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  • Remembering Memphis

    Written on February 8, 2018

    February marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tenn., a unionization attempt by public sector workers that drew support from civil and labor rights leaders across the nation. Martin Luther King, Jr., in town to organize a march in support of those strikers, was assassinated on April 4th of that year. This post is the first in a series, commemorating these anniversaries and the historic links between civil rights and worker rights, especially at a time when the right of public sector workers to unionize is being argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. This post is excerpted from a forthcoming memoir, Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain, by civil rights and labor activists Norman Hill and Velma Murphy Hill.

    Even as a young man, A. Philip Randolph understood that the economic wellbeing of workers and the political rights of African Americans were inextricably linked. It is one of the reasons why, in the 1920s, he agreed to organize and operate the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led labor union to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.

    It was his recognition of this coalescence of black economic and political interests that led him to threaten the first March on Washington in the 1940s; which was only preempted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to issue Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in Civil Service and World War II defense industries. And it was why he named the iconic 1963 march on Washington, which he organized and led, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The complete title wasn't an accident. Randolph understood that the economic component was essential in obtaining freedom and equality for black people.

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  • Build A Precariat Strategy

    Written on February 9, 2017

    Our guest author today is Guy Standing, a professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network. This post is part of a series of posts by speakers at our 2016 conference, "The Challenge of Precarious Labor," videos of which can be found here.

    All forward marches towards more freedom and equality are led by and for the emerging mass class, not by and for yesterday’s. Today, the political left in America and Europe is in disarray because they have not taken heed of that historical lesson. Trump is one nightmarish outcome of that failure.

    Today’s mass class is the precariat, not the old industrial proletariat. It is scarcely news to say we are in the eye of the storm of the Global Transformation, the painful construction of a global market system. The crisis, analogous to the crisis moment of the Great Transformation that preceded it, is epitomised by the aggressive populism of Trump, playing on the fears, deprivations and insecurities that had been allowed to grow in the preceding three decades.

    But the left needs to step back from entering the vortex of the storm Trump is generating, to reflect on a strategic response, to build a new vision of a Good Society that responds to the insecurities and aspirations of the precariat.

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  • The Civic Power Of Unions And The Anti-Union Political Agenda

    Written on April 21, 2016

    This is the second of two posts on the political dimensions of the Friedrichs case. The first post can be read here.

    Before Justice Scalia’s sudden death, it appeared that, through the Friedrichs case, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority would succeed in imposing “right to work” status on public sector working people across the nation. As discussed in a previous post, there were signs that this conservative bloc was looking to deliver its decision in time to sideline the four largest public employee unions – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) – from the 2016 elections. Not coincidentally, these are also the unions that have the strongest political operations in the American labor. If Scalia had not died and these intentions were realized, what would have been the impact on the 2016 election and beyond?

    To grasp the full impact of a negative Friedrichs decision, had the conservative justices been successful in their plans, it is necessary to gauge the effect that public employee unions have on the political activism of their members. Ironically, insight into this question can be gleaned from an essay that exhibits a critical attitude toward public sector unions and collective bargaining, Patrick Flavin’s and Michael Hartney’s “When Government Subsidizes Its Own: Collective Bargaining Laws as Agents of Political Mobilization.”1 (Hereafter, F&H.) While not without analytical flaws, a number of which will be discussed below, F&H contributes to the literature with a new way of measuring the effect of teacher unions on teacher political activism and engagement, above and beyond voting. (Teachers have always voted at consistently high rates, with over 90 percent turnout in presidential elections and over 80 percent in mid-term elections.) Consequently, F&H places in relief the union contribution to member political activism that was targeted by the SCOTUS conservatives.

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  • The Political Calculus Behind Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

    Written on April 20, 2016

    When the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) delivered its March 29 ruling in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the announcement of a 4 to 4 deadlock was something of an anticlimax.  Ever since the sudden February 12 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, SCOTUS watchers had anticipated just such an impasse. Based on Scalia’s questions when the case was argued before the Court a month before his passing, the late justice appeared to be the fifth vote for a decision that would have overturned 40 years of precedent – in effect, imposing “right to work” status on all those working in the public sector and eviscerating their unions. Without this vote, the four remaining conservative justices failed to constitute a majority.

    In the days following this decision, observers across the political spectrum described the judicial deadlock in Friedrichs as a victory for public sector workers and their unions (at least for the moment). A more definitive resolution of the issue awaits Senate confirmation of Scalia’s successor, whether President Obama’s pick, Judge Merrick Garland, or someone yet to be named by the next president.

    But, so far, what has been missing from most media commentaries is a recognition of the immediate political import of the Court’s impasse, and most especially, its impact on the 2016 election campaign. To understand the full political dimensions of Friedrichs – how the Court’s conservative majority seem to have been prepared to use the case to sway the election – a brief review of the case is necessary.

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  • An Attempt To Decapitate: Turkey's Trade Unions On Trial

    Written on January 29, 2014

    Our guest today is Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site.

    On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel.  An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions.  The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.

    I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers.  The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization.  A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.

    The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state.  The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States.

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  • Richard Parrish And The March On Washington For Jobs And Freedom

    Written on July 18, 2013

    Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington:  Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)

    If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963.  As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War.  He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin.  Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces.  Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.

    Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades.  After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976.  He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor.  When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support.

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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part Two

    Written on April 18, 2013

    This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

    As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. [6]

    Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.

    Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions "were the Goliath to the school reformers' David."

    How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science.

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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part One

    Written on April 17, 2013

    Last week, in "Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?", I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.

    The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions.[1] Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.

    Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today. [2] At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack. [3]

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  • Looking Backwards Into The Future

    Written on October 15, 2012

    This is an adaptation of a recent message to AFT staff and leadership from Eugenia Kemble, on the occasion of her departure as the Albert Shanker Institute’s founding executive director, a position she held from March 1998 through September 2012.

    I hope you will accept a few reflections from an old-timer as I leave the Albert Shanker Institute, which was launched with the support of the American Federation of Teachers in 1998, a year after Al’s death.

    I started in 1967 as a cub reporter for New York’s Local 2 and have worked for the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and the Albert Shanker Institute since 1975, so I have been on duty for awhile. I was particularly grateful for the decision to create the Shanker Institute.  It has become a very special kind of forum – directed by an autonomous board of directors to ensure its independence – where, together with a broad spectrum of colleagues from both inside and outside the union, core ideas, positions, and practices could be discussed, examined, modeled, and debated.  Its inquisitive nature and program attempt to capture a key feature of Al Shanker’s contribution to union leadership.  As a result, the Institute’s work has helped many, including me, to reach a clearer understanding of the essential character of the AFT, unionism, public education, and of democracy itself, as well as what about them we hope will endure.

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