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Fire in the Belly: The Hunger Strike in Chicago’s Bronzeville Revitalizes Struggle for Social and Economic Justice


Despite a last-minute decision by the Emanuel administration in Chicago to reopen a neighborhood high school as a privately run arts-themed school, a community based group of public school parents, grandmothers and education activists are continuing a hunger strike to have it reopen as a public global leadership and green technology school.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett have been fighting for five years to keep the Dyett High School open and for a comprehensive plan for education in the historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. However, the group was rebuffed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials who closed the school last year, intending to close it permanently as a public school. The group began their hunger strike when the CPS asked for privatization proposals without considering the community’s plan, then changed the date of a hearing in order to exclude local activists.

School closings rubberstamped by the CPS board, whose members are not elected but appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel, have disproportionately affected African American and Latino American neighborhoods. In Bronzeville alone, 19 public schools were closed between 2001 and 2012, often replaced by charter and selective-enrollment schools that admit students from anywhere in the city, further displacing neighborhood students.

According to Jitu Brown, one of the coalition’s leaders, after extensive community consultation the group is calling for the high school to become “the hub for what we call a sustainable community school village. And that means we want feeder schools vertically aligned with Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We want the curriculum to be vertically aligned. We want parents and Local School Council members to train together. We want to create a network of schools, so that we have not only relevance and we have rigor, but we have relationships. This is a visionary plan. The president of the American Educational Research Association, Jeannie Oakes, said it was a wonderful plan. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said it was the best academic plan she’s seen in 30 years of teaching.”

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, “By directing CPS to announce a plan for Dyett on Thursday, Emanuel tried to alter the narrative of what’s been a weeks-long pressure point … the proposal allows Emanuel to point to a specific solution in the face of what had become a relentless stream of criticism from protesters. … Twice this week, the activists disrupted Emanuel at public budget hearings, on Wednesday forcing the mayor to leave the stage and end a session prematurely. On Thursday, the organizers staged yet another City Hall sit-in that led to 16 people being ticketed for blocking elevators.”

The campaigners immediately rejected the CPS compromise, which hands the school over to a private operator. However, African American politicians sided with the administration in attempting to defuse the community’s struggle, showing their support for the mayor at a press conference on Thursday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Congressman Bobby Rush said: “ ‘Eighty percent of that — which I am aware of — they were seeking, they have won’ … Pointing to his own history of activism, Rush said activists sometimes are blinded by their enthusiasm, and ‘we don’t really realize when we have won’.” Bronzeville alderman William Burns, who has routinely rubber-stamped Emanuel’s privatization schemes and school closings, called the compromise “a great day for Bronzeville,” as did state representative Christian Mitchell, who voted for the mayor’s plan to cut state workers’ pensions.

Jitu Brown responded: “Just because it’s a neighborhood school doesn’t mean a lot of people who were on that stage won’t get rich off our children. Why should black people always have to accept less? When do the voices of the people directly impacted matter?”

He told Democracy Now: “At the press conference yesterday with the mayor, there were people—they locked out the people who fought, so they negotiated the deal with them. And there were these African-American individuals, posing as leaders, who stood there and said that they will work on Dyett High School. Now, one of the people was also one of the ministers who led paid protesters into the Dyett hearings in 2012 to close the school, where he went in front of the liquor store and the halfway house and got those of us that were most vulnerable, gave them $25 apiece and told them to—and they held up prefabricated signs saying, ‘You can’t support failure. Close Dyett High School’.”

As Cornel West has pointed out, these leaders are trading on the achievements of the Civil Rights movement that today has been incorporated into the corporately-dominated political system. Their ethnicity enables them to play a particular role in assuaging liberal-political groups and the black working class, while at the same time segregation and racism is reproduced by state policy, economic disintegration, ignorance and disparity of wealth.

In Chicago, African American legislators have been coopted into the Democratic patronage monolith headed by Emanuel. However, following the successful teachers’ strike, new leaderships are emerging from the grassroots to challenge his dominance. Latino Americans, traditionally politically conservative and, according to Latino studies professor Jaime Dominguez, in Chicago more focused on delivering services than political organizing, are being drawn into the same struggle for quality public education and to stop the school board’s push for privatized charter schools. Latino Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Chicago, and many voted for progressive Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s in this year’s mayoral contest, forcing an unprecedented run-off election with Emanuel.

