Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a writing fellow at The American Prospect

Recent Articles

How Domestic-Worker Activists Helped Fight Jim Crow

From the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to Ava DuVernay’s award-winning movie Selma, to #BlackLivesMatter activists who have refused to stay silent in the face of racial injustice, there has been no shortage of civil rights remembrances this year. And yet, there’s plenty about the struggle for racial justice many of us are not aware of. A case-in-point is the subject of historian Premilla Nadasen’s new book Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement. Nadasen’s text narrates the struggle and activism of 20th century domestic workers—women who were integral, yet rendered invisible—in the fight against racism and Jim Crow.

As someone who has reported previously on the inspiring labor organizing of domestic workers, I was floored by all the history I learned from Nadasen’s book. She focuses on household worker activists from the 1950s to the 1970s, though readers glean some context from before and after those decades as well.

You’ll learn about Marvel Cooke, an investigative journalist in the 1930s who went undercover to expose the disturbing working conditions of domestic workers in New York City. And you’ll read about Georgia Gilmore, who raised money for those boycotting buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by selling cakes and pies that she cooked daily. “Had it not been for people like Georgia Gilmore, Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been who he was,” Nadasen writes. There are others, like Geraldine Roberts who mobilized household workers to advocate for higher wages and job training in Cleveland, and Edith Barksdale Sloan, who helped to organize the first national organization of household workers: The Household Technicians of America (HTA).

Just last week, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Department of Labor’s new regulations, issued in 2013, that entitle home care workers to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. For 80 years, these workers—mostly women, immigrants, and people of color—have toiled away without the basic labor protections that other workers have long been afforded. Yet while contemporary domestic worker organizations, like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have been instrumental in pressuring governments to take action on behalf of the rights and needs of exploited workers, Nadasen’s book is a powerful reminder that 20th century activism, led by some truly incredible women, has helped to make our present-day victories possible. 

Unionized Charter Teachers in Chicago Reject Merit Pay

Last week, unionized teachers at three schools operated by Civitas—a subsidiary of the Chicago International Charter School network—negotiated a new contract that no longer has merit pay in it. This means 31 out of 32 unionized Chicago charter schools have now rejected merit pay. And the one unionized charter that still has it—Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy—is currently negotiating a new contract and teachers hope to remove it there as well.

Merit pay, a policy that ties teacher salaries and bonuses to student standardized test scores and evaluations, is one of the most controversial tenets of the education reform movement. The idea has been tossed around for decades, but has never really gained steam. Most teacher salaries are tied to their level of education and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor for Washington, D.C., schools, says merit pay is needed to create the kind of culture “where excellence is rewarded.” Proponents believe that this kind of policy would incentivize high-quality teachers to enter the profession. The Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top program encouraged states to implement merit pay systems within their schools.

(Photo courtesy of the Council of State Governments)

 

While teacher salaries are notoriously low, many teachers have generally opposed merit pay because they do not think the system in which they’d be evaluated could ever really be objective or fair. They also worry that it could have unintended consequences, like incentivizing cheating or teaching to the test. 

Brian Harris, the president of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, said that when his school unionized in 2009, they first tried to improve their “really awful” merit pay scheme by negotiating more objective metrics into their evaluation system. Teachers aimed to reform merit pay, not remove it.

Over time, according to Harris, teachers began to feel increasingly frustrated with even their new-and-improved merit pay system. When I spoke to Harris in April as I was reporting my When Charters Go Union piece, he had told me, “the opposition to merit pay at my school has grown insane.” Four months later, it’s now gone.

I asked Harris if anyone in his union wanted to keep merit pay and he said he has no idea. “Nobody has been brave enough to tell me to my face that they like merit pay.” He did note that some who like the idea of paying teachers who work really hard more money, acknowledge that it is really difficult to do so fairly. “Even a lot of people who were evaluating us acknowledged that this stuff was unfair,” Harris said.

About eight months ago, their union released a document with guiding principles for contract negotiations. Beyond killing merit pay, other contract goals include advocating for smaller class sizes, increasing teacher voice, and securing protected time during the workday to grade, plan, and collaborate.

It will be interesting to see if the momentum that unionized charter school teachers have created in Chicago motivates other non-unionized charter teachers who are dissatisfied with merit pay to consider unions of their own. It will also be interesting to see if this creates any pushback from the public—a majority of public school parents say they support the idea of merit pay.

Using Tech to Improve Government

In the modern digital era, a growing number of individuals and organizations are trying to figure out how to harness technology to improve democracy. I have written previously about the Personal Democracy Forum—an annual conference of civic tech groups in New York City—and while these spaces can certainly give rise to overblown hype (think HBO’s Silicon Valley but for Washington, D.C.), some innovations really do create opportunities to improve civic life.

One interesting new tool is called Balancing Act. Created by Engaged Public, a Denver-based company, Balancing Act is pitched as a public-budget simulation that local residents can use to better understand how their tax dollars are being spent. It also allows users to share their personal budget priorities, and to explore how to make that work given the available amount revenue. So, for example, if someone wants to see more money allocated for park maintenance or education, they’d have to take money from some other budget line, or indicate that they’d be willing to increase taxes elsewhere.

The tool should not be confused with “participatory budgeting”—a process first developed in Brazil in 1989—in which local community members come together to deliberate how a portion of a public budget should be spent. Balancing Act is about helping citizens engage with the entire budget, and reckoning with how governments really spend the bulk of their tax dollars.

After launching this past spring, Balancing Act is currently being used in HartfordSan Antonio, the state of Colorado, and the Meridian Library District in Idaho. Governments pay annual fees to use the technology—ranging typically from $891 to $3,141 per year—and from there, the governments transfer their data and budgeting info into the system.

I am a bit skeptical of civic tech tools that prioritize engagement over power. This summer, I read Democratizing Inequalities, a terrific book that looks at how we have increasing levels of inequality alongside an ever-expanding number of opportunities to “participate” in civic life. Some scholars have rightly noted that many digital tools offer the illusion of openness and inclusion without actually providing more political power to those who have the least.

Right now, governments can claim to be “transparent” or “open” if they publish extremely long PDFs on their websites; few citizens actually have the time or expertise to comb through these dense documents and make sense of what’s going on. Democracy is consent of the governed, but if citizens can’t understand what their leaders are doing, then consent means little. Balancing Act breaks the information down in a way that is easier for the average citizen to sift through, and that’s important.

“We want to help create the basis for a much more intelligent and thoughtful conversation that reflects people’s actual priorities,” said Chris Adams, the president of Engaged Public, who also thinks that these types of tools can foster more trust between citizens and government. According to the Pew Research Center, just 5 percent of Americans think state governments share data very effectively, and only 7 percent think local governments share data very effectively. When trust in government is low, participation drops.

Adams hopes this tool will be attractive to adults, but he acknowledges that it can be challenging to get people to actually use it. Playing around with budgets, even accessible and comprehensible budgets, isn’t exactly fun. The tool may turn out to be much more valuable for teachers, who can use it as a way to augment civic education. Even if kids don’t want to use the budget simulations after they graduate, at least they’ll have developed a deeper understanding of how budgets actually work.

It’s possible that government agencies will eventually work to make their information more accessible in-house, rather than contract out these responsibilities to various companies. But technological change within the government moves quite slowly, so I wouldn’t expect that any time soon.

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, ex-felons in Baltimore demand the right to vote. 

Rachel M. Cohen
Rachel M. Cohen O n August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protesters made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents —a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street. The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of...

NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn't respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. "We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.

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