Reality Check

Originally published at DigBoston.

By Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center and professor of Anthropology and Avi Chomsky, professor of history at Salem State University

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Massachusetts as a failed state, Boston as a failed city?

The idea that Massachusetts is a failed state and Boston a failed city sounds a bit absurd on the surface. Massachusetts is one of the wealthiest US states, boasts a highly educated population, and has a robust economy driven by technology, financial services, biotech, and some of the leading universities in the world. Massachusetts is also known as a liberal bastion, touting a commitment to the public good while boasting a progressive social agenda. And, in many ways, the city of Boston leads the way. A thriving metropolis, Boston sees itself as a leader in intellectual innovation, climate change initiatives, and healthcare reform, and is also proud of its progressive values.

And yet, it is precisely Massachusetts’s wealth and progressive character that makes the failure of government so glaring. Two of the defining features of “failed states”—something typically associated with conflict-ridden countries in the Third World—are the inability to provide public services and the lack of democratic institutions that allow for meaningful citizen participation. In many cases, as in Massachusetts, these two failures are directly connected. The state’s inability to provide core public goods such as transportation, housing, education, and healthcare is a result of a closed political system that serves entrenched interests and undermines the political will of the people. And, here again, Boston is the leader. The city’s unrivaled economic inequality, its reputation for racism, its traffic, and its crumbling system of public education are all tied to state and local institutions that are effectively closed boxes shut off from public input or influence (whether it be the legislature, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the MBTA, etc.).

This failure has been a long time coming, but its visible manifestations have recently become particularly acute for a simple reason: All of our fundamental public goods and services—transportation, housing, education, and healthcare—are simultaneously in crisis. And crisis in one area tends to compound or expose crisis in others. A crumbling transportation system, for example, puts further stress on already debilitated systems of education, housing, and healthcare. We are in a downward spiral that is making the path out more difficult by the day. What is even more troubling is that despite the clarity of the crisis, our government remains closed off from meaningful popular participation and therefore not only lacks the will and capacity to fund public goods but to pass legislation that addresses the fundamental issues at stake. Massachusetts is a failed state.

Take transportation. Massachusetts political leaders have for decades doubled down on a car-first vision, leaving Boston with the worst traffic in the nation and a system of public transportation that is inadequate, unreliable, out of date, and even unsafe. Failed public transportation, in turn, forces more people into cars and onto roads, intensifying a race to nowhere that has us stuck in place while breathing toxic fumes. It also serves to undermine the state’s limited efforts to combat climate change.

To the extent that we are moving at all, it is in the wrong direction. While other states and cities are confronting transportation crises throughout the nation, Massachusetts political leaders are either missing in action or driving us off the cliff. Gov. Baker and Mayor Walsh have essentially abdicated leadership, in effect opposing efforts to incentivize people to drive less and use public transportation more. Under current conditions, taking the bus, subway, or rail is to run the risk of arriving to work late, getting stranded completely, or falling off the tracks altogether. Political leadership is precisely what is needed if we want to make the changes necessary to make public transportation a realistic option for most people.

On the one hand, congested roads and dysfunctional public transportation serve to raise housing costs in urban areas as people concentrate in certain locales to avoid soul-crushing commutes. On the other hand, outrageous housing costs force working people out of the city and farther from work sites, driving cars they cannot afford greater distances in order to secure rents that allow them to survive. Yet, despite the fact that voters throughout the state consistently point to the housing crisis as the most important issue facing the Commonwealth, politicians have done little to address the problem in any systematic way. Last year Gov. Baker proposed a bill that lawmakers failed to pass because it didn’t go far enough—and so they did nothing.

Mayor Walsh has at times talked a good game and helped create over 30,000 homes with tens of thousands more in the pipeline. But far too few are affordable, and there seems to be little political will to confront the problem or even recognize that government has a responsibility to ensure people are adequately housed. The consequence of inaction—of letting the free market and backroom deals through an old boy network reign—is a development landscape that reproduces inequality through glittery monstrosities such as the Seaport District while forcing more poor people into homelessness. The state’s homeless population jumped 14% in 2018. Working families are struggling to survive as their income is devoured by rent and the dream of home ownership slips away, and even the upwardly mobile are leaving the region for more affordable and transit-friendly locales.

Nor can we take solace in our educational system. To quote a Boston Globe headline, “Beacon Hill lawmakers have been shortchanging the education of students nearly $1 billion a year,” a fact that has disproportionately hurt low-income students, students of color, and recent immigrants. Less than one in three black and Latino fourth graders read at grade level, and only 28% of low-income eighth graders are on grade level in math. This is not entirely surprising. Massachusetts “is no longer among the states that direct more state and local dollars to the districts serving the most low-income students,” and Boston schools are more segregated than they were when the tumultuous process of desegregation tore apart the city decades ago.

