And so, here we go. A teacher’s union is on strike–more specifically the Chicago Teacher’s Union–and the bewailing begins: the strike is hurting students; the teachers should put their selfish interests last; get back to work, don’t you know you are hurting the students? As I pointed out a few days ago, if there is one thing that unites our political parties and leads to a great, Kumbaya, sea-to-shining-sea holding of hands across party divides it is this: teachers are to blame for the supposed educational crisis in public education, and they, and their unions alone, should reform if our schools are to get back to work and get on with the business of making our students into the finest, able to compete globally with all those busy eating their lunches.
I have no doubt students are being hurt by the strike. I was the ‘victim’ of two teachers’ strikes myself: once in my first undergraduate year when faculty at Delhi University went on strike for two months, and then again, in my second undergraduate year, when they went on strike for three months. By the end of the second one, I had lost interest in going back to attend classes, and skipped the rest of the year to study on my own for final exams. I did the same thing in the third year (there were no strikes, but I skipped most classes anyway). Needless to say, I did terribly in my undergraduate degree. (I wasn’t a terribly diligent student in any case, but I’m going to blow past that for now.)
Back then, like most around me, I blamed the teacher’s union. I knew little about the university administration and the prolonged crisis in negotiations between teachers and them, about governmental funding for higher education. My view of the world was narrow, immature and restricted: the teachers were the ones not reporting to work, they must be lazy, they must be selfish, they must, surely, bear all the blame. I knew little about the poor salaries paid to my faculty (though I had an inkling of the poor conditions they labored under). The teachers were visible; the university administration was not. There was a bull’s-eye painted on their union banner, and I aimed for it.
My memories of this reaction to the 1984-1985 strikes colored my responses to any mention of the possibility of a strike during union chapter meetings here at Brooklyn College. (A strike at CUNY has always, always, been a very distant possibility.) I remembered, all too well, the visceral, angry, poorly-directed backlash against them. But by then, I was a teacher myself, and had found out just what hard work it was (and the work of schoolteachers is orders of magnitude harder than that of university faculty), I had grown up, and understood a little more of the ecology of the university, its embedding in broader socio-economic-political realities. I had come to understand that if a teacher’s union went on strike, it represented a desperate, backs-to-the-wall measure of last resort. Teachers would always find a way to keep coming to work, somehow, precisely because we knew students depended on us. What they hoped for, more than anything else, was that those that paid their salaries, and controlled the destiny of students just as much, would participate in some, even if not all, of that concern. The burden of caring for the students rested on them too.
The reaction to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike will be revealing: those that lazily trot out the ‘teachers need to get back to work’ line in preference to mounting any critique of the Chicago city administration will show, to me at least, that facile scapegoating is still the easiest game in town.