The meaning of our struggle in Chicago

September 4, 2012

Thousands of union members and supporters gathered in downtown Chicago on Labor Day to send a holiday message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel: We stand with the teachers!

The crowd turned the giant Daley Plaza across from City Hall into a sea of red shirts worn by the teachers and their supporters. From the speakers' platform, representatives of unions and labor bodies, including the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFSCME, National Nurses United and Service Employees International Union Local 1, pledged their support for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which has given the city a 10-day notice of a possible strike. A walkout could come as early as September 10.

The CTU's fight for a just contract will impact not only Chicago but public schools across the country for years to come. At stake are many of the issues that face teachers, parents and students in other cities: class size; merit pay and teacher evaluation systems; wages and benefits; the privatization of public education through charter school expansion; understaffing of counselors, librarians and nurses; merit pay; a better and not just longer school day.

That's why CTU members are being joined by parents, students, labor and community activists--in Chicago and around the country--who want to make sure they win this struggle for their future and the future of our schools. In this roundtable, several teachers and activists involved in the struggle explain why the fight in Chicago is so important.

Tony Rawker

High school teacher

A little over 10 years ago, as a high school student myself, I decided to pursue teaching as my career.

I chose this as my career path because I was bored out of my mind most of the time and found the entire process of schooling alienating. By the time I finished, my love for reading and questioning had been sucked dry. A little time away from the rigid structures of syllabi and classrooms cured that quickly, but unfortunately, not everyone can say the same thing.

Now, as a teacher entering my seventh year in the classroom, it has become much harder to plan activities, lessons and projects that will spark my students' curiosity for knowledge. Due to Mayor Rahm's initiatives, I now have significantly less time to collaborate with colleagues to create engaging lessons, numerous restrictions placed on my curriculum and larger class sizes that limit the amount of individual attention I can provide.

Worse, my students are forced to take ACT prep class, study hall and advisory (which forces teachers to provide unqualified counseling services because our district is so understaffed) to fill up the time because the mayor won't provide the funds to make a longer day actually better.

Chicago teachers took to the streets of downtown to demand a fair contract
Chicago teachers took to the streets of downtown to demand a fair contract

Never mind that he just found $25 million for emergency strike preparations and $55 million to build a park in honor of Maggie Daley, one block east of Millennium Park--and that's a few months after he spent more than $60 million to bring NATO to town. He clearly has no intention of providing Chicago's mostly minority public school students with the type of education they deserve.

I now understand why I was so bored in school as a student, and it had nothing to do with my teachers. Rather, it was a direct result of the poor working conditions of my teachers, and thus my poor learning conditions. That's what is most at stake in this struggle.

If Mayor Rahm has his way, bureaucrats with MBAs and very little to no learning experience will dictate every decision made about my classroom, school and profession. They will decide if I have earned a merit pay bonus, what material I must cover in my curriculum, if my students need to take remedial classes instead of electives, and ultimately, if my school will stay open based on some data points that I see as complex, three-dimensional, teenage human beings.

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.

To top it all off, they will scream in the media that I must work harder after putting in a 55-hour workweek. Ultimately, this underfunded, terrible plan will burn out teachers, alienate more students and not make public schools better. But that will be the cover as school is slowly privatized and one of the few remaining good public services is dismantled.

We are in a struggle to keep alive one of the founding pillars of any great democracy--a great free education for every human being no matter their race, income or background. We must fight back.

Erica Clark

Founding member of Parents 4 Teachers, speaking at a solidarity event

I HAVE two kids in CPS. Between the two of them, we've been at CPS for 14 years and have been at six different schools. So I think we have a good perspective on what works and what doesn't work in the system. And I can say what really works is the teachers. Go to any school where the parents feel good about what's going on, and it's really because of the teachers.

We formed Parents 4 Teachers because we were fed up with the abuse that teachers were taking from politicians. We saw that there wasn't recognition of what we saw as parents--that the interests of the teachers in the schools go hand in hand with the interests of our kids.

