I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Karen Lewis and the New, Shrewd Unionism

This was a very bad week for Chicago's children.

On Wednesday evening, the unelected Chicago Board of Education approved the largest school closing plan in history. 50 schools will be shuttered in a pattern that is clearly racially biased: black students account for 40% of the CPS population, but 88% of the students who are being displaced are black. It obviously makes the elites who run CPS uncomfortable to point out such things, but it is the sad, ugly truth.

I'm not going to pretend that there is any upside to this. Many children - a good number of whom are homeless - are going to have their lives further upended in this senseless purge. The savings will be modest, if they materialize at all; CPS has already admitted its initial estimate of cost savings was a crock, calling into question the integrity of their projections. And the notion that schools were "under-utilized" is offensive in a district where the CPS administration thinks class size targets of 40 are acceptable.

If anything positive comes out of this, it's certainly not worth the pain Chicago's most vulnerable children will feel over the next few years. That said, there is at least one source of hope that has emerged over the course of this fight:

We are seeing the birth of a new, shrewd unionism.

It wasn't so long ago that the Chicago Teachers Union was being cast as the enemy of reform. Under its previous, dysfunctional leadership, the CTU was being steamrolled by the enemies of teachers at city hall and in the statehouse. CTU, like so many other teachers unions, was disengaged in the larger issues of "reform," and seemed only to care about workplace protections and pay.

It was easy to vilify CTU as a group of money-grubbers, especially in the middle of a weak economic recovery. And so CTU's members found themselves slipping backwards, watching their job protections and pensions get swept away, with no one willing to stand up for them.

Fortunately, there was a faction of CTU that understood what was happening: CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, led by the indomitable Karen Lewis. Even before she won election to the leadership of the CTU, Lewis's CORE was organizing events that spoke to the school closing issue. The hard work of organizing and grassroots activism gave CORE - and Lewis - some badly needed credibility within the community of parents and community activists.

Once Lewis won election to the CTU, she made four astute moves:

1) Lewis set up a battle of "Us vs. Them," with CTU on the side of the people, and the Chicago BOE and Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the side of the plutocracy. Yes, it's always nice find common ground - when possible. Unfortunately, when you're sitting across from the table from people like the odious Emanuel, the duplicitous Jonah Edelman, the morally bankrupt Penny Pritzker, or the just plain awful Bruce Rauner, there really isn't any chance of agreeing on policies where the needs of students, teachers, and taxpayers can be met.

For good long while, these plutocrats have been making a case to the people of Chicago (and, indeed, the nation): "Your problems can be traced back to the greedy, selfish public workers and their horrible unions." They've fomented an atmosphere of envy, where teachers are despised for having health insurance and cops are vilified for having pensions. They've used their media arms to publish some of the most disgusting junk imaginable, demanding that teachers acquiesce to the destruction of the public schools while ignoring the massive inequities that have created our cities' chronic poverty.

Well, at least in Chicago, it's not going to be so easy to get away with this mendacious crap any more. CTU has been at the forefront of fighting for a better curriculum, smaller class sizes, and keeping schools open. While the BOE literally drags protesting parents out of their meetings, CTU stands with those parents, side by side, in opposition to the pillaging of neighborhood schools, which are often the only refuge of stability in violent and underprivileged neighborhoods.

Thanks to Lewis, anyone in Chicago who says the teachers don't have the students' interests at heart and the BOE is on the side of working families now looks like a fool. Lewis has brought the public to the CTU's side, and Rahm Emanuel is becoming politically toxic. Every Chicago politician now knows there is a steep price to be paid for crossing the CTU. How many are now willing to pay that price?

2) Lewis has never been content to merely get "a seat at the table." Too often, the powers that be have patronized the teachers unions. They've acted as if teachers should consider themselves lucky to have a voice in "reform," rather than the ones who should be driving education policy.

