Monthly Archives: February 2013

Vital Signs: An Interfaith Boycott; Tunisian Revolution Redux

from In These Times

Letting the Fizz Out of SodamStream: SodaStream’s post-Super Bowl feud with Coke and Pepsi isn’t the only controversy surrounding the Israeli home beverage company. Its operations in the Israeli settlement of Ma’Ale Adumim has made it the target of what organizers say is the first-ever interfaith boycott. The Interfaith Coalition Campaign to Boycott SodaStream, launched Sundayto coincide with a SodaStream ad that aired during the Super Bowl, says that the company’s products are “produced in an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian West Bank.” In response, representatives from Jewish, Muslim and Christian organizations are calling for consumers to shun the carbonated beverage producers. As an Israeli-only settlement built on occupied land and flanked by a network of settler-only roads and infrastructure, Ma’Ale Adumim denies Palestinians freedom of movement within their own territory.

Tunisian Revolution Redux: Following the assassination of secular human rights lawyer Chokri Belaid on Wednesday, Tunisia’s trade union federation has called for a general strike. On Thursday, hundreds of protesters gathered near the interior ministry in Tunis to chant “the people demand the fall of the regime,” the same rallying cry that sparked the Tunisian Revolution two years ago. Deep uncertainty plagues the country, as polarizations that caused the fall of Ben Ali two years ago threaten to resurface.

Black Bloc in Egypt: On February 6, over 1000 protesters rallied in downtown Cairo, calling on Egyptian President Morsi’s Islamist government to protect female demonstrators from sexual assault in Tahrir Square. Women, raising knives defiantly into the air and holding signs reading, “Those silent against the harassers are devils,” were joined in the rally by men from all sectors of Egyptian society and by a black bloc, who chained themselves together in a human shield to protect protesters. The long-standing issue has taken center stage since January 25, when a rally marking the two-year anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak saw 19 reported violent attacks against women, including one in which a 19-year-old woman was raped with a sharp object by a mob of men.

The End of Solitary?: In a major victory for human rights groups and advocacy organizations, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to a full review of the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons on February 4. An independent auditor will carry out the review based on the recommendations of a congressional hearing held last year. According to the online project Solitary Watch, over 11,000 prisoners are held in some form of ‘segregated housing’ in America.

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The ‘Fight For Fifteen’ Is On

From In These Times

(Photo from Fight for Fifteen.)  

On Thursday, hundreds of people from dozens of community, labor and faith organizations marched through Chicago’s Cityfront Plaza and Magnificent Mile to demand fair pay and on-the-job respect for low-wage food and retail workers. The event was organized by the freshly formed Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC)—whose new campaign, Fight for Fifteen, is demanding a $15/hour living wage for underpaid workers in the downtown food and retail industries.

Under the banner “Neighborhoods March on Michigan Avenue,” residents of Albany Park, Brighton Park, Englewood, Little Village and other North, South and West Side neighborhoods gathered to address the connection between poverty wages, crime and educational underachievement in Chicago communities. After rallying at Cityfront Plaza and marching along the Magnificent Mile, workers and community supporters delivered a letter of protest to the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association—an advocacy organization for Magnificent Mile businesses and corporations—and issued a December 22 response deadline.

“I’m excited to see so many neighborhoods coming together to join this movement,” said Kenyanna Brown, who makes $8.75 an hour as a salesperson at Victoria’s Secret in the Water Tower Plaza. A sophomore at DePaul University, Brown helped launch the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago in August with five other workers.

“This struggle reaches out beyond downtown workers like myself who want a living wage and respect at the workplace,” says Brown. “Poverty hurts our communities. Within this past year I’ve lost friends to drug-related violence, I’ve had friends I’ve almost lost, and since I’ve gotten involved in this campaign it’s really hit home that the less chance people have to find employment that allows them to provide for their families and themselves, the more prone they are to seek profits on the street, and the more the community hurts.” 

Earlier this month, a report released by Action Now and Stand Up! Chicago calculated that a wage increase to $15 an hour for low-wage food and retail workers downtown would lift thousands of workers out of poverty, create an estimated 1,000 new jobs in downtown Chicago and generate $179 million in economic activity for the city as a whole.

“The downtown area covers about 1 percent of the total land in the city, but its retail and restaurant industries bring in about a third of the city’s revenue,” explains Victor Perez, researcher with Action Now and coauthor of the report. “There’s an enormous concentration of wealth there. These industries are staffed by people who live in Chicago’s communities, but there’s not alot of money flowing back to the communities, because the wages paid are simply not enough for workers to cover their cost of living.”

