Thursday, April 29, 2010

Immigrant Rights Picket at Wrigley Field: Boycott Arizona!

This article was originally posted on Gapers Block.


Wrigley picket
Immigrants Rights Activists Picket outside Wrigley Field.
Chicago is finally getting some spring weather. In Wrigleyville, thousands of fans are enjoying the weather and catching a baseball game. Jeering the other team has a long history in sports, but today over 200 supporters of immigrants rights picketed outside Wrigley Field to protest against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Arizona's anti-immigrant SB1070 law.

The law forces law enforcement in Arizona to stop "suspected illegal immigrants" and make them prove their citizenship in order to avoid arrest. Leone Jose Bicchieri, the executive director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative explained that the law would "only increase racial profiling in Arizona." Describing what the law tells police to do, "You better go out today and you better stop suspected undocumented immigrants. When you say, 'Well what does that mean?' They say 'well you know, suspected undocumentented immigrants.' That means dark people."

Immigrants and civil rights groups across the country have begun a nationwide boycott against the state of Arizona in order to pressure the state to rescind the law and to prevent other state from passing similar laws.

Wrigley picket
An immigration rights activist holds a sign that parodies the Arizona State flag.
The owners of the Diamondbacks are among the largest contributors to the Republican politicians who passed the law.

According to Biccieri, the owners "should move the Diamondbacks to a state that treats all people with dignity and respect." He encouraged people outside of Chicago to protest diamondbacks games across the country.
"We love Arizona, we just don't want them to be like the apartheid regime in South Africa."

Lest any Chicago fans worry that the protest was anti-Cubs Bicchieri told the crowd gathered, "If the Cubs ever needed to sweep a series, boy is it this one... We take pity for all the Latino players on the Diamondbacks and all the Latino players like Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano on the Cubs," who faced the possibility of being arrested in Arizona if they were pulled over and failed to provide documents such as their birth certificates and social security cards.

The protesters are also devising a strategy to stop White Sox and Cubs spring training in Arizona.

Organizers asked for supporters to attend pickets outside Wrigley Field before every Diamondbacks game this weekend. The protests will be before first pitch, Saturday 1st pitch is at 1:20 and Sunday at noon.

Wrigley picket
Her papers are the U.S. Constitution. Protester at the Arizona Diamondbacks game in Chicago.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wage Theft Crime Spree: What Will Stop It?

This article was originally posted on Gapers Block.  Factual corrections were made, in the original article, Jericho Products was named, when it should have read Duraco Products.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Victor Hernendez addresses a rally in the state capital in Springfield. Hernendez was a victim of wage theft.

You work assuming you'll be paid, but too often, workers are simply denied what they're owed. It happened to Kim Kambra who worked at Duraco Products in Springwood. "They didn't pay me. I worked over 55 hours a week and they paid me for one week out of the last 10 weeks. My house went into foreclosure and I lost the legal rights to my house even though I still live there."

Kambra was one of many Duraco employees who were not paid. Computer programmer Bill Van Dusen worked for 12 years at Duraco but for three months in 2008 and another three months in 2009, Dusen was not paid. "I had to use the money we saved for our kids' education to pay our bills."
Jericho went beyond not paying their employees. The company "stole our deductions for health insurance and child support. They collected that but didn't pay it to the proper person they needed to pay it to," according to Van Dusen.

However, Duraco's owners have been paid handsomely. Kevin Lynch, one of the owners of Duraco Products would have wild venison for his dogs and chrome parts for his car delivered to the company while three employees' homes went into foreclosure.

Duraco isn't the only company in the Chicago area cheating its employees. Victor Hernendez worked at Park Management in Chicago but is owed 21 thousand dollars from the company. He filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor in 2008, and while the IDOL has agreed with his complaint, Park Management still has not paid him.

Liz Rush, an employee at Renzenburger Warehouses, became active with the Warehouse Workers for Justice after she was forced to work overtime without being paid. "'It's your job. It's your job. You'll get written up,' [managers] say, so we do things with no pay just so we can keep our jobs."

Its not just a few corporations getting away with such behavior. Adam Kader from ARISE Chicago's Worker Center explained, "We see non-compliance [with labor law] as the standard," in low wage jobs.

The study "Unregulated Work in Chicago" produced by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, estimates that "in a given week, approximately 146,300 workers in Chicago and suburban Cook County have at least one pay-based violation. Extrapolating from this figure, front line workers in low wage industries lose more than $7.3 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violation."

"We're not just talking about the underground economy or a few rogue employers," Professor Nik Theodore, who helped write the report, said. "We're talking about some of the largest, fastest growing industries in the Chicago area. Key clusters such as retail, restaurants and grocery store. Caregivers like home healthcare workers and domestic workers. Residential construction, warehouses, segments of the manufacturing sector. Personal services like laundries and beauty salons and building services like janitors and security guards."

The study used respondent driven sampling, a survey method where workers referred other workers, allowing the study to establish trust better that other surveys. This method allowed the survey to reach low income front line workers in many different industries, an estimate 310 thousand such workers in Cook County.

Twenty-six percent of workers in the sample were paid less than the legally required minimum wage in the previous work week. Of those who worked more than 40 hours during the previous week 67 percent were not paid the legally required overtime rate.

Many workers faced meal break violations as well. Three quarters of the sample worked enough for a break but 43 percent received no break, had breaks shortened due to employer interruption, or had their break interrupted in other ways.

Of the tipped workers in the study, 15 percent were not paid the tipped worker minimum wage.

Twenty-six percent of the workers in the study made a complaint or attempted to form a union. Of those 35 percent experienced one or more forms of illegal retaliation from their employer or supervisor. Fired, suspended, threatened to call immigration, or cut hours or pay.

This crime spree in wage theft has a real impact on the economy in Illinois.

Theodore explained that it is "bad economics to think we can rebuild the economy on the back of illegal workplace practices." Citing a race to the bottom between companies that have to compete against corporations that don't pay their employees, leading to wages being depressed across whole industries.

Government Regulators have Limited Resources to Enforce Laws

The Illinois Department of Labor is one of the smaller agencies in Illinois. With only 87 employees, the IDOL must respond to 8,000 to 9,000 complaints a year regarding wages.

Bert Rodriguez, Assistant Director of the IDOL, explained that they "try to resolve the issue at our level. Trying to mediate the issue and hopefully get the worker the back wages due or address whatever workplace violation uncovered. In a lot of cases we are unsuccessful in those efforts. In a lot of cases we find uncooperative employers." The IDOL will, "partner with the office of the attorney general... once we make a determination," if the case is worth it.

The Illinois Department of Labor often does not have the resources or authority to pursue the cases it is presented with. Which is why a coalition of community groups called the Just Pay for All Campaign is pushing for a bill that would strengthen the IDOL's ability to seek lost wages and punish employers that steal wages. It would allow the IDOL to pursue cases without needing to go to the Attorney General's office, potentially resolving disputes months sooner than it currently takes.

The bill was sponsored by Illinois Senator William Delgado and passed in the Illinois Senate unanimously. Representative Elizabeth Hernendez sponsored the bill in the Illinois General Assembly.

Delgado worked with the Just Pay for All Campaign and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to draft a bill that they could agree on. Jay Shapman from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce "felt that the original bill went too far, but came up with a version that we believe will go after the most egregious offenders," Delgado says.

According to Representative Hernendez, "The majority of our business community are following the rules... unfortunately there are business people using this as a model, so it's those few we are trying to get."

Katherine Kolon, a lawyer with the Working Hands Legal Clinic, described the legislation as bringing Illinois' labor law regime into line with other labor laws on the state and federal level. The bill would not raise taxes but would allow the IDOL to fine violators more quickly, as they would not have to go to the Attorney General's office in order to seek redress. The bill will be voted on by the General Assembly in the next few weeks.

