by David Bernt
CHICAGO—State houses and governors throughout the U.S. have put forth bills aimed at cutting education, firing teachers, and curtailing their union rights. A similar bill pending before the Illinois Senate would virtually end teachers’ seniority for job security, severely limit their ability to strike, and allow school boards to unilaterally impose working conditions.
But while in many states this would sound like the start of a new round of fighting between a Tea Party-backed governor and the labor movement, here it is quite different. In Illinois, voters bucked the national trend and retained “friends of labor” Democrats in both state houses and the governor’s office. The legislation was passed unanimously in the Democrat-controlled House.
There are no protests outside the capitol in Springfield like the historic labor mobilizations in Madison and throughout the country. Instead, the leaders of all the major teachers’ unions in the state are endorsing this anti-teacher legislation.
The proposed law, SB 7, has as its crowning achievement (from the vantage point of teacher-union enemies) the end of seniority in determining teacher layoffs. SB 7 would end “last hired, first fired,” and determine layoffs based on each teacher’s performance—which, of course, is determined by management. The law would only enforce seniority if there were a “tie” in performance.
The reality of how such a “performance-based” system would function was exposed last year when Chicago Public School CEO Ron Huberman illegally fired 1300 teachers without regard to seniority, in violation of the union’s contract. Principals targeted higher seniority teachers—meaning higher paid teachers. The Chicago Reader ran a series of articles chronicling the firings of several highly accomplished teachers who had broad support among parents and students.
The elimination of teacher seniority in layoffs will give a green light to school boards to get rid of more expensive higher seniority teachers regardless of performance. Initially, this provision will not apply to members of the Chicago Teachers Union until the outcome of lawsuits filed by CTU against the illegal firings are settled, though it will for teachers in the rest of the state—severely weakening CTU’s legal and bargaining options.
SB 7 also places draconian restrictions on the Chicago Teachers Union’s ability to strike. The new law would require 75% of the membership to vote to authorize a strike. That means that all eligible members who don’t vote would be counted as an effective “no” vote.
The bill also applies a series of “cool-off” periods that would delay any Chicago teacher strike by six months. And the bill would also increase probationary periods before tenure for all Illinois teachers. It would give the Chicago Board of Education the right to unilaterally impose a lengthening of the school day.
On the heels of the historic labor mobilizations in Madison, Wis., where labor showed its massive potential in fighting the anti-union agenda, one might ask why Illinois teacher-union heads are not only accepting concessions but endorsing them. The answer is that these union tops are taking the wrong lesson from Madison. Instead of seeing it as a struggle that must spread, they view it as a conflict that must be avoided.
Illinois teachers-union leaders proclaimed the law as a victory since it does not contain the worst provisions proposed by anti-union organizations. CTU President Karen Lewis wrote a letter to the membership in support of the legislation, which read, “On Dec. 3, 2010, three groups backed by millionaires—Stand for Children, Advance Illinois and the Illinois Business Roundtable—slammed down an education “reform” proposal in Springfield dubbed ‘Performance Counts,’ which had one main goal: union-busting.
“In an unprecedented effort, the three unions—Chicago Teachers Union, Illinois Federation of Teachers, and Illinois Education Association—joined forces to stop these millionaires from turning teaching into a low-wage, high turnover job. Had they succeeded, the goal of high-quality education for all students would have been lost forever. Had they succeeded, Illinois would have been the next Wisconsin. The initial proposal laid out a plan to outlaw using seniority as a factor in staffing decisions, make tenure nearly impossible to attain and more improbable to keep, eliminate the right to strike statewide, and, for Chicago only, prohibit permissive bargaining issues.”
The teachers’ union leadership apparently believes that by taking concessions now they can avoid worse concessions later. This strategy is something like a person allowing a tiger to eat his arm in the hope that the tiger will be satisfied. But the taste of that arm only wets the tiger’s appetite.
The mainstream media has applauded the legislation, as it would weaken the unions. At the same time, they have called for more flesh from the teachers’ union. On April 14 the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial endorsing the proposed education “reforms,” but at the same time it said, “Those reforms, should they be signed into law, don’t mean lawmakers can pat themselves on the back and figure their long-term job is done. It isn’t. Too many Chicago students need help right now.
“That’s why we’re glad to see a separate bill that would offer private school tuition support to as many as 30,000 Chicago school kids back on the Senate’s agenda.”
The Tribune views this education reform law as the first round in the decimation of public education; labor leaders should take them at their word. The ruling class and their henchmen have become emboldened, not pacified, with the proposed new law and labor’s surrender.
The last thing Chicago teachers, students, and parents needed was an emboldened Rahm Emmanuel, the mayor elect. Emmanuel, even before assuming office, has made it clear he has union busting on his mayoral agenda. Emmanuel has announced that he will appoint as CEO of the Chicago public schools Jean-Claude Brizard, the head of the Rochester, N.Y., school district, who in his tenure there sought to bust the teacher’s union through concessions and charter schools. Emmanuel has also declared war on the city’s other unions, demanding they take concessions.
Although the proposals in Illinois are not as extreme as in Wisconsin and Ohio, Illinois’ politicians have accomplished for the ruling class what the Tea Party governors have not—labor’s submission to concessions.
In order to successfully fight back against the anti-worker assault foisted on teachers and other public workers labor, must adopt a new strategy—breaking with its dead-end dependence on supporting the political lesser evil. The lessons of Illinois may ultimately be more important than the lessons of Madison for the labor movement.
> This article was originally published in the May 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.