Perspective on Mass Prisoner Resistance Movements

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There is a widespread, growing and committed resistance movement happening in US prisons across the nation. This movement is not going away, and with more outside support and national coordination, it could be powerful enough to reshape not only the US prison system, but the entire society.

At the time of this writing thirty prisoners at Ohio State Penitentiary, the supermax prison in Ohio are recovering from a hunger strike that has lasted over 30 days. Prisoners in Georgia, accused of leading the largest prison work stoppage in US historyin 2010 are on hunger strike demanding relief from torture conditions they’ve been subjected to in solitary confinement as reprisal for their non-violent protest. The Free Alabama Movement (FAM) has been dealing with threats, beatings and lockdowns they’ve been subjected to in reprisal forthe mass work stoppages that shut down three Alabama facilities for weeks in January of 2014.

Massive hunger strikes that rocked California’s prison system in recent years are now getting slow results in favorable court decisions for their class action lawsuit. Prisoners in Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Washington Statehave all engaged in historically large protests in recent years. In February, thousands of immigrant prisoners in a federal detention facility in Texas refused to work, and protested and sabotaged the facility, rendering it uninhabitable. At around the same time women at an Arizona county jail were on hunger strike refusing to eat the moldy food they’d been served.

The above examples are only the most coordinated and best publicized of these protests. Many prisoners see individual acts of courage and resistance as necessary for their identity and survival. When the country locks up as large a portion of its population as the US does, prisoner protests are inevitable and almost constant.

The demands of these protesting prisoners are myriad, specific, complex and overlapping, just like the repressive bureaucracies they struggle against. From medical neglect, to wrongful conviction, or sexual assault and violence committed by staff members (particularly in women’s facilities) prisoners have many good reasons to protest and rebel, and many harms and traumas to recover from.

Prisoners engaged in the larger movements like FAM, or the CA hunger strikes also have many personal and individual grievances, but they have come together to form coordinated mass protests with collective demands. These demands vary, but can be categorized into two broad calls for justice: to end prison slavery and to end torture.

To End Prison Slavery

The thirteenth amendment to the US constitution does not abolish slavery. It states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (my emphasis). All prison systems in the US rely on prisoner labor to maintain the facilities. It is prisoners who mop floors, fix plumbing, handle paperwork, and do the many other tasks necessary to keeping the prison running. Prisoners are also farmed out to private corporations seeking cheap labor. All this labor is grossly underpaid (if paid at all) and compulsory; as many prisoners have explained to me, it is a modern form of slavery.

One important step toward ending prison slavery is to allow prisoners to organize labor unions. Prisoners need to be able to strike without violent reprisals, and to negotiate for improved conditions, including health, safety, conditions and wages. A robust and legally protected prisoner’s union is the strongest protection against inhumane and intolerable slavery conditions in prisons.

Prisoners have been fighting for labor unions since the seventies and the US Supreme Court has consistently deferred to prison administrations, rather than defending the basic human rights of incarcerated people. The 1977 decision in Jones v North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc. establishes the controlling precedent. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union has taken up the call of prisoner organizing, forming an Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee, whichworks closely with FAM prisoners, as well as prisoners in other state systems.

The most powerful form of direct action prisoners have used to demand the right to organize and to end slavery is a work stoppage.

To End Prison Torture

Prisons across the US rely on various forms of terroristic violence and coercion to maintain control. Prison administrators’ options vary from pepper spray, electrocution, beatings, and restraint positions, to medical neglect, deprivation and isolation. The form of torture that has gotten the most attention, and the strongest opposition from prisoners and their supporters in recent years, is solitary confinement.

In June of 2012 US Congress held their first hearings on solitary confinement. Anyone paying attention heard heartbreaking testimony from Anthony Graves, an exonerated Texas prisoner who experienced and witnessed the destructive effects of long term isolation on prisoners.

According to SolitaryWatch.com,US prisons hold over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day at a cost of $75,000 per prisoner per year. Many are held in isolation for years, or even decades. The prison system spends this money and trouble because they depend on solitary confinement as a tactic to break up organized groups and prevent rebellions.

