Chicago teachers escalate toward historic strike

Chicago Teachers Union action in May 2012. By Bartosz Brzezinski, via Flickr.

Most unions these days celebrate Labor Day with a parade. But this year, nearly 20,000 Chicago teachers and allies rallied and marched to say “Enough is enough” —  enough with educational privatization, enough with inadequate investment, enough with the blame of teachers instead of poverty, and enough with the blustering tactics of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his unelected, 1-percenter school board. A key to both the revitalization of the labor movement and the rethinking of public education in places well beyond the city itself may be found in the chants ringing out in recent days that “Chicago is a union town.” And on September 10, it is highly likely that 26,000 Chicago teachers will be on strike, making it the largest teachers’ strike in the nation since the 1989 Los Angeles teachers’ strike.

The stage here was set by the militant opposition caucus that took control of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010: the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE. After taking control of the CTU, however, the neoliberal agenda for Chicago Public Schools continued apace. The Democratic governor and legislature passed a bill limiting the teachers’ collective bargaining rights in June 2011, and Mayor Emanuel proceeded to unilaterally extend the school day and take back the raises that they were legally obligated to receive in the contract. After this series of affronts, the membership, led by the charismatic Karen Lewis, decided that the threat of a strike was the only thing that could change the balance of power in public education.

The impending strike of Chicago teachers will set the stage for much of the future conversation about the nature of public education in the United States — and possibly even globally. At a time when the right to public education, the right to strike (especially in the public sector) and the right to dissent are actively being suppressed on a scale unseen since the McCarthy era, a group of committed teachers have taken back their union and are preparing themselves for a large-scale confrontation with the neoliberal agenda. Their demand — for the right to respect in their workplace, along with the right to public education — implies connections with many corresponding demands around the world, with recent uprisings over education in Chile and Quebec coming to mind most immediately. Perhaps this strike, which melds the right to dissent with the right to public education, also may be an opportunity for those of us in the United States to begin reenvisioning what it means to be educated.

The neoliberal model for school reform is not, in principle, different from other neoliberal reforms: Big capital must open new markets, and the easiest markets to break into are ones that previously did not exist — that is, spaces previously considered public. In Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s, for instance, and now more recently in Louisiana, public education has been replaced with a system of vouchers and for-profit charter schools, where big business and corruption reigns. Spaces that were once the domain of the commons — albeit a commons subordinated to the priorities of the state — now become sites where the profit motive reigns supreme.

That program is simply not working. While Jonah Edelman, the leader of the corporate astroturf group Stand for Children (and son of noted civil rights leaders Marian Wright and Peter Edelman) spends his days arguing that collective bargaining and teacher tenure are destroying schools, his mother’s grassroots organization, the Children’s Defense Fund, has been sounding the alarm about the massive increase in the criminalization of students in school — almost exclusively children in poverty or of color. Indeed, the number of police officers in schools nationwide increased 38 percent between 1997 and 2007 — right at the same time that the education “reform” movement picked up steam. What’s more, through the targeting of teachers’ unions, this movement serves to eliminate a significant site of democratic contestation from the public sphere, becoming part and parcel of the broader criminalization of dissent.

Chicago, like Chile, has historically been a test site for the neoliberal project of education reform: The interests of parents and community members have been methodically shut out in favor of a centrally-appointed school board, where (non-union) charter schools are proposed as a panacea for all that ails the educational system, and where teacher tenure is regarded as a policy that allows “bad teachers” to corrupt the minds of the city’s youth. In 1995, the Republican-led Illinois legislature gave control of the city’s schools to Mayor Richard Daley, making Chicago one of the first cities in the country to have the entirety of its school board put under mayoral control. Daley then appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, as “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools, who then proceeded to initiate a series of education reforms that are now familiar nationally: high stakes testing, putting schools on probation, limiting the influence of parent-led organizations and closing so-called “failing” schools — schools that are almost always in communities with extreme levels of poverty. In 2004, Daley announced his Renaissance 2010 initiative to close or “turnaround” dozens of public schools considered “failing” — again, almost all of them in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. The weak old-guard union leadership barely put up a fight.

CORE emerged out of a broad sense of discontent among Chicago teachers that their labor union had spent the previous 20 years blithely accepting the reform agenda. Former CTU president Marilyn Stewart, for example, was notably absent from many meetings where important decisions such as school closures were made. And, in the past year, the new leadership has quickly realized that militancy is the only way Chicago public schools will improve. After Emanuel’s arbitrary decisions on the length of the school day and raises, CTU and CORE began an aggressive strike mobilization campaign, leading to a 98 percent vote in favor of a strike — well above the 75 percent threshold set by law. The main items on the bargaining table include such questions as whether Chicago Public Schools will provide enough resources to ensure that all students have access to art, music, physical education and foreign languages in their schools, whether all schools will have libraries and air conditioning, and whether there will be a meaningful reduction in class size.

But the strike is also about much more. The momentum building in Chicago represents an opportunity to shift power in public education away from an elite cabal into the hands of teachers and the community. At a time when for-profit education is the name of the game and more qualitative facets of education are being shunted out, this strike could present a dramatic chance to reevaluate what we consider to be important.

The teaching profession has taken serious blows in the last few years, and it appears that many teachers are ready to fight back. Wisconsin teachers, for example, who had their collective bargaining rights taken away, have seen a massive decrease in teacher morale. In New York, a new CORE-inspired opposition caucus called the Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, has emerged to challenge the United Federation of Teachers’ leadership to be as militantly pro-public education as the CTU has been. If the CTU’s strike is successful, it might be able to shift the national conversation away from “bad teachers” and towards class size and economic security — the only two quantitative methods shown to accurately track student success.

At a time when the right to protest the power of the wealthiest 1 percent can make one the recipient of terrorism charges and the batons of prison guards, the Chicago teachers’ impending strike is important indeed.

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