Thursday, August 30, 2012

The People's Court: Testimony. Part 2.

An impressive set of five work place leaders is assembled behind the judges, elevated slightly.  The workers sit solemnly, looking out at the community assembled before them, prepared to share their testimony with the world.  Bus drivers from Columbus and Savannah sit staunchly among the group, Sodexo food service workers from Morehouse College and Georgia Tech anchor the group while a Georgia Pre-K lead teacher sits in the center of those assembled.

Belinda Myles is called to the stand. Belinda is a caring teacher whose leadership in the class room shines through in the court room as well. As Belinda approaches the stand a hush falls over the court...

Belinda begins...

"I want you to imagine for one second Miss Belinda sitting in-front of 22 smiling faces looking up at me one morning and one of them says, "Miss Belinda, what are we going to talk about today?"

Belinda replies... "We're going to talk about our summer vacation." The student asks, "Miss Belinda.... How did you spend your summer vacation?"
Belinda Myles Poised at the Stand

"Well.... I spent my summer with the letter B.  Beans. Beans start with the letter B.  Because like 64,000 other Georgians, this is all we could afford to eat." 

"Another word starts with the letter B... Bills, Bills, Comcast, Georgia Power, Rent, mortgage, the gas company, student loans.... "

"There is another word that starts with the letter B....Borrow.  I had to use that word so much that my name became Borrow instead of Belinda.........  I had to ask family and friends.... May I please Borrow money to buy Beans?"  

"And then finally there is that last word students.... Butler.... It starts with the letter B.....  Mark Butler... Our state labor commissioner children, the one who said, I don't care if you only have beans to eat, I don't care if you have bills, I don't care if you have to borrow... I have business to handle, I have a budget. Now please, don't bother me."

"I know that of the 64,000 I mentioned there was a Georgia Pre-K student somewhere in some household in our lovely state of Georgia who looked up at mama and daddy and said, "mama I want a Balloon.... mama, I want some Bubbles, mama... I want a Ball... But that mother and that father had to look at that four year old Georgie Pre-K student and say..... Baby.... Mama has to put Beans on this table.  Daddy has to pay the Bills...."

Belinda looks back at the other Georgia school workers assembled and says... 

"I feel your pain. I feel your pain. And I know how it feels to have to Borrow. But we do what we have to do to survive....."

Olivia Currie Speaks
The crowd affirms her and many impacted workers sing out after hearing her words.

Belinda Myles is a Georgia Pre-K teacher and has led a number of the collective actions this summer at Georgia Department of Labor headquarters in protest of Mark Butler's decision.  Belinda has inspired school workers to stand up for their dignity together.

Olivia Currie is a strong and principled leader in her workplace and community. As her name is called to testify she rises slowly in a dignified manner and makes her way down as her fellow Georgia workers look on in support.

Olivia highlights the severe anxiety caused by the economic depravation felt this summer and the dignity denied in the process.

"Some of my co-workers had to go to the hospital from the anxiety.....
We had to rely on going to food banks.... It was undignified"

Olivia Currie has worked as a Bus Driver for Taylor Motors at the Fort Benning military base in Columbus, GA for 3 years.

Reba Shinholster a quiet leader that shakes with conviction when she speaks is next to testify.

"I've been feeling real small, it makes me feel like I've been working all these years for nothing.  Mr. Butler needs to have a conscience...."
Reba Shinholster Standing Strong

Reba Shinholster has worked as a Sodexo food service worker at the Georgia Institute of Technology for 20 years.  Reba was born in Atlanta, her favorite color is blue.  She loves to read especially love stories but has more recently been getting into mystery novels.

Olivia and Reba embrace as they sit back down together.

Elaine Watts, a workplace leader that has participated in collective action with her co-workers in the past strode to the mic.  Elaine points out that what Butler is doing is violating law... As a result of this, her and her co-workers are

"really hurting...."  One of her co-workers is now living in a shelter.  "She is responsible for her 5 grand children.  She is really hurting."

Elaine Watts has worked as a Sodexo food service worker at Morehouse College for 7 years.  Elaine was a leader in the recent, successful union organizing drive at Morehouse College.  As a result Elaine and 79 of her co-workers have a negotiated contract with their Sodexo management.  
Jerome Irwin Speaking Truth

Jerome Irwin is next to testify and his powerful presence proceeds his eloquent words as he strides to the stand.  His booming yet calm voice permeates throughout the microphone.

