June 21, 2010

Another Detroit is Happening, But Which One do We Need?

Originally published in Truthout

Tens of thousands of activists are converging for the June 22-26 United States Social Forum. Detroit will host the second iteration of a global justice "movement of movements" revival, bringing together nearly every cause on the American left's radar. But Forum-goers are also focused on the host city at a time when the event's tagline - "Another Detroit is Happening" - is both promising and foreboding.
Soon after taking office in 2009, Detroit's new mayor, Dave Bing, assembled his "crisis turnaround team," a handpicked collection of exiled auto executives, financiers, and PR people. The NBA hall-of-famer and steel executive and his team have acted swiftly to reshape a city they view as a clean slate, a city as vacant as post-Katrina New Orleans.
The new mayor is promising to shrink Detroit and its infrastructure, and has gathered the business community and suburban philanthropies to put down-payments on a Detroit dreamscape: a downtown light rail line, a new hockey stadium, shiny charter schools to complement a slimmed down "traditional" district, an industrial farm on the East side, and new housing enclaves.
While the corporate class dreams of new investments, the community has been reminding Bing that Detroit is no empty city. "I think we need to use the Social Forum as an opportunity to say to city officials, look - you're dealing with a population that can mobilize 20,000 people to come to Detroit," says Lottie Spady, a food justice organizer working on the Forum. "Outside of a sporting event, when does that happen?"
Visions of Detroit consistently refer to a sparkling time of industry, shopping, and peace that never really existed. The Motor City's avenues hosted an eight-lane American dream cruise. And when the dream picked a freeway and left town, the city's persistent class warfare and racial segregation came into stark relief. Shea Howell says Bing envisions a city that would paper over the city's long-standing inequality, not confront it.
"Their focal point is creating these protected enclaves with good schools, good services, safety; all those nice things that everybody wants. Only some people will be able to have them, and the rest of us will be on the outside looking in," says Howell, a teacher, activist, and columnist organizing the Forum.
City planning documents bemoan city workers and their "large number of labor unions restricting management's ability to properly control and discipline the workforce." Bing has demanded 10 percent wage cuts and an end to defined-benefit pensions for the next generation of public employees. Bing is also moving to discontinue the Public Lighting Department and sell operations to DTE Energy, a company notorious for a string of fatal electricity shutoffs in the city.
Today, much of what's left of the proud auto worker corps is either making close to non-union wages, working non-union jobs, or out of work altogether. A four-month strike by workers at GM-supplier American Axle in 2008 was the rank-and-file's last big stand before the Big 3's government-guided implosion. Axle CEO Dick Dauch cut starting wages in half. Months later, he picked up and moved the whole operation to Mexico. Two downtown stadiums, three downtown casinos, and two medical centers have struggled to fill the gaps, but thirty percent of residents are without a job. That's the official tally.
Reinvestment and plans to shrink the city might be needed, says Bill Wylie-Kellerman, an organizer of the Forum's Spirituality Committee. "But how do you do it in a way that isn't high-handed, that doesn't write off people's lives and communities?" asks Wylie-Kellerman, a pastor at St. Peter's Episcopal. "How do we create democratic involvement in the process of envisioning the new city?"
Organizers have begun arriving for the five-day series of workshops, meetings, and action-oriented "People's Movement Assemblies" to tackle these questions. Some visitors are pasting revolutionary literature on telephone poles, others are jimmying the lights in burned-out apartments. Organizers are prepping tent-cities. Forum-goers will see that Detroit is not only the site of capitalism's brutality on showcase, but also of a community's resolve to face it. "For a very long time, there's been an underground, more sustainable version of work being done that has come about out of necessity," says Spady.
That necessary work precedes the Forum, and will continue when it's over. Organizers agree, though, that the June gathering is a golden opportunity to solidify alternative visions of the city at a moment when Bing and company are advancing a very different idea about how Detroit's schools, housing, and empty land should be leveraged, and to whose benefit.
State-appointed schools manager Robert Bobb has run up against a legal challenge and neighborhood resistance to his plan to shutter 45 district schools next year. He's stood shoulder-to-shoulder with a foundation-funded plan to "replace, not reform" the public schools by opening 70 new charter schools by 2020 and handing control to Mayor Bing much sooner.
After a student walkout, teachers and alumni of Northwestern High vowed to sit down, chain the doors, and pursue injunctions - whatever was necessary - to keep the historic school open. Bobb kept 18 schools open, including Northwestern, but vowed to shutter 45 schools by 2013 anyway - if a judge allows him to. Many remaining district schools, some put under private management, will function as magnet schools, taking select applicants, not all comers. District schools will adopt the model of their non-union, charter school counterparts, skimming the best and brightest to raise test scores while pushing communities of "low-performing" students further to the margins.
Ismael Duran Galfano and Mary Duran say they won't go along with Bobb's plan for a K-14 "megacampus" that would consolidate three neighborhood schools into one contiguous campus. Bobb asked the long-time residents in the growing Latino neighborhood of Southwest Detroit for some real estate, namely their home, which has been in Mary's family since it was built in 1910. Galfano runs a community arts center and Duran is retiring this year from 30 years of teaching in the Detroit Public schools. The two have lived in their home and tended their garden there for three decades. Ismael says he didn't leave Pinochet's Chile to put up with more dictatorship in his backyard. By email, he told his neighbors he wouldn't be going without a fight.
"Bobb had no idea this guy's a community organizer - he's going to know a thing or two about creating resistance," says Howell. "I think if they asked people to sit in on their property, they'd have a lot of us right there."
Bobb eventually got the message, assuring the Duran family and their neighbors that no homes would be destroyed in the consolidation that would bring six-year-olds onto campus with 19-year-olds. The proposal is questionable, and has become the next focus of organizing in the neighborhood.
Bing says he'll demolish 10,000 homes during his term to ready for rightsizing. But even the mayor has switched up his plans, firing a city planner after her proposal to consolidate two East Side neighborhoods hit the press to bad reviews. The phrase "eminent domain," loaded in Detroit's mind after a GM plant wiped out a Polish enclave in 1981, dropped from Bing's vocabulary. His May invite-only land use summit assembled foundations, investors, and city planners, then promptly went underground, promising to return in 18 months with more details.
Organizers for the USSF aren't twiddling their thumbs waiting for his re-emergence. Spady's East Michigan Environmental Action Council organizes around air quality and food justice, engaging Detroit youth with participatory environmental education programs that emphasize media making and civic action. In the lead-up to the Forum, EMEAC has linked with national organizations, hatching plans for a direct action against the city's trash incinerator. They're also hosting a youth-led film screening with media-based environmental justice groups like the Green Guerillas and Outta Your Backpack Media.
EMEAC was part of a collaborative effort to establish a Community Food Justice Task Force to examine the entire food system and evaluate where the community can take ownership to meet its needs, not market needs. While a growing network of city gardens builds long-term toward a self-sustaining food system, a financier has tried to take Detroit's urban agriculture phenomenon large scale. John Hantz has bought hundreds of acres of land on the East Side for what's being called the "corporate farm," a year-round operation producing for wholesale markets. But it's far from a done deal. "When people like Hantz want to come in and plunk down, we're going to have an educated citizenry to say no no no, this is not what we need," says Spady.
A 2010 land study shows that 95 percent of Detroit's vacant single-family homes are still in liveable condition - that's 218,000 homes suitable for occupancy right now. Still, Detroit's homeless population is among the highest in the country, and has been on a steady rise. Two major housing projects near downtown have been torn down or vacated in the last decade, their former tenants re-assigned to mixed-income townhouses or displaced in the shuffle. Ballparks and casinos now sit nearby.
Maureen Taylor, a Forum organizer and activist with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, says the recently demolished East Jeffries projects were not only communities, but solid, well built housing stock. MWRO fights for residents' basic needs. Their housing takeovers are featured in "Locusts," a hip-hop documentary by Detroit's own Invincible and Finale. The video jumps around Detroit to show how space remains contested and cordoned off, even in a city with so much of it.
"We have people who need housing, and we have available housing. So we got those people ready, and took them straight to those units, kicked in the door, got new locks on 'em," says Taylor, in "Locusts." "That's direct action - there's nothing else left between us and homelessness."
Fresh off a month of action that featured civil disobedience "live-ins" at government-owned or foreclosed homes in ten cities, Miami-based Take Back the Land will arrive in Detroit, joining efforts with MWRO and housing rights groups from Chicago and New Orleans at several strategy sessions.
Detroit's Midtown area, a constellation of six central-city neighborhoods, is one of the clearest signs that reinvestment is more than a boardroom daydream. The area bordered by four freeways boasts nearly $2 billion in investment in the last decade. Midtown reaches south to a stunning downtown skyline, still blinking like a real corporate city. Downtown's entertainment district reaches back to meet it. In between sits the "South Cass" Corridor, a collection of hand-painted signs on bygone bars, plywood, and parking lots - as well as several social service and homeless organizations.
Midtown's "changing" neighborhood is rebuilding from the ground up, giving rise to a small business bohemia. Gentrification is not an issue now, and it might never be, says Sue Mosey. A long time Detroiter, Mosey heads up the University Cultural Center Association, a non-profit headed up by local business owners and redevelopers. UCCA has its hand in nearly all things Midtown, an idea more than a neighborhood radiating from the Wayne State University campus.
Mosey lists off in rapid fire the projects that her nonprofit has underway. With a $5 million annual budget raised from local foundations, the group funds small business start-ups and facade improvement, street beautification and urban gardens, and is planning an arts district based around an auto dealership turned contemporary art museum.
Then there's real estate. UCCA owns, manages, and helps develop housing for a mix of incomes - for now. "We haven't seen anything like other markets where people throw out low-income and go for lucrative high-end," says Mosey. "That's not the market here, and that's not what we're going for." All of the UCCA's projects, she says, have taken place in vacant or abandoned buildings, and many have a green ethos.
While the Midtown name imports its status from New York, the Cass Corridor is undeniably Detroit. The Corridor's legacy as home to a gritty arts community is too famous to be erased. But its authenticity is becoming marketable, too. "We're not about changing neighborhood names," says Mosey. "But we are about branding the bigger neighborhood that encompasses them all, and we call that Midtown." But slapping a brand on neighborhoods raises the question: can development be about more than just attracting new consumers?
"A little gentrification's good," says Pat Dorn with a smile. But it was his concern that the whole neighborhood would go high-end that got Dorn into affordable housing work. The neighborhood was home to a sizeable white, Appalachian auto worker community when he started the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation in 1982. Two blocks of Brainard Street in the heart of the Corridor used to house thousands of people, but began clearing out when the Big 3 stopped hiring.
CCNDC eventually bought up that block for redevelopment. "We wanted to establish a percentage that would always remain affordable," says Dorn. "So we took the center, and we dedicated some units to people who get pushed out. "
Midtown and the Corridor tout a growing number of community-based projects. A locally-owned organic bakery and health food store share a block. Around the corner, there's a community bike shop. Down Cass Avenue, across from the Mandarin signposts of old Chinatown, a recently closed school hosts an independent movie theater and studio space for artists and activists.
But while another layer of life and culture imprints itself on the city's rapidly changing palimpsest - a blend of decay and rebirth, exodus and return - Midtown's humble, village-like charm exists precariously. Because Detroit has gone from majority white to majority black, from industrial powerhouse to industrial graveyard, in a relatively short period of time, no degree of transformation seems untenable. The covered wagon and the kibbutz set off larger processes of settlement and takeover, and gentrification, too, happens in phases on the urban frontier. Larger commercial and real estate forces always hover, ready to capitalize on "cool," capable of enacting large-scale transformations in short periods of time.
For now, there's only one Starbucks in Midtown. And the high-end lofts that sit above it are half-empty. Around the corner, California investors took out a $2 million mortgage on the Hotel Eddystone. The purchase of the 13-story blown out structure comes after rumors that Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Illitch is considering the Corridor site for a new hockey stadium. A shredded "Move in Now" banner still hangs on the Eddystone's windowless shell, a reminder of a highly-touted 2005 redevelopment effort - one of many false starts that precede the current attempt to transform one of the poorest parts of the city.
Bing's remapping efforts will continue to bump up against pervasive inequality in the city. The most transient visitor, funneled from highway off-ramp to casino parking garage, will still see people posted up on every corner, asking for change.
The tens of thousands of visitors arriving in Detroit for the five-day Forum will take on superficial "renewal" plans with skill-building, strategy sessions, and direct action to shape community-driven solutions. They come together, however, with an understanding that no number of visitors can save the city in one week. "It can't be the end," says Spady. "We'll have to come back out from it stronger. It's got to be more of a beginning."

