In the trend-conscious restaurant industry, foodies are asking questions not only about whether their beef was raised humanely and whether their asparagus is organic, but also about the working conditions of those who prepare and serve their food. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a New York-based workers’ rights advocacy group, has studied the industry with an eye toward both improving working conditions and allowing restaurateurs to thrive. “Our whole frame is around collective prosperity,” ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman told me recently, “that when workers do better, employers and consumers do better.” Ms. Jayaraman’s organization has designed a collection of policy proposals that business leaders in the industry — which employs 10 million people — can support. Their goal is to make it attractive to provide paid sick days and offer low-paid workers opportunities to rise through the ranks, and for employers to pay a share of their employees’ health insurance. Raising the tipped-employee hourly wage from its stagnant $2.13 level is another proposal, one that is before Congress as a national bill. Several high-profile restaurateurs are joining ROC United in its commitment to making restaurant jobs more economically viable — in other words, more like careers. “I think everybody should have health insurance,” celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in a recent interview. “The idea of the transient employee, the college student waiting tables — that’s not how we operate. People have families to take care of.” ROC United has put together an up-to-date national guide to restaurants that treat their employees well. High-road employers like Mr. Colicchio are unfortunately still in the minority — 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have any paid sick days, and 75 percent of the workers surveyed by ROC United said they have never been given the opportunity to apply for a promotion. But as groups like ROC United educate the eating public about the dangers of a chronically underpaid workforce with no ability to take sick leave preparing and serving food, more industry leaders are beginning to see the wisdom in promoting employee wellness and better career options. Another celebrity chef, Mario Batali — owner of Del Posto in New York — is an example. Once publicly targeted by dissatisfied employees,Mr. Batali has agreed to create new promotions policies and to institute paid sick days for his employees at Del Posto. Food culture has taken off in Chicago; the ROC United 2013 “high-road employers” list for the city already includes several foodie destinations like Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique in the Loop, Pilsen’s Lupito’s Juice Bar and Lincoln Park’s Siena by Maria cafe — as well as one restaurant chain, Houlihan’s. Here’s hoping that Chicago’s richly varied restaurant community can add more names in the coming year.
“As it stands now, if nothing changes, the schools are going to have to open without any adults in the large spaces where kids gather,” predicted Philadelphia public schools parent Michael Mullins in late June. Mullins has two kids in the public schools and is secretary-treasurer of the city’s hotel and stadium workers union, UNITE/HERE. In late May, the Philadelphia School District approved a “doomsday budget” cutting almost $300 million from the schools and resulting in the layoffs of 3,783 people—19 percent of the school system’s workforce. The budget also threatened to get rid of arts, music and athletic programs, as well as librarians, secretaries, counselors and playground aides, unless the state or city council could come up with emergency funding.
In response, Mullins joined a group of parents and laid-off school workers in a fast starting June 17 in front of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office. “We wanted to represent the sense of crisis we feel inside and make it public,” said Mullins. “I think there is a hunger for more direct action,” he added, in order for “the seriousness of this as we live it to reach the decision-makers.”
More people stepped forward during the fifteen-day fast to reinforce this conviction: Philly’s Fast for Safe Schools featured a rotating cast of twelve parent activists and school employees who fasted from three to eight days each. The activists chose to end the fast on July 1, after securing a partial win: Corbett put forward a new funding package that added $140 million back to the school district. The package combines loans with state and city funds, which the activists say could stave off many of the layoffs for now. But Corbett’s package still doesn’t cover the $180 million the district had requested to keep all the needed jobs filled.
As the showdown in Philadelphia indicates, the ongoing battle over education “reform” and school funding—topics often discussed in think tanks, political campaigns or Waiting for “Superman”–style media productions—is moving into the streets. Chicago and Seattle, too, have seen vigorous protests against austerity, privatization, high-stakes testing and union-busting. Such demonstrations together represent a forceful challenge to the corporate-financed push for “education reform” undertaken by the likes of Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor of Washington, DC. But these movements are more than mere isolated acts of resistance; in their demands, the outlines of a coherent policy agenda can be discerned—one that looks honestly at what it will take to bring quality education to America’s least privileged communities.
One thing this movement has already accomplished is exposing how the education “reform” movement provides cover to Republicans and neoliberal Democrats who are starving the public school system. In championing privately run charter schools, the (self-described) reformers paint traditional schools as failures that should be defunded—even if those traditional schools outperform charters. By bashing teachers unions, figures like Rhee have helped politicians scapegoat the unions for fiscal woes, even as many of those lawmakers advocate cutting taxes. And by claiming that those who cite poverty’s impact on student achievement are merely making excuses for sub-par teaching, the “reform” camp has played down the devastating effects of ruthless budget cutting.
On the same day Philly’s doomsday budget was approved, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp tweeted, “I can’t get over the progress in this city’s schools in the last decade!” Although she later tried to cover for the gaffe, it illustrated how out of touch “reformers” are regarding the challenges facing public schools. The incident also suggests that adequate funding should be a basic demand of the movement for quality public education.
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has made this demand a central part of its platform, which emphasizes combating inequality in the public school system. In a 2012 report titled “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” the union proposed a statewide solution to the city schools’ funding troubles, arguing that wealthier suburban tax bases across Illinois should be tapped to fund Chicago’s ailing public schools: “The most disadvantaged communities in Chicago and Illinois ought to receive as much educational funding as the wealthiest; any less should be unconstitutional.” This focus has allowed the union to draw a stark contrast between its policies and those of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his schools CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who is overseeing the closing of fifty schools to help bridge a budget gap of $1 billion. Meanwhile, the CTU points out, Emanuel is paying $55 million out of city coffers to build a new basketball arena and hotel at DePaul University.
The protests against these skewed priorities went beyond the teachers union, making a viral video star of 9-year-old activist Asean Johnson, who charged, “This is racism right here.” Parents of kids at schools set to close have brought a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that the closings violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act. They argue that displacing kids (special needs kids in particular) from their neighborhood schools will place them at even greater risk.
New organizing among students, parents and educators fed up with endless “teaching to the test” is another area of promise. In Seattle this past January, teachers at Garfield High School engaged the city school district in a fight over high-stakes standardized testing, refusing to administer the state’s Measures of Academic Progress test. They charged that the test wasted class time, produced “meaningless results” and was used improperly in teacher evaluations. Many agreed. Despite threats of unpaid suspensions and other disciplinary measures, teachers at several area schools joined the boycott.
High-stakes testing is a foundation of the education “reform” movement, but cheating scandals in at least a dozen districts have put a spotlight on the corrosive effects of test mania. Parents and students now have the opportunity to demand a rich curriculum in public schools—something that the American Federation of Teachers advocated in its 2012 proposal titled “Quality Education Agenda.” Moreover, teachers unions are asserting their right to establish high standards for their own profession by proposing better ways to evaluate and support teachers— including enhanced mentoring, peer review and professional development. Models for peer review have already been developed and tested by the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and the New York State Union of Teachers, among others. Rejecting the notion that we can fire—or scapegoat—our way to good teaching, advocates for quality public schools should insist that accountability be demanded of actors throughout the educational system, including administrators and politicians.
The new wave of street protests demonstrates a type of community-labor alliance that ideally would become less an emergency response than an ingrained habit. Rather than mobilizing only at flash-point moments like a school closing or a contract negotiation, everyone with a stake in public education must be ready to mobilize on an ongoing basis, to strengthen their alliances with one another and have the conversations that will create a proactive agenda for the schools. That way, when politicians and school district officials come to slash school budgets—as we can, unfortunately, expect in cities around the country—they will be met by an organized opposition ready not only to shield students from those cuts, but to present a workable plan to keep public education alive and healthy.
Take a stroll through most grocery stores, and many of the products claim to be organically grown or locally sourced. The foodie movement has swept America in the last decade, thanks in no small part to the work of journalists and intellectuals who have championed the cause online, in print and on the airwaves.
Michael Pollan is inarguably one of the most influential of these figures. Pollan is most famous for his books, especially In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006). He also contributes regularly to publications such as The New York Times Magazine, where his work has received numerous awards, and is a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
As organic, locally grown food has emerged as a cultural and economic counterforce to industrialized agriculture, critics have claimed it is elitist and accessible only to those with the resources to pay more for their nourishment. Pollan and his allies have responded, in part, by drawing the public’s attention to the low-wage workers who work in the field, behind the counter and in the kitchen. In recent years Pollan has supported the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization dedicated to improving working conditions and wages for tomato pickers’ in Florida; in December 2013 he sided with fast food strikers and their demand for a $15 dollar per hour wage. In an email missive for MoveOn.org (received by eight million subscribers), Pollan wrote: “If we are ever to . . . produce food sustainably and justly and sell it at an honest price, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.” In his words, fair wages must be part of the push to democratize food.
I recently connected with Pollan to discuss equitable food pricing, farm worker rights and industrial agriculture’s role in casting the food movement as elitist. (What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.) I began by asking Pollan about his evolving personal interest in the plight of food workers.
“I’ve been really paying more attention to it over time than I did at the beginning,” he said. “When I wrote my first book about the food system, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I didn’t talk in detail about labor. It was much more from the point of view of the eater than the person behind the counter.
“But the food movement is all about connecting the dots,” Pollan continued. “Both the farm workers and the fast food workers are very important in the food system. I think Eric Schlosser did this better than anyone in Fast Food Nation (2001), where the focus was very much on food workers, slaughterhouse workers and farm workers. I think he’s helped to sensitize a lot of people in the food movement who perhaps weren’t paying as much attention to this part of the puzzle as they should have been. You definitely find the interest spreading and accelerating as social inequality has gotten so much worse in the last few years.”
