Building teacher-community solidarity

September 2, 2008

ON AUGUST 13, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a new reform caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union, kicked off its effort to develop solidarity with community organizations, at a forum entitled "A Panel to Discuss a Progressive, Grassroots Agenda for Education in Chicago."

The turnout was relatively small but racially diverse. Around 25 people showed up, of which seven were panelists and about 10 were CORE members. More important, however, was the political content of the meeting. Crucial groundwork was laid for forging the alliance between teachers and parents that will be key for building an effective labor movement in education.

Speakers represented organizations from communities throughout the city and spoke on a wide range of issues affecting the school system.

Wanda Hopkins of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) talked about her organization's efforts to "democratize" the school system through a petitioning campaign for an elected school board. Cecile Carroll of the West Side-based group Blocks Together and Jitu Brown from the Southeast Side-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization discussed their groups' efforts to fight school closings in these predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Alejandra Ibanez of the Pilsen Alliance spoke on the impact of gentrification in her largely Mexican community, as well as standardized testing for bilingual students. Laura Ramirez of Southwest Youth Collaborative spoke on overcrowding in her district and initiatives that students are taking to organize themselves. Rodney Estvan of Access Living, an advocacy group for disabled citizens, talked about insufficient funding for Special Education.

Finally, Karen Lewis, a veteran teacher representing CORE, put together a general picture of the state the school system and reform movement and made a call for the groups to work together.

The meeting was not just about information-sharing. CORE members and community activists alike came prepared to discuss the role the teachers' union could play in the fight for school reform. In fact, one speaker, a pastor from the south-central neighborhood of Englewood named Rev. Hood, focused his talk on the need to harness the power of the teachers' union to "shut down the city."

A FEW important debates were also raised in the discussion, including the question of whether parents would support a teachers' strike.

I spoke first, agreeing with Rev. Hood on the potential power of the union, but asked whether participants thought it was possible to win public support for a teacher strike. I mentioned that, as a first-year teacher, my union delegate had told me that teachers could not win a strike in the city of Chicago because "the parents would oppose it."

Wanda Hopkins of PURE said that she herself did not support the teacher strike as a strategy, since it would retard students' academic progress and, furthermore, run the risk of teacher dismissals. Instead, she proposed that parents throughout the city skip work and march on Central Office.

Significantly, however, no other community activist on the panel registered explicit opposition to the strike strategy. Some may have been thinking through this question for the first time, and those that responded gave at least theoretical support.

Alejandra Ibanez, for example, elaborated on the difficulties parents would face during a strike, but also said that teachers had the right to strike and that parent support could be won if parents were educated about unions. Karen Lewis supported this attitude and added that, to win, the teachers union would need to arrange outreach to communities well ahead of time. Jackson Potter of CORE took this argument to its practical conclusion by inviting the speakers' organizations to help build some upcoming CORE protests and events.

Later in the meeting, a Black veteran teacher from Evanston, who had more recently participated in strike action, shifted sentiment even further toward a strike-support position. He explained that parents must look at strikes in terms of the "long-term good of the students," since striking teachers advocate for higher quality education. Many participants nodded in agreement.

Another question raised from the floor was whether the various groups supported a student boycott on the first day of school called by Black state senator and South Side minister James Meeks. The purpose of the boycott would be to highlight unequal funding among school districts across the Illinois, and would include a protest of Chicago Public School students outside the wealthy suburban high school of New Trier.

Both Cecile Caroll and Wanda Hopkins gave strong opposition, citing the hypocrisy of Meeks who, as state representative, has not done enough to legislate against school closings in Chicago. The real targets, they asserted, should be the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Arne Duncan and Mayor Daley, and that what should be highlighted is inequality within CPS (between middle-class magnet schools and general schools in poor neighborhoods, for example).

Rodney Estvan added that CPS actually received much more funding than "downstate" districts, and that Meeks' action downplayed the misuse of funds inside Chicago. All panelists more or less leaned against Meeks' strategy.

The overall tenor of the meeting was one of mutual respect. There was also a clear enthusiasm for working together in the future. For example, after the meeting, I floated the idea to Jitu Brown and Rev. Hood to do a tour of Chicago neighborhoods this year, in which community groups would hold forums with teachers to begin the "education process" about unions and solidarity. They both said they loved the idea and that we should talk more.

Though CORE is still new and relatively small, this forum shows its potential to grow and influence Chicago politics in the years to come. We are proposing a strategy of class solidarity in a key workplace in the city--and gaining a hearing!
Cato Neele, Chicago

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