Why do we let our kids learn about work from bosses?

This post is a little more personal that my usual work on HtU. I struggled with whether to put it up here, or just write it somewhere else–but it seems to be more relevant to HtU readers than anyone else.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the activism of young people. I’m the mom of two teenagers, for one thing. I’ve been involved in some of the organizing work around the #fightfor15, in Philly, which is a movement largely made up of young workers. There’s the unprecedented wave of activism about gun violence that’s been sweeping the US, since the Parkland shooting that’s led up to today’s #marchforourlives. And finally, there’s the fact that I’m currently working on a campaign that involves retail workers, a group the media and elected officials constantly want to claim are “just students” or “just in entry-level jobs.” It’s made me conclude that we aren’t doing enough in the labor movement to teach kids, from the very beginning, how to stand up for themselves at work.

My daughter^ was a high school senior when she entered the formal workforce last year, through the kind of semi-crappy food service job that lots of us experience in our work lives. On her first day of training, the manager tried to convince her that she shouldn’t take breaks, even if she was legally allowed to take them. Of course, a young woman who has grown up with two parents that work in the economic justice movement isn’t going to buy that–but it made me wonder–where would she have learned it, if not from us? There isn’t ever a class that teaches you, “here’s what your rights at work are, even as a teenager, and how to assert them.*” Later on in that same job she experienced wage theft, and again, she pushed back on it (and eventually won the money)–but it was in the kind of situation where most people in their first job might think, “Oh, the boss says this is a rule I don’t understand, so I guess I’ll just go along with it–I’m new, and I don’t want to piss him/her off.”

In the waves of organizing around the Fight for 15, and Fair Scheduling, the messaging themes from low-wage employers & their political allies are focused on the fact that, for many middle-class white people, service jobs are just an entry to the workforce. They’re counting on the fact that people like me–educated, middle-class, middle-aged–will look back on their first jobs and think, “well, I survived that stupidness and now I’m successful, why can’t everyone do that?” They’re counting on our privilege to blind us to the reality of life for young people in the US today.

But they’re also doing something else. They’re also counting on those low-wage employers to teach kids (some of whom will grow to adults with ‘real’ jobs) that fighting the system doesn’t work. That your boss has power over you that should go unquestioned, even if it doesn’t seem fair, because that’s just how it is.

They’re counting on low-wage employers to indoctrinate teenagers into believing that wage exploitation is fair.

And that doesn’t just help fast food and big box retail employers keep control of their workforces–it helps all bosses keep control of their workforces.

If, in your very first job, you get told “you don’t deserve fairness,” do you start believing it about every job? If you experience wage theft in your first paycheck, and you don’t know what to do about it, where do you ever learn to fight it? If you’re told, when you’re sixteen, “oh, it doesn’t matter that the minimum wage hasn’t gone up in ten years, that’s not supposed to be enough money to live on” what do you do when you get into that ‘real’ job and don’t get a raise for ten years?

I’ve talked to a lot of young people in movements (not just the labor movement, but in other fights for social justice) about their struggles at work and around living with low-wage employment. Invariably, all of them have said to me some version of “nobody ever taught me anything about my rights, or how to do anything about it when I got screwed at work.” What that says to me is that my generation of organizers, and the generations before me, haven’t done enough thinking about the kinds of practical skills that young people can use to fight authority, whether they are in a union or not.

And let me be clear–I’m not talking about teaching labor history. There is, of course, a strain of thought in the labor movement that thinks we should focus on teaching people to be grateful for the things the labor movement won–things like the 8-hour day, and the minimum wage, and protection from child labor. Did I mention that I’m the parent of teenagers? Even the best of them are not always full of gratitude for the sacrifices of those who came before them.

We don’t need to teach kids what it was like to work for terrible employers in the early 1900s. They’re living it now. We need to teach them how to resist it in today’s terms, not by creating nostalgia for the fights of the 1930s.

So go out and find that group of kids who organized a walkout of their high school over gun violence, and talk to them about justice on the job. Go out and find the youth organizers fighting for education justice or #blacklivesmatter or immigration reform, and fund them to teach kids how to talk to their managers about scheduling problems while they do the rest of their work. Find that young organizer in your union or worker center, and let her build a youth committee–even if it isn’t going to lead to an immediate organizing drive. Think of it as your investment in fighting the boss in five years, or ten, or fifteen.

Because a sixteen year-old who learns that they have the power to say no to skipping breaks, in their first week as a barista, is going to grow up into the kind of member that every union wants. The seventeen-year-old stocking shelves in a big-box store who learns to appreciate the power of collective action, when the boss cuts their hours and the rest of the shift stands up and won’t let the boss get away with it, will someday be on your bargaining committee. And the eighteen year-old who fights for $15 while working at the dollar store is going to grow up to run your union someday.

