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Striking Against Privatization and Charter Schools in Puerto Rico, with Mercedes Martinez and Liza Fournier

Puerto Rico’s teachers are fighting a bill that would turn all their schools into charters, by any means necessary. While teacher strikes are roiling the mainland United States, teachers in Puerto Rico have gotten comparatively little public attention. But they too have struck for their public schools–first underfunded, then left damaged after the hurricane, now on the verge of being turned over to private companies. I spoke with two Puerto Rican teacher unionists at this past weekend’s Labor Notes conference about their struggle first to get their schools up and running again, and then to save them from privatization.

LF: Right after the hurricane…I work in a school. I am an active teacher. We went back a week after the hurricane. Schools were completely damaged by trees, trash, structures had fallen down. So, the teachers were the first ones who got at school. We were the ones with the machetes, cleaning the schools, taking out all the garbage, trying to get schools fixed as soon as possible to bring students back. But, guess what? They didn’t let us open the schools. My school was ready to be open like two weeks after the hurricane, but we opened in November. So, my students were two and a half months without going to school. Not because we weren’t ready or it was our fault. It was because they didn’t let us open. Mainly, the teachers and organizations and the community were the ones who really cleaned the schools to reopen.
MM: After the hurricane, teachers, as Liza said, were the ones that reconditioned the schools. A lot of women. 85% of the teachers are female in our country, a lot of mothers. They were ready to receive their children. Every psychologist knows, they will tell you, after a disaster like the one we had, a category five hurricane, you need to come to some type of normalcy again and the Department of Education was denying our children their right to an education.
It is very important that after the hurricane happened, even though the schools were ready, they denied the schools to open, but school communities that had no light, that had no water, that had no communication organized themselves. There were multiple protests in our country. Five or six schools per day, the Teachers Federation was in a lot of communities organizing the parents and requesting the Secretary of Education to open the schools.
When she denied that after the protests, we performed a civil disobedience activity in her office. 21 of us got arrested for requesting her to open the schools of our country. People in Puerto Rico were with us. After that, she still denied the schools to be opened, so we took her to court. When we started the court case, she had 300 schools – that was in November – that were still closed. For the first hearing, when the judge ordered her to tell us why the schools were still closed, when we went to the first hearing, she had already opened 260 schools, leaving only 40 closed, so the protests, the civil disobedience, the pickets in front of her office, plus the court case stopped her from implementing the agenda that she had.
She said that she was going to shut down 200 schools during the hurricane and the community organization, plus all the activities that I mentioned, stopped her from doing that, from converting Puerto Rico into the New Orleans of the decade.

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Striking against austerity and the Right, with Jane McAlevey


West Virginia’s teachers proved that supermajority strikes can even beat a trifecta-red government, if they bring their community along, argues Jane McAlevey, organizer and author. Teachers, nurses, and other public sector workers, far from being the also-rans of the labor movement, have the power to challenge austerity and to organize their communities. McAlevey explains the difference between organizing and mobilizing, why she’s hopeful about the March For Our Lives and the Poor People’s Campaign, and what to expect from the Supreme Court’s forthcoming Janus decision.

What is interesting to me is that mostly men in our movement over the last 25 years have had a consistent line that the private sector matters more than the public sector and that the private sector is the most important place that we have to do our work. Like, if we are going to re-build the labor movement, it has to happen in the private sector and not until we get the private sector numbers back up to something close to the public-sector numbers can we win again. I have taken a decidedly fairly public different position, which is one sector does not matter more than the other and, in fact, where I have been evolving to lately is that if anything the public sector matters more. Not only because it is where we still have, until Janus, a majority of the membership of the labor movement.
But, it is actually also, I argue that it is the mission-driven, largely female, often people of color – certainly not in West Virginia, but elsewhere – who are the people suffering the consequences of austerity and who have the capacity to fight back because of those incredibly deep structural relationships they have with either their patients in the healthcare sector or their clients in the home care part of the healthcare sector. People who they serve and take care of or the students and the parents and the families in the case of education workers. Austerity is going after them. The austerity front is around healthcare and education. That is where massive cutbacks are happening.

