They Work Hard for the Money

(AP/Mel Evans
(AP/Mel Evans) Cargo containers are stacked on the deck of the Mediterranean Shipping Company's vessel at Port Newark in Newark, New Jersey. As work becomes increasingly a matter of machines building or moving other machines, workers either lose their jobs or—if they are fortunate enough to keep their jobs—become vastly more productive. Productivity surged in the U.S. during the early years of the current downturn when companies laid off workers by the millions and replaced them with machines. Revenues per employee at the S&P 500, the Wall Street Journal reported, rose from $378,000 in 2007 to $420,000 in 2010. And yet, the wages and benefits of employed Americans experienced no corresponding increase as workers’ productivity rose. Indeed, over the past quarter-century, as economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon have reported, all productivity gains have gone to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans. In the quarter-century following World War II, by contrast, productivity...

The Amalgamated Pole Vaulters

A common refrain among union critics is that Americans no longer need unions—that unions were well and good for the exploited sweatshop workers of a century ago, but today’s empowered Americans need no such crutch. With workers’ incomes falling, and with the United States leading all industrial nations in the percentage of its workers in low-wage jobs, it’s increasingly clear that today’s we need unions for many of the same reasons that the workers of 1912 did: They’re exploited and underpaid. But if it’s only the nation’s most exploited workers who need to band together, why have America’s most talented employees formed unions of their own? Actors, writers, directors, and cinematographers all have unions. Baseball, football, and basketball players have unions. And now, reports , America’s track and field athletes want a union of their own as well. The immediate grievance that has spurred the athletes to action is Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which...

A Touchdown for Labor

In the NFL referees lockout, the union is coming out ahead.

(AP Photo/David Stluka)
One of the most significant national labor battles is playing out in an unusually public arena: under the bright lights of America’s professional football stadiums. The National Football League lockout of 119 officials has been in force since June, and as the regular season rolls toward its fourth week, the NFL remains without its team in stripes—tasked not only with enforcing the rules of the game but with ensuring player safety. Fan impatience with the union-busting replacement refs, put in their place like so many substitute teachers, is giving the union millions of new, seething supporters with every game broadcast. The NFL Referees Association never voted to strike. Contract negotiation broke down three months ago—the sticking points were salaries and benefits—and the NFL locked out its officials. In a league worth $9 billion the average salary for referees in 2011 was $149,000. Management offered a deal that would raise this average to $189,000, but the union believed it...

Advanced Placement

The Chicago Teachers Union is poised to lead in the next school-reform fights.

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Public School teachers and students were back in classrooms Wednesday morning after union delegates voted Tuesday to end their seven-day strike. The union won a number of significant victories —including a provision that student test scores will count for no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation and another that will give teachers more pay for longer school days and years. The proposed contract should be finalized and approved in the coming weeks. By almost all accounts , though, in its fight with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the union is emerging as the clear winner. One of the sticking points in negotiations was over teacher evaluations and the role students’ test scores play in them. Emanuel is one of a number of national reformers who see unions as a roadblock to improving student performance and who subscribe to the philosophy that what poor, underperforming school districts need most are better teachers. Chicago teachers have emphasized throughout this fight that they...

Why the Chicago Teachers Won

(AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times, Brian Jackson)
(AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times, Brian Jackson) Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks at a rally at Daley Plaza in Chicago. Consider the battle of Chicago’s teachers as a lesson for what’s ahead as the same struggle winds its way away around the nation. For the nation’s beleaguered labor movement, the six-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union that ended on Tuesday is proof that a strike is not suicide, as has been the fate lately for most unions. Indeed, as the end neared and they were heady with an apparent win, the teachers’ talk catapulted from standing up for teachers to standing up for organized labor and ultimately to speaking for bullied, and exploited workers. In the build up to the dispute, it didn’t seem likely that the union would be able to walk away. Not after the Illinois legislature required the union to win a strike vote by 75 percent of its members, and not after Mayor Rahm Emanuel fearlessly carried out a number of steps that only riled up the union. But...

Into Week Two, a Slightly Subdued Strike

(AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong) T oday, the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) principal decision-making body, the 700-member House of Delegates, will vote on ending the strike that erupted last week over teacher evaluations, re-hiring of laid-off teachers, and pay negotiations over the teachers’ contract that expired July 1. If the delegates vote to end the strike, Chicago schoolchildren will return to class on Wednesday, and an approval of the contract should be within sight. If it does not, Chicago teachers will stay on the picket line, and will likely face a new round of attacks from the mayor’s office. The strike’s segue into a second week surprised many Chicagoans, who thought public school students would return to class on Monday. But after a Sunday vote, union leaders announced they needed more time to go through the specifics of the proposed contract. “We haven’t heard enough,” says Jill Bates, who has taught Head Start at Yates Elementary on the near Northwest Side for 32 years...

The Chicago Teachers’ Balancing Act

The paradox of unions is that they are at once armies and democracies—an oxymoronic construct that means they can seldom be as efficient as a top-down organization, or as expansively deliberative as, say, an idealized New England town meeting. There no ideal equipoise for a union—some, in which member participation has atrophied, can be essentially autocrat; some are more democratic (although democracy can impede growth if members insist on making the union devote resources to servicing their needs at the expense of organizing new members). The better unions try to balance their dual roles, and that looks like what the Chicago Teachers Union did Sunday night. No one can question the union’s capacity as a unified force. A change in state law required the union to get a 75 percent vote of the members to authorize a strike; the union got 90 percent. The week-long strike has not been shaken by any member dissent (at least, none has been reported). But on Sunday afternoon, the union also...

Chicago, Yes; Wisconsin, Huh?

