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Beaten Down, Worked up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

For the American middle class, it’s been a demoralizing few decades. The cost of living has risen as wages have stagnated and blue-collar jobs have disappeared, devastating communities. While corporate profits and CEO salaries have exploded to record heights, the majority of jobs available are insecure and low paid. Simultaneously, the power of working people to come together and hold businesses accountable has also faded. All these trends are not coincidental, and as many Americans watch more money and power shift from the hands of the many to a privileged few, they are getting fed up.

In his book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (Alfred A. Knopf), Steven Greenhouse explores how the labor movement over the last century has been essential to transferring power and dignity from elites back to working people. A former New York Times reporter on labor and workplace issues, he chronicles organized labor’s greatest triumphs and its long decline starting in the 1980s. But he argues there is still reason to hope for a safe and secure future for every American—and that worker voice is the key.

From the 1909 New York garment workers’ strike for safer working conditions to the 1968 Memphis sanitation employees’ fight for respect and dignity, Greenhouse highlights cases where workers have united. Interspersed with stories of families today struggling under multiple jobs, minimal pay, and unfair working conditions, Greenhouse emphasizes the ongoing need for organized labor, contradicting the claim that unions are outdated or unnecessary.

But Greenhouse doesn’t shy away from the labor movement’s mistakes either. The decline in labor power, he writes, was preceded by complacency among leaders, a lack of emphasis on organizing new members, and sometimes even racist or classist attitudes. “If a workers’ movement is ever to rebound,” he warns, in addition to all-out efforts to organize, it will need to place far more emphasis on “increase[d] opportunity, upward mobility, and economic security.”

Despite past problems, Greenhouse cites grounds for optimism, like the multistate teacher strikes in 2018, the Fight for $15 campaign (spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union), and the effective labor-management model demonstrated by Kaiser Permanente. (For his chapter on the teacher strikes, see here.) These cases reflect Greenhouse’s final recommendations: that “labor should go back to first principles, and, as always, fight for fairness.” In other words, social and economic justice for all workers.

Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement

An enduring education program that has enabled myriad high school students to access a rigorous curriculum and earn college credit has a new book devoted to telling its story. Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present, and Future of Advanced Placement (Princeton University Press), by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Andrew E. Scanlan, chronicles the rise of the 60-year-old Advanced Placement (AP) program. Run by the nonprofit College Board, AP began as a way for privileged students to engage with high-level coursework. Over the years, Finn and Scanlan write, “it has gradually evolved into a significant player in the longest-running and most compelling reform impulse of all: to widen educational opportunity and foster upward mobility for disadvantaged youngsters.”

Although we don’t agree with all of the authors’ views of teachers and unions, the book is worth reading for its comprehensive account of the scope of AP’s evolution. In a chapter titled “Growth Industry,” the authors chart the increase in schools and students signing up for AP: more than a million exams were taken in 1998, and more than five million were taken in 2018. In the 1950s, when AP began, only 10 courses and exams were offered. Today, there are 38, in subjects such as calculus, world history, microeconomics, computer science, art history, and music theory, among others. For those interested in actual figures, the book includes an appendix detailing the number of AP exams taken globally in 2018 and shows, by subject, the percentage of exams that earned a qualifying score of 3 or higher.

But AP’s expansion has not always resulted in increased access. Whether students have an opportunity to take AP classes can depend on where they live. Traditionally, wealthier schools and districts have offered more AP courses than their urban and rural counterparts.

On a positive note, a gap in participation rates since the program’s inception has narrowed for students of color. “Black students, for example, took AP at about 24 percent the rate of white students in 1997, rising to 41 percent in 2017, even as white participation quintupled,” the authors write. “Hispanic pupils participated in 1997 at just over half the rate of white students, but two decades later their rates were nearly equal.”

What’s disconcerting is that as participation rates for Black and Hispanic students have increased, their pass rates on AP exams have fallen. Although the authors contend that students can still benefit from taking an AP course without achieving a qualifying score, they urge everyone who cares about equity to redouble their efforts in preparing students who are minorities and from low-income families to succeed on AP exams.

American Educator, Spring 2020
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