fresh voices from the front lines of change







This week a lot of Democrats and "liberals" are attacking Chicago teachers for what they tell us are their extravagant and "unreasonable" demands. It's funny: If they think teaching's such a gravy train, why have they all become bankers instead?

These banker/politicians are usually spotted in the plush and well-appointed board rooms of America's richest corporations, not the overheated, overcrowded and poorly maintained class rooms of its public schools. But that doesn't stop them from passing judgment on those who labor there. In fact, to hear these politicians talk, you'd think that public school teachers - not their fellow bankers - are the pampered and privileged parasitical class that's ruining our economy.

It must be satisfying for these politico-financiers to finally have this opportunity to condemn the teaching profession. From the stockyards of Chicago to the storied streets of Philadelphia, it's given them a chance to wash down the fruits of non-productive wealth with the fine wine of moral certitude.

As another ambitious ex-progressive liked to say, "How good it is to be us!"

Bankers' Ed

Consider former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who said today that the Chicago strike is "an important issue, because Rahm Emanuel is showing again that Democrats can stand up to unions when their demands are unreasonable."

Banker/Democrats always need to show they're tough, since they're not willing to be do it where it's really needed - by prosecuting their colleagues. Who makes a better scapegoat than the teachers who educate our kids? And if teachers don't like the public bashing, hey -- it serves 'em right for causing the financial crisis with all those toxic derivatives.

Banker/Democrats are always practicing their "tough" lines in the mirror. I can see them now asking their advisors, How's this for tough? "Hey, kids! Ask your homeroom teacher if she's better off now than she was four years ago!"

Rendell's a folksy sounding guy with a flair for feisty, if nonspecific, leftish rhetoric. He came to the Governor's office by way of a Philadelphia law firm called Ballard Spahr. The firm was first established in 1885, right around the time that the phrase "Philadelphia lawyer" became a synonym for "moneyed elite" - and for good reason. It continues to specialize in real estate, mergers and acquisitions, municipal bonds, and other forms of high-finance law.

Ballard Spahr received $22 million in legal fees from the state of Pennsylvania while Rendell was Governor. And when he left office, our "Man of the People" went right back to Ballard Spahr. It's nice when things work out, isn't it?

There's no indication that Rendell ever applied for a job with the Philadelphia School District upon leaving the Governor's office. In addition to his post-gubernatorial Ballard Spahr partnership, however, Rendell is now a "Senior Advisor" with the investment banking firm of Greenhill & Co.

He is also a regular commentator for MSNBC - the "liberal" alternative to Fox News.


Teachers in the Chicago School District need a four-year degree in their discipline. They also need a postgraduate teaching certificate, and in some cases are expected to be bilingual or have additional graduate training.

This was Rahm Emanuel's preparation for the mayoralty: He was a fundraiser and then an advisor to Bill Clinton. Then he got hired as a partner in an investment banking firm, where he made $16 million in two and half years despite having no background in banking or finance. Clinton then named him to the Board of Directors of Freddie Mac, where the Chicago Tribune reports he "made at least $320,000 for a 14-month stint … that required little effort." During his tenure Freddie Mac's management practices became so abusive and corrupt that a government agency concluded that the Board which included Emanuel "failed in its duty" because it didn't "follow up on matters brought to its attention."

In Rahm's world teachers are graded for performance - but overpaid board members aren't.

Emanuel was elected to Congress on a strongly pro-Iraq War platform, calling for - we kid you not - a "muscular projection of force" into the region. (Paging Spinal Tap!) Later he culled many progressives from the House as the head of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fighting Howard Dean's fifty-state strategy and then taking credit for it when it succeeded. He was also the House's top recipient of hedge fund contributions in 2008 - after the financial crisis was well underway. Emanuel became Chief of Staff in the Obama White House and was then granted the Democratic mayoral nomination in baronial, machine-politics fashion.

At no point during the accumulation of his millions did Emanuel apply for a job teaching packed classrooms of lower-income kids in the now-demolished Cabrini-Green projects - or in any other struggling Chicago neighborhood, for that matter.

Friends With Benefits

From the Chicago Sun-Times: "A clout-heavy contractor who made millions from former Mayor Richard M. Daley's affinity for wrought-iron fences has been awarded a $2.7 million airport contract by Mayor Rahm Emanuel for which the company was the lone bidder."

From local news station WGN: "Emanuel ally's client to get speed camera contract."

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Emanuel is privatizing the city's finances by turning to banking firms:

To pay for (new) projects, Mr. Emanuel is turning in part to private firms including Citibank and Citi Infrastructure Investors, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets Inc., J.P. Morgan Asset Management Infrastructure Investment Group, and union-held Ullico. These firms say they are ready to provide at least $1.7 billion to help build the "new Chicago." (Though the details are not yet set, the likely arrangement would have the private firms putting up capital and then recouping their investments through user fees over a set period of years or decades.)

Yes, crime-ridden JPMorgan Chase is doing well under Mayor Emanuel. But why not? Bill Daley, son of one Mayor Daley and brother of another, was a JPMorgan Chase executive. That was before he went to the White House - to take Rahm's old job.

Emanuel's been giving waste disposal contracts to private firms like Waste Management Inc. instead of using city employees. And if Waste Management Inc. has been accused of antitrust violations and accounting improprieties, that just makes them appropriate bedfellows for fellow city contractors like JPMorgan Chase. (And like Chase and many other banks, the decidedly non-financial Waste Management Inc. was also allowed to settle that suit without criminal indictments.)

