Can teachers beat the Chicago bully again?

June 5, 2013

Lee Sustar looks at the challenges facing the Chicago Teachers Union after Rahm Emanuel carried out the largest-ever round of school closures in any U.S. city.

CLOSING 50 schools while doling out millions in taxpayer dollars to real estate developers landed Rahm Emanuel on the cover of Time magazine under the headline "Chicago Bull."

Journalist David Von Drehle portrays Emanuel as a tough guy who steamrollers the opposition, but all for the greater good of the city. But to teachers and growing numbers of working people fed up the mayor's pro-business agenda, Emanuel is just Chicago's biggest bully--and they want to get rid of him.

The day after Emanuel's handpicked Board of Education voted on May 22 to approve the largest round of school closures in a single city in U.S. history, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) hosted a voter registration meeting in which several union members were trained to be deputy registrars, enabling them to register people to vote.

"We need to figure out a way to change the hearts and minds of the voters, the people to whom the mayor is accountable," Lewis said at the meeting. "We have to let people know 'your vote means something.'"

Striking Chicago teachers and their supporters rally against Emanuel's agenda for schools
Striking Chicago teachers and their supporters rally against Emanuel's agenda for schools (Sarah-ji)

Of course, the CTU already gave the bully in City Hall a lesson last September, when a strike shut schools for nine days and defeated Emanuel's effort to break the union's power. The CTU fought not only to preserve pay and working conditions, but also to defend public education from budget cuts and privatization through the expansion of charter schools.

That fight continued as the union organized against the mass school closings--and in the middle of that campaign, Chicago teachers reelected their union leaders by an overwhelming margin.

Now the question for the CTU--and for people across the city fed up with Emanuel's corporate agenda and bullying tactics--is where the voter registration effort will lead. Could the emerging grassroots movement for educational justice be dispersed into a mayoral campaign for a moderate Democrat who will challenge Emanuel in the 2015 election? Or is it possible that an electoral campaign could be used to build the movement through an independent, pro-worker platform that would draw new people into activism?

Lewis spoke about the pro-corporate character of the Democratic Party and the need for an alternative in her speech to the Labor Campaign for Single Payer national meeting in January. "Unfortunately," she said, "there's really only one party in this country. It's the party of money, and there are two branches. So we have to work with our allies to develop new coalitions."

IN THE near term, the CTU is continuing to organize against the closures.

The union worked with a group of Chicago parents to file several lawsuits to stop the shutdowns. The suits argue that the board violated its own guidelines by ignoring the recommendations of independent hearing officers in a number of cases; that the closures are concentrated in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods; and that the city's plan doesn't take into account the needs of special ed students. There are also discussions about further protest actions at the affected schools.

The board's final decision on closures came just days after the incumbent Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was was returned to office with 79 percent of the vote.

But CORE members barely paused to celebrate. At the caucus' reelection party on May 17, congratulations and toasts were immediately followed by the question: "What march are you going to tomorrow?" The next morning, CTU organizers were to join with student, parent and community activists to begin the three-day March for Educational Justice as part of the fight to keep schools open. Thus, the victory party thinned out early so CTU officers, staffers and activists could get some sleep before hitting the streets a few hours later.

In the end, the closures were approved--voted on by the school board "in less time than it takes to boil an egg," as the Chicago Sun-Times put it.

Despite that heavy blow, the three-day march--which capped months of organizing and activism--achieved some gains. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), took four schools off the closures list. Two of them, Mahalia Jackson Elementary and George Manierre Elementary, had seen high levels of parent and community opposition to the closures.

Manierre, in particular, highlighted the gentrification-driven agenda behind some of the closures, since it sits in a neighborhood where million-dollar townhouses stand across the street from public housing developments populated largely by African Americans.

Moreover, Emanuel paid a high political price for carrying through the shutdowns, which were increasingly seen as racist since 88 percent of the students affected are African American. Chicago Tribune poll, six in 10 of those surveyed disagreed with Emanuel's closure policy. The poll also found that 41 percent backed the CTU's positions on school policy, while just 19 percent backed the mayor.

The shift in public opinion prompted Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to publicly criticize Emanuel and CPS for ignoring the recommendations of the independent hearing officers, who recommended that 13 of the targeted schools remain open.

"What was the point of having public hearings?" Preckwinkle told the Sun-Times. "Was it all a charade? If you weren't going to pay any attention to the outcome of the public hearings or the recommendations of the public hearing officers, why would you bother to waste everyone's time?"

Chicago dominates surrounding Cook County, so this was an uncharacteristically sharp criticism by Preckwinkle, who has often cooperated with Emanuel, although occasionally taking issue publicly with his policies. As the city's most prominent African American politician, Preckwinkle was reflecting the growing discontent with Emanuel in Black Chicago. She faces reelection in 2014, a few months before Emanuel.

