Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Stand with Wisconsin Workers

Since Madison, Wisconsin is burning as I blog, I must to take a moment to support teachers unions and unions in general. And I want to explain that support. Despite my own teaching and union/non-union experiences, I don't think I understood and appreciated the role of unions until just recently. These two pieces, one by award-winning Maryland social studies teacher blogger Kenneth Bernstein and the other by California English teacher blogger David Cohen, helped me to understand the importance of unions.

My parents and their parents before them, were not wealthy, but nor were they workers, unionized or otherwise (although my maternal grandfather's father was very active in the railroad telegraphers union in Illinois). My father's parents were the children of Eastern European immigrants and owned a stationary store in Brooklyn, New York. My maternal grandfather worked as a chemist for Montgomery Ward and then as a manager for an automotive parts company in Chicago, Illinois, and my maternal grandmother was a homemaker and worked as at the Hadley School for the Blind.

Besides being born white in America, my parents were lucky to have attended two of the best known public high schools in the country; my mother went to Glenbrook in Northbrook, Illinois, and my father to Stuyvesant in New York City. My mother had college-educated parents and the luck of her zipcode (though not if you ask her as she hated the suburbs) and my father had parents who, though relatively uneducated themselves, greatly valued education. My parents went on to attend outstanding public universities--my mother, the University of Wisconsin and my father, Brooklyn College. They met while they were in graduate school at the University of Michigan.

After finishing, they moved to Washington, DC, where my sister and I grew up and attended public schools, so that my father could take a job as a lawyer with the federal government, where he has spent most of his career--primarily as a civil rights lawyer at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and then as a litigator and energy efficiency regulation counsel at the Department of Energy. My mother had been a linguist but couldn't find a job in her field (her specialty was semitic languages--she was a generation early on that one).  After learning about my father's work at HEW and watching him in court, she went to law school and became a labor, civil rights and school finance lawyer. I imagine they could have gone to work for any white shoe law firm they wanted to, but they gladly chose civil and public service. While we weren't rich, we lived a comfortable middle class life.

Among other topics they discussed at the dinner table, I definitely recall my parents grumbling about corruption and obstructionism in unions, but they always believed in their importance. When I went to work for DCPS, I was ambivalent about joining the Washington Teachers' Union--I really didn't know much about unions. Despite some of her negative associations, my mother informed me I should join, that it was the right thing to do. Even then, I never developed union pride; for one, I certainly didn't enjoy funding WTU President Barbara Bullock's collection of fur coats and silver candlesticks.

I found my experiences with "management" much more pleasant and reasonable when I taught in public schools in Albemarle County, Virgina, a right-to-work state, but I don't think that had anything to do with not being unionized or not having collective bargaining power. And I did join the Albemarle Education Association chapter of the Virgina Education Association. I can't say they ever did anything directly for me, but nor did I have the need to ask them to. Many other teachers I've spoken to have described the organization as both toothless. I imagine they feel that way since teachers' salaries in Virginia are approximately five thousand dollars below market, being especially low where I live and have taught in Central Virginia. But at the very least, the VEA serves as a good resource for educators and lobbies to improve the working and learning conditions for teachers and students.

I always took for granted my middle class upbringing, which is becoming less and less possible, as middle class wages decrease and expenses increase. With all that's going on in Wisconsin, I have come to appreciate that my parents and I have been able to live a comfortable middle class life because of what labor unions fought for in the first place: fair compensation, safe working conditions, and a decent standard of living in exchange for a job done. Their fight increased wages and other forms of compensation, such as benefits and pensions, and improved working conditions for all of us.

That's why I attended the Rally to Preserve the American Dream in Richmond, Virginia, this past Saturday (pics thanks to Virginia Organizing  here) and that's why I will continue to fight for the working and middle classes and for the poor to get out of poverty. Does that mean I think that unions are uniformly or inherently "good"? No. Does that mean that I think that people who don't do their jobs should be able to keep them? No. But I don't have blind faith in the free market, either. Unions serve as a check on unfettered capitalism, and capitalism has certainly been recently unfettered. Unions are the only bulwark right now between fascist capitalism and regulated capitalism. Without the unions, we will have no middle or working class at all, only a few powerful rich and many, many poor.

