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Impending Chicago Teachers’ Strike Adds Power to Nationwide Movements Against Inequality and Racism

As Chicago protests continue, the teachers union has an opportunity to make powerful demands for racial and economic justice.

Teachers on strike and protesting in Chicago, Illinois, on September 13, 2012. (Photo: Atomazul /

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The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) shook up the country and sparked a resurgence in militancy among teachers’ unions with its 2012 strike. And now Chicago teachers may be getting ready to do it again.

On December 14, CTU announced the result of a strike vote held the previous week, in which 88 percent of its total membership – and a full 96 percent of members who voted – authorized a strike that could begin this March or April, if the teachers and the district cannot agree on a contract. The 2012 strike came on the heels of the labor uprising in Wisconsin and the Occupy movement, and signaled yet another step in renewed labor activism in the years since the 2008 financial crisis and the spread of austerity politics across the United States. A 2016 strike would come in the middle of a presidential election, as the country debates which way it will turn in the face of a still-rough economy, and would force more debate on economic and racial inequality and the continuing disinvestment from public services that both parties have presided over for decades.

“Wraparound services” are necessary “to help address the real crisis in our communities of institutional neglect, poverty and racism.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a major ally of both the current president and of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, is in a weakened position as protests over the cover-up of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald have roiled the city, and calls for the mayor’s resignation have welled up from the streets of Chicago. His schools’ CEO (not a superintendent, but a CEO, as one CTU member explained to Truthout – because a superintendent would have to be an educator) has threatened 5,000 layoffs if the state doesn’t come up with $480 million locked up in budget battles. For comparison, that’s an amount equal to about one-fifth of the union’s active membership.

“My school would lose over 10 teachers,” Sarah Chambers, a middle-grade special education teacher in Chicago’s Little Village, told Truthout. “The class sizes would increase, classes would get moved around, a lot of schools would probably lose things like music or art or assistants. It would drastically affect our school.”

The district’s latest proposal would stave off the layoffs, but at the expense of what CTU says is an unacceptable pay cut for teachers.

But the conflict, as it did in 2012, goes well beyond money. “We have a completely different perspective and vision for fully funded, high-quality public education that the district does not share and the mayor rejects,” said CTU’s Jackson Potter. The union is calling for lower class sizes and a set of what’s known as “wraparound services”: restorative justice coordinators, homeless student coordinators, nurses, counselors and social workers. Potter says these types of services are necessary “to help address the real crisis in our communities of institutional neglect, poverty and racism.” The district, he says, has rejected almost every single proposal.

Chambers says that one of the biggest issues is the continued obsession with testing. She teaches at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy and was one of the teachers who in 2014 organized a successful boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The next year the district decided to step back from adding another test to the calendar, she said, but even so, “The elementary students are tested 15 to 19 times a year. With special education students, we might be testing them for three months; it’s just completely absurd.”

This year, the union is demanding a reduction of testing to a maximum of six hours, and no tests at all for students in kindergarten through second grade. “I think that’s a big sticking point because teachers see it as a demand that’s good for kids. Parents like it – the testing madness has really gotten out of control,” Chambers said.

The political winds are at CTU’s back on this issue; in early December, in a shockingly rare bipartisan move, Congress passed a rewrite of the infamous No Child Left Behind law that eases off the high-stakes testing that has galvanized a national movement.

The inequality across the city is visible, Chambers says, in the fact that only two high schools in Black neighborhoods have librarians. Meanwhile, she says, the school where Mayor Emanuel’s children go, the University of Chicago Lab School, has 13 librarians.

“We’re not just talking about issues that affect the schools; we’re talking about issues that affect neighborhoods.”

“Just comparing those, it shows the two different worlds of living in Chicago,” she told Truthout. The 50 schools closed under Emanuel were mostly on the South and West Sides and mostly served students of color; when Emanuel’s administration shuttered half the city’s mental health clinics in 2012, four of the six closed were on the South Side. Meanwhile, Chambers says, the city’s rich and the financial industry are doing better than ever, and so CTU has included demands for progressive taxation, including a financial transactions tax or a millionaire’s tax. They’re also calling for the city to renegotiate lousy deals on financial instruments like interest-rate swaps that have cost the city more than $1 billion. “We know Rahm doesn’t want to renegotiate those because he’s friends with the bankers,” Chambers added.

