Sunday, March 26, 2017

Protest Rallies

By Stephen Wilson
Moscow -- "I wouldn't advise you to attend this rally. It has been declared illegal. The riot police will arrest everyone . You'll be deported", warned a student. Despite tense rumours, hearsay and threats that anyone going to the rally would be asking for trouble, thousands of people braved the unsanctioned rally in the city centre of Moscow as well as 100 cities throughout Russia in mass protests against corruption.
Before the rally small posters had been pasted on walls with the following:
'Where do they get their mansions and yachts?' and 'Free medical care could be yours if 70 billion rubles wasn't wasted on mansions , yachts and vineyards', and 'Where does the Prime-minister get his yacht and mansions ? From your
pensions and the taxation you pay ! ' The indignant angry tone of the posters refers to recent revelations or rather , allegations that the Russian Prime-Minister accepted lavish bribes through a 'charity foundation' run by 6 close friends and classmates. With this money, the Prime-Minister went on a lavish spending spree where he treated himself to four grandiose mansions, an Italian vineyard, and yachts. The opposition are calling for the immediate resignation of the Prime Minister. 

But this scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the Guardian and an investigation by Novaya Gazeta, as much as 700 billion rubles has been illegally taken out of Russia through a complex and sophisticated scheme which
implicates both politicians and officials at the highest levels, from 2011-2014! (This amounts to almost 22 billion dollars) .
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press secretary, retorted that Navaly's call for an unsanctioned rally represented 'a provocation'. Neither the president or prime minister has responded to the allegations of corruption. The pro-government supporters claim that the government has not banned any 
demonstrations but only insisted they take place in other locations such as Sokolniki park.
When I set off to observe the demonstration beginning at 2:00pm in Tverskia ploshad I anticipated a crowd numbering a few hundred supporters grossly outnumbered by riot police. I misjudged the situation. On the contrary hundreds of people were swarming along the pavements all the way from Okhotny rad to Belorusskaya metro. A helicopter was hovering and watching us from above while more and more police buses and trucks were driving up to the square.
Around Tverskai square hundreds of beaming faces were wandering up and about where Navalny was due to speak. However, there was a huge formidable police force. Shortly after Navalny made his appearance, I noticed that a squad of helmeted riot police were marching behind me about to enter the square intending to make arrests. The main adjacent streets were lined with long blue and white police buses full of black-clad policemen in riot gear. When Navalny was arrested, his supporters surrounded his bus attempting to set him free. Navalny appealed to the demonstrators to back off assuring them he was safe and in good form.
The significant size of the rallies indicate that the opposition might be down but it is not out. Although some prominent leaders have been killed, forced to flee abroad, imprisoned and intimidated, it is still a force to be reckoned with. This
may come as scant consolation at a time when opinion polls suggest 80% of Russians support President Putin. And even Putin's lowest ratings in 2012, at 60%, is a popularity which western politicians can only dream of! The current ratings of Trump are hovering below 40% and the British Prime-Minister can scarcely muster a popularity above 30 % never mind 40%!
However, Russians are not calling for the resignation of Putin but the largely unpopular Prime Minister who by his statements about teachers (if you don't make much from teaching go into business) demonstrate a person who lives in
a distinctly different planet. The members of the Duma and officials have become so used to an opulent and affluent life style that they don't have imagination to grasp the hardship of many Russians. For instance, the Deputy Prime Minister was shocked to discover that some Russian teachers in regions in Russia had not been paid for months. What is common standard knowledge amongst ordinary Russians, represents an astonishingly deep revelation to them!
Mass protesting is unlikely to fade away or dissipate after a few arrests, assassinations or throwing zelyonka (green medical ointment) at your opponent's face. More and more Russians are starting their own grassroots campaigns to
end not only corruption but wrongful arrests, torture and all kinds of other abuse scarcely mentioned by the Russian media.
This Sunday has shown that many Russians still retain the courage "to dare to use their own reason".

