Showdown in Chicago

September 10, 2012

Elizabeth Schulte reports from Chicago as the 26,000 proud members of the Chicago Teachers Union take to the picket line to send a message to Rahm Emanuel.

THE BATTLE has begun in Chicago, and the future of public schools and the labor movement--in this city and around the country--is at stake.

On picket lines and at protests in every part of the city, teachers, parents, students and more are raising their voices in defiance against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his handpicked school board and all their friends--sending a message that we won't stand by while they attack teachers and impose their corporate "reform" agenda on our schools.

Some 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)--educators as well as aides, clerical personnel and clinical professionals--are walking the picket lines in their first strike in 25 years. The CTU has been without a contract since June. At the end of the last school year, 98 percent of teachers who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike if the city didn't come up with a fair contract.

Final confirmation of the strike came at a dramatic live press conference for the 10 p.m. local television news, where CTU President Karen Lewis announced that negotiations had failed to bridge the gap between the city and the teachers' union. "We have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike," she said. "No CTU members will be inside of our schools Monday."

CTU members on the march in downtown Chicago
CTU members on the march in downtown Chicago (Sarah Ji | flickr)

Although state laws prohibit the union from striking over issues other than pay, benefits and certain workplace procedures, Lewis made it clear that the CTU is also fighting for fully funded public education with smaller class sizes, decent facilities and improved educational options.

Lewis spoke of the CTU's alliances with parents and community groups to demand improvements in schools--for example, the installation of air conditioning in schools that begin classes in mid-August. She pointed out that CPS has only 350 social workers for about 400,000 children. The fight for improved social services in the schools, she said, is "critical to all of us."

Thus, while the specific issues of the Chicago teachers' strike are limited by law, everyone knows that this fight is about, as one local news anchor put it, how the schools are run. "We ask all of you to join us in this education fight for justice," Lewis said at the press conference, flanked by rank-and-file union members on the bargaining team.

What you can do

For updates on the Chicago teachers' strike throughout the day, go to the Facebook page.

Other important sources of information include the Chicago Teachers Union website and the CTU Twitter feed. Also check out the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign Facebook page.

The teachers need your financial support--please consider making a donation to the CTU Solidarity Fund.

If you are in Chicago, picketing will take place at schools in the morning, starting at 6:30 a.m. On Tuesday, the union is calling for a mass rally downtown at Daley Plaza, across from City Hall, at 2:30 p.m.

Asked why the union was resisting implementation of a new evaluation system, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey pointed out that the city's punitive proposal could put as many as one-third of Chicago teachers on track for termination. By tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) would only put more pressure on children who already have the burden of high-stakes tests that "distort" their education, Sharkey said.

DURING THE weekend before the strike, CPS officials made a big show of claiming they were making progress in several areas under negotiation. But whatever movement has taken place on the part of CPS, it isn't because the board has become more reasonable. It's the result of months of organizing by teachers--to demonstrate their unity and determination in the face of the city's arrogance and obstinacy.

The man who dictates to CPS, Rahm Emanuel--formerly President Barack Obama's chief of staff--was arrogant as ever in responding to the CTU's decision to hit the picket line. Claiming that the city's pay proposal to CPS was the "richest" made to any public-sector union in the city, he denounced the teachers for carrying out a "strike of choice."

But Emanuel has badly underestimated the CTU--as he has again and again in the past.

In the spring of 2011, as Emanuel was about to become mayor, his allies in the state legislature passed a law to require that 75 percent of all CTU members had to vote to authorize a strike before a walkout could begin. Chicago officials arrogantly figured that was the end of any threat of a teachers' strike.

But then, in a vote last June, CTU members not only met the 75 percent threshold necessary to authorize a strike, but surpassed it--nearly 90 percent of all teachers, and an incredible 98 percent of those who cast a ballot, supported strike authorization.

In July, CPS was forced to agree to hire nearly 500 teachers to fill the gap created when Emanuel imposed a longer school day--in the face of protest from parent groups and community activists, not to mention the city's own "independent" fact-finding report that recommended 15 to 20 percent salary increases for teachers working the longer day.

At every stage, Emanuel and CPS demanded harsh concessions from teachers--and union members stepped up to the challenge.

With a walkout looming, pressure from political leaders to call off a strike has, of course, increased. For example, two-thirds of the city's alderman sent a letter to CTU President Lewis urging her to postpone a walkout--despite the fact that they had nothing to say about negotiations over the months beforehand.

The city also figured it could pressure the CTU into concessions by forcing similar deals on other city unions--including a contract with full-time teachers at Chicago City Colleges settled last week, nearly one year before their agreement was set to expire. The city contract at CCC includes, among many other things, concessions on performance-based pay, one of the key issues that the CTU has built resistance around.

This is all part of a public relations plan to paint teachers as unwilling to compromise--and putting their interests ahead of Chicago children. The same tactic is at play in the city's "Children First" plan for students during a strike--which would warehouse children in 144 contingency schools that CPS plans to keep open for half a day.

