Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor and Schools Deserve Respect, Support

September 7, 2009, 7:00 a.m.

Labor Day Monday, School Board Election Tuesday
(brought to you by*)

Labor Day. Although labor day began in Canada a good decade before it made its way south to the U.S. in 1882, it wasn't formally recognized until 1884. President Grover Cleveland had acceded to the corporate pressure from the railroads, and called out the military and U.S. marshals to crush the Pullman strike -- ultimately resulting in the death of 13 workers and serious injury to 57 more. Wishing to distance themselves from the resulting understandably hostile labor union movement, a mere six days later members of Congress unanimously passed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. So it has been ever since, including today, September 7, 2009.

It is fitting that the day was born out of conflict between government and big business, on the one hand, and working people on the other. For that conflict has continued to the present day -- including additional death and injury to union organizers during the 125 years since.

We continue to see the anti-union business-government axis even here in Iowa.
o Union members underwrite the cost of contract negotiations -- providing benefits to workers who are not required, in Iowa, to belong to the union. (This includes a good many ICCSD teachers who benefit from the Iowa City Education Association's negotiations, but refuse to join their professional association.) The unions proposed a "fair share" bill that would not have required workers to join the union and pay dues, only that they pay their "fair share" of the costs associated with contract negotiations. The legislature went along with business in refusing to pass the bill.

o "Labor went into the 2009 [Iowa legislative] session with four key priorities: 'fair share,' a bill to expand collective bargaining, a bill to give employees their choice of doctor if injured on the job, and a bill to require that government projects pay the 'prevailing wage.' They got nothing." "Final results from the Iowa Legislature's 2009 session," Bleeding Heartland, April 26, 2009.

o What are some of the consequences of this anti-labor stance of Iowa's business-government axis? "The median male wage in Iowa is lower today than it was a generation ago, in 1979." (p. 12) "Iowa’s median wage . . . ranks the state 32nd in the nation and 77 cents below the national average . . .." (p. 9). Colin Gordon and Christine Ralston, "The State of Working Iowa 2009," Iowa Policy Project, September 6, 2009.

o When I was on the school board I tried to get the board to support a "project labor agreement" -- a concept widely accepted elsewhere (and found to be legal in Iowa) -- for school district projects. It would not have required contractors to hire union members, only that they pay workers the prevailing wage. The local contractors objected, and the board majority supported their anti-union, anti-worker position.

o The Gazette reports on page one, ironically on this Labor Day today, that the "project labor agreement" fight is currently continuing full bore in Cedar Rapids, with the Linn County Board of Supervisors, and Cedar Rapids School District board, apparently siding with the non-union, out-of-state contractors against local workers and union members. Dave DeWitte, "Battleground: Linn Flood Recovery Projects Focus of Contractor, Union Debate," The Gazette, September 7, 2009, p. A1.

o An awful lot of the University's contracts go to non-union contractors -- sometimes requiring re-dos on projects that should (and could) have been done right the first time.
As the bumper sticker has it: "Trade unions: Those wonderful folks who brought you the weekend."

Students who start their "weekend" with Thursday evening's binge drinking (what the Daily Iowan refers to as "80 hours" -- of the 168 in a week) may not know why a steam whistle has been blowing at 8:00, 12:00, 1:00, and 5:00 on Saturdays for as long as I can remember. That's because, when I was a very young boy, everyone worked from 8:00 to noon, and 1:00 to 5:00 on Saturdays (including faculty) -- if they were lucky enough to get more than 20 minutes for lunch.

Why are many Americans working 35 and 40 hour weeks instead of 48 hours? Thank the unions.

The Canadian issue out of which its labor day was born was the fight for a nine hour working day.

Why do we have a minimum wage for all workers? Why are the UI students who are working instead of drinking paid the wages they are? Thank the unions.

In fact, most of the efforts at progressive legislation in this country (some successful, some not) have come as a result of unions' efforts.

We complain, and rightfully so, about American businesses that not only do their manufacturing in other countries, but employ children at low wages to do the work. But children were made to work in factories in this country in the 19th Century. The practice was stopped only after unions worked to pass the child labor laws.

Minimum wages. Maximum hours. Unionization and collective bargaining. Social Security. Medicare. The near century-long struggle we're undergoing at the moment to recognize health care as a basic human right. Unemployment compensation. OSHA and other efforts to create safer workplaces.

The list goes on.

So think about it today. Don't just thank union members for the quality work they do. Don't just honor them on "their day." Thank them for what they've done for you and me, for every American, fighting for the basic rights of everyone who's not a Fortune 500 CEO -- whether they're a member of a union or not.

School Board Election. Since I've taken to writing Monday, Wednesday and Friday (for the most part; no promises) during the teaching semester, I wanted to add a word today about the election tomorrow.

While I thought all of the candidates conducted themselves with civility and responsiveness at last Thursday's forum, Sarah Swisher has seemed to me the strongest candidate of the six. Now it turns out that both the Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Gazette have included her in their endorsements. Editorial, "Dorau, Johnson, Swisher will bring change to board," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 5, 2009; Editorial, "Iowa City: Cooper, Dorau, Swisher," The Gazette, September 6, 2009, p. A12.

If you're interested in looking at more of my writing this year on K-12 issues generally, and board issues in particular, here are links to that blog entry about last Thursday's forum, and many, many more:
Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Members' Advice; So You Want to be a School Board Member," August 19, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
However you plan to vote, please do. When only 5 or 10% of us turn out for school board elections it sends an uncaring message to our school children; it tells the board members that we not only don't appreciate what they do for us, frankly we don't even care; and it puts our hard working teachers on notice that, so far as we're concerned, they're on their own and will have to deal with the resources they're handed, and the administrators with whom they must deal, with no help from us.

We're better than that. Let's go vote tomorrow.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Warren + Mickey said...

I couldn't agree more about the value and necessity of labor unions. How the right has been able to demonize unions I'll never be able to understand. I can only hope that unions will regain their former strength and appreciation.

Warren + Mickey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.