[Marxism] As Chicago Teachers Head Toward Strike, Democrats Turn on Their Union

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 8 08:14:11 MDT 2012


As Chicago Teachers Head Toward Strike, Democrats Turn on Their Union
Theresa Moran
September 7, 2012

With Chicago teachers preparing to strike Monday, unionists say it's a 
“which side are you on?” moment for Democrats. But from the looks of 
this week's convention, it would seem Democrats have already made their 
choice. Photo: CTU.

Have Democrats abandoned teacher unions in their pursuit of a 
corporate-backed education overhaul? From the looks of the Democratic 
National Convention, it would seem so.

At the podium, speakers like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former North 
Carolina Governor Jim Hunt praised the Obama administration’s 
willingness to embrace such change, singling out the controversial Race 
to the Top program for special attention. The program requires states to 
link teacher evaluations to student standardized test scores and pushes 
charter schools and ‘turnarounds’—in which at least 50 percent of 
teachers are fired—to replace struggling public schools.

The program fits perfectly with the corporate reform agenda of 
destroying job security for teachers, privatizing public schools, 
testing everything, and turning whatever can be quantified into a 
statistic, no matter how disconnected from the realities of teaching 

As he praises corporate reform on the federal level, Emanuel has 
fomented a confrontation over education reform in his hometown. The 
26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union looks to be heading for a strike 
Monday over class size, better funding for school programs and services, 
fair pay, and job security.

Observers see the strike as a “which side are you on?” moment for 
Democrats. On one side is the teacher union, which says too big class 
sizes, too few school services, and too little support for teachers are 
the problems. On the other are the corporate-education pushers, who heap 
blame on bad teachers.

“There are two distinct constituencies with conflicting goals and we’re 
going to highlight that with a strike. You can’t gloss over it very 
easily,” says Bill Lamme, a Chicago public high school teacher.

Some Chicago teachers think Obama could not stomach a strike in his 
hometown on the eve of the November election and will lean on Emanuel, 
his former chief of staff, to settle. Others fear national Democrats 
could welcome the chance to look tough by fighting the union. If the 
Democratic convention is any indication, their fears may be warranted.

Parent Tricker

The teacher-bashing at the Democratic convention started Monday with a 
pre-release screening of the anti-union drama “Won’t Back Down,” 
sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform.

DFER is a political action committee made up of hedge fund managers 
seeking investment opportunities in education. The group supports 
privatization, vouchers, merit pay, teacher evaluations based on student 
test scores, and doing away with teacher tenure. It flaunts its 
hostility toward teacher unions.

The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhall and Viola Davis, shows a mother and 
a teacher battling an evil teachers union to convert their struggling 
public school into a charter through a “parent trigger” law.

While at first blush it sounds like a feel-good tale of community 
empowerment, the film has drawn sharp criticism from teacher advocates 
for its unfavorable portrayal of urban teachers and their unions.

The film shows “bad teachers” locking students in closets, making 
personal phone calls during class, forbidding bathroom breaks, and 
refusing to help students after school, citing fictitious “union rules” 
that prohibit them from doing so. The union, in turn, is cast as these 
teachers’ self-interested protector, with one union official attributing 
a made-up quote to teachers union leader Albert Shanker, saying she’ll 
start caring about children when they start paying dues.

“I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in the movie, and I don’t 
recognize that union,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American 
Federation of Teachers in a press release last week.

The average viewer would never guess that teachers across the country 
work an average of 53 hours per week, planning lessons, talking to 
parents, grading papers, and giving struggling students on-on-one help 
in addition to their daily classroom duties. In Chicago, the average 
number of hours worked is 58, according to a University of Illinois study.

They’d never guess that teacher unions like the CTU would be willing to 
walk out not only for better working conditions, but also in pursuit of 
a well-rounded, well-resourced education for their students.

Instead, viewers see lazy teachers who need to be removed and an 
obstructionist union standing in the way of making improvements for the 

Despite the mismatch with reality, the Democratic National Committee 
showed the film, which also played to a standing ovation at the 
Republican National Convention last week. The White House declined to 
weigh in on the decision to screen it. Reports say DNC Executive 
Director Patrick Gaspard, who spent nine years at SEIU 1199, made the 
call to show the film.

