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America’s broken promises

Core American institutions are under assault. We need a new wave of progressive public policies to protect them

July 4, 2014 12:00AM ET

This Fourth of July, some of the defining institutions that make America a great society are being attacked — not by a foreign foe but by those who place corporate interests and elite privilege over the common good of ordinary Americans. The right to vote, a free public education and the right to organize are all falling prey to right-wing ideologues who seek to profit off privatization and discrimination. The holiday, then, is not merely an occasion for gobbling hot dogs and watching fireworks. It is also a time to celebrate the ideals that rest at the core of our national identity and think about how they can continue to thrive for years to come.

Fierce battles

The right to vote is foundational to our nation’s identity. Many of our fiercest battles have been waged over the extension of that right — from the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing black men the franchise, to the expansion of the vote to women in 1919 with the 19th Amendment, to the reinforcement of the rights of all African-Americans with the Voting Rights Act.

Today few Americans would openly dispute that every citizen deserves a vote. But if we are truly committed to this freedom, we must proactively work against any attempts to suppress it.

In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned key elements of the Voting Rights Act, saying states that had historically discriminated against African-American voters were no longer required to seek federal approval before amending their voting laws. Immediately, nine Southern, GOP-dominated states moved to pass voter ID bills and other measures that restrict access to the polls. Republicans claim that these measures are needed to prevent fraud at the polls, but there’s no evidence that existing laws to deter fraud aren’t working. Instead, the real impact of these new bills is to discourage citizens from exercising their right to vote. And studies have shown that they disproportionately affect people of color and low income.

We should be looking for solutions on both sides of the aisle to expand voting rights, not restrict them

Not coincidentally, these groups lean Democratic in their voting preferences, while the laws restricting access to the vote have overwhelmingly been promoted by Republicans. As political scientist Scott Lemieux says, the true reason for these bills is simple: “Vote suppression. That’s it.”

Given that we have plenty of room for improvement in encouraging more Americans to vote, we should be looking for solutions on both sides of the aisle to expand voting rights, not restrict them.

Education for all

For more than a century, the idea of public education has been a critical element of our democracy. Through a common system of education, the United States has managed to educate its populace to join in a shared democratic conversation. The strongest, most equitable period in modern American history, stretching from the New Deal into the 1970s, came after public education had become a basic social good available to all Americans.

Today this core institution is under attack by a disingenuous “education reform movement” that scapegoats unionized teachers instead of demanding adequate education funding or defending neighborhood schools. Rather than addressing all the pressures our education system is under — tightening budgets, decaying infrastructure, increasing diversity of our students — these self-styled reformers lay all the problems at the feet of supposedly lazy teachers and their unions.

Their solution, privately run charter schools, is hardly a panacea for the real problems in public education. While some charter school operators perform excellent work, the rapid expansion of the charter sector has resulted in a lack of real public oversight, with rampant fraud and abuse. As Reuters recently reported, many operators have adopted intricate screening processes, leaving the public schools to deal with the highest-need children — even as their privately managed counterparts often receive more funding.

In terms of test scores, charters tend to produce outcomes that are indistinguishable from those of public schools, failing on the whole to produce any demonstrable improvements that would justify shifting away from strong public oversight and a commitment to serving all kids in their neighborhood schools.

Fortunately, the forces of privatization are facing opposition. Last year in Pittsburgh a true reform movement took control of the locally controlled school district. Newly elected school board members canceled Teach for America contracts, which they felt denied students professional teachers, and rejected charter permits for those private management companies that they found inadequate. In November, a school board election in Bridgeport, Connecticut, ended the reign of Paul Vallas, who oversaw mass layoffs and school closures in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia. These victories show that it’s possible to organize against those who wish to undercut one of the last strong public institutions in America. 

Freedom of association

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly. These rights have been cherished by Americans for centuries — and from them grows the freedom of association. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated Americans’ propensity for voluntary self-organization. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite,” he noted, adding that there is “scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not unite for it.”

If we believe in this foundational freedom of association, we don’t get to choose who gets to exercise it and who doesn’t. For the middle and working classes in many states, unions have served as a crucial vehicle for advancing their rights in the workplace. But today these collective institutions are under assault by conservative politicians — backed by wealthy businesspeople (who enjoy the benefits of having their own associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce). While workplace associations allowed employees to enjoy unmatched prosperity in the middle decades of the 20th century, ordinary Americans today have largely been deprived of their right to organize and protect their economic interests.

A 2009 study by a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations demonstrates the success of that assault in suppressing union organizing. In more than one-third of union organizing drives, employees who are involved in the effort to unionize are subsequently fired. Though this sort of action by management is illegal, the punishments for employers who break the law are so minimal — often a paltry few thousand dollars in fines — that they provide little deterrent. Meanwhile, Republican legislators are promulgating so-called right-to-work laws (in Indiana and Michigan, for example), which reduce unions’ bargaining power by allowing some workers in a unionized workplace to opt out of joining the union and paying dues. This deliberate weakening of workers’ organizations, along with additional laws that deny public employees any right to represent their interests at work (in states such as Wisconsin), makes it hard for unions to survive. Given these developments, it’s not surprising that fewer than 50 percent of unfair labor practices are reported because workers fear retaliation.

The results speak for themselves. The New York Times reported earlier this year that corporate profits are the highest they’ve been in 85 years, and employee compensation is at its lowest point in 65 years.

These attacks on workers’ right to organize into unions are unacceptable. But beyond defending the right to unionize, updated policies are needed to expand the freedom of association to reflect the way people work today. Fewer people work in traditional factories and offices, while more and more are employed in contingent and flexible arrangements. Some are experimenting with new means of organizing. Innovators include workers’ centers such as the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and collective associations such as the Uber drivers of Seattle, who have affiliated with a Teamsters local without officially joining the union. Across America’s cities, unions are allying with community groups to bargain for rights — such as paid sick days and a $15 minimum wage — which will apply to all employees, regardless of whether they belong to a union or not.

Americans must remain vigilant in protecting the institutions that have allowed our democratic republic to flourish. The right to vote, universal free public education and the freedom to associate are a few of these institutions. We should all take a well-deserved day off and spend it with friends and family this Fourth of July; but we should also remember the original intent of the holiday and stand up to uphold America’s democratic values.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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