Monday, March 10, 2014

"Strike for America," by Micah Uetricht

“Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity,” is as much about the fate of public education as it is a tract on the virtues and need for radical democratic unionism in the United States.

Micah Uetricht's account of a strike by Chicago teachers against the city school system and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close scores of schools as part of his reform is no even-handed monograph.

Before us is an unabashedly positive account of changes in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), over a few years, that led to the installation of an activist, left-wing leadership slate.

According to Uetricht, the CTU leadership had grown sclerotic and comfortable, a charge often associated with unions where officer turnover is limited to deaths in dotage.

After a false start with one reform slate, a group of activists within CTU formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), “rooted in an organic community-teacher coalition against school closures, a broad left politics, and an uncompromisingly combative and democratic unionism whose raison d'être was in a perceived need to end union capitulation to neoliberal education reform.”

(raison d'être? John L. Lewis, judge us not!)

From CORE's perspective, “The combination of public school closings and charter school expansion will likely erode the union's membership, redirect public money to privately run charters that lack basic mechanisms for public accountability, slash teachers' salaries and benefits, and cause massive disruption in the neighborhoods where the closures would take place.”

Uetricht's is an insider's account and one clearly affected by emotions associated with the American left coming out of the shadows for the strike in demonstration of its common and legitimate components. People pulling together and getting behind the needs of others can make you feel warm, fuzzy and less alone in an atomized and unkind culture.

Some labor watchers view the strike as a wash in terms of the contract reached and the fact Emanuel proceeded to close 49 public schools and open 63 new charters.

Nonetheless, the strike was a triumph as an organizing exercise and in its willingness to take action, even direct action, when confronting powerful adversaries. The CTU blueprint places the hoary old tool of the strike back in play when circumstances are right and proper tactics applied.

That said, radical democratic unionism as a source of vitality, both to organizing and bargaining, is not a new idea and, as an old one, has a spotty success rate.

It is still a less-practiced form of labor activism than the “business unionism” Uetricht readies for the dustbin. It has a tendency to turn a class of workers with bargaining unit representation into full-time  activists or politicians.

Not every rank-and-file is as well-suited to its demands as say, a group of educated, up-to-date, reading-prone teachers. It is more apt to take root when workers are shoved to the wall, the same place they were when the idea of a union got their goat in the first place, and which may be the subtext to this particular saga.

“Strike for America” does a very good job of laying out what the issues in the Chicago strike were, beyond wages, and into the communities served by the schools under attack. The author then ably connects those issues to what is happening in education nationally.

The Obama administration and Democrats do not come off well, and Uetricht asserts that unions need to reassess their long and fruitful relationship with the Donkey Party, given the impact certain of its enthusiastically forwarded policies are having on labor's ranks.

He writes, “From the very top of the national Democratic Party to the local level, the consensus is unabashedly in favor of transforming public education into a market commodity.”

“Strike for America,” is an interesting book for those monitoring the pace and particulars of change roiling American education, labor, and progressive politics, as well as their intersecting trajectories.

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