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The Climate Strikers Walked Out of School. Next, Let’s Walk Off the Job.

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

Image result for Sydney Ghazarian"This September, the world erupted when over 7 million people?—?young and old—poured into the streets for the Global Climate Strike. The mass action, which made a Green New Deal a top demand, was sparked in the lead-up to Sweden’s 2018 general election, when teen activist Greta Thunberg began ditching school to protest Sweden’s inaction on climate change. Greta, who was already inspiring more student strikes through social media, catalyzed the Fridays for Future movement when she decided to continue striking on Fridays after the general election. Over the past year, young leaders?—particularly youth of color—have been on the forefront of building Friday Climate Strikes into a worldwide student civil disobedience movement, taking aim at the political failure to address the climate emergency.

The logic of the Climate Strike movement was summated by Greta at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019. “Some say that we should not engage in activism, instead we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for change instead,” she said. “But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?”

In other words, Climate Strikes are happening for the same reason labor strikes often happen: Negotiations have broken down. CEOs profiting from the exploitation of workers and the Earth are unwilling to cede to demands that would improve the lives of those affected by their practices. And politicians are unwilling to put the good of ordinary people first.

Like labor strikes, climate strikes are premised on the principle that organizers won’t get what they want just by asking: They have to create the political will for their demands by causing disruption that is impossible to ignore. The use of this tactic signals a shift away from the evidently floundering strategies of online petitions and  behind-the-scenes talks with key decision-makers.

However, labor strikes are more likely than student strikes to be successful for a key reason: Workers are strategically positioned to leverage their collective power because labor strikes halt production and therefore profit-making by employers, which forces their bosses to cede to their demands or lose out. Unlike student strikes, worker strikes cause direct economic impact, which affects what key decision-makers care about most: profit-making and economic conditions that are favorable for re-election. The pathway to victory for Climate Strikers is building an international movement of people acting in their capacity as workers to disrupt the economy significantly enough that politicians are forced to cave to the demand for a Green New Deal.

The challenge is to turn the powerful movement for climate strikes into a movement capable of organizing actual workers’ strikes.

Building towards labor strikes

Teachers have been on the forefront of the recent strike wave, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) may have advanced the movement further when its members passed a resolution stating “that the MTA delegation to the 2019 NEA [National Education Association] Representative Assembly propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.” Unfortunately, NEA delegates voted down the proposal—but that doesn’t mean it’s the end.

One possible route forward comes from Francisco Cendejas, a long-time labor organizer who helped start National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). He suggests that unions could resolve to strike for a Green New Deal if a number of other national unions agreed to do so as well. The simple explanation for this “strike pact” approach is that there is safety in numbers, but the reasoning goes deeper. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and U.S. labor laws overtly favor employers over workers—and place strict parameters around striking. This imbalance has created a mountain of legal barriers preventing an entire union from going on strike—especially for a Green New Deal or other demands for the common good.

However, there are no illegal strikes, just unsuccessful ones. We make them “legal” by winning our demands. West Virginia teachers did this when they launched a successful wildcat strike last year. If many large unions with high-stakes disruptive power can agree to strike in solidarity with each other and their communities, we could have the power to win.

If you belong to a union, you can start organizing support for Climate Strikes and a Green New Deal by introducing a local union resolution in support of each. Passing this resolution will further align the Labor and Climate Movements, and could move your union toward endorsing progressive climate candidates, collectively bargaining for green contract provisions, and showing up to climate actions. Once you pass a resolution in your local union, you can move toward passing a similar resolution at higher levels, like city and county labor councils.

Getting your union to support a Green New Deal or Climate Strikes will not necessarily be straightforward. Unions have different politics, different structures for member participation, and some have been hostile toward the Green New Deal. Additionally, many unions have settled for operating in accordance to a “service model,” meaning they aim to satisfy their members’ demands through handling grievances, lobbying and securing benefits rather than direct pressure on their employers—which diminishes the power a union could have against threats to working class interests. Turning Climate Strikes into a winning strategy will require turning unions into a fighting force. For lessons in how to achieve this, we can examine the successful tactics of Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Towards social justice unionism

When CORE members were elected as CTU leaders in 2010, they forfeited CTU’s service model for a social movement unionism approach, which they first demonstrated in a 2012 strike that centered on the improvement of public education and forming alliances with parents and students. The union’s dedication to bargaining for the common good was on full display during its recent strike, in which union members won a contract securing support staff for homeless students, a declaration of Chicago schools as sanctuary spaces, a cap on class sizes, and a nurse and social worker for every school.

CORE’s continued militancy and success has spread to teachers’ unions around the country through UCORE, including MTA—the union that passedthe resolution to propose a general strike for a Green New Deal. If workers organize their unions to follow CORE’s approach of rank-and-file democracy, community alliances, and using bargaining power to win demands for the common good, they could build labor support for a Green New Deal and even align unions around a “Climate Strike Pact.”

If you are not part of a union, you can gain inspiration from the 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant” mass strike. Immigrants and solidarity strikers were able to participate due to the protection of “concerted activity” included in the National Labor Relations Act. Legal protection of concerted activity allows union and non-union workers to act collectively to improve the terms and conditions of their work, which is something a Green New Deal could do. With less than 12% of U.S. workers belonging to a union, this protection holds particular importance. However, some employers might still try to fire workers for participating, which means we would need to mobilize workers and the broader community around protests, public shaming and boycotts targeting the offending employers until they cave and rehire the workers.

