Chicago Teachers Bring Hope and Empowerment to the Fight Against Plutocratic Power


Now that Chicago’s teachers have returned to work, their strike is being fought out again on an ideological level, with both sides claiming victory. But the rhetoric obscures the true nature of the outcome: the teachers and their community support have been strengthened, while limits have been set on the education administration’s privatization goals.

On the national stage, Michelle Rhee, the former head of the school system in Washington and now a school reform advocate, hailed the stand of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. She said that “it ‘signaled a new day’ that Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat, had taken on issues — like tougher teacher evaluations and longer school days — so thorny with labor groups, and had pushed them forward even in the crucial few months before President Obama, his former boss and ally, seeks re-election.”

To give an idea of the forces behind the drive for privatization, Rhee’s lobbying organization is funded by predatory billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who views the education system as a “500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.” He has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to push for-profit schools. According to PRWatch, “She [Michelle Rhee] was credited with greatly improving test scores in Washington, D.C. schools, but this accomplishment was cast into doubt by a USA Today investigation that suggested that test score gains during her term may have been the result of cheating on the part of school officials.”

In Chicago itself, a Democratic party PAC funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers to promote non-union charter schools launched a political-style TV and radio ad blitz featuring Emanuel claiming he achieved “the right deal for our kids” by negotiating a longer school day and the right to evaluate teachers using pupils’ test scores. All 350,000 students were given a two-page letter with the same message.

However, as In These Times points out, “In the public-relations battle over who was helping ‘the kids,’ the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) held its own by emphasizing how it successfully bargained for a commitment to hire 600 new teachers in art, music and other ‘enrichment’ courses. CTU also extracted promises from CPS to hire more counselors, supply textbooks by the first day of school and include a parent representative on a class-size review committee.”

The union also has its critics from the left.  Pedro Noguera, a professor of sociology at NYU, writes in The Nation that “shutting down a school system where the overwhelming majority of students are poor, black and Latino without offering a vision for comprehensive change is not sufficient.” Since the teachers do not control the resources available to the school system, it is absurd to accuse them of lacking a vision for comprehensive change. They certainly have a vision for improvements in the classrooms, as the promises they extracted from the school board prove.

Another critic, New York attorney Elliot Sperber, accuses the union of not being militant enough.  “Rather than striking to secure better working conditions and better pay, per se, the Chicago teachers’ strike is a defensive, conservative strike [to defend jobs]… [they] found themselves facing Rahm Emanuel’s threat of a court-ordered injunction. Cowed by this, the teachers’ union agreed to a compromise.” But in fact Emanuel’s injunction threat came after the union had finished its negotiations, while teachers’ delegates were carefully examining the agreement. Their decision was unaffected by the mayor’s bullying threats, which smacked of desperation in face of the solidarity of the teachers.

The Chicago education board had begun to concede on issues like class size after 90 percent of the teachers had voted to authorize a strike. They had abandoned the idea of merit pay before the strike began, according to the Chicago Tribune, but the key victories on evaluation and recall policies were gained because of the walkout. Teachers’ union attorney Robert Bloch said: “To the union, that completely changed the whole tenor of how evaluations really worked. To take out student scores, a volatile indicator, as a way to lead to firing teachers was a really big accomplishment.” Most of the final contract was negotiated during the strike, he said, including the concession most popular among the teachers – the ability to write their own lesson plans.

Sperber casts Emanuel as Machiavelli using the legal argument of public health and safety to mobilize state sanctions against the teachers’ union. But this only credits Emanuel with greater power than he actually possesses. He has lost public support, while the union has retained and increased its approval in the community. Harold Meyerson draws attention to the class nature of their support: “the Illinois political newsletter Capitol Fax commissioned a poll of Chicago voters that showed that fully 66 percent of parents with children in the city’s public schools supported the strike, as did 56 percent of voters citywide. The only groups that disapproved of the strike (narrowly) were parents of children in private schools and whites. (Blacks and Latinos supported it.)”

CTS leader Karen Lewis and her union officials are not bureaucratic functionaries, but working teachers who are focused on improving the schools. After winning the leadership of the union, they changed its structure to include all sectors of the profession and make its workings transparent. In a long and informative interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Karen Lewis described how on the negotiating committee “we had members from all over the city in different areas—high school, grammar school, our paraprofessionals, our clinicians—all on our big bargaining team, so that they could actually see the process of negotiations.”

She explained: “we purposely tried to change the culture of union so that the union is about education, is about empowering teachers and paraprofessionals and clinicians. And as a result, the union officers took pay cuts, significant pay cuts, so that we can have an organizing department, so that we can have a research department, so that we didn’t do the union the way the old union was done, because those days are over.”

Lewis is a founding member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), the group that reformed the union, which began when a small group of teachers formed a book group to read Naomi Kline’s Shock Doctrine in order to understand what was behind the school closings in the city. According to Lewis: “we started just trying to take off small bites of the apple by going to the school closing hearings, demanding that the Board of Education come to these hearings. … in the first year we started this, we got six schools taken off the hit list. That had never happened before. We changed the way the Board of Ed did things. The board members actually came to the schools. And we said, ‘You should at least come to the schools you’re going to close and look these people in the eye and explain to them why.’ And that had never happened.”

Their intervention restored the empowerment of parents and community members, who had felt that there was nothing that could be done to resist school closings. The teachers fought for parental involvement and school councils, and succeeded because they acted independently of the political parties and of the union bureaucracy, closely reflecting the grassroots membership. The union built bridges and support that strengthened during the course of the strike struggle.

As Lewis argues: “… the idea of the market approach for public education, as far as we’re concerned, tramples on democracy. You know, public schools are the place where you get to learn about democracy, and it’s been trampled out. And Chicago has the potential for that. We have local school councils of elected parents and community members and staff who are supposed to choose principals, evaluate principals, look at how the discretionary funds are spent. And the local school councils in schools that are very high-functioning, the local school councils are also high-functioning. But in the schools that aren’t so much, you find those aren’t functioning as well …”

In a measured, determined way, the Chicago teachers have successfully brought an organizing force and a pluralistic vision into the lives of working-class communities. This is the same spirit that motivated the Occupy movement, challenging the apparently overwhelming power of the plutocracy.

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Filed under 2012 Election, African Americans, chicago teachers, financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Neoliberalism, occupy wall street, public higher education, Rahm Emanuel, strikes

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