Alienation, animated.

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Ricky Maclin, Leader of Historic 2008 Republic Windows and Doors Factory Occupation, Dies at 61

BY Leah Fried

“If you don’t fight, you’ve already lost,” Maclin often told workers. “But if you do fight, you can win.” (Brendan Martin / The Working World)

Melvin “Ricky” Maurice Maclin, Vice President of United Electrical Workers Local 1110, leader of the historic six-day factory occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in December 2008 and founding member of New Era Windows Cooperative, died on May 5, after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in early April. He was 61 years old and died surrounded by family in his Chicago home. The steady stream of visitors was a testament to the impact he had on so many lives and our movement for justice.

“This is a huge loss for me and for our movement,” said his good friend, Local 1110 President Armando Robles, who was also a leader in the Republic occupation. “He leaves a huge hole in our lives. He was a great friend and a brother in struggle.”

Ricky was born on March 2, 1954, and spent his early years in Haywood County, Tennessee, on his grandparents’ farm, where they grew cotton and raised cows, chickens and pigs. He lived with his grandparents, with whom he was very close, his mother and stepfather, and his younger sister Brenda. His Aunt Helen, his mother’s sister, described Ricky as “a fast learner and very smart. He caught on to anything he wanted to.” While his given name is Melvin Maurice, his mother took to calling him Ricky because she was fond of that name and it stuck (though the family nickname “Gigi Pig Squeak” did not). His cousin May Carolyn Reed said, “Ricky was a real charmer. We called him ‘Pretty Ricky,’ like the singer.”

His parents moved Ricky and his sister to Chicago when Ricky finished elementary school.  He attended CVS High School in Chicago. After graduation, Ricky entered into what family members called the “street life,” but eventually became religious and turned his life around.

Ricky worked for many years in the restaurant industry before landing a job at Republic Windows and Doors in 2002. A few years later, he met Cynthia and married her. She recalled how “I had decided I didn’t want to get married. But an elderly lady who Ricky helped take care of set us up on a blind date. She called me and said I just had to meet this very nice man. From the moment we met nine years ago, we were inseparable.”

Republic Windows and Doors workers organized into UE Local 1110 in 2004 and Ricky became a shop steward. In 2007, he was elected vice president of the local. He helped lead the successful worker occupation of the Republic factory in 2008, challenging Bank of America to take responsibility after the bank received a $25 billion federal government bailout during that year’s Wall Street crisis, and then cut off credit to credit to the window factory, wiping out jobs. The UE members’ courageous action received massive national and international media attention, making them working-class heroes at a time of so much villainous action by the 1 percent, and the occupation ended when they won the back pay to which they were entitled. It also led to the plant reopening under a new owner, Serious Energy, and with the UE contract intact.

In early 2009, Ricky participated in the Republic Workers Victory Tour, speaking in several cities around the country to encourage other workers to take bold action to defend their rights. He loved to tell other workers, “If you don’t fight, you’ve already lost. But if you do fight, you can win.”

In 2012, Maclin helped lead a second worker occupation of the window factory, when Serious Energy decided to close the plant with little notice. Out of that occupation came the idea of workers buying the company and starting a worker-owned cooperative, and a commitment by Serious to sell them the equipment they needed to make that happen. Ricky was one of three of the original team that began the process of founding, with help from The Working World, what is now New Era Windows Cooperative.

During the first plant occupation, Maclin frequently spoke to the news media on behalf of his fellow workers. Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore’s 2009 documentary about the financial crisis and the injustice of the economic system, highlighted the Republic workers’ action as one of the few stories with a happy ending, and Ricky Maclin is featured. He’s also shown and quoted extensively in Workers’ Republic, Andrew Friend’s excellent documentary film on the occupation, and in UE’s own short video about the Republic struggle produced by Andrew Dinkelaker.

UE General President Bruce Klipple said, “Ricky Maclin was amazing. What he and his fellow workers in Local 1110 did is unbelievable, and made a huge contribution to this union, the entire labor movement and the working people of this country.”

“Ricky was one of the most inspirational rank and file leaders I have ever met,” says Carl Rosen, UE Western Region president. “He had a knack with coming up with the most perceptive comment for any situation and saying it with a very disarming smile. And he always knew which side he was on. UE and the whole labor movement have lost a great leader.”