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Book Review: Teacher's Strike

Book Review of Robert Bruno and Steven Ashby’s “A Fight for the Soul of Public Education”:

By Ed Hershey

I received Bruno and Ashby’s book as part of a staff “Secret Santa” event.  A little of my background is probably in order, before going into the book.  I started my career in CPS at Lindblom in 2006. I was around CORE from the beginning, but I was not particularly active with the union until somewhat later. I became much more active in the run-up to Emanuel’s election, and was very active in the strike. I participated as a building activist. I became an associate delegate in the wake of the strike. Which is to say I lived the events in the book, but I was not party to the goings on in say, the Big Bargaining Team.   

The book does a creditable job of laying out the background for the strike, and giving a feel for the details of the lead-up and of the main events of the strike itself.  It gives a condensed version of how CORE grew as an organization, where union militants and teachers active around Teachers for Social Justice began to work together, latching onto fighting school closings, using the Board Meetings and Substance to gain a wider hearing.  Ashby and Bruno get a lot of interesting quotes from James Franczek, the Board’s lead negotiator for two decades.

But there are deficiencies.  The book came out at an odd moment. The 2012 strike is pointed to as a CTU success story. In its wake, the organized opposition to CORE was pulverized within the union, CTU leadership went largely unquestioned, so much so that Karen Lewis and the current leadership slate ran unopposed in the most recent election.   

The 2012 strike was a notable success story for the labor movement -- one that unfortunately has not been duplicated five years on. We read in the book how CTU leadership outmaneuvered the Board in the run-up to that strike. Ashby and Bruno describe how the Board was caught off guard, how the whole Democratic establishment was blindsided – they took for granted that a strike vote would come AFTER the fact finding process. But the SB7 law which imposed the onerous legal restrictions on bargaining is silent on when and how the strike vote takes place – allowing a vote to be set after a deliberate campaign that was a model of member engagement. They had a plan, and that plan was flexible enough to allow for significant rank-and-file initiative. The leadership’s strategic aggressiveness in 2012 contrasts sharply with their lack of initiative and vision in the drawn out contract process of 2015-2016. 

The biggest deficiency of the book can be boiled down to this:  the narrative of the union given is, by and large, the narrative that the union leadership would tell of itself.  It’s the story as you hear it from them – as you would hear, say, from the podium at the House of Delegates. (Ashby does serve as an advisor to the union, and calls CTU his ‘favorite union.’) There is a fawning over the strike and over CTU leadership that one expects at the LaborNotes conference, but which is not particularly useful for militants or aspiring militants who want to fully learn the lessons of the CTU experience. I expected the book to be hard-nosed and historical, but found it wanting in substance.
The treatment of the negotiations around SB7 is one of the biggest examples. SB7, CORE’s “original sin”, cannot be whitewashed completely. But the SB7 debacle is treated with kid-gloves, defending the leadership, without giving critics of the process any chance to weigh in.  

Another place we see this is in the quotations. Most of the quotes of CTU members fall into two categories: anonymous “flavor” quotes from rank-and-file, and quotes from the leadership: the officers, leading staffers (Jackson Potter, Norine Gutekanst). Sarah Chambers is the only “rank-and-file” member who is quoted repeatedly, and she is closely identified with the leadership. Yes, CORE leadership was at its strongest in the run up to the strike. But it would be good to hear other voices. Where are the Lou Pysters, the George Schmidts, the Susan Zupans, the Howard Heaths? One does not come away from the book with a sense of these voices, there is no sense of contradictions or cleavages within the union or within CORE. Sue Garza is not mentioned in the book until after the strike, where she’s introduced as a CTU member who beat the machine and won an aldermanic seat. Not mentioned is her work as a regional activist on the Southeast side, holding one of the big community events on the Friday of the strike. Also not mentioned is the “One Day Longer, One Day Stronger” chant she raised at the House of Delegates on the Sunday of the strike, when leadership pushed to go back to work.  

Which leads to the next big oversight:  the book is very detailed in its description of the bargaining process – these chapters were authored by Bruno. These chapters alternate with “organizing” chapters written by Ashby, which talk about the community work, Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, and the like. The book mostly overlooks the House of Delegates, where several major turns took place.  Again this is exactly the venue where one would hear voices other than the leadership or the staff. Delegates meetings are not open to outsiders as a rule, so that may partly explain it. But the lack of insight into the House is a reflection on the leadership-centered paradigm of the book.    

