Entirely aside from what the school strike has revealed about Mayor Emanuel’s executive incompetence  – or how he intends to spin the eventual outcome  – and far more important, there are several layers of historic significance to the teachers’ fight.
Here are three: it’s marshalled broad popular support in a period when public-sector unions are under assault on many fronts; it’s dramatized and exposed the costs and compromises of the corporate school reform agenda; and – particularly going forward, as the outcome unfolds – it represents a signal battle in the fight against the austerity agenda of the world’s elites.
They’re also teaching us about an old-fashioned value that we may hope is not yet out of date: respect.
The Chicago Tribune actually editorialized  that the teachers were on the wrong side of history, fighting the inevitability of corporate reform. On any given day, the editors could have looked out their window and seen the streets filled with multitudes of red-shirted teachers who were actually making history.
The paper seemed to become unhinged after its pet cause of merit pay was abandoned as Emanuel sought to avoid a strike. (That may have been the most startling revelation in the paper’s behind-the-scenes report  – that the mayor actually feared a strike. For a whole year it had seemed clear that he was actively courting one.)
First the Trib came out for vouchers . That’s the reformer’s nuclear option: if they can’t run schools without interference from anyone else, they’ll blow up the public education system. Then, as negotiations began to progress, they actually called on Emanuel to withdraw the latest CPS salary proposal  and go back to merit pay – no matter how long it took. All that concern for children out of school was apparently just for show.
Then they ran an utterly insulting op-ed by Bruce Rauner , Emanuel’s billionaire buddy who dabbles in school reform. While negotiators were trying to find common ground, Rauner and the Tribune was busy pouring gasoline on the flames.
As if that wasn’t enough, the paper then gave us an endorsement of Emanuel and denunciation of the union by none other than Jeb Bush , a major proponent of charters and of online learning – which, as Mother Jones notes , “siphons money from public institutions into for-profit companies” while it “undercuts public employees [and] their unions.” Like charters. (Problem is, also like charters, “many online schools simply aren’t very good.”)
Maybe they thought this demonstrated “bipartisan” support for their agenda, but for a mayor forced to shrug off a full-throated endorsement by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a shout-out by the brother of America’s worst president had to be a major embarrassment.
Who needs unions?
There is indeed history being made here, but its final chapter is yet to be written.
Over the past generation, private-sector unionism has been decimated, starting with the Reagan administration’s approval for replacement workers in strikes, and especially with the passage of NAFTA, one of Mayor Emanuel’s signal achievements. (And much as he likes to brag about saving the auto industry, he helped destroy hundreds of thousands of American manufacturing jobs by pushing NAFTA through a reluctant Congress.)
That’s led to an economy where corporate profits soar and the middle class sinks; de-unionization is a key factor in the dramatic growth of inequality since 1980 and the economic stagnation that’s caused.
Public employee unions were only organized in the 1960s (with support from people like Martin Luther King), at a time when public workers made much less than private-sector workers. Now the situation is reversed, and business leaders see a chance to destroy collective bargaining – and unions as a political counterweight to corporate dominance — once and for all.
Teachers and other public workers are under the gun across the country. Last year they made a heroic stand in Wisconsin but were unable to overcome the influence of big money, which sought to stir up resentment among regular folks who’ve seen their standard of living tumble.
Democrats against unions
In Chicago teachers confronted an all-out attack by Emanuel, who has campaigned against them since returning here. His stated goals of closing neighborhood schools and opening charters are clearly aimed at reducing the number of unionized teachers. And teachers saw a similar motivation  behind CPS’s evaluation proposals.
The anti-union animus is clear in some of Emanuel’s major supporters. Take Democrats For Education Reform, founded by billionaire hedge-fund traders.
“The financial titans, who tend to send their children to private schools, would not seem to be a natural champion of charter schools, which are principally aimed at poor, minority students,” notes the New York Times  in an article on DEFR.
“But the money managers are drawn to the businesslike way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results, primarily measured by test scores; and, not least, their union-free work environments.”
Then there’s Penny Pritzker, the billionaire heiress appointed to the school board by Emanuel, whose family’s Hyatt Hotels face a worldwide boycott  due to anti-union practices — among them, replacing union members with minimum-wage temps.
