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Behind the Chicago Teachers Strike

Theresa Moran Sep 11, 2012

Chicago teachers are on strike today to demand smaller classes, much-needed student services, and stability for a profession that’s battling a corporate takeover.

Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, said with regret that the union had no choice. “We must do things differently in this city if we’re going to provide students with the education they so rightfully deserve,” she said.

With throngs of red-shirted union members flanking the doors, CTU officers emerged stoically from the union office at 10 p.m. last night to announce the strike, which came after nine months of contentious negotiations with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his appointed school board.

Not a half hour before, school board President David Vitale was visibly shaking as he announced that talks had broken down. He emphasized the concessions the board had made on economic issues, saying, “This should satisfy most of their needs.” He claimed the board was unsure what more teachers wanted.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey made clear, however, that for the union, it wasn’t about money in teachers’ pockets. Lewis said the two sides had come very close to agreeing on compensation.

Sharkey cited in particular a new evaluation process that could cause 28 percent of teachers to lose their jobs within two years. Illinois passed a new teacher evaluation law in 2010 to qualify for federal Race to the Top education funds. CTU says the evaluations place too much emphasis on standardized tests, which are an unreliable and narrow measure of a student’s progress, and are tied to a systematic privatization of public schools.

Recall rights for teachers displaced by school closures is another of the union’s top priorities, though not an issue they’re able to strike over. By law, the teachers can only walk out over unfair labor practices or mandatory subjects of bargaining like wages or health benefits.

Bargaining improved in recent weeks, the union said, with the city withdrawing its attempt to institute merit pay, reinstating some scheduled raises based on education and experience, and annual raises each year of the four-year deal instead of the initial proposal for a one-time 2 percent bump. CTU said the city offered 3 percent the first year and 2 percent each following year.

Lewis said the 26,000-member union is motivated by much more. “We don’t intend to sign an agreement until all these matters are addressed,” she said.

At its core, the strike is nothing less than a faceoff between two conflicting visions of public education. More important than economics or the teacher evaluations, said Sharkey, are “pedagogical issues” like small class sizes; a curriculum of language, art, music, and physical education for all students; and nursing and social-work services inside schools to address the many needs that poor students bring to the schoolhouse door—and that hurt academic performance when left unaddressed.

On the Line

A constant chorus of horns blared in support as teachers and students alike joined a steadily growing picket line this morning at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, one of 675 lines across the city.

Teenagers stood with their teachers and cheered, waving signs and wielding noisemakers.

Roosevelt is a designated CPS “holding center” where students can go for food and supervision between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Several police stood by the school entrance to watch the few who came.

While teachers raised issues from evaluations to school privatization to class size to explain why they backed the strike, they were in solid agreement on one thing: public education in Chicago is not working and Mayor Emanuel is making things worse.

English teacher Keith Plum says he’s sick of teaching to the test. “It’s always some big corporation selling a canned curriculum that’s never been tested,” he said, adding that he was told he’d be punished if he deviated from the curriculum’s script.

Plum recalls a sophomore who, three weeks into the school year, raised her hand to ask, “When are going to do some real English work?”

A New Direction

Emanuel and the school board say the best way to deal with struggling public schools is to close them or turn them over to private charter operators.

The problem they see isn’t a lack of resources or a “drill-and-kill” test-based curriculum, but bad teachers. The solution is to use students’ standardized test scores to identify—and then get rid of—both schools and teachers who are “failing.” Job protections like tenure and seniority rights, to education privatizers, are roadblocks on the path to wiping out public schools.

The corporate plan for education is not just about ideology, however. It’s also about money. Charter schools can be lucrative investment opportunities, and glitzy new charters are placed in gentrifying neighborhoods, serving as a magnet for newcomers while excluding local children.

Eliminating job protections and evaluating teachers based on student test scores is also about saving money, says high school teacher Adam Heenan, “designed to make teachers cheap” by firing experienced educators. Another money-saving move is alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America that guarantee a steady supply of brand-new teachers, trained for just a few weeks before they’re in front of a class. Most leave the job after a few years.

Lewis says the revolving door of teachers is bad for kids, who often have chaotic home lives plagued by hunger, homelessness, and violence. “Job security is stability for our students,” she argued.

The union singles out poverty as one of the biggest roadblocks to academic achievement. CTU has insistently pointed to disparities within the city, particularly the lack of resources in schools serving low-income Black and Latino students. The union says 160 schools have no library, and many lack playgrounds.

Problems in the schools themselves, the union argues, can be solved by fully funding them, providing a rich curriculum and the wraparound services students need. Class size matters, too. Kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in Chicago are bigger than those in 95 percent of all Illinois schools, according to the CTU’s research.

“How can we learn with a classroom of 50 kids in it with not enough books or materials?” asked Marta Aguirre, a senior at Roosevelt High School, who was walking the picket line with her teachers this morning.

