Fred Wright: Labor Laffs for the Working Class

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” ― Erma Bombeck

Labor cartoonist Fred Wright was a radical artist who walked that thin line in a way that would impress any circus tightrope walker. The son of working class parents, Fred Wright knew the world of class warfare up-close and personal when he first began cartooning for the National Maritime Union (NMU) in 1939. He became staff cartoonist for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) in 1949, a job he held until the early 1980’s.

Layoffs, industrial accidents, harassment of all types, discrimination, poverty wages, union-busting, exposure to mean bosses and other human tragedies were the basis for his humor.

Poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once said,”The man who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.” Fred Wright was used to hearing terrible news. It was all around him. And like Brecht, Wright understood how tragedy can be the basis of humor; humor that can help people laugh in the face of adversity and then if possible, organize and try to prevent the same tragedies from happening again.


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July 29, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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Chicagoans prepare to take back their city: 
A view from the West Side

“Imagine what a community would look like that you and your children deserve and what are you willing to do to bring that to fruition.”—–Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) activist Tara Stamps

 Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) activist and West Side resident Tara Stamps repeated variations of that phrase   in a packed community July 17th meeting held at LaFollette Park in the 37th Ward  within the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s far West Side. Each time she said it, she spoke slowly and distinctly to catch people’s attention. 

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side ChicagoWest Siders and allies gather in the LaFollette Park fieldhouse on Chicago’s West Side

With the expected announcement that CTU President Karen Lewis will run for Mayor against Rahm Emanuel, along with plans by the CTU and groups like the newly formed United Working Families to conduct massive voter registration and coordinate efforts by progressive aldermanic campaigns, meetings like this one at LaFollette Park take on a more urgent significance. There have been a number of similar meetings across the city in recent weeks.

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July 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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Brown v. Board Of Education at 60: When will we achieve compliance?

The night the 1954 Brown decision to desegregate schools was announced, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund threw a party. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who had worked on the case was reported to have said this, ‘You fools go ahead and have your fun, but we ain’t begun to work yet.”

In 1952 my kindergarten class at Pleasant View Elementary School was located in a wooded area of suburban Wheaton MD, a working class community just outside of Washington DC. It was a child’s garden of earthly delights.

Each day brought new wonders: new songs, new stories, new indoor projects, big kids showing off green snakes from the forest and visits to the school hatchery where I watched baby chicks emerge from eggs. I loved climbing to the summit of the jungle gym where I thought it might be warmer because it was closer to the sun. I was wrong, but the view was worth it. 

Kindergarten at Pleasant View was the best educational experience of my 12 years in the Montgomery County school system. What I didn’t know at the age of 5 was that not far away, there were schools that didn’t look like Pleasant View at all. 

A local civil rights leader named Romeo Horad spoke to the Montgomery County government about these segregated African American schools saying conditions were “deplorable”:

He told the Commissioners ‘not one Negro school in the county compares favorably with any white school’. He charged [that] the county government ‘disregarded’ conditions at Negro schools which he said include no running water, outdoor privy toilets, schools located far from Negro population centers, some near railroad tracks. All Negro schools, he said were overcrowded.”—- from a 1948 Washington Post article

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July 17, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Discrimination, Society & Economy, U.S. Politics 


Community groups charge possible conflict of interest in Chicago school turnarounds

“We have asked the Inspectors General for CPS and the US Department of Education to examine the last votes to turn over 3 schools to AUSL for turnaround to determine if there were any conflicts of interest among board members and AUSL; to analyze the relationship–if any– between political contributions to Mayor Emanuel from AUSL board members and the significant increase in the number of Chicago Public Schools turned over to AUSL on a no bid basis…”— Valerie Leonard of the Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education (CCUPPE)

In the wake of the latest Chicago school “turnarounds”, a broad alliance of community groups called Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education(CCUPPE) has come together to call for a moratorium on future school actions (the Chicago term for privatization efforts) and to reverse the decision to turn over Gresham, Dvorak and McNair to the private Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL). All three schools have predominately African American students living in low income neighborhoods.”

