Chicago school board votes to close 50 schools; the fight to keep them open continues

In an historic decision, the Chicago Public School Board of Education voted to close 50 neighborhood schools, four less than had previously proposed. The board’s decision is the first time that a US school district has shut down so many schools at once. The board’s decision, which came after months of community organizing to keep the school open, was met with derision and defiance by those who fought to protect the schools from closing.

“The Board of Education is pathetic,” said Wendy Katten, executive director of Raise Your Hand, a pro-public education group of parents, students, and education activists to Progress Illinois. “They’re going to have to reap the consequences of this; this will go down in history as a bad decision.”

“Today is a day of mourning for the children of Chicago,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Their education has been hijacked by an unrepresentative, unelected corporate school board, acting at the behest of a mayor who has no vision for improving the education of our children.”

Lewis said that the board’s decision will have a “horrible domino effect” and that “more than 40,000 students will lose at least three to six months of learning because of the board’s actions.”

“Because many of them will now have to travel into new neighborhoods to continue their schooling, some will be victims of bullying, physical assault and other forms of violence,” said Lewis. “Board members are wishing for a world that does not exist and have ignored the reality of the world we live in today. Who on the board will be held responsible? Who at City Hall will be held responsible?”

Lewis said that the board’s decision did not mean that the fight to keep the schools open is over; it only means that the battleground has shifted.

“Our fight for education justice has now moved to the courts, but it must eventually move to the ballot box,” said Lewis.

The day after the board’s ruling, a federal judge set July 16 as the date that he will start hearing evidence from plaintiffs who have filed suit charging that the closures discriminate against African-American and special needs students.

Two days after the board’s decision. CTU held the first of a series of voter registration and education workshops. At the workshops, 150 rank and file CTU members, community activists, and other public education supporters received training to become volunteer voter registrars.

“Brothers and sisters, mayoral control is a disaster,”said Lewis to those at the workshop. “We must change the conversation, so we must change the political landscape.”

In one sense, Lewis was talking about the need to build a grassroots movement capable of defeating Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who appointed all six members of board, at the polls, but the movement envisioned by Lewis goes beyond that.

“We must resist this neoliberal savagery masquerading as school reform, ” said Lewis in response to board’s decision. “We must resist racism in all of its forms as well as the escalating attacks on the working class and the poor. Our movement will continue.”

For more than a decade now, Chicago’s business elite have seen the problems in Chicago’s public schools as an opportunity to privatize public education. Groups such as the Chicago Public Education Fund, which is chaired by Hyatt heiress and recent US Secretary of Commerce nominee Penny Pritzker, have sought to make Chicago “the epicenter of for-profit, technology-enabled education entrepreneurship and investment.”

In the past they have succeeded in closing schools and replacing them with privately operated charter schools. The results have been under whelming.

One of the charter school systems that has been supported by the Chicago Public Education Fund is the Academy for Urban School Learning, which operates 12 charter schools that were supposed to turn around public schools that were labeled as underperforming.

According to Curtis Black, “ten of them are on academic probation today. Only one of them is rated as Level 1 — “high performing” — by CPS (Chicago Public Schools).”

“Members of the Board of Education, the school CEO, the mayor, and their corporate backers are on the wrong side of history,” said Lewis. “History will judge them for the tragedy they have inflicted upon our students; and it will not be kind.”

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Unions oppose Secretary of Commerce nominee

In a statement of opposition addressed to the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation and Science,  UNITE HERE laid out its case for opposing the nomination  Hyatt Hotel heiress Penny Pritzker as the next Secretary of Commerce.

“Since 2004, Ms. Pritzker has served on the board of directors at Hyatt, a company that her family founded and controls,” reads UNITE HERE’s statement. “Under her leadership, Hyatt has exhibited a broad pattern of labor abuses, including aggressive outsourcing, low wages, and mistreatment of housekeepers. Together, these practices single Hyatt out as the worst hotel employer in the US.”

