Chicago Teacher Activist Interviews Ed Hershey

Jim Vail, a long-time teacher activist in the Chicago Public Schools, interviewed Ed about his campaign for Alderman in Chicago's 25th Ward. The interview appeared at secondcityteachers.blogspot.com on January 3, 2015. We reprint the interview below.

Alderman Interview

Teacher Socialist Activist Ready to be Pilsen Alderman

By Jim Vail

Second City Teachers spoke with Lindblom High School teacher and activist and socialist Ed Hershey who is running to be the next alderman in the Pilsen neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. He has not yet been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU delegates will meet this week to discuss last-minute endorsements before the elections next month in February!

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where did you attend school? When did you start teaching?

I’m originally from Buffalo – so I have lived my whole life in the rust-belt.  Buffalo had a lot of old money at one point, later it was a big manufacturing center, but now it’s been largely abandoned by the ruling class.  I came here to study at the University of Chicago, where I got my Bachelors in Physics and a Masters in Physical Science. I met people at the University who opened my eyes to the bigger picture of what’s going on – I got active around workers issues and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and stayed active after getting my degrees. I started doing educational work as an undergrad – taught drama, tutored and worked as a teaching assistant for summer programs.  Later I taught science and French.  I did the First Class alternative certification program in 2005 and got my current job as a science teacher at Lindblom in February 2006. I’ve been around CORE since pretty early, but I wasn’t real active in the union until 2011. I was a building leader during the strike; I was elected associate delegate after the strike, in January 2013. 

Why did you decide to run for alderman?

What we have now is a system that funnels the wealth workers create to the corporations – I think workers need to take back that wealth and use it to solve our problems.

My decision came out of Karen’s decision to run for mayor.  I felt that Karen, as the leader of our strike, would be an exciting candidate for working people around the city – that she might encourage teachers, students, parents, and other working people in Chicago, to fight for what we need.  I decided to run for alderman because I thought my candidacy might help spread the idea that we need a working class fight against the corporations and the politicians like Rahm Emanuel and Danny Solis who serve them, for a working class policy that puts the needs of ordinary people before the needs of the big companies.  But this will take a big fight by the whole working class. The teachers’ strike two years ago was a fight, one which stood out because there have been very few recently.

What are the problems with the current alderman?

Danny Solis is a servant of the corporations, like the rest of the Democratic Party. He defended the Coal Plant in the neighborhood – until it almost cost him his last election.  He demolished La Casita at Whittier, because he didn’t like the parent activists there.  While petitioning, I heard over and over that he is not responsive to ordinary working people. As a powerful head of the city’s zoning commission, he gets donations from companies all over the city – not just those in the ward. And clearly, those donations shape his decision making.

What are the biggest problems facing the city today?

The underlying problem is that the wealthy corporations that dominate Chicago are trying to drain every dollar they can from the city’s working class. They do this in a hundred ways – paying low wages and having people work overtime or two jobs to make ends meet – which leads to higher unemployment. They do it by avoiding taxes and getting subsidies, like the deals the city gave to MillerCoors, Boeing, and United Airlines to move their headquarters, or the TIF money drained from the budget and given to developers. They do it by funding the city through all kinds of fees and tickets that fall more heavily on workers than the rich. And they do it by under-funding the schools and the services working people need.

Do you think the CTU should be supporting the Democrats in elections? Are there any worthwhile ones to support?

I think the working class needs its own organization, our own party, to represent our interests. I think the Democratic Party is the other party of capital – in Chicago and Cook County, it’s the only party. That’s almost the case in Illinois as well – with the recent exception of Bruce Rauner.  And even Rauner was elected largely because working people were disgusted with Quinn, and stayed home rather than casting a vote for him.  While there is a range of people within the Democratic Party, that Party exists for one purpose within this city – to manage the affairs of the ruling class. Toni Preckwinkle and Chuy Garcia are not arrogant and preening like Rahm. But still they carry out the same policy at the County that Rahm is carrying out in the city: budget cuts, austerity, attacks on workers and attacks on pensions.  Sometimes an alderman will take a stand with us --- but remember, the City Council voted 50-0 for Rahm’s longest day. The Democratic Party is an institution arrayed against working people – to my mind it taints anyone affiliated with it.  Because moving up, or even just operating within the Democratic Party means serving corporate interests – that is, interests that are fundamentally opposed to ours. Perhaps if we had an independent workers party, we could draw some of the better aldermen to us. But that doesn’t exist right now.

What difference can you make as an alderman?

As an individual, not much. One alderman in the City Council might be able to say a few things, raise a few issues.  I might be able to provide services better than Solis, but just as likely the machine will do what they can to sabotage services in the ward.  The aldermanic budget is nowhere near big enough to solve the economic and social problems of working people in the ward. But I would have access to a certain amount of information – like real details about the city budget – that could be useful to people who want to fight city hall.

