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Mark Zuckerberg, Meet George Pullman

3 Oct

The Wall Street Journal:

Facebook Inc.’s sprawling campus in Menlo Park, Calif., is so full of cushy perks that some employees may never want to go home. Soon, they’ll have that option.

The social network said this week it is working with a local developer to build a $120 million, 394-unit housing community within walking distance of its offices. Called Anton Menlo, the 630,000 square-foot rental property will include everything from a sports bar to a doggy day care.

One of Facebook’s corporate goals is to take care of as many aspects of its employees lives as possible. They don’t have to worry about transportation—there’s a bus for that. Laundry and dry cleaning? Check. Hairstylists, woodworking classes, bike maintenance. Check.

Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice:

Pullman, Illinois, was built on a little over four thousand acres of land along Lake Calumet just south of Chicago…The town was founded in 1880 and substantially completed, according to a single unified design, within two years. [George] Pullman…didn’t just put up factories and dormitories, as had been done in Lowell, Massachusetts, some fifty years earlier. He built private homes, row houses, and tenements for some seven to eight thousand people, shops and offices (in an elaborate arcade) schools, stables, playgrounds, a market, a hotel, a library , a theater, even a church: in short, a model town, a planned community.

And every bit of it belonged to him.

Back to the future.

Adam Smith on the Mobility of Labor v. Capital

3 Oct

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 10, Part II:

Corporation laws, however, give less obstruction to the free circulation of stock from one place to another than to that of labour. It is everywhere much easier for a wealthy merchant to obtain the privilege of trading in a town corporate, than for a poor artificer to obtain that of working in it.

Same as it ever was.

Yes, You Can Be Fired for Liking My Little Pony

30 Sep
My Little Pony

My Little Pony

My daughter loves My Little Pony. So does this guy. And that, apparently, is a problem. Grown men are not supposed to like the same things as young girls.

The guy—though Gawker has done a story on him, he remains anonymous—is a dad in his late 30s. He calls himself “a fairly big fan.” He made the picture of one of the show’s characters the background image on his desktop. He talked to the boss’s 9-year-old daughter about the show. His co-workers, and the boss, got freaked out. According to the guy, the boss told him that “it’s weird and it makes people uncomfortable that I have a ‘tv show for little girls as a background.’”

Now he’s been fired.

After talking to several folks, I’m still not clear why people are freaked out by this guy. Is it the gender non-comformity? If so, you better revise your sense of what’s normal because, as the Washington Post reports, an increasing number of dudes are loving the show. There’s even a FB page called “The Christian Libertarian Brony.” (The creator of the page writes: “On this page I post stuff about Austrian economics, Christian libertarianism/Christian anarcho-capitalism, MLP:FiM & GMOs!”)

Or is it the hint of pedophilia? If so, would you be nervous if a grown man had a passion for Little League or superhero comics? Enough to fire him?

Others have told me it’s the Peter Pan syndrome: guys like this just seem like they’ve never grown up. Unlike, apparently, every other dude on the internet.

Regardless of what buttons are being set off by this guy, the story just confirms a point some of us have been making over and over again: the American workplace is one of the most coercive institutions around. It’s a place where, whatever the niceties and pieties of our allegedly tolerant culture may be, bosses and supervisors get to act out—and on—their most regressive anxieties and fears. It’s a playground of cultural and political recidivism, where men and women (but more often men) are given the tools to inflict and enforce their beliefs, their style, their values upon their employees.

Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I have tried to use these extreme cases to point to a more systemic underlying problem of power and domination in the workplace. It’s not merely that bosses are intolerant assholes, though clearly many of them are. It’s that they get to be intolerant assholes because the workplace is set up that way. Not by accident, or in the exception, but by design. In the typical American workplace, you can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. By law.

And so we come back to the Gawker piece. As Nathan Newman pointed out to me, every time a story like this comes out, there’s a frenzy of commentary, where people wonder whether or not this kind of thing is illegal, why doesn’t the employee sue, and so on. Most people seem to think that First Amendment-ish freedoms—the freedom of not merely speech but of expression, of personal style, etc.—apply in the workplace. They don’t. And while there are a host of protections for protected categories of workers, those constitute a limited number of cases.* The vast majority of cases of workplace coercion are simply not covered by federal or state law (though see this article by Eugene Volokh for a counterpoint; his focus, however, is on exclusively political speech). Unless you have a union, which ensures that you can only be fired for just cause, you’re often screwed.

Here’s the bottom line: in most American workplaces, the boss can fire any brony who loves My Little Pony. It’s totally legal. And that’s the problem.

* I asked Nathan, who’s an expert on labor and employment law, whether or not this guy could make some kind of claim based on gender discrimination, i.e., that he was fired for being insufficiently masculine, along the lines of a woman claiming she was fired for being insufficiently feminine. Here’s what he wrote back:

That’s the only plausible argument but few lawsuits on that basis have been successful, even for women arguing they are insufficiently feminine—unless they can show it’s part of an overall bias against women in general. But where no clear bias against women and men in hiring and promotion, differential dress codes and other biases based on gender that do not burden their performance of work would generally be legal. That’s one reason why state (and ideally federal) gay and transgender anti-discrimination laws are needed.

