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New York’s All-Day Pre-K Plan: Good News for Teachers?

3:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Students at Bank Street Head Start in New York City, a free pre-K program for families under the federal poverty line. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to provide universal pre-K in NYC. (Image: Bankstreet College of Education)

Originally published at In These Times

Following a national trend of opening public schools to children younger than 5, New York’s newmayor, Bill de Blasio, plans to provide universal access to all-day pre-kindergarten, funded by an income tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers.

Expanding pre-K services to all eligible 4-year-olds in the city—perhaps as many as 50,000 kids—would cost an estimated $340 million, both to enroll new students and to expand half-day programs. Back in the late 1990s, New York state led the country in boosting public pre-K with a law mandating universal access, but since then districts have failed to fully fund this measure, and New York City’s school system falls far short. De Blasio proposes to fund his program with a “rich tax” that would bring in roughly $530 million. The balance of the money would be invested in afterschool programs for middle-schoolers.

The program is a popular one across party lines. Reams of research show that investing in preschool for all children can dramatically shrink “achievement gaps” across racial and economic lines. And it may also pay fiscal dividends: According to the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute, “High-quality pre-kindergarten benefits government budgets by saving government spending on K-12 education, child welfare, and the criminal justice system, and by increasing tax revenues.” Even conservatives, generally skeptical about anti-poverty programs, can at least value the idea of pre-K as a welfare supplement to alleviate the childcare burdens of parents who might otherwise be working more hours. And community groups, teachers and unions have championed De Blasio’s  initiative, focusing on the promise of much-needed resources to serve more pre-school students with more comprehensive programs.

While advocates generally see universal pre-K in New York as a potential boon for the early-childhood education field—one of the few public-education sectors that’s actually expanding nationwide in a time of severe budget cuts—some are concerned about whether the plan will meet the needs of both educators and students in struggling public schools. Read the rest of this entry →

How Sandy Clean-Up Brought Day Laborers Out of the Shadows

6:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(El Centro de Immigrante)

Originally published at In These Times

When Sandy hit last October, the Northeast shoreline seemed to freeze: people were stranded in flooded homes, businesses shuttered, downtown Manhattan’s lights went eerily dark. But the paralysis wasn’t total—the area began buzzing immediately with invisible workers. The day after Sandy was just another day of honest work for the “casual” manual laborers who would spent months cleaning, gutting and rebuilding homes and businesses across the stricken area, often in grueling conditions with little protection from collapsing walls, toxic mold and other hazards.

A study published late last month by researchers with the City University of New York’s Baruch College reports that after Sandy, many of these day laborers—a workforce that is typically dominated by Latino immigrants and considered a “casual” or irregular part of the construction trade—were unnecessarily put in harm’s way amidst the haphazard recovery process.

Based on interviews with workers and advocacy groups in New York and surrounding areas, the researchers found that while demand for day laborers spiked post-Sandy, working conditions sank even lower than usual. Flooded areas were quickly awash in contractors and desperate homeowners seeking quick, cheap labor to fix their property damage, which led to a perfect storm of risks, ranging from injuries and toxic exposures to wage theft by crooked subcontractors.

The researchers note that many day labor sites belied major safety threats, such as “industrial cleanups involving warehouses that stored pharmaceuticals and in hospitals.” And in many cases, homeowners who informally hired day laborers for immediate clean-up did not understand the complex hazards involved with clean-up, demolition and rebuilding, leaving workers even more vulnerable. Read the rest of this entry →

New York City Immigrants Test a New Economic ‘Bridge’

8:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City, but in reality it’s hard for skilled workers to get their foot in the door. (Sgt. Randall. A. Clinton / Flickr )

Originally published at In These Times

For all the supposed potential of the “American Dream,” immigrants in New York City often have a terrible time redeeming its promise. Many arrive in the United States with no financial grounding or burdened by a heap of debt; others can spend years priced out of financial credit by poverty and discrimination. Now, however, the city is allocating a little seed capital toward the long-overlooked economic potential of poor immigrant communities.