The working class has the potential to make a real difference, if it starts to move in a big way and fight. An alderman might be in a good position to publicize or support such fights. But there’s little one, or even half a dozen, right-minded aldermen would be able to accomplish without a massive fight to back them up. 

Do you not think that these elections are rigged in a way, controlled by big money interests?

This is definitely their system. And working people to a large degree acknowledge that by not voting. The big money interests use every means at their disposal to rig the system in their favor. For example, a good number of the candidates the CTU members are running against were appointed. That’s a way to rig the system in favor of those already in power.  The elections are also dominated by money – money buys publicity, money pays for campaign staff, etc. As a working teacher, I do not have access to a lot of money, but I can say what others won’t.  The election can be used as a way to help organize the bigger fight that we need.   

Are there any instances where someone with radical politics focused on challenging our corrupt system has made a difference in running for office and getting elected?

Eugene Debs certainly made a difference with his campaigns for president. He was able to publicize the idea of a better society, and opposition to this country’s wars in a big way. For several decades, he was very well known for his ideas – his campaigns played a big role in that. Those campaigns were a success because they put out a different set of ideas.  Debs never won an election for president, but as far as many workers were concerned, he was their man. 

The reason to run is to be able to publicly assert that working people have power, if they choose to use it. And that working people should not pay for the crisis created by the big banks and the hedge funds.

What do you think of our union's political strategy?  The IPO?

I think the strategy of “pragmatically” supporting Democrats is, and has always been, a dead end for working people and their unions.  The union supported Quinn – a Democrat who spent most of his energy during his last term attacking public pension systems, a Democrat who turned a big middle finger squarely in our direction when he selected PAUL VALLAS as his running mate.  It was a fool’s errand to try to rally support for him – and it turned out to be a lost cause. 

Most teachers know little about the IPO. We need to fight for people to consider the union to be all of us – and that means engaging as many people as possible in decision making, including decisions about the union’s political strategy.  

I’d like to see things go in a different direction.  I think four delegate CORE members who have announced that we need to break from the Democratic Party is a good start. The union has the power, the prestige and the numbers to set up our own political organization. I hope this election helps that idea to catch on. 

Should delegates be paying extra to support getting candidates like you elected?

I think anyone who agrees with our platform and wants to see people like me do well in the election ought to contribute in any way they can. 

What are your predictions for the next teacher contract?

It’s too soon to say.  I think the contract fight and the contract will largely be shaped by the outcome of this municipal election.  If Emanuel gets re-elected, I would hope to celebrate his inauguration by holding a strike vote.  And Garcia or Fioretti getting elected will likely mean a fight – because their choice will be to take more money from corporations and the rich to fund education and services, or else to try to get teachers and city workers to accept cuts, because “there isn’t enough money.”  From everything we’ve seen “progressive” Democrats do over the last few decades, we can be pretty sure they’ll go the second route. Teachers need to be ready to defend ourselves, no matter who wins the election.

What is the union doing right? What is the union doing wrong?

I need to assume you mean the leadership, here.

I think the union leadership was right to take us out on strike – something that is distressingly rare in unions today.  Moreover they did it during a Democratic election campaign, and against Obama’s former right hand man.  It was big, it was public, and it backed Emanuel down – if only for a short time. 

The strike did a lot to change the conversation in the city and in media about us. It allowed us to build up alliances with parents and community organizations, and we’ve made it clear that we are interested in our students learning conditions as well as our salary and benefits.  The build up to the strike was done carefully and deliberately more than a year in advance. It was done in a way that engaged lots of members.  The problem was, once that vote was taken, the strike was not conducted in a way that teachers at the buildings, or even the delegates, had much say in how the strike was to be run.  And I think that led to feelings of frustration towards the end of the strike – it was a big part of why the Saturday rally was so much smaller than the downtown rallies for the first two days. 

I think the union’s position vis-à-vis the Democrats is counterproductive. And I think the union needs to engage the broader membership in decision making.  If teachers have a deeper stake in the union as an organization, we’ll be more powerful for it.

What needs to change?

There are a lot of things that need to change. But my opinions are secondary.  When working people begin to move in a big way, they will decide what needs to change.  I want to use the wealth of this city to make sure every child gets the kind of education that Rahm Emanuel got at New Trier, and that his children get at the Lab School. I want to see a city where everyone who wants a job has the right to one, at wages that will ensure a decent standard of living. I think that is possible – and it would go a long way towards solving the problems of crime and poverty.

But of course to get anywhere near that would take a huge fight of the working class in this city, and in this whole country, not just in one ward.

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