I will end with a  few notes on errors of fact – of which there are several that I found.
The LaborNotes Left tends to inflate crowd numbers – I find the crowd numbers range from greatly exaggerated to being on the high side of plausible. It is possible to count crowds, given some effort, or, with large crowds, adequate technology (photos from high elevations, estimates of the lengths of a march, etc.)  The crowd numbers are given without formal citation, so I will take my personal, admittedly imperfect “crowd gauge” and put it against the authors’. They give “15,000” as the attendance at the Labor Day rally before the strike, saying “the plaza overflowed.”  I recall that event being satisfyingly large, but we were talking four to six thousand – a notable success, given the rally was called on short notice.  The Monday downtown rally of the strike is given as “thirty-five thousand” – I would put that on the high side of plausibility. People who recall the Saturday rally in Union Park near the end of the strike remember it was not as energetic, and was smaller than the major downtown rallies that Monday and Tuesday. Ashby gives puts the attendance at 15,000 – I would reckon it much lower than that. 

In the run-up to the strike, the union called for “Contract Action Committees” to be formed in schools – a committee of building activists to each be “assigned” to be responsible for keeping ten members of the school informed. “By Spring, 2012, hundreds of schools had Contract Action Committees.” (Page 113).  If by this, they mean that hundreds of schools had formal teams that met, then this claim is almost certainly untrue. The authors cite CORE as being the strength behind these committees, but I recall being at a CORE meeting in 2013, post-strike, sitting at a table, and many of the activists there had never heard of Contract Action Committees – “what are those?” Hundreds of schools had active teachers, that is true. But an active committee at 30-50% of district schools? No, I don’t buy it – again it’s what the leadership wanted to happen when they proposed it – the reality on the ground didn’t play out that way. 

On page 66, the authors say CPS “challenged [Jackson Potter’s] eligibility”, when they clearly had no right to do so.  It was UPC that challenged Jackson off the CORE slate.  (Article for reference can be found here on Substance). 

I end here with the biggest factual error, on page 107:  “the Arab Spring began in December 10th, 2011”.  One year off a hundred years ago is one thing, but we are talking about recent events.  The paragraphs preceding this line talk about the occupation of the Wisconsin Capital building in February 2011, and then the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in October of that year.  The Arab Spring, having started in December 2010, was a reference point for those actions, not a result. 
Maybe these are just points of imprecision. But combined with the issues of perspective, they make it hard to take the book as seriously as one would like. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Happy Women's Day?

By Stephen Wilson 

MOSCOW -- " I was suddenly waved down by a Traffic policeman and thought : 'O God they are going to fine me for something . But when I pulled down the window the traffic policeman offered me some flowers congratulating me as it was International Women's Day. I was relieved ! " stated Oksana Chebotareva, a 43 year old Russian English teacher. 

