Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 9:57 am  ·  By Matthew Cunningham-Cook

Teachers’ Union President Fired Following Opposition to High-Stakes Testing

Gus Morales, a middle school teacher from Holyoke, Massachusetts, opposes the release of standardized test results. He was released from his job when he began speaking out against the privatization. (timlewisnm / Flickr / Creative Commons).  

Holyoke, Massachusetts has the third-highest poverty rate of all the cities and towns in Massachusetts. And like many other high-poverty cities, Holyoke has been targeted for education reform: high-stakes testing, the elimination of due process for teachers, and the curtailment of elective curriculums that include gym, arts and foreign languages.

In Holyoke, those policies have emerged in the form of “data walls,” which skirt the norms of children's privacy by posting their test scores for the entire school to see, as well as the outsourcing of school management to firms like Project GRAD, a nonprofit chaired by a private equity manager. For teachers, the pace of work has increased, new evaluation systems have whittled away traditional guarantees of tenure, and due process in the workplace has grown even more precarious.

Reflecting a rising tide of anger over the changes, Holyoke teachers elected Gus Morales as their union president in May on a platform that opposed education privatization. But on June 17, Morales, a middle school teacher, received a letter from his principal, Amy Fitzgerald, informing him that his employment had not been renewed.

“As I started speaking out, I was targeted with negative observations. One can infer that the negative observation was meant to quiet me. As long as I kept my mouth shut, everything was good, and then when I started speaking about what was happening to my students, I was let go,” says Morales, one of only a handful of Puerto Rican teachers in a school district that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic.


Monday, Jun 30, 2014, 7:00 am  ·  By Jeff Schuhrke

Physical Therapist: ‘We Get Teased a Lot About How Mean We Are’

Phyllis Erdman, who works at a nursing facility, says that her patients are often 'their own worst critics' when it comes to recovery. (Courtesy Phyllis Erdman)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.

When Kitty Scanlon talked with Terkel about her career as an occupational therapist, she described it as an “emerging profession,” a classification that occasionally led to self-doubts for Scanlon about how useful she was when compared to doctors or nurses. Now, occupational therapy, and physical therapy in general, is a thriving industry—and, as Phyllis Erdman tells ITT reporter Jeff Schuhrke, it often requires working long, hard hours to help patients gain or maintain their strength.

Although she’d been interested in working in the healthcare field her entire life, for years Erdman did administrative and marketing work in the nonprofit world. After getting laid off, in middle age she took the bold move of going back to school to become a physical therapist assistant (PTA). In the 7 years since completing her associate’s degree, she has helped elderly patients stay healthy and active or recover from surgery at a at a skilled nursing facility and rehab center in the Chicago area. She explains, “As a PTA, I work under the scope of the PT to get the patient toward their goals, but I get to set up my own routine with the patient.” This interview has been abridged and edited.


Friday, Jun 27, 2014, 6:15 pm  ·  By David Moberg

What the Supreme Court’s Noel Canning Decision Means for Labor

Though the Supreme Court decided that Obama's 2012 recess appointments to the NLRB exceeded his authority, they have since been approved through the standard process—meaning the Board can continue its work. (Wikimedia Commons)  

On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that President Obama overstepped the limits of his power in January 2012 when he appointed three members to the National Labor Relations Board during a Senate recess.

As part of their strategy to stymie all administrative initiatives, Senate Republicans had previously blocked consideration of Obama’s nominations, leaving the formally five-member NLRB—the principal enforcer of federal labor laws—without the majority it needed to function. Obama responded by appointing three new board members during the holiday recess, circumventing the Republican minority’s hindrance of the Senate approval process and the president’s appointment powers. 

After losing a case before the NLRB in 2012, Noel Canning, a Pepsi-Cola bottler in Washington state, challenged the validity of the recess appointments; in January 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined those appointments were indeed illegal. At the time, union leaders were outraged that the appellate court’s decision had effectively granted a Republican minority in the Senate the power to shut down the principal government agency protecting workers’ rights to organize. The Obama administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court; in the meantime, the NLRB continued to operate.

When the Supreme Court decided on Thursday that Obama’s 2012 actions had exceeded his authority, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka responded with an even-tempered observation: Republican obstructionism had forced the president to act, and now the country’s highest court had simply “cleared up the legal landscape on a question both Democratic and Republican presidents have faced for decades.” Most importantly for labor in the short run, the current NLRB members were approved last year through the standard appointment process—meaning the board can continue its work unimpeded for now.


