Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.
Activists are participating in hundreds of nationwide protests on Monday against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
The State Department released a long-awaited environmental review of the pipeline Friday that found the project would have a “negligible impact” on climate change, a decision that bolsters the case for the controversial project.
The pipeline would ship 830,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.
<>Environmentalists and advocates were quick to point out that the State Department’s inspector general is conducting an inquiry into whether the contractor tasked with the study, Environmental Resources Management, failed to disclose recent work it did for TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline, which would be an obvious conflict of interest.
“The release of the new report will be a green light to escalate our efforts,” May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said to the Los Angeles Times. “This fight got started at the national level when 1,253 people got arrested in front of the White House. We expect many more people will take part in civil disobedience and take to the streets before this fight is over.”
Hundreds of No KXL protest vigils are scheduled to take place all across the country on Monday. The events are organized by CREDO, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, 350.org, The Other 98%, Center for Biological Diversity, Oil Change International, Bold Nebraska, Energy Action Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Hip Hop Caucus, Overpass Light Brigade, Environmental Action, League of Conservation Voters, Waterkeeper Alliance, Friends of the Earth, Forest Ethics, Forecast the Facts and others.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment to send the message to President Obama that Keystone XL fails his climate test and he must reject it,” the consortium said.
Furthermore, farmers and ranchers in Nebraska who opposed the pipeline are planning to run for seats on a state board that regulates power stations that are needed along the project route, the AP reports, and national activists say they have recruited more than 75,000 volunteers willing to participate in civil disobedience.
“We’ve said from the beginning that we will support the landowners and what they want to do and what they think is best for their property. I think you’ll see some landowners driving really slow on their county roads to block the [pipeline] trucks,” said Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska.
In addition to Monday’s protests, activists plan to stage “pipeline meet-ups” throughout February to encourage people to raise the pipeline issue with candidates in the 2014 elections. Activists are also waiting on a decision from a Nebraska judge on a lawsuit challenging a state law that allowed the project to proceed. That ruling is expected by late March.
According to Kleeb, 115 landowners in Nebraska are still refusing to sign agreements with TransCanada and would also be willing to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience if the company tries to lay pipe through their land.
“We will make sure folks know that we have not gone away, that we are still fighting this pipeline,” Kleeb said to the AP.
One of Monday’s scheduled protests is being organized by Olympic Climate Action in Port Angeles, Washington. In a statement, the group quoted NASA scientist James Hansen as saying extracting the fossil fuels in the Alberta tar sands means “game over” for the climate.
“We are for a sustainable world, one where all people, both now and into the future, have access to a decent livelihood. There is work to do conserving energy and producing it more sustainably. We cannot let the oil age preclude a future for our descendants,” the group said in its statement.
“It’s really an overwhelming problem. Coming together as a group is more successful than sitting around worrying about it,” said Ed Chadd, a founding member of the action group.
Nationwide, school districts are closing schools and laying off teachers in great numbers as part of sweeping budget cuts. Children in Philadelphia and Chicago have seen many of their schools shuttered and are now forced to commute longer distances, sometimes through dangerous gang territories, to reach the schools that remain open.
The Anchorage School District just announced the latest round of austerity measures, including plans to cut 219 positions (administration, support staff and classroom teachers) for the next school year. The plan includes laying off 159 teachers: forty-seven from elementary schools, thirty-five from middle schools and thirty-three from high schools and alternative schools. Another forty-four positions are being terminated because of a projected decline in enrollment.
Over the past four years, the district has reduced its work force by about 419 positions, not including the newly announced cuts. District administrators are working with a $566 million operating budget for the 2014–15 school year, $23 million short of the funds the district says it needs.
And the budget shortfall is likely to worsen, with an estimated budget gap of $9 million in the 2015-2016 school year, Alaska Dispatch reports, adding that the district’s money troubles allegedly stem from flat funding and rising healthcare costs.
Funding shortfalls have been the new norm the past five years. A $25 million budget deficit for the current school year was closed by spending some of the district’s budget reserves and making cuts to support staff and classroom supplies. Teaching positions were not included in the cuts for the 2012-2013 school year.
District officials blame active medical and retiree medical expenses for bleeding the district dry.
“It’s not uncommon for employees’ health care costs to see increases in the double-digit percentages on an annual basis,” Mark Foster, the district’s chief financial officer said. In order to compensate for exploding healthcare costs, the district is asking employee unions to pay even higher portions of the cost.
