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Ghosts of PATCO and the Coming Battle for Teachers

I've been there.

Your ears ring so badly the sound of a spoon stirring coffee hurts. You can't sleep past dawn, but you can't prop your lids open through dusk. Your exhaustion runs so deep the next 75 days seem over before they start...filled as they'll be with summer jobs to pay bills, workshops to stay certified, planning for the fall---and dare I say it?---family.

You love your work, though it's the hardest thing you've ever done and never gets easier...and you won't get rich on what they pay you...yet those who've never done it are actually jealous of you in June.

Teachers use these bittersweet first days of summer both to get a life and find new energy to live it.

So it hardly seems time to add one more thing to teachers' plates...

After giving up teaching more by circumstance than choice, I served about a dozen of the past 18 years on my school board.  Since 1994, I've watched schools remodel themselves after corporations, de-professionalize teaching, gut local control by rendering boards nearly powerless and alienating parents, and squeeze budgets past the breaking point while funneling resources out of communities.

For the past quarter century we have been frogs slowly boiled by corporate interests, and we have yet to jump out of the water. Next fall may be our do-or-die moment.

This is the mess that gets slopped on your plate this summer: It's an approaching showdown for parents, teachers, and all who care about kids, not to mention policemen, firemen, and other union workers: ignore it at your own peril because you're next.

If it comes to a strike, the CTU will need help from teachers across the country, so the smart money says be ready. This will not be a time for a timid response. The CTU will need solid moral support, possibly including cash and sympathetic job actions to draw attention to their cause.

The first years of this decade saw the highest highs and the lowest lows for unions. Public sector unions were gutted in Wisconsin, inspiring union busters everywhere yet kindling the largest, loudest united backlash in the memory of all but our oldest. The attack was so outrageous it brought those slated by Walker for “divide and conquer” together and brought him nearly to his knees.

Nearly, but obscene piles of money plus one heartbreaking Tuesday all but crushed that rebellion, puffing up dozens more would-be Walkers across the country. Both sides know that was a watershed.

Union-busting currents flow deep in most of our communities, and I saw that clearly from the school board. As a board member in Maine, I received mailings from the state school boards/school management association barely containing its glee supporting ALEC-inspired initiatives from a tea-party governor. The superintendent himself, every time the door closed, bashed away: belittling union activities and openly plotting the union's demise, all with barely a peep of opposition.

I yelled myself silly, but unions have precious little support in our conservative towns, where even teachers' salaries look good and every benefit seems stolen from citizens' pockets. Any talk of parents and unions joining forces for better schools meets polite silence.

Yet that is exactly what the good folks in Chicago---parents and union activists---are trying to do right now, and if they fail we will face a moment this fall which will combine the worst of Walker's Wisconsin sleeze with Reagan's PATCO orgasm while shredding teachers' unions for our generation.

A short crib-note on Chicago school politics might be in order. Remember Arne Duncan? His twisted logic for “school reform” was first tested in Chicago. Now he's running the Department of Charter Education and Teacher Bashing in DC. Barack Obama? FOA (Friend of Arne). His national agenda for schools?---'nuf said. How about Rahm Emanuel? FOB, FOA...now strangling Chicago schools with closures, arrogance, and promises to sell kids to the highest corporate bidders.

The Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU)? Once a compliant bunch, but recently taken over by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in a stunning victory for grassroots organizing.

Those are the actors. The plot thickened last week when the CTU authorized a strike vote if contract negotiations break down. The vote was not close: nearly 90% in favor and less than 2% of membership opposed.

Chicago teachers threw down the gauntlet for nothing less than a good-faith, fairly negotiated contract, but Emanuel's minions were surely emboldened by Walker's victory. If it comes to a strike, the CTU will need help from teachers across the country, so the smart money says be ready. This will not be a time for a timid response. The CTU will need solid moral support, possibly including cash and sympathetic job actions to draw attention to their cause.

Chicago is a front-line skirmish in Washington's drive to dismantle public education across the country, and should be considered no less. If we can't draw a line there, don't bother to wait for the fight to come to your neighborhood.

Do your research this summer while you have breathing room. Sleep on what this means to you while you have time to sleep. Talk with your friends and colleagues around the country about what this means to you...while you have time and energy to talk.

Next fall, be refreshed and ready with your summer reading done, your homework completed, and your mind made up to fill the trenches in solidarity with your colleagues...and ultimately for your own students and schools. Big money will be throwing all they have at the CTU, and the negative effects of their PR smears will find you wherever you live, so better get a head start.

Nobody will lead you into battle in 75 days, but if you do your work in July and August, nobody will have to.