Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is “Solidarity” Making a Comeback? Thoughts on the Return of a Long Neglected Concept
( Dedicated to the Memory of Rich Klimmer, AFT organizer, Labor Historian and Friend)

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
But the union makes us strong

Solidarity forever, Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong!
“Solidarity Forever” by Ralph Chapin

The success of the Wisconsin movement to protect collective bargaining rights of government workers, and of similar movements around the country, depends on the revival of a concept that has been out of favor in the United States for many years- the concept of “Solidarity” Republican lawmakers like Scott Walker were clearly expecting that this concept was dormant when they decided to attack bargaining rights of public employees. They were gambling that workers in the private sector who had lower wages, less generous benefits, and less job security than government workers would want to see them cut down to size in a Recession. They were expecting that envy, rather than Solidarity, would govern the attitudes of people hit hard by the Recession. Their experience, and their ideology, suggested that working class Americans would be more interested in lowering their own tax rates then protecting the bargaining rights of their unionized brothers and sisters.

But the response of to the Wisconsin bill, and to similar bills in Ohio and Indiana, seems to have caught Republican lawmakers by surprise. Firefighters and police officers, both exempt from the elimination of bargaining rights the Walker Bill, both turned out in force to support the protests as the Wisconsin Capital. So did high schools students, who came to support their teachers, and University students, who feared the Governors next step would be steep tuition rises and the elimination of bargaining rights for graduate students. When you couple this local response with the support of organized labor nationally, the result was the largest labor protest in a state in recent American history, with 70,000 people turning out the first weekend of the demonstration.

And when you look at the growing size of protests at the Ohio State capital, where private sectors unions have joined public sector unions in denouncing a similar bill to the Wisconsin one, you have to ask “What is going on? Why are labor unions, which have been on the defensive for the last thirty years, able to mount this kind of movement? Why is Solidarity, out of favor for many years, suddenly back in fashion?”

To understand this, it helps to look back at American History. For the last one hundred years, Solidarity has been more notable in its absence than its presence in the American working class. For the first thirty years of the 20th Century, corporations were able to keep the largest and most fast growing industries in the country- steel, automobile, electronics, ground transportation- almost entirely union free by playing off workers against one another by race, religion, and national origin and convincing the majority of the white protestant population in the nation that organized labor was a foreign implant.

However, all that changed during the Great Depression. When banks failed and the economy imploded, leaving nearly a third of the labor force unemployed by 1933, and another third working part time, working class Americans, seeing that that hardship hit people of all racial and religious backgrounds, and in every region of the country, began to listen to labor organizers, and representatives of radical parties, who argued that individual effort could no longer assure prosperity and that workers could only improve their lives by organizing together. These organizers made the argument that ALL workers would benefit when employed workers were able to form strong unions and they urged unemployed people to support unionization drives in major industries, rather than be recruited by employers to be strike breakers and anti-union vigilantes.

In the two most successful strikes of the Depression Era, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934, which led to the unionization of a sizable share of overland truck traffic, and the Flint Sit down strikes of `1936-37 which led to the unionization of General Motors and US Steel, both of which involved pitched battles between strikers, police and Citizens Committees organized by employers, the unemployed either remained neutral or took the side of the strikers. As a result, employers not only were unable to recruit strikebreakers, they were unable, even with the police on their side, to control the streets surrounding the plants and warehouses that were on strike assuring that the protests went on for weeks, and months, until the employers finally agreed to union recognition. There were other conditions that led to the success of these strikes, such as the refusal of the Minnesota and Michigan governors to us the National Guard to remove workers from factories and warehouses, but the support of the unemployed who had nothing to gain, in the short run, from the success of these movements, was absolutely critical. Somehow, a critical mass of the unemployed, along with workers outside the affected industries, had come to believe in all workers would benefit when some workers achieved union recognition. They had become caught up in “union fever” the idea that only by organizing unions could workers attain dignity and respect as well as a decent standard of living and they fought side by side in the streets with striking workers until these communal battles were won.