Earlier this month, the Chicago Teachers Union voiced its opposition to the nomination of Pritzker, who until March served on Chicago Public School Board of Education.

“Penny Pritzker has a long and storied history as being an anti-labor, anti-worker kind of boss,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union after Pritzker’s nomination was announced. “She has supported policies that have had an adverse  impact on working-class families and their children. As a member of the Board of Education, she has worked to close schools, destabilize neighborhoods, and disrupt the economic lives of thousands of public school employees.”

Since Pritzker joined the hotel’s board, Hyatt, which this year announced that it would buy back $200 million worth of shares from investors, has aggressively sought to lower labor costs.

In Chicago, UNITE HERE and Hyatt after four years have been unable to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement because Hyatt has balked at implementing new safety measures and limiting it outsourcing. As a result, the wages of Hyatt workers in Chicago have been frozen.

“Our wages have been frozen since 2009, and our families are suffering,” said Cristian Toro, a banquet server at the Hyatt Regency McCormick. “Hyatt has set a bad example for the rest of the hotel industry, and we’re taking a stand.”

Throughout the US, Hyatt has sought to lower labor costs by replacing full-time housekeepers with temporary staff.

In Boston, Hyatt fired its entire housekeeping staff at its three hotels without giving them notice. The hotel giant then replaced these career housekeepers with temporary workers hired through an outsourcing company. The temps were paid the minimum wage.

“In cities like Indianapolis and Baltimore, over 70 percent of the hotel’s housekeepers are outsourced earning minimum wages with no benefits,” reads UNITE HERE’s statement of opposition to Pritzker’s nomination. “Subcontracted Hyatt housekeepers clean as many as 30 rooms a day, getting paid as little as $2 per room.”

Housekeeping at hotels like Hyatt is hard work that exposes staff to a number of safety risks. Heavy mattresses must be lifted, carts containing clean linen and cleaning tools are heavy, and workers’ arms are constantly being extended and contorted during cleaning procedures.

These unsafe conditions, according to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, can cause severe and painful injuries. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Hyatt housekeepers have the highest rate of injury among all of the hotel chains examined in the study.

Unsafe work and low wages have led some Hyatt non-union workers to try to organize a union. In San Antonio, Hyatt has fired some workers active in the union organizing campaign.

Citing these abuses, D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, said that the Pritzker nomination was a bad idea. “In order to get our nation on the road to recovery, the Commerce Department needs leadership far different from what Ms. Pritzker has demonstrated at Hyatt Hotels,” said Taylor.

Before UNITE HERE announced its opposition to Pritzker, the Chicago Teachers Union took issue with the nomination.

“We cannot imagine that someone who has a long history of  bludgeoning Chicago’s working families and destroying public schools would be  given a platform to continue these sorts of business practices on a national  level,” said Lewis after Pritzker’s nomination was announced.

Pritzker has long been an advocate of replacing public schools with privately operated charter schools. Before being appointed to the Chicago’s Board of Education by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Pritzker’s foundation, the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation, was a major source of funding for Chicago area charter schools.

She donated money to Stand for the Children, a lobbying group that supports closing public schools and replacing them with privately operated charter schools.

Pritzker also served as the chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which according to the White House biography of Pritzker is a “venture philanthropy.” One of the things that this venture philanthropy does is to raise private equity for investments in charter schools.

“(Pritzker) has been the subject of countless protests because of her business practices and for her support of policies that are harmful to students in Chicago Public Schools,” said Lewis. “The Chicago Teachers Union has certainly been quite vocal and visible in those demonstrations.”

Despite rising profits, GE plans to eliminate more good paying jobs

At its recent meeting, the General Executive Board of UE, America’s largest independent union, announced that May 31 will be a day of  solidarity actions to support 3,500 members of UE Local 506 at the GE Transportation plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. UE will hold solidarity demonstrations in each of its three regions to protest GE’s plan to eliminate as many as 950 union jobs in Erie and move the work to a non-union GE plant in Fort Worth, Texas. The main solidarity demonstration will take place at GE’s Erie plant.

