Ready to strike for Chicago’s schools

September 29, 2016

Lee Sustar reports on the looming showdown pitting the Chicago Teachers Union against City Hall--and how the teachers' fight is tied to a wider struggle for justice.

THE CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) has authorized a strike by a huge majority vote of its membership, and the union's House of Delegates voted to issue a 10-day notice to the Board of Education, making October 11 the date of a possible walkout.

If the board refuses to give ground on its demands for drastic concessions, this would be the second CTU strike in four years--but this time with political stakes that go far beyond the schools.

An unpopular Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to turn the public against teachers as City Hall struggles with a big spike in violence, a scandal over racist police violence, and discontent about the one-two punch of a weak economic recovery and budget cuts and tax increases that hit working people hardest.

In this context, the CTU's fight for a contract has become a touchstone for a wider struggle against austerity and for economic and racial justice.

Michelle Gunderson, a three-decade veteran of Chicago schools and member of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, expressed the sober sentiment of teachers outside the September 28 House of Delegates meeting. "We come here not to celebrate," Gunderson said, "but with a sense of resolve."

Chicago's teachers show their unity during a sit-in
Chicago's teachers show their unity during a sit-in (Bartosz Brzezinski)

With the city's economic model broken, Chicago's real decision-makers--hedge fund managers, bondholders and assorted CEOs--are demanding that the corruption-riddled political establishment extract ever-greater concessions from working people. From the bosses' point of view, that means making an example of the CTU, which dared to fight back with its 2012 strike--and stopped Emanuel's arrogant union-busting assault in its tracks.

Conventional collective bargaining of the last few decades--the give-and-take in negotiations within a shared framework of labor-management "partnership"--is irrelevant here. The employers have made it clear that they are preparing for an old-school class struggle, Chicago-style.

"I figure I'm striking for my job," said a teacher who was laid off from one position this summer because of budget cuts and who nearly lost a second already this fall before a Local School Council intervened. "The only way to get more money is to strike."

There is a palpable feeling of looming social and political confrontation in Chicago. The Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, with its anti-corporate, pro-socialist message, showed that there was an audience for taking on the 1 Percent--and a CTU strike could turn those sentiments into active solidarity.

That's why reports of the union's overwhelming strike authorization vote by the 28,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) dominated the local news media this week.

Television news trucks even turned up outside the September 20 organizing meeting of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC). There, some 70 activists from key community groups and unions heard CTU members describe the issues facing teachers--before breaking up into working groups to get started building support for the struggle.

THE UNION'S strike authorization comes nearly six months after the union organized a one-day walkout on April 1, linking the CTU's struggle to wider protests over state budget cuts that hit both K-12 and higher education as well as social services.

The downtown CTU rally that day drew in not only members of unions in higher education, but also college students and a new generation of activists from the Black Lives Matter movement.

It's apparent that Emanuel is worried--rightly--that an all-out teachers' strike will add to a sense of political crisis in the city. The mayor saw his popularity plummet following the exposure of a cover-up of the fatal police shooting of a Black youth, Laquan McDonald--an event captured on video that drew worldwide attention when it was released late last year.

Emanuel is also under pressure to come up with a solution to the sharp increase in the number of shootings that are concentrated in heavily African American neighborhoods on the West and South Sides.

Meanwhile, he's alienated working people citywide with labor agreements that slashed pensions and increased property taxes. And the mayor's controversial closure of 50 schools in 2013 failed to produce the promised educational gains for students who moved to new schools--as teachers and other activists predicted.

The mayor's strategy for a political comeback is straightforward: Plead poverty, blame Illinois' Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for state budget cuts and accuse the CTU of refusing to make sacrifices.

Emanuel wants the teachers to take an effective 7 percent pay cut by shifting pension costs to them--reversing a decades-old setup in which the schools paid part of the teachers' pension contributions in lieu of a raise. In reality, teachers have endured layoffs and a freeze on pay raises based on seniority and education advancement.

BUT EMANUEL'S ability to defeat the CTU is far from assured. The once-invincible political operative who served as President Barack Obama's chief of staff is now highly vulnerable.

In a much-hyped September 22 speech on violence in Chicago, Emanuel's solution for Black youth was a proposed "mentoring" program--and hiring nearly 1,000 more police officers at a moment when the Chicago Police Department's long history of racist violence is on full display.

By contrast, the CTU has proposed funding the schools by, for one, shifting money from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system--effectively a mayoral slush fund accumulated by diverting tax revenue from public education to politically connected development projects.

According to a July report from Cook County Clerk David Orr, $461 million in taxpayer revenues flowed into the TIF system this year, an $89 million increase over last year. Much of that money is committed to projects that are already underway. But CTU supporters who have examined the numbers believe the city could shift between $150 million and $200 million out of the TIF system to meet the union's demands and much more besides.

The union has also released a report, titled A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve, which, as the union puts it, "details the intimate connection of health, housing, jobs, segregation and funding to education" and "demonstrates that challenges in housing, employment, justice and health care relate directly to education; solutions require a narrowing of the opportunity gap brought on by poverty, racism and segregation."

