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Walmart workers and teachers turn up the heat

After eight days of solid strike action against a regressive restructuring of the education system in the third largest school district in the US, teachers in Chicago are going back to school having won a stand-off compromise that solves nothing.

They have avoided a court hearing scheduled for today that would have ordered them back to work, if Mayor Rahm Emanuel had got his way. 

Emanuel, former White House top aide to Barack Obama, is spokesman for a powerful group that believes poorly-performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff or converted to "charter" schools that often are non-union and run by private groups.

Chicago has been devastated by the long, grinding recession. In the five-year period since the crash, its unemployment rate increased from 5.2% to 9.1% – higher than the national average. So it’s no surprise that many Chicago public school students perform poorly on the tests.

The union distrusts Emanuel, fearing he will use the poor academic record to close scores of schools now that the strike has been called off, leading to mass teacher lay offs. The deal only obliges Rahm to re-hire as few as one-half of those who lose their jobs.

Teachers want more resources put into neighbourhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80% of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.

The contract that was agreed with Emanuel includes several compromises, including his key demand that teacher evaluations be based on results of standardised tests in reading, maths and science. Test results will still be taken into consideration but not by as much as Emanuel originally wanted.

The proposed deal calls for an average 17.6% pay raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements.

Financial analysts have said the cost of the agreement could exceed the school district's budget and lead to its credit rating being downgraded, forcing it to pay higher interest rates to finance any deficits.

Across the other side of the country striking workers employed in one of Walmart’s warehouses yesterday completed a 50 mile “pilgrimage” with a rally in Los Angeles to highlight working conditions that they said they can no longer tolerate.

In the world’s largest corporation, workers are forced to work in temperatures of over 100°F  without a fan, in heat and pollutants that make the workers vomit and get bloody noses, without clean water or regular breaks and with faulty, dangerous equipment.

Raymond Castillo, a 23-year-old warehouse worker who marched with the group said: "I felt joy because of all the supporters that walked with us and that lasted the whole time right by our sides. And I felt proud of myself because I'm fighting for something that I believe in."

Even though Castillo has a wife and one-year-old, he said working in the warehouse was "not worth risking my life." At the end of the pilgrimage, he said he felt inspired and rejuvenated. "I still feel like running more. Right now, I'm bouncing up and down because I’m excited. I'm not even paying attention to my blisters on my feet."  

The exhilaration that comes from collective action reflects the release of mounting but pent-up frustration and anger. The joy felt by one warehouse worker is directly connected to the ongoing revolutionary process that erupted in Tunis in January last year, inspiring the year-old global Occupy movement.  

We saw it in the mass demonstrations in Spain and Portugal at the weekend and the growing resistance to austerity in Italy, Britain and the rest of the capitalist world. A global tipping point has been breached and a period of intense, class confrontation is emerging.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
19 September 2012

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