Chicago teachers are returning to work after a nine-day strike–standing proud after driving back Mayor Rahm Emanuel's attack on their jobs, their union and their schools.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of suspending their strike and going back to work on Wednesday. The tentative agreement that the CTU reached with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) now goes to members for a ratification vote over the next two weeks.
"I'm excited, and most teachers echo this sentiment," said Lawrence Balark, a teacher at Moos Elementary on the city's West Side. "We are going back to work, and standing strong in solidarity in doing so. It was definitely a victory. So many other unions have had to accept merit pay, but I'm proud to say that we held that off."
According to Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the union:
We feel empowered. We feel stronger as a union. Some elements of the contract weren't entirely what we wanted on the economic issues, but we won some important non-economic improvements in areas such as professional autonomy, language to prohibit bullying by principals, and an appeals process for teacher evaluation and disciplinary decisions.
As Potter added, "We built power, and we will be more effective in our buildings when we return. And this will make us more able to stop abusive principals, to organize the charters and to stop the school closures."
Rahm Emanuel pulled out every weapon in his arsenal–from character assassination to divide-and-conquer tactics with other unions to the threat of a court injunction–but the teachers never blinked. "We're glad to be going back on our own terms," Susan Hickey, an 18-year social worker, told NBC's Channel 5 News.
The Chicago teachers' strike is an inspiring example of what's possible when union members are engaged and active in a common struggle. Said CTU President Karen Lewis at a press conference after the vote, "We're happy to have a united union. When a union moves together, amazing things happen."
The outlines of the agreement took shape late last week when CPS officials began to back down from the harshest demands for concessions in the face of a solid strike that electrified Chicago. Every day, there were picket lines at schools in every neighborhood of the city, serving as an organizing center for both teachers and their supporters–followed by huge demonstrations, often downtown, where the streets were clogged by a mass of people in CTU bright red.
As soon as word of progress leaked to the press, the media began a campaign to stampede teachers back to work on Monday. But when the House of Delegates gathered with union officers on Sunday night, the meeting decided to extend the strike into a second week to give all CTU members a chance to examine the proposal in detail. On the picket line on Monday and Tuesday, teachers went over the 23-page contract summary–often article by article, to discuss and debate the pros and cons.
Emanuel tried to play tough guy one more time–on Monday, he ordered his lawyers to file suit against the union, seeking an injunction that would force teachers back to work. But a Cook County judge decided not to hear the case immediately–and so the teachers kept the initiative to decide whether to end their strike.
Before the meeting on Tuesday, it was clear that delegates were weighing both the problems with the deal and the odds that the union could get more if it continued the strike. Inside the meeting, union leaders went over not just the accomplishments and concessions of the contract, but put the deal in the broader context of the current assault on unions, particularly teachers.
According to a teacher at the meeting, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey spoke about the historic nature of this contract fight–pointing out that the CTU has stood up at a time when many unions have retreated. This contract isn't the end of the struggle either, he argued, but the beginning of a longer battle for education justice. Sharkey also embraced delegates who wanted to continue the strike and fight for more, identifying the important role that these members will play in the weeks to come.
After the vote to end the walkout and a thunderous cheer, delegates left the meeting with a palpable sense of unity and power. That's something they will need in the fights ahead–to keep CPS from reneging on its commitments, for one thing, and to organize against the further attacks on public education that lie ahead, such as the planned closure of as many as 100 neighborhood schools.
"I've been a delegate for 11 years, but I've never seen anything like this," said John from Ray Elementary on the South Side. "I've had some success in getting people involved, maybe to do some lobbying or advocacy, but the level of unity and participation in this is incredible. Sure, there are some things in the contract that I wish were better, but we can go back to work stronger and better prepared to organize and fight again."
Teachers are relieved at having fought off some of CPS's worst demands. But they are also conscious of contract provisions that are painful concessions to the politicians' austerity drive.
The CTU defeated the city's attempt to establish merit pay–basing teachers' wages on how well their students perform on standardized tests, a central part of the corporate school "reform" agenda, even though it does absolutely nothing to promote teaching.
The union also maintained "steps and lanes," a pay structure that grants additional salary hikes based on years of experience and additional education. CPS didn't get the five-year contract it wanted, but agreed to three years instead–which means the agreement will expire as Emanuel is running for re-election.