Ricky Maclin is survived by his wife Cynthia Maclin; three stepchildren, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; his sister’s two kids and 10 great-nieces and -nephews; and his cousin Shannon, who he considered a little sister. He will be remembered by all who love justice and struggle to build a fair and kinder world.

Funeral services will be held on Friday, May 15 in Chicago. The wake is from 10 am to 11 am at the Taylor Funeral Home at 63 E 79th Street. The funeral service will be held from 11 am to 12 pm at Carter Temple CME Church located at 7841 S Wabash Ave. Viewing will take place Thursday May 14, 8 am to 8:30 pm at Taylor Funeral Home.

Leah Fried is an organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers.

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30,000 Teachers Walk Out in Protest of Big Class Sizes in Washington State

BY Mario Vasquez

Since late April, Washington state teachers have been striking for reduced class sizes and better funding for classroom programs. (Washington Educators Association / Facebook)

On Tuesday, May 19, thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Seattle to support a rolling strike by public school teachers across Washington state. The teachers are protesting what they say are unacceptably high class sizes and low pay, stemming from their state legislature’s failure to fully fund public education.

Six thousand teachers and supporters from Seattle Public Schools and the nearby districts of Mercer Island and Issaquah shut down intersections for blocks in the largest coordinated action since the rolling walkout began on April 22. In total, at least 30,000 teachers in 65 striking school districts have participated in one-day strikes.

Washington Educators Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union (a National Education Association affiliate), has pointed out that the state has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio of any state, at 19.4, according to NEA data from 2013. The union calculates that an additional 11,960 teachers would be needed to reduce the student-teacher ratio to the national average of 15.9. Class sizes are typically about nine or 10 students larger than the student-teacher ratio. Teachers say that big class sizes in Washington state result in poor working and learning conditions.

The strike is unusual in that the teachers are not pressuring their respective school districts, but rather targeting the state legislature for its unwillingness to fund education enough to decrease class sizes and increase teacher compensation. Popular signs at rallies across the state have read “Educators care for our kids every day – It’s time the legislature cared” and “On strike against legislature – stop blaming teachers – start funding schools.”

On the class size and funding issue, union members say they have both the courts and the voters on their side. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary vs. Washington that the legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to “amply provide for the education of all children within its borders” and ordered it to implement adequate funding increases by 2018. Last September, the Washington Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt of court for failing “to provide the court a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education,” warning lawmakers that the legislature would be “sanctioned” if it did not develop a plan by the end of the legislative cycle.

Compounding this legal pressure is the binding initiative 1351 approved by voters in November 2014, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in class size and the hiring of 15,000 teachers over the next four years, according to advocates of the initiative.

While both legislatures have put forward proposals to fund class size decreases up to the third grade, none have proposed fully funding initiative 1351. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for two consecutive special sessions to address the funding issue and other budgetary matters before a July 1 deadline. If they don’t resolve the budget, legislators risk a government shutdown.

Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High, says that teachers’ “backs are to the wall,” necessitating collective action.

“The old strategy of supporting politicians and hoping that they will enact pro-education policies has not worked for so long that it has actually caused a state of crisis for our union as a whole,” he says. “It’s reached a level of absurdity. I think [lack of support from the legislature] made [WEA] leadership more willing to back some of our smaller locals that began this one-day strike wave in the state.”

The strikes have been primarily organized by teachers union locals, rather than by the statewide union. On the eve of the first strikes in late April, a WEA spokesperson told Washington’s News Tribune that it was up to locals to “decide how big the protest gets this year.” What began with eight districts has now swelled to 65.

The legislature’s unwillingness to go fully fund I-1351 and adhere to McCleary has galvanized teacher in a way that Susan DuFresne, a kindergarten teacher at Maplewood Heights Elementary, describes as “truly grassroots.”

“I place this strike wave at the tipping point in the struggle between progressive education reform and corporate education reform,” DuFresne says. “This struggle has a long way to go to educate and activate students, parents, teachers and community members—but this strike wave is finally bringing attention to this struggle in arenas we call the ‘non-choir.’ ”

Hagopian, who is part of the social justice-based reform caucus Social Equality Educators and last year came 45 votes shy of being elected Seattle teachers’ union president, says the political situation in Washington is “Robin Hood in reverse.”

“Lowering class sizes costs money, and to raise that money you would have to actually tax the rich,” he told In These Times. “We’re one of seven states in the nation that don’t have an income tax and one of only nine states in the country that don’t have a capital gains tax.”

