People Who Can’t Teach, Write About Teachers

Bhaskar Sunkara

I’ve spent the day keeping up with a flood of nonsense about the Chicago Teachers Union. The deluge hasn’t been coming from the Right, but from a certain subset of technocratic liberals.

I don’t accuse them of arguing in bad faith, they’re just being themselves. And in doing so they’re laying bare the spirit that sustains them.

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an editorial called Chicago Teachers’ Folly,” claiming that Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.” The editorial is stunning, even by the New York Times’ standards. It places much of the blame for the strike on a personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis.”

What’s politics and the scope of history when we have personalities to dissect?

The piece cites a widely misleading average teacher salary of $75,000. Misleading not only because the figure is incorrect, but because the strike wasn’t about wages in the first place. This last point is what also frustrates about Dylan Matthews’ graphic detours about Chicago teacher compensation. It’s not that he is willfully wrong, he just shifts the debate over to something that isn’t the issue.

Matt Yglesias also misses the mark with his post on teachers union. Though Yglesias believes public sector employees have the right to organize, a belief that sets him apart from the most odious of Beltway journalists, he makes a rather obvious point about who pays them:

CTU members get what they want, that’s not coming out of the pocket of the bosses” it’s coming out of the pocket of the people who work at charter schools or the people who pay taxes in Chicago.

This is, contra cries from the Left, is qualitatively different from a stance I discussed in my post earlier this week:

[The argument] rests on the idea that public employees, since they’re funded by taxpayers, are somehow siphoning funds from productive” private sectors of the economy. Ignored is the fact that these employees also produce goods and services, and should have a say on the conditions under which they work.

Those critics see any agency by public sector employees as parasitic. Ygelsias, however, just suggests a knee-jerk defense of public worker demands is wrongheaded, even though a similar stance may be justified in the corporate world. But in doing so he draws a distinction between private and public sector employees that I don’t think is productive. Moreover like the New York Times, he’s implicitly reducing the teachers’ struggle to a bread-and-butter trade union dispute. Anyone who’s read the Chicago Teacher Union’s literature or followed how that organization has interacted with the community at large knows the struggle represents social unionism at its finest.

This isn’t trade-union consciousness. It’s class consciousness.

That’s why the conclusion of the Times’ editorial is especially wrong. It claims that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary.” But what’s actually going on is a pitched battle between those who want to further neoliberalize the social safety net and those who want to keep the education sector, to a degree, well-funded and de-commodified.

It’s telling that the Times made no mention of the 60 new private, non-union charter schools Emanuel plans to erect in the city.

The clash between unabashedly pro-CTU leftists like Corey Robin and liberals like Matt Yglesias is rooted in something far broader. It reminds me of a quote I bring up from time to time by Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. He said the Left bases itself on the experience of history, while the Right is the mere expression of surrender to the situation of the moment. The Left can have political ideology, while the Right has nothing but tactics.

Matthews and Yglesias, though on the center-left in the American context, have little history or ideology. They can’t see the beyond graphs and minutiae. Yes, radicals can do with a bit more empiricism, but these wonks can do with recognizing the implications of political disputes, which go beyond Chicago and beyond even public education, can’t be understood within the dialectic of an Excel sheet.

As for the New York Times writers, they can’t see how industrial conflicts throughout history, no matter their immediate consequences of interupting the functioning of daily life — well actually, precisely because of those consequences — ultimately propel society forward. And yes, help children and their families.

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Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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