Rahm Emanuel thought he had this fight sewn up.
He thought the teachers would be intimidated. He thought the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) would never even vote to strike, much less go out on one. He thought the relentless anti-teacher propaganda campaign of the political and media establishment would keep "public opinion" on his side. He thought that parents, students and the rest of the city would go along with the teacher-blaming and embrace his corporate school deform agenda.
But Rahm thought wrong.
Just how wrong started becoming clear in the early morning hours of Monday, September 10, when the picket lines went up on the first day of an all-out strike by CTU members at nearly 600 public schools in every neighborhood in the city.
And it became undeniable later that day when teachers left the picket lines and converged, with at least as many supporters, on the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters downtown for a massive rally. The streets around the building overflowed with a sea of humanity, dressed in CTU red. "This is an amazing display of democracy," Rick Sawicki, a 7th grade teacher, told the Chicago Tribune. "It's a wonderful lesson for children and adults alike. I'm honored that we are all sticking together."
The teachers and those who support them taught a lesson on Monday for the whole world to learn: When your jobs and your profession and your schools and your lives are under attack from a bully, you have to stand up and fight back.
The strike became official late Sunday night, when CTU leaders appeared at a press conference to announce that school officials had failed to come up with a fair contract. The last offer from CPS over the weekend was better than the scorched-earth assault Emanuel and his unelected school board started out with–but that's only because the CTU's determined mobilization forced city officials to start getting serious.
Nevertheless, Emanuel immediately denounced the union for calling "a strike of choice" that would harm Chicago children–as if his months of calculated insults designed to bully the CTU into agreeing to concessions had never happened. Rahm spent the day Monday scrambling in front of every camera provided by a willing media to bash the CTU for its "selfishness"–a complaint, incidentally, that was echoed by none other than Republican presidential nominee and fellow ex-hedge fund parasite Mitt Romney.
But for anyone walking, biking or driving around the city on Monday morning, the message that came through loud and clear was from the proud picketers to be found every several blocks at the more than 600 schools where the CTU is on strike.
Teachers talked about the issues in their struggle with a sense of sober anger, reflecting the high stakes of this struggle. But there was also pride, energy and enthusiasm now that they were finally able to make their stand–especially after so many months of being the target of Emanuel's sneers and smears.
"We're trying to send a message: This city needs help, the help of teachers who are trained that know the kids," said Phillip Olazaba, a music teacher and CTU delegate at Cooper Academy in the South Side Pilsen neighborhood. "We service 700 students, and some of us teachers are products of CPS."
The buzz of picket-line conversation was broken constantly by drivers honking their support as they passed by, and picketers erupting in cheers in response. At Gale Elementary School on the northern edge of the city, teachers and their supporters chanted and sang, improvising new lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land."
CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard stopped by the Disney Elementary Magnet School on the North Side, one of more than 140 schools the city is using in a chaotic plan to provide facilities for children, though not instruction, for half a day. Picketers spotted Brizard and took up a loud chant of "Rahm, Brizard, we're no fools. We won't let you ruin our schools!" The schools boss made a quick getaway.
School workers represented by unions other than the CTU are required to cross teachers' picket lines–in several locals, leaders shamefully settled contracts early, capitulating to the city's divide-and-conquer tactic to isolate the teachers. But at virtually every school, union members stopped by the picket line first to express their support. Many said they were wearing red in solidarity and planned to do as little as possible for CPS during the strike.
Other unionists joined the picket lines–like Ryan Hornback, a Calumet City firefighter who came to Ray Elementary School on the South Side with coworkers. As Hornback said:
The Chicago Teachers need to know they are not alone. We are all fighting our own fights, too. It's a huge decision to go on strike. If they're willing to do that, we're going to stand in support. All public employees are fighting the same fight. I work in Calumet City. I know exactly what they're going for. They need to know that there are other union employees standing with them.
Parents who support the teachers were a part of the picketing at most every schoos. "I support the strike because it's the last recourse the teachers have," said Daisy Arias, with three children at Cooper Academy in Pilsen. "As a mother, this is important to me because they spend so much time with our children."
The city's so-called Children First plan to open up drop-off centers was sparsely attended, according to both teachers on hand to see who went in and some school employees. Many parents realize that Emanuel and CPS are trying to pit them against the teachers by exploiting their need to find a way to care for their child while they go to work.
Antonia Hernandez felt she had no other choice but to leave her 5- and 7-year-old children, students at Nettelhorst Elementary on the North Side, at a drop-off center while she went to work. But she told the Chicago Tribune that she firmly supports the teachers: "If we don't have them, who will teach our children? It's time to have their demands met, every single one of them."
The pickets ran until 10:30 a.m., after which streets all over the city became the site of impromptu mobile demonstrations–carloads of teachers and their supporters waved picket signs out the window to spread the message further.
By mid-afternoon, it was time to head downtown for the massive rally outside the Board of Ed building. El trains headed toward the city center were packed with red-shirted riders and had to skip stops because they were so full. A train driver on the Blue Line going into the Loop used the PA to wish teachers success in their fight–and the whole train erupted in cheers.
Once downtown, CTU members beamed as they looked in every direction and saw only a sea of red. Workers from other unions proudly joined in–the Air Line Pilots Association, Service Employees Union, AFSCME, and more.
Anger at Emanuel was palpable. The idea that the union was, in the mayor's words, engaging in a "strike of choice" incensed the teachers. "Whose choice? Rahm's choice!" was a frequent chant–along with "We want teachers, we want books, we want the money that Rahm took!"
The teachers spilled off the sidewalks and into the streets radiating out in every direction from the CPS headquarters. With so many people wrapped around several city blocks, it was hard to know how many people were there: 20,000, 30,000, 50,000 or more in the streets.
The spirit of the rally, like the picket lines before it, was familiar to anyone who was in the Capitol building in Wisconsin when workers and students took it over in protest against state-sponsored union-busting–or who was part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York City or any of the dozens of others inspired by it around the country. The Chicago teachers' strike is the latest stage in a broader resistance in the era of austerity.
To George Schmidt, publisher of the rank-and-file teachers newspaper Substance, the first day of the CTU strike was the premiere of a a new "Chicago Symphony"–one that "couldn't be drowned out, no matter how craven the lies of the men and women who, by 2012, were known generally as the '1 percent.'…[T]his was THE beginning of the fight to take back the U.S. from the plutocracy, and the teachers of Chicago were leading it."