Why the Chicago Teacher’s Union Needs a Socialist Party

The Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) is facing a serious political problem as its strike enters a second week.  The problem extends down from the highest heights in Washington, D.C. to the smallest ward in Chicago.  The problem is the Democratic Party and this problem is only getting worse.  Or, one could see the political problem not so much as the presence of one thing, the Democrats, but as the absence of another thing, a serious Socialist Party. Either way, as the teachers continue their brave attempt to resist the impositions of the school privatizers and consolidators, they will continue to bump into the same problem – they have no one willing to speak for them politically.

The problem in Washington, D.C. is an obvious one.  President Barack Obama abandoned the agenda of the defense of public schools long ago.  His appointment of Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education sent the message loud and clear.  Duncan had spent his time winding his way up the ladder of the Education bureaucracy in Chicago – all along carving out space for charter schools to become the preferred vehicle for “school reform” in the city. Not surprisingly, this meant clashes with the CTU.  No surprises from CTU then when Duncan authored Obama’s “Race to the Top” education policy that embraced charter schools as a means to transform school systems across the country.

Such political problems are not confined to the heights of power in D.C. Anti-public school sentiment has sunk deep roots into local politics in Chicago, proving the old maxim offered by Karl Marx that “when they play the fiddle at the top of the state what is there to do but dance.”  And Chicago’s Democratic Party Alderman are in a dancing mood lately – trodding all over the hopes and dreams of CTU members and parent supporters for a revitalized public school system in the city.

Chief among the union hostile Aldermen is Carrie Austin from Chicago’s Ward 34.  Austin made her name in politics by taking over the seat of her deceased husband.  Since then, she has earned the nickname “Power Broker” during her rise to the Chair of the Black Caucus in the City Council.  Lately Austin has spent plenty of time savaging the CTU in the press.  The strike, she argued, was “one of choice,” the outcome of which would, “…affect (parents) in a devastating way, especially to the parent that absolutely must work.” According to Austin the blame for the strike fell squarely on the shoulders of the CTU – “Are your demands such that you have to strike to get resolution?”

Joe Proco Moreno the vegetarian, pro-fitness Alderman of the 1st Ward joined in with Austin. He cited phone calls from “my parents and others in the ward” about the deal offered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  The unnamed callers told Moreno, “…you know this looks like a pretty good deal.”  As a result he proclaimed that, “It’s ridiculous that they’re striking.” Emma Mitts, Alderman from the 37th Ward, agrees.  Her slogan is “unity in the community,” so she was able to identify the key issue that produced the strike.  The “personality clash” between the mayor and CTU President Karen Lewis “could be one of the biggest factors.”  A simple solution seemed to be in order, “We can’t keep pointing fingers,” she said. “As adults, we can always have differences, but we need to rise above that as a public servant.”

Another group of Aldermen have chosen another way to not deal with the real issues related to the strike.  For them, it’s all about the kids.  Tough on crime Alderman Jason Ervin of the 28th Ward went this route, offered the following content-less gem to the Chicago Tribune, “The key right now is making sure that the kids are safe.”  Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward, author of a much lauded Participatory Budgeting Initiative, offered the ugly side of the “it’s all about the kids” position.  For Moore, it’s all about the kids, because the kids are all potentials criminals in the making.  He predicted an “…uptick in crime, particularly among the adolescents and teenagers who suddenly find a lot of time on their hands.”

The concrete result of all of the hostility and inanities was the creation of a letter, signed on to by 33 of the 50 Alderman in the City Council which asked Lewis to keep students in the classroom while negotiating.  Several among the 33 such as Timothy Cullerton of the 33rd Ward are professed supporters of the CTU strike action.  A smaller handful of others, particularly, Bob Fioretti, Rick Munoz and John Arena have been more steadfast. Each has been willing to speak at CTU rallies and speak publicly in support of the strike effort.  Yet, even they normally temper their comments with a call for a quick resolution to the strike action.

The simple fact of the matter is that after decades of neoliberalism, the Democratic Party is utterly unable to represent the interests of working people. This is clear in the day to day operations of politics in Chicago and other cities throughout the country, but comes into even sharper focus when actions like a strike raise the level of resistance by workers to a higher pitch.  Support for charter schools is therefore not just a way for local politicians to follow the tone set by National policy makers.  It is the manner in which Democratic Party politicians express their deeply pro-Corporate politics.  It is a way to appease their funders.  And it is a way to betray the interests of poor and working class children all under the moral cloak of “reform.”

A Socialist Alderman would attempt to make the critical link between the Teacher’s strike and the interests of public school parents throughout Chicago; namely, that the demands being made by the CTU are demands made in the service of defending public education in the city. While much of media focus has been placed on the union’s wage demands, several of the other issues on the table relate to the general conditions of the school system.  This is especially true of their demands for smaller class sizes, air conditioned classrooms, and increased support staff for students such as paraprofessionals, counselors, and therapists.  A Socialist Alderman would make this message clear to the media – the interests of the teachers and the interests of the parents are one and the same.

While working to increase support in the public, an elected socialist official would also attempt to engage the City Council as a mechanism to force the Mayor to settle on the terms offered by the CTU.  This would allow the union to press the Mayor’s office from the inside and the outside as they attempt to create a local defeat of the anti-public school forces that currently control the national landscape. Democratic socialist representatives would provide a voice for working people throughout the city and in moments of crisis such as this one, we would provide critical resources for working people to achieve victory.

Clearly Rahm Emanuel and the majority of the Democrats in the City Council are actively attempting to present the union as an isolated self-interested body. Democratic Socialist candidates, and eventually, elected public officials would work to reverse this by showing how Emanuel and the Democrats’ educational agenda is based on the narrow pro-Corporate self-interest that has filtered through mainstream politics.  The CTU strike is another reminder of why Socialists run in electoral races and a serious lesson on why organized labor needs to support us when we do so.  Socialists will bring a voice to politics that will be economically independent from Corporate America; one that will challenge the neoliberalism of the Democratic Party on a daily basis and will certainly come in handy when workers exercise their power on the work site by striking.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: whartonbilly@gmail.com. Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.