Chicago parents, teachers boycott standarized test; union supports them

The Chicago Teachers Union said that it is standing with parents and teachers boycotting a standardized test that they describe as a low-stakes test that interferes with learning. The union said that it is prepared to “mount a strong defense of (the parents’ and teachers’) collective action.”

More than 500 parents at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, a pre-K through 8th grade public school, have signed opt-out letters saying that their children will not take the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which Chicago public school students are scheduled to begin taking on March 3.

On Tuesday, February 25, Saucedo teachers announced that they had voted unanimously not to administer the test.

“We are taking this step of civil disobedience because we love our children and students,” said Sarah Chambers, a Saucedo teacher at a media conference announcing the unanimous vote. “The unjust regime of over-testing and over-testing is inhumane. (The boycott) is one step towards reclaiming humanity, and the joy of learning and education.”

On February 27, Chicago Public School boss Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that teachers who refuse to administer the ISAT could have their teaching certificates revoked.

The ISAT, which takes eight days to administer, is being phased out of use. This year will be the last year that it will be given.

ISAT is being replaced by the Northwest Education Association Measure of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), which Chicago students will take later this year.

According to CTU, “The ISAT . . . is not aligned to any (Chicago Public School) curriculum, and in Chicago, it is no longer used to measure student progress, school performance, promotion, or for any other purpose.”

“The Saucedo educators have taken a bold step in refusing to administer a test that is of no use to students and will be junked by the district next year,” said Sharkey. “Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has already said the ISAT will not be used for selective enrollment, and therefore this serves no purpose other than to give students another standardized test.”

Sharkey also said that parents at other schools have signed opt out letters excusing their children from taking the test.

More Than a Score, a coalition of parents and teachers, has been urging Chicago parents to sign opt out letters, which, so far, more than 1,000 parents have signed.

At the February 25 media conference, Derlina Smith, a Saucedo parent, explained why she joined the opt out movement.

“Our kids need to be learning while they’re at school. They do not need to be over-tested and stressed about a test that does not matter,” said Smith. “It will be discontinued next year, so why does CPS feel as though it’s necessary?”

According to school administrators, schools are required by the state to administer the ISAT.

The state this year paid Pearson, a company that develops and markets standardized tests including the ISAT, $18 million for the test. Chicago Public Schools’ share of this payment is $3 million.

CPS administrators are saying that the ISAT won’t disrupt learning during the two weeks it is administered, but a post on the More Than a Score Facebook page suggests otherwise:

Disruption caused by the ISAT is far more than the 6-8 hours of testing. Even students not in 3-8th grade have disrupted schedules during the testing window; with specials cancelled so that teachers may proctor exams, etc.  We know of at least one school that will be dismissed early (before noon) for the three days of testing.

Special ed students who need testing accommodations can take many more than 6-8 hours to test, and their teachers are lost to administering the test for weeks.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and dollars devoted to ISAT prep time over the months preceding the tests.

Workers burned at Tesoro refinery; company thwarts federal investigation

The United Steelworkers (USW) demanded that the Tesoro Corporation develop and implement a comprehensive safety plan at its Martinez, California refinery where two workers were recently burned by sulfuric acid.

The workers suffered first and second degree burns on their faces after a pipe in the refinery’s alkylation unit ruptured causing sulfuric acid to be sprayed in the air.

Tesoro has called the accident a minor incident and refuses to allow the US Chemical Safety Board to conduct an investigation into the causes of the accident. It also described the workers’ injuries as minor.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the poor condition of the pipes in the alkylation unit where the accident occurred “constitutes an imminent hazard to employees” and ordered the unit to be shut down until the company takes steps to improve safety at the unit.

“Tesoro management trivialized the extent of the workers’ injuries to establish jurisdictional defense specifically to avoid the scrutiny of US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and other agencies,” said USW International Vice President Gary Beevers, who heads the union’s oil sector. “Management’s platitudes about operating safely have been exposed, as constant downward pressure to produce continues to threaten workers, their communities and the environment.”

According to the Cal OSHA order prohibiting Tesoro from operating the alkylation unit, workers reported that the pipes at the unit leaked badly, that the company had employed a makeshift solution to fix the leaks, and that another operator suffered facial burns in November when he was sprayed with acid from a pipe at the unit.

Workers also said that their complaints about safety at the unit were ignored by the company, that they were afraid of the safety dangers at the unit, and that the company had reduced staffing on the operations that take place when the unit is shut down and restarted.

According to the order, workers had asked Tesoro to provide them with acid jackets, safety equipment that includes face protection, but were told by supervisors that the company didn’t have any.

The two workers burned in the most recent accident were taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, treated for their burns, and told not to work for between five to seven days because the environment at the refinery could trigger infections in their burned skin.

After their treatment, both workers received a letter from Tesoro telling them that they had to contact their supervisor or risk losing their jobs.

A few days after the pipe burst, staff from the US Chemical Safety Board arrived on the scene to conduct a routine inquiry to determine the cause of the accident.

When they tried to return for a follow up visit, Tesoro barred them from entering the plant, saying that CSB didn’t have jurisdiction in the matter.

CSB recently issued a draft report on the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, that report states that Tesoro’s lax attitude toward safety led to the explosion.

Even though CSB has not been allowed to return to the Martinez refinery, it will continue its investigation. The board has subpoenaed company documents about the operation of the refineries alkylation unit.

The United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the Martinez refinery and oil and chemical workers throughout the US, said that Tesoro doesn’t take safety seriously.

“While the company continues to grow and its market share expands, Tesoro’s corporate culture of safety has steadily diminished,” said Beevers. “Management seeks to reduce the number of union safety positions and has proposed other staffing cuts, including the department where workers were injured last week.”

In another matter, the Contra Costa Times News reports that in January Tesoro agreed to pay $472,000 in civil penalties to settle allegations by the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality District that the company violated air pollution laws 35 times between 2009 and 2011.

Medford, OR teachers end strike, Portland teachers’ strike averted

Six hundred teachers in Medford, Oregon returned to work after what appears to be a successful 16-day strike for better public education.