 

^Thanks for letting me use your story!

*I did email the superintendent of her school to suggest that they add a section on labor rights to the school’s Financial Literacy class, which is required for all juniors. He agreed to do it, so we’ll see how that goes when my son gets there.

Wanna see how much your city is losing to corporate tax breaks? Here’s how.

 

If you’re looking for public money to increase the budget of a social program your members care about, a semi-obscure NGO called the  Government Accounting Standards Bureau (aka GASB) may have just given you one of the tools you need to find it.

Organizers who work on school district, city or state budgets should be able to start figuring out how much that city or state has given away in corporate tax breaks, thanks to GASB’s Statement 77 which requires that, in order to comply with good accounting practices, governments must reveal how much revenue they’ve lost due to tax abatements.  Interestingly, governments have to report not only the revenue lost to their own tax abatements, but also the revenue lost to tax abatements levied by other governments (so school districts, which usually do not have input into property tax abatements, are still required to disclose how much revenue they are losing due to those abatements).

So your school district (which probably doesn’t get to make any of the decisions about economic development that gives tax breaks to corporations, now have to disclose how much revenue they’re losing.

The GASB-77 rule passed in April of 2015, and 2016 government expenditure reports were the first ones subject to it–and Good Jobs First has been doing a banner job of documenting how states and cities are doing at tracking and releasing this info in a meaningful way.

Economic development deals are often shrouded in secrecy–most local or state elected officials do not want to brag about the fact that they hand out millions (or sometimes billions) in tax breaks to big corporations. The recent race for Amazon’s second headquarters has provided an instructive example of this process–for all the buses wrapped by Visit Philly, or products reviewed online by Kansas City’s mayor, for the most part, cities have been not that interested about revealing the nuts & bolts details of their Amazon pitches to the press. If you’re about to give the richest man in the world a bunch of public money (or allow him to stop paying taxes), you might legit fear a group of your constituents showing up with pitchforks and torches.

Here are some tips for an organization or group who wants to use this data in a campaign in your community:

  • If you’re not already working with them, find the EARN affiliate in your state (don’t know who they are? search our directory by filtering for the network “EARN” and your state). These folks help marry civic activism with expert budget analysis. It’s possible that they’ve already taken a look at the GASB 77 reporting that’s come out of the major cities & states–if not, they may be able to partner with you to do so.
  • Is there a local reporter that works on city or state budget issues who might be interested in this information? Send them a respectful email and ask them if they know about this new rule.
  • Be clear that what the rule says is that the government has to reveal the total dollar amount they are losing to tax abatements–but they don’t have to disclose which companies they’re giving  it to. That could, of course, be the basis for a local campaign (we’re giving away $XXX million and they won’t tell us who’s benefiting–let’s make them!).
  • In your public communications about the lost revenue, make sure that you are framing this as a choice the government is making–to fund X while not funding Y. Governments will often frame these kinds of deals as being about growth of jobs in the region–ask them how many jobs have been created, and cost out the dollar value of each job.
  • Read these great materials from Good Jobs First, to familiarize yourself with the language that economic developers use.
  • And of course, if you can, kick down a financial contribution to your local EARN affiliate, or to Good Jobs First (or both!)

As of right now, states and cities are not required to disclose WHICH corporations are getting specific tax breaks, according to the GASB rules. Of course, this is something that your group could use as an organizing hook for future work with city council people or state legislators–why don’t we get to see what companies you’re propping up with our money? In addition, it can be a way to talk to local small businesses about why they should be engaged in the fight–as they usually don’t benefit from these kinds of development deals.

 

 

Who do you build solidarity with?

If the early Trump era has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t afford to be siloed in our work to build power for the precarious. The Administration, along with its allies in Congress, has proved that they are able to carry out multiple attacks on our hard-fought victories–sometimes within the span of a single day–even while managing a news cycle that seems to explode hourly with new signs of the president’s slipping grasp on reality.

We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March (and of course, of the inauguration that preceded it), which kicked off a year of massive mobilization to demonstrations, hearings, town halls and rallies across movements. And of course, we’re also about to hit the 50-year anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, which is being revived for the 21st century by Rev. Barber and many others.

It’s got me thinking a lot about the concept of solidarity and how it is practiced (or sometimes just given lip service to), in the US–particularly for unions who, in earlier decades, fought the fights that brought the majority of their members into the middle class.

I’d challenge all of us to ask ourselves, our leaders, and our friends the following questions:

  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to enlist your middle-class members in the #fightfor15?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to educate your white members about why #blacklivesmatter, and to get them in the streets?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to recruit the men in your membership into fighting sexual harassment? And to understand why reproductive justice is an economic issue, as well as a health care one?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to confront your US citizen members with the need to defend the undocumented and the DACA-mented?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require that your abled members stand up for the disabled, on and off the job?
  • Does your practice of solidarity require you to press your straight members into fighting for LGBTQ rights?

