On Wisconsin, Fight, Fight, Fight

During his 1948 presidential campaign against underdog Democrat Harry S. Truman, Republican Thomas E. Dewey was on the campaign trail. As a crowd surged toward the back of his train, an irritated Dewey told the crowd, “That’s the first lunatic I’ve had for an engineer. He probably should be shot at sunrise, but we’ll let him off this time since nobody was hurt.” Lee Tindle, the 54-year-old engineer, told a reporter, “I think about as much of Dewey as I did before, and that’s not much.” Democrats chalked “Lunatic Engineers for Truman” on train after train, and hounded the candidate with references to it until the end of Truman’s winning campaign.

When Republican Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan tried to privatize trash collection after his election in 1993, the city union that represented sanitation workers had them politely visit the homes of the people they served. Their reception was extremely warm, and soon city hall was besieged with calls to keep the system in the hands of the public. Riordan’s plan ended up in the trash bin.

In December 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger faced a group of nurses protesting his decision to maintain large staffing ratios in hospitals. He blithely called them “special interests” and said, “I always kick their butt.” Soon he was facing a challenge from the 5-foot-tall and very effective head of the nurses’ union, Rose Ann DeMoro, who ultimately made him eat his words. The governor learned that conservative rhetoric against unions was no match for the public’s approval of police officers, trash collectors, nurses and others who keep the lights on and the doors open.

This month, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rammed through a radical bill to gut collective bargaining for his state’s public employees. Just like Schwarzenegger, Walker underestimated the hornet’s nest his attack on public employees would create. Over the course of several weeks, tens of thousands of protesters crowded the state capitol. By the end, farmers were driving tractors in support of the unions. Despite Walker’s attempt to split the police from the other unions, most law enforcement sided with the protesters. As of this week, anti-Walker organizers had collected nearly half of the signatures needed to recall eight Republican members of the state senate. A signature drive to place a recall of the governor on the ballot will begin in January under a state law that guarantees no recalls for one year after taking office.

Labor may not be what it used to be, and Republicans keep thinking that unions will fold like a cheap suit when attacked. But while Democrats in government do indeed tend to cave in to Republican bullies, the unions are the party’s fighting core. Their fighting spirit, as seen in Wisconsin, has done more to revive the Democratic Party than the entire national party leadership since 2008.

It’s easy to underestimate unions. They are demonized by Republicans and often kept at arms’ length by Democrats. The national media pay little attention to them. A crowd of 80,000 people in Madison is likely to get less coverage than 25 Tea Partiers. It would take divine intervention for the Sunday talk shows to put a labor leader on the stage. (That would take time away from the thoughts of John McCain.)

But let go of the stereotypes. Union members are not just the men with blue-collar jobs that we imagine. Even in the early days, women were central to their development (see the story on the anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire on Page 14); now they include men and women, blue-collar and white-collar workers, many with a college degree and from diverse backgrounds. A 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that nearly half of today’s union members are women, and nearly half of union members have a college degree. One out of eight are immigrants. Latinos now make up more than 12 percent of the unionized work force, with African Americans at 13 percent. The labor movement is probably the only place in American politics where white men with blue-collar jobs are joining forces with blacks and Latinos and women, with white-collar workers and immigrants. That fact alone should worry governors like Walker trying to fight recalls.

In a number of states, Republicans now control both the governorship and the legislature. They are cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations (for the people who bankrolled their elections with the freedom offered by the Citizens United decision). They are doing this in order to create a fiscal crisis that will allow them to justify cutting programs for working people and crushing unions. Republican regimes are moving to make it harder for working-class and minority voters to participate, through voter ID laws. This is serious stuff.

Walker is the best known, but not even the worst. That honor belongs to Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, who is about to sign legislation that will give him close to dictatorial power over local governments. The law would strengthen the power of emergency managers, who would be able to step in and overrule elected local officials and even eliminate local governments and school districts. According to a March 9 article in the Detroit Free Press, “the law would include new triggers to allow the state to step in. For example, a city or school district that misses a payday or ends a year with a deficit of 5 percent or more” could find itself subject to state control.

So much for the “home rule” that cities and towns earned more than 100 years ago. Talk is starting of a Michigan recall campaign, and in Ohio there is movement for a statewide ballot measure to overturn union-busting legislation.

Unions are not perfect. There are unions whose influence disturbs me. (Don’t get me started on the state prison guards.) Sometimes unions fight hard for protections I don’t much like. Unions sometimes seem not to give a fig about public opinion, and sometimes that hurts them. But they are the only ones within the Democratic coalition willing to get their boots scuffed up when the game is on the line.

If unions themselves may not always be popular, the people they represent are, and we need them to protect us from the scarifying assault on democracy that is emanating from the 2010 mid-term elections. Somebody has to keep the Koch brothers and other corporate raiders from taking over our democracy.