Wage theft is coming under increasing scrutiny from the federal Department of Labor. Hilda Solis, the new Secretary of Labor, calls herself "the new sheriff in town," implying a renewed effort to crack down on business that steal from their employees.

On March 31 Solis spoke at UIC to unveil the new "We Can Help" campaign aimed at raising awareness among workers about the DOL's wage and hours divisions. The campaign seeks to let documented and undocumented workers know about their rights and that they can use the DOL. Solis has big aspirations for the 2nd largest enforcement agency in the federal government, "those who break our nations labor laws and prey on vulnerable workers, it ends today."

The Department of Labor under Solis has been able to increase funding back to its 2001 levels, before the Bush administration cut funding to that department. Solis's DOL has hired 250 new wage and hour investigators but, "hopes to do more."

However even with the larger budget and increased staff, the extent of the wage theft leaves the DOL to pick and choose which cases it pursues.

According to Solis, "There is no way in the world we can go after every single complaint, we don't have enough staff to do it. But we can target certain segments of our communities where we know there are abuses going on." Solis wants the DOL to work with non-profits, labor, faith and community groups, to determine where the most egregious cases of wage theft are occurring.

According to Theodore, from 1980 to 2007 federal funding for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour division declined 31 precent as the workforce increased by 52 percent. With the current staffing levels it would take the DOL 133 years to inspect each workplace once.

Even the "We Can Help" campaign might be woefully inadequate to raise awareness about what workers can do about wage theft. Will a few videos posted online and radio spots spook employers into paying their employees and informing workers of their rights?

Leone Bicchieri, the Executive Director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative explained that it was too early to tell. Bicchieri was "hopeful, but we'll have to see" whether the program has the desired impact.

In many ways the Department of Labor is the public option for those workers who can't afford a lawyer to seek redress for wage theft.

Supporters of the Just Pay for All campaign rally in the Rotunda of the Illinois State Capital in Springfield.

What Needs to Be Done?

Kim Kambra testified to the Illinois General Assembly Labor Committee, saying, "If I steal a piece of pizza, I'm going to jail... [Duraco products] have no consequences for not paying us. They owe us over 25 thousand dollars in wages. It's unfair to all the business that have to compete with them. It's unfair to us with families that have to support them and are losing our houses. The Department of Labor right now has no power to make them pay."

It is a testament to our society that so little is done to stop the practice of wage theft. What can be done to stem the crime spree?

According to Professor Nik Theodore it is important to keep wage theft on the agenda of lawmakers and it is imperative to increase resources to the Department of Labor to handle such cases.

However, workers who have had their wages stolen frequently turn to community groups to get their just compensation. The Chicago Workers Collaborative for example often uses workplace actions, legal pressure and grassroots organizing to get workers their stolen pay back.

According to Leone Bicchieri from the Chicago Workers Collaborative, "The first line of defense is workers themselves being organized. The management of a company can literally sense in the workplace when the workers are united and it changes the dynamic of that workplace."

ARISE Chicago has been able to recover over $3,800,000 in lost wages for workers who have not been paid. The Latino Union has used direct actions at employers who don't pay their workers in order to pressure employers. According to Bicchieri, passing a law is only a step towards stopping wage theft. Community groups need to be prepared to follow up on reports of abuse, and hold employers accountable to the standards in any new law.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Michael Steele: Selling Minorities Real Estate in Lake Michigan

This article was originally posted on Gapers Block.


Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele makes Joe Biden look gaffe proof. It seems like every time you turn around on CNN, or load up Huffington Post, Steele is explaining how the Republican Party is the party of one-armed-midgets, Republicans fought to outlaw slavery in the Bill of Rights (it was actually the 13th amendment, not the first 10), and apologizing to Rush Limbaugh.

Which is why I went to the Chairman's appearance at DePaul University. I appreciate good stand up comedy.

Steele's appearance was sponsored by the campus Republicans and the DePaul Cultural Center. An odd combination considering that the Conservative Alliance had once sponsored an Affirmative Action Bake Sale targeting the cultural center and organized pickets against the speakers the Cultural Center invited such as Ward Churchill.

Steele is the first Black person to be the national chairman of the RNC and was to speak on Conservatisms appeal to minority communities. Instead he talked about its lack of an appeal.

When asked , "Why should Blacks vote Republican?" Steele responded without hesitation, "You really don't have a reason to, to be honest. We really haven't really done a good job of giving them a reason to... We have failed miserably in that regard. We have lost sight of the historic integral link between the party and African Americans."

But liberals looking to mock Steele's response should pay attention to the context of the statement. Steele explained that part of what he had been trying to do as RNC chairman was to "turn the elephant." He complained that the Republican Party had used a Southern strategy that alienated minority voters and that he hoped to "reestablish [the Republican Party's] relationship with African Americans."

Steele said that the goal of the civil rights movement has changed. "The fight to get a seat at the lunch counter is done. Your fight now is to own the diner... ownership is what will define your generation. I'm not talking about 'oh I got my own a house.' I'm talking about legacy wealth. I'm talking about stuff that the Vanderbilt's and the Rockefeller's and the Kennedy's did. That is now affordable to you... but your going to have to fight for it."

Steele described ways he had attempted to reach out to blacks by speaking at Black churches, and working with minority business groups. Steele even explained his own experience being denied an interview for a job once they realized that he was black. He encouraged Republicans to reach out to minority voters, despite the disconnect between the two. "You got a big hurdle. 1.) They don't trust you. 2.) They may not like you. 3.) You've got something to offer. 4.) Put it on the table."

Is this the strategy to win the support of minority voters? Is Steele the person to sell the Republican Party to anyone, let alone a group of people who have been alienated from the GOP?

Steele seemed to have trouble grasping what inequality in the present era means. He attempted to say that political interests lead to inequality. "You have an interest, I have an interest... it matters whose interests are bing served, how why and when." Which sort of makes sense. Certainly Wall Street CEO's have a different interest than a single mother living in Austin or Pilsen. Wall Street CEO's are also more likely to have their interest served as well. I don't think Steele meant it that way though.

Steele agreed that he measured equality in a relative sense rather than an absolute sense. "Some people are comfortable with the level of equality that they have, I've just never been one of those people. You may be..... 'I got the job, I got this, I'm good.'" I think Steele meant to say material wealth instead of equality. It would make more sense if Steele was talking about wealth, but he kept saying equality.

What was even more striking was Steele's boring policy wonk answer to a woman who asked about health care. The woman asked, "I have had 2 heart surgeries totaling 250 grand. I have lost my health insurance, and my parents had to move to smaller house. Since you opposed Obama's health care plan, what would you propose?"

Steele didn't display a single empathetic emotion. He did not tell the woman that he hoped she was well, or that he was sorry for her troubles. Instead Steele complained about lawyers who sue malpracticing hospitals and insurance companies. "I don't know how you address health care without addressing tort reform. I don't know how you address health care without addressing the underlying costs to it."

Steele may be reaching out to minorities, but the policies he proposes would negatively impact those same communities. Steele is the consummate snake oil salesman. He wants to encourage minorities becoming millionaires, but wants to cut the welfare programs that people rely on. Steele says he wants to reduce health care costs, but doesn't even lay out a plan for minorities to afford health care. Steele proposes school vouchers which would take even more resources away from the schools that need them.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Democrats Target Immigration Reform - How Far Will They Go?

This was originally posted on Gapers Block.


Immigration rally
Immigration activists wave American flags at a recent rally.