Indeed, Washington has the nation’s most regressive tax structure, according to a study published in January by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The study found that the state’s top 1% contributes 2.4 percent of family income in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent contribute 16.8 percent, making Washington the “highest-tax state in the country for poor people.”

Meanwhile, the state’s largest corporations have received eye-popping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boeing was awarded the single largest tax break a state has ever given a company: an $8.7 billion cut. Microsoft reportedly avoided $528 million in state taxes between 1997 and 2008 due to lax legislative oversight concerning the company reporting its revenue through its licensing office in Nevada, despite basing its software production in Washington.

At the same time, lawmakers have suspended voter-approved cost-of-living increases for educators every year since 2008. Washington’s teacher pay now ranks 42nd in the nation. Teachers also say that legislatures are undermining their job security by introducing legislation that would tie state standardized tests to teacher evaluations. This has helped push hundreds of educators and students across Seattle high schools to boycott the tests, placing the city at the vanguard of a larger emerging wave of test boycotts across the country.

WEA members say that if legislators don’t resolve funding issues by the end of the second special legislative session, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in September. Hagopian expects even wider support from teachers at that time.

“I can’t imagine that after feeling the collective power that we found in the streets on Tuesday when we walked out,  that teachers would just go quietly back into the classroom and submit to the humiliation of being in one of the richest regions the world has ever known and seeing kids come to school without basic supplies and ballooning class sizes,” he says.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at mario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

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NYT: ‘Too Generous’ Family Policies Cause Discrimination Against Women

New York Times graphic on family leave (Anna Parini)

Familiar, frustrating construction from today’sNew York Times (5/26/15):

It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.

That’s one way to put it, and the article, by “Women at Work” columnist Claire Cain Miller, puts it that way repeatedly. Women are paid less in Chile as a “result” of the law that requires employers to provide childcare for working mothers. Maternity leave measures “have meant that” European women are less likely to achieve powerful positions at work. Policies intended to mitigate the penalty women pay for their traditional “dual burden,” the Times says, “end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place.”

The workplace repression of women is described as the “unintended” impact of family-friendly policies. Sure, such impacts weren’t intended by the policies’ drafters, but that makes it sound as though there were no conscious human beings behind decisions to pay working mothers less or not to hire women. It isn’t the policies that “make it harder” for women, but the male-centric management structure’s unwillingness to integrate those policies into the way work is done. Why not say that?

The Times suggests it might be better if employers didn’t have to pay for policies that make it possible for caregivers to earn a living, or maybe they should be “generous but not too generous.”

Finally, it floats the idea that making family-supportive measures gender-neutral might alleviate some of employers’ punitive responses. This at least starts to broach some of the societal questions—like the idea of making workplaces that support family and community life, rather than the other way around—that, in a better world, might form the starting point for such an article.

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The Cost of an Adjunct

The plight of non-tenured professors is widely known, but what about the impact they have on the students they’re hired to instruct?

Rubra / AP

Imagine meeting your English professor by the trunk of her car for office hours, where she doles out information like a taco vendor in a food truck. Or getting an e-mail error message when you write your former biology professor asking for a recommendation because she is no longer employed at the same college. Or attending an afternoon lecture in which your anthropology professor seems a little distracted because he doesn’t have enough money for bus fare. This is an increasingly widespread reality of college education.

Many students—and parents who foot the bills—may assume that all college professors are adequately compensated professionals with a distinct arrangement in which they have a job for life. In actuality those are just tenured professors, who represent less than a quarter of all college faculty. Odds are that students will be taught by professors with less job security and lower pay than those tenured employees, which research shows results in diminished services for students.

Currently, half of all professors in the country are adjuncts or contingent faculty, according to the American Association of University Professors. They teach all levels within the higher-education system, from remedial writing classes to graduate seminars. Unlike graduate teaching assistants, or TAs, they have the same instructional responsibilities as tenured faculty, including assembling syllabi, ordering textbooks, writing lectures, and grading exams. (The remaining quarter or so of American faculty are professors on temporary contracts who have more regular job arrangements than adjuncts, but are not eligible for tenure.)

