Sunday, November 29, 2009

EPA Blocks Air Permit for BP Refinery Expansion

Apologies for being a little late in posting this press release from the National Resources Defense Council:

CHICAGO (October 19, 2009) - The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today issued an objection to the operating permit for BP North America’s refinery in Whiting, IN that will require the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to rewrite the permit. The decision is a victory for the citizens and environmental groups who petitioned EPA to object to the permit in August 2008 on the grounds that it did not accurately account for the large increases in dangerous air pollution that would be caused by BP’s expansion of the refinery. The petition was submitted by Environmental Law & Policy Center, Hoosier Environmental Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, Save the Dunes Council, Sierra Club, Susan Eleuterio and Tom Tsourlis.

BP began a major expansion of the Whiting Refinery in 2008 in order to process dirty Canadian tar sands crude oil at the facility. The expansion would make the refinery the largest refiner of tar sands oil in the U.S. and would increase numerous traditional air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. In addition, the expansion would create approximately as much new global warming pollution as a new 300-400 megawatt coal plant, about a forty percent increase from current refinery levels.

BP’s permit application claimed the expansion would not increase pollution because the company would offset the increased emissions by shutting down some older equipment at the refinery at a later date. But the company failed to take into account many distinct sources of pollution from the refinery, including flares (the large torch-like tower structures that burn excess gases from the refining process) and “fugitive emissions” from leaks and other sources. EPA’s objection requires the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to go back and redo the permit taking these sources into account. In the case of flares, EPA also presented the option of prohibiting all new and increased flaring emissions. This is the first Title V decision from the EPA requiring that these pollution sources be addressed in refinery permits, and stands as important direction-setting for future projects.

“BP needs to come clean about what this expansion really will mean for clean air and public health.” said Meleah Geertsma, Staff Attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “It doesn’t matter whether air pollution comes out of a vent or a flare or a smokestack, it’s all part of the problem and it should all be part of the permit. Today EPA has voiced its agreement with our concerns.”

“EPA recognizes what we’ve been telling BP and the state all along -- this refinery expansion is clearly going to dump additional pollution on the surrounding communities, and the law requires BP to control it,” said Ann Alexander, Senior Attorney for the NRDC. “BP has been playing games with the numbers to try to duck that responsibility, but the jig is up."

“In a struggling economy, Indiana is right to be focused on jobs and economic development, but that growth has to be well-balanced with reducing the harm of noxious air to kids and others vulnerable to air pollution. EPA’s decision is a very positive step in ensuring that Hoosiers in Northwest Indiana share in both economic development and improved environmental quality,” says Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Candidate "loyalty oath" is stain on democracy

By John Bachtell

Candidates for office in Illinois are presented with the option to sign a so-called "loyalty oath" and submit it with their nominating petitions. I was interviewed about this by WBEZ and it appears on the station's political blog:

The "loyalty oath" is a vestige of the McCarthy period and was struck down as unconstitutional by the courts in the 1970s when the CPUSA ran a slate of candidates for state wide office. The state legislature chose to make the oath optional.

Its continued presence suggests something illegal about communists, socialists and others who hold radical views. It suggests they don't believe in democracy and should be held in suspicion as "un-American," and agents of a foreign power and that they have no right to participate in the electoral process.

Once you start suggesting a group has no rights it puts the democratic rights of all on shakey ground.

A complete break needs to be made with this kind of Cold War mentality. For it not only attempts to perpetuate myths about the CPUSA and other socialist groups, to make us illegal, illegitimate, unpatriotic, not part of the democratic process. It also distorts the democratic process for all, denying voters freedom of choice.

The fact that so many candidates willingly sign the "oath" reflects the continued power, although declining, of anti-communist fear tactics. Let us debate the power of ideas and not scare people and candidates. What happened to the "free market place" of ideas? Who's afraid to debate?

The fact is the CPUSA has been a fundamental part of the political process of the United States for 90 years. US socialist traditions stretch back to the 1840's and are deeply embedded in the fabric of our country, in the politics, culture, economics, etc. The CPUSA has made historic contributions to expansion of democracy including workers rights, the organization of the trade union movement; civil rights with involvement in the early Civil Rights movement and the Modern Day Civil Rights movement; basic social guarantees like Social Security and unemployment compensation; etc.

