Chicago Teachers Built This

After months of partisan name-calling, it’s heartwarming to see politicians of both parties coming together against a common enemy: teachers.

The strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has led the Republican presidential ticket to publicly support that city’s Democratic mayor and President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

“Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children,” Mitt Romney announced, “and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.”

Yes, if anyone’s interests are in perfect synch with America’s children, it’s Mitt Romney. After all, the reason he has fired so many people over the years is so they could spend more time helping their kids with homework.

“We stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” added running mate Paul Ryan. “We stand with the children and we stand with the families and the parents of Chicago because education reform, that’s a bipartisan issue.”

Ryan was clearly speaking metaphorically. If he actually tried to stand next to a Windy City parent, there’s a good chance he would have to find a teachers’ picket line. You would never know it from most media reports but polls show Chicago public school parents support the CTU over Rahm by wide margins.

Either Chicago teachers are so awful that people there don’t even know how to answer a poll or the teachers’ demands – such as lower class sizes and more access to health services and art classes – don’t in fact conflict with children’s interests at all.

But facts don’t often deter the self-titled education reform movement. (Keep in mind that the laws that deregulated financial institutions and paved the way for our current economic catastrophe were once known as “bank reform.”)

Just as Tea Party organizations are funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers but pretend to be grassroots populists, “education reformers” are staked by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and a bunch of hedge fund managers but pose as a ragtag group of parents and activists up against the all-powerful teachers unions. In this mythology, teachers are referred to as “defenders of the status quo” as if they were princely aristocrats rather than folks who drive grubby cars and work in crumbling schools that the actual defenders of the status quo refuse to cough up the cash to rebuild.

One Wall Street Journal columnist actually called teachers unions “the most powerful constituency in the Democratic Party.” So that’s who pushed for bailing out banks and screwing homeowners!

It’s true that teachers unions, like most of the labor movement, are loyal backers of the Democrats. But this support is not mutual. In fact, when it comes to attacking schools, Democrats have shown Tea Party-ish zeal. Two years ago President Obama went out of his way to applaud the firing of every teacher at Central Falls High, which serves the poorest city in Rhode Island. Months earlier, Education Secretary Arne Duncan had declared that “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” even though (or perhaps because?) the storm had permanently forced half of the city’s mostly poor and African American students out of the city.

The Chicago teachers strike and the bipartisan attacks against it have come right after the Republican and Democratic national conventions, which were roundly proclaimed to demonstrate the stark difference between the two parties’ views of the role of government in society. The Republican convention was organized around the slogan “we built it” to proclaim that business owners have singlehandedly created American wealth. Democrats countered that government investment and regulations has an important role to play in the economy.

Chances are that you the reader are neither a business owner nor a government. You most likely belong to a third category known as workers, the people who actually build almost everything in this country, whether it be of airplanes, lattes, or the developing minds of a classroom full of children. And yet just about the only mention of workers from major speakers at either convention were references to parents or grandparents who went to awful jobs every day – never complaining or going on strike – so that one day their well dressed offspring could show the cameras how far from that miserable existence they have come.

For all their talk about how to create more jobs, politicians and pundits have no respect for the people that do them. Workers are routinely vilified for the money they bust their butts to earn; autoworkers are greedy because they want too much, immigrants are sneaky because they’ll take too little. Meanwhile Steve Jobs was lionized for “making” iPhones that didn’t design or engineer and certainly didn’t produce.

Chicago teachers are insisting that Rahm, Romney, and every other pedagogical insta-genius who has never spent a day in front of a classroom respect their knowledge, their dedication, and their craft. They demand that experienced laid off teachers be rehired before those who have never taught before. They refuse to have their careers determined by test scores that measure only a fraction of their real job.

And so they are called selfish. This is an old game. Since 1947, the Taft Hartley Act has made it illegal for workers to strike in solidarity with other unions or over political issues beyond their contract. In other words, American workers are only allowed by law to strike over our own work conditions but when we do, the people who make the laws call us selfish.

In truth, the CTU strike has inspired a sentiment in Chicago and across the country that is the opposite of selfishness: solidarity. Like the Wisconsin protests and Occupy movement before it, it is an expression of the simmering anger among the people who actually build this country but have been left out in the cold by both parties.