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There’s a Strike On

On February 22nd, schools in West Virginia were closed as there was nobody to teach in them:

Teachers across West Virginia walked off the job Thursday amid a dispute over pay and benefits, causing more than 277,000 public school students to miss classes even as educators swarmed the state Capitol in Charleston to protest.

All 55 counties in the state closed schools during Thursday’s work stoppage, Alyssa Keedy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education, said.

“Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia and will have a negative impact on student instruction and classroom time,” West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine said in a statement this week. “Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden. I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.” […]

Thousands of demonstrators flooded the state’s Capitol on Thursday, said Kym Randolph, West Virginia Education Association director of communication. Lines snaked around the building, she said, with some people waiting more than two hours to get in. The crowd was mostly constituted of teachers, but included parents and students, she said.

“The place was packed,” Randolph said. “It was very loud. That is by far the largest crowd inside the Capitol in a long, long time.”

At issue was a miniscule annual raise for teachers that are already among the least well paid in the country. After four days, there was a deal struck with the governor (Jim Justice, elected as a Democrat but changed parties) that was supposed to re-open them, but the legislature didn’t move quickly enough and the teachers kept their strike going. The legislature has tried to give them something, but teachers are holding out for what was agreed to. They’re almost certain to get it.

West Virginia has become a subject of fascination with the national media since the rise of Trump, as the state has become emblematic of his blue collar supporters in the same way that coal miners became about more than just coal miners. Which has lead some to wonder why this story wasn’t getting more attention than it was:

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Now, it should be noted that the original article linked to in this post is from the Washington Post, one of our four truly national papers. So it isn’t like it wasn’t getting any coverage. But West Virginia is in DC’s back yard – which is one of the reasons it has gotten attention with regard to Trump, as well – and a part of the state is even in DC’s media footprint (meaning the Washington Post has delivery and they get DC’s local channels on cable). Little coverage in the New York Times. The Chicago teacher’s strike from a few years ago, despite having roughly the same number of teachers, got a lot more attention than this. By the time the complaint really took hold, the issue had actually been addressed by the media. But unlike with Chicago there was next to nothing before the strike and little for the first week of it.

So what gives?

I think a few factors explain the difference in the amount of coverage it got compared to West Virginians sitting in diners pontificating about contemporary race relations, and urban teacher strikes. Chicago got more attention in part because it has more people, and because it gets more attention even if you try to control for population size. So generally speaking everything that happens there gets more attention. The exception, the uptick of interest in West Virginia and western Pennsylvania and similar places, is to a degree an over-correction of that. The media is fascinated with truck stop pontificators in large part because they are different and exotic. Teachers asking for more money? That’s not new or interesting. Or, as Vikram put it:

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Even so, once the discrepancy was pointed out to the media, they lept into action and the story has been covered since. At that point, the criticism of the media shifted to suggest that they’re sympathetic to the bus stop bigots while playing it neutral to the teachers strike. To be honest, that’s not what I am seeing at all. The media portrayal has been remarkably sympathetic to the teachers and unsympathetic to the state. Either it’s bias or the situation is actually that straightforward with teachers in white hats and state legislators in black ones. It might be tempting to chalk this up to media bias, but this wasn’t the case in the Chicago strike, where the media’s portrayal leaned heavily towards Rahm Emmanuel.

So… why? I really don’t know, but here are some reasons:

