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Teachers Seek to ‘Reclaim’ Education

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Chicago Teachers Local Union 1/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

After years of being backed into a corner, on Monday public-school teachers stood up in defiance against what they see as their chief bully—budget-slashing school reforms that have made school more stressful and less fulfilling for both them and their students.

Under the banner of a National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education, educators, students and community groups coordinated demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings in dozens of cities. In the long run, the day of action kicked off a broader campaign by a coalition of unions and community groups to chart an alternative path to education reform.

According to a policy statement by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the leading union behind the campaign, and its partner groups, the goal is to foster “a community-union movement for educational equity and excellence.” While that agenda may sound neutral to the uninitiated, it speaks to growing resentment toward the prevailing reform rhetoric pushed by the White House and many politicians: corporate-oriented “standards” and “management,” leading to a test-heavy curriculum focused on math and reading at the expense of all else. First imposed under the No Child Left Behind law of the Bush administration, this hardline approach rests on the belief that a lack of academic rigor and “ineffective” educators are impeding U.S. students’ performance. The prescription has been an avalanche of high-stakes testing, public-school funding cuts and free-market privatization measures such as charter schools, often funded by corporate-oriented philanthropists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

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What India’s Sex Workers Want: Power, Not Rescue

5:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at In These Times

Street art in West Bengal advocates labor rights, rather than criminalization or ‘rescue,’ for sex workers. The Durbar Committee is a self-described ‘collectivization of 65,000 sex workers’ based in India. (Wolfgang Sterneck / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Anu Mokal wasn’t breaking the law when she was out walking with her friend last year, yet to the police, her very existence was criminal. As a sex worker in the Indian state of Maharashtra, she lives under various laws aimed at criminalizing the sex trade, supposedly to protect women from exploitation. But it was the law that became her assailant that day when a police officer viciously attacked her, hurling insults and beating her severely.

Mokal pleaded that she was pregnant, but—according to Meena Seshu, founder and general secretary of SANGRAM, a sex workers’ rights and anti-HIV/AIDS organization—the officer accused her of lying and said sex workers had “no right to be mothers.” A few weeks after the assault, she miscarried.

India has not outlawed sex work itself, but sex workers face various restrictions on related activities such as soliciting in public or pimping. The law had left her defenseless, however, against the violence of the state. Fortunately, another advocate stepped in on her behalf: SANGRAM and its affiliated sex worker activist collective, Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP). The activists demanded that Maharashtra politicians investigate the beating and institute reforms, including a grievance commission to address abuses of sex workers’ human rights.

Mokal’s brutalization might seem like just a product of local police corruption or culturally embedded prejudice. But the attack echoed a deeper culture of oppression that sex workers face around the world at all levels of society, not just in the streets but in the social institutions that are supposed to protect them. Beyond the officer’s blows, this insidious political assault against sex workers even permeates the work of international humanitarian programs—funded in large part by the foreign aid that pours into the Global South from Washington’s coffers.

An obscure directive embedded in PEPFAR, the White House’s keystone global HIV/AIDS program, has for years explicitly barred U.S. support for any organization that aids sex workers. As it was originally written, the legislation dictated that in order to qualify for PEPFAR funds, both U.S.-based and overseas NGOs must actively pledge that they do not support prostitution. Though the actual implementation of the pledge has been stalled by years of litigation and a recent Supreme Court decision, it has nonetheless pressured both U.S. and international organizations to restrain their programs for sex workers for fear of the financial consequences. Advocates argue that the pledge effectively penalizes groups working with extremely vulnerable communities, leaving countless sex workers deprived of critical services and social supports.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court recently dealt a potentially lethal blow to the so-called “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” by ruling that the mandatory pledge violates the free speech rights of U.S. organizations. But there’s a catch: The court’s ruling applies only to U.S.-based groups. The law still looms large over the Global South, where international aid dollars continue to mold the political discourse on sexuality. Grassroots groups based in the Global South thus continue to face a financial penalty simply for rejecting Washington’s policy of condemning and shunning sex workers.

