Truthdig Radio: Power in a Union
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
We put together a very special show on the labor movement, covering the gamut from farmworkers to teachers and even millionaire athletes.
This special edition of the Truthdig Radio show was broadcast nationally as part of Pacifica’s national teach-in on the subject.
The show below features Bill Boyarsky and Jim Mamer on teachers, Philip Dray on why “there is power in a union” and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and former United Auto Workers officer Paul Schrade in conversation with Robert Scheer. Also: Howie Stier reports from the streets of L.A. and Mark Heisler puts millionaire athletes in context.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
This is Truthdig Radio from KPFK Los Angeles, coming to the whole Pacifica network on a special day of themed programming around the subject of labor. Today we’re going to run the gamut from farmworkers to teachers to millionaire athletes, and later we’ll be speaking with Dolores Huerta and many, many other guests. But first, Philip Dray.
* * *Josh Scheer:
Well, we’re sitting here with Philip Dray, and we’re here with Robert Scheer, and I’m Joshua Scheer. We’re discussing Philip’s book, “There is Power in a Union.” Why do you think people overlook labor history?
Philip Dray: Good question! You know, I think it’s because the labor movement, over the past half-century, went into kind of a decline. It began losing numbers; unionized jobs disappeared, because of new technology; you had large industrial centers like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, sort of dwindle in size; you had charges of corruption against unions, which tended to stick in people’s minds. And then, of course, you had globalization in the last 15, 20 years, which reduces the leverage that unionized workers have, and so tends to reduce the power of unions generally. And I think they’ve been cast sort of unfairly as organizations that bargain for generous pensions, and that kind of thing, and then wind up messing up cities’ fiscal situations, or what have you. But you know, I think there’s been a lot of negative public relations about unions, from various sources; I don’t think that much of it is really deserved.
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer cutting in. Let me just say, what your book captures is the vibrant, robust contribution of trade unions to American democracy. And what has really happened is that the political system, through the work of lobbyists, has been turned against unions. So you can go back to Taft-Hartley and that whole battle, but globalization, all these things didn’t happen by accident. In your book you talk about Ronald Reagan’s role, the air traffic controllers issue going back to 1981. So the destruction of unions was not a natural phenomenon.
Philip Dray: Yeah, that’s a very good point, you know. People have been out to get unions through one means or another for a very long time, whether it was the misuse of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Palmer Raids, what have you, and now this most recent assault, of course, against collective bargaining in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
Robert Scheer: You know, speaking of that, I mean, what is so infuriating about this—the Wall Street Journal on Monday has a big story about how wages are stagnant, this is the wageless recovery. You know, unemployment has gone down to 8.8%, and we’re supposed to be happy with this, and there’s a very large number of people who can’t, have given up looking for jobs, and the people who get jobs are very often getting them below their skill set, below what they had expected. And you have, now, these multinational corporations can move their practices abroad, where they don’t have taxes to face, and they can take advantage of this reserved army of the unemployed, if you like, to drive wages down. Does this foretell a whole erosion of the American middle class that was built on good-paid jobs?
Philip Dray: Well, I think that’s already underway. You know, I think that really a lot of people think of the PATCO strike of 1981, when Reagan got rid of all the air traffic controllers in one fell swoop, as kind of the beginning of all that. It certainly ushered in an era when workers were seen as contingent workers, as temps, they could be replaced, and so on. And then of course, again, as you point out, as the power of the corporations goes global, labor just had no way to keep up with that. And so yeah, as a result, you find the labor, you know, work force disenfranchised, in a sense. And of course now, they’re actually trying to disenfranchise and really kind of deny them some of their most essential, quasi-constitutional rights, really, for collective bargaining.
Josh Scheer: You know, in your book, it’s not just about Reagan; you go back into the 1870s, and I was wondering about the Tompkins Square Riot. And you talk about riot after riot, and these kind of very vibrant scenes. Is that something that’s going to be required in the future, do you think? To get unions back, to have more of a, you know, there’s going to be a battle?
Philip Dray: That’s a really good question because, you know, if they start taking away collective bargaining rights, it does cast the workers back to the conditions that they were in before collective bargaining. And of course, that’s what collective bargaining was partly meant to get rid of, to ameliorate, was this sense of working people having no rights, really. And the idea was it was part of the progressive movement of the early 20th century, what they called industrial democracy. It was literally a way to bring workers into the American system, and give them some status, some standing. And so when you take that away, yes of course, you are asking for all kinds of unseen problems.
