Northwestern University law professor John O. McGinnis joins Brian Anderson to discuss the Chicago Teachers Union’s push for remote learning, the political geography of the Windy City, and whether Chicagoans can hope for better governance.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today Is someone we've had on before, John McGinnis. He's the George C. Dix professor in constitutional law at Northwestern University and he's the author of Accelerating Democracy. He's also a contributing editor of City Journal, and he's got a brand new piece called "Flexing Their Muscle," which discusses the Chicago Teachers Union's recent school shutdown, which is what we'll talk about today. So, John, thanks very much for joining us.

John McGinnis: Glad to be here.

Brian Anderson: So yes, the Chicago Teachers Union is as you note an incredibly powerful force in the windy city. You describe it as having an iron grip on the city's politics. People may remember, four schools closed a couple of years ago during a very contentious two week strike and the city schools were all remote in the 2020-2021 pandemic school year.

So now the union has secured another temporary shutdown of in-person schooling. So, there's ongoing discussions to restore in-person education. Maybe you can give us an update on some of that, but the damage is being done again. So, what exactly is the background of this recent shutdown? Is it specifically about Omicron or is it perhaps a political show of muscle?

John McGinnis: Well, I think it's both. Certainly the Omicron virus is the incident that has sparked this latest showdown between the mayor and the unions, but there's long standing bad blood between them. And it's also clearly an incident in which the teacher's union is really objecting because the mayor is not cleared and the person running the schools has not cleared the protocols with the union beforehand. And while the union, at least currently, in its current contract, doesn't have rights to prevent that it's, I think objecting to its lack of ability to be really, to sign off on what has happened.

Currently, the schools seem to be about to go back in person if the union votes. There's going to be another union vote taken today I think on the proposals about to have some more testing done of students to allow in-person teaching. But one has to understand, of course, this is done against the background of the teachers all being themselves vaccinated and of course, all sorts of individuals and you might think less essential occupations like grocery stores and things of that sort, they're also going to work in Chicago and enduring a certain degree of risk, a risk that is clearly lower with respect to Omicron, much lower than previous variations of the virus.

Brian Anderson: So, how did the union become so powerful in Chicago? You would have to say it's probably the most powerful teachers union in the country.

John McGinnis: Yeah. So I think it comes to the structure of Chicago's politics. Chicago's always been a very strong union town, but also, I don't think there are many political parties that are so dependent on union support as the Democratic Party in Illinois. Because one thinks of course, in Illinois, as Chicago an industrial state, but it also is a large-forming state and downstate Illinois is quite Republican.

And therefore I think the Democratic Party has really relied to a huge degree on unions. And it's really describes actually, in some sense, the plight of Illinois because of its reliance, particularly on public sector unions, which has replaced largely the industrial union, that's the source of the pension crisis, because what unions do. Public sector unions do is they take a lot of their exactions in some sense off the book. So the current generation of politicians doesn't pay for them, but the next tax generation of tax payers will pay for them and that bill is really coming due.

So they're really part of the structure of Illinois politics and I think it's very well demonstrated. I think the most important thing to understand about the teachers union is that despite the two week strike that you talked about and despite their incredibly uncooperative stance last year, stance that was really the mayor of Chicago is very unhappy with, the governor of Illinois, has given them more power in the last two years, has given them more things that they want. Two in particular are going to make the union even more powerful going forward.

And I'd be happy to describe that because that's really not an indictment of the mayor, but an indictment of the governor. And I think that shows the importance of unions precisely because the governor has to run statewide and actually may face some Republican competition and really wants to shore up his support with his core constituencies.

Brian Anderson: So, what are those two additions to union power?

John McGinnis: Well, the first is the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago union was limited in its subjects of bargaining to essentially pay and other benefits and things that are related to the kinds of things industrial unions are really focused on, but the new law, which the mayor did not support, but the governor did allows them really to bargain on almost anything and all sorts of questions of how the schools are going to be run.

