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Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Jim Mamer: I think you’ve probably all seen the “Waiting for Superman” documentary?
Peter Scheer: Right.
Jim Mamer: That begins—somewhere near the beginning is this guy, Geoffrey Canada, who looks at the camera and simply says, “Public school … this thing is just an utter failure.” Well, it’s not just an utter failure; there are really good schools out there. And the ones that are being lauded, the charter schools in that film—it’s interesting; I have no objection to charter schools. But if you look at the research, they have just as many successful schools—I think if I remember the research right from a couple of years ago, 17 percent of charter schools are doing better than their neighboring public schools; 37 percent are doing worse. And the rest are about the same. Well, that’s not a nut film. So you have this guy saying it’s an utter failure, and I think people want to believe it. There’s even one point in that film where Eric Hanushek, who’s an economist with the Hoover Institute, looks at this chart and says if you fire 5 to 10 percent of the bad teachers and replace them with average, not outstanding, teachers but average teachers, the American educational system will be equal to Finland. And Finland keeps coming up No. 1 or No. 2 on all of the international tests. It’s just crazy. Somehow we’ve focused only on the performance of teachers, and we’ve got this stereotype that the entire public school system’s failing. It’s not.
Kasia Anderson: Bill, maybe for one last question, can you give us your take on what the main sort of opposition to teachers, the party lines are, and maybe how to refute them?
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Peter Scheer: Well, that’s, regretfully, all the time we have, but I want to thank you both for joining us.
Jim Mamer: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Bill Boyarsky: Me, too.
Peter Scheer: They are Bill Boyarsky, Truthdig reporter at large, and Jim Mamer, a veteran teacher—and a good one, by the way—now retired. Thanks for being with us, guys.
Kasia Anderson: Thank you.
Bill Boyarsky: Bye-bye.
Robert Scheer: You know, let me—this is Robert Scheer—let me set this up. I recall when Paul was—I think you were the West Coast regional director of the United Auto Workers …
Paul Schrade: I was on the national board.
Robert Scheer: … yeah, on the national board. And you did two things that I thought were really quite remarkable. You were the first major labor leader to come out against the Vietnam War, even though some of your workers that you represented were working in the defense industry. And the other thing you did that was so gutsy is you supported the farmworkers. And maybe, Dolores, do you have memory of that time? Could you say something about that?
Dolores Huerta: Oh, absolutely. Not only did Paul support the farmworkers, but there were busloads of autoworkers that would come from Los Angeles to come to the picket lines, and then Paul actually brought Walter Reuther himself to the Forty Acres, you know, to Delano, to be there with us. And of course it was also through Paul Schrade that we formed our connection with Robert Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy. So Paul was a—I might have called him the padrino in Spanish, and it’s got a better connotation in Spanish than in English, but the godfather [Laughs] of the farmworkers’ union, because Paul—not only was he helping us back then, but he’s been helping throughout all of these years to support the farmworkers. And also just for my foundation, for community organizing, Paul is on my board; I’m really proud to say that. But his influence was very, very huge. And as you know, at that time the autoworkers were not part of the AFL-CIO. And so we were, you know, we didn’t really have that support of labor, and at that point in time I think it was only the UAW, I believe the ILWU, and I believe it was also the Newspaper Guild that was supportive of our fledgling union then, of the National Farm Workers’ Association.
Robert Scheer: You mentioned bringing Bobby Kennedy, but it was Paul Schrade who was standing next to Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. And, Paul, you were very severely injured. And while that, obviously, was a traumatic moment, those days represent sort of a high point for trade unionism in America. And it’s been downhill since, and now we have a challenge to the very idea of collective bargaining, and so forth. Can you describe the arc as you’ve seen it?
Paul Schrade: Well, a lot of high points … the recognition [by] General Motors of the sit-down strikes in the late ’30s is important. And I also think that we’re on our way now to a new birth … of the labor movement with the terrible action by Republican governors and the Congress against workers. And I see the labor movement beginning to rise again.
Robert Scheer: And what about this victory—I’ve seen some signs of it—a victory in California that will go against this grain of reactionary governors, that maybe our Legislature and our governor will sign off something on legislation that will help the farmworkers …
Paul Schrade: No—Dolores probably knows more about this than I do, but the L.A. Times reported that the California state Senate passed a law providing for a card check rather than a vote of workers, in order to get bargaining rights. And it’s been passed by the Senate, and probably will be passed by the Assembly; of course would be signed by Jerry Brown. And Jerry Brown is … not like those people, the governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and the other states, where they’re attacking laborers’ rights.
