Rat balloons – “Scabby” – started in the Chicago area

I have seen at least a few large inflatable rats while driving around in recent years – even in front of my own employer – and these rats have their roots in Chicago area union protests:

The rat balloons, nicknamed “Scabby,” started in the Chicago area in 1990 and have grown into a worldwide symbol for union strikes. But the balloons aren’t without controversy. From the picket line to the courtroom, employers have tried to snuff out Scabby many times…

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, says he was searching for a way to draw more awareness to a 1990 picket in north suburban Chicago…

Lambert says he chose a rat because the animal has long been used as a symbol to call out those who oppose unions. Fellow organizer Don Newton helped secure the funds for the first balloon, Lambert says…

The legality of using Scabby as a form of union protest has been contested, with many of the rulings relying on the interpretation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The act ensures rights for striking unions to picket the location of an employer or contractor, while also protecting nearby companies or other organizations employers from being targeted.

The article goes on to say that the unions believe the rats attract attention and informing informing the public about union workers. But, some of the material online suggests the rats serve another purpose: to provoke employers and organizations. I wonder how the mixture of trying to gather public support while poking at your opponent with a giant rat works out. The article suggests at the end that it is not known whether inflatable rats lead to better outcomes for union. Does it cause the two sides to double down or make other organizations think twice?

More broadly, this could be a powerful protest device for other groups. Why don’t more movements have large inflatables that can fit on sidewalks or public easements? The presence of certain symbols or words could draw attention, particularly near busy roads and intersections.

Sociologist on bigger issues facing Chicago schools: poverty, demographics, segregation

There has been a lot of commentary about unions in the wake of the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike. But, sociologist Pedro Noguera argues there are three bigger issues that will trouble the Chicago schools and the city of Chicago long after the strike is settled:

President Obama, the teacher unions and all of the other reformers out there would do well to focus more attention on the three huge, interrelated issues that pose the biggest threat to public education and American society generally. These are complex issues that will not be resolved by any contract settlement the warring parties reach in Chicago—but they cannot be avoided if we are to fix what truly ails our public schools…

  1. Youth poverty—Since 2008, poverty rates for children have soared. Nationally, 1 out of 4 children comes from a family with incomes that fall below the poverty line, and 1 out of 7 children lives in a state of food emergency, meaning they frequently go without adequate nutrition. The impact of poverty on schools and on child development is most severe in cities and in states such as Michigan, California and Arizona. Increasingly, public schools are all that remains of the safety net for poor children, and with funding for education being cut back in almost all states, the safety net is falling apart.
  2. Changing demographics—Already in nine states, the majority of school age children are from minority backgrounds. The number of states with majority minority populations will steadily increase in the years ahead even if the influx of immigrants continues to slow due to higher birth rates among Latinos. As the ethnic composition of schools continues to change it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain public support for school funding. Voters don’t seem to understand that today’s school children will be responsible for supporting an aging, largely white population during their retirement years. Economists project that it takes at least three workers to support one retiree who is financially dependent on social security. Since 2010 we have fallen below that critical threshold. Will a less educated, poorer, multiracial workforce be able or be willing to take care of an aging white population?
  3. Growing segregation—According to the Civil Rights Project based at UCLA, 44 percent of schools in the United States are comprised almost exclusively of minority students. Latinos and blacks, the two largest minority groups, attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights movement forty years ago. Two of every five African-American and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools. Segregation is most severe in Western states, including California—not in the South, as many people believe, and increasingly, most non-white schools are segregated by poverty as well as race. Given that dropout rates and failure tends to be highest in the schools where poor children are concentrated, how will the next generation of young people be prepared to solve the problems they will inherit?

I’m glad a sociologist writes about these; we need the big picture in mind, not just the immediate issues of contracts. There are certain things that can be done in school yet there are a number of other factors in society that also affect schools, children, parents, and neighborhoods. Schools are one lever by which we can affect society but not the only one.

Of course, tackling these issues would require going far beyond schools and instead look at the changes that threaten a number of American big cities. Issues like these are not new and have been at least several decades in the making. Would major candidates, say those running for President, be willing to tackle these three issues? Thus far, it is easier to stick to the ideas of education reform…

 

With March Madness approaching, should we really be talking about “the civil rights movement for our times”?

Many Americans are about to enjoy the beginning of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, but according to one sociologist, perhaps fans and viewers should pay more attention to the exploitation of the athletes:

In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as “March Madness.” There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection.… The college athletes are clearly the 99 percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that…

But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any “jock for justice” willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind, and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It’s a risk worth taking, but don’t take my word for it. As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.”

