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Played for Suckers

Obama’s People Show Their True Colors


For those who wondered what happened to Robert Gibbs, President Obama’s former campaign advisor and mealy-mouthed White House press secretary, he has resurfaced in the private sector. He is the co-founder of Incite Agency, an upscale public relations firm. Apparently, going from an underpaid shill for the White House to an overpaid shill for Corporate America was a seamless (and guiltless) transition.

Gibbs’ public relations company’s first major assignment is going to be a real whopper. Hold on to your seat. Incite Agency is going to launch a national public relations campaign aimed at destroying America’s teachers’ unions. It’s true. Gibbs and company have announced that they will be preparing the groundwork for lawsuits across the country, challenging tenure and other teachers’ job protection.

When you consider that Obama has surrounded himself with anti-union people (Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan, Eric Holder, et al), this vile announcement should come as no surprise, not to people who’ve been paying attention. Still, the naked audacity and venality of the move caught some of us off-guard. We’re reminded of that Lily Tomlin line: “I worry that no matter how cynical I become, it’s never going to be enough.”

If people out there—say parents—were truly and sincerely opposed to school teachers receiving tenure, believing that union protection somehow contributed to “substandard education” (which every study ever conducted has refuted), one could almost forgive their ignorance. Not knowing the facts, all that these good people want is a decent education for their kids, for America’s kids, and no one should ridicule that.

But this anti-teacher campaign has nothing to do with improving education. It has as much to do with that as “designer water” has to do with improving people’s health. Some ambitious guys simply got together and figured out a way to get people to reject municipal water. By pretending that plastic water was somehow better than tap (even though municipal standards are higher), they were able to carve out a new market. Getting people to pay for something they could otherwise get free is no small feat.

These same guys (the ones who want more toll roads and want to charge fees for walking on hiking trails) now want to privatize America’s public education system. The prospect of millions of families willing to pay for something that they could otherwise get free has these covetous money-grubbers positively drooling. This would be a bonanza for the ruling class. But it’s tricky. It’s a big move. How do they pull off something like that?

Obviously, they can’t compare resumes or backgrounds or certification. Obviously, they can’t mention the fact that public school teachers are required to have not only a college degree but a teaching credential. They can’t mention it because of the embarrassing fact that private school teachers aren’t required to have either.

Private school teachers require less certification and are paid less. Yet these entrepreneurs want people to believe private schools somehow attract the best teachers. That argument wouldn’t work for doctors. You couldn’t convince people that the best physicians were the ones with the least education and lowest salaries. So how do they convince them that privatization is a smart move? They do it by demonizing the labor unions that represent the teachers.

Given that there is a massive public relations smear-job loose upon the land, it is incumbent upon the AFL-CIO to respond in kind. The House of Labor has money to spend. They need to spend it wisely. Instead of blowing it on futile organizing drives (e.g., Wal-Mart), they should focus their energy on speaking frankly with the American public. Convince them that they’re being played for suckers. There is still time.

David Macaray is a labor columnist and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor, 2nd Edition).