If the Wisconsin battle has proved anything, it is that we are way better off with unions, because they are willing to stand up and fight for the simple right to maintain a middle-class standard of living for ordinary people.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.

Triangle Shirtwaist fire reminds of need for unions

Late on the afternoon of Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire erupted at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on the top floors of a modern, fire-proof building at the corner of Manhattan’s Washington Place and Greene Street, near Washington Square Park.

In the bedlam precipitated by the flames and smoke, more than 200 panicked employees jammed the only open exit; a company policy aimed at eliminating employee theft locked a second exit door. They overwhelmed the one inadequate working elevator, and the single fire escape collapsed. Those trapped inside rushed to the window ledges and, with flames licking at their backs, leapt. They fell to their deaths on the pavement below within sight of thousands of witnesses.

When firefighters finally controlled the blaze, officials tallied the number of victims at 146. No one could be certain of the identity of the dead because many of the bodies were charred beyond recognition. Only last month did an amateur historian finally identify and name the last six unidentified victims. Among the dead, the vast majority, 127, were women, mostly Jewish immigrants from Russia. Many also were immigrants from southern Italy.

The ironies associated with the tragedy were almost too unbearable to ponder.

The Jewish immigrant women and girls came mostly from families who practiced Orthodox Judaism and for whom Saturday was the Sabbath, when they should not have been at work.

Had the company been unionized, as were many of its competitor shirtwaist manufacturers by March 1911, employees may have been long gone before the fire erupted. Yet from the moment that the shirtwaist makers had quit work collectively in the winter of 1909-10 to demand union recognition, the Jewish owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company refused to recognize their employees’ union, Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

The blaze erupted not in a stereotypical, unsanitary, cramped sweatshop but in a modern steel-frame building that was well lit and well ventilated.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is the manner in which the tragedy has been commonly remembered and even today is being memorialized on its 100th anniversary.

Far too many of the remembrances link the Triangle Fire to an era of social reform associated with the names Al Smith, Robert F. Wagner Sr., Frances Perkins and ultimately to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. It is a tale in which social reformers like Perkins improve workplaces, limit the hours of labor by law, provide legal protections for women and child workers, institute worker pensions, and transform toilers such as the Triangle workers from wage slaves into middle-class consumers.

Undoubtedly, that tale bears a large measure of truth.

Unfortunately, however, it obscures a far more important reality—one that was dearer to the fire’s victims, their families and their fellows at work in the city’s garment industry—that was expressed vividly by Rose Schneiderman, herself once a shirtwaist maker and now an organizer for the ILGWU.

At a memorial meeting convened by such respectable reformers as Perkins, Schneiderman lamented that “Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way that they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

Few truer words were ever spoken. Laws to improve working conditions were meaningless unless enforced. Public agencies rarely had enough inspectors to ensure the implementation of statutes violated with impunity by unscrupulous employers.

It took unions to make regulations effective in the daily lives of workers.

The unions that emerged in the garment trades, the core of the Jewish American labor movement, not only insured that new laws were enforced; they provided additional layers of safety and security. The ILGWU bargained with employers to create a Joint Board of Sanitary Control to police conditions in the shops. The ILGWU and its counterpart in the men’s garment industry, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, pioneered in providing their members with pre-paid, first-class health care and modern commodious apartments.

In doing so, the unions saved thousands of lives that otherwise would been sacrificed to fetid living conditions, communicable diseases, most notably tuberculosis, and inadequate health care.

Today, fewer than 7 percent of private sector workers belong to unions. A well-financed and coordinated attack seeks to limit the rights of public employees. Wage theft is rife, and employers prey upon undocumented immigrant workers and insecure documented immigrants.

It is past time to recall the lesson Schneiderman taught—that workers must save themselves, and that the best way to do so is through organization.

(Melvyn Dubofsky is distinguished professor of history and sociology emeritus at the State University of New York at Binghamton and author of numerous books on U.S. social and labor history.)

Money for Nothing

With newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa making school reform one of his key agenda items, and with education dominating the budget struggle in Sacramento, it’s worth examining why the education debate usually centers on an emotional struggle over cash rather than actual reform.

In his speech to the National Education Association (NEA) a few days ago, Villaraigosa said, “Don’t think that this effort to make our schools the best that they can be will come cheap. That’s ludicrous, that’s snake-oil salesmanship.”

He’s espousing a view long held by unions, including the NEA and the California Teachers Association. But the truth is that dramatically increasing classroom funding in the United States has proved surprisingly irrelevant.

California is at the middle in per-pupil funding in the United States. The state spends roughly $7,500, plus more than $2,000 pours in from federal and other sources. There’s no funding “disaster” facing California schools, despite claims by state Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell.

