This is a column about rules. It’s about rules we are expected to follow and rules that the rulers—call them the new aristocracy, the 1 percent, the Masters of the Universe—don’t deign to notice. It’s about hypocrisy, double standards and twisted logic. But it’s really about a strike and two lockouts that on basic principle demand our support.
The Chicago teacher’s strike has more angles than Cecil Cooper’s swing. But there is one criminally under-discussed aspect of it. It would be so helpful if just one of the many politicians and newspaper editorial boards lining up to lambast the teacher’s union could explain why Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision for a model Chicago public school is so at odds with the education he is providing for his own children. Mayor Rahm is fighting to create a school system dominated by high-pressured standardized testing. Everyone and everything must bow to the test. Cut art, cut music, cut physical education, extend the school day and create an educational environment that revolves around filling in a bubble.
Yet Rahm sends his own children to the University of Chicago Lab School. As labor journalist Mike Elk reported, “The Lab School has seven full-time art teachers to serve a student population of 1,700. By contrast, only 25 percent of Chicago’s ‘neighborhood elementary schools’ have both a full-time art and music instructor. The Lab School has three different libraries, while 160 Chicago public elementary schools do not have a library.”
Rahm wants less art and more standardized testing for Chicago’s children, while he wants more art and less high-stakes testing for his own children. One set of rules for him and one for the rest of us.
Then there is the ongoing lockout of 119 National Football League referees. NFL owners, led by their flak-catching Commissioner Roger Goodell, don’t care that for the cost of several dozen Peyton Manning autographed footballs, they could rehire their highly trained officials. This is a league that secretes money, but the billionaires in the owner’s box can’t stand the thought of paying for competent officiating when there are replacements willing to work for less pounding at the doors.
The connective tissue with the teachers of Chicago isn’t the greed. It’s the gap. It’s the gap between the rules Commissioner Goodell and the owners expect others to follow and their own moral code. Goodell has decided to make the “health and safety” of players golden buzzwords that justify all decisions. “Health and safety” are why players should be fined $50,000 for “helmet to helmet contact." “Health and safety” are why the league leveled reckless “bounty” allegations against four members of the New Orleans Saints, despite what’s now been deemed an absence of evidence. And Roger Goodell’s care for the “health and safety” of players is why the league just donated $30 million to the National Institute of Health to study brain disease.
Yet here are the NFL referees, uniquely charged and trained to protect the health and safety of players, and they can’t get on the field. The very people called “the first responders” by the league, comparing them to emergency medical technicians, have been locked out. I don’t want to argue just how embarrassing their scab lingerie-football-league replacements have been. The point is that Roger Goodell has one set of standards of safeguarding “health and safety” for players and another for himself, just as Rahm Emanuel feels that there is a kind of school good enough for his children, but not anyone else’s.
Lastly, the owners of the National Hockey League are going to lock out their players this weekend. This will be the league’s fourth work stoppage since 1992. Rather than negotiate, commissioner Gary Bettman has left the players with a “take-it-or-leave it” proposal. Since the league canceled their 2004 season in the last lockout, revenue has grown from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. Despite this growth, or perhaps because of this growth, owners wanted players to cut their piece of the pie from 57 to 43 percent. But the issue isn’t the revenue. It’s the existing contracts. As one official said to me, “This isn’t about revenue as much as it is that they don’t want to have to pay the contracts offered over the last year. They want to be able to rip up and renegotiate all existing contracts. They want us to save them from themselves.”
And here once again we encounter the problem of rules. A contract is supposed to be an inviolate, legally binding agreement. That’s what working families were told when they signed onto the predatory loans that eventually claimed their homes. That’s what we are told when our cars are repossessed. That’s what the union autoworkers in the United States were told only to see their wages slashed in half in the much-ballyhooed auto-industry bailout. Instead not only NHL players but also all of us get sent a message that a contract is only worth a damn if those in power choose to honor it.
There is no winning a game when the rules have been rigged, but there is power in numbers. There is power in struggle. And there is power in pizza. The easiest way to support Chicago teachers is to order them a piping hot pizza pie. You can get food to the picket lines by calling Gus or Daisy at Primo’s Pizza at (312) 243-1052. When pizza shows up to the tired picketers, everyone’s spirits are lifted. It’s read to them from which part of the country a pie was ordered and it makes them feel that much less alone. We don’t have the power of a Rahm Emanuel or Roger Goodell. But we do have numbers and perhaps we can even the score one pizza at a time.