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Women against NATO

One feature of anti-NATO activities planned here is the presence of several women leaders who have notable records of directly confronting war-makers, of “speaking truth to power,” sometimes at significant personal risk.

In addition to their own stories, they offer valuable perspectives on the crucial issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan.  That’s also the subject of a Shadow Summit for Afghan Women’s Rights being held by Amnesty International at the Swissotel, 325 E. Wacker, on Sunday, May 20, the opening day of the NATO summit – where, Amnesty notes, Afghan women won’t be represented, though their interests will be seriously impacted.

Kathy Kelly, Malalai Joya, and Medea Benjamin are each speaking at the People’s Summit, Saturday and Sunday, May 12 and 13, at 500 W. Cermak (schedule here) and at the No to NATO rally Sunday, May 20 at noon in Grant Park.

Kathy Kelly

Born and raised on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Kathy Kelly became an anti-war activist through the Uptown Catholic Worker House in the late 1970s.  She’s been arrested in peace actions over 60 times and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, once by Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire.  She co-founded Voices in the Wilderness in 1995, which sent medical supplies to Iraq in defiance of the U.S. embargo.

With VITW and its successor, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, founded in 2005, Kelly has travelled countless times to war zones; she was in Baghdad for the U.S. invasion in 2003, Lebanon during the 2006 invasion, and Gaza during the Israeli attack in 2008; she and her colleagues have visited Iraq and Afghanistan extensively.

“We try to live in poor neighborhoods, alongside people who can’t escape the war zones, and listen to ordinary people whose voices are never heard,” she said.  She frequently reports on the experiences and views of the people she lives among.  She talks about the 250 Afghan children dying of starvation every day, while the U.S. spends $2 billion a week on the war.

“She’s an inspirational leader,” said Rev. Bob Bossie, who co-founded VITW and is now retired. “She’s radically committed to nonviolence.”  VCVN “is known across the country as an organization that’s not sitting on its heels, that’s taking risks in a nonviolent way to say we won’t be compliant, we will speak out again and again and stand with the people who are being oppressed,” he said.

The group “challenges us all to see what we more can do – what next step can I take,” he said.  “We can’t all go to war zones, but we can all do more.”

The announcement that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan is “very misleading,” Kellly said.  “It’s simply not true.  The Joint Special Operations forces, the most intimidating and fearsome warriors on the planet, will remain till 2024 and beyond.

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Peacemaking: From West Bank to West Side

When he was on the West Bank with a Christian Peacemaker Team in 2005, Chicago organizer Elce Redmond realized the problems people faced there were similar to those faced by people back home – and solutions might be similar too.

Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition, will give the opening keynote for CPT’s 25th anniversary Peacemaker Congress, Thursday, October 13 at 8 p.m. at Evanston Reba Place Church, 533 Custer.  The congress runs through Sunday the 16th.

In 2005, Redmond’s team was providing “peaceful accompaniment” for Palestinian schoolchildren who faced bullying and attacks by adults (“they were mostly from New York,” he says) living in Israeli settlements there.  “I was struck that the same situation happens on the West Side of Chicago, kids trying to get home from school and facing gangs and violence.”

Back home, Redmond began organizing the Austin Peaceforce, with parents and community volunteers trained in nonviolent strategies who are deployed to defuse conflicts and prevent violence.  Today they have a regular presence in Austin schools, including parent patrols after school.

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Wangari Maathai on the West Side

The Center for Neighborhood Technology recalls a 2007 visit to a Chicago school by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who died Monday in Nairobi at the age of 71.

Maathai graced the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park to attend the dedication of a natural garden that was named for her, one of CNT’s first green infrastructure projects.  The 1,500 square-foot native woodland garden at the school’s entrance  is “not only beautiful; it also connected the students to nature by providing a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation, and maintenance,” CNT writes.

“At the garden dedication, Ms. Maathai drew a connection between the work of the students on Chicago’s West Side to students around the world who ‘get down on the ground’ to plant gardens as a means of making the world more peaceful and just.

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Facing death penalty, garment worker addresses Wal-Mart

A labor organizer from Bangladesh who spoke in Chicago earlier this year – and who faces charges carrying the death penalty for her efforts to improve garment workers’ conditions – will speak to Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting today in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Kalpona Akter will speak on behalf of New York City pension funds, which have introduced a resolution calling on Wal-Mart to report annually on working conditions in their factories.  Wal-Mart is opposing the resolution, according to the New York Times.