In Portland, Oregon, a’ teachers strike scheduled to begin on February 20 was called off after the teachers’ union and the Portland School System (PSS) reached a last-minute tentative agreement.

In both cases, the school districts tried to impose a long list of concessions on their teachers.

And in both cases, the teachers  made improving public education the main goal of their new contracts, which won them crucial community support.

Members of the Medford Teachers Association (MTA) began striking on February 6 after 10 months of negotiations.

During negotiations, the Medford School District proposed a list of 118 concessions that it wanted from the teachers.

According to the Oregon Strike Insider, the school district showed little interest in negotiating a fair contract and took every opportunity to escalate tensions. The school district declared an end to direct bargaining, demanded a mediator, declared an impasse, and prepared to submit a final best offer.

The teachers were prepared to continue negotiations, but when it became clear that management and the school board had their own private agenda, the teachers struck.

MEA reported that 96 percent of the teachers walked off the job and stayed united throughout the strike.

The school district hoped that pressure from parents and the community would stampede teachers back to work.

But the teachers conducted an outreach effort to the community prior to the strike, and many parents and students sided with the teachers.

The school district tried to keep the schools open by using substitutes and probationary teachers, but that effort seemed to backfire.

“I don’t think that the quality is in the classroom right now,” said one parent as she walked with teachers on a picket line outside a school where replacement teachers were holding class.

That sentiment seemed to be shared by many others. School board members were bombarded with phone calls and emails urging the school district to return to the bargaining table and settle the strike. The district superintendent turned away parents who showed up at his office to demand an end to the strike.

Near the end of the strike, the school district negotiators tried to meet secretly at a local motel to discuss their next move.

But hundreds of demonstrators including teachers and parents gathered outside and told district negotiators to stop hiding and settle the strike.

“We’re here because basically at this point the district has closed their doors to parents,” said Kristen Robinson, a parent at the demonstrations. “They won’t give us any information. They’re not answering phone calls (or) emails.”

When negotiations resumed, the two reached a tentative agreement that union negotiators thought was fair.

The two sides agreed not to release details until the teachers and school board have a chance to review it.

On Sunday, February 22, the union held a meeting to discuss the agreement. The Medford Mail Tribune reported that it was well received by members and that schools would reopen on the 23rd.

“There was some give and take from both sides, and we were able to come to what (the union negotiating) team feels really good about (and) that our members will accept, not just that they’ve settled for something,” said Cheryl Lashley, MEA president to the Mail Tribune.

In Portland, the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools (PSS) reached an agreement hours before the teachers were to go on strike.

PSS, which sought 78 givebacks from the teachers, pursued a strategy similar to the one used in Medford: drag out the negotiations, call in a mediator, declare an impasse, and ram through a final offer.

But while the teachers were negotiating with PSS, they were also organizing internally and reaching out to the public.

The union began its negotiations by including a preamble to its contract proposals.

The preamble, entitled The Schools Portland Students Deserve, laid out a list of objectives that the union hoped to achieve during negotiations–like smaller class sizes, a well rounded education that includes art, music, world languages, PE, library science, and electives for all children regardless of their parents’ income, education for the whole child that includes wrap around services such as counselling, less focus on standardized testing and more focus on letting teachers have more control over curriculum and instruction, and holding everyone in the education system accountable for providing a quality education.

The union then held a series of public forums to publicize these objectives.

The outreach work worked. The union had the strong backing of many parents and students.

When the union met to take a s strike authorization vote on February 7, hundreds of community supporters rallied outside of the meeting.

The Portland Student Union announced that if the teachers struck, members of the student union would walk the picket line with them.

The final agreement achieved many of the union’s objectives. Foremost, PSS agreed to hire 150 new teachers to reduce class sizes.

The teachers wanted to include language in the contract about the new teacher hires, but settled for a memorandum of understanding that put the number and hiring schedule in writing.

Teachers will begin voting on the tentative agreement on Tuesday, February 25, and votes will be tallied on Friday, February 28.

Unions launch international Better Banks campaign

A coalition of unions and consumer advocates on February 18 rallied at the Citibank headquarters on Wall Street to protest the way that US banks treat their workers.

At the rally, the unions announced that they were launching an international campaign to support union organizing among US bank employees.

The main goal of the campaign called Better Banks is to improve work at banks so that banks can better serve customers.

Better Banks is a joint effort of CWA, UNI Global Union, and the Committee for Better Banks.

Rally participants included members of bank worker unions from around the world attending a New York City conference about the Better Banks campaign.

An estimated one million bank workers and customers worldwide demonstrated their support for Better Banks by tweeting and posting on Facebook pictures and messages of support for the Wall Street demonstrators.

According to those at the rally, stark inequalities characterize work in the US banking system.

“I have been to sales rallies, where the top executives of the company brag about how great the stock is doing, then the next morning I have to listen to one of my tellers complain she doesn’t have enough money to buy baby formula for her child,” said Robert Freeman, a former bank employee now working to organize the industry.

A report by the Committee for Better Banks shows that low wages are the norm for many bank employees.

The report finds that because of low salaries one-third of US bank employees qualify for some kind of public assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid and other children’s health programs.

The salaries of top executives on the other hand are much more generous. “The outsized wealth and power of Wall Street is evidenced in salary raises for CEOs like Jamie Dimon,” reads the report. “In 2013 Dimon received a 74% pay increase, bringing his salary to nearly $20 million, after being fined $20 billion dollars for regulatory violations.”

Bank workers also work under stressful conditions that put their health at risk.

“I was a confident and loyal employee,” said a bank employee, who wished to remain anonymous, to the authors of the report. “After being slammed daily for sales scores I started to have panic attacks and lost all pride in my work because it was never good enough.”

This kind of pressure can lead to poor customer service.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Well Fargo managers made their sales representatives call friends and family to pressure them into opening accounts.

Unlike top bank executives like Dimon, who maintained his position at JP Morgan Chase despite the banks’ involvement in scandals, front line bank workers have little job security.

In New York City, there are 19,800 fewer people working in the financial industry since the industry’s crash in 2008.