 May 27 press conference on school turnarounds
Cathaline Gray Carter (left) and Valerie Leonard (right)

Despite widespread community opposition all three of these schools were handed over to AUSL at an April 23, 2014 Board of Education meeting. At a May 27, 2014 press conference, Valerie Leonard of CCUPPE charged that since,”…  two of the five board members present and voting during the April meeting have apparent conflicts of interest stemming from relationships with AUSL, that the vote should be nullified.”

Cathaline Gray Carter, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) retiree and member of the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (CORE) discussed the current investigation by the Inspector General of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) into the CCUPPE allegations. It is the job of the Inspector General’s office to investigate “waste, fraud and financial mismanagement” within CPS. The Inspector General’s Office has 60 days to come up with a report. CCUPPE confirms that the investigation has begun. 

The Inspector General’s Office of the Department of Education (DOE) will not comment on the complaint brought to them by CCUPPE, citing issues of investigative integrity. The agency said it will post results of any investigation on their website when the work is completed.

CCUPPE provided evidence about these apparent conflicts of interest. For example David Vitale, who voted for the turnarounds, was Chairman of the Board of AUSL before assuming his current role as president of the Chicago Board of Education.

Then there is Board member Carlos Azcoitia, an employee of National Louis University which trains AUSL personnel. Azcoita voted for the turnarounds then adroitly abstained when the issue of AUSL administering them came up, presumably to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Of course he knew damned well that AUSL is only vendor in the process.

In addition Valerie Leonard has noted that Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley is the former managing director of AUSL. AUSL officials and their spouses have made $63,000 in campaign contributions to Rahm Emanuel from 2010 to 2014 in what some community activists charge is just another Chicago-style “pay to play” scheme.

How a school turnaround impacts a community

In a school “turnaround”, or “reconstitution’” everyone is fired including the administration, faculty and support staff. People can apply to be hired back at the newly “reconstituted” school, but  AUSL prefers younger inexperienced teachers, many of whom leave the system within a year or two. This constant turnover is disruptive to the educational process. 

The turnarounds have contributed to the sharp reduction of African American teachers and have been heavily criticized for destroying decades long relationships between schools and their surrounding communities.

CPS provides 5 years of extra support for AUSL and charter schools and only one year of “support” for welcoming schools after causing major upheavals through massive closures. Welcoming schools were supposed to receive students from the closed schools

AUSL has been able to raise test scores in some schools but its overall record is mediocre, which even the Chicago Tribune has noted. In 2012 the respected educational research group Designs for Change published a report which showed how schools  with a democratic culture of collaboration among the administration, the Local School Council and the unionized teachers far outperformed the topdown disruptive methods  of AUSL. This even though AUSL schools receive lavish financial assistance from CPS while the schools they replaced had to scramble for the most basic resources.

CCUPPE has specific  recommendations for  the Chicago Public Schools and City leadership 

CCUPPE spokesperson Dwayne Truss announced the following recommendations:

  1. Reverse the vote to reconstitute (turnaround) Gresham, Dvorak and McNair schools.
  2. Review the Board’s ethics policies to prevent a swinging door arrangement between CPS and CPS vendors.
  3. Abolish the reconstitution of schools as being expensive, disruptive and ineffective.
  4. Develop a transparent and fair process to allow addition school improvement vendors to bid, especially given the “inside track” appearance of AUSL Other bidders should include Strategic Learning Initiatives – which has a track record of success empowering current stakeholders. CPS needs to support school improvement that is led internally by the schools and communities in question, whether or not an external vendor assists them.
  5. Host public hearings by elected officials to investigate the CPS process for evaluating AUSL.
  6. Do a thoughtful fiscal and performance analysis of AUSL.
  7. Institute an immediate moratorium on all school actions, including closures and turnarounds until each school hears from all interested vendors and/or school submitted alternative plans. A Requests for Bids presentation session should be put in place for vendors and school committees to present their bids or alternative plans to a delegation made up of Board of Education representation, the Local School Council and school community members at large. The delegation would need to come to a consensus as to which option(s) to pursue for school improvement.
  8. Commit to community-teacher driven school improvement. Ultimately, we need an elected representative school board that is accountable to the citizens of Chicago.
May 27 press conference on school turnarounds
Vernita Farmer (left) and Dwayne Truss (right)

The resistance to school privatization continues

CPS is well aware that they have not crushed the resistance to school privatization by closing schools and favoring turnarounds or charters. Vernita Farmer, a community partner in Chicago’s 24th ward, spoke about the current situation at Gresham, one of the turnaround schools.

