Working In These Times
Eight months after its historic strike, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) again finds itself at a crossroads. The union is dealing with the fallout from the Chicago Board of Education approving 50 public-school closings last week, which, among other issues, directly impacts the jobs of about 1,000 of their members. Partly in response, the CTU is focusing on a political movement that can challenge the power of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. That means there's a new item on the union's agenda: voter registration.
Last Thursday, CTU President Karen Lewis, comfortably re-elected to a second three-year term a week before, hosted a voter-registration training session at a church in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city's South Side. Lewis told her audience of CTU members that despite months of opposition—which included a three-day march, downtown rallies, two pending class action lawsuits and a third lawsuit that the union expects to file today—“a lot of us knew” the board would vote to close the schools, “which is why we had already scheduled this meeting.”
The real problem, Lewis said, is that the mayor handpicks both the Chicago Public School (CPS) leaders who propose policies and the board members who then approve those policies. “We must change the political landscape in Chicago,” Lewis said. “If we have mayoral control and can’t get rid of it tomorrow, then we need to figure out a way to change the hearts and minds of the voters.”
So Lewis wants to channel the energy and defiance of CTU members—who overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike last June—into increasing voter turnout, and pushing for candidates who support policies such as an elected school board.
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It’s been about a month since the Rana Plaza factory complex crumbled into a cement grave for more than 1,100 Bangladeshi workers. Now, the dust has settled, but the anger still burns as workers await compensation and accountability from a manufacturing system that runs on industrial “death traps.”
But last week, at a meeting of the International Labour Organization, dozens of major global clothing brands—none based in the United States—announced they had signed onto a broad safety accord designed to be more comprehensive than previous corporate codes of conduct. The initiative, led by labor rights groups and unions, is just the beginning of a long road to labor justice, but could move one of the world's deadliest manufacturing sectors toward meaningful international accountability.
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On Thursday, 15 Cablevision workers who are also stockholders in the cable company were ejected from the annual shareholders’ meeting in Bethpage, New York. When the workers, members of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), spoke up during the meeting to question Cablevision CEO James Dolan about what they see as union-busting tactics, the company called the police to remove them.
“When the questions got too hard to answer, he asked his corporate security to kick us out,” says CWA District 1 Organizing Coordinator Tim Dubnau. “We told him that we had a right to be here but if a police officer told us to, we would leave. The police detained us for an hour outside pending an investigation, then released us.”
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One hundred years ago this month, a long-forgotten union powered by a remarkable engine of everyday solidarity and direct action was born. The union's distinguishing feature—that it was directly operated by workers on the job, bears little resemblance to today's traditional labor movement with formal negotiation by a bargaining agent as the end goal of even the most creative campaigns. With over 93 percent of private sector workers finding themselves outside of traditional union membership and with little prospect of getting in, this dramatically different and powerful unionism offers a compelling path forward for workers today.
The story of Local 8 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) begins with a large industry-wide strike of longshoremen on the docks of Philadelphia. The local union borne of that May 1913 strike represented, in the view of some, the high-water mark of durable power and multiracial organizing in the widely-studied IWW. Despite that, its story was almost relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history.
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This week, the Chemical Safety Board, the main agency tasked with investigating and creating recommendations to prevent accidents are chemicals, said that law enforcement was hindering its ability to investigate the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. From the Dallas Morning News:
Earlier this week, CSB went public with its complaints that law enforcement agencies in West had removed evidence and altered the scene during their criminal probe. CSB wrote in a congressional letter that its staff was unable to independently collect physical evidence or conduct testing—escalating a jurisdictional battle that resonated back in Washington.
... Officials for the State Fire Marshal’s Office and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives denied this week that they froze out CSB, saying they “attempted to fully cooperate.”
