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Coming soon to a restaurant menu near you: Livable wages

4:08 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Cross-posted from Crain’s Chicago Business

Mario Batali at a book signing

High profile chef Mario Batali has begun to reform restaurant worker conditions.

In the trend-conscious restaurant industry, foodies are asking questions not only about whether their beef was raised humanely and whether their asparagus is organic, but also about the working conditions of those who prepare and serve their food.

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a New York City-based workers’ rights advocacy group, has studied the industry with an eye toward both improving working conditions and allowing restaurateurs to thrive. “Our whole frame is around collective prosperity,” ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman told me recently, “that when workers do better, employers and consumers do better.”

Ms. Jayaraman’s organization has designed a collection of policy proposals that business leaders in the industry — which employs 10 million people — can support. Their goal is to make it attractive to provide paid sick days, offer low-paid workers opportunities to rise through the ranks, and for employers to pay a share of their employees’ health insurance.

Raising the tipped-employee hourly wage from its stagnant $2.13 level is another proposal, one that is currently before Congress as a national bill.

Several high-profile restaurateurs are joining ROC United in its commitment to making restaurant jobs more economically viable — in other words, more like careers. “I think everybody should have health insurance,” celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said in a recent interview. “The idea of the transient employee, the college student waiting tables, that’s not how we operate. People have families to take care of.”

ROC United has put together an up-to-date national guide to restaurants that treat their employees well.

High-road employers like Mr. Colicchio are unfortunately still in the minority — 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have any paid sick days, and 75 percent of the workers surveyed by ROC United said they have never been given the opportunity to apply for a promotion. But as groups like ROC United educate the eating public about the dangers of a chronically underpaid workforce with no ability to take sick leave preparing and serving food, more industry leaders are beginning to see the wisdom in promoting employee wellness and better career options.

Another celebrity chef, Mario Batali — owner of Del Posto in New York City — is an example. Once publicly targeted by dissatisfied employees, Mr. Batali has now agreed to create new promotions policies and to institute paid sick days for his employees at Del Posto.

Food culture has taken off in Chicago; the ROC United 2013 “high-road employers” list for the city already includes several foodie destinations like Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, Pilsen’s Lupito’s Juice Bar, and Lincoln Park’s Siena by Maria café — as well as one restaurant chain, Houlihan’s. Here’s hoping that Chicago’s richly varied restaurant community can add more names in the coming year.

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Why Immigration Is a Top Priority for US Labor

7:43 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This interview is cross-posted from

by Amy B. Dean

Immigrants’ rights are workers’ rights. These days, that idea is a principle held dear by the US labor movement. But that wasn’t always the case.

As recently as the mid-1990s, many unions took protectionist stances against allowing new immigrants to come to this country. It was only after these unions saw the abuses that became prevalent under an employer-driven system for verifying immigration status that the labor movement embraced a new position. The movement recognized that for working people to thrive, all employees had to have full rights in the workplace.

Today, labor is one of the key forces pushing for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, DC. To learn more about the movement’s advocacy and more about how unions transformed themselves into outspoken champions of immigrant rights, I spoke with Maria Elena Durazo. A daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, Durazo rose to become the leader of the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles, the dynamic UNITE HERE Local 11. And, as chair of the national AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, Durazo is now a leading point person in the national immigration debate.

Knowing that many people are confused when hearing about union activism around immigration, I asked Durazo a straightforward question: Why is this issue a top priority for labor?

“It’s bad for American workers for there to be 11 million-plus people out there working with no rights,” Durazo said. “[These immigrants] are subject to exploitation. They are subject, as a result of that, to accept lower wages. They are subject to working in dangerous conditions. That is bad for those immigrant workers, and it is bad for American workers as a whole.”

She continued: “We cannot have a prosperous nation and recreate the middle class as long as there is an underclass of 11 million people who do not have rights. By fixing this and getting them all on the road to citizenship, we address a huge issue that is the cause of enormous exploitation – of wage theft and other massive violations of labor laws.”

“It’s kind of like why we support raising the minimum wage,” she added, by way of comparison. “Ninety-nine percent of unionized workers aren’t directly impacted by an increase in minimum wage. But when the standard is raised, when the bottom is lifted, that helps all workers.”

Continuing our conversation, Durazo and I spoke about the benefits she anticipates if immigration reform is successful.

“We are positive that immigration reform is going to strengthen the middle class. One of the studies shows that, just through citizenship, someone’s income grows by 15 percent. Employers know that they can’t threaten and push them down.

