Walker Lawsuit is a New Tool in Overturning School Takeovers


Walker’s exhibits also include photos illustrating the poor condition of schools in distress, such as Cloverdale, (above) compared with the sparkling majority-white Roberts Elementary in northwest Little Rock (below), which Newton is demanding be served by a new middle school as well.

Walker's exhibits also include photos illustrating the poor condition of schools in distress, such as Cloverdale, (above) compared with the sparkling majority-white Roberts Elementary in northwest Little Rock, which Newton is demanding be served by a new middle school as well.

Little Rock    John Walker is the dean of civil rights lawyers in Arkansas. He sued to desegregate the Little Rock and Pulaski County School Districts and many more and kept them in court for decades. He’s still practicing and on top of that is now an elected member of the legislature in Arkansas. When the powers-that-be decided to take over the Little Rock School District even though breaking their rules and state guidelines using as the rational that a mere six of the 48 schools in the district were nonperforming, they must have known this was coming, but if they did they were either arrogant, stupid, or both. Walker and the band of dug-in progressives in Arkansas weren’t going to take this usurpation lightly and now the fur is flying and perhaps there is a nationally applicable new tool being forged: Walker’s lawsuit pointedly proves the entire takeover is simply about racial discrimination or re-segregation using charters, if you will.

The heart of the lawsuit is Walker’s contention that after decades of achieving a unitary school district for white and black students, the takeover is simply an effort to turn back the clock. His complaint charges:

This is an action to secure a remedy for the subjecting of black students enrolled in the Little Rock School District [LRSD] to intentional racial discrimination, in the period after courts held that the LRSD had achieved unitary status. This action also seeks a remedy for the state’s takeover of the LRSD and the ouster of the democratically elected LRSD Board of School Directors. Plaintiffs allege that these actions violated the United States Constitution [denial of freedom of speech, prohibited racial discrimination, conspiracy to violate rights, badge of slavery, and denial of due process of law].

Add to that, as an organizer with the former Arkansas ACORN told me in the parking lot, the lawsuit lays bare “the whole power structure of the state” and allows their own dirty work to be fully exposed in this matter. When Walker filed his suit for parents of district children and un-democratically deposed school board members, he included a number of exhibits obtained under the Freedom of Information Act which included emails and various machinations behind the scene to engineer the takeover. Max Brantley, a columnist for the weekly Arkansas Times, details clearly the fingerprints around the neck of the school district by the big whoops:

The [exhibit] is from e-mails in the account of state Board of Education member Jay Barth, a Hendrix professor and Times columnist, who was lobbied by neighbor and friend Marla Johnson, the Aristotle executive who led the Chamber’s takeover team. Though he ultimately voted against the takeover, Barth had some sympathy to the cause and laid out some points of concern in correspondence with Johnson. In these notes, Johnson reveals now-departed Superintendent Dexter Suggs’ apparent willingness to let distressed schools become charter schools, but the school district would continue responsibility for cafeteria and transportation, quite a benefit if an outside charter management group came in.

He suggested a scenario by which he possibly could support takeover. It prompted the response … from Marla Johnson. In her note, Hussman is Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which has been a constant critic of the district editorially and has had news columns heavily influenced by his school “reform” ideas. Gary Newton is the leader of two nonprofit organizations, Arkansas Learns and Arkansans for Education for Reform, funded primarily by Walton Family Foundation money. They pay Newton a combined $150,000 and pay tens of thousands more to political consultants who lobby for the Walton agenda at the legislature and elsewhere. Newton is a strident critic of the school district; has helped organize a predominantly white charter middle school in Chenal Valley that skims Little Rock students, and … on Twitter raised the question of adequate legal representation for families in majority white Northwest Little Rock who want a new middle and high school because they don’t want to attend the existing (majority black) schools elsewhere in the city….

The e-mails also include the one … from Michael Pakko an economist at UALR. His note indicates he produced statistics helpful to the takeover movement (in this case about potential reshaping of districts in the county) with guidance from U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Little Rock Republican. (UALR has since announced it would be home to expanded eStem charter school operation that could ultimately take 5,000 students out of the Little Rock School District.) It is addressed to Jay Chesshir, director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

We all know deep in our hearts that this is what is happening in these school takeovers and suspect race is the crux of it. Rarely, do we get to see so clearly behind the closed doors. This lawsuit and the fight in Little Rock may make it harder for the dismantlers to succeed in the future around the country. It’s worth watching closely.


Please enjoy Neil Young’s Crime in the City.  Thanks to KABF.

