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Relying on Wall Street Front Groups, NYT Manufactures Conflict Between "Parents" and Teachers' Unions.
In a popular media trend of late, the needs of “parents” are pitted against those of teachers' unions. But which “parents” are we really discussing here?
In the past few weeks, a media framing has emerged around the Covid schools opening debate pitting teachers’ unions against parents. It’s not a new frame, of course: It was casually thrown around—with little basis—during the Virginia gubernatorial race last November. But one recent, particularly egregious example in the New York Times from Saturday is worth examining as a case study in how right-wing ideological work is subtly infused into seemingly straight reporting.
In “As More Teachers’ Unions Push for Remote Schooling, Parents Worry. So Do Democrats,” the framing is set right in the headline: There are two parties—teachers’ unions and “parents”—presented in conflict with one another. The subhead would further codify this false dichotomy: “Chicago teachers have voted to go remote. Other unions are agitating for change. For Democrats, who promised to keep schools open, the tensions are a distinctly unwelcome development.”
So, from the start, the “unwelcomed development” is not the actual lack of safety and health measures that prompted members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to vote to teach remotely during the Omicron wave in light of the city’s dismal Covid mitigations, a vote Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded to by locking teachers out of online education platforms. Rather, we are told that the problem is the vote to work remotely, which is bad for Democrats’ midterm prospects. From line one we are given the impression that all was basically well until a bunch of malcontent radical union members decided to take on “parents.”
But what is the empirical basis of this? What is the proof that “parents” “worry” about the vote to work remotely, versus, say, supporting it? There isn’t any at all in the article. The headline is not backed up by any evidence or polling. There are, of course, some parents who “worry” or dislike teachers' actions, but the headline and framing didn’t specify “some” or, more honestly, identify which “parents.” The headline, and subsequent implication of the text, just says “parents.” Without telling us which parents, or what their racial or class make up is, this obscures far more than it elucidates.
So who is brought in to channel this supposed “parent” discontent? The major source cited in the article claiming these “disruptions” are bad for Democrats is Brian Stryker, whose bio in the article reads, “a partner at the polling firm ALG Research” whose “firm polled for President Biden’s 2020 campaign.” Left unmentioned is that Stryker works closely with Third Way, a Wall Street-funded ideologically conservative organization whose primary role in media is to show up and bash the Left using the thin process concerns of Democratic electoral prospects. The organization’s major donors (at least the ones we know about) include PepsiCo, Dow, Facebook, the Gates Foundation, and, at one point, the Koch Brothers. What does the Times expect its pollsters to say—that the union should hold the line and fight for workers rights?
Of course, Third Way is going to concern troll the “far left”—that’s literally what the organization is set up to do. The Times piece even links to Stryker’s razor thin Third Way white paper from November, writing that his “work” in “Virginia indicated that school closures hurt Democrats.” But the “work” consists of a “qualitative” focus group of 18 Biden voters from 2020. Eighteen. A focus group. Eighteen. The fine print from the study even explicitly tells us, “Because this is qualitative research, it cannot be projected on to the Virginia electorate as a whole.” But the Times thinks it can be projected onto the country as a whole? Four months later? This is clearly an ideological talking point in urgent need of evidence.
The other Times evidence showing school closings will “hurt” the Democrats is a poll funded by Democrats for Education Reform, another pro-charter front group started by Hedge Fund managers.
Clearly the Times has sought out objective, dispassionate voices Very, Sincerely, Deeply Concerned with the Democrats’ electoral prospects for 2022, and not just given an uncritical platform to ready-made Wall Street-funded centrist outfits wanting to pile on the teachers’ unions their funders have long opposed for entirely unrelated reasons.
Also left unmentioned is that Chicago teachers only took the step of saying they’d work remotely after Mayor Lightfoot rejected their proposals for mitigating the pandemic, which included the provision of KN95 face masks (or masks of similar quality) and implementing a rigorous plan for testing Chicago Public Schools students and staff (after the district’s separate plan failed dismally). Yet the article characterizes the union as beyond the pale, stating that “over the last decade, some locals, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, were taken over by activist leaders whose tactics can be more aggressive than those of national leaders like Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Becky Pringle of the National Education Association, both close allies of President Biden.”
This framing is eyebrow raising because the CTU is known for its close bonds with the community. Along with United Teachers of Los Angeles, CTU advanced the notion that workers can take work actions not just for themselves, but also for the broader community—namely, their students—an approach sometimes referred to as striking for the common good, or social justice unionism. The leadership of Chicago’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, the “aggressive” activist leaders the New York Times cites, led strikes in 2012 and 2019 that fought for justice and improved learning conditions for their students, from more school nurses to better counseling services. The 2019 strikers initially listed improved affordable housing as a key demand, in a district where about 17,000 students were experiencing houselessness.
This does not mean that every action taken by the CTU has uniform support from parents—in a district this big, such a feat would be impossible. But this “parents vs. the union” framing is targeting a union that is known for building relationships with the surrounding community in ways that have set a national model for how unionism can transcend the workplace. And even now, locked out CTU members are canvassing neighborhoods “so CPS families can hear from CTU members directly about what they’re fighting for,” according to a press release from the union. The New York Times piece even acknowledges that some parents do support CTU’s demands for greater safety measures: “In Chicago and San Francisco, working-class parents of color disproportionately send their children to the public schools, and they have often supported strict safety measures during the pandemic, including periods of remote learning.” Yet, this information is a throwaway line near the end of the piece, even though it challenges the article's entire framing.
This claim, that unions somehow are antithetical to the interests of the broader community—namely, “the parents”—comes during a pandemic that has seen a tremendous escalation in the exploitation of front-line workers, and a historic wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. So our media pits two false categories against each other: making it a conflict not between the worker and those tasked with protecting the public, or between the poor and the rich whose wealth has soared during the pandemic while schools remain run-down and unsafe despite billions set aside to make them Covid-ready, but between two groups of people whose interests mostly overlap at the bottom rung of the ladder. The vaccines, of course, have radically improved the health equation, and Omicron being less “deadly” is a slight improvement, but in key ways Covid remains an acute public health risk for those on the front lines. As such, the demands of teachers’ unions are reasonable, actionable, and backed up by science. And the Times, in its shallow hit piece, presented zero evidence “parents” oppose them, instead relying on lazy vox pop, some corporate-funded union busters, and a series of ideological premises about “parents” opposing teachers that are very much not based in reality.