Tag Archives: teachers unions

Playing the Union Card: A Big Emmy Win for Netflix’s House of Cards

Some were disappointed when last week Netflix earned only a single “major” Emmy (for Best Director) for its first original series, House of Cards. But it took HBO five years to win its first Emmy, so Netflix’s win is a major accomplishment.

House of Cards is the first major attempt by a digital delivery service to create original programming. It is also an important notch on the career belt of a writer, Beau Willimon, who straddles the world of Greek tragedy and realpolitik. He has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia, but he was also one of the original Howard Dean faithful and worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley. Willimon wrote a successful play about Washington politics in 2008, Farragut North, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film version of the play, The Ides of March (2011).

House of Cards has relevance to those of us who are interested in working-class issues and who also enjoy high quality television for three reasons. The first is what the show has to tell us about Washington D.C. politics. Second, House of Cards is interested in modern day unions, and it portrays them with surprising sympathy. Third, the show engages with questions of contemporary education reform, which is newly in the spotlight this month with Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book on the subject, Reign of Error.

On the political front, as Michelle Dean argues in The Nation, House of Cards, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the centrifugal force of evil, plays into one of our “great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality.” Indeed, Underwood is amoral.  He believes that it is acceptable to murder when the creature in question (a dog or a person) is so pathetic that it doesn’t deserve to live. He manipulates a young reporter for sex, cheats on his wife (with her blessing, to an extent), engineers the downfall of a prospective Secretary of State (when Underwood himself is denied the position), leaks a draft of a bill to compromise its author, provokes the head of the teacher’s union to punch him so that he can accuse him of assaulting a Congress member, takes money from a large oil concern to help his wife’s charity, and the list goes on.

My only amendment to Dean’s argument is that House of Cards does hint that money lurks behind the individual amoral choices of an evil genius like Underwood. Corporations have candidates of both parties in a financial chokehold—or, as Frank Underwood puts it, with his trite homespinnery: ‘[W]hen the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” Everyone is corrupted by money and power, but Underwood is better than most at perpetuating his schemes—in figuring out who is weak, who is narcissistic, and who is stupid.

House of Cards is also surprisingly sympathetic to modern day unions. Early in the season we meet the rugged and sincere members of the Philadelphia shipbuilders union, who are proud that they sent one of their own—Congressman Peter Russo—to Washington. But Russo, snared in Underwood’s web, sells out his union brethren when he is ordered not to protest the closing of the shipyard that employs his friends and family. We are completely on their side when they beat the crap out of Russo when he comes to town seeking their continued support. We see how hard it is for working-class people to win via the ballot box—given the way that capital moves in the nation’s capitol.

House of Cards is even reasonably sympathetic to teachers’ unions, at a time (in real life) when teachers are under attack. The teachers come into the plot when Underwood is assigned the job of passing education legislation for the president, and the key elements of Underwood’s bill—performance standards, charter schools, and collective bargaining restrictions—send a (fictional) national teacher’s union out on strike.

In an unusual display of union solidarity, the teachers’ union convinces a group of unionized hotel workers to boycott Underwood’s wife’s charity banquet, and the Teamsters come out to protest Underwood in person. While Underwood is able to cool their ire with some plates of delicious barbeque, the appearance of a tri-union alliance, portrayed positively, in my “most popular now” queue on Netflix is not an everyday thing.

House of Cards gets much of the education reform story right. In Washington and across the country, education reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates speak from the same playbook—one that insists that the public schools are failing, especially in cities and poor communities, and that blames the failure on the schools themselves instead of on poverty, gun violence, and epic incarceration rates of black, brown and poor men.

While in House of Cards the only force fighting back against the bad education bill is the teachers’ union, in real life, a growing movement of parents, students and teachers are protesting the kinds of reforms that Frank Underwood is pushing his fictional DC. As Diane Ravitch explains in her new book, American schools are mostly succeeding, and, where they are not, poverty and segregation are the real causes.

If there are any idealistic heroes in House of Cards they are not activists but journalists. At the end of season 1 we see that Frank Underwood’s sexual conquest, the journalist-turned-blogger Zoey Barnes, might be the only outsider who has figured out Underwood’s nefarious long con that ends in the death of a fellow Congressman and the redemption (of sorts) of a high-end prostitute. House of Cards, despite its overwhelming cynicism, has a kernel of idealism. This is the idealism, perhaps, that drives most of us with a passion for writing, reading, and activism. And as long as we believe that we can make a difference—we just might be right.

Kathy M. Newman

Vandals in a Steel City School District

If you weren’t sure, let me remind you, Pittsburgh is a 21st century city that still has a rusty, bricked out, working-class soul. I know this because I live here, but also because I finally saw the agit-prop-weepy that is Won’t Back Down, a film about a charter school take-over of a failing school in Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District using a special kind of law that we don’t have here in Pennsylvania (yet—and hopefully we never will) called the “parent trigger” law.

In Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class single mom of a 3rd grade girl with dyslexia. Jamie works two jobs—at a car dealership by day and at a bar by night. Jamie is earnest, irrepressible, and hot. You see a lot of Jamie’s flat midriff and perky cleavage, even when she is delivering lines that could have been written by Sarah Palin: “You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They are nothing compared to me.”