Immigration rights activists held a large rally Saturday at the Teamsters Local 705 hall in Chicago. Activists were calling on Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform, and hoped that with the health care bill passed, that immigration reform would be next on the Democrats agenda in Washington. The loud and raucous crowd had immigrants from all over the world including South America, Asian, Africa and Europe.

It seems that immigration will be the next big issue for Democrats. The rally was joined by Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate majority whip and the second most powerful senator in the country. While one speaker urged Congress to ignore "cynics like Rahm Emanual who say that now is not the time for immigration reform," it seems as though they may not have to as Emanual is now stating that he supports taking action on immigration reform sooner rather than later.

Supporters of immigrants have been upset at the slow pace that President Obama and Congress have been taking on immigration reform. Deportations continue to divide families and "many young women are forced into sexual trafficking every year because their immigration status is being used against them, many family members are forced into below minimum wage jobs because their immigration status is being used against them." According to Pat O'Connor, the President of Illinois Police Chiefs Association, which supports comprehensive reform.

durbin immigration
Senator Dick Durbin speaks at a recent immigration rally.

Durbin, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, told the crowd that it was time people told the government to "stop dividing our families." He was was optimistic that Republican support could be found for immigration reform. He pointed to Republican Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana, who was the cosponsor of the DREAM Act with Durbin. The DREAM Act would allow undocumented youth without criminal convictions access to residency and college funding.

However, Senator John Kyl of Arizona has announced that Republican senators would filibuster immigration reform if it were brought to a debate in the Senate.

Many in the crowd expressed optimism that immigration reform could be passed within the year or even before May 1st, the anniversary of the largest immigration rallies in the country's history.

I think this is unrealistic. While an immigration reform bill would be good, I don't see how Democrats will be able to pass substantial reform in a short amount of time. Republicans fought tooth and nail against even the most moderate health care reform. Democrats ended up voting on a watered down health care bill that did not even include a public option for health insurance. Democrats essentially were forced into advocating for and passing a health care bill whose guts, mandating individuals to buy insurance from private for-profit insurance companies, were originally Republican policies.

Republicans can see the writing on the wall. Immigration reform would legalize likely Democrat voters who are already here and provide an avenue for future likely Democrat voters to enter the US. If blocking health care reform was to protect corporations that donate to Republicans, then blocking immigration reform will be about protecting republicans own electoral vitality.

What immigration activists need to be asking their congressmen is how watered down is immigration reform going to become? How many compromises will be made with the Republican minority and the dissident right-wing democrats in order to hustle the votes for reform that may not actually improve the plight of immigrants in America?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Chicago Teaching Assistants Strike Averted as University Settles

This was originally posted on Labor Notes.


The Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago reached an agreement with school administrators late Monday night that union negotiators said met members' demands. Photo: Matt Muchowski.

The Graduate Employees Organization, which represents teaching assistants at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reached an agreement with school administrators late Monday night that union negotiators said met members' demands.

GEO members, Local 6297 of the Teachers (AFT), had been working without a contract since August 2009 and had been in negotiations with the university for more than a year. The major sticking point was the university’s refusal to include tuition waivers in the contract, which the union said would allow the administration to grant partial waivers and make arbitrary alterations to a key economic item for members.

The agreement, which still needs to be ratified GEO members, secured tuition waiver security, a 2 percent increase to the $14,000 minimum yearly stipend, and increased transparency in “tuition differential” charges and other fees.

The differentials create a backdoor tuition that allows departments to charge graduate students for registration, services, and office supplies. The fees vary from department to department, but GEO says some members pay as much as $11,000.

The agreement came after a 13-hour mediation session between the union’s bargaining team and the administration. Hundreds of GEO supporters rallied before negotiators entered the meeting, and continued to rally outside the meeting for most of the day.

GEO was ready to strike if the unions’ demands of tuition waiver guarantees and having a say in supplemental fees were not met. GEO members had voted in February to authorize a strike by 84 percent of the 1,400 members.

The administration may have come to the conclusion that it should cave by learning the lesson of its sister campus, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where administrators provoked a two-day strike in November, shutting down many university buildings and sending administrators scrambling to settle.

“Because of your organizing,” said GEO Organizer Jason Leto in a statement, “the bargaining team was able to walk away from the table with a contract that makes important gains, and protects the benefits we currently have.”

Participatory Budgeting in Rogers Park Unleashes the Creativity of the People

This originally appeared on Gapers Block.


democracy in real time

The residents of Chicago's 49th ward will vote on Saturday to determine what to use $3.1 million of city money on. The far north side ward was covered with fliers urging residents to vote in what is the first attempt in Chicago to use a democratic process for determining how to use infrastructure funds.

Each ward is given a budget to use for infrastructure, and the money is usually spent by the Alderman's office on permanent items such as street lights and pavement repairs. However Alderman Joe Moore in the far north side ward decided to open the process to the community and to let residents vote on proposals created in open committees.

The Mess Hall, an artist space with anarchist tendencies has a display that highlights the various proposals on the ballot. The space has had extended hours and has been packed with residents hoping to find out about the proposals.

Some of the proposals include: street lights, repaved streets, police surveillance cameras, bike lanes, historical markers, dog parks, decorative and educational bike racks and free wi-fi.

Mess Hall has notepads posted next to proposals for viewers to write their own ideas. Hundreds of ideas were written on these pads, and many ideas built off of each other. One line of thought went from creating memorials to birchwood trees that used to reside in the neighborhood, to planting actual birchwood trees, to planting "birchwoods as public monuments to tell the story of colonization."

Mathias Regan of Mess Hall said that he hoped that Roger Park's experiment with participatory budgeting would serve as a model for other wards and cities. Regan called it, "one of the most interesting and exciting projects I have seen." Regan said that "absolutely" the participatory budgeting process created more creative and people oriented ideas than a proposal made in committee secluded from an open and democratic process would have.

Mess Hall 2

The process began in January and each resident has 8 votes to split among 36 different proposals. Residents are able to vote by proof of residency, such as bills mailed to an address in the 49th ward. The money will be spent on proposals in descending order of votes received, since many of the projects cost less than the total money being allocated.

The process has been wildly popular. On the first day that Alderman Moore's office was open to early voting over 100 people voted for the budget. During the 2008 presidential election 9 people arrived to early vote on the first day.

Mess Hall will host a program at 6:30 Friday night on the history of participatory budgeting.

Mess Hall 3

Monday, April 5, 2010

Chicago Teaching Assistants on Edge of Strike: ‘No Waiver, No Labor!’

This was originally posted on Labor Notes.


Hundreds of graduate student employees rallied at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus early Monday morning. They're threatening a strike to protect tuition waivers and to put a floor underneath graduate employees’ meager earnings. Photo: Matt Muchowski.

Hundreds of graduate student employees rallied at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus early Monday morning to pressure their administration to protect tuition waivers for teaching assistants.

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization, they will likely go on strike tomorrow if the administration refuses to include tuition waivers for graduate employees in the contract and limit “tuition differential” fees. GEO, Local 6297 of the Teachers (AFT), has 1,400 members. The university has about 25,000 students enrolled.

GEO members have tuition waivers now, but the union says the university’s current offer would allow the administration to grant partial waivers and make arbitrary alterations to a key economic item for members.

Any waiver will become pointless, however, if the administration continues to find other ways to charge students through fees and tuition differentials. GEO organizer Jason Leto likened these fees to “paying for a job.”

The differentials create a backdoor tuition that allows departments to charge graduate students for registration, services, and office supplies. The fees vary from department to department, but GEO says some members pay as much as $11,000.

GEO is seeking a campus-wide system for regulating and reducing the fees.

Laura Nussbaum, a teaching assistant in Anthropology, said securing waivers and limiting fees are essential to put a floor underneath graduate employees’ meager earnings, about $15,000 in pay annually. Ellen Kang, another anthropology TA, said, “It’s not possible to live off of what we make.”


