Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University
On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.
Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong. Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.
But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics. Read More »
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 »
Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on The World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.
After 35 years of economic reform and development, China’s Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China’s new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.
The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.
Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China’s state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an “iron rice bowl” that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that “iron rice bowl” has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer. Read More »
Our guest author today is Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy (Columbia University Press, 20007).
Freedom House recently released the significant – and sobering — results of its report, “Freedom in the World 2014.” The survey is the latest in an annual assessment of political and civil liberties around the globe. For the eighth year in a row, the overall level of freedom declined, as 54 nations saw erosion of political and civil rights, including Egypt, Turkey and Russia. (A smaller number, 40, saw gains.) Despite the early hopes of the Arab Spring, democracy promotion has proven a long and difficult fight.
None of this would surprise Albert Shanker, who devoted his life to championing democracy, yet always recognized the considerable difficulty of doing so. Around 1989, when the world was celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shanker took the long view: “What we’ve seen are the beginnings of democracy. We haven’t really seen democracy yet. We’ve seen the overthrow of dictatorship. Democracy is going to take generations to build and we have to be a part of that building because they won’t be able to do it alone.” Read More »
Our guest today is Eric Lee, founding editor of LabourStart, the international labor news and campaigning site.
On a chilly Thursday morning in late January I found myself standing at the entrance to an ultra-modern building that looked exactly like a shopping center or hotel. An immense atrium, mirror-like glass everywhere, it was certainly designed by architects with ambitions. The building was the main courthouse in downtown Istanbul — the largest courthouse, we were told, in all of Europe.
I was there in order to attend the opening of the trial of 56 members of KESK, the Turkish trade union for public sector workers. The KESK members are accused of membership in an illegal organization, and making propaganda for that organization. A handful of them were accused of being leaders of the organization.
The organization they are accused of joining is the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP-C) — the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front — which for more than three decades has conducted an armed struggle against the Turkish state. The DHKP-C is considered a terrorist organization not only by the Turkish government but also by the European Union and the United States. Read More »
Our guest author today is Ian Robinson, Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and in the Residential College’s interdisciplinary Social Theory and Practice program at the University of Michigan.
Poverty is (by definition) a function of inadequate income relative to family or household size. Low income has two possible proximate causes: insufficient hours of employment and/or insufficient hourly wages. In 2001, there were four times more poor U.S. households in which someone had a job than there were in households in which no one did. The same is still true today. In other words, despite levels of unemployment far above post-World War Two norms, low wage jobs are by far the most important proximate cause of poverty in America today.
Perversely, despite this reality, the academic literature on U.S. poverty pays less attention to such jobs than it does to unemployment. A recent article, published in the journal American Sociological Review, both identifies and makes up for that shortcoming. In the process, its authors arrive at some striking conclusions. In particular, they find that unions are a major force for reducing poverty rates among households with at least one employed person. Read More »
Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. In 2011, the Republic of Poland awarded him with the Commander Cross of the Order of Merit, one of its highest civilian honors, for his contributions to Poland’s democratic transformation and role in providing support to Solidarity Underground during Martial Law.
In the West, Poland’s Solidarity trade union remains a symbol of the triumph of workers, united in defense of their fundamental rights, against the might of communist dictatorship.
Its remarkable rise in 1980 after nationwide strikes, its nearly ten-year struggle for freedom after the government tried to crush it using martial law, and its 1989 electoral victory that led to the collapse of communism throughout the region — all of this has become the stuff of historical legend. The story of Solidarity after 1989, however, is less well known. It is the story of how free trade unionism was nearly destroyed by extreme “free market” policies carried out in the name of democratic reform. Read More »
About one in five American workers today have jobs that offer low wages, poor benefits and few opportunities for advancement. But what can you do, right? After all, don’t we know that what’s good for business is often not good for people?
Not really, argues Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in this recent article. Although the conventional wisdom is that companies have no choice but to pay their employees poorly to remain competitive, Ton’s research suggests the opposite is true: When companies invest in their workforce, everybody wins.
Ton studied the practices of four highly regarded retailers – Mercadona*, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco – and found that “highly successful retail chains not only invest heavily in store employees but also have the lowest prices in their industries, solid financial performance, and better customer service than their competitors.” Indeed, low wages are “not a cost-driven necessity but a choice.” Her analysis suggest that one key to breaking the perceived trade-off is “a combination of investment in the workforce and operational practices that benefit employees, customers, and the company.” Read More »
Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society. The views expressed here are her own.
Amid the political and social chaos that reigns in Egypt today, a semblance of normality persists: People go to work; they buy food; they try to feed their families. And, as in the past, Egyptians employers, with the active support of the Egyptian government, flagrantly violate fundamental workers rights. Workers are fired for trying to organize unions and they are not paid what they are owed, including legally mandated bonuses, profit-sharing and health care benefits or proper safety equipment.
