Tag Archives: unions

“Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins

[Originally posted at Daily Kos and Truthout, “Click, Clack, Moo”: Why the 1% Always Wins is a powerful companion to George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack.]

As a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, I came to embrace a need to offer students a wide range of lenses for interacting with and learning from many different texts, but I also learned that coming to read and re-read, to write and re-write the world is both a powerful and disorienting experience for young people. So a strategy I now use and encourage other teachers to implement is reading and discussing children’s literature, picture books, while expanding the critical lenses readers have in their toolbox.

My favorite book for this activity is Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. This work by Doreen Cronin with art by Betsy Lewin (view a read-aloud here) presents a clever and humorous narrative about Farmer Brown and his suddenly recalcitrant cows who, having acquired a rickety typewriter, establish a strike that inspires the chickens to join and ends with the neutral ducks aiding the revolt.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type

This story is ideal for asking teachers to consider the traditional approach to text in schools, New Criticism (a focus on text in isolation and on the craft in any story, such as characterization, plot, and theme), against Feminist and Marxist criticism, for example.

One fall, while doing the activity with a young adult literature class, I came against yet a new reading of Cronin and Lewin’s work: Why the 1% always wins.

The U.S. Public Likes Farmer Brown

As we explored Click, Clack, Moo recently, the adult members of the class told me they like Farmer Brown, with one student characterizing the striking farm animals as “mean.” And here is where I felt the need to consider how this children’s book helps us all confront the Occupy Wall Street movement or the rise in antagonism toward teachers, tenure, and unions as well as why the 1% continues to own the 99%.

One important element of the story is that the cows and chickens are female workers under the authority of the male Farmer Brown. These female workers produce for the farmer and remain compliant until the cows acquire the typewriter—both a powerful tool of literacy (the cows and chickens cannot effectively strike until they gain access to language) and a representation of access to technology (readers should note that the cows and chickens produce typewritten notes that show they find an old manual typewriter unlike the cleaner type produced by Farmer Brown on an electric typewriter, a representation of the inequity of access to technology among classes).

The cows and chickens, in effect, unionize and strike. Here, members of my classes often fail to notice the unionization, but tend to side with the farmer even when we acknowledge the protest as unionizing—particularly bristling at the duck, as a neutral party, using its access to the negotiation to acquire a diving board for the duck pond.

Like the 1%, Farmer Brown is incensed that the cows and chickens demand basic necessities for comfort, electric blankets, but he eventually secures a compromise, agreeing to give the barn animals the requested electric blankets for the return of the typewriter (the story ends with the obvious next step that the duck uses the typewriter to trade for the diving board).

What tends to be missed in this story is that Farmer Brown ultimately wins; in fact, the barn animals appear to be eager to abandon their one access to power, the typewriter, for mere material items—the electric blankets as comfort many would see as a basic right and the diving board as frivolous entertainment.

The 1% have the 99% right where Farmer Brown has the barn animals—mesmerized by the pursuit of materialism and entertainment. Consider the eager hordes of consumers lined up to buy the then-new iPhone 4S, released on the cusp of the passing of Steve Jobs, heralded as a genius for his contribution to our consumer culture.

Just give us our iPhones and we’ll be quiet, we’ll work longer and harder for the opportunity to buy what the 1% tells us we want.

And when the 1% and their compliant media inform us that the top 20% pays 64% of taxes, we slip back to our barns with our tails between our legs, shamed.

Instead, we should be noting that, yes, the top 20% income earners pay 64% of taxes because they make 59% of income.

We, the 99% who tend to remain silent and compliant, wait patiently for the next generation of technology to occupy our time, our lives reduced to work and amassing the ever-changing and out-dated things that become passe as the next-thing lures us further and further into our sheep lives.

Yes, if we remain eager to trade our voices for things, the 1% will always be the winners.

When we learn to treasure voice over things, however, the chickens may come home to roost.

Unions? We Don’t Need No Stinking Unions

I have lived and worked always in the state of South Carolina.

SC is a high-poverty state (see here and here) with a racially diverse population (ranked 12th highest). And, like many comparable states across the Deep South, SC is a right to work state.

Combined, these characteristics of my home state confirm, I think, my claim about the self-defeating South. However, when it comes to the Great American Worker, the entire U.S. shares that self-defeating nature.

Often that self-defeating quality is represented by political and public attitudes—antagonistic and aggressive—toward workers’ unions.

