Chicago school closings met with civil disobedience

Thousands of people filled Daley Plaza outside of Chicago’s City Hall to protest the proposed closing of 53 elementary schools. About 120 members of SEIU Local 1, UNITE HERE Local 1, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the Grassroots Education Movement, and other community organizations sat down in front of City Hall to protest the closings and were arrested.

“When is this going to stop?” asked Finola Burrell, a Chicago Public School teacher and parent at the demonstration.  “If we do not fight now, we’re going to pay later. We must make sure that our community schools are not destroyed—our neighborhoods are not destroyed. If we sit idly by, all of this stuff comes tumbling down.”

Administrators for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) said that the schools slated for closing were under utilized and that the school district needed to save money because it was facing a $1 billion deficit.

Karen Lewis, CTU president, that the reasons given to justify the closings are bogus and that the closings are racist.

“Let’s not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides, the children affected aren’t black,” said Lewis to the protestors. “Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.”

Eighty-six percent of the pupils affected by the closings are African-American or Latino students.

At one time, it appeared that as many a 100 schools would be shut down. The threat to close so many schools led to grassroots organizing campaign of parents, students, teachers, and public school advocates to keep the schools open.

Lewis said that movement to save neighborhood schools would continue despite Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s pronouncement that the closings are a done deal.

“The message is this isn’t over,” said Lewis to Jaisal Noor of the Real News. “No matter what they think or what they believe, this is not over. There are a variety of ways to deal with this, but one of the most important ways is to motivate people to take responsibility for their own destinies. And that’s what this is about.”

Lewis said that the mayor could expect more civil disobedience to protest the closures. “(Civil disobedience) is the actual area where the people have control,” said Lewis. “We don’t have control over the courts. We don’t have control over the legal system. We certainly don’t have control over the legislature. But this is a place where we do have some control.”

CPS administration said that classes in the schools being closed weren’t big enough. According to the CPS’ administration, 30 pupils per elementary class is the optimum number of students in a class.

But classes in Chicago schools in general are already overcrowded and transferring students at the closed school will make matters worse. “CPS class sizes are already among the highest in Illinois,” said Lewis. “Last year, early grade classrooms in the city were on average larger than those in 95 percent of the districts in the rest of the state.”

Instead of increasing class sizes by closing schools, CTU says that CPS should be looking for ways to reduce class size because research shows that smaller classes, especially for young students, produces better outcomes.

A study of a Tennessee experiment on the impact of class size by Frederick Mosteller of Harvard University found that “it was clear that smaller classes did produce substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies.”

“Smaller class sizes are a proven school policy that works, narrows the achievement gap, and is manageable for both our teachers and students,” said  Dr. Carol Caref, CTU research director.

Mayor Emmanuel and his school board, however, say that smaller class sizes aren’t possible because the school district has a $1 billion deficit.

But opponents of school closings say that the deficit wouldn’t exist if the mayor had his priorities straight. According the Grassroots Education Movement, a coalition of groups that support public schools, one of the mayor’s first acts as mayor was to give a $50 million corporate tax cut. One of the beneficiaries of the cut was the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the largest commodities exchange in the world and a top contributor to the mayor’s election campaign.

The closing of the schools will also put student safety at risk.

“These (proposed closings) unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict,” said Lewis. “Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”

Lewis added that there is no safety or transportation plan in place that could help mitigate the impact of school closings on the children, their parents, or the community.

“The city has already raised (Chicago Transit Authority) fares and now they expect parents to put their five-year-old on a crowded city bus in order for them to get to school, when they used to be able to walk to a school in their neighborhood,” said Lewis. “The way this is being done is an insult and it is disrespectful.”

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Is this what democracy look like?

Kevyn Orr now runs Detroit. His authority is broad and unrestricted. He can hire and fire city employees. He can sell public assets. He can privatize public services. He can issue private orders that have the force of law. He can scrap existing laws. He can break contracts with unionized city workers. He can decide the level of services that the city will provide residents. His authority supersedes the mayor and city council, and he can make his decisions in private without being subject to open meetings laws.

Orr, a corporate attorney who is now Detroit’s Emergency Manager, was not elected by the voters of Detroit. He was appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

On March 28, the day that Orr assumed his position, a group union leaders, clergy, elected officials, and Detroit residents filed suit in federal court to challenge the law that made Orr’s appointment possible.

On the same day, protestors marched through the streets of Detroit to the courthouse where the suit was filed.  They then marched to City Hall where a group of about 100 tried to meet with Mayor Dave Bing to urge him to fight the governor’s takeover of the city.

