Working In These Times

Thursday, Apr 24, 2014, 6:20 pm  ·  By Kari Lydersen

Despite Community Pleas, Three Chicago Schools Slated for Privatization

Dvorak students said they don't want to lose their teachers. (Kari Lydersen)  

The Chicago Board of Education’s vote on Wednesday to convert three public elementary schools into “turnaround schools” run by the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) was no surprise to most parents and teachers.

The board has consistently voted to close schools or turn them over to private management—laying off most of the staff in the process—despite overwhelming opposition, anxiety and outrage expressed in heartfelt testimony by parents, teachers, students and elected officials at scores of public meetings.

While the concept of turnaround schools was first instituted under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, critics see the use of turnarounds as a signature of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his aggressive privatization agenda. Parents and experts framed the recent vote as part of a larger trend wherein Emanuel, who appoints the school board, has disregarded public opinion to push through his privatization plans. The mayor has met more resistance from the teachers union and parents, however, than he may have expected. He was widely seen as “losing” the standoff with the teachers union that culminated in their seven-day strike in 2012 and a new contract for the teachers. Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a prominent proponent of charter schools and privatization, resigned in the wake of the strike.

Even before the April 23 meeting, the board members should have been well aware that public sentiment stood firmly against “turning around” McNair Elementary, Gresham Elementary and Dvorak Technology Academy, all of which are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. During public meetings at each school in recent weeks, community members berated AUSL officials, calling them “traitors” to the Black community, and pleaded with them to save the jobs of the principals and teachers. The tenor of these meetings echoed scores of hearings held about the plan to close almost 50 public schools in 2013. It was evident this month that to many parents and students, being “turned around” is nearly equivalent to being closed. While the school remains open after a turnaround, students and parents said that without the teachers and staff that they have grown to know and love, the school isn’t the same. 

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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014, 12:13 pm  ·  By Spencer Woodman

EXCLUSIVE: Rock, Roll ‘n Wage Raises: Guitar Center Announces Pay Hike Following Employee Organizing

Starting this fall, all employees at the nation's largest retailer of musical instruments will be paid at least minimum wage.   (Mike Prosser / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons)

After a year of fierce opposition to a union campaign seeking a fairer pay structure for workers, In These Times has learned that the private equity-owned retailer Guitar Center plans to implement a radical shift in the way it compensates its workers: It will replace its much-reviled sales commission system with a far more straightforward protocol of hourly pay. Guitar Center, the country’s largest retailer of musical instruments, says that the shift will not only clarify payment for its more than five thousand sales associates, but also includes a commitment that every single Guitar Center employee will earn above minimum wage beginning this September.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) calls the policy shift a major victory for its organizing effort, focusing on Guitar Center stores. The union believes that the company is seeking to appease frustrated workers in order to keep more of its stores away from union organizers.

After Bain Capital acquired Guitar Center in 2007, workers began complaining of declining standards, including lower commissions from one year to the next. Since last May, employees at three Guitar Center stores around the country voted in favor of union representation with RWDSU.

The union’s efforts met fierce opposition from Guitar Center management, which insists that its workers would be better off without the involvement of labor groups. The union also accused Bain Capital of deploying excessive aggression, even illegal tactics, in its past efforts to thwart union organizing. In one successful Chicago union drive employees accused Guitar Center management of threatening to shutter their entire store if the union won, an potential violation of federal labor law. Guitar Center rejected the claim, and intimated that the union had disabled one of its supporters’ vehicles on the day of the union vote.

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Thursday, Apr 17, 2014, 4:29 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Kaplan Teachers Win Contract, Proving For-Profit Ed Can Be Unionized

In response to poor working conditions at Kaplan, which included denying sick days to teachers and underpaying qualified professionals, teachers at three Manhattan Kaplan English as a Second Language schools have unionized.  

Teachers at three Manhattan-based English language schools run by Kaplan, Inc. have won their first union contract with the corporation, breaking new ground in efforts to organize the booming for-profit education sector. In 2012, teachers at the three Kaplan International Center New York (KICNY) facilities became the first employees of private English as a Second Language (ESL) schools in the United States to unionize, but they have struggled since to settle a collective bargaining agreement. On Wednesday, they voted to adopt a contract that includes wage increases and greater workplace protections.

For-profit education “is an industry that’s notorious for low pay and no or few benefits,” says Bill O’Meara, president of the Newspaper Guild of New York, which represents the New York Kaplan teachers. “This initial contract is an important achievement in their working lives.”

In a statement sent to In These Times via e-mail, a Kaplan spokesperson said: “We believe that the two-year agreement ratified yesterday by the New York Newspaper Guild, covering approximately 65 teachers working at Kaplan’s three New York City ESL schools, is balanced and reasonable. It offers wage and benefit improvements to the teachers in New York. And it provides these Kaplan International Centers with the continued flexibility to operate their business in a way that best serves the interests of its students and will enable KIC to continue to provide jobs in the competitive New York ESL marketplace."  