By tying its own battles to the wider debate about the future of Chicago school students--the majority of them Black and Latino and nearly all working class--the CTU is preparing the ground for a wider social struggle that can force the mayor, City Council and state legislature to come up with the money to fund our schools and provide them with the urgently needed social services and school-based programs for young people who face the threat of violence.

MAYOR EMANUEL and CPS aren't the only opponents that the CTU faces in this fight.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, the near-billionaire who literally bought his way into office in November 2014, is on a mission to cut corporate taxes, slash social spending and crush public-sector unions. Rauner has repeatedly focused on the CTU, demanding that the Chicago Public Schools declare bankruptcy so it can void its contract with the CTU and impose massive concessions on pay and working conditions.

So far, Rauner's efforts have gone nowhere--the Democratic majority in the state legislature has blocked him. But his threatened vetoes prevented passage of a budget for more than a year, leading to huge cuts in a variety of social programs.

Rauner has given every indication that he will attempt to intervene in the event of a CTU strike. He issued a statement denouncing the one-day strike on April 1 as "shameful," declaring that "children are the victims in this raw display of political power." The governor could try to go over Emanuel's head to seek an injunction against the strike or even invoke the Illinois School Board of Education's authority to take over "failing" districts.

Emanuel himself may well move for a court injunction to halt a CTU strike--perhaps on the grounds that a walkout would pose a "safety" issue. His attempt to do so in the closing days of the 2012 strike fizzled when a judge, his finger to the political winds, decided not to act.

Whatever the details, it is clear that the union will face all manner of political attacks in the event of a strike.

The Chicago Tribune, channeling its union-hating editorial boards of the 19th century, has issued a barrage of editorials against the CTU. The Chicago Sun-Times, which has long sold itself as the blue-collar paper, has been dogging the CTU as well--a sharp change in tone from its coverage of the 2012 battle.

Few CTU members will be surprised by the attacks in the mainstream media. But pressure to settle for a lousy contract will come from labor's "friends" in the Democratic Party as well.

In 2012, the union came under tremendous back-channel pressure from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), not to strike in Barack Obama's hometown on the eve of what was then considered to be a close presidential election.

With Hillary Clinton's lead over Donald Trump evaporating in this year's presidential race, the pressure will be far greater. The Clinton team fears that a strike in Chicago will play into Trump's law-and-order message, which has focused on this city in particular.

The pressure from the Clinton campaign won't come only through Emanuel, but also the liberal wing of the local Democratic establishment, with which the CTU has strong ties.

The CTU has spent heavily and devoted countless person-hours on backing Democrats at the local and state level, including former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, even after he had turned on labor supporters.

The union was also central to the campaign of Chuy Garcia, a county commissioner who forced Emanuel into a runoff vote in last year's mayoral election. Figures like Garcia, while to the left of Emanuel, nevertheless openly accept the austerity agenda and will pressure the union to moderate its demands. Even the City Council's Progressive Caucus, which often takes up CTU issues, is mostly missing in action.

THE PROSPECTS for labor solidarity for the CTU are better. Support for the teachers, however, isn't coming from traditionally powerful unions or the Chicago Federation of Labor. Many Chicago unions are openly or quietly aligned with Emanuel in the hopes of getting jobs for members. Others are intimidated into silence.

Nevertheless, the CTU has important labor allies--and the potential to tap into broader support from the union rank and file.

The main statewide public-sector union, AFSCME Council 31, has been sympathetic to the CTU, even though its own strategy in its contract battle with Gov. Rauner has been to avoid confrontation, even seeking legislation that would ban strikes or lockouts. SEIU Healthcare, which represents home care workers, has been allied with CTU on several fronts. The same is true of the new leadership of both Amalgamated Transit Union locals that represent bus and train workers.

Several of these unions were represented at the September 20 solidarity meeting. If they join the CTU in the streets--and take solidarity action themselves--it would have a powerful effect on this struggle.

The bigger the labor solidarity for the CTU, the better the union and its allies will be able to build support among parents, community groups and faith-based organizations.

All those elements were present in the 2012 strike, but they will need to play an even greater role this time around. Emanuel's--and for that matter, Rauner's--strategy to defeat the CTU hinges on their ability to create a backlash against the teachers. The greater the outreach of the CTU and its allies, the greater the chance of a favorable outcome for the union.

CTU President Karen Lewis clearly acknowledged the importance of solidarity in this struggle at the House of Delegates meeting. "We want parents to join us on the picket line and teach their kids the importance of standing up for themselves," Lewis said.

This militant spirit isn't new. The CTU was formed in 1937 as a merger of several unions that had been struggling separately against budget cuts and payless paydays in the Great Depression, including actions such as storming the banks. The union kept building for another 30 years despite the lack of formal collective bargaining.

A wildcat strike of Black teachers in 1969 led to the ouster of a conservative leadership and heralded the rise of union militancy that saw nine strikes in 18 years. The 1960s school boycotts by African American children against segregation, followed by the influx of Black teachers into the CTU, had created a strong connection between the union and the wider working class.

The 2012 CTU strike--the union's first in a quarter century--saw a rediscovery of those fighting traditions. Now, as the union faces its biggest challenge in decades, union members can tap into that tradition as they prepare for the battle ahead.

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