We have fought to not only defend the US constitution (including when it was being shredded during the McCarthy period when communists were jailed for their beliefs), and by extension the state constitution, but to expand and deepen democracy and democratic rights. In fact we have defended the constitution against some of the same right wing nuts who sign the "loyalty oath" and then support calls for curtailing democratic rights - those in the mold of Bush, Cheney, et al.

Our vision for the USA is a profoundly democratic one, radical reforms through a path of greater democracy - both economic and social: the expansion of the Bill of Rights, the curtailing of the economic power of the super wealthy and large corporations, the development of grassroots economic and social democracy, the expansion of democratic participation by taking money out of politics, the restructuring of the economy in a way that serves the overwhelming majority of people, not the elites.

How about a "loyalty oath" to defend the rights of workers, to oppose all forms of discrimination, to live free of economic and social fear in a clean environment. Now that's an oath I could sign!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Federal aid urgently needed to avoid state budget catastrophe

By John Bachtell
CHICAGO – Looming behind the 17 million jobless tsunami hitting the country is another disaster: over $180 billion in accumulated budget deficits set to devastate state governments, according to a new study by the Pew Center for the States.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says in addition, city and town governments are expected to have deficits of $100 billion over the next two years.

This threatens a calamity like the one playing out in California. Many states face horrendous cuts to education, health care, mass transit and other human service programs, skyrocketing taxes and fees, that will severely slow any economic recovery.

Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future notes, “And even if we avoid another downturn, the job picture will get worse. Crippling state deficits—over $260 billion over two years—will force layoffs that cost an estimated 900,000 jobs next year if nothing is done.”

Illinois is listed among the top ten states in “fiscal peril” according to the Pew report. These states are confronted with the worst combination of foreclosure rates, unemployment, state revenue losses, and budget gaps. Illinois is struggling with a staggering $13.8 billion budget gap that seems to grow by the day.

In addition the state pension system is in debt by $35 billion because the state doesn’t have the money. This has nothing to do with “lavish” public employee pensions, as Republicans, right wing and big business think tanks assert. Public employee pensions are in line with and in some cases lower than the private sector.

The Illinois state budget crisis is deepening because of growing joblessness, but has been compounded by decades of under funding of education, health care and human services. A regressive, flat, state income tax structure imposed by the state constitution, has forced the state to rely heavily on property taxes.

Earlier this year the legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn cut $2 billion in preschool, after-school and mental health and other human service programs, laid-off 2,500 state workers and left thousands of other positions unfilled. This has wreaked havoc across the state, with scores of programs curtailed and shuttered.

Illinois State Board of Education Chair Jesse Ruiz warned if the state doesn't generate new revenue for schools next year, "we fall off the cliff."

The only way out of this crisis is through public jobs creation, a massive infusion of federal money to fund education and health care and a progressive restructuring of the state tax system.

Governor Pat Quinn proposed a progressive income tax, which died in the Democratic controlled state legislature this past spring. Under intense public pressure, the state senate passed HB 174 that would raise revenues by altering the tax code. Powerful interests and a fear of raising taxes going into an election year blocked the bill from coming up the House.

The Responsible Budget Coalition (RBC), made up of some public sector unions and a broad range of human service organizations that represent and serve millions of residents has sounded the alarm about the urgency of the situation and the need for massive new revenues.

The RBC supports passage of HB 174 that raises income taxes from 3% to 5% and corporate taxes from 4.8% to 5%. The bill increases the earned income tax credit $1,000 to protect lower income families. It provides some property tax relief but imposes a sales tax on previously untaxed services.

Additionally, HB 174 also directs a greater portion of funding into a Common Schools Account, to overcome the historic inequality between school districts across the state.

While the bill does offer some protections, many working families would still have to pay higher taxes at a time their budgets are being strained with increases in taxes and fees on a local level. A family of four at the median income of $56,000 and median property taxes of $3,300 would pay $600 more in taxes.

The bill’s supporters argue Illinois taxpayers are among the lowest taxed compared to residents in surrounding states. But in a column run on the Galesburg Register Mail website, Judith Guenseth of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) notes, “Add to this the regressive nature of consumption and property taxes and the total picture means that compared to six neighboring Midwestern states, Illinois ranks second with the highest tax burden on the bottom 20 percent of Illinoisans.”

Polls show voters strongly oppose higher taxes. However broad public support could be garnered if the bill were amended to totally protect families with incomes under $200,000 and increase the taxes on the wealthy and big corporations.