Several African American alderman also felt enough pressure to speak at the Board of Education meeting and plead to keep schools in their wards open--even though they made it clear that they still support the mayor.

It was left to Alderman Bob Fioretti, an outspoken white liberal who has been targeted for political elimination through a radical redistricting of his ward, to declare that the board meeting was just for show, since the school closures were a done deal. "I wasn't going to testify today because I feel that so many decisions are made without any input," Fioretti said. The closures, Fioretti said, were an "inequitable burden on African American and Latino communities. Substantial research shows that closing schools and moving students increases the dropout rate and the incidence of street violence."

Parents, teachers and community organizers also challenged the board and CEO Byrd-Bennett for ignoring community voices.

CTU President Lewis pointed out that the board didn't have the guts to take a roll call vote on the schools, instead using a parliamentary maneuver to record a unanimous "yes" for all 50 shutdowns.

THE ARROGANCE of Byrd-Bennett, the school board and, above all, Emanuel has fueled sentiment for an electoral challenge to the mayor.

Weeks before the final decision on school closures, Lewis declared that the CTU would be at the center of an effort to register 100,000 new voters. At the final rally against school closings May 20, she upped the number to 250,000. But the question still to be answered is: vote for which candidate and on what political program? In a city that is run almost entirely by Democrats, what's the alternative?

Cook County Board President Preckwinkle's criticisms of Emanuel has raised hopes that she might challenge the mayor. As the former alderman for the Hyde Park neighborhood--where Barack Obama lived before moving into the White House--Preckwinkle had progressive positions on many issues. But a look at her record shows that while she's on the liberal wing of the Democratic establishment, she's very much tied to the political machine.

Preckwinkle, a former teacher, collaborated with CPS's Renaissance 2010 plan, which is supposed to attract middle-class families to the public school system through magnet programs that can squeeze out the children of residents in a particular neighborhood.

She also urged the University of Chicago's Center for Urban School Improvement to set up charter schools in her area, bankrolled by the Gates Foundation. " I'm very grateful to the Center for Urban School Improvement and to the University for committing resources to the communities I serve. They currently operate a first-class charter school in North Kenwood, and we are fortunate to have another coming into Oakland [near Hyde Park]," she told a reporter.

Preckwinkle is also a proponent of Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a scheme pioneered by former Mayor Richard M. Daley that that diverts tax revenues from schools and libraries. Like other alderman, Preckwinkle sought to use TIF money to develop her district, even at the cost of bleeding the budget for public education and other needs.

Despite this record, many opponents of Emanuel hope that Preckwinkle could follow the example of Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor, who was elected back in the 1980s. But even if Preckwinkle swings further left and challenges Emanuel, she's unlikely to repeat Washington's success.

A QUICK look at history shows why. Washington, while certainly a liberal, was nevertheless a product of the Democratic machine himself. Even so, his campaign galvanized the African American working class in Chicago, which was fed up with segregation in housing and the schools, and poor social services.

Washington also reflected the aspirations of the Black middle class, which was excluded from managerial jobs in the public sector and denied business contracts brokered by longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley, the father of Emanuel's predecessor. Washington also forged an electoral alliance with Puerto Rican politicians and leading activists in the fast-growing Mexican immigrant population.

The Democratic machine had been in turmoil following the elder Daley's death in 1976. Washington's triumph over an openly racist opposition in the 1983 election and the defeat of the racist old guard in a special election three years later for City Council based on redrawn districts transformed the political atmosphere in the city. Prominent jobs in the city bureaucracy that had been long reserved for "white ethnics" were now available to African Americans and Latinos.

However, the hoped-for social changes never materialized. Federal budget cuts under the administration of Ronald Reagan led to a squeeze on city finances and layoffs of public employees. Chicago was no exception. The squeeze on school budgets provoked the longest-ever CTU strike in 1987 while Washington was in office.

When Washington died suddenly in 1987, the alliance he created fractured immediately. Eugene Sawyer, one of the African Americans who competed to succeed him, was elected mayor by allying himself with the white racist aldermen who opposed Washington down the line. Two years later, Richard M. Daley, the son of the former mayor, won office by reconstituting the old Democratic machine.

Daley crafted an electoral appeal to liberals and forged a deal with Latino politicians to pre-empt the Black-Brown electoral alliance of the Washington years. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, then an alderman and one of Washington's trusted allies, endorsed Daley in what was widely seen as an act of betrayal by what was known as the "Washington coalition." Ever since, the Democratic machine has relied on its growing Latino base.

Over the years, Daley used his powers to appoint alderman to replace those who resigned--or were indicted. As a result, a number of African American aldermen owed their political careers to Daley, rather than the community groups that had propelled Washington into office. "They used to call it plantation politics," Alysia Tate wrote in the Chicago Reporter in 1999. "A handpicked group of Black politicians won elected offices, but lacked any real power."

