Good morning! To update my last post, the Chicago Teachers Union — some 26,000 teachers and support staff — has gone out on strike today. They are striking for themselves — for previously promised raises and decent health coverage, against being overworked by longer hours and larger class sizes — and also for their students — for “elective” courses such as art and gym and music, and for educational support such as librarians and social workers. You’d bet that mayor Rahm Emanuel’s children and the children of the Chicago School Board members attend schools that have all that and more. All of Chicago’s public school students certainly deserve the same. (Rahm, by the way, should be ashamed of himself. His mother, a union organizer, is probably rolling in her grave.)
If you are in Chicago, join a picket! Some handy person has mapped them all out, but I hear you can’t swing a cat in Chicago this morning without hitting some striking teachers. If you don’t have the time, but maybe have some financial resources, donate to the strike fund. Or stop by a picket with coffee and snacks. I’m sure the teachers will appreciate it. Also, as my fellow people’s librarian from Chicago, Rachel Allshiny, herself an unemployed teacher, notes on Twitter (follow her: @allshiny), “My parents raised me to never cross a picket line. But for some of these kids it’s the only way they’ll get breakfast.” And lunch, for that matter. Emptier schools will make for a more effective strike, so if you have folks in your neighborhood who need childcare, or kids who take free or reduced price meals at school, step up and help out. If supporters could take in children for weeks and months during the Lawrence textile mill strike a hundred years ago, you can surely make a couple sandwiches.
Here in NYC, we’ll be gathering at Union Square at 5pm this evening for a show of solidarity. (And inspiration? A girl can dream.)
Along with the start of the school year, it’s also the start of football season. I love football! If you google hard enough, you might be able to find pictures of yours truly at age 12 in pads and jersey and with a ponytail hanging out the back of a helmet. (As a side note, I especially love the Green Bay Packers, which is the only community-owned pro sports team in the US. And the only one to release all its financial information every year. And it’s against NFL rules for other teams to organize like this.) But if you’ve been watching pre-season games or this weekend’s season openers, you may have noticed that the calls were less than stellar. The NFL’s regular referees are locked out, a tactic I’ve previously written about that is being used by owners against workers with more and more frequency. In their place, the league has hired scabs up from Div II & III college ball, high schools, and sundry other leagues. (It just kills me that Shannon Eastin, the first woman to ref in the NFL, is a scab.)
There’s a lot to be said about this — how meeting all the refs’ demands would cost the league very little money, how the replacements’ collective lack of experience may endanger the players of a sport that has been paying increasing attention to long-term dangers of concussions and other impact injuries. Other people have spilled a lot of ink over all that. I’ll just say that I won’t be watching any games, and neither should you, until the refs’ demands are met and the lockout is over. If any NFL players happen to be reading, especially any Packers, or from teams in other old union towns — I’m looking at you, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, and Pittsburgh Steelers — I suggest you get on the right side of history and start vociferously supporting your referees.
Here in New York we had an important victory just last week. On the Upper East Side, Hot and Crusty fired and locked out a couple dozen workers after they unionized and won improvements in wages and working conditions. Rather than not being a jerk, the owner closed up shop. Workers and allies occupied the place until the cops showed up and arrested a few people. Then they started picketing, running a cafe on the sidewalk, and holding a tough line against half-assed offers. As of now, workers’ demands have all been met, and Hot and Crusty is scheduled to reopen; let’s all keep an eye on this — the picket will continue until the owner follows through.
Last, but not least, some of New York City’s car wash employees are getting organized. Like the Hot and Crusty employees, many car wash workers are immigrants, often undocumented, which makes it easier for owners to exploit them, through fear of la migra. Let’s be ready to step up and lend some solidarity as these workers, too, start demanding their rights and dignity.
ETA: In international news, more and more miners, now more than 40,000, are striking in South Africa.
ETA: As of Wednesday, 9/12, teachers in Lake Forest, Ill., a suburb to the north of Chicago, and not part of the Chicago school system, have also gone out on strike. It sounds like they’re having a rough time of it, so any support from folks out that way would be appreciated, I’m sure. Lake Forest has a very different demographic profile from Chicago, being very white and very wealthy. With a median household income about three times that of the national average, residents should probably STFU about teachers wanting to be well-compensated for the valuable work they do.