That trend holds true across the US. In 2006, the height of employment in the banking sector, there were 8.35 million banking sector jobs. Currently, there are 7.7 million.

Many of the lost jobs are direct service jobs such as tellers at branch offices, but cuts also are taking place among IT and call center workers, whose jobs have been outsourced to countries such as India and the Philippines.

Job cuts are expected to continue. Bank of America is projecting job cuts affecting 10 percent of its workforce during 2014. JP Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG are also projecting job cuts during 2014 ranging from 3 percent 16 percent of their workforce.

Bank employees are told that the jobs cuts, excessive pressure, and low wages are natural features of bank work, but that’s not the case when bank employees have unions.

In Brazil, bank workers, 95 percent of whom belong to a union, conducted a 23-day strike in 2013 that won an 8 percent across the board pay raise, an 8.5 percent increase in the minimum pay, and a 12 percent increases in profit sharing. They also were compensated for their time off during the strike and won protections against management harassment, one day’s pay per year of service for absence allowances, and compensation that allows them to enjoy cultural activities.

The new collective bargaining agreement resulting from the strike calls for the creation of a team of independent experts who will investigate the causes of employment related illnesses.

In the US, the unions that organized the recent Wall Street demonstration are also hoping that the kind of international solidarity expressed in support of the Better Banks campaign will make it easier for US bank workers to join a union.

“Nowadays, it is really hard to build unions in the United States and this kind of innovative solidarity movement can make a change by delivering the message to the US workers that they are not alone,” said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary for UNI Global.

UI Chicago faculty strike to protest administration stonewalling

Faculty members at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) on February 19 ended a two-day strike called to protest the administration’s stonewalling during collective bargaining negotiations.

The strike was organized by United Faculty AFT Local 6456, which represents 1,100 tenured and non-tenured faculty members at UIC.

Local 6456 won a union representation election in 2012. The union and administration have been negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement for the last 18 months.

Union frustration with the administration’s stonewalling boiled over recently.

“Our bargaining team has spent the last three days negotiating with the administration,” reads a union message to members. “What has it accomplished? Nothing. As far as we can tell, the only reason that they showed up was so that they could say they weren’t walking out on talks.”

The union called the strike, which 95 percent of the members voted to authorize in December, to bring attention to important issues that need to be addressed in the bargaining sessions.

Foremost among these issues is the question of whether UIC will pursue its strategic mission of providing a quality education to its largely working class student body–a mission agreed to by both faculty and the administration in their joint Strategic Thinking Report

“The UIC faculty is committed to that mission,” write Lennard Davis and Walter Benn Michaels, two UIC English professors in a piece written for Jacobin. “And the whole point of the strike is to help us fulfill it.”

The administration says that it is committed to the same mission, but it has raised student tuition 25 percent since 2007 without making substantial investments in those who most affect the quality of the students’ education–the faculty.

“It is outrageous that (UIC) has increased tuition and burdened students with debt, all while socking away almost a billion dollars of students’ money,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “Just as outrageous is that the administration has spent the students’ tuition dollars on increasing the number of administrative positions and reducing the number of faculty.”

During the last five years, student enrollment has increased by 13 percent, said Joe Persky, president of Local 6456 during an interview with WTTW television. But the number of tenured faculty has declined by 1 percent during the same period.

On the other hand, the number of administrators, many of whom are paid substantially more than faculty members, has increased by 10 percent.

Faculty salaries have also lagged.

The average annual salary for tenured UIC professors, which according to Davis and Michaels is $65,000, has remained the same for the last two years, and three years ago faculty pay was reduced temporarily when they were required to take unpaid furloughs.

The situation for non-tenured lecturers is much worse. Many are paid $30,000 a year, barely a living wage in Chicago, yet they play a crucial role at the university.

Lecturers teach many of the first year courses at UIC, and success during the first year is a major factor in determining whether a student graduates.

The union wants a reasonable pay boost for all faculty, especially those on the non-tenured track. It also wants three-year contracts for lecturers.

But the union is seeking more than higher wages and better job security.

It’s fighting for a collective bargaining agreement that improves their students’ education–one that results in reduced class sizes, more individualized instruction, and safe and well equipped classrooms and labs so that cutting edge research and instruction can take place.

UIC also wants a collective bargaining agreement that ensures that faculty have a relevant voice in curriculum and budgetary decisions–decisions that affect the quality of their work.

Davis and Michaels write that as UIC has become more corporatized many decisions involving what faculty teach and how much will be spent on instruction has been usurped by a bloated bureaucracy whose values have been shaped in the corporate boardroom rather than in the classroom.

This usurpation has taken place under the guise of “shared governance,” which means “that faculty senates can ‘advise’ the administration, and the administration can then do whatever it wants,” they write. “To call shared governance real governance is like saying your dog has an equal say in how your household is run because sometimes when he whines he gets fed.”

The union decided to strike reluctantly, but in the end felt that a strike was the only action that could get the administration’s attention.

“The heart of UIC is its faculty and its students, but the trustees short change them both,” said Persky. “The administration’s priorities don’t match the University’s mission, and after trying to negotiate a fair contract for eighteen months, (they) left us no choice but to strike.”

Save Our Unions: A review

It was the summer of 1969. I was living in San Francisco. I had just gotten a job with Pacific Bell, the West Coast telephone company.

One afternoon, I was performing some routine maintenance when a shop steward walked up to me and said, “Put down your tools; we’re walking out.”

I looked up, saw other workers heading for the exit, and dutifully followed.

We gathered across the street from Pacific Bell building and milled around for a while.

Finally, someone (I can’t remember who) told us that the company had disciplined two stewards for union activity and that the walkout was called to protect them. We were told to go home and report back to work the next morning. If the issue was resolved, we’d work; if not, we’d stay out.

The next morning, I showed up and resumed working. The disciplined stewards were also back on the job.

My wildcat strike experience wasn’t unique. There had been another one at another Bay Area Pacific Bell work site within the last year.

African-American auto workers in Detroit and sanitation workers in Memphis had conducted wildcat strikes to fight racism, and other workers in other cities had walked off the job to protest speed up, safety problems, management harassment, and other grievances.

