Solidarity makes us strong
reports from Chicago on efforts to build support for the teachers' union.
IN ANTICIPATION of a walkout of some 28,000 Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, activists in the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign (CTSC) have jumped into high gear.
For the past several weeks, activists have been meeting weekly to strategize ways to help build support for the teachers among parents, students, community groups and unions.
Modeled on the campaign launched during the 2012 teachers' strike, activists see the important role they can play to help counter the wedge that Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to drive between teachers and parents.
Emanuel understands that if parents continue to support the teachers, as polls show that they do, he will have a much harder time winning this strike. So he, along with the Chicago Tribune and the rest of the mainstream media, are already ramping up lies and misconceptions about how the teachers are making impossible demands and causing disruptions for parents and students.
The CTSC is determined to show that Rahm is wrong by giving voice to the growing support that teachers do have.
One impressive display of support came on October 4 when more than 70 people gathered outside of the mayor's office to send him an important message. "We are here today to talk about education justice," said CTSC activist Steven Ashby, kicking off a press conference to deliver a letter to the mayor signed by more than 50 parent and community groups in support of the teachers.
Their demands include "lower class sizes, funding for special education teachers, an end to the chaos of constant teacher and staff layoffs, no cuts in compensation, and for well-funded, quality, stable neighborhood schools."
At the bottom of the letter was a promise that, if a settlement was not reached, "We will stand with the Chicago Teachers Union during a strike."
TEACHERS HAVE been working without a contract for more than 15 months and are being offered what is effectively a pay cut--CPS would require teachers to pick up 7 percent of their retirement contribution, which is currently being paid by the city, and pay more of their health benefits.
Emanuel claims that teachers are getting a raise, but people can do the math--and if you add up what teachers will be losing, it effectively means teachers would be getting a pay cut.
Keep in mind that the firefighters and the police each just got increases of 2.5 percent a year, over a five-year contract. But when it comes to the teachers, we're told that the city is broke, and doesn't have the money.
April Stogner, a CPS parent who went on hunger strike to keep her neighborhood school, Dyett High School, from closing last year, said that as she was getting prepared for the press conference, she pulled up her notes from 2012 and was struck by how much hasn't changed.
"Education is a human right," she said. "Why do we have to fight so hard for what should be given to us? It just doesn't make sense to me--30 to 40 students in a classroom, with no teacher's aid. How can a teacher teach in those conditions?" She added, "CPS is one of the worst districts in the state for large class sizes."
The mayor recently announced plans to hire 1,000 more cops and to provide mentors as a way to curb Chicago violence. Meanwhile, the city laid off some 1,000 teachers--the people who serve as the real mentors for Chicago's youth.
"One thousand more cops is a cocktail for disaster," pointed out Sherise McDaniel, a parent and a member of Parents 4 Teachers and the International Socialist Organization. "Blacks need access to good jobs and affordable housing not more cops."
Daniels called out the unfairness of the closing of 50 schools in Black and Brown communities and the increase in class sizes, while "TIF [tax-increment financing] money is being misspend on luxury condos and Potbelly's in the 27th Ward. Class sizes of 35 to 40 students are inhumane."
She pointed out, "Rahm and [Republican Gov. Bruce] Rauner are one in the same--really rich men focused on busting unions."
THE VIOLENCE in Chicago is felt most prominently in poorer Black and Brown communities. It impacts kids in those communities, affecting their ability to learn. Speaking through sobs, April Stogner talked about how her son had to deal with the death of three people in his family--cousins shot and killed by gun violence.
She asked who was he suppose to talk to if the school counselors are cut back, if there is no social worker or guidance counselor. "Who is there to help him deal with this pain?"
A theme of the press conference was that more teachers are needed, as well as counselors, social workers and therapists. Black Lives Matter activist Kofi Ademola said the kids in Black and Brown communities need more help because of the violence they face.
He added that he wasn't there to send a message to the mayor because "Mayor One Percent doesn't care about our communities." Instead, Ademola said his appeal was to the public, urging them to come out and stand in solidarity with the teachers.
Rose McDonough, a parent of an autistic 17-year-old attending Vaughn Occupational High School talked about what it meant for her son to be able to learn violin and be involved in theater at school. "But we had to fight to keep all of that," she said in an interview. "They were going to cut our aids, which would mean he wouldn't be able to participate in these things. These aids are the backbone of help."
"Chicago has the money, the mayor has the power to move TIF money and put it to education," said Ashby. "The banks could renegotiate loans and be pressured to forgive accrued interest."
Activists designated Erica Clark from Parents 4 Teachers to deliver activists' printed message to the mayor, but at first City Hall security refused to let her in. Erica persisted saying she wanted to deliver it herself. "Don't we pay for that office?" she asked. With the cameras rolling and activists with signs huddling around Erica, they finally relented and let her through.
Ashby ended the press conference saying that this is only the beginning of many actions to help build support for the teachers. He said every Wednesday people are being asked to call the mayor's office (311) and tell them of your support for the teachers.
In the event that a strike takes place, he said emphatically, "tens of thousands will stand with, will picket with, and will march with the teachers!"
IN ANOTHER show of support for the teachers, the CTU and supporters took part in "walk-ins" at dozens of schools across Chicago as part of a national day of action on October 6 in which teachers, staff, parents, students and other supporters walked into school to demand resources for our schools.
At Jones College Prep High School, some 70 teachers, students and parents braved the rain for a mini speak-out and rally that was kicked off with CTU delegate Frank Menses, who led the crowd in labor solidarity songs--with Frank singing the loudest, "for the union makes us strong!"
Frank, who has been a music teacher for over 30 years, explained, "Millions of dollars are available, including a 24 percent increase in TIF funds, which the mayor could release today. We know the city can find the money--but now we have to take this step and force them to settle with us in a respectful way. What else can we do?"
A walk-in at Oscar Mayer Elementary School brought out 10 teachers and paraprofessional educators. They were joined by a handful of students from nearby DePaul University and 20 other supporters. The teacher delegate was excited to learn of the student speak-out to support the teachers being planned at DePaul on October 11 and said teachers from Oscar Mayer would be excited to participate.
Some 25 teachers turn out holding signs reading, "No more cuts" turned out at Clinton Elementary on the North Side. Several students stopped by to talk and asked the teachers if they could join to show support next week if the strike happens. The atmosphere was jubilant despite the rainy conditions.
Other solidarity actions so far include a banner drop organized by Parents 4 Teachers activists and others. A banner reading "Parents Stand With Teachers" inspired drivers on the Kennedy 90/94 near the Washington overpass to honk their agreement.
Teachers and their supporters have also organized leafleting at el stations to get the word out about what teachers are fighting for. Check out the CTSC Facebook page for upcoming events.
Negotiations between the union and the city continue, but in the likelihood that the strike happens, thousands of people will be standing side by side with teachers--in a sea of red T-shirts--to demand the teachers be respected and that students get the schools they deserve.