The Immigrant Bridge program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation is a pilot initiative that aims to invest in the future careers of struggling, underemployed immigrant workers who came equipped with credentials earned in their home countries but have been unable to get their foot in the professional door of the city’s labor market. A core component of the program is a special loan fund for immigrants with a college background, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, borrowed on five-year terms, which can be used to cover any expense, including the cost of necessary licensing exams, training classes, or basic life expenses like transportation costs. In addition to the loan fund, which will be administered by Amalgamated Bank, selected program participants would engage in career development programs to place them into jobs that suit their aptitudes.

Though Amalgamated obviously has a commercial interest in the program, the union-owned bank has built up street cred as a proletarian-friendly institution, with historical ties to the immigrant labor movement. “There’s a lot of unutilized human capital here in immigrant communities… and we want them to be reaching their full potential,” says Andrew Weltman, Amalgamated’s first Vice President for Strategic Development.

The 400 participants who will ultimately be selected to participate in Immigrant Bridge reflect just a sliver of a systemic gap in the city’s economic landscape, though. Many well-educated immigrants face structural obstacles when seeking to break into a professional field, even one in which they were successful before migrating. (Nationwide data on metropolitan areas hows that the majority of immigrants hold “middle skill” or “high skill” qualifications.)

According to the New York-based think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrant New Yorkers hold considerable economic clout, making up “84 percent of small grocery store owners, 69 percent of restaurant owners, and 63 percent of clothing store owners.” But even if they are technically business owners, the work can be rough and the pay low, whether you’re running a daycare business in your home or driving a cab every night. Read the rest of this entry →

Caring for Workers Who Care for Our Loved Ones

11:21 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

At a June 2012 New York Care Congress at Pace University, care workers came together with community members to discuss how to ‘create quality, dignified care for all.’ (Photo from ALIGN NY)

Originally published at In These Times.

For many seniors, growing older means facing new kinds of stress—such as fragile health, a tight budget on a fixed income, or the travails of living alone.

And for the people who care for the aging, the stress can be just as severe. When her client is going through a rough time, one domestic worker says she lives through every minute of it, too: “Sometimes we stay there for five days…and we don’t know what’s outside…You cannot leave the job.”

Stories like this one, recorded as part of a survey of New York’s care workers, form the invisible pillar of an evolving industry that is making the private home the center of public health, and in the process, reshaping our relationships of family, work, community and social service. Yet the home care workforce, which is driven largely by poor women of color, mirrors inequities embedded in the low-wage economy. At work, caregivers manage the lives of our loved ones while often facing exploitation and abuse, and after a long day of delivering comfort to vulnerable clients, manystruggle themselves to cope with ingrained poverty their communities.

To open a conversation about the economics and ethics of caregiving, ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York) has partered with the national advocacy campaign Caring Across Generations, along with various community and labor groups, to study New York City’s more than 150,000 home care workers. The surveys and investigations published by ALIGN reveal structural problems in the industry and identify potential for reforms that work for those who give and those who receive care.

In New York, the home care industry is booming as more seniors opt to live at home rather than in institutions. Thousands across the city earn their living by taking care of seniors and people with disabilities. Overall, according to the study, the sector “will be the single biggest driver of employment in the city in the coming years.”

On a typical day in New York, these workers, mostly women of color and immigrants, act as both therapists and companions, managing medications, bathing and feeding, and helping seniors feel dignified even on the days they can’t get out of bed. On top of this, the workers have to negotiate with stressed families about hours and pay–and typically take home low wages that keep them and their families mired in poverty. Read the rest of this entry →

New York Wants to Boost Food Manufacturing, but Will Communities get a Raw Deal?

10:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(afagen via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Under the reign of New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has issued millions of dollars in business development subsidies to beleaguered urban neighborhoods, meant to create new jobs and promote entrepreneurial spirit. Now the NYCEDC is teaming up with Wall Street to give loans to local food manufacturers, but activists who have examined the city’s development track record smell something fishy.