In 1970, more than 200,000 postal workers walked of the job defying their union leadership and President Nixon who both told them to return to work.

Over the next ten years, wildcat strikes took place among auto workers, municipal employees, miners, truck drivers, food processing workers, and workers in other industries.

During the 1970s, workers’ real wages continued to rise, more got access to health care and pension benefits, and more won a voice on the job through union membership. (The peak year of union membership in the US was 1979 when 21 million workers were union members.)

But those victories would not last.

Capital during most of the 1970s had been on the defensive, but by the end of the decade, it was beginning to revamp, restructure, and reorganize. It also recommitted itself to the class struggle.

It didn’t take long for capital to counterattack, and by 1981, it was labor that was on the defensive.

Steve Early in his newest book Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress  published by Monthly Review Press surveys and analyzes the damage done to the US labor movement by capital’s resurgence.

Early’s book, a collection of loosely organized essays, focuses most of its attention on more recent developments, but he begins with some history and context including appropriately enough the 1981 strike by PATCO, the US air traffic controllers’ union.

The strike, a crushing defeat for labor, wasn’t really a fair fight. Capital acted decisively and in concert; labor was tentative and splintered.

Before the strike, President Reagan, serving as capital’s surrogate, marshalled support among key players like the Air Transport Association, the air carriers’ trade association, which despite concerns that business would suffer, backed the President when he fired the striking controllers.

Labor responded timidly. Leaders paid lip service to solidarity but told members to cross PATCO picket lines and keep working.

Reagan’s victory, writes Early, “strengthened the hand of airline management in its own future showdowns with ALPA (the pilots union), IAM, the Flight Attendants, and other unions.”  The same could be said of capital in general.

The defeat of PATCO was a watershed moment for the working class. During the three decades that followed wages stagnated, benefits eroded, and millions of good paying jobs migrated to low-wage regions in the US and abroad. Union membership declined and union power waned.

Early says that unions were unable to resist capital’s onslaught for a number of reasons:

  • A sclerotic union leadership, more interested in preserving privilege than fighting capital, clung to the idea that a union’s role is to work with management to prevent labor unrest; capital on the other hand embraced class war.
  • Unions isolated themselves from the broader public. One example was labor’s position on health care, which until 2010 had been to concern itself only with protecting employer-based health plans. Early argues that unions for the last 30 years should have been fighting for health care for all and points to the success of telephone workers in the 1980s who protected their health care benefits by publicly supporting the idea that health care is a right not a privilege.
  • Unions paid too little attention to internal organizing, i.e., educating and mobilizing their own membership; when unions conducted education campaigns, the campaigns focused on a narrow political narrative that gave uncritical support to the Democratic party.
  • Union leaders allowed and in many cases encouraged union democracy to wither.

Early argues that labor’s revitalization will depend on a re-energized grassroots movement that unites non-union, low-wage workers like those who have been striking for a living wage and forward thinking rank-and-file workers engaged in day-to-day “shop floor organizing.”

As Early acknowledges, this work won’t be easy, and some of his dispatches describe missteps like those of Ron Carey and Arnold Miller.

Miller was a leader of Miners for Democracy, Carey of Teamsters for Democracy.

Both won elections that ousted entrenched and imperious union regimes.

Both were unable to sustain their victories.

Miller was ruined by incompetence.

Carey was more successful. He led a winning strike against UPS but was outmaneuvered by remnants of the union’s old order and forced from office.

Early’s dispatches, however, aren’t just about missteps. Some describes some promising new developments.

At T-Mobile, the nation’s fourth largest wireless service provider that has fiercely resisted unionization, CWA helped workers build an organization called T-Mobile United, or simply TU. While not recognized by the company, TU acts like a union and has won some victories.

UNITE-HERE has recruited and trained people to be salts–pro-union people who go to work at non-union hospitality businesses to help workers at these businesses organize. Early describes the successes and setbacks experienced by three of these young salts as well as some insights they learned while working.

Early’s dispatches tell the good, the bad, and the ugly of labor’s fight for survival, but they also describe a new era of capitalism that makes worker collective action harder.

Service jobs now dominate the economy, and these jobs are difficult to organize through traditional means. How do you organize Starbucks workers as some have tried when the company’s ubiquitous coffee shops that employ a handful of people are scattered widely across a city?

(Union-backed worker centers for low wage workers that Early mentions may be one answer.)

Even old industries are new. Take for instance telecommunications. When the regulated and highly unionized telephone monopoly was broken up and deregulated, it became more difficult to coordinate bargaining and strikes.

On top of that, their landline business is dwindling and being replace by wireless services, where most of the jobs are non-union.

While much has changed, other things have remained constant. It’s still possible for an energized, motivated, and organized group of workers to stand up to their bosses and win,

That’s why, if I were Early’s editor, I would have encouraged him to spend more time examining the work of the Chicago Teachers Union.

At the beginning of the book, he devotes a paragraph to CTU’s successful strike and an end note refers the reader to other works about the strike.

One hundred fifty pages later, Early mentions the strike again but only to criticize a concession that the union made to preserve its health care benefit. (The union agreed to a dubious wellness program pushed by the city as a way of reducing health care costs.)

Despite that concession, the contract won by CTU’s nine-day strike was a solid victory for public school employees specifically and public education in general. Other unions, especially public service unions, could learn from CTU’s success.

While CTU’s success is instructive, so is the recent defeat of UAW’s organizing campaign at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant.

UAW relied heavily on a hands-across-the-ocean outreach effort to Volkswagen management in Germany to win the campaign.

Considering UAW’s lack of success organizing southern auto workers by traditional means and Volkswagen’s accepting attitude toward unions, this approach may not have been a bad idea.

But it didn’t work.

Now it’s time to consider some new approaches to union building, and while Save Our Unions spends a lot of time analyzing labor’s problems over the last thirty years, it also describes some new approaches that more people should know about.

Austin construction workers demand fair treatment from luxury living developer

More than 200 construction workers and their supporters on February 15 rallied in downtown Austin to demand that a developer of luxury living communities pay its workers a living wage and eliminate illegal and dangerous working conditions.