He then sent me to this article—“Sexual Orientation, Gender Nonconformity, and Trait-Based  Discrimination: Cautionary Tales From Title VII & An  Argument for Inclusion”—by Angela Clements from the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice, which I have not yet read.

Faculty to University of Oregon: Oh No We Don’t!

19 Sep

Great news! The faculty union at the University of Oregon, whose struggle I reported on a few days ago, has forced the administration to give up its extreme proposals on faculty freedom, autonomy, and privacy, and has signed its first contract. Thanks in part to all of you who wrote the administration.

Here’s how one union member, in an email, describes the victory:

Over the past week, the administration has completely backed off its extreme proposals around faculty rights and free expression.  Specifically:

The contract guarantees that freedom of speech includes freedom to voice internal criticism of university personnel or practices.

The administration completely dropped its proposal to regulate faculty’s right to consult with outside organizations.

The administration completely dropped its proposal to be allowed to “monitor” and spy on faculty emails, files or web surfing, and can only access faculty computer usage for truly “legitimate” needs such as system maintenance (with “legitimate” now a defined and grievable term).

The administration completely dropped its demand about owning all creations, inventions and course materials of faculty — we agreed to set up a joint union/administration committee to discuss this issue in the future, but until and unless that committee comes to voluntary agreement, there will be no change in the current policy, under which faculty own their own products.

I’m sure that the many messages from faculty across the US and internationally helped convince the administration to do the right thing.

Thank you to all of you for weighing in on this!

Proving once again that if you care about the future of the academy you should join a union, if you can, or support academic unions, if you can’t.

I haven’t seen a copy of the settlement, but the union also reports that it won average salary increases of nearly 12 percent over the two years of the agreement and minimum salaries for non-tenure track faculty. You can read more about the settlement here.

Congrats to the union! Well done.

University of Oregon to Faculty: You Belong to Me!

15 Sep

I always thought of the University of Oregon (UO) as one of great gems of our public university system. It’s got a terrific political science department (with Hobbes scholar Deborah Baumgold in theory and wonderful APD folks like Joe Lowndes and Gerald Berk in American Politics). It’s in Eugene, a lovely little city of hot tubs and hippies. And since last year, it’s had a faculty union. Who wouldn’t love it?

Apparently, the UO administration, that’s who.

The administration is currently locked into a battle with the faculty, who are trying to negotiate their first contract. Rather than seize the moment to establish good relations with the union and improve the university, the administration is intent on doing the reverse. Not simply with the usual patter of bottom-line administrators—no big raises, say (though even here the administration has gone the extra mile by refusing to guarantee the fulltime faculty a living wage)—but with proposals that would astonish even the most jaded observer of administrative ways and means.

I first caught wind of the UO’s aspirations this past week, when Inside Higher Ed reported that the administration was trying to undermine the speech rights of the faculty by inserting a so-called “civility” clause in the contract.

The university statement mentions civility twice in a section on faculty responsibilities, including that faculty are responsible for treating “students, staff, colleagues and the public fairly and civilly in discharging his or her duties and in accordance with this agreement.” Civility clauses have long been of concern to advocates for professors. While it’s hard to find people who are anti-civility, many academics note that requiring civility can become a tool for punishing those professors who speak out against their bosses or who push unpopular positions.

Bill Harbaugh, professor of economics and moderator of the “UO Matters” blog, which is frequently critical of university policy, said decoupling academic freedom from free speech left room for administrators to punish those faculty – like him – who say things administrators don’t like. He also objected to the idea that administrators would be the ones deciding what qualifies as “civil.”

Asked about the civility clause, [executive assistant to the UO president] said Oregon has a long history of promoting respectful discourse – one that’s covered by the university’s existing policy on academic freedom and free speech: “It is the responsibility of speakers, listeners and all members of our community to respect others and to promote a culture of mutual inquiry throughout the university community.”

Any determination of what’s civil would likely include faculty input, he said.

The minute I read that, I thought of my blogging. I’ve accused CUNY leaders of lying and cover-ups, of being Stalinists, of peddling nonsense and of being “as crude as the day is long.” I’ve no doubt they consider my posts uncivil and unfair. The notion that these same administrators would be in a position not only to define civility but also to enforce it as a contractual obligation, with all the attending disciplinary powers such obligations entail, well, you can see where this is all going.

Thankfully, so did the UO. They pulled the proposal.

When it comes to the freedom of the faculty, however, never underestimate the ambitions of an administrator scorned. The UO is back at the table, mooting even more draconian assaults on faculty autonomy and privacy.

Take their latest proposal (see section 7) on faculty email:

Bargaining unit faculty members have no expectation of privacy in emails, files, documents, or other information created or stored on university information assets. The university may monitor the use of, and review documents and other information stored on university information assets. Emails sent on a bargaining unit faculty member’s non-university email account and information created or stored on non-university computer systems belong to the bargaining unit member except to the extent that they address work-related subjects.

