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Michelle Rhee: Union Buster

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Above: Terrible human being Michelle Rhee.

California teachers’ unions are under a new assault by teachers suing over unions using dues for political campaigns. Members can withdraw but they don’t have full union membership. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, I think we know where this will probably end up. Who is funding this latest attack on unionism? The Koch Brothers? Chamber of Commerce? Republican operatives? Nope. Students First.

Financial backing for the lawsuit comes from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has battled unions over issues ranging from teacher evaluation to charter schools. Defendants include the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and its California chapter, the California Teachers Association. Also named are the American Federation of Teachers and its California unit, the California Federation of Teachers.

Can we please stop saying that Michelle Rhee, Students First, the charter school capitalists, or anyone else involved in the privatization of one of this nation’s most cherished, long-lasting, and successful public services cares about actual students at all? This is about profit and destroying workers’ rights. Michelle Rhee is one of the great villains of our time. She may not be the head of the organization she founded any longer, but her spirit still flows through the entire enterprise.

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  • wengler

    These lawsuits have been coordinated across the country to try to get the Supreme Court to create Right To Work(for nothing) nationwide. Here in Illinois Tea Party billionaire governor Bruce Rauner is pushing a similar lawsuit to destroy public workers’ unions.

  • Murc

    I wonder what, precisely, these teachers believe the union is for, and how it is to effectively preform its functions without being a political actor.

    Especially since these are public employees, which means it is way more salient than for other unions who gets elected.

    • Malaclypse

      Nobody said these teachers were qualified to teach about collective action problems.

    • joe from Lowell

      I think they know exactly what a union is for and how it works, and oppose those things on wing nut political principle. You can be a wing nut and be employed by a pubic school district.

      I’ll bet just every school district in America has at least one really committed movement conservative, just sitting there for the DC-based legal foundation to swoop in and recruit.

      • Bruce Vail

        I wish I had saved the Cornell alumni magazine that had profiles of Rhee and Randi Weingarten on the cover (yes, they are both Cornell alumna).

        Articles were pretty bland, as I recall, but was a little surprised to learn that neither were education majors there.

    • wengler

      In any large organization it is quite easy to get one person to step forward to destroy that organization. Especially if you have money.

    • Fighting Words

      I’m the son and brother of teachers, so I will try to add to what Joe from Lowell said above.

      Even in the “liberal Bay Area” where I live and grew up, there are quite a few – not a lot, but more than a few – teachers and staff who are politically very conservative. They know exactly what the teachers union is for and what it does, but they don’t like the union because it primarily supports Democrats, and these particular teachers/staff are Republicans and they don’t like “their money” going to support Democrats.

      When I was growing up, and there was the occasional teachers strike, there were always a few teachers who crossed the picket lines. Of course, I don’t think they turned down the benefits other teachers sacrificed to win for them.

      I would also like to add that there are teachers who don’t know what the union does (probably more for willful blindness), but these aren’t the active anti-union teachers.

      • Linnaeus

        When I was growing up, and there was the occasional teachers strike, there were always a few teachers who crossed the picket lines. Of course, I don’t think they turned down the benefits other teachers sacrificed to win for them.

        Which reminds me of a conversation I had a few years back. I was visiting an old high school and college friend of mine who was staying with his parents. I got to talking with his mother, who, as it turned out, was very antiunion. She talked about a job that she once held (a clerical position of some kind) that was represented by a union. She said that when received her paychecks, she felt “so bad” that she was getting the pay she was, as she believed it was above what the position should have been earning. My first inclination was to respond, “but you still kept the money, right?” but being as I generally like this woman and was a guest in her home, I suppressed that reaction.

      • Bruce Vail

        As the son of a public high school teacher in New York state, this was my experience as well.

        My mom had numerous teacher friends who were conservative. Some were Country Club Republicans, some were Tea Party types, and some just didn’t like the way the NY Democratic Party was run (and there was the usual percentage that were just indifferent to any kind of party politics).

        I always get a laugh when some right-wing nut mouths off about the ultra-liberal teachers.