“We want to raise the working standards for everybody. That is both self-interest, and it is [consistent with] the values of the labor movement. That is what we hope to live up to, that is what we believe in, and that is what we have got to put into practice.”

Noting that there has been an almost 180-degree turn in the past 20 years, I asked Durazo to speak about the internal changes that the labor movement has experienced around its position on immigration.

“This year the national AFL-CIO convention is going to be in Los Angeles,” she said. “I was remembering that, the last time the convention was in Los Angeles – in 1999 – that was when there was a major break with the previous policies on immigrant workers. [Former AFL-CIO] President [John] Sweeney had recently come into office, and there was a [shift] from basically blaming immigrant workers for a lot of problems to saying, ‘We stand with immigrant workers, and we want immigration reform.’

“I think a number of things lined up” to make that happen, she said. “One is President Sweeney’s election and his own experience as the head of SEIU [which represents janitors and other service-sector workers]. Other unions had national leadership that had also become very passionate about immigration. SEIU, [UNITE] HERE, the Farmworkers Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers – and even the Laborers at the time. Those national leaders stood up and backed up this change in policy.

“It was delicate, to say the least, but it happened. I would say that from then to today, we have come a long way. It has been more constant, to the point where, this year, President Trumka is in a position to say, ‘We are going all out. This is one of two national priorities for the AFL-CIO to get done in 2013.’ That is a remarkable change from 1999.”

Knowing that Republicans are pushing for some pretty odious compromises, I asked what labor is willing to accept in an immigration reform proposal.

“It is premature to say what we would accept or would not accept,” Durazo said. “What we are pushing for, and what is absolutely essential to us, is that there has to be a path to citizenship. There are a lot of details still to be figured out about this. But we say, ‘Don’t play games about a “path to legalization,” which leaves people halfway there, with half the rights.’ That is a game we don’t want to play.

“We think both the Democrats and the Republicans, who have been shaken up by the surge in the number of Latino voters who went to the polls in November, have got to understand why those Latinos care. They care because if it’s not fixed the right way, then they are going to continue to be singled out – under the guise of immigration laws, which in fact turn out to be voter suppression laws [or] discriminatory laws, like SB1070 in Arizona.”

Concluding our talk, I asked Durazo to speak about her personal experience with this issue – and about how she sees labor’s investment growing.

“I have been working at this my whole life. My parents came to this country from Mexico. My oldest sisters were born in Mexico. We worked in the field. I personally know what it’s like to be singled out and to not earn enough money to have a roof over our heads, to not make enough money to have food on our table. It is wrong, period, in this country to live like that.

“When I see in the year 2013 – 40 years after I left working in the field – that there are car wash workers who routinely do not get wages, do not get paid for 8 or 10 hours of work a day, the only thing they get is tips . . . When I see routinely that hotel housekeepers have to clock out and then go back and clean a bunch more rooms . . . When I see that stuff going on to this day, it angers me.

“Yet it is extraordinary when those men and women turn around and take charge of their lives,” Durazo continued. “For me, this is not about what happens inside of Washington, DC. What I am excited about is all the organizing, all the connections that we are going to make outside of Washington, DC., outside of the Beltway, in our communities. Because not only will that organizing deliver the best immigration reform, but it is also going to get a whole lot of other things done for this country.”

“Lord knows,” she said, “we have got a lot of other things to fix besides immigration reform.”

E-Verify: Bad for Businesses and Employees

7:28 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

ICE badge with FAIL superimposed

E-Verify makes employers do the work of immigration officials, with potentially disastrous results.Immigration reform is next on the national legislative menu. The good news is that both Republicans and Democrats have vowed to fix our broken immigration system. The bad news is that they are poised to repeat a key mistake of the past: forcing employers to do the work of verifying whether or not someone is here legally.

The system known as “employer verification” is an outgrowth of the last major round of immigration reform, the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act. In the past few years, the E-Verify system has undergone some streamlining and revision. But it remains messy and problematic — for employers and for workers.

The labor movement and the business community often find themselves at loggerheads. But this is one area where business leaders and employees share a common purpose: getting out from under E-Verify’s unwieldy, error-prone and ultimately flawed set of tools.

For businesses, the system is onerous and distracting. Even if the many cases of “false positives” (people wrongly labeled as undocumented by the system and then forced to undergo additional paperwork and fees to clear their names) could be eradicated, 54 percent of unauthorized workers were still cleared to work by E-Verify, according to an independent review by Westat in 2010. The government acknowledges E-Verify’s imperfections, yet it still levies fines against employers who make mistakes.