The bottom line is this: Climate Strikes can win a Green New Deal by building community and Labor alliances around demands for the common good. We can leverage our power as workers through high-impact, disruptive labor strikes that halt the economy’s gears until politicians can no longer ignore us, and are forced to cede to demands that will save the world.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sydney Ghazarian started the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ecosocialist Working Group and is a member of its current Steering Committee. She is also a climate organizer and an advisory board member for The Trouble. You can follow her on Twitter @SydneyAzari

Chicago Teachers Didn’t Win Everything, But They’ve Transformed the City—And the Labor Movement

Monday, November 4th, 2019

Chicago teachers and staff returned to the classrooms Friday after more than two weeks on strike. Their walkout lasted longer than the city’s landmark 2012 strike, as well as those in Los Angeles and Oakland earlier this year.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike also lasted long enough for the season’s first snowstorm to blanket thousands of teachers and staff who surrounded City Hall Thursday morning to demand Mayor Lori Lightfoot agree to restore missed instructional days as a final condition of their returning to work. After a few hours, the union and the mayor arrived at a compromise of five make-up days—a move Lightfoot had resisted until the eleventh hour, despite the fact that it’s a standard conclusion to teacher strikes.

Over the course of an often-bitter battle, CTU and its sister union, SEIU 73, overcame a series of such ultimatums from the recently elected mayor. Before the strike, Lightfoot had refused to write issues such as staffing increases or class size caps into a contract at all. Following a budget address last week, Lightfoot vowed that there was no more money left for a “bailout” of the school district. But a tentative agreement approved by CTU delegates Wednesday night requires the school district to put a nurse and social worker in every school within five years and allocates $35 million more annually to reduce overcrowded classrooms. Both unions also won pay bumps for support staff who have made poverty wages.

Yet these substantial gains still fell short of what many members had hoped to achieve, given that they were fighting for basic investments already enjoyed by most suburban school districts—investments that Lightfoot herself had campaigned on this spring.

“It took our members 10 days to bring these promises home,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told reporters after an agreement was reached over instructional days. “But I want to tell my members: They have changed Chicago.”

Members of SEIU 73 ratified their contract this week, and CTU members will now have 10 days to do so. But the impact of the two-week walkout is likely to extend far beyond the contracts themselves.

During daily rallies that drew tens of thousands of teachers, staff and supporters, the unions repeatedly made the argument that there was plenty of wealth in the city to invest in schools and public services—it was just concentrated in the wrong hands. They also touched on what’s often a third-rail for public-sector unions, criticizing the resources lavished on police at their expense. The strike’s momentum will carry over most immediately into a budget battle with Lightfoot, with the teachers’ union partnering with a larger coalition fighting to tax corporations and luxury real-estate at a higher rate in order to fund affordable housing, public mental health clinics and other services.

The teachers union also shone a light on an opaque financing tool known as Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, that’s intended to funnel additional property tax dollars to “blighted” areas, but that critics say is akin to a “corporate slush fund.” On Tuesday, nine CTU members were arrested at the headquarters of Sterling Bay to protest the city’s decision to award the Wall-Street backed developer more than $1 billion of TIF subsidies earlier this year.

“That day in and of itself was huge because we were able to call out the city’s hypocrisy,” says Roxana González, an 8th-grade teacher at Dr. Jorge Prieto Math and Science Academy who was among those arrested. “The fight to fund what our communities need is a much longer one than our contract fight, and teachers across the city are going to continue to be a part of it.”

The two-week walkout will also likely have reverberations for teachers and other union members outside of Chicago. The CTU’s 2012 strike helped inspire a national network called “Bargaining for the Common Good” that has brought together unions seeking to expand the scope of contract bargaining beyond pay and benefits.

“In many ways this was both the toughest and most visionary strike fought yet on the principals of Bargaining for the Common Good,” says Joseph McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

“The union engaged in some effective popular education about the structural issues of school underfunding that it can follow up on in the future. Although it was a difficult fight, the CTU has come away with gains that will make the schools better and encourage teachers elsewhere to fight for similar things.”

One of CTU’s boldest “common good” demands was for affordable housing—a move that captured national headlines and became a centerpiece of the mayor’s narrative that the union was stalling negotiations through an overly political agenda.

While the union didn’t win on housing assistance for new teachers or gain the school district’s support for rent control, one of CTU’s earliest and clearest victories was an agreement to hire staff specifically to support the more than 17,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools—an approach that could be a model for other school districts.

Other key wins on social justice issues include new guarantees for bilingual education, including more dedicated teachers for English language learners, and a declaration that Chicago schools are sanctuary spaces.

These are vital issues in a school district where nearly half of students are Latinx and nearly one-fifth are English language learners, says González, who also helped push for these changes as a member of the CTU’s Latinx caucus. She has previously faced a lack of resources and the potential for discipline when she tried to aid a former student who reached out to her for help with a pending deportation case. As part of the new agreement on sanctuary schools, the school district will create a training program for staff on how to respond to ICE presence in schools and assist immigrant students. It will also allocate up to $200,000 annually to help employees navigate immigration issues.

The victories are less clear-cut when it comes to the key issue of support staffing. The district will begin hiring more nurses and social workers in the highest-need schools this year, but it will take five years before they’re guaranteed for every school. And while the CTU has highlighted that nine out of 10 majority-black schools in Chicago do not have a librarian, the agreement creates a joint union-school district committee on “staffing equity” that will provide a path—but not a guarantee—for high-need schools to hire additional librarians, counselors or restorative justice coordinators.

Some teachers say they were prepared to continue striking until more progress was made on staffing, smaller caps on class sizes and regaining teacher prep time eliminated under previous Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But facing an intransigent mayor, worsening weather and a November 1 deadline for the suspension of their employer health insurance, CTU delegates ultimately voted on Wednesday night to approve the tentative agreement by a margin of 60%.