    • Tyro

      There is a certain type of intellectual professionals — liberals as well as conservatives — who take pride in NOT being in a union, to show that it demonstrates their professional and social class superiority over the unwashed masses of their colleagues

      • Linnaeus

        Yep. I ran into that sometimes when I was doing union organizing. I don’t want to exaggerate that as factor – most folks we talked to just didn’t know much of anything about unions – but it was discernable.

      • Oh, I ran into some of those types as well. The CWA have been trying to organize the company I used to work for for years, and they have repeatedly run into that whole bullshit. I wonder what the tens of thousands of people they’ve laid off since think… probably something like “How could I have prevented my job being shipped overseas? Gosh, I wonder.”

  • joe from Lowell

    If these people had a profoundly different vision for how to provide a quality universal public education, and they fought with teachers unions because they had such radically different visions of how to do that, I could respect them.

    But they don’t, so I can’t. They’re like Joe McCarthy, who didn’t go looking for communists and end up getting a bunch of innocent Democrats. Going after the teachers unions is the point here.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Both as an end in itself and as a means for enabling grift, the latter being the primary motivation for the likes of Rhee.

    • Malaclypse

      If these people had a profoundly different vision for how to provide a quality universal public education, and they fought with teachers unions because they had such radically different visions of how to do that, I could respect them.

      But this is the catch – I think[*] a lot of the local people doing the grunt work setting up charter schools do believe they are better able to provide a quality education. And that belief makes them an easy mark for grifters.

      * In the interest of full disclosure, I know that they believe this. Long ago when I was a baby accountant, I got a job at a now-defunct EMO. They were really good at convincing us that we were going to make a difference, that we were going to help underperforming school districts. I totally believed, and I wasn’t the only one there who thought that way.

      • joe from Lowell

        I agree. The original charter school movement didn’t come from these people. It wasn’t about national corporations setting up and profiting from schools. It was an option for groups of parents who wanted to set up their own school for their, and other, kids.

        But they didn’t take long to see the profit potential and swoop in.

      • Sure–and it’s not like I think the average Teach for America volunteer wants to bust teachers’ unions either. I’m mostly talking about the forces pushing this movement as opposed to local people on the ground.

        • I’m going to quibble a bit, though, and say you’re probably giving too little credit to rich business guys who think they know everything and want to set straight those stupid union people who are the reason–they believe–that “schools in America are a mess,” when it’s not schools that are the problem, it’s poverty and economic (and associated racial) segregation.

          For instance, while it’s possible Microsoft would make more money from widespread school privatization, I don’t think Bill Gates’ support for the “school reform” movement is motivated by trying to open up markets to his products.

          • Linnaeus

            I don’t think Bill Gates’ support for the “school reform” movement is motivated by trying to open up markets to his products.

            I don’t think so either, or at least I don’t think it’s the only thing motivating Gates’s support for “education reform”. There’s definitely an ideological component.

            When one gets to be as wealthy as Gates is (or even as wealthy as a couple of orders of magnitude less than Gates), you get to do things that most people can’t. You have the resources to influence policy in the direction you’d like it to go. Policymakers and legislators will listen to you simply because of who you are – when I hear folks try to downplay this by saying that their vote counts just as much as Gates’s does (technically true, of course) I say that if they call up Maria Cantwell or Patty Murray, they’ll get a staffer who may or may not relay the message. If Bill Gates calls, he’ll be talking to Cantwell or Murray directly as soon as possible.

            And so, with those kinds of resources and that kind of influence, you can shape policy to reflect what you want, and achieve ideological goals beyond accumulating more wealth.

            • Right. And it’s not like this is weird for Gates given his background. His father became very wealthy, yet ten or so years ago was one of the prominent uber-wealty people opposing repeal of the estate tax. And Gates has also spoken about how he was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, which included him having access to early computers plus having the financial and social capital opportunities available to someone whose parents were as wealthy as his.

              The details are different, but that’s not out of whack with the profile of a lot of other “reformers.”

              One other thing: another reason Rhee and her fellow travelers are funded is purely political. I’m convinced Michigan went right to work not because the Amway people care about it economically–their business isn’t touched by actual union issues–but because they want to defund Dems by wiping out labor. That way they can then more easily implement their social agenda.

