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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
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There’s a new book out called Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%. It chronicles the trajectory of the current Chicago mayor from his young days in the wealthy suburbs north of Chicago to his days as a young political fund-raising juggernaut in Illinois, to his time as an adviser in the Clinton White House. The book then delves into Emanuel’s brief stint in investment banking that netted him $18 million, his time in Congress, the two years he served as President Obama’s chief of staff, and, of course, much of the two years he spent as Chicago mayor.
Now joining us is the book’s author, Kari Lydersen. She’s a Chicago journalist. She wrote Mayor 1% to explore what Rahm Emanuel’s leadership means for Chicago, including the way he has galvanized the city labor movement and fueled a debate about economic priorities.
Thank you so much for joining us, Kari.
KARI LYDERSEN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
NOOR: So, Kari, I really want to focus on one part of your book specifically, Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools. That’s something that I know our viewers will be familiar with. We cover Chicago education policies very closely, and I’ve been on the ground there covering the Chicago teachers strike, covering the massive protest against school closings there.
So supporters of Rahm, they would argue that and you would agree that when he got into office, Chicago’s schools were in a really poor state, especially the schools in the South and West sides, and something had to be done about it. They would argue that Chicago Public Schools faced a nearly $1 billion budget deficit and some tough cuts need to be made. What’s your response?
LYDERSEN: Well, I mean, the budget deficit and the pension liabilities for the teachers, you know, were a big deal, is still a big deal. And the Chicago Public Schools have faced a lot of problems for decades. So there is no doubt about that.
The question—and, you know, I’m sure we’ll get into this—the question was how you address those problems. And that’s where, you know, the teachers and a lot of parents and supporters and progressive education advocates, you know, had already a lot of ideas about how to do this, and those differed greatly from the mayor’s ideas and from, you know, the kind of more right-wing education reform movement. So there was fundamental differences in how they approach those problems.
And then there was also just the style by which the mayor went about addressing those problems.
NOOR: So let’s start with Chicago teachers strike. I was on the ground in Chicago. It was an election year, essentially. And it really kind of pitted labor, which is a main backbone of the Democratic Party, against Emanuel, which, and as your book kind of goes into, really kind of represents the corporate Democrats. Talk about how this played out in Chicago and Rahm’s approach to this dispute over this contract with the Chicago Teachers Union and what the impact was.
LYDERSEN: Right. So the groundwork was laid long before the strike. Rahm Emanuel, even before he took office, had been part of this push to pass state legislation that was intended to actually make it impossible for teachers to strike. And it turned out that some of these national education reform groups played a really direct role in crafting and pushing through that legislation.
So the legislation set a bar of 75 percent for the teachers union members to vote to strike. And it was considered that this would be pretty much impossible to reach. So that was part of the reason, I think, that the mayor, as soon as he took office, was really arrogant and, you know, dismissive of [incompr.] the existing Teachers Union contract and just sort of the power and the role of the union more generally. So he didn’t think they could strike, apparently. And so he had all this confidence, which turned out to be misplaced, in disregarding a raise that they were entitled to in the contract and then steamrolling through this longer school day, even the year before the strike ended up happening.
So by the time they got to the summer before the strike, the teachers actually voted around 90 percent—they easily topped that bar that was supposed to be impossible—to vote to strike. And then they did go ahead and strike for seven days. And as you said, it became this national or even international story that was a big deal in its own right and in terms of the effects on the schools and the teachers and the parents and the kids. And it also symbolized larger things, both about the labor situation in Chicago and about the national debate over reshaping public education.
NOOR: So, as Obama’s Chief of Staff, he was a big part of Race to the Top, which was part of what the Chicago teachers were striking over, the linking of student test scores to teacher evaluations.
LYDERSEN: Right. And that’s the thing where, as around the country, the teachers were saying that in a place like Chicago, where the vast majority of the students are low-income, extremely low income, a lot of them, and live in neighborhoods with just horrible problems with violence and unemployment and so many challenges in kids’ personal and home lives that it just wasn’t fair to teachers to judge them strictly on the basis of their students’ performance when there are so many factors affecting their performance that’s out of the teachers’ control. So that’s been the argument against standardized testing and really strictly evaluated, merit-based evaluation of teachers around the country. And, you know, Chicago’s the perfect example of why that’s a faulty system.
So the teachers saw it both as a workers rights issue, as a labor issue, where they were unfairly losing their jobs or being denied promotions because of things that were out of their control. And then it also, you know, probably more importantly, really has an impact on students, because if you have this sort of system, it’s a disincentive for teachers to teach in the most challenged schools. And it’s also an incentive for schools to try to actually weed out the lowest-performing students. So the teachers were seeing this not only as a workers rights and labor issue but also as a way that they had to fight for the well-being of their students and just the integrity of their schools.
NOOR: And I think it’s worth mentioning, of course, that even before Rahm took office, CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, a very grassroots, even radical caucus of the Teachers Union had taken power, you know, as you describe in your book, they kind of came together reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, really opposing neoliberal education reform. And this was one of the most progressive teacher unions in the entire country. So they were actively ready to kind of take Rahm on and make this a national issue and really kind of elevate these classroom conditions and get them on the national stage and make that part of the discussion.
LYDERSEN: Yeah. And that’s why—one thing I thought was really interesting about Rahm Emanuel. He kind of cut his teeth in opposition research early on, which is, you know, researching your adversaries. And yet my impression is that he really didn’t do his homework about CORE and about the current leadership and political direction of the teachers union, because if he had, I think he would have done things differently, or, you know, at least if he was smart he would have. So I think he underestimated or just didn’t understand the things that you just described, you know, about the politics and the larger significance of CORE and the Teachers Union at this point.
NOOR: So, Kari, we’re going to end part one of our discussion. And we’ll continue part two of our discussion in just a moment. We’ll post it at TheRealNews.com.
Thank you so much for joining us, Kari.
LYDERSEN: Thank you.
NOOR: You can follow us on Twitter @therealnews. You can Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.
Thank you so much for joining us.