Why, I wondered, is there this impression of the food movement as an elite venue? And why is it that the only people who can afford local, organic options are generally those who don’t have to worry about their pay?
“Although there’s a kernel of truth in that image [of a foodie elite],” he responded, “it’s also a part of the rhetorical strategy used by the [agricultural] industry to fight the food movement: that it’s elitist; that this kind of food can’t feed the world; that only industrial agriculture can get the job done and put lots of cheap meat in front of us. It’s a bludgeon used in a very serious ideological battle.
“Often stereotypes have some kernel of truth behind them, and this one did, but it’s been way overplayed by the media, in particular. They love this idea that the food movement is merely elitist. But if you dig in, there’s an inner-city dimension of the food movement. Urban agriculture is all about access, underserved communities and the whole discourse around food deserts.
“When you buy cheap food, the real costs have been externalized,” Pollan continued. “Those externalized costs have always included labor. It is only the decline over time of the minimum wage in real dollars that’s made the fast food industry possible, along with feedlot agriculture, pharmaceuticals on the farm, pesticides and regulatory forbearance. All these things are part of the answer to the question: Why is that crap so cheap? Our food is dishonestly priced. One of the ways in which it’s dishonestly priced is the fact that people are not paid a living wage to process it, to serve it, to grow it, to slaughter it.”
I said that Pollan made a great point about the devil’s bargain of cheap products for cheap wages, but noted that state farm bureaus and other agricultural industry representatives across the country would no doubt disagree. Opponents of fair wages claim that increased farm worker pay will result in higher food prices. I asked Pollan if this kind of scare messaging resonates with his base of supporters in the food movement.
“That argument has been used to thwart all kinds of reform in the food industry,” he replied. “If we clean up our act, in any way, we’re going to have to pay more at the register. There’s a kernel of truth. If you raised the price of wages to people in the food industry to, say, $15 an hour in fast food, no doubt it would add to prices — although the claims of how much it would add to prices are exaggerated. However, those people would be able to afford more. That’s why we need to pay people more so they can afford it. There’s a virtuous circle of paying people more so that they can afford better stuff.”
I absolutely agree, of course, but will those higher prices, or the threat of higher prices, scare off support for workers among eaters who consider themselves part of the food movement?
“It’s a politically potent argument,” Pollan admitted. “It needs to be repelled by pointing out that we need to pay people a living wage so they can afford to pay the real cost of food. Cheap food is really an addiction for an economy and for a society. Cheap food is one of the pillars on which our economy is based. It is what has allowed wages to fall over the last 30 or 40 years, the fact that food was getting cheaper the whole time. In a sense, cheap food has subsidized the collapse in wages that we’ve seen. Part of repairing the whole system will involve paying people more and internalizing the real cost of producing this food.”
I next asked Pollan to point to some of the bright spots around the country where fair wages and working conditions for food workers are being successfully promoted. He flagged the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) labor activists who are based in the corner of southern Florida that provides a third of America’s tomato harvest. Farm laborers in the region have been subjected to almost every indignity and injustice imaginable, including slavery.
“The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been a real beacon on this issue,” he said. “That has been a very successful movement to pressure the food industry into improving, not just the earnings, but the working conditions of some of the most exploited workers in the country. The way it was done was through the creation of a pledge, The Fair Food Agreement. Then they applied pressure through everything from negotiation, boycott, shaming – every tool in the political kit — to move several big companies to sign on. I think that that’s an interesting model. There’s the model of obviously legislating higher wages, and that’s one way to do it. But this has been a boycott led by activists and consumers and has received a lot of support from the food movement over quite a number of years.”
The innovative and comprehensive tactics utilized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an excellent example of food workers taking the fight to the companies. While they initially utilized the strike as a primary tactic, the group has had far greater success with secondary boycotts and other kinds of public pressure campaigns targeting brand-sensitive companies. Walmart just signed onto their Fair Food Program, which sets an industry standard of higher wages by charging one penny more in wages per pound of tomatoes picked.
I asked Pollan what other groups can learn from CIW’s example.
“They didn’t appeal to any government — state, federal or local,” Pollan responded. “They created a model pledge, [The Fair Food Agreement] that they thought would be just, and then they moved everybody there. They understood something very important. In today’s world, where government is knotted up, corporations can unilaterally make important concessions when their brands are under attack. Brands are their most important assets. When activists understand that and figure out clever ways to threaten their brands, they can achieve important gains. I think that’s the lesson of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They really did take the high road, but it was also unrelenting pressure. If you talk to people [in management] at Burger King or Chipotle, I think you’ll find they felt besieged for a long time.”
I finished by asking about the fast food workers struggle that is dominating the media these days, which Pollan has also given his support to.
“It’s long overdue,” he said. “It has been driven by the fact that the identity of the fast food worker has changed. We tolerated these wages when it was our kids working in these places. You walked in, and you saw a fast food worker, and he was a 17 year old. Now you walk into a fast food outlet, and you find adults holding these same jobs. That’s a measure of what the economy has become.
We’re catching up in our recognition that a lot of special exemptions were made for fast food companies because they were employing teenagers, students and part-time workers.
“Then there is the fact that has really caught people’s attention, which is how much public money goes to keeping those people whole,” Pollan concluded. “There is an implicit subsidy of McDonald’s or Walmart, when their workers need food stamps and Medicaid. Once again the real cost of having those workers is not paid by the corporations or by consumers. It’s being paid by the taxpayer. The recognition of that has driven an enormous increase in support for the fast food workers. It’s an important movement to watch.”
It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just 1% of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today’s generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today’s fights.
But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews, and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol, and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein describes the loose but committed network of grassroots volunteers that maintains this activity. “There are eight or ten of us that keep the day-to day work going, 20 of us that come all the time, and 100 that come out to a rally,” she says. Goldstein adds that while CJJ’s regular meetings are held in Raleigh and Durham, it claims members from all over the state, including the metro regions of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Greensboro.
Faith in Action
Max Socol, CJJ’s 27-year-old co-founder, grew up in Greensboro and now lives and works in Raleigh as principal of a temple-based school. His organizing pedigree, though, dates back to his living and working in Israel in 2008-2009 with Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI). From there, he moved to Washington, DC, where there were plenty of opportunities to work for social justice but no consensus among those who were doing the work. “There were two moments,” he says, “that crystallized for me the idea that it would be useful to advocate for justice from a Jewish perspective.”
The first such moment, he says, was at the Occupy DC encampment, where Socol attended meetings and tried to make his voice heard. “My overall experience with that movement was, ‘Gee, I’ve never met so many people who have similar political opinions, but have such a hard time communicating with each other,” Socol says. “All of us wanted to address economic inequality in a public, hands-on way; but despite that, we couldn’t get through a single organizing meeting! We didn’t have a single touchstone with which to communicate.” Socol says that this prompted him to re-examine how a shared commitment to Jewish ritual and practice might become such a touchstone.
Socol became active in the DC Jewish community, attending Shabbat dinners where people discussed how to support the Occupy movement. “I’m actually getting more done,” he remembers thinking to himself. “Organizing within the Jewish community allows me to leapfrog these communication barriers because we understand each other.”
Socol’s second moment of clarity came when he approached a mentor about using Torah as the foundation for taking action and organizing others to work for social justice. He was apprehensive, he told his mentor, about being so bold as to “politicize the texts” – in other words, to interpret and apply Torah to modern struggles for economic and social justice. “She laughed in my face,” he says. “She said, ‘Have you ever even read the book of Jeremiah?’” Socol saw what she meant and decided to embrace a social-justice interpretation of Torah. “I’m not going to pretend,” he adds, “that Jeremiah is only speaking metaphorically when he says a society that fails to care for the poor is doomed.”
Socol’s faith-driven activism found some willing partners in the Jewish community when he moved back to Raleigh in 2012. As liaison for his congregation’s social action committee, Socol says he couldn’t sit by as the committee organized simple acts of charity while hard-right Republicans swept to power at the statehouse. The new state majority, backed by wealthy North Carolina businessman Art Pope, began passing tax cuts for the wealthy and moved right along to gutting voters’ rights. Socol asked the committee to consider taking a political stance. “I said, ‘It’s great that we send ten volunteers down to serve at the food pantry every month, but there’s a reason that there’s greater need at the food pantry. Are we in any way going to express unhappiness with the new tax plan?’”
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein had had a similar moment a few years ago when it became clear that Jews in her state needed to speak out. “The debate over immigration reform was to me very disturbing in North Carolina,” she says. “It just seemed like candidates were fighting over who could be more anti-immigrant. It shocked me.” Goldstein says she began attending regular events with Jewish social activists in Raleigh, and met some others who wanted to become politically engaged. “There was a proposal two years ago to have a constitutional amendment that would limit the right of gay people to marry. That also bothered me,” she says. “It pushed many Jews to take a political position where they had never taken a position before.”
In 2012, along with a few people from his own congregation who were interested in doing political work, Socol began reaching out to social action committees at area congregations, and a group formed that became the executive board of CJJ.