Friday, Jun 27, 2014, 5:00 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Labor in History: Mobtown and the Stirring of America’s Unions

An illustration from an 1877 issue of Harper's Magazine depicts the bloody confrontation between state militia and Great Railroad Strike supporters that took place on the streets of Baltimore. (Public Domain)  

Many historians date the first great industrial upheaval of American labor to July 16, 1877, when workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began refusing to work in protest against a round of wage cuts ordered by the company’s senior managers. Battered by years of economic depression, high unemployment and miserable working conditions, the workers in Baltimore and beyond had finally been pushed to the breaking point.

Even without any broad-based union organization, the B&O strike immediately seized the public imagination. The unrest spread rapidly to other railroads before expanding to include workers at mines and factories in widely scattered locations across the country. At its height, the six-week-long "Great Railroad Strike" involved an estimated 100,000 workers in more than a dozen states, and succeeded in paralyzing much of the nation’s transportation system. 

The sudden uprising engendered fear—and more than a little panic—among railroad executives and government officials. Within just a few days, the first great national strike in U.S. history became one of its first great industrial tragedies, as state militia units and federal troops moved to suppress the movement. Soldiers fired on strikers and protesters during epic clashes in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and elsewhere. More than 100 people were killed; thousands more were injured. In the end, the strike was crushed, setting a precedent for the violent suppression of labor unrest that would stain American labor history for generations to come.


Wednesday, Jun 25, 2014, 6:14 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

‘Rosie the Riveters’ Storm National Zoo

A new Demos report insists that executive action is the key to protecting workers' rights.   Good Jobs Nation

President Barack Obama is facing a coordinated pressure campaign to take additional steps to improve labor protections and basic benefits for workers employed indirectly by the federal government. The campaign—backed by the Change to Win labor federation and the Congressional Progressive Caucus—is an extension of an earlier push that led up to Obama’s Feb. 12 executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for the employees of federal contractors.

A small group of Washington, D.C.-area workers punctuated the campaign this week with demonstrations at the National Zoo and several other sites. As in the previous demonstrations over the past year, the workers called attention to the low pay and meager benefits offered at the fast food outlets and cleaning services that operate at federal installations nationwide. The latest iteration of the campaign puts special emphasis on how female workers suffer disproportionately from such labor conditions, with some National Zoo strikers adopting "Rosie the Riveter" costumes in an effort to link contemporary employment issues with patriotic themes from the past.


Tuesday, Jun 24, 2014, 5:57 pm  ·  By Amien Essif

Jess Spear, Socialist of the Sawant Persuasion

Jess Spear worked on Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant's election campaign as well as the 15 Now campaign before announcing her own run for Washington State representative. (  

Jess Spear was at socialist candidate Kshama Sawant’s elbow when Sawant announced her plans to oust incumbent Seattle city councilman Richard Conlin in 2013. And, as volunteer coordinator for the campaign, she was there again when Sawant gave her victory speech eight months later, becoming the first socialist elected in a major US city in decades. But on May 21 of this year, the roles were reversed. With Sawant at her elbow, Spear announced her own socialist campaign for Washington State Representative. 

Spear, a climate scientist by trade, spoke with Working In These Times about how she helped win a $15 minimum wage for workers in Seattle, which passed by city ordinance on June 2, as well as about the challenge she’s mounting against Democratic Speaker of Washington’s State House, Frank Chopp and why union support will be critical to her campaign. 

How were you involved in winning a $15 an hour minimum wage for Seattle workers? What are the next steps if you win this coming election? 

I was the organizing director for 15 Now, and I was involved with getting people active in pressuring city officials, pressuring the mayor's committee to really deliver for workers. We had a week of action in March where people did different things like banner drops along highways and ride buses in order to talk to people about 15 Now. That culminated with the March for 15 on March 15. 

We have 15 Now chapters in 17 other cities or states. There's movement already in the New York City council, there's a number of Chicago aldermen that are pushing 15 forward, there's a ballot initiative in San Francisco for 15. So we're already seeing movement on a national scale. We think it's important to spread 15 Now nationally and use the same type of grassroots movement building nationally to really push these different cities to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage. 


Monday, Jun 23, 2014, 8:00 am  ·  By Steve Early

Police Officer: ‘Policing Mostly Became a Response to the 911 Call Machine’

As chief of police in Richmond, California, Chris Magnus wants to employ officers who 'don't feel that it diminishes their authority to show kindness.' (Richmond Police Department)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.

In Working, Terkel interviewed two Chicago police officers, Vincent Maher and Renault Robinson, both of whom were dissatisfied with their jobs. Maher, a white cop, complained, “We have lost complete contact with the people. They get the assumption that we’re gonna be called to the scene for one purpose—to become violent to make an arrest.” Meanwhile, Robinson, a black cop, was sharply critical of the Chicago Police Department’s emphasis on arresting its way out of crime. Robinson organized the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League “to improve relationships between the black community and the police” because "as policeman, we were the only organized group that could do something about it.”