The solidarity actions are part of a multi-pronged campaign to save good-paying union jobs in Erie. The campaign will include work floor actions, grievances, legal actions, media and community outreach, and a petition that will give supporters all over the globe a chance to protest the job cuts in Erie. UE Local 506, which represents production workers in Erie, has named the campaign, “Keep It Made in Erie.”

GE Transportation makes locomotives and wheel motors for large mining trucks at its Erie factory. The Erie plant also serves as the global headquarters for GE Transportation.

The work done by members of Local 506 have helped make GE Transportation quite profitable. In 2011, GE Transportation’s reported a profit of $757 million, double what it reported in 2010. In 2012, profits rose another 36 percent to $1 billion.

That trend continued through the first quarter of 2012 when GE Transportation reported a 12 percent increase in revenue and a 15 percent increase in profit over the previous year’s first quarter.

Despite the company’s profitability, GE is seeking to lower its labor costs by moving some of the work done in Erie to Fort Worth where the average pay for a GE production worker is about $10 an hour less than in Erie.

When GE and UE agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, the company told the union that its new Fort Worth plant was only intended to handle overflow work at the Erie plant and that the work in Erie would not be affected.

But on April 9, GE Transportation announced its plan to move work from Erie to Fort Worth.

UE responded a week later with a rally of more than 2,000 workers at the Erie plant’s main gate.

“I see a lot of people here who have dedicated their whole lives to GE,” said Wayne Burnett, Local 506 business agent, as he spoke at the rally. “I see children in strollers who might have a job here someday. I see people who have made this plant the most successful in the GE chain. Is this our reward?” GE needs to learn “that we are the ones who put you where you are today.” He added that the loss of jobs affects more than just 950 people, “but thousands of people in Pennsylvania and the tri-state area.” He concluded, “This cannot happen!”

Scott Duke, newly elected Local 506 president, urged members to resist GE’s attack on their jobs and wages and reminded workers that their good jobs and good wages were the result of union struggles that spanned generations of workers. “Your paycheck may say GE on it,” said Duke. “But never forget that those are union wages.”

Local 506 and representatives of GE Transportation have held negotiations about the work transfer.

According to reports made to Local 506 members, GE representatives told Local 506 negotiators that the company wants the union to propose wage concessions to keep the work in Erie. Union bargainers responded that the union will not propose any wage cuts, freezes, or reductions.

The negotiation deadline has been extended from June 8 to June 22.

Movement to stop Chicago school closures will continue says union leader

Opponents of school closures in Chicago on Moday, May 20 completed a three-day march through neighborhoods affected by the proposed closures of 54 Chicago public schools with a rally at City Hall. After some of the marchers delivered petitions calling for a moratorium on all school actions to the offices of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 26 of them  staged a City Hall sit-in and were arrested.

Those arrested were union members and staff, parents, and community activists.

The Chicago Public School board on Wednesday, May 22 is scheduled to vote on the proposed closures. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), told demonstrators that however the board, votes the movement to halt the closures will continue.

“Brothers and sisters, this is not over,” said Lewis to the protestors, who included teachers, parents, students, and other opponents of closures. “It is just the beginning. This is a movement through the neighborhoods. This is a movement through the city. This is a movement through the nation. . . .  School closures not only do not work, they can be harmful. They are child abuse.”

Later in her speech, Lewis reminded the audience that the movement will continue. “No matter what happens on Wednesday, (the movement) is not over,” said Lewis.

The CTU president, who received 80 percent of the vote in the union’s recent officer elections, ended her speech by calling for education justice that will happen when all children reap the benefits of true education reform that includes a broad-based, high-quality curriculum for all students, and not mind-numbing teaching to standardized tests for the majority.

