Shifting Political Values: Public Schooled and American Made

Teachers on strike in Chicago

Toronto   In American public and political life there used to be some clear tests that determined whether you were “one of us” or “one of them,” whether you were progressive or conservative, stood with the people or stood with special interests.  These markers were so stark and clear that a generation ago it would have been heresy to cross the line.  It would have been a breach of public trust and signal of the fact that you were unfit to stand for public office.

One of the clearest examples was in the car you drove.  Whether favor seeker or politician you knew not to drive into a union parking lot in a foreign made car.  It didn’t have to be a poser’s pickup.  It could be a big Lincoln or a stretched Cadillac, but it had to be from the Big-3 and built by union labor if you wanted something from a union.

If you were looking for an endorsement as a politician or an alliance with a union, you didn’t offer them a newspaper for your organization, a bumper sticker for your campaign, or a business card that lacked a union “bug” at the bottom.  You could guarantee that there was some old member in the back who might not care what you said about any issue but was sure to raise the fact that you lacked a bug even if the Typographical Union was one of the smallest in the labor movement.  It was a signifier of where you stood, and really who you were.  It was a simple sign of respect like not spitting on the floor or wiping your nose with your sleeve.  It was something so simple and obvious that it spoke volumes if these small signs were not clear.

The same was always true about whether or not you and your children attended public school.  In a city like New Orleans you could get away with going to Jesuit High School, if you were Marc Morial and son of the Mayor, because it was a Catholic city and you were showing you could make it anywhere.  That did not disqualify you from running for Mayor, but it surely disqualified you from running for the school board if you or your children didn’t go to public school.  Everyone knew this.  You had no “skin in the game.”  You were simply an dilettante, an window gazer, and an on looker in the process, and best to keep your pie hole shut and opinions to yourself.  I can remember in Little Rock when candidates withdrew from elections because their children were not in public school.  This was a city where the integration of the public schools in 1957 was a national crisis, so to say you wanted to govern schools when your own children were not in them was anathema and a obvious disqualification.

For decades, the decisions of Presidents about where their children would go to school in Washington, public or private, was widely reported in the news.  Unfortunately, the Democratic trend towards Sidwell Quakers’ school has diluted the clarity of the politics behind a smokescreen of security, but it still means something and disappoints when Presidents speaking about education, line their children up on the playground with the 1% rather than the rest of us.

The loss of embarrassment and the sense of irony in modern political life when public figures fail to grasp this is shocking.  They seem to speed through the red lights now without stopping, but they would be very, very foolish to think that it is not noticed and resented by citizens and regular people.

A paragraph in the New York Times discussing a Chicago mother scrambling to take care of her children in the sudden forced teachers’ strike was telling:

“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get, an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.

There was a day when it would have been so obvious to someone as savvy and shrewd as Rahm Emmanuel that it would have been as natural to him as taking a breath of air or reading the morning paper to either have his children in public school or stay out of the debate.  When the sense of entitlement becomes a “given” to public officials and the protection of inequities without even irony or embarrassment becomes natural rather than taboo, then the changes in our public life are out of hand.  When teachers in Chicago say the strike speaks to a lack of “respect,” just as driving a foreign car once did or using a scab printer or similar affronts to standardized symbols about where you stand and who you stand with, this is what they are speaking in a voice louder than any bullhorn and clearer than any picket sign.

 

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Little Hope for New NLRB Rules, SEIU Convention, & Canadian Initiatives

New Orleans  It is time to examine the results of all of the sound and fury of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decisions that conservatives claimed would bring the end of world as they knew it.  The conclusion to date is that there is no change whatsoever!

Step back for a minute and remember that on the eve of Obama’s election many unions thought that changes in federal labor law were imminent.  Some pushed for this to be Job #1 for the new administration.  Obama, Biden, and others had committed to the passage of much needed amendments to the labor law.  Organizing unions like SEIU had task forces, staff assigned, and organizing plans developed.  Top staffers can remember the discussions with the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel finally signing off on the potential legislation.  Then there was the deluge with the 2010 midterm elections debacle and any remaining hope for legislative relief was long gone.

The strategy morphed into the distant second best of regulatory changes issued by the NLRB on rule making procedures.  The right demonized Craig Becker, a labor leaning board member with ties to SEIU and the AFL-CIO.  Out of these elephantine labors came two major initiatives the NLRB trumpeted.

The first, a much ballyhooed minor posting of workers’ rights that the NLRB had ordered to be posted on the bulletin boards of employers throughout the country has still not occurred and is lost in the courts.  The second, a much diluted but more rapid election schedule which largely benefited the more infrequently organized large bargaining units where hearing and unit appeals can postpone elections for years, is now also held up by court orders questioning the quorum and majority on the NLRB that made the final decisions.  Truthfully, business protests too much.  Neither of these changes were game changers, though they were nice enough and certainly better than nothing by many miles.

It is time for those of us in labor to come to some hard conclusions.  The rules are NOT likely to change.  The game has to change and by that I mean the fundamental labor organizing model, as I’ve argued frequently.

SEIU the premier organizing union of recent decades is now meeting in its quadrennial convention and for the first time in over 30 years they will be “celebrating” a declining membership.  This should never have happened!

Unions in Canada may be acting faster and smarter than their US counterparts and learning some lessons from the US experience that down south we are still trying to deny.  Interestingly in the merger discussions between the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers (CEP) which would create a Canadian super-union,  the key incentive for the merger seems to be a recognition that the organizing model has to change.

Millions of Canadian workers, like part-time workers and contract workers, have no effective possibility of forming a traditional union,” said CAW economist Jim Stanford. “These unorganized workers should not be cannon fodder for unethical employers. We can find other ways for them to use the power of numbers.

They are still a good distance from figuring it out, but at least they are singing the right tune, while I can hear a funeral dirge in the background in union halls throughout America.

SEIU rally in LA

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Why Not Paul Farmer at US-AID

PEF2005 New Orleans After endless delays and speculation the Administration announced that Dr. Rajiv Shah, currently an Department of Agriculture official and formerly an executive with the Gates Foundation, would become the head of the United States Agency for International Development (US-AID) last week.  From all reports he sounds like a competent administrator and a first rate player in this area, but I keep looking under the rock to try and understand what happened to long reported likelihood of an appointment of Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, Harvard hotshot, rock star do-gooder in Haiti, Rwanda, and elsewhere, and subject of a near fawning biography by Tracy Kidder?  I’m sure Farmer is not quite a saint, but certainly the Obama administration knew that his appointment at US-AID would have been a total game changer.  How – and why – did the Administration drop the ball after leaving Farmer’s name hanging out there for this job for more than 6 months?

Scouring the internet, the only comment I could find attributable to Farmer points to the overly intrusive vetting process.  Nicholas Kristof of the Times in a blog a month ago seem to say the White House was concerned about various public comments Farmer had made in the past.  Secretary of State Hilary Clinton lashed out at the delays in filling this position.  Former President Bill Clinton now a special envoy to Haiti seems to have pulled some strings and had Farmer named a UN Special Envoy for Haiti as well.  All of that seems orchestrated to make a hard pill easier for Farmer to swallow and the public to buy.

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