Alaska Dispatch notes that, while Governor Parnell is quick to boast about the strong state of Alaska’s economy and tout state plans to invest in a gas pipeline project, he fails to mention the billion-dollar deficits the state faces, and the tax system that previously “plowed billion-dollar surpluses from oil production taxes into the treasury.”
“Parnell and the Republican-led Legislature slashed that tax regime early last year in favor of a tax cut worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state’s major oil producers, BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp,” reports Alaska Dispatch.
Meanwhile, Superintendent Ed Graff says the budget cuts are the “best we can offer our students with limited resources.”
The district claims teacher positions are being cut due to declining student enrollment, a trend that’s projected to continue into the next year.
Graff notes that the staff reductions are unlike anything he has seen in twenty-three years with the district.
In order to offset the loss of teachers and in an attempt to balance classroom sizes, the district is proposing shifting high schools from a six-period to a seven-period schedule.
The budget also calls for the elimination of high school swimming classes (which won’t affect after-school swimming and diving, according to the district), a $1.3 million cut in supplies and materials and a $170,000 cut from high school sports, savings generated in part by outsourcing girls’ hockey. The district also said it is looking at raising student activity fees by 10 percent. It will match federal reductions to JROTC programs, to the tune of $140,000.
Tam Agosti-Gisler, the school board president and a former teacher, says she’s received a slew of angry calls from teachers.
“They see this as a devaluation of the incredibly difficult work that they do,” she said. “But we’re always looking out for the best interests of our students. I think that’s always been the case for educators.”
Tim Fitzpatrick, an Anchorage parent with a daughter in kindergarden, moved to Alaska from Philadelphia, a city infamous for poorly funded public education and school closings. Fitzpatrick told the Anchorage Daily News, sending his children to public schools in Philadelphia was, “just not an option,” and while he’s happy with his daughter’s education in Anchorage so far, he’s concerned the cuts announced Tuesday are a bad sign of things to come.
“If our schools aren’t one of our main priorities for the state, I’m not sure what is,” he said.
Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association, recently announced to educators, “We’re at the beginning of a multi-front battle that will play out over the next four months…. Our top priority is adequate funding, as that solves the most problems, and has the greatest positive impact on students. As it stands, funding is shrinking the opportunities and resources (educators being the most important one) available to students.”
“Members of the public are waking up to the severity of the changes…. Despite the marvellous PR job being done by certain folks, Alaska still has money and they still have choices,” Holleman adds, “One of their choices over the past four years has been to sideline education. As the legislature convenes in an election year, we are not powerless in this fight, but it will be a fight.”
Read Next: Greg Kaufmann on members of Congress meeting with the poor.
Around thirty-two people were arrested Monday on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including Representative Charles Rangel and nine New York City Council members, when they blocked a bridge to LaGuardia Airport during a rally for liveable wages and an MLK Day paid holiday. In total, close to a 1,000 people attended the protest that was organized by Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.
Before the march to the bridge, Representative Rangel told the crowd: “No one should be one pay check from homelessness. We have a new mayor now, Bill de Blasio, and I am certain that he will be spearheading our fight for better wages.”
“I’m ready to get put in jail today so that everyone will know that we’re going to fight for decent wages, we’re going to fight for sick pay [and] we’re going to fight for pensions,” Rangel added.
The workers are not employed by the airlines or the Port Authority but rather by companies that contract out for things like food service, custodial work and security.
“Some employees have to go to food pantries to support their families. Thousands live in poverty,” said Hector Figueroa, president of Local 32BJ-SEIU.
“The City Council stands united to support you, airport workers, in your demands for dignified work and respect,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told the crowd. “We have seen a mobilization across this nation of fast-food workers, car wash workers, now airport workers. We will ensure that we stand with you.”
Many of the workers say low wages force them to rely on government assistance to feed their families.
“I find it nonsense that I have a full-time job and I have to seek public assistance,” said Andrew Lloyd, a cabin cleaner at JFK Airport. “I have to do overtime just to support myself and my family.” Mr. Lloyd said he and his coworkers work full weeks and extra shifts but receive no paid sick days or vacation time.
Prince Jackson, 56, of Jamaica, Queens, said he works as a security guard at Kennedy Airport, making $8 an hour, but has not received a raise in four years and is not entitled to paid sick time.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was a friend to the workers in his day, and the workers of today would like to be able to commemorate his memory by fighting for our rights as employees,” Jackson said to Newsday.
