Hunger strikers protest Chicago’s disinvestment in public education

Supporters of the Dyett 12 held a Labor Day solidarity gathering on the grounds of Walter Dyett High School where the 12 hunger strikers have spent their days since the beginning of the strike on August 17.

The hunger strikers are fighting to reopen Walter Dyett High School in a way that best serves the needs of the surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, a predominately African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history on Chicago’s South Side.

Dyett is one of the 50 public schools that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education have closed since he took office in 2011.

The school closures, according to the Coalition to Revitalize Walter Dyett High School, whose members are participating in the hunger strike, are part of calculated disinvestment in public education by Mayor Emmanuel.

“We’ve been pushed to point of putting our bodies on the line,” said Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers in a YouTube video. “We say enough is a enough. We are tired of the destabilization of our community schools. We are tired of schools being sabotaged from the very beginning. It’s not the result of bad teaching. It’s not the result of disinterested parents and students. It’s the result of the disinvestment in Chicago schools.”

Brown is a leader of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, one of the  groups that belongs to the coalition.

The coalition has been working to improve education at Dyett for more than a decade and has had some success. In 2008, Dyett had the highest increase of graduating students attending post secondary schools and in 2009, the highest decrease in out-of-school suspensions and arrests.

But in 2012, the school board citing poor academic performance and declining enrollment, announced that Dyett would close in June 2015.

After parents, students, teachers, and community members, who had invested so much in Dyett’s turn around, protested the closure, the board decided that it would consider proposals for a new school at the Dyett location.

The coalition held a series of public meetings, focus groups, and other information gathering events that involved 3,000 Bronzeville residents.

Based on what they heard from community members, the coalition in April presented a proposal to the school board that called for the re-opening of the high school as the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

The proposal’s vision statement calls for a new school rooted in the history Bronzeville, which for nearly a century has been a center for African American culture.

The proposal also envisioned a school that “prepare(s) all students for post-secondary education or meaningful career opportunities,” collaborates with the Bronzeville community, and provides “wrap-around support for every student,” which would include staying open until 8:00 P.M. to provide public space where students can study, receive tutoring, and take advantage of the social services that the school will provide.

The new school would also be an open enrollment campus.

Two other proposals were submitted, one would turn Dyett into an arts-based school operated by a charter school company and the other would make Dyett a magnet school for students wishing to pursue a career in athletics.

At a June public forum on the competing proposals, speakers from the community overwhelmingly supported the coalition’s proposal to turn Dyett into a global leadership and green technology based high school.

The school board was to hold a public hearing on the proposals on August 10 and then vote on the proposals on August 26, but the board canceled the August 10 meeting.

That’s when the coalition decided that it was time to take action and called for the hunger strike.

After the hunger strike began, some of the strikers traveled to Washington DC to seek support from the Obama administration. The hunger strikers were accompanied by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten when they met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss their proposal.

After the meeting, the strikers returned to Chicago to wait for a decision by Mayor Emmanuel and the school board.

Bill McCaffery, a school board spokesman, said the board would  carry out “a community-driven process to select a new high-quality school for the former Dyett site.”

A few days later without any community input, the board issued what it called a compromise for ending the strike–Dyett would be converted into an arts-based magnet school.

Noting that the board’s so-called compromise was not based any input from the community or for that matter, the public at large, the hunger strikers refused to call off the strike.

The coalition is urging people to continue supporting the Dyett 12 by participating in a tweet-in and by joining other supporters for a rally and silent march to President Obama’s house on September 8. Supporters plan to continue the marches and rallies until Dyett is reopened in a way that reflects the wishes of the community.

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Hunger strike at Tufts to save janitors jobs

Five students at Tufts University in Massachusetts have been on a hunger strike since May 3.

The students are supporting 35 school janitors who are being laid off.

The hungers strikers, who belong to the Tufts Labor Coalition (TLC), are demanding that Tufts stop the proposed layoffs.

“Our decision to hunger strike and occupy space on campus is in solidarity with the janitors’ calls for no cuts,” said Nicole Joseph an organizer with the TLC.”This culmination comes from a long history of Tufts treating workers poorly. We have decided to pursue this drastic action to make Tufts administrators’ priorities align with the rest of the Tufts community, given that all previous efforts from workers and students have been silenced and ignored.”

The Tufts administration recently announced that 35 part-time janitorial positions will be cut for budgetary reasons.

The janitors work for DTZ, a private company that provides janitorial services for Tufts.

The Tufts administration said that the layoffs at the school, which has an endowment worth $1.6 billion, are the result of budget constraints and the school’s desire to keep education affordable.

“We take seriously our responsibility to control tuition costs and offer financial aid that allows us to admit outstanding students from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Kim Thuler, Tuft’s director of public relations.