A Growing Movement
Fortunately, North Carolina’s legacy civil rights movement institutions had been marshaling their supporters and resources to provide an opportunity for CJJ to take action in concert with other progressives from around the state. The NAACP’s Rev. William Barber, North Carolina’s most vocal progressive leader, and other labor and community activists have spent the past six years crafting a 15-point progressive policy agenda. This helped to create a “big tent” under which Jewish and other faith-based activists could organize for change. Beginning in 2012, the policy agenda formed the basis for a series of weekly rallies at the state capitol that became known as Moral Monday Marches (or Moral Marches when they aren’t held on a Monday). Following its initial board meetings in 2012, CJJ began recruiting Jews from around the state to come to the Moral Monday Marches.
The agenda, known as Historic Thousands on Jones Street (or HK on J), serves as both a list of policy demands and a rallying cry for the state’s grassroots progressives. “If you believe in unabridged voting rights for every citizen, expanding our democracy, fighting against the forces that would attempt to steal, segregate and suppress our vote, you should march with us,” reads a web banner ad for the most recent Moral March, which took place Feb. 8. CJJ responded to the call, turning out 130 Jews from across the state for a Shabbat morning service before the march, which was on a Saturday. Total crowd estimates for the march ranged from 25,000 to 80,000.
Goldstein has found the Moral Marches to be an exciting moment for Jewish progressives in the state, especially in the cities of Raleigh and Durham. Despite being just a thirty minute drive apart, Goldstein says that “in many ways the communities are isolated & separate. It (the Moral Marches) just made me feel like I was part of something bigger. It was empowering to say we can do something to mobilize the Jewish community.” Goldstein adds that a group of rabbis from around the state have been working with CJJ, signing statements of support and working with their congregations to encourage participation. “Several rabbis have really been phenomenal and willing to write sermons and bring their congregations out and help CJJ to make this really be something in North Carolina,” she says.
“I think the big change that we have brought is that we have reconnected the Jewish community to the broader political community in North Carolina,” Socol says. “That connection had become weak. We were kind of limited to a once a year visit from the Jewish legislators.” Socol adds that CJJ welcomes a diversity of levels of Jewish observance, acknowledging that approaching social justice activism from a place of Jewish religious identity may not be for everyone. “There are plenty of folks in CJJ who wouldn’t ever bring up faith as why they are activists,” he said. “I tend not to challenge that. I say that for me, it’s important that this [work] come from a place of faith.”
CJJ includes some core Jewish teachings in its statement of principles, with a foundation composed of three primary teachings: B’tzelem Elohim (In the image of G-d), meaning all human beings are created in the Divine image, and that members follow the Torah’s requirements to “put ourselves in the position of others, and to protect their fundamental rights and dignity as carefully as we protect our own.” CJJ also holds as central the teaching to “Love thy neighbor as thyself”; the teaching of “tikkun olam”; and the value of kehillah, or community. Though it is politically non-partisan, CJJ’s mission includes the statement, “We work to influence policy at the local and state levels and encourage individuals and Jewish institutions to take a stand on important issues in our community.”
Being the 1%
But Socol adds that working among other faith groups, even as progressives, in a state that is 79% Christian-identified and 1% Jewish-identified has its challenges. “For me personally, the biggest unexpected challenge is how thoroughly infused progressive politics are in this state with Christianity, and with evangelical Christianity in particular. I wasn’t expecting it,” he says. “When we first got going, I had people asking me, how are we going to be comfortable at these rallies where Jesus is being invoked all the time. I thought, we all get through our daily lives just fine–we’ll just put a little asterisk in our minds next to the prayers! In actually attending these rallies I’ve realized that yeah, it’s challenging. It’s that same communications barrier that I experienced at Occupy–people really don’t know much about Judaism or Jews in North Carolina. We are more likely to experience casual anti-Semitism. People will make an off the cuff remark, and somebody takes it the wrong way, and all of a sudden you have a little dustup that you’ve got to clear up between people who are really on the same team.”
Socol explained that it helps to view some of these tensions in the historical context of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. “My gut feeling,” he says, “is that you cannot separate progressive activism in the South from the civil rights movement. People who are the top level organizers in progressive organizing in the South today are people who grew up in the civil rights movement. And that movement is integrally Christian. That’s the reality of where that movement comes from. Particularly when we work with the NAACP, it’s only natural that they view their work as Christian work. It’s not like it’s only in the South – the difference is that it’s all the more pervasive because of our civil rights history. I think that’s a gain, not a loss.
“I grew up in Greensboro. I grew up going to that Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. And I learned not only that it was important, but that it happened here. On my doorstep. Civil rights is a part of what we do. And when it comes to Christianity, I just have to be careful that I don’t say anything that makes an assumption about somebody else’s beliefs.”
Socol adds that his response as a CJJ organizer is to proudly wear the outward signs of his Jewish faith, hoping his visibility can help other Jews see that they have a place in the movement for social justice. “We don’t want people to be uncomfortable with being identified as Jewish,” he says. “Nobody is going to intimidate me into not appearing Jewish. I’m out there with my kippeh and my tallis. Others may be less comfortable with that.”
Another challenge CJJ has faced is how to mobilize younger Jews. “I can count on two hands the number of young people who have come out to CJJ events,” he says. “We’ve hosted a couple of events with local young professionals groups to try to bring people in. But where the rubber meets the road and we need people to come out and register voters or come out to a rally, younger folks just aren’t in the mix.”
Socol adds that CJJ organizers continue to try to get Jews from across the state involved with social justice work on whatever level makes sense for individuals. “If you want to be able to come out to a Moral Monday rally, we have this big banner that says CJJ and you can come and stand with us and be in photos, or you can drift away and no one will be the wiser.” Socol says CJJ meetings include some text study to anchor the social justice work in Jewish practice and ritual. “To me, that’s the point,” he says. “We want to have a common language. We also make sure to include texts that are not Jewish altogether for people who are not religiously inclined.”
CJJ organizes and raises public awareness around issues of economic justice and inequality. But Socol says the word “union” isn’t necessarily helpful in doing this work. “The language around labor rights is really different in the South. We’re one of the least unionized states in the country. The South is the least unionized region of the country. It’s not uncommon to meet somebody who identifies as liberal and also identifies as anti-union.” Goldstein says that, with this in mind, CJJ has chosen to focus on achieving policy goals that would lessen inequality, such as fighting for better access to healthcare through Medicaid (which the NC legislature declined to expand using the money available through the Affordable Care Act). They also try to speak up for teachers, who have come under attack in the state. “North Carolina always had a reputation for being a strong supporter of public education,” she says. “We’ve seen a real regression here. Salaries are very low.”
Raising awareness of, and getting more Jews involved in, policy issues that affect regular and poor North Carolinians is one of CJJ’s major goals for the next year. To this end, they are already mobilizing teams of people in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill to register voters and make sure people have the proper identification to comply with the state’s new Voter ID law. Raising money to make the work sustainable is another pressing goal. “Our funding is zero dollars,” Socol says, laughing. “We are developing a fundraising plan.”
Teachers have always held a cherished role in our society — recognized as professionals who know how to inculcate a love of learning in our children. But the “education reform” movement represented by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top blames teachers for the problems in our public schools.
“The people who seek to privatize the public sector are looking for any excuse to criticize teachers,” says Bob Peterson, veteran fifth-grade teacher and president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). “We must take responsibility for our profession. If we don’t step up to the plate, public education is going to be destroyed.”
At heart, this is a debate between competing visions of teachers’ roles in public education in America. Teachers, through their unions, are defending the idea that they are best-equipped to teach children to become lifelong learners. Education “reformers,” on the other hand, cite studies — such as one from the Goldwater Institute from 2004 — that show that students at privately run charter schools outperform kids in public schools and say that public education would improve if public schools simply looked more like privately run schools. In privately run schools, teachers lack a collective voice, their working conditions are subject to the whims of school administrators and they can be fired at will. This contrast with the empowered rank-and-file of unionized public school teachers could help explain the claims of “reformers” that traditional public school teachers are too sheltered, that they can’t be dismissed easily enough and that their unions need to be eliminated. Firing and replacing teachers based on students’ scores on standardized tests, then, is part of the reformers’ vision for the schools.
Everyone agrees that great teachers are key to a good education. But reform advocates such as former Washington, DC, schools chief Michelle Rhee say that schools can fire their way to excellence. In September 2013, according to a report on the public policy website Next City, Rhee spoke at Temple University. Exemplifying the rhetoric of the reformers, Rhee said, “Not everyone can do this job. If you have a pulse and pass the criminal check, a lot of school districts will just stick you in the classroom.” But Rhee’s approach is to evaluate teachers by giving their students standardized tests. This approach offers, at best, an imprecise evaluation, failing to measure the intangibles that make great teachers. The result is that some of the best teachers get taken out, along with a few bad ones.
Peterson and other educators say that, unsurprisingly, the reformers’ approach undermines those who have devoted their professional lives to educating kids. In 2010, Rhee fired 241 DC public-school teachers in a single day, but failed to achieve the promised turnaround in standardized test scores. The achievement gap between black and white elementary students is now wider than ever, as education writer Dana Goldstein and others have noted since Rhee’s departure from DC.
Across the country, teachers’ unions are fighting back against the work of people like Rhee by working to educate children holistically. This means taking into account all the factors that influence students’ chances for success: families, homes, communities — and often the effects of poverty. In Milwaukee, Peterson is working with his union to emphasize teacher professionalism and social justice in the community. In New York City, as part of a union-based program, 16 schools have reinvented themselves as hubs for community services. In St. Paul, Minn., teachers visit parents in their homes to build engagement with families.