"It is my understanding that Mark Butler is the only elected labor commissioner in the United States....  This is sad to think that we elected Mark Butler.  Now we have to get him out of there."

Jerome Irwin is First Student Bus Driver in Savannah, GA and shop steward with Teamsters Local 728.  The Savannah Bus Drivers were some of the first workers to take collective action at their local department of labor.  This sparked significant media attention and played a key role in guiding other working across the state in how to organize against Mark Butler's unlawful policy change.

Stay tuned for the statement from an expert witness and the verdict from the 9 judges assembled at the court......

Impacted Workers and Community Supporters Reacting to Testimony

Monday, August 20, 2012

The People's Court Called to Order. Part 1.

Clack, Clack, Clack.  The gavel struck the base with a settling clarity and a hush permeated throughout the court.  A booming voice descended from the judges bench.... "Hear ye, hear ye, this People's Court trial has now been summoned to order."

The seven witnesses representing work places from Savannah, Columbus, Atlanta and Lithia Springs, GA sat poised, flanking the impressive set of nine judges, who sat solemnly in their court robes reading over the evidence of the case.  

The defendant's bench sat ominously empty, with nothing but a name tent straddling the seat that read, "Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler."  

The prosecutor is called to introduce the charges and a tall, sharply dressed man strolls slowly but purposefully to the court's microphone.

"I come before you today on behalf of the People of Georgia, to bring charges against Mark Butler, Labor Commissioner...."

"The Commissioner has failed to perform his duties, has unjustly and unlawfully denied workers their benefits and has shocked the conscience of fair-minded people everywhere.
The case against the Commissioner is simple:
After 30 years of precedent, defendant Butler unilaterally made a decision to re-interpret Georgia’s long-standing qualifications for payment of earned Unemployment Benefits.
The facts of the case are also simple:
During the recent economic downturn, Georgia’s unemployment reserve fund became insufficient to cover the claims of eligible workers.
It was not the fault of workers… rather it was that companies were given a 4 year tax holiday from payment into the unemployment fund.
It was not the fault of workers that the State decided to borrow money from the Federal Government to cover the shortfall.
It was not the fault of workers that the State did not adequately plan to pay back this Federal loan.
To solve the problem…of all the choices that could be made, the Commissioner made the wrong choice every time.
He chose to blindside workers by hiding his changing of the rules. Workers were not notified until they sought their lawfully due benefits, and were forced to be shocked and shamed at the DOL counter.
He chose to make up the fund shortfall at the expense of workers, not the companies who received the tax holiday.
He chose to ignore the fact that the benefits workers sought, were to come directly from corporate contributions already made to pay their workers in the event of lay-off. It was not the Commissioners money. It was not taxpayers money. It was the workers money.
And most recently the Commissioner chose to ignore the directive of the US Dept. of Labor. He was told he was unlawfully administering a Federal-State program. He was told that he should not only reverse his “do not pay” decision, but also that he should retroactively pay workers their due. 
And in response, the Commissioner again chose the wrong path. He has decided to further disrespect and blow off workers by attempting to legally challenge the DOL directive. And that incidently, will be at the cost of taxpayers.
In sum, fair judges, you will be hearing expert testimony that provide the details of the Commissioners unlawful actions. You will be hearing worker testimony about the undeserved hardships he has caused for them and their families. And you will be hearing testimony about the Commissioner conspiring to develop the scheme to make employee victims pay the bill that should have been sent to employers.
As prosecutor, I ask the jury to consider all the damning evidence and convict the defendant. It is up to you to stand up for what is right. It is up to you to send a strong message to all elected officials that they must fulfill their Oath of Office, they cannot scheme to get away with theft by taking and deception, and that they cannot make false statements." 

With the charges laid out crystal clear all eyes moved to the defendant's bench.  Although summoned to the court, the defendant chose not to attend.  In his absence his public statement is read about his decision to cut off benefits to Georgia school workers .....  