She was not the only person surprised on the 8th of March. In Berlin and Paris some Russian men decided to go up to unknown women in the streets offering free flowers. At first they refused believing they were salesmen but after learning it was a free gift , agreed to take them . Nobody declined the gifts!
International Women's Day evokes a wide range of different responses from women. While most Russian women are happy to be receive compliments, praise and presents , not all of them whole heartedly feel elated or enthusiastic.
In deed , quite a few don't celebrate it at all . They are too busily absorbed in attempting to make a living or they have become cynical about what they see as the insincerity of some men. " I don't celebrate this day . I just don't feel like
another celebration ", confessed my wife . " I don't understand why we need this celebration in the first place ", claims the teacher Oksana. Feminists declare that the celebration makes an utter mockery of the continued opppression of women in Russia and all around the World. They would like to see real radical respect of women and not cheap praise, compliments or flowers that symbolically die the next day. If you truly respect women, stop abusing , beating and murdering them!
Not everyone is so indifferent or downbeat about this celebration. One woman writes : " The 8th of March International Women's day is an amazingly beautiful holiday filled with tenderness. All the ladies receive presents, flowers and poetry text messages." Someone , somewhere, is trying to make another person happy !
It is not true to state that while men hate this day, women adore it. I came across one of my students who told me that since he was the only man in his department , he had to purchase 3 boxes of cakes for the female staff. He did not resent this but felt pleasure at this.
However, awareness of the deeper political roots of this celebration has almost been forgotten. Even middle- aged people who grew up in the Soviet era vaguely recall the political legacy of the celebration. It has become depoliticised. Now most Russians tend to see the day as something between Saint Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. When I asked people if they could recall the political dimension I received vague answers such as 'It is connected with a strike ! ", " it was the idea of the Suffragetes " and the name Klara Zetkin surfaces . In fact the idea was largely the brainchild of Klara Zetkin, who at a conference in 1908, proposed that a special celebration to commemorate
the grandmothers of some socialists who had gone on strike in 1857 for better conditions in New York , should not be forgotten ! In a sense, it was a kind of 'Day of the Dead' to remind women all over the world that the struggle to better
women should continue.Those granddaughters were demanding an end to child labour, an improvement of working conditions and the right to vote.
As the historian Orlando Figes has pointed out, the Russian Revolution was sparked off by women who had taken to the streets to celebrate this very day.
According to Antonella Salomoni : 'The Days of February (Feburary 23-27) signaled the final crisis of the Czarist regime. Remarkable for the unexpected rapidity with which the workers mobilised , the uprising began on February 23,
International Women's Day .(March 8 by our Calender).' (Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Antonella Salamoni, 2004, Interlink, Northampton, U.S.A, )
This happens to be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Many people are assessing just how much progress has been made, if any , in the emancipation of women. Given the past few months , the situation of Russian women has regressed remarkably . The Russian Duma even passed a law which has decriminalised the beating of women and children. A man who thrashes a woman will only face imprisonment if he persists in doing this for over a year. Before this deadline, he will pay a fine . By this time the woman could be long dead. It is as if a green light has been given to abuse women.
According to the Russian state's own figures , the pay of women is 72.3 % of men , and has increased from 67.9% in 2011. However, the pay of women managers fell from a percentage of 37.3% in 2006 to 32.7% in 2015. In general, women earn less than 30% of men. Men also occupy 67% of
management positions.
On the same day, as if readily acknowledging the dire situation of woman, the Prime Minister Medvedev , announced a drawn up document titled:
'A strategy to improve the position of Women ' in Russia, where measures will be taken to tackle violence against women as well as improving their status and role in all areas of life'. The goal is to improve the position of women in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres of life by 2022.
The document does not even demand the repeal of very lethal legislation which has recently been passed . Nevertheless, depoliticised or not, it will be difficult to exorcise the ghost haunting the Russian state on International Women's Day. Just 100 years ago, the celebration of this day sparked off a Russian revolution. Never take women for granted!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Clerks Sold Out?

Are the CPS Clerks Being Sold Out by Our Union?
By Jim Vail

Are the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union colluding in order to sell out our clerks whose jobs CPS wants to privatize.

That was a question on some clerks' minds after they attended a so-called professional development for the clerks on attendance and other office work a few weeks ago. 

The suspect PD, which the clerk I spoke to said they haven't had in a very long time if ever, was set up quickly, and after the presentation was made clock, out walked CPS and in walked CTU. 

The CTU told the clerks to oppose privatizing their jobs and to call the Board to save their jobs.

There are 12 pilot schools in which the teachers are doing their own time sheets via Kronos time which creates more work for clerks to double check the teachers to do their own time sheets. It is arguably more paper work also for the teachers, a violation of the new contract which mandates no extra paperwork.

The goal for the board of ed is to eliminate the clerk's positions, and have teachers do more of their time work.

But the CTU has not made a big enough deal to organize like they have for other endeavors. 

One source says the union presented school petitions to the head of labor relations for the board to show teachers are against this latest privatization scheme.

The board has privatized many services in the schools for the worst. We have Armark to clean the schools that are much dirtier because they cut the janitorial staff in half. They want to privatize the engineers - probably under Armark - and the schools will probably have less building engineers and less experienced.

The CTU will present a resolution against the Kronos pilot project at this week's House of Delegates meeting.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Mein Kampf!

