Sunday, July 31, 2011

Today in Labor History—July 31

July 31, 1916 – Electricity workers went on strike in Mexico City, launching a General Strike. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 31, 1922 – A General Strike against Fascism began in Italy, running from July 31 to August 2. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 31, 1968 – Violent street battles between students and riot police occurred in México City. Students occupied schools and began a General Strike, which culminated in the Tlatelolco massacre on October 2nd, with over 300 people slaughtered and thousands arrested and tortured. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 31, 1970 - Members of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) went on strike over pay, pensions, the right to arbitration and the right to have agents. The strike lasted only two days, but inaugurated the NFLPA as a real union. (From Workday Minnesota)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sci. Am., Do Your Homework

The August issue of Scientific American published an editorial by their board of editors titled, “Stand and Deliver.” In the editorial, they perpetuate the myth that Jaime Escalante was a paragon of teaching who should be emulated across the nation and that this will catapult the U.S. ahead of its trading partners in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. To their credit, they do argue for increased funding, better professional support, improved social status, and better supplies and equipment for math and science teachers. However, they also replicate the same bad “science” of the Ed Deformers and pundits who blame poor educational outcomes on the quality of teaching, contrary to the data.

Here is my response, published on their website today:

Escalante was no model of good teaching. He verbally abused his students and couldn’t even replicate his own educational “experiment” after moving to Sacramento.1 Contrary to the myth, he did not convert random low income, math challenged students into calculus stars overnight. Students were recruited and had to spend years and summers taking special classes to prepare for it.2 Even with this additional support, students still needed considerable time outside the school day to succeed, with Escalante holding unpaid clinics on weekends and after school.

Also, the Escalante model is not sustainable. Teachers are not paid well for the hours they are contracted to work and most already put in considerable extra unpaid hours preparing lessons, and tutoring. Expecting them to give up evenings and weekends is unreasonable.

U.S. students do perform poorly compared with peers in many developed nations. However, the reason is that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any industrialized nation. Over 20% of U.S. children are poor, compared with less than 4% in Finland. Our middle class students outscore students in nearly every other country.3

Poor children are more likely to suffer low birth weights and malnutrition, which lead to cognitive impairment and learning disabilities. Iron-deficiency anemia is twice as common among poor children.4 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can impair intelligence.5 Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent 40% more often than affluent kids.6 In one study, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8.7 Likewise, 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17% for those who remained at the same schools.8

The achievement gap is already in place well before children have even started school. Cognitive scores of children entering kindergarten were 60% higher for affluent kids than for those in the lowest income group.9 Similar results have been observed among children as young as three.10 

Better tools, higher pay and greater support are necessary to attract and retain the best teachers. However, as long as we ignore the socioeconomic factors that contribute to academic success, we will continue to see poor educational outcomes compared with other developed nations. Indeed, even conservative researcher Eric Hanushek believes that only 10% of student achievement is attributable to their teachers, while Dana Goldhaber attributes 60% of student achievement to factors outside of school, like family and income.11

1Pyle, Amy. 1998. “Escalante’s Formula Not Always the Answer.” Los Angeles Times, May 4.
2Jesness, Jerry. 2002. “Stand and Deliver.” Reason, July.
3Krashen, Stephen, Ph.D. 2011. “USA Today Gets It Wrong.” Schools Matter, July 18.
4Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, and Duncan, Greg J. 1997. “The Effects of Poverty on Children.” Children and Poverty, Vol. 7, Number 2, Summer/Fall
6 Rothstein, R. (2002) Out of Balance: Our Understanding of How Schools Affect Society and How Society Affects Schools, the Spencer Foundation.
7Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D. R., and Kabbani, N. 2001. “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early Risk Factors at Home and School.” Teachers College Record.
8Barton, P. E. 2003. “Parsing the Achievement Gap.” Educational Testing Service.
9Burkham, D. and Lee, V. 2002. “Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School.” Economic Policy Institute, September 1.
10Hart, B., and Risely, T.R. 1995. “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Strategies for
11Ravitch, Diane. 2011. “The Myth of Charter Schools.” The New York Review of Books, January 13.

