Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rahm vs. Teachers

Before he was elected, Rahm made no secret of his desire to smash the ability of Chicago teachers to have a voice in their workplace. His campaign rhetoric was loaded with anti-union sabre-rattling as well as heaps of praise for privatization/charters. He garnered large swaths of business support with "tough" statements threatening to neutralize the influence of teachers over their own work conditions. His tone was bellicose and uncompromising. This is, after all, the same person who publicly said "fuck the UAW" and called left-leaning supporters of the Democratic Party "fucking morons". So, when you think about it, all of Rahm's anti-teacher baggage was to be expected, given his background in the corporate world and Chicago machine politics. His tenure in the Obama Administration, notable for its glowing embrace and ambitious extension of Bush's failed education policies, did little to assuage fears that Rahm would come down hard on teachers as mayor of Chicago.

But the most recent assault on Chicago teachers is a low blow, even for Rahm.

On labor day, no less, Rahm and Co. engineered a stunt that resulted in 3 CPS schools allegedly voting to waive the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) contract. Rahm (and the virulently anti-union big Chicago media empires like the Tribune) have lauded this as a huge step forward for "school reform". Glowing endorsements of these "courageous" teachers have surfaced all over the business-friendly media landscape in Chicago. What's going on here?

Let me fill you in on the background: The CTU is 30,000 strong, and has a contract with CPS in place which includes a clause that enables particular schools to waive aspects of the contract if the members vote to do so. Rahm ran for mayor pledging to extend the school day in Chicago without paying the teachers a dime for their increased work day. Of course, when workers are unionized into a 30,000 strong union, you can't just push them around the way that charter school administrators push around their non-union personnel. Unions are organs of workplace democracy that give workers a voice and the power to force bosses to listen. So, naturally, Rahm understood that he wouldn't be able to persuade the teachers to increase their work day substantially without paying them for the extra work they'd be doing. He understood that he'd have to ram it down their throats; negotiation, he must have thought, would be a waste of time. Of course, the teachers still have a potent weapon to resist his onslaught: the ability to shut down the entire CPS system with a 30,000-strong teachers strike. So, in the uncompromising, strong-armed manner for which he is infamous, Rahm used his Washington-insider connections to push through a bill in Springfield that legally restricts the right of teachers to go on strike. This doesn't, strictly speaking, mean that the teachers won't still strike; many public sector strikes are technically illegal. But it gives Rahm and his corporate allies yet another weapon in their union-busting arsenal. Succinctly put: Rahm wants to force the teachers to work longer hours for less pay, and, naturally, the teachers want, god forbid, to be compensated for the work that they do. Of course, teachers already do a large amount of uncompensated labor (e.g. grading, lesson-planning, etc.) and many contribute large amounts of their own money in order to purchase necessary school supplies for their students. They're already sacrificing a great deal. If there was a shred of justice in this system, the CPS teachers would first get fully compensated for the unpaid work they're already doing, and only then would a conversation about extending the school day take place.

It is in this context that we must understand Rahm's recent stunt. What happened was that Rahm and his allies engineered a "vote" among teachers at 3 CPS schools to extend the workday and thereby waive the CTU contract. From Rahm's perspective, this is tantamount to "courageous" teachers willingly accepting a lengthening of their workday for the sake of the "greater good". In his ideal world, all of the CTU would simply roll over and work longer hours. This would, of course, fix all of the social ills of our society, and puppy dogs and ice cream would float down from the sky.

Now, aspects of Rahm's position appear to have merit if you know nothing about the political context, or the concrete details of the "votes" (which I'll get to in a moment). And, predictably, this event has been given a context-free, tendentious portrayal in the business-friendly Chicago media. But, situated in the context of a general assault on working class living standards, and a particularly focused and dogged attack on public school teachers, it's clear enough that this is little more than a bid to undermine the CTU's ability to resist the coming onslaught from above. Despite all of the soaring rhetoric about "reform", this move has little to do with improving education as such.

But what about the details of the votes? Every day, more and more damning facts have come to light. First off, CPS had to bribe the teachers in order to get the votes they needed. They offered teachers increased compensation, and in some cases I'm told that teachers were offered iPads and other electronic goodies for their classrooms. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars per school in increased compensation. Of course, this is only 3 out of 600 schools in the system. If CPS has the money to increase compensation no a system-wide scale, why are they crying poor and demanding that teachers accept longer hours for zero pay in the first place? Second, there is also evidence that teachers and other staff were under intense pressure from above to vote the way that they did. In addition, there is reason to think that protocol (as outlined in the legally binding CTU contract) may not have been properly followed, throwing into question the legal basis of the whole stunt.

Still, set that aside. Suppose these 3 schools really did have bottom-up, teacher-driven elections, and suppose that they did vote to extend their workday for increased compensation packages. What would this show?