Base pay will increase 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next two years, with language that bars the city from rescinding raises as it did last year. But these increases are counterbalanced by uncompensated additional days in a longer school year.
Another concession concerns what happens to teachers who are laid off–an important question for teachers in a school district that has slated so many schools for closure or "turnaround." The contract stipulates that half of new teachers hired must be displaced CTU members–but it decreases time teachers remain in the displaced teachers' pool with full pay and benefits from 10 months to five.
These concessions are tough to swallow, especially for teachers in schools in poor neighborhoods that are likely to face the threat of closure. And they are a disappointment after such an incredible mobilization throughout the strike.
School boards across the country have put teachers in their sights in the same way. Overall, public-sector unions are getting hammered with concessions as the politicians preach austerity and sacrifice. For the CTU to have held the line in so many areas and even made some gains is practically unique–and must be recognized for the accomplishment it is.
That's why the CTU's fight has become a rallying point far beyond the borders of Chicago. Labor and political activists recognized the high stakes in this battle and the importance of the teachers' mobilization.
At every step, Rahm Emanuel–one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, with a direct line to the White House–underestimated the teachers' union and overestimated his ability to bully them into submission.
First, he got his allies in the Illinois legislature to push through an anti-union law directed specifically at the CTU, which required the union, among other things, to get 75 percent of all members to vote to authorize a strike. Emanuel's political allies boasted that there would never be another teachers' strike in Chicago. But the CTU not only met the threshold but surpassed it, with nearly 90 percent of teachers voting to authorize a strike.
Emanuel tried to pit parents and students against the union. The CTU responded by actively seeking their support and devoting resources to the fight to make classrooms better for Chicago children, like art, music and foreign language instruction; working air conditioning; and caps on class sizes. Those efforts paid off when a majority of Chicago residents–and an even larger majority of CPS parents–supported the union, a rarity in a teachers' strike.
One of the most politically powerful men in America declared war on the teachers' union–but the teachers won this battle, not Rahm.
Outside the House of Delegates meeting on Tuesday night, Rolando Vazquez, representing Brighton Park Elementary on the Southwest Side, talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about the outcome. "I feel great about it," he said. "We're going back to school tomorrow. The parents and the [people in the] city were with us, three-to-one against Rahm Emanuel. And we made a great show of strength."
Powerful ties of solidarity built during the strike now connect teachers, parents and students, despite the city's attempts to divide them. As Erica Clark, cofounder of Parents 4 Teachers, told a crowd at a protest outside CPS headquarters hours before the House of Delegates meeting, "Parents are asking for the same things the teachers ask for."
That solidarity will need to be nurtured and strengthened as the fight for our schools continues. The city is getting ready to close down a rumored 80 to 100 schools, while allowing charter school operators to take over CPS buildings and recruit the CPS students they want–as the rest are left behind in a system more starved for resources than ever.
"I think we can't stop until public education is free for all of our children," said Marvin Neely from the far South Side school Pullman Elementary. "We have to fight the charter schools. By letting private companies educate our children, this sends the wrong message to neighborhood schools. The fight for neighborhood schools is the CTU fight."
The Chicago teachers strike cast a national spotlight on the crisis of public education and the ongoing attack on teachers–and not only through the verbal statements of union leaders, but with protests and pickets, often concentrated in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, that exposed the national scandal of public schools in 21st century America.
Alicia Peshel-Schoenbeck, who teaches third grade at Mitchell Elementary on the West Side, described the significance of the fight:
This is a victory for public education. We made the education system front-page news, and that's a way to advance the quality of public education. I think we were effective in getting across our point that our working conditions are students' learning conditions.
I definitely feel different today than I did two weeks ago. I feel more politically aware, and that I need to keep myself more informed about what politicians are up to. They need to understand that public education is a right.
Comments like that make it clear that the Chicago teachers strike was the latest stage of a broader opposition developing against corporate greed and government austerity–like last year's struggle to defend union rights in Wisconsin that took over the Capitol building, or the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread from New York City around the country.
This time, the fight took place at hundreds of schools across Chicago. Call it Wisconsin in the workplace–or Occupy Chicago Public Schools.
The teachers can be proud of their inspiring struggle and its outcome, but the fight is far from over. The battle will continue for the kind of schools our teachers deserve to work in–and that our children can learn in.