Today in Labor History—July 29

July 29, 1900King Umberto of Italy was assassinated by Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci, as revenge for the army's crushing of the worker's insurrection in Milan, May 1898, in which they killed hundreds of workers. Bresci was arrested and later found strangled in his cell at Santo Stefano Prison, on May 22nd, 1901.

July 29, 1903 – The first delegation from Mother Jones’ March of the Mill Children arrived at Teddy Roosevelt's summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to publicize the harsh conditions of child labor. They weren’t allowed through the gates. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 29, 1970 – After five years on strike, the United Farm Workers finally won a contract with California grape growers. (From Workday Minnesota)

Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teachers Unions (Part II)

In Part I, I described how education reformers, taking a play out of the Andrew Carnegie union-busting playbook, have been working to deskill the teaching profession, thus weakening the power of teachers unions. When teachers become easily replaceable with semi-skilled workers, like Teach For America candidates, substitute teachers and proctors, the unions will find it much more difficult to win strikes, as administrators or politicians will be able to simply fire them all or lock them out. The problem is that the unions have not been using the strike much at all lately, perhaps in part because they believe they are not strong enough to win. This may be a tragic miscalculation, not only for teachers, but for the children who depend on their skill, expertise and passion.

But first, what are the immediate lessons for teachers and their unions?

Lessons for Teachers and Their Unions
Carnegie was able to crush the AAISW through a combination of downsizing, speed ups, deskilling and military force. Teaching has not yet been deskilled to the point where teachers can be fired en masse. However, evidence that management can easily go after less-skilled workers can be seen in what is happening now to their clerical and custodial colleagues, who are being decimated in order to accommodate shrinking budgets.

Teachers unions have largely remained silent during this downsizing. As a result, classrooms and bathrooms are dirtier, repairs are not being made, schools are less safe, and teachers are taking up time to clean, repair, and photocopy that could be used for teaching, lesson planning, and meeting with students. They are doing more work for the same or less pay.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this lack of solidarity is that many teachers look down on their colleagues and treat them as second-class citizens on campus, rather than appreciating the necessary contributions they make toward students’ and teachers’ own wellbeing.

One Big Union
As in any workplace, the relative strength of the more highly skilled needs to be used to protect the less skilled—not just as an act in solidarity, but because their own status depends on it. Teachers need the support of their non-teaching colleagues to successfully resist deskilling.

As it stands, this sort of solidarity is undermined by the very structure of most unions, which tend to be organized by trade or craft, rather than by industry, making it easier for bosses to divide and conquer. For example, instead of having teachers in one union and clerical and custodial staff in another (as is generally the case), all education workers should be organized in one big union. Consider how much more quickly an education strike could be won if bus drivers refused to pick up students, cafeteria workers refused to prepare meals, secretaries refused to do the administrators’ paperwork, and custodians refused to clean.

However, even under existing conditions, teachers need to recognize that their lot depends on that of their nonteaching colleagues, that their power grows with their support, and that this support can be won by striking early and often for the “little” things.

Strike Early, Strike Often
Strikes are the most powerful weapon unions have for achieving their demands, whether it is higher wages, an end to NCLB and Race to the Top, or universal healthcare for all. However, when workers are easily replaced it is much more difficult to win, as we saw in the Homestead strike. This will soon be the case for teachers, too, if they do not resist the deskilling of their profession.

Deskilling is causing many teachers to feel alienated and hopeless about their future, leading some to give up on their unions or the profession entirely. Many even start their careers with a disdain for their unions because the unions often provide such little support for temporary and probationary teachers, even though they are dues-paying members.