Although the complex intersections between race and class make appeals for working class unity in America problematic, there is a convergence between community struggles on housing and school closures, the struggle for immigrant rights, against police violence, and for the $15 minimum wage. This is contributing to a growing opposition to the corporatist Wall Street wing in the Democratic party establishment – like former Obama chief of staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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Filed under African Americans, charter schools, chicago schools, chicago teachers, latino americans, privatization

Harris vs. Quinn: a Line in the Sand Against the Rights of American Workers


The majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a series of reactionary decisions, theoretically narrowly-demarcated but in fact capable of being extended broadly. In each case the justices had to bend the law to the extent of legislating from the bench. As well as their highly-publicized verdicts restricting access to contraception for women, their ruling in Harris vs. Quinn hammered another nail into the legal status of unions, laying the ground for further attacks on collective bargaining.

The decision undermines the way unions are financed from “fair share” provisions that mandate contributions from non-union members covered by collective bargaining agreements. According to the Guardian, the majority ruled that only “fully fledged” state employees should pay these fees. “The ruling split off a whole class of workers – in this case homecare aides who are paid by the state but, in the court’s view, still essentially employed by the individuals they care for – and ordered that in these cases, compulsory union dues were a violation of free speech rights.”

The justices thus created a whole new category of “partial public employee,” who in their view were not represented by a union in collective bargaining nor deserving of workplace protections. Justice Alito, who gave the decision, reportedly wanted to go further and eliminate the requirement that all government workers contribute to the cost of collective bargaining; the scathing language he used indicates support for future legal challenges to the rule.

In These Times correspondent Moshe Marvit explains that the suit was originally restricted to whether unionized home healthcare workers could be subject to the “fair share” contribution. “However, once the case arrived at the Supreme Court in 2013, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation raised the stakes and argued that anything short of a right-to-work model—under which any employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement could forego paying any dues—for all public employees violated the First Amendment.  In the Court’s decision, a five-Justice majority held that fair share provisions for home healthcare workers were unconstitutional, and indicated repeatedly that the 1977 case that allows such provisions for all public sector employees is on shaky ground.”

The Legal Defense Foundation is funded by the National Right to Work Committee, formed in 1955 by Southern businessmen connected to the John Birch Society with the express purpose of undermining unions and applying to all public sector workers the so-called “right to work” laws that bar workers from obligating co-workers to join a union or pay dues, even in workplaces where a large majority vote to form a union. The Committee’s aim of de-funding unions to limit their strength has lately been coopted and financed by extremist billionaires (including the ubiquitous Kochs) and now been given the imprimatur of the Supreme Court majority.

However, this strategy of the one per cent is likely to blow back in their faces. Union bureaucracies have functioned historically as a way of controlling and diminishing labor unrest, and while the administration of unions will be hard hit by the elimination of part of their finances, the grassroots resistance to the plutocracy is growing irrespective of unions’ legal status. Workers and community activists are finding creative ways to organize despite legal restrictions, with groups like OUR Walmart and the campaign for a living minimum wage uniting activists with the low-paid to challenge the status quo.

Public sector workers already face legal constraints on union activity, such as laws making it illegal to strike. For example, New York City transit workers who struck in 2005 were fined a day’s pay for each day of the strike and their union fined $2.5 million. The leadership capitulated, but the members reorganized, elected a new leadership, rebuilt their strength and campaigned in the community they served for support, especially after they got the city moving again after Hurricane Sandy. They were able to generate enough political pressure on the state governor to gain a more favorable contract than other state unions were able to achieve.

Legal attacks are forcing a turn to a new pattern of trade unionism that turns outwards to connect with the community, like the Chicago Teachers Union, rather than the sectional pattern of industry-specific organizing that dominated the years after World War II.

In a parallel development, the two-party political system is being subverted by the successes of the Working Families party, the election of self-proclaimed socialists in Seattle, and moves by African Americans in the South to mobilize independently of the national Democratic party leadership. In Mississippi, African-Americans intervened in the Republican primaries to prevent an overtly racist and segregationist tea-partier from becoming their representative.

Political science professor Daniel Franklin comments: “The narrow re-nomination victory of six-term Republican Senator Thad Cochran in the Mississippi primary run-off may well mark a watershed moment in politics in the South. In his desperation to overtake Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel, who beat him in the first round of the primary, Cochran hit upon a novel idea: to invite the black community into the final stage of the Republican Party nomination battle. … Mississippi’s black leaders recognized and took advantage of this historic opportunity, by urging their compatriots to vote in the GOP contest to gain a measure of meaningful clout in Mississippi politics.” While turnout increased everywhere in the primary, it jumped highest in Cochran’s strongest counties, which have the highest concentration of African Americans in the state.

Whatever Cochran’s character, the assertion of political clout by African Americans in America’s most racist state is significant. But it upset the national Democratic party leadership, who had been hoping for an extreme Republican candidate in order to potentially elect a Democrat as senator (albeit one with politics marginally less racist than Cochran’s). Their outlook was reflected in Donna Ladd’s Guardian comment: “the GOP cannot suddenly welcome a bunch of black Democrats to their tent. They voted almost exclusively for the federal money Cochran brings home – not for the party that abandoned African Americans back in the 1960s.” Franklin points out an alternative perspective: “At the very least, Cochran will now have to be cognizant of who kept him in office – and if he keeps the pivotal support of African American constituents in mind, he may well moderate his politics to inoculate himself against pressure from the far right.”

