September 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

September 2012

"Chicago Teacher": Rebel Diaz Raps For Strikers

The unions uprising! takin to the streets!
The workers are United so the Mayor’s got beef!
Rahm’s a fake pretender with a corporate agenda
Neo Liberal Offender, of course you offend us!
This aint about money! That’s far from the truth,
they want better work conditions to teach the youth.

The labor movement has a rich musical heritage. Songs raise spirits on the picket lines and recall the stories of struggles past. This week, Rebel Diaz took up the tradition of Joe Hill, Woodie Guthrie, and Phil Ochs with his new song, “Chicago Teacher.” Listen here.

An End in Sight for Chicago's Teachers Strike?

Striking teachers and school officials are making progress at the bargaining table, the Chicago Sun Times reports. The two sides are said to be coming closer to an agreement on the contentious issue of teacher evaluations. If all goes well, students could be back at school by Friday:

After a long day of talks that ended around 11:30 p.m., Lewis said the system’s offer on teacher evaluations, a key stumbling block, had improved to the point that “I’m smiling. I’m very happy.’’

Although she was not ready to check it off her list, “it’s a lot better,’’ Lewis said.

Earlier, Chicago Public School officials Wednesday released what one expert called a “pretty generous concession” to the union on teacher evaluations.

Teachers and parents across country are watching the Chicago dispute as a bellwether for the national debate over teacher evaluations and standardized testing.

[Photo credit: People’s World, Creative Commons.]

Chicago Teachers Strike Roundup

Some of the best reporting and commentary on the Chicago teachers strike:



Post-Gazette Wins September Sidney Award for Fracking Exposé

Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have won the September Sidney Award for “Fouled Waters,” a 3-month investigation into a mysterious blight on the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town surrounded by natural gas wells.

Read my Backstory interview with Erich and Julia about their prize-winning piece.

New Book Ranks Sidney Hillman Among Top 100 Americans

The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, a new book by Peter Dreier, names Sidney Hillman as one of the leading lights of the social justice movement. I spoke to Dreier about the book and Hillman’s legacy.

The book is a kind of Who’s Who of social justice in America. Dreier honors three types of luminaries: organizers and activists, politicians, and intellectuals. Hillman’s achievements span all three categories. He was a dazzlingly successful organizer of immigrant garment workers; he went on to become trusted adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and an architect of the New Deal; and he was an intellectual founder of social unionism.

Social unionism is the idea that a union should fight for more than higher pay and better working conditions. Hillman believed that the union should serve as a center of social, intellectual, and family life. This model was very appealing to immigrant workers who were pleased to find an American institution that would welcome them with open arms and teach them how to thrive in a new country. Hillman’s later support of the welfare state was a natural extension of this community-oriented approach to politics.

Dreier attributes Hillman’s success as an organizer partly to his eclectic background. He was a Chicago garment worker who came to the U.S. from Lithuania as a young man after serving time in prison for revolutionary politicking in Russia. He was also an intellectual who had studied to be a rabbi as a young man. Even before coming to the U.S., he pored over the social thought of Marx, Darwin, and Mill.

“Hillman was an empathetic member of the working class,” Dreier said, “He understood that ordinary people could do extraordinary things.”

He wasn’t a great public speaker, but he was persistent and clever, and he knew how to find other people with talent,” Dreier added.

Hillman rose to prominence during the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910. Tens of thousands of Chicago garment workers, led mostly by women, walked off the job. While many male garment workers laughed at the women, Hillman joined their cause. In 1914, at the age of 27, he became the first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a post he held until his death in 1946.

Chicago was a hotbed of social protest. Hillman forged friendships and allegiance with progressive leaders including Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (all listed among the 100 Greatest Americans).

As an adviser to FDR, Hillman helped shape the New Deal and the nascent welfare state. He pushed for public works, unemployment insurance, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Sidney Hillman’s career shows how the radical ideas of one generation become the commonsense ideas of the next.

[Photo: Sidney Hillman (left) and David Dubinsky of the ILGWU, Kheel Center @Cornell University, Creative Commons.]

Bakery Workers Win Their Union Back

A handful of New York City workers went head-to-head with the Hot & Crusty bakery and won, the Village Voice reports:

In one of the most remarkable underdog stories in recent labor history, 23 low-wage restaurant workers at a Hot and Crusty Bakery location on the Upper East Side have won a surprising victory.

