by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
The 800 union delegates representing Chicago's public school teachers voted overwhelmingly last night to end their strike:
The terms, which appeared to provide some victories for both sides, would give annual raises to teachers, lengthen the school day and allow teachers to be evaluated, in part, with student test scores. The school system would also aim to guide laid-off teachers with strong ratings into at least half of any new job openings in the schools.
While a halt to the teachers’ strike, this city’s first in a quarter century, may end the immediate, local contract fight over pay, working conditions and job security, the episode brought to the forefront larger questions, still unanswered, about the philosophical direction of public schools here, a national agenda for educational change and the potency of unions. [NYT]
The two sides reached a tentative three-year contract with an option for a fourth year, but the document has not yet been made public. The union did not get the raise it initially sought, but it held off a proposed merit pay scheme, defused the most stringent aspects of the teacher evaluation proposal, and secured a recall procedure for high performing teachers laid off due to school closings.
The contract must still be ratified by the rank-and-file.
Even people who generally consider themselves pro-labor often balk at supporting teachers strikes because, they argue, "teachers strikes hurt kids." In Dissent, Joanne Barkan casts a critical eye on that simplistic formulation. Chicago's students are being victimized, she argues, but not by teachers striking for air conditioned classrooms and payment for the extra hours they'll be asked to work when the schoold day is extended:
Yes, schoolchildren in Chicago are victims, but not of their teachers. They are victims of a nationwide education “reform” movement geared to undermine teachers’ unions and shift public resources into private hands; they are victims of wave after wave of ill-conceived and failing policy “innovations”; they are victims of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which turned inner-city public schools into boot camps for standardized test prep; they are victims of Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program, which paid states to use student test scores—a highly unreliable tool—for teacher evaluations and to lift caps on the number of privately managed charter schools, thus draining resources from public schools. Chicago’s children are victims of “mayoral control,” which allows Rahm Emanuel to run the school system, bully parents and teachers, and appoint a Board of Education dominated by corporate executives and political donors.
In a new article in the American Prospect, Hillman judge Harold Meyerson asks what will happen to America if organized labor continues its long slide into oblivion:
Where are unions in the new economy? Can a union do anything for a temp? A part-timer? A software writer? A barista? Will anyone under 30—will anyone over 30—even notice if unions cease to be?
Perhaps not. But everyone will notice the consequences. Absent a substantial union movement, the American middle class will shrink. Absent a substantial union movement, the concentration of wealth will increase. Absent a substantial union movement, the corporate domination of government will grow.
If labor dies, Americans can look forward to falling wages, rising inequality, and permanent Republican majorities. The only way to stave off this dire outcome, Meyerson argues, is for the rest of the liberal movement to rally behind organized labor in its hour of need.
[Photo credit: Peoplesworld, Creative Commons.]
- Sarah Jaffe of AlterNet calls out five supposedly liberal pundits for bashing the striking Chicago teachers.
- Bangladeshi labor organizer Aminul Islam disappeared on April 4, after an extended campaign of police harassment. His tortured body was found a few days later. Many believe Islam was murdered for trying to organize workers at local Tommy Hilfiger and American Eagle factories. Four months later a lead surfaced: On the day he disappeared, a man with suspected intelligence ties showed up and asked Islam to officiate his wedding. Islam left with him in a rickshaw and was never seen again.
- President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered an investigation into a fire that killed 258 garment workers in the Pakistani capital of Karachi, Businessweek reports. Labor activists have been pushing for an investigation and compensation for the families of the victims.
- About 100 warehouse workers from the Inland Empire set out on a 50-mile "Wal-March" to protest wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart warehouses, Thursday.
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
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.
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.]
Some of the best reporting and commentary on the Chicago teachers strike:
- "Why I'm Striking," by Teacher X, a Chicago public school teacher, who notes the irony of saying that it's just fine for kids to lose 18-25 days out of every school year for unproven standardized testing, but not a few days for a strike.
- Brian Jones salutes the striking teachers in the New York Times' "Room for Debate" section.
- Corey Robin on "Liberals Who Hate Teachers Unions" in Jacobin Magazine.
- "Chicago Teachers Push Back Against Neo-Liberal Education Reform," by Matthew Cunningham-Cook in The Nation.
- Dana Goldstein on the history of teachers unions as a women-led labor movement.
- Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced to officially deny Nickleback fandom after a 10th grade math teacher, Mike Konkoleski, walked the picket line with a sign alleging "Rahm Emanuel Likes Nickleback."
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.
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.]
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.]