Chicago teachers are fighting for all of us
The teachers' fight in Chicago is part of a larger struggle to save public education.
FOR TOO many years, public school teachers and their unions have had to endure a bipartisan attack on their rights, their working conditions, even their competence and commitment--all in the name of what's supposedly "best for the children."
In Chicago this week, teachers have taken a stand for what's really best for children--fully funded public schools and qualified, well-compensated educators to teach them. The 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) are saying "no" to the smears against educators, "no" to the neglect of public schools, "no" to transforming education into a business venture.
Their courage and determination has won them widespread sympathy and support, according to public opinion polls. Though it isn't always represented in the corporate media, with their cozy relationships with city officials, the spirit of solidarity with the teachers is palpable to anyone who has walked the picket lines with teachers or joined the massive rallies that now paint downtown Chicago CTU red on a constant basis.
In this sense, the Chicago teachers strike represents another in a series of upheavals that have crystallized the bitterness with a system ruled by the 1 percent--from last year's occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol building in defense of union rights, to the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread from New York City around the country, to the angry anti-racist protests this year over the murder of Trayvon Martin.
While these struggles may have different sources and aims, they are tied together in fundamental ways. They represent a new resistance to the status quo, where corporate power reigns supreme, and where political leaders try to divert the blame while making working people sacrifice.
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THE CTU's strike has touched a chord in working-class Chicago--the teachers' demands around wages, job security, proper staffing and better conditions on the job make sense to anyone who knows what it's like inside a Chicago public school.
That's something Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board of millionaires and billionaires like Hyatt hotel heiress Penny Pritzker know absolutely nothing about.
These so-called "reformers" want the complete opposite of what it will take to provide the schools Chicago's children deserve--they want to close down schools; transfer more and more resources into charters, to open up business opportunities for their pals; leave the rest of the public school system to rot; and, above all, gut the power of the teachers' union to resist them.
The corporate school deformers want to put an end to public education as we know it.
Emanuel's bullying has only incensed teachers and their supporters. It's no surprise that a popular chant at the 50,000-strong march on the first day of the strike was simply, "Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!"
It was telling that some of Emanuel's staunchest supporters in his assault on the CTU have been Republican reactionaries--like GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who roundly applauded Mayor 1 Percent's attack on teachers, telling reporters at fundraiser in Portland, Ore.:
Rahm and I have not agreed on every issue or on a lot of issues, but Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teachers' union strike is unnecessary and wrong. We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day, we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It's easy to see why the Republican Ryan is praising the Democrat Emanuel when you look at the substance of the deform agenda the mayor and his appointed board are pushing. In one of the most contentious issues of the strike, for example, the city wants to base teachers' pay and job security not on their experience and educational qualifications, but on how well their students do on standardized tests.
As CTU President Karen Lewis--who actually taught in a classroom in a public school, unlike nearly all the political leaders and school officials who pass judgment so easily on the teachers--said on the eve of the strike:
There are too many factors beyond our control which will impact on how some of our students perform on those standardized tests...Poverty--which no one wants to talk about--exposure to violence...homelessness, hunger and other social issues beyond our control. Evaluate us on what we do, not the lives of our children that we do not control.
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RAHM'S VISION for Chicago schools isn't his alone. His offensive against teachers in the third-largest school district in the country is reflected in attacks around the country.
The difference here is that the leadership and rank-and-file members of the CTU are confronting the challenge, while other union leaders have opted for greater compromise and concessions to the logic of "school reform"--which has only weakened their unions and left schools in a worse condition than they were before.
For example, the CTU's parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has agreed to several local contracts that weaken rules on tenure. In response to critics complaining that the CTU was "resisting change," AFT President Randi Weingarten told the New York Times: "There's been a big change. You have lots of teachers' unions and their districts working together like never before."
That should hardly be a point of pride.
The CTU has taken a different tact: Fighting for teachers and students, not compromising their rights away. As school reform critic Diane Ravitch wrote:
The great thing about having Karen Lewis there is that every teacher in America knows she will stand strong for them. She will not sell them out. And she will not sell out the children. She knows that teachers' working conditions are children's learning conditions.
Both Rahm and Penny know that, too. That's why they don't send their children to the schools for which they are responsible. They send their children to a school with small classes, lots of arts and physical education, a great library, experienced teachers, and a full curriculum. The school where they send their children doesn't give standardized tests and does not evaluate teachers by their students' test scores.
Many people seem to hope that Emanuel's former boss, Barack Obama, will rein in his ex-chief of staff. But the dedication to corporate school reform runs right to the very top.
The basis for Emanuel's assault was laid by Renaissance 2010--an initiative launched by Mayor Richard Daley in 2004 that consisted of closing neighborhood schools, opening charters and imposing high-stakes testing. Renaissance 2010 was the brainchild of then-Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan--who is now Obama's Education Secretary.
In 2008, Duncan packed up his plan and brought it to Washington, creating Race to the Top, in which states can compete for limited federal education funding--but only if they change state laws so they can close or "turn around" their "failing" schools; expand charter schools; and evaluate teachers based on testing.
In other words, the Emanuel plan for schools in Chicago is also the Obama plan for schools across the U.S.
That was clear at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month--in the "right-to-work" state of North Carolina, no less--where Emanuel was featured prominently, even though he was in the middle of his attack on Chicago teachers.
At one convention event, pro-corporate reform Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa from Los Angeles, Cory Booker from Newark, N.J., and Kevin Johnson from Sacramento, Calif., spoke alongside union-busting former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Ben Austin of the anti-teacher group Parent Revolution. The convention also featured a pre-release screening of the movie Won't Back Down, a despicable slander on teachers sponsored by the anti-union Democrats for Education Reform.
As Labor Notes contributor Theresa Moran wrote in an article about the relationship of corporate school deform and the Democrats:
Observers see the strike as a "which side are you on?" moment for Democrats. On one side is the teachers union, which says too big class sizes, too few school services, and too little support for teachers are the problems. On the other are the corporate-education pushers, who heap blame on bad teachers.
"There are two distinct constituencies with conflicting goals, and we're going to highlight that with a strike. You can't gloss over it very easily," says Bill Lamme, a Chicago public high school teacher.
Almost five years ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised a crowd of supporters in South Carolina:
If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I'll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.
So far, no one's seen the president on the picket lines in Chicago.
No politician should be allowed to claim that they are pro-union and pro-school reform at the same time. Because in reality, school reform is an attack on our unions and an attack on our schools.
If public schools survive and thrive, it will be the result of teachers and parents and students standing together and pushing back the assault. That's why this fight in Chicago is part of a larger struggle for the future of public education. As Jose, a veteran of Chicago's 19-day teachers strike in 1987, explained, "Whatever they take away isn't ever coming back, so you better stand up. You have to stand strong and don't budge."