July 27, 2009

Chicago Charter Teachers Score First Win

From the August, 2009 issue of Labor Notes.

CTU Organizing

It’s an oxymoron no longer: charter schools are unionizing.

Pioneering teachers and staff sealed an overdue victory in June at three Chicago International Charter Schools, the state’s largest charter operator.

Although the schools run primarily on public dollars—and Illinois allows public sector employees to unionize by card check—management rejected cards signed by 75 percent of employees in April. The charter operator argued that its unelected board of directors was not “responsible to public officials or to the general electorate.” CICS forced a Labor Board vote, battling for two months until workers voted 73-49 to unionize anyway.

When he championed charters as labs of educational innovation, former American Federation of Teachers(AFT) President Al Shanker thought they’d be organized. Two decades later, nearly all charter operators—despite varied teaching methods and missions—agree on one thing: teachers should be non-union.

Teacher unions now acknowledge charters have become a fact of life, and few would argue against organizing their teachers. But debate rages over how, and whether, to manage charters’ spread.

The AFT says charters work when they’re teacher-driven schools that share innovations with district schools, when the public can exercise oversight, and when teachers can join unions.

The schools have not succeeded by these measures but continue to expand, especially in urban districts. So that’s where the AFT is concentrating attention, picking up wins in Florida, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.

Instead of fighting tooth and nail to undermine charters, which have steadily chipped away at union ranks and siphoned off public dollars from traditional schools, the union has committed itself, even if belatedly, to organizing their tens of thousands of teachers.

They’ve got their work cut out for them: only around 80 of 4,600 charters are organized nationwide.


In Chicago, teachers began to see their vulnerability to the boss’s whims as a flaw in the school’s educational model. At Northtown High School, workers called meetings when the school’s former CEO—who had no background in education—announced instructors would teach an additional class but be paid the same.

And instead of summer school, teachers would instruct failing students during night school. “If we didn’t like it, they basically told us ‘there’s the door,’” said Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher.

Teacher turnover was high: “at will” employees were quickly booted, and other teachers simply left, overworked, underpaid, and kept at arm’s length from many curriculum decisions. The founding core of teachers dwindled. At Ellison High, only six of 20 teachers returned to the classroom last year.

To squelch the organizing drive, CICS used both stick and carrot. Two members of the school’s board, lawyers at a Chicago firm specializing in “union avoidance efforts” for groups “whose business is education,” came in with another anti-union consultant to fight the drive.

CICS made nice, too, hiring a new CEO who reversed the class load increase and reinstituted summer school, but opposed the union, calling it a threat to school autonomy—presumably his.

Most teachers had set their sights beyond immediate management regardless. “This drive was about creating a culture in our school where teachers will stick around for years, and have a formal voice in our school no matter what CEO comes along,” Mueller said.

In talks beginning this summer, teachers seek higher wages (entry salaries are several thousand dollars lower than district teachers’) and due process (but not the formal tenure system that exists in district schools), hoping that both help retain committed teachers.

They also want more control over curriculum, but making fundamental changes could be tough. Teachers at CICS are told to prep students on specific parts of standardized tests, which comes at the expense of basic educational needs—like supplies for other classes.

“I was told I’m not a social science teacher, I’m a reading teacher,” says Ellison teacher Jennifer Gilley. “It’s ironic because I taught three classes and only one of them came with a book.”


The Chicago Teachers Union, AFT Local 1, has a conflicted relationship with the charters. Union reps were on hand last spring when charter teachers presented cards to their CEO, and CICS teachers received a warm reception from CTU delegates for breaking into non-union territory.

But a reform grouping within the CTU, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), is raising a ruckus.

“If you’re organizing the charters without taking a position on defending existing schools against charter proliferation and expansion, that’s a failed strategy,” says Jackson Potter of CORE.

CORE is targeting Secretary of education Arne Duncan, whose nationwide tour sailed through Chicago in June. He’s offering urban districts additional federal money if they give the mayor executive control over schools, extract concessions from teacher unions, and allow charters to expand.

The strategy is straight from Duncan’s tenure as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, where he hatched a plan that has closed nearly 70 neighborhood schools and established charters in their wake, promising to raise student achievement.

