Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ukrainian Crisis

Ukrainian Refugee Crisis Bewildering

Refugees arriving in Moscow are quickly discovering attaining refugee status is not so straightforward but bewildering.

By Stephen Wilson

Second City Teachers Moscow correspondent Stephen Wilson standing next to a Ukrainian refugee in Moscow. (Photo by Oksana Chebotareva) 

(Moscow, Russia) - 'Bordack' (disorder), is the word which springs to mind when observing the plight of many Russian refugees lining up to apply for refugee status in the   centre of Moscow. The offices of the Federal Migration services had been moved from Number 2 Pyanitskaya Street to a dusty and discrepit courtyard near an Orthodox church.

                When I arrived there was already a crowd of refugees of all ages and         backgounds; late middle-aged, four or five year old children and a young woman dressed in fashionable holed jeans. Many of the faces of the most sensitive souls seem anguished, disappointed and disenchanted.

                Many were clearly upset and showed signs of weeping. The scene was forlorn. A frail bent tree arched over the main entrance, as if bent down in some kind of prostration or prayer. Like the refugees, it too seemed weigned down by grief. It was on its last legs. With one violent gust of wind, it could whine, pine and totter down to the ground.

                Suddenly, a Federal Migration Service official was ushered out along with his assistants who placed a table and chair before the small crowd of refugees. He then began a lecture on how to go about applying for status as a refugee, how to obtain a migrant card, permission to work and where to obtain work.

                It was clear that the official was a kind and compassionate man who genuinely wanted to help the refugees and answer any question. This was a specialist who articulately explained what had to be done and how. For instance, to the question of obtaining official permission to work, he did not waffle on about needing 20 documents (as one lawyer suggested to the host of a refugee), but taking four steps; obtain registration, acquire a migration card, get a medical certificate confirming you are in sound health and a statement or proposed contract from a potential employer. He also suggested some addresses where they could obtain a migration card or assistance.

                He often explained this procedure again and again in case the listeners did not grasp it. He would offer the odd phone number where to get help.

                However, this did not satisfy the applicants. He faced an avalanche of questions. One young woman told him, 'They won't employ me without a prospeeska! (A stamp that guarantees you the right to reside, work and receive government services.)' Two middle-aged woman stated, 'The local authorities won't offer us registration'. The official answered, 'The hosts who are providing you with a place should help you with this. I suggest you seek out the help of volunteers.'

                The answer was revealing. It indicates that the Federal Migration Service is working with all kinds of volunteers to ease the situation of refugees.

                The official also handed out a special leaflet with addresses of local Federal Migration service offices within the surburbs in Moscow.

                He also made it clear that there were other places in Russia where the refugees could get work.

                Unfortunately, there were no application forms available for applying for status. The official took one application form from a refugee who had luckily got one and then told the crowd, 'This is how you should fill it in'. 

                'But we have not got any. Could you give us those forms?' the refugees said.

                The official could not provide them application forms. Either they had run out of them or had to print some more. 'Come back on Tuesday and we will see what we can do. But don't come on Monday. The whole office is flooded with applicants. We are attempting to encourage people to come on different days.'

                 I heard from one volunteer who has a friend who has worked a long time in the Russian civil service that, 'The Moscow Migration service will not be actively encouraging people to apply for refugee status in Moscow. They already have enough problems with other refugees from other countries and republics around the world. So they'll be encouraging people to go to other regions of Russia and apply for work.'

                 This certainly is the impression I got when I obtained the list of useful addresses which were handed out. Most addresses are outside Moscow.

                 A fundamental problem is that the Ukrainian refugee problem has not been entirely separated from other refugee problems, such as Africa and Syria. The Russian Federation holds the second place in the world as a destination for refugees. Non-Ukrainian refugees number approximately 38,000. In the space of four months in 2013 as many as 614 people applied for the status of refugee while 1,619 applied for refuge (they can come to Russia but will not receive official status), according to the Federal Migration   Service). Now those applications appear to be overshadowed by the huge flood of up to half a million refugees from Ukraine which is threatening to strain to the limits the application process. No wonder officials are attempting to persuade refugees to apply for status and work in other regions. A problem is that some officials in the suburbs have been sending refugees to Moscow because they claim, 'We don't have any specialists here. Go to Moscow!' When the refugees get to the central offices in Moscow, the officials suggest they go back or go to another place in Russia. It is certainly easy to apply for status in other cities and towns of Russia where the government has devoted more resources. Moscow might even be the worst place to apply for status. So many refugees are caught in a catch 22 situation. You can't get refugee status if you don't have residental rights, you can't get residential rights unless you already have special documents. A vast bureaucracy is still being encountered despite the fact that leading ministers are attempting to radically simplify the lengthy procedure of applying from 30 to just 3 days.

