AFL-CIO SECRETARY TREASURER: “YOUTH FACE AN ABYSS NOW”

Here’s my Nation interview with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler on the challenges facing youth and the labor movement:

Do you see the attack on public workers as a consequence of the decline in private sector unionization?

Definitely. The density question is the biggest and most important challenge we have in front of us. How do we grow? And we’re basically in a defensive posture in every state. It’s not only attacks on the public sector and collective bargaining – it’s prevailing wage laws, it’s voting rights, it’s everything you can think of being thrown at us.

Check it out.

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WORKING TOGETHER THEY GET THE JOB DONE

Yesterday in San Francisco , I passed a 5 year-old with a “Bob the Builder” T-Shirt and I had to ask the friend I was with (who had himself canvassed Joe the Plumber) whether this with McCain and Company merchandise. More up on British children’s TV than me, he informed me that Bob the Builder was a TV personality long before Joe the Plumber, and that given his favored call-and-response – “Can We Fix It? Yes We Can!” – he must be an Obama voter too. More good news: The Fun Is In Getting It Done.

STAND BY ME

One of the less than super features of my six years at the high school formerly known as Akiba Hebrew Academy was the seemingly endless succession of assemblies hosting guest speakers from organizations like the ZOA speaking on topics like the caginess of Arabs and the awesomeness of what we’ve since learned to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then my senior year I organized a human rights conference that included Ian Lustick, a Zionist with some concerns about human rights in Israel, and I got called into the Principal’s office and told that he didn’t like having controversial speakers without counterbalancing speakers there to offer “the other side” (in the end I was able to negotiate a compromise where Lustick would speak alone after an Ahmadinejad-at-Columbia-style introduction from the Headmaster and Lustick and Daniel Pipes would be invited to have a debate at Akiba later on).

A couple months later, the Headmaster announced that everyone in the school would be bussed to an “Israel Solidarity Rally” downtown. After a bunch of kids objected to being forced to participate in a rally defending the Likud government from criticism, Akiba agreed to let kids who wanted to skip the rally and stay at school to watch Exodus and think about what they’d done. A couple months after that, Akiba’s administration announced at my graduation that everyone in the Class of 2002 would receive a copy in the mail at college of Myths and Facts About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (“Myth: Palestinians. Fact: Israelis.”).

All this came to mind when I opened my e-mail and saw an e-mail circulating amongst Akiba Alumni to “Seek neutrality on political issues at Akiba.” What instigated it? Apparently some of my more right-wing friends were appalled that Akiba sent out an e-mail announcing an event hosted by the insufficiently-Likud-friendly New Israel Fund.

THE DIGNITY OF YOUTH

I’m no fan of hipsterdom (it says a lot that it takes preppy-ism to make hipsterdom look goood, sort of like it takes feudalism to make laissez-faire capitalism look good). But this David Brooks column railing against hipster parents who dress their kids in hipster outfits is just silly (makes John Tierney look good – almost). To read Brooks, you’d think that the hipsters were the first and only parents to impose their particular culture on their children. Everybody else must just dress their kids in what they’d be wearing in the state of nature, right? What with all the sneering about the counterculture’s dupes, he never quite gets around to specifying what that should be – just that it has something to do with “the dignity of youth.”

I’ll take a baby T-shirt that says “My Mom’s Blog Is Better Than Your Mom’s Blog” over one with a big Nike swoosh any day.

ANYBODY CAN SERVE

Anya Kamanetz has a great piece in the Times criticizing the role of unpaid internships in reinforcing inequality and discouraging assertion of material needs by employees and future employees. As she observes, these internships, because they require taking an economic loss during the summer to pay for cost of living while receiving no wage, function as a luxury good available largely to the already privileged – and at the same time, they serve as crucial qualifications for future employment. So they make it easier for the most fortunate among us to stay that way (inadequate financial aid systems are part of the problem as well). And at the same time, these internships support the sense that if you truly care about something, you shouldn’t care about getting paid for it. Which is easier not to care about when you don’t need the money. As Dana Goldblatt observed, “By letting myself be exploited, I’m actually exploiting others.”

Over at Campus Progress, Asheesh notes that progressive organizations are often stretched thin as it is. That’s indisputable. But the unwillingness of so many groups on the left to economically support those potential summer interns who can’t work for free evidences a failure to take a long-term strategic interest in building our base and diversifying the leadership of our movements. And it’s an unfortunate example of the lack in many corners of the modern American left of a systematic account of class and the role it plays in modern American life.