Rethinking Milwaukee Schools
Peterson’s organizing efforts in Milwaukee focus on highlighting how the interests of teachers — for instance, having paid time for class preparation — align closely with those of students. Peterson is a longtime fifth-grade teacher and former editor of the progressive education magazine Rethinking Schools. He was elected president of the MTEA to represent a caucus of teachers who advocate funding and fixing public schools. His organizing efforts focus on using the union’s clout not merely to protect teachers’ jobs but to champion the common interests of teachers, students, parents and the community.
As a first change, the union actively encourages teachers to work for social justice in their communities. “In the way past, our union didn’t really do much outreach to the community except when we needed support for our issues,” Peterson says. “That’s changed.” Recently, Peterson says, MTEA teachers turned out to support immigrants’ rights groups in the city alongside a grassroots organization called Voces de la Frontera and provided adult advising and mentoring for its youth arm, Youth Empowered in the Struggle. Union members also joined picket lines in spring 2012 in support of striking Palermo’s pizza factory workers. These are not actions that seem directly related to education. For MTEA teachers, addressing such stressors as legal status, support in the community and economic insecurity is critical to student success. “We are really trying to change the narrative in the community,” he says, “from ‘teacher unions just defend bad teachers’ to a narrative where we are seen as the go-to people when it comes to public education.”
In the schools, the union’s focus is on making clear how, in Peterson’s words, “our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” The union’s negotiating team recently won a 50 percent increase in paid class preparation time for MTEA teachers, allowing the teachers to accommodate the more complex curriculum material that will boost their students’ achievement.
A final leg of the union’s efforts, Peterson argues, is to “reclaim our profession in our classrooms.” Teachers “should be child-driven and data-informed,” Peterson says, using a broad set of data to measure the success of the whole child, rather than measuring learning strictly with standardized tests. In one example, the union lent its voice to an effort to overhaul Milwaukee’s ailing early childhood education system and convened a joint task force with school officials to lay the groundwork for improvements in the city’s pre-K through third-grade programs. Recognizing the strong evidence that quality early childhood teaching makes for improved long-term outcomes for all kids, the union assigned early childhood education experts to the task force.
Weaving Schools into the Fabric of the Community
Because a child’s education doesn’t start or stop at the classroom door, education and public health officials are moving toward a consensus that schools in high-poverty areas produce the most positive outcomes when they are seamless parts of the community. Members of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) regularly confront the way poverty interferes with their students’ ability to learn. They argue that the right of all children to an education is intertwined with the right of families to live free from hunger and preventable medical problems, and to have access to adequate childcare as well as parenting support.
Working with parent leaders, politicians and school administrators, the UFT is transforming traditional public schools into community schools. The community school model was piloted in New York by the Children’s Aid Society and by the Harlem Children’s Zone, a comprehensive education program anchored in a partnership with Promise Academy charter schools. The model makes the school a hub where families can be introduced to available services, from child care to medical attention to classes for parents and activities for non-school-age children. In 2012, the UFT announced an initiative, which received $700,000 in new funding from the state, to establish before- and after-school care, medical services, parents’ activities, clubs and sports at 16 existing schools throughout the city.
Similar efforts exist outside New York. Activists from the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) consulted on a project to open a community school in Lawrence, Mass., in 2013. There, the local AFT affiliate is taking full control of one school, right down to selecting its principal. The school will provide health services and child care, in keeping with the union’s vision of broadening the school’s role in the community.
Engaging Parents in the Home
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers is experimenting with re-establishing teachers as partners in a child’s learning and development, rather than as an external authority. Their Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project in St. Paul, Minn., was started in 2010 and is led by science teacher Nick Faber. “The project stands a lot of our traditional parent engagement on its head,” Faber says. “We [used to] invite parents in and talk at them, tell them things that we think they don’t know. And we’d stand around and wonder why they don’t show up.” The new program builds relationships, using the first visit for parents and teachers simply to get to know each other and the second visit to build capacity for parents to take on more school leadership, such as joining a committee or helping in the classroom.
Inspired by a similar program in Sacramento, Calif., the St. Paul program started with eight teachers making home visits in 2010. Sixty-six teachers attended the program’s trainings in 2011, and Faber reports that more than 300 teachers are now trained to visit students’ families. More than 200 visits were completed in just the first two months of the 2013-2014 school year. The national AFT helped Faber start the home visits project with initial funding for training, and is now helping him put structural supports — like partnerships with community-based organizations and program evaluations — into place so it can continue to grow.
Teachers’ unions are one of the few institutional forces with the power to fight back against austerity and privatization, and to instead insist that our understanding of education must extend well beyond the walls of the classroom. Scapegoating teachers will not get us to an educational model that takes the challenges of the system as a whole into account. Following the example of innovative, teacher-led programs in Milwaukee, New York City and St. Paul will.
Picture your typical week: Maybe you have a doctor’s appointment or a child’s music performance to attend. You may have urgent errands to run on your day off from work. Now, imagine having to achieve these things without knowing your actual work schedule, knowing that at any moment you could be called in to work – or that you could hustle to get to your job and then be told that you’re not needed after all, or maybe sent home after only getting an hour’s work.
Under what is known as “just-in-time scheduling,” employers increasingly require that their employees remain constantly on call and give them little advance notice about schedules. Large retail employers have begun using digital scheduling systems that detect minute fluctuations in business throughout the day and tailor employees’ work hours to the precise times when customers are most likely to shop. Instead of using this technology to make life easier and more predictable for everyone, they are using it to maximize profits at their employees’ expense. These practices are making it impossible for employees to live normal lives.
Sometimes, employees have told researchers, workers don’t know what hours they are scheduled until they show up to punch in. Or, an employee shows up for a scheduled shift and is told to go home – effectively denying that person their day’s pay. The impact is a sense of constant precarious living. “Just-in-time scheduling” deprives employees of the ability to plan their lives, to schedule childcare, attend family events or take care of their own health. It also means many employees don’t get to work enough hours at one job to make ends meet. This unpredictability of such employment is especially problematic for the 7.5 million part-time workers who say they wish to have full-time positions.
The most abusive forms of “just-in-time scheduling” reflect a wider trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 percent of hourly-wage workers aged 26-32 say they get a week or less of advance notice about what hours they have to work.
Workers’ rights advocates say we can do better. So does Rep. George Miller, longtime Democratic California Congressperson and cochair of the House Education and Work Committee, who last month cosponsored a bill that would mandate that workers who are summoned to work on short notice be paid extra. It would also require employers to pay a minimum of four hours’ pay to a worker who is sent home after coming to work.
Miller and his cosponsors are hoping that, even with the current stalemate in Congress, the bill (dubbed the Schedules that Work Act) will make state and local lawmakers take notice of this issue – and pursue local solutions that can become models for nationwide action. I spoke with Rep. Miller about just-in-time scheduling and the opportunities that he sees for changing the situation low-wage workers face.
Amy Dean for Truthout: What’s the daily impact of “just-in-time” scheduling on people’s lives?
Rep. George Miller: Just-in-time schedules create a huge amount of stress for that individual employee. Then, if that employee has obligations in terms of healthcare or their education – or trying to have a second job to earn enough money to provide for themselves – or if they have family responsibilities, the just-in-time schedule just creates a huge amount of stress. One of the things we know is that stress can be very dangerous. So these workers are constantly on the edge of the knife as to whether or not they’re going to have enough hours, enough pay or enough time to take care of their families and their obligations to the employer.
It’s also disruptive in the workplace because that stress is then carried into the workforce, and we’ve all encountered employees from time to time that are under serious pressure.
How would the “Schedules That Work Act” begin to address these issues?
We hope to start a serious conversation around changing this policy and improving scheduling to the best extent we can. We recognize that there are a multitude of workplaces, and that they differ. But we say that a worker should be able to get their schedule two weeks in advance, and that if you have a very late shift and a very early morning shift [back to back], that you ought to be able to change that.
What we’re trying to do is to get employers to be able to sit down and have this conversation. We want to make sure that if a schedule is changed with less than 24 hours’ notice, that there’s some financial penalty. There’s a problem when an employee has already given up time to be ready to go to work on schedule, and then the shift is canceled. They may have given up a doctor’s appointment or a teacher’s appointment with their child. Additionally, if you show up for your work and you’re sent home, there’s a financial penalty for the worker.
Often, when an employee asks for a schedule change or inquires about a schedule in any fashion, they’re dismissed. They’re fired because they’re acting contrary to the status quo in that place of employment. These employees are people without any financial protections, without any employment protections, and they’re subject to arbitrary decisions by an employer.
In the same industries, however, we also see employers who are trying to do it right, and who are really taking into account the needs of their employees – in pay, and in job security, and notice of work hours. These employers tell us that they’re getting better job applicants, less turnover, and positive engagement from their employees with patrons.
Recently a study showed that women, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by Just in Time scheduling. What does that mean in terms of equity in our communities?
Many people in those populations are not only working for lower wages, but often for fewer hours, and hours determined in a more arbitrary fashion. So their ability to plan, to save money, to try to set aside money for an urgent family need, is just shattered. I think what you’re starting to see, even around the increasing the minimum wage discussion – it’s going on much more vibrantly in local communities than it is in Washington DC – is that people are recognizing that they’re not going to be able to build a strong community if a huge part of the work force is contingent and low paid. That’s a disaster for a community.
