Teachers turn up the heat on Rahm

Lee Sustar explains the backdrop to this week's strike vote by Chicago teachers.

Chicago Mayor Rahm EmanuelChicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

WITH THE City Hall establishment reeling from a fast-moving police corruption scandal, Chicago public school teachers are about to give Mayor Rahm Emanuel something else to worry about.

Starting December 9, members of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will take a vote on authorizing a strike to pressure Emanuel--along with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Forrest Claypool and the mayor's handpicked school board--to back off threats of mass layoffs and devastating budget cuts, as well as contract concessions that, according to the CTU, would cost its members some $600 million.

At a November 23 rally of more than 5,000 teachers and their supporters, CTU leaders made it clear that the union was prepared to once again take to the picket line, as it did in 2012 when the union forced Emanuel to retreat from his scorched-earth assault in a nine-day strike.

"We want to remind people in this crowd about sometimes what it takes," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said. "You will have a chance very soon to answer the question of how much resolve you have. And when you do, the answer will be 'Yes.'"

CTU President Karen Lewis said: "When we must, we will withhold our labor, because that is the root of our power as organized labor. And if we must strike, we do so to protect the interest of our students."

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THE RALLY--pointedly held outside in the cold to show the union's willingness to walk a wintertime picket line--came just a couple of days before the release of the dash cam video showing the police execution of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the exposure of the Chicago Police Department's cover-up of that killing.

Lewis, anticipating the political fallout of the case, linked the violence that hits African American neighborhoods hardest to the same policies that led to school closures and the squeeze on the funding of neighborhood schools.

"We need more people angry about the conditions that lead young people to call their neighborhoods 'Chiraq,'" Lewis said. "We need people focused on eradicating the conditions that lead to the creation of two Chicagos--one, where skyscrapers and well-resourced schools and safe parks and economic development thrives, while in another, Chiraq, there are abandoned and foreclosed buildings, vacant lots, poor housing stock, closed schools, fewer jobs and more bullets."

The CTU, Lewis continued, would "focus on standing up for neighborhoods schools--where teaching and learning take place, where teachers, clinicians and paraprofessionals are fighting for restorative justice so we can break the school-to-prison pipeline."

The rally included a speaker from the Black Lives Matter movement, who spoke out against racist police violence, despite objections from a vocal minority of CTU members.

Four days later, the CTU was one of the endorsers of a hastily organized Black Friday march for justice for Laquan McDonald. That protest shut down much of the upscale Michigan Avenue shopping district--and again, an organized group of CTU members, some of them with spouses in the police department, spoke out.

But at the union's House of Delegates meeting the following week, speakers who supported the CTU's involvement in the protest got big applause, noted Tammie Vinson, a 14-year elementary school special education teacher and CTU trustee. Vinson, who is African American, took to the floor of the meeting to describe her own family's experience of police harassment. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution calling for thorough reform of the Chicago Police Department.

Vinson said that the CTU's support for the march for Laquan McDonald was the result of years of organizing--during which the union made the phrase "apartheid schools" part of the political discussion. "There are things that go on in our city that are not equal," Vinson said. "If you think it is unfair, what are you prepared to do about it? Do we only focus on our workday stuff, when it is so affected by community issues?"

Another teacher, who, like Vinson, is a longstanding activist in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), made a similar point. "There has been a pushback" from conservative elements in the union, he said. "But generally, the rank and file has been supportive" of the protests over Laquan McDonald.

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THE SCANDAL over the racist violence of the Chicago police, which has already cost the police chief and other top cops their jobs, will remain front and center for the CTU and all political actors in the city.

As Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. pointed out at the November 23 rally, the $500 million that the city paid out over the last 10 years as compensation for police violence could have been used to hire thousands of teachers. The city has also paid out compensation to African American men tortured and wrongly convicted by Chicago cops in the 1980s.

Having taken up the challenge of fighting against racism and for social justice in education and beyond, the CTU finds itself on the front lines of a critical battle for civil rights.

The police scandal is bound to affect the climate around contract negotiations with the CTU, as Rahm Emanuel is hammered by newspaper editorial boards for presiding over the cops' unchecked violence and corruption--as well as pushing through a $5 million payment to Laquan McDonald's family during his reelection campaign earlier this year, in the hopes of keeping protest quiet.

It's unclear just how a wounded and discredited Emanuel will approach the bargaining table with the union. But certainly he can no longer hope to outflank the CTU by calling in favors from his African American allies on the City Council, who were crucial to helping him win an April runoff election against Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.

At the center of this year's contract dispute is how to pay for $500 million that the city owes to the teachers' pension system after years of short-changing the fund. Chicago Public Schools is counting on the Democratic-controlled state legislature to come up with a rescue. But Illinois' Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has made any such aid contingent on restricting the collective bargaining rights of teahers--the same stance he's also taken toward unions that represent state employees.

As boss of CPS, Claypool has appealed to the CTU to join the city in lobbying legislators and the governor to create a more equitable formula for funding public education in Chicago. But at the same time, Emanuel hopes to use pressure from Rauner to compel the CTU to accept sweeping concessions, such as the elimination of the "step and lane" formula, which allows individual teachers to get pay raises based on education levels and longevity.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Board of Education is using the law known as SB 7 to restrict the CTU's right to strike. Passed in 2011 at the behest of Emanuel, the law requires 75 percent of CTU members to vote to authorize strike for the action to be legal, and it gives the board the ability to stretch out negotiations by prolonging mediation and the involvement of a fact-finder, a form of nonbinding arbitration.

The union's interpretation of the timeline under SB 7 would allow for a strike in March--but if the board has its way, the earliest possible strike deadline would come in June, after the school year is over.

For now, the CTU is working under terms of the old contract, which expired last June. The next big showdown could come in early February, when the school board says that budget cuts would require the mass layoffs

Given the dramatic change in Chicago politics in a matter of a few days, it's impossible to predict what comes next. But the CTU, by taking up the question of racist police violence, has already taken an important step in linking its fight for a decent contract with the wider struggle for social justice.