Anne Lewis : Workers’ Rights and the Fight Against Poverty

Labor leader John L. Lewis testifies before Congress in 1947. Still image from archival film footage.

Poverty in America and the
attack on public sector unions

I want to ask a basic question that unifies religious, labor, and community organizations at the core. Why in this, the richest country in the world, are people poor?

By Anne Lewis / The Rag Blog / March 10, 2011

The labor movement has rarely won anything without the social movement, and the social movement has rarely won anything without the labor movement. One often cited example is Dr. King’s 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom initiated by A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

If you have any doubts about the necessity of a combined effort, watch this archival film of John L. Lewis when he testified before Congress in 1947 about health care and pensions for miners paid by the coal companies.

The resulting welfare fund, hard fought at the grassroots level by miners and their families, was the most comprehensive health care that I can think of. I know because I was covered under it from the mid seventies to the eighties when it was lost under Reagan.

We frequently marginalize each other — social movement folks saying unions don’t matter anymore and condemning labor “bureaucrats” and union folks saying that social movement people don’t care about workers and have grandiose ideas of their own power. Some of us get downright schizophrenic dividing our lives into two segments. It’s time we stop this nonsense. We need to speak a common language.

I want to ask a basic question that unifies religious, labor, and community organizations at the core. Why in this, the richest country in the world, are people poor? Please think about how you might respond.

That same question was posed to a wide segment of people, rich and poor, in 2001. The NPR survey provides an analysis of public response to welfare reform (many of us called it deform) during the Clinton administration.

Here’s a table that asks whether it’s circumstances that create poverty or poor people themselves not doing enough. The percentages describe poverty level — we know it’s set way too low. In 2001 200% of poverty for a family of four was $34,000.

Then NPR asked folks to name the most important cause of poverty in the United States.

Number one is “the poor quality of public schools.”

At about the same time, the Heritage Foundation decided to prove poverty in the United States wasn’t a problem after all. The Heritage Foundation survey is titled, “Understanding Poverty in America.” Here’s the starting point.

The next bar graph compares the living space of poor people in the United States favorably to that of the average European.


Here are two more rational definitions of poverty:

Fundamentally, poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation. — United Nations

To meet nutritional requirements, to escape avoidable disease, to be sheltered, to be clothed, to be able to travel, and to be educated. — Amartya Sen

Better, right? We’re at least getting to the idea of living well and a more humane definition. Notably lacking is the mention of labor unions and collective action, although you could make the argument that the United Nations definition pushes us in that direction with language about effective participation, dignity, and jobs. The lack of worker organization isn’t mentioned in the NPR study. Neither is discrimination, race, ethnicity, or gender or environment or workers’ rights.

Would you have named lack of unionization or lousy labor law or something like that as an important reason why poverty exists in this country?

In July 2002, union members overall had a 20% higher hourly wage ($20.65 vs. $16.42). In blue-collar industry it was $18.88 vs. $12.95; in service occupations, $16.22 vs. $8.98. That’s not counting benefits. Those ratios have remained constant.

Currently nearly one in three public workers are union members compared with 6.9 percent of the workers in private-sector industries. These organized workers are under siege in Wisconsin, Puerto Rico, Indiana, Ohio, and here in Texas. Many work in public schools and universities. The occupation of the Wisconsin capitol started with 2,000 graduate teaching assistants and union members from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on Feb. 14. The attack on these workers and on the work that they do is tightly connected — and they are fighting back.

First, education is not, in and of itself, a cure for poverty. NPR poll aside, “Poor quality of public schools” is not the most important cause of poverty. We could go on and on about how good or bad our schools are, but lack of education is not the leading indicator of poverty.

As much as we’d like it to be so, there isn’t any substantial difference in the average wage of a high school graduate and a high school drop out. It’s considerably less than the boost from unionization. Remember unionization gave a worker at least a 20% boost in wages. A high school diploma gives a less than 15% boost.

The attack on teachers’ unions in this country has been absolutely barbaric and I believe it violates international standards of dignity and decency.

Unfortunately, the way we’ve been looking at education both at primary and secondary level is supply-side economics: improve the quality of workers through education and grow the quantity of quality workers– all for the rich employers — and they won’t be poor no more because the rich will take care of them. Well it doesn’t work that way any more than tax breaks for the rich have created an economy that benefits all of us.

All this talk about creating a competitive workforce for the global economy and endless debates about whether our public schools and universities do or don’t meet the demands of the marketplace is a bunch of hooey. But most folks believe this nonsense. Me too. When I think about our teen-age son’s future, I immediately think: will he finish high school; will his grades and SAT scores be high enough to get into a good college; what’s a high ranked college we can afford… and so on.

