|« REPORT: TIFs Exacerbate Neighborhood Inequalities||Preview: CPAC Chicago »|
Education Wed Jun 06 2012
Beginning today, over 20,000 Chicago teachers will vote on whether or not to authorize their bargaining committee to call for a strike should negotiations with the Board of Education over new contract terms fail. For authorization, 75% of non-retiree union members would need to approve. The voting takes place over three days. This high threshold is the result of legislation passed last year. As state public employees, teachers' collective bargaining rights and terms are governed by state, rather than federal, law.
The legislation in question, known as SB7, was passed after intense and stealth lobbying efforts by Stand for Children, a well-funded non-profit that operates at the state level to encourage entrepreneurial changes to public education that incrementally privatize school systems. Stand for Children co-founder Jonah Edelman famously bragged at a conference that they used access to important and influential political figures like Rahm Emanuel and Michael Madigan, and insiders like Jo Anderson to tighten restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union. Part of the strategy was to take away one of the union's more potent tools, the strike threat. Unable to take away the right to a work stoppage, Stand settled for a 75% approval threshold.
Now, it is looking like Stand's strategy might backfire, if teachers ultimately vote to authorize a strike. After all, the question teachers will vote on is whether to authorize a strike, not whether to go on strike. Arguably, winning an authorization vote by 50%+1 would not be a real show of strength. A significant portion of teachers would have expressed their opposition to a strike, and maintaining the strike, once called, would be exceedingly difficult. The organizational capacity teachers build by being forced to get over 75% means a resilient strike, should things come to that, and a battle-tempered organization prepared to push hard during negotiations.
Besides the mechanics of it, there are the underlying social conditions that are bringing this to a head.
Why, after all, did Edelman and his cohorts go after arcane (to the public) collective bargaining rules in their effort to, as their mission statement says, "ensure that all children, regardless of their background, graduate from high school prepared for, and with access to, a college education"? What is the connection?
Edelman and the small but wealthy coterie of donors and activists who want to overhaul education by partially privatizing it view teachers unions as the primary obstruction to their vision, which is by all indications sincerely held. Politicians have, by most measures, been pliant. In the last two State of the Union addresses, one of the only points of agreement between the President and the GOP responder was education policy. Big city Mayors, most of them Democrats, have eagerly promoted high-stakes testing and charter schools. The only institutional resistance these reformers regularly meet is from teachers organized into unions. The tactical solution then is to weaken teachers' credibility and undermine their organizational strength. (Which, again, Edelman essentially detailed.)
Part of this tactic has been to blame teachers for poor student outcomes, and characterize arguments and research that show the connection between family income and educational outcome as "excuse-making." Over the last ten years in particular, "bad teachers" have been elevated as the primary reason for poor student performance, and teachers unions have been attacked by implication for "protecting" them. Whatever the objective value of this reasoning (and the data supporting such arguments is at best conflicting), the social reality is that teachers feel besieged and disrespected, while at the same time seeing the profession of teaching as an institution collapse in a real way.
That type of disrespect isn't an abstraction. Teachers, like other professionals, have invested enormous time, energy, emotion, and money into growing into their profession. When outside forces undermine that very real and viscerally felt investment, there is going to be a strong reaction, and resort to extreme measures.
What adds to this is that the privatization process sets off an endowment effect among parents. In order to eliminate unionized teachers, privatization groups work with politicians to institute "turnaround" programs that suddenly shut down neighborhood schools. People generally react more strongly to losing something they have than they do to failing to achieve something they want. The turnaround process has been traumatic for thousands of Chicago families, and it's a cumulative phenomenon; in the early days of turnarounds, the impact was scattered. Over the years, and particularly with Mayor Emanuel's outspoken desire to pump up the number of charter schools, the sheer numbers of those impacted has grown and grown, networks of aggrieved and distrustful parents have emerged, and common cause with teachers who want to preserve public, neighborhood schools has been found.
So the top-down, political-relationship heavy, marketing strategies of groups like Stand for Children lose their efficacy over time (and ironically, it's a strategy with its roots in the pro-NAFTA campaign partially engineered by Mayor Emanuel). Such strategies rely on the vast majority of people being unaffected in an immediate material way by the policy changes being proposed; the sophisticated marketing with inoffensive, abstract visions appeal to people in the way most advertising does. But the campaigns enjoy diminishing returns as more and more people feel the effects of a policy, particularly in localized conditions, because the effects are concentrated.
And this is not mere speculation. Because charter schools in particular have objectively not had the spectacular results promised, there is no attendant surge in support for the privatization agenda on the ground, of the kind necessary to, for example, defeat a strike authorization vote, break a strike, or dominate local school council elections. Because of the proportions and numbers involved, high-level operations (relationship making with editorial boards, politicians, and social and economic clubs) are less effective. In other words, the proportion of people adversely effected by a given set of policies will be higher in localized conditions; and in adversarial situations involving only those policies, public relations-heavy tactics won't penetrate and persuade. It'd be like if a Red Bull bottling plant leaked thousands of gallons of concentrated Red Bull into the water supply of Eureka, Illinois, causing thousands of cases of acute kidney pain. Probably Red Bull sales would plummet in Eureka, no matter how many Flugtags they hold.
It remains to be seen whether Chicago's teachers end up authorizing a strike, and if authorized, whether they will take the major step of actually striking. Since this would end up taking place in the fall, there will almost certainly be pressure from national Democrats, including the President, to keep a teachers strike from erupting in the President's home city, where the policies of his Secretary of Education are still basically in effect. The 75% threshold will be exceedingly difficult to meet, and since the Board of Education is seeking fairly draconian changes to the collective bargaining agreement, they have plenty of ground to give in negotiations to avoid a strike.
If nothing else then, SB7 changed the lay of the land such that teachers could not afford to be slack. As a result, the union is in a state of heightened readiness that a top-down style of campaign organization is ill-equipped to handle.