Weatherization Not Worth It? Say It’s Not So!

weatherizationLittle Rock    For forty years, home weatherization has been one of those gold standard programs supposedly benefiting lower income families by tightening up their houses to the elements and thereby allowing them to save money on heating and electric bills. We have endorsed these programs, advocated them, and even participated in them over the years, but many long battles with energy companies in the early 1970s with ACORN always made me just a bit skeptical that if our people were really saving all of this money supposedly, why were the ever avaricious utility companies so adamantly endorsing and sometimes even funding such programs. Mainly, I would button my lip given how jaded organizing has undoubtedly made me.

Now the Energy Department has released a study touting the benefits and laying out the claims that weatherization is worth every penny and more that has been invested and even has long term health benefits. The study proving these claims in 4500 pages was done by the Energy Department’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Eduardo Porter one of the New York Times’ columnists looked at the independent evaluation of the report by professors at the University of Chicago and the University of California and he stumbled – or was led — into a controversy. Seems the profs had claimed perhaps the Energy Department’s emperor was not that well clothed, and the Oak Ridge report was an attempt to tell the profs in a mountain of paper to stuff it. Uh-oh, that made the profs actually get on the stick, hire a grad student grunt to go through the 4500 pages with a fine-toothed comb, and comeback with an even more detailed rebuttal of whether or not weatherization is a good investment or not, saves money for the poor or not, or even could be harming health rather than improving it. The bottom line from the profs is that they can’t tell whether weatherization is a great program or a big fat expensive hot mess.

The meat of the arguments fall on curious assumptions. The Oak Ridge team claimed weatherization saved 1.4 times its cost. The profs found that the “costs” did not include administration and training. They did not calculate for wear and tear and assumed energy efficiency would be constant for 20 years, and, brothers and sisters, take it from me, nothing, absolutely nothing, works as well day in, day out for 20 years as it did brand new. There were also weird assumptions on interest rates and the cost of money, but that’s too in-the-weeds for you and me. More troubling the non-energy benefits in health, safety, and productivity were also suspect. These benefits were not measured, nor were there control groups, but instead figures were essentially plugged in to make the case. For example better sleep was rated at $3142 per household, but not measured. There was also no control group to compare costs and then we come to health claims. Porter writes that

“The study concluded there were big health gains from reduced thermal stress, but …found no meaningful changes in the temperature of weatherized homes. The field study also found no significant changes in carbon monoxide. And it detected an increase in radon and formaldehyde levels. Yet the overall cost-benefit assessment reported benefits from decreased carbon monoxide poisoning and omitted the potential impact of higher concentrations of radon and formaldehyde.”

The horse Porter is riding is that you want to get outsiders to look at your programs, not your own employees. Fair enough.

But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against weatherization. I started out as a supportive skeptic. Now, I’m a full-on head scratching skeptic. To weatherize or not, that is the question for many families, but when it comes to government funding and the fight for the climate, every dollar counts, so which dollars and where should they go to include lower income families in the fight and the benefits?

North Carolina is Showing the Way in Fighting for Rural Hospitals

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

Republican mayor of Belhaven, NC walks to Washington, DC to save Pungo Hospital and becomes a national voice for Medicaid expansion.

New Orleans   For all of the continuing polarization in Congress over Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the “last stand in the hospital door” strategy of one Republican governor after another, there are realities in the heartland of the Republican base that some of the politicians are continuing to miss from their sky high perches as they survey the battleground. A fight in North Carolina by a Republican mayor, Adam O’Neal, in small town Bellhaven in the eastern part of the state, to save his town’s rural hospital should be sending a message about the political price the resistors will pay with their base voters, even if they are missing the life-and-death message that adequate and accessible health care represents. As the Mayor has made clear, health care is an issue that defines bipartisanship because both Republicans and Democrats get sick.

The private healthcare corporation Vident closed the local hospital, Pungo that served Bellhaven. Since the viability of so many hospitals was based on expanding health care coverage not restricting it, Pungo is just one of many early warning signs of what could become a widespread calamity. As noted in the Daily Kos, the Rural Health Association counts 283 rural hospitals as on their own kind of deathwatch to survive.

To save the hospital, Mayor O’Neal pulled pages from the history of the civil rights struggle and joined hands with contemporary activists. They hit the streets and marched to the state capitol in Raleigh to ask for a modification of the certification to allow the hospital to reopen. They also marched to Washington totaling hundreds of miles. They were joined by Rev. William Barber and his Moral Majority who have been central in recent struggles in North Carolina and beyond. They were also joined by former civil rights activists, like the legendary Bob Zellner from early SNCC and Freedom Rides fame. I can remember reaching out for Zellner in 1976 when we opened ACORN’s office in New Orleans and asking for help then. He was “retired” he said and working for an industrial plant, Godcheaux’s sugar refinery, while living in New Orleans and trying to find some calm after his years of activism. I doubt if he had really retired then, but there’s no doubt that he is back in action now. It was good to read that Zellner had joined this fight in North Carolina and walked with Mayor O’Neal every step of the 238-mile trek to Washington.