The rally took place near Gables Park Towers, a luxury living complex being developed by Gables Residentials, an Atlanta-based company owned by ING, a Dutch-based multinational financial services company.

“I’ve worked in construction for 10 years, and I have never seen worse conditions than on Gables Park Tower,” said Heriberto Mendoza, a member of Workers Defense Project, a local membership-based worker center for low-wage workers that organized the protest.

Mendoza filed a wage theft lien against Gables Residential, Flores Painting Services, a subcontractor for whom Mendoza worked, and Andres Construction Services, the project’s general contractor.

According to Mendoza, he has not been paid for overtime worked since he came on the job in January.

Gables Residentials is a big player in the development of downtown Austin, where luxury condo and apartment construction is booming.

Its other Austin projects have been the subject of worker criticism as well.

“Supervisors would mistreat us, making us work much longer than anyone should have to work without water,” said WDP member Filemon Salas, who worked on the construction of the nearby Gables Park Plaza in 2009.  “I saw several co-workers faint because they were made to work in 100 to 110 degree heat without water.”

Salas was the main plaintiff in a 2010 wage theft suit against Capoera Construction, a subcontractor, and Greater Metroplex Interiors, one of the contractors on the Gables Park Plaza project.

Gables was also the developer of 21 Rio, a luxury condo near the University of Texas where three workers died in a 2009 scaffolding accident.

Workers at Gables downtown Austin projects have reported nearly $130,000 in wage theft, no rest breaks (a violation of a city ordinance won as a result of a WDP campaign), 50 to 60 hour work weeks with no overtime pay, no safety training, and payroll fraud.

The rally on February 15 was the launch of a campaign to get Gables to join WDP’s Better Building program, said Emily Timm, WDP deputy director.

“The program calls for workers to receive a living wage, have safe working conditions, and for companies to invest in workforce training,” said Timm.

A number of organizations active in developing property in the Austin area have already joined Better Building including Apple, Foundation Communities, Pflugerville Community Development Corporation, and Saltillo Collaborative.

WDP had been trying unsuccessfully to talk to Gables for some time to get them to consider joining Better Building.

It was only after the February 15 demonstrations was announced that Gables agreed to a meeting, which was held February 13 to discuss conditions on Gables’ job sites.

“We need honest companies that will invest in our state and our workforce (and) not take advantage of our communities,” read WDP’s announcement about the rally. “Other developers have agreed to work with WDP to ensure good jobs for all workers. It is time for Gables to follow suit in improving the construction industry.”

WDP asked supporters who couldn’t attend the rally to tweet Gables and urge the company to support worker safety and a living wage.

Revolt in Bosnia crosses ethnic divides

A protest by workers in the city of Tuzla against privatization, sparked a nationwide revolt against the rulers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation carved out of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s after a bloody civil war that pitted Bosniaks (Muslims), Serb, and Croats who lived in the area against each other.

The workers’ protest was joined by young people, and members of civic associations fed up with government corruption and neglect.

While ethnic tension remain high in the former Yugoslavian republic, the uprising was marked by its class rather than ethnic dimensions.

“We are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites,” writes Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher, author, and Communist theoretician in The Guardian. “The people of Bosnia have finally understood who their enemy is–not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them.”

The protests began at a laundry detergent factory in Tuzla.

The factory, a former state-owned enterprise when Bosnia was a part of socialist Yugoslavia, had been sold to a businessman who Reuters describes as a “tycoon from the Bosnian capital (of Sarajevo).”

After the factory was sold, most of the workers were laid off, but a skeleton crew of about 100 remained on the job.

Reuters reports that the workers who remained had not been paid for two years.

Recently, a group of both employed and unemployed workers had set up an encampment at the factory gates to prevent the owner from stripping the factory of its machines and equipment and selling them, a common practice in Bosnia.

The workers had tried to get the local government, which had sold the factory under the condition that the new owner invest in new equipment and continue production, to take action against the new owner.

But the local government ignored them.

On February 4, the workers marched to the local government’s headquarters to demand action. They were joined by other workers and young people, who had grievances of their own.

Instead of meeting with the protestors, government officials sent the police to disperse the crowd.

The workers and their supporters resisted, and the two sides fought.

The government’s callous attitude sparked sympathy demonstrations in other parts of the country, which were also met with police repression.

The repression as well as poverty and unemployment caused the demonstrations to grow in number and ferocity.

The country’s unemployment rate is more than 27 percent; for young people, the rate is 60 percent.

Many of the country’s formerly state-owned businesses have been sold to private companies that stripped factories of their assets and shut them down.

All of this has been allowed to take place by a government that has funneled aid money from the European Union into the pockets of government leaders and their cronies.

The anger sparked by corruption, privation, and privatization erupted on Friday, February 7, into pitched battles between thousands protestors and the police and special forces in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Mostar. Some protestors burned government buildings.

Peaceful protests took place in Kakanj, Visoko, Konjic, and Livno in the Bosniak and Croat regions.

While smaller, there were also peaceful protests in Banja Luka, Prijedor, Bijeljina, and Foca in the Serbian autonomous region.

In Tuzla, the protestors issued a manifesto that called for the creation of a new Bosnia-Herzegovina whose principles would be based on social justice, not the divisive ethnic interests that currently defines the country.

Among the 37 demands in the manifesto, the protestors called for free health care, more jobs for young people, an end to privatization, taking back former government assets that have already been privatized, and an end to government corruption.

The manifesto also demanded a more equal society. One of the biggest complaints of protestors is the disparity between the salary of high government officials, whose salaries are around 3,500 euros a month, and the rest of the population, whose monthly salaries average about 400 euros a month.

The Tuzla manifesto demands that government officials should be paid the same wage as workers. (The Paris Commune of 1871 made a similar demand during its uprising.)

In addition to social justice, the Tuzla manifesto calls for the banning of “nationalist and religious based parties.”

In other parts of Bosnia, the protests have been led by social justice organizations with names like Udar, Revolt, and Occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina.