Comptroller Dan Hynes has proposed maintaining a 3% rate on taxpayers below $200,000 and increasing by 3.5% to 7% taxes on incomes for the top 3% of income earners. This change would require a constitutional amendment.

The Institute for Taxation and Policy suggests combining both Quinn’s original proposal and Hynes super rich tax surcharge as the path to a progressive tax system. They also argue that taxing working families will remove additional purchasing power from the state economy, slowing the economic recovery.

If HB 174 passes it would raise about $6 billion in revenues, still leaving a gap of nearly $8 billion.

On Nov. 17, the AFL-CIO and major civil rights organizations announced a five-point plan to pull the country out of the economic crisis. In addition to calling for the government to fund the creation of 2 million public sector jobs, the plan calls for extending more federal aid to the states.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act granted $144 billion in aid to the states mainly through payments to cover Medicaid and education. This is widely regarded as one of the most effective uses of the economic stimulus money. Illinois has been able to pay Medicaid reimbursements to health providers only because it received $2.9 billion in short term aid from the Act.

The EPI calls for extending federal relief from the Act for $150 billion to state and local governments over the next 18 months.

A path out of the economic and state budget crises is needed that doesn’t place additional burdens on working families and moves in the direction of redistributing social wealth more equitably. It will take the massive might of the labor-led people’s movement, small and medium businesses, along with state, city and town governments to win.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fort Hood Victim Celebrated with Drums, Songs and Dance

by Sijisfredo Aviles

On Friday, November 13 about 100 young people, friends and family gathered to celebrate with bomba drums, dance and songs, the life of PVT Francheska "Cheka" Velez one of the thirteen victims of the Fort Hood tragedy. Cheka, the daughter of Juan Velez, a Colombian father and Eileen Velez, a Puerto Rican mother, was a member of Inner City Rhythms. Her friends described her as "full of life and goodness".

Mirelys Rodriguez, program coordinator of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, thanked the participants who came to the "Baile de Bomba", the Bomba Dance. She told the crowd "we come here to give life to the memory of Cheka who will live in our hearts forever." She called the musicians, dancers and singers as well as the audience to celebrate the life of this young woman who had given her love and goodness to her family and friends. "Let us show our kids that there are options in life. Let us heal through this wonderful music and dance. Bomba has been a form of resistance and resilience." She added, " Cheka loved to hear bomba, so let us join and show the world that we are for life and for togetherness".

At this point Eve, who was the dance coordinator of Inner City Rhytms and her same age, called everyone to begin the festivities in honor of our "baby". Members of various bomba groups began drumming, singing and dancing to the sound and everyone joined in clapping and swaying, including children who played drums, sang and danced.

While the celebration continued, home made cup cakes, prepared by Jessica Albino were offered and water bottles were sold to establish a fund for her friends to create a mural in honor of Cheka.

After two hours of continued celebration, a period of remembrance began when the public was presented with a bomba song whose refrain stated: "Ahi esta mi nena Cheka, bailando la rica bomba, ella flota de nube en nube con su sonrisa bella" (There's my baby Cheka, dancing the rich bomba, she floats from cloud to cloud with her beautiful smile.)

Sasha Ramos, a close friend, presented a video of Cheka's life from baby hood until she joined the armed forces.

While group was remembering and celebrating, her parents were in Fort Hood waiting for the armed forces to release her body so that they could return her Monday to her friends and family in Chicago.

She was laid to rest Thursday, November19, but some who attended the burial were saying that they felt she was looking at them from heaven with that special and beautiful smile.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Health care reform equals jobs, small business owners say

By Pepe Lozano

CHICAGO - Hundreds of health care reform advocates, union leaders and small business owners rallied outside the Renaissance Hotel here Nov. 17, while America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) held its national Fall Forum inside.

Inside the hotel, eight small business owners from around the country held a press conference, recounting their health care horror stories. They spoke of exorbitant private health insurance costs that force them to choose between the growth of their livelihoods - including keeping and expanding jobs - and their ability to afford necessary health care for themselves and their employees. After the press conference the group joined the hundreds outside.

Kay Forbes-Smith has owned and run an international corporate communications and training firm for 20 years in Indiana. She currently offers group health insurance to her employees, paying half the premiums, but she constantly faces increasing costs that have forced some employees to opt out of the plan. The costs of health care hurt Forbes-Smith's bottom line and her business' ability to competitively attract talented employees.

"As a small business owner we want our employees to have access to healthcare," she said. "But some employees can't afford their half of the insurance premiums, putting themselves and their families at risk."