African Americans’ insistence on basic rights in Mississippi is also reflected in the state NAACP’s launch of four new efforts: a ballot initiative to better fund public education, a push for voter rights, funding community health centers, and defending workers’ rights. It organized a march on Nissan’s auto plant in Jackson, where nearly 75 percent of the workforce is black, during celebrations commemorating the passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago. Nissan has resisted the efforts of the UAW to organize the plant in the right-to-work state, where full-time workers get $24 an hour, but over a thousand temporary contract workers are employed at just $12 an hour.

Student activists joined actor Danny Glover and Nissan workers to demand Nissan allow a fair union election and respect the civil and labor rights of workers by stopping anti-union intimidation and threats of workers who want to form a union. Activist Monica Atkins said: “Our rally showed that as long as Nissan workers can’t exercise their fundamental labor right to form a union, which is a civil right, then the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago will continue. And young people, again, will lead the way in that fight.”

The Supreme Court’s majority ruling in Harris is the latest line in the sand in that fight, but American men and women will not accept a loss of natural and civil rights by legislative fiat. In Seattle, in Chicago, and especially in the South, new social coalitions are forming that will revitalize American democracy beyond political ideology and defend Americans’ rights to organize and fight.

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Teachers Prepare to Fight for Public Schools and Students Against Plutocratic De-funders


A Los Angeles judge has declared California’s teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional because, he alleged, they harm low-income students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom. In the case of Vergara vs. California, purportedly brought by a group of minority students but in fact initiated by a billionaire-funded organization called “Students First,” Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”

It was a well-aimed blow against teachers’ unions, and in his summation the judge made it clear he was perfectly aware of its political implications. Within an hour of the verdict, Michelle Rhee, head of the StudentsFirst lobbying group, had announced a new website to put pressure on lawmakers in other states to abolish or weaken tenure and other teacher job protections.

Education is a multi-billion dollar public enterprise, and the plutocracy are anxious to privatize it by creating charter schools that will siphon off more affluent students, leaving low-income students to rot in defunded school systems, and to monetize the testing process. The rich intend to run education more “efficiently” by applying corporate methods of social control, such as the “value-added” metric, to teachers; tenure – which means teachers cannot be fired without due process – and union strength are primary obstacles to their strategy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Treu’s ruling consistently echoed the arguments of the corporate legal team hired to bring the suit, crucially accepting that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, despite testimony that empirical research shows little correlation between teachers’ effectiveness in class and students’ scores.

Even opponents of tenure found the judge’s opinion to be flawed. Law professor Orin Kerr commented in the Washington Post that it “would seem to require evidence of a causal connection between the laws challenged and the quality of teachers. But we don’t hear about that evidence. Instead, the judge notes that there are a lot of bad teachers in California. He then says that ‘on the evidence presented at trial’ the laws led to the bad teachers and therefore trigger strict scrutiny. But the judge doesn’t say what that evidence is. … I would think that a constitutional challenge here requires evidence, not ideology.”

Although he had scant evidence to support his opinion, the judge threw his legal authority behind the corporate narrative blaming teachers for failing schools, conspicuously comparing his ruling to the seminal desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Politico noted: “In adopting the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement, Treu gave a major boost to school reformers from both parties who have long argued that the current system dooms poor and minority students to inferior educations.”

There is an ideological campaign going on here to cloak attacks on public sector unions in the language of liberalism, appropriating terms like “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” to convince the public that the interests of teachers and students are opposed. Educator Adam Bessie points out: “In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure. …

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, ‘activist judge’ – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that ‘bad teachers’ are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.”

The significance of Vergara is that Silicon Valley billionaires have now successfully used litigation to push through political changes they could not achieve through the democratic process. Cal Poly history professor Ralph Shaffer explains that it is the culmination of a sustained campaign against California’s teacher tenure law. He writes: “In 2005 the anti-public education forces unsuccessfully attacked tenure with Proposition 74 under the slogan ‘Put the Kids First.’ This year the lawsuit masqueraded under the banner ‘Students Matter.’ If students really matter, the ‘reformers’ would attack genuine problems. But their real goal is to purge teachers whom they consider a threat to their reactionary view of American education. Prop. 74 was defeated by a sizable margin in 2005. This time the so-called reformers have achieved an even greater goal, wiping out entirely the tenure law. They didn’t have to face the possibility of voter rejection, they won their victory by the decision of a single judge.”

