Standing with the teachers

July 26, 2012

Stavroula Harissis, a member of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, explains how the teachers' union is galvanizing supporters across the city.

ALLIES OF the Chicago Teachers Union, which is currently in a contract battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials, are taking action to show their support for the people who actually teach our kids and make the schools run.

In recent weeks, intense organizing by the CTU and allies--including marches, rallies and a strike authorization vote--has put increasing pressure on the city to deal fairly with the CTU. That pressure received an extra boost with the release of an independent fact-finder's report that, as Chicago Sun Times reporter Fran Spielman put it, "has now blown up in the mayor's face"--with arbitrator Edwin Benn recommending a 35.74 percent raise over four years (with a first-year 18.2 percent pay hike).

Benn also concluded that CPS should not have extended the school day if it couldn't pay teachers comparable raises for working the extra time.

With the report overwhelmingly in the union's favor, the city recently announced it would give in to a key union demand--dropping the push for teachers to work a 20 percent longer school day for a 2 percent raise and instead accepting a deal to fill the longer day by hiring 477 teachers from a pool of laid-off teachers in noncore subjects, including music, art, foreign language and physical education.

Teachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting
Teachers and parents picket outside a Chicago Board of Education meeting

Although the contract is still far from settled, this victory is thanks not only to CPS's own organizing, but also to the widespread support the union has received from parents and community members across the city, including from the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC), which formed earlier in late June.

"In more than 30 years of watching labor relations, I've never seen a grassroots solidarity committee formed before there was a strike," Stephen Ashby, professor of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, said at the first press conference of the CTSC on July 11. "This is really an unprecedented formation."

Ashby was one of several community members who spoke that day for the CTSC outside of Malcolm X College, the site of one of three simultaneously scheduled public hearings on the CPS budget. About 40 members of the CTSC were in attendance.

Despite negative media coverage and outright attacks on teachers in recent months, the public still maintains a largely favorable opinion of the CTU and teachers--evidenced in the rapid and diverse formation of the CTSC itself.

THE CAMPAIGN was first proposed by the Occupy Chicago Labor Outreach working group at the end of June, following the CTU's strike authorization vote that passed with an overwhelming majority.

A call was sent out to contacts of those in the working group and the first meeting was held on June 26. Over 100 people attended that meeting, ranging from CTU members to CPS students and parents, education-focused community groups like Teachers for Social Justice, and representatives from a number of other unions and labor organizers across the city.

A large part of the campaign's work thus far has been in supporting the CTU during contract negotiations. This includes a social media component aimed at amplifying the voice of the CTU above that of the corporate mainstream media. Within a week of launching the Facebook page for the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign, there were over 500 followers from all across the country, and even in countries as far away as Chile, the Great Britain, and Italy.

Encouraging statements of solidarity have flooded in from people who are not only sympathetic to the teachers' struggle, but are looking to this struggle for guidance. One message, from a California teacher with Fremont Unified District Teacher's Association, reads, "I am a teacher in Fremont, Calif., and I want to send you my greetings of solidarity! Our union is going through negotiations right now with a district that is on the offensive so many of our eyes are on what is happening in Chicago. Your struggle is our struggle!"

On July 19, the CTSC planned a picket outside of a forum scheduled to take place at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) Forum, where CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was scheduled to address the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force in a public discussion of the proposed school budget. CTSC members planned on making signs and handing out flyers outside of the event, explaining, "We want to engage the broader public in this discussion, let the community know why we support the Chicago teachers in this fight and how we plan to hold CEO Brizard accountable."

But just hours before the meeting was scheduled to start, officials got scared and cancelled the event. A letter from state Rep. Cynthia Soto posted on the door of the Forum stated, "The University obtained information that several groups were planning protests and potential disruptions of the Task Force meeting...The anticipated protest, increased attendance, and additional resource demands on the university prohibits us from hosting this event."

This is part of the same overblown response to public protest that was on display from city officials during the Occupy movement and NATO summit. Over and over, the city of Chicago has responded to the exercise of First Amendment rights with anti-democratic measures and repression. Their strategy is to intimidate the public into silence.

But CTSC members plan on being in attendance if and when the forum is scheduled for a later date. Despite the cancelation, several members of the CTSC met outside of the Forum to hand out flyers, sign people up to get involved with the campaign, and engage people on the streets in a conversation about the CTU struggle.

CTSC members understand that Chicago teachers are fighting for something much bigger than their salaries. They are fighting to improve the working and learning conditions that are necessary for a quality public education system.

They also are fighting against the destructive neoliberal current of privatization that threatens to swallow up every vestige of public and social services--not only in the U.S., but around the globe. As left-wing writer Richard Seymour recently commented in the British Guardian, "Chicago's teachers could strike a blow for organized labor globally...America's influence is such that a return of the labor movement in the U.S. would tilt the balance in favor of workers globally."

Here at home, the CTU's struggle could help be a boost to the stagnant labor movement in the United States--and help ensure that our kids receive the kind of education they deserve.

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