As Chicago teachers union officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office were assuring Chicagoans that they had reached an agreement Friday afternoon on their contractual dispute, a judge a hundred miles north in Madison, WIsconsin struck down as unconstitutional that state’s hugely controversial law banning collective-bargaining rights for public employees. As I write, the text of the judge’s decision is not yet available, but since a ban on public-employee collective bargaining exists in many states, either the judge found new grounds to declare the law unconstitutional, or he declared it so for reasons not related to the constitutionality of such prohibitions. Nor is it yet clear whether his decision immediately reinstates the old law, or whether the effect of his decision is on hold until a higher court rules on what is sure to be the state’s appeal. ​Things are clearer down in Chi-town. There, the union has apparently agreed to a teacher-evaluation system in which student test...

Chicago Chooses Sides

Read the commentariat, or just subject yourself to the deafening consensus of enlightened opinion, and you have to believe that the beleaguered parents of Chicago’s schoolchildren are fuming at their city’s teachers' union, on strike now for a full week, and backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to shape up the school district. Read the polls, or just the press accounts of parental support for the teachers, however, and you come away with an altogether different impression. A poll commissioned and released Thursday by Capitol Fax , an Illinois political report, of 1,344 registered Chicago voters found that fully 66 percent of parents with children in the public schools, and 55.5 percent of Chicagoans overall “approve the Chicago Teachers Union decision to go on strike.” Among African Americans, strike support stood at 63 percent; among Latinos, 65 percent. (Roughly 80 percent of Chicago’s schoolchildren are minority.) So, who disapproved of the strike? A majority (52 percent) of...

Why We Strike

The Prospect talks to one of the thousands of teachers at the picket line in Chicago.

Frank Menzies started working in Chicago public schools in 2000 and is now the director of instrumental music at Jones College Prep, where he oversees the orchestra, concert band, and jazz group. He’s also the school’s head bowling coach. Menzies is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and one of the roughly 29,000 Chicago public school teachers that have been on strike since Monday. Why did you vote to go on strike? Many of the members in the CTU didn’t really want to do it, but we have understood that this is one of the mechanisms that is in place for union membership to try to bargain for a better deal. We are definitely in favor and desirous of a fair contract. The bottom line is the teachers did not really want to do it, but that [a strike] seemed to be one of the only avenues left to us to be able to try to get what’s necessary for us to have a fair contract. That’s the bottom line. The strike was brought about simply because teachers that love their students had no...

What Does Labor Need to Do to Survive?

In reporting my piece on labor’s future (" If Labor Dies, What's Next? "), I talked with a number of labor leaders and activists about their ideas for what unions need to do differently to survive—and make a difference—in today’s political economy. Here are my edited versions of four such discussions: Randi Weingarten Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers School districts are cutting professional development, increasing class size, cutting art and music education, and blaming teachers for not doing a good job at the same time that the poverty rates for children are increasing. We can complain about that, but we have to do something about that. We can’t just tell the districts and the legislators to do a better job. What we realized is we need to solve the problem. We have to focus on quality as well as fairness. Teachers need and want to share best practices with each other. They want to know how to make their lessons more robust. Education is going...

On Strike in the Windy City

Pictures from the brewing standoff between Chicago teachers and Rahm Emanuel.

Slideshow On Strike in the Windy City Twenty-nine thousand Chicago public school teachers walked off their jobs on Monday, after contract negotiations between the teachers union and the school board failed to produce an agreement. The Chicago Teachers Union is asking for a salary increase to compensate teachers for the city's newly implemented longer school day, smaller class sizes, and a de-emphasis on standardized testing.

Rahm's Wedge

(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Put aside for a moment the particulars of the Chicago teachers’ strike and look at the broader picture. Rahm Emanuel is only one of a number of Democratic mayors and governors who are going after public-employee unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also at loggerheads with the city’s teacher union. In San Jose, a Democratic mayor and city council scaled back the city employees’ pensions (and so did city voters when they were asked to ratify that decision). In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has tangled with a number of public-sector unions. The battle between management and labor seems to have spread to the very center of the Democratic Party. To some degree, this is a predictable response to the fiscal crisis states have faced during a severe recession—something’s got to give, and a number of chief executives have said it’s union benefits. Nonetheless, a number of the chief executives who’ve taken on unions are from jurisdictions with lots of rich folks on whom they’...

GM's Hunger Games

The hunger strike is just the latest in a long history of labor tensions in Colombia.

(GDA via AP Images)
H asta la muerte ! “To the death,” chanted 12 hunger strikers outside the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. General Motors subsidiary Colmotores had fired the workers a year ago, claiming they were dismissed because of declining productivity. In truth, they were injured on the job and deemed no longer useful. On August 1, they sewed their mouths shut in protest. On August 6, Colmotores briefly sat down to negotiations with the workers, who formed the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL), but ended up walking out later the same day. Protests in the United States and Colombia soon sprouted— Martin Sheen and Noam Chomsky have been among the more well-known public defenders of the GM workers. Under mounting public pressure, Colmotores agreed to negotiations facilitated by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on August 23. The talks, however, did not result in GM rehiring the workers or compensating them for lost wages. After...

Should Labor Boycott Charlotte?

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away, and liberals are getting fired up. But at least one of the party's key constituencies isn’t quite so excited. That group is organized labor. Last July’s announcement that the convention would be held in the staunchly anti-union city of Charlotte, North Carolina—the least unionized state in the country—set off a firestorm of protest in the labor movement. A year later, dissatisfaction still simmers, and there's a case to be made for an unprecedented move. The message is simple: maybe labor should sit this one out. To a large extent, politics is about resources. How an organization decides to deploy those it has available says a lot about its values and priorities. So why would labor want to channel limited funds into bolstering a local economy organized around avowedly anti-union principles? By opting for North Carolina as a convention destination, rather than a swing state with stronger union infrastructure such as Ohio or...