Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for October, 2012

On Both Sides of the Border, Teachers Fight Corporatization

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.

Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radioUSA TodayMcClatchythe Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.

A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.

The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.

Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.

In both Mexico and the United States, schools are an ideological battleground. Corporate-minded school-reform groups such as Mexicanos Primero and Students First promote curbing teachers’ unionstiering their pay schemes, and running schools more like businesses in an educational “marketplace.”

To suggest that unions are primarily driving Mexico’s educational challenges is to echo the corporate reformers in the U.S. that pit “unions” against “reform”. This myopic mentality misses the fact that educational policy reflects the priorities of the political class while silencing communities and thus masking the underlying crises that affect educational achievement.

In fact, rank-and-file teachers are often at the helm of movements for real educational equity. Dissident members of SNTE, known as Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), have actively challenged authoritarian union officials, and at the same time resisted hardline reforms they see as corrosive to a democratic, broad-based education. They’ve also mobilized against sweeping new neoliberal labor legislation.

Reporting on teacher protests last year in Oaxaca (the site of a mass uprising in 2006) Dan LaBotz noted that the dissident educators demonstrated not only against education authorities’ plans to impose a controversial national exam system, but also against Gordillo’s rule:

Teachers blockaded government offices and private companies, closed major intersections, and “liberated” the toll booths on the privately owned highway to Mexico City. They also attempted to shut down the airport….

The Oaxaca teachers are making no new wage demands. They insist, however, that the Oaxaca state government install computers in all elementary schools and pay the schools’ electric bills. According to union spokespeople utility bills are currently paid by parents.

In a statement on CNTE’s blog posted in August, the group called the reform agenda an assault on the government’s obligation to provide free basic public education. Also the CNTE calls the standardized testing system “an insult to the economic, cultural and social development of our country because [of] deepened inequality of schools, students and teachers.”

Marco Fernandez, an education scholar who has written on education and union reform, says that dissident-led strikes and protests hurt more than help. “I cannot see how the teachers’ absenteeism and strikes [will lead to] the quality of education that a kid needs… for eventually getting a good job,” he says. When labor disputes lead to disruptive actions that upend schooling and testing, he argues, “The ones that in the long run pay the consequences are the kids. And this is a tragedy.”

Yet some see corruption baked into the core of education policy. Educational researcher Manuel Gil-Antón of the College of Mexico, publicly warned that authorities might aggravate persistent educational inequities and that the official reforms might lead to “manipulating the data and an unjustified triumphalism.”

Longtime labor journalist David Bacon, who has tracked cross-border solidarity movements, tells Working In These Times that in the school reform debate in Mexico, as in the U.S., tends to zero in on teachers while ignoring deeper social deficits; one key problem is simply that schools are deeply underresourced and many families simply can’t afford education. In the long run, he says, “These are social problems that you can’t cure with an educational system… You need a fundamental social change in Mexico, a part of which would be making everybody literate. But you can’t make everybody literate in the absence of other changes that are gonna happen in their lives.”

Bacon sees teachers not only as political actors, but bearers of a progressive tradition in Mexico:

If you go into little towns in Mexico out in the countryside, teachers are community leaders… in very large part, they are also the repositories of progressive values and ideas. So if you talk to Mexican workers, people will use words like “capitalism,” and “the working class,” and even “socialism,” and it’s because there are teachers who are giving this understanding to their students.

While many Americans may write off Mexico and its schools as “Third World” bastions of corruption, teachers’ resistance to neoliberal reforms is a striking parallel to the school labor dramas in Chicago and across the United States. Maybe rank-and-file educators in Oaxaca and Chicago can exchange best practices on how to take their fights outside the classroom and bring a lesson in solidarity to the streets.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 11, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Social Security COLA at Risk with Chained CPI Proposals

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Today’s announcement that Social Security recipients will receive a modest increase (1.7%) in their cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) was a small but welcome boost for seniors who are seeing prices increase on necessities, from health care to food. However, even this modest increase could be jeopardized if proposals floating around in Washington to “tweak” the current COLA formula by tying it to the so-called “chained CPI” are passed.

Senior advocates and retirement experts say the current formula, the CPI-W, is already inadequate. Higher health care costs and expenses seniors face are not accurately addressed in the CPI-W.

The Alliance for Retired Americans Executive Director Edward Coyle says:

The current formula, used for today’s announcement, already badly understates the inflation experienced by seniors and disabled Americans, who make up the majority of Social Security beneficiaries. However, the change some in Congress want would exacerbate this flaw in a way that is particularly damaging for women who, because of their greater life expectancy, receive benefits over a longer period of time.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare says:

The typical 65-year-old, who filed for benefits at 62, would lose about $130 per year in benefits. By the time that senior reaches 95, the annual benefit cut will be almost $1,400, which is a 9.2 percent cut.

The AFL-CIO, along with the Strengthen Social Security coalition, sent a letter to Congress today expressing its opposition to the chained CPI:

The purpose of an inflation adjustment is to ensure that the value of Social Security and other modest but vital benefits does not erode over time. The proposal to switch to the chained CPI would, over time, slash the benefits of both current and future beneficiaries. Specifically, it would cut the basic benefit—currently averaging a modest $13,500 for all beneficiaries—and break the bipartisan promise not to cut the benefits of current seniors.

Although some in Congress may say this is a modest tweak or a change to more accurately reflect inflation, nothing could be further from the truth.

A chained CPI means cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits.

Says the Strengthen Social Security coalition:

One of the most problematic aspects of the chained CPI is that the cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits – meaning that the chained CPI would disproportionately hurt many women, veterans, people with disabilities, and others. For example, veterans wounded in combat and others disabled at young ages would be disproportionately hurt. Seniors, especially women, who live long lives would also be hurt disproportionately.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council supports an across-the-board increase in Social Security benefits.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 16, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

Judge Rips Up Union Contracts for Twinkie Makers

Monday, October 15th, 2012

A bankruptcy judge turned the screws even tighter on workers at Hostess Brands last week, giving corporate managers the right to unilaterally cut wages and benefits for the thousands of men and women who make the Twinkies, Wonder Bread and other baked goods that have made the company famous.

Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, N.Y., handed down his sentence against the workers on October 4. His action was intended to force other unions to follow the lead of the Teamsters union, which reluctantly acquiesced to draconian contract cuts at Hostess last month.