During her speech, Lewis pointed out that Chicago has experimented with school closure to improve education. “School closures have been going on for ten years,” Lewis said. “The policy clearly does not work.”

Lewis also said that the Chicago Public School (CPS) administration was not up to the task of managing the closures. “You haven’t managed closing seven or eight schools very well,” said Lewis “How do you think you can manage 54?”

“CPS will mess up a one-car funeral,” she added.

As demonstrators marched around City Hall, they chanted, “Hey Rahm, let’s face it. School closures are racist.”

A fact sheet prepared by researchers at the Chicago Teachers Union, shows that the closings are indeed racist. “Schools with a majority black student population and majority black teaching staff are ten times more likely to be closed or turned around than schools with a minority black student population and teaching staff,” reads the fact sheet.

It also says that 90 percent of schools affected by the current closure proposal have a majority black student population and 71 percent have a black student and teacher majority.

Mayor Emanuel and the CPS board have justified the proposed closures by saying that the schools on the closure list are under utilized and that the city needs the money saved from the closures because it has a budget deficit.

But a recent report by the Chicago Tribune shows that the justification for the closures was based on selective data and that the estimated savings are questionable.

“A Tribune review of documents related to the closings raises questions about how CPS used information to promote and defend its plan. In many cases, the district appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools,” reads the report by Bob Secter and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah. “In fact, total renovations to several of the schools slated to take in students would cost millions of dollars more than the estimated cost of fixing up the buildings where those children are currently enrolled, records show.”

Another report by Ben Joravsky in the Chicago Reader questions the Mayor’s priorities. According to Joravsky, even though the Mayor says that the closures are needed to help the city make up a budget deficit, “there’s still $55 million (of the city’s money) lying around to buy up some land and hand it over to private entities that don’t need it” to build a hotel and basketball arena near DePaul University.

No matter what the school board decides on Wednesday, the final decision may rest with the courts. CTU and parents affected by the closures have filed two federal lawsuits charging that the closures discriminate against special needs and African-American children and that the justification for the closures is false.

“We are not underutilized,” said Rebecca Nguyen, a teacher at a school proposed for closure in a predominately African-American neighborhood. “We use every classroom in this building.”

CWA president urges Senate vote on all NLRB nominees

During a national union hall meeting, CWA President Larry Cohen urged members to join the fight to make the National Relations Board functional again. Cohen told the 10,000 CWAers participating in the union’s monthly teleconference that Republican Senators are blocking the nominations of NLRB board members, which in effect, has caused the work of the NLRB to grind to a halt.

Because the federal courts ruled that President Obama’s two recess NLRB appointments were unconstitutional, there is only one active NLRB board member, which means that the board cannot have a quorum, and therefore can’t make any decisions on pending cases, said Cohen at the union hall meeting. To function again, the NLRB needs a full contingent of five board members, Cohen added

Republicans have intentionally obstructed the NLRB from doing its business of enforcing labor law and protecting 80 million workers, said Sen. Tom Harkin at the union hall meeting. Their goal is to eliminate the National Labor Relations Act, but they can’t do that directly, so they’re making it impossible for the NLRB to function by blocking the appointment of people who have been nominated to serve on the board.

CWA members and other union activists visited Capitol Hill on May 16 to urge Senators to allow an up or down vote on the five nominees, three of whom are Democrats and the other two Republicans.

“We’re not going to just be hopeful that Senate Democrats do the right thing,” said Cohen. “Progressives of all types understand the system is broken and that many nominations cannot get through the Senate despite majority support. Working people know that a full-strength NLRB is the first step to justice on the job. And they’re fed up. They’re fed up with gridlock, and they want their senators to make a difference.”

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Harkin, subsequently approved and sent the nominations to the full Senate for final approval. In the past, Sen. Republicans have used the rules of the Senate to block the Senate from taking an up or down vote on NLRB nominations, which has created the current void at the board.

