The 29,000 striking Chicago teachers are sending the message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan) that their teacher bashing and privatization schemes for public education have become so onerous and destructive to the teachers' mission and profession that they have no choice but to fight back.
In this epic struggle to save a profession that is vital to the long-term wellbeing of the nation Mayor Emanuel finds himself in a role similar to that of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin: an anti-union corporate politician who is more than ready to play hardball with a public employees union. Unfortunately for him, his fellow Chicagoan, President Obama, for whom Emanuel served as Chief of Staff, is in the fight of his political life right now trying to win four more years. The timing of the strike couldn't be worse for the Democrats, and therefore packs a potent punch nationally because it lays bare how toxic the relationship between teachers and Democratic Party leaders has become in recent years.
This strike is not about wages or benefits or any other matter that might concern unionized workers in more prosperous times, this is a fight for the very survival of a profession (and a highly feminized one at that) that has been under relentless attack from sharks posing as "reformers." Emanuel and his fellow travelers appear to be more concerned about busting the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and turning over quick profits to education corporations poised to make a bundle on their privatization than they are on any common sense solution to the crisis they've manufactured.
This strike also shines a light on the deep and bitter conflict that's been tearing apart the Democratic Party since Arne Duncan launched his "Race to the Top" campaign. If Mayor Emanuel comes off as being too Scott Walker-esque, the repercussions of this battle, since President Obama is personally so connected to Chicago and Emanuel and Duncan, could cost him a lot votes and enthusiasm in the 2012 election.
The privatizers and profiteers from "Stand for Students" had a hand in lobbying the Chicago City Council to raise the threshold to three-quarters of teachers voting for a strike action before they could go out. But last June's strike approval vote of nearly 90 percent put that scheme to silence teachers to rest.
President Obama appointed his own "Chicago Boy" to run his education policy in the form of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was largely to blame for putting the Chicago school system on the terrible road it now finds itself. Duncan, in turn, appointed a gaggle of education entrepreneurs, corporate-minded "reformers" and privatizers to key posts inside the U.S. Department of Education, including Joanne Weiss, who was a partner and chief operating officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund, who had previously headed several education businesses that sold products and services to schools and colleges. (Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, p. 218)
Teachers and their allies in local communities across the country, amidst the most severe contraction of jobs and budget cutbacks they've ever faced, have been trying to warn the Democrats' education wizards that they're blowing it big time in beating down teachers and trying to turn their profession into a "business." The outcome the "reformers" have been pursuing for many years is to reduce teachers to interchangeable cogs in a corporate machine with few rights and negligible input into the management of their own profession. Across the country they have set out to reduce teachers' job security while imposing punitive actions upon them. If teachers don't obediently jump through a new set of hoops designed for "accountability" and the quantitative measurement of "student learning outcomes," they are told, then they are "impediments" to children's learning.
Emanuel, like Duncan, has shown repeatedly that he has no intention of really listening to the teachers' ideas or suggestions about how to work with them in a productive way. Like Wisconsin's Republican anti-union governor, Scott Walker, Mayor Emanuel would love to see the CTU buckle under. He apparently would have no problem with business executives managing the teaching profession in the same manner they would a widget factory.
Hizz Honor doesn't understand that if you want good teachers you must not only pay them what they're worth but treat them with respect and dignity.
We've heard for years now that teachers must make concessions and accept "painful" cuts and layoffs for the fiscal health of state and municipal governments; due to budgetary shortfalls, we're told, teachers must "do more with less." The howls for "accountability" have come at a time of economic crisis and public sector downsizing, teacher bashing and Tea Party ascendancy. The teachers have bent over backwards trying to satisfy the whims of the corporate-minded Edu-business entrepreneurs and their servants in City Halls and State Houses across the country, as well as inside the Department of Education.
But the teachers' concessions are never enough.
Apparently, the "reformers" won't be contented until they've reduced teachers in America to the status of interchangeable and fire-able Wal-Mart greeters. After all the layoffs and teacher knocking we've experienced in recent years, a lot of it orchestrated by that media darling Michelle Rhee and her well-funded acolytes, the least any mayor or governor or president who claims to be a "Democrat" should do is show a modicum of respect for the people who are charged with the awesome duty of educating America's children.
