How can the Chicago Teachers Union win?

June 26, 2012

Lee Sustar looks at the prospects for a possible Chicago Teachers Union strike.

BIG STRIKE authorization votes by unions in tough contract battles aren't unusual. But the recent 90 percent vote by members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) to back a possible walkout was different--and it sets the stage for a contract showdown that will shape the battle to defend public education across the U.S.

Nearly 90 percent of the members voted to empower union leaders to call a strike--of teachers who cast a ballot, an incredible 98 percent marked "yes." Just 482 teachers--1.82 percent of the membership--voted against a strike authorization, but because of an anti-union law, union members who failed to cast ballots were counted as voting against a strike. Of 26,502 members eligible to vote, 23,780 voted "yes."

Facing a 20 percent increase in their workday and a proposed 2 percent pay raise, teachers, office staff and other CTU members sent the clearest possible message of resolve in their fight for what they deserve. The overwhelming vote gives CTU negotiators leverage at the bargaining table by allowing union officials to call a strike if necessary.

Chicago teachers rally and march through the loop in May
Chicago teachers rally and march through the loop in May (Bartosz Brzezinski)

The early June vote followed an electric mass rally on May 23 rally where more than 4,000 teachers jammed a downtown auditorium and 2,000 more union members and supporters rallied in a nearby park.

CTU members--who include not just teachers, but office staff and aides--are acutely aware that they're taking a stand in President Barack Obama's hometown on the eve of a close election. But rather than being intimidated, they're determined--and the rally gave expression to the same feelings of anger and defiance seen in last year's labor uprising in Wisconsin and the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

"It was excellent, very inspiring," Mayra Almarez, a history teacher at Taft High School on the city's North Side, said of the rally. "Sometimes its really hard to continue when, in the media, you hear that we're aggressive, we're this, we're that, we're not in it for the right reasons--when in reality, we are. It was great to see we are supported by other people, by parents."

Asked if teachers at Taft are prepared to walk a picket line if necessary, she replied, "Absolutely. We're ready."

What you can do

For updates on the Chicago teachers' strike throughout the day, go to the Facebook page.

Other important sources of information include the Chicago Teachers Union website and the CTU Twitter feed. Also check out the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign Facebook page.

The teachers need your financial support--please consider making a donation to the CTU Solidarity Fund.

If you are in Chicago, picketing will take place at schools in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday, the union is calling for a mass rally downtown at Daley Plaza, across from City Hall, at 2:30 p.m.

THE RALLY and strike authorization vote were the capstone of two years of effort by the CTU leadership to revitalize what had been a dysfunctional and declining union.

The new leadership's first act upon taking office in 2010 was to cut the union officers' pay and devote the money to internal organizing--getting organizers into the schools and strengthening organization at the school site. By late 2010, when Rahm Emanuel, until recently Obama's chief of staff, launched his mayoral election campaign in Chicago by bashing teachers, the union was already in motion.

The Chicago teachers' fight for justice also has national significance because the city has been a testing ground for "school reform" since 1995, when the state legislature handed then-Mayor Richard M. Daley direct control of the schools and stripped the CTU of its right to strike for 18 months.

Daley's second schools CEO, Arne Duncan, oversaw the closure of low-performing schools and the proliferation of charters, which propelled him to the post of Obama's Education Secretary. In that role, he worked closely with Emanuel to take the Chicago agenda across the U.S. Their tool was the Race to the Top initiative, a $4.3 billion pool of federal grants doled out to states if they passed laws that open the door to charter schools and undermine teachers' job security by limiting tenure and imposing merit pay.

That was CTU President Karen Lewis' first point in her speech at the raucous May 23 union rally:

Some people don't believe me, but this is a national fight. All across this country, teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals are fighting failed status quo reforms. School districts have become emboldened--and what have they done? They've become emboldened, because rich people are now writing the laws. Rich people, who never send their children to public schools, are making the policy. And nationwide, everyone-- everyone--is facing the loss of their collective bargaining rights. Look at Wisconsin. Look at Indiana. We are surrounded by that, brothers and sisters. So why are we here?

