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The Last Days of Democracy

The Last Days of Democracy

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Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union

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Posted on Apr 7, 2011
Photo illustration from an image by Colin Grey

(Page 4)

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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Bill Boyarsky: The main attack on teachers comes from the use of tests, especially one called the value-added test, which is—the value-added examinations, which are—which the Los Angeles Times has done a series of stories comparing the value-added scores of teachers in elementary schools in the Los Angeles School District and, you know, publishing the names and the scores of these teachers. These, basically, without getting too complicated—you take the test scores of the kid at the end of one semester, and from that you kind of project what the kid should do into the next semester, and if the kid does better, that’s what they call “added value,” and that’s good for the teacher; and if the kid does worse, then that’s bad for the teacher, and the teacher has a lower score. I’m vastly oversimplifying. But there seems to be a feeling—and I mean, it’s kind of like business, you know; it’s like … you can quantify everything. Everything can be quantified, and from your quantifying it, you can get dead-sure results that one teacher is better than another. Well, as a matter of fact, there’s a good amount of margin of error in this value-added system. And so the difference between the teacher who has a high value-added score and one that has an average one is pretty hard to measure. That’s one really big objection to what they’re doing with teachers. Why—I just don’t know why, though—the media, and these business leaders like Gates and like Arne Duncan, are focusing on teachers, because they’re kind of inflaming this. And, you know, a lot of things about teachers are—people like their kid’s teacher, the one they have them in contact with, usually. But then, they may not like the system.

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.

*  *  *


Peter Scheer: Welcome back. We are speaking with Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, and Paul Schrade, a former officer of the United Auto Workers union [UAW], who just won an award from the Cesar Chavez Foundation.

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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Leefeller's avatar

By Leefeller, April 8, 2011 at 6:46 pm Link to this comment

Hey T Doff,.....good one, don’t forget about the talking snake which begot Republican/Tea Bags!

mittenheart, the attack on teachers is a direct link to the need of dumbing down of the general peoples,.... as I see it, a right wing Fascist approach to things for control and the empowering of agendas.

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By TDoff, April 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm Link to this comment

Why all the discussion/dissension about whether unions should exist? It should be obvious that unions and labor are essential for human existence, and are the work of ‘god’.
After all, shortly after ‘god’ created Adam and Eve, they joined a sexual union. And that union resulted in Eve’s labor. And from that labor an unbroken chain of unions and labors began that formed the human race.

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By mittenheart, April 7, 2011 at 6:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

One of the comments made was that “we don’t teach labor history.” In the main, that’s true, but in my school, it is not. I am a high school American literature teacher, and the state of Michigan requires that students study non-fiction genres and public speaking. Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History and dvd, The People Speak are a part of our course. Ballads like Woody Guthrie’s Ludlow Massacre and the speeches of workers of both genders and of all racial & ethnic backgrounds are compelling texts that generate engaged learning. Many 11th graders already work in my high-unemployment county. In writing, students must research a global issue. Students choose a topic they’re passionate about, and many are passionate about guess what? Unemployment and poverty! They are writing multi-genre compositions to post online from their research. Across the curriculum, Zinn’s The People’s History is in use as well.

I’m the daughter of a Teamster; I’m a union representative, and I teach my young workers their history. I call upon all workers to teach the young to be empowered workers with hearts for justice for the people.

The shriek from the right will be that the curriculum shows “self-interest” of the teachers. Well, teachers are people, and teachers are workers, and knowing the history that calls for work conditions and pay that sustain and respect for humanity benefits all humanity, not just the small minority of the obscenely rich bosses and policy makers. Our students deserve information that will allow them to have a say over the conditions of their lives as workers. These knowledge and skill sets are not on the standardized tests, but these are just as important to the healthy lives of the human beings sitting in the desks at school as other “workplace skills” that are on the test.

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