Janitors Call Me, Jamie, and He Does, Maybe

New Orleans   At the end of a fascinating planning meeting in a living room in Austin during a welcome all day of rain, I thought I would add some fun to the end of this productive session by making a suggestion that when the new organization got up and running with a website, here was a good, effective use of a video.  We then huddled around to enjoy the cute, clever version of “Call Me, Maybe” done by Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strikers from several elementary schools that I ran yesterday.  One of the participants in the organizing meeting asked if we had seen a similar effort by Houston janitors on strike last month at the JP Morgan Chase building there.  I hadn’t but we found it on Youtube and pulled it up:

In trying to force the company’s hands, the union had produced this video as part of an on-line campaign to support the strikers I learned later.  The hook had been that one of strike leaders had managed to get within earshot of Chase CEO Jamie Dimon at a Washington hearing and he had yelled back, “call my office,” and so they were.  The on-line campaign involved advertisements that SEIU paid for on hundreds of websites in a half-dozen major cities around the country.  I was told that Dimon did finally call the janitors back, though that was harder to clarify from a Google search.  At the end of the line, Houston janitors settled after a 4-week strike involving 3000 janitors for $1 raise over 4-years, so, everything being equal which we all understand it never really is, I would say the strike was successful.

And, the on-line campaign and the video tactic?  Probably less so.  Youtube says there were about 2000 hits on the video over the last 6-weeks.  That’s respectable of course, but nothing to Jamie Dimon and Chase other than an annoyance in all likelihood and hardly a game changer.  The fact that Chase and SEIU Local 1 are both headquartered in Chicago and that all of the major strike targets were big multinational companies with Houston branch offices makes it more likely that this was an old-school union pressure and leverage victory that was impossible without janitors hitting the street in Houston, but likely settled in the way many of these building service strikes are handled.  The video was likely great for morale for the strikers and their supporters and absolutely another valuable arrow in the tactical quiver, but no more than that.

The real value is likely in the shadow of what one sees in the Chicago teachers video as a model for this type of thing.  The teachers have gone from 14000 hits when I first looked 24 hours ago to over 20,000 now as I write this, but what makes both work is the fact that when the viewers like us are reached the strikers are humanized.  In the Chicago case these were elementary school teachers who were obviously united, talented, and the kind of people you would love to have leading your own children in the classroom sending a message not just to Mayor Rahm Emmanuel but to their own students.   You also got the feel that they had done this on their own rather than through some union public relations firm or communications department.

Regardless the teachers – and the janitors – are teaching us and raising the bar.  As organizers we’ve always said that “actions have to be fun,” and both in these videos set out to prove that axiom and put the pressure on at the same time.

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Two-Tiered Teacher Pay and Anti-Unionism Are Charter School Issues

Teachers in the Streets

New Orleans  In the wake of the Chicago teachers’ strike there is a lot of talk about the real issues provoking the strike.  The Times seems them as trivial.  There’s a lot of ink pitting it as a personality problem between the prickly and notoriously difficult Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the every bit his equal, Linda Davis, the new head of the AFT Chicago affiliate.  Nicholas Kristof, who can always be counted on to hit precisely the wrong note, claims he would be fine with the strike if it were about money, but not having a clue what the strike is really about, opines that he doesn’t like it.  What the heck is going on here?!?

I won’t pretend to know any more than the average bear, but if this strike isn’t about “charterizing” the public school system and thereby creating a two-tier wage system, and an expanding unaccountable, privatized and potentially volcanic mass of not simply non-union, but in fact decidedly anti-union subcontractors, then it should be. What is hard to understand?  These are classic worker issues that have been at the heart to hundreds of strikes.

If an employer – any employer – insists on a two-tiered wage structure where senior workers, even if red-circled with protections against reductions in pay and benefits is forced to permanently co-exist with other workers doing the same jobs who are paid substantially less, then, brothers and sisters, this is a huge, big-time issue that will either end up pushing all of the wages to the bottom and all of the senior workers out or end up in a battle royal.  In the largest charter school operation in the country in New Orleans this is part of why more than 5000 school teachers and other workers were fired, and many senior teachers were not rehired and are still trying to get home from Houston and Atlanta after Katrina.  Is this happening in Chicago?  You bet your bippy!  Motoko Rich in the Times today (maybe Kristof could read his factual reporting before running his mouth?) notes that “experienced teachers at [Chicago] charter schools make about $15,000 to $30,000 less than their counterparts at traditional schools, where the average salary is $75,000.”  So if Kristof wants to claim he would be OK with a strike to raise the $75,000 to something higher, but not when things like charters and school structure are an issue, he’s not just naïve, he’s lying.  Furthermore, he’s alone.

Keep in mind the other fact offered by Rich in his piece.  While 350,000 children are out of school because their teachers are on strike, “about 50,000 who attend the city’s 96 charters went to class as usual.”  Ok, that’s only 12.5% of the students and therefore about the same number of teachers who are de facto scabbing the strike, so that’s not enough to put a stake in the AFT’s heart, but it’s a bleeding bruise that will be noticed, and no one will miss the fact that in preparing for “the next time” the Mayor and the school’s management will want to make sure that percentage is higher.

This growing non-union, and, frankly from reading a lot of their public comments in New Orleans and other cities, anti-union, bunch of charter operators is a vexing and annoying problem for any union and its senior and stable workforce.  They do not have the same set of governance and accountability mechanisms in charters, but they get to pop off 24/7 about how much they are “different,” “better,” “non-traditional,” and so forth.  They are also often, if Chicago is anything like New Orleans, also operating “whiter” and “richer” and using short time enthusiastic but inexperienced union-diluters like Teach for America and others to push down wages and benefits and guarantee turnover.

How many strikes have autoworkers, machinists, steelworkers, and other unions fought over subcontracting?  Thousands!  Charters are private subcontractors of public work.  How can anyone not understand that to be anything other than a huge labor and union issue?  From a public policy and labor relations standpoint what you want in these situation is a bargaining regime where workers are not in competition but management is.  In other words a charter or a subcontract would be issued that protects the workers (teachers) wages and benefits, but determines whether a different management (teaching) philosophy might produce different or even better results.  None of this is happening!  The charters are getting the same per pupil dollars but are taking their profit in many cases out of the pay envelopes of their workers.  How else can $15,000 to $30,000 wage differentials be explained, Nick?

If the charterization process were really about education and handled in any good faith, the teachers and support staff would continue to be union and there would be real measurements and analysis to determine in apples versus apples comparisons where the children benefited, where lessons were learned, and where best practices where being created.  There is no pretense in Chicago, New Orleans, or any other city to establish that that is happening.  This is about “any port in the storm” management trying to deflect pressure on their operations which haven’t delivered to anyone for a long time.  It’s about blaming the victims (they are poor, they are black, they speak different languages) and refusing to recognize the warriors who are in there trying to make a difference.  When we send firefighters into the fire to save lives, we know respect should be given along with wages and benefits.  Why are we blindly not recognizing that teachers are trying to ignite and direct the same fires in children’s minds against terrible odds, and as we look at the pushdown of wages, the construction of non-union and anti-union bulwarks in the charters, and blatant subcontracting of public functions and accountability, how can we not support teachers and their unions from fighting to put an end to this.  Before it’s too late!

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