“Immigration enforcement is a government responsibility,” said Steven Fischman, president of New England Development in Newton, Mass. “Forcing employers to utilize E-Verify creates confusion, fear, loss of productivity, and creates an inappropriate relationship between employers and employees by turning employers into policemen.”

Mr. Fischman speaks as a businessman. And he isn’t even from one of the states, such as Alabama, where E-Verify has been widely adopted by employers. According to a 2012 analysis from the University of Alabama, that state saw its GDP drop by at least $2.3 billion when between 40,000 and 80,000 workers fled the state en masse after elected officials strongly pushed E-Verify and other anti-immigration measures.

From a labor perspective, the system is equally bad. Immigration reforms that drive employees back into the shadows or create a two-tiered system of employment only foster unproductive workplace antagonisms. Moreover, they allow unscrupulous operations willing to embrace “off the books” practices to prosper at the expense of businesses trying to take the high road.

The result is the depression of wages for all workers, immigrant and U.S.-born, and the elimination of the type of healthy middle class needed to sustain a thriving American economy. For this reason, even once-protectionist unions have joined with business leaders in promoting comprehensive immigration reform. As AFL-CIO Political Director Michael Podhorzer said recently to the National Journal, “There’s a greater awareness that when immigrants have the same rights of other workers, that helps all workers.”

As lawmakers in Washington convene to discuss immigration, they should look beyond the E-Verify system to a next-generation solution, one that is driven by hard evidence and data about what works, rather than the desire to punish employers and workers. To help them, labor and business alike should convey a clear message: No one wants the confusion and cost incurred by a fragmented, flawed system that places the burden of verification on employers.

Immigration reform must include workers’ rights

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

At this moment, various plans to reform America’s broken immigration system are working their way through Congressional debate. On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers unveiled a plan that includes what they call a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Last Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with President Obama to discuss the issue, and this caucus’ input will be influential in shaping any final legislation.

In the current political climate, immigration reform is broadly popular, with both parties eager to win over the Hispanic electorate in 2014 and 2016. But that doesn’t mean that a bipartisan effort will pass a good law—especially if long-time opponents of immigration reform are only cynically vying for votes. We have every reason to doubt the sincerity of conservatives such as Senator Marco Rubio, who is leading the charge from the Republican side of the aisle with an eye on his own bid for president.

For the Democrats, the challenge will be to avoid simply jumping at the first deal offered by newly converted conservatives. Instead, for the first time in decades, promoters of reform have the opportunity to hold America to its promise of being a land of liberty and justice for all.

Most centrally, that comes down to the issue of work. Holding America to its promise will mean ensuring that immigrants have pathways for securing just and meaningful employment in this country.

Immigrants Rebuilding the Middle Class

The primary reason people come to the United States from other nations is the potential for good work. It’s not enough for immigrants to have legal status to stay here. They must have legal rights as employees to speak out against wage theft and abusive working conditions—and to exercise their freedoms to associate and engage in collective bargaining.

In recent decades, unions that were once isolationist have come around to this position. That’s why, in the current debate, organized labor is one of the strongest institutional voices speaking out in favor of immigrant rights.

A key goal in crafting a legislative package for reform will be to avoid the creation of a permanent two-tiered system of employment—with some immigrants allowed to stay and work, but only on terms that greatly restrict their rights. Some conservatives would like to see a version of immigration reform that emphasizes helping corporations maintain a pool of cheap immigrant labor and that would further weaken unions. Such a system would foster a permanent underclass of workers living little better than serfs.

We go down that path at our collective peril. More than any other institution, the trade union movement was responsible for the creation of a stable American middle class. And more than any other constituency, waves of fresh immigrants to this country’s shores did the most to lay the foundation for the U.S. labor movement.

For this reason, whether or not you are an immigrant or a union member yourself, we all have an interest in ensuring that new arrivals to the United States are able to stand up to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Avoiding the Errors of the Past

In order to make sure that immigrant rights and workers’ rights go hand-in-hand in any new reform package, we must not repeat the errors of the past. And with regard to immigration, the past is the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. For the last 27 years we have lived, however messily, under the guidelines set out in this bill.

Most consequentially, Simpson-Mazzoli beefed up enforcement partly by making employers turn workers in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called ICE). At the time, this idea had broad support. In an influential editorial from 1982 (the year Simpson-Mazzoli was first introduced), the New York Times argued, “The United States cannot conceivably let in all the worldwide millions who want in. That means controlling our own borders and that in turn, means something called employer sanctions.”


This provision was likely the bill’s greatest mistake, as many former supporters have since recognized. Employers should not be made to do the government’s job of enforcing the law. Doing so only deepened the divide between employees based on their legal residency status. More importantly, it opened the door for unscrupulous employers to use the threat of an immigration raid to keep disaffected workers from standing up for themselves and exercising their rights.