The decision endangers the livelihoods of thousands of workers at Hostess, including about 5,000 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), some 200 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and smaller groups of workers represented by four other unions.

BCTGM members are being indirectly punished for a rank-and-file vote last month in which they rejected a draconian contract offer that would eliminate jobs, cut wages, slash benefits and end pensions. BCTGM President Frank Hurt announced in mid-September that 92 percent of union members had voted against the offer in local union meetings held across the country.

“Our members reviewed the analysis of this company’s business plan provided by a highly respected financial analyst retained by the company which showed the plan had little or no chance of succeeding in saving the business but would provide the investors with a windfall. Our members know that this is a company that is controlled by Wall Street private equity and hedge fund firms, whose sole objective is to maximize their own returns, not rebuild the company for the long haul,” Hurt stated.

Hurt’s statement reiterated alarms he has been raising for months that the Hostess bankruptcy is a sham. Rather than a serious effort to repair the company’s crippled finances, the plan is nothing more than an a scheme to crush the unions, shed millions in pension debt, and then sell off the company to new owners, Hurt charges.

Key to such a plan will be whether Judge Drain agrees to release Hostess from more than $100 million in debts owed to a long list of pension plans, especially the plans for members of BCTGM locals and units of the Teamsters. With about 7,500 members at Hostess, the Teamsters are the company’s largest single union, closely followed by BCTGM. (Hostess said it had a total of 18,500 union and non-union employees at the time it filed for bankruptcy, but that number appears to have dropped since then.)

The company’s corporate managers succeeded in getting the Teamsters to agree to concessions, including pension cuts. On September 14, a rank-and-file vote approved a new contract for Teamster workers that was very similar to the one rejected by BCTGM. Posed as a choice between accepting a terrible contract or losing their jobs entirely, Teamster members voted 2,357 to 2,043 to accept the new contract, according to a statement from union headquarters.

Under that contract, 10 to 15 percent of Teamster jobs will be eliminated, all wages will be cut by 8 percent, health care costs to workers will rise sharply, and no further pension contributions will be made until at least 2015. The terms do not require Hostess to resume pension contributions in 2015, but if it does so (at lower rates), it will be forgiven its current debts. Terms of the agreement were laid in detail to union members in a 45-minute video released by Teamster leaders.

In several decisions this spring, Judge Drain assisted Hostess in forcing the contract down the throats of Teamster workers. He supported company claims that only dramatic cuts in labor costs could avert the total dissolution of Hostess. He had ruled against BTCGM on the contract issue earlier on May 4, and his continued admonitions to the unions to negotiate with Hostess were correctly interpreted as threats to destroy existing contracts.

Last week he extended his decision against BTCGM to force concession on five other unions that represent smaller groups of  workers at Hostess:  Machinits; Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers; Firemen & Oilers (a unit of the Service Employees International Union); International Union of Operating Engineers; and Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

As of this week Hostess managers had not yet implemented the new Teamster contract–or any of the forced cuts authorized by Judge Drain at BCTGM and elsewhere. Implementation is expected within the next 45 days, one Teamster official told Working In These Times, when the company intends to enact cuts at all the unions at the same time. Cuts for non-union workers are also to take place then, he said.

According to Hostess CEO Gregory Rayburn, the possibility of a BCTGM strike is now plainly on the table.

In a public letter to employees on October 4, Rayburn noted that Judge Drain had no authority to prevent a strike by BCTGM members. Rayburn nevertheless included a partial statement from the judge that seemed to urge BCTGM members to accept the company’s new terms in hopes of saving the company.

By relying on the remarks of Judge Drain, Rayburn implicitly conceded a charge made by BCTGM’s Hurt–that the Hostess CEO’s own credibility among the workers and union leaders has been shredded just as completely as the old collective bargaining agreements.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 10, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

PTSD Counselors Forced To Attend Anti-Union Meetings on Troubled Army Base

Friday, October 12th, 2012

In 2010, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes labeled Fort Lewis-McChord, a joint Army and Air Force base in Washington state, “the most troubled base in the military” due to its inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or address mental health problems. Fort Lewis-McChord has one of the highest suicide rates of army bases across the country, and last year had the highest number of total suicides with 16. It was where Sergeant Robert Bales was stationed right before he was shipped to Afghanistan and massacred 16 Afghan civilians–including nine children–last March. And it was where the soldiers who formed a “kill team” that murdered civilians in Afghanistan in 2010 had previously been stationed.

The murders of Afghan civilians and high rates of suicide among the soldiers stationed there are believed to stem from the failure of Lewis-McChord’s doctors to adequately treat mental health problems. In the past five years, approximately 300 soldiers saw their PTSD diagnoses reversed by doctors at the base. The Army is currently investigating whether doctors at Lewis-McChord reversed the diagnoses in order to save money.

Now, a Working In These Times investigation has found that workers assigned to help families suffering from the effects of PTSD have been told to close cases on suicidal patients in order to save money, haven’t been paid on time and have been forced to attend anti-union meetings that they claim the contractor, Strategic Resources Inc. (SRI), has billed to the federal government, in violation of federal law. (In July, an In These Times expose on union busting at Fort Lewis-McChord spurred a federal investigation into whether General Dynamics was illegally using government dollars to engage in union-busting.)

Kevin Cummings, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists (IAM), has been attempting to unionize mental health counselors employed by SRI at Lewis-McChord for the past several months. Counselors at the base tell Working In These Times they often have been told to close cases early in order to save money and to lie to federal investigators about how much the contractor was reimbursing them for driving expenditures. They also report being met with illegal threats and intimidation when they tried to unionize.

“[SRI] had no idea really what victim advocates do,” says Kara Karlson, a former counselor with SRI’s Victim Advocacy group. “It’s just completely about money-making. When we were hired on, they didn’t send us any training materials. I got a company handbook that was only eight pages long. They would do whatever they could to save a penny for themselves and hang you out to dry.”

“There was a lot of pressure to close cases quickly even if we didn’t feel like we should close them,” says another counselor who works in SRI’s New Parents Support Program, and who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired. “I had a friend who was working with a family that had a suicidal teenager and was told to back away from the family. She refused to back away. They wanted other services to take on the risk of dealing with someone who is suicidal.”