Ending Slavery and Torture

These demands are directly related to each other. When prisoners get organized, the prison responds by locking up leaders, or arbitrarily choosing people to make examples out of in isolation. Solitary confinement is both a tactic for breaking up strike organizers, and a deterrent to prevent prisoners from participating in these actions. After beating striker Kelvin J. Stevenson with a hammer, Georgia prison authorities put him in solitary for what is now over five years; he is participating in the current hunger strike.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a long time prison rebel in Ohio, who has been in solitary confinement for over two decades has called for a nationally-coordinated prisoner protest, including hunger strikes and work stoppages. Prisoners have shown a commitment to protesting against severe and often violent reprisals. Hasan believes that, like the California hunger strikes a few years ago, many prisoners would join the movement once it took off.

The missing link is outside support. Without pressure and scrutiny from the outside, prisoners engaging in these struggles can face severe and often illegal consequences. Those of us with access to media and policy makers, with robust social networks and the ability to make public spectacles at the offices of prison authorities or elected officials are essential to prisoners reaching their goals. The Free Alabama Movement recognizes this and has outlined a step by step process by which local organizers can connect with prisoners and demonstrate our strength and commitment to support, allowing prisoner organizers to predict the possibility of success for their actions on the inside.

Even with outside support these will be extremely fierce battles. Prison administrators consider prison labor and isolation as existentially important to the operation of their institutions. Without slaves to maintain their facilities, the costs of prison will skyrocket. Without solitary confinement and supermax facilities dedicated to further isolating “trouble-makers,” they fear their captives will get organized and defend themselves. These fears are probably well founded. The increased reliance on supermax prisons and other forms of long term solitary confinement has correlated with a decline in prison riots and uprisings.

US prisons will need to transform drastically to survive without slavery and torture. Rather than being places of punishment, repression and control, they will have to maintain order by appeasing prisoners and meeting their needs. Prisons will have to become locations for support and healing, they will have to live up to the “rehabilitation” and “correction” their department names often falsely promise. They will surely no longer be able to house a quarter of the world’s prisoners as they do today.

US prisons may not be able to handle these changes; the current administrators almost certainly won’t. That is not our problem. If prisons cannot run without slavery and torture, then they should not run. Mass work stoppages and hunger strikes, with outside direct action support will make prison financially untenable. We will shut the prisons down. If the increasingly unequal and largely illusory class peace of American capitalismcannot survive without its prisons, then it too should and will end. We can and will abolish slavery and torture in US prisons, along with them we will bring down whatever institutions depend on these intolerable practices.

More information and organizing opportunities:

Free Alabama Movement: An organization led by Alabama prisoners looking to abolish slavery through work stoppages at prisons across the country: https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com/

Solitary Watch: News from a Nation on Lockdown: http://solitarywatch.com/

IWW Incarcerated Workers Committee: Organizing for Workers Behind Bars: https://www.facebook.com/incarceratedworkers

Support Prisoner Resistance: Interviews with prison rebels on organizing tactics: http://supportprisonerresistance.noblogs.org/

Ben Turk is a dedicated prison abolitionist and the co-founder of the anarchist theatre troupe Insurgent Theatre (insurgenttheatre.org). His prisoner support work focuses on the survivors of the Lucasville Uprising (LucasvilleAmnesty.org), and prolific anarchist firebrand Sean Swain (SeanSwain.org).

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The IWW Stands in Solidarity with Bahar Mustafa

Originally posted on Liverpool IWW:

SUPPORT BAHAR MUSTAFA – The 2015 annual IWW Conference strongly approved an emergency motion proposed by London IWW to stand in solidarity with Bahar Mustafa, a Goldsmiths students’ union officer who has faced persecution in the mainstream media and death threats from the right wing for organising a meeting for BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) women and non-binary people.

We support Bahar and the right of the oppressed to self-organise, and we encourage our members and supporters to sign this petition to defend Bahar.

Here is the URL of the petition in support of Bahar: https://www.change.org/p/goldsmiths-college-and-beyond-open-letter-in-solidarity-with-bahar-mustafa-welfare-and-diversity-officer-goldsmiths

FULL SOLIDARITY WITH BAHAR AND BME ORGANISING!