  1. A Strong Case: Maybe the West Virginia teachers just have a stronger case than the Chicago ones did, at least superficially. While some of the talk about West Virginia teachers making “poverty wages” is wrong and offensive, Chicago teachers start at $50k a year compared to $32k for West Virginia. Cost of living almost certainly eats a lot of that up, but (a) the media is often bad about taking that into account, and (b) even if you account for cost of living West Virginia teachers are paid less than teachers in neighboring and peer states. Further, West Virginia teachers are asking for less than the Chicago teachers settled for.
  2. Public Support: Related to the first one, the teachers in West Virginia have a lot of public support, while public opinion in Chicago was somewhat more mixed. Teachers themselves evidently did have public support, but the media thought otherwise.
  3. Worse Opposition: Rahm Emanuel and his administration were the face of the opposition to the teachers. He may not have been the most likeable guy, but he was out there making his case. Nobody is making the case against the teachers in West Virginia. The Republican legislators are mostly quiet, or just arguing that the strike itself is illegal rather than just unmerited. (They’re not wrong, it is illegal, but a law that has no enforcement mechanism isn’t a law). And so the microphone is more or less ceded to the teachers, their union, and parents who support them.
  4. Better PR: It never hurts to have stories like this. And while the legislature is failing to make its case, the schools are calling parents every single night to let them know that school will not be resuming, and every time they call they slip some advantageous messaging in there.
  5. Media Bias: The media leans left and has a particular fondness for center-left technocrats and Democrats who’ve been associated with the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, they don’t like West Virginia Republicans. Rahm got a benefit of the doubt that Justice and state legislators did not.
  6. A Change In Mood: Attitudes towards governmental authority in general can change depending on whether the president is someone like Barack Obama or Donald Trump. So things like protesting are viewed differently. This one is not unrelated to the previous two.
  7. Racism: The teachers in West Virginia are overwhelmingly white. The teachers in Chicago aren’t. Whiteness is associated with middle class, and while West Virginians in general may get the bone-in-the-nose treatment from urban media outlets, teachers tend to be a comforting familiar sort of white: Educated, articulate, liberal. Easier for white, educated, liberal reporters to approach and talk to. Meanwhile, they are less comfortable with teachers in Chicago. And just as the “mood” might change depending on the face of government, it might also change by the face of the protesters.

As of the writing of this post, no conclusion has been reached. Oklahoma may be next. Will the media be there for it?

Image by darinrmcclure There's a Strike On


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68 thoughts on “There’s a Strike On

  1. I’m watching it with interest as there’s a good likelihood at least some of the teachers in my state will strike (over similar reasons: it’s widely reported many schoolteachers have to work second jobs, like cashiering at wal-mart, to make ends meet). A starting teacher here makes about $32,000. Granted, our cost of living is lower than many places but…yeah. I make not-quite-twice that *and* I am single and childless and have to budget fairly carefully. I can’t imagine being a single parent making $32K and managing without family help or a side-hustle.

    Many of our school districts have gone to four-day weeks (with each of those four days being longer) to try to save money (and also to free up teachers to work at their second job, I guess). It makes it a nightmare for people working in OTHER fields to arrange for childcare. I’ve had a few student-parents have to skip class because of it…

    Neighbor states pay more so one of the issues we have is that teachers pick up and leave for those neighboring states if they can. It can be hard to attract people in certain areas (I do not know but I assume there is some kind of an incentive if you’re math or special-ed or one of the hard-to-get specialties).

    I will say I can see a decline in the preparedness of students from my state (I teach college) in recent years. No idea if that’s related to teacher pay and the related “brain drain” to other states (and rising class sizes, and loss of some of the nicer parts of the curriculum).

    Will the media be there for us? I dunno. My cynical side says the media loves to paint us as red-state hillbilly hicks, and so that will color their reporting, but then again, West Virginia also suffered that same stereotype… I know there is a strong anti-tax sentiment in my state that has led to several measures that would raise teacher pay and fix other issues; we cannot deficit-spend so when there’s a financial hole, cuts have to be made. In Higher Ed, we are living the life of 1000 cuts right now…two years ago we had to take furlough days (and a 9% pay cut because of that) and that was….upsetting. (I personally found the whole being told “You cannot work during furlough days but the work you have must still get done” thing confusing and upsetting, but I know I am far too literal-minded and too much of a rule-follower. A lot of us DID grade and the like on furlough days; we just did not come in to our office or look at e-mail. We were also told to take our furlough time without cancelling class and I complied; next time I might not, I don’t know.)

