Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Which Side Are You On, Mr. President? And our Union Presidents?

In February of 2010, ninety-three teachers and school personnel were fired at Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School, after they refused to agree to work longer hours without fair compensation.  The teachers were also blamed for low student test scores.  President Obama sided with the school board and expressed support for their decision within a week.  Secretary of Education Duncan said the action by the school board showed “courage.”

This past Monday, Chicago teachers and support staff went on strike.  They are taking a stand against the neoliberal reforms being pushed nationwide (and globally), and fighting to create schools that actually meet the needs of ALL students.  Among other things, they are calling for smaller classes, air-conditioned school buildings, and libraries in all schools. 

The demands being made by Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, are exactly what is called for in Obama/Duncan’s Race to the Top agenda.  According to White House Spokesperson, Jay Carney, President Obama “has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment about [the Chicago teachers’ strike].”

President Obama has taken one lesson from the Rhode Island confrontation, stay quiet and try not to offend anyone.  This is because Obama wants the support of teachers and labor, but also wants the financial backing of Wall Street. 

As Paulo Freire pointed out long ago, “washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  Howard Zinn said effectively the same thing, as shown in the title of his memoir, You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train. 

Obama can remain silent, but his silence speaks volumes.  Through his Race To The Top agenda, Obama has promoted the destruction of teachers’ unions, and the privatization of our public schools.  He has sided with the powerful Wall Street hedge-fund managers, billionaire philanthropists, and all the neo-liberal advocates.

The even more troubling question for teachers such as myself, is why does our union leadership fall over itself in an effort to defend his actions?  The AFT President, Randi Weingarten, tries to endorse Obama without ever mentioning his actual educationpolicies, and NEA President, Dennis Van Roekel, pushed an endorsement of Obama over a year ahead of the election.

Thanks to the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (C.O.R.E.) for showing all of us what real union leadership looks like.  We all need to demand our union leaders stop making concessions and start taking a stand to defend true universal, democratic, and socially just public schools.

Posted by: Rob Panning-Miller

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