Al Sharpton, the leader of the National Action Network, which helped organize the march and demonstration, called Snyder’s takeover of Detroit unconstitutional and said that the emergency manager law had dangerous implications.

“There will be a threat to everyone in this nation if the emergency manager  law stands,” Sharpton said. “This is a local issue, but a national struggle. If  you can get away with it (in) Detroit, you can do it all over the nation. We are going to fight until this is overturned, because in effect what  you’re saying is when the mayor and city council is elected (another higher official) can negate the  election by imposing an emergency manager.”

Herb Sanders, one of the attorneys working on the suit, said that court action won’t be enough to defeat the emergency manager law. “Our efforts in court will not be successful unless the judge can look out his window and see thousands of people in the streets, said Sanders. “As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, this is not the time for cooling off, but the time for getting hot, heated and upset, the time to take action. It is time for drastic measures.”

Gov. Snyder appointed Orr under authority of Public Act 436, which the Michigan Legislature recently passed during a lame duck session. Last November, a similar law allowing for the appointment of emergency managers when municipalities face a financial crisis was rejected in a state referendum by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

After voters rejected the law, Gov. Snyder submitted to the lame duck Legislature another version of it designed to prevent another referendum. The Legislature passed the law and Gov. Snyder signed it.

Mayor Bing in 2011  declared a financial emergency. Detroit’s emergency was caused by a declining manufacturing tax base, the Great Recession, which lowered revenue, and a reduction in state revenue sharing funds.

After declaring the emergency, the mayor’s administration negotiated with a coalition of unions representing city employees for contract changes that could save the city money. The coalition agreed to concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and in March 2012, union members ratified the agreement.

According to the lawsuit challenging the state’s emergency manager law, after union members ratified the concessions, Gov. Snyder told the mayor that if his administration continued to bargain with the unions, Gov. Snyder would appoint an emergency manager to take over the city.

As a result, the mayor and city council refused to sign off on the agreement.

Gov. Snyder also demanded that the city negotiate a consent agreement with the state outlining various employment terms. Subsequently, the city imposed wage and benefit cuts on union workers that went beyond those stipulated in the original agreement.

But that wasn’t enough, and Gov. Snyder appointed Orr to take over the city.

Orr was until his appointment a partner in the corporate law firm of Jones Day, which is providing restructuring services to the city. According to suit, Jones Day’s contract with the City of Detroit makes it a contractual creditor with the city.

Jones Day also represents Bank of America and other financial institutions that have a stake in how the city manages its financial emergency.

Orr’s main qualification is that he participated in the restructuring of Chrysler, but Harriet Rowan reports that he owes $10,000 in tax liens on his $1 million home in Maryland.

“It is quite interesting that (Orr) feels he could manage the City of Detroit, and he’s having trouble managing his own affairs,” said the Reverend Charles Williams II, president of the National Action Network of Michigan.

Rep. John Conyers said that emergency managers have done little to help local governments struggling with financial problems. “It is difficult to identify a single instance where an emergency manager has succeeded in turning around the financial fortunes of a city or jurisdiction,” said Conyers. “The history of the emergency manager law in Michigan is replete with fiscal mismanagement and conflicts of interest.”

Cablevision 22 rehired; work remains on first contract

All  22 cable technicians fired by Cablevison-Optimum in January for taking advantage of the company’s open door policy to ask management why it was dragging its feet on pending contract negotiations have been called back to work.

“I just got called back to work by Cablevision-Optimum, that means all 22 originally locked out workers are back to work!” said Ray whose last name was not given on the workers’ Facebook page. ” Thank you for the support–now we just need a FAIR CONTRACT NOW!”

Ray was called back to work on March 20 about a week after the other 21 fired workers had been called back.

Ray and the other fired workers, who came to be known as the Cablevision 22, work at Cablevision’s Brooklyn garage. They voted to join CWA Local 1109 in January 2012 and since then have been trying to negotiate a first contract.

But Cablevision-Optimum has been stalling.

“Despite a year of bargaining, management still refuses to sign off on even the most basic elements of a typical collective bargaining agreement,” said CWA in a press release. “The company’s total intransigence on basic union and worker protections has blocked any meaningful discussion of wages and health benefits.”

The statement goes on to say that CWA has filed charges against Cablevision-Optimum with the National Labor Relations Board for bad faith negotiations.

CWA said that the reinstatement of the Cablevision 22 was an important victory made possible by an active campaign to win community support for the fired workers and for a first contract.

After the firings, the union held a number of demonstrations that were supported by prominent political leaders including all four Democratic candidates for mayor of New York City.

CWA also urged the city council to investigate whether Cablevision-Optimum had violated its franchise agreement with the city. The franchise agreement requires the company to recognize employees’ right to bargain collectively.