Robert Scheer: You know, it’s interesting, your book deals with a sort of mythology in America; the self-made person, and why do you need unions. And unions challenge that notion; they say no, it’s not a level playing field, we have to collectively work for our common rights and so forth. And we’re in a very odd moment now when you have an economic meltdown that is directly the result of Wall Street policies and government policies purchased by Wall Street, deregulation of the financial industry. And yet the people paying the price for this are unionized, primarily unionized government workers, who are being told they’ve got to take it in the neck now because of what Wall Street did. And there’s a disconnect here that the mass media doesn’t seem to comment on.
Philip Dray: I mean, you’re right on a couple of accounts there. Of course, there’s always been that kind of myth of the rugged individual; it has always played against the collective might of unions in America. You know, that’s always been a factor. And now, you’re absolutely right of course, it’s—you know, I think it’s almost comical, if it wasn’t so tragic, that the people who are blamed now are public school teachers—of all people. Like, of all the stuff that’s gone on in the last decade, with the corporations and the big banks and whatever, the idea that it’s the fault of the public schoolteachers, who are pretty … you know, they’re a hard-bitten bunch; I mean, they work hard, they have a hard job, they don’t earn all that much money, whatever. And yeah, I mean, you know, these pensions or whatever they are were negotiated in good faith. Corporations and employers love to give away things over the rainbow, in exchange for lower wages in the near term. So then to come back years later and say, “Well, it’s your greed that’s causing all this meltdown,” yeah, of course, it’s totally fallacious.
Robert Scheer: Why did you write a book on labor? I mean, it seems sort of a thankless task. It came out in October of last year. And, you know, we don’t teach labor history in the schools; newspapers have huge business departments; sometimes they have a labor reporter; rarely, though. And what prompted you to capture this history, and why do you think it’s important, and why should people read your book?
Philip Dray: Well, again, I think it was something…a little perverse, I agree. And I remember at the time I thought, “Gee, a book… who would even…” You know, it was not an easy sell to the publishers, to be perfectly honest. People thought “Labor history?” But yeah, I felt…you know, when you look into it, of course—you’re aware of this, I’m sure a lot of your listeners are, too—it’s an enormous history; it involves millions of people, there were all kinds of dramatic episodes and victories and setbacks. So it just seemed kind of ridiculous that it would be forgotten, particularly given the kind of pernicious assaults on unions. And going forward, I believe in the title of my book. I believe there is power in a union, and how that’ll work out in years ahead, I don’t know. But I do think, as we see recently with Wisconsin, I do think people will respond; I think people do cherish collective bargaining and other essential rights for working people, and they will collectivize and turn to those, turn to their colleagues when necessary.
Robert Scheer: Well, let’s end with a bigger plug for your book than you’re giving. I think it provides an indispensable point to the current debate that’s been ignored. The labor unions have been the main way of expanding the middle class, preserving American democracy; you capture that rich history in this book published by Doubleday, and people should go out and buy it.
Philip Dray: Well, thank you for providing more amplitude. [Laughs]…thank you so much.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you for joining us, Philip. And again, go out and buy the book, “There Is Power in a Union.”
* * *Peter Scheer:
Last week, the labor movement could be found on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. We sent Howard Stier to take a look.
Howie Stier: Pershing Square, a vast expanse of concrete in downtown Los Angeles, is where, during the Great Depression, authors Charles Bukowski and John Fante came to take in the pageant of human life. It’s where crowds gathered in 1960 to catch a glimpse of presidential candidate John Kennedy arriving to accept a nomination at the Democratic National Convention. And it is where thousands of union workers—truck drivers, movie technicians, farmworkers, and nurses and teachers and janitors rallied last weekend in a show of support for the beleaguered state public workers of Wisconsin. [Indistinct yelling] Timothy Sklekens, a supermarket cashier, motivated unionists from UFCW Local 770, representing food industry workers. You’re protesting Ralphs, particularly?
Timothy Sklekens: Ralphs is one of the stores, one of the big three, that’s not negotiating contracts with us. We’ve had several meetings with them, and they’re not taking us seriously. We want a decent contract, we want a fair wage. Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are the big three that we’re negotiating with now, and we just want a fair contract. We’re out here to show that we want a fair wage, like everybody else.
Howie Stier: So where does Ralphs come in?
Timothy Sklekens: Right now, they’re negotiating, trying to [take] away our benefits again, like they do every contract. So we’re out here to fight it.
Howie Stier: Tim Canova is an attorney and a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, California, and a consultant to labor organizers. He’s concerned that an assault on union rights will hinder an economic recovery.
