Chicago teachers could hardly be more united in their disgust at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s assault on public education. More than 98 percent voted to authorize a strike, which union activists say is as much about defending students and parents as it is about the economics of their contract. And while school has already started in the Windy City, the nation’s third largest school system could be shut down by next week, setting off a confrontation between a militant rank-and-file teacher movement and the mainstream of the labor movement and its allies, the Democratic Party.
Mainstream media have focused on the economic issues, the union’s rejection of 2-percent raises and merit pay, as the meager raises would be offset by cuts to healthcare benefit concessions. But what makes this possible work stoppage different–the first big-city teachers strike since a 16-day walk-out in Detroit in 2006–is that the union is making this a fight in defense of parents and students. “It’s central to who they are,” said Steven Ashby, a professor at the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago who has been consulting for the union. “Fighting for smaller class sizes, a social worker in every school, a nurse in every school, pretty much what all the suburban schools have.”
The countdown to a strike is a showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union’s reformist president Karen Lewis–who was elected in the summer of 2010, ending decades of top-down leadership–and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention as Chicago was preparing for a strike. The stand-off is a wake-up call for unions who every election year throw their time and energy into electing Democrats, who happily accept union funds and use members as door-knockers.
CTU bargaining committee member Sarah Chambers explained that the union's united effort to authorize a strike was emblematic of the anger toward the Emanuel administration’s spending on charter school expansion and dedication to testing. Chambers estimated that the city spends $100 million on charter school expansion and that “if you took just half of the money for charters we could have an entire city of small class sizes.”
The issue of class size has been key for getting parent’s support; a union study found that Chicago public school class sizes were among the highest in the state of Illinois. “Reducing class sizes can lead to improved teaching and learning,” Lewis said in a statement. “In a smaller classroom, a teacher has more time to get to know each student's academic strengths and weaknesses; students receive more attention and teachers can spend more time helping students learn and working with parents.”
Indeed, a Chicago Tribune poll  found in May that a majority of voters believed that if teachers were to work longer, they should get paid more. “Sizable majorities of Chicago residents as a whole (86 percent) and public school parents (92 percent) agreed with that concept,” the paper reported. It also noted that, “Among all respondents, 40 percent sided with the union, compared to 17 percent who backed Emanuel.”
Progressive education activists criticize the corporate reform approach because it focuses so much on numbers-based testing, which along with merit pay encourages teachers to “teach to the test,” rather than engage in critical thinking. Charter school advocates have painted teachers unions as the road-block to reform, but skeptics note that charters thrive on cultivating young teachers who burn out quickly, while unions offer teaching as an actual career.
While charter school advocates say students perform better under a privatized environment, educators question the integrity of their metrics, many of which rely on testing. One of the most vocal of these critics is Diane Ravitch, an early pioneer of the charter school movement, who argues privately run schools were meant to augment public education, not replace the whole system. Michelle Rhee, a heroine of the corporate reform movement as the head of the Washington D.C. school system, fell into hot water when the city launched a probe last year into allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests.
Further, CTU has been quick to point out that the spending in Mayor Emanuel’s plan favors already rich areas like downtown and Gold Coast, exacerbating the already apartheid-like dichotomy between the poor African American South Side and the wealthy white North Side. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University’s School for Industrial and Labor Relations, noted that these African American voters would likely side with the union if it went on strike.
“If I were going to place a bet on a city that would not turn anti-union, that would be Chicago,” she said. “Rahm Emanuel is risking becoming a bad guy.”
Organizing for the strike, teachers have used the same kind of bottom-up organization that the Lewis administration has implemented in the union, one that contrasts with the conventional union structure that empowers paid staffers instead of rank-and-file activists.
“It’s about going out to the schools and talking to teachers one-on-one and building up delegates, rather than before, where if there was a problem in your school, you just called the field representative,” Chambers said. “We found out that did not work. Delegates and leaders are really standing up and solving issues on their own.”
As far as strike preparation is concerned, Chambers said, “We set up contract action teams. They started making actions and doing various things to organize our schools. That really helped us.”
Such organizing sharply conflicts with the business-like model of many major labor unions, which have come to value working through inside channels and playing politics rather than mass mobilization. As education activist Deborah Meier said in an interview earlier this year, “To fight an enemy like the education bureaucracy, the union developed its comparable bureaucracy.”