In his 22 years in office, Daley did the bidding of real estate developers and finance capital as he remade Chicago as a "world city." Democratic machine hacks now coexisted with technocrats who took over social policy, targeting city services for privatization. The white flight that had panicked Corporate Chicago was halted in the 1990s, thanks to pro-gentrification policies.

Meanwhile, the demolition of public housing led to Black flight. According to census data, of the 200,000 people who moved out of Chicago between 2001 and 2010, some 180,000 were African American.

Daley's other social policy innovation was school "reform," which consisted of mass firings of teachers at "underperforming" schools--and, later, school closures, concentrated, then as now, in African American and Latino neighborhoods.

The political machine was retooled with a growing Latino voting base through the Daley-dominated Hispanic Democratic Organization and the nonprofit group UNO, which thrives on housing contracts and charter school operating funds, with allegedly corrupt insider dealing. The old machine, based on municipal patronage jobs, has given way to new political alliances based on contracts to run privatized city services.

BY 2010, having left the city broke, Daley decided to quit while he was ahead--or perhaps, according to the swirling rumors, before he was indicted. Enter his former aide, Rahm Emanuel, whose rising political fortunes allowed him to bag more than $18 million during a two-and-a-half-year stint as an investment banker, before moving on to Congress and chief of staff in the Obama White House.

As mayor, Emanuel has accelerated the property development drive and the privatization of schools and city services. As he curtailed library hours and shut down mental health clinics and schools, the mayor boosted Chicago's profile by hosting a NATO summit, wooing more corporate investors, and locking up Occupy and antiwar protesters.

Emanuel--dubbed "Mayor 1 Percent" by the left--has suffered sharply declining approval ratings over the last year, with 50 percent of respondents supporting him and 40 percent expressing disapproval. That's raised the hopes of many people that he can be run out of office in two years.

But as former alderman and University of Illinois-Chicago professor Dick Simpson says, "You can't beat somebody with nobody."

So who is the potential challenger--and how could they unseat Emanuel, who enjoys the backing of the president of the United States? The usual political logic of the union leadership in such circumstances is to find a Democratic candidate moderate enough to be considered "electable"--and tone down labor's message to fit that campaign. That strategy failed utterly in Wisconsin, where union-busting Gov. Scott Walker easily survived a recall election against Democrat Tom Barrett, who had an anti-labor record of his own as mayor of Milwaukee.

There won't be a repeat of the Harold Washington years, either, when the rising African American middle class tied its fortunes to his campaign or were pressured by voters into backing him.

These days, a new generation of African American politicians, representing a shrinking Black electorate, have close ties to City Hall. They are prime examples of a wide class divide in Black Chicago. The same can be said of the new Latino Democratic establishment, which takes liberal positions on issues around immigration, but prefers to angle for political patronage and city contracts, rather than lead a political insurgency.

Emanuel's electoral fortunes could get worse if the economy sours and if opposition to his policies continues to rise. But he has plenty of political and financial resources at his command, a record of ruthlessness in squashing political opponents and the devoted support of the city's capitalists.

And even if a challenger to Emanuel does emerge within the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the pressure would be on for the candidate to conform to Democratic Party polices that are far to the right of the party's positions in Harold Washington's day.

Public education is a prime example. The Secretary of Education under Barack Obama is Arne Duncan, who was promoted to the top job nationally after presiding over the Chicago Public Schools and pushing a corporate school reform agenda. Given the bipartisan consensus on austerity and neoliberalism, even liberal Democratic mayors are compelled to administer cutbacks.

SO DOES all this mean that the growing opposition to Rahm Emanuel has to sit out the 2015 election?

Not at all. An independent campaign backed by labor, community organizations and social movement activists, could build on the widespread support for the CTU during its strike and for the parents, students and teachers fighting school closures. The idea has already been circulating for months: At a rally during the strike, several teachers and supporters shouted for Karen Lewis herself to run for mayor--but she waved them off with a smile.

A teacher--or another unionist or community activist--would be an ideal figure to lead an electoral challenge to Emanuel that's independent of the Democratic Party. While mainstream political commentators would deride such a campaign as "symbolic," the effort could be a powerful organizing tool for building the movement for social justice. It's even possible that one or two independent candidates for alderman could be elected, potentially creating a platform on the City Council for labor and the left to challenge Emanuel's agenda.

At a time when newspapers and other media outlets have slashed their staffs and narrowed their focus, activists are using their own publications and social media to reach a new and growing audience. That's a big reason why the Chicago teachers' strike was so popular, despite the outrage from editorial boards and Emanuel's political hacks. And it's a renewed social movement--not a new face in City Hall--that can resist the austerity drive.

Such a project would be challenging, but the potential to revitalize the left and progressive movements is real. If Rahm is determined to be Mayor 1 Percent, then the 99 percent should have a candidate of their own.

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