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The Chicago Teachers Union Strike – The Politics of Power

The battle for public education broke out in Chicago, the epicenter of corporate-led education reform. It broke out in the Rust Belt, in the city historically a center of the labor movement, completely dominated by the Democratic Party. A manifestation of the crisis in public education, it broke out as a battle against the austerity demanded of public workers and their unions, that is now sweeping every state.

For more than a decade, Chicago Public Schools has been implementing a series of policies to starve public schools of resources while increasing the corporate control of public education in the city. The Commercial Club of Chicago, the power base of the corporations and billionaires that control the city, uses educational reform to advance a real estate agenda. Closing public schools is an essential part of this.

In Chicago, as well as across the country, people have long been forced to make concessions and accept the loss of government programs that support people. But the September 2012 Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike made it clear that the closing and destruction of the schools is the result of billionaires working openly against the people. People believe that education is the only real hope of the working class for the future. So they drew the line when it came to the destruction of their children’s education.

Like the Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy movement, the CTU strike was a break in continuity with the politics of control in this country. The CTU understood and organized around the fact that their trade union issues as teachers merged with the anger of the community around the closure of public schools. Neither teachers nor parents could win without the other. Teacher’s working conditions are children’s learning conditions.

The CTU found itself politically encircled by a cabal of billionaires who only permitted discussion or resolution within the limits that they themselves set. As the city’s political structure diverted more and more public money into the hands of its billionaires and their corporations, it became obvious that this class is the problem, not a lack of resources for education.

These two factors — the merger of teacher and community interests and the necessity to break out of the political encirclement — meant that the battle objectively overflowed the confines placed on it by the political system. The CTU carried the struggle beyond the traditional contract struggle into a social consciousness of a class in battle against another class. Thirty thousand people marched in support of the teachers on the first day of the strike.

People are becoming clear that the problems with public education are not a lack of money — supposedly a budget shortfall of $1 billion in the case of CPS. There are buildings, books, computers, teachers, paper, etc. in abundance. Quality public education for all is completely possible. So why then are schools being closed? Why is the United States, the country that first guaranteed public education, moving so fast to become the first country to end it?

Why Public Education?

The CTU strike takes place at a point when computer technology and robotics is transforming every institution in society. Education has historically been a public subsidy to fulfill corporate needs for training and adapting individuals to fill the factories of America. Hence public education under capitalism has always been configured to serve the job market.

By the early 20th century, Chicago was the manufacturing center of the country. Factories powered by steam and electricity made large-scale machine production possible. Industrialists insisted that high schools be established so that apprentices could be trained with no cost to them.

The development of assembly-line production in the 1920s led to the “industrial model” for education. Like automobiles, students move from class to class each hour to be labored on by teachers. Teachers developed student skills, thus their ability to work: their labor power. Factories in that era were filled with armies of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, with a tiny number of highly skilled workers at the top.

By the 1950s corporations and industrial production became so vast that an army of managers and control-workers was needed. The GI Bill was passed to finance the college education that these workers needed. These workers as well as skilled workers were allowed mortgages and pensions and the chance to send their children to college. The ideological pretense of “the middle class” bought their loyalty as long as the economy could expand.

By the 1980s, the great factories and mills of Chicago were closing, the inevitable result of labor replaced by computer technology and robotics. Once again, the role of education changed in preparing the workforce for the job market.

In 2010, the New York Times reported, “Automation has helped manufacturing cut 5.6 million jobs since 2000 — the sort of jobs that once provided lower-skilled workers with middle-class paychecks.”

In the same article, Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics stated, “You basically don’t want workers. You have less, and you try to find capital equipment to replace them. (“Despite Signs of Recovery Chronic Joblessness Rises”, NYT, February 20, 2010)

The introduction of electronics is destroying the unskilled and semiskilled jobs that marked the industrial era. Their skills are redundant and therefore useless. Computers are transforming these jobs into temp jobs and precarious labor that works little, but is always on call. Since education under capitalism reproduces labor power, it loses value when labor power loses value. When labor becomes redundant, schools become redundant and communities become redundant, too.

But the capitalists find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. While they reserve education for the narrow stratum they still need, they must hold out hope that education will provide the means to a secure future, which they describe as “middle class jobs.” In this context they blame the cutbacks in education on budget deficits and austerity, and they steal as much as possible from the public sector to fuel privatized schools.