And that's quite important to the union with the union as a, and I'll talk maybe later about the ideological objectives of the union, but the unions really want to transform schools into less focused on simply education, but on essential being social work in psychological institutions for students, which are in some, I think, tension with a kind of laser-like focus on education.

And so that is certainly going to be an element of bargaining I think having more psychologists, more nurses, having a different kind of delivery of services. And that of course goes to the essence of who's going to control the schools, not only the pay of the schools, not only the budget of the schools, but the very services that schools give. And so that's something that's dramatically, it should be of, I think, dramatic concern to anyone about the long-term future of public education in Chicago.

The other benefit they gave to the unions is that at the moment, the school is essentially under the control of the mayor. The mayor hires and fires the head of the public schools. So it's not directly. She doesn't do the day-to-day running of it, but ultimately she's accountable for it.

What the governor signed and supported was to actually have a school board that will be in control and that is also a great benefit to the union because of course, in electing a mayor, there are a lot of people are concerned about who the mayor is, a lot of interest groups, but the union, which is an enormously powerful interest group, is going to be totally focused on who the people on the school board are going to be.

And there's a lot of social science that shows that school boards are more accountable or more influenced by unions than mayoral control. There was a debate about that in New York. Of course, I'm sure we're very familiar with it there as well. And so we were really moving, I think, backwards against all the weight of science, but those are two things that governor Pritzker has done and shows the, as I put it, the iron grip of unions because its ordinary that at a time when I do not think the Chicago union is extremely popular with people, at least who are sending children to Chicago public schools, the governor of this state has given them enormously more power simply to benefit I think his coalition and the prospects of his reelection.

Brian Anderson: Wow. Yeah. Well, given what we know about the effects of remote learning on students, particularly inner city kids, some of whom need a lot of structure and guidance because of their family background, this just would suggest that the union doesn't really care much at all about the fate of students, right?

John McGinnis: Well, so he doesn't either care about it or it has such a mistake in ideological view. I think it's important to understand that the head of the union is a radical socialist. I mean, Chicago's a Democratic city, but I don't think most people share his, I mean, until it was dissolved, he was a member of a Trotskyite I think it's fair to say, organization.

They don't share those views, but he has, I think a very classist determinate view of the way the world works. So it's hard I think to distinguish what his interests... He may actually think this is in the interest of students. The one problem though is he has some very, very far left views and that's true in general of leadership of the unions. I certainly think objectively, this is not going to be in the interest of students because it's just not the case that it's not only the virtual learning, their position on virtual learning was clearly hurt poor students.

They've all sorts of positions on the way schools should be run that are just dreadful. They're really very opposed to standardized tests. They don't like charter schools. Just go down the list of any, I think sensible reform structure for public education and they're against it. And so that's another problem. It's not only that they are an interest group that has just a lot of muscle to get benefits for their members, which is of course a problem with public sector unions is they have a far left ideology that actually is not representative of even a blue city like Chicago.

And that really sits a thwart efforts to improve education, which I think are widely-shared goals. And again, an example of that is the Lori Lightfoot, the hardly a card carrying Republican, hardly a conservative is just really completely unhappy with the union because I think she generally wants to and has some sensible ideas, not non-sensible ideas about improving student learning and with the teachers union, that's going to be an obstacle at every step of the way.

Brian Anderson: So I wonder, is there any cause for optimism here? You've just mentioned Lori Lightfoot, at least in this case complaining about the union, but as you also note in your article, Chicago's not likely to undergo any kind of sweeping political change in the near future.

And of course there is as you've also pointed out a state dimension to this situation, but it's also the case that across the country, we're seeing unions wield remote schooling as a weapon now to, or the threat of remote schooling as a weapon to get what they want. So, what is the best way in your view for urban leaders, mayors to get their teachers unions under control?

