Michelle Rhee (Reuters/Hyungwon Kang)

Charter-boosters' ugly civil rights scam: Why their rhetoric is so misleading

Corporate education reformers are coopting the politics of race and labor, author Micah Uetricht explains


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Josh Eidelson
March 28, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

“If other sections of the labor movement were to take some cues from the [Chicago Teachers Union] about militant, bottom-up, democratic left-unionism, unions’ extinction might become less of a certainty,” journalist Micah Uetricht writes in his new book, “Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity.” Eighteen months after the Chicago walkout – in which a left-wing caucus, having two years earlier ousted the old leadership of their union, defied a bipartisan ed reform consensus – Uetricht spoke with Salon about the CTU’s school closure defeats; the struggle over the soul of U.S. teachers unions; and the politics of race in the ed reform wars. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

After the contract was ratified the Chicago Teachers Union strike was seen widely on the left, despite concessions that the teachers made in that contract, as a victory, and even a signal victory against the mainstream education reform movement. What’s happened since then – including this largest-ever closure of schools in Chicago – should that change the way we look at what that strike accomplished?

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Maybe it should temper…some of the excitement…that some of the left felt after the victory. But [it] should by no means make us think that it wasn’t a victory…

The strike had…a ripple effect throughout American public education, and American teachers unions all around the country… There’s other cities that have come close to going out on strike: St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore. There’s been...increasing sort of acknowledgment that [unions] need to be about more than just dealing with bread and butter issues for their teachers and their cities, and deal with issues of community members and of students. Rank-and-file caucuses like the one in Chicago have been started in a number of cities around the country, and have actually been making gains in [winning union] office…

I think there’s been a more amorphous kind of shift in just how teachers view corporate education reform in America: Increasingly they’ve gone from a kind of inchoate, seething but incoherent rage about the demonization that’s happened to them -- to their profession -- to actually being able to explicitly articulate how education reform is part of a project to dismantle public education in America, and how that fits within a larger neoliberal project.

So in that sense it’s certainly a victory. But it was certainly sobering, in the immediate wake of that victory, to have these…school closures and $162 million of classroom-level budget cuts...

It shows that even if a union is sort of doing everything right – or at least not everything right, but more things right than most unions -- then that is not enough to win on every major battle that they’re up against. And so I think that that’s partly why the CTU right now has decided to shift its strategy toward more electoral politics…

It was unquestionably a victory…we shouldn’t denigrate that. But we also shouldn’t confuse one victory with a future guarantee of winning every single fight.

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You are critical in your book of what came out of the occupation and protests in Wisconsin and in particular of the eventual electoral focus on trying to recall Republican legislators and Scott Walker. Is there some lesson there, or some contrast that applies to the CTU’s attempt to tackle Chicago politics more directly?

What happened in Wisconsin was limited obviously by the nature of the fight, right?

…There weren’t a whole lot of options. And it was sort of late in the game for the unions – for labor – to pull out a victory in Wisconsin.

The CTU is turning to electoral politics after having really demonstrated a serious commitment to democracy in their union, to rank-and-file members actually… leading the union, and carrying out its agenda on a day-to-day basis. And even though they’ve turned to electoral politics…they just recognize that that kind of rank-and-file unionism, and militancy, [and] working through community groups…that infrastructure still needs to be in place…

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It’s not a [question] of “do we do electoral politics, or do we do strikes and civil disobedience and…rank-and-file unionism and all of that?” …Unlike what happened in a place like Wisconsin, the CTU seems to be interested in doing both.

You write in the book that “It is not enough for unions generally and public sector unions in particular to simply stop production or service provision; they must figure out, as the CTU did, how to effectively utilize work stoppages as focal points that can rally community support…” What do you believe was key to making that happen in Chicago, and how should we judge whether another union somewhere else is prepared to succeed at that?

Within the American unions who understand the necessity to work alongside community groups, I think that a lot of times unions just see engagement with community groups as another thing they have to check off their list…the sort of necessary stuff you have to do. So what that ends up looking like is a lot of times a kind of shallow veneer of support from community groups, which show up at a rally or something like that, or add their name to a statement.

