[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]
I would normally not pay much attention to a teachers strike in an American city—or in any city (not even my own in the Paris banlieues, now that my daughter has graduated from high school)—except, in the particular case of the one underway in Chicago, for (a) the obvious national political context, (b) the identity of Chicago’s mayor (of whom I am not a fan), and (c) the fact that Chicago is my city in the US, to which I am affectively attached, and where I have been a registered voter for the past 30 years (though as I don’t pay Illinois taxes, may not vote for local or statewide offices). When it comes to strikes, I normally support them—in the US and in the private sector—, out of a reflexive support of trade unions (and simply because I am on the left side of the political spectrum and have working class roots on more than one side of my family). And I remember the Chicago teachers strike of 1987, which was so obviously justified in view of the miserable salaries teachers earned ($14,000/year was the beginning salary at the time). But I’m not sure about this one. Living in France for 20+ years has soured me on public sector unions—I specify public sector—, and particularly teacher unions (les syndicats des enseignants). And despite the fact that I had a college internship at AFSCME HQ in Washington way back when. Now the situation of public sector unions in France and the US is not the same—in France public employee unions can call strikes at the drop of a hat, for any goddamned reason, and at any time, and the public be damned—, but still…
So I’m trying to figure this one out. NYT columnist Joe Nocera had a convincing commentary against the teachers strike but Rick Perlstein in Salon and Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker had equally compelling commentaries supporting the teachers. I also think of Diane Ravitch, the (moderate) Republican education policy analyst and historian—and who served in the Bush 41 administration—, who has substantially revised her views on education reform (and specifically charter schools) in recent years (see her highly informative and insightful essays in the NYRB here). And earlier today I asked David Kusnet, whose views on such matters I hold in high consideration, for a quick take of the Chicago strike. His response: “From a distance, seems like a cry of pain from people who do a thankless job and feel disrespected. Education reform should stress collaboration, not conflict.”
So like I said, I’m figuring this one out. Views of Chicagoans who have (or have had) kids in the public school system are welcome.
UPDATE: I’ve received feedback from a few old Chicago friends. This from Tim
Hey Arun. Screw the out of town columnists who are trying to fit this into some national political narrative. I’m with the teachers 100% and I have two kids missing school (which I can’t say for Rahm and most of his big contributors). Carol Marin does a good job summing up how we got here.
Carol Marin is a sharp, longtime Chicago political reporter.
Here are the views of Madeleine, who worked professionally for a number of years on school reform in the city
I don’t fault the teachers for striking. There was no contract by deadline, what would you have them do? I don’t think they were being particularly unreasonable in demands or negotiations, or were looking for a strike. My impressions of Rahm in this – first, overall, that he sees his job as being about money, money, money – raising revenue, cutting costs (understandably b/c were headed for fiscal cliff, hence timing of Daley’s retirement). However, his job is actually to look out for the welfare of the city as a whole, which is not exactly the same thing. And Rahm & teachers -Rahm came out swinging (oddly, unprovoked). One of the first things he said after election was that he wanted a longer school day, no salary increases as if he were ‘taking on’ the teachers. Really? Huh?…At this point it’s feeling like an existential struggle over what teaching/learning will be like in Chicago schools. But it may go back to being about an employment contract before it’s all resolved – and no reason that couldnta happened before now. ps I’m pro-charter -but not anti-union. Union is not what keeps us from successful schooling.
And this from Marcia, who was a longtime city employee (at the public library)
Hi Arun, As for public sector unions, AFSCME was the only protection we had as city employees from patronage and corruption. How many strikes have there been? This is it in the last 25 years. Now that UIC faculty have voted for a union, I’m in a public sector union again. I don’t see us going on strike, but the union is a offering us a voice of sanity and reason in an insane State system.
Well, I’m convinced. Also, the fact that Rahm Emanuel is the union’s adversary here almost reflexively causes me to side with the teachers.
2nd UPDATE: Diane Ravitch has a short post on her blog asking “What does Mayor Rahm want?” She links to a useful analysis by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post on “The real problem with Rahm’s school reforms in Chicago.”
3rd UPDATE: I like the image below. (h/t Roane Carey)
4th UPDATE: Harold Meyerson has a hard-hitting column in WaPo on the Chicago strike and its implications for the Democratic party. He is not tender toward Rahm Emanuel.
5th UPDATE: Jordan Weissmann, associate editor of The Atlantic, has a column defending teacher strikes, in which he asserts that “some issues can only be resolved fairly in a public fight.” This passage is particularly important
But public sector unions also have redeeming qualities that arguably make them essential. For one, they’ve historically helped make government compensation more equal with the private sector, which is crucial if you believe in attracting talented people to public service. They create transparency by forcing state and local governments to negotiate contracts, which set concrete standards that allow the public to understand why specific workers are paid what they’re paid. And, sometimes best of all, they get in the way of reforms. Politicians come up with awful ideas for how to make government run better, and it’s important to have a conservative, countervailing force. Unions help make sure that local and state government’s aren’t run via management fad.
This echoes what Marcia said in the 1st update above, about public employee unions offering protection—for public employees and taxpayers alike—from patronage and corruption (which is particularly important in a city like Chicago).
6th UPDATE: Kevin Drum in Mother Jones asks “Why do people hate teacher unions?” Political scientist Corey Robin asks the same question on his blog and provides the answer: “Because they hate teachers.”
7th UPDATE: Diane Ravitch, to whom I defer on education issues—and whom Corey Robin in the link above correctly calls “indispensible”—, settles the matter of the Chicago strike in a post on the NYRB blog, “Two visions for Chicago schools.”