The NYCEDC’s new loan fund grew out of a partnership with Goldman Sachs, which is running a glossy nationwide campaign to pump seed money into small businesses in several cities. The initiative seems geared toward incubating foodie-friendly startups, conjuring up images of rooftop-grown honey and specialty cupcakes. No loans have been awarded yet, but the program’s eligibility criteria appears to target small- to medium-scale food manufacturers that have four to 100 workers and annual revenues between $150,000 and $7,000,000, and can demonstrate “difficulty obtaining credit from traditional sources.” The agency’s website spotlights honors for charismatic local entrepreneurs, like boutique kimchee and artisan bagel makers.

Community groups say they welcome efforts to foster small food businesses, but are wary that the program will offer more hype than real development for a city that’s hungry for good, steady jobs. Labor advocates who have been organizing in the local food sector know that many local producers, even if they’re smaller than industry behemoths like General Mills, are not necessarily much kinder to their employees. Read the rest of this entry →

Foodies Get Wobbly

5:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Workers from Hot and Crusty win recognition for their union after 11 months of organizing. (Photo: Laundry Workers Center)

Originally published at In These Times

Once upon a time in the labor movement, a rebellious vanguard emerged at the margins of American industry, braiding together workers on society’s fringes—immigrants, African Americans, women, unskilled laborers—under a broad banner of class struggle.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, raised hell in the early 20th century with unapologetically militant protests and strikes.

Their vision of a locally rooted, globally oriented anti-capitalist movement was eclipsed by mainstream unions, which had more political muscle. But grassroots direct action is today undergoing a resurgence in the corners of the workforce that have remained isolated from union structures.

Such alternative campaigns have a special resonance in today’s food industries, which employ the roughly 20 million people (one-sixth of the total workforce) who harvest, process, distribute and sell the food we eat. This marginalized, low-wage group is hungry for organizing models that move as nimbly as the corporations that run the production chains. The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals.

Since 2007, the Wobbly-affiliated coalition Focus on the Food Chain (FOFC) has empowered workers in New York City’s food sectors to challenge abusive employers on the streets and in the courts. The group—an alliance between the local IWW and the advocacy group Brandworkers International—aims to “carry out member-led workplace justice campaigns to transform the industry” and focuses on the oft-neglected links between farm and fridge. According to Brandworkers Executive Director Daniel Gross, these processing and distribution industries are a “sweatshop corridor.” Read the rest of this entry →

Post-Sandy Relief Workers Toil in Tough Labor Conditions

4:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

ConEd employees and other relief workers in New York City face dangerous environmental conditions and exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. (Dan DeLuca / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, residents of storm-battered communities from Coney Island to Long Beach are still living with darkness, squalor and a growing sense that they’ve been abandoned by official response teams (notwithstanding valiant grassroots volunteer efforts).

But as public frustration mounts, the emergency responders, manual laborers and utility workers on the front lines have their own frustrations. Many are laboring under precarious work conditions while their own neighborhoods still struggle to recover from storm damage.

In places that are still lacking utilities–including many public housing units that had their services preemptively shut down as a protective measure–a wave of anger is beginning to crest. The Long Island Power Authority in particular has come under fire for leaving tens of thousands customers still powerless as of November 12. And New York Daily News‘ Denis Hamill recently reported on the lonely struggle of Far Rockaway residents. When asked about the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) providing clean-up assistance, Cynthia Torres complained,“They never came once to see how we were doing when we were living for 10 days in the pitch dark with no phones, no hot water, no heat, no cable, sometimes no drinking water or food, no nothing. Two NYCHA guys came today for the first time since the storm.”

Storm-hit New Yorkers have voiced frustration at the “chaos” of ConEd’s response, particularly poor-to-nonexistent communications with customer service.