    I also acknowledge that Higher Ed is far more expendable than common ed; I would not be surprised to see consolidations or closings of some of our smaller state unis in coming years. I hope and pray it comes AFTER I am of an age to retire, because the through of moving or having to re-tool for a new career kind of undoes me…

    Our legislature talks a good game about wanting an educated workforce but they seem unwilling to do what it takes to achieve that.

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  2. What is the relationship between Obamacare and the fight over PEIA? Was Obamacare on track to help rein in PEIA costs before it got gutted? Did it make it worse from the outset? Or are they independent events?

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  3. My understanding is that the trigger for the strike in WV is actually the teacher’s health insurance.

    For instance, Jacobin is reporting this. Not that they are a go-to source for me, but I would be surprised if they published wrong facts.

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    • You are right. Scott at LGM posted this interview on the huge increase to healthcare costs:

      They told us that essentially if you weren’t a single person, if you had a family plan, your health insurance was going to rise substantially. As a West Virginia teacher — and I’ve been teaching 10 years — I only clear right under $1,300 every two weeks, and they’re wanting to take $300 more away for me. But they tell me it’s O.K., because we’re going to give you a 1 percent pay raise. That equals out to 88 cents every two days.

      They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year. People felt that was very invasive, to have to download that app and to be forced into turning over sensitive information.

      She makes 31200 in net pay and the West Virginia state government wanted to reduce that significantly. Plus they wanted to make her track herself.

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      • They did it in the dumbest way possible.

        Penalize $500? Make it a stick? Asinine.

        They could have saved a *LOT* of money by holding that money in a pot in the first place and saying “oh, and if you want a $500 bonus, just wear this fitbit and walk two miles a day!”

        Turn it into a carrot.

        I mean, if you’re into the whole “Panopticon Neoliberalism” thing in the first place.

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    • My understanding is that the trigger for the strike in WV is actually the teacher’s health insurance.

      That’s my understanding as well. And if that’s correct, it may explain why (self-identified) leading-indicator agenda-setting papers like NYT are a bit hands off on the issue right now. They’re waiting to see a narrative emerge which doesn’t so clearly pit healthcare against red state rugged individualism. Teachers are sympathetic figures and it would be all-too-easy for people to sympathize with them and liberalish healthcare solutions in this case.

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      • I’m not sure I understand you. In they eyes of some conservatives, the NYT is very liberal, and happy to propagandize for liberal causes. (I have mixed feelings about this, but that’s not relevant at the moment) What I think you are saying is that the people at the NYT know this, and are treading lightly so as to not put their stamp on that narrative and thus have it dismissed lightly as “fake news”. Do I have that right?

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        • Conservatives think NYT is a liberal paper because of its fashion section, seems to me. It’s not a liberal paper. If it *were* they’d be writing about the WV teachers strike in precisely the terms we’re talking about: as a strike protesting out of control health insurance costs and the bad effects of tax cuts which only single payer and higher taxes can solve. I think they’re treading lightly because the core issues of the dispute are potentially explosive in terms of policy and politics.

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          • Now that is an interesting view! I’m not sure I agree.

            There is a big split between the Times as a reporting organization and the Op-Ed page and it is growing.

            I would say that a lot of the reporting the Times does is on the liberal side or has liberal sympathies but not obviously so. They still do some of the best shoe-leather reporting in the country and are among the few outfits to have a budget for serious investigative reporting on national and international issues.

            The Op-Ed section is weird and everyone sees what they want it. Conservatives look at Krugman, Charles Blow, or Michelle Goldberg and Gail Collins and see a liberal mouthpiece. Liberals get angry at this because of Ross D, David Brooks, Bari Weiss, and Brett Stephens. James Bennett doesn’t help himself by pompously declaring pissing off readers means he is doing his job right.

            I would say that the Times editorial page tries to be conventional in ways that are only going to please the Bloomberg set. This group is small in number but powerful in terms of dollar.

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    • And Reagan should be remembered as the monster that he was.

