After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.

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Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

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Coming Water Wars, City-to-City, State-to-State

New Orleans  Everyone is watching the U.S. Supreme Court for key decisions this term around race, gay rights, and other issues, but their rejection of claims from Tarrant County, Texas where Fort Worth is located in the sprawling metroplex of north Texas, on any water from Oklahoma as part of the Red River Compact, may signal the coming American “water wars” that could dominate many areas in the 21st Century and literally make or break entire cities.   In this case an Oklahoma law prohibiting supplying water to out-of-state applicants was upheld, asserting a state’s rights to regulate its water over any rights claimed as part of a congressionally approved allocation system like the Red River Compact.  In the midst of a terrible drought now this is a blow to the almost 2 million users served by the Tarrant Regional Water District, and as significantly could lead to restrictions on future development in the area without access to sufficient water.

            Fort Worth is not alone.  Atlanta is already gulping for water having passed on a small investment that would have given it water rights many decades ago and now barred from access to these sources after years of losing litigation.  And, we’re not talking about Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas that have been tackling this problem for years with different levels of failure and success.  

            Earlier this year I read with great interest The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Austin-based, ex-Fortune writer, Charles Fishman.  I had found his book on Walmart many years ago helpful in organizing and had talked to him at the time. After visiting Atlanta in January I was surprised and intrigued to stumble on the water crisis in that city.   The book was helpful in getting my arms around the coming crises nationally here.

            Years ago, when we were successfully fighting the privatization of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board the companies all derided questions about whether or not private companies were seeking access to our great water surplus from the Mississippi River to export to other cities and states.  If we had a Governor not trying to run quixotically for President and a Mayor with enough vision to look past his next election, there would be real work in seeing in our broke-ass part of the country whether or not there might be a way to successfully commodify our surplus water capacity so that we might relieve the problems of cities within 8-9 hours drive like Atlanta and the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

            Make no mistake water, sewer, and all of attendant issues with both of them in our cities are going to be dominant issues in the coming decades.  No one can live without water and the notion that each area can bottle up the resource and restrict it just to the home folks, as the Supreme Court has just ruled, is a game changer.

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Student Testing and Teacher Evaluations Both Failing our Schools

Houston   The very idea of watching 34 school employees along with a former schools superintendent indicted in Atlanta for a student testing scandal should bring chills up the backs of parents, school systems, and particularly politicians all over the country.  Not that this is unusual.  In fact it is another all too common cheating scandal that the politicians and big billionaires have seen follow their retooling school programs across the country from any pretense at education to testing factories.  Earlier cheating scandals have been reported in New York, Texas, Chicago, and even Seattle.

What’s the surprise?  When schools try to privatize their values and the good of the children is replaced by 5-figure bonuses for teachers and administrators triggered by test scores, there are suddenly powerful incentives to figure out a way to cheat, rather than better ways to educate.  There’s no money in better education, but even in New Orleans we saw test scores reap bonuses for some charter school teachers in the $40,000 range.  That’s real money, when the bonus is almost at the same level as base pay, we talking Wall Street comparisons without as many “zeros” at the end.

Meanwhile the early tallies on statewide teacher evaluations have produced amazing scores.  One state after another is seeing its teaching corps rack up 98% grades, 99%, and so forth at the most superior levels.  The response from the teachers’ unions has been that they always believed that these evaluations systems sucked, but of course they are not surprised that teachers are getting such high grades:  they told you so!  Once again the Gates Foundation and the billionaire buddy corps said these evaluations would eliminate the bad apples and it would make a difference.  Seems there are not many bad apples.

So maybe the problem is that this privatization, business model is not meant for public education?  Maybe we have to really look at what we spend on teacher support and development, classroom investments in material, staffing and equipment, physical plan deterioration, bleeding the system with vouchers designed to segregate schools, and a bunch of other quack solutions, and finally stop blaming teachers and students and really get serious about education that works rather than the mess we’ve allowed some to make?

Seems time.

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