May 02, 2010

The Future of Detroit's Schools

From Labor Notes, May, 2010. Reprinted on Counterpunch.

Before Detroiters voted last fall on a half-billion-dollar bond measure to renovate and build new schools, the state-appointed financial manager Robert Bobb launched an “I’m In” campaign to keep kids in the p
ublic schools, which are hemorrhaging students.

After voters approved the bond, Bobb announced that 44 schools would close. At the same time, a grouping of charter school companies and foundations with close ties to Bobb released their plan to open 70 new charter schools over a decade.

The closing of a quarter of Detroit schools, to be finalized in April, comes after 29 others were shuttered last summer. Bobb is calling for even more consolidation, pointing to the district’s drop from 164,000 students in 2003 to 84,000 this year.

Rank-and-file teacher reformers are trying to build opposition to Bobb, in a teachers union (DFT) facing threats to its very existence.


Bobb is touting a “slimmer, smarter” district, and he’s throwing out some big numbers. Sixteen percent of the city’s 11th graders scored “proficient” on the state’s standardized math test last year. Bobb says 100 percent will pass in 2014. In the same year, he promises, all of the district’s remaining schools will meet federal standards for improvement—though only 31 percent did last year. Bobb claims he will push graduation rates, now at 58 percent, to 98 percent.

How does he plan to pull it off? Details are slim, but Bobb is placing great faith in charter schools to drive competition. Public schools now reach 70 percent of the city’s students, but as the district downsizes, charter school backers seek to flip that ratio.

The group led by several local foundations and a growing charter franchise called New Urban Learning released its plan, unsubtly named “Taking Ownership,” in mid-March.

In addition to calling for 70 new charter schools, the Ownership plan lays the foundation for an “education marketplace” where charter and district schools compete for students, using test scores as the marker of success.

An independent “standards and accountability” commission will grade schools on this basis, recommending closure for some and helping parents become “smarter shoppers.” They’re pushing to put new Mayor Dave Bing in control of the schools to expedite the overhaul and cut out elected school board officials.

These architects of privatization don’t have to convince Bobb and Bing to enact their vision. Bobb spoke at the release of the privatizing plan. Before his election, Bing sat on the board of University Preparatory Academy, a series of schools run by New Urban Learning. The charter operator fought off a teacher organizing drive last spring.

