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Chicago’s New Lady Labor Slugger Reactivates Social Movement Unionism

Teachers’ battle against corporatization of education takes a page from history.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike marks the beginning of a rollback for 40 years of neoliberal interference in public education and hearkens to teachers’ struggles in the beginning of the last century.

Two ideals are struggling for supremacy in American life today: one the industrial ideal, dominating thru the supremacy of commercialism, which subordinates the worker to the product and the machine; the other, the ideal of democracy, the ideal of the educators, which places humanity above all machines, and demands that all activity shall be the expression of life. If this ideal of the educators cannot be carried over into the industrial field, then the ideal of industrialism will be carried over into the school. Those two ideals can no more continue to exist in American life than our nation could have continued half slave and half free. If the school cannot bring joy to the work of the world, the joy must go out of its own life, and work in the school as in the factory will become drudgery.

~ Margaret “Lady Labor Slugger” Haley, Chicago teacher, at the 1904 National Education Association convention

Today marks the beginning of the end of scapegoating educators for all the social ills that our children, families and schools struggle against every day. Today marks the beginning of a fight for true transparency in our educational policy – how to accurately measure learning and teaching, how to truly improve our schools, and how to evaluate the wisdom behind our spending priorities. This election shows the unity of 30,000 educators standing strong to put business in its place – out of our schools. Corporate America sees K-12 public education as $380 billion that, up until the last 10 or 15 years, they didn’t have a sizeable piece of…. Our teachers and para-professionals are poised to reclaim the power of our 30,000 members and protect what we love: teaching and learning in publicly-funded public schools.

~ Karen Lewis, 2010 acceptance speech, after winning the Chicago Teachers Union presidency

In 1898, William Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, proposed a sweeping reorganization of Chicago’s public schools. Modeled on New York City schools, the plan was shaped by elites across the nation who sought to reorganize public education to suit the needs of a newly emerging industrial society. Their main goals were to control children during the day, while both parents worked, provide basic education to the next generation of workers, and acculturate them to the rigid schedules of factory life governed by ubiquitous whistles and bells. As well, Harper sought to hire only teachers with college degrees, implement a new system of hiring and firing, and address the “feminization” of schools by establishing a sexist hierarchy – hiring more male teachers and raising their salaries above women’s. Harper also proposed to lease schools, property-tax free, to Chicago businesses for 99-year terms.

But Harper wasn’t prepared to play hardball with schoolteacher Margaret Haley, dubbed Chicago’s “Lady Labor Slugger.”

Haley got her start in the struggle in Joliet, Illinois during her first teaching job when she asked her superintendent for a raise from $35 a month to $40. The superintendent at first agreed, but when he later stalled, Haley sent him an ultimatum: If he did not pay her a higher salary by noon of the fist day of the fall term, she would resign. When the raise was denied, she took the next train to Chicago.

Haley successfully organized teachers to resist, despite the electoral disenfranchisement of women. She reached out to women’s clubs – suffragist-leaning social networks of “high society” women – sending speakers to win over the influential club members on the basis of feminism. Teachers organized their own afternoon teas at neighborhood schools, like the Hendricks School in one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, located next to the stockyards and meatpacking district immortalized in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This broad approach to struggle paid off: The Harper Bill to reorganize the schools failed in the Illinois state legislature.

This experience drew Haley to the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF). Together with Catharine Goggin, Haley initiated the “Teacher’s Tax Crusade,” examining the Cook County tax rolls and discovering some $2 million in unpaid taxes. Haley and the CTF forced the local tax boards to collect the money and provide it to the school system. After three years of legal wrangling by outraged businesses, a court reduced the amount to $600,000. This still provided a substantial raise to Chicago’s teachers, and news of the campaign spread across the nation. Haley, for her part, emphasized that teacher agency in the fight was more important than any monetary outcome.

By 1902, Haley had led the CTF to formally join the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Within a year, the teachers helped overthrow the corrupt labor leadership in Chicago. Under the reform president, John Fitzpatrick, the AFL began to organize women workers all over the Second City: milliners, packing-house workers, chorus girls, laundry workers, domestic servants, department store workers, garment workers and others. For Haley, an officer in the Women’s Suffrage Party of Illinois, organizing women workers was closely related to winning the right for women to vote. Her approach of fusing the social struggle for suffrage with the labor movement was instrumental in winning suffrage in the state in 1913.

In 1916, the CTF hosted a groundbreaking, though modest, meeting of four local unions that created the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT went on to challenge the National Education Association (NEA), which considered itself a “professional organization” and was opposed to the collective action of teachers in opposition to the school district.