                 Becoming a refugee does not just mean a loss of work, home and place in society, but even your education. For despite the fact that the Russian Ministry of Education has made available 1500 extra places for students at two famous universities, refugees require to submit many documents they have lost or can't attain from the Ukraine. What can they do?

                 Risk returning to search among the rubble of bombed buildings in Lugansk to retrieve the vital documents? Some refugees will be saying to themselves, 'If only I had not dropped this bag with my passport while running for safety.' But should anyone be expected to risk their life for their passport?' It makes sense if you take to heart Maxim Gorky's claim, 'A man is nothing without his passport'.

                 According to Novaya Gazette, one refugee couple from Slavyansk were bitterly grieved to be told by an official at a university that, 'All free places by the government for a free education are already taken. We are not taking any more students from Ukraine.'

                 So official government announcements of how the government is taking full care of students who have lost their places at universities in Ukraine is mainly hype. But even 1500 free places represents only a drop in the ocean. So where can the refugees continue their education?

                 It is clear the Government must take more radical steps in financing and   actively supporting mass student entry programmes for Ukrainian refugees.

                 Where there are documents, students can take appropriate tests and fees for education should be waved aside.

                 This is after all an urgent national emergency and calls for a more flexible       response to the refugee problem. That means cutting red tape and not taking doing things by the book too literary. The old Russian saying 'The Law is the Law ' has to be creatively adapted or at times abandoned for humanitarian reasons.

                  The official at the federal migration service tried to ease the nerves of the refugees by pleading, 'Patience, patience and patience' and 'act calmly when you address workers in other offices'. 

                   He would crack the odd light joke to try and cheer up the refugees. By doing so he undermined an old Soviet proverb that, 'The Law doesn't have a sense of humour'. So evidently endurance, composure and a sense of humour might not go a miss!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

AFT Analysis

What's behind the tough talk?
Lee Sustar reports from Los Angeles on the recent convention of the AFT.

