Chicago's teachers are fighting for workers everywhere

Opinion

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By EDITORIAL STAFF

In its Sunday, Oct. 20 paper, the Chicago Tribune provided a useful primer on the "basics of the Chicago teachers strike." 

The paper tells us that the strike could last indefinitely. The longest Chicago Teachers Union strike ever, in 1987, was 19 days. In 2012, the strike lasted seven days. 

How many people are affected? Some 300,000 students aren't in school and some 25,000 educators and 7,000 support staffers are not working, the Tribune points out. While the strike lasts, CPS will keep all schools open. How? That hasn't been sufficiently explored in most reporting on this strike. From what Austin Weekly News reporters were told during the picketing, maybe the buildings are being manned by non-CTU administrators (principals, vice principals, etc.) and temporary replacement workers.  

What are the issues? The union wants a 15 percent pay-raise over three years while CPS wants to give 16 percent over five years. The two sides are also wrangling over "staffing, class sizes and prep time," along with the union's demands for "nurses, social workers and librarians in every school, and more special education classroom assistants and case managers." By the way, the union wants all these demands met and in the contract (ensuring that CPS carries them out). 

These are the basics, according to the Tribune. 

But don't be mistaken. This strike is fundamentally about much more than the teachers' demands for higher pay and more resources in schools. 

"The CTU and SEIU are aiming to undo a quarter century of damage inflicted in the name of 'school reform,'" writes Jacobin's Alan Maas. That reform, he adds, "has always meant blaming teachers for the crisis of underfunded schools, and punishing students and parents with high-stakes testing, school closures, and the mirage of 'school choice.'" 

So-called 'reform' has also meant the proliferation of publicly funded, but privately operated charter schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers. It has meant a draconian 1995 state law that drastically limited the CTU's ability to bargain for anything other than the most incremental issues like pay raises, abolished the School Finance Authority and School Board Nominating Commission, and gave former mayor Richard M. Daley "sole power to handpick a new board as well as the top officials in the CPS administration —now led by a chief executive officer rather than a superintendent." 

So-called 'reform' has meant treating education like a business rather than a public good and subjecting children (primarily black and brown children) to a Silicon Valley-style cult of creative destruction and radical, entrepreneurial experimentation. 

In another enlightening Jacobin article, Derek Seidman writes that the teacher's strike "is rooted in a stark truth about Chicago: namely, that the city's governing class has no problem giving away huge subsidies to wealthy billionaires and developers, but it refuses to sufficiently invest in working-class students of color and their communities, schools, and teachers." 

When Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools in 2013, his billionaire benefactor, Ken Griffin, said that "the number should've been 125," Seidman writes. Closing those schools, regardless of the economic rationale, was so easy for people like Emanuel and Griffin because they're so distanced from the consequences. You can rest assured their children won't be subjects in the grand market experiment that is urban education. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Emanuel's successor, considers the union's attempt to negotiate things like affordable housing for the approximately 17,000 CPS students who are homeless as an example of unnecessary overreach. 

But Rebecca Burns, writing for In These Times, explains why the mayor, a corporate attorney, is wrong on this. 

"The mayor's view reflects a very narrow understanding of the professional responsibilities of public school educators," Burns quotes Marnie Brady, an assistant professor at Marymount Manhattan College. "The living conditions of their students are indeed the working conditions of their classrooms." 

Burns writes that by "raising an issue that affects not only teachers, but the communities they live and work in, CTU is deploying a strategy known as 'bargaining for the common good.'" The CTU, and teachers unions across the country, have been effectively bargaining for workers, taxpayers and other everyday people who are outside of their own professions. So far, the bargaining tactic has been among the most effective ways for ordinary people to actually yield power that leads to results. 

For instance, in 2013, "citing inspiration from Chicago, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) worked with community allies to jointly draw up a list of 29 demands to bring into its contract negotiations, including the expansion of preschool, reforms to school discipline procedures and the reduction of standardized testing," Burns writes.

"While the school district initially refused to negotiate over 18 of these areas, a unified front by teachers and community members eventually pressured it to include language on almost every area in the SPFT's new contract."  

Seriously, when was the last time a politician you voted for delivered on the things you wanted (as opposed to carrying political and economic water for people like Griffin)? 

As teacher after teacher we interviewed explained, during the campaign, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said one thing about what students in Chicago's most vulnerable schools need. Now ensconced in office, however, her actions have said something else. 

"This spring," Maas writes, "two bills passed the Democratic-controlled State House — one to reestablish an elected school board, the other to repeal [the] legal restrictions on what CTU is allowed to negotiate." 

The bills were poised to pass the Senate and Gov. J.B. Pritzker was likely to sign them before Lightfoot "asked Senate President John Cullerton to stall these bills" just before contract negotiations between CTU and CPS started, according to the Chicago Tribune.  

This strike is showing us that, if the voices of ordinary working people aren't registered through the ballot, perhaps our last, best hope is at the bargaining table. 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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