September 14th, 2012

life of the mind

They Schools

There are a number of symptoms of rot amongst the “New Democrats” — the dominant aggregation of technocratic centrists who have given us the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — that keep progressives and leftists from doing our party-bound duty to embrace new realities of forced austerity and class-unconsciousness.  Which is the most heinous depends on where you sit on the political spectrum.  For the human rights activists and the anti-war crowd, it’s the current administration’s depressing embrace of militarism and fondness for targeting killings and drone warfare; for the anti-statist libertarians, it’s the continuation of the drug war and the dismaying expansion of the security state.  But for aging class warriors like me, for those of us who cannot separate economics from all other issues, it’s the standoffish attitude towards unionism, the abandonment of the working class for the mushy middle and the donating uppers, that stings the most.  And nothing better illustrates how much the party has changed than the hostility and vitriol directed at the Chicago Teachers’ Union after their recent decision to strike by so-called ‘liberals’.

Bad enough to find anyone self-identified as a liberal Democrat opposing unions under any circumstances.  But we long ago lost the wisdom that bosses are always the enemy, and that owners will always be on the side of owners; ever since December of 1993, when Clinton happily signed NAFTA into law and dealt a crippling blow to American workers, Democrats have had a chronic memory lapse about the role of unions in the building of the liberal consensus.  It is, perhaps, all too easy to see why the neo-liberals have grown hostile to unionism; the ones making policy at the top are members of the investor class, the rentier class, the people who make money out of money and who have always been against giving productive labor a share of its toil.  And the ones at the bottom have made the fundamental error of thinking that if another group successfully organizes and realizes material gains, they should be brought down, instead of seeing that the thing to to is organize themselves and get what’s theirs.  (This is the same trick the bosses pulled with globalization:  they convinced almost everyone that the easy outsourcing of cheap labor overseas meant that America could no longer afford unions, when it really meant that we should encourage unionizing in foreign countries.)

There has been, even at this late date, no fundamental change in the dynamic between labor and capital.  The only differences are in attitude and scope.  People who ought to know better — some of them, like my father, lifetime union members — have turned against the unions and bought into talking points from the bosses they would never be fooled by on any other issue; others have new lives of comfort and value their own convenience over the right of workers to stand up for themselves.  Some have simply forgotten that the war against labor is always waged for one reason alone:  the enrichment of capital.  Meanwhile, the unions, already at their weakest point in a century, are under full-scale assault, especially in the public sector, by those (Democrats and Republicans alike) who want to make what is public private, to transform what is a community service for all into an engine of profit for a few.  That is what the CTU strike is about; that is what it has always been about.

It breaks my heart to see otherwise sensible liberals buy into such toxic nonsense, peddled by the same plutocratic authoritarians they usually have the good sense to scorn.  A (D) before his name doesn’t make Rahm Emanuel any less of a prick; privatization doesn’t become a virtue just because people you like favor it; and opposition to unions is always an aid to the bosses.  For any of my readers who are still on the bad side of this issue, I just wanted to make a few points about the CTU strike in hopes that you’ll see the opposition’s claims for the self-serving lies they are.

1.  The teacher’s strike is inconveniencing working families.  No doubt it is!  That’s exactly the point.  The purpose of any strike is to illustrate how shitty things would be without the service provided by the striking workers; once families realize what a massive part teachers play in their everyday lives, they should be more willing to support their demands, not less.  Many of the issues raised by the strike are ones involving the amount of time teachers put into the job, and the precious few resources they are given to manage that time; parents learning how drastic those issues are is a good thing.  Additionally, a successful strike should inspire working families to organize at their own jobs; unionism should always be about solidarity, not division.

2.  Public sector workers, especially ones in vital services like police, fire, education, and public transportation, should not be allowed to strike.  I can’t even believe I have to explain how misguided this is.  What you’re doing when you say this is telling people that their work is so important, they shouldn’t be able to ask for more money to do it, or to engage in any activity that will bring attention to the low pay or poor working conditions at their drastically necessary jobs.  If you don’t want public sector workers to strike, then give them the same wages, benefits and working conditions as people in less vital jobs.

