Michelle Chen

These Teachers Refuse to Be Weaponized

The call to “arm the teachers”’ started as another stink bomb President Donald Trump lobbed into the crowd at a conservative rally. But somehow, the concept cycled through the 24-hour news loop and, within a few hours, became a ubiquitous meme. Now, the morally repugnant idea of gun-toting teachers in America’s schools has taken center stage in the nation’s macabre debate on gun safety.

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Farmworkers Say 'Us Too,' Demanding Freedom From Sexual Violence

Ahead of the Thanksgiving feast, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) hit midtown Manhattan on Monday to face down the suits with chants of “Exploitation has got to go!” CIW was there to demand humane working conditions on their farms.

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Amid GOP Attacks on Health Care, the Movement for Single Payer Is Growing

Donna Smith has braved cancer, battled predatory insurance companies and fought relentlessly for health care reform for more than a decade. But she's not sure she'll survive the aftermath of Election Day.

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The Story Behind the Immigrant Workers in Bernie Sanders' Stirring New Ad Lauding Worker Organizing

Bernie Sanders’ newest campaign video, which will air tomorrow night on the Spanish-language channel Univision, features the candidate ceding the spotlight to a representative group that doesn’t get a lot of play in most political ads: a migrant mother, speaking entirely in Spanish, who works in Florida's farm fields. The story behind the workers featured in the ad is one of quiet and passionate organizing far outside the Beltway.

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Almost Half of America’s Workers Make Less Than $15 an Hour

We’ve come a long way since that crisp November day three years ago when a small group of New York City fast-food workers launched a strike with the slogan “Fast Food Forward.” Today, the movement continues its forward march with the viral hashtag #FightFor15. On November 10, workers in hundreds of cities again went on strike and rallied, this time with an especially militant overtone, timed to launch a year-long campaign to foreground low-wage workers’ issues in the elections.
Tuesday’s protests, supported chiefly by the SEIU with backing from an array of community and labor groups, showed how many methods of raising wages have made gains—through legislation, voter referenda, grassroots labor pressure—or even administrative intervention, such as New York’s Governor Cuomo’s two major executive-led wage hikes.
But more importantly, the efforts reveal why none of these measures add up yet to structural economic change.
In Seattle and Los Angeles, which got to $15 wages by legislation, and San Francisco, which voted for a raise via ballot initiative, municipalities face new challenges in labor enforcement in sectors that have traditionally had little oversight. On the upside, as other cities lean toward $15 an hour, concurrent local policy discussions have emerged around systemic worker empowerment, such as proposals for fair scheduling and paid sick days to improve workers’ overall economic stability.
And the executive actions in New York—along with new collective-bargaining agreements raising wages for home health aides in Massachusetts and Oregon—show grassroots pressure can spur reforms through administrative measures that might otherwise stagnate in legislatures. Governor Cuomo’s new executive action will boost wages for about 10,000 workers in state government offices and executive agencies. The move may serve as a prelude to Cuomo’s push for statewide legislation that will vie with a similar initiative in California for the first statewide $15 wage floor (a refreshing upward competition, after years of employers racing to the bottom in wages and labor standards).
But the Fight for $15 has so far probably done more to shed light on the crisis of economic inequality than it has to actually improve wages directly on a wide scale. New research shows much more than wage hikes is needed to build a sustainable jobs for low-wage workers.
According to the think tank National Employment Law Project, over four in 10 workers nationwide earn less than $15 per hour. Food services have the greatest percentage of ultra-low-wage earners of any industry, with a whopping 96 percent of fast-food workers earning sub-$15 wages. About 3 million cashiers and 2 million retail sales people—a large chunk working for some of the world’s most lucrative chains—currently earn less than $15 an hour. That wage is roughly the bare minimum needed to live decently anywhere in the country.
But more disturbingly, low wages are a symptom of more systemic, structural oppression across the labor force. Ultimately, while policies to raise hourly pay have drawn populist energy, they will not directly improve the lot of workers stuck in the informal economy, undocumented laborers, people who are part-time and erratically employed, or those trapped in jobs where wage theft and overtime violations are rife.
The New York wage board’s fast-track raise for fast-food workers is limited as well. A careful analysis by the Century Foundation found that—in contrast with rosier projections by the governor’s office—the $15 wage floor is structured so narrowly it reaches just a tiny fraction of low-wage New Yorkers; the estimated 94,000 fast food–chain workers covered by the wage standard represent “just 3 percent of its sub-$15 workforce, and a scant 1.2 percent of its overall workforce.”
Incremental victories aside, the concrete effect of the Fight for $15 is more subtle, equipping many workers with the organizing tools to push their own agenda, which now touches on social-justice issues beyond wages.
The other goal of the labor campaign, unionization, remains a distant prospect for poor workers. Despite some victories before the National Labor Relations Board that ease restrictions on organizing, unions are still hugely impeded by outsourcing and casualization of low-wage jobs and corporate deregulation.
And the intensifying political debate over wage inequality opens another debate around the disproportionate impoverishment of black and Latino workers. Rahel Mekdim Teka of the Black Youth Project 100, described the racial overtones of the crisis at Tuesday’s Fight for 15 rally in downtown Manhattan.
“I know and have witnessed firsthand that low wages are a form of violence,” she said. In marginalized communities, “how can we grow and how can we dream of a better future, if we’re working full time and unable to make ends meet, unable to provide for our children, and unable to pay rent?”
The gender dimension of the Fight for 15 is also instructive for the labor movement. It’s no coincidence much of the mobilization comes from two woman-dominated occupations: childcare workers and home health aides, nearly 90 percent of whom make under $15 per hour. They’re joining the fight to call attention to the overlooked value of their work as caregivers—a side of the economy that needs to be uplifted for consumers and providers, to foster community stability across generations.
As Atlanta childcare worker Dawn O’Neal explained ahead of Tuesday’s protests, their fight is not just for economic survival but for solutions to the inequality dividing communities. She’s observed how affluent communities that she’s encountered as an educator are self-sufficient and able to provide the safe, stable households and healthy neighborhoods that aren’t accessible to families like hers, “They’re able to give back,” she told The Nation. “But here we are, and we’re struggling.… we can’t afford to take care of ourselves, let alone put anything back into our own community.” With so many working parents depending on public benefits, “there’s no reason for us to be working 40 to 60 hours a week and have to go back to the government and say, ‘We need this.’”
So now the Fight for $15 isn’t telling politicians what they need, but what their families deserve and demand. By tying workers’ economic aspirations to the horizon of political change, they proclaim that the fight is not about the money: It’s about the dignity of earning, and of giving, their fair share.

