Gunning for the Teachers and Their Unions

map of union strength according to Thomas Fordham Institute

New Orleans   Even as all of us hit the dawn patrol to vote and get out the vote on the US-Election Day, it is sobering to see that the rightwing forces are amassing at the border, regardless of the outcome today, in order to carry the fight into state legislatures around critical issues, like education, primarily by targeting unions.  I downloaded the 400-page report (mostly charts) produced by the Thomas Fordham Institute and funded and assisted by various conservative outfits which sought to measure the variable strength of teachers’ unions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Institute claimed that its purpose was to get to the heart of whether or not unions were really the obstacles to education reform in states and districts around the country.  They claimed the report was data-driven along more than 30 categories of comparison.  Truthfully as frightening as it was to behold, it was also compelling in its comprehensive inspection of education based unions.  The Institute’s conclusions were mundane, though interestingly they were probably surprised to find such a weak correlation between union strength state-to-state and the progress or lack of it on their criteria for educational reform.  They figured out that collective bargaining laws are important as is the right to strike, and that money and resources make huge differences.  They also found that on the state level outsiders thought unions were significant in the educational reform debate in 20 states, but only the key player in two states.  Like I said, there were occasional pearls to be found in this pig pen.

What was most fascinating to me about this entire avalanche of “data” was the way education, which has always been the most local of all political and community institutions, has now almost totally become a battleground at the state level.  Certainly, the way my own state of Louisiana totally usurped the local elected school board is a daily insult here, but this is also the legacy of the Bush II program of leaving children behind and empowering the states to determine how to lower the boom on school systems.  Looking at unions, it seems where unions have understood their fights to be at the legislatures rather than local school board; they have been at significant advantages in dealing with this devolution of resources and power.

Hawaii is an excellent example where this is a statewide union (NEA) with a statewide collective bargaining agreement, rather than a local one, is the strongest because clearly they are always “bargaining” with the state legislature.   Florida’s weakness was a surprise but spoke to the same phenomena.  Florida is rare in the South because there is a collective bargaining law with mandatory provisions, including checkoff, and there is an enormous union there because of the effective merger of AFT and NEA in that state.

It reveals starkly that part of the issue that underlies the Fordham numbers is the residue of fundamentally different organizing strategies by the NEA and the AFT, which have ironically left them – and us – in this perilous situation.   AFT for decades successfully ran an organizing program based on only working in cities with school districts which were large enough that they employed at least 200 to 250 teachers, which they thought sufficient to support a “stand alone” local union in that district.   NEA on the other had organized teachers in districts regardless of their size and had often emerged into collective bargaining after decades as a statewide, lobbying-based, professional association of teachers and sometimes, as in the Southern states, a batch of principals, administrators, and random educational personnel.

The Fordham Institute was clearly perplexed why you would have strong union involve at the state level in places like Alabama in the South, Montana and North Dakota in the West, Washington on the Pacific Coast where NEA also dominates, and obviously Hawaii.  They want to see one clear pattern based on the kind of urban wars where the battle cries have been the loudest in places like New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago.  Unfortunately for them and maybe for the rest of us, none of this is simple, because the union strength may be most noticeable in the urban areas where AFT has been strongest, but the fights have shifted to the states where NEA is in the best position to protect its members even though they might in other ways seem relatively weaker.

Both were great organizing strategies and build unions for teachers with millions of members in one of the greatest organizing successes of our generations, but politically, unless there is a way to play catch-up and reconcile the interests and objectives of both the cities and the unions, it leaves us poorly positioned to defend against the frontal assault coming at the state level and in the legislatures in place after place.


Peer Power, Crowd Sourcing, and Fixing Cities

New Orleans   The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board broke up about 10-feet of the sidewalk in front of my house to do something with their pipes six months ago.  Three months ago a truck with two of their workers parked in front of the house and looked at it without getting out of the pickup.  I asked if there was a plan or a timetable to comeback and finish the job by repairing the sidewalk.  Oh, yes, they replied.  We’re making sure it’s on the list now!  Living in the broke-ass City of New Orleans, I’m pretty relaxed about the sidewalk.  I only really remember the problem every time I mow the yard and the pebbles come firing back at my legs.  If I could choose, I would have some of the potholes that almost swallow my truck fixed elsewhere, but of course that’s a different city entity with different funding sources….

In the spirit of neo-liberalism, transferring the responsibilities for common issues to regular citizens rather than public authorities, I constantly read of these magical solutions brought to us by either the internet or….each other?  Some of it sounds great and in fact would be a real contribution.  We were big fans of what crowd sourcing might do in the Korogochu slum in Nairobi if we could have figured out a way to get text messages on cell phones to alert people about crime and security issues in the community and pressure police for action.  The lack of confidence in the police acting and technical problems stalled that notion, though it still seemed promising.

