With “friends of labor” like these...

October 4, 2012

Nicole Colson and Alan Maass sum up a key lesson of the Chicago teachers' strike.

THE CHICAGO teachers' strike forced a lot of people to answer the question: Which side are you on? We know how the leaders of the Democratic Party answered that question--and it sure wasn't the same side as teachers, unions or our schools.

From top to bottom--an arrogant and domineering mayor, the sheep-like members of the City Council, and most all of them in between, including and especially the self-styled "progressives"--Chicago's Democrats lined up against the teachers and for a school "reform" program designed to remake public education along elitist corporate lines.

Starting, of course, with Rahm Emanuel.

By now, everyone knows that Emanuel hates the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). He made his contempt plain even before he took office when he got his allies in the state legislature to ram through a law designed to prevent the CTU from ever striking. He and his handpicked school board began negotiations with an insult of a contract proposal, filled with demands to gut the union's power and humiliate teachers.

The Democrats of Chicago

When he couldn't force the CTU to settle for a crappy deal and the union resorted to a strike, Emanuel--notorious for cursing political opponents and allies alike during his days as Barack Obama's chief of staff--went ballistic. He scrambled in front of the TV cameras for hour-long press conferences where he slandered the teachers.

Emanuel was certain that public opinion would be on his side. But it didn't work according to plan. The 26,000 members of the CTU refused to be bullied into shutting up and accepting what Emanuel decreed. The union stood together and held the line. The teachers ended their strike more unified and determined than before--and, crucially, with the support of a clear majority of Chicagoans, and an even larger proportion of parents and students.

EMANUEL WAS the main target of teachers' anger, of course. But it should be remembered that the elements of the anti-teacher assault he led in Chicago are being put forward across the country--merit pay, evaluation systems based on student testing, nonunion charter operators taking over public schools and siphoning money out of the system.

This is a national trend because it's being led nationally. For their part, Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were publicly neutral during the Chicago teachers' strike. But Emanuel was right about one thing--that his program against the teachers was adapted from the Obama administration and its Race to the Top law. By offering cash-strapped state governments the promise of extra education funding, but on the condition that they pass legislation lifting caps on charter schools, encouraging merit pay and escalating the standardized testing frenzy, the Obama administration took George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law and put it on steroids.

When he was running for president, Barack Obama promised he would stand with the union movement. "I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself," he said in a 2007 speech. "I will 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."

Not only did he president not show up on the picket line, but few Democrats of any kind were in the CTU's corner.

Following the strike, Emanuel took to the airwaves with commercials that reportedly cost more than $1 million to try to spin the final deal as a victory for his vision for the city and a defeat for teachers. The money for the ads flowed from a political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform.

And if you thought that Emanuel was keeping the anti-union attacks to the Democrats alone, the mayor let his adviser Bruce Rauner, a venture capitalist and Republican, off the leash at every opportunity.

In his latest article in the Chicago Tribune, Rauner complains about the teachers' failure to accept merit pay and their refusal to grant politicians the ability to take away contractually mandated raises when the city cries poverty--all an example, he claimed, of the teachers putting their interests ahead of kids.

Rauner, it should be pointed out, has his very own charter school named after him-- Rauner College Prep--in addition to being the "principal donor for Chicago projects including...four new charter high schools on the near west side," according to his website. So it's no surprise that Rauner's article includes a call to "encourage charter schools and other contract school operators to expand, innovate and compete in Chicago."

Such are the friends that Rahm Emanuel, one of the most powerful men in the Democratic Party, turns to in times of trouble.

OKAY, YOU might say, Rauner is a Republican scumbag, and Emanuel has been a petty tyrant during his time as mayor. But surely these are the "bad" guys, and not representative of the hard-working Democratic Party progressives--the ones fighting in the trenches so their party reflects the interests of unions, workers, the poor, minorities, women and so on.

Unfortunately, plenty of self-styled Democratic progressives ended up on the same side of the teachers' struggle as Emanuel and Rauner.

Take Alderman Joe Moore, who represents the 49th Ward on the far North Side of the city. In 2008, the liberal Nation magazine named Moore its Most Valuable Local Official. Moore, the Nation wrote, "fought the powerbrokers again and again and frequently prevailed...He has gotten the Chicago City Council to oppose the war, defend civil liberties and take on chain stores that batter local businesses."

But that was before Emanuel took over--and before the teachers stood up to the Democratic powerbrokers. Earlier this year, Moore, who chairs the city's Human Relations Committee, refused to allow a motion put forward by community organizations that called for an elected school board, rather than one appointed by...you guessed it...Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Chicago is currently the only school district in the state of Illinois that doesn't have an elected school board. As a result, the seven-member Chicago board appointed by the mayor includes such education "experts" as billionaire hotel heiress Penny Pritzker--who, like Emanuel, sends her children to private school.

The struggle for an elected school board has been growing despite the resistance of city officials. After Emanuel blocked the question from appearing on a citywide ballot, a coalition of 11 organizations calling itself Communities Organized for Democracy in Education found 10 aldermen willing to put the issue on the ballot in their wards. But to do this, the measure had to be approved by a city council committee.

The activists turned to Moore--who promptly refused to hear the question in his committee on the grounds that the paperwork had supposedly been turned in three minutes past the deadline.

Maybe this shouldn't be a surprise--since the "most progressive" alderman in Chicago turns out to be a devoted supporter of charter schools.

In late August, Moore was rubbing elbows with Juan Rangel--CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which runs a growing stable of charters--sitting at Rangel's personal table as the CEO delivered a speech attacking the CTU at Chicago's City Club.