China's Massive $10 Billion Railway Project Set to Cross South America

It’s been a while since China built a transcontinental railway in the Americas. Last time, Chinese laborers were deployed to work on the railway that linked the East and West Coasts of the United States—and were rewarded with epidemic labor abuse and racial-exclusion laws. Today, China has a lot more to gain from its latest railway construction venture: linking two oceans again, but this time across South America, in a bid to grow its dominion in a region historically viewed as Washington’s backyard.

The interoceanic rail line crossing Brazil and Peru—sinophilically branded as the “Twin Ocean Railroad”—would facilitate cheap exports from Latin America to China, by channeling raw materials from inland resource bases to coastal ports. The grand railway, projected to cost about $10 billion, is billed as a solution to the logistical barriers that currently impede overland transport, streamlining shipping and cutting processing costs.

The key beneficiaries reflect a cross section of the kind of breakneck development that many “emerging” economies in Latin America often covet: The project will boost Brazil’s soybean industry, a sector known for destroying local habitats through soil erosion and deforestation, spurring widespread population displacement and social turmoil.

Expanded rail infrastructure will facilitate hydrocarbon and fertilizer exports, two of the most destructive raw-materials markets in terms of local ecological damage and global climate change.

According to Thomas Alvarez, a research associate with the left-leaning think tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the rail project is “definitely a form of neocolonialism… not in the sense of the United States where they were trying to push their ideology of Western democracy, because China’s never really been interested in this.” Instead, China lacks the pretense of benevolent imperialism that Washington has imposed since the days of the Monroe Doctrine: “They’re in it for economic gain.”

But as with the “Yankee imperialism” of yesteryear, there’s been evidently little accounting for the human and environmental costs of this expansion of extractive industries.

Mega-projects like Twin Ocean have “a history of human-rights and environmental abuses by both companies and the state,” says Julia Mello Neiva of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. This ties into a tendency of “not respecting indigenous or traditional population’s rights” and “lack of adequate consultation” with local communities.

In Peru, according to China Dialogue, “there are more than 600 indigenous communities of different language groups that stand to be affected by the project including around 15 living in voluntary isolation.”

Spanning 4,400 kilometers of Brazilian territory, the railway would penetrate delicate, often weakly protected ecosystems. The rail would run through the livestock hub of Capinorte, which feeds into one of China’s major beef-export markets. Trains would slice through the Cerrado biome, a rich tropical ecosystem scarred by systematic clear-cutting, which has been fueled by the expansion of fossil-fuel extraction and industrial agriculture

The railway may complement enhanced trade routes through another controversial mega-project, the planned Nicaragua canal (a Panama Canal alternative). That venture, run by the private Hong Kong Nicaragua Development Group, carries its own set of environmental troubles, including displacement of farmers and potential devastation of the region’s major freshwater body, Lake Nicaragua. (One 2014 study estimates the excavation process would “destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.” In 2013, a legal challenge waged by several indigenous communities and other groups was overridden by the National Assembly—another blank check for unencumbered “development.”