Now it’s building a new charter high school across from the American Federation of Teachers office—and naming it after the mayor.

Add to all this a new state law raising the cap on charter schools in the city, and the teachers union finds itself in a tough spot. The charter plan touts involvement from labor, but AFT-Michigan has not taken a position yet.


While the Detroit School Board contests Bobb’s powers to enact the overhaul, students have walked out to protest the closing plans, and teachers are organizing in the face of inevitable charges that they’re just protecting the status quo.

A months-long battle inside the Detroit Federation of Teachers escalated last winter when angry teachers tried to recall President Keith Johnson after he eked through ratification of a contract that included 10 percent wage cuts and stipulations for private management companies to contract with pilot schools.

Teachers in the Defend Public Education/Save Our Schools caucus have been a loud voice of opposition. Johnson fired back, charging two teacher leaders, Steve Conn and Heather Miller, with inciting a riot at a union meeting. After a late-night trial at the union hall, the two factions decided to table, but not drop, their respective charges.

The opposition caucus recently swept the DFT’s election for delegates to June’s national convention in Seattle. Teachers are hoping to build a broader challenge to AFT President Randi Weingarten. They say the AFT is not fighting President Obama’s education overhaul that is devastating public schools and local unions. Obama’s push to make teachers “accountable” quickly turned into mass firings, as witnessed at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

Conn and company went to D.C. for a small April 10 march on the Department of Education, where they were joined by teacher reformers from all over the country, but not the AFT officialdom. “Weingarten’s response to the Obama plan is just poison,” says Conn.

Back home, teachers and community groups are trying to shape the Bobb plan, acknowledging under-enrollment and poor facilities, but arguing they shouldn’t be used as excuses for a firesale that consumes innovative public schools.

Detroiters were especially puzzled when Bobb announced that the Catherine Ferguson Academy would be moved. The school for mothers and pregnant teens features an urban farm—which would seem to root it at its current location.

Bobb’s master plan for closures targets schools serving lower-income students. He vows to build and expand “schools of choice” in the city—where any student can attend, but only if they get accepted.

Students at neighborhood K-8 schools thus face massive displacement in a city already suffering from a 27 percent dropout rate. Eighty-two percent of the students at Owen Elementary School, for example, receive free or reduced lunch. Only 44 percent of the students at nearby Burton—a “school of choice”—get help with lunch money. Bobb seeks to close Owen and create a new, expanded campus for Burton. Neighborhood kids will have to apply to Burton, find another school, or get lost in the shuffle.

The plan would result in a district-wide staff shakeup, too, an enticing prospect for alternative-certification “new teacher programs” eyeing the city. Last year Bobb put nearly every high school in the city under contract with private management groups; there’s no indication he’ll stop there.


Detroit teachers and students pleaded for their schools at April “town hall” meetings. Each school was given 20 minutes to make its case. Some brought out the marching band; others did a cheer; some cried as Bobb looked on, scribbling notes.

The high-stakes talent show at Northwestern High School got heated as students, alumni, and teachers of the legendary school—slated for closure—indicated they would not leave quietly. A crowd charmer, the schools chief indicated gently that their time was up. Ron Scott, class of ’65, stepped to the mic. “Lets be for real, Mr. Bobb: don’t tell my classmates we have a limited time in our house,” he said, as students cheered. “You have a limited time in our house.”

Detroit’s schools remake focuses on raising performance but ignores—or exacerbates—the poverty and segregation that underlie the education crisis. Persistent social and economic collapse is the rationale for more private interventions. And as the charter movement siphons more public dollars, district schools are even less capable of renewal. Set up to fail, they’re primed for takeover.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened” to New Orleans schools, which were largely handed over to private operators. It’s clear that a school district with a decimated union and only a handful of public schools is the Obama model. The administration is looking to the economic storm, hitting Detroit harder than anywhere, to drive the model home.

Detroit voters will decide on a second $500 million bond measure later this year. If Bobb has his way, much of that will end up in private hands.

April 30, 2010

Video: Troublemakers Flip Conference into Action with "Hyatt 100"

Twelve hundred troublemakers found themselves inside the Dearborn Hyatt for Labor Notes 2010 last weekend. So they took the opportunity to march on the boss. First they heard from Aracelly Arango, one of 100 Boston hotel workers fired from three non-union Hyatt hotels last summer.

The "Hyatt 100" were tricked into training their replacements--subcontracted workers who make half the wages and receive no benefits. Since then, they've linked up with UNITE HERE Local 26 in an effort to get their jobs back, and union recognition too. Arango urged support for a boycott in Boston that has drained millions in business from the Hyatt.

She joined Labor Notes at a meeting with management inside Dearborn's union shop to ratchet up the pressure. The Boston fight has lit a fire under organizing drives at Hyatt hotels in San Antonio, Indianapolis, and Long Beach. If a national boycott emerges from the multi-city campaign to organize and win strong contracts at hotel giants, Labor Notes 2012 will not be at the Hyatt.

Labor Notes Conference 2010 - Hyatt 100 Action from Labor Notes on Vimeo.

April 28, 2010

Labor Notes Conference 2010: Troublemakers Join Restaurant Worker Pickets (Video)

A long caravan of cars pulled out of the Labor Notes Conference last Friday to join restaurant workers down the street in front of Andiamo, a fine dining chain in Metro Detroit. The raucous march and street theatrics were the latest action in a months-long campaign organized by Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan over Andiamo's wage theft violations, racial and sexual discrimination, and retaliatory firings.

Among the marchers were ROC members in town for Labor Notes 2010 from all over the country, who have their own workplace justice campaigns underway in New Orleans, Maine, Chicago, and New York.

Videos were taken by Labor Notes conference attendees.

Marchers took to the street in front of the restaurant, garnering a high honk rate from passing cars.

Naomi Debebe explains why she and other restaurant workers have been targeting Andiamo, and why they'll keep the pickets up as long as it takes.

Jose Oliva building people power to take down the wicked, greedy bosses at Andiamo restaurant.

Captain ROC gets some back up from Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, and hundreds of supporters in front of Andiamo.

April 09, 2010

DC Teachers to Vote on Privately Funded Merit Pay Plan

After nearly three years without a contract, Washington Teachers Union President George Parker and DC Schools Chief Michelle Rhee announced a tentative agreement this week. Flanked by Mayor Adrian Fenty and AFT President Randi Weingarten, the two lined up behind a privately-funded agreement that would institute merit pay while continuing to whittle away at teacher job security.

The agreement is sure to receive scrutiny from teachers and city council. The council’s financial officer has yet to approve the newfangled funding mechanism, which draws on foundation money. The timing of the deal, and the teacher ratification vote, comes not a moment too soon for Parker, who hopes to seal an agreement before facing current Vice President Nathan Saunders—an outspoken critic of both Rhee and Parker —in May’s union election.

Rhee was appointed by Fenty in 2007, and got to work pushing her “sweeping” reform: to give unprecedented, privately-funded merit pay awards to teachers who were willing to give up their job protections for a year. The hype died down when the contours of Rhee’s "red and green" plan came out in summer 2008. Parker and Rhee convened meetings with teachers, hoping for a quick approval—but WTU members looked a little deeper, and didn’t like what they saw.

Contract talks stalled, but Rhee’s slash-and-burn agenda didn’t. She resurrected an obscure district law to put hundreds of teachers (including outspoken critics) on 90-day evaluation plans, which led to an untold number of terminations. Last fall, she used the district’s emergency powers to pursue a “reduction in force.” She fired 266 more teachers in a move that drew the ire of students—who walked out of several schools in protest—and a rebuke from City Council President Vincent Gray, who brought her before the council to explain the firings.

