Teachers will decide, not Rahm

Lee Sustar and Alan Maass report on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's attempt to crush a high-stakes teachers' strike--as the union debates a proposed contract.

Thousands of teachers and their supporters marched through the West Side of Chicago (People's World)Thousands of teachers and their supporters marched through the West Side of Chicago (People's World)

MEMBERS OF the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) decided to continue their strike into a second week while they consider all the details of a proposed contract--and for that, a vengeful Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to turn those educators into outlaws.

On Sunday afternoon, leaders of the CTU emerged from a House of Delegates meeting to announce that members are reviewing a complicated contract proposal, which comes one week into a strike and after months of bitter conflicts that left teachers with a deep distrust of Emanuel and his handpicked team running the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As a result, the walkout of 26,000 CTU members will continue until a Tuesday evening delegates' meeting at the earliest.

Emanuel responded immediately, declaring that he would seek a court injunction to force teachers back to work even as they debate a settlement. The injunction threat raises the stakes to the limit in what was already a major labor battle, with implications for the entire union movement.

The teachers' strike began on September 10 with an inspiring show of union strength--picket lines at every one of nearly 600 schools, attended by nearly every CTU member, according to the union, followed by the first in a series of huge demonstrations in downtown Chicago and various neighborhoods. The mobilizations continued, showing both the resolve of teachers and the widespread public support for the union.

By Friday, leaders of the CTU said they had reached an agreement on the outlines of a new contract, though details remained to be ironed out. The proposed deal was presented to the House of Delegates on Sunday. While it contains several concessions by the union, it also includes gains. All told, the CTU has fought off Emanuel and even pushed him backward in some respects--preventing the breakthroughs he vowed to get on merit pay, teachers' evaluations and other aspects of the corporate school deform agenda.

But members made it clear on Sunday that they want to consider whether the deal is good enough to call off the strike.

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ENTER EMANUEL--the former White House chief of staff and Democratic Party big shot, stung by the assessment, even in the mainstream media, that he was the loser in the strike. His gamble now is that he can frighten the teachers back to work and make a comeback by showing who's the boss of Chicago.

In his statement announcing the injunction plan, Emanuel claimed the "continued action by union leadership is illegal on two grounds--it is over issues that are deemed by state law to be non-strikeable, and it endangers the health and safety of our children."

The first point apparently refers to the union's attempt to address issues like class size and the appalling physical conditions in Chicago schools, though the CTU doesn't have the right to strike over these questions specifically. But the decision not to end the strike didn't specify that union members were considering "non-strikeable" issues, but rather the whole contract.

As for Emanuel's claim about the union endangering "the health and safety of our children," that takes a lot of gall. One of the most constant complaints among teachers is about the unsafe and unhealthy conditions in most public schools, for teachers and students. Emanuel, on the other hand, was so concerned about health and safety that he responded to a question about the lack of functioning air conditioning in so many CPS schools with the comment: "It's 71 degrees outside."

Oh, yeah, one more thing: What's this about "the health and safety of our children"? Emanuel's kids go to a prestigious private school, where administrators wouldn't dare to inflate class sizes to CPS levels, and teachers aren't "evaluated" based on their students' test scores.

Emanuel's move is the latest in his long series of attacks on the CTU. Even before taking office, he helped engineer state legislation that made calling a teachers' strike in Chicago far more difficult. He has rarely missed an opportunity to insult teachers or blame them for the shortcomings of the resource-starved system.

But after five days of a strike in which tens of thousands of red-shirted teachers and supporters swarmed through downtown Chicago and beyond, the mayor had to back down from his teacher-bashing--while CPS negotiators slowly began pulling back many of their harshest demands for concessions.

Now, Emanuel is trying to reassert himself. But he will face a furious backlash--without a doubt. Anyone who has talked to striking teachers knows that they all despise Rahm Emanuel. At the solidarity rally last Saturday, one teacher at Kelly High School on the Southwest Side said she would rather lose her job for good than be forced back to work under an injunction.

