Archive | November 2009

21st Century Worker Justice

This is the first part of a series on how labor organizing will evolve in the coming years.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece recently called Dave Bing’s last second shot. In it, they talk about the challenges facing Detroit’s mayor, devoting special attention to how they feel he must handle unionized city employees. The anti-union sentiment of this piece is regular fare for Wall Street Journal columnists.

The fundamental premise of labor organizing is that when workers are treated fairly, everybody wins: the customer, the company, and the employee. This is as true now as it was at the time of the Boston Massacre (the result of a dispute between Boston ropemakers frustrated at their employers’ willingness to undercut wages by hiring off-duty British soldiers who could afford to work for less). It’s a realization that customers are best served by solid businesses with happy, productive workers.

The strategy and tactics of unions must evolve like everything else that’s ever existed on Earth. The economy has evolved beyond the wildest dreams of the original labor organizers, but their guiding principle endures. The problem is that the criticism of unions often comes from those that disagree with it’s premise (i.e. conservative columnists at the Wall Street Journal).

Space must be created within the labor movement and the broader liberal & progressive community for a dialog on what evolved unions look like and how they interact with business and government. This has not happened in any scalable, visible fashion for the same reason that there has yet to be a reasoned, meaningful dialog about US-Israel policy: fear of being called an anti-Semite. In the context of rethinking unions, the fear is that you’ll be labeled as anti-union or anti-worker/human rights. The nuance-less zero-sum game must end because it leaves us with broken union models like most teacher unions.

No matter how business and government evolve, there will always be a need to ensure that workers’ needs are met. Without that, businesses, economies and governments will inevitably fail. You could even argue that the economy being divorced from the everyday realties of workers is one underlying cause for our current economic situation.

I’m surprised that labor itself hasn’t driven this conversation more publicly, but my sense is that the hesitate to do so because they don’t want to give those that disagree with their existence any public statements to latch on to. A dose of boldness is needed to see through the short-term impact of a few negative news cycles if it means creating a more robust organizing model for workers in future generations (assuming that’s the goal).

So how do we proceed?

One Love. One II.

Rethinking redevelopment

I entered the Washington Post’s America’s Next Great Pundit contest a couple of weeks ago. I did not make the list of top 10 finalists, so the country will have to keep reading here to my punditry for a least the next little while.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing this opinion piece on gentrification. Take a look.

One Love. One II.

Are newly opened Starbucks, pedestrians with designer sunglasses, and big box retailers symbols of revitalization or the death of a neighborhood? Culturally speaking, it’s a funeral.

Neighborhoods become cool because of their history. History trumps gang wars, drug havens, and panhandlers when it comes to earning the “up and coming” title. Think Harlem. Its history as the Mecca of early 20th century black creativity made it a cool place to live despite the effects of its crack epidemic.

The model for capitalizing on the cool is simple: 1) buy a house, 2) renovate it, and 3) quadruple the price. This ensures that new, more attractive people will move in and manifest the coolness. The problem is that when black and Latino people are displaced, so are their memories, values, and relationships.

Revitalization brings us shiny new stores and unfamiliar neighbors. Unfortunately, new stores don’t mean new friends for our sons to play football with or our daughters to jump rope with. They also don’t mean new friends for our veterans to play dominoes with at the VFW.

What’s left are neighborhoods without souls. Gentrification has a way of inducing schizophrenia upon a place. A block that was once filled with locally-owned, locally-supported, complimentary businesses is now stuffed with unrelated chains fighting for attention. Cohesive cultural scenes become disjointed commercial conglomerates. Aimless neighborhood development does give at least one gift: bad traffic.

Neighborhoods can be made safer and redeveloped without economic displacement. This happens when capital investments are targeted toward strengthening communities rather than supplanting them.

We need less overpriced lattes and more family-owned restaurants. We need fewer high-rise, low-quality condominiums and more streets where everyone knows everyone else’s names. We must build on the genuine relationships that made our neighborhoods what they are, not break them apart and auction them to the highest bidder. Now is the time to double down on building America up in ways that celebrate the rich histories of every corner, of every neighborhood, everywhere.