Current SC governor, Nikki Haley, who is now running for re-election, has taken a seemingly unnecessary stand against unions:

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley didn’t mince words when she spoke about unions at an automotive conference in Greenville this week. The state loves its manufacturing jobs from BMW, Michelin and Boeing and welcomes more, she explained, but not if they’re bringing a unionized workforce with them.

“It’s not something we want to see happen,” she told The Greenville News.“ We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”…

She also warned auto industry executives at the conference to keep their guards up. “They’re coming into South Carolina. They’re trying,” Haley said. “We’re hearing it. The good news is it’s not working.”

“You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement,” she continued. “It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them.”

And a reader’s letter in The Greenville News represents how the public in SC feels about unions as well as Haley’s stance, arguing in part:

What would happen if unions made an inroad into the Upstate? They would start organizing like mad to try to increase their strength. As more and more employers started having to deal with union demands by raising wages and adding costly benefits, they would need to increase the costs of their products and services. The cost of living would go up for everybody.

I think Gov. Nikki Haley has the right idea.

This reader’s letter as well as the apparent lack of awareness about its self-defeating perspective is perfectly satirized in this cartoon:

Ten Reasons We’re Against Unions! by Barry Deutsch
Ten Reasons We’re Against Unions! by Barry Deutsch [click to enlarge original link]
While SC political leaders and the public are drawing a line in the sand about unions intruding in the state, Northwestern college football athletes, led by quarterback Kain Colter, have taken unprecedented action to unionize, as Strauss and Eder detail:

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that a group of Northwestern football players were employees of the university and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.

For decades, the major college sports have functioned on the bedrock principle of the student-athlete, with players receiving scholarships to pay for their education in exchange for their hours of practicing and competing for their university. But Peter Ohr, the regional N.L.R.B. director, tore down that familiar construct in a 24-page decision.

He ruled that Northwestern’s scholarship football players should be eligible to form a union based on a number of factors, including the time they devote to football (as many as 50 hours some weeks), the control exerted by coaches and their scholarships, which Mr. Ohr deemed a contract for compensation.

“It cannot be said that the employer’s scholarship players are ‘primarily students,’ ” the decision said.

How the public responds across the U.S. to college athletes unionizing must be framed against patterns over the last decade that include a disturbing cultural attitude toward workers, notably against teachers’ unions, tenure, and striking (see the 2012 Chicago strike for example).

Examining how workers are portrayed in the media, how workers are valued (or not) in the U.S., and the prospect of becoming a worker for graduate students, I have framed being a worker within the rise of disaster capitalism and concluded:

Finally, in the wake of disaster capitalism in New Orleans and Oregon, pop culture, specifically The Big Bang Theory, is a crucible of not only the role of workers in the U.S. but also the attitudes about the worker that series highlights. Penny, the stereotypical “girl next door,” is the object of an on-going, clichéd joke of a waitress who longs to be an actress. The larger and central jokes of the series, however, are the four academics living across the hall from Penny. It seems in this TV world, all work is funny.

What a TV sit-com never addresses, however, is that in the real world, the gap between Penny as waitress and college professors is shrinking, or better phrased, merging. The state of the American worker is beginning to share with waitressing some disturbing characteristics that cheapen all workers. As Greider (2013) details about the restaurant industry, workers of all types are becoming less often protected by unions, receiving fewer or no benefits (paid sick days, vacation days, health insurance, retirement) with their positions, being paid less than previous generations, and generally suffering under a dynamic whereby the businesses have more or all of the power in the business-worker relationship.

In the real world, Penny and one of the academics, Leonard, would not be wrestling over the education gap between them, but would be sharing the consequences of part-time work in a hostile economy toward workers regardless of those workers’ qualifications since Leonard would be an adjunct (like Professor Beth) while Penny would remain a waitress—and both would be unsatisfied as workers because their situations do not live up to their ideals.

Yet, most Americans will always be workers, and to be a worker should be an honorable thing worthy of poetic speeches and artistic black-and-white film tributes. Being an American worker doesn’t need to be a condition tolerated on the way to something better, and it shouldn’t be twenty-first century wage-slavery that is a reality echoed in the allegory of SF: “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” As the last paragraphs of Cloud Atlas express, however, the wage-slavery of workers in the context of assembly-line and disaster capitalism is a condition Americans have chosen (or at least been conditioned to choose), but it is also a condition workers can change—if workers believe it is wrong, “such a world will come to pass.” (Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?, pp. 21-22)

A question that remained with me as I drafted the piece above is just why the majority state of people in the U.S.—being a worker—does not inform the pervasive antagonistic attitude toward workers. The public in the U.S. appears just as self-defeating as the South when we are confronted with workers’ rights and collective workers’ voices.