Nor are those students likely to catch up if they manage to make their way to the state’s underfunded public colleges and universities. Our political leaders cut funding for higher education by 14% between 2001 and 2017, the cost of which was passed on to students who now leave college with around $30,000 in debt. Average student debt has grown faster in Massachusetts than in all states but one, and the state ranks near the bottom in terms of higher education support per $1,000 of personal income. What that means is that despite being a relatively wealthy state, our political leaders have been very stingy when it comes to funding public higher education. Massachusetts is failing the students of working families at every stage of the educational process, from preschool through college.

Finally, if there is irony in an educational system that fails our students while boasting the best universities in the world, this is no less true when it comes to a cutting edge healthcare system that many people simply cannot afford. Passed in 2006, Romneycare—Massachusetts’s failed attempt at universal healthcare—was so plagued by increasing costs that legislators were forced to address it again by 2012. They whiffed the second time around as well. Healthcare costs continue to balloon, and although Massachusetts has among the lowest percentage of uninsured people in the country, more than a third reported going without needed healthcare despite having insurance, nearly half have trouble gaining access to care, and about the same reported financial problems due to healthcare costs. Despite the transparency of the crisis, the state’s policy makers continue to fail to take steps to address the fundamental contradictions in our healthcare system.

What this means, in short, is that the progressive reputation of Massachusetts and Boston is largely a facade that hides a meaner reality and helps allow the state and city to disregard their responsibility for the public good. The convergence of crises—the simultaneous failure of all our major public services—obviously impacts people with lower incomes disproportionately. Yet, in different ways, pretty much everyone who works for a living depends on publicly supported healthcare, education, transportation, and housing to survive and thrive. Even for the more affluent, who have become particularly adept at insulating themselves by opting out of public services (through private schools, healthcare, etc.), there are consequences. Fancy cars and private services only get you so far if you cannot breathe the air or get from one place to the next. More than this, we have to ask ourselves: Do we really want to live in a failed state where the rich and powerful ensconce themselves in a world of private schools and gated communities while a sea of dispossessed serve their needs and are locked out in every other way? We are on our way.

This failure, moreover, goes beyond lack of funding for basic services. Boston was quick, for example, to declare itself a sanctuary city in 2017, but the state still cannot pass common-sense pro-immigration laws (in-state tuition, drivers’ licenses, safe communities). Nor has Massachusetts managed to pass a wage theft bill to ensure that all workers get paid and immigrant workers in particular are not preyed upon. Likewise, Massachusetts is generally progressive on legal rights for the LBGTQ community and was the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. And yet nearly a third of LBGTQ youth of color are unemployed and food insecure. We are at times able to pass progressive bills with important symbolic implications, but legislation that even moderately challenges the status quo or confronts powerful economic interests rarely sees the light of day.

This failure is not due to a lack of financial or human resources. We have the money. And there are plenty of hardworking nonprofits, labor unions, and other progressive organizations that have relentlessly agitated for meaningful public policy. They, in turn, have been supported by sympathetic legislators.

How, then, is it possible that these progressive forces nonetheless find themselves continually pushing the legislative rock up Beacon Hill only to see it roll back down year after year? Why can’t we pass and implement the sorts of policies we need and that most Massachusetts citizens support?

The answer is multifaceted and is not disconnected from entrenched interests who seek to control government for their own benefit. It lies at least in part on Beacon Hill and in a legislative process where power is concentrated in a few hands that prevent progressive legislation from making it to the floor for a vote or even debate. Progressive legislators have been trying for years to transform the rules in order to loosen the authoritarian grip of a small cadre of leaders such as House Speaker Robert DeLeo and essentially free up the legislative process. Similar efforts have been tried (and largely failed) with respect to the other major institutions that run our systems of healthcare, transportation, education, and housing. Our collective inability to democratize state institutions that remain closed off to public participation has contributed to a failed state that lacks the capacity to provide even basic public services. We deserve better. We should demand better.

 

The Music, the Mayor…and the Urban Mission: Reflecting on UMB Convocation 2019

By Joseph G. Ramsey, English and American Studies

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In preparation for this year’s Convocation guest speaker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, UMass Boston music professor and chamber singers conductor, David Giessow, prepared a special program of music and an accompanying slideshow. Framed by harmonized Irish blessings–in recognition of the Mayor’s Irish immigrant heritage–the heart of the presentation was a moving rendition of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” set to music arranged by Irving Berlin.

While the chorus sang, their words appeared on the projection screen above: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” As the undergraduate soloist’s melody cascaded into blended waves of choral harmonies, the slideshow above moved to powerful images accenting the song’s theme.