By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- "2016 was the year when the cynical use of 'us and them' narratives of blame , hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930's. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity
politics in an attempt to win votes " , stated Salil Shetty , the Secretary General of Amnesty International, while publically releasing a new international report titled, 'The State of World Human rights'. The report identifies a rising global trend of an angrier and more divisive politics where whole groups of people, whether nations , or religions, are being demonised . The recent attempt by Trump to enforce an order banning citizens from 7 Muslim countries from entering America for
90 days and the halting of the acceptance of refugees from Syria for 120 days, the increase in racist attacks throughout Britain following Brexit and the u-turn by the British government where they will accept no more than 350 refugee children rather than the promised 3000 appear to more than vindicate the report. Amnesty International 's annual report
identifies 36 countries which have violated International law by unlawfully returning refugees to countries where human rights are at risk.
Refugees, rather than being welcomed and assisted after traumatically experiencing the turmoil, torture and afflictions of constant danger, are often being reincarcerated and abused. Refugees represent a convenient scapegoat to promote a new nationalist agenda which distracts people from the more relevant social and economic problems being faced by people.
New words surfacing in the English language may mirror the new times.
The Oxford dictionary has added new words such as 'haterade' (meaning excessive negativity, criticism or resentment) and 'otheride' (meaning to treat a person or group as intrinsically different from others'.) The use of the word 'post truth ' where objective facts are viewed as less influential than emotions and personal beliefs has grown by 2000%.
Salil Shetty has warned that the 'Never again' slogan which followed the Holocust, has been rendered meaningless by mass atrocities committed in Yemen, Syria and Sudan.
Are we witnessing a new dark ages ? Are people becoming more prejudiced, populist and angrier? My experience in Russia offers scant consolation. I have heard too much ranting against either Jews , gays as well as homeless
people. The latter I have seen being beaten up on the streets by not just militia men but other homeless men. However, I have witnessed countless acts of kindness which are never mentioned in any newspapers!
Yet the emergence of prejudice can baffle you. I recently spoke to one young 19 year old student, called Dasha. She told me: "My classmates have read Mein Kampf ,(My Struggle By Adolf Hitler) and some have boasted about
reading it in the original German . They consider it their Bible. " She informed me she had read a Russian translation on the Internet. She read it out of curiosity and not because she agreed with it. 

I asked her: "How can Russians agree with the ideas in a book when Hitler's invasion of Russian lead to over 20 million Russians being killed?" Dasha replied : "They believe that Russia should be run on a similar base as Nazis Germany. My mother told me they will grow out of those views". What is odd is that in Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that he considered the Slavs as an inferior race. His ultimate aim was to either
exterminate them or keep them barely alive as slaves. I was not the only one at a loss. A lawyer called Marat, told me he that he considered it illogical as Hitler hated Slavs .
A few years ago I was almost beaten up by a fascist who chanted the slogan "Russia is for the Russians and your Queen sucks". His companions intervened and prevented me from being assaulted.
Is this all dark news ? Not entirely! Amnesty International also published a Global survey, which indicates that although xenophobics are becoming more assertive and assaulting more people, acts of compassion and care are also rising.(2016) The report found that as many as 29 % of people polled in Britain would take refugees into their homes. The report found that the people of China, Germany and Britain are the most welcoming to refugees in the World.
The survey covering 27,000 people across 27 countries , reported that 70 % stated their government should do more to help refugees, while 80% said they would accept refugees living in their countries. In Britan, 84 % of people polled said that people should be allowed to take refuge in their country to escape persecution! Even in Russia, which has only 770 officially accepted refugees, most Russians polled agreed
that refugees should be allowed to take refuge in Russia. Now if you believe the statements of the tabloid press and populist politicians such as Trump, the British Prime Minister May, and La Pen, you could be forgiven for believing the opposite. The report indicates that politicians and governments are out of step with the mood of the people and not vice versa. However, sympathy and compassion, no matter how well intentioned, won't suffice. We need to translate this into effective action.