This article also cites an article from Taylor Branch in The Atlantic that I commented on last September.

It is interesting to consider how people would react if college basketball players did protest during the games. I don’t know how much the “amateur” status of college athletes matters to the average fan. Some people talk about the “purity” of college sports compared to the professional ranks as there are some college players who still appear to take advantage of the educational opportunities as well as revere their schools. Ultimately, I would guess that most fans want to be entertained by their college sports and would be willing to at least small protections for athletes (a little pay, longer-term scholarships, etc.).

This discussion reminds me of the story that NBA players initially refused to play right before the 1964 All-Star Game. Perhaps this story would give some college players hope:

The game was notable for the threat of a strike by the players, who refused to play just before the game unless the owners agreed to recognize the players’ union. The owners agreed primarily because it was the first All-Star Game to be televised and if it were not played due to strike it would have been embarrassing at a time when the NBA was still attempting to gain national exposure. This led directly to many rights and freedoms not previously extended to professional basketball players.

After gaining room to negotiate, now NBA players and other pro athletes would face major issues if they refused to play:

By signing the National Basketball Association’s Uniform Player Contract, a player agrees to “give his best services, as well as his loyalty, to the Team,” to “conduct himself on and off the court according to the highest standards of honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship,” and “not to do anything that is materially detrimental” to the team or the league. Refusing to play in a game against a coach’s orders could therefore be considered a breach of contract. The team could justifiably withhold payment, terminate his contract, or sue him for monetary damages. (Nearly every professional sport requires players to sign a similar contract.)

The only circumstance under which a player can refuse to compete—in just about any professional league—is if he’s injured. Normally, it’s up to the team doctor to decide whether an athlete is fit to play. If the player disagrees—or gets a second opinion from an outside doctor—he can file a grievance through the players union, which then negotiates a solution with the team.

It’s rare for players simply to decline to go on the court or field, partly because it’s a PR disaster. Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen famously refused to get off the bench with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1994. He wasn’t punished, but the incident tainted his reputation. It’s somewhat more common for a recently-traded player to not report for games with his new team. After Kenny Anderson was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 1998, for example, he refused to compete with the Canadian team. Occasionally, a pro will ask to play less. Starting Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins, battling alcoholism and accusations of racism, asked to be taken out of the starting lineup. The team obliged him. Sometimes NFL players will receive criticism for failing to show up to off-season workouts, but such workouts are voluntary according to the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

But, of course, professional athletes in the major sports are represented by unions, some of which, like the baseball player’s union, are known as being quite powerful and effective. College athletes don’t have the same protections.

How long can this situation last? While the money is still good for the biggest schools (and most of the money is football money anyway), would college college basketball players really band together to protest?

More $1 million lottery winners each year than NBA players since 1990 that have career earnings over $1 million

I’ve written before about using the average vs. the median salary in the NBA lockout discussions and here is some more fuel to add to the fire: there are more $1 million lottery winners each year than NBA players who since 1990 have had career earnings of more than $1 million.

I want to call foul on the mainstream media. As I mentioned, a majority of the players in the league make less than $2 million, and yet people like Stephen A. Smith throw around that $5 million figure as gospel. We keep hearing the NBA lockout being described as “millionaires versus billionaires”. But most NBA players won’t become big earners like Kobe and LeBron. Here’s a fun breakdown:

Since the 1990-1991 season 1461 players have entered the NBA and of those:

  • 490 — or 33% — never earned $1 million in career earnings*
  • and that means… 971 have earned at least $1 million in career earnings*
  • 752 have averaged a salary of at least $1 million per year*
  • 643 have earned at least $5 million in career earnings*
  • 165 averaged a salary of at least $5 million per year*

As we can see, less than half of all NBA players in the last 20 years — the period of time where NBA salaries have been at their highest — have hit that $5 million mark over their entire careers. Just over one third — 33% — of all NBA players in the last 20 years have not even hit the $1 million mark in career earnings. And these numbers have been adjusted for inflation!

Here’s a fun comparison: on average, 1600 people win a lottery of at least $1 million every year! That’s right; the lottery has produced almost twice as many millionaires in the last year as the NBA has in the last twenty years!  The popular perception is that once a player enters the NBA they will earn millions and millions of dollars. The truth is that many players don’t hit that high mark.

