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.