Reading the Wall Street Journal recently, an op-ed book promotion by Steven Johnson touted “peer power.”  He told of an organization in New Haven, Connecticut called SeeClickFix, where “ordinary citizens” have reported “potholes, abandoned cars, graffiti.”  He claimed that “city governments have used the data to address more than 125,000 cases in neighborhoods across the U.S.”  Interesting, but is reporting really the problem or is the real problem the actual fixing?  Having worked in organizing communities for decades, I’m really pretty sure it’s the fixing part of the equation where we stumble.  Cities may prefer getting a message via the internet rather than a screaming rant from an unhappy taxpayer or worse a group of neighbors showing up at City Hall or Public Works, but all of this ignores the real problem by promoting something that is nowhere near a solution.

Even better or worse, Johnson celebrated something called “” which had created a classic neo-liberal “solution” and created a “Kickstarter-style platform where people can propose and crowdfund new projects in their communities:  bike racks, community gardens, playground swings.”  Well, at least they weren’t funding basic city services on a voluntary basis, but neither are these kinds of initiatives creating public consensus on quality of life issues.  Instead they are creating a facility for self-funding separate projects not based on community decision making but on self-certified and resourced groups.  Tending a community garden may be one thing, but why aren’t bike racks and playground swings pure-and-simple public goods and therefore public responsibilities?

Where Johnson was right was in promoting “participatory budgeting” based on the Porto Alegre, Brazil model, but that’s a whole different situation where a municipal budget is cobbled together in a city over a million people with an elaborate – and equitable – system of full citizen participation to make decisions about how to spend their public dollars in the best way.  Not surprisingly the access to potable water and building adequate sewer systems increased dramatically once the ruling municipal party, the PT or Workers’ Party, instituted this process.

Porto Alegre is a model for real citizen empowerment, not the replacement of public functions by private citizens.  We need to not be confused.  Apples are not oranges anywhere in the world, and the right and the neo-liberal advocates should not be allowed to hide their efforts to push public responsibilities onto private citizens by conflating real power with an artificial substitute.


Salud Promodores, Barefoot Doctors, Home Health Workers, and Iranian Health Houses Come Knocking

Healthcare Workers in Iran

New Orleans   In organizing the process of strengthening weak ties to build the strong welds of solidarity can be very personal, tediously time consuming and therefore prohibitively expensive, and involve huge scale human engineering in order to create deep organizations, which is partly why organizers use other tools like actions and demonstrations to achieve scale and create polarization.  There’s no better or more intensive process than home visits, the door-to-door work that was the ACORN hallmark.

For a long time I have found it fascinating the way similar systems have been successfully adapted in developing countries to provide health care, particularly preventive care.  In Lima and elsewhere many of our organizers were originally salud promodores or health promoters, similar to home health aides doing outreach.  In fact when I was consulting with Casa de Maryland they had an excellent program working among immigrant populations in the suburban counties outside of Washington, DC.  The role of barefoot doctors, who were home health organizers after the Chinese revolution, was well regarded and carefully studied in my generation as both hopeful and inspirational.  The huge explosive growth of home health workers in the USA was more about cost saving than prevention or intervention, but there’s no doubt that when the service worked it allowed better health and independence for millions.

It wasn’t surprising to that Dr. Aaron Shirley, a veteran doctor and civil rights activist in Mississippi, would be attracted to these kinds of programs in dealing with the persistent, scandalous, and tragic heath care crises in Mississippi, but the New York Times Magazine feature advocating a move to an Iranian model of health houses or mini-clinics serviced by promodores of sorts was fascinating.

The Iranians built ‘health houses’ to minister to 1500 people who lived within at most an hour’s walking distance.  Each house is a 1000-square foot hut equipped with examination rooms and sleeping quarters and staffed by community health workers – one man and one or more women who have been given basic training in preventive health care.  They advise on nutrition and family planning, take blood pressure, keep track of who needs prenatal care, provide immunization and monitor environmental conditions like water quality.  Crucially, in order to gain trust, the health workers come from the villages they serve.

All of that seems to make enormous good, common sense.  The article drifts a little towards the direction of being a solicitation for government or private funds for the $3 million the Mississippi organizers and advocates want to build 15 such “health houses” over three years, but it makes me wonder why this wouldn’t be a vital system in not only rural areas, but also cities, and why with some energy and ingenuity and community support versions of this couldn’t be created by community organizations using the talents all around them.  Given the costs of health care, the shrinking of the safety net, and the fact that it’s life-or-death if we don’t start embracing preventive care and create a real ground-level health care system, it seems like it’s worth some thought and work for community organizations to adapt something similar and do so PDQ.

salud promodores training


Do NLRB Election Changes Matter If No One is Organizing

            New Orleans               The surviving members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a final rulemaking on some “modest” (quoting Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO) changes to election procedures this week.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has quickly announced that they will file suit to block the regulations as an assault on “free speech” before they are scheduled to take effect on April 30, 2012.  This surely is a political posturing exercise on their part in order to prevent more extensive and perhaps more meaningful proposals from emerging in the workplace, because these changes are at best technical and though important will not change the organizing climate significantly for workers.