Forbes-Smith continued, "Small businesses are supposedly the backbone of our country's economy. We just want to do our part but we need significant health care reform to do that," she said.

Rick Poore has run his Nebraska screen print and embroidery business for 15 years doing business nationwide. He is unable to provide insurance to all 33 of his employees, but he still pays more than $61,000 in insurance costs between a group plan for half his full-time employees and subsidizing individual plans. The costs prevent him from investing in the growth of his business to remain competitive in his market.

"Last year I paid over $60,000 in premium costs that could have been better invested in my business," he said. "Every year our benefits seem to be eroding away."

"The current health care system we have is seriously broken and for small businesses like mine, we either have to remain competitive or offer health care to our employees," Poore added. "If it takes a strong public option to fix this problem than so be it."

It's a big lie when insurance companies say reform is a job killer, said Poore. "Health care reform is an economic stimulus and will help us get out of this recession."

Jan Wood and her husband own a martial arts business in Illinois with two part-time employees and other part-time instructors. A family member's pre-existing condition has made coverage unaffordable, thus forcing them to pay almost $24,000 out-of-pocket before their benefits kick in. Their inability to offer coverage has prevented them from hiring full-time sales employees and growing their business.

"The key to bring people out of this recession will be due to the strength of small businesses," said Wood. "Health insurance is both a physical and financial necessity and we want the option of paying a fair price for fair coverage, which will mean a healthy economy for all in this country."

Wendell Potter, ex-CEO of Cigna, joined the small business owners and spoke at the rally. Potter said there is no doubt that AHIP was in Chicago to launch a new wave of lies and fear mongering against any initiatives toward passing health care reform. They just want to make sure Wall Street stays happy rather than ensure the well-being and health of ordinary working citizens.

After a 20-year career in the health insurance industry Potter said he finally left because he did not want to be part of an effort to kill health care legislation from passing in Congress.

Big insurance wants to get lawmakers to vote against the best interests of their constituents, said Potter.

"I could not in good conscience be a part of another campaign to block reform, and I'm here to urge my colleagues to denounce the fear mongering and stop spreading lies," said Potter.

"I ask that they do what's right in their hearts for the citizens of this great country," he said. "It's not to late to turn away and do the right thing." Health care reform might not make us rich but it will let us sleep better at nigh, he added.

Activists at the rally said health care reform advocates and supporters must do whatever it takes to influence lawmakers and view this fight as the most important battle of our lifetime.

A letter on behalf of the small business owners was sent to Karen Ignagni, the president and CEO of AHIP, requesting she meet with them to hear their stories in person prior to the event. Ignagni ignored the request.

"Maybe if Ms. Ignagni heard from small business owners, she would better understand whom she and her colleagues are fighting when they lobby against good, affordable health care and the choice of a public health option," said Richard Kirsch with Health Care for America Now.

AHIP has paid millions of dollars trying to block health care reform, organizers of the event say. AHIP also released a discredited report last month that Time magazine called a "selective, dishonest analysis" and the Associated Press said "uses facts selectively" and is littered with "misleading spin."

"This is a disgrace," said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, referring to the stories of the small business owners. "Not just today but for the last 20 years the health care system has not benefited working people," he said. "It's driven by profits and what we need to have is a strong public option so we can start to take the profit out of the formula."

Balanoff added, "This fight is not just about health care reform it's about how we are going to reform our entire economy. There has to be a recovery for working people not just for the banks or the fat cats at the top."

Co-Executive Director of Citizen Action/Illinois William McNary fired up the crowd at the end of the rally.

"We need to reaffirm the basic human value that we are responsible for ourselves but we are also responsible for each other - I am my brothers keeper and I am my sisters keeper," he said.

"Let us stand together so we can tell our children and our grandchildren one day that we fought for health care reform and won."

Now let's get to work, he said.

Residents and supporters set up anti-eviction blockade at Cabrini Green

From Chicago Independent Human Rights Council / Anti-Eviction Campaign:

CHICACO-Residents and Supporters Set up Eviction Blockade at Cabrini Green Tenants: Evictions in the midst of bank bail-outs and economic crisis are unacceptable and immoral

When the Cook County Sheriff's Department arrives to evict Cabrini Green resident Lenise Forrest and her family Tuesday morning, they will be confronted and prevented from doing so by residents and supporters from around the city. Lenise Forrest has been a resident of Cabrini Green for 19 years. She has worked in the community for 12 years, including 3 years working for Holsten Development moving residents into the new mixed-income community. Now she is about to be moved out – onto the street.

