Rahm's Wedge

Put aside for a moment the particulars of the Chicago teachers’ strike and look at the broader picture. Rahm Emanuel is only one of a number of Democratic mayors and governors who are going after public-employee unions. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also at loggerheads with the city’s teacher union. In San Jose, a Democratic mayor and city council scaled back the city employees’ pensions (and so did city voters when they were asked to ratify that decision). In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has tangled with a number of public-sector unions. The battle between management and labor seems to have spread to the very center of the Democratic Party.

To some degree, this is a predictable response to the fiscal crisis states have faced during a severe recession—something’s got to give, and a number of chief executives have said it’s union benefits. Nonetheless, a number of the chief executives who’ve taken on unions are from jurisdictions with lots of rich folks on whom they’ve declined to raise taxes—Cuomo most conspicuously. More worrisome, a number of these chief executives—Emanuel and, again, Cuomo—took office plainly spoiling to take the unions on. In this, they were surely channeling the views of financial and media elites, who consider unions an impediment to efficiency in education and government, and some of whom see union-smashing as the key to reducing the size of government generally.

The strategic vision behind the calculations of these Democratic officials foresees a Democratic Party that consists chiefly of upper-middle-class professionals and enough very rich guys to fund its campaigns, and minority voters who are sufficiently disenchanted with public schools that they won’t mind, and may well support, efforts to bust up the teacher unions. Yet every press account of the two-day-old Chicago strike recounts that public support for the teachers among the parents of the city’s public-school students—a group that is overwhelmingly minority—is actually high. In fact, public-school teachers constitute the largest share of minority professionals of any occupation, and in big cities, public-employee union members come disproportionately from minority groups.

If the growing hostility of Democratic executives to teachers’ unions had some hard data behind it, demonstrating that teaching and educational outcomes are superior in nonunion charter schools or states where teachers can’t bargain collectively, that might enable the mayors and governors to make a persuasive case. But the data show nothing of the kind. That schools need to have the ability to rid themselves of incorrigibly bad teachers is clear, but such processes have been put in place in cities where the local governments are willing to work with the union.  In New Haven, Connecticut, the city and the local teachers union signed a contract establishing an evaluation system that uses test scores but also ongoing monitoring and mentoring by former teachers. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has also newly established an interactive professional-development website to take up the slack created by the cutbacks in ongoing teacher training by school districts. AFT President Randi Weingarten says the union “has to focus on quality as well as fairness.”

But local unions that confront governments that have no intention of working with them can’t go the New Haven route. In Chicago, Emanuel, upon taking office, extended the school day by 20 percent, making no commensurate adjustment to teacher pay, with no discussion whatever with teachers’ representatives. School days in Chicago, which are among the shortest in the nation, clearly need to be extended, but Emanuel came off to the city’s teachers far more as an autocrat than a reformer. His appointment of Jean-Claude Brizart to run Chicago’s schools, shortly after 95 percent of the teachers in the Rochester, New York, school district had given him a vote of no confidence, was viewed as a clear fuck-you to the teachers.

Democrats like Emanuel and Cuomo aren’t going to become Scott Walkers, though temperamentally they may seem to be his soul mates. They don’t have to go that far, however, to drive a wedge deep within their own party. Public-sector unions are the last remaining unions with the numbers and electoral clout in American labor today. Bringing them down a peg or two, or more, only emboldens Republicans to make unions extinct. It weakens the last organizations that still uphold middle-class living standards as they largely disappear from the American landscape. (In many cities, as manufacturing has vanished, teachers and nurses remain the largest occupations to still have middle-class incomes.) And by creating a dynamic that makes the harmonious reform of a New Haven impossible, they just drive their party-splitting wedge deeper.  The more Democrats marginalize labor, the weaker their party becomes.

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