Everywhere in the world, despite a multi-million dollar attempt, from Waiting for Superman on, to decimate the image of teachers. Even though the pages of The New York Times or any other mainstream liberal media outlet occasionally will agree, ordinary parents in strike after strike choose to stand with their teachers. Students stand with their teachers. No matter how many millions of dollars they try and use to degrade and attack and insult every educator–they haven’t moved on nurses yet, but as I am studying the attack on teachers, it is like it doesn’t matter how much money they waste, the relationship that is forged every day organically between mission-driven workers, workers who care deeply about their work, mostly female in the healthcare and education sector, is like an inseparable bond. That is why it becomes organizing and not just mobilizing, because they are bringing hundreds of thousands more people into the struggle and helping them understand who is to blame for the pain in their lives.

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Disruptive, adaptive, and fun: Interview at ThinkProgress

I talked with Jason Linkins at ThinkProgress about protests and how they happen, the March For Our Lives, how I wish I had a formula but I don’t and how the best advice I can give is to adults, to not be the person who tells young people that they can’t change the world.

[L]ast week, when they had the school walk-out, if you look at the schools that had the walk-outs, they’re all over the country. They’re in affluent suburban districts but they’re also in the city — they’re in Baltimore and Miami and New York and Chicago. People from radically different backgrounds are connecting to what’s going on here — they’re saying, “I should not have to worry about this shit as a teenager.” And “this shit” can be a lot of things: they’re protesting a lack of gun control, but in doing that, they’re protesting a non-functional democracy where the adults in the room — big old air quotes around “adults in the room” — are not doing what they should do. They’re not doing much of anything. They’re sitting on their asses or they’re trying to arm teachers. They’re either doing nothing or they’re doing things that are actively horrifying and harmful.

Those are the options: the way things are now, or actively horrifying. And you see masses of teenagers saying, “No, these two options are terrible and we refuse them both.”

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“The time for this issue has come.” Keith Ellison on Medicare for All and more.


On March 9 and 10, the Congressional Progressive Caucus gathered for its strategy summit in Baltimore, MD. Members of the caucus and allies from left-leaning organizations and European left parties gathered to talk policy and power for the short, medium and long term. At the conference, I spoke with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota about the new push for Medicare for All, how to talk about racism and economic justice, and why it might be time to think about a maximum wage.

Most of us talk about racism from a very capitalistic standpoint. And what I mean by that is racism is what working class white people do to working class black people.
What if you looked at racism another way? Racism is what the big bosses use to manipulate everybody against each other. That’s another way of looking at it. Same kind of thing. But what does it profit a working-class white person in the antebellum South to be for slavery? That’s keeping you in poverty. But you say, you’re white. We’ll let you walk around in poverty, they’ve got to stay here. It’s the classic pitting of the have-nots against the have-very-littles. And this is the way they do it.
My view is that we’ve got to engage in real conversations with each other. We’ve got to ask who benefits from all this racism. Who loses–all of us! Because Florida purged black voters in the year 2000, the whole country got George W. Bush, which led us into a war with absolutely no justification and the whole country got a prescription drug benefit that enriched big pharma, this happened to everyone of every color. Racism helps elites control everybody else. Therefore our fight has to be solidarity.

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Cleaning house, winning power with Ady Barkan

Ady Barkan became a household name when he was spotted over and over again at protests against healthcare cuts in Washington during the fight for the Affordable Care Act and then against the Republican tax cut bill—which included cuts to healthcare programs. For Barkan, a longtime organizer diagnosed in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the fight for healthcare had become very personal. We sat down last week in Baltimore at the Congressional Progressive Caucus strategy summit, where Barkan, who masterminded the Fed Up campaign as well as being central to the healthcare struggle, was being honored with the Tim Carpenter Advocate of the Year award.