Those arrested included New York City Council members Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx), Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn), Inez Dickens (D-Manhattan) , Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) and Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan); and union officials Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU; Shirley Aldebol, a vice president of 32BJ; and union members, Andy Cabrera, Johnnie Peterson, Hazel Ingrahm, Fadila Mikullo and Ian Zehnder.
“The new day has come in the city of New York,” Public Advocate Tish James said at the protest. “And this new day is consistent with the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King to lift all people out of poverty.”
In an email statement, Port Authority officials said the agency “supports making Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday for airport workers” and planned to “continue to have discussions with the union, airlines, and other airport stakeholders regarding this issue.”
Earlier in the month, dozens of airport workers from Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports, and their supporters, gathered outside Port Authority headquarters to demand better wages and improved working conditions.
“I make $8.50 an hour and I’m a 47-year-old man with three kids,” said Kennedy Airport guard Michael Carey, who lives in East New York, Brooklyn. “Do the math. I can’t support my family on that salary.”
Jackson told Amsterdam News that Dr. King devoted his life to standing in solidarity with struggling workers.
“Dr. King died supporting sanitation workers who were working under deplorable conditions and making what today would be $11.41 per hour,” he told the paper. “Forty-six years after Dr. King’s death, I earn $8 an hour. Most airport workers earn just $8 per hour. We also work under deplorable conditions.”
Read Next: John Nichols on MLK and economic equality.
Hundreds of Moral Monday demonstrators gathered on the steps of the Capitol this week to protest Governor Nathan Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 400,000 people in Georgia will be denied Medicaid coverage by state leaders.
“Healthcare and access to healthcare—preventative services as well as treatment—is a civil right, a human right, and a moral right,” Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society and a physician at Grady Hospital, said to WABE 90.1 FM.
While Deal argues that the state can’t afford Medicaid expansion, while protesters counter that the federal government would pick up the vast majority of expansion costs. Twenty-two other states have also rejected the expansion.
A coalition of religious and progressive activists staged the first Moral Monday Georgia protest.
“Make them hear you,” North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber told the crowd. “Don’t make a deal with injustice. Do what is right.”
In South Carolina, progressive groups held a “Truthful Tuesday” protest at the State House to also protest that the Legislature’s failure to enact the expansion in addition to the failure to provide high-quality education to all children, and a failure to protect voting rights.
“Whatever North Carolina has done in terms of advocating for moral and ethical laws, our state needs to do the same thing,” said The Reverend Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, a group that represents sixteen denominations and 4,000 congregations. “This rally on Tuesday … is the opening day of the (legislative session), and we want on that day to speak truth to power.”
The “Truthful Tuesday Coalition” consists of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, the South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the South Carolina Education Association, the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the South Carolina Progressive Network. (photo courtesy of TruthfulTuesday.net)
Kneece encouraged protesters to “wear black as a sign of mourning for the hundreds of lives which will be lost as a result of our state’s failure to expand Medicaid this year,” The State reports.
“It’s to really put lawmakers on notice regarding the need to expand Medicaid and protect voting rights and to fully fund public education,” says George Hopkins, a College of Charleston history professor and Charleston chapter president of the SC Progressive Network. “Hopefully on Wednesday the 15th the headlines across the state will read ‘Citizens Descend on Columbia’ to demand legislators take action on these issues.”
The Republican-controlled Legislature last year rejected billions of dollars in federal money that would have expanded the state’s health insurance program for the poor, arguing that expansion would cost the state close to $1 billion in the long term.
This year, Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would make it more difficult for people to sign up for federally subsidized health insurance policies. That bill, H.3101, is before the state Senate.
The Island Packet:
Addressing the anti-Obamacare protesters, state Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, praised H.3101 as a “nullification” bill, saying it would render Obamacare “null and void” in South Carolina. But state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, the author of an amendment the Senate will debate in the coming weeks, said South Carolina cannot nullify federal law that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anitra Johnson, a military veteran from Goose Creek, told the crowd she was rejected on the federal marketplace because she did not qualify as impoverished, under federal guidelines, The Island Packet reports. She claims she would have been eligible had the state Legislature agreed to expand Medicaid.
“This is the new face of poverty,” she told the crowd. “Take a good look. I don’t live in a Third World country. I’m right here.”
Read Next: John Nichols on a reform agenda for progressive politics.
The Moral Monday protests that began in North Carolina in 2012 in response to extreme right-wing policies are spreading to Georgia.