Even though I know darn well that there would be much better ways to go about making sure that our child has a good future — make sure that his nutrition is good, introduce him to cultural expression, work to strengthen our community with public transportation, public space, libraries, and museums, fight for the rights of public school workers and quality public schools, and fight for the rights of all workers, especially their right to organize.

The attack on teachers’ unions in this country has been absolutely barbaric and I believe it violates international standards of dignity and decency. I also believe there are large elements of sexism involved here. 70% of public school teachers are women overall. In Texas about 82% of elementary and middle school teachers are female. At UT, about 80% of full professors are male and about 60% of lecturers are female.

Working conditions for teachers are really lousy. Think about being the only adult in front of a class of 20 eight-year-olds and having to pee. Forced overtime — hours worked without pay are unbelievable — and pay isn’t so great. Wisconsin teachers average about $40,000 a year. Lecturers in my department, which is unusually well paid, start at $6,500 a class and are only allowed two classes a semester and two semesters a year. That’s $26,000 a year for what works out to be full time work with an unpaid leave over the summer.

Still image from archival film of John Lewis testifying before Congress in 1947.

In 2002, No Child Left Behind began a new attack in the name of school reform by devaluing teachers in the name of accountability. It was really insidious. It told teachers what to say in their classrooms (teachers in low performance schools are scripted like actors these days); used corporate standardized tests to tell teachers what to teach; it bought curriculum prescribed by corporations (yes folks like Pearson Education, Houghlin Mifflin, and The Pet Goat publisher McGraw Hill use the language of illness as though kids are sick and they’re doctors); and emphasized charter schools and privatization as salvation. And it’s not just the Republicans. Think of Arne Duncan and the Race to the Top.

Now I would agree that our public schools have failed Latino and African American and working class children. That’s one of the reasons that so many parents fought for integration. We know that separate is not equal. Now we have further segregation of the schools in a system based on and currently exhibiting apartheid.

I don’t think the language is too extreme. A very interesting study explores the role of the Koch brothers of Wisconsin fame in defeating the Wake County, North Carolina, socio-economic integration plan. That plan was a model of quality education for all children for the country. The Kochs poured money into the school board race, cast the plan as communistic, and put in a new school board. They won and the children and teachers of Wake County lost big.

Then we have “Waiting for Superman,” which I watched at the Alamo Drafthouse South with a “progressive” Austin audience who giggled at those lazy teachers, cried and then rejoiced with the poor little black child who won a school lottery, and really dug the idea that the problem with the public school system was teacher tenure and their union. I resorted to drink.

Here’s a cartoon from Saving Our Schools from Superman that sums up the movie.

Saving our schools from Superman

At UT, our buildings are plastered with plaques that reveal the connections between the corporate world and higher education. We have the Accenture Endowed Excellence Fund; the Arthur Anderson and Co. Centennial Professorship; Austin Smiles Endowed Fellowship in Speech Pathology; Bank of America Centennial Professorship in Petroleum Engineering; Enstar Chair for Free Enterprise; La Quinta Motor Inns, Inc. Centennial Professorship in Nursing; the BP Exploration Classroom Endowment; Conoco Phillips Faculty Fellowship in Law; and so on.

We have a University President whose three legislative priorities are:

  • no disproportionate cuts (I guess it’s okay to cut education as long as we also let folks die on the streets);
  • support for the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund (dollar match for external research support);
  • and a new engineering building.

We have a legislature and a state governor that doen’t believe in public services at all — not education, not health care — not for children, not for the disabled, not for the elderly. They’re cutting off college scholarships and denying the rights of immigrants as well as working class students an education.

That’s the external world. The internal one at the University of Texas, Austin is that the budget crunch is used as an excuse to do what the higher-ups have wanted to do all along. Raise tuitions and cut programs that serve students and lay off lecturers, graduate students, and staff (we’re down to once a month office cleanings). Do away with the Identity Studies Centers that we fought to bring to the University — African American, Asian, Mexican American, women, and gender. Forget undergraduate education and turn us into an elite research institution.

We need to join every progressive force in this country into a movement that will finally put an end to the systemic destruction of educational opportunity and workers’ rights.

Before I summarize this rant, I wanted you to see a scene from an interview I did with the Director of Public Affairs, Martin Fox, at the National Right to Work Committee. That’s one of the main organizations that the Koch brothers fund and hang out with.

The clip is from a documentary I made in the context of the Pittston coal strike, which was about health care for retired and disabled miners and widows. “Justice in the Coalfields” is about the contradictions between individual and collective rights and what justice means.

The clip begins with a map of right to work states — you’ll be hearing a lot about that in the next few months. It ends with Bradley McKenzie who led a student walkout in support of the miners. He became a non-union coal miner because there were no union jobs, but his ideas express solidarity at its core. In between is Martin Fox who handled press communications for the Committee at the time.