Meanwhile, two-thirds of CPS parents sympathize with the teachers, according to a poll taken last week. This is surely in part because they--like everyone else in Chicago but the handful of business and political elite who benefit from his rule--think Rahm Emanuel is a ruthless, arrogant, unprincipled goon.

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SO WHAT is in the proposed contract presented to Chicago teachers?

Merit pay--a cornerstone of Emanuel's education "reform" package--is out. CPS had wanted to abolish raises based on teachers' experience and educational attainment, and impose pay for performance, with only a 2 percent pay increase.

But in the proposed deal, the CTU held the line against merit pay and other issues on the corporate reformers' agenda, despite the endorsement of such measures by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the CTU's parent union. In Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, the union not only accepted pay for performance, but embraced it as a model for other union locals.

That approach didn't fly in Chicago. In 2010, teachers elected the leadership slate put forward by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) on the basis of drawing the line against corporate-driven education reform.

That challenge got tougher with the election of Rahm Emanuel. As Barack Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel helped craft the Race to the Top federal grant program, which requires states to pass legislation attacking teacher tenure and easing the way for nonunion, private charter schools.

Emanuel's approach to labor relations was on display when he forced the United Auto Workers to accept sweeping concessions as part of the auto industry bailout under Obama. When the union hesitated, Emanuel declared: "Fuck the UAW."

The CTU's determination in stopping merit pay--which is notorious for driving wedges between teachers--paid off. CPS has been forced to preserve teachers' basic pay structure. Raises based on experience will be moved further up the career ladder, but the dollar amount for raises remains the same.

Base pay would increase 3 percent in the coming year and 2 percent in each of the following two years. While that boost in base pay wouldn't fully compensate teachers for a longer school year that Emanuel forced through, overall salaries will increase 16 percent over three years--at a time of widespread wage freezes and unpaid furlough days in the public sector.

The CTU gained ground with new contract language that gives laid-off teachers the chance to enter the hiring pool for job openings. Emanuel had to back down from his demand for total principal authority on hiring.

Teachers who are laid off when their positions are closed can return to those posts if they're re-opened in 10 months. Plus, pay raises can no longer be canceled because of budget shortfalls--the pretext used when the Emanuel-appointed Board of Education last year canceled a 4 percent pay increase.

The proposed contract does include concessions--for example, the acceptance of a new "wellness" health care plan in return for a freeze on health care costs borne by teachers. CTU members who don't participate in the punitive wellness plan will have to pay more out of pocket. Many members feel this discriminates against those who are older or have long-term medical issues.

Another significant concession: Laid-off teachers will only be paid for six months instead of the full year mandated by the current contract. Though the union won somewhat stronger language on teacher recall, this contract provision is likely to loom large as the city prepares to close down as many as 100 schools, according to its threats.

Another weakness is the union's failure to win more on the supposed "non-strikable" demands like smaller class sizes that benefit both students and teachers. CPS did agree, however, to hire more social workers, nurses and counselors should revenue become available.

The CTU managed to blunt an evaluation system that would have fast-tracked a third of the union's membership toward grounds for dismissal. CPS had demanded that 50 percent of teacher evaluation be based on "student growth"--that is, test scores. But the CTU pushed back and got CPS to accept the state minimum of 25 percent, followed by an increase to 30 percent in the third year of the contract.

The new evaluation scheme contains a "needs improvement" category that leaves teachers classified as such more vulnerable to layoffs. Nevertheless, the union secured contract language allowing teachers to improve their ratings. Mid-year evaluations--a tool used by principals to fast-track dismissals--are banned.

There are some other significant gains in the agreement. Earlier in the summer, CPS agreed to hire 600 teachers for art, music, world languages and physical education to improve the longer school day--though the union says the school district is dragging its feet on the hiring. Laid-off teachers in closed schools can follow their students to new schools. New contract language will help the union fight back against abusive principals. CPS will have to reimburse teachers for school supplies up to $250.

