Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Chicago Strike and the Rebirth (or Death) of Unionism

The current Chicago teachers strike is the first major teachers strike in years. Indeed, there have been few major strikes in any industry over the past decade, with a general trend of declining job actions and union membership over the past thirty years and a corresponding downward spiral in wages and living conditions. In Michigan, for example, there were 454 teacher strikes between 1967 and 1980 (an average of 35 per year), resulting in substantial wages gains, but only 18 per year in the 1980s, according to William Boyd, David Plank, and Gary Sykes. The National Educators Association (NEA) has lost over 100,000 members since 2010.

In contrast, during the post-World War II era, strikes were common in the U.S. In the period from 1945-1946, 400,000 miners and 750,000 steel workers went on strike in the largest strike wave in U.S. history. At one point during this period there were 1.6 million workers simultaneously on strike. By the end of the year, more than 4.5 million workers had engaged in strike actions. (Sources: Daily Kos, New York Times,, Counter Punch). The Chicago strike is the largest strike in the past year.

The “death” of unionism, or its declining membership and influence, is generally blamed on union busting politicians (e.g., Scott Walker, Wisconsin, or Reagan’s mass firing of the PATCO air traffic controllers), or outsourcing and downsizing by the bosses, (which reduce the number of union jobs and thus the number of unionized workers). Indeed, the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which made the General Strike illegal, was a serious blow to workers’ power (there hasn’t been an effective General Strike in the U.S. since then). However, another major cause is the unions themselves, which have, for the most part, relinquished their most powerful weapon—withholding labor—in exchange for increasing reliance on political action (e.g., lobbying, initiatives, phone-banking for candidates) and behind-the-scenes deals with the bosses.

It is important to recognize that job actions are a form of direct action in which the workers have direct control over the action, how long to continue, how aggressively to pursue it, and what kinds of compromises (if any) to accept. Political action, in contrast, requires that they give up their power and control to second and third parties. The union bosses, not the rank and file, generally determine which campaigns and candidates to support, even though the campaigns are funded with the dues paid by the rank and file. Once a candidate has been chosen, it is not a sure thing that that candidate will win and, even if he does, there is no guarantee he will do anything the union wants. In fact, because the politicians’ interests are more closely aligned with those of the capitalist class, it is unlikely the politicians will do much at all in support of workers other than a few modest reforms that allow them to maintain social and economic hegemony and continue reaping huge profits.

One particularly refreshing aspect of the CTU strike is that teachers are not just fighting for increased pay (which they certainly deserve). They are also fighting against deplorable working conditions (dilapidated and unsafe facilities, large class sizes, inadequate health and social services for their students) and an abusive evaluation system which would cause teachers to be laid off en masse because their students’ test scores didn’t rise sufficiently. And they are engaging in this fight even though the president of their parent union, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, has cut deals with politicians to allow similar evaluation “reforms” in other school districts.

Likewise, the fight against using student standardized tests to evaluate teachers is a direct challenge to the Obama Administration, which has been pushing for similar “reforms” across the nation, and to the leadership of both the NEA and AFT, which both gave early support to Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, despite his support of high stakes exams, privatization and charter schools.

Strikes are, of course, a risky endeavor. If you lose, you could find yourself worse off than before or even jobless. They are difficult to organize and maintain (e.g., strike funds generally cannot sustain workers for long; scabs might be brought in to do the work and keep the system functioning, thus undermining the effects of walking off the job). Public sentiment can be manipulated to oppose the workers and support the bosses’ goals.

This is particularly challenging for those in the “helping” fields, like teachers and nurses, where walking off the job can easily be spun to seem like a selfish and greedy act that harms their constituents (i.e., students and patients). Indeed, many in the “helping” fields, particularly teachers, see themselves first as advocates and benefactors for their students and only secondarily, if at all, as workers. This tendency makes it very hard to get teachers to walk off the job and it leads many to accept declining pay, benefits and working conditions so long as the bosses claim these concessions are necessary for the wellbeing of the students.

Yet teachers are workers. The overwhelming majority rely on their paychecks to put food on the table for their families. They do not go to work solely because they want to help children, though this may be why they teach rather than something else. Teachers, like all workers, necessarily have an adversarial relationship with their bosses, even when those bosses seem nice or appear to have similar interests (e.g., the wellbeing of children).

This is because they do not truly have the same interests. For one, the administrators have the power to fire teachers and to impose demands on them. Teachers do not have this power and must make considerable sacrifices and compromises to appease their administrators or risk losing their jobs and the ability to feed their families. Teachers are, like all other workers, dependent on their salaries for their own survival and thus are wage slaves.

Our Working Conditions Are Your Children’s Learning Conditions
  • While teachers’ interests often do not coincide with those of their administrators and school boards, they often do coincide with those of their students. Here are just a few:
  • Decent pay helps attract and retain the best quality teachers, which is certainly in the best interests of students. While everyone wants to get the best deal for their money, including the taxpayers, one needs to consider the quality they are getting. Better quality almost always costs more. If teachers are not paid a decent wage they will look for work elsewhere.
  • Evaluation “reforms” that emphasize using student test data are terrible for kids since the scores have almost no meaningful or consistent correlation with teacher quality. Teachers who work with low income, special education and ELD students tend to get lower average student test scores. According to Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, the Chicago plan for making student test scores worth 25% of teachers’ evaluations could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs over the next two years. By anyone’s calculations, this would be a disaster for kids. How can CPS find 6,000 highly qualified teachers in two years?
  • Smaller class sizes make it easier for teachers to give individualized one on one attention to students. Smaller classes means fewer papers to grade, which means teachers can put more time into each paper, providing more detailed and useful comments. Smaller classes are easier to manage and thus are safer for students. This is particularly important in physical education, science and some of the industrial arts course.
There's a lot at stake for teachers and other workers with the current strike in Chicago. A victory could provide the confidence and momentum for other unions to start resisting the standardized test mania, demanding wage increases, and fighting for better working conditions through job actions. A loss for the CTU would likely lead to even fewer teacher strikes in the future and a further evisceration of the teachers unions.

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