Tim Canova: We have a major jobs crisis, the most severe jobs recession in a century, and unions have to get on board to try to apply a lot of political pressure to create jobs. The private sector’s not creating them; the whole trend has been for austerity and budget-cutting, and now is not the time to be cutting budgets. Now is the time for the government to step up and to actually have jobs programs.
Howie Stier: Well, with unions, as we saw in Wisconsin, being undercut by legislators, what hope is there other than coming out in the streets?
Tim Canova: Well, there needs to be recalls in places like Wisconsin. Politicians who think that they can just bust public-sector unions and have anti-worker policies have to pay a big price for it. And an immediate price. So the recalls that they’re now undertaking in Wisconsin—that’s the way to go. The biggest inequality in income since the Gilded Age. You know, Wall Street executives haven’t been taking a hit at all; their salaries, their bonuses, keep going higher and higher. They’re the ones that wrecked this economy, not the teachers, not labor, not workers, organized or unorganized. And while wages are going down, that hurts the economy for everyone. You need more purchasing power in the economy. You see, right now, gas prices going up again, more than four dollars a gallon here at the pump in California. That means less money for people to spend on all other kinds of things. So it has ripple effects throughout the entire economy. And it’s all part of this fantasy that if you could just get rid of government, somehow the private sector will create jobs. That’s never been the way that jobs and economic development has occurred in this country. So regulation is only a bad word when the regulators get captured by industry. Howie Stier: Draped in a neon-colored toga, L.A. performance artist Ari Kletzky was inspired to transform himself into a polychrome Statue of Liberty to make a stand for workers’ rights. He was accompanied by costume designer Rachel Weir. Can you tell me about your outfit here today?
Ari Kletzky: We are celebrating liberty and justice, which is the ability for everyone to have the freedom to influence our government without being controlled by other people’s privilege and wealth.
Howie Stier: OK, all these union members out here, they’re also protesting and exercising their rights; they’re just not dressed in every swath of fabric you could buy in Santee Alley. What explains this outfit—or do you dress like this every day?
Rachel Weir: I wanted to participate in this protest as an artist, and so I’m a costume designer and I express myself through costume. And I wanted to explore the celebratory nature of justice, and to me that means bright colors, that means psychedelic, that means wearing a wig, that means going in drag. It means being fabulous.
Howie Stier: Are you pretty busy, are you working?
Rachel Weir: Ah, a little bit. Wish I was working more, but I’m doing some footwork. I’m becoming a member of the Costumers Local 705. And I’m making contacts through there, and being a part of a community.
Howie Stier: You plan to join a union—are they going to get a job for you, or do you have to have a job before you join a union?
Rachel Weir: I currently have a job that gave me the opportunity to join the union.
Howie Stier: Patrick Kelly is the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local  from Orange County, California.
Patrick Kelly: My name’s Patrick Kelly, I’m with Teamsters Local 952.
Howie Stier: How many people are in your union?
Patrick Kelly: There’s about 9,000 active, and there’s about 1,300 or 1,400 that are out of work right now.
Howie Stier: How long have those 1,300 been out of work?
Patrick Kelly: For the last year and a half, two years.
Howie Stier: And what’s your message here today?
Patrick Kelly: Our message is that union people need to band together, register to vote, raise money for their packs, and start directly confronting the non-union employers, and pushing wages and benefits up.
Howie Stier: Governor Brown just announced billions of dollars in cuts. Is that affecting your union members?
Patrick Kelly: Yeah, it’s affecting everybody. And my remedy on that is, let’s have a tax on the oil industry at the well head, and raise some serious money, because everybody’s getting killed on their gas and diesel prices. We need to recover that money from the oil companies and the energy companies at the point of production. Thoughts on what Obama could do to stimulate jobs for union members—stop supporting the hedge fund Democrats and the financial class, and start creating some jobs for working people and the unemployed.
Howie Stier: Phillip Mesa is an affable, 40-year-old grocery clerk who stocks the dairy department in an Albertson’s store in Ontario, California. He is also the rapper known as Mr. Picket Man.
Phillip Mesa: My name is Phillip Mesa.
Howie Stier: You’re a union activist?
Phillip Mesa: Yes, a union activist, union member. I’m on the executive board for my local UFCW Local 1428. I’m an Albertson’s employee that’s been with Albertson’s for 20 years.
Howie Stier: What does the store think about your rapping and Mr. Picket Man?
Phillip Mesa: A lot of the stores, especially some of the recent management that I’ve had, they understand that it’s not that we want to set the company down, because we need the company to have our jobs. We just want the company to negotiate fairly with us as workers, and I feel most of the managers that I’ve worked for in the past two years understand that—the union would rather work with the company than work against the company. And I think they appreciate me; I’m honest with them and they’re honest with me.