Deskilling generally accompanies mechanization of a workplace, which in turn often results in downsizing and speedups. When workers are harried, overworked and exhausted, it is harder to get them to do anything after work, like attend organizing meetings and prepare for job actions.  We are already seeing this with teachers, who are feeling busier, more stressed, and less able to participate in union meetings, not to mention meet with each other and their students outside of class. Virtually all education reforms are like factory speedups, because they add to teachers’ workloads, generally without any extra compensation or evidence that they will make much of a difference in children’s lives. So education reforms should also be resisted unless there is solid evidence they will improve educational outcomes and teachers will be compensated fairly.

Resisting deskilling, downsizing and speedups means that unions must organize and prepare their members to be ready to strike at any moment. A union that can quickly mobilize its members can often win simply by threatening to strike, without actually striking. However, this threat only works when the bosses are convinced workers have the ability, willingness and discipline to carry it out, something they will likely have to demonstrate initially and, quite possibly, repeatedly.

Therefore, teachers should be preparing now for repeated strikes and job actions, not just to demonstrate their power, but to roll back the reforms that undermine union participation and weaken union power.

Public support can be gained by making it clear that these reforms are not only money grabbing scams by corporate raiders, but devastating to children’s health, safety and educational success. For example, increased class sizes, decreased maintenance and repairs, declining nurses, counselors and support services on campus all contribute to declining student wellbeing, as well as increased teacher workloads. High stakes testing and value-added and merit pay schemes turn schools into testing mills that undermine student curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, as well as deteriorating teachers’ working conditions and weakening their union power.

Solidarity can also be gained by fighting for the “little” things. Resisting the downsizing of custodial and maintenance staffs not only makes schools safer for children and teachers and eases teachers’ workloads, it helps nonteaching staff members maintain their jobs and working conditions. By taking job actions and the risks that accompany them to defend students and coworkers, teachers increase the chances that they will reciprocate.

The deskilling of the teaching profession is accelerating and it is happening largely under the radar of the media and even many teachers, with tragic consequences for students who are subjected to more rote memorization, testing, test preparation and behavior management and a declining emphasis on critical thinking, curiosity and a love of learning. It is terrible for teachers who are losing their academic freedom and creativity at the same time they are being plied with increasing workloads and declining wages. However, it should also be seen as an attack on all working people, not only because it threatens the quality of education for their children, but because it weakens the power of one of the few professions that is still highly unionized. Rather than accepting the lie that public sector unions are responsible for declining employment, wages and working conditions, it is time for all workers to support better conditions for all workers.

An Injury to One is An Injury to All!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Today in Labor History—July 28

July 28, 1794 – French Reign of Terror architect Robespierre was guillotined. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 28, 1907 – In Raon-l'Etape, France, police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by strikers, killing two workers. Barricades were raised and the black flag of anarchism was raised. (From the Daily Bleed)

July 28, 1932 - General Douglas MacArthur, Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and their troops, burned down a shantytown by unemployed veterans near the U.S. Capitol. 20,000 ex-servicemen had been camped out in the capital demanding a veterans’ bonus the government had promised but never given. Cavalry troops and tanks fired tear gas at veterans and their families and then set the buildings on fire. MacArthur and President Herbert Hoover said they had saved the nation from revolution. (From Workday Minnesota)

Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teacher Unions (Part I)

Note: A shorter version of this article was published today in Labor Notes.
Education bloggers have done a good job of covering how wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family (see here, here, here and here) have sought to privatize and corporatize public education (see here, here, here and here). Their objectives, however, are not limited solely to increasing capital’s access to this huge and relatively untapped market, though this is certainly a major goal (See No Capitalist Left Behind). They also want to crush teachers unions because they reduce profits by defending wages and benefits and by resisting privatization schemes. Additionally, Republicans and Tea Party activists want to eliminate unions because of their financial support for Democratic candidates.