Earlier in the month, a city council committee held a hearing on Cablevision-Optimum’s franchise and several city council members criticized the company for the firings and for not bargaining in good faith.

CWA has also started a public campaign aimed at Cablevision’s billionaire owner James Dolan, who also owns Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. The union is urging the city council to end Dolan’s tax breaks.

The firings took place on January 30 after about 50 Cablevision technicians gathered in front of the company’s vice-president in charge of the Brooklyn garage to ask him why the company was refusing to bargain in earnest for a new contract. The technicians said that they were taking advantage of the company’s open door policy in hopes of kick starting negotiations.

Disregarding his open door policy, the vice-president refused to speak to the workers. Some workers left while others remained at the office hoping that he would change his mind. None of the workers said that they were refusing to work. Nevertheless, management said that the workers’ action constituted a strike and that 22 of the workers were being permanently replaced because they were on strike.

While the community outreach campaign was successful in getting the workers their jobs back, the company still owes the workers for back pay and still hasn’t begun to bargain in good faith.

“It’s clear that Cablevision-Optimum outdid itself with its despicable, illegal behavior in taking money out of the pockets of its hard-working employees — and their families — simply for exercising their rights,” said Chris Shelton, CWA District 1 vice president. “Cablevision and CEO James Dolan have wasted an immense amount of time, money and effort to fight against these workers in Brooklyn just because they unionized and want a contract. These workers have their jobs back, and now they deserve their back pay, a fair contract, and
respect.”

On March 25 Democratic members of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce as they hold a forum in Brooklyn to discuss the problems with negotiating first contracts after workers organize a union.  The forum will focus on the Cablevision dispute and the Cablevision workers are urging supporters to attend.

Texas Firestone workers on strike to protect health care

Workers at the Firestone Polymers plant in Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border, are on strike to protest changes to their health care plan proposed by the company during recent contract negotiations. The company wants to make the workers’ current health care plan more expensive in hopes that the changes will encourage workers to switch to a new high-deductible health plan.

Firestone Polymers produces synthetic rubber, and the processes involved expose workers to a number of hazardous chemical, making them reluctant to accept changes that would make their health care less affordable and less accessible.

The United Steelworkers, the workers’ union, says that in addition to making health care more expensive, the raises offered by the company don’t offset the higher health care expenses and the company wants to make future health care changes non-negotiable.

“Local 13-836 members are concerned about their health care costs because they are exposed to highly hazardous chemicals and work in a dangerous environment,” said a statement released by USW. “They are more likely to need medical care because of their workplace exposure.”

The company proposes changing the workers’ current comprehensive health plan by tripling the deductible for individuals and family members and reducing the amount paid by insurance after the deductible is meant.

Firestone is also offering a so-called consumer driven health high-deductible health plan with a lower premium in order in hopes that the lower premium will encourage workers to switch to the high-deductible plan. The high-deductible plan would increase deductibles for workers and their families six-fold.

High deductible plans are gaining popularity with employers because they lower employer costs. Sometimes an employer will include a health savings account as an incentive for workers to enroll in these plans.

But high-deducible plans come with high risks for the consumer.

A study by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation found that high-deductible health plans created financial burdens for people with chronic health problems. The report was based on survey data and health care claims of people with chronic conditions. Some were enrolled in high-deductible plans; others in comprehensive plans. The researchers found that twice as many people enrolled in high-deductible plans reported financial burdens.

Another study published in the Journal of General Medicine found that high-deductible plans also were more likely to cause people to delay seeking treatment. According to an abstract of the study, “Membership in an (high deductible health plan) and lower income were each independently associated with higher probability of delayed/forgone care due to cost.”

An earlier study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that high deductible cause families to reduce their medical spending, which leads to lower health care costs, but the study’s researchers also found the families studied “eliminated some care that is clearly beneficial. . . . While childhood vaccination rates increased among families in traditional health plans, they fell among families in high-deductible health plans. Rates of mammography, cervical cancer screening and colorectal cancer screening also fell among those with high-deductible health plans relative to those in other plans.”

“We saw that patients reduced preventive care, and if this persists, it is likely to have health consequences in the future,” said Amelia Haviland, co-author of the study and a statistician at RAND, a non-profit research group. “These cutbacks could cause a spike in health care costs down the road if people end up sicker and need more-intensive treatment.”

The strike has been going on now for a week. The union said that it’s willing to resume negotiating but that the members remained united in wanting to protect their health care.

Chicago Teachers Union blasts censorship by school administrators

Students and teachers at Chicago’s Lane Tech on March 15 demonstrated at the school to protest an order from Chicago Public School (CPS) administrators to ban Persepolis, a graphic novel, from classrooms and libraries. The ban affected elementary schools, middle schools, and high school.

