Facebook: Where’s The Gratitude?

Imagine finding yourself in this frustrating situation. You wish to give to a worthy cause, but you’re unable to find any one who is happy to accept your contribution!

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg must be feeling that frustration today. The Indian government recently ruled that the firm’s Free Basics service, which provides complimentary internet access to Facebook and a few other web based services, is illegal in that nation.

Why? Apparently, the Indians classify Facebook as an internet service provider because it provides web access as well as a web-based service. Thus, the firm is required by Indian law to allow users to access any online site and service, and not just a chosen few.

That principle is known as net neutrality in the United States. Although it has been debated throughout the government from time to time, it is generally the law of the land in America as well.

This isn’t the first time that Zuckerberg or his firm has been rebuffed for giving away funds or services. Several months ago, he and his wife were criticized for the legal structure of a charitable organization that received 99% of his Facebook stock.

And a few years ago, the citizens of Newark, New Jersey severely criticized him for failing to establish appropriate goals for a $100 million gift to the public education system of their city. Instead of generating gratitude, the gift precipitated immense rancor in the local community.

Of course, Mr. Zuckerberg isn’t yet ready to resign from his firm and manage his charitable investments on a full-time basis, as Bill and Melinda Gates did when they left Microsoft to found their global charitable foundation. He’s still fully immersed in the business of managing the world’s most successful social network.

Nevertheless, if he does intend to give away more money or resources, he might wish to pay more attention to managing those charitable activities. Otherwise, he’s likely to continue wondering why he isn’t receiving the slightest amount of gratitude from the beneficiaries of his largesse.

New York: The Politics of Local Control

In your local town, someone must decide when to instruct road crews to shut down street lanes. Someone must decide when to expand classroom hours in public schools. And someone must decide when to approve projects to construct buildings.

So who actually decides when to perform these tasks? Is it your town’s mayor? The legislative council? Or perhaps an administrative employee?

Ironically, if you live in New York City — obviously, a metropolis with sufficient wealth to hire local citizens to perform these tasks — the Mayor, City Council, and municipal work force are severely restrained from exercising authority over such decisions. Just last week, for instance, a trio of events illustrated the limits of local authority in the Big Apple.

The first involved the notorious decision to wage a political war by shutting down local access lanes onto a bridge that carries traffic between Manhattan and New Jersey. The decision was initially imposed by New Jersey state officials; New York appointees labored for four full days to (eventually) reopen the lanes.

The second involved a pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio to develop full day pre-kindergarten and after school programs, to be funded by a new income tax on wealthy residents. Such a tax requires the approval of state government, but during his annual State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (while endorsing the policy in theory) avoided any endorsement of the tax.

The third involved a court decision to block New York University (NYU) from obliterating three tiny parks in order to clear space for a massive construction project. Although NYU obtained city approval for the project, its officials appear to have overlooked the need to obtain state approval to build on city parkland. Lacking state approval, the State Supreme Court halted the project.

Advocates of local control over municipal decisions are undoubtedly aghast at these recent events. Why must local officials waste four full days seeking approval to open a couple of road lanes? Why can’t a municipality impose a tax to improve its public school system? And why shouldn’t a municipal zoning board make decisions about the appropriate use of public space?

On the other hand, although no one is defending the lane closure decision, many are now applauding New York State’s control over the Big Apple’s taxation and parkland use policies. After all, without such constraints in place, wealthy residents might have already started paying higher income taxes, and New York University might have already obliterated those three public parks.

If you were asked to chair a legislative committee to draft amendments to the constitutions of the State and City of New York, would you recommend the institution of local control over these governmental decisions?

Toddlers Rejoice: No More Admission Exams!

The standardized test industry has recently experienced some rough times in the United States, hasn’t it? The federal Department of Education and various trade associations, for instance, has repeatedly criticized many of the grade school testing requirements of the Bush Administration’s landmark No Child Left Behind law. And critics continue to complain about the inadequacies and failures of college admission examinations.

But did you know that many prestigious grade school, kindergarten, and “pre-k” (i.e. nursery school) programs in the United States also require standardized admission tests? The Association of Boarding Schools and the Education Records Bureau sponsor the Early Childhood Admissions Assessment (ECAA) examination for very young children.