Education Reform: A Union Busting Trojan Horse
While attempts to crush the unions legislatively (e.g., Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan) have had only limited success, they have been much more effective at weakening the teachers unions discreetly through education reform. Reforms that limit tenure, due process or seniority protections also squelch dissent, union participation and even student advocacy by making it easier to fire teachers for any reason, regardless of their skill in the classroom. Charter schools weaken union power because they are exempt from districts’ closed shop policies and are almost always nonunion. 

However, education reform has also been undermining union strength in a much more subtle way by deskilling teachers. This has received scant coverage, probably because it is Trojan horse that does not directly attack unions, but weakens them from the inside out.

Andrew Carnegie—The Original Ed Deformer
History shows how deskilling workers weakens their unions. Prior to the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, the steelworkers were highly skilled, with very specialized training (much like teachers and nurses today). When the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) made a demand and backed it with the threat of a strike, Homestead’s chairman, Henry Clay Frick, and its owner, Andrew Carnegie, had little choice but to concede, since they could not lock out the workers and replace them with strikebreakers who lacked this training. AAISW virtually ran the mill, using this power to control the speed of production and the safety of the plant, in addition to more traditional wage and benefits demands.

In 1889, Carnegie attempted to crush the union by imposing a wage cut of 25% and abolishing collective bargaining. The workers fought off strikebreakers and Pinkertons (private police hired to protect the scabs), while sympathetic strikes broke out at other Carnegie mills, forcing Carnegie to back down, accept collective bargaining, and sign a three-year contract. (From Strike! by Jeremy Brecher, South End Press, Boston, 1972).
Pinkertons Surrender to Authorities
The workers won an important battle, but the war was not over. In January, 1892, Carnegie tried another large wage cut. Frick imposed speedups and hired 300 Pinkertons. On July 2, Frick laid off the entire Homestead workforce, effectively ending collective bargaining. The workers organized themselves and essentially took over the town’s political authority and ran its infrastructure. 10,000 strikers temporarily held off the Pinkertons and scabs with sticks and a few guns. However, 40 strikers were shot and nine killed, while 120 Pinkertons were shot and seven killed. Meanwhile, Carnegie continued to bring in scabs, this time under the protection of militias, and those who didn't quit to join the strikers were able to keep production going. (From Brecher, op. cit.)

The strike lasted four months, until winter cold and hunger set in. Many workers’ families were literally starving. Furthermore, they were now up against Pinkertons and government militias. Perhaps most significant, though, was the fact that in a few short years, Carnegie had been able automate much of production, allowing untrained and semi-skilled scabs to do the work that had previously only been possible by highly skilled laborers. (From Brecher, op. cit.) If the strikers had continued to hold out, they likely would have been permanently replaced. Indeed, many of the strike’s leaders were blacklisted, which would have been much more difficult if the mills still required highly skilled workers. According to Brecher, mechanization at the Carnegie mills led to a 25% overall decline in employees, with a doubling of productivity for steelworkers and a tripling of productivity for the furnace workers.

Andrew Carnegie, The Original Ed Deformer
The lesson Carnegie taught capitalists then and education reformers today (Scott Walker, notwithstanding) was that instead of going immediately for overt and confrontational tactics like slashing wages or collective bargaining, they could weaken workers’ power by attacking their working conditions and making them superfluous through automation. Speeding up production, for example, leads to higher profits without increasing wages, yet it is still a de facto wage cut. It also forces workers to toil harder and faster, increasing their exhaustion and decreasing their time and energy for organizing or commiserating with their peers.

Through mechanization, the bosses not only decrease the cost of production by decreasing the number of employees; worker skill and expertise become less important and workers become interchangeable, thus making it easier to replace them with scabs should they decide to strike. Furthermore, workers are much less likely to go on strike in the first place over an attack on their working conditions if they believe their job security and take home pay will be unaffected.