Friday, March 3, 2017

By Stephen Wilson

MOSCOW -- The Deputy Russian Prime Minister has recently declared in a speech that it is high time that the traditional layout where school student desks (Парты)
are arranged in straight angled rows facing the teacher with all eyes facing the teacher at the blackboard must be replaced by new arrangements and a novel methodology which acknowledges the individuality of pupils.
The Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets ,at a forum in Sochi, made a speech calling for the radical restructuring of the geography of Russian school classrooms as well as teaching methodology, which she believes is not only 
outdated but hinders the effectiveness of education.
"Classes are arranged in an incorrect manner , where they are organised in straight-line angled rows . Therefore , students are in the habit of sitting behind the teacher at the blackboard in ranks just as we studied in childhood..... This
incorrectly influences the individuality of school students. In order to develop as a team and achieve their aims , children must sit in another way' , declared Olga Golodets. Her views are echoed by an educational expert , Irina Abakino, who states : "The organisation of the Russian educational system is too conservative and less effective than in other countries . At this moment , one of the most effective education systems is in Finland and Singapore where the teacher is more of a facilitator who helps organise students into groups which
does not stifle their self suffiency. As a rule. school children are organised into smaller groups ... Schools are run on the principle of open spaces , without long corridors. Finnish visitors to Russian schools are astonished at how Russian schools waste 15 % of space on designing long corridors".
The speech provoked exasperating groans and complaints from many teachers who have long identified such problems. If the Russian minister is so concerned about improving efficiency why have they been forcefully implementing, without proper consultation , a process of 'optimisation' which has led to the closure of many schools, the redundancy of many teachers, increased class sizes and
the firing of many experienced teachers who oppose those changes ? How can the quality of education be improved by getting one Russian English teacher to take over the jobs of his three fired colleagues ? This speech on methodology
simply heaps all the faults of the education system on the shoulders of teachers who are blamed for being too authoritarian, conservative and an obstacle to progress.
Any foreigner who visits a Russian school might well be slightly shocked . As soon as a teacher enters a classroom the school students usually abruptly stand up and after a class ends , younger children race up to the blackboard to wash it for you.
This is not a school to which most Scottish or American teachers are accustomed to. Tom Hawks, who visited some Russian schools in Moldova ,states in his work:
'Playing the Moldovans at Tennis ' that he was shocked to learn that in some places in the world they still respect teachers.
One of the downsides of Russian schools is the fact that some teachers attempt to severely control the physical activity of young children who are made to rigidly sit behind their desks, in silence, facing the teacher. This can stifle and repress both the physical and mental activity of the pupils. There is no doubt that this strict control is partly based on the fear that granting a little freedom of movement might lead to disorder in the classroom.
Nevertheless, we can overstate the role of the geography in the classroom.
Rearranging or tinkering with the furniture won't always bring wonders and is often simply cosmetic. There are even many extreme ideas in the air which are so against common sense that they would impede the work of teachers.
Daniel Ogen was once teaching very well in a Russian school . Despite the fact that Daniel had thirty years of experience as a teacher, a young man barely out of university came to check his work . After the lesson, the young man advised Daniel to radically rearrange the furniture by putting the chairs and tables in a different way . Daniel told me : " I just decided to calmy listen to him and then told him ; " Thank you for all this new information. It was very useful and helpful".
"It was the best way to get him off my back so that I could carry on teaching."
One trendy idea was to throw out all the tables from the classroom. This notion, which became popular in the late 1990's, coincided with the idea of furnitureless offices. It never worked in the offices or the schools. Both the teachers and office workers found that they felt more secure and confident with a place to put their text books. In fact , both children and teachers were tripping over their books while moving around. The office workers who were deprived of their beloved tables left the office to work in much more comfortable cafes in the nearby vicinity. The offices became 'free' desolate empty spaces.
The notion that the role of a teacher should be reduced to a 'facilitator' or 'helper' , represents a negation of the role of the teacher. The facts are that there will always be a tension or gap between the student and teacher.
For a start, the teacher is an authority figure has has more knowledge than the student. Even Paulo Friere stated that you had to acknowledge this fact.
They are not equals as the school student requires a role model to follow or look up to. Removing the 'barriers' between students and teachers flies in the face of common sense.
Olga Golodets needs to not only talk to a few academics or psychologists but listen to the voice of the most experienced teachers who know how to handle children with or without any novel changes in the geography of the classroom. Geography doesn't determine everything!