CPS's answer to the very real concerns of working parents about what to do with their kids all day is a "plan" for chaos--and, city officials no doubt hope, frustration directed at teachers.

IF THEY really cared about the children of Chicago, Emanuel and his buddies would start listening to the demands of Chicago teachers.

The CTU strike is about teachers and their living standards and working conditions. But it is also about the quality of education for students. The same struggle is playing out in cities across the country, where governments have starved public schools of funds for years--and then turned around and condemned those same schools for failing.

According to supporters of school "reform" like Emanuel--and his former Obama administration colleague Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education and one time CEO of the Chicago Public Schools--the problem isn't funding, but "bad teachers." So it comes as little surprise that the issues CPS won't budge on are provisions that greatly affect how teachers are expected to teach--and how they are paid for the work they do.

For example, CPS would like to do away with "steps and lanes," a system in use for decades that provides raises for teachers according to the number of years they have taught and the level of education they have acquired.

Proponents of school reform at CPS would prefer that teachers' pay be based on so-called "merit"--in other words, how well students do on standardized tests, with all their obvious flaws.

The drive for merit pay degrades the idea of what is considered good teaching, since teachers come under pressure to "teach to the test." Moreover, basing the evaluation of performance on student test scores leaves teachers open to punitive treatment from school officials that often has little to do with how well they teach.

Contrary to what people like Duncan and Emanuel say, pay based on experience doesn't reward "bad, older" teachers. It means that teachers with more experience and training stay in school longer. As one history teacher in a Chicago high school said:

The line from the board is that teachers don't necessarily get better with years, so we should measure their performance and pay them based on that. But study after study shows that teachers actually do get better with years. They begin to become great teachers around their eighth or ninth year teaching. This is ridiculous to think about, because in CPS, the average teacher is only a teacher for about five years--because there are so many layoffs and so much turnover.

Another issue where CPS is refusing to concede concerns the right of teachers who have lost their jobs as a result of school closures and "turnarounds" to be called back for new positions. Emanuel promised that the teachers needed to staff the longer school day would come from this pool of laid-off teachers, but CPS has so far not followed through on this promise.

ALL OF the issues at stake for Chicago teachers apply in other cities and towns where educators are facing the schemes of the school reform hatchet-men and -women. So all eyes--of supporters of public education and of those who would like to destroy it--are on the battle in Chicago.

The leaders of CTU, who took office two years ago as a slate of teacher activists from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), challenging the union's top-down leadership, are showing what it looks like when top officers reduce their inflated pay and put the money into organizing--and what it looks like when members are informed, mobilized and active throughout the union.

The CTU has been preparing teachers for this battle for months. In the lead-up to the strike, the union organized big rallies, including a mass meeting and march through downtown on May 23 with the strike vote looming and a Labor Day demonstration that turned out thousands of unionists to demonstrate in front of City Hall. But there have also been many smaller actions, like the informational pickets that took place across the city in the days after school started up after Labor Day.

As a result, members are united--and ready to do what it takes to win. As one teachers said at the Labor Day rally, "I want CPS to know what it feels like without us."

CPS is hoping to turn parents against the teachers and use them to break the resolve of strikers. But the CTU sees teachers, parents and students as allies in the fight for better education, and in the months before the strike, the union participated in solidarity events organized by activist and parent groups like the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign and Parents 4 Teachers--organizations that, in turn, have stood up against the city's teacher-bashing.

Other union members who will be forced to work in the event of a strike or lose their jobs are trying to find ways to show their solidarity. SEIU Local 1 members, for instance, plan to wear red kerchiefs if they go to work. "Contractually, we won't be able to honor picket lines, but I want everyone to know that SEIU stands with the teachers," said SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff.

Unfortunately, two unions counted as progressive within the local labor movement--UNITE HERE Local 1 and SEIU Local 73--cut separate deals with CPS rather than make a common front with the teachers' union. That only encouraged CPS and Emanuel to stick to their hard line against the CTU.

Now, Balanoff of SEIU Local 1 and the SEIU Illinois State Council say their union backs the CTU. The question is whether that support will be turned into the active solidarity needed to show that working people in Chicago--both union and nonunion--stand with the teachers.

Messages of solidarity have poured in from unions from around the world. The day before the strike, teachers from Minnesota turned up to help prepare picket signs. In New York City, teachers called a solidarity rally where everyone plans to where CTU red.

Chicago teachers will picket all of CPS's 600 schools on Monday, from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and the 144 contingency schools from Tuesday on. In the afternoon, the union is asking supporters to rally downtown at 3:30 p.m. And the union and activists are getting ready for a massive demonstration on September 15, the first Saturday after the strike starts, that will mobilize people from around the Midwest and beyond.

"People are mad, and they want to do what it takes," one teacher said of the mood among CTU members. "I think figuring out what it will take to win will be something that we need to keep talking about. My coworkers who went out to the rally on May 23 saw this as a turning point. They found out that we aren't alone anymore--that this is a fight for all of us. Then, they felt that on Labor Day. And now that we're on strike, we'll feel it again."

Lee Sustar contributed to this article.

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