A man in the audience answered with a shout: "Str-i-i-i-ke!" Teachers took up the chant, "Strike! Strike! Strike!" as someone sounded a vuvuzela, the noisemaker made famous during the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa in 2010.

If Rahm Emanuel wants to pick a fight, the CTU is ready. In an interview following the rally, Lewis said that teachers and other CTU members aren't intimidated by Emanuel, and alluded to the national effort to raise awareness of threatening behavior in the schools: "See a bully, stop a bully. It's a campaign, right?"

CLEARLY, EMANUEL sees his confrontation with the CTU as critical to his political ambitions. He made schools a signature part of his mayoral campaign, and it's been central to his national political profile before that.

Thus, Emanuel's allies have responded to the teacher's strike authorization with radio ads that try to depict the vote as an example of greedy teachers versus needy kids. In reality, the opposite is the case. The CTU has linked its demands for fair compensation for teachers to the fight for fully funded and enriched public education--by fighting school closures and budget cuts in close collaboration with neighborhood organizations and parents' groups. This has put the union at the center of an emerging social movement to save Chicago schools and stop the proliferation of nonunion charter schools.

Along with the CTU, that movement for public education must now contend with the anti-teacher backlash orchestrated by Emanuel, the Democratic Party machine, the city's business establishment and the anti-union "school reform" groups.

Emanuel and Co. are well aware of the potential power of an alliance between the CTU and the community, and fear that it could rally wider working-class support against the mayor's agenda of slashing social services, privatizing city functions and handing out tax breaks for big business. That's why, even before taking office, Emanuel sat down with a key Illinois legislator to insist on passage of a law, known as SB 7, that severely restricted the CTU's right to strike.

Under SB 7--which applies only to Chicago--at least 75 percent of all CTU members must cast a "yes" vote to legally authorize a strike. As the corporate-driven school "reform" hit man, Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children, boasted on video, the law was designed to effectively bar a Chicago teachers' strike. "In effect, they wouldn't have the ability to strike, even though the right was maintained," Edelman declared. "The unions cannot strike in Chicago. They will never be able to muster the 75 percent."

For their part, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials were apparently so confident a teachers' strike was impossible that they agreed to the CTU's negotiations timeline that makes a strike possible in September, rather than using other provisions in SB7 that could have postponed a legal walkout. They were smug because they believed the new CTU leadership--classroom teachers propelled into office in the May 2010 election on the militant Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) slate--wouldn't be able to unite the union behind it.

As Chicago television anchor Walter Jacobson wrote on the eve of the CTU elections, "The bosses downtown are rooting for the rookies to get them to a bargaining table and eat them alive."

It sure didn't turn out that way. Emanuel and his hand-picked school board, which includes business executives and political hacks, among them billionaire Penny Pritzker, antagonized teachers by rescinding a previously negotiated 4 percent raise. As a follow-up, Emanuel and Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard violated the union contract by bribing teachers at a handful of schools to adopt a longer school day in exchange for bonuses and extra cash for school programs. Next, Brizard announced a hit list of 17 schools to be closed or "turned around"--and despite protests, school occupations and heartfelt appeals from parents, students and teachers, the school board rubber-stamped Brizard's decision.

Even so, the effort to keep the schools open linked the CTU more closely with activist networks like Teachers for Social Justice and community groups like the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and Occupy Chicago. Together, KOCO and Occupy activists organized a "mic check" that succeeded in shutting down a Board of Education meeting. The school closures, which had been a routine story given perfunctory media attention, became a major issue.

MEANWHILE, BY pushing to lengthen Chicago's 5-hour, 45-minute school day to seven and a half hours, Emanuel alienated middle-class parent groups like Raise Your Hand that he'd tried to play off against the CTU. The mayor's partial retreat--the elementary school day increase to seven hours--didn't go over well, either, since it's accompanied by budget cuts aimed at closing what CPS claims is a $700 million deficit.

The combination of a longer school day and a smaller budget led to the creation of a new alliance of parent and community groups, Chicago Parents for Quality Education. Despite having various positions on the longer school day, the organizations are united behind a demand for increased funding for schools.