Posted below are links to some useful articles on the subject which we also encourage fellow workers to read:

We Need to Talk About Safe Spaces

I Support Bahar Mustafa

Persecution and Threats Against Student Activist Escalate

On Allies

We Must Respect and Protect the Right to…

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MA Charter school staff form union, announce their affiliation with the IWW!

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http://pfsj-iww.blogspot.com/

Staff at the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, Holyoke, will be
holding a two-part community forum following their affiliation with the
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union, which was announced at
the school’s Board meeting last night. On Saturday May 16th and Saturday
May 23rd, parents, students, and the media are invited to discuss the
school’s new union and how a worker-student-parent alliance might achieve
social justice and quality education. Meetings will be held at the Holyoke
Public Library

Community Meeting Room from 1PM to 3PM. Contact: Sofia Lemons: 603.866.6860,
pfsj.iww@gmail.com

The new union issued the following statement:

“Since the school’s founding in 2013, teachers, staff, and students have
struggled to realize the promise of an educational experience that actually
embraces the ideals and vision of the school’s namesake, Brazilian
revolutionary educator Paulo Freire. But instead of a school that holds
liberation for the poor as a main guiding principle, the administration has
created an authoritarian environment that punishes students as well as
staff for challenging racial inequality, both inside and outside of school
walls. From the racially-biased preferential treatment, hiring and firing
of staff, to the administration’s complicity in the wider societal trend of
criminalizing youth of color through the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the
Union members have concluded that the administration does not hear
individual voices. Therefore, the Union has forged bonds of inter-racial
solidarity that will speak collectively and be heard.

“In the words of the school staff’s organizing committee, because “we
understand that the needs of the workers differ from the needs of the
administration due to the hierarchy of power and privilege in our learning
community, we now proudly stand as members of the Industrial Workers of the
World, the union for all workers, and vow from this day forward to fight
for the principles for which Paulo Freire stood and upon which this charter
was founded—social justice and equity at all levels, encompassing both job
security and wage equality for all workers from subs and essentials
teachers to administrative staff to teachers, students, parents, and
community members in association with the Paulo Freire Social Justice
Charter School.”

“Founded in 1905 on the principle of organizing workers of all industries
into One Big Union, the IWW was the first labor organization is US history
committed to welcoming all workers into its ranks, no matter their race,
sex, skill or national origin. We carry on that tradition in the fight
against the system that exploits workers by keeping us separated. In the
midst of a historic struggle for education rights happening throughout
North America and beyond, the IWW stands in solidarity as an uncompromising
voice for youth-and-workers’ power.”

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The Workers of San Quintin

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Just south of the US/Mexico border, the town of San Quintin in Baja California, is the site of a workers uprising. Campesinos, field workers, went on strike against appalling working conditions. They earn less than 8 dollars a day, working for 12+ hours a day. Women face sexual assault from field bosses and were afraid to speak up because they feared being fired. Eventually, the workers would say ya basta, enough, and they did.

March 18, thousands of worker took to the streets and blockaded roads. Demanding a living wage and an end to the sexual assault women faced on the job. The reaction from the state, violent repression. 200 arrested and countless injured. Police and soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at people who simply wanted the right to live with dignity. We should be aware that this is the usual response, in Mexico and elsewhere. This didn’t stop the workers from continuing their fight. The strike and their struggle is ongoing.

On the 9th of May, police attacked the workers, injuring many.

They even broke into the homes of some of the striking workers to assault them. The workers fought back, even took down an armored police vehicle in the process.

All power to the workers of San Quintin and their families in this fight.

