The fight against school closings in Chicago that started in the streets is now being taken to the courts. Today, parents of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students, with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), filed two civil rights class action lawsuits in federal court against the Chicago Board of Education. The suits allege violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Illinois Civil Rights Act, and seek an immediate halt to all plans to close Chicago schools.
The plan to close 53 Chicago schools—the largest mass closings of public schools in U.S. history—has already been met with resistance from city residents, parents, students, teachers and activists who claim that the closings will endanger the health and safety of students, primarily those of color, and result in the lack of academic opportunities for those affected.
The CTU has said that the closings are part of a broader attack on public education by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and reflect an ongoing effort to privatize Chicago schools, break teachers unions and shift city resources from poor to higher income communities.
The first suit filed today charges that those responsible for carrying out the school closings are violating title II of the ADA by putting special needs students at risk:
In violation of federal law, this late, ill-timed, and ill-prepared program for the closing of 53 elementary schools will have a discriminatory impact upon the plaintiff children and other children with disabilities, compared to their non-disabled peers.
The second suit goes farther, alleging racial discrimination in violation of Section 5 of Illinois' civil rights law, as African-American students will make up over 80 percent of the students who will have to change schools, while they represent just 42 percent of the children in CPS:
By repeatedly selecting African American students to bear the costs of the closings, the defendants have unlawfully used “criteria and methods of administration” that have the “effect” of subjecting the plaintiffs’ children and other African American children represented by the plaintiff parents to discrimination because of race.
CTU President Karen Lewis stated as the suit was filed, “We hope the courts listen to these parents and act swiftly to stop this assault on our schools, our students and our communities.”
In filing the lawsuits in court today, these parents and the CTU are opening a new front in their ongoing campaign to stop each and every planned school closing in the city—a formidable challenge when taking on the forces of City Hall, CPS and the Board of Education. But, as last September’s Chicago teachers’ strike illustrated, the CTU is not to be counted out, even in the toughest of circumstances.
Three consecutive days of large-scale marches against the school closings are scheduled to begin on Saturday.
As the death toll mounts from disasters at Bangladesh's garment factories, the country has set up a panel to discuss raising the minimum wage for low-wage garment workers. According to Agence France-Presse, the decision was largely precipitated by a wave of worker protests:
“We’ve set up a minimum wage board for the garment sector. We did it in view of the workers’ demand to hike their salaries,” textile minister Abdul Latif Siddique told AFP.A typical Bangladeshi garment worker takes home less than $40 a month, a wage that Pope Francis has condemned as akin to slave labour. Their minimum wage was last raised—by 80 percent—in November 2010.The panel will include union representatives as well as factory owners, Siddique added. “There is no doubt the salaries will be hiked,” he said.The announcement came as the death toll from the country’s worst industrial disaster climbed to 1,126, 19 days after a nine-storey garment factory complex in a suburb of Dhaka caved in and buried thousands of workers.Workers at the country’s garment-manufacturing hub of Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka left their factories en masse Sunday morning to demand an increase in wages.
When the minimum wage was last raised, in 2010, to roughly $38 a month, the impetus was also worker protests.
The recent tragedy at Rana Plaza is only one in a string of horrific accidents in a barely regulated industry. The death toll since 2005 from fires and other preventable incidents at factories in Bangladesh now exceeds 1,800, according to garment-industry watchdogs—including more than 110 killed by a fire at the Wal-Mart-affiliated Tazreen factory in November.
Last week, In These Times' Michelle Chen discussed the need to hold Western corporations accountable for their overseas contractors' abysmal working conditions:
In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse, a global consensus seems to be forming that the trail of blame can be traced upward through the production chain, from the shop floor to the boardrooms of the global retail giants whose labels have turned up in the wreckage. The corporations that have been implicated so far, including Western giants Wal-Mart, Primark, Benetton, GAP and H&M, have more power than any other international stakeholder to reform the industry. But this will only happen if they're pressured into making fundamental changes to an intrinsically exploitative structure. These include not just paying the immediate cost of safety remediations, but also strengthening workplace protections, ensuring transparent and objective factory audits, and enabling workers to organize unions, which have faced brutal suppression as the politically influential export sector has boomed.
The Guardian reports that Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott Israel was the result of a private letter sent to the famed physicist by 20 academic colleagues. Among the signatories was Noam Chomsky, who has been a vocal critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
Hawking has rarely expressed political views, but he was clear about his reasons for not attending the upcoming presidential conference in Israel. A statement he approved referred to "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."
Pro-Palestinian activists cheered the news.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gotten flak from progressive and environmental groups this week over controversial stances taken by his new advocacy group, FWD.us.
Launched in April, FWD.us largely represents the interests of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in advocating desired reforms in immigration, education and high-tech investments. The dispute began last month after FWD.us produced and aired television ads in Alaska and South Carolina in support of U.S. Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). The Alaska ad praised Sen. Begich for his efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, while the South Carolina ad featured Sen. Graham making comments critical of Obama's Affordable Care Act and the president's handling of the Keystone pipeline.