The more progressive Democrats can't don't this alone, however. Traditionally more conservative members of the working and middle classes must stop voting against their own economic self-interest. Instead of asking "why should others get decent wages and healthcare insurance when we don't?" they need to fight for such basic themselves, like yes, Obamacare, and stop allowing themselves to be the lackeys of tax-dodging, overseas-job creating corporate interests who are doing nothing to advance working peoples' quality of life. Furthermore, while I have been heartened to see neo-liberals such as ObamaDuncan, and some DFER types speak out in support of the right to collective bargaining, they are in part culpable for the attacks on America's middle and working classes and their unions. Neo-liberals and centrist Democrats, their rich patrons, and their mouthpieces in the media have been busy embracing disastrous and crude education reform policies such as those of Michelle Rhee and thoughtlessly bashing teachers and their unions in the process. In doing so, they have weakened the Democratic party and middle and working classes as a whole, emboldening Republican leaders such as Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Rick Scott and their oligarch overlords, with their ruthless free market ideology, to make a well-orchestrated and dangerous grab for power.

It's time for neo-liberals to do what's best for children and their families by changing course on their wrong-headed education policies. To do this, they must end their collaboration with corporate-sponsored union busters. You can't do what's best for our nation's children if you're crushing their parents and teachers in the process. If neo-liberals really want our children's futures to be bright, then they must fight for a quality of work and home life that will make that possible. Unions, for all of their imperfections, do that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Virgina Legislature Joins in the GOP's War on Women

The Republicans (plus two democrats) in the Virginia Senate have decided to join in the National GOP's war on women. Tomorrow, the VA Senate will vote on SB924, which just passed the House 67-32. The bill would effectively eliminate access for Virginia's women to clinics that perform first trimester abortions by forcing such clinics to adhere to the same regulations as hospitals do. This, of course, is not necessary as such clinics are already sufficiently regulated.

If this effort seems like it's coming out of nowhere, that's because it is. The amendment was slipped in. According to NARAL Pro-choice Virginia:
This bill would require the Board of Health to issue regulations for hospitals, nursing homes, and certified nursing facilities. As originally written, the bill has nothing to do with abortion. Unfortunately, anti-choice Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Campbell County) offered an amendment changing the definition of hospitals to include “facilities in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed.” 

If you think the bill is being sent from the GOP-dominated House to the Dem-dominated Senate to die, think again. As reported in the Virginia Politics blog:
Two conservative Democrats who oppose abortion -- Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) -- said Tuesday they plan to support the measure, in a chamber where Democrats hold a 22 to 18 majority. Their votes would raise the possibility of a 20 to 20 tie. A tie would be broken by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who supports regulations.

And then Governor McDonnell will be ready and waiting to sign it into law. Because he and other anti-choicers want to "ensure that all outpatient surgical centers are treated the same, in order to ensure the health and safety of our citizens." I see, they want all outpatient surgical centers to get equal treatment. Or, maybe it's because Virginia Republicans are such big fans of excess regulations. No, no, it's because they want to keep women who get abortions safe. Yes, that's it.

Puh-lease. The Virginia GOP (plus two Democrats) wants to shut down these clinics because they provide first trimester abortions, and probably because they provide contraception, too. Only, they don't have have the balls to admit it.

I am squarely pro-choice, but I can understand why people are against abortion. I would guess that the vast majority of women who choose to have abortions hate abortion. But I agree with Hilary Clinton when she says that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Ruth Marcus's piece in response to House Republicans' assault on family planning  applies here: When those clinics are shut down, many Virginia women will not only lose access to the contraception that prevent abortions in the first place, but to general reproductive health care. Furthermore, without access to contraception, rates of pregnancies will increase and so will unsafe abortions. I would have so much more respect for anti-abortion crusaders if they actually worked to prevent abortions from having to happen in the first place, but they don't; they work to promote ineffective sex education programs, to limit access to contraception, to decimate women's healthcare services, and to keep abortion unsafe, frequent, and illegal.

As my uncle always says about American politics, "You have two choices. You can have the Democrats in your wallet or the Republicans in your bedroom. I'd rather have the Democrats in my wallet." So would I, Uncle Roger. So would I. Since Republicans are already raiding our middle and working class wallets to fund tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, I say to Virginia Senators:

Get the hell out of my bedroom and while you're at it, stay away from my uterus.

