at this "conflict," first by examining union membership rates among professionals versus workers in other types of occupations. As shown in the graph below, if union membership and professionalism don’t mix, we have a little problem: Almost one in five professionals is a union member. Actually, union membership is higher among professionals than among any other major occupational category except construction workers.
Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy."
Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed.
The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.
This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.
Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.
The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.
At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.
It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.
There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.
Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.