By comparison, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a handful of states spend more than $11,000 per pupil (plus the federal cash). Yet there isn’t a shred of evidence that the vast expenditures in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have raised student achievement.

Student achievement in California is improving, year after year, while states whose schools are comparatively awash in cash often show no improvement at all.

One of the worst school districts is Washington, D.C., which spends more than $12,000 per child (plus federal money). Children in the Los Angeles Unified School District are demonstrably gaining against children in Washington, D.C. This is fascinating because, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 50 percent of L.A. children are learning English as a second language, while only about 11 percent of Washington, D.C., children are learning English as a second language. Yet L.A. students do better on their English tests than D.C. students, despite the lavish sums spent in D.C.

Similarly, huge expenditures per child did not help Kansas City after a judge became convinced that money could turn schools around. He made Kansas City schools among the best-funded in the nation. Student achievement went nowhere.

Despite stereotypes about rich kids, there’s no evidence that private schools, which produce better-educated students, spend more money than public schools. Even in Los Angeles, many private elementary schools charge annual tuitions of less than $6,000. (Jewish day schools typically cost more, about $12,000 a year for elementary school.) Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, private schools pay their teachers significantly lower salaries than public schools.

California’s public school teachers are the highest paid teachers in the nation, according to NEA. Yet Hoover Institution researchers say that extra cash doesn’t buy much: California teachers have surprisingly little background in basic schoolroom subjects like math and history.

Nobody is certain how much money private schools spend per pupil. The data is not public. However, some Harvard researchers believe that private schools actually spend less per pupil than public schools, because they pay their teachers less and employ minuscule bureaucracies, compared to bureaucracies.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showed that Californians support more funding for schools, agreeing with the Villaraigosa view that funding is the key to fixing schools. However, it’s worth noting that when parents actually “vote with their feet,” levels of school funding are not paramount in their minds.

Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who has also been an active public school parent, noted that in a 1997 survey of the Los Angeles Jewish population, parents were highly aware of which L.A. public schools were good and which were not. The deciding factor was student achievement and high test scores. As Phillips noted, because public schools are so bad, among Jewish students in the 1997 study, “Only half of urban kids (i.e., not Valley or South Bay) in LAUSD zip codes actually attend LAUSD.”

By contrast, in the San Fernando Valley, where public schools get the same amount of cash per child as urban Los Angeles schools, yet tend to produce far better test scores, two-thirds of Jewish children were enrolled publicly. “That’s a big difference compared to urban L.A.,” Phillips noted.

Parents seem to understand that once a basic level of funding had been reached, the real issue is whether a school uses its money to boost student achievement or spends the money poorly.

A debate rages over why private schools — which frequently have less money to spend per student than public schools — produce better-educated children. Some argue that private school parents care more about learning, and that private schools don’t allow misbehaving students to manipulate the system.

Those and other arguments are probably right. But despite what Villaraigosa professes, and what teachers unions have long insisted, years of mounting evidence continue to suggest that these troubles cannot be resolved — or even very much improved — by pouring in more money.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Federation Lay-Offs Total 30

The streamlining continues at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the city’s biggest nonprofit outreach organization. A total of 30 positions were cut; 20 union and 10 nonunion. In the past month, buzz among Federation employees was that anywhere from 30 to 40 positions would be cut from all three local Federation outlets.

The Journal has learned that dismissed employees include Senior Associate Campaign Director Lee Rosenblum; ACCESS Chair A.J. Adelman; Campaign’s Danny Nathanson and Mark Friedman; lower-rung employees of the Jewish Community Relations department; as well as personnel in Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, communications and other departments.

Federation Marketing and Communications Director Craig Prizant said that 30 is the final total on the lay-offs.

A Federation insider observed that, due to union rules, union employees with seniority have the option of taking other union workers’ positions. However, the process is based on seniority and not based on whether these employees are right for the job. Union employees get bumped to the lowest positions — those at the bottom with no seniority lose their jobs.

"It was pretty much across the board; not one specific area they came out of," said Prizant. "It’s tied into the reports on the economy. We chose to take an administrative cut versus the money allocations in the agencies. We’ve chosen to cut ourselves rather than to cut into the most vulnerable communities."

In addition to the economy, Prizant pegs post-Sept. 11 hikes in security, health and insurance costs as deciding lay-off factors.

The job cuts, according to Prizant, will save the local Federation system roughly $3 million.

"We are a family here and we are taking caring of our own," said Prizant, in reference to offering the laid-off employees services from Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and other Federation agencies.

Federation Chairman Todd Morgan described The Federation’s decision to downsize as "unpalatable in the short term to maintain the vision of the long term."

"It’s a tough situation," Prizant added. "People are not totally surprised. You don’t have to be a genius to see the economy. When it happens to you, it’s very difficult. As John [Fishel, The Federation’s president,] said, it’s the most difficult thing he’s had to go through in his career."