Class size remains a particular concern for instructors like Jeni Crone, an art teacher at Lindbloom Math and Science Academy. While CTU won for the first time an avenue to enforce hard caps on class sizes, the recommended limits themselves remain the same: Up to 31 in high school classes, depending on the subject, which can reach 38 students before an automatic remedy is triggered.

Crone previously taught at Kelvyn Park High School, but lost her job there in 2017 amidst a round of budget cuts that led to the loss of 11 positions at the school. She says she repeatedly saw high class-size caps used as justification to merge two smaller classes into one larger one. Before her position was cut, her three art classes were combined into two, with 34 and 35 students, respectively.

“It’s one of the easiest ways for CPS to save money,” she says. “But we should be normalizing smaller class sizes.”

Still, Crone says she is “cautiously optimistic” about the contract’s wins, and is determined above all to make sure that union members remain united with students and parents to continue demanding more.

“I am not totally content, but the way I see it, it’s OK for us not to be content,” Crone says. “That means I still want better for my students, and we should always want better for them.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Chicago teachers reach tentative agreement but one key thing is missing to end strike

Friday, November 1st, 2019

The Chicago Teachers Union reported a tentative agreement with schools management Wednesday night, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot is holding up the end of the strike in a disagreement over make-up instructional days. In previous strikes, the schools have added make-up days to the end of the school year—but Lightfoot doesn’t want to do that.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey spoke highly of the tentative agreement, saying in a statement that “This deal will move us closer to ensuring that our most vulnerable students receive the instruction, resources and wraparound services they need to thrive. No educator wants to leave their classroom, but our 10-day struggle was the only option we had to enshrine, ensure and enforce real change for our students and school communities. This contract will put a nurse in every school, a social worker in every school and provide a real solution for thousands of homeless students in Chicago.” But, he said, “By not restoring days of instruction to our students lost during the strike, the mayor is making it clear that she is more concerned about politics than the well-being of students.”

Lightfoot objects to the make-up days because teachers would be paid for those days, saying “I’m not compensating them for days that they were out on strike.” Which is … not what would be happening since they would be working those days, but way to try to score a cheap political hit on your way out!

Lightfoot and schools management had supposedly been very concerned about instructional time (at the expense of the prep time teachers pressed for), but apparently that wasn’t really such a concern. The teachers also expressed frustration at Lightfoot’s admission that “There’s a lot of work that we could have done sooner, but we didn’t start to do really until the strike”—making her own lack of preparation in large part responsible for the length of the strike.

The teachers report that the agreement includes 209 additional social workers, 250 additional nurses, investments in staff education and recruitment, $35 million a year to reduce class size, and added funding for sports coaches and equipment.

The agreement has been accepted by the union’s House of Delegates, which would allow the strike to end if an agreement can be reached on make-up days. The CTU’s full membership would then vote on ratifying it. On Wednesday, school staffers in SEIU 73, who went out on strike with the teachers, voted to ratify their own contract.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 31, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Chicago Teachers Are Carrying the Torch of Decades of Militant Worker Struggles

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019

“I solemnly swear that I will never stop fighting for my students.” This hand-made picket sign, one of hundreds at an October 25 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU 73 rally, sums up what makes the teachers’ strike so important. In an approach CTU pioneered during its 2012 strike, the 25,000-strong CTU refuses to draw a firm boundary between justice in the workplace and justice for its students. For the union—under the leadership of the leftwing Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators—affordable housing is a bargaining issue because roughly 17,000 CPS students are experiencing houselessness. And so is the shortage of school nurses, counselors and librarians—along with the corporate and hedge-fund pillaging of a city beset with deep poverty and racial segregation.

Thanks to an Illinois law passed in 1995, the city isn’t legally required to bargain with CTU over issues beyond pay, benefits and hours—a fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and local media outlets repeatedly cite. But the idea is that, by building community support and staging disruption, the teachers can expand the boundaries of what’s politically possible and force the city to bend to its social justice demands. As CPS teachers and staff have chanted while marching through Chicago’s streets, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”

Such efforts to expand what is considered a bargaining issue are often referred to as “bargaining for the common good,” a term popularized by the 2014 creation of an organizing network by the same name. But before that term caught on, the tradition was known as “social justice unionism”—or, as veteran labor organizer and writer Jane McAlevey emphasizes, plain ole’ working-class organizing. “This is not new,” McAlevey tells In These Times. “As long as there have been really good trade unions, there have been fights that blur the lines between workplaces and communities—that address the core needs of rank-and-file members at work and at home. Good organizing has always been good organizing.” As organizer and writer Bill Fletcher Jr. puts it to In These Times, “Social justice unionism involves the transformation of unionism from an instrument of workplace power solely, into a vehicle for worker power more generally.”

Examples from U.S. history show that worker power can be achieved by reaching out across shopfloors, building with community groups, and acting in solidarity with oppressed people in other parts of the world. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in Chicago in 1905, called for the creation of one big industrial union, irrespective of shop or craft—or gender or race. This principle was put into practice during the Lawrence, Mass., textile strike of 1912, also known as the Bread and Roses strike. It was started by Everette Mill weavers—immigrant women who were furious over a pay cut after a Massachusetts law shortened the workweek for women. The work stoppage spread to nearly every mill in Lawrence, where textile workers hailing from more than 51 countries staged an industry-wide shutdown during a brutally cold winter—buoyed by the organizing of the IWW. The workers eventually won a 15% wage hike and an increase in overtime pay.