Howie Stier: What’s your hourly wage at Albertsons?
Phillip Mesa: Ah, $19.55, with Albertsons.
Howie Stier: That’s after 20 years.
Phillip Mesa: Yeah, that’s at the top. The new ones are starting basically at minimum wage; I’m at the end, one of the last, the dying breed that probably has made this a career. A lot of the new hires, I mean a lot of the new ones won’t stick around to reach that point. The ones that are like me, myself, I mean, as we retire and get older and phase out of the industry, it’s going to be, basically, I feel that they’re just going to try to squeeze it down to a low-paying, low-wage job with high turnover rate, just to keep their costs down, just like a Wal-Mart does or something like that. And we just want to return it to the status that it once was, and that’s to be a good quality career, job.
Howie Stier: We take you out with Mr. Picket Man’s workers’ rap, “Fight On.” [Rap music playing]
* * *Peter Scheer:
I’m Peter Scheer with Josh Scheer, and we’re speaking with Truthdig sports writer, and L.A. Times sports writer, Mark Heisler. And we want to ask, as part of this national-themed show about labor—broaden the discussion and talk a little bit about sports labor. Because really, as you outline in your newest Truthdig piece, Mark, sports is an area where labor movements have been very successful.
Mark Heisler: It’s a weird, ah…really stretching the term labor, there. [Laughter] Because, you know, the labor is rich, by and large.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Mark Heisler: So…and in baseball, the labor kind of runs the game; it’s really more powerful than the administration. So it’s kind of a, it’s definitely a specialized area of labor.
Josh Scheer: I had a quick question, though, for the KPFK audience, because I’ve always actually wondered this, and I was trying to find this out. Do the major league baseball players’ union, the NBA union—maybe you don’t know, maybe no one knows this—but do they actually support the public service unions and other unions, or is it kind of they’re out for themselves?
Mark Heisler: I don’t really know the answer to that, but my impression is—I’ve never read anything or heard anything about it—I think they’re pretty much, you know, like stand-alone entities. I don’t think they have very much to do with each other. Except there is some crossover—I think there’s a guy named Jeff Kessler, if I got the name right [Laughter]—I’m always getting, I get the Jeffs mixed up back there, and you know, some of them work for the league and some of them work for the NBA. But if I got the right one, you know, I think he may be doing some stuff for the NFL union right now…
Josh Scheer: Yeah. And he also does some stuff for the NBA too.
Mark Heisler: Yeah, his big thing is the NBA. And in management, too, Gary Bettman, who runs the NHL … was David Stern’s right-hand man. There was some crossover, you know, within sports. But there isn’t a whole lot outside of that, even if some very important people, like Marvin Miller, you know, came to baseball, came to the baseball union, I think he was like a steelworkers guy or somethin’.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, Howard Ganz, also, he reps both the NBA and the NFL in terms of the management side [Laughs], as an attorney. But it’s interesting, though, because these unions are very successful and they’re very big, but we do—you know, the other unions that are in trouble…these, I mean, these unions expect us to go, like, “Oh, $9.3 billion, that’s a lot of money.” Right? So you’d think they’d want to support the lower-end unions, but…
Mark Heisler: The union movement in general, you know, there’s…you talk about workers and solidarity, and supporting each other…You know, I think everybody kind of understands, as athletes and owners of sports teams, that’s a whole different thing; it’s just like its own little niche. And it’s an elite niche on both sides. And it doesn’t have very much to do with the outside world. So baseball owners…don’t have very much to do with U.S. Steel or anything like that.
Josh Scheer: No.
Peter Scheer: But there was a time when that wasn’t the case. And you had in the, I forget what year it was, but back when basketball, when the NBA was a struggling entity and the players showed some solidarity, the famous players and the less-famous players, refusing to play in the all-star game that year.
Mark Heisler: Oh yeah, I think [there’s] solidarity within the unions and within the sports…
Peter Scheer: But there was a time when they weren’t, you know, pulling together for millions and millions of dollars for the richest among them. There was a time when it was just about having some basic standards, right, some basic safety? Mark Heisler: Oh yeah, absolutely. That was one of the hallmarks of the NBA, you know…the birth of the NBA union, was the big guys—the Tommy Heinsohns and the Bob Cousys and the Oscar Robertsons and the Elgin Baylors—they were standing up for the little guys, and that was the…tradition of the NBA union into the ’90s. And Isiah Thomas, who was castigated for just about everything, people forget he was the last of the big stars who was the president of the union, who was running it for the little guys. And then the David Falk people got in, and David Falk started putting his star clients in important positions in the union, and trying to run it for the stars. And now I think they’re kind of back to where they were—the last couple of player heads have been Derek Fisher and Michael Curry—I think they’re back to where they were. On the other hand, no matter what they were doing, when the NBA players started the union they didn’t have very much awareness of the garment workers’ union, or anything like that.
