Standing strong for schools our kids deserve

September 18, 2012

Alan Maass, Elizabeth Schulte and Lee Sustar report on the Chicago teachers' strike as it enters a second week--with the House of Delegates set to meet tonight.

CHICAGO MAYOR Rahm Emanuel tried again--and failed again--to bully Chicago teachers into submission as the week began.

That left the 26,000 proud members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), on strike since September 10, standing strong in their determination that they--not the media, not a judge, and certainly not Rahm Emanuel--will decide if their walkout will end and this phase of the struggle for our public schools comes to a close.

On Monday morning, lawyers for Mayor 1 Percent filed suit against the CTU and asked for a court injunction to order teachers back to work immediately. But this latest attempt at intimidation from Rahm failed when a Cook County judge refused to set a hearing.

Thus, the elected representatives of CTU members will face no legal constraints when they meet at the union's House of Delegates today to consider a tentative agreement reached with Chicago Public Schools (CPS)--and decide whether the proposal is good enough to call off the CTU's week-old strike.

The teachers' strike has rocked Chicago to its core and given the world a too-seldom-seen glimpse of working people's power in the heart of the U.S. It has been solidarity in action--an outpouring of public support for the teachers' fight for a fair contract, and a display of the teachers' determination to fight for their students, their schools and the communities they serve.

Teachers and their supporters moved from the picket lines to downtown mass rallies
Teachers and their supporters moved from the picket lines to downtown mass rallies (Sarah-ji)

Emanuel thought he could isolate the teachers, break the union's power and impose his agenda of corporate school deform. But instead, the incredible mobilization of teachers and their supporters has stopped the mayor in his tracks.

Since Friday, teachers have been debating a contract proposal that turned back the harshest items on the school deform list. But the contract also contains painful concessions. At a meeting last Sunday, CTU leaders and delegates decided to continue the strike into a second week so the whole membership could spend two days considering the tentative agreement. It was a lesson in how a democratic union, rooted in the strength of its rank and file, should act.

And it was a lesson that Rahm Emanuel didn't like at all. That same night, he announced he would try to force teachers back to work on a judge's order. "I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union," Emanuel proclaimed in a statement.

But a majority of Chicagoans--and an even larger majority of parents of CPS students, according to polls--don't buy Emanuel's claims to care about "the children." They know the teachers are fighting for more than their own demands, as important as those are, but for better schools, with smaller class sizes; classes in art, music and foreign languages; and desperately needed repairs to CPS's broken-down buildings.

At noon on Monday, some 200 parents, students, labor activists and community supporters descended on City Hall for a press conference outside Emanuel's fifth-floor office. The action was sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.

Speakers made it clear that they hold Emanuel and CPS responsible for stonewalling the teachers' just demands. "If saving public education has to wait a day or two, so be it," said Maria Torres of the Pilsen Alliance and a CPS parent. "It's about time someone really cared about our kids' education."

CTU MEMBERS are determined to make an informed and democratic decision about the contract proposal. "A clear majority wanted to stay out," said CTU President Karen Lewis after the Sunday House of Delegates meeting. "Our members are not happy. They want to know if there's anything more they can get."

The next morning, the picket lines were quieter than usual--because teachers were poring over the tentative agreement, based on a 23-page summary of the much longer contract. "This is democracy," one teacher later wrote. "We spent the first hour reading and annotating, then the next three hours going article by article, and discussing the contract. So proud to be CTU."

The reaction of teachers during these discussions ranged from enthusiasm for the seeming gains in the contract to bitter anger at the setbacks.

There are some clear-cut wins. CPS dropped its proposal for merit pay--a central element of the school deform agenda. Teachers will keep their "steps and lanes" pay structure that gives additional salary increases based on seniority and education.

The contract is for three years, instead of the four-year deal the city sought. Base pay will rise by 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second and third--and the contract bars CPS from unilaterally rescinding these pay hikes, as it did with the previously bargained 4 percent increase last year.

But the yearly increases in base salary won't make up for an uncompensated increase in the length of the school year--though when steps-and-lanes raises are included, pay will be higher.

The CTU fended off demands for a 40 percent increase in contributions from teachers for health insurance, freezing current costs, a rarity in labor contracts today. But under the proposed contract, CTU members will have to join the city's "wellness" scheme--an intrusive health insurance program that requires employees to surrender personal medical information. Teachers can opt out of the wellness program--but at a cost of $600 a year.

One big area of contention in negotiations was CPS's system for evaluating teachers. School officials wanted student test scores to count for half of a teachers' evaluation. The union successfully pushed this back to the minimum 25 percent under state law, rising to 30 percent in the third year of the deal.

But many CTU members are troubled by the fact that the "cut scores"--which determine where teachers fall in the four evaluation categories--are skewed toward the lower rankings. This will put more members at risk of losing their jobs due to poor evaluations. Union negotiators did, however, secure language making it possible for teachers to appeal certain rankings and move out of the lower-tiered ranks.

These provisions gained by the union will soften the blow of the evaluation system. Yet in discussions, many teachers expressed frustration that test scores are, as a result of a state mandate, part of evaluations at all. They know from day-to-day experience that student performance on standardized tests is affected by factors they can't control. At Bass Elementary School on the South Side, a special education teacher spoke powerfully on Monday about how useless testing would be in measuring the progress she makes with her students.