SANGRAM, which has established itself as a leading regional HIV/AIDS service group as well as a grassroots organizing network for thousands of sex workers, has proudly defied PEPFAR, though the U.S. remains a major funder of HIV/AIDS programming in India. The group turned down an annual grant of $20,000 allocated by a U.S. funder, Avert Society, out of concern that the State Department might interfere with Sangram’s pro-sex worker rights campaigning and peer-education efforts. (The group continues to receive funds from other international donors like the American Jewish World Service.) But with or without U.S. aid, it faces a political climate suffused with the pernicious pressures of America’s “soft power.”

Humanitarian oppression

When aid comes with political strings attached, poor governments are pressured to mirror Washington’s culture wars. “This loyalty oath has had a tremendous impact globally,” says Seshu. “Not only in terms of an aid conditionality vis a vis funding, but an aid conditionality that meant that there was something hugely wrong with working with sex workers or working with issues of sex workers.”

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Cutting the Budget, Bleeding Us Dry

2:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

If you feel like that recovery we keep hearing about hasn’t quite trickled down to your block, there’s a good reason. A huge swath of the country’s workers are out of sync with the economic cycle, continually falling further behind the rich. And, now Obama’s proposed budget may hinder them even more.

According to a new multi-year study by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, many families are priced out of “recovery” for reasons that long predated the recession and will persist indefinitely even as the economy “bounces back.”

Though it’s unsurprising that economic insecurity becomes more ingrained over time, the Pew study reveals that struggling families have had to make trade-offs that further deplete their’ resiliency for coping with the next crisis. According to the analysis, “Those without personal savings and kinship networks to support them frequently used resources they had allocated for their children’s education or their own retirement to fund short-term needs.”

Experiencing unemployment is linked not only to temporary income loss, but to a long-term erosion of wealth over many years. With long-term joblessness still at epidemic levels, the trauma of the recession may bleed into a lifetime of hardship, freighted with crushing debts,  or dependency on meager public benefits, or the foreclosure of their children’s college prospects.  Read the rest of this entry →

Immigration Reform Would Boost Business, Undermine Rights

7:57 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

Santiago Armengod /

After years of Congressional silence on immigration, Washington is finally stirring toward legislative reform, driven by Democrats and Republicans angling for Latino and Asian votes. But the plans being concocted have already sharply diverged from the demands of the grassroots immigrant-rights movement.

So far, the White House and a bipartisan group of Senators have each floated similar outlines for reform that include a process for legalization or citizenship, recruitment of foreign-born workers into select industries, and strict “border security” measures. The details of leaked White House draft plan, prepared as a “back up” to the congressional proposals, were reported by USA Today this weekend. Despite criticism from conservatives, the draft also emphasizes stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

Though the various efforts all aim to fashion a “comprehensive” reform package, any resulting legislation will likely be anything but: While lawmakers squabble over how broad or narrow to make the legalization process, activists fear Congress may simply erect a bureaucratic dam in place of a broken border wall, let corporations control the floodgates, and still exclude millions of immigrants.

The best and brightest?

Both President Obama and the Senate group endorse special visa programs for specific sectors that, not coincidentally, wield lobbying influence. The agricultural industry pushed for, and got, promises of visas for migrant farmworkers. At the other end of the economic spectrum, Silicon Valley moguls successfully advocated visas for science and technology professionals. Such limited visas are usually called “guestworker” programs, although the Washington proposals shy away from the controversial term.

According to talking points emerging from the White House and the Senate group, another special channel of relief may be opened for undocumented youth, following high-profile, media-savvy mobilizations to support the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented students. (In response to continued stagnation on the legislation in Congress, Obama issued ascaled-down administrative directive in August to defer deportations for DREAM-eligible youth).

But many lower-profile migrants have virtually no voice on the Hill. Undocumented women laboring as domestic workers in private homes, or day laborers and dishwashers paid under the table, are no less in need of relief. But under the proposals in play, they can only hope for a more limited legalization process, which might impose deep financial penalties and drag on for years (some estimates suggest up to several million could be disqualified by barriers such as minor past convictions or English-language requirements). Moreover, it’s unclear how far “comprehensive” reforms would go toward ensuring enforcement of labor protections for all—citizen and non, with or without papers—which labor activists see as a crucial step toward building a truly fair, inclusive workforce.

