Put your red shirt on

September 13, 2012

The strike by 26,000 Chicago Teachers Union members has implications for educators and students across the U.S., writes New York City teacher Brian Jones.

ONE OF the unintended consequences of the attack on public education is the politicization of educators. Generally speaking, teachers like to close their classroom doors and do their own thing. There doesn't seem to be any point in getting involved in "politics," and so they mostly don't. But the times are changing.

Suddenly, like it or not, "politics" is interested in teachers. Suddenly, wealthy and powerful people have become obsessed with them, and with what goes on behind those classroom doors. As the billionaire investors and their political allies attempt to refashion education in their own image, they increasingly force teachers to sit up and take notice.

Does this mean we now have a national movement of teachers united in a collective struggle to defend and improve public education? Not quite. Where teachers already have large organizations--their unions--they rely on them to defend their interests. The problem is that those unions have, by and large, conceded much of the ideological terrain to the billionaire privatizers.

Chicago teachers on the march fill the streets of downtown
Chicago teachers on the march fill the streets of downtown

That's where Chicago comes in. While other unions have jumped at the chance to trade tenure, merit pay, charter schools and other "free market" reforms for pay increases, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has drawn a line in the sand. The CTU is the first union to threaten a strike against so-called "ed reform."

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, says he wants a longer school day, for example. The CTU has responded, effectively: "No, we want a BETTER school day!" The CTU has boldly pointed out the apartheid-like conditions in Chicago schools, and demands that funding be restored to the arts, sciences, physical education, counseling and smaller class sizes. The union's research document, "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve," is a must read.

Importantly, their stance has galvanized parent support. Erica Clark, a Chicago parent, wrote:

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.

Daring to stand up to Rahm Emanuel--Obama's former chief of staff--during an election year is no small feat. But CTU is blazing a new trail for educators in this country.

Check out the Network of Teacher Activist Groups website to find out how you can build solidarity (including by making a donation to the CTU Strike Fund).

On September 10, when CTU members went on strike, teachers, parents and students all over the country wore wear RED in solidarity with CTU. If you've got a red shirt, and if you want the CTU to win, you should, too.

First published at No Struggle, No Progress.

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