Adjunct professors earn a median of $2,700 for a semester-long class, according to a survey of thousands of part-time faculty members. In 2013, NPR reported that the average annual pay for adjuncts is between $20,000 and $25,000, while a March 2015 survey conducted by Pacific Standard among nearly 500 adjuncts found that a majority earn less than $20,000 per year from teaching. Some live on less than that and supplement their income with public assistance: A recent report from UC Berkeley found that nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage. Unless they work 30 hours or more at one college, they’re not eligible for health insurance from that employer, and like other part-time employees, they do not qualify for other benefits.

A year ago, The Atlantic reported on the poor working conditions faced by adjuncts—who, depending on the needs of the school, are often hired a month before the semester begins—beyond their low salaries. To make ends meet, they may teach courses at multiple colleges; they could teach Milton in the morning on one campus and Shakespeare in the afternoon on another. Moreover, according to the analysis, adjuncts are typically excluded from administrative and departmental meetings, meaning they might not be familiar with school policies or other faculty members. On top of instruction, the article explained, they often have to maintain a research agenda and hunt for jobs at faraway conferences without financial support for the trip from a university.

Over the years, the number of tenured professors has dropped while that of adjunct professors has risen, as colleges attempt to rein in costs. Public colleges in particular rely on adjuncts.

Much of these issues have been widely reported on, but what’s often missing from coverage is the impact that this shift is having on students.

It’s unclear whether the transient status and low salaries for adjuncts results in a lower-quality classroom instruction. One 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students in introductory classes with adjunct professors were more likely than those taught by tenure-track instructors to take a second course in the discipline (and more likely to earn a better grade in that course). But Maria Maisto, the president and executive director of the New Faculty Majority Foundation, a group that advocates in the interests of adjunct professors, argued that while many adjuncts are effective teachers, the study’s findings, which were featured in a New York Times report, may be flawed.

Indeed, some suggest that many adjuncts are unable to provide students with the same quality instruction as do tenured faculty. Judy Olson, a longtime part-time professor who currently works as an adjunct at California State University, Los Angeles, acknowledged that her financial concerns sometimes detract time from lesson planning. She cited other adjuncts who she said are unable to maintain independent research that could otherwise enrich classroom discussions. When administrators hire adjuncts only days before the class begins, she added, they can’t properly prepare syllabi and order books.

Adjuncts readily admit they cannot support students outside the classroom, such as when students need extra help understanding an assignment, general college advisement, or a letter of recommendation for a graduate program. And even if they had the time to provide these services, many colleges don’t provide their adjuncts with office space, so they meet with their pupils in coffee shops or at library desks. Olson for her part said that in the past she’s had to meet with students by the trunk of her car, where she kept all her books and papers as she commuted between different college campuses. Without formal meeting spaces, students may find it difficult to locate their professors when they need assistance on their classwork.

Meeting space aside, adjuncts often report that they simply cannot answer common questions from the students about the requirements for the major, course sequencing, or related classes at the college; to get this information, students instead have to track down tenured faculty on campus. Same with letters of recommendation for admission to graduate programs or post-college jobs: Some adjunct professors may not be willing to write them because they aren’t paid for the time, or students may find it difficult to locate former teachers who are no longer employed at that college. Even if they are willing, colleges might not provide adjuncts with institutional letterhead for the recommendations.

These issues are described in research from The Faculty Majority, my interviews with adjuncts, and personal essays, among other sources. Other commentary, meanwhile, reveals the shifting teaching culture at colleges. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Mark Bauerlein, a tenured English professor at Emory, argued that students do not have enough interaction with their professors. Professors are no longer “a fearsome mind or a moral light,” Bauerlein wrote. Students simply show up for class, he argued, jump through some hoops, and get their As. Professors are simply service providers and accreditors. He attributed the changing relationship to the pressure on faculty to publish their research and that on students to satisfy competing demands—go to the gym, socialize, and rush for Greek Life, for example.

But various obstacles make it difficult for adjuncts to engage in those traditional relationships, too. Outside-the-classroom responsibilities—office hours, advisement, and recommendation letters, for example—are rarely spelled out in their contracts. These tasks are implicit job expectations, according to Maisto.

Students may not be aware of these behind-the-scenes discrepancies. College brochures and course registration websites don’t distinguish between their adjunct and tenured faculty, and popular college guides and rankings fail to provide adjunct data for specific schools. Olson said, “students don’t know the difference. They think if you teach college, then you’re a professor. They think we make a $100,000 per year.” Maisto echoed Olson’s concerns, arguing that parents are focused on “cost and prestige” and aren’t as focused on quality. Some adjuncts are determined to make this information more transparent with public rallies, crowd sourced data, and walkouts. Both Olson and Maisto also urged that it’s up to students and their parents, too, to include the status of adjuncts in their criteria when shopping for colleges.

