reports from Chicago on a rally in solidarity with the teachers.
CHICAGO'S NEAR West Side was painted union red on September 15 when thousands of teachers and their supporters from across the city and the Midwest gathered for a march and rally as the strike by Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members reached a new stage.
The rally took place the day after union leaders said they had reached agreement on the outlines of a new contract with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), but that details still needed to be ironed out. The rally in Chicago's Union Park buzzed with questions about what a new deal might contain--but also with the determination on display the next day when the union's officers and House of Delegates decided not to suspend the strike while members took time to digest the contract.
The perception that the strike was all but over may have lowered the turnout for a mobilization that CTU members hoped would show the depth of public support for teachers and their struggle.
But the park nevertheless filled with more than 10,000 people--a crowd that represented the diversity of the teachers' fight and the wider struggle to save public schools. There was young and old; black, brown and white; teachers, parents and students; unionists from the public sector and the private--a show of strength from working people all over the city and beyond.
As the crowd waited for the speakers to begin, one highlight was the appearance of a delegation of teachers from Milwaukee, Madison and other cities in Wisconsin--the very educators who were central to that state's uprising against union-busting in the winter of 2011. As the line of Wisconsin teachers marched through the crowd, others stopped their chants and cheered wildly.
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AS AT so many other CTU demonstrations, the featured speaker was the union's President Karen Lewis, who arrived after yet more negotiations with the city. She began:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you I am very tired, as you can imagine. But what I'm tired of are the lies and the name-calling and the vilification of the people who do the work every single day to make a difference in our children in Chicago's lives. I am tired of billionaires telling us what we need to do for our children, as if they love our children more than we do. I want them to turn off the air conditioning at 125 S. Clark, and work like we work. I want them to turn off the air conditioning on the fifth floor of City Hall and let them work like we work.
Lewis ended her speech with the message of the day: The struggle is not over, and the strike is still on.
Another speaker who was greeted with loud applause was Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, who came to town with the crew of Wisconsin teachers. Peterson drew parallels between the struggle in Wisconsin in early 2011 and the strike in Chicago right now:
Walker and Emanuel are two sides of the same pro-corporate, pro-privatization agenda. Nineteen months ago, we surrounded the state Capitol, we demonstrated daily, we demanded that teachers be treated like professionals. We demanded that union rights be guaranteed, and we demanded that students have adequate resources. At that time, a visiting Chicago teacher said to me, "You teachers in Wisconsin are our heroes." Today, I come to Chicago and say to you: You teachers in Chicago are our heroes!
Jitu Brown from the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization--another popular speaker who has been part of this struggle since long before the strike--focused on the city's plans to shut down upwards of 80 public schools this year. As he finished his speech, he started a chant, "Four, three, two, one, school closings moratorium!"
In the crowd, the demonstrators all had something to say about the issues in the strike--whether they were a teacher or not.
One student from Lane Tech High School, one of the oldest and largest schools in the system, carried a handmade sign that read, "I am more than a test score." She said in an interview, "We've learned a ton seeing our teachers stand up for themselves. They're a huge inspiration."
Another student from Roosevelt High School explained, "Today is a historical event. As we all know, it has been at least 25 years since the last strike in Chicago, so we came here to show our support and be part of history, and once we grow older, we can tell our grandchildren."
Many teachers reported that they were tired from the week of pickets and eager to get back to their classrooms and their students--but that they were prepared to continue with the strike for as long as necessary to win a fair contract. As one special education teacher at Volta Elementary School said in an interview:
It's about the long-term benefit more than the short-term. It's not just about money. It's about protecting the profession and protecting our children in the long term. Somebody had to start a fight. We could not let it go on any longer because we have been taking this for the last 10 years. It's just: Enough!"
Parents came out to show that they appreciate all the teachers are doing in fighting for our schools. Howie Emmer from Parents 4 Teachers explained the significance of the struggle: "I don't think the board or Rahm saw this coming, saw the level of community and parent support for the teachers. So really, the teachers are winning, and they're creating a movement around public education justice, and I can't thank them enough."
After the speakers were finished, the crowd lined up to march down Washington Boulevard to Garfield Park, a couple miles straight west through one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. Along the route, marchers passed a number of under-resourced schools, a concrete sign of the urgency of this struggle.
Leading the way was the marching band from Kelly High School on the Southwest Side. The proud student musicians have been on the picket lines supporting their teachers from day one of the strike. Following behind were blocks and blocks of red-shirted protesters, chanting and singing old civil rights song. One popular chant was: "Rahm, just face it! Your cutbacks are racist!" Some residents waved red flags out of their windows, while others came out to cheer on the march and offer water to participants.
Though even a demonstration this size understates public support for the teachers, the rally and march brought together people who understand the importance of solidarity for the teachers and for the whole labor movement. SEIU member Mariul Jones proclaimed, "I'm here to support the teachers. Working people, middle class people, poor people, all types of races, all standing together. I'm fired up!"