Gray has become a more vocal critic of Rhee as he launches a challenge to her ally Fenty in this year’s mayoral race. On the national scene, Rhee gets only good press and is still championed as a fearless reformer by Obama and the corporate education reform punditry. But closer to home, among the teachers who must vote the proposal up or down, Rhee’s heavy-handed treatment puts the tentative agreement on shaky ground.


After swapping counterproposals and bringing in former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke as mediator, Rhee and Parker’s newest iteration is not quite as “bold” as the schools chief had once hoped. But it still contains the same essence of her initial proposal.

There’s merit pay, but teachers won’t have to give up tenure, as such, to receive it. They will, however, be evaluated in order qualify for the merit pay program, on criteria that the tentative deal leaves for further negotiation. Teachers on the merit pay plan that face a job loss due to school program cuts or closings, would relinquish hiring options available to those who opt out of the merit pay program.

Non-merit pay teachers who lose their position are given choices if they can’t immediately find a new placement: a $25,000 buyout, early retirement (for teachers with 20 years of service), or another year to find work—before facing separation. But, importantly, teachers with low “performance” evaluations wouldn’t be afforded these options.

The actual decision to hire a teacher at a particular school would depend on a principal’s consent. And in making the placements, principals would now prioritize teacher "performance," as determined by Rhee’s new evaluation system, over years of experience. WTU President Parker touts a side agreement that would form a working group to review details of the evaluation system—which by law, teachers can’t negotiate over. Teachers haven’t yet had access to those side agreements before the vote.

Across-the-board raises of 20 percent over five years (retroactive to 2007) and the merit pay system are to be funded to the tune of $65 million in private money from the anti-union Walton and Broad Foundations—and others. The unprecedented move to let private donors underwrite merit pay is Rhee’s attempt to show that D.C. schools are serious about upping test scores and tying teacher evaluations to them—a key criterion for winning federal money in the Race to the Top competition.

Rhee is a good investment for the foundations’ corporate-style overhaul of education, which seeks to bust the unions, dismantle schools, and turn them over to private charter operators. And this deal could protect her job. Council President Gray’s mayoral bid is also a challenge to Rhee’s education plans. But all indications are that the foundation money would leave with her, forcing the new mayor to scramble to meet the financial obligations set up by this week’s deal—or concede that private forces will call the shots for public schools.

Gray tried not to turn up his nose at the private support, but warned in a public statement that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” and that the Council will have to determine “what strings are attached” to the grants. Parker and Rhee acknowledge the money is only committed through the life of the contract, after which, they say, teacher pay, merit or otherwise, will rely on public funding again.

Rhee retains a host of “plan b” powers that allow her to fire teachers, cut costs, and punish dissent—though Parker and Weingarten tout new “checks and balances” on her firing power in the would-be contract. Teachers are poring over the full contract, released today, before a ratification vote that will likely be a referendum on May’s union election.

April 03, 2010

Hotel Workers Keep Westin Boycott Going

After six months of rocky contract talks, hotel workers have launched a boycott of the Westin hotel in downtown Providence to protest the company’s deep unilateral wage and benefit cuts, as well as work speedups. The rain-or-shine pickets, on for two weeks now, got going right as the hotel hosted an influx of guests for the NCAA basketball tournament in late March—a big tourist boon for the city.

While hotel workers have teamed up with Rhode Island Jobs with Justice and area unions, the boycott call is reaching out-of-towners too. Dozens of members of IATSE, AFTRA, and Teamsters—from the cast and crew filming a pilot for ABC—moved out of the Westin last week.

The boycott is the latest attempt to fight off a wave of attacks from the Westin's managing Procaccianti Group: threats to replace workers with subcontracted labor (a la the "Hyatt 100" in Boston) and retaliatory firings of worker activists. The last straw came in March when the Westin broke off talks, slashed wages by 20 percent, tripled (and in some plans quadrulpled) health care premiums, while cutting sick days and vacation.

The trouble started as soon as the contract talks opened in October. Westin’s subcontracting threats came right on the heels of the fall firings of 100 Hyatt workers at three non-union hotels in Boston. As the “Hyatt 100” launched a boycott in Beantown and joined a citywide “March for Jobs” that brought 1,000 people through the streets of downtown Boston, Providence activists resolved to keep the subcontracting scourge from spreading.

They rallied City Council support for a "worker retention ordinance." The law requires hotels connected to the publicly-subsidized downtown Convention Center—including the Westin—to retain current employees and pay them prevailing wages and benefits for six months if the company subcontracts work or changes hands completely.

Despite the workers’ victory, the Westin went on the offensive, firing three workers in November for joining informational pickets outside the hotel on their work breaks. The union brought a successful complaint to the NLRB on behalf of the workers, and four months later celebrated their reinstatement—marching behind the three on their first day back to work.

The community is still behind the workers after they voted, 138 to 2, to call a boycott and consider a strike. A large crowd gathered outside the Westin to launch the latest phase of the contract campaign. The news of the company’s deep cuts brought out city councilmen, CLC officials, and leaders from AFSCME and the building trades—who all vowed to keep their members out of the Westin until management rescinds the cuts and bargained in good faith.

After a series of rousing speeches from hotel workers and supporters, City Councilman John Lombardi threw his support behind the boycott—even if it meant foregoing his regular trips to the hotel gym, where he’s a member.

Francis Engler, organizer with UNITE HERE Local 217, responded, to cheers: "You can get some exercise walking with us, councilman!"

Westin Hotel workers call for a boycott of the Providence Westin Hotel from RIFuture.org on Vimeo.

Support hotel workers boycotting the Westin.

March 25, 2010

More Chicago Charter School Teachers Aspire to a Union

Teachers at four charter schools on Chicago’s northwest side went public last week with their organizing campaign, marching into their buildings to present principals with cards. The schools, run by ASPIRA Inc., are the latest campaign by the fledgling charter organizing project called the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—a collaboration of the Teachers (AFT) union, its Illinois affiliate, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Two-thirds of the 100 teachers on four campuses—one middle school and three high schools—filed the cards with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Recent changes to state law allow charter teachers to organize using card check. In the same piece of legislation, lawmakers expanded the cap on charter schools to curry favor with native son Arne Duncan, now the Education Secretary, whose federal Race to the Top contest will dole out stimulus dollars to states that allow more of the publicly funded, independently run charters. Illinois is pushing hard for the money, and is in the running for the first set of grants.

The law focused charter expansion in Chicago along a model developed by its schools’ former “CEO” Duncan. Vowing to close or convert eight schools after targeting nearly two dozen last year, the city has opened the door to charters as part of its 2004 plan to open "100 new schools" by this year. But the PR sheen of these "labs of innovation" has begun to fade as charter attempts (with more "flexible," non-union teachers) to improve education—and raise test scores—has returned unconvincing results.

Teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools—the largest charter operator in the city—unionized and signed their first contract in late 2009 after teachers got fed up with a lack of supplies, a lack of job security, and a mandate to fill class time with standardized test prep. The organizing drive stretched out for months as the school’s board of directors, which includes a union-busting lawyer, insisted it had contracted operations to a private entity and was therefore not subject to the 2009 card check law. They tried to flip teacher organizers against the union and eventually pushed for an NLRB election, which the union won anyway.

Organizers say there are no such legal complications at Aspira, which operates all four schools. Teachers gave schools CEO Jose Rodriguez the weekend to think over the union effort. City and state lawmakers called Rodriguez to support teachers and encourage him not to challenge the drive. On Tuesday, teachers supported the union at an emergency meeting of Aspira’s board.