History looks kindly upon such workers who organized across workplaces—and struggles. During World War II, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) opposed the mass internment of Japanese and Japanese-American people, at a time few others were willing to speak out. As labor historian Peter Cole notes in his book Dockworker Power, in 1942, ILWU leader Lou Goldblatt said in sworn testimony before Congress, “This entire episode of hysteria and mob chant against the native-born Japanese will form a dark page of American history.”

Created in 1943 by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) became a significant force in the Civil Rights and Black Freedom movements. In 1950, the union established an Anti-Discrimination Department aimed at stopping racism in hiring—and segregation in local communities. The union gave robust—and early—support to key racial justice campaigns, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. At the 1957 founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, UPWA Vice President Russell Lasley said it was “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship.” The union merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in 1968.

The Bay Area’s Local 10 of the ILWU, a union that survived being purged from the CIO during an anti-communist crackdown in 1950, went on in 1984 to refuse to load or unload South African cargo, in solidarity with the anti-apartheid boycott. In 2008, 10,000 ILWU members shut down 29 ports on the West Coast demanding an end to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2015, Local 10 shut down the port of Oakland, Calif., in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

A matrix of U.S. labor laws seeks to narrow the scope of worker organizing. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, designed to quell labor unrest, prohibits striking as long as a contract with an employer is in place—a tradeoff for securing bargaining rights. Yet, these bargaining rights are drawn narrowly: The Act also says wages, hours and working conditions are the only mandatory subjects of bargaining for private-sector workers. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, imposes further restrictions, including a ban on wildcat, jurisdictional and secondary strikes. And the 1959 Labor Management Disclosure and Reporting Act says secondary strikers can be held liable for damages.

But by building power, workers can transcend these limits: Rank-and-file West Virginia teachers demonstrated as much in 2018, when they went on strike in a state where public-sector strikes are illegal—and then stayed out on strike after union leaders and the governor announced the strike was over. And indeed, Lightfoot eventually agreed to bargain with CTU on social justice issues, thanks to teacher pressure.

The principle that worker power—and not labor law—should determine the shape and scope of labor struggle is especially poignant now, as the world hurtles into an ever-worsening climate crisis that is driven by the capitalist class in industrialized countries but disproportionately harms the poor and working classes, particularly Indigenous communities and people in the Global South. The global climate strikes in September saw 4,500 school walkouts and protests in 150 countries, with most actions led by young people whose lives will almost certainly be shaped by environmental catastrophe. While the movement uses the word “strike,” it’s fallen short of organizing mass-scale work stoppages, although some unions have supported the protests—and some workers have walked off the job. A climate labor-strike, in which workers withdraw their labor, would be the greatest possible social disruption—and therefore the ambitious social justice unionism we need to meet the urgency of the moment.

It’s a difficult road from here to there, but Chicago’s intrepid educators are teaching us that an old tradition is still relevant, and its principles remarkably straightforward. As Nicole Bronson, a striking special education teacher told me as thousands of striking workers gathered at a rally downtown, “This is about giving back to the community that gave to me.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

Chicago teachers say 0.5% of the schools budget stands in the way of ending their strike

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Chicago teachers say that just half of one percent of the Chicago Public Schools budget is between what they would accept to end their strike and the city’s current offer. That’s $38 million as the strike closes schools for a ninth day. Not only that, the teachers point to nearly $100 million of costs that have been moved from the city budget to the schools budget.

“The payment for police in our schools, $33 million, which has traditionally been paid for by the city, was shifted to the schools; a pension payment that has traditionally been paid for by the city has been shifted to the schools,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates told Chicago Tonight. “So you have nearly $100 million of cost-shift from the city to the school budget at a time when we need it, at a time when the city is now, clearly, balancing their budget on the backs of our students.”

Another key issue is 30 minutes a day of prep time that elementary school teachers lost under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. According to CTU, “Teachers used that time to contact parents, grade papers, prepare lesson plans and update curricula, reducing the amount of unpaid labor they put in outside of the work day. While CPS counts that half hour as ‘instructional minutes,’ for many teachers that time is spent wiping up spilled milk and cleaning up after students as they eat their breakfasts in the classrooms.”

SEIU Local 73, which represents many school support staff from custodians to classroom assistants, has reached a tentative deal to end its strike, which started alongside the teachers strike.

Meanwhile, over in Massachusetts, teachers in Dedham won an agreement and unanimously ratified it after just one weekday of strike. It was the first teachers strike in 12 years in the state, where public workers are legally prohibited from striking.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 29, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Chicago’s Citywide Strike Just Spread to Charter School Teachers

Friday, October 25th, 2019

More than 32,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers and staff—one out every 100 people in the city—have been on strike since October 17. On Tuesday, the ranks of the striking workers—represented by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73—swelled a little further as nearly 40 teachers walked off the job at Passages Charter School on the city’s north side.

This is the first time that district and charter teachers have struck simultaneously in Chicago, an occasion marked by high energy and a raucous chorus of “Solidarity Forever” on the picket line. The city’s unionized charter teachers all belong to CTU, which represents 25,000 CPS teachers and support staff, following a merger last year. Members of the Association of Flight Attendants’ Master Executive Council, which represents United Airlines workers preparing to negotiate a new contract, also joined the group.

“We feel really powerful today,” Kady Pagano, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Passages who is on the union’s negotiating team, told In These Times. This is Pagano’s first time on strike, after teaching last year at a non-union community center. “The difference is night and day,” she said.

