I attended a talk Wednesday night to learn how over 23,000 public school teachers in Chicago have come to the brink of a strike.
The talk was delivered by a teacher from Chicago, Becca Kelly. Kelly is a 20-something rank and file member of CTU, perhaps the most mobilized union in the United States at this moment.
Of 23,780 Chicago Teachers Union members, 90 percent voted in June to support a strike if the union leadership calls one. Most of the Chicago public school students, about 400,000 in number, will begin the new school year on Sept. 4. Right now Chicago teachers are doing informational pickets at 6 elementary schools – an action they began on Monday this week.
As of Wednesday, August 22nd, members of the CTU House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to give CTU President Karen Lewis the go-ahead to issue a required 10-day strike notice at her discretion.
CTU members brought their union to this crux through bottom-up organizing.
As Kelly told us, all teachers were asked what they want for students and for schools. Union leadership asked rank and file members to create contract action committees to pull together activists.
In the spring some school teacher groups decided to do their own mock strike votes. Kelly told us, “We started getting reports: this school 90%, this school 93%, this school 83%… Massively successful.”
If you saw this photo pop up in your facebook stream in May, you were looking at 4,000 teachers filling a hall to capacity.
It wasn’t until last night’s talk by Kelly that I understood that there were 3,000 ADDITIONAL teachers and educational workers just outside that huge hall waiting to march through the streets of Chicago.
As she recalled that gathering, Becca Kelly became excited saying, “It was the first time I felt we were not alone. We had a shot at this”. Not long after that huge meeting came CTU’s successful strike authorization vote.
At Kelly’s own school, the vote was at 94% or 95% to authorize a strike. She said only 4 months previous teachers there were too intimidated to put on matching colored shirts on a Monday to show union pride. In the middle of the summer about 100 people met – members and staffers of CTU, Occupy Chicago, various union members from around Chicago – to create a CTU solidarity group.
Kelly said, “It’s been unbelievably inspiring and absolutely terrifying at the same time.”
“It looks as if there isn’t movement however we don’t know. Considering it’s Obama’s hometown I don’t know why there’s not movement on this contract, but they refuse to budge on merit pay, they refuse to budge around class sizes, and adequate staffing which is just criminal for our students.”
In the next week or two, delegates will meet and decide if there is actually movement on contract negotiations. Next Wednesday there is a town hall meeting that Becca Kelly encouraged all of us to come to, August 29th at 6:30pm at the Chicago Temple on 77 W. Washington, Chicago facebook event
Many news reports about this labor conflict focus on CTU objections to a longer school day with no additional pay and/or the 2011 decision on the part of the district to rescind CTU members’ contractually-promised raise. Becca told us about a larger long-standing agenda – that CTU teachers are forced to mobilize or be destroyed by a school board bent on systematically decimating public schools and building up private charter schools. Right now Chicago has 600 public schools and 100 charter schools. According to Kelly, 80 Chicago schools are slated to close in the next year and Rahm Emanuel would like 60 more charter schools.
The basic parasitic routine of charterization, as Kelly outlined it, is as follows: Charter schools are created in a ring around a public school. The public school is underfunded and made bereft of music, art, and physical education classes. Following, there are too many classroom spaces for the students in that neighborhood. Next, the public school is closed down and the charter schools are left open.
“The school starts to fail. Blame the teachers, fire the teachers, close the schools, and say charter schools are the answer. That has happened in neighborhood after neighborhood and we’re seeing the shrinking of our union because of massive characterization and the massive privatization of education – which means public funds and private decision making and private schools.”
Chicago was America’s first laboratory for private charter school “reform” most famously at the hands of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan since 2001 (however others on the school board facilitated the move even earlier). Charter schools have been cheered as a grand solution for what ails education by Duncan and reform zealots, but despite the hoopla, a 2009 Stanford study found that charter schools performed worse than traditional public school peers.
The private charter schools have to be doing some good for their promoters. Penny Pritzker’s name came up repeatedly at the talk. She is a member of the Chicago School Board and also the former chair of the Chicago Public Education Fund, the very first venture philanthropy fund to raise private equity to invest in public schools (Profit from the same public schools? Oh!). Pritzker is also a property tax dodger and conniving astroturfer. Pritzker donated $50,000 to the group ‘Stand for Children’ which rushed ready-made legislation nicknamed “Performance Counts 2010” through the IL legislature. PC2010 enabled the privatization of schools essential to Penny’s private equity plans. (pretty slick how this works) By the way, 5 of Ms. Pritzker’s family members also donated $50,000 to the same astroturf group.
Kelly said CTU teachers have fought “tooth and nail” against closings and that they will continue to fight them. Parents have joined in the fight against Chicago school closures. In February the Brian Piccolo elementary school was occupied by parents, Occupy Chicago, and community leaders. They tried to halt a “reconstitution” – a takeover that fires all staff and hands over control to a private school such as AUSL.
Kelly said, “They want to make teachers like me work 60-70 hours a week. They want to make it so that when they ask us to stay after school we don’t really have a choice because we know that we could easily be laid off or fired for no reason. …. we’ve seen the reality that we as teachers pay for our own paper to make photocopies. We regularly spend 100’s – maybe thousands of dollars — in the first few years to buy enough materials to outfit our classrooms . Teachers know that you have a bucket to put under the door or window that leaks .Teachers in my school have no air-conditioning. We had summer school this summer.”
