How can Chicago teachers win again?

Hit by budget cuts and union-busting legislative proposals, Chicago teachers face their biggest challenge in years. Lee Sustar explains the backdrop to this high-stakes fight.

CTU teachers march against layoff threats and budget cuts (Bob Simpson | SW)CTU teachers march against layoff threats and budget cuts (Bob Simpson | SW)

THREE YEARS after their strike defeated an attempt to gut their contract and further entrench the corporate education deform agenda in city schools, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members could soon be walking the picket lines again.

Like last time, a Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is poised to cut jobs and pay and gut classroom resources. But now they face a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who is seeking to crush the union outright.

CTU members--who in December voted by an overwhelming 88 percent margin to authorize a strike--vowed to walk out as early as April 1 if Chicago Public Schools (CPS) unilaterally pushed more pension costs onto teachers.

CPS backed off its threat--for now--after the union began preparing for an unfair labor practices strike. But the school board claims that unless the CTU makes major concessions, it will be compelled to take this step as a result of a budget deadlock in the state legislature, a squeeze on Chicago city finances and a long-running fiscal crisis at CPS itself.

The CTU--which is still planning protests for a day of action on April 1--counters that CPS is "broke on purpose." The union points out that the district began the current school year with a $1 billion deficit as a result of the decades-long tax dodge by big business; a push for expensive, nonunion charter schools; and high-interest loans to CPS that benefit the big banks at the expense of kids. If CPS unilaterally imposes higher pension costs on workers, the CTU has stated that it will invoke its right to strike against an unfair labor practice.

A strike over a new contract could still come this spring or in the fall if no agreement is reached. The CTU has been working under an extension of the old contract, which expired in June 2015.

Emanuel and Rauner--whatever their own differences--are both targeting the CTU, presenting the union with one of the greatest challenges in the organization's 79-year history.

Even so, the CTU can still prevail if it builds on the public support it won in the 2012 strike to lead a wider labor-community fight against sweeping budget cuts in education and across the public sector--this time making the fight against racism and inequality even more prominent. A solidarity meeting for the CTU, set for March 9, will focus on many of those themes.

With Emanuel still reeling from the disclosure of a video showing the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald and Rauner saddled with popularity ratings that show a majority of Illinois voters disapprove of him, the CTU can rally popular support behind a program of challenging austerity and taxing the wealthy to pay for schools and social services.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE NUMBERS tell the story of the CPS financial crisis: a $500 million payment due to teachers' pensions this year, the result of systematic underpayments by CPS for decades; borrowing, most recently some $725 million, at extortionate interest rates that will cost the system hundreds of millions of dollars; and a long-term drain of tax dollars away from schools to fund development schemes for businesses that don't need the money.

In the past, the hard-charging Emanuel would have used the crisis to simply try to ram through cuts. But with his approval ratings dropping to 27 percent--the lowest of any Chicago mayor in the modern era--he has tried to reach a deal by giving considerable ground on issues important to the CTU, including a ban on economic layoffs and a freeze on the creation of charter schools.

But the CTU's bargaining committee didn't buy it when they voted on the city's offer. Teachers on the committee rejected the deal unanimously, pointing out that retirement incentives would have resulted in a net loss of 1,500 CTU jobs, and the proposal that teachers pick up pension payments would have amounted to a cut in compensation once inflation is taken into account.

Chicago schools CEO Forrest Claypool, a veteran Democratic operative, has set an April 1 deadline for rescinding a portion of the pension cost that it has paid for decades and cutting $85 million from school budgets. This will involve the layoff of some 1,000 teachers and paraprofessionals. The union has responded by stepping up the action, including "walk-in" protests at some 200 schools.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE BATTLE is reminiscent of union struggles in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the CTU went on strike against payless paydays and the Illinois state legislature created the School Finance Authority to oversee spending, amid political turmoil in the Chicago Democratic machine following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Of the CTU's nine strikes between 1969 and 1987, most took place during that era--including three against Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first African American mayor.

But the threat to the CTU goes deeper than the budget squeeze or attacks by Emanuel and Rauner. Chicago teachers find themselves at the center of multiple, converging crises: the failure of pro-business neoliberal policies to revive the city's economy after the Great Recession; growing resistance to racist police violence; cracks in the two main political parties, as evidenced by the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump phenomena; and the struggle by organized labor for continued relevance after decades of decline.

Perhaps the closest analog for today's struggles is the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Chicago teachers--then organized in several unions--embarked on series of battles that would lead to the founding of a unified Chicago Teachers Union in 1937. Then, as now, the corporate establishment and the politicians sought to force teachers to bear the brunt of conditions in schools crippled by budget cuts.

For his part, Bruce Rauner, a hedge fund boss worth nearly $1 billion who bought himself the governor's office in the 2014 election, wants to turn back the clock to the days when public-sector unions had no right to collective bargaining.

Although he has been in office for 14 months, Rauner has refused to reach any budget deal with the Democratic legislature unless lawmakers capitulate to his demand to include anti-union measures. The result is huge cuts in spending in vital social programs and state institutions. One consequence: layoff notices were sent to all faculty, staff and administrators at Chicago State University, where the student body is heavily African American.

The governor is doing his utmost to provoke a confrontation with the CTU by pushing a plan for bankruptcy that would void union contracts and seeking to block CPS from selling bonds to finance school operations.

