The next fight for the CTU

May 4, 2016

In the wake of a strong one-day strike on April 1, Chicago teachers Mike Shea and Kirstin Roberts look at the battles ahead for their union.

SINCE THE Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) one-day political strike against austerity and for taxing the rich on April 1--joined by solidarity actions of unions and community groups across Chicago that culminated in a 20,000-strong rally downtown--the question of where the fight to save public schools and services goes next is on everyone's mind.

The CTU, which has been working under the terms of a contract that expired last summer, is facing a drastic attack on different fronts.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school officials want to push the cost of the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) budget crisis onto teachers, in particular by reneging on a commitment to contribute to their pensions, forcing teachers to make up the difference. Meanwhile, Illinois' Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is maneuvering to seize control of CPS and crush the power of public-sector unions.

In mid-May, the timeline mandated by Illinois state law governing the contract negotiation process for CPS moves onto a new phase. The way would be clear for the CTU to go on strike on or after May 16.

Chicago Teachers Union members on the march during their one-day strike in April
Chicago Teachers Union members on the march during their one-day strike in April (Bob Simpson)

If the union exercises its right to strike as soon as it is legally able to do so, the action would come almost at the close of the school year. A strike could then continue on into the summer, potentially leaving teachers without paychecks and employer-backed health care coverage for weeks.

CTU leaders--backed up by a straw poll of union members taken at a recent House of Delegates meeting--have stated that they would prefer not to strike at this point because of the timing for teachers and because a walkout would disrupt graduation plans for high school seniors.

A delay would mean going into the summer and facing a second school year with no contract. But the union, while maintaining that it will strike if provoked, has made it clear that its preference is to continue to negotiate, while pressing the state legislature and City Council for revenue solutions to the CPS budget crisis.

But if the Board of Education does make good on its threats to roll back years of hard-won benefits and impose a contract that will cut our wages, the CTU would be compelled to strike.

The union must be prepared for this. Already, the CPS central office has sent notices to principals to "prepare" to end the school year early--a step they claim is part of preparation for a CTU strike.

Emanuel and CPS could provoke a walkout by instituting the threatened 7 percent pay cut by ending the pickup of CTU members' pension costs--a practice that began decades ago when the board agreed to spend money on pensions rather than increased wages.

CPS could also impose its "last, best" contract offer--the same one rejected unanimously by the rank-and-file big bargaining team in January. Again, this would be designed to provoke a confrontation between the union and the board at the end of a hard school year of budget crisis, cutbacks and resistance.

If Emanuel and the city choose that option, the CTU must be ready.

THE CTU's struggle is taking place in a school system that is, as the union puts it, is "broke on purpose."

Presiding over all this is Emanuel's handpicked, unaccountable school board that sees only one solution to the budget woes it and its predecessors created: Make the teachers pay through wage cuts, layoffs, benefit reductions and workload increases.

Essentially, this is a demand by the most powerful and wealthiest in Chicago to force their debt problems onto public school teachers and students. That is what unites the CTU with other public-sector and education workers across the state, who are facing similar attacks at the hands of Illinois' near-billionaire Gov. Rauner.

State workers are being forced to take furlough days. Vital services like child care centers and mental health facilities are out of funds. Public universities are facing closure altogether, after administrators already carried out drastic layoffs in order to pay for past tax cuts for millionaires.

While Rauner is clearly a bully willing to hold poor children hostage to ram through anti-union legislation, state Democrats paved the way for much of his blame-the-unions rhetoric by scapegoating state workers' pensions as the source of Illinois' budget woes.

Rather than blame the state's unfair tax system--which has let the top 1 percent of income earners and mega-corporations like McDonalds and Boeing off the hook for funding schools and services--Democrats and Republicans both blame public-sector retirees to one degree or another as the major cause of the budget crisis.

That's why solidarity between public-sector workers across Illinois and the CTU will be vital in the coming battles for funding and decent contracts. The CTU's April 1 strike--which was linked with protests and job actions by state university faculty, staff and students, as well as other unions and community groups--was a crucial step in this direction.

Just as important will be solidarity built with and between students, families and other people who depend on the schools and other public services. The old labor movement slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" has never been more relevant.

SUPPORT FOR the April 1 day of action was so strong and widespread that despite threats that teachers would be disciplined for engaging in an "illegal" strike, the CPS bosses were unable to do anything but watch, as teachers shut down the schools and were joined on the picket line by students and parents.

So April 1 was a big step forward for the movement and the CTU. But much more than a one-day strike and demonstration will be necessary to win a decent contract for the CTU, let alone stop the austerity agenda in Illinois.

CTU members are also coming to realize that despite our gains in the 2012 strike--which stopped the worst of Rahm Emanuel's anti-teacher, anti-public school agenda--the terrain of the battle in 2016 looks very different.

Since 2011, CPS's revolving door of "leadership" has claimed the mantle of "education reform" and "school excellence." This message has hidden the real intent--to undermine teacher unity, confidence and power through workload increases and a punitive evaluation system, and to close public schools while opening up nonunion charter schools.

Each of the three CPS CEOs in the last four years has carried out this agenda. The CTU has emerged from these attacks bloodied and bruised, but still alive, and angry to boot.

Now, the current CPS chief Forrest Claypool, an admirer of right-wing guru Ayn Rand and long-time Democratic party machine loyalist, is engaging in the most sophisticated game of divide and conquer yet.

But Claypool and his boss Emanuel are politically weakened--in particular because of the ongoing scandal over racist police brutality in Chicago, catalyzed by the release of a video of the 2014 police execution of Laquan McDonald, an African American youth shot 16 times as he lay dying in the street.

By continuing to link their own struggle to their overwhelmingly Black and Latino students' fight for social, economic and racial justice, CTU members can build on the April 1 strike to further the movement to defend public education through even wider labor-community alliances.

It isn't yet clear just how or when the next showdown between the CTU and Emanuel will take place. But a clash is all but inevitable. The union needs to get ready by organizing among its members in the schools--and alongside its allies in the community.

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