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And in Chicago…work alongside community groups was being done years before [now-CTU President] Karen Lewis and the rest of the [Congress of Rank and File Educators] caucus even came into office. You know, they started this organization CORE...not initially with the idea that they were going to run for office to take over [the union], but that they were going to work alongside community groups who were already organizing around education reform. They were encouraged to run for office in the union by community groups…

Once they took the office of the union, they treated community groups as equals… It’s key that these kinds of relationships with community organizations and parents and students be genuine -- and not just sort of, you know, done for P.R. purposes -- but actually be long-term genuine relationships where there’s a level of equality…

When you’ve got a sort of scrappy community organization, a neighborhood-level community organization, at the table with a union with massive amounts of resources, it’s very easy for that relationship to be an unequal one. But the CTU has taken pains to make sure that there is a level of equality at the table, and that they take community members as seriously as they take their own members.

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As you mentioned, that CORE caucus, which started as a caucus within the CTU and eventually was swept into office [running] the CTU, has inspired others to try to take their local unions -- including [American Federation of Teachers] locals -- in a different direction. When I asked Karen Lewis whether she would like more left-wing caucuses to take power in other cities like New York and Newark, she answered somewhat diplomatically: “I think every local has to decide what works for them. If you’re teaching, you know that every kid isn’t at the same place, so you have to vary how you teach them,” and she added, “Changing culture is absolutely the hardest thing you can ever do.” How do you see the impact that the CTU strike and the CTU’s work since then, and/or the CTU directly and intentionally, is having on the relative strength of more left-wing elements in other AFT locals?

CORE came about in Chicago not as a kind of overnight thing. It was the product of over a decade of work, of struggle within the union, including a failed reform effort, a more liberal reform effort… So I don’t think there are any kinds of shortcuts to developing this kind of rank-and-file-led unionism.

And so given that, it’s sort of too soon to tell about the long-term… The strike was only a year and a half [ago].

But in that time since then, we’ve seen caucuses emerge in New York City, MORE.

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[In] Newark, New Jersey…this left-wing caucus has taken a bunch of seats on the executive board, and came within nine votes of voting out their president… Philadelphia just announced one…

In the American labor movement, there’s a long history of reform efforts that have worked really hard to get, you know, left-wing, more progressive people elected to office -- and then they completely fizzle out, and they’re not able to actually produce…better results than the old guard… For unionists who are taking this CORE model it’s useful to study…the mistakes that they made during…the time they were just forming, and the long-term nature of the project, the fact that they didn’t simply want to take over the union’s leadership and replace people at the top with, you know, smarter and more politically principled people. But that they actually wanted to create change from the bottom, and…empower their members in ways they had not been empowered before, and putting them in charge of a lot of the day-to-day functioning of the union.

That’s going to be the real key, is that kind of long-term capacity building…

How do you see the relationship between how closely and how collaboratively the union works with community groups, and how much or in what way the union engages members, or gives members a sense of ownership or democratic control over the union?

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A union staffer told me stories, for example, of sitting at the table with community groups who were pushing the union to back this march that was going to be done on Rahm Emanuel’s house… Everyone in the union thought this was a horrible idea, that they were going to look like they were trying to terrorize the mayor and his family in his home… But the community groups were really insistent, and felt it was going to be a really positively powerful action that we can take. And eventually, the union decided that they would listen to the community groups even though they thought it was an awful idea. And the march happened, and there were 500 people who descended on the mayor’s house. And, incredibly, you know the next day, there was an article in the Chicago Tribune that says…I looked at the faces of these children who were in the street in front of the mayor’s house and I realized that this is totally justified…

So it ends up being this really powerful moment for the union. And…they had to be pushed by these community groups in order to take that action that ended up paying off for them.

At last September’s AFL-CIO convention, I asked [national AFT president] Randi Weingarten whether the CTU strike had shifted the behavior of the national AFT... She answered, “Actually, not,” saying that the New York AFT local also had been building community ties for a long time, and suggesting that it was outsiders who were unnecessarily trying to pit the AFT and the CTU against each other. What is your assessment?

There’s two part to this. I think that the national AFT leadership, and many locals around the country, have seen how powerful a union-community coalition can be when teachers unions are seen as fighting on behalf of the entire community rather than just themselves… The Chicago Teachers Union had produced a report called “The Schools That Chicago’s Children Deserve,” that spelled out this vision for progressive education reform… There is now “The Schools That Philadelphia’s Children Deserve,” “The Schools That Portland’s Children Deserve.” Multiple cities around the country have taken this up. So there is more of a recognition that that kind of work alongside community groups is necessary.

