Chicago teachers get fired up in the cold

Teacher Mike Shea reports on a massive downtown rally to organize solidarity for the Chicago Teachers Union's ongoing drive to secure a fair contract.

Thousands of Chicago teachers and their supporters turned out for a huge downtown rally (Bob Simpson)Thousands of Chicago teachers and their supporters turned out for a huge downtown rally (Bob Simpson)

SEVERAL THOUSAND teachers and their supporters turned out on a cold but festive evening November 23 in Chicago's Grant Park to stand shoulder to shoulder at the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) "One Vision, One Voice, One Victory" rally.

Most who attended the rally seemed surprised and pleased by the turnout, with participants clearly feeding off the energy that coursed through the gathering.

Despite the chill in the air and slush on the ground, union members and supporters basked in warm expressions of solidarity as speaker after speaker took to the stage to explain what was important to them about the education justice movement that they and the CTU are building together.

Speakers included Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and parents, members of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), the Fight for 15, Action Now, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, UIC United Faculty, Amalgamated Transit Union and many others.

In reality, the frigid temperature was a minor nuisance compared to the scale of the assault from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Board of Education, who are stalling negotiations for a new contract, threatening massive layoffs and promising even more budget cuts.

CTU members have been without a contract since last summer, but the city has been dragging its feet in negotiations for a new one. The rally was part of the union's ongoing effort to organize broad solidarity with parents, students and community organizations across Chicago.

CPS student Bryan D. explained that we all win if "students and teachers stand together," because students at his school on the Southwest Side need more counselors and social workers.

That echoed comments by Solo Littlejohn, a member and activist with the Fight For 15 movement for a living wage and union representation: "Low-wage workers go to CPS schools...and ultimately, we all need to work together." Littlejohn went on to explain that anyone who earns less than $15 an hour can't buy what's needed for their families, let alone the additional supplies that all students need for school.

LaCreshia Birts, a CPS alum and member of Black Youth Project 100 and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, addressed the crowd about how her former school was closed by Emanuel's handpicked Board of Education while it was under the leadership of then-CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett--who stepped down in October and has pled guilty to federal charges of fraud and corruption.

Birts, whose uncle was killed by Chicago police, connected the issues of budget cuts in schools and increased police violence in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Her call to understand the linkages between the struggle for quality public education and the struggle for strong and stable communities is also found in the CTU's report "A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve." The report details the connections between health care, housing, jobs, segregation and school funding.

Recognizing these connections before the crowd of thousands, Birts said: "It's time for us to stand in solidarity: The Black Lives Matter movement stands in solidarity with you."

To the CTU, but also to Bryan, Solo and LaCreshia, this fight is where a fair wage, freedom from oppression and racism, ample social services and fully funded public schools intersect.

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THE NOVEMBER 23 rally is the latest in an escalating series of actions organized by Chicagoans concerned about education justice.

On October 28, students from both neighborhood and selective-enrollment schools took time off from classes to protest the looming cuts at a CPS Board of Education meeting. Then, on November 6, hundreds of CPS students from neighborhood and selective-enrollment schools united together against the cuts at the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.

Bryan D. didn't know about the massive student rally, but was very excited to learn about it. When asked what teachers and students together can do to win better schools, his answer was simple: "Fight."

A teacher named Lorna echoed Bryan's answer: "We can't just let them keep knocking us around. Enough is enough."

Students and teachers know that the massive problems affecting CPS schools do not come from the classroom, but instead come into the classroom. But addressing the problems of homelessness, unemployment, chronic health care issues and violence in the community costs money. These interlocking issues are compounded by the unwillingness of CPS and the mayor to take the steps necessary to fully fund neighborhood schools.

The business elite and their counterparts in government have slashed school budgets, forcing teachers, clinicians, support staff and everyone who does the work of public education to do more with less. This summer, CPS laid off 1,400 teachers and support staff and slashed the budgets of nearly three-quarters of CPS schools, some by as much as 78 percent. If the state does not provide $500 million in emergency funding, CPS will enact further cuts in the second semester.

But the more-with-less model is becoming more and more intolerable to those who do the actual work of public education. For most of the last 20 years, the city systematically shortchanged the teachers' pension fund. Thus, city officials, in the words of the CTU, have manufactured a CPS budget that is "broke on purpose."

Now, the city says it will have no choice but to lay off 5,000 teachers in the middle of the school year unless the state of Illinois comes through with $500 million for CPS. Combined with the city's rapidly rising payouts to settle cases of police misconduct, which topped $50 million in 2014, it's clear that the interests of children both inside and outside the classroom are not a priority to those who govern our city.

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IF CITY officials have failed to make our children a priority, they certainly have tried to make working educators an enemy.

Along with Republican ideologue Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chicago's ruling class has chosen to twist apart an entire school system and strain every working family in the CPS system to protect the bankers' profits and the sanctity of debt holders. The CTU, along with other progressive unions, is calling for increasing taxes on the wealthy, such as progressive income taxation and a financial transaction tax.

Two years ago, the mayor's appointed CPS board voted to approve the largest mass closing of public schools in the nation's history--50 of them in one fell swoop. But only recently is CPS threatening to close charter schools that are "underperforming." While the creation of charter schools is used as a tool to drive down the cost of public education and break unions, the ability to open and close any schools at will represents an even broader strategy to solidify and intensify top-down control of the school system.

