Sunday, October 24, 2010

Labor Movement: Save the Rest of Us to Save Yourselves

The latest attack ad from Meg Whitman, right-wing businesswoman running for governor of California, targets public sector unionization. “Who can retire at 55?” the narrator asks. "As governor, Jerry Brown allowed state workers to collectively bargain. That’s why now they can retire at 55 with nearly full pension.”

Of course it’s a lie – a friend who is a public school teacher said if she retired at 55, even with thirty years in the same job (a contingency Whitman’s ad doesn’t mention), she’d get about half of what she will get at 65. But it’s also shocking that Whitman thinks she can increase her voter share by attacking not a specific bargaining agreement but the whole idea of collective bargaining. I’m not shocked that SHE is anti-union to her core – most businesspeople are. (Even KPFA radio, the first noncommercial radio station in the country, where I volunteer, thinks that now that they have to cut jobs, they don’t need to do it according to seniority. And the union leadership is supporting them because they or their friends will get jumped over more senior people.) But I was shocked that her campaign managers are convinced that the public is so fiercely anti-union.

Whitman’s people didn’t come up with that idea by themselves. They took it from the Tea Party strategists, who have declared a class war on public workers. The corporate interests funding and fueling the new populism have decided that they can turn the supposed (but mostly unseen) anger at bailouts for banks, BP and businessmen by turning it against unionized public sector workers earning a living wage and a pension when they retire. I admit it’s true that when my friends who are unionized government workers complain that their pensions are shrinking, I sometimes think, “At least you have a pension.”

But what is unsaid in this, like all the rest of the Tea Party rhetoric, is what lies behind the somewhat bland expression “overpaid public workers.” Like every other plank of this new populist platform, it comes down to racism. “Pampered public workers” is code for “unqualified” Black and immigrant workers, because the civil service has been the one sector that has been forced, by the use of the test and affirmative action, to be relatively color-blind. People of color pass the test, thus proving they are qualified, so they have to be hired if they are next in line. It’s one more example of the “logic” by which “elite” has come to stand for the most oppressed people in our society.

It’s not new. Remember that oft-quoted Niemuller poem? “First they came for the unionists…” That’s right, the unions were the first target of Nazism, which was also a pseudo populism funded and used by corporations. So maybe this would be a good time for Jews to come back to our progressive labor heritage.

The unions also need to take some responsibility. The biggest mistake the labor movement ever made was to stop organizing and start protecting. My whole working life has been in the unorganized private clerical sector. It’s always been equally frustrating to me that my coworkers were mostly uninterested in organizing and the unions were uninterested in organizing us. Some parts of the labor movement have recently started important and innovative organizing campaigns, mostly among low-wage immigrant workers at hotels, restaurants and piecemeal sweatshops. That’s great, I’m all for it, I have gone to many of their picket lines. But I have a secret to tell them. Most immigrant workers can’t vote. Please don’t misunderstand me for a second - I’m not saying to stop those campaigns. But I am saying that by ignoring the mass of citizen voters who are in nonunion jobs, the union movement may have dug its own grave.

Or maybe it’s not too late. If the unions took all the money they pour into electing useless Democrats and threw it into organizing, they might be able to turn the tide around. If they could tell unemployed workers in places like Kentucky and Nevada, we’re going to set up a hiring hall and you’ll be able to get a few days’ work every week at a decent wage; if they could tell workers slaving away at Wal-Mart or Starbucks, “You’re going to be (theoretically) able to retire at 55 yourself,” people might stop being so enamored of the Tea Party.
Of course it is an uphill battle. Destruction of the unions is the number one agenda of neoliberalism. But look at France. Three million people in the streets, almost the entire economy shut down, over the threat of raising the retirement age to 62.

Yesterday I went to a rally in Oakland demanding justice for Oscar Grant, the young man who was shot in the back by a transit cop a year and a half ago. This rally marked an extraordinary event: the ILWU shut down all the ports in the Bay Area in solidarity with Oscar’s family, because his uncle is a longshore worker. It represents an amazing organizing effort. On the other hand, there were less than 1,000 at the rally, which means that the unions that put their names to the action didn’t call their people to come out. In fact, none of my friends who are in unions were there, and most of them didn’t even know about it. One of the speakers made a call for a general strike. A friend who is newer to activism came up to me enthusiastically.

“Did you hear them call for a general strike?”

“Yes,” I said, “but it won’t happen.”

She shook her head. “I’m excited,” she said.

To her, I’m just a professional naysayer, which is hardly a role I want to play. So I asked myself, “Am I wrong? Could we have a general strike, like France?”

Of course I hope I am wrong, but I’m pretty sure that unfortunately, I am not. The problem with that call-out, like so many things here, is that people don’t get the difference between calling for something and doing it. A general strike isn’t just something you call for. In order to have a general strike, you have to have an organized labor movement. And that’s the difference between us and France.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Case for Cheating

Last night I saw “Race to Nowhere,” the antidote to “Waiting for Superman,” the new film which blames the failure of our educational system on teachers’ unions and other proponents of publicly run public schools. “Race to Nowhere” is a powerful indictment of the pressure-packed environment today’s kids have to navigate. It’s one of the most intense movies I ever saw, partly because a lot of kids I have known and loved bear the same scars as those in the movie. At the panel afterwards, some of the protagonists and other experts on educational policy drilled the central message: the obsession with “achievement” is getting in the way of much actual learning.