Border security, human insecurity

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Toxic Train Wreck Exposes Weakness in Federal Chemical Policy

11:21 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

The August 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, caused by a release of flammable vapor, was one of several recent accidents in an industry with little to no government oversight. (D.H. Parks / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In late November, while other parts of New Jersey were recovering from the superstorm, the quiet town of Paulsboro was blindsided by a very unnatural disaster. A train derailed while crossing a local bridge, sending freight cars tumbling into the water below and releasing a toxic swirl of the flammable gas known as vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastics. In the following days, chaos ensued as residents hurriedly evacuated. Authorities struggled to manage the emergency respons, leaving people confused and frustrated by a lack of official communicationabout hazards.

Though the derailment came as a shock to residents, this was an accident waiting to happen, environmental advocates say. Paulsboro is just one of the latest in a spate of recent disasters(including others involving vinyl chloride) in industries that handle massive amounts of toxins with minimal oversight.

At a recent community meeting about the aftermath of the incident, residents expressed exasperation at the government’s disaster-response team, accusing officials of keeping them in the dark about toxic risks, reports the South Jersey Times:

“How much is all of our lives worth to you?” Michael Hamilton, a Pine Street resident, asked. “What if somewhere down the line we develop cancer? Who is responsible, and when will you take responsibility?”

Community activists and officials are seeking accountability for the chemical fallout as well. There are immediate concerns—that residents were not adequately informed about the exposure risks, or that in the initial emergency response, workers may not have received appropriate protective gear. Read the rest of this entry →

A Voice Beyond the Vote

2:34 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Undocubus protesters demonstrating at the Democratic National Convention (Chandra Narcia via Facebook)

Originally posted at CultureStrike

Immigration has been catapulted to the front lines of the presidential race in recent months, thanks to a groundswell of grassroots organizing, mass mobilization by a charismatic movement of undocumented youth, and high profile media coverage of some of the immigrant rights movement’s most dramatic struggles (not to mention its ugliest opponents). Add to that the changing complexion of the electorate, with the expansion of Latinos as a major voting bloc, culture wars over politically conscious public education, and the nationwide right-wing backlash that has spawned critical civil rights debates over fair elections and voter suppression.

Here are some dispatches from the pre-election political fray. Though the election may influence the dialogue or the prospects for certain policies, these issues will continue to burn long after November 6, no matter who gets elected.

CultureStriker Jeff Biggers, a longtime chronicler of Arizona politics and author of State Out of the Unionblogs about the browning of the American electorate in ground zero of the immigration battle:

When 20-year Phoenix resident and businesswoman Maria Maqueada turned in her emergency ballot today at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, thanks to the assertive efforts of Citizens for a Better Arizona, one more vote was cast in what observers are already calling a record Latino vote in Arizona.

Whether such a grassroots surge in the Latino vote will be able to overcome out-of-state contributions and Republican hijinks, including the latest report today on misleading robocalls to Arizona Democrats on polling stations by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake, a determined network of Latino and community groups galvanized by citizens fed up with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious reign and the state’s SB 1070 “papers, please” immigration policy has already shifted the political landscape in tomorrow’s election — and beyond.

The reversal of the Arizonification of America is in full force. Read the rest of this entry →

Reforming Welfare and Gutting the Poor: A Bipartisan Platform

8:57 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Charles McCain/Flickr/Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

The Romney camp’s new attack line on the Obama administration–that he “gutted” the work requirements imposed on families receiving public assistance–has been widely debunked as a distortion of a mundane policy memo. But the real scandal here isn’t what Obama did or didn’t do to “workfare”; it’s that both parties have gutted the welfare system as a whole to conduct a cruel social experiment on impoverished families.