THE AMERICAN Federation of Teachers (AFT) leadership is straining to balance growing unrest among union members and their strategy of making concessions in the name of "partnership."
That effort was on display at the union's convention July 11-14 in Los Angeles, where AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked off proceedings with a keynote address that denounced corporate education reformers[1] as agents of the wealthy and powerful.
"[I]f they embed austerity, privatization, polarization, deprofessionalization, who will call them out on it?" Weingarten declared. "Who will mobilize the fightback in America when there's rampant poverty and inequality, when the middle class is hanging on by a thread and the ladder of opportunity is more and more out of reach. That's what they want--to effectively silence us, to wipe us out."
There's a significant change in the AFT leadership, too. Fran Lawrence, the former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, a local that prides itself on its willingness to identify and help terminate "ineffective" teachers [2], has stepped down as AFT executive vice president. Her newly elected replacement [3], Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, cuts a very different image. Earlier this year, the St. Paul teachers conducted a strong and activist contract campaign[4].
According to some AFT insiders, Ricker's elevation signals a shift towards a more assertive stand by a union that's been on the defensive for more than a decade. And certainly Weingarten's remarks to the delegates were a far cry from the speech she gave at the 2010 convention [5], when the AFT president declared that the union must "lead and propose" on questions of education reform--and then wheeled out Bill Gates, whose foundation bankrolls much of corporate education reform, to make a similar speech of his own.
Yet for all her militant rhetoric, Weingarten carefully sidelined discussion of the AFT's most important fightback in decades--the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike victory. CTU President Karen Lewis' time at the podium was kept to a minimum [6] and her role limited to introducing other speakers. Weingarten made only a brief mention of that critical battle.
The message was unmistakable: It would be Weingarten, as AFT president, who would interpret the importance of the strike to the delegates, not Karen Lewis. Nor was there any mention of Lewis' possible run for mayor of Chicago, a race that would pit the CTU president against Rahm Emanuel, a nationally powerful Democrat who Weingarten has approached as a partner [7] in labor-backed public-private partnership for infrastructure development.
Although Lewis is a member of the ruling Progressive Caucus in the AFT, she remains committed to the militancy of the CTU's governing Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) and is famous for her blunt speaking about Corporate America and the attacks on public education.
Evidently, Weingarten was worried that one of Lewis' typically fiery speeches to delegates might legitimize the CTU's militancy at the expense of Weingarten's pursuit of partnership with school district officials, politicians and the supposedly liberal elements of the education reform camp.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
NEVERTHELESS, THE growing divergence within the AFT couldn't be fully contained.
After voting to oppose Common Core in their own local [8], CTU delegates to the convention mounted a fight to put the national union on record against the Common Core State Standards, a business-backed curriculum adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, which has sparked a growing opposition movement among teachers, parents and students across the U.S.
The battle began in the AFT's Education Issues committee. The Progressive Caucus and its dominant faction, the Unity Caucus of New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT), mounted a counteroffensive against the CTU by adding its members to the committee to ensure that its proposed resolution to the convention would support Common Core. When CTU members arrived early at the committee meeting to stake out positions near the microphone, the meeting chairperson cleared the room.
According to witnesses, when the doors reopened, UFT staff director Leroy Barr shoved Sarah Chambers of the CTU out of a seat near a microphone to make way for UFT President Michael Mulgrew. (Weingarten, from the podium, would mention the incident the next day--omitting the names of those involved--chalking it up to "passion" over the issue.) After a long and sharp debate, the Unity/Progressive Caucus prevailed, reporting out a resolution [9] that was somewhat critical of the implementation of Common Core, while recommitting the AFT to the project.
If the Unity/Progressive caucus operatives are willing to literally throw their weight around to defend Common Core, it's because the quasi-national curriculum embodies the AFT's partnership strategy. The union participated in the drafting of the standards [10]--and advertised itself as being "partners" with the Gates Foundation in that effort. Rejecting Common Core would have committed the AFT to a confrontational stance on education policy from the classroom to state capitals and Washington.
Adding to the stakes in the Common Core fight was the fact that the issue contributed to a split earlier this year in the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the foundation of Unity/Progressive Caucus rule in the AFT.
New York state's botched implementation of Common Core [11], along with a cap on property taxes thatbrought austerity to school districts across the state [12], spurred the incumbent NYSUT president to break with the UFT and launch an independent campaign that got 40 percent of the vote at a NYSUT convention[13]. If the AFT convention had gone on record against Common Core, it could have further weakened Unity's control of NYSUT and loosened the Progressive Caucus' grip on the national union.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
SO WHEN Common Core came to the floor of the convention, the Unity/Progressive Caucus big guns were ready--Mulgrew and Barr of the UFT, Keith Johnson of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and others lined up at the microphones to speak.
Still, what followed was one of the most spirited debates the union has seen in decades, according to AFT veterans. "I have watched my babies cry, 'No hablo ingles' and 'Why am I taking this test?'" said the CTU's Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher. "This is not helping my babies."
Another CTU member, high school teacher Tim Meegan, also took to the floor. "Common Core is not about better outcomes for our kids," he said. "It is about aggregating a marketplace for test companies. "
After about 45 minutes of debate--a fraction of the time allotted to Democratic politicians to speak and the AFT's community outreach programs--a solid majority of delegates voted for the official resolution. Nevertheless, a sizeable grouping of delegates beyond Chicago voted "no," a clear sign of membership discontent.
A similar dynamic was on display in a debate over whether the AFT convention should follow the example of the other teachers' union, the National Education Association, in calling for the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
AFT leaders sidestepped the vote, however, when United Educators of San Francisco President Dennis Kelly offered a substitute resolution calling for Duncan to be put on an "improvement plan," like those endured by teachers who receive poor ratings under the harsh new evaluation methods pushed by Duncan through the Obama administration's Race to the Top legislation.
Amused, delegates voted to accept Kelly's language, sparing Weingarten the embarrassment of calling for the immediate ouster of Duncan, whose labor-management collaboration conferences between teachers and school districts Weingarten has enthusiastically embraced in the past [14].