Over the past year, droves of activists in North Carolina have descended on the state legislature building to demand that lawmakers reverse some of their more brutal policies such as cutting unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid, and rolling back voting rights. Thousands of people showed up for North Carolina’s Moral Mondays to disrupt the legislative session with acts of civil disobedience, resulting in the arrests of more than 900 individuals.
Now Moral Mondays are coming to Georgia.
Progressives from across the state will gather during the legislative session beginning on January 13 to express their concerns about what the Atlanta Progressive News calls the “extremist veto-proof Republican-led Legislature that is working in concert with a like-minded Gov. Nathan Deal.”
Georgia progressives’ complaints will sound familiar to the North Carolina Moral Mondays crowd: Governor Deal’s failure to expand Medicaid, efforts to put restive voting measure in place, and education spending policies that divert funds from public schools to private schools.
Moral Monday Georgia describe themselves as “a multiracial, multi-issue coalition of citizens working for positive change for the public good.”
“Georgia has gone hard right at a time when income equality is at its height, unemployment is high, we have the creation of an economy designed to provide low paying, dead-end jobs, and we need an effort to respond to that,” said State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), who will be speaking at the rally. “Moral Mondays is exactly that kind of effort.”
Speakers in addition to Fort will include Rev. Timothy McDonald III from First Iconium Baptist Church, Georgia NAACP President Francis Johnson, North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber, and Georgians directly affected by lack of access to Medicaid. Barber started the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina.
Tim Franzen, from the Quaker social justice organization American Friends Service Committee, as well as Occupy Atlanta and Occupy Our Homes, told The GA Voice he is very excited that Moral Mondays is coming to his home state.
“We’ve been really inspired and it’s like nothing we’ve seen since the civil rights movement. It has forced people in North Carolina and all over the country to look at state budgets not as a random shopping list but as a list of our moral priorities,” he says.
Franzen added he’s distressed by Governor Deal’s decision not to accept federal funds for the Medicaid expansion.
“It’s the ultimate insult to hardworking people, to struggling folks who are working their butts off at a fast food joint or Wal-Mart, and here’s an opportunity where they can get free healthcare,” he says. “We’re talking about real lives here, real beating hearts that are going to die because of ideological stubbornness. We find it unacceptable, both morally and fiscally.”
But organizers caution that the first Georgia Moral Monday won’t be on the same scale as the North Carolina protests, and might not feature arrests. Rather, the January gathering will set the tone for future actions.
Franzen told The GA Voice, “We hope the governor will come to his senses and do what is morally right, and if not then people might fill up the jail.”
“These opportunities for educational outreach will bring together a remarkable cross-section of people representing different groups, causes, and identities, coalescing around a common agenda of fundamental human rights and equality,” the Atlanta Progressive News explains.
Reverend Timothy McDonald from First Iconium Baptist Church in East Atlanta wants members of his congregation to join the Moral Monday protest.
WABE 90.1 FM:
“Georgia is one of those states, and we aren’t surprised, who doesn’t want to extend Medicaid. It would help over 600,000 Georgians, and it would bring in all kinds of money, federal money, into our state.”
After the service, McDonald said expanding Medicaid would greatly help his churchgoers.
“There are people in our congregation and probably every congregation who don’t have any kind of health care”.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 400,000 people in Georgia will be denied Medicaid coverage by state leaders.
“The fact that Governor Deal would turn down Medicaid money is a shame and a crime before God. Folks under the Gold Dome say that [Medicaid] is a Grady problem or an Atlanta problem. Let’s be real—what they are saying is that Medicaid is a black problem, but it’s about hospitals statewide,” State Senator Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said at a recent rally outside of Grady Hospital, the largest hospital in Georgia.
“There are six hospitals in the Piedmont Healthcare System. One in Pickens County, one in Henry County, and one in a rural county in North Georgia. Some of these hospitals are in counties that are not predominantly African American or Democratic. Some are in Republican, rural and suburban counties. This is not an Atlanta problem, but a Georgia problem,” Sen. Fort said.
He added: “Every year, a thousand people die for every one million people who don’t have health care. Don’t take my word for this, the Harvard Medical School did this research. Because of Governor Deal’s partisan politics, the six hundred and fifty thousand Georgians who do not have health care, six to seven hundred of them will die next year.”
Read Next: William Greider on the "Supreme Court gap" in healthcare coverage.