Forty years later, Chris Magnus, a modern-day veteran of police work, talked to In These Times about how his profession has changed in cities that value “community policing"—which tries to improve public safety through better working relationships between law enforcement personnel and the people they serve—over the methods questioned by Maher and Robinson. As chief of police in Richmond, California for the last eight years, Magnus has won widespread approval for reducing the city’s homicide rate and restoring local confidence in its police department. Magnus began by paraphrasing London police reformer Robert Peel, whose followers argued, two centuries ago, that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” 


Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014, 6:52 pm  ·  By Shane Burley

Hired Pro-Marijuana Canvassers Demand Their Promised Pay

As the legalization of marijuana slowly spreads across the country, some canvassers hired to support the movement are striking over unpaid wages. (New 1lluminati / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

A crew of nine marijuana legalization canvassers walked off their jobs and into the Portland office of the Industrial Workers of the World June 5, looking to form a union.

The workers at the Oregon Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp had been refused paychecks they were owed. This was on top of several past bounced paychecks. After their checks did not arrive on the late schedule and management would not even discuss it, they walked out.

With IWW support, the canvassers have formed the United Campaign Workers. In a joint statement they pointed to a “culture of secrecy and information repression that make incidents like this an ongoing problem.”


Tuesday, Jun 17, 2014, 6:07 pm  ·  By Ethan Corey

Chicago Aldermen Want a $15 Minimum Wage in Their City, Too

Alderman Leslie Hairston, Alderman Bob Fioretti, Vermont Governor Howard Dean and others gathered at Park Tavern in Teamsters City last week to build support for Chicago's progressive candidates and their initiatives, which include raising the municipal minimum wage. (John Arena)  

Two weeks ago, the Seattle City Council made national headlines when it voted to raise that city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, the highest of any metropolis in the country. But just a few days prior, halfway across the country, a group of progressive politicians in Chicago made an even more groundbreaking bid to win the “fight for 15” in their own city. 

On May 28, members of the Chicago Progressive Caucus (CPC) or Progressive Reform Coalition (PRC), a group of eight aldermen on the Chicago City Council who seek “to promote a more equal and just Chicago,” introduced a proposal to gradually raise the minimum wage in the city to $15 an hour for all businesses by 2019. The ordinance, which already has support from 21 of the 26 aldermen it needs to pass in a Council-wide vote—pending its approval by the Council’s Committee on Workforce Development and Audit—would require all businesses with more than $50 million in annual revenue that operate in Chicago (including nationwide chains with franchises in the city) to pay employees $12.50 an hour within 90 days of passage and $15 an hour within a year. Smaller firms would have slightly more time to reach a $15 minimum wage: they would pay workers $12.50 an hour within 15 months of the ordinance’s passage; $13 within two years; $14 within three years; and $15 within four. After that, the minimum wage would automatically increase along with the rate of inflation. 

This timeline makes it one of the fastest-acting, most progressive proposals of its kind in the country: Even Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance does not fully take effect until 2025.


Monday, Jun 16, 2014, 9:30 am  ·  By Jeremy Gantz

Jazz Musician: ‘I See the Gap Between the Haves and Have-Nots’

As a working musician, Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven says 'one day you're the guest of honor, the next day you're a peasant.' (Peter Holderness)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers—has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working’s40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.

Bud Freeman, a tenor saxophone player for 47 years, spoke to Terkel for Working about the shock he frequently encountered when he told strangers he played music for a living. Though he admitted to frequently sleeping in until noon, he also told Terkel about the discipline required to foster musical creativity while surviving as a full-time musician—as he said, “The dream of all jazz artists is to have enough time to think about their work and play and to develop.”

As the son of an African-American jazz drummer and a Hungarian vocalist, from his earliest years Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven saw up close how hard professional musicians had to work. Because of this, he says, “I’m not disillusioned about the life I’ve chosen.”

McCraven, who moved to Chicago from Massachusetts in 2006, has played some of Chicago’s biggest stages, toured the United States and Europe, and recorded albums with various bands, including his own. He played his first paying gig at age 12; now 30, he has been a full-time musician for nearly a decade. Today, McCraven experiences the frustrating paradox facing all musicians trying to earn a living: though music is more ubiquitous than ever, consumers are less willing to pay for what they hear. Even so, he says, glamorous stereotypes persist. This interview has been abridged and edited.