In the face of all this, the Chicago Teachers Union have given the nation a remarkable display of unity, solidarity, and militancy. They gave Emanuel a very public drubbing. And they’ve brought a new level of unity for all city workers, whose unions have been nibbled away bit by bit by Emanuel for the past year.
Two visions of school reform
The strike also puts two visions of school reform in sharp relief. As Diane Ravitch delineates , on one side are the billionaires pushing for school closings, charters, and cracking down on teachers. On the other are teachers and parents opposing the disinvest-and-close approach and demanding investments in smaller classes, social workers, and air conditioning (which Emanuel, in attack mode, ridiculed).
There’s history here too: as CTU points out , the so-called “accountability” movement (driven as Mark Naison demonstrates  by an entirely irrelevant business ethos) superceded an earlier era of reform based on the values of the civil rights movement – equality, inclusiveness, democracy, and public services to alleviate the impact of poverty.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the black-white achievement gap shrank. As Jitu Brown of KOCO  pointed out at Saturday’s rally, that progress has been reversed under mayoral control, under which that gap has steadily grown.
One accomplishment of the strike was to bring parents and community groups out to support teachers around a common agenda. Not only on the picket lines and in the mass demonstrations, but in the opinion polls too. As Emanuel moves next to close neighborhood schools and open charters, will that unity and energy keep pace?
At Saturday’s rally (which was amazing), I was struck by the deeper significance of a few of teachers’ slogans. Especially the demand for “respect.” You heard it again and again. And yes, it refers to the way Emanuel and the Tribune and Bruce Rauner and Jeb Bush talk about teachers.
But it’s also about how teachers are treated, and how teaching is treated as a profession. I ran into an old friend, Josh, who’s spent years in classrooms, most recently teaching social studies, first in a selective enrollment high school, then in an inner-city neighborhood high school.
The contrast was striking, he said. The first school had plenty of everything – including basic things like books, enough textbooks for every student. At the second school, kids had to share textbooks or teachers had to prepare their own materials.
The first school’s building was well-maintained and fully air-conditioned; the second school was run down, and only the principal’s office was air-conditioned. (That’s how it is in many schools listed as air-conditioned by CPS.)
“That’s something that’ll piss a kid off – that’ll piss anybody off,” said Josh. “The principal’s all comfy and the rest of the school is a heatbox.”
At the second school, kids were dealing with all kinds of issues, every day – getting arrested, getting pregnant, the gamut. In one section something like 14 out of 18 girls were expecting or new mothers.
The reformers view students more or less like sliders at a fast-food joint, he said – how many can you flip and how fast can you flip them. But each one is completely different from the next one. Not only that, each one is different from how they were three months ago.
Since social studies isn’t a tested subject, he was told to work on their reading, an area in which he has no background; he split the difference, teaching them how to examine a primary document – often going over it word by word – and how to think about those kinds of things more deeply.
He worked hard with them and was gratified every time a kid got something. It wasn’t easy. The small victories come one student at a time, with hard work.
Then enrollment dropped and his position was terminated. He spent a year as a cadre sub. Now he’s day-to-day, with no benefits. He was really interested in the proposed contract’s job security provisions.
High schools aren’t hiring middle-aged teachers, he said. Principals want young teachers. It’s basically because they’re cheaper, Josh says, but it’s also because they’re easier to shape.
The schools don’t want teachers who came up with those civil rights values. If they get teachers young, the new way of doing things, with its focus on test scores, will be the only framework they know.
And I look at this guy, who’s so sharp, so dedicated, who is exactly the kind of person you would want teaching your child. And there’s no place for him, because some politicians and business people have decided that the thing to do is destroy the teaching profession.
That’s disrespect on a level far more profound than the kind of language that’s used.
I hope the new contract provides real hope for this kind of teacher.
At the rally, Che “Rhymefest” Smith recalled a science teacher who tried to convince him to buckle down and graduate (while the principal discouraged him) — who signed him up for an alternative school when he dropped out, who later helped him fill out college applications. “I’ll never forget Ms. Harris,” he said.
“I realized that the system had failed me and the only person trying to get me back in the game was this teacher,” he said. “Truly I see a system that’s not only failing the children but failing the teachers too.”
Let’s remember Ms. Harris. And please, let’s give her some respect.