Read that last sentence carefully. Not only is the administration demanding the right to monitor and review the faculty’s UO email accounts, but it also arrogates to itself the right to monitor any emails on the faculty’s non-UO accounts (and computers) so long as those emails or documents “address work-related subjects.” So if I email my wife on my Gmail account, complaining about the action of a university administrator, or if I keep a diary on my home computer in which I talk about what that administrator did, that very same administrator can demand to read and review that email or document.

I’ve written quite a bit about the lengths to which employers will go to command and control the actions of their employees, and I’m certainly no naïf about the differences between universities and other employers. But this overreach from a university administrator seems like a first.

The administration has apparently tried to reassure the union that they would only monitor the faculty’s non-UO accounts in pursuit of what the university calls a “legitimate” “business need.” When the union asked for some examples of a “legitimate business need,” the UO’s hapless chief negotiator said the administration might want to check up on an individual professor’s work habits: Is she putting in her required 40 hours per week or is she shopping on-line during that time? (Apparently the negotiator really said this.) Or perhaps the administration, the negotiator added, would want to check up on a professor who was publicly critical of her chair. When the union countered with an offer that would guarantee the faculty a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” the administration said no.

Little side note: you’ve got to love this chief negotiator. When she isn’t telling the faculty at the table “you all need to get focused on your students,” she apparently moonlights as a defense attorney for Phillip Morris. Charming. Wonder how she squares that with her proposal to radically restrict the faculty’s freedom to consult with outside organizations. Which brings me to…

Like the faculty at CUNY, faculty at the UO are allowed to work one day a week as consultants for outside groups and organizations. At CUNY, professors consult for human rights groups, civic education groups, and other NGOs and non-profits. In Oregon, this activity is protected by state law. But the administration at the UO wants to eliminate that protection. (Yes, you heard that right: university administrators want to be even more intrusive and restrictive than the state.)

From now on, says the administration (see section 3), faculty wanting to do consulting work for outside groups or organizations “must get the prior written approval of the Provost or designee.” Among the criteria administration intends to apply when considering such proposals is whether the activity lies “within the scope of the bargaining unit member’s professional competence.”

How is that judgment to be determined? And how is a provost trained in, say, microbiology, in a position to judge whether a political scientist’s consulting work lies within her area of competence? And what if it doesn’t? Why is that any of the university’s business?

Oddly, in section 2 of the same proposal, the administration says that “activities unrelated to a bargaining unit faculty member’s…areas of professional competence do not require prior approval.” Given that section 3 requires the provost to determine what is or isn’t within the faculty member’s professional competence, it seems that anything and everything must come before the provost for approval.

Having to get permission from the provost, and under these terms, is creepy enough. You might wonder, though, why the administration would even want to involve itself in such byzantine determinations. After all, even the UO chief negotiator—there she goes again!—could not cite a single instance of the faculty abusing this right in the past.

The penultimate criterion in the administration’s proposal gives you a sense of why they might be interested in the faculty’s consulting work. The consulting, says the proposal, must not be “contrary to the University’s best interests.” The University’s best interests as determined by…the administration.

Now whose interests might the administration be most mindful of? Perhaps its Board of Trustees, which includes CEOs from the state’s timber and construction industries, the wife of the CEO of Microsoft, and a retired executive from Nike? Or big UO donors like Nike’s Phil Knight? It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a professor is forbidden by the provost from consulting with an organization critical of Nike’s labor polices or Microsoft’s market practices. “Contrary to the University’s best interests” and all that.

There’s a lot more to be said about these negotiations; check out this blog for more info and updates (especially on the administration’s plans regarding intellectual property: they’re a doozy!)

But in the meantime, drop a note to the UO President Michael Gottfredson at pres@uoregon.edu— make sure to cc the union (info@uauoregon.org)—telling him what you think about all this.

More Information on Brooklyn College Worker Ed Center

30 Jul

David Laibman, a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College, has been circulating a critical response to my post about the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education. I’d prefer not to get into the weeds of his various allegations; as he admits several times, he has no knowledge of most of the facts and events that led the Brooklyn College administration and the New York State Attorney General’s office to take the actions they have taken.

But Professor Laibman does make two claims that merit a response:

I have personal knowledge about the vicious and irresponsible behavior of the Department, in summarily firing the former Director of the CWE, and his secretary, and depriving the faculty and students, in Spring 2012, of all continuity, information, support and guidance.  The place was literally abandoned.

It is not possible for Professor Laibman to have personal knowledge of the political science department’s firing of the former director for the simple reason that the political science department did not fire the former director. As anyone with personal knowledge of this case knows, it was the Brooklyn College president who removed this individual from his position as director (he has not been fired as a professor, though disciplinary charges are currently being pursued). Two other full-time employees, neither of whom was the director’s secretary (both were administrators at the Center), were also removed from their positions by the administration.

Though Professor Laibman does not raise this issue, I should add that in addition to two full-time administrators, the Center had on its payroll approximately 25 part-time employees. By way of comparison, the political science department, which serves twice as many students on campus, employs only one full-time administrator and one part-time employee.