A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity shows that the chemical industry is dramatically underreporting accidents. From the Center for Public Integrity and NPR:
[A June 2012 petrochemical leak at an Exxon complex] in Baton Rouge is one thread of a larger story about the often toxic, sometimes hidden releases emanating from oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities along the chemical corridor of Louisiana and Texas. Those unplanned emissions—known in regulatory parlance as “upsets”—are occurring more often than industry admits or government knows, according to more than 50 interviews with regulators, activists, plant representatives, workers and residents, and an analysis of tens of thousands of records by the Center for Public Integrity.
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After three years without a contract, and on one of the busiest weekends of the season, hundreds of concessions workers at the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark staged a one-day strike. As baseball fans arrived on Saturday afternoon to watch the Giants take on the Colorado Rockies, strikers asked them not to buy food and drink inside the stadium.
Normally Patricia Ramirez would have been inside the ballpark cooking for fans, but on Saturday, she was outside handing them flyers and urging, “No hot dogs, no garlic fries, please don’t buy the food.” By first pitch at 1pm, her voice was getting hoarse.
“I’ve been chanting quite a bit,” she explained. “I think before evening time, I might not have a voice.” It is the first time the 65-year-old Ramirez has taken part in a strike, and she said she was “pumped up” by support from the fans.
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Thirteen years after Japan-based automaker Nissan chose the small, impoverished community of Canton, Miss., as the site of a new auto-assembly plant, a just-released study shows that the company is failing to deliver on its promise of high-wage job creation in Mississippi—while at the same time draining the state of revenue used to pay for a massive package of subsidies.
According to a study released on Friday by the Washington, D.C.-based research group Good Jobs First, the citizens of Mississippi—which ranks dead last among U.S. states in median household income—are bestowing an estimated $1.33 billion in subsidies on Nissan over a 30-year period for the privilege of hosting the factory.
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Baseball may be America’s pastime, but concessions workers in the San Francisco Giants' ballpark say it’s past time for a new contract. After negotiations last week, officials with Unite Here Local 2, which represents the workers, said little progress was being made on the bigger “sticking points” and that no new negotiations are scheduled. Workers at AT&T Park have already voted to strike for up to five game days if Centerplate, the company that operates the concession stands at AT&T Park, can’t agree to a contract with their union.
“This is a clear message that we’re sending to Centerplate and the Giants,” says Billie Feliciano, a long-time worker at the park. “We’re serious."
The Giants have home games scheduled on May 24, May 25, May 26, May 29 and May 30.
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At times, the meeting of the Board of Education of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on Wednesday took on the air of a mass mock trial; at others, it seemed like a public execution. On the dock were 53 elementary schools and one high school charged with underutilization of space and underperformance. The prosecutor—CPS superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett—charged that those crimes led to an even more grave offense: unbalancing the budget. The proposed punishment? Off with their heads, or rather, shut their doors and merge them with other schools in the largest single closing of urban public schools in U.S. history.
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“I work at Quick Pita in the food court of the Ronald Reagan Building. I work nearly 12 hours every day serving lunch to the thousands of people who work in the building. But I am not here to tell you how hard I work. I am here to tell you that my employer does not follow the law,” testified Antonio Vanegas before a hearing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus yesterday.
Vanegas is one of 100,000 low-wage workers in the Washington, DC area, according to Good Jobs Nation, many of whom are employed by federal contractors or in federally owned buildings like Union Station, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the Ronald Reagan Building. He and about 100 of his colleagues went on a one-day strike yesterday in order to draw attention to their low pay. Despite provisions in the federal Service Contract Act stating that federal contract workers like Antonio Vanegas should make at least the local prevailing wage, up until a few weeks ago Vanegas was making $6.50 an hour–less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and well below the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25. Additionally, Vanegas works 60 hours a week, but claims he receives no overtime pay for hours he works past 40, in violation of the Federal Labor Standards Act.
“There are many workers in the food court who are like me, who don’t make enough to pay the rent, put food on our tables and take care of our families,” said Vanegas in his testimony. “That’s why I’m here and why so many workers like me are on strike today. We want the federal government to be a good landlord and rent prime retail space to employers who follow the law. We want the government to lead by example and guarantee that all workers who do work on behalf of the federal government earn a legal and living wage.”