An organizer on the campaign says teachers want more transparency from administrators on the school's spending and on teacher evaluation procedures. He says the drive aims to create a more collaborative school environment, not an “us versus them” dynamic.

Although Aspira—founded by a community group with decades-old roots in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community—is not exactly an investment-fund outfit, it’s had its fair share of controversy in recent years. In 2008, teachers and parents spoke out against a variety of scandals: a former principal was accused of changing grades, approving strip searches on students, and firing whistleblower teachers.

According to Chicago-based Substance News, parents at Aspira’s Mirta Ramirez High formed a parent-teacher organization in 2007 to pressure Rodriguez after four years of sending their kids to a "temporary" school location that was not up to code. The school finally moved into an existing elementary school.

With a clear majority of cards on the table, teachers anticipate victory at the labor board, but Aspira could still try to challenge the drive. Whichever route the school CEO takes, he’ll have to take into account a corps of mobilized teachers.

March 18, 2010

Can Public Education Be Saved?

Walkouts, student strikes, and marches shook every level of California’s embattled public education system March 4. And the action paused only briefly as activists savored short-term victories and set about planning the next wave of challenges to lawmakers and administrators.

University of California (UC) students at Berkeley blocked campus gates and Santa Cruz students shut down their campus for the day. In the afternoon, college students joined forces with K-12 students and teachers in Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.

Rallies in each city numbered in the thousands—a gathering sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council drew 20,000 people to the Civic Center. Hundreds of marchers took their protests onto the freeways, stopping traffic for nearly an hour in Oakland. UC Davis students marched through two police lines before baton-swinging cops turned them away at an on-ramp.

The call for action against crippling state budget cuts—$17 billion in two years to California’s education fund—was taken up on all 10 UC campuses, at each of the 23 Cal State campuses, and at dozens of community colleges. The turnout was as unprecedented as the crisis. “It just brought out a positive energy from so many new spaces,” said Claudette Begin, a clerical worker at Berkeley. Actions spread to 32 states.

After an October conference drew 800 people to Berkeley, regional committees organized and formed demands, which varied from place to place. In Oakland, the list was broad: fully funded, free public education, pre-school through higher ed; an end to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top competition; restoration of all public sector cuts and expansion of public services; full citizenship rights for immigrants and an end to ICE raids; a halt to foreclosures, to name a few.


Organizers now face a test of stamina in battles against a federal restructuring of K-12 schools, still-looming state budget cuts, and corporate campus management.

Thousands of K-12 teachers rallied after school in downtown Los Angeles, gearing up for a fight against 2,800 pending layoffs. Class sizes have already exploded after last year’s cut to the teaching force.

In Oakland and San Francisco schools, students and teachers walked out of class during a morning “disaster drill” called jointly by unions and school districts.

Campus unions have organized with students for months. The Technical Employees at UC (UPTE-CWA) called two one-day strikes last year that meshed with large student mobilizations against fee hikes. No campus unions struck on March 4, but the UC clerical workers (CUE)—working without a contract—encouraged members to take the day off. Service workers (AFSCME) joined marches statewide.

UPTE gained a tentative agreement just before March 4. If approved on March 19, it would resolve the standoff over furloughs, accepting the days off but securing sizable raises over the next three years. The deal also caps health care premiums and defines UC’s pension contributions.

“This is a direct product of our months-long pressure campaign targeting UC administrator greed,” said UPTE President Jelger Kalmijn. “Now we have to bring the fight to the state government.”


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators are readying their machetes as another $20 billion budget deficit approaches this year. The state’s inability, or unwillingness, to raise revenues brought a 20 percent funding cut to higher education last year.

Student fees have spiked—by 182 percent since 2002 in the Cal State system. Programs and classes have been abolished, while lecturers and campus unions still fight over layoffs.

Berkeley professor George Lakoff is sponsoring a long-shot ballot initiative to overturn the requirement that the legislature pass budgets or any new taxes by a two-thirds majority. The California Faculty Association, representing teachers in the CSU system, is pushing a bill that would garner $2 billion for higher ed by taxing oil companies. California is the only oil-producing state with no oil extraction tax.

Meanwhile, activists won’t let UC administrators off the hook. While pulling down fat salaries, school officials are contracting out campus services and pursuing private donors to stay afloat—looking for corporate solutions to a public concern.

When UC President Mark Yudof proclaimed support for the March 4 protests, in an attempt to deflect blame to state government, students called the regents out for funding campus expansion, including a multi-million-dollar renovation of Berkeley’s football stadium.

Months of student building takeovers and experiments in democratic organizing have been animated by their call for free public education and to democratize the appointed regents. Students also want transparency in UC’s spending, salaries, and investments, a call that prompted a state senator to initiate an audit of the UC budget.


The crisis of priorities—and resulting student fee hikes—is exacerbating long-standing problems of access to higher education for students of color. Black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented at UC campuses: 1 percent of UCLA’s 26,000 undergrads, for example, are Black. The state’s ban on affirmative action in 1996 spurred a drop in Black and Latino enrollment at UC.

The fight for racial justice became a major element of March 4 activities. At UC San Diego, whose freshman class is 1 percent Black, administrators tried to tamp down anger over a racist fraternity party. Hundreds of students demanded “real action” after walking out of a university-sponsored teach-in on race relations.

The madness continued: a noose was discovered in a school library and a KKK-style hood was found on a campus statue. The Black Student Union and allies celebrated on March 4 when administrators met their deadline and their list of 19 demands.

The students say institutional policies have marginalized people of color on campus, creating the conditions for racism and ignorance to fester.

“More fees, more cuts to programs that serve underrepresented communities—it’s all serving the re-segregation of the university,” said Eric Gardner, a member of the student-worker coalition that organized for March 4 at UCLA.


In Sacramento, Schwarzenegger seemed to be trying to appease: his January budget proposal would set aside more for higher education and make fewer cuts to schools than last year. But to free up cash, he proposed privatizing the state’s vast prison system.

“Some people are saying, ‘look, he’s paying attention,’” said Berkeley grad student Eli Friedman. “But his funding guarantee doesn’t include K-12 schools—they’re trying to divide and conquer.”

As the next budget negotiation approaches, California’s right wing remains in an anti-tax frenzy. A group of Republican legislators have taken an oath never to raise taxes, all but ensuring more cuts—a situation that has drawn little more than a shrug from President Obama.

The student and worker mobilization is hammering both parties for their refusal to get their priorities straight. “The Republicans are a party of ‘no,’ and Democrats can’t figure out how to stabilize things without a transfer of wealth” from the rich to working people—a move they’re reluctant to make, says Oakland teacher Jack Gerson.

Organizers know more cuts could be on the way. CUE activist Begin remains wary of the summertime lull when administrators can slash and burn at emptied campuses.

But activists’ unprecedented mobilization across campus, union, and generational lines is providing fuel for the long haul.

“I had gotten very pessimistic over time, but I’m not now,” says Gerson, a veteran of the ’60s. “We’re starting to see a mass movement, and this is just the beginning.”

February 24, 2010

Charter Schools Iced, Los Angeles Teachers Win Bids To Run New Schools

Charter school companies in Los Angeles were licking their chops last summer when the school board gave outside managers a chance to operate 36 schools next year.

After yesterday’s packed board meeting where officials voted to award 29 of those schools to teacher-led groups supported by United Teachers Los Angeles, the charters are licking their wounds.