Cohen, during the union hall meeting, urged members who live in states with Democratic senators to contact those senators and make sure they understand how important it is to overcome Republican obstructionism and force a vote on all five nominees even if that means changing the Senate rules so that the majority can decide whether the nominees receive their appointment.

Cohen said that the union is even supporting a vote on two of the nominees who received their nomination from Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. I don’t agree with some of the positions that these nominees have taken, said Cohen. But they are qualified and should at least be given the courtesy of an up or down vote. Furthermore, the only way that the board can become truly functional again is for the board to have its full complement of board members.

Sometimes the NLRB can be slow to act, and businesses have been able to take advantage of this slowness to prevent workers from exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, but NLRB has in the past made decisions that saved workers’ jobs.

One of those workers is Jennifer Travis, a CWA member from Pittsburg, who was unlawfully fired during a two-week strike by Verizon workers on the East Coast. Travis, a CWA steward, was a vocal and active supporter of the strike, who was illegally targeted for firing by Verizon.

CWA filed a charge against Verizon with the NLRB on behalf of Travis and dozens of other union activists who were illegally fired during the strike. The NLRB subsequently filed a complaint against Verizon, and that complaint was an important reason that Verizon agreed to rehire Travis and nearly all of the other union activists who were fired during the strike.

In addition to urging CWA members to contact their senators to urge them to support a vote on all five NLRB nominations, Cohen said that members should also sign the Give Me Five NLRB Members petition at http://action.cwa-union.org/c/1693/p/salsa/web/tellafriend/public/?tell_a_friend_KEY=9096.

Amazon.com workers go on strike in Germany

Amazon.com workers in Germany staged a one-day strike on Wednesday, May 15 to demand that the company increase wages and improve benefits. The workers are members of the Germany service union Ver. di. The union had negotiated an industry-wide agreement with representatives of Germany’s retail and mail order businesses. The agreement sets standard wages, benefits, and working conditions for the industry, but Amazon has refused to abide by the agreement

Leaders of Ver. di said that Amazon has been unwilling to negotiate with its workers’ union and that if Amazon continues along this path, strike actions could escalate.

“We are counting on a dispute which could last for a while,” Heiner Reimann, a spokesman for Ver.di. “Amazon so far has shown that they are unwilling to negotiate. They are willing to talk but they are unwilling to negotiate. So we are preparing for an open-ended strike.”

In April, 97 percent of Ver.di members who work for Amazon voted to authorize a strike if the company refused to improve wages and benefits.

Wednesday’s strike was the latest development in contentious relationship between Ver.di and Amazon, which employs about 9,000 workers at its warehouses in Germany. The union says that Amazon has imported labor practices from the US that threaten to undermine hard-won good wages, benefits, and working conditions that other workers in the industry enjoy.

Wednesday’s strike took place at two of Amazon’s  warehouses, one in Bad Hersfeld and the other in Leipzig.

Amazon pays its warehouse workers with less than one year on the job 9.30 euros an hour. After one year on the job, the pay rate increases to 10 euros an hour.

The union wants worker pay to begin at 10.66 euros an hour and increase to 12 euros an hour, which would put Amazon workers more in line with other retail and mail order workers in Germany.

More is at stake than just better wages though. Amazon doesn’t provide holiday or vacation pay as other German companies do, and it employs a sophisticated surveillance system that monitors workers’ every movement on the job. Two thirds of Amazon’s warehouse workforce are temporary workers, with even fewer benefits and job security than the company’s full-time workers.

Amazon says that it does not have to abide by the agreement between Ver. di and the industry because the Amazon operation in Germany is a logistics business rather than a mail order business.

The dispute between Ver. di and Amazon is not the first time that two sides have clashed over the company’s labor cost cutting measures.