The Institute for College Access & Success, an independent nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, recently released its eighth annular report on average student loan debt in the United States, and its findings are dire. College graduates who borrowed for bachelor’s degrees granted in 2012 have an average student loan debt of $29,400, the highest average student loan debt ever on record.
Overall, seventy percent of college seniors graduated with debt in 2012.
“The graduates of 2012 left school and entered repayment at a time of high unemployment,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the institute. “In many ways, these graduates were hit from both sides.”
“They went to college during a recession when their family’s ability to pay for college was likely reduced. Now they are graduating from college and may be experiencing substantial challenges getting a job to repay the loans.”
Lynn O’Shaughnessy, an expert on college issues, says the trend isn’t likely to reverse itself anytime soon because the price of higher education continues to rise, while incomes remain flat.
“College costs have always gone up higher than inflation, but the problem we face now is that family incomes are stagnant and they can’t afford it anymore, if they ever did,” said O’Shaughnessy, author of the book The College Solution and a blog of the same name. “It used to be much more affordable.”
Students in certain states are hit particularly hard. For example, average debt is higher for graduates from Pennsylvania ($31,675). Seventy percent of graduates from Pennsylvania public and nonprofit colleges have student loan debt, compared to 41 percent of students graduating from Nevada colleges. The average student debt in New Mexico is just under $18,000.
Mike Morrill, Executive Director for Keystone Progress, an activist network, explains the long term effects: “Even if you are able to get a good job it means that if you’re graduating with $30,000 or more in debt, that means it’s going to be a long time before you get rid of that debt. It makes it harder for you to buy a house, harder to start a business.”
The Times Herald reports that college expenses in Pennsylvania have become outrageously high over the past decade, fueled in part by the “easy money” of student loans and government financial aid. Schools maintain extremely high principals (the cost of tuition) and offset the costs to students, who are expected to take out loans that could potentially permanently bury them in debt.
And student debt, like subprime loans, is a huge moneymaking scheme from which the government is making a pretty penny. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi reports that the federal government is poised to make $185 billion over the next ten years on student loans.
Before Christmas, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) released a slate of proposed reforms aimed at lowering student debt, including a student borrower’s bill of rightsthat would put more emphasis on getting servicers to offer students affordable repayment plans, and a provision that would require schools with lots of struggling borrowers to compensate the government for loan repayment losses.
Businessweek reports the penalty proposed in the Protect Student Borrowers Act of 2013 would affect schools at which at least a quarter of students take out loans, a threshold that would include most institutions. Community colleges would be exempt, along with historically black institutions, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Read Next: Betsy Reed on de Blasio's innovative education policy.
About 150 protesters took to the streets in Durham, North Carolina, following the death of teenager Jesus Huerta, who was cuffed behind his back when the teenager shot himself in the head, according to police.
Relatives of Huerta had hoped for a peaceful vigil on Thursday, but supporters gathered in the center of town to light fire crackers, and according to the Raleigh News & Observer, a protester threw at least one bottle at police. Heavily armed police countered by launching canisters of tear gas into the crowd and arresting at least one person.
Launching tear gas canisters is an incredibly dangerous crowd dispersal technique, even though law enforcement has traditionally touted the strategy as non-lethal. In October 2011, 24-year-old former Marine and Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen was nearly killed by police in Oakland when authorities fired what protesters believed to be a tear gas or smoke canister that fractured Olsen’s skull.
Huerta’s bizarre death occured on November 19 after officer Samuel Duncan arrested the teen for trespassing. It was then that Duncan cuffed the teen’s hands behind his back and placed him into the patrol car. Somehow, according to police Chief Jose Lopez, the teen then managed to pull out a gun and shoot himself in the back of the head.
“I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back,” Lopez said in a statement. “While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.”
Lopez is right that handcuffed young man have shot themselves in other jurisdictions. In fact, it’s a bit of a disturbing trend.
Twice in six months, young men managed to shoot themselves in the head last year while in the handcuffs in the back of police cars, after having been searched for weapons. In August 2012, police in Jonesboro, Arkansas, claimed that Chavis Carter, 21, committed suicide while in the back of the patrol car. Carter was handcuffed at the time and had already been searched for weapons. But somehow during the search police missed Carter’s concealed handgun, and the teen, who was found to be on amphetamines and sedatives at the time, reached around his back to shoot himself in the right side of his head, despite being left-handed.