On the one hand, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who has been in Charlotte attending the Democratic National Convention, supports the strike effort, saying in a statement, “This level of participation and engagement by Chicago's educators is both inspiring and instructive. It represents not just anger and frustration, but also a real commitment to Chicago's students and a desire to be active participants in building strong public schools that help all Chicago children thrive.”
Yet, she also appeared with Mayor Emanuel in June at a Clinton Global Initiative conference in Chicago as a partner in a joint effort to address education and public investment, not long after the CTU held a 10,000-person rally in support of teacher demands. Many CTU members saw this as a slap in the face, not just to them, but to the union spirit of “which side are you on?”
This is hardly an accident. Labor activists pointed out that in 2007 then-Senator Obama had promised as president he would “walk on that picket line” if collective bargaining was ever under attack, but the president hardly lifted a finger to support the Madison uprising. Yet for major labor leaders, all is forgiven. Consider 2010, when Andrew Cuomo ran for governor of New York on the promise that he would confront public-sector unions, yet construction trades unions backed him  because they acquire more work through development. Governor Cuomo has followed through on that promise, and has been able to gang up on labor, sadly, with labor’s electoral help (the labor-backed Working Families Party endorsed him as well).
National labor leaders like Weingarten have to play a delicate game with bigwigs like Emanuel, and her recent cordial appearance with the mayor shows the problem with this kind of closeness to the Democrats. In fact, much of the passion for charter schools and the trend to bash teachers’ unions in recent years comes not just from the far right, but from the core of the Democratic Party. Davis Guggenheim, who made the pro-charter schools movie Waiting for Superman, is an outspoken Obama supporter and made a film for the president’s re-election campaign. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who comes from Chicago, is unabashedly in favor of more privatization. President Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter boasted on Twitter earlier this year that the president’s relationship with teachers unions was “anything but cozy.”
This isn’t to say Republicans are better. In fact, they are more ferociously against workers rights than ever. To put this into perspective, Ronald Reagan, a notorious union buster, even had some detente with labor; he was exiting a meeting with the AFL-CIO when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate him. George W. Bush got a re-election push when he gained the endorsement of the New York City firefighters’ union in 2004. Now, they have thrown all caution to the wind, and gunned for the last bastion of union power in America: the public sector.
While every election year unionists see the Democrats as a defense against Republican aggression, it doesn’t make sense to for teachers’ unions to side with Democrats because they take a “we’ll kill you slower” approach, and observers see the Chicago mobilization as a departure from business-as-usual. Earlier this year, radical unionists lamented labor’s choice  to bring the energy of the Madison uprising against Governor Scott Walker into the electoral arena, with many calling for a general strike. The recall effort failed, not just in terms of unseating Walker, but in channeling all the grassroots energy of Madison into a mundane affair that was easily smashed by big money. But some see the showdown in Chicago as a positive response to the failure in nearby Wisconsin. “Teachers across the country are watching this very closely,” Ashby said. “It’s exactly what the labor movement needs.”
Even as unionization in the private sector shrank steadily after Reagan came into power in the 1980s, the public sector seemed immune from that trend. But Wisconsin and attacks on the teachers unions from the likes of Emanuel prove that since the economic downturn began in 2008, the 1 percent has seized the moment as its best chance to cleanse our democracy of this small sector of working-class power. Many public sector union leaders appeared caught off guard, having perhaps grown too comfortable in their positions, unable to believe that they could be in the same position as manufacturing unions.
“[Public sector unions] grew up depending on the political system, particularly the Democratic Party,” said Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center who has written extensively about labor and class politics. “They didn't think even Republicans in power would try to roll back their gains. They're not accustomed to the traditional trade union tactics like the strike weapon.”
CTU members, however, are picking up where these labor leaders have dropped the ball.
And, as Bronfenbrenner noted, teachers unions are going to have to learn to act like industrial unions which have had to fight multinational corporations to fend off extinction, as a great deal of support for education privatization comes from the financial sector.
“They're now having to research and figure out who these powerful investors are, who are investing in their legislators,” she said. “They're fighting against being eliminated just like private sector workers.”
This article was originally published by Alternet.