One other point about what the employers are doing: In scheduling people this way, they are also making the federal government, and the federal taxpayer, their partner. Because the wages are so low, the hours are so few and so arbitrary, that workers then have a higher reliance on Medicaid and a higher reliance on the Earned Income Tax Credit, a higher reliance on food stamps and housing vouchers.
You referred to Walmart, which joins other companies in saying that “the core of our success is our ability to have Just-in-Time scheduling, Just-in-Time warehouse distribution, and Just-in-Time manufacturing.” They claim that this kind of scheduling is critical to their bottom line. What is your response to that?
Is this really critical to them being a successful business, or is it critical for them to be able to extract the maximum amount of money out of that business? Those two things are not necessarily the same. If the purpose of the Just-In-Time scheduling and a contingent work force is so that the Walmart family, the richest people in the United States, can continue extracting billions of dollars rather than sharing some of the productivity of their workers with those same employees, then we’ve lost any kind of sense of economic justice in this country.
We see businesses where the owners decide that they’re going to treat their employees with a sense of justice, and those businesses thrive. Greed will keep you from providing many of the things that your employees need to help make your business successful.
In this deadlocked Congress, where it’s difficult to make anything happen, is there a different dynamic with this issue that could make it more politically viable than other issues?
Yes, and here’s why: If this issue isn’t taken up by the Congress, perhaps it will be by state legislatures, or maybe even by some cities. Because what you’re seeing now is a sense, among these very same workers who are among the lowest paid, most contingent, most arbitrarily treated, that they too can exercise some power. So you see adjunct professors forming unions on university campuses; you see McDonald’s workers and fast food industries starting to organize. In all these cases, they are starting to bring the issue to the American public if the Congress won’t.
This is about the dignity of workers within their cities, or within their states. I think this is a very different conversation than what’s going on in Washington DC, and I also think it’s growing in power every day and in the amount of attention it’s getting.
What does it mean that state and local governments are having to take the lead and act on issues that are stalled in Congress?
It means that the democracy is getting back some of its vibrancy. Congress is not much of an initiator, historically never has been, but Congress is responsive. Whether it’s a question of safety of nuclear power, or whether it’s the questions of minimum wage or the questions of foreign engagement in wars, changes come from the country. What you’re seeing, because Congress has been unable to respond to these concerns of millions of families and individuals, is that these people are going elsewhere. Congress can react, but people are not going to wait for Congress to screw up the courage to lead.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is a national hero for helping end racial segregation in the United States. Yet he spent the last years of his life working as much for economic justice as for racial justice.
When he was shot and killed in Memphis in April 1968, King was in the city on behalf of striking sanitation workers who were trying to organize a union and win higher wages. The predominantly black labor force had to work seven days a week with no vacations, carrying 80 pound crates of rotting garbage. They were being paid wages so low that many were forced to supplement their income with public assistance programs.
Dr. King always understood that the fight for labor rights was integral to attaining true social, political and economic equality. In a speech at the May 1961 AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention, he linked the aspirations of African-Americans in the United States with organized labor’s cause.
“Our needs are identical with labor’s needs,” he said. “The duality of interests of labor and Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you, a crisis from which we bleed.”
King’s vision could hardly be more relevant today, and the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside activists fighting for a fairer minimum wage, is carrying his torch. Instead of seeing racial and economic justice as separate struggles, Black Lives Matter and the national fight for a $15 minimum wage have repeatedly presented their causes as intertwined. The cross-pollination of these two causes provides an inspiring example of how acknowledging interconnected issues of race and economic justice empowers social movements.
In the fall of 2013, the Seattle suburb of SeaTac voted to increase its minimum wage to $15. Since then, similar demands have swept the country. Protests and walkouts have occurred in hundreds of cities, and $15 has been won in Seattle, San Francisco, andmost recently in Los Angeles (once the mayor signs the council’s final bill). The most prominent of these campaigns is an effort by the labor union SEIU; its slogan, “Fight for $15,” has come to be the rallying call for the broader movement.
Black Lives Matter, meanwhile, was founded after the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin in February of 2012. It gained momentum after the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown last year, and flared up in response to the mysterious death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore. Black Lives Matter is leading a comprehensive debate around law enforcement reforms, and it is forcing greater responsiveness to police abuses from political figures.
It’s easy to assume these movements have entirely different goals. However, the protesters themselves have articulated how low-wage work, long-term unemployment, and economic segregation have gone hand-in-hand with problems of racial segregation and abusive policing. The result has been an inspiring and sophisticated level of collaboration.
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter and a Special Projects Director with the alt-labor group National Domestic Workers Alliance, recently stated in a report on black women labor leaders, “In Ferguson I saw leaders from the Fight for $15 movement really on the front lines moving labor leaders by saying, ‘I’m not just a worker. I’m somebody who lives in this community, who is being targeted by the police all the time — and you have to see that about me.’”
“They’re showing that it’s not just a class issue,” she continued. “It is class, it is race, it is gender, it is geography, it is all of these things that make us who we are. Also state violence, fundamentally, is systemic racism. And that shows up in every aspect of our society — so it’s absolutely a labor issue.”
The cross fertilization between these two campaigns makes a lot of sense. As in the Memphis sanitation workers strike, people of color disproportionately share the burdens of police brutality and unconscionably low wages. The Department of Labor’s most recent “Profile of the Working Poor,” found that “Hispanics and blacks were more than twice as likely as whites and Asians to be among the working poor.” And ProPublica recently confirmed that young black men, in particular, are at far, far greater risk of being killed by the police than any other racial group.
Hyper-segregated African-American communities in Baltimore and Ferguson have been the site of recent bursts of civil unrest in reaction to police brutality in part because they are isolated from economic opportunity. Public transit is minimal in Ferguson, leaving the many carless residents stranded far from job centers and inner city social services, as Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom detailed in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, Baltimore has the least comprehensive mass transportation systems of the five major northeastern cities and only receives $5,336 per public school student. The spasms of civil violence that briefly gripped both municipalities are only the most visible manifestation of these inequities.
The recent spate of unrest across the United States has shown the world that American civil rights have a long way to go, and that MLK’s goal of linking racial and economic justice was never fully realized. But by acknowledging that problems of jobs and wages go hand-in-hand with racial discrimination, today’s activists are reinvigorating his legacy—and they may yet secure a more equitable America.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.
A clear majority of Americans agree: high-quality preschool should be guaranteed by the public, just as our primary and secondary schools are. It’s an idea that Democrats are hoping to add to their legacy — something to stand along aside Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit as lasting institutions in American life. But it’s also a policy that even business-minded Republicans have reason to support. Not only does it provide a cost-effective educational intervention for our kids; it also gives their parents the freedom to participate in the job market.
On July 7, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania introduced legislation to Congress proposing state-run pre-kindergarten programs that would be freely available to families earning less than $48,000 a year. Unfortunately, Casey’s bill, which was an amendment to No Child Left Behind, has stalled on Capitol Hill. However, at the state level, several Republican governors have already gotten behind their own proposals, creating bipartisan support for an issue whose time has come.
Around the world, early childhood education has long been understood as a necessary feature of modern economies. Japan provides publicly funded kindergartens for children ages 3-6. Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Demark, Estonia, Malta and Slovenia all guarantee children as young as 1 the legal right to a preschool seat, with programs often beginning around the end of parental leave. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Hungary, among others, subsidized childcare begins at age 3. According to the European Commission, children in these countries are typically entitled to early childhood education and care free of charge.
In the U.S. there is strong popular support for following this example. According to an August, 2014 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans “favor using federal money to make sure high-quality preschool education programs are available for every child in America.” A 2013 poll from Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research found that 86 percent of Americans “want the federal government to help states and local communities build better preschool services and make them more accessible to children from low- and middle-income families.”
Alone, these numbers should give pause to politicians who oppose federally funded universal pre-K. But there’s an economic basis for it, too.
Economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman argues that the earlier investments are made in an individual’s education, the larger their returns later in life — in terms of academic achievement, employment and income. Furthermore, investing in early childhood education can trim social spending in other areas, by reducing crime, teen pregnancy and preventable health problems.
“If you take disadvantaged, minority children starting at age six to eight weeks — I mean, they’re literally just born — and you follow these kids and give them intensive interventions for about eight years, you can boost their IQ at least up to age 21,” Heckman told PBS.
For conservatives, expanding early childhood education can be an attractive platform for reducing income inequality. Although Republican lawmakers have begun to acknowledge this much-discussed problem, they are opposed to supporting collective bargaining, boosting the minimum wage and implementing workplace protections such as paid sick leave. For them, early childhood education can be a politically attractive alternative.
Persistent gridlock in Washington means we are unlikely to see a national pre-K program passed any time soon, but prominent conservatives at the federal level acknowledge that the idea is worthwhile. As Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told NPR in November, “The question is not whether early childhood education is a good idea. It’s how best to encourage it.”
At the state level, where majority-Republican state governments have less pressure to play politics, there is a greater possibility for pre-K funding to move forward. And some Republican governors have taken up the issue. Greg Abbott, the Texas governor elected in November, declared during his first State of the State address that early education was his “first emergency item as governor.” In May he signed a bill increasing funding for public pre-kindergarten programs in his state, granting $130 million for districts that offer services meeting state standards.
North Dakota recently established its own prekindergarten program, while Georgia Republicans can boast of one of the oldest prekindergarten programs in the nation. And Florida funds a free pre-kindergarten program enrolling 80 percent of the state’s 4 year olds. As part of his re-election campaign, Florida governor Rick Scott tweeted a brag about this program: “Florida ranks first in the nation for access to free pre-kindergarten. We need to keep it that way.”