Does this kind of bipartisanship work even in the rock-ribbed rural communities of the South that have become the bastion of the Republican voting strength? Can these dusted off tactics still make a difference?

It seems so as Mayor O’Neal tweeted at the end of September:

Great news!!! NC Legislature changes Cert. Of Need law to allow our hospital to reopen. Votes..House 102-8 and Senate 44-0. #savepungo

Seems like part of the message from North Carolina is that we may need to build a movement on health care access for all to finally get the job done here.

Making an Organizing Plan for a Domestic Workers Association in Morocco

CP5KNv0WcAAvUm5Grenoble One of my more exciting and interesting tasks during my week of working in France with ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, and our partner, ReAct, was spending hours of speculation on how we would make an organizing plan to build an association of domestic workers, including heavily exploited migrants, in Morocco. This work never gets old! At one point one of the organizing directors turned to me and said, “I bet you’ve never organized where there was a King!” She was making an excellent point. The Queen of England and her posse are largely expensive figurines, but having a ruler who could still reach out and grab the wheel was worth me doing some research about the different twists and turns that organizing in such a political environment might entail.

I had been “all-in” from the get-go of course because I have a soft spot in my heart for organizing domestic workers dating back to the Household Workers’ Organizing Committee in New Orleans in 1978 and decades of work on home health care workers and home day care workers. We don’t have a good grip on the overall size of the workforce in Morocco yet, but modestly the numbers are several hundred thousand and could likely rise to a half-million. Most of the workers are Moroccan of course and employed by everyone from the middle class on up the economic ladder, but a not insignificant number are migrants as well from the Congo and other African countries as well as more recently the Philippines. Many of the migrants are undocumented and therefore in a more precarious situation with their employers. All domestic workers in Morocco seem unprotected by any special legislation about their rights or entitlements.

The early research obviously involves scouring the labor code to see whether there are arguable handles on rights or any specific exclusions for domestic workers in the same way that domestics were initially excluded from any coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA until the late 1970’s. The early scan indicated that the migrant workers are expressly barred from everything, including membership or protection by unions, despite the newer constitutional amendments in the wake of the Arab Spring which tightened up the right of all workers in speak and organize. We also are trying to get a better sense of the size of the constituency so we have a handle on our task and a sense of what scale will be needed in the organizing campaign.

While brainstorming about the hiring network for employers we found anecdotal evidence that the labor market, especially for migrants, might be controlled by labor “agents” or brokers that connected to scores of women looking for domestic work and sometimes to countries supply the migrant labor. Where we had been talking about ways to find domestic worker day workers and the frustrations that come with the lack of access to residential domestic workers, we suddenly realized that our outreach and contact plan would be seriously flawed if the labor market was controlled by a network of agents and suppliers, who might see us as upsetting their business model. We will still have to start at bus stops and marketplaces near more upper income communities where people work, as well as at churches, mosques, and associations that might be able to offer contacts, but clearly we will have to get a better sense of the way the labor market is organized, before we begin concentrated recruitment. We already know a lot of the issues, but the work plan is a long way from complete.

Did I mention how exciting it is to be on the ground floor of such an organizing campaign?

The Labor Leader’s Last Shout of the Swan Song

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.57.27 AMWarsaw    Once the mess was out in the open and Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan spilled the beans on his Facebook page about all of the sharp elbowed, behind the scenes jostling that makes up 95% of all of labor’s internal politics, virtually any and all union members knew it was all over except for the shouting. The smell of death was in the air. I shared a note with a colleague in Toronto that clearly Ryan was drowning. This morning I woke up to a message in reply from the same comrade saying, “No, he’s dead” including a web link to an op-ed piece written by Ryan as an announcement that he was no longer standing for reelection.

Union politics can be hard to follow because a lot of people make the mistake of thinking there’s some kind of democracy at work, and that’s accurate but only at the most local level and usually less so the higher one goes up the ranks. This is a “representative” system where delegates, so named or elected by their unions, go to central, state or provincial, or national and international bodies to represent their unions. Their votes are often “instructed” by boards and executive committees and bigger dogs with louder barks than their own. They do not vote as individuals.

When Ryan in recent days was bandying about words like “blackmail” and the questions of whether or not federations like the OFL were “independent” or autonomous labor bodies, and seeming to appeal to individual delegates and other union activists to rise up and oppose the larger unions, any observer with a modicum of knowledge about how unions worked knew he was in a desperate situation and likely was just taking a last “Hail, Mary!” shot at re-election. The bigger the union, particularly national unions with discipline as opposed to public employee unions that sometimes allow locals some autonomy, the more numerous the delegates and the greater weight their voting strength, therefore the narrower their odds that any unlikely coalition of the little unions could prevail. In the case of the OFL with disaffiliations and what Ryan termed “dues’ strikes,” they were starving the federation and Ryan into submission. He was already toast, so it was just a matter of time before he stepped away.