The rally took place on the final day of mediation between the union and the administration, outside the building where the meeting was taking place. GEO members have been working without a contract since August and have been in negotiations since last April.

Supporters banged on drums and chants from the energetic crowd echoed through campus. GEO members wore their red T-shirts and “GEO—Ready to Strike” buttons. Members authorized a strike in February by 84 percent.

A sister grad employees union, GEO at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went on strike last November over many of the same issues and won in less than two days. UIC GEO has built a strike fund of $50,000 in preparation for an action.

Nussbaum said most TAs put in 14- to 15-hour days, preparing classes, grading papers, writing exams, and helping students with their papers, in addition to their own studies.

Often Nussbaum has 90 five-page papers to grade, which take about a half hour each. The grading takes up an entire 40-hour week, but Nussbaum also finds herself helping students with few study skills catch up to college-level coursework.

“They have gotten a really good deal out of us so far,” she said.

Undergraduate students have rallied to GEO’s cause. Diana Lloga, a Pyschology and English double major, said she planned on pursuing an advanced degree and commended the grad employees for “setting a standard for years to come.”

English Professor Walter Benn Michaels told the crowd at today’s rally that grad students at UIC were “underpaid and overcharged,” and criticized the “recalcitrant” administration. Michaels said faculty are attempting to organize with UIC United Faculty and that GEO was an inspiration to them.

“In a way I envy you because you have the GEO. You have an organization for collective bargaining, to fight for you,” he said. “We are here for you now and we hope that you will be here for the faculty one day soon.”

Striking graduate employees could soon be joined by clerical and cafeteria workers on picket lines. After working a year without a contract, Service Employees Local 73 will be taking a strike vote next week. At the GEO rally, Chief Steward Joe Iosbaker came to “salute you, stand in solidarity with you, and follow your example. Same employer, same fight.”

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Finkelstein Lecture Controversy

This article originally Appeared on Gapers Block.


Norman Finkelstein was once a popular professor at DePaul University. He was on the tenure track and was publishing books critical of the occupation of Palestine and the use of the Holocaust to silence critics of Israel's human rights record.

Finkelstein was denied tenure in a dramatic confrontation, where Harvard law professor and torture apologist Alan Dershowitz lobbied DePaul and students supporting Finkelstein occupied the office of the President of DePaul for three days before being kicked out under threat of arrest.

Since that time, controversy has not failed to follow Finkelstein. He was set to speak at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago on April 16 about his new book This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.

However, on March 24, an event organizer received a letter from the church.

We had a Parish council meeting this past week, I notify everyone on the up coming events that are held at our church, and of course, your event was one of the topics

A few of our board members are attorneys and they are the ones that look into almost everything from the individuals that rent the gym out and if they are covered insurance wise.

they looked deeper into the Professor that will be speaking at our church and they insisted that we couldn't be affiliated with the ideologies of Mr. Norman Finkelstein so I am sorry to say that the church is going to have to cancel and will not be able to rent the gym the night of April the 16th 2010

Please again I am very sorry for the inconvenience."

It's a curious letter. The ideologies of Norman Finkelstein? Did they mean his atheism? His support for international human rights law? Or were these attorneys being spoon fed lies from a Harvard law professor about how Finkelstein, whose parents survived Auschwitz, is some self-hating Jew?

Organizers scrambled in order to find a new venue. They were able to get St. James Cathedral at 65 E. Huron St. to agree to host the event on April 16 at 6pm.

Deno Diamantakos, the parish council president of St. George, has been receiving letters such as this one from Finkelstein supporters.

While Finkelstein is prohibited from speaking on DePaul's campus, the documentary about him, American Radical, will have a screening on April 1 at 6pm at the DePaul Student Center in room 314b.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reflections on Anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq

This was originally published on Gapers Block.


Eugene Cherry from Iraq Veterans Against the War Speaks at Chicago's Anti-War Rally.

Every year around March 20th, I attend an anti-war rally. On March 17, 2010 over a thousand people rallied at Federal Plaza and marched on Michigan Ave. It came as President Obama is intensifying the war in Afghanistan. The protesters seemed to be mocking Mayor Daley's challenge, "where are the anti-war people? They disappeared! They stopped marching!" No, we never did stop marching, even as Daley has continued to antagonize us.

It was March 20, 2003, seven years ago, that shock and awe began and our country invaded and began to occupy Iraq, the second largest source of oil in the world, a country with a civilization that dates back to before the bible was written. I was arrested that day at a protest, like 900 Chicagoans, and many more around the country were.

It was a scary time. Less than two years since 9/11, and it felt like the whole country was against the anti-war protesters. I had nightmares that I was thrown in Guantanamo Bay. Today, the majority of the country is against war in Iraq and most of the country has it's doubts about the war in Afghanistan.

I asked a friend if he was going to attend this year. He would rather apartment hunt. He asked me what difference going to the rally would make. Would it end the war? Would it stop the bloodshed? After we had such massive anti-war rallies before the invasion and those failed to stop it, what difference would this one rally 7 years later, 95 thousand dead Iraqi's later, make?

I have to admit. Every year our numbers dwindle. Every year there are more 9/11 conspiracy nuts. Every year it seems that the war is in the headlines less.

Why do people go to church? Do they expect god to hear their prayers when he has been silent for so long? God has refused to answer their other prayers, would he listen to their choir? Would praying end the sinning and lead us to treat one another as we would want to be treated?

People go to church for other reasons than to throw their change in a wishing well. They go to network, and meet people with similar beliefs. People go to feel a part of something bigger and better than themselves. They go to find out when the soup kitchen meets, how to donate to homeless shelters. They go to admit their sins and lessen their guilt. Likewise me and these rallies.

I enjoy meeting old friends, chatting about who graduated, where we are working, who got married, what kind of organizing we're doing. I enjoy meeting new friends and realizing how much we have in common. Anti-war rallies bring together people from all walks of life - a blues singer with cancer who sells buttons at the rally; a soft-spoken and religious gay nursing student; a friend who realized he didn't want a 9-5 job the day he was introduced to the punk band the Dead Kennedys; the revolutionary who became a janitor to organize the working class; the mother who raised her children to enjoy comic books and activism instead of war; the veteran who asked Iraqis for forgiveness and in the process was called a hero by them; the subway musician who is recovering from being mugged; the college friend I first smoked pot with who is now a union electrician and brings his younger brother to rallies.

I enjoy finding out about the different projects that are happening in the city - Marxist reading groups, Food Not Bombs servings, benefit concerts to stop evictions or in support of immigrants.

Neil from the Save Senn Coalition speak at Chicago's anti-war rally.

We gather once a year on remember our dead. We remember those who died in war, US soldiers, and the Iraqis, Afghanis, and Palestinians. We remember those members of the movement who died here at home, like historian Howard Zinn, dissident alderman Leon Despres, surrealist artist and publisher of Charles H. Kerr Press Franklin Rosemont.

The rally and march becomes a way to remind our neighbors in the city of them as much as it is a reminder of how much more we have to do to end the wars waged in our name.

The war has fallen off many people's agendas. Part of the problem, is that the anti-war movement has no clear base in this country. Unions have workers and their members, civil rights groups have minority groups, feminist groups have women, but who is the anti-war movement to organize? The war touches everything, from how police are trained, to the money spent on war instead of health care to the stripping away of civil liberties. However the war impacts the people in Iraq and Afghanistan most directly.