Peter Scheer: Right.
Mark Heisler: It was basically…it was basketball players taking care of basketball players.
Peter Scheer: What is the status of the labor movement, or the labor relations in sports now? There’s a lot of news with the NFL and the NBA maybe having lockout seasons, and how powerful are they still?
Mark Heisler: I think it varies dramatically from sport to sport. Very interestingly, there was a guy named Sal Galioto, I think is his name; he’s a New York investment guy…and he specializes in sports stuff, and he set up a company, and he was on CNBC and he was talking about the NFL and the NBA. And the point he made about the NFL was he thinks…business is so great that they’ll make a deal, that they’ll just have to make a deal, because that’s what logic dictates; there’s just no reason for them to lose games or lose the season because they are making a lot of money. Whereas he thinks the NBA is not doing that well, and the owners are very united, and it’s a whole different situation. And I think that’s true. On the other hand, I have a big question about whether the NBA is doing actually as badly as David Stern says it is, and you can find a wide divergence of opinion on that matter. On the other hand, Stern has been very, very successful in convincing just about everybody that the NBA owners are in extremely dire straits.
Peter Scheer: I want to ask you about football, Mark, because you write in your latest column that if the NFL flew, like Icarus, too close to the sun, [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell would just have the orb moved. The NFL is wildly successful, and you say the players’ union there has also been really successful. And at the same time you have this stuff coming out, with these head injuries, guys in their 40s getting Alzheimer’s, you know, the less famous people—they don’t have guaranteed contracts, they have—it’s not like the NBA, where they can make a few million and retire. You know, what’s wrong there, what’s…?
Mark Heisler: Well, there’s a very different dynamic in each sport about the relative strength of the union. The NFL union, although it has managed to exist and still is a force, is not very strong vis-à-vis the owner. The owner—the NFL is a sport in which the owners have always dominated. And for…the evidence is just…the things you just mentioned, especially guaranteed contracts. And they have a hard cap, you know…they have the most owner-friendly system of the American professional sports leagues. The NBA—it’s a pretty even contest between management and the union. The management tends to think that it has the upper hand in it, and they’re all saying that they think that the union is going to fold. There’s only been one test, and the union held right up until January and the drop-dead date, and then both sides made concessions and made a deal. So that’s kind of an ongoing contest. In baseball, the union is extremely powerful. Having…they’ve had a lot of tests, I forget how many stoppages, four or five. And of course in  they burned the World Series and really, essentially, taught the owners a lesson. And the owners have never really challenged them since. That’s why there’s a completely player-friendly system now; there’s no salary cap whatsoever; there’s minor restrictions about, you know, luxury tax. But what baseball has done is…they’ve done a very good job of redistributing income, you know, with a revenue sharing plan, so that everybody’s making money. Now the one thing that the NBA owners have not done is…they claim…they’re talking about a $400 million operating loss, and I think it’s completely wrong. I think they’re tossing non-operating expenditures in there, like debt service. And I think the real number is the one that Forbes comes out with, and Forbes’ figure for last season was…plus $150 million profit, except that most of it went to about five teams, and I think they had 12 teams making money and 18 teams losing by the end of it. I think the way it really breaks down is like five or six teams making almost all the real money, and about 10 of them lose a lot.
Peter Scheer: Well, I guess the moral of the story is that even when the laborers are millionaires, you can’t trust management, right, Josh?
Josh Scheer: Yeah. And thank you, Mark, and again, we’ll continue this discussion because I’m sure this won’t go anywhere.
Peter Scheer: All right. That’s Mark Heisler joining us to talk about sports. Thanks, Mark.
Mark Heisler: My pleasure.
* * *Peter Scheer:
This is Peter Scheer with Kasia Anderson, and we’re joined by Bill Boyarsky and Jim Mamer as part of this special, national broadcast on the theme of labor. Their two pieces are “Flunking Teachers Gives the Ruling Class a Pass,” by Bill Boyarsky, and “Time for a Little Education,” by Jim Mamer.
Kasia Anderson: And Jim—this is Kasia—I wanted to ask you, just by way of kicking off here … we can’t say your exact quotation on the radio here, but I’ll paraphrase. You say, “I’m a retired teacher, and I’m ticked off.” That’s what opens your piece. Do you want to give us an idea of what got you going there?