The report, entitled “A Case for $15: A Low Wage Work Crisis,” details that a wage increase to $15/hour—though still short of the $17.24/hour Self-Sufficiency Standard for a single parent in Chicago with one child—would enhance socioeconomic vitality, diminish violent crime and improve student educational performance for communities hardest hit by the 2009 recession.

“The cost of this wage increase for the companies in downtown Chicago is relatively low compared to their overall revenues,” argues Perez, “and workers will go back and spend their increased paychecks downtown. So everybody benefits. The worker benefits from higher wages, the company benefits from increased economic activity, the neighborhood and family benefits from a better standard of living, and the city benefits because additional economic activity increases tax receipts for the city.”

Thursday’s rally is the latest in a string of Chicago protests addressing economic inequality and demanding dignity for workers and communities. On December 10, Stand Up! Chicago organized a downtown march and rally as part of a nationwide Jobs Not Cuts! day of action to protest plans to avert the “fiscal cliff” by shredding social safety nets. Members of SEIU Local 73 joined a coalition of home care workers and community supporters to deliver petitions to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin at the Kluczynski Federal Building, calling on the Democratic lawmaker to reject any fiscal plan involving cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. Last week, demonstrators held a symbolic protest demanding that lawmakers take care of Chicago’s communities, in which they operated a week-long makeshift soup kitchen and shantytown encampment at Federal Plaza—dubbed ‘Durbinville’ in reference to the Hoovervilles and soup lines of the Great Depression. Climbing into cardboard boxes, protesters warned that by bargaining away America’s Depression-era entitlement programs, senators like Durbin stand to plunge the country into another Depression.

Fight For Fifteen argues that a strictly policy-centered debate over the fiscal cliff overlooks the role played by the private sector in determining societal well-being.

“When employers don’t pay their workers enough to cover their cost of living, everybody else has to pay for it,” Perez explains. “The worker pays through hardship and lack of social mobility, and society pays through public assistance programs.”

In a post-recession economic recovery fueled primarily by the creation of low-wage jobs in the food and retail industries, workers across the nation are growing increasingly adamant in their demand for dignity. Here in Chicago, chants of “We can’t survive on $8.25!” reverberated through the Magnificent Mile today.

“I’m marching because I want what we deserve, and I want to make others realize what they deserve,” says Brown. “Even if they’re not ready to fight yet, I want them to know that there is change out there, that it’s coming, and that we’re gonna make it come together.”

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Vital Signs: Scouting for Equality; Puerto Rico’s Student Movement Wins Big

from In These Times

Puerto Rican Students Defeat Fee Increase: In a major victory for Puerto Rico’s student movement, the board of directors at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) announced Saturday that they would eliminate an $800 fee that has sparked mass protests. In the spring of 2010, university students shut down campuses for two months in protest of the fee and other changes, and administrators backtracked on some of the proposals. In January 2011, at least 50 student protesters were arrested  as the fee went into effect. The protests forced the resignation of UPR at the time, and catalyzed the campaign of Alejandro García Padilla, who ran for governor on a pledge to roll back the fee and took office earlier this month.

Protester Pipes Up at TransCanada Conference: On January 31, activists disrupted the PipeTech Americas Summit, a meeting of delegates from pipeline construction corporations held outside of Houston, Texas. Tar Sands blockader Ramsey Sprague disrupted a speech by Tom Hamilton, the manager of quality and compliance for TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline, by chaining himself to the speakers beside the podium. While security officials got bolt cutters to remove Sprague, he delivered his own speech lambasting the pipeline’s questionable safety record and disastrous ecological effects. He was eventually escorted out of the conference and arrested.

Seattle First City to Join Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement: Public employees throughout the city of Seattle may soon sell off their pension fund investments in some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies. If the Seattle City Employees’ Retirement System sells off its investments in ExxonMobil and Chevron, it will be the first large U.S. city to divest from fossil fuels, following in the footsteps of growing divestment movements at over 200 campuses nationwide.

BSA May Lift Ban on Gay Scouts: On January 28, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it would consider lifting its long-held ban on openly homosexual members. Though many have applauded the announcement, others remain critical of the proposed change in national policy, arguing that it would leave local Scouts troops free to openly discriminate. In July, the Boy Scouts announced that they were reaffirming their ban on openly gay members following a two-year committee investigation of the matter.

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