Dylan Matthews published a post today about how teacher strikes harm student achievement, reaching all the way to suggest that the future earning potential of students off from school today at the Chicago Public Schools will be impacted by a protracted strike. Let’s set aside the fact that it seems a bit presumptuous to enter into this conversation ONE DAY INTO a strike action, and the fact that the company of the organization for which Matthews works, the Washington Post, has a subsidiary named Kaplan which makes the bulk of its money off test preparation services. The entire rationale for this boils down to lost instructional days for the students, and it’s simply unknowable how many days students will miss and whether or not they will get made up on the back end, as snow days are. This is how it worked when my mother, a teacher, went on strike multiple times in the 1980s. So it’s a speculative discussion.
Of course, what doesn’t get factored into the discussion about future wages is the impact of a weakened national labor movement. I asked Matthews about this on Twitter, and he gave a very specific response about whether or not teacher wages impact the private labor market. I don’t really think that’s a useful way to look at this. Supposedly walled-off sectors which previously had strong labor power have been diminished, and despite the isolated nature of the industry, the parallels between a weaker labor market and national wage stagnation are very clear.
Because that’s what this fight is about: the larger unified movement against workers. It also encompasses more than just wages, even though new rules in Chicago dictate that the contract negotiations are limited to that. This is about the education reform debate, and it represents the first time that a teachers union has really fought back against these largely untested and unproven ideas about how to turn around the so-called “failing” public school system. (Note: the public school system, and more broadly the US education system, isn’t failing). And so before we concern-troll that long strikes could hurt future economic opportunity for students, we have to address whether education policy that allows for looting by business interests through moving schools into the for-profit sector, or the end of collective bargaining as a meaningful check on management keeping all profits for themselves, hurts that economic opportunity to a much greater degree.
Consider these local reports on why this fight happened and how it’s playing out.
YK: Chicago is a pretty divided city, with neighborhoods divided by class. I spent today riding my bike around Latino, working-class neighborhoods — Pilsen, Little Village, and North and South Lawndale. These are areas that aren’t doing well in this economy.
I’m seeing a lot of cars honking their horns, and police running their siren while they go by a school picket. The people that have to deal with the daily reality of school cutbacks, or mental health clinic shutdowns, or how’ll they get home in winter with less public transit, the people who deal with austerity budgets, are in support of the teachers’ strike [...]
When you are here on the ground, it feels like a strong line of opposition. Opposition to policies that aren’t just national but international – think of places like Greece and the more general fights against austerity happening across Europe here.
The national coverage will watch the specific contract terms, though they’ll miss that 10 years from now, the specific, narrow terms will matter less than whether or not a union in an American city will have been successful in pushing back in this way. This is a fight over public resources, public jobs, and the idea of a public that isn’t discussed by national media as if it exists. Will there be public schools as we understand them in 10 years?
The solidarity we see right now will get tested by PR campaigns out of the mayor’s office painting the teachers as greedy and students as innocent victims, helped along by Kaplan Test Prep articles imploring us to think of the children. In reality, this is about two different visions on how to educate kids in the 21st century. More than that, it’s about the role of the American worker and how their position has slipped relative to management. It exists on a continuum with Occupy Wall Street and the Wisconsin uprising. It matters.