It's unclear. This only 3 out of 600 schools. That's 0.5% of the CPS system. Since when does a 0.5% vote tally on anything signal a major news event? And if the teachers did willingly accept longer hours for increased pay, doesn't that cast doubt on the whole "work longer, get paid the same" argument put forward by Rahm and his minions? As I said above, if CPS extended the increased compensation on a system-wide scale, they'd already be on their way to giving the teachers what they've asked for in terms of raises and increased pay for increased work hours.

But these facts, inconvenient though they may be for Rahm, aren't going to slow down the assault on teachers. Only increased struggle can stop the onslaught. Sooner or later, Rahm will provoke a showdown in a bid to crush them once and for all. What our side needs to do is prepare patiently for this by building community support, building solidarity among the working class, and educating potential allies about the power politics playing out here. Rahm's aim, itself part of a national (global, in fact) political/economic trend, is to crush the bargaining power of public sector unions in order to push through cuts and austerity. Rahm is merely doing what the Scott Walkers and the Georgios Papandreous of the world have been doing for months. Through Tax Increment Financing schemes (basically huge slushfunds controlled by the mayor that are funded by skimming revenues from property taxes), he's continuing to funnel money to unaccountable corporate firms who need "inducements" and "incentives" to do business in Chicago. But Rahm and the city machine can't be bothered to give the teachers the pay they deserve or treat educators with respect. The priorities are clear.

Should the school day be lengthened in Chicago? Perhaps. It's not the silver bullet that Rahm makes it out to be, and it won't fix the structural social and economic problems that produce educational inequalities in the first place. But maybe it would do a bit of good and add some marginal benefits to the education system in Chicago. I'm not in a position to say one way or the other. But this much is clear: whether not the day should be lengthened should be decision that educators make themselves, democratically, in consultation with community groups and parents. It should not be decreed from on high by political cheerleaders for the privatization and corporatization of education. And should teachers be asked to work longer hours, they absolutely must be compensated for doing so. Moreover, as I say, teacher should get paid for all of the extra labor that they already perform before they are asked to do more uncompensated work. One has only to recall that many Democrats, Obama included, defended the bonuses raked in by bank bailout recipients to see the duplicity at work here. These robber barons, we were told, "earned" every dollar of compensation they received. Without such high pay, the old argument goes, these "exceptionally talented" simply wouldn't work in finance and the company would not be able to compete. The astronomical bonuses were necessary to motivate the "talented rich" to do the great things they do (e.g. like wrecking the global economy for a generation). But, you know, when it comes to rank and file educators, they're overpaid at $40,000/yr and should be worked much harder for less money, and so on...

One final thing. If I hear another oblivious liberal from somewhere outside of Chicago tell me that it "must be cool to have Obama's right hand man as mayor" I think I may have to puke on their shoes. First off, Rahm is a right-winger, even by the tepid standards of the Democratic Party. Second, his old "boss" is just as bad as he is. Here's an excerpt from Obama's Labor Day speech:
"When union workers agree to pay freezes and pay cuts, they're not doing it just to keep their jobs, they're doing it so that their fellow workers, their fellow Americans can keep their jobs."

"When teachers agree to reforms on how schools are run, at the same time they're digging into their pockets for supplies for those kids, they do so because they believe every child can learn. They do it because they know something that those seek to divide us don't understand. We are all in this together. That's why those crowds came out to support you in Madison and Columbus. We are one nation. We are one people. We will rise and we will fall together."

Translation: workers must accept living standard cuts because otherwise "we" (by which he means the government and the ruling class) will be "forced" to lay them off. It's not as if there are any other options here... like taxing the rich, ending the wars, and rebuilding US infrastructure with a major public works plan. Yes, Obama and the ruling class are literally "forced" to either push down living standards or fire workers and drive up unemployment even further.

And how about all of this "we're all in this together" rhetoric? It's funny, it only surfaces when the ruling classes need something from the rest of us. When they're banking, I don't remember them calling me up talking about how we're all in it together as far as the profits are concerned. And I don't recall hearing this "we rise and fall together" line when Obama was extending the Bush tax cuts at the same time that he slashed spending on health care, education and public transportation. If we're "all in this together", why doesn't he shield workers from all cuts by raising the marginal tax rate and ending the costly imperial ventures abroad? Because Obama is for Wall Street, not the jobless. He represents the ruling class, not the people.

Take note here. When it comes to cuts and sacrifices, suddenly "we're" all in it together. Suddenly gaping inequalities, racial hierarchies and oppression all disappear and, for the purposes of distributing sacrifices and burdens amongst the masses, we're one big happy family helping each other out. But when it comes to record profit margins, there is no "we" to speak of. When it's a matter of big private profits, Obama prefers to stick to the Reaganite refrain that the rich deserve their wealth because, well, "they've earned it". He makes sound as if the rest of us, working ever longer hours for stagnant wages to make this society run, are the ones getting a free ride. It's a simple formula: prosperity for the few, austerity for the many. And Democrat and Republican alike endorse it through and through.

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