We could try to organize the military. The movie Sir, No Sir! showed how Coffee Shops near army bases helped turn soldiers against the war. Groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War have assisted soldiers who flee to Canada or who file Conscientious Objector status. There can also be attempts to stop the flow of youth into the military. Chicago is one of the most militarized school districts in the country, and groups like the Save Senn coalition have attempted to push military recruiters off campus and keep JROTC and military academies from preying on youth. It's bad enough many youth have gangs attempting to recruit them, but the military is the biggest gang of them all.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Warehouse Workers Demand Justice

This was originally Published on Gapers Block.


Warehouse Workers for Justice Rally Outside the Housewares Show at McCormick Place.

On Sunday, March 14, Warehouse Workers for Justice rallied outside the McCormick Convention Center, which was hosting the International Home & Housewares Show, to demand justice from Bissell, a vacuum manufacturer. Clergy, warehouse workers and community members rallied to call attention to Bissell's role in the firing of workers who were trying to organize a union.

Warehouse Workers for Justice was founded by the United Electrical Workers union and helps warehouse workers organize and fight for their rights. The group has had substantial support from churches in the Joliet area; Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic and Unitarian Universalist have all provided support for the Warehouse Workers for Justice.

According to United Electrical workers organizer Mark Meinster, Bissell is one of hundreds of manufacturers that store their goods in the Centerpoint Intermodal Center in Elwood, Illinois. Since Chicago is the only place on the continent where all of the major rail lines meet, corporate America has made Chicago the third largest storage warehouse hub in the world, after Singapore and Hong Kong. The Centerpoint Intermodal Center is actually a designated foreign trade zone, so corporations like Wal-mart and Bissell do not have to pay duties on the products shipped through the center until they are shipped out of the center and toward retail outlets.

The companies that store their goods in the warehouses use a system of contractors and sub-contractors to employee temporary employees instead of full time employees. According to Meinster, "It's very easy for these employers to hide behind other companies in terms of liabilities for labor law violations. And that's what Bissell is trying to do here." Warehouse Workers for Justice have filed several complaints with the Department of Labor, and their attempts to meet with Bissell have been blown off. Which is why they felt it was important to take their message to the public, Meinster says. They want to "make sure those retailers [at the convention center] know that they are selling a sweatshop product."

The work that the warehouse workers do was often peril filled. Eric Pano complained of working with dangerous chemicals, while Orlando Riveria described some of the injuries incurred while lifting heavy packages.

Employees of the temp agency Road Link, which does work in Maersk warehouses that Bissell stores its products in, banded together and filed to have a union election in November 2009.. They were all fired the next day.

Michael Montes was promised a job for three years working in the warehouse. He would drive an hour and half each way from his home in Cicero to the warehouse in Elwood for the job. "We were not going to get any holiday pay. Not going to get any insurance. They were cutting our hours. Once they set our pay, they cut that. That's not right. I have 3 kids and one on the way." Montes is now on unemployment and struggling to pay the bills.

Workers I spoke with complained of racial discrimination and even though 90% of home products are sold to women, the women forklift operators in the warehouse were paid $2.50 less than the men.

American Rights at Work claims that 34% of employers fire employees who attempt to form a union.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Amy Goodman Speaks at DePaul

This was originally Published on Gapers Block.


On Friday, March 12, Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now!, spoke at DePaul University. She was one of the best speeches I have seen in a long time. She covered a range of topics; from the history of colonialism in Haiti, where she encouraged solidarity over charity; to the anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie and her parents civil suit against the Israeli military, to former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld's home which was the same home that abolitionist Fredrick Douglas and other slaves were beaten in.

Goodman spoke about the late historian Howard Zinn and how as a teacher at the historically Black Spellman College, he incited students to become active in the civil rights movement. His reward was to be kicked out of the school. However, 42 years later Zinn was asked to return to Spellman, where he gave a commencement speech and received an honorary degree.

Goodman then pointed out that, "Times do change. I hope time changes for DePaul too. I hope it takes less than 42 years for Norm Finkelstein to be invited back," which garnered applause. Goodman described Finkelstein's research as important. Finkelstein was a professor at DePaul who was denied tenure, after he raised controversy over Israel's human rights record in the occupied territories of Gaza.

Finkelstein will be speaking in Chicago on April 16 about his new book This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. Goodman said, "I look forward to being in the audience at DePaul when Norman Finkelstein is invited back to speak and express the courage that he has."

Goodman also described the struggle to have independent media in the US. Her show, Democracy Now!, started on the Pacifica station, which was founded by a World War II draft resister who wanted non-corporate anti-war voices to have an outlet.

Several months after Pacifica opened its Houston station in 1970, the Ku Klux Klan used dynamite to bomb the base of the station's transmitter. The leader of Klan called it his "proudest act." Goodman said that it was because he realized how dangerous Pacifica was because it "allows people to speak for themselves. When you hear someone speaking form their own experience whether it is a Palestinian child, an Israeli mother, an Iraqi aunt or an uncle from Afghanistan, that breaks down barriers, breaks down stereotypes, challenges caricatures that fuel the hate groups. We need a media in this country that builds bridges between communities and doesn't advocate the bombing of bridges."

Goodman criticized the small number of corporate media owners. She said that there are hundreds of channels but few owners. She also cited a study from Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting which found that out of 393 interviews about the pending Iraq war on the four major national news shows, only three of the interviews were with anti-war voices. Goodman encouraged revoking licenses of corporate news media that does not act in the public interest, since the airwaves are public property.

Democracy Now! can be viewed from its website, but Goodman urged people to get the show on WBEZ, citing the dozens of NPR and PBS stations that it already airs on.

Audio of the event is available here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

IL GOP Attempting to Form Patronage Army?

This was originally posted on Gapers Block.


I stumbled across this website, a few days ago, and was pretty stunned.

Republicans often criticize Illinois Democrats for running a patronage army of loyal state employees. However this website is encouraging loyal republicans to be given state jobs as well.

Of course new administrations are able to appoint people to implement their vision for the state, to implement the policies that they campaigned on and were elected to enact. What is odd about this website is its tone, a confidence that the GOP will win Springfield back, and a gleeful lust for 6 figure jobs. In particular the site exhibits a tendency towards the corrupt and a disdain for "the awshucks-we're-sorry-for-having-principles-types."

When you click on the Jobs List, it lists different state departments that the Governor is able to appoint heads of. What is disturbing is the partisan descriptions for the jobs. Is the head of the Historic Preservation Society a partisan position?

The site implies that Republicans would only be interested in jobs enforcing Human Rights because, "Check out the pay scale here!"

It describes Homeland Security as "the new patronage place to be." A scary thought that our security and safety be entrusted to partisan hacks instead of trained and specialized experts.

It describes positions on the Illinois Gaming Board as though it were a casino, "Great spot to meet people and make money, come to work every once and a while, too!"

In what should be a scary comment to organized labor, the site claims that the GOP will, "rebuild [the Department of Labor] and remake it so that it is more efficient. Get on board and help."

The site is run by a woman named Jenifer Sims. It is unclear if she has any connections to the Brady campaign, the state GOP, or if she is just a crank writer. Attempts to gain quotes from the Brady for Governor campaign and the Tea Party Patriots were made. Neither gave any quotes.

UIC Graduate Employees Prepare for Mediation

This was originally published on Gapers Block.


GEO President Charles Moss delivers petitions to UIC Chancellor's office.

The Graduate Employees Organization of the University of Illinois at Chicago is a union for graduate student employees. GEO members have been working this school year without a contract and are facing a heated battle with UIC's administration.

GEO has been attempting to negotiate a contract with the administration, but has reached a stalemate over a number of issues including guaranteed assistantships. They began mediation with the university and a neutral mediator last week.