Were they justified in this belief, or had they just succumbed to the UnAmerican propaganda of Communists and Socialists? Fast forward to the 1950’s. Thirty five percent of the American labor force is unionized, including most of those working in steel, auto, electronics and transportation. The people who built these unions not only had the highest standard of living in the world, they lived in one of the most equal advanced nations on the planet, where the top one percent of the population controlled 9 percent of national income, as opposed to 23 percent today. In New York City, where unions were particularly powerful, you had an amazing network of public universities, which charged no tuition, public hospitals, schools with free after school centers and great music and sports programs, and museums and zoos which charged no admission. The evidence is incontrovertible- the rise of organized labor, from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, coincided with a significant improvement in the standard of living of all American workers, whether or not they were in unions.

Most Americans do not know this. Except among people in union education departments and those who teach labor history in universities, the role of labor unions in spreading the benefits of prosperity in the years following the Depression is neither known, nor acknowledged. However, the current economic crisis, with its eerie parallels to the Great Depression, is making many working class Americans wonder whether their dreams of individual prosperity and security are still possible in a society where the housing market, banking system, and now local governments are in such trouble. Some may be blaming their plight on the “fat contracts” and “bloated pensions” of government workers, but others are wondering what the role of the banks and large corporations have been in putting them in such a predicament, and how they can fight back

It is in this context that the Wisconsin protests put forward a message that, to everyone’s surprise, touches a chord. Maybe working Americans have had enough of blaming unions and government for what has happened to them. Maybe they are starting to think that the calls for “sacrifice” that politicians of both parties are making should be directed toward the very wealthy, who are the only people who have not been hurt during the crisis. And maybe they are starting to hear a message that says that working Americans had better overcome their differences and start to fight for their rights or their hopes for a life of comfort and security will be gone forever.

Solidarity, here in America, in 2011? Look around you, in a million years, would you have expected there to be 70,000 people massed outside the Wisconsin State Capitol demanding protection of collective bargaining rights for government workers?. Why, the very thought is as improbable as Black students sitting in at lunch counters in 35 cities throughout the South.

History can move in mysterious ways.

And Solidarity may be making a comeback.

Mark Naison
February 22, 2011

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lessons for Wisconsin From the Flint Sit Down Strikes of 1936-37
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

With the state legislature in Wisconsion occupied and surrounded by thousands of state workers and their supporters, and with schools closed throughout the state because of teachers calling in sick, I cannot help but think of the greatest strike and building occupation in the history of the American labor movement- the Flint Sit Down Strikes of 1936-37. Though the Wisconsin struggle is being led by government workers, and the Flint Strikes involved workers involved in automobile production, both movements took place during the worst economic crisis of their era and were fighting for the same goal- collective bargaining rights for working people through a union of their own choosing- and were much more about dignity and respect than about income.

The Flint Strike, which involved the occupation of 9 General Motors automobile plants over a six week period, transformed the history of the industrial labor movement. During December of 1936, when the first GM plant was seized and occupied, the entire automobile and steel industries in the United States were union free. When the strike was finally settled, both General Motors and United States Steel agreed to bargain collectively with the CIO ( Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions seeking to organize their industries.

The Flint Strike , thought it was precipitated by local conditions- a fierce unrelenting speed up on the GM assembly line , the involvement of a Ku Klux Klan like organization called the Black Legion in suppressing labor unrest in GM plants- was part of a national movement to win bargaining rights for industrial workers. As a result, the Flint workers were supported by the national leadership of the CIO-led by the formidable John L Lewis- as well as their own national union, and numerous leftwing organizations including the Communist Party. Though only GM workers actually occupied the factories, at key points in the strike, thousands of union workers were mobilized to come down from other cities to make sure that right wing Citizens Committees were unable to storm the plants, and that food and medical supplies were delivered to the striking workers. There were also doctors, nurses, lawyers, and journalists who came from all over the country to help the strikers. By the second week of the sit-down strikes, it was clear to everyone involved that this had become a truly national movement

The same dynamic must operate if the Wisconsin movement is to achieve its main goal- removal from the governor’s legislative program of any effort to weaken the bargaining rights of public workers in the state. Unions around the nation who face similar initiatives ( in Ohio, Tennessee and New Jersey) must send delegations to join the occupation and the protests and give whatever financial and legal support is necessary to teachers who are keeping the local schools closed. National union leaders who have a high public profile, people like Richard Trumka and Randy Weingarten, must not only come to Madison to offer their support of the movement, they must head straight to the White House to demand that President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders come out aggressively in support of the Madison movement. Student social justice organizations must send delegations to Madison to join the thousands of students at the state’s public universities who have been a central part of this movement from the beginning.