Jim Mamer: You mean … I’m not ticked off all the time.
Kasia Anderson: No, right, right. Yeah, very good-natured individual, but in this case, you make an exception.
Jim Mamer: You know, it’s been pretty obvious over a while, but the economic problems and the debt crisis in general, and complex problems in education have seemed to be reduced to an attack on government workers, and teachers in particular. So it is kind of offensive to be offered bumper-sticker solutions to everything. And I guess in this case it’s “fire bad teachers.”
Peter Scheer: Bill, on this note, you start your column by saying “With all the evil people in the world, why are public school teachers being villainized, and how did they attract such powerful enemies?” And you’ve gone out in the field to look into this question. What did you find?
Bill Boyarsky: I found that there’s people who are in favor of so-called education reform that tend to be business people, such as—forward-looking business people such as Bill Gates at Microsoft, Arne Duncan, the secretary of education in the Obama administration. And then a lot of investors, hedge-fund investors and other investors in charter schools, which are basically government-financed, privately operated schools, that are, in a sense, privatizing the … public schools. So there’s an economic motive, and then there’s a strong ideological motive, this sort of business “if I could just get in there with this enterprise, and clean it up, and fire all the incompetents, and cut down the workforce, everything would be fine.”
Kasia Anderson: Yeah, you’ve made the comparison to basically like corporate raiders, right? Where they just come in and sweep through the place and fire everyone right and left, and try to restructure.
Bill Boyarsky: Right. Right, Kasia, with the know-it-all CEO coming in, you know, with all of the answers, to what is an extremely complex situation.
Peter Scheer: Jim, you’re not just a teacher—or I should say a retired teacher—but you were a great teacher. You won a national award for your teaching. And I want to know why, as other groups like the police and firemen are able to say “Hey, if you don’t treat us right you’re going to, what, have crime and danger and …” you know, why is it with teachers we’re able to say, “Your kids are going to end up dumb if you don’t hire good teachers.” We want to be competitive in the world, so we’re going to take it out on teachers; we’re going to have fewer teachers who are going to be less well paid. I mean, isn’t this a recipe for disaster?
Jim Mamer: Oh, it’s definitely a recipe for disaster. I’m not sure that the police and the firefighters are actually as immune to those attacks as that sounds. But in terms of teachers, I think there’s two contradictory messages that are being sent out at the same time. And one of them, obviously, we talked about, is that teacher unions are the major obstacle to effective reform; I’ve never thought teachers’ unions should be primarily about reform anyway. I mean, teacher unions are there to protect teachers. But they’re being cast as the main reason we don’t have reform, and you end up at the same time with this—especially from the Obama administration, and I suspect almost every officeholder—saying we need more teachers; we’ve got the baby boom retiring, and we need good teachers, and this is a great job. There was an article this morning in the L.A. Times talking about the same thing. The fact that the number of people who are entering the teaching profession has fallen—I think this is just about the state of California—by 29 percent in the last couple of years. So you—we’ve really got a problem coming up. You can’t attack teachers, attack their pensions, attack virtually everything they’re doing in the classroom, and also call for more people to want to be teachers. And yeah, I think we’re headed to … in a real bad direction.
Kasia Anderson: Bill, I wanted to ask you, from your column—one of the things I love the most about your writing is that you actually go out on the street and into institutions in various parts of society and you talk to people. It’s, you know, Basic Reporting 101, but seems like it’s lacking these days. You went to a couple of different places and talked to people about your most recent piece. What did you find, kind of out there in the world?
Bill Boyarsky: Well, I went to a new high school in Los Angeles, the Robert Kennedy educational complex; it’s built on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. And there are six small high schools on this site, and they, some of them, specialize in music or theater or just basic high school. The one I visited was run by the UCLA School of Education and the Los Angeles School District, and it was … a general high school. And it’s also, these high schools—they’re called pilot schools—they’re also deeply involved in the teachers’ union. The teachers’ union helps shape the high school, as do the faculty and the administrators on the site. I found that they conduct themselves in a way that’s really contrary to what the so-called reformers believe in, which is—you know, they believe in testing, testing of students; comparison of the test scores of one teacher with another, and all of that. And they [the RFK schools] have rather a long and complex system of evaluation of teachers by the principal, by peers, and by outside groups. And they actually look at the work product of the students and the quality of the assignments, and they compare the assignments to the work product. They realize—and I agree—that, you know, teachers should be evaluated, and done in a systematic way. And that if a teacher isn’t cutting it, the teacher should go. The teachers at this school, under their union contract, they sign one-year contracts. And if they’re not making it at the end of the year, then they’re not picked up the following year. They have to go somewhere else. And so there is a system of evaluation, and there are standards. But it’s one that reflects the realities of the classroom, and that’s what impressed me. I was also impressed by just walking around the campus and looking at how such a large school, which could be like a lot of big-city schools—you know, this inhuman fortress—was really made into an open and pleasant place. 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?