What looked like another bonanza for charter operators in Los Angeles—which already has the most charter schools in the country—turned into an opening for teachers to build power with parents.

Yesterday’s competition is just the first round of what promises to be a titanic fight between the charter operators and union-backed coalitions in Los Angeles as 250 district schools will be opened to outside bids in the next several years.

LA’s school board started the bidding this summer on 12 low-performing "focus" schools as well as 18 brand-new campuses, which will house 24 schools. Proposals flooded in from 85 groups, including charter management companies, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s school franchise, and the union.

Gillian Russom, a teacher at Roosevelt High School and a UTLA activist, built alliances with parents at her school to submit a proposal for the still-in-construction Esteban Torres High School—where some of her students will go next year to relieve overcrowding at Roosevelt. With neighborhood walks, community forums, and proposal writing sessions, teachers and parents tailored their own reforms.

"We had something positive to organize around in addition to defending from charters," Russom says. "We showed the community that teachers have a vision for these schools, too."

Some of the plans developed by teachers and parents were formed along the lines of pre-existing alternative school models in the district.

At the new Torres High, plans by teachers and parents to start up five subject-based pilot schools beat out two charter giants: Green Dot and the Alliance for College-Ready Schools.

"The biggest charter companies in this city got iced," Russom says.

The pilot model—imported from Boston schools—is debated within union ranks. While they allow teachers some autonomy from district mandates over curriculum, they also open union contracts to alteration around hours and work duties—changes decided on by each school's governing board of teachers.

Teachers, staff, students, and parents at affected schools voted on proposals February 9, returning overwhelming support for teacher-led applications—a strong rebuke of charter bids. In an election administered by the League of Women Voters, 87 percent of parents voted for teacher-led proposals across the city. High school students voted, too, with strong majorities in favor of teacher-led plans. Not one charter plan won parent, teacher, or student votes—leading UTLA to claim an early victory.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines and a panel of reviewers sent their recommendations for each school to the school board before yesterday’s decisive meeting. Cortines backed many teacher-led proposals, but ignored some community votes in favor of charters.

Board Member Yolie Flores, who had introduced the "Schools Choice" resolution over the summer, downplayed the votes. Charter bidders hoped the community polls would remain only "advisory" when the board issued final decisions February 23.

Teachers, union activists, and charter supporters packed the hours-long meeting for their final lobbying effort.

Many suspected that the board would snub the parent votes, overrule the superintendent’s endorsement of most teacher plans, and assign many of the schools to charter operators. Instead, they overturned three of the superintendent’s charter nominations. The board also reversed Cortines’s recommendation to split two new campuses into schools run by union and charter plans. The Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools took control of three schools, and four new schools went to charter companies.

The parent votes proved too compelling to ignore.

"They sold this whole process in the name of ‘parent choice,'" Russom says. "Once people saw 87 percent parent support for our plans, it was harder for charters to claim that they worked on behalf of parents."

Yesterday’s decision follows another recent blow to charter backers: a study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project showing intensified segregation at charters, further wearing at charter school claims to equity and racial justice.

Despite the victory, teachers remain focused. Yesterday’s decision is only the beginning of a years-long process during which hundreds of district schools will be opened up to bids. UTLA is challenging the entire “choice” process in court, claiming that publicly funded schools built to relieve overcrowding cannot be given away to (non-union) charter schools without a binding teacher vote.

The state’s budget catastrophe looms large, too. Drawing on strengthened ties to parents and students, teachers are gearing up for a statewide Day of Action March 4—and a march to Sacramento beginning the next day—to fight off crippling budget cuts threatening thousands of classroom layoffs.

"We’re not out of the woods yet," Russom says.

February 13, 2010

DC Teachers Could See Shakeup in Union's Spring Election

An outspoken critic of D.C. schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee has entered the race to lead the Washington Teachers Union (WTU). Nathan Saunders, the union’s current vice-president, says the May election is a chance for teachers to take a different direction in contract talks with Rhee, which have dragged on for three years.

Rhee’s original contract proposal to swap teachers’ job security for promises of merit pay has been effectively killed by rank-and-file opposition. Saunders has been fiercely against the plan, and has also turned his critique toward President George Parker. “Rhee and company are not the type of people you need to be timid with,” he says. Parker, who will face off against his veep in the election, has repeatedly dismissed Saunders’ critiques as driven by political ambitions. Saunders says the discontent has now gone far beyond him.

The contract standstill prompted national AFT President Randi Weingarten to intervene in talks last winter. The AFT/WTU counterproposal born from the intervention fizzled, and the union and district called in an outside mediator.

In the meantime, Rhee has worked around the contract talks, seizing a “Plan B,” to place hundreds of teachers on 90-day termination watch. Then, last summer, she cited budget shortfalls as the pretext for firing hundreds more. The move became especially controversial after she turned around and hired hundreds of new teachers months later.

The “reduction in force” did not go unnoticed. DC police arrived at schools during class time to escort teachers and counselors from the buildings, prompting students—upset at the departure of some of their most beloved instructors—to walk out in protest. Students got the attention of City Council, which called Rhee to testify over the dismissals. The union led an unsuccessful legal challenge to the firings.

The AFT, and newly-anointed AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka, entered the fray, calling hundreds to a rally against the layoffs in early October.


Even before Rhee hit town with a teacher-bashing vengeance, Saunders was working on his gadfly credentials. The union was rocked by a corruption scandal that sent former WTU President Barbara Bullock to jail for stealing $5 million from the local between 1994 and 2002. Saunders filed a lawsuit against the AFT for its complicity in Bullock’s embezzlement. He says the case set a precedent by making national unions legally accountable to rank-and-file members of local unions. The national AFT settled out of court, and paid $1 million to the local.

Following the AFT’s trusteeship, Saunders ran with Parker and took office in 2005. The “new Local 6” would fracture over strategy. The union’s rolls had already been decimated by years of non-union charter school invasion, and nearly each year brought a new superintendent determined to save the system. Nearly two years before Obama rode to victory on the hope of change, Rhee arrived in D.C. on much the same promise. Media profiles (and later Obama himself) endorsed her youthful energy and relished her quotable, tough-talking vision for reform.

Many teachers, including Saunders, charge union negotiators, led by Parker, with taking a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to contract talks. Saunders, who boasts a wall of diplomas from the National Labor College and Harvard’s Trade Union Program and elsewhere, remained outspoken when members were called to meetings in the summer of 2008 where Rhee and Parker presented details of a nearly-completed contract. That fall, the union rift went public. Saunders pursued a recall effort and later sued the union for conspiracy.

Parker has been criticized (and censured by the union’s executive board) for a lack of transparency in 36 months of talks. Saunders is running on a promise to alter the bargaining process to include rank-and-file teacher activists. Models of parent-teacher organizing, such as those in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, says Saunders, are “the future of the labor movement,” and essential to reining in Rhee—even over basic questions like snow days. This week the district initially called a two-hour delay on a day that witnessed record snowfall in D.C. Parents flooded the district with calls. “They were on the phone saying ‘the snow out there is taller than the average third grader,’” Saunders said. School was canceled.

Teachers will need that support in facing continued attacks from Rhee—whose most recent loose-cannon moment came when she implied that last summer’s fired teachers were guilty of sexual misconduct and corporal punishment. Parker called for an apology—Saunders wants her to resign.

It’s clear to a growing number of teachers and community members that Rhee’s agenda in the last three years has not met AFT President Weingarten’s repeated standard for acceptable reform—neither fair for teachers nor good for students. Now, a perennial critic of both the union chief and the schools chief is putting together a slate, opening community forums to shape a platform, and harnessing a growing frustration over the attack on public education in the District.