In his speech, Rangel made it clear where his priorities lie--with the wealthy:

Do we have the resolve to embrace Chicago's wealthy community...and support them as a focal source of energy that fuels the school reform movement with their money? Or will we shy away from them and allow the silly talk that currently passes for debate about the so-called 1 percenters privatizing our schools?

By the end of this year, UNO will operate at least 13 charter schools in the city--including one in Moore's ward.

Of course, Moore isn't the only alderman cozying up to Rangel, and he wasn't the only one to side with Emanuel against the teachers. When push came to shove, the alder-sheep of the all-Democratic City Council herded behind their mayor and bleated approval for his anti-teacher attacks.

There were exceptions--but not many. During the strike, 33 of the 50 members of the Chicago City Council, including Moore and other progressives like Rey Colon, signed an open letter to CTU President Karen Lewis demanding that teachers "keep students in the classroom during negotiations." When it came to calling on Emanuel and his school board to negotiate in good faith, there wasn't a peep or a bah to be heard.

THE ALDERSHEEP who stooped lowest of all, though, has to be Joe Moreno. Known as the "hipster" alderman--because he attends the occasional rock show--he represents the 1st Ward in a mainly gentrified part of the Near Northwest Side.

In the midst of the strike, Moreno appeared on Fox Business News to denounce CTU leaders. He didn't bat an eye as his interviewer, Melissa Francis, calmly suggested that: one, public schools should be "blown up" and replaced with charter schools; and two, the teachers' union should be done away with.

Moreno's response was: "Right, right"--before singing the praises of three charter schools in his ward.

Let that sink in for a minute. A self-proclaimed progressive Democrat accepts an invite from Fox News for a segment that he knows will attack the teachers--and then he doesn't say a word in protest when the Fox News hack calls for public schools and teachers' unions to be destroyed.

Oh, and by the way, this interview aired on September 11.

When outraged residents flooded Moreno's Facebook page with angry comments, the alderman tried to pass his words off as brave. "Silence is easy," he said. "Transparency is risky."

Full disclosure here: We have both known Joe Moreno for a number of years. And we both have endured many a lecture from the alderman about how "unrealistic" socialists are. We just aren't pragmatic enough to recognize that real change comes from progressives working inside the system to change it.

When Moreno became an alderman--appointed to a vacant seat at first by that well-known progressive Richard Daley, Emanuel's predecessor--he claimed that he and other likeminded individuals on the City Council would finally stand up to the mayor's office and start changing Chicago politics.

Yet as the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky wrote, if anything, Chicago aldermen have been more compliant and willing to concede to the mayor under Rahm Emanuel. That's a truly stunning feat given the City Council's history of rolling over for Daley, like his father before him.

With the teachers' strike, the aldersheep sunk to a new low, just like their boss. The slanders of teachers for daring to defy the mayor reached a fever pitch when the strike entered a second week--after hundreds of representatives of the teachers decided in the union's House of Delegates to take more time for members to examine a proposed agreement.

This was a powerful example of union democracy at its best, with members given the time to digest, discuss and debate a critical proposal. Every union--not to mention political institutions like the Chicago City Council--ought to work this way.

But Emanuel and his allies freaked out--not least the "progressives." As Joravsky wrote during the strike's final days:

Of course, I'm getting calls from all my Nervous Nellie liberal friends telling me [Karen Lewis] should have cracked down on the delegates and rammed that baby through--like it was Mayor Daley pushing, oh, a parking meter deal though a compliant City Council.

Ah, yes, Chicago liberals. They say they love democracy--until it gets a little messy. Then it's time to bring back Mussolini.

AT ONE point, Emanuel ordered his lawyers to go to court and get an injunction that would force teachers back to work. This was a drastic and provocative move that the judge who got the case thought better of--he refused to hold a hearing. Remember, this is a judge in Cook County--let's just say they aren't known for their tolerance and independent spirit.

But Aldersheep Moreno snapped to attention and declared that a court injunction--to force teachers back to the classroom or go to jail--was a fine idea. On Facebook, he said he "fully support[s] the right to strike, but I have not supported this specific strike. Successful protests and strikes seek to empower the many, not the few. This strike has selfishly empowered a union leadership, not empowered teachers, parents and children."

The lectures kept on coming from Moreno. "Our students need to be in school and learning," he wrote. "This so-called union 'leadership' is a disgrace to all of the movement leaders I embrace as my heroes."

That particular comment begs a question, though: Which "movement leaders" does Joe Moreno embrace as heroes, and what would they say about a court injunction forcing striking teachers back to work?

Is Martin Luther King one of them? The Martin Luther King who was killed in Memphis as he defended striking sanitation workers? The Martin Luther King who railed, in what turned out to be the final speech of his life, against an injunction against the strikers?:

If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.

We figure that Martin Luther King would have been on the side of the teachers, not the privatizers. We think he wouldn't have parroted the words of a mayor who swore at the African American president of the CTU and said, according to Karen Lewis' account, that one-quarter of Chicago's kids "are never going to be anything, never going to amount to anything, and he was never going to throw money at them."

If Joe Moreno or Joe Moore or Barack Obama in his comfortable shoes had walked the picket lines during the strike in Chicago, they would have met teachers fighting for dignity on the job, for decent working conditions, better wages and job security--and for the kind of schools our kids deserve, that have textbooks at the start of the year, that have air conditioning, that limit class size.

The Democrats who run Chicago proved they're on the other side of that struggle. That's something everyone should remember when the party comes looking for votes and claiming to be "friends of labor."

With "friends" like that, we don't need enemies.

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