Persepolis was written by Marjane Satrapi who grew up in Iran during the 1980s. Satrapi’s novel is largely autobiographical and tells the story of what it was like to grow up during the early stages of the country’s Islamist revolution. It was originally published in France, where Satrapi now lives, and later translated into English. Newsweek ranked it as number five on its list of the ten best fiction books of the first decade of the 21st century.

Its awards include the 2003 Fernando Buesa Peace Prize (Spain), New York Times Notable Books, and the Angouleme International Comics Festival Prize (France).

The Chicago Teachers Union joined students, parents, teachers from throughout the school district in condemning CPS’s censorship of the award-winning book.

“We are surprised Persepolis: A Story of Childhood would be banned by the Chicago Public School system,” said Kristine Mayle, CTU’s financial secretary. “The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran. We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this– at a time when they are closing schools–because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.  There’s a lot of merit in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel. Not only is it thoughtful, it can be instructive for young people, especially girls. Persepolis can help our students begin to think about the world around them. We hope CPS has not reverted back to the 1950s.”

An e-mail from administrators sent on March 14 ordered principals at schools where Persepolis was being taught or where copies were in the library to confiscate the books.

The next morning about 150 students and teachers at Lane Tech, a magnate college preparatory high school, gathered outside of the school holding signs that read “Banning Books, Closing Schools. . ., What’s Next?”; “Homework for CPS: Read the First Amendment”; “Banning Books. . . Really Rahm; and many more.

“We still don’t know who made the decision or why it was made,” said Steve Parsons, a teacher at Lane Tech and a CTU delegate to DNA Info.com Chicago at the demonstration. “English  teachers weren’t asked their professional opinion. Nobody was included. That is  not how democracy works. If we had received a message that said, ‘After much reflection….’ There  was nothing. They came in the middle of a school week, in the middle of the day.  It was so arbitrary.”

After the demonstration and after CPS received a flood of other protests about the book’s banning, the administration began backing away from its original ban.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of CPS, said in a memo to clarify the district’s ban that “Persepolis was appropriate for juniors, seniors, and advanced placement students,” but not for seventh grade students and that the ban would remain if effect for them. She added that CPS would continue to evaluate whether the graphic novel was appropriate for grades eight through ten. She also said that the ban on the book in school libraries would be lifted.

CTU responded that Byrd-Bennett’s clarification was insufficient.

“CPS is now claiming Persepolis is banned only from the seventh grade classroom but will be available in school libraries. Unfortunately 160 elementary schools don’t have libraries—and they know that,” said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin.  “Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak. We support our educators who are fighting to ensure their students have access to ideas about democracy, freedom of speech, and self-image.  Let’s not go backward in fear.”

Byrd-Bennett said that the directive to ban Persepolis was issued because the graphic novel contained images of torture that were not appropriate for young students.

“It’s shameful. I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America,” said Satrapi in a telephone interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Referring to her book, Satrapi said the images questioned by the administrators “are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame. I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet. It’s a black and white drawing and I’m not showing something extremely horrible. That’s a false argument. They have to give a better explanation.”

UGTT: New Tunisian constitution must guarantee women’s equality

UGTT, Tunisia’s largest labor federation and a key player in the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on International Women’s Day said that the country’s new constitution must include language that guarantees equal rights for women. The labor federation also urged the government, which is led by Ennahda, an Islamist political party, to activate the UN’s Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“(UGTT) lays emphasis on the need to guarantee women’s social and economic rights, notably the right to employment and equality of compensation, treatment, and work conditions away from all forms of discrimination,” reads a statement issued last year by the federation. “Preserving women’s rights should be among action priorities of the government, parties, and associations to further consecrate the values of modernity and tolerance.”

Tunisia in 1956 adopted as part of its constitution the Personal Status Code, which among other things guaranteed women social rights such as the right to divorce. Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to adopt such guarantees, but these protections didn’t lead to full equality. By 2010, women comprised only 25 percent of the away from home workforce and had higher poverty rates than men.

Women played key roles in the overthrow of Ben Ali, and many hoped that a democratic government would finish the work of gender equality begun in 1956.

But since Ennahda’s rise to power, the country has taken steps backward. Last August, a commission dominated by Ennahda and its allies charged with writing the rights and liberties section of the new constitution adopted language that would change the Personal Status Code by defining the role of women within society as “complementary to men within the family and as an associate of men in the development of the country.”

The wording raised fear among feminists and human rights supporters that the Islamists were seeking to undermine the social status of women.