One group in the alliance, Parents 4 Teachers (P4T), was formed with the explicit aim of supporting the CTU. As P4T states on its website, blaming teachers "diverts attention from the real problems in education, like under-resourced schools, large class size and high-stakes testing."

However, under the 1995 state law governing Chicago schools, the CTU can't negotiate about anything other than pay and benefits. That means the union can't bargain over critical issues like class size and the need for improved social services for kids unless CPS agrees to make those issues part of negotiations.

That's why CTU has focused on demands for a pay increase--the replacement of last year's 4 percent raise canceled by CPS and an additional increase to compensate teachers for the longer school day. CPS and Emanuel responded by attacking the CTU for asking for more money at a time when many workers are enduring pay cuts. Yet it is only by asking for just compensation that the CTU can defend union members and force CPS and Emanuel to widen the scope of bargaining.

Though the CTU is barred from bringing up key classroom and social issues in negotiations, the union has championed increased school funding and progressive policies in its document, "The Schools Our Students Deserve."

Where the union old guard was mostly silent on such topics, the CTU's publication substantiated the new leadership's calls for smaller class sizes; an enriched curriculum with art and music at all schools, rather than just magnet and selective enrollment schools; and improved social services. The publication bluntly describes segregation in Chicago schools as "educational apartheid"--a term taken up by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Thus, the CTU is showing its commitment to organizing over such issues as part of a wider working-class movement. For example, the CTU is backing a revived effort to fight for an elected school board.

In making this defense of public education, the CTU got little support from even the traditional liberals on the Chicago City Council.

When Emanuel proposed his slash-and-burn budget, all 50 aldermen voted "yes" in a show of legislative fear and favor-seeking that would have made Hosni Mubarak blush. Since then, a handful of aldermen and state legislators have backed CTU on some issues, but if it comes to a strike, even the most liberal figures among Chicago's Democratic Party are likely to demand that the union back down. In fact, it was an alderman the CTU had endorsed who put forward a City Council resolution calling for early adoption of the longer school day.

WITH POLITICIANS lining up behind Emanuel, the CTU will have to expand its growing ties with parents and community groups to build wider solidarity efforts. However, building labor solidarity during a potential strike may prove more complicated, both at the local and national levels. If there's going to be a push to support the CTU, much of the initiative will have to come from rank-and-file union members.

That's because two other unions with contracts with CPS--UNITE HERE Local 1 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73--have already settled contracts rather than bargain in parallel with the CTU. As a result, members of those unions, including food service workers, custodians and school aides, are contractually obligated to cross CTU picket lines in the event of a strike.

Those separate deals were surprising to many Chicago labor activists, since both unions have progressive reputations and had collaborated with the CTU. CTU members had turned out to support UNITE HERE workers at brief strikes at the city's Hyatt Hotels as part of a contract campaign last year.

But when CPS pulled back on plans to replace cooked meals with pre-plated frozen ones, the president of UNITE HERE Local 1, Henry Tamarin, jumped at the five-year deal offered by the city, rather than wait to negotiate alongside the CTU.

The decision by SEIU Local 73 leaders to settle early with CPS was more contentious. Local 73 President Christine Boardman sought to ensure that ratification would go through at a membership meeting by withholding details of the tentative agreement until the vote June 9.

Rank-and-file activists were angry both about the information blackout and the fact that by settling separately from the CTU, they were undercutting the teachers. Union leaders countered that job security clauses in the contract warranted the early agreement. The final vote: 163 to 108 for a contract that covers more than 5,000 workers.

Besides peeling off these two locals from the CTU, Emanuel has also sought to consolidate ties with the unions that are the mainstays of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL).

In campaigning for mayor, Emanuel got the Teamsters' backing by promising to make sure that privatized sanitation jobs would go to Teamster-organized companies. More recently, he got the unions' backing for the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a proposed $7 billion fund that will pay for public works projects while putting city taxpayers on the hook to banks at unspecified rates of interest.