On March 10, the day before they began mediation, members of the Graduate Employee Organization of the University of Illinois at Chicago delivered petitions signed by UIC community members urging the university to bargain in good faith and to take the mediation process as serious as GEO does. The petition urged the chancellor to direct the universities bargaining team to negotiate fairly.

Charles Moss, the president of GEO said that GEO, "takes the mediation process seriously. We would rather settle the contract through mediation than go on strike." Moss added that GEO organizers have been putting in a lot of work to obtain a fair contract.

A group of GEO members went to the 28th floor of the University building hoping to give the petitions to Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares. Allen-Meares was at a trustees meeting and the GEO members gave the petition to Assistant Monica Rausa Williams.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Health Care Forum Highlights Debate Within the Left

This was originally Published on Gapers Block.


On March 9, the same day that activists rallied in Washington DC to demand health care reform by making 'citizens arrests' of insurance company CEO's, a forum at the University of Illinois in Chicago School of Medicine showed the debates in the Left about whether or not the bills being proposed and voted on by Congress are worth being called reform.

Organized by the Chicago Single Payer Action Network, the featured speaker was Dr David Scheiner, who was President Obama's family doctor for 22 years.

While it was not billed as a debate, opinions about the bill came out. The big issue seems to be, whether or not the health care bills in Congress would be an incremental step towards a universal single payer system (medicare for all), or simply a bailout for insurance companies.

Dr. Scheiner is one of the few doctors in the Chicago area who still does house visits and is a member of Physicians for a National Health Program. Scheiner simply stated, "I last saw [Obama] last 2 ½ years ago. Since that time, over 100 thousand Americans have died due to lack of health insurance."

Dr. Schiener was deeply critical of the right wing and the present health care system, "one of the things you hear Republicans saying, 'you don't want government between you and your patient.' Medicare has never interfered with me.... you can't get around the insurance companies. They're sitting in my room, the insurance representative is there telling me what tests I can get, what doctors I can send them to, what prescriptions I can give."

The large number of uninsured was also a pertinent topic. Chi-SPAN representative Vanesa Beck pointed out that 3200 Black Chicagoans die a year due to lack of health care.

All of the speakers, and the crowd members who spoke wanted a single payer health care system that takes the profit out of health care. Linda Riccio from the National Nurses Organizing Committee described some "horror stories"of the present for-profit health care system. As a nurse she is mandated to report elder abuse however, "if I call the cops, I'll get fired. I called the cops 3 times in a 2 month period.... I was told by the medical director 'don't you realize that we get over a 180 thousand dollars a month from these nursing homes. If you keep calling the dept of public health, they're not going to send their patients here anymore." Now Riccio's hospital has a new policy on reporting elder abuse, the nurse tells a social worker, who tells an administrator, who calls the nursing home, potentially tipping a nursing home off of a pending investigation.

Dr. Scheiner criticized Obama for giving up the fight for single payer. He reminded the audience of Obama's former support for single payer, when Obama would tell crowds that if Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House that they would get single payer. Yet today as President, with both houses of Congress and the White House under Democratic control, single payer "has been off the table from the beginning."

Scheiner understood that there would be some give and take with the final bill but expressed his frustration, "you don't concede at the beginning, you concede later on, when your struggling."

Scheiner pointed out some of the good of the bill, that it extends dependency coverage up to 26 year olds, eliminates prior conditions and reduces denials of care, "those are good."

The bill does not do enough for Scheiner to cover the uninsured or eliminate the high cost of health care. However Scheiner urged support for it, "the medical industrial complex is bitterly opposed to it and they own congress.... we got to have this bill. It's a terrible bill, it has got a lot of fault, it has go some good though. If it doesn't go through Obama will be almost wiped out. He's put to much of his prestige into this thing. If it does go through we've got to work change this thing."

Chi-SPAN activist Vanessa Beck became involved in health reform the hard way, she had a medical crises and has been on and off different medical plans, private insurance, medicare and medicaid, for several years. "Everyone on the panel, we agree that single payer is definitely what we need to create health care justice and an equitable health care system. I strongly disagree with supporting the senate bill. The senate bill transfers ½ a billion dollars to the insurance industry. The insurance industry kills people. We can not support this bill."

The Senate bill makes it easier for Americans to obtain private health insurance but Beck pointed out the deficiencies of that insurance and said, "we think we're buying health care but we're actually helping people we don't know buy yachts."

On the Senate health care bill Beck said that the "minor positives are far outweighed by the negatives." According to Beck, it will help insurance companies get richer, it will require people to buy insurance that does not provide care, and it still leaves millions uninsured. Beck was also highly critical of the Stupak amendment which would make it harder for women to obtain abortions. Beck also despised the health care bills lack of coverage for undocumented immigrants. "20 million of our friends, partners, neighbors, who don't have the correct paperwork... will be left out." Beck pointed out the immigrants already receive sub-standard medical care and are often deported out of hospitals while still sick.

Beck cited a study by Harvard professor Steffie Woolhandler that out that 69% of doctors support single payer and that it would create more 26 million new jobs because of building hospitals and clinics, more jobs than those lost at insurance companies.

"Our actions are so much better spent fighting for national single payer health care that would cover all of us."

A UIC student and member of the American Medical Student Association pointed out that it has been over a decade since health care was seriously debated in Congress and that if the bill does not pass it might be just as long or longer until another opportunity presents itself. "There is nothing stopping anyone from fighting even if the bill passes"

Others in the crowd countered that the number of bankruptcies happening the US as a result of the high cost of medical care will force the issue to come back anyway. Al Nowakowski said that it was a bad bill because of a lack of political will. While a social worker at Cook County hospital said that there "isn't a day we don't see undocumented immigrants." She has had to explain to undocumented immigrants why they get things such as a kidney transplant or medicaid. She complained that it was racist and the crises is not going away whether the bill passes or not.

Martice Chissum, another nurse with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also had a problem supporting the bill in Congress, stating that, "it will throw our patients under the bus." In 1966 Chissum's Great Grandmother was murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan, in retaliation for registering Black people to vote. Chissum swore at the funeral that, "your dream will not die." She pointed out that the civil rights movement did not settle after their initial victories but continued forward and encouraged the crowd to not be satisfied with electing a Black president but to keep fighting for social justice.

Retired doctor Hooshi Daragahi complained that supporters of the health care bill were threatening people with Obama losing. "So what?" he asked.

Dr. Scheiner "I'm not happy with this bill, but I can see what's coming.... we have to look at reality. It's nice to be purist but if your purist and defeated, your getting nowhere." Scheiner pointed out that if health care reform reduces the number of unnecessary deaths from 45 thousand to 20thousand, "that's some progress."

Doug Rosenberg, an activist with Chi-SPAN, looked on the positive side. "How often do you get doctors nurses and students together in the same room?" Rosenberg encouraged the crowd not to be a "circular firing squad," and that they "should reorientate ourselves to take advantage of a more powerful coalition that exists right here."

Dr. Scheiner had one suggestion, "Doctors and nurses could change this thing if they got together and worked on it... all we need is nurses and primary care physicians, and we could bring the system to it's knees.... we could have stop work actions. If we stopped seeing anything except for emergencies... we could bring the system to it's knees."

Beck urged the crowd to redefine the possible and called for civil disobedience in the style of the Bacchus 13 who interrupted a senate finance hearing to call for single payer and the Cigna 7 who were arrested blocking the entrance of the health insurance giant.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On International Womens Day, Group Rallies for Mammogram Funding

This was originally published on Gapers Block.


Sheila Rogers addresses a crowd of activists.

The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force protested and demanded better funding for the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program on March 8, International Women's day.

The IBCCP provides free screenings and treatment for breast and cervical cancer, however over 4500 women are on a wait list because of lack of funding for the program. While over 300,000 women are eligible for mammograms through the program, there is only funding for 33,000 women.

The Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force attempts to end the racial disparities in health care and was applying pressure before the governor announces his budget. An extra $8 million for the IBCCP would eliminate the waiting lists. Another $31 million would double the number of women served by the program.

While 20 activists rallied outside the Thompson Center shouting, "pay for screenings now or pay more later!" Shelia Rogers attempted to gain a meeting with Governor Quinn. Rogers was able to obtain the governor's scheduler's phone number and the group will continue to apply pressure.

Breast Cancer surviver Dorothy Warren works for the support line of the Breast Cancer Network of Strength, "we have a database where we recommend women to get free mammograms because they cannot afford it. without this resource [the IBCCP] we would be lost."

Warren said that the program "saves lives" and described it as a last line of defense for women. "Some women have lost their jobs, they can't afford it but they need screenings. This program is their only resource."

Westboro Baptist Church Embarrass Themselves

This was originally published on Gapers Block.


Activists demonstrate against the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group that chartered themselves as a church to get away with their harassment of Queer groups, Jews, military families and others, conducted a tour of Chicago on March 8th.

The group of five lonely haters targeted Jewish centers, protesting everything more modern than the middle ages at Hillel's at UIC and the University of Chicago before holding their signs outside of the Israeli consulate.

Hundreds of queer rights activists rallied against the Westboro group. Activists used humorous and satirical signs to mock WBC. UIC student Jason Connell used the appearance of the hate group to raise money for queer rights groups such as Human Rights Campaign, International AIDS Foundation and Chicago based Jerusalem Open House. Donations were named in honor of the Westboro Baptist Church and community thank you cards will be sent from the non-profits to WBC leader Fred Phelps. Connell called it a, "Lemons to Lemonade" situation.

Kurt Esslinger Lee, an Presbyterian ordained minister from the UIC Agape House Christian Campus Ministry said, "We don't care so much about this group of hate, we know that they are not going to listen to anything we say. What we are care about is the closeted, afraid LGBTQ students around UIC who are are taught to hate themselves to think that god is also loathing them, so we reaching out to them to break through that ignorance."

Activists demonstrate against the Westboro Baptist Church.

Video of the event is available through Dogstar7's Youtube Channel.

Satire of WBC is at the Youtube Channel of CrazyPastorFred.

Monday, March 8, 2010

UIC Students, Faculty, Staff Demand, "Chop From the Top!"

This was originally Posted on Gapers Block.

UIC Students, Faculty and Staff Rally Against Budget Cuts.

Several hundred students, faculty and staff rallied at the University of Illinois Chicago campus on March 4th, to demand an end to budget cuts that target the poor. They rallied in the Quad, before marching around campus and marching to University Hall where the administrative offices for the school are. It was part of a national day of action to defend public education.

SEIU Local 73 chief Steward Joe Iosbaker led the crowd in chants, "They Say Furlough Day, We Say No Way! They Say Cut Back, We Say Fight Back!" and the sarcastic, "They Say Fee Hike, We Say, Yea, Right!"

At University Hall SEIU members served Soup to passer-by's "to prepare us for what we'll be eating if the budget cuts go through." They then sang a parody of Gnarls Barkley's Crazy, "Is UIC crazy? They must be crazy,to think that they can defeat, local 73."

Many UIC professors and staff are being forced to take unpaid furlough days. However their workload does not decrease. Teachers still have to grade the same amount of papers. This has led many assistants and UIC workers to work on their furlough days, essentially amounting to a pay cut.

Teachers plan on taking a joint furlough day on the 8th to protest the budget cuts. Stay tuned for more details.

UIC Students, Faculty and Staff Rally Against Budget Cuts.

In a forum before the rally, endorsers of the day of action spoke out about their grievances with the administration of UIC. The forum was originally intended by the activists to be a debate between organizers and administrators on the issue of cut backs, but the administration refused to attend or participate.

Jes Cook from the Graduate Employee's Organization, an affiliate of the Illinois Association of Teachers that represents graduate assistants and employees spoke about GEO's current negotiations with the UIC administration. Their contract expired with the beginning of the school year on August 15, 2009, and negotiations have been slow. At stake in the negotiations is a pay raise, a guarantee of assistantships and tuition waivers, teaching and research loads, and the amount of staff support. "in the behavioral science building we had to fight to preserve our staff people."

According to Cook, "it seems that whatever the deans want - happens, and that impacts people ability to continue in school."

GEO members at UIC recently authorized a strike. Cook said that GEO, "would rather avoid it but we will do what we have to do to get a contract." The strike could take place after GEO's negotiations go through the mediation process. This would come on the heels of the succesful GEO strike at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, were graduate employees were on strike for one day before the administration caved to their demands.

Christine Boardman, the president of Service Employees International Union local 73, which represents service staff and cafeteria workers at UIC discussed the republicans on the UIC board of trustees and how Democrats in Springfield, "lack the political will to pass what they actually need, which is a tax increase," to prevent cuts in basic services, assistance for the developmentally disabled, k-12 schools and in higher education.

SEIU Local 73 will have its own strike authorization vote soon, "we are gonna have to shut this place down." Boardman explained that the right kind of work stoppage was crucial, "not everything has to be a long term strike.... to get the point across."

Darold Burnum, a professor of management described faculty attempts to unionize. The UIC United Faculty is attempting to become an affiliate of both the American Association of University Professors and the the American Federation of Teachers. One of the reasons many faculty wanted a union was so that their employment would not be dependent on the whim's and good graces of their deans and managers. A standard bearer in union contracts is a grievance procedure that concludes with a decision by a neutral arbitrator. Burnum gave the example of a teacher who won UIC's Silver Circle Award, but because she was on a year to year contract, her dean told her that she was to be fired. Only after the Tribune threatened to run an article about her being fired was she offered her job back. A grievance procedure would protect teachers rights.

UIC Students, Faculty and Staff Rally Against Budget Cuts.

Report Shows UIC Administrators Deceiving Public

One of the reasons why students, faculty and staff protested budget cuts, is that they were completely unnecessary.

Accounting professor and AAUP treasurer Howard Bunsis wrote a report that analyzed the University of Illinois' financial condition. Bunsis spoke about the report on the day of action.

Bunsis Analysis of UIC Financial Condition January 2010

Bunsis found that according to the University's own financial statements, "the university is well positioned to continue its strong financial position."

Bunsis wrote his report based on the university's 2008 statements and it's projected budget for 2009 and 2010. Bunsis has come under some criticism for not using the most up to date information, however he points out that the University, despite being a public school that is legally obligated to share it's financial records, has not released it's already completed and audited 2009 statements. Bunsis explained that he had "one simple request: open the books."

Bunsis explained that while the state of Illinois was with holding money for the university, the money is still going to be allocated to the university and "reneged and delayed do not mean the same thing."

Bunsis said that there are alternatives to furlough days that the university never considered. He gave the example of tax company H & R Block, who are busy during tax season, but look at slow business during the rest of the year. Bunsis point out that H & R Block doesn't lay everyone off but instead borrows short term against future income.

Bunsis asked the all important question, "what is going to happen when the state repays the money? Are you going to give that furlough money back [to UIC workers]?" He continued, "whats the point of making a profit off the backs of hard working people? This is not a profit making institution. This is an institution of higher education and of learning. They really should not be looking to make the greatest profit possible, that's not the goal. The goal is to educate and create citizens who can make a better society, not to build profits."

Bunsis reminded the crowd that the decision to force furloughs on teachers and staff was made top down and that a teachers union is need to make sure that all voices were heard.

