What we’re fighting for on April 1

March 29, 2016

Lee Sustar looks at the dynamics of the one-day Chicago teachers strike on April 1--plus CTU activists and other activists explain why they're joining the day of action.

THE CHICAGO teachers' fight for public education and teachers will converge with a wider struggle against austerity, injustice and racism with a one-day strike and mass protest set for April 1.

The strike, an unfair labor practice action by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that city authorities claim is illegal, will bring to bear the power of organized labor in alliance with other movements and struggles--some that have been building for years, as well as more recent waves of activism, such as Black Lives Matter, the protest against Donald Trump's racism earlier this month, and student mobilizations against drastic budget cuts in state universities.

Thus, when CTU delegates voted March 23 by a 486-124 margin for a one-day walkout on April 1, they weren't only to challenging the concessions demands and underhanded maneuvers of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials--they were also connecting with and supporting a wider movement against the austerity agenda pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Chicago Teachers Union members on the march through downtown streets
Chicago Teachers Union members on the march through downtown streets

"We're not out here by ourselves doing this," CTU President Karen Lewis told a television interviewer following the delegates' vote. "This is not just CTU, and I think that's the part that people don't quite get. We are literally dying a death of a thousand cuts."

Those cuts are being driven by Gov. Rauner, the rich Republican hedge-fund boss who refuses to pass any state budget that does not include draconian restrictions on public sector unions, deep reductions in social services and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Rauner's attacks have fallen hardest so far in the state university system, where continued operations are literally at stake. That's why thousands of students and faculty are answering the call by University Professionals of Illinois, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, to shut down their schools and converge on Chicago for April 1.

But Mayor Emanuel is a target of the April 1 action, too--not only because he controls the K-12 public schools in Chicago, but for presiding over police cover-up of the shooting of an African American youth, Laquan McDonald, which has highlighted the wider problem of racist police brutality.

The breadth of the movement was reflected in a March 24 organizing meeting to plan for the April 1 action. Hosted by Jobs with Justice at the Workers United hall, nearly 100 people attended, including members of groups organizing around Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights activists, high school student groups, university professors and staff, education justice organizations, disability rights groups, veterans of Occupy Chicago and more. Officials and rank-and-file members from several unions were present, too.

"The combination of leadership of Black youth and progressive labor organizations and leadership represent a tremendous opportunity to move a left agenda," said Barbara Ransby, the University of Illinois at Chicago professor and veteran activist who chaired the meeting.

Many of these same groups supported the CTU strike in 2012 and were on hand for a March 10 town hall meeting sponsored by the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Committee. But these forces are mobilizing for their own struggles as well--to push back against police violence, oppose spending cuts which have pushed state universities to the brink of closure, resist the gutting of public-sector pensions and more.

THE DYNAMICS of the April 1 day of action recall not only the overwhelmingly popular CTU strike in fall 2012, but also the mass labor mobilization of 2011 in nearby Wisconsin, against the passage of anti-union labor laws pushed through by reactionary Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

The weeks-long Wisconsin battle--during which tens of thousands of workers mobilized for near-daily protests, with an occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison as the centerpiece--also featured job actions, including a sick-out movement by teachers that shut down most of the schools.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin labor leaders never really embraced the wider anti-austerity movement. Rather than build on potential social movement alliances and step up the struggle, the unions, under pressure from the Democratic Party, eventually diverted the struggle into a failed recall effort against Walker and Republican legislators.

The CTU has had its own turn towards on electoral politics--most recently in Democratic primary elections, with an effort to knock out Rauner's allies and support Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, even though Madigan, a pro-business machine politician, is hardly a friend of labor.

But the CTU, unlike most other unions, has carried out a discussion among its membership about the necessity of embracing wider social movement alliances, including the Black Lives Matter movement--even though the union's support for direct action protests against racist police violence led to a debate among members in recent months. That explains why the proposal to take strike action as part of a wider anti-austerity movement won overwhelming support in the House of Delegates.

Those alliances are critical. The CTU could be in an open-ended strike as early as May 16, and the connections made in this fight will be essential to building solidarity. At the same time, the use of the strike weapon provides an example to other unions now under the gun--most importantly, AFSCME Council 31, which has tried to avoid a walkout against Rauner, but could soon have no other choice.

That's why April 1 not only spurred the CTU into action, but has also captured the imagination of other trade unionists and social movement activists. Whatever the size of the strike and protests, it will represent an important steps toward building the kind of labor and social movement alliances needed to meet the challenge in Illinois and across the U.S.