So far, the groups’ slogans like the one from Udar that reads, “It does not matter if you are a Serb, a Croat, or a Bosniak. Together we are stronger,” have emphasized the common cause of their struggle against nationalist elites.

The one unifying demand of all the protests seems to be that the current Bosnia-Herzegovina government, which is led by an unresponsive troika composed of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb, must resign.

The protestors also want the governments of 10 cantons (local governments) in Bosnia to resign. So far, four have done so.

On February 10 and 11, demonstrators again took to the streets, but the demonstrations remained peaceful.

Protests are likely to continue until a new government is formed. The current rulers have stated that they will allow elections to take place but no date has been set yet.

There is a chance that the current rulers may try to stay in power by reviving ethnic tensions.

Demonstators to UT: “No layoffs, privatization, or Accenture”

Workers, students, and faculty on February 7 rallied at the University of Texas at Austin campus to protest a plan to eliminate 500 UT jobs. The plan was authored by Accenture, an international company specializing in privatizing public resources.

More than 300 people gathered at and marched across the campus on a day when the opening of classes was delayed until noon because of a winter weather advisory.

“(Accenture’s) plan is for UT to spend $130 million in order to eliminate 500 UT jobs and relocate 400 other jobs into centralized call centers,” said Anne Lewis, an instructor in the UT Radio, Television, and Film Department and executive board member of the Texas State Employees Union CWA Local 6186 (TSEU) at the rally.

“The plan is the same old stuff on steroids,” Lewis continued. “Claiming austerity, (it’s)a neoliberal attack on the public sector and on public workers.  The impact is both on the nature and the day-to-day at this university.”

UT, claiming that it is facing a deficit in its operating budget, contracted with Accenture to develop a plan to redesign administrative services and save money.

Accenture’s big picture plan calls for more centralization and the privatization of services at UT.

Accenture released its Shared Services proposal, the initial phase of its long-range redesign plan, in the fall of 2013. The plan eliminates 500 administrative information technology, finance, and human resources jobs and centralizes the rest. Much of the centralized work would be done at call centers.

Shared Services and Accenture’s long-range redesign plan has sparked the ire of students, workers, and faculty, which has led to a series of public protests.

“We’ve won some victories,” said Lewis at a TSEU meeting prior to the most recent rally and march. “UT backed away from privatizing food service work, which Accenture originally proposed, and more recently, the UT administration said that it will slow down the implementation of Shared Services. But the administration is just biding its time hoping that we’ll be lulled into a sense of complacency, so that it can move ahead without so much resistance.”

The fight to halt Accenture’s ill-conceived redesign plan, is led by the Save Our Community Coalition (SOCC), composed of TSEU, Education Austin, Workers Defense Project, International Socialist Organization (ISO), Oxfam, University Leadership Initiative, Native American and Indigenous Collective (NAIC), Queer People of Color and Allies (QPOCA), Texas Fair Trade Coalition, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

The February rally and march coincided with a national USAS conference, and many of the participants were USAS members attending the conference.

“(We fear) that any continuing relationship with Accenture puts the university at risk,” Bianca Hinz Foley, local organizer for USAS. “The Save Our Community Coalition, a UT and community-based group, is committed to putting pressure on the UT administration to protect UT as a place that values each community member, including hard-working and dedicated staff. The group is calling on Chancellor Cigarroa and President Bill Powers to terminate all current contracts with Accenture and prevent any future relationships with the firm.”

According SOCC, Accenture has a long history of costly and failed redesign projects. Most prominent among these was Accenture’s plan to redesign and privatize Texas’ health and human services.

Texas paid Accenture more than $200 million but had to scrap its plan that relied heavily on privatized call centers because the call centers made it difficult for Texans to access health and human services such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, and food stamps.

UT workers, students, and faculty are concerned that if Accenture’s administrative redesign is implemented the quality of services provided by UT employees will decline because the close working relationship that now exists between staff and the students and faculty who they serve will be replaced by impersonal and distant call centers.

UT has justified the need for Accenture’s redesign by citing a deficit in the university’s operating budget.

But Dr. Alberto Martinez, a UT history professor, in an op ed piece appearing in the Austin American Statesman said that UT’s so-called fiscal crisis is really a crisis of misplaced priorities.

According to Martinez, UT raised $463 million last year as a result of its fund raising efforts; however, none of this money will be used to fund operations, where it is really needed.

Instead, the money was funneled into endowments and other restricted accounts.

If UT had its priorities straight, wrote Martinez. “We could solve a severe $1 million deficit in a college in just 20 hours of fund raising.”

NYC transport workers to stand in solidarity with commuter rail workers if they strike

The leader of the union representing 38,000 New York bus and subway workers said that his union will support workers at the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) if they go on strike in March.

“The outcome of the LIRR’s unions’ dispute will have a direct impact on our own contract with (New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority),” wrote John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, in a letter to Local 100 members. . . That is why “TWU 100 will support any strike action taken by the LIRR unions against the MTA in every way possible. This will not only include the establishment and manning of picket lines, but every other lawful means possible at our disposal.”

Samuelson did not specify what actions Local 100 members would take, but Newsday reports that such actions might include refusing to work overtime or to work on days off.

Refusing to work extra hours will make it difficult for MTA to implement its strike contingency plans, which include using buses to shuttle passengers affected by an LIRR strike.

MTA operates both the New York City bus and subway system and the LIRR, which ferries commuters from the suburbs on Long Island to the city.

Local 100’s solidarity announcement was a big boost for the LIRR unions, which have worked without a new contract since 2010.

A coalition of LIRR union representing two-thirds of the 5,600 union workers at LIRR announced recently that unless the MTA accepts the findings of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), the unions will strike on March 21.

LIRR is governed by the Railway Labor Act, which requires unions and employers to mediate disputes when an agreement cannot be reached. If mediation results in an impasse, the President has the authority to empanel a PEB to make recommendations for resolving the dispute.

Once a PEB makes its recommendations, both sides can accept or reject the recommendations.

In December PEB 244 appointed by President Obama conducted hearings and reviewed documents submitted by both sides in the dispute. After careful study, PEB 244 recommended that the workers receive a 2.9 percent pay raise a year for six years. The raise would be retroactive to 2010 when the old contract expired.

