The CTU sends a message

May 29, 2012

Tony Rawker and Lee Sustar report on a huge Chicago Teachers Union rally and march as the fight with the city over a new contract heats up.

NEARLY 6,000 teachers, school clinicians, paraprofessionals and supporters held a spirited rally and march through the heart of downtown Chicago to voice their discontent with current contract negotiations.

The scene was frenetic as Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members started entering the Auditorium Theatre at 3:30 p.m. Parent supporters held up signs reading, "You can't put students first if you put teachers last," and cheered as teachers came in by the busload.

Virtually every CTU member wore red shirts with stickers promoting smaller classes, fairness, respect and educational justice. The atmosphere was electric, and in a very short time, the sidewalk outside the theater became impassable as red shirts descended on the area from every corner of the city. Around 4:15, union officials declared that the theater had reached capacity and directed everyone across the street, where a simultaneous outdoor rally was held.

Inside the theater, the buzz grew louder as CTU members filled every seat, all the way into the upper reaches of the balcony--amid strains of labor songs like Billy Bragg's version of "Power in the Union" and video images of past CTU struggles projected onto a large screen. When the loudspeakers blasted Aretha Franklin singing "Respect," a massive cheer went up, and CTU members jumped to their feet and danced in the aisles.

Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members showed their determination during a downtown march
Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members showed their determination during a downtown march (Ryan Nanni)

Next came a short video history of school reform. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel's face was projected on screen, the chorus of boos drowned out his words--and a clip of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run Chicago's schools, got the same response.

The boos gave way to cheers when the video switched to a moving photomontage of the nine CTU strikes in the 1970s and 1980s. An interview with retired teachers who'd walked those picket lines gave way to Pete Seeger singing "Solidarity Forever," and the crowd sang along. The video concluded with a focus on the CTU's current struggles as Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" brought union members to their feet again.

BY THE time CTU Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle took the stage, the crowd was even more charged up, interrupting her with standing ovations repeatedly--such as when she denounced a school board of "millionaires appointed by mayors who don't send their children to public schools."

Mayle gave a summary of union negotiations. CPS, she said, wants to "gut our existing contracts and remove protections, [and] lengthen the school day and year without providing the resources we need to actually improve the outcomes."

A series of speakers--ranging from Rev. Jesse Jackson to rank-and-file teachers who were displaced as the result of CPS's disregard for seniority--got a similar high-voltage response.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, while making a call for Emanuel to collaborate with the union, also took up the CTU's agenda outlined in its recent report, "The Schools Our Children Deserve."

The report focuses on the urgent need for better funding, an enriched curriculum with art and music, and wraparound social services. "If all those with silver spoons in their mouth can get the help, what about the children of this city?" Weingarten shouted.

When the final speaker, CTU President Karen Lewis, took the stage, she got a rock star's welcome. "We are determined to fight for public education," she said. "For the [children's] futures and our futures. We are gathered here to show the world that we are united, we are here to show the world that this is what unity looks like...This is a national fight. Teachers and paraprofessionals are fighting the failed status quo reforms."

Emanuel, she reminded the crowd, last year cancelled a 4 percent raise for teachers that had been previously negotiated. "And they call us thugs?" she asked. At one point, Lewis was interrupted by a man who yelled, "Strike!" With a big smile on her face, she said, "What?" as the crowd chanted, "Strike! Strike!"

Meanwhile, at the outdoor rally, a couple of elementary school teachers from the city's Southwest Side explained what brought them out.

"It is all about respect," Angelica said. "We don't mind working, but we won't do it for free. We deserve to be fairly compensated for the extra 90 minutes and longer school year we are required to work next school year." Her colleague Jessica added, "We're sick of the bullying and unfair blame placed on teachers. We want to be treated fairly."

That sentiment was clearly felt throughout the day's events. As the outdoor rally kicked off, speaker after speaker mentioned the extra time, money and hard work teachers put in on a daily basis only to have their so-called "failing" schools shut down or placed in a "turnaround" status, where all teachers are fired.

THE CHICAGO Public Schools (CPS) and CTU officials are far apart in contract negotiations. The major sticking points are compensation for teachers, class size, current staffing levels and equitable funding for resources in all schools. By law, teachers will be obligated to work a longer school day and year that will amount to over 20 percent more time in the classroom. CPS officials have countered by offering a 2 percent pay raise next year and a pay freeze the following year, to be followed by an undefined merit pay system based on student test scores.

To many, the proposal is an insult. "These people making decisions for the city's students need to walk in our shoes," declared Lulu, a middle school teacher in Chicago. "Many of them have never worked as a teacher, yet they are making all of the decisions."

Adding injury to insult, Emanuel and his unelected school board have threatened that class sizes will balloon to 55 students if the teachers don't give in to their demands.

Currently, a three-member panel is heading up the fact-finding process that is part of the new law governing CTU's negotiations with CPS. The fact-finders' report on negotiations is expected sometime in late June or early July. If the union decides to reject the proposal presented by the panel, they must wait 30 days before delivering a strike notice to CPS.

However, the CTU can go forward with a strike authorization vote before the end of the school year--and the union is well within its contractual right to take such a vote soon. A strike authorization would not necessarily send the teachers out on strike. Rather, it would show CTU members' discontent with current talks and set things in motion for a possible strike in the fall if CPS won't agree to a good contract.

The most recent data released by the union shows that CTU members will do whatever it takes to stand up for their profession and good schools, as school after school have held mock strike votes.

Furthermore, a recent Chicago Tribuneopinion poll found that Chicagoans overwhelming trust the union over Mayor Emanuel when it comes to educational decisions.

It's clear that many people will support the teachers if they're forced to go out on strike, and that was apparent as the teachers took to the streets. As the Tribune report noted, "The survey results could serve as a warning sign to the mayor not to engage in a full-throated contract battle with the Chicago Teachers Union, which has already begun polling its members and galvanizing its allies in preparation for a possible strike next fall."

The teachers' militant mood was captured by CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey as he gave the final speech at the outdoor rally. He urged his union brothers and sisters to join him on the top steps of the stage as he delivered his speech. The crowd soon broke into song with "Solidarity Forever" while standing in front of a huge banner affirming that teachers were "Standing Strong for the Schools Chicago Students Deserve."

A little later, the 4,500 teachers exited the Auditorium Theater and joined the 1,500 people at the outdoor rally as they flowed onto Michigan Avenue. Chants of "Hey, hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go" and "We need teachers, we need books, we need the money that Rahm took" echoed throughout downtown as the march headed towards CPS headquarters and the financial district.

Most teachers believe they must stand up to Mayor Emanuel now in order to save not only the schools, but the teaching profession as well. As Rachel, a high school teacher on the city's Northwest Side, said:

Thirty years ago, when the union last went out on strike, they sacrificed a lot to get us where we are today. We have to learn from our past and carry on that fighting tradition to make teaching in Chicago's schools a worthy career.

If the May 23 march and rally was any indication of things to come, Rahm Emanuel is in for a big fight.

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