It’s also the fourth time Chicago charter teachers have struck in the last year, with the last strike against two separate operators leading to wins on issues like class-size caps, and staffing and pay bumps for teachers and staff making well below their CPS equivalents. Since the city’s first charter school unionized in 2009, Chicago has been a hotbed for organizing in the traditionally union-free industry. While ex-charter boss Juan Rangel boasted during the 2012 CTU strike that his schools were free from labor strife, the tables have turned dramatically since then.

In the last year, several charter school operators have settled contracts at the eleventh-hour, as the union attempts to bring standards up across the charter industry by bargaining 11 separate contracts from a common set of proposals.

“Every other operator has met our demands so far,” says Chris Baehrend, president of CTU’s charter division. “It shows that they’re not unreasonable or impossible, but we have to fight for them anyway.”

The demands echo those that the CTU is making in ongoing negotiations with the city’s school board: adequate staffing of nurses, counselors and social workers, as well as resources for special-education students and English language learners.

Passages teachers say that’s especially important at their school, which has one of the highest percentages of refugee students in Chicago schools, including about 40 percent non-native English speakers.

Many students are experiencing post-traumatic stress or culture shock, according to teachers, but the school only hired a full-time counselor this year. Prior to that, the position sat vacant for four years.

Katherine Mydra, the new counselor at Passages this year, noted that there’s currently no guarantee that the school will fill the position again next year—unless the union wins one in its contract.

Teachers also say they’ve had to fight tooth and nail for “sanctuary” language guaranteeing that the school won’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—even though its parent organization, Asian Human Services (AHS), is a non-profit that emphasizes its “expertise in the challenges facing refugees, immigrants and other underserved communities.”

AHS did not respond immediately to a request for comment. In a statement addressed to parents and posted on its website, the organization described the negotiations as “primarily related to compensation” and said, “We hope these matters will be resolved in a way that is satisfactory to all Passages employees and protects the financial stability of the school and its ability to serve its students.”

The union says it is seeking full information on AHS’ finances, but the group’s 990 filings show that CEO Craig Maki draws a $250,000 salary. Passages teachers make as little as $35,000 annually.

Mydra said that going on strike feels “consistent” with what she does as a school counselor. “I teach my students to advocates for themselves and others,” she said. “That’s what we’re doing right now.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rebecca Burns is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Baffler, the Chicago Reader, The Intercept and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

Corporate America freaks out over Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Ben White

Democratic-leaning executives on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and across the corporate world are watching Elizabeth Warren’s rise to frontrunner status in the Democratic primary with an increasing sense of existential panic.

And they feel mostly paralyzed to do much about it — other than throwing money at other candidates and praying.

Warren’s grassroots fundraising prowess shows she doesn’t need big corporate money. She’s got $26 million in the bank. And taking her on directly just makes her stronger with her populist base. Any attack on Warren from the tech or Wall Street worlds just turns into an immediate Warren talking point.

When CNBC host Jim Cramer did a piece on money managers freaking out about Warren, the candidate grabbed the clip and tweeted above it: “I’m Elizabeth Warren and I approve this message.”

It’s led to fairly widespread frustration that Warren’s rise seems unstoppable.

“There’s really not a damn thing you can do about Warren. There is nothing,” said one prominent Wall Street hedge fund manager and Democratic bundler who is raising money for a Warren rival. “It’s the same thing Republicans went through with Trump. You look at her and think what she is going to do is going to be horrible for the country. But if you say anything about it you just make her stronger.”

This fund manager, like a half-dozen other executives interviewed for this story, declined to be identified by name for fear of being directly attacked by Warren. Some, however, are happy to ring the alarm, no matter how Warren might use their words.

“What is wrong with billionaires? You can become a billionaire by developing products and services that people will pay for,” said Leon Cooperman, a billionaire former Goldman Sachs executive who is now CEO of investment firm Omega Advisors and who predicts a 25 percent market drop should Warren become president. “I believe in a progressive income tax and the rich paying more. But this is the fucking American dream she is shitting on.”

Earlier in the campaign, executives suggested they found Warren at least a more palatable alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an avowed democratic socialist. Warren, a former Republican, has said she’s a capitalist “to my bones.” Even now, some billionaires are urging calm.

“‘Ninety-seven percent of the people I know in my world are really, really fearful of her,” billionaire Michael Novogratz told Bloomberg over the weekend. “It’s a little carried away.”

But more broadly the mood has shifted as Warren now leads Biden in some national and early state polls. And she has intensified her rhetoric toward Wall Street and the tech industry in particular.

At last week’s debate she stressed that she would no longer take any money at all from tech or Wall Street executives, after having success with tech donors earlier in the campaign.

“If we are going to talk about Wall Street and having some serious regulation over Wall Street, we should ask if people are funding their campaigns by taking money from those executives,” Warren said, an indirect dig at former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom have held high-dollar Wall Street fundraisers.

“You can’t go behind closed doors and take the money of these executives and then turn around and expect that these are the people who are actually finally going to enforce the laws. We need campaign finance rules and practices.”

The current strategy among centrist, corporate-friendly Democrats is mostly to hope and pray that Biden — or perhaps Buttigieg or even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — can still take her out and prevent a possible Warren presidency that could upend business models and reshape entire industries.

Most are not ready to jump over to Trump, but some at least ponder the idea.

“I don’t assume all these people would go to Trump. Plenty of them think there is much more at stake than just narrow industry interests or tax rates,” a second hedge fund executive said. “There are a bunch of financial people that at the end of the day, if she’s the candidate, they will still support her. They won’t raise money for her because they can’t. But they will still support her because of what the alternative is.”