Both events, winning the big lottery jackpot and becoming a NBA player, are statistically unlikely. However, I suspect that most Americans would say that winning the lottery is much more unlikely. But this blog post points out that even when players do make it to the NBA, a third don’t rake in the big career earnings associated with professional athletes (measured here as $1 million).

This would make for an interesting discussion starter for any professional athlete’s union: should the union be more concerned with allowing a smaller percentage of the athletes maximize their salaries or be more interested in guaranteeing a baseline for the majority of the league that are not stars?

The lottery figures themselves are interesting:

According to the TLC television show, “The Lottery Changed My Life,” more than 1600 new lottery millionaires are created each year. That doesn’t include people that have won jackpots of, say, $100,000 because than the number would be much higher. Still, 1600 is quite a high number.

If 1600 win at least a million in the lotto every year, it means that there are more than 130 each month, more than 30 each week, and more than 4 each day. That’s a lot of winners.

It would be interesting to see more documentation on this.

How suburban design may contribute to a lack of union organization

As part of a larger article about why the large number of unemployed Americans “became invisible,” the suburbs may be part of the problem:

Workers have also become suburbanized. Back in the 1960s or even the 1980s, the unemployed organized around welfare or unemployment offices. It was a fertile environment: people were anxious and tired and waiting for hours in line.

“We stood outside of these offices, with their huge lines, and passed out leaflets that said things like: ‘If you’re upset about what’s happening to you, come to this meeting at this church basement in two weeks. We’ll get together and do something about this,’ ” recalls Barney Oursler, a longtime community organizer and co-founder of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee in the early 1980s. “The response just made your heart get big. ‘Oh, my God,’ they’d say, ‘I thought I was alone.’ ”

The Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, which is based in Pittsburgh, helped organize workers in 26 cities across five states, simply by hanging around outside unemployment offices and harnessing the frustration.

Today, though, many unemployment offices have closed. Jobless benefits are often handled by phone or online rather than in person. An unemployment call center near Mr. Oursler, for instance, now sits behind two sets of locked doors and frosted windows.

More broadly, this could be attributed to a decrease in geographically-based relationships. With decentralized residences and workplaces, people gather around different features than the neighborhood block.

Interestingly, the next paragraph of the story talks about how workers in other countries have tried to mobilize online. If you don’t live near your former co-workers or if you do but don’t really interact with them, perhaps you would be willing to join a Facebook group or sign an online petition to further your collective interests.

ASA in Las Vegas update: union reaches deal with Chicago Hilton hotels

The American Sociological Association conference was moved earlier this year to Las Vegas. This was done because the Hilton chain in Chicago did not have a deal with the union of hotel workers. The Chicago Tribune reports today that Hilton “is the first major hotel chain” to reach a deal with the union after 18 months without a contract in place.

I know the ASA had to make a decision at some point and couldn’t wait around for the hotels and unions to reach a deal. Even though Chicago would have been an excellent location, Las Vegas should be fun in its own way.

When religious faith and unions come together

Even though unions represent a relatively small percent of today’s American workers, they tend to draw a lot of attention. A story from the Chicago Tribune adds another dimension to the discussion: what happens when unions and faith mix?

Faith and work are inextricably linked for most of the working class, said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“For a lot of these folks, if a business doesn’t provide health care, it could be characterized as not taking care of the stranger on the road. It’s a sin,” said Bruno, who interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers in Chicago for his 2008 book, “Justified by Work: Identity and the Meaning of Faith in Chicago’s Working-Class Churches.”

About 91 percent of union members believe in God, and 25 percent pray several times a day, Bruno found in a survey of union members he conducted from 2005 to 2006. Eighty percent believe God performs miracles in the world today…

Organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice work to close the gap between low-wage workers, who tend to have a more emotional connection to their faith, and corporate executives, who, he said, have been found to see religion more intellectually.

“They try to bring the argument to the modern-day pharaohs,” he said. “‘Hey, you claim to be Christian, you claim to be a Jew, you claim to be Muslim, why are you treating your people this way? You can’t hide behind your glass office.'”

This immediately brings several questions to mind:

1. What percentage of union actions or labor strikes are motivated by religious values? In other words, how often are unions motivated by religion versus other motivations?

2. What happens when a union makes a religious argument to corporate executives? Do the corporations just ignore this part of the argument? What happens when the executive or the company is also religious – does this lead to a different corporate response?

3. How would a typical evangelical, one that lives in the suburbs, works in a non-blue collar job, and is conservative, respond to these arguments? Can corporations sin? Should or can unions be making these arguments?