Invisible Labor Redux

Posted by on May 8, 2014

Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum –  ever more narrowly –  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been — so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance. Read More »


I Am Malala: A Book Review

Posted by on November 12, 2013

In October, 2012, the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, a teenager known throughout Pakistan for her outspoken advocacy of woman’s rights, especially a woman’s right to education. Standing up for women’s rights can be a risky business in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where violent Islamist extremists have a strong foothold. But these religious disputes were thought to be mainly an adult affair. Innocents suffered, to be sure, but only as a regrettable consequence of grownups’ attacks on each other. Few expected that even the Taliban would target a precocious schoolgirl – until Malala.

The attack triggered an international uproar. Malala was shot in the head while sitting in a school bus (two of her friends also were hit in the spray of gunfire). It was a survivable injury, but the critical care facilities she needed do not exist in Pakistan. After initial fumbles, Pakistani government officials scrambled to respond. Malala was whisked away to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. She recovered and, with her family, began a new life in exile, still under Taliban death threat. The teenager from Pakistan’s remote Swat Valley of is an international celebrity. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the 2013 Andrei Sakharov Award. She has been made an honorary citizen of Canada. She has spoken at the United Nations and, recently, she met Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

And now, with the help of a skilled ghostwriter, Ms. Yousafzai has written a book: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. Read More »


A New Twist On The Skills “Blame Game”

Posted by on February 7, 2013

It is conventional wisdom that the United States is suffering from a severe skills shortage, for which low-performing public schools and inadequate teachers must shoulder part of the blame (see here and here, for example).  Employers complain that they cannot fill open slots because there are no Americans skilled enough to fill them, while pundits and policymakers – President Barack Obama and Bill Gates, among them – respond by pushing for unproven school reform proposals, in a desperate effort to rebuild American economic competitiveness.

But, what if these assumptions are all wrong?

What if the deficiencies of our educational system have little to do with our current competitiveness woes? A fascinating new book by Peter Cappelli, Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It , builds a strong case that common business practices – failure to invest adequately in on-the-job training, offering noncompetitive wages and benefits, and relying on poorly designed computer algorithms to screen applicants –are to blame, not failed schools or poorly prepared applicants. Read More »


Moving From Ideology To Evidence In The Debate About Public Sector Unions

Posted by on January 18, 2013

Drawing on a half century of empirical evidence, as well as new data and analysis, a team of scholars has  challenged the substance of many of the attacks on public employees and their unions –urging political leaders and the research community to take this “transformational” moment in the divisive and ideologically driven debate over the role of government and the value of public services to deepen their commitment to evidence-based policy ideas.

These arguments were outlined in “The Great New Debate about Unionism and Collective Bargaining in U.S. State and Local  Governments,” published by Cornell University’s ILR Review.  The authors – David Lewin (UCLA), Jeffrey Keefe (Rutgers), and Thomas Kochan (MIT) – point out that, with half a century of experience, there is now a wealth of data by which to evaluate public sector unionism and its effects.

In that context, the authors spell out the history, arguments and empirical findings on three key issues: 1) Are public employees overpaid?; 2) Do labor-management dispute resolution procedures, which are part of many state and local government collective bargaining laws, enhance or hinder effective governance?; 3) Have unions and managers in the public sector demonstrated the ability to respond constructively to fiscal crises? Read More »


Bahraini Repression Against Teachers And Health Care Workers

Posted by on November 30, 2012

The Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, is a perfect political stew, situated as it is at the confluence of political, religious, economic and international tensions simmering in the Persian Gulf.  A majority Shi’a Muslim country ruled for hundreds of years by Sunni tribal chieftains with family ties to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a dictatorship whose people have regularly demanded political reform and seen their aspirations crushed.

Today, with strong support from the oil-rich Saudis, the Kingdom’s hard-line Al-Khalifa regime enjoys absolute powers, although the day-to-day political reality is often complex.

Bahrain is also the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols those volatile waters, largely to keep an eye on Iran. The U.S. considers the port a critical element of its military posture in the Gulf. This consideration drives U.S. policy toward Bahrain. The centuries-old Bahraini-Saudi connection has, predictably, deterred the U.S. and other democratic countries from applying significant pressure to the kingdoms’ rulers. Stability is the byword. Read More »


Are Stereotypes About Career And Technical Education Crumbling?

Posted by on November 15, 2012

The stereotypes, bias, and misunderstanding that have for many decades surrounded and isolated Career and Technical Education (CTE) may slowly be crumbling.  A recent report by the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE) argues that traditional CTE typology — the way in which CTE students are identified and classified — is obsolete.  The distinctions between “CTE” students and “academic” students are no longer useful. Today, nearly all high school students, including the highest achieving academic-track students, enroll in some CTE courses.

