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Help Obama Find His Shoes

5:04 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

President Barack Obama’s re-election is a huge relief—we dodged the Romney/Ryan bullet.

However, that’s not the same as winning a better future. If Obama’s first term is a prologue to the second, we should not expect to see much progress in strengthening the rights or bargaining ability of workers. Therefore, in Obama’s second term, we need to be:

• Smarter about the policies we advocate.

• Selective about the candidates we endorse.

• More disciplined about building a strong social movement.

Progressives need to recognize where the real fight is happening. Congress is still firmly under Republican control—or, at least, under threat of a Republican veto that can stop any worthwhile federal legislation. Since progress won’t happen in Washington, we must work for it at the state and local level. We are already seeing some of the most exciting innovations take shape in cities and metropolitan regions. Urban labor-community coalitions are making respect for collective bargaining a precondition for businesses to receive public support. They are also approaching politics in a new way. In exchange for supporting candidates, these coalitions are ensuring that politicians use the bully pulpit to defend workers and denounce union-busting. In San Jose, Calif., student, labor and faith groups demanded that local politicians back an across-the-board minimum wage increase that passed on Election Day. And in Long Beach, Calif., a coalition of LGBT activists, labor and faith groups got city council members to endorse a ballot measure for hotel housekeepers to get a raise, which passed.

Such coalitions must evaluate elected officials on whether or not they understand that their success in pushing legislation forward is directly linked to the strength of social movements. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told me earlier this year in an interview for The American Prospect, “Sympathetic members of Congress have the power to draft, introduce and vote on legislation. But leaders in the progressive community … have the ability to mobilize, educate and organize all across America. We need each other to be successful.” We can no longer afford to invest in politicians who do not understand this.

Most candidates favored by Democratic Party powerbrokers are unable to grasp this concept. The few who do have social-movement roots, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Consequently, a long-term electoral strategy must involve cultivating candidates directly from the ranks of social movements and then fighting for them in the primaries.

As Obama begins his second term, Republican obstructionism cannot be an excuse for inaction—particularly when it comes to the president’s use of his bully pulpit.

During the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, and during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, White House leadership was nowhere to be found. Obama once promised, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.”

The President seems to have misplaced his walking shoes. We should send him a new pair—and make sure that no future candidates we endorse have any excuse for losing theirs.

Originally published on In These Times.

How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

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In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day 2010

I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.

The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.

To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

What do you see as the role of teachers unions in preserving public education?

For many years, there has been an effort to diminish teachers unions and to blame them for all the problems of public education. I believe the reason, first of all, is that some people just hate unions. But there’s also a political reason that’s very specific. That is that if you silence the union, then there’s nobody at the table when the legislature or the governor wants to cut the budget, so they can hack away at will. That’s happening in states across the country. I was in Texas a few weeks ago, and there the legislature cut over $5 billion dollars from the education budget, but they did manage to squeeze out $500 million dollars for more testing. They have a weak union. They had no one at the table to say, “You can’t do this.” And no one cared what the teachers thought anyway.

This past summer, you championed the Chicago teachers strike as an example of teachers publicly transcending self-interest and pushing for better conditions in the schools. Can you speak about some of the victories have shown a different style of advocacy from teachers?

Well, the teachers’ union had a problem in that most of the things they were concerned about they’re not allowed to collectively bargain. The law says they’re not allowed to collectively bargain the teaching and learning conditions, but that was the essence of the strike. They had to say that they were striking over something that was legal and not over something that the law didn’t allow. I think that one of the things that they were able to accomplish—and it’s a small accomplishment but an important one—is that the mayor wanted the [teachers’ performance] evaluations to be based, I think, 40 or 50 percent on [student] test scores. They got it down to what was the legally required minimum. My own view is that the test scores should account for zero in teacher evaluation.
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