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
TO TRY and keep the union "fighting forward"--the AFT's catchphrase for this year's convention--Weingarten played up the union's successes, such as new contracts in higher education [15].
Weingarten also celebrated the decision of the 34,000-member National Federation of Nurses to affiliate with the AFT, which, she said, was now the second-largest nurses' union in the AFT. After a lengthy discussion, delegates passed a resolution backing smaller nurse-to-patient ratios, following the example of National Nurses United. This special attention to nurses was likely an effort to inoculate AFT nurses from the influence of that rival union.
Yet while noteworthy, these gains are far less important than the CTU strike, which held the line on against merit pay and defended tenure rights--issues on which Weingarten personally negotiated concessions in local union contracts in New Haven, Baltimore and other cities.
Tellingly, Weingarten wound down her keynote address by once again touting those agreements as models of teacher unionism. While she critiqued the recent Vergara v. California court decision that declared teacher tenure to be unconstitutional in the state, Weingarten then made it clear that the AFT would continue to trade away teacher job security. "It shouldn't take 10 years to litigate whether a teacher should be removed from the classroom," she said in her speech.
In short, despite the rhetorical shift, AFT members can expect their leadership to stay the course on partnership, despite the disastrous results of recent contracts negotiated in recent years [16]. But in the wake of the CTU strike, partnership has to be repackaged.
For example, since Bill Gates, a key driver of Common Core, can no longer be credibly presented as a partner, the AFT leadership replaced him with a series of Democratic politicians, including California Gov. Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti--even though Garcetti had just embraced the Vergaracourt decision on tenure.
But Garcetti isn't the only AFT "partner" who lines up with teacher-bashers. Weingarten's new model for partnership is the recent contract negotiated her home local, the UFT in New York City. The deal implements many of the concessions [17] that the AFT has pushed across the U.S.: the introduction of merit pay (sold as a "career path") that fractures union solidarity; pay increases well below the rate of inflation; the introduction of up to 200 local school agreements that void most contract rules; and the undermining of job security for displaced teachers.
Yet to Randi Weingarten, "fighting forward" apparently means embracing the New York contract as a template for the entire union. The supposed benefits of the deal were hammered home throughout the convention. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration negotiated the agreement, spoke to delegates through a recorded video message, following a breathless introduction by UFT President Mulgrew.
Tellingly, actor Cynthia Nixon, who took to the podium as an education activist in New York, was the speaker to offer a more accurate assessment of the UFT contract. It was a deal, she said, that corporate education reformers would give their "eyeteeth" for. Moreover, Weingarten presented the de Blasio deal as part of a wider pro-teacher, pro-public education trend in the Democratic Party. Thus, the AFT has partnered with Democratic National Committee member Donna Brazile and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm to create Democrats for Public Education[18].
But far from being a consistent defender of publication and teachers, Granholm, while in the governor's mansion, signed a bill to fast-track charter school expansion in that state [19]. For her part, Brazile gave a rousing pro-teacher speech to AFT delegates. But back in 2007 [20], her solution to budget cuts in education was to "rattle some people, stir up some pots and find your Bill Gates" to fund it.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE CONVENTION proceedings were organized to marginalize critical voices. The Unity/Progressive Caucus control of the agenda kept delegates in the dark as to when the politicians' speechifying would stop, when convention business would resume and what issues would come to the floor.
Thus, the emerging militant wing of the AFT had to find other places to express its views, off the convention floor. Important discussions took place in such venues as the AFT human rights committee luncheon, which featured Karen Lewis and Chicago community activist Jitu Brown, and meetings of the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus and U.S. Labor Against the War.
The most widely anticipated side meeting, focused on social movement unionism, was sponsored by the CTU and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), where the new Union Power slate had taken office less than two weeks earlier. Apparently concerned that CTU and UTLA might constitute a pole of attraction for militant teachers dissatisfied with the AFT leadership, union officials embraced the meeting themselves--and, as a result, added several more speakers, including Mary Cathryn Ricker of St. Paul and Mulgrew from New York City.
The room was crowded, with standing room only. As one attendee explained to others seated nearby, the UFT Unity Caucus had "ordered" its members to attend.
Because of the format--presentations by seven panelists, followed by "table talk" by delegates who then submitted questions--debate was limited. Weingarten herself stopped by to make comments from the podium, saying that she was so happy about that meeting that there were "tears in my eyes." It was unclear if the AFT president was moved by the content of discussion or the loyalty and discipline of her caucus.
Despite the restrictive format, the differences were clear. Karen Lewis described her union's efforts to mobilize members and reach out to the community to prepare for the strike, while UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl spoke about similar efforts underway in Los Angeles, which will include strike preparation in that city as well.
Mulgrew's version of social movement unionism was, in reality, organized labor's usual transactional politics with elected officials. Although the UFT president promoted his union's political outreach as the key to Bill de Blasio's victory in the mayor's race, the UFT actually backed one of de Blasio's rivals in the Democratic primary, declaring, "We don't pick winners, we make them." (The union more recently made amends with de Blasio by pouring $350,000 from its nonprofit arm into a de Blasio-controlled charity[21], in order to fund television ads backing the mayor's agenda.)
The UFT president also claimed credit for mobilizing against school closures, when in fact nearly all such initiatives were taken by groups like the Grassroots Education Movement and Occupy the DOE [22] [Department of Education]. Many activists from those groups went on to found the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), which in part took inspiration from the CTU's CORE. In the 2013 UFT elections, MORE candidates captured about 40 percent of the vote [23], with Mulgrew's Unity machine increasingly reliant on retiree votes to pad its margin of victory.
Mulgrew also touted the new UFT contract's provision allowing teachers at 200 schools--around 20 percent of the total--to vote away decades of union rules and job protections. "You cannot touch your wages or seniority rights," Mulgrew said he told his union's members. "After that, I'm open."
By contrast, Lewis and Caputo-Pearl, while avoiding any direct criticism of the UFT or AFT leadership, made it clear that they see holding the line on such concessions as an imperative.