Reflecting on her struggles for women’s rights and public education, Haley remarked:

When I look back over my 75 years of life, 40 of them spent on hectic battle fronts of the unending war, I realize that, like all crusaders, I have stormed in where kings and courtiers feared to tread. I have beaten my fists, and sometimes my head, against stone walls of power and privilege. I have railed at mayors, at governors, at legislators, at presidents of great universities. I have banged machine guns in defense of certain basic principles in which I believe and continue to believe. For them I have fought without fear and without favor; but within my own soul I know that I have never sought a battle for its own sake, although I have never evaded one when it was forced upon me.

The CORE of Education: A New Slugger for Social Movement Unionism and Education

During the 1930s, the Chicago teachers led some of the most militant struggles for public education and adequate pay at a time when the Nation magazine reported teachers panhandling on street corners to make ends meet. From 1968 until 1987, the CTU lead eight strikes that won smaller class sizes, medical benefits, sick leave and more preparation time.

Then for nearly 25 years, the combativeness of the union waned, capped by its failure to lead a concerted campaign against then-CEO of the Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan’s disastrous “Renaissance 2010” plan that slated some 100 schools for closure, predominately in black neighborhoods, and converted many to non-union charter schools or military academies. A study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, released in October 2009, examined the academic effects of the closings on students at 18 elementary schools shut down between 2001 and 2006. The study concluded that the vast majority of students went from one low-performing school to another, with no achievement gains – and, in fact, even saw temporary decreases in test scores during the stressful period when the announcement was made that their school would be closed.

When the Chicago Teachers Union stepped out of the batter’s box – when it failed to swing its big bat – teachers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), led by Karen Lewis, stepped up to the plate and organized teachers and communities in 16 schools to resist closures. They organized hundreds of parents to picket Chicago Board of Education meetings. As a reward, teachers from this slate were elected to leadership positions in the Chicago Teachers Union in the spring of 2010.

With CORE’s leadership, the CTU launched its September 10, 2012 strike (with some 98 percent of teachers voting in favor) and revived its fighting spirit – taking a courageous stand against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the conservative bi-partisan corporate reform consensus.

As Lewis said on Labor Day this year, “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere … our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet. When you come after our children, you come after us and we will protect them.”

Mayor Emanuel and his appointed school board of millionaires and billionaires (including Hyatt hotel heiress Penny Pritzker) attempted to use the contract negotiations with the CTU to impose a business model on the schools that has been proven over and over not to improve education. Consider, for example, that one of Mayor Emanuel’s primary objectives – defeated by the striking teachers – was to impose a merit-pay scheme on the teachers. This very merit pay experiment was tried in Chicago among a subset of teachers in 2010 and data showed no impact on student learning. Mayor Emanuel, as well, advocated for allowing class sizes to balloon to 55 students – a horror for education that the teachers union also defeated with their strike.

Chicago teachers are disappointed that they didn’t defeat every last one of Mayor Emanuel’s corporate reforms. For example, the contract stipulates that only half of new teachers hired must be displaced CTU members. Yet the list of gains for students and teachers from the strike reveals an undeniable win for labor:

• CPS must hire more than 600 additional teachers in art, music, physical education and other subjects – helping to make the school day better, not just longer.

• The percentage of teacher evaluations from test scores will be lowered to the legal minimum.

• Language that promotes racial diversity in hiring at CPS is included to fight the loss of African-American teachers in Chicago’s schools.

• Anti-bullying language has been included to help limit administration intimidation of teachers.

• A pool of funding for social workers, psychologists, special education teachers, classroom assistants and counselors in schools with high caseloads is provided.

• There will be a $250 annual reimbursement for teachers buying classroom supplies

• A 7 percent rise over 3 years, maintaining steps and lanes, will assure that experienced teachers and those with master’s degrees earn more.

The CTU’s strike transcended a labor struggle and was transformed into an example of social movement unionism as the teachers fused their struggle with that of the community they serve – having co-organized with parents for over a year prior to the strike, made demands for increased resources for the students and advocated for racial equity in hiring.

Yet the destructive influence of corporate reformers is far from over and the struggle to transform education into the development of the whole child will require a much bigger fight to roll back decades of neoliberal attacks. As Karen Lewis recently explained, “The idea of the market approach for public education, as far as we’re concerned, tramples on democracy.”

If Rahm “Mayor 1%” Emmanuel wants to continue to pitch his ideas for closing 100 more schools, turning schools into privatized charters or reducing teaching and learning to standardized testing, he’s going to have trouble getting them by the Karen “Lady Labor Slugger” Lewis.

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