Both elderly and young women and men will put their bodies between the sheriff and Ms. Forrest's apartment and refuse to allow her and her family to be made homeless. The confrontation will mark the launching of a Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign whose message and goals are summarized as “while the rich get bailed out, we will not allow the poor to be put out.”

Ms. Forrest, who has been called a “model citizen” by Alderman Burnett, was on a payment plan under the previous management for the back rent that she owes. The new management company, however, has been unwilling to accept her payments or to recognize the payment plan, preferring to proceed with an eviction. The eviction is currently being appealed, but the Sheriff's department informed Ms. Forrest that the appeal does not affect their order to evict her and her family this Tuesday.

Drawing inspiration from the recent visit of the South African Anti-Eviction Campaign, residents of Cabrini Green and other communities have decided to form their own Anti-Eviction Campaign to stop economically-motivated evictions, especially given the current economic climate. Following the tactics of South Africa's Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign has pledged to physically block the execution of evictions in order to keep people in their homes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Workers say: Stop Bissell's dirty work

By Pepe Lozano
CHICAGO - Cindy Marble, 40, is a single mother of four who lives in Crest Hill, just southwest of here. For seven months Marble worked at the Elwood, Ill.-based Bissell Homecare warehouse in Will County. On Nov. 5, Marble and several of her co-workers were fired without any warning, after some of them had trained their replacements.

"I was fired because of my decision to go along with the union," Marble said in a phone interview Nov. 12.

On Nov. 11, Marble, her co-workers and supporters picketed in front of the warehouse to protest the firings. They carried signs that read, "Stop Bissell's dirty work."

The Bissell warehouse, managed by Maersk Logistics, opened in January this year and is part of the expanding distribution industry in Chicago's suburbs. It supplies Bissell vacuum cleaners to big box retailers including Kohl's, Wal-Mart and Target.

Marble said she and her co-workers were fired en masse after they filed legal complaints over many violations of state and federal law at the warehouse. In addition the workers notified management last month that they had decided to form a union with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).

There were a lot of unfair conditions, said Marble. The workers had no paid sick days and many of their wages were arbitrarily slashed. And none of them had any say in the matter, she said.

Marble said one of her co-workers was eight months pregnant and no provisions were made for her well-being. She was expected to lift boxes of vacuum cleaners over her head, said Marble.

"So I spoke up for her and the supervisor said she needed to bring in a doctor's note saying she couldn't lift the heavy boxes," Marble said. "It was too much for her." The pregnant woman too was eventually fired.

According to UE the warehouse has been using an unlicensed temporary employment agency, Roadlink Workforce Solutions, that has repeatedly violated many state and federal laws, including paying some workers less than minimum wage. Workers also cite racial discrimination, unpaid wages and threats of retaliation for bringing these issues to management's attention.

The workers have complained that Bissell Homecare, via their management company and temporary employment provider, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, which governs minimum wage; the Day Labor And Temporary Services Act, a state law that regulates temporary employment agencies; the National Labor Relations Act, which governs workers' right to association and organization; and the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race.

The workers and the union say Bissell is to blame because it hired the two firms in the first place.

Bissell says none of its employees work in the warehouse. In a press release Bissell claimed it "is concerned about any allegations of improper labor practices and we have advised Maersk that Bissell expects full compliance with all appropriate legal and safety standards in the workplace." Bissell said the company is going to end its contract with Roadlink, "which is apparently at the root of the dispute that has arisen here."

Abe Mwaura, project coordinator for a workers rights group called Warehouse Workers for Justice, said the workers came to his group for help.

After the workers decided to form a union many of them received threats, he said. The day after the workers told management to recognize their union, two of the leaders were immediately fired, said Mwaura. About half of the others were later let go, he said.

Mwaura said that by the end of the month a total of 65 workers will be left without a job, after they train their replacements. As of Nov. 12, 20 of them had been let go, he said.

"It's very clear to us and the workers this was an act of retaliation for blowing the whistle on the many violations of the law," said Mwaura. "We feel very strongly all sorts of discrimination issues were going on here," he said.

Mwaura said the workers were in the process of filing for a union election and that 80 percent of the expected and fired workers were in support of forming one with UE.