Robert Scheer: Do you have a comment on that, Dolores?
Dolores Huerta: I hope the governor signs it. I’m just getting a little concerned about, you know, what he’s facing up against with his budget deficit, and he’s gotten the Chamber of Commerce to endorse the extension of these taxes that he’s trying to extend. I don’t know how that would affect what the governor does in terms of the card check for the farmworkers. I would hope that if it passes the Assembly—we know it’s passed the Senate—that he would be able to sign it this year. If he doesn’t sign it this year, I know that Jerry Brown, we can count on him to … sign it the next year. And I’m just—this is my opinion; I haven’t spoken to the governor [Laughs], so I don’t know what he’s doing on this issue. I know it’s a very big issue, not only for the farmworkers, but you know, it’s an issue for all of labor. I think all of the labor unions should have the ability to have workers choose their labor representative by their signature. And I always like to say, if your signature’s good enough to buy a home, open a bank account, get your passport, you know, buy an automobile, get your driver’s license, get a marriage or a divorce, it ought to be good enough to choose your union, right? And they should make it as easy as possible. And I think this whole attack on labor is very scary, because labor is of course what creates the middle class of our country. And if you get rid of labor unions, you get rid of the middle class; if you get rid of the middle class, you get rid of democracy. So then you have a plutocracy, and this is really, really scary, what’s happening right now, and I think a lot of people don’t realize this. And not only the attack on collective bargaining, you know, the attacks on teachers, the public employees; and then going after their retirement, after their pensions. You know, people don’t realize that when you negotiate—I know Paul’s been at the bargaining table, I’ve been at the bargaining table for farmworkers—when you negotiate a pension for workers, you’re giving up part of wages. So workers have given up part of their wages to be able to have some kind of retirement in the future, and now you hear all this talk about going after the pensions of the public employees, and other workers. So it’s a very vicious attack that’s going on right now. Instead of attacking the people that created this mess—which are the financial managers and the people who really don’t do any physical work, right, but just manage other people’s money, and have gotten our country into such a big mess—they’re going after the working people who create the wealth of the country. So it’s a very, very scary situation.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, and it’s a historic scapegoating situation. Here we had this banking meltdown that has impoverished the nation, and then they want to blame immigrants; they want to blame union people; it’s absolutely bizarre. And professor [Joseph] Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize, Columbia professor, has an article in Vanity Fair this month saying, you know, pointing out that 1 percent of the people in this country control 40 percent of the wealth. And you use the word plutocracy—I mean, it’s incredible! And yet we have this tea party movement, we have outrage, what, about teachers getting a pension. It’s bizarre. And what happened to the relationship—was it the government attacks on labor, was it corporate attacks on labor—what has happened to the situation of the labor unions in this country?
Paul Schrade: It’s all that big money going into the war against labor, and to control the government. Eisenhower talked about the military-industrial complex, but what he left out, a point that he was going to make, and that is that the big money buys the Congress. And that’s, that’s what’s happened. It’s controlled not just by the Koch brothers, but all the other corporations that buy into the presidency and also into the Congress.
Robert Scheer: Well, take us back to that moment when Bobby Kennedy was both against the war in Vietnam, against the military-industrial complex, and came out in support of the farmworkers. Can the two of you describe that? When I mention that it’s a high point in our country, I don’t mean that it was the only great victory, but it was a moment in which there was a lot of idealism felt about, at least, the farmworkers, and the possibility for progress, and …
Paul Schrade: Well, let’s start with the victory first. Dolores was with us that night, and was in the pantry when we lost Robert Kennedy. But the important part of that day was that the farmworkers, under … with the leadership of Dolores and Cesar [Chavez], were campaigning in all of the districts in Los Angeles. And when [Kennedy aide] Frank Mankiewicz got word that the polls had closed in East L.A. and in Watts, in the black community, he sent out scouts that said why are these polls closing, and the guys came back laughing, because by 3 and 4 o’clock, a hundred percent of the people had voted in many of those precincts. Because Cesar and Dolores were out there, getting voters out, and that’s the reason Robert Kennedy won that primary. And Dolores was with us that night, celebrating that victory, and also facing that tragedy, for us and for the country, when Bob was killed.
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