As to resistance, I think it has proven more effective than I or I think many people thought possible. Chuck Schumer and the like were all ready to capitulate on everything until “What the f**k, Chuck?” protests started popping up in Park Slope. And we actually were able to gum up the works to block a bunch–I mean, ultimately, he has really passed, enacted only one significant piece of legislation. Which is not terrible for a unified government.
I don’t think they are going to get anything else. They don’t have any good reconciliation instructions and it is an election year. We will see about this bank lobbyist Dodd-Frank roll back where the Democrats are being traitors, which brings me to the third point, which is that we have a lot of house cleaning to do.
The Dems are still way too in the pocket of Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren’s speech on the Senate floor was really fantastic. It is just so embarrassing and infuriating to see the DCCC endorse a union buster in Houston and all these Dems support rolling back Dodd-Frank. It is like, who among the American people are clamouring for reducing the regulations on banks? It is crazy.

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Walking to stay home: fighting for DREAMers and beyond with Maria Duarte and Omar Cisneros

March 5th was the deadline set by the Trump administration for the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting young immigrants. The deadline came and went without Congress acting, and around the country migrants and their allies held demonstrations demanding legislators take up the issue. I spoke with two young organizers from the Seed Project of Movimiento Cosecha.

 

MD: There’s lots of uncertainty everywhere, so we still took action on Monday because we thought it was very important to still show that although we can continue to renew those permits, we’re still in crisis, there’s still a lot of people who would have qualified for DACA and now can’t, there’s still so many young folks who didn’t qualify for DACA and need a clean DREAM Act. We decided to target Democrats specifically because time and time again we’ve seen that Democrats have the ability to help us, they have the power to help us. The government shutdown–that could have been prolonged, they could have had the results. And they chose not to help us. In 2010 we needed five more votes from Democrats to pass the DREAM Act. It didn’t happen. It’s become like a cycle of Democrats promising us something and continuing to just downplay our experience and our struggle as they continue to contribute to the attacks on our communities. The Obama administration deported three million people. Honestly as an undocumented person, I feel betrayed by the Democratic party and feel that they are only using us as a political gambling toy and it was time that we called them out on that and so we took action yesterday at the DNC and told them that our community will stop voting for them, our allies will stop voting for them if they don’t take action that’s actually tangible.

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Trump’s infrastructure plan left the infrastructure out, with Hunter Blair


Donald Trump has been promising a big infrastructure plan since the campaign days. But what he’s got is a whole bunch of nothing. The president dropped his plan on Monday and it’s low on the funding and high on the private giveaways. Hunter Blair at the Economic Policy Institute has been following the twists and turns of Trump on infrastructure and the problems with so-called public-private partnerships for a while, and he joined me to break down Trump’s infrastructure plan.

I think the structure of the plan is what we expected to see. It is only $200 billion in federal funding, as opposed to the headline claims of either $1.5 trillion or $1 trillion that the administration had been claiming. Of that, $100 billion goes to this sort of grant program that kicks the funding decisions to states and localities. They are required to come up with 80% of the funding and the federal government only provides 20%. There is $50 billion for rural projects. All of it comes back to what appears to be their belief that state and local governments need to spend even more on funding our infrastructure. Then, there are quite a lot of boilerplate claims about leveraging the private sector.
…At the end of the day, private entities don’t bring any more funding to the table. Either the federal government is going to fund it or you are going to be looking at taxes or tolls or user fees. Private companies do not build our infrastructure for free and they don’t manage or maintain anything of the sort for free and they expect to earn a return. They will earn that return through partnerships that allow them to collect tolls or pay them through state and local taxes. Leveraging the private sector, it gets thrown around a lot, but it certainly doesn’t bring any new money to the table.