3.  The teachers say that they’re striking over classroom conditions and other factors, but really, it’s over money and benefits.  The teachers are only allowed to strike over money and benefits.  Thanks to one of many heavy-handed laws passed in recent years to hobble public-sector unions, Illinois teachers are legally banned from striking over any issues unrelated to compensation.

4.  Regardless, the teachers are overcompensated already, and shouldn’t be striking for more money.  Even at their current level of compensation, Chicago teachers make less money than private-sector workers at the same level of education.  Many make far less than the commonly-cited average.  And since when is it acceptable for bosses to get as much money as they possibly can, but criminal for workers to get as much money as they can?  Especially when we tell them their work is so vital?

5.  It hurts children when teachers go on strike.  It hurts children when they’re subjected to terrible classroom conditions like overcrowding, no air conditioning, insufficient funds for classroom materials, testing standards that allow them to graduate without learning anything, and longer school hours with no systemic support.  Where was all this concern for the children over the last 20 years when privatization, standardized testing, and other misguided educational demands slowly choked the life out of public schools?

6.  The teachers are wrong to protest longer school days when the Chicago school day is already so short.  The protest isn’t about longer school days; it’s about lengthening the school day by fiat without consulting the teachers, and then providing them with no support for the requirements demanded by a longer day.  Look at it this way:  even if you only worked two hours a day, it would be a burden if your boss suddenly made you work four hours a day, but didn’t provide you with the tools, structure or support you needed to do an additional two hours of work.

7.  The ‘good’ teachers didn’t want to strike; they were pushed into it by their union’s leaders.  This is patent nonsense.  Of course, nobody ever wants to strike, but the city had innumerable chances to avoid a strike by addressing the CTU’s many complaints about working conditions and unfair practices.  Instead, they chose to provoke the union again and again, and passed measures like SB7, which was specifically intended to make it next to impossible for teachers to strike.  Instead of backing down, though, the union elected a populist grass-roots leadership, and when the time came to vote, the decision –despite new rules that made it harder than ever to approve such action — was almost completely unanimous, with a record 95% of votes cast in favor of the strike.

8.  The CTU is corrupt.  I have found no evidence whatsoever of corruption in the current leadership of the CTU, but there’s plenty of corruption to spare in the people who oppose the union.  If you oppose corruption, you couldn’t ask for a juicier target than Mayor Emanuel, and the massively crooked TIF (Tax Increment Financing) program, which siphons tax money away from public works for which they’re intended like parks, schools and libraries, and puts it in the pockets of rich and powerful private industries.

9.  The city has negotiated repeatedly with the teacher’s union in good faith.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Mayor Emanuel has unilaterally fought for privatization of public schools since before he was in office, despite the wishes of the vast majority of teachers; he’s also battled the teacher’s union non-stop and made no bones about his desire to break it completely. They are the last obstacle standing in the way of his desire to hand the whole educational system over to private enterprise, and he has been remarkably aggressive and bullying in his tactics against the union.  He canceled a standard cost of living increase for teachers, and then called them greedy; he supported the law restricting their ability to negotiate their contracts, and then called them intransigent; he approved huge raises for school board executives while opposing them for teachers; and he constantly rejected calls for educational system reform while claiming it was the teachers who were hurting children.

10.  The union is opposed to reform and just wants to protect bad teachers.  Nobody hates a bad teacher more than a good teacher, and nobody advocates school reform more than the CTU.  They’re just opposed to the ‘reforms’ proposed by the bosses, like privatization (which has shown mixed to bad results all over the country), arbitrary standardized testing (which has been a disaster) and firing teachers based on class performance standards which are largely beyond their control.  They have shown a willingness to discuss issues like charter schools, a fair evaluation process for tenure, and integrated testing, but when the school board is unwilling to budge even on issues like cost of living allowances, uncontrollable class sizes and air conditioners in classrooms, how far are they going to get with more sweeping reform measures?

For more information on the CTU strike, and why everyone should be behind it, see here, here, here, here, and here.