      These teachers are doing thankless work at underpaid prices in a state that is already facing a grim teachers’ shortage. Idiots proposing to fire them all – as is occasionally happening around here – would damn a generation of children or more simply to satisfy their own conservative bloodlust to keep certain employees in their servile place. That the majority of those striking are women, and that the majority of those proposing that they all be fired are men, cannot be ignored either.

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      • Yes, a monster…a MONSTER!

        Look, the union and the members are in violation of the law. Period. Frankly, none of the rest of your comments matter. The union could have spent the time to work to get the laws changed, but didn’t or weren’t successful. What’s the better choice, in your words, ” keep certain employees in their servile place. ” or to “damn a generation of children”. Frankly, I’d go with the children. They deserve an education and should not be made pawns in contract negotiations.

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        • You’re the one with the plan to fire 20,000 employees rather than pay them what they’re worth, then somehow replace 20,000 employees here.

          In other words, you’re the one who wants to damn children. Don’t get confused about that. And don’t pretend like you give a damn anyway.

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          • Actually, their “worth” is determined by the market demand and supply for their labor. Given that they are in a union, I’d expect that their pay is actually higher than the market clearing rate for teachers in WVA.

            “And don’t pretend like you give a damn anyway” No, I don’t give a damn either way. I don’t live in WVA, although I used to visit extended family there, so if their education system is crap, so what? I’m opposed to public sector unions and I’m for sure as hell against permitting a union to strike when it’s clearly against the law to do so.

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            • The state is in breach of contract; they’re not funding PEIA to the agreed-upon level. The teachers are entirely justified in not working when they’re not being paid the agreed amount.

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              • That’s an issue for the negotiators or the civil courts. What part of:

                ““Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia ”

                Is unclear?

                It’s like driving a car with a takata airbag. You either violate federal law (by disabling the airbag and risk criminal sanctions) or you keep driving and hope not to get killed. You can thank “your” gov’t for the conundrum.

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                • That’s an opinion by the state attorney general, isn’t it? Not spelled out in statute or a court ruling. I recall reading that when a similar situation reached the WV supreme court some decades back, the court’s opinion was that (a) there was no right to strike but (b) any consequences for failure to show up to work were a local disciplinary matter.

                  AG opinions turn out to be wrong on a regular basis. The court might reach a different conclusion this time — WV school funding has almost certainly followed the national pattern, with state-level funding a much bigger piece of the school budgets than it used to be. Still, it’s a stretch to see why the AG would be involved rather than the local school boards or the state board of education.

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      • If Reagan were to be remembered as a monster, it should be for establishing the Double Santa Claus theory of government as a winning strategy.

        As it is, we have this entrenched idea that we can have high functioning, top of the line first world services with third world levels of taxation.

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        • That’s it precisely, though Reagan is hardly unusual in employing it. In the long-run fiscal responsibility is not optional. It can be attained by raising taxes, or cutting spending or some combination of the two, but one way or another voters are going to have to put up with getting less from the government on net.

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        • Amen, I’d definitely agree that popularizing the “Starve the Beast/Laffer curve” nonsense and the whole “Somehow we’ll tantrum the other party into cutting spending when they’re in power to clean up our shit” line of thought in the GOP as one of Ronnie’s most long reaching errors.

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      • Reagan might have been a monster and I’m prepared to say that for public safety reasons, he probably made the wrong call in the ATC strike. I believe, however, that the ATC union was in the wrong in that dispute.

        I believed the Chicago teachers union was also in the wrong in their dispute. I have no informed opinion about the West Virginia strike. (My opinion about the CTU strike isn’t particularly informed, either, but it’s more informed than my opinion about the WV strike.)

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        • You know if we keep breaking the commons up enough your eventually not going to have anything to hold us together.

          I mean if you’re fine saying poor kids are just going to get screwed while the rich get to go ahead because that’s how money works then own that.

          But just saying hey let’s break up public education it doesn’t work at all ignores how much better it works than what happened before public education. Its one of the founding things our country did. land grant colleges back before you needed primary schooling to go to a college.