Under the broken system, employers looked the other way on employees’ legal status when it was to their advantage, but they used workers’ undocumented status as a tool when it could ensure their employees would never take collective action. Such behavior and unfairness helped lead to depressed wages throughout the economy.

The current bipartisan immigration reform plan promises an “effective” employment verification system. The devil will be in the details, and much remains to be worked out. But this much is clear: To allow employers to have the power to enforce immigration laws in 2013 would be history repeating itself, and it is the wrong way to go.

The folks who supported Simpson-Mazzoli back in 1986 thought they were making our system fairer. Yet everything fell apart after it was passed. The U.S. began to witness a steady climb in illegal border crossings, rampant fraud, and a snarled mess of an enforcement system–the exact reverse of the legislation’s intended consequences. And America’s middle class has only suffered in the years since.

When people come to this country, they are coming because they want to make a living. While it’s important that immigrants be given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to reunite with family members, these goals are not enough. Until immigrants are able to fully exercise their rights in the workplace, America has not lived up to its promise.

Labor Becomes Part of the National Conversation: The Best and Worst of 2012

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Sign: On Strike for Better Schools

The successful Chicago Teachers' Strike was a high point for labor in 2012.

This was a tumultuous year for working people and their families. From the grassroots uprisings last winter to the low-wage workers’ strikes at year’s end, 2012 saw many people coming together for the first time and finding their voices. Below are the items that I would highlight as the best and worst developments of 2012 in the world of labor and progressive social movements.


  • Conservatives have repeatedly tried to pass anti-worker legislation under misleading names and false slogans in 2012. This approach hasn’t always worked—California’s Prop 32, which would have unfairly restricted workers’ political speech in the state, failed at the polls in November. Sadly, though, at the end of the year, Michigan’s lame-duck legislature, dominated by a billionaire-funded GOP, passed a so-called “right to work” law. As has happened in other states, the new law will pit Michigan workers against each other by forcing those who pay union dues to represent and bargain for those who don’t. The state has been a union bulwark historically, so this is a sad sign for working people all over the country.
  • Neoliberal trade policy has continued to undermine the American middle class in 2012. As reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele have documented, the so-called “free trade” deals modeled after NAFTA are part of a pattern that has resulted in huge job losses here in the United States. This year, the Obama administration has been promoting a new pact based on this same model that would create a “free trade zone” made up of ten countries along the Pacific Rim, called the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). As Matt Stoller has said in Salon, the creation of the TPP has mostly flown under the radar, but it could lead to “offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs,  inexpensive imported products, expanded global reach of U.S. multinationals, and less bargaining leverage for labor.” None of this is good for Americans who desperately need jobs to be created here.
  • Another disturbing trend that continued this year was giveaways of public funds to private companies. As watchdog Good Jobs First documented earlier this year, state and local governments handed out $32 billion to private corporations in the name of job creation, but with no real accountability or guarantees of public benefit.



Not everything was bad news; there were also some positive developments that offer hope for the future. Four of these were:

  • Student activism allied with union advocacy paid off in San Jose, California, where a student-led coalition got a ballot initiative passed that will raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour for everyone working within the city limits. Organizers estimate the number of workers who will get a raise to be in the tens of thousands. I see this as a fine example of regional coalition-based organizing, and I hope it becomes a trend.

In 2013, as Obama starts his new term, we can find hope in these examples of regionally based innovation. Rather than waiting for change to come from above, we must take what is working at the regional level and turn it into a people’s agenda for Washington.

This was originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Photo by Shutter Stutter under Creative Commons license.

The Top Takeaway from the Chicago Teachers’ Strike: We Need Collaboration to Fix Public Schools

12:32 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

“We are striking to improve the conditions in the schools. Right now the children are getting a raw deal.”

That statement came from a striking member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union… in 1969. It still resonates in September 2012, when the CTU’s members have again walked a picket line. Although it has often been obscured in the news headlines and in the rhetoric of city officials, the real message of the strike of the past two weeks is simple: We’re for good schools; we’re for kids; and, yes, we’re for teachers too.

There’s no shame in teachers standing up for their self-interest. When one is devoted to working for the common good over the long haul, taking care of oneself is a necessary part of being a good steward. People who go into the teaching profession don’t do it to get rich. They do it with the goal of inspiring and educating the next generation.

By framing the strike as being about greedy teachers threatening the public well-being, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants have not only done long-term damage to the cause of repairing our schools; they have engaged in a practice that, sadly, is all too common in our nation’s politics. They attempted to blame a complex problem on a single group. It’s called scapegoating. And scapegoating should never be a substitute for leadership.