The Democrats control the Illinois legislature and the state constitution limits his authority, so Rauner is trying to create a crisis in which he can assert executive power to impose a contract settlement on the CTU, directly or through a judge's order--and/or create the political conditions for a legislative settlement in his favor.

In this context, the CTU's fight cannot be won through conventional trade union bargaining--at least as it has evolved since the CTU won formal collective bargaining rights in the late 1960s. Rauner has already proposed that the Illinois National Guard do state workers' jobs in the event of a public employees strike--a throwback to the 19th century, when governors regularly used the state militia, the Guard's predecessor, to put down strikes by railroad workers and coal miners.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE CTU enters this fight with a reservoir of popular support. According to an opinion poll, three times more Chicagoans trust the union on education issues than Rahm Emanuel.

Moreover, the union has forged links with numerous community, issue-oriented and faith-based organizations, many of them grouped into the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM).

Labor support for the CTU is much more uneven, however.

The teachers do have solid relationships with several different unions, including the liberal Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Illinois-Indiana, the home health care workers union that Rauner is out to destroy. Another ally is the reform leadership of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents city transit workers who were hammered by Claypool a few years back when he was their boss. The National Nurses Organizing Committee, the activist union representing workers at Cook County Hospital, was a prominent backer of the CTU strike in 2012 and remains an ally today.

The list of the CTU's labor supporters is notable by who isn't on it, however. The Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), which groups together the city's main unions, is missing in action, as are most of its affiliates. The CFL and the state AFL-CIO did mobilize against Rauner's attempts to push through local anti-union "right to work" laws, but they have been mostly quiet since then. In Chicago, several big unions, including the Teamsters Joint Council and most of the building trades, back Emanuel.

The CTU's most natural ally in its fight is American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, which is trying to negotiate a contract with Rauner that covers some 100,000 state workers.

Rauner's contract demands are intolerable and would gut the union. But it is Rauner, not AFSCME, that is pushing for a strike. The union, by contrast, is backing legislation that would eliminate its own right to strike, but bar Rauner from locking them out--leaving the final contract decision to an arbitrator.

Certainly, AFSCME's opposition to Rauner's austerity drive puts it on the same page as the CTU. But AFSCME's abandonment of the strike, labor's most powerful weapon, is in sharp contrast to the CTU's strategy.

Instead, AFSCME has looked to the legislature for relief. Since a handful of Rauner's Democratic allies in the legislature have refused to support the no-strike, no-lockout bill, labor spent heavily in the Democratic primaries set for March 15, even as Rauner's wealthy backers pour their own money into the race.

The result is that rather than mobilize AFSCME members for an inevitable confrontation with Rauner and present themselves as proud defenders of public services, the top AFSCME leadership has urged members to appear moderate and merely paint Rauner as a villain who should be ousted from office.

The problem is that the next election for Illinois governor isn't until 2018--and the struggle will come to a head long before that. In any case, Rauner, who was already wealthy and powerful before taking office, doesn't care if he is re-elected. He was installed in office by his superrich circle of allies in order to demolish the state's welfare system and stomp on unions.

If Rauner succeeds but gets tossed out of office as a result, he'll count it as a win, go back to asset-stripping companies and relax at one of his seven homes around the world.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE RELUCTANCE of the big unions to fight alongside the CTU may reflect the opportunism or caution of their leaderships--but it doesn't mean that there is a lack of support for teachers.

The union has the potential to tap widespread solidarity by appealing directly to members of other public-sector unions in the city--after all, their children attend CPS schools.

Just as importantly, the union can draw on the widespread anger at Emanuel over his complicity in the epidemic of racist police violence against African Americans. That anger erupted late last year when the video of Laquan McDonald being executed by cops emerged, and Emanuel's once-undisputed power was shaken by the worst crisis in Chicago politics since the 1980s.

CTU support for the Black Lives Matter movement wasn't automatic, however. Some CTU members are married to police officers, and a vocal minority criticized union President Karen Lewis and CTU officials after a November union rally where a young African American activist was given a chance to speak and decried police racism and violence. Since then, the union supported and mobilized for anti-police protests.

Still, the exposure of a widespread cover-up of the McDonald video since then has shattered Emanuel's aura of political invincibility. The mayor's African American allies on the City Council, who were key to helping Emanuel win an unprecedented runoff vote to stay in office, are now far more worried about their angry constituents than appeasing the notorious bully of City Hall.

Tapping into this rebellious mood will require building on the political arguments that the CTU has made since Lewis and other Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) activists took office in 2010: that CPS has been systematically underfunded for years by pro-business tax policies; that it became a nest for corruption and political patronage by funneling resources to clout-heavy charter schools; that bankers have been feasting on CPS by locking in the schools at high interest rates; and that Emanuel and the city have made Black and Latino communities pay the price.

The anti-banker mood, given voice by the Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, can be brought into this fight. It's the banks and bondholders, after all, who dictate austerity policies to politicians. And in the case of Rauner, a banker is directly responsible for laying waste to state and city finances.

The struggle will be harder than it was in 2012, when Emanuel badly underestimated teachers' resolve and the widespread sympathy for their union. This time, the CTU is up against both Rauner and Emanuel, and they are preparing for a showdown.

Nevertheless, by once again drawing on public sympathy--and this time, turning it into more active support, with protests, sit-ins and the like--the CTU can win. By linking its fight to broader working-class issues of fully funded public education and racial and economic equality, the CTU can defend good union jobs and build a wider movement for social justice.