Among other things scaring corporate America and rich people, Warren has pledged to institute wealth taxes and break up tech giants and Wall Street banks. She has taken sharpest aim at the private equity industry, introducing the “Stop Wall Street Looting Act of 2019” that would essentially wipe out some of the industry’s most lucrative practices.

Much of this would be hard to enact without large majorities in both houses of Congress. But Warren could do a great deal in the regulatory world to appoint strict overseers and push much more stringent rules while rolling back the Trump administration’s deregulation efforts.

As of now, there is no organized Stop Warren strategy.

The closest thing that has emerged lately is a vague whisper campaign that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could ride into the Democratic primary at the last minute if it appears Biden is really failing. But even Bloomberg’s closest confidants admit there is little chance he could succeed.

“Mike’s calculation, rightly or wrongly, is that the same people who back Biden would back him,” said a person close to the former mayor. “But it’s by no means clear to him or to anyone that it’s even possible.”

Political observers view a late Bloomberg run as even less likely to succeed.

“First of all Bloomberg is older than Biden, even though he doesn’t look it,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. strategist at AGF Investments, the Toronto financial firm. “And the big impediment is he’s out of step with his own party. The activist base would be appalled by someone so pro-Wall Street.”

Biden’s dip in the polls — coupled with his troubling report of just $9 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter — has anti-Warren Wall Street types looking hard at other Democrats, led for the moment by Buttigieg, who has built a strong core of well-heeled fundraisers led by hedge fund manager Orin Kramer.

According to recently released figures, Buttigieg raised around $25,000 from executives at finance firms including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management in the third quarter. And he raised around $150,000 from donors who described their occupation as “investor.”

Overall, Buttigieg is now in much stronger financial shape than Biden with around $23 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter to around $9 million for the former vice president. Klobuchar has just $3.7 million, which leads many big donors to think she doesn’t have a shot to last long after early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire next year.

Buttigieg raising significant cash from Wall Street executives may make him a target of both Warren and Sanders. But a Buttigieg campaign official said it would not have an influence on his policies toward the industry. “People are coming to us because of Pete’s message and they are seeing and hearing real excitement and enthusiasm around him,” the official said. “We have over 600,000 individual donors to this campaign and our grassroots energy is very, very strong. We have events where people give more money and events where people give $10 or $15 and people who give $1 or $2 online.”

Perhaps the biggest hope among centrist Democrats is not that Biden finally catches fire again or that Buttigieg bursts to the top. It’s that Warren’s time as the frontrunner takes a toll. Signs of that emerged in the Democratic debate last week as Klobuchar and others went after Warren for not being clear how she would pay for “Medicare for All” and refusing to say that she would raise taxes. Warren is now pledging to come up with a plan to pay for her plan.

Some executives also say they hope that moderate Democrats in swing Senate and House seats up in 2020 will begin to get scared of running with Warren at the top of the ticket and start to agitate harder for Biden or someone else.

“What it’s going to take is moderate Democrats in swing states and swing districts who are terrified of running with her at the top of the ticket coming out and doing something,” said a senior executive at one of Wall Street’s largest banks. “But nobody wants to piss her off. Nobody wants to be on her bad list.”

This executive said if Warren gets to the general election that Trump — whose campaign had $83 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter — would paint her as a threat to the American economy. “No one has really run opposition research on her yet. She’s skated pretty clean up till now. If you get her in the general, Trump and the RNC will paint her to the left of Mao. You look at the history of John Kerry and Michael Dukakis and Massachusetts liberals and it’s not very good.”

This article was originally published at Politico on October 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Ben White is POLITICO Pro’s chief economic correspondent and author of the “Morning Money” column covering the nexus of finance and public policy.

Prior to joining POLITICO in the fall of 2009, Mr. White served as a Wall Street reporter for the New York Times, where he shared a Society of Business Editors and Writers award for breaking news coverage of the financial crisis.

From 2005 to 2007, White was Wall Street correspondent and U.S. Banking Editor at the Financial Times.

White worked at the Washington Post for nine years before joining the FT. He served as national political researcher and research assistant to columnist David S. Broder and later as Wall Street correspondent.

White, a 1994 graduate of Kenyon College, has two sons and lives in New York City.

Chicago teachers strike for smaller classes, affordable housing, and racial justice

Friday, October 18th, 2019

Chicago public school teachers, along with school staff represented by SEIU, are on strike as of Thursday morning. The teachers, who a poll shows have public support, are striking not just or even mostly for better pay—though, as a video you can watch below shows, many are struggling to get by—but for nurses and counselors and librarians in every school, for smaller class sizes and more bilingual teachers and more special education teachers and for “real sanctuary schools.” The city has tried to derail the strike by offering—and making a big public deal about—substantial raises, but the teachers are making clear that it’s bigger than that.

The teachers are also fighting for affordable housing for students, at least 16,450 of whom are homeless, with homelessness disproportionately affecting black students, and for lower-paid school staff who are required to live within city limits but struggle to afford city housing costs.

The Chicago Teachers Union is pointing directly at racism as a factor in the state of Chicago schools. ”Here’s what I have learned from the systems in place. They’re governed by white supremacy,” union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told HuffPost. “We have a school district that is 90% children of color, we have immigrant children in our system?why on earth would it be difficult to enshrine class size protections and make sure there’s a nurse in every school?”

There are around 25,000 teachers on strike, along with 7,500 support staff, affecting the nearly 300,000 in the city’s schools. A former student who came out to support the teachers told CNN that “I see that many schools do not have complete sets of books for each kid. Some schools do not have the help for bilingual students, someone to help them in their native language. Some schools do not have a special education teacher, the kids are falling behind. Some buildings are falling apart, making it unsafe for kids.”