This CTU strike might finally open up the space for a real debate on the state of America's public education system, free of the propaganda coming from corporate sponsors who want to profit on the privatization of the system. We need to see far less of Michelle Rhee and far more of Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten if we're going to have an informed debate about this vital topic that affects our nation's future. So far the "debate" has amounted to misleading ads bankrolled by corporate sponsors depicting America's teachers as loafers and moochers and America itself as an obese idiot waving a flag.
Mayor Emanuel has thrown in his lot with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Governor Rick Scott and the rest of the anti-teacher, anti-public employee Tea Party crowd. That development cannot be a good thing for the long-term health of the teaching profession and labor unionism in America generally, as well as for the Democratic Party's chances in the 2012 elections. Did Emanuel forget that he's siding with President Obama's political enemies on this issue? Or has he cynically calculated that by beating up on teachers he's mining for political gold with "independents?" Whatever the political calculus in Rahm Emanuel's head he's dead wrong. It pits workers against Democratic politicians and when has that ever been good for the party?
Absent in the cacophony of teacher-throttling is the fact that teachers, who are the majority female workers, deserve union representation as much as any other workers do. These women and men in the teaching profession have to put food on the table and take care of their families, buy or rent a home, have decent transportation, and presentable clothes, etc. The union is the only vehicle making it possible for them to have a semblance of workplace dignity and protect their livelihoods. We've seen how teachers are treated in the "right-to-work" (for less) states and it's abysmal.
Why these corporate Democrats like Emanuel have it in for teachers when they comprise such an important bloc of the Democratic Party's base is a puzzle that can only be solved if one takes a hard look at the profiteers and privatizers among their ranks. Yet again we witness elite "Democrats" standing up "courageously" to beat down a vital element of their own base. No doubt mainstream commentators will swoon over Emanuel's "courage" to "stand up to" those evil teachers and their unions. Stay tuned for articles from David Brooks and the rest extolling the virtues of Emanuel's "tough" stand in screwing over his own party's base. (If you're a partisan Republican what's not to love about the spectacle?) Would Republicans ever do the same thing to their own base?
Emanuel and Duncan and Rhee and the rest are aligned with private schools and their kids would never set foot in a public school. They have a corporate mindset betrayed by the fact that all of their "reforms" end up, in one way or another, lining the pockets of education profiteers and pushing the systems toward privatization, mediocrity, and despair. What the Chicago Boys don't get is that teachers need to have morale, they need to feel valued or else they cannot do their jobs.
In the face of these demoralizing attacks teachers across the country have endured in recent years it's great to see their morale channeled into the tough but rewarding and powerful step in uniting together in solidarity by going out on strike. It's about time! Workers don't follow down the strike path lightly and it reveals to the nation the extent of the onslaught teachers have had to put up with from corporate "reformers" in recent years. They have pushed these professionals toward despair and demoralization and now they have a politically charged strike action on their hands. They can pretend to care about the children now and speak about what a terrible "inconvenience" it is to have schools shut down -- but since when was any strike action by exploited workers ever "convenient?"
If Mayor Emanuel, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama truly believe it's better to have a workforce of demoralized people fearful of losing their jobs at the administration's whim and tyrannized by standardized tests teaching the nation's children than working in good faith with their union representatives they're fatally misreading the politics of this teachers strike in Chicago and its potential ramifications. There are communities of educators across the nation that are boiling in anger and ready to go out on strike themselves when the time comes. This conflict is not isolated in the Windy City but has national significance.
Emanuel, Duncan, and Obama will be fools to enter into an informal alliance with some of the most reactionary anti-union politicians in the country. How this anti-union stand is going to help President Obama win re-election or help the Democratic Party in the long-term is anybody's guess. The last time Bill Clinton bent over backwards standing up "courageously" to his base to side with the Republicans on key issues - such as "free" trade and deregulation - the Democrats were rewarded for this "courage" by losing the House, the Senate, and the Presidency.
This is a good time for teachers, parents, students, and community activists across the country to stand with the teachers of Chicago and send a loud message to Emanuel and Duncan and Obama that only through productive relations with the people doing the hard work in the trenches of our public schools can real progress be made. Democratic leaders on the wrong side in this fight will regret it both in the short term (November 2012), and in the long run.
Follow Joseph A. Palermo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephPalermo1