Chicago Reader

Posted: March 10, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the work world in “Sabbath.”]

Detroit and Democracy

I wanted to do more to prepare more to write this post, but I’ve had work responsibilities this week and weekend that would not let me dive into research and numbers.  Even so, I feel a need to express my less than informed opinion on a vital topic – the impending takeover of Detroit.

It’s not the big media story I thought it would be.  It’s taken as a given that Detroit is “bankrupt” and “something has to be done.”  I’ve even heard that claim in progressive media.  Is Detroit in trouble?  Of course, it is.  So are many other large American cities that have lost their industrial base.  No one seems to be asking if there are alternatives to taking power from the hands of elected officials and putting it in the hands of an unelected Emergency Manager.  Governor Rick Snyder presents this solution that he has introduced in other cities as the only way to save the state’s biggest city.

Let’s take a minute and ask some questions:

1.  Is the situation as bad as the governor claims?  Why is Michigan the only state in the nation where such action is taking place on such a scale?  Is the governor really concerned about helping cities, or is he working off an ALEC playbook strategy to transfer public wealth into private hands?  Is there any evidence that Emergency Managers in other cities have made a long term improvement in local conditions – long term, not a simple give away to the connected class?

2.  Where is the wealth?  Throughout America, central cities are surrounded by suburbs that conduct business in and take their identity from the urban hub.  Could some system be devised where those who benefit from the hub pay their share for its upkeep?  Why not tax suburbs that have a surplus?  Why not introduce county wide or regional taxes that would help revive great American cities?

Here in Chicago we’ve had similar claims of impending ruin.  One of Mayor Daley’s chief aides used the term “Doomsday” in talking about the state of the city’s school system and public transit system.  Both systems were cut in the face of such claims.  Mayor Daley also transferred public assets of parking meters and a public toll road to private interests.  The city’s finances are not better.  In fact, by the end of the contract, the city will lose money on the parking meter contract.  Now Mayor Emanuel want to close over 100 schools because of a pending billion dollar deficit.  Is this a real problem or a way to move students from public to “charter” schools?

Whenever a politician claims a situation is an emergency, we need to ask for better evidence and transparency, not solutions that make the original problem worse and benefit only those who are the most wealthy.  We need to ask harder questions about our leaders and their solutions, especially those that deal with privatization.  The fate of Detroit and other cities in Michigan need to seen as a sign of things to come.  Will the U.S. live up to its promise of being a democracy that offers opportunity to all of its people, including the poor?  Or will the country further devolve into an oligarchy of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy?

Postscript: On this weekend’s Smiley and West radio program, Cornel West said: “You can’t love money and love poor people.” He was criticizing political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats.  I can only respond with one word: Amen.

More:  Laura Clawson of Daily Kos weighs in on the consequences of a Detroit take over and what has happened in other Michigan cities that have lost their democratic rule.

Posted: February 4, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in the Chicago Reader, Christopher Flores recounts his experience almost applying for a job as a writer with Groupon.  Flores decided not to apply when he learned that he had to sign a non-compete agreement before he was hired.  Other writers cited in the article signed the document because they were desperate for work.  The document stated that a writer could not work for a “competitor” for two years.  An earlier version of the agreement was for an “indefinite” period.

The consequences for a worker who signs such an agreement can be severe.  An employment lawyer cited in the article says that it cost thousands of dollars to fight the legitimacy of such non-compete agreements.  It also says that courts are leaning even more in favor of defending the employer’s rights against those of workers.

Groupon no longer requires applicants to sign a non-compete, but said they might do so again in the future if the company’s needs change “down the road.”  The bottom line for working people is to beware of any kind of contract.  Think about what this article says: A job seeker could sign an agreement with a prospective employer that blocks employment from any kind of “competitor” for an “indefinite” period. Like most things in America today, the deck is stacked – against working people.

Posted: October 31, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Michael Miner reports in the Chicago Reader that the Chicago Sun-Times has laid off more employees, including spokesperson Tammy Chase.  Chase’s layoff is significant because it has been her job to spin the company’s previous job cuts.  As always, Miner puts the situation in an interesting context. 

Phil Rosenthal at the Chicago Tribune discusses the layoffs in broader terms.  The total number of employees laid off may exceed 100.  That’s a hard blow to a company that cut all of its “fat” a long time ago.  While there is probably some inter-paper rivalry in Rosenthal’s reporting, the circulation numbers he cites are alarming.  Is Chicago going to be a one newspaper town?

Posted: September 24, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

This week’s Chicago Reader provides more stories of the methods that principals are using to lay off teachers in Chicago Public Schools.  The article reviews the pretzel-like terminology used to justify layoffs.  My favorite is “honorably terminated,” which sounds like some kind of mercy killing from a 70’s film like Rollerball.

Writers Ben Joravsky and Dave Glowacz interview several teachers who were among the 1,300 let go before this school year began.  We constantly hear the cliche of “bad” teachers.  The teachers profiled in this article have proven records of success.  The problem seems to be that they cost too much when a school can hire cheaper, younger teachers. 

This article focuses more on individuals than issues of unions and contracts.  Even so, it reminds us that few teachers in CPS can feel secure in this environment.  Will good teachers want to continue to work in such a system?  How does a culture of fear impact teaching?  These questions aren’t asked.  Instead, the mainstream media feeds us stories about “bad” teachers.  Thankfully, writers like Joravsky and Glowacz are around to tell the truth.

Posted: September 10, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

This week’s Chicago Reader offers several letters in response to last week’s story about Sunny Neater-Dubow, a nationally certified teacher who was laid off by Chicago Public Schools.  One laid off teacher writes that she had been rated excellent for 14 years.  Now she is 58 years old and jobless.  She writes, “I am competing with art teachers younger and less salaried.” 

Another teacher, Bmach, expresses despair and anger: “We’re looking for jobs that no longer exist and many of us have no idea what we are going to do while we try to change careers and find new jobs.  Meanwhile, those at the top aren’t losing any sleep or offering to reach into their pockets or take pay cuts to help those of us who are now unemployed.”

These teachers are learning a bitter lesson about how government works in an era of limited funds.  The deeper, longer term problem is that young people in college and high school will read these stories and seek careers that have nothing to do with education.  As a culture, we have to make a choice: Do we really care about education?  Are we willing to pay for it?

Extra:  Writing in Common Dreams, Peter Hart discusses how the media is re-shaping the public image of teachers as part of a union-busting campaign.

Posted: September 4, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Writing in the Chicago Reader, Ben Joravsky tells the story of Sunny Neater-DuBow, an art teacher with a national certification, who was laid off recently by Chicago Public Schools.  When Neater-DuBow tried to find out why she was lost her job, no one could give her a good answer.  Her position was “redefined,” which means it was supposed to be changed in some way to bring a school into compliance.  Neater-DuBow later found the position advertised almost exactly as she had held it.

Joravsky quotes union president Karen Lewis, “They [the administration] see us as spreadsheets, not people.”  She says the union will not back down in protecting its members’ rights.  It has filed suit to have all laid off teachers reinstated.

The next time you hear the conservative meme about “bad teachers,” think about Sunny Neater-DuBow.  She did everything right and was let go.  That’s school reform in Chicago.

Posted: July 8, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Ben Joravsky of the Reader has written an article on Chicago Public Schools and its recent flip flops on class size.  As Jovarsky points out, CEO Ron Huberman seems to favor a business model that cuts teacher positions while giving raises to administrators.

Funds that are moved from public schools to charter schools no longer are subject to transparency laws. We will not know what teachers in charter schools are paid or if their pay has been frozen.  All pay figures for CPS are posted on the Internet.  Joravsky notes that the winners in the charter system seem to be the administrators, not the teachers.  He quips: “In retrospect, I can see why Huberman would be attracted to the charter school movement – more money for administrators, less money for teachers.  What’s not to love about that?”

Posted: June 17, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, former teachers union head Deborah Lynch wrote an editorial on the problem her school, Gage High School, is facing.  Many underperforming schools like Gage are being set up to fail in the name of school “reform.”  Our first instinct is to say that CPS should shut down underperforming schools and fire teachers at such schools.  Lynch puts this kind of thinking in a different context that is linked to questions of labor, unions, and job security.

Schools like Gage High are failing in no small part because magnet schools and charter school siphon off the best students.  At the same time, students from schools closed under the banner of reform are funneled into school like Gage.  Lynch writes: “We must take everyone.  And we do.  We also must take students expelled from our neighborhood charter schools, private schools and jail schools.”  How can a school succeed in this model, especially when the school system wants to increase class size?

When schools are closed, they are often reopened as non-union charter schools.  Faculty at these schools work for lower salary and have no protection from a contract.  Based on Lynch’s story and the ongoing financial issues, it almost seems like CEO Ron Huberman and his team want schools to fail.  Failing schools and the budget are the Board’s excuses to reform the labor force and cut salaries.

Lynch outlines the problem.  Writing in the Reader, Ben Joravsky reports on a possible solution:  Parent groups demanding that TIF funds be used to support schools.  These funds are controlled by Mayor Daley, and according to state law, they cannot currently be used for operational expenses.  Instead, as Joravsky points out, TIF funds support private companies, such as Grossinger Auto Group which received $8.5 million to open a new facility at North and Clybourn, one of the city’s hottest intersections.  Parents are asking why these funds, which are taken from property taxes, shouldn’t fund schools. Hopefully their voices will grow louder and stronger.

Posted: June 12, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union elected Karen Lewis as their new President.  Lewis represents CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators), a group that will take a harder line toward Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman and his claims of financial doomsday (Remember Huberman was the “executive leader” who brought doomsday, layoffs, and service cuts to the CTA – Bad news seems to follow this poor man.).

Lewis will oppose trends toward charter schools and standardized tests, which she sees as tools management is using to cut union membership and angle for performance-based pay.  The Chicago Tribune quotes the new president as saying, “We want to put business in its place and out of our schools.”  Good luck to President Lewis in that effort.

To read the story in the Tribune, click here.

Ben Joravsky in the Reader offers a detailed analysis of the union election and its possible impact on negotiations with management.  Follow this link.

Postscript:  The Sun-Times published an excellent profile of Karen Lewis and how she could looking at TIF funds as a way to fund schools.

Postscript (June 15, 2010): Huffingtion Post reports on the Chicago School Board's decision to raise class to 35 students.  Ron Huberman resisted the urge to say "doomsday."  Instead, he whined:  "These concessions are the only way to avoid the threat of strike. The current budget deficit provides no alternative."  Karen Lewis has an alternative:  TIF money (a.k.a., the mayor's slush fund).  Click here to read the post.

Posted: May 27, 2010
By: Clay Cerny

The Reader’s outstanding political reporter Ben Joravsky has investigated salaries at Chicago Public Schools.  Teachers and other employees that serve students are being laid off.  Assistant coaches are asked to work without pay.  Meanwhile, CEO Ron Huberman has added salaried staff.  According to Joravsky, 133 employees make $100,000 or more.  Several of these people formerly worked with Huberman at the CTA.

What bothers me most about this story is hypocrisy.  Huberman and his aides have no qualms about asking schools to tighten their belts, to cut staff and programs.  They want the teachers and their unions to agree to furlough days.  At the same time, the CEO and his staff have increased their salaries.  It’s nice to hear administrators say they want what’s best for students.  Stories like this indicate that they really care more about themselves.

Follow this link to read Joravsky’s story.