That problem was all too clear when I asked the president of a leading environmental group why the movement wasn’t more diverse and she responded that her group could only recruit “joiners.”

It’s also clear in the valorization by many on the left of an ethic of volunteerism as the ultimate foundation of civic life. I’m all for community service. But statements that make unpaid service out to be the most noble of activities obscure this country’s dependence on the men and women who do critical work for long hours teaching children and caring for patients and serving food and get paid (though not enough) – because if they weren’t being paid, they couldn’t provide for themselves and their families. Volunteerism, as it all too often gets discussed, is a classed ideal, and its valorization to the exclusion of other forms of service leads us to identify as community leaders primarily wealthy people who make contributions that require little sacrifice.

Absolutely, everyone should seek ways to use their time away from work to reduce injustice – though having students clean the windows of public schools together once a year is a less effective way to do that than having them get together and try to figure out why no one in their community is being hired to clean the schools’ windows and how that should be changed. But whether it’s community service or political advocacy, progressives do a disservice to our values and to our community when we valorize first the work that doesn’t pay (this is part of why I’m so excited about Students for a New American Politics).

In high school, when I led our school’s contingent to Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, we got T-shirts with Dr. King’s quote that “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” King was absolutely right. But his point is often misunderstood. “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve,” he continues, “You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

King’s words are a much-needed reminder that we can best overcome divisions through shared projects of social justice. Unfortunately, just as imposing professional qualifications on service would render the ideal inaccessible to many people, imposing the requirement that service be uncompensated to be laudable reinforces already existing divisions. So does the claim made by too many liberals that social justice is about selfless acts for others by those with nothing to gain themselves. Such a definition will always privilege those who have less stake in their struggles and obscure those who take tremendous risks to fight for a stronger community for themselves and their neighbors.

THE WAR ON RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

A few days ago, I watched Bill O’Reilly assure viewers of his TV show that Christians had won the War on Christmas (TM). “Christians have the right to defend their traditions,” he said triumphantly.

It’s easy to laugh at the excesses of the War on Christmas crusaders (Dan chronicled them well here). But it’s a campaign that’s worth paying attention to. It serves as a sobering reminder of how many of the standard-bearers of the right believe themselves to be spokesmen for a righteous majority besieged by hostile religious, sexual, and racial minorities.

Behind the rhetoric about religious freedom, the demand of the War on Christmas crusaders, as articulated by their most earnest advocates, is that both public and private employees greet people of all religions as if they were Christians. They want schools encouraging teachers to say “Merry Christmas” to their students and department stores encouraging check-out clerks to say it to customers. Having them say the “Happy Holidays” instead, which merely acknowledges the possibility of a multiplicity of religious observances, is to be seen as religious persecution of Christians.

Bill O’Reilly showed a Wal-Mart commercial in which “Merry Christmas” appeared on screen, but declared it only to be a step in the right direction from Wal-Mart because it appeared with the hated “Happy Holidays” and neither was mentioned in the voice-over. This is a few weeks after he showed a (year-old) clip of Samantha Bee on the Daily Show joking about separation of church and state and then sneered “Merry Christmas, Jon Stewart.”

So what we’re facing is self-appointed spokespeople for a majority insisting that everyone, be they members of the majority or not, speak as if that majority encompassed everyone in the country.

As for the real desecration of the values of Christ this holiday season, not a creature on the “religious right” is stirring, not even a mouse.

A generation ago, my Dad got kicked out of his first grade classroom for refusing to write a letter to Santa Claus. Unfortunately, that’s still what some people have in mind when they say “family values.”

Happy holidays to all our readers.

ROBERTS’ RULES

Good news: Edith Brown Clement is not, for the moment, a nominee for the Supreme Court.

Bad news: I’m starting to miss her already.

John G. Roberts’ America is not one which does the best traditions of this country proud.

People for the American Way has compiled some of the reasons why. Among the more troubling of his arguments:

School-sponsored prayer at public school graduations poses no church-state problems because students swho don’t like it can just stay home from their graduations.

Congress can ban flag-burning without a free expression problem because bans don’t prohibit the “expressive conduct” of burning the flag – they just remove the flag as a prop with which to do it.

Arresting minors for crimes for which adults are given citations poses no equal protection challenge because minors are more likely to lie.

On choice, Roberts authored a government brief in Rust v. Sullivan that Roe “was wrongly decided and should be overturned.” As for the Lochner litmus test, he dissented from a D.C. Circuit Court case upholding the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act. And at least in Law School, he apparently took a very broad view of the “takings” clause, opening the door to dangerous judicious activism targeting popular economic regulations which protect the economic security of the American people.