Contact your senator now and tell them to oppose SB924.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Publish or Perish

I got an essay accepted at truthout. Yay! I wrote about the Obamas' decisions regarding the education of their children and President Obama's statements about that decision in the context of his administration's education policies. (A recent excellent and comprehensive review of Obama's promises on education in contrast to his actual policies can be found here.)

"Mr. President, We Want Your Children's Education, Too" went through many, many drafts and I was very pleased when it was accepted by the first place I sent it. (An aside about the writing/publishing process: Almost all of my publications had been submitted to targeted publications I know well.) I submitted the piece back in November 2010, but the editor I corresponded with warned me it would be probably a while. It happened to come out on January 9, 2010. At first, I was ashamed of its publication date, given it was the day after the shootings in Arizona; it didn't seem to be an appropriate time to be so critical of the Obama administration.

But then I found out that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was butting (yet, again) into D.C. Mayor Gray's DCPS Chancellor selection decision, urging him to permanently appoint Rhee right-hand woman and Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, of whom he's "huge fan," and in the process by-pass a 2007 DC law which requires a rigorous review process including consulting a panel of teachers, parents, and students. Duncan also dangled the possibility of taking back Race to the Top money the District was awarded if his wish were not granted.

Besides registering my disgust with Duncan's confirmation that Race to the Top is nothing but a bribery scheme, with his interference in local affairs, and with his spitting in the face of transparent and democratic governance, I'll repeat one of the same questions I asked in the essay: If Duncan and his boss are such "big fans" of the reforms and "progress" in D.C.P.S., why do they not send their own children to them?

To those who tell me to mind my own business: Point taken. I'd be happy to. Just as soon as Obama/Duncan change course on the policies that are undermining the quality of my children's education and just as soon as, of course, they mind their own business.

UPDATE 1/20/11: A reader was puzzled about this sentence from the truthout piece:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell, different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye. 
Reading it out of the context of the rest of the piece, I can see that the sentence is confusing and needs a re-write. Given the stance that I took, most readers probably knew what I meant, but I hardly want to assume that readers "probably know what I mean." Rather, I want them to know what I mean because my writing is clear. I can't go back and fix it in truthout (and there was never an interaction with an editor about clarity or wording where this might have come up) but just to be clear, what I meant was that:
My DCPS past, warts and all, has made me a different person than I would have been had I gone to a place like Sidwell. Had I gone to a place like Sidwell I think I would have been different in a way that seems lesser to my current eye.
Readers, if you ever see something that gives you pause or puzzles you or that you think may be factually incorrect, even if it's a simple typo, by all means, let me know. I value your feedback and pushback.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Vaccines & Science Revisited: Watch the Pharmaceutical Companies

A little over a year ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about vaccines and science. In honor of the Wakefield studies officially being found fraudulent (there's a decent post at the blog Modern School--with links!--about the study's history), I am reposting them, but with a few updates.

Since my original posting of those, I have grown more skeptical of medical studies, particularly as they are increasingly being funded by pharmaceutical companies and reviewed by outside, for-profit review boards. Given the severe conflicts of interests inherent in such arrangements, I hardly have confidence in the truths of the outcomes of these studies. Secondly, the findings of Dr. John Ioannidis (fyi: the task related to this post that took me the longest was spelling this guy's name correctly), which I highly recommend checking out, have also increased my skepticism. Ioannidis is not so much critical of the scientific process as he is critical of what happens to the scientific process in the contexts of medical treatments, academia, and our own (too high) expectations of what science can tell us.

That being said, it is the corrupting forces of money, fame, and politics on the scientific process that has caused my skepticism; my faith in science has not diminished, not because I think it's some kind of magic, but because it's the best process we've got for uncovering a few truths about the world around us. After all, Ioannidis is a true scientist in the sense that he wants to make the process more pure, truthful, and skeptical. How very scientific of him.

UPDATE I: I was cleaning up my delicious bookmarks this morning and came across this article, also by Carl Elliot, from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the phenomenon of medical industry "thought leaders," who are medical doctors paid by pharmaceutical companies to talk to other doctors about "research" findings. I meant to include it yesterday, but had forgotten about it.Take a look.
UPDATE II: Just out for a run, I realized I forgot about another article pertinent to this. (That's what I get for hitting "PUBLISH POST" so impetuously). Here's an article in Vanity Fair about drug trials and how they're increasingly being done in unregulated zones, not to mention on poor people, overseas.

(photo by flickr user jmaklary)