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Public-Sector Jobs Vanish, Hitting Blacks Hard

Photo

Richard Ingram Jr., with his son Richard, is a second-generation Miami-Dade County bus driver. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times

MIAMI — For the Ingram clan, working for the Miami-Dade County transit system has led to regular paychecks, a steady advance up the economic ladder and even romance.

By driving buses in Miami’s sun-scraped communities, Richard Ingram and his wife, Susie, were able to join the ranks of the black middle class, moving with their four sons from a rental in the down-and-out neighborhood of Overtown eventually into their own house in central Miami.

Two of their children later followed them to the county bus depot. The eldest son, also named Richard, met his future wife there when she was assigned to the same route as his father.

“I tell you, my job is a godsend,” Richard Ingram Jr. said.

Now his older son, 21-year-old DQuan, is applying to take the transit system test, hoping to become a third-generation driver. But Mr. Ingram said that unlike when he was hired, today the competition is tougher and the jobs are a lot scarcer.

For the Ingrams and millions of other black families, working for the government has long provided a dependable pathway to the middle class and a measure of security harder to find in the private sector, particularly for those without college degrees.

Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics.

“Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject.

During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions.

The Labor Department counts half a million fewer public sector jobs than before the start of the recession in 2007. That figure, however, understates just how much the government’s work force has shrunk, said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research organization in Washington. That is because it fails to account for the normal growth in the country’s population: Factor that in, she said, and there are 1.8 million fewer jobs in the public sector for people to fill.

The decline reverses a historical pattern, researchers say, with public sector employees typically holding onto their jobs even during most economic downturns.

Because blacks hold a disproportionate share of the jobs, relative to their share of the population, the cutbacks naturally hit them harder.

But black workers overall, women in particular, also lost their jobs at a higher rate than whites, Ms. Laird found. There was a “double disadvantage for black public sector workers,” she said. “They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.”

In Miami’s public schools, many of the layoffs in recent years have fallen on secretaries, school monitors and paraprofessionals, said Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade and one of the Ingram brothers. His bargaining unit lost more than 6,000 positions since 2009 at the same time the number of students was increasing, he said.

“During the recession, we had a really hard time in the school system,” said Mr. Ingram, 41, who was previously a music teacher, a career spurred on by the music and dancing lessons his mother insisted he and his brothers take. “They’re still hiring a lot more people part time so they don’t have to pay benefits. Even for teachers, there’s no tenure and very little job security.”

Melody Glenn, 47, an elementary schoolteacher in Dade for 22 years, is a second-generation public sector employee, earning $55,000 a year. Her mother was a cafeteria supervisor in the public schools, while her father worked as a mechanic for the Postal Service.

Now she lives in the middle-income suburb of Miami Gardens, a few blocks away from Fedrick’s brother Richard. On a recent Saturday morning, she and Richard stood together on the sidelines, snapping photos as their 12-year-old sons ran drills in a free training camp sponsored by the Miami Dolphins.

Ms. Glenn said her 25-year-old daughter, Courtney, has two part-time jobs, one providing after care in the schools and the other working for Tri-Rail, South Florida’s commuter rail system.

“She can’t find a full-time job,” Ms. Glenn said. “She’s waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for an interview right now.”

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The Ingrams: from left, Richard Jr.; Richard, a former driver; Susie, a retired driver; Fedrick, a teachers’ union leader; Jordan; and Randy, a transit system technician. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times

To make ends meet, they all live together: Ms. Glenn, her three children and her two grandchildren.

Budget cuts have compounded the struggles of black communities. “We lost a lot of programs,” Ms. Glenn said, remembering, for instance, summers in the parks where she spent entire days as a child, swimming, playing tennis and going on field trips, with lunch and tutoring thrown in.

Richard Ingram Jr. nodded his head. “All you had to do was sign up,” he said. “Now the park doesn’t have staff.” He tries to fill in, running a sports league, chauffeuring his son’s friends to practices and even supplying cleats when one of them cannot afford a pair.

The recession was particularly hard on the black middle class, erasing three decades of economic gains. A new analysis of foreclosures between 2005 and 2009 by researchers at Cornell, for example, found that “mostly black and mostly Latino neighborhoods lost homes at rates approximately three times higher than white areas.”