In her concluding comments, Lewis said that the CTU had for the past two years been sending members and staffers around the U.S. to help other locals. And Caputo-Pearl credited CORE with setting an example for his local to follow as it attempts to reverse years of decline in membership due to the proliferation of charter schools as well as concessions on wages and working conditions. He also alluded to the national network of teacher activists that is looking for a strategy on how to fight back [24]--something that the AFT and NEA leadership has been unable or unwilling to do.
The emerging militant network, however, remains small. Certainly, it doesn't figure in union electoral politics: Randi Weingarten and her slate won with only a symbolic challenge led by far-left union activists.
Even so, the sharpening of internal debate in the union is noteworthy. The AFT leadership can only go so far in raising militant rhetoric while abandoning decades of contract gains. And the militants will, sooner or later, have to move from opposing particular policies like Common Core to challenging the union leadership itself. As the attacks on teachers and public education continue to mount, the stakes in that struggle will only continue to grow.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Refugee Flight


By Stephen Wilson

Second City Teachers Russian correspondent Stephen Wilson interviews rufugees at a place holding Ukrainian refugees outside Moscow. (Photo by Oksana Chebotareva)

(Moscow, Russia) - A seventh year school student who goes out to return a book to the local library witnesses the building crash and crumble into dust just before arriving, a bus carrying civilians is
sprayed by machine-gun fire leads to the death of a pregnant woman and a five year boy, a father witnesses his 17 year old son who casually dropped out to fetch a pail of water being blown to pieces by a falling shell, (his scattered remains are collected, hastily put into a bag and buried before the family flees) and a 21 year old nurse on an emergency call is shot dead by Ukrainian soldiers. 

Can anyone forget those incidents today, tomorrow or after decades?

As many as 6 Journalists have been killed and at least 250 attacked in some way. Many suspect the targeting of journalists was not a coincidence or accident but part of a vicious campaign to silence people from telling the unofficial version of what is really going on in Ukraine.

The official version declares there is no real war in Ukraine nor are there real refugees, and that Russian intervention lies behind Ukraine’s troubles.

Concerning allegations that the Ukrainian government is embarking on ethnic cleansing of towns such as Lugansk, Slavyansk and other towns, European officials and their American allies maintain a stiff and awkward silence. The facts are that when the Ukrainian army took back those towns they quickly rounded up and arrested the local police and all men between the age of 25 and 35. They were
taken away. They vanished! Nobody knows what has become of them!

The new President Petro Poroshenko - a chocolate oligarch- continues to reassure residents of towns which have been indiscriminately bombed that he will no longer bomb but shoot them, then no longer shell them but bomb them and in other interviews threatens to come down on the local residents with an iron fist. His motto may as well be, ‘He who is not born to be shelled is born to be shot.' To those who survive he might as well benevolently suggest ‘let them eat chocolate!' Nobody can imagine the relentless on-going fear which plagues people under constant fire! 