Carnegie Today: The Deskilling of Teachers
While the Right has not yet succeeded in destroying the public sector unions, it has undermined worker solidarity by convincing nonunionized and private sector workers that public sector workers are somehow responsible for their problems. One reason for the success of this corporate legend is that it exploits differences in social status between these groups of workers. Public sector workers, like teachers, nurses and social workers, are often portrayed as thinkers or caregivers, rather than as workers proper, as if their labor was easier, less dangerous, done entirely out of love, and therefore not worthy of generous compensation or job protections.  More significantly, public sector unions, like the AAISW, tend to represent highly skilled workers such as nurses, teachers, fire fighters, police and social workers, whose jobs require specialized college and/or professional training. As a result, they cannot be easily replaced by unemployed and underemployed workers who lack this training. Thus, if the unions did stand up to the politicians, they would not be able to simply fire them all and find competent replacements to keep the system functioning. This is one reason why the public sector unions are still relatively strong.

However, with the deskilling of teaching, this is rapidly changing. 

Teach For America (TFA), for example, places recent college graduates with virtually no education training, student teaching experience or pedagogical coursework directly into the classroom. Billionaires like Broad have been big financial backers of TFA, but they have also supported the irrational and discredited notion that we must do away with seniority to protect the eager young teachers who are all presumed to be better than their senior colleagues, despite their lack of experience. 

Even the ACLU has jumped on this bandwagon, successfully suing LAUSD to undermine contractually protected seniority rights at low income schools by exempting their novice teachers from layoffs, ostensibly to protect their students from losing their teachers each year. However, this plan will likely backfire due to the high attrition rates of inexperienced teachers (50% of ALL teachers quit within their first five years), a problem that is exacerbated at low income schools where they are expected to make their students transcend the myriad lifetime disadvantages of growing up in poverty. Indeed, attrition at low income schools is 50% higher than at more affluent schools.

Educators are being deskilled in more subtle ways, too, particularly through increasingly rigid and punitive accountability and testing schemes that pressure schools and teachers to teach to the test and engage in “drill and kill” activities at the expense of inquiry-based learning, critical thinking, reading for depth and curiosity. Many districts, as a direct result of NCLB mandates and punishments, have forced teachers to be in lockstep with their curricula or have imposed scripted reading. Common Core Standards are taking away the independence of local school districts and states to determine their own content standards and relinquishing this responsibility more and more to the textbook publishers. Value-added and merit pay schemes use compensation and tenure as carrots and sticks to push teachers ever deeper into the mindset that test scores trump all else. When job security and income are dependent on student test scores, it stands to reason that many will sacrifice good pedagogy for increased test practice, rote memorization and “drill and kill.”

The threat of NCLB punishments has led many schools to implement scripted test preparation that not only undermines teacher creativity and innovative curriculum, but that also drives a stake into children’s curiosity and excitement about learning. Rather than engaging in interesting class discussions, reading enjoyable age-appropriate texts, or doing exciting lab activities, many teachers are finding themselves compelled to participate in school-wide vocabulary activities written by an administrator and broadcast of the schools’ PA or video system. Teachers are also finding more and more of their instructional time being replaced by standardized exams (as many as several weeks each school year), further deskilling the profession, as exam proctoring entails little more than passing out answer sheets, test booklets and reading scripted instructions from a handbook.

A similar dynamic is taking place at the university level, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a tenure track position. More and more schools are now hiring professors as temporary, part-time lecturers, with few benefits, low pay, no job security and little influence over their curriculum. Without tenure or a commitment by the university to support them, they must spend so much time writing grants to pay their own salaries or fighting to defend their positions that they have little time for original research or designing innovative curriculum. In some cases, professors are being replaced by taped lectures purchased through subscriptions. Others are taking jobs facilitating online courses which inherently limit the creativity and quality of the teaching. Online science classes, for example, have very inadequate options for experimentation, and thus become more like Facebook discussions of textbook passages than opportunities to learn and do real science.