Martin Fox was a proud member of the National Rifle Association. I know this because I watched him get in his car, with a customized license plate that read “GETAGUN.” Martin Fox is now President of the National Pro Life Alliance and a priest. He holds forth on unions on his blog.

Who has the power to challenge these obscene thugs who have taken over our country? Who wants to challenge them?

Well we do. The “we” is organized labor — public worker unions. Really, we’re not providing state “services.” We’re providing public necessities. We’re helping the social movement create a vision of a more decent world that includes the working class. And when we collectively fight for ourselves to have decent pay and decent working conditions and democratic control in the work place, we’re not in contradiction with the public good. We’re supporting it.

There are a lot of us. The Texas State Employees Union TSEU-CWA local 1686 has 12,000 members in Texas. We have large numbers of women and African Americans and Latinos. Discrimination has been slightly less in the public sector and these workers are more likely to join a union because of a history of struggle. AFT has 57,000 members in Texas and TSTA has 65,000 members. And there are state workers organized by AFSCME and other unions.

Those of us in the labor movement and those of us in the social movement have got to get to know each other. We need to practice democracy together and work together. We need to join every progressive force in this country into a movement that will finally put an end to the systemic destruction of educational opportunity and workers’ rights.

There’s a great line at the end of a Committees of Correspondence statement on Wisconsin:

And to the workers of Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio: our heartfelt thanks — may your occupation of the statehouses foretell the day when you become the governors.

[Anne Lewis is an independent filmmaker associated with Appalshop, senior lecturer at UT-Austin, and member of TSEU-CWA Local 6186 and NABET-CWA. She is the associate director of Harlan County, U.S.A and the producer/director of Fast Food Women, To Save the Land and People, Morristown: in the air and sun, and a number of other social issue and cultural documentaries. Her website is]

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10 Responses to Anne Lewis : Workers’ Rights and the Fight Against Poverty

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Anne–Thanks so much for for your excellent presentation at the 5604 Manor forum on public sector budget cuts. I’m so glad now to have it in print so I can look back at the facts and stats and refer to them. Timely reminder of labor history and workers’ struggles. It’s not just Wisconsin that is energizing us. It’s local activists like you, too!

  2. T.G. Fisher says:

    A multi-millionaire CEO, a union member and a Tea Party “patriot” were sitting at a small table. Before they lay 12 cookies. The multi-millionaire grabbed eleven of them and gobbled them up. Then he turned to the Tea Party “patriot” and asked, “You are not going to let that greedy union thug eat the last cookie, are you?” Let’s all sing, “That’s AMERICA to me.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    mr. tg fisher , you say it like it is. but you know it really isn’t about eating up that last cookie is it?

  4. Public sector unions are finally being reigned in. About time. Governments are all too happy to buy support from union members and union money through negotiated compensation and conditions. After all governments dont have to turn a profit to stay in business, and they have no competition. If they need more money, they simply take it from taxpayers. The taxpayers, who are footing the bill, have no seat at the table.

    Public employee unions in non right to work states, are nothing more than legalized payola.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Replying to comment from Extremist: If “right to work” laws are the solution, why does TX have a $27 b deficit, dwarfing the one that Wisconsin faces? Wake up and drink some coffee.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You brought up an excellent point that I hadn’t thought about: the sexism that permeates the current attacks on public sector unions! Excellent analysis, overall.


  7. Brother Jonah says:

    And perhaps that could be explained away without something that sounds a whole lot like Squealers Speeches from Animal Farm.

    Or how even after 3 DECADES of consistent union-busting, consistent decline of public assistance, consistent cutting of Public Schools, Public Transportation, public anything really,

    Consistent slashing of those bad ol’ strangulation-regulation OSHA and EPA rules,…

    Somehow with all that Invisible Hand Horseshit being the law of the land for 30 years the economy went Down instead of Up.

    A “conservative’ (by people who conserve absolutely nothing) estimate puts 80 percent of the wealth in the hands of less than ten percent of the population.
    More “radical” (Oh My God! Not the RADICAL!!!) estimate places 85% of the wealth in the hands of 5%.

    So the people who control at the most 20% of the wealth would be the ones who broke the economy, even though we, unlike the 5-percenters, have no personal say in the economy.

    Yeah, right.

  8. Anonymous says:

    obama, the perfect man that is. BS coming outta’ both sides of his mouth!!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Your revolution is over, Ms. Lewis. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, Mam.

  10. Anne Lewis says:

    I made a rule never to respond to anyone who doesn’t even have the moral fortitude to use their own name. Anyway, anonymous, I think the last time I heard comments of this type directed at me was 1972. Have to say you pegged me wrong in both class and level of privilege. Been working since I was 16, still working at age 63, and even proud of some of those jobs. Happy 4th!

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