This movement has to be approached as the single most important labor struggle in the United States in the 21st Century. If the governor destroys collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin, you can be sure that similar initiatives will succeed in other states. If he
Is forced to take attacks on collective bargaining off the table by the strength of the protest, it will reinvigorate not only the entire labor movement in the United States, but the movement to prevent Congress and state legislatures from destroying what little of a safety net we have in the United States of America

The stakes could not be higher. So if you are in a union or part of a progressive organization, press your leadership to send people to Wisconsin. Insist your elected representatives pass resolutions in support of the Wisconsin movement. And get ready to fight the same battle in your own state when the time comes

Solidarity Foreover!

Mark Naison
February 18, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Ugly Underside of School Closings: A Telling Incident

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

If you think closing schools for low test scores doesn't hurt children, listen carefully. This morning, at 8 :30 AM I got a panicked call from a dear friend and colleague whose daughter, a special needs child, was auditioning for an arts junior high school in the Bronx. The teacher in charge of auditions told her ( something that the principal later confirmed) that the school didn't take special needs children, no matter how talented, and used reading scores as their primary criteria for admission. They let my friends daughter audition, so as not to hurt her feelings, but made it clear that she had
no chance of getting into the school.

This kind of educational triage, which we already know is widespread at charter schools, is now spreading to schools throughout the system,as the NYC DOE
makes it clear that low test schools will lead to school closings and firings of teachers and principals. If you are a principal, it is simply not in your interest
to take children, who because of developmental issues ( or in some cases poverty and stress) do not score well on standardized tests

So what happens to children like my friend's daughter who is bright, beautiful and talented, but doesn't test well? Is she systematically excluded
from the schools with the most resources, and the best programs and services and shunted to schools that the DOE has marked for closing?

School reformers who enthusiastically endorse school closings, like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee, say they are doing so because they represent "the children."

But which children are they talking about? Certainly not my friends wonderful daughter, and the millions of childrens like her, who mark my words, are
going to be casualties of this misguided movement

Mark Naison
February 12, 2011


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

School Reform: The American Version of the BIG LIE

The idea that school reform, rather than progressive taxation, is the key to ending poverty is the American version of the BIG LIE. To paraphrase Tupac ( from Changes) "Instead of a war on Pov-er-ty, they have a war on Teachers, so the Rich Can Ride Free!" The more the economy deteriorates, the more we can see pressure on schools to raise test scores. It will never work, so long as the conditions students live in get more desperate and stressful! Beware the billionaires who finance school reform and the politicians who support it. This movement-truly a fool’s errand- diverts attention from their own responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen the nation’s poor and working class people!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Is Test Driven Educational Reform Driving the Joy in Learning from the Nation’s Classrooms.
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

Sometime during my childhood, probably before the age of eight, I fell in love with learning new things. Maybe it was the trips to the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History I took with my parents, maybe it was the explosions I made with my chemistry set ( which today would mark me off as a future terrorist!) maybe it the wonder of reading about dinosaurs and how humans evolved from apes; maybe it was the excitement of memorizing the capitals of every state and the batting averages of major league players, but I became a person to whom the joy of acquiring and make sense of new information was as powerful as my love of food sports and music.

The public schools I went to, though students sat in rows and did more than their share of memorization, did much to encourage the intellectual curiosity of kids like me! There were science fairs and spelling bees, regular trips to zoos and museums, science labs and arts projects and an audio visual squad that allowed its student members, once they were properly trained, show films for the entire school. There were assemblies where we sang and put on plays, regular recess where we played punch ball and Johnny on the Pony, and gym classes where we did calisthenics and played dodge ball. Sure, there were fights with tough kids and bad moments with mean teachers- and I had my share of both- but I loved going to school. So much so that I became a teacher myself, figuring that the best way to keep the joy of learning alive was to share it with future generations of students.