Progressive education advocates in these states have complained that Republicans are not living up to their promises when it comes to supporting these programs. In Texas, for example, the $130 million in pre-kindergarten funding only partially restores the $208 million in prekindergarten grants cut under Rick Perry. Nevertheless, most progressives are supportive. The Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers called the new law “a step in the right direction” and “a good start,” while also calling for more, including measures to open the program to a greater number of middle-class families.
Some who believe that budget cuts are necessary argue that pre-K is a worthy cause, but an unaffordable one. Yet serving our kids does not necessarily require new taxes. State leaders such as Abbott and Scott are giving awayhundreds of millions of dollars in property tax cuts, a move which disproportionately benefits the wealthy. If they simply maintained current revenue streams, they could easily ensure that all kids in their states get the early education opportunities they need.
There’s no question that affordable, quality pre-kindergarten is critical for today’s working parents. Implementing it is not just good politics; it also makes economic sense. Left or right, politicians who are savvy enough to see this may well find themselves at the forefront of a winning, lasting and worthy crusade.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.
In 1994 I visited the AFL-CIO’s national headquarters at Sixteenth and I Streets in Washington, D.C., at the invitation of its president, Lane Kirkland. I had just been elected to lead the regional labor federation for Silicon Valley, which entitled me to a seat at Kirkland’s table. Sharply dressed union lobbyists strode past as I stepped into the elevator. In the eighth-floor executive suite, leaders of the country’s biggest unions amassed around an impressive meeting table. At each place was a chair and an ashtray.
When I returned in 1996, the ashtrays were gone. The new president, John Sweeney, had transformed the spacious lobby into a command center for Union Summer—the federation’s signature program to recruit college activists, teach them how to knock on doors, and get them involved in organizing. Energetic young voices echoed through the grand entranceway, and a broad hope for reviving the labor movement seemed to reverberate throughout the building.
Last summer I visited again to interview Richard Trumka, the federation’s president since 2009. The excitement of the Sweeney years was gone, but this time it felt like the grownups were in charge. The calm allowed for some unexpected conversations. Within moments of my arrival, I spoke with longtime activists and former critics of big labor, people who had been marginalized and treated as outsiders in the Kirkland days. They were now high-level staffers.
Something else was different: in the entryway to the executive suite there now hung two framed documents. The first was the signed charter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the progressive rabble-rousing arm of the labor movement. The second was a photo of an early CIO executive board, including John L. Lewis, the group’s first president. Lewis had come from the mineworkers, and he sought to expand labor’s power by reaching the unorganized core of the country’s workforce and consolidating the multiple unions that had taken up in individual workplaces.
Lewis was largely successful: by the mid-1950s, around one-third of the U.S. workforce was unionized. But the story is different today. Labor laws, such as so-called right to work laws that weaken unions’ bargaining power, are hostile to workers’ rights. Since President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, which re-legitimized the use of scabs, there has been no effective legal recourse for striking workers. Total union membership has dropped by some 3.2 million since 1983.
So now it is Trumka’s task, as it had been Lewis’s, to invigorate labor. To that end, Trumka has brought to the AFL-CIO an unorthodox vision: he wants to connect unions to a wider progressive movement. This means going beyond traditional workplace concerns and speaking out on issues such as deepening inequality, mass incarceration, and a system of immigration that keeps 11 million undocumented workers vulnerable to abuse. Moreover, Trumka has embraced a distinctive brand of leadership. Instead of futilely barking orders to the AFL-CIO’s fifty-seven unions and allied organizations, he tells workers’ stories to the broader American public, brings workers who can’t legally join unions into discussions about the future of labor, and encourages traditional unions to do more to address their inefficiencies and flaws.
His agenda is ambitious, even inspirational. But can he convince union members to follow his lead, to dramatically alter the profile of organized labor from narrow special interest to big tent full of big dreamers?
Trumka sits behind a large hardwood desk covered in paperweights, knickknacks decked in union logos, and small piles of books and papers. The shelves flanking him display reminders of the job he was sent to do: three dust-covered miners’ helmets and their broken headlamps. He is a broad man, plainly dressed in a button-down shirt with no tie. Trumka smiles easily behind his thick mustache and speaks quietly of his family and earliest influences. It is a far cry from his forceful public style, full of gesticulation and, occasionally, high dudgeon.
Trumka is a third-generation coal miner from Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, a hamlet of 937 people nestled on the western bank of the Monongahela River and seated atop the Pittsburgh coal seam. Nemacolin originated as a company town, built by Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and the miners and their families were expected to fall in line, enduring low pay and brutal working conditions. Trumka says his maternal grandfather encouraged him to go to law school because he understood that the only way for the miners to break their indenture was for their children to get educated and use the law to conquer the coal bosses.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka wants to connect unions to a wider progressive movement.
“He had a third-grade education,” Trumka says of his grandfather. “He always read, loved to read.” Trumka took more than advice from his grandfather. “While he really liked ideas and was tolerant, when it came to his values, he was pretty rigid,” Trumka says. “I think I got a lot of that.”
Early on, Trumka developed an unusual schedule—overnight shift at the mine, days at the community college getting an economics degree. Then the union paid for law school. He represented miners in black lung and workers’ compensation cases. He saw firsthand how the support of a union, with its safety and legal teams, could determine whether a miner comes home for dinner with his family.
Trumka’s rise to power in the United Mine Workers of America began during some of its most tumultuous years. By the early 1980s, the union had ousted a corrupt leader named Tony Boyle, who had dominated local chapters. With Boyle gone, Trumka says, the local chapters were left autonomous but also rudderless. They would stage illegal strikes and fight each other for control. “Nobody knew what autonomy meant,” Trumka explains. “They confused autonomy in many instances for chaos.” Trumka wasn’t spared the infighting. He received a death threat on the eve of his own wedding in November 1982.
Earlier that year he had become president of the UMWA with the goal of focusing the chapters on fighting the coal companies, not each other. He poured resources into organizing and coordinating strikes, even in the de-industrializing 1980s when coal companies used the threat of closure to force mineworkers to split from the union. And he used the electoral process to gain advantage over the mine operators: he helped rank-and-file miners run for local office and made sure the devastation caused by black lung disease stayed in the headlines.
The Pittston coal strike of 1989–90 became Trumka’s signature battle. At issue was the Pittston Coal Company’s decision to withhold health benefits from some 1,500 retired coal miners, widows, and disabled miners. Trumka, who had watched miners slowly die off one at a time, decided to fight for a whole group of them at once. He launched an aggressive public relations and grassroots organizing campaign to expose and counter Pittston’s abandonment of its own workers. By putting the heroic image of miners succumbing to black lung disease in front of the cameras, Trumka and his staff won over wider opinion. With the backing of the public, union members in Southwest Virginia stood firm against the company and cut Pittston’s coal production by two-thirds.
When I ask him about that drive, Trumka leans forward, narrows his eyes. The quiet, reflective tone is now gone. “We started doing peaceful civil disobedience,” he recalls. “On a picket line, when people’s lives are at stake and you try to bring in scabs that are going to take their jobs, the chance of that erupting into violent conflict is high.” By channeling anger into civil disobedience, such as sit-down strikes on public roads and convoys to delay coal trucks, the mineworkers were able to escalate the confrontation nonviolently.
At the coal companies’ request, the court issued the union up to fifteen injunctions per day, Trumka recalls. Sometimes the judge would order that only two people at a time could walk the picket line; if the miners violated such an order, the judge would fine the union. “If I played by all those rules, I couldn’t win,” Trumka says. “That’s why they were written that way.”
With fines mounting, Trumka called his executive board together. “I said to the union’s legal team, ‘Get out of here.’ So all the lawyers leave and I say, look here, this is what I intend to do. I’m not going to listen to all of these injunctions. I’m going to do what we have to do to protect the health care of all of these widows, all of these citizens, all of our retirees, all of our pensions, all of the people in that community.” Trumka recognized that local towns depended on the money flowing in from the union members’ pensions and health care funds, and he expected civic leaders to join the effort.
He knew the judge might try to take the union’s treasury as punishment. He recalls telling the board, “I’m going to put that on the line, and if you don’t want to be a part of that, now is the time you should leave so you have total deniability. You’ll have a defense when anybody asks you.” He pauses. “Not a soul left. At that point, we were locked in, we were a unit. Any semblance of dissent or animosity or division that had flowed from the old days was gone.”
The union incurred $64 million in fines and nearly exhausted its $90 million strike fund cutting $225 weekly checks to each of the miners who had walked off the job. But Trumka held fast. His passionate speeches became a central feature of his public image. Tom Juravich, a labor scholar and sociologist, recalls how Trumka inspired the miners with his defiance and willingness to risk the union’s treasury. “Constantly, throughout Pittston, he was pushing very hard in terms of what tactics they were using,” Juravich said. Eventually, the coal companies backed down, and the miners went back to work with their retirees’ health care restored and a pension fund for some former miners who had not previously been covered.
Around the time of the Pittston strike, Trumka recognized an opportunity to expand labor’s reach: building ties across international borders. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was gaining more attention in the United States, and it became clear to Americans that the apartheid state was underwritten financially by global energy corporations, including coal, oil, and natural gas companies such as Royal Dutch Shell. With a common enemy, Trumka saw a chance to connect the mostly white UMWA’s fight for economic justice with the South African trade unionists’ struggle. Trumka calls the mine workers “a very, very conservative base,” but he “got them to do things that they probably never dreamed about doing.” One of these was a UMWA-led boycott of Shell oil in the United States, which helped to create international pressure that ultimately ended the company’s support for the apartheid regime.