In 2008 the $16 billion budget shortfall California experienced as a result of the banking crisis led to thousands of teachers being laid off, many of them in low-income school districts. But plutocrats who want to reform education do not propose getting more resources into the schools. As teacher David Cohen notes, despite the huge sums spent on legal action, “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor.”

The founder of “Students Matter” is David F. Welch, who in 2013 made $2.39 million in the fiber optics communications industry and lives in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive areas. But he is not the only billionaire to take an interest in the California education system. A heterogeneous group of rich individuals – including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio, and the widow of Steve Jobs – broke all records for spending by outside groups last year in the Los Angeles Board of Education elections.

The LA Times reported that “this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.”

Teacher’s resistance to these corporate strategies is growing in school districts across America: in Portland, Oregon, teachers came within days of a strike before reaching an agreement that includes the hiring of 150 new teachers and cutting back the extent that teacher evaluations depend on test scores; in Chicago teachers in some schools refused to administrate the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, preferring to teach instead; and in Massachusetts teachers elected a new union president pledged to roll back high-stakes testing, field testing, and teacher evaluations.

In California, teachers are preparing for a struggle modeled after the successful Chicago Teachers Union’s campaign for community support. Adam Bessie reaches this conclusion: “The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.”

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Not In My House: Americans Put the Brakes on the Corporate Politics of The Military-Industrial Complex.


Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday attempted to justify plans for a missile strike on Syria, while at the same time accepting the face-saving compromise brokered by Russia. The contradictory message was intended to counter public opposition to military involvement in order to shore up his executive role.

The real story is that he has become increasingly estranged from the American public, and confronts an overwhelming sentiment not to get entangled in another Middle Eastern quagmire on the basis of hyped-up “intelligence.” He has no international support, and Congress, reflecting US opinion, would likely have voted against authorization for military action. A reassertion of popular sovereignty is coming into conflict with the expansion of executive power.

The public opposition to war emerged from a growing disenchantment with the administration’s record in dealing with domestic problems. Unemployment and poverty are on the rise, and even Americans with jobs are dealing with rising prices, stagnant wages, and intensified workloads. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are associated in the public mind with the financial collapse of 2008 and reduced living standards.

Obama constructed a narrative where the US is “the anchor of global security.” This formulation is aimed at persuading people to back him by projecting the ideal of stability at home, secured by the state, onto the executive’s international role. He framed a military strike with the imagery of “men, women, children, lying in rows killed by poison gas.” The US, he said, had an exceptional role and a moral duty to intervene. However, intervening would be limited and risk-free, involving “no American boots on the ground,” and thus entailed no permanent commitment. His appeal was met by scepticism from a public burned by the broken promises of hope.

The fact that he went to Congress for authorization and had to argue for executive support in this contradictory way signals the difference between the present historical moment and 2003, when Bush was able to count on the legislature to give him a free hand and the public to be saturated with media propaganda for war.

A New York Times poll “underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home. … Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.”

It’s hard therefore to accept veteran journalist John Pilger’s view that “a military coup has taken place in Washington.”  He writes: “As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration.”  What this argument fails to consider is that people still have a strong sense of their rights as Americans; military ascendancy cannot be achieved without coming into conflict with popular sovereignty.

This is the fault line in US politics today. While the government has protected billionaire bankers and is close to low-wage corporations like Walmart, low-waged workers are campaigning for a $15 minimum wage – which would require statutory action at the state level. Fast-food workers walked off the job in nearly 60 cities last month, spreading industrial action to towns like Tampa and Raleigh in the south, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west. “I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” said Julio Wilson, as he picketed a Little Caesars restaurant in North Carolina.

Unions in the AFL-CIO are having to adapt to a changed work environment, organizing in collaboration with immigrant rights activists and turning to community-based rather than industry-based organizing. Last week the federation decided to launch a major campaign to organize immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been recruited by unions.

In These Times writer Micah Uetricht commented that the fast-food workers’ strikes “seem to have legitimated walking off the job as a tactic for workers, even those without a union … And as anyone who attends these strikes and speaks with a striker can attest, the Fight for 15 campaign has tapped into a seething anger among low-wage workers over their precarious position in American society.”

Labor journalist Mike Elk noticed the same thing: the campaign “helped focus the conversation on the problems of the low minimum wage in this country and the conditions for low-wage workers. And two, this idea of non-union workers going out on strike in order to demand fair organizing conditions, organizing without fear of retaliation, I do think could spread to other industries and help unions in tough situations.”