Too often, the response of teachers unions has been to accommodate the corporate "reformers," rather than discrediting them. I suppose the argument is that this makes the unions politically viable, and improves their standing in the public's eye by appearing reasonable. But there's nothing "reasonable" about kowtowing to people who wants to see unions destroyed; it's a sign of weakness to give in to people who claim you're the source of the problems with America's schools.

When Emanuel exploded at Lewis in an obscenity-laced tirade, Lewis didn't blink. She didn't meekly nod her head when Emanuel told her: “25 percent of these kids are never going to be anything. They are never going to amount to anything. And I’m not going to throw resources at them." Lewis, instead, called the mayor out. She didn't fret for a second that the pearl-clutchers in the press might run for their fainting couches when she called Emanuel the "murder mayor," because she knew she had earned the right, by virtue of her work on behalf of Chicago's working families, to speak truth to power.

Folks, I'm a big boy, and I understand how the world works: there are times you've got to go along to get along. But there are also times when the principled stance is also the smart one. Karen Lewis, better than anyone in today's labor movement, understands this.

3) Lewis tied teacher working conditions to student learning conditions. Again, the standard argument elites use against public employee unions has been: "They're demanding raises while you're getting nothing!" Ignorant as this is, it works with well with a misinformed segment of the population that believes everything they hear out of the corporatized media. Simply arguing back that teachers are, in fact, not highly-compensated for what they do isn't a good enough answer; there has to be more to the case.

So while Emanuel was arguing for a longer school day, Lewis argued for a better school day. While Emanuel demanded test-based teacher evaluations, Lewis focused on how an expanded testing regime would hurt children. While Emanuel argued for closing "failing" schools, Lewis explained that the school closings were an admission of failure on the part of Emanuel and the CPS leadership.

Lewis has tied together the fortunes of teachers and students. That's actually not a very difficult case to make; unfortunately, the labor movement has often done a poor job making it.

4) Lewis worked her butt off. I've now had the pleasure of meeting Karen Lewis and seeing her in action. She has both boundless energy and a sharp wit, which is why she's treated like a rock star by so many teachers. She won her reelection in a landslide, at a time when too many teachers are disaffected with union leadership.

Reports out of Los Angeles this week do not speak well about the teachers union leadership there. Monica Ratliff, a teacher herself, got only lukewarm support from the UTLA: they actually supported both her and her opponent, Antonio Sanchez, a tool of the corporate reformers. This is not the sort of unionism that inspires confidence in the rank-and-file. If unions can't even get behind their own in an election, why would teachers believe unions have their best interests at heart in negotiations?

Lewis, in contrast, has shown Chicago's teachers she will not stop fighting for them. You may disagree with her tactics, and you may not like her style; what you can't argue with is her passion to do what she thinks is right. Teachers have been begging for champion who will not cave in at the first sign of trouble; they know they've got that in Lewis.

There is a long battle ahead in Chicago - and this nation - about the fate of our pubic schools. Teachers unions are going to have to fight hard, but they also need to fight smart. Karen Lewis is showing us how to do both: her new, shrewd unionism is our best chance of stopping the destruction of both our public schools and public employee unions.

Great minds, thinking alike.


Unknown said...

Karen Lewis is smart & media savvy. Watch her in this Chris Hayes interview alert pols everywhere about Rahm's basement level approval ratings.

Mrs. King's music students said...

I admire how she kept her cool under fire and clarified important distinctions for Mr Emmanuel. I wish we had a Karen Lewis in NJ to steer current ed reforms past the 'blue collarization' phase announced in Ed Commissioner's NJAchieve memo released on May 28th.

My heart sank when I read that CORE content areas will now be limited to the "universally accepted" subjects of Math, LA, Social Studies and Science. It was my impression that these limitations to what is considered CORE only applied to poor performing districts, and that a significant difference in high performing schools is ed. leadership that 'gets' why the arts matter.

I wish we had an advocate for true ed reforms aimed at providing a Princetonian quality of education for Camden kids and heavily focused on the arts. It is beyond me how anyone can think you can engage kids and encourage them to dig deeper by dumbing down the guaranteed and viable curriculum.