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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2012

All Issues
OCT 2012 Issue

Party No More

There are many lessons to be learned from the Chicago teachers’ strike. One is that rather than devote all of their efforts to supporting the Democratic Party, unions need to utilize the power of the strike in order to protect their interests. At the same time, the strike also illustrated the depth of the Democrats’ commitment to education “reform,” which by any measure is designed to undermine the power of teachers’ unions.

Consider for a moment the cast of leading Dems involved. During the week prior to the walkout, Rahm Emanuel gave a prime-time speech at the D.N.C., and while he was in Charlotte, Emanuel also officially gave up his honorary position in the Obama campaign in order to oversee the fundraising efforts of Priorities USA Action, the Super-PAC supporting the president’s reelection. Lest one think that such work may conflict with his duties as mayor of Chicago, keep in mind that Rahm is very athletic and quite capable of multi-tasking.

As Obama’s initial chief of staff, Rahm was supposed to use his vigor to whip Democrats into line—a job he did rather poorly. But raising money is this former investment banker’s stock-in-trade. In fact, Rahm is so adept at raking in bucks that as the Chicago Reader reported this past June, a financier named Ken Griffin—who is also a key ally of the Karl Rove, the Koch brothers, and Mitt Romney—along with his wife gave $200k to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign. The Griffins are major funders of Stand for Children Illinois, a group trying to weaken the bargaining power of teachers unions in the state. Like Rahm, ed reform is bipartisan. As just one example, consider the words of support for the mayor voiced at the outset of the strike: “We stand with Rahm Emanuel,” declared Paul Ryan.

Yet Rahm is far from the only Democratic big-city mayor to lead the crusade. L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, last seen presiding over a platform fight at the D.N.C. with an iron fist, wielded his influence as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors earlier this year, placing the group in support of “parent-trigger” legislation, which—as the new Hollywood propaganda flick Won’t Back Down makes clear—is an anti-union measure. And then there is Cory Booker, who in late May claimed to find the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s work at Bain Capital “nauseating.” Yet in early September, the mayor of Newark stood tall at the D.N.C., passionately delivering the party’s platform, which is suffused with the spirit of Occupy (and four years from now will be read as a work of fiction). Personally, any discussion of this Wall Street shill makes me nauseous, so let’s just say that Booker is clearly at the front lines of the fight for ed reform and leave it at that.

Democrats from Obama and Arne Duncan to the party’s leading mayors are thus all in for ed reform, and they are joined in the fight by a range of Hollywood types (including many current members of the Screen Actors Guild) and New York Times columnists (who were once members of the Newspaper Guild of New York). In this weepy melodrama, the two sides could not be clearer: Those who support ed reform are “for the children,” while those who support teachers unions want to deprive poor kids of a brighter future. The framing of this debate, you might say, is so elementary school.

One need not support every position that teachers unions take in order to affirm their right to exist. Consider for a moment the alternative. In the Teach for America model, energetic college graduates work in public schools for only a few years before moving on to graduate school and/or the nonprofit world, where they fund education reform initiatives. Gone is the idea that teaching is a career, where it takes the wisdom of experience to know how to deal with educating young people. When teachers’ contract renewals are left solely in the hands of school administrators, the rational move for the latter is to get rid of the higher salaries. Do the math.

And consider what happens if teaching is no longer viewed as a viable career. It would mean the closure of yet another avenue for working class folks seeking to achieve middle class stability. The manufacturing sector has rapidly diminished, and many other areas of public sector work (e.g. the post office) are in deep retrenchment. Obama and the Democrats may cherish the “middle class,” but in attacking teachers’ unions, they are further diminishing its ranks.

After Obama’s election in November of 2008, the honeymoon lasted all of 48 hours—the time it took him to name Rahm his first Chief of Staff. This time around, I’m expecting the divorce papers to arrive on Wednesday, November 7.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2012

All Issues