Following massive and turbulent demonstrations last year by Bengladeshi garment workers protesting a minimum wage hike (to $43 a month) which they consider inadequate, Akter and two colleagues from the Begladesh Center for Wroker Solidarity were charged with inciting violence.

They had conducted “courtyard meetings” on workers rights for employees of several factories.  Supporters say they were not present during the incidents of vandalism which underlie the charges.  During one incident, Akter was meeting with the chair of the Parliament’s labor committee, they say.

Two major factory groups which supply Wal-Mart and other U.S. corporations – including the Nassa Group, Wal-Mart’s single largest supplier — filed charges against the organizers.  Other charges filed by the government include violation of the Explosives Substances Act, which carries a possible death penalty.

Sweat Free Communities, a project of the International Labor Rights Forum, has been demanding that the charges be dropped.  Last year 18 members of Congress, including Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) called on the CEOs of Wal-Mart and other corporations to suspend business with  Nassa and the Envoy Group until charges are dropped.  Amnesty Internation, Human Rights Watch, and the AFL-CIO have also expressed concern.

In March, Akter spoke in Chicago with a Wal-Mart associate from Maryland and a local warehouse worker.  As Newstips reported, the American workers said they were shocked to learn of conditions in Bangladesh.

Akter began working in garment factories at the age of 12, earning $10 a month, and working shifts of 14 hours or more.

A Triangle Fire every year

Kari Lydersen reports at Working In These Times on the Wal-Mart Workers Truth Tour featuring workers from the U.S. and Bangladesh, which was previewed here.

Robert Hodge, a leader of Warehouse Workers for Justice, described a class action lawsuit for wage theft at a huge Wal-Mart warehouse outside Joliet, and Cynthia Murray of Laurel, Maryland, talked about being unable to afford health care after 11 years as a Wal-Mart associate there.

Both said they were shocked to learn of conditions in Bangladesh, where garment workers recently won a minimum wage increase to $43 a month.  Labor rights activists call that a “malnutrition wage.”

It’s country where labor organizing its violently suppressed and working conditions result in hundreds of deaths in workplace explosions and fires every year, according to a report by SweatFree Communities.  Noting the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, Kalpona Akter said, “In Bangladesh, we have one or two Triangle Fires every year.”

At the height of the campaign for a minimum wage hike last year, Akter was arrested and charged with inciting worker unrest. Some charges she faces are punishable by the death penalty or by life imprisonment, she said.

Her arrest has been protested by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  Nineteen members of Congress, including Rep. Jan Schakowsky and then-Rep. Phil Hare,  called on Wal-Mart and five other companies doing business in Bangladesh to demand the charges be dropped.  Some charges have been filed by Bangladesh factory groups, including Nassa Group, Wal-Mart’s top supplier.

Progress Illinois has video of Akter, Hodge, and Murray.

Wal-Mart’s low wages – from Bangladesh to Joliet

What kind of jobs would Wal-Mart bring to Chicago?  A “Workers Truth Tour” will bring together garment workers from Bangladesh, a Walmart associate from Maryland, and a warehouse worker from Joliet to give a preview, based on jobs now existing in the world of Wal-Mart.

The event takes place Monday, March 28 at 4:30 p.m. at Roosevelt University, 18 S. Michigan.

The experiences of Monday’s speakers don’t paint a bright picture for prospective Wal-Mart employees.  They range from below-minimum wage pay at Wal-Mart’s biggest U.S. warehouse, located in Elwood near Joliet, to the false imprisonment and torture of one of Bangladesh’s leading workers rights crusaders.

“We want to show how the workers at every point of Wal-Mart’s supply line are making poverty wages, and how Wal-Mart continues to violate labor law around the world in order to increase their profits,” said Moises Zavala of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, which is sponsoring the event.

The speakers include Kalpona Akter, who helped found the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity after being fired and blacklisted for trying to organize a union at a sweatshop factory; she started working in garment factories at the age of 12, working 14-hour days for $6 a month.   She’s mobilizing the nation’s 3.5 million sweatshop workers, mostly young women, to win a 41-cents-an-hour minimum wage.