The takeaway from the Chicago strike is that true leadership in education requires partnership — an approach that supports what is working in our schools and creates a collaborative effort among teachers, school officials, and policymakers to make sure we build on that success.

Education as Engine of Urban Economies

There’s a reason why many big city mayors are trying to take a stronger role in steering their cities’ school systems. In a globalized economy, there isn’t much mayors can do independently to foster development and improve the economic competitiveness of their metropolitan regions. They have some tools available in the realms of housing and transportation. But good schools are a reliable driver of economic success, as prominent education thinkers like University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan have documented. Ambitious mayors recognize this fact. That’s why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who himself came out of a teachers’ union — has joined Emanuel in moving to exert more influence over his city’s schools.

Such mayors are right to understand the economic importance of schools. The question is, are regional political leaders like Emanuel willing to work with teachers to educate poor and wealthy kids alike? Or will we wind up, as respected education scholar Diane Ravitch warns, with a permanent two-tiered system, with elite charter schools for the (mostly richer) kids who score high on standardized tests? Under such a system, kids who may be smart but lack the vocabulary and support to succeed on the tests will languish in sweltering, inadequately supplied classrooms.

Iconic Chicago mayor Harold Washington understood that collaboration around education could enhance the economic vitality of the city. That’s why he brokered the peace in response to public outcry at the last Chicago teachers’ strike in 1987. Washington saw that business leaders and parents needed him to work with teachers to keep the machinery of education running, so working parents wouldn’t have to take more time off for the strike, and so kids could resume learning the skills they would need later to be effective members of the workforce.

The way forward is to create abundantly resourced public school systems that will push economic growth in cities and regions. Innovating and improving public schools helps attract middle- and upper-income families to cities and regions to build a healthy tax base. Mayors such as Emanuel should be funding public education and supporting what is already working — including strategies invented by unionized teachers — within public schools.

Partnership in Practice

Successful examples of smart educational investment in partnership with teachers’ unions do exist. Take Montgomery County, MD, where students at one neighborhood school continually scored low on tests. The administration, working closely with the teachers’ union, managed to turn the school completely around in just three years without using draconian pay cuts or firings. “We take the quality of teaching and learning seriously, so we jointly created and implemented a thorough, meaningful and transparent evaluation system that ensures intensive support for all new and underperforming teachers,” said Montgomery County Education Association president Doug Prouty.

Mayor Emanuel’s great failing in his approach to the strike is that he did not come to the conversation about reform with an attitude of building on what is going right. Even Chicago has had areas of hope and progress in public education. Chicago’s public school teachers have proven they can academically outcompete just about anyone. This last year, more than 24,000 children competed for about 5,000 slots in the top 5 selective enrollment high schools. The students and families lining up to apply to selective enrollment high schools accept that public schools can achieve excellence with unionized teachers. The principals at these schools accept it too, providing leadership development and mentoring for teachers and rewards for their good work.

Emanuel could have started the discussion by celebrating these successes and looking for ways to spread them. To be fair, the mayor has done some work to improve public education in the city. He created 10 new International Baccalaureate (IB) academic excellence programs in existing high schools throughout the city. He also lengthened the school day, which was sorely needed as Chicago had one of the shortest school days in the country.

Rather than saying to teachers, “I did this in spite of you,” he could have asked, “How can we do more of this together?” For we know from best practices in the business world that without cultivating buy-in from all the key stakeholders, efforts to promote change are destined to be far less effective.

Underneath the Chicago Strike Headlines

The stories about the strike printed in the media have often perpetuated an unhelpful framing of the issues at hand. We were told teachers didn’t want a longer school day. However, the true issue was not whether a longer day should be implemented, but rather what the process for putting this into practice could be. With real input from teachers, rather than a heavy-handed move to shove an altered school day down the throats of those who do the educating, this issue might not have reached an impasse.

Likewise, we were told that teachers did not want to be evaluated. But that was not the case. Educators merely wanted to be evaluated based on meaningful criteria that they could actually impact in their work — not just high-stakes test scores whose value as a measure of students’ success is highly questionable. In Cleveland, the teachers’ union and the school district worked together to create and implement a totally new teacher evaluation system that will phase in over a four-year period. As Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon noted, using teamwork to resolve such a big, contentious issue is worth the longer timeline: “This is complex work and it takes time to build it thoughtfully and carefully. It really has been a joint commitment in the beginning. We all believe that this is the right [approach].”

