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Are American workers free?

"Workers' freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States," according to Human Rights Watch in its new book, Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards. In the 1950s, hundreds of workers each year suffered reprisals for unionizing. "By the 1990s more than 20,000 workers each year were victims of discrimination leading to a back-pay order by the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board]--23,580 in 1998." At Acme Die Casting in suburban Northbrook, which makes aluminum and zinc castings for the telecommunications industry, workers voted to be represented by United Electrical Workers in 1987. After more than a decade of reprisals and what one judge described as "intransigent and illegal behavior," the union gave up and withdrew in 1999. A top Acme official told Human Rights Watch, "We worked long and hard for years to convince our employees that they're better off with us than with a union," even though during that time Acme was legally obligated to bargain with the union in good faith. U.S. law has no punitive remedies in such cases.

Things no do-gooder could say. Joel Alfassa in StreetWise (September 4): "I have watched a lot of vendors come and go. Some went off to be successful and some just plain couldn't eat an apple without screwing it up."

More money, less land. According to an August 10 report by the Trust for Public Land and the Urban Land Institute, Inside City Parks, Chicago has much less parkland than comparable cities. Eight percent of Chicago's land area is in parks, compared to 27 percent in New York and 10 percent in Los Angeles. Chicago also enjoys much less parkland acreage per thousand residents--4.3 acres, compared with 7.2 in New York and 8.5 in LA. But we still lead the league in park expenditures per resident--$114 compared to $44 in New York and $35 in LA.

Can I have my arrest record expunged after five years? According to "Neighborhoods" (September), newsletter of the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety, the contract between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police requires that misconduct complaints against a police officer be removed from his or her record after five years, unless they were sustained by the Office of Professional Standards. In 1999, out of 2,700 complaints that police used excessive force, OPS sustained just 203.

Good news with a qualification. In 1990, 24 percent of Chicago Public Schools students in third through eighth grade could read as well as the national average. In 2000, 36 percent could. "The combination of high expectations, opportunity to change, and accountability for outcomes seems to have had a very beneficial effect," concludes Northwestern University's G. Alfred Hess, author of a new Brookings Institution publication, "Changes in Student Achievement in Illinois and Chicago, 1990-2000." Here's the qualification: in the early 1990s, about 85 percent of CPS students took the standardized tests; in 2000, about 75 percent took the tests. Hess says correcting for that fact might lower the percentage somewhat, but the trend is still in the right direction.

Next: Hummel figurines committing unnatural acts? According to a recent press release, a new exhibit at Anchor Graphics on West Hubbard consists of pseudocommemorative china plates decorated with images of "a household spray bottle, a Ford Mustang, a Pac Man ghost, and a donkey being bled."

"If my son decided to go write the great American novel by spending time with farm workers or in garment sweatshops, and there were an INS raid he could well be part of the suspects--because I know he would not be carrying his U.S. passport with him," professor Saskia Sassen of the University of Chicago tells the "Front Table" (August/September), magazine of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore on South University. "It is not known criminals or firms suspected of violating environmental regulations [that are targeted]. It is a population sector, not even select individuals, but a fairly broad spectrum of men, women and children, who are considered guilty until they prove they are not."

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