The opportunity before us with the possibility that college athletes may unionize and transform not only their circumstances but also all of college athletics has a less appealing parallel for me, however: The tension between the NFL players’ union and NFL owners in 2011 and how the public responded to that unionization when compared to the rising calls to end teachers’ unions and tenure.

American disdain for unions is grounded in a traditional faith in rugged individualism, but it also seems linked to a good degree of self-loathing informed by a cultural worshipping of the wealthy and famous.

Stated directly and without the political baggage of the term “union,” what are the problems with due process and academic freedom (the central elements of tenure for teachers secured by unionization)? Who prospers from workers without full benefits, strong wages, and safe working conditions? Who maintains control when workers do not have equitable voices in their work and compensation?

Writing about the term “totalitarian,” Ta-Nehisi Coates confronts the power of words (to which I would add “union”):

Words exist within the realm of politics. In politics, words are sometimes perverted by the speaker. It’s worth considering which words come under attack for perversion (“racist,” “homophobe,” “bigot”) and which do not (“democratic,” “bipartisan,” “anti-American”). I am always skeptical of people who seek to curtail their use, instead of interrogating their specific usage. Some people really are racists, and other people really are misogynists, and others still actually are homophobes. Instead of prohibiting words, I’d rather better understand their meaning.

Some people demonizing unions and unionization really are being self-serving, really are seeking ways that workers can be treated as interchangeable widgets (not unlike college athletes) while the owners reap a disproportionate profit on their backs, sweat, and labor (consider how Walmart has sought to bust unions and reduce their workforce to part-time without benefits, resulting in those workers often being on welfare).

Ultimately, Coates comes to workers in the totalitarian state:

But the central idea—that the communist party, and thus the central committee, and thus the politburo was the sole representative of workers—has a chilling moral closure. Who could be against the workers? And if the party is the true representative of the workers, why do we need other parties?

I must echo: Who could be against the workers?

That haunts me, baffles me, leaves me cynical because of all the qualities that divide people in the U.S.—race, class, religion, sexuality, gender—that almost all of us are and always will be workers—a state that should be something of honor and dignity—is the one quality that should unite us.

College athletics stand before the entire U.S. as the crucible of a few benefitting on the backs of many—many without a voice. And that crucible also reveals to us the potential power of a collective voice, an acknowledged voice among the majority who do the labor that generates the profits.

As Coates warns, “words are sometimes perverted by the speaker.”

“Union” is one such word, and when it is spoken by those in power, be certain the motivation is not in the best interests of the workers.

There would be no billionaires today without workers. In fact, powerless workers are nearly essential for maintaining the inequitable state of the U.S. in which billionaires thrive while more and more workers become trapped in multiple part-time jobs, absent benefits or job security.

The Northwestern college football players have my solidarity, but I also wonder why we all are not seeking that same solidarity among every worker in the U.S., a solidarity that could attain the American Dream that has been perverted into an American Winter:

In case it’s not clear, “American Winter” comes from a specifc, biased and unapologetic viewpoint, but it’s also the kind of argument that’s needed right now. Watching the 50 year old John, 3 years unemployed and father to a young son with Down’s Syndrome, weep on camera because he had to borrow money from his parents to pay the electric bill, it’s bracing and raw. When Paula goes to the food bank for the first time, and is overwhelmed by the fact that her situation has forced her to take such measures or when single mom Jeanette tries make a promise to her young son Gunner that they will find a place to live, it puts a new perspective on those who are traditionally associated/stereotyped as being on social services. Everyone in “American Winter” has been working, are raising families, and doing everything they can (Dierdre gives blood and goes scrapping on weekends just for extra money) to make ends meet. They are not the vultures of the system that certain political segments like to paint as living on taxpayer money. (Review: ‘American Winter’ A Devastating Portrait Of The Erosion Of The Middle Class)

That recovered American Dream could be built on workers unionized for the right to work—the right to work for wages that dignify their work and their lives, the right to work as a part of their right to live fully and freely, the right to work in a physically and psychologically safe environment, the “right to work” not perverted by a political elite bragging about using high-heeled shoes as the boot on the throat of the Great American Worker.