The things that teachers are fighting for in their contract--smaller classes, more nurses and counselors, a better day not just a longer day, art and music for all schools--are the things that parents want. These are the things that teachers want.

We thought it was time for parents to stand together and support the teachers politically and support the teachers' union. The teachers' union is the voice of the teachers in the school. We would like to build an alliance between parents and teachers to work for the kind of schools Chicago's children deserve. We don't see that the Board of Education has the same agenda.

When you listen to what the board and the media are saying, you would think that the current contract battle is only about money. "Teachers want more money, they don't want to pay for health care, everyone has to pay more, why don't teachers?" This is the rhetoric you hear.

The reality of it is that this is about a lot more than money from the teachers' point of view--and it's certainly about a lot more than money from our kids' point of view.

At this juncture in this contract dispute, the key is going to be parents standing up and letting the mayor and the board know that this is not acceptable. The board and the mayor have the ability to avoid a strike. All they have to do is negotiate on these issues that really matter in the classroom.

Fair compensation for teachers matters for our kids. You can't pay teachers enough, as far as I'm concerned--it's an extremely hard job. It's made harder by the policies of our school board. We think that it's time that parents come together with teachers and the union and say: We are not going take this anymore.

Jen Johnson

High school teacher, CTU delegate and cofounder of Caucus of Rank and File Educators

IN CHICAGO, privatization and mayoral control have really escalated in recent years. They're not new beasts, but under Rahm Emanuel, they seem to be taking a turn for the worse.

We've been fighting in Chicago for a long time, but our community and teachers have realized that the turning point of survival has kind of been met. Public education in Chicago is at stake, and if we don't take drastic measures, we're not going to have neighborhood schools that are available to all students.

Our kids are going to lose out, and clearly our members are going to be out of work. We believe strongly that public education is an asset, that it's something that provides community stability, and is kind of the foundation of a better future for all students.

So the fight is really more than a contract fight: drawing a line in the sand, educating the community, saying, "The direction that Chicago has taken the lead in is the wrong direction," and we're not going to take it anymore.

We were in Detroit for the American Federation of Teachers convention, and folks from everywhere--from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, and New York to Seattle--told us, "Go on strike!" They know that us striking sends a strong message that top-down school reform is not what the rank-and-file people and community members want. And so our response is, "Yes, I think we're prepared to go on strike if we have to."

I'm a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, the caucus that took over the CTU two years ago. My role has been on-the-ground organizing and building member support. We didn't anticipate becoming leaders of the union. We were just trying to push our union in the direction of taking a stronger stance to protect public schools and our members. But we realized that we had a chance to do it from the actual seat of leadership.

This is my 10th year teaching at the same school, and the atmosphere has just changed. We're a magnet and neighborhood school, so we felt a little more protected than other places. We have a good ACT average, so we don't feel like we're on the chopping block to be closed, like many schools are.

But people even in my building are realizing that the board is going after everyone and that teachers aren't safe. People who have excellent records are facing discipline for the first time in a 20-year-or-more career. We're being forced to test our kids nonstop and spend more time analyzing data than actually preparing for classes.

Regardless of whether we go on strike, I hope we set a precedent that if members build alliances with the people that they serve--the students and parents and the community--their voice can be heard.

Whether we have to walk the picket line or not, I think people need to see us stand up for what we know is right for our kids and for our classrooms.

A three-year high school music teacher

MANY OLDER CPS teachers, some with decades of experience, have told me that the level of disrespect, intimidation and scapegoating has never been worse than it is right now.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board have a five-year plan to close nearly half of the public schools in Chicago and replace them with charter schools. If we want a future for public education in Chicago, now's the time to fight for it.

My own school won't be closed anytime soon, however, for two reasons. As a selective enrollment school, we are nevertheless measured against other schools that are not selective enrollment, as if we were on a level playing field.