It has also begun to affect politics at the local level. Voters in Long Beach, California, overwhelmingly enacted a measure to increase the hourly pay of the city’s hotel employees to $13. And in New York City, the difficulties of living on a low income and facing daily police harassment are finding a political expression as Bill de Blasio won a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for mayoral candidate. Democracy Now anchor Juan Gonzalez reported that de Blasio “really ran a very progressive race, focusing in on income inequality in New York City, the 47 percent of New Yorkers are at or near the poverty level, and talking about the need to rein in the—all the tax breaks to developers and the business community, and increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for better public education and expanded preschool. … his campaign really resonated with the reality that many New Yorkers are facing …”

At the same time, the government-encouraged corporatization of K-12 education is meeting resistance from teachers, and this in turn is reaching into Democratic party politics. After the Chicago Teachers Union failed to prevent school closures in the city, its president Karen Lewis declared: “If the mayor and his hand-picked corporate school board will not listen to us, we must find those who will.” In These Times reports that the CTU is working to intervene in the Democratic primaries next year to replace state legislators who voted for the closures and to stand their own candidates. Lewis told volunteers, “We must change the political landscape in Chicago.”

The executive is steadily losing its credibility with the American people as they rediscover their agency and become independent of the institutions that kept them tied to the corporate system of pumping out rents from their wages. Americans are saying “Enough” to the era of corporatist politics – Obama ran as a restorer of popular sovereignty, and the people want to ensure he keeps his word.

 

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Power to the People or Power to Our Masters? King’s Legacy and Obama’s Presidency


We seem to be living in a bizarro alternate universe where Republican politicians are against another imperial military adventure in the Middle East and Nancy Pelosi is all for it. Donald Rumsfeld – who ten years ago wanted to invade the whole of the region, one country after another – now vocally opposes a strike on Syria.

Obama will seek approval from Congress after losing British support and coming under pressure from the Senate and the House, but his success is by no means certain. Like Cameron’s failure to get backing from British MPs, this signals the undermining of executive power as a consequence of its over-reach over the last ten years. Juan Cole points out that the legacy of the false justification for the Iraq war hung over the British parliament; in Washington, the legacy includes an ongoing military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and the further revelations of NSA spying.

Obama is prepared to use executive power to launch wars on the other side of the world, but he shows no sign of using it to further the fight against social inequality in the US. This dissonance made Wednesday’s commemoration of the March on Washington an embarrassing travesty: while Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to achieve social change, the president who was elected on the back of the achievements of the civil rights movement channeled the outlook of the military-cyber-industrial complex.

Dana Milbank noted the corporate atmosphere of the event: “The original march was a challenge to the established order. The sequel was a rally of the powerful, including three presidents. There were special entrances for ‘ticketed guests.’ There was a $132-per-person ‘I Have a Dream’ brunch at the Willard Hotel (with ‘commemorative Martin Luther King keepsake’).”

Obama berated the desire for government support as “denying agency in our own liberation,” but told ordinary citizens that just by being good citizens (or businessmen paying a fair wage) they were changing the world for the better. He praised the original marchers in terms of dutiful citizenship but minimized the legacy of civil disobedience. “Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship – you are marching,” he declaimed.

In contrast to King, who sought to inspire his supporters to empower themselves through political struggle, Obama recast protest as obeying the law rather than questioning the basis of its fairness. By divorcing social issues from government he urged citizens to leave politics to the political elite – a “trust us” message that buttresses the role of centralized executive power and furthers the agenda for a security state.

The genius of Martin Luther King lay in his ability to connect all the strands of the movement for social justice and simultaneously inspire and give it direction. He had realized how the struggle for civil rights could be translated into a mass political movement that put pressure on the Kennedy administration. The confrontations he led in Alabama were aimed at impacting the political consciousness of the nation.

The 1963 March on Washington is remembered today as a march over civil rights, but it was originally planned by union activists to protest growing unemployment and discrimination against African-Americans in northern cities. It was only after Bull Connor used attack dogs and high-pressure hoses against children in Birmingham that civil rights got national attention and rose to the top of the agenda.

According to historian Taylor Branch,  “[King] took a stupefying risk in Birmingham to allow not only high school students, but elementary school students, to take the place of a dwindling number of adult volunteers who were discouraged. And instead of 10 or 15, which is what the daily quota had finally dwindled down to be, they had over a thousand students march, downtown Birmingham, and were met with dogs and fire hoses on May 2nd and May 3rd. It was a stupefying gamble in his career … before that breakthrough, the sides were in gridlock over segregation in America. … After Birmingham, everybody was raising questions.”

King’s leading role in transforming the political discourse is made clear in a phone call that was recorded by the FBI, cited in a New York Times book review. “ ‘We are on the threshold of a significant breakthrough, and the greatest weapon is the mass demonstration,’ King told his close friend Levison… Because of Birmingham, King went on, ‘we are at the point where we can mobilize all of this righteous indignation into a powerful mass movement,’ and even the mere threat of a march on Washington might so ‘frighten’ President Kennedy that he would send a meaningful civil rights bill to Congress.”