Emanuel has said he favors the Waiting-for-Superman strategy of linking teacher pay and job security to students’ performance on standardized tests. But that approach has been found by education experts to be no more effective than traditional teaching and evaluation methods.

Simply corporatizing the schools is not going to magically make students learn. The use-tests-to-declare-public-schools-failing-and-siphon-the-money-to-corporate-branded-charters methodology has been discredited as bad pedagogical practice and thinly disguised union-busting.

Teachers have rightly asked, if they are only going to be held accountable for teaching to tests, when is the real educating supposed to happen? Sadly, this pressing question has not been heard above the din of political rhetoric.

Beyond the Strike

By making some of the changes teachers have called for, like installing air conditioning in classrooms and creating a teacher evaluation system jointly with the union, Emanuel could have made the teachers’ union into a powerful ally for improving schools. Instead, he yanked the already-stretched thread of teachers’ goodwill toward the school system, and it snapped.

Pointing fingers and placing blame is not the way to build partnerships, and it’s not the way to move forward on education. Whatever happens with the strike in Chicago, maybe we can look at some of the case studies of successful initiatives in education and see that strong respect for teachers is not at odds with the interests of students. Conversations about how to replicate and build on the things that are working in our schools need to be happening not just during contract negotiations, but on an ongoing basis.

For those conversations to happen, city officials must repair the relationships that were broken in the hardball politicking around the strike. They need to embrace teachers as full-fledged partners in conversation about reform. That’s harder than just placing blame. But it is needed if we’re serious about fixing our kids’ schools.

Can Obama Win Back the Youth Vote?

12:13 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Cross- posted from Huffington Post.

In 2008, young people in America — including many who voted in their first presidential election — rallied behind a youthful senator from Illinois campaigning on the promise of change and hope. Now the incumbent in the White House, Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge in recapturing the youth vote for his reelection. Early this month, The New York Times reported that enthusiasm for Obama among voters aged 18-24 has fallen sharply since the last election cycle. And many of the young people interviewed in the article spoke of feeling alienated from politics.

So what is behind young peoples’ disaffection? And what must President Obama do if he is serious about winning back the country’s youth?

Young People Face a Broken American Dream

Young people are not acting irrationally when they report growing cynical. They are responding to the reality of an American Dream that lies in fragments at their feet.

Traditionally, the promise of prosperity in this country has rested on three foundations: good jobs, decent housing, and attainable college education. In recent decades, each of these three legs of the stool of economic stability has been kicked out from underneath the middle class.

With regard to jobs, young people have been told they could do anything — that they were America’s best hope for a competitive edge over other developed nations. But for those entering the workforce today, the good jobs just aren’t there. A quick survey of Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that only one of the ten fastest-growing occupations carries a median income of over $50,000 per year. Five of the ten make less than $30,000.

Second, young people were told that if they studied diligently and prepared themselves for careers, their hard work would allow them to one day earn enough buy a home. Yet home ownership is getting more and more inaccessible, with affordable housing now as distant a reality as well-paying jobs.

Finally, there’s college. University education was supposed to provide the basis for achieving the other two keys to middle class life. However, today’s graduates leave college shackled by ruinous debt, with sky-high tuition meaning that students must take tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Even in a good case scenario, these loans take decades to pay off.

The New York Times‘ story about growing alienation of young people from politics included interviews with several 18- to 24-year-olds who said the impossibility of finding decent work and the burden of student debt were driving factors in their despair. Their alienation is not baseless pessimism. Rather, it reflects a breakdown in our political and economic system.

The Consequences of Abandoning Our Youth

Failure to invest in America’s youth has serious consequences: a loss of international competitiveness, a rise in disenfranchisement, and an expanding polarization in our politics.

While the United States languishes, other nations are actually investing in their young people. That America is a world leader in student debt leaves members of our next generation with a disadvantage over their foreign counterparts that promises to become a long-term liability. Moreover, countries like Sweden and Germany have government-sponsored workforce investment and apprenticeship programs that help their young people transition into full-time work with some confidence of future security.

The Obama campaign’s 2008 promise of hope inspired many, but it also raised the danger of creating false hope amongst our youth. We need a next generation that is engaged in renewing our politics and making current beltway deadlock obsolete. But young people who feel ever more disenfranchised are ever less likely to take on that challenge. False hope fosters a lingering sense of anger, cynicism, and distance from civic life.

Those who do bother to get involved in politics may be tempted to enter at the fringes. Loss of hope is giving rise to something even more insidious than embarrassment on the international stage; it quietly pushes more young people to the extreme edges of social and political discourse. Those who feel they have been sold a false bill of goods find solace in the messages of conservatives and libertarians, who offer no policies to address the true interests of young people, but who effectively channel popular disaffection into a worldview that pits working people against one another.

