“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.
As you probably already know, yesterday was spring election day in Wisconsin. With a margin just about as slim as it gets (about 200 votes) in the race for State Supreme Court Justice (and a recount looming), it seems that the Democratic candidate, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has beaten her opponent, Republican Justice David Prosser.
No matter how the recount turns out, it was a stunning outcome. Kloppenburg was a virtual unknown, facing a long-time incumbent who had bested her by 30 points in the Feb. 15 primaries. Her victory seemed virtually impossible.
Equally amazing was yesterday’s turnout. Although the final certified ballot count will no doubt be a bit different, roughly 1.48 million Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their votes. Now, turnout in spring elections is notoriously low, and the one and a half million voters represents only about 36 percent of the voting-eligible population.
But, as always, we should put this figure in context.
The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.
Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.
We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:
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.
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.