Freeing teachers from their union shackles, courtesy of the Illinois Policy Institute

It's that time of year for some of our most beloved Chicago traditions--the first day of school finally arriving, high school football season, hints of autumn, and the use of CPS teachers' email and home addresses to fill their inboxes and mailboxes with electioneering and propaganda!

I hadn't even figured out how many CPS teachers were getting Rahm's campaign emails delivered to their CPS email addresses before he dropped out of the race. That's a pretty icky business, not to say of questionable legality--but joyfully, it's no longer relevant.

What interests me today is the onslaught of information from the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) that is coming to teachers' home mailboxes.

This non-profit--part of the nationwide State Policy Network and a member of ALEC--wants to share with teachers that they no longer need to feel compelled to stay in their unions. It's on a mission to educate. To liberate. To make it possible for all the people oppressed by their unions to finally stand up and say no more--400,000 public employees in Illinois alone.

Public employees can do this now because of the historic Janus case, in which the recently former public employee Mark Janus sued his union to get out of paying "fair share" fees, that is, non-member union payments in accord with previous law that stated union non-members benefit from union activity with regard to contract negotiations and collective bargaining. He won.

So fair share fees and union membership are out, and freedom is in. Thus the IPI (where Mr. Janus is now employed, coincidentally) wants to teach CPS teachers about their new freedom to not join the union or pay a single penny for its upkeep. They've been mailing informational postcards as well as fill-in-the-blank letters that teachers can send to their unions to explain that they are leaving. And just in case it isn't clear enough, teachers are directed to a website for yet more information--"leaveCTU.com."

It's all very well that the IPI wants to help teachers. But what I'm not sure teachers know is who bankrolls the IPI. Do you know who bankrolls the IPI?

Bruce Rauner has been one large contributor. Another is the Uihlein family of Wisconsin--billionaires who fund political campaigns and "think tanks" like this one, to the tune of hundreds of millions.

What do these folks want for their money? We all know what Bruce Rauner wants--he's clung to his beatific vision of busted unions and a pension-free paradise well beyond the limits of rationality.

The Uihleins are less well known. They have funded many midwestern candidates and causes including Scott Walker, the Club for Growth, and (awkwardly with regard to Rauner) Jeannie Ives' governor run. They toe the typical anti-union line found in an IPI fundraising letter--now is the time to take down the union Leftists who control everything and seek to divert all tax monies to themselves for outrageous, business-killing, and disgusting perks. The character of unions, to them, is something like a cross between a shadowy mafioso cabal, an oppressive Stalin, and bloated hogs at the public trough who can't ever be satisfied just stealing some of your money, they want to steal it all.

The Uihleins want to beat this menace back.

They, like Rauner, also want to decrease Democrat votes, lower wages to achieve greater business growth, and diminish worker voices, but who pays any attention to all that? What matters is liberating union workers and watching unions quietly disappear and die.

Because teacher unions are just like that shadowy, piggish, Stalinist cabal, aren't they. Old school conventional wisdom still dictates that teachers make too much money and their schools are already well-funded enough. Will they ever stop asking for textbooks published in this decade? Will they never stop whining about the rapid disappearance of school libraries? Will they never stop objecting to important reforms like untrained, unprofessional, and very inexpensive teaching staff filling up districts?

It's time for teachers to escape from this hellscape and the IPI is here for it. Like Harry's invitations to Hogwarts, postcards tumble into mailboxes inviting teachers to leave their unions. You can even go to the special CTU website for lots of other features and resources--but no worries, if you're not in CTU there's a website for you too.  The IPI campaign covers all the unions.

I actually know teachers who aren't thrilled with their unions. They don't necessarily feel well represented by their unions. They aren't necessarily into the political work of the unions. I get this. Typical party politics is creepy to me sometimes too. (Or, well, usually.) You shouldn't always have to have your union money going to elect folks you wouldn't vote for yourself.

But here's the thing.

These IPI people and the billionaires who back them don't really care about teachers having freedom. They don't really care about how teachers feel about union dollars going to political campaigns. They don't care about teachers having individual liberty.

They have other concerns. This campaign is national, decades in the making, and carried on with nearly religious fervor in practically apocalyptic language--for political and financial gains that will accrue to a limited group of millionaires and billionaires.

They say they want to help public employees retain their freedom, independence, and more of their own money. But there are many other concerns of teachers that these folks either don't care about at all or expressly oppose--things like civil rights and education equity, free and appropriate education for all, academic freedom, learning conditions, school funding, and defending against that retro menace the loyalty oath.

Teachers' unions have advanced these causes since the mid-1850s.

What would American public education look like without unions? What would it look like without unionized teachers?

I can't answer that. But I do know that David Magill, former director of the University of Chicago Lab Schools (where Rahm's children all attended) had some thoughts about that question. In a 2009 open letter to the then-new education secretary, he wrote that regardless of one's opinions of union activity historically, "I shudder to think of who would be attracted to teach in our public schools without unions." Lab School  itself has a majority of union teachers.

When anti-union think tanks, corporatists, and free marketers decide to advocate for paying teachers what they're worth, or show they care to fix racially-based resource inequity in urban school systems, or clamor to ensure good learning conditions, or deal with poverty's impact on learning--then I will find their message compelling. But right now, teachers' unions--inadequate, limited, and partisan as they may be--are the only ones who do. A postcard isn't going to change that.

Join the conversation on facebook at Chicago Public Fools and on twitter @foolforcps.

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