Today, with all the pressure on students to pass standardized tests, and the public humiliation, and possible loss of jobs, that awaits teachers and principals if their students don’t “perform,” I wonder if students who grew up in working class neighborhoods like mine ( Crown Heights Brookyln) are having the love of learning smothered and driven out of them in the schools they are attending? The feedback I am getting from my former students who teach in such schools is not encouraging. Huge amounts of their teaching time is devoted to test preparation, and they are under close and constant scrutiny by school administrators whose own careers are now entirely dependent on student performance. More and more, the principal becomes like a high level college coach whose future employment depends on their won loss percentage, and they pass that pressure on to their teachers and students as surely as those coaches do to their players. What disappears in that situation is joy- joy in playing, joy in learning. Young people who should be experiencing the wonder of discovery are being told, in ways indirect and direct, that the jobs of the teachers and administrators who work with them are dependent on their performance on the tests they are taking. No young person should be subjected to that kind of pressure at age 18, much less at age 8! What you have is a situation where the time and space for creative playful thinking, and experiential learning is being squeezed out of the school culture. School is no longer a place for dreamers, for adventurers, for people who live in a world of the imagination; it is a place for people who dutifully follow orders, and respond to a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse since Barack Obama took office and launched “Race to the Top.” Seven years ago, I was invited by a visionary school leader, Julia Swann, into thirteen Bronx elementary schools and middle schools to train teachers to do Oral and Community history projects with their students. Ms Swann had located a two month window of opportunity in the school year where teachers were no longer under pressure to do “test prep” and she thought that community history projects would be something that would energize school communities and get parents more involved in the schools

Ms Swann’s vision proved prophetic! The teachers leaped on the opportunity to bring the history of Bronx neighborhoods to life in the classroom. Students interviewed their parents and grandparents, their teachers, neighborhood merchants and created amazing visual as well as literary records of what they had learned. Some schools had day long oral history festivals, to which the entire neighborhood was invited, which included poster boards, exhibits ( some of near museum quality) journals and newspapers, performances, student made documentary films and food fairs highlighting the cuisines of the different cultural groups represented in the school. One school, PS 140 in Morrisania, created an “old school museum” honoring the cultural and musical traditions of the neighborhood and decided to make community history an integral part of the school culture. Everywhere I went (and I attended events at all 13 schools!) I saw incredible joy on the faces of teachers, students, parents, administrators when they showcased what they had done. There was no pressure to meet an external standard or pass muster with an outside reviewer. Rather, there was the joy of discovering that history lived right among them, in the stories told by the people closest to them, and in the material objects (immigration records, birth certificates, articles of clothing, recipes, records and tapes) that they had preserved. I even wrote a little rap, which I performed at all 13 schools, to honor what had taken place

Region 2 and Network 3
Are Rocking Oral History
Our 13 schools, in the BX
Are using daily life as text

We do food, music and immigration
To show how the Bronx leads the Nation’
With hip hop, salsa and R and B
The Mixing of Cultures is Our Family Tree

Working on this Project, with these remarkable Bronx students, teachers, and administrators, may have been the best single experience in my forty years as a college teachers

Unfortunately, it could never be done today? Why, because there is no longer a two month period in the school year where teachers are free of the pressure of test prep! Now, you are lucky if you could find a WEEK in which classroom learning is not dominated by the pressure of student, teacher and school evaluation.

This, to me is a crime . Not to the children of the wealthy, who go to private schools, or suburban public schools, where the arts and science and creative learning are still integral to the school experience, but to working class kids like I once was who are filled with intellectual curiosity and are having the joy in learning replaced by pressure and stress that is being passed down relentlessly from school administrators to teachers to students.

Make no mistake about it, when we destroy the joy of learning in a large portion of our youth, most of whom are from racial minorities and immigrant backgrounds, we are doing our nation irreparable harm

Will people please wake up and stop this travesty against the young people of our nation. Let students learn, let teachers teach, let the joy return to our schools

Mark Naison
February 5, 2011