Over at the Guardian Richard Seymour, author of the recently published
American Insurgents, gives a concise account of what’s going on with the Chicago school system, what’s at stake in the Chicago Teachers Union‘s dispute with City Hall, and why it’s of major importance beyond the windy city and its Cook County Machine. In what may prove an epic battle, the joint crises of organized labor and the American education system come together, not up against a reviled Republican governor as in Wisconsin, but a famously pugnacious Democrat, former chief of staff to President Obama Rahm Emanuel, who’s bent on privatizing public schools and crushing one of the last bulwarks of the besieged labor movement, teachers’ unions. So, all eyes are on the CTU, whose plucky new leadership emerged from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). This is a story and a fight with compelling characters and massive ramifications, not least for the city’s south side, whose children live with the highest rate of black poverty in the nation. Seymour lays it out well, and has in fact been participating in the comments thread beneath the column, an act of heroism I’d ask of no columnist.
Last month, approximately 90% of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members voted for strike action. Only 1.82% voted against. This was a shock to the local administration.
Not only is this the heart of Obama country, where unions are expected to play ball with the Democrats in an election year. It is also a city where, thanks to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, teachers are not allowed to strike unless more than 75% of union members vote for it.
Yet it is not just the local establishment that will be unsettled here. This is getting national attention in the US, and a strike could be an embarrassment to President Obama. Moreover, it could re-ignite the American labour movement at a time of global unrest.
The basis of this dispute is what is innocuously termed “school reform”. This is a process of privatisation and union-busting. Since the 1990s, Chicago has been a laboratory for such reforms, which have been rolled out across the country. The programme enjoys the support of the Democratic leadership as well as leading pro-Obama liberals such as Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman was a lengthy attack on teaching unions and a tribute to private schools.
Chicago intends to open 60 new privatised, non-union “charter” schools in the next five years. Public schools are being closed to make way for this change and capital spending has been slashed. The CTU’s new leadership has been driving a campaign to tackle chronic underfunding in Chicago schools, and broaden the curriculum. They describe the system as one of “educational apartheid”, and demand an elected school board which reflects the needs of the city’s population.