Ennahda leaders said that it was not their aim to make women second class citizens, but the party’s reassurances did little to quell the anger and sense of betrayal felt by many women.

On August 13, Tunisia’s National Women’s Day thousands of people demonstrated against the proposed language. The demonstrations were organized by women’s and human rights groups, and UGTT played an important role in mobilizing its members to participate.

Since then opponents of the proposed changes to the Personal Status Code have been waging a campaign to defeat the proposed language.

Tunisians aren’t the only ones concerned that the proposed changes could lead to diminished rights for women.

In January, Amnesty International voiced concern about the proposed changes in the new constitution and Tunisia’s drift toward a more repressive society.

“In the past year, freedom of expression and women’s rights have been undermined in Tunisia,” reads an Amnesty International statement. “It is therefore crucial that the new constitution fully protect these rights.”

Also in January, the UN Working Group on discrimination against women called on the Tunisian government to ensure that the new constitution guarantee gender equality.

“We are concerned at the persistence of loopholes and ambiguities in the current draft of the (Tunisian) constitution which, if not removed, might undermine the protection of women’s rights and the principle of gender equality,” said Kamala Chandrakirana, the head of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice. “While equality between men and women is recognized, the prohibition of discrimination, including on the ground of sex, is not articulated in the second draft constitution, and there is a lack of provision on the right to remedy.”

Immigration reform needed to stop worker rights violations

A new report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) finds that some employers use the current immigration law to avoid complying with federal, state, and local labor laws and that this abuse can be ended if reform of the immigration laws includes a clear path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrant workers. Doing so, says the report, would improve wages and working conditions for immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike.

According to the report, entitled Workers Rights on ICE: How Immigration Reform Can Stop Retaliation and Advance Labor Rights, some employers who employ immigrant workers hold down labor costs by using immigration laws to avoid paying minimum wages and overtime and to avoid complying with other fair pay protections.

When immigrant workers try to make these employers follow the law or try to organize a union, they often find themselves facing the threat of deportation.

The abuse of immigration laws to hold down labor costs gives unscrupulous employers an unfair competitive advantage over employers who follow the law and drives down wages and working conditions for all workers especially in low-wage industries where immigrant workers are concentrated.

Changing immigration laws so that they can’t be used to unlawfully lower labor costs will benefit immigrant and non-immigrant workers alike, and the key to doing so is to create a clear path to citizenship for the eight million undocumented immigrant workers in the US.

“By enacting a new immigration policy that includes a broad path to citizenship, equal remedies for all workers subjected to illegal treatment at work, a stronger firewall between immigration and labor law enforcement, and immigration protections for workers actively engaged in defending their labor rights, Congress and the White House can ensure that immigrant workers who stand up for their rights are protected,” said Eunice Cho, and NELP attorney and co-author of the report. “Immigration reform, done right, can ensure improved wages and working conditions for all workers.”

The report includes the results of a survey of more than 4,000 low-paid workers in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The survey found that labor abuses are endemic in low-wage industries where immigrant workers are most likely to be employed. Two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced some form of pay related violation.

Instances of pay related violations are even higher among undocumented workers:  76.3 percent said that they had worked off the clock without pay; 84.9 percent had been paid less than the law requires for overtime work, and 37.1 percent had been paid less than the minimum wage.

The report gives workers the opportunity to tell their own stories about how immigration laws have been used to help employers circumvent labor laws.

Pablo Gutierrez’s story is representative. Gutierrez worked at a restaurant in Lanett, Alabama from 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. seven days a week for $3.50 an hour. His employer did not pay him for two months, and when Gutierrez asked for a raise, he was fired on the spot.

He sought his back pay and was told by his employer to come by the restaurant after it closed on October 6, 2012. When he arrived, Gutierrez noticed his boss making a phone call. Within minutes, police were on the scene, arrested him for robbery, and turned him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Gutierrez was subsequently deported to Mexico.

Employers are also using immigration laws to stop workers from taking collective action to improve wages and working conditions.

When three-quarters of the workers at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee, Wisconsin signed a union representation petition, Palermo’s announced that it would be conducting an audit of the workers immigration status. ICE ruled that the audit was designed to thwart the union drive and told the company that it wouldn’t prosecute those whom the audit identified as undocumented.

Palermo subsequently fired 75 of the workers and cited their immigration status as the reason for the firings.

Referring to the current immigration law, Christine Owens, executive director of NELP said that it has given “unscrupulous employers a potent weapon to deter immigrant workers from asserting their workplace rights.”

“These abuses underscore how important it that reform of our immigration laws ensures full protection of workers’ exercise of their rights,” said Owens.