Our school expels struggling students, who then go back to their neighborhood schools, which must accept them. The neighborhood schools are labeled "failing schools" and subsequently closed. We, on the other hand, are considered one of the "best" schools in the city.

The second reason my school won't close anytime soon is that we are a military academy. As such, we are provided with resources that are denied to other schools--for example, a new state-of-the-art gym that was built a couple years ago.

The rulers of our city wish to encourage poor and minority youth to enlist. Indeed, for many of my students looking at a bleak economy with little hope for improvement, the military does look attractive. As the saying goes, "Rich man's war, poor man's blood."

But against the Board of Education's plans for increased inequality, privatization and militarization, our union is offering a different vision of what our schools could look like. We are attempting to transform the narrative of "school reform," focusing the discussion on things that would actually improve our schools.

We're speaking out for smaller class sizes, a rich curriculum and wrap-around services for every student. While improving the quality of life for our students, these policies would also create jobs for the many experienced teachers who are currently out of work.

About 25 percent of CPS schools have no art or music programs. Another 50 percent have either art or music, but not both.

Sometimes students of mine bring a bucket to class when they are sick, because we have no school nurse. If this is happening at one of the "best" schools, what is it like at other schools? We need adequate staffing, not just for our own sake but even more so for the students' sake.

Among teachers at my school, the atmosphere of fear and intimidation is palpable. The principal regularly fires teachers at the end of the year, then hires them back in the fall. This is already the second time I've been fired and hired back.

We have a long fight ahead of us, even after the strike, but this incredible struggle is giving me hope for the future. There is a great peace of mind that comes from knowing, no matter what happens, that we are on the right side of history.

Flynn Hampton

Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign member

I DECIDED to get involved with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign(CTSC) because there has been an epidemic of union-busting going on in this country, and the CTU's fight for education wasn't being reduced simply to a battle for wages.

After CPS led a slander campaign against the CTU, instead of folding to their demands, the union reached out to the community being affected in their fight to preserve education. Not only did the CTU stand up against union-busting, they framed their fight by bringing to light how what is going on inside the public schools is a larger issue involving the oppression of working-class people.

The CTSC had played an integral role in showing the community that it isn't up to just concerned teachers and parents to try and make a difference, but that everyday community members and other unions should see this fight as something we must all work to win.

It is truly a reflection of the people here in Chicago--CTSC members are young and old, people of color, students, parents and other workers. Everyone is coming out to show their support, with the larger realization that this is a universal fight, and that if the CTU loses, we all lose.

CTSC has hosted events aimed at bringing to light the negative aspects of the CPS budget and showing the community where the money they say they don't have is going. We'll help the CTU get materials and people out to the picket lines if they decide to strike, and we will continue to educate people about why the fight for public education needs our support.

Crystal Stella Becerril

Former CPS student and Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign member

CURRENTLY, I am organizing with the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and specifically with the Student Solidarity Committee to get students involved in helping to win the CTU's fight for a fair contract and better schools.

This is more than fighting for a fair contract--the CTU is fighting for the quality education Chicago students deserve. Furthermore, the CTU is fighting to preserve one of our last truly public institutions.

Educational apartheid in Chicago is becoming grossly apparent to working-class parents and students. They are beginning to realize the devastating effects that the rise of charter schools and the criminal defunding of our most disenfranchised public schools are having on our students and communities and are coming together to fight back.

A teacher victory will deal a huge and debilitating blow to Rahm and the rest of the 1 percent and help reignite the labor and education movements in the U.S.

As a socialist, I've made a commitment to fighting oppression wherever it may be and standing in solidarity with the working class in their struggles. Nearly 18 years ago, my parents led a similar struggle to get accessible education in our low-income community when our schools were being closed.

They, along with parents, students and community members, fought the board and won a new school for our community. It was proof that when ordinary, working-class people come together and fight oppression, they can win.

I want to continue fighting for quality public education for all students and standing in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union is absolutely essential.

Caitlin Buckley, Julie Fain, Stavroula Harissis and Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.

Further Reading

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