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. Robert Scheer: How do you—you know, Dolores, I want to ask you—how do you guys keep going, you know? I mean, you’ve been at this a long time, you and Paul. And how do you keep up your spirit, your idealism, you’re still out there organizing, you’re still optimistic … what do you drink? What’s the secret, here?
Paul Schrade: [Laughs] No, it’s the passion for justice, for one thing, and the fact that we have been effective in many ways; we’ve lost a lot of battles, but we’re effective. Dolores worked with us on getting the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools built, after we were opposed by Donald Trump and by the school board and by the [Los Angeles] Conservancy. We won that school; it was a 23-year fight, but we did it. And that keeps me going after, you know, you walk into that school now and see the kids, thirty-five hundred kids are going to a very marvelously constructed school.
Robert Scheer: This is the same location where you were shot, and where Bobby Kennedy was killed.
Paul Schrade: Yeah.
Robert Scheer: Right, yeah.
Paul Schrade: In fact, during the dedication, on November 13th—Dolores was with us then—we were standing, when we were speaking, right where Robert Kennedy made his victory speech. But that location, which was the Embassy Ballroom, is now the library. And it’s such a beautiful structure now, all the false ceilings and draperies out of there, it’s just a beautiful room, an exact replica of the Embassy Ballroom where Bob made his victory speech. And Bill Rosendahl, who was with us that night too, just was in tears, because it was such a happy moment to have that library and that school dedicated for the people.
Robert Scheer: Bill Rosendahl [is now] on the City Council. You know, I was there that night, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a more depressing scene; I had just interviewed Bobby Kennedy upstairs; John Lewis, the great congressman from Georgia, was crying on the floor, a civil rights veteran. So, Dolores, how do you pick yourself up each time, and keep going? I mean, you’ve spoken in my classes; I know you have this enormous enthusiasm. What keeps you going? We need some optimism now.
Paul Schrade: She’s great.
Dolores Huerta: Well, it’s like Paul said—we’ve been through … social justice, right, and that gives us the energy. And Cesar always used to say that … the struggle itself gives you the energy to continue, and not to give up. And that’s the other thing I love to quote about Cesar, since we’re celebrating his birthday, is he always said that you’re always going to win as long as you don’t quit. No matter how long it takes … ultimately you will win, as long as you don’t quit; that’s the important thing. And the other thing I love to quote Cesar on, when he talked about nonviolence, you know—nonviolence also means having the patience to hang in there. To know it’s not going to happen quickly, that it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve the justice that we’re seeking, that we’re working for. And you know the other thing—I just want to comment on something that you mentioned a little while ago, about how California, we were so different than the rest of the country—and I want to give credit again to the labor movement, especially to Maria Elena Durazo, who is the head of the labor council there in Los Angeles. But you know, I had the good fortune, at her invitation, to join some of those people that were walking the precincts in this last election, and who were they? They were immigrants; they were the people from the hotels; they were the people from the—the janitors, you know? You know, the homemakers … the hotel keepers, and you know, this is like immigrant people, you know, that have just become citizens, and many of them were not yet citizens, that were knocking on those doors in Los Angeles in this last election, and they knocked on over 300,000 doors. And we saw somewhat of a miracle, I call it, because we ended up with the most progressive slate in the country, you know. From Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris—the first African-American, also [Asian] Indian, woman to be elected to [the attorney general’s] office, you know, in the state. And all of the constitutional offices were from Northern California, and they were elected with the Latino votes from Southern California. And I think that’s just incredible, and I think that sets a model for the rest of the country. That they’ve got to realize that the only way we’re going to win, and we’re going to counteract the tea baggers and these anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-women—because, you know, they’re also going after choice and after the LGBT community—the only way that we can counteract that is with organizing on the ground. And this is what laborers do, this is what labor unions do. And this is why they want to get rid of labor unions. And I think the governor of Wisconsin said, well, if we get rid of the labor unions then we get rid of the Democrats. And if we get rid of the Democrats and we get rid of labor unions, then the Republicans have complete control, and they’ve already shown us what they’re trying to do; you know, by getting rid of education and privatizing education, privatizing everything. So … and I know people don’t like to use that word, fascism, but this is where we’re at; this is the road that these people want to put us on. And I think it’s up to us to fight back. We have to remind people that Hitler was elected to office, you know? It wasn’t a coup; he was elected. And that we see some of the same patterns there; the xenophobia, the fighting people of color, wanting to put everybody in prison. It’s really scary.
