Chicago teachers’ strike offers a street-level lesson in democracy

    A Chicago Teachers Union rally on the first day of the strike. Photo by Firedoglake, via Flickr.

    A few hours before the Chicago teachers’ strike was suspended on Tuesday, I had a chance to chat with Mary Zerkel, a colleague and longtime antiwar campaigner at the American Friends Service Committee, who’s daughter attends a Chicago public school. Mary had been on the picket line every day since the strike began on September 10, and when we talked she had just returned from a “Parents 4 Teachers” march to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) headquarters, where teachers and their allies tried to deliver 1,000 postcards to CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard supporting the strikers’ demands. Though Brizard did not appear — and no one else from CPS bothered to come down to collect the bundles of messages — Zerkel’s enthusiasm was not dampened. For her, this was another exercise in people power — one more small step in a long campaign to save the soul of public education in Chicago and, quite possibly, the nation.

    For Zerkel, this week of picketing, meetings and downtown marches and rallies was a bracing experience of democracy. Nowhere was this more clear than when the 800-member House of Delegates — empowered teacher representatives from each CPS school — called a two-day timeout to carefully review the tentative agreement that had been initialed by the Chicago Teachers Union leadership on Sunday. The devil is in the details, and this agreement, being more devilishly detailed than many, warranted a thorough going-over.

    Democracy is not snapping fingers. It is sometimes slow and messy and doesn’t always follow the plan. This, however, does not seem to be Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s take on the democratic process. When the delegates decided to take their time to get clear on what the union was gaining — and what it was giving up — the mayor’s lawyers briskly strode into court on Monday morning looking for an injunction to end the walkout. The judge demurred though, and the mayor was forced to double-down on a vitriolic public relations campaign that was in full roar well before the strike began. Up until Monday he had been calling the labor action “a strike of choice.” Now, it was a “delay of choice” harming the children of the city. He hoped his hardened demeanor would splinter the strong public support for the strike that, remarkably, held steady as it headed into the second week.

    But this was only the latest move in the mayor’s campaign. Carol Marin, a respected Chicago journalist, chronicled his initial gambits in the Chicago Sun-Times:

    In his 2011 campaign for mayor, [Emanuel] took the Chicago Teachers Union on as an adversary rather than attempt to make them a partner. He opted for a blunt instrument rather than a finessed approach. In hammering home how he was “for the children,” he left the implication that teachers were not. And then, shortly after his election, Emanuel went to [the legislature] in Springfield to get Senate Bill 7 passed. Touted as education reform, it was really an anti-collective bargaining measure, setting up a 75 percent vote threshold for union members to authorize a strike.

    He had miscalculated; 90 percent of the teachers voted to strike. Then the Illinois legislature played shortstop by passing legislation stipulating that a teachers’ strike could only focus on compensation. While Chicago teachers cared about their salaries — especially since Emanuel stripped them of 4 percent raises that had been negotiated in their previous contract — the mayor was right to worry that this strike would be more than about money.

    The teachers had a raft of other issues, including the growing corporatization of American education that seemed at the heart of CPS’s proposed teacher assessment regime pegged to standard quantitative student test scores. This mechanism would evaluate teachers (and determine their livelihood) based on student performance, even though this performance is often impacted by factors in a child’s life far beyond the teacher’s control.

    The other elephant in the room was the growing proliferation of CPS charter schools — where nonunion teachers face little, if any, evaluation — and the swirling speculation about a CPS plan to close as many as 120 schools in largely low-income, underserved neighborhoods and to open charter schools in their stead, beginning as early as this fall.

    Late on Tuesday, September 18, the House of Delegates endorsed the tentative agreement that had been reached on Sunday. It now goes to the full membership for approval over the next few weeks.

    So what did the strike achieve?

    In the final three-year contract, the teachers fended off the more stringent evaluation system the mayor had sought. As the Chicago Tribune reported, the agreement establishes that only 25 percent of a teacher’s assessment will be based on student performance in the first two years and 30 percent in the third year. Nevertheless, this is the first time a teacher evaluation system takes into account student performance as set out by state law. Though they reined it in, the teachers were unable to prevent the establishment of this system.

    They secured a recall policy for top-performing teachers who are laid off if there are school closings and they maintained a freeze on health care premiums, when CPS wanted a 40 percent increase. They also won a series of pay raises over the next several years: a 3 percent raise for the next year, followed by 2 percent for the next two years, and the possibility of a 3 percent for the the fourth year if the union extends the contract. With increases based on experience, some teachers could see a total raise of 17.6 percent over the next four years. This, though, amounts to smaller raises than teachers had received under their previous contract.

    The mayor won a longer school day, but not as long as he hoped. Instead of 7 hours, 40 minutes it will run 7 hours for elementary school teachers and 7 hours, 15 minutes for high school teachers. CPS also agreed to hire an additional 500 teachers to teach courses such as art, music and physical education so students can put more time in the classroom. The deal also preserved the principals’ right to determine which teachers will be hired. (The Chicago Tribune published the union’s side-by-side comparison of the CPS board’s original positions, including on a number of less contentious issues, and what the union achieved, which you can see here.) The contract is a mixed result, but far better than what CPS was offering in August when talks broke down.

    Strikes are a venerable tool in the repertoire of nonviolent change, as the Global Nonviolent Action Database highlights, especially in Chicago, which still sees itself as a labor town. Momentum for the eight hour workday was generated by strikes in Chicago in the 1880s, followed by other contentious but illustrious strikes by Pullman workers (1894) and steelworkers (1937). Much of the early organizing included establishing the right to strike, which was a glacially slow process fought by corporations with strikebreakers and the machinery of the legal and criminal justice system. While this right was eventually established legally (the result of innumerable struggles for a living wage and economic justice), it has been assaulted all along the way — whether by Ronald Reagan, who fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, or Rahm Emanuel, who convinced the Illinois General Assembly to strictly limit what teachers could strike about.

    Like Reagan, Emanuel’s manner in the run-up to the strike and throughout the action calls to mind George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, in which he hypothesizes that conservatives generally conform to an “authoritarian father” worldview, whereas liberals are more like “nurturing parents.” If Lakoff is right, where does that leave the Democratic Party’s top fundraiser and former White House chief of staff? The mayor was determined to ram through a significant realignment of the philosophy and direction of educational practice and politics, and saw the teachers not as partners but as children that must be brought into line, using the weapons in his rhetorical and legal arsenal.

    Strikes are nonviolent action in slow motion at street level. They typically take time, and this time helps people — sometimes across a city or a whole society — to mull on things. Mary Zerkel was doing that this week as she walked the picket line and joined the marches. Part of her work at AFSC focuses on the costs of war, including the financial cost and where that money could otherwise go. She co-directs a project that asks young people what they could do with the trillion dollars that regularly gets pumped into the U.S. military and its wars. Standing with her daughter’s teachers this week, Mary had some answers of her own.

    Many of the coming struggles in this country and around the world will come down to a false argument: that critically important needs, like education, are unaffordable, and so they must be privatized and commodified. A reframing of the priorities of this nation will revisit the question of what is affordable and what is not, decisions that will come not from think tanks but from the willingness of people to risk something — as the teachers did — using the most powerful language they have at their own disposals, their bodies, their minds and their determination. This week 350,000 children in Chicago got a lesson from their teachers and their allies in the practice of people power and its crucial role in reframing what matters.

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