Emanuel, who made a showdown with the CTU a central part of his mayoral campaign last year, is widely considered the loser according to the mainstream media. "Emanuel finds himself in a far more pointed and public battle than he had bargained for," the Washington Post observed.

As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown put it:

If the point of going on strike is to get a better deal than you would have received without it, then the Chicago Teachers Union is already a pretty clear winner this week in its confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board.

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THE PARADOX of the proposed settlement is that while the CTU clearly defeated Rahm Emanuel politically, the union has nevertheless taken some important concessions.

Thus, many speakers at the House of Delegates meeting felt the evaluation agreement is still too weak in view of the likely mass layoffs to come when school closures are announced. Indeed, in her press conference after the contract talks, CTU President Karen Lewis described the school closure issue as the "elephant in the room."

Lewis and other officers didn't shy away from calling concessions for what they are. Asked by a reporter why she said the agreement wasn't a good deal, Lewis simply called it "the deal we got"--the best the union could do in the current economic and political environment.

That environment is critical to keep in mind. The CTU's struggle to hold the line and preserve union power goes completely against the grain of current AFT policy and settlements in the public sector generally.

Negotiations in Chicago began nearly a year ago with CPS pushing a copy of the AFT local agreement in New Haven, Conn., a "thin contract" that wiped out decades of traditional teacher job protections. The New Haven deal was hailed as a "model or template" by AFT President Randi Weingarten. Similarly, in resisting merit pay, the CTU broke from the AFT's new embrace of the practice in several important union locals, such as in Pittsburgh.

On the question of evaluations, the CTU's pushback kept Chicago teachers from the fate of their sisters and brothers in the AFT's Baltimore local, where a new system has put a majority of teachers at risk of termination. That agreement was negotiated by the AFT itself--and when Baltimore teachers initially rejected it, the AFT headquarters in Washington sent organizers to make sure the deal passed in a subsequent vote.

The CTU is also one of the few unions in the country that has been willing to use the strike weapon. Whatever the problems of the contract, the CTU clearly achieved far more by striking than it would have gained otherwise.

This was despite Emanuel's divide-and-conquer strategy that led to early contract agreements between CPS and locals of the Service Employees International Union and UNITE HERE, which required members of those unions to cross picket lines. Next came Emanuel's early contract deal with the AFT local that represents faculty at the city colleges--an agreement that contained the merit pay structure that the CTU was resisting.

In this context, the CTU's achievements in this strike are remarkable. It systematically prepared for a struggle of this magnitude, and its members responded with a powerful show of solidarity and high-energy activism. While that wasn't enough to make a breakthrough agreement in favor of teachers, it did stop the corporate education "reform" juggernaut from rolling through Chicago. Certainly education reformers see it as a major setback--which is why Emanuel is trying to inflict damage on the CTU with a court injunction.

No one knows whether CTU delegates will consider the agreement worth accepting when they reconvene on September 19. In weighing whether to recommend to the membership a "yes" vote on the agreement, delegates will have to consider whether continuing an indefinite strike would gain significantly more. There's also the issue of parent and community support, which could fray in a longer walkout.

To use a military analogy, the inexperienced forces of the CTU have carried out a spectacular resistance to stop the enemy's advance. The union's delegates and members must now choose between raising the stakes even further by extending the strike and making new demands, or leave the battlefield with its troops intact, having won a contract that is mixed. And the next fight is only a few weeks away as CPS prepares to release its list of 100 schools to shut down.

A court injunction would, of course, change everything and heighten the confrontation in the next few days. If that's the case, it's critical that the entire labor movement rally around the CTU with solidarity actions and donations.

Rahm Emanuel wants us to remember the teachers strike as the time he used his iron fist to keep unions in line. But it's too late: The Chicago teachers strike of 2012 will be recalled as the moment when decades of teacher-bashing and anti-union propaganda was answered with a show of solidarity and workers' power.