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Boston Wobs March All Over Town on May Day

This year local Wobs participated actively in the Boston May Day Coalition (BMDC). The BMDC plans marches through the center of town on International Workers’ Day, linking up with actions in Everett, Chelsea, and other nearby cities. IWW’s attended planning meetings, strategized with organizers on planning the route, helped make signs for a rally on the Boston Common, and provided a speaker for the rally and security for the march. We also voted to make a $100 donation to the BMDC from our Branch’s treasury. On May 1, Wobblies were the first to arrive to decorate the Parkman Bandstand with signs denouncing police brutality and attacks on workers, and calling for $15 / hour and a union for all, along with many other demands. We hung our “Big Red” banner on the bandstand. A lively rally followed, some of the amplification also provided by our GMB. Several of those who addressed the rally described labor struggles at local schools including Tufts and Emerson College. There were also, very appropriately, international speakers who exposed the conditions of workers in underdeveloped countries, and the fightbacks in places such as India and Peru. Our GMB’s speaker mentioned our work at Harvard University, fighting alongside members of campus unions, as well as unorganized workers, Teaching Fellows and student allies, for better wages and conditions, and an end to discrimination on campus. With $42 billion in its endowment and other investments, its endowment alone larger than the Gross Domestic Product of half the world’s countries, Harvard is nevertheless trying to force unionized employees to pay more for their health-care, and has already imposed the equivalent of a huge pay cut on faculty and non-union employees in the form of health-care cost spikes.

After the rally we marched through the city, stopping at a Burger King and a Hyatt hotel to reiterate the demand for $15 / hr & a union. The streets rang with the chants of marchers. We swung by Dewey Square, the site of Occupy Boston, after which IWW’s hopped on the bus to Chelsea, to march to Everett with hundreds of other local residents, advocates for immigrants’ rights and against police brutality, among many other causes. We ended up at a dance party and poetry reading organized by the Black Rose Anarchist Federation. Boston IWW’s made the most of May Day this year, and handed out hundreds of copies of the One Big Union pamphlet in both English and Spanish to celebrants.
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Boston school bus drivers vote in fired union leaders

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http://www.workers.org/articles/2015/05/04/boston-school-bus-drivers-vote-in-fired-union-leaders/

In a stunning victory, the militant, fighting rank and file of the Boston school bus drivers’ union, United Steelworkers Local 8751, voted in the full slate of Team Solidarity candidates, led by four illegally fired leaders, on the union’s Executive Board.

The April 30 election was the largest voter turnout in the history of the local and resulted in an unprecedented landslide vote by more than 3 to 1 for the Team Solidarity ticket. The membership sent a clear message to Veolia/Transdev, the union-busting school bus management company, as well as to Boston Public Schools and Mayor Marty Walsh, that they will fight and win a just contract and the rehiring of their leaders. They will also unite with the communities they serve to struggle for Equal Quality Education.

The new executive board-elect of the 850-strong union, whose members are largely Haitian, Cape Verdean and African-American, includes President Andre Francois, long-time chief steward; Vice President Stevan Kirschbaum, a founder of the local; Treasurer Georgia Scott, veteran of the 1965 Civil Rights battle on Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; Financial Secretary Steven Gillis, the outgoing vice president and benefits administrator; Recording Secretary Claude “Tou Tou” St. Germain, a Fanmi Lavalas activist; Grievance Committee members Garry Murchison, a three-term past president, Frantz Mendes, two-term president, and Richard Laine; Trustees Frantz “Fan Fan” Cadet, Fred Floreal and Judy Long; Guide Chantal Suffrant Casimir; Guards Adriano Barbosa and Ludnay Pierre; and Accident Review Committee members Jerome Samir Stanley, Kathy Moore and Robert Salley. Murchison led the local’s last five-week strike in 1991, which ended with a 48-hour occupation of the mayor’s office.

Veolia illegally fired Francois, Gillis, Kirschbaum and Murchison in November 2013, following a company-ordered, police department-enforced lockout on Oct. 8, 2013, which occurred after the local requested an emergency meeting. The lockout occurred in the midst of a three-month fight with the new company over wage theft, its refusal to honor the drivers’ long-standing contract and Veolia’s illegal demand — because it’s in violation of the contract — made the day before, that even 40-year veteran drivers must file new hire applications.

A small clique of business-minded, company-inspired opponents, including the current president — who bowed out during the election campaign — tried to turn the membership against Team Solidarity’s fighting slate. They bombarded members with the message: “Don’t vote for the people who were fired. They won’t do you any good.”