A similar pattern is already underway in Ecuador. There, as Andrew Ross has reported, PetroChina’s oil-plundering partnership with Andes Petroleum threatens the wholesale destruction of indigenous villages and Amazonian habitats—all marketed as part of President Correa’s “sustainable” growth agenda.

From a global-development standpoint, China is in fact exporting a development model perfected on its own territory. A key stakeholder in the Twin Ocean project is China International Water & Electric Corporation, which helmed Southern China’s massively destructive hydroelectric mega-project, the Three Gorges Dam.

It’s unclear to what extent Latin American labor will be engaged. Chinese companies are known for bringing their own labor, rather than using the local workforce, though it appears to be leaning toward more local hiring these days. Labor issues have cropped up in past foreign-owned operations, such as the numerous costly strikes and contract disputes seen at the troubled Shougang Hierro Peru mine. (Labor issues have been reported even among Chinese workers deployed to overseas Chinese-invested projects.)

Western political observers fret about China overtaking US geopolitical influence in “emerging” economies. According to Foreign Affairs, China is aping American-style “soft power” by investing massively in friendly, sometimes non-democratic regimes across Africa, Asia, and Latin America (the eye-popping outlays include $50 billion for the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and an estimated $1.4 trillion worldwide in the coming years). But the zero-sum game isn’t about rivalry between state actors. Power isn’t really shifting, from the perspective of the least powerful: As always, it is the poor, the indigenous, the dissenting voices who pay the underlying price of development.

According to the documented human-rights record surrounding neoliberal development in Latin America and the Caribbean, the corporate-controlled planning process used by Western and Chinese multinationals alike has hurt both Chinese and Latin American workers. Whether sponsored by Western or Chinese investment, mass resource exploitation militates against human, labor and environmental protections worldwide. And, paralleling the labor and community unrest in Latin America, China faces its own plebeian upstarts: construction and factory-worker strikes, maybe the occasional village uprising.

Neiva pointed out that China has confronted significant public resistance over controversial mega-projects before, and Brazil’s ongoing economic expansion might be tempered by a strong civil-society response. Since Brazil is already deep into its infrastructure-expansion program, she says, “somehow we as a society chose this path of development, so we have to now protest, in the sense of how we want to grow. Do we want to grow respecting social and environmental rights, or mostly only economic rights?”

Beijing’s transoceanic vision may present itself as an alternative to business partnerships with the historical American hegemony. But the China trade speaks the same language of global capitalism: profits trump people, no matter which superpower is holding the cards.

Want to Feed the Homeless? Be Prepared to Pay the Government for the Privilege

Homeless people, by definition, have nowhere to go – but now in many cities, they have even fewer options. While real estate developers tout “green space” and the economic “revitalisation” of urban landscapes, it’s the sidewalks, parks and plazas that have become hostile territory for the poor. City lawmakers are trying to “clean up” the streets by barring homeless people from parks, shunting families into overcrowded shelters and, in some places, making it a crime even to help the homeless.

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Are Fracking Workers Being Poisoned on the Job?

Last week’s Republican election victories will set the stage for more stagnation in Washington, but it also might grease the skids for one of its most controversial federal energy ventures: a long-stalled proposal for construction on the Keystone XL Pipeline, the natural gas project that has become ground zero in the battle over hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But one thing that might put the brakes on the project is the mounting research evidence linking oil and gas extraction to massive health risks for workers and communities.

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Why Starbucks Baristas Should Be Wary of the Education the Company Is Offering Them

The genius of the Starbucks brand is that it makes the mass produced seem totally personal. Go to any Starbucks anywhere and your unique, personalized double-shot vanilla Frappuccino will come out with the exact same consistency and taste as it would at any other Starbucks locale, with your name scrawled lovingly – if often incorrectly – on the cup.

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If Colleges Didn't Waste Your Tuition Dollars, We Wouldn't Need New Student Loan Reform

The student debt crisis – currently the subject of executive orders, pending Senate legislation, protests and much boomer hand-wringing – is more accurately an education cost crisis. Tuitions have more than doubled since the early 1980s, but not because the quality of a college education has improved that much. Rather, it's because because policymakers and administrators have come to treat higher education as a commercial marketplace, rather than a public trust – and stop-gap student loan reforms like those "unveiled" by President Obama this week fail to confront this ethical dilemma underlying the debt pile.

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