Moreover, a significant number of students complete “high intensity” CTE courses as well as academic courses, in patterns that cross SES lines. In order to understand the contemporary high school experience, these researchers argue, we need a new typology based on the reality of today’s classroom, students, and curricula.

The October 2012 study, “A Typology for Understanding the Career and Technical Education Credit-taking Experience of High School Students,” proposes a new, more nuanced classification system —  one the authors believe would more accurately capture the high school experience and needs of today’s students. The researchers argue that these long-overdue changes could alter experts’ views of what students actually study in high school, break down the obsolete conceptual barriers that currently divide CTE and academic curricula, and help educators work with students to devise the most appropriate pathways to academic and career success. Read More »


Voter Suppression: An American Political Tradition

Posted by on October 25, 2012

In her new book, The Politics of Voter Suppression Defending and Expanding Americans’ Right to Vote, Tova Andrea Wang tells readers that voter suppression is one of our nation’s political “traditions,” arguing that the U.S. has “an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation.”

And Wang has reason to know – a fellow at Demos and The Century Foundation, she worked as a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission established by Congress in the aftermath of the “2000 Florida election debacle”. Mandated “by law to study voter fraud and intimidation,” the commission hired bipartisan consultants and charged them with investigating both and writing a draft report. According to this 2007 article by Wang, little evidence of fraud was found, but there was lots of evidence of persistent intimidation – findings that were later turned on their head by the political interplay of Congress and George Bush’s Justice Department.

So, it’s not really a huge surprise to find that a big story in the 2012 election cycle is “voter suppression” – meaning attempts to intimidate and deny the franchise to citizens who are legally eligible to vote – presented under the guise of a defense against virtually nonexistent incidents of voter fraud. Read More »


Attempted Assassination In Pakistan

Posted by on October 12, 2012

What would drive armed gunmen to open fire on a bus full of schoolgirls, with the express aim of assassinating one talented young teenager? That’s the question on the minds of many people this week, following Tuesday’s attempted assassination of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in northwestern Pakistan. A refugee fleeing Taliban violence and oppression in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala had already won a following for her precocious and courageous blog posts, written when she was really just a child, arguing that young women have a right to an education, and indeed, to a life free from discrimination and fear.

She is also a hero to many Pakistanis. In 2011, the Pakistani government awarded her a national peace prize and 1 million rupees (US$10,500). In 2012, she was a finalist for the International Children’s Peace Prize, awarded by a Dutch organization, in recognition of her courage in defying the Taliban by advocating for girls’ education.   Read More »


College For All; Good Jobs For A Few?

Posted by on August 21, 2012

A recent study by the Center for Policy Research (CEPR) asks the question that must be on the minds of college grads, now working as coffee shop baristas: “Where Have All the Good Jobs Gone?” The answer: swallowed by corporate profits and the personal portfolios of the ultrawealthy.

Despite the fact that the American economy has experienced “enormous” productivity gains since the late 1970’s, the study finds that the number of “good jobs” (defined as those paying at least $37,000 per year, with employer-provided health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan) has declined from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 24.6 percent in 2010.  This discouraging trend was strong even before the onset of the country’s economic crisis: in 2007, the year before the onset of the recession, only 25 percent of college grads had “good jobs.”

CEPR notes that the prevailing explanations for the failure to share productivity gains are “technology” and lack of necessary skills among American workers. But, if this were true, the CEPR study argues, one would expect college grads to have a higher share of good jobs than they did 30 years ago. They don’t. Instead, at every age level, today’s college grads are less likely to have a “good job” than their 1970s counterparts. This is especially surprising, the researchers note, since twice as many Americans now have advanced degrees as compared to the 1970’s. Read More »


Literacy For Life: The Role Of Career And Technical Education In Reading Proficiency

Posted by on August 13, 2012

It is well established that a student’s reading proficiency level in elementary school is a good predictor of high school graduation success. The lower the reading level, the more likely it is that the student will not graduate on time. Against this background, it is sobering that many U.S. students reach high school without the reading and comprehension skills they need. According to NAEP data, in 2011, more than a third (33 percent) of 4th-graders were reading at a below basic level; among 8th-grade and 12th grade students, the percentage of students who were stuck at the below basic reading level had dropped, but only to about 25 percent. Many of these students drop out; many go on to earn a diploma, but enter the work world singularly unprepared to earn a living.

What is to be done? Certainly, intensive remediation is part of the answer, but so are practice and motivation and interest. The challenge for struggling readers at the high school level is hard to overstate; by the time they enter high school, they often display a negative and despairing attitude toward school that has been hardened by years of failure. Furthermore, most high school teachers are not trained in literacy instruction, a specialized skill which is theoretically the purview of early elementary school. Indeed, for many urban teachers, motivating kids just to come to school is the major challenge.