              • Linnaeus

                I’m convinced Michigan went right to work not because the Amway people care about it economically–their business isn’t touched by actual union issues–but because they want to defund Dems by wiping out labor. That way they can then more easily implement their social agenda.

                I’ve thought this for quite a while myself, both with respect to Michigan specifically and the nation generally. I’ve been telling my acquaintances who are sympathetic to right-to-work that it’s not just about economics and never really was. Organized labor, even in its current weakened state, was and is the most significant check on the power of the upper class in this country and that of course cannot be abided.

                DeVos and his gang were planning right-to-work for years, waiting for the right circumstances to bring it about. They got a favorable legislature and a pliant governor in 2010, and the failure of Prop 2 in 2012. I really, really despise that guy.

                • RabbitIslandHermit

                  Michigan Democrats should really learn from this and try to force that piece of living shit DeVos to take his ball and go to Mississippi at the first opportunity. Say what you will about the Kochs, at least Koch Industries isn’t a pyramid scheme.

                  I realize this will never happen for a multitude of reasons.

              • Hogan

                I don’t doubt that Gates’s concern is sincere. But I suspect a lot of his ideas about what should be done are coming from people in and near his economic stratum, and he’s not going to hear a lot of “Union Yes” in those circles. He’s going to hear Rheeism and worse.

              • Phil Perspective

                I’m convinced Michigan went right to work not because the Amway people care about it economically–their business isn’t touched by actual union issues–but because they want to defund Dems by wiping out labor. That way they can then more easily implement their social agenda.

                Yet elected Democrats either never see it coming, don’t do to the GOP groups what Walker and places like Michigan do to them or else actively help the enemy(see Rahmbo). It’s a big weakness of the Democratic Party.

                • The weakness of the MI Dems in 2012 was the UAW got completely played by Snyder. The UAW told legislators to not block everything, which would have prevented passage of any bills on any subject. Then the GOP got through what they wanted and THEN they passed RTW.

                  That was Dems’ only move, to essentially do something similar to what the WI Dems did when they left the state. It was extreme, but there was enough support to do it. But the UAW told them to stand down.

                  That regime of the UAW was without a doubt the least politically savvy in the history of the organization.

    • Heron

      Yeah, it’s the same thing they’ve done with private colleges; they don’t give a damn about education, just creating factories for debt that they can then securitize, speculate crazy on, then fob on to the public when the market goes belly up(and damn, ain’t that going to be a fun time when all that securitized college debt falls through the floor despite its “undischargeability”. Can’t squeeze blood from a stone, no matter what legal-fiction you slap it with).

  • DrDick

    Cannot say that this surprises me at all. Rhee & company are pretty loathsome and anti-teacher on every front.

  • Camilla Highwater

    Dreadful woman. Can’t stand her, to be honest.

  • Weed Atman

    I was so pissed that the day I could finally get off work to go see a taping of The Daily Show, Rhee was the guest. And I had to sit through it if I wanted to go.

    To my great pleasure however, I saw a few people sitting next to me vigorously shaking their heads during the interview. Didn’t see that on TV, didya?

  • solidcitizen

    The lawsuit makes an interesting argument. Currently, teachers can “opt out” of the portion of dues that does not go to support the collective bargaining (and enforcement) mission of the union. While “politics” is the largest and most obvious portion of those dues, politics is not the only thing that agency fee (or “fair share” payers, as they are sometimes known) people are opting out of. Things like union meetings, the organizing of new unions, t-shirts, etc. are also what they are not paying for. So their argument, “We’re being barred from union participation because we won’t support the union’s political agenda” is not literally true. Moreover, the union’s political agenda is almost always the result of a democratic process, so these people are more objecting to paying for the union’s political efforts because they know that if they did join, they could never win support for their own political agenda.

    Their argument, however, is not a straight up “I shouldn’t have to pay for the union at all” argument. The logical outcome should they win their lawsuit seems to be that they would be able to opt out of some dues and still be considered full members for attending meetings and voting. Given the small numbers of objectors, I cannot imagine their full membership in the union would have much of a global impact. It might have a impact on the local level as the one or two wingnuts who actually will show up to meetings just to be a pain the ass will achieve their desired end, but this doesn’t strike me as the harbinger of right-to-work or then end of union-based political donations.