Last week, however, the Independent School Admissions Association of Greater New York announced that some of the Big Apple’s most renowned private schools would no longer require the examination. The reason? Too many parents are spending thousands of dollars on test preparation services for their toddlers, creating “a lot of anxiety in families and kids that is unnecessary.”

The unspoken implication, of course, is that the tests have also become ineffective indicators of natural student ability. After all, examination grades that can be improved by expensive test preparation services inevitably discriminate against individuals who cannot afford to purchase such services.

One can only wonder whether other industry sectors will face similar concerns as well. For instance, if the newly emerging universal health care program in the United States is unable to rely on purportedly unbiased measurements of medical efficacy, it will struggle to serve the needs of the American people.

At the moment, though, America’s toddlers aren’t worried about universal health care. They are merely breathing sighs of relief about escaping their first experiences with school admission tests!

America, China, and Student Labor

Last week, the American corporate giant Hewlett Packard took a very public stand against the use of involuntary student labor in Chinese factories. It informed its Chinese suppliers that it would no longer buy products from firms that employed certain categories of students to work on its assembly lines.

At first glance, of course, it is difficult to argue with Hewlett Packard’s decision. After all, who could possibly be in favor of the coerced employment of student workers? Indeed, when HP’s demand was accepted by its Chinese suppliers, the event appeared to represent a triumph of human dignity over commercial exploitation.

It is self-evident, however, that the Chinese practice of hiring student workers is not a unique one. Quite the contrary, it may not be very different than various practices that are commonly employed in the United States today.

The Chinese Factory Environment

Prior to Hewlett Packard’s announcement, Chinese schools periodically required students to work on production lines when factories had insufficient workers on hand to meet the peak purchase requirements of technology firms. The practice of employing students on assembly lines has become more prevalent in recent years, as upwardly mobile Chinese citizens have begun to gravitate towards college educations and professional careers and away from blue collar positions.

According to Hewlett Packard’s new policy, though, the firm will refuse to purchase products from manufacturers that employ students, unless those students are engaged in primary areas of study that are related to those specific production processes. In other words, students who are studying relevant manufacturing techniques will continue to be permitted to work in the factories, but other students will not be allowed to do so.

Should American citizens be surprised to learn that Chinese factories are employing students whose primary areas of academic interest are not related to the manufacturing industry? Before citizens in the United States express concerns about such practices in China, they may wish to consider similar practices that are now prevalent throughout their own nation.

The American Office Environment

One example of such a practice, for example, is the unpaid internship arrangement that exists between students and corporate employers. Entire industries, from fashion to financial services, often employ American students without paying them wages or other types of compensation.

As is the case in China, the work responsibilities of these interns are often unrelated to their primary areas of academic study. Making coffee, buying lunch, and running errands; these are the typical tasks that are assigned to student laborers.

Are such unpaid office positions much different than the factory assignments of Chinese manufacturers? On the one hand, one can argue that in the case of American interns, the students are (if nothing more) engaging in their chosen career industries.

But on the other hand, in the case of Chinese interns, the students have the opportunity to collaborate in the production of advanced technology products. That is, indeed, undoubtedly more challenging than engaging in the production of hot cups of coffee.

Charitable Work Too

American students do not restrict their unpaid labor activities to business office environments. They also dedicate countless hours to charitable work activities.

What do they do? Well, they raise money for nonprofit organizations. They clean parks and beaches. And they even build homes.

On the one hand, the organizations that organize and benefit from such endeavors often note that many students voluntarily perform these activities in fulfillment of their personal charitable passions and aspirations. In many circumstances, that is undoubtedly true.

And yet such activities must often be included in the extracurricular service sections of academic and employment applications. Indeed, applicants are often encouraged to showcase their aptitude “to succeed as a well rounded student by demonstrating (the) ability to balance classroom, social and service activities.”

The Value of Education

Interestingly, colleges and universities have themselves been accused of profiting from the labor contributions of student workers. Graduate assistants in academic programs, football players on athletic teams, and other students have lobbied to receive monetary compensation in recognition of their contributions to their institutions.

The National Football League has likewise been criticized for relying on the collegiate sports conference system as its ersatz minor league player development network. Unlike major league baseball teams, professional football (and basketball) teams draft recent graduates of collegiate programs — and sometimes even current students — and promote them directly to the professional level.