“[Workers] are directed to keep a certain number of cases open and keep a certain number of cases closed,” says IAM’s Cummings. “The lead will tell them, ‘You have too many cases open, close that one.’ They are telling them to close cases on people on suicide watch. If [SRI] need [to hire] additional bodies, they need to get them. Maybe the contract needs to be opened to help them hire additional people.”

In addition to finding it difficult to provide proper treatment, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and its Victim Advocacy Group say their pay was cut by as much as 25 percent when SRI took over their contract three years ago.

Most federal contractors must abide by the Service Contract Act, which mandates that workers be paid the prevailing wage for the job in the region. However, workers at SRI, many of whom have master’s degrees, allege the company misclassified them as less skilled employees. As a result, they make only $27.50 per hour, instead of the $36.05 per hour that would be mandated under the Service Contract Act’s provisions if they were classified properly. The workers hope that if the Department of Labor reviews their contract, it will find that their work falls under the better-paying classification.

In addition, SRI has refused to pay workers overtime, claiming that they are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to Cummings. However, he says that isn’t actually the case.

“Read the act,” Cummings says. “It says they are not exempt if their work is preventive or investigatory in nature. The VA [Victim Advocates] Group absolutely meets those criteria, [and] the NPSP [New Parents Support Program] seems to as well. NPSP has to provide me a full breakdown of their duties, but the job description and service contract for them indicate they should not be exempt either.”

Workers at SRI say that to keep them from joining together to demand higher wages, the company instituted a rule prohibiting them from talking to each other about their wages. Such a rule would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to discuss their wages.

Along with the low pay and unpaid overtime, workers claim the company routinely delays compensating them for the gas mileage that they accrue when driving to meet families in crisis or victims of crime or abuse. “We would spend $250 a month on gas sometimes and have to wait up to five months to get paid,“ says one worker with New Parent Support Program, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing her job.

When workers informed the Department of Labor about the delays, the department sent an investigator to examine the complaints. That prompted an SRI manager to tell workers to lie about their gas mileage, according to one worker. The worker cites a May 12, 2012, conference call in which the manager instructed workers to redo their forms and change key information, such as the number of miles that they had driven.

Finally, after seeing another group of SRI workers employed as IAM-unionized truck drivers picket Fort Lewis-McChord over their greivances, counselors in SRI’s New Parent Support Program and Victim Advocacy Group decided to organize with IAM. SRI responded with behavior that the union claims was illegal.

According to email exchanges and conversations with the workers, in July, the nine women employed as counselors in SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group say they were forced to attend a meeting in which an outside consultant warned them about the dangers of joining a union. In August, 14 counselors with the New Parent Support Program were also forced to attend meetings in which the same consultant spoke out against unionizing.

In both instances, workers claim they were forced to bill the time attending the meetings to the federal government. President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13494, which went into effect last December, prohibits federal contractors from being reimbursed for the cost of their anti-union activity. (In an interesting side note, SRI Presdient Rose McElrath- Slade and her husband Cleveland Slade were major donors to Obama, giving a combined $100,000 to his inauguration fund in 2008.)

“The workers were mandated to attend the meetings, then directed to charge as though they were working on their normal jobs,” says Cummings. “Our money is not supposed to be used for this. Our money is supposed to support our rights, not deny them.”

The command of Fort Lewis-McChord did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In an email to Working In These Times, an SRI spokesperson wrote, “Your inquiry is the first we have heard of this. SRI strives to comply with all applicable laws/regulations and to honor our commitments to our customer, the federal government. We have different levels of review for timesheets for accuracy. Any error identified is corrected to ensure compliance.”

On July 31, the nine counselors of SRI’s Victim Advocacy Group voted to join IAM. The 14 in the New Parent Support Program are still in unionization talks with IAM, despite being forced to attend the anti-union meetings that they claim were billed as regular work to the federal government.

“There is a problem when they are using taxpayer money to deny taxpayers their basic rights,” says Cummings. “If they want to talk their employees out of unionization, that’s fine, but don’t send taxpayers the bills on it.”

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

Workers and Activists Look Ahead after Gov. Brown Vetoes Pro-Immigrant Bills

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

As two critical bills waited quietly on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk last weekend, immigrants across the state held their breath, hoping that the progressive legislation could affect the national immirgation debate. By Sunday night, the anticipation gave way to disillusionment with two stunning vetoes.

The highly anticipated Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would have enacted major protections for tens of thousands of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers and closed loopholes ignored by federal labor law. It would have extended California’s policies for overtime pay and workers’ compensation, and helped ease in-house workers’ arduous, sometimes-abusive work routines by providing for a set amount of sleep and the ability to cook one’s own food.

Above all, the Bill of Rights would place California alongside New York (where similar legislation has already passed) in formally recognizing the rights and unique needs of this burgeoning, cross-cutting sector. The bill won support from a huge array of groups, from labor unions to celebrities, precisely because of the myriad social issues that domestic work braids together: the changing demographics of the workforce, the challenges of securing affordable childcare or elder care for families, and the struggles of immigrant workers, particularly women of color, in a largely unregulated industry.

But Brown scrapped the bill (sadly following an earlier veto by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) and aligned himself with the business lobby, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, which had complained that the provisions of the bill would be unworkable and overly burdensome for employers.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition will continue its campaign (with plans to deploy sponge bombs to help Brown “clean up his act”) by building on its growing network of allies, including women’s rights, labor and faith groups. Looking ahead, Katie Joaquin, a Filipino community activist with the California Domestic Workers Coalition, tells Working In These Times, “We’re going to continue to build upon those relationships. And the first step is to hold Governor Brown accountable for what we view as a blatant lack of leadership.”

Inspired by the New York example, Joaquin says, the California bill is part of a movement for what the National Domestic Workers Alliance calls “an alternative vision of care,” which is based on sustainable working conditions and better training in the care industries, in order to meet the growing need for caregivers as the population ages. “We need to have a vision for training and caring for caregivers at the same time that we’re making care accessible for families,” Joaquin says.

Immigration policy complicates the labor struggle. Brown delivered a one-two punch to California’s migrant communities by also vetoing the Trust Act, which would have restrained the power of local police to route arrestees suspected of immigration violations into the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That means that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, including domestic caregivers and other low-wage workers, will continue.