King’s articulation of his dream – that all men are created equal – was a triumph of imagination, an ideal that succeeded in strengthening and encouraging civil rights campaigners who daily confronted jail or death, making it a moral imperative by couching it in the language of the Declaration of Independence and of the Gospels. This language spanned the racial divide to inspire whites as well as blacks and isolate segregationists.

His speech was addressed directly to those who had come “fresh from narrow jail cells,” the “veterans of creative suffering.” He told them to “continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

The substance of King’s rhetoric, and what still resonates today, is the ideal of justice that mobilized the tremendous sacrifices involved in carrying out this campaign of civil disobedience in the most difficult conditions in 1963. The substance of Obama’s rhetoric, on the other hand, is support for the status quo. He seeks to undermine popular sovereignty by telling citizens to go about their business without protesting the authority of the executive to authorize NSA surveillance, the jailing of whistleblowers, and force-feeding foreign nationals imprisoned in Guantanamo.

King’s dream persists not because of the grandiose ceremonies last week, but because of the struggles of ordinary workers throughout the country for a living wage, and the struggle of Chicago teachers to defend the right to education. It lives in the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, and the growing popular resistance to the security state and military intervention in Syria. The ideal of justice is alive in the people, and that is why freedom will ring.

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Waking Up and Smelling the Coffee: Americans Organize Collectively to Defend Themselves against the Plutocratic 1%


While pundits may debate Obama’s lackluster performance and Romney’s zingers, when it comes down to it, the presidential debate will not change people’s minds. What will decide the election will be demographics:  Latino voters have increased their support for Obama to 70%. Women perceive Romney as dismissive of their issues. And a Reuters poll finds Obama to be better representative of America by 48 to 39 percent – despite the billions spent by Republicans trying to portray him as alien.

Focus groups found that blue-collar voters lowered their opinion of Romney in response to quotes from his campaign, but were more forgiving of quotes from Obama; many suggested that Obama needed more time to fix the economy given the extent of the 2008 collapse.  “And while Obama didn’t seem to get too much credit from any group for his individual jobs policies or for his health care law, voters were bullish on the auto bailout — not only in auto-heavy Ohio, but northern Virginia as well. … In another disturbing trend for Romney, women’s health issues cut against him hard among the Virginia groups, especially college educated women, for whom they generated as much attention as the economy.”

Romney’s clandestinely videoed remarks describing half the population as parasitic have had a discernible effect on the electorate, strengthening the perception of him as the candidate for the plutocracy. This attests to the persistence of the Occupy theme of the 99 percent, a form of populist class awareness. A further social change is the turn to unionization among the low-waged. The threat of unemployment has become a two-edged sword: while employers have used the fear of joblessness to drive down wages and conditions, a point has been reached where workers’ backs are against the wall and they have nothing to lose by fighting back.

In the Midwest, two important strikes are currently taking place that bear this out. Warehouse workers at a giant Walmart warehouse outside of Chicago are on strike over illegal retaliation against workers who filed a lawsuit over wage theft, supported by Warehouse Workers For Justice, an organization launched by the United Electrical Workers union to raise standards for the industry. Although Walmart owns the warehouse, which handles 70% of all the goods it imports into the U.S., it has a pyramid organization of companies that contracts and subcontracts out its labor supply, in order to avoid responsibility for workers’ welfare.

In These Times reports that the dispute began after a small group of workers walked out of the facility when management first fired, then backtracked and suspended, some key workers’ leaders, including one of the four named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Following this, another group of workers took a petition to management complaining about unsafe equipment, extreme heat, and a reduction in breaks during long shifts. Managers again fired the petitioners, then changed their minds and suspended them. The number of workers now on strike over unfair labor practices has reached 38.

Despite the high turnover rate in the warehouse, which makes it difficult to organize, a group of workers who had managed to endure the conditions for a number of months began the protest action. “What we have in common is we’re pretty marginalized and desperate,” plaintiff Philip Bailey told David Moberg of In These Times. “The prospect of working these low-paying jobs for long hours became scarier than risking losing the job to improve it. People realized we won’t get anything until we stand together.”

On Monday, several hundred supporters converged on the warehouse, effectively shutting it down. Riot police equipped with a Humvee-mounted sonic weapon were on hand to arrest 15 protesters who had nonviolently sat down outside the main gate. Support came from groups like Chicago Jobs With Justice and Chicago teachers, who have a common enemy in the privatization-crazed Walton family. Also joining the picket were workers from Sensata Technologies Inc., a company owned by Bain Capital and now in the final stages of moving its production to China.