How do we motivate these kids, who sometimes exhibit stubborn resistance to reading or to any other kind of schoolwork?  One effective strategy is to make the purpose of reading as interesting and obvious as possible. For many youngsters, that means access to high-quality Career and Technical Education (CTE). Read More »


Higher Education: Soaring Rhetoric, Skyrocketing Costs

Posted by on May 4, 2012

Over the past several years, the mantra of “college for all” has become ubiquitous, with Americans told that a college education is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, for any individual who aspires to a middle-class life in the 21st century economy.  And indeed, many studies tend to confirm that persons with a post-secondary education enjoy  lower unemployment rates and higher wages over time

Simultaneously – sometimes in the same articles – we learn that soaring tuition rates have put college out of the reach of many, if not most, families.  In fact, for the past few decades, college costs have been rising faster than health care costs.  In the last year or so, the news is that students who tried to borrow their way around this seemingly intractable problem only dug themselves a deeper hole. Outstanding student college loans have reached – or soon will reach – the $1 trillion mark.

The average student graduates college with a debt burden of nearly $25,000; others, especially those with professional degrees, are buckling under a debt load in the six figures. Since bankruptcy forgiveness does not apply to student debt, even unemployed and underemployed graduates can expect to carry this debt with them for years, perhaps decades, to come. With a slow economy exacerbating the problem, it’s no surprise to find that the national student loan default rate for 2009 (the last year for which data are available) was 8.8 percent and rising. At for-profit schools, the rate was 15 percent. Read More »


The Indiana Model

Posted by on January 27, 2012

Indiana is well on its way to becoming a ‘right-to-work’ state this week, with the state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives approving new legislation and the Senate poised to follow suit. The legislation weakens union protections and enables individual workers to refuse to pay their share of union representation costs, even if a majority of their coworkers have voted for union representation and the union is legally obligated to pay to bargain for and protect their rights on the job. It is the first Midwestern manufacturing state to pass such a bill, though other Republican-dominated state legislatures are considering similar legislation.

One of the most interesting things about this move is just how unpopular it is. According to the AFL-CIO, only one-third of Indiana voters favor the legislation and more than 70 percent of them want the question submitted to a vote, via a state referendum. So why, in an election year, have Republican politicians decided to push forward? Read More »


Public Servants Versus Private Contractors … Again

Posted by on September 22, 2011

Has the battle over public sector compensation turned a decisive corner? Have much-maligned government workers won an evidence-based victory?

Reasonable people might think so, thanks in part to a study by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan group that keeps close tabs on government operations. According to the findings of the POGO report – findings that they call “shocking” – the “federal government approves service contract billing rates … that pay contractors 1.83 times more than the government pays federal employees in total compensation, and more than 2 times the total compensation paid in the private sector for comparable services.”

More specifically, federal government employees cost less than private contractors in 33 of the 35 occupational classifications reviewed – and non-federal private sector worker compensation was lower than contractor billing rates in all of the reviewed classifications. In one case, contractor bill rates were nearly “5 times more” than the full compensation rates paid to comparable federal workers. Read More »


Collective Bargaining Teaches Democratic Values, Activism

Posted by on September 16, 2011

Some people must have been startled by President Obama’s decision to draw a line in the sand on collective bargaining in his jobs speech to the Congress last week. Specifically, the President said: “I reject the idea that we have to strip away collective bargaining rights to compete in a global economy.”

Given the current anti-union tenor of many prominent Republicans, started by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it seems pretty clear that worker rights is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the 2012 campaign. Collective bargaining rights as presidential campaign plank? It wasn’t that long ago that anything to do with unions was considered to be an historic anachronism – hardly worth a major Republican presidential candidate’s trouble to bash. Times have changed. Read More »


A “Decent Work” Solution To America’s Jobs Crisis

Posted by on July 21, 2011

Decent work? Some days, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind an old saying, favored by the AFL-CIO’s late president, Lane Kirkland, that if work were so great, the rich would have kept it for themselves.

But the truth is that work is one of life’s realities. For most people, it is the sole source of income. Work also can bring great personal satisfaction. Whether self-employed or working for a large multinational corporation, we all aspire to jobs that are interesting, safe, and pay a good wage with benefits – a job that can support a family, with something left over. Even these days, when people are happy to have ANY job, we still want THAT kind of a job: Decent work at decent pay.

But “decent work” is much more than a daydream – it is a concrete social and economic policy issue that is at the heart of a decade-long campaign by a major United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, (ILO). Since 1999, the ILO, with support from member governments as well as employer and labor representatives, has pushed the “Decent Work Agenda“. This document declares that “work is central to people’s well-being.” Not only does work provide income, it can bring about broad “social and economic advancement” and strengthen “individuals, their families and communities”, in other words, “decent work” creates “upward mobility” or as Americans often put it, “raises all boats.”

But these broader “social and economic” gains don’t come with just any work, the ILO argues. Read More »


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