Immigrant rights activists had pushed the Trust Act to counter the Obama administration’s enforcement regime, particularly the Secure Communities program, which encourages federal and local police to collaborate to nab undocumented immigrants. The program mirrors Arizona’s infamous SB1070 law and other state initiatives that threaten to expand racial profiling of Latinos and feed the federal deportation machine (which hasn’t significantly eased up in spite of the administration’s slippery claims of refraining from deportating “low priority” cases, such as students with clean records).

Still, aside from the painful vetoes, Brown managed to approve more modest pro-immigrant measures, such as allowing driver’s licenses for some undocumented immigrants (a move apparently aimed at the youth who would qualify for temporary immigration relief and work permits under the White House’s new “deferred action” policy).

The problem is that making it easier for undocumented workers to drive isn’t going to prevent them from being pulled over and ensnared in deportation proceedings. A young man named Juan Santiago told the Associated Press:

he was pleased he would be able to get from his home in Madera to his college classes 30 miles away once his work permit application is approved. But he said the measure does little for his mother, who brought him across the Arizona desert into the U.S. when he was 11.

“It was a happy and a sad day for us,” Santiago said. “The fact that the governor vetoed the TRUST Act, it means there’s nothing to protect the rest of my family members.”

The legislative changes that immigrants most need now are those that protect the whole neighborhood–at work, in school and at home. In an email to Working In These Times, Chris Newman, legal director of California-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), one of the leading advocates for the Trust Act, says:

Equality demands that all Californians have faith in law enforcement, and the vetoes send a message that whether it’s civil rights, labor rights, or public safety, Jerry Brown does not respect the interests of immigrant workers in California.

While the vetoes were a blow to the movement, passing pro-immigrant policies is not an end in itself. Even in New York, where a hard-fought Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is already on the books, workers have faced difficulty in using the law to directly challenge employers over workplace violations.

Building political savvy and leverage on the street level is critical, with or without supportive legislation. As NDLON activist Pablo Alvarado wrote on the group’s blog, the governor “can veto a bill but he cannot veto a movement.” Ultimately, it’s the community’s power, not the letter of the law, that defines justice.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

Where Did All Our Pensions Go?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

A total of 84,350 pension plans have vanished since 1985. This figure shocked Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Donald L. Barlett and James W. Steele, who just released their latest book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream.” Their chapter on retirement chronicles the heist of the American dream’s secure retirement by the financial elite and is a very important section of the book, says Steele, who spoke with the AFL-CIO about the retirement crisis. Steele says there is another number we should pay attention to: $17,686. That’s the median value of 401(k) accounts in 2011. For most working people, the amount in their 401(k) account would pay them less than $80 a month for life.

“What’s happening with retirement is almost parallel to what you see happening in other parts of the economy,” says Steele.

The elite has its agenda to eliminate pensions with the shift to 401(k)s, which cost companies less. Now, there’s a revenue stream for Wall Street and an obligation shift to people with little or no experience understanding how to deal with their own retirement issues….This is typical of all the other things the economy elite has been doing for decades with deregulation, unrestricted free trade and tax cuts—these things are all related.

“In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the amount of workers with access to pensions was significantly rising,” says Steele. “We fully underestimated the speed in which the downturn would occu, and how Congress went along and encouraged it.”

Barlett and Steele write that the shift from defined-benefit pension plans to 401(k)s began in the 1980s. Companies realized 401(k)s would substantially reduce corporate costs. Workers were told that pensions no longer made sense and were outdated since people moved around from job to job. The 401(k) was marketed as more “portable.”

Steele says 401(k)s were engineered by corporations as another way for the wealthy executives to set aside money. They were never intended to be a principal retirement plan, only a supplement.

“Once corporate America got on to this, the idea took root,” says Steele. “The entire obligation shifted to the employees.”

Congress ignored the concerns raised by trade unions and other pension rights organizations. And the consequences are dire for middle- and lower-income workers.

“This is so typical of what has been happening over the last two to three decades,” says Steele. “This is the slow, steady erosion of economic security Americans had (or thought they had)….Now economic pundits, corporate folks and Wall Street people are saying people just have to work longer, in part because retirement plans now in place will not provide much security to people as they get older.”

Barlett and Steele feature stories of average people who did everything right (saved, worked hard) but are still living on the edge of poverty because of policies that enhance the rich at the expense of everyone else.

Over and over again, people thought they had something good. They were working hard and then, through no fault of their own, lost it all. Most people we talked to in the book are employed.

People thought it was something they had done to lose their job or benefits….They didn’t realize it was part of a broader pattern. There are great swaths of working people who are affected and we think it’s our fault. For most of these people, it’s not their fault, it’s just the way policy has been organized. Systematically dismantling pensions and retirement is the perfect example.

With the decline of pensions, it’s even more important to strengthen, not cut, Social Security benefits. Although the country dodged a bullet in 2005, when Bush’s plan for Social Security privatization fizzled, Steele says we still need to be vigilant to protect our benefits from the Wall Street casino.

Don and I make this point that the 2008 recession wouldn’t look a whole lot different from the Great Depression if we didn’t have Social Security and Medicare because there was no safety net then.

The economic elite, says Steele, attack Social Security because it’s a large pool of money for Wall Street to play with.

Nobody should kid themselves that they’re not going to come back and try to implement some parts of that [privatization]….The amount of money at stake is too good and that’s all they care about—access to that money, not American workers.

You can purchase “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

Lessons From Essen: What the U.S. Rust Belt Can Learn From Germany

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

ESSEN, GERMANY—Stephan Haas has probably given this spiel hundreds of times, but he still sparkles with enthusiasm and mischievous wit as he tells the tale of the notorious Krupp family, the German magnates who helped make this area the heart of German industry. Speaking English for the benefit of French and Finnish visitors, Haas describes how Friedrich Krupp caused a scandal by reportedly seducing boys in Italy and how his wife Margaret was committed to a “madhouse” when her complaints about her husband became inconvenient. He shows visitors around the imposing Krupp mansion, slyly critiquing the architecture, and explains the company town known as Margarethenhöhe, which houses Krupp managerial workers.