The strike movement has now spread to Walmart stores in Los Angeles, whose “associates” staged a one-day protest on Thursday. Like the warehouse workers, the retail store employees are responding to escalating cases of retaliation by managers against workers who speak out against low pay, inadequate health insurance, short or unpredictable work weeks, understaffing, and lack of appreciation and respect.

In Detroit, as in the Chicago teachers strike, union members are striking against privatization, which they know will result in the loss of jobs and the rapid erosion of their control over conditions of work. Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant workers came out against a plan to cut 81% of their jobs under a $46 million no-bid contract signed with the EMA Group.  The suburban-dominated Detroit Water Board approved the contract in early September with the aim of replacing most of the unionized workforce. According to the union, the EMA Group was responsible for massive flooding in Toronto after revamping the city’s sewage system and laying off the majority of the workers.

Declaring they were fighting for the future of Detroit, 34 workers walked out in a wildcat action early Sunday, in order to preempt an order barring a strike. They were joined by the rest of the 450-strong workforce the following day, when, as anticipated, U.S. District Judge Sean Cox issued a no-strike order on the union. Defying the order, the strike continued, and on Tuesday water department officials suspended the original 34 strikers. At the picket line, Tanya Glover told the Detroit Free Press she was concerned about wage cuts and outsourcing: “I’m out here because I need to feed my family,” she said. “They’re telling me I don’t have a job in five years anyway. It’s either fight, or let them give my job away.”

Workers from other unions came out to support the water workers as word of the walk-out spread. “This strike is happening in the wake of the victory of the Chicago Teachers Union,” said Martha Grevatt, of UAW Local 869. “It’s another example of workers standing up, not only for their jobs, but against the banks and corporations. Whether you work for a private company or in the public sector, your bosses are part of the 1 percent.”

The union district-level Michigan AFSCME Council told union members on Tuesday to return to work and comply with the judicial order. The confusion this created meant that many of Wednesday’s afternoon shift followed this directive, after being informed that the department had promised not to discipline them. However, the leaders of the water workers’ Local 207 rejected the order, voting late on Wednesday to continue the strike until all suspended workers were given amnesty. It issued a statement that said: “The power of our strike is based on the support of Detroit’s Black community and the surrounding communities of Michigan, including unions and churches, and is being expressed more and more each day. … Unless our members are all returned to work, there is no deal, and the strike is still on.”

The strike ended Thursday in victory. Management agreed to reinstate all the fired workers and to continue discussions on union rights and job security. Michael Mulholland, Local 207 Secretary Treasurer, said, “This victory is a measure of the strength of Detroit as a whole. If Judge Cox had not feared what the public response would have been if he had taken action against our union, this victory would never have been possible.” Union attorney Shanta Driver added: “If the people of Detroit draw the correct conclusion that we have the power to control the destiny of our City and its resources even when just a few of us stand up and fight to win, this struggle will have achieved a great deal. … we are building a new movement that can change the balance of power in this city forever.”

The power of the community was also realized in the Chicago teachers’ strike, and the Occupy movement. As different groups of workers’ struggles begin to converge, this movement poses a challenge to bureaucracy within the unions. A new form of leadership is being created, close to the grassroots, which is turning outwards to unorganized low-waged workers and is building alliances within the community across ethnic and class divides – to paraphrase the leaders of Local 207, launching a new civil rights movement and era of mass struggle.

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Filed under 2012 Election, African Americans, chicago teachers, financiers, occupy wall street, police presence, political analysis, poverty, strikes

Even if Obama Wins, There’s Homework: The Teachers Remind Us That Only the Public Education of the People Can Preserve Liberty


Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asks if November’s election will decide anything? He frames his question in terms of a continued Congressional stalemate if Obama regains the presidency. However, Republican legislative obstructionism and Romney’s disastrous candidacy is losing the party support among independent voters and some sections of the corporate and financial elites. It seems that now even Wall Street bankers are abandoning Romney.

What the billionaires who support Obama share with him is a sense that change must be initiated and controlled from above, rhetorically to alleviate the plight of the working poor but without disturbing the relations of power that made them poor in the first place. As Paul Street points out: “The problem has not been that ‘the economy’ has been broken by the supposed ‘invisible hand of the market’ or other forces allegedly beyond human control. The real difficulty is that the ‘human-made’ U.S. economic system has been working precisely as designed to distribute wealth and power upward.”

If the relations of power are unchanged, does this mean that the election results are unimportant? No. An Obama electoral victory, even with no change in the House or Senate, will confirm the social fact of a multiracial America, where women have a major voice. It will also call into question the effectiveness of the Republican strategy of splitting the working class on racist grounds.  And most crucially, it will give more time for ordinary Americans to organize resistance against the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich independently of the two-party political straitjacket.