Five years later, a Stanford University study shows a majority of charter schools performing worse than or comparable to traditional public schools on standardized tests. Some in the AFT are calling for a moratorium on charters.

With strong parent and student involvement, CORE rallied to save six district schools from the gallows last winter. But other schools close, and charters keep opening in them—erasing the elected decision-making committees of students, teachers, and parents at each site.

A University of Chicago study—which Duncan’s corporate backers allegedly tried to suppress—shows the city’s charters under-serving special education students and English-language learners. And because of limits on enrollment, many kids are left without neighborhood school.

Though charter and district teachers refuse to succumb to divide and conquer tactics, CORE says existing union strategies are making divisions difficult to avoid.


Just as teachers won at CICS, the Illinois Federation of Teachers negotiated a state law allowing 45 additional charters to set up in the city. Though they constitute only 3 percent of publicly funded schools nationwide, charters are 10 percent in Chicago, a share that will now rise again. IFT inserted provisions that beef up oversight of charters and allow charter teachers to organize under the state’s card-check provision for public employees.

The AFT’s organizing pitch is finding a growing audience among charter teachers, says Hugo Hernandez, an AFT staffer. The way to affect charters’ impact on education, he argues, is to bring them into the union. “If they would open the doors, we could find out what’s happening in these schools,” he said. “And to do that, we’re organizing.”

CORE wants the union to defend neighborhood schools and slow charter growth, but with the bludgeoning of teacher unions in the media, AFT is reluctant to fight Duncan’s strategy, which also has the blessing of the Obama White House.

Meanwhile, Chicago teachers—who’ve seen a 6,000-member drop in a decade—are bracing for another wave of non-union charters crashing into neighborhoods. “Perhaps they’re bargaining from a position of weakness,” Potter said of union leadership. “But that weakness is going to mean the end of us all before too long.”

July 02, 2009

Dancing with Death: "Waltz with Bashir"

My review from the July/August, 2009 Issue of Against the Current.
Watch the film here:


(“Vals im Bashir” in Hebrew)
an animated documentary film written and directed
by Ari Folman, 2008.

IT TOOK ARI Folman 25 years to make “Waltz With Bashir,” his animated film about Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. First, he had to remember the war.

[For our own readers who don’t remember: The Israeli government under Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon under the pretext of driving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) away from the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) seized control of the entire country up to Beirut, culminating in a horrific slaughter of Palestinian refugees by Israel’s rightwing (“Phalangist”) Lebanese allies and a bloody 20-year Israeli occupation of the south of the country — ed.]

Folman was 19 during his stint with the IDF in Beirut, stationed a few hundred yards from the massacres of hundreds (some claim thousands) of Palestinians in the city’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In the film’s opening scene a graying Folman listens to his war comrade Boaz tell of a recurring nightmare: the 26 guard dogs he killed during the invasion hound his sleep.

Folman, for his part, says he recalls almost nothing about the war: “It’s not in my system,” he tells Boaz.

At the advice of a therapist friend (Folman underwent analysis while making the film), he seeks out friends who saw combat. Their stories become flashbacks that fill the animated documentary, as Folman, hounded by a troubling lack of memory, tries to piece together his own role in Ariel Sharon’s butchering of Beirut.


We're tempted to ask: Why did it take so long to remember? But on top of the widely experienced suppression of war trauma, Folman's forgetting is helped along by a willful amnesia that's inseparable from Israel's national story. Denying a catastrophe is required to celebrate independence. Founding mother Golda Meir maintained that Palestinians “did not exist.” Charitably, the Israeli officialdom “neither confirms nor denies” the existence of its nuclear arsenal.

Folman hasn’t forgotten alone. He places himself in the film to confront this denial, opening questions about his past before the Israeli public.

White phosphorous rained on Gaza while the film picked up awards worldwide. As it wrapped up its tour of the States, Israeli soldiers testified to war crimes during the early 2009 bombardment.

But “Waltz” doesn’t actively connect Folman’s narrative to a legacy of Israeli theft and brutality. Instead, it could offer those who share his guilt a deep sigh of release from the isolated incident, when Israel waltzed briefly with the Phalange as they passed through the IDF’s green light into the refugee camps.