"For the past several years, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards and  pre-kindergarten employees not employed by a public school system were able to collect unemployment benefits during summer months - this included private school employees and people working for private companies contracting with public schools. This policy, unfortunately, conflicted with federal and state laws.
The law requires us to treat all educational workers fairly and the same.  When reviewing our educational worker policy and US Department of Labor's interpretation of reasonable assurance,  we determined that a rule change was necessary to be in compliance with the law.  Georgia Department of Labor rules must comply with existing law. To effectively serve as stewards of unemployment-tax money, the rule regarding summertime unemployment benefits had to be changed.
Teachers were not previously allowed to receive unemployment insurance benefits during regularly scheduled breaks in work. Non-teaching educational employees, such as school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and crossing guards  must be treated the same as all other educational employees such as teachers, substitute teachers and administrators. An educational worker, unemployed during a summer or customary break with reasonable assurance to return to the same or similar job for the next school term, is not entitled to benefits. 
Our limited resources for unemployment benefits are reserved for people who have lost their job through no fault of their own and are seeking another job. I am hopeful that the coming months will bring greater prosperity for all Georgians."
The audience reacted viscerally to the statement, with over 50 impacted Georgia school workers present at the court, hearing the defense for the first time hit deep.  The politician's words seemed to clash with a sickening thud on the complete economic deprivation currently experienced by so many in attendance as a result of this man.
Order was kept in the court room and all eyes turned to the impressive set of worker leaders that were about to give their testimony......

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The People's Court.

The Atlanta Jobs with Justice Workers' Rights Board presents: The People's Court. Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler on Trial (by the people) for denying unemployment benefits to 64,000 laid off Georgia School Workers.

We need YOU to serve on the "People's Jury" and hear the testimony from impacted workers and the rationale for the decision given so far by Mark Butler.

The People's Court will take place:
Saturday August 18th 11:00 am to 1:30 pm
First Iconium Baptist Church, 
542 Moreland Ave. SE Atlanta, GA 30316
MARTA: Inman Park-Reynoldstown Station, then #34 bus to church

Reba Shinholster a Sodexo food service worker at Georgia Tech states that "We can't pay our bills, we're not eating, we don't have money to buy food, it's the truth, it's impacting our lives. The way that he is treating people is not right.”

Despite numerous requests for meetings and pleas to remedy the situation the Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler has refused to budge. For justice to be served, Georgia school workers and Atlanta Jobs with Justice have decided to take this matter to the people. It’s time to put Mark Butler on Trial through the “People’s Court.”

Event Description:The event will be conducted as a "People's Trial" for Mark Butler for his decision to bar school workers from unemployment benefits. There will be "Judges" (community leaders, faith leaders, professors, politicians, local celebrities) that will hear testimony from impacted Georgia school workers. School workers will share their experiences and struggles this summer after abruptly being denied expected income. Mark Butler will be invited to the event to give his side of the story. If he does not attend we will read the public statements that the Department of Labor has made thus far. The "jury" will consist of all of the members of the public that attend the event. The members of the public will be able to vote on whether or not Mark Butler is guilty of serving special interests instead of the people’s interests. Other charges to be determined at the trial… The judges will give their responses to the story's heard and recommendations for next steps.

Georgia School Workers (more speakers to be announced):
Reba Shinholster - Sodexo Food Service Worker at Georgia Institute of Technology
Velmar Hightower - Aramark Food Service Worker at Spelman College
Olivia Currie - Bus Driver at Ft. Benning Columbus, GA
Angela Goddard - K-12 Teacher Faith Christian Academy Griffin, GA
Kathy Stafford - First Transit Bus Driver at Georgia State University
Belinda Myles - Georgia Pre-K Teacher

Judges (Workers' Rights Board) will include:
Azedeh Shahshahani - National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director, ACLU of Georgia; President-Elect, National Lawyers Guild
Derrick Boazman - Host of Too Much Truth, WAOK
Reverend Samuel Mosteller - President of the Georgia Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
Fr. Bruce Schultz, O.P. - Our Lady of Lourdes
Bobbie Paul - Executive Director of Georgia Women's Action for New Directions (Georgia WAND) 
Janice Mathis - Vice-President of the Rainbow Push Coalition
State Senator Nan Orrock
State Senator Vincent Fort
George K. Johnson - Big Bethel AME Church

Please share widely!  The Facebook event can be found HERE