We Are Not the Same People Any More: After One Year of Occupy Wall Street, Chicago Teachers Give Lessons in Justice and Unions are Born in New York

The Chicago teachers have returned to work with renewed confidence in their fight against Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to force restructuring on the Chicago Public Schools. They have achieved significant concessions from management, and have done so against the full weight of ideological marginalization by the media, who blamed teachers for the stand-off that left 350,000 students out of school.

The struggle is by no means over. The big elephant in the room, as teachers’ leader Karen Lewis said, is the school board’s strategy of closing 200 public schools while planning to open 60 new charter schools in the next few years.

The decision to strike was an expression of teachers’ anger at the board’s arrogant top-down management tactics, and the delay in returning to work after the agreement was negotiated indicates teachers’ fear of school closures and their distrust of the board.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported: “At Bond Elementary, which is on academic probation, teachers on the picket line Monday wanted more time to think about what they should recommend to delegate Jacqueline Ward. … Teachers wanted to know more about what job protections union leaders had secured for laid-off teachers, and how the new teacher evaluation system would work … ‘If evaluations determine your livelihood, that’s important,’ Ward said. ‘Just treat it fairly. How are we going to ensure this is the way it’s going to be? [Teachers] have zero trust in [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education’.”

Significantly, the threat of unemployment, which has been used by neoliberals to discipline and intimidate the workforce, is now contributing to a determination to safeguard jobs against layoffs and to a spirit of solidarity in teachers’ fight for  better classroom conditions.

The course of the strike is very instructive. First of all, it was a grassroots struggle against school closures that elected its own leadership as head of the union. Teachers felt themselves to be and were an integral part of the communities they taught in, so they began by building support from the general public. They tapped into communities already engaged in struggles on evictions and labor abuses, so the strike is part of that same struggle.

Low-paid warehouse workers at Wal-Mart’s largest distribution center in Chicago went on strike at the same time as the teachers to protest illegal retaliation and other labor abuses, just days after workers at the California warehouse that supplies Wal-Mart stores walked off the job to protest illegal retaliation and poor working conditions.

In a discussion about the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, journalist Laura Gottesdiener told Democracy Now: “We’re seeing that [direct action] especially in Chicago and especially because of the teachers’ strike in Chicago. I think that’s one of these hotbeds of direct action. We’re seeing incredible work by the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and other sorts of homeless communities saying, We don’t recognize the bank’s ownership of these abandoned—or these vacant houses. … So they’re actually going in, rehabbing these houses that are destroying their neighborhoods and taking them over.”

In the same discussion, Amy Goodman outlined a case study of how the Occupy movement has spread into communities and taken root. “For the past two years, residents of the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn have refused to pay rent on their apartments in three buildings where the same landlord has refused to ensure safe living conditions. …This summer, members of Occupy Sunset Park got word of the rent strike when they saw banners that residents hung on the outside of their buildings. They contacted the residents, have since tried to assist them as they resolve many of the concerns themselves. Now there’s even talk of the tenants taking ownership of their buildings by forming a tenants’ associations or an affordable housing corporation.”

Dennis Flores, an activist with Occupy Sunset Park, explained how after the start of Occupy Wall Street a small group got together and decided that this movement had to be brought into their community. “Our issues that we’ve been dealing with, whether it’s gentrification, low-income housing, police brutality, stop and frisk, we needed that to be part of this conversation of the Occupy movement.” They met up with tenant association organizer Sara Lopez, who said: “When Occupy Sunset Park knocked on our building, because we knocked on so many elected people to help us, and we didn’t get the help, what we expect from them—when they knocked on our door to answer what we need, they really helped us. … I feel more stronger, because I know I have them to push us, to help us to do a lot of things. So this Occupy, I’m glad they’re still around.”

Those who have written off the movement have confused the political form of the movement with the social basis of its support in opposition to debt, low wages and homelessness. That form, the tactic of occupation, was systematically destroyed by the Obama administration to prevent a catalyst for protest from growing. There is still much sympathy with the movement – whose members are mostly young and educated – among the general population.

But there is also a clear groundswell of resistance to exploitation among low-paid workers in America – the neoliberal project of reducing wages and living standards is now encountering a limit to how far it can squeeze labor-power out of workers before they rebel.

For example, in New York City, for the first time ever, workers at a car wash have voted to join a union. There are nearly 200 car washes in the city employing at least 1,600 workers to clean up thousands of cars and taxis by hand. According to the New York Times, “many of the workers are illegal immigrants hesitant or unwilling to join a public campaign, for fear that it might cost them their jobs or somehow expose them to a greater possibility of deportation.” But they were no longer willing to being paid less than minimum wage with no overtime payments.

Their victory was achieved with the help of advocacy groups Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change. In a similar way, deli workers at the Hot & Crusty bagel café on Manhattan’s Upper East Side won official recognition for a brand-new, independent union. In These Times reported: “This virtually unprecedented victory in a hard-to-organize sector was accomplished in just a few months, on a shoestring budget. Along with leadership training from the innovative non-profit Laundry Workers’ Center, the campaign received crucial support from the Immigrant Worker Justice working group (IWJ) of Occupy Wall Street.”

After a series of actions targeting owner Mark Samson’s private equity firm, he has since sold the store to investors prepared to recognize the union. Jacobin magazine tells more of the role Occupy was able to play: “A campaign to organize immigrant restaurant workers – some of whom are undocumented – might have had a profoundly different outcome without the Occupy movement. … Fed up with long hours, abuse and sub-minimum wages, some of the workers eventually ended up at Zucotti Park after starting a free eight week organizing crash course at the Laundry Workers Center (another grassroots institution about to celebrate its first birthday). Some of the employees then joined the Immigrant Worker Justice Working Group, an OWS committee formed to address the lack of immigrant voices in Occupy. Through that milieu, the workers complemented their grassroots campaign by plugging in to New York’s mushrooming activist network.”

The arrests of protesters and photojournalists on Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary on September 17 signify only the state’s sensitivity to the symbolic power of its actions targeting the banks. Despite the dismantling of the highly-visible occupations, the movement has become a catalyst for alliances between labor, political and community organizations around concrete, local issues.

For workers like Mahoma López , a Hot & Crusty deli worker, Occupy Wall Street has become a social network that has helped transform his political consciousness. “We’re not the same people we used to be,” he says of himself and his co-workers. “Our eyes aren’t closed anymore.”


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Filed under austerity measures, chicago teachers, Neoliberalism, new york stock exchange, occupy wall street, political analysis, public higher education, We are the 99 percent

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