Yet as Rahm, Rauner and their appointed functionaries in CPS make moves to protect their power, Chicago educators and residents are pushing in the opposite direction. Last February, an overwhelming number of Chicago voters--nearly 90 percent--supported an elected representative school board in a nonbinding ballot question.

An "elected school board will take away authority from the mayor," said Action Now member Tyrone Lambert--and move Chicago a step in the direction of democratic accountability. Tyrone went on to say that the mayor and the banks are incorrectly "trying to put the deficit on the backs of the teachers" in order to protect their own interests. "They're hiding the money," he said. "They're all crooks."

Teachers, support staff and allies know what schools need to better serve students and their families. And they also know the first step toward that answer is simple: money.

Kevin Jackson attended the rally in support of students and teachers. He is a CPS social worker whose job is spread across three different schools in West Humboldt Park and North Lawndale. "I see that the schools have been stripped of their services and funding," he said.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey reminded the crowd that we still need a "library in every school...with someone in it!" Sharkey made similar points during our strike in 2012--points that more sharply resonate today as a result of the additional cuts.

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WHILE CPS officials continue to take resources and people from the classroom with one hand, they are simultaneously stuffing money into the pockets of their friends at Bank of America and Goldman Sachs with the other.

They do this with a litany of profitable, sweetheart deals, such as toxic interest-rate swaps, social impact bonds and pension payment holidays. Each of these schemes drive CPS's debt burden ever higher, and each is impossible to realize without help from the highest offices in government.

To prop up this semi-legal theft, the logic throughout CPS is to shift the cost of that debt onto working families--but also to blame them and the poor for creating it. This is exactly the crisis that has been manufactured around the pensions. Under several school reform acts passed in 1995, CPS won ability to take a pension holiday and didn't make a contribution for nearly 10 years.

To further add insult to injury, CPS used this money to fund construction projects for buildings and offices that are now shuttered. The pension money having been spent, teachers are now expected to shoulder the additional cost of rebuilding the looted pension and to take a pay cut to do so.

Meanwhile, as Bryan D. reminded us, Chicago students need more support in and outside the classroom--yet, they face greater and greater austerity. The anger--at gutting public pensions as well as shortchanging students--is palpable. It is directed at the entire system, which devalues teachers and students alike. "We have spent our whole career to the betterment of children," said Lorna. "When did we wake up and become the enemy?"

This system excels at victim-blaming, but it has major cracks that are exposed by those in the education justice movement, as well as those working against the impunity of police violence. This movement has clearly exposed the lack of real accountability to those this system pretends to serve.

Smaller pirates--like former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her co-conspirators at SUPES Academy--occasionally get caught. Yet the bigger criminals remain untouched. In the police department, an officer like Jason Van Dyke may go to jail for murdering Laquan McDonald, and Dante Servin may be fired for murdering Rekia Boyd. Yet those in key decision-making positions who directed the "undercharge" of Servin and orchestrated the 14-month cover-up of McDonald's murder may escape--for now.

"We need more anger at the conditions that lead to the creation of Chiraq," said CTU President Karen Lewis during the rally, concretely connecting the struggle of the CTU with its allies by using the term embraced by many Chicago activists angry at violent conditions they liken to a war zone.

But in the same message, Lewis also made sweeping connections to violence elsewhere in the world, naming Palestine and Syria, among others. By doing so, Lewis highlighted the systemic inequalities that lead to war, to the pillaging of public schools, to the violence that pervades poor communities in the U.S., and to the disregard for Black lives by law enforcement.

Leading the crowd in a memorial for victims of violence, Rev. Jesse Jackson reiterated BYP 100's LaCreshia Birts by citing the nationwide payouts to victims of police violence totaling more than "$500 million in police misconduct--that's 5,000 teachers."

"We are fighting against a corrupt system, and we want an elected school board, not an appointed school board," said Jimmy, a high school counselor on Chicago's Southwest Side. "They are trying to break up the union...It would seem by their actions, if it was up to them, they would close CPS altogether."

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THE LEADERSHIP of this city manages a web of crooked operations that cover up police murderers as well as the looting of public schools in broad daylight. Just as charges against officer Van Dyke remained "tied up" for 14 months, funding to prevent mass layoffs in CPS also remains "tied up" in the statehouse in Springfield.

The rapidly growing movements for education justice and to ensure Black Lives Matter clearly reveal that Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CPS CEO Forest Claypool and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez all work against the interest of working people.

The messaging from CTU has been clear: Tax the rich and fund our schools. Yet CTU's proposals have not exclusively required money. At the bargaining table, CTU has also tried to negotiate for more manageable workloads for school counselors, fewer standardized tests and even reducing the leviathan-like teacher evaluation system called REACH.

These are issues that the CTU's contract action teams, which are school-based, teacher-organized committees to discuss contract issues in the workplace, have reported as a key source of frustration for teachers. Yet CPS has refused to budge on these issues even as it pushes ahead with its demands for a pay cut.

This refusal to bend demonstrates that the CPS bigwigs and the mayor's office are asserting their control over the workplace as much as their ability to starve the system of funds.

Which elites in city and state government will support the first step toward adequate funding may in large part be determined by the strength and willingness of CTU members and allies to go into the street in solidarity. As LaCreshia Birts reminded the audience, as well as the ring of police around the crowd, "We have to stand together in solidarity against all injustice."

This is the kind of solidarity that can prevent another young person from facing the same fate as Laquan. This is the kind of solidarity that can tax the rich to fund the schools our children deserve.

Gala Pierce contributed to this article.