Aug 17, 2015
Chicago’s ruling class has laid down the gauntlet in front of the city’s teachers. The Chicago Public Schools announced 1,491 layoffs, and threatened “even deeper cuts.” The governor of Illinois claimed that the Chicago Teachers Union is “dictatorial” and needs to have its powers reduced. Every day the newspapers make a new argument about why the teachers must make huge sacrifices.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel made his intentions clear when he appointed hatchet-man Forest Claypool as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Claypool has no education background. But he has a big background going after public workers, most recently when he was head of the Chicago Transit Authority and oversaw a massive attack on workers there.
Claypool came into this year’s contract negotiations aggressively, saying he wants to cut teachers’ pay by 7 percent. He says this would be a deduction that would go into teachers’ pensions – but the fact is this 7 percent cut in teachers’ paychecks wouldn’t improve pensions. It would go to make up a reduction in what the school system is supposed to pay. Pension contributions are part of teachers’ income. In 1981, the school system agreed to pay this 7 percent instead of giving teachers raises. Reducing teacher pay by 7 percent without one penny more going to their pensions would be an enormous give-back.
Three years ago, Mayor Emanuel came out just as aggressively in contract negotiations, but that was in the middle of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and because he was so linked to Obama, Emanuel’s hands were a bit tied. Chicago teachers called his bluff, carrying out an eight-day strike. Even though it might not have been the most militant strike, in this day and age when there are no strikes, the fact that teachers in a city like Chicago went out was important. Workers everywhere paid attention to it. The teachers ended the strike on their terms, while Emanuel had to back off.
Some people afterwards said the teachers didn’t get very much after the strike. But the reality is by fighting they kept Emanuel from taking from them what he wanted, which was much more than anyone could see at the time.
But today there is no election and Emanuel seems set to make an all-out assault. Teachers should have no illusions that the 7 percent pay cut is the only cut that Emanuel and the city’s ruling class want. All the propaganda about a budget crisis is only a way to justify much bigger attacks. They want to destroy the union, destroy the teachers’ standard of living, destroy the pensions. They say it openly. All this in order to have ever more money to hand over to the banks and big corporations.
Behind the attack on the teachers is a much broader attack on the public schools for the children of the working class. The ruling class of Chicago has already starved working class schools of resources – when they haven’t closed them. They intend to destroy the education of working class children by replacing public schools with charters and by closing schools in poor neighborhoods to clear them for gentrification. Emanuel made his stance clear when he closed 50 schools two years ago, most of them in black neighborhoods.
The politicians threaten teachers that if they don’t accept big cuts, Chicago schools will become like those in New Orleans and Detroit. Using the excuses of Hurricane Katrina and Detroit’s economic problems, the public school systems in those cities were gutted and turned over to private interests – in many cases, for-profit charter schools. What kind of education do students get in a school where the main goal is profit, rather than education? In some of these schools, there are no teachers, just one untrained Teach for America volunteer with 40 students in front of computers.
The schools in New Orleans and Detroit were not destroyed because teachers wouldn’t accept cuts – just the opposite. The politicians got away with destroying those school systems because in the aftermath of Katrina and the Detroit bankruptcy, teachers and working class parents couldn’t find a way to organize a fight. But Chicago has not been hit by a hurricane, and it’s a city that obviously has enormous resources.
There is no way out of this situation without a fight. Maybe if Chicago’s teachers fight, they could lose, especially if their fight is hesitant. But if they don’t fight, it’s a sure thing they will lose – and then Chicago’s public schools for working class children will go the way of New Orleans and Detroit. Someone will have to stand up to the capitalists and their crony politicians like Rahm Emanuel, or we will all keep moving backwards. Right now, the ball is in the Chicago teachers’ court.