Today, blacks are less likely than whites to own their own homes or have sizable retirement savings, two of the primary ways most families accumulate wealth. In 2013, the median white family had net assets of $142,000 compared with $11,000 for the median black family, according to the Pew Research Center. The difficulty in closing that gap is compounded by the fact that the median income for black households is just 60 percent of that of whites.

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Richard Ingram Jr., 42, followed his parents to the Miami-Dade County bus system. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times

Many employed blacks are stuck in lower-wage industries that tend to have fewer benefits and higher turnover, which is one reason public sector jobs — more likely to be unionized and subject to stricter anti-discrimination protections — have been such a magnet for blacks.

Thanks to a series of presidential executive orders and court decisions that began in the 1960s, a rapidly expanding public sector welcomed blacks and women who had been locked out of other corners of the labor market. With the federal government paving the way, state and local governments soon followed, and they continued to expand their work forces through the late 2000s even as the size of the federal government stabilized.

“Where else can you get a middle-class job without a college degree?” asked Bruce Bodner, the lawyer for the Transit Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia. A bus driver there who has been on the job for more than four years earns an average of $64,000 a year including overtime pay, he said, and skilled craft workers, like mechanics and carpenters, can earn more. Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 5,000 people who work for the city’s transit system, he said, are black.

State and local government workers earned an average of $28.17 an hour in December 2014, according to the Labor Department, in addition to a basket of other benefits worth nearly $16 an hour. (For a typical 35-hour week, that is roughly $51,000 a year, plus $29,000 in benefits.) Often their paychecks are supplemented with overtime.

In Miami, a bus operator’s base pay falls between $32,000 and $50,000, without overtime, according to county figures.

The senior Richard Ingram, now 62, worked as a porter, short-order cook and roofer before he got a job cleaning buses with the transit authority in 1979 as a result of a now defunct federal jobs training program.

After more than 30 years, most of them spent driving, Mr. Ingram — his uniform a medley of green down to his avocado-color leather shoes — is now off the bus, checking drivers’ schedules and paperwork, beginning at 4:30 a.m. each weekday and leaving at 2:30 p.m. He is thinking of retiring this year with a pension, as his wife, Susie, did in 2013 after 20 years behind the wheel.

Their son Richard, 42, also remembers a string of low-paying jobs, including stints at Burger King and Jiffy Lube, and as a security guard and D.J., before he joined the transit system in 2000.

“That was the stability I was looking for,” said Mr. Ingram Jr., who works a 52-hour week. His younger brother, Randy, who began driving at the same time, recently switched to a job as a transit electronic technician, working from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. With children at home, he found the night shift a struggle, but he wanted the opportunity to move up.

Supporters of curbs on the collective bargaining power of government employee unions like the one led by Mr. Walker, of Wisconsin, said they were aimed at saving taxpayer money and improving efficiency.

But some researchers and union officials also see a racial undercurrent in the campaigns.

“With public employment in general being under attack, it’s really an attack on these communities,” said Mr. Bodner of the Philadelphia transit workers union, referring to black people.

Florida government workers have been targeted as well, Fedrick Ingram said, noting that the Republican Gov. “Rick Scott went directly after the unions here.”

In Miami, the drivers have resisted attempts to take away benefits, Richard Ingram said, but temporarily lost some paid holidays, overtime and bonuses.

Still, he is grateful for what he described as a “a job that you can count on and that could get you what you wanted if you worked hard enough.”

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No Respect for the Poor, Working or Not

Nonetheless, I found it necessary for some reason to hint that there might be a “silver lining” to the vicious policy in question. Maybe, I suggested, poor people would be treated with more respect in the U.S. since it would now be clearer than ever that most of the nation’s worst-off citizens were employed. I was thinking of opinion surveys I’d seen showing that the working poor were held in much higher regard than “the welfare poor” by the public and by policy makers.

Surrendering Basic Rights

Who was I trying to kid? In the late 1990s, at the peak of the “Clinton boom,” the brilliant left author Barbara Ehrenreich began the participant-observatory research for what became her bestselling 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America – a harrowing account of her attempts to pay her bills and maintain her dignity while working at the bottom of the American occupational structure. Ehrenreich wanted to know how anyone could make it on $6 an hour without benefits as a hotel maid, house cleaner, waitress, and Wal-Mart sales “associate,” working in the precarious region between fading public benefits eligibility and good jobs?  She found that the nation’s lowest-status jobs were both physically and mentally exhausting and that one such job was not enough to pay for decent food, clothing, and shelter.

