The organization “Save Our Schools” conducted a webinar July 17 entitled, “Build a united teachers union with local support—Here’s how we do it in Chicago.” As the title suggests, and the subsequent discussion confirmed, the webinar’s focus was on reviving moribund trade unionism, coupled with a type of racial and community control politics harkening back to the 1960s, but currently championed by organizations representing the middle class “left.”
Participating in the webinar was Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and Jitu Brown, a community activist and leader of KOCO (Kenwood Oakland Community Organization) on Chicago’s south side. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Michael Klonsky, once a leader of the “New Left” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s.
Save Our Schools (SOS) is an organization that appeared two years ago, as it became clear that the Obama administration, far from seeking to undo the damage wrought by the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 with Democratic support under the Bush administration, was instead intensifying the assault on public education. SOS attracted support from a layer of teachers, legitimately concerned about the mounting attacks on this basic social right.
However, SOS has since its inception engaged only in tepid protests against the continuing attacks on public education, and on teachers in particular. A case-in-point was the SOS rally last year in Washington, D.C. which featured speakers opposed to the education policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations: former Undersecretary of Education Diane Ravitch, sociologist and author Jonathan Kozol, well-known educator and Obama campaign advisor Linda Darling Hammond, and actor Matt Damon.
That highly publicized weekend rally attracted a limited audience of about 5,000 people, and was essentially boycotted by the major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), which did not want to embarrass President Obama.
The SOS webinar offered more of the same protest politics. Klonsky opened by citing a misleading and completely hyperbolic headline in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “Chicago teachers could strike a blow for organized labor globally”. Klonsky added that the very “survival of the unions was at stake”, while making no reference to the essential factors that have rendered the trade unionism bankrupt: the globalization of economic life, which has undermined the national-reformist perspective of the unions, and the domination of these organizations by a reactionary, pro-capitalist bureaucracy.
CTU President Lewis then spoke. She opened her remarks with what appeared to be a reference to the “working class”, but cut herself short, referring instead to the “lower class and people of color.” Lewis then called for the establishing of a “grassroots education movement” explaining that “we want to move the union in a different direction.” Lewis and her union faction, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators or CORE, were elected as the leadership of the CTU in June 2010.
CORE is supported by the petty-bourgeois “left” International Socialist Organization, which has several members in the leadership of the CORE faction, including CTU Vice-President Jesse Sharkey. It is not surprising then, that Lewis cut short her reference to the working class. Thoroughly imbued with identity and racial politics, the ISO and their co-thinkers in the trade union bureaucracy, like Lewis, are bitterly opposed to any acknowledgement of the working class as the fundamental social force capable of challenging the policies of the corporate and financial aristocracy, defended by the Obama administration.
Lewis continued her remarks stating that she was “disheartened” when Arne Duncan was appointed Secretary of Education, however, she failed to mention that it was Obama who appointed Duncan to the post.
When community activist Jitu Brown spoke, he continued the attack on Duncan, who has become a convenient whipping boy in these circles. Brown made reference to Renaissance 2010, an attack on the Chicago public schools initiated by Duncan when he headed the Chicago school district. Under Duncan, thousands of Chicago teachers lost their jobs as scores of “under-performing” schools closed.
Brown cited poverty as “the real obstacle to student achievement”, but couched his remarks in racialist terms, with the inevitable comparison of the poor urban schools, presumably populated by black and Hispanic children, against their privileged “white counterparts.”
Brown revisited this tenuous dichotomy several times during the webinar, and even referred to education in Chicago as an “apartheid system,” in ignorance of the fact that there exists a substantial black middle class in the city, whose children attend better-off schools that are a far cry from those working class children attend.
Remarkably, the name of Obama was not spoken in the discussion about the attacks on public education until a webinar listener asked why the panel was silent on the president’s role. The questioner reminded the panel that Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also the object of criticism for his brazen hostility to teachers and the public schools, are both closely linked to the Obama administration (Duncan being Secretary of Education, and Emanuel serving as White House chief of staff). Obama and Duncan’s “Race to the Top” education initiative represented an intensification of No Child Left Behind, he said.
CTU President Lewis responded, rather uncomfortably, to the question. Regarding “the whole Obama/Duncan piece, I was hugely disappointed,” she said. “You don’t put someone in charge of education who is not an educator.” Lewis then opined that Linda Darling-Hammond should have been Obama’s choice for education secretary, but made no comment regarding the listener’s characterization of Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy.
When asked about the possibility of a teachers strike in Chicago, Lewis sidestepped the question, stating that the “key to winning the battle is strategic.” Lewis emphasized the expressions of support she has received from both AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, a clear indication that any actions initiated by the union will be used as a safety valve to dissipate teacher anger and militancy, while blocking any attempt to mobilize mass support in the working class in defense of public education.
The pairing of Lewis and Brown for the SOS webinar is significant. It represents the aligning of so-called “social justice” trade unionism with the racial politics and the outlook of “community control,” which implicitly pits the parents of black schoolchildren against teachers and school workers along racial lines.
Under the auspices of the ISO, this combination represents the line-up of two well-heeled sections of the upper-middle-class—well-paid trade union officials and black nationalist political operators (local versions of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton)—whose goal is to maintain the subordination of the working class to the Democratic Party and the capitalist system, and to block the emergence of a genuine revolutionary alternative.