The climax of year-long bargaining over a new concessionary contract was the company’s divisive campaign that included pushing a “final” proposal with no amnesty for the fired leaders and using false “retro-pay” payroll documents produced by management. But the members voted for the new board based on their personal experience with Team Solidarity’s leaders, who have filed hundreds of their grievances, administered and defended their benefits, and fiercely fought for them and the union’s survival during the nearly two years since Veolia and the mayor’s office began their union-busting assault.

Campaign intensifies to reinstate the four

In the campaign’s final week, opponents led a barrage of red-baiting, vicious lies and attacks on the union’s political work. The day of the election, the company copied and its collaborators handed out an article from a Zionist website with photos of Kirschbaum and Gillis that linked their support for Palestinian rights with the Boston Marathon bombing.

The company stoogies attacked the active support of Team Solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal; for their solidarity with Cuba; for their opposition to every imperialist war from El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen; and for traveling to Venezuela, Colombia and Haiti in support of workers and socialist movements fighting U.S.-sponsored coups and death squads.

Nevertheless, Kirschbaum and Gillis, two well-known socialists, had the backing of the membership. The vote for them and the whole slate of revolutionary-minded candidates is a barometer of Local 8751’s general class consciousness. It is, in a much smaller arena, analogous to socialist labor leader Eugene Debs getting a million votes for U.S. president while in jail for opposing World War I. And it brings a tremendous surge of rank-and-file power to the fight against Veolia and its austerity-driven sponsors.

“The air-pressure needle reads like a tornado is coming,” Gillis said of the workers.

The union is now intensifying its battle to get the four leaders reinstated. Thousands of leaflets are being distributed throughout Boston, asking people to call Mayor Walsh and demand that he order their rehiring by Veolia — which changed its name to Transdev in the wake of publicity over its international union-busting actions and its infrastructure support for the brutal occupation of Palestine.

The mayor’s vendor contract with the company gives the city the sole authority to settle all grievances. Walsh can order the immediate reinstatement of the four with full back pay.

With this election, Team Solidarity has moved from an opposition faction within the local to become the governing body-elect, with a clear mandate to carry forward its militant fightback program.

In addition to demanding the rehiring of the leaders, the local now will intensify activities to unite with the communities against the Boston Public School’s massive budget-cutting campaign and raise demands for Equal Quality Education for BPS’s predominantly students of color. The mayor’s appointed School Committee has voted austerity that calls for closing schools, further privatization through charter school expansion, cutting back summer programs for at-risk youth and nutritional offerings systemwide, kicking middle school students off school buses, as well as reductions in union staff and services throughout the system.

Two-year battle with Veolia

Veolia, a Paris-based global conglomerate, took over management of Boston school bus transportation on July 1, 2013. Despite signing an agreement to honor all terms and conditions of United Steelworkers Local 8751’s existing contract, the company soon violated nearly every article regarding wages, benefits and working conditions. In August 2013, the Steelworkers filed 18 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. And on Oct. 7, the company tried to force the drivers to fill out new hire applications.

A critical moment in the battle with Veolia began on Oct. 8. At 5 a.m. that morning, the drivers reported to work and demanded a meeting with the company to discuss the company’s total failure to honor the union contract. Veolia’s top management and Boston school administrators were for the first time on site at the bus yards before sunrise. Management refused to meet for hours and then called in the police, locked the gates and evicted the drivers and City Councilor Charles Yancey, threatening them all with arrest for trespassing.

The workers’ request for a meeting was legally protected union activity and the company’s lockout was a violation of the contract and federal law. Veolia then falsely alleged that the members had gone on a wildcat strike, a claim that was trumpeted by former Mayor Thomas Menino, the BPS administration and the Boston media. Veolia then singled out and fired the four union leaders.

Team Solidarity immediately launched an intense campaign to rehire the four and get a just contract. It held near-weekly picket lines and seven Solidarity Day rallies that turned out thousands of union and community supporters, including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Steelworkers International. After a rally and drivers’ break room briefing June 30, 2014, the date of the contract’s expiration, Veolia managers and the Boston Police Department concocted frame-up felony charges against Kirschbaum, including breaking and entering, trespassing, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.