(Join Nathan and DC teacher activists at the Labor Notes Conference for strategy sessions on K-12 public education fights, rank-and-file contract campaigns, and running for office. Register today for the April 23-25 event in Detroit.)

February 10, 2010

Worker Center Reports on Restaurant Industry: Bad Jobs—and Lots of Them

It’s apparent now more than ever why restaurant workers are urgently organizing. While members of the Restaurant Opportunities Center roll on with workplace justice campaigns in several cities, affiliates of the national worker center released reports this week from Chicago, New Orleans, Portland, Maine, and Detroit highlighting the low lights of one the largest and fastest-growing private sector employers in the country.

Among the findings released yesterday by ROC-Michigan: The median wage for restaurant jobs in Metro Detroit is just $8.32 an hour, less than half of the average wage for all workers in the area.

In Detroit, 200 people gathered to hear from a sampling of the city’s more responsible employers, industry experts, and its restaurant workers. The study of the city and its suburbs, where 134,000 people work in restaurants and constitute about 8 percent of the private sector workforce, gathers the stories of hundreds of workers into a not-unexpected narrative of low wages, poor working conditions, racial discrimination in hiring, and harassment on the job.

In the heartland of economic collapse, 7.6 percent of Metro Detroit jobs have been lost since July 2009, reports ROC, but restaurant jobs have grown steadily since 2000. They’ve dropped slightly in the last two years. ROC-Michigan has gone after the lowest of the “low-road” employers at Andiamo Fine Italian Dining in Dearborn for months, filing a lawsuit over wage theft and racial and gender discrimination.

ROC’s study clarifies that Andiamo is sadly not alone in abusing the restaurant workforce—or in adhering to well-defined barriers of race, class, and geography in the Metro Detroit area.

Higher paying restaurant jobs are in the whiter suburbs, and 82 percent of those jobs are held by white employees. The report quotes Awet, a Black Eritrean woman who immigrated to Detroit from Italy in 1998. When the six-year veteran server applied to an Italian restaurant in the suburbs, the management told her there were no applications. A white friend of hers applied for the same job on the same day, and was hired on the spot. “I asked two of my other friends, one white and one Black, to go and apply, and the same thing happened,” she reports. “The white friend got hired, and the Black friend did not.”

Segregation exists inside restaurants themselves. Among Latino restaurant workers, 69 percent fill “back of the house” jobs in the kitchen. Seventy-nine percent of white restaurant workers and 67 percent of Asian workers work the “front of the house”—server or host jobs. The breakdown for Black and Middle Eastern workers is closer to 50-50.

Some results from ROC-Michigan’s study, Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality and Opportunity in Metro Detroit’s Growing Restaurant Industry:

* In Metro Detroit, 80 percent of restaurant workers are paid less than $10 an hour.
* Overtime is paid to just 51 percent of all restaurant workers.
* Only 13 percent of the workers surveyed reported making a living wage.
* Thirty-nine percent of workers surveyed said they did not have legal status to work in the US.
* Only 5 percent get paid sick days—leading 60 percent of employees to work while sick.
* Employers don’t provide health insurance to 81 percent of workers.

The study also cheers for the few restaurants in the area that pay their workers well, have safe working environments, and provide benefits—noting that such establishments achieve profitability by maintaining a safe, stable workplace where disruptive turnover isn’t as likely. Their task is made harder by the slew of bad actors around them. Still, ROC members are not relying on the boss to save them. A worker-run cooperative, both restaurant and worker training center, is slated to open in Detroit this summer.

February 06, 2010

Restaurant Workers Launch Multi-City Campaign to Transform Low-Wage Industry

Published in the February, 2010 issue of Labor Notes.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing private employers in the country. But just as swinging doors often separate patrons from the kitchen, the working lives of 13.5 million restaurant workers—a largely non-union workforce—remain out of sight.

In four cities, cooks, dishwashers, servers, hosts, and busers are organizing workplace justice campaigns with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), bringing their aspirations to overhaul a low-wage, high-discrimination industry out onto the streets.

ROC got its start when workers at New York’s “Windows on the World” restaurant in the World Trade Center lost 73 of their co-workers—and their jobs—on 9/11. The worker advocacy group began organizing, training workers, and conducting research and policy work, and now has 3,200 members and its own restaurant.

Through coordinated legal and direct action campaigns, ROC-NY has notched several wins garnering millions in wage and hour claims, as well as legal settlements with restaurants that mimic collective bargaining agreements. ROC formed a national organization in 2008—ROC United—and chapters in seven cities formed soon after.

While ROC is not a union, its organizing work could be a path to unionization. UNITE HERE Local 100, New York’s food service local, has struggled to build density among the fragmented but growing ranks of restaurant workers. Only a small fraction of the city’s restaurant workers are Local 100 members. But the local was instrumental in helping set up ROC.

Union card or not, ROC members have found winning collective strategies capable of raising the bar.


“One of the things every restaurant cares about more than anything else is their image,” says Jose Oliva, ROC national policy coordinator. “It’s their most valuable asset.”

Workers in ROC build direct action campaigns with community support to go after bad actors in the industry. Workplace campaigns are live in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, and Portland, Maine.

Workers at Andiamo Dearborn, an Italian restaurant with 11 other locations in the Detroit area, filed a federal lawsuit January 12 after months of weekly picket lines on the sidewalk outside. Seventy-five supporters from student, faith, and labor groups—including the head of the Detroit Metro AFL-CIO—converged in front of the restaurant as ROC announced it was pursuing claims of upwards of $125,000 for eight workers who allege a raft of wage violations, gender and national origin discrimination, and retaliation.

Servers and busers in the complaint, which includes one current employee (the others quit or were fired) said they weren’t paid the state minimum wage, even after tips. Others say the company illegally deducted wages for uniforms and equipment, and refused overtime pay after 70-hour work weeks.

Workers also complain of discrimination within the restaurant, claiming that Andiamo gives promotions to lesser qualified white and male employees. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the restaurant’s head chef routinely made disparaging remarks about “wetbacks” without facing discipline. One female worker alleges that management refused to punish a male employee after she complained of sexual harassment.

The week following one particularly raucous sidewalk protest, one worker-leader, Bertha Piña, was fired. ROC filed a retaliation complaint with the NLRB, and Piña, a mother of five, was reinstated days later—but got few hours.

When she returned to work, Piña said, Andiamo’s CEO pulled her aside for a tongue-lashing. “He wanted to know why we don’t care about his reputation,” she said. “I asked him why he doesn’t care about our lives.” Piña has been demoted to dishwasher, one day a week.

ROC-Michigan is keeping the pressure on during the lawsuit, scheduling weekly protests. ROC-Maine and six workers at Portland’s Front Room restaurant also filed suit in early 2010, claiming that what’s happened in Detroit is no anomaly.


When paychecks from Chicago’s Mexican fine-dining tapas restaurant Ole Ole! began bouncing two months ago, workers showed up at the ROC office. “One server’s missing $20,000 over the course of three years,” said Veronica Avila, ROC-Chicago coordinator.

The campaign took off when other kitchen staff complained of getting paid whenever the owner felt like it. When checks came through, Avila says, they’d be hundreds of dollars light. ROC says six employees of the restaurant’s predominantly Latino workforce are short $200,000 total.

Owner Regina Tavone, who has admitted to owing at least $80,000 to four workers, stalled repeatedly on ROC’s demands for a meeting, and the group picketed on January 6, promising not to go away.

