September 2012, Week 2


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Mon, 10 Sep 2012 21:41:05 -0400
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Chicago Teachers Uprising Takes on a 1 Percent
Mayor, and the Labor Establishment to Boot 

By Ari Paul 

September 7, 2012  


[image Chicago Teachers Uprising Takes on a 1 Percent
Mayor, and the Labor Establishment to Boot]

Chicago teachers could hardly be more united in their
disgust at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s assault on public
education. More than 98 percent voted to authorize a
strike, which union activists say is as much about
defending students and parents as it is about the
economics of their contract. And while school has
already started in the Windy City, the nation’s third
largest school system could be shut down by next week,
setting off a confrontation between a militant
rank-and-file teacher movement and the mainstream of
the labor movement and its allies, the Democratic

Mainstream media have focused on the economic issues,
the union’s rejection of 2-percent raises and merit
pay, as the meager raises would be offset by cuts to
healthcare benefit concessions. But what makes this
possible work stoppage different--the first big-city
teachers strike since a 16-day walk-out in Detroit in
2006--is that the union is making this a fight in
defense of parents and students. “It’s central to who
they are,” said Steven Ashby, a professor at the Labor
Education Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago
who has been consulting for the union.  “Fighting for
smaller class sizes, a social worker in every school, a
nurse in every school, pretty much what all the
suburban schools have.”

The countdown to a strike is a showdown between the
Chicago Teachers Union’s reformist president Karen
Lewis--who was elected in the summer of 2010, ending
decades of top-down leadership--and Mayor Rahm Emanuel,
President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff, who
spoke at the Democratic National Convention as Chicago
was preparing for a strike. The stand-off is a wake-up
call for unions who every election year throw their
time and energy into electing Democrats, who happily
accept union funds and use members as door-knockers.

CTU bargaining committee member Sarah Chambers
explained that the union's united effort to authorize a
strike was emblematic of the anger toward the Emanuel
administration’s spending on charter school expansion
and dedication to testing. Chambers estimated that the
city spends $100 million on charter school expansion
and that “if you took just half of the money for
charters we could have an entire city of small class

The issue of class size has been key for getting
parent’s support; a union study found that Chicago
public school class sizes were among the highest in the
state of Illinois. “Reducing class sizes can lead to
improved teaching and learning,” Lewis said in a
statement. “In a smaller classroom, a teacher has more
time to get to know each student's academic strengths
and weaknesses; students receive more attention and
teachers can spend more time helping students learn and
working with parents.”

Indeed, a Chicago Tribune poll [3] found in May that a
majority of voters believed that if teachers were to
work longer, they should get paid more. “Sizable
majorities of Chicago residents as a whole (86 percent)
and public school parents (92 percent) agreed with that
concept,” the paper reported. It also noted that,
“Among all respondents, 40 percent sided with the
union, compared to 17 percent who backed Emanuel.”

Progressive education activists criticize the corporate
reform approach because it focuses so much on
numbers-based testing, which along with merit pay
encourages teachers to “teach to the test,” rather than
engage in critical thinking. Charter school advocates
have painted teachers unions as the road-block to
reform, but skeptics note that charters thrive on
cultivating young teachers who burn out quickly, while
unions offer teaching as an actual career.

While charter school advocates say students perform
better under a privatized environment, educators
question the integrity of their metrics, many of which
rely on testing. One of the most vocal of these critics
is Diane Ravitch, an early pioneer of the charter
school movement, who argues privately run schools were
meant to augment public education, not replace the
whole system. Michelle Rhee, a heroine of the corporate
reform movement as the head of the Washington D.C.
school system, fell into hot water when the city
launched a probe last year into allegations of
widespread cheating on standardized tests.

Further, CTU has been quick to point out that the
spending in Mayor Emanuel’s plan favors already rich
areas like downtown and Gold Coast, exacerbating the
already apartheid-like dichotomy between the poor
African American South Side and the wealthy white North
Side. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell
University’s School for Industrial and Labor Relations,
noted that these African American voters would likely
side with the union if it went on strike.

“If I were going to place a bet on a city that would
not turn anti-union, that would be Chicago,” she said.
“Rahm Emanuel is risking becoming a bad guy.”

Organizing for the strike, teachers have used the same
kind of bottom-up organization that the Lewis
administration has implemented in the union, one that
contrasts with the conventional union structure that
empowers paid staffers instead of rank-and-file

“It’s about going out to the schools and talking to
teachers one-on-one and building up delegates, rather
than before, where if there was a problem in your
school, you just called the field representative,”
Chambers said. “We found out that did not work.
Delegates and leaders are really standing up and
solving issues on their own.”

As far as strike preparation is concerned, Chambers
said, “We set up contract action teams. They started
making actions and doing various things to organize our
schools. That really helped us.”