The truck that is crushing Jamie’s daughter Malia is a bad teacher at a school that has been failing for 19 years, Adams Elementary. The bad teacher is a stout middle-aged white lady who shops for shoes online and fiddles with her iPhone while Malia is getting roughed up and ridiculed in the classroom. The bad teacher is, of course, a union stalwart and has been “tenurized.”

When Jamie realizes how bad it is at Adams she tries (and fails) to secure one of three slots at the awesome new Rosa Parks charter school. Then she tries (and fails) to negotiate installment payments with a local Catholic school. Then she tries (and fails) to get Malia into a different classroom at Adams, one taught by Viola Davis’s character, Nona Alberts, the self-described “first black Stepford wife” who is going through a wrenching divorce. Nona is almost as checked out as the bad white teacher, but Jamie sees a spark in Nona’s dead eyes and begs her to help her take over the school using the parent trigger law (referred to as a “fail safe” law in the film).

In real life no group of parents has (yet) successfully used this law, but that doesn’t stop Jamie and Nona.  The next thing we know, they are knocking on doors and getting parents to sign petitions.  They get teachers to sign as well, which is tricky, because if the parent trigger law goes into effect, the teachers will forfeit their union membership at the resulting charter school. Jamie’s new boyfriend, who teaches music at her daughter’s school, argues in favor of his union, explaining that teachers need to be protected against low wages and preferential treatment. In another scene, one of the union officials (played by Ned Eisenberg) points out that teachers’ unions are under attack, and that parent trigger laws are aimed straight at organizations like the AFT. He is right, but unfortunately, Won’t Back Down is part of that attack.

The movie shows that pulling the parent trigger is pretty hard. Jamie and Nona have to get 51% of the parents Adams elementary (400+) to sign waiver forms. This takes hours of door knocking in the graffiti slathered tenements of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It also takes a widely publicized and well-attended rally, which, as one blogger has pointed out, probably cost more than $3,000 to mount. They have to persuade a reluctant school board to hear the case, and, then, they have to get the school board to vote for their scheme.

After the school board vote (SPOILER ALERT) the film has an impossibly happy ending, in which Malia can miraculously read, and the new charter school (though no one ever utters that word) is filled with rainbows, streamers, butterflies, and song.

Won’t Back Down is not your garden variety Hollywood feel-good edu-flick. It was produced by 20th Century Fox in conjunction with Walden Media, which also produced the controversial union-bashing Waiting for Superman and is bankrolled by gajilloinaire Phillip Anschutz. In addition to funding challenges to climate change and evolution science, over the last 10 years Anschutz has donated at least $210,000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, dedicated to the eradication of unions. The fact that Won’t Back Down had the least profitable opening ever for a film that opened in 2,500 theaters is, at least, some comfort.

Won’t Back Down is relevant to us those of us in Working-Class Studies because its producers are part of a movement to privatize, corporatize, and monetize public education. I have been watching this movement storm into Pennsylvania over the last few years under the cover of governor Tom Corbett, whose campaign was bankrolled by an entourage of for-profit charter school financiers, and PA’s Republican/ALEC controlled state legislature.

Won’t Back Down doesn’t ask the question that many of us have been raising:  do charter schools improve education? Here in Pennsylvania, Corbett’s administration has been giving charter schools a pass, making it easier for them to meet federal standards, even though a recent Stanford CREDO survey found that “[c]harter schools…in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools…”

So why do charters appeal to poor and working-class parents—especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? As one Philadelphia blogger argues, charters use false advertising to trumpet the benefits of charters schools for inner city children; they “discriminate by playing by their own rules,” such as “counseling out” children with learning difficulties or behavioral problems; and charter school drain money, great students, and highly involved parents from the public schools.

In recent years public schools, public school teachers, and teacher unions have been under constant assault. The rhetoric of failure is rampant, though some argue that it is No Child Left Behind that has failed, and not the schools or the teachers themselves. In a recent poll, for example, three quarters of Americans report being satisfied with their own child’s school, but rate public education in general below 50%.

Are schools failing our children? Or are we failing our schools? In the last two years Corbett has cut more than a billion dollars from the Pennsylvania education budget, forcing hundreds of high performing schools to cut or end art, music, band, and, in the case of my own children’s school, science. Thousands of us in PA have been fighting back. One especially active parent, Susan Spicka, is running for the state legislature, while others have been rallying, pressuring our reps, calling out the governor, and fundraising like crazy in our own schools.

Through these actions, I have been reminded that we already have a kind of parent trigger law. It’s called democracy. Organizing on behalf of public education is as hard as trying to get 400+ parents to sign a parent trigger waiver—and most days, even harder. If you want to see what it looks like in Pittsburgh, check out Yinzercation, an education blog that puts the Pittsburgh fight in the context of the larger state and national issues. Our fight is about protecting public schools and strengthening communities. As Garrison Keiler has argued, “when you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

Won’t Back Down is a rallying cry for the foes of public education—the vandals—and they had better be warned that our public schools are not for sale. I am going to keep fighting for public schools because it is the right thing to do: for my children—and for all of the children for whom public education is still a vital civil right.

Kathy M. Newman