From my perspective as a native of Chicago, alum of its public school system, and activist of various sorts, little could be more gripping than this current Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike. Normally, the intriguing tales of social movement action occur in foreign countries, involving actors that are not so personally connected to me. This one, however, hits home quite literally, as my mother is a retired Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher: one who worked for 35 years in an underserved elementary school on the city’s South Shore. There was nothing particularly flashy about her tenure nor was there meant to be. It was honorable public service: the humble work of someone who sought to do her share without taking special credit in the way Teach for Ameri-scabs seem to demand recognition for helping those “poor little minority kids.” And behind the fight over a just contract and due compensation for Mayor Rahmbo’s longer school day lies the central theme of this story: one of the last principled unions in this country is taking a stand against the ongoing effort to turn the nation’s schools into a veritable strip mall of charter schools.
The charter movement is reflective of broader trend of transforming our urban centers into playgrounds for young (mostly white) professionals seeking to pass their post-collegiate years caught up in a trendy nexus of cafes and brew pubs, with a smattering of yoga studios interspersed. The schools are largely an afterthought, as said yuppies likely intend to retreat to suburbia before having any kids: that or they will use private schools or hope their kid tests into a selective enrollment program of choice. As such, they are not overly concerned with the quality of the local public schools, which are primarily used by poor black and immigrant populations. This disconnect between various members of the population and the needs of public infrastructure represents a breakdown in community. Charter advocates have preyed on this breakdown to move in with an eye on the prize of billions of tax dollars waiting to be extracted, with enough to go around to all parties involved: for-profit charter companies, textbook publishers, test-makers, real estate interests, construction companies, and so forth.
The Emanuel administration has plans for a long-term shuttering of 80-120 public schools, with the bulk of those students ostensibly transferring over to a sloppy array of charter schools. I take some editorial liberty by inserting the word sloppy, simply because I now live in New Orleans, the charter dream city. It was here that state officials used the cover of Hurricane Katrina to Shock Doctrine the local system, chartering all but a few schools while the city lay in ruin. The resulting arrangement is a confusing collection of independent and network charters, wherein some schools fall under the state’s purview (or lack thereof) and others are governed by the city, while still others are part of the misnamed “Recovery School District.”
Behind this project was the same cast of charter advocates at work in Chicago: the Gates Foundation, the aforementioned Teach for America, a hodgepodge of Astroturf groups like “Stand for Children” and “All Children Matter,” and the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). And, I repeat, the power grab was done while the vast majority of the union staff was evacuated due to the devastation wrought by one of the worst natural disasters in this country’s history. In other words, we are up against utter scumbags in this fight. Vile, despicable scum!
On that note, let’s get back to Rahm Emanuel. Hate him all you want, I know I do, but he is actually quite a gift for the left. He is such a raving asshole that even the corporate press is showing tepid signs of support for the CTU in the current impasse. And in this era of corporate hegemony, that is quite remarkable. The Chicago Tribune led with this analysis:
“The measure of who won and lost in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union won’t be clear until the details of the new contract emerge, but last week’s strike took some of the luster off the mayor’s self-portrait as an innovative leader brimming with new ways to solve the city’s most vexing challenges.
The long, stressful path to getting a contract in place offered a glimpse that Emanuel perhaps is not as multidimensional as he tries to appear. Repeatedly, the mayor turned to one tool: the attack.”
For good measure, the paper “balanced” the coverage with some of their typical yellow journalism: running a piece titled “CPS parents rally against strike,” which includes a video of some 8-10 people standing around barking inanely at a downtown intersection. This is quite insulting to those of us who have organized rallies with hundreds of people, and not one corporate press “reporter.”
The Sun-Times also struck a supportive tone, as columnist Mark Brown said: “If the point of going on strike is to get a better deal than you would have received without it, then the Chicago Teachers Union is already a pretty clear winner this week in its confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his school board.”
The potential agreement, which delegates will commence considering today, includes several significant concessions on the part of the city. These include a 16% pay increase over the next four years, allowing laid-off teachers the chance to be considered for new vacancies, and barring the school district from using budget shortfalls as pretext to cancel scheduled teacher raises (as the mayor threatened to do this time). What’s more, the district scaled back the level at which teacher evaluation would hinge on test scores from 50% to the state-mandated minimum of 25%. Under the plan, the union would make concessions on health care, by converting to a so-called wellness plan, wherein workers with pre-existing health issues pay higher premiums. Furthermore, laid-off teachers would be provided only six months compensation, rather than the current twelve. What’s more, the union would not be granted further grounds for taking strike action, which is now limited solely to issues of pay.
Wait, wait, wait. Did I just say that teachers are only allowed to strike over compensation!? For those who appreciate not having had to work at the age of 10, or who like their weekends and holidays, and the protections afforded by workplace safety regulations, it should seem pretty egregious that the union is currently limited to striking over pay. But this is the case, thanks to a state law enacted by the Democratic state assembly and signed by the Democratic governor last year. The same players also passed a law requiring a seemingly impossible 75% approval vote in order for the union to strike. Jonah Edelman, who heads the aforementioned pro-charter group Stand for Children, boasted at the time that the CTU would never achieve that threshold. He was shown up in June, when the union mustered an incredible 90% vote in support of the action (despite non-voters getting counted as “no’s.”)
In sum, Illinois Democrats have been minutely less offensive than Wisconsin Republicans in their attacks on organized labor. Rather than trampling collective bargaining rights altogether, they force teachers into the role of the avaricious union thugs, replete with their “Cadillac health care plans” (now on the chopping block), whining about pay in these tight economic times. Meanwhile, pro-charter activists, aided along by members of the press, widely spread the fallacy that Chicago teachers were making an average of $74,000 a year. In reality, that figure is $56,720. For new faculty or lower demand teachers (sadly, foreign language instructors . . ) the figure is significantly lower. This is roughly equivalent to the median household income throughout the country, in a city whose cost of living is 5.1% greater than the national average.
Imaging aside, the authoritarian strike law has also allowed for the mayor to set a trap, wherein he can now claim that teachers are continuing their strike illegally, since pay issues have been resolved in principle. In fact, Emanuel brashly sought an injunction Monday, though a judge refused to act prior to Wednesday, stating that the issue could become moot if the strike is resolved by then. Nonetheless, the union’s maneuverability is immensely compromised from here on, as the law simply does not allow for them to address the gamut of issues needing attention.
Prime among them, what CTU president Karen Lewis calls the “elephant in the room,” is the potential closure of 80-120 schools to make room for a New Orleans-style mass “charterization.” Authorities in Chicago probably won’t be afforded the cover of a natural disaster to implement a fire sale on that level, though Rahm does have the benefit of that incessant crisis, otherwise known as the American economy. With both parties firmly set on austerity as a “solution,” with its emphasis on union busting, privatization, and scaling back city services, the CTU is probably in for a long-term fight.
It is certainly encouraging that they stood firm, unlike practically every other union in this country. However, until we have a viable third (and fourth- and fifth – ) party capable of capturing appreciable levels of power, union militancy will be sorely limited by the oppressive laws of the two parties of the 1%. Furthermore, it will be difficult to maintain the support of the public, with a popular press that is the mockery of the Western World. While the proliferation of “alternative press” online does help, too much of those options remain loyal to the Democratic Party establishment, and are simply not having the valuable conversations we need about how to move on from the Rahm’s and Obama’s of the world. I couldn’t be more with the teachers than I stand today, but I hope they realize that there remains a long, hard road ahead.
Matt Reichel is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.