Attacks on Teachers Unions Are Attacks On Children
Education reform is not only harming students directly by killing their enthusiasm and curiosity, turning schools into testing mills, and transferring resources from the classroom to the pockets of corporate education profiteers, but also by deskilling their teachers and driving many out of the profession. The more we turn schools into mills and teachers into factory workers, the more we also destroy their love and passion for teaching and hence their desire to be in education in the first place.

Stay tuned for Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teacher Unions  (Part II), in which I discuss the lessons for teachers and unions and ways to fight this madness.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Work Is A Debilitating Disease

Image by GDS Infographics
I was visiting a friend recently and noticed a sphygmomanometer on his dining room table. “My blood pressure is really f’ed up,” he said.

This guy is in his early 40s, a nonsmoker, not overweight, exercises regularly, or at least he used to. Now he has no time to exercise at all, and little time or energy to spend with his family. On top of that, he’s only sleeping a few hours a night because of the stress at work.

“Work’s been kicking my ass, lately,” he explained. “There’s nothing I can do to satisfy my boss. She has me going to meetings on weekends, giving presentations at night, managing a bunch of other people, but with no authority if they flake out or bumble. It always comes back on me.”

Work, The Silent Killer
His working conditions are not unlike those of millions of others. He works far more than 40 hours a week and has little control over much in his work environment. If the boss says jump, he knows he must, or risk losing his job, yet he can never jump high enough, fast enough or long enough to get a break, compliment, raise or promotion. He also has no union or grievance policy at his job. On top of that, he has a family and mortgage that depend on his income, so he can’t simply quit, which makes him feel even more trapped and at the mercy of others.

Few people ever experience kidnapping, yet most of us experience some lack of control at work and in life, in general. The effects on the body and mind are similar, particularly because that sense of being boxed in and helpless can continue for a lifetime. It causes the overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which speeds up the heart, impairs memory and the immune system, and can lead to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Those of us with low or medium status jobs often find that we have multiple bosses who sometimes give us contradictory orders. Teachers, especially, often find themselves in the position where they are expected to follow Ed Code, and state and regional laws that conflict with each other, and balance the competing demands of administrators, parents, departments and professional integrity. However, the degree of control at work tends to be proportional to one’s income and job status. The lowest wage workers have the least control at work and, not surprisingly, the poorest health outcomes. People of color also tend to have worse health outcomes and stress due to both overt and subtle forms of racism they experience on a daily basis. For example, each time someone gets eyed suspiciously in the store or on the street can cause their cortisol levels to rise.

The data above comes from the Unnatural Causes video website. I highly recommend this video series. 

Work, The Noisy Killer
Of course work does not just kill people slowly and quietly by aggravating their stress and their hypertension. People also die and get injured pretty regularly while on the job. In 2009, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 965,000 workplace injuries serious enough to force people to stay home from work, including 379,000 sprains, strains and tears, and 195,150 back injuries. There were 4,551 deaths on the job in 2009, 4090 of which occurred in the private sector, which should tell us something about the logic of allowing the private sector to police itself.

Union Busting Through Safety Violations
Workplace injuries occasionally happen because of worker carelessness or because they were inebriated. However, the majority of workplace injuries happen because bosses do not maintain safe workplaces and equipment. They ignore safety regulations, fail to upgrade or repair damaged equipment, or speed up production to unsafe rates. They do this to increase profits and workers often accept it as a fact of life. Unions sometimes accept these practices as a quid pro quo for not laying off more employees. However, this is a mistake that trebly harms workers. First, it increases the chances that someone will die or be injured on the job. Second, speedups increase profits for the bosses, yet these profits are almost never passed down to the worker in wages, bonuses or comp time. Thus, workers are risking their safety entirely to make their bosses wealthier, and getting nothing in return and they are facilitating the demise of their own jobs as speedups reduce the number of employees necessary. Third, speedups and dangerous working conditions increase fatigue, stress, anxiety, making it harder to get workers to meet outside of work to discuss their plights, organize, and fight back.