Chicago teachers last went on strike in 2012, but Jane McAlevey traces out how the CTU’s activism helped set the conditions for the more recent wave of teacher strikes from West Virginia to Los Angeles. Now Chicago teachers are again the ones on strike, but in a seriously different environment around the fight for public education than they saw (and began to reshape) in 2012.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has been strongly supportive of the teachers.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

Why Are Chicago Teachers Striking Against Mayor Lori Lightfoot? They’ve Been “Lied To” Before.

Friday, October 18th, 2019

kari-lydersen

As a pink sunrise painted the sky on Thursday morning, horns blared seemingly nonstop from semi trucks, commuters’ cars, a concrete mixer and countless other vehicles. They were all supporting members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73, which represents school support staff, on the picket line before dawn outside John A. Walsh Elementary School in Chicago’s heavily immigrant Pilsen neighborhood.

At schools across the city, teachers and staff waved signs, blew whistles, chanted and cheered to a cacophony of supportive honking from morning traffic. Teachers said they’re disappointed that the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot has not yet followed through on campaign promises to increase school staffing, shrink class sizes, create an elected school board and otherwise bolster public education. But with the support of the public—and a whopping 94% of membership voting to strike—they are hopeful.

“People in the schools every day can’t bear to see what’s happening,” said Walsh counselor Kristy Brooks. “Kids in Chicago have tough lives, they’re dealing with poverty, immigration fears, violence, and we’re asking them to put all that aside when they come here. That’s a lot to ask. That’s why we need these support systems.”

Brooks, who has been in the school system for 14 years, previously worked at a school on the West Side that was closed during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s shuttering of almost 50 schools. She said students, families and teachers still haven’t recovered from the impacts of those school closings, not to mention the gentrification, violence and other trauma that causes students to need far more access to counselors, nurses and social workers than is currently available. Most schools have a nurse on site only once a week, and CPS’s ratios of students to nurses and social workers are about four and five times higher than recommended by those professions’ national associations, according to the union.

Earlier this summer, Lightfoot announced the hiring of hundreds of nurses and social workers, and said in a statement last week that her administration is committing $400,000 to “developing a pipeline of nurses, counselors and case managers.” But the union wants specific benchmarks written into their contract—a demand the administration has resisted.

On Thursday morning, counselor Mary Jane Nykiel picketed outside Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the Near West Side, a neighborhood with a large African-American population.

“Because of the lack of other clinicians, counselors are spread very thin and asked to do other duties that aren’t counselor duties,” Nykiel said. “We’re pulled in many directions.”

She said that the school, which was considered for closure by Emanuel’s administration, “has a beautiful library but hasn’t had a librarian in 15 years.” Nykiel serves 450 students, and the school has a nurse twice a week and a social worker once a week, she said, which isn’t near enough “especially on the West Side where there’s so much inequity and poverty and trauma.”

Nykiel noted that even after the teachers garnered important contract gains and massive public support during the 2012 strike, the administration still carried out among the largest mass school closings in U.S. history soon after.

To Daniel Washco, a ninth-grade English teacher at Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School on the city’s West Side, those closings underscored that promises from the administration—like Lightfoot’s pledges to hire more nurses and social workers—are not enough. “Now put it in writing,” he said.

Washco was excited and hopeful when Lightfoot was elected, and still feels “her heart is in the right place.” The outcome of the strike will be telling, he said: “This is where the rubber meets the road.”

At Walsh, Brooks serves 302 students, a smaller number than counselors at many schools, though still above the American School Counselor Association’s recommended level of 250 students per counselor. And her relatively light load is in part because of gentrification in the neighborhood. The school has lost about 50% of its student body in the six years Brooks has been there, she said, with immigrant families displaced as the neighborhood becomes more expensive. Across the street from the school, newly built, still-unoccupied condos cover an entire city block.

The impacts of gentrification and lack of affordable housing on students, teachers and especially school paraprofessionals like clerks are among the reasons CTU has demanded the administration agree to endorse rent control and specific affordable housing provisions. Nearly a quarter of paraprofessionals make less than $32,000 a year, according to the union. One picket sign said, “My bar job paid for this sign.”

“It’s incredibly difficult for parents and teachers to be able to live near their schools and be part of their community” because of rising housing prices, said Washco.

In a statement, Lightfoot said CTU wanted to “set the city’s affordable housing policy through their collective bargaining agreement,” which would sideline other stakeholders. She said she “appointed the city’s first housing commissioner in a decade,” while also announcing a plan for low-income housing tax credits.

Esther Valenciano raised her kids in Pilsen and they graduated from Walsh, just around the corner from their home. Valenciano has worked at Walsh as a preschool teaching assistant for 23 years, but when she decided to buy a home, she couldn’t afford to stay in Pilsen. Now her son and daughter also work in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as teaching assistants, and are studying to become teachers.

Valenciano and the teacher she assists are often in charge of more than 40 preschoolers, including some with special needs. “They’re little kids, so we have to be fast,” she said.  “Especially in gym, it becomes a safety issue. It should not be that way.”

Valenciano finds herself, teachers, parents and grandparents all working together “as our own social workers” to try to help kids with problems when no case managers are available. “We do what we can do together,” she said.

Meanwhile, counselors say they’re often doing the jobs of social workers, plus helping in the classroom, lunchroom or recess, along with their primary responsibility of advising students about academics, college and careers.