But the workers leading the power restoration are similarly frustrated by what they see as an underlying crisis of an eroded, overwhelmed workforce. Following the storm, Local 1-2, the utility workers union that led a groundbreaking labor standoff at ConEd last summer, issued a statement suggesting that exasperated customers should understand that the damage exceeded official estimates and was far beyond workers’ capacity in the immediate term: “if you think a repair crew is slow to get to your area, please keep in mind that we are just like you, and that we are seeing things that have never happened before. It is that serious.” Read the rest of this entry →

Civil Rights Groups File Complaint Over New York’s High Stakes Tests

7:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, which signed on to the complaint about race and class bias in secondary-school entrance exams, holds a press conference to protest public school defunding and closing in underserved areas. (New York City Coalition for Educational Justice)

Originally posted at In These Times

Every year, New York City middle-schoolers subject themselves to a grueling academic ritual that could make or break their educational futures, or so they’re told. The 2.5-hour multiple-choice Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) serves as the sole gateway to a suite of elite public schools—particularly Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Technical. The kids who make the cut tend to be disproportionately Asian and white; Latino and black students are vastly underrepresented.

Civil rights groups are now waging a legal challenge accusing New York City’s education authorities of tying the elite tier of schools to an arbitrary test that effectively perpetuates inequality. The complaint was filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College on behalf of a coalition of civil rights and community groups.

The backdrop to the legal controversy is a growing rebellion against high-stakes standardized tests, which some say perpetuate racial and socioeconomic equity in urban schools. The SHSAT is separate from the state’s standardized test system (which is designed to comply with federal education reforms), but, as a gatekeeper to educational opportunity, raises similar concerns. Read the rest of this entry →

In Sandy’s Wake, New York’s Landscape of Inequity Revealed

2:15 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Flood damage to the subway system will disproportionately affect the lower-income New Yorkers who use it the most, worsening structural inequality. (MTA / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

The shock of Sandy is still rippling across the northeastern United States. But in the microcosm of New York City, we can already see who’s going to bear the brunt of the damage. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, floodwaters have a way of exposing the race and class divisions that stratify our cities.

Though some bus and subway service is returning, many neighborhoods dependent on public transportation remain functionally shuttered. Not surprisingly, recent surveys show that Metropolitan Transit Authority ridership consists mostly of people of color, nearly half living on less than $50,000 a year in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

It’s true that Sandy’s path of destruction was to some extent an equal opportunity assault, pummeling the trendiest downtown enclaves and blighted neighborhoods alike. But residents’ levels of resilience to the storm–the capacity to absorb trauma–will likely follow the sharp peaks and valleys of the city’s economic landscape.

Even before the storm, inequities arose in the city’s disaster preparations. Many public-housing residents who stayed behind in evacuation zones were preemptively blacked out, left without elevators, heat or hot water. Meanwhile, once again, in a repeat of Hurricane Irene, the city was criticized for shamelessly denying the incarcerated at Rikers Island an adequate evacuation plan. Read the rest of this entry →

$950,000 Win for NYC Workers Invigorates Supply-Chain-Justice Movement

9:45 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tom Cat Bakery drivers address supporters during a march to protest threats against healthcare benefits. (Brandworkers.org)

Originally posted at In These Times

A lot of the heavy lifting in today’s labor movement is coming from an unexpected place: the warehouses and processing facilities that bridge the retail and wholesale markets. Alienated from traditional labor union structures, these more obscure links in the supply chain offer a new breeding ground for innovative rank-and-file mobilizing. The recent Wal-Mart warehouse strikesin California and Illinois showed how precarious low-wage workers organize on their own in defiance of temp bosses, the police, and the nation’s retail giant.

Meanwhile, in Queens, New York, landmark legal victory for warehouse workers and truck drivers at a local food distributor reveals the value of a more nimble-footed approach to empowering non-unionized workers.

Late last month, a federal judge ruled that distribution company Beverage Plus must pay a group of Latino workers about $950,000 in damages. The decision cited repeated and willful labor violations by the company, including denying overtime to employees who worked up to 12-hour days. Read the rest of this entry →