Breaking the Contract

What does all of this have to do with the teacher's strike? This:

Mayor Emanuel unilaterally voided a contract agreement between the teachers' union and the city which would have given teachers a pay increase of 4 percent. How would the politicos and their allies feel if he retroactively broke corporate contracts instead?

The Mayor expresses grave concerns for the fiscal health of the Chicago School District when the teachers' concerns are raised. But when the Mayor's often-abused "TIF" funds are mentioned, that concern seems to disappear. And when it comes to corporations … well, imagine if the situation was reversed:

Think how much money could be saved if Mayor Emanuel told that "clout-heavy" airport contractor, "Thanks for the fence. Now we're cutting your payment by 4 percent." Or if he said, "Thanks for the stoplight cameras, client of my ally, but you're not getting what we promised you." Or "Here's your money, Waste Management - 96 percent of it. Now go trash yourself."

The entire city of Chicago would leap for joy if Emanuel told that parking meter company that there were now new rules in effect, and lower fees too - contract or no contract. And imagine how good it wold be for the city's economy if he wrote a letter like this: "Dear Citibank and Citi Infrastructure Investors, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets Inc., and JP Morgan Chase: Shove your contract. The people of Chicago are not paying you nearly as much in user fees as we originally agreed to pay. We don't think it's in the best interests of our kids."

Wouldn't Ed Rendell be thrilled? "It's an important issue," he could say, "because Rahm Emanuel is showing again that Democrats can stand up to bankers when their demands are unreasonable."

Oh, wait …

Reuters reported this week that as a result of the strike, "Emanuel canceled a trip to New York on Friday to speak to a group of bankers."

We're pretty sure it'll be rescheduled.

The Agenda

Emanuel wants to give standardized testing the lion's share of weighting in evaluating teachers. But teachers don't control most of the factors influencing test results. This change would let the city fire teachers at will, whenever they began to gain seniority and earn pay raises, and the union could do nothing to stop it.

That's the point.

Besides, why is $71,000 - an average which apparently also includes administrators - considered extravagant pay for a teaching job? It requires four years of college and calls for additional training too. It includes long hours of grading papers and other non-classroom work. The work is sometimes dangerous, often highly stressful, and always demanding.

Some observers have used local-area wage data to suggest that Chicago's teachers are overpaid compared to other college-educated workers. That argument ignores teachers' additional training requirements and their challenging working conditions. And the real message behind that logic is that teachers should be satisfied with the wage stagnation, financial insecurity, and dying way of life which has become the norm for the college-educated middled class.

Why won't these teachers accept the fate that's been decreed for them by their betters? Why aren't they willing to wallow in a mire of stagnant income like the rest of the middle class? They're trying to rise above their station. But then, that's why bankers hate unions. They encourage that sort of thing.

Matt Yglesias argues that the anti-teacher fight is not inherently anti-union or anti-middle class, because teachers work for the government. "if Chicago public school teachers get a better deal for themselves," he writes, "that may well mean a worse deal for Chicago taxpayers."

That argument creates a false zero-sum divide between the interests of "taxpayers" and the interests of teachers. It ignores the social benefit of placing well-paid teachers in safe and hospitable classrooms, where they're likely to produce better-educated and more productive graduates. It ignores the effect of added economic incentive for talented people to enter and stay in the teaching profession. It ignores the stimulus effect on the local economy when middle-class people receive decent wages.

And it ignores the fact that salary demands are not at the heart of the Chicago strike, which is centered around benefits and working conditions. Strikers also want to reinstate the terms of that already agreed-upon contract.

Which gets us back to the question: Why is a union contract considered any less binding in a banker/politician's eyes than a corporate one? That's a rhetorical question, of course: It's because their agenda is union-busting, not corporation-busting.

Both Sides Now

And all of this seems just fine with Rahm Emanuel, Ed Rendell, and all of the other Democratic banker/politicians who learned at the feet of the master - by which we mean President-turned-hedge-fund-millionaire Bill Clinton. When it comes to banking interests, nobody fetches like the Big Dog.

It's certainly fine with Mitt Romney, who was in full Eddie Haskell mode as he slammed the teachers in a bipartisan show of solidarity with his fellow bankers. Romney, who spoke of "the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city's public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education," is running on a platform which includes drastic cuts to education, child safety, and children's health programs.

"You look lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver," added the Republican Presidential hopeful.

That's how it's done, peons! Drinks in hand, the banker/politicians rise up to attack the strikers and defend their own way of life. On golf courses and in country clubs, their tans glistening in the early autumn sun, they sing out as if with one voice: How good it is to be us!

And if it sucks to be you - to spend your lives on the firing line, to go home each night with hours of homework to grade, to spend overheated fall days or freezing winter days in grim classrooms with a parsimonious nation's struggling schoolchildren, to try to do your job without supplies, support, safety, or respect -- well, say the banker/politicians, that's not our problem.

Sure, it's a drag, say the hedge-fund politicos, but c'mon, teachers: it's no reason to be unreasonable. Besides, you're not our end game. You're just the first step in our long-term plan to rescue the nation from a much more dangerous predator class:

Bus drivers.

(There's been some great commentary on the strike from Digby, Doug Henwood, Corey Robin, Mike Elk, and many others.)

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