Rahm declares war on Chicago teachers

Chicago teacher Anthony Cappetta and Socialist Worker's Lee Sustar explain how the lines were drawn in the latest battle over public education in the city.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union rally for a fair contract (Bob Simpson | SW)Members of the Chicago Teachers Union rally for a fair contract (Bob Simpson | SW)

FACED WITH the city's threat to lay off 1,000 educators and impose a unilateral 7 percent pay cut, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is mobilizing for a February 4 mass rally in the city's financial district in the union's biggest fight since its successful strike of 2012.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Forrest Claypool made the aggressive move against the teachers after the CTU bargaining team rejected a concessionary contract proposal that would have avoided economic layoffs if the union agreed to bigger pension contributions, higher health care costs and vague contract language around job security.

Claypool--fronting for his boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the city's ruling elite--is trying to create a crisis atmosphere to drive a wedge among union members, and to get parents to blame the teachers' union for the chaos in the classroom that would result from the massive layoffs.

But rank-and-file teachers and their union showed no signs of being intimidated ahead of a February 3 House of Delegates meeting. At the CTU's February 2 press conference, President Karen Lewis called the city's threats an "act of war." She added, "We are certain everyone who works in our public schools is facing a clear and present danger."

The CTU announced that the union will move its money out of Bank of America, the financial institution that has profited most from the toxic interest rate swap deals negotiated with CPS, the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who is out to gut public-sector collective bargaining laws and slash social spending, is pushing legislation that would allow the state to take over CPS in a bankruptcy-style proceeding.

While the legislation is unlikely to pass Illinois' Democratic-controlled legislature, Rauner is preparing the ground politically to take advantage of a CPS financial meltdown and a resulting political crisis.

And Emanuel, while opposing bankruptcy legislation, could work with Democratic legislators and the governor to create some sort of compromise, such as a revival of the School Finance Authority that took direct control of Chicago school spending for 15 years starting in 1980.

For now, the CTU bargaining team's rejection of the proposed offer put the possibility of a strike back on the table. In December, CTU members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, several months after President Lewis called the city's demands to push pension costs onto teachers "strike-worthy."

Now, facing the threat of retaliatory layoffs and funding cuts, the CTU must use every weapon in its arsenal to stand up to the attack.

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A SERIES of CTU actions--including pre-school rallies on February 17--were already in the works when CTU President Karen Lewis announced last week that the union had received a "serious offer" worthy of consideration.

That news opened up a sharp debate in the union about whether to take major economic concessions to save jobs--or follow up on its recent strike authorization vote with actions to turn up the heat on the embattled Emanuel. The mayor's popularity has plummeted amid controversy over racist police violence and city officials' cover-up of the videotape of police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Terms of the contract proposal, presented by union officers and top negotiators to the CTU's big bargaining committee on January 27, were intended to be confidential pending a vote by that committee, scheduled for January 30.

However, a January 28 letter to CTU members signed by Lewis announced that CPS had made a "serious offer" to the union, stating, "The basic framework calls for economic concessions in exchange for enforceable protections of education quality and job security."

Details of the proposed deal were promptly leaked to the media before the bargaining committee could further discuss or vote on the deal. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials seized the opportunity to try to create an atmosphere in which teachers would be pressured to abandon gains won decades ago--centrally, the contractual requirement that CPS pays 7 percent of the 9 percent of pay that teachers contribute to their pensions.

In a letter sent home January 29 to parents of the district's 600,000 schoolchildren, Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and another district official announced a possible agreement, stating:

[W]e remain cautiously hopeful about the outcome and appreciative of the CTU's willingness to thoughtfully consider this offer and be part of the solution. Reaching agreement with our teachers is a crucial step in protecting our classrooms, and in closing the $480 million budget gap we face this year, as well as making progress towards our larger $1.1 billion deficit next year--and we'll continue to keep you updated as progress is made.

But an overwhelming amount of teachers weren't buying it. By the time bargaining committee members took the proposal back to their schools, teachers had already looked over the terms of the deal in the media and took to social media to criticize the proposal--and question why CTU officers had thought it worthy of consideration.

Supporters of the agreement pointed to major concessions by Emanuel, who offered to freeze the expansion of charter schools that already have 61,000 students, as well bar economic layoffs resulting from CPS's budget crunch for the next three years.