She says she once had a class so packed that students had to sit on the floor.

Closures Key

The strike has been “a long time coming,” Heenan said.

The conflict has its roots in the push to privatize Chicago schools, which began in the late 1990s and was turbocharged by former Mayor Richard Daley’s “Renaissance 2010” plan. Carried out with zeal by Arne Duncan, former Chicago schools chief and now President Obama’s secretary of education, the plan closed more than 100 schools, replacing them with charters.

In many cases Duncan allowed multiple schools to operate under a single charter to skirt legal limits on the number of charters permitted in the city.

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators, whose members currently occupy the union’s leadership slots, formed in 2008 when teacher activists fed up with school closures started fighting back.

At first, they lobbied the union to get involved. When the leadership at the time didn’t share their activist approach, they began organizing themselves. The group developed strong ties to community groups, partnering with them to save several schools from closure. With a track record of success, the group grew quickly and won union office in 2010.

Rahm Emanuel continued Daley’s tornado of closures and privatizations when he took over last year, targeting another 21 schools in December. Indeed, the fight against school closures has only gotten harder. Even the occupation of a local elementary school earlier in the year by parents was not enough to prevent its shuttering. The onslaught only promises to get worse.

The union took another hit with passage of a state law in May 2011 that chipped away at seniority rights, made it harder for teachers to gain tenure, and said the Chicago teachers couldn’t strike unless 75 percent of members voted yes. CTU was the only local union singled out by the legislature for this requirement.

Practice Makes Perfect

While years of abuse from elected officials primed the CTU membership for drastic action, preparing for the strike took months of methodical organizing.

Contract negotiations began last November and, even before sitting down to the table, the union set to work organizing contract action committees in each of the city’s more than 600 schools. Committee members were responsible for keeping a team of co-workers—with the lofty goal of one committee member for every five staff—informed on bargaining issues. Committees at each school in turn reported to volunteers responsible for communication with all schools in a small territory.

The goal was “to develop the leadership of people who could take responsibility if a job action proved necessary,” says Debby Pope, a retired Chicago teacher who is working for the union.

All the work to build mobilizing structures in the schools paid off when members realized by the spring that bargaining was going nowhere. The board was proposing to eviscerate already inadequate class-size protections, institute a 20 percent longer school day without a proportional increase in pay, do away with raises for experience and education in favor of merit pay, and jack up teachers’ health care costs. Ensuring adequate resources for schools was nowhere on the agenda.

Frustrated members were ready to ratchet up the contract campaign and start planning for a potential strike—the local’s first in 25 years.

In April, contract committees at several schools decided on their own to hold practice strike votes to gauge support—which they found in spades. Next, the union polled the entire membership, to test the structure’s ability to coordinate logistics on a large scale. Ninety percent backed a strike in the informal poll.

Shortly after, 4,000 members filled an auditorium to capacity for a rally, before joining thousands of supporters for a march on Chicago’s Mercantile Exchange, where they protested the $77 million a year subsidy the derivatives marketplace receives from the state.

City officials have said they seek concessions because the schools face a $665 million deficit this year and a bigger one next year. But CTU says the city could find the money to fix schools if it wanted to, noting that Chicago pumps $250 million a year into development projects backed by political cronies and downtown business interests.

To meet the threshold set by the new anti-union law, the union needed 75 percent of members to approve a strike. Ninety-eight percent of those voting gave their enthusiastic “yes.”

Over the summer, the union brought in several dozen teacher and paraprofessional members to work as organizers, making sure their colleagues stayed connected to the union and up to date on bargaining through the break.

When a third of the schools opened their doors in mid-August, the union held informational pickets to educate parents and give members a sense of what a picket line might feel like.

At Curie Metro High, where Adam Heenan works, staff broke up into teams of 10 responsible for supporting and keeping each other informed on the line.

“People were already so fed up that even though a strike was scary they weren’t horrified by the idea,” said Jen Johnson, a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School. “We’re organizationally, mentally, and emotionally prepared.”

The Boss Prepares, Too

The city has made its own preparations for a strike, allocating $25 million for a contingency plan. The city is spending the money keeping 145 schools open for four hours a day, providing food and daycare.

The union has questioned whether this is money well spent. The facilities are being run by clergy and staff from the district’s central office—people with no educational or childcare background. A manual for those working the holding centers instructs them to play games like “Simon says” and to “communicate with words.”

CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin called the plan “the equivalent of opening a fire station without firefighters and giving a bunch of lawyers, accountants, and clerical workers a few fire hoses and rubber boots.”

Ironically, the manuals draw attention to poor building conditions teachers are raising.

District employees are warned to dress for classrooms with no air conditioners, not to count on having a refrigerator or microwave available, and to be prepared to come early and leave late.

This article was originally published by Labor Notes.

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