Chicago teachers answer back

Carlos Enriquez reports from Chicago on a mass protest by union teachers and their supporters, who are fighting for a fair contract and education justice.

Chicago teachers on the march against threats and layoffs and a unilateral wage cut (Bob Simpson)Chicago teachers on the march against threats and layoffs and a unilateral wage cut (Bob Simpson)

TWO DAYS after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled their latest insult to educators and the public schools, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) answered back with a big demonstration to show that they won't be bullied into accepting contract concessions and inferior conditions for their students.

Thousands of teachers, students, parents, activists and supporters of quality public education turned the downtown streets red again last Thursday. They were fired up by the CPS announcement that it would lay off more than 1,000 teachers and impose a unilateral 7 percent pay cut.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool announced the cuts in retaliation after the union's 40-member bargaining committee rejected a contract proposal from the city that would have guaranteed no economic layoffs and other long-sought measures--as long as teachers took over the city's obligation to contribute to teachers' pensions, pay more for their health care, and accept weak language around job security.

The contract rejection and the city's subsequent threats are the latest stage in a high-stakes battle over a contract that has been in negotiations for months. Before the holiday break last December, CTU members showed their resolve by voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike unless Emanuel and Claypool stopped demanding that teachers pay the price for the city and state financial mismanagement.

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THE RALLY began with a protest around the Bank of America in the city's financial district to highlight the union's announcement that it was pulling its money out of the bank in protest of BofA amassing the highest profits of any bank from predatory swap deals that have resulted in CPS losing more than $500 million. Though they refuse to challenge the banks over the unfair terms of these deals, CPS officials are willing to use the shortfall to claim that they have no choice but to demand drastic concessions.

During this part of the protest, 16 teachers staged a sit-in inside the BoA and were arrested. All were released later that night. "What we hope is that our withdrawal of funds will spark people all over this city, all over this state and all over the country to start withdrawing funds from Bank of America until they give back some of the ill-gotten gains they've made off the backs of our students," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said at the rally.

The crowd of protesters then marched through downtown, with their signs reading "Will Chicago Starve our Schools to Feed the Rich?" and chanting what has now become a staple at Chicago protests: "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Rahm Emanuel has got to go!"

Before finishing up by marching around City Hall, the protesters stopped for a short speak-out about Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's recent announcement that the state is considering stepping in to take over CPS. As CTU President Karen Lewis said in a recent speech:

Bruce Rauner ran on a platform about nothing. He's wasted no time attacking the wages of working-class people, attacking their labor unions and threatening massive cuts to social service programs, which help the most vulnerable people in our state. That is the real Bruce Rauner. He's not some easygoing, blue-jeans-wearing, $20-watch-having good guy who's coming to save the day. He is [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker on steroids.

The protest also focused on the CTU's commitment to the struggle against what it calls "apartheid education"--because attacks on the public schools disproportionately affect communities of color. Examples of this include Emanuel's decision in 2013 to close down 50 public schools--the largest single mass closure of any city in the country--almost entirely in city's South and West Sides, and the disproportionate number of educators of color laid off since Emanuel took office, in part because of the closures.

One protester carried a sign that read "Schools Not Tasers," and many others made the connection between the gutting of public services and the Chicago Police Department's murder of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times while walking away from officers in November 2014.

The release of video footage of the murder sparked mass demonstrations last year that shook the city--including a rally on Black Friday that the CTU helped to mobilize thousands for. This upsurge resulted in the firing of CPD Chief Garry McCarthy, and put the jobs of Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez on the line because of their parts in covering up the murder and keeping the video under wraps.

As a result of all this, Emanuel's approval ratings remain at a low ebb. On public education, a Chicago Tribune poll found that three times more residents side with the CTU on how to improve public schools that support Emanuel, who has only 20 percent approval on education issues.

It's not surprising that working people, especially parents of school kids, think so little of Emanuel and CPS. After all, the previous CEO of CPS, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was recently convicted and sent to jail for taking bribes. Her successor, Forrest Claypool, is a Democratic machine hack known most recently for gutting the Chicago Transit Authority and attempting to break the Amalgamated Transit Union.

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EMANUEL AND his cronies at City Hall--plus the combined business and media elite in Chicago--continue to warn that harsh cutbacks are necessary due to the city's financial problems. But they refuse to hold accountable the banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis--on the contrary, everything possible is being done to protect their massive profits.

For the past few years, the CTU, including the Caucus of Rank and File Educators that swept into union office in 2010, have demonstrated a way forward for both the labor movement and the education justice movement in the face of draconian education "deform." The high point was the union's historic strike in 2012, which won over all of working-class Chicago to support for the teachers and convinced people that a better public school system was not only possible, but necessary.

The CTU's strategy for preparing for the confrontation and then the strike itself inspired teachers unions across the country, contributing to other inspiring struggles, such as Portland and Seattle. The union's focus on education justice connected with a growing social movement against corporate school reform, including the fight against high-stakes standardized testing that recently won a victory in New York.

We already know that a quality public education won't come as long as the status quo continues with defunded schools and educators blamed for the system's failures, all while the financial institutions and corporations that bankrupted our cities continue to profit off of robbing resources from us. That's why the CTU is saying that the February 4 march, as well as last November's massive "One Vision, One Voice, One Victory" rally, are just the first examples of many to come in what promises to be an all-out fight for the schools Chicago's students deserve.

The city's contract offer of trading a no-layoff pledge and other measures for increased pension and health care contributions sparked a debate within the union, with the local's officers calling it a "serious offer" worthy of consideration. But since the negotiating committee democratically decided to reject the deal, all sides in the discussion have been united in preparing for a fight to come against the city's blackmail tactics.

As for the wider movement for education justice in Chicago, it has endured setbacks since the CTU strike, including the mass closure of 50 schools, an expansion of charter schools and the further worsening of learning conditions inside many of the city's schools, including broken-down buildings without air conditioning and vermin control, increased class sizes, and the shutdown of art and physical education programs.

However, the CTU and the rest of the movement are sending a message with rallies like last Thursday's: Although the battle ahead may be the toughest yet, they are prepared to give it their all to defend our schools.