In response, a coalition of liberal organizations, spearheaded by Sen. Russ Feingold’s Progressive United, announced Tuesday that they would be both retracting existing ads and refraining from purchasing new ones from Facebook for a period of at least two weeks. Progressives United is joined by MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, CREDO, Daily Kos, Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, 350.org and Presente.org.
One of the allied groups, CREDO, claims that Facebook rejected its ad criticizing FWD.us on the grounds that it used Zuckerberg's face. “Facebook took the extraordinary step of rejecting our ad featuring Mark Zuckerberg's photo along with a headline asking him to stop pushing pro-Keystone XL propaganda," CREDO political director Becky Bond said in a statement. “But the ads that truly need to be pulled are the cynical and ineffective anti-environmental political commercials that Zuckerberg and FWD.us are airing in South Carolina and Alaska.”
Both the League of Conservation Voters and MoveOn.org have started online petitions urging Zuckerberg to remove the ads from FWD.us's website. Collectively, the two petitions have thus far received more than 80,000 signatures.
Chicago Public Schools has revised down its expected savings from school closings by over one hundred million dollars. In March, when CPS announced the plan to close 54 elementary and high schools, the district estimated it would save $560 million in repairs and maintenance work. Last week, however, CPS reduced the figure to $437.8 million—a difference of $122 million. According to WBEZ, CPS attributed the discrepancy to outdated assessments, but critics say the initial estimates included unnecessary upgrades:
Chicago Public Schools says it made an “honest mistake” when adding numbers, and had plugged in some schools that didn’t belong there. But the overall cost savings is also being revised downward because schools that had not been assessed for years are getting thorough capital-needs reviews.
CPS had made estimates of how much it would take to repair and upgrade individual school buildings—and thus, how much it could save by closing those buildings. A CPS official said originally the district budgeted in central air conditioning to cost estimates. That's been switched to window units.
Parents, activists, and even aldermen have complained that the district’s estimated cost for fixing their schools is inflated. Parents at Trumbull Elementary in Edgewater, for instance, got notes home in March saying it would cost $16.3 million to repair and upgrade their school. It was one of the reasons listed for closing the school.
Lewis noted that CPS is borrowing $300 million to bankroll the closings, “co-locations” of two schools in one building, the expansion of full-day kindergarten and other improvements.“I’m not seeing how the savings kicks in and, when it does, we’re only looking at maybe $30 million a year, maybe. And that’s not going to happen within the next five years—and maybe longer,” Lewis said while taping, “Connected to Chicago,” to be broadcast at 6 a.m. Sunday on WLS-AM and FM Radio.“I’m glad that they finally admitted it. But, they’re going to do it anyway. I mean — that’s something that is so shameful to me. You see that something is wrong. You see it’s not going to accomplish what you want to accomplish. But, you’re going to do it anyway,” Lewis said on the radio program.
The US military has confirmed that a team of 40 medical reinforcements arrived this week at Guantánamo Bay, where a hunger strike among detainees has been ongoing since early February. There are now over 100 detainees refusing food, with 21 approved for "force feeding," says The Guardian:
US authorities said on Monday that the decision to bring in a back-up medical team was made as increasing numbers of inmates began to refuse food. "We will not allow a detainee to starve themselves to death and we will continue to treat each person humanely," a Guantánamo Bay spokesman, Lt Col Samuel House, said.He added: "Detainees have the right to peacefully protest, but we have the responsibility to ensure that they conduct their protest safely and humanely."
As Col. Lawrence Wilkinson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell, pointed out on All In with Chris Hayes last Thursday, the practice of "force-feeding" is far from safe, and constitutes a recognized form of torture. Wilkinson said:
Those people are still being tortured. Some of them "force-fed" at least twice a day, and if you've never seen a demonstration of force-feeding, where you're shackled to a chair, and a tube is stuck down your throat all the way to your stomach, you know that's torture. So it's still going on, and the residue of these decisions are going to be around for a long time.
Meanwhile, the fate of the detainees, who are being held without trial as prisoners of war, remains in limbo.
The collapse of a building housing five garment factories outside Dhaka, Bangladesh has killed at least 250 people and left over 1,000 injured. Cracks in the eight -story building were discovered on Tuesday, prompting an order by local police to have the building evacuated. However, according to the Guardian, factory supervisors ignored the order and threatened pay cuts for workers who failed to return the next day.
The Associated Press reports that the building housed companies claiming to produce clothing for Wal-Mart, The Children’s Place, Dress Barn, Benetton, and other major international retailers. According to the AP, Benetton has denied purchasing clothing from the building’s factories and Wal-Mart says it is conducting an investigation. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, The Children’s Place confirmed that it had previously sold clothes made in one of the factories but stated that none of their apparel was in production at the time of the collapse. Dress Barn has also confirmed a previous relationship with one of the factories although saying, according the Washington Post, that no new apparel had been purchased from the factory since 2010 “to its knowledge.”
Though it remains unclear how many survivors are trapped, a Bangladeshi military official says that an urgent and ongoing rescue effort has pulled over 2,000 people from the rubble. Outrage over the incident, and over safety conditions within Bangladesh’s booming garment industry in general, has brought thousands of protestors to Dhaka’s streets, according to CNN.
