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Arkansas Teachers Went On Strike. Here Are the Corporate School Privatizers They’re Up Against.

Monday, November 18th, 2019

Image result for Gin Armstrong"Image result for Derek Seidman"Teachers of Little Rock, Arkansas went on strike Thursday over the state’s decision to strip their collective bargaining rights and curtail local control of the school district. It was the teachers’ first strike since 1987, and only their second strike ever.

The Arkansas State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the Governor, voted in October to end its recognition of the Little Rock Education Association, the city’s teacher’s union. The ending of the recognition of the union came as its contract expired on October 31. The Little Rock Education Association is the only teachers union in the entire state of Arkansas.

The teachers are demanding the return of bargaining power from the state. They are also want full local control of the district returned. The state took oversight over Little Rock schools in 2015, claiming low test scores at some schools, and earlier this year sought to create a two-tiered school system that many believe would have, in effect, racially segregated the city’s schools. While that effort by the Board of Education was defeated, it responded by withdrawing recognition of the union. (For further details about the lead-up to the strike and the issues behind it, read Eric Blanc’s helpful column at Jacobin).

Governor Asa Hutchinson has defended the state’s continued takeover of the local school district, and he appointed 8 of the 9 state Board of Education members who voted to end recognition of the teachers’ union. As we discuss below, several of the board members are tied to corporate backers of school privatization in Arkansas.

Like other teachers who have recently struck – from Los Angeles and Chicago to Arizona and West Virginia and beyond – Little Rock’s teachers are pitted against a billionaire-backed school privation agenda that wants to crush collective bargaining rights and advance charter schools. As in those strikes, Little Rock students have the backing of their students, thousands of whom recently staged a “sick out” protest in support of their teachers.

A major backer of the anti-union, pro-charter agenda in Arkansas is the Walton family, whose foundation is a huge funder of the school privatization infrastructure that exists across the state. In addition to the Waltons, corporate elites from Murphy Oil, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and others are backers of the school privatization efforts. These corporate interests are close to Governor Hutchinson, who supports their agenda, and they have close ties to the state Board of Education. In addition, they are also interlocked with a host of lobbyists and academics that push their agenda.

The Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas “School Privatization Empire”

A major driver of the school privatization agenda in Arkansas is the billionaire Walton family. The Waltons owns WalMart, which is headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. As of 2018, the three children of Jim Walton, the late founder of Walmart, were worth a combined $163.2 billion.

The Waltons are major advocates of charter schools nationally, and they carry out their school privatization agenda through their Walton Family Foundation, which showers hundreds of millions on pro-charter groups and schools. The foundation claims it has invested a whopping $407 million into pushing charter schools since 1997. According to a recent report put out by the Arkansas Education Association, the Waltons pump millions into propping up the state’s school privatization infrastructure – or what the report calls the “Arkansas’s School Privatization Empire.”

It’s not just that the Waltons give big money to a few groups – it’s also that these groups then distribute that money to other organizations, lobbyists, consultants, and academics, creating a vast network of billionaire-funded activity to attack unionized teachers and push charter schools.

For example, the Walton family Foundation gave $350,000 to the Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation (AERF) in 2017 – around 80% of all the contributions the organization took in that year.

The AERF board includes other powerful funders and advocates of school privatization in the state, such as Claiborne Deming, the former CEO of Murphy Oil, a big backer of charter schools in Arkansas; William Dillard III, part of the Dilliard family that owns the Dilliard’s department stores; and Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state’s flagship newspaper. Jim Walton is also on the board.

In addition to the $350,000 that the Walton donated to the AERF in 2017, Deming gave $60,000 and Dilliard III gave $10,000, while the National Christian Foundation gave $15,000, according the the group’s 2017 990 form.

AERF has in turn used the money it receives from the Walton billionaire fortune and other Arkansas elites to fund other school privatization efforts. For example, it gave $115,000 to Arkansas Learns, which describes itself as “the Voice of Business for excellent education options – including industry-relevant career pathways…” The CEO of Arkansas Learns, Gary Newton, is also the Executive Director of the AERF (for which he earned $189,639 in compensation in 2017).

In turn, Arkansas Learns has the same board members as AERF, and Randy Zook, the CEO of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, whose wife Dianne Zook is on the state Board of Education that decided to end recognition of the Little Rock teachers’ union, is also a board member. Dianne Zook is also the aunt of Gary Newton.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Gin Armstrong is a senior research analyst focused on regional and state power mapping. Previously, she spent several years in the bike industry to recover from her research roles at Media Matters for America and GMU’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. She is based in Buffalo, NY.
About the Author: Derek Seidman is a power researcher and historian who lives in Buffalo, New York. He works as a research analyst for the Public Accountability Initiative and littlesis.org.

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.

Elizabeth Warren joins Chicago teachers on the picket line as negotiations stall

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

The Chicago teachers strike seemed to move further from resolution late Monday and teachers at the Passages charter school also went on strike, while the striking teachers got support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who joined them on the picket line on Tuesday. Monday night, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey sent out a statement saying that negotiations had stalled, seemingly on orders from Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Sharkey said that progress had been made to that point—in the first days of the strike, the teachers and the city had reached “tentative agreements on staffing to support homeless students, on staffing for Pre-Kindergarten classrooms and naps for those young students, on letting counselors work with children instead of random assignments like substitute teaching. We won an extension of the charter moratorium and support for programs to address the teacher shortage, especially among teachers of color.”

But on Monday that progress abruptly halted, Sharkey said: “After two days of striking, our bargaining team was beginning to see glimmers of progress on issues that matter to our members. Today, on day three, that progress stopped dead. It was clear from the mayor’s letter to the press demanding members go back to work without a contract and from the sudden atmosphere of stonewalling from the CPS team, that the mayor had pulled the plug on negotiations. The CPS team scheduled to negotiate with bus drivers in SEIU 73 spent exactly 12 minutes at the bargaining table. These vindictive actions have served to halt the real progress that the negotiating teams were making toward resolution of the contract.”

Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools management put out a competing statement agreeing that bargaining had been going well but pointing a finger at the teachers for refusing to go back to work without a contract and at the union for pulling back from negotiations.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on October 22, 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.
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