Taking sides with the Chicago teachers

March 16, 2016

Marlene Martin reports from Chicago on a show of solidarity with the teachers union.

IT WAS an unusually warm March night in Chicago when more than 200 people gathered for an indoor rally featuring a wide array of union members and education justice activists pledging solidarity and support for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as it gears up for a showdown with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The mayor and the governor say the money isn't there to meet the teachers' demands for a fair contract and funding for the schools our children deserve, but each of the panelists who spoke begged to differ. One main theme of the night was how the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is "broke on purpose"--while there always seems to be money for the rich and the banks.

Sponsored by the re-formed Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign--founded in 2012 to support the CTU in its nine-day strike and revived this year in time for the new battle--the speakers at the event included students, parents and community activists, along with representatives of various unions, including AFSCME, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and, of course, the CTU.

Unionists and community activists speak out in solidarity with Chicago teachers
Unionists and community activists speak out in solidarity with Chicago teachers (Carole Ramsden)

Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse from Stroger Hospital and member of National Nurses United (NNU), co-facilitated the event along with AFSCME member Linda Loew.

Lalasz kicked off the discussion by talking about the impact of austerity on the most vulnerable people in society, those she sees every day in her work at the city's main public hospital. If political leaders don't have funds to devote to them, Lalasz said, then maybe they should "cut the bloated police budget and tax the rich." The audience applauded loudly.

John Miller, president of the University Professionals of Illinois, an affiliate of the IFT that represents faculty and staff at seven public universities in Illinois, described how the cutbacks imposed at the state level are getting rid of the humanities in higher education at a time when we need them most.

Miller said that every employee at Chicago State University, which serves predominantly students of color, has gotten a pink slip, and the school is struggling to stay open. "This school graduates more African Americans than any other university in Illinois," Miller said, before returning to his refrain, the most popular of the night: "But guess what?" he would yell out. "We're fighting back!" the audience would respond.

Larry Biondi, an activist with Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT), explained how pushing back against budget cuts can lead to victory. He explained that Rauner wanted to change an important aspect of disability eligibility--a criteria known as "determination of need" score that is calculated based on how much help a person needs for basic day-to-day activities. The current minimum to be eligible is 29, and Rauner wanted to raise it to 37.

But disability activists went on a crusade and held actions to stop the governor from dropping services for 10,000 disabled people and 24,000 senior citizens. Last November the governor was forced to give up on his push to change the score.

WHILE MANY on the stage were veteran union members and activists, young people were also represented.

Nidalis Burgos, a high school activist and member of the Chicago Student Union, said she had been bullied, but not by any students. Instead, she was bullied by "the unelected school board, who shut down 50 schools in 2013, one of them having been a school I had attended, where my siblings were currently attending. We were told we were not good enough."

"We are the future and if we don't get it, we will shut it down," she defiantly said at the end of her speech.

Todd St Hill drew out more fully how racist the austerity cuts are, but also talked about how these cuts would affect the working class as a whole. An activist with Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) and member of the International Socialist Organization, St Hill got one of the warmest responses of the night when he said:

As fiery as young people in the Black Lives Matter movement are to fight against police violence and for defunding police forces and stopping payouts to police who murder, we have to fight as fiercely against school closings, teacher layoffs and unequal education. So, yes, we demand the defunding of police unapologetically--because while police get 40 percent of the city's budget, schools on the South and West Sides don't have libraries and some schools share nurses. What does that say about Rahm's priorities?...

In American society, austerity in the form of cuts to food stamps, housing, mental health services and public education has damaging and often traumatic effects on Black and Brown people, but poor white families as well. The working class as a whole has been dealt a terrific blow when neoliberal austerity is imposed on them by the ultra wealthy few.

St Hill gave a vision of what we should strive for, ending by saying, "I want a world where working people and poor folks determine what we need, a world that can provide the schools our parents and children deserve, a world that is free from domestic, militarized police occupation of poor neighborhoods."

Representing 60,000 child care workers and home care workers, Faith Arnold from SEIU talked about the "manufactured budget crisis" and how every person deserves a living wage and quality child care. She talked about a mom working at Walmart for $9 an hour who was told she made too much to qualify for a child care subsidy. "Our governor's priorities are all in the wrong place," she said.

AT THE end, Karen Lewis, the president of the CTU carefully made her way to the podium amid a standing ovation. Lewis spelled out what the fight is really about: "They want a privatized work force." She talked about how those at the top want to "control how we think," adding that part of the way they do this is by cutting funding for the humanities.

Lewis also spoke out vehemently against merit pay and used her days as a high school chemistry teacher as a way to give a concrete example why this would be a disaster. She told how she and another high school teacher taught two different chemistry classes in different ways. Nonetheless, they collaborated and worked with each other.

Lewis said this was "the best four years of my teaching experience"--but if merit pay were added into the mix, it would set up a dynamic of competition, and collaboration goes out the window. "Now you are competing with each other for the higher pay," Lewis said. "So are we going to help each other? Are we going to share what works? Merit pay has never, ever worked."

Lewis emphasized that the message coming from those at the top is that if we fight, we won't win. She encouraged the crowd to think otherwise, saying, "I'm here to tell you what we can do when we join together, brothers and sisters."

Taking a jab at the Donald Trump campaign, she rhetorically asked the crowd, "When was America the strongest?" She answered, "When union density was strongest," to wild applause.

From the floor, Michael Shea, a CTU member who has been teaching high school at Kenwood on the city's South Side for 15 years, told of a survey of his students he conducted a few years ago. He said he found that "80 percent of them had personally known someone killed in their time in high school." In an interview later, he said that there was only one social worker to work with the 1,800 students at Kenwood, and at the time he conducted the survey, she was only part-time.

Referring to the $700 million CPS recently borrowed, Shea told the audience, "That interest paid on this borrowing can double the cost of the services--which fundamentally means that every penny of profit the ruling class makes is public theft of another valuable service. That these services are used by Black and Brown people means the entire program is fundamentally racist from top to bottom."

He ended by saying, "We don't win until we have the world we all deserve. Until then, shut it down."

The event ended with a call to spread the word on a mass "Shut it Down" action planned in Chicago for April 1--to take the message into the streets with a march and day of action against the budget crisis and in support of the CTU.

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