Winning Back the Next Generation of Voters

More polarization is the last thing we need. Obama can re-inspire young people, but he will have to show some concrete results, not just rhetoric, in order to do it this time.

First, instead of kicking the can down the road on student loans, the president must take action to ameliorate the pain of existing debts and save young people from crippling financial burdens. After months of stalemate, Congress finally reached a deal on June 29 to extend the low 3.4% percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford student loans for one more year. But that means that without further action from Congress and the president, those loans will jump to 6.8 percent next year, hitting young graduates in the pocketbook just as they are exiting school. Obama is using his commitment to student loan reform as a campaign issue: he mentioned the loan rates in his weekly address just days before the vote. But Obama could go further by supporting Rep. Hansen Clarke’s (D-MI) Student Loan Forgiveness Act, a bill that would forgive federal student loans after borrowers have made payments of 10 percent of their incomes for ten years. Those who work in public service would get their loans forgiven after five years. It’s not a panacea, but having the president use his bully pulpit in support of the measure would help to show young people he is serious about making college affordable.

Second, Obama could introduce stronger workforce investment measures, such as expanding vocational certificate programs as a pathway toward improved job skills and higher educational attainment. A June 5 study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce entitled “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” found that certificates, which take less time and money to earn than do college degrees, could serve as an important path forward for a segment of young people preparing to enter the workforce. The study’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson, recommend investing in certificate programs in order to boost young and displaced workers’ prospects during this period of high unemployment. Indeed, employers say jobs requiring online research (and other skills in which one can earn a certificate) are sitting vacant. Yet Obama’s education budget proposal for 2013 focused almost exclusively on college completion, requesting little or no new funding for non-degree certificate programs.

(Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has been crisscrossing the country on a campaign tour to showcase community colleges as career-starters. If Biden were to add a few certificate programs to the tour as part of her workforce development boosterism, it could encourage Obama to transform his verbal support for vocational education into actual dollars for these programs in his 2014 budget proposal.)

Finally, Obama needs to work to restore the right for people to bargain collectively with their employers over the conditions of their employment. It was not preordained that the manufacturing jobs that gave rise to America’s middle class would pay living wages and provide decent benefits. Those things were won through collective action. Instead of making empty promises to bring back factories that have moved overseas, the White House should focus on making sure that the jobs that do exist in this country are good ones.

That means reinventing collective bargaining for the next generation, cracking down on corporations that violate rights to free association, and creating new means for workers who are independent contractors or have non-traditional work arrangements to join in employees’ organizations. A variety of innovative proposals — from extending the Civil Rights Act to protect the right to unionize, to instating “just cause” laws at the state level — have been proposed as steps toward achieving these goals. But the Obama administration has yet to make employees’ right to organize a priority.

That is a problem. For without good jobs, affordable housing, and a solution to the student debt crisis, young people will have every reason to cry foul about the choices of political leadership being presented to them — and to demand something better than what the president currently has on offer.

Why are working people invisible in the mainstream media? My interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

8:43 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This interview is reposted from Truthout.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich (Photo: David Shankbone / Flickr)

Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich – probably best known for her 2001 book “Nickel and Dimed” – has long been on the forefront of promoting stories about working people in an often hostile media environment. Recently, she has been heading the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. An endeavor inspired in part by the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s, the initiative aims “to force this country’s crisis of poverty and economic insecurity to the center of the national conversation.”

I spoke with Ehrenreich about this crisis of economic insecurity, about the invisibility of working people in the mainstream media, and about the current state of journalism.

That working people are chronically underrepresented in the media – even in times of economic downturn – is a sad reality readily apparent to anyone who has surveyed the American news landscape. Given this, I asked Ehrenreich if she thought this problem has been a constant, or if has it gotten worse in recent years.

“It’s always been something of a problem,” she said, “for two reasons. The first reason I discovered in my years as a freelance writer in the 1980s and 90s. That is: magazines and newspapers want to please their advertisers. Their advertisers want to think they are reaching wealthy people, people who will buy the products. They don’t want really depressing articles about misery and hardship near their ads.”

“The other reason is that typically the gatekeepers in these media outlets, the top editors and producers, have been from a social class quite far removed from what we are talking about. They have no clue. I found that this could be very, very dispiriting.”

“I remember pitching a story to an editor in the 1980s. It had something to do with working-class men. The editor said, ‘Well, can they talk?’”