"We feel that Bissell needs to beheld accountable because it's their vacuum cleaners that these workers are producing," he said. "They are joint employers and they along with the other two agencies are jointly at fault."

Bissell hired these firms, it owns the warehouse and it is jointly at fault for allowing these abuses to go on in its supply chain, said Mwaura.

"We want them to follow the law and put these people back to work. These are workers who built the wealth of this multinational company," he said. For them to take no responsibility is unacceptable, said Mwaura. Labor laws were violated, workers were fired with no warning and none of this is legal, he said.

As the holiday season approaches, Marble said she worries about her children at home.

She said she could understand that Bissell thought things were fine at the warehouse. But now that they know what's really going on, they need to be held responsible and take positive steps to correct the problem.

"Their families are not better than ours. We just want to be able to work, make decent wages and provide for our families," she said. "We want the same things they want. We're not beneath them."

Marble hopes Bissell will pressure Maersk to abide by the law and reinstate her and her co-workers.

"We just want to go back to work and be treated with respect without being harassed," said Marble. "That's all we're looking for - some justice."

Photo: Cindy Marble stands in front of the warehouse as a truck arrives to pick up vacuum cleaners. (

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Illinois graduate employees move towards strike

By Damien Mathew

CHAMPAIGN - The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been engaged in a hard fought struggle to establish adequate compensation for its members. GEO, local 6300 of the Illinois Federation of Teachers/AFT, represents nearly 2,700 teaching and graduate Assistants at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Members of GEO teach nearly a quarter of the total course load at the University and nearly half of the lower-level undergraduate courses are solely directed by graduate TAs. Yet, many graduate employees are compensated below a level that even the University considers a "living wage." The union has been in contract negotiations with the administration since April, and its members have been working without a contract since August 15th.

Demands for adequate compensation by the union have been thwarted by an administration clearly unwilling to acknowledge and compensate employees who are vital to the University's mission. In light of these frustrations, the GEO membership has voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. The vote began on the evening of November 4th following a standing-room-only general membership meeting that overflowed the hall. The results of the vote were announced on the 9th, with 92% of membership voting in favor of the strike authorization. Numerous letters of support and statements of solidarity have been issued from various academic units within the University as well as from campus organizations. GEO public relations officer Peter Campbell called the results "a clear mandate to call a strike at any time." Indicating the GEO's desire to come to a reasonable settlement in contract negotiations, Campbell noted, "We've sent a letter asking the administration to meet this week. We are interested in resolving this through negotiation."

At the general membership meeting, GEO members resoundingly rejected the administration's recent proposal of a $600/ year raise for the lowest paid employees that would be realized over three years. The administration's proposal also included language that would allow the furlough of graduate employees. An earlier version of the administration's proposal had even called for "pay in kind", where housing and meal vouchers would be used as compensation rather than salaries. Such pay in kind harkens to the practice of employers issuing "company scrip" to workers, which could only be used to purchase products from the company-owned stores. GEO has proposed language that would protect the past practice of tuition waivers for graduate employees, however the administration did not include any such language in their proposal. Tuition waivers are more than simply a benefit to graduate employees. They make advanced education accessible to students who would otherwise lack the means to afford such opportunities.

The U of I administration has a history of corruption, the revelation of which has led to the recent resignations of both its president as well as the chancellor of the university system. Mysterious "discretionary funds" have been tapped for scholarships to well-connected yet mediocre students as well as for salaries for well-connected newly hired employees. Yet, at the bargaining table the administration claims that no money is available to raise the salaries of the lowest paid graduate employees to a living wage. The minimum salary for a TA or GA is $13,430, yet the U of I Office of Student Financial Aid lists a figure just over $16,000 as the minimum annual cost of living for a graduate student. "The administration is taking advantage of the economic crisis to argue that they don't have the money to provide grad employees with a living wage, and they'd be happy to use that argument for all of their lower-paid workers, but it really doesn't hold water," said Campbell. Campbell cited the latest projections for the U of I budget which is slated to increase by 1.1% from the previous year. In fact, for the 2009 fiscal year, revenues from tuition increased by 14.5%. Even in light of the recession, private donations to the university increased 2.6% and income from the university's endowment increased by 5% from the previous fiscal year. The GEO's demands for a living wage would constitute only a fraction of one percent of the total budget.