See Related

Remembering Howard Zinn by Meditating on Teacher Unions and Tenure?

[NOTE: The title is an allusion to a line from Blazing Saddles.]

1st Anniversary Repost: Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike (EdWeek)

Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike

Education Week

Stephen Dyer (Expanded)

Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Expanded)

Missing the Forest for the Trees (Expanded below)

The Chicago teachers’ strike has sparked even more debate over the role of unions and the importance of teacher quality in public education. Yet, arguments and policy associated with teachers’ unions and teacher quality share one serious problem—missing the forest for the trees.

Carefully examining the debates themselves, in other words, pulling back from the trees to consider the forest, offers an opportunity for the public, educators, and policy stakeholders to reframe those debates and thus improve the likelihood education reform can achieve what it has failed to accomplish over the past thirty years.

Debates about teachers’ unions and teacher quality share a pop culture problem, captured in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and the feature film “Don’t Back Down.” In both, unions are portrayed as powerful as well as detrimental to needed educational outcomes while the influence of “bad” teachers is linked to those same protective unions.

If we pull back, however, from these repeated and enduring narratives (the public eagerly accepts them both in pop culture and the mainstream media), the evidence fails to support the claims.

For example, the union narrative—that unions are primarily to blame for school failures—falls apart once a few facts are examined. Unionized states tend to have higher test scores than non-union states (such as my home state of South Carolina, a right-to-work state that regularly is ranked at the bottom of traditional test data). But this fact is not pulling far enough back itself.

Unionization, poverty, and measurable student outcomes are so deeply interconnected that focusing solely on union influences on student outcomes misses the central obstacle facing public schools, teachers’ unions, and political leadership—poverty.

Next, the teacher quality debate exposes a nearly identical pattern if we focus on how to hold teachers accountable (arguments such as value-added methods of teacher evaluation) instead of asking whether or not teacher quality is a genuine problem in student outcomes, and if so, to what magnitude does that problem exist.

Like union influence, teacher quality is nearly inextricable from poverty and student test data.

The current education reform debate, then, captured by the Chicago teachers’ strike, represents a self-defeating problem of focusing on the trees (solutions and policy) without consider the forest (problems, goals).

The solution to education reform is not trying to win the trees arguments, but stepping back and addressing the forest; for example, consider the following:

• What is the broad purpose of universal public education? If we reach back to the founding of the U.S. and consider seriously Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to public education, we can identify enduring goals for public schools, goals linked to a thriving democracy and the need to focus strongly on people and children trapped in poverty:

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.” ([1817], pp. 275-276)

• What are the influences of unions across the U.S., and what are the essential roles unionization should serve in public education as a force for democracy and equity? The education reform debate must separate arguments about the failures of union bureaucracy and the importance of workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and teacher professionalism.

• What is the proper relationship between teacher autonomy and teacher accountability? Possibly the greatest failure of the teacher quality debate has been the absence of a public recognition that accountability policy has removed teacher autonomy while imposing accountability for outcomes beyond the power of teachers to address. No educator is calling for no accountability, but educators are seeking the professional autonomy they deserve while rejecting test-based accountability as not valid. The first step in teacher accountability and education reform is teacher autonomy.

• Who is designing and mandating education policy? What are their experience and expertise in education? Too little attention is being paid to the historical fact that educators have had little to no direct influence in education policy, most powerfully linked to the political process. In the past three decades, political leadership has intensified that reality.

The education reform debate is no longer a partisan political battle because Republicans and Democrats are nearly indistinguishable in terms of education policy. Yet, the reform debate remains a regrettable failure of ideology over evidence.

The Chicago teachers’ strike exposes that political leaders are starting with solutions without defining the problems, and then promoting those solutions without grounding them in the wealth of evidence available to them. Claims about “bad” teachers, protective unions, teacher evaluations tied to test scores, “miracle” charter schools, and the “missionary zeal” of Teach for America recruits resonate until the right questions are asked and the evidence is considered. Then, these so-called reforms fall apart.

We all need to pull back, start with clearly established problems, and then pursue solutions that match those problems in the context of building universal public education that fulfills its role in supporting and achieving democracy and equity.