Farmer said that after a parent-community sit-in to protest the school action, the school’s locks were changed, Principal Diedrus Brown is no longer is allowed a set of keys and she must be out of the building by 6 PM. Farmer noted the increased security and the visible drop in student morale which she believes could impact their test results.

It is clear that the measures have nothing to do with actual security, but to prevent further community efforts to reverse the turnaround.

At a May 17th commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, speakers called school closures the new “separate and unequal” and announced the release of a new research report “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage”.


Celebrating the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education
Jitu Brown announces release of the “Death by a Thousand Cuts”

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Chicago’s Bad Ass Moms (BAM) held the Neighborhood School Picnic to remember the 50 Chicago schools closed in 2013. The moms erected signs representing gravestones with the names of the schools and information about them, often with heartfelt quotes from students, parents and teachers.

Chicago neighborhood schools picnic: May 2014
A child stands in the symbolic graveyard of Chicago closed schools

With an election coming up, Rahm Emanuel’s poll numbers are at an all-time low and his school closings and turnarounds are part of the reason. Several aldermanic candidates are making his school actions a major issue.

The recommendations by CCUPPE will require a major change in the city’s corporate dominated political economy, yet education justice activists seem undaunted by the immensity of the task before them.

“The current Board of Education is appointed by the Mayor and operates under the cloak of darkness with impunity. They have abdicated their fiduciary responsibilities of loyalty and care. They serve as rubber stamps to privatize local schools to the benefit of organizations that are aligned with the Mayor, even if it means paying a premium for services whose effectiveness has been called into question. We need to end this culture…”—Valerie Leonard of CCUPPE

Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson is a retired high school teacher and a member of Action Now.

Sources consulted

Notes from the May 27 Chicago Citizens United to Preserve Public Education CCUPPE press conference. A press kit is available here.

Notes from the Neighborhood Schools Picnic: Photos available here and here

AUSL turnarounds called ineffective, expensive by Curtis Black

Education Groups Demand Investigation Into Chicago Board Of Ed’s Ties To AUSL by Ellyn Fortino

Chicago’s Democratically-Led  Elementary Schools Far Out-Perform 

Chicago’s “Turnaround Schools” by Designs for Change

School reform organization gets average grades by Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah

May 28, 2014 by · Comments Off
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Fight for $15 in Chicago: Revolt in a Global City

“I am here to remind America that it is a crime to live in this great nation and to receive starvation wages. At McDonalds $8.25 an hour, what I make is about $400 every two weeks. With that salary I have to choose between rent and food. Rent and light…but this isn’t just about me This about my grandkids and my great grandkids. If McDonalds has its way, my great grandkids will make $8.25 in the year 2050”—- McDonalds worker Doug Hunter

It was a chilly drizzly, 5:30 am in Chicago as a handful of WOCC (Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago) activists loaded batteries into bullhorns, sorted out picket signs and made sure the now familiar Fight for $15 red plastic rain ponchos were ready. WOCC is the organization for the Fight for $15 movement in Chicago. They were preparing for the planned 6 am rally at the Rock and Roll McDonalds, the city’s flagship store.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 16 2014


It was May 15, 2014, the day of a global strike and protest against the McDonalds Corporation for its selectively applied exploitative labor policies. In countries with strong unions and a high level of working class solidarity, a job at McDonalds means reasonably decent wages and benefits. But not everywhere. And definitely not here in the USA.


WOCC members are acutely aware of this which is why they say “Fight for $15 AND a union.” Victories won can be taken back again without strong worker organization and constant vigilance.

Soon, a sizable number of people were  gathering within the small plaza in front of the Rock and Roll McDonalds. Located in the trendy Near North tourist area close to the Hard Rock Cafe, it is an unusually large and architecturally unique McDonalds.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Although named after a music born of youthful rebellion, it is run as a tight fisted dictatorship. One Rock and Roll McDonald’s worker said they treat the employees there like “animals.”