The kids talked about coming home from a full day of school followed by sports, music lessons, Hebrew school or work to do six or eight hours of homework. One of the talking heads was the author of the book “The Case Against Homework,” which I picked up a few years ago, concerned about the unwieldy obligations of my niece and some of the other kids I know. The book presented a lot of evidence that kids derive no benefit from most of the homework they do, that the rewards of homework diminish rapidly after about 20 minutes per class for high school students, and that unstructured time is important for developing creativity and discovering one’s passions. In the film, one Advanced Placement teacher said he cut the homework in half and the AP scores of his students went up.

Sunday night I had dinner with a friend and the Chinese student who is living with her. Yi Sha told us that high school students in China start their day at 7:00 a.m. and don’t go home until 10:00 p.m., six days a week. Middle school is 7:00 to 6:00 and little kids get to go home at 5:00. We were all horrified, but my friend said, “That’s why we’re failing.” I disagreed, and tonight’s movie reinforced my disagreement. In fact, our kids are working as hard as the Chinese kids, and I don’t think it’s good for either of them. I told Yi Sha her English is good, which it is in the sense that it’s way better than my Arabic, and I can’t imagine being able to speak Chinese at all. But she laughed and shook her head. “I studied English every day for twelve years,” she said. It’s true that if I studied a foreign language for that long, I would hope to be able to carry on a conversation without difficulty. Which perhaps says something about 15-hour school days.

By contrast, most Palestinian kids go to school from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and don’t do more than a couple hours of homework, and Palestine has the highest percentage of Ph.D.s in the world.

One thing that annoyed me in the movie was a romanticism about what childhood was like in the “good old days” – that is, the sixties and seventies when I was growing up. The parents in the film, who are my age or a little younger, rhapsodize about how much fun we had. All I can say is, they weren’t growing up where I was. I remember feeling suicidal every day for three years – and in my family, I was the happy well-adjusted kid. My sister actually attempted suicide, as did at least one of my classmates. Nearly all of us were anorexic, some were bulimic, many of us were molested, we were bullied, we cut ourselves, we were pressured, we were shamed and ridiculed by teachers. My classes were smaller than today’s, but only because I was born during a period of declining birth rates and the budget cuts hadn’t quite caught up with the lower enrollment. It didn’t matter how large or small they were, though, because you didn't get individual attention if there were five kids in your class; it wasn’t part of the methodology back then.

I remember some years ago figuring out that the reason I never learned anything in gym class was because no one really tried to teach me anything. The teachers thought yelling stuff like, “Watch the ball!” or “Try harder!” would turn you from a klutz into a gazelle. The more interesting realization was that the frustration I experienced during the one period of Phys. Ed. was what kids who weren’t good at academics experienced the rest of the day. No one tried to figure out why they weren’t learning. They just got bad grades, and if the grades were bad enough they failed.

By far the most useful thing I learned in school was how to get along with people whom I didn’t necessarily have that much in common with. The second most useful was that not everything was going to be about me. I might be bored, the culture of the school might not be what I was comfortable with, but that was just life, and I had to adjust. That is something I was pleased to hear mentioned in the film: that the main purpose of education is socialization.

So that begs the question, what are we socializing kids for? The given in every discussion about education is that the goal is to get a good job. One theme that was continually raised in “Race to Nowhere” was that the skills taught in school need to be relevant to the jobs people are trying to get.

Apparently a major response to the pressure that kids are under to achieve has been a meteoric rise in cheating. In one very high achieving school, 80% of the students said they had cheated. The assumption was that this is a problem, and I’m not saying it’s not, but we can also look at cheating as cooperation. What’s the difference between helping a friend pass a test and being a “team player”?

Recently, I got to take a private class in database development. I had been trying to write a macro to do something and it wasn’t working. I asked the teacher and he said, “Google it.” So we did and found some code that I copied into my macro and it ran.

I said, “That’s what I usually do, but I always thought it was cheating.”

He looked at me like I was nuts. “Does it work?”

“Usually.”

“Then why is it cheating?”

I said, “Well, I don’t exactly know why it works.”

“Does it matter?” he asked.

In Access, there are two ways to automate functions. You can write code in the programming language Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), or you can create macros by choosing from a list of commands. I always thought that writing code was a “purer” way of doing it. The teacher convinced me that it’s actually wasting time reinventing the wheel. I am a little ambivalent. You could say that it’s ridiculous to make challah when I can buy perfectly good ones from Semi Freddie’s. I would say that it’s both useful to know how to make bread and fun to do it. But I know that the secretaries at my job who spend time retyping documents because they don’t know how to scan and OCR them (or even better, that they can send them to me to do for them) are not using their time wisely. So I would add to the list of most important things I learned: distinguishing between activities that have intrinsic value and those which are unnecessary busy work.

Some years ago at a workshop, the facilitator asked us to write down a negative characteristic of ourselves that we are kind of proud of. Without hesitation, I wrote, “I’m lazy.” When I tell people that, they always argue with me. How can I be lazy when I’m involved in so many projects and take on so much work? But I’m not being humble. My laziness is what makes it possible for me to accomplish a lot. The fact that I’m the laziest person on earth makes me good at my job, because I’m always looking for the fastest way to get the work done with the least amount of effort.

I get frustrated that most of my coworkers are not adventurous. They’re smart and experienced, they know a lot, but they’re afraid to try new things. They prefer to plod than to figure out how to learn what they don't know. I learned to word process by lying. I said I knew WordPerfect when I had never used it. I went to a bookstore and read up on how to turn on the computer, change the margin, set a tab. When I got to my first job, fortunately there was no one sitting near me to see me frantically looking at the help menus. By the time anyone came to see how I was doing, I seemed like an expert.

So if my experience is any indication, laziness and lying are more useful qualities to teach kids than honesty and industry.