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The serious villagers have now spoken: the editorial boards of many of the country’s major newspapers including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, Mitt Romney, Rahm Emmanuel’s new friend Paul Ryan, Illinois’ “progressive” Senator Dick Durbin, Jesse Jackson… They all agree that the Chicago teachers need to get back to work and accept whatever the Mayor of Chicago thinks is in their best interest.
Why the consensus from the “Left” and the Right of the US political system about the action taken by the Chicago Teachers? Because strikes, and union organizing, are the last bastion of serious struggle in the US today and their tactics challenge the charade that is our political system.
With minor exceptions, the two major parties in the US today have a consensus when it comes to most matters of substance: free trade and globalization, the drug war, the prison industrial complex, a view that the entire world (including the US) is an endless battleground against “terrorism”, and the idea that the US tax payer is an ATM for any large industry that nears bankruptcy. Unfortunately for the people of Chicago and other poor and minority parts of the US, the consensus extends even to the idea that public schools, and democratic control of those schools, are a luxury only for the well-healed neighborhoods of America – certainly not the “ghetto.”
Education “reform” has been a major focus of most right-wing foundations (including the Heritage, Bradley and Gates Foundations) for over 25 years. Vouchers, charters, the replacement of school boards with Mayors or managers, test driven decision making and the destruction of collective bargaining are core goals of the “reform” agenda. With remarkable speed, it has profoundly altered public education, particularly in lower income and minority neighborhoods. The Obama administration and most of the Democratic Party’s movers and shakers have wholeheartedly embraced this agenda.
The Chicago strike is the most important political struggle today challenging the consensus politics of our moribund two party system.
Following on the heels of the defeat in Wisconsin, the Chicago teachers, and now those in Lake Forest, Illinois, are showing us that there is an alternative terrain on which to fight for progressive change in the US and that it is not the fixed, money-soaked ground of electoral politics where we are almost certain to lose. Although we hear populist rhetoric from both parties during election time, they rally around the corporate agenda when it counts. Think of the billions that the labor movement has spent over the years on the Democratic Party. What has been the outcome? Aside from the almost total destruction of private sector unions, we now see a new onslaught against public sector unions as well. Across the country almost any harebrained “reform” advocated by some John Birch Society-like Think Tank is actually taken seriously at Democratic Party fund raising events. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida and elsewhere, public money now flows to all kinds of sectarian and private schools with almost no accountability and with no discernible improvement in instruction compared to public institutions. Yet, the Democrats and Republicans continue to expand them.
The Right Wing Think Tanks and their Democrat and Republican allies want to destroy public education because it is one of the few institutions that maintain some autonomy, through democratic school boards and workers democracy (unions), from private corporate control.
Public schools potentially will be auctioned off, for the purpose of public to private wealth transfer, to educational corporations, the testing industry, food vendors, maintenance, transportation, software and hardware companies of over 100 years of public infrastructure.
Public educational institutions are also the most widespread link that people in the United States have with a democratic workplace because of their high levels of unionization. And they are widely popular.
Public schools then, although not perfect, are a demonstration effect of a public space that works. They function as the backbone of our society, educating 85% of the population while at the same time involving workers and the community in democratic decision making. This and the potential goldmine for private companies as a result of privatization are the reasons the paymasters for the two corporate parties want to destroy public schools.
Christopher Fons is a public school teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.