Krupp’s company, now the multinational ThyssenKrupp, is still based in Essen in the Ruhr region in northwestern Germany, where the smokestacks of steel mills, coal-fired power plants and factories still rise above the otherwise lush green fields and hills. But over the past decades, much of the steel and coal industries once located here have closed up, along with the underground coal mines that in the 1950s employed 470,000 and now employ only about 30,000. Of more than 200 underground mines that once supplied 125 million tons of coal a year, only a handful remain open and they are all scheduled for closure by 2018. Because of the offshoring of industry and the import of cheaper coal from Colombia, Poland and South Africa, the Ruhr region now has among the country’s highest levels of unemployment and economic distress. (Though it is still noticeably more prosperous than much of western Europe and the United States; Germany has weathered the economic crisis better than most.)

“It used to be that miners were the underground kings, everyone respected them, this whole region was built by coal,” says Haas. “But now if you say you are a miner, you wouldn’t get the same response you used to. The memory is fading, and the miners are disappearing like dinosaurs.”

(A significant mining industry still remains southwest of the Ruhr region around the town of Duren, near Cologne, but that is the strip-mining of soft, dirty “brown coal” burned in nearby power plants run by the company RWE. Activists and local legislators who oppose the industry note that it employs relatively few people, because the massive strip mines are largely automated, and causes huge amounts of pollution that endanger public health and contribute to climate change.)

Like some former industrial and mining areas in the United States, civic leaders in the Ruhr region have tried to rebrand the area as a mecca for arts, culture and tourism, celebrating the rich industrial history (and now-lower levels of pollution). Their plan got a major boost in 2010 when the European Commission named the area a “European Capital of Culture,” a designation created in 1985 as a means to promote European cohesiveness and boost an area’s tourism and economic vitality. Since then, millions of visitors from the rest of Germany, Europe and beyond have toured new modern art museums and historical sites in towns and cities like Essen, Mulheim, Dortmund and Duisburg. The idea was that the region’s new identity could create tourism-related and other service-economy jobs and attract new high tech and other businesses to locate while maintaining a role for the heavy industry that does still exist. The region has also gained tens of thousands of jobs related to renewable energy, according to regional Green Party elected officials, since solar power installation and manufacturing (and to a lesser degree wind power) has boomed in Germany in the past few years. It helps that the Ruhr region, in part because of its industrial heritage, is home to 20 universities, including top technical institutes.

A massive former mine and coking plant called Zollverein is a prime example of the region’s transformation. Zollverein once consisted of almost 100 miles of underground tunnels and railroads that descended almost a mile deep, where tens of thousands of miners working in often horrifying conditions extracted many millions of tons of coal from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Much of the mine infrastructure and the central coking plant sprawling across the surface of the mine have been preserved. They now appear sculptural and surreal: soaring towers capped with wheels that pulled coal out of the earth; maze-like networks of conveyor belts and rail tracks; shining boilers, cylinders and cooling towers that are beautiful in abstract and geometric ways; even a carnivalesque contraption reminiscent of a Ferris wheel rising above the coking ovens, which were closed in 1993.

The Ruhr Museum, depicting the region’s history from prehistoric times to the present, is housed in the old coal wash house, and events from alternative energy conferences to weddings are held in countless converted conference rooms and reception halls onsite. Another former mining structure houses the highly regarded Red Dot Design Museum, while old coal buildings are also home to smaller art galleries and studios and a revolving schedule of concerts and performances.

Also tapping the Ruhr’s regional heritage is the Bergbau Mining Museum in nearby Bochum, which was founded in 1930 and got a major boost thanks to the Capital of Culture. More than a million people annually peruse a vast and eclectic mix of mining paraphernalia, artifacts and art. The collection, hard to see in a single day, includes hundreds of different miners’ lanterns from over the decades, a plethora of quirky dioramas and several rooms packed with mineral samples from around the world.

The high quality, efficiently run museums and tourism services in the Ruhr region provide an inspiration for U.S. Rust Belt towns trying to stimulate tourism and culture to replace the mining and manufacturing jobs that have disappeared. But the Ruhr region also shows that even a thriving tourism and culture industry provides a relatively small amount of direct employment, with the jobs directly created across a whole region unlikely to ever match the jobs lost at even one mass employer like acoal mine or steel mill. Jobs may be created in restaurants, shops and the like, but most tourists still move through the region in a matter of several days, so the economic ripple effects of popular museums and cultural institutions do not appear to be wide. Various people working in the area said that the European Capital of Culture designation brought a wave of attention and economic stimulus, but didn’t create significant lasting changes in the area’s identity or economics.

And this is all in a place like western Germany where tourists from other relatively well-off countries can regularly and easily travel. Luring visitors to a remote former mining village in Colorado or a notorious post-industrial city like Gary, Indiana, is an entirely different story.

A more realistic replacement for the lost jobs might revolve around clean energy. The German Green Party claims that in little more than a decade renewable energy has created 380,000 jobs, thanks to government policies like the feed-in tariff that promotes it. A significant portion of these jobs are located in the Ruhr region. For former U.S. industrial areas that still have infrastructure and skilled workers, such green jobs could be a better bet than tourism and culture in terms of employment, although, as in the Ruhr region, the two approaches can complement each other.

But the well-being of a region or a city has to do with more than its employment statistics and economic indicators. Pride in place and history and the cultural, artistic and social resources that are available to local residents and draw visitors surely have benefits beyond the economic bottom-line. The Southeast Environmental Task Force in Chicago had tried to turn a former coking plant on the city’s far south side into a museum before the structure was ultimately demolished. The group had failed to get the adequate funds or political and institutional support for their project. Wandering the grounds of Zollverein, I couldn’t help but think of the shame that a similar (if smaller scale) opportunity in an economically struggling community in Chicago was squandered. But countless opportunities still exist; hopefully U.S. leaders and regular residents can take inspiration from places like Zollverein to create monuments that provide some economic stimulation and pay tribute to U.S. workers and industries of years past.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 2, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

Losing My Religion

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Considering how many talking points in the 2012 election have had to do with religion (Romney’s Mormonism, the morality of the Ryan budget, and Christian views on abortion and gay marriage) it’s easy to forget that in some countries, religion and party-politics are considered a private matter, not to be discussed in polite society.

The United Kingdom is one of these countries; in the land of tea and crumpets, discussing politics or religion at dinner parties is considered cheeky. And so it is surprising that religious liberties in the workplace have been brought center stage by four of Her Majesty’s subjects.