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  4. There is likely some media bias but not quite the way you phrase it. Unions are bad old leftie orgs not flashy new gig economy start up entrepreneurs. Big media, you know those things owned by giant corporations, are not all that union friendly. Ordinary old school unions just help those darn public employees raid the treasury. Modern news room types will have relatively few connections to union members and far more familiar with business types. Sure the Chicago teachers got airtime but being in a big city will do that. The big media leans left in some ways and leans away in others.

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    • The hypocrisy thing among the publishers? “Hey, guys… I just noticed that if we show solidarity with West Virginia teachers, we might have to show solidarity with the journos on the floor when they try to start a union!”

      “Okay. What if we didn’t do either one?”

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    • I think you are largely right. The average journalist is and/or now aspires to be a member of the upper-middle professional class and generally seems to be a kind of socially liberal (or at least moderate) but combined with a largely pro-capitalist and business overview. The journalist wants to be at the table of the Anywheres and given Ted talks and at Aspen.

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      • This seems like a good moment to discuss the usage of the word “capitalism”. To me, the alternative to capitalism is a state-run economy, such as the Soviet Union of the 50s and 60s, or the Chinese economy of a similar time.

        I am really, really clear that I don’t want that.

        And, AND, I am content with a hybrid economy, where we allow a free or regulated market in as many sectors as we can, which is as free as we can possibly make it, while realizing certain social goals, such as health care and retirement benefits for all.

        So, describing me as pro-capitalist is either kind of hostile, or really quite friendly. It’s deeply ambiguous.

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        • This ventures into politics linkage but Vox has an interesting interview with Yascha Mounk about growing Western disillusionment with Liberal Democracy:

          https://www.vox.com/2018/3/5/17035848/democracy-populism-trump-europe

          The key issue seems that Liberal Democracy no longer produces popular policies being enacted and income inequality.

          I think this is largely right. The big issue as I see it is that the “anywhere” or “neo-liberal” wing or whatever you want to call it and shrugs. Or they don’t quite shrug but their response always seems to be “I know these are issue but there is nothing really to do about it because in the end Anywhereism/Corporatism/Globalism is just better.” I can never tell if this is self-serving defense tactics, sincerity, or a bit of both.

          My view is that if you want to prove liberal democracy is good for all then you have to come up with a better response than “Yeah these are problems but what you are gonna do?” But it seems impossible to snap the adherents of what we call globalism/neoliberalism into this view even as populist and right-wing parties are on the rise.

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            • Yascha Mounk wrote about those in Slate with alarm:

              https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/03/why-italys-election-result-should-alarm-all-of-us.html

              With The Simpsons as a helpful cheat sheet, here’s what you need to know about yesterday’s results:

              • Krusty the Clown, aka the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement), came out as the strongest political party, taking about one-third of the vote nationwide. Radically critical of all existing political institutions, the Five Star Movement has recently started to deploy more anti-immigrant rhetoric, has received sizeable support from Russian sources in the past, and is seemingly run by a shadowy PR firm. Although its leaders pledged that they would stay in opposition, they are now demanding to take a role in the government.

              • Snake Jailbird, aka the Lega Nord (Northern League), took about 18 percent of the vote. Founded as a separatist party that advocated for the independence of the country’s affluent north, the League has, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, transformed itself into a hypernationalist and virulently xenophobic party in the mold of France’s National Front. When a former candidate for the party shot six African migrants in the city of Macerata in the middle of the campaign, Salvini pointedly refused to condemn him.

              • Mr. Burns, aka former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, took 14 percent of the vote. Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire who dominated Italian politics from 1994 until his ignominious fall from power in 2011, is simultaneously an ideological moderate whose economic and social policies are largely within the bounds of ordinary Italian politics and an institutional radical who has weakened the Italian judiciary to keep himself out of jail.

              That being said, I am not sure how much of it is a self-serving sneer and how much of it is a shrug about “other things have been tried before and failed. This might be bad but it is the least bad.” I’m also not a super-fan of the Anywhere/Somewhere dichotomy because it is too broad-stroked. In someways, I am just a locked in somewhere (I can only practice law in California and New York). In other ways, I am an anywhere (I can get along with professional class types in most situations) but I’m far from being a consultant who travels all the time and switches countries of residence easily and frequently.