Outside Nixon Elementary on the city’s largely Hispanic, working-class Northwest Side, librarian and union delegate Leslie Westerberg picketed with her shelter rescue dog, Milo, wearing a homemade union dog jacket. A CPS school Westerberg previously worked at closed its library and dismantled the bookshelves to turn it into a classroom, she said. She doesn’t know what happened to all the books she fundraised to buy.

At Nixon, Westerberg said she’s lucky to have a principal who prioritizes the library, but she notes many schools can’t do that as the system’s student-based budgeting formula means principals have to make tough choices when allocating scarce resources.

“We want students to know how to research and be ready for college, and we want them to excel at reading and have a love of reading, but how can we do that without libraries and librarians?” she asked. She said the union understands that higher staffing levels of librarians, counselors, social workers and nurses may need to be phased in over time, but she still wants the positions mandated in the contract and funded through the central office so that candidates can be hired when they are found.

“It’s unfair to our students that we have to beg for this,” she said. “It’s concerning that [Lightfoot] is offering things but not putting them in writing, so we could potentially be lied to, and CPS has lied to us so many times. They still need to earn our trust.”

Across the street from Westerberg, fifth-grade math teacher Samantha Gill and special education assistant Diana Morales wore unicorn and tiger onesies as they danced Zumba and Gill waved a glittery microphone.

“City officials don’t understand the relationships we have with kids, that we are literally doing all of this for them,” said Morales, an SEIU Local 73 member. “It’s not fair to kids not to have nurses, librarians, counselors. We owe them the best, and this isn’t the best.”

Gill said kindergarteners have told her that it’s hard for them to be successful with more than 40 kids in a class. “The kids understand it,” she said. “Why can’t the politicians understand it?”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on October 17, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

 

How to Resolve the Chicago Teachers Strike? Tax the Rich.

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

The past year of bold worker action in Chicago—which included the nation’s first charter school strikes—is now headed towards a crescendo as teachers and support staff prepare to walk off the job on Thursday.

Despite the city’s attempt to box negotiations into being just about salary, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is bringing a holistic approach to bargaining to benefit both their members and students. This means bringing common good demands such as affordable housing and sanctuary schools into the contract negotiations, because CTU knows that the crises outside of the classroom directly affect student learning.

This approach also means making demands about how the schools our students deserve can be paid for, which is why community organizations, labor unions such as CTU and elected officials have worked together to put forward the #ReimagineChicago budget proposal. Our plan does not rely on increasing fines, fees, sales taxes, and property taxes on the working poor and middle class—as has so often been the norm in Chicago. Instead, we have laid out a package of progressive revenue solutions to counter decades of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities, and ensure that the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

This proposal amounts to a sharp break from how Chicago finances have long been handled—and a fundamental shift in who is prioritized in the budget. Nowhere is this clearer than in our fight for the reinstatement of the corporate head tax.

A head tax is a city tax on corporations that scales to the size of the company. Chicago previously had a head tax in place from 1973 to 2014, but it was eliminated by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, making clear his economic priorities. Partly to help make up for the lost revenue from eliminating the head tax, Emanuel closed half of the city’s public mental health clinics, devastating thousands of patients, among other cuts to vital city services. Our improved version of the head tax would generate more than enough money to reopen all of the public clinics, while helping expand affordable housing and creating jobs on the South and West sides.

As we wait to hear what Mayor Lori Lightfoot puts forward in her first budget, we know that the mayor and city council have the power to act on our proposals right now—which could generate $771 million in new revenue. Other progressive taxation proposals would require coordination with the state government, but they could bring in up to $3.9 billion, totaling $4.6 billion in new revenue. These solutions include a Real Estate Transfer Tax which would raise $150 million, a Luxury Goods and Services Tax which would raise $300 million, and a city income tax on incomes over $100,000, which would bring in a whopping $1.4 billion. This funding could address Chicago’s growing housing crisis, enable a full-time nurse in every school and create racially equitable conditions that would allow all Chicagoans to thrive.

The “bargaining for the common good” approach being taken up by CTU represents a two-fisted strategy to win the schools and neighborhoods that Chicago working families deserve. On one hand, Chicago teachers are forcing the city and the school system to codify commitments to improve Chicago schools by writing them into their contract. On the other, unions are working with community groups to win the money to pay for those improvements through progressive revenue solutions that make the wealthy pay their fair share, instead of regressive taxes and fines on working families.

Mayor Lightfoot has resisted on both fronts, claiming CTU should only bargain over salary and that the union’s demands to create equity in the school system would drain city resources. She’s also resisted committing to raising the revenue needed through our proposals. Yet her newly appointed school board passed a spending increase that nearly doubled the amount of money spent on Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers in the public schools, and for the first time put into writing a contract between the school system and CPD that mandates more police access to our schools without detailing where this new spending would come from.

Candidate Lightfoot ran on a progressive platform, especially around education, but as mayor, she’s acting in opposition to that agenda on a number of issues. Creating task forces instead of putting affordable housing commitments in writing is not enough. Taking the side of wealthy developers like Sterling Bay, and fighting organizations like ours—Grassroots Collaborative—that are organizing to win radical changes to the city’s broken Tax Increment Finance system flies in the face of her progressive commitments.

Taking on entrenched wealthy elites requires progressives in Chicago to fight on multiple fronts. This teachers strike is about more than just a contract—it’s about reimagining what is possible for our city if we tax the wealthy and put those resources into the hands of working people instead of the politically connected. As Chicago teachers and support staff take bold worker action to win a just city for all, we should rise to the moment and join them in the fight for a more just future.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Amisha Patel is the Executive Director of the Grassroots Collaborative and Grassroots Illinois Action.

About the Author: Nathan Ryan is Communications Director at Grassroots Collaborative.

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