In December 2012, police again managed to overlook a very large gun when searching a high schooler who was being detained by police after a friend reported him as a suicide risk.
“As he was searched and handcuffed and put in the back for his protection, and he was being transported to a facility where he could be taken care of, he managed to retrieve a hidden gun and shot himself,” said Jonathan Frey, a school district spokesman.
The deputy constable who took him into custody searched him but overlooked the weapon, Galena Park ISD officials said.
“I know he was searched,” Frey said. “He may have had it hidden really well. All I know is that when he was in police custody, in the back of car with handcuffs on, he somehow managed to retrieve, apparently, a hidden gun and shoot himself.”
Huerta’s family remains skeptical about the police department’s official statement.
In a press release, the family asks: “How did Jesús end up dead in the parking lot at police headquarters in these circumstances? Searched. Handcuffed behind the back. How is it even possible to shoot oneself?”
Evelin Huerta, Jesus’ sister, issues a statement calling on Lopez to resign over the incident:
“The actions of the Durham Police Department last night, led by Chief Lopez, were a tried and true tactic to intimidate and spread fear into our community,” she said. “The Durham Police cannot be trusted to investigate my brother’s death, and we need a federal investigation.”
At the end of November, hundreds of Amazon employees in Germany began staging a series of wildcat strikes. On Monday, hundreds of workers again walked off the job in an effort to put pressure on the company during the busy days before Christmas. The Ver.di union says Amazon workers receive lower wages than others in retail and mail-order jobs. According to the the union, “The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts.”
These complaints will sound familiar to American Amazon employees, who testify about constant performance pressure, on-site injuries, indifferent managers, long hours and low pay.
Back in February, Amazon.com was under attack in Germany for alleged mistreatment of workers following a television documentary that showed immigrant employees living in cramped housing under surveillance by security guards in neo-Nazi garb. Workers were promised €9.69, but upon showing up for work, learned they would only be compensated €8.52 ($11.37) per hour.
Amazon later said it canceled the contract with that security company whose guards were accused of harassing workers, searching their rooms and frisking them to make sure they had not taken food from the dining room, Businessweek reports.
German workers now plan to stage a one-day warning strike at Amazon logistic centers in Leipzig, Bad Hersfeld and Graben, and on Monday some of the strikers plan to rally outside the retailer’s Seattle headquarters in hopes of drawing in local union workers as well as sympathetic members of the public, the New York Times reports.
The Times notes there appears to be a “backlash developing” against successful tech companies like Amazon for driving up housing prices, contributing to income disparities and expanding a generally obnoxious bourgeois attitude among “tech bros.” For example, young Internet entrepreneur founder Peter Shih posted online a list of ten things he hates about San Francisco in August that included homeless people, the “constantly PMSing” weather and “girls who are obviously 4s and behave like they’re 9s.”
Amazon sales in Germany are skyrocketing. Last year, they rose by 21 percent, and the country is the firm’s second biggest market after the US, responsible for about a third of all overseas sales, the BBC reports. And while this is certainly a labor dispute over the familiar terrain of living wages, the Times notes there is also a bigger question of whether the warehouse workers should have control over their workplace. (Employees known as “pickers” assemble Amazon orders. These jobs are extremely physically demanding, and pickers are constantly monitored, and are not provided job security).
“The workers are treated more as robots than human,” Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, an organizer for Ver.di at the Amazon warehouse in the city of Werne, said by email. He was on his way to Seattle to participate in the demonstration.
“As a worldwide company,” Mr. Hoffmann-Achenbach added, “Amazon should treat their workers fairly and with respect in every country. The solidarity of American unions and Ver.di, the united services union of Germany, is a sign that social movements are not bounded by national borders and that in times of globalization the workers worldwide stand together as one.”
Nancy Becker, an American who has been an employee of Amazon in Germany since 2001, is also traveling to Seattle for the rally.
“I’m coming to Seattle to dare Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week,” she said. “I’m sure he would not survive.”
This is the first time the union has taken a Germany wage dispute outside the country to a corporation’s doorstep, according to Mechthild Middeke of Ver.di.
While Middeke stresses what’s happening in Seattle is not a strike, she adds it is an act of solidarity involving a number of US unions, including the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, two of the largest unions in the United States.
“Employees at Amazon deliver excellent work every day, and for that they rightfully demand the assurance and protection of retail and mail-order sector wage agreements, as well as healthy working conditions and respectful treatment,” the union said in a statement.
