On the picket line

February 15, 2008

Chicago Public Schools

CHICAGO--Parents, teachers and community activists here surged into action after the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced attacks on 19 schools in late January.

For the majority of targeted schools, the board is claiming that declining student-aged populations have led to schools being "underutilized." Not surprisingly, the "underutilized schools" are predominantly in poor neighborhoods on the near South and West Sides.

Some schools are being closed down because high-rise housing projects nearby have been torn down, and the student population they served has moved elsewhere. But other schools targeted for "transition," such as Irving Park Middle School, have been able to thrive using the extra space and smaller classes that come with being undercrowded.

Now CPS wants to move Irving Park into a building already occupied by Marshall School. Teachers from Irving Park say their building has now been promised to a charter school.

Parent groups such as Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) have argued that creation of smaller schools has been the exact goal of Chicago's Renaissance 2010 reform program. But apparently small is only better when the schools are part of the board's non-union charter or "performance" school initiative.

In addition, CPS has tried to resurrect the nasty tactic of "reconstituting" schools--this time dubbing the practice "turnaround"--in which teachers at two high schools, Harper and Orr, will be fired and forced to reapply for their jobs. "You can't do something this dramatically different with the same people," CPS CEO Arne Duncan told the Chicago Tribune.

In response, parents and other members of the local school council (LSC) at Orr have filed a lawsuit to block the closing, claiming that the board's move will circumvent the legal authority of the LSC.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has struggled to find an appropriate response to the crisis. Officially, the union has filed a grievance and is planning a rally at Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH. But the union has not produced any kind of strategy to stop the board-driven "reforms," which have caused a fall in union membership from 36,000 to 31,000 since 2000.

Instead, a nasty split is playing out in the CTU bureaucracy between members of the dominant United Progressive Caucus (UPC). President Marilyn Stewart stripped Vice President Ted Dallas of most of his union responsibilities, and in response Dallas used off-duty cops to keep Stewart out of the UPC caucus meeting.

The split in the UPC, which normally controls House of Delegates meetings tightly, may well open up space to criticize the leadership's response to the school closings, but it is likely that activists in the CTU will need to rebuild the credibility of the union, especially among new teachers, before the CTU again becomes an effective force for taking on the board.

Solidarity with the Freightliner Five

WORKERS WRONGFULLY terminated from a North Carolina truck plant will resume their solidarity tour with a trip to the West Coast February 23-29.

Known as the Freightliner Five, the workers--Robert Whiteside, Allen Bradley, Franklin Torrence, Glenna Swinford and David Crisco--are members of the negotiating committee of United Auto Workers Local 3520 in Cleveland, N.C. They were fired by Freightliner in April 2007 after leading a walkout when management broke off negotiations without extending the union contract.

Since then, the workers have been appealing for support to keep up the fight as an arbitrator prepares to hear their case. A tour of the Midwest included a visit to a union activist meeting in Flint, Mich., as well as meetings with labor activists and union officials in Detroit, Chicago and Champaign, Ill.

Next, Franklin Torrence and Allen Bradley will travel to San Francisco for meetings February 23-25. The two will speak in Los Angeles on February 26, Seattle on February 27, and Portland, Ore.--Freightliner's corporate headquarters--on February 28 and 29. Plans are also underway for a meeting in New York City and a return to the Midwest.

For details on the tour, the background to the struggle and to make a solidarity donation, visit www.justive4five.com.