CNN’s Belief Blog brought my attention to Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, who allege that they were each reprimanded at work for upholding their religious beliefs. After losing on appeal in British courts, their cases were heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on September 4. A decision could take months.

Both Ms. Eweida, a nurse, and Ms. Chaplin, a flight attendant for British Airways, wore necklaces with hanging crosses to work, were told to take them off, and refused. Ms. Eweida was suspended; Ms. Chaplin was forced into early retirement.

Ms. Ladele and Mr. McFarlane both had government jobs. Ms. Ladele was a registrar who was disciplined for refusing to process civil unions involving same-sex couples. Mr. McFarlane, who has been spearheading the legal process for all four of these cases with the support of the Christian Legal Centre, was a couples counselor paid by the National Health Service. He was fired after telling his superior that because of his Christian faith he was not willing to work with same-sex couples on sex related issues.

How would their cases fare in the U.S.? How will their cases actually fare in Europe? LASIS investigates.

A word about why the European Court heard an English case involving English people, in the first place. Britain, along with 27 continental neighbors, forms part of the European Union by giving up select parts of its sovereignty to the European government, much like our 50 states vis-à-vis our federal government. An ECHR decision will have the effect of a binding court order within Britain.

Stateside, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees of both public and private institutions against religious discrimination in the workplace. The Act set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which evaluates discrimination claims and allows people a means to litigate them. So far, this sounds pretty similar to Britain’s employment tribunal — where our litigants lost their case.

Our Civil Rights Act states that employers must give their employees “reasonable accommodation” for their religious needs. A 2001 U.S. Court of Appeals case echoed a 1975 U.S. Court of Appeals case, and defined the reasonable accommodation standard. In the 2001 case, a police officer sued the department after being fired for not complying with uniform rules prohibiting him from wearing a gold cross pin on his shirt. He lost.

In these important cases, our courts have said that to prevail in a workplace religious discrimination case, an employee must show three things: First, that a religious belief conflicted with a work requirement; second, that the employee informed her employer of this conflict; and third, that the employee was not given reasonable accommodation and was then dismissed or sanctioned in some way.

The employer has two possible defenses. She can show that she actually offered the employee a reasonable accommodation or that after trying, no reasonable accommodation was available that wouldn’t cause the employer “undue hardship.” This “undue hardship” would constitute outlaying more than a minimal amount of money, or risking the health and safety of the workplace.

In 2004, a Christian employee was asked to sign a new diversity policy that included a provision mandating respect for homosexual co-workers. The employee considered such a requirement to be contrary to his beliefs and refused to sign – he was fired, and sued in Colorado district court on the grounds of religious discrimination. He won, with the court deciding that so long as his actions and statements were nondiscriminatory, his personal beliefs, even illogical or meanspirited ones, are protected under the law.

But for the most part, U.S. courts have dodged how we should balance individual rights to freedom of religion and the exercise of those rights sometimes being discriminatory.

In a 2012 U.S. Court of Appeals case a counselor working for a government agency was dismissed after refusing to work with same-sex couples and making her religious views clear to a woman she was paid to help. The court didn’t rule whether or not the employee’s actions were discriminatory; it simply stated that her actions did not conform to her professional standards as a licensed counselor

In the opinion of Michael J. Broyde, a law professor and senior fellow of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, creating a discrimination exception for religious beliefs would be a “bad idea.” He believes that it would serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people to discriminate in the name of religion.

Organizations like the ACLU agree, and have been trying to draw the courts’ attention to this issue for years now. Many of the cases they are supporting (on the opposite side of McFarlane and the Christian Legal Centre) are still in litigation and will continue to be for some time. We can only guess as to when or how the courts will decide.

Cross-wearers Ms. Eweida and Ms. Chaplin might not like what our courts have to say on religious symbols added to uniforms of any kind. Like the British tribunal, our courts would probably not uphold the women’s right to wear crosses while at work especially if, as the defendants in these cases maintain, it was a safety issue: no hanging necklaces are allowed for either nurses or flight attendants.

As for Ms. Ladele and Mr. McFarlane, the government workers who refuse to work with same sex couples, we can probably call this one a toss-up both in the ECHR and in our own courts.

Last year, LASIS did a story about this very issue. A government worker refused to marry same sex couples. Lots of protests. But she maintained that she was just following her religious beliefs. She was reelected.

This particular area of law is still developing and the next few years on both sides of the pond should make for interesting dinner-party conversations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An astute reader points out that the European Union’s court is the European Court of Justice. The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe.

This blog originally appeared in New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism blog, Legal As She Is Spoke, on September 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: José Ortiz (JD Class 2014) is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico where he majored in Political Science. He is a classically trained pianist, organist and singer having performed with the San Juan Philharmonic Chorale and the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. Other than music and law, he also enjoys heated political debate and the Yankees.

As One Wal-Mart Warehouse Strike Ends, Another Snowballs

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Early on Friday, three dozen non-union workers at a large Walmart warehouse near Riverside, Calif., ended a 15-day walkout protesting poor working conditions. But outside of Chicago, another group of Wal-Mart warehouse workers continue to strike and have called for hundreds of supporters to join them in non-violent civil disobedience at a rally at the huge facility on Monday.

The southern California workers, most of whom earn minimum wage, cited family financial problems as one reason for discontinuing the strike. The decision was made upon their return from a six-day, 50-mile “WalMarch” to downtown Los Angeles to call attention to appalling safety problems and working conditions in the vast Inland Empire warehouse industry.

The spontaneous California work stoppage helped inspire the Sept. 15 walkout by 30-plus workers at Wal-Mart’s huge Elwood, Ill. warehouse. The Illinois workers were angry about poor working conditions and apparent retaliation by their employer, a Wal-Mart contractor, against four workers who filed a lawsuit over subminimum wages.

The lawsuit is the sixth filed by Elwood workers in three years. Three prior suits have resulted in settlement payments to workers. The latest claims that Roadlink Workforce Solutions–one of four subcontractors providing long-term “temporary” workers to Schneider Logistics, which operates the warehouse for Wal-Mart–frequently failed to pay overtime and minimum wage, in violation of federal, state and local laws.

