Just look at the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike, which prompted a quick editorial from the New York Times. Called “Chicago Teachers’ Folly,” it claimed that “Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea” and then placed 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 battle of ideas when we have personalities to dissect?
TheTimeswasn’t alone. Slate’s Matt Yglesias and frequent Klein collaborator Dylan Matthews also tried to find the middle-ground in a conflict between a “blunt” neoliberal Democratic mayor and a “tough” public sector union. Even theNation’s Melissa Harris-Perry pitied the children stuck “between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”
Empirically, the pundits’ dismissal of the CTU, which had widespread support in Chicago, were unjustified and misleading. Wage and benefit issues were never at the center of the strike. It was a response to a “reform” movement that blamed failing schools solely on bad teachers rather than poverty or other structural issues. The CTU offered a compelling countervision—functioning, well-funded schools with smaller classes and less standardized tests. It was a vision that could’ve been debated on its own terms, but it wasn’t: these “ideas” weren’t discussed by the ostensibly idea-loving commentariat; big-shot blowhards and their egos were…
[I]nstead of countering this argument by asserting that public employees also produce goods and services, and should have a say about the conditions under which they work, Beltway liberals like Matt Yglesias drew the ever-so-reasonable conclusion that:
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.
In other words: union members, according to Yglesias, enjoy whatever privileges they’ve earned at the expense of the middle-class taxpayers of Chicago. It’s a subtly nefarious move: Yglesias, the “liberal,” is pitting one largely Democratic group (the CTU) against another (the vast majority of tax payers and charter school employees in Chicago), in a way that right-wingers couldn’t do better themselves.
This sort of red herring argument always comes up when laborers agitate for better conditions (or in this case, better conditions for the students); even the ‘liberals’ in the discussion frame the course of events as the conflict originated as a dispute between two headstrong personalities, and that concessions to labor are at the expense of the middle class. It’s a complete distraction from the arguments that are being presented and their specific merits, in favor of a side show that’s tightly controlled by corporate media.