As for the Center being “literally abandoned,” I can understand why Professor Laibman might have had that impression. Much of the daily activity at the Center that he had been witness to prior to my tenure was the coming and going of the students, faculty, and staff of a French management school to which the Center’s leadership had been quietly renting space. (Indeed, when I became director I found written instructions to the Center staff telling them to remove the management school’s signs from its offices at 5 pm, when the worker education students and faculty began to arrive for their classes.) Those hundreds of people that Professor Laibman saw in the center’s classrooms, its computer lab, its conference room, and offices—Monday through Friday, 9 to 5—were not Brooklyn College or CUNY folks but management students, faculty, and staff from abroad.

One of the first actions the Brooklyn College administration took after I became interim director was to remove this management school from the premises so that our Brooklyn College students and staff could use the computer lab, conference room, and classrooms that previously had been occupied by management school students and staff. The administration simply did not believe that renting out space to a management school was consistent with the mission of a worker education center.

In addition to this French management school, the Center’s former leadership had also been quietly renting space to a French film school. In order to house this film school, the former leadership took away a spacious office from Working USA, which is a prominent labor journal edited by Professor Manny Ness, and relocated Ness and his journal in an office that was about the size of a large broom closet.

Once the French film school was removed by the Brooklyn College administration (for the same reason it removed the management school), I promptly returned that larger office to Working USA and to Professor Ness so that he could meet with students and union activists, conduct his research, and edit his labor journal in a proper space. (Professor Ness is currently spearheading this petition drive on behalf of the old center; I have not spoken with him, so I have no idea why he wishes to return to a regime that put the needs of a French film school above those of his labor journal, his labor research, his students, and his work with the labor movement.)

On a different note, one response I’ve heard from defenders of the old regime at the Center is that it serves working students, students of color, immigrant students, and union members. As any faculty member throughout the CUNY system will testify, most if not all of our students work, and many are immigrants and/or of color. Many of our students are union members; that has certainly been my experience on the Brooklyn College campus. To the extent that defenders of the old regime trumpet these demographic characteristics of the Center, they are merely stating that the Center is no different from CUNY as a whole.

Fair-minded defenders of the Center also argue that older students who work need a space in lower Manhattan where they can pursue an MA. That is a fair and legitimate point. If that’s the goal, however, proponents should simply demand that of the administration and not conflate that demand with either a return to the old regime or with the call for a worker education center (there is a higher proportion, after all, of MA students in political science on the Brooklyn College campus who fit this profile of older students who work than there is at the Center).

Nor should proponents of this vision conflate that demand with the political science department running an extensive MA program in lower Manhattan. If what people want is the opportunity to get an MA in lower Manhattan, there is no reason it should be restricted to political science. Why not petition the administration to provide opportunities to seek an MA in multiple disciplines like history, English, and sociology? In other words, what people seem to really want is for Brooklyn College to set up a satellite campus in lower Manhattan, much as City College has done with its liberal studies program at 25 Broadway. They should simply ask for that—and understand that a satellite campus, with all its facilities and requirements, must be managed by an administration, not a department or member of the faculty.

There is no going back to the old regime; we need a clean break with the past. The best thing people who do care about a labor center can do is to formulate a new vision for labor-related programs and worker education at Brooklyn College, to organize and agitate for that vision, and to press the administration to carry it out. Thus far, very few of the full-time faculty (five, at last count) and very few students at Brooklyn College or members of our faculty and staff union have signed onto this petition. But I know there are many more faculty and students on campus who care about the ideals and mission of worker education and labor. I strongly encourage all of you who do care to start a fresh discussion and campaign, one not tied to this old regime, and to create something that lives up to the ideals that so many of us share.

Because I will be stepping down as interim director in a matter of weeks, and because I do not believe it is productive to continue a public back and forth with defenders of the old regime, this will be my last post on this matter. I’ll leave it to the members of Brooklyn College and the wider CUNY community to debate and discuss where we go from here.

Please do not sign Brooklyn College Worker Ed Petition

26 Jul

A petition titled “Save Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education” is currently being circulated on the internet. As the interim director of that center, a former union organizer, a vocal advocate of labor rights, and a firm believer in worker education, I am asking people NOT to sign this petition.

By way of background, the Graduate Center for Worker Education (GCWE) was historically run by a small group of faculty in my department (political science). In 2011, the department elected a new chair and a new executive committee, including myself. We discovered that the GCWE was suffering from severely compromised academic standards. We also found evidence of financial wrongdoing.

The Brooklyn College administration took immediate action and removed the director of the GCWE. I was appointed interim director in 2012 by Kimberley Phillips, then dean of the humanities and social sciences and a prominent labor historian in her own right (Phillips is also a past president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association). As per my agreement with the administration, I will be stepping down from this position at the end of August so that I can finish my sabbatical, which I had to interrupt in order to take on these responsibilities.

CUNY has since conducted an investigation of the GCWE and pursued disciplinary charges. The Attorney General’s office of the State of New York has also launched an investigation, and I have been questioned by members of that office. I am not privy to the details of these investigations and charges, so I won’t speak about them here.

But here is what I can say about the GCWE prior to my tenure.