Last year Wal-Mart’s subcontractor filed a false criminal complaint against Akter, resulting in her being jailed for 30 days and tortured, according to UFCW.

Kalpona Akter will be joined by Aleya Akter, a sewing machine operator at a Bangladesh factory that supplies apparel to Wal-Mart; Aleya began working in a garment factory in 1994 at the age of 9.

Also speaking will by Cynthia Murray, a former steelworker who’s worked as an associate in a Wal-Mart store in Maryland since 2000, and Robert Hines, a leader of Warehouse Workers for Justice.

Hines is one of a group of warehouse workers that has charged the Reliable Staffing agency with paying below-minimum wages at a Wal-Mart’s warehouse in Elwood, Illinois.  Leading up to Christmas last year, he and others were working 12- to 15-hour days but were paid by the piece – according to how many shipping containers they unloaded – and their pay was below the legal minimum, according to WWJ.

After repeatedly requesting full compensation, he and his fellow workers were laid off in December.  In February they filed suit, charging that Reliable had failed to provide required payment records and that the company owes them thousands of dollars in back wages.  They’re represented by the Working Hands Legal Clinic.

Reliable is one of a number of staffing agencies providing workers for Wal-Mart’s Elwood warehouse, where shipping containers originating in China are unloaded and products are redirected to stores around the Midwest.   In December 2009 workers at the same warehouse hired through Select Remedies charged that agency was splitting paychecks in order to avoid paying overtime.  Their lawsuit is pending.

Steve Franklin on Egypt

Steve Franklin has lots of stories about the courage and spirt of the journalists, bloggers, and labor and human rights activists he’s worked with in Egypt, and he shares some of them in the current issue of American Prospect.

Franklin, a veteran journalist who heads the Ethnic News Media Project at Community Media Workshop, has been doing trainings in Egypt for several years.  He writes of bloggers exposing brutal police violence, striking workers facing government thugs, and journalists expanding the boundaries of free expression — long before the 18 days that brought down Hosni Mubarak last month.

Wisconsin meets Egypt, in Woodlawn

At a community forum here Sunday, a Wisconsin state senator asked a human rights activist in Egypt to thank the Cairo demonstrators who’ve carried signs of support for Wisconsin workers.

“If you find out who that was, we want to know, because we want to give them some love,” said State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee, speaking to Atef Said (who appeared via internet connection) at at panel discussion at the Experimental Station, 61st and Blackstone.

Taylor traced her commitment to her background as the daughter of two union members.  She criticized the uncompromising stance of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as autocratic:  “Walker thinks he’s a government of one, with the legislature acting as a rubber stamp for whatever he wants to do.”

She said Walker’s new budget eliminates reading specialists for schools in her district, which she said has the lowest reading levels in the state.

Said described media depictions of the Egyptian revolution as an 18-day revolt of youth and technology as a “misconception,” saying its roots went back 30 years.  He cited labor strikes going back to the 1990s, as well as protests supporting Palestinians and opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the past decade which challenged the Mubarek regime’s status as U.S. client.

The relevance to Chicago and its recent election was taken up by Salim Muwakkil of In These Times and WVON and Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative and New Chicago 2011.

Muwakkil said “African American leadership went to an old paradigm of racial solidarity” but “it’s not operational any more” in part because “class divisions [in the African American community] have been exacerbated,” particularly by “a rapidly growing underclass created by the criminal justice complex.”

Patel argued that “economic justice issues transcend race.”  She said the multiracial coalition of New Chicago 2011 realized mayoral candidates were going to make racial appeals but “the color that concerns everybody is green, the green of money.”

Media coverage of the election was “all about personalities, not about substance at all,” she said.  When the citywide coalition of community and labor organizations drew thousands to a candidates forum focused on community issues in December, mainstream print media made no mention of the event.  “The fact of 2,500 Chicagoans getting together is apparently not a big deal,” she said.

The forum was sponsored by ARC (which stands for A movement Re-imaging Chicago), which issued a document of “principles for a humane city.”  The principles included a commitment to public schools, environmental rights, a comprehensive fair housing standard, public clinics and hospitals, and community efforts to prevent violence.

Presenting the document for ARC, University of Chicago historian Adam Green stressed the importance of framing policies that address the central problem of massive, growing inequality in American society.

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