Folman has maintained in interviews that the Lebanon war was wrong because it was not a “survival war,” like 1948 or 1967 — the land grabs defended as existential struggles. From this perspective comes “Waltz,” an antiwar — not anti-colonial — film. He illustrates the hellishness of this particular episode in the Israeli colonial project, but avoids the colonial dynamics of the violence, refusing to turn a critical glance toward Zionism itself.

Instead we’re thrown into Lebanon, 1982, without mention that the invasion marked the beginning of a long occupation of the South — and the eventual ascent of its criminal architect to Israel's top post.

The Animation Technique

Animation depicts the shakiness of memory and dreams, but also allows Forman some buffer from a reality he’s uncomfortable with. His combination of cartoon and documentary (drawing on interviews with war veterans) allows him to produce what is ultimately a highly interpretive film.

Just as the stories begin to construct a narrative of the real war, the animation pulls that foundation out from under us. With Folman as our guide, we’re pushed to accept his ambiguous relationship with the past, always threatening the question: Did any of this really happen?

Folman’s visits with army buddies reveal a common thread: they were all freaked out teenagers arriving in Lebanon. One young soldier arrived on shore, guns blazing out of trigger-rattling fear. He riddles a Mercedes with bullets, and then discovers a family inside.

Facing fire immediately from an unseen enemy, Folman and his crew return round after round into the infinite Arab void. “We’re shooting everywhere, at everything, until nightfall,” he says. The bullets from IDF guns are usually retaliatory. They kill a boy in the woods, but only after he appears with a gun twice his size, aiming straight for the Israelis.

The soldiers, gunned out and glad to be alive, get some R&R to cranked early eighties punk hits — drinking, smoking and playing on someone else’s beach. It’s impossible not to feel their fear, but equally difficult to find within the film any broader context for why they’ve been put in that situation to begin with. We rarely see, and hear even less from the “enemy,” remaining tied to the memories of Israeli veterans instead.

“Waltz” flirts with glorification of violence, as each empty shell falls to a beat. The movie’s “title track” scene features Frenkel, a former IDF soldier, now a shiny-skulled karate master. In a memory-recalled Beirut gun battle, he decides he can do better with his friend’s weapon. A Bach concerto shines through as Frenkel wrestles the gun away, and jumps into the street, firing mad martial brilliance, choreographing a graceful dodge and dance.


As the camera floats out above the street scene, Folman narrates. “He cursed the shooters. Like he wanted to stay there forever.” From a giant mural, Lebanon’s Christian President Bashir Gemayel — who had just been assassinated by rival factions — oversees the waltz, and it is beautiful.

[Bashir Gemayel, essentially installed in power by Israeli bayonets, showed an independent streak shortly before he was killed in circumstances that were never explained. His militia, consumed with revenge lust, were allowed by the Israeli Army to enter the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camps that had been evacuated by PLO fighters after an American-brokered pledge that the civilians would be protected. This context is not explained in the film, although some older Israeli viewers will understand it — ed.]

The Massacre

We can't discern from the film alone if Lebanon in 1982 was an isolated, nightmarish episode or a defining example of sustained military and colonial policy. Forman lets the viewer decide, opting for a more personal objective — to explore his own complicity in the massacres. A string of such flashbacks triggers Folman's own recollection of firing flares from a rooftop, lighting the nighttime sky for a Lebanese raid on the refugee camps.

The following morning, an Israeli officer arrives on the scene and prevents the Phalange from another round of revenge killings. “Stop the shooting!” he yells into a bullhorn. The scene is, again, open to interpretation: The IDF commanders are finally portrayed as the sole rational voice — their “mistake” was looking the other way too long. Or, despite the IDF’s supposed peripheral involvement in the massacre, the officer's command proves who was really calling the shots. Or for the more optimistic, it could be Folman's final argument that complicity is perpetration, while he exhorts Israelis (and Americans) to cut the supply lines.

But the film does not operate outward; instead the final flashback zooms inward, right at Folman's face as he surveys the aftermath of the massacre. Then, in a stunning transition, the animation drops away, and we’re left with the first real footage; piles of the dead, and the hysterical cries of Arab women. No doubt here: This did happen.

Still, the women’s words don’t carry subtitles, a fitting close to an ambiguous film. Folman acknowledges the gravity of the crime, while preventing us from hearing anything more than rage from its victims.

ATC 141, July/August 2009