The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the Purpose of Cities: Part II

Since I posted Part I of this post, the CTU has signed a contract with Chicago Public Schools. I’ll quote Corey Robin directly on the outcomes:

Though the final contract has not yet been hammered out, here are just some of the things the Chicago Teachers Union have won with their seven-day strike [pdf]:

  • Almost 600 new art, music, and gym teachers
  • Guaranteed textbooks in the first day of class
  • $1.5 million for new special education teachers
  • $.5 million for reductions in class size
  • More than twice as much money for classroom supplies

No question: they’re hurting the kids.

But snark aside, the discussion about the impact of this win for teachers and students is not over, because the forces they are fighting against are well-funded and accustomed to tremendous deference from public officials who grant them leeway to operate beyond public scrutiny. The CTU strike jammed a big monkey wrench in the gears of the school reform machine, but they haven’t blown it up. That’s why understanding the roots of the conflict and what it means is so important.

In Part I, I discussed two poles of debate in the national media, which, despite differences in tone and style, generally abandon a structural critique of poverty to place teachers at the center of the problem. On the “soft” side of neoliberal arguments, teachers are not held solely responsible for the poverty and social disruption that affect urban education, but, since no one has the stomach to actually discuss poverty, they’re by default on the front lines, and thus drafted into the political equivalent of war. It’s assumed that the generals have a good strategy. On the “hard” side, the grunts are responsible for losing the war, and should all be shot for treason. There are folks resisting these variants of neoliberal discourse (tellingly, you can find these people IN CHICAGO).

In general, though (and fully copping to my own sympathies as a public educator) even supporters of teachers are failing to grasp all of what this strike means. The strike matters to the quality of education that Chicago’s students receive. But, as important as this is, the strike is about much more than that. It’s about teachers as professionals, about teaching as a middle class profession, and about the integration of teachers, students, and parents in an urban society that works for their mutual benefit. What teachers are insisting is that what works for them is, in fact, what works for students. Smaller classes, air conditioning, and supplies? Yes, yes, and yes. But also stability, building lasting relationships among teachers, parents, and neighbors in community schools that are accountable to the public who, ultimately, owns them.

It is no exaggeration to state that the CTU strike is a battle over what a city is for. To follow the logic of Rahm Emanuel and Charles Lane, a city is a business, delivering services to its customers. Unions gum up the works:

events in Chicago illustrate rather dramatically the contradictions between public-sector unionism and the efficient delivery of vital public services.

This, in a nutshell, is neoliberal urban governance. Services will be delivered efficiently according to cost accounting, and conflicts about who delivers them, under what conditions, and after what deliberative processes, are to be squelched.

This is one vision of what cities are for, but it’s not the one that represents our best chances to live good lives together. Urban Americans (and urban residents of other countries, of course) have come up with other models, starting from the basic condition of urbanity–strangers living together–to create what Kevin Baker calls in the current issue of Harper’s

a society that benefitted not only the politically well-connected but everyone, in which citizens were no longer compelled by immediate need to make their choices but could develop a broader and more enlightened idea of self-interest.

Making this society required expanding the legal powers of cities beyond the narrow limits imposed on them by the courts and state legislatures in the late 19th century. Under the legal doctrine of Dillon’s Rule, promulgated in 1872 by a former railroad attorney who had ascended to hold the post of Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, cities were famously defined as “creatures of the state” and allowed to operate only in narrowly tailored ways that furthered state ends. It’s no coincidence, as Joan Williams notes, that this arrangement immensely strengthened the hand of the railroads, the most powerful business interests of the day, against regulation and taxation.[1] It’s worth noting that the Supreme Court’s infamous Santa Clara decision, which established by parenthetical aside the personhood of corporations, involved a property tax dispute between a local government and the Southern Pacific railroad.

This arrangement suited the needs of the railroads and many Gilded Age plutocrats quite well. But it did not suit the needs of the working class, immigrant, and impoverished residents of cities, whose experience of the industrialization of post-Civil War America was rather different owing to their vantage point at the bottom of that society. The history of gilded age reform is remarkably complex, and blends immigrant and labor activism, the paternalistic impulses of affluent do-gooders, the emergence of modern university social science research, and the efforts of women to enter the public sphere under various banners of reform. What united these strands into a political rope was what legal historian David Barron calls the “social city” idea that the constituencies of the polyglot city had some measure of shared fate.[2] Armed with this idea, reformers demanded that state legislatures cede home rule powers to cities, allowing them to operate utilities, provide social services, and otherwise meet social needs that state legislators, generally either paid agents of the railroads or rural delegates with a reflexive anti-urbanism, scarcely comprehended.

