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“We’ve had a huge problem with teachers’ unions…”

We’ve had a huge problem with teachers’ unions… Charter schools are certainly one option to try to solve the union situation.

Who do you imagine saying that?

Michael Bloomberg? Joel Klein? Peter Murphy of the New York Charter School Association? James Merriman of the New York City Charter School Center? Michelle Rhee? Chris Christie? Scott Walker? The Wal-Mart Walton Family Foundation? The list could go on, but the truth is that none of the ‘usual suspects’ voiced these words.  They were spoken by a woman with a name you most likely have never heard before: Mayra Pineda.

Pineda works for the Honduras regime that took power with a 2009 military coup d’êtat against the democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya. She’s the former Honduran counsel general to the United States.

Honduran teacher unions led the resistance to the 2009 military coup d’êtat and have waged a valiant fight for the restoration of democracy in the Central American nation. They are indeed a “huge problem” for the current regime, which mentions nothing about the purpose of the wave of teacher union strikes since 2009 while bemoaning their impact upon schools.

Last fall, current Honduran strongman Porifirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo Sosa visited New Orleans to investigate solutions to his regime’s teacher union “problem.” The accompanying picture shows New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Tulane University President Scott Cowen and Lobo signing a memorandum of understanding on how they would work together on a number of issues, most prominently public education. The woman in the background appears to be Mayra Pineda.

“We have a lot of experience in rebuilding public school systems here in New Orleans,” said Tulane’s Cowen, speaking of the evisceration of the New Orleans public school system and the attempted elimination of the local union, United Teachers of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. “We’ll figure out what will work for them in terms of building their public education system… and serve as advisers for them.”

The New Orleans-Tulane-Honduran regime relationship is reminiscent of the role that Milton Friedman and his “Chicago boys” played in the economic policies of the Chilean regime after the 1973 bloody military coup d’êtat of General Augusto Pinochet. Friedman was an economic adviser to the far right Pinochet regime; several of his former students from the University of Chicago played major roles in that regime, setting economic and social policy, including educational policy. From their perches in the Pinochet regime, they used authoritarian military rule to impose an unprecedented system of far-reaching laissez-faire capitalism.

A 2008 article Cheers for Chile’s Chicago Boys in City Journal, the publication of the right-wing Manhattan Institute, offered fulminatory praise for the work of Friedman and his “Chicago Boys.” One particular passage is worthy of note:

The Chicago boys didn’t just reform Chile’s economy; they also tackled the country’s bloated state sector. “Our real breakthrough was in the social services,” says Lüders (Rolf Lüders, Minister of Finance and the Economy under Pinochet — LC). In most countries, governments directly provide social services such as schools, hospitals, and housing. The Chicago boys have tried to shift Chile away from this model, while ensuring that citizens aren’t left behind. The Chilean state no longer builds housing for the poor, for instance, but it still offers financial aid or mortgage guarantees to truly needy citizens who aspire to become private owners in the real-estate market. Along the same lines, a school voucher system that Friedman initially devised, allowing parents to choose any private or public school for their children, is in place, though it is imperfect. The vouchers cover only one-fifth of a private school tuition, so the poorest students remain stuck in the public schools. And the teachers’ union, opposed to parental choice, refuses to provide information on school achievement, leaving parents in the dark when trying to choose the best schools.

The Chicago boys’ proudest achievement is Chile’s privatized pension system. Its main architect was José Piñera (Minister of Labor and Pensions under Pinochet — LC), now a scholar at the Cato Institute. Before the Pinochet regime, Piñera recalls, only workers in government industries, public servants, and the military had pensions. Pinochet—like Otto von Bismarck before him—decided that all citizens should have pensions, and so in 1981 then–labor minister Piñera created a sophisticated system that gave Chileans the choice between a state or a private pension. The state deducts a compulsory 10 percent from each worker’s wages—or as much as 20 percent, if the worker requests it—which he can invest in either the public or the private system. Nearly everyone picks the private pensions, which are managed by six private investment companies, each offering a mix of safer and riskier investments; the Chilean state also regulates these companies and their investments. So far, on average, the private system has provided pensions that pay an equivalent of 70 percent of citizens’ previous annual salaries. Chile was a pioneer in pension privatization, and many countries have followed its lead in one form or another.

Suffice it to say that much of this description of economic success belongs in the realm of fiction. Let us limit ourselves to the question of the privatization of the pension system, as it is a favorite Republican and Tea Party policy proposal these days. Chile had instituted a ‘social security’ pension system in 1920s, and nearly three-quarters of the Chilean workforce participated in it prior to privatization.  As the New York Times reported, the privatized system instituted under Pinochet and Piñera was in severe crisis by the 2006 elections, when both major candidates for president, the socialist Michelle Bachelet and the billionaire conservative Sebastián Piñera, called for drastic reform. Too many Chileans were outside of the system, with only 50% of the population covered. Of those covered, 40% were not going to have sufficient savings to retire on. The cost of the pensions were prohibitively expensive, yet the six private pension funds had an average annual profitability of 50%, not all that surprising when one discovers that they were keeping between a quarter and a third of the workers’ contributions in various charges. “The bottom line is that this system does not work with this labor market,” Andras Uthoff, an economist with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, told the Times. If the current trends continued, “only a small percentage of people are going to be able to finance meaningful pensions. What happens then to the rest?”

For authoritarian regimes like Chile under Pinochet, unions will always be a problem, because they give ordinary working people a voice and collective power to determine their destiny. Teacher unions are particularly threatening, because its members are educated. The attacks of the undemocratic right wing Honduran regime on the right of Honduran teachers to have a union that defends democracy and provides them voice in their schools are no different than the repression against independent teachers’ unions exercised by the left wing authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba. Right or left, authoritarian regimes fear free unions.

When the likes of Tea Party governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker push through legislation designed to eliminate the right of Wisconsin public sector unions to organize and bargain collectively, they are making common cause with authoritarian regimes who fight free and independent unions because they are the most powerful forces for democratic rule in today’s world.

It is time for charter school educators to take back their movement from the right wing forces which have seized control of it, before the next authoritarian strongmen decides that charter schools are a path to the consolidation of his rule.