Santa Monica Gets A Clue

Did you hear the one about the rabbi, the priest, the minister, the union and the hotel? It’s no joke.

As workers at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel decide whether or not to organize in a union, more than 300 clergy members signed an open letter to Loews Hotels CEO Jonathan Tisch, asking that he allow union representatives access to the hotel workers. Under the umbrella of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), the group, including many prominent local rabbis, has been involved for over a year in the fight to allow about 300 housekeepers and other hotel service workers to vote on whether to unionize.

"We believe there is a lot of moral strength in religion," says Kurt Peterson, organizing director for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union local 814. "It works for the workers, helps them understand what they deserve."

At the core of the Loews workers’ dispute is a disagreement over how a unionizing vote might take place. Tisch sent a letter to employees in August 2000 saying the hotel would recognize the results of a federally supervised election, through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Union leaders feel the NLRB election process is too lengthy, and advocate a faster "card-check" vote on unionization.

James Tisch, CEO of the parent Loews Corp. and a cousin of Jonathan, told The Journal, "We strongly believe that a secret ballot [through the NLRB] is the fairest way for this to be settled. There is a lot of opportunity for intimidation with ‘card-check.’" He added that a number of Loews hotels are unionized, as are workers at factories owned by Loews’ tobacco division, Lorillard.

The dispute between union organizers and the Loews Hotel is not the first in Santa Monica’s tourist-heavy beachfront. The nearby Fairmont Miramar and Pacific Shores hotels both recently settled similar disputes, allowing workers to vote on whether or not to join a union. Clergy affiliated with CLUE were involved in both negotiations, and with the broader labor movement in Santa Monica and Los Angeles, which includes the much publicized "living wage" drive.

Two distinguishing factors, however, have made the Loews dispute, ongoing since May 2000, a lightning rod for involvement by the religious community.

The first is the involvement — surprising, to many — of Jonathan Tisch in a fight against a union. Tisch, scion of the Tisch family, which owns the Loews Corp. holding company, is a major financial supporter of the Democratic Party, friend of Al Gore, philanthropist and leader in New York’s Jewish community. According to Rabbi Jeff Marx of Shaarei Am Synagogue in Santa Monica, "It’s particularly egregious that a Jewish owner should fight this so strenuously."

The second flash point in the unionization battle involved the clergy directly. In December 2000, a priest visited the home of one of his parishioners, a Loews hotel employee, with a union representative. The hotel management responded with a memo to employees warning of "a person dressed as a priest who says he is from a local church." The hotel has since sent letters of apology, but according to CLUE’s hotel organizer, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, "The level of frustration and anger among the clergy was pretty high."

For Salvatierra, a Lutheran minister, religious leaders have a natural place in labor disputes. "One of the things our opponents do is accuse us of being puppets of the unions," she says, "but we’ve been talking about economic justice long before there were unions."

"Coming from our tradition, I can’t do anything else," says Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.

The tradition to which Comess-Daniels refers is not only a social or political tradition of liberal Jewish Los Angeles, but a tradition in the form of Jewish texts.

Sha’arei Am’s Rabbi Jeff Marx recalled a protest led by clergy following the hotel management’s memo: "We re-enacted the battle of Jericho, that the walls of discrimination should come down. I read sections from the prophets about the treatment of workers." Comess-Daniels remembers another leader: "Jewish tradition has within it the first recorded labor action in history — the story of Moses."

There is another Jewish history at work, too, in the eyes of the Santa Monica rabbis of CLUE.

"For almost all of us in the congregation, we either had parents or grandparents involved with this labor organizing business," Marx says.

Comess-Daniels says, "I hear these workers speaking Spanish, and I hear my grandparents in Yiddish."

The timing of the open letter to Tisch, published as an advertisement in The Jewish Journal on Sept. 14, may have both positive and negative effects on its message. Comess-Daniels hopes the High Holy Days will help Tisch hear the clergy’s call. "I am very much respectful of Mr. Tisch and his donations to the Jewish community," he says. "I just wish his sense of justice and fairness extended to his employees. It saddens me that it doesn’t, particularly at this time of year, when we’re examining ourselves."

But the tragedy of Sept. 11 has had undeniable effects on the lives of hotel workers and owners, as travel fears affect hotels across the country. "At the moment, the whole country is in an altered state. That includes the hotel industry," Salvatierra admits. "There’s a sense that workers are going to need to be sensitive to the needs of management. If they are able to organize a union, they’re not going to come to [Tisch] with huge demands."

For his part, union organizer Peterson believes CLUE has been invaluable both for inspiring workers to unionize and for pressuring the hotel to allow the vote. "I’m hoping the clergy letter and our ongoing struggle will lead to success. The Tisch family are people of conscience," he says.

"We generally last one day longer than the hotels do. Having the clergy on our side will help here," Peterson says.