              But an honest shrug can still be self-serving.

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          • This ties up with Amy Chua’s ideas on political tribes. When America was a White Protestant majority country, the White Protestant majority could persecute other groups but they could also, when they felt like it, afford to be really generous. Now no political group or tribe is really dominate in most democracies and either feels that their place is under siege or that they are still actively persecuted and things are getting worse. This makes people really unwilling to play nice with other groups.

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      • This seems appropriate here:

        Off the coast of Monaco in the summers of 2014 and 2015, I discovered what I thought was a sort of journalistic nirvana for my job as The Wall Street Journal foreign affairs correspondent, in the form of a yacht, the Conquistador. It was owned by an Iranian-American businessman and aviation magnate named Farhad Azima, who’d grown wealthy over the decades by servicing secretive Pentagon defense contracts and growing a fleet of private aircraft. The scene on the boat mixed James Bond and Fantasy Island, all crystal blue waters, champagne cocktails, and breezy meals on the upper deck.

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    • In this case I am using bias to explain union-hostile (or at least indifferent) coverage in one case and union-friendly in another, not general media approach or bias towards unions. I think that one teachers union was up against a Democrat associated with the Obama Administration and the other teacher union was not may have influenced coverage, along with the other factors presented.

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      • FWIW a lot of Democrats really hate Rahm Emmanuel and his political career is basically over. Not everyone is enthused with Cuomo but Cuomo in NY either but there is a big difference between Cuomo and Emmanuel. Cuomo is transactional enough that he can be moved with the right incentives to advocate for progressive policy. Emmanuel seems to be a true believer in privatization and is out of step with the Democratic base now.

        A lot of people were really upset when the head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union was diagnosed with brain cancer. They thought she could be a formidable primary opponent against Rahm.

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        • A lot of people were really upset when the head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union was diagnosed with brain cancer. They thought she could be a formidable primary opponent against Rahm.

          Mine is only an anecdote of one, but I find/found Lewis to be way too polarizing to win against Rahm. I voted for Rahm’s opponents in the election and the runoff. If Lewis were his principal opponent, I would have voted against her in a heartbeat.

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  5. Living in Illinois, I lack perspective on national media environment, but (1) Rahm himself is largely a creation of the national media/political environment, whose admirers and coverage are built on D.C. fundraising connections; (2) the buildup to the strike arose amidst the perception that public teacher’s unions were a wedge issue among Democrats, one which Rahm was expected to resolve with national significance; and (3) most would say Rahm lost, though the strike was followed by the largest school closings in city history. Subsequently, there has been declining enrollment and continued teacher declines.

    The wedge exists, as evidenced by a bipartisan agreement to provide a massive tax break for scholarships for low income students to go to private schools. There is little/no appetite among Democrats to attack teachers or devalue the importance of education, but people are voting with their feet either literally by leaving the City or by enrolling their kids in private schools. Neither the union, nor the Mayor seem to have been able to craft an alternative, mostly because the City is so saddled with pension debt that all other paths seem closed.

    In comparison, there was a strike about that time in a rural community where Mother Jones is buried (Mount Olive), which received almost no coverage as well. Usually the problem with rural communities are treated as if merger and consolidation of smaller districts are needed. (Which may be true, but it doesn’t usually save money)

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    • A bill here to consolidate a lot of rural districts was killed last week. On the one hand, I can sympathize with the parents: if I had a child, I wouldn’t want them facing a 45 minute bus ride or something to a consolidated school. On the other hand, the damn state is broke and if consolidation keeps things afloat, maybe that’s a bitter pill we have to swallow. I don’t know.

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      • Consolidation here meant whichever school had the higher salary/benefits became the salary/benefits of the consolidated school. Whatever advantages obtained by shared facilities were mostly eaten by increased busing costs.

        The more likely benefit was in having high schools with at least 500 students, more educational opportunities can be offered.

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