Thuler went on to say that the administration is looking for other ways to lower administrative expenses.

Lorena Arita, one of the janitors whose job is being eliminated, had a different take on the impact that the layoffs will have on making higher education affordable.

“To be cut, to be fired, will create big problems economically,” said Arita, whose son is attending college elsewhere, to the Somerville Journal. “I have payments of my son’s university that I couldn’t continue making.”

Tufts is located in Medford and Somerville, Massachusets.

The Somerville City Council, which passed a resolution supporting the janitors, suggested another way of keeping higher education affordable.

According to the City Council’s resolution, instead of making low-wage workers bear the cost, Tuft’s administration should rein in the over sized salaries of some of its top executives.

The resolution noted that Tuft’s president Anthony Monaco in 2012, the latest year for which salary information is available, was paid $705,728 for the year.

Other top administrators had salaries of at least $500,000 and ten had salaries of at least $300,000.

The most recent post on the Tufts Labor Coalition’s Facebook page said that the hunger strikers are beginning to feel the effects of not eating for two days but their resolve is still strong.

Supporters of the hunger strike have pitched tents around the five and are occupying space near the administration building.

“Our hunger strike is basically our last resort,” said Arismer Angeles, one of the students on strike. “Other actions that we’ve tried to perform on campus have yielded little to no results and this is our last chance we think before the semester ends and these cuts happened.

“The students at Tufts University who are calling for the preservation of essential jobs on their campus deserve enormous credit taking initiative on this critical economic justice issue,” said Roxanna Rivera, vice-president of the janitors’ union, SEIU 32BJ. “The Tufts Labor Coalition is an inspiring, student-led effort that for years has been working to defend workers’ rights in campus. They recognize how much the workers at Tufts contribute to the campus community and the world beyond its gates. The students who chose bold action and engaged in a hunger strike deserve our unconditional support and respect.

“The hunger strikers should know that 32BJ SEIU janitors appreciate the students’ courage.  SEIU 32Bj hopes for quick end to the hunger strike and a just outcome for the whole Tufts community.”

Rhode Island bans local minimum wage initiatives

When Rhode Island passed a budget that among other things bars local communities from raising the minimum wage, it joined the ranks of mostly conservative states that have passed similar legislation. Rhode Island’s new $8 billion budget also reduces estate and corporate taxes.

The state’s action came after members of UNITE HERE Local 217 gathered signatures on a petition urging the Providence City Council to consider raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for employees of hotels with at least 25 rooms.

In response to the petition, the City Council agreed to place the $15 minimum wage on a November referendum ballot.

” I feel upset about (the Legislature blocking the $15  minimum wage referendum) because it’s basically the politicians of the state telling me, as a worker, and my coworkers, as workers, that we don’t have rights and we don’t have the right to a decent living, which is all we’re fighting for,” said Santa Brito, a hotel worker active in the Providence minimum wage campaign to Bluestockings Magazine.

Brito and four other Local 217 members staged a hunger strike on the grounds of the State House to protest the Legislature’s plan to block the minimum wage increase.

On June 18, Local 217 members and their supporters rallied at the State House support the hunger strikers and to urge Gov. Lincoln Chafee to veto the minimum wage ban.

“My neighbors should be able to vote on whether or not hotel owners should give us a raise,” said Brito explaining why she and her cohorts were on the hunger strike.

Brito was fired by her employer after she went into labor while working on the job. “I’m fighting for the future of my son,” she said. “I was never paid a livable wage.”

Brito and other Local 217 members organized a successful local initiative that would have put raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on the November ballot. After collecting 1,000 signatures on a petition, they packed a meeting of the Providence City Council to show their support for raising the minimum wage.

Polling showed that such a measure had widespread support in the city and would likely have passed.

But the Legislature stepped in to block the local effort, and Gov. Chafee supported the ban bu signing the new budget.

While the new budget blocks local minimum wage initiatives, it does raise the state minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Nearby Massachusetts recently raised its minimum wage to $11 per hour.

Rhode Island becomes the latest state to pass legislation barring local governments from raising the minimum wage.

In April, Oklahoma passed a similar measure and under similar circumstances. Prior to passage of the law, Oklahoma City activists gathered signatures on a petition to put a minimum wage referendum on the ballot. Without the interference of the Legislature, residents would have had the opportunity to vote on whether to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Gordon Lafer, a political economist with the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, said that the Oklahoma minimum wage ban had the fingerprints of the American Legislative Affairs Council (ALEC) and the Chamber of Commerce on it.

“Recently, one of the big agendas of the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC and the rest of them has been trying to deny us the right to vote,” said Lafer. “They’ve passed legislation in 10 states that says that cities are not allowed to vote on establishing a right to paid sick leave or on establishing a higher minimum wage.”