The centerpiece of the GCWE is a masters’ program in urban policy and administration (UPA), which is housed in the political science department. Prior to the election of our current chair and executive committee, that program was run with no oversight by the chair or the executive committee. There was no formal admissions committee constituted by the chair and comprised of department faculty. Admissions rates ran from roughly 85 to 95%. The UPA program had no exit requirements such as a masters’ thesis or comprehensive exam, as is the case with other masters programs at Brooklyn College and elsewhere. The program’s curricular offerings and adjunct faculty were not vetted or evaluated by the chair or the executive committee.

Since the election of our new department leadership and my taking over the Center, we have taken the necessary steps to address these problems, including tightening our admissions standards.

Though the GCWE is described by the creators of this petition as possessing an “incredible legacy” of worker education, the fact is that it has not been a worker education center for some time, if ever. In 2000, an external evaluation report, which was co-authored by one of the leading labor scholars in the country, declared that “the program itself has little labor emphasis or worker education components….There is no clear focus around the implicit labor and worker orientation of the program.”

Despite that report and its recommendations, little at the GCWE changed in subsequent years, as I discovered when I became interim director. A report in 2012 that I co-authored with nationally recognized labor scholars Dorian Warren, Stephanie Luce, Josh Freeman, and Carolina Bank-Muñoz found that:

None of the six course requirements of the program has anything to do with labor or workers. The GCWE does offer two labor-oriented courses, but only infrequently. Any student could get through the MA program without having read, written, or spoken about a labor-related topic.

Unlike other labor-oriented programs—for example, the Murphy Institute [at CUNY]—the GCWE does not have an agreement with labor unions to recruit and help fund potential MA students from unions or government agencies. And unlike Murphy, the GCWE does not have a labor advisory board that would help inform and guide curricular decisions to benefit workers.

Though nearly 90% of GCWE students are over 25 and thus probably work (almost 100 percent are part-time students), Brooklyn College’s political science masters’ program as a whole has an even higher ratio of over-25 students, and more than 80% of all Brooklyn College masters students are part-time students. There is little in the demographics of the UPA masters program that could be characterized as worker-oriented and that distinguishes it, in that regard, from any other masters program run by Brooklyn College.

Whether the issue is curriculum, demographics, recruitment, or governance, there is no distinctive labor dimension to the MA program.

Our report went onto make several recommendations as to how the GCWE could be reconstituted with a stronger labor focus; those recommendations were given to the Brooklyn College administration.

In the past year, the political science faculty has had to make some difficult decisions about our involvement with the GCWE. It is our belief that, given the interests and strengths of our department, the UPA program, for which we are responsible, ought to focus on urban politics (indeed, we have just hired a specialist in urban politics). Although academic disciplines like history and sociology have flourishing sub-fields in labor studies, political science does not, which makes recruitment of full-time faculty in that field difficult. Given the troubled history of the center itself, we also believe faculty and students would be better served if our UPA program were housed on the Brooklyn College campus rather than at 25 Broadway in lower Manhattan, where it is currently housed.

These decisions, it should be stressed, are the decisions of the political science faculty. They are not, nor should they be, the decisions of the Brooklyn College administration.

By calling on the Brooklyn College administration to “fully restore the Urban & Policy Administration…programs at the Downtown Manhattan campus of the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education,” this petition and its signers are asking the administration to overturn the faculty’s deliberations and decisions, to force upon us curricular and admissions policies we have foresworn, and to tell us who we must hire.

That such a petition is being circulated by union activists and faculty who in any other circumstance would decry—and rightly so—such administrative interference as a violation of academic freedom is troubling. For that is what this petition is: a call to compromise the academic freedom and educational integrity of my department.

The petition also claims that the “dismantling of this long-standing program ranks with other attacks on working people across the country.” As someone who has watched that attack and reported on it here, who has close friends and colleagues in other worker education centers across the country—which are being attacked by anti-labor politicians—I find this language cynical in the extreme. It uses people’s legitimate concerns about the status of workers and worker education as a cover under which to smuggle a call for the restoration of a worker education program that has long since ceased to be a worker education program (in fact, the petition explicitly and repeatedly uses the language of restoration).

If people wish to have a discussion about the creation of a legitimate worker education program at Brooklyn College—rather than the restoration of a program that never was—I would welcome that. I’m sure that many of the individuals who signed this petition sincerely believed they were contributing to that end, which I share. Indeed, throughout this past year I have tried to have such a discussion.

But that discussion will not be advanced by this petition, which is far more concerned with restoring the lost privileges and prerogatives of a few individuals (“Reinstate the quality faculty members who previously taught at the center”; “Restore a full-time academic advisor”; “full restoration of the educational and support services”) who benefited from the old regime than it is with the creation of a genuine labor studies program or worker education center.

I urge you not to sign this petition, to ask MoveOn.org to remove your name if you have, to declare publicly that you wish to remove your name if MoveOn.org can’t or won’t, and to circulate this statement widely.

I’m told that if you email petitions@moveon.org and ask that your name be removed, they will do so promptly.

Update (August 3, 8 pm)

I wrote a second post on this issue, which provides more details and background. For folks who didn’t see it, I’m reproducing it here in its entirety.