The New York City teachers who voted to unionize in 2012 were the first Kaplan employees in the United States to do so. Paul Hlava, an English teacher at KIC’s Soho campus, says this quickly produced a ripple effect: Kaplan ESL instructors across the country received raises in what the union believes was an attempt to dissuade other schools from organizing. Meanwhile, says Hlava, the New York teachers were “stonewalled” as they fought for these same improvements for themselves.

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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014, 10:45 am  ·  By Roger Bybee

Can Scott Walker Be Defeated?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has come up well short of his 250,000 jobs target, ignored the state's low wages and cut women's reproductive rights.   Megan McCormick/Wikimedia Commons

Three years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker first dropped what he called a "bomb,” one that suddenly and swiftly decimated the union rights of public employees. Walker’s legislation, Act 10, ignited outrage from unions and their allies, fueling a massive effort to recall the governor, which came to fruition with a recall vote in June 2012.

Walker prevailed in the recall, but the process left behind a resentful segment of the public. Today, the fight against Walker and his anti-worker policies is picking up steam with an electoral challenge from Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke, and a labor campaign to support Burke and highlight Wisconsin workers’ lagging wages.

Surprisingly, the relatively unknown Burke—who opposes Walker on nearly every issue—matched the incumbent governor 45 percent to 45 percent among likely voters in a recent survey by the right-leaning Rasmussen polling group announced March 12. A March 26 Marquette University poll was not quite as encouraging, showing a 48 percent to 41 percent lead for Walker over Burke, though it underscored that Burke has made inroads even before becoming well-known around the state (and releasing her economic program countering Walker’s). And given Walker’s gubernatorial record, there will be plenty for Burke to criticize him on in the impending campaign season.

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Wednesday, Apr 16, 2014, 10:10 am  ·  By Kari Lydersen

Railroad Workers Unite in Chicago

Nancy Lessin (L), an expert on safety programs, joins Ron Kaminkow (R), a longtime rail worker, for a moment of levity during last weekend's Railroad Workers United conference. (Kari Lydersen)  

Chicago is known as the place where the nation’s railroads meet. And last weekend, the city also became the meeting spot for about 40 of the country’s most progressive and activism-driven railroad union workers when it hosted the biennial conference of Railroad Workers United (RWU), an independent labor organization founded in 2008 that includes members of the major rail unions, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labor groups. Their gathering dovetailed with the Labor Notes conference, which brings together activist trade unionists from around the world every two years.

Those converging in Chicago for the RWU conference included locomotive engineers, rail yard workers, people who build trains and employees of contractors that service locomotives. They represent a small wedge of activism and solidarity-building in an industry that, while crucial to the country’s economic well-being and one of the cleanest freight transport options, is also notorious for retaliation against workers who agitate for better conditions or speak out about injuries and safety hazards.

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Monday, Apr 14, 2014, 4:20 pm  ·  By Bruce Vail

Jewish and Labor Leaders Flock To Defend Teachers at Perelman Jewish Day School

'As a Jew who grew up in the Conservative movement and a union leader, I'm appalled at what has transpired at the Perelman Jewish Day School,' said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers union. (Photo by Bill Burke/Page One)  

On the eve of the Jewish high holy days of Passover, union leaders and Jewish labor activists in Philadelphia and beyond are ramping up efforts to defeat a plan by one of the area’s small private religious schools to bust its teachers union. Both groups are outraged at the school’s implicit claim that there’s a conflict between Judaism and workers’ rights. 

The issue erupted late last month when the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School notified the school’s roughly 60 teachers that it would no longer negotiate with their long-established labor union. Instead, the board proclaimed, each teacher must make individual arrangements with the school administrators for the conditions of future employment. The union busting was justified, the Perelman teachers were told, as a measure to advance the religious objectives of the K-5 school, and was legally supported by court rulings reaching all the way to the Supreme Court. The school was likely referring to the high court’s 1979 ruling in NLRB v Catholic Bishop of Chicago that religious schools were exempt from some labor law.

“Everybody feels that we were disrespected, and undermined” by the school board decision, says Lisa Richman, president of the Perelman Jewish Day School Faculty Association Local 3578, a unit of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “Everybody [on the faculty] is petrified, or scared, or angry,” she says.

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Monday, Apr 14, 2014, 3:50 pm  ·  By Sarah Jaffe

How 250 UPS Workers Fired for a Wildcat Strike Won Back Their Jobs

After UPS fired 250 workers for a spontaneous protest, organizers harnessed the power of loyal customers who wanted their drivers back on the job.  

Two hundred and fifty UPS drivers, clad in their brown uniforms, rallying in a Queens parking lot, must have been quite a sight. Not very many people got to see it, however. The 90-minute work stoppage outside the Maspeth, Queens, UPS facility on February 26 was a spontaneous protest against the firing, allegedly without due process, of one of their colleagues, Jairo Reyes.