Neoliberal discussions of government programs and the public sector are infused with the assumption that government provision creates passivity and laziness. This argument today is freighted with racial symbolism that would have been quite recognizable to our Gilded Age forebears, who worried about the “dangerous classes” and the erosion of rugged individualism. Then as now, the assumption is one that falls apart under scrutiny. When urban reformers, workers, clergy, and academics discussed and demand the expansion of city power, they weren’t simply demanding handouts, they were theorizing and experimenting with the nature of cities and society. In urban historian Thomas Bender’s terms, the reforms of this era were the fulfillment of broad-based efforts by people previously excluded from material wealth and influence to “think oneself into politics.” [3]

The CTU connects to this historical pattern because, of course, common public schools were part of this legacy of creating an expansive, inclusive urban public sphere in which the educational needs of students and the employment needs of adults in the community might both be satisfied. Schools have always also been sites of struggle to use public institutions to secure economic security for adults and economic mobility for children, particularly in communities of ethnic and racial minorities. The ability to work, the opportunity to learn, and the chance to participate in decisions that affected the system were inseparable goals.

Of course, Emanuel’s Chicago (like Michael Bloomberg’s New York and many other large American cities today) are powerful and strong cities that look less like like the public cities reformers envisioned with every passing day and every passed privatization measure. They are inheritors and embodiments of another, much narrower tradition of home rule power. Under what Barron calls the “administrative city” logic of home rule, local industrial and civic elites demanded home rule power with the understanding that they would use it shield city government from interference by corrupt and rural state legislators and unruly local constituencies, allowing them to do what even the last Gilded Age called “running the city like a business.” [2]

The conflict between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools, now under the sway of privatizers and wealthy “reform” advocates, is only in small part about matters of pay and benefits. Indeed, the Chicago reformers and the Mayor lobbied the state legislature to bar the CTU from striking over any part of their contract except for wages and benefits precisely to prevent the teachers from attempting to participate in decision making in any way that might get in the way of running the schools like businesses. The wins for Chicago’s students that Robin described in the passage I quoted at the top of this article? All entered the strike negotiations peripherally outside of the narrow framework of collective bargaining the CTU is legally allowed in Illinois.

What happened? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the managerial interpretation of cities’ role and function got a big boost with suburbanization. When federal policy and private development interests combined to build suburbia, they didn’t just build houses, streets, and schools. They also built communities with remarkable degrees of internal homogeneity, and a homeowning middle class susceptible to political appeals to their role as taxpayers. Isaac Martin’s fine book on the tax revolt shows that the politics of taxes were not, at least at first, inherently regressive. In fact, there were many left-wing movements for local property tax reform in the 1960s and early 1970s that decried not only the burdens imposed on taxpayers, but the lack of transparency in systems of assessment and appraisal that resulted in the politically influential escaping their share of the costs of social provision. The 1978 Jarvis-Gann (Proposition 13) initiative in California was significant as a forerunner of other right-populist tax limitation measures. Jarvis-Gann stripped away the participatory and redistributionist demands of left-wing tax reformers and substituted a more limited, but simpler principle: lower taxes always. Martin’s account is a highly readable summary of how this perspective came to dominate tax politics, and how the political role of taxpayer superseded the broader role of citizen.[4]

The structure of metropolitan government accounts for another big part of the ascendancy of narrowly defined taxpayer politics.  This is because decisions about taxes and services are never merely local. The highways that the federal government bankrolled in the 1950s and 1960s allowed sufficient mobility that residents and businesses could pick and choose where to live according to a calculus of interests in which taxes took on great weight. Charles Tiebout, Vincent Ostrom, Charles Warren, and others viewed this as a feature of the system, developing public choice theories of governance based around consumer choice and the necessity for local governments to be responsive to the desires of resident-consumers.[5] Paul Peterson has most notably demonstrated that this framework operates as much by coercion as by choice; the policies enacted in one jurisdiction coerce politicians in other jurisdictions away from redistributive policies, and indeed away from discussing a common public interest at all.[6]