Civil disobedience and international solidarity paid dividends for Trumka during his UMWA presidency, and his successes would influence his approach to the challenges facing the labor movement as a whole—especially when the traditional political channels for labor closed down.
When Republicans swept Congress in 1994, Trumka and other labor leaders lost any hope of access to policymaking. They also felt that the AFL-CIO’s leadership had grown disconnected from the urgency of labor’s challenges. Kirkland, then the federation’s president, was a longtime supporter of Cold War policies, such as the nuclear arms race, and the insurgents felt his entire worldview was out of touch. “We were getting our tails kicked here, domestically,” Trumka says. Along with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerry McEntee, Steelworkers’ President George Becker, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President John Sweeney, Trumka formed a working group to develop better union-building strategies.
In a notable 2008 speech, Trumka called out white union members on their lingering prejudices.
In its four decades, the AFL-CIO had never seen a contested election for its top offices, but, having failed to convince Kirkland to shift his focus, the working group decided to stage an open challenge. The insurgent candidates reflected new demographics. Services had replaced heavy industry as the major source of union membership, making the SEIU’s Sweeney an obvious choice for the top spot. And with women and Latinos changing the face of labor, the group picked Linda Chavez-Thompson for executive vice president.
Trumka would stand for secretary-treasurer, though not without some reluctance. “Get the hell out of here!” he initially told his fellow insurgents. “I’m happy where I am.” Then he went home and telephoned his father, a retired coal miner. “Well, you started the goddamn thing,” Trumka recalls his father saying. “You may as well finish it.”
The dissident slate, known as the New Voice ticket, won the 1995 election with the support of thirty-four unions representing 57 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership. The victory marked a dramatic populist shift from the insular, top-heavy Kirkland era. Shortly after the election, Sweeney told the Chicago Tribune the federation would seek “to train a thousand organizers as soon as we can.”
But optimism withered quickly. Under Sweeney’s presidency, the AFL-CIO made progress politically but was less successful in organizing new members, which the New Voice slate viewed as labor’s most pressing need. Unified electoral strategy and tightly run field campaigns were all well and good, but few AFL-CIO affiliates got the message about investing in new membership.
“The AFL-CIO tried to promote organizing from 1995 until 2005,” labor scholar Richard Hurd told me, “but it was very clear that the member unions resisted . . . any effort to coordinate any organizing.” Hurd argued that, in the political realm, the affiliates “accept the leadership and guidance and coordination of the federation,” but “the AFL-CIO has proven that it cannot play a role in organizing.”
Trumka also experienced a personal setback when a 1996 scandal forced him to retreat from the national stage just as he was arriving. Federal investigators were looking into an alleged kickback scheme benefiting donors who supported the election of Teamsters President Ron Carey, and the findings threatened to implicate Trumka. Ultimately he was not charged, but the scandal pushed him out of the spotlight. “It’s like the guy vanished,” said Bill Fletcher, Jr. a close observer of the labor movement and author, with Fernando Gapasin, of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (2009).
“He had initially been out there raising the rabble after he and Sweeney and [Chavez-Thompson] got elected,” Fletcher said. But after the Teamsters scandal, Trumka was relegated to carrying out the more traditional role of a secretary-treasurer—an internal, administrative functionary.
What brought Trumka back to the fore were the intertwined commitments to racial and economic justice he had developed during the UMWA’s anti-apartheid work.
When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Fletcher visited Trumka. “I was outraged that organized labor was not seizing upon the situation in order to really press a case around race and class,” Fletcher explained. “I go to see him and I sit in his office, and virtually before I could say anything he lays out an analysis of the connection between neoliberalism and the Katrina disaster aftermath. It was brilliant.”
Three years later, when an African American senator from Illinois decided to run for president, Trumka got the chance to air his analysis of class warfare and racial injustice on the public stage. To anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to Trumka’s career, his frank and impassioned speech at the 2008 United Steelworkers’ convention might have come as a shock. Trumka called out white union members on their lingering prejudices. “We can’t tap dance around the fact that there are a lot of white folks out there”—many from union households, he said—who “just can’t get past this idea that there’s something wrong with voting for a black man.”
The speech went viral and was considered “incredibly controversial,” according to Juravich. In a climate where many public figures, politicians, and labor leaders normally won’t touch the subject of racism, Trumka was willing.
“I think [Trumka is] entirely sincere,” Fletcher told me. “I think that he absolutely gets this issue, that he understands race like few other white labor leaders.” Trumka’s challenge would be to translate his understanding into the work of labor’s largest and, arguably, most sluggish federation by spreading a social justice message that matters to all working people, even those not in unions.
Since taking over the AFL-CIO presidency in 2009, Trumka has broadened big labor’s policy agenda, connecting workers’ rights and collective organization to the challenges of mass incarceration, immigration, and inequality—issues that have traditionally been outside unions’ purview.
This has created some grumbling among union leaders who might prefer to use the AFL-CIO’s resources to bolster the membership rolls. But as Trumka argued in a 2013 speech in Chicago, “We have to explain to people who genuinely fear for their future that their insecurity is not caused by the firefighter who still has a pension; by the union auto worker who still has job security or by government spending. . . . We have to explain that the insecurity is caused by an economy and a political system that have been thrown out of balance and that a voice for workers is the solution, not the problem.”
The addition of ‘alt-labor’ to the AFL-CIO’s portfolio has some grumbling about the downfall of traditional unions.
Trumka’s ambition to create connections between union members and non-union workers is still far from completely realized. Some say those links barely exist, even in blueprint form. Yet, his analysis points to an economy that is hurting all working people.
For Trumka, being a voice for workers means supporting immigration reform and a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants in the country. This change has been brewing in the previously nativist AFL-CIO for two decades. Where the federation once sought to keep immigrants out in order to protect union members’ wages from competition, Trumka and his recent predecessors came to understand that employers exploit undocumented status to cut wages for all workers. “As long as you have 11 million [undocumented] people out there that can be denied their rights, that can be cheated out of their wages, they’re used by unscrupulous employers to drive the wages down of everybody,” Trumka said. “Every worker out there, whether you came on the Mayflower, or you came last week, they’re driving your wages down.”
Indeed, a 2009 study by the National Employment Law Project finds that low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City lose more than $56.4 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations such as paying less than the federal minimum wage, forcing workers to work off the clock, and illegally classifying workers as independent contractors. “If you had two people that are semi-equally qualified,” Trumka said, “and one can enforce their rights and one you can steal from, which do you think some of those employers are going to go for?” Bringing immigrants into the legitimate economy, the theory goes, would reduce wage theft.
Trumka is also using his position to protest the mass incarceration of African American men. “I saw friends that got caught up in [prison] and couldn’t get out,” he told me. “We don’t rehabilitate them when they get incarcerated. Generally we make them worse. . . . So they come out, they’re totally isolated and alienated from society; they don’t even get a voice to change the rules that affected them, because they don’t get the right to vote.” Reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow(2010) further brought home the significance of the issue and reinforced Trumka’s conviction to act.
As with undocumented immigrants, Trumka argues that there is an economic incentive to stop disenfranchising prisoners and treating them like second-class citizens. “They’re out there dragging down wages for everybody else, because they’ll take jobs for cash, under the table at a lower rate because they’ve got no way to enforce their rights,” he said. “If you’re going to build an economy that really works for everybody, and shared prosperity, then it really has to work for everybody. They’re part of everybody as far as I can see.”
Mass incarceration and the relegation of immigrants to the shadows bolster a third trend: inequality. “Every place I go, that’s all people talk about,” Trumka recently told the Financial Times. “They really don’t talk about the deficit or the Federal Reserve. They talk about wages, and how they’re stretched, and how they’re losing ground all the time, and how their kids’ college loans are eating them alive.” The AFL-CIO maintains a quasi-watchdog role over Wall Street, publishing reports and buying ads to show the vast inequity between CEO pay and worker pay and alerting the public about corporate tax avoidance schemes.
“There aren’t any bumper-sticker answers” to immigration reform, incarceration and inequality, Trumka admits, but he believes that talking about and drawing connections among them will help to unite the working class around a social justice agenda. And the effort appears to be doing good things for labor’s image. A 2013 Pew poll shows the public’s approval of unions rose from 41 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2013, even as union membership declined. The uptick is important, as Trumka hopes to unite the wider public—what Occupy activists called the 99 percent—around common understandings of the forces driving inequality and to draw together a broad coalition to address it.
To lay out an agenda is one thing. To move it forward in the civic domain is another.
Recent years have made painfully clear just how little power labor has in politics. Even under unified Democratic control in Washington, labor leaders have been unable to hold members of Congress—whose campaigns union members support with door knocking, phone banking, and donations in the millions—accountable to a working people’s agenda. This was illustrated by the 2009 failure of the labor movement’s main policy priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have eased the way for more union organizing. But President Obama never championed the bill, and it lost key supporters in the Senate. Today, with D.C. gridlocked and the Senate moving to Republican control, the prospects for labor-friendly policy change seem dimmer than ever.
Internal strife has further weakened labor’s hand. In 2005 several unions—including the SEIU, the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW)—split from the AFL-CIO to form a separate federation called Change to Win. This new federation siphoned several million members from the AFL-CIO’s rolls. Subsequently, Change to Win succumbed to infighting of its own, and the UFCW, the Laborers’ Union, and the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE HERE, returned to the AFL-CIO. The SEIU, the Teamsters, and the United Farm Workers stayed with Change to Win.