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Over the summer, the Chicago Board of Education held a vote whether to shut fifty-four schools. Ultimately, the board voted to close fifty schools, a controversial decision that drew criticism from the city’s teachers union, parents, and students. Of the students affected by the closures, 88 percent are black, 10 percent Hispanic, and 94 percent come form low income households.
The city, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel dismissed concerns that the closures are a form of racial discrimination by promising students would have access to better facilities in what are called “welcoming schools.” Though some students and parents expressed concern that children would have to walk longer distances, oftentimes through dangerous parts of the city in order to reach their new schools, officials promised all the hassle would be worth it because the old, “bad” schools would be gone.
President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Karen Lewis was skeptical from the beginning:
“Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design.”
Lewis added, “These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict. Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”
But while the solution was tough, Emanuel insisted it was necessary:
“If we don’t make these changes, we haven’t lived up to our responsibility as adults to the children of the city of Chicago. And I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility,” he said.
Emanuel was out of town when schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett made the closures announcement.
Now, Chicago students and parents are beginning to fully comprehend the consequences of the closures and “welcoming schools,” and unsurprisingly, their real-life experiences are vastly different to city officials’ claims. Some Chicago families complain of overcrowding and an overall lack of support during the transition.
Devion Allen, an eighth grader, used to attend Lafayette Elementary, a school Allen describes as being “like a family.” In an interview with the AP, Allen said, “It’s not fair” in response to the city’s plans to turn the empty building into an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.
Allen now attends a “welcoming school,” The Choplin School, which is so overcrowded that the staff has been forced to give up on promised transitional provisions like a computer lab, the library, and art and music rooms. The AP also reports that the school’s psychologist, occupational therapist, and speech pathologist are working in windowless, unvented spaces that were formerly storage closets.
Sometimes, students are tested in these spaces.
The environment in the “welcoming schools” mirror the very complaints officials made of the original “bad schools” that they argued needed to be closed. Classrooms are still overcrowded and resources are scarce.
Special education students also have suffered, say teachers and student advocates. At least one school that has dozens of new special ed students, the Courtenay Language Arts Center, has yet to set up a behavioral health team to assess those children’s needs in a faster, more organized way, staff members say.
And teacher Michael Flynn says his school is using a room not much larger than one of those closets as a special education room for 13 children because there’s simply no other option.
“There’s not enough space. There’s not enough resources,” said Flynn, a longtime seventh-grade literature and social studies teacher at the James Otis World Language Academy, a welcoming school northwest of downtown Chicago. Despite the school’s name, the world languages teacher was among those who lost a classroom because of the space constraints and, instead, travels from room to room.
These kinds of findings aren’t new. University of Chicago research published in 2009 (pdf) found that previous closures in Chicago also didn’t do anything to better students’ education. In fact, the closures didn’t boost reading and math scores unless students transferred to higher-achieving schools, but a very small percentage of them actually ended up at those schools.
“Only 6 percent of displaced students enrolled in academically strong schools, while 42 percent of displaced students continued to attend schools with very low levels of academic achievement,” the report read.
The opposition to the education reformers in Chicago, and all across the country, continues. Students and teachers from more than sixty cities are slated to participate in a day of protest Monday that is being billed as the largest unified opposition to educational reforms that organizers say have devastated families and communities.
From Baltimore to Philadelphia to New Orleans to Chicago, parents, students and teachers will protest against mass school closings, the growing practice of turning over management of public schools to private companies and other measures that disproportionately hurt low-income students of color, organizers say. The day, which will feature dozens of coordinated events, is being organized by a coalition of labor, civic and civil rights organizations.
“The Day of Action is important because young people are under attack when it comes to public education,” Murphy, a high school senior who hopes to attend Howard University or Bowie State University next year, told The Root. “We have found that the educational decision-makers do not value the thoughts and opinions of young people. That creates a critical gap when it comes to making decisions about our future.”
Fast-food workers in New York City are expected to walk off their jobs Thursday, one year after their first strike, joining a 100-city strike wave. Organizers say actions will take place all across the country as part of the movement for $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation.
In New York City, there are more than 57,000 fast-food workers, and the median wage is $8.89/hour, the lowest of any occupation in the city.
With support from union groups such as the Service Employees International Union, the fast-food protests have dramatically grown over the course of the last year. The early protests in New York City in November grew to thousands of protesters waging actions in seven other cities during the summer. An August strike spread to more than fifty cities, including areas in the South that have historically been hostile to union actions.
