Chicago’s Teachers, Labor, and The City

It’s important to note in the wake of Kristen McQueary’s odious op-ed wishing for a Katrina-like disaster to strike Chicago that the city’s political leaders–the Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel–and austerity Republican Governor Bruce Rauner aren’t waiting for Katrina to try to bulldoze the city’s schools and contracts with its teachers.

In Chicago, parents are hunger striking (see Diane Ravitch) to protest the slow-death closure of one neighborhood public high school as Chicago pursues another instantiation of the privatization-by-charter approach that Jelani Cobb identified in his recent New Yorker article on Jamaica High School–a process that creates “failed schools.”

The CTU is also fighting over a contract in the context of a fiscal crisis that they contend is really a political crisis–the city and the schools are “Broke On Purpose.”

Here’s Chicago Teachers Union VP Jesse Sharkey speaking at the City Club of Chicago about the crisis.

What strikes me in all of this is the way that the union has worked since its 2012 strike to frame its positions, both on wages and pensions and on CPS’s privatization agenda, around the idea that schools and the labor that runs them are integral parts of the city and the quality of its neighborhoods. They’re indeed integral to the ways that austerity-minded leaders are trying to remake it.

The bulk of Sharkey’s talk concerns the idea that Chicago Public Schools are Broke on Purpose. In Sharkey’s terms, “the fiscal crisis in the schools has been created by endeavor,” a systematic pattern of refusals beginning with former Mayor Richard M. Daley to raise school property taxes to legal capacity, or to raise the schools’ capital improvement tax. In order to reject revenue-raising, AKA “taxing the rich,” CPS  instead chose to borrow and lard future budgets with debt service, a problem compounded by a parallel development agenda funded by TIF financing, which has removed substantial amounts of property tax potential, and by credit rate swaps brokered by large banks.A fiscal situation that is a predictable product of politics and potentially reversible becomes an inevitability. Predictably, outfits like Bank of America have done fine, while the schools are told that there’s no alternative but to cut.

It’s not acceptable that there’s $274 m in windfall profits that go t0 a large financial institution at the same time that we’re cutting special education classroom assistants, we’re cutting bus aides, we’re cutting elementary school sports, we’re slashing our schools to the bare bones.

Sharkey’s best moment came when asked whether the teachers’ union has responsibility for solving the fiscal crisis:

But what you’re not going to see us do is go arm in arm with someone who, in their other arm, has an ax, and is taking us out behind the shed to go visit a stump. That’s not the way that’s going to go down with us…. We really do take the idea that we’re the  defenders of a public trust, public education, very seriously. We have a big microphone. You know, typical parent, on the South or West Side, doesn’t get to stand in front of a room like this… and talk about the funding of public education. We do.

Americans have long thought that public schools were essential as incubators of citizenship. Students would learn lessons not just about academics but about how democracy is practiced. There’s always been a divergence, noted by some and ignored by others, about just what the real lesson has been. The CTU might go on strike again, but even if they are out of the classroom, they’ll be teaching.


2 comments on “Chicago’s Teachers, Labor, and The City

  1. […] is that, much as Jesse Sharkey explained the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools are “broke on purpose,” community areas on the city’s South and West Sides have been undergoing a purposeful […]

  2. […] (and oenophile buddy of the Mayor) who’s created a politically useful (but unnecessary) budget crisis in order to attack political enemies (unions) and made after-school programs […]

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