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First: black and white photos of Irish and other European immigrants coming ship-bound to American shores at the turn of the 20th century. Then second: color images of contemporary refugees, mainly from Latin America, seeking asylum in the USA, some locked behind cages of wire. And then after that came quotes from the Boston Globe, and then from Mayor Walsh himself, about the importance of making Boston a “sanctuary city,” a place that is welcome to people from all across the world–in stark contrast to the nasty xenophobic border fascism being pushed by the current US Executive-in-Chief.

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It was an incredibly moving way to start 2019’s Convocation ceremonies here at UMass Boston, where our student body hails from 140 different countries, and where we try to take ideas like inclusion, diversity, equity, and social justice seriously. What a terrific blend of musical performance, history, education, and ethical principles. What a powerful reminder of what UMass Boston is supposed to be about–and why folks like Marty Walsh should be doing all they can to support us, being himself a child of working-class immigrants, and a first generation college student.

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But then, after presenting this humanistic, moving musical/visual/historical montage, Professor David Giessow did something else. He spoke, briefly, about how this very chamber singers’ course that had just done UMB proud and moved us to tears, how this very class–as of a few months prior–was on the verge of potentially being cancelled for “low enrollment.” Earlier in August, when he was first asked to have his chamber singers present at Convocation, there were only 8 students enrolled, a fact that–in these days of bean counting and budget cuts–too often puts liberal arts classes at UMass Boston, our state underfunded, debt-burdened public university–on the chopping block. Luckily, for us all, the chamber singers were not cut–at least not this time around—and, even luckier, Giessow was able to recruit another dozen diversely talented singers to his course. And we all benefited today, from the Mayor on down.

But what about next time? What about the coming round of “belt-tightening” that we have been promised?

With this mix of music, images and timely comments, Prof. Giessow offered us a powerful testament to what is so precious about the mission of UMass Boston–a mission that goes well beyond the current dogma about “workforce development.”  And he also reminded us of something else: how the very music that moves us is being put at risk by the climate of austerity and cutbacks that continues to reign on our campus.

enough is enough

 

What is open bargaining and why should the FSU embrace it?

Every three years, our union bargains with the administration to come up with a new contract. This process, which drags on for months and even years, takes commitment and perseverance from the FSU  bargaining team as they face UMB administrators and their lawyers. At the end, members receive a tentative agreement and vote to ratify it.

Although negotiating behind closed doors is rarely questioned, the process has many drawbacks . Rank and file faculty and librarians are minimally aware of what is at stake at the bargaining table. The bargaining team is small, meaning that there are gaps in expertise.  The team is also stretched thin, unable to pursue all avenues for fact-finding and outreach. And the administration does not have to confront the real power behind the union: a large, diverse, and formidable membership.

Fortunately, there is successful precedent for an alternative model of bargaining.  Across the state and country, unions like ours have adopted open bargaining to combat these problems.  Rank and file union members and even non-union community members are invited into the negotiating sessions to observe and testify. Members are involved in every step of the process. Open bargaining lends the union legitimacy and real power – power that we give up by continuing to bargain behind closed doors.

At Rutgers, the faculty union utilized open bargaining in their recent victory.  The transition to open bargaining started after a tentative agreement got a lot of NO votes (much as happened with our parking contract in the Fall). That was a wake-up call to make bargaining more transparent and accountable and to mobilize members throughout the process. Even before bargaining began, members held workshops and wrote white papers with others in the university community, including students. During bargaining, members did not just sit silently in the back row. Some made compelling presentations about particular issues, giving more people a direct stake in the process.

Did management like this? Absolutely not. No longer free to make outrageous demands behind closed doors, at Rutgers management even walked out of a few bargaining sessions. Faculty unions that adopt open bargaining have to be ready for that. Bottom line is that through open bargaining the union shows its collective strength in the face of an administration that wishes to divide us.

In addition to Rutgers, many other faculty unions engage in open bargaining, including faculty at Temple University and adjunct and part-time faculty unions organized by the Service Employees International Union. The Massachusetts State College Association, which represents state universities like Worcester State, Framingham State and Salem State, has just voted to adapt open bargaining. In addition, many of the K-12 unions in Massachusetts use open bargaining and the Massachusetts Teachers Association endorses it.  As educators are discovering the power of collective action, now is the time for the FSU to adopt open bargaining!

 

Statement of Solidarity with GEO at UIC

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The Caucus for a Democratic Union at the University of Massachusetts Boston expresses its solidarity with and support for the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) currently on strike. Over 1500 Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants at UIC have been working without a contract for over 5 months, and GEO has been in negotiations with the university administration for over one year. Graduate workers at UIC live in a state of constant financial anxiety, often not knowing whether they will continue to have a job appointment each semester, and making as little as $18,000 while simultaneously having to pay $2,000 in university fees, even when serving as the lead instructor for classes of up to 60 undergraduate students.