At first McDonalds security feigned friendliness and told people they could stay in the small plaza as long as they did not carry signs. Those could only be carried on the public sidewalk in front of the store.

But when a smiling mariachi band tried to play for the growing crowd carrying nothing but their instruments, McDonald’s security pushed them and everyone else on to the now crowded public sidewalk. Fortunately the overhang over the plaza extended to that narrow public space, giving the strikers, their allies and the media partial protection from a now wind-blown cold heavy rain. Spirits remained high as workers sang and chanted.

 Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Forcing the media to cover themselves and their equipment against the elements was probably not the best way for McDonalds Corporation to get sympathetic coverage. Neither was the disingenuous official statement from their Oak Brook Illinois HQ:

“…The events taking place are not strikes. Outside groups have traveled to McDonald’s and other outlets to stage rallies.”

Calling their own striking workers part of an “outside group” was both disrespectful and untruthful. But the bad weather and the now unsmiling McDonalds security did not deter  McDonald’s workers like Adriana Alvarez from speaking out at the early morning press conference:

“We’re here to show to show McDonald’s and everyone else that we are not going to put up with it anymore. This is global. Not just in the United States. Not just in Chicago. Everywhere. 100+ cities and 30 countries. We’re ready. I’m here because I have a 2 year old son. I want to give the world to my son but I can’t on today’s minimum wage so I need a living wage of $15 an hour.”

Chicago: A tale of two global cities

“I am proud to see A.T. Kearney has recognized the City of Chicago has a top global city of today and tomorrow….With our access to international transportation, central location between the coasts and pool of skilled workforce talent, businesses across the world realize all of the extensive opportunities Chicago has to offer as the city continues to shape the direction of the world in the coming years.” —Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago is often called a global city and as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is fond of saying, a “world class” one at that. Rahm’s vision of Chicago as a global city is a greatly enhanced version of a downtown that already exists—- only with more glittering office towers and luxury condos. Where even more expensive cars cruise streets bordered by ornamental shrubs and colorful flowers. Where still more smartly dressed affluent mostly white people peruse the fancy shops lining the Magnificent Mile and its side streets. Where armies of business leaders and well-heeled tourists from across the planet will come to marvel at this Emerald City on the Lake.

You can read about this vision in A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs a report commissioned by Mayor Emanuel himself. Buried deep within its 58 pages is this astonishingly frank  statement:

”While the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs will contribute to increased opportunity for individuals and more investment for communities, it is not a plan for poverty elimination and community development.”

No kidding, Mr Mayor. Eliminating poverty is not on your agenda. Neither is fair-minded community development. But what else could we expect from a “leader” whose actual constituency  consists of high rolling hedge fund gamblers, gentrifying real estate speculators, shady mortgage lenders and predatory multinational corporations like McDonalds who ply their money-making trades with a coldblooded  intensity that even Ebenezer Scrooge couldn’t match. Poverty wages are just too damned profitable. The skyrocketing wealth inequality which the McDonalds Corporation and the rest of the Chicago elite favors is dependent upon the  continued existence of poverty. 

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

The MacDonalds workers who went on strike May 15 have a different vision for the global city that Chicago could become, one that is widely shared by other low wage workers. While aimed specifically at McDonalds, the strike also send a message to other large corporations as well as government. It’s time for poverty wages to be raised to a living wage. The demand for a living wage is literally a fight for life. Poverty can kill, sometimes swiftly with a hail of bullets in the shadows of lonely street; sometimes slowly as stress and constant worry wears down an immune system, inviting multiple health problems that overwhelm the body and the city’s inadequate public health system.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Chicago’s chronic and terrifying street violence is largely confined to the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods where unemployment, low wages and racism combine into a perfect storm of social distress. Raise wages. Cut the violence.

Are you listening Ronald McDonald?

Poverty can wound the mind as well, which is why the Chicago Teachers Union teamed with WOCC to help produce a report called “Fight for the Future: How low wages are failing children in Chicago’s schools”. From the report:

“Students living in or experiencing childhood poverty are much more likely to face significant unaddressed obstacles to classroom learning than their middle- and upper-income counterparts, and this impacts educational outcomes. In fact, data shows that family income is now the most significant predictor of academic success among students in the U.S.”

