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!

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Shifting Political Values: Public Schooled and American Made

Teachers on strike in Chicago

Toronto   In American public and political life there used to be some clear tests that determined whether you were “one of us” or “one of them,” whether you were progressive or conservative, stood with the people or stood with special interests.  These markers were so stark and clear that a generation ago it would have been heresy to cross the line.  It would have been a breach of public trust and signal of the fact that you were unfit to stand for public office.

One of the clearest examples was in the car you drove.  Whether favor seeker or politician you knew not to drive into a union parking lot in a foreign made car.  It didn’t have to be a poser’s pickup.  It could be a big Lincoln or a stretched Cadillac, but it had to be from the Big-3 and built by union labor if you wanted something from a union.

If you were looking for an endorsement as a politician or an alliance with a union, you didn’t offer them a newspaper for your organization, a bumper sticker for your campaign, or a business card that lacked a union “bug” at the bottom.  You could guarantee that there was some old member in the back who might not care what you said about any issue but was sure to raise the fact that you lacked a bug even if the Typographical Union was one of the smallest in the labor movement.  It was a signifier of where you stood, and really who you were.  It was a simple sign of respect like not spitting on the floor or wiping your nose with your sleeve.  It was something so simple and obvious that it spoke volumes if these small signs were not clear.

The same was always true about whether or not you and your children attended public school.  In a city like New Orleans you could get away with going to Jesuit High School, if you were Marc Morial and son of the Mayor, because it was a Catholic city and you were showing you could make it anywhere.  That did not disqualify you from running for Mayor, but it surely disqualified you from running for the school board if you or your children didn’t go to public school.  Everyone knew this.  You had no “skin in the game.”  You were simply an dilettante, an window gazer, and an on looker in the process, and best to keep your pie hole shut and opinions to yourself.  I can remember in Little Rock when candidates withdrew from elections because their children were not in public school.  This was a city where the integration of the public schools in 1957 was a national crisis, so to say you wanted to govern schools when your own children were not in them was anathema and a obvious disqualification.

For decades, the decisions of Presidents about where their children would go to school in Washington, public or private, was widely reported in the news.  Unfortunately, the Democratic trend towards Sidwell Quakers’ school has diluted the clarity of the politics behind a smokescreen of security, but it still means something and disappoints when Presidents speaking about education, line their children up on the playground with the 1% rather than the rest of us.

The loss of embarrassment and the sense of irony in modern political life when public figures fail to grasp this is shocking.  They seem to speed through the red lights now without stopping, but they would be very, very foolish to think that it is not noticed and resented by citizens and regular people.

A paragraph in the New York Times discussing a Chicago mother scrambling to take care of her children in the sudden forced teachers’ strike was telling:

“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get, an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.

There was a day when it would have been so obvious to someone as savvy and shrewd as Rahm Emmanuel that it would have been as natural to him as taking a breath of air or reading the morning paper to either have his children in public school or stay out of the debate.  When the sense of entitlement becomes a “given” to public officials and the protection of inequities without even irony or embarrassment becomes natural rather than taboo, then the changes in our public life are out of hand.  When teachers in Chicago say the strike speaks to a lack of “respect,” just as driving a foreign car once did or using a scab printer or similar affronts to standardized symbols about where you stand and who you stand with, this is what they are speaking in a voice louder than any bullhorn and clearer than any picket sign.

 

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