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Stopping the privatization of Puerto Rico, with Julio López Varona

Puerto Rico is still struggling after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria. So naturally its government, prodded by the wealthy, wants to privatize its electrical grid and its public schools, among other things. But Puerto Ricans are organizing, on the island and the mainland, to fight back. Julio López Varona of Make the Road Connecticut and the Center for Popular Democracy joins me to talk about Puerto Rico’s economic troubles–which are anything but a “natural” disaster–and why we should pay attention to the situation in Puerto Rico. It bears a striking similarity to what many people would love to do across the rest of the US.

What we are seeing is a trend. Puerto Rico is, in many ways a microcosm of what is happening in other places. We are seeing this move toward privatizing electricity, but at the same time, we are seeing this move to privatize education. In Puerto Rico, in particular, it is crazy because it is everywhere. The proposal is not like, “We will privatize some.” They want to change or renew – those are the keywords they are using – the education system and they are saying the only way they can do it is by providing charter schools and a private electric grid, which has not been proven necessarily to actually improve the outcomes of students or to actually be good for customers that receive those electrical services.

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Resistance is not enough: an election-year pledge, with R.J. Eskow

To really reverse the Trump agenda, RJ Eskow argues, “resistance” is not enough. Instead, a program for making material changes in people’s lives is necessary for motivating people to come to the polls. In order to head off the politics of personalities and the inertia of Democratic leadership, a group of activists have come together to write a platform for change. RJ Eskow is one of the writers of that pledge, and he joins me to discuss it.

When we talk about the Democratic Party, I always feel we have to distinguish the rank and file members of the party from the people of influence who have power and the party leadership, because I think there are two very distinct populations. I have written a lot over the past year about the opinions of Democratic Party-registered Democrats. They want the party to move left. They want new leaders. Polling shows that they are strongly progressive economically.
Then, of course, it is no secret to you or most of the people reading this, that there is an entrenched resistance to that form of resistance within the Democratic Party. I think there will be a lot of people who are hoping that the party can make it to victory in November without committing to any specific transformative economic agenda. That is, enough to say, “Oh, that Trump. We hate him. He is awful. Don’t you hate him, too? Come on out and vote.” There are only two ways that can play out in my book.
…But, if the rank and file can pressure the party, can demand an agenda like this from the party, things will be different because more leaders will commit to it, more people who will prevail in the primaries who stand for this kind of an agenda, the party will really be something people can identify with, and I think that greatly improves its chances in November and its chances going forward.

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Striking in the #MeToo Moment, with Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya


The International Women’s Strike drew a lot of attention last year, but is coming this year in the midst of a full-on feminist moment. Women around the world have deployed the strike to call attention to their working and political conditions, and are coming together again this year on March 8, International Women’s Day, in a show of collective power. Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya are two of the organizers of the strike, and they joined me to talk about why women strike and what it means when they do.

CA: The #MeToo moment has been a very important moment in the United States and also internationally because it has probably made apparent what a lot of women already knew, which is that sexual harassment and violence are part of the everyday life of the majority of women, either in the workplace or at home or in the streets. Clearly, gender violence does require a collective response. So, from this viewpoint, the Women’s Strike is not so much an alternative to #MeToo. It is rather one contribution or one attempt to try to give a collective response to the isolation that victimization produces.
The idea is that the step forward after #MeToo, after denouncing individually all the harassment and violence that we have suffered throughout our life, there must be, also, the moment of collective organizing and collective response. Otherwise, the structural conditions that enable this gender violence to continue are not challenged. One of the risks of the current attention on the issues of gender violence is that we will get rid of a few obnoxious harassers, some famous and some less famous, and this is all good, of course. I welcome this moment of catharsis, in a sense; but, this is not going to solve any problem.
In other words, the real problem is not individual nasty men. The real problems are the structural conditions that create the conditions and the impunity for gender violence and sexual violence. From this viewpoint and for the perspective of the strike, it is actually very important because clearly now we have learned in the past months to what extent women are harassed and abused as women in the workplace, but this clearly has to do with the way the workplace is organized and it has to do with labor relations, more generally. It has to do with the hierarchical nature of labor relations within the workplace, with the lack of power that the workers have.

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