But what most particularly struck Ehrenreich about life at the low-wage end of the “Fabulous Nineties” was the remarkable extent to which working people were “required to surrender…basic civil rights…and self-respect” thanks to employer practices that helped “mak[e] ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality.”  The humiliations she witnessed and experienced included routine mandatory drug testing, intrusive pre-employment tests full of demeaning questions, rules against “talking” and “gossip” (against organizing, often enough), restrictions on trips to the bathroom, abusive rants by over-bearing supervisors, petty disciplinary measures, stolen labor time, and the constant threat of being fired for “stepping out of line.”  She learned as a waitress that management had the right to search her purse at any time.

So much for the notion that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s welfare “reform” (elimination) might restore some dignity and honor to the poor by moving more of them off the dole and into the paid workplace.

Two Cruel Jokes: The Minimum Wage and Poverty Level

Things have gotten worse for low-wage U.S. workers since Nickeled and Dimed hit the bookshelves. Real hourly wages for those at the middle of the wage distribution have stagnated since 2000, consistent with deeper trends across the long neoliberal era. But no group of workers has suffered more than those at the very bottom. Americans with only a high school degree or less have actually seen their wages fall since the turn of the millennium.

One part of the problem is that the U.S. minimum wage is a bad joke. If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $18 an hour today.  Instead it sits at a pathetic $7.25, which translates (assuming full-time year round work) into $14,500 per year, well below the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level for a three-person family ($19,790).

The most that “liberal” Democrats in Washington seem ready to pretend to fight for is an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour, that is, to a mere $20,000 a year for low-wage workers fortunate enough to work 40 hours a week 50 weeks in a year.

Which brings us to another bad joke: the U.S. poverty level. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s heroically researched Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa, is $48,235.  That sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($853), food ($369), child care ($684), transportation ($459), health care ($891), other necessities ($313), and taxes ($450), for a total monthly outlay of $4,020. Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $70,929. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,168. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City and the cost is $66,667.

It is absurd not only that the US federal poverty level (based on a hopelessly antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times) is so low but also that it is not adjusted for significant geographic variations in the cost of living across US metro areas.

The EPI’s figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear the Chamber of Commerce or the American Enterprise Institute express horror at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically” high as $15 an hour.  Even such a dramatically increased minimum wage translates into just $30,000 a year for a full time worker fortunate to stay employed full time.

With most Americans’ wages stagnating for more than a decade and with the lowest paid workers’ wages shrinking, it is no wonder that half of the more than 24 million Americans who rely on food banks for basic nutrition are employed.  The cost of living just keeps going up.

“Put a Bullet Through Your Head”

Psychological abuse from employers remains very much a problem for the working poor. As the working class activist and journalist Bob Simpson reported from Chicago last year, a McDonald’s worker named Carmen Navarrette was “told that she ‘should put a bullet through her head,’ because she had requested permission to go home after becoming very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.”  The daughter of a different Chicago fast food worker spoke “about how her mom comes home crying because ‘the manager would scream at her and yell mean things. And right now she is pregnant and he makes her carry more than she is supposed to and that’s not good for her. But he says he doesn’t care.’….On top of …[the] economic burden” that goes with working poverty in the U.S.,  Simpson noted, “comes the stress of cruel verbal abuse and the threat of arbitrary discipline without fair hearing.”

Dickensian Facts

Back to “welfare reform.” How’s that forgotten experiment in neoliberal “tough love” doing these days? As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported to Congress three weeks ago, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the program that replaced AFDC, Aid for Families with Dependent Children under the 1996 welfare “reform”) provides cash assistance to very few needy families and lifts far few children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half the federal poverty line) than did its predecessor, AFDC – this while poverty has risen in the current century. CBPP Vice President Ladonna Pavetti’s testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee reads like something out of Charles Dickens:

“The national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.7 million families in 1996 to 1.7 million families in 2013 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. The number of families with children in poverty hit a low of 5.2 million in 2000, but has since increased to more than 7 million. Similarly, the number of families with children in deep poverty hit a low of about 2 million in 2000, but is now above 3 million. These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that TANF reaches a much smaller share of poor families than AFDC did. When TANF was enacted, nationally, 68 families received assistance for every 100 families in poverty; that number has since fallen to just 26 families receiving assistance for every 100 families in poverty…In ten states, fewer than 10 families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.”