On March 19, the GEO began an indefinite strike to win a fair contract! The CDU supports the GEO and urges UIC university administration to pay its workers a living wage!

You can find more information about the strike here. 

The GEO is also asking for donations to its strike fund to ensure they can hold out against the university administration for however long it takes to win living wages, fee waivers, and transparent appointment policies. Please consider making a contribution by visiting their strike fund website.

Teach-in sessions organized by CDU take up racial and gender equity, solidarity across ranks

By Sofya Aptekar, Sociology

For the third year, UMass Boston hosted the Resisting Systemic Oppression Teach-in, organized by a grassroots group of faculty. This year’s theme was Solidarity in Action. CDU members organized two teach-in sessions: (1) Racial and Gender Equity in Unions: My Union Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit and (2) Solidarity Across Ranks.

The session on racial and gender equity featured a panel of UMB faculty and CDU members, a UMB grad student organizer, and two faculty members and union organizers from Worcester State University. We organized this session because of shared frustrations with our own unions. For example, we talked about being in white-male-dominated unions representing women-dominated faculty, and how privilege gets used to reinforce itself. In all of our unions, procedures get weaponized to replicate systems of oppression. In this way, criticisms of the union’s lack of engagement with racial inequities can get buried under the suddenly-relevant minutiae of Robert’s Rules of Order. Marginalized faculty are told to form a committee, the work of the committee is ignored, the existence of the committee gets pointed to as evidence that the union did something. Rinse and repeat.

Racial and gender equity in unions panel

Another issue is the default image of the worker. Who is the worker imagined by union leadership? Which identities are institutionalized? All too often, workplace issues central to the experiences of people of color and white women are bracketed out of the union’s purview. Yet, these are the most precarious academic workers. Linda Liu, one of the CDU panelists, pointed out how activist faculty who are women and people of color are likened to naïve children by union leadership. The focus of business unionism is so narrowly defined that it makes sense for people not to get involved.     

At a time of a resurgence of the labor movement, we risk replicating structures of oppression. Without a focus on intersectionality, people of color and white women are sacrificed in the name of unity. How do we make sure not to repeat these mistakes in our progressive union caucuses?

The section on Solidarity Across Ranks came together as an effort to create room for an open conversation between graduate student workers and faculty of different ranks. When the administration’s strategy is to divide and conquer, pitting grad students against faculty and NTT faculty against TT faculty, we wanted to explore our common ground as workers in the same struggle. Each constituent described some of their most pressing workplace issues, followed by a dialogue.

Solidarity across ranks panelGraduate student employees do an increasing amount of teaching on our campus, as well as nationwide. At UMass Boston, the teaching positions are budgeted in different ways and there are no set rules about how to get a job on campus. This contributes to conflicts around the availability of teaching positions, needed by many of our graduate students to survive financially. There is a felt tension between graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty, particularly the most vulnerable associate lecturers, who can lose their livelihoods on short notice. As elsewhere, the administration and even many faculty frame graduate student teaching as an apprenticeship. GEO members point out that that this concept is used to silence student worker organizing and is particularly vacuous because most of our grad students do not plan to go into academia. Graduate students are stuck in the conflicting roles of employees, customers, and products of the neoliberal university.

All faculty were previously graduate students and most were also graduate student workers. Two CDU members spoke about the working conditions of NTT and pre-tenure tenure-track faculty. Non-tenure-track faculty, who are really the tenure-excluded faculty, were rarely socialized to expect a non-tenure track position upon earning their graduate degrees. And yet, given the dramatic growth of the academic proletariat, that is what most face, along with catastrophic loan debt. The issues of NTT workers include unfair compensation but also lack of recognition and respect. At UMB, NTT faculty are the majority of faculty. They have heavier teaching loads, get paid less, and live with job insecurity (especially the growing share of associate lecturers). They are excluded from faculty governance and underrepresented in the union leadership.

Pre-tenure faculty have a precarious hold on the tenure track. At UMB, they are often buried in service work, as staff is continually downsized and faculty takes on the additional tasks of running programs. At the same time, they are expected to produce original research, publishing articles and books, all while teaching, advising, and supervising student workers. Tenure-track faculty are paid to perform teaching, research, and service, so while it might seem that they do half the teaching of NTT faculty, teaching is only a portion of their contracted work. If they get tenure – which most do at UMB – the service load becomes truly overwhelming, particularly for women faculty. Of course, NTT faculty also do service and research, but that work is unpaid and unrecognized in our workplace.  

This teach-in session created an all-too-rare space for us to have these conversations. One takeaway is to be aware of the power structure in which we are embedded as we strive to work together. For instance, when graduate student workers speak up, they face not only the administration but their faculty supervisors. Another is our common mission to provide the best and most affordable education. Unfortunately, we neglected to invite anyone to represent our staff members – an oversight we will correct in the future.