Workers at both the Illinois and California warehouses have similar complaints: wage theft, harassment, safety hazards, being denied breaks, and working in extreme temperatures with inadequate water. California’s workplace safety agency, CalOSHA, is investigating the Southern California warehouse in response to a complaint filed by workers about working conditions and excessive heat. It may soon pursue an additional complaint about repetitive motion injuries.

Workers have been less successful in getting their complaints heard directly by Wal-Mart. They face a complex structure of authority and responsibility created by the company, with layers of contractors between workers and Wal-Mart management. In response, workers have filed numerous requests with Wal-Mart to enforce its code of conduct throughout its supply chain.

About ten days ago Walmart told some news outlets, including Huffington Post, that it would review contracts and look into third-party monitoring of all contractors, a small step towards taking responsibility. But it did not sign any agreement with either group of strikers.

And when the Southern California workers returned to the job Friday–receiving high-fives from non-striking workers–they found that some of the safety problems remained. The workers alerted management, which shut down the unsafe areas of the warehouse.

“They feel they have a stronger voice now over working conditions,” says Elizabeth Brennan, spokesperson for Warehouse Workers United, a project of Change To Win, a union federation trying to improve work for the 85,000 people employed at warehouses in southern California. While they feel they’ve won a big victory–“a step forward, not an end-all solution,” Brennan says–they also anticipate possible retaliation, even though it would be illegal.

That’s what the Illinois workers say happened after they filed a wage theft suit on Sept. 13 against Wal-Mart with the assistance of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE). Plaintiff Philip Bailey says that management fired him and the other named plaintiffs the next day, then changed its mind and suspended them without pay.

After losing his job in Detroit last year, Bailey came to the Chicago area to seek work because there were jobs available in the warehouses. This is partly due to very high turnover rates, which can pose a barrier to organizing. In the end, he says, it was a group of workers who had managed to last a half year or more who formed the core of the protest action.

“What we have in common is we’re pretty marginalized and desperate,” Bailey says. “People are fed up in there and not willing to give up without a fight. The prospect of working these low-paying jobs for long hours became scarier than risking losing the job to improve it. People realized we won’t get anything until we stand together.”

In September, about 40 workers signed a petition “about unsafe equipment, extreme heat, and taking away breaks, making [shifts last] 6 or 7 hours,” says veteran warehouse worker Ted Ledwa. On Saturday, after Bailey and some other workers were fired and then suspended, a group of the petitioners tried to take their demands to management.

“We had to walk around the entire warehouse to collect everyone,” Ledwa says, “and all the time management was saying we were trespassing and had to leave. All we wanted to do was present the petition to management. As we came around the corner, managers with these riding forklifts cut our group in half, but we continued to walk. They told us we were going to be escorted out of the building by the police. They refused to take the petition. My manager said that we don’t want to mess with him. We said we didn’t want to mess with anybody. We just wanted someone to take the petition and hear our grievances. Their answer is the police are on their way. You’re going to be arrested.”

Managers were reportedly erratic in their response. Initially, Ledwa says, the petitioners were also fired, but managers later called to say they had been suspended. Now, both the suspended plaintiffs and the suspended petitioners, joined by a few other workers, are striking together over unfair labor practices, including discharge for lawful collective action. Ledwa believes those who kept working were sympathetic but afraid of losing their $10-an-hour jobs.

“Management uses threats and intimidation as part of their daily routine,” he says. “I’ve worked at several warehouses, and I’ve never seen it so bad. They have no respect for the people. They say if you can’t do the job, we’ll get someone else. There’s a constant threat. They’re always trying to pit people against each other, to create animosity among their workers. I’m tired of it.”

So for now the strike continues, picking up support, such as from Chicago teachers, recently on strike themselves. Many public-school teachers see a common enemy in the Walton Family Foundation, the charitable group run by Wal-Mart’s founding family, which promotes school privatization.

And the warehouse strike is a worrisome development for Wal-Mart, a company that “has made distribution the heart of its business,” as Nelson Lichtenstein writes in The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. Wal-Mart’s super-efficient system of delivering goods only as needed, while stores carry minimal inventory, keeps costs low. It relies on sophisticated management and technology but also on brute, crude exploitation of workers. But this system is vulnerable to disruption, a threat especially potent now as big retailers prepare for the lucrative Christmas selling season.

Strikers at these two warehouses face both a big antagonist and big barriers to unionizing: Under current labor law, it’s perfectly legal for Wal-Mart to simply stop using any contractor whose employees join a union. As a result, workers have instead focused on getting Wal-Mart to enforce its own standards upon its contractors. But the strikers’ example could plant the idea in the minds of other warehouse workers that collective action can bring power and improvements at work. And that seed could grow into a movement for change among workers who need it badly.

This blog originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 1, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

Welcome to the culture war against teachers, coming to a theater near you

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

The campaign against teachers is special, and worth paying attention to. It’s not like workers in general get much respect in our culture, at least not beyond vague lip service that only ever applies to the individual, powerless worker not asking for anything. And janitors, hotel housekeepers, cashiers, and a host of others could fill books with the daily substance of working in low-status professions, I’m sure. But right now, teachers are the subject of a campaign heavily funded and driven from the top down to take a profession that has long been respected by the public at large and make the people in the profession villains and pariahs, en route to undercutting the prestige, the decision-making ability, the working conditions, and, of course, the wages and benefits of the profession as a whole. What we’re watching right now is a specific front in the war on workers, and one with immense reach through our culture—and coming soon to a movie theater near you if it’s not already there, in the form of the poorly reviewed parent trigger drama Won’t Back Down.

(That it’s a war not just on teachers but on the workers of the future and on the government just sweetens the pot for many of the people waging the war.)

Teachers face a catch-22. Those in poor districts are expected to be superhuman, to by themselves counteract the effects of poverty—even though we know that while teachers are the most important factor in educational achievement inside the school, factors outside the school, like poverty, are far more important. But while teachers of poor students are supposed to be superhuman, teachers of well-to-do students are frequently treated by doctor and lawyer parents as idiot failures, teaching because they can’t be doctors or lawyers. Policy and funding decisions are used against teachers in poor districts; the condescension of parents serves the same purpose in wealthier ones. But in both cases the professionalism of teachers is undermined.