There is a familiar political dimension to these events. Elements in the police and military are accusing workers who protest employer abuses of being “terrorists” — which in today’s Egypt means members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In a recent New York Times article, two Egyptian media sources claimed that the workers striking at the Suez Steel company were infiltrated by MB activists attempting to “destabilize” the country.
This is an accusation supported neither by the facts, nor the history of blue collar unions. Read More »
Today marks the actual calendar day of the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In honor of that day, we republish Al Shanker’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, the director of the March, on the occasion of Randolph’s passing in 1979. One of the themes of Shanker’s comments is the distinctive place of A. Philip Randolph in the African-American freedom struggle, distinguished from Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, by his focus on the empowerment of African-American working people and his commitment to non-violent, mass action as the means of empowerment. One of the lesson plans the Shanker Institute has published for teaching the 1963 March focuses precisely on this distinctive contribution of Randolph. Other lesson plans look at Randolph’s close partner, Bayard Rustin, who was the organizing genius behind the March, and examine the alliance between the labor movement and civil rights movement which made the March a success. All of the Shanker Institute lesson plans can be read here.
It may be said – I think without exaggeration – that no American in this century has done more to eliminate racial discrimination in our society and to improve the condition of working people than did A. Philip Randolph, who died this week at the age of 90.
For A. Philip Randolph, a man of quiet eloquence with dignity in every gesture, freedom and justice were never granted people. They had to be fought for in struggles that were never-ending. And progress was something that had to be measured in terms of tangible improvements in people’s lives, in the condition of society generally, and in the quality of human relationships. Read More »
Our guest author today is William P. Jones, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013)
If Richard Parrish had his way, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have occurred in 1941 rather than 1963. As President of the Federation of Colored College Students in New York City, the 25-year old student was a key organizer of the mass demonstration that union leader A. Philip Randolph called to protest discrimination in the armed forces and the defense industries during the Second World War. He was furious, therefore, when Randolph cancelled the march in exchange for an executive order, issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prohibiting defense contractors from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, color religion, or national origin. Parrish agreed that this was a major victory, but pointed out that it would expire when the war ended and do nothing to address discrimination in the armed forces. Accusing Randolph of acting without consulting the students and other groups that supported the mobilization, he insisted that the March on Washington be rescheduled immediately.
Randolph refused—accusing Parrish and other young militants of being “more interested in the drama and pyrotechnics of the march than the basic and main issues of putting Negroes to work”—but the disagreement did not prevent the two black radicals from working closely together to build a powerful alliance between the civil rights and labor movements in the postwar decades. After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1947, Parrish worked as a teacher and union leader until his retirement in 1976. He also worked closely with Randolph to open jobs and leadership positions for black workers in organized labor. When Randolph decided to reorganize the March on Washington in 1963, Dick Parrish was one of the first people he turned to for support. Read More »
Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. Currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society, Prof. El-Shazli has 25 years of international experience in political and economic development, including democracy promotion programs and support for independent trade unions. She has worked with trade unions, political parties, and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The views expressed here are her own.
Egypt has become a land of stark, astounding contradictions. There is so little stability that political pundits cannot predict or even explain what is happening in the political sphere or society. As it is in politics, it is in daily life. Some examples:
Driving in Cairo has become the art of the detour. Demonstrations and protests can materialize any time of day and anywhere. If a protesting mass of humanity does not impede your way, then one of the new cement block walls will. These walls are erected by the government across major streets to contain demonstrations. Surely the time is right for some inventor to launch a new app — “Avoid Protests – Egypt” — to guide drivers and protesters alike.
Times are not tough for everyone. In the affluent areas of Cairo, youngsters still sport the latest fashions, shoppers carry home their purchases, and restaurants brim with high class clientele. New restaurants are opening and one even sells fancy “cupcakes,” the craze imported from the US. One would hardly believe that, for the average Egyptian, the country is indeed sinking into a financial abyss. But that is what’s happening. Read More »
“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Two events last week which might seem worlds apart provide evidence that working people around the globe are indeed tied together in King’s “single garment of destiny.”
In Texas, fourteen people died and up to 180 were injured in an explosion that obliterated a fertilizer factory and leveled the surrounding town. In Bangladesh, over 400 garment workers died when a factory building collapsed with thousands inside. Rescue and recovery operations continue to find additional Bangladeshi dead, with hundreds still missing. The human toll makes this the deadliest accident in the history of the garment industry worldwide, even before the terrible final count is known.
Neither of these terrible events was “an accident.” In both cases, factory management engaged in dangerous and reprehensible conduct, creating entirely avoidable conditions that made these events possible, even predictable. Read More »
This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.
As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. 
Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.
Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions “were the Goliath to the school reformers’ David.”
How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science. Read More »
Last week, in “Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?”, I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.
The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions. Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today.  At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack.  Read More »