But all this doesn’t mean labor has given up on influencing policy. Trumka hopes that by convening more progressive allies under labor’s tent, he can build a working-class movement that politicians will be unable to ignore. “There’s still a large reliance on the party system,” Trumka said, “and people still look at the [Democratic] party being able to deliver—instead of us being able to build an independent source of power that could then push both parties to deliver for working people.”
“I think he’s seen the power of reaching out,” Juravich said. “The thing that Richard has realized is that given the gridlock in Washington, he is not playing the same role that . . . Lane Kirkland did before him.”
The need for unity is a constant challenge for leadership. In part because he heads a federation rather than an individual union, there are things Trumka cannot do. He cannot tell union leaders where and how to organize and grow membership, force individual unions to speak with one voice on policy issues, or order all the lawyers out of the room to lead the members in civil disobedience. Shedding command-and-control notions of exercising power, Trumka has learned to lead in other ways.
“A lot of his role really needs to be the role of the storyteller,” Fletcher said. Trumka “needs to be the person that is helping to weave together the alliances to build the kind of majoritarian movement that we need in order to win.” The focus on immigration reform, mass incarceration, and inequality might be at odds with labor’s traditional role, but it might also be the foundation of a new movement, that “independent source of power.” “Trumka’s speeches, as militant as they are,” Fletcher added, “cannot substitute for strategy. They can’t substitute for tactical and strategic audacity.”
In his five years as AFL-CIO president, Trumka has learned to use the infrastructure of the labor movement—its state and regional governing bodies—to lay the groundwork for changes within the federation. By holding the state and local bodies accountable to annual organizing targets, he hopes to stabilize the embattled AFL-CIO and prepare it for new growth.
And under Trumka, the AFL-CIO has been opened to organizations beyond conventional unions. These include “alt-labor” groups organizing low-wage and immigrant-workers outside of standard union structures and allies in the broader progressive movement, such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women. In 2011, Trumka persuaded the federation’s executive council to allow the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, the national network of taxi drivers who organize collectively but are not covered by a collective bargaining contract, to affiliate directly with the AFL-CIO. This was the first such allowance for an organization representing independent contractors. Similarly the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network and the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance represent the interests of workers who are legally prohibited from joining traditional unions, but the AFL-CIO now has a wing for them, too.
Some conservatives have suggested that these new organizations, because they don’t do collective bargaining, could pave the way for a watered-down version of traditional unions. But Trumka is treating alt-labor groups as members of the family, recalling John L. Lewis’s legacy of inclusiveness. Accordingly, the AFL-CIO is backing minimum wage increases around the country, even though such initiatives compete with union campaigns for higher pay. At the 2013 AFL-CIO convention, Trumka made the unprecedented move of inviting low-wage worker advocacy groups, along with other progressive allies, to join planning committees to help set the direction of the labor movement.
“It’s multiple models. It’s not just one model. I think that’s where we screwed up over the years,” Trumka said. “We tried to pigeonhole everybody into the one model that we have, even when it stopped being effective for workers and was irrelevant to some workers.”
This openness has impressed labor leaders such as Joe Hansen, president of the UFCW. Hansen understands the need to expand the borders of the AFL-CIO better than anyone: his union sponsors the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, a campaign of Wal-Mart employees risking their jobs and livelihoods to organize for a change. He thinks the emphasis on building the grassroots base has been genuine under Trumka and his team. “They are not just saying it but actually getting out and doing it,” Hansen said. “I see more of a concentration on young workers, which is sorely needed.”
Amid globalization, congressional gridlock, and growing inequality, Trumka is reviving labor’s hallowed commitment to solidarity but also stretching that commitment to new lengths. “I talk to them more often. They talk to me,” he said of labor’s new allies. “The arrogance is breaking down, and we’re becoming collegial again. The movements are starting to actually meld together, where we understand that we’re much more powerful together than we are separately.”
Against the insularity of labor past—all for the union—Trumka is tying labor’s future to that of the wider class of working Americans. The question is, if his strategy doesn’t bring more members into unions, will progressives be pining for the day when labor was more self-interested?
There was a time when virtually every major newspaper in the United States had a labor reporter. But as newspaper budgets tightened and papers competed for advertising dollars, news affecting working people took a back seat to more lucrative opportunities.
Today, if you read through the Sunday New York Times, you will first be pummeled with advertisements for luxury goods. You will then encounter substantial sections on finance and real estate, with stories on corporate mergers and Manhattan lifestyle tips. When Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took a buyout in 2014, The Wall Street Journal, ironically enough, was the only national print daily left with a reporter on the U.S. labor beat. While digital outlets have begun to fill the gap, far too many are oriented towards the business community.
And yet labor is more newsworthy than ever. In a moment of historic inequality in the American economy, efforts to revive a movement of working people deserve our urgent attention.
I’ve had the honor of writing a twice-monthly column for Al Jazeera America for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve written about how the so-called “education reform” movement scapegoats public school teachers, and about the fraudulent management that runs rampant in too many charter schools. I’ve written about multinational corporations that avoid paying their fair share in taxes. I’ve written about subsidy programs that hand out millionsin public dollars to businesses for jobs that never materialize. I’ve written about the need for a Democratic Party with a positive vision that represents more than just Republicans-lite.
As someone who previously worked in the labor movement — first as an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and later as head of the AFL-CIO’s South Bay Labor Council (Silicon Valley) — I saw firsthand the difference it made to have journalists who were willing to write not merely from a business perspective, such as the one you might find in the Economist or Forbes. It gave a chance for working people to voice the issues themselves and explain what was at stake for their families, in a way that never quite seemed to otherwise make the story on the business page.
But most of all, I’ve tried to write about efforts to restore the American middle class — to cover initiatives being undertaken by movements of working people to win just wages, dignified employment and decent benefits for themselves and their families.
There are three reasons in particular why strong labor coverage is important — and why it is important to me.
First, those working to improve social justice know that framing the narrative is critical in allowing movements to be successful. Whoever sets the terms of the conversation gets to define what the acceptable solutions to a problem might be. It follows that the business community would argue that its preferred policies — low taxes, less regulation, lower wages — lead to economic success. But what we see again and again is that traditional measures of economic growth do not translate into well-being for the majority of people in this country. Without the concerted efforts of working people to organize and bargain in their collective self-interest, the economy won’t provide a dignified living.
The second reason I’ve covered labor issues is that doing so provides an opportunity to highlight the successes of grass-roots movements across the country. While a massive infrastructure of business news and management journals exists to highlight innovation in the corporate world, rarely do we hear about how working people are able to make progress, particularly at the state and local levels. As a result, many Americans are under-informed about how they can take concrete steps to rebuild the middle class. Sharing the stories of local grass-roots success is an important part of reversing this trend.
Third, good labor coverage allows us to see the faces behind dry economic statistics — to see whose communities are being affected by changes in our economy and how. Al Jazeera America gave an outlet to such coverage; it helped to fill a critical gap in American journalism, putting significant resources behind stories that rarely found audiences elsewhere. The site showed the world that readers were engaged in this conversation, and indeed, wanted more.
The economic situation looks bleak to many of us working in 2016. In fact, in 1929, the level of inequality in this country looked a lot like it does today: a huge boom for some, frightening debt for many and an uncertain future for most. But Americans organized. They formed unions to win fair conditions in their workplaces. By taking such measures as public demonstrations, active political participation in city and state government, and mass sit-down strikes to shut down workplaces, they won laws establishing collective bargaining, minimum wage and Social Security. Those institutions law underpinned the broadly egalitarian growth of the next 40 years.
As political organizations, labor unions were the institutional bulkhead providing the lobbying muscle and electoral legwork behind Medicaid, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration.
They were able to do so, in part, because of a journalistic culture that considered the demands of working people reasonable and worth listening to — as a legitimate part of the public conversation. As part of the broader mobilization of civil society, journalism helped ensure that these demands would not be dismissed as naïve or merely self-interested. By setting the terms of the conversation, the media set the terms of the possible.
Today the economy is changed. While manufacturing hasn’t disappeared, it is the service sector today that is creating the most jobs. The bulk of today’s workers are home health aides and food service workers. They are retail salespeople and nursing assistants. They are warehouse movers and data-entry clerks.
While these jobs are providing much-needed services, the truth is that most of them are not good jobs in the old sense. They often pay low wages and have few benefits. Opportunities for promotion are limited, and the positions themselves aren’t secure.
What determines whether these jobs will be able to support middle-class families with the same aspirations as generations past is not an iron law of economics. Rather, it is a question of bargaining power. It is a question of whether people are willing to stand up and negotiate for a different future — and whether our society continues to afford them the legal right to do so.
This is why labor coverage is essential. Whether it’s low wage workers joining in the Fight for $15, or adjunct professors trying to secure a decent contract, or service employees dealing with subcontracting in Silicon Valley, today’s employees are struggling to make sure our new economy is one that sustains more than just the fortunate few at the top. Whether they register with the public, however, is determined largely by the media.
Collectively, these struggles will determine whether or not new jobs will be good jobs. Although they are often not stories we see in the news, they tell us what the future is going to look like for a majority of Americans, and whether or not this is going to be a just future. It is up to us to demand that news outlets cover these stories. And it is up to us, through engagement at work and at the polls, to help create movements that cannot be ignored.