  • Heron

    I don’t know about the SC being friendly to this. The fundamental legal argument here is that a corporate entity using its corporate property(in this case, capital) to support political causes violates the members’ speech-rights if they don’t agree with those causes. Even allowing this case to be heard, rather than refusing it on standing grounds, would open up every corporation in the United States to being sued by its employees for similar reasons through their 401ks, employee-supported health-insurance, and their status as members of a corporate entity and thus parties to that speech. If StudentsFirst’s lawyers focus on the money-as-speech angle, then workers would be able to argument that their work creates money, which then becomes speech when those corps use it for political means, which via the transitive property makes the work speech as well, meaning they have standing to challenge how that money-speech is used because they “create” it.

    Allowing this case to go forward would open a huge can of worms for corporations, so I’d be surprised if the SC looks favorably on it.

    And oh yeah; it also challenges the idea that corporations are entities in-and-of themselves, rather than being conglomerations of entities. If a corporation is a gestalt rather than corporate entity, it can’t be an individual, it can’t be a citizen, and thus it can’t have civil rights protections.

    • I think you may be overlooking the fact that this would hurt unions, which for 5 members of the current SCOTUS is about all lawyers need.

      • Marek

        Right, plus the legal differences between unions (which may or may not be incorporated but are nevertheless subject to a unique set of laws) and corporations make it easy to reach a bad result that doesn’t affect corporations one whit, if one is so inclined.

  • Mike G

    “StudentsFirst” — as mendacious a name as “Citizens United”.
    I’m waiting for ExxonMobil to form “The Coalition of Puppies and Rainbows”

    • Marek

      They say America Students First,
      They mean America Students Next.

      -W. Guthrie (updated)

  • trollhattan

    She’s somebody to keep a close watch on, as her husband has much greater political ambitions than mayor of Sacramento and she’s the bonus prize for whatever higher office he may obtain. Since he’d run as a Democrat that could give her access she couldn’t literally buy, today.

    • At least he’s in California, where the competition to move up the political ladder is very steep, as Kamala Harris is showing.

      • sparks

        His only big “triumph” is a damn basketball arena, which to me is a pretty thin accomplishment. Also, Sacramento mayors haven’t gone very far as a group into state legislative/executive positions.

        He’d been better off as a city council member, as those folks end up as state assemblymen with some regularity.

      • Kamala Harris has done the state a great service by short-circuiting Gavin Newsom’s interest in Boxer’s senate seat.

        Bloody auto-correct kept changing her name to “Kampala”

        • Jackov

          Newsom wants to be governor not a senator. Harris running for and winning that seat is a net plus for Newsom.

  • Bruce Vail

    I wish I had saved the Cornell alumni magazine that had profiles of Rhee and Randi Weingarten on the cover (yes, they are both Cornell alumna).

    Articles were pretty bland, as I recall, but was a little surprised to learn that neither were education majors there.

    • Hogan
      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, that’s it. Thanks.

        • Hogan

          I was disappointed when I found that it was two separate interviews, but it would probably have been difficult to get the two of them in the same room just for an alumni mag.

  • Richard Gadsden

    Here in the UK, Unions have to have a separate fund for political campaigning, which members are entitled to opt-out of contributing to if they don’t want their money going to politics. The opt-out forms I’ve seen usually default to the money going to a charity of the member’s choice, though they can just keep the money themselves (the vast majority of union members don’t opt-out, and the handful that do nearly always give the money to charity rather than keeping it, because it looks really selfish to keep the money).

    One consequence has actually been much more effective political campaigns from unions – once there’s a fund specifically for the purpose, then they start examining how effectively the money in that fund is used rather than just donating to the local Labour candidates.

    Additionally, to use the money for donations, rather than for independent political campaigns, they have recently had to have two separate funds, one for party donations, the other for independent campaigns, and a lot more members opt out of the party donations fund (often directing the money into the independent campaigns fund) than opt out of the union’s own independent campaigns fund.

    The effective campaign for a living wage, which an increasing number of employers have signed up for, has been a real benefit to a lot of low-paid workers (including driving up the legal minimum wage), and was funded from union independent campaigns funds.

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