In conjunction with the rise of low-tax populism and the replacement of citizens by taxpayers, suburban politics have colonized the cities. Whereas big city governments once stood as the apotheosis of the public sphere, they are now being reconfigured along neoliberal lines of privatization, retrenchment, and streamlining rehearsed in the suburbs. To the extent that our political and legal frameworks for local government put municipalities in competition with each other, this dynamic becomes a vicious circle. CTU President Karen Lewis acutely grasped this in a letter published in In These Times on September 13:

The CPS district has seen declining enrollment over the last decade, as have many other urban districts, because urban sprawl is sending our families to far-flung suburbs like Oswego where the housing is much larger and much cheaper than in the city. This is not because Chicago schools are “failing”—this is an urban planning phenomenon that we have seen many times in the last century. Illinois’ farmlands are being converted into towns, and just as the highways of the 1940s and 1950s allowed for suburban commuters to live comfortably outside the city and quickly get to work downtown every day, the Metra and I-355 have been expanded out to Oswego and other suburbs to help push that housing development.

In another political context, these demographic shifts would be met by cooperative efforts of people in central cities and suburbs. But today, Lewis observes, the losses imposed on the city by suburbanization are met with austerity politics and privatization.

I’ve got an article under review arguing that we need to dig beneath the individualistic concepts of ownership and investment that define even the left pole of our current political culture and revisit the potential to use our cities as instruments of a public good, not as accounting offices or contracting machines. So for now I’ll leave it to Baker to describe the consequences of this shift in great polemic style:

Our new depression years have provided the opportunity to peremptorily roll back the social covenants of the past century. Throughout the United States, economic hardship has been used to advance a direct and lethal form of what might be called ‘election nullification.’ From coast to coast, towns–and even cities as large as Detroit and Stockton, California–have been allowed to slide into bankruptcy. Many of their municipal workers are fired and have their pensions severely reduced. The public assets of those local governments are often sold at bargain prices, and their elected officials are superseded–either tossed out of office or reduced to carrying out the commands of unelected officials appointed by the states.

This process will continue, as long as people in the cities view their social roles as taxpayers and consumers. When people like the CTU try to think their way into politics again, and demand to participate in choices that affect the historical legacy of the physical and institutional infrastructure of the urban public sphere, it is a battle over the nature of a democratic society. Karen Lewis says it better than I can in an interview with Chicago Magazine:

Unions are pesky. And god forbid there be some democracy. The problem is that public education is the last of… any part of democracy in this country because rich people have bought everything. They bought access to the politicians, … to government, on a level that’s unprecedented….  When people talk about merit, what are they talking about? They’re talking about whether I like you or not; whether you are my friend…. Principals have the ability to hire, and they utilize [it] as a way of controlling people. They’ll say, “If you’re not happy here, you could always go here.” The fact is that unions are demonized because the people that really run this country would like nothing more than to have complete and total control over everything.


[1] Williams, Joan. “The Constitutional Vunerability of American Local Government: The Politics of City Status in American Law.” Wisconsin Law Review 83 (February 1986): 83–153.

[2] Barron, David J. “Reclaiming Home Rule.” Harvard Law Review 116, no. 8 (June 2003): 2257–2386.

[3] Bender, Thomas. “Intellectuals, Cities, and Citizenship in the United States.” In Cities and Citizenship, edited by James Holston, 21–41. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

[4]Martin, Isaac William. The Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed American Politics. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2008.

[5] Ostrom, Vincent, Charles M. Tiebout, and Robert Warren. “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry.” The American Political Science Review 55, no. 4 (1961): 831–842. Tiebout, Charles M. “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures.” The Journal of Political Economy 64, no. 5 (1956): 416–424.

[6] Peterson, Paul E. City Limits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.


2 comments on “The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the Purpose of Cities: Part II

  1. […] provocative polemic by Kevin Baker in the NYT yesterday (I linked to another of his pieces in this post). Baker could, I think, hit on the point a bit more directly that the GOP platform doesn’t so […]

  2. […] Garcia’s support from the teachers’ union is a big factor, but as I wrote here and here at the height of the teachers’ strike in 2012, the bigger problem with Rahm’s […]

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