The PEB also recommended that workers pay higher health care costs. The higher health care costs would mean a 2.5 percent a year net pay increase. PEB also recommended against higher worker pension contributions sought by MTA.

The union coalition, which includes the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (SMART)/UTU, the National Conference of  Firemen and Oilers SEIU 32BJ, and the Transportation Communications Union, accepted the PEB recommendations. MTA did not.

MTA clings to its demand that there be no raises for the first year of the contract and has said that including the first year in a retroactive pay raise would require a fare increase.

PEB after studying the financial documents submitted by MTA found that MTA had the financial resources to pay the retroactive raise, including a raise in the first year of the contract, without raising fares.

Anthony Simon, who leads the LIRR union coalition, said that the PEB finding came before the MTA announced that it had received an $80 million real estate windfall.

It (is) the same old story,” said Simon. “Money for everything else except worker raises.”

During the last three years, LIRR workers have received no raises. MTA officials said that they too have shared in the workers’ sacrifice by foregoing raises.

But Simon, said that this so-called shared sacrifice was a sham exposed by the PEB.

“PEB 244 determined that there were in fact raises given to management,” said Simon in his MTA board testimony. . . “The PEB . . . saw right through these claims and exposed the real truth.”

Samuelson told TWU Local 100 that he would appoint a committee to develop an action plan for maximizing Local 100’s support for a fair contract for LIRR workers.

“In some way or another, you will all be called upon to participate,” said Samuelson in his letter to members. “I know I can expect your best efforts at protecting our families and our livelihoods by supporting our fellow MTA workers at the LIRR.

NYC charter schools challenged by union and mayor

The president of the New York City’s public school teachers’ union recently issued a challenge to the city’s charter schools.

If they are really interested in playing a meaningful role in public education, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a January 14 article in the New York Daily News, charter school operators need to

  • Be willing to serve the city’s neediest children
  • Open their books to public scrutiny
  • Be good neighbors and
  • Stop treating children as profit centers

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Education announced that it would divert $210 million budgeted for charter school construction. The money will be used  to ease school overcrowding and to help fund Mayor de Blasio’s planned expansion of the city’s pre-kindergarten program.

The shortcomings of the New York City charter schools that drew Mulgrew’s challenge are amplified in a recent report released by UFT, entitled “Charter Schools: A UFT Research Report.”

Charter schools educate 6 percent of New York City’s public school students and charge the city $13,500 a year to do so.

The report finds that while charter schools characterize themselves as non-profit organizations, they generate generous incomes for their top executives and charge high management fees.

Six of the most prominent charter chains– Achievement First, Success Charter Network, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Village Academies Network, and Ichan Charters–pay their top executives an average annual salary of $354,500. The highest paid of these six works for Village Academies Network and makes nearly one-half million dollars a year. The next highest paid works for Success Charter Network and makes $475,000 a year.

Theses two salaries and the one paid to KIPP charter schools, ($395,000 a year) are more than the mayor’s or New York City’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s, and the executives only oversee a small number of schools.

These same charter chains charged the New York City School District more than $12 million in management fees, 15 percent of the funding they received from the city during the 2011-2012 school year.

The charters claim that they operate on a narrow margin, but the report shows that the six charter chains mentioned above have assets totaling more than $65 million.

How they spend their money isn’t clear because unlike public schools charters are not subject to independent audits. In fact, charter supporters have gone to court to prevent independent audits by New York State Comptroller.

Charters have also been reluctant to throw their doors open to all as public schools must do. In fact, the UFT report presents some evidence suggesting that charters cherry pick students most likely to succeed.

According to the report, “tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.”

Despite the screening process, charter students didn’t do any better on recent standardized tests than public school students.

“In reading, charter schools as a whole scored under the citywide average,” reports the UFT.

Charters are required to serve children with special needs and those who don’t speak English as a first language, but many ignore this requirement, said Mulgrew.

“Parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been ‘counseled out’ of charters, (and) most of them (end) up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores,” he said.

Mulgrew also said that charters need to learn to be better neighbors. Most of charters co-locate at public schools but go to great lengths to keep their students from having contact with public school students in the same building.

As a result of these and other problems, Mayor de Blasio while he was campaigning for office said that he would not follow former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of preferential treatment for charter schools.

In addition to diverting money that Mayor Bloomberg had earmarked for charter school construction, de Blasio said that he would discontinue the policy of allowing charters to co-locate at public schools.

Forty-two new charters are scheduled to begin co-location in September. Those new co-locations are on hold while being reviewed by the city’s education department. No new co-locations will be approved.

The charters pay no rent for using public school space, which de Blasio said during his campaign, added “insult to injury” to public school students, teachers, and the public.

The free rent adds about $650 per child in extra public funding that charters receive from the city.

More recently, he said that the co-location process was “a broken one that didn’t consult with parents and communities effectively.”

Nurses oppose Keystone pipeline citing public health risks

National Nurses United asked supporters to sign the union’s petition urging President Obama to reject approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the nurses’ union says is a threat to public health.

“There is broad concern about the harmful health effects linked to both the extraction and transport of tar sands, as well as how the pipeline will accelerate the steadily worsening erosion of health we see every day as a result of climate change,” said Jean Ross, co-president of NNU. “Nurses will continue to oppose construction of this project, and call on President Obama to stand with our patients and our communities, not the big oil interests, to reject KXL.”

Meanwhile the Teamsters and building trades unions are urging the President to approve the pipeline’s construction immediately.

Citing a recent report by the US State Department saying that the pipeline’s impact on climate change will be minimal, Sean McGarvey, president of the North American Building Trade Unions, said that there was no longer any excuse to delay the project.

The pipeline will be built by the world’s “safest and most skilled workforce,” who will build the pipeline “in accordance with the strictest environmental and safety standards,” said McGarvey, who pointed out that the pipeline will provide good paying jobs in an industry where unemployment remains above 12 percent.

The US State Department recently released its report on the environmental impact of the pipeline. The report said that the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gases, the cause of climate change.