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But you know, the other piece is this kind of rank-and-file, militant, bottom-up unionism that really scares people in the national leadership of the AFT -- or any, you know, national union. You know, national leadership of unions want to see that kind of progressive unionism, but they don’t want to see challenges…to their people in office…

I mean, Randi Weingarten got arrested in a civil disobedience action in Philadelphia last year, right? There’s more of a willingness to engage in that kind of action, to engage community members. But…there would’ve been no Chicago Teachers Union strike, and no transformation of the union into this body that is fighting for community members and students, without this insurgent caucus. So the key piece of the whole Chicago story, which is the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, is not something that national AFT leadership wants to see replicated elsewhere.

You note at the close of the book that “Despite organizing at the community and rank-and-file levels, taking on the mayor and the Board of Education and the free market reformers, filing lawsuits and taking over public hearings, leading mass marches and civil disobedience actions, and winning the hearts and minds of a strong majority of the Chicago public, the CTU suffered stinging defeats” recently. What does that mean for the union’s future, and for its allies in other cities?

…The school board in Chicago serves at the behest of Mayor Emanuel…

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If there’s still a school board that is not democratically accountable to anybody, more and more of these kind of school closures [will happen], and the union won’t be able to fight against them. And so that explains their turn to electoral politics, and to try, for example, [to] win an elected school board…

It should also show… this is still a time of austerity… And they’re going to be suffering massive defeats over and over again. And more likely than not, unions – even democratic, militant ones that partner with community groups --  may lose more often than they win. But the important lesson out of Chicago, I think, is that it is possible to win sometimes -- that we don’t need to throw up our hands and just sort of acknowledge that the labor movement has been totally vanquished.

You describe the growth of charter schools as “perhaps most central to the education privatization agenda.” A handful of those schools in Chicago have been unionized through a joint organization of the CTU, the state IFT, and the national AFT… Is there controversy within the CTU about putting resources into organizing charter schools? And having unionized charter schools – how does that shape the education reform fights going on in the city?

Everything I have seen from CTU members is…they are overwhelmingly positive about the organization of charter school teachers in the city…

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The charter school union -- ACTS it’s called in Chicago -- is interesting because they very explicitly say that they do not want to see the spread of further charter schools in Chicago or anywhere else, that they see the spread of charter schools as being part of an effort to bust, you know, teachers unions, and dismantle public education…

I think CTU members recognize that if they don’t organize these charter school teachers, that they’re going to continue to be used to undermine the gains that CTU members have made in public schools -- and of course that those charter school teachers are going to continue to get screwed in terms of pay, grueling working hours, and total lack of any kind of protection.

There’s increasing rhetoric that charter school teachers are…teachers just like anyone else… The CTU members want to see them have the same kind of decent pay and benefits as everyone else.

What is your sense of how CTU approaches the issue of race and racism in education reform and education policy – and what is the lesson there?

Teachers unions have not always had a great track record when it comes to taking on racial inequality… Think of 1968, Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike… Since then there’s been a lot of tension [with] teachers unions who are sometimes seen as…propping up a racist status quo as far as public education.

I think the corporate education reformers have seen that…teachers unions are not seen as actively fighting racial inequality, and [the "reformers"] have positioned themselves as the new, you know, inheritors of the mantle of civil rights, and in a lot of ways frame their rhetoric as very much being about fighting for, you know, racial justice for students of color. You can see it in speeches Arne Duncan has made about racial inequality in public schools.

And I think that teachers unions have allowed themselves to be attacked like this -- I mean, obviously that kind of posture is disingenuous -- but there’s no kind of genuine response from teachers unions who are really taking on the issue of racial inequality in schools.

And so the CTU…from the very beginning have not been afraid to talk about…racial inequality in Chicago public schools, to talk about an “apartheid” education system that we have. And you know, that kind of increasing rhetoric in talking about racial inequality has been paired with, you know, legitimate and genuine organizing with communities of color…

At the exact moment when the CTU was on strike, one poll showed that two-thirds of African-American and Latino [public school] parents in the city backed the teachers over Rahm Emanuel...

So the lesson for other teachers unions is that …they can’t continue ceding the battle…over racial justice to these corporate education reformers… If they are not explicit about, you know, racial inequality, and how they, the union, are fighting against racial inequality, then they are going to continue to be seen as these kind of defenders of the racist status quo, which will serve to benefit the corporate reform agenda over anything else.


Josh Eidelson

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