In New Orleans, another crowd has joined the tourist mobs along the city’s bustling Bourbon Street. Five former employees have drawn support from ROC-NOLA in a lawsuit and public campaign against restaurateur Jobert Salem. Next to his bar, the Old Absinthe House, Salem owns two restaurants in one building—Tony Moran’s and Jean Lafitte Bistro.

Workers say management gives them two employee ID numbers, one for each restaurant. When they get close to overtime pay on one ID, their hours get logged on the other. ROC member Van Joseph says he was paid $100 for 60 hours’ work in Salem’s catering business.

Protests have continued despite Salem’s deployment of security from the bar to bat away cameras and intimidate outspoken workers. According to Darren Browder, ROC-NOLA co-coordinator, workers have been roughed up and tasered. One reports being assaulted after being fired and asking for his last paycheck. Fifteen out of 50 former employees at Tony Moran’s told ROC they were physically assaulted by the bar’s enforcers.

Following a large November protest, Browder says Moran’s management came to the table—but mostly to suss out what kind of evidence ROC had. The lawsuit and public campaign continue.


ROC backs up the claims of workers at individual restaurants with citywide studies. While the organization seeks to build relationships with restaurant owners that treat workers well, two major studies by ROC-NY show that most employers, unsurprisingly, take the low road in a low-wage industry.

In 2005, half of New York restaurant workers made less than $9 an hour, and 90 percent had no health coverage through their employers. Average salaries were $25,000 less than the average private sector job in 2000—and the gap has only grown.

ROC-NY’s 2009 study on hiring discrimination put the numbers behind a common conception that people of color are trapped in “back of the house” jobs. The study sent dozens of job applicants from a spectrum of racial and ethnic backgrounds into nearly 200 city restaurants, revealing that high-priced establishments offered jobs to white applicants twice as often, and chose them more frequently for high-visibility jobs like host and server.

Meanwhile, restaurant workers in New York made their own high road. Colors, ROC-NY’s union restaurant in Manhattan, gives each worker an equal share of ownership. A general manager and chef hire and fire, but are accountable to a board of directors elected by workers—who have a living wage, health care, and training programs through ROC. The idea is spreading. In Detroit, restaurant workers are moving on plans to open their own establishment inside an old, rarely used downtown club.

ROC United’s Oliva says the group’s multi-pronged strategy aims at raising standards across the growing service sector.

“Before people were unionized in the auto industry, it was dragging down the rest of manufacturing,” Oliva says. “Restaurants set the standards for the service industry. We’re trying to create a culture of organizing there, to make restaurant jobs stable jobs.”

Evan Rohar and Enku Ide contributed to this story.

January 25, 2010

Growing Labor Support for Palestine Faces Stiff Opposition in the U.S.

Union members who want to organize U.S. labor support for war-torn Palestine often compare their cause to the battle against apartheid in the 1980s. They point to striking similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the former South African system: In Israel, Arab citizens face legalized segregation in housing and employment. In the occupied West Bank, separate and unequal conditions are even more overt.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in growing settlements connected by “Israeli-only” roads. Palestinians are left in disconnected towns, stalled at hundreds of military checkpoints, and hemmed in by an Israeli-built wall that grabs more land.

And just as in South Africa, dozens of U.S. companies are involved. Industrial zones allow corporations familiar to U.S. union activists to import low-wage guest workers from Palestine and overseas.

“Palestinians are being exploited by the same entities that are exploiting U.S. workers,” says Sharon Wallace, a teacher from Kentucky who has organized two U.S. tours of Palestinian labor activists and who just returned from a pro-Palestine march in Egypt (see box).

She and a small but growing band of U.S. unionists—some of whom are Jewish—are fighting to educate fellow members and mobilize their unions behind a global call to pressure Israel with a boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

They face substantial barriers to winning union support: Activists say leaders of U.S. unions still seem enamored with the myth that Israel is a pro-labor government. In an October speech at the Jewish Labor Committee, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka opposed international efforts to boycott Israel, suggesting that opposition to Israeli policy was anti-Semitism in disguise.

Those attitudes are reinforced by an organized pro-Israel lobby and a receptive U.S. government that sends Israel billions a year in military and other aid.

But when Israeli warplanes bombarded Gaza in late 2008, killing 1,500 civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure, union activists joined protests all over the country. Several union councils, including the California Federation of Teachers, called for an end to the bombardment. On the East Coast, SEIU1199 delegates condemned the violence in Gaza and sent $5,000 to bolster medical relief efforts there.

Today in Gaza, Palestinians—45 percent of whom are unemployed—are still digging out from the rubble. Because of Israel’s blockade, they are unable to move in and out of the country or control their airspace, ports, or borders.

“Families aren’t getting paid, and don’t have jobs. So much of their resistance is just about survival,” Wallace said.

Labor activists are trying to expand isolated protests into a full-fledged campaign.

Garnering support from “a larger small group inside labor than before,” says activist Michael Letwin, Labor for Palestine recently issued a letter to Trumka calling for a boycott of Israeli goods and applauding South African unions for turning away Israeli ships from their ports during the Gaza war.

The union anti-war group U.S. Labor Against the War plans to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Israel and Palestine at the end of the year. And American unionists were among those attempting to bring solidarity and aid to Palestine in December.

USLAW staffer Michael Eisenscher notes that when the group started agitating against the Iraq war in 2003, “opposition was not a majority opinion.”


U.S. workers are connected to Israel’s occupation of Palestine because, for one thing, they’re paying for it. The U.S. is the largest donor to Israel, giving $26 billion in military aid over the past 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

U.S. labor is in the mix as well: 279 labor bodies, including locals, labor councils, and the AFL-CIO itself, fill their pension portfolios with state of Israel bonds—to the tune of $5 billion. The federation owns no other country’s bonds, says Stan Heller, a longtime high school teacher in Connecticut.

Heller is heading up a labor campaign to “Dump Israel Bonds,” underway in New Haven. The labor council there has called on the state AFL-CIO to sell its $60,000 in bonds. Heller says the national Teachers union (AFT) recently sent him a letter proudly informing him of the union’s large investment in the state of Israel.

But globally, union opinion is openly critical of Israeli policy. The Congress of South African Trade Unions initiated the Cairo Declaration in January, signed by unions around the world, including the United Kingdom’s major union federation, Ireland’s largest public sector union, and labor bodies in France, Canada, Australia, Norway, and Scotland.

The document calls for an international tour of South African and Palestinian trade unionists to emphasize the parallels to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It also echoes the Palestinian labor movement’s call for an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against the Israeli government.


Monadel Herzallah is an activist with the Arab American Union Council; he moved from Palestine to the U.S. in 1978. Alongside patient education of American workers, he feels an urgency to support Palestinians who are resisting occupation amid a humanitarian crisis.

Herzallah’s extended family lives in Gaza. His 20-year-old cousin was killed in Israel’s bombing last December. “The level of crime being done by Israel makes it essential for the labor movement to take courageous steps to break the taboo that exists when it comes to Palestine,” he says.

Organizing from the Bay Area with labor and community activists, Herzallah sent funds to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, whose headquarters was destroyed by Israeli bombs. His network of Arab American unionists has plans to train, educate, and provide equipment to Palestinian unionists, to develop more than a cosmetic solidarity with them.

Herzallah believes the outrage over conditions in Gaza is opening up space for labor activists to organize against the occupation. And, he points out, the U.S. government’s giant military aid to Israel is part of the lavish war spending that’s draining funds needed in the states and drawing growing criticism from U.S. unionists.