The bakery’s owners closed it August 31 after the workers successfully formed a union, but the workers fought back, briefly taking over the bakery on its last day and maintaining a 24-hour picket and street cafe through the following week.

Saturday, it was announced that new owners had taken over the bakery, and had signed binding promises to reopen the bakery within 15 days, rehire its workers, recognize their union, and institute a hiring hall, giving the workers control over the hire of new employees.

Hot & Crusty closed down the shop at 63rd and 2nd Ave in Manhattan after a super-majority of its 23 employees voted to unionize.

The victory is all the more remarkable because most of the Hot & Crusty workers are undocumented. The workers prevailed despite management threats to use their immigration status against them.

No one was expecting a tiny handful of mostly undocumented workers to win such concessions from a powerful ownership team led by Mark Samson, a managing partner at the private equity firm Praesidian Capital. Workers say management used their immigration status to threaten them, and spent more than $500,000 on a union-busting consultant and lawyers.

“It’s historic. It’s pretty much unprecedented,” said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer at the Laundry Workers Center, which helped train and support the bakery workers. “The depth of support really helped, but the other thing that made the difference was the willingness of the workers to escalate.”

The Laundry Workers Center was instrumental in bringing about the original vote to unionize. The bakery workers also had the support of allies including SEIU 32BJ, student groups, and Occupy Wall Street.

[Photo credit: SashaMD, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Pizza; Work Safety; and Stop-and-Frisk

Macy's Longest-Serving Employee Retires After 73 Years on the Job

Macy’s longest-serving employee is retiring after 73 years of hard work and activism:

Can you imagine working in the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House and the biggest movie at the box-office was The Wizard of Oz?

Rose Syracuse, can do you one better, because she was actually living those moments.  The 92-year old has been working for a whopping 73 years at the Macy’s Herald Square flagship store in New York City.  Rose, also a member of RWDSU Local 1-S, is now announcing her retirement. [UFCW blog]

Rose was a founding member of Local 1-S, and she fought to unionize her workplace:

Speaking with RWDSU, Rose pointed out that “the union fights for you.  They really help you. Otherwise how could you do it all by yourself? Nobody would listen to you.” We couldn’t agree more. Rose’s statement reminds us that the point of a union has not changed from 73 years ago: when sticking together, we have a voice that will be listened to.

[Photo credit: iJammin, Creative Commons.]

Save Homicide Watch

Homicide Watch, one of the most important experiments in improving journalism in the era of the internet, will die in a week, unless we save them,” writes new media expert Clay Shirky.

Homicide Watch is a young journalism startup that reports on every single murder in Washington, DC. No other media outlet comes close. Murder victims in DC are disproportionately black and poor, and their stories are underrepresented in mainstream media coverage. Homicide Watch provides an invaluable service to members of beleaguered communities.

Shirky describes the site’s innovative design:

Homicide Watch matters because they are more than just thorough, they’re innovative. They’ve designed the site like a set of feeds and a wiki rather than like the crime section of a newspaper. The home page shows the most recent updates on all pending cases. Each victim gets their own page, where those updates are aggregated. Every murder is mapped. Every page has the tip line for the detective assigned to the case. Every page hosts a place for remembrance of the victim.

This way of working isn’t just technologically innovative, it’s socially innovative, in a way journalism desperately needs. The home page of Homicide Watch shows photos of the most recent seven victims; as I write this, all seven, are, as usual, African-American. Like a lot of white people, I knew, vaguely, that crime was worse in black neighborhoods than in white ones, but actually seeing the faces, too often of kids not much older than my own, makes it clear how disproportionately this crime is visited on African-Americans.

Homicide Watch has received national recognition for its journalism and its innovative design. The site’s co-founder and sole full-time reporter, Laura Amico, has received a prestiguous Niemann Fellowship at Harvard. Homicide Watch needs to raise enough money to hire a reporter to replace her during her yearlong stint at Harvard.

The most dedicated users of Homicide Watch can’t afford to pay for it. So, Laura and Chris Amico are reaching out to those who care about socially conscious journalism to help keep the site alive.

Please donate, if you can.

As of Wednesday morning, the Homicide Watch Kickstarter had over $20,000 in pledges, putting the campaign a little over halfway towards its goal of $40,000 with 8 days left in the campaign. Remember, they only collect those pledge dollars if they meet the $40,000 threshold. So, keep those pledges coming.