It is important to note that most of these students receive partial or full tuition scholarships to participate in their academic programs. Many students receive supplemental stipends to cover “room and board” living expenses as well.

Such arrangements do indeed distinguish the American system of student employment from the comparable Chinese model. Nevertheless, similarities also exist between the two systems, and should not be overlooked when members of either culture assess the other culture’s practices.

A Labor Renaissance?

We’re living in an era of economic malaise. Workers around the world are losing their jobs, their pensions, and their hopes for the future. But their government leaders, intent on balancing their budgets and repaying global creditors, are focusing on other concerns. So where can workers turn for support?

For much of the twentieth century in the United States, the American work force turned to the labor movement during times of economic strife. The United Auto Workers union, for instance, was established in the 1930s, during the very heart of the Great Depression. And the New York City strike of public transit workers in 1980 was launched during the final months of the Carter Administration, a time when the Big Apple had yet to fully emerge from its 1970s brush with bankruptcy.

The ensuing two decades of economic prosperity, during the 1980s and 1990s, were marked by dramatic declines in union membership and political power. And earlier this year, public sector unions suffered dramatic defeats in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states.

Late last month, though, the union movement in the United States achieved a pair of improbable victories. Can we be witnessing the stirrings of a labor renaissance?

Touchdown!

The most recent labor victory involved a triumph by a union of part-time workers over the most successful and prosperous professional sports league in the world. The NFL Referees Association, having been locked out and replaced by so-called “scab” amateurs during regular season games, unexpectedly negotiated a triumphant return to the game last week.

How were they able to pull off such an improbable upset? The amateur replacement referees had produced a series of gaffes and blunders, leading many to question the integrity of the game itself. The final straw appeared to be a “blown call” on the last play of a game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks; a referee’s decision awarded the victory to the wrong team.

The call itself was made by a full-time small business loan official from the Bank of America who had been hired as a weekend replacement referee by the National Football League. The ensuing ridicule over the blown call compelled the League to settle the dispute; in fact, the striking referees were back on the field four days later.

School Holiday!

Two weeks ago, the Chicago Teachers Union also scored an unexpected victory against the school system. Incidentally, the Teachers Union, like the United Auto Workers organization, was founded in the middle of the Great Depression in order to protect the interests of its labor force.

The Teachers Union had decided to engage in a strike in the middle of the school year over issues regarding compensation, layoffs, curriculum content, and corporate privatization. The decision was a risky one, in light of recent setbacks suffered by the public labor force in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, and in spite of the supportive presence of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House Chief of Staff for Chicago resident Barack Obama.

In mid-September, the Union and the Board of Education both rejected a tentative arbitration settlement, and the strike extended into a second week. It was suspended when the City agreed to make a number of concessions in matters involving job security and teacher performance assessment activities.

An Outsourcing Rebellion

Interestingly, a nascent labor movement has been stirring in the developing world as well. Last month, for instance, almost 2,000 employees at a Foxconn factory in China engaged in a full-fledged riot to protest working conditions.

Although Foxconn is not an American corporation, it manufactures electronic components and finished goods for various Western firms. In fact, many technology professionals worried that the riot might affect Apple’s ability to produce sufficient iPhone 5 devices to meet the consumer demand created by its own marketing juggernaut.

FoxConn, incidentally, had previously announced major improvements in employee compensation levels and working conditions in response to a rash of worker suicides. Nevertheless, as a result of the recent riot, FoxConn may need to again reassess its “military method” of administrative management.

Made in America

American labor history, of course, has been marked by violent riots as well. Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in May 1886, for instance, inspired the institution of International Worker’s Day on May Day (i.e. May 1st) in over eighty nations. And in 1936, auto workers in Flint, Michigan seized control of a General Motors factory and fought pitched battles against police officers and corporate strike breakers.

Except for an occasionally rowdy Occupy Wall Street protest, though, the recent labor movement has been peaceful in nature. The Teacher’s Union, for instance, is now planning a series of town hall meetings and workshops throughout the United States; all of them are expected to be civil events.

It’s been a long time since the American economy experienced a strengthening union movement. In light of these recent events, though, and considering the improving prospects for a Democratic Party victory in the November national elections, conditions may indeed be ripe for a labor renaissance.