News, commentary and analysis by leaders of the Communist Party USA in New York State. We discuss State politics and issues in New York City, covering developments in labor, civil rights education, housing and more.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can't Stand the Heat in the Kitchen

You might not have fond memories of school lunches. I ate, but rarely cherished, lunches in school and during the summer at a Department of Recreation camp. As a kid I never thought about where the lunches came from or who cooked them. As I grew older and worked in several kitchens, I started to pay attention to the workers behind the meals.

The summer school free breakfast and lunch program is helping to turn out millions of essential meals for New York’s children. It is also cooking some of the workers who help to provide the meals.

Many of the New York City school kitchens do not have proper cooling systems and temperatures in the summer can soar to over 100 degrees. Many kitchens need upgraded air conditioning systems, some need more efficient stoves, others need new ventilation and exhaust systems. The Gotham Gazette reported in January 2006 that
“about 25 percent of school kitchens do not have a required hood system, which sucks hot air and grease into a vent and will drop a foam substance in the event of a fire.”
Without these safety systems in place, the schools must use convection ovens, which blow hot air to warm food, and make kitchens even more uncomfortable.

There is currently no federal or state legislation to protect kitchen workers from excessive heat in their workplaces. The New York State legislature has voted to pass such legislation for the last four years, each time vetoed by then governor Pataki. This year New York State Assembly Bill A02514A is waiting to be signed by current governor Elliott Spitzer. The governor has not stated whether he will sign the current legislation.

The bill is being opposed by Mayor Bloomberg claiming that it is “too expensive” to convert the cooling systems to regulate the temperatures in all school kitchens.

The bill’s author Assemblywoman Susan John's spokesman, Allan Richards was quoted in The Chief-Civil Service Leader newspaper saying,
"The cost is borne by the New York State Board of Education. The Legislature has appropriated $1.8 billion for school construction, so it's no longer a non-funded mandate."
Tony Ferina, a shop steward for Local 372 of District Council 37 AFSCME, which represents the kitchen workers, told the Chief,
"Whether or not you get in a school where there's air-conditioning is like hitting the lottery. A lot of the members are in their 50s. I think it's abuse."
It is ridiculous to make anyone work in excessive heat. Working in kitchens without proper ventilation should be criminal. People should not have to worry about passing out or vomiting from heat while on the job.

I have worked as a short order cook and with only one stove and one fryer it was always hot, even with a large exhaust fan. Without the exhaust fan I cannot imagine how unbearable it would have been.

Let’s hope Spitzer has more sense than his predecessor and signs this sensible bill into law.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

White Firefighters Stand Up Against Racism in Coram, NY

There are numerous examples in the media of racism and bigotry in our capitalist United States. Rarer are those examples of working-class solidarity across race lines. The later, of course, is a more accurate reflection of life today. Working people in small and anonymous ways stand up to discrimination and attempts to divide them racially everyday.

This fact contradicts the assumption many have that white workers are somehow more racist than white elites. That education and affluence are the keys to overcoming bigotry. Of course this myth goes hand-in-hand with the idea that racism is just an "opinion." In fact, the rich and the corporations fuel racism to divide workers and to increase profits, and to prop up the system as a whole. An individual white worker can certainly be bigoted, but institutional racism serves to undermine his wages, benefits and rights. That fact is learned by workers in struggle. It is the experience of the class struggle which is a key factor (enhanced, of course, by political education and training) in winning white workers to fight racism, both as an act of solidarity and an act of self-interest.

A dramatic example of fact occurred this week on Long Island recently in the town of Coram, NY. Coram, in Suffolk County, is a small city of 35,00 and is more than 75% white.

On May 19, a white fire district employee said to one of the few black firefighters in the town, "I don't like black people." When he heard about the incident, Fire Department Chief Ronald Curaba, who is white, confronted the official and literally got in his face condemning his comment and action.

In response, the Fire Commissioners voted to suspend the Chief , accusing him of assaulting the official. The official, who claims he was only joking was not punished.

But this wasn't a case of a lone hero. In response the the Chief's firing, the three assistant fire chiefs under him resigned in protest and said they wouldn't stand for racism. One of them was quoted in an article New York Newsday Friday.

"We don't tolerate racism," said Second Assistant Chief Robert Kinahan, one of the three who resigned. "This is a brotherhood. There's no room for that."

The Fire Commissioners seemed to disagree. Not only did they not punish the offender, they defended his comments at a hearing on the issue, also quoted in Newsday:

Commissioner Van Johnson insisted the remark was not racially charged.

"He said he didn't like black people. If I don't like Polish, Jewish, Catholics -- is that racist?" Johnson asked roomful of more than 50 volunteers gathered at the firehouse on Middle Country Road.

"Yeah, it is!" several volunteers shouted back.

"Isn't a man entitled to his opinion?" Johnson countered.

A voice across the room answered, "It's bigotry!"

While there is a stereotype of firefighters being racist, this incident tells a different tale. Of course, many fire departments are still heavily segregated and racist hazing of new Black and Latino recruit remains a practice in some places. But this story shows that when workers of different races stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the assembly line, at the negotiating table, on the picket line or in a burning building, racist ideas begin to break down. They learn the power of unity through the struggle and their class consciousness , their class identity emerges.

This is one of the reasons why desegregation is so important. When workers of different races work together, they begin to see where racism really comes from and who it serves. The heroic firefighters in Coram, NY are proof of that.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Make Your Voice Heard this Week for School Funding Priorities

The long winding battle for equitable school funding in New York has entered a new phase. Now that the State has been forced to pay up millions of dollars due to underfunded schools—mostly in New York City—the struggle begins for where and how the funds will be spent.

Last Friday, New York City Department of Education revealed their plan for the money, the Contracts for Excellence and Class Size Reduction. You can go to their web page, log in, and see how the new funds will effect your school and community.

The folks at Class Size Matters think the plan stinks, and held a press conference on the steps of City Hall saying so.

The plan is definitely weak. While we achieved a huge victory when in 2003 the New York Supreme Court ruled that unequal funding of school is unconstitutional, that was only the beginning of the battle. Now we have to make sure that Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have a concrete plan to use the money to reduce class size, allocate resources to the lowest-performing schools, and address long-standing deficiencies. I am not sure the "contract" approach can meet the task. It goes back to having schools competing to prove their worth, instead of spending the money where it is most needed in a way that will have the biggest effect on teaching and learning.

I think four-point plan developed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) and the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) is a good start:

Four-Point Plan
for Contracts for Excellence
  1. High need students first

  2. Make parents' voices count

  3. Accountability and transparency

  4. Follow the money to the schools

If you agree, you have to move quick to make your voice heard.

The public hearings on the allocations will only be held this week and written comments can be emailed until Saturday, July 14. You can also use the form email developed by AQE.

Check out the Campaign for Fiscal Equality for more information about the time and location of the hearings, the ongoing struggle for just funding and school funding generally.