Washington, Sept. 16: Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago is a mirror image of India two days after what the US business community has described as Manmohan Singh’s “big-bang reforms”.
Like Friday’s Union cabinet decision which sent a message overseas that “India is open for business” — as Ron Somers, President of the US-India Business Council here said — the man who was Obama’s shadow in the White House until two years ago has thrown down the gauntlet to trade unions in Chicago where the world’s labour movement was born in May 1886.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is determined to cut his city’s unions to size in line with a Right-wing national effort in the US to blame workers’ rights for a large share of America’s current economic ills, was President Obama’s chief of staff during his first two years in the White House.
This afternoon, teachers in Chicago, who have been on strike for a week, are expected to vote to return to their classes after a virulent official campaign against their collective bargaining rights.
This campaign capitalised, with stunning effect, on the anger of 350,000 residents in the city and suburbs who had nowhere to send their children while both parents worked and the schools remained shut.
There is an eerie similarity between the arguments made in New Delhi in favour of raising diesel prices, allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail or cutting cooking gas subsidies and Emanuel’s appeals to the people at large to support his efforts to get teachers and other organised labour in the state sector to make sacrifices and tighten their belts.
The leaders in both New Delhi and Chicago are speaking the language of reform and are promising vistas of better days if only those who are already on the wrong side of prosperity would sacrifice more of their rapidly shrinking pie.
If the primary beneficiary of FDI in multi-brand retail —in chequebook terms — will be US companies like Walmart and European firms like Tesco, the main beneficiaries of Emanuel’s education reform will be corporations which run charter schools in Chicago.
Charter schools, like state-run schools, are run on public money, yet they are exempt from many of the rules that are legislated by elected officials and their duly chosen appointees. The idea, born in the 1990s out of concern for the decline in standards of public education, has been popular.
Although the idea of accountability in terms of academic performance set forth in a school’s charter was originally a progressive concept welcomed by parents, businesses have found ways to subvert the idea in some American cities as yet another source for benefits and revenue.
At the same time, politicians — especially of Right-wing persuasion — have used charter schools as an instrument against teachers’ unions which are a potent force in this country, supporting Democrats.
In the popular anger successfully mobilised by Emanuel against teachers during their strike, capitalising on the hardship of parents and emotive appeals in the name of suffering children, the issue of truly reforming Chicago’s education system has been lost.
Other mayors and governors, especially in Republican-ruled states such Wisconsin, have also exploited the popular perception here that teachers in America are overpaid and have a cushy life with summer vacations, short working hours and a surfeit of holidays.
It is a situation somewhat similar to the recent strike by Air India pilots where public opinion turned against the pilots, whereas logic dictated that the strike should have drawn attention to the mismanagement of taxpayer-funded Air India that has been of epic proportions.
For the world’s richest country — and for a city like Chicago — the state of public education which prompted the teachers’ strike paints a dismal picture. But Emanuel and his spin masters have successfully diverted attention from basic problems and portrayed the teachers as greedy trade unionists out to grab more money and benefits at a time an economy in crisis demands sacrifices.
Speeches by striking teachers — and students who support them — at rallies in Chicago, which have drawn their counterparts from states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, where public education is similarly under attack by “reformers”, reveal shocking facts. But these speeches get very little traction on national television or even in the print media here.
One school counsellor, for instance, spoke at a rally about the day-to-day dilemmas for people like her at a time the economic downturn is forcing state agencies to cut down on free clinics and mental health providers for students who attend state schools.
The only option, according to this counsellor, is to send students to facilities that offer services for payment, but the school system has no funding to make those payments.
At another rally, it was pointed out that the standard in America used to be that for every 250 students, there would be one academic counsellor. But in Obama’s home state, the present circumstance is that one counsellor takes care of nearly four times that number of students, between 900 and 1,000.
The strike has brought to light — but to inadequate public attention — that there are kindergartens in Chicago where one teacher has to look after nearly 40 tiny tots for an entire school day, a mission that is as daunting as it is unproductive for the children who are bereft of adequate attention or supervision with that many in a class.
One student spoke feelingly at a meeting in support of the strike about her teacher who was instructing from a textbook that was torn and was held together by tape because no new supplies of teaching material were being made available.
The agreement that will be voted on by the teachers’ union this afternoon agreed to the mayor’s demand for longer school hours. But teachers worry that students, especially poor students who have to travel from afar to school, may have to get up an hour early in Chicago’s biting winter cold.
Obama’s children go to an exclusive private school run by Quakers in Washington that charges each of the girls between $33,000 and $34,000 for an academic year.
America’s “one per cent”, a description of the very wealthy people that gained currency with last year’s “Occupy Wall Street” movement, can afford to send their children to such schools while state-run institutions are mainly for the poor and the not-so-wealthy.
The strike has already muddied the presidential campaign, partly because of the symbolic importance of Chicago for workers’ rights ever since the fight for eight-hour working days, which was brutally put down 126 years ago, began there.
Republicans have pledged their full support to Emanuel, a Democrat, and accused Obama of supporting the teachers and undermining his own mayor.
All the same, enthusiasm for Obama among organised labour that was generated during the Democratic National Convention this month has considerably dissipated with the mayor’s tactics against teachers, that too in the President’s hometown.