As many watchdogs have pointed out, the memo in question from the Department of Health and Human Services basically offers states more flexibility to meet mandatory targets for moving people off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and into gainful employment. This program, administered jointly through federal and state agencies, is the central plank of Clinton-era welfare reform, and its principal political aim has always been to reduce the statistical presence of the poor, not alleviating their poverty.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), as welfare reform approaches its Sweet Sixteen, TANF’s track record contrasts bitterly with that of its predecessor, AFDC, which Reaganite conservatives had savaged as undeserved entitlement:

The Morning After: What Next for DREAMers?

2:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Dianne Ovalle


Cross-posted from Culture/Strike:

Was it a DREAM fulfilled, or nothing more than a dream? The morning after Obama announced the halting of deportations of young immigrants, activists are trying to grasp what, if anything, they’ve won.

We have a promise from the White House that it will not deport an estimated several hundred thousand undocumented youth who have completed high school education or the equivalent, have clean records, and fulfill other criteria.  At the very least, DREAMers have less reason to fear being rounded up and deported en masse. But the gingerly worded announcement strikes more skeptical activists as a kind of rhetorical rorschach: is it one step toward full legalization? Is it simply, as Obama himself admitted, a stopgap until Congress acts–and therefore a way to punt the issue to a political black hole?  In the wake of Obama’s previous disappointing initiatives to ease up on deportations, some say the “new” White House position on DREAMers is just restating business as usual.

While the move was clearly a political calculation, many DREAMers are determined to read between Obama’s lines hope for more systemic reforms in the future. It’s a positive and heartening announcement, no doubt. But halting deportations for some does not even begin to answer the demand that DREAMers were pushing all along: an immigration system that redefines citizenship in a way that is humane, equitable, and conscious of the realities of a globalized world. Read the rest of this entry →

Child Labor and Agribusiness Churn Washington’s Food Fight

10:13 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Human Rights Watch

Cross-posted from In these Times

For a moment in Washington, it seemed like the White House was finally getting serious about reforming the agricultural labor system, with a common sense rule about preventing harm to child workers. But under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, the administration appears to have retreated from an initiative to tighten protection for childrens’ safety and health in agricultural jobs.

As we’ve reported previously, the move was seen by labor and child rights groups as a shameless pander to anti-regulatory forces in Washington. Activists have for years reported on the systematic exploitation of children on farms. Last year many hoped the Labor Department would finally respond to alarming injury and death rates by curbing the most hazardous forms of agricultural work for kids under 16, including restrictions on high-risk work in tobacco production, and limiting dangerous tasks involving certain farm equipment and animals.

Then advocates were distressed when the proposed reforms were held up under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration’s gatekeeper for regulatory proposals. The final affront came in April when the Labor Department announced that it was pulling the proposal in response to opposition from producers.

While the new rules would have explicitly exempted family farms, critics painted the measure as an assault on the rural way of life, glossing over the need to shield kids, many from migrant families, from the day-to-day brutality of industrial farm labor. The administration not only recycled these whitewashed arguments, but even scrubbed its own website of information explaining the proposal, according to the Pump Handle.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Action and Inaction in Colombia Free Trade Deal

11:02 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In these Times

Rally for human rights in Colombia (image: mar is sea Y via flickr/Creative Commons)

As the media swarmed over the scandal surrounding the Secret Service’s alleged carousing with prostitutes in Colombia, another questionable financial transaction slipped quietly through the backdoor of hemispheric diplomacy.

While officials convened at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena earlier this month, the White House put the finishing touches on another free trade agreement, aimed at liberalizing markets in Colombia and the U.S. The deal has faced vocal resistance from labor and human rights groups in both countries, who argue that the agreement would effectively condone violence against activists and economic oppression. But for the governments looking to build economic ties, the fears raised by civil society groups were just background noise. The Obama administration tried to put the lid on the opposition by tacking on labor policies to address anti-labor violence and other abuses.

Now officials have tacked onto the deal a Labor Action Plan, which, at least on paper, promotes fairer labor practices and stronger protections for workers and unions. The White House has certified Colombia’s compliance with the plan—a condition of sealing the trade agreement, which is set to go into effect in May. Human rights and labor activists are not impressed, pointing to dozens of recent murders of trade unionists and other union-busting actions, along with ingrained weaknesses in Colombia’s political system that foster corporate and government impunity. Read the rest of this entry →