What is clear is that the Ukrainian government appears to be pursuing not a policy of reconciliation or peace, but a cynical, callous and capricious ‘strategy of tension’ designed to intimidate, terrorize or to plunder the resources and property of Russians. Fear is being used to psychologically break, disorientate and drive out the Russians from their towns. 'Anti-terrorist operations’ must be the most ludicrous oxy-moron of political rhetoric. How on earth can ‘anti-terrorist’ operations be carried out to slaughter innocent men, women or children? The phrase represents an insult to human intelligence. People are not only living under the constant fear of being killed if they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but are deprived of basic amenities we take for granted, such as water, electricity and a good night’s sleep. The night is never young, but long, weary and sleepless. The locals begin to take on a harried, haunted and hungry look.

Lena, a strikingly attractive mother of three children, remembers how she lost her baby from a miscarriage. She told a Russian newspaper, ‘All night I was unable to sleep in the air-raid shelter. I can’t get used to your peace and quiet  here’! When she asked a doctor why she miscarried, the doctor answered in an astonished tone, ‘You don’t understand why? In the Donetsky hospitals, unborn babies are dying in their wombs!'

Emergency aid often can’t reach the besieged Russian towns because snipers are constantly taking pot shots at passing trucks, buses, cars or just about anything. Even if the bus is daubed by a red cross, it won’t  always deter snipers. Given the genuine fear which local Russians hold of a resurgent fascism, ethnic cleansing, and death, they are beginning to panic. More and more people are fleeing, and as this article is going to press, local people are pouring out en-mass from the city of Donetsk.


Nobody can offer precise figures for the number of refugees as every day people are fleeing as the Ukrainian army advances and attempts to encircle the city of Donetsk! However, one thing is strikingly self-evident to any reasonable intelligent person; this is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis!

Whereas a week ago many people thought Russian officials might be overstating and inflating the the number of refugees to 100,000, now the figure has drastically shot up, shocking the hardest Russian official! Therefore the Russian government has declared a state of emergency in many Russian regions. The Deputy head of the Federal Migration Service Anatoly Kuznetsov stated that more
than half a million refugees have fled from Ukraine since the outbreak of war in April. However, only 20,551 are recorded as having applied for temporary asylum.

Those are real and reluctant refugees, not ‘tourists’ as American officials claim. However, those statistics are abstract. They can never show the intense fear, anxiety and grief of people who
have lost not only their homes but their loved ones. And this is an unwarranted, unjustified and unconstitutional war made by a government upon their own people. In Scotland we sing a song
‘you can’t throw your grandmother off a bus’. This Ukrainian government is!

How Russia will cope with the endlessly fleeing refugees is anyone’s guess. According to Alexander Brechalav of the Social department of the Russian Federation, an estimated 187,000 refugees are in
the Rostovsky region. Lena Boika, whose mother comes from Rostov on Don, told me that when she visited the city a few weeks ago, ‘It was saturated with refugees, all of them suffering from poverty’.

Where are they going in Russia? Some have fled to the Crimea, others to the regions of Rostov, Volgograd, Astrakhan and Stavropol, as well as the Kalmykia republic. Some are even in Moscow and her outskirts. About as many as an estimated 16,650 refugees are staying with relatives and acquaintances. Despite idle chatter by those who claim they are seeking a better life, almost
all refugees dream of returning home. Very few people readily relinquish their cherished homes, communities and jobs to venture into the unknown.

The Ukrainian government doesn’t seem to care where they go or what becomes of them. As in the Russian folk-tale, the brother cuts off his sister’s hands and answers her question, ‘Where will I go?' with, ‘Go where your eyes take you‘. And the refugees might as well be going through ‘the thrice ninth kingdom’(a make-believe land of the dead full of many ordeals which the hero of Russian folk tales must overcome by performing brave deeds).

Second City Teacher managed to interview some refugees on the outskirts of Moscow. They were fortunate enough to find refuge in the village of Saltikovka, in the Balashikha district.