John McGinnis: Well, I think we really are going to have to wait for a unified Republican government in Washington, because of course, then they can put at least some conditions on funding the states at least that may interfere with union control. I just wish I could be more optimistic. I'm a tenured professor in Chicago. I'm not likely to leave. I have an interest in a civic-minded population, which is connected to raising levels of human capital through the school.

So I'd like to be able to be, say something optimistic, but I'm not particularly because of the, as you point out, the state. I think the mayors of Chicago are going to be always in tension with the unions. [inaudible 00:14:52] seems to be they have got no support in this case from the governor at all, who has done just dreadful things with respect to the school, dreadful structural things of the two I mentioned, which are going to have a predictable consequence of weakening student learning and increases in human capital.

I mean, as in many instances, it is the governor who is the real, I'm sorry to say, the real villain. Maybe at some point we can talk about crime as well. There also, he's not a constructive force and I think it's because of the political structure.

So I think change is likely to have to come from outside because I think most people aren't going to, at least people who have children in public schools, the way they're going to deal with this is not going to think that they can change this union. They're going to leave Chicago.

And one interesting fact about Chicago is it's losing a lot of its black population. I'm sure one of the reasons is dissatisfaction with the city schools. At least you move to suburban schools, even unionized, suburban jurisdictions, those jurisdictions at least compete with one another, because the value of one's house is quite wrapped up in the quality of the schooling.

And that has an effect and so often around Chicago, the schools, I'm not saying they're perfect by any means, they're substantially better than the schools in Chicago because of that competition and people I think will just exit and will have a situation in which you see in a lot of urban areas in which we'll have a kind of wealthy group who don't send their children. I have a young daughter, I don't send my child to a public school. I wouldn't do it. And other people who are exiting the city.

So I wish I could be more optimistic, but I see the best hope as some change coming from the outside, coming from the federal government, putting some kind of restrictions on the funding that states can get if they are as beholden to unions as is true in Illinois,

Brian Anderson: You mentioned, John, the crime situation in Chicago. And although we weren't intending on talking about that today, maybe you could say a little bit about what's going on there.

John McGinnis: Good. Well, I'm probably going to write my next short City Journal article about crime. I've actually drafting it, but let me give you just a short version of this, which is that crime is Chicago is way, is up. It's even up this year over last year, where it was enormous increase. The homicides are, I think are at a 25 year high. Carjackings have gone through the roof.

And so like anything, social phenomena, I'm sure it has many causes, but one of the biggest causes is the actions of our politicians. And we have three who I think are in some way responsible for it. Back to the governor, the mayor, but probably the most responsible is our state's attorney, a woman named Foxx who became a briefly a national celebrity because of the Jussie Smollett case, where she gave him a sweetheart deal and there's been an investigation, which showed she was not truthful in that investigation.

But what she's done is kind of broken windows in reverse. She's not prosecuting people for, or in any serious way for any felony prosecution, unless you steal, I think more than $900. And it's really emboldened. I think criminals have been all sorts of break ins on The Magnificent Mile and that's a danger not only to people's lives, of course, but to really the life blood of the city, where Chicago is in some sense, the capital of the Midwest and The Magnificent Mile is the premier shopping district in the Midwest. And yet there are so many stores now that are empty. And I think it's going hard to get them to come back in a world where we have crime and particularly crime that is focused on cleaning out retail establishments.

So there again, I'm sorry to say, it's a very grim story and a story in which the governor who's signed a bill to make it harder to hold criminals that will come into effect soon is also an actor who's substantially not blameless.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. Well, we have a situation here in New York that is similar with the arrival of a new Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who has a similar philosophy in terms of prosecuting crimes. So we could be looking at some very serious crime problems. We're already, of course having a pretty significant increase as well, although not as bad as Chicago over the last couple of years.

Anyway, John, thanks so much as always for coming on and updating us on the Chicago scene and we look forward to that next piece. Don't forget to check out John McGinnis' work on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as usual, if you like what you've heard on this podcast, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. So, John, thanks again for coming on.

John McGinnis: Delighted to be here.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

More from 10 Blocks