The union is also demanding that the money in the tax increment financing (TIF) program, which sets aside tax money for “development” projects, be used for schools rather than for handouts to corporations. “Tomorrow the mayor could stand up and say I’m sweeping every single TIF dollar that has not been spent on these fancy developments like the DePaul stadium – really incredibly inappropriate expenditures – and I’m going to put it into schools,” Potter said. “He could do that tomorrow, and the fact that he refuses to do it shows which side he is on and it also signals that we’ve got our work cut out for us to fight back and defend what’s ours.”

An Organizing Model That Works

The 2012 CTU strike was seen as a win for the union, a shot across the bow against austerity and for what the union calls “the schools Chicago’s students deserve.” Yet in the aftermath, points out Micah Uetricht, author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Emanuel turned around and shuttered those 50 schools, slashed special education and fired hundreds of teachers. The union was the force behind an electoral challenge to Emanuel earlier this year; its president, Karen Lewis, was to be the candidate until illness forced her to bow out and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia stepped in. Garcia forced Emanuel to a runoff but ultimately, Emanuel was victorious.

“Every year has so many battles in it, whether you ‘win’ or not it’s always somewhat of a win because you organize a community and you make these connections and we have more relationships,” Chambers said. Parents who became leaders during the school closure struggles or this year’s hunger strike over Dyett High School are now leading massive marches through the city against Emanuel, and Chambers and her colleagues are gearing up to fight the co-location of a high school in her school building, something that would push class sizes up and squeeze teachers even more.

CTU maintains a permanent organizing department that keeps members involved with the day-to-day struggles of the union.

“We’re not just talking about issues that affect the schools; we’re talking about issues that affect neighborhoods,” Chambers added. “If there’s extreme poverty in neighborhoods of course that’s going to affect our students’ education. We’re demanding a $15 minimum wage for all the employees who work in the schools, because we know a lot of those employees, the custodial staff and other staff members, they’re our students’ parents; we want them to have a living wage.” State law mandates that the teachers can only strike over wages and benefits, but by including a broad range of issues in their demands, they help get the message across that their bargaining power can benefit the majority of Chicagoans, and help win support for a potentially disruptive strike.

Since the CTU strike, other teachers’ unions have begun to embrace the union’s model of deep member engagement and organizing, and the militancy it sparks. Seattle’s teachers this year won a contract that included racial justice teams in the schools. Reform caucuses, like the Caucus of Rank and File Educators that took control of CTU before the 2012 strike and built its current strategy, have taken over in Los Angeles and Massachusetts, and other unions have won better contracts simply through the threat of a strike. “This is really making big changes because the business-style unionism, the top-down model does not work; we’ve seen how that’s really hurt the unions over the years, so now these organizing-model-style unions are popping up all over the place,” Chambers said.

Many unions have grown used to winning bruising election campaigns and then mobilizing members here and there for contract fights or local elections, but CTU maintains a permanent organizing department that keeps members involved with the day-to-day struggles of the union.

Under the looming shadow of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an upcoming Supreme Court case that could potentially devastate funding for public-sector unions by taking away the agency fee that non-members who are covered by union contracts pay, Chambers notes, the broader labor movement should take note of CTU’s model. “If they don’t change to an organizing-style model they’ll basically be decimated.”

In other words, it’s not just a willingness to strike that matters – Potter stresses that the strike is a last resort to defend public education – but a commitment to having an engaged, organized membership that is in turn engaged and organized in its communities. Indeed, it may be the only hope for the continued existence of labor unions in a future where each member must be convinced to join up and pay dues. Unions will need to show people a reason to fight.

Striking for Black Lives

Teacher strikes often become a sort of “care-off,” with officials posturing about how much they care about children and how selfish teachers are for daring to make any demands for themselves. As Karen Lewis noted in 2012, there has been an intentional move by charter school leaders, politicians and so-called “education reformers” to blame teachers for the problems in schools. But in this moment, it is hard for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to claim with anything approaching credibility that he cares about the children of color in Chicago’s public schools.

Mariame Kaba, the director of Project NIA, an organization that works against the criminalization of youth in Chicago, points out that the teachers’ fight meshes well with the movement that is challenging police violence, particularly, in this moment, around the cover-up of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

“These things are so connected to this general policy of disinvestment from these particular neighborhoods in Chicago, the West Side and the South Side,” Kaba said. From the school and clinic closures to McDonald’s shooting on the South Side to the fight for reparations for police torture survivors, the exposure of a police “black site” in the city and the campaign to get a trauma center on the South Side, she notes, it has been made quite clear which Chicagoans the administration cares about. “At least this particular teachers union understands the connection between all those things; all of that should suggest that Rahm Emanuel does not care about Black and Brown children,” she said.