On March 26, UPS retaliated by beginning to give all 250 notices that they'd be terminated—but the company did not fire the workers all at once. According to the Teamsters, UPS fired 20 drivers on March 31 and kept the rest waiting for the axe to fall while their replacements were trained.

Nearly two months later, all 250, including Reyes, will be headed back to work, their terminations reduced to ten-day suspensions. Driver Steven Curcio, who says he was one of the first to be fired, credits the support of the community, elected officials and particularly his own customers.

Tim Sylvester, president of Teamsters Local 804, the union that represents the Queens drivers, said, “The drivers delivered their message to UPS about unfair treatment. Now every one of them will be back delivering packages.”

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Friday, Apr 11, 2014, 6:14 pm  ·  By Matthew Blake

Chicago Unions Divided Over Emanuel’s Move To Gut Pensions

The Chicago Teachers Union, led by Karen Lewis (pictured here), is one of the unions opposing the bill cutting Chicago public workers' pensions. (Philadelphia Public School Notebook / Creative Commons)  

Faced with a debt crisis eerily reminiscent of Detroit’s financial straits, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel now wants to slash retirement benefits for city workers, who have already seen their pension funds erode from decades of mismanagement and delayed payments.

Because the state government has control over Chicago public worker pensions, Emanuel’s first fund-cutting measures have surfaced in the form of proposed legislation. Last week, Emanuel announced a proposal to cut city employee retirement funds; longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) then wrote it into Senate Bill 1922.

And on Tuesday, the Illinois legislature passed that bill, which calls for a combination of raised revenue streams and benefit cuts to ensure that the city’s retirement system for municipal employees and laborers—just 35 percent funded today—will be 90 percent funded by 2055. The proposal would affect the pensions of 56,000 city workers affiliated with 31 different unions.

Despite the hit to their members’ pensions, 28 out of those 31 unions support the bill. 

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Friday, Apr 11, 2014, 1:01 pm  ·  By Jonathan Leavitt

With Solidarity in Spades, Vermont Bus Drivers’ 18-Day Strike Results in Big Win

An outpouring of students, community members and allies from other unions turned out to support the strike. (All photographs by Jonathan Leavitt.)  

At 6am on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, 40 bus drivers and a dozen community members defied negative-10-degree weather to picket outside the Chittenden County Transportation Authority (CCTA) bus garage in Burlington, Vt. The action marked the beginning of nearly three-week-long transit strike over concessionary contract demands that would capture the imagination of much of Vermont and culminate in victory.

“Management misjudged us,” said CCTA driver Jim Fouts, speaking to In These Times from the impromptu victory rally on April 3. “We don’t drive together, we don’t have a lunch room to eat together,” said Fouts. But on the picket line, he says, “we turned into icicles together and we started to get to know one another.”

Traven Leyshon of the Vermont AFL-CIO leading Teamsters 597 members and supporters in chants on a negative 10 degree picket line. (Full disclosure: The author was part of the strike's solidarity committee and is a member of the Vermont Workers' Center, which supported the strike.)

After months of failed negotiations and working without a contract since June 30 of last year, drivers voted 54-0 on March 12th to reject CCTA management’s final contract offer. Drivers could not stomach monitoring disciplinary procedures that they saw as “abusive," such as being tailed by supervisors, reviewed via bus videotapes, and suspensions of as long as a month. The added demand that drivers work eight hours over the course of an exhausting 13.5-hour “split shift,” which could be extended through forced overtime to 15 hours, sparked concerns among bus drivers and community members that CCTA management’s demands risked community safety.” 

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Thursday, Apr 10, 2014, 4:05 pm  ·  By Moshe Marvit

The Paycheck Fairness Act Would Have Helped All Workers, Not Just Women

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) calls on the Senate to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act at an April 1 press conference. If enacted, the law would have protected all workers from being fired for discussing wages with each other. (Senate Democrats / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

Despite being a part of the U.S. workforce for decades, American women are still earning 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make. In an effort to close that persistent gap, Democrats in Congress have tried three times since 2009 to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act. And all three times—most recently on Wednesday morning—Republicans in Congress have blocked the bill from proceeding to debate and a full vote.

Though the act was framed as a way to fight the enduring discrepancy in wages among genders, in reality, it would have helped work toward better conditions for all workers. On Tuesday, President Obama signed executive orders that acted as a parallel Paycheck Fairness Act for federal contractors and publicly urged Congress to pass the bill.

Predictably, Republicans responded by calling the act a job-killer and a non-starter in the current economy. If passed, the bill would have made several amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, it would have mandated that factors used to justify wage differences were not based on gender divisions and were consistent with business necessity; it would have required the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to collect data from employers regarding the sex, race, and national origin of employees, thus discouraging discriminatory compensation decisions; and it would have prohibited employer retaliation against employees who disclose their wages to each other.

This last provision was meant to shine a light on workers’ pay so that it would be more difficult for employers to secretly pay women—or anyone—less than equally qualified colleagues. Though it was a central part of the legislation that Republicans vilified as economically problematic, it actually broke no new legal grounds.

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