Arab American Action Network Defends Arabs and Muslims from Illinois GOP Attacks

Issued by AAAN:

The Arab American Action Network (AAAN) denounces a recent Illinois Republican Party press release attacking the Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) for its longtime partnership with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). As a member of ICIRR, which works with multiethnic communities against hate and discrimination, the AAAN is deeply troubled by the baseless accusations the Illinois GOP has leveled against a fellow coalition member.

Since 2004, CAIR has been widely respected for its civil rights work by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Unlike what the Illinois GOP alleges, CAIR has time and time again condemned all forms of discrimination and violence, regardless of the perpetrator. And unlike what this smear campaign implies, Arab and Muslim organizations have worked closely with U.S. elected officials, law enforcement, and other organizations to promote peace, justice, and mutual understanding. Illinois Republicans want people to believe that CAIR was alone in rallying against the Israeli massacre of over a thousand innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza earlier this year, but the reality is that there was widespread condemnation across the globe for Israel's actions; for the Illinois GOP to stifle freedom of speech and legitimate dissent with accusations of anti-Semitism is unconscionable.

The AAAN joins its friends and colleagues at ICIRR and CAIR, calling upon the Illinois Republican Party to concern itself with real issues, especially comprehensive immigration reform, and stop engaging in misinformed and hateful attacks.

Contact Hatem Abudayyeh at 773-436-6060 for more information.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

NAACP Calls for a citizen's police review board

From the Illinois NAACP:

PRESS CONTACTS: Ms. Norma Joseph, President, Rockford NAACP, 815-670-9631

Attorney Don Jackson, President, Illinois State Conference NAACP 309-637-1010637-101009) 637-1010

Rockford, IL - In response to the fatal shooting of Mark Barmore at a church daycare center by Rockford Police on August 24, 2009, Rockford Branch NAACP calls on the Rockford City Council to establish a Citizen’s Police Review Board with subpoena power and the authority to recommend sanctions of an officer for misconduct.

“We want independent credible investigations into use force incidents and accountability for law enforcement officers’ actions,” explains Norma Joseph, President Rockford Branch NAACP.

Hundreds of supporters joined NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous Oct. 3, at Kingdom Authority Church, the site where unarmed Mark Barmore was killed in a shooting by Rockford police officers two months ago. The shooting took place in a church daycare, in full view of children at the center.

“The City of Rockford should also pay for grief counseling to be provided to the preschool children who witnessed the shooting, many of whom are exhibiting signs of post traumatic stress disorder,” Joseph says.

Those gathered for the rally also demanded justice for Barmore and legislation to create Federal use-of-force standards.

“The NAACP’s Washington Bureau has asked the US Department of Justice to launch a full criminal and “pattern and practice” investigation into the Rockford police force which has experienced a rash of police shootings in the past 10 years,” says Attorney Don Jackson, President, Illinois State Conference NAACP.

“In 2007 police used force in three incidents per day, and, in 2008 police used force in 2.6 incidents per day, and, in this same two year period police tasered someone in Rockford every single day. There have been 21 incidents that involve Rockford police officers using deadly force since 1992, nine were fatal,” Joseph says.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

SK Workers Vote to End Strike and Sign Contract

From Teamsters Local 743:

Teamster members voted by a 3 to 1 margin to accept the Company’s contract proposal, which includes health insurance, and return to work.

Teamsters Local 743 union members working at SK Hand Tools had been on strike for over nine weeks due to the company’s unilateral withdrawal of the workers’ health insurance without notice.

“Because we are Teamsters and willing to fight, we’re now the only employees at SK with health insurance. This is something that all Americans should have,” stated Emilio Lunar, SK steward and strike leader.

Non-union workers at SK continue to work without health insurance.

“These brave sisters and brothers stood together on the picket line 24 hours a day and became the voice of workers in the national health care debate. Political pressure from the Governor, several U.S. Congressmen, and US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, along with the informational leafleting at Sears stores, showed SK that the Union was serious in its demands,” stated Local 743 President Richard Berg.

The strike at SK made national news as mechanics and tool dealers from around the country called the company to demand that they bargain fairly with the Union.

Local 743 President Richard Berg will be available for comments and interviews.

SK Hand Tool has been making high quality metal tools in Chicago for 88 years. SK workers have been in contract negotiations for nine months. The company has been in the Teamsters union since 1968. SK Hand Tool currently employs about 70 workers.

Teamsters Local 743 represents 11,000 workers throughout the Chicagoland area working in manufacturing, health care, clerical, food service, warehouse and maintenance industries.