For eight months Team Solidarity mobilized support for Kirschbaum, holding pack-the-court rallies, national call-in days to the district attorney and mayor, and weekly bus yard rallies. Team Solidarity’s defense team exposed the absurdity and political motivation of the perjured charges during a three-day trial, and on March 5 a jury returned a unanimous verdict to acquit Kirschbaum after only 10 minutes of deliberation.

During the trial, the prosecutor — whose closing arguments were scripted verbatim by Veolia’s attorney — asked a union member if Kirschbaum did a good job fighting for the membership. She replied, “Perfect.”

Witness after witness conveyed the uncompromising, relentless commitment of the local. This union has fought for the membership and stood in solidarity with every movement for justice since its formation in the 1970s, when it was on the front lines opposing school segregation and defending students of color from years of violent, racist attacks.

Milt Neidenberg, a decades-long steelworker, Teamsters retiree and ally of Local 8751 since its founding, told Workers World: “Local 8751’s fight against Veolia and Boston’s power structure is part of a growing, increasingly active, broadening labor movement, such as the national strikes by low-wage workers from Walmart to McDonald’s demanding $15 and a union. Veolia is one of these global giants, whose primary business tactics specialize in union busting as essential to its drive to lower workers’ pay [in order] to increase corporate profits and stockholder dividends, which for the 1% now dwarf many nations’ economies.

“Veolia low-bids while promising governments a hired gun to privatize transportation, energy, water and environmental resources and waste management,” Neidenberg continued. “That’s why Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s ‘Right to Work’ governor and Wall Street’s Republican presidential nominee, just entered talks with Veolia to privatize his state’s water supply. The results are everywhere war with the unions and service cutbacks and rate hikes for the public. Local 8751’s historic electoral sweep for Team Solidarity, a mandate for social unionism, points to the promising potential for waging a successful workers’ counter-offensive. It’s time for all to step up to their defense and win a victory for all.”

In the U.S. transportation field alone, Veolia has attacked rapid transit unions in San Francisco — where two replacements were killed on the tracks during two Veolia-forced strikes in 2013 — as well as Pensacola, Fla.; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Baltimore; Denver; Seattle; Racine, Wis.; and smaller cities from coast to coast. Amalgamated Transportation Union International President Larry Hanley termed that “a path of destruction” and “management train wreck” in his June 2013 report on Veolia. Now is the time for the militant social unionism of Local 8751 to be taken up around the country. Their victories show the power of militant resistance.

To join the fight, call Mayor Walsh today at 617-635-4500, and go to TeamSolidarity.org and “Team Solidarity — The Voice of United School Bus Workers” (tinyurl.com/KY09HYS) on Facebook.

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MASSIVE SOLIDARITY! THANK YOU IWW, APWU, SLAM, TEACHING FELLOWS, DIVEST HARVARD & SA

About 50 workers, students and community members turned out to protest attacks on workers by Harvard University. The subjects of the protest included HUCTW member Patricia, slapped with a “performance improvement plan” immediately upon returning from a disability leave, and then shortly afterwards slammed with a verbal warning. The cases of Nassim, fired by a racist manager while on disability leave, and Paul, laid off soon after returning from disability leave, were also highlighted. Harvard President Drew Faust’s role — earning $250,000 / yr to sit on Staples, Inc.’s Board of Directors, while postal workers’ jobs at living wages are outsourced to poverty-wage Staples — was exposed by our picket. Harvard’s Student Labor Action Movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, the American Postal Workers’ Union, Harvard’s Teaching Fellows, Divest Harvard, and Socialist Alternative all turned out the troops for this boisterous and noisy crowd, which picketed the Smith Campus Center (where Patricia’s department, Harvard Planning and Program Management, is located), before marching through Harvard Yard to Mass Hall (the site of Faust’s office), and picketing there as well. A clear message was delivered to the world’s richest university — STOP MESSING WITH THE WORKING CLASS! NO TO OUTSOURCING, ABLEISM AND RACIAL DISCRIMINATION!

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