City Hall will use jobs on upcoming infrastructure projects to try to buy the loyalty of union leaders and keep them out of the CTU's camp. Notably, Emanuel announced a series of projects to be funded by the trust at a Laborers' apprentice school.

Ullico, the union-run insurance and finance company, was an early backer of the infrastructure plan. And when Emanuel named a union official to the Infrastructure Trust's board, CFL President Jorge Ramirez declared, "It's smart, and it's a call to collaboration that we've been looking for."

Collaboration with City Hall hasn't been on offer for the public-sector unions that Emanuel has targeted for concessions, however.

Some have tried to avoid confrontation and simply taken the hit. Others, like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, have waged a series of different protests around particular budget cuts--in the libraries, for example.

Two unions stand out for their level of activism. One is Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 241, which represents city bus drivers. Last fall, Local 241 allied with Occupy Chicago to fight attacks on their union.

The other is National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNU), which represents nurses at Stroger Hospital, the main public health care facility in Cook County, which has also allied with Occupy. When NNU members volunteered to provide medical assistance to Occupy Chicago, Emanuel made an example of them by having them arrested and jailed longer than other activists. Significantly, activists from the ATU, NNU and CTU unions held a solidarity dinner to forge closer ties for the battles ahead.

Another key public-sector union notable for its activism is the Chicago branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, which has developed ties with Occupy and labor activists in the fight against mass postal facility closures and job losses. A key labor-community coalition, Stand Up Chicago, initiated by the SEIU, has worked closely with the CTU and Occupy, too--as has Chicago Jobs with Justice, the longstanding coalition that's played a pivotal role in local labor solidarity efforts. ARISE Chicago, a religious coalition committed to workers' rights, will be key in reaching out to churches.

All this sets the stage for labor solidarity efforts with the CTU. The potential for such an effort was on display in January, when the Occupy Chicago Labor Working Group hosted a "Workers' Power" labor solidarity conference that drew 250 leaders and rank-and-file activists from a range of unions. It was already clear then that the CTU was heading toward a collision with Emanuel, and support for the teachers' union was a major theme of the event.

So it's clear that if Chicago's major union leaders are hesitant to take on the mayor on behalf of the CTU, activists are prepared to take the initiative themselves.

SOLIDARITY WILL also be needed from the CTU's parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Union President Randi Weingarten was on hand to address the CTU's May 23 solidarity rally, and she backed the CTU's key messages. "If the 1 percent can get the help, if all those with silver spoons in their mouths can get help, what about the children of this city and the people that teach them?" Weingarten said to wild cheers.

Yet the AFT leader also made it clear that she preferred partnership to confrontation, noting that she'd come to the rally from Cincinnati where she was attending the U.S. Department of Education Labor-Management Collaboration conference. At that meeting, Weingarten said, "there are over 100 districts talking about working together, and here in the second [sic] city in the United States of America, we have to rally just to be heard."

In fact, the face-off in Chicago is an example of the failure of Weingarten's strategy of collaboration. At the 2010 AFT convention in Seattle, Weingarten brought out Microsoft Chair Bill Gates, who bankrolls a wide range of reform efforts, as a guest speaker. The AFT, she said, must "lead and propose" on school reform issues.

The prime example of school reform according to the AFT is the contract settled in New Haven, Conn. in 2010, which Weingarten called a "model or a template" for future AFT collective bargaining agreements. That deal sharply limits teachers' traditional job protections and gives administrators more leeway to close schools.

For its part, the larger National Education Association (NEA), while formally more critical of the school reform agenda, differs little in practice from the AFT.

However, school reform groups have only taken the unions' willingness to collaborate as a sign of weakness, as the notorious Edelman video about the CTU shows.

For example, in Detroit--where the AFT's next convention will be held in July--unelected school authorities are carrying out huge budget cuts, sweeping school closures and a privatization agenda. The Detroit Federation of Teachers has seen its membership plummet, and the schools' emergency financial manager imposed a 10 percent pay cut last year.

In Philadelphia, authorities are going even further, breaking up the public school system into "networks" to be run by nonprofit groups, charter management organizations and universities, effectively destroying the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers bargaining unit.