The provisions that may be toughest to swallow for CTU members are focused on the fate of teachers who get laid off. This will become an even more decisive question in the coming year, as CPS prepares to close or "turn around" a rumored 80 to 100 schools.

On the one hand, the contract guarantees that half of new teachers hired by CPS will be displaced CTU members--the first time the union's contract has had a concrete provision like this, according to CTU staff. But the contract also cuts the time that laid-off teachers stay in the "displaced teacher" pool--during which they receive full pay and benefits--from 10 months to five.

With Emanuel and CPS planning to shut down dozens of schools--and lay off teachers whose only "failure" was to be working in the wrong place at the wrong time--CTU members will have new, but untested, opportunities for recall. But they will unquestionably lose provisions that in the past protected them financially if the worst happened.

WHILE SOME of the union's presentations to the press chiefly emphasized the gains made in the contract, with members, leaders of the union have been upfront about the provisions they consider concessions. At the Sunday press conference, Karen Lewis refused to characterize the tentative agreement as "good" or "bad," but called it "the deal we could get."

This contract must be judged not only on the basis of its pros and cons, but the broader context of an onslaught on public-sector unions, and teachers' unions in particular.

Numerous cities are in the process of annihilating public education--and gutting the teachers' unions as the first order of business. In Detroit, for example, the city has closed 100 schools, and more than one-third of K-12 students attend a charter school run by the state, not the city. In Philadelphia, an array of nonprofit groups, charter school operators and academic institutions has lined up to run the city's schools, rather than a public authority.

Meanwhile, the two major teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, are largely collaborating with the assault.

For example, in Cleveland earlier this year, the AFT local agreed to allow teacher layoffs based on student test scores and evaluations, rather than seniority. AFT President Randi Weingarten didn't oppose the agreement--on the contrary, she has been pushing Cleveland teachers toward it. When the union, not city officials, proposed axing job protections, Weingarten said this broke "a significant logjam over the tenure issue."

In Chicago, before two years ago, the CTU was led by an old guard that accepted the Weingarten logic of partnership through concessions. But in 2010, teachers from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) swept into office with the promise to build resistance.

The inspiring mobilizations during the Chicago strike are the result of a systematic effort by the new CTU leadership. Union officers and staff worked with teachers throughout the city to build solidarity and activism within the union, and make connections to community and parent groups outside it. That hard work was rewarded in June when nearly 90 percent of all union members--and an incredible 98 percent of teachers who cast a ballot--voted to authorize a strike.

Seen in this light, the strike itself was the first victory. It has been a reassertion of the CTU as a fighting union--and of basic labor rights against a bipartisan attack. And at a time when so many unions, especially in the public sector, are taking drastic concessions and still not avoiding wage cuts and layoffs, the provisions in the CTU contract that hold the line or make incremental gains have to be seen as tremendous accomplishments.

None of them would have happened, though, without the intensive mobilization of the entire union and the widespread support won from parents, students and the community beyond.

THAT MOBILIZATION holds the key to the struggle to come.

The CTU's campaign around winning "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve," to quote the union's chief statement, raised consciousness about the crisis in public schools--and also raised hopes that the strike would make some tangible gains on questions like class size.

Unfortunately, there are few concrete improvements on these questions in the tentative agreement. This is in significant part because the union is barred by law from striking over such questions. Thus, CTU leaders had to press for what changes they could while focusing on other contractual issues.

One common sentiment on picket lines on Monday was disappointment about the lack of enforceable contract provisions lowering class sizes. Teachers and their supporters are right to be angry that CPS won't take up such a crucial issue for the success of public schools. But it's also important to remember that struggles like these won't end when the strike is over and a contract is signed. The strike itself is only a first step in battles that will have to go on long after.

The next phase of the struggle will revolve around the looming threat of the school closures--and it will begin the day teachers return to work and start figuring out how to build on the solidarity of teachers who came together during the strike and strengthen the connections made to parent and community groups.

This will be a tough battle. The board wants to go after an estimated 80 to 100 schools--roughly one in every six schools left in the system after the shift to charter schools took its toll.

But the strike built up alliances between the union and other forces that will make a stand. And more generally, the CTU walkout cast a spotlight on the crisis of our schools, the bipartisan assault on public education and the arrogant attitude of the political and business elite toward something working-class people care about deeply: their schools.

Parents and students have organized in the past against CPS decisions to shut down schools or funnel scarce resources away from the communities that need them most--and since CORE took over, those struggles have gained the active support of the CTU. But while they may have captured a few headlines, this activism largely took place in the shadows. That will change as a result of the Chicago teachers' strike of 2012.

The CTU--whatever happens in the House of Delegate meeting on Tuesday--should reinforce that message that no one who stands up for public schools in Chicago will ever fight alone. Teachers have shown their power and determination in this strike, but this is only the first step forward in a long-term fight for education justice.

The Chicago Teachers Union was facing a speeding locomotive of corporate school deform headed straight at them. Teachers must now make a decision on a contract that includes disappointing concessions alongside its gains. But whatever they decide, they can be proud that they pushed back against the privatizers and union-busters--and they will emerge much stronger than before, and an inspiration to labor activists around the country.

This extraordinary struggle in Chicago could be the first step in a new movement for our schools. Now, though, it's up to not only teachers but everyone who believes in social justice to continue that fight--and take the next steps together.

Craig Althage, Carlos Enriquez and Brit Schulte contributed to this article.

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