Education is one of the battlegrounds where the power of community in solidarity has reasserted the principles of popular sovereignty—government of the people by the people—and significantly checked the power and seemingly unstoppable influence of the American plutocracy.  Corporate billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Wall Street hedge fund managers have decided that schools should be remodeled on corporate lines and that teachers’ unions are obstructing their plans. Steve Jobs reportedly told Obama that the American education system was “crippled” by teachers’ unions that had to be broken.The objectives of this oligarchy are facilitated by Obama’s Race to the Top program which, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, is a top-down, technocratic solution to the problems of education, to be imposed on state education systems over the voices of the teachers and parents who deal with the problems daily.

The key elements of the program, summarized by NYU professor Diane Ravitch, were drawn from the strategy of the Chicago school board:  “Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.”

The consequences of school closings in practice were pointed out by Chicago teachers’ leader Karen Lewis. “[When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school.  They were choosing not to go to school…. [The school board] had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community.”

The seven appointed members of Chicago’s Board of Education have little knowledge of the school system.  The Occupied Chicago Tribune reported: “As anyone who has ever witnessed a board hearing knows, members like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker and former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, when they bother to show up at all, nod indifferently to public testimony, toy with their smart phones, and reliably vote in the interests of their boss. This past winter, after the board voted unanimously to close or turnaround 17 schools, frustrated parents burst into tears, and community members chanted ‘Rubber Stamp’ until CPS security escorted them out of the room.”

The board is responsible only to mayor Rahm Emanuel, not to the public. But the solidarity of Chicago teachers and their supporters in the communities succeeded in establishing limits on its plans for privatization. The strike also challenged ideological supporters of the system, who created a narrative that the conflict between teachers and the board was disrupting the welfare of the students. In the guise of impartiality, they implicitly blame teachers for putting their own interests above that of the children.

Writing in The Nation, Obama apologist Melissa Harris-Perry relates the story of Rolisa, whose younger children attend a small public school on the South Side. “Her kids are pretty happy there. Or at least they were, until the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel transformed them into students of Rolisa’s makeshift kitchen table school. …This generation of children may become hard-working, courageous adults who nonetheless are relegated to life sentences of poverty and underachievement. They are stuck because they were born in a time of war—not just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not just the heavily armed wars in their own streets, but the wars between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

Evoking the images of war, in which innocents suffer more than armies, she misreads the strike as a selfish act by teachers willing to make victims of children, when in reality it was a struggle of the whole community against high-handed school closings in working-class areas and for better conditions for pupils to learn in the classroom.

Michelle Rhee, the former head of D.C.’s schools and now advocate for charter schools through her misnamed StudentsFirst organization, adopts the same argument in order to attack teachers’ unions. The Washington Post published an opinion piece in which she writes: “Chicago’s children lost roughly  18 million collective hours of learning time; moms and dads across the city lost wages, and possibly risked jobs, so they could care for their kids; and some children went without the hot meals they reliably get at school. It was frustrating to hear Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis say toward the end of the dispute that the strike would continue to see whether there is ‘anything else they can get.’ But at least that was clear evidence that, for union leaders, this strike was never about what was best for kids….”

Rhee claims the support of corporate Democrats when she characterizes the teachers’ union as a self-serving group not interested in improving children’s education. But what was it that teachers wanted more of? A broader, well-rounded curriculum – and, above all, to be given the support they needed as professionals in the field and not be dictated to by someone in an air-conditioned office working off a spreadsheet, while their students wilted in the Chicago heat. The union mobilized teachers, custodians, parents, and pupils themselves in defense of their right to a proper education, which in fact continued an ongoing struggle by communities against school closings and so-called “turnarounds,” in which teachers and principals are completely replaced.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune reports on some of these earlier battles: two years ago parents occupied an elementary school building that officials decided would be demolished in order to build a soccer field for a neighboring private school. The sit-in lasted for more than a month before it was agreed to keep the building open as a community space. And when, this year, the school board designated Piccolo Elementary for turnaround, “parents and students decided to draw from the lessons of the Occupy movement. Surrounded by police, Occupy Chicago demonstrators complete with tents, and other allies, about a dozen parents and supporters stayed in the building overnight and won a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. But in the end, the board voted to close the school anyway.”

The relations of power are not fixed and immutable, but are fought out daily on the organizational level and the ideological. The Chicago teachers have achieved a victory that has encouraged low-waged workers throughout the city – from car wash workers who are organizing against wage abuses, to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony. The teachers’ strike gave the best lesson of all: solidarity in struggle will push back the billionaires and trillionaires who want to overturn democracy in America.

If Obama wins the election, let’s use the time gained to spread this lesson around. And there are many willing to learn.

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Filed under 2012 Election, chicago teachers, financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, strikes