This Thursday, there will be more new strike locations in Charleston, South Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Mary Coleman, known to her co-workers as Ms. Mary, works at a Popeye’s in Milwaukee for $7.25 an hour. Coleman, 59, lives with her daughter, who has a heart condition, and her two grandchildren. She also relies on food stamps to make ends meet and says she would gladly trade in her Qwest card for higher wages. Thursday marks Mary’s fourth strike. Previously, she walked off the job on May 15, August 1 and August 29.
“I’m tired of working for $7.25,” Coleman says. “I can’t take care of my household, I can’t even take care of myself.”
Little amenities many individuals take for granted, such as deodorant, are unaffordable for Coleman on fast-food low wages.
“Every day struggles are being able to keep food on the table, being able to get the necessities that’s needed for every day living…. And then if you need to go to the doctor, you can’t afford that either.”
Coleman says she is inspired by the organizing of low-wage workers in other states.
“I’m very excited about it, and it lets me know people can come together and do what’s right,” she says.
Some workers Coleman’s age might consider protesting a job for younger people, but she felt compelled to join the strikes, if only to show apathetic youth that change is possible.
“If we sit back and leave everything to the younger generation, we’ll never get anywhere,” she says. “At this point, it seems like a majority of the younger generation thinks that their voices don’t matter. I want to let them know that their voice does matter.”
Danielle, 23, is a fast food worker at Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits in Charleston who will be going on strike
Danielle has worked at Bojangles for four years, started as a cashier and is now a manager making $11 an hour, and though she makes more than entry-level position workers, she still can’t survive on her wages. Over the past year, Danielle’s mother, father, and grandmother have all passed away, so she is now struggling to support herself.
She walks five miles every day to work, and because she’s on her own, says she has trouble paying her bills on time. Sometimes she receives her paycheck and sees it isn’t even enough to cover rent.
“I’m tired of living paycheck to paycheck. I can’t live like that,” says Danielle.
Like many fast-food workers, Danielle says she isn’t scheduled for enough hours, but works hard while she’s at the restaurant, and yet she isn’t fairly compensated for her labor. However, she too draws inspiration from the wave of strikes and walkouts occurring at major big-box stores and fast-food chains all across the country.
“It makes me feel good because people are opening their mouths and going on strike, and saying we want a raise. We’ve been busting out butts and we finally want a raise. I’m glad to be one of the people going on strike because this is ridiculous,” she says.
Danielle adds she doesn’t fear retaliation from her employers for going on strike.
“I know my rights as a manager. They can’t fire me for opening my mouth. I earned [my paycheck], I’m a hard worker.”
Brooklyn KFC worker Naquasia LeGrand, 22, will be going on strike for the fifth time this week. While she doesn’t have children, LeGrand does have an extended family that she helps support, and even though at $7.70/hour she earns slightly above New York’s minimum wage ($7.25), LeGrand says the fifteen-hours-per-week cap at KFC makes it impossible to earn a living wage.
“I have to pay for my Metro card, I have to pay $100 for my phone bill, I do try to put food in the house…. Sometimes I can’t even feed myself,” says LeGrand, who has been working at KFC for two years.
The lack of resources finally drove LeGrand to participate in her first strike: “I realized that we needed a change. I thought about the future. Are we going to be living off $7.25 in twenty years?” she asks.
LeGrand says she feels under-appreciated by an industry that makes lavish profits off the hard labor of workers like herself. To the naysayers and critics, who say fast-food jobs are low skill, and therefore deserve low pay, LeGrand says these businesses could not profit without workers.
“Why do you think these corporations are an over $200 billion a year business? Off our hard work. [The CEOs] aren’t working. They’re just collecting all the money.”
LeGrand has participated in the fast-food strikes since they began in November, and hers is a unique perspective, since she’s witnessed the movement grow and flourish, an evolution that mirrors her own transition from skeptic to passionate activist.
“In the beginning, I was afraid. I was skeptical. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t even know what a union was. People say, ‘You’re not gonna get $15 [per hour].’ But I would tell people to look at what’s going on. Look at where we started in New York City. On November 29, 2012, it was 127 workers who decided to walk out on their jobs to make a statement and say we want $15 [per hour] and a union. Now, [this week] 200 cities are about to have actions. This is spreading around the whole country.”
Last week, Allison Kilkenny reported on the nationwide Black Friday protests against Walmart.