President Obama said last summer that his decision to approve or disapprove the pipeline would hinge on the findings of the report.

But the nurses’ union was critical of the report saying that it didn’t sufficiently consider the public health impact of the pipeline.

According to the nurses, one of the main problems with the pipeline is that it enables an oil extraction process whose toxic bi-products contaminate drinking water.

The massive amounts of water needed to extract oil from Canadian tar sand becomes contaminated with bitumen, oil, and sand during the process. When this toxic mix is disposed of, it sometimes finds its way into drinking water supplies.

“Communities downstream from the (disposal) ponds have seen spikes in rates of cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism,” said the nurses’ statement about the pipeline. ” In one small community of just 1,200 residents, 100 have already died from cancer.”

Once the oil is extracted from tar sand and is on its way through the pipeline, it will cross over aquifers and rivers that are drinking water sources for communities near the 1,700 mile pipeline. The nurses say pipeline spills, which are inevitable, will pollute this drinking water and point to the public health impact of spills that have already occurred,

In 2010, a tar sands oil pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Minnesota. The diluted bitumen traveled 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River to Morrow Lake. More than a month later, state officials found that half of the residents in communities along the river reported respiratory ailments and other symptoms associated with the spill. In 2011, TransCanada pipeline spills and ruptures occurred in North Dakota and Montana. On March 29, 2013, an Exxon Mobil pipeline with tar sands oil ruptured near Mayflower, Ark. For months after, residents cited persistent health problems, and independent water and air tests have shown elevated levels of contaminants.

Another public health problem created by the pipeline will be increased pollution at refineries, the final destination of the pipeline’s oil.

Refining oil from tar sand is much more difficult and takes longer than refining oil from conventional sources. The extended process will cause more harmful pollutants to be released into the air.

The increased pollution will increase the risk of asthma, heart disease, and premature death for people living near the refineries.

“Nurses care for patients every day who struggle with health crises aggravated by environmental pollution in its many forms,” said Deborah Burger, NNU co-president. “As a society, we need to reduce the effects of environmental factors, including climate change, that are making people sick, and endangering the future for our children. That’s why we oppose the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Boston rally demands rehiring of fired school bus drivers

Supporters of four Boston school bus drivers fired for the union activity rallied on February 1 at the offices of Veolia Transportation demanding that the company immediately rehire the workers.

The solidarity action was organized by United Steelworkers USW) Local 8751, the union of the fired workers and other school bus drivers and workers in Boston, and endorsed by leaders of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Boston Central Labor Council, USW District 4, and other Boston unions.

Speakers accused Veolia of carrying out a union busting war on Local 8751.

The four drivers–Steve Gillis, Andre Francois, Steven Kirschbaum, and Garry Murchison–were fired because of a labor dispute last October.

Gillis is the local’s vice president and pension administrator, Francois the recording secretary and Charlestown chief steward, Murchison a steward and former president, and Kirschbaum the grievance chair.

Veolia, a worldwide corporation based in France that specializes in the privatization of public services, was awarded the Boston school bus contract in 2013.

In June, the company signed an agreement with Local 8751 to continue to honor the union’s contract.

But as soon as Veolia began operating summer school bus service in July, it became clear that the company had no intention of honoring the agreement.

“They blatantly and systematically violated nearly every article (of the contract),” said a statement by Local 8751.

Among other things, Veolia changed the way workers’ in and out time was recorded resulting in pay check errors and shortages.

The company also sped up route times causing reduced wages and safety problems and tried to reduce the amount that it had agreed to pay for worker disability insurance.

Between July and October, the union filed 175 grievances about Veolia’s contract violation and 18 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Things came to a head on October 7, when the company demanded that workers complete job application forms to reapply for their jobs.

The union thought this matter had been settled in June when the company signed its agreement with the union.

When workers came to work on October 8, they asked to meet with company officials to discuss the new applications and other grievances. Such meetings are allowed by the contract.

Management refused and a standoff ensued.

At about 11:00 A.M., the company locked the gates to the bus barn and sent the workers home.

The company then told the public that a wildcat strike had interrupted school bus service.

The USW international office issued a statement telling the workers to return to work.

“This activity does not represent the majority of our members, who believe that our issues with Veolia Transportation must be addressed through proper avenues including our contractual grievance procedure and the National Labor Relations Board,” said John Shinn, director of USW District 4.

The workers returned to work, and the union officers identified as the leaders of the action were fired.

Testifying in November before the Boston City Council, Kirschbaum said that despite what the company contends, there never was a wildcat strike.

“What we’ve said all along is that what happened to the Boston school bus drivers on October the 8th was an orchestrated and well-calculated effort at union-busting,” he said. “And, we don’t raise this rhetorically. There is documented evidence that this company participated in an illegal lockout in violation of this collective bargaining agreement they signed, article 16, and more importantly, the United States federal law under the National Labor Relations Act.”

The incident in Boston isn’t the first time that Veolia has acted aggressively to either break or weaken a union of its workers.

The East Bay Express reports that in 2011 the NLRB cited Veolia with illegal activity including refusing to bargain in good faith with union bus drivers in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona.

Veolia signed a settlement agreeing to stop its illegal activities, but in a subsequent complaint, the NLRB said that Veolia ignored the terms of the settlement and continued its illegal practices.

Veolia’s activities resulted in a six-day strike that only ended after the NLRB began to enforce a default order against the company for its illegal activity.

The NLRB also sided with bus drivers in Las Vegas who accused the company of retaliation for firing union workers for their union activity.

In Escambia County, Florida, Veolia bus drivers staged a one-day unfair labor practices strike after the company refused to bargain in good faith and refused to implement scheduled pay increases.

Veolia’s action led to a decision by county commissioners to end the country’s bus service contract with Veolia.

Back in Boston, Bishop Filipe Teixeira speaking at the solidarity rally asked Boston’s new mayor Martin Walsh to side with the fired workers by urging Veolia to reinstate them.

Walsh, formerly president of Laborers International Union of North America Local 223, issued a statement saying that the NLRB was the proper venue for resolving the fairness of the firings.