It is not so strange, then, that the capitalists are proclaiming the need for austerity, cutting state budgets for K12 and higher education and driving students into life-long indebtedness to pay for college. “Why,” they ask, “should tax money be used to educate workers we do not need? Why not divert state revenues directly to corporations?” At the same time, they employ drill-and-kill methods of high stakes testing and digital learning, which serve to try to ideologically drain revolutionary vitality from students who no longer have a future.

Temp Jobs Begin to Drive Public Education

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2020 the US will have 163.5 million jobs. Of these, 138.4 million — 84.6% — will require an Associates (community college) degree, or less. Of the top 30 largest occupations, only 6 will require a college education. The top 3 largest employments are projected to be in health care services, business services, including retail sales, and construction. (BLS News Release, February 1, 2012).

These are essentially unskilled and semiskilled jobs, many of which are already being devoured by computers or transformed into contingent jobs. Permatemps, “flex-jobs” and unstable, precarious labor are becoming the new norm for work. Writers and warehouse workers, janitors and business consultants, truck drivers, graphic designers and, increasingly, factory workers: none have a social safety net.

“They don’t get paid extra for working overtime,” Steve Wishnia wrote in his August 2012 Alternet article “Temp Worker Nation: If You Do Get Hired It Might Not Be for Long.” “They are usually not eligible for unemployment benefits. They generally have to pay both the worker’s and the employer’s share of Social Security taxes. They have to pay for their own health insurance, and Obamacare won’t change that. They have few options if an employer cheats them out of their pay. If they are independent contractors, they do not have the right to form a labor union.”

As jobs disappear or become “permatemped”, it is becoming clear that jobs that can sustain a family are only for an ever-narrowing stratum of workers. Politicians still claim that they will “produce jobs,” that we should provide tax breaks to corporations — the so-called “job creators.” Capitalism still pretends that education is the ticket to a good job and a good future, although now you pay for this on your own.

Without a vote or social debate, the United States has given corporations alone the power to determine what is a job. Yet any community in any city can come up with hundreds of jobs that need to be done. These jobs are not permitted because they are jobs that help people but do not make maximum profits for corporations.

The capitalist class is re-configuring the huge U.S. population into an army of lowpaid, flex-workers who will soon be ready to work for pennies. Then suddenly the jobs that have been outsourced to other low-wage countries will be insourced into this low wage country. Public education is being configured to support this direction.

Next Steps

Capitalism is using its political power to restructure public education to its benefit. George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”, Obama’s “Race to The Top”, and the push for a “Common Core Curriculum” represent the federal restructuring of education, a form of “nationalization,” but in the interests of the corporations. These programs redistribute resources, often local resources, into the hands of corporations.

Meanwhile teachers and parents and students in Chicago find themselves in a unique position: needing to fight together for what is prohibited by the legal apparatus. This awareness is why the strike was so strongly supported by the people of Chicago. In this process, the combatants began to recognize that the inequality of education is a practical plan of the capitalists — as represented by the Commercial Club of Chicago — that has nothing to do with availability of resources. The robots that decrease the value of labor also supply vast amounts of products essential for public education. There is enough wealth for everyone.

Most of the students in Chicago public schools are minorities. Black and Latino working class areas of town have been targeted for the destruction of their schools. The only way to fix this long-standing problem is to distribute the abundant educational resources according to need. The cabal of billionaires running our education must not be allowed to decide who gets educated.

Public Education is a resource just like food. We do not accept a society that allows people to starve to death. The next phase of this battle in Chicago has begun. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has threatened to close more than 100 schools “to pay for” the teachers’ contract. Claiming yet again that there is no money, the Mayor chooses to starve the schools, destabilize communities and throw them into the lap of violence rather than tax the capitalists that put him in power.

Once again the CTU is going to the people of Chicago to break through the web of capitalist legalisms to carry on the fight for what CTU President Karen Lewis called “the soul of public education.” The CTU received limited union support because labor laws and contracts drastically curtail forms of political support. Now the union is using the strength developed in the crucible of the strike — the expanded unity they achieved — to reach out to every public school in every neighborhood to become a center of organization.

The CTU strike signaled that political solutions do not begin with what is “deliverable”, but instead must prepare for the future. As with every battle of class against class, the direction of victory begins with the expanding unity in action of the working class.

January/February 2013. Vol23.Ed1
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
Free to reproduce unless otherwise marked.
Please include this message with any reproduction.

Photo of Protest

30,000 March in Support of
Chicago Teachers Union Strike
Photo by Ryan L Williams
used with permission

The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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