David Laibman, a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College, has been circulating a critical response to my post about the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education. I’d prefer not to get into the weeds of his various allegations; as he admits several times, he has no knowledge of most of the facts and events that led the Brooklyn College administration and the New York State Attorney General’s office to take the actions they have taken.

But Professor Laibman does make two claims that merit a response:

I have personal knowledge about the vicious and irresponsible behavior of the Department, in summarily firing the former Director of the CWE, and his secretary, and depriving the faculty and students, in Spring 2012, of all continuity, information, support and guidance.  The place was literally abandoned.

It is not possible for Professor Laibman to have personal knowledge of the political science department’s firing of the former director for the simple reason that the political science department did not fire the former director. As anyone with personal knowledge of this case knows, it was the Brooklyn College president who removed this individual from his position as director (he has not been fired as a professor, though disciplinary charges are currently being pursued). Two other full-time employees, neither of whom was the director’s secretary (both were administrators at the Center), were also removed from their positions by the administration.

Though Professor Laibman does not raise this issue, I should add that in addition to two full-time administrators, the Center had on its payroll approximately 25 part-time employees. By way of comparison, the political science department, which serves twice as many students on campus, employs only one full-time administrator and one part-time employee.

As for the Center being “literally abandoned,” I can understand why Professor Laibman might have had that impression. Much of the daily activity at the Center that he had been witness to prior to my tenure was the coming and going of the students, faculty, and staff of a French management school to which the Center’s leadership had been quietly renting space. (Indeed, when I became director I found written instructions to the Center staff telling them to remove the management school’s signs from its offices at 5 pm, when the worker education students and faculty began to arrive for their classes.) Those hundreds of people that Professor Laibman saw in the center’s classrooms, its computer lab, its conference room, and offices—Monday through Friday, 9 to 5—were not Brooklyn College or CUNY folks but management students, faculty, and staff from abroad.

One of the first actions the Brooklyn College administration took after I became interim director was to remove this management school from the premises so that our Brooklyn College students and staff could use the computer lab, conference room, and classrooms that previously had been occupied by management school students and staff. The administration simply did not believe that renting out space to a management school was consistent with the mission of a worker education center.

In addition to this French management school, the Center’s former leadership had also been quietly renting space to a French film school. In order to house this film school, the former leadership took away a spacious office from Working USA, which is a prominent labor journal edited by Professor Manny Ness, and relocated Ness and his journal in an office that was about the size of a large broom closet.

Once the French film school was removed by the Brooklyn College administration (for the same reason it removed the management school), I promptly returned that larger office to Working USA and to Professor Ness so that he could meet with students and union activists, conduct his research, and edit his labor journal in a proper space. (Professor Ness is currently spearheading this petition drive on behalf of the old center; I have not spoken with him, so I have no idea why he wishes to return to a regime that put the needs of a French film school above those of his labor journal, his labor research, his students, and his work with the labor movement.)

On a different note, one response I’ve heard from defenders of the old regime at the Center is that it serves working students, students of color, immigrant students, and union members. As any faculty member throughout the CUNY system will testify, most if not all of our students work, and many are immigrants and/or of color. Many of our students are union members; that has certainly been my experience on the Brooklyn College campus. To the extent that defenders of the old regime trumpet these demographic characteristics of the Center, they are merely stating that the Center is no different from CUNY as a whole.

Fair-minded defenders of the Center also argue that older students who work need a space in lower Manhattan where they can pursue an MA. That is a fair and legitimate point. If that’s the goal, however, proponents should simply demand that of the administration and not conflate that demand with either a return to the old regime or with the call for a worker education center (there is a higher proportion, after all, of MA students in political science on the Brooklyn College campus who fit this profile of older students who work than there is at the Center).

Nor should proponents of this vision conflate that demand with the political science department running an extensive MA program in lower Manhattan. If what people want is the opportunity to get an MA in lower Manhattan, there is no reason it should be restricted to political science. Why not petition the administration to provide opportunities to seek an MA in multiple disciplines like history, English, and sociology? In other words, what people seem to really want is for Brooklyn College to set up a satellite campus in lower Manhattan, much as City College has done with its liberal studies program at 25 Broadway. They should simply ask for that—and understand that a satellite campus, with all its facilities and requirements, must be managed by an administration, not a department or member of the faculty.

There is no going back to the old regime; we need a clean break with the past. The best thing people who do care about a labor center can do is to formulate a new vision for labor-related programs and worker education at Brooklyn College, to organize and agitate for that vision, and to press the administration to carry it out. Thus far, very few of the full-time faculty (five, at last count) and very few students at Brooklyn College or members of our faculty and staff union have signed onto this petition. But I know there are many more faculty and students on campus who care about the ideals and mission of worker education and labor. I strongly encourage all of you who do care to start a fresh discussion and campaign, one not tied to this old regime, and to create something that lives up to the ideals that so many of us share.

Because I will be stepping down as interim director in a matter of weeks, and because I do not believe it is productive to continue a public back and forth with defenders of the old regime, this will be my last post on this matter. I’ll leave it to the members of Brooklyn College and the wider CUNY community to debate and discuss where we go from here.