Weingarten's home local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City, is also on the defensive. The collaboration that once saw Weingarten settle a contract with billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a Yankees game has given way to an all-out war on teachers. These days, Bloomberg is trying to get rid of displaced teachers still on the payroll, close "underperforming" schools and unilaterally imposed a punitive evaluation system that could lead to the firing of teachers after two years of unsatisfactory ratings.

Public-sector strikes are illegal under New York state's anti-union Taylor laws. When Weingarten ran the UFT, the union sent out mail ballots to authorize a strike, but reached a deal before the votes were counted. These days, Michael Mulgrew, the UFT's tough-talking president, won't even allow delegates to bring discussion of a strike to the floor of the meeting, lest the union run afoul of the law.

Despite her defensive approach, Weingarten did issue a statement supporting the CTU after its strike authorization vote was announced. "It represents not just anger and frustration, but also a real commitment to Chicago's students and a desire to be active participants in building strong public schools that help all Chicago children thrive," she said. This statement opens the way for organizing solidarity resolutions and financial support from every AFT local in the country.

However, Weingarten subsequently made it clear that she's far more comfortable in making deals with school districts and Democratic politicians than confronting them--even when teachers take a hit.

When members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted to accept the latest in a series of concessions that cut pay in order to save jobs, Weingarten issued another statement hailing their decision. "This agreement demonstrates how to address budget challenges without making the kinds of cuts that hurt kids, silence the voices of teachers and other school staff, and undermine our public schools," she said of UTLA, which is affiliated with both the AFT and NEA.

STILL, WHILE official support for the CTU from the labor movement may be uneven, a groundswell of backing for teachers is evident across the city.

A recent poll in the Chicago Tribune showed that more than twice as many more people trusted the CTU on school issues than Emanuel. The task now is to turn that favorable sentiment into active support.

"Everyone's been talking about the teachers at work," said Don Schraffenberger, a member of Teamsters Local 705, who works at the huge UPS facility just outside Chicago. Frustrated by their own union's slowness in dealing with workplace safety issues, the workers were excited by the CTU's high-profile rally and strike vote, he said. "They are seeing a union that's actually fighting back," Schraffenberger said. "I think they see it the way people saw the 1997 Teamsters strike at UPS."

For unions, steps to back the CTU can start with resolutions of support, pledges of financial assistance, and commitments to walk picket lines. In Chicago, CTU members are available to speak at union meetings, and could call or Skype into meetings elsewhere.

Such labor backing for the CTU has far more than symbolic importance. In the event of a strike, it's possible or even likely that a judge would issue a temporary restraining order, sending teachers back to work and threatening them with fines and jail time if they don't. That's what happened when the UTLA planned a one-day strike in 2009 and when bus and subway workers in New York City's Transport Workers Union Local 100 struck for three days in 2005. If the CTU's assets are seized or heavy fines are imposed, union members and supporters everywhere must be prepared to send funds to keep the union operational and defend teachers' right to strike.

At the same time, parent and community groups aligned with the CTU have a critical role to play--not only by offering political support to the teachers, but by being prepared to operate freedom schools that give students a safe place to go during a strike. Such efforts were key to successful CTU strikes in the past and will be critical in countering teacher-bashing from Emanuel and a network of paid preachers and "community groups" that are really appendages of the local Democratic machine.

But where Emanuel will try to line up his forces by spreading money around, the CTU and its allies can count on organizations and individuals who are prepared to do the one-on-one organizing that's needed, from leafleting in neighborhoods and summer festivals to visiting churches and community groups.

Such organizing efforts are already well underway among CTU members and their allies. The union will use the teachers' summer break to send them into the communities to organize, as well as gear up union operations for an all-out fight.

For their part, supporters of the teachers aim to have connections in every neighborhood in the city, with activists prepared to answer City Hall's lies and distortions with a clear and principled defense of public education against the budget-cutters, business elites and charter school operators.

The battle lines over public education are being drawn in Chicago. But it's a fight with nationwide implications--and everyone who supports fully funded public education and teachers' rights should stand with the Chicago Teachers Union.

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