I’ve written a lot about how corporate education policy targets teachers (and the concept of education as a public good that should be available to all kids). But this upper-middle-class condescension toward teachers is a potent weapon in that campaign against teachers and education. One of the foundations of the corporate drive to “reform” education to corporate preferences is the idea that billionaires know better, that hedge fund managers and Walmart heirs and Bill Gates, by virtue of having made a lot of money, must know more than education professionals about how education should function. And that translates downward—if Bill Gates is supposed to know how schools should work in general, an engineer or executive at least gets to boss his kid’s teacher around.

For instance, Adam Kirk Edgerton explains that he quit teaching because:

[…] I was tired of feeling powerless. Tired of watching would-be professionals treated as children, infantilized into silence. Tired of the machine that turns art into artifice for the sake of test scores. Tired of being belittled, disrespected and looked down upon by lawyers, politicians, and decision-makers who see teaching as the province of provincials, the work of housewives that can be done by anyone. […]

The prestige problem is, ironically, the worst in some of our “highest-performing” schools. In suburbia, teachers deal with the open disrespect of the upper-and-middle-class parent. I’m talking about those parents who fight for every letter grade, who teach their children to teach the teacher a lesson, and who regard teachers as merely obstacles on the way to an Ivy League admission. I was often amazed by the outrageous lies some parents would tell to get an extension on their child’s assignment.

Similarly, Corey Robin describes how, growing up in an affluent New York suburb with fantastic schools, teachers were nonetheless held in contempt by parents and students alike. “It’s odd,” he writes. “Even if you’re the most toolish striver—i.e., many of the people I grew up with—teachers are your ticket to the Ivy League.” Yet:

Every year there’d be a fight in the town over the school budget, and every year a vocal contingent would scream that the town was wasting money (and raising needless taxes) on its schools. Especially on the teachers (I never heard anyone criticize the sports teams). People hate paying taxes for any number of reasons—though financial hardship, in this case, was hardly one of them—but there was a special pique reserved for what the taxes were mostly going to: the teachers.

In my childhood world, grown ups basically saw teachers as failures and fuck-ups. “Those who can’t do, teach” goes the old saw. But where that traditionally bespoke a suspicion of fancy ideas that didn’t produce anything concrete, in my fancy suburb, it meant something else. Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

So it’s not uncommon to read—or to hear in conversation—views like that of Bridget Williams, the ex-wife of the executive director of “Democrats for Education Reform,” who describes parents’ efforts to get their kids the teachers they wanted, writing that “Even in the best schools, we still knew we had clunkers to contend with. This is a direct result of the stranglehold unions have over hiring and firing and tenure.” Except that it’s not. Teachers in union and non-union states are fired at basically identical rates after they get tenure or pass a probationary period, and at least some union states are far more likely than non-union states to fire teachers before they ever get tenure. Yet the idea persists that if unions weren’t standing in the way, every teacher would be outstanding. (Have you ever seen a workplace in which every single person was outstanding?) Add to this that states with binding teacher contracts (i.e. unions) have better educational outcomes than states without binding teacher contracts or unions, and the whole “teachers unions are what stands in the way of my kids getting a good education” thing starts looking like what it really is: anti-unionism and contempt for teachers as professionals, a desire as, in Williams’s words, “a white, educated, savvy, aggressive (some might use another word), ‘~4 percenter’ in a good neighborhood” to show that you’re the boss of teachers, most of whom aren’t even 20 percenters.

That’s the impulse the new movie Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, hopes to exploit by cloaking it in the story of a working-class mother working with a teacher against the teachers union. Funded by Republican billionaire (and owner of the Weekly Standard) Philip Anschutz, who also funded the anti-teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman, the movie is, happily, drawing terrible reviews, many of which comment directly on its political mission. A Minneapolis Star-Tribune reviewer, for instance, writes:

“Won’t Back Down” is to school reform what “Reefer Madness” is to drug policy. The difference is that it features the best acting talent money can buy, with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a fed-up parent and an idealistic educator who take control of their failing Pittsburgh grade school and transform it.

They play the heartstrings like Yo-Yo Ma in service of a story that is emotionally manipulative, dramatically crude, factually challenged hero/villain hokum. That describes about 81 percent of all movies, but when a film’s goal is to move public policy, it’s worth commenting on.

Won’t Back Down promotes “parent trigger” laws. Parent trigger laws are supposedly a mechanism for greater parental control, in which parents can join together to drastically overhaul a school they see as failing.

But Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the Florida parents’ group Fund Education Now, warns that reality is very different: “The parent trigger uses a parent’s love for their child to pull the trigger and pass a public entity, a school, into the hands of a for-profit charter.” Trigger is among the model bills pushed by the now-notorious American Legislative Exchange Council. While individual laws vary, critics warn that they offer a back door for private (sometimes for-profit) companies to drum up signatures (sometimes dishonestly), bust unions and sideline school boards. “Sure,” says Oropeza, “parents can pull the trigger, but they lose all control from that point.”

Oropeza’s group helped defeat a parent trigger law in Florida, where “Not a single major Florida parent organization supported the bill, including the PTA,” with many opposing it, believing that it “would lead to the takeover of public schools by for-profit charter management companies and other corporate interests.”

But parent trigger laws are just one piece of the broader message that teachers unions, and the teachers they’re composed of, are the problem. The broader, deeper message is that teachers are simultaneously the most important thing in the school yet entirely interchangeable, that a good teacher or a bad teacher determines the course of a child’s life yet teachers shouldn’t be paid as much as other equivalently educated people, that teachers are solely responsible for educational outcomes yet what they do and how they do it should be determined by tech billionaires and any parent with an opinion. Every move in this war on teachers that appears to say they’re important lays the groundwork to undermine teachers as autonomous professionals, and it all builds on the liminal class position of teachers, poised as intermediaries between poor people and middle-class people or middle-class people and rich people, as well as on the fact that teaching has traditionally been a profession dominated by women.

People still actually respect teachers, when you ask them. They think their own kids’ teachers are pretty good. That’s a big part of the reason the war on teachers pretends to value teachers and to just be going after their unions—as if unions are not made up of teachers but are some foreign entity. But make no mistake, the goal here is to undermine teachers themselves as less than professional, as labor that can be gotten for cheaper and given less power. Taking away teachers’ ability to bargain collectively is a crucial step in that process.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on September 30, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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