The largely uncommented development in U.S. labor relations is that the largest assault on unions in decades is not simply a GOP affair–so-called “liberal” Democratic mayors such as Michael Nutter in Philadelphia and Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago (and not just them) are engaging in massive union busting in the name of “dubious” educational reform. In fact, the new face of the Democratic Party in dealing with teachers is the viscerally anti-union and test-score fabricator Michelle Rhee. She sees very well the anti-union tenor of the Dems and thinks it’s a good thing,
The inroads made by the education reformers go all the way to the top — to President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the “Race to the Top” initiative that required states to make reforms to get federal education funds — and they amount to a major shift for the Democratic Party on one of its signature issues. “These are some of the most high-profile Democrats out there,” Rhee says, also mentioning Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter, and her husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. “They are taking on the unions. They are fighting for what they believe in. It definitely signals a new day.”
And, of course, “taking on the unions” is a euphemism for stripping them of job protections and disciplinary safeguards, as well as setting up non-union shops in “charter schools.”
While Andrew has spoken of this dynamic in other posts here, it is worth emphasizing that the least politically astute of Rhee’s mayors, the bullying and bumbling Rahm Emmanuel, has actually precipitated a major electoral crisis for his party by his intransigence in negotiating with the Chicago teachers’ union. He is so desperate to create a patronage base for would-be campaign funders–the real reason for privatizing public education, i.e., the “charter school movement” (not liberal fairy tales such as “Waiting for Superman“)–that he is looking at the first strike of the Chicago Public School system in the last 25 years. Besides suppressing the vote in Chicago, as traditionally Democratic voters wonder why they should vote for a party so incompetent it can’t even run the city’s schools, it will cause mass desertion of the party’s loyal foot soldiers, union teachers, who every election cycle work hard to get out the vote. They have always done so in the belief that, as wretched as it is, the Democratic party is not as ferally anti-union as the GOP. Well, Mayor Emmanuel has fixed that perception. His plan to privatize a number of schools under corporate and “foundation” management (no friends of union members, these) and to strip seniority and classroom autonomy from teachers is not just aimed at suppressing wages, which of course it will. Like other big city mayors, Rahm aims to deprofesssionalize teachers and crater educational outcomes for students (real educational outcomes, not pretend outcomes like Rhee’s in DC, have done worse under “teaching to the test” and charter schools than the bad ol’ evil union teachers).
None of this is really surprising, however, as the Democratic National Convention began by airing an anti-teachers’ union film that caricatured teachers’ professional associations and loudly touted “reforms” (the “Race to the Top”) that would proletarianize most teachers. Frankly, the Chicago Teachers’ Union has already agreed to a number of Rahm’s proposals, but his insistence on tying teachers’ salaries and employment to outcomes they have little control over (test scores) tells the truth of the game. Mr. Rahm, like most of these “Waiting for Superman” Democrats really want to cut costs and privatize public goods for the donor class (see Rahm’s enormously stupid parking “reform,” well stupid except for his campaign donations). It is hard to see his “reforms” (like Nutter’s) as anything other than union-busting. And teachers, not being stupid, know that.
So, tomorrow hundreds of thousands of teachers will go on strike–damaging the democratic brand at the height of the election campaign and causing mass desertion of union foot soldiers. Prepare, as well, for the sort of teacher demonization and union-bashing that “progressives” bewailed in Ohio and Wisconsin. Despite the blather in Charlotte last week, the Democratic Party is no friend of the working man or women. Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have essentially the same educational “reform” policy (testing and privatization) but Mr. Obama’s big-city mayors are actually implementing this anti-union agenda. As is usually the case in American elections, the real issue is not between the “lesser of two evils,” but the more effective of two evils.
Fortunately for Chicago teachers, Rahm’s flat-footed actions at just the wrong time have given teachers some leverage. The City has returned to the negotiation table and is finally compromising, mostly to avoid the spectacle of a major strike during an election. I hope an agreement is reached–but I also hope union members remember what mailed fist is lying behind the Democratic velvet glove. It is long past time that the unions used the freedom of maneuver given them by Citizen’s United to support pro-union candidates and call out those who are unworthy of workers’ support, such as Barack Obama.