The new rule modifications primarily affect elections that go to a hearing before the NLRB and involve appeals.  The NLRB in their release of the rule indicated that only about 10% of elections are currently going to hearing, since mostly the parties are agreeing to stipulated elections.  The number of elections in the last available year (2009) only totaled 1304, so we are talking about 130 elections involving perhaps 7000 workers.  Some of these hearings are quick and simple matters for unsophisticated employers and attorneys hoping for the best, so only a subset of these 130 elections actually involve appeals.   Previously I’ve argued that this is not insignificant because the larger the unit being organized, the more likely the hearing and the appeals, and if a union is stuck in that rut it is absolutely a world of pain with a recent Berkeley Labor Center report, based on a FOIA filing with the NLRB, indicating that the delays will of elections will run from more than 4 months to close to 6 months.  In these cases the new rule will be helpful in allowing the election to proceed and forcing the lawyers to argue later and limiting and consolidating the appeals, but….

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Cyber-Communication Crackdowns Continue

social networking logosLafayette The notion that whole governments including ostensibly liberal democracies like the United Kingdom would simply throw all pretense about freedom of speech out the window when it comes to social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, and various instant messaging services proves that all of the freedoms we take for granted are just that, taken for granted and as fragile as an egg shell.

Police and government officials in the UK asked Twitter if they could eliminate this nuisance of using Twitter names that were not real name, so that it would be easier for them to bust people  Twitter luckily in this case demurred.

The Blackberry people with Research in Motion in Waterloo, Canada seemed from these reports to be read to fold as easily as a cheap suit to virtually any government request, which was disconcerting since so many of us are (were?) hanging on as Blackberry users and fans.  Luckily, I don’t use whatever Blackberry Messenger is, but I found myself reaching out to colleagues in Toronto with ACORN Canada pretty damned quickly after reading about their weak knees to make sure that was the case.

The Iranian government is having a bit of fun with this and offered to send a human rights delegation to London to investigate abuses, since the UK had offered to do much the same when they shut down Twitter and Facebook during protests a couple of years ago.  Ha-ha-not!

In San Francisco reputedly a bastion of both freedom and certainly speech, the BART rapid transit system has been stubbornly defending their willingness to cut off all access to the internet to block protests.  There are now reports on stalking based on pejorative tweets within the Buddhist community in the USA.

Do we really want this?  I don’t think so, and I say this as someone who has gotten a good share of flaming, threatening, and violently abusive messages over the internet transom at different times.  I worry less about those crazies than the ones hiding behind doors, if you know what I mean.  As long as there is a Delete button, I’m able to weather all of those storms with“sticks and stones” vigilance while letting the “words” roll off, like water off a duck’s back.

We have to have the ability to organize and associate, even when others go over the line.  It’s easier to say we’re sorry in such circumstances, than to imagine the lack of freedom involved in having to ask permission to be able to speak to ourselves much less our governments about our interests and issues.


New NLRB Rules: Changing Post-Election Strategy

we-wonNew Orleans One result of the proposed new NLRB election rules, if and when adopted, may require a shift in post-election strategy.

A union will know the results of the election and whether or not the challenged ballots on any unit questions affect the outcome or are aggravations waiting for hearings.  Either way this would mean that the long delays for hearings, decisions, and the potential for appeal to the Board in DC could mean lengthy waits for certification triggering collective bargaining.

Unions may now need to develop strategy and tactics for mounting post-election campaigns to try to do two things.  First to firmly establish the union as a reality in the work, regardless of the NLRB, certification, or bargaining, by electing stewards, defining issues, and taking direct actions on the job around issues and interests, clearly demonstrating concerted, protected activity.  Secondly, the union will have to apply these tactics and others to convince the employer to abandon or negotiate out the unit issues that are slated for hearings in the interest of obviating hearings and accelerating the process to bargaining.  Some of this will be standard operating procedure in settling hearing issues at the 11th hour before the hearing starts, similar to the practice now before representation hearings which are frequently delayed for last minute bargains or caucuses between the parties.

The more the union establishes itself and engages the employer on these issues in “campaign mode,” the more likelihood of a quicker and better settlement.  Too often now post-election work means withdrawing the organizing staff, bringing in the union officers or reps to begin the preparation for collective bargaining and selecting the committee members.   In the new regime with a quick election the campaign strategy should involve a “follow through campaign” of putting the pedal to the metal and pushing the employer to recognize any victory and abandon hearing and unit questions to the union’s interest PDQ…pretty damn quick.