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Elections, Not Strikes

One of the more interesting features of the continuing teachers’ strike in Chicago is its decisive rejection by the liberal establishment. Over the past few of days, the New York Times has run two columns (here [3] and here [4]) and an unsigned editorial [5] denouncing the strike for placing teachers’ interests over students’ needs. Pieces expressing the similar sentiments have run on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog [6] and Slate [7]Sarah Jaffe has complied a longer list at Alternet [8].

Supporters of the union respond that the strike is about much more than pay and job security. In Chicago, teachers are legally permitted to strike only over those issues. Nevertheless, many see themselves as the vanguard of opposition to the education reform movement that’s coalesced around high-stakes testing and school choice. As the education historian Diane Ravitch [9] puts it,

The strike has national significance because it concerns policies endorsed by the current administration; it also raises issues found all over the country. Not only in Chicago but in other cities, teachers insist that their students need smaller classes and a balanced curriculum. Reformers want more privately-managed charter schools, even though they typically get the same results as public schools. Charter schools are a favorite of the right because almost 90 percent of them are non-union. Teachers want job protection so that they will not be fired for capricious reasons and have academic freedom to teach controversial issues and books. Reformers want to strip teachers of any job protections.

These are important disputes without easy answers. Like Noah Millman [10], I have doubts about some aspects of the so-called reform agenda, particularly the reliance on testing. I also don’t see any reasonable alternative in big school systems like Chicago’s. But the big problem with the strike is that the role of testing and charter schools are not appropriate issues for collective bargaining. They’re matters for electoral politics rather than labor relations.

In Wisconsin, public sectors unions put their opposition to the governor and legislature to the test of the ballot. In Chicago, they want to neuter the mayor without going to the trouble of removing him from office. Rahm Emanuel was elected on a promise to fix the schools. I think he should get his chance.

A poll suggests that a majority of Chicago voters favor the strike [11] and disapprove of Emanuel’s handling of it. I suspect that number will decline if the strike drags on. We’ll see. There’s another mayoral election in three years, and the voters can fire Emanuel if they don’t like his administration.

Whatever happens, though, the union’s attempt to make policy on the picket line is a challenge to the principles of representative government, under which authority is acquired at the ballot box and exercised in the legislative chamber, not on the street. Since the 1960s, the Left has idealized the raucous public demonstration as the essence of participatory politics. Contrary to the popular chant, however, that’s not what democracy looks like.

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#1 Comment By Jack Ross On September 13, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

Believe me I’m no fan of the “this is what democracy looks like” bullshit, and I’m also with Noah Millman in seeing the universalization of charter schooling as the long term answer. But that shouldn’t change the fact that the strikers have legitimate grievances against the testing regime among other things. If they can find a way they. An quit while they’re ahead, so much the better.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 13, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

Yeah, our political duopoly works so well in resolving issues the people care about, as opposed to those the self-interested oligarchy commands.

Not.

#3 Comment By cka2nd On September 13, 2012 @ 5:42 pm

“But the big problem with the strike is that the role of testing and charter schools are not appropriate issues for collective bargaining. They’re matters for electoral politics rather than labor relations.”

This is ridiculous. Why shouldn’t the standards for evaluating the quality of an employee’s work be an issue for collective bargaining? Teacher unions have been negotiating these issues – standards for keeping one’s job and advancement – for years. And why shouldn’t a practice – contracting out to charter schools – that could result in thousands of teachers either losing their jobs or working more hours for reduced compensation with virtually no job protections ordue process rights be an issue for collective bargaining?

The liberal establishment has turned a deaf ear to labor for, well, pretty much forever. Oh, they come out to marches, rallies and memorial services, some of them will even join workers on a picket line orget arrested in a symbolic protest. But please name a single Democratic politician who has really stuck out their neck for working people or the labor movement in the last 30, 40 or even 50 years (and I’m still not sure how much of a risk the Wisconsin legislators who left the state two years ago were really taking)? Refused to call out the national guard? Prohibited private security forces and “citizen’s committees” from busting up picket lines? Encouraged strikers to violate court orders (as opposed to urging judges to throw the book at them)? Called for the banning of scabs? The operative word here is “establishment,” not “liberal.”

And please tell me the last time The New York Times or The Washington Post supported a strike by an American union?

#4 Comment By Peter C Monat On September 13, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

What is difficult for many people to comprehend is that the public school system in the United States has been failing on a regular basis since at least the clarion call report of A Nation At Risk in 1983, especially in urban schools.
This has been documented in various ways- performance failures, teacher turnover, graduation rates, etc.
The unions are part of this failure. They have stuck to the “we are committed to the kids” routine in the face of obvious activity that suggests selfish and greedy motives.
The white horse that they used to ride when fighting union battles now looks very, and is a major reason why urban school reform can’t get anywhere.
I say this as someone who was educated as a teacher, taught, and left the field in disillusionment. The frustration I felt is what thousand of Chicago parents are now feeling.

#5 Comment By Peter C Monat On September 13, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

What is difficult for many people to comprehend is that the public school system in the United States has been failing on a regular basis since at least the clarion call report of A Nation At Risk in 1983, especially in urban schools.
This has been documented in various ways- performance failures, teacher turnover, graduation rates, etc.
The unions are part of this failure. They have stuck to the “we are committed to the kids” routine in the face of obvious activity that suggests selfish and greedy motives.
The white horse that they used to ride when fighting union battles now looks very tired, and is a major reason why urban school reform can’t get anywhere.
I say this as someone who was educated as a teacher, taught, and left the field in disillusionment. The frustration I felt is what thousand of Chicago parents are now feeling.

#6 Comment By Kelly On September 13, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

Why the need to reinvent the wheel? Why do we have to invent new ideas instead of looking at countries with better education systems for ideas? Given that Finland has the most successful education system in the world, why not try to make an education system more like theirs?

Perhaps Republicans just want to destroy unions & reject anything that feels European. Perhaps Democrats are too scared to test how well copying foreign ideas will sell in the USA.

#7 Comment By Lasker On September 13, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

This is absolutely backwards. Rahm Emmanuel’s strongest opponent in the mayoral race was equally commited to the same kind of school reforms, so his election should not be seen as an endorsement of them. By advocating for the solutions actually preferred by Chicago’s residents, the teachers are performing a service to democracy. I would think this dynamic would be obvious to a magazine that so constantly bemoans being faced with a choice between two bad options at the ballot box.

#8 Comment By sal magundi On September 17, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

“Perhaps Republicans just want to destroy unions & reject anything that feels European. Perhaps Democrats are too scared to test how well copying foreign ideas will sell in the USA.”

yes, and yes.

#9 Comment By Jennifer On September 24, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

I am a Chicago democrat and have had it with the teachers’ union. I will no longer support the union efforts. The education system does not belong to the teachers, it belongs to the tax payers. If the citizens of Chicago want to change a public service like education, we shouldn’t be held hostage by the union. The union isn’t just fighting the mayor, they are fighting all of us who live in this city and have asked for changes in our schools. Whether or not the union likes it, teachers work for the public. If we can get rid of the President every 4 years, we should be able to fire an ineffective teacher.

#10 Pingback By Strikes, Not Elections | The Aboniblog On October 9, 2012 @ 10:27 am

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