On the eve of its elimination in 1995, AFDC raised 62% of children who would have otherwise been in deep poverty.  It saved 2,210,000 children from life at less than half the poverty level.  Fifteen years later, TANF did the same for a mere 629,000 children, lifting just 24% of children who would have otherwise been deeply poor. U.S. welfare payments were in fact never high enough to permit poor mothers to escape the necessity of participation in the job market, but, as the Public Broadcasting System recently reported, “welfare checks have shrunk so much that the very poorest single-parent families [now] receive…35 percent less than they did before welfare-to-work began.”

That is disgraceful in and of itself.  It is doubly shameful in a time when poverty has expanded while wealth and income have concentrated in ever fewer hands (the top 1% garnered 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s first administration), bringing the nation to an openly acknowledged New Gilded Age of savage inequality and transparent plutocracy.

Welfare to Work?

Welfare to work? As Pavetti told Congress, most of the early employment gains among single mothers that were seen after TANF’s creation in 1997 have vanished thanks to the disappearance (after 2000) of the briefly favorable labor market for lesser skilled workers that emerged in the late 1990s.  The success of “work first” programs, which emphasize getting participants into the labor market quickly during the late 1990s, is vastly overstated. Although employment increased, the vast majority of former welfare recipients pushed into the job market did not attain stable employment even at the height of the unsustainable, debt-leveraged Clinton expansion. And today, after two predictable (and predicted) capitalist recessions (one epic in nature) and with another recession looming, U.S. states “spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.”  TANF recipients report that TANF “welfare to work” programs typically involve little more than direction to short-lived, commonly seasonal low-wage jobs and that serious training and placement programs are unavailable and without funds.

“Welfare to work” is a scam to cover the slashing of government’s responsibility for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens in a society whose “free market” system offers ever fewer real opportunities for stability and upward mobility through employment while conferring vast government subsidies and protections and on the wealthy corporate and financial Few.

Welfare Kings: The Big Banks

To be sure, government welfare is alive and well – for the corporate and financial Few. As Bloomberg noted two years ago, reporting on research from the International Monetary Fund:

“the largest U.S. banks aren’t really profitable at all…the billions of dollars they allegedly earn for their shareholders [are] almost entirely a gift from taxpayers…The top five banks – JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co,. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc…,the banks occupying the commanding heights of the U.S. financial industry – with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy – would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.”

By “corporate welfare,” Bloomberg meant not just the massive bailouts the big banks received after helping crash the economy in 2008 and 2009, but also and above all the reduction of their borrowing costs by the federal government’s policy of loaning them money at low to zero interest rates.

It isn’t just in the financial sector, of course, where big, politically influential corporations receive giant government subsidies and protection, all free from the “tough-love” “free market discipline” of “welfare reform.”

Fight for 15 and for Dignity

The U.S. working class struggle for a Living Wage that has emerged in recent years in connection with the Fight for Fifteen – for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (still below basic family budgets in all U.S. metropolitan areas) – is more than an economic struggle. It is also a political and moral struggle for basic decency, for self-respect, and for dignity.

Connecting economic oppression to psychological mistreatment in her widely read book, Barbara Ehrenreich guessed in Nickeled and Dimed “that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers – the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers – are part of what keep wages low.  If you’re made to feel unworthy enough,” Ehrenreich wrote, “you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re worth.”  It was an important point. Debilitating shame and the related psychological battering of working people in the all-too unprotected, de-unionized, and hidden abode of the workplace is part of how the employer class rules over low-wage workers in “the land of freedom.”

Inspiringly enough, however, tens of thousands of those workers in the U.S. have in the last two years stood up to tell their bosses and the nation that they not only need but also deserve more than miserable wages and denigration on the job.  “The [workers] of the Fight for 15 campaign,” Simpson noted last year, “want a world where a decent standard of living and respect for all is the norm.”

The fight for 15 is also a fight for dignity. Respect for workers, the struggle’s participants know, will only be won from the bottom up, through collective and militant action.  It will never granted from the top-down by elites who have little more respect for a Walmart or McDonald’s worker than they do for a TANF recipient or for one of the nation’s more than 2 million prisoners.

Paul Street is an author in Iowa City, IA. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).

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