Striking Chicago public school teachers picket outside of George Westinghouse College Prep high school on September 17, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.
Washington, DC, September 21, 2012 - The past two weeks have seen the first strike by the Chicago Teachers Union in 25 years.
The Chicago public schools are the third largest school system in the United States, and with almost 30,000 members the Chicago Teachers Union is one of the flagships of public sector labor in the country.
The strike was provoked by the bullying of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former top official of the Clinton White House who had most recently served as the White House Chief of Staff for Obama. The teachers have suspended their strike pending a vote on whether to go back to work, but it is already clear that the results of this long-overdue labor action are disappointing.
Since the 19th century, the United States has had a strong tradition of free, universal, compulsory education, and no country can hope to remain competitive in today’s world without an effective educational system. Nevertheless, it is now the ambition of powerful corporate predators to asset-strip the US school system in the same way that Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital vulture firm has asset-stripped and destroyed so many companies.
These corporate privatizers want to realize the fabulous profits by putting an end to the Chicago public schools. In this enterprise, they are joined by a lobby of so-called “education reformers,” represented nationally by such super rich plutocrats as Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, and others, who have no background in education. The approach of these pseudo-reformers claims that the existence of teachers’ unions capable of collective bargaining is a betrayal of low income black and Hispanic pupils in big-city schools. They, therefore, claim that busting the unions will provide more resources for these pupils.
This philosophy of education “reform” is emphatically shared by Obama, who made his own attempt 20 years ago to destroy the Chicago Teachers Union through an initiative known as the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. This attack failed, mainly because of support from black parents for the teachers’ union. Another of these fake reformers is Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, who calls his union-busting program the Race to the Top. The ultimate outcome of this campaign is likely to be the end of free, universal, public education in the United States, with literacy becoming the privilege of the wealthy, as it was in the 19th century. Naturally, no modern nation can survive on this basis, but the incompetent US ruling elite is unable to see beyond their greedy desire to profit from the destruction of the teachers union and the public schools.
The so-called reforms demanded by Mayor Rahm Emanuel are part and parcel of this destructive effort. Emanuel is pushing an increased reliance on the scores attained by pupils on standardized tests when it comes to evaluating the performance of teachers. About 87% of Chicago pupils come from homes below the official US poverty line. Under Emanuel’s approach, if the standardized test scores decline, the teacher can be scapegoated and possibly fired, and the union weakened. A young inexperienced recent college graduate can then be hired for a much lower wage, and overworked until the inevitable point of burnout is reached a few years down the line, when the process can begin again.
Emanuel, a former soldier of the Israeli Defense Force who is famous for his rage fits and use of obscene language, behaved so atrociously that 98% of teachers voting approved the strike.
The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike on September 10 demanding a pay increase for teachers, better benefits, better job security, and also less reliance on standardized testing, plus an enhancement of music, art, and physical education in the public schools. They also want smaller classes - an idea recently ridiculed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who claimed that class size has no relation to academic success - an outright lie.
Editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times loudly condemned the teachers during their seven-day strike. But in Chicago, 66% of parents with children attending the city’s public schools supported the union, along with 56% of all voters in the city. As columnist Harold Meyerson notes, “the only groups that disapproved of the strike (narrowly) were parents of children in private schools and whites. (Blacks and Latinos supported it.) (Washington Post, September 21, 2012)
In addition, the Service Employees International Union Local One informed Chicago employers that it might launch a sympathy strike in support of the teachers. This could easily have escalated into a regional general strike of the entire Chicago area, or perhaps even of the entire American Midwest. Emanuel was threatening to seek a court injunction to force the teachers back to work when the tentative agreement was reached. It is likely that the union leaders were blackmailed with the argument that their strike was an embarrassment to Obama’s re-election campaign and had to be ended. Obama had once promised to walk the picket line himself if worker rights were threatened, but needless to say he did not appear.
The teachers succeeded in reducing the role of standardized tests in teacher evaluations, and they have obtained some additional measures for job security. But the Chicago teachers have fallen short so far because they do not have a program capable of expressing the interests of a broader sample of working people. For example: Chicago has the greatest flows of speculative capital of any city in the world with the possible exception of London, since it is here that the US derivatives markets are located. The Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Chicago Board Options Exchange are the scene of several quadrillion dollars in derivatives buying and selling each year. But, since these trades are not taxed in any way, not one penny of revenue goes to the city, to the state of Illinois, or to the US federal government. And yet, a 1% tax on derivatives turnover would allow - among other things -- the generous funding of a public education system adequate for the 21st century. National Nurses United, the militant union of hospital nurses famous for defeating former Governor Schwarzenegger of California, do support a version of the Wall Street Sales Tax.
The other problem was that the teachers lacked political strike support from outside groups with a nationwide and worldwide reach. Some might imagine that this was a job for Occupy Wall Street, but they were nowhere to be found.
Monday, September 17 marked the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Although this movement claimed to represent the purest form of grassroots participatory democracy, it was in fact controlled by some very shadowy and dubious operatives from the Adbusters Foundation of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which repeatedly issued orders to activists without any real prior consultation. Now, a year after its initial success, the Occupy movement has dramatically demonstrated its impotence. Even though real struggles by beleaguered working people - notably the Chicago teachers -- were ongoing, the petty bourgeois anarchists who dominate Occupy resolutely ignored real class struggle and preferred to act out their obsession with such dead-end tactics as attempting to disrupt the morning commute into the New York City financial district, or toying with fantasies about citizen’s arrests of bankers as they showed up for work in the morning. No working family facing foreclosure, hunger, or the inability to see a doctor will be comforted for one microsecond by the fact that some anarchist has harassed a zombie banker or hedge fund hyena on his way to work. Rather, real help is required.
In the fall of 2011, Occupy Wall Street was in action in an estimated 2,762 cities on all the continents of the globe. It was a movement that needed a hard-hitting program of class-based demands, an adequate organizational form, an evolving leadership, and a strategy for victory. Adbusters blocked all four. Then the black bloc moved in, and shifted the emphasis to infantile protests designed to shock the sensibilities of the middle class. The result is that this year, only a few scattered groups of several hundred protesters showed up for the program of fragmented protests, they were heavily outnumbered by the police. About 180 were arrested in a climate of general indifference on the part of the working people.
A realistic assessment of these developments was offered by New York journalist Matt Harvey, who wrote: “…Occupy’s trajectory towards obsolescence has been equally rapid, begging the question of whether the movement was able to achieve anything meaningful during its short life span…. Worst of all perhaps, despite its exciting rhetoric of economic equality, Occupy’s influence during a decisive election - when real issues determining the well-being of a majority of Americans are in play - appears to be nonexistent,” (Our Town Downtown, September 13, 2012). As the Baltimore Sun put it, “it is not the spirit of the protests [by the 99%] but the money of the 1% that is animating the presidential campaign.”
The hard-line reactionary Tea Party of 2009-10, which had a much narrower mass base than Occupy (although it also enjoyed better funding from wealthy reactionaries), was able to elect 75 or 80 fanatical ideologues into the House of Representatives, along with half a dozen senators. So far, Occupy Wall Street is on track to elect zero public officials at any level.
Independent of whether Romney or Obama wins the presidency, a battle is shaping up over Wall Street’s demand for a new round of deadly austerity against American working people. An attempt is being made to create a new line of class defense against austerity cuts on a united front basis, starting with a founding convention of a No Cuts Coalition in New York City on October 27. This will be an attempt to fill the political void left behind by the demise of Occupy.