ETA: It’s still Wednesday, and I’ve got more labor news! Workers at a warehouse in Mira Loma, California, that subcontracts with Walmart — and we all know how shitty Walmart’s labor record is — have walked off, after Walmart wouldn’t even come to the table to discuss wages, working conditions, and retaliation for previous organization attempts. In coming days they will be walking the 50 miles to Los Angeles to take up the issue with Walmart’s executives.
From the NYTimes this morning (and if the Grey Lady has bothered to say something about a problem, you know it must be really bad).
In short: colleges — especially top-tier four-year colleges — have gotten vastly more expensive; non-loan financial aid covers a decreasing percent of costs; students from lower income brackets have seen only slight increases in college graduation rates, while upper brackets have had sky-rocketing graduation rates; and all this has happened while the value, in terms of likely income, of a college degree has also risen sharply. That is, a college degree is literally worth more, and is harder for low income students to attain.
For those of us who have been to college lately — or maybe who haven’t been able to due to costs — this is no surprise. It is particularly galling that some of the highest-ranked schools in the country are perpetuating these problems. If they cared enough, these schools could be making the biggest dent, because they have the most money. They could aggressively seek talented students from lower economic classes and fund those students’ educations. These school can afford it. Very few, though, truly step up to the plate. Harvard had a $32 billion endowment in 2011. Last year Harvard spent $160 million on scholarships, but the endowment grew by $4.4 billion; they could have spent twice as much on scholarships and hardly noticed the difference. And doubling the amount given in scholarships would mean that an entirely different demographic — one with a lower income — could attend, without even compromising on supposed quality of student, because, as shown in the above Times article, those students are out there. If Harvard wanted it to be so, they could do it. Yale, by the way, follows up with the second-largest endowment, at $19.4 billion in 2011. (Even my own alma mater, a women’s college with fewer than 3,000 students, has an endowment of over a billion dollars. I, by the way, graduated college, with about $20,000 in student loans (admittedly not all from that institution, as I spent my first three semesters elsewhere).)
Some schools — including Harvard (I’m only a very little bit sorry for being so mean to Harvard) — have “no-loan” policies. Which is nice of them. But if the average student doesn’t really need that much, relatively speaking, in financial aid — only 60% of Harvard students receive aid — it’s kind of a bullshit policy. It takes a pretty high family income to not receive any financial aid at all, well above the U.S. median family income. The median household income, by the way, is currently about the same as, if not less than, the cost of some of these schools. This is an historic novelty — in 1970, Harvard cost less than half the median household income.
Blah blah blah, investments, blah blah blah, earning interest, blah. Non-profit colleges (for-profit colleges are another beast, and oh boy, don’t get me started) such as those we are talking about here spend very little of their endowments. There are some complications, such as when donors allocate the funds they give to a specific area, be it scholarships or a building or library books or what-have-you, but the amount spent hovers around 5%, while growth is around 10%. Excess is reinvested.
It’s this reinvestment that’s the problem. For an institution like Harvard, which has such a huge endowment, so far ahead of even the second largest university endowment (reminds me of the US’s military expenditures), what is the purpose of reinvesting and focusing so heavily on growing that already massive fund? At my own undergraduate institution, when the endowment broke $1 billion, friends and I wondered what it was for, when so many institutions were perfectly functional on much less. Why were we taking out student loans to fund our education, when our beloved college had so much money?
Let me wrap this up, and bring it back to the Occupation. One of the things we do at the Occupation is to imagine ways in which the current structures, which are not working for so many people, could be recreated to serve us all better. One of those structures is higher education. There’s no reason why college and university endowments have to function the way they do. They could spend more and reinvest less, and even still grow while doing it. Top colleges and universities could recruit outstanding students from lower socio-economic classes, and so facilitate economic justice. Fund managers, college presidents, boards of trustees, and other individuals and groups are empowered to think outside the box and make these choices. That so few have yet to do so means only one thing: that they don’t want to. As I always say, yes, this is class warfare, but we here at the Occupation sure didn’t start it.