ACLU Demands Loyalty of Its Employees

24 Jul

According to the Village Voice, the ACLU is looking to gut the union contract of its lowest paid workers, including its receptionists, mail clerks, and bookkeepers.

Non-profits and do-gooders are often bad employers, so I wasn’t too surprised to hear this. But I was surprised to hear this:

Managers are also looking to defang the “just cause” provision in union workers’ contracts, the right of a worker to get a fair hearing with an arbitrator if managers are looking to fire her. It demands that employers prove they have a good reason for terminating someone. The ACLU management hopes to narrow the infractions protected by the arbitration process, and to make “disloyalty” a fireable offense without defining what exactly disloyalty means.

All across the country—from California to Arizona to Georgia—the ACLU and its affiliates have been fighting the government’s use of loyalty oaths as a condition of employment.The ACLU, rightly, thinks it is wrong to require a government employee to swear her allegiance to the United States, a particular state, the Constitution, or a state constitution. But it thinks it’s just fine to fire its own employees for being disloyal to…what? The boss? The principles of the ACLU?

The ACLU is also one of the foremost defenders of the rights of due process of citizens and non-citizens. While it has long been a contentious issue as to whether and how the principles of due process apply to the workplace, the  idea of “just cause” termination lies well within the moral orbit of those principles. The notion that you should only be fired for a fireable offense—and that you should be entitled to defend yourself before a neutral third party against the claims of your employer—partakes of (and derives from) the same political universe that holds that the state should not deprive you of certain benefits without good reason and without some kind of procedure.

It is more than a little ironic that an organization that was explicitly founded on the defense of the rights of labor should have come to this pass. (Though anyone who’s been following the organization’s more recent history, as Mark Ames has, won’t be surprised. As an ACLU spokeswoman told Ames: “Labor rights are certainly a key issue for the ACLU; it is folded into our work for free speech, immigrants’ rights and women’s rights.” Notice what’s left out: their own employees.)

Still, the larger problem is not the ACLU past or present. It’s the continued refusal, even by our most progressive organizations, to see the workplace as a regime of governance, a regime that can spy on, harass, punish, control, and coerce its subjects, who often have far less rights against that regime than they do against their own government.

Update (July 25, 11 am)

Ned Resnikoff at MSNBC has more information on this. This caught my eye:

So far, many of ACLU’s non-union staff seem to be on the side of Local 2110. Over 60 of them co-signed a letter to Romero and the non-profit’s directors, urging them to “agree to a contract that does not cut benefits or diminish workplace rights.”

So if the non-union staff at the ACLU is on the side of the workers rather than management, to whom or what are the workers being disloyal?

Update (July 26, 11:45 pm)

More on the story here:

Ironically, in recent years, the ACLU has been an outspoken critic of wrongful discharge, stating, “The magnitude of the problem is enormous.” In fact, in 1998 and again in 2002, the ACLU published legislative briefs that advocated for nationwide “just cause” provisions as the “answer to injustice” in the workplace — the same provisions it is now seeking to jettison from some of its worker’s contracts.

Not Even a Bourgeois Freedom: Freedom of Contract in John Roberts’s America

6 Jul

Ever since the 19th century, one of the points of convergence between the free-market right and the socialist left has been that the most important freedom under capitalism is the freedom of contract. Whatever its other problems, the market is the one sphere where the rights of man obtain. As Marx put it in Volume 1 of Capital:

This sphere [of the market] that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

For the free-market right, that’s the end of the discussion: Workers are free. No one’s forcing them to work. If they don’t like a job, they can leave it.

For the socialist left, it’s more complicated. Workers are not in fact free, the left argues, but the source of their unfreedom is not to be found in the usual guise. The most important constraint upon the freedom of contract is not the discrete or formal acts of coercion by power-holders (what political scientists sometimes call the first face of power), which are embodied in law and enforced by the state. Rather, it is systemic inequality and disparities of power between labor and capital: people with few resources are not in much of a position to say no to a job that they don’t like. Formally, workers are free; in practice, they are not.

Now there was always a problem with this thesis: as Karen Orren has argued, up until the twentieth century, public and private power-holders (specifically, employers and judges) often imposed overt and formal constraints upon the worker’s exercise of her independent will. At-will employment was often a myth, not merely because workers were not the economic equals of their employers, but also because of legal liabilities imposed by these judges and employers. For example, when seeking a new job, workers were often required by law to present testimonial letters from their previous employers; without those letters, they were out of luck. That rule effectively kept them in the employ of their previous boss. Conversely, vagrancy laws could be used to force men and women into the workplace.

But now comes this latest report from the Los Angeles Times (h/t Frank Pasquale), suggesting we’re back in a version of the nineteenth century, in which this same nexus of employers and judges is being used to sharply abridge whatever modicum of freedom there is to be found in at-will employment.

Emboldened by a series of Supreme Court decisions and an employers’ job market, many companies are starting to require workers to sign away their rights in return for a job. It is a trend that experts worry could further wear away employees’ power in the workplace. The contracts make it harder for employees to join class-action lawsuits, take their employers to court, or leave to go work somewhere else.