For progressive, membership-based organizations, the practice of solidarity requires political education of the members. We won’t get to where we need to be until we start talking to our members about our analysis of power–how it is created and held, how we are complicit in it (some more than others), how we are going to fight it and win.

We can’t build a movement for economic justice unless we expand our concept of solidarity beyond the borders of our own organizations. Nor should we keep spouting the word “solidarity” without actually showing up to do the work that makes it real.

For the next year, at Hack the Union, I’m looking to highlight stories of solidarity-building–and in particular, to delve into the strategies that organizers are using, to build alliances across difference. If you know of an organization that’s doing great work in this arena, send me a tip.

why expanding the map matters (Pt. 2)

There’s a popular trope in electoral organizing that involves a young field organizer, dropped into a turf which hasn’t seen a contested election in a while, who tries to bring the newest tactics in their ground game and is told by the county chair, “That’s not the way we do things around here*.” Spoiler: the young organizer does it her way despite the resistance of the entrenched party, and wins the election.

While we don’t have a federalized election process in this country, our elections, for organizing purposes, are still pretty much on a plug-and-play model. There are variations from one state to another–is there early voting? how hard or easy is it to vote by mail? is there same-day voter registration? But at the end of the day, there are  similar rules to follow from one place to the next. Both sides are competing for a fixed endpoint. Pro-worker electoral organizers may not get to set the rules of the election in one place or another, but we do know what they are–as government practices go, the rules for elections are transparent. As a result (while not advised), it is possible to win elections by dropping organizers into a place they don’t know well.

We get into problems, though, when we think we can win policy or worker organizing victories with this kind of plug-and-play thinking–especially when the reliance on plug-and-play means we don’t invest in places where sustaining work is harder. Organizing for policy victories–or organizing to build community support for workers who are taking actions to build power at work that could risk their jobs–both require the kinds of relationship building that plug-and-play organizing doesn’t prioritize.

Particularly when it comes to organizing in support of policy, it is imperative that local organizers understand the mechanics of how their government works–and the rules for how to affect legislation at the city or state level are rarely as clear as those that govern how elections are run. We have made a collective decision that, as a democracy, the state has to at least give the appearance that outsiders can win elections. We have not come to a similar collective conclusion about making the legislative process transparent.

In the last post, I talked about the need to invest in organizing ecosystems, not just individual organizations. As we think about what comes next, in the evolution of the labor movement and worker organizing, it is unlikely that we will see the exact replication on a wide scale of the functions that local unions and their internationals play in the movement. Let’s think about what a 501c5-style labor union can do, in addition to both representing current members and organizing new ones. Unions can make endorsements and spend money on electoral organizing within their membership base; can have a legal department that focuses on electoral law and legislative expertise, as well as labor and/or immigration law; can invest in a legislative director or team that is embedded in policy & legislative work focused at the state or city level; can have organizers that are responsible for building relationships with faith leaders and other community organizations with similar goals; and can have a communications department that is focused both on producing internal content for members and on producing issue-based content that targets the general public. Some unions also have affiliated PACs that can raise hard money from their members, which can be used to influence the general public in elections or can be contributed to candidates running for office. There are, to  my knowledge, no other kinds of organizations in our movement that have this kind of flexibility in combining organizing work with electoral & legislative advocacy–this is the kind of ecosystem, however, that we need to be thinking about, if we want to build deep support for organizations that want to win for workers.

What if every national funder, network or organization, when making their plans for expanding investment into worker organizing in a particular city or state asked themselves the following questions:

  • Does the ecosystem in this place provide legal support, that will both support individual workers in fights on the job and also support a broader strategy for changing the landscape through policy change or litigation?
  • Does the worker organization have a civic engagement strategy to build the habit of voting among its members, or a partnership with a local group that will help with that?
  • What partners in the region will be helping to drum up community support for this effort? If the organization plans to do this itself, is it adequately resourced to build relationships, or is this an add-on for an already-stressed worker organizer?
  • How will the word get out? Does the area have a local group that is focused on building relationships with the media and developing messages that resonate with the public?
  • Who is tasked with building relationships with not just elected officials, but their staff? Is this a part of the work that will be internal to the organization, or is there an outside consultant that can be hired, who knows how the target legislative body functions?

I’m not, of course, suggesting that any one organization is going to play all of these functions–but all of them are required, if we want to win. We need to do a better job of figuring out the support that worker organizations need, and providing it holistically, rather than opportunistically.

 

 

*if you’re in the mood for lots of cynical takes on the inside game of campaigns and party politics, I can’t recommend CampaignSick highly enough.