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Two-Tiered Teacher Pay and Anti-Unionism Are Charter School Issues

Teachers in the Streets

New Orleans  In the wake of the Chicago teachers’ strike there is a lot of talk about the real issues provoking the strike.  The Times seems them as trivial.  There’s a lot of ink pitting it as a personality problem between the prickly and notoriously difficult Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the every bit his equal, Linda Davis, the new head of the AFT Chicago affiliate.  Nicholas Kristof, who can always be counted on to hit precisely the wrong note, claims he would be fine with the strike if it were about money, but not having a clue what the strike is really about, opines that he doesn’t like it.  What the heck is going on here?!?

I won’t pretend to know any more than the average bear, but if this strike isn’t about “charterizing” the public school system and thereby creating a two-tier wage system, and an expanding unaccountable, privatized and potentially volcanic mass of not simply non-union, but in fact decidedly anti-union subcontractors, then it should be. What is hard to understand?  These are classic worker issues that have been at the heart to hundreds of strikes.

If an employer – any employer – insists on a two-tiered wage structure where senior workers, even if red-circled with protections against reductions in pay and benefits is forced to permanently co-exist with other workers doing the same jobs who are paid substantially less, then, brothers and sisters, this is a huge, big-time issue that will either end up pushing all of the wages to the bottom and all of the senior workers out or end up in a battle royal.  In the largest charter school operation in the country in New Orleans this is part of why more than 5000 school teachers and other workers were fired, and many senior teachers were not rehired and are still trying to get home from Houston and Atlanta after Katrina.  Is this happening in Chicago?  You bet your bippy!  Motoko Rich in the Times today (maybe Kristof could read his factual reporting before running his mouth?) notes that “experienced teachers at [Chicago] charter schools make about $15,000 to $30,000 less than their counterparts at traditional schools, where the average salary is $75,000.”  So if Kristof wants to claim he would be OK with a strike to raise the $75,000 to something higher, but not when things like charters and school structure are an issue, he’s not just naïve, he’s lying.  Furthermore, he’s alone.

Keep in mind the other fact offered by Rich in his piece.  While 350,000 children are out of school because their teachers are on strike, “about 50,000 who attend the city’s 96 charters went to class as usual.”  Ok, that’s only 12.5% of the students and therefore about the same number of teachers who are de facto scabbing the strike, so that’s not enough to put a stake in the AFT’s heart, but it’s a bleeding bruise that will be noticed, and no one will miss the fact that in preparing for “the next time” the Mayor and the school’s management will want to make sure that percentage is higher.

This growing non-union, and, frankly from reading a lot of their public comments in New Orleans and other cities, anti-union, bunch of charter operators is a vexing and annoying problem for any union and its senior and stable workforce.  They do not have the same set of governance and accountability mechanisms in charters, but they get to pop off 24/7 about how much they are “different,” “better,” “non-traditional,” and so forth.  They are also often, if Chicago is anything like New Orleans, also operating “whiter” and “richer” and using short time enthusiastic but inexperienced union-diluters like Teach for America and others to push down wages and benefits and guarantee turnover.

How many strikes have autoworkers, machinists, steelworkers, and other unions fought over subcontracting?  Thousands!  Charters are private subcontractors of public work.  How can anyone not understand that to be anything other than a huge labor and union issue?  From a public policy and labor relations standpoint what you want in these situation is a bargaining regime where workers are not in competition but management is.  In other words a charter or a subcontract would be issued that protects the workers (teachers) wages and benefits, but determines whether a different management (teaching) philosophy might produce different or even better results.  None of this is happening!  The charters are getting the same per pupil dollars but are taking their profit in many cases out of the pay envelopes of their workers.  How else can $15,000 to $30,000 wage differentials be explained, Nick?

If the charterization process were really about education and handled in any good faith, the teachers and support staff would continue to be union and there would be real measurements and analysis to determine in apples versus apples comparisons where the children benefited, where lessons were learned, and where best practices where being created.  There is no pretense in Chicago, New Orleans, or any other city to establish that that is happening.  This is about “any port in the storm” management trying to deflect pressure on their operations which haven’t delivered to anyone for a long time.  It’s about blaming the victims (they are poor, they are black, they speak different languages) and refusing to recognize the warriors who are in there trying to make a difference.  When we send firefighters into the fire to save lives, we know respect should be given along with wages and benefits.  Why are we blindly not recognizing that teachers are trying to ignite and direct the same fires in children’s minds against terrible odds, and as we look at the pushdown of wages, the construction of non-union and anti-union bulwarks in the charters, and blatant subcontracting of public functions and accountability, how can we not support teachers and their unions from fighting to put an end to this.  Before it’s too late!