Robert Scheer: Yeah, you know, it’s an important point, I think maybe the most important point, to be made. Because we’ve really seen a classic bait-and-switch, you know; we’ve seen the hijacking of what should be a real populism and are given a phony populism. So instead of focusing attention on Wall Street—on the big corporate, on the big banks and the damage they did to everybody in this country, beginning with working people—instead, we have the blame, as I said before, on the immigrants and now on the teachers, and on people working in the public sector, on unionized workers. But what’s so positive about what you’ve just said—and I think we need to hear this from time to time—is that California did not go the way of the rest of the country. California—which, you know, is not Greenwich Village; it’s not some isolated, bohemian center—California gave us Richard Nixon, it gave us Ronald Reagan—you know, it’s a real state, and the most important state, I would argue. And yet in this last election—and the media didn’t notice it, really, very much—California went the other way. And I think your point, Dolores, is really the one to take away from this: It is the role of the immigrant labor force that the unions have so effectively organized in California. And that has changed the whole balance.
Paul Schrade: And just like it was the workforce back in the ’30s, when the UAW first got organized; a lot of those people were from the South and the Midwest, and they really carried the ball, and through sit-down strikes, changed the life of workers in the automobile industry.
Dolores Huerta: Right, and they’re celebrating 100 years of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York, you know, when the garment workers—you know, out of that tragedy came the garment workers’ union … that was organized. And then that, of course, led the way to many of the other labor unions, also, that happened on the East Coast after that tragic fire, which killed all these young women that were locked into a building, and they couldn’t get out. All these shirt-makers, these young women who sat at their sewing machines. So, and that was an immigrant labor force at that time also, that worked in those garment factories. So we know that the working people are really the ones that are the engine of the economy, the engine of progress, and if anything, if our country has gone down the tube economically, it’s because we have disdained our working people, we’ve taken their jobs away and sent them overseas, and we’re just making them into a nation of bankers. And this is very wrong. But we’ve got to kind of remind people—and this is what we do with our organizing—is that we have it within our power to change these things. I just came from New Mexico, and you know, we have now a Latina governor, Susana Martinez, very conservative. But good news for everybody—even though she had her agenda, very anti-immigrant agenda, taking away driver’s licenses from people who were undocumented—the state Senate of New Mexico stopped her in her tracks, and she couldn’t get her agenda through the Legislature. So there’s some glimmers of hope out there.
Robert Scheer: You know, I want to end this on a note of hope about older people; you know, it happens that as we’re recording this, I’m experiencing my 75th birthday. And I’ve known you guys for a long time; I remember going back to those early rallies, and so forth, when I was editing Ramparts magazine. And 75 years ago my father lost his job—the day I was born, had to tell my mother that—didn’t get it back for four years; they were both garment workers. And when you mentioned the Triangle disaster—my parents talked about it all the time, and unions were the basis of our life. And ironically, if you read Ronald Reagan’s own autobiography, he’ll tell you Roosevelt was, you know, a god in their family’s house; his father went to work for the New Deal. And without the New Deal, Ronald Reagan, of all people, said his family would have starved. And I think some of us old-timers have to remind people that it was, as you said before, unions that gave this country the gift of the middle class that is the basis of democracy. So do you guys have a last, positive word? I know you always do. Paul?
Paul Schrade: Well, it’s good to be with the Scheer family, and happy birthday!
Robert Scheer: [Laughs] OK! And Dolores?
Dolores Huerta: Well … thank you for your great light of journalism; you were a light back there in the ’60s, when everything seemed so dark, and to know that your light is still shining—and also that you have, I guess, your son following in your footsteps…
Robert Scheer: Yeah … all three of them, all three of them.
Dolores Huerta: … so that more people can hear the way that you really interpret what’s happening in our world for the rest of us. And happy birthday, also!
Robert Scheer: OK. Great, guys, thanks.
Dolores Huerta: Si se puede!
Peter Scheer: That’s it for this special edition of Truthdig Radio from KPFK Los Angeles. Thanks to all our guests, Dolores Huerta, Paul Schrade, Jim Mamer, Bill Boyarsky, Mark Heisler and Philip Dray. Special thanks to engineer Sam Mizrahi and also Alan Minsky. For Robert Scheer, Kasia Anderson, Howard Stier, Josh Scheer and myself, thanks for listening.Wait, before you go…