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After the 99% Spring: What Comes Next

4:59 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Article originally appeared in

An interview with Ilana Berger and Tracy Van Slyke of The New Bottom Line.

Sign: It's a Good Day To Move Your Money

Move Your Money Day in Ann Arbor, MI (Photo: Sasha Y Kimel / Flickr).

As a still-recent addition to the organizing scene, The New Bottom Line is hardly more than a year old. Yet in its short life the network has been at the fore of several high-profile campaigns—including Move Your Money and the 99% Power protests.

The New Bottom Line brings together a number of prominent coalitions, including National People’s Action (NPA), the Alliance for a Just Society (AJS), People Improving Communities through Organizing (a faith-based group known as PICO), and the Right to the City alliance. A range of local community organizing groups also participate in the network.

Together, the groups have a much greater ability to place an economic justice agenda in the national spotlight than does any individual community organization. Moreover, their combined efforts represent a level of coordination among grassroots groups that would have been almost unimaginable just a few decades ago.

In recent months, the 99% Power actions brought protests to the annual shareholders’ meetings of corporations, including Wells Fargo, WalMart, Bank of America, and Chevron. In this and other campaigns, New Bottom Line groups have played an important bridge role by working to connect Occupy activists and established grassroots organizations.

With the 99% Spring ending and a summer of activism beginning, I spoke with New Bottom Line co-directors Ilana Berger and Tracy Van Slyke about what’s next for their network and how their organizing model has evolved over the past year.

I asked first about how The New Bottom Line coordinates the various groups in its network.

Berger responded, “Our structure is really a core set of networks: NPA, AJS (which used to be the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations), and the PICO National Network. Later, the Right to the City Alliance joined. And then there are statewide groups who play a really active role in setting our strategic direction and participate in committees, like ACCE in California. The national organizers of the different networks participate in weekly calls and really drive the work collectively. It’s coordinated by the New Bottom Line staff, but we work as a national staff team with the networks.”

She added, “You do have slightly different cultures, and strengths, and challenges [among the member groups]. NPA has a really amazing track record of militant, well-organized, and strategic direct action. That’s something that they do extremely well. PICO is known for its leadership and organizing in low-income communities. Over the years, the groups have spent a lot of time being invested in how they’re different from each other. But if you ask some random person on the street to distinguish between the networks, the differences are far less significant than the common goals. When you get everybody together in a room, that is really evident. So I think it’s an exciting and powerful thing to engage in collective strategy.”

Van Slyke added, “What’s amazing is that we’re seeing organizations look beyond traditional silos of issues, or turf, or funding, to really figure out how to consolidate power and learn from each other. They want to grow with each other in a brand new way. It’s pretty amazing.”

Agreeing with this, I asked the directors how they account for the increasing level of coordination among progressive groups in recent years.

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Smart Start for the Workers of OUR Walmart?

9:20 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This month, workers at Walmart formed a group called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union is investing seed money in this new organization, envisioning it as a way that Walmart workers can both advocate for themselves and engage with the rest of the labor movement, even though these employees are not able to create traditional labor structures within Walmart stores.

At a time in history when employers like Walmart do everything they can to deny employees their right to freely form a union in their workplaces, organized labor sees that it must reach out to workers in new ways. OUR Walmart is one of a variety of efforts launched in recent years that blend workplace and community organizing. These experiments mobilize workers around the difficulties they face everyday at work, yet these new groups look more like community advocacy organizations than like traditional labor unions; that is, these new efforts usually frame their activities less around particular workplace wrongs and more around broader questions of economic justice.

In our book, A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement, we argue for just this sort of a multifaceted labor movement–one that is rooted in communities as well as in workplaces. In the past, organized labor grew when it was part of a broad impulse of working people to better their lives and transform society. If labor is seen as a narrow special interest, relevant only to the small section of the workforce that belongs to traditional unions today, it will grow more and more marginal. Instead, the labor movement needs to establish itself as a strong advocate for all employees in America.

The non-traditional labor effort represented by OUR Walmart has precedents in the “associational membership” drives spawned by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and others in the 1990s and before. These included The Alliance@IBM as well as WashTech, an effort to enlist employees at Microsoft and other tech workers in the Seattle area. And in 2003, the AFL-CIO launched Working America, a national-level effort, that has allowed millions of workers who do not have the benefit of a union to join the labor movement and work on public policy issues that are important to them, such as health care, green jobs, education, social security, and a more just economy. Likewise, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) recently announced a campaign called “Fight for a Fair Economy.” In cities throughout the country, SEIU will be working both in communities and workplaces to raise awareness and build collective power around issues affecting all working people.
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