The Chicago teachers strike is, arguably, the most important labor action to occur in a decade if not longer. At bottom, the issue is simple. Who will pay for the gross mismanagement represented by 30 years of pro-business economics? The Democrats are certainly the lesser of the two evils, but as the major’s intransigence shows, too many conservative Democratic are too willing to try to force teachers to pay for the sins of the fathers, in this case, ironically, that means, among other things, the Chicago school of economics. This is a test of raw political power against sheer ideological pigheadedness.
The theories advocated by Milton Friedman and his gang, with its freakish worship of so-called free markets and its irrational theory of rational choice, brought us to the verge of a second great depression. Thanks to Friedman’s policy grandchildren, now in power in the House, efforts to remedy the economic downturn through stimulus have been stymied. School districts, dependent on property taxes (and other federal, state, and local funding) have been doubly hit, first with the collapse of housing prices and then again with budget balancing economic policies cutting jobs and services.
Emanuel is using contact negotiations to quash union power and push reforms that would link teacher salaries to student evaluation scores. This “value-added” approach has been denounced in a public letter signed by 18 Chicago education researchers. (In such a system, teachers are rewarded for the “value” they add to student learning, whatever that might mean.) The researchers suggest that such a system is “in its infancy” at best, hardly ready for large-scale implementation. The union has a very different set of priorities, all focused on problems and not ideological dreams of privatization.
The teachers’ demands all center around making a start towards correcting the damage created by conservative economic policies and austerity-based budgeting, both in the schools themselves and in the neighborhoods around the schools. “We’ve seen public housing shut down,” union President Karen Lewis says, “public health clinics, public libraries and now public schools. There is an attack on public institutions, many of which serve low-income and working-class families.” I hope that President Obama is reelected but I also hope that the union wins and that, come spring, more unions begin to fight and win these sorts of battles.