The DNC not only signed off on the screening, but some of the party’s 
best and brightest joined in on a panel to promote the “parent trigger” 
afterward. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, wunderkind Newark Mayor Cory 
Booker, and Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles mayor and convention 
chair, joined corporate-education champion Michelle Rhee and Ben Austin 
of the California-based astroturf group Parent Revolution for the 

In fact, Democrats aligned with the corporate education agenda were 
instrumental in the US Conference of Mayors’ endorsement of parent 
trigger as part of their education platform. Villaraigosa voiced his 
support for the measure at a June press conference after the resolution 
was passed, saying, “parent trigger is one of a number of tools we need 
to achieve the highest standards in our urban schools.”

The real story of parent trigger, however, is not exactly Hollywood 

Parent trigger laws, in place in seven states, allow for schools to be 
gutted of their staff, turned over to private charter operators, or shut 
down completely, by a simple majority vote of parents.

Parent Revolution, which gets funding from foundations backed by Walmart 
billionaires, is behind the only two attempts thus far to pull the trigger.

At McKinley Elementary in Compton, outside Los Angeles, the group had 
already chosen a company to operate the hypothetical new charter school 
when Parent Revolution staffers began canvassing parents with petitions 
for “school improvements.”

Parents alleged intimidation and the Compton school board ultimately 
rejected the petition due to the lack of a legally required review 
process in choosing the charter operator.

When parents at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, California, began 
questioning Parent Revolution’s proposed restructuring plans, a judge 
ruled that they couldn’t take back their signatures from the trigger 
petition. So much for democracy.

In March, a parent trigger bill was introduced in Florida, backed by 
Parent Revolution and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Heavy lobbying by the very parents the legislation’s supporters said it 
would empower defeated the bill.

The 330,000-member Florida Parent Teacher Association led a coalition of 
parent groups against the bill, including Parents Across America and 
Fund Education Now. They alleged that the legislation, called “parent 
tricker” by opponents, had nothing to do with empowering parents and 
everything to do with privatizing public schools.

Bashing Unions at Home

Watching these Democrats whip the anti-teacher wagon is no surprise to 
those who’ve dealt with them back home.

Villaraigosa, a former union organizer with the United Teachers of Los 
Angeles, has pulled away from his labor roots to become one of the 
corporate education agenda’s most vocal proponents. In a 2010 Huffington 
Post editorial, he called teacher unions an “unwavering roadblock to 
reform.” The L.A. mayor has also been a huge backer of school 
privatization, particularly through the city’s School Choice program 
that has closed scores of schools and handed them to private entities. 
(Teachers, meanwhile, fought alongside parent and student groups to keep 
schools in public hands and launch reform initiatives that met student 

Villaraigosa was an active supporter of the corporate reform groups’ 
successful lawsuit that tied L.A. teacher evaluations to student test 
scores, going so far as to personally file an amicus brief advocating 
the change. Teachers say basing everything on test scores kills student 
inquiry and reduces learning to rote memorization and test practice.

Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party and 2016 presidential 
hopeful, sits on Democrats for Education Reform’s advisory board. He has 
called teacher tenure “poisonous” and not only supported Republican New 
Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s sweeping attack on tenure, but also 
said it didn’t go far enough. The new law ties the granting of tenure to 
student standardized test scores, but still allows for seniority to be 
used in the case of layoffs.

Booker, who’s been a strong proponent of charters in Newark, has gotten 
some flak for his ties to hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. 
In his first mayoral race, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital was among his 
biggest funders.

Even Democratic Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who’s been openly 
skeptical about charter schools, supported an initiative that gutted 
seniority rights for teachers in the state. He even went so far as to 
say that he’d intended to tackle the issue himself.

Taking a Stand

And of course there’s Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, who has continued a 
decades-long push by Democrats in the city to starve schools in Black 
and brown neighborhoods of resources, implement test-score evaluations, 
close schools and fire staff, and open charters. Lately, he’s been 
pushing a longer school day and year, ignoring the many hours teachers 
put in after school and at home, and acting like more time—not 
resources—will fix what ails public schools.

Chicago teachers have pushed back against Emanuel and have gained ground 
even without a settlement, getting the city to create 500 new teaching 
positions for understaffed schools, securing recall rights for recently 
displaced teachers, and forcing merit pay off the table.

In a report last year, CTU noted that research on merit pay has showed 
no benefit to student achievement or in retaining better teachers, and 
has harmed trust and collaboration among peers. Merit pay schemes, 
however, have further skewed instruction toward test prep.

Lamme says Democrats know that a defeat of the corporate education 
agenda in Chicago could reverberate on the national stage.

“They can’t give in too much and allow for a turning point,” he said. 
“They see the stakes like we do. That’s why we’re trying to turn the 
tide on these horrible policies.”

[2] http://labornotes.org/2011/01/education-reform-union-way
[7] http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/text/Merit_Pay.pdf

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