In 2011, Amazon hired 1,500 unpaid interns to staff its warehouses. These unpaid interns were out-of-work workers, who were receiving unemployment insurance. Amazon justified its unpaid internships as a way of determining whether the interns might be worthy of more long-term employment. Ver. di called the unpaid internships slavery.

More recently, a television news program in February exposed Amazon’s latest attempt to reduce labor costs. The company hired foreign workers, mainly from European countries like Spain where the economy is in a severe depression, for temporary positions. The workers were housed in cheap motels and hostels and were subjected to threats and intimidation by employees of a security firm that monitored their actions.

The television station conducting the investigation said that the security firm had ties to Germany’s neo-Nazi movement.

The Mail Online reported that in addition to being bullied and intimidated, the workers had to walk up to ten miles to get to and from work, were paid less than they had been promised, and could be fired at will.

The workers had no way of addressing their concerns. “They don’t see any way of complaining,” said Reimann to the Online Globe. “They are all too frightened of being  sent home without a job.”

Unions, community unite to keep Chicago schools open

Parents, teachers, clergy, and community members in Chicago announced that they plan to hold Civil Rights era style marches on three days beginning May 18 to protest the proposed closure of 54 neighborhood schools by Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

During the three days, simultaneous marches beginning from the city’s South and West sides will wind their way past many of the schools proposed for closings.

Those participating in the marches, whose theme is Our City. Our Schools. Our Voice., say that the proposed school closures will further destabilize neighborhoods already facing serious challenges.

These schools are in neighborhoods where unemployment is high and that have suffered high rates of home and business foreclosures. According to the Chicago Teachers Union, the crime rates in these neighborhoods have also increased since Mayor Rahm Emmanuel took office.

“The devastation that the neighborhood schools faced came long before the latest list of school closures came down the pipeline,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, one of the groups organizing the marches.

Critics also say that Mayor Emmanuel and leaders of Chicago Public Schools have ignored the concerns of those most directly affected by the proposed closures.

“Despite the testimony of thousands of parents, teachers and people who work and living in the school communities impacted, Rahm Emanuel is dedicated to entering the history books as having destroyed the most public schools in one year than anyone in history,” said Lewis. “He refuses to listen to independent judges, law enforcement officials, educators, researchers, and the students themselves. We have no choice but to use power of organizing to engage in what will be a long fight to restore sanity to our school district.”

The marches are being organized by the Chicago Teachers Union, Grassroots Education Movement, SEIU Local 1, UNITE HERE Local 1, and PEACE, a citywide coalition of religious leaders.

The Chicago school board on May 22 will  vote on the closure proposal.

The proposal to close the schools comes on the heels of the school board’s announcement that it plans to greatly expand the number of charter schools.

School board CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that there is no connection between the closures and the expansion of charter schools, but Curtis Black reports that staff of the independent commission that gathered information that led to the closing proposal work for the Civic Consulting Alliance, which Black says is “an offshoot of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club,” which has been advising the school board on charter school expansion.

The closures also threaten to undermine some of the progress that has been made toward improving the schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Schools with new computer and technology centers, innovative music and arts programs, full-day pre-school programs, and other programs that improve learning opportunities for children in these neighborhoods will be closed.

If the closings take place, students at the closed  schools will have to travel outside their neighborhoods to new schools, which can be quite dangerous. At a recent demonstration to keep one of the schools open, parents held a march that took them past four gang and drug-sale locations. They also passed the site where a college student was shot and killed last week.

At the news conference announcing the marches to protest the proposed closures, Lewis explained why its necessary for teachers, parents, students, and community members to come together to fight the closures.

“School closings hurt children academically and the mayor’s plan will also put thousands of students’ safety at risk and many public school employees may lose their jobs,” Lewis said. “We must do whatever is necessary to stop this assault on the working class and the poor. In the midst of getting angry, we must organize. We want to tell Emanuel, the board, the school CEO, and their corporate sponsors that this is our city, these are our schools, and we will use our voice to fight for justice.”