Saturday, September 10, 2011

Losing the propaganda war

It is depressing how clumsy the Chicago Teachers Union has been in its propaganda war with Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Mayor and CPS are running circles around the union -- as Chicago News Coop columnist James Warren describes it, "Emanuel was playing 3-D chess while his union opponent was playing checkers." Much as I dislike Warren's shallow analysis of Chicago education, I to agree with his assessment of how the union is faring in the battle of the length of the school day. The union is coming off like it has its feet nailed to the floor, and, at least from what it looks like in the media, unable to meet the tremendous challenges that the current mayor and CPS administration is throwing at it, not to mention the general crisis in education.

First there was the disaster of SB 7, which I don't think the union leadership ever came clean on. The CTU leadership was outmaneuvered, and whoever they pay in Springfield as lobbyists must have been asleep at the wheel. The union's ability to strike was weakened, if not effectively eliminated, and the mechanism was put in place to push through the a longer work day without any real teacher input. The leadership should have come clean that they screwed up, due probably to inexperience. They should have apologized, done the mea culpa, and rallied the rank and file around the challenges ahead.

Then there was the CPS Board's incredibly devious initiative to raise property taxes to help cover the hazy deficit they have. I think the public will read this as "the teacher tax" -- overpaid, lazy teachers are why my property taxes are going up. Emanuel and the board slipped in another wedge between the general public and teachers, further isolating them. The union should have vocally opposed the tax increase, but I don't recall seeing anything from the union on it. The union has been good about pointing to waste at CPS, the lack of budget transparency, the scam of TIFs sucking money from education, and giving the top executives there big big raises, but none of that resonates with the public like a tax increase. (Well maybe the fat raises at the top -- why can't that get any traction?)

Now, the union is being completely out-maneuvered around the longer school day. The union is incapable of getting its position out. As far as I know, the union was never against a longer school day, but you don't see that on the union website. Partly this is a result of the fact that the home page of the site is basically a blog, so it cycles through responses and positions and news. There is a link to a "better, smarter school day", but from the overall page composition, this appears as an after-thought, not the main front of the propaganda war that the longer school day battle is.

Even in the worst kind of business unionism (to which the new CORE leadership was a welcome break) , a union would of course be in favor of more work for its members. The question never was the length of the day, but how it would be implemented -- the better, smarter thing, and how teachers were going to be paid for the extra work. But the union has been consistently portrayed as opposing the longer day. The union's message is not just muddy, but stuck in the mud. The CNC columnist Warren goes so far as to portray the teachers at the renegade, union-sabotaging schools like the brand-new STEM magnet that went with the longer day in exchange for, well, a paltry bribe, as the equivalent of the Solidarity movement standing up to the Soviet monolith of the CTU (and there is a bitter irony there, if you ever followed left politics).

If the union could get in front of the debate -- the point should always be, "Yes we agree, we want a longer day. We never opposed it. We care more about the children of Chicago that Emanuel ever will be capable of." Then it could put into perspective the awful longer day strategy pushed by Emanuel -- more work for (virtually) no pay and no thanks, all towards smashing once and for all the teacher's union. I don't really see how most people can accept that asking someone to work 29% more hours for only 2% more in pay is reasonable. But somehow, Brizard and Emanuel can propose such with a straight face, and somehow, this crazy insulting idea is accepted by the general public. Maybe this points to the challenges that the CTU faces trying to fight this propaganda war. Or that the perception of teachers is so awful now, after two years of regular anti-teacher propaganda, that expecting so much more from teachers seems reasonable?

If the union could get in front of the debate, then maybe the union could begin to recast teachers from greedy and lazy to the dedicated care-givers and guarantors of the future that they are. Every teacher I know puts in many, many hours of unpaid labor to keep up with all of the tasks expected of them. That basic fact of dedication to teaching children is completely lost in the media presentation. Also, many teachers at my former school -- I would estimate more than half -- worked after school tutoring programs already, providing the extra classroom time that Emanuel et al go on about, for the contracted extended day rate. Teachers already work a longer school day.

I really want the CTU to succeed here, but the news has been mighty painful of late.