In addition, CPS offered to ease the draconian evaluation system that often threatened the jobs of even accomplished veteran teachers. School board negotiators also agreed to give teachers at each school the ability to vote to limit the number of standardized tests that they would give--a notable retreat from CPS's testing obsession and an important gain for kids.

Advocates of the agreement also argued that CPS's financial crisis--which has forced the school board to borrow at sky-high interest rates and struggle to sell its bonds--gave teachers no choice but to take a hit economically in return for gains on other fronts.

On the other hand, critics of the deal pointed out that CTU members would not only have to pay the all of the employee share of pension contributions, but accept a spike in the cost of health insurance, too. Modest pay raises wouldn't keep up with inflation, either.

Although the CTU's lead negotiators calculated that the deal would result in more or less the same level of compensation as teachers and paraprofessionals have now, independent analyses by rank-and-file activists showed that the deal could cut the overall compensation of mid-career teachers by several thousand dollars per year.

Moreover, the deal would have allowed CPS to continue cut the number of teachers and paraprofessionals through attrition--that is, failing to replace those who retire or quit. An early retirement offer intended to attract at least 2,200 CTU members was intended to either shrink the overall headcount, replace higher-paid veteran teachers with lower-paid new hires, or both.

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NOW, HOWEVER, the proposed agreement has been formally rejected, and the city has declared war. Both supporters and opponents of the deal previously are now united in preparing for a fight--which could lead to a return to the picket lines.

In its 2012 showdown with Emanuel, the CTU prevailed against his attempt to shred their contract, and won widespread popular support for taking a stand. But from the moment that contract was signed, CTU members have felt immense pressure at their schools as the board has done everything possible to undermine the gains won in the nine-day strike.

The biggest blow was the closing of 50 schools, which devastated communities and cost educators' jobs. That operation overseen by former schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, who later was forced to resign and go to prison as the result of a corruption scandal. On top of the closures came increased workloads for school personnel due to budget cuts and CPS's systematic attempts to weaken the union's ability to enforce the contract.

For these reasons, some CTU members have concluded that the 2012 strike was not as successful as they first believed--even though the strike did force Emanuel to drop his main anti-union demands.

The experience of the strike--which revived the CTU's fighting traditions--was a key reason why so many teachers and paraprofessionals opposed the latest contract offer this year. Critics of the deal were determined that the CTU should not knuckle under to pressure from Emanuel and the bond buyers, who are demanding increasing austerity in public education.

While there were criticisms of CTU officers for announcing a possible deal before the bargaining committee had made a decision, the debate over the agreement highlighted democracy in the union--something all too rare in today's labor movement. The members of the CTU's big bargaining committee, in dialogue with the union rank and file, ultimately had its say on the deal, voting unanimously to reject the offer after several days of debate.

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THE LATEST confrontation with Emanuel will once again test both the union's elected leaders and members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which formed the core of the slate that took office in 2010. CORE won that vote, and re-election three years later, on the basis of its belief that conventional, partnership-style bargaining could only lead to decline and defeat for the CTU, as it has across the labor movement.

CORE's message was that the only way forward was to challenge both concessions in collective bargaining and the corporate education reform agenda aimed at dismantling public education.

Once in office, the CORE leadership refused to accept a pay cut for teachers to prevent layoffs and set about preparing for the 2012 strike, which won overwhelming support from working-class Chicago. By highlighting what it called the city's "apartheid schools" and advocating for expanded social services for students, the CTU built bridges to African American and Latino parents, whose kids account for 85 percent of the CPS student body.

This time, the CTU's struggle is likely be longer and harder. Emanuel and his wealthy backers are as determined as ever to push the cost of the financial crisis onto teachers and the public schools, even at the cost of a major political clash. CTU members will once again need to build support from parents as well as labor, community and religious groups.

But with Emanuel discredited and vulnerable in the aftermath of the police violence scandal, the CTU has the opportunity to further link the fight to save our schools with the growing struggle for racial and social justice. A poll released this week shows that Emanuel's rating is at an all-time low.

That should give CTU members confidence that the public will once again support teachers in the fight to defend public education in Chicago.