In Chicago, what’s known as the movement for Black lives is a broad human rights struggle, Kaba adds, with a strong labor component and an intersectional analysis that helped bring focus to the deaths of Black women like Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland. The hunger strike to save Dyett High School was framed through the movement for Black lives, and the hunger strikers poignantly spoke of the need to end their strike after 34 days because, as striker Anna Jones said, “We knew that the mayor would leave us out there to die.”

Kaba is a member of We Charge Genocide, an intergenerational group working against police violence, which also worked closely with labor organizers in the city and supported the Dyett hunger strike. Over the last few months, she says, CTU has been reaching out to We Charge Genocide and other groups to talk with teachers and students about policing, violence and racism. The union published in its newsletter a piece to which We Charge Genocide contributed, helping teachers understand their students’ rights when they have interactions with the police, and worked with We Charge Genocide and other groups on a curriculum around the police torture issue.

The teachers’ fight meshes well with the movement that is challenging police violence.

For CTU to get involved with movements that challenge police is not an easy or expected thing, Kaba notes. As in other cities, many teachers in Chicago have personal connections with police, as well as labor movement connections. Yet for Sarah Chambers, it was obvious that the union should be involved in the protests. “Laquan was a student; he was one of our students. Most of the students in CPS [Chicago Public Schools] are students of color, and there is systemic racism in Chicago,” she said. “If teachers are silent on those issues, that’s a major problem because that affects our students’ lives daily. I’ve had parents tell me that they didn’t want one of their students going to this high school; she actually said it was because she was worried about police harassing her child. These issues affect our students. We need to be fighting for them too because we’re a social justice union.”

CTU ultimately supported the mass action that shut down the “magnificent mile,” Chicago’s retail shopping district, on Black Friday, costing retailers an estimated 25 to 50 percent of sales. “We decided if we can’t say something about this and the root causes of it then we’re not really doing our jobs and advocating for students and their families.” Jackson Potter said. Laquan McDonald is, to him, emblematic of “the educational apartheid that exists, the racial disparities that exist in this city,” and his death is deeply connected to the demands that CTU has made for taxing the wealthy, putting TIF money into the community and challenging the banks for funding for schools and social services that people like McDonald depend on.

“What the mayor has done,” Potter added, “is put police with a flashlight and a gun to impose repression on those communities instead of social services and job training and access to decent wages and learning communities that are well-resourced. Those things have been stripped away and in their place there’s a shell that does not even begin to meet the needs of our most precious assets of our society.”

The continuing protests have greatly weakened the Emanuel administration. The recent removal of police superintendent Garry McCarthy, which was ostensibly intended to help the administration stabilize, only whetted protesters’ appetite for more resignations. Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez continue to face calls to step down. Even The New York Times editorial page criticized a “conspiracy of concealment” in the city and noted that Emanuel fought to keep the video of McDonald’s shooting under wraps until his re-election battle (with CTU-backed Chuy Garcia) was over.

The protests continue. Chambers recounts student walkouts of around a thousand students and marches “every single day, literally, you can’t even keep track of them, there’s just some action every single day against the corruption of the city, against the mayor.”

On the evening of December 15, for example, 16 protesters blocked Congress Parkway, a major downtown intersection, using lockboxes adorned with Christmas lights. The action, led by direct action collective Lifted Voices, shut down the intersection for approximately an hour; the 16 protesters symbolized the 16 shots fired into McDonald’s body.

“The more this thing piles up, it’ll just become untenable for Rahm to continue to be in the posture he’s in right now or to get anything done,” Kaba said. The fear that Emanuel so successfully wielded to get his way, she says, is gone. The groups organizing around police violence and racial injustice will no doubt support a potential strike, she notes, and as long as the union is able to do what it did in 2012, to make sure that the city understands that the issues at stake are more than just teachers’ pay, the public will take CTU’s side as it did in the 2012 strike. If, indeed, it goes that far.

Emanuel currently holds an 18 percent approval rating, and 51 percent of the city is in favor of his resignation. “I think Rahm is going to try to do as much as he can to not have a strike,” Kaba said. “I think that frankly he can’t sustain another big thing unless the other side miscalculates in some significant way.”

“We still know that ultimately we’re the ones that are connected to the communities and our students and parents,” Chambers said, “and that’s a lot of leverage at the bargaining table.”

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