Such organizing sharply conflicts with the
business-like model of many major labor unions, which
have come to value working through inside channels and
playing politics rather than mass mobilization. As
education activist Deborah Meier said in an interview
earlier this year, “To fight an enemy like the
education bureaucracy, the union developed its
comparable bureaucracy.”

On the one hand, American Federation of Teachers
president Randi Weingarten, who has been in Charlotte
attending the Democratic National Convention, supports
the strike effort, saying in a statement, “This level
of participation and engagement by Chicago's educators
is both inspiring and instructive. It represents not
just anger and frustration, but also a real commitment
to Chicago's students and a desire to be active
participants in building strong public schools that
help all Chicago children thrive.”

Yet, she also appeared with Mayor Emanuel in June at a
Clinton Global Initiative conference in Chicago as a
partner in a joint effort to address education and
public investment, not long after the CTU held a
10,000-person rally in support of teacher demands. Many
CTU members saw this as a slap in the face, not just to
them, but to the union spirit of “which side are you

This is hardly an accident. Labor activists pointed out
that in 2007 then-Senator Obama had promised as
president he would “walk on that picket line” if
collective bargaining was ever under attack, but the
president hardly lifted a finger to support the Madison
uprising. Yet for major labor leaders, all is forgiven.
Consider 2010, when Andrew Cuomo ran for governor of
New York on the promise that he would confront
public-sector unions, yet construction trades unions
backed him [4] because they acquire more work through
development. Governor Cuomo has followed through on
that promise, and has been able to gang up on labor,
sadly, with labor’s electoral help (the labor-backed
Working Families Party endorsed him as well).

National labor leaders like Weingarten have to play a
delicate game with bigwigs like Emanuel, and her recent
cordial appearance with the mayor shows the problem
with this kind of closeness to the Democrats. In fact,
much of the passion for charter schools and the trend
to bash teachers’ unions in recent years comes not just
from the far right, but from the core of the Democratic
Party.  Davis Guggenheim, who made the pro-charter
schools movie Waiting for Superman, is an outspoken
Obama supporter and made a film for the president’s
re-election campaign. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne
Duncan, who comes from Chicago, is unabashedly in favor
of more privatization. President Obama’s deputy
campaign manager Stephanie Cutter boasted on Twitter
earlier this year that the president’s relationship
with teachers unions was “anything but cozy.”

This isn’t to say Republicans are better. In fact, they
are more ferociously against workers rights than ever.
To put this into perspective, Ronald Reagan, a
notorious union buster, even had some detente with
labor; he was exiting a meeting with the AFL-CIO when
John Hinckley attempted to assassinate him. George W.
Bush got a re-election push when he gained the
endorsement of the New York City firefighters’ union in
2004. Now, they have thrown all caution to the wind,
and gunned for the last bastion of union power in
America: the public sector.

While every election year unionists see the Democrats
as a defense against Republican aggression, it doesn’t
make sense to for teachers’ unions to side with
Democrats because they take a “we’ll kill you slower”
approach, and observers see the Chicago mobilization as
a departure from business-as-usual. Earlier this year,
radical unionists lamented labor’s choice [5] to bring
the energy of the Madison uprising against Governor
Scott Walker into the electoral arena, with many
calling for a general strike. The recall effort failed,
not just in terms of unseating Walker, but in
channeling all the grassroots energy of Madison into a
mundane affair that was easily smashed by big money.
But some see the showdown in Chicago as a positive
response to the failure in nearby Wisconsin. “Teachers
across the country are watching this very closely,”
Ashby said. “It’s exactly what the labor movement

Even as unionization in the private sector shrank
steadily after Reagan came into power in the 1980s, the
public sector seemed immune from that trend. But
Wisconsin and attacks on the teachers unions from the
likes of Emanuel prove that since the economic downturn
began in 2008, the 1 percent has seized the moment as
its best chance to cleanse our democracy of this small
sector of working-class power. Many public sector union
leaders appeared caught off guard, having perhaps grown
too comfortable in their positions, unable to believe
that they could be in the same position as
manufacturing unions.

“[Public sector unions] grew up depending on the
political system, particularly the Democratic Party,”
said Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the CUNY
Graduate Center who has written extensively about labor
and class politics. “They didn't think even Republicans
in power would try to roll back their gains. They're
not accustomed to the traditional trade union tactics
like the strike weapon.”

CTU members, however, are picking up where these labor
leaders have dropped the ball.

And, as Bronfenbrenner noted, teachers unions are going
to have to learn to act like industrial unions which
have had to fight multinational corporations to fend
off extinction, as a great deal of support for
education privatization comes from the financial

“They're now having to research and figure out who
these powerful investors are, who are investing in
their legislators,” she said. “They're fighting against
being eliminated just like private sector workers.” 


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