The Toronto Star gave him a last hurrah, and by my lights, he handled it with some grace even as he patted himself heartily on the back:

It is no mystery that, along the way, I have accumulated some critics (you may have heard from a few in the pages of the Toronto Star), but union members are unmistakably united. I have been elected unanimously three times as OFL president and union members have repeatedly given me a mandate to put equity, community and action at the heart of everything we do. Together, we put 10,000 people on the streets of Hamilton in support of steelworkers, 15,000 in London in support of autoworkers, 30,000 in Toronto in support of school teachers and support staff and we rallied for workplace rights in every region of Ontario. We have built an unprecedented labour-community alliance of over 90 groups that began the pushback against Rob Ford’s privatization agenda, challenged McGuinty’s austerity cuts, and catapulted inequality into the media.

The enthusiastic response that I have received from union members, precarious workers and equity seekers across the province has been a powerful validation of the unity and solidarity at the core of our movement. It gives me hope that the labour movement is as vibrant and relevant as ever and, with the rise of precarious work, migrant labour and governments who put corporate interests ahead of the public interest, the need has never been greater.

However, any movement is bigger than any one person.

Some of the labour leaders who have opposed me have said that they share my working class values but they can’t unite behind my leadership.

There’s an old union negotiator’s saying that I’ve had to use many times at the bargaining table myself to a company at bad points which is that “you may beat me, but you’re going to have to whip me first.” Ryan didn’t go out with a whine, but a roar. I’m not sure that helped the unity of the labor movement, but he proved he could still count the votes and went stage left before any more damage could be done, and the challenge he left with the labor movement is the same one that is almost always on all of our lips, so it seems a fair enough way to say farewell.

Europe Going South and East

indexWarsaw   The Organizers’ Forum delegation began our meetings at the Warsaw School of Economics with Dr. Jan Czarzasty who is a specialist in labor markets and provided us with a helpful context for understanding the major issues of Poland’s political economy. It was an education!

He noted early in his presentation to us, while responding to questions, that there had been a sea change in expectations and understanding of the whole European proposition. Coming into the European Union, there had been a notion that the eastern countries of Europe, like Poland, as well as the southern countries like Greece, Italy, and Spain would essentially move north and west in adopting classic European standards around social security, general welfare, workers’ rights, and other citizen-centered policies, but after more than a dozen years, it now seemed that Europe was moving towards the lower standards of the southern and eastern countries.

Poland has seen an out-migration of two million workers as economic itinerants booming out in construction and service industries with more than 800,000 workers in the United Kingdom, almost 200000 in Ireland, and 100000 in Norway and Sweden for example. Many continue to bounce back and forth, and remittances have become a substantial part of the economy, even after the global recession.

Meanwhile, the economy of Poland has improved, but everything is relative. Unemployment for example is a record low – 10% — which sounds awful, but is great when you consider it was 20%.

The social safety net continues to be frayed. Contributions to the state system are not matched by the government, except for the political astute and powerful farmers who have a separate pension system which is 95% paid for by the state. There was a second system, based loosely on the Chilean private IRA-type investment scheme, but the state recently unilaterally transferred all of that fund to the state system. Polish citizens who had put money in the privatization scheme refer to that move simply as “robbery.” Meanwhile the eligibility for retirement has been gender neutralized, but that meant raising everyone’s retirement age to 67 years.

The housing market, especially in Warsaw, is very tight. Part of the problem we learned from the professor came from the adoption of the British-system biased towards home ownership rather than doing more to protect and privilege renters. This has led to young people packing four and five in 500 square feet of space or so in order to afford the rents. Additionally, the more family friendly policies of other countries, especially around parental leave and child care have also driven many young families west as well. Jan described his students at the School of Economics as mainly middle-class and well-educated, but the combination of rental and labor markets leads to about half of every class migrating somewhere else in Europe for employment and opportunity.

Even while reporting all of this less than rosy picture, nothing about Warsaw fits with the image in our memory bank. The visual impression in Warsaw is still European and more modern than not. I can vividly recall when we attached an ACORN colleague to a trip for organizers sponsored by some foundation to Poland not long after the Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s. The descriptions were dire, calling up images of smokestacks, pollution, heavy industry, and almost a grim pre-industrial vision. Now, the names on the taller buildings include MetLife, Kia, and others. Auto manufacturers have flocked to the relatively lower wages here to locate their plants. People tell us, all evidence to the contrary, that things are better, there are more things to buy, and people are happier with the economy.

Poland is advancing on Europe and Europe is coming down to Polish standards in a great leveling of sorts where it is hard to predict either the bottom or the top these days.