I got a sort of contact high from the intense energy of the 200 or so people assembled at this event. About 1/2 of them were Madison teachers – members of MTI – and they made noises of affirmation with Kelly’s speech throughout as if she were speaking to what they have witnessed, thought, felt. When she mentioned the air conditioning, a woman said loudly “You know it”.
“They want us to work 20% more with no wage increase. They mandated a longer school day this past year and the union said “OK as long as it’s a better school day – as long as we have art and music because you have systematically denied our students art and music and physical education and wraparound services”. And the board said “No. We would just like you to work longer and figure it out”. We’ve been compromising, and we’ve been compromising, and we’ve been compromising. And we are done.”
The audience next stood up and applauded.
Dems vs. Teachers in Illinois
Becca then took out a sheet of what she called “talking points” that she said came from her union. They point out that Democratic Party members fought and continue to fight CTU at every turn. Democrat Rahm Emanuel leads the charge against CTU, Democratic Party Governor Quinn is “coming after public workers’ pensions”, and the “Democrats for Education Reform” group is broadcasting anti-teacher ads in Chicago.
At the broader national level, Becca said, in California and New York Democratic politicians have demonized public sector workers and removed their rights, a Democrat made the anti-union film “Waiting for Superman” and “it is a Democratic President who pushed through “Race to the Top” that replaces creativity and passion of teachers with teaching to the test, and that deepens the charterization of public education”.
“What that tells us is that we can’t rely on city hall.” At this point, the audience interrupted Becca with sustained applause. She went on, “We can’t rely on the media. We can’t rely only on our union leadership. Our strength is our own capacity as teachers to fight. Our union says, “Go! Make those ties with your communities. Do your own town hall meetings. Talk about what type of schools we’re fighting for!” And our union wants us to build capacity with community members and take this stand and to defend the type of schools that we want. Because we know that billionaire Penny Pritzker and Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama would never, ever send their kids to my school. We want to fight for schools that they would want to send their kids to for all of our students.”
Q and A
One set of people in the audience had protested in great numbers and then handed their power off to a political party with overall depressing results. The other set present – our visitors from Chicago – are focusing on direct action and they are handing off none of their organizing. This made for interesting stuff. We Wisconsinites naturally delivered some of our own advice during the Q&A.
One man said that he grew up in the Chicago in the 50’s and went to a school with 2,000 other kids in a school that covered 4 city blocks. He said the teachers were temps, and the politics was typical Chicago: “It was a corrupt city”. But he was hopeful about the Chicago teachers’ chance to take on Rahm Emanuel: “He is not popular. You can get outreach to the southwest side”. He gave me a thrill when he said, “.. when we go after Walker again we can bring him down”. (I don’t hear anybody talking about that stuff – yet).
Two men in the audience repeated a statement that is hard for some of us to hear: we don’t have to have a middle class. A recurring theme was also that people are losing hope and losing expectations. One man in the audience said, “Our kids can all quit school at age 14 for all they care and that’s what’s happening.”
I heard another Chicagoan mention that the Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune will never do more than print off press releases from Rahm Emanuel’s office, so I asked what news outlets or methods the teachers would use to get messages broadcast. Kelly responded that word of mouth and organizing person to person is ongoing and that Substance News by George Schmidt is an excellent newspaper. [it really is]
One teacher stood up to share that an organizer told her Wisconsin activists made a mistake in focusing so much on demonizing Scott Walker – that they did not focus enough on what they had to offer as an alternative to Walker’s agenda.
Kelly answered that teacher by holding up a 46-page document that explained the reforms CTU call for: The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.*
In closing, Kelly said, “We’re going to need as much support as possible on the picket lines if we do actually strike. One of these things that is really clear is that it seems as though the Democratic leadership of our town is digging in its heels. It seems also clear that we have a union that is trusting its membership, organizing its membership, and counting on the fact that workers from not just Chicago but the country know that we’ve been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. It’s our responsibility our job – we are the only people who can do it, in terms of actually organizing and fighting back on our own behalf. We also need as much support and solidarity as is possible.”
Townhall Meeting, Wednesday, August 29, 6:30pm Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington facebook event
•Father José Landaverde
•Jitu Brown (KOCO)
•Erica Clark (Parents4Teachers)
•Mack Julion (Letter Carriers Union)
•Students from Social Justice High School
•Special guests from the CTU
Resources used for this post:
9 out of 10 CPS teachers authorize strike – Chicago Tribune – June 11, 2012
Delegates Vote Overwhelmingly For Union to Issue 10-Day Strike Notice; No Strike Date Set – CTU.net – August 22, 2012
The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve is a new Chicago Teachers Union study which argues in favor of proven educational reforms to dramatically improve the education of more than 400,000 students in a district of 675 schools.
*Bullet Points for The Schools Chicago Students Deserve:
*class size matters,
*teachers must educate the whole child,
*children need “wrap-around services” (like counseling),
*students of color need equitable delivery of services.
The document also calls for
*early education without excessive testing,
*teacher compensation befitting training and experience,
*equitable service delivery to bilingual and special education students,
*sound school buildings,
*invitations for parents to participate, and
*a guarantee of funding for essential services.