Voices of resistance on April 1

Mike Shea
15-year high school history teacher on the South Side

On April 1, I will strike with my Chicago Teachers Union sisters and brothers and all our allies because I believe that this strike is a step toward a movement that will place the needs of people before profit.

Our Democratic officials have closed mental health clinics. They disrupted and then closed 50 schools while they opened dozens charters and plundered tens of millions of dollars through the mayor's appointed cronies on the Board of Education. They handed out billions in tax dollars to private developers to speed gentrification. They lengthened the school day and year to the consternation of parents and teachers. And they appointed austerity managers to rearrange and cut school budgets in each of the last four years--in addition to their counterparts at the state level, who imposed an absurd testing regime.

Our demand to put the needs of people before profit isn't idealism. It has become the most concrete path more and way forward.

Gabriel Sheridan
High school language teacher on the South Side

The action on April 1 will be, for me, an empowering moment. I have been teaching for 23 years, 18 of them in the Chicago Public Schools. Often, the politics of education interfere with my working with students. Everything from keeping our building maintained to having supplies to micromanaging how I deliver instruction has been impacted by politics.

In recent years, with school closings and the expansion of charters, the politics have impacted my students' experiences more than at any other time in my career. Our building suffers for lack of maintenance; access to supplies is impacted; the time spent on authentic student projects has been minimized due to overtesting.

Added to that, the pressures of the work have increased, with the constant threat that I will lose my pension, that my salary will be cut, that my own tax dollars are not accessible to the social services for which they are intended. That creates a stressful working climate for all teachers.

Without this day of action, I feel as though I can do little to push back against the austerity that has taken over the politics of education. I will walk out knowing that I am fighting for social justice for my students.

John Miller
President, University Professionals of Illinois

We are joining tighter with our labor partners to send a clear message to the governor that you can't use our students as bargaining chips. The governor is harming the future of this state. Labor has to rally--to stand and fight back.

A South Side CPS parent
Former Chicago Public Schools graduate with two middle-school children

The strike is part of a large movement fighting for funding in Chicago and Illinois, and for the demand to stop subsidizing corporations and banks with our dollars and instead use public funds to invest in the future of our youth. Parents and students believe in these basic demands for full and equitable funding, and therefore stand with teachers in the CTU, as well as the many other organizations participating in this day of action.

Tyler Zimmer
Philosophy instructor at Northeastern Illinois University

There was a time, not too long ago, when public universities and colleges in Illinois were among the best in the nation in terms of providing affordable, high quality education to a diverse body of students. Today, it feels like politicians in Illinois--especially Gov. Rauner and his backers--are doing everything in their power to destroy this legacy.

Several public universities, mine included, are teetering on the edge of financial collapse. My students ask me which courses I'll be teaching in the fall, but I'm not even sure if there will be a fall semester, or whether I'll have a job come September.

There's a sense on my campus that this is a do-or-die moment--either we mobilize now to turn the tide, or else our university will be crushed under the boot of Rauner's austerity drive. Either we engage in militant action to force politicians to tax the rich, or else the state will inflict profound, irreparable damage to public higher education in Illinois.

April 1 is our best opportunity to join with others send a clear message to the billionaire class that we won't pay for their crisis. Higher education has been cut to the bone already, and enough is enough. I'm marching for my students, for my university, for the very idea of affordable, high-quality public education at all levels.

A South Side elementary school teacher

I'm striking because I want a sustainable future for all public schools--all students and families and teachers and communities. I don't understand why the lottery of birthright determines if students receive a public education from well-resourced schools. If, as Americans, we say public education is a right, then we need to enforce high-quality public education in every school, regardless of location and/or demographic.

Why is it important to strike? To reinforce our belief in equal rights for all and to hold politicians and each other accountable to create systems that reflect those beliefs in equality. To say that these communities are getting shortchanged and deserve more to break vicious cycles.

Why are we striking? So we can make the world a better place for future generations--a world where traditionally underserved communities are no longer underserved. A strike won't fix those issues overnight. But it is one strategic step in a long-term battle to, as Mahatma Gandhi said, be the change I want to see in the world.

I hope to see many on the line with me in the fight for fully funded schools as a first step to secure a better future for all.

A City of Chicago driver
Member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

I can tell you that you're going to be getting more than a little bit of support from the city drivers on April 1. More than half of the folks out of my barn have indicated that they will be no shows.

This isn't just a "Fuck Rahm" idea. There is a much stronger underlying sentiment. To be honest, the plight of the teachers hits home on two levels: The teachers are getting the shaft and, more importantly, children are being impacted. That is what resonates with many of us. The Friday walkout is going to hit the city hard.

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