Michael Dunn over at Modern School nicely outlines the coming contract battle between the Chicago Teachers’ Union and its employer, Chicago Public Schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to expand the school day by 90 minutes. The union wants a 30% raise, lower class sizes and greater enrichment opportunities for students. They have put money aside for a public relations campaign and are already making arrangements for a strike should contract negotiations break down. I agree with Michael Dunn in that teachers, even workers in general, across the country should keep their eyes on Chicago.
For teachers in New York City, seeing a union actually standing up for its members and students is strange indeed. It seems like it was just this past Thursday that our union sold us out by agreeing to a bonehead evaluation system based entirely on student test scores. In return, the union got absolutely nothing for its members, not even the due process for teachers rated “ineffective” for which they had been holding out. Our fearless leader Michael Mulgrew can be seen hobnobbing with the people responsible for the chartering in this, the country’s largest school district. If New York City schools serve as a model for the rest of the country, then there is plenty for the country to fear.
Chicago has been called the “second city”, but New York City teachers seriously need to consider it the first. It occupies an important place in the current wave of education reform. The current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, cut his educational teeth by chartering schools as CEO of CPS. The Race to the Top program championed by President Obama is Duncan’s Chicago program writ large. Chicago’s current mayor served as President Obama’s bulldog early in the administration. There is an argument to be made for Chicago, not New York, as the symbolic leader of school systems in the era of education deform.
There is a little more hope in looking to Chicago. Last year, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators won the election to lead the CTU. Their stand against charters, mayor control and top-heavy union leadership resonated with the teachers there, who have suffered through many education reforms longer than the teachers in NYC. Under the leadership of their charismatic new president, Karen Lewis, the union has been aggressive in its attempt to resist further corporate reforms. Part of their success lies in the tactic of tying the demands of the union to what is best for students, especially students of Chicago’s vast inner cities. It is hard for the corporatizers to paint the union as a bunch of selfish fat cats when their demands include full-day kindergarten and an equality of services throughout rich and poor neighborhoods. Needless to say, when the public relations battle over the new contract starts to heat up, they would be well-served to make this the centerpiece of their campaign. While a 30% raise is vital to offset the longer work hours, not to mention to make up for all of those years without a cost of living increase, it will play into the hands of the Emanuels, Duncans and Gates of the world who want to portray teachers as a bunch of bums with their hands out. Especially in the era of the Great Recession, it will be easy for CPS to drive a wedge between Chicago’s unemployed and underemployed on the one hand and teachers on the other over the salary issue. It is not so beyond the pale to imagine a man on the street television spot where a working stiff hard on his luck says, “I’ve been out of work for 2 years and these teachers want a 30% raise? Give me their jobs, I’ll do it for half the salary.”
Mayor Bloomberg’s public relations war against the union here in NYC has been wildly successful. This is due in large part to Bloomberg’s ties to the media as a former mogul himself. However, his success also has much to do with the fact that his accusations are true. Rank and file teachers are certainly not a bunch of well-fed union bums, but Michael Mulgrew and the rest of the leadership certainly are. Unfortunately, Mulgrew’s face is the union to many New Yorkers. Much like Randi Weingarten before him, all of his “looking out for the best interests of kids” rhetoric rings hollow, mostly because it is. With the millions of dollars the UFT pulls in annually, it took them up until a few weeks ago to run one measly television ad, a hokey and clichéd affair with pretty, mostly young teachers working hard in the classroom. Most of his effort is spent pulling off back room deals with Bloomberg and Cuomo. When the union leadership brings up children at all, it is as an afterthought, the requisite lip service coming straight from some PR handler’s playbook. Everyone in NYC knows this, giving the UFT no traction in the arena of public opinion.
Teachers in NYC have to take a page from CTU’s playbook now. When their union proved to be shills for the forces of ed reform, they turned the leadership out of office. When their Machiavellian mayor proposed a longer school day, their new union immediately responded with a deluge of common sense demands that school districts around the country have long neglected. Contrast that with a union that rolls over and dies in every negotiation and smiles in the face of their members like they did them a favor. It is time for New Yorkers to swallow their pride and give Chicago their due respect for having a teachers’ union ahead of the curve.
In terms of what needs to be done, teachers in Chicago are making theirs the first city.