The incident is Bangladesh’s third major garment industry disaster in six months. In November, a fire at a factory near Dhaka that had produced clothing for Wal-Mart and Sears killed at least 112 people and left many more injured. Seven workers died in another factory blaze in Dhaka in January after supervisors reportedly locked an exit door.
Thanks to business from foreign companies seeking cheap labor and lax regulations, Bangladesh’s garment industry has ballooned to account for 80 percent of the country’s exports. Bangladesh is on track to surpass China as the world’s largest apparel manufacturer within seven years—a frightening prospect for labor activists who see Wednesday’s disaster as yet another sign that the Bangladeshi factories need serious regulation.
Twelve protestors from the group Witness Against Torture were arrested Monday in New York City for participating in what they called a "die-in." Wearing the recognizable orange jumpsuits and black hoods of Guantanamo detainees, the protestors sprawled out on the steps of the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse with signs that read "I Died Waiting." A takeoff on a sit-in, the act was a public gesture in solidarity with the 84 Guantanamo prisoners who have been holding a hunger strike for almost three months now.
In a press release, Jeremy Varon, one of the group's organizers, said:
The hunger strike is the predictable result of a failed policy of indefinite detention that is morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable ... If action is not taken to change that policy, more prisoners will die and our nation’s shame will deepen.
CBS New York reports that conditions at Guantanamo remain poor: Many of the inmates have been moved to solitary confinement, and at least 16 of the 84 strikers are being force-fed.
In a startling turn of events this week, a judge in Guatemala suspended a landmark genocide trial, to the outrage of many indigenous Guatemalans.
Guatemala's former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt was being tried for the torture, rape and murder of over 1,700 indigenous Ixils by his regime in the early 1980's. The case marked the first time in world history that a dictator has been officially tried for genocide in his home country, says Marcie Mersky of the International Center for Transitional Justice.
But on Thursday the presiding judge, Carol Patricia Flores, invalidated the testimony and effectively set the trial back to November 2011, before Montt was charged.
Since March 19, witnesses have been giving detailed, chilling accounts of violence. From New America Media:
“They caught up to the woman and they struck her in the head with a machete and dragged her like a dog,” said [Tiburcio] Utuy of a scene he said he saw while hiding from soldiers. Experts have testified that racism toward the majority indigenous was key to slaughter in Maya villages, which occurred in the context of counterinsurgency against leftist rebels relatively small in number. Many recalled experience in terms referring to animals. “Just as chicks run from hawks, that's what they did to us. Why? If we are human beings?” said witness Maria Cedillo.
Judge Flores was under mounting right-wing pressure to halt the proceedings, including from President Otto Perez Molina. She claims she was complying with orders from the nation's top court. From the Christian Science Monitor:
Ms. Flores said she was following a directive from the Constitutional Court ... “I am not acting out of my own persuasion. I am acting in accordance with what top justices have asked me to do,” Judge Flores said.According to documents read at the hearing, however, the Constitutional Court ordered Flores to review and readmit the evidence previously deemed inadmissible, then return the file to the sentencing court–in less than 24 hours–to resume the trial.
Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz is appealing the decision, saying Flores disobeyed the high court.
An economic report that has been used frequently to justify austerity measures in the U.S. and Europe has one flagrant flaw: an Excel error.
The 2010 report by prominent U.S. economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, titled "Growth In A Time Of Debt," argues that national economies whose public debt rises above 90 percent of GDP are doomed to stagnate.
But when a team of economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst tried to duplicate the study using the spreadsheet that Reinhart and Rogoff used, they soon saw that the rationale for austerity relied on significant errors. For instance, five countries—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark—were mistakenly excluded from the Excel calculations.
As Mark Gongloff points out, the coding error, as well as numerous other questionable aspects of the research, changes the report's findings significantly:
The most important error appears to be a failure to include years of data that showed Australia, Canada and New Zealand enjoying high economic growth and high debt at the same time. Including all the years of data boosts New Zealand's average economic growth rate under high debt to 2.58 percent, from negative 7.6 percent. Given the small amount of data used in Reinhart and Rogoff's study, this has a huge impact on the overall findings.
How influential was the study? As Quartz' Tim Fernholz demonstrates, "Growth In A Time of Debt" was used liberally by U.S. and U.K. lawmakers to argue in favor for the necessity of austerity measures in a time of recession. Check out the abbreviated list below:
“It is widely acknowledged, based on serious research, that when public debt levels rise about 90% they tend to have a negative economic dynamism, which translates into low growth for many years.” — European Commissioner Olli Rehn.“Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 percent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis.” — House Budget Committee Chairman and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan.“It’s an excellent study, although in some ways what you’ve summarized understates the risks.”— Former US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.“We would soon get to a situation in which a debt-to-GDP ratio would be 100%. As economists such as Reinhart and Rogoff have argued, that is the level at which the overall stock of debt becomes dangerous for the long-term growth of an economy. They would argue that that is why Japan has had such a bad time for such a long period. If deficits really solved long-term economic growth, Japan would not have been stranded in the situation in which it has been for such a long time.” Lord Lamont of Lerwick, former UK chancellor and sometime adviser to current chancellor George Osborne.