It took Oksana, my assistant, and I some time to find their secluded dwellings. When we knocked on the door we were greeted by a tough no-nonsense but frankly sincere Gypsy from Moldova. We asked whether it was possible to interview the refugees and she kindly granted our request. She told us, ‘I feel very sorry for the suffering those families have to put up with, so I’m letting them stay without charge. It is terrible what harm the government is doing to children. Those children should be playing and learning, not having to flee a conflict.‘ I asked her, ‘What do you think of the recent statement by American official Maria Heif that the refugees are just tourists?’ She could not contain her anger, saying, ‘If I met this
American I would tell her she is a stupid sheep!’

The Moldovan gypsy, through fear, refused to be either named or photographed in case of Ukrainian state reprisals. She told us, ‘If they see our photos, they will kill us.’ A stocky well-built middle-aged refugee approached us, and we asked why they fled the Ukraine. ‘We were being bombed for three days ... The Ukrainian soldiers were shooting, bombing and shelling almost anyone. Those people are not normal human-beings. I think they are either ex-prisoners or have gone crazy on drugs. I mean what normal person would rape a pregnant woman or kill a five year old child? They don’t care what they do to people … We decided to take a risk and head for the border. While people were fleeing to the Russian
border, they were being shot at or bombed by artillery. Planes were even dropping some deadly metallic objects which could kill a man as soon as it lands on his head! Some people were forced to drop their heavy bags containing all their documents so they could run quicker to the border. They still managed to cross the border because custom officials waved their arms and said, ‘Quickly, hurry up and go past us! We won’t stop you!’ So people could even cross the border without documents’.

Her daughter, whom we will call ‘Vera’, told me how terrifying the National Guard were. She told us, ‘When we were passing them on the road they pointed their guns directly at us and looked very angry
and aggressive. They never smiled at all. We felt that if any of us smiled, spoke a word or challenged them in any way, they would shoot us dead on the spot. So when the refugees went past them, they were silent. In contrast, our Russian border guards never pointed guns at us or threatened us, but instead kept their guns at their side and even treated us to some tea, food and let us stay with
them. I later was shocked to come across a man (at another time) who had been sentenced to 7 years in prison for some crime. I asked him, ‘How come you are not in prison?’ He told me the (Ukrainian) authorities had allowed him out early on condition he served in the National Guard’.

This might explain why so many senseless atrocities such as rape, murder and pillage is being committed against civilians by the National Guard and the Ukrainian army.

The Moldovan Gypsy told me she is worried about what the family will do in winter when it becomes cold. So they appealed for blankets, sheets and beds! In fact, any kind of help seemed welcome.

A young refugee woman with a 4-year-old son told me she had been here for almost three weeks and how her husband earns a meager monthly wage of 14,000 rubles ($437) a month. So life for the refugees remains a daunting and difficult challenge. They need all the help people can render them.

The refugees are confronted with many problems. The ones who lost their documents, must renew them.  Others might apply for refugee status in order to obtain state benefits as well as work permits.

Refugee status as well as citizenship can be casually granted by the President by the light stroke of a pen! Providing the refugees with a decent accommodation and work is another question.

It seems that the refugees ‘predicament could drag on for years’.

Three months ago nobody would have believed that things could have turned out this horrible! Only a few months ago locals at Donetsk were relatively optimistic about the future. They were even posing for photos with armed separatists as if on holiday. A full-blown war was not on their minds then.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Toni Preckwinkle – A Record to Emulate?

Toni Preckwinkle has finally announced that she will not run for mayor. The fact that all accounts showed she had a chance to beat Rahm Emanuel in an election made her decision extraordinary. But what exactly would working class Chicagoans have stood to gain from a Preckwinkle victory?

Preckwinkle has repeatedly criticized Emanuel for his continuous stream of assaults on public education in Chicago, particularly the deep cuts and closings directed towards neighborhood schools in poor black and Latino neighborhoods. 

But what else does her record show? Preckwinkle has been Cook County president since 2010. She has not been an ostentatious dick, like Rahm Emanuel. However, she has presided over austerity budgets cutting every year she’s been in charge. Preckwinkle closed down most county services, including neighborhood clinics, and the clerks and treasurers’ offices, for five days over the course of 2011, and all county workers had to take five additional unpaid furlough days that year. Later, in fall of 2011, the County laid off 775 workers – public defenders, staff at Stroger hospital and others. The cuts included $40 million from County Hospital’s budget – during a time when presumably more people are using the hospital of last resort. If she’s willing to cut necessary services for the poor, like public defenders and the public hospital, is there any reason to believe she would have treated CPS any differently? 