Are you listening, Ronald McDonald?

A living wage and the ability to organize a union without fear, as well fair minded investment in distressed communities would go along ways toward eliminating the poverty that is the root cause of so many human tragedies in Chicago.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

Referring to a recent partial victory for the $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, Jamie, a McDonalds worker from Rockford said:”

We’re coming together with our coworkers, and we’re fighting for the right to join a union and $15 an hour…If they can get it in Seattle, we can get it in Chicago.”

The workers of Fight for $15 want not only better wages and benefits, but work schedules which are arrived at through honest negotiation, schedules that would enable them to have more time with their families; more time for relaxation; more time for personal goals and interests; more time to improve their neighborhoods; more time to live a rich and fulfilling live.

They want a global  city of safe neighborhoods, good schools, clean well maintained parks, decent housing, affordable health care, access to nutritious food and all of the social amenities that come with a living wage enforced by a union contract.

They know such things are possible because they see people in more affluent communities having them at their fingertips.

Their vision of a global city comes with a global working class consciousness, an understanding of the power that working class people have if they unite across racial, regional and national boundaries.

You could see the fierce pride in the eyes of McDonalds worker Jessica Davis as she said:

”Just months ago we were just a few workers in a couple of cities. They thought we were crazy. Now we’re global. We’re 100+ cities and 30 countries. We are showing McDonalds that we are a force and they can’t ignore us any more”

This is not the globalization that Rahm and his wealthy friends have in mind.

Fight for $15: This is what solidarity looks like!

All day long individuals and groups came to show their support. With rain still falling in the morning, Action Now! a community organization with branches on the West and South Sides came clad in their characteristic blue t-shirts. They brought an enormous blue fist, their bullhorns and their chants as they joined Fight for $15 and marched around the block where Rock and Roll McDonalds is located.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

There were people from the United Auto Workers, Chicago Teachers Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, International Association of Machinists, Service Employees International Union, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Brighton Park Neighbors and Albany Park Neighbors.

Representing one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, the Albany Park contingent proudly marched up Clark Street with the flags of nations that were participating in the global strike action. The flags also represented the many nationalities who live in that North Side neighborhood.

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014

There were the usual friendly waves from passerby, the raised fists and the horn honking. Tourists snapped pictures from their tour buses and from the sidewalk. I decided to take a break around midday from note taking and photography and held up a Fight for $15 sign on the corner. A pair of tourists asked to borrow my sign so one could hold it up while the other snapped a picture for their Facebook friends.

By the time the protest ended at 6 PM, several hundred people had participated. It was a long day, but spirits were even higher when the rally closed and the group briefly occupied the Rock and Roll McDonalds plaza in a final act of defiance.

No one underestimates the difficulties that lie ahead within the corrupted political economy of Chicago, where the vast fortunes controlled by global corporations  compete with the cry of the people demanding a better life.

Chicago needs more working class people in union meetings, in the streets, and on the picket lines. We also need more  volunteers in insurgent electoral campaigns. Independent-minded  elected leaders such as Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Washington and Marc Elrich in Montgomery County, Maryland have been instrumental in the fight toward gaining a living wage.

We need to exercise both economic and political power.

Jorge Mujica, an independent socialist candidate for city council who was on the picket line with the McDonalds strikers throughout the day, sums it up pretty well:

“We live in a working class city. It is our labor, our skills, our ingenuity, and our pride that built this city and that keep it running every day. Yet most of us are overworked and underpaid. We face a real crisis–not one of resources or possibilities, but of priorities. Until we create our own political voice, working people will remain locked out of political power.”

Whose global city? Our global city!

Fight for $15 in Chicago: May 15 2014



Bob “Bobbosphere ” Simpson is retired teacher and a member of Action Now!

Sources Consulted

Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, a tale of two cities by Kevin Coval

Fast-food workers put their issues on the table by Elizabeth Schulte

Chicago’s world-class city complex by Jake Malooley

A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs by the World Business Chicago (Chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Chicago Named Top Global City in A.T. Kearney Index by the World Business Chicago (Chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel

May 21, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Global Economy & Politics, U.S. Politics, Unions, Workplace 


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