Mazhar Saleem is bound to his employer by a number of contracts that made it hard to earn enough money to live, but also hard to go work anywhere else. He drives a town car for a company in New York as an independent contractor, rather than as a full-time employee. That means he doesn’t get benefits, never gets overtime, and isn’t guaranteed set hours.

But he also signed a non-compete contract when he started working, meaning he can’t drive a car for anyone else in New York. So even if his employer doesn’t give him any work, he’s not allowed to go find it elsewhere, says his attorney, Michael Scimone, with the law firm Outten and Golden.

“It ties into the larger theme of employers trying to use contracts to alter pieces of the employment relationship that are supposed to be governed by law,” Scimone said.

Non-compete clauses, once a staple of the high-tech world, are being extended to cover hairdressers, auto mechanics, exterminators and other professions that courts would traditionally not uphold them for, lawyers say. They essentially mean an employee can’t leave a job to take another one nearby, unless he or she wants to stop working for a year or so.

It’s a way to keep promising employees from leaving, said Matt Marx, an MIT professor who has studied these contracts.

“Given the increased job mobility of today’s world, companies are saying, ‘We can’t count on people to be here forever. We have to lock them up with contracts,” he said.

In a recent case in Worcester, Mass., three women working at a hair salon tried to leave after their conditions at work deteriorated. All three received cease and desist letters when they started working elsewhere, because they had signed non-compete clauses. They had to wait a year for the clauses to expire before they could work in the area again.

Many employment lawyers say they’re not surprised that courts have made life tougher for employees. Since the beginning of the Roberts court, experts say, the Supreme Court has issued decision after decision cutting back employees’ legal avenues to complain.

“Since the Warren court, employers have done well at the Supreme Court, but in the Roberts court, they have done exceptionally well,” said Cynthia Estlund, a professor at New York University‘s School of Law. John G. Roberts Jr. became chief justice in 2005.

Law historians trace the court’s conservative leanings to the long stretches of Republicans in the White House in the 1980s and 2000s that allowed presidents to appoint more conservative judges to lower courts and to the Supreme Court. A study published earlier this year in the Minnesota Law Review found that two of the court’s current justices are the most conservative out of any of the justices who served between 1946 and 2011, and that court under Roberts is friendlier to business than it was during either of the two previous chief justices.

Adding up seven years of decisions, the workplace is getting to be a tough place for many, said Cliff Palefsky, an employment lawyer at McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky in San Francisco. Employers already can ask employees to work harder for less because the job market is still so sluggish in many fields. But in some cases, employees who think they can find a better situation elsewhere are going to have trouble doing so.

“The law is being undermined and it’s putting some workers in a bind,” Palefsky said. In some situations, when non-compete clauses are mixed with arbitration agreements, he said, “We’re one step away from indentured servitude.”

Not to get all libertarian on you, but when I read these reports about the actual state of freedom of contract in contemporary America, I’m reminded of Gandhi’s alleged reply to a reporter asking him what he thought about Western civilization: sounds like a good idea.

Rights of Labor v. Tyranny of Capital

17 Jun

Remember that National Labor Relations Board regulation instructing employers to post notices in their workplaces informing workers of their right to organize under the law? I described this regulation last year:

This is just a requirement that employees be informed of their rights. It doesn’t impose costs on employers, restrict their profits, regulate their operations: it just requires that working men and women be informed of their rights.

The business lobby, led by the Chamber of Commerce, has been challenging this regulation in court. Last year, it persuaded a Republican-appointed federal judge to strike it down. Last week, it had more success, persuading an even higher level of the judiciary—a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals—to strike down the regulation as an unconstitutional infringement on the liberty of employers. (It It turns out that last month another court of appeals ruled the same way.) even more expansively, claiming that the regulation violated employer free speech rights as they are said to be embodied in Section 8c of the National Labor Relations Act. (That opinion is here in pdf.)

Here are some highlights from an AP report in last week’s Washington Post:

A second federal appeals court has struck down a rule that would have required millions of businesses to put up posters informing workers of their right to form a union.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled Friday that the National Labor Relations Board exceeded its authority when it ordered businesses to display an 11-by-17-inch notice in a prominent location explaining the rights of workers to join a union and bargain collectively to improve wages and working conditions. The posters also made clear that workers have a right not to join a union or be coerced by union officials.

More than 6 million businesses would have been subject to the rule.

The ruling was another blow to the nation’s dwindling labor unions. Last month, another federal appeals court ruled last month that the poster rule violated businesses’ free speech rights.

In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who complained that the regulation violated free speech rights by forcing employers to display labor laws in a way that some believed was too skewed in favor of unionization.

There you have it. The government requiring an employer to hang a poster informing workers of their rights is a violation of the employer’s liberty. Employers requiring employees to attend a rally in support of Mitt Romney—or otherwise instructing employees how to vote in an election—is an exercise of the employer’s liberty.

Seems like someone’s liberty is being left out.

Update (11:45 pm)

Thanks to a commenter over at Crooked Timber, I have corrected some errors I made in this post. I hadn’t read the entire two opinions before commenting here, which I should have. Instead I relied on the Post report and also wrongly conflated the 4th Circuit Court opinion of last week with the DC Circuit Court opinion from last month. My apologies.

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