National Day of Protest to Defend Public Education

UIC was one of many schools across the country where protests took place on March 4. Students protested the tuition hike at universities in California. High School students rallied outside Chicago's city Hall. Students at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee occupied their Chancellor's office and 18 were arrested after pepper spray was used on them.

All of this comes on the heels of the Obama administrations endorsement of the firing of union teachers in Rhode Island. The 'turnaround' of the poorest school in the state was decided when teachers refused to accept pay cuts and to work longer hours. Many of the teachers felt that they already worked long hours and that this was an attempt to crush their union and blaming them for the real problem the school faced - the poverty of the district.

Howard Bunsis commented on Obama's speech defending the firings, "he sounded like Reagan when he fired all the air traffic controllers," referring one of the key moments in modern union history, where many historians have considered it the defining moment in the decline of organized labor in the United States.

Photos by Rachel Hewitt

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Jobs With Justice Tells Wall St. "You Broke It, You Bought It!"

This was originally posted on Gapers Block.


A crowd of 100 gathered in Federal Plaza on March 3, to demand that Congress tax Wall St in order to provide for a jobs bill. The rally was planned while Senator Bunning was filibustering a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits. Now that Bunning has withdrawn his filibuster, organizers used the opportunity to point out how much more needed to be done.

Organizer Susan Hurly explained, "What they did last night to extend unemployment for 30 days is rather pathetic in the light of the crises that we are facing. We are here to say that we need more, we need a federal jobs program" with better and long unemployment benefits. She continued, "Wall Street broke it, they gotta buy it."


The Senate Soup Kitchen intended to highlight the need for a jobs bill.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Northwestern University Community Fights for a Living Wage

This was originally published on Gapers Block.


The Rally

On Wednesday February 24, despite a chilly 27 degree day, over 400 Northwestern University students rallied outside a meeting of the university's board of trustees to demand a living wage for cafeteria workers at the school. It was a high point in the student anti-sweatshop movement at Northwestern.

Tom Breitsprecher, a lead cook who has worked at the Northwestern University cafeteria for 31 years, said that this was the largest demonstration he has seen on campus since an anti-war rally in the early 1980's.

According to Northwestern University activist Matthew Fischler, the average cafeteria worker at Northwestern makes a measly eight to nine dollars an hour. This poverty is compounded with the fact that the health insurance offered by Sodexho still includes expensive co-pays and premiums that many employees can not afford. It becomes especially difficult for many workers who lose their health benefits when their hours are cut during winter, spring and summer breaks.

According to Breitsprecher, "Many workers on campus live in government subsidized housing. Even if they are offered a discounted health insurance plan, many can't afford the premiums. Many qualify for food stamps for their families... if the government subsidizes workers, aren't they really subsidizing a company that pays such low wages?"

The Northwestern Living Wage Campaign is seeking to raise the wages of cafeteria workers to $13.23 an hour plus full medical benefits. This is the wage that the Heartland Alliance has determined is the minimum needed to have a wage that sustains the basic needs of a family.

According to Fischler, the living wage campaign hope to pressure the university to adopt a code of conduct which sets the terms of agreements for contractors, "if you are going to work for Northwestern you have to pay your workers a living wage." The students also hope to pressure the university to give cafeteria workers benefits that university employees enjoy such as access to the library, and community events.

Alan Cubbage the Vice President for University Relations for Northwestern said that it's a good thing that students are involved in and care about this issue, however the university was taking a neutral role, claiming that their only responsibility was to contract out the services the students require. The universities official position was that the issue of wages was one between the workers unions and food catering company Sodexho.

History professor Nancy MacLean said, "right now our vice president for business and finance says that Northwestern can't do this. Says that we can't afford it. I speak as a former administrator and former chair of the history dept, I'm gonna tell you a secret, administrators always say this at first. They say this when they don't understand what a priority something is. When they [the board of trustees] look out the windows they will see what a priority this is." Maclean pointed out that Northwestern had a large endowment of more than six billion dollars.

It was a point that Lou Weeks, the organizing director of HERE local 1 expanded upon. Weeks discussed the 1984-1985 strike of clerical workers at Yale University, and how three months later they doubled their wages. "I imagine that you all will be told that you are going to have to make some choices and that if you choose to organize for a living wage then you are choosing to raise your own tuition or your choosing to limit other funding on campus or choosing to make some other false choice."

Tom Breitsprecher explained, "I want to emphasize that we the workers on campus are a part of Northwestern. ...they pay Sodexho millions of dollars... the university asks the food service to put on special events to enliven the campus experience. The university even provided the food service with a special menu to celebrate Black History Month. So the administration would be disingenuous to suggest that they would not be interested in something as unimportant as food service... Even though food service, housekeeping and other personnel are not on the university payroll, the university knows that we are essential to building a sense of community that will endear you to your alma mater long after you graduate."

Cafeteria employee Rafael Marquez told the crowd, "The university is not these buildings it's you all." Nancy MacLean rallied the crowd by telling them, "I teach history, you are making history."

The Student Movement

The Living Wage Campaign is only the latest in a series of pro-labor campaigns at Northwestern. Students had previously pressured the university to become a member of the Workers Rights Consortium. The WRC was formed by United Students Against Sweatshops to be an independent monitor of sweatshops that manufacture university apparel. The WRC has expanded its scope to monitor university contracts as well.

However, according to Matthew Fischler, Northwestern has not signed onto the WRC's Designated Supplier Program. The Designated Supplier Program essentially gives the WRC teeth and has universities divest from companies that do not meet the WRC's labor standards. Northwestern is different from other Chicago area schools in that it does not have a committee which advises its president and board of trustees on labor issues, ethical contracting issues, or fair business practices.

This has not stopped student activists from organizing for justice. The students began organizing in the fall of 2009, meeting with workers and making sure that all of their unions were on board with the campaign. Then in November, the students collected 800 signatures on a petition which they presented to President of Northwestern Morton Shapiro. Shapiro has been gracious and diplomatic in meeting with students about the issue, but has not yet ceded serious ground on the issues.

Tom Breitsprecher told me what the students were going up against. "The university is going to try to string them out and play the waiting game and see who is going to graduate and if the sentiment will stick around. I think this [rally] is a good start."

The living wage campaign plans on continuing this struggle and had a meeting planned with President Shapiro to discuss community benefits for workers.

The Unions

The subcontracted workers at Northwestern are represented by three different unions. The janitorial staff are members of Service Employees International Union Local 1, the student center cafeteria workers are represented by UNITE/HERE! and the dorm cafeteria's are represented by Service Workers United. The student center cafe has been union for 20 some years while the dorm cafeteria workers have only been represented by SWU for a few years.

This is an interesting group of unions to all be signed onto the same campaign.

UNITE/HERE was formed in 2004 as a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. It seemed to be the perfect marriage. UNITE had money but faced the outsourcing of its members jobs. HERE had been expanding its membership and needed resources to continue to do so.

The newly combined UNITE/HERE formed a partnership with SEIU to organize food service workers, and formed Service Workers United, a joint local that had a national scale, representing workers from coast to coast. However, the leadership of SEIU came to run SWU national. Contracts for different bargaining units are sub-contracted out to SEIU and UNITE/HERE locals to be serviced.

This began to unravel though as the former leaders of UNITE attempted to leave the combined UNITE/HERE and formed a close alliance with SEIU. This has led to a major conflict between HERE and SEIU.

Two different visions of union organizing are at stake in this battle. HERE placed its emphasis on leadership building, which takes time, but builds a cadre of rank and file organizers who should be able to withstand the pressures of an organizing campaign. SEIU has placed more emphases on increasing the density of union members quickly, often, according to critics, at the cost of agreeing to poor contracts that do little to protect workers.

That all these competing unions have agreed to support the Living Wage Campaign should be considered a testament to the importance of a living wage.

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