This year, Preckwinkle sought pension cuts for county workers – with a proposal to cut pensions that is just as vicious as the one Emanuel foisted on City workers and CTU PSRP’s. 

(Btw - ratings agencies were already hitting Toni on the county's bond rating for not "fixing" the county's pension "crisis" - probably pressure to get her out of the race.)

At no time during Preckwinkle’s tenure as Cook County President, did she propose an alternative to cuts. 

Unlike Lewis and the CTU, she does not propose to go where the money is -- to tax the wealthy or the corporations in order to maintain necessary public services for the population. 

Union teachers are hopping mad that Pat Quinn attacked teacher and PSRP pensions, as well as those of other city and state workers. But over basically the same period, Preckwinkle has behaved in the same way. Preckwinkle has presided over the same kind of austerity cuts at the county and the hospital system that Emanuel has pushed. 

She may not be as arrogant, or as brazen, or as contemptuous of working people as Emanuel. She has a record of pushing reforms, like the Big Box minimum wage, and prison time for John Burge. She would be the “good cop” to Emanuel’s “bad cop.” 

But that’s the point of the “good cop, bad cop” routine: they’re both cops. They both have served and will continue to serve the city’s bourgeoisie, and if the bourgeoisie wants to cut public education, or public health care, Preckwinkle has demonstrated that she is perfectly willing to do so.

Preckwinkle is a part of the Chicago machine. She faithfully agreed to bow out of a "race" with Rahm even though all polls indicated she would have easily won. That proves there is no difference between these so-called democrats who represent capital hell-bent on destroying the working class.

Good riddance to Toni!

*The author of this opinion-editorial wishes to remain anonymous. Second City Teacher encourages those who wish to express their opinions on this site to submit writing to

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lewis Campaign

A Lewis Campaign?

Some in the media have got into quite a tizzy, Karen Lewis has told a few reporters that she is seriously considering a run for mayor. A Lewis candidacy could have a lot of potential. Lewis was the public face of the CTU’s fight to defend Chicago schools against Emanuel’s program of cuts, layoffs and closings. 

The CTU’s strike was the biggest blow struck against the mayor this term, and Lewis has considerable respect: among teachers, among union members in the city, among parents and among working people more broadly. 

Karen running could give many of these people someone to vote for, a way for them to express their anger with the mayor and with politics-as-usual. A Lewis candidacy could be a rallying point to broaden the fight of working people in the city. Teachers made one big fight – a fight that did not stop the attacks on public education. 

But city custodians, sanitation workers, the park and water districts, firefighters, low wage workers, all need to fight to maintain a decent standard of living, a standard that has eroded steadily both under Daley and Emanuel. If this was the purpose of the campaign, the union’s drive to sign up new voters would make perfect sense. 

But will Lewis run in order to lead these kinds of fights? Every indication is no. If Lewis were trying to run this kind of campaign, then she would have already started it. Instead, before this month, Lewis publicly urged Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, or alderman Bob Fioretti to run. Lewis and the CTU leadership have been at best wishy-washy about supporting independent candidates, and have preferred to run Democrats – that is, candidates of the ruling class’s party. 

“Reform Democrats”, perhaps – many of the candidates endorsed by CTU are those who have found themselves at odds with the Machine. But then, Barack Obama himself was just such a “reformer”, and now we can thank him for taking national Arne Duncan’s regime of slash-and-burn privatization and test madness with Race to the Top. 

Lewis’s statement to Lauren Fitzpatrick of the Sun Times came right after the announcement that CPS would be laying of 1150 more employees, including 550 teachers. It smacked of frustration with the fact that despite Emanuel’s abysmal poll numbers, no one is running against him.

Lewis may announce a candidacy. But she may run, campaign for a while, just to make it clear that Emanuel has a race. Lewis would likely then bow out when Preckwinkle, Fioretti, or some other “liberal” career politician takes that as a cue to run. Lewis would then throw her support to that candidate – transferring any energy she generates among working people in the city to a politician who will not serve their interests. A Lewis candidacy could have a lot of potential, but Lewis herself does not appear to be the woman willing to realize that.

*The author of this opinion-editorial wished to remain anonymous. Second City Teachers encourages anyone who supports public education and teachers to submit an article for our website.